Tag Archives: farm

farm grace

For the latter part of our Wednesday “weekend” — I spent the morning freelancing for the Windsor Times, and Emmett spent it harvesting — Emmett and I have decided to indulge in a miniature Slow Food event of our own. After a lunch of four ears of fresh-picked corn (wormy ends severed prior to a brief boiling), we’ve decided to get creative with Foggy River produce for dinner. Riffing partly off recipes from Grub, we’re planning on bruschetta, green bean salad, some early, nutty-but-not-yet-sweet Kuri squash (from the plants that died — the fruit never did quite ripen fully), and some other dishes that will probably arise when we plumb the depths of the refrigerator to discover still more Armenian cucumbers, Lacinato kale, brassica greens, and Swiss chard.

I can’t wait to sit down to the bounty, and in anticipation of a feast, I thought I’d steal a post to talk about farm grace. By which I mean: I can’t quite express how lucky — but it’s deeper than lucky, more like blessed or gifted — I feel when things grow. Often, when Emmett and I sit down to a meal we grew and prepared, one of us will compliment the flavor of the food and the other will quip, “Thanks, I grew it myself.” But honestly, we had nothing to do with it. I mean, sure, we weeded, watered, and hoped. But really, the plant does the hard work.

I’ve learned about photosynthesis, the light and dark reactions, the xylem and phloem and all of the components of a plant’s cell — chloroplast, vacuole, mitochondira, ribosomes, endoplasmic reticulum. And yet somehow, sometimes, focusing on the specifics of how things work can take away a bit of the magic. How often do you stop and wonder how in the heck, with the same ingredients — soil, sun, water — you can end up with a potato or a tomato, a melon or a lemon, a butternut squash or a radish? Maybe I’m simple, but it seems to me that in this context even the formation of the lowly radish is something of a miracle.

And then there are the things that are obviously miracles. Have you ever grown a pumpkin? With very little help from you — just a bit of water and compost — one day you’ll walk outside and happen upon a gigantic green gourd three times the size of your head. (How does it do that?!) And even if you’ve been paying close attention to the plant the miracle is no less great. Watching a bright orange flower turn into a small fruit, which then gradually grows… and grows… and grows… into a monstrous squash is phenomenal, too. Whenever I wander out into the squash patch and see a snapshot of time progression — blossoms, tiny squash and bigger squash in the same frame (sweet dumplings pictured above) — I’m amazed. All this beauty and flavor, mostly made of air. (Funny aside: When Harvard seniors were presented with a block of wood and asked what it was mostly made of, the majority of students — even science students — said water and soil. In fact, the solid part of plants — including trees — is primarily derived from carbon dioxide, what you and I breathe out.  Somehow, it’s intellectually easier to attribute a redwood’s growth to water and soil, but even 150-foot-tall trees are made of air.)

So, to all of our hardworking plants at the farm, I say thank you. Because if someone gave me water, sun, and soil and expected me to make a butternut squash out of it, I’d be quite certain that they’d lost their minds.

1 Comment

Filed under Farm Philosophy

the amazing maize technique

A man named Enrique taught us this trick for planting corn. Previously, we’d just planted it, covered it with dirt, and then watered it every day — which led to highly irregular sprouting, and some unfortunate kernel-rotting, too. (Our soil has a fair bit of clay, so it crusts over easily, and I think the corn had a tough time breaking through.)

This technique — “la sistema Mexican,” as Enrique (who’s from Mexico) called it — seemed to help the corn sprout more quickly and evenly. It’s also easier, because you never have to water!

1. Hoe out a trench, about 6 in. deep in the center.

2. With a hose, fill the trench with water. (Note: if your ground is sloped at all, this is easier said than done. On a slight slope, run the hose from the top of trench, and do it a few times, switching frequently so the water doesn’t overflow at the lower end.)

3. Leave trench overnight. In the morning, test the trench to see if it’s wet enough: you should be able to easily stick the top section of your finger (to the joint) into the soil. If not, give it a little more water before planting and test again.

4. Sow your corn the recommended distance apart, and press each kernel gently into the soil with a forefinger.

5. Cover corn with approximately 1.5 inches of wet soil from the sides of the trench.

6. This is the fun part: now walk on the planted corn, carefully placing your feet heel-to-toe for maximum coverage.

7. Top off with 1/2-1 inch of dry soil.

8. Voila! You don’t have to water your corn again until it sprouts.

Leave a comment

Filed under Farming Info

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under Farm Philosophy

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…)

Leave a comment

Filed under Farm Philosophy, Farm Tales

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under Farm Philosophy

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…

Leave a comment

Filed under Farm Tales

Farming 101.

Welcome! This blog intends to give you — a person who undoubtedly eats, and maybe even grows some food yourself — a behind-the-scenes glimpse at the process of growing healthful produce. What’s it really like, in this day and age, to farm the land?

It was definitely my romantic streak that got me into this business in the first place, and I’ll bet you harbor some romantic sentiments about farms, too. Big red barns. Romps in the hay. Fields of sheep baa-ing into the morning. Hens clucking merrily as they wander around in the tall grass, trailing a dozen little fluffy chicks behind them. A big ole John Deere tractor, shiny and green, in the driveway. That sort of thing.

That was my vision, too. And then there’s the reality: early mornings, no weekends, down and dirty, nitty and gritty, besieged by plague, pestilence, drought, fire, and flood. Invasions of cucumber beetles hell-bent on eating every last seedling. Forget the big red barn barn and fields full of sheep — you’ll be cultivating whatever tiny scrap of land you can afford (or are permitted to squat on.)

This is the behind-the-scenes look at the trials and tribulations of a first-year farmer. I hope you enjoy it.

Leave a comment

Filed under Farm Philosophy