In the Mid-Summer Swing: July at Quail Hill Farm
“It was so magical,” Scott told me, as we drove from the train station to the farm. “A tempest was literally happening! [The actor playing] Prospero, the magician, was talking about his art and magic, and as he waved his hand, there was a flash of lightening outside! It couldn’t have been better.”
That’s the first thing Scott Chaskey, poet-farmer of Long Island’s Quail Hill Farm, wanted to talk about when I made my mid-summer visit to him earlier this week. For the second year in a row, six actors performed a play on the grounds of Quail Hill—this year was, obviously, The Tempest—and Scott went to all four performances. Shakespeare performances on a farm? Well, that’s just one element of this farm’s mid-summer swing.
Farm life moves quickly, and documenting seasonal changes (as I’ve been doing) is hardly adequate, since things change on a weekly, sometimes daily, basis. When I last visited the farm, the crew was in the midst of spring seeding in the greenhouses, mulching the garlic fields, and preparing the soil for planting. Most of the fields across the 30 acre farm land still had the winter cover crops on them. But now, the landscape had dramatically changed. The garlic—which took a full week to harvest in late June—now hung from the rafters of the farm clubhouse and took over the long tables in the greenhouses, drying (or “curing” as Scott said). The early spring crops—peas, spinach, early greens, early radishes—had been planted, harvested, and were now gone. Lettuce (because it grows so fast) was on its sixth seeding.
In fact, Scott and the crew were focused on late Summer and Autumn harvest crops. “You start the seed in June for the crops you plan to harvest in October,” he told me. The brassica family of plants—cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, brussels sprouts—were just transplanted from the greenhouses to the fields, and the hot weather crops, like tomatoes, eggplant, and peppers, were in the ground and would be ready for harvest in a couple weeks.
However, the season didn’t kick off without a few hiccups: in mid-June Scott’s farm manager abruptly quit. There was no way to start a search for a new farm manager with the season in full swing, so Scott took on some of the responsibilities and effectively promoted a younger apprentice, Calvin, to help with the rest. It’s also been an uncomfortably hot and dry summer. “We’ve had a longer hot spell than I can ever remember,” Scott said. “It’s just weeks of hot weather!” But thankfully they have had some rain and are not in a drought like the Midwest.
The CSA season for members officially opened in early June, and the summer share runs through the end of October. Quail Hill differs from other CSAs in that members come to the farm and harvest their own vegetables instead of picking them up at another location. Each field has a sign in front of it detailing what the crop is, and how much each member is allowed to harvest for their share.
Harvest days are Tuesday and Saturdays. On Saturday the line of cars from the main field stretches all the way down the dirt road, but Tuesday (when I was there) was calmer. We ran into members all over the land—an elderly couple bent over in the summer squash patch, a young mother and her child digging for potatoes in another field. (They seemed to be having trouble finding the potatoes, so Scott walked into the field and dug up a few with them.) Flowers are planted all over the farm, too, which members pick at their leisure. “This one is called Irish Poet,” Scott said. “It’s basically planted so I can recite Yeats when people ask me what it is!”
The farm stand is the first place a member visits when they come to the farm to harvest their share. The chalkboard details what crops are ready for harvesting, and where to go. Members don’t quite harvest everything themselves, though: for a few crops, like winter squash, broccoli, melons, and sweet potatoes (which aren’t harvested until October) it’s easier for the crew to pick them and drop them off at the farm stand where members can pick them up.
Every farm needs to diversify, I’m told, so on Thursdays and Saturdays Kate, Quail Hill Farm’s market manager, heads to two farmers’ markets in neighboring towns. The revenue from selling at the markets is pretty small, but it’s important because it’s PR for the farm. This is also the first year Quail Hill is providing produce to a few local restaurants. When asked how the market visits were going and what the interaction with people was like, Kate laughed: “Someone made a comment about how dirty my nails were at the market the other day… in a good way. She was like, I can tell you’re a farmer!” She beams at the appreciation for what is clearly a hard day’s dirty work – literally!
After checking out the tomato vines (not ready till late August, most likely) and wheat fields (the first year they’ve planted wheat), Scott and I ended up back in the melons field, which is primarily covered in black netting to ward off the crows. But unfortunately, the crows had poked through the netting, which riled Scott to no end: “They’re such devils! If they can get in there, they’ll get in there. Aw, look! Such devils! They’re just sitting right on top of the netting and going right through. They’re so annoying!”
(Perhaps Scott’s insult of choice – ‘devils’ – was inspired by his recent Tempest experience: “A devil, a born devil, on whose nature nurture can never stick; on whom my pains, humanely taken, all, all lost, quite lost…I will plague them all…” – The Tempest, 4.1.)
Are there any options to keep them away, I asked? Well, scarecrows don’t work, he responded. Some people rig up a gun machine that shoots off a round every ten minutes. “But, yeah, we’re not likely to do that,” Scott deadpanned, in a tone that clearly meant he thought that was a ridiculous idea.
I guess time will tell if the melons survive… something to check for the next time I visit Quail Hill Farm.
(Images: Cambria Bold)