Thursday, September 27, 2007

Harvest Moon

Last night was the harvest moon, the first full moon of autumn. They say that farmers used to harvest their crops by moonlight at the harvest moon and for several days after, because the moon continued to come up close to sunset.

I’m not going to harvest my crops by moonlight, especially not the squash. The green varieties are hard enough to see in daylight, because they can be camouflaged under leaves and stems.

Last Sunday I found several large squash, all of them green varieties, hidden at the bottom of the plants, like this Starship. The yellow varieties are more of a contrast with the leaves and stems, so they are less likely to be missed when I harvest mini squash.

Harvest by moonlight would insure lots more oversized squash, at least the green varieties.

Here’s more large squash, compared with their mini versions. The large Magda and Costata Romanesco would probably sell at market, but fewer people are interested in large patty pan types, like this Peter Pan.

Squash harvest has been taking me about an hour to an hour and a half at least once a day. It took me an hour to harvest about 5 pounds of squash yesterday, plus about 10 minutes to wash the squash and get them into the refrigerator. Last week I brought to market squash that was harvested Tuesday through Friday, putting in 3.3 hours to harvest 30 lbs of mini squash and about 3 pounds of large squash. I made a total of $51.80 from the squash, selling about 2/3 at the Farmers’ Market and the rest to Bon Appétit.

With cool temperatures and days getting shorter, the squash yield is going down, and with it my squash income.

On the other hand, my lettuce is doing well in the short days and cooler weather. Salad mix, made with about 12 different varieties of speciality and heirloom lettuce and a little spinach, is probably my biggest seller over the season, with squash a close second. I’m able to grow lettuce in my cold frame so I have it to sell earlier than other vendors. Plus this year I planted a fall crop.

I get about $8.00 per pound for the mix, which is much nicer than any salad mix you buy in a package in the store. It keeps in the refrigerator much better than store bought salad mix, up to two weeks, because it is so fresh. If it doesn’t sell out at the market, we have quite a few customers here in Parma who will buy it as well.

The price is high because of the time and effort spent making the mix. I harvest the outer leaves of each lettuce plant so it will grow back the next week (not the most efficient method of harvesting), and I wash it in three or four buckets of water to get out the dirt and straw. Then John spins out the excess water, and we bag the mix for sale in small and large bags. We store it overnight in the fridge. It takes all morning to make it, and sometimes additional time in the evening.

So, when a woman approached me late in the market last Saturday, asking if she could have one of my small bags of lettuce for $1.00 instead of $1.50, my first reaction was to say no. You can bargain me down on most of what I sell at market, especially at the end of the day, but not salad mix, since it is so time consuming to make it, and I can usually sell elsewhere any salad mix that is left at the end of market.

I started to explain, but this woman looked crestfallen. She apparently had only one dollar left in her purse, and like many of the older people who come to market, she was probably on a fixed income. Seeing her long face, I changed my mind and agreed, perhaps too reluctantly, to let her have the bag for $1.00. I mentioned that I would have more next week. Her response was quiet, so it took a minute for its full impact to sink in. “I won’t be back,” she said. I feel badly that I came across so hardnosed, and apparently offended her.

Chef and author Deborah Madison describes a similar encounter in the Santa Fe Farmers’ Market:

“Several years ago I watched a shopper pick up an enormous Brandywine and ask its grower, Eremita Campos, how much it cost. It weighted nearly two pounds. It was easily salad for four. “Four dollars,” Eremita said. The customer threw it down and said, “I work too hard to pay four dollars for a tomato!” Eremita crossed her arms and quietly said, “And I work too hard to sell it for less.”

“Prompted by this stalemate, I spent a day on the farm, finding out from Eremita and her daughter, Margaret, what it takes to grow a good, organic heirloom tomato. I concluded that $4 was a bargain. (Try picking off those big green horn worms in the hot sun for even fifteen minutes and you’ll most likely agree.)

“Last year I happened to be standing once again with Eremita when the scene repeated itself. Only this time four or five customers jumped into the fray and explained to the probably frightened shopper why Eremita’s price was fair.”
- from Local Flavors by Deborah Madison, Broadway Books, NY, 2002.

I hope that most of my customers also appreciate the effort that goes into growing specialty produce on a small scale for Farmers’ Market.

At the same time, I wish there were a way to offer more of my produce, especially the popular and fun items like my salad mix, at a price that everyone can afford.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Bon Appétit

The food service for Albertson College of Idaho in Caldwell is managed by Bon Appétit, a company with a ethic of social responsibility and a policy of supporting local food as much as possible. Yesterday, September 25, was their “Eat Local Challenge. The goal was to serve a lunch made entirely of ingredients from within a 150 mile radius of the café. Chilly, rainy weather at the end of last week slowed squash growth, but I managed to put together 16 lbs of mini squash for the event from harvests on Sunday and Monday morning. They also purchased some of my arugula, ground cherries, cherry tomatoes and grapes for the salad bar. Monday evening I harvested a quart of strawberries, and brought them to the café for the local food challenge as well.

This year executive chef Matt Caldwell invited me to come to the café during lunch hour to show students my produce and answer questions. I brought a basket with samples, and Matt ran off copies of some photos of my garden and market booth. Joyce, the baker for Bon Appétit, shared the display table with me. She is a fruit grower and a vendor at the Nampa Farmers’ Market, like me. She had a large basket of Jonathan apples and pluots. Joyce is a great sales person, and knows that sampling sells produce. She came up with the idea of preparing cups with samples of our produce to pass out as the students came in for lunch. The sample cups started with just a slice of apple and pluot, but we soon added a ground cherry and strawberry to the cup. Then a small slice of mini squash and a tiny piece of arugula. We didn’t think to add a purple grape until late in the lunch period, but meanwhile, the sample cups turned into little works of art. We had fun explaining everything to students who were interested enough to stop and taste.

Among the most enthusiastic samplers were a group of young people in black tee shirts, most of them of Oriental heritage. They were intrigued by the ground cherries and interested in Joyce’s explanation of how the color of pluots depends on the color of the plum that is grafted on to an apricot tree. When I explained that the piece of leaf was arugula, one woman exclaimed, “I love arugula!”

At first I thought these were students from Albertson College, but after a minute or two I noticed that their shirts said “Taiko”, and asked about it. Turns out they were members of San Jose Taiko,
in town to perform for Caldwell Fine Arts that evening on campus. No wonder they were more interested in our produce than most of the college students; the local food movement is doing very well in California. The Taiko members encouraged us to come see their performance.

When lunch was over, Joyce and I cleaned up our display table. I had an opportunity to try one of the lunch items, a plate of noodles with grilled fairy tale eggplant, onion, garlic and basil, made fresh to order by one of the Bon Appetit chefs. As I sat in the almost empty dining room, I considering whether to take more time off from harvesting to come back to Caldwell that evening. One of the S.J.Taiko members walked past my table, and smiled at me, thanking me for the food, as if I were the chef! (I learned later she was S.J.T. founder, PJ Hirabayashi).

Moments later another woman approached me, asking if I would like tickets to the performance. She turned out to be Sylvia Hunt from Caldwell Fine Arts, passing out tickets to interested students. Though I’m not a student, she thought I might like the tickets.

Indeed I did. John and I went back this evening for a fantastic performance. Taiko is more than just drumming; it is very visual and athletic, involving strength, stamina, balance, coordination, complex choreographed routines, and interplay between individuals and the group. The last number, in particular, had drummers moving back and forth between drums, trading places with each other, playing each other’s drums and alternating between individual improvisation and ensemble performance. It was a treat to watch.

Thank you, SJ Taiko, and especially to Britt Mattern, who appreciated the produce at lunch, and encouraged me to come to the performance. There are some unexpected perks in this business of growing local food.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Squash Varieties

Our local food bank, the Sunshine Cupboard, is open once a month on the third Monday of the month. That's yesterday. I don't often have anything left in enough quantity to bring to the Food Bank, which is feeding 50 families at this time. But today I brought 31 small 12 ounce bags of mini squash medley from Sunday's and Monday's harvest. I could have sold them to Bon Appetit, but decided to donate instead. It's only once a month.

The photo shows the 12 varieties that I am growing this year. Actually there are 14 varieties, but 3 are plain green zucchini, and I haven't tried to distinguish which is which.

Patty Pan types (top left):
Starship (dark green), Sunburst (yellow), Peter Pan (pale green), Papaya Pear (yellow, shaped like the namesake fruits).

Top row - Round zucchini (top right):
Eight Ball (dark green), Floridor (yellow, looks like a lemon)

Bottom row - Zucchini:

Raven (dark green), Zephyr (yellow with green tip), Costata Romanesco (green stripes and ridges), Magda (light green, short, fat at the bottom), Butterstick (yellow), Sungreen, Cash Flow, and Revenue (medium green).

There are two more varieties that I like but didn't plant this year because I didn't have any more seeds: Geode is a round zucchini like Eight Ball, but a lighter green. Flying Saucer is pale yellow with green patches in the center, and points like a star.

My favorite of the ones that I am growing this year is Magda. It has a slightly sweeter flavor than the others. People are always asking if the different varieties taste different. They are all very similar in taste, though occasionally there are subtle differences.

The yellow varieties Sunburst and Zephyr are the most prolific varieties this year. Magda, Costata Romanesco , and Peter Pan are the slowest growing, and the least abundant. The quantity of each variety that I bring to market varies from year to year. Most produce about one fruit per hill per day, but the slow growing varieties may take two days or more for the fruit to reach my target harvest size.

Most of my seeds come from Johnny's Select Seed in Maine, and Territorial Seed in Oregon.

Many people look at these mini squash and ask, "What do you do with them?" We offer some preparation and serving suggestions:
- Rinse squash, cut off stem and any damaged spots. No need to peel.
-Steam or sauté whole, drizzle with oil or margarine & herbs.
-Grill whole, or cut into large chunks to grill on skewers
-Cut into chunks and stir fry in a tablespoon or two of oil with onion, garlic, peppers, eggplant chunks and/or corn. Add cherry tomatoes 2-4 minutes before the stir fry is ready.
-Sprinkle with oil and herbs; roast in the oven until tender.
-Marinate cooked or raw squash chunks in oil & vinegar or your favorite salad dressing and add to summer salads.
-Add chunks to lasagna or spaghetti sauce.

There you have it.

Thursday, September 13, 2007


A big storm blew through on September 4, a little over a week ago, pushing some of the squash plants on to their side. As the storm passed, it created an impressive rainbow. I was almost too late to capture this image. The squash plants recovered by the next day.

Speaking of hazards to squash production,this morning I found a male flower bud that was covered with tiny squash bug nymphs. It’s the first time this year that I’ve seen squash bugs. I quickly plucked the bud from it’s stalk and threw it several feet away from my garden plot, into the weeds. Hopefully that’s all that there were, and none escaped to the rest of the plant. In the weeds these tiny nymphs won’t be able to travel back to the squash patch in the heat. They are too young to fly, and there is no squash for them to feed on for a considerable distance. But they are a warning to watch for the third generation of bugs in my patch.

I promised to write about taking squash to market. We’ve now been twice, and will be going for the third time this Saturday. Here’s how things went.

On September 1 we brought squash that had been harvested August 28, 29, 30 and 31. There were a total of 54 large squash, about 7 inches long. I sold all but 2. The ones that didn’t sell were of the variety Zephyr. Some sold at 2 for $1.00 (they were 240 gm and over) and others at 2 for 75 cents. These prices come to 75 cents to $1.00 per pound. I could sell them by the pound, but last year customers told me they preferred to purchase squash by the piece rather than by the pound. The sale of large squashes brought in $21.75.

I also had 192 mini squash, sold at 5 or 6 for $1.00, depending on the size. That comes to $1.50 to $1.75 per pound. Good deal. I sold 175 of the mini squash for $33. If I’d sold the last 17 I would have made an extra $3.00. They say to aim to bring home 20% of what you bring. That way you have enough for everyone who may want your product without too much waste. I brought home about 10%.

So, the total income from squash on Sept. 1 came to $54.75.

Meanwhile, between Aug. 28 and Aug. 31, I put in 20 to 45 minutes a day to harvest and clean the squash, for a total of 4.3 hours. That comes to $12.64 per hour, not including the time spent at market or the 14 hours spent in the squash patch before it started producing squash for harvest.

September 8 was our second day at market with squash. This time I brought 96 large squash to market, and sold only 32 of them, 1/3 of what I brought. I made $16.75. So the harvest was up, but people weren’t buying the large squash.

I harvested 291 mini squash and sold 177 of them, 61%, for $30.40. Total squash income for the week was $46.65. Glenn Scott, one of the vendors who has been selling at our Farmers’ Market much longer than me, agreed that Sept. 8 was a relatively slow week for sales. It’s between paychecks, he explained. People spend more if they were paid that week.

I estimate that I was putting in an hour or more per day, two hours on Friday, to harvest and wash the squash. The total was 7.4 hours. So, for the week of Sept. 8, my sales amounted to $6.30 per hour. At least it’s over the minimum wage!

What happens to all of the unsold squash? We use some of it. We grill a bunch after the market and freeze it for pizza and pasta dishes during the winter. We also make a big batch of ratatouille and freeze some of it. We give some to our neighbors, if they want it. Most of the rest goes to the Parma Senior Center. Glenda, the chef at the senior center, finds creative ways to use it. This year the master gardeners have started collecting leftover produce from our vendors to take to Ronald McDonald House. Some went to them.

Seeing how much didn’t sell last week, I contacted the chef at Bon Appetit, the food service at Albertson College of Idaho. Last year they purchased some of my mini-squash, and this year the executive chef is also interested. So, we have arranged to bring him our unsold squash after the market on Saturday, and more on Tuesday or Wednesday if we have a reason to drive into town, or enough to sell to make the trip worthwhile. I’m very grateful to have that extra market for the squash.

There isn't a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow over my squash patch, but hopefully there is enough compensation to do better than break even.

Sunday, September 2, 2007

Slow pokes

After my last post, I looked for plants that were just starting to bloom, and found two with a male flower first to bloom. This photo is of one. You can just make out a female bud up against the stem. The shape of the ovary tells me that it's one of the green patty pan types, probably the classic pale green variety, Peter Pan. My Peter Pan plants have been very slow growing. I'm not sure if that's because the variety is slower to develop than the other varieties that I've planted, or because the seeds are so old. Old, weak seed would explain the slow growth, and also why the plant produced a male flower first. It doesn't yet have the strength to mature a fruit. I took the photo on Aug. 30, and there still hasn't been a mature fruit harvested from this plant. At least a male flower gives the plant an opportunity to reproduce via pollen.

Notice the honey bee on the flower. If you click on the image, you'll see that her thorax is covered in pollen. She's likely to pollinate the next flower that she visits with this pollen, as long as she touches the stigma on her way down to the nectary. This seems to be a nectar forager, because she doesn't have any pollen on her hind legs.

One morning while I was in the squash patch looking for squash bees (still haven't seen any yet) I watched a honey bee fly up from a flower and hover over the squash leaves. She was so covered with pollen that I suspect she couldn't see anything.

I mentioned last time that the canopy was closing in the patch. Here's a photo of the patch, also from Aug. 30. The row in the middle lost several plants to a gopher; hence the bare space there.

From now on many of these plants will be competing with their neighbors for light. I have to step gingerly over their leaves as I search daily for squash fruits to harvest.

Next time I'll write about our return to the Nampa Farmer's Market last Saturday with our first squash of the season. I was nervous about it. After all, I'm very late with my squash harvest, and there are perahps 8 other vendors who have been selling squash since early July or late June. Why would anyone buy squash from me if they are used to buying from someone else? Come visit this blog in a few days and find out.