Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Week 12 newsletter

Since we wrote to you about spraying the tomatoes with copper to save them from the late blight, we have received quite a few emails asking us about what that means and if we spray other crops with other products. We also had a visit from a French agriculturalist who asked about the American organic certification and whether we participate. We explained that, because of the CSA relationship of trust and open communication about our farming practices, we don’t feel the need to be certified. In addition, certification would cost us quite a bit of money and it doesn’t make sense to pass that cost on to the CSA members. In order for you to feel comfortable with our farming practices, we thought we should share with you the products we spray, what crops we spray, and why we spray.

Copper: One of the products that organic growers can use is NuCop 50 WP. It is a blue powder that we mix with water and spray on the tomatoes as a fungicide. The copper is absorbed by the spore of the oomycete pathogen and kills the spore. The oomycete that has already developed on the plant cannot be killed. Organic growers have to use the spray as a protectant and apply it before the pathogen appears on the crop. Once the oomycete has established itself on the crop, the copper can be sprayed to control the spread of the spores, but the copper will not destroy the pathogen itself. We use copper to control early and late blight in the tomatoes. For early blight, we spray when the plants are young and, once they begin to have fruit, we quit spraying. The late blight infection we have now requires that we spray until the end of the harvest. If we quit spraying copper, you would have only one or two more weeks of tomatoes at best.

We handle this product carefully and we do not go into the tomatoes for 24 hours after copper is applied. As we stated before, you should wash your tomatoes before you eat them. The copper product is only on the surface of the tomato and easily washes off. Copper is a trace mineral in the soil and, because we rotate our crops every year, this one season of a heavier-than-normal use of copper will not affect the soil life or soil health. Copper does not leach into ground water. We are careful to spray only when there is no wind so that the copper does not drift into other areas of the farm or into other crops.

Entrust: This is a product we use to control European Corn Borer in sweet corn and peppers. We also use it when the flea beetle infestation is especially heavy in greens like arugula or in eggplant. With the addition of the parasitic wasps (trichogramma ostrinae) we also use to control the corn borer, we have almost no worm damage in the corn. We have more damage in the peppers this year because we didn’t control the worms early enough. The larvae from the corn borer moth eat holes in the tops of the peppers. Then, when it rains, the peppers fill with water and rot on the plant. If not controlled, the larvae can do a lot of damage very quickly in a pepper crop. We spray the corn because most people do not enjoy finding worms in their corn ears.

Enrust is created from bacteria called spinosa that are found in the soil. It works best on pests that eat the sprayed leaves. Entrust can have some effect on the pests and beneficial insects when it has just been sprayed. Once the product dries, it is not harmful to insects that are not ingesting the sprayed leaves. It is not considered to be toxic to humans. We are careful to spray so that it does not drift (blow in the wind to places we do not want it). Insects can build up a resistance to Entrust, so we do not spray it more than two or three times on a crop per season. We use about two ounces per acre per application and the product is broken down in the soil.

Bt: This product comes from the bacteria Bacillus thuringiensis. We use the product called DiPel DF. There are many different strains of Bt, but we use this one to control cabbage loopers (the worms found in your cabbage and broccoli). It works only by digestion and causes the larvae of the looper moth to quit eating. We sometimes use it to control corn earworm in the corn by spraying it directly on the silks of the ears. We only do this if our scouting (carefully surveying the crop for evidence of a pest) shows that we have a high level of corn earworm moths in the corn field. DiPel DF is not toxic to humans or other animals. It only affects the larvae that eat the plant leaves.

All three products are aided by what is called a spreader sticker and, in our case, that is Nu-Film P, another OMRI approved material. Nu-Film improves the material’s effectiveness by protecting it against early UV degradation, by making it stick to the leaves of the plant, and by lowering the surface tension of the water which creates a smaller droplet and therefore better coverage.

Biodynamic Preparations: The biodynamic preparations are used in addition to good farming practices to increase the health of the soil and plants on the farm. They are similar to the homeopathic remedies we use to benefit human and animal health. We use horn-manure preparation to increase the humus formation in the soil (the stable soil aggregates that increase organic matter) and to increase the rooting of the plants. Horn manure is made by filling cow horns with cow manure from animals raised on grass. The filled horns are then buried in the ground over the winter. When the horns are dug up in the spring the manure has fermented into a compost-like substance. After we dig it up we insert the six compost preparations and store it in a stone urn immersed in peat moss to maintain its freshness. The compost preparations are made from fermented medicinal herbs: dandelion, chamomile, valerian, yarrow, stinging nettle, and oak bark. We also put very small quantities of each in the compost piles. We also apply both horn-silica and (on a trial basis) the horn-clay preparation, which are both made in a way similar to the horn-manure. We use very small amounts of these preparations and stir them in warm water for one hour. Horn-manure and horn clay are sprayed on the soil and horn silica is sprayed on the leaves of the plants.

When we are making a decision about whether or not to use a certain product, we carefully weigh the pros and cons. We have increased the use of spraying because we felt that you wanted a less damaged product. We heard from you that you don’t want to find worms in your broccoli or corn. We understand, and we do our best to deliver that. We do not use products that are not on the OMRI list (OMRI is the organization that decides if a product can be used in certified organic production). If you have further questions about what we use to protect the crops so that we can deliver a better product to you, please send us an email at info@roxburyfarm.com. This continued discussion is how we determine your needs and how to best meet them. It is important that, even though we have had this relationship for almost 20 years, the lines of communication stay open. We thank you for your questions and input.

For more information on Entrust, DiPel DF, and NuCop WP50 we recommend that you read the Resource Guide for Organic Insect and Disease Management published by Cornell University. You can find it on their website: http://www.nysaes.cornell.edu/pp/resourceguide/index.php

For an article on the Biodynamic Preparations we suggest the article on the ATTRA (The National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service) website: http://attra.ncat.org/attra-pub/PDF/biodynam.pdf and at the Biodynamic Association’s website: http://biodynamics.com/node/111

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Week 11 Newsletter

This week, we received a visit from the widely respected professor Tom Zitter, along with Cornell Cooperative Extension agents John Mishanec, Laura McDermott, and Chuck Bornt. Tom is a researcher at Cornell University, where he heads the Zitter Lab and Field Program, which deals with the biology and management of pathogens of fresh market vegetables, with emphasis on potatoes, tomatoes, and cucurbits. As I have written to you before, we have been working with Cornell for many years conducting tomato, potato, and cucurbit trials, as well as soil management. For three years we participated in a trial to help assess the quality of late blight-resistant tomato varieties.

Their visit was a good opportunity to check up on the health of our tomato plants. Unfortunately, due to the misconception that hot and dry weather doesn’t favor late blight, this farmer had slacked off on the spraying of copper in the last two weeks. It did not take Tom very long to discover the first lesions indicating that late blight has started to fester on our late planting of tomatoes. It was a blessing to have him and Chuck visit us that day, as we think we might still be in time to lessen the infection by going back to a more careful spraying regime.

Four years ago, our local extension agent, Chuck Bornt, asked us if we had some space in our tomato section to add about 400 plants of about 50 different late blight-resistant tomato varieties. They had no funding at the time but, with the cooperation of growers like Roxbury Farm, and the ongoing concern that late blight would one day have a catastrophic impact on tomato production (well, that proved to be a foresight!), we went ahead. Those 50 different varieties were trialed at Roxbury Farm; by one other grower in the western part of the state; and at the Thompson Vegetable Research Farm at Freeville, N.Y.

I remember Chuck telling me that he was biased against one variety and he was hesitant to include it in the mix, as it produced a strong indeterminate tomato plant. Tomatoes are classified as determinate, semi determinate, and indeterminate. This terminology applies to how the tomatoes ripen on the vine. Indeterminate tomatoes ripen one cluster at a time. The Juliet and Golden Rave tomatoes you receive are both indeterminate, making for a very tall tomato plant. As you can imagine, trellising such plants is not without difficulty. The earlier planted Juliets have reached well above their six-foot trellis, with the latest vine growth falling over the last strings. The weight of such plants, in combination with strong winds, can cause the trellis to collapse, which occurred in one section last Saturday with some of the Golden Raves. Needless to say, commercial growers demand determinate lines from their breeders. These plants are usually around four feet tall and the tomatoes ripen almost simultaneously on the whole plant.
We told Chuck we are not afraid of some tall plants if we think the flavor and quality are worth it, so he included it.

At such a stage in variety trials, crops have just a number; only when they are released on a commercial basis do they get a proper name. As we always look for the latest improvement of disease and insect control in seed stock, our current red potato is still named NY 129. Many of the late blight- (Phytophthora) tolerant tomatoes in the trial of 2005 were bred by Prof. Randy Gardner of NCSU. He created the well-known Mountain series that have good tolerance against Alternaria (early blight) and Fusarium. We have grown the Mountain Fresh and Mountain Pride, which are large beefsteak types, but many of you preferred a less firm and sweeter tomato.

Once the 50 varieties matured, we looked for combined disease resistance, flavor, earliness, fruit size, firmness, color, smoothness, and crack resistance. A tomato can be late blight-resistant, but if it is very sensitive to Septoria (which was not part of the research until recently) or without good flavor, we still have little interest in growing it. One variety stood out from the pack, literally, as it grew to six feet tall. The vigorous plant produced a small round tomato – due to the size and shape of the tomato, it was named Ping Pong by our own Johannes (coming out of the always creative and imaginative mind of a then 15-year-old). Best of all, according to other trials, it is virtually resistant to late blight. We were very excited about it, and asked Chuck if he could secure 100 seeds of the Ping Pong variety so we could start delivering those tomatoes to the membership. Every year since then we have had to pull some strings, as there wasn’t much of a seed supply available. Word got out that Ping Pong was a winner; maybe not for large commercial growers, but certainly for specialty crop farmers like ourselves, and possibly for home gardeners, too, as its flavor is fantastic. Nevertheless, we have been able to add a small supply of Ping Pong tomatoes to your share each year by securing about 200 seeds from Cornell.

Last year, we wrote a letter of support to help Tom apply for a large grant to develop Septoria-, early blight-, and late blight-resistant tomato varieties. Though the money granted to Cornell is much less than requested, we will still hold the first trial by next season. This kind of work is greatly underappreciated by the scientific world, and therefore hugely underfunded. Rumor has it that North Carolina State University is pressuring Randy to spend less time on developing new varieties and more on molecular marking (researching what gene is responsible for what trait).
This winter Ping Pong received its commercial name: Mountain Magic. We were disappointed, but we understood – it is Randy’s creation after all. We can still call it Ping Pong, and so does Tom. On the Zitter Lab website homepage you’ll find a picture of Mountain Magic, with the caption “a.k.a. Ping Pong.” Thanks, Tom, and thanks to all the folks at the extension service for providing farmers with the latest developments and innovations in agriculture.


Week 10 Newsletter

When I arrived at Roxbury Farm on a June morning ten years ago, I had no inkling of what a profound role Roxbury would play in my life – that my life would be forever entwined with the life of the farm.

Over the last ten years, the farm has changed dramatically. In 2000, we moved to new land and formed partnerships with Equity Trust and the Open Space Institute to preserve and protect the farm for agriculture in perpetuity. With the support of the membership, the farm has grown to 300 acres of protected prime agricultural land. When we moved to the farm, the land was starved and lifeless. Over the years, through the proper use of green manure crops, careful cultivation, application of compost and lime, diligent pasturing of cows and sheep, and the use of the biodynamic preparations, vitality and structure have returned to the soil. As we spend so much time and energy on caring for the soil, it was especially painful to watch 100 acres of it covered with the flood waters from the Kinderhook Creek two Thursdays ago. To be honest with you, in the thick of the moment questions arose with possible answers that would force us to make some radical changes should we ever continue to farm that land again. Now, after six days of sun and dry weather, the fields look better, and, with the help of many uplifting emails, we are able to put it behind us.

Thinking over the last ten years, I don’t really remember the crops we grew as much as I remember the people who grew the crops with us. The relationships we have formed because of the farm are among the most rewarding aspects of the work we do. We have been blessed by the talents of many people who come to the farm for a season or two to learn while they work, and work hard. Each of them has left their mark on the farm. Many of them have gone on to be farmers. Some don’t farm, but bring their experiences from the farm into their world by how they eat and how they educate others about agriculture and food. The farm has now grown to a size and level of complexity that means we need to share the management with others. Creating a space for other people to feel that the farm is theirs is a challenging exercise in creativity and patience on all sides, but it’s a challenge we gladly embrace.

The many members who support the farm every season with their share dollars, their volunteer labor at the sites or on the farm, and their encouraging notes and emails changed my idea about the future of agriculture. The relationship of trust between us, as your farmers, and you, as our customers, is quite remarkable. Your outpouring of support since the flood kept us going.
The last devastating flood I remember was in 1993, when I lived in Iowa. It felt like the whole state flooded, taking many of the corn and soybean fields away with the flood waters.
Those farmers had only the government to depend on for relief and support. Trying to negotiate the maze of government disaster relief forms and regulations is not something I would want to entrust my future to. Columbia County has been declared an agricultural disaster area this year, but there may never be any monetary support behind that disaster declaration. While about 65 acres of the second cut of our hayfields, an acre of broccoli, some lettuce and greens, some radish for seed, and about an acre of sweet corn were completely lost to the flooding, much of the yield of many of our fall crops will also be reduced due to the wet weather and diseases that came with it. The monetary damage to crops and equipment is close to $25,000; but knowing that you will continue to support us through this difficult year means that we have much less to worry about than many of the other farmers in our area.

There were only a few organic farms in Columbia County ten years ago; now there are many. Our Columbia County “farmers club” has grown and is another source of support and advice during all types of weather. On Saturday night, many of us gathered at Katchkie Farm, right across the road from Roxbury Farm, to enjoy a beautiful dinner at a Farm to Table event sponsored by Great Performances from New York City and the Red Barn restaurant here in Kinderhook. More than 100 people, farmers, chefs, and eaters gathered at linen-covered tables in the middle of the vegetable fields and dined on all-local produce, meat, cheese, and spirits. It was quite an experience to taste our vegetables prepared by expert chefs. It was amazing to see so many people come out to support local agriculture.

This is what I think has changed the most over the ten years I have been a part of Roxbury Farm: the ever-expanding interest and support for local food production by you, the eaters and customers. So, while the farm needs to change and adapt over the next ten years, knowing that we have your support will keep us going to 2019 and beyond.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Flood 2009

Last Thursday, July 30th, we received over 4 inches of rain. This in combination with 6 inches of rain from towns upstream from us on the Kinderhook Creek resulted in flooding that hasn't been seen since 1948. The lower fields on both farms were completely covered in water. Fortunately we weren't growing very many crops on the fields this season. The creek receded the fields are drying out. It will be quite awhile before we can work the soil again.

See the flood in photos below. From top to bottom:
Seven foot tall sorghum-sudan grass under water; Our tractor stuck on high ground in the cow pasture, it drove right out after the water receded: Our cows stranded in the pasture. The next morning the crew herded them out by land and by canoe; The row of equipment under water; The back of the sweet corn field in the flood water; Dave and Linda canoeing the cover crop on the field we grew our fall crops in last year; Two plantings of broccoli flooded out; The next three are different views of our vegetable fields under 3-7 ft of water.

Monday, August 3, 2009