Fall has arrived very quickly and put an abrupt end to a rather short summer. Where did it go? It seems as if I just put all those plants in the ground. It is the summer that never was. Harvest time has arrived and, as I pick the last of the tomatoes, I have mixed feelings. One of the wonderful things about farming is the lessons you learn along the way. I have discovered that you need to be flexible and roll with the punches.
I started the season determined to grow heirloom baby tomatoes - the yellow pear and black cherry varieties. I thought they would sell very well – people are looking for new varieties that are difficult to find in the markets. I had a vision of people coming to my farm stand to buy my produce. Problem was, my business plan was blown because I could not find the tomatoes seedlings anywhere. One nursery promised me for three weeks to bring them in for me, and they never did. Next year I will source them out by catalogue, and I have saved seeds from this year’s crop. I had to settle for regular cherry tomatoes. I chose two varieties - 100 Million and large cherry tomatoes.
One suggestion is that if you do plan to grow cherry tomatoes plant the BIG ones. Why? Cherry tomatoes are time consuming and backbreaking work. You smarten up quickly when you are in the hot sun harvesting your crops. You stop and ask yourself, “What was I thinking?”
Cherry tomatoes are best eaten as they ripen, and, although I made tomato jam with them, it took me hours to cook the water out of them. I finally just started placing them in colanders and pressed them. The juice was delicious as a vegetable drink and great in Bloody Marys as well. I also used some of the juice in my pasta dishes. Waste not, want not!
After having half my crop devoured by a variety of critters last year, this year we settled on a few electric fences. I had my doubts about any fence that could protect against deer and chipmunks at the same time. It is a bit of a pain stepping over it every time you need to access your vegetables, however, it sure did work. I tripped on it last week as I was harvesting the tomatoes. It was a hard fall.
Fact of the matter is that this year we had TOO much rain. Too much early in the summer so that the bees could not pollinate my zucchini plants, and it continued to pour all summer long. Around here all the farmers were complaining about the rain and how the tomatoes just did not get that sun-ripe taste. It is small comfort to hear that others shared my woes. I have learned that I am dependent on what the skies give me or don't give me. I had known that all along but living it is very different. As a chef farmer, I never stop learning. Just when I think I have conquered a problem, it shifts on you and you are back to ground zero.
Mid-summer I made the sign, put a country tablecloth over a table, decorated it with garden flowers and made a price list and placed a scale with stamped brown paper bags on the table. With a sign by the road side I thought I was in business. No one came; I left the sign out for a few weeks and felt sad. Now I know why the large farm at the end of the road had taken its wooden booth down – no business. These are tough lessons, and I have to rethink what I am going to do. The farmers' market that I asked to join never got back to me after weeks of trying to reach them. It is a tough go – so I had to switch gears and can my crop in the hopes of selling the jams, jellies and chili sauces. I had to convert cherry tomatoes and beefsteak into chili sauce – my San Marzano were a disaster this year. That is the chef and farmer in me … no waste, and work with what you have. In fact, the results are delicious.
As I pulled up the rest of the plants, I looked at the dying leaves of my potatoes and the prolific fruits of my chili plants. I was wistful that another season was over as I tossed hundreds of tomato cages over the asparagus ferns. I had promised to make trellises for the tomatoes this year and never had time to get to it as all the other farm businesses needed to be handled – the plants had to get into the ground and that was that.
This year I had decided to make a reality of my lifelong dream to build a cooking studio in my outbuilding. This spring, all the snow over the winter – more than 16 feet – had caused the roof to buckle. Insurance had agreed to fix it, and I made up my mind to renovate it into a kitchen. I decided to give a friend’s recommended local contractor the business. He never turned up and stole my $25,000. I was heartbroken, and being robbed truly hurts. I was trying to give him some work to pay his bills and hoping to be able to supplement my income doing the work I love. What he did really set me back. This was a bitter way to learn a lesson. No good deed goes unpunished, I tekk myself. In the country you tend to take a person's word because you are surely going to see them in town. That did not stop this fellow. I worry about running in to him as I do my chores.
It is the time of year when you face and tally up all of your efforts. Your successes and failures are right in front of you. There is no running and hiding from the facts. I have lots to be thankful for. As we begin the potato harvest, another truth comes out – they are all different sizes and, of course, they need sorting. One more task I had not considered. I love the whimsy of the random sunflowers that pop up in my garden among the vegetables. I wonder who brought them.
It has been a short summer filled with all sorts of unusual happenings with wildlife. We had a just-born fawn on our lawn in the middle of a storm; we rescued seven newborn skunks; a fish turned up in our pond when there was none; we spotted an albino raccoon; and flying squirrels fed at night on our side porch. We had scores of mewling baby raccoons in daylight, and we had Powder Squeak, a half albino premature red squirrel that we nursed back to health with a steady dose of peanuts. That little squirrel taught me what it means to be determined and to never give up. At one point I thought he was near death, and it would be best to put him out of his misery. He rallied and continues to be the first and last at the feeder.
There is much to be done before putting the garden to bed. I still have my grapes to pick – they are late this year – and then to make grape jelly. I have yet to harvest the basil to make pesto, and I need to dry my herbs. I have peppers, potatoes and a few zucchini to pick. There is always something calling me. I was thrilled this year to see apples on my tree and, as luck would have it, deer ate them just as they were ready to be picked. No apple crisp pie this year. But I do plan to harvest wild ones from the backfield. That is if there are any – you never know.
This summer I had the delight of my children sharing the work and the bounty of the farm. We had wonderful meals out on the porch – both breakfasts and dinners. We went blueberry picking and kayaking and camping. Tornado warnings came on a regular basis. We had mosquitoes in September. I also was delighted to find damson plums at the farm stand and was able to make the plum jam that took me back to my childhood. I was taught the rules of canning as a young girl from my godmother Clara. She made the best jams and jellies and would always use paraffin to seal them. She even used the old-fashioned jelly jars. We shared memories, made memories and had some great nights playing cards. This is why I wanted to live on a farm, to share work, tears, love and laughter.
Fall is a time to give thanks and I do. I hope all of you visit a farm stand to enjoy the bounty and to support farmers like me. They really do appreciate it. I know.
I made salsa, tomato sauce for pasta and stews, bruschetta, tomato sandwiches, gazpacho, caprese salad with basil from the garden, fried green tomatoes, and I also canned tomato jam and chili sauce. Next is preserved salsa. The list is endless. I practically put peppers in every dish I made. I just toured the garden and ironically now the zucchinis are filling in, just after the first frost warning.