When we first started the farm in 2006, I feel like I spent a fair amount of time in our newsletters documenting (and educating our eaters about) the trials and tribulations of farming. We “learned” something new almost every day … by which I mean, we made mistakes and then learned from them in useful ways for the next time we grew that crop or the next season.
At some point, I stopped writing so much about how hard it all was because … well, it sort of wasn’t as hard anymore. At least, not in such a profound, gut-wrenching every.single.day kind of way.
Over those early years, we really truly did learn a lot. Every event that felt predictably stressful became a trigger for changing something in our systems. This is especially true in our approach to the “shoulder” seasons — i.e. anytime that isn’t in the main growing summer season. We built more high tunnels to help us get a jump start on the spring season, and we built more conditioned storage space for successfully storing different crops after harvest. These two changes in particular eased a lot of the stress we experienced, but there were countless tweaks and fine-tuning of our growing methods — selecting the best varieties for our growing conditions, buying good tools and learning how to use them, figuring out what scale of operation works best for us.
Along the way, we’ve found that we’ve internalized so much of the annual process that we have what can only be called a “gut level” sense of what to do and when in the season. The rhythm of it feels intuitive after so many years of practice.
That being said, I’ve been marveling lately at the complexity involved in growing fresh market vegetables for direct-marketing — and especially for a CSA where there’s a goal of having a reasonably stable amount of produce of an approximately stable number of different types over a set number of months.
For example, right now we’re supplying about 60 households with vegetables every week — working out to about 300 “items.” We aim to have about 9-12 options for people to pick from, and the numbers don’t work out evenly as people have different share sizes and different preferences. Over the years, we’ve learned which items will be more popular than others, so we can somewhat predict ahead of time our planting amounts, but we do have to predict and estimate.
But the really amazing — and challenging — part of planning, planting and harvesting for a CSA is that the vegetables are constantly growing and changing. And, to complicate the planning even further, the rate at which the vegetables grow and change also changes through the season (following much the same curve as the sun in the sky and day length). So, for example, lettuce planted in March will mature more slowly than lettuce planted in May or June. But, nonetheless, we need a certain amount of lettuce per week, so we need to account for the slower earlier growth in our planting.
Lettuce, actually, is a fairly simple crop simply because it can be harvested at almost any stage of its growth — as small baby leaves or full, mature heads. Other crops that involve the maturation of a fruit are much more finicky. The window of time for picking a yummy sugar snap pea pod, for example, is small — each pod is in the ideal stage of maturity for only about a week, depending on weather (warmer weather will speed up the maturity and vice versa for cool weather). Zucchini need to be picked at least twice a week to prevent the fruit from becoming bigger than most people want to eat. Either way, most crops will only “hang out” in a harvestable state for so long, and we need to stay constantly aware of how everything is maturing and whether it is past its prime. Even classic storage crops need attention in storage, although they are much more stable than quickly growing crops in the field. The farm is a constantly moving train.
None of this time equation takes into account the other expected vagaries of growing: the pest and weed pressure, the unexpected weather, the low germination rate of a packet of seeds. We are constantly tinkering and adjusting as we move through every season — planting another planting of corn because the starlings picked off the first, sowing more cucumbers because the first one failed to thrive. These are the reality of growing, and we’ve gotten to where we hardly even notice the “failures” because we have come to expect that not every thing we plant will thrive every time. We know that sometimes you just need to till a few beds in and start over. Honestly, that’s just part of the game.
I’m still amazed at how much there is to learn — really learn — about all these different crops we grow. We learn by paying attention to them, year after year, understanding how they grow differently under different conditions and different care. Suffice to say, there are a lot of moving parts involved in a fresh market vegetable farm. To have the right amount of produce in the right number of types at the right time … even after all these years, each week’s CSA share still feels like a minor miracle.
Which, of course, it is! The gifts of the earth are a miracle — sunlight transformed through photosynthesis into energy that the plant can use, and then that we can also use. It really is a miracle — all life as know it starts with the sun and those tiny amazing chlorophyll cells. Casey and I just get to be partners in the process — as do you, as conscious grateful eaters.
Even amidst all the uncertainties of this weird year, the sun does still shine (albeit through a layer of clouds today), and the plants are growing. Let us rejoice in these gifts! Enjoy this week’s vegetables!
Your farmers, Katie & Casey Kulla
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P.S. Did you know that I also post little bits mid-week on Instagram and Facebook? You can find us @oakhillorganics. Usually I just post extra photos from the fields that I think our customers would enjoy. Occasionally something related to homeschooling.
But this last week we participated in a larger effort on the part of white social media users to mute our own content and “amplify” the voices of people of color as part of the current #blacklivesmatter movement. I shared something each day related to the cause: for example a poem by lucille clifton and a list of children’s books about race in America.
It was definitely different than my normal content on there, but I don’t see it as profoundly different from what Casey and I have always aimed to do by being farmers. We started our farm out of a desire to make positive change in the world, and in our mid-20s sustainable food and farming seemed like The Issue. We saw farming as a way to physically manifest many of our ideals about the world — we could practice what we preached about organic agriculture AND connect our community. I see now that our ability to follow through on our goal of moving to a rural area, buying land and starting a farm business was an incredibly privileged act. While we certainly came up against plenty of obstacles to surmount, none of them were because of our skin color.
I learned today that farming is the second “most white” occupation in America (second only to veterinary medicine, which is also closely linked to agriculture). 95.8% of farmers and ranchers in America are white. (Source)
In the last few years, I’ve been doing a lot of self-education about how race functions in America. I’ve immersed myself in the voices of people of color who speak directly to their experience of race in America. I’ve read the most amazing books, many of which were uncomfortable at times, because they had hard stories to tell. Stories in which I was unknowingly complicit.
Anyhow, I didn’t intend this post-script to become it’s own newsletter of sorts, but I did want to direct people to our social media presence if they hadn’t connected with us there yet and also somehow mark the end of my week of muting our “normal” content. But I don’t see this last week as an aberration of our goals with the farm — to me it felt like a particular distillation of what we’ve wanted to do as people who work for justice and positive change in the world. We will always be striving toward those goals.
We too are a moving train in our way, as Casey and I continue to grow and learn and listen. We listen to our land and to the plants here, and we also try our best to also listen beyond the borders of our lived experience. We hope you do too. To that end, to accompany the list of children’s books I posted on social media this week, I wanted to share a list of recommended books for adults who might be realizing they have a lot more to learn about race in America too:
- White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism by Robin DiAngelo
- Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America by Michael Eric Dyson
- The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson
- The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander
- How To Be An Anti-Racist by Ibram X. Kendi
- The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
- Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Who Helped Win the Space Race by Margot Lee Shetterly
- Becoming by Michelle Obama
P.P.S. In super mundane news, have all our new members paid your first payment? If not yet, thanks for doing so this week!
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Meet this week’s vegetables: In the continued theme of “the farm is a moving train,” we have many fun new summer-y options this week, but not yet in overly plentiful supply. You’ll lots of new items in the week, many of them limited to one. But given the number of options, I don’t think that will be a problem. More likely, you’ll have a hard time choosing what you want!
Please remember to include your name when placing your order! Last week we had several orders without names attached. Thanks for placing your order by Tuesday evening!