I try not to go too crazy on the number of varieties that we plant every year and to really select varieties that I think are special in one way or another. Kestrel has been my favorite red beet for a number of years because of it's excellent root flavor, even though it's not as consistent in size and shape as some of the other varieties that I've grown. That's the beet that was in Monday's share, only we didn't have very many of them for reasons I'll explain below. So for Thursday's share we broke into the 3 Root Grex, which is a variety I'm trialling on the recommendation of my good friend Danny Percich at Full Plate Farm up in Ridgefield, Washington.
Besides having a great name Danny showed me beautiful colors of the beets on his farm last winter, and he felt they were cold hardy for winter growing, a good trait for us, although the root shapes are very funky. A grex is a "variety" that is actually a mix of two or more varieties and shows lots of variation. It's commonly used in seed breeding to make new varieties and this is a mix of three different beets, crossed in the field and grown out as one variety. In commercial agriculture the norm is to grow very uniform varieties which simplifies harvest, sorting and packing. I grow several varieties that have quite a bit of variation because I like them for their flavor and growing habits, and it puts a bit of variety into the shares without the complication of having to plant multiple varieties. Lacinato Rainbow is another example, although not as extreme as the 3 Root Grex, having a variety of leaf shapes, textures and colors.
The question from Laurel, our CSA member, was about size. The 3 Root Grex will get quite large so why are we giving out little tiny beets? There are a number of answers to this question and I'll try to touch on the most significant ones.
First, beets are a crop where the "seed" that we get is not actually just seed, it's dried fruits with multiple seeds. This means that even if we're good about spacing out seeds we still get multiple plants in the same location. When the plants are crowded together they mature more slowly and so with beets it is common practice to "thin" the plants to give the remaining plants more space. What we were doing yesterday was thinning, so the roots are still fairly small. This will give the remaining roots more space in the ground and a better shot at sizing up more quickly.
Secondly, and this is tied somewhat to the first point, one of the debates on any small, direct market farm is what the grading standard should be for any particular harvest. There are grading standards for wholesale vegetable packing which means that if you're packing vegetables for shipping the government has set the standards and you have to pack to that standard so the store receiving the vegetables on the other side of the country knows what they're going to get in that box of lettuce or beets when they order it. One of the reasons farmers markets were started in California was to give the big growers and outlet for vegetables that didn't make the grade, because otherwise they're "waste," which is a shame because many of them are perfectly fine, they just are the right size, or shape, or they have minor blemishes. This is also part of the reason that farmers markets used to be know for cut rate prices (which is not the case anymore). There is no standard grading for direct market farms, which is great. I've mostly gone by the standard that if it's something that's good to eat I'd like to share it with the CSA members. In a sense my "standard" is lower, but it also means that by being directly connected to the farm CSA members are getting a chance to eat vegetables in stages that they'd never see in the store, and that we're also "wasting" a bit less than maybe other farms do. There is a fine line here, of course. We don't want to give out vegetables that aren't being used because they don't look right, and we also don't want to gain a reputation for low quality, but we do want to show the full picture of what the farm produces and give CSA members the chance to experience what often times is only available to home gardeners and the farm crew. Some of these items, like beet thinnings, are pretty special in my mind.
Thirdly, I've intentionally designed these shares to be small so I do pick more smaller varieties and frequently favor harvesting some crops at a slightly smaller stage than might be usual. It doesn't always work out this way, but as an example, we plant lettuce on a fairly tight spacing which usually gives slightly smaller heads. We do the same for kale and chard, opting for slightly smaller leaves. Most vegetables are tasty at many stages. In the past when I sold to high end restaurants in Portland we'd custom harvest. Different chefs would order things like carrots at every stage imaginable, from tiny little two inch seedlings all the way up to full maturity, no tops. It depended on preference and what they were using them for. For beets we'd have the chefs order using ball size for preference. "Would you like golf ball, racquetball, or baseball?"
Lastly, although the shares are planned out meticulously each winter things change in the field during the course of the season. Even if our intention is to harvest a crop full sized, we may end up with beets that germinated more thickly than we wanted, slowing the sizing up of the roots and throwing off the harvest timing, but also opening the opportunity to toss thinnings into the share. That's what happened here. Our first two seedings of beets actually failed this year, which is why this is the first week any beets have been in the shares. The Kestrels on Monday were actually transplanted, but even they hadn't germinated wonderfully so there weren't very many. We're still building up and learning our soil and right now it looks like beets are a marginal crop for us. That will probably change with time, and it seems it already is changing as our next two beds of beets look more promising so we'll likely have more thinnings this fall, and with a little luck some nice, full sized roots as well, in lots of different colors!