At the end of April we had one afternoon when the ground finally dried out enough for us to get in the fields and plant. April 30th we kept testing the soil until finally at 2pm we felt it was just dry enough to be able to use our new Grillo walking tractor and rotary plow.
Our walk-behind two-wheel tractor, affectionately called “Katy” (Grillo means grasshopper in Italian, we’ve been told, but we think the Grillo logo more closely resembles a katydid), was our big investment last fall in order to have better tillage for our fields this year. And till she did, all day long. We ended up getting five beds of peas, two beds of kale and half a bed of cabbage in before it started raining at 8pm that evening.
During that long day of planting, Elijah meanwhile was very busy learning to roll over. We would leave him on his back on a blanket in the shade while we planted another row of peas, and would return a few minutes later to find him off of his blanket, lying on his belly and not sure how he got there.
And then, two days later, it snowed 14″. We snowshoed down to the county road and counted nine trees down on our quarter-mile driveway. Our power was out for most of the day, and our phone was out for several hours. It was a deeply unreal experience. It seemed impossible that just two days before we had been working barefoot in the hot sun, planting things. But as we labored for the next two days to clear our driveway, the long hours of daylight and returning warm weather made it clear that it was indeed spring, just a record-breaking snowy spring.
Martha, Molly and Elijah on our driveway May 2
Since then we’ve just been waiting for what we call “windows”, or times when the soil dries out enough between rains for us to get in and work the ground without damaging the soil structure and making everything a big muddy mess. We had a nice long window last week, which gave us our chance to plant all of our onions, shallots and scallions (somewhere just shy of 10,000 plants, we’re guessing), as well as some broccoli, radishes, turnips, kohlrabi and the rest of our cabbages. All in all we’re still running behind on planting, but not as badly as before. The next window we get we need to plant all of our summer crops–tomatoes, peppers, squash, melons, cucumbers. It seems ridiculous to go straight from seeding our very first peas to planting our tomatoes with so little in between, but that’s just how this spring has been.
Elijah helping to plant the kohlrabi
There are definitely a few casualties of this weather. No, it wasn’t the kale that got buried under a foot of snow. That emerged unscathed (although deer later snuck through our fence and ate some of it). Instead it’s the arugula, lettuce and other spring greens which we simply have had no chance to plant. With so few dry days and the temperatures now soaring into the eighties, we may have missed our opportunity to plant many of those spring crops altogether. Because of that it’s likely that our first box will come a little late, and it’s likely to be a light one, too. With only a week or two between “winter” snows and summer highs, spring has really taken a beating this year.
Farmer Elijah sampling the Kale
Elijah continues to get more mobile and more interested in our work every day (although he hates it when his mama sits in front of the computer writing blog posts). We joke that his first solid food is dirt and watch with amusement as he rolls himself along, helping us plant or weed, it’s hard to tell which. He’s getting quite brown skinned and blond haired from all the sun, in spite of the sunscreen and sun hat and shade canopy we try to keep him under. Every day he reminds us how the only constant is change as he develops into his own opinionated self. And of course, he’s growing like a weed, which from the looks of our fields these past few rainy days is pretty darn fast.
Contemplating the Onions
Elijah meeting our new chicks, who arrived the day after the snowstorm
Watching the world from mama’s back
It’s been a long, cold spring around here. It’s so hard not to compare this year to last year: last year the trees were flowering this time of year, last year we had already planted peas, kale and lettuce in our fields. Everything was so much farther along. The crocuses had bloomed by the middle of March, the Nanking Cherry by the end of March, and by the first week of April the frogs were singing. Here it is, almost the end of April, and the crocuses still have not bloomed and the frogs have not sung.
My mother-in-law has been keeping weather record for over twenty years, and she says it’s been over a decade since we’ve had a spring this cold. Last weekend when we walked around we found the ground was still frozen in places. Our fields are lying wet and bedraggled, waiting for the ground to dry out enough for us to work in last year’s stubble and begin planting this year’s crops. Our garlic has just poked up out of the ground, much later than last year. And it just keeps snowing.
This erratic weather has reminded us once again of how little we actually have control over, as farmers. Last year we learned the hard lessons of drought and severe insect pressure. This year it looks like it might be a whole different curriculum, with the cold and wet being the issues we’re most worried about now. Although that could change any day. As my mother-in-law assured me, someday it will stop raining, and about ten days later we’ll start worrying about drought again.
In the mean time, we’re trying to have a sense of humor about the situation. Our greenhouse is so full of little plants waiting for somewhere to go, there’s hardly any room to walk. We finally were forced to boot our onions outside to start “hardening off” or adapting to life outside the protected environment of the greenhouse. Of course, the next night it snowed. We shook our heads and told our onions, “sorry, folks, but it’s a cold cruel world out here.” The onions just sat there, shivering. We’ve reassured them that if they just hang in there, this weekend it’s supposed to be sunny and warm–really warm. Spring-like warm, we hope.
Our poor shivering onions
The slow spring isn’t all bad, though. It’s given us a chance to focus a lot on our new job as parents, and to enjoy these precious days. Elijah is growing fast and is a very active, very happy, very social little fellow.
Elijah hanging out on top of the potting soil on a sunny day–
even when it’s only 40 degrees out,if the sun is shining it’s HOT in the greenhouse!
The slow spring has also given us a chance to catch up on some of the planning work we didn’t do in January and February, when being new parents was all we could do.
And, as farmers will always say, we do need the moisture. If it would just spread itself evenly over the entire season with enough dry days in between to get some work done, that would be even better, but we’re not complaining. Much.
Elijah hanging out in the greenhouse on a colder day
Our early hoophouse tomatoes ready to be planted as soon as it warms up
Striped German heirloom tomato–this one will be planted out in the field
Elijah helping Geoffrey with a plumbing project and showing off his standing up skills
It’s been just over two weeks since Elijah was born, and we’re finally at the stage where it seems possible we could get more done in any one day than just nursing the baby, changing diapers, eating meals and taking naps. Not a day too soon, either, since our big Fedco seed order arrived today. Soon (next week?) we’ll be starting our onions, and then the farming season will have begun again.
Last year I was pregnant for practically the entire growing season. Spring, summer and fall I was aware every day of the life I was carrying. From May through July (the first trimester) I was sick so often that there were days I would only be able to work in the field for a few hours before I would feel so bad I was forced to retreat to the shade again. As the summer went on I was rarely nauseous but still easily tired, and by the fall I was big enough that it was challenging to lift and carry our black picking crates.
So when I think about the changes Elijah will bring to this year, I know that already he’s done a lot to teach me that there are times when I need to take care of myself and take care of him, no matter how badly the squash needs to be weeded. Geoffrey and I both know that this year is going to bring a new set of challenges, but having a beautiful, squirmy, funny and demanding little person to take care of is already bringing its share of rewards, and plenty of important lessons to be learned.
We’re so happy to welcome the newest farmer at Avodah Farm: Elijah Joseph OrHai Black, born January 26th, 2013
Farmers, like other folks, often use the New Year as an opportunity for reflection and self-examination. We ask ourselves again: Are we crazy to be farming? Can we really survive another summer of working that hard? Isn’t there anything else we could do to find fulfillment? It’s pretty much our last chance to ask these big questions: by the end of January, we need to have our planting schedule worked out and our seed orders done, and before February is over, it will be time to start a fire in the greenhouse stove and seed the herbs and onions. If we were going to quit, now would be the time to do it, before the year rolls over and starts gathering momentum to steamroll us under another hectic growing season.
Yet even as we ask ourselves whether we want to keep farming at all, we’re also asking other questions. What will the weather be like this year? Should we plant the onions earlier? How many varieties of potatoes should we grow? What can we do about the squash bugs? There is an unending stream of little decisions to make, and we go right on making them—because deep down, we’ve already decided we will keep on farming. What else would we do? Farming is our life.
So, as we look back on 2012, we are looking ahead to another season of long days, hard work, and the satisfaction that only comes with nurturing growing things. We don’t expect our second year to be any easier than our first, but we do hope it is different. We hope we learned enough from our mistakes in 2012 to make different mistakes in 2013, so we can go on learning.
Of course, this year would be different even if we hadn’t learned anything from last year. Our baby will make sure of that, starting as soon as he or she is born (sometime this month). Children have always been an integral part of our farming vision, but as we’ve discovered with other aspects of that vision, reality is infinitely more complex and challenging than anything we can imagine. We have been warned by various farming mentors that farming with an infant demands numerous adjustments—and farming with a toddler changes everything. Then again, what is farming if not a constant dance with change? The weather changes from day to day, the seasons change and change again, and the plants and animals our livelihood depends on never stop growing, dying, and beginning again. Life is what we farmers work with, and life always changes. If we are smart, we change with it.
Among all the other changes, hopefully this year we will manage to post to this blog more regularly! In the meantime, we wish you a New Year full of growth, change, and different mistakes. Thanks for reading.
Over the weekend, I found time to read an article in the July issue of Harper’s Magazine called “Broken Heartland: The Looming Collapse of Agriculture on the Great Plains,” by Wil S. Hylton. Hylton paints a sobering picture. As farming has become increasingly consolidated and mechanized, the population of rural communities on the Great Plains (which accounts for a fifth of the land in the lower forty-eight states) has declined steadily for the past eighty years, ever since the Great Depression. Six thousand towns have disappeared entirely in Kansas alone. Meanwhile, researchers at Texas Technical University, with funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, have found that the Ogallala Aquifer—which lies beneath 100 million acres in eight states and provides irrigation water for much of the farming on the Plains—is being drawn down at the rate of five to six feet per year in some places, and will be essentially depleted by 2030. In the words of the lead researcher, “there will be very little irrigated agriculture on the high plains twenty years from now.”
In spite of all this, I came away from the article feeling hopeful. Why? Because I saw nothing in the article to justify its dire subtitle. Clearly, agriculture as it has been practiced on the Plains for the last few decades is not sustainable and cannot continue. I would argue that that’s true most places in the world, if not all places. Farming will have to change, and farmers will have to learn and adapt—as they always have, sometimes slowly, sometimes rapidly. This does not mean that agriculture is on the brink of collapse, on the Great Plains or anywhere else.
Hylton writes about a future imagined and championed by academics Frank and Deborah Popper, where Plains residents embrace “smart decline,” allowing their region to empty out and eventually become a huge national park known as “The Buffalo Commons.” To me, this is an interesting thought exercise, but not a compelling vision for the future. Far more compelling are two (mutually compatible) possibilities also highlighted in the article: a return to large-scale cattle grazing, and the development of perennial grain crops.
Since European settlement began, the Great Plains has been cattle country. Cattle are a natural fit with the ecosystem, roughly taking the place of bison as the dominant large grazing ruminant. However, with the rise in corn-fed, feedlot beef over the past sixty years or so, open range-land filled with drought-tolerant native plants has been replaced with thousands of acres of irrigated monocultures. As the land has suffered, so have the cows, becoming sicker and sicker on a diet totally unsuited to their digestive systems. (The health consequences for people have been just as bad.) If we reduced our meat consumption moderately, put the cows back out on pasture where they belong, and used Holistic Management and rotational grazing techniques, the Plains could sustainably preserve its traditional identity as cattle-country and the main source of meat for the rest of the country for decades to come, with or without the Ogallala Aquifer.
Any landowner with a little capital could begin raising grass-fed beef today: the information, resources, and, increasingly, the markets are all out there. Perennial grain is a more distant possibility, but it’s getting closer every year. Since 1976, Wes Jackson and his colleagues at The Land Institute have been working to breed perennial versions of wheat, as well as other grain, legume and oilseed crops. Perennials have deep roots, which gives them access to water and nutrients annuals can’t reach. And if new seeds did not have to be sown each year, there would be no need for annual tillage, eliminating most agricultural erosion. This long-term breeding project is now closer than ever to commercially viable results. When it is complete, agriculture on the Great Plains could look a whole lot more like native prairie: a deep-rooted perennial polyculture that builds rather than depletes topsoil.
For my part, I’m grateful to be farming here in the Upper Midwest. We do share some challenges with the Plains. The “get big or get out” mindset continues to dominate, and it forces a whole lot of small farms to “get out” every year. Jobs outside of farming are scarce too, and most young people leave the area after high school. Our county has a lower population now than it did in 1900, although it is growing again after a long decline. But at least both rainfall and groundwater are relatively abundant, and the aquifers, so far, seem able to replenish themselves as fast as we use them. This is an easy climate to farm in—but I believe farmers are smart and adaptable enough to keep on farming for years to come even in much more difficult climates.
If you were to come to Avodah Farm right now, the first thing you’d probably notice is how green everything is. Our fields are tucked between steep, forested hillsides and deep forested gullies–all in all, our family’s land is about two-thirds forest, with only twenty acres in “open” land.
our fields, pasture and woods
The next thing you might notice are our fields, although they’re sort of hidden from the road, so you’d need to walk around to see them. Because we’ll be spending a lot of time in our fields, and we’ll probably be share some news every week from our fields, I thought I should start out the season with a little tour, introducing you to these fields by name. First, we’ll visit our greenhouse/hoophouse. Next we’ll walk through North field, and finally we’ll look around South field.
Our greenhouse/hoophouse structure has officially been named the Quincy Daniel Duplex after Martha’s father, Quincy Daniel OrHai, who gave it to us. We call it a duplex because it has two halves, where two different “households” live.
our greenhouse/hoophouse “duplex”
In the front half (which we call the Quincy) we have our baby plants, which we start in trays and keep on benches up off the ground until they’re ready to plant outdoors. The Quincy is the half with the stove, so in the spring it was the only part that was heated. We hung a sheet of end-wall plastic as a curtain from one of the middle hoops in order to create a barrier and keep the heat from the wood stove in with our delicate little “starts.” Now we’re about ready to take down that curtain so we can improve air circulation in the back half.
Trays of “starts” in the Quincy
In the back half of the duplex (which we call the Daniel) we have our beds of tomatoes. These are heirlooms that were planted early and from which we expect to get an early and hopefully consistent crop. They’re just a token amount of the tomatoes we planted, but they’re our insurance against disaster and disease in the main field.
Imur Prior Beta tomatoes, in May!
- Heirloom Tomatoes growing in the Daniel
Which brings us to the next stop on the tour: North field. I know, not the most glamorous name. Besides the Quincy Daniel Duplex, we tend to keep things pretty straightforward and functional around here. So the field that lies to the north became North field, and the field south of it became… South field.
North field is about half an acre total and has two halves, which are divided by a field road running down the middle. All the tomatoes, peppers and eggplant, as well as the melons and cucumbers, are in Northeast, the half east of the field road. Not Northeast field, just “Northeast.” All our squash (except for some run-away Zucchini) and potatoes are in Northwest, as is a plot we’re giving Kathleen the use of to grow her Garland flint corn for seed, as well as a smattering of other seed crops. Our sweet potatoes are in both Northeast and Northwest, since they’re quite neutral and easy-going plants, and don’t like to take sides.
North Field, looking west
- Northwest, with our potato hills in foreground
Northeast, with melons under rowcover at the far edge
What do all these plants (except the sweet potatoes and Kathleen’s seed crops) have in common? They’re either a Nightshade (tomatoes, potatoes, peppers and eggplant) or a Cucurbit (aka squash, melons and cucumbers). Having all of our nightshades and all of our cucurbits in the same place makes planning our crop rotation easier so we can put each family of crops on fresh ground in order to break cycles of pests and diseases (although there’s no reason that the nightshades and cucurbits had to end up in a field together–that was just chance. Thus, the important part is not that there are tomatoes and squash in a field together, but that there aren’t any tomatoes and squash in our other fields). Anyway, that was a bit of a distraction from the tour.
The fastest way from North field to South field is over the top of an earthen water diversion, and through one of Kathleen’s garden plots (“Asparagus field,” which no longer has much asparagus). You also have to cross the electric deer fence (there are conveniently located gates), because North field and Asparagus field have one deer fence, and South field has another, although they share a “fencer” or solar-powered electric fence energizer.
The path from North field to South field, over the diversion
- our Premier One solar fencer
- one of the main gates to South field
South Field is about an acre, and includes three parts, which do have slightly more creative names. There’s South Top, South Bottom and the Perennial garden. Basically, if South field were a rectangle, it would look like this:
South field isn’t exactly a rectangle, so all of those nice clean lines are actually a little curvy in real life. But that gives you the general outline.
Right now South Top has about twenty or so short beds (they range from 50 to 30 feet long) which contain a wide mixture of things: kale, beets, spinach, lettuce, napa cabbage–basically if there’s a small amount of something, and if we’re going to be picking it multiple times (like our kale, collards, chard and perpetual spinach), it ended up in South Top. Kathleen also has a bed and a half in South Top for seed crops—that’s the pea netting you can see in the photos.
South Top, with Kale in the foreground
The beds in South Bottom are 120 feet long, more or less (the beds in North field are all about 100 feet long, give or take twenty feet). Right now we have all our legumes (peas and beans) in South Bottom, and all our broccoli, cabbage, and cauliflower. Our main plantings of carrots will also be in South Bottom.
South bottom, with Provider green beans straight ahead
The last place we’ll go is the Perennial garden. This area use to be one of Kathleen’s garden plots, but she turned it over to us. It’s north half is mostly grass and apple trees, with some asparagus and a row of fall raspberries between our two large mulberry trees. In that section we have our herbs planted, as well as our horseradish. We plan to add Jerusalem Artichokes, more asparagus and a large patch of rhubarb as well.
In the southern section there’s just a few small apple trees and some hazel bushes, and several long beds. That’s where our garlic is growing, and our onions. This fall we might convert half of that space into strawberries. Our perennial garden was a huge gift—it allows us to plant things that have to put down roots and stay in one place for a while. Because the rest of our land is in an annual tillage plan—we have no permanent beds in the main fields, and everything will be cover cropped and then plowed again until the grass is more under control—we would not be able to grow something like garlic or strawberries or Jerusalem Artichokes out in our main field. They need a spot where they’ll be out of the way, and our perennial garden is it. (The onions, by the way, just ended up there to stay close to the garlic. They would have been just as happy in South bottom.)
Perennial garden, with herbs to the right and garlic way down at the bottom
That concludes the tour for today. We’ll try to keep adding more photos to the blog, letting you know how things are doing in the different fields. And remember, the best way to get to know the farm is to come out and visit or (better yet) volunteer!