Waxing Poetic (farm blog)
Here we are on our nation’s day of Independence. Because Monday is not a day we can take completely off, we celebrated yesterday by floating lazily down the New River. Emphasis on the lazy. Just floating: eyes to the sky, toes dipping into the water, oozing along like oil. Little droplets occasionally melded together, occasionally drifting apart. Without paddles, nothing to do but live in the moment of the river.
I am tempted to find a life lesson in such an experiment. Living life without a paddle? But the truth is, I like research and information and plans and lists and all the paddle-esque things that guide us through our everyday lives and careers. I like being on top of things. It’s just that, every now and then, it’s nice to take a day to simply ooze. To let go of any need for control and trust the river to get you there in its own good time.
ALL HUMANS ARE OKAY! But Vanny DeVito met his demise in Tumbling Shoals Creek this past week
We’ve decided to thrive in challenging situations. Yep. It’s on our list. Want to know what’s no longer on our list? Getting a spare wheel and tire for Harrison Ford (the Hickory market van, who has never had a spare tire since we’ve owned him). But I happened to notice while Vanny DeVito was upside down in the creek that he has a really nice spare tire, now available. Boom! Check it off the list!
See how easy that was? Just total one van a get the part you need for the other. Easy as pie.
But seriously. We learned something from Vanny DeVito, who got dragged back out of the creek and set back on his feet, started back up and limped back to the farm by his own engine. I mean, farming is a lot like this accident. Inevitably, there are setbacks, but being a farmer is about taking those setbacks and making the best of them (free spare tire! A thing checked off the list!), and perhaps learning a thing or two along the way.
Farming takes tenacity. It takes grit. Sometimes, it takes sheer will to thrive under formidable conditions.
I’ve been known to admire some muscles here and there. You know, you glance back at someone lifting a heavy object and appreciate their bicep, or you admire the abs on an Olympic swimmer on television, or even the quadriceps or calves on a runner. Or okay, let’s admit it, you’ve admired triceps at the cross-fit gym (but only through the window—you wouldn’t want a cross-fitter to get a big head!) But never, in all my muscle admiration, have I ever said, “would you look at those hamstrings!”
That’s the farmer muscle. I know bending over so much sounds like a back exercise, and it is, but nothing works more around here than the hamstrings. I mean, try it! Fold over umpteen thousand times in one day and you’ll notice that it’s your hamstrings that are hurting the next day.
They’re subtle; they’re usually covered up by shorts or skirts or pants so we don’t tend to notice them, but man, do farmers have them. Well, at least farmers on Tumbling Shoals Farm. So, just because, here's three cheers to farmer hammies!!!
Jason whipping the landscaping into organization
Two social scientists, James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling, introduced the “broken window theory” in the early 80s. I’ll paraphrase the theory. Broken windows beget more vandalism and other petty crimes. So if you fix the broken window promptly, it is a lot less likely that more windows will be broken or more vandalism will occur. If you clean up the streets promptly and daily, people are less likely to throw their trash in them. Let me say it in the positive: clean streets beget clean streets and neighborhoods that people feel safe in.
We employ a similar theory in our lives here on the farm. The appearance of disorganization and chaos begets disorganization and chaos. If the house is messy, our whole lives feel messy, and we’re more likely to approach farm management sloppily. So we try to make the bed every day, keep the “office pile” relegated to one big magnet on the fridge (sometimes it takes two), clean up the kitchen as we go, etc.
We try to keep our fields relatively “clean” of weeds (hey, I said “relatively”!), the field borders mowed on a somewhat regular basis (hey, I said “somewhat”!), and the packing shed neat and organized. Everything in its place.
We feel strongly that the appearance of organization and cleanliness leads to real organization and cleanliness. Besides, there’s a huge amount of satisfaction involved in the appearance of organization. Or perhaps it's just me.
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.