Sunday, November 30, 2008

many hands

The job of moving the greenhouse parts from my parent's house to the farm, 12 miles away, was facilitated by a 25' trailer attached to a large truck, graciously lended on thanksgiving morning by my new friend Gabe. Thank you!!!
Dad, Gabe, and my brother Jonathan, all helped me haul the cold steel tubing & large pieces of lumber onto the flatbed-- at 8 in the morning! At least it wasn't snowing...
And then at 9am Saturday morning we started assembling it. Dad & I had already made the ground stakes (1 1/2" steel conduit-- hacksawed into 30" lengths in the garage), then pounded them into the ground at 4' intervals on each side of the greenhouse site.
The crew for the greenhouse-raising included mom, dad, Jonathan, old neighborhood friends Jim & his son Jimmy, my friend Angelica & her son Felix. Felix is 3 and was really excited about helping out.
Dad & I had built this scaffolding (copied from Farmer Dave's design) to help us reach the top for easy assembly. It was really convenient, and super sturdy too.
A crew was assembling the arches on the ground, while other people were up on ladders connecting the top pieces.
3 rows of reinforcing poles were slid into the sides & bolted down.

It was a cold day, and many gloves came on and off, when either manual dexterity was demanded, or warm fingers were a necessity.
The sun came out for about 2 minutes. Kind of.
The final haul, 2pm.
Almost there...
We needed to rest, eat lunch, and get warm. The momentum of the day was waning. But the basic frame of the greenhouse was up! All we need to do now is tighten bolts, and put the top reinforcing bars up. Oh yeah, and build the endwalls, put the plastic on, and heat it. Okay, there is still a whole lot of work yet to do.

Many many thanks to my super helpers. The beginning construction of the greenhouse has made this fallow piece of land a place again. My imagination spins, as I picture myself wheeling a cart full of tomatoes or broccoli plants down the path, in the sweaty heat of July, the luscious green of the weeds spilling onto the edges of the dirt road, where right now bare stalks catch snow. Or smiling faces out in the field, black earth turned up into blossoming produce, and the start of something new, something delicious, something meaningful.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

plowing jitters

Well, winter appears to have arrived.
And I haven't plowed yet. The ground needs to be prepared now-- the thick grasses turned under to rot in the soil-- so I can plant early greens in the spring. But what with all the paperwork we're having to go through to get an official "lease agreement" signed for the land, and Bob's old tractors that don't start when it's cold, plowing hasn't happened yet.

Luckily Bob has an old friend (of 50 years!) who lives down the road. A farmer who goes by the name of Jack. Jack's family has been farming here for generations. He really does look like one of those strapping old farmers, complete with suspenders and a farm wife. Bob & I managed to describe the crazy idea we're attempting to implement next year-- describing what "CSA" stood for. His wife said their daughter on the west coast was involved in one, and she was excited about buying their vegetables from me. Jack & I talked about timing-- once this weather clears (the snow melts & the sun comes out) he still has a few fields of corn to harvest, but he'd be willing to plow an acre or two for me, 50 bucks an hour. His tractors start when it's cold, and his plows don't have 10 years of rust from disuse.

More than just the plowing, I'm excited to have access to the incredible wealth of knowledge that Jack obviously carries. He's actually worked those acres I'm intending to farm on before. He grew corn & beans on them, said it was really good ground. Bob said he always put a cover back on the land after he used it, even though he was just renting it temporarily. He's a "smart little farmer" in Bob's words.

Jack's wisdom is the kind that comes from knowing the soil's habits intimately. You can plow the ground when it's wet in the fall, because the frost heaves it up & restores the tilth during the winter-- but plowing in the spring will compact. He warned of a local phenomenon where sometimes the plowed land will do this thing in the winter where it "runs back together" (he uses his hands to show this). Or sometimes water will pool up under where you turned over the sod, and stay moist in the spring longer, when the surface appears to be drying out. Tilling, he said, should be done in the spring. All of these precious gems of information I stash into my pockets, more strength for the uphill battle that growing food really is.

Farmer Rant

“I’m a seventh generation farmer, and it looks like I’ll probably be the last.” The man in the back of the class stated, a wry smile on his broad, sun-wrinkled face. I wanted to scream out, “No! Say it’s not so!” But it was clear by the rest of the classes solemn nods that this was truly not a unique case around here.
I am in class called “Marketing School for Growers” offered by the Cornell Cooperative Extension and funded through state grants. Powerpoint slides show us how we can better “position our product in the marketplace”, using innovative techniques to appeal to restaurants, the discerning farmers market shopper, or create value-added products. But what we’re talking about in the end is still small potatoes.
That old saying has come up several times for me lately, “How do you make a million dollars farming? Start with two million.” So the answer to my request for advice from a nearby CSA farmer about starting up a CSA of my own next year was, Get a job. You’ll need time to gradually aquire your pieces of (rusty, used) equipment at auctions, because the money isn’t there to fund major investiments from the outset.
I have just devoted the past 2 years of my life apprenticing under the trade of vegetable growing, only to be told that I needed to find a job. Oh! I had stepped out into the Real World after being in the student bubble… this was a familiar feeling! But I want to farm! I have the skills and the work ethic to create a farm! And everyone’s telling me to slow down. No I will not!
Farmers markets around here make me cry. I guess I got used to the hip urban markets in the Bay Area & Hudson Valley, where organic is super-trendy and farmers are worshipped as rock-stars. Not here, nope. Half the vendors are grey-haired, torn-plaid-shirt-wearing, well, 7th generation farmers probably (the real-deal rockstars), but they are charging a buck for a basket of giant tomatoes. You can bet that it cost way more than a buck to produce them. You see, farmers don’t count their own labor. That’s why it appears to work. You crunch the numbers, and yes, just barely, a positive profit is reached (occasionally). But what about the hours that farmer spent on his or her knees in the dirt, plucking weeds or picking peppers, all the hours spent trying to get the tractor to start, all the cracked dry hands, the sore backs, the worry.
This is obviously a hobby. Most farmers around here work other jobs, usually full-time at that, to provide enough income to raise their families and have health insurance. I just don’t get it—why work yourself overtime in the fields and then come to market to stand there in the cold and hawk the fruits of your labor for 50 cents each? These people must really love it. I must admit though that I, too, am a slave to the passion of farming; I’d do it even if no one paid me to do it. And apparently no one will, so I will take a lifetime vow of poverty, to satiate my desire to do meaningful, honest, fulfilling work instead of taking some office job with a comfy benefits package.
All for the love of the soil. Crazy.

Clearing ground

Bob's land

Bob grinned and gave me the “thumbs up” from the seat of the big old Minneapolis Moline—the field was half mowed. Transformed, really. This little 82-year-old grey-bearded man, wearing an oil-stained jacket, green pants with a rip in the knee, & knit cap, in 5th gear cruising across the sea of grass on top of the huge rusty yellow tractor… it was a sight to see. He hadn’t worked the land since his wife died, over 5 years ago. Before that, he grew corn, cut hay, and had organic cows grazing that field. I wondered what it felt like for him, as he turned the huge beast around on its 3 wheel pivots and dragged the bush hog along for another pass. How many times had he driven across this piece of ground? Hoppers of corn seed behind him or metal tines sweeping bare soil. Or the plow.
This week he’s been working with his lawyer on his will. He says he hates doing all the paperwork, but he’s 82, missing a kidney, and has had surgery on his heart. You never know when… he shrugs.
And yet here he is on this sunny mid-November day, climbing up a machine with wheels taller than he is, to pour a 5 gallon can of diesel into the tank.
Bob doesn’t want the newspaper reporter coming out to the land to do a story on us yet because his insurance man scared him. He told him that he was absolutely liable for anyone coming out to the property… scared him enough that he isn’t sure that we’ll be able to go through with this at all. “Sorry, hon, I don’t know what to say.”
I hoped that there weren’t other things holding him back from committing—like maybe his children’s concerns about the future of the land. It does feel a bit rushed. I just moved back to the area 10 days ago. Now we’re talking about plowing tomorrow, and not just a story in the paper, but a whole series, following me through the season. The marketing dream of a lifetime.
But farming moves at it’s own pace, that of the unpredictable weather, ancient rusty machines, generations, and relationships.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

old-fashioned greenhouse take-down party

The first big investment in my future farm: a 48' x 28' greenhouse. The challenge: relocation-- from the Hudson Valley to Rochester. A big project!
Luckily, I had lots of willing helpers. THANK YOU! I am so incredibly blessed to have my parents drive all the way out here, my aunt, uncle, and 2 cousins drive up from New Jersey, and 3 regular farm volunteers & their spouses come out and bring their tools with them. I couldn't have done this by myself. With everyone's help we got it all loaded on the truck in less than 6 hours. The teamwork was inspiring.
First we cleared out the tables and equipment from inside. Then I left to go pick up the truck (it was about an hour away). If there are no pictures here of me working, it's because I didn't do any work! What a Tom Sawyer I pulled on everyone... thanks guys!
First the non-structural hanging tubes were taken down.
Hi Aunt Bev!
The tape holding the plastic on the endwalls was de-stapled.
Many ladders were used.
The brawny men took out the huge fan.
Mom recorded things-- this will be really helpful for reconstructing it later. Thanks!
The first endwall coming down.
The plastic peeled off. The scaffolding was borrowed from Farmer Dave (thanks!), I'll have to build one of my own sometime.
And I returned victorious with the 26 foot long truck!
A scene that melted my heart as I parked the truck and got out: the folding of the plastic. It was just so amazing to see everyone working together so intently, spread out on the lawn covered in autumn leaves.
The sun began to set as we took down the frame. Mom didn't take many pictures of this because we were all holding up the arches, loosening bolts, or carrying poles-- like a well-oiled machine.
The final endwall comes down. It's getting cold and we're all getting a little hungry. (Thanks, mom, for bringing snacks!)
The poles, fans, vents, tables, tubes, tarps, and plastic all went on the truck assembly-line fashion, and even those heavy cement blocks! What a push!
It was just about dark when we drove back up to the farm to have some warm chicken soup, fresh cornbread, & homemade applesauce. I am so grateful for all the help. What a way to start a farm.

The last tomato of the season (kept on my kitchen counter for weeks)...
...and saying goodbye to these fields.
Onto new fields now.

Dad wanted to drive the truck back, so I followed mom down the thruway, in my little Honda hatchback stuffed with my clothes & books, and some potatoes for the winter. Three of us drove back to Rochester, where my brother & his friend were waiting to help us unload the truck. Thanks again guys. Wow, I really need some rest. But coffee will do for now.

Monday, November 3, 2008

saying goodbye

We filled the city share boxes for the last time on a rainy cold day.
They were heavy with root vegetables & squash.
The chard looked amazing.
I love the dark burgundy variety.
The leafy greens go on top.
All the potatoes have to be weighed out and bagged.
We found this awesome florescent orange spider on the chard.
Seems like he picked up some color from the stalks of the chard!
The rutabagas were glowing & rosy next to the bright white turnip bunches at distribution.
I kind of like how the baskets look compared to our usual grey bins. The cayenne peppers were a hit I think. Pretty spicy seeds in there.
A contemplative morning on the farm... not too long now.

nice things

Some photos of Nice Things on the farm.

Beautiful roosters that start crowing at 3:45 in the morning. This one looks like it probably is a "Phoenix" breed. I am giving him to a friend in Massachusetts who has lots of hens but wants a rooster to protect them from predators this winter.
A delicious PawPaw fruit from a friend's farm, sliced up for a snack at break.
Decorations leftover from the party in the greenhouse we threw for our beloved farm volunteers! Check out Nick's blog for beautiful pictures of the event. It rained really hard the whole night, but we put christmas lights in the greenhouse & turned on the propane heat so it was really cozy.
I'm going to make some wreaths for the holidays with this broom corn & juniper.
I used the party centerpieces to decorate the porch for my last week on the farm.
Just a few more days of living here, sadly. It has been a great place to call home for 7 months.