Spinella Farm

  (Waterford Works, New Jersey)
Life on a 100-year-old market farm
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Thoughts for Friday, June 27, 2014

To me a farm is more than a place to grow food. It is a holistic experience. I love to look at the sky, smell the fresh air and thank God for being all alone in his image. Today I had one of those experiences that make you stop and think what a wonderful world it is outside of the human confines.

As I said the other day in a blog, the ground hogs have been very active and so I've had to put a few out of their misery. Normally I pick a spot away from the action and leave the carcasses for the vultures to eat. After all, they have to eat too. I think it is just amazing that they can track down their meal from basically out of nowhere.

I noticed last night that the carcass of an earlier ground hog had been picked clean including the skin. Normally, the vultures are not that proficient. But I didn't give it a second thought until today when I saw a red fox come over and start to work over the latest morsel I had left out there. I had been pulling weeds in the string bean patch when I looked up and saw him. He snuck up on the carcass and then pounced on it like a cat. He knew I was there; every once in a while he would poke his head up and look at me as if to say, "It's all right that I'm doing this, isn't it?" I just laughed and watched him a few more minutes. I took out my phone and tried to video tape it but I was too far away. There was no way I could get closer.

The red fox was just the latest episode. Sometimes the blue birds that live on the farm will stop me in my tracks to watch. Or it could be monarch butterflies on the red clover. One year, one attacked the tractor as I was mowing the field, upset that I was cutting its flowers!

There is a hen turkey in the back field that must have a clutch nearby. Every day this week she has been out there diligently walking the field in the morning and evening, scooping up insects to take a break from sitting on the eggs. The deer also come out but now that we had to mow the grass around the fields, I hope they don't decide to start in on my vegetables as a source of good juicy fiber. 

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Thoughts for Thursday, June 26, 2014

One of the nice things about running a farm stand is the exposure you give to people of different kinds of foods they have never eaten. One of these is the zucchini or squash blossom.

This is the male flower of the zucchini that is popular in many cultures, most notably in Italy. You can make what is known as tempura. Basically, you dip the flower in batter and fry it or you can stuff the flower with cheeses, seafood or whatever and then fry it or bake it.

We were introduced to this years ago when we had a customer route in South Philadelphia. We delivered tomatoes there by the hundreds for ladies to make tomato sauce or gravy. My grandfather started the route in the 40s and we continued it through the 90s before discontinuing it. That's another story for another blog.

South Philadelphia, at one time, had a large Italian population. One day we get a frantic call from a lady who needed zucchini flowers. I couldn't remember Grandpop, who was deceased by now, ever selling zucchini flowers. But knowing that cultures have different uses for different foods I didn't get question what she was going to do with the flower part of the squash. When I delivered it to her, she told me how to prepare it. The funny part of the story was that her daughter was pregnant and craved the flowers big time! We headed off trouble and learned of a new use for the a plant that we regularly grew.

Over time we learned that certain chefs also prepared the flower as a delicacy and we would sell them by the dozens. The beauty of all this was that we made more money on the flower than the fruit. Everyone was selling the fruit but hardly anyone sold the flower. We had an exclusive market for a long time.

The same thing happened on our stand and eventually we came to stock the flowers and the fruit on the stand but command more money for the flower. 

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Thoughts for Tuesday, June 24, 2014

If we were back in the hay business, I would be ecstatic about this weather - hot, dry and windy. But it is not good for growing vegetables. Luckily we can just turn the handle and the drip irrigation goes to work!

Yesterday we spent time cutting all of the grass that has managed to grow up. Dad tried to roto till but the ground was so dry it made nothing but dust. Rain is expected tomorrow afternoon. I've got more string beans to plant, some pumpkins and fall squash will be going in also. Otherwise everything is looking good at this point.

A large groundhog no longer resides on the farm. It had been causing some problems with a number of holes. I'm sorry to have to do that as I like a live and let live philosophy with the animals on the farm. But when it comes to damage, something has to be done. The deer have been at bay so far this summer which can be attributed to us clearing up the brush around the farm and leaving plenty of grass for them to eat out in the back fields. It's been a long time since my beans have not been accosted by the deer.

I think Dad is at the end of his rope. At 77, he gets tired easily but my mother in law's health hasn't been good and Dad's been running all over doing the things I can't do while I'm at school during the day. That'll end tomorrow as I go on summer vacation. I don't know what I'll do when he goes. I'll have to overcome and adapt.  

 
 

Thoughts for Monday, June 23, 2014

As much as I think I'm behind in some of my tasks on the farm, when I look around and think about it, I'm not bad off at all. There is always something to do and yes, some things do get a little farther beyond then you would like them to be. But considering that I finish school this week, I'm in pretty good shape that a day or two of hard work would catch me up. That makes it easier for me to sleep at night.

The market on Saturday was busy. We had the most sales so far this season. It was a nice day and people didn't go to the Shore. We carried blueberries for the first time and sold them out quickly. We'll carry them one more week then turn over that product to everyone else to battle over. By that time, the tomatoes will be ready.

We'e starting to come into the beginning of the full blast of summer vegetables. As I said, the tomatoes will be ready in another week. The string beans are almost there. Probably start picking those this week. But I received a call from my cherry grower who informed me that they have started to pick cherries so I will be taking those to Margate this Thursday. Not many people in New Jersey grow cherries but this guy does and when everything breaks right for him he has a good crop.

In the meantime, I am preparing for the humid weather to return to tomorrow. All of the vegetables that are susceptible to fungus have been treated. We pulled the broccoli and cabbage plants this weekend and mowed the snow peas under in preparation for the fall crops that will start to be planted. Those snow peas don't owe us anything. We had a beautiful crop. Soon we will be planting them for the fall. The basil has been wonderful too. It's been many years since we had that kind of basil on the farm. But sales have been slow because a lot of people grow basil in their gardens.

 
 

Thoughts for Friday, June 20, 2014

Well, Dad and Anna survived the first day at the Margate market! It was humid and overcast and they managed to get it in between the rain drops. Dad was happy with the results of everything from the new pop up tent to the sales that they managed to generate. Dad said the only thing that did not move out completely were the snow peas but then again they brought a lot of snow peas.

Anna said the customer base was mostly the local residents. I suspect that the Thursday before July 4 will be a real barn burner as it will include all of the vacationers. Next week I will be available for service down there so I am looking forward to seeing all of our customers and the Margate Market volunteers.

Those volunteers are the best ever. It is the only market that we have attended where they have a staff of volunteers. These people are not shy about getting into the work and really helping the vendors. Bill and Terry are two of our favorites as are Jan and Shane.

The cooler air moved in over night and made picking this morning a lot more bearable. There are some snow peas left to take off before we say good bye to that crop until the Fall. The string beans are on the verge of picking. I would say by next week.

Blueberries are nice sized for the first crop but the taste reminds one of their wild cousins. Anyway, I for one am glad that they are here because I have had a craving for fresh blueberry pancakes with a side of Benton's bacon for quite some time. I will satisfy that craving on Sunday morning. Can't wait! 

 
 

Thoughts for Thursday, June 19, 2014

Dad and Anna were off this morning to Margate to open up the tail gate market there. It was threatening rain which we had gotten some of earlier in the day. But I think it will hold off for the morning which will help them. Margate can be very busy. The first day is usually hectic as all of the residents and vacationers have a pent up desire to buy fresh local food and so they come out in numbers. While I would like to be there with them, I have a few more days in the classroom to close out the year.

On the way to school this morning, I noticed that the mulberries are dropping off the trees. This is a sign of some delicious eating ahead. I love this time of year not only for the cultivated food we eat but the wild bounty that nature brings. Mulberries darken your mouth and if you eat them just right, they release a nice burst of natural sugar from their fruit. But you have to fight the birds off for the natural delicacies!

I like to take a few minutes and lick the nectar from the honey suckle flowers. When I was a boy, this was a rite of passage into summer. Again, there is not much so you need to enjoy every morsel you can taste. It is a lot of work for the honey suckle but it is worth it.

I recently asked someone at the Rancocas Nature Conservancy about a wild food festival. She loved the idea. The park, which is owned by Burlington County, holds a lot of different native foods. But the county is a little hesitant to have people walking about eating wild plants, some of which may give you a tummy ache. Anyway, I pitched the idea that professionals come in and harvest and that us mere mortals eat what is already prepared. Then they could give us a seminar on how to pick and prepare the wild food.

Interestingly, our farmers markets do not have one vendor who sells or prepares wild foods for sale. That gives me an idea for some day . . . 

 
 

Thoughts for Wednesday, June 18, 2014

We're in the middle of a big heat up. Warm is one thing; upper 90s with humidity is a different animal. With the string beans in blossom, there is a chance that the young beans will be deformed due to the high heat. It has happen to me before.

Tomorrow we begin our second tail gate in Margate. It's a good market for us and a lot of other vendors. The most enjoyable part is that it is really supported by the local citizens. They have a lot of pride in that market and they come out every week to show it. I've been to some duds for farmers markets and some very good ones. Margate is the best so far for us.

Also making its debut will be the local blueberries. The Weymouth variety is being picked in Hammonton. Yesterday Dad purchased 10 flats for the Margate market. We don't do much with blueberries after the first week or two because by then everybody and his grandmother has them for sale. But, like the strawberries, if you are the first in the market with them, it can be a profitable experience.

I talked to some local peach growers and it looks like they will be picking peaches on July 1. This is a little later than usual, probably about a week to 10 days later. But I hear the crop is in pretty good shape so it is worth the wait. Meanwhile, local corn will hit the stands around the same time just in time for the 4th of July.

The zucchini explosion, as I like to call it, has started. From now until September, everyone will have tons of zucchini for sale. One year I made good money by selling each piece for 50 cents. It's easy to grow so everyone has it. Fortunately for us, most people don't harvest the flowers. They are missing a more lucrative market than the fruit itself. All chefs  that I know of use the flowers so we end up making more money on the flowers than the fruit which is OK with me. 

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Thoughts for Tuesday, June 17, 2014

After blogging yesterday, I received an email from a relative whose grandmother was my grandfather's sister. She told me that she follows my blog closely and enjoys reading about the days when Grandpop farmed because it helps her picture what life was like on her Great Grandparent's farm.

I got to thinking about this and how if the tables were turned how I would feel if my grandfather grew up on a farm and moved away while I was raised in suburbia like my cousin was. While I don't find anything that would have been wrong with that circumstance, I'm glad that I was the one whose grandfather decided to stay and make farming his vocation.

I replied to my cousin's email by stating that Michener once wrote that he lived and travelled all over the world but always kept one foot in Bucks County, Pa. where he was raised. I told my cousin that she still has a toe hold in the family farm because of her relationship with me.

There are days that I think about the day when I won't be involved in the farm. I have made it a point to tell my children how special it is, all 13.7 acres that are left. They get the point. Where they end up is probably where I will end up because my wife and I would like to be close to our grandchildren.

I don't know if my cousin knows it but my grandfather had to buy our farm from his father. I know that this had been a point of contention with other family members. But I never heard Grandpop complain about it. That was his way. If that was what he had to do to be where he wanted to be then he was going to do what he had to do. I think he can be assured wherever he is that his legacy is in good hands with the same attitude. 

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Thoughts for Monday, June 16, 2014

It was a very busy weekend. First, on Friday, we went to our daughter's graduation from Drexel University. Listening to and seeing everyone move on in life is very humbling. We wish her all the best in her future endeavors.

Next, market day on Saturday was very busy and we sold out by noon. The asparagus is down to the final week. The snow peas jumped off the table, which was good because we had a lot of them! I think Dad was skeptical that we wouldn't move the volume that we did but it happened. We also had a very nice harvest of Italian basil. Nothing beats basil that is fresh cut!

Sales have been steady at the market which is good. We're heading into the Fourth of July time of year and people will be on the move for summer vacation. I hope that year that momentum is sustainable.

I spent Father's Day morning mulching the watermelons and the French melons. One of things that I noticed is that with the wheat straw smothering the green matter of weeds, it is acting like a compost. I never realized this and now I am curious to see what comes of it. I've been diligent enough to smother the weeds before they get to the seed stage so they don't pass along the next generation.

The white flies have invaded the potatoes and so that prompted a dosage of Lambda T. I had already started to spray the fungicide in anticipation of the warm muggy weather that is forecast for this week. I think all is in place for us to move forward.

We start our other tail gate market on Thursday in Margate. This has proven to be a good market also. I placed my order for mushrooms this morning so we will be ready for Thursday. We have a nice following for fresh mushrooms and we're glad to serve our loyal customers. 

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Thoughts for Thursday, June 12, 2014

Jack Rabin, who is the associate director at Rutgers University's research stations, writes a blog called "Sustainable Farming on the Urban Fringe" (sustainable-farming.rutgers.edu). Although is it written for the Garden State producer, its points and principles could apply to just about anywhere.

Yesterday Rabin's article was about the Rutgers-developed hybrid male asparagus. I know there are people out there opposed to hybridization and the GMO thing, but if you read this article and are tuned into biology, Rutgers is doing nothing more than Mendel did with his peas. I think selective breeding is the farmer's responsibility to cultivate the best possible plant for human consumption under the circumstances which the farmer has to work with.

Anyway, if you get a chance to read this article, it is worth the time. I'm proud that our state university dives into this kind of science and that we can benefit from it. One of the lead scientists in the asparagus research, Dr. Steve Garrison, now retired but still very active, is an expert that has forgotten more than most of us will ever know. I have had the pleasure to sit and listen to him talk for hours on agriculture. He is also opened minded and listens to the farmers as opposed to being an agriculture science snob. The late Dr. Steve Johnston was the same way.

Dr. Garrison's methods are very simple. He is very detail-oriented and has honed his powers of observation to the point where he is well-connected to whatever he is studying. That's something I strive to do when I am in the field every day looking at the same fields over and over again. That's learning at its utmost and one of the things, in my opinion, that separates a farmer from someone who just puts seed or plants in the ground. 

 
 

Thoughts for Wednesday, June 11, 2014

The frontal boundary stalled over our area is keeping the humid and wet conditions present. However, I feel confident that I have done what I could to protect the plants most susceptible to disease. Time will tell.

In the meantime, the plants are really taking off and getting big. In the last couple of days, some plants have grown to two to three times their previous size at the start of the week.

Dad is amazed at the growth of the snow peas. He has been out in the patch picking every day over the same rows. He has taken to calling the snow peas, the "asparagus of the bush climbing family" because of the frequency at which he is picking. I believe that we have already exceeded the number of pounds of snow peas we picked at this time last year, it's been that good.

The garlic scapes are another big time product. We have more scapes now than we can possibly sell. I have started to make inquiries of restaurants who may be interested in using them. I'm hoping to keep them as long as I can to sell at the tail gate markets but I fear that I will have to get rid of many before this is all over.

The Atlantic City Press had a front page article yesterday on small acreage farmers. These are operations defined as less than 10 acres down to one acre. While the statistics say that these are becoming less and less, that can be misleading. One of the reasons is that small acreage like that does not qualify for farmland assessment. Another is that an operation of that size has a large start up cost that could take most people years to recoup. Anyone doing that scale is probably earning money off the property like myself. But I believe in the end that these small operations will be the life blood of agriculture here in New Jersey. The techniques and equipment are changing and become more cost efficient along with the movement of locally grown food. 

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Thoughts for Tuesday, June 10, 2014

We have been getting a warm rain for the last two days in the Delaware Valley. Fortunately at the farm, it has been raining sparingly. Warm rain makes every thing grow. And that includes the fungus and the weeds. 

I expected the worst when I walked the fields after supper last night. But I was surprised to see that the fields were in decent shape. It had rained about .2 of an inch early yesterday morning which was just enough to help pull out the root system of the crab grass. Nut grass is the first invader of the season; it is followed by crab grass. It is funny to look out and see how the seed for the crab grass has been distributed. In some spots, it is like a doormat. In other spots, barely a plant here and there. But if you let it get too big it is impossible to pull out unlike nut grass which is a rooted system that continues to pop up rather than establish a dense network.

The rabbit was at work again in the pea patch. I'm afraid we'll have to put him out of commission. In all the years that I have worked on that farm, I've never had a rabbit create havoc as much as this little fellow has done.

The blight situation in the potato turned out to be some stress attributed to the hilling we did two weeks ago according to our ag agent. He also took some samples from the pole limas but I think that condition came about because of stress of the transplanting and colder temperatures. Those plants have righted themselves and seem to be doing fine as they trellis up the netting.

I weeded and put deer spray on the string beans. I hesitated to spray but I noticed that some of the tops were nibbled, so I went ahead and did it.

 
 

Thoughts for Monday, June 9, 2014

The CSA and the market both went very well on Saturday. It was cool to see the excited faces of the CSA members as they went along the table selecting the fruits and vegetables that they wanted. A couple of first timers said they felt guilty about the produce they were taking. I told them that this is how it's done and they won't be ashamed when they get home and prepare the fresh food for their families.

Asparagus is about two weeks from finishing. The strawberries are done. We're looking ahead to the fruits. The peaches and blueberries are two weeks late. We don't grow our own blueberries so we purchase them from the DiMaio family in Hammonton, blueberry capital of the world. Butch told Dad on Sunday that the blueberries are two weeks late except for the Weymouth variety which has a couple of berries here and there. However, some unscrupulous growers are buying berries from other parts of the country and labeling them Jersey Fresh. I don't have respect for someone who does things like that especially when they show up at our tailgate markets. Then I have to answer to my customers who know we have early berries and tell them they are not local. It gives all of us a bad name when the customer becomes wary about the origin of the food.

The snow peas are exploding in the field. Unfortunately, the deer have started to nibble on them but since it's going to rain four of the five days this week, I am hesitant to use the egg whites spray because it is expensive and will become ineffective after the rain hits it. So I'm taking my chances that the deer will leave them alone for a few days until I can get the deterent on them.

Everything else is fertilized. That late lettuce looks great! The bush lima beans are up as is the edamame. Now the work really begins! 

 
 

Thoughts for Friday, June 6, 2014

While scouting the potato patch the day before last, I discovered some beginnings of the blight. As I looked up the diseased leaves to confirm my suspicion that it was late blight, my next thought was to contact our county ag agent to give him the word. You hate to be the first one with bad news, especially late blight, but I guess I am going to be the first in line.

Agent Wes Kline of Cumberland County will be out to inspect my field today. I sent him some pictures of the diseased leaves and that prompted his visit. We are lucky to have a dedicated agent like Wes, who is also an expert on food safety. Yesterday I sprung into action and sprayed the fungicide needed to combat the fungus. A cool night and morning may have broken the cycle but I'm not taking any chances.

Things are starting to pick up for tomorrow's market. The CSA will begin for one thing. The snow peas are blooming like crazy which means a lot of sweet tender shells. Also, the second planting of radishes is ready to be picked and they are way better than the first planting. Finally, the basil will be ready to be snipped so we will have that for the first time.

Today started on a sad note. Ed Liberta, a local farmer whose family has been a member of Winslow Township for generations, passed away in a house fire this morning. Ed and his brothers have grown everything from apples to vegetables. When Teresa and I first got married, we lived in the old farmhouse that Ed's mother and father lived in. I will miss him dearly. Ironically, his brother Rudy, who was a produce broker in Philadelphia, was killed last week when he was hit by a car. 

 
 

Thoughts for Thursday, June 5, 2014

When I was growing up, Grandpop Spinella and my uncles grew 40 acres of tomatoes for the can house. It was this time of year that they would be busy cultivating and fertilizing those Roma plum tomatoes in anticipation of the coming year.

I remember they sprayed just about every week. The spray came in big metal containers that you used by pounds or quarts instead of the ounces they use today. That old metal John Bean sprayer was a work horse that never failed. But I think that Grandpop spent a lot of time repairing the holes in its metal body and making sure the boom sprayers worked.

Uncle Sam and Uncle Dave were busy teaching high school so Grandpop was the bulwark during May and the early part of June. Uncle Sam worked the hardest of my two uncles and should have been the one to carry on the tradition. But fate did not work that way.

Meanwhile, as a little boy I was more worried about honing my baseball skills than hoeing tomatoes. After all, the chemicals did everything - killed the bugs, the weeds and the fungus. Early in the season, my job was to walk with Grandpop with an old Mills Brothers coffee can filled with kerosene as we picked Colorado Potato bugs off the plants and dunked them in the kero.

When it didn't rain for awhile we would move pipe throughout the fields and run the overhead sprinkler system. We would move four to six lengths of pipe at a time. The younger ones always hopped over the plants faster than the older members of the family. Sometimes we busted off the top of the tomato plants which brought a reprimand from Grandpop. Since I was one of the younger ones moving pipe, I got the end that did not have a sprinkler. When I reached a female part of the line, I plugged the male in and told everyone to pull to tighten up the line so there were no leaks. 

 

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