Tropical Paradise . . or New Hampshire Farm?

Hard as it is to believe, sometimes a farmer does something besides farm. Even in the spring! For example, early in April my fellow farmer and I went to the live butterfly conservatory in Deerfield, Massachusetts, to celebrate our daughter's birthday. What a treat to go from our still-snowy fields to a tropical greenhouse full of blooming flowers and hundreds of soaring butterflies and moths.

First off, the conservatory was warm, almost 80 degrees, which is highly appealing after having snow four times at our farm in April. The building and grounds were also entirely lacking in mud, which we cannot say about our farm, especially in the spring.

But best of all, stepping into the greenhouse was like stepping into a fairy land.

There were butterflies everywhere, flying, resting, eating, drinking, flying, flying, flying. They were brilliant blue, and scarlet, and yellow and orange and brown and black, spotted and striped and stunning. There was even a “glasswing,” a translucent-winged butterfly with black edges, flitting among all the equally brilliant and varied flowers and foliage.

The three of us, my fellow, my daughter, and me, each had a butterfly visitor land on our pants or our shoulders at some point in our time there. The first one must have been a birthday butterfly, landing on my daughter almost as soon as we came in. I was hoping one might visit me too, and had worn my floweriest-colored clothes, even down to purple socks. But apparently butterflies aren't too fussy, because my fellow was in tan and brown, and he had the next butterfly visitor.

Still, I held out my socks hopefully, and finally a beautiful brilliant scarlet and black butterfly came to see me. Of course, the butterflies live out their whole lives in the greenhouse, from birth to death, and my butterfly visitor was a little troubled. He was crawling across the floor, and then, loving my socks, I'm sure, crawled onto my shoe, up my sock, and then up (the outside!) of my pant leg.

I had to admit to feeling a little wide-eyed as the butterfly continued determinedly up my shirt sleeve, onto my shoulder, closer and closer to my face. Surely butterflies don't bite! I thought, craning my head away from my friend.

Happily, this one didn't, and he found my shoulder a good place to launch. He took off, flying for a little while longer, at least.

Along with the butterflies and moths, we had some non-butterfly surprises: we also admired all the lizards and beetles and bugs and teeny-tiny frogs in terrariums in an outer room. There were enormous koi fish in a pool among the butterflies, and a parrot, perambulating up and down the outside of his or her home.

There was a turtle too, or rather a Russian tortoise, who was hanging out in the sand. At first we thought it was a statue, but then a staff member gave the tortoise some blossoms. They were brilliant yellow and white, called lollipop flowers, a very pleasing name. Clearly the flowers were even more pleasing to the tortoise, who came to vigorous life, stretching out a long neck and snapping up a bloom. It was like a story book: a tortoise eating a lollipop.

Soon after we saw a hummingbird, sampling a hibiscus flower. “Look, a proboscis in a hibiscus!” said my daughter, another fine story book title. We also saw a Gouldian finch. I heard a little chirrup, and looked up, and we all had a glimpse of the tiny finch, pretty as could be, before it disappeared into the foliage.

As if all this weren't enough, there were also quail chicks, peeping away, brown and speedy, racing around the paths or taking dust baths. They ducked in and out, always in a hurry, usually in pairs. We could have entered a raffle to take a quail chick or two home, but we weren't sure that a quail chick from a tropical paradise could adapt to the tough farm life.

In fact, after almost three hours of tropical paradise, we farmers weren't sure we could adapt to the tough farm life either. Our plastic hoophouse is not quite as lovely as a glass conservatory, nor quite as warm, since we heat it to 65 and not 80 degrees. At least it is full of nice green plants, even if they are not quite blooming, and not quite story book, fairyland plants. But onions and cabbage, basil and tomatoes and eggplant, lettuce and bok choy, all have their own charm.

Not only that, it was not long before we saw, over the mud in the driveway on our farm, our first two butterflies of the New Hampshire season: two tiny purply-blue lovelies, fluttering and dancing, reminding us that a farm might not be paradise, but it certainly has its own beauty.

It was a good reminder, and we watched the butterflies flit near our flats of cabbage and kale, which were hardening off in the brisk April air: just like us, two New Hampshire farmers, toughening up for the season ahead.

Originally published in the Monadnock Shopper News, May 8-14, 2019

Breathless on the Farm

Spring means plowing on our New Hampshire vegetable farm, and plowing means a marked feeling of breathlessness for all of us here. First, there is the breathlessness that comes from the sheer hard work of plowing, since plowing is the beginning of the heavy horse-work of the season.

The horses are puffing, and they like a nice rest at the end of the field, or at both ends of the field, preferably. The teamster is puffing too, as he drives the horses, adjusts the plow, tries to follow a relatively straight line, and also tries to stay in his seat, as the plow lurches and bounces.

The plow doesn't always lurch and bounce, but on more than one occasion, my fellow farmer has been tossed entirely off. This has made me, the non-plowing farmer, more than a little breathless too.

I do not like to see my fellow tossed off anything. So far he has always scrambled back to his feet, kept hold of the horses, and climbed back on. I would be even more breathless if he wasn't scrambling, since scrambling means a farmer still has the energy and the sound limbs to keep on plowing.

One especially worrisome day, several years ago, while I was attending to another farm chore, my fellow came back from the field, gimping a little, and announced, “I have to get a new plow, or I'm going to break my neck!”

Even the very conservative member of the budget committee, me that is, who had been fending off new plow suggestions for years, was impressed by this report. Well, gee, if those are my choices . . . maybe we really had better get a new plow.

Happily, things have improved since we sold the old plow, and bought one that is both more balanced and more suitable for our soils and the slope of our gardens. Plus, after eighteen years of plowing, my fellow has learned quite a bit about the work, including how to soothe his breathless fellow farmer by waving cheerfully and non-brokenly as he scrambles back on the plow.

And too, the non-plowing farmer can encourage herself by remembering how very much better this plowing is than either the plowing with the old plow, or the plowing with the old old plow, which happened in our very first year of farming on our own.

That year, my fellow farmer, eager as always, harnessed the horses for their first big job. The horses started right in. But they didn’t get far. My fellow adjusted the plow. The horses heaved. They went a few more yards. My fellow stopped again, readjusted the plow. The horses, already puffing and sweating, struggled ahead again. A few more yards.

My fellow stopped, readjusted. Plow a little, readjust, plow a little, bang on another likely looking piece of plow. Still it did not go well. Was it the soil, in sod for thirty years? Was it the plow? Was it the horses? Was it the farmer?

My fellow took a look around: were there any old-time teamsters strolling by? Taking a walk in the spring air perhaps? Looking for a young farmer to help out? But the road was empty. The farmer was all alone, in a huge field of sod, with a plow, two unhappy horses, and a big headache.

By the end of the morning my fellow's voice was nearly gone from urging the horses on. They were plowing only a few inches deep, but the horses were jumping in their collars. Their muscles quivered. It was more difficult than any of us thought. In fact, it seemed rather awful. We despaired for our horses, our garden, ourselves. We felt like giving up farming.

Finally, in the afternoon, there was barely a quarter acre plowed, not even half of what we hoped to have ready. It would have to be enough. It was not until the second plowing, two months later, for the fall crops, that we found out that the plow was set up for a team of three horses, with a sixteen inch instead of twelve inch plow bottom. Four inches didn’t seem like much. Four inches nearly did us all in.

We lavished praise on our good-hearted, hard-working team, apologized, promised this would never happen again. We replaced the plow bottom so that the plow was ready for a team of two. “Wish me luck!” my fellow farmer said, as he went out to the field for another try.

I wished my fellow luck, fervently, and I am still wishing him luck today, as once again he eagerly harnesses the horses for spring plowing. I am grateful, for the horses, for the new plow, for the field, for all we've learned over the years, and most especially, that my fellow farmer and the horses are still eager . . . and not just eager, you might say, but breathless.

Originally published in the Monadnock Shopper News, April 10-16, 2019

The Make-Believe CSA Member

In June, we farmers always want our place to look nice. After all, it's the beginning of the harvest season, when we welcome new and returning CSA members to the greenhouses and gardens and the vegetable distribution shed. This time of year, my fellow farmer and I try to look at our farm with new eyes: we like to pretend we are brand new CSA members.

First we vroom up the farm road in our make-believe cars, on the way to our first exciting CSA pick-up. We eye the burgeoning multiflora rose hedge along the road dubiously. Did the road crew succeed in trimming it back adequately this year? Will people be able to park, without scratching their fine vehicles or their fine bare summer arms? We park our make-believe cars, which are not scratched at all. Excellent!

Then we assess the driveway. Are there any dead chipmunks and mice, or some viscera perhaps, thanks to our lovely two new kitties, ambitious in their youthful hunting years? Or are the kitties themselves there in the driveway, presenting a friendly, purring countenance to welcome everyone? (Or perhaps it is our scratch-bitey kitty, who, if not presenting a friendly countenance, at least presents a familiar one, to returning members. He has been scratching and biting CSA members for years now.)

“What cute kitties,” we croon from afar, or pet from close up, depending on the nature of the cat. “What a nice CSA farm!”

Next we check for piles of horse manure in the driveway of this nice CSA farm. Our four draft horses don't seem too concerned, on their way to and from pasture or gardens, whether our driveway is presentable. Happily the same shovel that picks up dead animals works well for horse manure too.

While the one farmer shovels, the other farmer, who is enjoying being an excited newly arrived CSA member, instead of a dead animal and manure shoveling farmer, checks out the the charming herb garden. Is it, in fact, charmingly dug and planted, reminding CSA members of their lovely summers in the lavender fields of Provence, or are the poor herbs still languishing in their pots, waiting to be transplanted and to become charming?

And another question: are the languishing herbs in the company of other languishing plants on the wooden tables next to the herb garden? Or have the farmers gotten all the tomatoes and basil and sweet peepers and squash into the greenhouse beds weeks ago, where they are now flourishing?

The CSA member/farmer peeks in the open door of the greenhouse. “'Ooo,” she says, “Look at those beautiful tomatoes! Look how big they are!” Excellent indeed. By the beginning of July, by the looks of the fruit, there will be scrumptious heirloom and standard tomatoes ready for eating.

The shoveling farmer rejoins the CSA member/farmer, and both are quite happy that there are no languishing plants that need to be planted in a hurry, before this new member tour is over. Plus the grass has been nicely mowed, which both cuts down on ticks and cuts down on the unkempt, scraggly farm look.

At last we are at the harvest shed, the true goal of excited CSA members, looking forward to the fresh crisp first greens of the season. Here we find the bamboo shades in good repair, keeping the sunlight away from the fresh and crisp, so that the fresh and crisp do not become limp and sad.

We find that the shed has been cleaned of its winter accumulation of lawnmowers, buckets, and errant tools, and that the harvest tables are in place. One CSA member/farmer shakes the tables vigorously, making sure heavy crates of produce and wooden tables don't fall upon innocent and excited new members. Luckily, the drill is handy, so we can screw the tables to the wall for a little insurance.

Then we notice that the harvest chalkboard has not been erased from last November's final CSA harvest. We admire a moment the evidence of all those vegetables we gave out so many months ago. We hope that we have a good harvest again this year. One of us erases, and then writes a fresh new greeting: “Welcome to Hillside Springs Farm!”

“Welcome! Welcome!” says one farmer to the other, offering a hearty handshake.

“I am so excited!” the other farmer shakes hands with equal gusto. “What a nice CSA farm! What a really really really nice CSA farm! Gee, I'd like to live here!”

“Gee, you're in luck!” The one farmer ceremoniously presents the dead animal and manure shovel.

The other farmer takes a step back. “Oh, no! No, thanks! I'm a newly arrived and excited CSA member! Remember?"

Originally published in the Monadnock Shopper News, June 8 - June 14, 2016