WA young farmers, mixing it up!

So, It turns out, I’m just jumping on this farming bandwagon with a bunch of other people 🙂  A lot of people my age are getting interested in organic farming right now.  I swear I’m not doing it to try and be cool, though.  I’d have to be crazy to be doing this much work for this little money just to impress someone.  I’m doing it because I’ve discovered I really have a passion for it.  But it looks like the farming passion is catching a lot of 20- and 30-somethings… at least I can tell you that there were over 250 people at the first annual “WA Young Farmer Mixer” on Vashon Island on Oct 4, and those people had to deal with ferry schedules in order to attend so they must have really wanted to be there!

At the Vashon mixer: Group photo with those who were left on cleanup duty at the end of the night! (And somebody's dog...) Chandler (tallest in back row in hat) and Severine (front right corner) were the organizers.

It was a pretty sweet function, and here’s how it happened and how I came to be involved.   At the Small Farmers Journal Auction back in April, we were fortunate enough to meet both  Chandler Briggs and Severine Fleming.  Chandler was an apprentice at Persephone Farm a few years ago (my post about Persephone here) and he is now farming on Vashon at Island Meadow Farm.  Severine is a mover and a shaker of The Greenhorns, a national nonprofit group by and for young farmers.  I can’t even try to be as articulate as Severine about the purpose of  organization, but I can say I’m super glad they exist and that they helped us throw this party.

It was an all ages event. Notice the seed packet nametags

In April, Severine was in the early stages of planning the “Greenhorns West Coast Tour,” and Chandler volunteered to be in charge of Washington State’s event.  Chandler looped us Bainbridge folks in to the email list for the behind-the-scenes planning and organizing of the event.  It was a privilege to be able to be involved;  it made me call up some skills which I hadn’t used since my “Future Leaders” club presidency in High School!  Asking for donations, making contacts with important farm-support orgs whose presence we wanted at the event, spreading publicity on facebook, etc.

Spit roast

Pies: the beginning of a wonderful potluck

The event came together well and was attended by a throng of young farmers, farmer hopefuls, and supporters… way beyond our expectations attendance-wise.  There was square dancing, a pig roast, a huge buffet of donated and potluck food, informational tables, brainstorming sessions, and lots and lots of “mixing”!!  (There also should have been a preview screening of the Greenhorns’ documentary film, but technical difficulties got in the way.)

Some conversations are going on here

Dancing to The Tallboys

My favorite part, though, was probably the day-before-and-morning-of prep party.  Chopping vegetables and making signs while having a more intimate discussion with the dozen or so young farmer organizers was a very valuable time.  It meant a lot to spend time with others in my position (apprentices) as well as folks like Chandler who have taken the next step and are running farms on their own.  It made me feel like I am part of a movement larger than myself, made up of people who I feel kinship with and look forward to learning and growing with.  There are lots of issues to be dealt with around young people beginning farming, such as access to land and having appropriate expectations about starting out on one’s own.  But there are also lots of reasons to be excited, and the mixer was about focusing on all the positives, meeting people, and having fun.   Can’t wait for next year’s party!

Last minute planning on a cozy evening at Island Meadow Farm

 

Roasting peppers at the prep party

Choppin stuff at the prep party

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It’s not all fun and games

It has been a terrible season this year.  I don’t mean for me — I’ve been having an amazing time on my own little journey of self-discovery.  I mean the growing season in the pacific northwest has been unusually bad: a warm January followed by a long-lasting cold and wet spring, followed by a brief and not particularly hot summer, followed by an early, cold and wet fall.

The farmers have been commiserating with each other over it.  For us interns, it really is all just fun and games; our livelihoods do not depend on the crops the way the farmers’ do.  It is a reality check to remind us not to be too idealistic in our thoughts about farming.  We are lucky to be learning under a couple of really experienced, knowladgeable farmers who will survive this rough season more or less unharmed.  But it’s easy to see that for a person just starting out, who is bound to make mistakes in any circumstanes, a couple of seasons like this one would make someone want to get out of farming real quick.

Tree fruits suffered a terrible year, lured into blossoming too early by the warm January and then getting frosted out, killing any chance at fruiting.  Tomatoes grown without plastic covering had very little success this year.  I heard a rumor that even local grain growers suffered complete crop failures.

Here on our farm, we apprentices stayed quite cheerful through the extended spring, wearing our long underwear into June and scoffing at the wet weather.  We were brand new to this and everything was exciting and we didn’t mind the rain and mud — in fact it made us feel kind of badass.  The farmers themselves often grumbled through the spring but also looked forward expectantly to a long-lasting summer and a warm, lovely fall to give the crops time to mature.

When this warm fall failed to materialize, things started to get bad.  Betsey’s farm suffered most.  Brian specializes in season extension, growing many things in greenhouses or under plastic-covered hoops.  This system helps him protect himself against variable weather.  He was able to get lots of tomatoes to market this year when basically no other farmers at our market did.  (He claims that it was a bad tomato year even for him… so I’m sure I would be blown away by what a good tomato year looks like).   And Betsey’s potatoes turned out great this year.  But her other crops were jeapordized by the bad weather.  Peppers were one that suffered.  Peppers, like tomatoes, need as long and hot of a growing season as possible to mature.  Last year, Betsey says, she was harvesting bucketsfull of red peppers each week.  This year, some are ripening to red, but most are staying green and many are moldering away due to too must moisture.

Peppers still green and rotting on the vine before turning red.

The onions, too, were almost a loss.  Betsey grows about 2000 row-feet of onions as one of her main three crops (along with potatoes and garlic).  The onions need to keep in storage through the winter, so they need to be harvested as dry as possible.  If the onions are mature enough to be harvested but not yet dry enough, they need to be pulled and left to dry in the field so that their roots don’t continue drawing in more moisture from the soil.  The onions need a couple weeks of sunny weather to completely dry in the field.  This year, that didn’t happen.  We spent a day pulling them all, and then waited hopefully.  It rained.  Each day we would walk by the whole field of soggy onions, lying there forlornly rotting away.  Betsey predicted a complete loss.

 

Laying onions out to dry in the field.

 

Luckily, the weather eventually improved a bit.  With some careful management (going up and down the rows turning the onions over to dry their backsides, feeling the stems and removing the nearly-dry ones to finish drying in the shed, etc)… we were able to save a good percentage of the unhappy onions.  Yay!

The vineyard probably will not be harvested this year.  The grapes got too wet and never fully matured before getting moldy and rotting.   It is incredibly sad to see the vines we spent so much time on throughout the season and know that we (and the plants) put in all that effort for nothing.  Luckily, it’s actually kind of ok this year because coincidentally, the winery is closed anyway due to its owners’ being ill and no one new being lined up to take over winemaking.  There might not have been wine made even if there had been a harvest.

 

The grapes - half unripe and half shrivelled & gone.

 

I don’t mean to be too pessimistic!  I’m actually not feeling pessimistic at all — and even the farmers still seem happy and looking on the bright side and planning improvements to their systems for next year.  I just have been struck by the reality of the situation that in agriculture you can do everything right and still suffer a failure due to circumstances out of your control.

Many great things have been happening too, which I will write more about in another post(s).  As the season gets close to wrapping up, there is a lot to reflect on as well as plans for next steps to think about.   More later as it is bedtime, but here are a couple of fun pictures to balance out the tone of this post 🙂

 

Me at Betsey's stand at the farmers market

 

 

Akio's pumpkin patch

 

 

A special lunch at Molly Ward Gardens in Poulsbo with Betsey and the girls.