Maria Ate Your Lettuce: A Farming Mystery Thriller

img_0970

“This is not lettuce,” she said breezily. “No,” I replied, “Those are cherry tomatoes.”

It was just another Saturday, until I heard this: “NOOOOOOOooooo!” The anguished cry went up from the farmstand, more than once. “I missed the greens?” Soulful eyes pleaded. “I can’t survive without them.” And another, maniacally gripping my lapels: “Don’t you see?! I have an addiction!!” My partner and I couldn’t escape the plaintive cries, even through our phone lines: “But…I’m a chef! What about my customers?!” As the voice trailed off into gentle sobbing, even the cashbox had a hollow, mournful clunk at the end of the farmstand, devoid of lettuce sales.

How to explain this? It all began in 1999, with the coconut coir, and it ended in December, with hundreds of pairs of beautiful legs. But I digress…

(To read more of this agricultural noir thriller, scroll down after the farmstand listing!)

Wednesday afternoon 3-5:30pm, we will have: loads of tomatoes, heirloom tomatoes, criminal amounts of cherry tomatoes, regular cucumbers, tiny wild pasture ‘gherkin’ cucumbers, lots of cooking greens, bunched arugula, beets, various butternut pumpkins, radishes, carrots, seasoning and Serano peppers, Italian basil, very little cilantro and parsley, lots of dill (great for pickling those tiny cucumbers), garlic chives, tons of ginger and turmeric, a good bit of watermelon including the yellow variety, about 10 bags of fresh figs, and zinnias! Also, no lettuce or salad mix. Learn why:

It was late November, 2017. The island mood was lifting after the storm, but many of the electric lights were still dark, when I stumbled across a tragedy of growing proportions. The crisp, leafy victims? Young, too young. Baby lettuces, mysteriously disappearing or dying. Their tantalizing, sweet potential, dashed into the compost heap like another shiny American dream. Nearly broke the heart of even a seasoned professional farmer like myself. My partner and I were determined to dig to the bottom of this and find out what was happening. We hung out our agricultural investigative shingle and started burning the shoe leather.

At first we had fooled ourselves, bellying up to the bar of the future for a lukewarm glass of false hope with a chaser of denial: we chalked missing lettuce seedlings up to the statistics. But as a week passed, there was a pattern: part of a tray of lettuce seedlings, just missing. Then another section, and another. Too many, just not surviving to the light of day.

But those who were able to thwart this mysterious abduction were not thriving. Instead of the vibrant, green, bushy seedlings I had grown accustomed to, they were limp. Lanky. Languishing. Lifeless.

And then came the wilt. The rot. The small percentage of who had survived were now dying. Something was destroying our lettuce before it ever made it to the field. Four out of five seedlings, dead. What was this mysterious, unseen, evil force? I could feel the hairs on the back of my neck stand up, as the dreaded words I could not say aloud flooded across my mind: “lettuce crop failure.”

My mind spun, counterclockwise, to the past. September, 2017. I thought of the powerful, angry dame with the breathy voice who had whirled through my office then. Maria, she said her name was. Could she be behind this? There was no doubt in my mind, but I still had no way to pin these crimes on her. I knew I had to find a way. I was being cold framed!

I combed through the furthest reaches of my memories, scratching my beard and searching for clues.

Could it be the seeds? It was now early December. We’d gone without electricity for months after Maria ravaged the island’s infrastructure, maybe the seed stock had gone bad and wasn’t germinating. I checked with my partner, but she said she’d ordered new seeds that miraculously came in the mail as soon as the airport reopened after the big storm. So we ruled that out.

I knew that Maria had destroyed our seedling house. It was the place where these young lettuces would have been protected and nurtured, instead of being exposed to all the tropical dangers that can turn a fresh, innocent seedling into a twisted heap of rotting cellulose before you could say “romaine”. I had hard evidence. I had satellite photos at the scene of the violent crime. Maria had her footprints all over the mess. We knew this was big. Then, Washington put out an APB over the wire on Maria and was offering a reward for information, so we called our contacts in D.C. and filed a pile of paperwork that could’ve choked a horse. But the Feds said their hands were tied. They wouldn’t back us up. My partner cursed them with language that revealed her nautical roots. But it wouldn’t change anything. We, and all the other farmers on the island with broken and crushed buildings, were going to have to go this alone.

We knew there were occasional roving gangs of mice in the neighborhood. Mostly they stayed clear of us, but with the seedling house reduced to a pile of broken lumber, their territory had likely shifted. Meanwhile, the lettuce trays had been crowded together in a smaller space to survive. The presence of this crowded, vulnerable population could have caused the gangs to become organized. We set up a sting operation involving some traps. But these were well trained soldiers and they did not fall for our subterfuge. They continued to pick off the young innocent sprouts, one by one. I laid awake at night, hearing their teeny tiny squeaky voices. Mocking me.

And what about the rot? That was not gang-related collateral damage. There had to be something…something in the coir.

Over eighteen years of farming, I had stubbornly resisted the use of commercial potting mix. My partner and I were both philosophically opposed to importation of resources that could be found on the island. The commercial potting products usually contained questionable characters, such as peat bog products which are not renewable. We had inherited a mountain of coconut coir nearly 20 years ago in 1999, and had been using the goldmine of fibrous hairy brown material to keep our potting mix light and fluffy. But it was heavily processed, and had to be imported. And we were running out. Maria’s punishing rains had soaked the molehill of our coir mountain that remained, and it had grown fungal and rich. Perhaps too rich for the young and delicate, innocent victims of this mysterious crime.

Perhaps it was time to shut the door on the coir and find a solution that could close the book on this perfect storm of plagues. But what was the answer? I began spending sleepless nights in the crime lab, trying old and new formulations. Each one took agonizing days to test. Failure after failure threatened my resolve. There had now been nearly two weeks of greatly reduced lettuce production, a disaster that I knew would come to haunt me in early February 2018, if I couldn’t solve this problem now. Only one in five seedlings had survived the mysterious onslaught of crime. The compost was piling up. Two weeks had passed.

Time was running out. Christmas was nearing, but despite the cheerful blinky battery operated lights and the holiday songs on the emergency radio, my heart was a fragile, empty shell. Bleary-eyed, I could see a dismal future ahead, full of disappointed customers, angry chefs, bills stacking up with no sales. It was a disaster borne of a disaster. But what could I do?

Then my partner said, “Wait. I know a guy.”

Bob was a guy, a Guy that could Build Stuff. Sure, we’d brought him in to repair the miles of fencing that had gotten knocked down. But this was a culinary emergency, we needed all hands on deck. Bob and I threw together a tiny protected hut from the shattered remains of the seedling house. It wasn’t much, but perhaps it could save a few lives. Then another mysterious figure emerged from the mist. It was Roi. We couldn’t believe our luck. Roi knew how to build stuff. He put a sturdy roof on the hut. The shattered pieces of our lives were starting to come back together with the glue of the Guys who could Build Stuff.

Back in the lab, I had become obsessed with the granularity of wood chips. We had stockpiled mountains of wood chips for mulch prior to the storm. Could an answer lie within these sleeping behemoths? I didn’t know it at the time but it was a dead end, an end that would lead nowhere and would not solve my problem. Or could it? One night, as I mopped my brow under the dimming light of the failing solar lantern, SHE walked in.

She was petite, not unusual, I’d seen her type around the farm before. But what really caught my attention were those legs, those beautiful legs. She had a sinuous way of moving them that put my frontal cortex into a deep freeze. They were smooth, waxy, bright red. She had to have about 300 of them, two per segment to be exact. She crawled up my arm and looked me straight in the eyes, meaningfully waving her feelers at me. I could almost hear her teeny tiny voice say, “Use the force, Lucaaaaaaaaa.” I knew it was the hand of fate, Lady Luck dealing me a winning hand. And I knew what I had to try.

The wood chips to replace the coir had to be gongolo and millipede composted.

Eureka!!

I tried to hold myself back from counting unhatched chickens, but I could feel it in my bones. I knew I had finally stopped this crime wave and restored a new normal to these young summer crisps, with the help of my leggy friend, the Guys Who Could Build Stuff, and my faithful and salty partner.

After a few days, I reaped the success of my experiment. The sweet sweet smell of our new formula of potting soil soothed my soul. The emergency lettuce hut kept the mice at bay. And the seedlings begin to show a vitality and vibrancy that made my heart sing. The lettuce was growing leafy and full again.

I knew the customers would never understand. It was too complex, too nuanced, too frightening, too much to wrap your head around. Plus, insects. The whole thing was like a dream. A nightmare, really, one that I’d feared I’d never awaken from. But now, the birds were singing. The lettuces were growing again. The mice had moved on. I knew that there would be lean times ahead. There would be at least a week, maybe two, in mid February, when the people would cry out in sheer agony, for lettuce, for lettuce products, blissfully unaware of the struggles and darkness we had been through in the dark, dark days of December. But that didn’t matter now.

Because we had so many cherry tomatoes.

Post-hurricane adjustments took time, during which we were also trying to train a new employee, repair broken infrastructure on the farm and in our home, apply for federal disaster programs and make business decisions based on unknown disaster zone variables, including the size of our customer base post-storm: many of our permanent resident customers had taken mercy flights to the states for an unpredictable period of time, and we had no way of knowing whether our seasonal resident customers would be back for the season. The customer response this season has been unpredictably huge, and we are fielding a few complaints that there is not enough produce to go around (despite the fact that we are always packing away some food items at the end of every farmstand). Please know that if we could grow more food for you, we would. Farming is seasonal and subject to the vagaries of nature. And other farms on St. Croix will soon be producing more food, stay tuned!

ARTfarm Season Finale! Last Saturday

ARTfarm sweet cornAll good things must come to an end; summer, a great meal, a super dance club extended remix, and the season at ARTfarm. There will be a few weeks’ pause before the next season begins.

Today, 10am – 12 noon: Sweet salad mix, arugula, beets, sweet corn, onions, sweet potato greens, bunched arugula, Kang Kong Asian water spinach, Italian basil, holy basil, garlic chives, recao, mint, tarragon, bananas, papayas, and soursop! From our partners, we have dragonfruit from Solitude Farms, raw local dark honey from Errol, bread from Tess, and our famous “Shades of Joy” magic color indicator avocados from Tita & Diego.

Q&A: Someone stopped us in a parking lot the other day and asked us if our arugula was organic. For anyone who might be wondering, all ARTfarm produce is grown using organic methods, to the standards of USDA Certified Organic produce. In some cases, our sustainable practices exceed what is required by the USDA NOP (National Organic Program), and our farming philosophy and practices have continuously met our strict standards since 1999 on St. Croix.

BUT… it is against US law to claim that your produce is “organic” unless you have spent the time and money to achieve organic certification through a USDA approved agency. This involves lots of paperwork, expensive fees, a percentage of the farm’s profit going to a certifying agency on an annual basis, and flying an inspector to the island at the farm’s expense at regular intervals to examine our records and practices.

There are pros and cons to having the USDA organic stamp of approval. We respect those farms who have gone through the arduous process of becoming organic certified. We are considering the process, but are not interested in raising our prices to cover the cost. The official stamp from the USDA doesn’t seem to be important to most of our customers.

But is our arugula organic? If you really want to know, get to know your farmer. Ask about our farming practices. Ask how we raise food sustainably using organic methods. Ask us if we are involved in the community. Learn more about the debate and what growing organically really means, so you know the right questions to ask! You might just find the long answer as assuring and satisfying as the shortcut of a sticker stuck to your food. 😉

Love, ARTfarm

ARTfarm Monday: Q & A with Farmer Luca

Q&A Monday with Farmer Luca

Q: What is your favorite fruit?
A: As of this very moment right now, FIGS. 20140224-111435.jpg

Live in the now! Today, from 3–6 p.m. on South Shore Rd.: Microgreens, sweet salad mix, teen spicy salad mix, teen arugula; TOMATO MADNESS with cherry tomatoes, big tomatoes, heirloom tomatoes in GREAT ABUNDANCE; radishes, onions, carrots, cooking greens, garlic chives, cilantro, parsley, hot chili peppers various types, farm fresh eggs from the ARTfarm chickens, and cute, cuddly, irresistible Mediterranean figs! And a new batch of I-sha vegan coconut milk ice cream in sweet, delicious St. Croix fruit and veggie flavors!!

ARTfarm Q & A Monday with Farmer Luca

Q: Why have you planted so many trees around your farm?

A: To attract bird watchers.

More on that in a moment: today’s Monday 3-6pm farmstand includes: sweet salad mix, teen spicy mix, teen arugula, baby arugula, cherry tomatoes, heirloom tomatoes, slicer tomatoes, recao, garlic chives, lemongrass, onions and carrots.

On January 27, we heard a strange noise in a densely shaded area of the farm. It sounded like this: We also heard tell-tale hammering on a tree trunk.

Christina called local birdwatcher Carol Burke of SEA, and biologist Claudia Lombard of US Fish and Wildlife, to try to identify the bird, who clearly was indicating to us that he or she was some kind of woodpecker — not something you typically encounter in the Virgin Islands. Soon, the farm started looking like this: treeholes
And then this: birdwatchers

The bird was indeed a woodpecker! It has been identified as a young female yellow bellied sap sucker. Female yellow bellied sap suckers spend summers in the northern regions of North America, and do venture south to Central America and parts of the Caribbean for the winter, but not often in the USVI. According to ebird.org, this is the first recorded sighting of one in the territory since 1999. Here’s a couple of Lisa Yntema’s shots! YBSapsucker_5Feb2014_Longford_LDY-7sm
YBSapsucker_5Feb2014_Longford_LDY-sm

Our little red headed lady has peppered the neem tree with tiny holes, which drip sap that she likes to drink. The sweet, sticky sap also attracts bugs, which attract lizards. It’s pretty interesting how one little bird can shift an entire ecosystem around herself. She’s so industrious, we might have to call her “Martha”.

ARTfarm Monday stand, 3–6 p.m.!

Q and A Monday with Farmer Luca

Q: What is your favorite vegetable?

A: Onions. 20140203-105102.jpg
Today’s farmstand: spicy salad mix, sweet salad mix, microgreens, arugula, cherry tomatoes, heirloom tomatoes, slicer tomatoes, carrots, onions, yes onions, chinese cabbage, mustard greens, trace amounts of broccoli and corn for the early birds, garlic chives, cilantro, recao, lemon basil, holy basil, Broccoli greens, chili peppers, radishes, and ice cream.

%d bloggers like this: