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An organic farm grows all the peas and pods

A New Hampshire farmer trials vegetable varieties to see which taste and perform the best.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / October 30, 2008

Organic offerings: Heirloom tomatoes are sliced for a taste test at Nesenkeag Farm in Litchfield, N.H., which provides organic produce to Boston-area chefs.

Photos by Mary Knox Merrill/Staff

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Litchfield, N.H.

Eero Ruuttila wants to grow the best-tasting vegetables and herbs. After all, this organic farmer’s crop goes to discerning chefs at upscale restaurants in the Boston area. But, unlike a majority of backyard growers, he has the space at Nesenkeag Farm to try plenty of new varieties each year so he can stay current with what’s new and improved.

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For years he has trialed new varieties of vegetables. This year, he planted more than 60 vegetables at the request of Seeds of Change, an organic seed company with headquarters in New Mexico.

These were grown in rows right next to his favorite varieties of the same crops, so he could see, side by side, the differences:  Did one bear sooner (or much later) than the other? Was the yield larger? Which had a better appearance? Did insects or diseases become a problem? Which had better flavor?

On a crisp day earlier this fall, culinary and horticultural experts visited the New Hampshire grower to see – and taste – for themselves.

This year’s weather – much rainier than usual – had a big impact on performance, Mr. Ruuttila says. Weeks of rain flooded fields, sometimes prevented timely planting or harvesting, and affected growing. Insect and disease pressures were also much greater than usual.

But during other years, lack of rain can be a problem, so Ruuttila tries to identify varieties of vegetables and herbs that produce well whatever the weather.

The climate issue facing farmers isn't so much global warming as climate change, he says, mentioning damaging hailstorms and three "100-year" floods within two years.

“The future is in growing crops that can deal with extreme variables," he delares.

Several years ago he grew trial crops of 25 different varieties of various-colored carrots. He doesn’t think they taste as good as the more familiar orange carrots, but chefs like them because of their unusual appearance.

Looking at Purple Dragon, it’s easy to see why. It’s reddish-purple on the outside, with an orange interior. Ruuttila pulled some from the ground, rinsed them off, and offered them to his visitors. The verdict: They taste as good as they look.

He sows seeds of most carrots close together because restaurants want small carrots – short and slender. A mix of colors and varieties has proven popular with his customers.

Radishes, another chef favorite, also come in many colors as well as varying shapes. Ruuttila likes Plum Purple, which has a crisp white interior to contrast with the bright purple skin, because it looks pretty and has a mild flavor.

But he suggests that growers who are interested in appearance also look at multicolored radishes such as Easter Egg; red and white breakfast radishes; and Black Spanish, a black radish with a white interior, “the only black and white I know of in the vegetable kingdom,” he says.

Beets also are available in myriad colors, shapes, and sizes. Chioggia is an Italian heirloom variety of a bull’s-eye beet – so called because of the concentric circles inside. Ruuttila calls Chioggia, an old favorite of his, “candy-striped.”

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