This spell of hot weather should be a mere memory by the time we finish hauling the flats of berries out of the van at Hillsdale. It has tested our mettle. You will hear the tintinnabulation of the bovine necklace around 10:00 AM.
From time to time, we have written about the robust and internationally recognized specialty seed industry in the Willamette Valley. This year, on the north border of our farm is 20 acres of open-pollinated Bull's Blood beet, the subject of a once and future essay. On our western boundary there is approximately 40 acres of hybrid spinach. The beets and spinach are grown for the Danish seed company, Vikima. Down the road aways, there is another large field with radish for cover crop seed. This radish is used by midwestern farmers to open up compacted soil, improving the soil and saving fuel when they prepare for planting. The crimson clover seed on our southern boundary was harvested last month, and will be planted by farmers to provide organic nitrogen for next crop. The production of synthetic nitrogen requires a huge amounts of natural gas, and is even damaging to the environment when it is applied to the fields.
In an effort to maintain the integrity of the valley's seed production, the Oregon Department of Agriculture (ODA) has a quarantine on rapeseed/canola production in the valley. Earlier this month, the ODA announced that it is altering the quarantine on the first of September and issued "temporary rules" developed without public input or hearing. In fact, it was announced during the busiest time of the year for the affected farmers, a really ugly single digit gesture from an agency with "agriculture" in its name. As it would affect our on-farm seed production, we have joined with others in asking Director Coba to suspend the rule. Fortunately, Friends of Family Farmers has gained a temporary stay on the temporary rule from the Court of Appeals. There is a lot of interesting information about the canola issue at the Friends of Family Farmers website: http://www.friendsoffamilyfarmers.org/?p=1622
We have supported the Friends of Family Farmers for several years, and we are deeply appreciative for their willingness to pursue ODA on this terrible and destructive proposal. Deep in its culture, the ODA is brittle agency that prefers to work behind closed doors with no public input. The agency is riddled with apparatchiks more comfortable in the back room with industry lobbyists than in a public meeting with famers and consumers. Written without the input of the affected farmers, this temporary rule is a complete mess, imposing on small farms like ours all sorts of unnecessary rules governing our own seed production. They even assert the authority to destroy our seed crop if we fail to comply with all their rules. We need Friends of Family Farmers help and, we are happy to say, they are there for us.
In the state fair exhibition of advocates for better farm policies, Friends of Family Farmers would win the treasured tricolor, Best in Show, hands down. They have emerged as a national model for this sort of organization, and when friends ask if you have heard of their director Michele Knaus, you can nonchalantly say you see her shopping at the Hillsdale Farmers' Market, even on the snowy days of winter. No empty rhetoric there. Any support you can give them, moral or money, will be greatly appreciated by us and other family farms.
Here is what we will have:
Chesters & Triple Crowns: We are considering hauling in an additional 24 half flats berries this week, reducing space for other odds and ends. It is hard to predict is when people decide to take a summer vacation. We watch the automated out-of-office replies to get an idea of how many people will be missing from the market.
Beets, Cucumbers and Potatoes: The potato vines are beginning to die back. We stopped the water a couple of weeks ago. At this point, the tubers stop growing in size and the starches change. The tuber prepares for the winter by developing its corky skin. You will notice the difference in flavor and texture.
Pole Beans: Preacher and Fortex
Garlics, Shallots & Onions Frikeh: Went fast this year, so we are at tail end of the supply. ___________________________________________________
The death of Chavela Vargas earlier this month stirred up memories of our first year working this bench of land above Ayers Creek. We arrived at the farm as capable gardeners with no commercial berry experience. This gap was factored into the purchase agreement. The owners had estimated the value of the annual production of blackberries so we allowed them to sell the crop that year and remain on the farm during the harvest rent-free. The crop value was deducted from the purchase. In exchange, we observed the details of the harvest. It soon became apparent that we would be working with 100 - 200 people, most of whom did not speak English. Nor could we speak a stitch of Spanish.
Adopting a variant of Professor Harold Hill's "Think System," we decided we could learn the language listening to Spanish music, assisted by a bit of tutoring. In the manner of young Ron Howard learning the Minuet in G, we would pick up Spanish just thinking about it. We stumbled onto the music of Chavela Vargas first. Her strong, elegant voice tinged with longing brought us the beautiful boleros of Agustín Lara, Alvaro Carrillo and others, filling the car on our way from Portland to the farm every morning. Soon we added Germaine Montero singing the rhythmic and insistent folksongs of Spain and, of course, Mexico's Singing Cricket, Cri Cri. Montero performed in the company of the Spanish poet Garcia Lorca, and many of the songs were transcribed by him. She also recorded Lorca's poems including "Lament on the Death of a Bullfighter." Born and raised in France, her native tongue softened her Castilian Spanish. Francisco Gabilondo Soler was an accomplished singer and composer who is remembered fondly as the children's troubadour Cri Cri. Several months into the think system, a major advance was marked when we realized the refrain of Cri Cri's El Ratón Vaquero was actually sung in English.
The following summer it was up to Zenon and the two of us to develop the future character of the field. People working in the field referred to him as both the row boss and the majordomo. Titles are far more important than names in the field, so we asked him what he preferred, and thence forward he was the majordomo. It was in this role that he told us that Anthony, el patrón, needed to go through the field and show them what was expected. The majordomo followed explaining how to pick the perfect berry, seeking the slight dullness and ease of detachment that betrays the fully ripe one. In a nod to the singing cricket, each year that first week became known as "la escuela de la mora" – blackberry school.
Just as Cri Cri's English was a bit difficult for us to discern at first, so was Anthony's Spanish to the people in the field. Blank stares demanded a more theatrical effort. Generally, people picked good fruit. If someone was picking poorly, el patrón closed his eyes and reached into bucket where he had spotted the most horrible looking berry. Into the mouth it went, followed by a shudder, an anguished wince and a rapid swallow. "No, no, no, the blackberry is food," he would opine in a sad voice and broken Spanish, "and that one was not yet food. Next week, maybe." Then lapsing into idiom of love learned from the boleros, he would explain that every berry that goes into the bucket should break your heart because you know how delicious it would be in your mouth, yet you must part with it. A giant anglo in white shirt is somehow less imposing when he is relaying the pleasures of eating fruit using the words and cadence of love and longing, with a touch of Cri Cri's humor. For the coda, a perfect fruit was picked, savored for a moment, and in a languid manner el patrón declares "la boca conoce la alma de la mora," – the mouth knows the spirit of the blackberry – followed by a smile of contentment. By the 30th or 40th sour berry, the patrón's shudder and wince were very convincing, yet quickly assuaged by the sweet one that followed.
Prior to Ayers Creek, our experience with blackberries was limited to picking them along the field borders on Sauvie Island. Some sweet, some bitter, some sour, some just plain insipid, and all were seedy. We were listening to Vargas singing boleros when we began our affair with the sublime Chester, and like other songs associated with fond memories, it is hard to separate the two. A bolero will never come to mind when contemplating the seedy Himalayan blackberry. Fourteen years later, the field is very different. We stopped selling to Cascadian Farm after 2007, shifting over to fresh market only. Just ten people work for us today, and they carry out a range of tasks on the now diversified farm in addition to the harvest. No more blackberry school. But the character of the field which the majordomo helped us establish that second year hasn't changed, and the desire for a berry that brings a song to mind remains. Upon reflection, it is a good thing that we didn't use conventional language tapes for travelers, or we would have ended up describing the berries in terms of luggage and menu items, or that berry on the right is good, the one on the left is not good. How dull it would have been. Te amamos, Chester. Gracias Chavela.
We look forward to seeing you all this Sunday,
Carol & Anthony Boutard
Out there in Gaston