Micro & Macro: My garden on the farm.

It’s been two weeks since I last wrote!  In just two weeks, the corn that I had pictured in my last post has gone from dry seeds to germinated seeds to little sprouts in trays to little sprouts planted out in the field in front of my yurt.  Tracking time by watching plants grow is a great thing.

I was amazed at the 100% germination rate of both types of dry corn that I brought home from Betsey’s!  Those little corn kernels had been sitting patiently, waiting on their cobs for a couple of years (I think they were harvested in fall 2009), keeping intact their little germ of life that only wanted moisture and nutritious soil to spring into action.  They were pretty pumped to wake up in the Oxbow greenhouse.  They germinated in 6 days, and by the end of another week after that,  they were looking ready to transplant out.  This was the impetus I needed to get cracking on my garden.

I got a lesson on the walk-behind rototiller from Farmer Adam.  It was all levers: put this one in neutral, pull-start the motor, use this other one for first gear, reverse, engage the tiller, you’re set to go.  I yanked my shoulder uncomfortably a few times trying to emulate Adam on the pull-start, then I resorted to the two-hand method favored by those with less upper body strength and got it on the first try.  He showed me how to load the tiller up ramps into the back of the farm van!  I snagged a can of gas from the shed and headed out to the far field by the yurt.

An hour of slow-walking the tiller back and forth and I converted my 50′ x 30′  garden area from cloddy chunks into flat and springy with frothy, rich topsoil.  This tiny little area on the edge of the 3-acre squash field is where Alice and I are going to plant our personal crops.  She’s leaving in August for the allure of Michigan and a graduate program, so the garden is mostly mine for planning, planting and upkeep.  The planning had been piecemeal up til now, but now that the soil is ready I can’t stop thinking about things I want to put in it.  First are my 3 rows of corn.  80 transplants went in immediately after my tilling session on Memorial day, plus another 40 direct-seeded into the field just for comparison’s sake.  Then a row of sunflowers to brighten things up.

Next came my row of potatoes.  I got some seed potatoes from Betsey as well as the corn.   I’m going to grow a few of my favorite varieties from last year — I’m most excited about the Carlotta – Ohhh how yummy with its unique firm and waxy texture!  So different from any potato I’d had before!  I planted them using Betsey’s method: hand-dug a shallow ditch and scooped out little pockets at the bottom of the ditch to nestle the taters into.  One little row of 30 potato plants.  It might sound like a lot of plants to a home gardener, but it seems like a drop in the bucket to me considering that earlier the same week Sonja and I helped Adam plant forty-two 450-foot rows of potatoes.  Just thinking about it boggles my mind 🙂  We spent most of a day walking up and down the field behind the tractor, balancing buckets of seed potatoes against our bellies and the tractor’s implement.   In an alternating rythm, Sonja and I reached over and over into our buckets and tossed potatoes into the tractor’s wake, trying to get them to land as close as possible to a one-foot spacing all the way down the row.  It was like playing a video game or something – it required immense focus to keep a continual flow of potatoes at that speed, and accuracy to get them to land in the space that was being opened up by the tractor’s chevron, before the chasm closed up with the soil mounded over it by the discs being dragged behind.   Adam kept ramping up the speed on us so that as soon as we got good at it, we had to go faster!  He timed our rows and by the end we were knocking out that 450-feet in under 3 minutes.  Boom.

Anyway my little row of personal potatoes excites me because I am interested in saving my own seed and carrying on a few of Betsey’s time-tested varieties.  I will have more than enough potatoes to eat from Oxbow; I don’t need to grow my own potatoes to feed myself.  It’s more of an experiment and a way to generate more seed for the following year.  Similarly, I am putting a 30-foot row of cabbage in my personal garden.  This is my sauerkraut bed.  Oxbow will provide me with plenty of cabbage to eat, but I feel pretty pumped about having friends over for an enormous kraut-making extravaganza later in the season, and for this I feel I ought not raid the farm supply which will be intended to be sold at market.  So I’ll grow 60 or 70 heads of cabbage myself.  I think I will probably stick a few row-feet of carrots on the end of that bed, because I enjoyed the cabbage+carrot sauerkraut I made better than the plain cabbage one.

So there it is: corn, taters, and kraut.  Some lovely storage crops for my post-Oxbow winter.  Alice will be adding ground cherries and and bee-attracting flower mix as well.  I will sprinkle some statice flowers around the edges, and we’ve got ourselves a garden.  It will be a challenge over the next three months to maintain this little plot; I know from last year that things are about to ramp up into absolutely intensely crazy here for June, July and August, and it’s difficult to go home from a full 12 hour day of farming and even have time for dinner before bed, much less another session of hoe-weeding on the personal garden.  But it’ll happen.  Just keep thinking about that kraut :-)!

Check out my May pictures on Flickr.  There’s a great feeling in the air right now… the farm is ripe with expectancy as the first of the crops that we planted back in April are suddenly ready for harvest – gorgeous ruffly butter lettuces and succulent, tender lacinato kale whom I knew when they were just babies in seedling trays are now being sold at market.  We just got the bulk of the warm-season crops transplanted out (zucchini, cukes, peppers, strawberries, beans) and before you know it those too will be pumping out their fruits for harvest and delivery to CSA customers and restaurant diners.  The tomato plants are thriving in their cozy hoophouses and I heard a rumor that this week we will be top-tying them for the first time, so I’ll be learning a new method of tomato cultivation to add to my farm skillset.  I’m really enjoying this second farm season as a way to solidify my knowledge & hone my instincts from last year, as well as to learn new & different ways of doing the same things.  Because this is a bigger operation, I’ll be learning a lot about efficiency, gaining speed and accuracy on tasks, and getting comfortable with equipment (drove the tractor for the first time today)!   Putting in my own garden made me realize that all this will potentially make it super easy to scale back to a more manageable single-person size operation when I want to.  Having done the 450-foot row tractor potato dealio will make it much less intimidating to put in a few rows of potatoes for my startup farm.

Woah, it is really time to end computer time for the night and hit the hay (I don’t actually sleep in hay, it’s just a euphemism :-))  I am happy to be here, grateful that I will be waking up tomorrow and spending another day on the farm, trying to relish the present while dreaming about good things in the future.


Planning ahead for the cornbread of the future.


I’m taking slow food to a whole new level. Want to eat some delicious cornbread? First, plant some corn.

I had asked Luke and Adam here at Oxbow for permission to grow a little garden.  “Since I’m from the midwest,” I said, “I’ve been feeling the urge to have a cornfield in my front yard. It’s okay for me to bring in some nice super-sweet, GMO, RoundupReady Monsanto corn, right? That way we can bring this hippie organic farm into the new millenium.”  Pause. “Ummm, haha, just kidding!  Actually it’s some saved seed of an heirloom dry corn that I want to grow so I can grind it for cornmeal. Can I till up a little area to grow a few stalks?”  The farmers breathe a sigh of relief 🙂 

“Sure,” they told me, “and in fact, you don’t even have to prep your own ground. Have this huge corner of the field we just tilled for squash planting. It’s extra, we were just going to leave it fallow, and it’s right in front of your yurt.”  Wow! Just a small instance of  the principle that if you decide what you want and make it known, all the pieces will fall into place.

Betsey had introduced us to skillet cornbread on the farm last year. It’s pretty special —  with buttermilk and butter in the recipe you can’t really go wrong but it’s the freshly-ground heirloom dry corn that makes it magical.  I shelled and ground a bunch before leaving Bainbridge and brought enough for a few batches out to Oxbow. Everyone I’ve made it for so far has kind of flipped out when they tasted it. Warm and chewy and with a grainy toothsome quality, sweet and salty and with a drizzle of honey… it’s pretty allright.

At this point I’m almost out of my cornmeal. Time to restock my stash — time to carry on the Betsey tradition and grow the stuff myself. I picked up some seed corn from Betsey last weekend: a couple ears of her Painted Mountain and some loose kernels of Roy’s Calais Flint. Two heirloom varieties with cool coloring patterns and interesting histories about where and how the varieties were developed.

As soon as I got the corn home I trundled it out to the greenhouse, put soil in a couple of 50-cell flats, and popped in 100 multicolored kernels.  There was something so viscerally satisfying about planting these seeds with the end goal very clearly in sight. There is something super exciting about the prospect of tending this corn, my very own crop in the midst of all the other farm crops that I’m helping with but by no means in charge of.  I read up on corn cultivation tips. It is a heavy nitrogen feeder, said google. Make sure you fertilize every couple of weeks. Am I going to have to go out and buy fertilizer? Anothrt google, this time on “rabbit manure”, turns up the info that bunny pellets are extremely nitrogenous and also are unusual in that they do not need to be composted before being used as fertilizer on the field. Boom. A complete system here in miniature, yurt-scale farming.

Here’s a picture of step one in my cornbread recipe. Stay tuned for updates and if you’re lucky you can help me enjoy a skilletfull sometime around the October timeframe!



Pretty right on.

Oxbow May update – farm life in general.


#1 Bunny Snugglepants eats her greens


Hangin out in the shop, building our loft bed


Alice getting ready to sell our wares at the Ballard market on Mothers Day

Farm update! Spring is happening! Lots of planting and a little harvesting. This is the time of year when we do all different types of field prep like pea trellising, tomato staking, and lots and lots of weeding so that the little plants will be happy and grow for us as best they can.  I and the other new interns are learning the farm systems, ins and outs and how to run our booth at farmers market. So glad to be back in the business of selling food!!

We’ve started moving a lot of the veggie starts out of the greenhouse and transplanting them into the field.  I’ve been seeing and feeling in my body the difference in size and scale of this farm vs last year.  Oxbow is still a small farm in the grand scheme of things, but definitely a step up from Bainbridge in size and degree of mechanization.  In the last 2 weeks we planted out oh, you know, just about a couple of acres of onions and shallots and leeks… Alice had sowed the seeds for these back in January!  Three 8-hour days in a row of planting onions is a lot of bending over!  We transplanted out cabbage and broccoli and lettuce and chard. Just as one example: we put in 10 beds of broccoli: two 250-foot rows per bed at 18 inch spacing equals out to over 3300 plants if my math is correct. And that’s just the early spring broccoli… there are a couple more successions seeded in the greenhouse already!  It is a great feeling to work as a coordinated team of 5 or 6 people, plucking the plants out of their plastic trays and nestling them into the soft soil with speed and efficiency, leaving behind straight lines of upreaching green shoots ready to photosynthesize and grow.

Ohhh… BIG NEWS: I have learned to drive stick. Kind of. At least I can get the yellow truck from the barn to field D successfully which involves 1st, 2nd, R, and not getting stuck in the mud. It makes me feel SO proud of myself every time I do it without stalling at the start. Yay accomplishment 🙂

On the home front, we finished our loft bed so I sleep up near the ceiling instead of on the futon now. It’s definitely hotter up here! The bed building was a team effort between me and alice and Mike who works in the shop at the farm and my friend Remington who came to visit.  Having an overnight guest was the incentive we needed to finish the project!  I’ll post some interior yurt pics soon; it is looking pretty put-together in here and I got my drums set up too!

On the bunny front, there are no babies yet. Did I mention that we got two mama rabbits on Easter?  Snuggles is due around May 15. Margot is kind of a mystery as we weren’t for sure if she was preggers or not when she arrived, and if so when her due date would be.  Thus far the little ladies have been nothing but sweet and easy to care for. They like to eat our vegetable scraps and gnaw on blackberry brambles.

I’m spending a lot of my spare brain cycles thinking about what I want to do next year (or at least, next, if not next year) as far as farming goes. I have a pretty fully-formed idea taking shape in my head. It may or may not have a couple of critical flaws 🙂  But my farm name popped into my head during a bike ride a couple weeks ago (as all good ideas tend to do) and the domain name is available… sooo, we’re off to a great start toward my theoretical future farm!

The wisdom of Wendell and a struggle toward sustainable eating

I found myself on a four hour plane ride recently, feeling kind of down in the dumps about some things.  Seeking solace, I remembered that I had Wendell Berry’s The Unsettling of America: On Culture and Agriculture in my backpack.  I opened it up at random, and read what Wendell had to say to me.

“Until modern times, […] a  man would go or be forced to go into the wilderness, measure himself against the Creation, recognize finally his true place within it, and thus be saved both from pride and from despair.  Seeing himself as a tiny member of a world he cannot comprehend or in any final sense possess, he cannot possibly think of himself as a god.  And by the same token, since he shares in, depends upon, and is graced by all of which he is a part, neither can he descend into the final despair of destructiveness.”

This paragraph that I opened to speaks to me strongly as the same sentiment that I was trying to describe when I blogged about my epiphany at the coast.  I recognize exactly the humbled and awed, yet greatful and excited sense of opening he is talking about; the realization that we are here for a limited time and the strong urge to do and be all that we can during the time that we have.  I love reading Wendell Berry because every page seems to hold a nugget of wisdom that succinctly puts to words a whole mess of thoughts that were floating around in my head.  Wendell (I feel kind of like he’s my buddy and I think about him on a first-name basis) is clearly a very thoughtful man on many topics close to my heart, and he is able to put his thoughts into very moving words.  Reading his prose makes me want to be a better person, to forget about my petty problems and just hold onto that sense of gratitude, belonging and purpose that he writes about as I move through my daily life.

I was not raised in a religious household, nor have I been able to adopt religion upon trying as an adult.  But I imagine that these are the sorts of feelings and urges that religion addresses for people.  I don’t “pray” as such.  But I do, often, feel overwhelmed by a strong sense of gratitude, to life, for life.  When this full-heart feeling comes over me, often as I’m getting into bed at night after a full day, I say in my head a quote that I remember from Garrison Keillor, another thoughtful man: “thank you for this good life, and forgive me if I do not appreciate it enough.”

I often feel frustrated with myself for not living up to various of my ideals.  I have good moments of reflection and thoughtfulness but I don’t feel that I embody them in my actions every moment.  It’s hard to always be the way I’d like to be.  I’m not yet comfortable enough with myself, not yet living deliberately enough.  Still fumbling.  Trying though, and that is a good step.  I feel that I am still yet living life too glibly – with an inflated sense of self-importance, playing at being a farmer but without yet taking any big risks and in consequence, not yet able to achieve anything great or meaningful.

Here are a couple of other quotes from my plane reading, getting more into the agriculture-specific nature of Wendell’s writing:

“By now the revolution has deprived the mass of consumers of any independent access to the staples of life: clothing, shelter, food, and even water.”

“We have made it our overriding ambition to escape work, particularly any form of hand work, and as a consequence have debased work until it is only fit to escape from.  We have tried to escape sweat and sorrow, only to find that in order to do so, we must forswear love and excellence, health and joy.”

“Whereas the exploiter asks of the land only how much and how quickly it can be made to produce, the nurturer asks a question that is much more complex and difficult: what is its carrying capacity?  That is, how much can be taken from it without diminishing it?  What can it produce dependably for an infitite time?”

“Consider the associations that have since ancient times clustered around the idea of food – associations of mutual care, generosity, neighborliness, festivity, communal joy, religious ceremony.”

“I dislike the thought that some animal has been made miserable to feed me. If I am going to eat meat, I want it to be from an animal that has lived a pleasant, uncrowded life outdoors, on bountiful pasture, with good water nearby and trees for shade.”

“The passive American consumer, sitting down to a meal of pre-prepared food, confronts inert, anonymous substances that have been  sanitized beyond resemblance to any part of any creature that ever lived.  The products of nature and agriculture have been made, to all appearances, the products of industry. Both eater and eaten are thus in exile from biological reality.”

I want to practice agriculture in large part because I love the experience of growing food.  But I also want to do it because I believe in the importance of the things Wendell Berry writes about: the connection to place, stewardship of the land, production of quality food; the basic authenticity of small and sustainable farms in contrast to the disconnectedness, wastefulness, and just plain irresponsibility of large scale agribusiness, whether it is vegetable or animal farms.  There are many issues and problems in the world, but this is the one I care about.  Conventional agriculture and food processing are not okay with me.   What I want to eat, and what I think that all people should be eating, is real food whose production we understand and ideally have helped participate in.

But I am not living up to my ideals.  I eat plenty of generic food from grocery store shelves and restaurants that was probably shipped across the country from corn farms in Iowa and I still eat meat of unknown origin.  Here’s the thing: I don’t want to be a hardcore, toe-the-line, “I only eat stuff I grew myself” nazi.  It also gets my goat when people lately apologize for the food they serve me not being organic.  I don’t want to be an out-there weirdo who has some strange food restrictions that she follows so “she won’t eat normal stuff like us.”  I recognize that there is lots of great food out there in the world that was not produced by people that I know personally and as a lover of food I still want to be able to enjoy it.

I’m happy that I am making steps.  A few years ago I didn’t put much thought into food origins at all.  I’m a lot more conscious of it now.  But I’m still sort of wishy-washy: “well, I get to eat lots of veggies from the farm and I love how it teaches me to eat seasonally – I never buy tomatoes out of season cuz they just taste bad, but I buy bananas even though they’re from South America… sometimes I can trade veggies for farm eggs but otherwise I’ll buy eggs from Trader Joes… I won’t buy Tyson chicken but I’ll get a restaurant hamburger because the menu says it comes from Oregon.” I think that this isn’t quite good enough anymore.  I want to do better and it excites me to be becoming more and more in control of my own food origins.  How do I keep making progress while still maintaining sanity and a varied diet?  Cut specific things out entirely? Try to approach an 80%/20% rule of “known” food to “unknown” food?  What about things like rice and peanuts?  Do I have to know where they came from?  It’s a quandrary.

But, I don’t think that Wendell would want me to feel bad because I share his idealistic aspirations for a sustainable food system but am not 100% living up to them.  Overall the feeling I try to take away is optimism that I am at least becoming aware of these ideals and doing a bit to live up to them by helping to produce good food for myself and others.

And I shall also attempt to be okay with my confusedness and frustration and know that I will never be entirely without them.  Wendell says: “It may be that when we no longer know what to do, we have come to our real work and when we no longer know which way to go, we have begun our real journey. The mind that is not baffled is not employed. The impeded stream is the one that sings.”