The Itching Post

Our work horses have a high old time in the late spring. They are out on green grass, which causes much equine glee, evidenced by all the kicking, running, rolling, and munching. The early spring horse work is finished, and the summer horse work hasn't quite started, so our horses spend the days at leisure in the pasture. 

Actually, they spend the nights at leisure in the pasture. During the days, they are at leisure in the cool, bug-free stable. Every morning, the horses come up to the gate for deliverance from pasture heaven, which has been slightly compromised by all the biting bugs.

The horses swish their tails and stomp their feet, and gaze meaningfully in our direction, waiting to be brought into the barn. We keep an eye out for the meaningful gaze and an ear out for the stomping hooves, because if we miss the gaze and the stomp, there will be be horses galloping and gasping and sweating and swearing at the flies. If we still miss their meaning, there will be horses busting through the gate and making their own non-leisurely way to the cool, bug-free stable.

This occasional gate-crashing is more of an emergency escape, caused by the lack of complete farmer attention on horse comfort, and is thus excusable. However, our bug-bitten steeds have another habit that we farmers find a little more daunting.

This is the Itching-All-Bug-Bites-on-Whatever's-Handy habit. This is also understandable, given the extreme itchiness of bug bites, for humans and horses alike, but it does cause some consternation for the farmers. We are not keen on being the Whatever's Handy, and we discourage horses from scratching their large selves on our small selves (though it's certainly nice to groom an itchy horse, because she or he is in such bliss).

Normally the horses wander at will in and out of their stalls, itching themselves on mangers or water troughs instead of people, or ambling around to check the bug situation. Still buggy? Back in their stalls they hurry. Usually this system works well, but recently we discovered that an ambling itchy horse had decided to test out the post that holds up the lean-to roof. Not as a hitching post, mind you, but as an itching post.

And, heck, when a big horse behind starts itching itself on a post, what happens?

The post comes loose, that's what happens. Then a busy springtime farmer doesn't have time to fix the post right away, so he or she decides to halter the horses and tie them in the stalls for the day, so the post situation doesn't get any worse.

However, the farmer forgets that one of the snaps on the ties periodically despairs of its duty, thus releasing an itchy horse to amble. The itchy horse finds the wobbly post, and itches some more. The post gets looser and looser. Another horse, dismayed by the lack of his escaped buddy's company, breaks his snap entirely and goes out, also to amble and itch.

Thus the post comes down completely, as a dismayed farmer discovers later in the day. The horses are returned to their stalls, the snaps are jerry-rigged, and the farmer also ties a piece of baling twine behind the horses, as a suggestion that they not back up and escape, a suggestion that they kindly honor.

Then for a fun change of pace from planting, plowing, weeding, and watering, the farmers replace the concrete footing, and prop up the sagging roof with a tire jack and a four by four. We position the heavy post, which won't fit exactly in the right place, so we stick it another likely spot, true to our usual busy farmer carpentry efforts.

My fellow farmer balances on a wobbly ladder with a drill, and I stand under the wobbly ladder, holding the heavy post and whimpering, wondering when the jack is going to kick out again and knock over the four by four, the wobbly ladder, my fellow farmer, the drill, the heavy post, and me.

Happily indeed, the jack does not kick out again, and my fellow screws in the post and we step back and admire our work.

It is a short period of admiration, an admiration bordering on disbelief, since the post is very very very crooked. But by then it is after seven o'clock and we haven't had any supper and we are hungry and the horses are hungry and we give up for the day. We take our horses out to pasture, where they are very gleeful, kicking, running, rolling, and munching. Which is right where we started in this itchy busy sustainable farming story, and a fine place to end.

Originally published in the Monadnock Shopper News, June 21 - 28, 2017

The Row Cover Row

There are many wonderful things that could happen on a New Hampshire vegetable farm in May: greenhouses planted and flourishing, hardy spring crops in the fields planted and flourishing, draft horses muscled and flourishing, farmers muscled and flourishing. What a lovely month is May!

There is one spring farm event, however, that it is never, ever wonderful: the dreaded hauling out of the row cover.

Granted we sustainable, organic, biodynamic farmers are very grateful for row cover, which is a thin cloth-like product (i.e., plastic) that keeps bugs and/or frost out, and lets sun and/or rain in to the lucky garden plants. Without row cover, our turnips would be holey, our salad greens would be shredded, our yellow squash and zucchini and cucumbers warped or entirely absent. Without row cover, we could lose our peppers or our eggplant in a cold snap.

Row cover, we recognize, is a marvelous invention. A marvelous, maddening invention. It “floats” over the crops, but in order to float, it needs to be firmly anchored, lest it sail away in the wind. On our farm, we hold down the row cover with rocks. This mostly works well, since we have plenty of rocks. But sometimes a farmer tires of gathering just the right size million rocks and compromises by piling two or three little rocks together and hoping the row cover will stay put. Alas, after a windy night, the farmers have to start all over again, and find the right size million rocks.

Sometimes, too, when the row cover flies off, it catches on a bramble, or the fence, and Rip! A nice big hole for all the little bugs and frost fairies to enter. Or maybe a farmer hasn't quite gotten all those old kale or broocoli or flower stalks out of the garden, and a few lie about, waiting to trap the row cover. Rip! There it goes again.

We find some more rocks to hold the holes together. Or, thanks to one farmer's brilliant idea, we use clothespins to hold the holes together.

At this point every year, the generous, high energy, let's-get-things-done farmer holds his head and says, “We just need new row cover.”

Wielding her clothespins, the thrifty, organized, let's-slow-down-a-little-and-think-about-it farmer disagrees: “We just need to be more careful with the row cover we have.” 

This is the annual, or shall we say perennial, row cover row. (The second row, of course, is in its sense of a boisterous disturbance or quarrel, as the American Heritage Dictionary defines it. Typically one of us fellow farmers makes the boisterous disturbance, and the other does the quarreling.)

Part of the row about row cover also has to do with storage. Despite years of other brilliant ideas on the part of the organized farmer about various methods of sorting and labeling (tags on the outside of the bags, writing on the outside and inside of the bags, writing on the row cover itself, sorting into different color bags), a certain let's-get-things-done farmer, weary at the end of a crop and the end of the day, is likely to stuff the row cover into any available bag, ignoring both its label and its color-coded nature, and then toss it into the storage area, to organize properly some other time.

Thus we come around again every year to May, that lovely month! when the unlucky farmer who hauls out the row cover faces the towering heap of unorganized bags.

Is this the bag of really holey 300' row cover saved to warm things up a bit for the early planted spinach? Or is this the bag of only slightly holey, 200' foot row cover that will do well enough for the turnips? Or is this the bag of way too short but perfectly good pieces of row cover that an organized and thrifty farmer couldn't bear to throw away? Or is this the bag of really good, really precious row cover with absolutely no holes that will protect the tender greens? And so on.

There is no way to tell, except by spreading out each length of marvelous, maddening row cover from each bag, one by one, and then stuffing each piece furiously back into the bag when it is not the right one.

“It would save us so much time,” says a certain farmer to another certain farmer, who is striding by with a hoe, looking in the other direction, as if he has no idea what might be transpiring in the row cover world, “if people would put these in the right bags!”

“Actually,” says the other farmer, stopping a moment, “it would save us so much time if people got rid of all this holey junk and bought new row cover!”

When it comes to the row cover row, we the people are both right. Thus we finally, and happily, worked out the Great Row Cover Compromise: every few years we throw out the holiest of the row cover, and invest in some new. Thus we sustain our crops . . . and our fellow-farming relationship.

Originally published in the Monadnock Shopper News, May 10-16, 2017

Farmers on a Spring-Time Date

We New England vegetable farmers don't have a lot of free hours in the spring. But spring is a green lively time, perfect for a romantic farmer date. This time of year, it just depends on how a farmer defines a date.

An Exciting New Place. Last year, for example, my farmer fellow and I went over to Walker Farm in Dummerston, Vermont to pick up a farm order for our big spring date. It had been a while since we'd been over in that neck of the woods, and we had never been to Walker Farm before. We had a fine time holding hands in the pick-up truck and commenting on the houses and little shops and barns and fields and critters along the way. Then, at the farm, we got to pick up our cover crop seed and our seed potatoes, and look over everybody else's interesting bags of seeds and taters. Then we drove home again, pleased, holding hands.

Cheerful Companions. This year, our spring date was even better. Of course, my fellow farmer is wonderfully cheerful by nature, always ready to go on a farmer date, but we also found more good cheer in the world. We went to Walker Farm again, and this time we wandered around the labyrinth of greenhouses for a little fun. We met a cheerful man wheeling flats of soil-filled pots into a greenhouse, and that cheerful man led us to another cheerful man, by way of many chickens, some of who were cheerfully clucking around in the hen yard and others of whom were even more cheerfully clucking around out of the hen yard.

Dressing Up. The second cheerful man came back to help us load up our bags of soybean meal fertilizer for our hayfields, which was very kind of him, since it was only 12 fifty pound bags and not 200, for example. We got to chat with him a bit about our respective farms, and then we loaded up our new row cover, and then my fellow farmer found one last thing on our order. It was a new hat, perfect for shading a farmer's sparkling eyes and delicate skin all summer. My fellow put his new hat right on. It is a fetching hat indeed, and he did look fine.

Great Food. We liked our romantic excursion so much this year that we decided to have another spring date. This time we went over to Ideal Compost in Peterborough, to buy our soil mix. On the way, I was glad we had remembered to pack some snacks, because we were picking up our soil mix at lunchtime. We enjoyed some apples and peanut butter, along with popcorn, none of which we had labored to plant, weed, or harvest on our farm. It was positively decadent, that snack.

Beautiful Surroundings. As we got closer, my fellow pointed out to me the road that looks exactly like the road that we wanted, and the river that looks exactly like the river we wanted. That look-alike road and river is where he got lost last year. This year we didin't get lost, though I suppose, depending on a farmer's temperament, it might be nice to get a little lost on a date. I, however, am the type of farmer who does not like to get lost on a date, and I was glad my fellow farmer and I found the right scenic road and the right pretty river.

A Puppy. And there, at our date destination, we discovered one of the most lovely things that can happen on a farmer date: a puppy! The nice soil mix people have a 12 week old Australian Shepherd mix puppy, and that puppy was absolutely delighted to see us. He jumped, wiggled, wagged, licked our hands and faces, brought us leaves, and dug us holes. He was a most marvelous puppy, and really, what more could a farmer ask for in the way of a satisfying spring-time date?

Originally published in the Monadnock Shopper News, Apr 12 - Apr 18, 2017

CSA Farmers: High Hopes and Radiant Smiles

It was spring. We had our first CSA garden planted, our greenhouses and fields flourishing, and our vegetable distribution shed ready. Now all we needed were some friendly CSA members ready to buy our vegetables in order for our CSA farm dream to come true. We had our hopes high, and our smiles radiating on our faces.

We were at our very first CSA Fair.

A CSA fair, in case you don't know, is a whole roomful of high-hoped, radiantly smiling farmers, representing many different farms, ready to answer any and every question a potentially interested person might have about any and every aspect of Community Supported Agriculture gardens. Each farm has its own table, with beautiful pictures of the farms and the farming life, along with brochures, pamphlets, and maybe even a delicious sample of food from that very farm.

At least, that is what we two hopeful, radiant, young farmers thought a CSA Fair was. True, there were many other hopeful, radiant farmers at our first Fair, and there were many interested persons, enjoying the yummy samples of food.

But there was also the Little Talk. Each farmer was supposed to get up in front of the crowd and give a Little Talk about her or his respective farm.

“What!” I quailed, in my firmly introverted way, as my fellow farmer and I drove to the CSA Fair. “I didn't know we'd have to do that! That's terrible! How long do we have to talk?”

“Oh, it's nothing,” said my extroverted fellow. “Just five minutes. I'll get up and do it.”

“Oh no, oh no,” I said, “What are you going to say?”

“Oh, I don't know,” he answered cheerily, “Something. It'll be fine!”

Despite his reassuring tone, I was not reassured. By the time we got to the meeting, I had worked my introvert self into a frenzied state of nervous tension that would pass for a person able to make a Little Talk in front of a crowd of people.

“I'm going to have to go up there with you,” I said grimly, as we went into the building.

“Nah, it'll be fine,” repeated my confident fellow. “I'm not worried.”

“I'll just stand there hopeful and smiling, then,” I said. “I'll keep you company.”

“Great,” he answered, as we set up our charming table of beautiful photographs of the farm and the farming life, along with our brochures, pamphlets, and yummy samples.

All too soon, it was time for the Little Talks. There was an introduction by some generous organizer of CSA fairs, and then my fellow and I listened to the first few farmers talk. They were polished, personable, and perky.

I cast a glance of despair at my fellow. He gave me a slightly nervous look, which became more and more nervous as we made our way up to the front. I myself was beet red and gulping.

My fellow started out pretty well, talking about our nice farm and our nice draft horses, and our flourishing greenhouses and flourishing gardens. I nodded encouragingly, much happier to be looking at him than at the crowd of people.

Then he stopped talking, after approximately 67 seconds. He looked hopefully at me.

I mustered up something farmy to say, lasting perhaps 24 seconds. I looked back at him.

He said a few more words. He looked at me.

Desperate, I mentioned that our first CSA season would coincide with the birth of our first baby. This was fairly obvious, since I was nearly nine months pregant, but everyone loved it. The nice crowd was smiling, rooting for us. My fellow and I nodded at each other a few more times, in the gathering silence.

At last, my fellow made one more remark: “We're better at farming than we are at talking!” Everybody laughed a big, relieved laugh. We laughed a lot too, much more relieved than the crowd could possibly be, as we made our way back to the safe haven of our table after our goofy, gulping, under-3-minute Very Little Talk. Nevertheless, several sympathetic persons took pity on us and came to ask us CSA questions.

Since that day, nearly 17 years ago, my fellow and I have learned many things, about farming, of course, and also about talking in front of crowds. But the best thing we've learned?

The best thing is the beauty of organizing one's own CSA Fair! For the past ten years, we two have organized the Monadnock Region CSA fair, chock-full of hopeful, radiant farmers, all with their charming tables, beautiful photographs, and yummy food. And not one of them is required to give a Little Talk.

But we're all very glad to answer any and every question about CSA farms that all you many interested persons might have. Come talk to us on March 26th, from 2 - 4 p.m., at the Monadock Food Co-op in Keene, at this year's fine, relaxed, welcoming CSA Fair.

Originally published in the Monadnock Shopper News, March 15 - 17, 2017