moving forward in a circle

into the unknownWe are one week away from the start of our summer farmer’s market season.  We have been so steadily putting one foot in front of the other this spring, getting ready for this stretch of the year, these next 20-30 weeks or so, our “main” season here on the farm, and now that it is just one week away, of course, we are feeling not steady at all but instead just rushed, rushed, rushed.  Those gooseberries I wrote about that never got weeded are nearly giving me nightmares, they have all but disappeared underneath the bindweed.  And the strawberry patches we hope to be harvesting from in the next few weeks are playing hide and seek in some knee high grass. 

Oh, the adventures of it all!

We are fairly used to this routine by now, seven years in, but that doesn’t mean we can always control our feelings of ineptitude when we encounter, even repeatedly, the sheer force of the wild world.  With a leftover sore throat caught from the children, today I feel it overtime.  Today, I dream about the many hired hands we could use if only we could afford to hire them.  I dream of a week straight of childcare so that I can get ahead.  I dream of the sleepy feel of winter. 

So silly!

Life on the farm truly is about routines and cycles, and as such is fairly predictable, at least in general, even if it is not in the particular.  Those things change every season, and are always a mystery we have to watch unfold as we go.  But the cycle remains the same. 

Every year, at least once at this time of year, we will feel overwhelmed.  Some years it is the weather, the waiting for the land to dry.  Some years, it is the planting and keeping things going in the ground on schedule.  Some years it is the money and do we have enough right now when we spend it the most. 

And this year, I swear, it is the weeds. 

I walk the farm with the babe of a boy on my hip and worry about getting some air to our perennial fruits.  And I can’t seem to catch up.  And everywhere I look I see another thistle or burdock or hemlock plant that needs to be knocked down before it blooms.  I sigh and let the one rainy day in this month, today, comfort me with rest while I make the lists that will keep us moving forward.

Then, tomorrow, I will set out again, one step at a time, moving towards this unattainable goal of getting to all those weeds.  With or without reaching it, just like every year, I know that soon the summer will fully set in and we will be back in the swing of it all.  We always “catch up” eventually.  We always move from this kind of busy to the harvesting kind of busy, all fun and full, hearts raised and beating hard, out in the sun while it lasts.

The farm is always moving, both in a forward-upward motion, as well as in a circle.  Kind of like life.  The path it takes always leads somewhere good, even though it is not always right on target or 100% predictable.  We start a farming season in all possibility, all hope.  Then, inevitably, we get a bit waylaid for a while in the weeds, until we emerge and find that once again, everything is again.  Even more than okay.  We find that just like every year, it is bursting in greatness.  We find ourselves swimming in the river on hot summer afternoons, staying up late not just working but playing by the bonfire, wishing on twinkling stars.  We find ourselves blissfully breathing easy again, while the land provides, ever abundantly.

I could almost say that it happens with or without us, and that would almost be true.  The earth provides.  It cycles, on and on, ever and always.  But we did, and do, a lot in order to receive this fecundity year after year.  This, we must always remember, no matter what kind of spring craze we are feeling. 

This, we must remember, no matter if we feel a bit like we are still at the bottom of the staircase of the year.  Because all of us, most likely, have been doing the work we need to do, moving forward on the journey, even when we are at that point when we can’t exactly see it.  Perhaps a few steps more forward, even with a blindfold on, will lead us up and into the light.

Thistle Blooms

In the last four years that we have lived here on this property, the summer’s have  brought with them hordes of this nasty, prickly weed.  The first few years, it was hard to squat and work in the veggie field without getting poked, and if we tried to work in our regular, thin gardening gloves, we were constantly wincing through our weedings.  Each year has gotten better, with fewer and fewer of these beasts in the main field that we have been working since the beginning, and virtually none in our lower field which is just too fertile for thistles.  Our one pasture, which had the largest patch of thistle and queen anne’s lace where the previous owner’s horses spent a lot time, is finally recovering thanks to the beauty of goats in just such cases.  And the ground we tried to work for the last two years but decided not to grow on again was luckily mostly covered back up with grasses and queen anne’s lace.  All in all, we have so many fewer thistles this year that this in itself is enough to be happy about.

But there is this patch where we had last year’s burn pile, covered in purple flowers right now, and a new field where we have potatoes growing where all the weeding is prickly and a pain…not to mention the rogue thistle, here and there.  We have been pretty diligent with what thistle’s we have, keeping most of them from flowering.  But this one patch is all in bloom.  And this year, this actually makes us a little happy.

The thing is, we can’t help but notice how many of the things that we classify as weeds are just the things we have that are covered with bees.  And since we haven’t taken much time to specifically plant a season’s worth of bee food flowering plants on our property, we find a small bit of joy in seeing how our sometimes “wild” farm really is benefiting the “wild” creatures that find refuge here. Granted, many of the bees on our property traveled here from a large honey bee keeper just up the road.  Still, we now have large populations of native mason and bumble bees.  Early in the spring, they cover the dandelion flowers, then a bit later our flowering cherry trees, then on to the orchard trees.  Then later,  the lamb’s ear (which I almost classify as a weed) is covered.  Having a lot of ground clover in the lawn that we do cut helps a bunch too, and they love the mint, blackberries, and raspberries too.

But right now, they love the thistle flowers.  Later when these seed heads dry up, these same flowers will be covered with birds.  Now, we love and revere and worry about the bees tremendously, but we like the birds quite a lot too, so this is another benefit to be found in one of nature’s most unfriendly weeds.  And all of this is above and beyond the real reason these thistles are here anyways…to improve the disturbed and less than fertile soil they have taken root on.  In these lights, seeing all these purple heads can’t be too bad.  We have suffered through the worst of it already as we slowly turn bad soil to good all over this misused old farm.  Even as we continually refine how we are going to make a good living off of this land, we never lose sight of the underlying reason we are even living out here on this piece of ground in the first place:  to build a healthy, natural ecosystem for us and the wildlings to thrive on and enjoy.  The thistles are as much helpers in this journey as they are headaches.  As with most things, really, there is more good in them than bad, more beauty than we at first imagine.

A labour of love

“Love is what carries you, for it is always there, even in the dark, or most in the dark, but shining out at times like gold stitches in a piece of embroidery. “–Wendell Berry

Can they taste the love of the farmer in the food picked from their own field, in the fruit that another laboured over with a laugh always playing on her lips, in the lamb from the woman who is such a good shepardess?

Can you?

There is so much living that takes place on this farm, and when we all head out to the fields under the setting sun and the rising moon to finish the days harvest, I wonder, does all of our togetherness out there, our little loving family working (or playing) around all that food, impart a bit of extra goodness into it?  Either way, this work imparts goodness into us.  The time we have to share with each other, the joy of abundance, the ability to express daily our deep convictions and to teach our children a better way…to practice stewardship of the land, to show our love for these gifts every single day, the gifts of this life, this earth, and each other; all these things make us better people, our lives richer.  There are so many small things that we can’t count as income, but are the more important and lasting rewards of choosing to be farmers.  We like to think that some of these find there way to our community as well, to our neighbors in this gorgeous valley who partake of the goodness of this farm.  We like to think that you can taste all of this love!

New LIfe on the Farm Front

Baby Goat Pickle, photo courtesy of farm member, April Watko

Life on the farm is very cyclical, and although the seasons and their comings and goings, have always been at the forefront of my awareness, coloring my world both outside and in, there is also on the farm this continual presence of the duality of life. Here we are, still eating mostly winter vegetables while the planting to-dos rattling around in my head are all of those truly summer crops, the smell of basil starts mouth watering; and yet outside us the dogwood and cherry blossoms flutter to the ground…spring’s snow… and its lilacs and morel mushrooms, wild azalea colors out the car window, with the soundtrack early morning bird songs and blowing, blowing winds sounding spring, spring, spring. All the energy swirling around here is spring energy; the symbol of our days, the seed. It is a time of hope and faith, the hope of new growth, the faith we place in such a simple thing–a seed buried in the ground.

And alongside our faith in the earth to grow, there are the babies spring brings! We have those four week old goat kids that some of you met, so very, very cute. There are nine chicks warming themselves in the old hen house, the start of our next egg laying chickens for the family at least. We are still on the fence about how large this next flock will be–home or commercial scale—but while we were trying to make up our minds, we couldn’t go any longer without at least a few of the sweet cheeps we keep seeing everywhere. May is a good month to celebrate mothers, even when human babes are less beholden to the seasons. A lot of other mamas in nature have just hatched or birthed the new year’s little treasures.

The thing is that all of this energy of life exploding around us is being juxtaposed with the other side of the candle. The farm’s first dog, come to this piece of land when she was just on the doorstep of “old dog” status, passed on last week. Then the weekend began with a call from home about my father in the hospital and ended with a call about my mother in the hospital. All three of these things were not surprises; every morning for a while now, I have gone out to call for Zoya wondering if she would respond, and a trip home was being planned just prior to all of this because of my parents’ ailing health.

And really, this is not “farm” news except that for me, I wonder if these things might be harder in another life. In this one here, living amongst the cycles of the seasons, of plants and animals burgeoning and diminishing, of every day getting to work and play with my own next generation, thoughts about the end of one thing always lead the way back to the beginning of something else. It is the way of life, really, in all things. It just seems to be a rhythm that we beat a little more loudly on this farm. And it is not that it takes the edge off of the sadder turns of the circle, the darker months of our lives…indeed it sharpens them. It is just that it then kindly sets them down next to the immeasurable beauty of the mundane day to day.

So we have our own little bit of winter sky worries we have to carry alongside us as we plant seeds for the future. One thing we don’t have to worry about, though, is the real change that seems to be taking place in the farming world. Impediments or not, young and sustainable new farmers are studying this stuff in school and beginning ventures of their own while others, from young to middle aged alike go from gardeners to small farmers. Two new Yamhill county farms (our friend Scott Dickey of Dickey Farms West and a new acquaintance from Carlton whose operation is called Wholesome Hearts), will be growing vegetables for direct to consumer sales this year, while a friend’s son who is studying sustainable agriculture at OSU is growing on his parents formerly conventional farm his first farming crops! Just like the spring babies, the births of more farm operation aimed at promoting soil, economic, and community health are worth gushing over. New life and new farming, for my children and their children and on and on and over again, that is why we are doing what we are doing. And all of us working these farms applaud all of you choosing to buy your vegetables (meat, nuts, dairy, fruit, etc, etc) from farms who grow to sustain the land and its cycles. As one of our discarded taglines for the new logo goes, we are farming as if there’s a future. By supporting local farms (and every other local kind of business), you are spending your dollars as if there’s a future.

First CSA Harvest of 2009!

Photos by Olorin Jaillet!

Although we find ourselves 7 or 8 weeks past our hoped for starting date for the 2009 season, we are pleased to be starting 6 weeks earlier this season than last, making for 35 weeks of veggie harvests this year. Providing our farm members with fresh and healthy food for 2/3 of this year is exciting, and another step closer to our final goals for the farm. And at the start of this year we can’t help but being excited with where we are now.

The soil on this poor old farmstead had seen years of abuse…nothing chemical, thankfully, but the topsoil from two fields had been scraped and sold to the old Riverbend dump and almost every other space had been cut for hay or overgrazed. Although the animals that were grazed here gave something back to the land as they grazed, never as much as was taken; and when a field is cut and the green matter is removed, all of the energy the land put into the growing of that grass is taken, something needs to go back and this was never intentionally done. The pastures our first two years here showed signs of this. They were filled with thistles and grew grass poorly. The vegetable field was heavy clay, and was also weedy with thistles and queen anne’s lace. For those of you who have been members since our first season, you well remember the troubles we had in such a growing space.

But things have improved each year as more and more organic matter has been added to the soil. When we started working the beds this year, we found the soil in most spots is great, loose and rich and beautiful! And the thistles, which thrive in subsoil and poor soil have been replaced by lush clovers in the pastures and a whole host of really beautiful herbacious weeds that we have yet to identify. These are great signs of soil improvement, which is really our overarching purpose on the farm anyways. The rewards of healthy animals grazing good pasture and healthy fruits and vegetables from healthy and alive fields does ultimately benefit all of us in the form of delicious flavor and nutrient dense food; still, we believe that human survival depends on healthy soil, on the smallest of living creatures like healthy micro-organisms in the soil and the buzzing bees in the clover. It is hard for us to imagine that the farmer whose home this was and who at one time owned a hundred of these acres of farmland around us left behind a homestead with soil in disrepair, nor a single bit of fruit or shade/wind trees anywhere. The latter is a bit trivial, but it seems it is a farmer’s duty to protect the land, to build it, to nourish it, because as with anything in life, the take, take, take mantra will never really yield any true return. So we are thrilled with these signs, and we anticipate a great year of growing!

We are also working more space this year moving from growing on a little less than 1 acre up to 2 acres, which is exciting. Some of the new space is planted in fall/winter crops like leeks, Brussel sprouts, and potatoes,which we are determined to let grow to maturity, foregoing so many new potato harvests (our favorite!) in order to have them for winter when we will appreciate them even more. Most of it will be sown in cover crops for our mid-summer plantings for fall, winter, and next spring. This provides us with enough space to really have 45 weeks of veggie harvests, our ultimate goal, as well as allowing each field a resting period. We would have needed a lot of inputs to keep our smaller plot producing year round and healthy.

We are also hoping to experiment with growing on our lower field. Another source of frustration we have with the previous land owner is that this whole field is planted in reed canary grass. This grass was once encouraged as a good forage/hay grass for wetlands, but it is truly invasive and persistent and follows water, filling streams, choking out diversity. There is a small portion of our lower fields which the horse on our property favors grazing. We have begun to see a bit more diversity in this patch as well as less canary grass growth to this point. Aside from that, the soil under this grass is beautiful from river floods. So after we get soil test results, we hope to try a large pumpkin planting on this section, hoping that the sprawling vines of the pumpkins will help smother the grass. After Halloween, we will let this year’s pigs down to eat the rest of the pumpkin crop. Our hope is that they may be able to root out the canary grass rhizomes. This will most likely be a lengthy process, but one we are excited to try.

And although it is always hard for a parent to reconcile the fact that babies grow just as fast as weeds, as we tackle the heavy to do list of spring on the farm, our children, all another year older, are just that, another year older. The boys are so helpful, but our youngest, who is just a few weeks shy of 3, is (for the most part) now past just working on distinguising path versus growing space and we have another great garden helper! As she helped put transplants and potatoes in the ground this year, after each one she raised her arms to the air and exclaimed to the plant and the universe, “Grow, Plant (Potato), Grow!” It is hard to imagine that with these blessings we won’t have a great year!