Judy Day, a retired schoolteacher, has a 12-1/2-acre farm in Milford, where she has grown organic fruits and vegetables for more than 25 years, long before "going organic" was popularly embraced. Her asparagus, the first crop of the season in Lower Michigan, was great, freshly picked on a recent morning, the day we met.
METRO TIMES: How did your interest in organic farming develop?
JUDY DAY: When I was 10 years old, my parents had a farm in Georgia. I didn't work for my parents, but my neighbor, Mr. Patterson, taught me how to plow with an old mule. After college I moved to Michigan to teach in Walled Lake. I began organic farming in 1972. I did not want to use a lot of chemicals on the land. There were many fruit trees there, and I came up with chemical mixes that were not bad for the environment.
MT: What prompted you to get started?
DAY: My parents were both heavy smokers. I knew that I didn't want to have anything to do with smoking, but I make tobacco tea by the gallon. I buy chewing tobacco that soak for 24 hours. I add cooking oil and Palmolive soap. The bugs don't like nicotine and they leave things alone. The first year I tried to grow corn I had worms in there that ruined the crop. So I got a small paint brush, so when the corn began to "tassel" — that is, to show silk at the tip of the ear — I would brush on plain old cooking oil that kept the worms and caterpillars out. Because I had a well, I set my water to spray 15 feet up in the air to spray down like rain. Without rain, you can't have good corn. Mine was the best around. It sold for six dollars a dozen.
MT: How does asparagus grow?
DAY: Asparagus is a root crop. It grows out of the ground and comes back every year like a perennial. We pick it by hand, usually one at a time.
MT: What do you grow?
DAY: Asparagus, broccoli, cauliflower, green beans, all sorts of peppers; lots of hot peppers and little red potatoes, all organic. As you know, lots of restaurants have gone to red potatoes. I also sell fruit. I have an apple — mutsu. It's a cross between a Golden Delicious and a Japanese apple. They're crisp and delicious. I have pears and a couple of peach trees. When I have things that are not grade AA quality, known as seconds, in shape only, I take them to Children's Village or the homes where older people live, and they are served in the dining room. When I take the corn to the Children's Village, they break out in a smile. They're all aglow because corn can be expensive. If it isn't donated, they don't get any. When I'm in the corn patch, I'll take an ear and have a few bites of it and if it's not sweet, I don't pick.
MT: Do red-skin potatoes need to be scrubbed before they're cooked?
DAY: All of the vegetables are scrubbed before they're delivered. You probably would rinse them off because they might have a little dirt. They say that we all have to eat a bushel of dirt in a lifetime; I know that I've eaten dirt on the farm. I wouldn't be worried about the dirt as much as I'd be worried about the chemicals, but I don't have anything that's toxic, so you can eat it right out of the ground if you don't mind the dirt.
MT: Where do you sell your produce?
DAY: I sell mostly to local restaurants. One is the Lark. Another is the Gandy Dancer in Ann Arbor. We have a customer who wants everything a uniform size and individually wrapped. Sometimes if I have excess produce, I have a friend, John Lemke, who will sell it at the Oakland County Farmers Market on Pontiac Lake Road.
MT: When do potatoes start coming in?
DAY: Probably July, and they're harvested all the way into the fall. And the Brussels sprouts — if you don't know what Brussels sprouts look like, they're grown on a stalk. I used to say that I hated them and I wouldn't grow them. I discovered, after reading a lot about them, that they need a frost. If they don't have a frost, they're quite bitter. So they always have a frost before I cut them. You only need to steam them for a very short time. I also freeze a lot. The way to freeze asparagus is to blanch it for 45 seconds, and put it in a cold water bath. I have two cats that love asparagus. This morning Tipper just jumped up on the kitchen counter and started taking the heads off the asparagus. He knows the good part.
MT: Are you a vegetarian?
DAY: No I'm not, but in the summer I pretty much am, I do eat some eggs in the summer, but sometimes I'm so busy that I don't have time to cook. I'm not a fast food person. Once in while, I'll get a baked potato or some chili at Wendy's, but that's about it.Jeff Broder does this monthly food interview for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]