by Cynthia Graber
I’m long long overdue for a post, and this one should have been written months ago. I was reminded of it, however, by a fantastic interview with Dan Barber on the radio program Being (formerly called Speaking of Faith). For those who haven’t yet heard of Dan, he’s an internationally-known chef, famous for his farm-to-table approach, and chef/owner of Blue Hill restaurant in Manhattan and Blue Hill at Stone Barn, an hour of out the city. The restaurants are primarily supplied by his related farms in New York and Massachusetts.
(Stop reading here, and go spend an hour listening to the interview. Do so as you putter around the kitchen, or download it from iTunes and listen to it on an mp3 player as you slog through the snow.)
Okay, welcome back. Dan talks a lot about the importance of farming, and how farming techniques and soil quality influence the flavor of vegetables and crops. And, perhaps, the nutritional content of those crops as well. He specifically talked about how his carrots are exponentially sweeter on a chemical scale than organic ones from Whole Foods.
I’m going to perhaps torture you right now, if you live anywhere on the eastern seaboard, where snow is piling up in foot-high mounds. Do you remember the summer? The burning heat, the endless sun? That helped produce bumper crops of tomatoes and watermelons.
One week, I bought a tasty red watermelon. Then the next week, I bought a yellow watermelon at the Drumlin Farm stand in Union Square. The flavor exploded, intensely sweet. Each time I dipped a fork in, I felt as if I were cheating and dipping into a candy stash. I slurped up every last revelatory drop.
This reminded me that food tastes different even from local farm to local farm, so I called Matt Celona, crops manager at the farm (which is part of Mass Audubon), to learn a bit about his agricultural magic. Here’s an edited version of our conversation.
Why were your watermelons so much better than other ones I’d tasted?
It was a spectacular year, it’s not like our watermelons taste like this every year. I think it’s the heat - it was an incredibly hot summer. And the lack of water. That really concentrates flavor in watermelons and tomatoes.
Also, we don’t irrigate. And a lot of farms grow melons on black plastic mulch, to heat up the soil and suppress seeds. We don’t do that. That black might have absorbed heat, it might have gotten too hot for the melons.
And our soil has a good amount of organic matter in it, because of the rotation we practice here. We have about 15 acres, and we treat each acre separately, on a seven-year rotation. There are five years growing and two years resting. I think a lot of farms are kind of maxed out in terms of wanting to use all the space all the time.
If you don’t use irrigation, how can you get through summers like the one we had?
It has to do with what kind of soil you have. If you have a really sandy soil, you’re not going to make it [without irrigating]. We have soil that has a fair amount of clay [which retains water]. And the organic matter in the soil is like a reservoir for water, like a sponge. If you have soil with organic matter, if holds the moisture.
In addition to that rotation, we’re able to spread beautiful compost [from animals on the farm]. We pick and choose which fields we think are in need of compost applications; we test them every year with labs at the University of Massachusetts. And you can also just tell by the productivity of the field.
If you take care of the soil and aren’t treating is as a growing medium, but as a living organism in and of itself, it can take care of you, if you take care of it.
Do you choose seeds for specific qualities?
Oh yeah, the varieties, like of the watermelons - the yellow one, New Orchid, that’s amazing. It’s an expensive seed. It’s worth it!
Anything else that’s exciting?
On the crop side, we have a winter share, and we distribute beautiful carrots and beets and winter squash from our root cellar. And the sweet potatoes [from this past fall] were amazing! What happened with watermelon and tomatoes also happened with sweet potatoes, because of the heat. We don’t usually get North Carolina heat. These southern crops this year were just awesome.
[Author’s note: I tasted the sweet potatoes. They were, in fact, awesome.]