Old Plank Farm
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Stephanie's Farm Blog

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.
Posted 6/12/2016 8:24pm by Stephanie Bartel.

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.

Posted 6/1/2016 5:12pm by Stephanie Bartel.

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.

 

Posted 5/28/2016 7:36am by Stephanie Bartel.

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.

But other things look different, too. After a good rain, my shop doesn't look as messy. My to-do list doesn't look as long and overwhelming. My broken-down tractor doesn't look as difficult to fix. And my stack of bills doesn't look as high.
 
As a farmer on fairly sandy soil, rain is the single biggest factor in determining my mood and my immediate outlook on life. I struggle more than the crops do during a dry spell. Irrigation, and the problems that come with it, frustrate me more than any other challenge I face in farming. Likewise, when it does rain I am as refreshed and renewed as my crops. Listening to rain on a summer night is the most beautiful lullaby I've ever heard. And getting rain on a summer day makes me want to sing and dance and make pancakes. 
 
So if you ever need something from me, ask me for it after it rains!
Posted 5/19/2016 5:55pm by Stephanie Bartel.
The trick to eating thistle is to make it look like it tastes good. I can do this especially well, taking a prickly leaf and placing it on my tongue like it is a delicacy. Mmmm, I'll say as I chew and swallow the weed, smiling when it goes down. It looks at first like it might hurt, being that it is a plant covered with spikes that poke into my fingers if I grab a handful without gloves. But it doesn’t. When I place a leaf in my mouth--just one, because a mouthful probably would hurt--and start to chew, the prickers disintegrate and all that is left is a leaf that tastes a little like bad spinach.
 

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. 

Our first spring spinach germinated last week, but is not yet ready to be eaten. We transplanted our kale a couple of weeks ago, and it is still very small. It takes some self-restraint to keep myself from raiding the patch in the middle of the night.
 
But thistle abounds right now. Last year I thought it would be a good idea to make a smoothie with thistle. It wasn't. Yesterday I made a dandelion/lamb's quarters/thistle smoothie. It was an improvement from straight thistle.
 
Ohh, how I long for the first spinach and kale to be ready. Our CSA harvest season is just under one month away, and I don't think anyone is looking forward to it more than I am!
Posted 5/11/2016 4:42pm by Stephanie Bartel.

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.

Posted 5/4/2016 6:39pm by Stephanie Bartel.

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. 

Posted 4/27/2016 3:39pm by Stephanie Bartel.
I once read that the human mind has a finite capacity for making decisions. I'm sure there could be all kinds of debate around what this implies. In fact, it's just the sort of debate I'm sure I would enjoy! Perhaps on a less busy day, though. 
 
The point is that a person will eventually reach a point where it is not possible to make one more decision. I'm not talking about making good decisions versus bad decisions, or what/who influences decisions, or difficult versus trivial decisions. I simply mean that there comes a point where if a person has reached their decision quota, and another decision of any kind is put before them, it will be impossible to respond. 
 
As a CSA farmer, I am often hovering around the upper limit of my decision quota. The past couple of weeks have been especially trying. Spring usually is. Our 35 vegetables and 175 different seed varieties each have their own unique needs. They have different planting dates, different water needs, different spacing needs in the greenhouse or field, and on and on. Sometimes I feel like if I am asked to decide whether the spring broccoli should be 18 inches apart or 24 inches apart my head might explode! On the other hand, when it comes to deciding whether or not I should take on a 20-year loan to have a new vegetable packing and storage facility built, I know without a doubt that my decision is yes. I am in the final stages of planning for and obtaining a loan to build our "modern root cellar." It took over a year to design the building and about 15,000 decisions came with it. It is a big commitment but, if approved, it will add big potential to what we can do at Old Plank Farm.
 
Sometimes the big decisions are the clear ones and the small decisions are paralyzing. Why is that? I don't know. But I once read that people "generally don't seem to know where they are going, or why. If they did, what powerhouses they would be!" Perhaps that is part of the answer.
Posted 4/13/2016 4:37pm by Stephanie Bartel.

This week we've been working on building a new high tunnel. It will be home to our early pepper crop this spring. I like this new hoop house for two reasons. The first reason is because I bought it from Dan, my friend and mechanic who moved away to Iowa last fall. Dan has been a big help to Old Plank Farm since its beginning. Not only would he fix my tractors and other equipment, but he would also talk me through solving some of the problems myself. Helping empower me to be my own mechanic was a priceless contribution Dan made to my farm. He was friend and mechanic to several other organic farms in our area, and I'm sure he is missed by others besides me. Hopefully life in Iowa is treating him well.

I hadn't planned to build another greenhouse this year. Then, just a few days before Dan moved away from his own farm he asked if I might know anyone who would buy his hoop house, since he couldn't take it with. I immediately said that I would buy it! For some projects I spend countless hours making detailed plans, only to find that in the end nothing goes as planned. Other times I don't have a plan at all, yet things work out in perfect timing. And once in a great while I make a plan and everything goes exactly how I imagined it would go...actually I don't think that's ever happened! Neither way is inherently right or wrong. Maybe Old Plank Farm's 2016 plans aren't hinged on a need for peppers under plastic. But if we have a chilly spring, it sure will be a nice addition to our lot of greenhouses. And no matter what happens, I simply enjoy putting Dan's high tunnel to good use.
 
The second reason I like this high tunnel is because Dan built skids for it, which means we can move it around. This is our first structure that is portable, and I'm looking forward to trying it out. One purpose of a greenhouse on skids is to get two growing seasons out of just one greenhouse. For example, we want to plant peppers in the new high tunnel in early May. We'll do that, and we'll be harvesting from that planting all the way into late October, if not November. But by November it is too late to plant anything new in that same spot. However, in a different spot in September we can plant something like carrots. They will grow just fine without a high tunnel covering...until around November. At that time, we'll bring the high tunnel on skids right over the young carrot planting. There, under the protection of the tunnel, the carrots can continue to mature well into our Wisconsin winter. This is one of many tools and techniques that will help us extend our vegetable harvest season. It is nothing less than a moveable feast.
 
 
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