Saturday, November 3, 2007

Thinking out loud (about next year)

....Still trying to figure out about next year -- do I want to do this? And if so, how would I do it differently?

.....I guess what it comes down to is that I WOULD like to run the farm next year, if the conditions change to support my work here. If the conditions don't change, then I need to quit and start life over in some other locale, with some other job. I'm dreading that; I don't have as much money saved as I'd like, and I'd prefer to already have something lined up that I can slip into easily when I do leave here, both for my own comfort and my cat Sukey's; I'm concerned about her. If I leave here suddenly, I'd have to find a place for her to live while I looked for my own place, which could take a month or more; then I might end up finding a place in a city, which wouldn't be as good for her as the country, since she's used to the great outdoors.

What I have started thinking more about is my six friends -- 3 couples -- up at Full Bloom Farm in southern Oregon, near Jacksonville. They were all farm apprentices at Green Gulch Farm Zen Center, two of them in the same class as me, and we've remained good friends. My friend Ryan Ginn inherited some money and used it to buy land -- 287 acres -- up in Oregon, and he, along with his partner Eden Luz, Jo Ferneau & Rosie Demmin, Matt & Aria (can't remember their last names right now) have set up an intentional community there. They're spending this year setting up the infrastructure for a farm, building housing, getting permits and building a commercial kitchen to bake bread in. They're looking ultimately to have 10-12 adults living and working on the land (there are also 3 children living on the land now).

Anyway, my dream since coming home from farming and living communally abroad 12 years ago has been to start an intentional community with friends, which has both spiritual and permacultural components to it. What my friends up there are doing fits all of that, and ever since they started it a couple of years ago, I've day-dreamed about the possibility of moving up there. The things that have stopped me are 1) it's a long drive away from my family and friends in the east bay, 2) I don't know what I'd do, work-wise, up there, and 3) I'm not thrilled about the idea of being the only single person among couples.

It's been a hard summer here for many reasons, but the main one is the fact that I'm alone up here; I live alone, for the most part I work alone, and the work, and life in general, doesn't seem to have much meaning when I'm not sharing it with people. I don't enjoy carrying the stresses of managing an entire farm by myself (which is partially why I started this blog -- to verbalize the things that I'm otherwise keeping to myself). I had expressed some of this feeling to Jo, Ryan and Eden when I saw them at a wedding on Labor Day weekend.

A few weeks ago, Ryan called and said that he, Eden, Jo and Rosie had been talking about me, were concerned, and had decided that one of them would call me every week to check in. Hearing that was so heart-warming, made me feel a little less alone here. Then I had a phone conversation with Eden, who was verbalizing some of her stresses around living in community, around figuring out what her work is there. She's interested in herbal medecine, and in growing herbs, and was trying to figure out how to incorporate doing that into the farm. We'd talked about that a few times over the last couple of years, and brought up the possibility of me coming up there to live and grow herbs as well. Anyway, she said something about wanting to do her own thing on the farm, but not do it alone; in other words, she wanted to do work that she had some control over and responsibility for, but she didn't want to do it off by herself. And that expressed exactly what my struggle here has been. I AM doing something that I have control over and responsibility for, which allows for great creativity. But I'm doing it alone, and it's no fun. I'd rather collaborate on a project.

I was musing over the conversation in the field the next day, and thinking about the various possibilities that Eden had up there with respect to herbs. I remembered this article I'd read in a local paper, describing a landscaper down in Santa Cruz, who specialized in permaculture and native plants. One of his practices was to involve a local herbalist in his projects, who would work with his clients to determine which herbs would help their health the most, which he would then plant in their gardens. I got to thinking about CSAs, and then about a CSH -- community-supported herbiculture -- in which, along with whatever veggies each member would receive, they would also get medicinal (and culinary) herbs, which had been pre-determined by an herbalist who had prescribed herbs for all the members, which we could grow. It was just an idea, a seed, but it was really fun to think about, and I realized that I finally had something, work-wise that I could get passionate about while living at Full Bloom Farm. That, combined with this grateful feeling towards my friends there who care about me, got me thinking more seriously about moving there. Also, I realized that I could be an uncle of sorts, and have some meaningful relationships with children, which would be so great. As for the other s0-called obstacles I mentioned earlier, well, I can't really control the romantic situation in my life, i.e. who i meet and when, so there's no use in seeing being single as an obstacle to moving up there. It certainly will be easier to meet women up there than in my current situation. So the only remaining thing that gives me pause is how far it is from my family. But I'll never have everything I want in one situation. And if it really feels like a hardship after a few years, then I could move back, closer to home.

....Right around the time I started thinking about all this, my dear friend Sharon called me and asked if I wanted to drive to southern Oregon to see her sister Arbel, who lives in Grant's Pass -- about an hour from Full Bloom. I could really use some time away from the ranch, and it's an opportunity to also see my Green Gulch friends, and talk with them about this possibility of moving up there. So it's all arranged, I think. I'll go up there for four days, see my friend's and Sharon's sister, and get the ball rolling with regards to seriously considering moving up there.

So that's one idea. I don't have a lot of money saved, and whether it's Full Bloom or some other option, I need to work, so the question remains, will I stay at SMIP Ranch? And if I do, what would make life livable here?

I've got a car, something I didn't have the first year I was here. I've got some semblance of community now -- I know a lot more folks here, including new friends, and old ones who've moved closer. What I really need is a work situation that is manageable. As it stands, the work isn't really any easier than it was last year, even though I had 30 hours/week of help this year. The reason it's not easier is because I have twice as much to take care of, harvest and deliver. Last year I farmed close to the same amount of land, but if a row got too weedy, I would ignore it and move on to another row, since there was too much food out in the field for one restaurant anyway. This year, there are two restaurants, which means that I can't just ignore crops that are weed-infested; I have to take care of them. It also means that there is twice as much to harvest as there was last year; actually more than twice as much. So 30 hours/week of extra labor really doesn't cut it.

The question is, how much labor do I need, and can I do it with labor alone, or do I need to buy a tractor with implements and other equipment that can boost production by cutting down on labor costs and speeding up farming tasks. This is a major question, and to answer it I'm gonna need to sit down with several farmers in the next month and a half to get a proposal on paper that I can present to the powers-that-be.

Also, I need direct access to someone representing the funders of the farm, to talk about money issues that come up. Right now, I cannot for the life of me get ahold of Tim Stannard, who holds the purse strings of the farm. It is incredibly frustrating. He is very busy, and it is understandable that he doesn't have time for me. But I need a stand-in for him, who I can talk to every week, in person if need be, about finances, who can help me manage a budget better, who can do the bookkeeping for me. There are many crucial decisions that need to be made on a farm, in a timely manner, and if I can't reach the funder at the right time, the farm falters.

Ok, that's it for now. I'll continue this discussion later, when more thoughts materialize.

Thanks again for listening.


Sunday, October 28, 2007

Work party and soil testing thoughts


Yesterday I held a work party here, and 15 people showed up, for at least part of the day. I need lots of help pulling weeds from the rows of vegetables growing in the fall/winter portion of the field. I got some of that, with friends clearing four rows of lettuce and two rows of red-ribbed dandelion of weeds, which I can now harvest on Monday for Tuesday’s delivery. I also needed help clearing the two-thirds of the field that I grew the spring and summer’s crops on, so that the tractor can come in, very soon, and disc the soil for the cover-cropping that also has to happen very soon. So we cleared that part of the field of all drip irrigation lines, piling them up in piles along the edges of the field. We also removed all pumpkins and much of the butternut squash, which I’ll store in the barn until needed. And we were able to do some seed saving – four different varieties of bush beans, plus cranberry beans and curly cress/pepper cress seed. I was a little disappointed because there weren’t as many dry beans available as I thought, and the amount gathered yesterday won’t be enough to allow me to avoid buying beans to plant next year. But it’s something. I’m not sure how dry the beans/pods have to be to pick them; I could possibly pick a bunch of beans that are tweeners – the beans are full-sized but not dry – and spread them out to dry in the barn. Another thing to ask my farming mentors, Martin Bournonhesque and Liz Milazzo.

I went over the results of a soil test I did back in January with Liz this past week. I had sent her a copy in the mail, but she moved to a new housing sitch and couldn’t find it, so I just read it to her over the phone – the various levels of calcium, magnesium, etc., the pH of the soil, the recommendations that the lab had for how to improve the soil. I sent another copy to her and she’s gonna go over it more deeply, since she is also getting the soil tested at the UC Santa Cruz farm she manages, which allows her to research more in depth what all these levels mean for the fertility of the soil.

The main thing about the results for SMIP Ranch soil seems to be that the pH is slightly acidic, and very high in magnesium. The high levels of magnesium result in a denser soil that is harder to work with. Both the pH level and the magnesium level can be changed for the better by adding lime, which is mostly calcium. I can either do that now, with this cover-cropping event that’s happening, or in the spring, when the cover crop gets turned in. I’ve elected to wait till the spring, since it takes both money and time to procure and spread the amendment, and I’m limited on both those things right now. In the spring I should have more energy and less to do; right now I’m trying to harvest tons of food from the summer field so it doesn’t get wasted when the ground is tilled, as well as harvesting from the fall /winter field, plus weeding, delivering, and clearing the last bit of debris from the summer field so that the tractor has free rein to do its thing.

  • I wonder if it makes sense to use less of the field, more intensively; in other words, let some of the field lie fallow, and work the remaining portion more, doing more than one planting in a given piece of ground. So for instance, the fifth of an acre I was able to plant right away in March (which is probably the best, most crumbly soil in the field) could be replanted 2-3 times. I’ve done this a little bit both last year and this year. It’s hard to tell if that would save any time; on the one hand, there’s less land to deal with. On the other hand, there’s a lot more work on every row I replant. The only things I can be sure of are 1) that the soil that’s replanted will be more depleted than if I just planted it once, and 2) I could rotate where the land lies fallow every year, which would help build back those nutrients. I guess it could make sense to replant a small section each year, and set aside a similar-sized section each year that lays fallow. Then the following year the section that was planted more than once could be the fallow one.

  • I’m wondering about cover cropping what is currently the fall/winter field, next spring, when the summer field’s cover crop is turned in. The problem is that there isn’t enough pressure in the irrigation system to do overhead watering, which means that, since the cover crop wouldn’t go in until after the last rains of the season, I’d have to do drip irrigation for the cover crop. That seems insane – a huge time expense. Another thing to consult about.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Cover-cropping, part II

Hey there,

Adventures in cover-cropping. I'm excited, actually; I've never done this part of farming before. It looks like I will be scrambling, in the next week plus, to remove all irrigation from the summer field, remove all edible crops that are save-able (mostly winter squash), transplant any herbs I can (sage, marjoram and chives) to the herb patch in a corner of the field, and remove any seeds I want to save (mostly flower and bean seed). It's supposed to rain tonight and then there'll be a blush of hot weather starting Sunday 10/21. By Monday 10/29 I should have the field ready, and the idea would be to have a tractor with a disc come in that morning, and turn in all the remaining vegetation (of which there's lots). That afternoon I would come in with a couple people and spread two things:

A)Cover crop seed -- a mix of triticale [wheat/rye hybrid], "biomaster" peas, bell beans, purple vetch and something else I can't remember. This is largely for the nitrogen the field will get thru the cover-cropping process. I may also buy a "spinner," which is a tool that helps distribute the seed evenly.

B) Amendments. I'm still looking into this, but it's looking like lime/gypsum, to add calcium and change the Ph of the soil from 5.9 (too acidic) to something closer to 6.5 (right in the middle, between acid and alkaline). I contacted a place in Half Moon Bay called "Romeo Packing" which sells amendments and fertilizers in bulk. I'll need about a thousand pounds of lime per acre, and I'm doing two of the field's three acres in winter cover crop, so that's about a ton of lime, in fifty-pound bags. They have two kinds of lime there -- dolomite, which is a mixture of calcium carbonate and magnesium, and oyster shell, which is strictly calcium carbonate. I have to figure out which one is more appropriate for the soil I have, and I'm hoping, in the next few days, to go over the results of a soil test I did back in January with Liz Milazzo, my farm mentor at Green Gulch Farm Zen Center when I was there. She might also recommend other amendments, based on the test results. The oyster shell is more expensive than the dolomite, but not by much -- 10 cents per pound compared to 7.5 cents per pound. So the question is, really, do I need magnesium? According to the soil test, the magnesium levels of the soil, measured in parts per million, is very high, so it seems that the oyster shell will be the way to go.

I have mixed feelings about adding this stuff, only because it has to be imported from somewhere far away. I'd like to figure out a way to eliminate any outside inputs -- saving all my own seed, finding local sources of minerals, etc. But for now this seems like the right thing to do. My interest seems to be leading me to exploring indigenous ways of farming, wondering how local peoples tended this land. I don't think there was very much agriculture going on in this part of the world, but I could be wrong.

...........Anyway, once both the cover crop seed and the amendments are added, by hand, to the field, then the tractor would come in the again that day and disc them in, lightly. According to Martin, this involves changing the angle of the disc so that it penetrates the ground in such a way that it just lightly covers the soil.

So the actual cover-cropping would all happen in one day -- discing in the morning, spreading seeds in the afternoon, then discing again in the late afternoon/early evening.

Rain should come soon after, and then I'll be set. It's just the work between now and then that's daunting. It looks like the whole process is gonna cost somewhere between $1,200 and $1,500. That's quite a lot actually, and I'll need a one-time influx of cash from the restaurants to cover this cost.

And that's about it on the subject. Thanks once again for listening.


Thursday, October 18, 2007

pre-workday thoughts

Good morning,

It's 7 a.m., a half hour before my two coworkers, sisters Jahnavi and Radha, show up to do the harvest for tomorrow's delivery. Jahnavi, my main co-worker (her sister only comes once a week) is leaving at the end of the month, and I met with a couple of possible replacements yesterday. I'm feeling a little nervous about post-Jahnavi era, mainly because I haven't found anyone so far, and whoever that person will be, it's likely that they will have less experience/skill than her.

It's been wet and cold the last week. According to the national weather service, it's supposed to be in the mid-seventies next week -- the last full week of October. That bodes well for the work party I'm hosting here on the final Saturday of the month. Jahnavi works her final couple of days the following week and then whoever's the newbie will start soon after.

The melons have been a bust so far. I went ahead and harvested all of the blackail mtn. watermelons yesterday and will give them to Spruce; hopefully some of them will be edible. It's a little frustrating. I was checking them semi-regularly, but I really didn't know what to check for, and the melons I gave the Pub on Tuesday were mealy, apparently. I didn't have much luck with melons last year, either. Somehow, if it's not gonna sit on the ground and be easily noticeable when ripened, I don't do a very good job of growing it. I think the main reason is that my learning curve is so steep, and there is so much to do, that I really don't want to have to deal with anything that's gonna require extra babying to come out right. I'm willing to try melons again next year, but I should probably have some discussions about it with an experienced melon farmer.

Part of the problem this year was that I grew varieties that I knew nothing about, and was looking for color change as the first predictor of ripeness. I've got this one variety of muskmelon, for instance, called "petit gris de rennes," requested by Mark Sullivan, the executive chef at Spruce, and I guess I assumed that it would turn pale from the dark green it's been the last month or so. Mark had given me a book of melons at the beginning of the season, with these beautiful color plates, which is where I viewed the varieties he was interested in -- blacktail mtn., petit gris de rennes, orange-fleshed honeydew, yellow sugarlump (a watermelon), etc. One of the seed companies also sent me some free seed for a couple other varieties. Anyway, I can't remember what the pictures of the melons look like, and so I'm having a hard time distinguishing when they're ready. The other major indicator is supposed to be that the melons come off the vine easily when moved, and give off a sweet smell. But that doesn't seem to be the case with the watermelons, since I waited and waited for that, and now they're mealy and over-ripe. So it's back to the drawing board, I guess.

That's it for now. More thoughts later.


Tuesday, October 16, 2007

those hot crops that never quite heated up, cover-cropping et al.

Hey there,

It's Tuesday afternoon and I just got done with delivering, picked up produce boxes from The Village Pub, had a little lunch there and now I'm on the way home, stopping briefly at the Woodside Library for a little blogging.

I delivered "Blacktail Mountain" watermelons today, and watched as the chefs at the Pub opened one up. It was mealy and over-ripe. This is the first time I've brought melons in, and the cooks were surprised that the melons came so late. Fact is, I've been waiting and waiting, watching them, testing them to see if they come off the vine easily, or have that sweet smell, and neither has happened. Finally on Sunday Mark Sullivan, the executive chef at Spruce restaurant in S.F., was over at the farm and tried one of them out. He thought they were OK. So I decided to harvest and deliver them today.

I'm a little out of my depth with melons at this point. I was told last year to wait until those telltale signs, mentioned above, were apparent. but apparently, I was wrong, at least on the subject of watermelons. I must find out some more info on how to tell when to pick 'em.

The tomatoes have been a semi-disappointment so far too. I planted a bunch in early may, and those have been good so far -- mostly sungold cherry tomatoes, which are fabulous. there was a second batch, planted almost a month later, that are just chock-full of fruits but never got ripe -- the hot weather just never came this summer, and now it's mid-October and raining. We never got an Indian Summer either. Last October, my mentor and ex-SMIP farmer Martin Bournonhesque called the weather we were having "Indian Bummer," because it was so much less warm than usual; but this year is ridiculous; we're getting into the forties in the evening now, and it's rained almost an inch and a half in the last week. He discouraged me from trying to ripen the tomatoes inside, saying that my focus should really be on weeding the fall/winter acre I am behind on, and that I'm not gonna get enough yield from the ones I bring inside to really make a difference anyway.

Now the subject of cover-cropping is up. I should get a tractor to disc in the summer field, about 2/3 of the acreage I have, soon, then spreading cover crop -- beans, vetch, etc. -- plus any amendments, and then get the tractor to return to disc in those seeds, which will then be watered by the rain and need no further management till next spring, when they'll get turned in, in preparation for planting the summer field for next year. But there is a much narrower window in which to do this cover-cropping, because of the rain situation. Right now, the field is wet but still workable. If it continues to rain though, it will be too muddy for any machinery. According to Martin, it will be dumping rain by the end of November. So I have this window of a few weeks in which to find out the costs of cover-cropping, hire a tractor driver, order seeds, pull up all the summer crops I can salvage and remove all the drip irrigation, before the work can be done. It's daunting, because there's so much OTHER work to be done -- namely harvesting and weeding/thinning, in the fall/winter field that's inundated with weeds. I'm organizing a work party at the end of the month, which should help speed some of the prep for the cover-cropping along.

On a different note, I'm still trying to manage the onslaught of produce that's coming out of the field. Winter squash, beans, tomatoes, cooking and salad greens, roots, herbs, etc. -- so much! And the field is soaking wet, which makes harvesting, or any kind of work, much slower, as the mud cakes to the boots, making walking difficult. thankfully, I believe I am done with the bush beans as of today, and probably the zukes/cukes as well. No more squash blossoms or basil either. On the other hand, I have sunchokes, pumpkins, delicata squash, some shell beans and the requisite staples like beets, turnips, dandelion greens, lettuce, etc. Radishes should be done in a week or two.

And that's it for today. Thanks again for listening.


Saturday, October 13, 2007

sick on saturday

I've hit a wall. Friday was a little rough because the friend who was supposed to help me harvest the last delicate vegetables in the early morning didn't show up, so I had to really kick it into gear; even so, I was 45 minutes late with the delivery to the SF restaurant, Spruce. The executive chef (and part owner of the farm), Mark Sullivan, had been pretty adamant when the restaurant opened two months ago that the produce needed to be there no later than 10:30 a.m. so far, it hasn't seemed to really matter, but I feel a little stressed about trying to get it into him by then. It's quite a push: in order to get it to Spruce by 10:30, I have to leave the farm by 8:30 or so, go to the restaurant in Woodside, The Village Pub, and have all the produce unloaded by 9:30. The drive from there is about 50 minutes, so if I leave the Pub on time, it's cool. But getting out of the farm on time is difficult. It doesn't get light enough to harvest until about 7 a.m., and there are a few things that really do better if they're harvested the day of -- lettuce, dandelion greens, edible flowers. A last look around for any zukes and cukes that may have sized up. If push came to shove, I could just do lettuce and flowers, although flowers aren't usually asked for anyway. But the Pub happened to want them for this event on Sunday that they're doing, and it was just bad timing, given that my volunteer never showed. It was an extra-big harvest, so I had to cut about 7 cases of lettuce, a case of broccoli rabe, a pound of edible flowers, and more zukes and cukes. then I had to go back and weigh those out, record them, load them in the van, change out of my dirty clothes, which were totally mud-stained due to the rain. It was kind of miserable; I was stressed, pissed off about not having help, and then it rained most of the morning.

Tomorrow's the event -- "An Artful Harvest," which is a fundraising event for the Djerassi Resident Artists Program, next door to the farm. The program was founded by Carl Djerassi, whose son Dale owns the land that the farm is on. So the event is put on by the program at the site where most of the artists have their studios, The Village Pub cooks the food, and I grow/harvest/deliver that food. Tomorrow there will be a group of donors coming for a tour of the farm. It's a little wet out there, due to Friday's rains, but it's not as bad as I feared. The farm is kind of junky-looking, however, and I need to spend time cleaning it up, as well as cleaning the barn where I live.

It's a nice event, but I'm wiped, and I'm not looking forward to having to work most of the morning and then be social on top of that for several hours. One of the nice parts about the event is that I get some recognition for my work, and that I actually see people eating what I grow. One of the tough things for me about this job is how disconnected I feel from the people that cook and eat the food I grow. My contact is limited to brief visits to the restaurants to drop off produce, pick up produce boxes and kitchen waste (which I use as compost), and the very occasional meeting with the farm owners. It's not very gratifying. But it is what it is.

OK, nothing super-special to report, really. Just wanted to post something.



Friday, October 12, 2007

the longest day of the season

My first blog post! Feedback is welcome. I'd like to find some kind of format that both allows me process life at SMIP Ranch while also making it accessible to anyone interested in gardening. This blog will probably address some of the physical, practical, emotional, sustainable and spiritual aspects of growing food, and living off the land in general. I feel like I'm rediscovering a lost art. Please help me discover it too, by posting any feedback. Whether you're a seasoned farmer who has a tip or two to impart, a dude who makes a mean homebrewed cider or a newbie to gardening/sustainable living who has questions, or somewhere in between or beyond, your contribution is welcome.

What follows is an account of my day yesterday, as well as reflections on the last 5 months of farming this land, this year.

Yesterday was my longest, most intense day; along with several other co-workers, we harvested about 500 lbs. of food, which doesn't seem like much by farm standards, but everything on this farm is so labor intensive, it took a lot of hands to do it, and when it was all done (at dusk), I still had to spend time divvying up the produce between the two restaurants, setting aside a ton of produce that's being cooked up for an event next door, weighing everything out, and entering all the weights onto a spreadsheet.

Luckily an old friend came over, and he made us a great dinner, plus did the dishes, while i was out in the greater part of the barn doing the sorting/weighing. He's now sleeping, assumedly peacefully, in the next room while I'm sitting up in the early morn with a sore throat, wondering about this life I've chosen for myself. I tweaked my back last week, as I was standing up from harvesting radishes, and had to step back for a bit until it felt better. Now I'm feeling a little under the weather, and as I was taking my normal mid-afternoon break, I realized how tired I am. And I remembered my experience at Green Gulch Farm, where I did their 6-month organic farm apprenticeship; how tired I was and how hard that job was on my body. I remember one particular task, which was carrying around a 5-gallon bucket, half- or three quarters-full of gypsum, and flinging it onto one of the fields, to amend the soil before the tractor came in to disc. The combination of carrying a heavy bucket of amendment while broadcasting it so that it covered the section I was working on uniformly, was really hard on the bod. I was working 30 hours a week (in addition to getting up early for meditation, taking classes and doing the other parts of the zen center schedule), and I remember thinking at the time that if I was tired after only 30 hours, how would I ever work on other farms, where the workweek would certainly be longer. Later on during my stay at Green Gulch, I met Kamala (can't remember her last name), a permaculture designer near Occidental who also did the apprenticeship at GGF, as well as working a year or two in the garden there. I was telling her about my concerns with the physical side of farming, and she related that she had had the same concerns. She said that she realized that she had a "bellydancer's body" -- strong, supple/flexible, but not really geared for the hard work of farming. I think I've also got a belly dancer's body. I'm 5'7 and weigh about 120 lbs. Most farmers I know are a little bulkier than that.

It was a surprise to me when this job I'm in now came up last year; I was surprised that the opportunity presented itself, and a surprise that I took it. I reasoned that since I was my own boss, I could take breaks when my body dictated it, and could make decisions not to do certain tasks that might cause me injury. It's been interesting to watch how it's gone. Part of the difficulty cannot be avoided -- I must work this walk-behind tractor, for example, which is like a bucking bronco in the heavy clay soil I've been given. There's no way around it that I can see.

And then there's part of the difficulty that is self-created. I've been feeling a lot of stiffness in my wrists, and I know, from previous experience doing data entry 7 years ago, that the stiffness can lead to some serious repetitive stress issues. The repetitive stress issue in the wrists came up again for me when I was the "kitchen cleaner" in the GGF kitchen. Part of my job was to cook like the rest of the crew, but I also had to spend time organizing the walk-in, stocking the shelves -- lots of lifting, sometimes in awkward places. And I realized that all summer I've been trying to carry as much in my hands as possible each time I have to transport something, - whether it's tools, boxes of beets, etc. -- in order to get the work done faster. It's a repeat of what happened in the GGF kitchen. Even now, as I'm mindful of this habit, I still fall into it every day.

Anyway, it's all grist for the mill. I realized this past spring that growing food was what I wanted to do with my life, for the foreseeable future. I've been on that trajectory for the last 12 years, but it took trying out another potential life (in my case, physical theatre work) for me to realize how happy I was with what I'm doing, right now. So it's a matter of refining that passion, turning it into something that is manageable and enjoyable, not a grind. I've been at this job for about a season and a half now, and I'm constantly monitoring the process, and refining the different aspects -- not only working with the physical impact the work has on me, but the psychological/emotional impact of living alone and so remotely, as well as the impact of work-related stress.

My friend who's sleeping in the next room suggested that I start a regular blog, as a way to both process my experience and elicit a dialogue with others who are doing similar work. I had started a farm journal in the spring, but I just couldn't keep up with it, partly because the physical act of writing with a pen/pencil takes so long. The blogging format seems right for this kind of journaling, with the added bonus that it's public, so responses from others out there are possible.

Some of my biggest lessons this year to date:

  • I need more help, labor-wise, with the field work. It'll be a little easier on my body, reduce the loneliness/increase the camaraderie, and I would be able to get the work done with less mental stress. The challenge, as always, is finding the funds. This year about $10,000 went to buying a delivery van, repairing it and buying a kit to convert it to run on veggie oil. If I can stay with the same total budget, but spend more money on labor and less on capital projects, I can go a long way towards making next season successful.
  • There were several things that I did out in the field this year which made my life harder, and it's a matter of either not doing those things, or putting in a little extra work at the beginning of the year to make life easier later on, when I'm more tired and there's more to do:
  1. Staking tomatoes -- What a pain it's been this year, especially with the cherry tomatoes. I went down to Blue House Farm, an organic farm about the size of mine that's in Pescadero, which specializes in dry-farmed tomatoes. They have a beautiful staking system that makes harvesting so much easier on the body, as well as being much faster. This is a case of putting in the extra time/expense early in the year to simplify things later on. Right now I can't wait for the cherry tomatoes to be gone, as delicious as they are, because it takes forever to harvest them and you have to bend in all kinds of weird ways to reach the tomatoes.
  1. Tomato problems in general -- I have lots of green caterpillars eating tomatoes, and some end rot happening. This morning my co-worker Daniel, who's an expert tracker and who knows a lot about wildlife, found fresh coyote tracks in the tomato patch. I've been noticing several tomatoes that have huge bites taken out of them. Not as concerned about the coyotes, but I've noticed that certain tomatoes seem to do better than others with the first two problems. The cherry tomatoes, the early girls, the green zebras and the black prince tomatoes (both heirloom varieties) all do well and don't get caterpillars or end rot. The san marzanos and the lemon boys consistently get both problems. I don't know what is the cause of the bugs or the rot, but I need to find out, and focus more on the varieties that are problem-free. Also, the san marzanos (a roma tomato generally used for sauces) also don't taste very good; they get soft and mealy pretty quickly. I have no idea why. it's the same with the tzacalulas, (heirloom variety) which I planted last year. They're coming up on their own this year and taste just as ordinary. I've been using them in my own kitchen for sauce though, and they're fine for that.
  1. Timing of the tillage -- This is probably the most crucial thing I've learned this year. PART 1) After a heat spell in March dried the field significantly, I consulted with another organic farmer by phone, and then had the entire field disced (sp?). Unfortunately, only a small part of the field was actually dry enough; the rest was too wet, and the result was that when it did finally dry, the texture was brick-like -- not at all conducive to growing food (massive crop failure followed). On top of that, it rained about 5 times after the field had been tilled, which meant i had to spend week after week beating back the weeds that were sprouting all over the field -- hours of wasted time. Last year, the field was tilled AFTER the last rains (in May), and the weeds only came up where I set up irrigation lines; a much more manageable situation. Next year I will make sure to have a seasoned farmer come up in person before I make this crucial decision. And if I run into a similar situation, where only a small part is ready before the rest, I'll see if I can get only that small part tilled, so I can get a jump start on the planting: this year I was able to get a fifth of an acre planted by March 31st, and had my first harvest on April 28th, -- exactly two months earlier than last year, which was fantastic. PART 2) I waited too long to re-till the front acre set aside for fall/winter planting, because all of the weeds there had already gone to seed. The result is that now I have a huge weeding problem on my hands, and can't keep on top of it. I had mistakenly thought that I shouldn't let too much time pass between the discing and the planting, because the nutrients released by the new organic matter in the soil (the weeds) would dissipate, leading to shittier soil. Dunno if that's true, but it's probably not true enough to really matter in comparison to the weeds-going-to-seed issue.
  1. Using the walking tractor -- I had been informed that this tractor, which had been bought for the farm the first or second year (the farm's now in it's fifth year), needed a whole lot of work -- servicing it, welding some broken part, etc. It sounded like a lot of shlepping and money and time, and I was so busy planting and beating back weeds it didn't seem feasible this spring. Plus, I had never used a tractor before, and had a gut reaction of being intimidated by it. Necessity forced me to reconsider before doing the fall/winter plantings this July, and it turned out that no welding was necessary, nor was there any need for hauling it down to the BCS dealership to service it. It just needed an oil change and some gas. And the difference between the soil in the summer field, which was disced at the wrong time and not spaded with the walking tractor, and the fall/winter field, which had the spading done, is amazing to me. the soil is crumbly and the plants are bursting out of the ground, and look so vibrant and happy. Next year I'll use the walking tractor from the get-go.
  2. Spacing between rows -- For two years in a row now, I've eschewed walking path space between rows in favor of cramming more crops into the small (3-acre) space that I have, as well as trying to plant rows of crops too close to each other, because I was focused on maximizing the space I have. The fear behind that is that I won't have enough for the two restaurants. But the result, generally, has been that I often have to put the box I'm using to harvest on top of an adjacent row of crops, as well as having to move awkwardly in a small space to do the harvesting. Also, planting the crops so close to each other means that I can't get in between the rows with the wheel hoe, which makes weeding between rows a much longer affair. Some crops -- lettuce, beets & turnips, and a few others -- work well being close together, because they grow quickly and shade out the weeds. But others, like kale and fennel, take much longer to grow. It's hard enough having to thin so many rows (the result of direct seeding everything I grow except tomatoes), but not being able to wheel-hoe (a new verb!) stinks. Also, I planted too close to the path where the van comes in and out of the field, and have run over some of my crops trying to turn the van around in there. Again, I'm just being overly uptight about using every last bit of space to grow food.
  3. Side projects -- This year I spent a significant amount of time in the spring/early summer creating a culinary/tea herb patch in a weedy corner of the field, as well as finding/buying the van, researching the veggie oil conversion kit options, etc. This really distracted from my main priority -- figuring out how to cope with all the crop failure that was going on, the drop in irrigation pressure, etc. Those kinds of projects are really best done in the winter. I'm hoping to install the conversion kit in the van (ran out of money to do it this year) and get a tool shed built in the field this winter.
  4. Pre-planning -- This year, I didn't know whether the farm was actually going to happen until 2 weeks before I was to start the job, because the farm owners weren't able to find the time to get together and work out money issues until the last minute. I didn't want to invest time in planning a planting schedule and other details if I wasn't going to have the job, and also I was intimidated by the planning process. The result is that I've been going by the seat of my pants all summer long, and really just throwing seeds in the ground without spending time thinking about quantities and times. There will always be excess crops coming out of the field, but I was also faced (and continue to face) with shortages as well, and I could have helped myself out by doing a little pre-planning. I'm lucky that the ground is so fertile -- haven't used any amendments so far.
  5. Avoiding shading out the veggies -- There were some instances where I planted one crop which totally, or almost totally, shaded out another crop, stunting it in the process.
  6. Flower placement -- I planted tons of flowers this year in an effort to bring in a lot of bugs, birds and reptiles into the field. Unfortunately, I planted them too close to the veggies, again because of space concerns, and that made for more awkward body positioning. Also they shaded out some of the veggies.
  7. Back problems -- Bending over for hours at a time is really hard. I'd like to learn about how to hold my body so that I don't get so much pain and discomfort while doing farmwork; and learn restorative/preventive exercises as well. There's a woman at the Occidental Arts and Ecology Center, Michelle Vesser, who teaches the "Tai Chi of hand tools" every year, and she's a good resource -- she's been gardening for years, including 8 years managing a CSA, and never had any injuries or chronic pain.

That's it for this installment. Thanks for listening.