Old Plank Farm

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Stephanie's Farm Blog

Posted 4/4/2017 11:01am by Stephanie Bartel.

This past week or so I've been noticing perennial plants poking through the earth with this season's new growth. We have some daylilys that are coming up around the farm yard, and our garlic out in the field is looking healthy and strong. Whenever I see these, I get excited for the growing season ahead. Even though the farm is wet and muddy right now, the small green shoots of the overwintered bulbs are a welcome preview of the upcoming growing season.

What makes these perennial plants come up each spring? How do they survive a Wisconsin winter, then proceed to resurface during what is often a cold, wet, dreary season? Perhaps I should know the scientific answer to these questions, but I don't. Their re-emergence simply reminds me of their will to live. This is especially true of one little asparagus plant I saw several years ago when I had the opportunity to visit a farm out near Waupun. They had just built an earth-sheltered packing shed similar to the one I wanted to build (and currently am building!) at Old Plank Farm.

My visit that year was later in spring, and asparagus plants were sending up stalks. As we walked over to look at their new building, we came across an asparagus stalk sent up right through the middle of the driveway. The farmer said that before this was a driveway, there had been some asparagus planted there. But then the new building went in and along with it came dump trucks and backhoes and cement trucks, all parading over the old asparagus plant until there was nothing left but a compact, rock solid, dirt driveway. That was a year earlier. We stopped a minute to marvel at the asparagus. It had survived underground during the construction and then came up the next spring in it's usual way, cutting a deep fissure through the drive to make it's way to daylight. I was humbled by the willpower of that little asparagus plant.

Posted 3/21/2017 2:26pm by Stephanie Bartel.
As we set the new season in motion this month, I am often thinking about just that: motion. To sum up work on a veg farm in just a few words, I'd say we spend our time moving things around. Moving things around. Yep, that's about it. First we move plants and seeds and things out to the field. Then we spend time moving the weeds out of the way, moving water out to the plants, and finally moving the harvests out of the field and into our delivery vehicles. Okay, that's about the least glamorous description of life on the farm, but it does have a lot of truth to it.

With that in mind, I find it is worth more than a few minutes to set up systems on the farm to help make our motions easier on our bodies and more efficient for getting things done. This season, I am especially inspired to improve some tasks for comfort's sake because we are very excited that Sammi and Ryan Laswell are having another baby. That means another new field worker in five years. No, just kidding! That means that Sammi, one of our #1 field workers, will not be spending as much time in the field this season, because her baby is due in August. But in the meantime, I'm using some of my time in March (which is "project month" here) to do projects that can make work easier for her during the next few months.

One project was building a seeding station in our seeding greenhouse. I built a table that has a large hopper in the middle of it to hold potting mix. Now we don't have to lean over a wheelbarrow or potting soil bag to fill flats with soil, which is backbreaking work when you are doing it for hours at a time. Instead, you can simply sit at my new table and use the soil that flows out of the hopper to fill your flats. It kind of looks like a giant chicken feeder, where the feed (or soil)  flows down onto the trough (or table top) as it is used up. The table and hopper I built hold enough soil to seed about 50 flats at a time. Sammi (and Angelica and I) enjoyed using it to seed over 100 flats of onions earlier this month.
While we try to reduce difficult motions, we are not trying to eliminate motion entirely from our work on the farm. Our bodies are designed to be in motion, and we often feel best when we are moving and interacting with our plants. Water, the source of all life, is healthiest and most nourishing when it is in perpetual motion. Maybe that's part of why I like motion so much too...because I am 70% water, right?? Okay, there is probably zero scientific knowledge to back up my logic here. Nonetheless, all life on the farm is moving or changing all season long, and us farmers want to be a part of it too. But for the good of my whole crew, I am always trying to better understand what motions are sustainable. I suppose this is just one more piece of the sustainable farming puzzle.
Posted 3/14/2017 10:02am by Stephanie Bartel.

Nothing sums up the weather patterns of this winter better than what I saw while driving through town one day last week. As I drove past a sign at one of the banks I saw it displayed the temperature of 46 degrees F. Less than a half block later I passed a sign at a store on the other side of the street which displayed the temperature of 22 degrees F. I didn't question the accuracy of either, nor did I feel surprised or confused. I just thought to myself, yeah, that sounds about right.

Day to day tasks have been somewhat challenging at the farm ever since we put the plastic on our seeding greenhouse just before the first of March. Since then, it seems we've had nothing but crazy winds, wet snow-fall, or arctic nighttime temperatures. Each of these weather patterns takes a beating on greenhouses, and me too! We haven't had any real problems, thankfully. But I saw one greenhouse at another farm that not only lost it's plastic during the 60-mph wind last week, but also the structure itself had caved in from the excessive force the winds bestowed on it. To make matters worse, it had been a brand new structure.

So, when I was out yesterday morning around 3am clearing snow off the seeding greenhouse again, I was thinking of the favorite Christmas story "How the Grinch Stole Christmas". The weather lately has been behaving like the Grinch, trying in whatever way possible to steal the joy from my early March work on the farm. But no matter what it does, I imagine myself and the others at Old Plank--including the plants--are like the Whos in Whoville who come together and make the best of the season anyway. I trust that by the end of March the weather-Grinch's heart will grow to three times it's current size and I will not have Christmas stories on my mind anymore.

Posted 3/7/2017 10:32am by Stephanie Bartel.

I spent a good portion of the day last Wednesday pushing snow off our seeding greenhouse during the storm. While it wasn't exactly a blizzard that day, the heavy and wet snow can easily collapse our nursery if I am not there to clean it off every couple of hours while it's snowing. During the winter we take the plastic cover off the structure, so winter storms aren't a problem for us. And even though it is technically still winter right now, we have young onion plants growing, which marks the start of Spring on this veggie farm. Snow or no snow, the nursery plastic is up and our season has begun.

So last Wednesday I took no chances with the nursery and the newly germinated onions inside of it. I don't know exactly how much of a snow load this particular structure can handle before collapsing, but I don't really want to find out. About five years ago we had a greenhouse collapse in the snow. The interesting thing was that I watched it collapse right as I was walking out to start pushing snow off of it. So I do know exactly what the limit is for that structure. Then again, it isn't a structure anymore. That's the problem with practical load testing. It's really not practical at all!

Late in the day last Wednesday the wind and cold had grown stronger but the snow was starting to slow. I was sore and tired from moving snow all day, but as night fell it looked like everything would be okay. Even so, I went to sleep a little unsure of what I might find the next morning. I was recalling another time many years ago when a creation of mine was put to a load test. That time, I was in the eighth grade and I had built a bridge out of raw spaghetti to be entered into a contest at school. My bridge withstood the load tests at my middle school, while most of the other students' creations collapsed as the weights were piled on. So my bridge went on to a spaghetti bridge contest hosted by Marquette University for eighth-graders from all around Southeast Wisconsin. Again, my bridge held up as weights were placed on it to test it's strength. In the end, it passed all the load tests and I won fourth place for it being both one of the strongest and lightest-weight designs. I got to go home with my bridge still intact and my fourth place trophy, too. I proudly displayed both on the kitchen counter at home.

The next morning I found my bridge smashed to pieces on the kitchen floor. I hadn't anticipated the final load test for the structure. My cat had knocked it down and was trying to eat the raw spaghetti when I found it there.

As farmers we can't anticipate everything that may happen during a season. The extremely variable weather patterns of recent months are yet another reminder that we really can't say what is in store for us. But there are still some promises we can make to the CSA members who choose to support us. We can promise to make the most out of every crop that we grow. We promise to be prepared for whatever challenges we inevitably face when working with nature. And we promise to go out during the snow storms and rain storms or any weather at all, if there is something we can do to help protect our vegetables.

When I awoke last Thursday morning after the snow storm, I was happy to find that the snow had not collapsed our greenhouse, nor had it been eaten by a cat. And the onions inside were warm and full of life, seemingly unaware of the winter-wonderland that was only a layer of plastic away.

Posted 2/28/2017 9:52am by Stephanie Bartel.

This past weekend several of the Old Plank Farmers attended the MOSES organic farming conference, a 3-day gathering of over 3,000 Midwest organic farmers. I spent the majority of my time there sitting in on workshops related to soil fertility, cover cropping and no-till practices. Soil health--and the organic practices which foster sustaining soil health (not all "organic" methods do!)--continues to be the focus of my work at Old Plank.

One of the more entertaining and fact-packed classes I went to was led by Allen Philo, a farmer and consultant for various organic fertility organizations in the Midwest. His talk revolved around managing microbiology for soil health. One of the many unseen forces at work in our soils is microbiology like bacteria and fungi. Philo is nothing less than an expert on this subject.

While I can't recreate the eloquence or humor that Philo shared with us in his slides on elephant and e-coli weddings, I can try to summarize a couple of interesting facts about these living organisms. According to Philo, someone has calculated--based on life and reproductive cycles--how long it would take elephants to multiply until there were enough elephants to cover the entire surface of the earth "one elephant deep." This thankfully hypothetical scenario of a planet earth entirely covered with elephants would take something like 500 years. Meanwhile, the same calculation has been done for a strain of bacteria, E. Coli in the example that Philo gave. For the bacteria, it would take a mere 24 hours in optimal conditions for it to multiply until it covered the surface of the earth "one bacteria deep."

This in itself was not entirely new information for me, although the picture of elephants getting married was. I was already aware that bacteria have a fairly quick life cycle, but I found that Philo's comparison between elephants and E. Coli illustrated the relative power that micro organisms can have in the world around us. If we manage our soils in a way that encourages beneficial microbiology to flourish, they can quickly get to work at healing the land and--in our farm's case--help to grow more and better vegetables. Creating an optimum environment for those beneficial microbes to flourish is what is so difficult on a produce operation and what is ultimately the focus of my work as a farmer.

Micro organisms are among the hardest working living things in a sustainable farming system, despite how small and insignificant they may appear to be. Philo coined the term "Size-ist" to refer to a person's prejudicial thinking that larger things are able to do more work than smaller things. He urged us not to be size-ists when considering how to manage the living organisms that contribute to the farm and soil life. I liked this idea because I don't want people to be size-ists when judging me, either! Even though I am built smaller than an average farmer I can certainly be just as productive and hardworking. If I am ever unsure of my work abilities I can just think of my buddies, the soil microbials, for a little inspiration.

Posted 2/21/2017 9:39am by Stephanie Bartel.

There's a sentence I never thought I'd say. Speaking of odd things to say, I'm always amused by the names that are given to different varieties of vegetables. Searching for trial varieties to grow this season, I'm discovering lots of new names in different seed catalogs I'm reading this time of year. Lettuces in particular can be awfully creative. A favorite of mine is Amish deer tongue. It's a green head lettuce I especially enjoy growing, and last year I named my favorite chicken after the lettuce. Amish Deer Tongue is a large, blond chicken who still roams Old Plank Farm as a free-ranging egg layer. She's accompanied by Darkibor, Bunte Forellenschluss, and several other hens also named after leafy greens.

Usually I'm less creative when naming things. As a kid, my stuffed animals' names were fairly routine. I had a cow named Cow, a kodiak bear named Kodiak Bear, a smaller bear named Little Bear, and several pandas named Panda, Medium Panda, and Giant Panda. When naming vegetable varieties, it seems there are no limits to what might be used. Sweet corn varieties are pretty funny, especially Luscious, Bodacious, and Sugar Buns.

But last week I was perusing the Territorial Seed catalog and came across a variety that tops all of these. It was a lettuce--no surprise there--named Drunken Woman Frizzy Headed. I want to grow it simply so that, on lettuce planting day, I can call across the field to Angelica, Did you remember to put out the drunken woman?! In the end, I didn't order it, as we have many other trial lettuces that have more merits than ridiculous names.

These days, creativity in naming kids seems to know no limits either. I'm fairly traditional here, too. I think the names Dustin or Russell are nice. In fact, I can't think of anything that makes more sense than a farm kid named Dusty or Rusty!

And then there's MOSES. Later this week my farming friends and I head to La Crosse for the annual organic farming conference, often referred to as MOSES. This stands for Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service, the organization who hosts the conference. But when I tell a non-farmer I'm excited for Moses, a follow-up conversation is usually necessary. Nonetheless, I am excited for the conference, as always. On top of great workshops and great organic food, we are renting a house for the weekend made entirely of metal. The absurdity of sleeping in a metal house beautifully balances the nourishing and inspiring atmosphere of the farming conference. During the day we enrich our minds with new ideas for sustainable farming. In the evening, we entertain ourselves by adding magnets to the already well-decorated metal walls and ceilings.

Posted 2/14/2017 12:30pm by Stephanie Bartel.
In a little greenhouse on a bright new day,
A young pepper plant awoke to the first signs of May.
For everywhere he looked Spring was in the air.
And the eggplant seedling was growing ever more fair.
She had velvet soft leaves and wore a light purple blush.
The sight of her first flower gave the pepper quite a rush.
He longed to be near her and so felt very let down,
To be trapped in a pot where he was rather root-bound.
But the very next day just after the morning mist,
He found he was being carried in the gardener's gloved fist.
He rode in her left hand and to his delight,
The eggplant maiden also came along in her right!
The gardener dug two fresh holes then planted 'em deep.
After the transplant shock the pepper fell right to sleep.
And when he awoke it was a new morning.
His roots started to grow and his first flower was forming.
But too his dismay his leaves were still small.
Try as he might he couldn't touch her at all.
When the west wind blew he would reach farther out.
But then she'd lean away so he began to pout.
The gardener saw the pepper appeared to be wilting,
So she brought him some compost then went back to her quilting.
Days passed into weeks 'til it was mid-summer's eve.
The night air had grown hot and the pepper no longer did grieve.
For the gardener's rich compost was too valuable to measure,
At last the pepper and eggplant were happily woven together.
Happy Valentine's day, friends and CSA members! --Stephanie
Posted 2/7/2017 11:32am by Stephanie Bartel.
The other day someone asked me if I'll be ready to get back to work once the weather turns nice. I'm asked this often, perhaps because it appears that I do a lot of nothing when our world is frozen. You certainly won't find me out in the field with a hoe in my hand! (If you do, get help! And I don't mean grab another hoe and join in.) But when the world is frozen, the energy deep in the ground is actually at it's most active, and deep in my mind I am too. The earth beneath us is full of life right now, more than it is in summer when the vegetation upon the earth is most active. Plants may be dormant, or even dead, but the earth is not. Much can be done that never meets the eye.

And so I often reply, when asked if I'll be getting back to work soon, by saying that I am actually about ready to be done working and get back to playing in the dirt, once the weather turns nice. Summer on the farm is physically demanding, there's no doubt about that. But it's also a lot of work time that feels like little more than playing in the dirt.

That said, a lot needs to happen at Old Plank before we begin to plant. Our new building isn't finished yet, for one. Although the construction is coming together beautifully, it is moving at the pace of a pepper plant in March. Greenhouses are in need of repairs too, all our seed orders haven't arrived yet, the potting mix is still frozen, and I am still trying to find a brush mower to replace the one we totaled last season. Anyone have one for sale? CSA shares still need to be sold, supplies still need to be ordered, and there are still sixteen books on my winter reading list.

I am looking forward to playing in the dirt soon, but I am not quite ready for the games to begin. I trust I will be ready at the same time that the soil is ready for me. That is how it usually goes on the farm, though it doesn't always feel that way! The life of the earth may hide in winter below where the eye can see, but when I am looking I know where to find it. Likewise, I know the energy that brings the new season will soon be calling to me, ready or not here I come.

Posted 2/1/2017 11:26am by Stephanie Bartel.

It's been awhile since I've written much of anything worth reading here. Much like running or any other sport, a brief lapse in disciplined practice has left me feeling very out of shape. This dawned on me a couple of days ago, when I sat down at the computer to make a few updates to our website. The day before I had added a welcome note to the site's homepage. But for some reason when I opened up the page the next day the text showed up on my screen in a bizarre and completely incoherent symbolic font. It was just a simple error in my web-editing from the previous day. But when I saw my note there on the farm's homepage in nothing less than alien-speak, the first thought that walked through my head was oh, this must be how everyone else usually feels when they read what I write. I laughed to myself and let the thought walk on as I corrected the web-page error. When it left my head, it was replaced with the resolve to pay more attention again to my farm writing. A few days of practice and I hope to be able to lift a pen with ease again.

I suppose I bother with writing here because it is my main method of communication with you, CSA members and friends. It's this communication that ties me to your vegetables and ties you to your farmer. I really appreciate having this link, however small it may seem. Good communication is second to good vegetables in my recipe for having a good day!

And it definitely goes both ways, as I always enjoy the notes that come along with your CSA payments in the mail. My thanks to everyone who sends cards, post-its, scraps of paper or notes written on the side of the printed sign-up emails along with their checks. Even though Angelica mainly processes payments now, she shares these notes with me too. Wishing the farm well goes a long way. I hope that wishing you well, and helping to feed you well, will go a long way for you, too.

And while I take this communication very seriously, I will also probably continue to write piles of nonsense from time to time, because that's just in my nature. And if you don't think you've read nonsense from me just yet, then ask to see my short story about the man in the freezer. Sometimes a little nonsense helps to make sense out of life, anyway.

Meanwhile, I'm super excited to introduce a new and far more practical blog to you. Angelica's mother, Christine Immel, is adding a blog of her own, "The People's Pantry," to serve Old Plank Farm CSA members this coming season. "The People's Pantry" will be communicating ideas related to using the vegetables that are given out in the Old Plank CSA shares each week. Her blog will be included in our weekly e-newsletter to CSA members, not here on the public website. However, I've added her introduction posting below this, so you can get to know her a bit if you're interested.

Christine's practical experience and training in menu planning and veggie preservation makes her a great fit to help any CSA member who struggles with using up their veggies. This should be a fun and helpful addition to the weekly shares for both new and returning members. I know I'll like to read it! Because most often you will find that I have the same advice for how to use nearly every vegetable that I am asked about. That advice I usually give? Just eat it!


Preview Christine Immel's new Old Plank Farm blog, "A People's Pantry"

Posted 1/24/2017 10:37am by Stephanie Bartel.

10. I can't remember what the color green looks like.

9. I swear I'll never complain again about being too hot. In fact, I'm fairly certain I never again will be too hot.

8. Anytime the sun comes out I feel like it's nice enough to start planting tomatoes.

7. Watching a fire burn in the wood stove is the most interesting thing to happen all day.

6. I spend too much time thinking about things and not enough time doing things. I start to think I'm going crazy, so I get out and do something. Playing ice hockey when the driveway froze over was something to do. I felt better afterward but then everyone else thinks I'm crazy.

5. Even after the seed orders are done I find myself drooling over pictures in the seed catalogs every evening.

4. There's no running water again, but I swear that next year things will be easier in winter. Tenth time's the charm, right?

3. I crave zucchini and salad and parsley and everything I got tired of eating last summer.

2. Every CSA member sign-up reminds me to keep doing what I'm doing, including the dreary jobs like taxes and planting spreadsheets. Growing vegetables for you all is what I'm here for, and I intend to spend all my time making meticulous plans for a great season ahead.

1. I get excited when I see a bug in the house because it reminds me of life out in the fields!

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