The Marvelous Year of Maintenance

For the past several years, on our very small New Hampshire vegetable farm, it seems that we've taken on very large projects. For too many seasons, we have simultaneously juggled cultivating and planting, and weeding and harvesting, with other big schemes: building new greenhouses, installing a new irrigation system, clearing new pasture, constructing a new fence/fortress around the garden to keep out the deer.

But this year, we have been loudly proclaiming, is not going to be about anything new. It's going to be all about the old. Fixing up the old, shoring up the old, patching up the old. It will the Marvelous Year of Maintenance.

Yes indeed, maintenance: on the scale of duct tape, say, and lengths of wire, with maybe some baling twine thrown in for good measure. That would take care of most of our repairs. Oh, ha ha ha.

Not too long ago, we came home after dark one windy evening, and the electricity was out. Rats, we thought. The tender seedlings in our greenhouse need the heat from the propane burner, and the propane burner needs electricity.

Well, maybe the electricity would come back on soon? No, it would not, according to the power company's phone message. It wouldn't be until the wee hours, too long for the plants. All right, we would bring in the most tender of the tender, tomatoes and basil and eggplant, and probably the hardier crops, kohlrabi and cabbage and onions, would be fine.

My fellow farmer and I started ferrying flats of plants into the house, and putting them on the kitchen floor. It wouldn't be too bad. We could take the flats back out bright and early in the morning.

But then the wind started picking up. And picking up. And picking up. And then our greenhouse plastic started picking up. And picking up. And picking up.

“We're losing the plastic!” my fellow farmer hollered, above the roar of the wind. “What are we going to do?”

“Oh no!” I hollered back. “I don't know!”

By now one side of the plastic was flapping loose, with big metal pipes attached. We dove in between gusts with concrete blocks to try to anchor the plastic. Nothing doing. We dove out again when the metal pipes came crashing by. My fellow farmer dove in once more, intending to sit on the plastic, to keep it down, while I got more heavy things. Nothing doing. Now my fellow farmer was picking up.

“Come away! Come away!” I called, in a panic, wanting to lose my fellow farmer even less than I wanted to lose my greenhouse. He did, in a hurry.

“I'm going to cut all the plastic off, or we'll lose the whole thing!” he yelled.

I nodded my vehement agreement, and he started in, amongst the crashing and banging. Tables turned over in the greenhouse, dumping flats of plants. I grabbed still full flats and raced them to the house.

Once the plastic was cut, there was no more danger of flying pipes, and now my fellow farmer and our farmer daughter and I hunched over every little flat, trying to get them one by one to the house before we lost them to the wild wind. We scooped up the dumped plants too, until finally we had 78 flats, all over the downstairs of our house, with tiny trails through each room.

Then my fellow went back out into the blast to feed the horses a very late hay supper. I peered worriedly out the window, wondering what was taking so long. He was by the greenhouse again. What now?

I went back out to see. The plastic had taken out the electric fance, and the horses were quivering in a corner. We hauled the plastic out of the paddock, fixed the fence, and hoped the horses' hay didn't all blow away before they could grab a mouthful.

At last we went to bed. It was midnight. My fellow farmer and I held hands, in bed. None of us had gotten hurt. We hadn't lost the whole greenhouse. We hadn't lost our entire spring crop.

In the next three days, we would replace the hipboards in the greenhouse, which were considerably rotted, and where the problem might have started.

“Well, we've been talking about replacing them for years,” we said.

We replaced the tie-downs, screwing them in firmly.

“That, too,” we said. “We should have done that a long time ago.”

Then we replaced the plastic, on Sunday morning, thanks to a fine crew of volunteers who began at seven a.m.

“Well, we had to put new plastic on pretty soon anyway, in the next year or two,” we said. “So that's something.”

Six hours later, the plants were back in place in the greenhouse. They were looking bedraggled, after the wind and three days with little light and no water, but they were alive. We had lost only ten plants out of the thousands of seedlings.

“We're pretty lucky,” we said.

Then we glanced around, warily.

Who knew what would be next in the Marvelous Year of Maintenance?

Originally published in the Monadnock Shopper News, May 9 - May 15, 2018

Sap, Seder, and Spring 

In the early spring, here on our small New Hampshire farm, we spend a lot of time by the the sap pan. We boil and boil and sometimes burn and burn, which makes a farmer want to skip the sap season altogether, and go directly to greenhouse season. Of course, we would miss gathering sap in the snow with the horses, and lighting the first sap fire, and making sap tea, and the clouds of sweet steam, and the magical maple syrup.

We wouldn't miss, however, the cold sap trickling or flooding down our boots when we've waited a little too long to empty our overflowing sap buckets, or wrestling with wet wood and a slow fire, or having to take a grinder to the sap pan because we've burned it so badly. It can take nearly as long to clean a burned sap pan as it does to make a gallon of maple syrup, which is quite a long time. But all this is part of sap season, too, and maybe we would miss it. The syrup is that much sweeter for all the work and trouble we've taken with it.

Recently, we had the chance to wash off the soot and leave the pan (with lots and lots of sap to make sure we didn't burn it again!). We had an invitation from our friends to their house for a Passover Seder, the first Seder we'd ever been to. The Seder is a recounting of the enslavement of the Israelites in Egypt, and the exodus to a new land of freedom. It is also a celebration of spring, and new life, and new hope.

It was a beautiful evening, rich with history and community, with singing and with ritual. We dipped parsley into salt water to represent tears, and sampled horseradish to remind us of harshness and strength, and ate matzoh to represent the unleavened bread the Israelites carried on their journey when there wasn't time for the bread to rise. We had many blessings too, over wine or grape juice, as well as a delicious meal. Best of all, we basked in the sense of family and friendship, of compassion for all who are oppressed, and of the hope for liberation for all.

We came away feeling full and grateful, and the next day we came back to our (unburnt!) sap pan. Certainly, tending a sap pan is not enslavement, though it does feel rather binding at times, as we boil for twelve hour stretches and stay up until the wee hours tending the fire. The Seder was a wonderful reminder that we've undertaken this maple syrup project, and this whole farming project, by choice and in freedom.

We were also invited to write something, from a farmer's perspective, for the Seder:

The Passover Seder is a perfect celebration for a farmer. First of all, farmers love to recount the plagues: floods in June; hail in July; broken down hayloaders in August; potato beetles, cabbage moths, and squash bugs in September; blight and in pestilence in October, woodchuck and deer all season long.  

Secondly, farmers love to dream of spring, and new beginnings, just as the Seder celebration does. There's no more hopeful sight than tiny, just germinated, vibrantly green lettuce or scallions. Spring is a time of potential and possibilities; no big farming disasters have happened yet, and we can vividly imagine the rest of the season: fertile soil, plenty of sunshine, an inch of gentle rain a week, vigorous growth of crops (but never weeds!), and abundant harvests.

Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, there is a celebration of freedom, both in farming and in the Seder. Vandana Shiva, scholar, environmental activist, and food sovereignty advocate, has worked tirelessly, in India and globally, against agricultural industrialization and the resulting monoculture cropping, heavy chemical pesticide use, genetic engineering of crops, and the corporate ownership of seeds. “Seed freedom” is essential for farming, just as human freedom is essential for our lives.

Shiva promotes biodiversity and indigenous knowledge in agriculture, to increase production, nutrition, and farmers' incomes, and to support the health and freedom of women and family farmers. As she says in Lilipoh Magazine, “Recently I interviewed organic farmers in the Indian mountains. An old woman was asked why she farmed in this terrible place. Her reply was: 'It is the only way of being completely free.' ”

Perhaps farming is not the only way to be free, but it is one of the ways, and we celebrate that freedom in the Seder. We are free to complain. Free to rejoice. Free to work. Free to eat. Free to walk, and talk, and love each other.

Originally published in the Monadnock Shopper News, April 11 - April 17, 2018

Stick in the Mud Farmer

I am a stick in the mud farmer. You would think I would be perfect for muddy old March on the farm. I could get good and stuck and stay there. But March likes to keep my on my toes: rain, sun, snow, sleet, mud, ice.

My fellow farmer likes to keep me on my toes too. For example, this year we bought three tons of composted chicken manure, to spread on our hayfields. This is excellent, in the theoretical realm anyway, because it helps feeds the hayfields, which help feed our draft horses, which help feed us. But in the realm of the farm budget, it was not quite such groovy news.

“I've got it all figured out,” said my fellow. “If we spend as much on fertilizer as we usually do buying hay, then the fields will be that much more productive, and we won't have to buy any hay at all. We'll save money, in the long run.”

“It sounds like we'd be spending the same amount of money, in the long run,” said the keeper of the farm budget, i.e., me, the stick in the mud farmer. “Plus we'll have a lot more hay to put up, instead of someone else putting it up, and selling it to us, which is kind of easier, in some ways.”

“I love making hay,” was my fellow farmer's reply, neatly sidestepping the budget committee. After all, most of our farming and writing lives seem to be based more on what we love than on what is easier, or more profitable.

Thus we now have three pallets of bagged, composted manure, waiting patiently until the mud or snow of March wanes. And, of course, we had to buy a fertilizer spreader to distribute this patient fertilizer.

My farmer fellow did his research, asking around, poking at the computer, until he found a used spreader an hour away from our farm. Apparently the spreader had been used to fertilize golf courses, which are prone to extensive water and chemical fertilizer use, so to become a chicken poo farm spreader would definitely be coming up a step in the sustainable living world. The spreader was also metal, sturdy, and well-balanced, as opposed to the tippy plastic cone spreader we had borrowed another year for a liming the hayfields project.

My fellow enlisted the budget committee in inspecting and negotiating for the spreader, knowing that this method had proved effective in the past. It was especially effective this time, as the dealer agreed to less than the price he had quoted on the phone. A bargain, hey? Well, we hope so. Maybe. In any case, we brought the little red metal spreader home. Then my fellow spent a happy afternoon cleaning it up and coating it with lanolin, to keep the rust from getting any rustier.

Well good, I thought, that will satisfy my fellow's yearnings for farm machinery and tools for this season. He's got a nice new project, a pretty nice used spreader, and no reason to want anything more for a while

But it is March. And March is full of surprises.

“Now look at this,” said my fellow enthusiastically the other day. “Isn't this neat?” he showed me a picture on the computer.

“What is it?” I asked a trifle suspiciously, in my budget committee, stick in the mud way.

“It's a broad fork. It's for digging the greenhouse beds. I've been using the pointed shovel to dig, but it doesn't work that great. I'm going to go borrow one of these broad forks from the neigbors, and test it out.”

“You are?” I said, a little taken aback. This is the first I'd heard of a broad fork, and my fellow farmer had already gotten so far in his research as to be borrowing one. Uh, oh, I thought. He has completely figured out the budget committee! The comittee always asks for research, prices, flaws, warranties, comparable models, and says “Can't you borrow one? At least to try it out?”

But already he is borrowing one! How will the committee stall for time? And how will the committee make it through crazy old March, when my fellow farmer is still dreaming about new equipment, rather than spending all his time and energy on keeping our old equipment going, as he does in the high garden season?

The next day my fellow farmer wants me to come to the greenhouse, to see the broad fork in action.

“Nice, huh?” he says. “It's working great. Feel how loose the soil is.”

I test the dug and undug sides with my fingers, a little reluctantly.

“Yeah, it's pretty good,” I say, even more reluctantly.

“You can use it to dig carrots too,” he adds. “And I found one for less than a hundred dollars on the Internet!”

Oh no. Now he's using another trick: compared to the chicken poo and spreader, a hundred dollars seems like hardly anything.

“Now wait a minute,” I say, to my fellow, “I don't think the budget committee is going to be available for the month of March.”

“Why not?”

“Stuck,” I answer. “Stuck in the mud.”

Originally published in the Monadnock Shopper News, March 14 - March 20, 2018

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