A city season

I’m on the Seattle light-rail train, rumbling through the industrial area south of the city on my way to the airport. There is snow on the ground and more falling from the sky.

I’ve been in Seattle for the past week, catching up with friends and taking care of errands in between moving off the farm and heading back east for the Thanksgiving holiday. It feels appropriate that my transition off the farm was marked by a very obvious transition of the season. It rarely ever snows in Seattle, so a visible blanketing in mid November is enough of an event to make for a lot of “it’s a winter wonderland!” facebook status updates. It’s cold. The leaves are gone from the trees. It gets dark at 4:30 in the afternoon. So it makes sense, I keep telling myself, that I’m waking up in Seattle instead of on Bainbridge. I miss the farms, but there’s no farming to do right now! So it’s time to change it up and settle into a winter routine.

After Thanksgiving, I’ll be spending the winter working a software job in Seattle. I decided that I want to farm again for sure next season, and I lucked out – with this short term contract job I should be able to save up enough money to make it possible. I could see myself doing this dual life thing for awhile: working and living in the city December thru March and then spending the rest of the year farming. A transitory lifestyle clearly has its drawbacks — the post office’s forwarding address system is probably going to short circuit itself trying to keep up with all my recent moves — but being in new places and meeting new people also keeps life interesting.

So as much as I miss the daily life on the farm, I am really looking forward to a Seattle winter. I miss the farm “family” (Betsey, Brian, and the girls). But this week reminded me that I also have an awesome Seattle “family” of really dear friends who I can spend more time with now. This week was great as so many of my friends are unemployed or underemployed right now that I was never at a loss for friends to hang out with, even during the day on weekdays! A big goal for my winter is to spend tons of quality time with these people… you know who you are :-). I also want to log lots of miles on my bike, build something, re-learn Lindy Hop, and learn how to drive stick finally. (This last being a very necessary farming skill that it would behoove me to pick up before next season!)

Of course, when I started the internship I was looking at it more as a temporary break from “regular life” rather than a permanent shift in lifestyle. There are some important issues I’ve been putting off addressing that I’ll need to deal with soon if I intend to keep farming. For instance, I have a cavity I need to get filled, and I need new tires on my car. Questions to think about: Will I ever be able to resume adding money to my retirement accounts? Does that matter? How much private health insurance coverage do I need versus how much can I afford?

I didn’t fully appreciate how cushy my former job as a salaried software engineer was when I had it, with its high salary and great benefits. I could have been saving more. Now, though, it feels good to be making more conscious decisions about the amount and type of work that I do, how much time I take off, and how much money I really need to spend on “stuff.” Paying for healthcare out of pocket makes me appreciate it more. Trying to look on the bright side here. What I really love is the feeling of being a producer of something tangible. As an engineer I got used to a steady paycheck that didn’t depend at all on what I actually did that week. As a farmer, there’s a more direct relationship between work and reward: I make money by creating (growing) a product through my own effort & skill and then finding a way to sell it directly to a consumer. The amount I make feels a lot more tied to my own ability to work hard and work smart. Of course the regular paycheck is great, and I couldn’t argue with you if you pointed out how dumb it seems to purposefully walk away from a career with that kind of security. But I feel excited about growing food in a way I never felt about computers, and I feel like I’m reaching for the “work to live, not live to work” ideal. We’ll see if I can pull it off.

To that end, I’m visiting a few farms in the Puget Sound area to “interview” for a position for next year. There are two that I’m really excited about at the moment and I would be thrilled if either of them worked out. I feel sad when I think about not spending another season with Brian and Betsey after how much I loved being there this year. What if I don’t love my next farm as much? But I know that I’ll learn much, much more by moving on to a new place. Everyone has their own ways of dong things and it’s best for me to see several so that I have more information going into my own potential future farming endeavors. I’m looking for a slightly larger-scale farm for next year, growing a wide variety of crops and selling through a wide variety of market channels. I’m looking for a new community of people and a new piece of earth to get to know.

Ok that’s about enough. Kudos to you if you made it through all of that. Happy Holiday to all — let’s enjoy winter as we look forward to spring!

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Thoughts on being done

So, October is over and the end of the season has come. It’s been a good fall as it was a good summer and a good spring. Looking back over the whole seven months, it’s one of those things where somehow all at the same time it feels like it’s been forever and it has also flown by.

The last few weeks of the apprenticeship were great — it was such a treat to relax a bit and enjoy the fall days as things on the farms were winding down. We finished digging all Betsey’s potatoes and sweet potatoes and put them into storage. We went through the piles of onions, throwing out the mushy ones (there were a lot) and cleaning up the good ones for sale through the winter. We were able to spend *half* days harvesting for Brian’s CSA instead of *all* day Tuesdays and Thursdays. The CSA members are still getting a lot of good hardy veggies — collards, kale, chard, beets, carrots, squash, broccoli. But since we’re done harvesting tomatoes, corn, cucumbers, etc, we have all this luxurious extra time to do things like PLANTING again! It felt so good to sow Brian’s cover crop and let the fields go to rest for the winter. The rye/vetch mix that we planted is grown in Seqim by Nash’s farm and it will do what any good cover crop should: 1) fix nitrogen in the soil so it will be available to the veggies next year, and 2) grow into a nice tall grass that will act as a “green manure” adding lots of good organic matter when it is tilled in next April. That cover crop really wants to grow; the seed sprouted within a couple days of planting and by now it is looking like a lush green blanket in the fields.

It was fun to plant cover crop because we’ve been doing very little planting at this time of year. Spring is for planting, fall is mostly for harvesting. With a noticeable exception: garlic! Garlic seed gets planted in Oct/Nov and grows over the winter so that it will size up for an early harvest next year in July. So this past week or so, whenever there was a break in the rain, Betsey would rush us all out there to get the garlic in the ground. 9000 garlic seeds to plant… it takes a little while. It is repetitious work but it felt *great* to be hands-in-the-dirt planting vegetables again, and this time with the perspective of the whole season behind us — I know what those little garlics are going to look like as they grow and how they are going to be harvested and processed next year. Betsey saves all of her own garlic seed, so we got to help with the seed selection process. What do garlic seeds look like, you may ask? Well they aren’t the type of seeds you might be picturing… you grow garlic by splitting apart a head and planting each clove. So you can get up to 10 or 12 new garlics from each head if you plant every clove. But Betsey’s process is a little more involved: you select the largest heads of each variety and then break the heads apart and save only the largest cloves from each for replanting. It’s fun to think about how we are helping nature out with a little natural selection of our own! Betsey has been able to significantly grow the size of her garlic heads by following this method for many years. She really is the garlic queen! In fact she dressed up as garlic for our final farmers market on Oct 30:

Goofy Halloween market: Betsey (garlic), Erin (farmin' Carmen Miranda), Renee (eggplant), Becky (cowgirl). Stacy is absent because she got roped into chicken processing at Brian's farm that morning.

I’m going to get sappy now, but I need to say that this apprenticeship experience has truly been one of the most transformative and wonderful times in my life, right up there with study abroad as an intense suck-out-the-marrow, taste every breath, feel fully alive and in the right place life experience. I have learned a lot about the hows and whys of farming; I have also learned a lot about myself and how to be in the world. I hope everybody can have such an experience in one way or another – obviously it’s not going to be growing vegetables for everyone, but I feel like there are a lot of people who are going along in comfortable but unfulfilled lives like I was who could use a radical life shift like I found, a kick in the head that says, this is your one life to live; get out there and make the most of it.

Some things that I have gained from farming. The obvious: The confidence that I can plant a seed and it will grow. That I can tell when a vegetable is ready for harvest. That I can make choices about how to grow food to maximize yield and quality while still using resources sustainably. Knowledge of the layout of chicken internals. The ability to confidently reverse an enormous van with no windows into a parking space. The not so obvious: An uncanny ability to estimate 8 oz and 1 lb of things without weighing. A newfound comfort level with spiders on my person and in my living environment. Inspiration on how to be a contributing member of a community where each person has a useful skill and trade/gifts are the norm. Inspiration on how to be true to oneself and still be a great boss and mentor. A little toughening up (Hands dirty? Wipe them on your pants and eat your lunch. Cut yourself? Slap some duct tape on it) in the face of new and interesting challenges (there are mouse turds in the kitchen… Okay, now there’s a dead mouse in a mousetrap to deal with.) An addiction to spending my days outdoors doing physical work and the realization that I can’t go back to life as I used to know it.

It is looking like I will have a computery-type job and a place to live in Seattle this winter. The pieces for both are kind of falling into place in the sort of effortless way that the universe sometimes hands you with a gentle nudge saying “this is the right thing to do…” I’m hoping that the job and the place to live in Seattle will be for Jan/Feb/March, and that next farm season will find me back to the land — if not here on Bainbridge then on some farm and doing this again.

Thanks for reading my blog. Here’s a little photo summary of the season, following a few of our crops from beginning to end. I took a million and a half pictures. I bet my colleagues got a little tired of all the camera-ing around! But it was great to look back through all the images and remember the phases of the farm season. Enjoy!

Weeding young garlic - April

Harvesting garlic - July

Garlic for sale - July

Garlic braided for sale - September

Starting brassica seeds in Brian's greenhouse - April

Transplanting seedlings - May

Harvested greens ready to be prepped for market -August

Beautiful vegetables for sale - September

Laying down drip tape on tomato seedlings - May

Tomato plants growing up stakes - July

Tomato harvest - September

Ripping out tomato plants & stakes at the end of the season - October

Planting potatoes - April

Potato plants beginning to grow - May

Digging potatoes - August

Potatoes front and center in Betsey's market display - August

Potatoes getting boxed up for storage - October

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.

 

 

Pictures of Sam

A dearly loved Belgian draft horse passed away last night.   Betsey’s 27 year old mare Samantha was fine on Friday, we got home from the farmers’ market on Saturday and she was clearly ill, and by 9pm she had died.  Betsey was able to be there to help her through her final moments and I was honored to be there to assist.

It was  a good long and rich horse life.  Betsey tells many stories about her experiences learning to drive with Samantha and taking Sam camping on wagon trains throughout the state of Washington.  Betsey wrote a blog post the day after Sam’s death that recounts some of these stories.

Countless people, including all of us interns and elementary school kids from around the corner, got to try their hand at driving Sam – she was smart but tolerant and good with newbies.  Sam will always be the horse that taught be to drive and I’m happy to have known her if only briefly.   Here are some pictures!  We’ll miss you, Sam.

 

Betsey and Samantha - both amazing teachers in their own ways. In their 20 years together, Bets and Sam have given many people a chance to learn about draft horses and how they can be used for farm work.

Betsey talking with Erin about how to operate the discing machinery. Erin and I got to be a part of Sam's last field work, one week before she died.

Me cultivating beetween the rows of crops with Sam.

Samantha enjoying her pasture in the sun.

 

A visit to StartNow Gardens.

Bremerton, WA.

The house next door:

Bremerton: The house next door to Jean and Glenn's.

Jean and Glenn’s house:

Betsey, Renee, and Erin observe the front yard with Jean. Zucchini, peppers, eggplant, lettuce.

Betsey took us on an awesome field trip a couple weeks ago, to visit StartNow Gardens in Bremerton.  This is an urban farm built since 2003 by an amazing couple named Jean and Glenn.  They have taken two city lots (they own two houses next door to each other, live in one and rent out the other) and transformed the space from boring yard into blooming farm.  A composting system, fruit trees, berry bushes, raised beds, tomatoes in pots, an abundance of beautiful vegetables.  Solar panels.  A walk-in cooler powered by a window air conditioning unit.  Three levels of rooftop garden connected by wooden catwalks.  Everything meticulously maintained and every inch of space seemingly used.

Glenn by the greenhouses, salad bed, and herb bed in the front yard

The pictures speak for themselves.  Farming is possible in the city.  Imagine how much food could come out of Seattle if every neighborhood had a farm like this.  Alternatively, imagine if every family had a single raised bed in their yard that made up a distributed, shared farm.

Fruit trees, strawberries, and solar panels on the multi-level rooftop garden

Jean and Glenn sell their produce, and soups they make from their produce, through a tiny, new, grocery store in Bremerton called FreshLocal.  They have a secure market for their food as long as the store can stay in business.   What do the Seattle city regulations have to say about growing food for sale on a residential lawn?  What if you could feed yourself and make money from your little front yard garden?

Parking strip full of kale

I was definitely inspired by the visit and by seeing Jean and Glenn’s commitment to making a difference in their own corner of the world.   Makes me want to go out and follow suit.  Starting Now.

More pictures here: http://picasaweb.google.com/rwarner2/StartnowGardens#

"This is super cool!" Me and Betsey with Glenn and Jean on the roof

Holy goodness, it’s August

Wow!  I kind of lost track of the blog there in July — too much going on.  But life is good.  The past month has been just an explosion of things growing.  All the stuff we’ve planted over the last few months is now ready for harvest… so we’ve been harvesting, harvesting harvesting all the livelong day.  Additionally, there has been: a fantastic visit with my parents who flew here from Michigan, getting to go horseback riding with a friend of Betsey’s on her lovely saddlebred horses, occasional bike trips to Seattle, eating venison over a bonfire with friends at Betsey’s house, hosting Seattle friends visiting the farm, learning chicken butchery and still being able to eat chicken, hacking at grapevines with a machete, getting to know the regulars at the farmers market, working 7am to 7pm, not getting enough sleep, getting sick with tonsilitis, harvesting potatoes, harvesting tomatoes, harvesting blueberries. Harvesting zucchini and cucumbers from my own garden now.  Etc. Etc. Etc.

It’s been the kind of busy where I go to write in my journal at night and I can’t remember what all I did during the morning.  The kind where I’m trying to recall when it was that something happened and realize it was just yesterday.  Really?  Yesterday?  It seems like a week ago!  But I love it… I love working the farmers market and interacting with customers and talking about the produce.  I love showing off the farm to visitors.  I love hanging out with my farmer bosses as friends during a moment of downtime.  And best of all, I’m starting to noodle on some ideas of what’s going to happen to me in a few months when I’m done with the apprenticeship here.  Stay tuned!

That’s all for now —

B

Farm fresh food: Garlic Scape Fritatta

A couple weeks ago, I found myself needing to make a quick potluck dish for a little get-together at Betsey’s. It wasn’t really an impromptu thing but (as usual) the time to cook had arrived I hadn’t taken the time to really plan out what dish I was making or go buy ingredients for any recipe.

Luckily, I didn’t need the grocery store. There were all the ingredients for a frittata right there in Betsey’s fields. The chickens contributed some amazingly orange-yolked eggs. We had a huge surplus of garlic scapes. I took home a couple of “seconds” potatoes and onions (not quite beautiful enough for market but still just as tasty). I added some spinach from my own garden. With salt, pepper, Parmesan cheese and olive oil, you’ve got a farm-fresh frittata! I topped it off with some herbed chevre from Port Madison Creamery and a bit of Persephone Farm parsley. Yum!

It was so satisfying to see all the raw ingredients come straight out of the land, get combined into a really basic and wholesome dish, and then get eaten around the fire pit at Betsey’s. We grow our own food here. We work awfully hard at it, but the results are so worth it if we take the time to enjoy them.

Anyone with access to a farmers market can make this type of dish pretty much any time of year. The beauty of this fritatta is that it can be made with many combinations of ingredients. Get a dozen eggs and make sure they are from pastured chickens. Get some onions and/or garlic and potatoes (all three usually available at market year round). Add whatever else is in season, whether it’s spinach or zucchini or kale. Try to get some local cheese (I failed on that one as mine was from Trader Joe’s!)

Here’s the recipe and a few pictures:

Harvesting garlic scapes

Ingredients

  • 1 Tbsp olive oil
  • 2 cups or so of potatoes, cut into very thin half-circles
  • 1 medium onion, chopped (about 1 cup)
  • 8 or 10 garlic scapes, chopped into 1-inch pieces
  • 1/2 lb spinach leaves, cleaned, chopped
  • 9 large eggs
  • 2 Tbsp milk
  • 1/3 cup grated Parmesan cheese
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
  • fresh parsley, chopped (optional topping)
  • 3 oz goat cheese (optional topping)

Fritatta ingredients: eggs, spinach, onions, potatoes and garlic scapes.

Method

  • Preheat oven to 400°F.
  • In a mixing bowl, whisk together eggs, milk, and Parmesan cheese. Season with salt and pepper. Set aside.
  • Sauté scapes, onions, and potatoes in olive oil in an oven-proof, stick-free skillet, until cooked through, about 4-5 minutes on medium-high heat. Add a little water if they start to stick.
  • Throw spinach on top and mix in, cook til wilted.
  • Spread out spinach mixture evenly on bottom of skillet. Reduce heat to Medium. Pour egg mixture over spinach mixture. Use a spatula to lift up the spinach mixture along the sides of the pan to let egg mixture flow underneath.
  • Sprinkle bits of goat cheese over the top of the frittata mixture if desired. When the mixture is about half set, put the whole pan in the oven. Bake for 13-15 minutes, until frittata is puffy and golden.
  • Remove from oven with oven mitts and sprinkle with chopped parsley, if using. Let cool for several minutes.
  • Cut into 8 pieces and serve with fresh bread and a mixed greens salad!

Finished frittatta topped with parsley and chevre.

Fritatta as the centerpiece of a delicious meal.