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 Q&A Wednesday! 3-6pm

Today at ARTfarm down the south shore we’ll offer a fairly small selection of items: Pineapples, a few tomatoes, sweet salad mix, microgreens, basil, chives, and a few cucumbers.

The lignum vitae is an important food source for honey bees in drought times.

The lignum vitae is an important food source for honey bees in drought times.

Q: What do you farmers do when it is so dry? What can grow in this extreme drought condition?

A: Not too much! We do our best to conserve water when conditions are this severe.

One plant that remains green and healthy with no watering in this dry weather is the highly drought tolerant lignum vitae tree. Slow and steady is how lignum vitae grows, rain or no rain. This tree species will probably outlast all the other trees that we have planted over the years. Most of the 30+ lignum vitae trees established at ARTfarm came from Kai and Irene Lawaetz at Little Lagrange. Kai was always a champion of the lignum vitae for its beauty and ability to withstand drought times and there are many prime individuals of the species on the Lawaetz Museum grounds.

Even in drought times when most vegetation is brown, the lignum vitae tree's evergreen leaves remain deep green and provide dense shade.

Even in drought times when most vegetation is brown, the lignum vitae tree’s evergreen leaves remain deep green and provide dense shade.

While it does not produce any edible products, the lignum vitae is a beautiful dense shade and ornamental tree and a food source for honeybees, particularly when nothing else is flowering. The wood of lignum vitae trees is so dense that it has traditionally been used to make ship pulleys.

The light purplish blue blooms and showy red and orange fruit are unique mainly because of their color. There are not too many blue colored flowers in the tropics. The tree sheds very little leaf litter and its leathery paired leaves remain a beautiful deep green year round.

ARTfarm Monday Q&A: Never the Same Salad Twice

It’s dry out here! Today’s pungent harvest: Sweet salad mix, baby arugula, baby and regular spicy salad mixes, arugula, onions, scallions, cilantro, Italian basil, lots of tomatoes, slicers and heirlooms, cherry tomatoes, and the last of the figs for a while.

Q: Why aren’t your salad greens as sweet this week as they were last week? Why are the stems larger/smaller? Why isn’t  the spicy as spicy as it was last time? etc. etc….?

A: While one could chalk this up to simple nostalgia, it’s more likely that variations are due to two main reasons:

(1) Mother nature’s treatment of our crops is the primary source of this shift in taste from week to week. Even as our recipes remain unchanged, small changes in the weather can affect the taste of our salad mix.

When temperatures are hotter during a portion of the growth cycle of the lettuce heads in our fields, they respond as many living beings do under stress: they attempt to defend themselves from being eaten as they try to propagate. Lettuce will tend to take on a more bitter flavor in hot weather as it accelerates toward the bolting and seeding cycle of its life (as it would during hot late summer months in the cooler parts of the world). If we encounter cooler and rainier weather, the lettuce will be sweeter. Even a brief few days of intense heat can alter the taste of plants. And variations in weather now can affect the salad flavor two or three weeks from now, as the plants are in their growth cycle.

Spicy greens become more peppery when the weather is very hot and dry, and will taste milder when we’ve had a lot of wet weather. Our formulas for the types of greens and their quantities in the various mixes stays consistent from harvest to harvest, but the weather can change the flavors in the bag of salad you take home.

Occasionally we do have to change the formulation of a salad mix because seed is not available for some of the tasty baby greens that add so much flavor to our mixes. We find a substitution that is similar, but this can also change the taste of our salad mixes over the course of the season.

(2) The other factor that comes into play in the consistency of ARTfarm salad greens from bag to bag is what we like to call the Jackson Pollock effect.

When we make the salad mix we use a very large sanitized stainless surface and mix in many different baby mesclun greens with multiple large chopped lettuce varieties.

When creating his splatter paint pop art creations of the 1960s, Jackson Pollock employed a similar technique. He would toss different colors in random patterns throughout his large canvases.

What we do next at ARTfarm is essentially like taking that large amazing Jackson Pollock painting and cutting it up into many small pieces. Each portion of the canvas represents a bag of ARTfarm salad mix. Some bags will have more large pieces of stem from the base of the lettuce head; other bags will contain a little bit more of the baby mesclun greens; others will be a perfect blend of all the different ingredients that we put into the salad mix. Every bag is a little different because they’re all prepared by hand, and the weather, the secret intentions of mother nature, and the randomness of our process ensure that your experience will always be fresh!

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We know that our customers seek us out because they want real produce that tastes like the place it was grown. We know you can handle a little variety. But, if you ever purchase a bag of salad greens from ARTfarm that you find inedible, please bring it back to us. We’d always like to hear from our customers, good or bad, how you feel about our products, and if we’ve goofed and a product is not up to our normal level of quality, we would be happy to replace it with something you find tastier.

We grow this stuff for you, after all!

ARTfarm Q&A Wednesday 3-6pm: Hold My Tomatoes!

Today’s farmstand, 3-6pm: Sweet salad mix, baby spicy and regular spicy salad mixes, baby and regular arugula, microgreens, loads of cherry tomatoes, loads of tomatoes, onions, scallions, beets, Italian basil, Thai basil, dill, cilantro, parsley, purple Bodhi beans, assorted chili peppers, a couple cucumbers, baby carrots, escarole, a few bunches of kale, delicious Mediterranean figs and passionfruit. From our partner Errol Chichester’s beekeeping efforts we have local raw honey!

Radishes! Carrots! and Beets! Oh My!

Radishes! Carrots! and Beets! Oh My!

It's the scarecrow, the cowardly lion and the tin man. At the end of the yellow brick road, there was... freshly harvested MICRO!

It’s the scarecrow, the cowardly lion and the tin man. At the end of the yellow brick road, there was… freshly harvested MICRO!

Fresh oakleaf lettuces destined for ARTfarm's sweet mix!

Fresh oakleaf lettuces destined for ARTfarm’s sweet mix!

Q: Can you hold a couple of pounds of tomatoes/some dill/a few cucumbers/a bag of salad for me? I can’t make it to the farmstand on time today.

A: We hate to say no to good people. We love all our customers and supporters. We appreciate and applaud how important fresh, organically produced food is in your lives! This is one of our most common questions – we field several requests per week from customers to hold items from the farmstand.

Our policy for retail sales has always been that we are a first-come, first-served farmstand. We may have good intentions and want to say yes to you, but we do not have the manpower, the infrastructure, the time or the space to set aside produce on request. If you start to consider the logistics, we simply can’t accommodate custom retail pre-orders. We lose money on them. And they’d reduce the early-bird limited-supply offerings we want to have available for customers who came on time or even waited in line.

We are a family farm – mom, pop, and grandpa – with a couple of part time employees and loyal volunteers. Maybe someday we’ll be bigger with more staff, but for now we are tiny. We work literally from pre-dawn until after dusk, six to seven days per week year round, to care for the gardens and livestock and accomplish what you see at the farmstand and appearing on the menus of local restaurants. Our profit margins are narrow because of all the labor costs and handwork that goes into our harvesting and processing work and our organic gardening and resource conservation techniques. We love what we do and are dedicated to it, but it leaves us with very little downtime. Additional tasks and projects pull Luca and Christina away from the art studio. We have to limit the services the farm can offer.

We ARE open three farmstands per week in winter and spring, and at least once a week through most of the summer/fall months. We live in a modern world that values efficiency over all else, but coming to the farmstand is, we hope, a qualitative experience and not just another errand to rush through. If you can’t make it, there is always the next farmstand… we, and our family and friends, thank you for understanding and appreciate your support!

Monday Q and A, open 3–6 p.m.!

Fight the Monday doldrums with great piles of gorgeous greens and crunchy veggies! Today’s 3 – 6 PM farmstand: loads of sweet salad mix, teen arugula, spicy salad mix, Italian basil, cilantro, a tower of multiple big tubs full of heirloom tomatoes, slicing tomatoes, cherry tomatoes, Bodhi beans, garlic chives, fresh ginger root, beets with big leafy edible tops, beautiful chili peppers, dandelion greens, scallions, passionfruit, Mediterranean figs, and freshly harvested zinnia flowers.

From our partner I-Sha we have locally crafted vegan ice cream!

How many heirloom tomatoes can YOU eat? Please, HELP US!!

How many heirloom tomatoes can YOU eat? Please, HELP US!!

Q: Farmer Luca, why do you look so sleepy in this photo of you with a giant tower of tomatoes?

A: I’m glad you asked. In fact, I have been up late for the last few nights. After putting excessive numbers of tomatoes to bed, I’ve been grooving to golden age hip-hop and working on paintings for a new art exhibit I will be having with Mike Walsh at the Walsh Metal Works Gallery, opening April 10th!

So, dear customers, when reaching for a bag today for your purchases, be careful not to mistakenly grab one of those under Luca’s eyes.

Monday Q&A with Farmer Luca! Open 3-6pm Today!

Q. What’s your favorite thing to do with lots and lots of cherry tomatoes?

A. Besides snacking on them like popcorn, they can be great in recipes that call for cooked tomatoes. Take a few pints of cherry tomatoes, rinse and toss them with some crushed garlic and olive oil and roast them in the oven until they begin to soften and wrinkle a little. If you like anchovies, you can also mash a few of those into your olive oil and garlic dressing to help cut the sweetness of the cherries and add a little saltiness. (Most classic tomato sauce recipes call for a little sugar, but in this case, the sweetness is already in these little teeny tomatoes.) Once they’ve roasted and started to wrinkle a bit, run them through the food processor or blender until the skins and seeds have been pulverized and you’ve achieved a creamy and smooth consistency. We use a Vitamix – and you wind up with an incredibly delicious and creamy tomato sauce/soup that even little kids and people who say they hate tomatoes will love. You can bag it up in plastic zipper bags or your container of choice and freeze, or get out your mason jars and can this delectable creation, or use it immediately topped with a few leaves of basil and maybe some fresh Parmesan in a bowl or on a pizza or pasta dish!

Monday’s stand: Buckets of cherry tomatoes. Sweet salad mix, teen spicy salad mix, teen arugula, microgreens, tons of tomatoes (all types and sizes), cucumbers, Italian basil, cilantro, garlic chives, ginger root, long beans, radishes, mint, recao and zinnia flowers. And loads of homemade coconut vegan ice cream from I-Sha in crazy local fruit flavors!

Things were oddly quiet on Saturday, so we hope we didn’t scare anyone off with our roller derby joke! Looking forward to seeing you this afternoon, 3–6pm on the balmy and blue skied South Shore!

Love, ARTfarm

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ARTfarm Monday Q&A, OPEN 3-6pm today!!

The farmstand is open 3–6 p.m. today with lots of awesome winter goodies: Sweet salad mix, baby spicy mix, baby arugula, microgreens, sweet corn, cucumbers, loads of cherry tomatoes, more slicing and heirloom tomatoes, radishes, lettuce heads, garlic chives, cilantro, dill, basil, lemongrass, chili peppers, passionfruit, and zinnia flowers!IMG_7622.JPG

We got a great question from a customer on our website this week. Read on for more about zip lock bags!

Know Your Farmer:

Q: Can I bring my arugula and greens ziplocks back to you for recycling?

A: While we are exceedingly careful to reduce the waste stream from the farm, the plastic salad bags are an unfortunate byproduct of the farm’s resource cycle. Because of the nature of ready to eat food products and health code regulations, we can only use new, plastic bags or other sterile packaging for the ready-to-eat processed products we sell to customers, and we can’t take back used salad bags from customers.

We do make an effort to buy heavy duty foodgrade ziplock bags for our products so that they can be reused many times over by the customer. While some growers use clamshell packaging for salad products, we found the ziplock bags to be the most reusable post-salad, and they also maintain superior freshness longer. As an added bonus, by gently compressing our greens in the bags, we are able to fit more pounds of product of greens per square inch of refrigerator space. This also helps reduce our use of WAPA power.

What our empty salad bags are truly awesome for is: replacing your purchase of new zipper bags for your home! We open ours up inside out on the kitchen counter and let them dry completely, and then shake out any dried flecks of leftover greens. Then we roll them up and keep them in a large pickle jar, ready for any personal storage adventures we may need to embark on. We use them for bagging up dried goods like pasta to store in the pantry, encasing paper flour bags that are going into the freezer, repackaging of bulk food items, handing out leftovers after a party or gathering, general home food storage… you can cut the tip off of a bag and use it as a cake decorating tool or as a funnel for refilling a small necked container. We use them to extend the life of leaky freezer packs as well.

We also keep a few in the car for use on the go. They are useful for keeping a wet bathing suit enclosed, produce shopping at the store, rain proofing your stuff during yoga on the beach, cleaning up dog messes, garbage bags…

One of our customers has discovered that our salad bags perfectly fit a letter sized piece of paper. They can be useful for “lamination” of a document, sorting tax receipts, and other office uses..

We hope this gives you a few extra ideas of how to streeeetch the life of, and reuse, these bags. If you are not interested in using them yourself, you could bag up a bunch of clean ones and bring them to the St. Croix Animal Welfare Center (animal shelter). They can use them (along with clean old towels, and newspapers) for cleaning up etc.

Thank you for being such a great customer that you’re having this solid waste problem! 🙂

Love,

ARTfarm

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