Late winter woes; early spring joys

This last week, not so unusually, was full of ups and downs. Saying something along those lines is beginning to feel cliché around here, but it so accurately describes most weeks with us these days. Either way, the ups and downs were interesting, so here they are, in chronological order:

By far the highlight of the week (and month, and maybe season), was attending the Northwest Farmer to Farmer Exchange at Breitenbush Hot Springs. For two days and nights, a bunch of organic farmers got together to talk shop. Unlike typical conferences, no one presented anything formal, we literally just sat around and had long conversations about predetermined interesting topics, such as fertility management, harvest strategies, and recordkeeping. (Okay, maybe those topics don’t immediately sound fascinating to others, but these are the day to day details of farming that we all want to improve upon.) In the evenings after dinner, people shared photos of their own farms and we talked more generally about ideas and experiences.

everything about this gathering was awesome. Not only was it wonderful to meet so many other people making a living off of farming (and therefore quite dedicated and engaged on the topic), but the group dynamics were the best I’ve ever encountered. Even though everything was fairly casual, almost every person participated in discussions, no one spoke over each other, no one dominated conversation, and everyone was impressively generous with sharing and listening to ideas. I suppose that on some level we are all in competition with each other (and some of the farms even attend the same markets), and yet it was the most cooperative groups I’ve ever been a part of. (Oh, and Breitenbush is amazing, but that could be its own entire post.)

Needless to say, as some of the most newbie farmers in attendance, we learned a ton. On the more immediate level, we picked up some good ideas that we’ll implement this year—but we also simply gained a better perspective about farming as a career. Some of these farmers have been at it for over 30 years, and talking with them made us realize just how much time we have ahead of us. We sometimes feel like we need to ‘make’ our farm real as soon as possible—but really we have time to evolve our farming practices and how they relate to our specific piece of land. Maybe this seems obvious—it should be—but time has felt compressed this last year and we find ourselves having unrealistic expectations at moments. We have time. And it’s wonderful to remember that. And it’s wonderful to now have new friends and mentors all across the northwest! We already can’t wait for next year! (Interesting side note about the retreat: we were one of many farms that run a tractor combination of a Landini and an Allis Chalmers, model G! Apparently we chose wisely without even knowing it!)

So, onto the ‘late winter woes’ … we left Breitenbush feel renewed and excited about the season only to arrive back at a mini-crisis. Apparently Tuesday morning, the morning we left the retreat, a freakish windstorm blew through Yamhill County. We weren’t around to experience it, but it was strong enough to blow a tree onto my parents’ house and topple our hot house. Yes, our little hot house that we had just built blew over in a strong gust of wind. This is what it looked like when we found it:

All the bows just sort of toppled over. Here is one of the bent anchors at the front of the house.

Strong wind … The miracle, however, was that none of the actual pieces of the house broke when the whole thing fell apart. Everything was still in useful condition: the end walls, hoops, poly, benches—even the flats were ok. So we were able to fairly quickly reassemble the house. And although we’re just crazy enough to rebuild the same thing, we did reinforce it. We realized that it had almost zero front-back sheer strength (hence the ‘toppling’ in on itself), so Casey added three steel purlins, attached to each bow. Now the house moves as a whole unit, if it moves at all. It would take a lot more wind to knock this version down. We hope anyway!

Either way, we’re already dreaming about the permanent hot house we want to build for next spring. We’d love to have something bigger and more stable now, but we may have already done our major capital spending for the year with the house and the new tractor. Again, as we learned at Breitenbush, there’s time. And our hot house does work. Here’s a picture of one of our first germinating flats (broccoli!):

And another quick low/woe (which doesn’t need to be described in detail): we overdrew our checking account by over $1,000 last week. We’re fine (there was much more in savings), but it was a shock. We’ve just been spending money so fast that we lose sight of what we really need to keep in our checking account. We’ll be getting outside help with our bookkeeping soon, thanks to Katie’s mom. Again, to reiterate, we’re fine financially—we just were caught off guard with all of these house building expenses clearing at once.

In other more exciting farm news, we’ve begun harvesting again! We don’t have anything ready at the new land, but some of the items we over-wintered at Seven Spoke are looking awesome after all this relatively warm weather (and slightly longer days). This week we did our first official harvest for Nick’s, which is a new restaurant relationship for us this year. We harvested: chioggia beets, leeks, radicchio, baby kale leaves, and the most tender raab I’ve ever eaten. Here’s a particularly beautiful handful:

We were both invigorated by harvesting again. Actually getting out into the fields and finding food there is another useful ‘centering’ activity. With all of our infrastructure attention this winter, we sometimes lose sight why we’re even out here to begin with. Our stress level has been high this last few weeks, as we’ve tried to balance farming and house building. (Thinking about both has been especially rough for Casey, who has taken on the primary responsibility for house building stuff—we both work on it, but he does 99% of the planning and more than half of the actual physical labor.) Both projects are going well, however, even if some of our unrealistic expectations haven’t been perfectly met. We would have loved to get plants started earlier, but we’re more than on track for the CSA and market. And we would love to have been moving into our house at the end of this month, but we will at least be in by the time the harvest season begins in earnest. (The wiring is finished and approved, and the plumbing is complete and soon to be approved!)

Living in our little house, on our land, sounds like a dream right now. Even though this will be our fourth season farming, it will be the first time we’ve ever lived on the farm where we work. Every prior year, whether it was on our own or working at Cedarville Farm, we’ve had a daily commute to the fields (at Cedarville, it was a 30 minute commute!). Even though it is sometimes nice to leave the fields at the end of the day, overall it adds to our stress to be away. We can’t wait to keep watch on everything without extra effort. We’ll also gain an hour everyday just by eliminating our commute! And, we’ll finally feel like we can responsibly add animals to our farmscape and take good care of them. We can’t wait to get some chickens and ducks out in our fields—slugs, watch out!

And a few other tidbits: there was a nice article in the local paper yesterday about friends of ours who are starting their own McMinnville-area CSA this year called Growing Wild. The article was similar to the article another staff writer published last year about us. That is definitely a perk of small-town living: start a farm and get full color pictures in the paper! Incidentally, we’re excited to have another CSA in the area. While it’s been fun to connect with Portland-area CSA growers and other organic farmers lately, it will also be nice to have peers closer by the check in with throughout the season. We wish Andre and Sheila the best this year!

Finally, I think we’ve been so busy that I forgot to report back on our second organic inspection. Our Oregon Tilth inspector came by the new land a few weeks ago and, as before, we had a blast. I know that inspections are supposed to be rigorous and scary, but both times so far we’ve actually enjoyed them. Maybe it’s because we love showing people around the farm or because the Oregon Tilth inspectors are nice people, but it’s been fun for us. (It probably also helps that we try to be prepared so that there’s not much to worry about.)

Anyhow, we’re good to go for another year with Oregon Tilth. In 2007, the vegetables from the new land with be Oregon Tilth Certified Transitional because our field is in a three-year waiting period before it can be officially in organic production—in that time, our practices continue to be certified, however. (We’re already planning the party we’ll have in July 2009 to celebrate our official ‘organic’ status and Casey’s 30th birthday!) We did think though to add the abandoned homesite fruit trees to our application this year, so we will have a very limited supply of certified organic cherries, apples, pears, walnuts, grapes, and blueberries. But they probably won’t even be enough to take to market … we’ll see.

So, as usual, our time has been full and varied. We have no worries about getting bored these days! And, as usual, most of our highlights and productivity have been aided by others’ help: the folks at Nick’s, for giving us reason to harvest again; our parents, for helping us manage our stress; all the farmers we’ve hung out with over the last two weeks, for providing support and new ideas; and friends who just help out. Thanks especially to Rich of Mossback Farm and his volunteers for helping us dig our water supply trench this week!

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2 Responses to Late winter woes; early spring joys

  1. rich says:

    I’m always up for supplying water. And just think of the collapsed hoophouse as having been folded for storage unexpectedly :)

  2. alexis says:

    I lOVE Breitenbush too!!

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