There are many ways to learn your lesson farming, but many of them involve failure. I remember quite clearly arriving for the first time to work at Terra Firma (called Sky High Farm back then) in February of 1993. It was warm and sunny and we were busy planting potatoes.
A couple of weeks later it started raining, and kept raining for most of a month. The potato field flooded, and the potatoes rotted in the soil before sprouting. It was a major loss for our farm at the time: not just the cost of the seed potatoes, but the loss of income.
The lesson I learned from that failure was that it’s best to be cautious and patient when planting potatoes here. If it’s warm and dry in February, you can plant a few but wait if it’s cold and wet it’s better to wait until March.
It was not warm and dry in February this year, quite the opposite. Yet there were a few “dry enough” days early in the month during which we could have planted potatoes. I chose not to do it: the soil was cold and wet, and all the forecasts pointed to more rain. Less than a week later, we got 7 inches of rain in two days and the field where the spuds would have gone was under water. Other farms in our area chose to plant and lost the crop.
Of course it also rained most of March this year, so our next chance to plant potatoes was in mid-April. They came up beautifully. Unfortunately, the delay means that harvest will come very late indeed. Most years we start harvesting spuds right around the first of June, but the 2019 crop won’t be ready until late July at the soonest.
Planting potatoes too late in spring is just as risky as planting them too early. The intense heat of summer here can literally cook the spuds in the ground. That was exactly what happened to our potatoes last during in July, when we lost almost half the crop. Another potato failure.
So potatoes don’t like cold, wet weather and they don’t like intense heat. But there is a white, starchy vegetable that tolerates and even enjoys winter in Northern California Parsnips look and smell like carrots, to which they are closely related. But they are really more like potatoes, and serve a similar role in cooking. They have to be cooked, after which they have a creamy yet firm texture and a very delicate sweetness with a distinctly nutty flavor. See the notes below on how to prepare.
We can plant parsnips in late fall and harvest them in late spring, but they are not guaranteed to succeed. If it gets hot and dry early in the spring, they can become woody before harvest. But they help us offset the risks that growing potatoes present. And in 2019, they did pretty well. The ones in your boxes were planted in November — fully six months ago. They may have enjoyed the winter of 2018-2019 more than any other crop we grow, as the plants are almost three feet tall and and the cool weather we’ve been having has kept them from getting tough.
We will continue to source potatoes for your boxes off and on until our own crop is ready. But you’ll also may see parsnips in your boxes one more time.