reflections from the southeast PA rural underground
Monday, November 9, 2009
He had a real look of consternation in his eyes. Or maybe it was just the way he squinted, one eye almost shut as I often do when the mid-day sun is shining all over the place, blinding and bathing everything at the same time. He was shorter than I had imagined, as well, and as he gave me a firm hand shake I asked him if he remembered meeting Tim Stark at Stone Barns a bunch of years back. "Oh yes!", he stated, still looking me straight in the eye. "That was good what he did ya know, the first thing to do is stay in business. I've never been certified organic!" He was referring to how our farm had resorted to using a chemical fungicide to combat the late blight that spread to all the tomato and many of the potato plants in the northeast this past summer. I got the impression right off that this guy didn't miss a beat. I only learned later that he was seventy years old. His energy reminded me of a Mennonite farmer friend back in Pennsylvania. Go go go go was the mantra and all they'd ever known. These guys were classics. "Little guys like you and me," as my uncle might say. Tons of energy and sprightly like more men were a century ago. Back when agriculture was still king and small stature was regarded as a good thing. Did a huge man ever make a good farmer? I'm sure Harry Truman or maybe Mark Twain must have had a word on the subject at one time or another?
Jen and I had made the 10-11 hour trip up to Maine mostly because I had arranged to visit Eliot Coleman's Four Season Farm. We also needed a little respite from our daily grinds and had had such a great time in Portland two years ago that we figured we'd try it again. This trip was turning out to be near perfect as well. Except of course for the nights when we caught a glimpse of the World Series and the Phillies who'd squandered almost every opportunity to clinch a second World Championship. And more importantly, to send those damn Yankees packing! Just as two years ago, the weather was fantastic. Slightly more seasonable than last October, the first days of November were hovering around 55 degree highs. Sunshine. Hardly a cloud as far as one could see. This is what it was like the day we finally made our way around the last bend of Weir Cove leading to Harborside, Maine and home of not only the farm but also the Good Life Center and Forest Farm, the last homestead of Helen and Scott Nearing.
I had arranged the visit through first connecting with Annie who is the food Forager for the Spotted Pig restaurant and later contacting her acquaintance Greg, the intern-turned-manager of the farm. This was a pretty big deal for me. Having farmed for more than 8 years now, I'd always had this visit in the back of my mind. What small farm grower wouldn't?! Eliot was it, man. He had written the bible of organic growing back in 1989. There wasn't many a farmer or enthusiast of micro-farming that didn't know about or have a well-worn copy of The New Organic Grower on their shelf. Coleman had become and is still today somewhat of an iconic figure of the movement and an all-around guru of the greenhouse/winter harvest technique of intensive bed farming.
After the perfunctory greetings upon arrival, I left Greg and his girlfriend Megan to their task of harvesting spinach and walked with Eliot over to his house which sat at the other side of the completely fenced-in property. Greg had told me that in the weeks just past, somewhere around 4 acres had been completely cleared so that Eliot and his wife Barbara (also an author and accomplished grower) could finally have animals.
This land and the roughly 2 acre vegetable farm in the center of the property were surrounded by the classic post and wire fence used on most small farms I've visited. One thing surprised me about the fence, though. At no section of the fence did I see it reaching more than six feet high. That would hardly keep out the most ambitious of Maine's deer population. I had seen eight foot fences on every other farm I had visited. Once near the house, the other visitors and workers kept Eliot engaged in conversation while Jen and I checked out the movable glass greenhouse that had just been slid to the left away from some hot chiles and green bell peppers.
This kind of greenhouse was just one of the innovations that Coleman was famous for. One could grow tomatoes in a high tunnel (unheated greenhouse) made of plastic or, like this one, glass, and then when the tomatoes (or whatever vegetable crop) finished producing, slide the house on its metal tracks over the next crop needing protection and added heat. We gleaned the last peppers from their plants for Greg to sell at market.
Looking out from the front of the house was a classic potage or kitchen garden lined with stone and edged on the right side with hanging grapes.
What this must have looked like just a month before the frost hit. It was still magical looking to me in the waning afternoon light. I caught tidbits of the conversation between the visiting chef from Michigan and Eliot as I picked the last red peppers from the ground. "I'm gonna put you guys to work!," he exclaimed. This was after a detailed description of the M____ bread he had eaten in. . . . Italy did he say? I wasn't sure. "Oh it's the best. You have to make it for your restaurant. It's the best bread I've ever tasted. Made with a special grain grown right in that part of Italy!"
I had told Greg in the emails throughout October that we would be happy to help out with whatever farm work they were doing at the time of our visit. He took me up on it and we proceeded to harvest one of the signature crops of Four Season Farm. Carrots! There must have been five or six beds of carrots in production, each one as neatly laid out as the next. Thirty inch wide by fifty foot long beds. The carrots would be harvested, washed, trimmed, and packed directly into the wooden boxes that gave them a rustic look of something classic, fresh and genuine. Before the carrots were harvested, though, we were treated to a delicious light lunch of hardy mustard greens and warm Charlotte potatoes tossed in a brown mustard vinaigrette.
Even before that, however, was the first job I got enlisted for. "Wayne," Megan's voice warily trailed off from inside the greenhouse, "Can you kill this vole?" Apparently, just as with any farm, even Eliot Coleman's farm had its share of pest problems. You wouldn't know by looking at all the perfectly manicured raised beds both in and out of the greenhouses that lurking underneath much of that rich, composted soil were more than a few little rodents scurrying to and fro to catch a big old bite out of the largest and most beautiful of all the carrots! Greg said that they must know which are the tastiest. Indeed all the biggest carrots that we'd later pull up were bitten into. How frustrating! This was a problem that would only be solved by attaining some much needed larger animals on the farm. Namely the feline kind. Voles or no voles, the carrots had that sweetest post-frost, late fall flavor. Not to mention the creamy texture of the Charlotte potatoes. Next to the classic fingerling or German Butterball varieties, these were some of the best potatoes I'd ever tasted.
I managed to make a clean kill of the little rodent that looked like a large gray field mouse with one strong downward smack of the shovel. Poor thing, I thought. But what could be done? There were LOTS of these poor things. We then ate our salads sitting on the grass outside Garfield, the largest greenhouse, and talked about Greg and Megan's former residences in New York and San Francisco. I couldn't help but think, both on the ride out to Harborside and at other moments during our time at the farm, how far from civilization this place felt. And apart from the sort of "out there" feeling I got, there was the practical question of how in the world could you market produce from here? Who would buy your stuff?
There was, except for a few neighbors, almost nobody for miles. The closest town, an hour from the farm, was Belfast with only 6,000 people. Could this really be viable for anyone but Eliot Coleman? But then again, thirty years prior when he decided to clear what looked to be at least 10 acres, which sat on more like 40 total, the goal was not just growing vegetables. It was homesteading.
The land had been sold from the Nearings to back-to-landers like Eliot for something near the $33/acre that they had paid for it in the seventies. Talk about no overhead. It was all laid out though, wasn't it? Just the consult the Book. The answers are all there. Eliot Coleman was not just a slick, organic-growing, trend-of-the-day, hands-off guru of a 60's movement. He was a bit of a practical genius. He had forged methods by trial and error day to day for over decades now. He would have already thought of the answers to any questions that I could possibly think of during my visit to his place that would not even last a full 24 hours. This was Eliot Coleman for god's sake!
For more pictures of Four Season Farm and The Good Life Center check out www.flickr.com/zopoco. All pics copyright of thickmoonroughgoat aka Wayne Miller 2009. Big thanks to Greg and Megan!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!