I’ve been thinking a lot about agricultural disasters today. Unlike what the word “disaster” usually implies, in farming, it doesn’t take much to cause some serious problems. In a lot of ways, it’s similar to the perils of restaurateurs. Every chef dreads the snow storm that is normal for the season, but comes without warning and results in wasted inventory when customers stay home. In farming, it can be as simple as a little more rain and a little less sunshine, or neighboring home gardeners plant sources.
This summer, in the Northeast, the hot news is late blight ravaging Northeast tomato and potato plants. Chef Dan Barber did a good beijing job of explaining how this disaster began in his New York Times Op-ed piece.
Every time I talk to one of the RAFT Grow-Out farmers they tell me worse news about their tomato fields. When I went to Red Planet Vegetables outside of Providence, RI last week they told me their tomatoes looked great until just a few days earlier when the blight arrived. Now they are living day-by-day with the tomato plants. If it’s hot, like it has been the past week, the blight slows down and the ripening tomatoes speed up. If it’s cold and damp, the green tomatoes just sit while the plants rot away. Unfortunately with this neck-and-neck race, the plants will never make it to the normal end of the season, even if we have hot days from now to October. Many farmers have ripped out most of their tomatoes already.
Unfortunately, late blight isn’t all Northeast farmers have had to deal with this season. All the wet, cold weather at the beginning of the summer put everything about a month behind. While many beautiful, albeit late, vegetables are finally coming in now, the problem comes in October when the frost arrives at the same time it always does. A late start to the already-short Northeast growing season means farmers will have a shorter selling season, with fewer vegetables resulting in less income.
And then some plants just didn’t make it through that initial rain. Two weeks ago when I visited Sustainable Farm Products at Nelson Farms in Strafford, NH, Shawn showed me a large vegetable-less field that was his entire outdoor planting of cucumbers, melons, summer squash and winter squash for the year. “They all drown in the June rain,” he told me. Walking through the opportunistic weeds, we found a couple summer squash plants that had survived. Shawn picked three small summer squash and said dryly, “I’m going to take these home and have a $1,500 plate of squash for dinner.”
With all this awful farm news, you’d think the farmers would be depressed. Everyone is disappointed by the terrible season they’re having, but I have been surprised at how cheerful and resilient they’ve been otherwise. Talking about his lost fields and late vegetables, Shawn at Sustainable Farm Products shrugged and told me, “Mother nature rewards persistence. You’d better be persistent if you’re going to be a farmer.” Catherine and Matt at Red Planet seem to have a similar attitude about their tomatoes. They’ll wait and see what happens, and in the meantime they’re picking piles of beautiful beets, squash, onions, greens, herbs, cucumbers, carrots… like most farmers in the Northeast, they grow many different things – good insurance against a year like this.
Farmers, again like restaurateurs, often live on the edge of profitability, making a decent – never grandiose – living at best, taking terrible losses at worst. This year isn’t going to be a great one for anyone, but hopefully our local farms will make it through to grow again next year.
Which makes us wonder, what is our role in an agricultural crisis like this one? First, we need to celebrate the local bounty as fervently as we can during the short New England season.
We also need to just as fervently support our local farmers, which we will be if we’re enjoying what they have to offer to the upmost. For chefs, working with local farmers requires a degree of flexibility and creativity. Right now, those qualities are needed even more.
For example, there are a lot of green tomatoes for sale locally from plants that had to be removed before their fruit ripened. Chefs have the opportunity to buy and utilize these tomatoes, making creative, delicious dishes and influencing food trends such that consumers do the same.
In many ways, a year like this one tests our commitment to a strong local food system more than a good year. Building a local food economy means not just engaging in your food shed when time are good, but being a true partner to farmers when times are rough, too. Taking the time to make use of an unusual product or one in unusual abundance (green tomatoes) and working around the lack of another product (red tomatoes) helps keep farms going. Through these expressions of flexibility, creativity and collaboration, our local food systems gain a basic level of resilience an industrialized food system just can’t match.
– Anne Obelnicki, RAFT Grow-Out Project Coordinator
Shawn Stimpson’s drowned field at Sustainable Farm Products:
One surviving summer squash plant among the opportunistic weeds:
Elsewhere on the farm, Shawn has lots of beautiful crops:
At Red Planet Vegetables, the tomato plants are showing the first signs of late blight. Notice the rotten tomatoes in the background:
But Red Planet has an abundance of other healthy, beautiful vegetables: