On a Thursday Afternoon in Late June

It’s five-o’clock, and my last fieldwork colleague of the day is leaving the field, pushing a wheel hoe and dangling an empty water bottle from his pinky. It’s been a hot day, humid and sunny with an occasional cooling breeze. My legs and arms are covered in dirt, striped with lighter brown where sweat or water has pushed the dust aside. I pick up the notebook where this morning I had made myself a ridiculous list while slowly driving the length of the field in the golf cart (partially out of laziness, partially to avoid getting my shoes soaked in the dewy grass, and partially because it’s much easier to write when sitting down). This morning I flipped the half-sized spiral notebook on its side and scrawled headers along the top: HORSES, WHEEL, RAZOR, HAND, TILL. As I slowly bumped down the headland, I noted which beds needed which kind of attention, sometimes noting other tasks down in the corners (“pull bolted chi. cabb,” “HARVEST BROCCOLI TODAY!”). As the field crew swelled to three, then four, then shrank back down to two, we moved across the field, erasing weeds and crossing items off the list. The eggplants and peppers just needed a quick pass with a razor hoe, but the extra-wide lanes on either side of the tomato trellises needed some attention from the wheel hoe, and so on and so forth across the field. 

Scrawled list

Now, standing in the field looking down at the notebook, we have made a large dent in my list but I feel to desire to leave the field. The Brussels sprouts I just finished hoeing could really use some water, I think. After an early and epic cutworm plague this spring, we have recently transplanted a late but optimistic batch of seedlings into the gaps left by the decimation, and these small plants are looking a little wan. I’ll stay a little longer, I decide - long enough to irrigate the sprouts and cross another few items off my list. Besides, after a very sweaty day, the air is just starting to feel nice again, and I’m really on a roll. 

I walk a few rows further into the field to retrieve the irrigation rig where it was left after providing some moisture to speed the germination of some broadcasted and culti-packed oats, rape, and buckwheat. The rig is new this year, a collaborative effort. Danielle’s least favorite part of farming is dealing with hoses and row covers, which can be notoriously frustrating. I suggested that half the headache of hoses in the field might be solved by some sort of cart with a hand-cranked wheel sturdy enough to hold the 200’ of hose that we require, eliminating the untangling step from the hosework. Danielle mentioned this to Mat, who went out and bought one the very next day. I assembled it, grabbed a wobbler, and went out to the field ready to put it to good use. When Mat came out to see how it was working, he looked at it and decided it would be even more useful if you didn’t have to turn it off, walk into the field and pick up the wobbler when you wanted to move it. A few tweaks later, we had a working system: two wobblers separated by about 30 feet of hose (so their respective spray radii overlapped slightly), each affixed to a block of wood cut into a boat-like skid with stolen training wheels keeping the skids from tipping over. (Incidentally, robbing an outgrown bike of its training wheels inadvertently caused to teach himself Shep to ride a two-wheeler in one afternoon!)

I balance these two skids on the cart as I wheel it back over to the sprouts, dragging the heavy water-filled hose behind me in the grass. I count the rows I’d like to soak - it’s too bad the cauliflower will be just out of range, but the sprouts seem more important in this moment. I choose the appropriate pathway, position the cart so the hose unspools unobstructed, and start to walk the sprinklers towards the end of the bed. In my left hand, the sprinkler dangles in its skid, impotently gurgling with every heave. The hose passes over my shoulders, and I grasp it firmly in my right hand as I drag the second sprinkler in its skid the length of the row. It comes easily at first, but as I near the bottom of the bed, I lean into it to heft the heavy length of hose. Heading back up to the top, I turn the valve mounted on the cart and listen as water makes its way through what’s left of the coiled hose before rushing down the field and wobbling the sprinklers in a few awkward loops before settling into the familiar circular arc of gentle summer rain. I’m thirsty. My thermos is in the newly refurbished and red-painted garden cart a few yards away, but I know it’s empty again. If I walk in and refill it now, I decide, I can pull the wobblers up one length on the way back out. Perfect. 

I walk slowly towards the house, admiring the clean beds we have to show for our day’s work. The yard is deserted - the boys are at their grandmother’s this afternoon, Danielle is across the street doing some landscaping work at the landlord’s summer house (part of the arrangement that made starting this farm possible), and Mat is off in a farther field, checking on the condition of some hay that needs to be baled. Bella, a recent canine addition to the farm, comes to greet me, and we go together into the dark kitchen. I have taken my shoes off as always, though when I wear these old boat shoes I often think I’d be better of leaving them on, as my feet seem to carry more dirt in than the treadless soles might. I down the first ice-water refill without taking a breath - is this my fourth or fifth bottle-full today? Fifth, I suppose, as I fill up my sixth. 

L to R, lettuce, arugula, spinach, cabbage, beans, tomatoes

Out in the field, I stop at the hose, where the furthest sprouts seem sufficiently soaked. As I pull the hose in, grasping tightly and using the strength of my legs to walk it back, I think about non-specific old-timey sailors, heave-ho-ing thick ropes and coiling them on the deck of a ship - three-masted? Maybe they’re animated - this must be from The Little Mermaid, or maybe Peter Pan. They would be singing, either way. The beans, I’m going to hoe the beans. Earlier in the day and the field, Lindsay weeded our second planting of beans with a cobrahead - three rows? Four? I’m looking at five rows here, three rows with a nice thick germination, our third planting, and two sparse rows that remain from our previously lush and larger first planting that was damaged by a late frost. I select the razor hoe as my tool of choice for the younger, smaller plants. The grass and weeds are close to the bean plants, but easy to remove with some skilled maneuvering. I go down one side and up the other, sweeping under the bean canopy for hidden weeds. I pass through the outer reaches of the spray - refreshing! I don’t slow.

L to R, tomatillos, eggplants, peppers, tomatoes

I love using a razor hoe, especially when it’s the right tool for the job, In this case, it’s about 85% the right tool. When is it 100% the right tool? When forces converge to make my day: when the crop has been horse-cultivated, leaving on the area closest to the crop and between plants untouched but breaking the crust and clearing away weeds from the sides of the bed and the pathways; when the weeds themselves are small enough that just to move them is to kill them (what some call the white thread stage); when the soil is not so dry as to blow away but not so moist as to stick to the blade; when the plants are spaced so that the blade can pass between easily, but not so far as to require multiple swipes. This confluence of conditions makes me irrationally happy - I hold personal time trials (200 feet in 10 minutes is my prime condition average), I mention prime-hoeing-conditions so subtly (not) that Danielle relents as quickly as is feasible, letting me go off and hoe by myself. I confess to hoarding prime hoeing conditions, but I rationalize this irrational behavior by telling myself that for others it would only be another chore slightly less onerous while for me it is capable of inciting utter joy and satisfaction. 

Tonight, however, does not bring me prime hoeing. Perfectly pleasurable for the first three rows, but nothing quite so sublime as PHC (Prime Hoeing Conditions seems to require an acronym, all of the sudden). After three rows of young beans, the sprinklers moved up another few lengths, a few more podcasts listened to, I come to the oldest, crankiest beans. I take a few swigs of my still-ice-cold water (all hail vacuum-insulated thermoses!) and regard them somewhat askance. These are far from PHC, but they must be tackled. I return my hoe to the red cart and take up the cobrahead. I fall to my knees at the top of the bean row and fall to work. My newly arduous task does not diminish my mood. The air has cooled, and I fall into another comfortable groove. I’m making my way up the last row of beans and the sprinklers are dampening the very top of the sprout section when I hear a rumble of thunder in the distance and stop ignoring the occasional raindrops on the back of my neck and calves. Almost as if on cue, the mosquitos descend. I take this as a hint not to push my luck. 

I toss my tools into the cart and begin to wheel it back towards the house, shutting the valve on the irrigation rig as I pass. I come upon Danielle seeding some dry beans in section two, and I pause to chat. “You know, it was so nice out,” I say, “that I think on some days it would almost make sense for me to work 4-7 instead of right after lunch, especially when it’s this hot.” Danielle agrees, and we decide we’ll try that out next week on a day when it would make sense. We discuss tomorrow’s harvest - there are some kohlrabi ready for market, but not enough for the box, and we never did harvest that broccoli today. After a few weeks of lots of leafy greens at the market, it will be nice to show up with something a little more solid. The sprinkles start up again, and we hear Mat exclaim to himself from a field away, riding the baler, then the lower rumble of him talking to Henry, who’s just ridden his bike over to assess the situation. 

The right tools for the job.

I put away my tools, hang my sunhat from a hook that already holds my safety orange rainsuit, and collect my belongings into the woven plastic string bag from the Yucatan. I wash my hands in the utility sink, sprinkling my left hand with borax, then rubbing them vigorously together front and back to get some of the dirt off. As I exit the garage, the rain falls light and warm, and I raise an arm in goodbye to Danielle, still pushing the seeder. “BYE EMIWY!!” calls Shep, and I call back as I head over to my little red truck. Door open, throw bag, door close, key in, click belt, pump gas, clutch down, turn key, car roars (first try always), brake off, into reverse. Today, lights on, wiper once, twice. Eight o-clock. I creep down the drive in first gear, Mat waves as he hops from tractor to trailer to stack the hay. Henry sits on the wagon, out of the way, still weighing about as much as a bale of hay. I shift into second, and look to my right, making a mental note to check the potatoes tomorrow for beetles. Three black sows past the potatoes lumber vaguely towards their shelter, in no hurry to get out of the rain. 

I wind my way into town, turning left into the Piggly Wiggly on an impulse. I spend five minutes in the freezer aisle, trying to find vanilla ice cream without corn syrup in it. I am ultimately successful, and I carry my quarry out into the otherwise deserted parking lot, lingering in the warm sprinkle. I drive around the block, leaving my truck parked on the street outside my building, pointed toward the farm for an easier morning. I jangle through my ever-growing keyring - the outer door takes the one with the blocky letters. Nothing in my mailbox. The apartment key says TrueValue in a nice italic. I flip on the lights. The apartment is cool after the outlet timer I bought has kicked on the ancient window unit for an hour earlier in the evening. I’m glad I washed the dishes this morning. Ice cream in the freezer, crookedly resting on the vacuum-packed stew beef I never made into anything, long past stewing season. 

Hat off, on closet doorknob. Shirt off. This shirt was white once, one of many plain white tees. Then once summer it was dyed in an experiment with natural dyes in which everything eventually ended up a faded pink, a color I would not have chosen. Now, hundreds of washes later, it is soft, and today covered in dirt. I’ve ripped a small hole on the sharp metal corner of a hose clamp. Oops. The rest of my clothes follow it into the hamper. When I step into the warm shower, dirty water cascades off me and towards the drain. I marvel at how many people don’t have the daily satisfaction of going from so dirty to so (relatively) clean in so visible a manner. I try to remember when I last washed my hair, and consider how soon I’ll be hatless in public. I reach for the shampoo. Out of the shower, I towel off, pull on some soft cotton shorts and a tank, and smooth oil onto my face, neck, and arms. 

Dinner of champions

I put away enough clean dishes to uncover the smallest of my stainless steel bowls. No ice cream scoop, no big spoons. I hold the teaspoon at the base, scraping ice-cream nearest the edge, and I only bend the spoon a little. Replacing the carton in the freezer, I open the fridge and among the glass jars find the reason for the unplanned purchase: the half-filled half-pint jar of sweet strawberry sauce, the other jars of which remain on my counter days after I made and canned it in the first place. I pour some out onto my ice cream. Oh, what a color! I take a picture. I carry it over to my grandmother’s sewing table, piling up the clutter (sketchpad, farming magazines, receipts, paystub, photo booth strips from a recent wedding, antibiotic ointment, Gorilla Glue) to make room for my sweet, refreshing dinner and my computer. As I savor the combination, I read a few articles I’d saved at the library the other day about whether or not it’s really necessary to castrate pigs (verdict pending, stay tuned). I scrape the bowl, glancing at the clock. Nine, not quite bedtime. I start to minimize windows - (gmail inbox, “maple syrup urine disease” wikipedia page, untitled word doc with sample pork CSA options, untitled doc2 with possible pork breeding programs with different breed combinations, sticky note of books I’ve been meaning to read, another sticky of things to look up when I have wifi) and I’m down to a blank white text doc covering half of a little red chicken coop in the background. Maybe I’ll write a little bit before I go to bed, tired and happy. 

Farm Week: June 30, 2014

After a full weekend event like the Permaculture Convergence, there is an odd thing that happens on a Monday morning. On the one hand, you’re exhausted from the constant engagement required for learning new skills and information, meeting people, hearing their stories, and telling your own. On the other hand, you’re completely energized and ready to apply some of the things you’ve learned to your daily work. This week seemed to fly by, and didn’t deviate too drastically from the established patterns of cultivation, harvest, washing and packing. Our brassicas, summer squash, cucumbers, and melons have responded very quickly to last week’s “crop mob” and I think we’ll be seeing our first zucchini very soon. Our greenhouse tomatoes have been heavy with green fruit for weeks, teasing us. Our first cherry tomatoes are so close we can almost taste them, but we’re still holding out for that first glint of red. Our lettuce, on the old hand, has just exploded all at once. We had far more lettuce this week that we could reasonably give our CSA members, so we sold some to a few restaurants, went to our usual markets, and I even went to a brand new market this week in an attempt to get some of these greens off our hands. Princeton is the closest town to the farm, and while its flea market has been running for forty years now, this is the first year that they’ve had a separate farmers market. It is still small and still getting established, but I think if we establish a strong presence over the rest of the season it can be a great market for us. It fits well in our established harvest schedule, Wednesday being the same day we deliver our boxes every week. Especially once we start getting into the hot and heavy summer crops that you really have to pick every day, I think it will be a great outlet for produce that won’t quite make it to the weekend markets. I’m looking forward to building our most local customer base!

Thinking about: precision, patience, priorities

Eating: cripsy, crunchy, curly, etc. salads, fried cheese curds in the park (Happy 4th!), lots of sandwich and salad combos

Reading: Roberto Bolano’s 2666, The Fedco Seed Catalog, Dave Jacke & Eric Toensmeier’s Edible Forest Gardens, Ron L Engeland’s Growing Great Garlic

Farm Week: June 23, 2014 & Permaculture Convergence

This was a busy week on the farm, with the fields finally drying up enough to get some major cultivation done. We started on the upper half of the fields, covering as much ground as possible in the time we had between more planting and harvesting, as usual. Staring down more rain this coming week, we decided that we had better complete the catchup on the cultivation before we were forced out of the field again. So we put the call out to our trusty crew and to the 300+ people who follow us on Facebook, promising a delicious lunch in exchange for three hours of hard labor. Our call was answered, and on Thursday morning, there were nine people, two horses, and a tractor in our two acres of vegetables. Before everyone showed up, we went through the field and made an improbably long list of things we would like to accomplish with our augmented field crew. Lo and behold, we crossed every single thing off that list by the time we stopped working for a generous portion or pulled pork, Asian cole slaw, and brownies with super-ripe strawberries. Danielle and I were in agreement that the extra time spent cooking, prepping, and organizing people more than paid off in how much we accomplished with so many people making a continuous concerted effort. Now the rains can come as they please and we won’t have to worry about huge weeds, and can focus on the fresh flush of weeds that will follow.

Thinking about: many hands, vigor, aeration

Eating: see above, plus lots of salads, and a local vegan feast (see below)

Reading: Roberto Bolaño’s 2666, Michael Phillips’ The Holistic Orchard, Dave Jacke & Eric Toensmeier’s Edible Forest Gardens, Ron L Engeland’s Growing Great Garlic

This weekend, I attended a permaculture convergence put on by the Madison-area Permaculture Guild. Unfortunately, I had to skip the first night of the conference, which featured a potluck and a talk from the very inspiring Peter Allen of Savanna Gardens and  Mastadon Valley Farm. Better late than never, of course, and when I arrived nice and early on Saturday morning, I was met with a very interesting, knowledgeable, enthusiastic, and friendly group of people. We ranged from people who had just encountered permaculture and were curious to learn more to experienced permaculture teachers to permaculture practitioners on urban lots to young farmers incorporating permaculture practices into their farm designs. Like all of the conferences and meet-ups I’ve attended, there was an undercurrent of excitement to be around people who shared some of the same interests and enthusiasms. Especially for the rural among us, it seemed like this feeling was coupled with a relief not to be the odd one in the neighborhood for a weekend. The convergence took place on a farmstead where permaculture practices have been incorporated, and where we were able to put some more into practice over the course of the weekend’s hands-on workshops. Most notably, the first workshop that I attended on Saturday morning involved mapping out a key line swale with a laser lever and watching as a backhoe dug the swale that we had envisioned. Keyline design started (like permaculture) in Australia, its goal being the non-erosive movement of water from valleys to ridges using a 1% downward sloping scale. My Saturday also included an edible and medicinal plant walk, led by a super-knowledgeable forager named Little John. In the afternoon, some of us went to visit a local farm that’s put lots of permaculture into practice. Strause family farm most notably grows wine and table grapes, but is also unique because it’s composed entirely of sand and limestone. In order to increase the organic matter and be able to grow anything, they invite the local crews to dump for free things like branches, wood chips, leaves, etc, which they use to construct massive Hugelkulture beds. The Strause farm looks like a very fun, interesting, and interactive never-ending project. Saturday afternoon and evening were rounded out with an organized large group discussion, a delicious local dinner, informal smaller discussions about any number of topics, a great musical performance, and a bonfire. Sunday, I started out my day with an early morning wet-booted walk around the meadows and forests of the farm, stopping to check how the new swale performed in the rain overnight. The first workshop I attended was with master tinkerer and idea man Greg David, who brought some examples of rocket stoves and highly efficient gassifiers he had fabricated. His talk was fascinating, and I’m intrigued by the possibility of using a rocket stove to heat greenhouse beds for starting seeds. The last workshop of the weekend was a talk on animal husbandry and forest management with grazing animals from a young couple who farm in Stoughton, WI. Emancipation Acres, among many other things, raises stock for other homesteaders and permaculture enthusiasts, focusing on small heritage breeds of pigs build to forage and grow slowly. They had some great tips on general stockmanship, plus some very interesting ideas on how to use animals in a longer-term plan to improve your land. Besides the workshops I attended, there were others going on at the same time where other attendees learned to make yogurt, construct a small aquaponics setup, design and install a pond, and improve damaged soils, among others. The workshops were all interesting and informative, but as usual it was the conversations with others that stood out as the unrepeatable magic of such a gathering. The weekend ended with promises to stay in touch, plans of visits to be made, resources to be shared, and a resounding affirmation that this “first annual” is definitely deserving of a second!

Farm Week: June 9, 2014

Sometimes a beautiful week makes a load of difference, in lots of ways. It certainly helps the plants, which is great. It also gives the weeds a boost, which is less than ideal, but it also provides us with ample time out in the field to fight the good fight. Though we’ve been harvesting for CSA boxes and market on a regular basis, my focus these past few weeks has been cultivation. We have a few big crops that were a bit choked with weeds while we had to devote large amounts of time to continuing to transplant. This week, however, we finished cultivating our onions and put a big dent in our potatoes, carrots, and beets. 

This is a unique part of the season, when we are simultaneously trying to accomplish everything all at once. We still have a good bit of planting to do, we have food to harvest, but we also have to play catchup on weeding so that we can make our harvests more secure in the middle term. I might be alone in this feeling, but I find that cultivation is actually the most gratifying task of all. Sure, when you plant, you get to look out in the field to perfect rows of new plants, and when you harvest you get to wash and pack and share your bounty, but cultivation carries with it a whole range of, well, feelings. When you zip up and down rows with a razor hoe killing weeds in the thread stage, you congratulate yourself on your impeccable timing, knowing how much work you saved your two-weeks-from-now self. Conversely, when you’re in “save the crop” mode, you curse your month-ago self for letting it slide, but the feeling of accomplishment when you reach the end of a task is commensurately more gratifying. More than any other task on the farm, weeding is a mental game. You psych yourself up, you set yourself goals, you push yourself physically, and sometimes you find yourself hoping that your enthusiasm becomes infectious. It might seem like an odd thing to feel passionately about, but if anyone wants to catch the weeding fever, I know where you can get your fix!

Thinking about: surprise visits, stitches in time, connectivity

Eating: homemade pizza with Italian sausage and creamy spinach sauce, homemade pulled pork on ciabatta rolls, delicious, crisp, buttery head lettuce salads

Reading: fine print, Plutarch’s Selected Essays on Love, the Family, and the Good Life

Farm Week: June 24-28, 2013

This week dawned hot and muggy and stayed that way. A few times, the humidity condensed into afternoon thunderstorms, but we were thankfully spared the kind of downpours that have become all too familiar. As long as these daily deluges stay under a quarter inch each time, and maybe even closer to a tenth of an inch, we'll be fine.

As the fields slowly dry out, we've been able to get the tractor through some of the most important beds needing cultivation. Besides our usual harvest load, we kept up speed transplanting this week, getting a bit closer to caught up after weeks and weeks of rain delays. We've also started to get almost caught up on cultivation, through a mixture of actual cultivation and a bit of traige - cutting our losses. We hoed everywhere this week from a rocky hilltop to our lower fields, in mud and puddles halfway to our knees.

We also got our latest shipment of chicks in the mail, moving us up to a temporary population of three different flocks of birds at once. We're slaughtering our biggest birds next weekend, so we'll be back down to two flocks in another week. Dan (my business partner in this chicken venture) hadn't processed chickens before, so we decided to do a practice run of four of the biggest birds so that when we do the big harvest next weekend, we're all on the same page. We're grilling one of those birds up this afternoon, so I'll let you know if a bird you raise from a day-old chick really tastes better than a store-bought factory-raised chicken.

Thinking about: scalability, full-diet CSAs, trust

Reading: Kristin Kimball's The Dirty Life, David Sedaris' Let's Explore Diabetes with Owls, Mohsin Hamid's The Reluctant Fundamentalist

Eating: wraps with bacon, borlotti beans, chard, and garlic scapes; overripe strawberries; sugar snap peas