EASTHAM — Orleans farmer Judy Scanlon can still recall the moment her interest in the Eastham turnip was sparked.
“I was driving with my mother, just exploring, when we saw a man standing in a field of plants I didn’t recognize,” she said. Eastham farmer David Raphaelson told her the sea of stalks she was looking at were Eastham turnips.
On the Outer Cape, the humble root that is grown late in the season and can be stored for months has become a celebrity with its own annual festival held the weekend before Thanksgiving.
Growing an Eastham turnip is labor intensive if you’re using heirloom seeds. The seeds that yield authentic Eastham turnips go back generations. Scanlon struck up a friendship with Raphaelson, who was in his 80s at the time, and he invited her to help with his turnip crops.
Raphaelson used seed from Art Nickerson’s turnips. According to local histories, Nickerson, an Eastham native, first grew turnips on his family farm during the Depression and returned to turnip growing in the 1970s with seed he had saved from those early years. He was credited with having possibly the only remaining stash of heirloom seeds for the prized turnips.
To get his own supply of the seed, Raphaelson had purchased Nickerson’s Eastham turnips from the Superette, wintered them, and replanted them in the spring. They flowered and produced pods filled with tiny seeds, which he dried and used that summer. He saved seeds year after year.
Raphaelson taught Scanlon how to plant and harvest along with how to continue the turnip line. In time, he became too frail to make it out to the field for harvest. “I would take pictures to show him,” Scanlon said. “I adored him.”
When Raphaelson died in 2007, his land was sold, but by then Scanlon was producing heirloom turnips from Nickerson seed on her own land.
In the 1990s, she purchased an acre of land on Monument Road in Orleans that was part of the former Lake Farm Camp and adjacent to the house where she grew up. She set up terraced beds and grew turnips and other vegetables. She also leased garden space from a woman down the street.
Scanlon’s husband, Sig Winslow, works as a carpenter and helps on her little farm. She grows a variety of plants for three Agway stores and, in the summer, tomatoes and other vegetables, herbs, and some perennials that go to local stores and farmers markets.
“Demand for the turnips was growing,” Scanlon said, at about the same time the soil in her Monument Road farm stopped growing the tubers well. “We started getting root maggots,” she said. “We never got to let our land lie fallow.” Crop rotation is crucial for turnip growing.
During her travels off Cape to buy fruit, Scanlon met Bob Peckham, another octogenarian farmer. He was willing to lease her two-thirds of an acre in Westport to grow turnips. And with agricultural land in short supply on the Cape, it seemed worth finding a way to make it work.
For three years now, Scanlon has been providing the heirloom seed, wintering turnips from the previous year in her greenhouse, then planting them in the spring. “Apparently the seed pods are a favorite of goldfinches,” she said. “As soon as we see the goldfinches, we trim the stalks with the pods and hang them in bunches to dry.” Once dried, the pods are put in a large barrel. Using a 2-by-4, Scanlon breaks open the pods and separates them and other debris from the tiny seeds. Peckham then sows her turnip seeds on the land he leases to Scanlon, using a seeder pulled by his tractor.
This summer, Scanlon did one seeding in late July and a second two weeks later. “With the drought this summer, the seeds were slow to germinate, especially the second seeding,” she said. Whole rows of turnips failed to come up. “And then, suddenly, when we got all that rain, they really took off.”
So far, she and Winslow have harvested about 3,000 pounds of turnips, and they expect to harvest another 2,000 before the growing season ends.
“If we had to support a family on this farm, we couldn’t do it,” Scanlon said. “It’s a labor of love. There’s not a lot of agriculture left.”
James Rosato and Laura Howes cultivate vegetables at Putnam Farm in Orleans. This summer they planted 500 turnips on an eighth of an acre at Redberry Farm in Eastham. “It was tough with the heat and the drought,” Rosato said. “I would say we battled biblical forces of nature, with insects and turkeys, but we got a good crop.”
Their turnips will be featured, along with Scanlon’s yield, turnips from Brent Hemeon’s farm in Harwich Port, and Karen Baker’s crop from Putnam Farm in Orleans, at the Orleans Farmers Market from 9 a.m. to noon on Saturday, Nov. 19 as part of this year’s Eastham Turnip Festival.
A Town’s Own Turnip Has Its Day
EASTHAM — While out-of-towners may think the Outer Cape has gone quiet by now, we all know there’s still the Eastham Turnip Festival to look forward to. This year’s, set for Saturday, Nov. 19, will happen mainly at the public library and at local restaurants, said organizer Marianne Sinopoli, the town’s outreach librarian.
With its renovation underway, Nauset High School could not host the festival this year, Sinopoli said. But that won’t squash Team Turnip’s commitment to its beloved tuber. “We’re doing our darndest to keep the tradition of paying homage to the Eastham Turnip alive,” she said.
A Taste of Turnip. In past years, Eastham’s tubers have proven themselves in everything from pot pies to whoopie pies. Read up on what 26 local chefs are putting on their specials menus this year on the festival website.
Take home a tuber. Growers James Rosato of Dirt Farm in Eastham, Brent Hemeon of Hemeon Farm in Harwich Port, Karen Baker of Putnam Farm in Orleans, and Judy Scanlon of Lake Shore Gardens in Orleans will be selling at the Orleans Farmers Market on Old Colony Way from 9 a.m. to noon.
Turn Up for Fun is a day’s worth of free crafts, games, and activities. Here’s your chance to guess the weight of this year’s giant turnip. Mr. and Mrs. Turnip will be there at the Eastham Public Library, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Special events include a balloon and magic show at10:30 a.m. and Trevor the Juggler at 2 p.m.
Turnip for Tunes. Cathy Hatch and the Cape Cod Ukulele Club will play bluegrass favorites as well as some turnip tunes at Chapel in the Pines, 220 Samoset Road. Free admission. The concert begins at 1 p.m.
More about the festival and the library’s holiday market featuring local crafts and foods can be found at easthamturnipfestival.com. —Teresa Parker