April on the Farm

A significant portion of my time as a farm manager is spent making to-do lists.  For the crew’s next day, week, or month of work.  For our purchases.  For repairs.  For emails I have to send.  The lists are occasionally in my head, but are almost always on paper, and now sometimes on GoogleDocs.

To celebrate all of the wonderful things that we have accomplished here on the farm this past month, I would like to share with you a most-of-what-we-have-done list.  Some items on this list are triumphs, big or small, while others are just the facts.

  • Planted ACRES of veggies, in the form of seed or transplants, out into the fields. Includes: potatoes, onions, shallots, scallions, strawberries, lettuce, kale, collards, chard, carrots, turnips, broccoli, cabbage, Napa cabbage, kohlrabi, peas, radishes, fava beans, arugula, beets, fennel, parsnips, cilantro and dill.
  • Covered about an acre of the farm in row cover.
  • In the greenhouse, we have seeded at least one succession of pretty much every crop that we can start in the greenhouse, with the exception of melons and winter squash.
  • Got some early cover crops down.  We have planted about 4 acres of peas and oats to help fix nitrogen and add organic matter to the soil before we put our tomatoes and other nightshades in come June.
  • Purchased several tons of compost, and spread about half of it in the flower garden and in our new strawberry field.
  • Crossed Route 20 a collective 500 times, at least.
  • Started work with a high school senior from the Winsor School who is completing her senior project on the farm.
  • With the education staff, we led a group of 25 freshman from the Rivers School in planting 5000 strawberries in 2 hours!
  • Our open volunteer days started!
  • Swiftly diagnosed an infestation of onion maggots in some of our alliums.
  • Made numerous repairs to our large disc harrow.
  • Gave our Hi-Boy Cub tractor  a tune up.
  • As a crew, have eaten at least a dozen bags of chips. All kinds of chips.
  • We started cultivating to knock out weeds in between our rows of crops using our Allis Chalmers G and the toolbar on our larger tractor.
  • Took 5 educational crop walks as a crew.
  • Put deer fence up around 8 acres worth of crops.
  • Successfully kept rodent damage to a minimum in our greenhouse.

Next month (June) we will add running the stand, harvesting and weeding to the field prep, planting, supervising and pest control.  Also, our crew size will double! The farm season hustle is only just beginning.

Over and out,

Melanie Hardy, Farm Manager at Land’s Sake Farm.

Peas, beans, our new tractor at work, tiny onions, sprouting garlic.

Just as the snow began to fall late last Thursday afternoon, Hilary, Stephanie and I completed our large planting of peas and fava beans.

As far as cultivated, annual crops that are grown here in the Northeast go, fava plants grow from what are the Clydesdale of seeds.  Far too enormous to fit through the largest holes in our push seeders, we planted them by hand, almost one by one.  I’ve never planted favas before, but have heard rave reviews from farmer friends about their tastiness.  I can’t wait to try ’em in a couple of months.  It sounds like they are delicious grilled, per the suggestion of my favorite vegetable recipe blogger, Heidi Swanson, over at 101cookbooks.

Stephanie painstakingly planting favas.

We planted shelling peas, along with the more popular snap and snow varieties.  Sixteen beds total, plus the favas.  It was a great way to end a week, with the three of us converging on a field to complete a full planting of something that we all are looking forward to so much, with the knowledge that we had accomplished quite a bit that week tucked in the back of our heads.

Hilary seeding snap peas.

Pea seeds in the Planet Jr. I love this trusty seeder.

Check out our **BRAND NEW TRACTOR** at work, pulling a disc harrow in the big Green Power field.  In case my capitalized letters and asterisks aren’t enough of a hint to you readers, a new tractor is a very exciting thing to a farmer, indeed.  We got about 5 acres disced up in Green Power on Thursday with the new 75 horsepower, green and yellow beauty.  The area we disced is where we are going to plant our early brassicas (cabbage, broccoli, kale, etc.), our large onion planting, and some quick spring cover crops in preparation for the many crops that we will be growing in that field this season.

Starting a new season with a new tractor is pretty awesome, to say the least. We are so grateful for this more powerful (and good lookin’) tractor.

Spring is all kinds of exciting, as it tends to be, what with all of the waking up, growing, and brightening in color that is happening.

Tiny onions started back in the first week of March creating a sea of green in our tiny greenhouse.

Our greenhouse gets greener by the day, and we actually have no more space for new trays of plants to be set out, and won’t have anymore until we pull some trays out to harden off early next week.  Also, check it out–our garlic is poking through its straw blanket.

Our garlic is beginning to grow!

Happy April!

Melanie Hardy, Farm Manager

Team Maple

After spending all day Friday in the maple sweat lodge that we call the Sugar Shack, I am afraid that maple season is drawing to an end, and as a farmer often does throughout the year, I feel slightly thwarted by nature.  As most of New England eagerly awaits the increasing number of nights that are above freezing, I have been dreading them, as the maple trees rush toward budding and the end of the season’s sap production. We started off the maple season with chilly days, and the trees were slow to respond to the coming of spring.  Suddenly, we have this past week of balmy nights with no sap flows; somewhere in those few short weeks between, we had a couple of magical days where the sap literally flew out of the trees.  If you broke the tip of a branch, the sap was even forced to flow out the broken bud! What a marvel of nature that is the sugar maple.

This is my first maple season as a farmer. I came into this position of authority over the Sugar Shack with two weekends of “vacation” maple sugaring up at a family member’s sugar bush in Vermont. I say “vacation” because any maple sugaring that involves a hot tub is surely a pleasurable weekend more than a true training experience. This February, I received a quick overview on the operations of Land’s Sake’s Sugar Shack and was left to my own devices…my own forgetful devices. Thank goodness we have a staff of amazing people with varying degrees of experience in maple and all very willing to answer my questions at all hours (Thanks, Doug). To kick off the boiling season, I got the fire roaring in the evaporator and cleared Dave to go get himself some morning coffee, while I tended the fire and sap levels. Since I had forgotten to get vegetable oil, Dave was happy to swing by the store on his way back. Unfortunately, I was a little too good at making big fire fast, which made for big boil fast, which resulted in what I deemed the “foam monster” emerging from the rear pan, grasping at me with bubbly arms and hissing in satisfaction. I panicked. Like kryptonite to Superman, fat is the only way to defeat the “foam monster” of maple, and I was fresh out. I tried to gently comb the foam down, expecting a purring submission, but no such luck. I called Dave and politely asked him to “Hurry!”. Upon his arrival, I was able to break the surface tension of the monster, and since then, I have yet to sight it again. It was just testing me on my first day and, realizing my competence and vigilance, has retired for another year.

The rhythm of the sugar shack is one I can appreciate, as a creature that really loves a routine that I can master and then repeat mindlessly. You would think that a twelve hour day in the Sugar Shack with only two draws and two bottlings would be a day of empty spaces, with time to ponder the upcoming farm season and time to get “stuff” done. Lists, guides, planning, blogs, reading…I had big plans to get all these things accomplished while a captive audience to the evaporator. However, maple season has its own rules about consistency and constancy and quickly turns into a full-time job. Check the fire, push it back, add wood to one side, check the levels in the pans, adjust the float valves, check the levels in the sap tanks, estimate the length of boil until the next draw, check the temperature gauges, skim the foam, rinse out supplies, check the fire, push it back, add wood to the other side, check the levels, draw off, rinse the filters, check the temperature, and so on. Suddenly, the rhythm shifts at 219 degrees and a flurry of new activity kicks in involving bottles and caps, sticky gloves, damp clothes, occasional cracked glass, spills, and attempts to get the last dregs out of the finishing pan and into our mouths. Yes, as you may have suspected, the perks to tending the sugaring process happens to be endless syrup gleanings. I have planned my trip to the dentist this spring accordingly.

 

After completing my first year as Assistant Farm Manager at Land’s Sake, I feel that maple sugaring is definitely the task we undertake that is truly a team effort, a task that unites Farm, Forestry, and Education and links us to the greater Weston community. At Land’s Sake, we all have a to-do list that extends beyond the hours of the day, but when the sap is flowing, we are all on Team Maple. I feel that maple season is the team-building “retreat” every organization needs. We practice maple-themed communication and coordination, sacrifice and support, and frustration and camaraderie. Every day of maple brings new wonders, melting snowdrifts, steamy vistas, the sweetest scent in the world (in my humble opinion), ever-shifting, glowing embers, and my stunningly handsome dog sunning himself, to name a few. I have thoroughly enjoyed the season of maple sugaring, and I feel that I only need another ten seasons before I reach the level of expertise that a nearby farmer has attained, where she is rumored to be able to hear when the maple is at proper syrup density. How amazing is that? For now, it appears that nature may be shutting off the taps, and I turn toward the thawing fields to see what else nature has to bring this year.

Hope to see you all at the Sugaring Off Festival next Saturday, March 26th, from 9 til 1 at the Bill McElwain Sugar Shack at the Weston Middle School! Come for pancakes, sugar-on-snow, bluegrass, maple tours, and of course, our “Weston-famous” maple syrup.

 Stephanie

Assistant Farm Manager and Maple Production Manager

40 years of Farm-Based Education

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We dug this video out of the archives and I immediately wanted to share this with others.  This great clip is now over 20 years old and stands as a tribute to the importance of our educational mission that we continue to uphold.

Suggested Pre-Spring Reading and a Great Granola Recipe.

We have seeds pouring in from Johnny’s and Fedco and soil bags stacked high outside of the greenhouse.  We are slated to start our onion seeding next week.  The warmth of the sugar shack is helping Steph and I wake ourselves up for the farm season.  But, oh, there is still time and energy to read!  And time and energy to do other things too, like stay up late and make large batches of granola and then write about it!

Eskdale Farm, by Michael Atkin. Used with permission from the artist.

Books

Joseph is an energetic and enthusiastic employee who is returning to the farm this season as a new Assistant Grower, and he also happens to be a neighbor of mine.  We ran into each other on our snow-cluttered city street a few weeks ago and agreed that we should meet to discuss schedules, and perhaps some pre-season reading.  Before we met, I had a short list of books and articles in mind that I would suggest to him.  All of them were technical.  About soil health, weed management, nutrient cycling.  This should get him up to speed, as much as can be expected, I thought.

It occurred to me, as we sat together, that Joseph needed to read something that would get him fired up for his return.  He needed to reawaken what made him want to rejoin our crew and farm again, to get some momentum going to pull him through the first few weeks of the season.

Though most farmers I know do love to get nerdy about the many small details that come together to make a farm work, that isn’t what draws people to, and then anchors them at, small operations like Land’s Sake.  And this goes for farmers and their customers alike.  The draws are broader, more general: the hope for better health for ourselves, our families, our communities and the land; the opportunity for deeper connection with an agricultural landscape and the people one might meet there; food access issues and food ethics; the rare opportunity to directly support or interact with a business that creates their product, from start to finish, right there; to participate in production and stewardship; to simply breathe in fresh air and feel some stillness.  That bigger picture is what inspires us.

In my own experience, it wasn’t until my body was accustomed to the rhythm (and sometimes pain) of the work, and my eyes became tools of observation, sharpened by familiarity with a place, or a particular crop, that I really started to come into a space where I could read a UMASS Cooperative Extension article and make any useful sense of it.  In my first two full seasons as a farmhand, I relied a lot on more philosophical, big-picture readings to pull me through the days of physically and sometimes emotionally hard work that I knew I loved, but did not always understand the why of.

My chat with Joseph, and the reading that I suggested to him, reminded me that maybe it was time to get my own nose out of the more detailed how-to books and websites, and time to dive into reasons-why-we-do-this books to fuel up for spring.  There is lots of writing that goes beyond Michael Pollen or Barbara Kingsolver and that is worth checking out if you are passionate about sustainable food issues.

Here are some books that are recent and thought-provoking, my new faves, or that are just easy reads.  These books aren’t exclusively about farming—they are about food, food ethics, community, place and/or nature.  Click on the links for descriptions from the good people at The Harvard Bookstore, who were kind enough to employ me in the winter of ’08-’09, and who have publisher’s descriptions posted, which are much more graceful than my own would be.

Wendell Berry

Berry gets his very own section because he is a writer of poetry, agrarian essays, children’s books AND fiction (try Jayber Crow!) and I at the very least really like everything of his that I have read.  His philosophical essays can be a bit dense if you read them back to back, but they are well worth checking out if you have the time or inclination.  His novels are beautiful, and by reading them, you can get a good idea of what Berry is all about without ever touching his essays.  His storytelling is skillful and his tone is gentle.

I just finished reading Hannah Coulter, and it was incredible.

Non-Fiction

The Dirty Life: On Farming, Food and Love, by Kristin Kimball.

Stuffed and Starved, by Raj Patel. This is the one book on this list I have not read yet, but I’ve had my eye on it for some time.  My friend Elizabeth, upon reading this post, said “Stuffed and Starved is one of the most integrated, important food books I have read in years.”   I have it on hold at the Boston Public Library right now.

Eating Animals, by Jonathon Safran Foer. I’m not a vegetarian (anymore) because I love meat and now (mostly) eat meat that was humanely raised.  I go back and forth on my commitment to eating responsibly and thoughtfully, as has Foer.  I was intrigued after hearing Foer in an interview about this book, and I love his fiction, so I had to check it out.  Not everyone has access to the sources of humanely raised and healthy meat, or the knowledge of how to acquire it, or even the means to get their hands on it, as it can be quite expensive.  Our current industrialized meat production system is what the majority of people rely on for their animal protein, and there are some harsh realities that some along with all of that cheap meat.  I can’t say that I absolutely loved everything about this book, but there isn’t much in the way of contemporary (it was published in late 2009, I think), popular writing that addresses these issues in such depth.  Worth a read if you question your own meat eating ways.

Fiction

All Over Creation, by Ruth Ozecki.

The Milagro Beanfield War, by John Nichols

Granola

A photo from David Lebovitz's website, where I found this amazing granola recipe!

Also, as promised, a super delicious recipe for granola, shared by food writer David Lebovitz on his blog. I made an extra huge batch of it, and we stashed it in three large gallon-sized canning jars to maintain it’s freshness.  We have been working our way through it for almost three weeks, still have a lot more to go, and I am still really excited to eat it.  Another great thing to make with kids–how cool is it to make your own (shh, don’t tell them it’s pretty healthy) cereal?

Thanks for reading!

Melanie Hardy, Farm Manager, Land’s Sake Farm

Learning in the New Year: Women in Farming Whole Farm Management Course

This past October, I received the very excellent news that I had been accepted to participate in a course sponsored by a USDA-NIFA grant. In six northeastern states, the intensive Whole Farm Planning Course is offered to female farmers who have farmed for ten years or less, and who are committed to a career in agriculture.  Though farming has traditionally been considered a male dominated field, young women make up the fastest growing group of new farmers, in particular when it comes to small, diversified, sustainable operations.  The ten session course starts in November 2010 and continues through the end of the 2011 farming season.

An old photo from the days of the "Women's Land Army." During WWI and WWII, in the US, Great Britain and Australia, women were recruited to step in and grow food for their nations while many male farmers were away at war.

The systems-based philosophy that drives the course was developed by biologist Allan Savory in response to the chronic mistreatment of U.S. farmland.  Food production is one of the most ecologically destructive and resource consumptive activities that humans participate in, and at the risk of sounding dreary and doomsdayish, it has contributed in a very significant way to the collapse of entire civilizations.  Believing that ecological diversity is the one stabilizing wealth that civilizations hold, and recognizing that the predominant models of modern agriculture do not foster such diversity, but rather destroy it, Savory started to think about why farmers made the decisions they did when it came to farm planning and practices.

Savory realized that many farmers made decisions that only addressed financial concerns but did not take into account the ecological health of the farm, the richness and depth of the farmer’s connections to and impact on the local human community, the well-being of the farmer and her/his family, and so on.  All of these factors contribute to the overall sustainability of farming operations and communities.  He developed a systems-based model that USDA agents could use to assist farmers in decision making processes that took into account the complexities of these concerns.  The intention is that given a less linear decision making format, farmers can think to solve the root of their problems (and not just the symptoms) that inspire them to seek out the support of a USDA agent in the first place.

Wanted: Ten Thousand Pickers!

While all of the women in my course are managing small diversified farms, and not the huge industrialized farms that make up the large majority of our nation’s agriculture, the content of the course is entirely applicable to our daily lives and work as farmers.  Even small community farms like ours are susceptible to making decisions from within a bubble of economic concern.

Topics that are covered in the course include ecological soil management, financial planning, leadership, time management, resource assessment, and more.  The first class that I attended led us through a series of exercises where we inventoried our resources.  This included everything from farm infrastructure such as tractors, buildings/shelters, and our land base, to our community strengths, business strengths, any hidden employee talents, etc.  We then outlined what our visions, hopes and dreams are for the farm, and included those as resources as well.  Though these are all things I am always thinking about, it was inspiring and helpful to get it all down on paper and to have the structure that this exercise created for me.   Farming leaves little room for organizing all of our pondering and visioning, even in these slower winter months, so any help organizing our thoughts is welcome!

I am looking forward to so much about this class, especially learning from and with my peers and mentors.  I am excited to carry the knowledge and skills I gain forward with me and to implement a systems based approach in a more intentional way in both our big picture planning and daily management practices here at the farm.  More updates about my participation in this class to come…

Melanie Hardy, Farm Manager at Land’s Sake Farm.