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: August 4, 2014

August just seems to be speeding by, and this week was also a blur of activity and decisions. We had the usual amount of harvest, CSA delivery, and farmers market activity. Adding to the flurry were the preparations for the Boersons to leave for their annual family camping trip up to Superior, leaving me in charge of the farm for a couple days. So this weekend and the beginning of next week finds me feeding, watering, harvesting, and delegating. We'll be harvesting for and delivering our CSA boxes as usual, so I'll have our usual stream of weekly helpers, plus a few extra hands on deck to help with the steady stream of chores. So far, so good (knock on wood for me, would you?).

Also lots of life decisions happening this week. One of my good friends here just got a really awesome job that will take her to Seattle before the end of the month. It's an awesome opportunity, and I think she'll love living in Seattle, but I'll certainly miss having her around here. At the same time, I applied for and then quickly accepted a job that will keep me here for another year. The local high school hosts about half a dozen international students from all over the world who come for the IB (International Baccalaureate) program. They're usually coming as a stepping stone to attending college in the States, so they're a very responsible, driven bunch. Anyways, the school is renting a house in downtown Green Lake for the school year, and they needed an RA/house mother. Luckily for them, there happens to be a well-traveled, multi-lingual, over-educated itinerant living just down the street. So I'll also be moving by the end of the month, to a cute little house in town. Though they're working with me to make sure I'll be able to fulfill my obligations at the farm through September, after that I'll be free to come to the farm during the school day, when I don't have any obligations to the program. Next summer, school will end just when the market and CSA season starts to ramp up, and I'll work another season here at the farm. Over the school year, I'll have one weekend off every month, and in the summer I'm going to make it a priority to go out to the Future Farm at least once a month. I'm planning on moving out there full time next fall, so right now I'm about 14 months from Startup. Lots of things just fell into place this month, and I'm excited to see what the next year will bring. Watch this space!

Thinking about: transitions, timelines, tinkerers

Eating: salads, tomatoes, broccoli, variations on zucchini and eggs, another pulled pork crop mob lunch, celebratory crispy pork belly and fondue

Reading: Michael Perry's Truck: A Love Story

Farm Week: July 28, 2014

This week on the farm found me dragging a bit. You know how sometimes you have so much fun activity on a weekend that you need another weekend right afterwards? Well, that was this week, but instead of another weekend, I had a very taxing week. Monday was filled with garlic, cleaning, bunching, and hanging the garlic that we harvested last week. Knowing how full the rest of the week was going to be, I pushed Danielle to finish the job with me before I left after an eleven hour day. Tuesday brought a film crew to the farm - Inga Witscher’s show Around the Farm Table filmed an episode that will be airing this fall on Wisconsin public television. Inga is a dairy farmer that goes around the state learning about other family farms and local food businesses, and she came across the Boersons at a library panel over the winter. Though the filming didn’t take overly long, it did take time to prepare and was maybe more mentally exhausting than anything. Wednesday is CSA day as always, and we had quite a busy morning harvesting, packing boxes, and preparing for the Princeton market. Last week’s market was very very underwhelming, with record poor sales due to low customer attendance and a new vendor with piles of cheap conventional vegetables. Apparently, they didn’t think the market was worth it, because they weren’t back this week and I had a great market. Thursday brought some extra livestock chores, followed by some welcome weeding and cultivation time. We rubbed down the sows with some lice soap, and then castrated the four male pigs out of the eight that were born a few weeks ago. Friday is another market and harvest day, and this week there were some complications that made the harvest a bit more harried than usual. Phoebe, Danielle’s 14-year-old dog, has had bone cancer for the past few months, and it became clear that her quality of life had rapidly deteriorated over the past two days. So Danielle spent the morning going back and forth to the vet and burying her. That left harvest to me and our three usual Friday helpers. I must have really kicked it into high gear, because by the time Danielle joined us just before lunch, we were bagging, quart-ing, and bunching the last few things for market. On the lighter side, we had another new little fuzzball arrive first thing in the morning. It’s another little heifer calf, almost identical to little Tootsie. We’re thinking they’re both half Highland half Devon, but we’ll see just how fuzzy they get as they get a bit older. So that was my week. It flew by, and boy was it exhausting. This weekend, I’m going to try to start a big batch of fermented pickles with the bumper crop of cucumbers we’ve been blessed/cursed with, read a bunch, and basically relax. Next weekend, the Boersons leave for a few days vacation up in the Apostle Islands on Lake Superior. That leaves me to hold down the fort, with the help of the small army of hardworking volunteers and loyal friends. So this will be my only chance to relax for awhile. 

Thinking about: farm dogs past and future, speed, motivation

Eating: heirloom tomatoes and crunchy dukes in creamy pesto, homemade pizza, deliciously tart lemon bars, various zucchini and egg combinations, Official Once Annual Hand-Dipped and Fresh Fried County Fair Corn Dog

Reading: Michael Phillips’ The Holistic Orchard, Michael Perry’s Truck: A Love Story, Business Planning for Dummies

Farm Week: July 21, 2014

Besides our usual pattern of harvests, and a brief heat wave, the big story this week is that we harvested our garlic. There’s something very gratifying about harvesting a crop that’s been in the ground since last year. Those little cloves were in the ground starting to grow last October, so they’ve survived from lots of degrees below zero during a very cold winter and mercury approaching 100 just earlier this week. I’ve been slowly making my way through Ron L Engeland’s Growing Great Garlic, and I was insufferable all week quoting “that dude.” Garlic just out of the ground is green garlic, but has to be cured in a warm, dry, airy place for a few weeks before it’s the garlic we know and love. We haven’t quite gotten to the stage where we hang all the thousands of heads of garlic up to cure, but we did take the time to choose the heads to hold back for next year’s seed. “That dude” says that using the very biggest bulbs for seed results in an inconsistent harvest - some very large bulbs and some very small ones. He recommends planting bulbs averaging 2-2.5 inches, which results in a more uniform bulb size at harvest. Mat and I spent about an hour selecting, bunching, and hanging up the seed, which according to him is the most intentional they’ve ever been about it. This time next year we’ll see whether “that dude’s” advice worked in our case.

This week also brought a bumper crop of basil, which when combined with the garlic we just harvested screams out for some pesto-making. Perhaps because our tomatoes haven’t been coming in strong yet, we hadn’t really been selling much basil at the markets, which didn’t really make us eager to harvest all of the basil we needed to to keep the plants from flowering too early. So I had the idea that we sell pesto-making kits with a recipe included. We packed large bags of basil, banded them and attached a head of garlic and the rolled-up recipe. We ended up selling much more basil at the market than we otherwise would have, and I think our customers really got excited about it. It’s this kind of never-ending problem-solving that keeps farming interesting season after season, I think. 

Thinking about: old friends, different paths, the right tool for the job

Eating:  green garlic, homemade pesto, new potatoes, zucchini, wedding cake!

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, RJ Garner’s The Grafter’s Handbook

Farm Week: July 14, 2014

Another busy, productive week on the farm. Summer had a bit of a mood swing, and I wore a sweatshirt and jeans for a whole day, which was a bit disconcerting. The cool weather doesn’t seem to have hampered our greenhouse tomatoes too much, and we picked enough cherry tomatoes and little striped tigerellas to sell a few pints at the markets this weekend. We have also been able to start our much-anticipated BLT Wednesdays, which we’ve been talking about for weeks, if not months. We happen to get fresh artisan bread delivered every Wednesday, have a chest freezer full of bacon, a field full of lettuce, and a greenhouse (and eventually a field) full of tomatoes. If I ever get tired of a homegrown BLT, someone slap me. 

I’ve been going to the market in Princeton on Wednesday afternoons for the last few weeks, and that’s been an interesting experience so far. It’s a new market, and so has very few vendors right now, but I’m pleasantly surprised that by the third week, I already have what seem to be regular customers, some of whom actually remember my name. I’m hoping to keep increasing my sales and getting more and more people to come out on a regular basis. 

After last weekend’s visit to see my aunt and uncle and parents at my future farm, I’ve spent the week showing people pictures of the site and trying to articulate my plans. It has been a useful exercise to organize my thoughts a bit, and I’ve been doing lots of thinking about what my startup year is going to look like. I’m still at the pen and paper stage these days, but at over a year out, I’m starting to think about ways to prepare in advance and from a  distance. If I can swing it, I might try to start breaking sod on an acre or two this fall and plant some cover crops. Newly broken sod is not hospitable to most plants, so the more in advance I can get the process underway the better the first season will look. Some days I want to jump right in, and some days I want to keep my farm at the hypothetical level for a little longer. I often marvel at how long and hard Mat and Danielle work, and Danielle has said that when it’s your farm, that’s all you want to do. It’s not that I feel like this is “just another job,” but there is a limit to my investment, emotionally, personally, financially. It’s an odd thing to be looking forward to working the hardest I’ve ever worked, but that’s the strange part about wanting to run your own farm.

Thinking about: income streams, person scale, harvest frequency

Eating: aforementioned BLT, green beans, new potatoes, zucchini, fancy goat cheese

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

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 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!