Friday, April 24, 2009

On missing things

Probably for the first time in over a month, since we've moved, I'm missing some of the old stuff. It's probably 'cause I was looking through pictures from the last two years. They hold lots of good memories. I miss Sunny Sky Farm. I miss our Wisconsin friends. I even miss the flatness (and rocklessness) a bit.

I mean the me that is now was born there. And place always matters.

Love where I am now though. Just miss some of those things.


  • helping farm and learning what I need to know at the longest-running CSA in central Wisco
  • Keith and Carie and Gavin--hangin' and occasionally tryin' to fish
  • spring hiking the beautiful glacier-touched lands, despite those nasty ticks
  • graveyard drunkenness
  • Point beer
  • easy, mostly level bike rides
  • quick walks to Charlie's
  • Feel Good
  • really bad TV newscasts
  • Wisconsin Public Radio
  • and everyone out there trying to expand local agriculture--it's amazing what you all are doing in such a small population center
 Just to name a few.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

A respite from rain?

It's been busy. I can't even remember what happened at the beginning of the week. We did have another snow scare, but it never actually fell. It only dropped to 35 last night, and now we're looking at several days in the mid- to upper-70s. Crazy mountain weather.

The last couple of dry (finally) days have been reserved mostly for bed prep and transplanting. We got lots of onions out and some mustard greens. Some beets and snow peas didn't germinate well, and the direct-seeded arugula in the field was destroyed by flea beetles, so we tilled all those in and we'll reseed them probably tomorrow. Since some of these crops were in partial beds, I had the opportunity to hone my skills at precision tilling on the tractor. It went ok, aside from one solitary plant casualty.

Tomorrow will probably bring lots of direct seeding, which we're behind on, and more transplanting (scallions and who knows what else). It's nice to finally have some dry weather.

This weekend is Trailfest in Hot Springs. Many of the Appalachian Trail hikers who do the whole thing (from Georgia to Maine) in one season make it to Hot Springs around this time. And they have to pass through the downtown, which is the first real population center they hit on the trail, so many of them pause here to stock up on provisions or catch a breather. Anyway, Meagan is gonna try to sling some of her jewerly as a vendor at the fest, and I'll be there for moral support.

More photos up soon, hopefully.

Edited to add: Oh yeah, bagged a whole bunch of morels yesterday. They might be peaking in our holler right about now. Also, the farm tour down in Saluda was cool. Met lots of nice folks from nearby farms and then had dinner and a couple brews at Asheville Pizza and Brewing Co. Good pizza; pretty good beer.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

The tractor dilemma

Sometimes I'm an insomniac. Like right now. I've been up for a few hours, and I really have no need to be up. In other words, more sleep would probably be good. But there's no use fighting what you can't fight, so here I am. At least I can be productive in some way.

We were transplanting yesterday using this transplanter (see right for a picture of the old single-seat setup) that attaches to the tractor. A description of the equipment is a topic for another post, but in a few words, it automates something I've been used to doing by hand. Transplanting by hand involves pulling seedlings out of the trays they were started in, dropping them in the field, and getting your hands (and usually many other parts of your body) dirty by securing the plant in the appropriate spot. The tractor transplanter does the actual spacing and planting for you.

It has its pluses and minuses. A big plus is the actual time to get the plants in the ground is fast: it took about 10 minutes for four people (one driver, two transplanters, one quality control person tailing the tractor--three people would suffice though) to do two rows in one 275 foot bed. That's blazing fast. A big minus is that it's a piece of equipment, and therefore it doesn't always work right, which leads to frustration, backtracking, and tinkering.

When we first used the recently improved transplanter (two seats now) yesterday, it went perfect, and I was truly impressed. If it could save that much time, then, I thought, it might be the thing that convinces me that a tractor is something really worth having. But further transplanting proved to me that the perfection was fleeting. And while the transplanter always saved time (compared to hand transplanting) no matter what, I'm not sure that the time savings itself is worth the money and effort to have and maintain the equipment.

Besides, I've been wanting to avoid machines, because, well, I'm not sure the infrastructure and resources are gonna exist for much longer to allow us to continue to use machines the way we do as a society. As oil becomes more scarce and prices go through the roof (and don't fret, it will go back up in the not-too-distant future), I'm not sure tractors are going to make sense.

And on principle I find many machines ridiculously wasteful when I can do the very same things with my own body (often better) and simultaneously reap the benefits of pushing myself physically. In that case, time is not a cost, it is a benefit. As the subhead of my blog attests, I'm trying to live a simpler life, because simpler is good for me and is the only way that we as a community are gonna even begin to get on track to healing the clear-as-day wounds inflicted by our longtime hyper-consumerist ways. So, usually it's a no-brainer: I'll take manual labor over machine labor when it makes the most sense, which is most of the time.

But there are fuzzy areas. Both organic CSA farms I've worked at use tractors, for good reason. Both are about the same size at around five acres, which is small, but big enough that it's easy to see why a tractor comes in handy. For instance, manually preparing the soil for planting five acres would probably kill you before summer's first harvest (someone tell me if my perspective is limited on this). So as I see it our options when we have our own farm are three: buy a tractor (a used one, obviously, and biodiesel powered), secure the services of an animal (horse, mule), or scale down to where manual labor and small machines suffice.

The last two options are most appealing to me, for many reasons I'm sure I'll get into in future posts. But they beg some questions: Can we farm an acre or two and still make a living? Can we make the transition from machine-based labor to animal-based labor (I prominently include myself in the animal category) in a season while knowing very little about how to work with draft animals? Or maybe we should make the bulk of our money other ways and just have a garden plot big enough to mainly feed ourselves for the whole year and therefore not worry at all about non-human labor?

These are critical and difficult questions for a wannabe sustanainable farmer today. We hope to come up with some satisfactory answers in the next year or two.

Friday, April 17, 2009

scavenging and growing

The last couple days have been dry, warm, and sunny. Which means that our backlog of way-too-big greenhouse plants could get transplanted into the fields. Chard, choi, brocolli, lettuce, potatoes (seeded), kohlrabi, and cabbage all escaped their plastic prisons. It was a good feeling to get 'em all out. Here's a shot of the lettuces and some of the brassicas right before they got trucked out to the field.

How about the greenhouse cukes? Click to see the detail. Those tentacles are beautiful and strong. And notice the fruit in the first pic. Hopefully we defeated the soil disease problem.

The arugula and other greens we direct-seeded into the greenhouse our first day here? They're coming along, and some should be ready for next week's tailgate market.
Here's potatoes being planted. The implement is called a dragsetter. Two folks sit on the thing and drop potato pieces while one person pulls it with the tractor. A shoe digs a trench, and those wheels you see pack in dirt over the dropped potato. I was the driver. It was my first time doing potatoes like this. It was fast and easy. This dirt is plowed and disked, but there was really no need to till it up.

Then we found these yesterday admidst a stand of poplars on the ridge (thanks Molly!).
That's four yellows and three greys. They were all solitary; that fact combined with the mounds of deer shit and disturbed leaves make us think the deer are devouring all the morels. But it's just a theory. Oh, and we found that turtle shell that the morels are laying against. Not a bounty of morels, but it was so satisfying to finally find them ourselves and cook 'em up in some butter and eat 'em. They were yummy.
Also came across this spike morel that was too dried out to harvest or eat. Ugly mutha, right?

Beautiful tulip we saw during our foragings.

First market of the season is tomorrow, so we'll probably be heading down to Asheville to check it out. Then we get to tour a farm down in Saluda Saturday evening as part of our apprenticeship learning experience. And then we get a roommate on Sunday (the third apprentice). So, it's gonna be a busy weekend.
Most of the photos in this post were taken by Meagan. All the credit for the pretty pics should go to her. Plus she contributes about half of all the other photos on the blog.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Another trip to Asheville

I've got some free time. Let me give you a few quick hits about the time we spent in Asheville this past weekend.

The Laughing Seed Cafe serves up some tasty vegetarian fare. Not only was it delicious, but their offerings are super creative. I had the tempecado, which was tempeh, avocado, sprouts, and a bunch of other veggies, with a side of jalapeno and cheddar fries. I also had a Green Man porter, straight from the kettles of Jack of the Wood public house, which is just down the street from Laughing Seed. Awesome sandwich, awesome (but just a bit salty) fries, top-notch porter. I thought Green Man might be named after crazy, tripped-out Charile from It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, but I was wrong--it's named after some sort of European god of fertility associated with May Day.

We perused this old Woolworth store downtown that has been converted into sort of an art gallery for local artists. It still has the old-school Woolworth lunch counter and soda fountain, but the rest of the two-story building contains three-sided display booths (each booth contained the works of one artist) of paintings, pottery, jewelry, clothing, photography, and other various things you can buy that were produced by the exceedingly diverse and prolific community of creative individuals in the vicinity of western North Carloina. I was impressed; we went home with a couple things.

We did some general walking through downtown Asheville, which was once again enjoyable. The chess players weren't out this time, but plenty of street musicians entertained us along the way.

We did go to a candy store, The Chocolate Fetish, which supposedly gets rave reviews here in Asheville; but for me the real candy store was Bruisin' Ales, which has hundreds upon hundreds of beers, from local brews to imports. It was some hard decidin, but I finally broke through my unwillingness to commit with a half-gallon jug of organic porter from Pisgah Brewery, and a mixed pack of 22s from French Broad Brewery--both local operations. So far I've had the Kolsch and Wee Heavier Scotch Ale from French Broad. Both were very good, but I especially enjoyed the Scotch Ale. I'll try to report back on the others later.

We had to run some various errands, and by the time we headed back home, it was dark. Which was scary for me. My first long drive in the dark through the mountains. It ain't bad at all until you get past Marshall; then it gets twisty, and oncoming vehicle lights temporarily blind you to the curves ahead. This sucks for us flatlanders (or maybe it's just me) who've only travelled the roads a few times. And it doesn't help that the lane markers aren't painted the best in some of these areas. Anyway, we made it back unscathed. And I was thinking that at least we didn't come back over the steep and even less familiar Doggett.

Must make breakfast now. And then I think it's off to the dump. And then maybe a little diskin if it doesn't rain. I'm getting a little sick of this rain. But some clueless city official (I think) in a Citizen-Times article said the Forest Service is predicting three to four months of no rain starting in May. I think that's one crazy-ass "forecast," but it reminds me to at least be thankful for the rain we're getting now.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

If you're short on rocks...

we're thinking about instituting a u-pick. Nevermind those other leafy things.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

April snows bring May...uh...?

Photos, as promised (kind of).

The snow begins. You may have to click on the pic to see the flakes.

Almost post-accumulation. From right to left: See how the cover crop (a mix of rye, vetch, clover, and field peas) doesn't get blanketed. You can also see the row cover over the strawberries. Finally, a field road, covered in snow. Also, we still think that's Bluff in the background (poor AT through-hikers must've had a couple miserable nights, because they got something like six inches up there, so I'm told).

Sunset before the storms.

This is the greenhouse we direct seeded on our first day here, photo taken about a week and a half ago.

Same greenhouse--a few days ago. Somewhere in the vicinity of when this photo was taken, we weeded (most of it)!

Preparing a different greenhouse for tomatoes, which, if everything goes right, we'll start harvesting in June! All the straw-colored stuff is dead rye and mustards, which we chopped up with a giant weedwacker. This here is a no-till operation. We just used shovels to loosen up the soil between the giant t-posts, where we'll transplant our ready-to-go tomato plants. The dead rye will be mulch, which will hopefully inhibit the growth of weeds. Not pictured are the cattle panels we installed. The tomatoes will have lots of opportunity to grow upwards.

Same greenhouse. We needed to replace the aged and holey plastic, and do some repairs on the baseboards (the difference in the clarity of the plastic is astounding). Oh, and scaffolds and front-end loaders are fun (if you're crazy). Don't try this at home.

Finally, today's glimpse from the top of Max Patch. Max Patch sits at about 4,600 feet on the TN/NC border, and the AT passes over it. 360 degree views let you see something like four states on a clear day. It is treeless thanks to years of cattle grazing. Now someone maintains its prairie-like setting. If you can handle the twisty, largely unpaved drive up to the trailhead, it's only a short, mildly strenuous walk to the summit. It was a hazy day today, but what I saw still made me thankful for being alive. (Also see my new profile pic for another shot from the top of Max Patch.)

Friday, April 10, 2009

Indoor farming

It's been a week of mostly indoor farming, thanks to some schizophrenic weather. I wish I could post some pictures, but we're in the midst of some major storms, and our internet connection is super spotty.

Last Saturday we met the folks from the neighboring farm and another neighbor from over the mountain. All super nice, enjoyable people. We shared some homemade wood-fired pizzas with some local and not-so-local brews. Local being a variety of Highland beers, which are always delicious, as well as some homemade IPA that I find to be the tastiest IPA I've ever had; but I'm not really an IPA connoisseur, so I may not be an adequate judge. The not-so-local brew came straight outta the Midwest, representin' Wisconsin--the best cheap beer you can get here, in my opinion--PBR. Anyway, the beers, the pizzas, the company: great all.

Before the get together we spent Saturday exploring a bit of eastern TN. It's amazing how fast you leave the mountains once you get outside of Newport. And someone really has to explain to me the whole deal where people kind of just set up on the side of the state highway in TN and display and sell their wares. Right there on the shoulder. Is this a thing? Or are these people going rogue, kind of like moonshining, but more conspicuous and less tasty?

So Sunday, after a bit of recovery from Saturday, we had to put row cover over our strawberries in the field because the temps were supposed to drop into the 20s. Sunday was gorgeous, in the 70s. We went huntin for morels and came up empty. But we did find an awesome little waterfall lost way up the holler.

Monday saw temps dropping fast and wind picking up mightily. We wrestled with more row cover and were able to blanket about 1100 feet of transplanted veggies. It took us several hours to do that, and entailed gathering rocks that we had previously removed from the field and hauling them back in to hold the row cover down. Stupid rocks.

Then it snowed for a couple days. A lot. All snow globe-like. Only a little bit stuck to the ground, enough for me to make ultra-mini-snowmen, whose demise I delighted in with great pleasure. Needless to say, we did lots of seeding and greenhouse work over those couple days; I think we're nearly back on schedule in that department. And it looks like almost all our plants survived the freeze, so the tedious covering paid off for our CSA members and future market buyers.

Thursday brought nice weather back to our little cove. We worked on replasticizing one end of one of the greenhouses. I ended up hurting my back in some mysterious way (I didn't even know it was hurt until much later in the evening). Which meant that I would spend today (Friday) doing more seeding and such in the greenhouse. But I'm doin ok.

Today brought our first thunderstorms of the season. I love me some t-storms. It was thundering all wicked-like at various times today. We got lots of water from the sky, which I'm sure the plants outside are happy for.

Not sure what this weekend holds, but I'm going to try to get some recent pictures up here. Hope everyone has a good one.

Saturday, April 04, 2009

Iffy cukes

Those cucumbers we transplanted in the greenhouse beds had mixed fates: some are starting to grow boldly up the fence, but several quickly keeled over all limp-like and died. A sample a couple years back from this greenhouse revealed pythium in the soil, a hard-to-get-rid-of fungus-like organism that destroys the roots of plants. Further tests will reveal if it's still pythium. In the meantime, we'll see if some biological controls will give us the edge, and we're rooting for the survivors to stay strong.

Elsewhere, we did lots of transplanting in the field; several beds are now growing little greens. We cut potatoes to plant next week. Applied some fish emulsion to the strawberries, which are flowering and even setting berries already. And we keep potting up in the greenhouse.

And I need to point out that the flat seeder (the wand thing with all the needles) is not all I thought it could be. It is useless when seeding eggplant, peppers, and tomatoes (nightshades), and extremely aggravating when seeding little tiny seeds (flowers). With the nightshades, it can't pick up the large seeds. With the flowers it either sucks the seeds up into the needles, picks up too many seeds, or can't pick the seeds up (depending on which needles you use). But my fingers almost always work when it comes to seeding. Lesson learned.

This morning we're heading to town to run some errands. Then we're gonna hunt some morels and cook up some pizzas from scratch in an outdoor wood-fired pizza oven for a little get together. Somewhere in the mix of activities we might plant some hops. Mmm... hops.