On Seeds, Literal and Metaphorical

Mat moving the first two varieties of garlic.

Some of my seed garlic hanging in the corncrib.

Last week brought one of my favorite tasks on the farm - the garlic harvest! Though garlic is only one of many crops that grows underground, for some reason it always seems so magical to me when you pull them out and see the nice big heads. I think this must have something to do with the fact that they’ve been in the ground since last October - they were planted a whole NINE months ago. They were in the ground when the windchill reached 26 below in January, and they still managed to poke their little green shoots through the straw mulch this spring. Anyways, last fall I amassed a small amount of sixteen more varieties of garlic apart from the four the Boersons grow. I started a spreadsheet to keep everything straight, and then I planted a whole 200-foot row in addition to the other six that made up the main garlic crop. So the afternoon before a whole crew was due to assemble to harvest the garlic, I grabbed a notebook, baling twine, tape, and a marker and set about pulling up my test plot. Making my way through the varieties, I counted how many germinated, how many were seed-worthy specimens, estimated the average number of cloves per head, etc. When they’ve hung in the corn crib long enough to have dried out, I’ll cut them down, weigh them, label them, and taste them. I’ve already decided that one variety didn’t perform well enough to grow again next year, and I’m on the fence about another. In October, I’ll take out my bagged and labeled seed garlic, pop all the cloves off the stem, then plant, mulch, and label my beds. A year from now, I’ll start the process again, and no doubt I’ll still find myself amazed to pull a fully formed head of garlic where last fall I left just a small clove. 

The as-yet-unnamed Mulefoot gilt.

Young Two-Spot in profile.

My seed garlic is not the only “seed” I’ve begun to stockpile in anticipation of my move to Hazel Hill Farm this fall. This other seed stock, however, is of the four-legged variety. Besides my vegetables, another component of next year’s farm landscape will be three sows and a boar. One of these sows is already a full-grown, proven mother who’ll be coming with me from the Boersons’ as part of my salary. She’s a Large Black Hog (LBH), a rare heritage breed that originated in England and is recognizable by its long body and big floppy ears. My second sow is still a gilt - the name for a female pig that has yet to farrow, or have a litter of pigs. She’s a Mulefoot hog, an even rarer breed, this one notable for its distinctive uncleft hooves. My third sow is TBD, but will be a Tamworth, because my boar is a Tamworth. When you say boar, a huge, fearsome pig with big tusks comes to mind, but mine is a newly-weaned pig pushing 50 lbs. He’s the stoutest fellow from a healthy litter of twelve, and has been named Two-Spot by young Shep, an imaginative but very literal namer, because of the two black spots on his rear end. With three different breeds of sow, this means that by replacing the boar every year or two, I’ll always have two different crosses and one purebred pair. So-called “hybrid vigor” means that the crossed pigs will be a bit stouter and grow a little faster than their pure counterparts, and having a pure line will mean I can grow my own replacement stock. Rotating boars between breeds means that I can constantly be improving my stock, a process aided by the fact that a pig has a relatively short gestation period (under 4 months) and can be safely bred at a relatively young age (around 8 or 9 months). 

My plan with the pigs is to sell both feeder pigs and a few whole and half hogs in the first few years as I rotate them through the overgrown pasture and scrubby forest. As I improve my infrastructure, my plan is to breed selectively for traits I want, improving my herd as I start to grow out more and more pigs to full size, offering pork shares perhaps as early as the second year. In the long term, my goal is permaculture prosciutto and other dry-cured meats, in which the pigs I have bred specific to my farm with eat only food grown on the farm, and will be cured on-farm, resulting in a hyper-local artisanal product with potential for shipping and sales to high-end meat and cheese counters across the midwest (Zingerman’s, we will meet again!). This is many years in the future, however, and in the meantime, my breeding stock is growing in leaps and bounds. 

Freshly plowed fields at Hazel Hill.

On the farm, too, things are shaping up. I’ve been making the 2-hour commute pretty often this summer, and the late summer and early fall will see more and more frequent visits as I continue to break sod, get my barns ready for animals, and try to complete as many building projects as possible before the ground freezes for good. Things are coming along nicely, and I’ve even gotten the paperwork ball rolling on things like organic certification and a low-interest microloan from the FSA (Farm Service Agency). These things too feel almost like seed stock for the new farm - a little piece of paper now that will enable big things later. Besides the Boersons and my own family, there have also been a few notable contributions to my “seed stock” that have bolstered both my confidence that I’m trying to do something worthwhile and that there are amazing people out there who believe I am onto something. A few weeks ago, an incredible family I know in the area called and asked if I would consider house-sitting during their vacation in exchange for a young Jersey heifer calf. Having already decided to keep her older sister, they couldn’t see into keeping a third cow, and was hoping she might be useful in my growing menagerie. It was a great call to get, and I would have fed their animals and watered their garden for much less! 

In a similar vein, a longtime family friend emailed a few months ago with another extraordinary gesture. She had been following my farming journey through the blog and had decided that she would like to contribute what was left of a memorial fund for her son to the farm. He would have really appreciated what I’m trying to do, she told me, and she thought it would be a fitting use of the funds. I was blown away by the gesture, and knew I had to come up with a fitting way to use the money so that it didn’t just disappear into the stream of cash it takes to start up a business. I decided to deem it the “Perennial Fund,” and use it to establish the perennial crops on the farm that would have taken a backseat to other faster-bearing investments. This way, an important facet of the farm would get a jump-start, and there would be a lasting and tangible way to honor this amazing young man on the farm. The rhubarb, asparagus, berries, and nut and fruit trees will yield for years to come, and might otherwise have been postponed or done halfway. If you’d like to contribute a few dollars to the Perennial Fund for Hazel Hill Farm, you can click the button below.


Acorn, bean, sunflower seed, popcorn kernel, apple seed.

Seed garlic, breeding stock, seed money. The imagery and symbolism of seeds has always captivated me - the sheer potential encapsulated in such a tiny package, the resilience, the stored energy, the connection with the past and the future, the portability and prerogative to exchange information. In these dog days of summer, when the sun bears down hard and the plants are bearing heavily, the emergence of the garlic makes me feel supported by the earth itself and  gestures like these make me feel supported by the community of people I have around me, near and far. I am working harder than I have ever worked before, and will only work harder still as Hazel Hill springs into being, but I go to sleep happy and exhausted and wake up energized and ready to do it all over again. Gathering my seeds, saving them, sowing them, giving thanks. 

On Naming the Farm

For the past two years, I’ve been referring to my “future farm” on this website as just that - an unnamed Future Farm, a great big “farm in the sky,” my “farm dreams.” The past few months, as I’ve gotten down to the nitty gritty of business planning and the realities of farm start-up, it has become increasingly apparent that it was time to name the farm. Certain milestones approach, forms await filling, and it was time to come up with something to fill in that blank. The sign at the end of the driveway says “Valley View Farm,” but there are already quite a few of those doing business in Wisconsin, and the name seems pretty forgettable. Similarly, there’s already an LLC registered in Wisconsin called “Just A Farm,” though they seem to have no web presence otherwise. The two most obvious options unavailable, it was back to the drawing board. I did some brainstorming, lots of googling, and at one point even sent out a survey to some friends with a list of possible names. They were mostly uninspired, especially when presented in a long list. There was liberal use of a thesaurus, lots of seed and root imagery, and bids for memorability that ended up just sounding a little…. off. My criteria for a good farm name, as I laid out in the survey, were that it must: sound nice out loud, be easy to spell, be memorable, not be too crop- or product- specific, be original, and have some je ne sais quoi.... It’s that last one that I was missing, and the feedback I got over and over again were that the name should be more personally meaningful, or place-specific. It wasn’t enough to just pick a good name, but there needed to be some kind of good story behind it. Back to the drawing board. I put the whole thing on the back burner, trusting my subconscious to come up with something eventually.

For once, my subconscious pulled through! I can’t tell you how or when it came to me, but suddenly I had the perfect name for my farm! It checked all the above boxes, and has some family significance to boot. My little hilltop farm will hereby be known as Hazel Hill Farm. On the surface, it sounds nice, and will eventually be accurate (no hazels yet, but there will be some tiny hazels planted soon enough). The name “Hazel,” however, has a greater significance in my family. Here’s an excerpt from the family history that my late grandmother wrote a few years ago about her side of the family:

"While Dan and I enjoyed being with Nell and Nora, the twins were privileged to stay with Hazel and Marie, mainly because their home was not childproof.  Hazel Bush, our mother’s spinster sister, whom we called Dade, and her life long companion Marie Flanigan lived in a beautiful apartment full of things young children shouldn‘t get into.  
Dade and Marie were an integral part of our life.  They had a Packard sedan which was put up on blocks for the winter, but taken out in the spring for an annual trip to Rhinelander.  Our mother was in a tizzy for days to get ready, not because Dade was so particular but Marie poked in every corner and then would suggest to mother, “Don’t you think, dear, that….. “ whatever she was criticizing.  Dan and I were almost afraid of her.
But we loved Aunt Dade.  Everyone did.  She had been a primary school teacher all her life, back in the days when there were 50 kids in a class.  She always was interested in what we were doing.  She had a stash of Hershey’s kisses in her pocket.   And passed them out all day. . . 
Her bedtime ritual was legend.  She would simultaneously smoke a cigarette, chew a stick of gum, drink a beer and say her rosary, all the while watching the ten o’clock news on the television.  The kids were enthralled."

This image of an eccentric old lady with her stockings rolled down, smoking, drinking, chewing gum, and praying all at once has become family lore. During a very memorable girls’ weekend in Las Vegas seven or eight years ago, my mother, my aunt Mary, and some of their female cousins began to refer to one another as “Hazel,” and their collective group of cousins as “the Hazels.” Mary contends that there’s not a shade of “we’re turning into eccentric old ladies” meaning to this collective nickname, but only time will tell on that account. Nobody’s rolling down any stockings these days, but I prefer to think of the Hazels as a family legacy of strong, independent, and slightly idiosyncratic women. This little Hazel will gladly position herself as the latest in a succession of teachers, logging camp cooks, immigrants, pioneers. I hope that though I haven’t inherited a propensity for rosaries and cigarettes, that I can call upon the strength, independence, and, yes, eccentricity of my foremothers as a modern-day pioneer, breaking sod and planting trees. So Hazel Hill Farm will not just be a hill that holds some hazel trees, but a hill full of Hazels both hereditary and honorary, rolling down our collective stockings after a hard day of work just like my great-great-aunt Dade. 

Farm Week: October 13, 2014

This was a great rebound week on the farm. The weather held, and we peeled away a few more layers. We sent out the second to last boxes of the season, and we harvested lots of late fall goodies for a local festival this weekend. From the Land is a folk arts, crafts, and agricultural festival held on a nearby farm that draws a loyal crowd from central Wisconsin and beyond. Just as at Harvest Fest, the big hit this weekend were the Brussels sprouts. At least a few dozen people commented that they had no idea sprouts grew on a stalk like that, and even more people were tickled that we were charging by the foot instead of by the pound or by the stalk. On Saturday, we sold so many stalks of Brussels sprouts that our customers were walking billboards walking around the festival. It just goes to show that novelty sometimes does pay off. Even if that novelty is just a desire not to have to take all those sprouts off all those stalks. Sometimes marketing isn’t just about online buzz - a good old-fashioned word of mouth ground-swell does the trick just as well.

Thinking about: branding, clean slates, the “better next year” list

Eating: more arugula salads, more homemade pasta dishes, that thing they do at the fair where they shave a potato into one big pile of ribbons and fry it into a giant pile of chips

Reading: John Darnielle’s Wolf in White Van, MOSES’s Guidebook for Organic Certification

Farm Week: June 16, 2014

Well, no sooner had I waxed poetic about the joys of good weather and weeding than a rainy rainy week pushed us out of the fields altogether. While the weeds grow like, well, weeds, we busy ourselves with other things. When you have CSA boxes to deliver, you have to get the food in on a deadline, so harvest happens even in the rain. The lower portions of the field are either standing water or boot-sucking mud, and even the higher parts of the fields are pretty saturated. The soil is pretty sandy here, which usually means it dries pretty fast. Unfortunately in wet seasons, however, we’re not very high above the water table, so the water doesn’t really have anywhere to go. If this weather continues, we’ll run the risk of losing some of the plants at the lower end. As it is, we’re probably looking at some stunted growth. The good news is that all of the crops have a higher end of the field, so as long as we can keep them weeded (eventually) and keep the bugs at bay, we should end up with some food. When you put it that way, it doesn’t sound that hard, does it?

With the rains comes humidity and puddles, which means we’re knee-deep in the first flush of sticky mosquito weather, which for me is a much harder battle to fight than the weeds or the rain.  I found myself pruning and trellising tomatoes in the hot greenhouse in long pants, long sleeves, and my collar pulled up over my face and ears. I’ll tell you, it really does motivate you to move faster! 

This past weekend, I drove down to surprise my dad on Father’s Day and watch Argentina’s first game in the World Cup. It was great to be home even for about 36 hours, and was worth the drive. This coming weekend, I’m looking forward to attending a permaculture meet-up on a farm down towards Madison. It’s a whole weekend, full of workshops and potlucks and good music, and I’m anticipating meeting lots of cool people. 

Thinking about: buzzzzzzing, pest control, GOOOOOOOOOOOOOOL!!

Eating: stir-fry with Chinese cabbage, garlic scapes, ground pork and rice noodles; crunchy juicy delicious sugar snap peas; salad salad salad

Reading: Atina Diffley’s Turn Here Sweet Corn, Michael Phillips’ The Holistic Orchard, Christopher Shein’s The Vegetable Gardener’s Guide to Permaculture

Farm Week: May 19, 2014

It has been an amazing week here, weather-wise. One day you’re looking for another sweater, and the next you’re reaching for the sunblock and floppy hat. Spring is here in full force - everything is green again! Fruit trees are blossoming, the dandelions are out, and color has returned to the world! It happens so gradually that sometimes you have to just stop and look around to soak it in. The cows are certainly happy to see the green again, and they’ve started their grazing rotation. Using portable electric fencing, they get a new swath of pasture every morning, forcing them to graze more evenly and completely, which improves the pasture while providing them steady rations. 

We’re also feeling the impact of all the new grass, with Frida, our little Jersey, actually producing even more milk now that she’s on grass. We feed the excess skim milk and whey to the growing pigs, so the wealth is shared all around the farm. We also welcomed another friendly face to our barnyard: a new cow by the name of Redtop. She’s a Brown Swiss-Holstein cross, which mean’s she’s much bigger than Frida and will produce much more milk, though with a lower cream content. She arrived at the beginning of the week, and by the end of the week, she had added to our little herd yet again! Ringo, a little bull calf, was waiting for us one morning, with legs almost as long as Frida’s straight out of the womb. I don’t have any pictures at the moment, but I promise to get a good one this coming week. 

The first farmers market happened in Green Lake this past Friday, and this coming week will see the first CSA boxes go out. As expected, the boxes are a little lighter this early in the spring than they will be in a few weeks, but the bounty of August and September will even things out eventually. My parents came up for a visit over the long holiday weekend, and we took that opportunity to go for a hike with Danielle and the boys in her family’s glen, where we found a few morels and some ramps. More spring delicacies! 

Thinking about: perennial planning, chlorophyll, vitamin D

Eating: even more asparagus, homemade pitas, homemade hummus, baigan bartha, some made sour cream, foraged ramps 

Reading: Bee Wilson’s Consider the Fork: A History of How We Cook and Eat, Steven Apfelbaum’s Nature’s Second Chance: Restoring the Ecology of Stone Prairie Farm, Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl

Circle of Jamón

That cute little boy is my young father, watching his favorite uncle Pepe pack a dozen hams in salt. Every year during the cold season, he would press the hams into their signature flat shape, pack them in salt for a few weeks, then hang them from the rafters for months until they were ready to eat as jamón crudo, an Argentine version of prosciutto. Pepe says he still hasn't eaten hams that good, fifty years later. Here's to hoping I'll be able to give him a run for his money pretty soon!

Lost in Translation?

Like many young people across the country, I spent this holiday season trying to explain to family members what exactly I do for a living. My situation had the added obstacle of a language and culture barrier. Here's a dramatic rendering of the kind of conversation I'm talking about, translated from my not-as-fluent-as-before Spanish.

Relative: So, have you finished your studies?
Emily: Yes, I graduated about three and a half years ago.
R: Oh, what did you study?
E: I studied anthropology.
R: Oh, so you're an anthropologist!
E: Well, not really...
R: What do you mean?
E: There are not really many jobs for anthropologists.
R: But that's what you studied, no?
E: I would have to keep studying and get a doctorate if I really wanted to be a anthropologist. I didn't study for a career. We have a different system there, so I just studied, you might say, arts and letters.
R: Ah. I understand. So, do you have a job?
E: Well, not at the moment. I work in the country, and there's not really work in the country in the dead of winter.
R: What do you do in the country?
E: Last year, I worked at a small vegetable farm.
R: Like a garden? What kind of vegetable did you grow?
E: We grew over forty kinds of vegetables. It's a kind of farm where there are, we might say, members. They pay before the summer, and then they come get vegetables every week.
R: Oh, so they come and harvest their own vegetables?
E: No, not really. We do all the work and they come pick up the box full of many different vegetables every week. Or sometimes we bring it to them, you know, in a van.
R: So what exactly was your job?
E: Well, everything. We plant, cultivate, harvest. With tractors, and tools, and with hands.
R: Tractors? Was the farm very big?
E: There were about 250 families who would come every week. It's a common system for small vegetable farms over there. It's called, let's say, agriculture supported by the community.
R: How interesting. So will you keep doing this work when you get back?
E: Not right now, because there aren't jobs like that in the middle of winter. But I have a few options for next year, starting in March or April.
R: Where do you go when you get home? To your parents' house?
E: For about a week, then I'm going to find a job as a waitress or something in a city in a state called Michigan. It's about four or five hours away from home. I'll stay there until my next job in the country starts in March or April.
R: When the snow melts?
E: Exactly.
R: Very interesting. And what about anthropology?
E: Anthropology has nothing to do with it.

End scene.