Old Plank Farm

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Stephanie's Farm Blog

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.

Posted 2/9/2016 11:09am by Stephanie Bartel.

Last week Old Plank Farm CSA member Erin, from Shorewood, forwarded an article to me titled Tips for Smart Seed Shopping. It briefly addressed some concerns about seed source and seed quality that affect both farmers and gardeners. I was pleased to write back to tell her that we are patrons of several of the seed companies that the article recommended as reputable that follow the Safe Seed Pledge. Old Plank Farm's primary source for seed is Fedco, a cooperative seed company based in Maine. Other sources include High Mowing Organic Seeds, Seed Savers Exchange, Johnny's Seeds, and a small amount of our own saved seed.  

Ordering seeds from catalogs is a lot of fun. Looking at beautiful pictures of vegetables and reading descriptions that make each variety seem like the answer to all one's problems is one of the most exciting things a vegetable farmer gets to do in January. My seed wish lists are always longer and even less practical than my wish lists were to Santa as a small child. But even as I enjoy the process of ordering seeds, I am convinced that seed saved from one’s own crops is a more sustainable choice than anything a catalog has to offer.

Seeds today, even from reputable companies, don't cost too much. Seed shopping, rather than saving, is the norm. I think seeds are often valued at little more than their monetary footprint, or a 5-10% chunk of a vegetable farm’s annual financial budget. Yet homegrown seeds were once one of the most valuable possessions a farmer had. The life force contained within a seed was recognized, and generating that life force from one's own fields was priceless. This shift of perspective, the loss of respect for the power of a seed, is hardly sustainable. While the USDA places no value on saved seed when considering a farm for Organic Certification, I feel it is a vital part of a truly sustainable farm.

If saving seed is important, why don't many farmers do it? For one, it requires a level of knowledge, planning, and observation of plants that's not necessary when the only use for the plant is harvesting the edible parts, as is the case for many vegetable farmers. On a diversified farm it's especially complicated because each family of plants has a different anatomy and therefore produces seed in a different way. A lot can go wrong when saving seeds, and by the time the problems are apparent, it's usually too late in the season to correct the problem. Yields and profits can be lost.

Yes, there are many reasons that vegetable farms, especially diversified ones, aren't saving seeds. However, with a little practice, I think the benefits of saved seed will be once again worth the learning curve involved. That's why two years ago I started learning the art, and last year we began our own seed saving projects.   

As of this writing, our 2016 seed order is complete and most of our seeds have arrived in the mail. I am very grateful to Fedco and our other seed suppliers for their expertise and hard work to make vegetable seeds so readily available and easy to purchase. But for me this year, the arrival of my seed packages is a bit like the first Christmas after a child no longer believes in Santa. Sure, it's still exciting to open the packages. But it's also a bit of a let-down because I no longer believe that the magical seed-Santa will always bring us what we wish for. It's our own seeds, raised and saved right from the soils of Old Plank Farm, that I am most excited about, even though I wrapped them up for myself!

Posted 2/2/2016 2:38pm by Stephanie Bartel.

“But what do you do this time of year?” I am continuously asked this question, and often the perplexed and well-meaning citizen emphasizes the word do, as if trying to get me to admit that ever since the first snowfall I, a vegetable farmer, have had nothing to do. There are far fewer physical demands this time of year, and yes that leaves time for much-needed rest. It also leaves time for much-needed reflection, learning, and planning. These tasks, while abstract, have a tremendous impact on the health, growth, and success of Old Plank Farm. A well-planned growing season is far more resilient to the inevitable adverse conditions faced when working with the natural world.

In addition to making plans for the growing season, I am spending this time of year studying books on farming. Based on the idea that 10,000 hours of practice is what’s needed to become an expert in one’s line of work, this year I qualify as an expert farmer. But does that mean there’s nothing left to learn? I do recognize the growth in my skills since the beginning of my farming days ten years ago. But as an expert I have observed one more thing that may be worth noting: I’ll never be an expert at farming! After 10,000 hours of practice I simply have enough experience to be humbled by the nature of managing a diversified fresh-market farm. 

To help ensure a highly successful growing season at Old Plank Farm, I like to leave room for continual learning and improvement. This winter alone I’ve read nearly a dozen books on topics such as seed saving, plant genetics and breeding, farm financial management, soil health, and modern root cellar design and construction. There’s usually time every winter to reread my old standbys too, like Joel Salatin, Michael Pollan, and Bill Watterson. Some of these are more relevant to farming than others. I spend more time at the library than in my farm fields. Perhaps in winter it would be fitting to sing about the farmer in the library, rather than the traditional nursery verse about the farmer in the dell. Maybe not—it doesn’t have quite the same ring to it. But that’s where you’ll find me this time of year!         

My co-farmers, Sammi and Angelica, and I meet regularly for farm book discussions, which will help us all work well together when it’s time to get our hands dirty. We’re also looking forward to attending the three-day Midwest Organic Farming Conference at the end of the month, where there is always a wealth of new information to be had.

My father, an airline pilot, would often spend his free time studying his flight manuals when I was a child. At the time, I found this disconcerting. After all, he had already been flying planes for years; I’d hoped the passengers didn’t know that he still hadn’t finished learning how to fly! My inaccurate assumption, of course, was that my father was studying the manuals because he didn’t know how to fly. This couldn’t have been further from the truth. Thirty years later, he is one of the best captains in the world, and he still spends his free time reviewing his flight books. Likewise, one needn’t worry about my competence as a farmer just because I am still reading books on the subject. Quite the opposite, in fact. I don’t intend to ever stop learning, or farming, or reading Calvin and Hobbes.


Posted 1/26/2016 10:54am by Stephanie Bartel.

Let's face it, farming is cool. Especially organic farming. That simple, albeit subjective, fact is perhaps one of the biggest reasons for the current successes of the local food movement. I’m no trend-setter—although for a brief period I did think that collecting clocks would make me cool—but I am proud to be among the organic farmers who are helping spread the move toward healthier foods and more sustainable growing practices.

As little as one generation ago, I don't think farming was as trendy as it is perceived to be now. You certainly couldn't find "I heart Kale" running socks to wear. Now you can buy them at Target and wear them to local races, like the Old Plank Farmers did last month! Thirty years ago, CSAs were virtually nonexistent. And becoming a farmer? That was anything but cool.

There are many more important reasons to join a CSA than simply because it is cool. But that sure is a powerful one. After all, isn't that why more than a few people tried smoking? I find it encouraging that now something truly positive—growing and eating healthy food—can spread in our society in the same way that smoking once did, but with a vastly more positive outcome. We live in an era where there is potential that eating one's vegetables is cooler than smoking. That's pretty amazing. That's one step toward regenerating our society's health. That’s how we can turn all our friends and neighbors into locavores!

Right now, joining a CSA is kinda cool. Let's make it really cool. Tell your friends to join our CSA. If they ask why, it's great to share facts and information about sustainability and the environment and why natural foods may be healthier than processed foods, and on and on. Or you could tell them Hey! The Old Plank CSA is pretty cool...just try it!

Posted 1/16/2016 6:14pm by Stephanie Bartel.

by Farmer Stephanie 

It's been a long time comin'. Welcome to the new and improved Old Plank Farm website. Here you'll find all the information you need to know about the farm. Take a minute to look around and get to know us better. Read about the farmers behind your food, check out our Best of 2015 Photo-show, or go to our online sign-up page to become a CSA member today. The drop-down menus at the top of the page will help you find whatever you are looking for. 

At the recommendation of several CSA members, I'll also be keeping up with a farm blog here. If you are ever wondering what we are up to, check back here to read the latest news. The big news right now is that our CSA sign-up season is underway. Just two weeks after kicking off our sign-up season, we are already 33% full. That's a new record for us. 80+ returning members signed up right away, all of whom I am very grateful to for their dedication and support. Don't miss your chance to sign-up, too. You can do it right here on the website. 

Once you've toured our new site, perhaps you'll be inspired to get out and visit us on the farm, too. Wait until summer though, please, the farm is hibernating right now! In today's digital era, let's not forget to make real connections with each other. I hope to see you all out at the farm this season. 

CSA Sign-Up

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