An organic farm grows all the peas and pods

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

Photos by Mary Knox Merrill/Staff
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.

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.

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.”

It’s definitely a conversation piece, but its taste is also good – sweet and mild.

Touchstone is a golden beet whose stems are also yellow, a nice contrast with its dark-green leaves. Pronto grows fast and has an unusual flattened shape.

Nesenkeag Farm produces many different types of fresh greens, often sold to chefs in colorful mixtures – Sputnik arugula, red radicchio, Purple Wave and Oaska Purple mustard, magenta spinach, and much more.

Among the kales, Red Russian and Dinosaur (a blue-leaved variety) add color to the garden and to salad plates.

When it comes to basil, Ruuttila suggests that gardeners try a number of varieties and choose their favorites based not on appearance but on flavor. “Each basil has a different taste,” he says. “Choose which one you like the taste of.”

His favorite Italian basil is Genovese. It has great flavor and is slow to bolt.

In contrast to basil, amaranth – Hopi Red Dye and Gold Giant in particular – is grown mostly for its looks. It makes a strong visual statement because of its bright flowers but has no taste.

It definitely adds excitement to a salad mix, though, and also offers some environmental benefits: Ruuttila often uses the plants as a snow break. And during winter, the seedpods provide food for finches and sparrows, he says.

Throughout the fields are plots of cover crops, which he calls green manure. Combinations of grains and legumes -- such as red clover, hairy vetch, and rye -- these are planted to improve the soil naturally..

"They feed the soil," he says, "and provide [good] microbes and biomass."

After every crop is harvested, a soil-improving cover crop is planted for a season before another vegetable is grown in that spot.

His favorite cover-crop combo is oats and field peas (which fix nitrogen in the soil). This would be a good twosome for home gardeners who want to improve their soil organically because it looks good.

Also, Ruuttila points out, this is a double-duty combination: As it beefs up the soil, he can also sell the tender pea shoots or tendrils to high-end restaurants for use in salads and as garnishes.

His visitors pinched off a few tips of the pea vines, nibbled on them, and nodded approval.

The tour of the 40-acre organic farm concluded with informal taste tests of heirloom tomatoes. The rainy summer was hard on all tomatoes, but the hybrid cherry types performed the best, especially Sun Gold and Sweet 100.

“When there’s a lot of stress [such as excess rain], the yellows break down last,” Ruuttila says. Valencia and Dr. Wyche’s, for instance, looked good.

So did two heirlooms with striped flesh, Green Zebra and Tigerella. Amish Paste tomatoes, although mostly used for canning, had excellent flavor when sliced.

One of the hits of the tasting was Zeppelin Delicata squash, which was cut into 1/2-inch orange sticks, brushed with olive oil, and cooked for a few minutes on a covered grill. It was so sweet and delicious that it was difficult for the cook to keep up with the demand.

There’s no better recommendation for a vegetable variety than a group of hungry people devouring it and requesting, “More, please.”

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