Maria Ate Your Lettuce: A Farming Mystery Thriller

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“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 Saturday Slaw-Breakers

Summertime is time to make slaw. Here is our list for Saturday’s stand, recipe follows! 

10 AM to 12 noon: Bunched sweet potato greens, red and yellow seasoning peppers, garlic chives, recao, basil, rosemary, loads of sweet potatoes in all sizes, sweet red pumpkin. Julie mangoes, Haitian Kidney mangoes, Viequen Butterball mangoes, plus lots of dragonfruit and sweet papaya, a few pineapples and passionfruit. Bethany’s amazing goat cheese, super fresh!

A sweet and sour raw Asian slaw salad of refreshing green fruits cools and delights the palate and is a great complementary foil for barbecued or grilled meats or other salty foods. 

Here’s Christina’s all-ARTfarm recipe:

Law-Breakin’ Slaw

2 green mangoes, peeled

3-4 large green papayas, peeled and seeds removed

1 lb. raw sweet pumpkin (yes, Yvette Browne!)

2–3 small red onions

Quarter cup or so of fresh raw peanuts, chopped and dry roasted with salt (yes, we have been experimenting with peanuts!)

Dressing:

Three small limes, juiced into a bowl

2 Tablespoons honey. Dissolve in lime juice

Few drops of potent pepper sauce or half a fresh chili pepper, diced

DIRECTIONS:

Grate the mango, papaya and pumpkin on a box grater (great upper arm workout) or using a food processor. Slice the red onions thin. Toss all together in a large bowl.

Mix together the dressing. Pour over and toss. Refrigerate. 

Roast the peanuts and sprinkle over top or reserve on side for garnish. 

Can also add blanched green beans, cucumber slices, a few cherry tomatoes. Or, in season right now, a bit of cubed mango or other sweet ripe fruits. 

Look for Luca at Mango Melee on Sunday! In the new farmer section!

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

Morning Harvest Processional at ARTfarm. Open 10 AM – 12 noon, Beautiful Beets, Basil

20140621-072138-26498782.jpgThis harvest report just in from Farmer Luca: “Beautiful beets this morning with lovely greens. Also really nice basil — basil goes great with mangoes and pineapple for salsa with our sweet, flavorful red onions!”

Fresh today for you: sweet salad mix, baby spicy salad mix, baby arugula, microgreens, cucumbers, sweet corn, a handful of tomatoes, purple long beans, cooking greens, beets, radishes, onions, Italian basil, garlic chives, recao, mint, lemongrass, passionfruit, papaya, pineapples, tamarind pods, native trees and pineapple slips. All grown here using USDA NOP (organic) methods in the soil with rainwater.

From our partners we will have raw local honey, coconut vegan ice cream in local fruit flavors from Feeli, beautiful handmade breads from Tess, and mangoes plus free samples of some unusual fruits from Tropical Exotics!

Summer arrives tomorrow. Enjoy this fruity season!

ARTfarm is open every Saturday, 10 AM – 12 noon, and also Wednesdays 3–6 p.m., on S. Shore Rd. (62) between Ha’Penny Beach and the Boy Scout Camp. Come and visit us!

ARTfarm Saturday Farmstand

Sweet Saturday! Open 10 AM – 12 noon on the South Shore. Lots of goodies, despite the dry dry weather: Sweet salad mix, spicy salad mix, baby spicy salad mix, baby arugula, microgreens, kale, collards, mustard greens, large bunched arugula, radicchio, dandelion greens, Chinese cabbage, broccoli, broccoli leaves, Bodhi beans, carrots, beets, onions, fresh ginger root, cilantro, Italian basil, Thai basil, lemon basil, holy basil, dill, garlic chives, recao, epazote, mint, thyme, sage, rosemary, lemongrass, fennel, figs, cherry tomatoes, heirloom tomatoes, slicer tomatoes, pineapples, passionfruit, sweet corn, lettuce heads. We will also have vegan coconut-based ice cream from I-Sha, raw local honey from the Jolly Hill Apiary, and fresh local eggs, from Marti Gotts.

Lots of things are flowering (including our passionfruit vines) and the bees are going crazy! An eco-friendly way to get rid of a swarm of bees that are not desired in your home or yard is to call a beekeeper. They have special equipment and can remove the swarm safely to another location where they will happily continue to pollinate plants and make our world a sweeter and greener place. Purchase local honey, and you’ll always have the phone number of a nearby beekeeper right in your kitchen! 20140426-084259.jpg

Saturday Parade of Organic Goodness on South Shore Road

Costume your table in a tiny Caribbean festival of flavor and let the juicy sweetness march into your mouth! ARTfarm is open today 10am-12 noon with beautiful sweet salad mix, spicy salad mix, lettuce heads, escarole, lots of kale, collard greens, broccoli greens, mustard greens, dandelion greens, beets, onions, limes, passionfruit, cucumbers, radishes, sweet peppers, tomatoes, cherry tomatoes, cilantro, garlic chives, dill, parsley, rosemary, sage, Italian basil, Thai basil, lemon basil, lemon balm, fresh Mediterranean figs, honey, and vegan coconut-based ice cream. All a di gal dem. Whine upwhine up!

Beeeeeee Sunday!

With all the fantastic rain and blooming flowers and growth it is swarming season for bees that have outgrown their hives.

A swarm in May is worth a bale of hay.
A swarm in June is worth a silver spoon.
A swarm in July isn’t worth a fly.

Over the last two days we observed a group of about 20-30 bees actively investigating various structures around the farm. They were curious but not aggressive or interested in us. (Bees are very singular in purpose. When they are scouting, they are not looking to sting anyone. They look scary as they swoop about in large groups, buzzing loudly, but since they are not defending their home, they won’t sting unless someone is swatting at them, crushes one, or shows aggression toward them.)

This morning the same smallish group of 20-30 bees was spotted scoping out a space above the back kitchen door of one of the historical buildings on the property. Within ten minutes, a deafening hum could be heard as literally thousands of bees descended and began moving into a 1/2 inch crack near a roof beam at the same location.

Christina called our beekeeper, Wanda of Wright Apiary, for assistance and the two ladies donned bee suits and were able to pry up a small piece of plywood covering the hollow space in the roof structure, and gently vacuum the extremely large and healthy swarm out of the inside of the roof and into two small cages using special beekeeping tools. A bit of smoke from a hive smoker along a crack in the wall encouraged most of the rest of the bees to come back out from the deep recesses of the roof structure.

About halfway through the removal process Wanda was skilled enough to spot the large queen and capture her in a special queen box. Wanda installed the queen, in her cage, into a temporary small hive box and we began the process of gently shaking and brushing pounds and pounds of buzzing bees from the now heavy small cages into the small hive box. Lastly, Wanda placed a bit of bee food in the hive box to help them feel invested in their new location.

The hive box will remain near the hole in the roof for a few days until the rest of the bees have found their queen. Then we’ll move them into a larger hive box with a comb or two of ‘brood comb’ where the queen, once released from her cage, can immediately start laying her eggs. This should encourage the bees to stay in the new hive, even though it wasn’t their first choice.

If you spot bees swarming around your yard or home, don’t panic. Bees that are out and about looking for a place to live are focussed on the move and are not looking to sting people. A large swarm hanging off a tree can look like an odd, dark colored termite nest. It’s thousands of bees surrounding their queen, awaiting directions from the scouting party. Keep a comfortable distance and be careful not to disturb the swarm, but feel free to observe them. They’re only in an exposed area like that briefly, and will be gone within hours or a day or two at most, as soon as their scouting party finds the perfect new hollow spot.

To prevent a swarm of bees from moving into structures, patch up or caulk up cracks. Bees can move into hollow spaces with just a 1/4″ opening available to them. If bees do move into a structure, you can call 911 for assistance and they’ll direct you to a local beekeeper who can remove (or exterminate) the hive using specialized tools, protective clothing and equipment.

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