Valley Bounty: Pesto

Jeremy Barker Plotkin has run Simple Gifts Farm on a 30-acre Amherst property with Dave Tepfer since 2006. The pair and their crew grow ten acres of organic vegetables and raise chickens, cows, and pigs on the land. They sell most of their produce at their farm store, which is open throughout the year.

In addition to typical warm-season crops including heirloom tomatoes, strawberries, cucumbers, and squash, the farm focuses on produce that can stock their shelves throughout the winter. They grow a number of storage crops to last through the cold months and are currently growing fresh salad greens in their greenhouse.

Specialty products are another way that the farm preserves the local bounty for the winter, including strawberry jam, frozen diced peppers, marinara sauce, and pesto.

“Pesto is something I had been looking to do for years,” Barker Plotkin explained. “Because we get a lot of basil in July and then by the end of the month, a disease called downy mildew usually comes in and kills most of the crop.”

By using their basil to make pesto, Simple Gifts Farm can harvest the crop before downy mildew set in and save the bounty in a less perishable form that will last for months to come.

Downy mildew has impacted basil growers across the United States for over a decade. According to the Umass Extension fact sheet on the disease, downy mildew swept across the northeast in “epidemic proportions” during the 2008 and 2009 seasons. It has continued to be a persistent issue in the region and is expected to “be a major disease of basil in the US in the foreseeable future.”

After infecting a basil plant, downy mildew yellows its leaves and then produces spores that show up as a dark growth on the underside of the leaves. The pathogen spreads through the air and Barker Plotkin explained that once the disease shows up in his fields, there’s little he can do to prevent it from decimating the basil crop.

Barker Plotkin focuses his energy on preventing downy mildew as best he can. He plants basil varieties that have a higher resistance to the disease, although plant breeders are yet to develop an Italian basil variety that is truly resistant to downy mildew.

Barker Plotkin sees promoting strong soil health on his farm as one of his most effective tools for heading off plant diseases. “We do everything we can to provide a healthy soil environment for all of our crops,” he said. “That helps with disease and also with insect pressure.” The idea is that healthy soils make for healthy plants with strong immune systems that will be able to ward off disease.

Simple Gifts Farm’s livestock are central to their soil building program. “We’re rotating land out of production and into pasture, using the animals to bump up our soil fertility and sequester carbon,” Barker Plotkin explained.

All the farm’s fields are on a four-year rotation between pasture and vegetable production. After three years of growing vegetables on a patch of land, the Simple Gifts Farm team plants a late-season cover crop, typically oats or rye paired with a pasture grass and clover. The cover establishes itself throughout the autumn. The following spring, the team rotates their chickens and cattle throughout the pasture.

“Grasslands being grazed is one of the most powerful soil-building ecosystems that we have,” Barker Plotkin explained. “So we’re trying to mimic that with our rotation.” He pointed to the highly productive soils in the Midwest as an example. “That soil was built up over centuries by the relationship between the grass and the buffalo,” he said.

During the height of the growing season, Simple Gifts Farm delivered their basil harvest to CommonWealth Kitchen, a commercial kitchen in the Boston area that has the capacity to produce pesto at a commercial scale. The result was packaged, frozen pesto which will easily last through the next basil season. Barker Plotkin was thrilled with the results. He recommends trying out their basil or garlic scape pesto on pasta or in a sandwich. Or if you’re hungry for a snack, pull out some crackers and use it as a dip.

Noah Baustin is the Communications Coordinator at CISA (Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture)