Broken Down and Busted Up: The Marvelous Year of Maintenance Blues 

It seemed like such a good idea: after years of numerous big new projects, we farmers decided to proclaim this the Marvelous Year of Maintenance. Perhaps we were proclaiming it a little too loudly, because far too many things on the farm have broken down or busted up this year.

Here is a partial list:
greenhouse plastic blows off in windstorm
greenhouse heat mat thermostat goes awry, killing many seedlings
broken bed chain on spreader
busted pole on spreader
busted pole on sickle bar mower
busted pole on hay wagon
busted pole on forecart (Granted, we did run over the forecart pole with our car, which is why it busted, but never mind that.)
broken hay wagon hitch
broken driving lines

Then there was the horse fencing. The horses love being out on grass, so we never expect any pasture break-outs early on in the season. However, they also hate the bugs, and on their very buggy second evening in the field, we heard some brisk trotting down the dirt road.

Luckily, we were working in the greenhouse along that very road. My fellow shot out of the greenhouse, catapulted himself onto the eight foot high garden fence, and shouted and waved as vigorously as possible without actually falling off the fence. The horses were so startled by this shouting, thrashing farmer on the fence that they halted and milled in the road. We were able to round them up in short order, and it was so close to dark that we led them back to their winter paddock for the night.

In the morning light we searched for the break in the fence. But there was no break in the fence. This was because there was no fence. We had cleared some brush the year before, and we had forgotten that there was no longer any fence along a short stretch of the road. Sigh.

We tried several semi-fixes over the next week, such as tying an unelectrified electric line across the gap, ending in a tree. We flagged the line with highly dangerous white cloth scraps, which did not scare the horses at all, and they got out again. Finally my farmer fellow gave in and decided to put in proper new wooden posts, including a sturdy new gate post, as the old one had given up.

“How's it going?” I asked, when we came in for lunch from our respective fencing and weeding projects.

“You're going to laugh at my gate post,” he said.

My fellow was right. I did laugh. For some reason he had chosen the spindliest, crookedest post in creation for the gate post, which needs to hold some weight, and which also sets the tone for a sturdy, convincing fence.

“Why did you pick this post exactly?” I asked.

My fellow scratched his head. “I don't know exactly. I thought it might be easy to get in, it was so little. But it was really hard to get in.” He went on, “But, hey, maybe it'll be easy to get out!”

It was easy to get out, as the rocky ground hadn't allowed for much of a hole. My fellow replaced the post with a slightly sturdier one, requiring a bigger hole, and taking far more time than he had allotted in the garden's busy season. Then he put in a second post, another lengthy, rocky task. Then he tried putting in a third post. Then he gave up.

“It's solid rock,” he announced, “all the rest of the way down the line.” In a desperate attempt to finish the fencing before an entire season of gardening had passed by, he squeaked some electric fence posts into the solid rock, and strung up an impressive two lines of the same unelectrified wire along the gap.

Now it was the horses' turn to laugh, at this next suggestion of a fence. They went gaily through it. All right, said my fellow, and put up a single line of barbed wire, chest high, so as not to endanger the horses' legs, but to make a stronger, pokier suggestion of a fence. Happily, this worked.

Much later on, the horses got out again, this time in a different field. Again, we were surprised, as they had just been switched to a lush new pasture. Again, we found a stretch of no fence, which we had forgotten to repair after pulling out firewood.

This does not reflect well, I know, on either our fence-fixing or our farmer memories. But what I'm really getting at here is that all these maintenance tasks in The Marvelous Year of Maintenance were entirely unscheduled. We have an enormous list of planned maintenance chores, and we have not yet accomplished one.

Still, the Marvelous Year of Maintenance is not quite over; we have a chance even yet to get some good stuff done. But the best part, I must say, is that in all this broken down and busted up year, we are very grateful that neither the horses nor the farmers have broken down or busted up. We're not doing so badly after all.

Originally published in the Monadnock Shopper News, Oct 24-Oct 31, 2018

Figuring It All Out on the Farm

My fellow farmer and I like vegetables better than we like numbers. We rely heavily on our fingers, our chalk, and our calculators when it comes to all the counting we need to do on our vegetable farm.

The counting starts right away, with the spring sowing. How many cabbage seeds should we sow in order to put out transplants at 16 inch spacing to fit a 3 foot wide, 200 foot long bed? This would be an easy calculation, one would think, except that the bed is really only more or less 3 feet wide and more or less 200 feet long, depending on the workhorses and the teamster and the lay of the land.

Then, of course, we always plant a few extra seeds of each crop, just in case some don't germinate. Occasionally all the seeds sprout, including the extra ones, and then we have too many plants. But we can't bear to throw any nice cabbage starts in the compost, so we try to fit all of them in the more or less 200 foot bed, which means the spacing is down to 12 inches by the end of the row, or it might mean that we put some cabbage in the next more or less 200 foot bed, which was meant for kale and chard, say, at 12 inch spacing, in staggered double rows in the bed. Then some of the kale and chard might get pushed over, too, into the broccoli, and then what? And where we will find the 20 feet for the dill that we usually tuck in at the end of a more or less bed?

We farmers look at each other, and the garden beds, numbers whirling in our heads.

Once we get the plants in the ground, we have a little rest from these difficult calculations. But it is not long before harvesting begins, and we take up the numbers again. From June through November, every Tuesday and Friday, we calculate and recalculate. Some things are easy: for example, on a June harvest day we have 17 members coming, so we pick 17 heads of bok choy, along with the other crops that are ready. But things get more tricky: one day in early July we have 64 tomatoes for 24 members, but some tomatoes are small and some are large. Then we have to make some decisions indeed.

How do we make the CSA shares as equitable as possible? Some variety in size is desirable, since one person might like a nice little head of cabbage, and another person might like a nice big head of cabbage. But when it comes to tomatoes, there are not many people who would pick a nice little tomato over a nice big one. Thus we sort our tomatoes into big and little, which further complicates our numbers.

Then, suppose, late in August, that we have 29 members coming to pick up vegetables on a Tuesday afternoon, and we have 152 cucumbers, 131 yellow squash, and 78 zucchini. This is when the calculator, or a grade schooler who needs to practice her multiplication and division during the summer months, comes in handy. We end up with 5 cucumbers, 4 yellow squash, and 2 zucchini per share. But what to do with the remaining?

Well, we make up a choice tray, where CSA members can pick either one more zucchini or one more yellow squash, and then we farmers will make a batch of pickles with the rest of cucumbers. Except that we are just finishing up harvesting the first planting of cucumbers and starting the second one, and the second planting cucumbers look beautiful and the first planting cucumbers are in funny shapes, so the counting farmer takes several funny-shaped cucumbers out of the crate to put in the surplus and sharing tray, except she forgets that she has done this in the fever of trying to count way too many vegetables at once, and we end up short of cucumbers by the end of the day, so that our pickling cucumbers turn back into CSA cucumbers. Ah, well. At least there are plenty of cucumbers.

And now, in September, we have the counting challenge of slowly moving from summerish crops to fallish crops. Of course, there are still lots of tomatoes and yellow squash, but now the onions are coming in, and soon we will be digging potatoes, and picking winter squash. We will need to count and balance those too. But all of this figuring is nothing when we compare it to the figuring that has to happen in the farm budget. Now there are some difficult jugglings and jigglings and wigglings and wagglings. As I say, we two farmers like vegetables, much more than we like numbers.

Originally published in the Monadnock Shopper News, Sept 26 - Oct 2, 2018

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

It's Too Hot to Hay

Recently we farmers decided that it would be a fine time to take a break from the Marvelous Year of Maintenance. We thought we might attend to some other minor farming matters, such as weeding, harvesting, haying, and fall planting.

However, the farming spirits seem perfectly happy to tailor maintenance issues to our every activity. Take haying, for example.

Early in July, we had a stretch of sunny haying weather. Unfortunately, it was also a stretch of 95 plus degree heat. We knew we ought to make hay, but we were feeling mighty hot. Plus we discovered we had a lot to do just to get ready to make hay.

First, as my fellow farmer was cultivating the broccoli with the horses, the team suddenly swerved out of the pathway. Crunch! Crunch! went the broccoli plants as the horses stepped merrily on them.

“Whoa, whoa!” my fellow said urgently.

“Everything all right?” I called worriedly from across the garden.

“The lines broke again,” answered my fellow. “I couldn't steer. But the horses stopped right away. I think we only lost maybe five plants. Hey, will you get the duct tape?”

Oh, geesh. Duct tape. By the time I got back with it, the teamster and the horses were at the end of the row, and the rest of the broccoli was nicely weeded and hilled. I was surprised.

“I just stuck the old tape back together,” said my fellow. “It worked! But I'll still take that roll.”

I handed him the tape, wondering what he was planning.

With a flourish, my fellow hung the roll on the hames of the harness. “There!” he said. “Just in case I need it!”

I couldn't help laughing. A roll of duct tape hanging from the harness: what a perfect symbol of the Marvelous Year of Maintenance!

It was funny, but I was worried. My fellow was planning to mow hay the next day, which is not an easy task for the horses, and involves a 6 foot long razor sharp sickle bar. I didn't relish the idea of the driving lines breaking yet again.

“Did you order the new lines yet?” I asked.

“Not yet. I keep meaning to.”

“Let's do it right away. Maybe they could be shipped today, in time to mow tomorrow.”

We ordered the lines, and then my fellow looked the mower bar over. “I guess I have to replace the pole,” he sighed. “The end of it is rotten.”

But we had used up our last home-cut pole, when we replaced the pole on the spreader earlier in the Marvelous Year of Maintenance. “Maybe I could just shift the neck yoke back a little, to a better part of the pole,” my fellow said.

“I thought you already did that last year.”

“I did, but maybe I can do it again. I looked it up, and you only need 9 feet 6 inches between the neck yoke and where the evener is attached to the pole.”

“Did you measure it? Do you have that much?”

“More or less,” he said, not very reassuringly.

Meanwhile, it was getting hotter and hotter. Even discussing the potential repair made us break into a sweat.

Then we remembered that it was going to take a morning's work to clear out the barn floor so we could get the haywagon in the barn. The hay wagon itself was loaded down too,with all the wood we bought to replace the baseboards in the greenhouse, which we hadn't yet accomplished. Plus the wagon needed a repair, as it broke on the very last load of last year, in preparation perhaps for the upcoming Marvelous Year of Maintenance.

We stood in the shade, doing nothing, wiping our brows. Our horses stood in the barn, doing nothing, wiping their brows.

“It's too hot to breathe, let alone hay,” I said.

“Let's check the weather again. Maybe now it's going to rain?”

We checked the weather again. Still very very hot, for the next three days. But there was a slight chance of thunderstorms the next day!

And there were the broken lines. And the rotting pole. And the clearing of the barn, and the unloading and repair of the hay wagon.

“And our horses are getting pretty old,” I suggested, “to work so hard in this heat.”

“And we are getting pretty old,” my fellow suggested, “to work so hard in this heat.”

My fellow farmer looked at me. I looked at him.

“Let's not mow,” he whispered. “Let's wait.”

“All right!” I whispered back, guiltily, gleefully. Of course, it is not wise to miss any haying weather, as we never know when, or if, we'll get some more. But fueled by our tremendous relief at not haying in the terrible heat, we get an enormous amount of weeding, harvesting, and fall planting done in the terrible heat. And we might even get to those haying maintenance tasks before the next stretch of sunny, yet cool and breezy, haying weather . . .

Originally published in the Monadnock Shopper News, Aug 1- Aug7,  2018