Short, windswept days, frosty mornings and the beginning of the endless drone of leafblowers are the sure harbingers of fall in historic Concord, and the end of our growing season. 2018 was a challenging one for us at Hutchins, with a variety of circumstances seeming to conspire against our success. The spring started out well enough—though it was cool and rainy, our earliest tomatoes, corn, melons and squash all shrugged off the cold, and were ready to take off when the heat finally arrived. The cool weather in June lasted long enough for us to have exceptional crops of asparagus and strawberries before the sudden arrival of July and the tropical heat, which settled in for a good long stay, well into September.
Like rain, heat can be a blessing, but in excess, a curse. Apart from the discomfort to those who work outside, high temperatures can have surprising and disastrous effects on plants, even those which are typically thought to love the heat. For example, beans, eggplants and peppers readily drop blossoms when temperatures are outside their preferred range—a phenomenon which we were able to witness firsthand and over an extended period this summer. The eggplant and pepper plants were large and robust, but the fruits were few and far between, at least until things cooled down a bit in September. Luckily, tomatoes are more tolerant of extremes than their more finicky cousins, so we were not faced with a disastrous tomato shortage in addition to our merely unfortunate dearth of peppers and eggplants.
Another confounding aspect of extended heat is its effect on seed germination. Most seeds germinate readily around 70 degrees, with some variation. Some, like turnips and other mustard family members, can tolerate a wide range of temperatures and still emerge, while others are extremely fussy. Lettuce and spinach are notorious for their reluctance to emerge at temperatures above about 80. Other vegetables are slow germinators under the best of conditions: carrots and parsnips can take weeks to fully emerge, and any period of adverse conditions during this time can have detrimental effects.
So our concern began to grow as multiple seedings of lettuce struggled to germinate in July and on into August, as our carefully cultivated beds seeded to parsnips and carrots failed to sprout the usual unbroken lines of green, but rather sent up sparse and scattered clumps of seedlings, with lots of empty space between, soon occupied by opportunistic weeds. The timing of these seedings is critical—you can’t just wait until conditions improve, or your crops may not have time to develop. To harvest parsnips in October, you need to seed them by the end of June; to harvest carrots in October, they have to be seeded and up by early August. Lettuce seeded after the middle of August is not likely to mature. By early August, the heat had affected enough crops (and it continued to wreak havoc on spinach germination through the end of the month) that we knew it was going to be a lean fall, and so it has been—and I haven’t even gotten to the apple situation.
The missing apples are another story altogether. I’m not exactly sure how things went before I began to pay serious attention about five years ago, but at least since that time, the apples have almost completely reverted to their (natural) tendency to bear biennially—that is to give a large crop every other year, with a much smaller crop on the alternate year. They nonetheless require annual pruning, mowing, and, ideally, spraying for disease and insects, but without the prospect of a crop, it becomes very difficult to allocate labor and machinery resources to them. Conventional orchards are able to overcome the tendency to alternate bearing by spraying chemical thinning agents during the month following petal fall. As an organic orchard, this crop load management strategy isn’t available to us—our only option would be to hand thin the newly pollinated blooms and developing fruit during this same period, which really isn’t an option at all because it is not economically feasible even if we were able to find enough employees to attempt it. Which leaves us with an apple crop every other year until we can figure out a way to get out of this vicious cycle.
So we bid farewell to a difficult season, humbly trying our best to learn the right lessons from our experiences. There is something very appropriate about how the word ‘humility’ derives ultimately from the Latin word for soil, that irreducibly complex matrix with which we attempt to perform our simple, sustaining magic, never completely understanding the processes we initiate and try to manipulate. And it is with humility and gratitude that we thank all of you for your continued patronage in fat times and lean, and all of our steadfast workers for their tireless efforts to bring you the best that we can produce.
We’ll be at the Somerville Union Square Market and the Cambridge Central Square Market until Thanksgiving, and there will be a limited selection of items on our honor system self-serve front porch at the stand starting later this week. Please check our website to see what might be available before making the trip over.
Again, thank you all for this season, we hope you have a restful winter, and we’ll see you in the spring!
-Brian Cramer and the Hutchins Farm Team