Waxing Poetic (farm blog)
Decontructing the hayrove tomato umbrella is a sure sign of resolution
We have entered into the resolution season. I don’t mean the kind inspired by a New Year, but the “return from a pathological to a normal condition.” I can tell because my wardrobe lies in chaotic transition: the warm winter clothes half regurgitated from the box they lived in all summer but the light summer clothes still hanging on as I check and re-check the weather forecast. Saturday was sleeveless, Sunday was sweater-fest. I can also tell because I did absolutely nothing productive on Sunday. And very little today. There are still “to do” lists, of course, but I glance at them with a wary eye and find it easier and easier to put forth the procrastination effort. There are very few crises these days. With most of the summer crops gone, their fields turned and cover crops sown, we turn our heads toward winter rest and restoration. Toward the return of a slow daily cycle. We await the inevitable frost with a hands-folded, quiet, monk-like acceptance. We embrace it like a long absent lover.
One of my favorite photos of the farm in fall (actually, it's mostly my neighbors farm, but it's still a pretty autumn picture)
October is my favorite month. Well, isn’t it everyone’s? I mean after all, it does contain my birthday, our anniversary, AND Halloween. The leaves start changing, the evening air gets crisp and clear, and the descending angle of the sun leaves the world in a delicious tilt. We’re kicking this October off with a moody day fit only for curling up with the cat, a good book, and a cup of tea. We really tried to be diligent here on the farm today. There we were, out working in the rain, all productive, but then I got cold and the warm, cozy house began to call to me like the house of Usher (well okay, less creepy and more inviting, but nearly sentient all the same). So we did it. We set a perilous October precedent by taking an afternoon off.
Emily looking at Charlotte in the distance (yes, it was that clear)
Emily and Jason on McRae Peak
Looking down from McRae Peak--it's a LONG way back down!
Do you remember that song "Hurts So Good"? Come on, I know you do, even if you don't want to admit it. Well, every now and again, it seems like a good idea to do that to ourselves. Monday was one of those times. Emily, Jason, and I decided to take the day off from work and kick start our hiking season (we only have time to do such things in the fall and winter) with a little 10 or so mile hike covering 2000 feet of elevation change. Yep. It was indeed one heck of a kick off! If you see me moving slow tomorrow, you'll know why. Although I'll be hurting for a few days, I have to admit that it feels good too. It was an absolutely perfect day--so clear we could actually see Charlotte! It's also always a good idea to kick those muscles back into gear that will be needed next spring (lest they get too fat and lazy!). Maybe Mr. Mellencamp was right after all.
Installing the log we drug out of the woods (our creek bank restoration project)
You may have been told at some point that fashion doesn’t make a difference in who you are. Well, I’m beginning to disagree with that. When I was in the Peace Corps in Madagascar, I spent a lot of time in various types of sandals and flip flops. It was hot and seemed the most practical. I also felt sort of fat, slow and lazy. Probably because I was! Then I went to the big city one day and bought me a pair of fake brand name tennis shoes. As soon as I got back home I put those shiny shoes on and suddenly I felt like an athlete. Not only did I feel like an athlete, I took off and went for a run! If you don’t know me, you might not understand how positively shocking it would be to see me running (unless there’s something very big and scary chasing me which, of course, would be just as shocking).
I’ve noticed this phenomenon on the farm as well. I don’t wear sandals on the farm, even when it is hot, because I tend to be a little more timid in my work habits. So last week, we had to move this gigantic tree (20’ long and about 20” average diameter) across this STEEP and slippery hillside. This was going to take a bit of, um pardon my French (it’s okay, I speak French), badassery. So I put on my rugged boots and thick Carhart pants and, you guessed it, I felt solid, stalwart and tough as nails. I put everything I had into that tree (and subsequently didn’t have much left the rest of the week!). But by golly, the four of us moved that monster across that hillside and now it’s installed in the creek.
Emily and Lacey having some fun in the okra patch
It’s an auspicious evening breeze that scatters the farmily around the world each year. While relief is in order as the nights (and sometimes days) cool down and the workload lessens and slows, still a twinge of sadness drifts in as the employees, one by one, end their stint here at Tumbling Shoals Farm and move on to other things. Mitch left us a couple of weeks ago to head back to school. Lacey has already begun cleaning and a sort of semblance of packing for her last couple of weeks here. Suddenly, we find ourselves a little clingy. Where before, we would lunch and dine together only occasionally, recently we’ve noticed our plans must involve each other. It feels like eminent empty nest syndrome, though we never actually had to build that nest as our farmily arrives already raised and pushed out of a nest. Still, it’s a scramble to spend as much time as possible together as the days grow shorter.
our last bursts of color before the greens of fall
Do you ever have days where your mind just draws a blank? I don’t mean stupidly (though I have those days too), but comfortably: days when you just can’t find anything to fret about. Perhaps it’s some sort of resignation, but it feels more akin to acceptance. Where things are just set in motion and you refuse to worry about them anymore. I’m having one of those days, well, weeks, maybe even months. I am aware, somewhere in my conscience, that there is still some scrambling around left to do, still some large projects looming, but I can’t resist the ease of cool evenings, open windows, and the front porch. It’s an alluring lullaby, the end of August. More and more fields trade in their feverish reproductive fervor for a simple cover with no expectation other than to hold onto the soil over the winter and hold onto hope for the spring. Even the buckwheat with its whirring metropolis of insects scrambling to store enough sugar for the winter season sounds like a sigh.
A Mexican bean beetle larvae parasitized by a pediobus wasp-the wasp larvae will hatch out from inside the bean beetle larvae (cool huh?)
Usually, the first question we get about organic agriculture is “what do you do about the bugs?” Organic is a whole system approach to producing food that focuses on balancing the ecosystem in and around our fields and building healthy soils for healthy plants. This mostly works for prevention of pest outbreaks. But sometimes, we press a figurative thumb on that scale. Sometimes, we stack the deck a bit. Because sometimes the bad bugs just don’t seem to have received the memo! Like the Mexican bean beetle, for example. Balanced, they are not, my friends. They’re just plumb out of control. Evil minded critters seem to have their sights set on taking over the world of beans. If we do nothing, they will defoliate our entire crop of beans. Lucky for us though, they have a nemesis: a tiny little wasp that parasitizes the bean beetle larvae. And wouldn’t you know it, there are whole companies out there that raise these wasps and will sell them to us! So this year, instead of simply hoping against hope that it won’t be a bad Mexican bean beetle year, instead of just not planting beans at all, we stacked the deck. And we swear it’s not cheating. They are, after all, Mexican bean beetles and this is not Mexico. So if anyone is cheating…
Kicking off August with a little fun break at McRitchie winery
We went and visited some farms on the high country farm tour this past weekend. August is an interesting time for a farm tour. August is an interesting month (“interesting” being an ambiguous word). It’s a time of year when the sun seeks an angry vengeance against us (let's all knock on wood together now for this cool week we've got planned). It’s a time when all the hope of spring has been used up and replaced with dust and weeds and not a little heartbreak. It’s a time when you find yourself constantly scrambling and scrapping half finished tasks, cutting your losses and moving on. It’s a time when, as a farmer, you really shouldn’t count up your crop losses, but still you do. It must be the mood lighting. August. Did you know that it’s an adjective too? As in “inspiring reverence or admiration.” As in, “it’s an august farmer who survives August.” But we do. Somewhere deep in our hearts, we know relief is not far away. As the fall crops begins to poke up their little green heads, we can look at the beautiful big picture of what we do for a living, wipe the sweat from our brow, and plug away at those perpetual to do lists with a little more vigor in our step.
Mother Nature can inflict her wrath on even the best farmers (These are the Haygrove tomato umbrellas at Peregrine Farm in Alamance County)
I used to teach disaster preparedness courses for the American Red Cross. I rarely followed my own advice. If I had been prone to follow my own advice, I probably wouldn’t have chosen farming for a career. We truly are at the mercy of Mother Nature. Remember back in 2009 (or have you blocked that memory too), all the crazy rain and flooding? It was that year in combination with the slightly less watery, but still good ole’ southeastern damp 2010 year, and the virtual loss of a tomato crop two years in a row that prompted the purchase of our “tomato umbrella.” That was no small decision (thank goodness for bank loans!). But since we erected that structure, I have to admit I’ve felt a little bullet-proof. Like Icharus, I challenged the gods and thought myself to have won at least a small battle (you see, we can grow beautiful tasty actually fungicide-free organic tomatoes in the southeast!). Lest I get too arrogant though: it was with a heavy dose of my own human powerlessness that we returned a borrowed tool to our mentor farmers (Alex and Betsy Hitt of Peregrine Farm in Alamance County) this weekend. A tool they will need to replace their own tomato umbrella that Mother Nature took out in a brief flash of unpredicted fury. We return to our farm, perhaps a little less realistic about our relationship with Mother Nature, and with the words of our friend Ken running through our heads, “Isn’t that what farming is: waiting around for the next disaster?” Indeed.
He (or she) who said “If you love what you do, you never have to work a day in your life” was most definitely not a farmer. Have you ever looked up the definition of work? It’s really quite eye-opening. Excepting the articles, I suppose, it has to be one of the most used words in the English language. And most of its many uses apply to the farm in one way or another. Work on, work out, work off, work over. Mostly, we just work…hard. My father once famously said of the farm, “everywhere I look I see work!” Behind the scenes, off the grid (metaphorically speaking, that is), out of sight, out of mind. Day after day, we toil away here in Millers Creek, which may as well be Belarus, and we might as well be Belarusian snake milkers (you do what? Where? Huh?), for all the understanding we engender from the uninitiated (which, of course, does not mean ya’ll reading this since you are obviously very in tune with what happens here). In that vein, I have to propose a national holiday. No, no..don’t get all panicky on me, I don’t mean that we, the farmers, are going to take a day off. I mean that I propose that this Wednesday be national “give your farmer a round of applause day”. Maybe if everyone did it, we could even hear it way out here in Millers Creek! I promise if you do that, we’ll quit patting ourselves on the back and get back to work.