Tag Archives: disaster

why farmers don’t vacation, part II

Farmflash:

  • New York mixes art, ag, and parties — The Times, of course, is there.
  • Sonoma County farmers weigh in on California’s Proposition Two, which would ban veal, sow, and egg operations it deems inhumane. (I’ll dive into this hot-button topic more later…)
  • In the “shrug” category, Alabama ranks #3 in the list of U.S. states with the greatest amount of foreign-owned agricultural land, behind Maine and Texas.

Foggy River Philosophy:

While I briefly mentioned the minor disasters Emmett and I faced on our first visit back to the field, I didn’t really go into the philosophy behind why they occurred. And I want to point out that our caretakers did a wonderful job — we harbor no complaints whatsoever, just immense gratitude for how well our farm was taken care of.

What, then, went wrong?

I have a theory: farming is 49% planning, and 51% reacting. So while our caretaker did a great job watering, weeding, and generally tending the patch — the planned things — he of course wouldn’t think of the tasks that Emmett and I would have undertaken, given changing situations. (E.g., when the salad wasn’t sufficiently sprouted after a week, planting a new bed. Or, when our tomato plants grew top-heavy — we pruned all runners at first but then decided to let the rest of the runners go — reversing our no-prune mandate. Or, when the beans grew too heavy for the fencing, adding in new fence supports or cutting back a few of the plants.)

Farmers work long hours in the field, but we’re not always digging, hoeing, sowing, or harvesting. In fact, Emmett and I spend a good, say, half-hour each day at the farm doing what would appear to the casual observer to be absolutely nothing. We stroll around the entire place, occasionally squatting in the middle of the row. We glance at the sky. I roll tomato leaves between my fingers; Emmett pops a Sungold cherry in his mouth. It seems like moonshine — and, okay, sometimes it is — but what we’re actually doing is observing. And observation is an important pre-req to that 51% of farming: reacting. So once a day, you’ll find us wandering around the whole farm to make sure that nothing has gone disastrously wrong — trying to catch symptoms of trouble before they turn into a disaster.

Which brings me to my final point: why farmers don’t have a weekend. Number one, at least for direct-market farmers, much of the actual, normal-people’s-weekend is devoted to the farmer’s market. (See photo above.) Since Emmett and I do two weekend markets, we work roughly 26 hours between Saturday and Sunday. By the time Monday rolls around, we’re pretty tired — but we can’t stop, because there’s simply too much to do. After all, we probably haven’t had time to stroll around the field for the past two days, which means something has probably gone wrong in the meantime and needs to be fixed. Or we’ll realize that we’ve just harvested the last of our radishes and have forgotten to plant a new crop. Or it’ll be one of one hundred other things that may not have been on our planned to-do list, but quickly jump to the top of the reactionary list. You can’t stop working, because you’re always reacting.

All that said, tonight is my farm-girl equivalent of Friday night. Ironically, I spent it the way I usually spend real Friday nights: harvesting until 9 p.m. (The beans are mad, mad I tell you! They have to be picked every day, or the next thing we know they’ll be picking fights with the grape vines.) But back to the reason why a Tuesday night is a Friday night — Emmett and I are, on a trial basis (and for the sake of my urban-girl sanity, which does not understand the concept of non-stop farmwork), taking Wednesday as our weekend. NB: we may have gone on a two-week family reunion tour, but this will be our first “actual” weekend since we started attending farmer’s markets in mid June.

It’s not going to be a perfect weekend by any means. Let’s start with the fact that, as I pointed out to Emmett, it’s only one day. “When’s our other weekend day?” I asked. Emmett responded, “We have flexible schedules. We only get one day.” (I’m still not sure what he meant about the flexibility of our schedules; sure, we can take lunch at 11 a.m. or 2 p.m., but we work pretty much all the time.)

This “weekend,” we’ll still have to go to the farm to water, and we’ll probably spend much of the day doing other work — be it Emmett’s part-time job, my freelance writing attempts, or normal living things like laundry and showering (I’ve showered once since we got back from our trip… don’t ask) — but gosh darn it, I’ve been meaning to swim in the Russian River all summer.

Tomorrow, I’m going to do it.

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mysterious moonlight diggers

I can’t think of many things more devastating than leaving your happy, healthy plants in the evening and finding them destroyed the next morning. Destruction can come in many forms: a swarm of cucumber beetles, a broken water pipe, a fast-acting bacterial disease. But one form of ruin is particularly frustrating to me right now: mysterious holes dug haphazardly throughout our planted beds.

For months now–ever since we started growing our baby salad mixes–we’ve been finding small patches of salad dug up each morning. It always looks the same: scattered depressions of moist, scuffed soil, each about the size of a saucer. Around each one, uprooted lettuces mounded with dirt. The lettuces are resilient enough that we can generally push them back into the soil and they’ll keep growing. So it’s never enough of a loss to take out a week’s harvest, but just enough to drive us crazy. And the anonymous digger doesn’t stick exclusively to the salad bed. He also leaves us holes in the radish bed, the leeks, young beets.

Every farmer or gardener has to dedicate a fraction of each week to sleuth work. Sometimes I feel like Sherlock Holmes in overalls (with less of an intuition for catching the bad guys, sadly.) So, who is the mysterious moonlight digger? What are his motives? Let’s look at the evidence. First, the digger seems to have zero interest in the plants themselves. He tosses them aside in search of a greater prize. Second, the digger also targets areas where we have young plants growing–baby salad greens, beet seedlings, tiny leeks. What’s unique about these beds? They’re watered more frequently than the more mature plants, so the soil is always moist. Third, the digger only attacks at night.

So from these observations we’ve deduced that the perpetrator is a nocturnal animal searching for grubs or insects that thrive in the constantly wet soil below the salad bed. But still, we don’t know who it is specifically. Top on the list are skunk, fox, and raccoon. My bet is with the skunk, because I know they have a real soft spot for grubs. ( Skunks are omnivores; they eat everything from insects, larvae, and earthworms to rodents, frogs, birds, berries, and fungi. One recently attacked a wasps nest near our farm, ripping it apart to get at the tasty larvae inside.) Which means I’d better be careful if I try to confront the mystery digger in person. I’m not keen to take a tomato juice bath, in the event of a skunk spray.

We’ve been plotting to camp out in the field for a night to catch the crook red handed (if only we had nigh vision goggles). Since the damage hasn’t been catastrophic, it’s hard to justify putting up any serious fencing or netting, but I’d at least like to know what’s causing the problem. I guess it’s the inner detective in me. In the meantime, we’ve started lightening up on the salad bed watering, especially in the afternoon– to slacken off on the moisture content of the soil.

So, for now, we’ll tuck this case into the unsolved mysteries file and keep you posted if we mount a sting operation to catch our supposed skunk by moonlight.

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heirloom failures

So by now you know that Emmett and I handily killed $300 worth of seeds. (Well, it was really Emmett’s doing, but solidarity, you know.) When I arrived on scene, I suggested that we plant more tomatoes — even though it was getting quite late in the season. (By that time, it was June.) I thought it would be good experience, to get ready for next year–and besides, we could dust off our reputation as from-seed tomato growers.

At this point, our reputation as from-seed tomato growers remains, um, slightly burnished.

We water them every day. They’re in 4-inch pots with organic potting mix. And while some of the starts at the farmer’s market tower 2 feet tall in pots this size, we can’t seem to get more than 2-4 leaves on our little one-inch wonders. Heck, a dozen of the pots we planted (and we planted at least 3 seeds per pot) refused to sprout any seedlings at all.

I just don’t get it. These little guys (pictured above) are one month old. We’re putting them in the ground for the heck of it, hoping for a no-frost Indian summer.

This one below–a potato-leaf variety–seems to be “thriving,” although it’s sickly compared to the plants we purchased wholesale from a local nursery earlier this summer. (Some two-week-old tomatoes we bought from the nursery were bigger than this one. Do they pump them up with nitrogen? What’s the trick here?)

Some other near-fatalities, transplanted weeks ago with 2-4 leaves, have started to grow into decent-looking plants. The black plums seem to be the most hardy of the bunch; we had considerably less luck with chocolate cherry and green zebra, two varieties we were most excited about.

[Drumroll, please!] After two months of trying, this is our most successful from-seed start:

Emmett and I have grown more traditional varieties (a la Early Girl) successfully from seed. What’s the trick to starting heirlooms? For now, it eludes us; when it comes to the farmer’s market’s most iconic produce, we clearly have some learning to do.

Now that‘s a tomato: from-the-nursery red plums that are just starting to turn.

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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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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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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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