Waking up the ground

Every season for a farmer has its perils, but April may be the cruelest month.

That’s when your fields stand empty, save a few nitrogen-fixing cover crops; there’s still frost in the air, yet seeds and hoop-house starts demand to be planted. All that great expanse of empty land can be unnerving, no rotating crops punching up and following the planting ahead of it. Nothing. Just nothing. Except bugs aplenty, waiting to shred the tender beginnings of your year’s cash crops. And weeds, always the weeds.

“It is the most physical, the most stressful time, the stakes are so much higher,” says Andrea Bemis, farmer, with her husband Taylor at their Tumbleweed Farm in Parkdale, and author of the hugely popular food blog, “Dishing up the Dirt.” Andrea and Taylor were forced to till under their first planting of beets and carrots this spring when weeds just took over too quickly. “In the spring, every sowing is so critical. In July and August, things are just cranking, but the spring, you feel it in the pit of your stomach, you’re crossing your fingers, hoping for good germination.”

Going in to darkest winter, and coming out of it, many of our farmers are planning for good germination long before we get our first, heady taste of a spring salad. It starts with knowing your dirt, and what it wants.

“Soils are a little acidic around here,” says Ben Saur, another Parkdale farmer who recently bought his first farm on Trout Creek Ridge with his wife Anastasia, after working mostly rented land. “We add lime, add rock phosphate, and then nitrogen by growing cover crops—crimson clover and rye—and then adding a lot of compost.” Saur has the added chore of getting soil on the new farm “up to snuff.” And while cover crops will never make it to your table, they are chosen carefully. Saur says rye puts on a lot of top growth that is tilled back under and clover has tap roots that really loosen the soil, making it easier to till.

A fact that Betty and Wilma probably appreciate. They’re Saur’s Norwegian Fjord working horses. And this spring, you may have seen Ben, Betty and Wilma out in the field, as soon as the soil was dry enough to till. He still hires some tractor work from his neighbors and does some rototilling. But his goal, by next year, is to only use the horses to work his land. “We’re not quite ready yet—neither the horses or me! We need to improve our skills. And I need to change the way our fields are set up to accommodate the turn-arounds.” Horses and plows don’t turn on a dime.

On a recent spring morning, Saur is watering strawberries, punching a “no spray” sign into the road in front of the farm, planting a hedge row, and finishing a new roof on a shed. And hoping the timing is right for the things started in the hoop houses—radishes, carrots, beets, lettuces, arugula, cilantro, fava beans, peas and spinach—to be ready for the first farmers’ markets. And that those same crops, a little further behind, out in the field, will survive frost, pests and weeds, until lush growth places them outside the danger zone.

Not every farmer in the Gorge is staring at an empty field coming out of winter. Ian and Dawn Glasser are primarily garlic farmers, who plant their garlic crop in the fall. By spring, it’s already a foot-and-a-half tall, and cruising straight on to harvest in May, June and July.

“We give the soil its love in the fall,” Ian says of the garlic acres.

But there’s the little matter of the tomatoes and basil. Even though their farm is called Columbia Gorge Garlic, you can’t fool the farmers’ market customers who have come to crave the Glasser’s tomatoes and basil. The Glassers started growing these crowd-pleasers to put something in rotation with the garlic, and the fantastic flavor of their red and green bounty is due in part to new-age soil science, and part to accident.

First the science part. Tomatoes are dirt hogs, sucking nutrients with a voracious appetite. So Ian offers the soil plenty of nitrogen fixing cover crops such as peas, which he turns under in spring, but he also infuses the soil with bio char—pure carbon—that he has learned to make himself using wheat straw and scrap lumber. It’s very expensive to make, but he says the bio char, a charcoal-like material, is very porous, holds moisture well, and creates “millions of condos for microbes.” He also enriches the soil with compost tea and worm castings from the worm beds they maintain year-round. This year, 200 tomatoes will be planted straight into the worm castings.

And now for the accident part, or should we say, the magic of exhaustion. Because the Glassers are busy harvesting 60 varieties of garlic—thousands and thousands of pounds—just as the tomato plants are hitting their growth spurt, they don’t have time to prune them back to one or two stems, and just let the suckers go wild. “Consequently, they get very full of leaf and foliage, and I think that’s a better result, with so much plant supporting the fruit,” Ian says. We get 30 to 50 pounds of tomatoes from each plant, and that’s a smaller amount of fruit than we might get if we pruned. But it’s better fruit.”

Back up in Parkdale, Andrea Bemis is working on her first cookbook, also named Dishing up the Dirt, which has been picked up by Harper Collins for a spring 2017 release. On a chilly spring evening, she is making a hearty vegetable soup with kale, potatoes and herbs. “It’s creamy and comforting, perfect with a glass of wine and crusty bread,” she says. She is looking forward to her first spring salad, “after all the heavy food we eat in winter.” And she’s going to be glad when the hard, demanding work of tilling and composting is done, and the fields are lush with one wave of green after another.

“We might have broken backs,” Bemis says, “but we’re eating like kings.”

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