CSA Work Day at Appalachia Star Farm 5.22.10
For many years I have admired the CSA bags of Appalachia Star supporters. Strawberries! Asparagus! Blueberries! Perfect little zucchini! When I heard the news that Roundabout Farm wouldn’t be continuing its CSA program this year, it gave me the opportunity to reevaluate the CSA model in our lives to see if it was still the investment that made sense. We are avid market shoppers, hitting the City Market around 7:30 each Saturday we are in town; the Wednesday ‘Farmers in the Park’ market occurs just 2 blocks away from our home, so a midweek afternoon outing couldn’t be more convenient. Also, last year we dug a 5 ft wide, 25 ft long garden in our side yard and had a pretty good time with greenbeans, tomatoes, basil, tomotillos, and ground cherries. Without a CSA we wouldn’t starve, for sure — but the skill and the grace that Kathryn and Michael and their kids bring to the City Market and to their CSA production just seemed like something we wanted to get closer to. I feel I could identify their kale in a line of anonymous greens (heirloom variety Red Russian, frilled edges, not overgrown nor bitter, happy to hail from hilly Nelson County). Finally, now that we’re all living in town (including a former Country Mouse), we need distant destinations to satisfy our urge to drive out into the hills – especially on graduation weekend.
We loaded up the truck to go to the farm for a CSA work day on Saturday 5.22.10, bringing some cold tamales from the City Market and a couple of other odds and ends to nibble along the way. We drove past Seaman’s strawberry fields, which are surrounded on all sides by misty blue mountains, swathed in fog on that drizzly day. Several times I thought we had missed a turn, or turned wrong, even though the roads all looked familiar from a berry-picking expedition several weeks prior. When we turned in to Appalachia Star, we saw Michael and a few other CSA members hoeing a potato field. however, after greeting us Michael asked us to start harvesting asparagus.
Unlike most vegetables, asparagus are a perennial plant, taking 2 to 3 or more years for a patch to really get rolling. The rhizomes gradually spread underground (I’ve been told they even naturalize in the sandy soils of the Tidewater), and the resulting asparagus become larger and larger each successive year (I think). Michael asked us to harvest any shoot that was the requisite length – about 8 inches – and to snip out any teeny, tiny asparagus that just take energy that could be going elsewhere. Michael showed us how to squat, feel downward along the stalk to find its intersection with the ground, and use the angled harvesting knife to slice it off clean and even. The shoots were surprisingly difficult to see against a mottled backdrop of hay and other organic matter; I helped Geoff spot them, and held the bucket, while he squatted and sliced. Lincoln rode on my back in the frame backpack, pretty content except with the brim of his hat, which was irking him. Occasionally we found a black and yellow beetle that Michael had instructed us to squash with our fingers; more often I found its black eggs, which just wiped off with a little effort. Some asparagus were only as thick as a single chive (those were dispatched as a waste of energy) and some were thicker than a thumb. Some tall, some short, curved, straight, green trimmed with purple; the best way to see them would have been to lay on the ground at the bottom of the hill and look up to the mountains and the sky. Michael told us that they harvest asparagus every day, sometimes twice a day, because they grow so quickly.
After completing the asparagus project (temporarily, at least) we moved down the hill and into the bottom of the potato field. The potato plants were several inches high, rounded green leaves edged with purple, surrounded by weeds. A job that looked like it was going to be very tough turned out to be quite gratifying because the ground was easy to penetrate with the stirrup hoe. A stirrup hoe is a hinged metal ring on the end of a long handle; the ring drops into the soil and dislodges the weeds as the hoe is pulled back and forth in the dirt. The only thing to be careful about was the baby potatoes underneath, or any late-sprouting taters that hadn’t poked their greens above the soil yet. Michael asked us to mound up the soil around each potato, an activity that is said to help the potatoes grow a bit larger before breaking out of the ground. Time to start thinking about potato salads, croquettes, roasted underneath whole chickens, gratins with cream, and as a garnish for a chilled nicoise salad.
I stepped away from the potato project before it was complete (diaper emergency) and Lincoln and I lingered by the truck as it started to drizzle, and then rain. We were sheltered by several trees, and ate our lunch, and just looked around at the Bertoni’s home, complete with chickens, ducks, a guard dog, an elusive cat, soft-sided greenhouse full of seedlings, and several fields full of vegetables-to-be. We listened to the birds and watched the rain roll in and obscure the mountains in front of us; the sounds of stirrup hoes and conversation floated up from the potato field, and I entertained the idea of walking around on my own, but didn’t really feel like pulling the backpack on again. We had already planned to hit a brewery on the way back to town – either Devil’s Backbone, Blue Mountain, or our favorite Starr Hill – and in the end we would decide to drive up onto the Blue Ridge Parkway because Lincoln was asleep in the carseat. Although the views were very limited (at some points, we couldn’t see ten feet in front of the car!) the drive was beautiful and mysterious – winding roads, green green trees and grass, and lots of falling-down buildings to wonder about.
What have we received in our CSA? So far this year: asparagus (!), radishes, kale, swiss chard, braising greens, beets, Napa cabbage, garlic scapes, head lettuce (several), dill…it has all been delicious.