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

Fun Farm Games: Guess-A-Critter

My fellow farmer has been very excited about our new livestock this year. Though the stock numbers in the hundreds, it's not the many mice, rats, voles, chipmunks, squirrels, and woodchucks. It's not the thousands of honeybees that a friend tends on our farm.

Nor have we gotten hundreds more draft horses, or cats or dogs, though I occasionally express a wish for another kitty to join Cricket, our present cat, and my fellow farmer longs for a dog. (He also longs for chickens, pigs, goats, sheep, and cows, and then I remind him of the hundreds of vegetables that would be neglected should we have hundreds of animals.)

Depending on your age and patience, my fellow will string you along for a good long while, trying to get you to guess our new critters. Then he'll say, “Do you want to see? Do you want to see?”

He'll bring you to the front porch, and you might look around a bit, wondering about the farmer's sanity. But he'll eagerly point out a squat black plastic bin on legs.

“Do you want to see?” By now, you might have guessed the riddle. Or maybe not, until my fellow opens up the lid … and there you see … hundreds of compost worms!

Yes, worms, happy little red wigglers, and my fellow takes great pleasure in showing them to those people who are willing to look, as well as feeding them table scraps and eggshells and coffee grounds.

“You want to help feed the worms?” he asks our daughter and me frequently. His enthusiasm is irresistible, and we troop out to the porch. He opens up the lid, and the the little red worms squirm away from the sudden light.

“They love this,” he says, “Watch this.” He dumps the scraps on top, and spreads them around. We watch. Nothing happens.

“Nice, huh?” he says gleefully. “These are plump worms. These are happy worms!”

Not only has my fellow made his worm bin dream come true, but he did it very efficiently. A retired man over Concord way was selling the worms he'd had for ten years. The man was travelling some, and it had gotten to the point where he had to buy lettuce to feed the worms while he was away. The bin, named Can-O-Worms, is made of 100% recycled plastic, and it came with the worms, the original manual, a compost spreading-spoon, two worm articles printed from the Internet, and lots of well-worm-wishes, all for much less than buying it new.

Of course, here at the farm we have lots of vegetable scraps, and soon we had lots of overfed worms, as my fellow discovered after a few weeks of zealous feedings. He slowed down on the scraps, but kept up the worm tours.

The worms provide farm entertainment, and they also provide castings, in solid and liquid form, which are excellent compost. Our houseplants have never been happier, and our spinach never germinated better in the flats, and the experimental ginger we grew at the end of the greenhouse bed looked great.

It took a while to figure out where to keep the worm bin, handy for feeding, and out of the rain, but not so prominent on the front porch that a person feels as if her lovely outdoor suppers are entirely dominated by plastic bins of worms. Then came the next stage of the worm project, the stage my fellow neglected to mention in his planning.

“So . . .” he said, in the autumn, “the worms can't get too cold, or they'll die.”

“Yeah?” I said, perhaps a trifle suspiciously.

“So . . . we'd have to keep them in the house.”

“What? I didn't know that.”

“They're such nice worms,” he said. “Do you want to see them?”

I shook my head. “Remember when we got the cider press, and the man said it was so good-looking he kept it in his living room all winter?”

“Yeah . . . "

“This worm bin is nowhere near that good-looking, and the cider press is in the storage area, not in the living room!”

“We could put the worms in the kitchen?”

I shook my head, hard.

“How about the downstairs bedroom?”

The downstairs bedroom is a guest room/pantry/laundry room/cat litter pan/general junk room. What could be nicer for a guest than being joined there by hundreds of worms in a plastic bin?

“We can try it,” I said reluctantly. I didn't want to be responsible for the death of all these beloved worms.

We shifted the bin back and forth, all over the bedroom, and finally found a place that worked, more or less. We could get to the washer, and the bed, and close the bathroom door. And it sure was handy to the kitchen scraps.

“Nice!” said my fellow farmer. “These are happy worms! Hey, do you want to see?”

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

The Woodchuck World

Here on our New Hampshire vegetable farm, we expect to lose a little produce every year to woodchucks. We did not know, however, that this was the year of the rodent, from mice and voles and squirrels and chipmunks all the way to rabbits and woodchucks. Wow, there were a lot of them around, and wow, were we farmers discouraged when we went out to harvest kale and found over ¾ of the kale crop eaten. That was just the beginning.

Next were the carrots, and the chard, and the broccoli, and the peas. Plus there was something mysterious happening in the greenhouse. We've always grown our first planting of lettuce in the heated greenhouse, so that we have early lettuce. But this year, the lettuce looked kind of funny. Kind of nibbled actually. Kind of like something was eating the heads, night after night, and day after day.

It took us a while to comprehend what was happening, as we have two inch thick baseboards and chicken wire around the greenhouse. In fact, we didn't actually realize the problem until we saw an injudicious woodchuck munching the lettuce in broad daylight.

The woodchuck had sidestepped the baseboards and chicken wire entirely, handily digging under the back wall, behind the propane tanks, which gave plenty of cover from the unobservant farmers. At last we farmers got wise, and started filling in the holes, layering on the chicken wire and heavy rocks. We also covered the kale and carrots and chard and broccoli in the garden with row cover. Then we found the woodchuck den right under the barn, conveniently located next to the greenhouse. There were millions of little woodchucks coming out day and night to eat our yummy produce.

In June, we sent out a desperate call for Havahart-type live traps to our CSA members, and added four more to our one. We researched favorite baits of woodchucks: carrots, peanut butter, and crackers were popular. The favorite was melon. Melon! Who would have thought? We bought ourselves an out-of-season cantaloupe at the co-op, which we never do. It didn't seem fair to feed all that nice melon to the woodchucks. We ate half of it ourselves, and grudgingly chunked up the rest for the traps.

We set our traps faithfully, wearing gloves to keep the human scent off the traps. But no one except the ants and the farmers seemed to like the melon. As we lost crops daily, we got more and more discouraged.

One day, as we inspected yet another empty trap, I said to my fellow farmer, “You're supposed to rub melon all over it.”

“All over what?” our daughter asked.

My fellow farmer, quick-thinking and funny even in despair, answered, “All over the woodchuck. You're supposed to rub melon all over the woodchuck.”

This may be the only time we laughed during the entire woodchuck affair.

Next we tried peanut butter on crackers. In three weeks, in the garden, we caught a rabbit, a rat, a grey squirrel, two possums, and a racoon. (Other years, we've also caught a catbird, and a skunk.) But not a single woodchuck.

We let all of those other critters go, and, then tried concentrating our traps: we put all five in and around the greenhouse and barn. Someone told us that woodchucks love grape jelly, and we made a grape jelly on bread trail right to the trap. We caught our first woodchuck!

But we did not feel triumphant. We felt sad. It was a little woodchuck, and it was in a trap, and now we would take it away from the woodchuck family to some strange area of the world. (Another year, I saw a small woodchuck in our trap, and its mother scrabbling outside the cage, trying to help her little one. It was painful to witness.)

Over the next three days, we caught six little woodchucks. We quit baiting the traps, thinking the critters were all gone, and we still caught three more chucks, two little and one big, in the next week. This made an immediate difference on harvest days: we actually had lettuce and kale and carrots and chard to harvest.

But it's not clear how many woodchucks actually survive when they are caught and released. There are the live traps, and there are also kill traps and guns and dogs and poisons, and all of them seem terrible. We do not want to kill woodchucks or split up families, and we do not want to live in a world where we think there isn't enough for everybody. As I sob this out to my kind fellow farmer, he says, “I released them all in the same place. Maybe they found each other, and they're figuring things out?”

It is a slim hope, but we don't know what else to do. Catching woodchucks is one of the unhappy compromises we make to keep farming.

We can also hope, in our sustainable farming sort of way, that maybe we have improved the genetics of woodchucks: we transport family members across the river, probably at the very same time the folks across the river are transporting other families of woodchucks to us. We'd like to be helping the woodchuck world somehow.

Originally published in the Monadnock Shopper News, Jan 16 – Jan 22, 2019