Longest day of the year on Sunday and now Betsy begins to rejoice as the days get shorter, in her mind frost is surely just around the corner! These are the kinds of mental games we play during the steamy days of summer.
Tomato harvest is in full swing now and we are beginning to get into that summer harvest rhythm. The spring vegetable crops grow so fast and are so tender that we have to harvest them every day or so to keep up. These summer crops, like tomatoes and soon peppers, we harvest just twice a week in a concentrated effort then leave them alone to ripen up some more fruit. New staff on the farm always take some training to get our tomato system down, from the beginning of turning under of the cover crop of wheat and clover, the laying of the reusable landscape fabric (don’t like to use and throw away black plastic), the building of the fence/trellis’s, careful planting of the many different varieties in just the right row (just so so as my grandmother used to say), pruning and tying the plants up to the trellis, and then repeated tyings.
These steps are just anticipation of the real dance of carefully picking, wiping and sorting of the fruit themselves. Every Monday and Thursday now we load the truck up with empty boxes and head to the field. Certain people pick certain varieties and become specialists in their idiosyncrasies, the Cherokee Purples are hard to get the stems off and we sometimes have to use pliers, the big Striped Germans bruise so easily that you have to use two hands to gently pull them from the vine, the Green Zebra’s and the Aunt Ruby’s German Greens have to get just the right amber cast to them before they are ripe. Back to the tailgate of the truck with full buckets and the sorting begins.
Each tomato is inspected and wiped with a soft cloth and put into one of three boxes for each variety, one for fully ripe ones, another for the ones that need a few more days to fully color up and a third for the freaks. New helpers always need coaching on what is ripe and what constitutes a freak, great angst over to “freak it” or not “it just has one kind of funny spot?” Then there is the “have to eat today” pile, fruit that got bruised or split in the picking process or is perfectly good but has one worm hole in it so it won’t keep.
When we are done picking we gently drive the boxes down to the packing shed and take them into the air-conditioned room and carefully stack them according to variety and ripeness, the ripe piles destined for the next market and the restaurants and the less ripe to while away a few days for the next market or the grocery stores. Early in the season it is just a few boxes of a couple of varieties, this past Monday it was 40 or more boxes, next week it will be over a thousand pounds at each picking.
It has taken the whole morning to harvest and now we all stand around, soaked with sweat and stained green from rubbing up against the tomato foliage, as I select out one fruit of each variety to sample and cut off slices for each to try, “Wow, look how green that Aunt Ruby’s is inside and the flavor is really good”; some folks like the Striped Germans some don’t “too sweet”; noses wrinkle, in a good way, at the tartness of the Green Zebra; they all love the Big Beef and rarely do we sample the Cherokee Purple after the first pickings because they all know it’s their favorite. Everyone gets a bag and takes as many fruits as they want from the “have to eat today” pile and then round out their selections from the “freak” boxes and head home talking of the tomato sandwiches, salsas, and sauces they are going to make.
These Monday-Thursday harvests leave time the rest of the week to get other chores done, weeding some here, planting a little, trellising the peppers, cleaning the freshly harvested red onions in the shade when it’s beastly hot like it was last Friday, even finishing up projects put off like finally putting a door on the feed room of the Poultry Villa so the critters don’t eat holes in the feed bags that are being delivered this week.