Equine, Feline, Avian, Apian . . . Farmerian?

Many things happened on our New Hampshire vegetable farm in May that were supposed to happen.

Most importantly, according to the equine department, the horses went out on pasture, galloping and kicking up their heels and rolling and very happily munching on the green grass.

Secondarily, for the horses, the paddock and stable area were cleared of their deep winter pack of hay, bedding, and manure. This gives a horse a light-footed, heady feeling too, or at least it gives a horse farmer that feeling: ah, the winter accumulation has been cleared out! No snow, no ice, no below zero temperatures, and a tidy barn to boot.

According to the feline department on the farm, however, the most important thing in May was the fact that the farmers started getting up nice and early, and thus letting the kitty out to greet the dawn.

Secondarily, for the kitty, despite the fact that May ought to be warm and spring-like, the farmers had to keep the greenhouse heated to a balmy 65 degrees to protect the seedlings. This is very pleasing to a kitty who needs a daytime nap, especially since the farmers no longer fire up the woodstove in the house in May, no matter how cold and rainy it gets. The kitty can curl up in the straw pathways in the greenhouse, as long as she can find room next to the (hard-working, of course, not napping) farmers.

The best of May, according to the avian and the apian departments on the farm, most likely comes from the stronger and longer light, and the bugs and worms poking up their snoots for a hungry bird, and the nectar and pollen for a hungry honey bee or bumble bee.

Secondarily, for the bees and birds, the farmers continue to provide ample nesting area in the stable and over the back porch door, and there is plenty of room and healthy habitat on the farm for all manner of birds and wild bees and wasps. There is also the friendly local beekeeper who helps the honey bee colonies he tends on the farm thrive.

Now, according to the most minor of departments on the farm, which would be the farmerine (or farmerian, if you prefer) department, the primary thing in May is planting, planting, planting! There is planting in the greenhouses, and there is planting in the fields. The planting in the greenhouses has been going just fine, with its preparatory weeding, digging, composting, raking, and watering the beds. We've planted spinach and tomatoes, peppers and lettuce, strawberries and greens, among other things, and they're happily flourishing.

But with rain nearly every day in May, the field plantings have been a little trickier. In fact, the rain has prompted us to fill our greenhouses even more than usual, with kohlrabi and pac choi and scallions, which are usually outside crops for us. But it's been plenty cool enough for those crops to thrive in the greenhouses this year.

Outside of the greenhouses, the farmers race between raindrops, fill the spreader with compost, groom and harness the horses, spread the compost, disc the compost in, harrow the area, and make beds. Then the horses rest, while the farmers rake the beds, and finally sow the beets, the carrots, the snap and snow peas, the salad turnips and the salad greens. The farmers also transplant kale and chard, and cabbage and broccoli, and second batches of lettuce and scallions and greens. The crops that get chewed on by bugs are covered, and the horses are unharnessed, and led back to pasture.

At last the farmers go in for the evening, sighing with relief that they've actually gotten something in the ground, despite the soggy conditions. Supper, on more than one hectic planting occasion, has consisted of a bowl of oatmeal, or a dish of popcorn: nice hot meals for a cold, cloudy, wet month of May!

Secondarily, for the farmers, May means fixing fences, spreading fertilizer (composted chicken manure) in the hayfields, mowing the garden pathways, replacing greenhouse baseboards, tidying up the farm in general, putting screens back on the windows, potting up and watering, farm paperwork, clearing off the front porch, and keeping track of all the equine, feline, avian, and apian departments.

All of this is supposed to happen, in May, and happily, there's been only a few things that weren't supposed to happen: first the rain, rain, rain, and then the farm truck died, and then the plastic ripped off on our little greenhouse, and then the lawn mower wouldn't start.

But that's not too bad for one month, especially if all the things that were supposed to happen in May on a vegetable farm lead to all the things that are supposed to happen in June: bountiful CSA harvest, and a full stall at the Farmers' Market. In other words, vegetables, vegetables, vegetables!

Originally published in the Monadnock Shopper News, June 5-11, 2019

Tropical Paradise . . or New Hampshire Farm?

Hard as it is to believe, sometimes a farmer does something besides farm. Even in the spring! For example, early in April my fellow farmer and I went to the live butterfly conservatory in Deerfield, Massachusetts, to celebrate our daughter's birthday. What a treat to go from our still-snowy fields to a tropical greenhouse full of blooming flowers and hundreds of soaring butterflies and moths.

First off, the conservatory was warm, almost 80 degrees, which is highly appealing after having snow four times at our farm in April. The building and grounds were also entirely lacking in mud, which we cannot say about our farm, especially in the spring.

But best of all, stepping into the greenhouse was like stepping into a fairy land.

There were butterflies everywhere, flying, resting, eating, drinking, flying, flying, flying. They were brilliant blue, and scarlet, and yellow and orange and brown and black, spotted and striped and stunning. There was even a “glasswing,” a translucent-winged butterfly with black edges, flitting among all the equally brilliant and varied flowers and foliage.

The three of us, my fellow, my daughter, and me, each had a butterfly visitor land on our pants or our shoulders at some point in our time there. The first one must have been a birthday butterfly, landing on my daughter almost as soon as we came in. I was hoping one might visit me too, and had worn my floweriest-colored clothes, even down to purple socks. But apparently butterflies aren't too fussy, because my fellow was in tan and brown, and he had the next butterfly visitor.

Still, I held out my socks hopefully, and finally a beautiful brilliant scarlet and black butterfly came to see me. Of course, the butterflies live out their whole lives in the greenhouse, from birth to death, and my butterfly visitor was a little troubled. He was crawling across the floor, and then, loving my socks, I'm sure, crawled onto my shoe, up my sock, and then up (the outside!) of my pant leg.

I had to admit to feeling a little wide-eyed as the butterfly continued determinedly up my shirt sleeve, onto my shoulder, closer and closer to my face. Surely butterflies don't bite! I thought, craning my head away from my friend.

Happily, this one didn't, and he found my shoulder a good place to launch. He took off, flying for a little while longer, at least.

Along with the butterflies and moths, we had some non-butterfly surprises: we also admired all the lizards and beetles and bugs and teeny-tiny frogs in terrariums in an outer room. There were enormous koi fish in a pool among the butterflies, and a parrot, perambulating up and down the outside of his or her home.

There was a turtle too, or rather a Russian tortoise, who was hanging out in the sand. At first we thought it was a statue, but then a staff member gave the tortoise some blossoms. They were brilliant yellow and white, called lollipop flowers, a very pleasing name. Clearly the flowers were even more pleasing to the tortoise, who came to vigorous life, stretching out a long neck and snapping up a bloom. It was like a story book: a tortoise eating a lollipop.

Soon after we saw a hummingbird, sampling a hibiscus flower. “Look, a proboscis in a hibiscus!” said my daughter, another fine story book title. We also saw a Gouldian finch. I heard a little chirrup, and looked up, and we all had a glimpse of the tiny finch, pretty as could be, before it disappeared into the foliage.

As if all this weren't enough, there were also quail chicks, peeping away, brown and speedy, racing around the paths or taking dust baths. They ducked in and out, always in a hurry, usually in pairs. We could have entered a raffle to take a quail chick or two home, but we weren't sure that a quail chick from a tropical paradise could adapt to the tough farm life.

In fact, after almost three hours of tropical paradise, we farmers weren't sure we could adapt to the tough farm life either. Our plastic hoophouse is not quite as lovely as a glass conservatory, nor quite as warm, since we heat it to 65 and not 80 degrees. At least it is full of nice green plants, even if they are not quite blooming, and not quite story book, fairyland plants. But onions and cabbage, basil and tomatoes and eggplant, lettuce and bok choy, all have their own charm.

Not only that, it was not long before we saw, over the mud in the driveway on our farm, our first two butterflies of the New Hampshire season: two tiny purply-blue lovelies, fluttering and dancing, reminding us that a farm might not be paradise, but it certainly has its own beauty.

It was a good reminder, and we watched the butterflies flit near our flats of cabbage and kale, which were hardening off in the brisk April air: just like us, two New Hampshire farmers, toughening up for the season ahead.

Originally published in the Monadnock Shopper News, May 8-14, 2019

Breathless on the Farm

Spring means plowing on our New Hampshire vegetable farm, and plowing means a marked feeling of breathlessness for all of us here. First, there is the breathlessness that comes from the sheer hard work of plowing, since plowing is the beginning of the heavy horse-work of the season.

The horses are puffing, and they like a nice rest at the end of the field, or at both ends of the field, preferably. The teamster is puffing too, as he drives the horses, adjusts the plow, tries to follow a relatively straight line, and also tries to stay in his seat, as the plow lurches and bounces.

The plow doesn't always lurch and bounce, but on more than one occasion, my fellow farmer has been tossed entirely off. This has made me, the non-plowing farmer, more than a little breathless too.

I do not like to see my fellow tossed off anything. So far he has always scrambled back to his feet, kept hold of the horses, and climbed back on. I would be even more breathless if he wasn't scrambling, since scrambling means a farmer still has the energy and the sound limbs to keep on plowing.

One especially worrisome day, several years ago, while I was attending to another farm chore, my fellow came back from the field, gimping a little, and announced, “I have to get a new plow, or I'm going to break my neck!”

Even the very conservative member of the budget committee, me that is, who had been fending off new plow suggestions for years, was impressed by this report. Well, gee, if those are my choices . . . maybe we really had better get a new plow.

Happily, things have improved since we sold the old plow, and bought one that is both more balanced and more suitable for our soils and the slope of our gardens. Plus, after eighteen years of plowing, my fellow has learned quite a bit about the work, including how to soothe his breathless fellow farmer by waving cheerfully and non-brokenly as he scrambles back on the plow.

And too, the non-plowing farmer can encourage herself by remembering how very much better this plowing is than either the plowing with the old plow, or the plowing with the old old plow, which happened in our very first year of farming on our own.

That year, my fellow farmer, eager as always, harnessed the horses for their first big job. The horses started right in. But they didn’t get far. My fellow adjusted the plow. The horses heaved. They went a few more yards. My fellow stopped again, readjusted the plow. The horses, already puffing and sweating, struggled ahead again. A few more yards.

My fellow stopped, readjusted. Plow a little, readjust, plow a little, bang on another likely looking piece of plow. Still it did not go well. Was it the soil, in sod for thirty years? Was it the plow? Was it the horses? Was it the farmer?

My fellow took a look around: were there any old-time teamsters strolling by? Taking a walk in the spring air perhaps? Looking for a young farmer to help out? But the road was empty. The farmer was all alone, in a huge field of sod, with a plow, two unhappy horses, and a big headache.

By the end of the morning my fellow's voice was nearly gone from urging the horses on. They were plowing only a few inches deep, but the horses were jumping in their collars. Their muscles quivered. It was more difficult than any of us thought. In fact, it seemed rather awful. We despaired for our horses, our garden, ourselves. We felt like giving up farming.

Finally, in the afternoon, there was barely a quarter acre plowed, not even half of what we hoped to have ready. It would have to be enough. It was not until the second plowing, two months later, for the fall crops, that we found out that the plow was set up for a team of three horses, with a sixteen inch instead of twelve inch plow bottom. Four inches didn’t seem like much. Four inches nearly did us all in.

We lavished praise on our good-hearted, hard-working team, apologized, promised this would never happen again. We replaced the plow bottom so that the plow was ready for a team of two. “Wish me luck!” my fellow farmer said, as he went out to the field for another try.

I wished my fellow luck, fervently, and I am still wishing him luck today, as once again he eagerly harnesses the horses for spring plowing. I am grateful, for the horses, for the new plow, for the field, for all we've learned over the years, and most especially, that my fellow farmer and the horses are still eager . . . and not just eager, you might say, but breathless.

Originally published in the Monadnock Shopper News, April 10-16, 2019


This has been a long, wild winter of wind, and snow, and ice, and of course, for a New England vegetable farmer, dreams of spring and the fine farming season that is surely ahead.

But spring has not quite arrived, and a winter farmer who really wants to dream can always read some farming books in front of the friendly wood stove. First, there is Atina Diffley's Turn Here Sweet Corn: Organic Farming Works, a memoir about vegetable farming in the Midwest. The book starts with an enormous hail storm in June, followed by stories of tornadoes and deluges of rain, with crops ruined and bills rising.

Oh hee, hee, hee. What a cheerful book for a vegetable farmer to read! Happily, I do know more of the story, thanks to a recent farm conference hosted by the Cheshire County Conservation District, and featuring the author Atina Diffley herself, a very funny, practical, energetic person. Despite debts and storms, her farm was a success, and now she travels the country, telling her story, teaching farm efficiency, food safety, and marketing techniques, and generally encouraging farmers to keep on. All the farmers in the audience nodded, including my fellow farmer and me. We can use all the encouragement we can get.

Home again, my fellow picked up his next winter book: The Lean Farm, by Ben Kilham, which is a practical guide to more productivity and less waste on the small farm. (Turns out Kilham is speaking at the NOFA-NH conference this month. We are attracting some big farming stars here in New Hampshire!) 

I go on to my next book too: Epitaph for a Peach by David Mas Masumoto. Masumoto is a third generation Japanese-American farmer, who grows peaches and grapes in California, and is transitioning from conventional to organic methods. His is a meditative book, about how to make a living and honor the natural world at the same time. Much to the bewilderment of his farming neighbors, Masumoto plants cover crops, including wildflowers. As he writes, “I know that pretty fields are very much part of my annual profits” (229).

Yes, I would agree: pretty fields, pretty horses, and pretty vegetables, too.

James Rebanks is another third generation farmer, this time a shepherd in England's Lake District, working with his grandfather and father and his own children, and a whole lot of (probably very pretty) sheep. His genuine affection for the land and the sheep and the work are not diminished by the fact that he has to get an off-the farm job to keep farming, and The Shepherd's Life: Modern Dispatches from an Ancient Landscape is a glimpse into a fascinating world, considerably different from this New Hampshire vegetable farmer's.

Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer is even farther afield, by topic if not location: it is the very funny story of growing a garden in an Oakland California ghetto. Novella Carpenter is “squatting” on an overgrown lot next to her apartment building, and she raises vegetables, chickens, turkeys, rabbits, and pigs, among the drug deals, gunshots, and her homed and homeless friends and neighbors. Carpenter dumpster-dives behind high-end restaurants to feed her critters, learns to butcher and make sausage, and offers her food to the whole neighborhood, meanwhile finding both the absurd and the sacred in it all.

From the Midwest to England to California, and I am still farm-traveling in Deeply Rooted: Unconventional Farmers in the Age of Agribusiness, which offers the stories of three small, independent farmers: an African-American dairy farmer in Texas, a Native American beef rancher in New Mexico, and a white heirloom wheat/vegetable farmer in North Dakota. These are fascinating profiles of strong characters, who keep farming in the face of multiple obstacles, many stemming from the giant farm agri-business model, as opposed to small farm agri-culture.

Closer to home again, I loved Goatsong, by Brad Kessler, writing out of Vermont. This is another beautiful and meditative book, about herding goats and making goat cheese, all the while considering the bells from the monastery across the way. Kessler, tending his goats, ponders the spiritual life and farming, as well as the way the land and plants and animals and humankind are intertwined.

Finally, all the way back in New Hampshire, I am enjoying Noel Perrin's collections of essays, beginning with First Person Rural: Essays of a Sometime Farmer, published in 1978. Perrin is a city to farm transplant, and is kind, gently humorous, and self-deprecating. He can make an essay about various makes of pick-up trucks or tractors as interesting as an essay about making maple syrup or building fence. Now that's an achievement, in my opinion, as farm machinery is not where my farming heart lies.

“Where does it lie exactly?” my fellow farmer asks, as we both surface from our respective books. “Right here, on this farm? With me, your fellow farmer?”

“Right here in these books!” I say, laughing. “Reading about farming is almost more fun than farming!”

Then we both laugh, and we imagine all the farmers, all over the world, laughing with us.

Originally published in the Monadnock Shopper News, Mar 13 - Mar 19, 2019