Friday, February 19, 2010

Autumn on the Farm

By Nicole Sugerman

Fall does not officially begin until the Fall Equinox, which will happen on the 22nd of this month. On this day, the Earth tilts neither toward nor away from the Sun, the equator lining up precisely beneath the Sun as we orbit. After the Equinox, our hemisphere will begin to tilt away from the Sun, bringing us colder temperatures and increasingly fewer minutes of sunlight each day, until we reach the shortest day of the year, the Winter Solstice.

While this information is interesting in an astronomical sense, it matters very little to our attitudes on the farm. For me, fall has arrived, and I have been in a fall mindset since the very first day of September. On September 2nd, I cooked a big pot of winter squash stew, ate apple crisp, and thought to myself, “whew. I made it through the summer.” Since then, I stubbornly wear my flannel shirt every day, despite this week’s return to summery temperature highs in the 80’s. The feeling of fall is reinforced by the fact that it is still dark out when we wake up now, and the cooler nights make our beds feel pretty cozy and somewhat hard to leave. The difficulty in wakeing up is one of the few drawbacks to the fall, however. While many see the approach of colder temperatures as a time defined by slight melancholy, fall is an exciting and high-spirit time here on the farm.

Activity-wise, planting has pretty much ended for the season. We seeded our last plantings of beets and carrots two weeks ago, and are poised to plant out our last flats of lettuce and our last fifty feet of radishes this week, ending our outdoor planting for the entire season. Being free from the need to keep up with our planting schedule gives us more time to cultivate our existing crops, getting the weeds under control and making the farm look neater and the plants happier. We are also starting to take finished beds out of production, clearing out the existing plants and sowing our cover crops, mixes of legumes and grasses, which will stabilize the bare soil from erosion, shade out weeds, fix nitrogen, and add organic matter when we till them into the beds in the spring. We use two cover crop combinations on the farm; beds that we will plant into early next spring get a mixture of oats and field peas, both of which will grow now, die during the winter, and leave us with cleared beds when the ground thaws next spring. We will plant the other beds in a mix of winter rye and hairy vetch, which will survive the winter and continue to grow until we cut it down next spring, ready for planting in the late spring or early summer.

Usually, September does not feel quite so decidedly fall-like. Last season, although our cool-weather crops were starting to return (cooking greens, radishes, and look out for the impending return of turnips), our summer crops lasted much longer into the fall. September still meant epic tomato harvests and abundant bell peppers. The strangely cool, wet summer this year means that many of our summer crops are dying earlier than they ideally would. We are about to rip out most of the barely-producing tomato plants, and the summer squash has tapered off dramatically. Not to worry, though; the season has lots of fall favorites in store, like fennel, broccoli, and bok choi, as well as some more unusual choices, like daikon radish and more of the celeriac that you all tried last week. We are in bitter battles with the deer (yup—they just now found our farm after a blissfully deer-free summer) for the edamame, and our determination in fighting harlequin bugs for our broccoli-family crops seems to be paying off.

Battling with harlequin bugs reminds me ofone of the most exciting aspects of fall—school is back in session! We are glad to welcome Saul students back to the farm, where they can pick up where they left off last spring. Working with entire classes of students is a very different experience than the intimacy of working with our five Saul summer interns, but it brings vitality, excitement, and many hard working additional hands to the farm. The 11th grade agroecology students spent a day of class hand-picking harlequin bugs off of the cauliflower, cabbage, and broccoli plants with us last week—so think of them when you eat these crops later this season.

The first few seasons of my farming career, fall was an admittedly sadder time. I felt anxious that, uncertain what I would be doing the next year, it might be my last season on a farm. “This might be the last turnip I will ever harvest,” I would think sentimentally, “or the last time I will pull grass out of the salad mix.” Starting the wind-down of my second season farming in Philadelphia, the fall feels satisfying and exciting with the knowledge that I will keep farming. Now is the time for us to reflect on what is going well this season, with a constant eye on improvement and innovation for next year. We are starting to think of new crops we want to try, new systems we want to implement, and the possibilities for building on what we started this season. The fall is just another stage in a cycle, where we concentrate on soil fertility and long-term management to make the farm more productive and healthy in the seasons ahead.

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