Whether We Like It or Not

Lately my fellow farmer and I have been thinking about the poem our daughter learned years ago in school:

Whether the weather be fine,
or whether the weather be not;
whether the weather be cold,
or whether the weather be hot;
we'll weather the weather,
whatever the weather,
whether we like it or not.

We thought this rhyme was pretty funny at first, but this vegetable season we have not felt quite so amused. What with snow four times in April, and six weeks of no rain, in May and early June, we were beginning to wonder whether we would be able to grow any produce at all. And now, in July and August, what do we have?

Rain. Rain. Rain. Rain. Rain.

Every rainy day, the soil gets soggier and soggier and the weeds get bigger and bigger. The broccoli heads rot on the plant and the cabbage splits and the beet greens suffer and the lettuce won't grow and the yellow squash won't ripen.

Then there are the fall crops we have not yet been able to sow, because of the rain. Or the bed of beets, which we just managed to plant between raindrops, which hardly germinated at all. There are the beans and the kale and the chard, all soggy and peaked. And the hay, far past its prime, languishing in the wet fields, which is particularly painful considering our very foolish decision not to mow hay a month ago when we had a sunny chance.

What's a soggy, peaked farmer to do? Especially a soggy, peaked farmer who wants to write a funny, cheerful sustainable farming column? Hmm.

Well, how about the greenhouses? Certainly this year we are especially grateful for the relatively dry, relatively weed-free greenhouses, from which we are happily harvesting, albeit two weeks later and a little more slowly than usual, ripe tomatoes and sweet red peppers and green peppers and hot peppers and basil and squash and cucumbers.

On the other hand, even in the greenhouses, we are faced with a problem, not a weather problem per se, but a problem no less. It began last March, when we were starting our tomatoes on the heat mat, as is our usual method. We came out cheerfully one March morning to greet all the happy little tomato seedlings from our second sowing. But all the happy little tomato seedlings were quite dead.

The heat mat wiring had gone flooey, and cooked all our little plants. It was too late to sow any more seeds, so, for the first time in twenty years of farming, we had to buy tomato starts from another farm. My tomato-loving fellow farmer was sad, but resigned, and ordered up starts for a good-tasting, nice-looking, half-pound tomato.

Soon we had the new transplants settled in the greenhouse beds. As they grew, we were a little concerned at the general spindliness of the plants. We were a little more concerned when we saw the small size of the first fruits. Then we were very concerned, as the tomatoes ripened, finally, in August, and we looked over two hundred feet of spindly plants with puny fruit, fruit which also cracks at an alarming rate, and ranks a solid mediocre in taste and texture.

“What the heck kind of half-pound, good-tasting tomato is this?” said my fellow farmer.

“Not much of one,” said I.

And not long after, I said to myself, on a rainy rainy rainy day, also in August, “What the heck kind of funny, cheerful sustainable farming column is this? Not much of one.”

All right, farmer, I admonish myself, focus on the positive:

We may have 200 feet of pathetic tomatoes in the greenhouses, but we also have 200 feet of our own delicious big tomatoes, along with another 150 feet of our own cherry and plum tomatoes. Despite the general sogginess, we are still harvesting lots of good things in the garden. We also could have much, much worse weather than we are having.

Plus we have an idea.

“Let's rip out all these dumb little tomatoes and plant the fall crops in the nice, relatively dry, relatively weed-free greenhouse!” says my fellow.

“Excellent!” I answer. “And let's bellow out the rhyme while we're at it! We'll weather the weather, whatever the weather . . .”

My fellow joins in the holler: “Whether we like it or not!”

Originally published in the Monadnock Shopper News, Aug 29-Sept 4, 2018

The Wonderful Whizzing Hose

In the fine month of May, amongst all the planting and weeding, we vegetable farmers spend a surprising amount of tine watering. Many of our transplants are still in pots, waiting for the magical June-first-post-frost planting date. In March and April, watering can be a pleasant, contemplative experience, with all the little plants in all their little plots. But in May, there's hundreds of plants, still in pots, and they don't want to be in pots anymore. They are bursting out of their pots, slurping up all available nutrients and moisture, and thus they need a substantial watering every day.

For all our years together, my fellow farmer and I have used a greenhouse watering system we've cobbled together ourselves. First there is a 100 gallon drum, a former Coca-Cola barrel (since Coca-Cola is practically a food grade substance!), filled with water from our well. The barrel filling process involves three hoses, threaded through the pile of junk in front of the barn, and catching on every possible protrusion: the various plow shares, broken wire netting, pipes, old carts, etc., all waiting to be sold or fixed or recycled. At least one of the hoses is sure to have a repaired spot, which, after catching on something, pulls apart, thus spraying water all over a farmer who prefers to stay dry.

Then it's shut off the water, stick the hose back together, turn on the water, trip over the junk, thread the hose more carefully through the junk, edge the hose under a gap in the baseboards of the greenhouse, and put the hose in the barrel. Sometimes the hose stays in the barrel. Sometimes the hose flips out, causing a flood in the greenhouse pathways, which a farmer would also prefer to stay dry, so she doesn't get her feet wet.

Now the barrel is filled, and the water is warmed by the sun (or the greenhouse's propane heater, when there is no sunshine) so as not to shock our plants. Then we plug in the submersible pump (ingenious! our favorite part of the lousy system!) which is connected to yet another hose, which we drag around the greenhouse to water both the transplants in pots on the tables, and the tomatoes that are already planted in the greenhouse beds. 

Drag is the operative word here, because it is very, very bad for a farmer to crush a thriving transplant in a pot or a thriving tomato plant in the bed with a dragging hose. Thus we have an elaborate maze of concrete blocks, stakes, and digging forks anchored at the ends of the tables and beds to protect the plants. Mostly this works. Sometimes it doesn't. Inevitably the hose gets caught in the maze, requiring many trips back and forth in the greenhouse. Sometimes a farmer gets wet too, from all this hose fiddling, and that is also very, very bad.

Periodically, along our farming way, my fellow and I would visit and ogle and covet the greenhouse watering systems of other farmers. “Look at that,” we'd say, watching as a hose whizzed by on a cable and the smiling farmer quickly, efficiently, and painlessly watered the greenhouse.

“That probably cost five hundred dollars,” one of us would say gloomily.

“A thousand dollars,” said the other. “There's no way we can afford that.”

But, for once, we were blissfully wrong about fancy-farm-things prices.

“You won't believe this,” my fellow says one day, coming to untangle the hose for me as I water and grumble in the greenhouse. I muster up an interested look for his news.

“I looked up the whizzing hose on a cable in a catalog. It's only 150 dollars!”

“No!” I say.

“Yes!” he says. “We can find 150 dollars somewhere!”

“Maybe we can!” My thrifty farmer nature is momentarily overcome by the idea of a wonderful whizzing hose. 

And we do! We order the hose, right away! It comes in the mail! Our fine CSA member who barters for carpentry work installs it! We test it out! It works perfectly, magnificently, whizzingly! Holy moly! We dance around the greenhouse, hollering in glee!

“Wow,” I say, “The great thing about having cruddy stuff and lousy systems is that we are so ecstatic when something better comes along! Maybe we should keep using our cruddy stuff even longer!”

“Wow!' says my fellow farmer. “You're crazy! I might have to squirt you with this whizzing hose!'

“Don't you dare!” I say, and we holler and laugh our way all the way down our quickly, efficiently, and painlessly watered greenhouse.

Originally published in the Monadnock Shopper News, May 11-17, 2016

Greenhouses, Dollhouses -- Life on the Farm

 I love dollhouses. Growing up, I filled my shelves with miniature scenes, tiny dolls and furniture and food. I had a little grocery, and a little library, complete with mini-produce and mini-books. I still have all my dollhouse beds and books and beeswax apples and pears, all tucked into boxes. One year, for my birthday, I decided what I really truly wanted, besides world-wide peace and world-wide sustainable agriculture, was to unpack my boxes, into a whole big proper dollhouse.

I drew my dollhouse all out on paper, and my sweet fellow helped me build it, using scrap plywood from our woodshed, and old paneling from our house, and our kind neighbor's precise and numerous tools. My dollhouse is a wonderful project, and so far, after eight years, I have the siding cut and nailed on, and the shingled roof three-quarters completed, and the windows and doors in. I haven't even begun on the interior (or on unpacking my boxes) yet; this is a life-long wonderful project.

And what, you may ask, does all this have to with sustainable farming in winter in New Hampshire? Everything, I say! Of course, farming itself can be a life-long wonderful project, if you're inclined to be a farmer. Plus a New Hampshire farmer in winter has a lot more time to work on her dollhouse than a New Hampshire farmer any other time of year.

But the big connection? You guessed it: greenhouses! We have four greenhouses on our vegetable farm, and surely greenhouse are the dollhouses of the agricultural world, each greenhouse a miniature farm.

The greenhouse mini-farm has dirt, and sun, and air and light and water. It has plants and compost and insects and the occasional butterfly or bird or vole. But it's all on such a small, manageable scale (especially if you conveniently overlook the manufacture and construction and maintenance of the greenhouses, the drip irrigation, the propane heater, and other such trivial details). A dollhouse has a roof and walls and windows and furniture and inhabitants, but it too is all on such a small, manageable scale.

The greenhouse is also a highly protected environment, just like the dollhouse. No high winds or beating rains or deep snows generally come and wreak havoc in my dollhouse, and no high winds or beating rains or deep snows generally come and wreak havoc in my greenhouses, either.

And, just like in a dollhouse, in a greenhouse a person can believe that she has quite a lot of say about the inhabitants, whether they be tiny ceramic or wooden or woolen people, or whether they be tiny tomatoes, peppers, and onions. I can suggest to my dollhouse people that they all take naps, or celebrate Christmas early, or turn the living room into a bedroom, and generally it happens.

Likewise, I can suggest to my greenhouse irrigation that it rain a lot, or rain a little; and I can suggest to my greenhouse heater that the place warm up a lot, or warm up just a little; and I can suggest to my greenhouse plants that they grow quickly or slowly, with the clever use of irrigation, heaters, and compost; and generally that happens too.

Then, too, both dollhouses and greenhouse provide endless pleasant tinkering. This time of year there is the unhurried pulling up of dead plants, the digging of beds, and the applying of compost. In a few months, there will be the sowing of seeds, the potting up of seedlings, the watering and pruning, all on a much smaller, lighter scale than in the big outside world of field and weather. This is especially nice for a farmer such as myself, who prefers light and medium duty greenhouse and dollhouse work to the heavy farming work that involves grunting, jostling, and pulled muscles.  

In the dollhouse, there is little jostling and grunting, and so far I have strained no muscles in the endless pleasant tinkering of making tiny wallpaper or tiny embroidered blankets or tiny framed pictures; or in making mini-presents for the mini-people to open in front of their mini-Christmas tree, festive with mini-decorations: oh, the possibilities are endless!

But the best thing about greenhouses and dollhouses has to be the shared element of fantasy: the belief that everything will turn out just the way a person hopes. For example, the dollhouse people will lead happy, fulfilled, and productive lives, and the greenhouse plants will live happy, fulfilled, and productive lives, which will help the farming people to live happy, productive, and fulfilled lives.  

And then of course, there is always the dream of greenhouses and dollhouses coming perfectly together: imagine a tiny glass greenhouse, filled with tiny living plants, and tiny watering cans, tiny hoes, tiny shovels! So lovely! So fun to make! So manageable! So sustainable! So everything!

Originally published in the Monadnock Shopper News, Dec 23- Dec 29, 2015

Visiting Auntie Hoophouse

If the earth is our Mother, then surely our heated hoop house is a Beloved Old Auntie. She is a warm and welcoming Auntie, and we farmers spend lots of time with her in early spring, helping her dig her garden beds, helping her get her seeds started, helping her stay just the right temperature.

Warmth. Auntie Hoop House likes to be just the right temperature. She basks between 70 and 80 degrees, and it is especially nice to visit her in March, or even April, when it can still be mighty cold outside (as well as a little cold in the farmers' house, because the farmers can't decide if it's chilly enough to start a fire in the wood stove, and thus use up the dwindling wood supply.) Whatever the weather, Auntie insists on being warm (and she has the propane bill to show for it!).

But Auntie doesn't like to get too hot, either. On a sunny day, she can heat up ten degrees in a matter of minutes, and she begins to feel faint. She needs a lot of attention in early spring, because her circumstances have to be adjusted frequently during the day: one front door open, two front doors open, inner plastic door cover rolled up, inner plastic wall hauled up in degrees by ropes, back door blanket taken down, back inner plastic door cover rolled up, back door open, one fan on, two fans on, three fans on. And then there's reversing all that, depending on the sun and the wind and the outside temperature.

Food. Auntie Hoop House knows how to provide for her guests. In summer, of course, there are the luscious early tomatoes, the fragrant basil bouquets, the sweet red peppers, and the glossy eggplants. But even in March and April, our Auntie wants to feed us. If she can't find any spinach overwintering from the last garden season, she will gladly produce delicious wild dandelion greens. This will please her guests no end, as they dine on dandelion quiche and sauteed dandelions and the ever-popular dandelion dal. (As our then 6th-grader moaned a few years ago, “Oh geesh. I'm going to ask everybody else in my class if they're having dandelion dal for lunch.” Strangely enough, no one else was.)

Ambiance. Auntie makes her house inviting. There is the pleasant sound of gentle rain plopping on her plastic top. There is the wild mint not yet weeded out of the beds, blooming tiny purple flowers. There is the comfortable furniture, two weather beaten wooden and canvas chairs, one of which periodically and unexpectedly collapses when a guest is relaxing on it, chatting perhaps, or finishing a good novel, and maybe feeling reluctant to get up and get moving. (“Whump!” says the collapsing chair. “Oof!” says the collapsing farmer. “Yes!” says wise old Auntie. “It's time to get up and get moving!”)

Taking Care of the Babies. Surely this is Auntie Hoop House's most endearing quality. She nurtures our tiny little seeds into seedlings, and then into plants, and then into delicious food. She takes care of our yogurt babies and our bread dough babies, providing a steady warm temperature for yogging and rising. She nurtured our little human baby too, who slept in the bassinet, played in the dirt as a toddler, learned to plant and pot up and water and weed and harvest, and now frequents the collapsing chair, which adds a little zest to her high school homework.

Even though our dear Auntie can be a little forgetful sometimes – for example, she (or perhaps someone closely related to her . . . ) forgot to check and make sure the propane people really did fill up the tank when we thought they would, and the propane people didn't, which meant the propane ran out, which meant Auntie got the shivers, which meant the farmers brought 30 flats of seedlings into their house, which meant all the floor space in two rooms, and baby gates to keep the kitty out, and quite a challenge getting to the phone and the bathroom for two days and nights – still we love our Auntie Hoop House. Such a kind, good Auntie, helping us extend the garden season and strengthen the local food system. We couldn't get along without her.

Originally published in the Monadnock Shopper News, April 15-21, 2015