Farm update: October 18

And in the space of a few days, our season went from lush abundance to a frozen wasteland. Such is the nature of growing food at over six thousand feet in a high-plains desert.

Our first hard frost arrived this past week, and with it a few light dustings of early snow. Up on the mesa we were thrilled to see a solid fifteen inches show up on the Sno-Tel! All of our irrigation water, of course, comes directly from the mesa, so we are always in favor of as much winter moisture as possible to boost next year’s irrigation allotment.

Our sunroom looks like an unusual farmers’ market!

Temperatures dropped into the high 20s overnight, which is far too cold for summer crops like tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers. (Don’t worry, the kale is fine. The kale is always fine.) Prior to the freeze we harvested everything we could – nearly four hundred pounds on Monday alone; now comes the task of preserving all of that food to enjoy through winter and spring. The cruel irony, of course, is that once the storm passed we quickly returned to bright bluebird skies and comfortable daytime temperatures in the mid-60s, which likely means we would have gotten at least another two or three weeks in the growing season. But when a hard freeze announces that you’re done, then you’re done – and there’s not much arguing.

One of our gated pipes with the season’s final run.

Our irrigation season runs through the end of October, but we balanced our account this year to fortuitously end just before the cold snap arrived. Running irrigation later in the season is already a chilly task; combine that with a hard freeze and it can be downright miserable. We were very pleased with how we managed our irrigation in a drought year and though of course we hope for higher water shares next year, we know that with smart planning we can make even a low allotment work for our land. It’s incredible how much we’ve learned in only three short years here.

A friend’s trial orchard, where new apple varieties are tested.

Prior to the hard freeze we’d picked nearly two hundred pounds of local apples for winter storage. One box has already been transformed into applesauce; the remainder will stay reasonably fresh in one of our insulated but unheated sheds. This delicious fruit will provide snacks all throughout the winter; I’ll also bake with the apples as well as dehydrate a few pounds for adding to granola. As always, the bounty of incredible local fruit is one of the greatest benefits of living where we do.

Adelaide, Paris, Paihia and Fiji contemplating the change in seasons.

Although the damp, freezing weather makes the corral a bit of a sloppy mess, the animals are entirely unfazed by the cooler weather. They’ve put on quite a bit of fleece since their shearing, so they’re ready for winter, too.

And with that, we’re off to sort produce for canning. Wishing you a calm and peaceful week, friends.

Farm update: September 20

Autumn is very much on its way here at Quiet Farm. Overnight lows plunge to the mid-40s, though our daytime temperatures remain in the mid-80s. The plants are all starting to look a bit tired, a bit yellowed, a bit lackluster. The seasonal transition has begun, and we are looking forward to the slower rhythms of late fall and winter. This remains an exceptionally busy time for us; here are a few things we’ve been up to, if you’d like to see.

One day’s harvest of an easy twenty-five pounds.

Despite a rough start, we’ve had a spectacular year for tomatoes. We planted about sixty tomato plants of about fourteen different varieties, and our yields have been simply staggering. We’ve grown full-size heirlooms that I never thought possible, believing that our growing season was simply too short, and the smaller cherry and grape tomatoes have done well too. Every night for weeks now there’s been a fresh tomato salad with supper, and we’ve put up sauce, soup and salsa for a warm and nourishing winter. I never, ever tire of fresh tomatoes, and since we don’t eat storebought tomatoes, we’re getting our fill now. We will miss these gorgeous things until next summer.

Spotted on an evening irrigation check.

As we’ve spoken of many times here, we focus our efforts on improving our land and our soil, and one of the best ways we can do that is by encouraging both native plants and the pollinator population. Monarch butterflies are an iconic pollinator species; the western U.S. monarch population is currently traveling south on its fall migration. The monarch caterpillar (Danaus plexippus) shown above feeds exclusively on milkweed; once the caterpillar has transformed into a butterfly, it has a much more varied diet. Unfortunately, milkweed is also toxic to livestock, so ranchers regularly treat pasture milkweeds with toxic herbicides – which is why the monarch population is declining, because the larvae cannot survive without these plants. We keep camelids here at Quiet Farm, and have spent hours worried about our animals becoming ill from consuming milkweed in our pastures; obviously, we’re not going to spray and we don’t particularly want to pull all these host plants.

After extensive research, our solution – for the moment – is to let things stand as they are. Hardy alpacas and llamas, native to the high Andes, aren’t nearly as delicate as domesticated cattle and sheep, so are far less likely to become sick. Plus, we’re intentionally cultivating a mixed pasture, with lots of different plants for our animals to graze; the likelihood of any of our animals eating enough milkweed to become seriously ill is slender indeed. There are never perfect methods of pasture management, but we’re working hard at figuring out what we can do to maintain balance.

Beautiful photo. Terrible plant. Just look at its horrible weaponry!

One thing that is very much not in balance is our puncturevine population. The farm is absolutely overrun with this heinous plant this year, and we’ve spent countless hours trying to eradicate it – pulling by hand, obviously, as dousing the entire farm in glyphosate is clearly not an option. Puncturevine (Tribulus terrestris) is an invasive weed, uniquely adapted to our desert climate, that grows where few other plants will; most infuriatingly, the seeds can remain dormant in the soil for seven to ten years. While we’re happy to let neutral weeds, like purslane and mullein, grow freely, the puncturevine burrs are harmful to humans and animals – and bicycle tires, too. For reasons unknown to us, this year conditions were absolutely perfect for puncturevine to take over our land and so it has. We are hoping that we’ve removed most of it, but we know that some of those viciously sharp little seeds are simply biding their time until next year. Or the year after that. Or the year after that. The battle continues.

The Quiet Farm pumpkin patch.

We’ve done well with winter squash this year, though as usual there are some squashes that didn’t exactly breed true – always a risk with saved seeds and limited isolation practices. Squash plants are a reliable harbinger of fall; ours usually start showing signs of powdery mildew, and the vines themselves start to fade and turn a bit crispy. I usually trim immature fruit so that the plant devotes all its energies to ripening the larger fruits, but this year I’ve mostly left the squash patch to its own devices. Depending on the variety, most pumpkins start out dark green with stripes; the fruits turn the classic bright orange in the same way leaves change color on deciduous trees. These jack o’lantern pumpkins yielded nicely; they’ll be cured for winter storage and won’t be carved but instead used for soups, curries and muffins.

As with other annuals, the bean plants will also clearly demonstrate that they’re nearly finished for the season. These are labeled as ‘Aztec White’, but based on the small size I suspect they’re more along the lines of a true navy bean. Dry beans can stay on the vine until frost threatens, a huge bonus for the time-starved farmer; if there isn’t time to shell the beans immediately, they can be tossed into repurposed feed sacks and stored in a cool, dark, dry place, away from pests and damp. Shelling dry beans is a perfect project for a crisp, late fall day, when the more pressing tasks have been completed! Once they’re shelled I’ll hopefully have a better idea of the variety, although when it comes to heirloom beans I’m not hugely bothered about specifics, especially when seeds are freely shared amongst local growers. If the beans grow well and taste delicious, that’s really all that matters.

Farm candy.

And to end on a sweet note, we’re pleased to share that our raspberry patch is finally producing. It’s taken us a couple of years to get these canes established, but we’re now harvesting enough raspberries to actually bring a few inside, rather than just eat them all in the field. We’re hopeful that we’ll have a few more weeks before a hard frost, so that all of the unripe berries will have a chance to ripen, but we’re thrilled with anything we get – these are like candy. As with tomatoes, the difference between just-picked raspberries, still warm from the sun, and those sitting in the cold case at your local supercenter is night and day, and we’ll eat our fill for as long as we possibly can.

Wishing you a pleasant week ahead.

The height of the harvest

“Things are somewhat ugly out there. I couldn’t have imagined in the spring that we’d be suffering Covid (and fools) this long after a vaccine was announced, but here we are. One really fine manifestation of this has been to appreciate the things that are going right. Not as planned, but still in the right direction. Gardening and farming help a lot. Whether you pop a bean in a clay pot with some soil or you are farming thousands of acres, producing food is pretty cool and we’re lucky to be helping nature, in the garden and on the stovetop!” -Steve Sando, Rancho Gordo

Hello there, friends. As you might imagine, it is an exceptionally busy time on the farm. August and September are the months we wait all year for and the abundance is staggering. These are the days when all of the hard work done in early spring really comes to fruition, but the workload is staggering, too. In addition to harvesting each day, we also need to preserve the harvest, plant fall crops, collect seeds and start thinking about fall clean-up tasks and winterizing the farm. We’re still irrigating two days per week, too, which eats up a lot of time. No matter the long hours, though, the incredible food we’re growing makes it all worthwhile.


These squash bugs are having one heck of a party.

Every growing season we face different challenges – the weather, the water and the pests all vary from year to year. Ideally, though, we’re learning from each experience and are better equipped for future troubles. This year we were surprised to discover the common squash bug (Anasa tristis) attacking our summer squash. Despite our never-ending drought, our relentless winds and our high altitude, we do have one great advantage in farming where we do – insects are rarely (if ever) a major problem. I’ve never dealt with squash bugs before, and by the time I discovered them, they’d done a huge amount of damage. I researched organic control methods and laughed out loud at one not–at-all-helpful suggestion: “carefully remove each bug by hand.” (Let me tell you what I do not have time for right now: removing individual bugs by hand.) And so, I opted for a broader form of retaliation: I clear-cut the Costata Romanesco plant back to its roots, leaving only the two huge squashes that I’m saving for seed. I do think that the ‘overgrown tropical jungle’ aspect of this particular plant contributed to this infestation, since the bugs often shelter at the plant’s base, so I need to consider this for future plantings. Also, if we should be so unlucky as to have a mild winter the larvae will likely not be killed and I’ll encounter the same problem again. Therefore, crop rotation and careful attention before the bugs get out of hand are definitely on next year’s to-do list.

Blossom end rot is easy to identify.

One garden ailment that I am painfully familiar with is blossom end rot, commonly referred to as BER by horticulturalists and farmers. BER isn’t technically a pest or a disease; rather, it’s a physiological disorder caused by insufficient calcium uptake. Although BER can affect peppers, squash, cucumbers and melons, I’ve only ever encountered it in tomatoes. Though there can be various causes, in my growing experience, BER is most often caused by inconsistent watering – both too much and too little – which can definitely be an issue in our growing area. As an example: for the past few weeks we’ve been running our regular Wednesday/Thursday irrigation schedule, but then have also experienced dramatic midnight thunderstorms which of course soak the plants even further. BER usually appears when the fruit is about half-size, and the spot at the base will turn leathery and spongy and eventually cause the entire fruit to rot. BER won’t hurt you, and you can cut out the affected areas, but I usually throw affected fruits straight to the chickens. As always, keep good records – you may find that certain species are more affected by BER in your garden than others. This year, I’m only seeing it in the Jaune Flammes shown above, and not in other varieties, and only in one raised bed – which indicates that the drip irrigation in that particular bed may also need a closer look. Paying attention to what’s going on with your plants will usually teach you everything you need to know.

Tomatillos are one of our favorite summer staples.

Do you grow tomatillos? I feel like they’re not very well known outside of the American Southwest, but I adore them and grow them every year. They’re in the same nightshade family (Solanaceae) as tomatoes, peppers, eggplant and potatoes, and they’re also closely related to ground cherries and Cape gooseberries. They grow on plants similar to tomatoes and often need to be staked, because they’re quite sprawling and unkempt, but they’re prolific, hardy, drought-tolerant and delicious. Tomatillos are crisp and tart and usually ready to eat when the papery husk turns from bright green to a paler beige, or when they fall off the plant. Most of ours end up in salsa verde, but they make a wonderful sauce for enchiladas and a great addition to spicy soups, vegetarian tacos or green chile. Plus, they’re rich in fiber and vitamins C and K, too!

Blistered shishitos are often a pre-dinner snack.

Our shishito peppers have done well this year, which is terrific news because I haven’t had any success with this crop since we moved here. Shishitos are native to Japan, likely bred from the Spanish padrón pepper, and harvested green at about two inches long. We enjoy them in the most common fashion, seared in a screaming-hot cast iron skillet, dusted with flaky salt and nanami togarashi seasoning, then eaten whole out of hand (except for the stem). Shishitos are considered a “Russian roulette” pepper, in that they’re mostly quite mild but about one in ten will be eye-wateringly hot. This has a lot to do with their growing conditions, however, and ours have been pretty tame so far this year. As usual, I’ve left one pepper on the plant for the entire season so that I’ll have viable seeds for next year.

A great reason to dust off the angel food cake pan!

In addition to harvesting and preserving our own crops, this is also high time for purchasing fresh fruits and vegetables from other local farmers. We don’t grow sweet corn here at Quiet Farm; it’s a wind-pollinated grass, needs a good amount of land, and is virtually impossible to grow organically. Instead, I typically buy a case (about fifty ears) from a grower just down the road in Olathe, which is of course famous for its sweet corn. I grilled two-thirds of the ears and left the rest raw; all of the kernels, cooked and raw, were cut off the cob and frozen in small zip-top bags for adding to soups and chowders this winter. A few ears were saved for enjoying fresh, but most of this box went straight into the freezer as quickly as possible – corn does not improve once it’s been picked. I hope you were able to enjoy lots of fresh corn this summer, too.

One of the highlights of living where we do.

We’ve mentioned more than once this year that our local stone fruit growers were devastated by an early freeze last October, and many had no fruit at all. We were able to get out to pick a few peaches and have been enjoying them every day since. When I say “a few peaches,” what I actually mean is more than two hundred pounds – most went into the canning pot (fifty quarts), many into the dehydrator and the remainder into jam. This could well be our last year for peaches; we know many growers who are pulling out their peach trees because the heartache and stress simply isn’t worth it. And the orchard where we go to harvest is likely being sold soon, and it’s doubtful that a u-pick will be part of the new owner’s business model. Change is hard but inevitable, especially in the era of climate disruption – but at least we’ll have local peaches this winter.

As the world seems to spin more and more out of control each day, all we can do is focus on controlling what we can – and for us, that’s our land, our animals, what we grow and what we eat. We are doing our very best out here and hope you are, too, wherever you may be.

Farm update: October 26

Our first snowstorm arrived late last night, and with that, the 2020 growing season at Quiet Farm has officially concluded. Much of the past week has been spent preparing for this introduction to winter; though our skies will clear and temperatures will rise again later in the week, none of our annual crops will survive this cold snap. We’ve been threatened with hard freezes prior to this and have been lucky enough not to lose any plants; our season lasted far longer than expected. We’re hopeful that this early, wet storm will help the firefighters battling the numerous destructive wildfires currently raging across Colorado.

Flooding our pasture with snowmelt from the Grand Mesa.

We ran our final irrigation last week, then broke down most of our gated pipe so that we can repair any damaged gates and valves during the off-season. We have stellar water shares here at Quiet Farm, and thanks to N’s careful planning, we made our water last all season. This year was definitely a rebuilding year for our pasture, and we’re optimistic that our plans for next year’s irrigation run, which include reseeding, marking and thoughtful grazing by our herd, will yield even better results. Small farms are key to fighting climate change – if managed well, land like ours can absorb far more carbon than it emits. Establishing these “carbon sinks” across the country should be of highest priority; if this season’s devastating wildfires are any indication, the Rocky Mountain West has a tough road ahead.

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Preserving season

Fresh, local fruit is one of the great joys of living where we do.

There is much to be done outdoors – plant garlic, collect seeds, tidy irrigation – but there is much to be done indoors, too. We are in the height of harvest season, and every available surface in our house is littered with canning jars, dehydrator trays and other preservation projects in various stages of completion. Our goal is to eat locally as much as possible, and in the dark months of winter and early spring, that means we eat from the pantry and freezer – but only if we’ve done the hard work in advance.

Homemade fruit leather makes a perfect healthy and portable snack.

Obviously, no one has to preserve and store the harvest any longer, and many would think the extra work we do this time of year is preposterous. Preservation is a dying art, because we live in a magical world where any food we might want, in season or not, is available with a single click. Also, most of us don’t grow our own food, so there’s even less incentive to preserve. Where our great-grandmothers might have been obligated to can their summer vegetables in order to have anything to eat in winter, we most definitely are not. And preserving can be tedious, time-consuming work. Why, then, go through all this extra effort?

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