What I am learning: Tenacity

(Reposted from my post to the National Young Farmers Bootstrap Blogger Series, here: http://www.youngfarmers.org/news/2012/06/07/what-i-am-learning-tenacity/)

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I was so busy with spring farming tasks, I didn’t notice that it was May until May 19th.  That day I realized it was considerably past time to flip to the next page on my Nikki McClure calendar.  This local artist (she’s from Olympia, Washington) pairs each lovely paper-cutting image in her calendars with a single word.  Sometimes the word is clearly related to the picture; sometimes it takes a little bit of thinking to make the connection.

On May 19, seeing this word and this image made me stop and catch my breath.

“Persist” is a good word to keep in mind as a new farmer.  My mid-May had been full of ups and downs with our new multi-plot urban farming business, City Grown Seattle.  Half of the time I was on cloud nine, wallowing in the beauty of healthy growing plants and a new farm enterprise with a high potential for success.  But the other half of the time I was feeling extraordinarily stressed out by things going wrong, and by the feeling that I was making many mistakes.

For example, the summer squash starts I had so lovingly raised from seed got transplanted out at exactly the right moment: just when the weather was ready for them to be planted out, they had reached that perfect stage of two true leaves and a root system that was visible but not overgrown when I popped one out of the tray to take a peek.  My heart felt happy as I nestled them into newly-tilled soil and looked back over the straight rows.

When I returned to the plot a couple days later, I was dismayed to find the squash plants wilted and dying.  I had left them under a blanket of floating row cover, thinking it would provide them a comfortable enclosure for their first few days.  Instead I had left my carefully tended seedlings to bake and smother in the captured heat of a too-insulated environment.

That same week of unexpectedly hot, dry weather (where’s the Seattle rain this year?), combined with our inability to get around to all of our plots to water often enough, resulted in poor germination on the spinach, carrot, and lettuce seeds we had sown at the beginning of May.  Arriving at a plot to discover that seeds are sprouting is a glorious thing.  Arriving to find a bed only half-germinated and spotted with weeds where spinach should be leads to dismal thoughts of lost sales and missing items in the expected farmstand offerings next month.

It is easy to become overwhelmed by the negative.  Instead of seeing all the plants that are growing beautifully with no problems, I can focus only on the bits that are struggling.

Who was it that said, “the perfect is the enemy of the good”?  There is always going to be something less than perfect; on the farm there are so many ways that things can go wrong.  But it turns out that there are many ways that things can go right, and many ways to make things right.  This is what we have to do as new farmers: learn to make lemonade of lemons and persist in finding ways to overcome mistakes, failures, acts of God, surprises, and challenges.  It is important to have a good plan, but it may be more important to be able to accept and adapt to divergences from that plan.

We replanted the fried squash (only maybe seven out of the 36 actually died).  Luckily we had sown more seed than the number of transplants we actually needed, so we had extras to plant in their place.  As I poked more spinach seed into the ground to fill in the gaps in those beds, I realized that now I am doing two successions in one, and perhaps this staggered sowing will enable me to get a longer harvest from the same bed.  Since we are farming on such a small scale, with space at a premium, this seems like a fairly smart way to make the best out of it.

So let us persist in overcoming each challenge as it arrives, and also let us persist in an ability to see the bigger picture and all the good that is happening in spite of the challenges.

June second will mark our first day of farmstand for City Grown’s 2012 season.  June sixth will be our first farmers’ market.  I am feeling excited, and also nervous, worrying about all the little details and hoping that our first day goes well.  But as I finished up writing this post and realized that it is almost June, I peeked forward one more page in the Nikki McClure calendar to get a little preview of what next month has in store:


Planting squash at our Community Center plot
My farm partner Noe harvesting salad

Mission, Vision, and Goals. And Construction.

Here’s a little of the stuff that has been keeping me occupied since we started our new urban farming business at the beginning of 2012.

On the business development side, I have now signed an L.L.C. Operating Agreement,  used my U.B.I. to open a bank account, bought fertilizer using an Agrigultural Reseller Permit, ordered business cards, and learned that I have absolutely no idea how to do accounting.

On the physical labor and general ruggedness side: I have been using the heck out of that drill my Grandfather gave me (hey Grampa)!  I now know to ask for self-tapping screws at the hardware store.  I am getting comfortable using a miter saw.  Oh, and I drive a truck now.  That’s a new thing.  I used my new truck to drive 500 lbs of ground limestone, 250 lbs of organic chicken manure fertilizer, and 10 cubic feet of potting soil home from the agricultural supply store in Snohomish.

On the actual farming side, I don’t really have that much to brag about yet.  Haven’t grown anything yet.  But I have been digging around in the dirt a lot, and at this point I can at least fake it that I know what I’m talking about when examining soil as to whether it has a high proportion of sand or clay as opposed to being a silty loam!

Overall, I’ve been learning how to be my own boss.  It’s about finding the right balance between talk and action.  My business partners Noe and Scott and I have been having plenty of three-hour planning meetings where we talk about all the myriad of things that need to happen for our business to move forward into a moneymaking phase.   There are lots of pieces that need to come together, and they all need to be talked through, but if you spend too much time talking about them, you won’t have enough time to actually get them done.  At some point you need to follow up on your planning, turn your talk into action, and then be ready to adjust if/when realities don’t match up with your hypotheticals.

For one example, take a single crop of the 25 or so that we’ve decided we want to grow this year.  Onions – if we want to harvest them in September, we need to start them from seed in February.  Oh wait, it is February.  Good thing we bought those seeds back in January.  But  we need to have a place to plant those seeds where they will germinate and thrive even in the February cold.  We need a greenhouse.  Then it’s about tracing that need back through all the steps that need to happen to get us there and mapping out a plan.  First decide on dimensions and design.  Then source and buy materials and recruit extra hands to help build.  Then go outside and actually build, navigating little hurdles like not enough screws and drills running out of batteries.  Take an extra few days to finish up the greenhouse end walls and create a table for the plant starts to sit on.  And then finally, plant the seeds.  And then follow up!  You’re not done as soon as the seeds are in the ground.  It’s only after planting that you might realize that the greenhouse is not actually warm enough to germinate seeds right now, so now you’re buying heat mats and insulation to add some extra degrees F.  The reward is now, 7 days after planting, the seeds are up and growing.   Yay!  Quick pause to smile and celebrate with Noe as we check on them and see the green needles poking up out of the soil in the trays.  Then it’s on to the next step, keeping those little sprouts healthy.  And starting the next round of crops – tomatoes in a week, brassicas and lettuce a few weeks after that.  And simultaneously prepping the ground that they will eventually be transplanted into so that it’s ready and waiting at the proper time.  We have time to add compost to the plots right now, but Noe and Scott tell me that it’s too early from a fertility perspective — the winter rains will just wash the nutrients down and out into the Puget Sound, nullifying our work and expense and potentially polluting at the same time.  So I, the eager beaver, have to wait until Noe gives me the go-ahead that the ground is warm enough that those little soil microbes will wake up out of their winter slumber and be ready to chew up our added compost and lock its nutrients into the ground for our plants’ exclusive usage.  Or at least that’s what I envision them doing.  This is what’s great about having a team of three.   Each of us contributes a different skill set and background, so although none of us is an experienced farmer, by sharing the little bits of proper management that we each know, as a whole we hopefully have enough smarts to get enough of this farming thing right.

For me it’s super great to be able to draw on both of my prior two years of apprenticeship experience as I feel my way through each farming decision as it comes up.   I am constantly thinking back and remembering, How did Brian do this particular thing?  How did Betsey?  How did the dudes at Oxbow?  Sometimes I go with one mentor’s system and sometimes another; sometimes neither works for our particular situation, and sometimes I’m lucky enough to realize that both past farms did the same thing so I can be pretty sure that way is right 🙂  I am also lucky to have those former mentors to ask questions that come up.   For example I mentioned driving my truck to the agricultural supply store.  A month ago we were wondering, where do farmers go shopping?  A quick email to Betsey revealed that all farmers in the Puget Sound region shop at this one store in Snohomish.  They don’t have a website, only a catalog from 2009, and you have to know what to ask for when you walk in the door or else they will look down upon you as a pesky home gardener.   But they will have your greenhouse plastic in stock and very cheap prices on the best quality potting soil.   So now we know.

But I can’t ask Betsey about every little thing.   Making decisions all by myself about things like crop varieties to grow, planting dates, application rates for amendments, etc, is scary the first time through.  But it’s what I wanted.  It’s that step out of the safety net of following a boss’ instructions into the unknown of living with the consequences of your own choices.  I am not good at making quick decisions — my Libra nature can always see both sides! — and I usually spend far too long over-analyzing and deliberating on even the smallest choice between two options.  But the need to move things along with this business is helping me work on that.  I feel good each time I am able to make myself just say “okay, let’s go for it,” even if I am just saying that out loud to Noe and Scott while inside my head is saying “oh but wait, what if we did this other thing instead, would that be better in any way?”   I think working with Scott is helping me with this.  He has a “just get it done” attitude that is a good balance with my and Noe’s general attitude of detail-oriented pre-planning.

As if it were not enough to take on starting a new business, I am also newly elected to my first ever board of directors this year.   I grew up with my Dad always being on one Board or another, and I’m glad to be following his example of volunteering some time out of my life to go “do the people’s business” as he would say.  But it feels like a lot — with a more than half time “real job,” a more than half time farming job, a couple of volunteer organizations to keep up with, and trying to be a contributing roommate/animal husbander at this awesome house I live in, my social life is sure to suffer 😉

But it’s going to be an exciting year for City Grown and for me personally.   So far it has been continually challenging and fun.  I hope to keep finding time to blog about it although I may soon move some of my writing over to a potential blog on the City Grown site itself.  Thanks, blog readers, for reading and commenting.  The point of the City Grown venture is to grow food for our community, so if you’re reading this I hope to see you at the farm!

On being a software engineer / farmer

I recently started at a new job.  The existential crisis I experienced upon accepting this new position, although brief, was a bit enlightening for me regarding how I see myself and how societal stereotypes about career and class influence us all.

Going back in time a bit, I had a quite reasonable phase of career-change related insecurity at the start of my first apprenticeship on Bainbridge.  I wasn’t sure how I would be accepted into that farming community, coming to it as I did as a complete outsider from the completely different world of software development.  I worried that my car was too nice, I didn’t know the farming terminology, I wouldn’t know how to relate to the types of people I might meet.

It turned out that yes, my car was too nice.  🙂  But the other worries were groundless — the types of people I met at the farms on Bainbridge were without exception wonderful, caring, and completely accepting of who I was at that moment.  Who I was was a young person in transition into finding myself.  I wasn’t a farmer and I didn’t have to pretend to be one.  I was interested in learning about farming and that was perfectly fine.  This contrasted with how I had often felt about myself while working software – that I wasn’t truly an engineer at heart and I was kind of pretending to be one.

The next thing that happened was I got more comfortable being a farm worker, but I didn’t know if this was a real transition or just a temporary thing.  I remember going to the dentist sometime in the middle of the Bainbridge experience and having to fill out that sheet that asks you your occupation.  I didn’t know what to put.  And then I started thinking about how they might judge me depending on what I wrote.  If I put “computer programmer” versus “farm apprentice,” would they treat me a certain way?

All of a sudden I was noticing a class divide that I had never really given much thought to before.  A person’s occupation, and the various things that come along with that, are a huge influence in the person’s own life but also in how that person is viewed by strangers.  Insurance or lack thereof, personal appearance, and regularity/dependability of cashflow are some of the pieces that can become apparent to outsiders and can lead them to judge your intellegence, ability, importance, etc. without really knowing anything about you.

Take personal appearance.   I grew up in a quite middle of the road, middle-class family in the midwest, and I have never been a super sleek, manicured and groomed, professional type.  But I got pretty used to being able to blend right in at a nice restaurant, for instance.  As a farmer, (or carpenter, or auto mechanic), your work clothes can tell an outsider exactly what kind of labor you do for a living.  In one example, I go pick up my prescription at Costco in my grubby farm clothes after work.  I don’t have insurance to pay for the medicine, and as I get my cash out I imagine I feel the cashier perceiving me as poor – which I am, I guess.  I want to tell her, “you can’t tell by looking at me, but I’m actually capable of being way above you, you’re cashiering at Costco for crying out loud.”  But there I go, doing exactly what I don’t want her to do.  In my prior life, when software developer Becky went to pick up her prescription for a $10 copay with her insurance card, she didn’t think about these things because there was an intrinsic assumption that I was well off and the lady behind the pharmacy counter was some nameless person with no college education who ate McDonalds for every meal.  Obviously I didn’t think or care about the unconscious classism I was guilty of, until I felt myself on the other side of the equation.

A couple weeks ago my housemates and I had a breakfast table discussion about these exact issues.  Why is it that a certain type of knowledege is being valued so highly above so many other types in our world?   Roomie Lauren’s dad has a PhD in some kind of sciencey thing but has worked his whole life as a contractor builder and a fishing boat captain.  People who meet him based on his line of work are surprised at his level of intelligence and scholarship.   We all do it — make assumptions about peoples’ IQ or level of education based on their job.  An electrician, builder, or plumber is assumed to be less smart than an engineering type.   But would those of us who make these judgements know how to construct, wire, or plumb a house or public building?  These “skilled trades,” like farming, are critical elements of our world, but they are no longer being valued or emphasized in schools or by society.  We view a college degree as being hugely important, and of course I am glad I have one, but maybe you don’t need one if one of these trades is your passion.  These jobs take physical ability and real-world understanding rather than (or in addition to) book-learning.  They are the kinds of things you have to learn at least partially by apprenticeship, watching a mentor, and by doing.

I now feel certain that what I want is to make my living by growing vegetables.  But since I’m not there yet, I have to do other work in the meantime.  I tried to fit software back in as a part-time money-earner, but it’s not feeling right.  I have to give too much of myself to that type of work, and at this point I’m far too rusty at it to be asking a company to give me a special custom-made part-time position.  So instead I started looking to find jobs within the food system, the area that I’m now much more comfortable working in.  I got an interview and immediately got hired at Trader Joe’s.  I should have been thrilled, and I kind of was, but I was also kind of appalled at the hourly rate that was offered – about 1/3 or 1/4 of what I could make at a software contract.  I realized I have this sense of entitlement regarding what I “deserve” to be making.  Another thing I felt was worry about telling my engineer type friends about the new work and having them look down on me.   What kind of stigma would come along with working retail?  This is the kind of job I used to get when I was home from college over summer break.  I have a college degree now; I could be doing way better for myself.  I’m over these feelings now, but they were real and intense when I got the phone call with the job offer.

When I started farming I was afraid that I would seem too white-collar.  Now I have the opposite concern.   As I meet all the new colleagues at Trader Joe’s and they ask me what I did before, I hear myself making sure to mention the software work in addition to the farming.  My ego clings to wanting to project that I am smart enough to do something else but that I am blue-collar “by choice” right now.  It’s silly.  And as it turns out, many of these folks at TJ’s are in the same boat.  Todd is a former psychiatrist.  Robert has a degree in biochemistry.  Many of them have been at Trader Joe’s for 3 or 5 or 7 years because it’s flexible, fun, has great healthcare benefits, and doesn’t consume your life outside of work.

Then there is the related issue of actually living and managing my money in all of these various job personas.  I think my years in the ultra high paying software industry had warped my view of how much money one needs to earn to make one’s way in the world.  I couldn’t have imagined living on a low hourly wage based on my living expenses back then.  I couldn’t have imagined giving up some of the nice things and expensive hobbies that were then easy to pay for.  Then my two years of farm apprenticeship swung me in the opposite direction: my lower-than-minimum wage stipend made every $5 purchase worthy of deep consideration and honed my bargain-hunting and freebie-nabbing skills.  It was really good for me to learn how to live frugally.  Now it’s time to find the balance between those two extremes.  I don’t want to have to postpone going to the dentist until I have more money because it costs $150. But I also don’t want to be unaware of how  much going to the dentist costs because I’ve never had to actually pay for it before.

It is a really good thing for me if I don’t/can’t solve every problem by just throwing money at it.   It makes me engage with life more and live more deliberately.  (Biggest example here is riding my bike to get places in the city instead of driving everywhere.  I LOVE it.  But the price of gas is a big factor in reminding me to ride even when the weather’s not perfect or there is a hill involved.)  Having less money may be the only way to force myself to live more frugally and thoughtfully and creatively.  But on the other side of the coin, it’s nice having some cushion — you’ve gotta have enough money to solve major problems when needed.  I was definitely walking the fine line here when my car got broken into this fall; I was feeling pretty tight at the end of my intern season and to have to unexpectedly replace several even moderately costly items hit hard just then.  It made me realize that so many people in the world live right on this brink all the time.  All those folks working minimum wage jobs, living paycheck to paycheck, maybe with credit card debt, maybe with kids to take care of — one or two little things go wrong and their whole life can fall apart very quickly.  Meanwhile there are software engineers and investment bankers, some fresh out of college, making six figures and spending it on giant big screen TV’s.  And I mean, they earn their money.  They can spend it how they want.  I’m not sure what my point is here.  It’s just things I’ve been noticing as I straddle these different career/job worlds.

Unveiling my new farm adventure

Now that I have a whole two seasons of apprenticeship under my belt, I’m obviously ready to start my very own farm!

I bought a truck, now I’m ready to go, right?

Well, ready or not it’s happening in 2012.  I’ve been neglecting my blog lately because I’ve been busy scheming and dreaming about next season.  I wanted to fill you in a little about my thoughts, but in lieu of a blog post I added this page to the “My Farms” section of this website that is basically a blog post about my new farm, City Grown Seattle.  Click this link to go read it!

A series of unfortunate events

Hey there blog world, it’s been a while since I wrote.  I had a wild few weeks and I needed time to let it all sink in before posting, as it turns out.  Let me begin by sharing what I had started writing on October 8th.

I don’t even want to write this post.  But in fairness I feel like I have to.  My self-congratulatory post about bunny building should be tempered with a writeup of the Universe-smackdown-vs-Becky events of the 2 weeks following that blog.

On a Thursday night I proudly posted those pictures of my bunnies in their sweet little home.  Two days later, after a normal Saturday workday,  I pulled up to the yurt in my car.  A lanky husky dog walked toward my vehicle.  What?  Another big dog raised its head from a little ways away.  Um, what?  My brain registered “dogs in the yard?”  …  “dogs eating something in the yard?” and then my eyes went to the rabbit cages and saw them empty, ripped open by canine teeth.

I screamed at the dogs.  I started crying.  I called Luke and Alice (in Michigan!) and a neighbor and animal control.   The neighbor helped shoo the dogs away and then left me alone to deal with the aftermath.  I cancelled my plans to go to Seattle that night.

The dogs had gotten into the run that I had just built.  Margie and her babies were killed.  Poor little ones;  I am so sorry.  The older pen housing Snuggles and her crew had also been attacked and bent but had been strong enough to protect its contents from the dogs until I got there.  It had appeared empty because Mom and all nine babies were so terrified that they had all crammed inside their little inner wooden house.  After I buried the dead, I sat with them until they came out and I watched Snugs lick and groom the babies.

I had a shitty evening, and everything felt wrong.  By the time I headed to bed it was way past my bedtime.  I had another little tiny cry, then decided to comfort myself with a snack before curling up in the fetal position for sleep.  I grabbed a handful of raisins, which I often do as a way to keep my chocolate consumption down to maybe only twice a day.  For some reason I looked at the handful before jamming it into my mouth.   I don’t even want to write about this.  You know how there are sometimes people that you meet, and you think, “Now you, your life is a mess.  You really don’t have your shit together.  You need to take a step back, clean out your filthy car, pay your goddamn bills, move out of your mom’s effing basement, (etc) and stop the out-of-control spiral that is your life.  Oh, and clean out your pantry because there are BUGS in your FUCKING FOOD.”

Yes, you guessed it.  Insult to injury: I was a little weepy,  going for a comfort snack, and instead something wiggled in the palm of my hand.  I looked into the raisin jar and saw a couple more fruit fly larvae.  I can’t even believe I’m writing about this – if you ever doubted that you are getting brutal honesty in this blog, doubt no more.  If not for my puke-phobia, maybe I would have vomited.  Instead, I HURLED the entire container of fruit out of the yurt door into the yard, sat down in a puddle on the floor and started BAWLING.

I cried it out.  And then I went to bed.  And then in the morning I got up and went to Seattle.  I had things to take care of — you gotta shake it off and resume life where you left off, slightly changed but more or less the same.

A week went by.   I got sympathy from my friends and colleagues about the rabbits.  Fun things happened on the farm and I felt fine.  Then came punch number two.  I don’t even have the energy to tell a good story about this one, although there are funny and crazy parts of it too.  Summary is that I was in Seattle for a wedding reception and my car got broken into.  Window smashed; laptop and lots of other stuff stolen.  Serves me right for carrying all my crap around like a bag lady.  I was staying overnight in the city and working Ballard farmers market the next morning, so I had all sorts of overnight stuff and farm gear with me.   I felt cold, numb, depressed as I gradually recalled each item that had been in the car that carried monetary or sentimental or daily-use value.  Composure so recently regained was again smacked away and I felt fragile, grasping at normalcy.

How intense and at the same time how fleeting these feelings are too.  In the moment in each situation I felt awful, felt mad and sad and betrayed and guilty and utterly off balance.   Feeling like life had just been turned end over end.  Simultaneously telling myself that this was not the end of the world; far from it; things like this and so much worse happen to people all the time.  At first the emotional reaction completely overrides the logical one, but gradually the logical one takes over so much that it seems silly to have gotten so upset and felt so down.  In each case, after a night and a day, I felt silly even telling people because I knew it might not seem like a big deal to them.

So.  On October 8th, Unfortunate Events #1 and #2 had happened.  I got them out of my system into blog form, but I left it as a draft.  I felt that I couldn’t come up with any conclusion, any lesson to be learned from the shit that had gone down.  A factual summary was about all I could muster.  But I really wanted to share the events with an audience and gain some sympathy.  So I stayed up really late (like really, really, late on a worknight) writing.  And then finally went home to go to bed in the freezing cold yurt, disgruntled with my inability to complete a pithy post.

So that’s how Unfortunate Event #3 occurred — at 1:30 in the morning as I was adding logs to the blazing fire in my woodstove as the last thing before bed, I lost my balance and fell toward toward the stove.  I put my hand out instinctually and touched my palm to the stovepipe.

I know the lesson for sure now.

Actually, I know a couple of lessons.  One is that burns really, really, REALLY hurt until they blister up and then they don’t hurt at all.   Another is that Sonja Spinarski will make a really fantastic Mom someday.  Who else would be willing to answer her phone in the middle of the night, talk me through pain, drive out to my yurt, bandage my hand, and tuck me into bed?   Thanks again Sonja.

But the main lesson I realized was: slow down.  Life was moving at a pretty frenetic pace all summer, and things had build up to the point where the fact that I couldn’t handle it all was becoming clear.  While sort of a bunch of random sucky coincidences, the Unfortunate Events were also an indicator that I needed to stop rushing around, take a little time to do things correctly, and take a little time to do nothing at all.  Hence the vacation from blogging — I needed to free up some scheduled downtime.   I have been taking time to read and write in my journal.  I have been consistently taking the time to remove unnecessary objects from my car instead of using it as a catch-all.   You better believe I’ve been taking my time with fire-building in the evenings.

Here’s a quote I often think about from Even Cowgirls Get the Blues by Tom Robbins:  “Rigidity isn’t stability at all.  True stability results when presumed order and presumed disorder are balanced.  A truly stable system expects the unexpected, is prepared to be disrupted, waits to be transformed.”

What I get from this is that you never know what’s going to happen and it’s best to strive to be open to the possibilities and roll with life’s surprises.  I feel like I’m doing a better and better job of this the last couple years.   Even so, I’d prefer to have a majority of my unexpected, disruptive transformations be positive and awesome things like the discovery of farm internships instead of  livestock death, destruction of property, loss, and palm-scarring.  If I can work on myself and my habits to make that more likely, you bet I am going to try.   It’s a pretty basic lesson, really: try to embrace life without undue expectations and handle disappointments and setbacks gracefully when they occur, but also try to learn from mistakes and “live deliberately” to avoid unnecessary troubles.

The end.  Maybe next time I’ll write about some actual farming!  This is supposed to be Becky’s Farming Blog after all, not Becky’s Philosophical Ramblings Blog!  Thanks for reading,  Hasta luego,

~ B

Where did the time go? A little September update.

Ummm, so yeah!  How has it been over a month since I last wrote?  I fell off the blog train pretty hard there during August and September.  Not too surprising, I suppose, as they are the busiest months on the farm with too much to do overriding blog writing.  But also disappointing, since these are the busiest months on the farm with every day jam-packed with interesting things to write about.

August was a blur of new vegetables coming into harvest.  Lemon and pickling cucumbers, heirloom and cherry tomatoes, dragon’s tongue beans, zucchini, zucchini, zucchini, and finally potatoes, apples, and onions got added to the list of things that were filling out our CSA boxes and market stall every week.  The work days got longer and the days off got filled with more and more summertime activities.  Swimming in the river was the perfect end to a hot August day’s work.

And then — without warning it seemed — it was time.  Time for Alice to leave for Michigan.  Mid-August saw a flurry of going-away events for Miss VanderHaak.  She had spent two years on the farm and had made friends with pretty much everyone around.  We had a big old goodbye party a.k.a. HOOTENANNY for her at the yurt.  The preceding day we had harvested our batch of rabbits so we cooked some really special braised rabbit for our guests to share that night.

The same week that Alice left the farm, I was also gone on vacation — home in Michigan for my sister’s wedding.  When I got back to the farm, it was amazing how clearly a transition had happened.  It was still hot out, but I could feel that we were over the hump of summer.  I arrived home to an empty yurt, the river level low and sluggish, the greenhouse empty of new plant starts, and the beginning of the Fall Feeling in the air.

I love autumn; it’s my birthday season, and the crisp chill always stirs a good feeling of excitement in my bones.  But it’s also a sad time of year in farming when the realization hits that the days are getting shorter, no more new successions of lettuce are going in, and the bountiful summer crops that it seems like we just started harvesting are already starting on their decline.  You begin to be able to feel winter coming down the pike.  And although that slow season is a relief from the summer’s hard physical labor, it’s still not really something to look forward to.

It’s a time of reflection, for sure.  A time to think about how my life has changed and what I’ve learned this year.  I have had some growing pains these last few weeks since Alice’s departure, having to take care of the yurt systems by myself.  A strange convergence happened the other day where both propane tanks ran empty and the solar-charged batteries straight-up DIED, leaving me without lights or running water, and no little Alice to solve the problems for me 🙂  I grumbled about it a bit, but really, it’s pretty great that now I know I can fix these things.  I’ve learned how to drive the tractor, fill the tanks, recharge the batteries, manage the composting toilet, and keep the fire going.  All these pieces that seemed foreign and daunting at first are now a manageable, if slightly time-consuming, part of daily life.

Same with the rabbits.  The bunnies were Alice and my project together — actually it was really her doing in the beginning: she drove the procurement of two bred does and a hutch for them to live in.  When the first kits were born, she was the one to reach in the nests and make sure they were all alive; she was the one that built the larger pen where the babies would grow up.  Our harvest (a prettier word for slaughter) of these buns was a powerful, memorable experience for the two of us.  I had decided to raise a second round of babies by myself after Alice moved, so new litters were born to the mamas just days before we harvested the three-month-olds.  Now I’m a single bunny parent, doing the feeding and cleaning and building by myself that Alice and I had previously shared.  It’s the same for me as with driving the tractor — back in April I had no idea how to do these things and, thinking back on it now, I remember that I seriously felt scared by the prospect of taking them on.  I guess I’ll just have to accept as fact that I get nervous about trying new things and continue trying new things anyway, even without Alice around to give me that extra shove 🙂

My parents were just here for a week-long visit, and having them and my aunts and uncle out to the farm & yurt was GREAT and a good reminder for me that this lifestyle I’m getting used to is not forever.  It was fun to show everyone around and share a bit of the farm life with them.  But having them here and watching their impressed reactions to me driving the tractor and taking care of the bunnies reminded me that my sense of normalcy has shifted.  Soon, so very soon as time seems to be flying these days, I won’t be falling asleep to the sound of bullfrogs in an off-the-grid yurt looking out over a squash field and the Cascade mountains.  I won’t be able to just pop a squat and pee in the wide-open privacy of my front yard.  On the other hand, I won’t have to keep a fire going all night or haul water out to my abode on a tractor once a month, either.  Pros and cons.

It’s been a great several weeks since I last wrote, and I have been taking pictures which I will post to flickr as soon as I find time in life to do so.  I love my life here farming — it hits me forcibly quite frequently how rich the life is and how lucky I am to have discovered it.  I may not always show it, or find time to write about it, but almost every day I have these moments of joy and gratitude where I feel I am in the right place doing the right things and that I couldn’t be any happier with life than I am at this moment.

The end!  Hopefully I will write again sooner than a month and a half from now 🙂

~ B

Self-reliance

Caution: if you have a squeamish tendency, or you are my parent, you may not want to read this post.

Just kidding.  Kind of.  But here’s the tale of my last week and a half!

We are entering the upswing of the honest-to-goodness farm season.  The time when you realize that you were just being silly and naive when you thought things were busy before.  You ain’t seen busy until you’ve seen mid-July thru the end of August on a vegetable farm.  The vegetables are finally appearing out of nowhere… there are now MOUNTAINS of goods maturing daily that need to be harvested, cleaned, packed and sold.  (Actually, they are appearing out of somewhere — all those thousands of seeds we planted back in the spring).  We are having to work hard and work fast and work long.  This ramp-up time, I remember from last year as well, is not necessarily a smooth transition.  It hits with a rude awakening.  With the lack of sleep and increasing frantic-ness around the farm, semi-major and semi-minor catastrophes start piling up in all of our personal lives as well.  This serves to remind us that oh wait, were we trying to *have* personal lives in mid-season on the farm??  That would be a silly and impossible idea 🙂

So it was on a Thursday at the beginning of July, as I awoke at 5:45, that I first felt it catching up to me.  For the first time this season, I did not want to go to work.  Alice and I dragged ourselves in to the barn.  I could not wait for the weekend and a chance to catch up on sleep.  “I can’t believe Saturday is still two days away,” I was thinking to myself.  Farmer Adam greeted us with his usual enthusiasm.  “Good mornin’ rockin’ ladies!  So we had talked about everyone having Monday off for the 4th of July, and that is still cool, but we’re going to have to work Saturday instead to make sure we have everything prepped for Sunday and Tuesday.”  Sinking-heart feeling.  Add an extra workday before that needed weekend.  Gotta go to bed early tonight, I thought to myself.  I drove home after work, and, feeling lazy, I drove all the way up to the yurt, maneuvering my car around the ruts and mooshy spots in the road instead of parking in the usual place on dry ground a little ways away from the yurt.

Friday dawned much the same as Thursday.  I hit the snooze button a few times, raced through bunny chores and wolfed down breakfast, then sped off in the car with about two minutes until 7am start time.  Sped off, that is, for a few feet until my car came to a dead standstill as it buried its right front tire in a deep mucky rut and propped its front end on a solid ledge of dirt.  FUUUUUUUuuuudge.  I walked in to work, arriving about 7 minutes late.  “Sorry Adam!”  “It’s okay, Becky.  Why don’t you go out to field D and harvest cabbage.”

Nice!  A new crop to harvest for the first time this season.  I swung my harvest knife with gusto, chopping through the thick, meaty stalks of the plants.  With practice, a harvester can make a single swipe to sever the cabbage head at exactly the right point so that it can be plopped directly into your tote without spending any extra time peeling away loose leaves.  You want to refine this skill so you can be quick because you have 158 heads to harvest this morning, and plenty of other tasks to get to after that.

Phone call: “Hi Adam, I finished cabbage.”  “Cool, why don’t you walk over a few beds to where Yolanda and Flaviano are harvesting parsley and help them finish up and then all come in together.”  Okay, great.  Okay, I’ve never harvested parsley before.  Okay, I don’t speak Spanish all that well so I’m going to watch how these two are doing it.  Man, I’m really hungry for lunch.  Man, I’m really… THWACK.

OHHHHHHHHHHHH FUUUUUUUUUUDDDDDDGGGGGGEEEEEEEE.

Holy effing frick, I just CHOPPED MY HAND with my harvest knife instead of the FRICKING PARSLEY. Not good not good not good.  Owwwwwwwww there’s blood, thumb goes in mouth, drop knife, grab cell phone, call Adam.  In the truck next to Adam, I examine my left hand and see that I’ve sliced neatly THROUGH MY FINGERNAIL at the very base of the thumbnail.  “I’m glad you’re okay, it’s going to be okay” says Adam as he takes me in.  I’m crying, from hurt and shock and embarrassment but I can tell I’m not injured badly enough to go to a hospital, just badly enough to bandage it real well, get some hugs, stop crying, sit down for an early lunch and then get back to work on some tasks requiring only one functional thumb.

After work that day, I headed home with Alice and my bandaged hand.  I was fully expecting her to be able to help me pop my car out of the mud situation.  We’d gotten the Jeep stuck plenty of times and it always just needed that extra shoulder shove.  What I’d forgotten to factor in was the difference in clearance between my car and the Jeep.  No shoulder shove in the world was going to get that Mazda off its little perch.  God damn it all.  I got weepy again as I limped my sorry ass home with a broken thumb, an immobilized car, the prospect of another 7am workday, and PMS.  (Seriously, it’s true, I have up to two grumpy and/or sad days per month and they were happening right now).  Everything seemed totally out of control and the only appropriate reaction seemed to be tears.  It’s kind of funny for me to have these emotional moments every now and then and kind of watch myself acting all irrational, because most of the time I am the most overly rational and cerebral person you’ll ever meet.  I always feel like I have to be in control of everything in life, to the point where it is a bad thing.  It takes a kind of big curveball (like almost cutting my thumb off) to knock me off my pre-planning mode into reactionary mode.  It’s obviously not super great to get injured, but it’s good for me to be reminded that life can’t ever be pre-planned, life just happens, unexpected things happen, and that’s the beauty of it.  Sometimes something really great could happen.  Sometimes shit could happen that makes you cry.

I have noticed that my dad seems to worry about me losing life and limb in a farming accident.  He has pointed out the dangers of propane heaters, tractor tires exploding, stepping on rusty nails, etc.  See, Dad, I have been listening. There are indeed lots of things that can happen.  I never would have considered parsley harvest a dangerous task – things just happen when you don’t have your mind focused properly.  Mom and Dad, I was scared of what you would say when I told you I hurt myself farming.  I briefly considered not telling you about it but it turned out I needed a Mom call to help me when I was crying and upset 🙂  Thanks for that, and thanks for not suggesting that I could avoid future injury by pursuing a less dangerous computery type activity.

The next day was Saturday, which was finally my last day of work for the week.  Alice was gone to the city so I was going to be dependent on either myself or the farmer bosses for getting my car out.  I mentioned it in the morning, hesitant to ask them for a favor.  “Yeah, we can help…” said Adam, when I asked in the morning, but I saw the “I don’t get a lot of time to spend with my family and have you really tried everything you can to get it out yourself?” look in his eye.  So I left work in the evening without asking again and I took a shovel home with me.  Instead of feeling frustrated this time, I was feeling doggedly determined.  Hello car, hello mud.  I’m going to do whatever I have to do to separate the two of you from each other.  And that is how I ended up spending my Saturday evening on my hands and knees in smelly muck, getting bitten by mosquitoes, with my arm up to my shoulder underneath my car while I had it up on my jack (which the manual is very explicit about CAUTIONing you NOT to do… sorry again for telling you this M & D), digging with a shovel and a hand trowel and my HANDS to unstick my car from the Earth.

Pro tip: shingles, discovered in a pile back behind the yurt, make excellent grippy things for tires to grab onto instead of mud.  They work better than 2×6’s.  One go-round of jacking… shovelling… trowelling… shingles… unjacking… rocking it back and forth between Forward and Reverse… I could feel it getting somewhere but not quite popping out.  Another go-round of the same.  Rock it, rock it, ever so slightly more each time…. aaaaaaand….. UP and over and out.  Oh good god yes.  Thank youuuuu….. mission accomplished.  I drove in to the barn and did my laundry and then I went to bed.

In a weird sort of way, all these unexpected events piling on top of each other have reminded me that I can relax and let life happen.  Scary and sad and frustrating things happen, but I can depend on myself to be able to deal with whatever it is – on my own and with the help of the others around me.  I can do more on my own than I give myself credit for.   I don’t have to fall into my usual trap of “I haven’t done that before so I can’t do it.”   I’m the queen of over-preparation, hedging against any eventuality so that nothing will ever “go wrong.”  When things go a little bit wrong, I get stressed out about it easily.  But as it turns out, when things go a lot wrong,  I can handle it.

As if I needed another occurrence to drive this point home, here’s another story from just a couple of days after the prior events.

Backstory: As you may know, we are raising meat rabbits at the yurt.  They are 7 weeks old at this point, and have been moved out of their Mamas’ hutches and into a separate run where they can graze.  Alice’s dog Russ has been driven to distraction by our poor bunny-management skills.  As a hunting dog, he is simply following his instinct to track and chase these little critters that kept escaping the run that we had built with too-large a gauge of wire.  “We gotta fix it so they don’t keep getting out,” Alice and I kept saying to each other.  But the task got pushed to the back burner.  Each morning we’d get up, round up one or two little escapees, and put them back into the run.  It stressed me out that it kept happening, but I felt too busy to do anything about it.  So.  Cut to a Weds afternoon less than one week after all the above incidents.  Alice leaves Russ home with me while she’s out and about.  I’m alone near the yurt, doing some gardening, when I hear a frantic high-pitched sqealing.  Without knowing what’s going on, alarm signals start firing in my brain.  I drop my watering can and run to the yurt where Russ has chased, caught, and killed one of our rabbits.  The white bunny lies twitching on the ground, already dead with its neck broken but involuntarily spasming as Russ stands by looking aghast at what his instinct has caused him to do.  I, also instinctually, scream some nonsense at the dog that causes him to run into the yurt with his tail between his legs.  I then stand there over the small furry body, “Ohhhhh, nooooooo….” all I can think.  There’s no blood – it’s a clean kill.  I’ve seen a dead rabbit before when I helped my friend Noe process hers, and my mind clicks in.  I have to process it.  I have to.  This was an accident and I’m feeling awful and guilty about an early death being caused by my poor animal husbandry, but these rabbits were being raised for meat and now this animal is about to become meat, if I can remember what I learned from Noe.

It’s almost like I’m watching myself from an external standpoint.  My actions are not pre-thought-out but simply happening by necessity.  I pick up the bunny and leave it on the picnic table while I walk into the house and get a knife.  It’s not sharp so I get out Alice’s sharpening block and sharpen it – a skill I only learned recently. I walk outside and cut the rabbit’s head off to bleed it.  I can’t believe I’m doing this.  Standing on my front lawn butchering a tiny animal.  But at the same time I’m feeling focused, knowing what I need to do.  Next I need to hang it up.  I go inside and get my drill, a recent aqcuisition from my Gramp — little did he know what I’d need it for!  I put two screws at eye level into the back of the yurt platform and search around for twine to make the slipknots that will hold the rabbit’s hind legs.  No twine.  No string.  I find some red curling ribbon from my present-wrapping stash.  Festive.  I tie two slipknots.  I bring a five gallon bucket to catch the internal organs and a bucket of water for the hide and two ziploc bags — one for the carcass and one for the giblets.  I hang the rabbit and I skin it.  I remember where to make the cuts and how to pull the hide off.  I save the pelt.  I’m feeling intensely focused and quite calm.  I slit open the abdomen and pull out the insides, saving liver and kidneys.  The liver looks healthy compared to some at Noe’s which had spotty livers indicating parasitic infection.  I puncture the diaphragm, pull out and discard the lungs, pull out and save the heart.  It cleans up easily and cleanly – the last things are to remove the tail and hind legs.  The little carcass feels familiar in my hands as I clean it off with water and slide it into a baggie.  It’s smaller than the ones I did at Noe’s, but not all that much smaller.  There is meat here, and Alice and I are going to be able to eat it, turning this lemon into lemonade and following through on our original intention to raise these meat animals for our own consumption.

And we did.  Two days later we both had the morning off and we made wine-braised rabbit with onions and fennel and ate it together for lunch.  It was delicious, albeit a little earlier than planned.  It was a moment for us both to pause in our increasingly busy lives, look each other in the eyes, and appreciate the import of what we are doing: trying to do the best we can to eat *well*, in every sense.  The rest of the butchering is going to be easier to do because of this.  Having been surprised into doing it once without any forethought or preparation and having done it properly, I feel confident about doing it again in a planned fashion.

I’ll post the rabbit recipe later.  Right now it is 8:45 pm and I’m going to make the smart move of going to bed.  My thumb is to the point where I wear a Band-Aid for work and leave it uncovered the rest of the time.  It looks gnarly but it’s going to be allright.  My car is safely parked at the barn and I’ve been biking to and from the yurt which is nice anyway. We added a layer of chickenwire to the rabbit run and have had no escapees since. Today I had a great farm day in which I packed and delivered vegetables to three CSA drop-off sites, two restaurants, and a grocery store.  Tomorrow I’m going to wake up and harvest some more produce and tend to some more plants.  Or maybe not – you never know what’s going to happen until it happens, do you?  But you can bet it’s going to be another good day in the life.