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.


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