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.

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