December life and times

Most things we see happening around us we can explain scientifically. Biologists have exhaustively observed and cataloged nature’s behaviors, writing up lifetimes worth of work in peer-reviewed journals. We have a reason for everything. That red hue to falling leaves is because of senescence and green chlorophyll cells flushing out. Birds singing are a part of a reproductive strategy. Flowers bloom in time with seasonal cues and colors on the petals develop to attract pollinating insects. Evolution isn’t extravagant, and what beauty we find us always for a specific purpose. But evolution shaped our own brains and we are capable of frivolity, of joy, of celebration and of love. It seems diminishing to not recognize the possibility of these sentiments in all life forms. While they may have been programmed to, birds may belt out their tunes with utter abandon because singing is fun and their songs sound beautiful to their little bird ears. Trees may reach a little farther than they have to, make just one extra twig because they can, because it’s such a joy to grow and reach into empty space, because it’s just fun to build something. It’s possible that squirrels play games on tree trunks and take naps in the branches and have genuine affection for each other. And that stunning flower that was supposed to look like a bee, may make its red a little more vivid, and give a little more nectar than it strictly has to survive because what is life’s gifts if we don’t get to share them and because it likes the company of the beetles and the bees that drink from its womb. Maybe life’s drive to survive is inherently joyful and our own existence is just one more part of the celebration.

The farm, in the throes of recent rains, is also building because it can. We’re working on a couple of big projects that will hopefully be awaiting you all, fully completed, when school resumes. We’ll be putting most of the weekly activities on hold until then, but will still be doing volunteer hours and introducing our produce box system.

Holiday Harvest-your-own Produce Boxes: Available Dec 15-29th
Since we’re not doing farm stand over the break, we’ll be selling produce boxes. Set up a time to come down to the farm and walk around with me harvesting whatever you want from what we have. Boxes will be $15 (in cash) mostly, with flexibility with large variations in produce amount. A unique opportunity to participate in your own food system from a local, organic, affordable grower and see where your food comes from! Please try to bring your own boxes/bags. Book times on weekdays 9am-5pm. We’ll keep you updated on January availability. Sign up here and I’ll be in touch. Sign up for your first one and if you like it you can sign up for another.

Wintertime

These winter days are getting shorter and shorter. Unlike the vast abundance of sunlight in the summer, plants slow down their growth when there’s less sun. Each day brings a burst of energy but it ends far too soon and they sit waiting through the night for the morning. Everything takes longer in the winter. Perhaps we can take a tip from them and Slow Down. In this grand flurry of finals week and last day of classes and holidays and all the rest of that stuff, we can be caught up in a whirlwind of activity. But the sun only has so much energy to give on these short days, and so do we. Sometimes it’s worth it to grow slowly because every cell will be placed with more intention, every spark of light more precious. We may not see the growth but below ground the plants are slowly and painstakingly growing a root base, establishing themselves in the soil, rooting. It’s the kind of internal work that cold facilitates- the nutrient-finding, stretching, grounding work that will allow us to shoot towards the sky come spring. If you feel stressed this week, please come on down to the farm and treat yourself to a good walk through fruit trees, a juicy orange from the tree, a lazy break in a hammock. Things are naturally attuned to slow down in the winter, so don’t be afraid to let your body tune in. This week we’re also slowing down, taking time to regroup and recoup and do all those things we didn’t get the chance to in the past few months.

Facilitating Foliage

Don’t let these tame showers fool you- the rain is not over yet. We’re scheduled to get two inches of rain on Tuesday! A veritable monsoon! It’s a great time to put seeds in the ground and let the rain do the germinating. Often in farming, and with many things, we are under the illusion that things that happen are our doing, and that we are in control. What a ridiculous concept! All we do is relocate seeds, but the rest is up to the impetus of nature to fulfill.  We didn’t pour energy into those seeds, giving them all they need to make a new plant. We didn’t bring them to life. Seeds germinate all on their own, and the microbial community and mineral components of the soil nurture that seed and encourage its growth.  We are facilitators, intervening when we deem necessary. We just decide whether a plant will grow here or over there.That plant is doing all the work, turning flecks of sun into sugar, reaching up, up, towards light. If things do well, and if things don’t do well, very rarely is it our doing. Instead of saying, “I grew this!” we should say, “this grew!” because the “I” component, in context with all the other components, is laughably minimal. So go forth, friends, plant your seeds and trim your trees but not for a second dare to think you have control over any of it.

The Infinity of a Seed

Tis autumn! The plants are channeling energy into their seeds as they clutch onto the last few days of life before dormancy. Us humans, attentive to their cycles, watch them and collect those magical little orbs of life. Seeds, seeds, seeds! We have been saving lots of seeds at the farm lately. Its amazing how many seeds plants produce. A single oregano plant makes enough seeds to grow hundreds and hundreds more plants. But it is the whim of nature that prevents the world from becoming an oregano forest, the random chances of the wind and the water. If we were to plant every seed in a pomegranate, we would have over a thousand trees (have you ever counted the seeds in a pomegranate?) and if those trees all produced a healthy batch of pomegranates, and we were to collect and plant and nurture all of those seeds too, then you can imagine it wouldn’t be long before there would be no more space left on the planet for pomegranate trees, and every household everywhere would be weighed down by the pink, juicy fruit, and every bird would learn to gorge itself on its fruit. But nature doesn’t work like that and almost every single seed that is produced doesn’t grow, save the lucky few. What infinite potential of life there is, untapped! What amazing abundance lies dormant below our very feet! This week we celebrate life, and we honor those that lived on this land before us by hosting two Tongva elders, on Friday and on Saturday for two separate events.

Rain!

It has rained! The clouds split open and deposited their heavenly load of moisture onto this ground! The trees have been cleansed and their leaves are rinsed free of desert dust and insect debree. Their roots are drinking the sweet rain underground as it works its way deep into the soil. This is the kind of watering we mere humans can only attempt (and inevitably fall short of). The kind of full glorious watering that makes earthworms wriggle in slippery glee and seeds tremble as they come alive. Everything falls open after rain, every pore of every leaf sighing, relieved, every stem angle is a little wider, the soil softer and more giving to the touch. Leaves that were turning and barely hanging on the branch have been released and fall liberated to the ground. The mulch is extra bouncy and it smells so fresh and green. There is something magical about the time after it rains, the world has been soaked clean, renewed and reinvigorated. There are many exciting new things coming up…(Check the calendar!)

This moringa grew so fast and then had a hard time handling the rain- or maybe it's just bowed in reverence...

This moringa grew so fast and then had a hard time handling the rain- or maybe it’s just bowed in reverence…

Post-rain farm!

Post-rain farm!

Winter Season!

The weather seems to be cooling down and the trees are much relieved. It is a time of transition at the farm. Tomato vines that are old enough to claim at least five months of lived experience squeeze out their last few leaves before surrendering, with a classic tomato vine sigh, back to the earth. Watermelon plants that have given all they can give lie exhausted and dried up in a thick layer on the beds. Even after we were convinced there could be no more watermelons, upon removing the vine, a couple small fruits were still hiding in the foliage. The plant’s very last offering, a juicy gift to remind us of this plant at the peak of summer when it was still vivid green and going strong, popping out 17 pound watermelons like they were cherries. Beds are being composted, re-shaped, coaxed back into fertility as they await the next batch of crops. We’ve got lots of eager little seedlings pushing their way into the world in the greenhouse, busy growing roots and crisp new leaves in preparation for life. Ah, yes, the winter growing season is almost upon us! Soon we’ll be bursting with beets, laden with lettuce, saturated with spinach and loving it all. It is a time to celebrate the renewal of the earth’s cycles, from the turning of the season to the waxing of the moon to the daily opening and closing of a flower. Like all cycles we return to the same points, but rather than repeat, we’re moving forward and thus keep spiraling on.

Put This in Your Soil

Imagine that one day you decide to venture into Pomona’s good ole’ farm, beaming cheerfully in anticipation of helping sort the treasured dining hall compost. Only when you get to the Farm, you’re given terrible news: the dining halls have refused to participate in any composting programs any longer. Oh no! How will you continue to sustain the Farm’s robust plants without the dining halls’ precious nutrients?

For those of you who don’t know, the Farm relies on the food waste from the college dining halls for compost. It’s of great benefit to our operations, as the halls typically deliver significant quantities of nutrient dense waste on a daily basis. However it is not very difficult to imagine what might happen if we lost this resource. I don’t know about you, but if I ever found myself in such a predicament, I would definitely want to have some comfrey in my plant arsenal. Comfrey is a green-manure crop, meaning that it can be used as a soil enhancer and fertilizer. The plant’s broad leaves contain the complete array of nutrients needed to grow any crop. They can simply be chopped off from the base of the plant and cast over soil (this method promotes invertebrate life underneath the leaves, which further breaks down nutrients into the soil) or shredded and incorporated into the soil. Another option would be to simply add large quantities to your compost pile and use the compost as you normally would, which works very well. But this soil enriching potential alone is not what makes comfrey so special.

Comfrey is also great because it is so easy to propagate and plant. If you were to snap off a fraction of a plant’s root off, even if that piece was smaller than your pinky finger, another comfrey plant would be able to grow from it. That means if I have one comfrey plant that has a massive root system, I can chop it up and have many more plants providing me with fertilizer in a few weeks (comfrey grows quickly). The photos below demonstrate how resilient comfrey is and how easy it is to have success growing it. Shown is a comfrey plant 2 weeks after I had taken it as a transplant and thrown it into a gopher hole. The gopher reclaimed the hole, but the tiny root that remained allowed the comfrey plant to continue growing in that spot. That’s a tough plant!

comfrey1

comfrey2In a few more weeks, the comfrey plant’s purple flowers will start to bloom. They not only look beautiful, but are edible and sweet too (in small quantities). Comfrey leaves are also medicinal and can be used as a topical poultice for wounds. By now I hope I’ve convinced you to plant comfrey so you can enjoy these flowers, and the many other benefits comfrey provides, in your own garden. If not, then make sure to come on down to the Farm and check out ours!

comfrey3

Farm Fresh

It’s Spring! And the Farm is bursting with veggies begging to be eaten!

Have you ever wondered how to eat a kohlrabi? Or how to cook fava beans? Are you looking for new, exciting ways to cook the veggies you see growing at the Farm?

Here is some inspiration from Farm connoisseurs, helping you create the most delicious recipes straight from the garden!

Fennel Onion Sauté with Fava Beans and Yogurt–Inspired by Lee Moonan

Serves 2
Prep time: 10 minutes
Cook time: 15 minutes

Ingredients:

1 large fennel (stalk and fronds)
1 large yellow onion, diced
3 cloves garlic
15-20 fava bean pods
1 cup greek whole fat yogurt
1/4 tsp salt
1/4 tsp ground pepper
1/2 tsp chili flakes
1/2 stick of butter (substitute coconut oil if preferred)

Prep:

1. Dice onion and finely chop garlic.
2. Take fava bean pods and shell them, placing the beans aside.
3. Wash and chop the fennel, taking care to slice the stalk in thin pieces.

Cook:

1. In a heated pan, melt butter and add the onion with salt, pepper, and chili flakes.
2. Once the onion has become translucent and begins browning, add fava beans and fennel stalks.
3. Sauté on medium heat for five minutes, stirring frequently, then add garlic and chopped fennel fronds. Cook for approximately five more minutes, or until fava beans show signs of splitting and the fennel is soft.
4. Remove from heat and stir in yogurt in a serving bowl.
5. Pour a glass of white wine and enjoy!

–Pairs wonderfully with lemon and dill pan seared salmon.

Fennel!

Fennel!

Golden Beet and Sweet Potato Frittata–Inspired by Emily Hill

–I have disliked eggs my entire life, but this frittata won me over! With eggs straight from the Farm’s chickens and our beautiful golden beets, this dish is sweet and savory and super easy!

Serves 3-4
Prep time: 10 minutes
Cook time: 20-30 minutes

Ingredients:

6 eggs
1/2 cup whole milk
3 golden beets, thinly sliced
1 sweet potato, thinly sliced
1/2 yellow onion, diced
1/4 tsp salt
1/4 tsp pepper
2 tbsp coconut oil (or olive oil)

1. Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F
2. Dice onion and thinly slice both beets and sweet potato in rounds.
3. In a heated pan, melt coconut oil and add onions. Sauté until golden brown.
4. Add beets and sweet potatoes and cook, stirring frequently, for about ten minutes or until sweet potatoes begin to cook through. Remove from heat.
5. In a separate bowl, crack and beat eggs, adding milk, salt, and pepper.
6. In an 8 x 8 glass baking ware dish evenly spread the beet sauté and pour the eggs over top.
7. Place in the oven and bake for 20-30 minutes or until eggs are no longer runny and the top is nice and golden!
8. Remove from the oven, serve, and enjoy!

–Great for breakfast, lunch, or dinner!

Beets and carrots!

Beets and carrots!

I hope you try these amazing recipes, all tested and loved by our very own Farm employees! Come on down to the Farm on weekdays from 4-6 and we can show you around, or come to our volunteer hours on Saturdays from 10-12 to help out and you can take home some produce to try these recipes yourself. Also, if you want to get more involved with cooking on campus, a new cooking club is just getting started and would love your participation. SPREAD focuses on building cooking skills and talking about food from all different angles–we would love to have you join us at our next potluck, so check us out on CollegiateLink or Facebook.

The Farm is a great resource on campus, and a wonderful place to reconnect with nature and the beauty of being a part of the growing and harvesting process. Spring and summer are the best seasons for eating from the garden, so get inspired and see what you can create!

Happy cooking!

It’s Getting Hot in Here…

In where, you ask? In our brand new compost hot tub! Congratulations, reader, for following the Pomona College Organic Farm blog, you now know about the newest and phenomenal-est feature of Pomona College, or possibly the entirety of Claremont. It sounds too good to be true, you say. Nutrient cycling + delightful relaxation?

Understanding this charming feature first requires that we understand how composting works. Compost is a mixture of nitrogen-rich plant material and carbon-rich leaves, wood chips, and, in our case, lots of dining hall table tents. Technically, anything that was once alive can be composted, but because of the (relatively) small size of our pile, we try to keep it vegan – no dairy products and definitely no meat. Microbes begin the breakdown process, aerobically decomposing the organic material. All the eating action heats up the pile and this promotes heat-loving microorganisms, which continue the process. At the Pomona Farm we get up to 60 tons of compost a year from the dining halls and eateries on campus, and our pile breaks down in little over two months to rich, delicious compost.

During this time, it can heat up to 160 degrees Fahrenheit or more, and this is where the hot tub enters the picture. Our dedicated Farm Manager and student volunteers patiently wound over 300 feet of irrigation tubing through the compost pile last week. This can hold about 5 gallons of water, which sits in the hose and heats up to the temperature of the pile. The informed hot tub user will run the water into the tub next to the pile (lovingly muscled there by farmer hands) until it runs cold, wait 5 minutes, then run it again, because the new water in the hose will have heated up already. While the tub is more of a foot soak situation than full-on immersion, it sure feels great on weary feet at the end of a long day. Come down to the Farm day weekdays from 4-6 pm and Farm Staff will be delighted to demonstrate this appealing new feature.

Want to experience it for yourself? Join us for a Full Moon Farm Tour and Foot Soak, on Tuesday, April 15th at 9:30pm. FMI: http://farm.pomona.edu/events/full-moon-foot-soak/

Farm Staff and friends enjoy a hot foot soak at the end of a long day of work!

Farm Staff and friends enjoy a hot foot soak at the end of a long day of work!

Soil Testing at the Farm

Just how good is the soil at the Farm?

This spring, a group of senior Environmental Analysis students is conducting their senior capstone exercise on soil fertility at the Farm. Their goal is to determine whether Farm soil is optimal for fruit and vegetable production, and make recommendations for how to ensure fertile soil in the future. Curious about their results, or about what makes good soil good? Read on!

Until now, not much laboratory testing has been done at the Farm. A group independent study last fall measured pH, nitrogen, and phosphorus using a colorimetric test kit, and soil samples had been tested a few years ago for heavy metals. Results of these tests showed that the samples tested were alkaline, high in nitrogen and phosphorus, and low in heavy metals. Since plants can have a harder time accessing nutrients in alkaline soil, students in the independent study also set up test plots where they added gypsum to lower the soil pH.

A few weeks ago, the EA seniors took soil samples from all the beds on the East Farm, a few fruit trees, and the compost pile, and sent them all off to Midwest Laboratories for testing. This week, the results arrived!

The good news:

  • Farm soil is very high in organic matter, thanks to regular applications of compost.
  • Most samples tested very high in two of the major plant nutrients, phosphorus and potassium.
  • In contrast to the very high pH readings seen by the group independent study last fall, all samples were between pH 7.2 and pH 7.8, with compost coming in at pH 8.0. Since the “sweet spot” where nutrients are most available to plants is between 5.5 and 7.0, this is only slightly higher than optimal.
  • All samples tested were very high in magnesium and high in calcium, two significant plant nutrients and ions that help maintain soil structure.

Things that could be tinkered with:

  • Nitrate-nitrogen levels of almost all samples tested were lower than the recommended range of 25-40 ppm. Nitrogen is perhaps the single most important plant nutrient, so it’s important to make sure Farm soil supplies sufficient amounts, and nitrate is a water-soluble form of nitrogen that is most accessible to plants. Still, since organic matter releases nitrogen slowly in a form that isn’t measured by this test, it’s possible that plants at the Farm are getting enough nitrogen even though nitrate-N levels are low. Testing plant samples could tell us for sure whether the plants are getting enough nitrogen, but in the meantime, rotating leguminous cover crops like clover, fava beans, and peas with other crops can help increase soil nitrogen.
  • Many samples had very high levels of sodium, which can be toxic to plants and cause soil structure to break down. Fixing high sodium in soil is a little more complicated than increasing nitrogen, since recommendations include replacing sodium with calcium and magnesium or flushing the soil with irrigation water.
  • If we want to bring soil pH within the optimal range of 5.5-7.0, we could apply gypsum or elemental sulfur. Doing this in test plots first to figure out the right application rate and see how long it takes to lower the pH would be a good idea.

Let us know if you’re curious or would like more information!