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.

Thinking about Greenhouses

This morning, even though the farmer usually starts harvesting for tomorrow’s CSA and market first thing, we lingered over our cups of coffee talking greenhouses.  This is a topic that often comes up, but it is at this time of year that we think about it most.

When we started farming, we used a small little house constructed of pvc-pipe given to us by a friend.  We covered it it in recycled plastic sheets removed from another friend’s large hoophouse when he was replacing it with new plastic.  It was a fine size for using as a place to start our seeds in late winter/early spring, and that was what our immediate need for a greenhouse was.

Every spring, though, when the winds would rise, and usually before our starts were all planted out, this flimsy little greenhouse would get ripped apart.

The last time this happened, the plastic we were using was finally too shredded to reuse.  And so we had to take all that plastic to the dump:  we could hardly stand it!

Since that time, and always really, we haven’t been able to decide how to fit the use of plastic into our vision of sustainable agriculture, or our original driving principles of permaculture, which aims to create a permanent agricultural system.

There has also, however, always been reality to deal with too, and the truth of the matter is that season extension is pretty important in many ways, the most significant being, we want to provide as much food as we can year-round for our community.  Just as strongly as we believe in sustainability and permanence, we believe in eating locally.  For all of you to be able to continue eating delicious and fresh, locally grown food in the winter months is just as important as is is during the abundance of summer.

And we really, really appreciate farms like our fellow farmer’s Denison Farms at the Saturday market, who with the use of lots of hoophouses are able to bring a wonderful variety of foods year round.

We also, quite honestly, need to be competitive, and every other farm in our area uses some  hoophouses or grows partially on black plastic.  Our crops grown out of doors and in the soil will always be behind those grown in these conditions.  We have a small amount of crops covered in mini hoophouses in the field, using more recycled plastic from old greenhouses, but we could easily  see the benefit of having so much more covered.

Two winters ago, we built this wood framed passive solar greenhouse off the south side of our machine shed.  We didn’t want to hassle with that flimsy pvc framed house blowing around in the spring anymore, and we had reached a time when we needed more space anyways.  The intention with this greenhouse is to ultimately cover it with glass.  For the first year, we again used the plastic we had around.  This year we replaced that with corrugated fiberglass that came from a small greenhouse we helped remove from someones property.  This will be somewhat more permanent until we get all the glass together and installed.  This is the kind of greenhouse we always envisioned.

Inside, we have been able to play around with a layered system, providing multiple uses beneficially.  Underneath the tables we use for starts, we scattered straw innoculated with elm mushrooms.  Last year we used the space to brood our baby chickens at the same time we were germinating most seeds and this added warmth to the greenhouse at a cold time of the year.  This year we switched to water barrels to collect the sun’s warmth and bring up the temperature inside.  We added a wall to the west end and created a mini space inside of the larger space to keep extra warm in order to start our warm weather crops like tomatoes and peppers.

The farmer is experimenting with growing carrots in large pots, has peas growing up the unused wall, already harvested a small crop of bok choy with no flea beetle damage, and has the basil that will stay in the house all summer potted up.  It has been fun and useful and we only which it were bigger.

This morning we started talking in earnest about doing just that, making larger versions of such a greenhouse.  The farmer is tired of me pushing him to consider moving towards getting some hoophouses, but I have always felt pretty stongly that we needed more space in season extension.  So, we are going to draw up some plans and figures and just go with our guts on this one.  To actually build these, we will have to get some funding, something we have yet to do formally in our business venture.  But we feel that it will be worth the extra cost to keep both our idealism and practical business needs happy.  If it seems doable in the end, and the finances are there, we will hopefully be building these this winter!  Then next spring, no matter how long the cool and wet weather seems to last (we ended up starting a fire last night!), we will have a warm and dry–and even spring pest free–place to grow more food.  That is a happy thought!

This week on the farm…

  • was warm!
  • brought color to our skin
  • kept us out of doors all day
  • brought visible growth in the plants from one day to the next (this is always exciting when one has watched plants sit in the field growing so slow in the cooler weather!)
  • meant hard work–most of the whole main field was weeded and is almost entirely planted
  • was filled with near constant splashing after the pool was filled for the summer just in time for what was deemed “hot enough to swim weather” by the small folks around here
  • we picnicked repeatedly
  • the children and the farmer pitched the tent and slept outside
  • the farmer’s morning routine of slug hunting was less needed as the heat helped us kill a bunch of these nasty critters
  • we watered! (which just means that we are moving along in the season…a good thing!)
  • we negotiated the fine details regarding the up and coming strawberries (the farmer and the kids and I will be splitting them 80/20)  There is still debate brewing about this, because I think we could eat and preserve them all, but the farmer assures me there will be SO many, we will have to share…soon by the looks of things in the field!

We hope that wherever you are, either here with us in the Willamette Valley soaking up some much appreciated warmth and sun, or farther away with your own spring/early summer weather, that you enjoyed the feeling of excitement and business that comes as we work hard now getting ready to enjoy the coming dog days!

Little Helpers

This week has been busy.  With warm, dry weather for a change and the last frost behind us, we have been prepping and planting all week, all of us.  The kids and I, although really just side line workers in the field, do what we can when we can, to help the farmer with all of his work.

It is interesting to see how each year, at their different ages, the interest the children have in helping waxes and wanes.  There are some ages where helping is the funnest thing happening, others where it is a chore or where interest in it can only be sustained for the shortest time.   Tasks in the field usually start out with all of us heading out with a plan to work together, then the farmer and I doing the bulk of the task while the boys each do a bit and then hang out with us for a while and then move on to a game that usually involves complicated story lines and fantastical creations of their imagination–our work all the while made more enjoyable by listening in on these magical worlds.  The little girl usually sticks close to me, talking, talking, talking, or gathering things together.  Baby is just the right age to nap in his pack on my back!

This week, the kids and I planted out the potatoes and the cucumbers.  The farmer, so much more.  I managed to move a lot of compost, and the boys planted flowers for their cut flower business.  The little help we can bring eases the burden at this time of year that the farmer feels, needing to be in about 100 places at one time, especially on harvest days that are too dry and nice not to be planting on.   And on those nice days, in the afternoon after we are done with school stuff, there isn’t anything we’d rather be doing anyways.

Food for thought

A neighbor brought this over for us this week, and I couldn’t help sharing.

I especially like numbers 1-4. Five and six seem like tenets everyone pretty much holds dear, right?  And no one wants to waste food.

But I like that the US Food Administration is promoting these two things when it comes to the nation and food:  thoughtfulness and local buying (not sure when the “and Drug” was added but found this interesting as well and will have to do some research when I am not buried in children with colds, holidays, birthdays, and spring farm work).

Supermarkets and fast food make it so easy to not have to think about what’s for dinner.  And even those of us who give a lot of our attention to what we eat and where it comes from have those nights when we hit dinner-time wishing we didn’t have to think about it (Don’t we?  At least I still do on “those” nights).  My point being, the allure of easy and mind-less is there even for the diligent.

I feel the burden of all the thought I put into how we eat every time I go to the grocery store.  Local, Organic, non-GMO, non-processed…and for us gluten and dairy and soy free…and meat we really only want to get at farmer’s market or from our farm–it isn’t easy to make these choices today simply because they are not the choices everyone is making.

Not the majority of consumers.  Not the supermarkets or fast food chains (even though the marketing is there).  And not the US Food and Drug administration.

If they were, our food culture would look much different.  And easy and thoughtful would coincide beautifully with one another.

Free trade, globalism, commodities, and large-scale meat production are where most of our federal government’s food policy energy goes.  A lot of things have changed in the last 100 or so years apparently.

But there is hope.  And I do hope that we all can be a part of bringing some things on that list back to the front of people’s minds when they are thinking about what to eat.

Food.  Buy it with thought.  Cook it with care. 

Buy local.

(And in my opinion and that of the 1917 US Food Administration, you should also consider using less wheat and unethically raised meat).