May 25, 2006

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Deluge at farms means drought at tables
Purveyor to the area’s top eateries, Nesenkeag Farm’s loss will be felt by diners
By Susan Reilly  news@hippopress.com

In spring, time is money and every day counts for organic farmer Eero Ruuttila.

So when last week’s torrential rains brought devastating flooding to the area, Ruuttila’s fields adjacent to the Merrimack River found themselves under 10 to 20 feet of water.

“Time lost is money lost,” said Ruuttila, whose farm is a nonprofit. “Every day at this time of the year affects the bottom line months from now.”

The 40 acres that is Nesenkeag Farm in Litchfield feeds everyone from patrons at the Bedford Village Inn, Cotton and Michael Timothy’s and more than a dozen high-end restaurants in Boston to shoppers at A Market to the hungry who get their produce from soup kitchens supplied by the New Hampshire Food Bank.

“Our crops are very versatile. The restaurants will get baby greens, carrots and beets while the food bank will get full-size lettuce, carrots and beets. It all works out,” he said.

Nesenkeag Farm is not a few fields with a produce stand on the edge of the roadway or a trendy, Yuppie organic market but a complex farm that uses innovative and progressive techniques in organic farming and labor. The result of these efforts is high-quality crops produced in an environmentally friendly manner.

While he is always looking for ways to improve and cushion the farm’s bottom line, Ruuttila’s focus right now is waiting for the fields to drain and dry so that he can retill and bring air into the trampled and soaked soil.

“I need to get all of the microbial action that you can’t see going on under the soil refocused,” he said while pointing to an earthworm hole.

“I need to wake up the worms and get them moving rather than bearing the weight of ten feet of water,” he said.

Also a beat poet, Ruuttila is poetic when discussing his farming and ideas on keeping the land healthy.

“If you take care of the soil and treat it right, it will be good to you. This storm could have been much worse for us, but our system saved us,” he said.

The fields at Nesenkeag are divided into upper and lower. Good planning has Ruuttila planting high-revenue-producing crops on the upper fields, away from the river. These fields grow carrots, potatoes, heirloom tomatoes and culinary herbs that are sold to restaurants.

The fields are small by industry standards and Ruuttila rotates the crops throughout the farm on a three-year cycle. But after the heavy rainfall, all of the month’s previous work needs to be redone.

“The upper fields look battered and worn and terrible from the heavy rain,” Ruuttilla said, who planted the crops three weeks ago. Once the fields are dry enough, he will take a tractor through them with an eggbeater-like contraption to aerate the soil.

The lower fields typically grow pumpkin, winter squash and other crops. Last fall, some of the lower fields were under water due to flooding and Ruuttila was beginning the process of returning those fields to health.

Last week’s rain covered these fields in almost 20 feet of water.

“As the water recedes, someone down river will benefit from all of the good stuff we put in the ground here,” he said.

The good stuff he puts in the ground has made Nesenkeag Farm a favorite purveyor of some of the best restaurants in southern New Hampshire and Boston.

At Cotton, award-winning chef Jeff Paige has had a long relationship with Ruuttilla. When he heard of the devastation at the farm, Paige was worried for his friend.

“Eero puts out a great product, the best around. He just planted three weeks ago and this is a big hit for him,” Paige said.

Chef Dave Valicenti of Michael Timothy’s echoes Paige.

“The water damage from the flooding has been bad for all of us, especially at Nesenkeag,” Valicenti said.

“We have decided to hold off on our spring menu until we see how our purveyors, mainly Nesenkeag Farm, makes out,” he said.

Jeff Michaud, chef de cuisine at Bedford Village Inn, said that the produce they get from Nesenkeag fits with the “slow food philosophy” that the kitchen follows.

“We try to use only local growers. Nesenkeag Farm is one of the best,” Michaud said.

Ruuttila has a careful eye on the fields and will get things back to normal soon, but right now he is sitting and waiting for the dirt to dry.

“April was so dry that I thought I would be able to get an extra week of crops, which means an extra week of income. Now, who knows? Farming is unpredictable, so you have to be flexible,” Ruuttila said.

Nesenkeag Farm is truly a special place. Henry David Thoreau camped and wrote on the shores of the farm 175 years ago. A co-operative farm was established in 1982 and Ruuttila has run it for almost 20 years.

When Ruuttila took the helm, he hired a South east Asian work force of a half dozen who harvest the delicate crops by hand. The workers, mostly middle-age women, have set up a Buddhist shrine on the farm near where they eat lunch.

“The workers here are like a family. Many of them have been here a long time,” Ruuttila said.

Listening to Ruuttila talk about organic farming is contagious. His excitement and commitment to Nesenkeag is the reason his staff stays and restaurants clamor for his crops.


Comments? Thoughts? Discuss this article and more at hippoflea.com  

Where's the Spring menu?
“The calendar says spring, but it feels far from it,” Cotton’s Jeff Paige said.
Wondering why you are still seeing rich comfort foods on menus rather than light spring dishes? Blame the weather.
Many area restaurants still have winter menus in place and the reason is twofold. First, the poor weather on both coasts have resulted in low-quality spring produce. Second, with this cold damp weather, people seem to still want comfort food.
“I am doing chowders right now and typically, I would never do a chowder in the spring, but people want it,” said Dave Valicenti, chef at Michael Timothy’s.
Michael Timothy’s had put together a spring menu but, because of the weather, is holding off a few weeks.
“It is just not the right time. Hearty winter dishes are still selling while everyone deals with the water,” he said, noting that he typically eats light, except for the past few weeks.
Valicenti said that many of the staff at Michael Timothy’s, himself included, have had to deal with flooding in their homes.
“It has been a hard time for everyone,” he said.
During the storm, the National Guard closed Cotton because part of the sidewalk near the river in Arms Park started to give way.
For Paige, this spring has been a washout. Cotton is also holding off on its spring menu until the weather improves. Paige said he has sat down to write a menu, including a special menu for the patio, but the weather is making it tough for him to get in a spring frame of mind.
“It is really hard to get inspired when the weather is so dreary and crappy,” Paige said.


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