Farm Entertainment and The Winter Workhorse

Here on our New Hampshire vegetable farm, our workhorses have a nice long lull in the winter. There is a little bringing in of firewood, and a little sap-gathering, but for about two months, our three horses get to loll about in their winter paddock.

They have plenty to eat, with three meals a day, and they have each other as company, and they can go in and out of shelter at will. But in the slow time, our horses seem to like a little something fun to do.

For example, when our kitty comes into the paddock, the horses think of a fine activity: Let's chase the kitty around! Luckily the kitty is fast, agile, and small: she ducks under the barn doors to safety, and peers at the horses' big feet.

Then again, when our nice relatives come visit us just before the New Year, the horses get the treat of a highly alarmed young Border collie on a leash. Who is this tiny shivering barking creature? The horses are not at all alarmed, and since our relatives also have two young children, along with their young dog, we put halters on the horses and give the children a ride around the paddock.

The five and three year old love it, and Molly, who is a very friendly horse, seems pretty happy too. Moon, however, is a little shyer, and wonders what exactly is happening, as the three year old is stretched flat out, in a most unriderly fashion. Moon flicks his ears back and forth nervously.

“He wants to know who's on his back,” I say to my little niece. “Will you say hello to him?” My niece is a very friendly, cheerful, even boisterous little being, usually perfectly willing to let out a good holler, but now she looks at me big-eyed and silent. Her mother, who is walking beside the horse, with a firm grip on her girl's leg, says, “Can you say hi to Moon, honey?”

In the smallest voice I have ever heard from her, my niece says,“Hi.” Not even “Hi, Moon.” Just a tiny little squeak of “Hi.”

Happily, this whisper seems to reassure that Moon that he does not have a panther on his back ready to devour him, and he relaxes a little. Then my fellow farmer and I, who are leading the horses, indulge in some fancy synchronized riding. We make diagonals, and circles, keeping pace with one another, and meeting in the middle. The horses are standing next to each other, and the little boy and the little girl reach way way way out over the big hairy horse bellies and hold hands, in a grand finale.

We pet our nice horses. “Wasn't that some good winter fun?” we say. They hang around until the petting peters out, and then go work on the hay in the mangers.

Of course, the horses' favorite winter fun activities always involve food. There are the Brussels sprouts and cababage and broccoli stalks we pull up in December, and dump in the paddock. The horses come right over to investigate, loving any little bit of fresh green during the hay season. They work all the stalks over with their teeth, and then they work them over with their feet, which is exactly what we were hoping would happen, since it breaks the stalks down for the compost pile.

As the snow gets deeper, we work in the greenhouses, pulling out dead basil and tomato vines. But the best is when we pull out the old pepper plants. There is so much snow that we can't use a wheelbarrow anymore, so we pile the dead plants on a length of plastic and slide them across the snow to the horses' paddock. This is highly exciting, as you can imagine.

The horses prance, they snort, they arch their necks, they prick their ears. This despite the fact that their paddock is right next door to the flopping, snapping in the wind plastic greenhouse, at which they normally don't bat an eye, and despite the fact that they see us work with heaps of dead plants all winter long.

But dead plants on a sheet of plastic! Coming right into the paddock! Now this is some fun! Everybody's got a fine excuse to run around in high spirits. When we dump the plants off the plastic, the horses converge. Let's see, what yummy little bits of fresh grass or weeds are all tangled up in these dead plants? What a great project!

Best of all is when the farmers start sorting their food stored in the root cellar along about February. All kinds of yummy things make it to the paddock: wrinkled carrots, brown apples, tired turnips. The farmers tuck them into odd places, for a curious horse to find. It doesn't take long. But then again, the time for lolling doesn't take long, either, and soon we'll all be back to work, horses and farmers both, instead of making up fun, highly sustainable ways to entertain each other.

Originally published in the Monadnock Shopper News, Feb 14- Feb 20, 2018

Irrigation Irritation: Creating Ha-Ha-Ha-Harmony in the Farm and the Universe

Irrigation drives this vegetable farmer bonkers. In the past, it has worked very nicely to busy myself with other chores while my fellow farmer tackled the irrigation duties, which do not drive him bonkers, despite our old, leaky, kinked-up driplines and holey headers system.

This year, however, for the first time, we used our beautiful new irrigation system, with brand new drip lines and fancy new headers, which came to us thanks to a wonderful grant from the Natural Resources Conservation Service. I needed to help protect, preserve, and prolong the life of all this nice new irrigation; it was also high time to conquer my irrigation-induced madness.

After all, how could rolls of mere plastic and little metal bits deliver me into such a towering rage, year after year? I was determined to vanquish this deterrent to harmony in myself, the farm, and the universe.

Thus I went boldly out to the field armed with masses of twine and a good sharp knife. Maybe my problem was not having enough stuff to corral the irrigation while I was rolling it up. I would tie it so firmly over and over to itself that it couldn't play any of its nasty irrigation tricks. (Or maybe if all else failed, I could cut it up into tiny pieces with my good sharp knife!)

Alas, though I nearly strangled the irrigation with string and twine, it did not help a bit. The irrigation was still a kinked up, writhing pile of black plastic, and I was still a kinked up, writhing pile of rage. My fellow farmer wisely gave me lots of room, and offered no advice. He simply went along, tidily rolling up three lines in the time it took me to mangle one.

I surreptitiously studied my fellow's technique: what the heck was he doing differently than I was? An idea came creeping into my overheated brain: maybe I was trying to do it all too quickly. I was just trying to get it over with because I hate it. Maybe I needed to slow down.

I took a deep breath. I decided to pretend I was my fellow farmer, who seemed to think rolling up irrigation could be a pleasant affair, especially on a fine autumn day, and hey, so what if there was a very occasional kink in the drip line? That's just the nature of irrrigation.

I tried again. I went very very slowly. I quit caring how much my fellow was ahead of me. I quit trying to get it all done before lunch. I quit worrying that I might put a kink in the new driplines. I just rolled with it, so to speak.

And by golly, at the end of my 200 feet bed, I had rolled my first circle of tidy, hardly-kinked-at-all irrigaton. Plus I had a great start on my best selling self-help book for irrigation roller-uppers:

Tips for Those Taxed with Rolling Up Irrigation

Firstly, minimize distractions. Have a hearty snack before you start the project. Tie your hair back firmly, or cut it all off, so that no wisps can poke your neck or your cheek. Don a hat that doesn't constantly fall in your eyes. Wear your least raggedy clothing, or the end of the dripline will catch on every frayed bit or hole.

Choose your timing carefully. Roll up your driplines on a sunny, cool day, with no bugs. Arrange for pleasant bird-song and pretty clouds in the sky, while you're at it. Don't wait to roll up your irrigation until it is covered in snow, which makes it darned hard to find and darned cold to handle.

Don't compare yourself to anyone else. Especially your fellow farmer, who is working three times faster than you are, and whistling cheerfully, to boot. Why, you are you, and you have your own strengths and challenges!

Give yourself a little respite. Even though that same fellow farmer rolls up driplines both coming and going, up and down the field, you can decide to roll from only one direction, which allows you a 45 second period of peace, as you make your dripline-free way back to your starting point.

Savor whatever you are able: Savor the bird song, or savor the lack of bugs, or the lack of snow, or savor the fact that you are lucky enough to have a working irrigation system, and a pond, and water. Or you could actually savor the fact that your fellow farmer is working three times faster than you are, because it will save you lots of irksome work.

Or, indeed, thanks to your lovely new slowing-down-as-you-are-rolling-up method, you could savor the harmony you are helping to create in yourself, your farm, and the universe.

Originally published in the Monadnock Shopper News, Jan 17- Jan 28, 2018

Gee, We're Glad It's Over

December is generally a celebratory month on our New Hampshire vegetable farm. Our CSA season is officially over, our Farmers' Market season is winding down, and our time taking naps and reading by the woodstove is picking up nicely.

This year, however, it has taken us a little longer to recover. We had an excellent plan way back in February: all our new fence supplies would be delivered early in March, after the maple sap season, and before the full-on garden season. We would rapidly, happily and efficiently put up our wildlife exclusion fence, taking breaks from the possible brisk March weather by working in the heated greenhouse.

We would be finished with our big project by mid-March or so, and then we would have plenty of time to gaze gratefully at the new fence, come to us thanks to a Natural Resources Conservation Service grant. Plus we would have lots of time to plow, disc, spread compost, harrow, plant, weed, and get the vegetable distribution shed in order for the end of May, when we begin harvesting.

Yes, 'twas a lovely, laughable plan.

It turned out, despite multiple clear, firm phone calls and emails, followed by multiple pleading, begging phone calls and emails, all of which were equally ineffective, that the March fence materials did not materialize until the end of May. This had quite a decelerating effect on our plan. 

Of course, we still gazed gratefully, but now it was not at a beautifully completed fence, but at enormous piles of possible fence. The piles included: 6 locust posts, 50 cedar posts, 150 metal posts, 5 rolls of woven fencing (weighing 330 lbs each), 500 plus staples, 1000 plus fence clips, three fancy new gates, and 125 one foot long white pieces of fabric to be tied at a four foot height so that the deer would see the fence.

And two farmers, who began to believe that lying in a pile on the ground might be a fine idea indeed.

But we had a fence-completion deadline to meet, and we swung into action. We had some help, thankfully, in setting the wooden posts. Then the two of us, and our farmer daughter, scrambled from garden to fence and back again for what seemed like decades, but was merely a matter of weeks. By the time the fence was really and truly finished, in early July, everything else on the farm was really and truly in a riotous mess, and we scrambled for the whole rest of the season, trying to catch up.

Did we ever catch up? Not really. But as we raced around, we reminisced about our early years of work, with a brand new baby, a brand new team of horses, and a brand new farm.

“This summer feels a lot like then, doesn't it?” we would say to each other, and “No big projects next year, right?” As the season advanced, and the farmers grew wearier, and perhaps a mite testier, our conversations turned into “This is the worst season ever!” and “No big projects ever again! Never, ever again!”

On the brighter side of it all, at the end of the season, one of our long-time CSA members said, “This has been the best year ever!”

“Really?” we said, a little surprised, a little doubtful.

“Oh yeah! Top three anyway! Definitely top three!”

Well, gee, maybe? Amongst all the scramble, we did harvest and distribute and eat a lot of delicious fresh vegetables this season. And not a single deer ate one bite of them.

(Well, except for that brief period when the troublesome old gate was down and the fancy new gate was not yet properly mounted. We cleverly solved this deer dilemma by leaning the fancy new gate on the fancy new posts. It worked like a charm, until the fancy new gate fell on to one of the plain old farmers, which may be what started the “Never, ever again” chant.)

But even better, this big project, this fine fence, is supposed to last for thirty years, which gets the farmers up to nearly eighty years old, at which time we might consider it appropriate to hand over big projects to other fine farming folk. Thus we will be able to spend thirty years gazing gratefully at our very completed fence, and the memories of a tough season will fade into funny stories. In fact, the memories are already softening, because it is December, and the garden year is over, and we get to celebrate the the holidays, and, best of all, we have the woodstove and the couch waiting.

Originally published in the Monadnock Shopper News, Dec 20-Dec 26, 2017


Fall Spirits on the Farm

For years, we farmers waited eagerly for Halloween to fall on a CSA harvest day. Finally, not long ago, it did, and we played lots of funny tricks on our CSA members. We changed all the vegetable signs around, so that the lettuce read carrots, and the kale read beets. We put some rocks in the potatoes, and we drew ghosts and spiders on our harvest chalkboard. We even had a fierce fanged green pepper and a turnip jack-o-lantern.

We were so thoroughly Halloweeny we thought the trick or treat spirit would last us for another good many years. But Halloween happened on harvest day again, a mere three years later, and we didn't have any new tricks up our farmer sleeves.

Luckily, even if we weren't ready, the Halloween spirits were.

A little autumn on the farm background: for two months, we dig our potatoes for the week on a Monday, so that we are ready for the following Tuesday and Friday harvest days. The potatoes are not a quick harvesting job; it takes 3 or 4 hours to dig a 200 foot bed. We had been digging our Monday potatoes for a good month or six weeks before October 31st this year.

But somehow, on the Monday right before Halloween, we completely forgot our potatoes. Of course, we were doing other useful harvest tasks, such as gathering apples to press cider, but potatoes? Never crossed our minds.

Thus it was, on Halloween harvest morning, that I woke with a jerk.

“Oh, no,” I whispered, in great alarm.

“What's the matter?” whispered my sleepy fellow.

“Did you dig the potatoes?” This despite the fact that I had been working with my fellow all day, and we clearly had not dug the potatoes.

“No,” he whispered, very succinctly.

I uttered a mild Halloween curse. “We're never going to get done on time!” I threw off the covers, and leapt into my clothes. My fellow did likewise. We stumbled down the stairs. There in the kitchen was our laughing Halloween clock: it read 4:00 a.m.

“Oh, geesh,” I said. “It's four o'clock.”

“Happy Halloween,” said my fellow.

“Meoooow -puuurrrr,” said our Halloween Kitty, which translates as, “This is fantastic, I love getting up this early, let's go outside right now and catch a mouse!”

By that time we farmers were so overstimulated by our harvest panic that we couldn't imagine going back to bed. We strapped on our headlamps, and went out with our happy kitty to greet the Halloween stars. They were brilliant. The air was still, and it was relatively warm. It was actually quite pleasant. I harvested the lettuce, and the kale, and the Swiss chard. My fellow tackled the potatoes.

At 6 a.m., which is when we might normally get up on an October harvest day, we went inside for breakfast. We didn't linger over coffee and kefir, however, because we still had a lot to do. My fellow went back to the potatoes. I went on to beets, squash, and carrots. The morning wore away. We began to feel we had been up for a good many hours.

Around ten, we had some popcorn, complete with Halloween colors – a little black on the burned  

bits, a little orange from the turmeric, which tastes good, and is anti-inflamatory, i.e., it wards off Halloween devils. The popcorn pepped us right up, or at least kept us harvesting.

We picked, sorted, washed, and labelled. We were getting close to our one o'clock deadline, when CSA members would begin to arrive. Since I had so few years to think since the last Halloween harvest, and so few hours of sleep, I really couldn't seem to come up with any new tricks. I resorted to my old ones: switching the vegetable labels around.

My fellow came over, yawning, with the parsley he'd just picked. It was the last crop of the long morning

“Let's see,” he said slowly, “Why does the kale say potatoes? What happened here with the tags?”

I smiled at him. “Looks like my old trick still works,” I said.

He looked at me, a little blankly, a little sleepily.

“Happy Halloween!” I said.

My fellow mustered up a smile. “Oh, right. At least we got done in time. That's a treat.”

“Indeed,” I answered, and we held hands all the way to our Halloween Harvest lunch.

Originally published in the Monadnock Shopper News, Nov 22-28, 2017