Wood Prairie Farm
 The Seed Piece Newsletter
             Organic News and Commentary
                 Friday, November 27th 2015
                         Volume 22 Issue 24

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 In This Issue of The Seed Piece:

    Potato Tales.

     Canadian Potato Blockade. It was thirty-five years ago that a winter’s worth of steady low prices pushed Maine potato farmers into organizing a boisterous border protest.  Read potato stories from that era in this Seed Piece’s new Maine Tales.
    The four inches of snow from last weekend melted with the mild breezy day we had on Thanksgiving.  Nowadays, we’re shifting over from outside farm work to inside grading and packing work which is what we do for the duration of the winter.
     We hope your have had a wonderful Thanksgiving spent with family and friends.  We’re grateful for your continued business and support and are here to help you in any way we can.


 Jim & Megan Gerritsen & Family
 Wood Prairie Farm
 Bridgewater, Maine
Click here for the Wood Prairie Farm Home Page.
Maine Tales.           Days in Paradise.            Bridgewater, Maine.          Circa 1977.

     The first thing I thought when I recently came upon the old Bangor Daily News photo of the Canadian Potato Blockade was that decades of low farm gate prices have taken a heavy toll on the Maine Potato Farmer. As recounted by old-timers and direct observation alike, for decades prices Aroostook farmers receive for their potatoes have been distressed and regularly depressed by the import of Canadian potatoes.

     In 1980, motivated by sheer frustration, March brought about coordinated efforts by Aroostook County potato farmers to physically close the U.S. - Canadian border to subsidized Canadian spuds. Hard-pressed farmers dumped their low-priced potatoes into the roadway at nine different Aroostook County Ports of Entry. Authorities did not take kindly to the farmers' plight. The protesting farmers were met with swiftness and billy clubs by humorless Maine State Troopers.

     Sad numbers tell the rest of the tale. In the mid-1970s we had 1200-1500 Maine potato farmers who grew 147,000 acres of potatoes, 70% for fresh 'tablestock.' Today we're down to one hundred Maine potato farms which grow around 52,000 acres of potatoes, most of them destined for processing into McCain's French fries or Frito-Lay's chips.

Potato Barrel Era.

     The second thought generated by the Blockade photo was closer to home, "They're Bridgewater Barrel barrels." Bridgewater Barrel Company was the last-mill-standing of the former dozens of County barrel operations which had annually built many tens of thousands of 12-peck cedar Potato Barrels found universally - and used iconically at Harvest - on every Aroostook potato farm. Thrifty Maine farmers invented the world's most efficient barrel-centric potato harvest system inspired by an idea gleaned from the import of wooden barrels of fertilizer brought in to boost yields. In Aroostook, barrels reigned supreme from the 1890s until the 1960s and 1970s which then saw the wholesale switchover from hand harvest crews and potato barrels to mechanized potato harvesters and bulk body trucks.

     The brightness of the barrels' cedar staves in that photo - the freedom from weathered bleaching - showed they were new. The barrels' proportions and taper were distinct and familiar. Those were definitely Bridgewater Barrels. I know because I was a cooper at Bridgewater Barrel. And while it wasn't appreciated at the time, those 1970s winters when we were making barrels were to become the last waning days of the Potato Barrel era.

Barrel Business Cycle.

     Like any business there was a cycle to the potato barrel business. Winters were spent making barrels ahead for Spring demand. We'd "make" until planting time when, with farmers all out in the field, barrel demand would dry up. The last job of the Spring - before we were let go until the next Winter - switched over from making to sawing out the tongue-and-grooved staves. For weeks we'd breathe in cedar sawdust - tasting it in every sandwich - and saw out 5,000 staves a day - sixteen went into every barrel. Over the Summer and Fall the staves would dry out and become seasoned. 

     Back in my bachelor days, during the Winters I worked at Bridgewater Barrel. At peak, we'd have four coopers "making." We each made fifty barrels a day and we got paid $0.80 piece rate per barrel. Forty dollars a day was big money in Maine back then.

Cold Mornings.

     Most of the crew would come in to work around 6:30 AM. Glen Lunn - one of the "nailers" who would pound and clinch a single nail through every hoop on every stave - would arrive at 4:30 AM. I would get up at 3:30 AM to first milk the cow. If everything went right, I'd have my fifty barrels done by 2:00 P.M. coffee break and have the afternoons to tend to the farm and do chores in the daylight.

     It was cold those Winter mornings. Glen had dual citizenship and lived on the Canadian side, right beside the Prestile Stream. Our ritual was to first compare notes on the morning's cold. When I'd report -25ºF on our upland farm, Glen would typically come in with an honest -40ºF - everyone knows that cold settles in the valleys.

Crackling Cedar.

     Inside, the uninsulated wood "cooper house" would be frigid as well. The side room which housed the two large water-filled concrete vats called "hoop tanks" - where the Micmac's hand-shaved brown ash hoops were soaked to soften up before use - would usually have a skim of ice on top of it. We'd start a fire up in the ancient large pot-belied wood stove using cedar waste wood. The dry cedar burned hot and fast. You could hear the cedar crackle from across the room.

     One needed this morning warmth just to get fingers to work. Gloves were never used. A nailer's business - of course - was nailing and that demanded bare-finger dexterity. But even coopers pounded sixteen five-penny nails through sixteen staves into "heads" (bottoms) and a single nail to temporarily position and secure each of the six ash hoops (pronounced 'hups') which had been "lock" notched at the precisely fitted correcet point.

Fire and Snow.

     By the time the rest of the crew arrived two hours later, the cooper house was warm and comfortable. By 9:30 A.M., with four wood-fired down-draft barrel stoves cranking out serious sauna-like heat, the coopers would have shed their shirts and were working bare skin, sweating like it was a hot hay day in July. Not a bad experience to have in bone chilling January.

The barrel stoves would "cook" the partially assembled staves and dry "set" the bend in the stave permanently, thereby taking pressure off of the hoops. With repetitive efficiency, one set-up barrel would be cooking while the predecessor-cooked-barrel was being made. Every once in a while a barrel would cook for too long and catch on fire. When that happened someone would matter-of-factly open front door to the cooper house, and the cooper would unceremoniously fling the burning barrel outside into the snow. After the requisite (and deserved) cat calls and howls subsided, it was back to work for everyone. Piece rate has the uncanny ability to generate discipline even to those whom it goes against their native natures.

Deafening Din.

     At Bridgewater Barrel, we would make two hundred barrels a day; in the course of a week, one thousand. To this day, the deafening din of adzes and hammers pounding, the daily thermal progression from icebox to sauna, and the deep, rich smell of roasting cedar wood barrels remain a vivid and strong memory.

     So are the stories - like the day Bing Crosby stopped in town on his way through for a fishing trip; or the time when the 1930s gangster bank robber sped through town with careening Bangor police cars hot on his tail and bullets flying in both directions - told as noontime dinner drew to a close and before the pounding would start in again. But those are tales for yet another day.


Click Here for Our Wood Prairie Farm Organic Maine Certified Seed Potatoes.

Special Offer: Your Choice of FREE Organic Dry Bean Seed.

     We’ve always like growing dry beans.  Our first crop of Organic Jacob’s Cattle Dry Bean seed was in 1979 and it was a successful harvest – even though the Jakes had to be rescued from a late Spring frost on June 27, then came a killing frost on August 29, sixty-two days later. 

     Dry beans are fun to grow anytime, beautiful to look at and wonderful to eat.  This year, in addition to growing our perennial favorite Jakes, we grew two more heirlooms: the breath-taking Organic Tiger Eye and culinary super-star, Organic Hutterite Soup.  All three heirloom beans are available from us as organic seed.

     Here’s your chance to try out our organic dry beans in your next garden.  Receive a FREE Packet of Wood Prairie Farm Organic Dry Beans – Your Choice of Tiger Eye, Hutterite Soup or Jacob’s Cattle (Value $3.50) on your next order where the goods total $35 or more.  Please use Promo Code WPF476.  Your order and FREE Packet of Wood Prairie Farm Organic Dry Bean Packet must ship with order and by 4/30/16. Offer Expires 11:59p.m., Monday, November 30, so please hurry!

Click Here for Our Organic Wood Prairie Farm Vegetable Seed.

Carbon Belongs in the Soil.

     You will want to read this powerful, readable and incisive paper, Soil Carbon Restoration: Can Biology Do the Job? written by longtime Massachusetts organic farmer elder, and our friend, Jack Kittredge.  Jack makes a strong case – right down to doing the math – that a world shift to sustainable organic farming practices would lessen climate chaos by serving to help remove excess Carbon from the atmosphere (in the form of CO2) and put it back into the soil (as humus) where it belongs.

    Jack’s article has deservedly generated a lot of buzz and applause for its straightforward manner.  It is purposefully written in laymen’s language, is buoyant and  has the power to transform hopelessness into positive resolve and action.

Jim & Megan

Click Here for Our Wood Prairie Farm Certified Organic Cover Crop Seed.
Watch Jack & Anne Lazor's Keynote at MOFGA's Farmer-to-Farmer Conference.

     Three weeks ago our friends, Jack and Anne Lazor, pioneering organic dairy farmers from the well-known Butterworks Farm in Vermont came to Maine and delivered a memorable Keynote address at Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association’s annual Farmer-to-Farmer conference in Coastal Northport.  MOFGA has now posted the video of that excellent keynote (1:02:01) and we think you will enjoy it.

     Jack and Anne both attended the Agrarian Elders gathering held in Big Sur two years ago.  They are incredibly generous and have been a huge factor over many decades in helping development organic milk production in New England and beyond.

     Not long ago, Jack authored the superbly written bible on organic grain production, The Organic Grain Grower.  You can find Jack’s book on our website.

Jim & Megan

Click Here for Our Wood Prairie Collection of Essential Books.

Recipe: Potato, Parsnip and Parmesian Gratin.

Serves 8 to 10

4 lb Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled and quartered
Kosher salt
1 lb parsnips, peeled, quartered lengthwise, cored and cut into 2-inch pieces
4 T unsalted butter, cut into pieces
8 oz creme fraiche or yogurt
4 oz mascarpone
1/4 tsp freshly ground nutmeg
Freshly ground black pepper
1 egg white, whipped until lightly foamy
1 oz finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano (about 1 cup)

Put potatoes and parsnips in a pot, cover with water and add 1 T salt. Bring to a boil and cook until the potatoes are tender, about 20 minutes. Drain the potatoes and parsnips, put them back into the pot with butter, and coarsely mash with a potato masher. Fold in the creme fraiche or yogurt, mascarpone, nutmeg, t tsp salt and 1/4 tsp pepper. Fold in egg white. Transfer to a 9x13-inch baking dish.

Heat the oven to 375ºF. Sprinkle the gratin with the cheese, and bake until the gratin is heated through and the top is golden, about 40 minutes.


A Delicious Holiday Meal.
Photo by Angela Wotton.

Our Mailbox: Right to Security, Society's Best Outcome, Masking the Decline.

Right to Security.

Dear WPF.

     Spray Drift is a topic that we're especially interested in because of the location of our homestead with farm fields to the west of us. We've talked to the landowner and the farmer who farms the land, and our property is mapped and listed on Driftwatch. But the owner claims that the chemicals don't hurt her grass (she lives adjacent to these fields, as well) and so she can't understand that there's any danger. It's a case of don't know / don't want to know / don't care. We've made it clear that chemicals will harm our organic gardens and our livestock, but that has been mostly ignored. We told her about my horse that nearly died years ago (in another location) because of chemical drift when someone sprayed for weeds on their property. That, too, fell on deaf ears. We've been checking into chemical trespass laws here in our state, and your post gives me helpful information as we continue to research this topic.
     Those who spray chemicals everywhere seem to believe that they can do as they want and the rest of us have no choice but to suffer the consequences.


WPF Replies.

     Your neighbor has a right to believe what she wants to and practice those beliefs on her farm. However, it is the height of hubris to impose her beliefs upon you and in doing so poison your land. Her beliefs and her poisons should stop at your fence line.These are life and death issues with a preponderance of scientific evidence which exposes your neighbors as not having a clue as to what they are talking about. This is a fight we will never let up, on behalf of friends, family and country. Here is news of a just court action from 2010. We need more rulings like this one to extend the precedent of a farmer having the right to be secure on their own farm.


Society's Best Outcome.

Dear WPF.

    When you think about it...if the acceptable levels of glyphosate, for example, are 130,000 times the lethal dosage harmful to gut microbiome, then it would make sense the detection equipment is not calibrated to detect such low threshold contaminants in ppb. Which also reinforces the argument that the FDA threshold for pesticides is WAY TOO HIGH!


WPF Replies.

     Another factor is that the "acceptible" level of a pesticide residue is determined with the reductionist thinking that it is an island unto itself. What about negative synergy from two - or more - pesticides acting upon one another? The best outcome for society and the environment will be to radically minimize the use of synthetic pesticides by adopting organic farming practices.


Masking the Decline.

Dear WPF.

    These are some of the 2012 demographic data relative to farming and farmers in the US. Both the scale and nature of food production is changing even more rapidly now in 2015. What isn't shown in the census though is how technology is changing farming practices in general but also concentration of specific production and newer influences of world trade. There is an obvious consolidation and concentration of commodities at the high end.


WPF Replies.

     Definitions are important and we have to be wary because the Feds have a history of stretching the truth to hide the federal 'Cheap Food Policy's' impact on liquidating family farmers. For example, about twenty years ago the definition of a "farmer" was modified to include workers employed in a packing shed. One local potato packing shed had 40 employees which miraculously one day became 40 new 'statistical farmers'. These folks are certainly important to the food industry. But, they are not farmers. However, counting them - and their peers across the country - as 'farmers' can't be called honest and masks that decline in the number of family farmers - which I believe was the real point of the definition change.


 Jim & Megan Gerritsen
 Wood Prairie Farm
 49 Kinney Road
 Bridgewater, Maine 04735
 (800)829-9765 Certified Organic, Direct from the Farm