Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Full Court Press

Last Saturday we woke up the first serious frost of the fall. While it's gorgeous looking at how the ice crystals refract the low-angled morning sunlight into a kaleidoscope of rainbows off the grass, frost is a major event on the farm. It kills the sweet potatoes, basil, and hot peppers outright, and threatens the sorghum. The frost last Saturday meant all hands on deck.

• • •
At Sandhill Farm we make up to a third of our income from the sale of organic food, and sorghum syrup—a traditional specialty crop in the Midwest and South—is a whopping three-quarters of that. While it varies from year to year when the sorghum is ready, it generally falls in the three weeks from fall equinox to mid-October. Often enough, the first frost of the season also falls in that date range and it's a dance letting the crop fully mature (maximizing the yield of sweet syrup) versus getting it all harvested before it's frost damaged.

Fortunately, sorghum can take a mild frost without damage, and it general takes temperatures of 28 degrees or lower to be a problem. The first frost is rarely lower than about 30 degrees, in part because of all the leaves—still green because there hasn't been a frost yet—that will give up heat as they freeze. With sweet sorghum the critical part of the plant is the stalk, because it's the juice inside that we'll boil down to make the syrup. If it gets cold enough to freeze the stalk, the cell walls will burst and the juice will rapidly sour once it's exposed to oxygen in the ensuing thaw. The warmer the weather after the frost, the quicker the juice will spoil. 

Thus, when our farm crew suspected stalk damage Saturday morning, it was a race to get as much of the crop processed as possible before the juice soured. What had heretofore been an orderly, isn't-it-a-lovely-fall-look-at-those-beautiful-colors harvest season suddenly turned urgent. 

As it happened, last weekend was also the 15th anniversary for our neighboring community, Dancing Rabbit [see my Oct 6 blog, Not Quite Old Enough to Drive], and they had 50+ friends from out of town visiting for the celebration. Thus, when we put out the call for help, our cup ranneth over. At one point Saturday afternoon, we must have had 40 people in the field, many of whom barely knew which end of a machete to hold. Not having knives for everyone (to cut the cane), we taught some of the temporary campesinos how to dehead by hand (snapping the cane at a nodal point up near the top of the stalk), and others how to strip the leaves. In all, we were able to keep everyone busy and in just four hours this friendly swarm was able to completely lay down an acre of sorghum, saving our last major field from being left out in the cold. We were awed by this amazing show of spontaneous support. The street value of that field, once processed, will be in the neighborhood of $5,000. Wow!

Today, Tuesday, the full court press continues. In addition to cooking sorghum as fast as we can (pressing the juice out of the stalks with a roller mill and then boiling it down to get the syrup), there are myriad other post-frost jobs on a farm that can't wait, such as cutting the sweet potato vines and pulling the last of the tomatoes. My niche the past two days has been wrangling peppers. 

As the pepper plants were toasted (so to speak) my job was to convert as much of the fruit into usable products as possible before spoilage. In the past two days I've diced 11 gallons of peppers (32 quarts of sweet peppers and 12 quarts of hot), and cooked down 60 pints of pepper relish. While that may seem like a lot, I was only processing the peppers that were tinged by frost. There are still another 20 gallons of undamaged peppers sitting patiently in buckets and colanders awaiting attention next week (when we'll be back to managing the farm with our normal half-court zone defense). Hopefully, someone else will have the pleasure of those peppers, and I'll be able to do things like email again.

While the pace is ramped up now, I know that it will only last for another week or so, and will be followed by the post-harvest afterglow, when the weather can frost all it wants and we can just laugh and throw another log on the wood stove. 

This weekend I'm looking forward to a respite of sorts when I'll represent Sandhill at the Fall Festival in Keosauqua IA, where I'll be sitting at a booth in Riverside Park (next to the meandering Iowa River) and selling food products for only eight hours each day. 

After a week of full court press, it'll be a sit in the park.

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