Working together

I snapped these picture months ago.  It was during some of the first nice weather of the spring and I was sitting on the porch watching these kids build this fort, marveling at how well they were working together.  They don’t always; they have to negotiate a lot and at a young age, that isn’t the easiest thing to do.  Still, they did so well on this project, no one getting upset, no one becoming bossy, no one feeling left out, the baby was even playing along.  I was tickled.   And the fort stood at the end, the product affirming the work they did.

That day I started thinking about this post, about what it is like working together on the farm, about what I thought this year might look like in regards to the laboring on the farm.  We knew that on one hand, with a tractor in play, the farmer would be able to increase the space he was growing on while still saving time that could then be used to keep up with growing more food on more space.  But ground prep is just one small part of the growing of food and everything else, from planting seeds and transplanting plants to weeding to harvesting and washing and bundling…this is all work still done by hand.  It takes quite a few man hours to do this.

When we first moved to the farm and thought about starting our farm business, we made our business plan and set our goals with the thought that we would have two mostly full time farm workers, the farmer and I.  I’m not sure why we thought this since I had been a stay at home mom for the prior five years working a handful of part time jobs here and there, but nothing too intense and always while the farmer was home with the small fries.  We had this idea that we would all be here, all together, working and playing and schooling.  Picture perfect.

But the reality is, of course, that with children and a home to care for–that first year a one year old, a three year old, and a six year old–this mama did not a full time field worker make.  We adjusted our plans accordingly, and since then, the farmer has done it all for the most part.  I have always worked behind the scenes and helped at the markets, but the work I have been able to do in the field and even on harvest days is paced by the children at my side.  Some years, at various stages, each of them have been good transplant helpers, great potato planters, pretty helpful harvesters, and generally good playmates.   This year–although the oldest boy has long since stopped waking early to pick rainbow chard on Wednesday mornings because he loves the colors of the stalks, and the middle boy who loves to work by his father has only begged over and over again to learn how to drive the tractor (because he loves machines that one), and the little girl who used to sing, “grow, plants, grow” as a blessing for me each time I nestled a transplant into the ground with her help has moved on–the baby (who I’m not sure I can call that anymore since he is almost two) is so darn independent with these three older siblings to learn from and play with that I have, more than ever, been able to work and help in the fields.

Which is good, because as we try to expand from the one man acre and half operation we are to hopefully a  4-5 acre  one, we can see the limitations the farmer has doing it all by himself.  We are still not at full production, but we are realizing that what we want to do will take two workers but will only be  the size we need to be at just to support ourselves, not at the point to have any employees.  We’re not sure how we will work all that out, but for now the kids and I dance our way through the days and weeks trying to balance our time on the farm working with our time playing and doing special kid stuff and getting in those important summer treats.  Then, if I am lucky, the dishes get done at the end of the day too.

But oh!  We do love working together!  The farmer is fond of watching me in the field and I am fond of the feeling of physical labor.  I know that in order to balance this with my love of time with my kids, we are going to have to rely on help.  This week we had a friend come over and play with the kids for the morning; next week we may have a friend come over to help finish planting some things we wanted in the ground yesterday.  I know that other farms get this kind of help and utilize volunteers and friends to make things happen, but it has been hard for us to accept and/or ask for this.  Although part of this farming gig is the building of community, we are also very private, quiet people who get along best with each other.  Lately, I guess we have come to realize that our definition of “working together” will have to expand in order to make it all work.   I suppose that is part of the original “community supported agriculture” movement in the first place, not just fiscal support but usually help on the farm, support and connection on an even greater level.  Friends, grandma and grandpa, community members, me and the kids–hopefully with a little bit of help from all these extra hands, the farmer will be able to do it all!  Just like in so many of the folk tales we tell to our children–sometimes even the smallest bit of help can make a world of difference.

Catching up

Hello everyone!  It has been a quiet month here on the interwebs, a month busy with ground prep, planting, thinning and weeding.  Today marks the start of another CSA season!!  And so, it seems like a good time to catch up with one another, to take stock of the happenings on the farm so far this spring  and those still a-happening!

We went into this spring feeling like we had made three decisions that would ease some of the problems that the last two long, cool, and wet springs had given us.  We purchased a tractor (finally!), we built a field hoophouse (finally!), and decided to rearrange the length of the CSA to by-pass spring, encouraging CSA members to drop by market and shop during the late winter and spring with their CSA discount instead of offering shares during the seasons when harvests are less predictable.  Most significantly, we didn’t want to feel pushed to harvest things before they were fully mature to fill shares in the spring, thereby lessening our overall yields  for the season.

And we have been happy with all of these decisions, immensely!  We just can’t help but chuckle at the never ending surprises of each season and realize, for the millionth time, that we won’t ever be fully in control of this ship!

The tractor has served its purpose and we have more land worked up and planted than ever before… but we also have to deal with the reality of an old machine that needs a lot of tinkering and love and coaxing to keep running.  And the hoophouse has lush tomatoes growing in it with blossoms already…but it was also put in a field that has only just been amended for this first year of growing on it, and as with most first year soil, it hasn’t lovingly turned into a loamy, lush dirt that produces even growth and blissed out plants.  The bok choys that we wouldn’t normally even have in spring because of pest damage are growing without flea beetles on them in there, but looking down the rows of them shows some barely growing and others full size.  We should see more consistency from this soil by fall and even later this summer as the organic matter breaks down and the soil loosens more, but still…

By far the biggest contender we have towards predictability on the farm is, of course, the weather.  This spring has been all over the map.  The truth is that it was extremely wet, cold, and even snowy in March!  We had to wait longer than usual  to get into our fields.  And even though the last two years we were able to work some soil early, we then had to wait for so long for things to grow well in the cool and wet weather.  This year, since it has dried out, it has been actually, beautifully warm!  We have been swimming already…in May!  We have worked sleeveless and in sandals and the sun has felt so good!

But even this brings with it complexity.  Last year, despite the delay in harvest of heat loving crops, the overwintered crops like rapini and purple sprouting broccoli lasted into June because of the cool weather, leaving us with some overlap in the seasons.  This year, those crops have burst into flower, unstoppable, in response to the warmth.  Certain crops that got a late start aren’t yet harvest-able, and certain crops that would normally thrive in the spring aren’t producing well…our first round of radishes got soft in the center because they matured right during a particularly warm week.

And so, we laugh, to think we had taken steps to have it all under control.

Still, awesome things are happening this year too.  Because we had the tractor, we were able to work up so much more space than we have in the past.  Time has always been one of the factors limiting our growing space, as it took so many man hours for the farmer to prepare space with our little rototiller.  We have planted out our propagation greenhouse twice, which for us is a win!  We usually, again, run out of time and space for all of our starts, so this is exciting.

And the starts were beautiful this year!  The farmer created a d-i-y heated space for germinating seeds and growing our warm weather crops that involved christmas lights and plastic (instead of heat maps designed for this purpose but remain out of our tight investment budget); it worked wonderfully!

The main space we have planted this year is our lower field, bottom land with great, fluffy, healthy soil!  The crops that are on their way are growing daily in an even, consistent manner…we love to walk down there every morning to see the growth and the beautiful cell structure of these healthy plants, it certainly puts a smile on our faces.

And even though we couldn’t have foreseen this, not starting the CSA six weeks ago was literally a lifesaver!  Because of the weather this year, for the first time since we started harvesting for market year round, we had a gap in things to harvest.  We took the middle weeks of May off because we literally had nothing to bring to market.  The stress of that would have been terrible had the CSA been in full swing since April as it was last year (although to be honest, had we planned on CSA harvests during that time we would have managed our winter harvests accordingly).

In the end, all the decisions we made for 2012 in response to 2011 and previous years have been good ones and just like with any other year, we will also face new challenges and respond to them as they come and in our planning for next year. We look forward to the harvests to come, and are happy to taste that which is ready now:  the first lettuces of the year, those first mouth watering strawberries!  Green garlic and green onions to replace stored onions in our skillet, a fourth child discovering the joy of spring peas!  The kids can go outside now and pick a snack from the garden again and we all all are ready to stretch and grow a little in the sun after digging in our roots in a little deeper through the quiet of winter.

Saturday morning

Saturday mornings, for the last year and a half, have been off to market days for us.  Our little town has been blessed with the opportunity to build a thriving year round farmer’s and artisan’s market, and having somewhere to bring winter produce to sell during the off months of our CSA program is really great.  Growing food year round has been a fun and satisfying part of our farm adventure here in Oregon.  And for us especially, having moved from the much colder Midwest, being able to grow so much out in the open through the winter has been amazing.

Here in the Willamette Valley, there is so much that can be grown out of doors through the entire year.  Winter hardy greens top the list, but root crops like carrots, beets, turnips, and rutabagas can also stay in the ground and be harvested from through the winter, and the really fun stuff is the overwintering sprouting broccolis and cauliflowers that are such a treat come the end of the cold season.

The only hitch, for us at least, is the space winter growing requires.  To continue harvesting in the same quantity as we do for the rest of the year, we need to have winter vegetables in a lot more ground than we need for that amount in warmer months.  Since things aren’t growing at all for a good twelve weeks of that time and growing slowly for the rest of it, we have to plan differently.  With much of our usable growing space wet (albeit highly fertile) from December through May, we still haven’t been able to grow as much as we would like.

This year we were really excited to use the dry acreage we are leasing near town to grow more for winter, but are now equally disappointed because those vegetables attracted foraging deer who ended up eating everything we planted there–kales, radicchios, chicories, red mustards, chard, perpetual spinach, turnips.  They kindly left the arugula and green mustards, but being so far away from that space, it felt hard to protect those crops and we aren’t necessarily keen on putting up deer fencing over there right now.  Here at our place, even when we see some deer activity in the winter, we have the easy protection of our dog to keep them at bay.

And so, the winter growing part of our operation is still the part we still struggle with.  Many people are amazed that we have what we do at market but we know that we could have a lot more.  And people really, really love our winter greens.  Growing them out of doors in the cold produces the most wonderful flavor, and to be eating something so fresh and alive in the coldest months is awesome, we aren’t coming close to meeting the demand for them.  Even as we get ready to put up our first hoophouses on the farm, we don’t want that to be our main solution to having more to harvest for the winter market and ultimately, for a full season CSA too.

A puzzle we are working on–just as there are always are in the farming business–but one we feel we can solve.  That is part of what keeps us on our toes and ever humble in the work we do.

This morning, the sky was on fire, Mt. Hood so breathtaking in the sky against those colors.  It will be a beautiful market day.  We are heading out now with some delicious greens, thankful for what we do have and for yet another Saturday to visit with the community and continue “farming” year round.

Golden, Brown, and Green

All around the farm, the golden brown of autumn surrounds us.  Summer plants have died and are in various states of decay, the leaves are well on their way, shouting out in bright yellow before falling quiety to the ground.  Always on this farm, we live up close and personal with this cycle–the cycle of the seasons:  growth, death, decay, re-birth.  That this cycle is matter of fact, that it applies to all that lives and breathes this fine air of life, this truth permeates, so to speak.   The more shocking truth that we have come to know as we spend time out here is that everything we are engaged in at one time on the farm is also always playing itself out on the other end of the spectrum too, at the same time.  We are in a constant state of duality.

Life and death, or death and life as it is at this time of year…ever present, side by side.  Just as the summer crops turn to mush and the leaves crinkle and dry up, there is an explosion of green in the fields.  So much green, much like in the spring, only darker and sturdier are the leaves, full of the promise to feed us through the cold.  The brown billy goat smells up the farm with his inate drive to make life now, just as so much around him dies away.  Next spring, those baby goats will liven up this place, just as the tender and bright green shoots of spring brighten the bleak landscape of winter once more.   And in spring, while all that life is exploding, we will be planting and planning for the coming winter again, sowing crops for harvest half a year away.

When my parents passed away,  I found this all so comforting.  In an abstract way, it really is.  It does allow one to feel connected, even in death, to something grand and beautiful in design.  Still, this fall I can’t help but feel a distinct separateness from this.  Human tragedy seems to superceed this design.  Is there comfort to be found in knowing life goes on with or without us, with or without our hopes and dreams?  I don’t know.  In the face of inexplicable human sorrow, where do we search for meaning?

Fall is the great time of turning inward.  The spark of thoughts germinating inside as we lived more loudly through summer are finally given air.  There is so much this month for my family to be thankful for, this farm and our lives are so truly blessed.  Yet, at the same time we are faced with loss and deep wells of compassion for our friend’s and loved ones we know who have suffered unbearable losses in this life.  This duality is so confusing, and yet, in the day to day workings around here, we work and play as ever we did.  Like the earth that forever puts forth both the blossoms of life as well as the blankets of dying leaves, we live both sides of the coin simultaneously.  The deepest joys coupled with the deepest pains; we feel them, let them shine or burn the center momentarily depending, but mostly let them lie on the periphery while we continue with the day to day. 

Such mysteries I can not understand on this beautiful fall morning!  All I know is that wherever we are on our paths today, most of us have only things to be thankful for.  Let us not give weight to the small things–the intermitent pests on the crops, the unpredictable weather, the hard day; these things matter little in the grand scheme.  My own personal harvest is so bountiful and beautiful, there has been no great suffering.  Why?  How?  I can’t say, but it is selfish to do anything else but feel those blessings and let go of the rest.  I am saving my worry for others.

Stumbling into Fall

I actually shudder to admit that this great slowing down time on the farm, the wonderful quieting of that raucous din that is summer around here, is proving to be neither quiet or slow after all.  September came, and suddenly I am so busy with homeschooling and activities for the kids and trying to squeeze a little bit of time out of all of that for taming the wildness that summer inevitably created inside our home while we worked and played outside for a season (which doesn’t make sense when you think about it, does it?),  that I have had little time to give to my “office” and “writing” duties for the farm.  Ideas come and go, poignant and thoughtful or just simple and funny, but I rarely have the time to sit down and put them to pen (so to speak!).

I keep thinking that with just one day to get things organized, a day to breath so to speak, I could get on top of this schedule and find the missing time; but the reality is that this  life will always be busy, or rather full, what with six of us and a farm in the cards, so the busy part all comes down mostly to a state of mind…and then just a little bit of good planning.  I am making a point to find the moments to breathe, and learning to live with certain piles until that grand day of organizing comes.   In the meantime, we take the time to stop a day of cleaning and wood chopping to carve those pumpkins with the small folks, we scoot the pile of school stuff out of the way and gather around the first fires in the woodstove with our board games and our books or various musical instruments.  I say the heck with it all and pick up the knitting basket instead of the vacuum, because life really is short, and the days, even shorter.  This fall has been glorious, with so many perfect, shiny golden days, with the bold colors of trees exploding before they go to bed reminding us to celebrate it all and the less showy but equally soothing colors of decay all over the farm our companions.  Busy isn’t going to cut it anymore.

Maybe this winter will bring with it some quiet?  Or more likely than not, it won’t, and so we will just have to continue practicing our graceful walk though this life one day at a time…with just a bit of stumbling along the way.