Catskills Comfrey

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2017.10.10
It was the Best of Times, It was the (less than) Best of Times

As I get older, I have noticed a mellowing of my attitude to issues that affect me daily. I’ve learned at my age (70), you become very aware of what defines each day and what provides meaning, benefit and pleasure in the daily actions I undertake.

I wrestled with the title for this blog. I was going to name it The Sorrowful Farmer in honor of a young, rail-thin farmer we met early on in our days (ca late 1990s) at the Round Barn, one of the largest and longest-running farmers markets in the area. I now cannot even remember his name - but he was very affable but with his long beard, his occasional tales of woe re farming left me with a sense that his daily life as a farmer was not as successful as he had wanted it to be. I heard that he later died - but the whole-wheat flour I bought from him lives on in my freezer.

So why the pessimism?

The cherry tomatoes I planted this year didn’t happen as anticipated - the profusion of rich SunGolds on the vine just didn’t occur. The sun wasn’t out enough, the days were cool and the rains frequent, leaving me with beautiful green fruit that stimply appeared to stall on the vine and not ripen. And I had one hundred plants in the ground! And to top it off, the deer discovered the plants, nibbling away at the lower fruit, literally halving my available crop. Yes, I was caught off guard re fencing but the deer had not bothered the four ‘test’ beds I had planted last year - my wife felt the bigger mass of plants attracted them. I DID learn, though, that of the ten varieties I planted, there are (five) various reasons why I won’t replant them next year.

But, to balance all that, the comfrey thrived under these same conditions. It was wonderful to watch the phenomenal weekly growth of rich, lush comfrey leaves, some measuring 2’ in length. I had weekly harvests of comfrey leaves throughout the summer and into fall. And in the end, as I made my last comfrey harvest, in mid-September, I was able to accurately determine what my approximate comfrey yield could be.

And I successfully installed a three-barrel irrigation system for both the cherry tomatoes and comfrey, making watering both more convenient and consistent. And all this supporting a gravity-fed system with a natural spring located nearly ½ mile higher up the mountain. The stream water is potable - and makes our entire gardening system possible. This, to me, is a true blessing.

The ongoing summer and fall days have been incredible: warm enough to still be going barefoot and lying in the hammock as the sun sets. My wife and I are both happy - and delight in the monarch butterflies alighting on the many, many zinnias we planted this year in front of the house

And, I suppose, to top it off, the maple leaves have begun to color, just when we had declared this fall’s leaf ‘peeping’ season a bust. The colors in the Catskills, when they happen, are magnificent and a joy to behold. Last year, my wife’s sister, an avid hiker, came out from San Francisco. She caught last year’s colors perfectly and was so blown away, that she vowed to return.

And she did this year, bringing 20+ hiking friends from the San Francisco area. She arrived a week earlier than her group and although the sun was out and the preliminary hikes we took were breath-taking, the colors weren’t really happening, like Annie and I knew they could do if inspired.

But two days before the group arrived, the colors began changing - and as we drove around Delaware County, in pursuit of hikes or a short drive to enjoy the colors, the constant litany of “oooohhhh”, “look at that tree” or “look, over there” became constant.

Yes, it’s another beautiful day in the Catskills.

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2017.06.23
It’s Another Beautiful Day in the Catskills

I’m committed to growing comfrey, providing an easily-applied topical balm for relief from myriad skin conditions and subdermal inflammation, eg, Trigger Finger symptoms, arthritis, bug bites, bee stings, sunburn, broken bones and sprains, acne.

I’m as committed, too, to growing the best cherry tomatoes in the local area. I’ve planted nearly 100 cherry tomato plants, consisting of ten different varieties of this particular type of sweet tomato … SunGold, Esterina, Black Cherry, Supersweet 100 and several more. Gold, red, yellow, white, black and blue colors: a veritable rainbow of fresh colors that encourage you to pick and eat as you walk the beds.

I depend on the Catskills environment. We have a small farm, nearly eight acres which, truth be told, can grow a LOT of cherry tomatoes and comfrey. I’m using very little of our available land but it keeps me busy, insuring the tomatoes are pruned, the comfrey harvested and dried and that I have a sufficient water supply. Tomatoes are notoriously thirsty plants.

Although we have a natural spring feeding our gardens, I knew that the addition of 100 tomato plants would be a literal drain on the available water supply. My engineering background came into good use by building a drip system for the tomatoes (12 beds, 2’ x 12’) and comfrey (4 beds, 4’ x 12’) - and, to deter the literal ‘drain’ on our active, natural water supply, powered by the water being stored in three 55-gallon drums.

When my wife objected to setting the barrels in the field near the raised beds as being visually unpleasant, I grumbled but then realized there was a serious advantage of locating the barrels ‘out of sight, out of mind’: The Catskills are NOT flat by any stretch of the imagination: small streams are everywhere and running at different inclines, presenting particular issues to control the water. In my former position as the DBA for the Watershed Agricultural Council, I learned that USDA farm planners were constantly challenged to keep the ‘clean water clean'.

When I stepped back and looked at the issue objectively, I realized that relocating the barrels ‘out of sight, out of mind’, I’d be gaining six additional feet of pressure to power the gravity-fed system by placing the barrel stand higher up the pasture and behind a large honeysuckle bush. A big benefit with no cost (other than 120' of garden hose to bring the water from the barrels down to the raised beds).

It was particularly gratifying that it worked the first time I opened the valve for the first time. So now instead of watering plants manually (and probably conveying tomato blight by ‘bouncing’ the water onto the leaves) for an hour or two twice a week, I open up a valve to fill the barrels (30 minutes) and then open another valve to water the plants (1.5 hours) evenly and cleanly. A great saving of time and an assurance that the water is now being delivered in a responsible, thorough manner to each individual comfrey and cherry tomato plant.

This is clean, drinkable water direct from the earth, gathered with virtually no carbon footprint. This is what the comfrey and tomatoes drink, along with the rain from our clean,pure Catskills air.

In my last blog, I was still uncertain whether my new comfrey plants would even germinate. I’m happy to report that virtually all of the 70 new comfrey plants have germinated - and showing their rich, green leaves. They are now actively being transplanted to their final growing location.

The initial tomato flowers are now appearing, I’ve had four comfrey harvests this year already - and we’re currently shipping Catskills Comfrey liniment with 2017 harvested material.

It's summertime now with warm, breezy days - and cooler nights. The water we drink is as pure as any you can find in the world. The air is clean, the night skies are, well, dark - and the Big Dipper is perfectly framed in the upstairs skylight above the bed for our AirBnB guests. The sun shines, the rain falls lightly and our spring flows 24/7/365. My wife and I are both still healthy and laughing at 70.

Yes, it’s another beautiful day in the Catskills.

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2017.04.20
Nothing’s Ever Certain Until the Check Clears the Bank

In my last position before I ‘retired’, I was the database administrator for the Watershed Agricultural Council. In this capacity, I became familiar with the myriad problems a farmer can face throughout a growing season. The streams are rising; will the farmers near the river get flooded? It hasn’t rained in three weeks; will the corn suffer? You can sense the anxiety among folks who depend on the earth’s cooperation when they sense the earth isn’t ‘right’. It’s essentially a case of “nothing’s ever certain until the check clears the bank”.

That’s the situation I now find myself. Now I’m the farmer. So what’s my anxiety? Every day, first thing in the morning on going outside, I go over to see if the seventy new comfrey rootings have broken the surface. Are they budding through? This is important issue to me - and my Catskills Comfrey’s future.

Yes, I already have a few growing and very healthy comfrey plants established. These plants are the basis of the production I have achieved to date - but you can’t be the next “Burt’s Bee of Comfrey” with a dozen plants. So I purchased new comfrey roots last fall, knowing that they’d be dormant while ‘wintering’ over in the bed I prepared for them AND that I would not be able to harvest any leaves from these new plants in the first year.

My thinking was that as I grew this business, my initial dozen plants would suffice this first year; after all, I wasn’t going to harvest anything from the new plants that are growing under the best of prepared-soil conditions. And, too, my current few sales and projected growth for 2017 could be filled from the dozen good plants I already have.

But are they growing? My established plants are doing fine, peeking through the ground with their slender, pointed slivers pushing straight up. It was actually exciting to me to be able to recognize the barest mention of the comfrey plant breaking through the ground, knowing it should be there. “There it is!”, I say, congratulating myself on the learned knowledge one can only get when you have something on the line or, in this case, in the ground.

I’m optimistic enough to realize that the first breakthrough of the seventy plants will happen; after all, they’re starting from basic roots planted 2” deep. The established plants are just now beginning to say “hello”; therefore, the plants starting fresh from roots can’t be faster than the already-planted comfrey.

I have faith and the optimism to know that at some point, the tide will turn, comfrey will become recognized - and I’m going to need the capacity the seventy new plants will offer. It’s not this year; but it will happen. I’m a farmer now; not a DBA. I can no longer count on the database to keep it straight; it’s up to just me - and the seventy comfrey plants starting a new, long life on my land.

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2017.03.25
The 'Aha' Moment

Why am I actually doing this? Why am I, at nearly 70 years of age, beginning a new business of growing comfrey and then infusing the dried comfrey into the final product, Catskills Comfrey? I knew, at 70, my technical career of designing databases was at an end. And after spending a year learning how to write smartPhone apps for Google and Android, I realized that there were LOTS of other programmers doing the same thing - and with much bigger budgets.

My eyes, too, were becoming less effective so did I want to spend what available time I do have left in front of a computer screen, under less than ideal conditions, where I knew I would never read clearly again with any convenience?

My wife, Annie, and I live in Delaware County within the region known as the Catskills. It’s beautiful up here (well, 8-9 months of the year - we’d rather be in Jamaica during the winter!): crystal clear water, pure air, dark night-time skies and ground that is ideal for gardening. I had been the DBA for the Watershed Agricultural Council and that, peripherally, allowed me to become more knowledgeable of agricultural practices.

Annie, though, was the big mover re gardening. She was the prime-mover in breathing life back into Dag Hammarskjold Plaza, a NYC Park located immediately in front of the UN. She remains the lead person in maintaining and directing the Katherine Hepburn Garden within the Park.

But it was up here where we literally put our roots down. We’ve been gardening for nearly the entire time we’ve been living here, nearly 20 years. Tomatoes, lettuces, spinach, beets, potatoes, arugula, chard, herbs … we barely bought any vegetables in the summer. The ground was receptive and we learned a lot.

My wife had studied herbology. Several years ago, she broke her pelvis on a bike accident in NYC. She had read that a comfrey-based poultice could relieve the pain and hasten the underlying bones to heal. She healed far faster than she ever expected - and credited the regular applications of the comfrey as a direct benefit.

My ‘aha’ came, in 2015, when I developed Trigger Finger symptoms; my fingers were exhibiting the ‘usual suspects’ of locking or spasms occurring, sometimes so bad that I’d literally have to pry my fingers open. The PA at my doctor’s office confirmed the self-diagnosis. “You can do massage, get an injection or, eventually, get surgery.”.

I’m not a big believer in pushing for injections - and a hand surgeon somewhat discouraged me from pursuing the cortisone-injection option, “Continue self-massage.”, he advised. I had been trying a poultice of sea-salts and vinegar to minimal benefit.

After reading of the numerous subdermal benefits of applying comfrey to achieve relief from the Trigger FInger symptoms, I decided to produce my own ‘medicine’ - and literally see if comfrey could help. I had time - and discomfort - on my hands, so why not? The process of infusing dried comfrey wasn’t hard; rather easy, in fact. I concocted a mix of mostly coconut oil, with olive oil added - and infused it with the dried comfrey we were already growing on the property.

In just days after beginning the topical application of the liniment, I began to notice relief: fewer contractions, much less intense, virtually no more 'lock and pry' issues. It was too obvious; I was doing no other type of treatment to overtly mitigate the symptoms.

Growing comfrey, I figured, would keep me outdoors, provide plenty of good movement and allow me to use my eyes under the best possible circumstances. It was also obvious that once the comfrey plants became established and planted [Note: In Spring 2017, we’re planting another 70 comfrey plants in raised beds.], they don’t really require a heavy load of maintenance of the growing plants; rather, the work is in the frequent harvests of the leaves throughout the growing season.

And now, when I receive reports that, eg, “...on the 2nd day, I began to experience relief.”, it’s all the more gratifying that I’m contributing some good to a specific person somewhere, offering inexpensive, clean and organic relief to an actual discomfort.

I'm in the ground for good reasons.

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