Customer Jay sent me a link to the neatest blog called Agrarian Nation, by a guy who’s collected a slew of really old Farmer’s Almanacs. Jay said it reminded him of Farmer John and me, yet I’m pretty sure he wasn’t referring to the photo in the blog’s latest installment.

This picture is from 1859. I adore it. I feel certain the couple knew absolutely everything there was to know about growing vegetables back then (and probably a thing or three more than we ‘modern’ farmers purport to know now).

Second only to this fantastic image was the corresponding list of suggestions for “destroying insects injurious to the farm and garden.” Whale-oil soap was mentioned, as was lime, charcoal dust, ashes, soda ash, salt, soot and snuff. It also advocated the use of nighttime fires (on a platform erected for the purpose, of course) to attract and kill a variety of insects, but warned not to do it near barns or other dwellings. To drive home the point, it states: “The man who burned his barn to get rid of the rats is not thought to have gained by the operation.” Wise words indeed.

In the section about eradicating squash bugs, in addition to using either quassia chips or plaster of Paris dust, the Almanac advises placing shingles near the squash vines at night “and every morning look under the shingles, and consign the bugs to hot water, or crush them with your foot.”

I guess some things really haven’t changed all that much. Other than the fact that few people have spare shingles piled up around the house anymore, that’s still a tried and true method. Squash bugs are a serious problem here at the farm, and although we haven’t done it yet (ahem) we’ve often discussed laying wooden boards – like most folks, we have no spare shingles – alongside our squash rows for this very purpose.

We grow our squash under row covers until the plants begin to flower, and rarely does that row cover get rolled up and carried away immediately after it’s removed. Instead, the covers are stretched tight along the ground beside each row and end up acting as the 1859 farmers’ shingles. When we look underneath the covers while harvesting squash (and by “we” I mean Farmer John, Mary or Dana, the farm’s designated squash pickers), chances are there will be squash bugs hiding underneath.

Some are simply hanging out under there; others, like the two at the lower part of the photo, are busily working on creating future generations of squash bugs. While we don’t use boiling water – it doesn’t work out too well, logistically, to tote buckets of hot water all the way from the house to the fields – we do mix up a concoction of soapy (albeit not of the whale oil variety) water and drown the bugs in that. Crushing them with our feet works, too, just as it did in 1859.

While the Farmer’s Almanac was pretty straightforward, I suspect the farmers also employed their fair share of superstitions as they brought their crops to fruition back in the 1800’s. I know we do, even as removed from that time as we try to pretend to be.

Like when the crazy late cold front was bearing down on us a week ago. John and I heard about it early that Saturday morning and walked around like zombies most of the day in anticipation of the worst. Considering the horrific tornadoes that ripped through the southeast only days before, we were certain we’d be in for the same thing when cold north wind collided with the warm, moist air coming up from the southeast.

Even when forecasters promised the weather system wouldn’t be tornadic, Farmer John and I felt sure the impending storms would bring us hail. I thought in particular about all the tomato plants out in the fields, ranging from our oldest fruit-laden bushes to the tiny starts that had been set out the week prior. And then it dawned on me: I hadn’t yet put variety markers at the front of the newest rows.

Every year we try to remember to do this. For one thing, when time gets away from us – and time always gets away from us – it’s easy to forget which row holds which tomatoes. That might not seem so important to the inexperienced, but we’ve learned a hard lesson about the perils of unlabeled tomato rows. Not only does it delay the harvesters (as in “Which rows are the heirlooms in again?”) but it can have fairly disastrous consequences when we mistake a row of indeterminate varieties for determinates.

Determinate varieties, like the Bella Rosas in the row on the right, are caged; indeterminates like Bolseno and heirlooms require staking, as shown on the left. Tomatoes are persnickety in their growing patterns, and it’s essential to know the difference.

Yet besides this practical reason, there’s also the underlying superstition. Last summer was an excellent tomato season for us, and it happened that I was solely in charge of Sharpy-ing variety names on the halved wooden yard sticks we use as markers. This year, when it was suggested that someone else do it, Mary vigorously disagreed. It had to be my job, once again.

She was right, of course. When something works, why on earth would you want to alter it? Remembering as much the weekend of the cold front, I made sure Sunday morning to get the remaining tomato rows properly labeled in the hope it would ward off any hail.

Maybe this particular superstition worked a little too well. Granted, we weren’t hailed upon…but we weren’t rained upon either. Obviously, our idiosyncrasies could use a little tweaking. If only we could talk with those 1859 farmers about it.

I bet they’d have some ideas.

* * *

My SINCERE apologies to everyone who showed up last Wednesday afternoon only to find we had run out of tomatoes – after I had announced in last week’s blog that we had plenty to last through the market. Farmer John and Dana have made me promise to never make that claim again…which leaves me with a real conundrum. We’re going to have even more (many more) tomatoes this week than we did last, and I’d really, really love to say there’s no need to worry about missing out on them if you’re running late. But I won’t say it (at least not out loud). Instead, I’ll just put it this way…

We’ll have OODLES of Early Girl tomatoes for Wednesday’s farm stand, along with Yukon Gold “new” potatoes; super sweet Yellow Granex onions and some Red Creole onions; bunches of chard; fresh elephant garlic; summer squashes — zucchini, yellow squash, Zephyr and Cousa (our squash is on strike a little bit, so we probably won’t have loads of it); bell peppers; some purple and golden beets; bunches of leeks; and any “this and that” we find ready for harvest.

Jo Dwyer
Angel Valley Organic Farm
Farm stands:
Saturdays 9:00-1:00 in Jonestown on FM 1431 at the blinking yellow light; and
Wednesdays 10:00-2:00 in NW Austin at the Asian American Center, 11713 Jollyville Road (1-1/2 blocks north of the intersection of Jollyville and Duval)