Monday, July 4, 2011

Garlic on the brain (and in the blood)

With the last of the fireworks exploding and the final dishes washed for the night, I'm snuggled up in the guest room at cousin Caroline's on this 4th of July. It's a beautiful cool, clear evening, and tired as I am -- and early as I need to wake up tomorrow to catch a series of rides to get myself home again (5am? Really? I'd gone *to* bed later than that back at the height of my salsa dancing days) -- I find I have a lot on my mind. As usual, my visit to the 3rd-generation farm tucked up in the Poconos has reminded me of how rewarding (oh, the food!) as well as how challenging (grow, dammit!) sustainable farming can be. Take this year's garlic crop....

Unlike the drought much of the country has been facing, poor Gary and Caroline have been battling constant rain here in rural PA. At one point yesterday morning, just after another crack of thunder followed by pouring rain, we started joking about growing rice here instead. Lord knows the ground has been wet enough these past few months. I believe this is when we were tying up the previous day's harvest of braiding (softneck) garlic in the barn. A bit later, fearing that another bout of rain would surely result in root rot overtaking the bulk of the main crop if we left it in the ground much longer, we all trudged around in rubber boots and silly hats and jackets and pulled up some of the porcelain hardneck variety. Too small. Shoot.

Plants need rain to grow, sure, but they also need lots of sunshine. Allium crops all over the region are stunted and behind schedule because of the freak weather patterns, we learned from Gary's series of conversations with other farmers in the area. With one's main cash crop prone to rotting amid excessive moisture, what is an heirloom garlic farmer to do with 12,000 heads in the ground? Harvest too-small bulbs? Risk disease while waiting for the sun to show its face and encourage the plants to grow to normal size? Frankly, it's kind of a crapshoot, and I wonder how farmers aren't nervous wrecks.

(Another sign that I'm not cut out to be a farmer: I almost lost my cool after accidentally ripping three or four softneck garlic plants in a row while trying to pull them the other day. I had to go pick some raspberries -- conveniently located at the edge of the garlic field -- and scarf a few handfuls before I managed to calm down. Bah. Who wants braiding garlic anyway?) At least we pulled in a decent load during Saturday afternoon's harvest, when we had a bit of sunshine, but really, this weather has got to stop.

It's not all doom and gloom. I mean, they eat well. (Consider tonight's grilled venison, cilantro soup, roasted potatoes, and strawberry rhubarb bars.) And the small CSA seems to be going well, with diversified crops and maple syrup picked up weekly by their 7 shareholders. And there should be some sunshine this week (when, alas, the extra hands to help harvest will be back at their day jobs in New York and DC). If there's one thing I can say about Gary and Caroline, it's that they don't give up. Sure, there are losses and frustrations and (somewhat frequent) changes of plan, but they're still growing some beautiful, delicious stuff up here at Mountaindale Farms. And if the final crop is anywhere near as tasty as what I sampled tonight -- in the form of roasted, dark-chocolate-covered garlic and a post-dinner shot of youth-preserving "garple elixir" -- I think everything will turn out alright.

Sent from my Verizon Wireless BlackBerry

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