Sunday, July 12, 2009

Getting on the wagon

I woke up Saturday morning raring to go after a night's rest in an unbelievably comfy bed. Luckily, Linda had planned a hike with a few friends up Turner Mountain so I had a chance to move around a bit and get the blood flowing while the ladies caught me up on the past few weeks of national and international news. Afterwards, we stopped by the bustling but decidedly not organic Four Corners farmstand down the road and I picked up a gigantic onion that I needed for the evening's meal prep -- an eggplant and tomato ragout over polenta. We made our way back to the house in West Newbury, VT and I got to work baking a chocolate torte for dessert. (The word on the street was that Linda is a bit of a chocoholic. The rumors are true.) While it was cooking, Stan and I wandered out into the yard in search of berries. It was still too early for blackberries, but we managed a few handfuls of raspberries. Sweet.

A bit later, Stan read me a blurb from a copy of the "Valley Food and Farm Guide" he had picked up in anticipation of my visit to the area. We hopped in the car (sorry Ollie, but at least it's a hybrid) and headed over to Crashed Wagon Farm to see if the write-up was too good to be true: a small, new CSA devoted to soil health, environmental stewardship, organic practices, and heirloom varieties. I was greeted in the field by Eileen, the co-manager of the operation, who cheerfully answered the plethora of questions I lobbed her way as we weeded a row of beets. She introduced me to the other manager, Nicholas, and a few of their friends who had come to help out, and gave me a pretty comprehensive tour of the farm. I could tell from the practices she described and the way she meticulously described each -- varied cover cropping, minimal spraying (of even organic sprays), a general distaste for black plastic, the pride in open-pollinating vegetable varieties and seed saving -- that she and her partner were committed to the land and preserving its diversity while supplying their local community with fresh, healthy food.

A word on black plastic: I don't understand why it is ubiquitous on organic farms. Using giant rolls of non-biodegradable and rarely reusable plastic seems antithetical to the spirit of sustainable farming. After doing quite a bit of hand weeding these past months -- far, far less than folks who farm day in and day out, I'll admit, but still a heck of a lot more than your average city slicker -- I can understand the desire to curb weed growth by any non-chemical means possible. (Back at Maggie's Organic farm, I recall the guys joking about their hands cramping into "asparagus claws" from the constant weeding of the asparagus patch.) Mulching with straw is preferable, most organic farmers agree, as it not only stifles weed growth but also slowly breaks down to further enrich the soil. (Newspaper -- with soy-based ink, which includes most of our nation's larger publications -- works well, too, I recalled from my work at the Master Peace Garden.) Straw is also, however, much more labor intensive to put down and harder to get enough of locally than black plastic. Hmmm. I am hardly in a position to wag a finger at the hard-working farmers who are devoting their lives and energy to growing our food as sustainably as they are able for using plastic to protect their tomato and pepper plants from an onslaught of weeds. But I do have a nagging feeling creep up whenever I come across the giant plastic ground covers, and I have noticed them often along my journey thus far.

Emboldened by her openness to my other queries, I asked Eileen about this issue, as I noted a couple rows of squash lined with plastic sheets. She explained that the plastic really does cut down on weeding significantly and there are some plants not damaged by the increased heat and moisture levels that the black plastic invariably creates. She loathed using the stuff, she admitted, and told me that the little bit of plastic that Crashed Wagon uses is all recycled -- from the plastic that construction companies use to wrap around drywall (I'd only seen the white side, who knew the other side was black?) to some gardening screen cloth that had been donated -- and reused whenever possible. Eileen seemed genuinely agitated by the thought of the hundreds of tons of black plastic that must wind up in landfills each year as a result of the collective farms' use of the weed suppressant. Using what you have and being thoughtful about it seems to be the mantra of the farm and small (15-share) CSA, run solely by Nicholas and Eileen, with the generosity of their landlords and the help of their friends. If they recycle a little bit of plastic to manage the weeds on a few rows, I'm at peace with that.

Stan swung back by the farm to pick me up and I left feeling hopeful that Crashed Wagon, which means to some day be able to support itself solely as a financially sustainable CSA, and other farms like it grow and spread across the country. These are the sorts of farmers we need to support: thoughtful, generous, local.

Sent from my Verizon Wireless BlackBerry


  1. Is Maggie's Mercantile Organic Farm in any way related to Maggie's Mercantile Wagon?

  2. Not as far as I can tell. The farm is connected to a pair of fantastic vegan cafes, though: one in downtown Pittsburgh and one in Stahlstown.


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