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

Farm Entertainment and The Winter Workhorse

Here on our New Hampshire vegetable farm, our workhorses have a nice long lull in the winter. There is a little bringing in of firewood, and a little sap-gathering, but for about two months, our three horses get to loll about in their winter paddock.

They have plenty to eat, with three meals a day, and they have each other as company, and they can go in and out of shelter at will. But in the slow time, our horses seem to like a little something fun to do.

For example, when our kitty comes into the paddock, the horses think of a fine activity: Let's chase the kitty around! Luckily the kitty is fast, agile, and small: she ducks under the barn doors to safety, and peers at the horses' big feet.

Then again, when our nice relatives come visit us just before the New Year, the horses get the treat of a highly alarmed young Border collie on a leash. Who is this tiny shivering barking creature? The horses are not at all alarmed, and since our relatives also have two young children, along with their young dog, we put halters on the horses and give the children a ride around the paddock.

The five and three year old love it, and Molly, who is a very friendly horse, seems pretty happy too. Moon, however, is a little shyer, and wonders what exactly is happening, as the three year old is stretched flat out, in a most unriderly fashion. Moon flicks his ears back and forth nervously.

“He wants to know who's on his back,” I say to my little niece. “Will you say hello to him?” My niece is a very friendly, cheerful, even boisterous little being, usually perfectly willing to let out a good holler, but now she looks at me big-eyed and silent. Her mother, who is walking beside the horse, with a firm grip on her girl's leg, says, “Can you say hi to Moon, honey?”

In the smallest voice I have ever heard from her, my niece says,“Hi.” Not even “Hi, Moon.” Just a tiny little squeak of “Hi.”

Happily, this whisper seems to reassure that Moon that he does not have a panther on his back ready to devour him, and he relaxes a little. Then my fellow farmer and I, who are leading the horses, indulge in some fancy synchronized riding. We make diagonals, and circles, keeping pace with one another, and meeting in the middle. The horses are standing next to each other, and the little boy and the little girl reach way way way out over the big hairy horse bellies and hold hands, in a grand finale.

We pet our nice horses. “Wasn't that some good winter fun?” we say. They hang around until the petting peters out, and then go work on the hay in the mangers.

Of course, the horses' favorite winter fun activities always involve food. There are the Brussels sprouts and cababage and broccoli stalks we pull up in December, and dump in the paddock. The horses come right over to investigate, loving any little bit of fresh green during the hay season. They work all the stalks over with their teeth, and then they work them over with their feet, which is exactly what we were hoping would happen, since it breaks the stalks down for the compost pile.

As the snow gets deeper, we work in the greenhouses, pulling out dead basil and tomato vines. But the best is when we pull out the old pepper plants. There is so much snow that we can't use a wheelbarrow anymore, so we pile the dead plants on a length of plastic and slide them across the snow to the horses' paddock. This is highly exciting, as you can imagine.

The horses prance, they snort, they arch their necks, they prick their ears. This despite the fact that their paddock is right next door to the flopping, snapping in the wind plastic greenhouse, at which they normally don't bat an eye, and despite the fact that they see us work with heaps of dead plants all winter long.

But dead plants on a sheet of plastic! Coming right into the paddock! Now this is some fun! Everybody's got a fine excuse to run around in high spirits. When we dump the plants off the plastic, the horses converge. Let's see, what yummy little bits of fresh grass or weeds are all tangled up in these dead plants? What a great project!

Best of all is when the farmers start sorting their food stored in the root cellar along about February. All kinds of yummy things make it to the paddock: wrinkled carrots, brown apples, tired turnips. The farmers tuck them into odd places, for a curious horse to find. It doesn't take long. But then again, the time for lolling doesn't take long, either, and soon we'll all be back to work, horses and farmers both, instead of making up fun, highly sustainable ways to entertain each other.

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