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.
We began work on our printmaking project to help raise funds for rebuilding our destroyed farm structures.
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!”