The 2011 farm

Wow… so February is slipping by & I’ve been so busy posting about bikes (and riding bikes), I haven’t even officially shared the bigger news:  I have a farm home for the 2011 season!  I decided to do a second season of apprenticeship at a different farm.  So, at the beginning of April I’ll be moving to Oxbow Farm.  Here is an aerial shot of part of the farm:

Oxbow from the air

So what’s the deal with this place?  How did I end up here?  Well, 2010 was my experimental year to give farming a try and see what I thought.  My frame of reference at the beginning of 2010 was: I knew that I liked gardening, I liked eating good food, and I was beginning to care more and more about where food came from and the farming practices used to grow it.  I felt a need to find out more about exactly what it took to run a small-scale organic vegetable farm.  I wanted to get to know people who were actually making a living doing what I thought I might want to do, observe them, learn from them and do the work alongside them.  That’s what the Bainbridge apprenticeship season was all about.  Brian and Betsey were the people I wanted to learn from, and I was ready to jump in and give it a try.  I was excited to be doing something totally new, and simultaneously a bit nervous about the possibility that I would hate it or be overwhelmed by it or not fit in.

But guess what?  You know what, if you’ve been reading my blog.  I loved it.  The results of my experiment were that I loved farming and the passion that I started feeling for it has changed me into a new and more interesting person.  It’s true.  As the 2010 season neared its end, I knew without a doubt that I wanted to keep at it.  I felt that I both enjoyed it enough and was good enough at it that I wanted to keep learning and pursuing this as a lifestyle/career.   I decided that a second year of apprenticeship was in order.  In year one, everything was new.  In year two, I will know the basics and I can focus on more of the important small details.  It kind of feels like college – like I’m in farming grad school or something.

Instead of returning to the Bainbridge farms for another season, I felt like I could learn more by taking a position at a different farm in the Puget Sound area.  I love the Bainbridge folks and will miss them a lot.  But it also felt right to branch out and meet a new farm.  I was looking for something just slightly larger-scale, growing a wide variety of veggies, with a traditional CSA program, farmers market and restaurant sales.  I was lucky to find just the place in Oxbow Farm.

Oxbow is located in the Snoqualmie Valley between the towns of Carnation and Duvall — east of Seattle by about 40 minutes.  The place is 20 acres of gorgeous panorama – walking along the river next to the farm’s fields and looking out over the long valley with the mountains in the distance makes me catch my breath.  The farmers in charge are named Luke Woodward and Adam McCurdy.  Luke has been farm manager for something like 12 years; Adam joined him as co-manager 4 years ago.   This is what they look like:

Oxbow Farm managers

I didn’t take that picture, but it correctly represents Luke and Adam’s enthusiasm!!  I’m excited to work with them.  The farm will have either 3 or 4 apprentices this year, with one being me!!  Another one is a delightful young lady named Alice, who was actually the reason I found out about Oxbow.  I met Alice at a conference and we hit it off big time.  She apprenticed at Oxbow last season and liked it enough to come back for a second year – which of course speaks volumes about the farm and managers. I followed up with her after the conference and went out for a visit to meet the farmers.  We corresponded a bit and I sent them some references, and they told me they want me to work there.  And I want to work there.  Everybody wins!

At Oxbow we will sell at 4 different farmers’ markets, two of which are in the city of Seattle.  That will be a lot of fun. I’m also looking forward to a bit of an adventure as far as my living situation goes: Alice and I will be living together in a 30-foot-diameter yurt on the property. We get to be very self-sufficient, chopping wood for our woodstove and hauling water to fill our water tank!  Sounds fun right now but I imagine it will sound like work pretty darn soon 🙂

An Oxbow, I learned, is a U-shaped lake that results when a river meanders and curves and eventually cuts itself off so that a lake is left behind.  There is one of these lakes on the property… see the pic above!   The farm actually sits inside a big bend in the Snoqualmie River, so there is river on three sides.   It’s very lovely and I am excited to be so near a body of water.   Looking out to see water or mountains always does something to me as I’m sure it does to all humans — it reminds us of the largeness and wonderfulness of the world.  I guess the correct word is “awe.”  It’s a feeling that used to overwhelm me a little.  When I would get to thinking about the bigger picture I started feeling small and insignificant and unsure of where I could fit into the universe.  My reaction has recently changed, however, so that now I somehow feel more alive and eager and excited when I contemplate the wider world.  It feels like a reminder of how great it is to be here – it gets me out of my little box of self-absorption that I usually walk around in.  It wakes me up to think about appreciating life and the opportunity to be in this world, explore it, taste it as much as possible.  I actually know exactly when this perception shift happened.  In August 2009 when I was in the middle of my “quarter-life crisis,” I took a backpacking trip to the WA coast.  The first couple nights I spent with some friends camping in a woodsy campsite.  The last night, my friends left and I remained there alone.  I moved my tent out to the beach, where I could see no other humans.  I had a long expanse of rocks, sand, gray churning waves, and windy misty skies all to myself.  I had literally moved out of an enclosed space into a place where I was addressing the infinite.  It would be hard not to have a life-changing moment in such a situation; that’s what I had gone there looking for and I found it.  As I walked along the shore by myself I started feeling empowered, optimistic, and *part* of this big world instead of an outside observer.  I came back from the trip eager to get out there and do something meaningful.  Within the next couple of months I found my way to the farm apprenticeship opportunity.

Took a tangent there.  The point is, I’m happy that I’ll have both water and mountains to look at from my front door at the farm this year.

At the moment I’m feeling stretched in between not two but *three* different worlds.  I want to hold on to my ties to the Bainbridge friends & community that I connected with so strongly last year, so I’ve been visiting the island when I can (I’m actually here right  now, housesitting and riding some horsies – yay!)  Secondly, I’m living in Seattle currently and keeping busy with city concerns (work, riding bikes, drum lessons, eating out, drinking, partying… yeesh ;-)).  Thirdly, I’m eager to jump into the Oxbow scene; there’s work to be done already and I’ve been trying to head out that direction occasionally too, to start getting comfortable with the place and people.  So, I’ve been feeling a tad bit scattered.  I want to get my singularity of focus back that I feel has slipped away during my city season.  It may be a hectic March with moving again… I feel like I *just* moved!!  And I’ll be sad to leave Seattle in just a little over a month.  But I’ll be really, really happy to settle in on the new farm and see what 2011 has in store.

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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.