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Betwixt and Between

By Rawley Johnson of Full Belly Farm, courtesy of Capay Valley Farm Shop

October is my favorite month on the farm because of its in-betweenness. The weather is not so extremely hot anymore but not so extremely cold yet either. The first rains freshen and green up the parched dry ground, but spares us the muddy messiness that the winter brings. The days are welcomingly shorter, but not so short as to darken your mood. And the harvest brings the best of both worlds, with most of the summer crops lingering for a last hurrah while at the same time all the fall greens and roots make their long-awaited return. About this time last year a few of us took what we called the Full Belly Challenge and vowed to eat 100% from the farm (with a little added salt) for an entire week. I’ll admit that I failed after a day or two—I really can’t function without my morning cup of black tea—but it really can be done during this magical time of year.

There is a different feel to the work in the fields these days. I remember how most of the summer crops felt so strong, aggressive, and practically self-sufficient. The big seeds of the cucurbits family (the melons, the zucchini, the squash, etc.) seemed to just jump out of the ground, quickly covering every inch and suppressing any weeds that dared to compete. Our heirloom tomato transplants vined upwards so fast that we raced to pound stakes and string them up to prevent them from falling over. But these fall crops in contrast feel so weak and delicate, in need of so much care just to survive. Carrot seeds, for example, are so small you can barely see them. They take days if not weeks to germinate, and by that time the beds they get planted into are a bustling city of weeds. Just finding the tentative little carrot stalks poking out amid all that weedy commotion can be difficult. Consequently, carrots are the only crop where we actually take the time to get down on our hands and knees and pick off weeds, one by one, with a knife in our hand. Such a delicate, precise job makes me feel like a painter doing detail work. It’s a wonder that they survive at all.

Organic farmers have some tools at our disposal to try and outsmart weeds. We can pre-irrigate a field before planting to get the first flush of weeds to come up, then chop those up and immediately plant our seeds. If the weeds come back too fast, we can try flame weeding, which literally involves blow torching weeds just as they emerge from the ground. This has to be timed just right, before our seedlings germinate, or else our plants get burned, too. For the next round of weeds we employ a cultivating tractor with specially placed knives and disks that can cut down weeds mere fractions of an inch from our seedlings, as long as the tractor driver goes straight and keeps a sharp eye on the path. Yet after all that, hoeing (or knifing, for carrots) is still usually required. Otherwise, weeds will outcompete our plants for water and sunshine.

But what is a weed, really, other than a plant growing in a place where we don’t want it? Out knife-weeding carrots the other day, I found myself chopping down melon and tomato “weeds” that had re-seeded themselves after the summer harvest. Yesterday’s friend had become today’s enemy. Sorry guys, it’s the carrot’s time to shine. The impending frosty weather that would kill off all you heat-loving insurgents is exactly what sweetens up the carrots and makes them so incredibly tasty. There’s truly nothing better than a crunchy, frost-sweetened carrot. Look for them in your boxes starting sometime in November. In the meantime, I’ll head back to my knife weeding (because man I’ve got a long way to go) amused by the irony of those juxtaposed symbols of summer and winter in this time of inbetweenness.

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