Old Plank Farm

Stephanie's Farm Blog

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.
Posted 4/5/2016 9:10pm by Stephanie Bartel.

Over the years, I've struggled to keep my seedlings warm in March and April. We continue to have freezing nights well past the time that we need to be starting tomatoes, peppers, and many other seedlings that need balmy growing conditions. Like tonight, for example, it's hard to believe that just two layers of plastic are what separate my seedlings from the cold, snowy weather. But it's not the two layers of plastic over the plants that keep them warm. Rather, hot water circulating through the benches where they sit is the key to their comfort, health, and growth.

As I've mentioned before, we recently built a radiant heat system similar to one that you might see installed in a bathroom floor. The main difference is that instead of built into a floor in a home, we built our system into benches in a greenhouse.

Angelica helps build the new benches.

Our new benches have been running for three weeks now, and I'm fairly pleased with how the project turned out. Our old system transferred heat through the air, which was far too wasteful. The new set-up allows for heat transfer in the most efficient way possible, from circulating hot water through concrete and into the roots of our plants. We ended up building six benches, each 6'x10', which hold a total of nearly 200 flats of seedlings. The space is quickly filling up!

The system runs off of a 40-gallon water heater. From that I set up a closed loop of PEX tubing that circulates throughout concrete bench tops. The closed loop means warm water is constantly returning to the water heater, so the temperature is fairly easy to maintain, even on below-freezing nights.

So far, this year's seedlings look healthier than ever. The environment is stable and low stress for them, and for me too. Compared to other greenhouse heaters, the material cost was fairly low. However, it took a lot of work to set up. And some stress, too! I learned a thing or two about thermal dynamics, soldering, pressurizing a closed-loop (don't forget to bleed the air from the line!), and how to use a cement mixer. As a vegetable farmer, I often find that I have to learn new, random skills to complete projects related to our work with growing vegetables. How do I build a greenhouse bench? I wondered earlier this year. Right about the time that I finish doing it is when I feel like I have it figured out. So it goes, on to something entirely different. It's not likely I'll be setting up many more radiant heat greenhouse benches in the future...but if you happen to have a seeding greenhouse that needs a new heater, come check out our system, because I'm happy to share it with you. 



Posted 3/29/2016 11:56am by Stephanie Bartel.

One way to look at a farm is to consider it as a living organism, complete in and of itself, but also connected to its surrounding environment and the world that its a part of. While a human being is a different type of living organism than a farm, I often see some similarities between the two. And even though Old Plank Farm wasn't exactly born in 2009, it is my brain child and we are celebrating it's eighth birthday this season.

Years one through seven, much like a human child, were the formative years on the farm. These early years were when the most growth took place within the shortest time period. Old Plank Farm went from 20 CSA members in 2009 to over 200 CSA members in 2015. By this measure, the farm's productivity grew to ten times its starting size in just seven years. Given the farm's physical limitations (25 acres of land), it's highly unlikely we'll grow to ten times our current size ever again.
Instead, as we enter year eight, the farm is ripe with potential for other kinds of development. Diversification on the farm is key to our next phase of growth. For instance, instead of making our CSA bigger, we are working on growing and delivering produce over a longer period of time. Starting a Winter CSA is a goal for this coming season. Plans are underway for a new packing and storage facility which would allow us to do this.
As the primary caretaker of the farm, I am relieved that Old Plank Farm is not as needy as it once was. While babies are cute, a farm in diapers doesn't exactly draw in a crowd. During year one, the farm relied solely on me to keep it alive. Meeting basic needs was a struggle. To be honest, that was totally exhausting. Over the years I've been able to give responsibilities to other people, and that has helped the farm grow stronger and more resilient. And we are constantly developing systems so that the farm can better take care of itself.
But once in awhile, I feel a little sad when I can see that the farm no longer needs me like it used to. Between Angelica and Sammi and a handful of other people, day to day work runs smoothly without much direction from me. My little third-grader is growing up so fast! I actually have free time these days, now that all my energy isn't put into non-stop care of my farm. I think I'll use my spare time to learn guitar.
Old Plank Farm's eighth birthday is definitely cause for cheer. It marks the beginning of a new phase. The farm is still quite young and it does depend on me for many things. But it is getting stronger and more independent every year. And, much like most third-graders you may know, it is bursting with life and energy and a desire to meet new challenges all the time. Now is a great time to be a part of the life of Old Plank Farm.
Posted 3/22/2016 1:59pm by Stephanie Bartel.

Sap season is in full force! The Drewry's have been processing sap and making maple syrup for nearly a month now, and the season is still going strong. This Saturday, 11am-3pm is their annual Open House. Come to Drewry Farms on Winooski Rd in Plymouth to tour their maple syrup woods and processing facilities.

Our CSA members receive a bottle of Drewry Farms Maple Syrup in one of the first CSA boxes in June. But if one bottle isn't enough, or if you can't wait until June, you can buy--and sample--the Drewry's maple syrup at the Open House this weekend.

I help in the Drewry woods in the winter, working on sap line repairs and tree tapping for the nearly 6000 taps that make up the  Drewry's sugar bush. This time of year Old Plank Farm keeps me pretty busy, but I still plan to take time on Saturday to be up in the woods. I hope to see you there.

Posted 3/15/2016 2:56pm by Stephanie Bartel.

As we head into the new season, the fields at Old Plank Farm abound with our spring specialty crop...rocks!

The recent snow melt revealed the work that lies before us. Despite picking rocks every year at Old Plank, each winter more are heaved to the surface of our fields. We'll pick many, many tons throughout the coming months, but still more will surface as time goes on. It's important to haul away rocks that could damage our equipment. I used to think that rock picking was tedious and tiring. I saw it as a battle; we had to fight the rocks in order to save our equipment from destruction. Rocks were an enemy. They got in the way of my real work, growing real crops.

In the spring of my first season at Old Plank, I asked a neighboring farmer if he would plow my field, since I didn't own a plow yet. His reply was a firm no. He politely told me that he knew what my land was like, and it was like plowing a gravel pit. He didn't want to damage his equipment. That was my first battle with the rocks. I envied farms that didn't have to deal with the rocks.

But over the years we started finding several creative uses for our rocks. My favorite project was building the outdoor pizza oven. The herb spirals Angelica built a couple years ago was a great use for some, too. Sammi has hauled many carloads to her homestead in Sheboygan where she's used them for landscaping. Now we're working on a fence line between our yard and the neighbor's yard. When it's done, I think it will be really beautiful.

The more projects we have involving rocks, the more I've started enjoying the harvest. When I walked around the farm a couple days ago and took this picture, I was surprised to find that I was actually excited about the prospect of our rock harvest this year. The work is the same, but the purpose for it has changed. There is no enemy anymore. Instead rocks have become a useful part of our farm. Instead of a battle, we use rock picking as a way to get warmed up on chilly spring mornings. We use rock picking as a training workout for Farm Olympics (a theoretical event, for now, but nonetheless fun to think about). And we use the rock harvest to beautify the farm. 

Finding purpose in whatever work we are doing is so critical to how we perceive it's value. Our whole outlook can change when the value of something has changed. And our outlook on our work ultimately leads to the success or failure in whatever it is that we're working on. On the farm setting, I've found over and over again that having the mindset of a battle is a recipe for failure. When we stop fighting, the farm starts to offer endless opportunity for meaningful, enjoyable work. And at Old Plank Farm, that includes endless opportunity for rock picking.


Posted 3/10/2016 10:19am by Stephanie Bartel.
I've heard March weather referred to as "in like a lion, out like a lamb." I think that means we start the month with harsh winter conditions and end the month with mild spring conditions. But the reality in Wisconsin is more like in like a lion, then comes a lamb, then the lion eats the lamb and then there's some zebra days before the lion eats those too and we end the month like a lion again!
People often ask me how I deal with the extreme weather and unpredictable patterns of recent years and how it affects my farm. I don't always like the extreme weather. And I may suffer some small disasters as a result of unpredictable patterns and the difficulty that comes with not being able to plan for so much uncertainty. But I am young enough that I can't actually remember what some of the old-timers tell me about weather patterns thirty or forty or sixty years ago, when weather was supposedly somewhat more patterned.
All I've known, from my farmer perspective, is the recent decade of unpredictable seasons, erratic rains, and extreme temperatures. So I don't find it especially difficult to deal with because I simply find it normal. Sometimes I have to spontaneously rearrange my week's work to accomodate 75 degree days in March. Wasn't this past Tuesday great? The farmer in me is concerned when we have extraordinarily beautiful days in March like we've been having this week, because it's somewhat reminicent of the start of 2012, the year of the drought. But the human being in me LOVES days like last Tuesday and Wednesday, and I relished getting to spend nearly every waking hour working outside.
Either way I look at it, I don't find farming harder than in the past, because I wasn't around in the past to compare it. I don't know if that's fortunate or not, it just is what it is. I have been around long enough to understand that I had better just play the weather-cards I'm dealt and make the best of them. This week at Old Plank Farm we made the best of the warm days by finishing up our new heating system in the seedling greenhouse. It's always less stressful to troubleshoot a new system during a week you don't actually need to use it. We'll be ready when the lion eats the lamb again.
Posted 3/1/2016 2:13pm by Stephanie Bartel.

The annual Midwest Organic Farming Conference was held this past weekend in LaCrosse. More than 3600 people attended, including me and Angelica. And yes, we packed our plaid, as did a tremendous number of other attendees! It was a three-day weekend packed with classes, workshops, and lunchtime and late-night discussions all about food and farming. I've attended the event for the past five years, and I found this year's to be the most valuable experience for me so far. It was also incredibly exhausting! A day in my life at Old Plank Farm is a picnic in comparison to the information overload, constant social activities, and short nights of sleep with 8 other farmer friends crammed into a tiny rental house. Fun, yes. Intellectually stimulating, yes. Happy to be home and getting ready to seed onions, YES.

The one workshop that will stick with me for a long time was about Biological Management of Pests and Disease, presented by Dan Kittredge. It was truly excellent. Even in the organic farming world there are vast differences in farm management practices. Finding someone who shares my perspective on organic farming can be challenging, but I was thrilled to stumble upon Kittredge's workshop. I had not previously heard of him, but after just a few minutes I could tell his talk was going to be a good one.

Not all organic farmers hold the same beliefs about soil health, plant health, or human health. There is some evidence that organic farming as defined by the USDA is perhaps not as great for the environment or ourselves as we'd like it to be. I find that some of USDA organic farming practices are surprisingly similar to those of a typical conventional farm. For instance, one thing in common between conventional farming and USDA organic farming is the use of soluble fertilizers to increase yields. Another similarity is the use of pesticides (conventional) and biopesticides (USDA organic) to prevent pests from damaging crops.

But what about a third option? Temporary inputs like soluble fertilizers and biopesticides act like a band-aid for a problem, and they are needed repeatedly and indefinitely. Why not work to build a farm system that has the resilience needed to ward off pests and diseases so that band-aids don't need to be administered? In truly healthy, biologically active soils, it's been shown that crops and livestock grazing those soils are not susceptible to pests and diseases.

At Old Plank Farm, we focus on soil health as a means to achieve plant health and vitality. I've studied soil health and biological farming extensively over the years. To hear someone speak about these principles in the context of a productive, profitable vegetable farm was really exciting! Dan Kittredge did just that. There were other farmers at the conference who also helped shed light on tools and techniques for developing biologically balanced farms, including Gabe Brown and Greg Reynolds. But I found Kittredge's practical experience, excellent communication skills, and charismatic energy to be the most inspiring. Along with managing a diversified farm (in Massachusetts), he founded the Bionutrient Food Association. I will definitely be continuing my education through the resources this organization has to offer.

Posted 2/23/2016 1:02pm by Stephanie Bartel.

In the classic running movie, Chariots of Fire, world-class runner and Christian missionary Eric Liddell compares faith to running in a race. It’s a great scene that discusses the challenges and triumphs of each of these life experiences. This comparison got me thinking about a similar one, between running in a race and farming.  

A farming season has all the ups and downs of, say, the mile race. On an outdoor track, the mile is a four-lap race. The first two laps are similar to spring and early summer on a vegetable farm. Farmers tend to be full of energy in spring. We work long, hard days to get crops planted on time, and we feel good doing it because we are well rested and excited to be working outdoors again. In a mile race, the first two laps are often the easiest, and a runner may go out fast and feel good doing it. By the third lap, late summer, our strength and endurance are tested. Work is more challenging because we are only halfway done with our vegetable delivery season, but we are tiring out by then and the hot dry weather can drag us down and may make us want to quit.

Once we reach lap four, autumn on the farm, we get a new surge of energy. The end of the harvest is in sight, and if we’ve been having a good season we are able to carry through to the end with a strong finish.  

But it is the warm-up to the race that has been on my mind recently, as we near the start of this new season. Just like in the mile race, or any track race, how we begin the season can make or break the entire road ahead. This past weekend, with the snow melting, the sun shining, and the warm days, I feel we have approached the starting line of our race, our season ahead. But instead of a matter of seconds between lining up at the start and waiting for the gun to go off, we often live through days or weeks between getting to the mark and when the gun goes off for planting time.

The occasional balmy February day can make a farmer want to jump the gun on planting season. The sunshine can make a February day feel just like an April one. The feeling is beautiful, but it also makes my heart skip a beat. Should we have already seeded our tomatoes? But the greenhouse isn't ready for planting yet! I long to get my hands in the dirt and my seeds in the ground. But the ground is still thawing, and I haven’t decided on this season’s bed spacing. Nervous tension mounts as I toe the starting line. A part of me wants to rush into all these early spring activities, to get ahead while the sun is shining. But a few seasons of farming experience reminds me that it is not really spring, and all those things will happen soon enough, in the first lap of our season. If we jump the gun on planting, we may suffer when the hard frosts hit again, as they inevitably do in March.

Yes, a false start can be costly. Right now, on the mild late-February days that break up the winter, we are quivering on the starting line, balanced between getting set and going! It is a true test of my patience. Staying calm and focused is critical to having a good running race, and a good start to the farming season.  And in order to help my farming self stay calm and focused this time of year, I like to lace up my running shoes and get out for a few miles on the country roads!

Posted 2/16/2016 5:16pm by Stephanie Bartel.

While I never get tired of leek jokes ("Somebody call a plumber, there's a leek in the tub!" is my favorite one when we are washing leeks at the farm), others may appreciate more variety in their vegetable humor. In which case, check out these funny Valentine's Day cards, from Modern Farmer. I especially enjoyed this tractor one.

With just a little word play it's possible to create a romantic twist out of a mundane piece of farm machinery...cool, right?! Food, good food, is always cause for celebration. On the other hand, maybe sending farm-themed Valentine's cards is going a bit far. Even though farming is cool, perhaps it's also kind of annoying to see farm themes cropping up in everyday life. I mean, there's kale socks, people putting beets in birthday cakes, and now tractors on Valentine's cards? I, of course, think all those things are great. But I am a farmer. I also happen to think that kale bouquets trump bouquets of roses, and that a wedding dress made out of Row Cover--the white fabric used on organic farms to protect crops from bug and frost damage--is a great idea. Ok, now I'm wondering if this is why I'm not married yet? But I digress.

Even if you don't grow your own food and you don't want a pair of goats on your Valentine's card, you may still want to have a farm, or several farms, be a part of your everyday life. You don't have to share my sense of humor to appreciate the vegetables we grow. By joining a CSA like Old Plank Farm, you are supporting a farm. But the farm is also supporting you, by providing you and your family with healthy food and by encouraging you to make vegetables and other real foods a part of your daily routine. Vegetables are more than a side dish. They are a way of life. On Valentine's Day and every other day of the year, too.

CSA Sign-Up

Our 2017 CSA sign-up season is closed.  To be put on our mailing list for the 2018 season, please email us at csa@oldplankfarm.com