Thursday, August 23, 2012

A Farmer’s Perspective:
Garlic and Tomatoes — So Far, So Good

Keith Stewart, Westtown, New York

On our farm 2012 was a good year for garlic. The very mild winter (most of February and March felt more like April) and warm spring allowed the fall-planted cloves to get off to an early start. The first green shoots poked through their blanket of mulch on March 10, at least 2 weeks sooner than I’ve ever seen before.

Then came the spring rains: From early May till mid-June, we got over 9 inches spread out nicely and in manageable quantities — an inch or two here, a half inch there. This was close to double the normal precipitation for that period. Such a copious amount of water made it hard to plant other crops or get field work done (like weeding, mulching, and trellising), but it suited the garlic just fine.

Garlic likes to get its water early while vigorously engaged in aboveground growth. In its last month in the field, the plant sends the energy it has captured in its leaves, via photosynthesis, belowground to form the bulb that we humans so prize for its culinary value. Garlic’s water needs during this period are slight. In fact, bulbs harvested from relatively dry ground will cure faster and store better than those pulled from wet soil. As luck would have it, in the last few weeks before harvest, we got a scant 0.7 inches of rain.

The early emergence, ample rain at just the right time, and the final few weeks of hot, dry sun resulted in some of the biggest garlic bulbs and the largest overall harvest we’ve ever had.

We grow over one hundred different varieties of vegetables and herbs on our farm, but the Italian Rocambole garlic we’ve been planting for more than two decades is definitely our signature crop. It is the crop we grow the most of (about 70,000 annually) and sell the most of, and it is the crop that has brought us some good publicity and boosted our reputation over the years. More than any other, it is responsible for the farm’s identity. So a good year for garlic is usually a good year for the farm.

Tomatoes are another important crop for us, and as of mid-August they too have performed quite well. So far, no late blight, the dreaded Irish potato famine disease that wiped out our entire crop in the cool, wet summer of 2009. So far, no Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee (or their equivalents), which dealt a double blow to our tomatoes and other crops and left many a farm under water in 2011.

Modest amounts of rain, supplemented by drip irrigation, and high temperatures in July and August have favored the tomatoes. They taste best when they grow and ripen quickly in hot sun. And hot sun is something they’ve had plenty of. This year we’re selling a lot of tomatoes, and we hope to sell more in the weeks ahead. Chalk up another winner. When it comes to leafy greens — lettuces, chard, kale, and the like — things have not turned out so rosy. The heat and dry spell in late June and early July caused many of these crops to bolt and go to seed long before they reached a marketable size. Customers at our farmers’ market in New York City keep asking when we will have lettuce again. I tell them, “In the fall, when things cool down a bit.”

Vegetable farming is not for the risk averse. One might even say that a gambler’s instinct is close to being a prerequisite these days for a diversified, organic farmer. It usually boils down to one thing: the weather. For the past decade we’ve been on a roller-coaster ride of extremes, mostly in the areas of heat, wind, and rain.

I don’t want to mention global warming here because it feels a bit tacky to be bringing up politics in an election year, and neither of our presidential contenders seem keen to discuss the matter. From this farmer’s vantage point, however, it does appear that our winters are milder, our summers hotter, and our weather generally more erratic and unpredictable. Some of these changes work to our advantage — you won't find many of us complaining about a longer growing season. It’s the erratic and unpredictable nature of our new climate that have made farming a bit more dicey than it used to be.

Until you’ve put your money in the bank, there’s no way of knowing how things will turn out. This season I’m thankful for our bountiful harvest of garlic and tomatoes, and I’m grateful to be farming in the Northeast and not in the Midwest or the Great Plains. From what I hear, it’s been hellishly hot and dry out there.

Keith Stewart is a NOFA-NY certified organic vegetable grower in Westtown, New York and author of Storey’s Guide to Growing Organic Vegetables and Herbs for Market.

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