Earth Matters: A brief history of our soil: Why the Valley land produces such amazing crop

At this time of year, the Smiarowski farm’s asparagus sign is up, and the barn door is open — all part of the rhythm of River Road.

At this time of year, the Smiarowski farm’s asparagus sign is up, and the barn door is open — all part of the rhythm of River Road. PHOTO BY TOM LITWIN

By mid-June, asparagus spears are getting smaller in diameter, foretelling their season’s end.

By mid-June, asparagus spears are getting smaller in diameter, foretelling their season’s end. PHOTO BY BILLY SPITZER

By TOM LITWIN

For the Gazette

Published: 06-13-2024 1:59 PM

There is a stretch of road that runs north along the Connecticut River from the Whately/Hatfield line to the foot of Sugarloaf. It is no surprise its name is River Road. Leaving Northampton I often take “the river road,” the long way home. Over the course of a year, the seasons unfold across fields and farms, displaying the close interaction of people and the environment.

The history of these fields reaches back 15,000 years, when the Wisconsin glacier covered New England under two miles of ice. As the glacier retreated north, an outwashed stone dam blocked the Valley at New Britain, Connecticut, creating the 200 mile-long Lake Hitchcock. The rushing meltwater streams carried sediments of silt, sand, and loam to the lake bottom.

About 12,500 years ago, the dam gave way and the lake drained, exposing lake bottom sediments. A river carved its way through the Valley: its tributaries fed sediments to the river and the river deposited enormous amounts of sediment on its floodplains. These nutrient-rich soils are a key factor in promoting plant root growth. Indigenous peoples, and later European colonists, found these soils to be highly productive farmlands. Today these soils are considered some of the most productive in the world.

In winter the barren fields are not much to look at, with only the cover crops and stubble to remind us of what is to come. Spring is a time of preparation, planting and early harvest: barns open up, equipment of all kinds comes and goes, farmhands return to the fields. Summer — weather, insects and blight willing — is a time of harvest. This is the season when our family’s household routine and the farmers’ efforts intersect — where our sense of place is, in part, defined by rich soil and the food that reaches our table.

On a typical Saturday morning in mid-May, our two young daughters and I would run errands. The first stop was the Post Office; the girls gather the mail and exchange greetings with postmaster Bev Sanderson. Next stop, the transfer station, with prognostications about the weather or catch-up with a neighbor. We continue on our way to see if Smiarowski’s River Road farm is harvesting asparagus.

Asparagus is a wild growing perennial found in sandy coastal areas and riverbanks. Egyptians foraged for asparagus as early as 3000 BC and it was prized by European royalty in the 1500s and 1600s. With Louis XIV’s encouragement, its cultivation was improved, setting the stage for the asparagus’ introduction into New England by French and English colonists.

The Smiarowski’s asparagus sign is up, and the barn door is open. Just inside is a table with two large metal trays filled with bunches of asparagus harvested that morning. Eleanore Smiarowski quietly appears, and we exchange “hellos.” I ask, “Do you have any asparagus?” The girls roll their eyes. For a brief moment Eleanore’s face is blank, then with a hint of a smile she says, “a few.” We settle on two bunches. To pay, we lift a rock inside a nearby wicker basket, place bills in, and replace the rock. We now have a key ingredient for dinner — fresh asparagus with salmon on the grill.

By mid-June, asparagus spears are getting smaller in diameter, foretelling the season’s end. The rhythm of River Road has one season ending, another beginning: we’re now on the lookout for strawberries.

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The strawberry is native to North America and was commonly used by Indigenous peoples. Early settlers sent native plants back to Europe where they reached widespread cultivation in the late 1600s. Garden variety cultivars followed trade back to New England in the late 1700s. By 1825, commercial strawberry production was well underway.

In mid-June, Smiarowski’s has strawberries, as does Nourse Farms, just up the road. Strawberry picking is a family affair and Mom joins us as we head to Smiarowski’s “you pick” on Rt. 5/10. In short order, the berries find their way into our cereal and salad bowls, on top of ice cream and in galettes.

Strawberries become scarce by mid-July, but the first blueberries are ready. Native, wild blueberries were one of the early successional plants that repopulated the scoured earth left behind by the retreating glaciers. Indigenous peoples readily included blueberries in their diets, as did European settlers. The commercial cultivation of blueberries began in the early 1900s, in New Jersey. Blueberry picking is also a family affair, and at Sobieski’s River Valley Farm we pick and later freeze enough blueberries to take us through the holidays.

In August, pickles made from local cucumbers arrive. The humble cucumber is a native of India and has been cultivated in western Asia for over 3000 years. Ancient Egyptians, Romans and Greeks all cultivated cucumbers. By the 9th century, they made their way to western Europe via Italy. Columbus introduced cucumbers to Haiti in 1494, and by 1806 they were common in the United States.

A quarter mile up the road from Sobieski’s farm, the “pickle ladies,” Irene Zaikowski and sister-in-law Josie Zaikowski-Wasilewski, are sitting on lawn chairs in Irene’s side yard. We pull off the road and exchange greetings. Displayed on a card table are the results of their efforts — the most delicious bread and butter pickles we have ever tasted. Our girls select three pints of the coveted pickles. The bills go in the coffee can.

Before starting the car, I open a jar and pass it to the back seat. It’s part of our family’s lore that before reaching home, we finished off a pint of pickles, complete with sticky fingers and drips down our shirts. Taking the long way home, sharing a pint of pickles, seemed the right way to celebrate this blue-sky summer day.

Tom Litwin (he/him) is a conservation biologist and former director of the Clark Science Center at Smith College. He is retired from the Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor, Maine and Farmington, Connecticut, where he served as the vice president for education, and continues as a visiting scholar.

Earth Matters has been a project of the Hitchcock Center for the Environment for 15 years. HCE’s mission is to educate and to inspire action for a healthy planet. Our Living Building and trails are open to all at 845 West St. in Amherst. To learn more, visit hitchcockcenter.org.