Old Plank Farm

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Stephanie's Farm Blog

Posted 11/24/2016 8:16am by Stephanie Bartel.

I spent much of last Friday putting finishing touches on Frosty the Snowman. Despite the warm sunny week we'd been having, I was in a holiday mood as I built a life-size wooden model of Frosty. Christmas music was playing while I worked at gluing pieces of charcoal on him to make his eyes and smile. But all the while the sun was shining and people were outside in shorts and t-shirts that day.

I built our Frosty out of old planks, something I always enjoy doing! The planks were scrap wood from the old mink shed we tore down last fall. It wasn't usable for a new building, but it certainly worked well to build Frosty.

He is sporting an Old Plank Farm t-shirt and carrying a sign that says "eat more vegetables." His nose makes for a tasty snack. I built Frosty so that he can be part of our float in Plymouth's Annual Christmas Parade tomorrow. The Old Plank Farmers are looking forward to being part of the event, and hope you'll come out for it! The parade starts at 7pm on Friday in downtown Plymouth.

When I finished working on Frosty last Friday afternoon it was near 70 degrees outside. Much of November had been this way. I left him in the shop that afternoon, the glue drying on his eyes and smile. I made sure to latch the shop door, since the wind was picking up quite a bit.

The next morning I awoke to a blanket of snow covering the farm. Wind chills were in the teens and the ground had frozen, as did one of our water hydrants. Wind gusts took my breath away as I went around feeding the pigs and chickens. After chores, I went into the shop, got a fire going in the wood stove, and sat next to it to warm up. I listened to the wind and watched through the cracks in the door as more snow came down. The farm was silent except for the wind blowing outside and the fire crackling in the stove. I couldn't help but notice how happy Frosty seemed to be, gleaming at me from across the shop. While I enjoy cold and snow a lot, I can't say I was ready for it yet. Frosty, on the other hand, looked especially pleased with the sudden change in seasons. Perhaps I just did a really good job gluing the charcoal to his face. 

Posted 11/14/2016 12:04pm by Stephanie Bartel.

This past week our community suffered the loss of Jerry Berg, who was killed in a car accident late Tuesday afternoon. Jerry was one of the original organic farmers in this area, long before there was much recognition for organics at all. He raised cows on his farm just outside of Cascade for nearly all of his life. Into his eighties he continued to graze cows on his farm and, equally important, to help other farmers all around the area.

I am among the young farmers who were grateful to know Jerry. He's helped my farm in many ways over the years. Favors like borrowing a tractor and other equipment go a long way on a fledgling farm like mine. There are signs of Jerry around my farm even now. He gave us the stainless steel bulk tanks that we use for washing vegetables, the manure spreader that we've hauled countless tons of compost with, and the old hay wagon we converted into a mobile coop for pasturing chickens. Two years ago, when I was just beginning plans for what is now the root cellar being constructed here, Jerry was the first to offer me a loan to help finance it. 

I can't say that I know much else about him, since our interactions were usually brief and always related to my farm. All I know is that I admired him for his dedication to sustainable farming and was truly honored when he would stop in to see how things were going at my farm.The start-up years at Old Plank Farm were endlessly challenging. Sometimes the fine line between success and failure lies in the strength of the support coming from the community. Jerry was one of the old-timers in this community who not only accepted me and my farm but also encouraged me to keep at it, and that has made all the difference. He was a role model who won't be forgotten.

Jerry didn't ever want much, if anything at all, in return for the help he gave. Perhaps long ago there were old-timers who helped him get his farm on it's feet, and, during the years I knew him, he had become the old-timer who was simply paying it forward. I hope, decades from now, I can be the same.

Posted 10/15/2016 11:38am by Stephanie Bartel.

Late last week we set about planting some winter veggies in one of our hoop houses. It was a beautiful Fall day, full of sunshine. Of course, a sunny day means a summer day while working under the plastic in the hoop house. It was a balmy 80 degrees inside and I was enjoying the feeling of summer again. How quickly the mind seems to forget the difficulties of toiling away in the heat; just one or two cold mornings makes me relish a chance to be hot and sweaty again.

While the heat made me feel like it was summer, I realized my body kept thinking it was Spring, the season for planting. Crawling around in the freshly tilled earth with small transplants in my hands is something I associate with Spring, not Fall. I kept marveling at the notion that these young plants are going to grow and mature throughout the Fall and Winter instead. I'm very excited to be trying my hand at winter growing for the first time this season. If things go well, we may have some winter veggies for sale this year, like carrots, leeks, and fresh salad greens.

And to disorient my seasonal compass even further that afternoon, Angelica had her i-pod on while we were planting. Her music of choice? Christmas songs! 

Posted 10/8/2016 5:29pm by Stephanie Bartel.

Ah, there's a leek in the well!

Alas, there is also a leak in our well.  A crack in the well casing, five feet below ground. We found it when we were digging to put the new water line for the new building. A somewhat serious problem, to be sure. But it hasn't set construction of the new building back at all, and it will be fixed soon! That's not the only leek from this past week, though. Sometime I will write the story of this past week, and I will call it Leak Week at Old Plank Farm. Now is not that time. It's Saturday night, and I am late for game night with my fellow farming friends!

Posted 9/23/2016 6:53pm by Stephanie Bartel.

They say a picture's worth a thousand words. Perhaps these ones taken on my old flip phone are only worth five hundred. Either way, I'm not in a very expressive mood this evening, so I'll leave this picture to do the job. The walls of the new root cellar are going up beautifully, despite the over-dose of rain we've had lately.

Meanwhile, we slipped and slopped our way through a very muddy week in the vegetable fields. The gardens are saturated with moisture, but the crops look okay right now.  Our raised-bed systems are keeping the vegetables' heads just above water. But if we get another inch of rain tonight I may have to break out the veggie life-jackets.

Posted 9/9/2016 8:07pm by Stephanie Bartel.

The first of the concrete for our modern root cellar was poured today. Before the concrete was set, two dump truck loads of stone were brought in and poured on the floor of the excavation site. Then the concrete footings were poured and next week the 10' sidewalls will be poured. Then a little while after that the concrete floor will be poured on top of the stone foundation. So much stone, built into a rock solid building set into the earth of Old Plank Farm. That, in a few words, is the design of our modern root cellar. 

But set in stone isn't my style! I can hardly wrap my mind around the idea of having a building that can last my lifetime. I work with plants that live and die in just a few short months before snow flies, spring melts the snow and we start all over again. Every year over and over again and no two years in a vegetable field are ever the same. 
Besides that, I'm a do-it-yourself wanna-be carpenter with a motto "measure once, cut twice." I'm used to having perpetual building projects that are never quite done, never quite right, and never quite sure if they'll survive a heavy snow. Mobile homes and tiny homes and campers and tents and tree-houses are the usual smattering of buildings here, and they come and go and fall apart nearly as quickly as a squash plant comes and goes from the earth. 
Yet here is this concrete building that so many other talented people are building for me. I bet it will look out of place because it will be the only thing on this entire farm that is actually square. My head is spinning from seeing so much progress this week, and from seeing new machines and new faces coming and going from the farm each day. 
This modern root cellar may take some getting used to. It may be difficult to get used to having running water in the winter. It may be difficult to get used to having an office where the computer doesn't literally freeze up on cold nights. Then again, this may be one big rock I don't ever want to move.
Posted 9/3/2016 6:03pm by Stephanie Bartel.

We broke ground today on our modern root cellar here at Old Plank Farm. It took all of spring and summer to finalize the financing, get permits approved, and plan the different agendas for each part of the project. While I had hoped to have the building done before the 2016 harvest season started (actually, I hoped to have it done before the 2015 season started, but things never go quite as I plan!), I am finding that now is as good of time as any for the construction to take place. After all, it is a building that is meant to serve the farm for many, many decades, so one additional year spent now to get it done right is well worth it. I have been waiting a long time to improve our packing and storing capacities here, but I can wait a little more. 

When it is done, our modern root cellar will contain three coolers/storage rooms, a packing room, an indoor loading area, a small kitchen, and a bathroom and farm office. It is being dug into the ground for the most efficient use of space and climate control. While the building won't help with whatever seasonal challenges we face in the farm fields every year, it will help with efficiency on the post-harvest side of things here.
As the first few scoops of earth came up in our yard today with the huge backhoe, I found that--much to my surprise--I couldn't bear to watch. My nerves prickled with anxiety, and I broke into a sweat. It only took a minute for me to realize I needed to find other work to do today, and I left the excavator to do his work. It feels like my farm is undergoing surgery, I said to my friends later in the day, as the backhoe dug on, with several other folks standing by to watch. When the day's work was finished, I wandered over to see the progress when no one else was around. Our excavator had maneuvered the 200 horse-power backhoe with scalpel-like precision, cutting away the earth in just the right spots to leave the least damage to the surrounding area. So far, the farm's surgery looks like it is going very well!
Posted 8/26/2016 8:49pm by Stephanie Bartel.

It has been many weeks since I've written here. Though I think about it almost daily, writing is not a habit I'm able to keep during the mid-summer heat. We've been busy as ever at the farm, and when the day is done I never seem to find the energy to sit down and write. Compared to the energy needed to work in the field during the day, writing a paragraph or two shouldn't be as daunting of a task as it is. Yet any writer might agree that taking a pen to paper isn't any easier than taking a harvest knife to a field of salad mix.

Summer has been fairly normal here. I am ever grateful to the wonderful team of people that help me at Old Plank Farm. We've all been working hard keeping up with planting, weeding, and harvesting during the last couple of months. We've had some great CSA deliveries, and some that I felt were lacking. We've had lots of great feedback from CSA members, which I always appreciate hearing. Long days in the heat are well worth it if our CSA members are happy with what we are able to provide. I hope the best of the season is yet to come.
I feel we are well prepared for fall harvests, and the OPF crew and I will be looking forward to some cooler weather, a taste of apple cider, and the start of soup season! Several crew members leave us in the fall for school and/or jobs related to school. We'll miss Ryan, Cassandra, and Nichole once it's time to hit the books.
We're also looking forward to breaking ground on our new packing and storage building sometime in the next few weeks. With over a year of planning underway, I am ever anxious to share more about our "modern root cellar." However, until we actually manage to break ground, I will keep my mouth shut!
August will be over almost as soon as I finish this thought. Have you made the most of summer? I dread winter and at the same time I long for it. I am eager for summer to be over and at the same time I am heartbroken that it is passing so quickly. Like I said, things are normal around here.
Posted 7/10/2016 7:25pm by Stephanie Bartel.

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.

Posted 7/1/2016 6:29pm by Stephanie Bartel.
Our harvest season is underway. After next week's delivery we will already be one month into our CSA program. Time flies, and as it goes by it takes with it the never ending list of tasks, never mind whether or not the tasks were finished.
June was great for getting young plants established, particularly because of all the good rains we had. But along with the rain comes weed pressure. We have more weeds this year than ever before at Old Plank Farm. I often think of my fields as a work of art, and the excess weeds disturb the view of the vegetables. Even though some of the weeds aren't jeopardizing our crops, I am frustrated by the unfinished to-do lists. If we don't finish weeding 2-inch tall lamb's quarters (a common weed here) one week, it turns into weeding five-foot tall lamb's quarters a few weeks later. This time of year planting and harvesting overlap with weeding and we can't spend all our time on excessive weeding.
So it is the point in the year where my expectations are tested. It's been four months of really intense farm work, in everything from snow to 90 degree days. Yet so far all we have to show for it is a few spring crops, mainly lettuces, that went out in the CSA boxes over the last three weeks. The majority of the vegetables aren't ready yet, and I start to get a little crabby. So much work for so little harvest, it seems. 
Most of our upcoming fields look nicer than ever, but I don't always see it this way. My expectations for the farm and myself get more demanding every year. Every time I improve one facet of the farm, I see something else that could be done better. But at the same time I enjoy my farm and my work more every year. It seems that I am happier with my farm the more I am discontent with it. This paradox is not new to me. I see it in other people, and I've seen it in myself before. 
One of the best ways to keep my expectations focused is listening to feedback from you, CSA members! Your interest and enthusiasm and suggestions for the farm are really valuable. CSA is not just an exchange of money and vegetables. I am growing food specifically for you, and that is exactly what I want to do. It doesn't matter much to me what the going rate is for a case of carrots; what matters is if you and your family are eating and enjoying our farm's vegetables. Sometime throughout the season, I hope you'll take the time to answer some of the weekly feedback questions that Angelica sends out, or to send us an email with your thoughts about the farm, or to stop out and say hello. Doing any of these things helps keep the farm growing strong.
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