We’re catching up with organic farmer Antony John and his wife, Tina, learning what autumn looks like at Soiled Reputation in Sebringville, ON. For a real boots-on-the-ground perspective and explanation of how cold-weather harvesting affects the taste of root vegetables and what they do with all of their dried chilies, read on.
November 6, 2017
We’ve had a wet week on the farm, halting harvest progress as we try to beat the imminent cold curtain that will close down our outdoor operations. Nighttime dips of a few degrees below zero are actually beneficial to us. The freezing action binds water molecules, making the soil dry enough to work in, until midday thaws turn everything into a muddy mess. So the strategy is to get out into the fields first thing in the morning while the soil is still frozen and dig up the root crops we’re trying to harvest, then spend the day under reasonable temperatures bringing in tons of carrots, celeriac, Jerusalem artichokes, rutabagas, leeks, and, finally, since it’s the most cold-tolerant of all crops, parsnips. Below-freezing temperatures also trigger the sweetening-up process in these root vegetables, as they try to create their own antifreeze by converting starch into sugars.
Below-freezing temperatures also trigger the sweetening-up process in these root vegetables, as they try to create their own anti-freeze by converting starch into sugars.
Waiting this long to harvest, after most farms have already packed things up for the season, may be uncomfortable to work in and problematic for the mud, but it does guarantee the best-tasting root crops we can grow (take that, California and Texas...). While root crops can withstand cold temperatures by being buried underground, our brassicas won’t survive temperatures below –10°C. Friday’s nighttime temperature is forecast to dip to –8°C, so I’m hoping it’s just a temporary dip, and we’ll be able to keep harvesting sweet dino kale and Brussels sprouts into December. We should be able to put the remaining two tons of green cabbage and red cabbage into cold storage by the end of this week, as long as the rain holds off.
Since it was too wet to do too much with the diggers last week, we got 1000 leeks off (there is no leek combine; this is all hand work), and some of the smaller crops like baby daikon and watermelon radish, safely into boxes for winter storage. The harvest crew are busy digging the fourth greenhouse down, ready for seeding the final beds of salad for the winter months. If the wind stays down, we’ll also reskin it this week. The difference between a well-coordinated, smooth operation resulting in two new sheets of plastic installed tear-free in a couple of hours, and a day-long fight with a 45- x 110-foot parasail, is a wind over 20km/hr. The memory of trying to put two new sheets of plastic on a fifth greenhouse a few years ago, as the tail end of a hurricane hammered us, has lasted longer than the greenhouse did. Lesson learned, at a cost of around $10,000...
The memory of trying to put two new sheets of plastic on a fifth greenhouse a few years ago, as the tail end of a hurricane hammered us, has lasted longer than the greenhouse did. Lesson learned.
The arrival of a cold front brought with it a spectacular migration of hawks all across the province. Sustained winds from the north allowed late migrants to flow south, assisted by favorable winds. In Hawk Cliff alone, just south of London, ON, over 800 turkey vultures, 300 red-tailed hawks, 50 golden eagles, and bald eagles, and many other raptors were spotted by birders who record daily the passage of these migrants all along the north shores of Lakes Erie and Ontario. Included in this group were the first arrivals of a species of hawk that breeds in the Tundra and overwinters in open agricultural land in Southern Ontario, the rough-legged hawk. Since it’s not accustomed to trees, it’s often identified as a large hawk trying to perch on a branch too small for its weight, bending the branch over while it flaps about to try and gain balance. Rough-legs also are the only large hawk that hovers to search for prey. Look for a large bird with a banded belly and black spots on its “elbows” facing into the wind and flapping in one place, and you’ve got yourself a rough-legged hawk! These birds are for me, a harbinger of winter, and usually arrive before the other suite of arctic bird species that stays in the relatively warm environs of our farm for the winter.
Another indoor activity for me this past week was the start of chili-drying operations. A later than normal frost date allowed most of the chili plants to ripen enough to at least yield a reward for our efforts of seeding, growing, planting out, weeding, and watering the 300-foot rows. Chipotles, guajillos, anchos, pasillas, and a New Mexico variety called chimayo are all now dried and safely stored for the winter. We also grew four varieties of paprika chilies, all of which were smoked and dried. Now comes the tedium of seeding out EVERY pepper to reduce the heat and minimize bitterness, before blending into a fine powder. I’m sure most of you know the number of dried chilies and work required to get a usable amount of smoked paprika. It’s a labour of love. Happily, we seem to have created a ready demand for it, based on last year’s response at our market tables.
Dried chilies are a delicious time capsule, evoking memories of place and warm days, whether of the trip to Oaxaca itself (where we saw 191 species of birds) or the past growing season.
Another addition to this year’s line-up are the dried chilhuacle rojo chilies. We got the original seeds from half a dozen dried chilies we brought back from the market in Oaxaca City two years ago, and grew 150 plants from them in the greenhouse. Even though we left 75% of the under-ripe chilies on the plants, the chilies we were able to pick and dry taste just like the ones we had in Oaxaca, a beautiful balance of fruit-sweet heat and a brick-red colour when rehydrated.
Dried chilies are a delicious time capsule, evoking memories of place and warm days, whether of the trip to Oaxaca itself (where we saw 191 species of birds) or the past growing season, beginning with the first few warm days of April when I started seeding the chilies. Cold work days and miserable harvesting conditions ahead will be offset with a succession of warming moles and caldos in front of the fire at night, as we plan our own Southern migration in the new year.
ON THE FARM
Baby beets (red, candy cane, golden)
Baby daikon radish
Baby purple top turnips/gold turnips
Carrots (coloured, orange)
Japanese white turnips
Kalettes (flowering kale)
Mizuna, tat soi
Potatoes (norland, purple viking, linzers, fingerlings)
Red wakefield cabbage
Winter squash (various)
Watch for more from Antony John, as he keeps us up-to-date on life on the farm. For information on where you can find his products, visit soiledreputation.com.