Saturday, December 18, 2010

Reflections on a (belated) anniversary

Late Summer 2010

This was a rather distracting autumn for us, and recently we realized that an important milestone had passed by without much fanfare, no champagne and little celebration: September 24th was our first anniversary of Buying the Farm.

46 North Farm Autumn 2009

For those of you who have followed our farm story for the long haul, you will know what a phenomenal moment that was in our lives. I remember sitting in the title company office with Packy and Sally ( our fabulous and very patient real-estate agent), Dan (the mortgage broker), and the very cheerful title company representative whose name I can't remember. Packy was covered in flour, having rushed away from the bakery for the appointment, and I only had so long before I had to head back to my Real Job too. We sat there signing reams of paperwork, each page going by in a blur of rapid explanations which were all, I am sure, very relevant but quite frankly could have been "and please sign here to indicate that you agree to give five pints of blood for every day that you are late with a payment" and it would have seemed just another weird thing we had to go through in order to Buy the Damn Farm.

This past year has been a struggle with the irony of our situation. We have attained a holy grail moment that many young and beginning farmers can only dream of: we actually managed to buy land to farm.

Spring 2010

Summer 2010

Of course, the only way we could manage to do that was to stop farming completely so that no where in our income stream would it say "farmer", because if it did, the bank would not loan us the money. We got 'Real Jobs', with paychecks. We made assurances that the only reason we wanted 18 acres of agricultural zoned land with a house and barn and outbuildings was because we just wanted to continue living a 'rural lifestyle'. Yep. I confess, it's true. Our fingers were crossed behind our backs, and you know what? I don't feel bad about that at all.

This home-loan route was our last resort. We'd tried to get a small business loan and been shot down by every bank we talked to, including the greenest, most theoretically eco-friendly, we-love-local-organic-agriculture bank around, The Bank That Must Not Be Named in our house. (I confess to not a small amount of schadenfreude at their recent troubles.)

We'd talked to the USDA about their small farm loans that don't actually seem to apply to farms as small and apparently non-farm-like as ours.

46 North Farm chemical-free rodent control plan

Our business plan was based on the farm we were operating at the time, selling edible plant starts, herbs and flowers. We were adding in produce, chickens-for-eggs, and on-farm workshops, all things we had been wanting to start on our old farm but were unable to begin due to our rental situation. All this was mixed with some seasonal off-farm income to make it all work financially, especially during our re-start up phase. Although what we were proposing was a completely normal modern small farm, not at all unlike most that you see at any farmers market you go to anywhere in the country, apparently the business we were proposing is what the USDA calls a 'Residential/Lifestyle Farm', something for which they don't give loans. If it hadn't been for the off-farm income, I think we could have qualified as one of their equally flattering other small farm descriptions, the 'Limited Resource Farm' or the 'Farming Occupation: Low Sales' farm.

Dan the Brushtamer tilling the future orchard Late Summer 2010

If USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack is serious about the goal he threw out this past July of having 100,000 new farmers in the US in the next few years, one of the first things he could do is have his department describe the kinds of farms these new farmers are most likely to be operating with a bit more respect. How can you take a farm and its farmer seriously enough to loan it money for operations and equipment if you so obviously don't respect the work they are doing, or consider them 'Real Farms'? The benefits that small farms bring to their local communities are tangible, especially in rural areas where access to fresh food that doesn't come from a massive factory farm hundreds or thousands of miles away is often limited.

Late Autumn 2010

Small farmers like us choose to operate small farms not because we are slacker loosers who can't get it together to run a Real Farm, but because we actually prefer operating small farms. We don't aspire to grow thousands of acres of commodity crops or operate a CAFO, we don't want to take out massive loans to buy harvesting (or chemical spraying) equipment that is larger than our house, we don't want to Get Big or Get Out.

We want to stay small and diverse, grow healthy food for our local communities, strengthen our local economies and live a simple, good life that involves a lot of hard work and rewards that are things like "getting to work outdoors" "helping provide fresh healthy food to people who need and want it" and "doing something I love and believe in". Less corporate, more community.

Already feeding our local community Early Summer 2010

Sure, we want to make a living at what we are doing by running a good business. We'd like to be able to pay ourselves more than slave wages, even minimum-wage would be nice to begin with. We'd like to have health insurance, access to low-interest loans and credit to help us operate effectively, and maybe we'd like to be able to afford to hire some local help, especially during harvest season. We'd love to have a retirement plan that wasn't just "keep working until you keel over, and hope that you're strategically located near the compost pile when you do to save on funeral costs".

These aren't extravagant aspirations. It's not like we're demanding that we should get massive government financial payments to ensure that the price we receive for our chemical-free locally grown produce always remains consistent. The free market seems to apply to some farms more than others in this country.

Lurking Elk Summer 2010

Our farm's best hope for USDA assistance that will help us produce food for our community is our EQUIP grant application with the National Resource Conservation Service. The grant will hopefully provide some funding assistance to allow us to build a much needed elk exclosure fence, and plant lots of native plants on our farm for pollinator habitat. It isn't free money- it comes with a lot of restrictions, and it also counts as income for our farm that we will then be taxed on, which for a small operation like ours can be a big deal. Still, any help that will get us back in operation is welcome at this point.

One thing that really struck me at the Community Food Security Cooalition conference I attended recently is that there was so much talk about the need to get more farmers on the land. Everyone wanted more locally grown fresh food for their farm-to-school and farm-to-institution programs, for their healthy community programs, for their food justice programs, for their healthy food system programs. "We've got to get more beginning farmers on the land!" was practically a battle cry. I think we can all agree on that. Hell, even the Secretary of Agriculture agrees.

But no one seems to really be able to tackle the sticky question of HOW. How do you do actually do that? How does it work financially? There is a lot of farmable land out there in America, most of it owned by people who are near or at retirement age. How does a beginning farmer with limited financial resources but who is willing to take on the incredibly hard job of growing food for people who either can't or won't grow food for themselves get access to one of those farmable pieces of land ? Access to land that they can either own or lease, or lease-to-own and that they can then afford to actually farm?!?

Fall 2009

This question drives me crazy. I swear, as much as I want to get our farm off the ground again, I want to also work to find answers to those questions because I want our farm to exist within a greater community of diverse small farms operating all across our country. No farm is an island entire of itself, if I may paraphrase the long dead but still rather wise John Donne. (Although some small farms are located on islands.) What hurts or benefits one small farm can hurt or benefit us all. We need to stick together.

Drilling the greenhouse post holes Early Spring 2010

I celebrate our first anniversary of living on 46 North Farm– a year spent slowly, sloooooowly rebuilding our infrastructure to get started again, accomplishments that have only happened with a lot of support and help from friends and family. We got our greenhouse re-built, and lots of cover crop was sown. Some of it may even still be there in the spring to till under if the elk and deer are reasonably thoughtful. We have plans for next year that are starting to get me excited about farming again, in spite of the ongoing need for full time employment to make our loan payments.

I know how lucky we are to be in this position, living on a beautiful piece of land that we can actually make long term plans for. We have the rest of our lives to make this farm work, and as long as we are moving forwards, then we're heading in the right direction.

Tim and his crew re-roof the barn Winter 2009

We offer heartfelt thanks to everyone who has helped us get as far as we have. You all know who you are. We couldn't have gotten as far as we have without you- you are the best community of family and friends a farmer could hope for.

Happy Anniversary, 46 North Farm.

December 2010

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Food Talk!

In the spirit of my recent promise for 'more frequent posts with more pictures' I submit the following news. Bear in mind that the 'more pictures' part is only possible by using the not-extensive-enough 46 North Farm image archives, so these pictures don't necessarily go with what's being said, but there are lots of them! Enjoy!

This coming Monday, December 6th at 9:30 am is the premier of the new program Food Talk on KMUN Astoria 91.9 FM. It's all about the local food world on the North Coast, with myself and Kristin Albrecht as your charming hosts. The program will be once a month, on the first Monday of the month. If you're not in the area you can stream KMUN online, and if you miss the show you can listen to a podcast on their website, we are told.

(Your Food Talk hosts shown enjoying locally made box lunches from Bread and Ocean in Manzanita on the North Coast Land Conservancy-Lower Nehalem Community Trust 'Riding the Coastal Edge' train ride last year)

This week we're talking to John and Patricia Edwards of Linda Brand Crab from Ilwaco, WA, and Bob Neroni of EVOO Cooking School in Cannon Beach, all about Dungeness Crab and the upcoming commercial crab season.

(I don't have any pictures of crab, so enjoy a picture of Squeaky the Cat looking Crabby.)

I'll tell you now, the show has been pre-recorded, and probably will be for some time. It was basically madness for Kristin and me to commit to anything new in our schedules with the kind of work-volunteer-home life (hah!) combination overload we both suffer from. We made it through our first recording with not too many mishaps, thanks to our great guests and patient engineer.

This month, I learn a lot about commercial crab fishing from John and Patricia, only make one major gaffe (I think) and Bob shares some very tempting ideas for how to prepare crab. Kristin stays cool, shares a unique use for sake, and we remember to do our station identification break. Yeah!

Please be kind when you listen, it's our very first show and there are a few awkward pauses of the "I thought you were going to ask a question now!" sort. We'll get better, I promise.

This was such a great opportunity, and it is going to be both fun and fascinating to connect with people in the North Coast local food world. We'll be talking with producers- farmers, fishermen, dairy folks, foragers, and hunters, and also to consumers- chefs, bakers, cheesemakers, brewers, small artisan food producers and just generally people who love good food that comes from our region. As our snappy catchphrase says, "Fresh conversations about local food on the North Coast!"

(Above are several of the folks that we will no doubt be talking to in the coming months, shown enjoying the Slow Food potluck that 46 North Farm hosted in our almost finished greenhouse this past May. Oh, and I realize that fourth from the left is Bob Neroni of EVOO Cooking School, so I did have a picture of one of our guests after all!)

Kristin's patient husband Mark (seventh from the left in the black vest) is bravely taking on engineering responsibilities, although we are both committed to learn how to run the sound board ourselves. We are only driving him slightly crazy as we figure out this radio thing.

One of my very favourite parts of our show is our fabulous theme song. When the idea of doing the show came up, we talked about what music we would play as the intro and exit for the show. Most shows choose a song or piece of music that they like, that represents their show to them.

Well, when a farm has had semi- resident musicians around for many months (and very talented ones at that) and when you're sitting at the Fort George with some of them one night, drinking lots of good beer and laughing about the crazy idea of doing a radio show about local food, there is a good chance that you might leave the pub with a promise of a theme song jingle for your show in your back pocket to go with your lovely Oatmeal Pale Ale buzz.

(In addition to being musically talented, the band is now highly skilled at old-school-bus-turned-tour-bus techniques such as trying to get the spare wheel hoisted into place.)

Kati and Luke came through for us with the best theme song we could have asked for. They tell me that the title was Packy's suggestion, and given that we were drinking a lot of beer, and Packy was involved, I'm somehow not surprised. Someday I think they should write words for the whole song, right now it is just a loop of the hook-y bit. It's called 'Stick it in Your Face'.

"Stick it in your face, 'cause it comes from the place you're living in."

I almost passed out from laughing so hard the first time I heard it, and it has a tendency to get stuck in my head whenever I think about it. I love that it makes me smile each time I hear it.

Home Made Ice Cream Tangent Begins here:

Luke and Kati are big local food fans themselves. They are talented cooks (Kati makes a mean pizza, with impressive ariel dough spinning), mushroom foragers and all around good people to have near a kitchen. We shared some fine food experiences over the past summer, such as the evening of homemade ice-cream and pie. Although it looks like they are practicing their best Huck Finn method of getting Israel to do all the work, I assure you they both took their turns at the crank.

As did my niece Julia, visiting from San Francisco. Go Julia!

The finished product was well worth the wait, accompanying some amazing homemade pie baked by my brother-in-law Andy, involving peaches and berries from the Cannon Beach Farmers Market. It was phenomenal. We use a great ice cream recipe that doesn't involve raw eggs, just lots and LOTS of cream and sugar. Yum.

End Homemade Ice Cream Tangent. Until next summer.....

Hope you like Food Talk, if you get to hear it. I think next month we'll be talking about the idea of growing wild rice on the coast, which should be interesting. I always like the idea of using wild rice, but I very rarely do. Maybe if it was a locally grown crop, I'd take more of a look at it.

We'll find out.

Sadly, this picture was taken back in early October, when we still had a beautiful batch of basil thriving in the greenhouse. It's all well dead by now, except for what went into our basil vinegar, and what we froze. I just wanted to remember what all that fresh basil looked like.


Sunday, November 21, 2010

Frosty Reflections

Cold weather has been threatening to show up in Oregon for a while now. Last weekend was supposed to bring us chilly rain with possible snow in the Coast Range, but instead Saturday turned out to be one of those crisp autumn days that are all the more precious for being so rare. Lots of blue sky, fluffy white clouds and sunshine. As long as you kept moving, it was fairly warm.

After a hearty breakfast in our uninsulated old farmhouse, we kept moving, and thus got a lot done: greenhouse clearing out, dead plant tossing, final grass mowing of the season, and a number of other late season chores that are always much more pleasant to do when it's sunny outside. A huge moon was rising between the trees as we walked back up to the house in the late afternoon twilight, the clear sky telling us what the next morning was likely to bring: the first hard frost of the season. We were not disappointed.

It's always a bit disconcerting to wake up to a frosty white landscape, even when it's expected. I keep thinking of all the things we still have to get done outside: harvest the last of the tomatoes in the greenhouse, dig up the dahlias that we really don't want to risk loosing, weed and mulch the lavender and other perennial herbs, board up the broken windows in the barn and old chicken house, and keep our fingers crossed that this winter will be reasonably free of severe storms and deep freezes, knowing we need to prepare for them just in case.

I'm sure we will get most of those things done, eventually. Hopefully before it's too late.

Time Sure Does Fly...

I'm not sure where the time goes these days. It just seems to vanish in great chunks, leaving me wondering if I'm suffering from some form of selective amnesia. I could swear that yesterday it was mid-October, and we were just getting back from our fun adventure in the Big City of Portland at the Friends of Family Farmers inFARMation event. Which went great, by the way, and thanks to everyone who turned out for it. I was deeply nervous, and it was tremendously disconcerting to see our little slide show movie thing projected on a huge wall, with my voice booming out over Holocene's way too good sound system, but it ended up being quite fun. The next day we managed to find our way across town to the always wonderful Naomi's Organic Farm Supply shop, where we picked up yet more cover crop seed and chatted with Naomi and Neil, Naomi's charming mother, and with some inspiring young farmers, one of whom was in a tragic rental situation that made us both shudder at the remembered stress of those uncertain farming conditions. My heart really went out to her. We were both reminded of how fortunate we have been to purchase a bit of land we might actually be able to call our own in thirty years or so.

Maybe it's because of our own struggle to buy land, but this issue resonates with me like no other, and I want to live to see the day when aspiring to buy land to farm is a reasonable goal for a young farmer, not a seemingly impossible pipe dream.

What do Farming and Mardi Gras Beads have in common?

Meanwhile, an amazing opportunity had fallen on my head. I, along with two other young farmers from Oregon, had been given scholarships (made possible by the Risk Management Agency of the USDA) to attend the Community Food Security Coalition's national conference in mid-October. Shelly Bowe from Food Roots in Tillamook made the scholarship connections for us, and I cannot thank her enough for putting me on this path to such a great experience.

My fellow travelers were Ginger, of R-evolution Gardens in Nehalem, (on the right) and Kim, from Gales Meadow Farm in Forest Grove (on the left). This year's event took place in New Orleans, which meant cross country red-eye journeys for all of us. Can I just say that trying to find the way to my departure gate at the Los Angeles airport was one of the most confusing, surreal and frustrating travel experiences of my life? And I have been through some weird airports in my time. If Dante's vision of Hell had included bad fluorescent lighting, complete lack of informational signage, deeply unhelpful staff, freezing cold air conditioning and a disconcerting array of processed food meal options, scholars would claim he had been visited by futuristic visions of LAX.

I don't think it was just bleary-eyed exhaustion that gave New Orleans such an otherworldly glow for me- it is unlike any place I have ever been to. It makes me realize what a vast and diverse country this is. The culture there is so unique that it hardly feels like you are in the United States at all, although I'm sure a native of New Orleans would feel much the same way if they were dropped down in Astoria, Oregon. For me, New Orleans was all a blur of warm air, lively music and slow talk, colorful old buildings, smog and noise, way too much fried food, and the sense that I left not really having seen the place at all, especially as I sadly didn't arrive early enough to go on any of the tours that went to the parts of the city still recovering from the disaster of the hurricane.

I was able to attend the closing reception, which I have to say the host committee put on in great style. They arranged for a brass band to lead all of the conference attendees (draped in a startling assortment of colorful Mardi Gras beads) in what I believe is called a Second Line parade down some of the main streets of the city to the French Market, where a very tasty assortment of Cajun food was available to sample. It was definitely one of the more surreal experiences of my life, and gives me great respect for the exuberance and high spirits of the citizens of New Orleans. Those people are crazy in the best possible way. I'm curious to see what the city of Oakland, CA (next year's hosts) can do to top that reception.

Although so much of what I did see was unforgettable, such as the above nighttime tour of a local community garden reached by ferry and a stroll through some fascinating old neighborhoods, for the most part we could have been virtually anywhere and I would have had a phenomenal time. I was one of almost a thousand people all gathered together to talk about Food: local food, food security, farms and farmers, farm to schools and institutions, community food, urban farms, rural farms, local food economics, farmers markets, food sovereignty, access to food, food safety, food policy, and how to make any and all of the above work better for all of us. It was a bit overwhelming, but in a good way.

The weirdest part for me was being one of not very many farmers present. Weird because so much of the discussion was about the production of food and how to make fresh, safe food more available to more people, yet there were times when I was the only actual farmer in the room. In one memorable workshop, the first speaker was asking the group about themselves:

"Raise your hands if you are with a community food system organization. NGOs? Farmers market associations? Urban farm organizations? If you work with farmers?" and so on down the list. I kept waiting for him to say "Farmers?" so that I could raise my hand, but he never did. He just launched straight into the discussion, all about 'Credit and Capital for a Just and Sustainable Food System'. A great panel of people explored the seemingly insurmountable problems facing farmers and fishermen when they try to get loans or other funding for land acquisition, fishing permits, equipment purchases and operating loans. Example after example of the problems were given. Although it was inspiring to hear about the work of groups like the Mississippi Association of Cooperatives, the Northwest Atlantic Marine Alliance and Food for Maine's Future, no one seemed to have a practical answer to the question that came up over and over again throughout the conference, one that I was well familiar with:

"How do we get more young farmers onto farmable land, producing fresh, healthy food for local communities?"

I have to say, for me one of the best parts of that particular workshop came from Scott Marlow, of Rural Advancement Foundation International, whose comments finally helped me understand just why we could not get a loan from a bank as long as we put ourselves forward as farmers. Banks, he informed us, really only care about assured income, and what they can get out of you if you fail. You can have the best business plan in the world, loads of experience, lots of customers and countless plans for how you are going to make it all work, but if you have no assured income- which for a bank looks pretty much like a paycheck- then they won't be interested in funding you.

"The best thing a beginning farmer who wants to buy land can do," Mr. Marlow observed, "is go out and get a job."

Finally, we got something right! How you're supposed to run the farm and work the full time paycheck jobs that pay your mortgage is still mysterious and elusive though.

However, he went on to say that the two best ways for a start up farm to fail are to finance things on credit cards and not not have health insurance, so actually we're only one out of three in the smart young farmer stakes. We do recognize the wisdom of what he says, and are working to address both those issues, but it is a challenge when start up costs are fierce, agricultural loans are near impossible to obtain and health insurance rates... well let's just not go there.

"What does it say about a system when it contains no margin for ownership costs?" Mr. Marlow asked, and what I think it says is that we as a society do not appreciate or understand the real costs that go in to producing our food, nor do we factor in what it costs us to pay for the health consequences of our current food system. Until we do, we are doomed to depend upon the incredibly broken system we have right now, one that makes it cheaper to eat processed, sugar and additive filled foods that travel thousands of miles to get to us and end up making us ill rather than eat fresh food from the farm down the road.

There were so many inspiring speakers at this conference, and so many amazing people that I met in the hallways in between talks, or chatting to over breakfast. I came away sobered at the challenges that we face in this country (and in the world, really) to try and find new, healthier ways to feed ourselves and keep our communities strong. But I also left with a great sense of hope- there are so many creative ideas out there, so many people working on the problems, so much determination to change our broken systems and replace them with healthy farms, strong local food systems, robust local economies and respect- for the land, for ourselves, and for each other.

It's easy to get tired and discouraged about trying to bring our farm to life and figure out how to make it all work, but experiences like this help to revive me, and keep me going. I am more excited than ever about our future, even if I don't exactly know where we are going, or how we will get there.

My proofreader Packy tells me that this blog entry is a "rather serious" one, and I know it's a long one as well. So if you've stuck with me this far, I promise to do a couple of 'heavy on the pictures and amusing stories' posts very soon. It's mighty cold in the Oregon countryside right now, and outside work is not very tempting anyway.

I'm glad I got some garlic planted earlier before all this super cold weather really kicked in. . I know, I know, it's really mostly just been hail with a smattering of ice, but if you squint, it looks sort of like snow... I really wish I'd gotten my dahlias dug up before all this hit. Oh Well.

A lot of farming is learning to accept what the weather throws at you, adapt and figure out how to keep moving forwards, hopefully without sliding off the road first.

One nice thing about frosty weather, it gives me the best excuse to stay inside by the fire with the new seed catalogs, making lists and planning for spring.

Monday, October 11, 2010

I guess we should tell you about this...

I'm not sure why I'm feeling so shy about this, but we are going to be in Portland tomorrow night, October 12th, as part of the program for Friends of Family Farmers great series, inFARMation (and Beer!)

The topic is Funding for Farmers, a topic near and dear to us, as many of you know. As part of the floor show, they are going to be showing a presentation thing that we made last year at the Clatsop Community FEAST. I'm totally blanking out on what FEAST stands for, but it was a Community Food System organizing workshop hosted by Clatsop Community Action (our local food bank) and the Cannon Beach Farmers Market. I was asked to speak about 'Farming in Clatsop County'. The timing of when the event happened was such that we were in the final stages of negotiation for our farm, waiting to hear about whether or not our loan would be approved.

I was actually terrified to be standing up in public, in front of the press even, talking about my work as a farmer, when I had just had to assure our lenders that we had no intention of farming on the land we were buying. (Yeah, it was a long, sad ordeal, and the full story of our farm loan experience is one best told over several bottles of wine.)

What came out of me was less a report about the state of farming, and more of an impassioned rant about how unbelievably complicated it was to try and buy land to start a farm on the Oregon coast to grow food for our local community.

The presentation was well received (I've found people often respond well to a good rant!) and we were asked by several people to record the voice-over to the images so that it could be shown elsewhere, or posted on line.

And so it has been, and if I were better at all this self-promotion marketing stuff I would have posted a link to it here ages ago. Honestly, I think I still have some residue of fear that if I talk about this all in public that the bank will somehow take our farm away. Which I know, I know, they can't do. But you have to understand, it was a really crappy, stressful experience trying to get that loan. Is there such a thing as Post Traumatic Loan Syndrome?

Anyway, if you are in the Portland area tomorrow night, and want to come see us at inFARMation, that would be great!5:30-8-ish at Holocene, which is a deeply hip space, and very cool. (Michele from FoFF describes the atmosphere as 'skinny pants meets overalls'.) It's a really fun event, and it's free. Although I will encourage you to buy refreshments at the bar because it's good to support Holocene, who are making the space available to FoFF every month for inFARMation. So come hungry and thirsty.

And if you can't make it, you can check out our presentation on the North Coast Food Web site. It takes about 25 minutes, so go make yourself a cup of tea, or pour a whiskey, make popcorn, whatever, and settle down for a story.

I'm very excited that also speaking at inFARMation will be both Severine Von Scharner Fleming of The Greenhorns and Jared Gardner, who is working on a legislative campaign to start an Oregon state bank, which presumably would not make quitting farming one of the requirements for getting a loan to buy a farm.

I'll stop now before this turns into a whole new rant on the subject.

More 46 North Farm News:

Lime has been spread, and our winter cover crop is sprouting (and Fawn Fawn & Co. are loving it), and we are Making Plans for next year. So exciting!!

Our sexy new Italian BSC tractor thing is working just fine (and giving Packy a hell of a workout). I'm sort of hoping he'll show me how to use it...

The Bus (and its band) left on tour but will be back soon, maybe in time to help get the barn painted before winter really kicks in. (That would be the band helping with the painting, not the bus.)

We're strategizing on ways to get some of the farm buildings ready for winter, which will involve a lot of tarps, we think. And plywood. And lighting candles (not in the buildings) and saying various prayers for a reasonably wind-free season.

Eddie and Squeaky are basically supportive of all the farm plans, but they insist that next year we remember to plant catnip, because they have gone a whole year without fresh drugs and that is really way too long.

Hope Autumn is beautiful wherever you are.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

News Roundup

Well, lots of things have been happening here, and rather than try to do a post about each one, I'm going to cheat and just do a roundup of the latest news. Long on pictures, somewhat short on words, but covering all the essentials.

Here goes:

The Disappointing Thing:

Our two swarms of late June both abandoned us, leaving their temporary hives empty but for a bit of comb and honey that one hive had started producing. One left fairly soon after Thom helped us capture them, but the other hive hung in there for quite a while, and we aren't quite sure why they left. According to Thom and his lovely wife, who came by the farm to check out the abandoned nuc boxes with us, sometimes This Just Happens. It could have had something to do with the queen of the new swarm dying before she mated, which would make the hive freak out and leave. Having no queen is Very Bad in the bee world.

Fortunately the original hive is still hanging on in the old top bar box, although it looks like the hive hasn't built up enough stores to safely get through the winter. We have been advised on a feeding schedule to make sure they can make it until things start blooming again in the spring. Thom observed them to be healthy, and 'very nice bees' (meaning not aggressive or mean) which we were oddly proud of, as if our children had been praised for having nice manners.

Packy was sad about the swarms leaving us (I mean, I was sad too, but he was especially sad,) but we figure that this gives us a chance to actually get properly prepared for expanding our bee population. We'll take Thom's bee keeping class in March and maybe I'll get to have my own snappy bee keeping suit by then too.

The Practical Thing:

It has been so frustrating not having much of an edible garden this year, due to our Wildlife Issues. We grew some tomatoes, basil and beans in containers in our greenhouse, which have done sort of ok in this rainy, challenging non-summer we've had. The soil isn't so great where this greenhouse is, so this is going to be our plant propagating greenhouse where we will grow all our seedlings and plant starts, and overwinter tender plants. But I just couldn't bear to not have any greens or lettuce this winter, and we had lots of random plant starts left over from what we sold at the Astoria Co-op.

So I built a quickie raised bed from some straw bales we had left over from the Slow Food North Coast potluck we hosted (straw bales make a great seating option for large gatherings) and some cinder blocks that we used as part of our plant table system on the old farm.

I was so lazy I didn't even weed first, I just put cardboard down on top of the weeds, which Eddie the Cat found oddly fascinating.

I filled the bottom half (carefully not burying Eddie the Cat) with straight compost that we got from Laurelwood Farm out on Hwy 26, (well, I screened out the larger woody bits, their compost is great, but a bit...woody sometimes) and then filled the rest of it with a compost/potting soil/manure mix.

Then I dug in some all purpose organic fertilizer. I mix our own using the recipe from Steve Solomon's 'Growing Vegetables West of the Cascades' book, and it seems to work fine for us.

Then I rounded up as many of the stray seedlings I could find, planted them in a reasonably orderly fashion and then sowed some arugula, beets, maché and radish seeds in between the rows. The seeds were sort of old and I just wanted to see what would happen.

Not bad! All the seeds germinated, and I've already been harvesting salad greens after just a week. I'm looking forward to a winter of fresh kale and chard, lettuce, radishes and maybe beets if they take off fast enough.

The Beautiful Thing:

Our dahlias finally started blooming in mid- August, and we get almost as many compliments on them from our neighbors as we do for having a new roof put on the barn. We took a big bouquet over to the community potluck and pig roast hosted at the Olney Store and Big O Saloon the weekend before last (along with homemade mac and cheese), and were flattered to hear later that the bar and the store were fighting over who got to keep the bouquet on their side of the business. When it stops raining, and the flowers dry out a bit, I'll try to cut some more and bring over enough for them each to have one.

We also brought our dahlias to decorate the tables at the Olney Grange Beef Barbeque that took place this past Sunday. What an amazing event- I don't think I've ever seen anything quite like it. We helped out on Saturday night wrapping 750 lbs of beef, onions and sauce in foil, and then in wet burlap. There is a huge pit at the Grange where an enormous fire is built, and when it banks down to coals the beef is placed on the coals, metal sheets are slid over to cover the pit and dirt is shoveled on top to seal the heat in. The beef is left to cook overnight for 12 hours. I went back on Sunday to help out in the afternoon- I believe almost 450 meals were served. I asked Judy, our Grange Master, about the history of the Beef Barbeque, and how long it had been going on for. She said it was already an annual thing when she was a child, and figured they've been doing this each year at the Olney Grange for at least fifty years, if not longer. Wow.

I was so honored when Judy asked if she could take the dahlias with her after the barbeque. She planned to visit the cemetery and wanted to take the flowers to her parents who are buried there–the Olney Grange Beef Barbeque was always a huge event for them. It made me so nostalgic for when I was young (er!), and my family used to visit my Mom's hometown in West Virginia, and take flowers to our family graves at the cemetery there. I have always had a deep love of old cemeteries, and that's probably where it came from. We have a very cool one near the farm, maybe we will adopt someone there to bring flowers to.

Sadly for him (but not for the farm!) Packy ended up missing the barbeque because he was busy with:

The Machine Thing:

This really deserves it's own post, so I'll just do a teaser now. Our sexy new Italian-made BSC walk behind tractor arrived last Friday, shipped all the way from Earth Tools in Kentucky. When I told the delivery guy who called to schedule the drop off that it was a tractor he was delivering, he laughed and said "What the heck kind of tractor comes in a box?!"

Well, sexy two-wheel Italian ones do! Our friend Dan is of the opinion that our neighbors will fall over laughing at the idea of it (especially if we ever buy the hay-baler attachment for it ) but this is a serious agricultural machine, used widely on small farms throughout Europe and becoming more well known on American small farms. It's just not how things are done in Olney. Yet.

We are starting with two attachments (they are quite pricey!)–a flail mower and a disc tiller–which should get most of the jobs done that we need to do. These two-wheel tractors are great tools for small farms like ours–you can even cultivate inside your greenhouse without having to build such a big structure that you can drive a big beast through it. Plus, less weight=less soil compaction, especially when it is wet. And- it's a very, very good workout, as Packy can now attest too.

I really am looking forward to learning how to run this thing too, although the gearing system looks a bit intimidating to me. The tractor arrived not a moment too soon, as we are late getting our cover crop sown and lime spread on the two areas we've been working on this year. It looks like we'll have a bit of clear weather this weekend, and hopefully we can get it taken care of then.

Small progress, but at least we are moving forwards!