Time marches on, and so does maple season. This week will definitely be the last of sugaring – we’ll see what the weather gives us to work with. I am hoping for a few more runs. We’re onto making Dark syrup now, which may or may not be up your alley. Hiram is still drinking it out of a coffee mug and Virgil stands there all day with a spoon, so it can’t be too strong yet! Then it’s pulling taps, cleaning everything up and then onto gardening…
The seeds that just germinated a couple of weeks ago are now starting to resemble genuine plants, and today being April 5th (my Mother’s birthday – Happy 77th!), we are about to get into the real seeding of our field crops and Hiram and I will be fiddling with tiny seeds all day. This will go on all season from here until July, so that we always have the freshest and most diverse selection of produce for you.
I don’t mean this as a humble-brag (on the contrary, it’s foolish) but I don’t have any of the increasingly elaborate horticultural stuff we do around here written down on anything. It all just rattle around my head, tethered to things like my Mom’s birthday and other weird anniversaries. At this point, I’ve been at it long enough that I don’t really have to think much about gardening, and I suppose my mind is instead preoccupied with the matters of money, machines and manpower that make up the actual challenge of farming (the plants do want to grow after all).
However, because my family’s livelihood is so dependent on my orchestrating this symphony of vegetables, I do sort of have to stay in the groove. And so, more often than not I send myself off the sleep with Peter Henderson’s 1867 Gardening for Profit, for as much as I enjoy Mr. Henderson’s frank and friendly instruction, there is nothing that will put me to sleep like reading a 150 year old horticulture manual for the twentieth time.
Despite the book’s narcoleptic quality, every time I pick it up I gain some new nuance or appreciate some aspect of Mr. Henderson’s perspective and one stuck in my mind last night. Did you ever wonder why New Jersey is called “The Garden State”? It was first called that in 1876 and at that time, Peter Henderson was growing vegetables in a place called Jersey City. This is what the view from his fields looks like today:
Yes, that is lower Manhattan and also within sight of Mr. Henderson’s gardens was Ellis Island, where he himself, and millions from the Old World, made their first landing in the youthful United States of America. A melting pot of new foods, techniques, seeds and appetites, opposite the biggest market on the continent, quickly made the “Jersey Market Gardeners” the most competitive, advanced, and productive horticulturalists in history.
In Mr. Henderson’s time, Manhattan was a gritty economic giant thanks to manufacturing and shipping – today it is a refined global hub for fashion, art and finance and produces countless entertainers. In a similar way, it was Peter Henderson – a humble gardener – who became that era’s rags to riches celebrity success story: a superstar farmer whose hard work, expertise and ambition became a physical embodiment of the American Dream.
Only in New York! There are cities with better soils and better climates that could have been the horticultural capital of the world, but there’s just something about the energy at the mouth of the Hudson River that launches those who follow their dreams there.
You probably remember the series of Pace Picante commercials from the 90’s: It’s chow time and the grizzled cowboys have run out of salsa. Cookie callously hands them a generic jar of “Mexican Sauce” instead of Pace Picante (made in San Antonio with fresh vegetables and spices by people who know what Picante Sauce is supposed to taste like). All hell breaks loose when the cowboys discover that the substitute is in fact made in NEW YORK CITY?!?!?! and go on to threaten to lynch the cook
At the time I guess all I associated with the Big Apple was Wall Street, Jerry Seinfeld and the Yankees, so I was naturally very sympathetic to the cowboys’ plight. Historically however, in the real days of the Wild West, NEW YORK CITY actually was a centre of vegetable growing, food processing, and industry and probably made a decent salsa! To make this all the more contentious, Pace’s corporate parent is the Campbell Soup Company, based and founded in… you guessed it: New Jersey. (This is all really making me reconsider my salsa brand loyalties!)
It is highly unlikely New York will elevate another vegetable grower to the heights it did Mr. Henderson. In the days when Mr. Henderson struck it rich, advanced horticulture was new and sexy and lucrative. People were eating vegetables their parents had never heard of, and for a suddenly urbanized population, fresh produce had become a luxury and status symbol.
Refrigeration and the unstoppable growth of America’s First City put an end to the Jersey Market Gardeners. In Henderson’s day, “Local Food” wasn’t a movement – it was the de facto reality, replaced by the technological efficiencies and the sometimes not-so-invisible hand of the market. That being said, I can’t thank you enough for going out of your way to invest in local agriculture.