This weekend we officially turn the corner into fall. I know it’s not the actual Autumnal Equinox but let’s face it, this was the weekend of the Common Ground Fair. I don’t care what calendar you’re reading, that means fall is here.
Each year on Wednesday and Thursday before the fair I can be found scurrying around the farm doing my best to put together all the items I enter into the Exhibition Hall at the Common Ground Fair. The purpose? To be judged. It’s not often I put myself out there for judgement, at least not willingly. As I’ve described in the past I have a fairly thin skin. But I make an exception in this case because of what I get out of it. Knowledge.
The entries into the exhibition hall competition are judged by the experts. MOFGA has a working relationship with several local seed companies and the people who really know how the vegetables in question are supposed to look when they’re grown well and true to type, are asked to come in and judge the entries. It’s a wonderful thing for those of us who make growing the darn things our lives. The judges give us the opportunity to know what x,y or z vegetable is supposed to look like, what size it should be, whether the color is perfect, etc. And that’s very important information. I just returned from collecting my entries and while I had some disappointments this season, there were some triumphs as well.
And here’s the first one. I fell in love with Australian Butter Winter Squash the first time I saw it in a seed catalog. When I purchased the seeds, grew out a bunch and saw/tasted the thing for the first time, the affection grew. This is my favorite winter squash. It’s interesting and beautiful to behold and the flavor is superior to anything else I’ve tasted. It also stores well if handled properly. For years I’ve entered my best specimen into the Exhibition Hall at the Fair and never got more than a participant’s ribbon. Always it was something. Not ripe enough, color off, last year the one I entered turned out to be too knobby for the type. But this year, when I went through at the end of the fair and took stock I was greeted with a blue ribbon for my Australian Butter. Most excellent.
Another triumph, though this one not really unexpected. I grow some pretty good shallots. I’m not bragging. This has been a hard fought battle. For years I couldn’t grow the things to save my life. But then a few years ago I decided to focus on them. Really learn what makes them tick. This was after a combination of things steered me to do it. First, a farmer friend of mine who has been a sort of mentor to me had some of his out in a basket one day when I went to his place. After seeing his I went home and hid mine because I was so embarrassed Factor one. Second, I then decided to dedicate myself during the next growing season to really paying attention to them more than other things. It worked. Now I consistently grow nice shallots. In fact, one of the wonderful volunteers that sets up the Exhibition Hall event went out of her way to mention to me that she thinks I always have such nice shallots. Been a while since I’ve blushed with embarrassed pride.
You won’t find a picture of my onions here. But I grow me some mean onions too. This was another disappointment this year. Each year I enter beautiful onions in the hall. This year was no exception. Three onions each of Ailsa Craig, Cortland, Red Bull and Red Wing. The ones I enter are stunning. I grow pretty good onions as it is and I spend a lot of time picking the cream of the crop for the entry. And over the past three years I’ve received the same feed back from the judges. They are trimmed too close and peeled to much for storage and therefore won’t last long in the root cellar. This is one of those rare entries where I don’t learn anything from the judges and just flat our disagree. And I have proof. Last year I kept the onions that were marked down for this flaw. And kept them and kept them. I finally threw my second place 2013 onions into the compost pile about a month before the fair because I needed the crate they were in for this year’s harvest. In other words my second place, trimmed too close onions that won’t store well lasted into August. This year I made a conscious effort to trim the roots longer and peel less of the dry skin off and still got the same message. I think in 2015 I’ll enter this year’s again just to make a point…But back to the blue ribbons.
Another pleasant surprise this year was my garlic. For several years my priorities were wrong on garlic. I focused on quantity. Two years ago i planted over 8600 cloves. It turns out that’s too much for me to take care of properly. This was the trend over a number of years and the quality of my garlic suffered. So last fall I went back to the drawing board and went for two points of focus. Only save the absolute best bulbs and then even only the best cloves from them, and only plant enough to fill a space I guess I can manage with little trouble. Garlic doesn’t like weeds at all. More than other crops it throws in the towel if it has to compete with wees. So I planted just over 100 cloves. And this year’s garlic is the most beautiful I’ve ever grown. After years of not having any to enter because the crop was so bad I had the wonderful experience of having a hard time picking just three of each variety to enter into the hall.
Finally, while there were other blue ribbons this year the most important two were for my dilly beans. I’ve never before entered canned goods into the Exhibition Hall so it was fun to do so for the first time. These ribbons are important to me for that reason but also for two more. First, my daughter loves dilly beans. I feel a sense of triumph each time we crack open a jar from the basement and set it out on the table to add some color and depth to a meal in the dead of winter. We usually have to cut her off so she doesn’t make herself sick! But this ribbon is also important to me because it reminds me of my great grandmother. Down in her cellar, the one with the dirt floor, the one where, even as a child who brought down the height average for my age, I couldn’t stand up all the way, I found every square inch of the walls lined with what she was able to put up for the winter. And all of the vegetables that sat there quietly awaiting their chance to sustain the woman and her family were vegetables that she grew herself. So here’s to you Grammy Dow. Thanks for all the things I saw you accomplish.