Friday Takeaway: A Week on the Farm

The Daily Hampshire Gazette, September 15, 2017, by Caroline Pam of Kitchen Garden Farm

My brain is overloaded — as it is this week of September every year. It’s bustling at our farm year-round, but no other season competes with the dizzying dance of people, peppers and other produce swirling around our headquarters in Sunderland in the week leading up to Chilifest, our annual hot-pepper festival. Come with me, if you will, on the zig-zagging route of our graffiti-tagged box truck in the days before the fest, and experience the wild ride for yourself.

Saturday, Sept. 9

My husband Tim stumbles out the door in the dark at 6 a.m., clutching his coffee, and heaves himself up into the diesel truck that’s parked in our driveway. The 16-foot box is loaded floor to ceiling with 3,000 pounds of paprika, cayenne, cherry bomb, fresno, orange bull’s horn, habanero and wicked-hot ghost peppers.

It’s one of our sriracha-grinding days at the Western Mass Food Processing Center in Greenfield, so a few members of our farm crew meet Tim there to wash and stem peppers before dicing and mixing them in fermenting barrels for our second batch of hot sauce of the season. We’ll do this six more times before frost comes in October, and we’ll be bottling sriracha weekly through February to get through all 24,000 pounds of peppers.

Meanwhile, the kids and I head out to the Ecuador Andino Store in Hadley to pick up the four-foot tall “Paula Pepper” piñata for Chilifest and to enjoy a taco at the counter. We drive next to the Baking Pin in Northampton, which is sponsoring our Chili Cook-off and Hot Sauce Competition by donating prizes for the winners. Then an emergency stop at Whole Foods to pick up some organic cane sugar and shuttle it to the kitchen just in time for the crew to stir it into the next barrel of peppers to feed their initial fermentation.

Sunday, Sept. 10

The truck takes a break and so do we, knowing this is our last day off for the next month. (The next three weekends are packed with sriracha production, Chilifest, the Garlic & Arts Festival in Orange and the Chile Pepper Festival in Brooklyn.) We spend the day with our kids picking apples at Clarkdale Fruit Farms in Deerfield and eating brisket and latkes at Delicatesse in Shelburne Falls. On the way home we stop at the top of Mount Sugarloaf to gawk at our beautiful river valley, spy on the crops we’re starting to harvest from our fields on River Road and try to make out the “Greetings from Earth” message at Mike’s Maze, where Chilifest will take place the next weekend.

Monday Sept. 11

While most of the crew heads out to the field to tackle the day’s ambitious harvest list, two of our tractor operators, Max and Steve, hop in the truck to harvest napa cabbage for Real Pickles. Only half gets picked before it’s time to come back for Tim’s lunch of spaghetti and meatballs made with one of the 40 jars of tomato sauce we all spent a full day canning together the Sunday before. The truck heads back out for the rest of the napa after lunch, and Tim delivers all 2,300 pounds directly to the Real Pickles factory in Greenfield.

Tuesday, Sept. 12

As the crew brings in load after load of lettuce, kale, broccoli and more, Tim drives out to the tomato field for 1,500 pounds of plum tomatoes for Wednesday’s salsa-production day at the kitchen. Once the tomatoes are unloaded in the barn to ripen, the truck heads right back out
for our next batch of sriracha peppers. By 5 p.m., another 3,000 pounds of peppers are stacked high and get unloaded into the cooler with the tractor.

Wednesday, Sept. 13

The truck is loaded with all the tomatoes picked on Monday, plus 1,000 pounds of onions, so Tim can unload at the kitchen before the others arrive at 7 a.m. The tomatoes are washed, cored, blanched, shocked and pureed into five-gallon buckets and frozen. The onions are peeled, then blackened in the propane-fired chile roaster, before being diced and frozen. The weather’s turning colder, and we need to process tomatoes soon so we can make fresh salsa all winter.

By now, I’ve gotten the kids on the school bus, and Tim drives the empty truck back so we can swap vehicles. He spends the rest of the day in the Maze kitchen marinating 80 pounds of local pork and 12 chickens from Sutter Meats. I take the box truck to my meeting with the sound engineer for the Chilifest music stage and pick up compost and recycling bins for the festival from the Franklin County Solid Waste District.

Miraculously, the crazy harvest push takes a pause, and the crew has time to catch up on some weeding.

Thursday Sept. 14

The truck is once again full of peppers and headed to the kitchen in Greenfield for a repeat of Saturday while harvest continues back at the farm.

Friday Sept. 15

The harvest crew tackles a new list of orders while Tim and Max painstakingly pick and label all the special exotic chilies we grow just for Chlifest – 45 in total. Super-hot peppers like Carolina Reaper and Trinidad Scorpion are only just starting to ripen, while the gorgeously scarred Rezha Macedonian and deep orange Bulgarian Carrot peppers are plentiful.

These are the glory days on our farm — despite the crazy whiplash of competing demands. Now that we’ve survived this week, we’re ready to throw a pepper party!