farmophile

Field notes from California's North Central Valley

Archive for the category “Spring”

On aphids, or Why I’d Make a Lousy Farmer

It was a tough choice: Visit a farm or use the weekend to put in my own home’s garden. The latter seemed a little more urgent.

I started the process two weekends ago but was thwarted by aphids. Awful little beasts. In March, I’d held hope that powerful sprays of water from my hose and some choice hand squashing would take care of those beginning to creep in on my fava beans. By month’s end they were devouring them. I took out the whole crop in a flash of anger and panic, hoping to salvage the neighboring chard.

But the other weekend, when I was getting ready to plant some starts, I looked more closely at my chard and saw that they, too, were fully overrun with black aphids. Past the point – at least in my estimation—of hose sprays, soap or pepper insecticide remedies. It became a total chard clearcut, a heartwrenching, demoralizing, humbling mass destruction.

Being the modern gardener I am, I immediately posted a photo of the carnage to Facebook …

chard ravaged by aphids

… after which my friends’ gave me advice like “bring on the ladybugs!” and a link to a magical concoction of mouthwash and tobacco to try.

All good ideas for the future, but too late for me: My beautiful, lush, green garden had become a lonely dirt patch, my only consolation the artichokes and two remaining chard plants that survived.

“It’s a clean slate,” my husband offered annoyingly helpfully. “A chance to start something new.”

My neighbor Chuck said, “The chard was probably about to bolt anyway.”

But all I could think of was, “Man, I would make a lousy farmer.”

While crop destruction for me can be a chance at starting over, it’s life and livelihood for a farmer.

There are a lot of romanticized notions about what farmers do—I’m guilty of holding a fair amount of them. But their job is more than glorified gardening and delicious dinners out by the barn. They keep us fat and happy while sparing us the details of pests, weather, weeds, and fickle markets. And they do it while keeping a vigilant eye on their crops—before it gets to the destructive stage.

Next time I’m visiting a local farm – and it will be soon! — or biting into fresh-grown Delta asparagus or (I can’t wait!) a juicy strawberry, I expect I’ll remember my epic aphid battle and be a little more appreciative of what farmers do.

For now, I’ve replanted my garden. New soil. New seeds. New starts.

Squash seedlings

Almond blossom special

My family and I drove out to the Capay Valley Almond Festival this past weekend to catch the almond blossoms at their peak.

Almond orchard in bloom

The festival, which dates back to 1915, encompasses a 21-mile stretch of Highway16 and is hosted by the towns of Rumsey, Guinda, Brooks, Capay and Esparto. It originally began after the fall almond harvest but later switched dates to take advantage of the spring blossoms.

According to festival organizers, almonds are California’s largest tree nut crop. They’re a $2 billion industry in California, with more than 6,000 growers devoting 530,000 acres in the Central Valley to almonds. Festival-goers are encouraged to admire the blooms of these trees in the Capay Valley using the Blossom Trail Map.

Bee with almond blossom

When we passed by Esparto Park around 10:30 a.m.,  a busy little festival was underway, complete with a classic car show, pancake breakfast and novelties like almond churro shortcakes. By noon, traffic was backed up to the I-505 and an influx of weekend motorcyclists had arrived, understandably drawn to the idea of a beautiful drive in the country followed by live music and barbecued ribs.

But for us, the main attraction was a few more miles down the highway, and off to the side of the road — almond orchards in full bloom.

Shoulder-ride in the almond blossoms

Lily in the almond tree

Some of the trees were at their peak, while others looked like they’d prefer to bloom this weekend. After all, the festival may be over, but the days of almond blossoms are not.

Capay Valley almond blossoms

Farm to fork: Almost-spring lamb

I’m a list-maker. Most of what ends up in my refrigerator and cupboards begins as a carefully constructed grocery list, often only slightly modified from the weeks before.

Perhaps because of that, I find it freeing, even luxurious, to go to the farmer’s market with no other plan than to find what looks most delicious and build a meal around it. Especially a Sunday meal that can be slowly, lovingly concocted and savored, with none of the get-er-done mentality of a weeknight dinner.

It didn’t take long for me to find a starting point at the Davis Farmers Market this past weekend. Esparto-based Chowdown Farms, from whom I regularly buy some great-tasting chicken, had just processed their lamb and were offering chops, ribs, shoulders and other cuts. I tend to think of lamb as a spring meal, but when it’s ready in February, I’ll take it. Although a slow-roasted shoulder would have been cheaper and likely still tasty, I was curious about the ribs, so I got a small package of them to give us a little taste.

A side accompaniment beckoned nearby, creating a rubbernecking situation at the Capay Organic booth: Broccoli Romanesco. The words “horny cauliflower” popped into my mind upon seeing them, lined up like armored broccoli. They look like they’d be more at home in a coral reef than in a field of soil. They are a striking-looking vegetable, and I’m a sucker for a pretty face.

Broccoli Romanesco

Romanesco in hand, I decided to make my go-to side of roasted vegetables, so I found some baby potatoes from Stockton-based Zuckerman’s Farm and some fresh Brussels sprouts (sorry to say, I didn’t catch the sprouts’ farm name, but at least I remembered to take a photo.)

Brussels sprouts

The classic accompaniment to lamb is mint jelly, which my husband and I don’t like, so we pulled out the ol’ iPhone and looked up “apple-pear chutney,” then bought a couple of Asian pears from grower Riffat Ahmad. Sadly, the pears are among the season’s last, but we’ll hold on until the end!

Our meal set, we took one last look to see what’s in season: purple cabbage, kale, leeks (note to self: make vichyssoise soon), citrus, fennel (note to self: figure out what the heck to do with fennel), chard, all manner of winter greens.

Red cabbageSprung a leekSwiss Chard

On Sunday, I set about making our fairly simple meal. When you start with really good ingredients, I think mussing them up with a lot of sauces, cheeses, spices and whatnots just covers up the good stuff.

Spring vegetables

So here’s how to do what  I did:

Season lamb with olive oil, salt, pepper, and fresh rosemary. Let it rest while chopping veggies.

Lamb ribs

Chop Brussels sprouts in half and Romanesco into florets.

Blanch baby potatoes in boiling water about 5 minutes. Drain and rinse with cold water. Cut potatoes in half and mix with the Brussels sprouts and Romanesco. Drizzle olive oil, herbs (I used herbs de provence), salt and pepper to season. Roast at 425 degrees for about 40 minutes.

Veggies for roasting

While vegetables cook, make the chutney. (Or don’t, it really didn’t turn out that well.)

Remove veggies from oven, and tent with foil while broiling lamb.

Place lamb about 4 inches below broiler. Broil for 3 minutes each side, turning once.

Then, by all means, eat!

Roasted lamb and spring vegetables with spicy apple chutney

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