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April Snow


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!

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

Elijah hanging out in the greenhouse on a colder day

Galine Eggplant

Galine Eggplant

Our early hoophouse tomatoes, ready to be planted as soon as it warms up!

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)

Striped German heirloom tomato–this one will be planted out in the field

Winterbor Kale

Winterbor Kale

Geoffrey with Elijah

Elijah helping Geoffrey with a plumbing project and showing off his standing up skills


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Tour of the Farm

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!

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Quick Update

After a week of rainy weather, and another week of waiting for the soil to dry out again after all the rain (5 inches over the course of a week can make the ground pretty muddy) this week is go-go-go here at the farm.

Since last I updated the blog we’ve transplanted kale, lettuce, onions (including scallions and shallots), hoop-house tomatoes, broccoli, kohlrabi and cauliflower and direct seeded all of our peas, and the first plantings of radishes, spring turnips, beets, spinach, arugula, boc choy, and dill. May is the month when every day is a planting day—all the early spring crops get started in May so that they’ll be ready in June, and all the frost-sensitive crops like tomatoes, peppers and eggplant get transplanted in May, after the cold weather seems to be gone for good.

We had a lot of help from a troop of girl-scouts who came out on Earth Day and Mother’s Day to give us a hand. They helped weed and plant peas, mulch our raspberries, seed our watermelon and napa cabbage, thin the onions and cut our seed potatoes into plantable chunks. We really appreciated both their help and their company—there’s nothing like a group of teenagers to get a big project done! In their honor we’re referring to all our peas as “the girl-scout peas,” and we expect people to enjoy them in a similar manner to girl-scout cookies.

I hope to make more regular (although perhaps equally rushed) updates over the next few weeks as more crops get in the ground. Also, check back for more pictures!

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April Showers

Just in case anyone thought that this year summer would start in March, April has asserted that she, at least, is going to pay more attention to tradition. Last night I drove Geoffrey to the airport in Minneapolis (he’s flying to Kenya as a delegate to the World Conference of Friends and will be gone for twelve days), and as we exited 494 for the airport we drove right into the heaviest rains I’d driven through in a long time. I finally drove out of the storm at Prescott and raced it home, arriving just as the first drops caught up with me again. The thunder and lightning lasted for less than two hours, and since then it’s been raining slow and steady. This morning I was talking to my mother-in-law when I happened to glance through the window and see something white falling along with the rain. “It’s snowing!” I reported, a little shocked.

“No it’s not,” Kathleen told me. We decided it must just be apple blossom petals falling outside the window. But we were wrong. It was snowing. Big, fat, fluffy flakes of snow, mixed with rain. So far we’ve gotten an inch of precipitation from this storm system, and more would sure be appreciated. Kathleen totaled up our precipitation from the past months and announced that we only got 1.2 inches of rain in the entire month of March, and we hadn’t had a storm with more than half an inch of rain since the end of February (we figure we need an average of an inch of rain a week in order for everything to grow well and germinate evenly). So even though I wasn’t looking forward to more snow and freezing weather, at least we seem to be pulling out of the drought spell we’d been in before. As our mentor David Van Eeckhout said the other day, it’s demoralizing to have to irrigate in April.

Weather is something that farmers never get tired of talking about. However, there are some other noteworthy things happening around here recently. As of Friday, we finally have high-speed wireless internet in the house, and I’m slowly getting use to having internet on demand again for the first time since I graduated from college. Another exciting bit of news I received this morning is that we are confirmed to sell at the Wednesday morning Eau Claire Downtown Farmer’s Market. On a different note, next Sunday I’m looking forward to having a troop of girl scouts help out around the farm for the day, thanks to the endless organizing skills of our friend and CSA member Frances Fischer. We have 23 chicks in a cardboard box in the front hall, and they’re doing their best to double in size every 24 hours (not quite, but they are growing quickly since they arrived on the 5th). Pretty soon we’re hoping to move them out to the chicken coop, which was recently vacated by our grown-up hens when they left their wild free-range days behind them and moved to Kathleen’s garden, contained by an electrified “poultry net” fence that several of them fly over every evening in their attempt to roost in our garden’s apple tree. We’re hoping they’ll soon see the error of their ways and settle down to being happy pastured poultry.

With Geoffrey gone for the next two weeks, I’ve been taking inventory of our projects and setting priorities. Our hoophouse/greenhouse has come through the storms and the wood furnace we’re borrowing from Geoffrey’s dad keeps all our baby plants (especially our little eggplant, peppers and tomatoes which have the place of honor next to the stove) toasty warm at night, making them grow like crazy. On cloudy wet days like today I’ll keep the fire burning in there all day. Our germination chamber is almost done, but in the meantime we’ve been able to set up its heating mats in our tiny cabin and germinate most things just fine in there, or on a bench behind the greenhouse stove. While Geoffrey’s gone my big challenge is installing the first half of our quarter-mile of electric deer fencing (the half that goes around our southern field, where our early spring stuff will get planted). Along with all the seeding, transplanting, tilling, firewood cutting, chicken chasing and logistical organizing that we always need to do, I reckon I’ll probably be staying out of trouble for the next two weeks.

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Things are Growing!

All over the farm flowers are blooming, birds are singing and baby plants are popping out of the soil and spreading their little leaves wide! I thought I’d put a few of these photos here, so other people can enjoy how cute our little green babies are.

Rainbow Chard

Red Russian Kale