Wisdom of the Seasons

December is dark. Darker than any other month of the year. Before we started farming, I would trudge reluctantly into 4 o’clock sunsets feeling burdened by entirely too many layers of clothes. But now, after a year of farming, I’m rested as I’ve been all year and couldn’t imagine a better coda to the season. This annual gift of winter blesses both farmer and earth with rest. Farmer Eliot Coleman calls these the “Persephone months” during which fewer than 10 hours of light reach the ground each day. Vegetative life slows to a crawl. And when I’m mindful I let my busy brain slow a little bit too.

With the spaciousness and rest of winter, Dina and I have been taking stock of all that our first season has taught us as well as where we go from here. We’re still wrestling with several new ideas, but the community around which we built this experiment will undoubtedly remain the focus of what comes next.

harvest-party-1Back in October, before we stacked the harvest bins for good, we threw a little harvest party for our members. The evening was brisk. We strung up lights, festooned the yard with pumpkins and cornstalks, prepared gallons of mulled cider, and recruited a band. CSA Members arrived with piping hot dishes in hand. Wine flowed, paper cups ‘clinked,’ and the sounds of celebration floated out into the neighborhood.

harvest-party-2In lieu of a blessing, we offered up a story told to us by Dina’s grandmother, Jane. “Companion,” we recounted, “comes from the Old French word ‘compaignon’, which literally means ‘one who breaks bread with another.’  As we spoke, faces of new friends lit up the dark. Before this summer, we only new each other in passing – walking a dog, checking mail, raking the leaves – but around this table we stopped. And each week this summer, we had gathered, making time for hugs and banter. And now we were cooking for one another.

harvest-party-5We told them how special it felt to walk through our neighborhood and name the friends who live behind each door. We told them we were honored to be growing food for our little community. But in the heat of the moment, we didn’t give adequate thanks to our members for their part in this venture. Were it not for the volunteers pitching in at the farm each week, the weekly notes and gifts that would appear on our front porch, their trust in us as farmers and willingness to support the value of good food – we would never have made it through this year.

Everyone deserves mention, but we especially want to single out David, Pat, Callie, Alysa, Lori, Juan, Blythe, Elizabeth, Penny, Christine and Steve, Anne, Brian, Lisa and Carol for their contributions. Thank you for bringing your willing spirit and helping hands when we needed them most.

And thank you everyone for being our companions.harvest-party-6
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Looking Forward, Looking Back

train-smallI’m not in the field today. I’m on a train to New York City. In fact, I’m on the same train that delivered me to my last photo job before Farm School began, two years ago. The job was an annual black hole on the calendar – an international economic symposium to whip up trade between US and Russian businesses. Zzzzz. It was boring, creatively soul-crushing work complete with a difficult client but it paid well. Eventually, though, the gig became emblematic of all that frustrated me about my photography career and with the modern, consumptive world in general. Each year I swore would be my last. And with Farm School on the horizon and a farmer’s path in front of me, I thought I’d make good on that promise. But here I am again, scrubbed free of dirt and headed to the same ridiculous event. This time around, though, this journey back to the big city is needed – welcomed, even.

In the Venn diagram of farming, three big circles comprise of the bulk of field work: Planting, Weeding, and Harvesting. They all overlap from June through August in an unrelenting stretch that often feels downright desperate, especially when combined with sleep deprivation we new parents face.

“What would happen if we just quit?” Dina and I would ask each other regularly as we’d collapse into bed, grasping at the possibility of an escape hatch.

penultimate-harvest_18_smallIt’s not the nature of the work that has nearly killed us. We’re quite in love with farming. It’s just that since May, the rest of our lives has been flagged as “non-essential” and pushed completely off until the winter. One particular counter in our house overflows with piles of bills, unread papers and moldy oranges. We call it the “Chaos Counter” and it’s emblematic of all that’s left undone. I hate it. But this chaos manifests everywhere. I overdrew my bank account three times this month. I have four sets of spare keys for my truck now because in one week I lost the other three – inside the truck. I sat down to write this blog post once before but lost it amidst an explosion of disorganized files on my computer desktop. All of this has left my reserves so thin that a cascade of Tupperware falling from an overloaded shelf turns me from “managing” to “Oh my God this has to stop. We are never farming again.

Dina and I thrive on hard work. But since launching into this dream, there have been many points when we seriously questioned whether we’d make it through another week. At each breaking point though, something – and usually someone – has restored our shaken morale enough to keep us going.

harvest_smOne hot summer morning, I coaxed my loyal yet overburdened Toyota down the dusty road to our farm. Nine thirty – late by a farmer’s watch – barely enough time to scratch the surface of the to-do list before relieving the babysitter by 3:00.

As I pulled up, I could see David, a CSA member, resting in the shade of his car, sweat trickling down his cheek and his hands already stained yellow from a Colorado potato beetle-crushing crusade. “Just taking a quick break,” he said, snapping to attention. Way off by the shed, I could make out the white cap of another member, Patrick, attending to our beehives. “Okay,” I thought to myself, “Maybe we can do this.”

And out of the dirt and chaos of this adventure, some amazing beauty has emerged.

fall_market_smEach week, orderly piles of squash, bright baskets of peppers and zucchini, magnificent fountains of chard, kale, and leeks spill out over three huge tables during our CSA pickups. It is enough to make any farmer a bit breathless. Neighbors buzz about, sharing news of an engagement, swapping recipes, playing ball and ogling over a newborn. “We’ve all lived next to each other for years and never said bubkiss to each other,” I overheard a member saying a few weeks back. “Now look at us.”

Soup_smThen there are our own dinners, savored on the porch in the waning hours of each day. As we eat, Wendell busies himself with his own work, digging his hands into planters and showing us over and over again what he’s found. “Dirrt!” he says proudly – the first word that ever crossed his lips. We savor each bite knowing firsthand all that went into it. And in dozens of houses all around us, neighbors are themselves sitting down to their own meals and holding us, their farmers, in their thoughts. I don’t know what prayer is these days, but that strikes me as pretty close.

Just inside the kitchen door still lurks the chaos counter. But during those dinners, and if only for a moment, all is well.

With one week to go before the end of our season, we haven’t made any money. As in, zero dollars after expenses. And for all our creative budgeting and business-model Jiu-Jitsu, next year looks to be about the same. But in every other respect, our first season has been more successful than we ever dreamed.

Now we’re looking toward next season with a heavy puzzle: How can we afford to farm? We love this work, but we can’t keep going at this pace. And we surely can’t continue to do it for free.

So for now, I’m on a train headed to New York City to patch the hole in bank account that selling radishes can’t, hoping that answers will come with the frost.

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Taller, Straighter, Prouder

photo-3The picture above isn’t from our farm. Obviously we didn’t take it – our lovely friend Nancy did. But I LOVE this photo. It perfectly illustrates this period in my family’s life – hands, heart and son – all in the soil.

This photo is especially precious because we haven’t been taking many pictures ourselves these days. That’s due entirely to one number:

13,298.

That is the number of plants we’ve put in the ground since the doldrums of our last post. I can’t quite wrap my head around it simply because of the time and required just to plant one: kneel, punch the soil with the trowel, place the seedling and cover over with soil, crawl to the next. Repeat 13,000 times. It is also hard to believe that 13,000 plants later, I still look out over our steadily filling beds with unshakable anxiety, “Will it be enough?”

In less than one week, we will begin to find out.

IMG_8847We’ve come a long way. Our field is transformed, resembling less of an unbroken prairie and more of… well… a ‘real’ farm. We’ve hung two rows of 7,000-volt deer fencing to discourage unwanted visitors to the new neighborhood salad bar. Tens of thousands of feet of irrigation hose snake from a nearby pond through the rows and now we control the rain. We built a 10 x 8 shed so that I no longer have to share my overworked red truck with piles of transient shovels and hoes. Bees fly constant sorties from two bright new hives. Our beautiful two-acre plot is now divided into four neatly tilled sections. And the rows we’ve planted are have gone from snake-like swaths to laser-straight beds of onions, chard and parsley. Each day, we walk between the plants and admire – and allow ourselves a second to feel a little proud. But then it’s right back to work.

Like a jilted lover, the winter has been slow to move on and release us into the arms of summer. This cool wet weather means that the soil, the engine of plants’ growth, has been slow to wake up. A number of our crops are lagging behind their projected harvest date. And the lack of warmth below our feet has also left an unusually long window for pests (such as the awful-sounding, yet appropriately-named cabbage root maggot) to snack on our bok choi and cabbage. Many farmers don’t even bother planting cole crops (broccoli, cabbage, kale etc.) in the spring because the pest pressure is far too intense. But a June without rubbed kale salads is no spring for us, so into battle we continue to march.

IMG_8865Thankfully, the cavalry has arrived. If this farm were a Hollywood production, the crawl of credits at the end would stretch as long as the latest Spiderman flick. Apprentices (whom I’ll introduce soon), family members, friends, former Farm School colleagues and CSA members have all descended on the farm and washed over our field in waves of can-do energy. From installing our beehives and transplanting scads of tomatoes to hand-prepping endless stretches of soil with a single bed rake, they’ve tackle each job with good cheer. And now, our rapidly expanding workload feels less like a zeppelin bursting into flames and more like a slightly oversized balloon on a windy day.

IMG_8778That this is all happening – finally – feels remarkable. After a day’s work, I sometimes catch my dirty and bearded reflection in the window of the truck as I load up tools. On the drive home, I marvel at the changes in my once-smooth photographer’s hands, now squared, callused and frayed. I can’t believe that’s me in there. For a long time, there’s been part of me that feels like I’ve just been playing at this dream, putting on a farmer’s clothes and pretending. But with more than forty families to feed starting next week, this identity I’ve assumed feels more real now.

And despite the challenges of the last few months, I think it is safe to say now – there will be food! Next Saturday, rain or shine, Dina, Wendell and I will be standing behind a table spread with kale, chard and lettuce, eager to feed our neighbors and nurture the ties that bind us all together.

PS – Our little guy turned one year old this week!

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Rain and Foxes

rainfox-6For months after our son was born, Dina and I routinely woke in the middle of the night, panicked that our infant was tangled in the sheets. One of us would rip the blankets off the bed (much to the chagrin of our sleeping partner), frantic to find him before he smothered, only to realize that Wendell was safe and sound in his crib.

The midnight panic attacks returned this week when I woke to find myself again searching the blankets and shaking Dina awake. But this time, I was trying to save a tray of seedlings – not a newborn.

“You’re dreaming,” said Dina in her most patient voice.

Seething, I muttered about how she’d find out how wrong she was in the morning, and rolled over to return to my tortured dreams.

I can be a bit of a worrier – this much is becoming clear.  And farming is not helping at all. I’ve held off on writing another post for a very long time – mostly because I’ve been short on inspiration and long on burdens. And who want to hear from a bummed-out farmer?

rainfox-1The string of unfortunate events I wrote about last time has only continued, and relentlessly so.  Right after we lost our land, the greenhouse heater blew belching thick grey smoke and blanketing all of our tender green babies.  Then we found out that we no longer had access to several tractors that were key to our production schedule. A generous friend, George – the patron saint of all down-on-their-luck farmers – offered his tractors, but neither of them would start despite days of patient, and then impatient, tinkering. Ultimately, Saint George loaned us his rust-free, shiny red “museum” tractor – a perfectly restored Ford 8N.  And one hour into tilling our field, BANG. Universal joint- shattered. And with it, my sense of optimism and progress.

rainfox-3So on a recent soggy and miserable day, Dina and I pushed back against this cascade of obstacles to transplant 700 kale and chard starts. We’re really farming!! we shouted into gale-force winds, ecstatic at the growing rows of seedlings. But Mother Nature snapped her fingers – as in a record setting cold snap and froze our babies solid that very night. All farming is a bit of a gamble, we consoled ourselves. But this time, the house may have won.

We recently recounted this woe-is-me litany to our friend Shannon. She listened patiently and sipped her coffee and replied simply.

“Sounds like farming to me.”

The good news is we do have land again.  After some stressful, last-minute wrangling with the Lincoln Conservation Commission, we have an official year-long lease on two acres close to our original spot.

In fact, I was there early this morning to put a roof on our new storage shed.  Rain fell again, but this time the air was still.  A line of white tails punctuated the gradient of predawn grey. A herd of deer bounded in unison to the safety of dark trees, eliciting “gobble-gobbles” from a pair of startled turkeys. The pond shimmered and rippled under the spitting sky. I stared, hypnotized for I don’t know how long. Behind me stretched our muddy and unplanted field punctuated only by the ailing tractor, still parked where it last lurched. A brown fox slinked by, its bushy tail matted and sodden from a night on the hunt. Geese sounded. The sun glowed brighter behind low clouds. I began to work.

And that felt a lot like farming to me, too.

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Farming Without A Farm

ps-wk2-“Are you effing kidding me?!!”

Dina’s voice leapt the ten inches from the phone’s speaker and pierced my dazed brain.

“A car ran into our tractor?” 

“Something like that.” I blinked at the car parts strewn about Route 2A and our yellow Farmall Cub tractor perched oddly atop a trailer bed. Emergency workers gathered near a red Honda Fit resting on a guardrail.

“Find a babysitter. I may be here a while.”

The last time we wrote, our greenhouse had just succumbed to a wintry death. Then our tractor took a hit. But it seems that in our case, disaster strikes in threes . . .

But lets start with some good news.  Last month our high tunnel was crushed by an avalanche of snow from the roof of an adjacent greenhouse. With mere days before our first seeding date, we scrambled to find a new one. Miraculously, Dina found one while out on a run – a disused yet perfectly serviceable greenhouse at an out-of-business floral shop. The owner, a deceivingly folksy 80-year-old named Jack, said sure, we could use it – for $500 a month. Considering that $500 is more than we hope to earn in any given month this growing season, we said thanks, but no thanks, and went back to the drawing board.

ps-wk2-1707The drawing board involved begging the management of a nearby Whole Foods to let us erect a greenhouse in their parking lot.  To our amazement, they were all for it and Jack welcomed us to take his greenhouse – if we could relocate it somehow. So on a balmy 5-degree day in late February, Dina and I ate our Wheaties, gathered our shovels and started to pick away at the blanket of ice that encased the 50-foot-long structure. Twenty minutes later we were near tears. Our shovels bounced – they bounced! – off of the frozen ground, which made digging out the foundation impossible.

Suddenly, $500 a month seemed like a bargain.

The greenhouse currently has no running water, which means we have to truck in every drop.  And the first delivery of heating oil cost a cool $600.  But two weeks ago we planted our first seed and finally we’re in business.

ps-wk2-1728Onto the next crisis.

Our tractor arrived on a large flatbed truck in early March and was greeted by sodden, mucky fields. As the nice deliveryman puzzled out how to navigate the driveway without parking permanently in the muck, an explosion of red metal erupted to my left. The trailer came to rest in a snowdrift,  the tractor rocked violently back and forth on the open bed and I scrambled to find a very confused, but intact, driver inside a totaled Honda.

If you ever get to choose a person to run into your tractor, I recommend this lady. She was inexplicably polite, calm – funny even.

“Bummer. I was just admiring your beautiful tractor and I ran into your trailer. I’m sorry.”

ps-wk2-2The cops showed up, followed by firemen and park rangers. Then our generous farmer friend whose land we are using this summer drove by and stopped to see what the fuss was about.  And to deliver some ‘news.’

“We have to talk,” he began…

To summarize what is an ongoing conversation, we are now landless again. Or at least land insecure. We have about a month to figure things out. Meanwhile, thousands of onions, kale, leeks and broccoli are sprouting from their seed trays with the jubilant blind faith of babes. Dina and I have been trekking to the greenhouse three times a day to minister to countless tiny lives.  All the while we shake our heads at the stunningly obvious realization: it’s hard to farm without a farm.

“We will find you land,” we whisper as we turn up the heat and mist the seedlings with water. “Soon, this temporary home will be a distant memory.”

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