Rabbits are not our problem. Our fence isn’t rabbit proof, nor do we have any prevention methods if they came eating, but they don’t seem to be that interested. Mammals in general tend to leave us alone, except for the odd squirrel that eats half a tomato and skitters away. The banes of my existence are the iridescent brown and green Japanese beetles and the terrifying tomato hornworms. The former is a common and devastating pest that is easy enough to find in the early morning and shake off into a dish of soapy water. They cluster in dozens around rosebuds, on sweet potato leaves and okra plants, “skeletonizing” the leaves they find. They seem to be constantly mating, so one often kills them in the middle of conjugal bliss. On a scale of one to nightmarish, they are not very scary. The beetles are annoying and destructive, but easy to kill and with the proper number of legs.
The tomato hornworm is a light green, fat, smooth and squishy caterpillar of a hawk moth so named for a big horn that protrudes from its end. It blends perfectly with the color of the tomato stalks and so it can grow huge and eat up your whole tomato plant before you can find it. When you do, the worm is massive; five inches long and ¾ inch diameter with a little spiraled head and too many super gripping feet. I hate these repulsive bugs. I planted these tomatoes, cared for them, clipped off suckers, spent endless hours trellising them, and to see them devoured is painful. Pulling the vile beast of our poor destroyed tomatoes requires gloves, trowels, a bullet proof vest, and astronaut level steeliness. The best method of containment is to stick them in a mason jar and let them excrete themselves dead. Once I made the fatal mistake of slicing one with my clippers and out poured pure fluorescent green slime. Still the hornworm refused to release its titan grip on the plant so Kristen and I watched horrified as the severed animal bled out, dripping its innards all over the floor.
Some of the kids are masters at hornworm removal and incarceration (Qhasia and Richard, I’m looking at you) though some, like me, gag, squeal, and throw the worms all over the place. These days late in the summer most of the hornworms one finds are covered with dozens of little oblong eggsacks, making them even more disgusting than anyone could have dreamed. At first, we went crazy when we saw the egg-carrying beasts, thinking they were birthing a new generation of monsters. We were mistaken. Those eggsacks are soldiers on our side of the war: parasitic wasps lay their eggs in the worms, inject the worms with a virus that prevents the worm from rejecting the eggs, which then eat and kill the worm. This summer has been full of surprises and revelations, but my support and love of parasitic wasps may top the list.
It's been a while, and a lot has happened, so let's see what I can recall. The first thing that comes to mind is the cooking I did. Being on a diversified farm allows many culinary opportunities, and having never really cooked anything legitimate in my life, I was excited to try something new. So I tried an easy enough recipe for pasta sauce. I went right outside, had a nice stroll through the field, and picked up fresh tomatoes, garlic, onions, and basil. Essentially, I threw all of it in a pan with some olive oil, let it simmer for half a day, and ended up with the best pasta sauce ever (maybe I was just tasting my own achievement). The next event that comes to mind is Saturday's Green City Market. A fellow worker and I woke up at 4 am to prepare the truck and get from rural Illinois to the city for set-up. I meant to just check out the market for an hour or so and get back to my apartment in Hyde Park for some much needed sleep, but the coffee station right next to the Growing Home stand kept me helping out for most of the day. I loved giving people fresh food while snacking on greens and making fun of my co-worker Nathan, and I plan to go again this week. I've been getting used to work-days and the quiet living on the farm, I imagine this lifestyle will be missed when school starts again.
These last couple weeks I’ve been tempted to write about working with tomatoes, but it was hard to pin down the single most compelling aspect of taking care of tomatoes. We’ve spent weeks suckering, trellising, clipping, trimming dead leaves and harvesting these guys. I’ve spent hours hopping from overturned bucket to overturned bucket trellising tomato plants way over my head, and many days have left the tomato hoop house covered in itchy green essence o’ tomatoes. I’m convinced, in fact, that I’ve developed a mild allergy to the plants, considering that today I was sneezing like I was walking through a room of cats and dogs rather than through rows of tomatoes, but this is just a theory of mine… Needless to say, tomatoes are labor intensive and complex beasts, and our relationship could only be described as love-hate.
While I could focus on any one of the many aspects of tending tomatoes, it’s hard to look much farther than hunting for hornworms. This task has recently been added to our to-do list, and is just as thrilling as it sounds. While I can give no scientific explanation for what hornworms are exactly, I’d describe them as giant voracious caterpillars with sharp little hooks on their rear ends. They spend their lives, as far as I can tell, eating every little bit of tomato plant in their paths.
The tough part about hunting for hornworms is that they blend right in with the tomato plants, so finding them requires a bit of investigation. They are the exact color of the underside of the leaves, and it’s easy to pass over a worm several times before picking it out from the surroundings. One of the signs of their presence is often a trail of droppings, which, if you’re lucky, will lead straight to the culprit. Other times, the worms are painfully easy to find, owing to the extensive damage they inflict on the tomato plants. In some of the worst instances I’ve seen, hornworms have completely decimated the tops of otherwise thriving and productive plants. This is a really frustrating scene to encounter, especially after all the work we’ve put into the tomato plants, but it also makes our work as hornworm hunters feel more important.
Some of the hornworms we’ve found have been several inches long and quite fat, eliciting squeals of “Snake!!” from the interns. I can totally relate to the squeamishness a lot of people feel towards hornworms, because while the search for them can get pretty exciting, it is tricky once you actually have to pick them off the plants and do something with them to ensure they never come back… I mostly toss them out of the hoophouse halfheartedly, hoping they just get confused and wander off. While I’m not sure how my methods of dealing with hornworms compare with most organic farmers’ methods of pest management, I can certainly say I’d vouch more for this process than for any chemical or scary substance other tomato growers might use.
A few weeks ago, I blogged about the Breaking Through Concerte team's visit to Sandhill Organics at the end of their country-wide tour of urban farms, which they are documenting on a website and later turning into a book. They just published this article about Sandhill online, which includes a short video of Mike Sands, executive director for the Liberty Prairie Foundation and a previous managing director of the Rodale Institute, discussing how peri-urban farms like Sandhill can play a role in "feeding the city." The article also explains the history and approach of Prairie Crossing, the residential development that is home to Sandhill. Check it out at http://www.grist.org/article/food-prairie-crossing-in-illinois.
On another note, I have fallen in love with the names of vegetable varieties. For example, we grow Marathon, Gypsy, and Diplomat broccoli. Check out these seedlings:
Returning to Sandhill after being away for two weeks has made me appreciate the effect of two key factors in farming: time and climate. While I was gone, news of storming and flooding in Northern Illinois had me worried about damaged crops, and I immediately contacted some of my coworkers to make sure everything was ok on the farm. Thankfully, Sandhill had avoided the worst of the storms. The idea that the result of months of hard work and preparation can be destroyed in a few hours by heavy wind and rain shows that even in the practice of sustainable agriculture, in which we try to work with the land, Mother Nature still has the upper hand. Fortunately, the cycles of nature have been very helpful since I’ve been away. Tomato plants that I once kneeled on the ground to sucker are now towering above my head and heavy with fruit. The delicate lettuce seedlings I helped to plant only weeks ago are now thick and vibrant. And we are finally harvesting peppers and eggplant! I am excited to witness the continued progression and evolution of the farm over the next two months.
Mondays: Straight Talk is Green Youth Farm’s method for clearly communicating to each individual student their accomplishments and difficulties previous week. Each crew sits with our coordinator Kristen and, while maintaining eye contact, listens to the violations or kudos they’d accrued that week and specific instances of positive development and behaviors to be changed. The way some students respond to this affirmation suggests they’ve never been given compliments before. And direct expression of expectation makes the negatives easier to hear and address.
Tuesdays: I have to brace myself for the Chicago Park District Camp kids who come in droves to the garden. Why must they come every week? Why must they continue to grow in number? Why do their staff bring them half an hour early and then sit there silent and unhelpful? I run the games that day--ugh. After Capture-the-Flag, a compost workshop, a Scavenger Hunt, a bug hunt, and 2 full hours of screaming, Kristen looked at me and said “I need a drink.” Here here.
Wednesdays: One special crew get to go with Jackie (another intern) to the Community and Economic Development Association (CEDA) offices to present and sell boxes of our produce to mothers that receive Women and Infant Children (WIC) coupons for farmers markets. Two other crews go inside with Ms Favia to work on a art project that will beautify our site. Only one crew stays on the farm. The site is calm.
Thursdays: On field trip day we’ve been to the Botanic Gardens, to another GYF site, to Green City Market in Lincoln Park, and to Black Oaks Farm in Pembroke. Often Thursdays are cooking days where one crew from our farm cooks a meal for the rest of our farm and and the kids at the North Chicago farm using our produce. The students write comment cards after the meal so that we might save the popular recipes and discard the failures. The stir-fry was extremely unpopular and most complained about the lack of meat. The jambalaya was a hit however. Best comment of the day; “This sh*t was banging!”
Friday: We set up our tent for the 10 to noon market we have on site. This year is the first we’ve had a market on this site so it’s still something of an experiment. On a particularly hot day we made only $45, but got hundreds of dollars of requests for bottled water. One student serves as a runner for the market and shuttles requests for produce back to the harvest group. Chelsea had the brilliant idea of using a bicycle to get back and forth more quickly, and managed to stay upright even through the narrow paths between beds. Art can also happen on Fridays (depending on the whims of Ms Favia) which is more stressful than it is calming. Visitors often come on Friday so between tours of the garden, the market, the runners, and all the harvesting we having to do for the Saturday markets, we need all the help we can get. Students leave an hour early on Fridays so the day is over astonishingly quickly. With only two more full weeks left in this program, it seems that’s the way the summer’s gone too.