The Busy Season

When we first started working on the farm we kept hearing about how the “busy season” was coming up. Having never worked on a farm before, we could only nod and imagine what that might mean. We both had done ample research on the type of farming we wanted to do, and of course the popular farmer image is that of a harried, sleepless, underpaid, overworked, beleaguered, and weathered soul, so we weren’t completely unprepared for the work ahead. But nothing can really prepare you for the types of days we’ve been having this week. They’re the type of days that involve us driving back up to our apartment at 8 PM, killing the engine, and just sitting in the truck too tired and numb to open our doors or unclick our seat belts. They’re the type of days that have us slaughtering chickens, harvesting vegetables, sanding and staining hardwood floors, and organizing volunteer days at the farm.  They’re the type of days that have us wrangling goats, collecting eggs, slopping out goat’s milk to the pigs, and then working on irrigation. This is indeed the busy season, and though we are surviving, it is exhausting work!

Thankfully these past few weeks we have had some help in the form of Kyle, a recent ag school graduate who is nomading across the country in search of practical hands-on farm experience. Kyle hails from Houston, Texas and is following the “good weather” while he can. He has oodles of book knowledge and lots of great ideas about what plants to use as cover crops, how to use mulch to prevent weeds, and has been a great asset to us on these busy busy days.

The weather has indeed been “good” up here. It’s been sunny, warm, and breezy: wonderful weather for going to the zoo, working in your hobby garden, or taking a nice bike ride. For us farmers who are outside every second of the waking day, the sun is getting to be a pain. I never thought I would say this, but I’m desperate for some rain, or at least some grey skies. The irrigation system at the farm is not up to snuff, and I am stressing about our plants not getting enough water to thrive. A little rain would go a long way! Our 300 gallon rain barrel is also nearing empty, and so finding water sources to replenish turkeys and even to wash our hands involves extra walking or turning on gas-powered pumps.

There is a constant anxiety involved in farming, or at least involved in Greenhorn farming. The biggest concern (other than water of course), is what the heck is going in our boxes this week? We’re still learning how to plant at the right times to ensure we have ample produce when we need it. Fortunately we’ve been lucky (or successful?) enough that we’ve had pretty good-sized yields. On our most recent pickup day someone did mention that our boxes looked a little “light” this time around, and I agree. We had such a wonderful spring that our earliest boxes were lush and overflowing with a huge variety. We still have quite the selection, but it doesn’t exactly match our previous hauls. This is all part of the CSA. Sometimes crops fail, or weather turns, or elk trample your seedlings. As members of the farm, our customers know that we are doing all we can, and sometimes there is less, while other times there is more! If everyone loved cucumbers we’d have nothing but smiles…that is one bumper crop we can’t seem to stay ahead of! I can’t complain though; nothing beats a cool cucumber with sea salt on a hot summer’s day!

In other news, my family had quite the shock a couple days ago when my father had a massive heart attack. I say “massive” because that’s what I’m told, although I spoke to him and he sounds pretty good, no, especially good for a guy who required CPR by heart surgeons the day before. My father is in general a healthy guy who walks around a lot for work, so this was not something any of us expected. My siblings and I are all headed to Sacramento to visit with him this weekend. I am not happy about the circumstances, but I am looking forward to some quality family time, and to be honest a little break from the farm is probably not a bad thing either. Poor Andrew will be on his own for a few days, but I think the time apart will also be good for our relationship. Working and living with your spouse requires a true partnership, and like any partnership sometimes a little distance here and there can make all the difference.

While I spend my time inside air-conditioned buildings avoiding the 100+ degree Sacramento heat, I’ll be doing a mental rain dance with visions of Mt. Rainier and Mt. Baker as my goalposts. I’m not confident the rain will come, but I do believe that we will endure this “busy season.” While it might not be the most graceful of farming ventures, it will be just enough to whet our appetites for the season ahead. There’s a common refrain among farmers that goes something like: “next year we’ll do it this way.” Andrew is full of these ideas, and while I often roll my eyes and snip at him to focus on the year at hand, I am excited for the growing possibilities that await.

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Tipsy Pigs, Goat Pee, and New Friends

There’s a great line in Downton Abbey where the whole family is sitting around the dinning table chatting and someone mentioned something about traveling on the weekends.  The old rich matriarch, played by Maggie Smith, gets a befuddled look and interrupts with, “What is a week end?” I can relate to the question, although my slant is different. While the Dowager Countess has never worked a day in her life, and therefore cannot fathom why someone should recognize the end of the week, we consider ourselves lucky when we get a few hours off on Sunday to go fishing or visit with Andrew’s family.

To be clear, this is a self-imposed work schedule. There is always so much work to do, and we get antsy if we feel like we’re missing a good weather window for farm work. We also feel like we should be working on the house whenever possible, although we’re still miles away from moving in. We decided to camp out in the house last weekend, and thoroughly enjoyed the wonderful memory foam mattress that normally sits up in the loft taunting me. It was a beautiful, clear, peaceful night and I swiftly fell asleep cradled by foam and serenaded by owls. Obviously now we now even more anxious to get moved in, and it’s especially difficult to go bed every night on our lumpy, uncomfortable futon!

So while we don’t take much time away from the farm, as I sit here writing this Andrew is on his way up into the mountains for a quick rock climbing trip with a couple of fellas. Side note: whenever I open my laptop I find Andrew’s open windows that he forgets to close and they always make me chuckle. Today’s gems are two Wikipedia pages about “Petrodollar warfare” and “Military-industrial complex.” What a cutie! While he’s gone I plan on getting some weeding done at the farm, and trying to clean up our apartment so that he can come mess it up again with all his climbing gear when he gets home.

We’ve had a few fun animal developments at the farm these past weeks. The goats are stubborn as always, and while I generally enjoy their company, my boot was recently peed on by Laney (the most stubborn of the bunch) and then cut myself on barbed wire while untangling another goat. Meanwhile our turkeys outgrew their brooder boxes and were dying for some fresh air, so Andrew constructed a turkey aviary on skids so that we can move them to fresh grass every week. All 25 turkeys are happy and healthy, and I adore the strange little alien chirping, whirring, and clicking noises they make all day.

The pigs are growing with astonishing speed, with the lone exception of “Tiny” who seems to be stuck as a rather petite pig. I can relate to being the little “squirt” of the bunch, but as far as bacon and ham go we would really prefer she put on some weight! In order to add protein to their diet we worked out an arrangement with a local distillery (skiprockdistillers.com). They buy grain from the farm for some of the liquors, and now they are giving us the “spent” grain after they have sucked the sugar (which turns into alcohol) out of it. What’s left is almost pure protein sludge, and we’ve been adding it to the pigs’ grain for some added punch. The remnants of alcohol don’t seem to bother them either, and they romp and frolic all morning under the sprinkler when the weather is hot.

The other good news is that we have started making friends with our farmer neighbors. Andrew thrives on his alone time, but I have what he dubbed “twin syndrome” in that I recharge best when I spend quality social time with good people.  I guess he has a point; when you’ve shared the womb with someone you’re probably most comfortable in the presence of others. On the 4th of July we were invited to a BBQ at the farm next door called Bob’s Corn, which apparently a huge institution around here come October. Bob, his wife Sarah, and their five girls are a hoot, and come around often on a golf cart to chat and watch the pigs play. I’m alternately excited to see what their farm looks like in October, and terrified for the crowds that will descend into our peaceful little corner for the corn maze, pumpkin patch, and bonfires that go until midnight!

Next to Bob’s is another small CSA-based farm that is managed by a nice guy named Vince, and he invited us to his house to meet his wife Anna and watch fireworks. We sat in lawn chairs in their backyard chatting while people all across the valley spent thousands of hard earned dollars on glorified dynamite (which, by the way, has been making Zephyr a basket case all week!). As the air turned crisp and the sky darkened, I sipped on some hard apple cider and tried not to think about the early morning of harvesting that awaited. Sometimes a little fatigue is worth the delight of making new friends, and while my body may be dragging my spirits are miles high (at least until a goat pisses on me again).

Good Enough is Perfect

Famous sustainable farmer and author, Joel Salatin of Polyface Farms, has a quote that goes something like “when it comes to farming, good enough is perfect.” This is a piece of advice I am desperately trying to take to heart, although it is hard for me. Historically I have had an overachiever, straight “A”, quasi-perfectionist mentality, and when I see weeds growing amongst my vegetables I have an urge to pull out every single one. Which is completely ridiculous, because by the time I finished weeding the whole farm, I’d have to start all over again. And that would be fine, if the only job I had to do was weed all day. Thankfully, there are a million other things to be done, so I am learning how to best prioritize my tasks.

Every day we get to the farm in the morning and start with animal chores. Usually this involves moving the chicken “tractors” to fresh pasture, a process we now have down pretty well (although occasionally a chicken or two sneak out and we have to do some wrangling). We feed all the chickens, give them fresh water, and feed and water the pigs. We check on the goats to make sure they are all accounted for, something we never worried about much until one of our wethers (young, castrated male) went mysteriously missing, which just about broke my heart. Then we set about starting our other farm tasks, which usually means weeding in my case, and working on the tiny house in Andrew’s case.

Other than the daily animal feeding, our schedule is pretty varied and loose. Usually what happens is we discover something that needs fixing right away, and all of the things on our “to-do” list get bumped. For example we might discover that the goats’ hooves need trimming, and so we’ll spend a couple hours catching them and trimming hooves. Recently we decided that the pigs had outgrown their pen, so Andrew spent two days building them a “pig palace” and a new enclosure, putting our own abode on hold. There’s a kind of feeling on the farm that we’re always putting out fires, or staying one step ahead of imminent disaster. At first I worried that this was due to our novice status, but I’m starting to see that this is the nature of farming. You are at the mercy of the elements, trying to harness nature and encourage the “good” parts while avoiding the “bad.” Sometimes there’s not much to be done but panic, scramble around fixing things for a few hours, and then stand in front of a patch of overgrown weeds, wheezing while silently cursing your aching back.

Our farm operates as “CSA” based, which stands for Community Supported Agriculture. What this means is that people pay up front for a weekly box of produce, and that box is expected to be varied and plentiful. It’s wonderful because it allows community members to become a real part of the farm; in our case all boxes are picked up at the farm so people can come meet us and see where their food comes from. The pressure is on to make sure we are providing high-quality produce with a good variety in order to keep our members satisfied. I was beginning to have some anxiety about the approaching deadline when our farmer neighbors stopped by to have a chat and see how we were doing. They were impressed by how far along many of our vegetables are, and reassured me that we were going to have very happy customers. I feel relieved about that now, although we will have to work hard to make sure the weeds don’t strangle out some of our younger crops before they have a chance to get established. Part of the challenge of farming is timing; you need to ensure that you have harvestable crops every week throughout the season, and that you always have a good variety in rotation.

Our other impending deadline is our first chicken slaughter, which is only one week away. We have been talking to lots of experienced people, watching videos, reading books and blogs, and learning as much as we can about the process. Unfortunately the only real way to know what it’s going to be like is to actually do it, so we mostly just have to wait until the day comes and then dive right in. For the most part I am excited about this. I believe that it is important to understand that a chicken breast is actually a piece of meat that came from a living creature, and to be able to slaughter the chickens we raised from the day after they hatched is something I will take pride in.  Although I do think that pulling intestines out of a still-warm carcass with my bare hands may take some getting used to!

In the meantime, we will keep chasing our goats, laughing at the pigs, enjoying the delicious young zucchinis and beets, and marveling at the scenery. Oh, and when the rain lets up long enough for the ground to dry out, we will get back to hacking at those weeds!

The Only Guarantee in Life

Compared to my last post, which was a celebration of all things wonderful in regards to finding the love of my life, this post may seem a little macabre. Working on a farm means that we are responsible for creating life. We plant seeds and provide water and nutrients so that they may grow big and strong and plentiful. We feed, pamper, and nourish our livestock so that they will also grow big and strong (and tasty!). We are now well into spring, and life brims at every turn. Flowers are blooming, bees are buzzing, and our plants and animals are growing in leaps and bounds. This is amazing to witness and I am so thrilled to be a part of something so fundamental. There is, of course, a flip side to all of the energetic, tangible, vibrant life that abounds on the farm.

Death on the farm is not a rare occurrence. In the few months we have worked here we have become quite accustomed to several forms of death. Rodents die almost every day on the farm, some by our own hands. Even more succumb to Zephyr, whose favorite hobby is digging up their nests and toying with the young. Rats, mice, and rabbits have all met this fate (although the weasels are proving too smart for him!). We have also had more than a handful of chicken deaths. Some die as chicks for various reasons, whether they are sick, or too weak to fight for food, or they get crushed by the others when it’s cold. We have also had larger chickens die expectantly. But still…when it’s a chicken, it’s not so hard to get over.

A few weeks ago, we had to put down one of our pigs. She had only been in our custody for a few days, and was sickly from the beginning. We were fortunate in that we had not really formed any kind of bond with her yet, but still. A pig is an intelligent creature, and pulling the trigger is no easy feat. And yet, all five living pigs are destined for slaughter. (I will have to come to terms with this, especially since I plan on eating some of the delicious pork I had a hand in raising!) And today a lovable little calf named Lucy died. She was bottle fed and hand-raised by Eric’s twelve-year-old son, and it was incredibly difficult to see him struggle and mourn this loss. Unfortunately this is a big part of creating life. Every living creature must die, and sometimes they die when we do not want them to.

All of the death on the farm makes me think about my own mortality, and how we as humans cope with this. Scratch that. We as Americans (or other Westerners). We have, in my opinion, a seriously messed up perspective on death in this country. We push it away and ignore it all our lives, until BAM there it is, in the form of a lost loved one. We avoid thinking about death. We avoid participation in any death rites (let the funeral home and undertakers deal with that!). Most of us avoid preparing for death unless we are given a prognosis and we know our time is limited. With all of this avoidance, it’s no wonder death is such a tragedy to us. We are slammed with the emotions all at once, and at the same time are stuck dealing with the logistics of planning, and paying exorbitantly, for a funeral. There is no real closure in this process either, other than maybe throwing a handful of dirt into a grave and walking away.

When I was just out of high school one of my equally young friends passed away. His family wanted some kind of closure, so they requested to watch his coffin be buried completely. This, unfortunately, was performed by a backhoe. You can imagine how traumatic it was for us all to watch noisy, heavy machinery bury our friend in the earth. In other cultures family is directly involved in the funeral rites. In India, Hindu family members bathe, clothe, and arrange the body of their loved ones before they perform the cremation themselves, in a specific way according to custom. This seems much more logical to me. It allows the family to grieve over the body, and be personally connected to the process of letting go.

Recently I was listening to a podcast in which a cool, young mortician was interviewed. She has established something called the Order of the Good Death, which was created in response to the screwy Western cultural fears about death. Here is a link to their mission: http://www.orderofthegooddeath.com/category/mission

I cannot say that I am “mightier than thou” when it comes to matters of death. I have not delved deeply enough into this topic to have completely resolved my fears and anxieties…after all cultural knowledge is hard to unlearn. I am excited to know that there are potential options out there that do include more direct involvement with the death of loved ones, and I am hoping to expand my knowledge on the subject over time.

In the meantime I do know that I would like a “green burial,” where my body can be placed into the ground, uninhibited by concrete or polished wood. Matter is matter is matter…my energy is neither created nor destroyed but merely transferred. Let those worms use me to create new life! Who knows, maybe someday my energy will wind up feeding the spinach that finds its way onto your plate. What could be more significant than participating directly in the great Circle of Life?

I’m curious to know about your thoughts: please share in the comments!

Greenthumb Greenhorns

There is an inevitable moment that occurs when the people we are talking to figure out how inexperienced we are. For the first five minutes we are usually able to pass ourselves off as seasoned farmers; “Oh yes, we have lots of starts already in our green house, and the seedlings in the hoop houses are coming along nicely!” “We trimmed our goats’ hooves yesterday…it was a piece of cake!” And then, “We’re going to have a few pigs on the farm soon!” It was this piece of news that made our new acquaintance (a truck driver for the mill who seems to have ample agriculture experience) stop short.

“Oh, so you’re hog people?!”

“Well, we will be soon!”

“Oh.” <pause> “You’ve never raised ‘em before?”

“Nope! But we’re doing a lot of research!”

“Hahaha. Hah. Haha. Good luck to you!”

In the end he recommended a book for us to check out, and talked a lot about how smart pigs are and how likely they are to escape. (Which is no problem, we are quite used to our animals escaping. This past weekend while we were away the goats seemed to learn that the electric fence really isn’t all that bad, and now wander in and out of the enclosure at will. Some part of me thinks Zephyr sneaks off at night to show them how it’s done).

The nice thing is, when people realize we are coming at this from ground zero they generally think it’s great, and are willing to share some bit of wisdom or tell stories about when they first started out. There is certainly a big difference between “book knowledge” and “practical knowledge.” We have a lot of books, and have been researching as much as possible, but the solutions in the books don’t always apply. More often than not when I mention I read how to do something to Eric, he will politely point out that whatever I read is in fact completely impractical and it should be done this way instead. I am hopeful that after a full season on the farm I will have my own memory bank of knowledge to draw from, so I can consult the books when I am stumped, rather than scanning through them every day!

Things have been progressing at the farm very rapidly, and I am anxious, excited, and nervous for the real “season” to begin. Our cute little chicks are now huge, awkward, fairly unattractive “teenagers,” and will be heading down to the farm this week. Eric also dropped off our egg layers down at the farm, so we now have around 150 little peepers to keep happy and healthy. This week our pigs will arrive, and pretty soon we will be getting ready to welcome some turkey chicks to the mix! On top of that we are still working on irrigation, mowing and tilling the fields, planting seeds and starts, weeding ad infinitum, and waiting for the weather to finally decide it’s springtime!

The tiny house project is coming along, and with a roof, windows, and a door it actually feels cozy and home-like! We (ie: mostly Andrew) have a few more major things to accomplish before we can move in, but we are hopeful that within a few weeks will be down there, falling asleep and waking up to the cacophony of animal sounds that abound on the farm. In addition to our livestock, we are frequently treated to calls and flyovers by the resident geese, ducks, bald eagles, hawks, herons, sparrows, robins, woodpeckers, (and more!) that call the farm home.

On a side note, in case any of you are wondering, my grandmother is doing exceedingly well down in Tucson. It was really hard leaving her, not knowing exactly how she was going to get along since her health wasn’t as good as it could be, but when I speak to her on the phone I am so relieved to hear how much better she is. She is walking (although often with a walker), is trying to make new friends, enjoys the pool in the retirement home (that I never knew existed while I was there!), and sounds genuinely happy and healthy. I am looking forward to celebrating her 90th birthday next January with the entire family… and what a year to celebrate!

Speaking of years to celebrate, April 28th will mark our first wedding anniversary. This has been the most unexpected, adventurous, momentous, stupendous, love-filled year of my life! From living happily with my sweetheart in sunny San Diego, getting married in Joshua Tree National Park, traveling 15,000 miles with a teardrop trailer, spending some difficult months apart, and moving to Washington to work on an organic farm, we really have done it all! And you know what? We’re just getting started!