The sky was a crime scene.

That is what is called a “hook.” I was reminded of the term by Mary’s 9-year-old son when we were all gathered near the salad sinks at the close of a recent work day. As I’m sure most of you know, a hook is a leading sentence designed to intrigue the reader into wanting to continue on.

That isn’t where our grammar lesson began. It started with a question to the young boy, specifically asking him to describe a simile. He knew immediately that a simile is a figure of speech in which two essentially different things are compared using the words “like” or “as.” Pretty impressive for a 9-year-old, yes? This little guy is a smart one. He did, however, get a bit flummoxed when asked how a simile differs from a metaphor — volunteering the meaning of “hook” instead — yet he was no more confounded than Farmer John.

No offense to my dear husband, of course. While grammar isn’t his strong suit, he’s one heck of a vegetable grower (and honestly, I’ll take that over a linguistics expert any day). Which made it all the more remarkable that after a brief explanation of metaphor versus simile, and after the rest of us tried to think of metaphorical sentences to illustrate its definition — each of our attempts fairly lame — it was John who blurted out:

“The sky was a crime scene.”

We all fell silent for a moment. I jotted it down on a piece of paper. When asked what made him consider such an interesting analogy, John admitted it was because of the weather forecast (once a vegetable grower, always a vegetable grower). There was a 40% chance of rain in the near future, supposedly coming with the passage of the latest cold front, and his metaphor was in actuality wishful thinking.

Fortunately, we have a deep well and have never wanted for irrigation water. We know other local farmers whose wells went dry during the drought of 2011, a dire situation if there ever was one, particularly for those of us who depend on irrigation water for our livelihoods. Still, even though we’ve never had to go without it, well water doesn’t compare to water from the sky.

Since our well is deep and the pump rate is somewhat low, we can only irrigate small sections of the farm at any one time. Plus, we have only so much drip tape (though plenty enough if only it would occasionally rain) and almost all of it is busy quenching the thirst of our vegetable crops. The problem lies on the acreage not currently dedicated to vegetables, where we grow cover crops — oats and oilseed radish, to name a couple we’ve used this season — in order to maintain soil health. We plant these covers with the hope of rain to keep them alive. When rain eludes us like it did the entire month of November, emergency action is required.

Over the Thanksgiving holiday Farmer John spent many hours dragging our last available lengths of drip tape to parched cover crops. The oilseed radish was especially in need.

oilseed radish

It appears oats can handle drought somewhat better, although there’s a marked difference between oats planted in late September (the two rows on the right in the following picture) that received at least one good downpour shortly after they were seeded, as compared to cover crop planted in October (on the left).

oats

John will now include this 200-foot long section in his weekly irrigation schedule. The 400-foot cover cropped beds aren’t so lucky.

400 foot cover crop

Only a couple of these oilseed radish rows are equipped with drip tape right now, as we don’t have enough to stretch along the remainder. I don’t know whether John plans to move the tape from row-to-row-to-row to try to keep them going or not. I don’t want to ask.

All we can do, really, drip tape or no drip tape, is hope for a crime scene in the sky — one filled with dark, menacing clouds punctuated by blinding flashes of lightning and crashing, house-rattling thunder. We came so close to experiencing that very thing soon after John coined his impressive metaphor. He and I watched radar anxiously as a blob of yellow and red moved closer and closer to our area…only to drift north just as the storm was poised to hit.

Afterwards, we felt as blue as the November sky.

blue sky

For anyone keeping score, that’s a simile. And truthfully, we weren’t quite that blue. Disappointed, sure, but we’ve come to expect as much, and do at least have a source of water to take the place of the magical moisture that sometimes falls from above. (We’ve heard rumors of such occurrences, anyway.)

It’ll rain again one day, probably violently with water gushing down in bucketfuls. Storms like those usually scare the bejeebers out of me, but I’d welcome that kind of criminal activity right about now.

* * *

For the farm stand this Wednesday, we’ll have:

romanesco

Romanesco cauliflower, orange “Cheddar” cauliflower and white cauliflower, along with lots of broccoli, lettuce mix, Euro salad mix, spinach, sweet white turnips, bulk purple and golden beets, bunches of chard, Dinosaur kale, Brussels greens, bags of arugula, purple and green kohlrabi, watermelon radishes, cilantro, Cubanelle peppers, maybe savoy cabbages (if they’re ready!), and some of this and that.

watermelon radishes

Thanks!
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)

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Prior to last week’s showers, we hadn’t received a substantial amount of rain since some time in June. I’d need to pull out past calendar pages to see exactly what day it happened, verified by when I’d penned in a rainfall total (in blue ink, of course). It’s been so long now, I can’t even remember it really.

There’d been no need to look it up anyway. There were plenty of other reminders pointing to the fact that it had been ages since we’d seen a good rain. Like our collection of rubber boots and muck shoes.

I don’t know how many times we’ve swept the salad shed floor and cursed under our dust-choked breaths about having to move aside these relics of muddy days past. I’m slightly amazed I didn’t just throw them all away.

Then finally, on that wonderfully soggy Sunday afternoon following the early morning rains, I actually needed to slip on a pair. John was already mucking about in his boots so I didn’t know how the first foot insertion went for him. Mine, however, came with a bit of a surprise. Oh, I shook out the boots first — I know all too well what kind of creatures can hide inside long unworn shoes. Still, my right foot met with a good sized obstacle on its journey to from heel to toe. I quickly retreated, and upon closer examination found an abandoned mud dauber nest inside it large enough to house not only the wasp’s immediate and extended family, but its entire roster of Facebook friends and friends of friends as well.

Fortunately, towels stored indoors tend not to harbor unwanted visitors. We keep a stack of four old hand towels on the counter in the spare kitchen, always at the ready for wet days. Like our rows of rubber boots, they hadn’t seen much action in a while. So when I carried them from the back kitchen to the front for their intended purpose, I couldn’t help but smile a little.

It was almost thrilling to once again protect the kitchen stools from muddy pants. We hadn’t needed butt towels (as we ever so delicately refer to them) in such a long, long time.

Another sure indicator of mud farming is the first post-rain leafy greens harvest. In drier times, the leaves are so relatively free of dirt that a double rinse is all it takes, from one sink to the other and then on to the industrial-sized salad spinner. Heck, sometimes we don’t even have to change out the water but every two sinkfuls. Not so after a rain.

There’s no reusing this water. After every bucket full of arugula we have to drain the first sink, flush all the mud down the drain, refill it and give the leaves a third dunk into fresh water before continuing to the next load. It takes a whole lot more time to get through the harvest.

All of this is fine though. Nobody here is complaining about rain. Not even considering what it did to our tender young Euro salad mix that only days before had been set out into its permanent bed.

Granted, upon first glance we cringed in sympathy for these delicate babes, yet we knew they’d be fine. All the better for the abuse, really, considering it was fresh, sweet water from the sky that temporarily mussed them up. Underneath it all, their roots were happy. And they weren’t the only ones.

Out of what was once parched ground, a daylily. As I excitedly carried out the camera for a shot of this one, Farmer John pointed to several more preparing to open. Bright little hellos and howdy-dos.

Now these flowers have begun to fade. I’ve refolded and put away the unneeded butt towels and set aside dry muck boots. Salad harvests will move along more quickly, and tiny tattered leaves have already been replaced by perfect ones. Life has gone back to being much neater. All of this, until the next time we’re forced into mud mode.

Bring it on.

* * *

New crops are beginning to be ready for harvest! For Wednesday’s farm stand we’ll have:

The first of the purple beets (not a slew just yet, but a good start!); “bunching” green onions; beautiful chard; bunches of Asian mustard greens; four varieties of summer squash (zucchini, Zephyr, yellow squash and Cousa); Asian cucumbers; bags of arugula; three varieties of eggplant; green bell peppers; and Cubanelle peppers.

Thanks!
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)

The only good thing about our well water is it’s wet. We send off water and soil samples to a lab in South Texas for testing every two or three years, and each time we receive results saying, essentially, Stop! Stop using that horrendous water! You’ll kill EVERYTHING!

Okay, that might be a slight exaggeration, but it’s not all that far off.

It’s the salt, you see. The sodium level in our water is so high, the lab report claims it will burn any plant matter it comes into contact with. Obviously, we use the water anyway. I mean, really, what choice do we have? In fact, we’ve always kind of blown off the dire warnings, knowing full well that our farm produces all sorts of vegetables and greens and lettuces and such. Yearly, we thumbed our noses at the lab report and kept trudging along.

Then this year happened. So little water has fallen from the sky to dilute the effects of our caustic well water, we know in our heart of hearts what kind of damage is being done to the soil. Until it does finally rain (last week’s .05” doesn’t count), that salt isn’t going anywhere.

To make matters worse, our rainwater tank for the greenhouses ran dry a while back. Prior to this unfortunate event, we’d always started our plants using clean, stored rain. Only after we set them out into the fields were they exposed to the true trials of farm life — extreme weather, insect intrusion, soil diseases and yes, the ravages of our well water.

Yet with no rainwater in the tank, we were forced to use well water in the greenhouses. The results weren’t pretty. In fact, while Farmer John and I were galavanting through Hungary for over two weeks, most all the tiny greenhouse starts burned up from the twice daily salt showers they received via watering wands.

Dana and Mary searched out water delivery, which necessitated purchasing a chlorine filter for the greenhouse pump. As soon as John and I returned home, we ordered up 2000 gallons.

It helped. Immensely. The few flats that survived the greenhouse torture seem to have pulled themselves back from the abyss, and our newly planted lettuces are doing fine.

We haven’t let on to them what it’ll be like once they’re set out into their permanent, salty rows. Just like Dana and Mary kept the full extent of death and destruction secret from us as we were enjoying our vacation, we’ll let these tiny lettuces have fun while they’re able. We appreciated our utopia while it lasted; the least we should do is pass forward the same favor wherever we can.

Lettuce requires tender loving care early on, regardless of the cruelty it’ll face at its final destination. It’s especially persnickety when it comes to germination. Lettuce seed is downright stubborn if the environment is too warm, yet it doesn’t want to be covered with a layer of cooling soil either. Oh no no. Like Goldilocks with her porridge and the Princess with that pesky pea, lettuce insists everything be just right.

Consequently, we’ve learned that in order to get our fall lettuces started in a timely manner, we have to germinate the first round inside the air-conditioned house. We cover the counters and sinks in our second kitchen with flats of freshly-planted lettuces, carrying them outside daily to douse the seedlings with rainwater from our household tanks (which, this year, have also dried up). For this purpose, we set up a makeshift watering rack immediately outside the solarium door.

This system, although a bit cumbersome, has always worked beautifully. And there was no reason to believe the same wouldn’t hold true once more. (This was prior to the discovery that our well water and young seedlings don’t at all get along.)

Again, however, this year happened. With little rain came little food for wildlife, and as soon as we turned our backs on the dripping lettuce flats, Cardinals and Purple Finches nosedived (beakdived?) the teensy plants. We lost almost all of them.

Isn’t this a sad story? All is not bleak, though, not by a long shot. Despite lousy weather and lousy water, 95 percent of the crops out in the fields are, if not exactly thriving, doing pretty darned well. It helps that we added to our existing supply of shade cloth and have used every stitch of it to cover as much as possible.

These extras — the water delivery, the chlorine filter, the additional rolls of shade cloth — haven’t come cheap. We even purchased 300 broccoli starts in 4” pots from a certified organic nursery in an attempt to partially assuage the loss of late-succession broccoli that succumbed to death-by-well-water in our greenhouses.

It’s all a big gamble, yet it’s one we’ve chosen to take. The alternative would be to throw in the towel for a late fall season, and we’re not ready for that. Undeniably, a good portion of farming is a gamble anyway, and because you sure can’t count on Lady Luck always being on your side…you gots to do what you gots to do.

* * *

We were able to stay open until 1:00 last Wednesday, and it looks like we’ll have the same quantity this week too! We’ll be bringing:

Beautiful eggplant (three varieties); MANY bunches of chard; bunches of Asian mustard greens**; four varieties of summer squash (zucchini, Zephyr, yellow squash and Cousa); bags of arugula; the first Cubanelle peppers from the new crop; Asian cucumbers; spaghetti squash; acorn squash; and some odds and ends.

**Wonder what to do with those gorgeous Asian greens? Saute or steam the chopped leaves (and stems of most the varieties!) and fold into an omelette. Or add them to tacos or quesadillas. Or slather them between the slices of bread on a grilled cheese sandwich. They’re delicious!! (They’re yummy raw, too!)

***By the way, we’re reopening our Jonestown farm stand this Saturday!

Thanks!
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 10:00-1:00 or 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)

There’s nothing like an exceptional drought coupled with daily temperatures in the 100’s to get the ole creative juices flowing. (Other juices flow, too, while working outside in these conditions…but I’ll spare that detail.) Lately, that means coming up with ways to soften the blows Mother Nature is throwing at our otherwise defenseless crops.

Were we to do nothing and leave tomatoes and peppers exposed to relentless sun like this, they’d fry on the plants long before they ever made it to the stovetop.

People sometimes wonder why colored peppers are more expensive. This is the answer. Had we plucked this pepper from the plant in its green stage, it would have been fine. This poor thing, however (and many more like it), was ruined beyond redemption by the sun’s piercing rays — there wasn’t nearly enough time for it to change hues prior to its demise. I routinely cut these burned peppers from the plants and toss them on the ground.

Tomatoes exposed to hours and hours of blaring sun suffer the same fate. Because of that, we’ve amassed a pretty good supply of shade cloth over the years. We even have pieces large enough to cover the frames of the hoop houses we’d erected over our early-early tomatoes back in February. After removing the plastic in late April then allowing the hoops to remain naked through most of May, it became apparent that shade was the next step.

The plants underneath have produced hundreds of pounds of fruit and are now nearly dead, yet the tomatoes still clinging to the vines are perfectly good. These girls – Early Girls, that is – have worked hard, and are deserving of some comfort in the twilight of their (yummy) lives.

As an added plus, the people who harvest these tomatoes are treated to a bit of shaded relief themselves. (Though don’t think the harvesters have it too cushy. While 100 degrees in the shade is decidedly less torturous than 100 degrees in the sun, it isn’t exactly a dip in Barton Creek either.)

In addition to the hoop house shade, every row of determinate tomato plants large enough to have set fruit has been draped with lengths of narrower cloth.

We normally use this size shade cloth on leafy greens and such in the late summer/early fall, but desperate times call for desperate measures. Obviously, the cloth isn’t wide enough to reach all the way over tomato plants, so we position it to protect primarily the west side of the rows. Morning sun does less damage than the searing rays of the afternoon.

With the peppers, we’ve taken another tack. Fortunately, the majority of our pepper plants are safely tucked underneath one of the shaded hoop houses, but the Cubanelle and Corno di Toro varieties are right out in the open. Because these plants are tall (and because we’ve now used up every stitch of shade cloth we own), John fashioned some farmer-made shade out of old row cover.

Again, only the west sun is blocked,

but we’re counting on the a.m. sunshine being a bit kinder and gentler.

What we’re doing with the plants is pretty similar to what we do to ourselves, really. Not only must we protect the crops; we need to consider how to keep the sun from burning us up beyond recognition as well. Big hats are a must, like the one Farmer John is wearing here.

I wear a hat out in the fields, too, but as is illustrated by these remarkable Lego interpretations – artfully created by Mary’s husband Daniel – I’m dressed for the farm stand. In perpetuity, it seems, as we’ve found out Lego stocks no farm clothes or farm hats for women. (And truthfully, the chapeau on miniature Farmer John’s head looks to be more dapper than functional, so perhaps there are no Lego farm hats for men either.)

It’s a very cool thing, we now realize, to have a plastic replica of yourself. The morning Mary brought these two to work, I immediately put them on the windowsill above the kitchen sink beside the tiny hen given to us by Dana.

A couple days later, tragedy struck. I was at the sink cleaning peppers for dinner, when I suddenly noticed something was amiss.

“We’re gone!” I shouted.

“What?!” John asked, as he ran to my side.

Pointing with a trembling finger, I repeated, “We’re gone!”

As we stood staring at the empty space, John’s calming hand on my shoulder, we reasoned that Mary must have taken us away for some higher purpose. Daniel hadn’t been happy about my lack of eyewear (apparently, in addition to a dearth of farm clothes for women, Lego also stocks no bespectacled females)…yet I’d assured Mary that since I wasn’t born with glasses, and in fact didn’t start wearing them until my late 40’s, I can live with my plastic double’s eyes going au naturale.

That wasn’t it, though. Daniel’s real problem with mini-John and me was our tiny environment. We’re farmers, after all, and farmers should be surrounded by a farm. While the original version of ourselves is truly more realistic for a year practically devoid of greenery like this one, he felt it more appropriate that we stand on verdant terrain. With a chicken.

The apple I’m holding is a nice touch too.

This happy little scene must surely be a harbinger of good things to come. The horrific drought will end one day – probably with a flood, but we’ll worry about that when the time comes – and this Lego version of the farm will be even more lifelike.

I can’t wait. That apple looks delicious.

* * *

For Wednesday’s farm stand, we’ll have:

Lots of tomatoes again! – Bella Rosa slicing tomatoes, Early Girls, Italian Bolseno, high-acid Defiant, yellow Lemon Boy, and quite a lot of heirloom Cherokee Purple & Cherokee Green; three varieties of cherry tomatoes; four varieties of eggplant; super sweet Yellow Granex onions; bunches of basil; fresh elephant garlic; the first of the squash from the latest crop; Cubanelle peppers; a few bags of arugula (just planted more, so hopefully we’ll have a good supply before too long!); Mideast cucumbers from our friends at Tecolote Farm; and a little of this or that.

Thanks!
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)