Dan Barber Talks Tomato Blight

Dan Barber, the pro-organics chef and co-owner of the restaurants Blue Hill and Blue Hill at Stone Barns, has a lengthy and interesting op-ed piece in The New York Times on the tomato blight that is devastating Northeast farms.

Farms like the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture, the snazzy organic mecca created out of the Rockefeller estate in Westchester county. Barber says the farm lost half of its field tomatoes in just three days. But rather than dwell on the losses there, or the culpability of the plant breeding operations that appear to have sent diseased plants to the big-box stores, Barber focuses on what fans of local food like us should be learning from the crisis.

For starters, Barber says, we should be buying plants started locally. For once, I did something right in the garden: I got most of my tomato plants from the Essex County Master Gardeners sale; the rest re-seeded themselves from last year. But local plants didn’t help a former co-worker of mine, who lost all of her Shaker heirloom Large Reds, as well as the bulk of her tomato crop.

Barber also insists that university extension services have to do a better job of alerting growers to problems, particularly the home gardeners who have been an unwitting vector for this year’s disease, and who have lost their grandparents’ knowledge of plants and their pathogens. He wants in-person education and not email alerts, a view that strikes me as impractical on the home gardener level.

More technology, not less, would have helped a lot, I think . Rutgers’ Agricultural Experiment Station posted detailed warnings on the blight as early as July 2 and sponsored a Webinar with lots of information. Trouble was, you had to know about the Ag station’s Web site to find it. The information never made it into the New Jersey papers, which have been raining reporters for the last year.  (The Times‘ first story was July 17.) But imagine what might have happened had the university or gardening groups had effective blogs, social networking sites and email lists to reach home growers. And I stress the word effective: A search for “blight” on the Web site of the Master Gardeners of Essex county astoundingly comes up empty.

Still, I can’t quibble with Barber’s last point: That we’ve got to stop viewing all science as the enemy of good food.

… in our feverish pursuit of what’s old, we can marginalize the development of what could be new.  That includes the development of plants with natural resistance to blight and other diseases — plants like the Mountain Magic tomato, an experimental variety from Cornell that the Stone Barns Center is testing in a field trial. So far there’s been no evidence of disease in these plants, while more than 70 percent of the heirloom varieties of tomatoes have succumbed to the pathogen.

Rutgers’ Tomato-Tasting Festival Is Coming Up

I love food festivals. In years past, I have dragged my kids to the Chatsworth Cranberry Festival (so-so) and the Hudson Valley Garlic Festival (an absolute scream). But if you want to attend the best tomato festival, you’ve got to act soon.

Rutgers University maintains a research farm in Hunterdon County, and every year it hosts what it calls the “Great Tomato Tasting.” And it is. Last year, according to my scribbled, tomato-juice-stained notes, I sampled 50 different tomatoes and a few hot peppers. Rutgers uses the consumer research gathered at the tasting to guide growers in what they should be planting.

The cost to attend is a modest $5, and children under 10 are free. The focus is almost entirely on tomatoes, though last year, I got to see an amazing field of edamame and the inspiration for my backyard bean teepee, and the kids got a hayride. This year, Rutgers says it will have new varieties of apples and peaches for taste testing as well. The farm is pretty much in the middle of nowhere, so CSA members in NYC are going to have to Zipcar it out there. And note: No tomatoes are sold at the festival. This may seem perverse given the acres of tomato plants you will see, but Rutgers wants to drive consumers to farmers, not undercut them.

Where does all that bounty go? Rutgers’ donates what it grows to food pantries. And this year, it is asking visitors to bring canned or boxed non-perishable food items to support  the Rutgers Against Hunger (RAH) program, http://rah.rutgers.edu/. (Bravo alma mater!)

Here are the details. The important thing is that you’ve got to register online, or call the coordinator ahead of time so they can count you in. This is an all-volunteer event, so registration makes the planning easier.

Where:  Snyder Research and Extension Farm, 140 Locust Grove Road, Pittstown, Hunterdon County, NJ

When:   Wednesday –  August 26, 2009    3pm – dusk (RAIN OR SHINE)

Register: Online at https://njaes.rutgers.edu/rsvp/tomato or call 908-713-8980.

What’s Coming Up This Season?

I want to take a moment to give you a little window into how the season is going here in the fields. The kale and lettuce have been really beautiful and bountiful, and we appreciate all of your kind feedback. You may have heard us during distribution talk a little bit about enduring all of the rain this spring. All of the rain (one of the top 10 rainiest Junes on record) and the unseasonably cool temperatures (one of the 12 coolest Junes on record) have had their impact on us.

So what does that mean?

To protect the soil condition we did most of our transplanting by hand. For those crops like tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, cool wet soils are a recipe for disaster due to a heightened likelihood of diseases wiping out the crops.  You may have read of the late blight situation that is destroying commercial tomato crops across the northeast (all of our tomato plants are in and looking good, our fingers are crossed and we’re taking every precaution to keep them safe).

So, to guard against the probability losing all that work and the plants we held off planting our tomatoes, peppers, eggplants and some others. We are going full tilt now and are catching up. I expect to have the first of the zucchini and other summer squashes in the next few weeks. The plants are in bloom and everything looks good.  The cucumbers are already on the vine and we have stakes in and will be setting trellis so I expect cucumbers in the same time period, maybe even next week. Our chard looks great and the successive plantings of lettuce will provide for an abundant Sept/Oct. We are direct seeding some of your favorites like arugula, mustards, radish, beets, turnips and beans.

I make every effort to have a broad array of vegetables ripe and ready throughout the season and expect that we won’t be missing any veggies this year, we certainly will be seeing more and more as we get into the second half of the season as a result of the rainy June. Fall squash and pumpkins are thriving so it looks like we’ll have a Real Thanksgiving this year.

Our first batch of pasture fed chickens are available this week at distribution by forward order only. Please contact Megan if you’d like to purchase one. Most of the chickens are between 2.5-4 lbs and are running $4.50 ($4.05 for members!)

Beef will be available mid-August. Keep an eye on your inbox for an order form!

We appreciate your feedback and questions, so feel free to contact us!

What’s Growing

You’ve read about all the potatoes, you’ve read about the cabbage, you’ve seen that tantalizing photo of the asparagus. But if you’re at all like me, you’ve been really impatient to hear about everything else that Leonard has planted this year. So last night, at the new member meeting in Verona, I finally got him to spill the beans–if you can pardon the pun. Yes, there will be stringbeans, four different kinds in fact. And snow peas and maybe some sugar snaps. But there’s more, much more, so gather your cookbooks and start planning.

Red Cabbage.

Red Cabbage.

There are five kinds of kale already in the field: Lacinato, Red Russian, White Russian, Siberian and Curly. Grab any one of them and some of Upper Meadows’ maple syrup and you’ve got the beginnings of this vegan dinner, or peruse the entries on kale in Mark Bittman’s blog for The New York Times. The stinging nettles are up and “beautiful”, Leonard says.

Little Laciento Kale.

Little Lacinato Kale.

Then there are collards, which I have to admit I have never tried. The Food Network’s “Dinner Impossible” guy has them paired with bacon, which sounds very promising.

Red and yellow onions are in, in rows that are several hundred feet long. More rows are being planted. Also scallions–red, white, and green–and four varieties of hardneck garlic.



Red Onions.

Red Onions.



Leonard then moved on to the hundreds of plants started in his two greenhouses. There are 11 different varieties of lettuce, 9 different sweet peppers, 5 types of hot peppers, 7 kinds of basil and 3 kinds of parsely. There are garlic chives and onion chives, and sorrel. In place of the partridge in a pear tree, there is one variety of eggplant.

Forellenschluss Lettuce.

Forellenschluss Lettuce.

There is broccoli and a few different colors of cauliflowers, including that crazy orange variety. My friend Ann had a great idea for those at the end of a post on her blog on the wild turkey that wound up in her living room. And 2 kinds of tomatillos. I’m thinking salsa, or maybe a sauce for some chicken enchiladas.



Megan, who lobbied for the expanse of Swiss chard that has been planted, told me that she did try to rein Leonard in on his tomato varieties. But he confessed last night that there are 23 different kinds growing in the greenhouses, ranging from cherries, to slicing and paste tomatoes. Some are in great quantities, like the Cherokee Purples (they make a killer tomato soup), and some, like the exotic Striped Green Zebras, in smaller amounts.

TONS of Tomatoes.

TONS of Tomatoes.

The greens category also includes what Leonard called “a full array of mustards”, arugula, Asian greens like Tatsoi, spinach and amaranth. If you have only ever had amaranth as a grain, you are in for a real treat with the leaves.



And more: The 5 kinds of zucchini and summer squash are being planted in waves in hopes that we will have them before, with and after our tomatoes. Leonard has got 4 kinds of cucumbers going, 3 of which will be pickling varieties. If you have never tried your hand at pickling, start with this recipe from Alton Brown, which is as easy as it gets. He has also started a small, white Lebanese squash, which sounds intriguing.

In the winter squash category, there are Turk’s Turban, Acorn and Spaghetti Squash, and several kinds of pumpkins, including my favorite for pie, the so-called Cheese Pumpkin.

What have I forgotten? Herbs! Thyme, 5 varieties of basil,summer savory, 2 or 3 sages, Greek and Italian oregano and majoram. Also several varieties of radishes, carrots, turnips and beets.

Leonard says that the beets don’t always return his love, and his caution is worth noting. Despite his best efforts–which this year include more fencing and irrigation in addition to the greenhouses–Mother Nature and predators can have their way with his plants. But with Leonard and everyone at Upper Meadows focused on bounty this year, I am very, very optimistic.