Old Plank Farm

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Stephanie's Farm Blog

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!

Posted 1/17/2017 10:49am by Stephanie Bartel.

January Idea |noun| Definition: A plan which seems brilliant in one's own mind but in reality is completely crazy to execute. | Example of January idea used in a sentence: Bringing a live ox into your living room is a January idea for how to heat your home.

As a veggie farmer who is one step away from hibernating, I find myself full of January ideas right now, stemming from a longing to be out in the fields and more active than my work this time of year allows.

A few evenings ago I sat watching the fire in the wood stove, my mind burning with ideas for the new season. My belly was full of hot chocolate and Angelica's home grown popcorn. I may not be physically active right now, but my mind continues to run marathons every day. There are so many things I want to make happen at Old Plank Farm, but each new idea that comes to mind this time of year needs to be carefully scrutinized. For example, starting a running club during planting season is completely crazy. Building a zero-gravity greenhouse is completely crazy. Using an ox to heat my mobile home...I still think that one could work...It is in this way that January comes and goes for me.

It's not that all ideas had in January are crazy. If that were the case it would make the most sense to simply pack up and head south to sit on a beach all month. Say, there's a great idea! Oh wait, it's January. I'm more of a wood stove bum than a beach bum anyway.

No, not all ideas had in January are crazy. But they are all tainted by rose-colored glasses my mind uses when looking forward to summer this time of year. While watching the fire the other night I had an idea to host a festival at Old Plank Farm to celebrate vegetables. I was thinking of a day in August that begins with a 5k race and continues with farm activities, tours, and opportunities to try our vegetables and our veggie pizzas, and ends with an outdoor movie on our lawn. It sounds like a lovely day. But it's January, and all summer days sound lovely right now.

Farmer or not, you have undoubtedly had your own January ideas now and again. They certainly keep life interesting! As for me, I'm mostly just working on field plans now and keeping the fire going. And choosing a 5k route.

Posted 1/5/2017 9:20am by Stephanie Bartel.

Happy New Year from Old Plank Farm!

My new year's resolution this time around is to eat more vegetables. Oh wait, my resolution is to grow more vegetables...but I hope that one of your resolutions is to eat them. And the best way to get excited about eating more vegetables is to join Old Plank Farm.

After a couple of months away from the farm fields, and mostly away from the computer too, I am now thrilled to be kicking off the new year with our 2017 CSA plans. Sign-up season is underway and 25% of our shares are already sold. You can sign up today at our website.

I am very grateful to everyone who plans to be a part of the farm in 2017. We have you in mind as we plan for the coming season. We'll be growing more vegetables than ever and hope that you'll join us in eating them.

Best wishes for a fantastic 2017!

CSA Sign-Up

Our 2018 CSA sign-up season is now open! Sign up early to fill out our pre-season vegetable preferences survey.