AgriCulture: Less is More

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Hi All, Mark here,

It feels as if we’ve barely had a winter this year. Rain and mud have been more concerning than deep snow as potential obstacles to trucks getting to our barn. I think I’ve shoveled the driveway on just two days. The change in the angle of the sun has, on some of the balmier days, given me a distinct frisson of impending spring, and perhaps a touch of spring fever. Last week on 13th Street in Greenwich Village I saw snowdrops in bloom.

I know the easy winter should make me depressed about global warming, but my depression quotient seems to have been completely filled by parochial national rather than global concerns as we slide ever closer to authoritarian rule. The apparent imminence of spring has instead caused me to feel a certain urgency about getting winter tasks done. For the past couple of weekends that impulse has gotten me pruning our blackberry canes. I expect to continue this weekend.

Our two patches of Illini blackberries were planted over 15 years ago, just west of the vegetable garden. We chose this particular berry hybrid because of its ability to withstand extremely cold temperatures, down to 23 degrees F below zero. One patch was planted near a huge mulberry tree that threatened to shade out both the berries and nearby fruit trees. We had the mulberry tree removed and in most recent years the blackberry canes have given us a bounteous crop, while the canes have spread even into the vegetable garden. The other patch is in the partial shade of a shagbark hickory. It has been less successful. Troy and Victoria have told me that those berry canes really should be moved to a sunnier spot, and this may just be the year I get to moving them. But first comes pruning.

Pruning is a process it took me a long time to accept. In my naïve beginning days, I was of the Cultural Revolution school of agriculture – Let a Thousand Flowers Bloom. Instinctively I felt that the more flower buds there were the more fruits or berries would be produced, and hence the better our production. Pruning back branches meant fewer buds and flowers, hence fewer fruits and a “worse” crop. Even harder than pruning for me was thinning of fruit that formed. Here was a perfectly good peach in formation. How could I possibly take it off a tree simply because it was rubbing up against another fruit?

I failed to consider, of course, that fruit or berry production must be concerned with more than simply the number of fruits. The success of a crop is a function of the size and quality of the fruit, its freedom from fungus and mold, how it ripens, and how it survives harvest.

Pruning is directly related to all of these concerns. Fewer fruits on a tree or bush means that the plant will nourish each individual fruit more generously, making it larger. Giving each fruit or berry space to grow, without rubbing up against a nearby sibling, means that the risks of abrasions and misshapenness are reduced. Giving space for air to circulate around the berries and fruit reduces the likelihood of fungus and mold becoming pervasive. Pruning back branches reduces the shade cast by leaves. The consequent dryness further inhibits mold and fungus, while promoting the sun-ripening of fruit to maximize flavor. Finally, by pruning branches to go where we want them to, we allow for ready access for harvest and reduce the risks of fruit damage from that process.

Having learned to value the results of pruning, I have learned to prune, and to love the process too. I follow the directions in my berry bible, Stella Otto’s the Backyard Berry Book (Ottographics, 1995). I strive to impose order on the thorny chaos that results from the massive jumble of long trailers (some up to 8 feet long) and branches constantly pushed out by, and ultimately forming a canopy over, our rampant blackberry canes. I prune back the bright red, erect primocanes to about 4 feet in height, and snip the lateral floricanes, the small branches with flower buds coming off the primocanes, to about 12 to 18 inches. I cut the dryer older canes down to the ground and thin the primocanes to six inches apart, four per linear foot. I vow to remove floricanes in the summer after they fruit, to keep the plants under better control next year.

The branches are thorny and my wool cap is constantly being caught and lifted off my head as I work. But it’s satisfying work, vigorous and a lovely way to catch the late winter sun. And it gives me plenty of time to think.

One thought that comes to mind as I prune is whether there is a broader lesson for me in this process. In my newly single life, numerous branches have proliferated and tangled sometimes thornily. Relationships have grown in close proximity to one another and even impinged on one another in a sometimes confusing jumble. A fascinating, exhilarating jumble, but one with risk of abrasion and misshapenness.

And I wonder if I were to pare back, and instead of trying to taste every fruit, focus on nurturing the best, would something more wonderful grow? Is it possible that in love, as in the berry patch, less is more?


Happy Valentine’s Day.

Eggs are back in spades. Order away, including our special on the adorable, smaller eggs begin laid by the younger hens, at $3/doz. Regular size assortments are $5 a dozen

For those who ordered lamb, it is cut and frozen and we’ll be picking it up this coming week. Contact us to arrange for pick up.

Tiny hot matchbox peppers, $5.00 a string, dried and quite decorative.
Cheese Pumpkins, $2/lb, 5 to 8ish pounds

EGGS: $5/doz, $3/doz (fun size)

MEATS: We keep some on hand, but it helps to order ahead in case we need to retrieve from our stash in the big commercial freezer. See below.

GEESE: One remaining, about 8.5 lbs. $10/lb.

ROASTING CHICKENS – Nice fat Freedom Rangers, frozen, largish (4 to 7 lbs, a few smaller), $6/lb.

LAMB: Whole or Half $7/b (hanging weight), Riblets $8/lb, small and larger leg roasts $14/lb,

PORK: Loin pork chops, $12/lb (2 to a pack, btwn 1 and 1.5 lbs),
Spare ribs and country ribs $7/lb
baby back ribs $8/lb
fresh ham roasts (2 to 3 lbs), $12/lb
smoked bacon, $12/lb
Kielbasa $8/lb


Email us your order at, and let us know when you’d like to pick up your order. It will be put out for you on the side screened porch of the farmhouse (110 Lasher Ave., Germantown) in a bag. You can leave cash or a check in the now famous pineapple on the porch table. Regular pickup times are Saturday and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. and 4 p.m. to 5 p.m., other days by arrangement. If you have questions, don’t hesitate to call at 518-537-3815 or email.


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