Awake at dawn, I smooth on sunscreen, dress in well-worn jeans and a long
sleeved shirt, and eat a hefty breakfast that will keep me going until
noon. A glance at the clipboard reminds me that, besides the long list
of crops to harvest today, we must find time to seed fall carrots. It
will be a long day, as we prepare for the Saturday farmers’ market, as
It’s a little after 7:00 A.M., and Juan and Antonio are already in the
field, harvesting greens. With the dew and morning coolness still on them,
the tender leaves are less likely to wilt before we rush them to the cleaning
and packing shed. Once in the shed, each crop is weighed, yield and variety
recorded (this information will eventually be input into the computer
so we have, among other things, an audit trail for the organic certifier).
The greens are soaked in cool water to remove soil and to hydrate and
quick chill them. Small leaves are lifted from the water and spin dried
in a restaurant sized hand operated salad spinner while large chard leaves
are simply shaken to remove excess water.
Greens meant for the farmers’ market are packed in large plastic boxes
lined with food grade plastic box liners. Tomorrow morning, as the truck
is loaded for market, I’ll fill the bottoms of the boxes with ice, with
the greens (in their plastic bags) sitting on top. This keeps the greens
cool and fresh looking even on a hot market day. Every box is labeled
with contents and date of harvest before going into the cooler.
At least weekly, we walk the fields and observe. We note the stages of
growth of different crops, what is close to harvest stage, and what is
happening overall. We look, as well, for signs of insect and wildlife
damage and disease. Some problems we leave alone, because past observations
have shown that they can be resolved without intervention. For instance,
in years past panic set in when I saw aphids on the bean plants. Now,
I know if we wait a week or so, the lady bugs will appear, seemingly out
of the blue, and feast on the aphids, with little harm done to the bean
Cabbageworms are one of those perpetual pests that do not go away on
their own. Within days, the pale green rascals can grow from barely visible
to fat and juicy as they turn leaves into lacework. Today Juan alerts
me to cabbageworms on the fall broccoli and cauliflower transplants. They
are still tiny, and therefore, at the easiest stage to control. If we
defer spraying, the small seedlings will be weakened. So all harvesting
stops while the three of us apply a biological spray that will keep the
voracious critters under control.
After spraying, I jot down the substance sprayed, the mix proportions
and the reason for spraying. As certified organic farmers, we must record
every input, whether the source is on farm (like our own hay) or off-farm
(like commercial organic fertilizer), have labels on hand for inspection,
and prove that the inputs are accepted under organic standards.
I would love to say that, because we are organic, we have no pest or
disease problems. The poor agricultural practices of our predecessors,
combined with urban sprawl and pollution contribute to destruction of
ecosystems that took generations to develop and which, if perfectly healthy,
provide a natural check on insects and disease. Although we practice several
methods to restore the natural balance, we realize that the damage takes
years to heal.
Green beans, tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, summer squash, broccoli and
cauliflower harvest follow. We hand harvest because mechanized harvesting
machinery is expensive and limits the varieties we can grow. Machine harvested
green bean varieties, for instance, are generally less flavorful and tender
than the varieties we like to grow and eat.
As the green beans are poured into a container for cold storage, damaged
or unsightly pieces are discarded. We have several coolers, all at different
temperatures, to accommodate the various produce requirements. While greens,
cabbage, broccoli, and cauliflower can hover near freezing, we find that
green beans and summer squash do best several degrees warmer.
Tomatoes, peppers and eggplant, on the other hand, are left in a cool
room, as refrigeration ruins their texture. Tomatoes are stacked in the
same nesting trays in which they are harvested. Peppers and eggplant are
placed in shallow boxes set on the cool concrete floor.
Close to noon, the nasturtium blossoms, no longer wet from the morning
dew, are ready for harvest. Each flower is gently shaken to rid it of
insects lurking inside and then dropped in a harvest bucket tilted away
from the sun to prevent wilting. The bucket is covered with a towel so
the wind doesn’t damage the delicate blossoms on the ride back to the
packing shed in the open golf cart.
Lunch is a respite from the hot sun and harvest frenzy. I savor a freshly
picked Brandywine tomato sliced onto crusty bread and spread with homemade
basil pesto, while the workers pop just picked hot jalapenos into their
In the Midday Sun
At the height of the harvest season, we can never seem to get it all done
by noon. We finish getting close to 200 pounds of tomatoes into the cool
room and 20 pounds of baby summer squash into cold storage. Antonio is
off to clean garlic and Juan to prepare the beds for the carrot planting.
Fall planting is always the most pleasurable because the soil is finally
in perfect tilth, weed pressure is at a minimum, and pounding rains are
unlikely. On the other hand, it is challenging because we can never be
certain whether the fall weather will be kind or will blast us with premature
cold and freezes. Autumn is generally the dryest part of the season, as
well, so, if we want crops that will germinate and grow quickly, we must
With this in mind, I choose low lying beds to start the carrots and set
up the sprinkler to water whenever the surface soil dries. These same
beds were underwater a month ago, due to torrential and unrelenting rainfall
that began in May and did not subside until early July. This is our first
year farming this 10-acre plot; and we have learned some hard lessons.
Losing as much as half of our early season crops to flooded ground guarantees
that next year’s spring crops will be on higher ground.
In the dry season, on the other hand, these same beds will retain moisture
longer. This helps ensure that, paired with frequent irrigation, the carrots
will germinate within a week of seeding and will have a good head start
on whatever weeds show their nasty heads. Juan goes over the beds with
the tiller; I check that the correct seeder plate and depth are in place,
fill the seeder and seed two rows to a bed. There are few lovelier or
more promising sights to me than the neat lines made by the seeder in
crumbly chocolate brown soil.
The date, varieties planted, and planting location are recorded so we
can plan our crop rotations and evaluate the performance of different
areas of the field. This record keeping is necessary, as well, to document
our crop rotation schedule for the organic certifier.
Planting accomplished, Juan joins Antonio to clean garlic under the shade
of the oak tree while I ready the truck for the farmers’ market tomorrow.
The bag supply is replenished, the spray bottle used to mist produce is
filled, and the scale and other sales equipment are loaded. Back in the
office, I update the price sheet on the computer, print it and place it
in the truck door pocket. Finally, the truck is backed up to the overhead
door of the shed, so loading at 4:00 A.M. will be simplified.
Juan and I review what needs to be done Saturday while I am away at the
market. Some beds need cultivating and hand weeding. The summer squash,
which can grow inches in one hot day, must be checked and harvested if
necessary. Cauliflower heads require wrapping, and more beds must be prepared
for fast maturing fall crops like arugula, baby lettuce mix, spinach,
After dinner and before dark, I cut a few bunches of basil for tomorrow’s
market, slipping the long stemmed sprigs directly into warm water to form
fragrant silky green bouquets. Some experts say that harvesting basil
after 6:00 P.M extends shelf life and improves quality. My own experience
is that it seems to last as well when harvested in the morning. But today
the morning passed too quickly; so, here I am, harvesting as the sun goes
down. Even if the basil does not sell out at market, it is certain that
people will be irresistibly drawn to Alden Ponds’ stand because of the
fragrance of fresh basil wafting from those buckets.
Weariness sets in as I enter the house, but it is a good kind of tired,
the kind that comes from reaping the bounty after so many days of battling
the elements, of tilling and nurturing, of watching tiny wisps of green
miraculously mature into human sustenance.
Written By Mary Wilson of Alden
14518 O'Brien Road Harvard, IL 60033 Phone: 815-648-4708
e-mail: [email protected]