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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Springtime is the worst. With each approaching spring storm comes the nervousness, the tenseness, the wrenching fear deep in our chests that takes hold like a fist. Farmer John normally isn’t nearly the worrywart that I am, but when the skies blacken and television radar shows yellow, then red, then purple, I watch his expression grow darker and darker – just like the sky – as a sense of defeat settles upon him. Upon us both.

I think back to our interview a little over a year ago when the Producer and camera crew from KLRU came to the farm to film a segment for Central Texas Gardener. During the course of the question-and-answer session (which goes on a whole lot longer than what ultimately ends up on the program) there’s a portion where I speak cavalierly about hail storms, and how quickly we and the farm recover from them.

It’s so easy to say, when a storm isn’t impending.

Last Monday’s clusters of storms captured our attention, but good. I was making dinner when the local news came on, the weather being its main story. The station’s radar screen lit up with a patchwork of colors corresponding to each severe storm warning – southwest of Austin, southeast of Austin, out in the western Hill Country. At first, it appeared we weren’t in any danger of being hit, so we watched on behalf of other farmers we know.

That’s how farmers observe these spring storms – which farm might get clobbered. When a possible hail storm heads toward Kyle, as one did on Monday, we think about the farmer we know there. And as soon as the severe thunderstorm warning went up for Milam County that same night, we looked closely to determine the storm’s path in the hope it wouldn’t hit our friend’s farm out that way.

Meanwhile, the on-air meteorologist was almost giddy. I get it. Weather is his thing, after all, and nothing is more exciting, or puts his profession more in the spotlight, than the threat (or hope?) of severe storms. As much as we hate to admit it, in John’s and my previous life, we were pretty tickled at the prospect of a decent sized hail storm as well. For a while, John was the president of a statewide auto collision parts company, and what could be more fortuitous for the body shop industry than widespread hail?

John is convinced that now, when the farm is hit by hail, it’s karma. Cosmic retribution for our callous disregard for all those people whose cars were dimpled by hailstones.

Last Monday evening, the meteorologist claimed that some of the worst storms carried with them hail the size of golf balls. Imagine the angels lined up at the big driving range in the sky, their buckets full of brightly-painted balls, all of them beginning to swing at once. Remember when, as a frightened child, adults would try to ease your mind by telling you thunder is just the sound of angels bowling? And who could conceive of a stray bowling ball careening wildly from the sky? Golf balls, however, are a different story. A few sliced shots here, a few hooks there… Fore, indeed.

As it turns out, though, a hail stone prediction comes with a twist. When the weatherman estimated golf balls, he meant the size of the hail while still in the clouds. He quickly pointed out that by the time the hail tumbled to the ground, it would have shrunken to mere quarter-sized chunks.

Somehow, that didn’t ease our minds. Especially since a late-forming radar blob began morphing over Lakeway and appeared to be heading straight for us. When the meteorologist mentioned Lago Vista as the storm’s potential endpoint, we were convinced the farm was doomed.

I snapped one more photo. And while the resulting color would be lovely on a car, or perhaps a blouse, I wasn’t too enthusiastic about it atmospherically. Farmer John and I prefer our sky a lighter hue.

At the last moment, the storm stalled and started to dissipate. We were treated with one heck of a lightning show as we sat eating our late dinner, yet not one plunk of hail hit our metal roof, or the farm. The tomatoes out in the field continue to ripen, undamaged, and for that, we’re more grateful than words might express.

We can only hope that in the future, if the angels insist on golf (as much as we wish they’d hang out in their celestial bowling alleys instead) they aim away from the farm, and drive those balls straight to the hole.

* * *

Here’s what we’ll be bringing to the farm stand Wednesday (**See a note below, about parking):

LOADS of Early Girl tomatoes (if you’re running late on Wed., don’t worry – we’ll have PLENTY to last throughout the market); oodles of new potatoes — Red Lasoda and Yukon Gold; fresh elephant garlic; bunches of basil; bunches of purple beets and a few golden beets; bulk 1015 onions and Red Burgundy onions; some summer squashes (the next crop is looking good and should be producing hopefully by next week!); fennel; and whatever else we might find ready for harvest.

**We overflowed the parking lot last Wednesday! If you find that there are no more parking spaces available when you show up this week, you can park along the street on Bell Avenue (when you exit the Asian Center, turn left on Jollyville, then make a left at the next street, which is Bell – there’s a nice sidewalk that leads from Bell Avenue directly to the Asian Center). And remember: if it’s tomatoes you’re after, we’ll have lots and lots of them so there’s no need to get there right at 10 a.m.!

Thanks!
Jo Dwyer
Angel Valley Organic Farm

It happened so much later in the season this year, probably because of the October rains. When a northerly front blasts through here with clouds and rain accompanying it, we don’t get quite so cold. A dry front, however, is usually deadly. Without moisture to warm the ground a little, or cloud cover to serve as an insulator, the temperature can sink like a stone.

We knew the cold front heading our way early last week was going to be a dry one. And because we’re in this valley – a “cold pocket” in the extreme – we’ve learned from experience what must be done. First, PVC hoops needed to be placed along the rows that would ultimately be draped with floating row covers.

Once the hoops were in place, wads of spun polyester were rolled out (most of them used for the second, third or eleventh time – showing their ages by how dirty they were, how riddled with holes, or both).

Only the row covers already pinned to the ground could handle that afternoon’s brisk north wind. The remainder of the covers would have to wait until early evening to be draped over the other crops, after the breeze died down. Davy, Dana and Mary graciously worked a little late helping to get everything ready…

…while Farmer John supervised.

Okay, to be fair, he did more than stand and watch. He also pointed.

Wait. Wait. Before John reads this, I have to come clean. After dark that evening, while I sipped a glass of wine and made a delicious, wholesome soup consisting of fresh greens (chard, in this case, but any of the varieties would do), potatoes and great northern (to coincide with the direction of the wind) beans, Farmer John trudged through the farm putting the row covers in place, his head lamp illuminating the way.

Prior to beginning that onerous chore, he and I first made some Important Executive Decisions. Although every/one had hooped up darn near every/thing, John and I snapped out of emergency mode and recognized that it wasn’t necessary to cover it all. Had we anticipated a low temperature of 17 degrees, it would have been a different story – but we were looking at probably more like the upper 20’s.

We started ticking off which crops were most needy: Peppers and eggplant, for sure. Lettuces and the most delicate leafy greens would benefit from row covers simply to avoid uglification by tip burn, while the rest – brussels greens, kale, cabbages and the like – were on their own.

I should know better than assume I’ll sleep well the night of the first freeze. Especially knowing some crops – important crops – hadn’t been covered. The logical side of my brain assured me cabbages can handle the cold. Then, in the middle of the night, the irrational side of my brain (the side that always shows itself in the middle of the night) whispered that the temperatures might be dropping into the teens at that very instant, damaging the rows of tender Farao cabbages we so hoped to harvest in abundance for the Thanksgiving markets.

The logical side reminded me that I could have staved off the irrational side’s intrusion into my dreams, had I allowed myself to dip into the anti-anxiety pills stashed away in the bathroom. The prescription bottle is a leftover from my surgery almost two years ago, but I’ll bet the stuff still works. By that time of night, though, it was too late to go rummaging through cabinets.

As it turned out, our low was 28 degrees, not 17. The Farao cabbage came through it unscathed. So did the immature savoy cabbage, also uncovered. The irrational side of my brain obviously forgot to murmur nocturnal warnings about these flawless beauties. That would have certainly – and needlessly – kept me awake until dawn.

I’m thinking when the next freeze hits, to silence that pesky irrational side and guarantee a good night’s sleep, I’m taking one of those pills.

***Here’s what we’ll be bringing to the stand this Wednesday:

LOTS of beautiful lettuces for your Thanksgiving salads – butterhead, red leaf, green leaf and romaine; tender & sweet Farao cabbages; Napa cabbages; the first Savoy cabbages; “Cheddar” orange cauliflower (we have our fingers crossed for a lot…we’ll have to wait and see how much is ready for harvest); lettuce mix; spinach; Provencal lettuce/chicory salad mix; arugula; bunches of chard; bunches of Asian greens; bunches of Brussels greens; broccoli greens; two varieties of kale – dinosaur kale and curly kale; collards; pink and purple radishes; lovely heads of escarole; bell peppers; eggplant; and some odds and ends.

Thanks!
Jo Dwyer
Angel Valley Organic Farm
Farm stands:
In Jonestown on FM1431 at the blinking yellow light, Saturdays beginning at 10 a.m.;
In NW Austin on Jollyville Road between Oak Knoll and Duval (at the Asian American Cultural Center), Wednesdays beginning at 10 a.m.

Most of the general public is of the mind that farmers rejoice over rain. Particularly after the extended drought and record-breaking summer heat, a non-farmer type would logically assume that the recent rain events found us breaking out the champagne and toasting every downpour. And truth be told, when the initial rains started to fall at the beginning of September, we were indeed cautiously optimistic about the prospect of continued rainfall.

By the end of the month, however, after receiving a total of 8.2 inches, we were beginning to grow a little weary of the rain. While we certainly didn’t want it to cease altogether, we sometimes wished it would hold off at least long enough to get our fall crops in the ground. September is a busy month for planting and we had two greenhouses filled to the brim with starts that desperately needed to be set out.

Finally last Thursday, Farmer John was able to till several rows and we made a concerted effort to empty as much of the greenhouses as possible. We spent many hours planting out tiny collards, kale, chard, escarole, cauliflower, leeks and green onion starts. It was a long day of bending and crouching, but we were happy for the opportunity to get it done – especially since we knew there was once again a good chance for rain that night.

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And rain it did. Around 9:45 p.m., a violent storm let loose its fury directly overhead. When nickel-sized hailstones began beating against our living room windows, John and I opted for a safer spot away from all the glass where we felt a bit more protected yet were still able to view the carnage outside.

“It’s October!” we wailed, as the spring-like storm raged. Although we’re always hopeful they’ll pass us by, we anticipate hail storms like that in April and May. But not in October. Not in the fall.

In ten minutes, 1.3 inches of rain fell on the farm, in addition to the hail. At 10 p.m., inside our flooded outbuilding, I was busy lifting the latest harvest of butternut squash from the waterlogged cardboard upon which it had been left to cure, while John worked the push broom across the floor to get the majority of the water out. Only our utter exhaustion allowed us to sleep at all that night. We knew we’d be faced with a disaster the next day.

Friday morning wasn’t pretty. The escarole we were planting in the previous photo was ripped apart and plastered to the ground;

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as was the tiny chard.

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The bigger chard, from the row we’d been harvesting for our first two farm stands of the season, didn’t fare any better.

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One of the saddest sights, though, was our rows of summer squashes. They had been beautiful – the healthiest squash rows we’d enjoyed since spring, before the horrid heat set in for the duration of the summer – and we’d been picking box upon box of perfect zucchini, Zephyr, yellow straightneck and pattypan from them. Farmer John harvested squash just three hours before the storm.

The morning after, every squash plant was broken and battered.

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A bright spot amongst the devastation was the majority of our Brassicas. Even though the leaves of the broccoli, cauliflower, brussels sprouts and green and purple cabbage plants were tattered, very few of them snapped at the base. They have time to recover.

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Sadly, we can’t say the same for the Napa cabbages.

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And although I didn’t take a picture of the rows of tomato plants, let’s just put it this way: There’s no need to ask us if we’ll have fall tomatoes this year.

Surprisingly, we managed to keep some pretty stiff upper lips through it all. It wasn’t the first time the farm was blasted by hail, and it sure as heck won’t be the last. Many plants were lost, but we felt confident that many others would survive.

Then Saturday night it rained again. On Sunday, it poured. In a 12-hour period, seven inches of driving rain fell on the farm, pounding the already hail-battered plants while turning our small creek into a raging river.

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The good news is the water from our creek ultimately spills into Lake Travis, and we all know Lake Travis needs all the water it can get right now. Because of this, John had already perfected his response to the oft-exclaimed, “I’ll bet you’re happy the farm is getting all this rain!” (since farmers are always happy about rain).

So as not to disappoint the grinning inquisitor, Farmer John diplomatically answers, each and every time, “As long as it fills the lake, it doesn’t matter what it does to the farm.”

We do indeed care deeply about the drought coming to an end and the lake filling to normal levels. We’re thrilled to see some progress in that regard. Yet I know, when John gets to the part about the effect on the farm, he’s lying just a little.

***Regrettably, we have to close the farm stands until we can accomplish some clean up work and give the plants time to decide whether or not they’ll live. We WILL be back; we just don’t know yet when that will happen. Our hope is that we’ll see enough improvement in two weeks to return to our markets. I’ll keep you posted.***