Daily Archives: July 21, 2008

why farm?

I was talking to my mom on the phone today, describing The Flood. “It doesn’t sound like you’re enjoying farming,” she said.

“Oh, no,” I said. “I’m just describing the event. I don’t like waking up at 5 a.m. to a giant flood, is all.”
But then I thought about it. And on some level, I do like waking up at 5 a.m. to a giant flood. I kind of enjoy disasters, although I rarely admit it at the time. (During disasters, I prefer to swear profusely — another secret delight — and perhaps pout.)

That got me thinking about the appeal of farming. What, exactly, is the appeal of long hours in the hot sun, modest wages and the imminent threat of disaster? Is it the romance of the thing? The challenge? The simple pleasure of growing? The drama? All of the above?

In English class multiple choice questions — and essays, for that matter — the answer is typically (e), all of the above. [NB: this does not hold true for science or math; my hypothesis is that English teachers are simply too kind-hearted to throw in a red herring (e), while many math and science teachers are pure evil.] If you’re guessing that I’m more of an English teacher than a science teacher, you guessed right. Extra credit goes to those who answered “all of the above”: farming’s got back-to-the-land romance, honest physical challenge, a certain life-giving zen, and something of the theatre, too.

Still, if I had to pick one choice to defend for 5 paragraphs, I’d go with the drama. Every day on the farm is a mortal struggle: Beans v. Bugs. Lettuce v. Sun. Tomatoes v. Inexperienced Farmers. There’s the hopeful joy of a young bean rearing its head from the ground, the subsequent struggle as the young, tender leaves are attacked by diabrotica. And then hope again as the plant puts out leaf after leaf, faster than they can be eaten; and then finally sends out a climbing runner which whirls in a slow-motion dance, looking for something to grasp onto. Every vegetable’s tale is different, but common in its struggle to survive — a struggle that means a good deal to a farmer, who relies on its survival for income.

Another way to weigh drama is in its value as instant feedback. Very few jobs today permit a person to tangibly experience the error of his ways. In farming, there’s no gentle upbraid courtesy of a manager or boss. You forget to water the salad bed, you’re in deep doo-doo. All of your investment — time, energy, emotion, and money — will disappear tragically in a bunch of withered, flatlined greens. You don’t know your way around heirloom tomatoes? Don’t be surprised when (as has happened at The Patch) they end up with some weird, unidentifiable withered-leaf disease. Didn’t prepare for an invasion of flea beetles? You end up with “Swiss” bok choi.

For someone who can’t remember facts to save her life but never forgets a good story, farming offers potent narrative. It also offers an alluring combination of instant gratification — wilting greens, with a little water, perk up within minutes — and delayed gratification. Our first yellow zucchini, maybe 1/2 an inch long, appeared on a plant today — a plant that we grew from seed, transplanted, watered, and weeded.

I couldn’t be more delighted.

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expect the unexpected

Saturday morning offered proof-positive that farming is very much an Old Testament endeavor, complete with Noachian flood.

But before we get to the exciting bit, first the antediluvian build-up:

Friday was the Fourth of July. (Happy fourth, everyone.) While barbecues, fresh corn, and late-afternoon dips in the pool are wonderful, woe to the farmer who also has a social life: after a lovely visit with friends, we had the great idea to stop and watch the end of the Healdsburg fireworks.
Fireworks mean traffic. Emmett and I got stuck in walking-would-be-faster traffic for half an hour, came home, packed up the car for the market this morning, and fell asleep sometime around midnight.
We awoke at 4:40 a.m., shoveled cereal into our tired faces, and headed off to harvest in the blue, pre-dawn gloom. We had to be at the Healdsburg farmer’s market by 8 a.m., since it was our first time attending. We thought we had plenty of time for the pre-market harvest & wash — nearly three hours for a manageable amount of salad greens, bok choi, and chard.

And we would have had plenty of time, if we hadn’t come upon one gushing pipe and one small lake that was rapidly encroaching on our tomato plants.

Some days it’s better to stay in bed. (I say that only facetiously, because in reality it was a damn good thing that we arrived on scene at 5 a.m. Had we gotten there a few hours later, the majority of our crops would have drowned.)

Emmett and I sprang into action. We grabbed some buckets, filled them with water, and then Emmett headed off to a different part of the vineyard to close the valves that fed the irrigation. I stayed by the pipe so I could raise my arms to let him know when the gushing stopped.

The gushing didn’t stop. Funny thing: when Emmett arrived at the irrigation control tower, the valves were closed. Adding to the mystery was one hand-written note, left by Emmett’s dad. We couldn’t actually get to the note, because it was on a small island surrounded by water, but I managed to read it by hopping onto another high point in the seas: “Hi Emmett, Sorry about the flood. I backed into the pipe last night. I’ll come down early to fix it so you can wash for the farmer’s market.”

I guessed that the note hadn’t been left while surrounded by water, and the closed valves also suggested that Emmett’s dad had turned off the irrigation — but that something had gone wrong.

In the end, the culprit wasn’t a sinful planet and a vengeful God, but rather an emergency switch that linked irrigation to the foreman’s house. The mystery was solved when the foreman awoke to find his water pressure gone kaput.

It just goes to show: when it comes to farming, you’ve got to expect the unexpected. Massive infestations of cucumber beetles? Sure. Flood, in the middle of summer with no clouds (let alone rain) in sight? You betcha.

(Note: photo was taken in the afternoon, after the water level had subsided a bit…)

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growin’ up

The best way to appreciate a farm, I think, is to spend three days away from it.

Emmett and I recently took a three-day weekend (not on the actual weekend, mind you, because that’s when we sell at the farmer’s market), and left someone else in charge of the veggies. I might be overstating my case here, but I think that we felt some semblance of the paranoia that new parents feel upon leaving their infant with the babysitter for the first time. While we were, occasionally, able to forget the vegetables and simply enjoy our mini-vacation, we were also prone to having worried, whispered, just-the-two-of-us conversations in the middle of a crowd. (“I wonder if anybody’s squished the diabrotica lately. Do you think the little leek seedlings are getting enough water?” “I don’t know. I was wondering if that creature dug any more holes in the salad bed.” “Yeah, what do you think it is, anyway? A rabbit?” “We’ll have to camp out in a tent overnight to figure it out for sure.” Jokes were made — by others — about veggie garden nanny-cams. I admit, I had a moment of serious consideration before laughing.)

When we got back from our Southern California mini-vacation, you can bet your bottom dollar that we didn’t go home, unpack, and crack a few beers to ease the transition from rest to reality. Nope: we headed straight to The Patch, desperate to check up on the babies.

The good news: everything was absolutely, one hundred percent fine. Better than fine, in fact. Many of our vegetables (having been planted about a month and a half ago) are now at the adolescent grow-like-weeds phase. Sure, you notice the growth when you’re out on the farm every day, but you REALLY notice it when you come back after three days sans veggies. Suddenly the beans, which only recently latched on to the wire fencing, are two feet taller. One greens bed has gone from proto-choi to healthy, hole-free baby bok choi (thanks to a crop cover). I barely recognized the quinoa, which (I swear) more than doubled in size to a small bush. The squash plants are now calf-high green monsters, crowding one another out, in dire need of thinning; even the corn is starting to look respectable, and you can almost imagine it growing up over your head in the near future. The Bright Lights chard, which we had been previously eying in a borderline-harvestable kind of way, is now totally ready for market on Sunday. The cukes are flowering in earnest. We have a few baby beets (one-inch diameter, perfect for thinning) with magnificent, tender beet greens. Heck, Emmett even thought that the week-and-a-half old radishes were ready for harvest, before realizing that, in his joyous stupor, he was getting a little ahead of himself.

So the babies, which we left with the sitter, learned a few words in our absence. Were we sad that we missed the big steps? Sure — but let’s face it, we needed the break, and there will be plenty other moments to come.

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under attack

If it’s not one thing, it’s another.

Some days, a farmer just feels like she’s under attack. And there’s a good reason for that: she is.

Now before you go judging me, let me say that I’m not a paranoiac, constantly looking for the shadowy Other who’s out to destroy my life. But I’m pretty sure that there are dozens of Others who are out there to destroy the garden that I so lovingly (if ignorantly) tend to.

I’ve come to learn that there’s always somebody who wants my vegetables every bit as much as I do. Only these little suckers don’t spend hours every day fretting over them, tending them, trans/planting them, and watering them. Nope. They just hop on the fruits of my labor and start munching.

First it was the diabolical diabrotica. Emmett’s dad warned us about them: they look like green, slightly oblong ladybugs, and their common name is cucumber beetle. They squish satisfyingly between the fingers, although they anoint the fingertips with rather sticky green guts. (They also possess the remarkable ability to keep walking while trailing aforementioned guts behind them. No, I’m not cruel; the little buggers are just really, really hard to kill.) Anyway, the weird thing about cucumber beetles is that they’ve left our cucumbers untouched. They’ve made lace out of our young snap pole beans, though — leaving a freshly-born bean fighting for its life. We’re so worried about the crop that we actually buckled and bought some organic insecticide: Spinosad. We sprayed it on a couple of days ago, and we’ll let you know if it helps.

That was invasion #1. Then there were the flea beetles, which left our bok choi and now our greens pocked with tiny holes. And on the very same day that we diagnosed the flea beetles as such, we found a mystery depression in the salad bed, a 1.5-inch deep circle that had upended a bunch of our baby lettuce greens. (Emmett thought it might be a deer, but a deer would have probably eaten the salad. My suggestion: Bigfoot.) Oh, and did I mention the gophers that tunneled under two of our squash mounds?

While I’m a solid, committed proponent of organic agriculture — with insectories and pest management strategies that don’t involve chemicals or traps — I can also completely understand the impulse to basically bomb the heck out of the field. You’re under attack: you need to fight back. Your hard work, your way of life, your very survival is threatened. But there’s a smart way to fight back, and a less smart way. (It parallels, in many ways, the differences between conservative and liberal mindsets when it comes to national security and war.) Do you ‘drop the big one now,’ or do you use carefully-calculated strategies that minimize collateral damage and maximize public health?

Well, better wrap this post up. I’ve got to get back to squishing Diabrotica.

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table, check. umbrella, check. quarters, ones, check…

Today [June 22] was our first farmer’s market, and I’m exhausted.

We’ve been preparing for the market for the past three days. We managed to locate, borrow or create most of the necessities: a wooden sign with our farm name, paper signs identifying the veggies, a table, tablecloth, coolers, ice, baskets, chairs, umbrella. We packed everything in the Subaru the night before to make sure it all fit. (Yes, barely.) We wanted a scale, too, but local stores quoted us $300 for a certified, farmer’s-market-approved scale. ($300?! We decided to wait and keep an eye on eBay.)

Then, this morning, we rose at 6 AM. We spent two-plus hours harvesting and washing. First the radishes — the oblong, pink-and-white french breakfast ones and a traditional deep fuchsia spherical variety — which were double-washed. One bucket to get the gobs of mud off; one to make them shine. Then we moved on to the bok choi, which only took one rinse — a bath that was mostly intended to rid the greens of flea beatles. My little brother identified our bok choi as a Swiss variety. As in holey, like the cheese. (We didn’t realize the flea beetles were bad guys until it was too late… actually, we didn’t even know what to call them until we read about them on the seed packet two days ago. They’re tiny, iridescent little black beetles, and the name “flea beetle” made perfect sense. For our second round of bok choi, we’re going to try and use a row cover to confuse/deter them.)

Then we turned to the baby brassica greens that we were selling as a lettuce mix (one that could also be tossed into stir fries or soups). We snipped, soaked and, lacking a salad spinner, shook them as dry as we could before bagging them. Emmett was the official Salad Dancer, and will likely continue to salad dance until we’re really rich and can afford a gigantic, commercial-sized salad spinner — which judging by the cost of the scale will probably set us back at least $150.

Then, off to the market! It was satisfying to set up our little stand and put our hard work out there for others to enjoy. While Emmett and I were a bit embarrassed by our bug-eaten produce — the arugula and bok choi were a tad on the green lace side — many of our customers didn’t seem to mind at all. “As long as it tastes good,” one lady said. A man sympathized: “Oh, I’m in the grape business, trust me, I know how it goes.” We’re grateful for their understanding — and were thrilled when people complimented our produce or bought multiple things. Two bags of greens, a bunch of radishes, that’s almost $10 in one fell swoop! For us, that’s a dinner out — two burritos and a shared drink.

Other things of note: The radishes were a suprisingly big hit. I thought Emmett was silly to plant them, since I consider radishes to be a fairly dull affair. And to add insult to my radish injury, when we were re-reading the seed packet yesterday, we noticed that both varieties suggested that children plant them. “Fun for kids to grow! …almost disease free.” (In other words, our most successful crop so far is one that’s pretty hard to screw up.) Radishes: was it the color that attracted people? The fact that they’re so mundane, they’re rarely seen in the farmer’s market? We also put out fun radish recipes courtesy of the Radish Council, including a hot-and-sour-soup and a southwestern cobb salad. Maybe our customers were impressed by their versatility.

Did I mention I’m exhausted? My body is tired from harvesting, watering, and hauling all of the farmer’s market “stuff.” I’m a bit sunburned from several hours sitting in the half-shade of our too-small umbrella. (It was me or the salad greens, and being a true farmer I let the greens have the shade.)

Total market proceeds: $98. $9.80 went to the farmer’s market to pay for the use of the space and the organization. Another $25 went to pay our annual dues, since it was our first time at the market. Which leaves us with $63.20.

Considering that we’ve worked (between the two of us, extremely conservatively), 80 hours a week for 3 weeks, and Emmett put in a couple of 60-hour weeks before that, our earnings come to about 17 cents an hour. (And that’s not taking into account our significant start-up costs: seeds, irrigation, soil amendments, manure. But I don’t feel like going there right now, so I won’t.)

And besides, we also got one beautiful red onion, one butter crisp lettuce head, two squash seedlings, and two bowls full of lovely orchids (of a species from Madagascar) from our neighbors at the farmer’s market, so really, we’re doing pretty well.

I may be tired, but really, I feel great.

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farmer’s market-ing

We have, approximately, 3′ x 4′ of baby salad greens, a host of summer-spicy radishes, and exactly nothing else.

We’re going to the farmer’s market, baby.

(Quick note: I recently moved this blog from blogspot to wordpress, so there’s going to be a bit of a glut of posts today. And, since I started this blog after we started the farm, there’s going to be some catch-up to do anyway… so for a while, a least, there will be flashbacks interspersed with current events.)

For a while we’ve been stressing out about when to start going to the farmer’s market. How much produce do we need to have? Will we look like fools if we only bring 10 bags of salad and a few radishes? Or is it better to show up and start building a customer base (perhaps a foundation of pity or sympathy), so that by the time we have — hopefully — heaps of corn, tomatoes, beets, winter squash and zuchs, people will be primed to buy our stuff? After much internal debate among the farm’s proprietors, Farmer Number One (Emmett) called the kindly Farmer’s Market Coordinator, who heartily advised us to start this Sunday. (This weekend, she pointed out, is some kind of garlic party for the farmer’s market, so there should be lots of customers. In honor of garlic day, Emmett’s advocating bringing a few of our garlic heads to round out our produce — but the garlic, which was planted six months ago before we knew we’d be starting a farm, was only ever intended for personal consumption. I keep pointing out that if we sell our garlic but then have to buy garlic later, we might end up losing money, because garlic won’t be in season and it might cost more than we sell it for. I’ll let you know who wins the garlic fight.)

For the past couple of weeks, as we debated the date for our farmer’s market stand grand opening, we’ve also been frantically looking around for other things to sell, to assuage our feelings of inadequacy. Rosemary from Emmett’s parents’ garden. Tarragon from Emmett’s parents’ garden. Ditto on their sage, until we learned that Mexican Sage isn’t in fact edible. (It’s a deer deterrent.) Prickly pear patties from a prolific cactus hedge, until Emmett’s dad informed us that you can only eat tender new growth, and have to cut the cactus back in order to encourage it. We’ve been praying that the blackberries, which run rampant along the Russian River, would ripen. (They’re starting to turn pink, but are in no way edible right now.) We even considered foraging for the wild garlic that grows in the vineyard, a blatantly silly endeavor because the cloves are t-i-n-y and usually buried in the dirt without an obvious stalk. I advocated buying chickens so we could sell eggs (and I want chickens, anyway), and Emmett’s dad advocated selling old grapevines for barbecue firewood. (Apparently it has a nice fragrance when burned.)

But I think, when push comes to shove, that we’re just going to be sitting at our little stand with some lettuce, radishes, a bit of rosemary, and maybe a garlic head or two.

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the first disaster

The first disaster came early.

Our farming attempt started out hopefully – what can be more hopeful, after all, than tiny green things poking out of dark earth, the first sign of life (not to mention the potential for our food and income)? But unfortunately this storybook scenario wasn’t taking place in Spring. Were it Spring, maybe our proto-farm would have had a better chance at harnessing some beginner’s luck. No, tragically, our tiny green seedlings were getting a late start in life: a May start, a hot start, a scorching 100-degree welcome-to-the-world-and-good-luck-to-you start.

At this point, I still hadn’t yet arrived at The Patch. I was in Southern California, visiting family and farming vicariously. I heard the news over the phone that the seedlings were dead.

“Which seedlings?”
“All of them.”
“All of them?”
“Well, most of them.”

Since I hadn’t been living and breathing the chaos – while I was surfing, Emmett was trying to locate cheap organic manure, ready the ground, lay the framework for irrigation, oh, and coax seedlings to life in 100-degree and zero-humidity weather – I was understandably miffed.

“What do you mean, most of them? How could you have killed them already?”

I’d been a strong supporter of extravagant seed purchasing. Ten types of tomatoes? Five of winter squash? Lacinato kale? Quinoa? Sure, go ahead! The more the merrier. $150 at Seeds of Change? $120 at Johnny’s? Be my guest. As Emmett cringed entering our credit card number yet again, I was by his side murmuring Remember, honey, it’s an investment.

And although I knew that we were a bit out of season, deep in my heart I always assumed that the investment would pay off. Or, if not pay off, at least not wither and die before ever making it into the ground.

Because The Patch was just a stretch of dry, dusty clay (with no useful things like faucets) when he arrived there, Emmett had planted the seeds in a couple hundred of those black plastic six-packs. We figured, better to get our little babies in the dirt growing as soon as possible.

Then the heat hit. And Emmett, rightly worried about the dehydrating effects of low humidity and high temperatures on seedlings planted in small pots, promptly overwatered. (Did I mention that some of the pots he bought didn’t actually have drainage holes? That didn’t help.)

The beans rotted. As in, some of the seeds never emerged; a post-mortem revealed that they had simply disappeared, composted in-situ. Only two out of 216 survived. The trauma left them stunted, and the ultimate survival of those two warriors is still unclear; their directly-sown counterparts now tower above them and may shortly shade them out.

If the beans were a fast massacre, the 330 tomatoes were a slowly-spreading epidemic. Some of them died quickly but many of them lingered, cruelly prolonging hope. After six weeks, we have one tomato that might be tough enough to go into the ground in, say, 14 more days. That’s if we’re lucky: the biggest one is currently a whopping 2.5 inches tall.

As our spindly, root-rotted tomatoes staunchly refused to don a second set of leaves, it was suggested by Emmett’s dad (kindly) that we go out and buy some seedlings from a nursery.

“Sometimes you have to spend money to make money,” Emmett’s dad noted. (Or, in our case, sometimes you have to spend money… to lose it.)

We bought 80 tomatoes for $1.12 each, and they’re currently the healthiest looking thing at The Patch. They might be flowering a bit early, but they’re still growing briskly and pumping out runners like mad, which we are dutifully plucking as we train them upwards, vine-style.

Squash proved hardest to kill. We managed to eke three 60-foot out of the squash and melon seedlings. (We also saved half a row’s worth of cucumbers.) Still, we’ve learned the hard way that squash don’t really like being transplanted; the squash we planted directly in the ground is bigger and healthier looking than the transplants (which are several weeks older).

Other casualties: 550 cells of (multiply planted) lettuce.
100 spinach.
100 chard.
60 kale. (A handful have been transplanted into the ground, but aren’t looking good.)
36 fennel.
90 arugula.
120 golden beets.
100 leeks.
50 broccoli.
24 basil, 24 cilantro, 12 sage, 12 dill, 24 chives, 24 parsley.
For a while we had one fabulous little healthy-looking dill plant which thrilled us. Our pride and joy got scorched in the plastic house on a 100-degree day, and ended up compost.
Rest in peace, all ye veggies…

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