Monthly Archives: July 2008

the fate of the squash

The squash are our hope for the future: we have hundreds and hundreds of them planted. Delicata, acorn, kuri, butternut, various varieties of pumpkins, not to mention our zucchini, yellow crooknecks, canteloupes and melons. We went big on the winter squash, thinking it a particularly useful crop: since they store so well, they’ll make it to farmer’s markets week after week without a problem.

But suddenly, in a few distinct places, healthy, beautiful squash plants are in various stages of decay. First yellow leaves, then sustained wilt (utterly unresponsive to water), then a horrific sight: a completely flattened, point-of-no-return plant.

We have a ton of cucumber beetles here, and apparently they can carry a bacterium in their innards that can cause bacterial wilt. But apparently it could be any one of a number of problems

I’m scared! Potential losses of 50-100%? Tomorrow I guess I’ll start slitting vines to see if I can find vine borers…

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life (& death?) on the farm

Farming is about to get a whole lot scarier.
Today, I ordered 27 day-old chicks from Belt Hatchery that will arrive on August 21. The group will include 11 Rhode Island Red pullets (females), 1 RIR cockerel (male), 10 Ameraucana pullets, and 4 Pearl White Leghorn pullets. (I wanted to order from McMurray — I was seduced by their great website — but they didn’t have the availability I wanted until September. Belt is in California, so the chicks won’t have to travel as far, which is better for them anyway.)
A bit of info about the breeds (gleaned from hours upon hours of online chicken research): RIRs are supposed to be hardy, friendly, prolific brown egg-layers. They’re sometimes referred to as a “dual purpose” breed, meaning that they lay eggs—and aren’t bad for eating, either. Unlike various brown-egg laying Sex Links, they’ll breed true. [Sex Links are hybrids, just like seeds labeled F-1, and the next generation won’t necessarily share the parents’ traits. Sex Links are particularly convenient for poultry suppliers because the males and females are different colors, allowing them to be sexed easily upon hatching. Sexing non-sex-linked chickens is a tricky business; you have to pay a very trained eye to do it, and apparently even with a good chicken sexer you still sometimes end up with surprise roosters. When Henrietta starts to crow, it’s probably time to shorten the name to Henry.] By contrast, RIRs are essentially an ‘heirloom’ variety—a breed that’s been refined and maintained by farmers over the years.

Next up: Ameraucanas, which are prized for their ability to lay green and blue eggs. Egg-sellers at the farmer’s market have told me that these eggs are extremely popular with customers, and although Ameraucanas are less prolific than some layers, the color may just be worth the effort. (Silly, isn’t it, how the aesthetic becomes so important — it’s not like the eggs have any difference when it comes to nutritional value.) They’re often confused with Araucanas, which also lay blue eggs, but are rumpless and have very dramatic ear tufts. We’ll see what I get from Belt Hatchery — although they say they’re selling Ameraucanas, I might end up with an “Easter Egger,” a layer of blue eggs that doesn’t quite fit either breed standard…

Last but not least, Leghorns: the type of chicken that are most commonly found in big-scale, confinement, battery-type operations. (As such, they’re mostly likely to have produced the eggs in the carton at your corner grocery store while enjoying a space the size of an 8.5 by 11″ piece of paper.) Leghorns are extremely prolific–300 eggs a year. They lay white eggs, and have a great feed-to-egg conversion ratio. In other words, they’re lightweight and produce a lot of eggs for a little feed: a good bang for your buck. Some owners say they’re skittish and people-shy, but others disagree and say that the breed doesn’t matter as much as handling the chicks at an early age. I plan on playing with these little guys a lot! (Note: If you’re interested in other breeds, check out this great chart, which has an awesomely condensed wealth of chicken information.)

So that’s the practical, calculated side of the equation. But then there’s the other side, the emotional side, the part where I admit: I’m simultaneously thrilled and utterly terrified to get these birds. They’re adding an important part to our little farm — a great way to compost kitchen scraps into unbeatable fertilizer, not to mention the opportunity to expand our operation to sell eggs at the farmer’s market. But they’re alive in a way that vegetables aren’t, and when it comes to that kind of alive, I get all mushy inside. The woman from Belt Hatchery on the phone today started talking about how, if one of the chicks dies in transit, I can call and get a refund. And I’m thinking, who cares about the refund? How am I going to deal with a tiny, dead day-old baby bird?! I freak out when I accidentally snap a runner off a bean plant while trying to hook it on the fence. The first time I did it, I seriously felt my heart sink to about knee-height. So right now, I’m just praying that all 27 of my little birds make it safely to the post office.

And that’s when the really scary part begins.

Breaking off the occasional bean runner didn’t slow down the plants too much. The same won’t hold true for chicks!

*Stay tuned for photos of the on-the-cheap brooder I built, and the coop built out of recycled doors that is currently a figment of my imagination…

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live-blogging from the sustainable sonoma tent

The Sonoma County Fair has wireless… who knew?! Emmett and I are here staffing a local food both in the Sustainable Sonoma tent, chatting with folks about local food, farmer’s markets, seeds (we had a seed ID game going for a while), and whatever else comes up. We’ve also gotten the chance to run around the fair itself, which is a great and wonderful and crazy conglomeration of all that Sonoma County has to offer. Since I grew up in suburban San Diego and didn’t really know what 4-H and FFA were until, well, college, it’s been awesome to run around and see the beautiful cattle, lambs, goats, swine, rabbits, owls, llamas, geese, ducks, and miniature donkey — and the kids who are proudly showing them off. I admit, I still didn’t know what the green tie-with-white-clover meant, and asked Emmett “Does that mean they’re from Cloverdale?” (No, it just means 4-H, silly.)

I was also really intrigued by the fair’s giant pig, supposedly 7 feet long and 4 feet tall, but it cost 50 cents to get in and I was saving up for the ridiculously overpriced but delicious-looking Johnny’s Garlic fries. Since when do French Fries cost $6?! (Since you have no other option, I guess, just like at baseball and football games.)

But on to the less-happy part of the fair. I admit, the local food booth has been a bit depressing. I had imagined it being like the farmer’s market: meeting people who are excited to talk about local food, our produce, their gardens, and anything else on the topic of sustainable agriculture. And while I did meet a number of people who were friendly and interested (a huge thanks to those of you who offered a smile and picked up the blog address!), there were also a few things that cast an unfortunate shadow over the all-American glory and hopefulness of the Sonoma County Fair.

One woman said (and I quote), “Not to offend you two or anything, but I just can’t shop at the farmer’s market. The produce looks terrible.”

I was a little taken aback, but managed to say, “Well, sometimes our produce has holes because many small-scale farmers don’t use pesticides…”

She interrupted me. “No, it’s just that sometimes the produce looks like hell. Just like that,” she said, pointing emphatically to the Swiss Chard we had displayed in a vase. Now I admit the chard is a little wilted — we’d harvested it for the Sunday market, so it’s a few days old — but why go out of your way to say that our produce looks “like hell?” And as for her theory on farmer’s market produce, I always thought that generally farmer’s market produce looks considerably better than the produce in your average grocery store. It might come in different sizes, strange colors, and occasionally have holes in the leaves, but it’s usually harvested fresh that morning and picked when ripe — not like the grocery store, where produce is days, weeks, even months from the field, and is often harvested unripe (especially true with tomatoes!) and then sprayed with ethylene to ripen it in the store. Furthermore, we farmer’s marketers don’t grow the types of veggies that are bred specifically for transportability and longevity. (E.g., thick-skinned, acidic tomatoes that can be stacked high without smushing and last a long time.) We grow veggies for taste, and bring them to folks ASAP!

This is a bit of a rant, but I have to get it off my chest. Note to the world: prefacing a comment with “Not to offend you” does not mean that you can then go ahead and get away with being extremely offensive.

That was just one story out of a few. In short: a handful of bad apples were making our day feel a bit spoiled. Then, while someone else was using half our booth (and three people don’t really fit), Emmett and I wandered around the fair. When we came back to the local food booth, all of the seeds we had put on display had been either taken or knocked off the table and trampled: a fairly devastating loss. (The seeds were in cups, and part of a clearly-labeled ID-that-seed game.) We lost an entire packet’s worth–and our last packet at that–of lacinato kale, a good bit of rainbow chard, and a heck of a lot of bunching onions, blue lake beans, and jack-o-lanterns. I was a bit disappointed that the man sharing our booth hadn’t watched over our stuff better, since we let him set up a half hour early and gave him the run of the place for an hour and a half. His response: at least he prevented someone from walking away with one of our two garlic braids. Why would someone take what was obviously a display item? (And my summer’s worth of personal garlic, by the way?) It just made me feel a bit down about humanity in general.

After that, Emmett & I packed up our things and only left out a bare skeleton of informative materials out at the booth. My heart wasn’t really in it anymore. My body still is, though: Now I’m typing on my computer, a hermit in the crowd. A woman just came up, drummed on the table, and said loudly “The bags! The bags! Where are the bags? Do you have the bags?” No, I do not have the bags. If she had asked more nicely, maybe I would have mentioned that Sonoma County Water in the Grace Tent has them. (If you haven’t been to the fair yet, check this out: You can get a free tote for suggesting one way to save water. I mentioned that we use drip irrigation instead of overhead sprinklers to water our crops, and got one.)

A final last note: the evening crowd of people seem much more interested in my Kleen Kantene water bottles (for personal use, unrelated to display) than in local food. Folks keep picking them up and asking about them–I finally had to put them under the table, because it’s a little weird to have a bunch of strangers handling the bottle you drink from. I wish they’d pick up a Buy Local guide, one of the farmer’s market brochures, or a little card about the blog instead!

Time for some garlic fries — and after that, a Heidi Newfield concert! Hopefully some good, local country music will lift our spirits. Even if it does, though, I don’t know if I’ll take a day out of my life to volunteer at the fair again… But I’ll definitely visit, and I’ll be extra nice to all of the people staffing the booths. Heck, maybe I’ll bring them coffee.

I’ll post some pictures of our booth once I get home…

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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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