We are in the middle of an El Niño interval that many meteorologists believe to be the strongest in decades. This year, El Niño brought drought to many areas of the country, but Baja Arizona enjoyed relatively wet and temperate weather. More unusual weather is expected at the end of 2015 and early 2016. But even favorable weather conditions can have unexpected consequences in agriculture. This year a warm and wet spring led to an early infestation of cucumber beetles that plagued many farms in the region. Growing a wide variety of produce and planting each crop in succession can help farmers ensure a constant supply of produce for market, even if they can’t foresee every crisis.
Produce farmers aren’t the only ones affected by unusual weather. Alethea Swift from Fiore di Capra Goat Dairy and Creamery says they are expecting their first batch of kids early this season. “Our goats usually come into heat when the monsoons start. Because of an early monsoon season, our first baby goats will start arriving in December,” she says. Since goats take a break from milking during the kidding season, farms keep production up by staggering breeding. This allows them to have a continuous supply of milk while ensuring that each goat gets a break from milking. A continuous supply of milk means a continuous supply of cheese—good news for farmers’ market shoppers. “Customers love our sun-dried tomato and pesto torte. Together with a baguette it is an easy party food,” says Swift. At their booth at the Sunday Heirloom Farmers’ Market at Rillito Park, find goat’s milk and cheeses as well as specialty items like chèvre flan, truffles, and goat’s milk caramels.
In fall, farmers are watching the weather for signs of frost. The average first frost on most farms in our region is in November, though it is usually possible to find warm weather produce like tomatoes and peppers at the market in December. Farmers protect these crops from the cold with row covers and strategic irrigation, insulating them from light frosts. If a hard freeze is expected, farmers with tomatoes left in the field will usually harvest them green. These end-of-season tomatoes can be left to ripen on the countertop. They also make an excellent tangy tomato sauce.
As the last of the summer produce disappears, leafy greens become more prevalent. Many farms offer a variety of “baby” greens, which are small and tender and milder than the full-grown leaves. These baby greens are perfect for salads. Quick-growing radishes are also one of the first signs of the winter season at farmers’ markets. A variety of winter squash in all shapes and sizes is available, as well as potatoes and sweet potatoes. Apples are still plentiful and citrus begins to appear. Soon markets will be flooded with all sorts of roots and greens that thrive during the winter months.
Winter wheat is another crop that does well in the mild winters of Baja Arizona. “White Sonora wheat is the oldest wheat in the Americas, brought to the Sonoran Desert by Padre Eusebio Kino. O’odham people, skilled at desert irrigation, adapted the wheat to grow in the mild Southern Arizona winters,” says Terry Button of Ramona Farms. This ancient wheat was once an important crop for the region. After near extinction, it is making a comeback with the help of Native Seeds/SEARCH and local farmers like Terry and his wife, Ramona. The crop is planted between Thanksgiving and New Year when conditions are just right. “Sometime in May or June we harvest the wheat, once the moisture content in the kernels is low enough,” he says. Ramona Farms wheat and pinole (roasted wheat flour) are available at the Flor de Mayo market stand at the Sunday FoodInRoot Farmers’ Market at St. Philip’s Plaza as well as at Native Seeds/SEARCH and Whole Foods. You can also taste the wheat in the pappardelle pasta dish at Ermanos Craft Beer and Wine Bar.
You could use lettuce for this salad, but the texture and flavor of greens like kale or mustard will work better with the other ingredients. No need to remove the skin on small squash like acorn or delicata, but larger squash should be peeled before roasting.
Sara Jones is a longtime employee of the Tucson CSA.