Consider the cotyledons

Consider the cotyledons

Adapted from an article in the Napa Valley Register on April 17, 2019

It’s the time of year when farmers look around and see cotyledons everywhere. Cotyledons are a plant’s first “leaves.” These baby leaves are the plant’s first source of energy and look markedly different from the true leaves a plant will produce as it grows.

In the spring, a farmer’s greenhouse is teeming with all the seedling starts that will be planted in the ground for the season. Every day, more carefully sown seeds sprout and push out their cotyledons to begin life as a plant. For plant aficionados and farmers, an even lawn of cotyledons growing healthily in a seed tray is as cute and joyful as a chubby baby waving its arms in the air.

Out in the field, though, cotyledons have a whole other meaning for farmers. This long, wet spring has provided few opportunities for farmers to get in their fields and cultivate their soil. The clean beds we planted our crops into are slowly being covered by a lawn of not-so-welcome weed cotyledons.

At Sun Tracker Farm, we ideally weed our beds 10 days after we transplant our seedlings. At that point the transplants are established enough to withstand a little bumping while the weed seedlings are still small enough to uproot easily.

But the persistent rain and resulting mud we experienced this spring means no weeding, with a tractor or by hand. Thus the weed cotyledons make way for the true leaves of a mature plant that is much more difficult to remove. Not to mention the delay in actually planting our crops.

It’s at these moments that farmers must appreciate that control of nature is out of their hands. The same processes that allow our seedlings to germinate in the greenhouse cause our fields to be overrun by weeds. Plants will grow wherever they are planted, and weeds, after all, are just plants in the wrong place.

Farming is about staying calm no matter what problems arise and knowing you will find a solution somehow. So when you are wondering where the tomatoes are at the farmers market in a couple of months, remember the late rainy spring when farmers weren’t able to transplant. If they did, they probably watched their seedlings surrounded by an unwanted, yet still marvelous, lawn of cotyledons.

In honor of cotyledons and the abundance of greens and spring veggies at the market, I’m sharing with you a Southern-inspired recipe I invented on a wet day this month. Even the baby liked it!

Greens and Beans

3 cups red beans, soaked overnight

1 teaspoon fennel seed

Salt and pepper

1 pound of bacon

1 bunch carrots, chopped

2 large leeks, chopped

4 cloves garlic, minced

2 bunches greens, such as collards, kale, chard or cabbage, chopped

1 tablespoon mirin

Drain the beans and put them in a large pot with fresh water to cover them by 2 inches. Bring to a boil, then adjust the heat to maintain a simmer. Cook until the beans are tender, about 1 hour. Add fennel seed and season to taste with salt and pepper.

Cut the bacon crosswise about 1/2 inch wide. Fry in a heavy pan until crisp. Set the bacon aside and pour off all but about 4 tablespoons bacon fat. Add the carrots, leeks and garlic and cook over medium heat until slightly caramelized. Add the vegetables and the bacon to the beans. Add another tablespoon of bacon fat to the same pan, add the greens and cook, stirring, until they wilt. Add the mirin and season with salt and pepper.

Serve the beans and greens with steamed rice or cornbread.

Serve 3 to 4

Why farmers love rain

Why farmers love rain

Adapted from an article in the Napa Valley Register on Feb 13, 2019

On the tail of a wet storm that drenched our state’s still-thirsty soils, I want to share a farmer’s relationship to rain. My husband and I have farmed through one of California’s greatest droughts and through one of its wettest years. Rain, and the lack of it, brings us challenges and solutions all in one meteorological event.

Rain in the winter season brings joy and relief to a farmer and life to a farmer’s land. Rain waters crops and the grass for animals. It replenishes creeks, reservoirs and the water table. It washes away all the summer dust and turns dry grass into decomposing carbon for soil microbes. It forces farmers to take a break from outside work so they can rest or finish indoor projects. Rain is a farmer’s salvation, but it is also our greatest source of struggle.

As we know, rain cannot be ordered ahead of time or planned for. Particularly with our climate’s increasingly erratic behavior, farmers can no longer count on wet winters.

The spring of 2017 marked the end of a five-year drought that ravaged California. While farmers rejoiced at this aquatic relief, it also presented a very challenging spring.

A farmer cannot drive a tractor in the field when the ground is logged with water, at the risk of compacting the soil and destroying hundreds of years of soil structure and microbial diversity. This means farmers may miss the tight window to cultivate their fields and delay the careful planning of crops for the season.

Rain is good for watering plants, but that includes weeds and grass. It never stopped raining during the spring of 2017, and many farmers lost crops to a sea of weeds.

Rain also affects farmers beyond its impact on the crops they grow. Rain turns a field to mud that pulls off our boots when we try to harvest. When someone asks if we can work in the field when it rains, we answer, “We can get in the field. The question is whether we can get out.”

Rain can also hurt our sales at a farmer’s market, as most consumers are sunny-day shoppers. Despite the rain, a farmer will still spend a day harvesting and prepping for a market, wake at dawn, stand in the cold rain all day, and only make half the money he or she would have made on a sunny day.

With all these challenges, you may wonder how farmers ever could love rain. But we still do. Farmers don’t become farmers because it is easy; we do it because it brings us closer to the earth and its temperamental seasons. So when the first rain of the season comes, you’ll see farmers running outside in a T-shirt with a big smile on their face.

I am sharing a recipe for a hearty and healthy soup you can make on a cold, wet day. You can find many of the ingredients at the Napa Farmers Market. And if it’s raining on market day, please remember how much the farmers and other market vendors appreciate your support.

Mushroom-Spinach Soup with Cinnamon, Coriander and Cumin

This recipe by Melissa Clark is adapted from The New York Times.

6 tablespoons unsalted butter

1-1⁄4 pounds mixed mushrooms (such as cremini, oyster, chanterelles and shiitake), chopped

1⁄2 pound shallots, finely diced

4 carrots, chopped

2 teaspoons chopped fresh thyme

1-1⁄2 teaspoons ground cumin

1 teaspoon ground coriander

3⁄4 teaspoon ground cinnamon

Pinch ground allspice

5 cups water or broth

2 1⁄2 teaspoons kosher salt, more to taste

1 teaspoon black pepper

5 ounces spinach

Fresh lime juice, to taste

Plain yogurt, for serving (optional)

Heat 3 tablespoons butter or oil in a large pot over medium-high heat. Add half of the mushrooms, half of the shallots and half of the carrots. Cook, stirring occasionally, until most of the liquid has evaporated and the mushrooms are well browned, 10 to 12 minutes. Transfer the vegetables to a bowl and repeat with the remaining butter, mushrooms, shallots and carrots.

Return all the vegetables to the pot and stir in the tomato paste, thyme, cumin, coriander, cinnamon and allspice. Cook until fragrant, about 1 minute.

Stir in the water or broth, salt and pepper. Bring to a simmer over medium heat and cook gently for 20 minutes. Stir in the spinach and cook until just wilted, 1 to 2 minutes.

Using an immersion blender or food processor, coarsely purée the soup. Add lime juice to taste. Thin with water as needed. Taste and adjust the seasoning, if necessary. Reheat to serve, topping each portion with dollops of yogurt if you like.

Serves 6.