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A Fleur-de-Lys First: Brussels Sprouts

Twas the week before Thanksgiving, and all through the farm, I was digging and snipping and packing, then Darn! … (Well, it almost rhymes) … my trusty hard drive started wigging out. Luckily I got it to Jeff the Mac wizard before everything crashed.

With visions of repair bills dancing in my head, I escaped to a daylong class entitled Intensive Training in Organic Vegetable Production. What some people do for fun.
Now I’ve taken enough Penn State Cooperative Extension classes in my day to know that the dirt on my hands and wedged into the soles of my work boots is not dirt, it is soil.  But never did I take a look at my field through a microscope!
We learned about reduced tillage, high soluble salts, and even had a class called Organic Disease Management – Which Fungicides Really Work? (The short answer: None.) Then, we focused on soil quality: things like electrical conductivity, bioassays, aggregate stability, soil compaction, nematodes and micro-arthropods.
For the soil quality session, our class broke into small groups. Within minutes, I broke into a sweat. Back in October, Tianna Dupont, Extension Educator for Sustainable Agriculture, called to say that I had won a soil test for being one of the first farmers to sign up for the course. We’ve taken many soil tests on our farm, checking for pH, nutrient levels, organic matter, so I had no qualms. The day she planned to collect soil samples I was going to be out of town at a conference. I told her to help herself, and promptly forgot about it.
So, we’re in these small groups and Penn State Extension Vegetable Plant Pathologist Beth Gugino is unpacking bean plants she grew out in soil samples — our soil samples — to gauge the health of our soil. There was a pot marked FdL.
“Oh my gosh, in front of all these farmers, I’m going to be exposed. Much of the time I don’t know what I’m doing. What dastardly disease am I propagating in my soil, unknowingly? I’m a sham, a charlatan, I can’t believe I was so stupid to even come here.” Yes, sometimes our minds say nasty things to us. Then, luckily, another voice in my good ole brain speaks up.  “Wait a minute. The bean plant in that pot marked FdL looks pretty good. I mean, it’s green. That’s got to be good news. The leaves look healthy. Maybe everything is OK.”
Then Beth tells us what she looks for in a good root system, showing us photos of robust healthy roots vs. wimpy, spindly roots. Beth should know. When she was a graduate student, Beth was a member of The Cornell Soil Health Team, which came up with cost-effective ways to measure the physical, biological and chemical properties of soil health. Tip No. 1, look at your roots.
Beth knocks the side of the FdL pot on the table, easing out the plant grown in FdL soil. The moment of truth: the clump of soil hides all. Then she gently taps the soil off, turning the plant as she goes, coaxing the roots out and revealing … whew, the finest set of healthy roots I ever did see! Just look at those delicate root hairs, the white hypocotyls, and yes, attached to the sides of those gorgeous roots are rhizobium nodules that fix nitrogen.
We rotated to three more stations. FdL soil showed top-of-the-line aggregation, miniscule amounts of soluble salts, and finally, a high population of predatory nematodes – with teeth! Now, this sounds scary until Tianna explains that nematodes are considered beneficial indicator organisms, indicating that the soil is healthy.
Tianna likes to talk about nematodes the way I like to talk about Brussels sprouts. These nematodes, she says, are microscopic roundworms that graze on bacteria and fungi in the soil, major players in the soil food web. Tianna calls them “little soil cows” that eat and excrete. Predatory nematodes gobble up soil-dwelling insect pests. Heck, people actually buy these beneficial creatures to improve their soil! 
After a day of Intensive Training in Organic Vegetable Production, the take-home message was loud and clear: Soil is the soul of a farm. And I thought I was just growing Brussels sprouts. May you give thanks every day of the year.  Laurie Lynch
FdL T-Day in CT: The Fedon Family’s Thanksgiving menu was coordinated by my sister Lee Ann and our chef-in-training nephew Wille. It took a pickup truck to transport the Fleur-de-Lys harvest (and a few items for my niece’s May wedding) to Connecticut. Only the made-ahead pies and cranberry sauce were missing a touch of Fleur-de-Lys. We had FdL kale chips, FdL rainbow carrots, FdL celery root in the stuffing, FdL smashed potatoes, FdL roasted sweet potatoes with FdL Jerusalem artichokes, FdL Brussels sprouts, FdL sage on the turkey, FdL parsley, thyme, garlic, and shallots in almost everything, and golden FdL egg yolks in the fresh mint and chocolate chip gelato.
At Fleur-de-Lys Farm Market in December: Eggs, shallots, garlic, kale, Jerusalem artichokes, Sayings on Slate, lavender wands, and luffa sponges. This is the month we shake straw on the field to tuck in the garlic for its long winter’s nap.
Written on Slate: It’s like being at the kids’ table at Thanksgiving – you can put your elbows on it, you don’t have to talk politics … no matter how old I get, there’s always a part of me that’s sitting there. – John Hughes

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