Street Signs

One winter, when Andrew and I were living in Massachusetts, I had the opportunity to participate in a Holistic Management training class.  Holistic Management started as a management tool for grazers raising livestock on pasture in arid climates, but much of the theoretical aspects and decision-making tools apply equally well to other branches of farming.  As part of the class, Andrew and I were asked to make “Holistics Goals” for our yet-unformed future-farm.  We strove to make our goals broadly applicable, since we did not yet know where we would be or what form our farm would take.  But the process forced us articulate our priorities and our values in a way that we never would have with a standard business plan (though one of those might have been a good idea too!)

Fast forward seven years.  We’ve landed.  Our own piece of land, which we are gradually shaping to suit our dream.  A farm business that has taken many forms and seems finally to be maturing into something for the long term.  We look around and see one thousand future projects, but now, finally, we are also seeing the fruit of our labor: range coops sailing across the pastures, tomatoes climbing toward the rafters of our tunnels, our milkhouse becoming a hub of farm work; systems, routines, plans that occasionally get executed the way we expected.

On Sunday, Mother’s Day, Andrew and I went for a bike ride.  At the old farm, my bike had languished in the barn for about five years.  This was partly because the mountains around us were better suited for Tour d’France training than for pleasure cycling, but also because in those first five years I don’t think the two of us often stopped working simultaneously, except when it was bitterly cold.  This spring we took my bike in for a tune up, and we acquired a bike for Andrew.  On Sunday, my parents were visiting, the kids were behaving, and the weather was perfect–we had to get out. (Forgive us, Pastors Donna and Tim!)

From our driveway, we turned out onto Roy Shafer road, from there to Paul Rudy, and after a quick jog onto Sumantown, we took a right on Carol Boyer.  I began mentally naming all of the other local roads I know with similarly personal names–Pete Wiles, Delauter, Loy Wolfe, Harley, Holter, Poffenberger, Stottlemeyer.  These names are not all abstractions to me now–we know Delauters and Wolfes, Holters and Stottlemeyers, and we live on the original Roy Shafer farm.  I love that the roads where we live are a connection between the history of this place and its present.  I love that an elderly gentleman at our church now hails me as “Roy Shafer farm,” and that the people who grew up around here, farming, probably know our farm as well as we do.

We are not locals here.  As much as I cherish the web of family connections, the rootedness of our place, we are the antithesis of it.  Andrew hails from New York; I’m from Atlanta–we ended up in Maryland as much by chance as anything.  Having arrived, however, I’m ready to settle.  I joke that the year-long headache of moving our farm was enough to convince me never again to move, but, truthfully, I wouldn’t want to even if all I owned were a pair of socks.  As we cruised down Carol Boyer, under a canopy of trees, surrounded by birdsong and accompanied by the falling water of a creek, I thought of the words of e.e cummings

i thank You God for most this amazing
day:for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky;and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes

i who have died am alive again today,
and this is the sun’s birthday;this is the birth
day of life and of love and wings:and of the gay
great happening illimitably earth)

how should tasting touching hearing seeing
breathing any—lifted from the no
of all nothing—human merely being
doubt unimaginable You?

(now the ears of my ears awake and
now the eyes of my eyes are opened)

Andrew’s and my “Holistic Goals” take up most of a single sheet of paper.  We try to revisit it at least once per year, to measure our progress, and to reorient ourselves when we veer off course.  Looking back at the sectioned called “Future Resources Base” I see that we wanted “Community: Rural, spacious, with vibrant local businesses and culture as well as pride of place”  We wanted to settle among “people who act neighborly” with “a local land ethic”.  Just as I don’t believe that anyone has a singular soulmate, nor do I think that our corner is uniquely perfect.

Still, while I’ve lived many places, but this is my home.

 

 

A Rose By Any Other Name

It took Andrew and me more than a few tries to settle on a farm name that we both liked.  To begin with, Andrew nominated “Springtail Farm,” in honor of some kind of microscopic soil creature that he had read about and liked.  I, who had seen pictures of springtails and did not think that it would incorporate well into a logo, lobbied hard for Anona Farm, after the Roman goddess of the harvest.  Andrew then did some googling of “Anona” and informed me that my goddess was blatantly fabricated by the Roman Empire to remind the peasants of their debt to the empire and it’s grain subsidies (the eponymous bread of “Bread and Circuses”), which deflated my enthusiasm for that idea rather quickly.  We almost came to an agreement about “Full Well Farm”–we both liked the connotations of abundant water and contentment.  The more we sat with it, however, the more we worried that it was a bit too eccentric and old-timey.  When one of us suggested “Open Book Farm,” we quickly realized that it was a much better fit.

I mention this because last weekend our well went dry.

Yes, that is exactly as bad as it sounds.

I won’t bore you with the back story of well issues that we thought we had resolved, or the pump and pressure tank that we had only just replaced.  Suffice it to say that on a Sunday morning I found myself staring at the ground in disbelief and numb terror as I contemplated the idea of a farm without water.

Now, to be fair, it could be much worse.  Our farm is bordered on one side by Catoctin Creek, and we do have a small pond not far from the driveway.  We have surface water.  Additionally, the farm has a total of three drilled wells, (though the second, we learned for a cool $1400, is effectively dry as well) and with the addition of a new pump in the deepest and further well, we were able to restore water to our home by the evening.  The new well, alas, only yields 1.5 gallons per minute, and has to supply our home and our neighbor’s, so it doesn’t leave any extra water for agricultural application.  On Sunday night we found ourselves in a very uncomfortable place, suddenly having to rethink all of our plans for the season.

We cannot raise animals or grow vegetables without reliable water.  Our pond, while spring fed, is shallow, and we don’t know how well it will flow in the summer.  So we had to make a call.  We decided to put our CSA on hold for the season.  It was not an easy decision, and I still second guess it several times each day.  But the last thing we want to do is make a promise that we can’t keep, and so to offer a CSA with our current situation would be unfair to our customers and down right stupid for us.

We will grow veggies this year, but less of them.  We’ll work the kinks out of our pond irrigation system, and we’ll try to set ourselves up well for the future.  (no pun intended)  We’ll ease into our new neighborhood by being open on Friday nights for veg, meat, and egg sales, and we hope that we’ll see some of you there.  We may not be full well, but we remain an open book.

Windsday

Sylvan loves Winnie the Pooh.  Partly this is because the old school Disney version is one of only two full length movies he owns (the other is the 1954 live action Peter Pan–our poor kids are going to have a serious pop culture handicap at this rate).  As a result he has watched Winnie the Pooh so many times that he can basically quote it start to finish.  So it was no surprise when our recent blustery weather inspired him to run around the house telling everyone that, as in Winnie the Pooh, it was “Windsday” and laughing at his own joke.

I did not find the weather nearly so amusing.  After a three year veggie hiatus, in which bad weather did not bother me (most of the time), I’m back in the vegetable game, and I’m once again tracking the weather forecast the way politicians watch their poll numbers.  Wind is unsettling.  The unpredictability of the gusts leaves me permanently on edge, bracing for the next blast.  I get jumpy, anxious, grumpy.  At night I lie in bed, listening to the windowsills rattling and wondering what disaster we’ll find in the morning.

While I was more than able to imagine abundant windy catastrophes, I was somehow blind to the incompatibility of my to-do list and the weather.  A few short days after our new apprentice, Jesse, had arrived, I asked him to meet me by the veggie field for one quick task before lunch.  I’d been reading about a new weed suppression technique, occultation, and I wanted to give it a shot.  With occultation, the farmer prepares the bed for planting and then covers it with barrier that transmits water but not light.  Weed seeds germinate in the warm, wet darkness beneath, only to promptly die from lack of light.  When the cover is removed in advance of planting, the field will be (in theory) relatively weed free with a minimum of tillage.  My initial experiments with it had worked well, and I was ready to try it on a farm scale.

I had purchased an enormously heavy roll of 15 foot wide landscaping fabric for this new endeavor, and as the wind whipped my hair into my eyes, Jesse and I began rolling out the fabric.  Every 5 to 10 feet we threw sandbags on the fabric to hold it down.  By the end of the 200 foot bed, we were panting from the effort, but feeling good. Then it got interesting.  The fabric was folded in half for easier transit, and we needed to spread it out to it’s full 15 foot width.  We attached the fabric to the ground with 6 inch long agricultural staples, hammered in, and we did our best to pull it tight from side to side.  As we moved down the row, opening the fabric up and spreading it wide, the wind began to form a sail ahead of us.  Rather than getting easier, it seemed to be becoming more and more difficult, so I had the bright idea of cutting off the far end, which was still attached to the roll.  It soon became apparent that I would need to park myself on the end, while Jesse worked his way toward me with the staples.  The wind picked up.  Right about then, Rich our other employee, noticed the signs of struggle coming from the field and ran to help.  He and Jesse fought their way toward me, and it looked like me might force the fabric into submission.  And then one enormously strong gust grabbed us all and sent the three of us quite literally parasailing across the field.  I was on my stomach, skimming above the cover crop stubble, holding on for dear life and thinking “this would be fun if I had any idea how to stop”.  Jesse and Rich, more vertical, were lifted balloon-like from their posts.  It was at that point that we decided that Open Book Farm did not like the black magic of occultation, at least not that day.  Once back on the ground, we scrambled to ball the fabric up, piling as many sandbags atop it as we could find.  We left it, a big plastic mountain of defeat, and headed inside for a late lunch.

The next week the wind let up slightly, at least in the mornings, and I hatched a plan to make my beds for onions and potatoes.  I grow both crops on beds that have been covered with a different sort of plastic, which I lay with a special implement attached to the back of the tractor.  It always takes a few beds to get all the wheels and levers adjusted properly each spring, and this year was no exception.  I hopped on and off for the first few passes, doing my best to get the edges covered in dirt and the plastic laid tight across the bed.  All in all, I was happy with the resulting beds–they were long and straight and looked, I thought, pretty good.  We would need to mulch the pathways that afternoon, I reasoned, before the evening rains that had been forecasted.  I went inside to check on the kids and prep lunch.

I was feeling happy to have accomplished so much so early, so I asked Sylvan if he wanted to take a walk to the greenhouse to check on his tomato plant.  We then moseyed over to the onion beds, where I expected to give Sylvan a lesson in onion farming.  To my horror, I instead found one bed flapping in the wind, the edge unraveling from it’s soil cover like a sweater being unknit.  “Help me, Sylvan!” I cried, and grabbed the nearest edge.  I crawled my way along the bed, reburying the plastic and doing my best to sound upbeat.  Sylvan, meanwhile, decided that he did not like the wind.  “I don’t want to blow away like Piglet mommy” he sobbed, following me and stomping on the dirt as instructed.  Once again, I called all hands on deck.  Jesse and I worked toward one another from opposite ends, while Andrew rushed Sylvan back to the warmth and unwindiness of grandma.  Of course, just as we neared the middle, the next bed over began to whip about, unraveling with the same speed as the first.  “We’ve got to mulch it NOW” I yelled.  Once the edges of the beds were covered by hay mulch in the pathways, the beds would be safe.

For a moment, I considered abandoning disaster bed # 2.  But I knew that trying to drive the tractor in precisely the same tracks would be difficult, if not impossible, so I gritted my teeth and started reburying the second bed.  While I attempted to save the bed, Andrew, Rich, and Jesse began unrolling round bales of hay down the aisles.  Some of the mulch blew off as soon as it landed, but I figured that the addition of several thousand pounds of organic matter had to be helpful, right?  Round bales weigh around 500 pounds each, so it takes at least two people to move one, especially going uphill (which of course we were).  Slowly, the beds began to disappear under a fluffy hay snow, and I began to breath again.  Lunch was even more delayed that day, and I promised not to undertake any more pre-lunch plastic projects until the wind let up.

 

 

Lost in Translation

For the first two years, Sylvan was none too interested in talking.  At first, like any first time mom, I worried that something was wrong.  Eventually, the refrain from more experienced parents of, “trust me–he’ll talk.  And when he does start you won’t be able to get him to stop!” got through to me and I relaxed.  And, as promised, soon after his second birthday he jumped into language in a big way.  He wanted to know the names of every animal, every kitchen appliance, every vehicle on the road.  Most of the time, we think his little stream of consciousness narrative is adorable.  Occasionally we even manage to get a word in edgewise.

Having a child who can talk has made me more aware of what I’m saying around him (I know, should have thought of that earlier, right?)  No one wants to be the playground’s pariah parent, with a kid who could make a sailor blush, or who repeats things that were really better left unsaid. We worked on a farm in Massachusetts where the three year old (truly one of the most delightful children I’ve ever known) knew full well not only the full gamut of curse words but also how to use them, and we all worried about what would happen when he reached preschool age.  He didn’t pull ’em out often, but when he did, it made your ears burn.

I’ve discussed among friends various strategies to excise bad words from a child’s memory–someone claimed that children have a stronger memory of the most recent thing said, so if you follow a four letter word with something familiar and innocuous, maybe “peanut butter,” your child will glide right over the offending expletive and skip straight to wanting a snack.  Another friend recounted the story of a near crash, when a large truck cut her off and she let out a word that rhymes with truck.  Her toddler daughter was in the backseat, so my friend quickly elaborated, “TRUCK!  Yup, that was a big TRUCK!  Did you see the truck that almost killed us??”  Her daughter rode the rest of the way home saying, “truck, truck truck.  BIIIIIIG truck.”

Happily, Sylvan does not seem to have taken in any ill-advised interjections from his mommy (because of course daddy would never do such a thing!).  He does, however, have a problem with enunciation.  Every word that ends in “uck” or “ook”–duck, truck, dough hook–all sound, when Sylvan speaks them, like they start with an “f”.  This is awkward, because he likes trucks and ducks a lot, and talks about them daily.  He also elides his sister’s name so that “Baby Alice” sounds a lot closer to “Baby A**”.  He loves her, really, we swear.

This has all become so commonplace to us by now that we rarely notice it, and it really wouldn’t be worthy of a blogpost at all were it not for a recent statement that he made and which brought tears to all of our eyes.  Talking about the various machines and cars on our farm the other day he declared, “Mommy and Daddy truck in barn.”

I hope that one doesn’t come up in church!

The Waiting Place

Lately, I think since he really started talking, Sylvan has discovered within himself a new-found patience for “wordy” books.   One such book, which we often find ourselves reading before bed (stalling tactic?) is Dr. Seuss’ Oh the Places You’ll Go.  At one point, the narrator advises the reader that life will occasionally lead to “the Waiting Place”

…for people just waiting.
Waiting for a train to go
or a bus to come, or a plane to go
or the mail to come, or the rain to go
or the phone to ring, or the snow to snow
or the waiting around for a Yes or No
or waiting for their hair to grow.
Everyone is just waiting.

Waiting for the fish to bite
or waiting for the wind to fly a kite
or waiting around for Friday night
or waiting, perhaps, for their Uncle Jake
or a pot to boil, or a Better Break
or a string of pearls, or a pair of pants
or a wig with curls, or Another Chance.
Everyone is just waiting.

Boy, did that feel prophetic to me this winter.  There I sat, on a frozen farm, waiting for a baby to be born, waiting for someone to want to work with us in spring, waiting for Sylvan to talk, waiting to find out if we would get into a second market, waiting, it seemed, for everything.  Every decision we wanted to make–should we get bees again, since this bitter winter killed our hive?–what should I grow this spring?–how many chickens should we raise?–how many steers?–seemed predicated on unknowns or things beyond our control.

We were living in limbo, permanently liminal.  It was driving me crazy.  Well, the snow didn’t help.

But finally the snow melted.  The dead, brittle world of winter gave way to spring, and I expected action!  And then I didn’t go into labor.  And then yet another potential apprentice did not work out.

Slowly, I gave up my long range planning, and began operating from day to day.  Paint the tiny house.  Till the garden.  Take Sylvan to the park.  When I stopped to look back, I could see that things were happening, but in such incremental ways that I almost didn’t notice.  I did notice that I had still not gone into labor.

Last Wednesday I gave up, sobbing to Andrew that I would be pregnant forever, that I was starting to outgrow his clothes, that I could not sleep and that I just wanted to be through.

That afternoon, Caitlin called, to say that she would accept our offer of the apprenticeship, and that she could start the following Tuesday.  I stopped by the Farm Services Agency office and submitted an application on the last possible day.  Shortly after midnight, I went into labor.  Less than three hours later, all of our waiting had finally ended.  Alice Jane Barnet joined our family, and the season officially began (for me, anyway; Andrew would probably note that he’s been doing chicken chores for weeks already)

IMG_0127

Sylvan brought his Baby Alice flowers

If Sylvan is any indication, adding another kiddo to the mix will not exactly simplify our lives…but at least we’ve left the waiting place.

Eating our Veggies

For a person who does not, in fact, own a dairy cow, I like cream perhaps a little bit too much. Whenever I’m at the store grocery shopping, my mental list of potential foodstuffs to buy pretty much begins and ends in the dairy aisle, “do we have cheese for Sylvan? milk for all of us? cream for my coffee? butter, and backup butter in case I go on a pie-making bender and need even more?” We are definitely not going to qualify as self-sufficient homesteaders unless we kick the cow habit, or acquire one.

So it should come as no surprise that I opened the fridge yesterday and discovered a nearly full quart of cream, purchased on the fly, which was swiftly nearing its expiration date. I ran through a mental list of possible uses–cream soup? not in the mood. creamy pasta sauce? nah, seems too rich. chocolate mousse? tempting, but necessitating more effort than I wanted to marshal. and so I landed where I often do, in ice cream land.

My ice cream cookbook collection is carefully curated and well-splattered with evidence of use. My go-to is often Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams (for next day scoopability and inspired flavor combinations, she can’t be beat), but I remain loyal to David Leibovitz’s The Perfect Scoop, and also to the dark horse Ben and Jerry’s Homemade Ice Cream and Dessert Book.  All have their strengths and weaknesses and have earned their place on our overstuffed cookbook shelves.

I wanted something wintery, not totally run of the mill but neither too far out of left field.  I was just about to settle on eggnog ice cream, when I stopped in my tracks and furiously backpedaled.  Sweet potato ice cream.  yes.

At this point you are probably thinking, “ahem, ‘neither too far out of left field?'” which is a fair critique.  Most neighborhood scoop shops do not stock sweet potato ice cream, even in the winter.  But I love sweet potatoes.  And I have about 10 crates of these nifty purple ones that I grew this year, AND I’ve been trying to think of uses for them where their arresting hue would be cool, rather than disconcerting.  Furthermore, I have discovered that the only truly foolproof way to coerce Sylvan into tasting unfamiliar vegetables is to serve them in ice cream form (it worked with beets!).  I was sold.

Truth be told, it was an easy ice cream recipe–no cooking or custard, just 20 minutes simmering of the cubed sweet potatoes, covered with water, on the stove.  Then I threw all the ingredients in a blender and pureed the heck out of them.  It was at this point, however, where I encountered thee small problems.  First, the recipe called for brown sugar, which I had just run out of that morning.  No problem, I substituted maple syrup.  Second, in my excitement, I had neglected to take note of the fact that the recipe did not call for cream.  At all.  All I needed was 1 cup plus 2 tablespoons of milk.  After a moment’s pause, I decided that more cream could only be an improvement on the recipe, and I substituted cream for all of the milk.

The third problem was a logical extension of the second–the more I blended, the thicker my ice cream base became, until I suddenly realized that I had invented something entirely new: purple sweet potato whipped cream.  Happily, I had at least stopped before I ended up with purple sweet potato butter…

My taste testers, however, declared that the sweet potato whipped cream was delicious, and urged me to continue with my original plan.  (In truth, Sylvan was quite ready to eat an entire bowl of the ice cream base straight out of the blender, but I cut him off and distracted him with an apple.)

Don’t tell Sylvan that he ate a vegetable last night.  He thinks that he tricked us into giving him ice cream.

So, if you need an inspired dessert for your next Baltimore Ravens-themed dinner party, or you child goes through a purple phase and you weary of grape-flavored everything, purple sweet potatoes are your new best friend.  I think I’ve got enough butter in the fridge to make a sweet potato pie…

sweet potato ice cream

Sweet Potato Ice Cream
from The Perfect Scoop

N.B: sweet potato ice cream freezes to a rock-like consistency after a night in the freezer, so either enjoy it all the first night, or budget sufficient thawing time before serving it on day two.  This is David Lebovitz’s original recipe, which is probably better than my bastardized version.  But do use the purple sweet potatoes!

1 pound sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into 1 inch cubes
1 cup plus 2 T whole milk
2/3 cup light brown sugar
1/4 t ground cinnamon
1/2 t vanilla extract
pinch of salt
a few drops of freshly squeezed lemon juice

Place the cubed sweet potatoes in a medium saucepan and cover with water.  Bring to a boil, reduce the heat to a simmer, and cook for 20 minutes, or until the cubes are tender when poked with a knife,  Drain the sweet potatoes and and let cool to room teperature.

Pour the milk into a blender and add the brown sugar, sweet potatoes, cinnamon, vanilla, and salt.  Puree until very smooth.  Add lemon juice to taste.

Chill the mixture in your refrigerator, then freeze in your ice cream maker.

Not Quite Newton

If I were to write a PSA warning pamphlet on the topic of “How to Tell If Your Child is Into Farming,” I think I’d say, first and foremost, to monitor Science Fair projects carefully.

When I was in third grade, having been dissuaded from my initial plan to breed a blue rose (in a matter of weeks), I instead delved into Mendelian genetics and grew out Impatiens flowers to see if they would stay true to their parent’s color.  Fourth grade’s project is unmemorable, but then, in fifth grade, I constructed two identical terrariums, located them at the North and South end of the house, and monitored the variations in their growth.

So really, I’m not sure why my family felt like the whole farming thing came out of left field.

I mention my early forays into the Scientific method to illustrate one of my favorite perks of the job (other than the free food)–the freedom of the farmer to run experiments.  Now, before any readers who are real scientists get all huffy, let me freely admit: I tend to play a bit fast and loose with the scientific method.  I don’t usually have  control group, and I rarely try to replicate my experiments.  Heck, I frequently don’t even have a hypothesis–I just want to see what will happen.  But I do love to try new things.

Sometimes my passion for experiments drives Andrew a bit crazy.  His M.O. on the farm is to make tiny tweaks to well-designed existing systems, and only then after much careful thought.  I’m much more likely to impulsively go big, which comes with the occasional success and the not-altogether-infrequent “unsuccess” (cough, cough, giant lima beans in the greenhouse).  Still, I can’t resist the allure of the experiment.

And occasionally, everything aligns for a really good one.  As usual, I’m growing Brussels sprouts this year.  Though they’ve been under attack from cabbage whites (the caterpillar form of those tiny white butterflies you see everywhere this time of year), the plants look generally pretty good, and I realized this week that it was time to tell the plants to put their energy into the eponymous sprouts.

Last year’s experiment (which could less charitably be characterized as paralyzed indecision) was to leave the plants untouched.  The sprouts were pretty puny, I have to say.  At farms where I’ve worked, you “top” the plants this time of year, removing the growing tip and upper-most leaves.  The plant then stops growing up and instead bulks up the sprouts.  Graham informed me, however, that in his experience you strip the bottom leaves off the plant to achieve the same end.  This sounded to me like the perfect opportunity for an experiment.

So Graham and I worked our way down opposite sides of the rows, he stripping leaves, me topping.  While we are yet to see any conclusive evidence as to which produces larger or more uniform sprouts, we can definitively state that topping (with a knife) is much faster, and that it has the happy side product of lots of tender young Brussels sprout tops for eating.

Regardless of the results, I am sure to be pleased.  Every day I get to learn something new.