Three of the Old Plank Farmers (myself, Sammi, and Angelica) attended the Mother Earth News Fair in West Bend, Wi today. This time of year it is especially nice to take a day and get off the farm. That said, we still spent our day immersed in organic farming topics. We also ate pizza and ice cream..so in many ways it was a typical day for us!
The highlight of the fair for me was listening to Elliot Coleman speak on winter growing practices. He talked about his first-hand experience using high tunnels and other season extension methods to farm year-round on the East Coast. At Old Plank Farm we are planning to work long into the winter this coming season, to bring fresh greens and other cold-hardy crops to members of our community. Coleman's talk offered a many practical tips, some humor show-casing a few disasters--something all us farmers can relate too--and the inspiration needed to help me get focused for the upcoming winter season.
With summer CSA season barely underway, and busy as ever, it is difficult to start planning ahead for when the snow flies. But carrots don't grow overnight, especially when night is below zero. It is essential to put some serious thought now towards what we can harvest here in Wisconsin later this year. An hour listening to Elliot Coleman was just what I needed to get focused. I jotted down a full page of notes during his talk, even though I usually don't take many notes at all during lectures. After the talk I folded up my sheet of notes and tucked it in the back pocket of my jeans. Then, on second thought, I took the paper out and put it in my front pocket, where it would be safer. Don't want to loose that, I thought to myself. Then I laughed, realizing that in my back pocket I was carrying around $50 cash. Maybe a page scribbled with notes from my long-time farming idol and winter-growing veteran Elliot Coleman really is worth much more than that.
It's a quiet Sunday evening at the farm. No one is out in the fields save the occasional deer and rabbits, the sun is quickly setting, and the wind has finally taken an evening off. We've had several big storms come through over the last week. And with the storms came plenty of rain. How much rain? Plenty of rain.
There are times when numbers come in handy, and times when adjectives do just fine instead. 1 inch of rain, or "plenty" of rain? I find myself favoring the latter type of description more often these days. It seems more accurate from the farm's perspective because it's based on qualitative observations of the farm. It's linked closely to the life within the farm, and it forces me to be a part of that link.
So what is plenty of rain? I have my own benchmarks to measure rain. Instead of looking at a rain gauge, I look for specific puddles after a rain. I find that if we have puddles on the path between the pigpen and the trial garden, we've had a good rain, enough to saturate newly planted fields and give me a night off of irrigating. And if we have super soggy gravel in the spot between the chain link fence and the tree with the day lilies underneath it, that means we've had a lot of rain and it will be too wet to work the field that day. Likewise, I know that if water doesn't start leaking through the kitchen roof of the old mobile home that means we haven't had enough rain yet to call it a good rain. And if water does start dripping through the ceiling…well that's usually cause for cheer!
I put a lot of effort into honing my observation skills—and not enough effort into my roof-patching skills—in part because I think it's critical to the success of my farm, and in part because observations are what keep life interesting. A leaf of spinach is more interesting when you notice the veins that run through it. A chicken is more interesting when you see each feather separately. And knowing the different patterns on the bark of a tree is handy when you are looking for Maples to tap. Plants and animals can't talk, and I am glad of that. But I’m also glad of how much they can tell us, if we only take the time to listen with all our senses.
Have you ever noticed how first-borns usually receive more attention than future offspring? For instance, my older sister has whole photo albums dedicated to her first year or so of life. I am the second child in my family, and you may find a few baby pictures of me, mixed in with the family albums. But there is no book of firsts for me. Then again, perhaps that's because my sister has always been more photogenic than me!
First-borns also usually receive the brunt of parental doting, which includes their worrying and their stricter disciplining. I was reminded of this phenomenon the other day, as I was watering our fourth batch of tomato seedlings. These tomatoes are already one month old, and yet I realized that I have hardly glanced at them. They slipped through the cracks of my scrutiny, but are alive and well all the same. By the time they germinated, our busy planting season was already underway, and they grew without my noticing. Meanwhile, our first-born tomatoes still receive my daily attention, as they grow up in our greenhouse. They are being trained to grow up on trellises, with the hope that they will be our most productive tomatoes. They are the serious ones, the goal-oriented ones. Meanwhile, the rest of the tomatoes will have a more carefree upbringing out in the field, where there is no trellising and much less day-to-day scrutiny. Perhaps you've also seen the first-born tomato photos posted on our Facebook page. They sure are photogenic! But did you even know that we have three other tomato plantings?
It's hard to say what causes the shift in perspective from one tomato planting to the next, or from one child to the next. I don't believe it's from any lack of love or care. I think it's related instead to a shift in how time passes. The clock may tick steadily on, but time on a farm is anything but linear. A tomato growing in March has much less competition for my attention than a tomato growing in June. Because an hour in March is not equal to an hour in June, a rainy hour is not equal to a sunny hour, and an hour in the greenhouse is not equal to an hour in the field. One isn't better than the other. They are simply different, no matter what the clock tries to tell me.
My whole world looks different after a good rain. For starters, all our crops look bigger, greener, and more lively. Brassicas are especially beautiful with beads of water surrounding their leaves and glistening like jewels in the sunlight. The plants stand out against the soil that's darkened with moisture. And unlike when we irrigate, the edges of the field get just as much water as the middle. Everything looks healthy and hopeful after a good rain.
It is good to eat thistle every once in awhile, to make sure that I can do it, and to surprise anyone who is watching and expecting it to hurt. So instead I make it look like it tastes good. Otherwise I am just a person eating weeds.
This is my all-time favorite Calvin and Hobbes strip.
I am reminded of it often when I sit down to write. Sometimes I just want to throw up my hands and announce that I am just a farmer, I have nothing else to say! This is one of those times.
I take great pride in making beds. I don't mean the kind in our homes that we sleep in, I mean the kind out in the field where we plant our vegetables. But making the perfect bed in our fields is no easy task. One obstacle we face is the never-ending supply of rocks that get in the way of our bed-maker. Even if the tractor operator—myself or Angelica—is an expert at driving straight, the beds can turn out a bit wobbly because the bed-maker ends up bouncing around rocks hidden just below the surface.
Even more difficult than getting a straight bed is getting a perfectly clean bed. This is because we gave up rototilling last season. Many vegetable farmers have a love-hate relationship with the rototiller. We love it because it pulverizes the soil, demolishing clods and creating a fine-textured seed bed that is weed-free and easy to plant. We hate it because it destroys soil microbiology, ultimately reducing soil fertility. It also creates a hard-pan below the surface and brings weed seeds to the surface. With long-term soil health a high priority at Old Plank Farm, I felt the consequences outweighed the benefits of rototilling. It seemed wise to give up the practice while the farm was still young and our systems were not yet totally dependent on the routine that rototilling provides.
So how can we make a perfect bed without rototilling? I've tried adjusting and readjusting different settings on the bed-maker about a hundred and fifty times, and I've determined that it's rare to be able to make a perfect bed if we haven't first rototilled. We can make pretty nice beds if we plan ahead, adjust the bed-maker as needed, and do a couple of passes with it. Yes, our beds are often pretty nice, but rarely perfect like they can be after a pass with the rototiller.
Yesterday I was very frustrated by the imperfect beds that we made. But rather than succumb to rototilling, I instead found myself revisiting what “perfect” even means. It's hard to visualize perfection from another perspective besides my own. A rototilled bed looks perfect because it is clean and smooth and easy to work with. But that is not always what is most important to our plants. The soil microbiology just below the surface of the imperfect bed top is what matters more to the plants. By disturbing this unseen soil life as little as possible, we're creating an environment for long term, optimum vegetable growth. We're always balancing what is best for the natural habits of our plants with what is best for our own personal gain.
In an era of GPS-driven tractors and rototillers, it's sometimes hard to be proud of a wobbly, rocky, somewhat clumpy seed bed. But trying to see a perfect world from a plant's perspective helps keep me going.