Homesteading: Country life, preserving, reality, hurricanes, dogs, NYS, DIY, farming, veggies,
01908 00103b 13 minutes: Homesteading ! A much longer piece cut into 8 sections.
The year of Hurricane Irene my Fall schedule was completely up-ended.
For the last twenty years I have gone upstate in late Fall to get my veggies for the winter. Usually I go between Hallowe’en and Thanksgiving, when the farm closes for the season. By then the weather is cooler, so I can leave them outside in big animal-proof bins without worrying about their getting too hot, and therefore sweating and going mouldy. Usually I buy a bushel each of broccoli, cabbage, carrots, cauliflower, onions, potatoes, and pumpkins, about eight different squash, and sometimes apples, approximately sixteen bushels. They last remarkably well, almost into the spring!
Shaul’s farm is 200 miles away, in Fultonham, N.Y., in one of the black dirt areas in the middle of the State. It is in bottom lands, which means it is in the flat land by the river that was carved through the mountains during the ice age. The earth is so rich and remarkable that I swear they have little elves running around at midnight with syringes of sugar injecting each individual veggie. The squash are so sweet you can roast them and eat them straight out of their shells.
Luckily, after Irene, I called the farm during the second week in September, to find out how they had fared. They said: “The farm was inundated. Everything that survived spent three days under water, so they won’t last. If you want anything you should come up tomorrow. We’re closing at the end of the week.”
Dropping everything, I emptied the car, and went to bed early to get up at crack of dawn the next morning. With the dogs, Jessie and Nemo, I set off for our annual pilgrimage, but almost two months’ early. Usually, in the Fall, the leaves are golden, red and yellow and it is a glorious drive beside the river and through the mountain passes. That year everything was still green – except as we went farther into the countryside, and could see the horrifying devastation left behind by Irene. Caution flags were everywhere, warning about washed out roads or standing water. Crops lay in piles of mud, and trees gave silent evidence of having been moved from where they had fallen on wires and across roads.
The countryside reminded me of 1947, when the river Ouse, that ran beside the bottom of our garden when I was growing up, burst its banks above Erith. Luckily we weren’t affected – the water just flowed in one side of the garden and out the other – it didn’t come up near the house. That was in February. At the end of June, when I was home from school for Speech Day weekend, Daddy took Mummy and me for a mysterious car ride. We had no idea where we were going. It was a surprise. When we got almost to the top of a hill Daddy stopped the car. We got out and from the top all we could see was water, with a very few chimneys sticking up out of it – all the way to the horizon. The land was below sea level and they had to bring in the Dutch pumps to return the water to the river. A memory deeply etched into my brain. Floods are real to me.
When we arrived at Shaul’s, the dogs tumbled out of the car. They romped across to the big field and didn’t understand how the landscape had changed since our visit last Fall. They careened around like maniacs, so glad to be off the leash. No one was in the enormous pole barn where the veggies are housed for retail sale. A chain was across the entrance.
My heart sank.
I got out my trusty cell phone and called the office number. The woman who answered told me they were closed and “see you next year.” She sounded incredibly depressed. I heard the click as she put the phone down. It sounded final.
My heart sank deeper.
Having driven so far I wasn’t going to give up that easily. After all, I had been told they would close that week, not that day. So I prowled around the place, hoping for some sign of life. There wasn’t too much in the crates (and no elves!), but enough to give me hope. Why would they leave anything in the bins if they didn’t intend to sell them? I asked myself.
Once again my phone was ordered into service. This time a man answered. The owner. That sounded more hopeful! He said they had just broken for lunch and would be back in about half an hour. I told him not to hurry, that we would wait, (but didn’t say that we would wait indefinitely, although I knew we would!)
The dogs and I returned to the car and I drove over to the park by the river where the dogs could wallow in the water, shallower than usual because of all the gravel washed down by Irene. I walked beside the river while they got soaking wet with tails wagging, playing with each other and chasing the bubbles and sticks in the stream. The countryside is gorgeous and the weather was sunny and beautiful, so waiting shouldn’t have been a hardship. Only the ubiquitous evidence of Irene was upsetting.
When the half hour or so was up the sodden dogs got into the car and we drove back to the pole barn. They went back to playing in the field; I hoped they would dry off before the ride home. The owner returned and opened the chain.
Certainly this year the offering was minuscule compared with previous years, but there was plenty to over-fill my little car with wonderful veggies. They still had bushel baskets full of broccoli, cauliflower, carrots and apples. Instead of eight different squash I was only able to find three and a half bushels of buttercup, (my favorite,) one of spaghetti, and one each of two of the smaller squash: delicata and festival. There were no sweet pumpkins or acorn squash. No butternut or hubbard. No Hallowe’en pumpkins or gourds, and Brussel sprouts were in short supply. No onions or potatoes, but I hoped those would be available from local farms, at home.
My poor little Honda was very, very full anyway. It had been difficult enough to fit everything in when I had a full-sized car with a large trunk and lay-flat seats, but now, with my baby Honda FIT, it presented even more of a challenge.
Dave, the owner, and his sister, Nancy, who was visiting from Maine to help with the clean-up, were amazing, considering what they had been through. They were probably still in shock. We talked briefly about the devastation but they were pragmatic farmers and were just trying to handle the enormous job ahead of them that Irene had created. I enjoyed visiting with them and the conversation got around to the two small books I had recently published. Dave’s sister said she would like copies of them, one about England when I was growing up, and I said I would bring them next year. I never expected them to remember. They padlocked the chains behind me – in the second week of September! Usually they were open until Thanksgiving week.
They wouldn’t have much time to complete the clean-up. The farm is enormous. Their ancestors had had one of the original land grants, back in the early days of settlement. It is much smaller now, but they still distribute to supermarkets. What I see is just the tip of the iceberg, the retail operation. Everything would have to be done before the weather broke, and it breaks early up there, to make the land ready for planting to begin again in the Spring. They would need to start early the next year to try to recoup some of their enormous losses caused by Irene.
As always, the journey had taken much longer than anticipated and it was getting late by the time we headed back South. Two very tired little dogs were happy to curl up together in their tiny space on the front seat, and sleep.
On the way home I passed a small farm stand that had sweet pumpkins for the Thanksgiving pies. I U-turned and bought seven. They just fit in the chinks between the sacks in the car.
It was dark by the time we got home. Unloading and figuring how to keep everything till winter, could wait till tomorrow. At least, my winter veggies from Shaul’s were home and safe. That was enough for one day.
Over the next few weeks I scoured the local countryside at home for the potatoes and onions, sweet potatoes and butternut squash and was relieved to find a few farms that had managed to rescue some produce from the fury of the hurricane and still had enough to fill my meager needs. Like Dave’s, their cold-storage units were almost empty. Usually at that time of year they would be bursting at the seams with wonderful harvest offerings to be shipped all over the country.
Fresh produce promised to be expensive that winter. The problem is, when running an operation like a farm, taxes and other expenses continue, whether the income is there to meet them or not. Most supermarket shoppers don’t think of the farmers’ problems like that.