BY MATT CELONA / PHOTO BY CAROLE TOPALIAN
To be a member of the winter CSA program at Mass Audubon’s Drumlin Farm in Lincoln, Massachusetts, means that you already are, or are in the process of becoming, very comfortable with dirt.
I know farmers prefer to call it “soil," but when it’s on your food and you need to wash it off, it’s dirt. For the past 18 autumns, Drumlin farmers have been moving tons and tons of unwashed storage crops into a root cellar for bimonthly distributions between November and March. But other farms wash veggies before they place them in large plastic bags for winter storage, so what’s going on at Drumlin?
First off, we grow this food and eat it too! We want it to taste great, and we’re thrilled when others tell us how delicious it is. We notice that washing produce changes its flavor over time. A washed carrot left in your fridge for several weeks will have a slight bitterness that should be absent from its dirty counterpart. This isn’t an issue in the summer, when most of our food is consumed shortly after processing. We start our days at 5am all summer long in order to harvest, wash and distribute as much produce as possible on the very day it was cut or pulled from the field. In the winter, this commitment to freshness is the dirt coating your veggies. Also, as the farmers at Johnny’s Selected Seeds explain in their catalog, getting roots wet “can encourage decay, and washing them will remove much of the beneficial bacteria that occupy the thin film of soil on the roots. These bacteria actually help fight decay.”
Still, perhaps only the most dedicated locavore is willing to scrub the dirt off of 40 pounds of potatoes and 40 pounds of carrots—our target distribution amounts for a full share over the course of the winter in a good growing year. But “dedicated” is the right word to describe our shareholders. One member, concerned that she wouldn’t be able to cut through the hard rind of a Long Island Cheese pumpkin, asked if she could drop it from our barn loft (two stories up!) in order to crack it open. Sarah Lang, assistant crops manager and coordinator of our CSA programs, stepped in to prevent anyone from getting brained and calmly demonstrated for a crowd of onlookers how to safely get into an intimidating pumpkin with a big knife. Sarah does a great job sharing recipes and storage tips through her newsletter and by preparing food for our members to sample. Her kohlrabi chips are kid-friendly and easy to make. And last year, her celery root peanut butter muffins were a hit! Sound weird? Think of an earthier carrot cake.
And getting back to the earth, the dirt coating our turnips, parsnips, rutabaga, beets and daikon, black and watermelon radishes also helps the produce retain moisture. This allows us to store it in open bins without the need for plastic bags. And sustainability is one of Mass Audubon's core values. We recently converted basement space in a historic barn into a new, highly insulated and energy-efficient root cellar thanks in part to a generous grant from the Amelia Peabody Charitable Fund. A computer tracks the temperature inside the cellar and outside the barn, and opts to cool the room by fanning in cold air whenever possible. If necessary, it enlists an AC unit to maintain the ideal temperature. A retired engineer who volunteers with us two days a week programmed the computer that controls the root cellar climate. And it’s this kind of support from people in the community that helps us better understand what we mean by “sustainable agriculture."
Throughout the growing season, we invite individuals and groups of volunteers to work alongside us on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday afternoons. We are a small crew of full- and part-time farmers growing over 50 different crops on 30 acres without the use of chemical pesticides or herbicides, without plastic or corn-based film mulches and without irrigation. The foundation of our cropping system is building soil fertility and organic matter through fallowing with cover crops and by applying compost derived from our diversified livestock operation. We market our vibrant produce through a summer and winter CSA program, at a stand on the farm, at the Union Square farmers market in Somerville and through sales to restaurants and the Somerville school system. We are the farmers, the marketers and the delivery people, and we need all the help we can get! Following the progress of this year’s winter squash crop from greenhouse to field to storage will give you a sense of the community’s involvement in our farming system.
In April and May, the same person who programmed our root cellar computer helped plow the pumpkin and squash acreage—a pasture we were bringing into crop production for the first time. Three volunteers who work with us some part of five days each week helped seed the squash in the greenhouse in May. In early June, 30 volunteers from Care Scout of Waltham helped our team finish preparing the field for transplanting by hauling away heavy crates of sod clumps. Then, volunteers from Google’s Cambridge office finished a long afternoon of weeding by helping us transplant some of the squash. In September, volunteers from Sunovion, Stantec, Chapel Hill Chauncy Hall School and Concord Academy joined in as we clipped, loaded and then unpacked the squash into the greenhouse for curing. And these are just some of the volunteers connected to this one crop. A look at the life of this year’s potatoes would necessitate a description of all the weeding and beetle-squishing performed by Drumlin’s summer camp kids, and the harvesting done by volunteers from many other companies and schools such as the Helen Davis School in Dorchester and the Ferryway School in Malden. By the end of this season, amazingly, people will have donated over 4,000 hours of their time to crop production and marketing at Drumlin Farm!
So while dirt may be the first thing you notice about the potatoes in your winter CSA share as you stand over the sink washing them, think about the sixth graders who had the opportunity to dig them out of the ground and learn about the differences between the varieties All Blue and Purple Viking—not such a common experience these days! But this is just what Louise Ayer Hatheway had in mind when she donated her farm to Mass Audubon in 1955: that there would be a place where people from metropolitan areas can still make a connection to agriculture. The farm’s proximity to so many cities and towns makes it the ideal setting in which to become more familiar with the work and soil that feeds us.
Crops Manager MATT CELONA (email@example.com) has been training beginning farmers at Mass Audubon’s Drumlin Farm for the past 12 seasons. He has worked on farms in Iowa, Vermont, New York and France. Prior to farming, he was a graduate student pursuing a PhD in English.