Farmer John Writes: Before the Fronds Wilt

Week 15, October 15th – 19th, 2019

By last Wednesday, the soil was drying–no, not drying–the soil was getting a little less muddy. Less muddy is now what we think of as drying.  We had most of a field of carrots still to harvest. Heavy rains were forecast for the next night.

We had had several days without rain by that Wednesday. It had been a bit overcast, but warm. However, the fields had been mud for so long, they just wanted to stay muddy, like it was their habit. 

Some of the low spots reminded me of when my family took a week-long summer vacation in the South when I was a child. We drove through miles and miles of swampland. My sisters held their noses. 

Our way to the west fields has looked like this most of the year, sometimes muddier

This past September, there had been no weather windows that allowed us to harvest the carrots with our machinery, and we do not have the labor resources to dig and harvest many thousands of pounds of carrots from the mud by hand. Just walking in some of our fields has the mud tugging  you, slurping you, yanking you, as you yank back with your knee and hip to execute the next step.

Normally, we have all the carrots harvested and in storage by September 25. If they are still in the ground after that, I get fidgety. I know how unforgiving cool, wet October weather is. 

Usually, our soil is either dry enough to harvest carrots by machine, or it’s not. On Wednesday, the soil was not dry enough to harvest carrots by machine. (We were able to hand harvest and bunch some muddy carrots on Wednesday, however.) By Thursday night, we figured the soil would be even wetter from more rain. On Thursday, we would have to harvest from soil not dry enough to harvest from. Mud would cling to the equipment and to the carrots; tractors and trucks might get stuck. 

That Wednesday afternoon, I had a strategy session with Eduardo and Victor. Eduardo has been with the farm for 20 years, Victor for 9 years. They are both stellar employees (and friends), and highly knowledgeable about field operations.

We stood at the top of a grassy knoll overlooking the farm. In the distance was a four-wheel drive farm truck stuck in the mud.

This might be the first time we have gotten this four-wheel drive truck stuck

I will share parts of that meeting with you, and you will learn about our farm at its most nuanced, its most challenging, its most dramatic.

I said, “You guys, we gotta talk about tomorrow. It might be our last chance to get the carrots out. They are so deep in the mud. We could undercut them, loosen the soil, dry them out a little. What do you think?”

Eduardo: “Maybe.” 

John: “When? Now? You think you can slice through the mud now?”

Eduardo said, in his mild way, “I think so.” Eduardo is a man of few words. He has heightened powers of observation and intuition. He is not waffling or evading; he thinks so. His judgment is golden. I take his I think so to heart. 

I continued  “Is this the best time to undercut, or wait until the morning? If we wait until morning, the soil won’t have as much time to dry. If we do it now, the soil might dry too much. 

Feel that wind. It’s in the south. It is carrying moisture; it is carrying the moisture that will become rain by tomorrow night. Still, it is a drying wind. But the wind will probably die down overnight.

If there is too much drying overnight, the carrot fronds will wilt. Those fronds have to be upright so the harvester can grab them and pull them out of the ground as the shoe lifts them out of the mud. If the fronds wilt much, the machine won’t have a way to grab the carrots.”

Eduardo replied: “The soil is very wet. I don’t think the fronds will dry overnight.”

I said to Eduardo, “Do you think it will be better to do it in the morning?”

We all knew it was an impossible question for any of us to answer with confidence. Imagine, we have a blade that undercuts beneath the carrots and slices deep at the outer edges of the bed, creating a sort of channel of air or airy mud or muddy air under and around the carrots. How much will this dry the carrots, with a wind coming from the south that will probably die down at night, with the temperatures balmy, the soil soggy. We were testing all the knowledge that we had accumulated over the years of soil and carrots and wind and rain and temperatures and how they combine with one another.

“I don’t know which will be better,” answered Eduardo.

I said, “Look, you guys. We have to base our decision for when to undercut the carrots on when the fronds will wilt and none of us knows when the fronds will wilt.

Upright carrot fronds

Victor, what do you think? If we undercut the carrots tonight, will the fronds wilt before we can finish harvesting them tomorrow? When do you think the fronds will start to wilt?”

Victor, a quick thinker and a brilliant strategist, said “I have no idea.”

We looked at each other, recognizing that we were engaging in total guesswork. We had to create a viable plan out of guesswork. The stakes were high; our shareholders want carrots. We would get the carrots harvested the next day or we wouldn’t. We might not get another chance after the upcoming rains. 

Victor began to laugh at the absurdity of our speculation. I laughed, too. Eduardo smiled broadly. We were going to shape the fate of the carrot harvest with a guess.

I said, “Here’s the other thing. That mud in the carrot field–it clings to the carrots. It just wraps itself around the carrots in a cocoon and hangs on when we try to get them out of the ground, huge, heavy globs of mud. That mud has to dry a bit or the  harvester won’t be able to get them out of the ground. If we undercut the carrots tonight, how much less mud will there be in the field, or how much drier will the field be by morning, versus if we undercut them first thing in the morning?”

Victor and I were having trouble controlling our laughter. Finally, we laughed hysterically, unstoppably, bobbing up and down.

I finally caught my breath and added,  “And you know, the sooner the soil starts to dry so the mud won’t be so attached to the carrots making the carrots easier to harvest, the sooner the fronds will wilt, making the carrots harder to harvest.

Will the soil dry enough to harvest the carrots before the fronds wilt too much for the harvest to happen? I guess that’s the question.”

I’ve never seen Victor laugh so hard. He was bent over, having trouble catching his breath. I convulsed with laughter. It seemed the very ground beneath us was shaking with our laughter. Eduardo’s smile was extra broad. He might have even burst a bit into his own bout of laughter.

The fate of tons of carrots was resting on this absurd yet necessary deliberation. We had just as well have been discussing the meaning of life.

I said “None of us knows when the soil will dry enough and when the fronds will wilt too much. We don’t know what to do.”

I finally took a pendulum out of my pocket.

“Let’s let the pendulum decide,” I stated.

Victor and Eduardo looked at me wide-eyed.

“Should we undercut first thing in the morning?” I asked the pendulum.

The pendulum spun counterclockwise, indicating no.

“Should we undercut the carrots now?”

The pendulum spun clockwise.

“The pendulum knows what to do,” I announced.  “Let’s undercut the carrots now.”

Coming Next Week: Was the Pendulum Right?

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Thank You
Thank you for being with us for a dramatic farming adventure this season. 

Warmly,
Farmer John

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Showing 5 comments
  • miriam greenfield
    Reply

    What im heavens name is brussel sprouts tops. Are you kidding? I cant even find any recipes in any cook book I have.

    • Angelic Organics
      Reply

      Brussels sprouts tops are the top leaves of the Brussels sprouts plant. When you google ‘Brussels sprouts tops’ you can find many articles and recipes. Here’s one helpful article: https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2013/dec/09/why-brussells-sprout-tops-are-good-for-you

      • Annette B Huizenga
        Reply

        Just last night, I chopped the tops roughly, added some olive oil and garlic pepper and roasted them in the oven on 350 degrees for 10-15 minutes. They turned out sort of like kale chips. Yummy.

  • Miriam greenfield,
    Reply

    Where are the potatoes you talked about last week?

    • Angelic Organics
      Reply

      The potato fields have continued to be too wet for us to harvest the potatoes. There should be a window of dry weather in the next few days that could allow us to get the potatoes.

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