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

Weeds Are Our Friends (Sort Of)

Weeds are a farmer's friend. Well, sort of our friends. At least they are firm acquaintances, and we've come to know their quirks and habits by long association. They come back, year after year, in dependable succession. Some have lovely flowers and interesting names; some are edible and easy-going; some are deep-rooted and determined. We always say it's a good thing those determined perennial weeds appear first, in the spring, when a vegetable farmer still has abundant energy and will to entertain the first of the weed visitors.

Morning Glory: When our daughter was very small, and just learning weeds, she called Morning Glory “Glorintine.” Thus we have two nice names to call this perennial, in the rare moments when we're not calling it not-so-nice names. Glorintine has a pretty cup-like white flower, but if we get to the flowering stage, we're in trouble, because it means the glorintine has already twined and vined itself with incredible vigor and strength around any and every available vegetable. Recently it took me and a pair of clippers more than an hour to free eight suffering pepper plants from flowering Morning Glory bondage.

Quack Grass: Some people call this couch grass, or quitch grass. Along with Morning Glory, it is our most difficult perennial weed. Quitch is enough to make a farmer twitch, quack, and want to lie down on a couch (though it is pronounced “cooch.” But we'd be happy to lie down on a cooch, too.). It spreads by long white roots underground until it has colonized the entire garden, requiring a weeding revolution, and a fair amount of farmer foaming-at-the-mouth.

Hairy Galinsoga: This is often the first of the annual weeds, and it is speedy, coming to flower (and shortly after to seed, spreading itself everywhere, fast) in only 21 days. It has tiny white daisy-like flowers, and a tough root system that likes to dislodge neighboring vegetables when we pull the weed out. Old H.G. also has an alternate name on our farm. I grew up in a cheddar and American cheese household, whereas my farming fellow's family was morely likely to venture into Brie and Gorgonzola. When I inadvertently said “Hairy Gorgonzola,” my fellow thought this was riotously funny, and now we have lots of hairy, cheesy weeds around.

Red-Rooted Pigweed: We like this weed. It has a good name too, with many variants: purple or common or pigweed amaranth. Best is that it pulls up easily, not disturbing the vegetables nearby, even when it is very large. It does grow fast and has a scratchy flower bud, but we don't mind; it's just such an easy-going weed. When our girl was little, she would start out by weeding everything out of the row of lettuce. Then she would weed out only the weeds she liked; pigweed was one of the ones she liked. (Next she would start playing with the weeds, making families and stories. Then it would be time to go in for a snack.)

Lamb's Quarters: is also known as wild spinach, and some people eat it. In fact, when we had a friend visiting, a friend who finds edible weeds very interesting, he picked a lot of lamb's quarters, laboriously plucked off the tiny leaves, and put them in a basket for our CSA members on harvest day. There was even a sign: “Wild Spinach.” Our CSA members looked with mild interest at this little basket full of little pale green leaves, and then sidled over to the harvest crate full of big dark green hearty civilized spinach. But sometimes I eat a leaf or two as I am pulling it out of my carrots and beets, and I feel very thrifty and wildcrafty indeed.

Purslane: A fleshy, floppy kind of weed, purslane is also edible. It has a tart, almost lemony taste. Recently, we had a Weeding and Ice Cream Party for our CSA members. Undaunted by the knee high weeds in our Brussels sprouts patch, the good members waded in and weeded. Along the rows, we offered the copious purslane up for samples. One person nibbled doubtfully, shook her head, and said “Hmm, I'm not getting lemony.”

Another person took armfuls home for her salad, which just goes to show how weeds really are our friends, and it's good that they visit the farm regularly. After all, If a vegetable farmer doesn't produce enough produce, there's always plenty of weeds for people to eat. Yum.

Originally published in the Monadnock Shopper News, August 30-Sept 5, 2017

Weeding and Ice Cream Party: No Weeding, No Eating

Our very first “Ice Cream (and Weeding!) Party” with our CSA members was fifteen years ago, in the very first year of our very first CSA garden, near Ithaca, NY. Homemade, hand-cranked ice cream in return for an hour or two of weeding sounded like a great deal to us, especially since our hours of weeding were (and are) not generally followed by creamy, delicious, homemade, hand-cranked ice cream.

We planned it all out: we would weed for two hours, and then we'd start cranking the ice cream, just in time for afternoon snack. With all the hordes of people flocking to the party, we'd surely get the fall carrots and the beets and the broccoli and the cabbage and the winter squash weeded, and if we needed more to do, we could tackle the onions and garlic. We made a big tub of ice cream mix, with six quarts of milk, cream, sugar, vanilla, and a pinch of salt, all ready to be churned in our ice-cream mixer.

Then we sat on the porch, and waited for the hordes.

And waited.

“But where are all the people?” said I, as the minutes ticked by. “They were supposed to be here at two, and it's two-fifteen already.”

“Hmm,” said my fellow farmer. “I'm not sure. Maybe all their cars broke down?”

By two-thirty, our then baby began to appear a little restless, waiting on the porch for the people.

“I guess we have to go weed by ourselves,” I said glumly.

“Yeah,” said my fellow. “I don't really feel like it. Maybe we should just make the ice cream right now?”

“But what if somebody comes? What if they got their cars fixed, and they're coming? Let's just take a little walk around and look at what needs weeding. The baby will like that, too.”

My fellow sighed. “That's half our trouble here, isn't it? That we just walk around and look at what needs doing.”

“Nah,” I said. “Half of our trouble is our CSA members won't come and help us weed.” We got a good giggle out of this, and, once we got out to the desperately weedy beets and carrots, we couldn't help ourselves. We started weeding, as the baby took a little nap in the pathway.

“We're just having a party all by ourselves,” said my fellow. “And it must be time to make the ice cream by now.”

I lifted my head. “No, wait! I hear a car! Somebody's coming!”

My fellow jumped up. “You're right! Let's go see who it is!”

By this time, we were so sure no none was coming that the arrival was a pleasant surprise: three fine weeders, and never mind that two were under six, and more interested in ice cream than tidy garden beds.

Now, fifteen years later, we still have our Ice Cream and Weeding parties, though we call them Weeding and Ice Cream Parties these days, just to be clear on the order of things. We still hope for far more weeding to be accomplished than could ever reasonably be (ah, there it it is: the optimism necessary to sustain the farming fire for all this time!).

We have also learned over the years that making six quarts of ice cream is a little too much for our ice cream churn: the mix squishes out the top. But five quarts is an ideal amount for any number of people. It's been ideal for the giant parties of ten plus weeders, and it's been ideal for the weeding party in the (light, very light) rain, where we had one stalwart fellow in a raincoat. And it's been ideal for the parties where two farmers, and one now teenage daughter, walk around and look at what needs doing.

Of course, we three have to weed a little, even if no one else shows up, because that's the Weeding and Ice Cream Party rule: no weeding, no eating. And gosh, just think if we had Weeding and Ice Cream Party rules in effect all the time: imagine the gloriously weed-free gardens, the fantastically fit people, the peace, love, harmony, justice, and happy farmers in the world!

Originally published in the Monadnock Shopper News, Sept 2-Sept 8, 2015