Waxing Poetic (farm blog)
Kelsey getting the "don't wipe out" lesson before riding a motorcycle for the first time
In motorcycle safety class, they teach us that wherever your eyes look, your body and motorcycle will follow. This is to get people to avoid looking down at the ground while making tight turns so that they don’t wipe out, but I find this to be a valuable life lesson as well.
For years, Jason and I toiled away at our various jobs while working toward starting our own farm. As long as we kept our eyes on the goal, our trajectory kept us moving in that direction. And here we are in our 9th season here at Tumbling Shoals Farm and we constantly create new goals to look at so that we don’t wipe out. We keep our eyes on goals such as farm and crop improvements, efficiency improvements, customer service and quality improvements, quality of life improvements, etc.
We’ve learned though, that a goal is not an abstract idea just floating around inside our heads. Because how do you focus on an abstract idea? Nope. We’ve learned that in order to keep your eyes on something, it must be a solid thing with a concrete plan.
We teach a cash flow workshop every year and we always harp on this idea: if you plan for it, you’ll make it happen (usually). We tell our students, who are in the very beginning stages of planning for their own farm, not to leave wages for themselves or their employees out of the plan, or they’ll never actually be able to leave that off-farm job and be full time on the farm. You’ve got to plan for it or you won’t have anything to focus on and you’ll wipe out.
Sage with lightning hands!
When my mother visited this past spring, she brought her laptop so I could see some of her travel pictures. But on it were some old pictures of Tumbling Shoals Farm. I found myself perusing these old photos and thinking, “I’ve got to get her some new pictures!” Just a few years ago, our farm looked very different. We were younger and dumber, as it turns out.
So then I looked back at the blog for several years ago. Back to our second year here. I was managing alone and I had one part time employee. Jason still worked “off” the farm and traveled a lot. I looked at a blog from around this time of year and it was all about how I couldn’t get things done. I was barely keeping afloat (literally! 2009 was a year of the flood) and I struggled to figure out efficiency, “I swore off the word ‘efficient’ this weekend. I knew I was risking institutionalization for obsessive-compulsive disorder if I said it one more time.“ (Me, 2009)
It gives one a sense of perspective when one looks back at the past. I mean, look at how far we’ve come. Look at all that we’ve learned. Look how much better farmers we are! We grew to understand efficiency, figured out how many people to employ and how to train them toward an efficient end.
It was a well-timed trip into the past. May is our busiest month ever and it’s a short route toward overwhelmed. So it’s nice to look back and realize how far you’ve come.
I picked me a bouquet of wildflowers today. I didn’t have time to do it. I needed to rush off straight away after the work day to tackle my office pile. But I did it. I have no regrets. I mean, what’s the point of living out here on the farm if you can’t even enjoy a bouquet of wildflowers every once in a while?
This is the myth of organic farming: the romantic idea that we are strolling around the farm barefoot, picking wildflowers to put in our hair and smiling at our kale. It’s a myth we’d like you to believe so yes, we totally do that. Well, the smile at the kale part.
Usually though, we’re not strolling around the farm barefoot, but driving around in our gator because it’s faster and more efficient than walking and time is, well…scarce. But every now and then we remember to stop and enjoy the finer points of country living. Like a bouquet of wildflowers and a fine meal from the farm.
Sonia just came back to the farm today to talk with us about farm life as it relates to some classic “sustainable development” literature. Inspired by “Small is Beautiful” by E.F Shumacher or Henry David Thoreau, she asked us something about our spiritual connection with the land. There was a pause.
It’s a pause I would do well to take more often. Because yes, there is a spiritual connection to this land. There is a symbiotic relationship there. We try to give to the land and take care of the land so that in return, the land provides us our living and takes care of us.
But this relationship gets pushed to the furthest reaches of my mind as I get caught up in the fast paced enormous workload of economic reality that farming is. I mean, farming is hard. But I don’t say that in a whiny voice. It’s a good kind of hard. A kind of hard that makes me proud to be doing it. A kind of hard that puts me to bed at the end of the day utterly exhausted but with a smile on face. Because my life feels so full of purpose. Like I was put here to coax life from this land and feed my community.
So yes, I should pause a little more often to reflect on my “spiritual” relationship with this land that I temporarily grace. Because I do love it, and I love that it gives my life meaning and satisfaction. I can only hope that I am taking as good of care of this land as it is taking of me. So pardon me this hippy moment.
Putting the plastic on our tomato umbrellas
You might not know this about us, but we obsessively check the weather predictions. So we’re slated to plant tomatoes outside this week and I did my usual run through the low temperature predictions, despite being in full blown summer for the past few weeks. I saw nothing unusual. This was Sunday. Then our friend in higher elevations near us texted that they are expecting snow on Thursday. Wait, what? Better re-check our low temperatures here.
Well, the cynic inside me wants to say, “we expected this.” Some folks call it “blackberry winter”, but we have always called it the “squash frost.” Whatever you want to call it, it’s inconvenient. And late. We’ve moved on from our squash frost window. We’ve put away all our frost blankets, pulled out their supports, moved their weights, etc. We have whole fields planted with frost tender crops like peppers and squash.
The worst part about it is that it’s my fault. I’m known around the farm as the “great jinxer”. And just this morning, as I was adding “frost blanket support removal” to our to-do list, I said, “knock on wood, but there are no frost predictions in our future.” I actually said that! Just a couple of hours before the low temperature predictions dropped into potentially dangerous regions. What was I thinking?!
The other day, I heard Steven Johnson on the TED radio hour talking about where good ideas come from. He basically says that no ideas are completely original, but rather build on top of other’s ideas. He says, you can’t think a thought without echoing someone else. But that’s not a bad thing!
So everybody steals, it’s just nice to give credit to those from whom you steal. So here’s my shout out to Alex and Betsy Hitt of Peregrine Farm in Alamance County. I worked on their farm some thirteen years ago (yikes! Has it really been that long?). This many years later, we’re still, um, “borrowing” ideas from them. Our farm system looks a whole lot like Peregrine Farm.
If it weren’t for Alex and Betsy, who theorized that keeping the rain off from tomatoes would increase yields a bunch, we wouldn’t even have known about a Haygrove. But because they took that leap years ago and had results to prove its effectiveness, we not only were able to increase our tomato yields with the same system, we use a specialized tool that they had made all those years ago to get ours moved every year.
Alex and Betsy’s innovation keeps spreading. A few years ago, Will and Marie of Bluebird farm came to look at our Haygrove tomato system and built a similar structure to shield their tomatoes from the rain. This year, another friend in Kentucky actually borrowed Alex and Betsy’s tool (still on our farm, but with Alex’s permission) to put up his own Haygrove high tunnel. He brought the tool back with a bottle of Kentucky bourbon for Alex and Betsy, in gratitude for not only the use of this tool, but for sharing the innovation in the first place.
That’s what it’s all about. Mentor farmers sharing problems solved and innovation with the new “crop”. Where do good ideas come from? From building on the success and innovation of those who came before us and who have the grace and generosity to teach us new dogs their tricks. Thanks.
Aren't we just a working Camelbak advertisement?
Did today really just happen? I had to scramble this morning to dig out my box of summer clothes, unsure of weather (get it?) or not I should actually put away the long johns. The conversation revolved around sunscreen, swimming holes, and shandy. And the tomatoes grew. And the strawberries ripened.
It has arrived, my friends. The shifty season. We call it spring, but it’s moodier than that. And more secretive. It moves through the weeks all shifty-eyed, hiding its intentions beneath its trench coat. We, the farmers, just follow it around like police, trying to predict its next move so we can catch it in the act.
Should we cover? Uncover? Plant? Pull our hair out? So many possibilities.
I predict that the word of the year is “mindful”. I’ve been hearing it everywhere lately. It’s a word that interests me quite a bit because I hear about such positive results from implementing “mindfulness practices” in one’s life. I’ve been trying my hand at some of it: morning and evening yoga stretches (which I swear is helping my aging back perform in a back-intensive career), meditation, and most of all mindful eating.
“Mindful eating” is defined in several ways, but most simply by “eating with the intention of caring for yourself and eating with the attention necessary for noticing and enjoying your food and its effects on your body.” That last part is the most interesting for me. The noticing the effects of food choices on your body part. I feel like that has become easier as I age. I mean, when I was in my 20s I could eat junk, not sleep, not exercise and feel fine! I doubt I felt as good as I could have, but really, the 20 year old body has an astounding capacity to deal with mistreatment.
The 40 year old body—not so much. Which is good probably, because it leads me to better treatment of my body. More mindful treatment, if you will. For example, both Jason and I have noticed that our bodies are positively craving fresh raw things after a winter of canned and frozen foods (and potatoes, sweet potatoes and winter squash). Spring arrives with a desire for lighter fare, just in time for such lighter fare to be in production on the farm (I harvested my first head of lettuce yesterday!!). Maybe I’m just trained for the seasonality of produce, but I swear I get cravings for summer squash just before the summer squash harvest season begins.
As I age, I have naturally become a more mindful eater. And I notice the effects of the food I eat on my energy, mood, and general well-being. I mean, immediately. And it’s no small coincidence that the foods that make me feel the best tend to be the foods best grown during that season. Go figure!
This beautiful cover crop is part of tending to delicate ecological relationships
I listen to a lot of NPR podcasts. Yes, I am that person the pledge drives are targeting who begins many of their sentences with “I heard on NPR….”. The fact that I know that I am the target for pledge drives is just one indication of my NPR habits (because clearly I have listened to the pledge drives!). I once even made it in the annual report of WFDD-the Winston-Salem NPR station. It’s an addiction, but I can think of worse things to be addicted to I suppose.
Anyway, one of my favorites is the TED Radio Hour. The other day, while seeding radishes, I listened to a TED Radio Hour interview with the chef at Blue Hill Restaurant at Stone Barn Dan Barber. He was speaking from a chef’s point of view about the flavor of ingredients. He said, “delicious food never comes from careless farmers….but farmers who care about delicate ecological relationships.”
Now, the word “sustainable” gets thrown around a lot these days. But it’s a concept that we have always strived for. We always considered these “delicate ecological relationships” to part of the environmental responsibility aspect of sustainability. But what I realized from listening to Dan Barber toot our horn, so to speak, is that tending to those relationships as environmental responsibility circles right around and benefits us back in terms of quality and flavor of the food we produce. Cool!
I mean, the management of an organic farm includes thinking of the farm as a whole ecological system so it’s always there in the back of our minds, but hearing a famous chef appreciate it created a whole new level of proud for me. I have to say, though, that it did nothing to dissuade my addiction to NPR.
Jason and Eli kicking off our mad planting week (catching up!)
We do all our thinking in December. Seriously. We analyze the past season, look at any notes we might have made during that season, and plan our entire next growing season. The crop mix, how much to grow of what, when to plant it, etc. December is the “thinking season.”
We have arrived, then, at the “trust season.” Now is when we must blindly trust our December selves and carry out the plan. Frequently, we pause and look at each other and say, “Really? This was part of the plan? We’re really growing Fava beans again?” But we have to assume our sanity was intact in December and each part of the plan is well thought out. We must edge ourselves toward becoming implementation robots and move like pieces of an intricate machine.