The post I had in mind for this week was going to be about Independence day; about our little bit of farming here having to be our way of “doing” something to make the future brighter. Our way of saying yes to this country, this state, this county, this small piece of land we live on. In a time when many people agree that the government in out of hand but no one agrees on how to make it better; in a time when even if we think we have an idea of how to make it better, it is so easy to feel helpless in the grand scheme; in times like this, we have to believe that our small bit of farming is a legitimate act of patriotism (as we define it), that our act of creating a vibrant and connected small scale economy we feel can weather the storms is our pledge of allegiance to the future of our country.
I’ve already briefly mentioned how farming = freedom for us in last year’s thanksgiving post, and I thought I might expound upon that.
Happy 4th of July, you know.
But the fourth of July this year was the day before market, and that night and the next morning were kind of rough. As much as I feel like I can’t share the harder parts of our farming life here, let me tell you this–when I was driving to market this Thursday, I heard myself in my head telling my children to never become farmers. Bleck!
What was wrong, why was it so bad?
Like I said, I usually like for this space to be inspiring. It is for all that is good and wonderful about our farm, and it is ultimately the bigger look into our lives on the farm for all of our farm members. Since it is all pretty fabulous at its core, and since we want to bear the brunt of any problems in private, the big stresses are discussed elsewhere.
But this is it; we are in our sixth year and we felt so overwhelmed to be facing harvest snafus still, even though we know that every year we will see unpredictable outcomes from the given mix of crops and yields and weather and pests, even though we know that they are always manageable in some way. We were hit with the realization that we had needed to make a hard but necessary decision that would have been best for our farm and our family as we went into this year, but we didn’t because we just weren’t sure, and now we have to wait the whole season to right that even though we both know now without a doubt we should have done it. Having one shot at some things for a whole year, having so many factors out of our control changing our plans on us–it can be frustrating. I think we had a mini crisis this fourth of July, and for the first time ever (out loud at least), we heard ourselves saying, “Will it ever be too much for us to bear, will we ever just give up?”
And so in this funk, I went to market. It was hard to rally myself and about halfway through the day I decided to grab a cup of coffee from the coffee shop. One of the employees asked me how market was going and I didn’t give a very lively response. The other asked what we sold and we started talking about the farm. They asked why it was a bad day and I said, mostly jokingly, but clearly coming from the stress I had been feeling, “whatever you do, don’t go into farming!”
And the second employee, the new one whom I was just meeting that day, said, “That’s what I want to do, I want to be a farmer.”
And I smiled and laughed and felt so elated for the first time that day. I told him I didn’t mean it at all, that he should definitely become a farmer!!! That yes! you can make a good living. That yes! the demand is still way higher than the production! That yes! it is the most wonderful way of life! And that yes, some days are hard, but oh my goodness, please do become a farmer.
We talked a bit more about it all and then I had to hurry back to our market booth. I was giddy. I couldn’t believe that the conversation had come up, but in talking to him and encouraging him to try this whole thing out I was affirming all the reasons it is good and right for us and certainly not too much to bear when weighed in the correct light.
The farmer felt better today too. We both wondered if we weren’t under some kind of cosmic black cloud; looking around today under the hot July sun showed us that things really look great out here– beautiful soil, healthy plants, loads of fruit. They say that summer doesn’t start until after the 4th of July here. Today it felt like things were shifting. So much yummy food coming into harvest, the bounty of summertime. We probably won’t have any more stressful harvests from here on out.
Sometimes I think it is good to find yourself on a hump, stuck on the road. Getting yourself off requires either going back down or finding the strength to go over.
Looking at the fields today and the whole farm, really, we see so much life exploding out here. We are proud of where we have taken this land and committed to continuing this work. Whether or not this has as much significance as I was going to give it in my original Independence day post, I don’t know. I do know, most assuredly after this week, that it has the utmost significance to us.
And to some of you, I hope too.
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.
It probably isn’t a good idea to star the mushroom in this weeks CSA newsletter-blog post since there weren’t enough for everyone today; but when you are walking out of your front door to harvest shiitake mushrooms your husband “grew” to bring inside and saute with the spring green garlic–or perhaps with the fleetingly appearing garlic scapes–to start your meals, then it is hard not to stop and snap a picture and get a little excited.
Growing our own mushrooms has been a bit of a trial and error deal, but we have started getting some every year now, so that is definitely a step in the right direction.
And of course, it is really nice to gorge on all the funky or slug bitten ones ourselves. It is a lot of fun and the whole thing is so different from growing vegetables. The flavor, too, is a special and wonderful thing. I have never–not even when I have bought mushrooms from local producers–tasted mushrooms like these, eating them right after plucking them off the oak logs they were grown on (except of course when doing the same with mushrooms in the wild).
All of that is part of the beauty of choosing small and local. A farm member remarked today that she barely ate any salads through the winter when CSA harvests were off, the flavor of the farm’s salad mix lingering in her memory with nothing available at the store quite the same. I know what she means–it is hard to find produce that comes close to what you are going to receive from your CSA or find at your local farmer’s market–or better yet, grow yourself. Even market shops that hope to include truly local produce in their selections have a hard time finding farmers who want to go that route. Although there have been a handful of times when we have sold extra produce to our local market, this is definitely our last stop. We prefer selling things directly to the eater, it is much better for us and a lot funner for them.
As I found myself mentioning to anyone looking curiously at our green garlic on the farmer’s market table these last few weeks: there are foods that are “farmer’s market only” kinds of things. In general, anyways. I don’t make it to the city often, so I don’t know what markets offer there; but for the most part, green garlic is a spring treat you are only going to see at your local farmer’s market or in your CSA harvest.
And there’s a lot to say for that. As simple and humble as what we offer is, it is as equally gourmet and foodtastic and unique and special. The amazing flavors of things as mundane as lettuce and the offerings as special as ultra fresh mushrooms and spring pulled garlic are a small bit of what makes this adventure–for all of us–pretty awesome.
What I love about this the most is that these are all simple, tiny pleasures we bring to the table, but they really do add such an inordinate amount of depth and beauty to our lives. Food is the most basic of human needs and human pleasures. For very little and with very little effort, we can magnify the delight and joy of “eating” a hundred fold.
Another farmer that we know–probably not the first to do so–turned the old phrase “dirt poor” on its head when he was being interviewed about his life as a farmer by claiming that yes, he was poor, but not dirt poor…he was dirt rich. It is true, there are things a farmer is rich in beyond measure. We, alas, would also probably be classified as the stereotypical poor farmers because even though this model of farming can be quite lucrative, we have many extenuating factors that keep our bottom line lower than we would like. Still, besides being rich in land, we are also exceedingly rich in food! Those mushrooms! So good. All our meals, really. We can’t even go out to eat except for at a few special places because with the ingredients we have access to, we are eating like kings at every meal, even if we aren’t living like them.
But really, that all depends on how you define living like kings…because I think that we are. And I hope all of our farm members and market customers are enjoying their food this much too. I hope that these humble vegetables and our weekly interactions around them ultimately result in happy tongues and full and fulfilled bellies. I hope that for all of us, our meals bring us the most simple of pleasures.
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.