The drought didn’t end with the summer, but gloomy, chilly weather and periodic rains have brightened our outlook considerably. Our steps are a bit lighter as we can discern the outlines of the end of the season coming closer, mercifully closer each day. Signs and portents are everywhere: frost on the shadowy grass before the sun finally clears the tree line on the eastern horizon; leaves slowly assuming their autumn complexion, like a slow, silent blaze through the woods’ canopy; long shadows in the slanting light of an autumn afternoon; unimpressed owls calling out ‘whoopdedoo’ against the faint hum of surrounding human activity that never falters, even in the still darkness of a November evening.
The season started dry: a winter with little snow was followed by a spring with stingy skies and some breathtaking swings in the temperature. One particularly alarming April morning dawned at 14 degrees Fahrenheit, with dire results for our apple crop. Continued cold weather in April and May also led to a chronically overcrowded greenhouse with lots of panicked plant schlepping and costly delays in transplanting seedlings into larger containers. The strawberry crop largely shook off the effects of the cold snap, and although a real warmup was long in arriving, temperatures stayed mercifully above freezing, so our early warm season crops, though not very happy, survived until the warm weather set in.
Of course, when the weather warmed, the lack of rain really started to be a problem. And it stubbornly refused to rain (we farmers scoff at the notion that anything less than a quarter inch merits the name rain) for most of the rest of the spring and summer. Which made for an interesting and exhausting several months, but thanks to those fine waterways, the Concord and Assabet, and an array of irrigation technologies old and new, we were able—for the most part—to shrug off the worst effects of the drought. Some notable exceptions were our late summer broccoli, cauliflower and cabbage, which suffered significant attrition when we failed to irrigate immediately after planting—as soon as a day after planting, large numbers of seedlings had already perished. Our fall carrot crop likewise suffered from the hot, dry weather of early and mid-July, with dramatically reduced germination and resulting diminished yield. The other significant victim of the ferocious summer was our spinach, which was seeded as usual in mid- and late August, with an almost complete failure to germinate in the unrelenting heat that reigned during that period.
The one crop whose absence was most keenly felt (especially after last year’s bumper crop) was apples. This year’s lack of apples is actually related to last year’s huge crop: most apple varieties have a natural tendency to bear biennially, with boom years followed by bust years. Commercial orchards have chemical tools that thin fruit set in the boom years, resulting in an evening out of crops from year to year. Organic orchards have mostly relied on extremely expensive hand thinning to achieve the same end, or they simply roll with the cycle (which is what we’ve been doing). This tendency, combined with the late freeze this spring resulted in the most miserable crop of apples ever. Lack of rain didn’t help, but wasn’t really a factor in the apple disaster.
We have, despite this dispiriting experience, renewed our commitment to keep apples in our crop roster, and redoubled our efforts to figure out how to reliably have a good crop of certified organic apples every year. At the very least, absent another late freeze, a hailstorm, or the Apocalypse, we should have a decent crop next year, we’re due for another ‘boom’ year after all.
As Thanksgiving approaches, our thoughts should turn from complaints about things that didn’t turn out as we desired, to the many more things for which we should be grateful: the workers who graced our fields and farmstand were among the most cohesive and effective groups we’ve ever had. Even as the constitution of the crew underwent change over the season, they were conscientious, agreeable, positive, and serious about doing a good job. Gratitude also, surprisingly, to the record dry weather: drought has many troubling consequences, but it also means that disease pressure on the plants is very low, so for the first time in several years, we didn’t have to spray our tomatoes at all—late blight was kept at bay by the weather.
And especially gratitude for the continued patronage of our customers who, in the face of woeful tales of crop failure and dry devastation throughout the region, continued to visit our little stand and appreciate the bounty that we were able to produce. They discovered that Hutchins Farm is resilient, and hopefully a mysterious combination of luck, loyalty, foresight, hard work, creativity, planning, and resourcefulness will always allow the farm to soldier on, riding the peaks and troughs of an uncertain future.
We’ll be at the Somerville Union Square Market on Saturdays and the Cambridge Central Square Market on Mondays until Thanksgiving, and we’ll keep the honor system self-serve set up on the porch running as long as the weather is good – always check our website (www.hutchinsfarm.com) before heading over. We’ll try to keep that as updated as possible.
Our thanks again for a great season, and we hope you all have a happy holiday season and a peaceful winter.
-Brian and the rest of the Hutchins Farm team