Triple-digit heat indexes for days this week, yet signs of autumn’s arrival are on the horizon.
Kids going back to school, whites and seersucker get closeted until Memorial Day, colorful mums taking the place of sunflowers and pumpkin spiced everything is already everywhere – yes, it’s Labor Day weekend. However, on the farm, summer is full steam ahead until September 22nd when the fall equinox officially shifts the seasons’ gear.
August and September still constitute summer when field-grown produce is peaking. These are your heat lovers, the ones that turn sunshine into sugars – sweet corn, stone fruit and melons. Other summertime crops like okra, peppers, tomatoes, tender squashes (aka: summer squash) and eggplants are overflowing.
Despite the oppressive heat and humidity, farmers can see the waning season and if you pay close attention to what’s disappearing and showing up at market from week-to-week, so can you.
Although farmers live by the weather report, at times hour-by-hour, the growth cycles of our products are the tell-all of seasons. We know with a fair degree of accuracy how long it takes for individual products to mature depending on environmental conditions. Greenhouse technologies, growing practices such as row covers and storage innovations like nitrogen chambers can extend the availability of many fruits and vegetables to practically year-round.
Dishing the Dirt has tried to convey the environmental impacts on your food choices from a late spring to a wet summer, as opposed to the artificial year-round availability created by the modern grocery industry.
When the first killing frost hits – anywhere from late September to early November, hot weather loving field-grown products are over until next year. This is when green tomato lovers will find fruits that were picked prior to frost to squeeze every last bit of income out of the patch before pulling the vines for good. There’s fried green tomatoes, tomato relish, pickled tomatoes, green tomato pie…the list goes on.
The Up Side of Fall
Not all produce is damaged by the cooler temperatures, including frost. Some fruits and vegetables are better after exposure to frost. These plants, such as leeks, beets, carrots, parsnips, kales, Brussels sprouts, chards, turnips and rutabagas transform their starches into sucrose – a natural form of anti-freeze – which is basically sugar. Similarly, some apples are harvested only after a frost, especially those for making cider. This is what you have to look forward to in the coming months.
Customers don’t always think of animal products – meat, milk, eggs, even honey – as seasonal, but they are. Try buying a fresh, local, pasture-raised chicken from December through April. Not going to happen.
Laying hens’ egg production is directly tied to amount of light during the day. Shorter days mean fewer eggs. Hens can be “tricked” daily by putting a light in the hen-house as 14-16 hours of light is needed to maintain peak production. Hens will tell you the days are getting shorter without ever making a peep. That’s why there isn’t an egg to be found at winter markets after 11 am as even with lighting there is a decline in production.
As fresh poultry season ends with the year, red meat season is ramping up as farmers harvest their flocks and herds to provide the much sought-after calories customers crave in colder weather. Cooking a roast all day right now seems outright ludicrous but give it a month and that’s what everyone will start asking for. Whether or not customers realize it, buying habits are also seasonal. Currently, no one is asking for large roasts to slow-cook all day. Once the official start of fall arrives when the weather cools, buying habits will also shift. Until then, it’s still burgers, sausages, chops, steaks and yes, chicken.
Happy Labor Day everyone.