Farmers Helping Farmers

Recently, in a meeting with our farmer-friend-colleagues, my fellow and I were asked how our 2018 garden season shaped up. We instantly launched into a detailed description of weather, equipment, and crop woes, simultaneously shaking our heads and making feeble jokes about it all.

“This has been one of our toughest years farming,” we finished up, and our farmer friends all nodded sympathetically. They had such looks of tender concern that I turned to my fellow and said, “Let's see, can we think of anything cheerful to tell these people?”

The nice bunch of people chuckled, and my fellow farmer said, “Well . . .” he looked at me. Neither of us wanted to discourage the other farmers with our sad stories.

“We have every intention of doing it again next year?” he said, the question mark strong in his voice, looking at me and laughing. I laughed too, and one of our colleagues said, “At least you're laughing!”

We are still laughing, and we are also glad to say goodbye to the end of this tough gardening season. One of the bright spots has certainly been joining this group of  farmer-friend-colleagues. The group began meeting monthly for an hour or two last winter, with the idea of helping increase support for local farmers from our communities, as well increasing access to high-quality, local produce for all income levels. Early on, the conversation turned to more ways we farmers could support each other, and thus “Farmers Helping Farmers” was born.

“Farmers Helping Farmers” is a practical group. Sometimes we have a written agenda for our meetings, and sometimes we don't, because we're all scrambling around in our fields with no time to write agendas. There is a mission statement, however, which was written during the slower winter months: “Farmers Helping Farmers is a group of Monadnock Region small farmers who choose to recognize each other as allies and friends rather than competitors. We would like farming to be a viable and valued vocation, and for the high quality food we grow to be accessible to more people in our communities. While the group is intentionally led by farmers, we welcome support from other individuals and organizations. ”

For the past several months, our practical support of one another has manifested in working parties at each other's farms. We have weeded carrots on two farms, weeded lettuce and salad greens on another, dug heirloom dahlia tubers on a fourth, and had potlucks at most every farm. Our potlucks tend to feature the fast and fresh crop of the week: a bowl of sugar snap peas and a basket of husk cherries, grated carrots with dressing, lettuce greens, watermelon. Luckily there also seems to be at least one farmer who's not having a farm crisis on meeting day, and comes with an actual cooked dish: pasta and beef and greens, zucchini bread, apple crisp. Once we even hand-cranked vanilla ice cream together, in a devil-may-care flourish of worn-out, mid-season farmers.

The food is good, and the company is good, and the ideas are good. We exchange tips on planting and harvesting, on CSA membership and produce sales, on keeping records and keeping sane. Speaking of farmer sanity, it's also been mighty fine to see how big the weeds are in each other's gardens.

“We totally lost this section,” said one farmer, as we waded through waist-high weeds at his farm.

“This looks just like our carrot patch!” said another. 

“Yeah, I sent my apprentice into a section with the weed-whacker the other day, to see if she could find any crops under there!” added a third.

We all laughed then, a little giddily. It sure is nice to know that other farmers have the same troubles we do: huge weeds, too much work, too little time, and, of course, painfully tight budgets. We are all working towards environmental sustainability, physical sustainability (as in, can our farmer muscles hold up the enterprise, or will we gimp over to the compost pile, settle down right on the black, rich, warm, sweet-smelling stuff, and then gaze at the blue sky, to seriously contemplate another career? Or perhaps we should lie down in the unfinished part of the compost, the raw horse manure and the rotting vegetable scraps, in the pouring rain. Then we might really be serious about another career), and the ever-pressing financial sustainability.

In any case, anything we famers can do to help each other makes it more possible that we will all keep farming, even after a tough season, for another year.

Originally published in the Monadnock Shopper News, Nov 21-Nov 27, 2018

Broken Down and Busted Up: The Marvelous Year of Maintenance Blues 

It seemed like such a good idea: after years of numerous big new projects, we farmers decided to proclaim this the Marvelous Year of Maintenance. Perhaps we were proclaiming it a little too loudly, because far too many things on the farm have broken down or busted up this year.

Here is a partial list:
greenhouse plastic blows off in windstorm
greenhouse heat mat thermostat goes awry, killing many seedlings
broken bed chain on spreader
busted pole on spreader
busted pole on sickle bar mower
busted pole on hay wagon
busted pole on forecart (Granted, we did run over the forecart pole with our car, which is why it busted, but never mind that.)
broken hay wagon hitch
broken driving lines

Then there was the horse fencing. The horses love being out on grass, so we never expect any pasture break-outs early on in the season. However, they also hate the bugs, and on their very buggy second evening in the field, we heard some brisk trotting down the dirt road.

Luckily, we were working in the greenhouse along that very road. My fellow shot out of the greenhouse, catapulted himself onto the eight foot high garden fence, and shouted and waved as vigorously as possible without actually falling off the fence. The horses were so startled by this shouting, thrashing farmer on the fence that they halted and milled in the road. We were able to round them up in short order, and it was so close to dark that we led them back to their winter paddock for the night.

In the morning light we searched for the break in the fence. But there was no break in the fence. This was because there was no fence. We had cleared some brush the year before, and we had forgotten that there was no longer any fence along a short stretch of the road. Sigh.

We tried several semi-fixes over the next week, such as tying an unelectrified electric line across the gap, ending in a tree. We flagged the line with highly dangerous white cloth scraps, which did not scare the horses at all, and they got out again. Finally my farmer fellow gave in and decided to put in proper new wooden posts, including a sturdy new gate post, as the old one had given up.

“How's it going?” I asked, when we came in for lunch from our respective fencing and weeding projects.

“You're going to laugh at my gate post,” he said.

My fellow was right. I did laugh. For some reason he had chosen the spindliest, crookedest post in creation for the gate post, which needs to hold some weight, and which also sets the tone for a sturdy, convincing fence.

“Why did you pick this post exactly?” I asked.

My fellow scratched his head. “I don't know exactly. I thought it might be easy to get in, it was so little. But it was really hard to get in.” He went on, “But, hey, maybe it'll be easy to get out!”

It was easy to get out, as the rocky ground hadn't allowed for much of a hole. My fellow replaced the post with a slightly sturdier one, requiring a bigger hole, and taking far more time than he had allotted in the garden's busy season. Then he put in a second post, another lengthy, rocky task. Then he tried putting in a third post. Then he gave up.

“It's solid rock,” he announced, “all the rest of the way down the line.” In a desperate attempt to finish the fencing before an entire season of gardening had passed by, he squeaked some electric fence posts into the solid rock, and strung up an impressive two lines of the same unelectrified wire along the gap.

Now it was the horses' turn to laugh, at this next suggestion of a fence. They went gaily through it. All right, said my fellow, and put up a single line of barbed wire, chest high, so as not to endanger the horses' legs, but to make a stronger, pokier suggestion of a fence. Happily, this worked.

Much later on, the horses got out again, this time in a different field. Again, we were surprised, as they had just been switched to a lush new pasture. Again, we found a stretch of no fence, which we had forgotten to repair after pulling out firewood.

This does not reflect well, I know, on either our fence-fixing or our farmer memories. But what I'm really getting at here is that all these maintenance tasks in The Marvelous Year of Maintenance were entirely unscheduled. We have an enormous list of planned maintenance chores, and we have not yet accomplished one.

Still, the Marvelous Year of Maintenance is not quite over; we have a chance even yet to get some good stuff done. But the best part, I must say, is that in all this broken down and busted up year, we are very grateful that neither the horses nor the farmers have broken down or busted up. We're not doing so badly after all.

Originally published in the Monadnock Shopper News, Oct 24-Oct 31, 2018

Figuring It All Out on the Farm

My fellow farmer and I like vegetables better than we like numbers. We rely heavily on our fingers, our chalk, and our calculators when it comes to all the counting we need to do on our vegetable farm.

The counting starts right away, with the spring sowing. How many cabbage seeds should we sow in order to put out transplants at 16 inch spacing to fit a 3 foot wide, 200 foot long bed? This would be an easy calculation, one would think, except that the bed is really only more or less 3 feet wide and more or less 200 feet long, depending on the workhorses and the teamster and the lay of the land.

Then, of course, we always plant a few extra seeds of each crop, just in case some don't germinate. Occasionally all the seeds sprout, including the extra ones, and then we have too many plants. But we can't bear to throw any nice cabbage starts in the compost, so we try to fit all of them in the more or less 200 foot bed, which means the spacing is down to 12 inches by the end of the row, or it might mean that we put some cabbage in the next more or less 200 foot bed, which was meant for kale and chard, say, at 12 inch spacing, in staggered double rows in the bed. Then some of the kale and chard might get pushed over, too, into the broccoli, and then what? And where we will find the 20 feet for the dill that we usually tuck in at the end of a more or less bed?

We farmers look at each other, and the garden beds, numbers whirling in our heads.

Once we get the plants in the ground, we have a little rest from these difficult calculations. But it is not long before harvesting begins, and we take up the numbers again. From June through November, every Tuesday and Friday, we calculate and recalculate. Some things are easy: for example, on a June harvest day we have 17 members coming, so we pick 17 heads of bok choy, along with the other crops that are ready. But things get more tricky: one day in early July we have 64 tomatoes for 24 members, but some tomatoes are small and some are large. Then we have to make some decisions indeed.

How do we make the CSA shares as equitable as possible? Some variety in size is desirable, since one person might like a nice little head of cabbage, and another person might like a nice big head of cabbage. But when it comes to tomatoes, there are not many people who would pick a nice little tomato over a nice big one. Thus we sort our tomatoes into big and little, which further complicates our numbers.

Then, suppose, late in August, that we have 29 members coming to pick up vegetables on a Tuesday afternoon, and we have 152 cucumbers, 131 yellow squash, and 78 zucchini. This is when the calculator, or a grade schooler who needs to practice her multiplication and division during the summer months, comes in handy. We end up with 5 cucumbers, 4 yellow squash, and 2 zucchini per share. But what to do with the remaining?

Well, we make up a choice tray, where CSA members can pick either one more zucchini or one more yellow squash, and then we farmers will make a batch of pickles with the rest of cucumbers. Except that we are just finishing up harvesting the first planting of cucumbers and starting the second one, and the second planting cucumbers look beautiful and the first planting cucumbers are in funny shapes, so the counting farmer takes several funny-shaped cucumbers out of the crate to put in the surplus and sharing tray, except she forgets that she has done this in the fever of trying to count way too many vegetables at once, and we end up short of cucumbers by the end of the day, so that our pickling cucumbers turn back into CSA cucumbers. Ah, well. At least there are plenty of cucumbers.

And now, in September, we have the counting challenge of slowly moving from summerish crops to fallish crops. Of course, there are still lots of tomatoes and yellow squash, but now the onions are coming in, and soon we will be digging potatoes, and picking winter squash. We will need to count and balance those too. But all of this figuring is nothing when we compare it to the figuring that has to happen in the farm budget. Now there are some difficult jugglings and jigglings and wigglings and wagglings. As I say, we two farmers like vegetables, much more than we like numbers.

Originally published in the Monadnock Shopper News, Sept 26 - Oct 2, 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