Farm Week: August 11, 2014

Well, I survived my five days in charge of the farm. The animals were fed, watered, moved, and milked as necessary, the veg was weeded, watered, harvested, delivered, and sold, and I came out the other end relatively unscathed, if with a bit of a summer cold. I can’t blame the farm for that, but I have two small suspects in the hunt for patient zero. It was actually quite nice to be on the farm all day - I’m up early no matter how hard I try to sleep past 6, and I’m usually asleep by 10, but that leaves a quite a bit of time outside my usual “business hours.” I went out early to start the morning chores, attempting to finish them by the time the vegetable helpers arrived at 8:30 or 9. Most days, I was mostly successful. It was also nice to be able to work in the evenings, when the sun wasn’t so strong. I picked tomatoes in the greenhouse, weeded the celeriac and the carrots, added another super to the beehives, all under a much gentler sun. As much as I enjoyed the experience, I kept remembering that while I could keep the farm running, it was on a very basic level, pared down, well-prepared, and well-assisted. I didn’t have to keep track of two young boys or do any caretaking work for the landlord. As smoothly as it went, it actually deepened my respect for how hard and how long Mat and Danielle work on a daily basis. I certainly hope they actually relaxed on their trip, though I doubt they are capable of complete relaxation.

In other news, August continues racing by at a record-breaking clip. I can’t really tell whether we’re still in the throes of summer or whether fall has come early. Our field tomatoes are stalwartly green, and we’re hoping that the weather cooperates enough to give us a pretty good yield. After last year’s near crop failure, I’m looking forward to stocking up on tomato sauces for the winter. We have a few varieties of paste tomato out in the field, and I’m looking forward to canning as much as possible when they finally start ripening (knock on wood). Though I have no basis for this hunch, I have a feeling we’re in for a bit of an Indian Summer. It’s been a bit of an odd year, weather-wise, and I’m just hoping it cooperates long enough for at least a good portion of the ton of green fruit to turn red (and yellow and orange and stripedy). I’m trying not to think about how busy the next two weeks are going to be, and spent a good portion of the morning (dis)engaged in some classic nothing-doing while I have the chance. The next two weeks bring a big event on the farm, a parental visit, a going away party, helping friends move, moving myself, starting a second job, and a trip to the twin cities for a wedding. Oh yeah, and I’m really hoping for some ripening tomatoes, as if I needed something else to fill my time!

Thinking about: coordination, cooperation, condensation

Eating: broccoli-based stir-fries, tomatoes and basil, garlicky eggs, locally (in)famous spaghetti and meatball pizza

Reading: Michael Perry's Truck: A Love Story, Best Management Practices for Log-Based Shiitake Cultivation in the Northeastern United States

Farm Week: July 7, 2014

This week felt a little like the real beginning of summer, for a few reasons: zucchini, peppers, and tomatoes. The tomatoes have been a bit of a selfish secret so far, enough for a little taste at lunch, but not enough to bring to market, much less put in the boxes. People have been asking for tomatoes for weeks, understandably impatient, but seemingly ignorant of the climate of Wisconsin. Memory can be funny that way - it’s hot, where’s my sweet corn and tomatoes? But while we think of these as “summer crops,” they’re not really ready outdoors until almost mid-August, depending on the season, and the unheated hoop house only gives a few weeks head start. Tomatoes are such a milestone crop that I had to look back to my blog posts from last year to see whether we’d had our hoop house tomatoes already by this time. What I found really brought me back to the crazy season we had last year. In Connecticut last year, it rained almost non-stop from the end of May through late June, and in fact the weather spurred a latent poetic urge in me, the results of which I’ve attached below. This year in central Wisconsin, we did have a few wet weeks in June, in which the lower ends of the field were underwater, but since then it has dried out, and while there is some stunted growth in the lowest points of the field, what we see these days is mostly lush growth, happy plants, and happy farmers. This week last year, we took an unplanned week off of our CSA boxes to attack the weeds full time. This week, decided to keep going to the third weekly farmers market. For me, this look back was a great reminder of just how dependent we are on the vagaries of the weather, which are only getting more unpredictable with every passing year. In the meantime, I sure savored that first tomato, thanking my lucky stars that the beginning of this season did not mirror last season.

Thinking about: machinery, neighbors, La Copa Mundial

Eating: the first red tomatoes, summer squash, carrots, beets, scallions, and more

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

From July 2013:

It started with the rhythmic patter,
on wood, on canvas, on plastic and fiberglass.
Faint, then constant, then pounding.
It started then it stayed,
at last coming up to a roar
eventually receding in the mind
like so much white noise.
Hours became days became weeks, 
the roar ceasing for few precious hours,
supplanted by the resulting rumble of the brook, 
near breaching its brown banks, 
with bated breath you awaited the flood.

And in and around the rain 
you worked, layers of cotton
mouldering under layers of rubber, 
hair curling under the humid hood,
toes, soles, souls soggy in your socks.
Staggering through kale,
mud covered the tops of your feet,
passive, feigning innocence,
then violently  grasping your boot, 
relenting with an obscene SHLOOP!
Bent scythe-like, you filled your bins,
willing the clouds to part.

And then one day, at last, the heat came.
Your bodies from soggy to sweating and burnt,
your fields from grey to green.
But the relief was fleeting, for bending closer
to the earth, you saw the green not of
nightshades or cucurbits, but of
noxious weeds, galinsoga and sedge,
waging a battle you hadn't time to fight.
You peeled off socks, and sank 
to your shins in soaked soil, 
clawing to save your precious plants,
each day closer, yet farther from victory.

And on you worked, falling into rhythms:
harvest, hoe, sow, muster for battle.
Hundreds of row-feet planted,
thousands of plants saved. And yet,
another menace emerged, at first invisible.
From the tire-tracks of tractors,
from the lowest fields and pastures,
the winged militia took flight, evoking in you
a arhythmic dance, a slap, a flick,
an equine swing of the mane,
the perfumed attempt at evasion,
And finally, the itch, the scratch, the rub.

And as battle raged in you and around you,
you came upon treasures, buried and not.
The faint pip! of a root pulled from the ground,
the sweet smell when you pop off the carrot-top,
the small snap of the pea as you bite,
the mint and parsley and dill and cilantro,
that force the deep breathing of calm.
And finally, when the memory has all but gone,
you spy that glint of deep red in the greenhouse.
You pluck it, you smell it, your mouth waters.
Bacon sizzling, you reach for the toothy knife,
and at last you remember why you farm.

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: 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: May 12, 2014

Another exciting and productive week here on the farm. Once again, we worked around the weather to keep filling up our fields for the season. We planted our onions, shallots, and scallions, which is a big crop for us. We kept planting lots of greens, like chard, cabbage, and lettuce. During those times we couldn’t be out in the fields, whether they were actively being drenched or were too wet to plant, we continued the seeding process indoors. There’s something almost meditative about hearing rain fall outside while you’re planting seeds that will result in delicious vegetables weeks, or even months, from now. 

The many new arrivals of last week are as cute as ever, or maybe even cuter. The newest two litters of pigs are making their first few forays into the pasture, and they are tiny but very sturdy. As I mentioned last week, we stumbled into a bit of an unorthodox situation in regards to lots and lots of day-old chicks. Well, it was a gamble after all. These were not a mixed “barnyard mix” as advertised, but instead a discount mix consisting of all male chicks from heritage laying breeds. That means our new laying flock is a few more months off than we thought, but that we’ll have a freezer full of birds nonetheless. I also helped in the first check of our two new honeybee colonies. We were able to find the queens in colonies, and we’ll be checking back in periodically to make sure they’re going strong.  

Thinking about: storage solutions, sprouts, timely hoeing

Eating: lots of asparagus!, fresh-harvested shitakes, lentil soup with duck stock, shitakes, and fresh ginger

Reading: Temple Grandin’s Humane Livestock Handling, Bee Wilson’s Consider the Fork: A History of How We Cook and Eat, John Seymour’s Guide to Self-Sufficiency

Farm Week: September 30 - October 4, 2013

Walking down the street to work this week, I can't help making that age-old detour: shuffling through the crunchiest leaves I can find! Besides the satisfying crunching and crackling, there's a certain smell that newly-fallen leaves give off when rustled around that I can never experience without smiling. It's well-known that the olfactory system is closely linked to emotions in the brain, but I'm still always surprised at how evocative aromas can be. Apart from food smells, fallen leaves is right up there with the beginning of a hot summer rainstorm and the first blossoming trees of spring: smells that can't be bottled, and all the better! If I could summon the crunchy leaves smell at will, the effect would be dulled every time. I'll just have to be content soaking it in while I can.

We had a bit of an indian summer this week, with daytime temps getting up to the mid-eighties, and this weekend we're getting a bit of appreciated rain. The fields were getting a bit dusty! Besides our normal harvest schedule, we spent some time chipping away at a big task (weeding the strawberry patch), cultivating our fall greens, and pulling up the outdoor tomato stakes and tilling the plants under. We're still harvesting peppers and eggplant, but the tomatoes are pretty much gone. We have a great fall crop of carrots and beets that we're working our way through, and I'm preparing to make a big batch of beet chutney this afternoon. There never seemed to be enough tomatoes to can any sauces this summer, and cucumbers and zucchini were scarce, so I haven't canned much this summer. Last night also brought a serendipitous good time - I was about to go see a movie when I saw on Twitter that a friend's band was playing in Great Barrington in a few hours. So I cashed in my movie ticket and headed back home to round up the gang. The band was amazing, and anyone on the east coast should look at their tour dates and see when they'll be playing a bar near you. The band is Saint Anyway, from Duluth, but featuring proud New Englander Ben Cosgrove.

Thinking about: ever-filling calendars, visitors, leaf-peeper traffic

Reading: Three more silly detective novels, William A. Owens' This Stubborn Soil, Herman Koch's The Dinner, Maggie Shipstead's Seating Arrangements, Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything

Eating: venison and pork chili, local Macoun apples, lots of tea with local honey, tortellini with green olives and Sam and Lisa's first harvest of winecap mushrooms, ham egg and cheese on English muffins

Farm Week: September 23-27, 2013

It was another beautiful week here on the farm - so far fall has been picture perfect. Days are shorter, certainly; it's dark when I wake up now, and daylight fades fast after work. What sunlight remains is more appreciated than ever with the nights and even the days turning cooler. So far, we've been spared a hard frost, and our outdoor tomatoes, peppers, and even eggplant are still producing. The last of our transplants and seeds are in the ground, and we even cleared out the jungle of tomato plants and weeds in the lower greenhouse in preparation for some winter greens. With the cool weather, the weeds have slowed down a bit, and we've moved from cultivation to cleaning up. We're tilling in the remains of old crops, readying the soil for the rye and vetch that will be our winter cover crop. This Monday was another CRAFT visit, this time to a nearby raw milk dairy. It was a nice, if low-key visit, the highlight being the adorable new calves and a really lovely flock of laying hens. Friday night brought another fun birthday bonfire on the farm, which has brought another mellow Saturday. Hopefully I'll be back at 100% by tonight, when we've been invited to a barn dance party. The fun never ends!

Thinking about: warm boots, flannel layers, darning socks

Reading: Gabriel Thompson's Working in the Shadows, Jacqueline Winspear's Pardonable Lies, William A. Owens This Stubborn Soil

Eating: more potlucks, ploughman's lunches, home fries and eggs

Farm Week: August 12-16, 2013

It was a beautiful week here on the farm, with nights cold enough to snuggle deep under your covers, mornings cool enough for down vests, and days warming to the gradual shedding of layers. The crops, however, don't seem to have received the memo. Our harvests this week really scraped bottom; we cleared out the beet crop halfway through the week, and Friday's replacement was bunches of fennel that we cobbled from a crop we had written off because of all the weeds. Our greenhouse tomatoes are slow producers this year, and the outdoor crop, 400 plants instead of the normal 2000 planted late due to early season losses, have yet to show us a ripe red fruit. Even zucchini, a crop so prolific it's regarded as something even the faintest of green thumbs could manage, is barely producing this year. Our first planting was so swamped the plants never got big enough to really start producing. The second planting did noticeably better, with only about one third of the plants unhappily wet. Even with the weather as beautiful as it's been this week, we're still feeling the repercussions of an immoderate June. We harvested the onion this week as well, wind-rowing them on top of the black plastic rows to cure. When they're nice and dry, we'll load them into plastic bins and stack them in a nice dry place.

The most momentous event this week was the departure of two seasonal guests, Biscuit and Gravy. In other words, our pigs were slaughtered. Early Friday morning, we gathered by the pigs' enclosure with Joe, a man who has been performing this service all over the area since he was a young man. He used to keep animals himself, and he still makes and sells hay, but now he gets calls year round for his skills as a tidy dispatcher of farm animals medium, large, and extra-large (he's done buffalo!). We were his fifth appointment this week! When Joe does a slaughter on the farm, there's no stress about getting the animals packed in crates or trailers; he just goes right into the field with his gun and waits for the animal to come up to him before he shoots it squarely between the eyes. He bleeds it out with a cut to the neck right after the shot, then hoists the carcasses up on the tractor to move them to a more convenient place. He lays them on the ground to take off the head and feet and skin the underside of the animal. He then opens the cavity with a knife and then cuts the sternum with a bone-saw. He then hoists them up once again on the tractor, this time by the rear legs. In this position, he finishes skinning them, empties the body cavity, then fires up the bone saw again to complete the bisection. With that, we transfer them to the bed of a pickup truck lined with a plastic sheet for transport to the semi-local meat-locker, where they charge by the pound to process and freeze them in serving sizes. The meat will come back to the farm freezer next week for sale to the CSA members and our own consumption. I took one of the jowls to dry-cure into guanciale, and we're planning on slow-roasting a shoulder in a wood fire/coals for a get-together on Labor Day weekend. The bull is supposed to meet the same fate within a month or two, and I plan on more hands-on involvement with the slaughter process that time (minus the gun part at the beginning). Once again, I've come a long way from vegetarian in under five years

Thinking about: life cycles, temperate bike rides, flavor

Reading: Peter Mayle's A Year in Provence, Terry Ryan's The Prize-Winner of Defiance, Ohio, Willa Cather's My Antonia (again), The Best American Essays 2008

Eating: homemade Indian eggplant, lentils, and cucumber-yogurt sauce over basmati rice; roasted chicken with homemade bbq sauce; chicken salad on sourdough