Farm Bulletin: Appreciating Henry

An appreciation of Henry Richmond by contributor Anthony Boutard of Ayers Creek Farm.

In fall of 1989, a soft-spoken person called me and introduced himself as Henry Richmond from Oregon. He had a meeting in New York City at the Ford Foundation and hoped I could meet him afterwards and join him for dinner. It was my first dinner date with someone from Oregon, and he seemed very nice, so I accepted. I took the train from New Haven to Grand Central Station, and met Henry in front of the foundation’s headquarters. We enjoyed a stroll and had dinner at Mamma Leone's. He asked me to come to Portland and work at his organization.

A year earlier, the brutal murder of Seraw Mulugeta shone a harsh light on the Pacific Northwest where the Aryan Nation had found a safe haven. Portland itself had a reputation as the grubby, down-at-the-heels sister of San Francisco and Seattle. The revered James Beard had fled Portland for Europe in much the same way that Ernest Hemingway had fled Oak Park. It was a rough city trying to salvage its dying core under the expansive vision of Neil Goldschmidt, formerly Secretary of Transportation in President Carter’s cabinet. Carol and I were mindful of all this as I headed off to my assignation in New York.

Maybe it was the rich meal or the violinist spooling out Neapolitan love songs, or maybe the magic in Henry’s gentle eyes. One way or another, I returned to New Haven that night enthralled by Henry’s vision. The fact is, years earlier, Carol and I had worked for an organization call The Trustees of Reservations. The goal of The Trustees was to create a "museum of the Massachusetts landscape." As a warden of Bartholomew’s Cobble, I worked with the farmers who kept the working elements of the landscape. The vision Henry articulated was more extensive; his was the preservation of a working, livable landscape encompassing a whole state through careful management of growth. That vision drew us westward.

A month later, Henry and I travelled down to a Board of Forestry meeting in Eugene. On that trip I became AB and that is what called me henceforth. On the way down, he pointed out the Coast Range on right and the Cascade foothills on the left. The narrow, 150-mile long Willamette Valley offered some fine agricultural land and most of the state’s population. He explained how the valley’s Urban Growth Boundaries kept growth from sprawling into its productive farm and forest land, and orderly growth also facilitated the management and livability of its cities. It was not a formula for stasis; growth would and could occur, but it was a careful approach to growth.

The Board of Forestry exhibited a level of civic comity few public boards could even dream of. At the time, the law required that the board convene with a consent agenda. If any member had an objection to an item on the agenda, it was tabled until the next meeting and staff would work to address the member’s concern. No votes were taken; as long as all members consented, the agenda item was adopted. The forestry board meeting had a cerebral quality more in common with a Religious Society of Friends meeting than the normal rough and tumble of public board. 

On returning to Portland, Henry dropped me off at the Mallory with his endorsement: “It is a well-run hotel without being showy, and that is why ranching and farming families always stay here when they are in Portland.” Guests at the Mallory could count on an understated competence; a satisfying meal and a genuine smile. In the following years, we arranged for visiting friends and family members to stay at the Mallory.

From our first date in New York, I realized Henry was exquisitely attuned to the sensibilities of Oregon. He was like the Board of Forestry of the time, careful, deliberative and working to achieve good policies, and like the Mallory of the time, possessed of an understated competence that was used to build a better Oregon with his fellow citizens, and like that thin valley between the mountains, productive but vulnerable. For me, he was a mentor, teaching me how to advance legislation, build alliances and trust staff. For some reason, I was always AB to him. 

In advance of the legislative sessions and critical meetings of the Land Conservation and Development Commission, the conference room at 534 SW Third was aswirl with disparate citizen activists—a carrot seed farmer from Madras, a pig farmer from Hermiston, a bicycle and pedestrian advocate from Washington County, a Benton County grass seed farmer, a Coast Range forestland owner, a cut flower grower from Forest Grove, chief lobbyist of the Metro Homebuilders, Chair of the Jefferson County Farm Bureau—all working with staff to forge a better planned Oregon. 

This was Henry’s forte; he always stressed the need for “buy in” from a broad base of Oregonians. As professionals, staff could work on the nuts and bolts of the statutes and rules, but the underpinnings of policy were forged in that conference among people from different parts of the state and different sectors of the economy. Of the 19 Statewide Land Use Planning Goals, the first is "Goal 1: Citizen Involvement." Henry was also careful to keep the editorial boards updated and tracked the editorials diligently. The Oregonian had a box in front of their offices where, at 4:00, the 1-star edition was available. It was the first edition of the next day’s paper and, if an editorial on some critical issue was expected, a staff member was dispatched around 3:30 to grab it while the ink was still fragrant. 

“The proof is in the pudding” was Henry’s oft-used caution. This November, as we meander down the valley to make our preserves, we will pass through farmland that remains protected from non-farm uses and rural sprawl, spotted with vital towns and cities carefully contained within their urban growth boundaries. The proof of Henry's diligence at building community support for the protection of Oregon’s character is there as the miles tick by, as are the names of the people on barn sides and mailboxes who helped him along the way. 

As berry season approached, I thought of Henry and how nice it would be to see him when he stopped by for his flats of Chesters, which he shared with his friends and neighbors. At the end of June, his son Easton sent me an email simply saying “please call me.” Easton confirmed what I surmised upon seeing the terse note; I wouldn’t be seeing Henry again. But I will have plenty of occasions to remind me of the kind guy from Oregon who took me to dinner at Mamma Leone’s that crisp autumn day over 30 years ago. 

To Henry, with all my love,

AB


Photo of Henry Richmond from 1000 Friends of Oregon website.

Farm Bulletin: Patience, Perseverance Pay Off in Perfect Pumpkin Seeds

As you browse the bulk goods section at the store, collecting nuts and seeds from the bins or even grabbing bags off the shelves, you would do well to think about the farmer who grew them. As contributor Anthony Boutard of Ayers Creek Farm outlines below, those products we so blithely consume by the handful didn't just come from a packet of seeds scattered on the soil—indeed, they may have taken years to get to the point where the farmer considers them a viable product.

A pumpkin fruit with hull-less seeds originated as a chance mutation in the Austrian state of Styria during the 1890s. The pumpkins were grown as an oilseed since the 1740s and a sharp-eyed Styrian farmer noticed one had very different seeds. Without a hull, it was much easier to mill and press for oil so the mutation gained acceptance.

Styrian pumpkin seed oil, kürbiskernöl, is a Protected Geographic Indication (DOC, AOC equivalent) reserved for oil pressed from seeds grown in Styria. There are especially adapted machines for harvesting the fruits and extracting their seeds. For extraction of the oil, the washed and dried seeds are milled, turned into a paste with addition of water and salt, roasted and then pressed for their oil. As with other finely-crafted foods, other places have scrambled to find ways to cut corners and manufacture something cheaper, lacking the spirit of the original.

The idea of growing the hull-less seed type pumpkins for their seed came to us ten years ago. We did not have any interest in producing oil, just the seeds. Commercial pumpkin seeds in the grocery store had failed to impress; the seeds were chipped and broken, often stale and you could see they were grown and harvested without thinking of them as a fine food. Just a bunch of widgets. We thought it would be wonderful to have some good quality pumpkin seeds in the pantry.

Those original purchased seeds were a messy lot as well, producing seeds with qualities that made them less than desirable for simply eating whole. More widget thinking. Most problematic were seeds that split or germinated in the fruit; some even had roots. These seeds contained the bitter compound cucurbitacin and spoiled one’s gustatory moment. These very bitter, toxic compounds are water-soluble, so they may not affect quality of the oil, but when chewing the seed their awfulness lingers. The seeds also varied in size and some retained a hard rim detracting from their pleasure for consumption as whole seeds. Undeterred, we decided to embark on improving the plant's genetics and our management of the fruits.

Fruits in the Cucumber family typically have three placentas forming six paired rows of seeds, easy to see in the lefthand fruit. (That fruit is not very interesting, aside from being a perfect fruit for setting aside as a seed source. For our purposes, an uninteresting pumpkin is the gold standard.) Each placental pair is usually pollinated by a cluster of pollen grains from a single plant. You see this by looking closely at the interesting fruit on the right. The seeds in the lower lefthand placental pair have not split, while the seeds of the other two pairs have opened up showing their white cotyledons. This shows that the splitting of the seeds in the fruit has a genetic component. The observation means we can reduce seed splitting by selecting against the trait.

If the seed splitting had been a cultural trait, rather than a genetic trait, we would have needed to analyze how we grow the plants and harvest the fruits. Before we settled on the genetic cause, staff argued that we were taking too long to harvest the seed and that led to split seeds. A few years ago, confident that we were on the right track, we increased our planting substantially. To save labor, in early September staff harvested the seeds in the field. We did not need to haul the fruits out of the field and dispose of the deseeded pumpkins, saving a lot of staff time.

Alas, as those seeds dried they smelled exactly like vomit, an awful odor that lingered even when they were dry. We ended up giving nearly 150 pounds of dried pumpkin seeds to our friend’s pigs. A very expensive loss for us. Just the harvest, extraction, cleaning and drying of a pound of seeds required a half hour of labor. That did not include the growing of the plants, an additional expense. The last two years entailed taking baby steps to figure out where we went wrong.

In 2018, we planted just a few pumpkin plants. In September, we piled the pumpkins next to the harvest shed while we finished other tasks. With their hard shells, they were fine through all sorts of weather. In November, we started opening the fruits and happily there was no problem with splitting and, most importantly, the seeds were delectable from the start. Our breeding efforts were again validated, and the more patient approach to harvesting was also rewarded. Last year, we followed the same protocol with good results again.

Emboldened, we decided to double the planting this year. One rainy day in mid-September something seemed odd; there was music coming from the barn. Staff had decided to start removing the seeds from the fruits. Obviously, we had not adequately communicated the reason we left the pumpkins piled up in front of the shed. We dried the seeds hoping they would be good, but we had 28 pounds of pig food. I filled a jar of those seeds along with one containing the remnant of last years seed, and gave both jars to staff. One sniff and they understood the problem, and why it is important to wait.

In the course of two months, between mid-September and mid-November, the seeds continue developing within the fruits. Bear in mind, the fruits started growing in mid-July; so by leaving the seeds in the fruit until November we are doubling the growing time for the seeds. The pumpkin fruit is a living remnant of the plant and those seeds are drawing nutrients from the pulp. During this idyll they assemble the oils critical for their flavor. By mid-November, the seeds are measurably denser than those extracted in September, and have a fine, nutty flavor. Most importantly, no more recoiling from the odor.

We will continue to refine the genetic and cultural dimensions of our pumpkin seed production. In the meantime, we are enjoying this year’s harvest. They are delicious raw, but we like to pop them in a hot, dry skillet. The heat toasts the lovely oil and offers a pleasant crunch. Children will enjoy seeing them pop in the pan. All the popped seeds need is a pinch of salt and, just maybe, a squeeze of lime as they cool. Additional oils, fats and spices cover up their fine flavor. If they had a dull flavor or smelled like, well, you know, then it would make sense to try and add a different flavor or fragrance, but our seeds are perfect as they are.

Farm Bulletin: Capturing Demeter, Goddess of the Harvest

The fall harvest of goods from Anthony and Carol Boutard of Ayers Creek Farm is truly a gift from the gods. Their grains and beans, grown from varieties they have adapted over decades of painstaking selection, play an iconic role on many Oregon restaurant menus and family tables. The same goes for their stunning selection of preserves made each year from only the best portion of their fruit harvest. See below to find out where to buy their products locally.

Demeter has lapsed into her sad repose. We have taken many of photos of the harvest deity. Demeter (Ceres in Latin) is generally portrayed with poppy capsules and barley heads in her right hand, reflecting her association with medicine and food, and a sickle or pomegranate in her left (top photo). The pomegranate a reminder of the six seeds Persephone ate. This simple bust captures the mother’s sadness and longing, subtly and gently, as she patiently awaits her daughter’s return. As we work in our harvest shed, we are reminded that the exuberance of her summer with her daughter leaves the granaries full.

Capturing Demeter, National Museum, Rome, 2005.

The chap on the right (photo, left) is the Emperor Titus Aelius Hadrianus Antoninus Augustus Pius in long form. Generally regarded as one of the five “Good Emperors,” hence the Pius tagged on to the impressive string of names. Emperor Titus Antoninus Pius was credited as an adept administrator a talent that, to this day, appeals to the Romans. He was the adopted son of the Emperor Hadrian and was designated as his successor. Hence lots of busts and statues are scattered about the bounds of the Ancient Roman Empire, and his visage is stamped into Roman coins of the era.

But it is Demeter who is on our minds. An epic harvest has kept us very busy. Staff has just finished the extraction and cleaning of the pumpkin seeds. We have yet to shell out the popcorn, but there is no urgency because it takes many more weeks for the kernels to dry sufficiently so as to pop well. Nestled on the ears, the kernels will dry more safely. Haste can lead to small fractures in the kernels, robbing them of their oomph. Our trips to Sweet Creek Foods to make the preserves require an extra level of planning. Yesterday, we managed to wrangle the raspberries, Boysenberries and Veepie grapes into glass. Next Friday, we hope to accomplish the same with the currents, jostaberries and Loganberries. The jellies, plums and cherries are on the calendar for December.

The lag in scheduling open days has resulted from the need for careful planning, not plodding. Given the choreography imposed by the virus, we have been unable to organize an open day until now.

We are scheduling open days on Sunday and Monday, the 22nd and 23rd. We will send out a separate, more succinct email early next week for orders (e-mail Anthony to be notified). A December couplet will follow when we finally put the remaining fruit of the year in a jar.

Our beans, grains and preserves are also available in Portland, saving you all a trek out to the farm. You can find them at Providore Fine Foods (Pastaworks has preserves, Rubinette has grains and beans); Real Good Food; and Coquine.

Handcut poplar banner board.

This is a banner board using poplar, another fairly soft wood. The motifs for the sun and rain are influenced by those used by 20th century Japanese woodblock makers. The red ink is used by Japanese artists for their hanko—a signature stamp.

It is simplistic and imprecise shorthand to call something “Local" or "Oregon Grown.” And given the complexity of bioregions within the state, completely meaningless in terms of the influences on flavor, quality and spirit when it comes to what we grow here.

Our harvest is wrought from the soils and climate of Gaston, perched as we are on a bench above Ayers Creek with its heavy but fragile clay soils, and a hard-edged climate forged as it is between the montane anvils of the Coast Range and the Tualatin Ridge. Travel a few miles to the north or south, the climate and soils are a world apart. The challenges posed by the soils and environment of Gaston have pushed us into growing our own seed selections and varieties. All good reasons to use the ink of a hanko on the banner.

Photos by Anthony Boutard.

Astiana Tomatoes: Born in Italy's Piedmont, Bred in Oregon

Forgive me, dear readers, but I'm about to be in head-down tomato processing mode for the next couple of weeks. I've got two sheet pans of chopped tomatoes in the oven that need to come out in 30 minutes, so this is going to be quick. They're the tail end of 60-pounds of the red-ribbed beauties known as Astiana tomatoes from Ayers Creek Farm, the first round of the 150 or so pounds I plan to process this year and squirrel away in the freezer for the winter.

I know, crazy, right?

A tomato ready for market can take years of careful selection.

Those tomatoes, with just the right balance of tart-to-sweet, are the product of more than a decade of selecting seeds for flavor, plant health and field-hardiness on the part of Carol and Anthony Boutard of Ayers Creek Farm in Gaston, Oregon.

Carol describes the discovery of this signature fruit thusly:

"We came upon the fruit at the market in Asti [in the Piedmont region of northwestern Italy], marked 'Nostrano.'  We knew it was the local variety, far less ornamental than the perfect, glossy imports displayed nearby. Had tomatoes not been on our shopping list for that night’s dinner, we might well have walked on by, but made the decision to select a few for the sauce. Their flavor was a wonderful surprise and it was after dinner that I scooped out all the seed I could find from the compost bucket."

(Anthony would remind me here that Italy's Piedmont is on roughly the same latitude as Oregon, meaning that the seeds could be adapted to our maritime climate.) 

Harvest also means
selecting seeds for next year.

From that less-than-a-handful of seeds they worked over the years to adapt them to their Wapato Valley soil and climate to grow the tomato of their dreams. It's important to point out that since tomatoes yield only one crop per year, selecting and planting for reliable results can take a decade or more to achieve the desired result. Then it requires painstakingly selecting seeds each harvest season in order to have enough of a selection for the next year's crop.

Plant breeding is truly the commitment of a lifetime, and the knowledge of Anthony and Carol's hard work makes my enjoyment of these amazing tomatoes all the sweeter.

Roasted tomatoes

My method of roasting is super simple, and to me respects the integrity of the fruit's best qualities, not to mention giving me the maximum flexibilty when it comes to using them.

Preheat the oven to 400°, roughly chop the tomatoes into two-inch chunks, load onto two sheet trays skin-side down and roast for an hour. Cool enough to pull most of the skins off (most easily done by hand), load into quart freezer bags and you're done. If you want a sauce-like consistency, cool completely and run through a blender or food mill.

For a smoky flavor, you can build a fire in your wood-fired grill, spread the hot coals out and put a layer of tin foil over the grates, leaving the edges open so smoke can escape. Roughly chop the tomatoes as described above and place skin-side down on the foil. Place the lid on the grill and roast tomatoes until they are cooked, about 45 minutes to an hour. 

Limited quantities of Ayers Creek Farm Astiana tomatoes are available during their brief season at Rubinette Produce and at Real Good Food.


Here's a recipe for a fabulous tomato soup, one that I think rivals the best you're likely to find.

Creamy Roasted Tomato Soup

8 Tbsp. (1 stick) butter
1 large onion, chopped fine
3 cloves garlic, minced
1/4 c. flour
2 qts. (8 c.) roasted tomatoes or 3 28-oz. cans crushed tomatoes with their juices
2 c. chicken broth
1 Tbsp. kosher salt plus more to taste
1 tsp. celery salt
1/2 tsp. black pepper

In a Dutch oven or large soup pot, melt butter over medium heat. Add onion and sauté until tender and translucent. Add garlic and continue to sauté 2 minutes. Add flour and stir, making sure it doesn’t stick to the bottom of the pan, for 3 minutes. Add broth, tomatoes, salt, celery salt and pepper. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to simmer for 30 minutes, stirring frequently to make sure nothing sticks to the bottom of the pan. Remove soup from heat and, using an immersion blender,  purée the soup thoroughly until smooth*. Add more salt to taste, if needed. Serve.

* I don't mind a little texture from any bits that don't get totally blended in, but if you want a completely silky smooth finished product, you can press it through a fine mesh sieve, which will catch any remaining seeds or other bits.

Farm Bulletin: A Nod to State Fairs Past

Oregon State Fair, circa 1996, by Anthony Boutard, Ayers Creek Farm:

Among the activities on hold this year is State Fair, traditionally held over Labor Day weekend. Here are a few moments from State Fairs in the mid-1990s. The animals shown at the fair are the blue ribbon winners from the 36 county fairs, culminating in the big event before returning to classes. The intense concentration on the part of the young animal owners underscore their serious purpose. A lot of work has gone into this moment. State Fair is the wonderful blended fragrance of dung and saw dust, muted light and sound to keep the animals calm, and a lunch and nap next to the stall after a late night at the arcades and amusements. A short distance from the show buildings the noise of the rides, arcade bells, and the unceasing calls of the barkers and sellers of treasures found only at fairs, interspersed with the fragrance of fried foods of every sort.

Farm Bulletin: Celebrating the Grain Harvest

My parents moved to The Dalles when I was in college, enabling me to explore the area of Oregon from Dufur to Tygh Valley to Maupin in the often blast-furnace temperatures of summer—one year it hit 112 degrees. I was enthralled by the high rolling hills of wheat, entranced by the wind that ruffled the waves of grain like some pale ocean stretching to the horizon. Contributor Anthony Boutard of Ayers Creek Farm reminds us of the ancient rites of the harvest.

The Lammas or Lammastide, falls on the first of August. It is the English “Loaf Mass” celebrating the new grain harvest. The day falls about midpoint during the grain harvest. The loaf is made from the newly harvested grain and used in the Mass. The use of the new grain is symbolic, gratitude for the new harvest. The granary would still have months worth of grain in storage, a hedge against a poor harvest. It may be months before the new grain finds its way again into a loaf.

Waves of scattered straw from the harvested durum,
Lammas Eve, 2020—the birthday of Juliet Capulet—Ayers Creek Farm, Gaston.

It is also notable that the Lammas falls during a busy time, so there is no time for a feast or festival, just a loaf of bread for a modest Mass to say thank you. The harvest feasts and festivals will have to wait until the Harvest Moon, the full moon closest to the autumn equinox. This year, the first of October.

Photos by Anthony Boutard. Top photo of wheat and scabland, Wasco County, Oregon, August, 1997

Farm Bulletin: A Tour of a Bavarian Community Forest

Contributor Anthony Boutard of Ayers Creek Farm was raised in the wilds of Western Massachusetts; his father, Cecil Boutard, was the Horticultural Director of the Berkshire Botanical Garden. So it's not a huge surprise to learn that Anthony decided to study forestry at university, then was lured out west to work for 1000 Friends of Oregon, a conservation organization. Here he recalls a trip to Bavaria as a graduate student.

Here are a few photos of the Iphofen community forest that I took as a forestry student in June of 1989. The Bavarian Forest Service led us on the ten-day tour. There was a foundation in New York that funded exchanges between Germany and the US for forestry and music graduate students, so all expenses for the field trip were covered except beer and meals. That said, on many of the stops, our hosts were eager to provide a fine board of victuals defining their region.

An oak standard with coppiced beech trees.

The walled Bavarian town of Iphofen maintains a community forest. It is managed in the manner described as "coppice with standards." The coppice provides firewood that is apportioned to each chimney within the walled city, as well as small wood used for firing bread ovens. The standards are large trees harvested for lumber, the sale of which provides funds for the town. The detailed forest records go back to the 14th century. The oaks grown in the region are on a 350 year rotation and are highly valued for making veneer. Traveling the area, you will see oaks at various points in their 350-year life.

“Chimney allotment” for A. Rückel.

The European practice of pollarding urban trees, a form of branch coppicing, or what some wags call “amputrees," arose from the insatiable need for small wood to fire bread ovens. People sometimes regard pollarded trees with their massive knobs as some misguided ornamental effort, but it originated as urban forestry. Sycamores are particularly well-suited to this treatment. The Romans likely introduced the practice.

The Bavarian tradition of parching green small grains gave us the inspiration to try our hand at the craft 18 years ago. Grünkern is produced in Bavaria and parts of Austria from green spelt. It is sold at Edelweiss, the German grocery on Powell. Seeing it, we thought to ourselves, maybe that’s something we could do.

Bundled small wood for firing up bread ovens.

The Bavarians parch the spelt ears on a large iron pan in a structure called a darre. During the first few years, we produced both parched wheat and spelt. The spelt had a caramel-like flavor and Greg Higgins [of Higgins restaurant] made a beautiful fruit compote with it. The spelt was very difficult to thresh and clean without special equipment, so we had to drop it. We continued with the wheat. Though memories of the grünkern years linger, building a darre is not in our future. In his book De Agri Cultura (160 BCE), Cato the Elder describes parching of grains.

Plain sawn lumber stacked with stickers, air drying in an open shed.

The breads of Bavaria have a robust flavor and dense texture without feeling heavy. Carol makes a lovely sourdough bread from our soft red wheat and durum which reminds me of my travels in Bavaria and Switzerland. It is a lunch or evening loaf, sliced on the thin side and toasted with some sardines, herring, cream cheese or cured meat. Carol uses between 10 and 15 percent durum in all her loaves. The addition of durum improves the crumb of the bread.

Farm Bulletin: Just the Facts, Ma'am

I once introduced an essay by contributor Anthony Boutard as a "bulletin from the real world," a ground-level—and occasionally whimsical—perspective on the life he and Carol have nurtured at their organic farm in the Wapato Valley west of the city. His writing describes the polar opposite of the sometimes frantic, crowded and, especially now, anxious lives of city-dwellers. While the investigative report below could have recorded a grisly crime, it is offered here as balm:

We have a pair of bluebirds that have settled in one our new boxes. Everyday, the tree swallows haze them, hoping to take over the box. They succeeded last year, building a nest on top of the dead bluebird chicks. The grim side of nature. I decided I would rethink my approach to building and siting boxes in the hopes of providing the bluebirds a better home.

Bluebirds generally nest in the hills, where the population of swallows is lower. Not so many mosquitos and other small flying insects. The bluebirds feed on larvae and sedentary insects for the most part. At our elevation, the mosquito-eating swallows thrive presenting stiff competition for nest sites. A string of wetlands also favor the swallows in terms of dietary needs.

This year, I placed some boxes where they can be defended, tucked into trees which break the swallows’ dives. On some, I added a perch board and provided a longer lip on the lids. Bluebird experts caution against such perches, arguing that predators can use them. From my observation, nest predation by tree swallows is more of a problem than any other threat, so I threw caution away and added perch boards. 

At 3:20 today, I went to observe the box from a discrete distance. The female left the box around 3:29. They spent a moment on the power line and then dropped down to forage in the grass. At 3:36 a swallow flew over the box. The bluebirds returned to the box in a wink of an eye, I didn’t even see them return, and the male placed his body across the entry to protect their nest. 

The swallow made a few passes and flew away, and the male moved away from the entry, but remained on the perch.

A few days ago, the strafing by four swallows lasted nearly 15 minutes, with the male tucked up tight against the entry the whole time. It was amazing to observe. The bluebirds have their routine down.

This time I had my camera and captured the bluebirds’ reaction. Per Detective Joe Friday, just the facts:

 1. At 3:29, female emerges to join her mate for a quick meal.

 2. At 3:30, they meet up at the cable before dropping into the grass to feed.

 3. At 3:36, a threat is seen and they return to the box with the male defending its entry.

4. Threat abated, at 3:40 the male shifts away from the entry, but remains vigilant.

Incident report duly submitted and attested to,

Anthony Boutard, farmer

Photos by Anthony Boutard.

Farm Bulletin: Chicories Are Here!

A heads-up from contributor Anthony Boutard of Ayers Creek Farm:

We have started delivering the Arch Cape chicories to our restaurant accounts and some selected stores. These are Rubinette Produce on N.E. Sandy and New Seasons Market at Cedar Hills, Raleigh Hills and Grant Park. Those New Seasons stores are on the delivery route. When we see something special in the produce section, we communicate our pleasure to the staff. Chicories are a very small bit of their portfolio, and the Arch Cape just an atom. A complimentary remark helps catch their attention when it comes time to reorder. If you don’t see them, inquire.

Arch Cape chicories.

The chicories are heading up two weeks earlier than last year. The February full moon is 11 days earlier this year—February 8th versus February 19th last year—a likely factor. We enjoy the idea of the moon as the conductor our lives. In her gibbous state last night, she traveled the fair sky of the ecliptic with gentle light borrowed from the sun, extending the hunting hours of coyotes. Their exuberant choruses through the night played off against the amorous calls of the great horned owls. We are keeping an eye on their nest as the female will be settling down soon.

A couple years ago, we saw a post where these lovely heads were chopped cross-wise for a salad. It was jarring to the loving farmers' eyes, a shock and abomination that lingers to this day. These chicories should be taken up with our digits, i.e. our fingers, not a fork, and nibbled slowly, contemplatively down the blade. Savoring the sweet nub of the root before picking up another. It is a salad to linger over lovingly, not forked up in haste. To prepare them for this ritual, we cut from the tip of the root nub to the base of the leaf, and then tear them apart lengthwise in four or six pieces. In this manner, as shown above the elegance of the blade is retained, along with the sweet nub. They are best dressed lemon juice which, as a fruit juice, confers a measure of sweetness to the raiment.

In 2017, we encountered a small cluster of chicories heading up January. It was clear that they were a genetic amalgam of the various sorts we had planted over the years, prompting us to start the "Bald Peak" project. We put them in pots so as to isolate them for pollination purposes, and harvested the seed that August. Last July we planted a row, and now we are selecting plants for our second seed harvest. We enjoyed walking the seed row with our friend Myrtha Zierock this week. Below are some examples of the heads we encountered. They were growing in the Arch Cape rows, and thus fair game for the harvest knife. The seed we harvest in August will ripen too late to resow. It will be planted in the July 2021 for harvest in January 2022. All this requires a schedule because we also breed to grow seed for the Arch Cape. In any given year, only one type of chicory can be grown for seed so as to avoid undesirable cross-pollination. 

Why go to all this bother and expense? Most chicory seed is produced in Europe, and is well-adapted to the day-length and weather conditions on the continent. The varieties are highly localized. We were constantly disappointed by the quality of the crop when grown in Oregon. One year, the crop from a prominent and respected seed company only yielded 10% harvestable heads, the others were subpar, to put it politely. Other times, we had germination problems. Because the seed was adapted to areas with relatively dry winters, the plants did not have good rot resistance, leading to tip burn and bottom rot. Useful traits reside in the populations, but they need to be amplified by the rigors of our climate and selection. Farmers put up with enough grief; seed quality shouldn’t be heaped into the emotional equation. Consequently, we now manage and produce our own seed.

Farm Bulletin: Appreciation for a Well-Grown Potato

If you love potatoes like I do, you can do no better than to read the following appreciation from contributor Anthony Boutard of Ayers Creek Farm, who apparently wrote a treatise on the spud when he was a mere sprout. As mentioned, he and Carol only grow them for personal use, but they can be obtained for a short time at open farm days, one of which falls this weekend, December 14 and 15, from 2 pm to 5 pm. They are, indeed, worth the drive.

This summer, the Bonnotte made headlines as the world’s most expensive potato, apparently with some selling at auction for roughly $270 per pound. There is no good explanation for this high price other than there are some people with too much money. It is good that they share some of it with farmers. The potatoes are grown on Noirmoutier, a sandy island off the Atlantic coast of France where the farmers enrich their soil with seaweed. The entire crop is sold as new potatoes, before the tubers mature.

Bonnette potato, $270/lb.

The report piqued my attention. My term paper for Biology 104, Plants and Human Affairs, was titled: "Of Things Algal in Nature, A look at the economically important algae of New England and the Maritime Provinces." One section was devoted to the use of seaweed as fodder and fertilizer. The coastal areas of these areas historically used seaweed as a manure; the proper term for a natural material used for the improvement of the land. They carefully gathered the wrack from the beaches and plowed it into the soil. Seaweed is rich in phyto-colloids which help retain moisture and nutrients.

The potato and other members of the nightshade family are heavy feeders and reward their cultivators' attention. You can throw every amendment on a turnip or a radish with slight effect. Lettuce and other greens are meager in their returns. The hungry spud, though, rises to the occasion.

Carol escorts potatoes to the harvest shed.

Seaweeds provide the potatoes with a rich source of iodine, vanadium, iron, boron, copper, cobalt, zinc, molybdenum and manganese. These are trace minerals deficient or wholly absent in our washed-out soils, or the sandy soils of Noirmoutier for that matter. They wash out of the soil and into the ocean. So seaweeds and sea salt are means of closing the mineral loop. Consequently, we have always been generous with seaweed when preparing our potato bed.

The seaweed most commonly used in agriculture is Ascophyllum nodosum. Acadian Sea Plants, Nova Scotia, produces a high quality, easy-to-handle dried kelp meal that we use as a soil amendment. It is relatively expensive, around $90 for a 50-pound bag. Maxi-Crop Kelp Meal is harvested from the Norwegian kelp beds, and is roughly the same price. Maxi-Crop has a soluble form we use in our seedling production. We add 50 to 90 pounds to the potato bed.

Potage bonne femme.

The other soil amendment we use for the potatoes is a finely ground, mineral rich rock marketed as Azomite. It is from a deposit in Utah where a volcano erupted into an ocean. Once again, it provides a wide spectrum of the elements. We add about 100 pounds of this ground rock to the bed.

Are these ministrations worth the effort and money? It depends on how you regard the spud. If it is used as a cheap starchy substrate for cheese sauces, butter or sour cream, or for deep frying, certainly not. The potato’s flavor is not the point of the endeavor. Sort of like the modern varieties of popcorn that are specifically bred to confer no confounding flavor in the kettle mix. If you are preparing a simple potage bonne femme, leek and potato soup, as we did for the staff at Sweet Creek Foods this Tuesday, a fragrant, flavorful potato is essential. The better the potato, the better the soup. A large pot disappeared in short order. As garnishes, we included freshly grated horseradish, ground cayenne and finely minced speck from the Alto Adige.

Anthony titled this "Desirée."

We don’t grow potatoes commercially; they are for our own table. Just not worth explaining the difference in price for a carefully grown potato. When we have extras, as we do this year, we sell them at the open days. Though it is comforting to know that in France, quelle suprise, they are esteemed enough to grow carefully, and the farmer is rewarded for the effort. We must admit, a tinge of envy, too.