Farmers who market their produce directly to consumers have always been under the gun to get it off the vines and into open-air markets well ahead of everyone else. But few are willing to take the chances to get it there that they take at Dayspring Church Farm in Germantown, Md.
The farm owner, the Church of the Savior, is committed to supplying the Washington area with locally grown fresh fruits and vegetables as early, and as late, in the season as possible, according to Robert True, the farm manager.
It is this commitment that gives him the freedom to take the chances he does, and though Dayspring is not run as an experimental farm, it certainly is one to a certain degree. What may seem like an agricultural brick wall to one farmer is simply a delay here. It is not beyond Dayspring to try entirely new growing technologies, some of which may take several years before a successful crop is brought in, said True.
Raising tomatoes under plastic row cover, for example, has enabled the farm to get its tomatoes into the markets two weeks ahead of any other farmer in the area for the last two years, True said. Though the farm has been trying to raise cantaloupes for the last three years, this will be the first year he is optimistic about the yield, he said.
"Failure is an annual experience," said True. "We haven't had a year where something didn't go significantly wrong." One recent year while attempting to raise crops organically, the fields were overtaken by weeds. The crops were lost and True ended up going on vacation in August when most farmers are busy harvesting and selling 14 hours a day. Small amounts of herbicides have been in use on the farm ever since, he said. "Some of our problems are nature's doing, others are human," but in either case, no problem is considered insurmountable.
That the farm is located on 210 acres of land, more than 50 of which are cultivated for growing, also leaves plenty of room for mistakes, he said.
"Basically we think of our clients, then we think of what we will grow," True said. On a small scale, new crops are added or entirely new fields of produce opened if the demand is there. This year a "specialty garden" with flowers and culinary herbs was added for customers at the farmer's market in Woodley Park.
The farm also raises snap and green beans, peppers, squash, berries, greens, apples and corn to sell at four other farmer's markets in Maryland and the District, and to sell directly from a tiny market on the farm or on a pick-your-own basis. But it is the high-demand produce, such as tomatoes and cantaloupes, that have pushed Dayspring to experiment, he said.
This year's cantaloupe optimism is based on last year's surprisingly successful crop of cantaloupes, and the lessons of growers along the Eastern Shore who have more moist, sandy soils than farmers closer to the city, True said.
Cantaloupes require tremendous amounts of water while growing on the vine, and weeds competing for that water are their deadly enemies. By putting "extremely" healthy transplants into a totally weeded ground and watering liberally from three man-made ponds on the farm, Dayspring got a bumper crop last year.
In hopes that the problems have been solved, True increased the number of transplants from 200 three years ago to 4,000 this year, he said. If all goes well, there will be two cantaloupe harvests this year to compete on a moderate scale with farmers along the Eastern Shore. The first harvest is coming in now and the second is due in mid-September.
It's easy to select a good cantaloupe, once you know the tricks, True said. "Basically, if you can put your finger through the cantaloupe, then it is way past its prime."
If you are picking it from the yard or a field, a little bit of green between the veins is fine provided the fruit twists off the stem easily (called the slip stage). If picked before this stage cantaloupes will never ripen completely. For this reason, avoid those cantaloupes in the markets with pieces of stem at the end, he warned. A good, ripe cantaloupe smells sweet, and smaller cantaloupes tend to be sweeter than large cantaloupes. Sweet as they are, though, a medium cantaloupe contains only about 120 calories, and all cantaloupes are high in vitamins A and C.
Though True and his family eat their cantaloupes in salads or scooped right from the rind with a spoon, this colorful fruit can be more versatile than that. For starters, dry the seeds in a frying pan, salt them and eat them as a snack or sprinkle them into baked dishes and stir-fries. Serve the fruit halved and filled with berries, ice cream or cottage cheese. Cut it into tiny spaghetti strands and use it to garnish a green salad or whirl it in a blender with heavy cream or yogurt into a chilled soup (a touch of sherry gives cantaloupe soup a delightful kick). Of course, it is also wonderful cubed and wrapped with prosciutto or cheese.
Here are a few more ideas to get you started thinking, like the growers at Dayspring, in new directions with cantaloupes. BLUE CHEESE MOUSSE IN CANTALOUPE RINGS (6 to 8 servings)
2 small or 1 large cantaloupe
1/4 cup cold water
1/4-ounce envelope unflavored gelatin
2 tablespoons lemon juice
8 ounces blue cheese, softened
3 ounces cream cheese, softened
Dash cayenne pepper
Dash white pepper
1/2 cup whipping cream, whipped to stiff peaks
Salad greens for serving
Pare outside rind of cantaloupe with a sharp paring knife. Slice off stem end to point where seed cavity just begins. Use a spoon or serrated grapefruit knife to hollow out seed cavity (as if making a jack-o'-lantern). Stuff cavity with paper towels and allow to drain, open-end down, while preparing the mousse.
Pour water into a small saucepan and sprinkle gelatin on top. Set aside for several minutes until gelatin has softened. Add lemon juice and stir mixture over moderate heat until gelatin has completely dissolved. Remove from heat and allow to cool.
In a blender combine blue cheese, cream cheese, cayenne, white pepper and gelatin mixture and process until perfectly smooth. Carefully fold in whipped cream.
Remove the paper towels from cavity of melon. Blot any remaining liquid with additional paper towels. Pour cheese mixture into cavity, then place melon in a small bowl, open-end-up, so it will not fall over. Chill for several hours until center is firm. Use a long sharp knife to slice melon into rings. Place each ring on a bed of salad greens and serve.
From "Rodale's Basic Natural Foods Cookbook" CANTALOUPE SOUP (6 servings)
2 cantaloupes, cut up
2 lemons (1 lemon for juice and 1 to float in soup)
2 cups chicken stock
1 cup whipping cream
1 cup yogurt
3 tablespoons finely chopped fresh mint
2 tablespoons vermouth
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
Fresh mint leaves for garnish
Put cantaloupe, juice of 1 lemon, chicken stock, whipping cream, yogurt, mint, vermouth and black pepper in blender or food processor and process into a fine pure'e (you may have to do this in 2 batches). Chill. Just before serving garnish each serving with a thin slice of lemon and fresh mint leaves. CANTALOUPE-GINGER ICE CREAM (Makes 2 quarts)
2 cups pure'ed cantaloupe
3/4 cup sugar
Juice of 1 lemon
1 teaspoon vanilla
4 cups half-and-half
1/2 cup chopped candied ginger
Combine cantaloupe pure'e with sugar and lemon juice. Taste for sweetness of the cantaloupe, adding more sugar if the mixture lacks flavor, or additional lemon juice if the mixture is too sweet. Add vanilla, half-and-half and ginger, and pure'e. Freeze according to manufacturer's directions.