The smell of the sweet morning air radiates through the haze as the sun rises over the horizon and droplets of morning dew form on the leaves of kale, chard & Sungold tomato plants.
At Beach Plum Farm, the workday begins at 7:00am sharp as enthusiastic farmhands arrive in the back fields and prepare for the day’s harvest. They split into groups; half jumping into a large pickup truck, and the other half into an old beat-up Saturn SUV affectionately named "Barbara". Farmhand Maggie places her hand on Barbara’s dashboard and lets out a “c’mon girl!” before turning the ignition, and with that, the truck bursts to life. The vehicles are loaded with empty milk crates and are taken for a quick ride over to Gaver's Fields where a vast array of newly-matured produce awaits.
The morning begins in the kale fields, where, standing proud before the farmhands, an insurmountable number of green, scaly looking plants protrude from underneath sheets of plastic. Not exactly something one might expect to see in a field of plant life! However, as farmhand Tyler explains, this plastic is actually a type of mulch, and it serves to increase soil temperature, lock in moisture, fertilize, and—most notably—control weed growth. This purpose is made apparent as farmhands trudge through dense jungles of random vegetation in the aisles between the kale. Fingers pruning, they forage through each dew-soaked shrub for only the fullest and most undisturbed leaves; bundling them tightly enough to juggle, and neatly placing them in the milk crates.
Farmhands aim to pick roughly three to four perfect kale leaves from each plant, allowing for them to effectively grow in the following weeks
As the search persists, farmhand manager, Terrance, takes the opportunity to educate some of the newcomers about the processes that keep Beach Plum Farm sustainable and organic.
One of the most important factors for sustainable crop cultivation is keeping the soil healthy and rich with essential nutrients like nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. It’s paramount for good farmers to realize that soil is a living, breathing system, and it’s just as important as the crops it harbors. Failure to do so can quickly transform a lush holding into a barren wasteland (just like what happened with the dust bowl back in the 1930’s).
Beach Plum Farm does its part to mitigate this issue with a practice known as cover cropping. Crops are rotated regularly from season to season to replace the nutrients that get used up. For example, nitrogen, as one of the most important soil ingredients for nurturing plentiful and healthy tomatoes, tends to be diminished after a harvest. Subsequently, Beach Plum farmers will plant nitrogen fixing crops to replenish the soil for the next time around. Such plants are known as legumes, and soybeans are among the most popular of their kind. However, if this was the farm’s only means of keeping soil healthy, they'd have to change their “Farm-to-Table dinners” to ‘Soybean Dinners’—which might get a little tiring after a while! Luckily, they also get some help from their free-range chickens which get strategically moved around the farm for their nutrient rich manure that slowly revitalizes the ground as it decomposes. Industry members refer to this practice as regenerative agriculture, and it focuses on increasing biodiversity, improving the water cycle, enhancing ecosystem services, increasing resilience, and strengthening the health and vitality of farm soil.
Beach Plum free-range chickens aid the fertilization process as they graze around the farm
By around 10:00 AM, the sun is beating down at full blast and the breeze has dried off the crops completely. That’s Mother Nature’s way of protecting the vegetables from developing fungus that thrives in conditions provided by dormant warm water! Beach Plum Farm makes a point of lending her a hand by utilizing underground irrigation systems that ensure only the roots get the drink they need. “If you were thirsty, you wouldn’t jump in a pool,” Terrence explains.
Eventually, Terrance decides it’s time to wrap up the last of the week’s kale harvest and head over to the neighboring rainbow chard field. Stems of green, red, pink, purple and yellow glow in the sun like iridescent fish under a black light. Interestingly enough, they’re not really their own plants at all, but simply the leafy part of a beetroot. Beach Plum farmers grow this one plant and separate the products of larger roots from that of more plentiful leaves, placing them in fields of their own, and cultivating two unique vegetables.
Rainbow Chard stems seem to glow when held up to the light
12:00pm marks the end of the morning harvest. The truck is loaded with now full milk crates of fresh kale and chard and driven back to the meeting site in the Beach Plum Farm back fields for storage. The leaves are placed in large tubs of circulating cold water to be cleaned and chilled before storing. This prevents condensation from forming and, like the consistent Cape May breeze, mitigates fungal and bacterial growth.
After lunch, it’s off to the tomato fields where Sungold cherry tomatoes ripen rapidly. The plump, golden fruits overcome the farmhands with a profound temptation to feast on them rather than harvest them. This temptation only grows after the first one is sampled! Sungolds are often characterized by their fruity or almost candied taste - one that’s so good that even tomato skeptics like farmhand Ryan can barely resist reaching for more after being convinced to try one.
Beach Plum Sungolds in all of their glory. Notice the top tomato on the left has some splitting present. The Beach Plum Farm staff ensures that no such tomatoes will ever make it to your table!
On the soft ground, farmhands like Ian sit and sort through each ripe tomato, making sure there’s no bruising or splitting present, and placing them carefully into large bins so as not to damage them. This is a task more daunting than one might expect; exemplifying the fragility of some of the produce and the care that goes into even simple tasks like watering. Sungolds need consistent, responsible watering practices or they tend to crack, leaving them vulnerable to bugs and susceptible to rotting. During dry periods, the tomatoes' skin tightens up as they lose moisture. When they finally DO get water, the roots attempt to quench their thirst by taking in water at an above average rate. However, this ends up doing more harm than good as the tomato skin is unable to expand at such a rate and tends to burst. Inconsistent watering is a major threat to all kinds of produce and one that Beach Plum farmers aim to avoid as much as possible. Have you ever been walking through the supermarket and been enticed by a box of giant, bright red strawberries? One thing you may notice after getting them home is that they never taste as good as they look. That's because their size is primarily attributed to overwatering. Strawberries are gluttons in that they'll drink as much as you give them, causing them to easily swell and dilute their own flavor. That’s why Beach Plum Farm aims to harvest its fruits either right before a big rainfall, or right after a dry spell if possible. Oh... and... next time you're in the strawberry aisle, look for the small ones!
Farmhands Ryan (left) and Ian (right) inspecting tomatoes for any imperfections
After two hours of harvesting, roughly 40 pints of delicious Sungolds are driven back to the meeting site to be portioned and stored. It may not seem like a lot, but that's because the rapidly growing nature of these tomatoes will allow for there to be another full harvest within a matter of days! Growing season is a never ending job for the farmhands, but their passion for what they do turns a chore into an opportunity to enjoy the company of friends, share laughs, and learn about their field. "We always have fun out here," says Tyler, "especially on harvesting days." For the staff at Beach Plum Farm, it’s easy to get lost in lighthearted banter on topics like who would win in a fight between a Viking and a knight or to dive a little deeper and learn things about each other like Maggie's agricultural experiences in Italy. Terrace’s fun facts are a pleasure to listen to throughout the day, and it's exciting to know that his wisdom will be passed down to the next generation of farmers. To many, this is no side hustle, but an opportunity to learn and grow as they begin to follow their aspirations in this gratifying industry. For example, Tyler wants to work in Washington DC to create farming legislation before eventually opening his own farm one day. It's him and those like him who make it easy to remember that the practices at Beach Plum Farm are just as sustainable as the smiles on the faces of those who carry them out.
The Beach Plum Farm staff gathers for a team huddle after a long day's work
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