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 “my” farm!


At Betsey's farm: garlic field in front, vineyards behind

I brought my camera along yesterday when I went and spent the day with Betsey.  So here are a couple of shots of the scenery and animals there at the Day Road farm, where I’ll be living and working starting in April.

It’s been great working there so far, kind of like being in school except the classes are something along the lines of: 10am-1pm prune grapevines; 1-2pm coffee and lunch break at Rolling Bay Cafe (Betsey: “This is pretty much what we do  – go for coffee and talk about farming”); 2-3pm plant onion seeds; 3-5pm more pruning.

While we were dropping the onion seeds into the trays of potting mix, Betsey told me some stories about learning to work with draft horses for plowing and mowing hay and such.  She got her instruction in this from some old cowboy types in Montana – one of them named “Bulldog.”  I have lots of horse experience but never done anything like this before and I reallllly cannot wait to check out the harness and plowing equipment and give it a whirl with Sam (Samantha), Betsey’s old Suffolk mare.

Fuzzy! adorable! as yet unnamed 2-year-old Suffolk filly that Betsey bought recently to take over the farm work as Samantha is getting older.   This little one was very curious and wanted to play with me.

Most of the day was spent pruning grapevines in the vineyard.  There are over 12,000 grape vines on the property.  It’s a good thing I don’t have to prune them all because it would take about 12,000 hours… luckily Betsey is about 10 times as fast at it as I am!  Basically what has to be done is chop off last year’s “arms” – the thick wood at the bottom of the plant – and choose two of last year’s thinner canes to become this year’s arms.  The canes that you choose get tied down into a “Y” shape at the bottom of the trellis and the rest of the canes get lopped off and thrown away.  There are many criteria that go into making this choice, so it takes me a while of closeup examination and weighing the options before I decide which canes to chop off and which to leave.  Betsey of course can look at the plant out of the corner of one eye and know exactly what to do and make the cuts all in about 2 seconds flat.  But I had fun and got a couple rows of vines pruned during the afternoon.

future wine

Rows of grape vines to prune

On the downside of the day…. lest I give the impression that everything is idyllic and perfect… at the end of the day I got a closer look at the house where I and the other apprentices will be living for the season.  It is pretty old and decrepit and needs a *lot* of fixing up and cleaning before it is going to be liveable.  So I have my work cut out for me there for the next couple months.  To close, here are a few more images from the farm!

bees and seeds