Small World, Giant Greenhouse

A few weeks ago, we went over to GreenLeaf Farms here in Barnesville to help G put up his new 30′ x 90′ greenhouse since his last one was destroyed in the tornado last year. He got a partial grant from the NRCS for the greenhouse and it was awesome to get to see how one gets erected as we hope to have one of these beasts someday. His new WWOOFer / apprentice B had just arrived the day before from Baltimore and could you believe that her destination at the end of this summer is none other than Green Fire Farm in Hoopa, California??!! The birthplace of our transition to organic farming. I couldn’t even believe it – it’s such a small world, and it’s amazing how paths cross.

We made pretty good progress that morning on the greenhouse: we got the posts in the ground and the hoops up but we slowed significantly as we started putting up the purlin after lunch. Could it have been the heat? The delicious lunch we just ate prepared by M? That E had just left with T for a nap and we were daydreaming of doing the same? Or that putting up purlin is really freaking difficult? Maybe all of the above. Despite that, it was my favorite kind of day: working outside with good people.

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Farm stand colors

The farm stand is getting more colorful as our radishes, squash, carrots, scallions and leeks have come on line. We’ve had lots of greens, too, and I’ve padded our farm stand with pesto made from our own Genovese basil and chocolate chip walnut cookies (for those who aren’t in it for just the vegetables).  

Mulberry Market farm table – May 9

I’m still figuring out how to do harvest and sleep too. I’m going to post for a work-trade at the local library (anyone interested?), and I’m going to buy a fridge so I can do some harvesting the day before market. I’ve started harvesting the night before market, after T goes to bed, and working through the night and I can just barely get it all done by the time I need to head to Macon. E made me a sweet wash station with lights which makes it much easier, but it’s just slow hand-washing all the produce.

Moonlight carrot harvest

I have really been enjoying market days, despite being a little tired. Once I get in the car to head down there, this little wave of contentment hits me. I have so much fun, and it’s just refreshing to see the same people and feel like I’m part of something bigger. Most days, I do pretty well but one sweet bonus of not selling everything at market: homemade vegetable soup made with our own scallions, parsley, beets, baby turnip greens and carrots. yum.

Home-grown and home-made.

Red Neck White Belly

Last week I got a hip new bathing suit on account of signing up for swimming lessons with T. Just to clarify, the lessons are for him – I took swim lessons for grown ups last fall in Texas and my doggie paddle improved immensely. This was a pretty big purchase for me for two reasons: (1) I usually shop at thrift stores and (2) the last new swimsuit I had was a shockingly frumpy maternity suit. 

A swimsuit like this just begs for a decent tan – of which, I don’t possess. There are parts of me that are tan – the tops of my feet, my lower back from bending over so much, the tops of my shoulders, but there are other parts that remain flourescent. In an effort to rectify the situation I wore the new swim top out to the field to pull out a bed of swiss chard and prepare it for corn intercropped with lettuce. While working for the next few hours, I found my mind wandering pleasantly from one random thought to the next and as I felt the sun bringing some color to my back it settled on this: Farmers are known for red necks but they could also be known for their white bellies.

How on earth is a farmer supposed to get a tanned stomach? If, as in my case, your tan is a direct result of your occupation, it simply can’t be done. The only example I could think of is a shirtless mechanic on a creeper working outdoors partially under a car – a bit of a stretch. So is a tanned stomach, then, a luxury? A sign of the leisurely life? The result of an extracurricular effort to do nothing but shed some light on your white bits? The only way to really get a decent tan there is to lay flat on your back reading a novel, go to a tanning salon, or float a river in a tube with a beer in your hand (oh, college, how I miss you!).

I have now come to know the “farmer’s tan” calling card firsthand, and immediately relate to people I see at market who share my characteristically imbalanced tan. It’s like a badge of honor to have a really good sandal tan, and while I can’t see it, I’d betcha those people also have a raging white belly just like me. You just can’t work the earth looking anywhere else but down.

Not to place a moral judgement on a particular piece of anatomy or profession, I came to this conclusion: If I had to characterize a back, I might say “hard work” and “strength” while if I did the same for a belly I might say “tender” and “repose”. Coincidence? Maybe not. Depending on which one faces the sun the most, that ratio might say a lot about how a person spends their days.  Aah… the meditative thoughts that float through your brain out in the field.

Anyhow, I finished turning the bed from swiss chard to corn and lettuce that afternoon but I still had a red neck, a white belly, and one dirty new bathing suit.

Wooden Mallet Field Notes

Well, it’s May and things are in full swing. My 1/8-acre plot is full, and I’ve already started putting in new successions where crops have finished their run. Sometimes I get a little insecure about only having 1/8 acre in production, but I have to remind myself that I am only one person balancing everything along with my sanity. It’s a delicate balance that I haven’t mastered yet (has anyone?) and sometimes the status of that latter item is a good indicator that my pendulum needs swinging.

5,000 square feet of dirty goodness

I’m learning something really valuable every day. Today, I learned how easy it is to mess up a crop of lettuce by letting it go a few days too long [for any customer who had bitter lettuce, please let me know and I will make it right, my sincerest apologies]. Fix: travel often to garden just to observe and eat stuff, not to work. Sounds silly, but I’m realizing it heads off most problems of this nature. I’ve learned how quickly pests will take out your eggplant (the speed of light) and I learned that I have caterpillar blindness. E will find almost 50 in one walk down the aisle, I might find two. All this to say that becoming a competent farmer is challenging and I have a lot to learn!

Flower Alley starting to come alive

I joined the Wednesday Market in Zebulon, Georgia this week. It’s an online market where you shop online Amazon-style for locally produced goods and then pick up at a central location on Wednesdays. I am very excited to be part of this market, and I love the model. I think it’s a great venue for producers of my scale since I only harvest what has already been purchased. With much humility, I am realizing that I am producing more than I can move one day a week (ie my lettuce) at the Mulberry Street Market in Macon so I welcome this new opportunity.

This week we are bringing the following things to market: zinnias, marigolds, sugar snap and snow peas, lettuce, beets, cherry belle radishes, kale, chard, spinach, red-veined sorrel, basil, parsley, and cilantro.

I’m now starting to get a taste of Georgia summers…anyone have any rain to spare? I’m sorry, did I hear a “what what” Oregon??

First Market(s)

Well, my first two markets have gone pretty well – I sold everything that I harvested at first market and almost everything except some chard at second market. Swiss chard is the new zucchini around here, it’s become unstoppable. There were definitely some jitters and things aren’t always as peachy as you have idealized in your head but all in all I was pleased. Market was fun, and people were really friendly and supportive. Even by second market, I already felt like more of a regular and appreciated seeing familiar faces.

Market!

I made our sign out of old cocoa bean burlap sacks and made stencils for the painted letters. I found the burlap at the antique store in town. Everytime I go in there, they ask if they can help me find anything. I tell them what I’m looking for and without fail the gentle, white-haired man puts down his newspaper, gets slowly out of his recliner that sets in front of an old TV with rabbit ears and says he thinks he has that in the back. And it’s always exactly what I’m looking for.

Harvest happens on the day of market, and it’s a bit of a scramble. I get up way before dawn to try to have everything harvested, washed and packaged before E goes to work at 6:40am. It’s all done by headlamp. I need one of those football stadium lights out there so I can see that early in the morning. On second thought, one of those things would probably wilt the lettuce so nevermind.  

Early morning harvest

At first market, I didn’t have too much – some baby beets, swiss chard, purslane, spinach, a couple of pecan pies I made with our pecans, and a few loaves of homemade challah. Second market was a little more flushed out with more quantity plus some young heads of red and green lettuce. T and I also picked a big bucket of wild flowers from our field in hopes that someone at market could identify them but other than sourgrass I came home as clueless as I left. I’m still working on trying to identify them. Library, here I come.

He's not pooping, I promise. This is his new smile.

So, we’re up and running. The weeks fly by now with a market in the middle!

Field notes

The field is coming together nicely, a lot has happened in the last month! First we rototilled the entire area with a 7HP tiller we picked up on craigslist to break up grass clods and loosen the soil a bit. The land has been cut for hay for years, which hasn’t done it any favors. We hand-formed all 15 3′-wide raised beds with rakes, hoes, and shovels. This, as it turns out, is as good for building muscle as it is for building blisters.

After a general assessment of the soil and a soil test through the extension office, we decided we’d have to give the soil a little boost. Our PH was a whopping 5.2, so we applied dolomitic limestone and also brought in 15 cubic yards of organic compost from GreenCo Environmental right here in Barnesville. They bring in food waste from several Atlanta food establishments (like the Express bagged salad facility) as well as yard and wood waste and have a serious composting operation going. We took a tour of the place, and T was of course out there digging in the piles and throwing it everywhere (even at the salesman giving us the tour). He got a stern talking-to and then a nice bath when we got home. Other like-minded farms in the area use their compost as well and because it was still a little hot, we gave it as much time to cool down before tilling it in. As I’m learning, hot compost robs much-needed nitrogen from the plants because it’s busy using it up. Ideally, soil amendments would have been made in the fall but we didn’t have that option so we’re moving forward with fingers crossed.

After a giant dump truck dropped off the compost we spread about half of it with buckets (also good for blisters). I finally had the sense to ask Greg Brown at Greenleaf Farms here in Barnesville if we might borrow his wheelbarrow. He kindly obliged, and I was able to spread the rest of the compost in half the time. Thank you!!

I picked up about 120 leek seedlings from my class at Cane Creek Farm so those are now in the ground. We’ve also planted about 80′ of snap peas in (T was a big help with this), an 80′ row of a few varieties of beets and about 60′ row feet of orange and purple carrots. This weekend we transplanted spinach, beets, chard and brassicas (kale, cabbage, cauliflower and broccoli) from the greenhouse. I’ve been hardening those off for nearly a week. It’s a little early and they’re younger than I’d like them to be, but I need the room and we’ve got some row cover on its way to protect the little cuties until they get better established.

E has been a huge help getting the watering system hooked up. We dug a shallow trench and buried the 3/4″ line that runs from the well pump house to the garden. It’s hooked to  T-tape (drip line) with emitters every 8″. We’ve had a little scare with water the last couple days because when the system is on it acts as though the well pump can’t keep up. We’re investigating and will likely segment the water system into smaller sections and keep it on short timers.  There’s also a pond at the bottom of the hill so if worse comes to worst then we’ll have to get a submersible pump. If we do run low on water we will just stop showering because the vegetables must be watered!

So my lessons this week:

Lesson 1: own a mechanical implement to make raised beds.

Lesson 2: own a good wheelbarrow. (We did, but we had to sell it before we left Denver because it wouldn’t fit in storage.)

Lesson 3: build the biggest greenhouse you possibly can.

Lesson 4: check your water source before starting a farm.

Lesson 5: potting soil dries out your hands. I have hands that could sand paint off a car.

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Go signs

In addition to all the critters around here, we are lucky enough to be infested with ladybugs. Hundreds of them have been wintering in our mailbox, they land on your shoulder when you’re sitting on the toilet, they join you in the shower, they dot the ceiling above our bed like moving glow-in-the-dark stars. In several cultures, ladybugs are good luck – signifying everything from good weather to crop success, making wishes come true, predicting weddings and number of children. Now I don’t know about all of that, but don’t be surprised if I uproot our mailbox and transplant it in the garden this spring.

Some days I look down at myself – dirty, sweaty, hands rough like, well, a farmer’s, and I feel comfortable in this skin. I love being in the sun, wearing dirty carhartts, staring at the stereograms of seedlings as I water them, staying up late reading farming books and seed catalogs, hunting for bugs with T and laughing together as the chicks encounter them for the first time. Sometimes I have remembrances of myself a long time ago in heels and a suit giving a presentation on nuclear processing equipment to Department of Energy honchos. It feels like another person, another life almost, and one that fit me like someone else’s underwear. I feel connected, grounded, at peace with what I’m doing now.

I love that T gets to be here and while sometimes it’s difficult to get things done at a pace I’d like to, it’s important to me that he gets to grow up this way. He has taken to sticks (“sword sticks”) and loves playing with a small hatchet to chop wood like E. He’s becoming wonderfully imaginative and capable and we often marvel at the things he comes up with. He’s becoming more of a roommate, making us laugh at the dinner table, telling jokes. He told me I was handsome the other day as I brushed my hair. He loved the compost pile, throwing himself and his toys up and down it, playing “king of the mountain” and even mastered the face dive/somersault combo. He helped us spread it with his small shovel and bucket, and was a little sad when he came out after I spread most of it and saw that his pile had shrunk. He followed me out to the highway to check our mail the other day wearing E’s hat and carrying a handful of daffodils he had just uprooted. It was a vision I never want to let go.

I don’t want to claim that I’ve “arrived”. I’m not sure it’s a healthy notion because of its possible implications of complacency and taking things for granted but what I do know is that this life fits me, like my very own underwear.