Farm News

This is Not Hard

Last Saturday morning I did something I’ve never done in 10 years of farming. I got caught transplanting in a downpour and had to stop. The whole time, I kept trying to remember when this had happened before, but the truth is, it really hadn’t! I looked at my soil soaked gloves and knees and boots. I looked at the five remaining flats of tightly packed lettuce leaves reaching hungrily for more space and light. I looked west at the darkening sky. I looked down at the soft, vulnerable earth.  I picked myself up out of the aisle and retreated from the field.

Our water year average precipitation thru April is 30.6 inches of rain. Thru the end of March, this year, we’ve received 44.6 inches of rain. So you might think that as I packed it in and set those lettuces flats back in the greenhouse to wait out the weather, I was grumbling and discouraged.

But you’d be wrong.

 

 

This is the year that has taught me that when it rains, I need be grateful it is not raining hard. And when it rains hard, I’m to be grateful it’s not windy too. When it is windy, I’m grateful it’s not gusting. When it is gusting, I’m grateful it doesn’t last long.

The day the windstorm picked up one of our little field poly houses and wracked it crooked, I saw pictures of a friend’s greenhouse in Montana that’d been leveled by — of all things– a heavy silage tarp that slammed into it compliments of a capital G gust of wind. That made me grateful my field house could be repaired.

This is the Spring I’ll remember with thanks giving. For all the rain, for all the erratic storms, for all the ways I’ve had to adjust or patiently regroup, I’m not perennially discouraged because you know what? This is not hard. None of “this” is hard. Challenging? Yes. Stressful? Yes. Unsettling? Yes. But not hard.

I’m safe, I’m loved, I’m well fed. My house is intact and I’ve a soft bed. Through each passing storm, power outage, and rain delay, I take account of my blessings. I walk the field, the barn, the seeding house, the high tunnel. Life is streaming forth everywhere I turn. Barns and greenhouses are intact, and the animals and plants relying on them are safe and dry. Robert Frost’s “A Prayer In Spring” starts, “Oh, give us pleasure in the flowers today;/And give us not to think so far away/As the uncertain harvest; keep us here/All simply in the springing of the year.” 

The more I take less and less for granted, the more I’m reminded of my good fortune.

**

Thru one big storm in March, I nervously kept planting peppers in the seeding house. The rain and wind gusts were so loud I had a hard time concentrating. In a moment of anxiety, I unwisely began fixating about the poly “roof” above me. Two layers of 6 millimeter plastic is all that thinly separated this crashing, blowing, pelting rainstorm from me, the thousands of small, irreplaceable plants representing three months of work and thus my ability to fulfill my commitment to each of you.

I paced. I went to the door and peered out. I closed the door again and tried to reassure myself that every storm sounds louder under barn and greenhouse roofs.

Then, my saving grace came. I looked down at my hands. In a new light, I saw the power of a few small seeds I was holding. My heart steeled and softened at the same time. I remembered.

I remembered my purpose. I remembered I had no control over the storm or the durability of the plastic roof at this point. I was compelled to go straight back to my work. In that moment, my job was to keep on seeding new life, and in the process, rekindle the kind of never-say-die gutsy hope I most admire in other farmers.

Time and again, when I toe the edge of what seems an unsteady cliff, I look to Nature and suddenly find beneath myself a scrap of solid footing. Bridges I did not know could exist span out before me. Motivations, ideas, small acts of perseverance galvanize within me. In some unexplainable way, my work keeps me in conversation with teachers who do not speak Human and a powerful tenacity that does not need translation. I guess that’s one more layer of gratitude to add to my list.

Oh, and did I mention I have clean, hot, running water?

This is the Spring which is pushing my boundaries and testing my creative capacity for adaptation. This is the Spring which has stripped away the superfluous and forced me to question what and why and how and ask, what if?

This is the Spring that isn’t allowing me to settle for complacency.  Out of sheer necessity, I’m learning to dig deeper, think more powerfully, and experiment more courageously.  2017 is teaching me how to be a more patience, resilient land steward. The petty frivolousness has been washed away.  I’m less focused on the ancillary, ragged edges and more focused on the heart of my work.

This year, I will not be burdened with expectations of big successes.  I am determined to just keeping work toward little wins.

This is not hard.

It’s the mantra that keeps me centered, open and working every day to bring good food, grown with love out of our fields and into your kitchens. ~AJ

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Restorative Work

seeds sprouting in fall

I have a winter confession – a really unpopular one. I love the rain. I love the grey skies, I love the dim and quiet dampness of our Pacific Northwest climate. I love the intensity of an afternoon squall, the indescribable music of wet energy on the metal farmhouse roof. Furthermore, I love the sincerity of the landscape. In winter the trees and shrubs, hillsides and meadows all reveal their distinctive character. The past summer’s raucous vibrancy has been quieted. One falling leaf at a time, the opportunity for over-stimulation is quelled. All things are stripped of glamour; basic truths endure. Yes, it easy to thrive with sunshine, bright colors and constantly flourishing fields which propel me forward. But winter farm life, it turns out, has a way of fueling my life too.

In ‘dreary’ late November, I am buoyed forward by the happiness of a successful year. I have around me the riches of the season — sacks of onions, brightly hued winter squash, cans and cans of tomatoes, and moreover, the gratitude of all the families my work has touched. I am filled to the brim with thoughts of your kitchens, your dinner tables, and your meals that have been blessed by Good food, grown with love. These delightful remembrances and a secure winter storehouse intermingle with the physical tiredness of my body. I always feel as if I’ve reached the end of a nine month long wilderness hike. I’m healthy, I’m happy, and I’m also ready to sit down for a while and revel in success!

But it is not because my work ends that I look forward to the cold, dark days. It is because the nature of my work changes. This shift teaches me new skills, challenges me to pace myself, and offers me the chance to shed that often abused multi-tasking mentality.

After planning such intricate schedules and tending to the constantly changing needs of so many crops, I am thankful to switch gears. I am eager to undertake slow, simple, immediately gratifying tasks. Summer is a season of fully committed days, so it is a pleasure to have small, discrete rainy-day projects I can start and stop on my own schedule.

Flushing of water lines, organizing and storing supplies and sharpening and repairing tools gives me space to unwind, stretch out, and relax. I may be the only person in the world who looks forward to cleaning out an old barn. However, each tool I unearth, each rusty hinge I recycle, each corner of my farm where I get to spend a winter day adds to my delight. Slow, easy work is healing, helpful, cleansing. To notice, tend, and love in such small ways is an often overlooked, yet immensely meaningful contribution to the greater good. I know how these little tasks all set the stage for next year’s success. Restorative work is a luxury I most often enjoy in winter.

When the days grow short and dreary, we think that life outside our homes is dull. But life is still alive! Ecological mystery surrounds us—we only need shift our mindset. Austere can be fascinating. Stark can be beautiful. Winter does not need define us—we can define winter. A good raincoat, warm socks and the right attitude is the place to start.

The more I get outside, the more restorative work I take on with a measured, easy pace, the more I come to love the rain, the dampness, the uninhibited restful nature of winter. Simple, meaningful work, great food, time for contemplation and time for rest – these are the hallmarks of my winter days.

As Thanksgiving draws near, I give thanks for the recuperative power winter offers me. I remember that no matter the weather, there is always a lovely world outside. Just because it does not look as inviting as summer, does not mean it is not beautiful. The door is always open. I need only release my expectations, drop unhelpful comparisons and be willing to truly value the everyday miracles surrounding me.

Inevitably, at least once each winter, I’ll find myself caught in a prolonged deluge of rain. That’s when I give into the best of the season. I decide right then and there to fully celebrate the accomplishments, connections and joys of the passing year.  I close my eyes. I turn my face skyward. With a smile, I just let go. ~AJ

A lot of people are waiting for Martin Luther King or Mahatma Gandhi to come back – but they are gone. We are it. It is up to us. It is up to you. ~ Marian Wright Edelman

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In Search of a Newt

autumn leaf on the ground

 

On Sunday I caught myself folding laundry just a little less hastily than normal. It was surprising to discover in my hands a new sort of patience for the task. With so many months of relentless farm work nearly behind me, this menial job suddenly had become a moment of pleasure. It may seem silly, but the simplicity of the situation made me downright giddy.

For some reason, I then remembered Eisenhower’s Matrix —the classic time management tool that prioritizes tasks based on their importance and urgency. With respect to laundry, I mused, Eisenhower’s Matrix only works so far. Depending on your philosophy, laundry starts in the delegate or decide category. Unfortunately, this isn’t the White House. So the number of assistants I can simply delegate such a task to is a sum total of zero. In the decide category (in which you schedule time to do the task yourself), my classic approach was to mentally throw the laundry in the “Take a number, the line starts way over there” bucket. Neglected, it often languishes until a critical point is reached. Usually that critical point is NCU (no clean underwear). Per Eisenhower, at NCU, the task moves instantaneously to the most critical category: important and urgent.

I’m on a roll, so I might as well air all my dirty laundry. I have never been the one who folds clothes with military precision. My shirts do not hang all in one direction and my socks often co-mingle un-attached in the drawer. None of my towels align precisely at the corners, and my sweaters are rarely stacked evenly on the shelf. At some times of the year laundry that is clean is the only attainable victory. In the peak of the summer season, folding is bypassed; the clothesline acts as my dresser.

Clearly laundry, it turns out, is at the bottom of my “priority” hamper. So last Sunday, when I experienced a moment of enjoyment from the task, and subsequently was mulling over Eisenhower’s techniques, I though more about time and priorities. As I reached for a few more clothes hangers, I began to think how I habitually determine certain tasks to be wasted time. The implication of this value judgment? If I don’t like it, or I consider it a frivolous but necessary inconvenience, I callously rush through it. The rushing is fueled by the belief that I need to be doing more important things, and when I am doing important things, I won’t rush.

buddy system comic socks in dryer

I began to take notice of the possibility and power contained in all these little moments of ‘wasted time.’ I saw how often I rushed thru the household tasks because I deemed them less valuable than the big important works of managing a farm. This value judgment seems correct – pigs need fed, thirsty plants need water: both are more important and more urgent than matching up socks, and yet in a flash I recognized the fallacy.

By rushing thru the unimportant tasks, I set a dangerous precedence. I energize a hurried mentality that without consciousness can permeate everything I do. Haste spins up this cycle. Oblivious, I begin rushing through the important tasks too. Totally unaware, I find I am constantly racing headlong toward a future that I perennially deem greater than my immediate experience.

Then, quickly came the realization that I had this choice regardless of the time of year; being present has nothing to do with the pressing nature of the workload. I thought to myself, “You know, even in July, I have to clean my clothes. Spending an extra five minutes on laundry is not going throw a big wrench in any schedule.” In fact, quite the contrary occurs. Taking a mere ten seconds longer to turn a long-sleeved shirt right side out? In a tiny but powerful way, that makes me feel right inside and out.

This mindset goes part and parcel with accepting that the farm (and my life) is a work in progress. It’s utterly defeating to think as I fold clothes, “How many more times will I have to fold these clothes?” By contrast, when I plant tomatoes each year, I never, ever, think to myself, “How many more years will I have to grow tomatoes?” Yet watering, transplanting, weeding, pruning, training, and harvesting tomatoes is infinitely more work than any minuscule time I spend hanging sheets on a line to dry!

If I prioritize little chores as less important and proceed to rush thru them, it sets the pace for everything that follows. For each task, in turns feels less important than the “bigger” things I’d rather be doing. It’s like a habit, which unattended sets me on autopilot. Now, I don’t expect I’ll ever fall in love with folding fitted sheets or matching up pairs of socks. But I think it wise to give each task its due time. If I haven’t practiced some small measure of steadiness with a mundane task, how will I have the competency to stride with a measured pace into the bigger endeavors of life?

**

On Sunday evening, my young nieces and I went walking in the canyon behind the farm. Patches of the forest path were covered with the classic sign of fall: one section of the trail was hidden by the mossy bright green of alder leaves, another by maple leaves in an impressive rainbow of orange shades. We spotted a little newt and squatted to inspect the vivid colors of its skin – the reddish brown back and carroty colored belly. I broke the spell first, and stood up, then immediately wished I’d let the girls, who were still fascinated by the little creature, continue watching him for as long as they were enthralled. Once again, my rushing habit had programmatically overridden the gift of the immediate experience. But this time, I’d noticed it.

Fortunately, Nature gave me another chance. A little gust of wind blew more maple leaves from the treetops so they came careening down around us. We looked skyward, giggling. It started raining. I laughingly said, “It is a beautiful day for a walk!” Nearly three-year-old Mae chimed in, “It IS a beautiful day for a walk!” Julia, at 5 years old, agreed. She paused, adding thoughtfully, “I hope the leaves do this next year.”

What a powerful, openhearted statement. She was full of gratitude and appreciation for the richness of this one common moment. Yet in her innocence, she was not racing forward to take any of tomorrow’s gifts for granted. I felt determined then, to find a way to live each day without the waste of haste.

From here on out, the leaves of fall will serve as a reminder that each and every day is a beautiful day for laundry. Each and every day is a beautiful day for a walk. Clean clothes to fold, Ike’s power of priorities, and the three of us, there on the forest floor, with the help of a woodland creature: this is the unlikely tribe that taught me about tiny, measured intentions, that taught me how to give up rushing. Surrounding me, I see now a multitude of diminutive minutes that indeed, are one big rehearsal lesson. The pace at which I walk through the little moments informs how gracefully I navigate the big ones.

You know what? I want such grace. So I’ll practice in petite ways. For starters, I’m planning to ask two little girls to go again with me, in search of a newt. ~AJ

“Life is determined by a lack of attention, whether it be to cleaning windows or trying to write a masterpiece. ~ Nadia Boulanger

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A Beginner’s Bounty

garlic growing under hay

For eight years now, I have planted my garlic in a very specific way. I climb on the tractor and till up one full length of our field. Then it’s a race to break apart, sort and sow thousands of garlic cloves. Before dusk comes, leaf or straw mulch must be spread over the entire area to protect the exposed and fragile soil. As one might imagine, such a project makes for a long workday. This year however, the deluge of October rains washed away my method. The soil has been simply too wet to till.

Farming is never, ever the same! I cycle between the confidence of my experiences and the humility of facing many unknowns. So many of the variables we farmers must navigate are imbued with a headstrong sort of energy that frequently defies the easy repeatability found on a manufacturing floor. Soil, seed, weather, water and our environs all collaborate but not always consistently. Really the only stagnant thing about farming is the human’s mindset—it’s never the work itself.

Which is why I’ve learned when such uncontrollable variables thwart my plans, it is best to humbly re-evaluate my purpose. When I have to start over, I like to go back to the basics. I try to tap into the bounty of a beginner’s mind, where anything is possible because nothing is mired in assumptions.

With respect to the fall rains, on one level, our goal was to overcome a soggy seeding challenge. But on another, our ultimate aim is one of land and community stewardship. As farmers we are tasked with sustaining a very important public service. If I get soil care right, we all have a chance at eating. If I get it wrong, garlic will be the least of our worries.

 

So, it is pure delight (read: on my List of Top 5 Joys of Farming) when a beginner’s method successfully overcomes a challenge in a way that is far superior to a previous ‘learned’ approach. When this sort of thing transpires, i.e. I not only recognize the invalidity of my approach, but I actually find a way to cease doing it? This sends me giddily OVER THE MOON.

In this fashion, we solve our garlic dilemma. Two shifts made the difference. First, we realized the tractor was entirely unnecessary. Second, we worked small. One after another, we did the next little, right thing.

Blessedly, early last week it stopped raining. On an afternoon walk through our field Brad and I pulled back one corner of the black plastic that had covered our summer cucumber bed. I plunged my hands in, squeezed a palm-full of soil and dropped it from a foot high back onto the ground. The soil crumbled apart nicely instead of sticking together in a big heavy clod. This was promising! Brad removed a fifteen foot section of the plastic mulch and hand raked the soil with our old, simple four-tine cultivating hoe. I gathered up only two of our six garlic varieties and a cart full of wheat straw shocks. I began breaking apart bulbs of the hardneck garlic named Music, while Brad removed the occasional aisle weeds and loosened the soil. Worm after earthworm appeared from under the old mulch. We rejoiced – knowing then how completely damaging and unnecessary tractor tilling would have been.
In two hours, we’d planted fifty feet of garlic. Over the next five days, in between rain showers, it would take only two more afternoons to complete our work. There was no rush. We could start and stop easily. At each juncture of this journey, I remained a beginner. Each next, little, right thing I experienced through fresh eyes. Bit by bit, we gave ourselves to the task, savoring the time it took, not belaboring the fact that it took time. This garlic planting was not grand, not overwhelming, not dominating. It was not tractor engine loud, fast paced or exhausting. Forced by the weather, I gave up the ways in which I had been told it should be done. I let go of so-called expert opinion and efficiency-at-all-cost. I started over. An intrigued novice, I had the luxury of awareness.

In the quiet of those few autumn days, I broke open each bulb while watching Brad carefully preparing the brunette-colored soil. I witnessed this beautiful work unfolding. Earthworms, soil structure, farmer health, community stewardship, all remained intact. A golden light reverberated off the glowing maple leaves and filled the sky with a richness that summer often lacks. I spent a few hours in an October farm field with the Loves of my Life.

autumn leaves

Lesson after lesson, my profession keeps on handing out learning assignments. The 2016 garlic was a reminder in the value of beginning again, of starting small, of doing the next right thing with full awareness. Good Food. Grown with Love.

Susanville, Polish White, Red Toch, Music. As I inked the garlic names onto wooden stakes, I marked the moment as one that rekindled for me the pleasures, power and purpose of my journey. ~AJ

“If your mind is empty, it is ready for anything. In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities; in the expert’s mind there are few.” ~Shunryu Suzuki

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Garlicky Fingertips

garlic plants growing

This is the week for garlic planting. At least that is what the calendar states. The saturated soil and pouring skies are singing a different song. So we farmers will acquiesce; it’s one more chance to practice something I call ‘the patient pause.’

The patient pause isn’t a stall out. It’s not a giving up or admission of defeat. Rather, the patient pause is a moment of reassessment. It’s a reminder that when I feel stuck, the stickiness is only a feeling. In actuality, I have a choice. Re-evaluating one’s situation represents a choice with substantial consequences.

The patience part of the pause is critical. Anytime one starts mucking around in self-inquiry, our stuck-in-a-rut ways of doing things can come irascibly roaring to the forefront. With respect to the garlic, it seems stupid to ask, “Why do we bother planting garlic?” But as I patiently wait out the rain, I pause to consider this very question. The patient pause is a chance for me to re-commit myself to the valuable effort, time and investment I am about to make. Is my standard operating procedure still worth it?

dried garlic ready for planting

To plant garlic, one must break apart the bulbs, select the largest cloves, and tuck each individual, correctly oriented, into the cold soil. As we grade for size, our hands probably touch 3,500 cloves of garlic in order to select the 1,600 most valuable for planting. Depending on the variety, the breaking apart of cloves is sometimes easy and sometimes hard. No matter what, it is our hands that carry the heaviest load. Gloves or no gloves, days after garlic planting, my garlicky fingertips will remind me of their industriousness.

How incredible, I think to myself, to have two gracious and strong hands. Year after year, my palms and fingers labor in concert to make new life possible. It is only hands that possess the miraculous, agile strength it takes to separate bulb after bulb, yet be so gentle as to not to bruise or break the tender life inside.

The patient pause re-affirms for me that I am making the right choices with my time and skills. But more often than not, it also drops me down square in the lap of gratitude.

To many outsiders, my profession—in fact my whole ‘simple’ life—seems unduly mundane and restrictive. But the world I choose to inhabit is ultimately a liberating one. I have the responsibility and the pleasure to shape each of my days. I am not cornered into maintaining systems that no longer suit me. I am not saddled with preserving a status quo.

I love my farm. Even when my work is hard to love, I love my work. Despite every rigid requirement weather and soil ask of me, I still carry the gift of choice. In fact, it is the precious why and the gritty how which create the structure of my life. Amidst all the touted busyness of business, I hold most assuredly to the formidable beauty of the patient pause. ~AJ

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Weather Talk

autumn leaves in the fields

Few things seem to be more inextricably linked than farmers and the weather — or more accurately, farmers talking about the weather. So it might surprise you to know that between these two farmers, weather talk takes up a very minuscule amount of time. We of course, use forecasts to tentatively plan our workweek, as some tasks can’t be done in wet, muddy or overly hot conditions. But I say tentative because most forecasts can be trusted as far as you can throw the forecasters themselves.

Why we discuss the forecast changes, just as the weather does. In the summer, we are mainly focused on upcoming bouts of high heat. Knowing ahead of time gives us an opportunity to deeply water sensitive crops, set up shade cloth, move potted plants out of the baking sun, and fill wallows and water troughs for animals. In the spring and fall, the weather changes with great frequency, sometimes flip flopping all day long, and often on a dime. But nonetheless, we keep an eye on the forecast attempting to pick the best string of days for transplanting or working the soil. In the winter months, frankly, we just don’t care to waste our time reading forecasts. After ten years, I can usually tell by the clean, hard skies when we’re headed into a significant cold snap. It is then we gather the buckets and supplies to break ice and carry warm water to livestock, and we cover the storage crops resting in our un-insulated shed. Here’s the funny truth. The only time I’ve ever seen Brad read the weather report every single day is when we are on a fishing trip, because fishing is serious business!

Yes, at the risk of shattering this long held farmer stereotype, I submit this fact: we often go days, sometimes weeks, without reading or discussing the weather. Why? Because our commitments are, well, commitments. We promise to deliver vegetables every Saturday, which means we need to harvest every Friday. Rain or shine. Cold or hot. Muggy or windy or soggy or dry. The weather affects the pace, tactics and even the order of harvest, but it doesn’t change the harvest itself. So why spend any time crying over spilt milk? Why spend any time wishing for something different? If it’s hot, I think about how good it will feel to sit down to a glass of ice water on the porch, followed by a nap. (Farming has taught me that catnaps on hot summer days are the most wonderful naps of the whole year. It is so restorative to rest quietly after a satisfying morning’s work.) If it’s a deluge I’m facing, I treat myself to multiple cups of hot tea to warm up my fingertips. (In the interest of full disclosure, there is also sometimes a lot of dark chocolate involved.) In short, we dress appropriately, we prepare properly and we get on with it. The farm? It’s a “no weather whining” zone.

I learned a long time ago not to make the weather my adversary. It is amazing how much energy fighting something you truly cannot change can sap out of a person.

Truth be told, the most frequent time we find ourselves caught in weather lamentations is when we are talking with community members. Especially as summer shifts into autumn, we hear sighs, groans, and a fair number of ughs. A wise friend once told me about confronting situations we don’t like. We all have two choices she said. You can change the stimulus or you can change your response to a stimulus. In the case of weather this means creatively changing your environment, or deciding not to whine about the weather (and just eat more chocolate instead). But what you can’t do is change the weather itself.

Now, all the disparaging weather talk is a little bothersome to me, but that doesn’t mean sometimes the weather doesn’t actually bother me. Of course I cringe at the sound of high gusty winds, wondering if our lightweight poly hoop houses have sailed across the field and left a mangled mess to clean up. Temperatures of 100F have put me on edge with worry about keeping precious plants and animals alive. But these are fleeting feelings with specificity, not a perpetual generalized grousing. Growing so many crops and caring for livestock has opened my eyes to the diversity of climactic needs. What is ideal weather for cabbages would make any tomato droop its sorry leaves and commence to rot. What feels balmy to a pig has me pulling on extra layers. So, (except for extreme weather events), regardless of what the weather is doing, I take comfort in the fact that some of the plants or creatures under my care are thriving under the current conditions. For that, I give thanks.

Oh, and there’s one more hidden reason I don’t complain about fall rains, even though it slows our harvests and makes my fingertips ache. Fall rains are a harbinger for me of the restful, quiet days to come. Rain means my summer vacation is just around the corner. On wet, cold, harvest days, I’ll gladly put on a thicker pair of socks, don the heavy muck boots and head out into the elements. I know, just like the weather, this time will all too soon be a memory — one I’d like to remember fondly. It’s like the joke my South Dakotan grandmother taught me.

A traveling salesman commented to a Dakotan, “My, it is so windy here all the time!” The Dakotan replied, “Wind? No, we don’t have that here. But a lot of it blows through.”

~AJ

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The Wealth Beneath Us

digging holes for planting

Fall is settling in and around the farm now. Brad has built our first fire. I’ve had the pleasure of working in the fields on several autumnal afternoons and hearing the ‘trilling – honks’ of the first Sandhill Cranes passing overhead. It’s become a tradition – every year now I look skyward and call out, “Have a safe trip!”

Yes, the days are slowing and the nights are seeping further into the mornings and evenings. The chickens are discarding their summer outfits and channeling their energy into growing a winter coat of down and thick fresh feathers. Even my beloved weeds are in decline now.

October is a transition time, a time of preparation and of decisions. We drain water lines and clean out barn gutters. We make the hard choice to end the life of the plants that have fed us so unfailingly all summer, through heat and insects and even browsing deer. We take down and put away trellis supports and tools. We seed cover crops, wait expectantly for the right weather and hope for ‘not-too-much’ soil moisture to put out our garlic.

The rhythms of a decade of farm life have become familiar to me, while the anxiety of an entrepreneur’s start-up phase—of ‘so many business unknowns’—has receded. My shift in attitude is not to be mistaken for complacency. Already, Brad and I are discussing varieties, crop sequences and other improvements for the coming year. For me, the joy is truly one of refinement and innovation.

The joy is in the discovery, in the trial beds, in new crop rotations, in the first ripening of our young fruit trees. The joy is envisioning and then literally putting my hands to work. Every shift, in some way, moves our farm toward better, more thoughtful systems that support the health of farmer, plants, livestock and land.

This ‘tinkering’ restorer’s spirit of mine? It is most definitely genetic. Oct 1st marked my grandfather’s 94th birthday. W. O. Jones celebrated with his annual tractor drive. An antique tractor restorer held in the highest regard, Grandpa Jones, along with family members and his tractor club cronies, drive a procession of two cylinder tractors for several miles in a loop that starts and ends at his home. This year there were 25 tractors. It’s quite an event for the little Indiana town he’s lived in for just about seven decades.

As I travel around Ridgefield I think of the changes I’ve seen in our “little town” just over the last three decades. I think about both the blessings and challenges of living in a community which is experiencing substantial growth. Our little town is now a growing city and the rolling fields surrounding it are increasingly valued for housing. In one Farmer’s humble opinion, this is a shortsighted waste of our most precious natural resource: irreplaceably rich soil.

I read and hear of many farmers across our country who struggle to grow food in harsh climates that contain scare resources- places with poor to no topsoil, places with not enough water, places with contaminated land that cannot grow healthy food. Ridgefield is incredibly fortunate. In fact, I would argue that Ridgefield has some of the finest soils and climate for producing food in our entire nation.

The native abundance of our locale has endowed us with the irreplaceable building blocks to support a robust, stable food system. Astoundingly, we have a true economical asset that happens also to be of great beauty; it troubles me deeply to watch such wealth scraped up by bulldozer and hauled off like trash from more and more parcels.

We as a community are foolish to waste this gift. We are shortsighted not to value and protect the asset at our feet in a way that, no different than compounding interest, will support our health and wealth year after year. Unlike thousands of other communities, Ridgefield actually has the resources (soil, water and climate wealth) to sustain the necessary food infrastructure for our residents.

Just as we set aside lands for roads, water treatment facilities, power generation and distribution, schools, parks and community facilities, we need to allocate space and soil to produce food for our citizens.

Not all of us need become farmers to learn to value the riches at our feet. But we all need to learn to see food production as a basic right, a right that any forward-thinking community protects and ensures for its residents.

As the rain soaks our fields this October, Brad and I are thinking deeply about our place in the community. While we select seeds for spring planting, while we cut firewood and mull over machinery improvements, while we store away onions and pick apples, we continue to imagine the wonderful possibilities. In my tinkering, restorer’s way, I am holding out hope. For in my heart, I can envision a Ridgefield that has revitalized its proud food and farming culture, one that treats our incredibly priceless soil with reverence. Maybe then I too, at age 94, could have the pleasure of a birthday tractor drive. ~AJ


“What is soil? Soil is basic to life. It is made up of rocks, minerals, roots, insects, small animals, bacteria and other living and dead materials. It is an association or community of all these parts. Man’s primary needs of food, shelter and clothing come from the soil.” — 1969 Clark County, Washington Soil Conservation Service Brochure

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In Praise of Weeds Pt. 3

detail image of weed

Part 3

The longer I farm, the deeper my appreciation of weeds grows. Why? Over three weeks, I’m sharing my top three reasons. In week one I elaborated on how Weeds Heal. Last week I wrote about how Weeds Nourish. This week, I’ll explore how Weeds Teach.

Let’s go back in time to my very first years as a farmer. As soon as I bought myself some good weed resource books, I started learning the names and brief snippets about a few of the more widely spread and common weeds of my fields. That’s when a curious thing happened. I started to take more notice of them. I watched when and how long it took for each of them to sprout. I connected their individual growth habits to the seasons, and to bouts of warm, cool or freezing weather. I noticed which vegetable crops certain weeds companioned themselves to. I took note of how rainfall, irrigation practices and certain weeding techniques affected them.

Then another curious thing happened. I started to actually care about my weeds. Who were they? What did they need to survive? What were their strengths and what did they excel at? Who seemed to be their “friends” and “associates”? What insects and plants depended on them, supported or hindered them?

I learned that Burdock thrives in soils very low in calcium. I learned that male Canada thistles look different than female Canada thistles, (Circium arvense), which both look very different than the Bull Thistle (Cirsium vulgare). I learned that all thistles gravitated to acidic soil, but could be mostly eradicated with applications of lime and consistent, vigilant extraction of their deep taproot.


April's Uncle Larry

My Uncle Larry, a.k.a. The Whistling Thistleman, spent the first years of my farm endeavor dedicated to (in his words): “The extirpation of the vile prickly beast.” He was tireless in his efforts to pop out of the ground prodigious amounts of long white thistle taproots all the while whistling extensive scores of classical music. After many years of service, and several pairs of leather gloves, he has succeeded in reducing the thistle population to a very manageable situation in our cultivated beds. While several varieties of thistles thrive in hedges and un-mowed fencerows around the farm, these days it is a surprise to come upon one when I am weeding, and when I do, a sort of nostalgia washes over me. Thanks Thistleman!


I learned that crabgrass needs consistently moist soil to become established. I learned that field bindweed prefers loose mulch and will spread like wildfire once rooted. I learned that pigweed thrives in highly fertile, finely tilled seedbeds. I learned that certain thistles maintain a symbiotic relationship with ladybugs and lacewings (beneficial insects) and nesting birds1 that I still don’t fully understand, but respect nonetheless.

I know that all this sounds like one big undertaking. But actually, miraculously, over time, it just happened; it just keeps happening. The biggest hurdles I need overcome are ego driven, of aesthetically wanting things to be just so.

For instance, one thing that used to bother me was that regardless of what cover crops I seeded in my fields in the fall, by spring there was never the perfectly uniform stand I envisioned. Nature had planted a whole different series of “weeds” in and amongst my selections. I use to foolishly think of this as a failing, but as I mentioned in my essay Weeds Nourish, I have come to be grateful for Nature’s continuous additions. Moreover, as time passed, my gratitude became multi-layered.

Not only do weeds help feed my soil, they teach me; weeds literally write messages in the fields. Weeds are a way I can communicate with Nature.

Biodynamic pioneer Dr. E.E. Pfeiffer is the author of the book Weeds and What They Tell Us. Dr. Pfeiffer explains how different plant families can visually identify many important things about the state of our soils, including texture, drainage, specific mineral deficiencies or excesses, acidity and organic matter. For me, this was the proverbial light bulb coming on. I came to see that the more I knew about my weeds, the greater insight I would have into the health of my soil. Instead of costly soil tests, expensive soil boring tools, or ongoing lab analyses, my weeds could teach and direct me to take the right steps toward restorative soil health. This is another reason I’m so thankful for Nature’s additions to my cover crop fields. Every year, I get the chance to learn more about my farm’s soil. I get to go out and “read the weeds.”

Developing a deeper relationship with my farm weeds has been transformative. I used to walk each section and lament, seeing the outbreak of this weed or that and wanting nothing more than for the problem to “go away.” But after learning how interconnected the lives of many ‘ordinary’ weeds are to soil, insect and avian health, I now walk my fields with a strong dose of pragmatism and curiosity. I look at weeds like newly surfaced clues that, given time and attention, will bring me close to understanding the truth below the soil.

In this way, weeds help me move past the superficial aesthetic and into Albrecht’s realm of really “seeing what you are looking at.” Even with my human’s relatively poor sense of smell and taste, as long as I keep building up my relationship with weeds, I can come closer to being as astute as Albrecht’s cows. I can evaluate every plant by its hidden truth. I can decide more skillfully if it is worth the effort to engage or if I am better off passing over it and moving onto greener, ‘healthier’ pastures. In my fields, I am no longer burdened by stereotypes or shallow judgements.

I will be forever grateful that weeds have challenged my philosophy, my physical strength, and my mental fortitude. My work with weeds has allowed me to break out of the cookie-cutter-neat-and-tidy box and accept and respect all plants for what abilities and strengths they bring to the farm. Gene Logsdon, author of The Contrary Farmer, once wrote about his vision of a healthy pastoral economy, in which many skilled and dedicated people worked to ply their unique crafts in concert with the surrounding community. I try to approach all the plants in my fields with the same ethic, one he so perfectly described as both, “independent and interdependent.”

***

In the ecosystem of the coast, one finds the relatively uniform environment of the sandy beach and the turbulent dynamic ocean. In between, where these two worlds meet, is a third unique and special landscape. The ever-changing shoreline is a spiraling system of give and take, advancement and recession, enfoldment and exposure. I think of my farm as that shoreline ‘edge,’ a place between uniform, human dominated landscapes and the rush and roar of a wild, native environment. As an organic farmer, it is my role to be both interpreter and steward of this transitory place.

Here at the edge, great exchanges of energy, knowledge and connection occur. At the edge, things are constantly evolving. At the edge, there is sometimes chaos, upheaval, loss, and the messiness of motion. But by living and farming at this edge, I am pressed to remember everything is not rightfully mine to manipulate; that everything exists for reasons I most certainly cannot yet fully understand.

With respect to weeds, it is with great humility I believe we must ask: How close to the wild am I willing to live? How close to the unmanaged ecology of place do I have the courage to embrace? As a society, we fear judgment from others if our lawns do not resemble Parade of Homes landscapes, or Sunset Magazine cover-spreads. Yet persistently we crave the beauty of forests and meadows, which thrive in blatant contrast to such sterile, hyper-managed and groomed landscapes. It is ridiculous how much energy and resources the latter types of places suck out of our world and by contrast, how naturally and restorative the former ones keep on giving.

Walk for only a few minutes through a manicured, fussed-over site, and you will notice immediately if any one thing is out of place. You will be disturbed by anything that is un-pruned, in disarray, non-uniform, or even just ‘in need’ of mowing. In such an environment, judgment and comparisons rush in, and these critical feelings overpower any sense of wonder or contentment.

Now instead, go and sit in a wild meadow and not one thing seems out of place. Not one thing needs fixed or tended or tidied up. Not one thing is wrong or growing where it is not wanted. Out here on the edge, we seek to move closer to that place of peace, where nothing is actively being judged or compared, most especially not our own weedy selves. ~AJ

“Each plant is an indicator. This is an inevitable conclusion from the fact that each plant is the product of the conditions under which it grows, and is thereby a measure of these conditions. As a consequence, any response made by a plant furnishes a clue to factors at work upon it.” ~Botanist Fredrick Clements, 1920

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Stalk & Stem: Why Do We Trim?

kale stalks image

Each week, I stand for several hours at the packing shed sink cleaning produce for our CSA families. This kind of work provides wonderful contemplation time. Recently, I caught myself trimming the stalks on a crisp bunch of greens. Before the rough ends hit the bottom of the compost barrel, I thought, “Why did I do that? Surely it wasn’t just to make it look neat and tidy?!” Upon further consideration, I remembered my early post-college days and the first kitchen sink I could call my own. Until the farmer’s market opened in the summer, I bought my vegetables at the old Hy-Vee grocery store in the center of town. The browning, wilted ends were a give-away as to the true age of the produce. Having been trucked in from a long way off, the decomposition process was clearly evident. This is where I first picked up the habit of trimming all my produce. I remember cutting inches off the bottoms of winter greens, ‘just to be on the safe side.’ But now I that I have the privilege of cooking with such fresh produce, my engrained behavior serves no purpose.

TO TRIM OR NOT TO TRIM

When we pick up the paring knife, we are making a critical decision: we are deciding what is edible and what is not. Unless composted, what we deem to be “not edible” contributes unnecessarily to the painfully large amount of food waste in our country.

In my own kitchen, I chop up stems, (including for instance, that [carefully washed] part of the carrot where root becomes top) and sauté them in the pan at the same time the onions and garlic go in. Just by giving the stems a little longer to cook, they are more than edible. By the time the soup or casserole or pasta is finished cooking, the trimmings are as tender as can be. These ‘vegetable edges’ disappear into background flavor and sometimes make two servings into three.

When I’m not planning to sauté, a grater, blender or thin dicing with a knife reduce my stems and stalks to palatable, non-stringy bites that add crunch, color and/or body to whatever raw dish I’m making.

When I have more stems and stalks than I can use in one recipe, I find a way to preserve them. It is easy to keep cleaned, chopped ends in a gallon ziplock bag in the freezer. On a cold day, you have the makings for a great stock. Likewise, it is easy to let carrot tops or extra parsley stems dry like herbs on your cutting board. I find I use them more frequently this way because the are so visible and accessible.

With corn on our list this week, I’ll offer one more tip a favorite chef taught me. After you cut your corn off, save those cobs! Corn stock is a welcome winter treat in our house. It can be made with the carrot tops, parsley stems or even just water and cobs. The aforementioned favorite chef once made me a corn soup that was simply corn stock, salt, and cream. I can still taste that rich meal!

YOU DON’T HAVE TO TAKE IT OVER THE TOP

In the interest of full disclosure, I’m not overly strict about stems and stalks. There are times when the bitterness of a stem or core is just too much, and I’m certainly not munching on things like grapes stems. The point is to think first, then act so that discarding a part of the vegetable or fruit is more the exception than the rule. Out in the packing shed, back at the sink, every stalk or stem I come across, I think to myself, could my families reasonably be expected to make use of this part of the produce? If not, I keep it at the farm to feed our chickens and to feed our soil. Thanks to my packing shed musings, I’m no longer trimming for looks or out of habit. Nature works hard to feed us. Meal after meal, this is a blessedly simple way we can show our respect.~AJ

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In Praise of Weeds Pt. 2

weeds on april joy farm

Part 2

The longer I farm, the deeper my appreciation of weeds grows. Why? Over three weeks, I’m sharing three reasons. Last week I wrote an essay on how Weeds Heal. This week I share how Weeds Nourish. Next week, I’ll explore how Weeds Teach.

Weeds Nourish. If the fact that we need weeds to protect our soil isn’t enough reason to rethink a relationship with ‘noxious’ plants, how about this statement: If we look at the origin of the word we find the Anglo-Saxon, “weod” means “little herb.” If herbs are intended for healing, then weeds are also for healing – of the soil. Many weeds act as collectors of minerals. When they die and decay the minerals are added back to the soil in a form which is available to plants. The purpose of weeds is to correct soil problems.1 Do you remember the “pesky” dandelion I wrote about earlier this summer? Viewed from a soil building perspective, dandelions are anything but ugly nuisances. Dandelions are providing much need minerals to the depleted soils of turf grass lawns.

Because growing food crops entails compromising (disturbing and exposing) topsoil, careful organic farmers utilize the unique characteristics of a diverse number of ‘weeds’ like dandelions to help mitigate such practices. Seeding plants not to harvest and sell, but specifically to improve soil health is known as cover cropping. I think of cover crops as the food I grow to feed my soil.

In fact, some of the plants we use as cover crops, including mustards, buckwheat, vetch, clovers, chickweed, grasses, and rye are, depending on whom you ask, considered “weeds.” But in the right place, at the right time, these ‘weeds’ add tremendous value to our farm system.

Out at the farm, it’s September. You’ll notice our potato, onion and spring brassica fields have all been disked under. The soil looks uncomfortably “bare.” But as an absolute rule, after we harvest a crop, we never leave the soil unplanted. Last week we planted field peas, rye, wheat and clover. This week we’ll be seeding oats, daikon radishes, ryegrass and vetch to the mix. Each of these plants is selected for multiple reasons, all of which are devoted to improving soil health.

But of course, we aren’t the only ones working to keep our soil healthy. SARE2 describes a cover crop as a plant “that is used primarily to slow erosion, improve soil health, enhance water availability, smother weeds3, help control pests and diseases, and increase biodiversity.” Sounds a lot like what weeds do too, doesn’t it?

The practice of cover cropping is a beautiful example of biomimicry, “an emerging discipline that seeks to emulate Nature’s strategies and principles to create sustainable solutions to human challenges.”4 I think weeds are, in essence, Nature’s cover crops. So this fall, out in our fields, you can be sure Nature will be planting her selections right in and amidst our carefully selected seeds. There is no doubt in my mind that next year’s produce will be the better for it. Lucky, lucky us. ~AJ


Footnotes

1Taylor, Ronald. Weeds and Why They Grow
2http://www.sare.org/Learning-Center/Topic-Rooms/Cover-Crops

3You can use some “weeds” to suppress other “weeds.” We plant several rounds of buckwheat in the summer months for this very purpose to shade out slower growing grasses. In the winter, chickweed and cress can germinate in 24 hours and reach full size in 30 days, beating crabgrass to the punch.

4http://biomimicry.asu.edu/about-us/

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