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: August 26-30, 2013

Barring one unexpected development, this week chugged along as normal. Besides our normal harvests, we seeded still more salad mix, arugula, and spinach. We transplanted a last round of chard, and we have just one last round of flats awaiting transplanting this fall. We finally harvested some outdoor tomatoes and a ton of zucchini, so it felt for awhile that July arrived in late August. That month of rain really set us back, and we still haven't left the repercussions behind. Our late-planted eggplant don't look like they're going to produce much - we've only harvested about one fruit per plant. We only were able to save about 20% of our sweet potato crop from the weeds, and I grudgingly tilled under the weed-choked beds this week.

The big news this week was that Farmer Dan has thrown out his arm from an old recurring injury, and he was in a sling all week. The good news is that it's not his strong arm, but he will be a bit incapacitated for the near future. Not one to take illness or disability lying down, we spent much of the week tssk-ing his insistence on continuing to use his arm against all protestations.

This week also brought a midweek birthday celebration for Ham (apprentice Dan) - highlights included a delicious peach pie from Tracy and a very rousing two-stringed uke performance from Baxter. We marked the holiday weekend last night with a great bonfire, which I'm going to devote a whole post to later this week. First, I have to recover from said bonfire in time to go to the fair! The tilt-a-whirl is out of the question, but I think I might be able to muster the strength for the mandatory corn dog!

Thinking about: impending cold, later sunrises, tradition

Reading: Therese Anne Fowler's Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald, Michael Pollan's Second Nature, David Rakoff's Love Dishonor Marry Die Cherish Perish A Novel

Eating: tacos with homemade refried black beans and grassfed local beef, homegrown ground pork with carmelized fennel and wilted greens, freshest ripest peaches

Farm Week: July 15-19, 2013

And now for something completely different! This week was a whole lot different than weeks past for a few reasons. First of all, we had a mostly rain-free, absurdly hot week. That means our fields are drying up, and the puddles and mud pits are shrinking. The main reason this week was different than most other weeks is that we put ourselves at the mercy of the CSA shareholders. After weeks and weeks of rain, mud, and lightning keeping us out of the fields, the weeds were winning the war. With harvests taking up three of our five workdays, we were at the mercy of the weather to be left the last two to do our battle with the weeds. We could have harvested some great veggies for our members this week, but if we had there's no way we could promise that we'd be able to deliver on that promise come August or September. The weeds were winning, and we couldn't even make it to the battlefield. So put the CSA on hold for one week and did battle with the weeds. During what I'm sure will turn out to be the hottest week of the year, we grabbed our hoes and our hats and attacked some weeds. We uncovered beets, basil, tomatoes, sweet potatoes, pepper, onions, squash, cucumbers, cabbage, and more. We finished harvesting the garlic and put it out to cure in the greenhouse. We pulled so many weeds we pulled weeds in our sleep and woke up with our hands balled up, grasping at imaginary pigweed. We're not all the way caught up, but we're only a normal amount behind now, and we lived to fight another day. Nobody got sunstroke, and they're promising that the weather will break this weekend. Boy, I hope so. I've got more weeds to kill.

Thinking about: ambition, friends, ounces of prevention

Reading: Lisa Cohen's All We Know: Three Lives, The Greenhorns' 2013 New Farmers Almanac, Selected Letters of Willa Cather

Eating: more bacon and tomato sandwiches, tomato and cucumber in olive oil and balsamic, green beans

Farm Week: July 8-12, 2013 (with a poem!)

This week's post is a bit unorthodox, but it actually sums up this week (and the last two months) rather nicely:

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.

Thinking about: start-up models, intentional community, creativity

Reading: Nathan Englander's What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank, Shalom Auslander's Hope: A Tragedy, The Greenhorns' 2013 New Farmers Almanac, Selected Letters of Willa Cather

Eating: bacon and tomato on sourdough with homemade mayo, carrots fresh from the ground, penne with sauteed broccoli and garlic, some beautiful lemon birthday cake

Farm Week: May 27-31, 2013

Spring came back with a bang this week, with some hot and humid weather, a little bit of an overnight downpour, and lots and lots of sun. The farm is still a little soggy from last week's deluge, but the near-90's heat has started to do it part to dry the beds out. Some crops have bounced back well from the hailstorm last week, but some of the crops in the lower fields are still a bit waterlogged (check out the picture below from earlier this week). We're also bouncing back from a grey week, soaking up the sun, then starting to sweat, then sagging, then righting all with a dip in the stream after work.

We spent much of this week battling weeds that for some unexplainable reason took rain and heat and sun as a sign to explode into being all at once. It's been a bit too soggy to drive the cultivator, but we did what we could with hoes (and sometimes hands). We also planted sweet potatoes this week, which get shipped up from somewhere down south as slips. Slips are basically one step removed from planting a potato directly, giving us in northern climates a head start on the sweet potato's long, warm growing season.

We also got our next batch of chicks in the mail! Fifty fluffy little things that look so much smaller than we remember our now-month-old chicks ever being. We won't have to be as worried about the chicks being too cold anymore, but now the hot days mean that we have to keep a careful eye on the water level for the birds outside.

Thinking about: harvest knives, hydration, uphill bicycle endurance

Eating: fresh salads! radishes! turnips! scallions!

Reading: Mary Roach's Gulp, Julie Klausner's I Don't Care About Your Band