Saturday farmstand: Lots and lots of farm fresh goodies with two checkout lines set up to serve you. We have such insane amounts of stuff that you can easily sleep in and come at 10:30am and still select from of 95% of our offerings.
Loads of sweet salad mix, lots of baby arugula, and lots of baby and teen spicy salad mix; slicer tomatoes, salad tomatoes, heirloom tomatoes, sweet yellow cherry tomatoes, lots and lots of yellow and pink and red watermelons, beautiful sweet mini white bell peppers with thick flesh (use raw or cooked), cooking greens, bok choi, radishes, lettuce heads, Serrano peppers, Indian hot peppers, Thai chili peppers, Italian basil, Thai basil, lemon basil, cilantro, dill, garlic chives, baby ginger and turmeric, a few bunches of onions, a few bunches of carrots, a few cucumbers, lots and lots of figs, and lots of cut flowers.
On our Hurricane Maria recovery fundraising front, we’re up to $24,282 out of $44,000 total funds needed to restore farm buildings including our seedling house and gallery building, and ensure resilience for future events. Check out and share our GoFundMe page at gofundme.com/artfarmllc …and a huge thank you to everyone who has donated!
It’s time for an ARTfarm update! Lots of people have been asking when we’ll reopen, and we’ve been busy as bees since we last posted on June 1st.
Long story short: We are aiming to open early November 2018 and hope to see you at our farmstand. Thanks for your patience.
The farm is currently under an unprecedented siege of army worm caterpillars, who are eating many of our vegetable and fruit vine seedlings to below the soil level, which may delay our opening unpredictably. Yikes! So more updates, and a firm farm opening date, soon come!
Short story long, for the ARTfarm news junkies: Read on below for the summer/fall “recap” all in one newsy post. With photos!
By the end of the 2017-2018 farming season, which started relentlessly after Hurricane Maria and continued unabatedly active for nine months, we were VI Strong but also exhausted and stressed, like many islanders in the post-storm recovery process. We were demoralized by the lack of disaster resources and by the growing evidence in the scientific community confirming what we’ve been feeling on the backs of our necks: the looming spectre of climate change accelerating.
With our fruitless applications for disaster relief denied, a powerful drought killing off the post-storm vegetation boom, and the loss of most of the fruit trees in ours and our friends’ orchards that would have provided the usual mangoes and avocados for us to sell over the summer, we decided to close early for the season in late spring of 2018, and work on storm recovery and our health.
In May, art lifted us a bit. Luca and Christina both participated in group art shows, primarily using previous works from our own and private collections.
And we picked up seven baby chicks at the Ag Fair to replenish our layer hen population on the farm.
We also had a farm volunteer (our old friend Duvan from art school days) come and stay with us for over a month in May and June. He completely rebuilt our rickety blue farm cart that was on the brink of oblivion, painted things that needed painting, cleaned up and organized post-storm disaster areas of the farm (like piles of mashed-up stuff around tool sheds), repaired a gaping hole in the farmstand, constructed a new rat-proof chicken coop for the new baby chicks, and many other useful helpful things. He reminded us to do yoga and breathe and hit the beach and celebrate life and eat good things and make a little art every day. Thank you, Duvan, for helping us start to get our joy back!
We had a bit of good news in June, when despite the dry conditions, some of our dragonfruit vines began to recover from storm damage and produce a few fruits. We weren’t sure they would produce again after being knocked down and righted, but they did!
Also in June, Farmer Luca harvested over a hundred pounds of organically grown ginger, which he mostly sold to restaurants, in particular Chef Isumyah at Vegetarian Creation in Barron Spot Mall (she and her family make a ginger-tumeric elixir tonic that is incredible!). We participated in more group art shows.
And a very friendly peahen we christened “Ophelia” showed up one day, and adopted us and our new baby chicks as her own.
But, the drought continued. We had some major brushfires on the South Shore in early June, started by humans at Great Pond Bay.
Big props to Faye Williams, our NRCS rep from USDA, who came out and inspected our newly erected EQIP fencing, and “Cheech” Thomas who brought heavy machinery and helped cut emergency firebreaks, in the early evening of June 8th as the flames, live cinders, ashes and thick smoke upwind of us threatened the farm and clouded the air. VI Fire Service came through for us again, helped by miraculous last minute rain showers.
July was spent completing the restoration of fences that were destroyed by utility poles that fell in Hurricane Maria, and finishing more pasture division fencing for NRCS. Huge thanks to superARTfarmer Bob Boyan who did an incredible amount of work on that project. It’s beautiful.
Dividing pastures supports soil conservation, and prevents soil erosion, by aiding the farmer to keep livestock OFF of most of the grass, most of the time, so the sward can recover quickly from grazing, instead of getting eaten down to the bare soil. This rotational grazing also helps foil livestock-killing predators, gives the livestock a more varied diet, and greatly aids in keeping them free from parasites, so much less veterinary treatment is needed to keep them healthy. (Brush fires can destroy this expensive and labor intensive fencing.)
Throughout June, July and August, despite our prevention efforts, we lost all of our layer chickens who survived the direct hit of Hurricane Maria – one by one – to mongoose predation. Farmer Luca said, “I’m pretty sure there was something different about this summer for that to happen, because we’ve been raising chickens the same way for 15 years, and this is the first time we’ve had such intense attacks from mongoose on adult birds.” We believe the mongoose were extra desperate this summer for any kind of food during the drought conditions that started in March. It is possible that the omnivorous introduced predator’s population exploded post-Maria, with all the available food that grew from the lush post-storm vegetation growth, later putting intense pressure on our poultry when the drought began killing off the boom in the mongoose’s natural food sources.
Our young “Viequen Butterball” mango that survived Maria fruited for the second time, and gave us about five fruits. A few pineapples came ripe, but not enough to open the farmstand with. We made salad mix a few more times for the tail end of the last lettuce still growing, just for the family.
Farmer Luca made six large new half-buried Hugelkultur beds in July with downed tree debris, which he is getting more and more excited about. He successfully grew watermelons all summer long in an older Hugel bed, and the same watermelon plants survived more than three times as long as they normally do. (Vines that were planted in March – at the beginning of the drought period – have continuously produced melons since May – through October and beyond! This is unheard of!) These permaculture beds require less watering than regular garden beds, as the rotting wood at their center holds water like a sponge, creates positive rhizomal activity, and sinks carbon by naturally composting large masses of storm brush piles.
We have spent the summer, particularly in August, composting wood chips (from hurricane debris) and brewer’s grain waste product from Leatherback Brewing Co., along with composting lots of fish and lobster carcasses from local restaurants, and fish scales and fish guts from the La Reine fish and farmers’ market.
Just through the bacterial activity (aided by the farmer’s tinkering to get the perfect air and moisture conditions), we’ve been able to get our compost pile temperatures up to a blazing 160°F! The more of this composting we do, the more we can eliminate the purchase and shipping of ANY organic soil amendments or fertilizers. This means LESS carbon footprint. Our goal on the farm is always to eliminate fossil fuel intensive shipping, and close the nutrient loop.
Luca had one last hurrah in the storm-halved ARTbarn gallery, when local artist LaVaughn Belle came out to interview him with a film crew for a new program she is hosting for our local PBS station about local St. Croix artists and their inspirations. We’re looking forward to the announcement of the title and air date of the show, and will post it to our website!
August is also that time of year when we normally prepare soil and start lots of vegetable seedlings for the season. It has been another extreme and unusual drought this spring and summer of 2018. Rainfall at ARTfarm has been way below average, we’ve lost a few more trees, and the radiant heat coming out of the hard-baked soil has been intense, making the brushfire risk high. So we hesitated to start the season at the usual start date.
In late August it was finally often raining heavily. But… Unfortunately the rain was consistently falling about two miles northwest of the farm, while missing us entirely. So, we contracted the VI Department of Agriculture to bring some of that rain back east to us in a pair of ‘portable rainclouds’: shiny tanker trucks. The 9,000 gallons they delivered will last us about nine days in season when we are irrigating row crops twice daily, possibly less if weather conditions of extreme heat and dryness cause more evaporation and transpiration. So we are working on even more ways to conserve our water use than the highly efficient drip irrigation we’ve been using for years.
In the end, the 2018 hurricane season brought us no direct damaging hits, but a number of good soaking rains totaling close to 3 inches. But still not enough major rain events to fill our pond reservoirs. So we are behind on rainfall collection for this coming season.
Our pond storage system can hold an estimated half a million gallons and is normally replenished by spring and fall rains to at least 80% capacity at the start of the dry winter season. As of the end of September we had an estimated 175,000 gallons, or roughly 35% of capacity.
We also nurtured our ginger and turmeric plants and our badly storm-injured papaya grove, also spent time caring for our mango fruit trees and of course our dragonfruit. We also successfully grew onions all year long which was one of Luca’s goals.
The end of summer into fall saw tons of sargassum seaweed washing up on the shores of St. Croix. It is a great soil amendment. We like to harvest it fresh out of the sea with baskets to avoid excess sand. Then we pick through it and remove all plastics. Finally, the seaweed can be fed directly to our sheep for mineral supplementation, or composted, or placed in Hugel beds, or used as mulch in the bottom of pots for young saplings.
And of course, going to the beach brings Luca all kinds of inspiration.
In early October with the bulk of the storm season behind us, we decided to replace the plastic sheeting on the greenhouse roof to enable more rain catchment.
We’ve been seeding and planting like crazy, but stymied by the intense pressure from caterpillars. We’re noticing a lack of the typical predator insects on the farm like Jack Spaniard wasps to control the army worms and other crop-destroying insects. There is a loss of equilibrium, and we are patiently waiting for it to return to balance.
Farmer Luca concludes: “We’ve been selling to a few restaurants and a few chefs over the summer, but for the most part we have been growing for ourselves while we organize and prepare for the future. We struggled with the drought this summer and that made us quite nervous about growing this coming season, but we are now at 30% rainwater storage capacity (normally we’d be at around 80% at this time of year). Which is not good but at least we can start the season with the water we have. And hopefully we’ll get more rain. Do a rain dance for us! See everybody soon!”
Six months ago, in November 2017, we had newly opened for the season and were giving away birdseed amidst barren trees and broken everything. We were hosting our farmstands on the roadside due to Hurricane Maria damage. Around that time, a journalist from the BVI Beacon, Freeman Rogers, visited us while researching a Caribbean-wide story on climate adaptation and resiliency. He is a humble and thoughtful character and his findings are well-researched and noteworthy. Hope you’ll enjoy a read and share on social media! (It would be great if his story made its way to a major news outlet!) There are mentions of St. Croix and quotes from Luca and other residents in both articles listed in this link, do take a few minutes to read them both, and share: http://bvibeacon.com/sections/climate-change-series/
Saturday farmstand, 10am down the South Shore Road: Plentiful sweet salad mix (thanks to recent, frequent small rain showers that made the size of the lettuce heads grow bigger), a very few slicer and cherry tomatoes, Italian basil, parsley, lemongrass, some seasoning peppers, serrano and chili peppers, lots of fresh ginger and turmeric, cooking greens, bunched arugula, some papaya, some watermelon, some pineapples, and zinnia flowers. For the growers: lots of native trees, bigger pots of rosemary herb, small pineapple slips! For the art lovers: we have performance/raffle tickets to the Caribbean Dance School 2018 show available, Friday and Saturday June 8 & 9 at Island Center, $15!
Okay, get a cuppa and a few minutes for some deep farm talk here: Farmer Luca and Farmer Bob have been busy this week building some new hugelkultur, or “hugel” beds on the farm. And YOU CAN TOO!!! Read on if you like food and want to save the planet!!! The secrets will be revealed!!! Mom! Dad! Uncle Fungus!!?
Hugelkultur is a ridiculously simple permaculture farming technique with a fancy name and multiple benefits: carbon is sequestered, water and fertilizer is conserved, erosion prevented, and messy, organic storm debris such as logs and branches are repurposed and turned into a valuable resource. You make a tidy brushpile, and you bury it in soil. No burning, no chipping. And then you grow food or other plants on it. That’s the whole story. And it’s AMAZING!
A hugel bed is a raised garden bed that is naturally, passively aerated and thus doesn’t need any cultivation (tilling or plowing or other soil preparation) other than mulching and weeding. Hugel beds hold micro-pockets of air and water underground, as the slowly decomposing wood in the center acts like a sponge. Plants growing on top LOVE it. After a rainstorm, the beds require much less irrigation for a looong time. This is a great garden bed technique for the lazy or forgetful gardener, as it is forgiving!
Here’s how it works at ARTfarm: Farmer Luca has modified the typical hugel bed stacking technique for our dry, subtropical latitude and conditions by partially burying the hugelkultur bed into a minor trench in the soil where water can collect. This low spot helps to slow runoff and erosion, conserve water and topsoil, and limits the bed’s exposure to wind and sun. Farmer Luca’s basic process involves the digging of a large, relatively shallow bed area (carefully setting aside the topsoil), the burying of the brush into the hole with that topsoil, and mulching, and it can be done on virtually any scale. Here’s the step-by-step:
Dig a shallow area (18″-30″ deep as you wish) to fit the brushpile you want to bury, reserving the topsoil nearby.
Optionally, you can line the bottom of the hole with compostable plant-based material to help slow down water flowing out of the bottom of your hugel bed. Seaweed adds essential nutrients and minerals (with an added plus – burying kills the stink of decomposing south shore sargasso seaweed!) Also effective on the bottom might be cardboard packing material, leaf litter, grass and yard clippings, or even old cotton clothing.
Add the brush and logs into the hole. The neater you stack ’em, the more you can fit in the bed, which is good. Stack a few inches above the original soil level.
Optionally, if you want to get fancy and improve the bed further you can sprinkle or layer nutrients such as charged bio-char, compost, more seaweed, coconut husks, green waste, some woodchips. We haven’t had time to experiment with this yet!
Replace the removed topsoil back onto the bed to bury the brush and logs. Pack the soil in well – stomp on top or agitate as you go – don’t leave large pockets of air in the bed that will erode in the rain!
Cover the topsoil with a thick, heavy layer of mulch – such as wood chips or hay.
The finished bed will be raised about 8-10″ above the original soil level.
Add drip or microsprinkler irrigation.
Beds can be built consecutively next to one another to create a larger hugel bed growing area, if desired. Our objective was to bury tons of wood to sequester carbon, but you can take a little more time to add even more nutrition to your bed by adding composted materials as suggested above. Think of the worms!!
To start, Farmer Luca chose areas in the gardens to build hugelkultur beds where he had observed the soil was underperforming – that is, where crops were less successful. These spots, he discovered as he excavated, had very hard, compacted clay-like subsoil. If you’re not sure how your soil is performing, you may want to choose a spot that tends to collect water, if that is an option.
The type of wood used in the bed is not terribly important, although known toxic tropical varieties such as manchineel apple are best avoided. A mix of both harder and softer wood varieties (mahogany, manjack and palm trunk, for example) is probably most effective. It’s better to use both large and small sized wood pieces (both logs and branches), but whatever you have will work. Fresh cut wood is arguably better in the short term since it already contains a lot of moisture, but it can also start growing in the bed (we’re talking about you, Beach Maho and Madre-de-Cacao)! We have mostly used old, dry wood materials and that works too. Fine material such as wood chips alone might decompose too quickly, whereas larger diameter hard logs offer a more slow-release effect over the course of years. Hugel beds are a monster sized, long-acting injection of fertile organic matter into your garden’s topsoil!
The quality of the available nutrition for plants in hugel beds change over time, tending to improve for a wider variety of crops as the interior wood composts into humus, and fungal growth and diversity inside the bed starts to really kick in. That’s yet another big win-win of hugelkulture: a biodiverse world of fungus, that create mycorrhizae, a working symbiosis with fungi and living plants, creating more bioavailability of nutrients and breaking down dead plant material. (Think kombucha or sauerkraut!) We had noticed years ago on the farm that impromptu/accidental hugelkultur beds created by the bulldozing of old brush piles with some topsoil resulted in an almost bluish-green color, drought resistance and vitality in the grasses that grew on those spots, even after the pile itself was moved away. Go fungi!!!
After establishing the first hugel beds, Luca started some simple trialing of different crops into the hugel beds with every transplant set. So every time a few hundred seedlings went into the drip-irrigated garden rows, he’d also put a few plants from that same batch into the hugel beds. The hugel plants tended to be noticeably healthier, larger and stronger, without the additional fertilizing and regular daily irrigation that the row plants got. WOW!
Crop plants that seemed to best tolerate the environment of a new, freshly layered hugel bed included pumpkin, zucchini, watermelon, herbs, and peppers. Corn, sweet potato and jicama (a crispy root vegetable) were not as successful in the newest beds. Our oldest hugel beds were built during the extreme drought of 2015, and exploded with zucchini in their first year. Those three-year-old beds are now successfully supporting lettuce and brassicas like kale. (Whenever we have extra tree trimmings and a little time, we build another hugel bed.) Even more exciting, Luca has been trialing fruit trees in a few of those older hugel beds. Citrus, mango, avocado and coconut trees are so far very healthy and show robust growth. We are especially excited about the success of the avocado, which is a variety that normally requires heavy watering and has never really taken to ARTfarm’s high-drainage, rocky south shore soil and dry conditions.
Farmer Luca uses water-conserving drip irrigation or microsprinklers on his hugel beds, so the plants do receive some irrigation in dry periods, but only every 3 – 4 days instead of daily, as the row crops require. And if it rains heavily, the hugel beds can go for weeks without watering. In our super dry conditions on the South Shore, this is essential resource conservation. So a new hugel bed made from dry woods will need a bit more irrigation, but once it gets a good heavy rain, that seems to prime the bed, and water is soaked up and maintained inside for an extended time.
Slugs and snails and termites, oh my! With all of the fantastic nutrition available in a hugel bed, of course there may be some less welcome visitors. Our experience has been that, given a bit of time, balance happens and the pest invaders leave of their own accord. Here’s what happened:
There was a period after the 2015 drought broke when conditions were very wet on the farm, and our existing recent infestation of slugs and snails (who hitchhiked here in some donated pots in 2014) started booming. These creatures were probably attracted to the hugel beds’ moisture as conditions began to dry out, and were feeding on the leaves and fruit of the crop plants. Farmer Luca stopped planting and irrigating in that bed for about six months and gave it a lot more mulch, and the problem resolved itself. As for the slimy population of intruders, they were virtually wiped out all over the farm after another year or so by another stealthy predator, possibly mongoose or night herons.
Termites seem to be the biggest fear with this technique. We have had surprisingly little issue with them except for one hugel bed that was built only 3 meters away from an existing huge woodpile with a very large termite colony that was extremely active and untreated. They built tunnels above and below ground into that hugel bed. After a few years, they disappeared from the bed. The termites did NOT affect the watermelon crop in that bed, but they probably did a lot to aerate and decompose the wood within! I might not build an enormous hugel bed right under my untreated wood house, but it seems that generally speaking we have not seen termites sprouting up in these beds despite having active colonies around the farm. In general, termites are always around whether we see them or not, so the presence of a hugel bed is not going to create termites. It might even divert them from structures! Here’s a discussion about it: https://permies.com/t/28384/Termites-Hugelbeds
Gungaloes (large armored millipedes) are also attracted to the hugel beds, which is great because they can improve soil (much in the way that earthworms do). But they would sometimes eat the skin off the stem of very young plants, girdling and killing them. The solution was to pull the thick mulch layer back from around the seedling, and/or to put a small ring of stones around the base of the plant to protect it.
Farmer Luca would love to see agricultural researchers in the Caribbean do more experimentation and dedicated trials with hugelkultur beds. Unfortunately, since ARTfarm is a commercial production farm, we don’t have the time or staff to devote to approaching all the variables from a purely scientific method or collecting more than anecdotal data – but the early results show that this technique is incredibly productive while solving a post-storm solid waste problem at the same time.
Hurricane recovery is a long game. It still requires a special trip to town to post to our website, so we apologize for the dearth of news from the ARTfarm.
We have fresh food!! And as of November 18th, 2017 we are now open, a little ahead of schedule, on Saturdays from 10am to 12 noon. Can’t wait to see you!
Many of our awesome customers, neighbors, stateside family and fellow farmers have asked how they can help us with hurricane recovery. Knowing that people support us and want to see us succeed is worth an awful lot to us. Thank you.
We’ve put up a GoFundMe crowdfunding page for anyone who wishes to assist in accelerating ARTfarm’s Hurricane Maria recovery. gofundme.com/artfarmllc There’s a video on YouTube with the story and more photos of the damage and recovery efforts.
Much of our initial recovery effort after securing the livestock was focused on tree and brush removal around our houses and on repairing or demolishing the farm buildings that were damaged or destroyed.
Luca’s dad, Kiko, who turned 80 this year, spent long days cutting up downed limbs and probably ran at least 8-10 loads of brush per day in his pickup truck for weeks and weeks after the hurricane, so that we could easily get around and between the farm and home. Luca’s mom, Valeria, has been our chief cheerleader with her fierce positivity and has been helping with cooking delicious meals as well as providing the long-term perspective on hurricane recovery, having rebuilt the family home after Hugo in 1989.
We are in the somewhat Byzantine process of going through the FEMA and SBA applications and we attended a long-awaited USDA disaster assistance meeting for St. Croix farmers on October 31st. We also applied for a small grant for farmers through FarmAid and received it.
We have some ambivalence about asking for donations. But our friends have urged us to let them help us out. So, we are posting an online crowdfunding campaign to help us spread our losses. We’ll need to purchase goods and services in our community to replace damaged and destroyed assets. We’ll also use funds to convert some of our volunteers to employees or contractors to complete the disaster recovery work. Any donations left over we will use to help other farmers in the Caribbean disaster zones or local non-profits in the USVI. You can follow this link to help us meet our hurricane recovery goals: gofundme.com/artfarmllc
One of the main challenges for all hurricane-affected folks in the Caribbean (including us) right now is dividing our time between re-organizing and repairing things at home, reorganizing and repairing things in the workplace, helping others where we can, and getting down to the normal tasks of the season. For us, these fall months of planning, preparation and planting are crucial to the success of the season ahead. It is certainly feeling overwhelming!
We have had fantastic volunteer help from a few friends who have started the process of righting downed fences and clearing the broken up lumber from our seedling house and ARTbarn. Other friends are helping us catch up with gardening chores. We have a pair of awesome artist friends in the states who continue to take generous amounts of time to help us to negotiate various disaster recovery application processes, to find out what programs are available and otherwise to help us seek out information online. (It is still impossible to get online without leaving the farm.) There is still a lot more to do. We may host another massive volunteer party this season to accomplish more of that restoration work. ❤️❤️❤️
We have blessedly received most of our regular seed orders through the US Mail (currently one of the fastest methods for sending mailable things to the Virgin Islands) and we are actively planting food, hoping that the demand will be enough for what we will be supplying. Our young tomato plants are starting to flower, our cucumber and zucchini vines are starting to produce young fruits, and the pumpkins and melons are flowering and starting to set fruit. With all the rain, we are actually a week or two ahead of schedule this season. Lettuce and herbs, beets and carrots are all growing nicely.
ger and turmeric plants have recovered following the storm and most of our fig trees that survived are starting to fruit. We are seeing a lot of caterpillars, ladybugs, aphids and other indications that a healthy insect population is rebounding on the farm. We have lost a lot of Jack Spaniard (paper) wasps, which are a big part of our integrated pest management (‘good’ bug vs. ‘bad’ bug) practices. The wasps helpfully eat lots of caterpillars, and their numbers were decimated by Hurricane Maria. But migrating swallows, ani (black witch) birds, kildeers and kingbirds have been active hunters in the gardens since the storm to help us protect our young crop plants from little munching mouths. Pearly eyed thrashers, normally the bane of tropical farmers because they attack crops directly, are switching to a caterpillar diet due to the lack of available foods for them. Thrashers are also eating gungalos – this is unfortunate, as they are a beneficial soil-building insect, but noteworthy as it is not a typical part of the bird’s diet.
Luca wanted you to know that we have some native and local young trees in pots for sale, to help us offset our storm expenses and to help you replant your landscape. We’ve got lignum vitae, calabash, mahogany and a few others. You can just give us a call or send a text message if you’re interested in buying some trees or pineapple slips, and we will set up an appointment.
Our most urgent need now is for power to run our refrigerators, freezers, pump and water filtration system so that we can make and safely store salad mix. We are also raising money to restore damaged buildings and fences.
Thank you to those amazing people who have already donated to help us, thank you for your continued support, and best wishes to all of us in recovery mode.