Well Hello Winter, Where Did You Come From?

Apparently when the seasons change in the Pacific Northwest, they change fast. A couple days ago I was pulling weeds in a tank top and shading my eyes from the glaring sun. Today I sit here typing this (as I wait for members to pick up boxes), and I’m wearing full on winter regalia. Or at least winter regalia as it was known to my former SoCal self.  This “brisk” autumn day reminds of me of deep December in San Diego. I knew that I would be in for it after complaining about the copious sunshine this summer, but I didn’t think late September would bring winter already! My new life as a farmer has made me more aware of the seasons than ever before. Obviously seasons matter greatly for the plants (soil temperature, daylight hours, heat units…all things I’m struggling to learn about!), but just being outside every single day has made me so much more in tune to the environment around me.

I have noticed a real change in wildlife, especially the birds. Early in the spring we had daily sightings of bald eagles, to the point that I was almost unimpressed with the one that flew over my head with a fish. Then we had gaggles of Canadian geese honking as they landed in the nearby cornfield. For a few weeks we had hundreds of barn swallows trying to make nests in really inconvenient places, like our awnings and storage spaces. Nowadays I don’t see or hear much from our feathered friends, except of course for Homer and Marge, the homing pigeons that still visit daily for their grain smorgasbord. The rabbit population has dropped dramatically, much to Zephyr’s dismay. The coyotes are seemingly more active, vocal, and closer in range as the days get shorter. I only hope there are enough rabbits to keep them occupied and away from our chickens throughout the winter.

October is gearing up to be a crazy place around here, thanks to our great neighbors at Bob’s Corn. They have everything all decked out and ready for the hoards that descend for the corn maze, pumpkin patch, squash harvest, hot cider donuts, roasted sweet corn, BBQ, etc. etc, ad infinitum. Of course all of that people-wrangling involves lots of employees, so Andrew and I have signed on to manage a hay wagon Saturday nights and Sunday afternoons. Our first shift was this weekend, and it was a cold, wet, windy mess. We had a great time ushering the few diehard corn maze trompers back and forth on the hay wagon, and we sipped hot cider while drying off in the country store every hour or so. The Bob’s Corn Crew is a lively, ragtag bunch and we are excited to spend some more time getting to know everyone. Not to mention we are earning a little extra spending money for our Australian excursion!

The change in season also marks the beginning of the end for our CSA. We have five short weeks left for box pick-up, and we are both sad and relieved that the end is in sight. It has been a tremendous learning experience for us both, and our newfound knowledge will surely make next year even more successful. On the other hand, we are feeling pretty fatigued and more than a little burnt out from the nonstop pace. The slow winter days with minimal chores will be a relief, and our trip to Australia is shining like a beacon on the other end of that grey, wet, cold tunnel ahead. Maybe instead of pining away for the summer that seemingly vanished just like that, I will greet the coming fall and winter with open arms, ready for what new adventures await. Now if only we had a hot shower hooked up!

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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.

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).

Bucking Around on the Farm… (Just Kidding!)

My body aches. Just like I predicted it would, and just like I expected, I am happy about it. Sure, I don’t wake up every morning excited about the prospect of sinking 100 nails into plywood, but hey. It means that soon I get to live on a beautiful farm with my husband and pets, and roll out of bed to greet the resident goats, chickens,  cows, and pigs (coming soon!).

So far the house construction is chugging along. It takes me about 12 swings on a hammer (with both hands…that sucker is heavy!) to sink a nail, while Andrew does it in three or four whacks. So for the most part I do what I can and then move onto other farm chores when my arms fall off. Which is fine by me…I really enjoy watching seeds sprout and being involved in new growth. When the house is completed I will write a blog dedicated to the process, with the help of Andrew. I know there is a large community of “tiny house” enthusiasts out there…so stay tuned for insights and photos about our construction experiences!

Speaking of the tiny house…while we have been living “simply” in a borrowed apartment (it’s actually a single-wide mobile home), I still look around me and see all this stuff that I know won’t fit in our ~300 square foot home. There’s not a lot of fat to cut either…it will be interesting to see how we manage. We’re hoping to figure out a good storage system for under the house, since it is up on a trailer we have about four feet to stash stuff away, assuming we can make sure it is watertight and rat proof!

It rains a lot here in Washington (duh!), and the ground soaks it in very quickly. Mud is constant, and I wear my fashionable pink plaid mud boots (AKA my “sh*t kickers) frequently.  Initially I was worried that the weather would slowly leech away my will to live and farm in Washington, but I was wrong! Thankfully we have enough sunny, warm days mixed in to keep me happy. When the skies clear the views of the neighboring Cascade Mountain Range is spectacular! We set up drip lines for our hoop house that drain from a tank of collected rainwater, and we are also starting to plant outside, so I now see rain more as a beneficial life force rather than an inconvenience. I do hope it doesn’t snow again though…we got four inches the first day of spring! It was beautiful, and thankfully the sun came out and melted it all by the end of the day, but I had a little bit of a SoCal hissy fit and decided to work in the warm greenhouse all day.

Most of our days are spent planting seeds, seedlings, starts, running irrigation lines, and building the house. But for me the real excitement comes with our new animal additions. We now have a family of eight goats! The buck is a Kiko, a cool breed with a beard, gnarly horns, and the ability to forage well without much interference. There are three does (Boer breed), and four kids which are mixed (called GeneMasters for some reason!). Three of the kids are male, and the other day we banded their testicles so that they will constrict and fall off, making them “wethers” instead of bucks. These three will be sold for meat eventually. I think I can call myself a farmer now…I carried kids over to a pickup truck while Andrew and Eric (our boss) did the deed. The poor kids carried on, and their mothers did too, but as soon as they went back in the pen it was as if nothing had happened. What a dramatic bunch!

Zephyr absolutely adores the resident livestock. Every morning he gets pumped up for our ritual visit with the goats. When little Lucy the calf is around he touches his nose to hers and sometimes even gives her a lick. The combination of running around all day, and some training with his new shock collar, has made him a really well behaved pooch. The only times we have to worry about him is when we leave him alone in our apartment. We hide the trash in the bathroom, put away any and all food, and recently learned the hard way that we also must make sure there are no dirty dishes in the sink. But otherwise he has really “matured” insomuch as a dog can mature. Mostly I think this is just a much better lifestyle for him, and his behavior is a reflection of that.

Every day there is one incident or occurrence that reminds me about how lucky I am. A beautiful red sunrise over purple and white mountain peaks.  Getting to eat lunch every day at home with my husband. Listening to frogs happily chirp away as I plant strawberry starts in a field. Listening to my husband whistle as he hammers away, oblivious to my contented eavesdropping. There is something so wonderful about being outside, working in the dirt, and using my body as much as I can. Sure it hurts, and I get cold and grumpy sometimes. But when the clouds part and I see Mt. Baker off in the distance, I can’t help but pinch myself and wonder how this life came to be.