11/16/14
Growth Musings




()

First serious snow arrives at Red Road Farm

It’s nothing big — four inches of snow — and while it’s wet and sticky, and froze after deposit, and has made young trees bow down onto Loganville Road, this snowstorm ain’t so much.

We are, however, out of practice.

And not just out of practice — we don’t have our equipment out of storage.

We don’t have the ice chipper, which we use to shatter buildup on our porch stairs.

We haven’t set up the heated water for the chickens.

We haven’t even ensured that each car has a scraper-and-brush.

In fact (and we are so embarrassed about this) we haven’t even undercoated our cars nor put on our winter tires.

There’s so much to do, and less time than we need to do it. Part of that, we’ve come to realize, is because we’re older than we think we are, and we schedule ourselves accordingly.

That is: Surely we can weatherize the greenhouse, and then clear the squash vines from their fieldrows, and then walk the perennial rows and fix the wiring, and then shift the sunroom into a coolroom, and then bring in a couple days’ wood.

And why not? That’s not so unreasonable.

At least, not unreasonable for the age we think we are — our mid-30s. That’s the age we expect to see in the mirror…

But wait — that’s not the age we really are. Not even close.

We’re past mid-50s. We’re at the stage of discovering physical limits we didn’t understand even existed, when we were in our mid-30s.

And so it goes — we make plans imagining ourselves lithe, limber, and capable. Instead, we confront the reality of aches, constraints, and limits.

It seems to me that one of the secrets is to recognize these absurdities, and laugh about them, and learn from them.

If I’m lucky enough to turn eighty, I expect not to think that I’m thirty anymore.

Instead, I suspect that I’ll think I’m now only about 60….

And perhaps, by the time I’m a hundred, I’ll have figured out how to plan ahead for winter, by starting preparation in August, or perhaps early September.

Or, in all likelihood, I’ll plan as if I’m only eighty, and so can stretch it to late September.

Share Button
11/12/14
Projects




()

Winding up, winding down, winding differently

It is now November 11th. We’ve had one semi-hard freeze, and one light freeze: the squash are finished, the field tomatoes kaput, the peppers wilting to death. Our light and lively lemon cucumbers finally gave up the ghost at the semi-hard freeze, and we were sad to see them go.

We still have our greenhouse, and we’re plasticking over the doorways, resealing the overhead plastic, and trying to make it as still a space as possible, since air movement produces temperature averages, instead of temperature layers that are driven mostly by soil temp.

It’s been an incredibly busy and complicated season, overall. We can’t honestly say it’s been a great summer, but we can honestly say we’ve survived it, and are stronger and clearer because of it.

We’re now looking toward the end of the Market season (Nov 29th is the last market Saturday for 2014), with only the short burst of community-hall Christmas craft markets to come — we’ll be in River John, and Scotsburn, and a few others, as the season winds down.

For those kinds of markets, we’ve got some cool preserve “Gift Packs” (four different small jars of preserves, in a sweet little wooden crate, wrapped in cello with bows [photos to come]). These seem like a wonderful present for someone, at $15, and we’re thinking of it as our “2014 Christmas Product.”

And we’re also working out how to make a “Breads and more” subscription work effectively, for January through March — where we deliver some bread, some sweets, and some preserves every two weeks to New Glasgow subscribers to the service. We hope it’s a big win all around — our customers are happy, and we can eke out a sustainable living.

That last part is key: how to eke out a sustainable living by providing high-quality products at reasonable prices.

We keep on working at that!

Share Button
08/28/14
Media




()

Red Road Farm featured in article about 50% Local September

The New Glasgow News interviewed Michael for an article on the recent “buy local food” push by Farmers Markets Nova Scotia. The reporter (John Brannen) called 25 minutes before I was to leave the house, in order to deliver our CSA bags to New Glasgow (thankfully, the Matrix was already full with the fully-packed bags, so I could be relaxed).

We had a nice chat, and I gave him some sound bites about why buying local was a good thing, and why Nova Scotia’s economy would benefit from it, and why the climate might benefit, and why the customers might benefit (local is picked more recently = more yummy), and how it might make a difference for some farmers.

John asked if there was a good time for him to come out and get a picture of me. I told him that I was leaving for New Glasgow in ten minutes, and would be at our pickup spot at noon. Now *there* was some carbon savings — his entire trip! He was delighted, and so we got a picture of our gravel-road dusty car and the CSA bags, with little time or effort on anyone’s part.

For almost a day, it was the top story on the News’ home page, and the picture below was front-and-center. No doubt tens, even hundreds of people saw it…! Who knows, it could be lots more than that.

Too bad you can’t read the logo on the bags in the picture, but otherwise, it was very nice to get some local-media attention! John Brannen did a great job of not misrepresenting anything I said, and even helped clarify a thing or two. I’m told that the picture appeared in the actual paper newspaper — I’m sorry to say I’m not a subscriber :-/ so I don’t know how differently it was edited.


Photo no doubt copyright © 2014, New Glasgow News
Farmers Markets NS inviting locals to eat 50 per cent local during September, August 26, 2014.

Share Button

The gigantophant in the room

Weather has made it, so far, a very strange year.

In February, we had a false spring, with balmy weather for more than a long week — a week long enough to bring out buds on our young fruit trees, seducing them sufficiently to make their sap begin to run. This was followed by a really, really cold few weeks, among the worst of the whole winter. It froze the sap within the trunks, killing 95% of many tree species.

This climate see-saw killed off most of our cherry trees, as well as most of our young peach trees. Thankfully, our nut trees, and our pear trees, survived fine — along with almost all the bushes and berries we planted into the black plastic. The raspberries are looking promising, and the high bush blueberries are pretty happy.

The spring through April, May, and June was extended, and stayed cold, until it was suddenly summer, and became super-hot. It played havoc with our plans. When we took the row-cover orr of our first broccoli, for example, we found it had grown long and lean, and then in the hot, turned instantly to head. The extended heat convinced the plants that it was July. For us, the broccoli head was the size of a dime, on top of a trunk that was a foot tall.

Crazy.

Today, I heard that the strawberries that last year had remained “pick-your-own”-ready for nearly a month, had “gone by,” two weeks after the season opened. Probably not many pickable strawberries, from here on out.

While we have not been “in drought” here in our region, it’s been very dry. The rain, when it comes, mostly isn’t drenching — it’s almost moisturizing rain. The top half inch dews up, but the lower levels of the soil remain in a sort of stasis, waiting to absorb. And the roots of our greens, and our beets, and even our potatoes, have to work harder to find their goal.

Fluctuations in local weather are always unique. That’s what makes a microclimate. But the experiences we’ve been having are not limited to Pictou County, or to the North Shore. It seem regional, perhaps to a large swath of the Maritimes.

Is this climate chaos in action? Are we destined to have a fundamentally unpredictable microclimate, at Red Road Farm?

Microclimates may always be unpredictable — but my sense, from talking to neighbors in the area who have been here for decades if not generations, is that this year’s weather is especially unusual.

Is this the Polar Vortex — driven by a warming Arctic — changing the overarching atmospheric gradients? Is this the warming Arctic driving some El Nino variation? Is this a newly-named thing (how many years ago had you heard the word “derecho”? One?)?

It’s hard to know whether to publicly blame the elephant-on-steroids that nobody names (climate chaos, the “gigantophant” of this post’s title) for the extreme variability week to week, and hour to hour. We could be disproven, I suppose, if things went back to “normal,” though that seems unlikely.

But it does seem likely that we, at Red Road Farm, have no choice but to come to some conclusions about the question, in order to plan effectively for the next couple of years.

Susan and Anika and I would all, I think, agree that we each anticipate, over the next few decades, a profoundly disrupted weather system. I don’t think that any of us imagined it would happen super-fast, however. A rapid-change context would demand radical rethinking of our near-term plans.

That is, if we’re on the cusp of rapid, extreme, and unpredictable disruptions,  year in and year out from now forward, along with similar disruptions in other microclimates, then what does that mean for us at Red Road Farm?

  • more covered spaces/greenhouses, with consequent costs (CC)
  • more water catchment and delayed irrigation, with CC
  • more diversity of planting regimes, so that “what can prosper, is planted”
  • more hyper-tailored artificial microclimates (black plastic, row cover, white plastic, micro-irrigation…), with CC
  • even more diversity of crops during the growing season
  • more-local outreach to ensure our local necessariness as local food provider
  • more experimentation with winter crops in the greenhouse, under plastic in the field, etc., with CC

It’s easier, of course, to blame the weather extremes on natural variation, and to believe that the greenhouse gases we humans have produced over the last century somehow isn’t the cause of the extremes.

That “natural variation” line, of course, is utter horseshit. If you believe that, you’ve swallowed the whole denier line, and probably won’t listen beyond that. If so, I’m sorry that I’ve alienated you.

But let me be clear, at least as far as what we believe here.

There Is No Doubt for us. The “just right” climate within which Western civilization developed (from 1600-2000), has been radically disrupted. The disruption is mostly humans’ fault, from its carbon and methane emissions during the Industrial Revolution.

Here at Red Road Farm, we sadly acknowledge the faster-than-expected climate disruption, and  hope to engage with the implications as they become clearer, year on year.

This is not debatable, nor deniable. It’s just reality, as we’re experiencing it. We wish it wasn’t the case, but there’s no denying what we’re seeing, and hearing from the local farmers who have spent their entire lives in this region.

Things are changing, and not for the better.

 

Share Button
06/26/14
Musings




()

Joyous Rain

Rarely have I had as enjoyable an afternoon at work as I had today.

If you live along the North Shore of Nova Scotia, you know it rained today… a steady, cold, soaking rain that the fields loved.  I put on my rain gear (slick new stuff I bought in Bangor; like all Canadians, I know where to shop!) and headed out for some good old field maintenance work — otherwise known as weeding.

I have a lovely tool called a loop hoe, that cuts small weeds and can sneak under a vegetable plant to reach the nasty little buggers that hide there… after I use the wheel hoe in between the rows of plants, I take the loop hoe to get the weeds in the rows themselves.  Today, walking slowly down the rows, revealing Swiss Chard or lifting peas up to their netting, hearing the rain on my hat and the mud squinching under my feet, I was suddenly enormously happy.

I should say that this is not my normal outlook — I’m pretty low about climate issues, politics, and my size; I miss my kids and grandkids fiercely; I wish we had more money and more time — but golly, gosh, gee willikers, the world is a beautiful place!  Even in the rain, or maybe especially in the rain.

Twenty or more years ago, I took a train out to San Francisco to visit a friend of mine who had recently been diagnosed HIV positive.  He took me to the beach on a blustery, rainy day, and we walked and talked up and down the long stretch of sand, getting completely soaked.  I intended to complain, to suggest we go get coffee, to say, “hey, I’m cold!” but I never did.  At some point, the rain and the cold and the wetness became reasonable.  Maybe my friend was embracing every experience as he faced the reality of his illness.  I know that I relish that memory, that sensorial inundation, as one of our best shared times together.

I have another rain-relishing memory:  when I was doing field research in Kenya for my Master’s degree, I was living with a group of international folks in a village in western Kenya near Kisumu.  Every afternoon it rained — like, a deluge.  One day after a long hot work day, we were chatting around the oil lamp, and a couple of the girls decided they would “take a shower” in the rain.  It didn’t take long for all of us to run outside and jump around, yelling and lifting our faces to the sky as the water poured over us all.

Rain has a smell, a texture, a temperature, as well as its wetness.  Every sense is awakened when you allow yourself to be outside in the rain until you are truly wet.  None of this running from car to door; get wet!  When I brushed a bug off my cheek today, my wet leather glove would leave a smear of mud…when I finally came inside, I looked a bit like a kindergartener after a mud puddle swim.  My hands were yellow from the wet leather, my glasses were spattered with droplets, and my view over the long open field was framed with drips from the edge of the hat.

So often we hold on to our sense of propriety rather than relish the unexpected experience.  I had thought to myself, “sure wish I didn’t have to weed those beds today”, but instead, I got to tantalize every sense and immerse myself, literally, in the joy of water.  I can’t always explain to others why I love farming, but this day, weeding in the rain, sure made it clear to me.

And, I got a hot shower and warm pasta when I came inside — how great is that?

Share Button
06/24/14
Musings




()

Laughter is a fine medicine

Let's hope we keep on laughing!

Let’s be sure to  keep on laughing!

Share Button
06/10/14
Growth Projects




()

What a weird spring

We’ve had drought and deluge, unseasonable cold and unseasonable heat, and strange skies. And that was just in the last six weeks!

Part of the challenge of farming, these days, is designing for resiliency. We can no longer depend on predictable weather patterns (if we ever could) — the small mixed farm, even in Nova Scotia,  can’t just rely on a natural bounty of rain and sun. The small mixed farm (like ours) needs to engineer flexibility into its systems.

We’ve taken the approach of micro-irrigation (to protect against drought), soil amendments (to encourage strong root structures and robust plants), some greenhouse space (for growing ahead), foliar spraying (to deliver nutrients to the foliage as well as the soil), a diversity of produce (diversity being its own protection), and more.

Micro-irrigation is what I’ll talk about tonight.

This year, we learned about “drip tape.”

Not our picture, but representative of our tape.

Drip tape is super-cool, from a small-farmer perspective. It’s relatively cheap (a few hundred dollars for a mile of the flat 6mm hose), and while it requires attention to infrastructure (ensuring a supply of constant-pressure water, for example), and a lot of specialized valves and plugs and the like,

Not our picture, but representative of our valves.

it means we can, with careful attention, keep our beds selectively moist.

Most seedling plants don’t like extremes of wet and dry, as they grow. They prefer a predictable, relatively consistent amount of moisture in the soil. They mostly don’t care where the moisture comes from (rain, or spray irrigation, or drip tape). This means that drip tape can be really valuable.

Drip tape has a tiny slit, engineered every six  (or eight) inches, which weeps a tiny amount of water. It’s a carefully engineered “soaker hose,” without the fragility or the uncontrolled soaking-ness of those foam hoses.

This works well with the water of our farm. We have a gravity-fed water system pulled from a spring/well, which allows us to water our beds via micro-irrigation. It is not infinite — that is, we can easily accidentally drain that spring/well, if we’re not paying attention.

We’re also capturing rainwater from the big barn’s roof, so we have a small reserve held in a handful of water cubes, just in case a short-term drought kicks in, and we need to keep things alive for a week or two.

These 3 x 4 x 4 liquid-boxes (generally used to transport chemicals, concentrated fertilizer, and the like) hold 300 gallons of water — enough to drive a fair amount of drip tape tears, aimed directly at our plants.

Drip tape, and the tiny reservoirs, is an experiment (as most farming tends to become), but they’re a thoughtful experiment. It allows us to take advantage of deluge (and harvest the excess), in order to stave off the worst awfulness of drought. The system wouldn’t protect us in the case of a serious drought — say, four+ weeks without rain — but it might help us avoid the worst pain of a two- or three-week drought.

Perhaps next year, we’ll build an irrigation pond, to capture winter runoff, which would hold much more than 300 gallons, and would allow us a more significant resiliency. But regardless, I’m expecting drip tape to be part of the next few seasons and forward.

It aims a bit of moisture directly, without great cost, and without great nuisance, to the place it’s needed — the soil near the roots of the plants that grow into crops.

Part of me resists such a hyper-engineered plastic tool (“shouldn’t we be carrying water in oaken buckets?”),  but another part is delighted that modern technology can be so smart as to provide water so slowly and precisely.

We’ll keep on developing micro-irrigation strategies, as we learn from this season’s weird weather. We’ll also explore new approaches to resilience, as they become apparent.

Share Button
06/9/14
Musings




()

A Post from Washington, DC

It’s the beginning of June, and I’m in the US capitol, having just finished a conference I co-produced called “Ethics and Publishing,” part of the George Washington University’s Master’s in Publishing program, for whom I’ve taught for more than a decade.

I’m staying near the GWU campus, in a swanky hotel with a kitchenette, well-plumped pillows, coffee beans and a grinder provided for the mornings, and obsequious staff who call me ‘sir’ and wish me good day, while opening doors for me.

I’ve got a few meetings with high-powered people today.

And I can hardly wait to leave.

I lived in this metro area for more than a dozen years. It seemed almost normal, then, to drive for more than an hour to get to work. In my apartments, I learned how to ignore the lights and sounds of the city — the sirens, the honking cars, the constant hum of activity.

But since moving to our farm in 2009, I’ve unlearned a lot. So the sirens put me on edge, and the general air of distrust-of-strangers creeps me out. When I pass a street person with their possessions in a grocery cart, I’m reminded of how lucky I am — instead of reminding myself to look away (as one should do, or else they might actually say something to me, or horror of horrors, ask me for money[!]).

Yesterday, as the conference concluded, there were about twenty half-sandwiches left over from the luncheon, each with ham or turkey and cheese and lettuce and little frilly toothpicks. They would mostly be thrown away, I knew, so I packed up a half-dozen of them as I left, and handed them out to some of those street folks, as I walked back to the hotel. They thanked me, but not profusely.

This morning, I had a swanky breakfast at the hotel restaurant, rated #31 of the top 100 restaurants in DC.

The spinach omelette was tasteless, the bread bland, the bacon industrial.

I have better breakfasts every day of the week at home, with the eggs from our happy chickens, bread baked by Susan, and very occasionally, bacon from a pig I saw kick up its heels in joy.

The city gets what it can, the most cheaply, rather than actually the best. That’s the nature of convenient produce, of necessity, and of the magnetic pull of cities. This hotel restaurant needs the same amount of spinach in May as it does in July, or October, or January, because it’s on the menu. It does not recognize seasons, and therefore forces a kind of nonlocal marketplace.

Tomorrow, I return, thank goodness, to the farm, where lots of farm work awaits me. We have folks waiting for our seasonal produce, in early July.

I don’t miss anything about this fast-track city, apart from its own self-regard. I’m of course delighted to see old friends, and to laugh with my colleagues.

But the rest of it? I’m no longer interested.

Share Button
05/16/14
Preparation




()

Readying ourselves for the market

Tomorrow, we’ll have our first market day at New Glasgow. In five weeks our market will become New Glasgow on Sat, and River John on Sun. It  will quickly thereafter become those two AND the weekly Tuesday delivery of our Farm Fresh Boxes to our CSA members in New Glasgow.

We are excited, to say the least — it means we’re committing to growing and delivering produce to 20 Farm Fresh members, and also growing for a few dozens of others, those who will buy from us every week at the two Markets. These customers also want dependable produce, grown without toxic chemicals, without GMO seeds, and grown with thoughtfulness and care.

We will do our best to provide such produce each week, and to create an infrastructural foundation at the same time — that is, developing a right-sized infrastructure that allows us to irrigate without waste; encourage growth without forcing it; even build social infrastructure by weaving social connections upon which our community can be strengthened.

Tomorrow, our table will be filled with cookies and bread and fruit strips, and that Nova Scotia delicacy, fiddleheads.

The season begins!

 

 

Share Button
04/4/14
Musings




()

On Vulnerability

In January, I fell on the ice and broke (well, shattered, actually) my left elbow.  I’m left-handed, of course.  I had two surgeries and now carry two pins and two plates in my arm, as well as the standard equipment.  I’m 56 years old, and this experience has shaken me in unexpected ways.

First, of course, is that I am a farmer; I am a small-scale organic farmer, which means I farm without major machinery.  I don’t have a tractor, I have a wheel hoe.  I don’t apply insecticides, I walk my fields with a backpack sprayer for compost tea, and a bucket for picking off bugs.  I hand plant my transplants on my knees.  I need that arm to be strong so that I can do the work necessary to grow food for my community.  So that’s one thing:  my livelihood depends on my physical strength, and it has been compromised.

But the awareness of vulnerability is more than just a personal thing.  As I look out on snow and ice-covered fields this early April morning, I know that what I have learned to expect about our climate and weather is no longer predictable, and we are vulnerable to this unpredictability in ways that we cannot know.  The food that comes from these fields will be harder to grow well without more protection – from row covers to high tunnels, we will need to create micro-climates for our crops in order that they are not vulnerable to either drought or flooding.

Our big gamble, a 4 ½ acre orchard planted last May, is vulnerable, too… to hungry deer, marauding rodents, out-of-season freezing, and high winds. Just as I do my physiotherapy, we exercise ourselves to protect these baby trees, installing fencing, spraying organic compounds to repel the animals, and wrapping trunks.  We have no way of knowing, yet, how these vulnerable young trees have fared through this long winter.  I have no way of knowing when, or even if, I will regain full use of my left arm.  Progress is made every day, but nothing is sure.

Life is full of risk; there are amazing rewards to our existence — the opportunity to love, the opportunity to serve others, the relishing of good food and warmth and the skills of others (writers, knitters, singers, artists, potters…) — but nothing is ever sure.  Our orchards and fields are vulnerable just as we are, and we must learn to protect them first… we must put on our ice grippers, instead of being vulnerable to falling.

Share Button
01/28/14
Preparation




()

In the bleak midwinter

Winter is hard upon us. The Polar Vortex hits here in its own way, bringing huge drifts of powdery snow, followed by days of mists and rain. Tonight, we are seeing an easy and wet 6 degrees C; by tomorrow morning, it is predicted to be -12 C.

It’s hard to know how these kinds of fluctuations will affect the young peach, pear, cherry, apricot, plum, and nut trees. Even the young bushes and vines may have their winter sleeps disrupted. Perhaps, if it doesn’t kill them, it will make them stronger, and more able to adapt to weather extremes.

We’ve taken our opportunities as we can, with this weird weather, to shield the trees with hot-pepper sprays (to stop field mice from nibbling the trunks) and top up the PlantSkydd spray (a bloodmeal concoction that discourages deer from nibbling the branches) on the trees. We’ve dug a new ditch, as we found the drainage insufficient in one of our fields, because the soil was that thawed during a recent warming.

But mostly we’re finalizing our plans for the coming season: how many seeds to buy, for how many row-feet, and how much diversity; what’s to go in the greenhouse, what to start in our sunroom; what to invest in what kinds of irrigation, and rowcovers, and infrastructure; when to get soil tests, and how to plan for the mineral and other amendments. And much much more.

In the bleak midwinter, the spring still beckons, and requires attention.

Planning realistically is, we find, the hardest challenge — because what we want to do is frustratingly constrained by what it’s possible to do.

Yet every midwinter we get better at remembering what it’s like, in the early summer, with the dawn breaking over the green, verdant garden… and better at remembering the weeding, and the mulching, and the trellacing, and the labor involved in every step.

Each midwinter we plan better, because we remember better. And each season (so far) has been better than the last.

So maybe the midwinter ain’t so very bleak, when you can be planning for the early summer, and remembering both the groans and the glows to come.

Share Button
10/9/13
Growth




()

As the frost approaches

It’s now October. Tonight the wind blows strangely in warm gusts, alternating with cold. We will have a hard frost soon.

We had a soft frost night before last. When I went out yesterday morning to open the poultry into their yard, I saw a handful of the zucchini leaves collapsing in that “my cell walls are broken and I can’t get up” slump, that foretells the dying of the green.

It’s been a busy summer — oddly, too busy to post on this site about what the greenhouse is doing, what the market is doing, how our trees are doing, the grapes, the berries, and the like. Too much to cover in one post, so I’ll touch on a couple of topics.

Greenhouse

The tomatoes love the greenhouse. So does the ginger. Strangely, our outside green peppers are much more robust than those inside the greenhouse. We have table-grape slips rooting (at about a 1-in-5 ratio, from prunings six weeks ago), and currently some spinach and onions and carrots and kale sprouting, so we can try Elliot Coleman’s unheated-greenhouse-winter-crops approach. If we can make it work this winter, then next winter we’ll likely plan for a chock-full greenhouse (and perhaps another hoop house or two) in Fall 2014, for winter production (November, December, February 2015, March, and April).

Market

The New Glasgow Farmers Market (NGFM) is our primary Saturday market during the year, though it’s clear that Lismore Sheep Farm’s Sunday “Farm Market” (LFM) will be another venue for us, in 2014.

NGFM is in the largest market in these here parts — New Glasgow is a town of 10,000, with another several thousand in surrounding communities. LFM is a sheep farm (and wool products shop) near River John and Tatamagouche (which has its own Farmer’s Market on Saturdays). Lismore Sheep Farm experimented with having some local vendors at their Sunday farm day this year, and were kind enough to invite us. It was a general success, to be replicated next year, but a bit bigger.

Overall, we had the best year of markets ever. Susan’s breads have a serious fan base: “Oh no, the Seeded Spelt’s gone? I’ll have to get up earlier next week,” or “I’ll get two Apple Anadamas, just in case.” Recently she made 20 loaves, ten Spelts and ten Anadamas, for the first-ever NGFM fundraising dinner, a swanky $50/seat affair with Chef Thomas from the Pictou Lodge framing the meal from local resources. For us, that meant baking and freezing the bread ahead of time, since a dinner Sunday would otherwise mean an all-nighter of baking on Saturday night. Instead, Susan baked on Tuesday and Wednesday, and we froze it, and then schlepped to Chef Thomas Friday afternoon.

Susan and I were unable to attend the dinner, but she heard from others that her breads were a big hit. At the next market, a handful of people came up to our table to ask if we were the ones who made “that bread.” One woman said it was “the best bread I think I’ve ever had in my whole life.”

Susan will cruise on that one for awhile, just like I will cruise on the moment when a bearded fellow in his 30s walked slowly by our table, casually sampled a bit of our “Saigon Cinnamon Rolls” from the sample bowl, walked on three paces, literally stopped in his tracks, and walked backward, eyes wide. “Oh my god. Y’know the perfect balance of cinnamon, and sugar, and roll? That’s it. That’s it.” He bought an eight-pack, and did the same the week after, and the week after that.

We also sold amazing produce (the green peppers, the beets, the chard, the tomatoes, the cucumbers, the zucchinis were fabulous this year).

This year, we began to introduce something wonderful to the two markets: ground cherries. As a product, they are hand-intensive, but worth it. In flavor, they’re a (figurative) cross between a tomatillo and a grape; a tomato and a plum; a zucchini and a peach…. they are utterly delicious, but importantly, hard to machine-harvest.

They have the “Chinese lantern” covering like that of a tomatillo, but are about the size of a gumball. To harvest, we have to wait until they’re just about to fall, or already fallen, or they just don’t taste that good. But when collected ripe, these small gems are astonishingly delicious.

These kinds of produce (like fingerling potatoes, like haskaps) cannot be mechanized; they require small-scale, briefly-intense, hand-harvested production systems.

Those are the kinds of produce which we are gravitating toward, at Red Road Farm: those specialty vegetables that don’t mechanize well, but are super-delicious.

This year, we sold many pounds of fingerling potatoes (almost impossible to mechanize, because the fingers and hands can break, ruining the product, and therefore rarely found in Sobey’s or Safeway or Wal-Mart), and many pints of the addictive ground cherry. We have planted other berries with the same MO.

This year’s markets showed us that it might be possible to have a market-aimed garden, geared toward our ethical values, and with some market-value-added products (like preserves, dehydrated fruit leathers, and the like), that could provide the majority of our farm’s income.

It’s certainly not yet true (we could not sustain a household on what we made this year at the markets), but we can see how it might work, especially with summer-growth and winter-growth markets.

Share Button
08/9/13
Projects




()

525 Stakes, Scale, and Constructing the Drying Shed

Many boardfeet of wood was left over from deconstructing the sides of the barn that became the greenhouse. I thought it’d be a long time before I used it up, but I’ve just concluded a week of reusing most of what was still available to me.

First was a marathon project of cutting four-foot-long 1″ by 1.5″ stakes for my 525 young grape vines. I can’t put in the 1600 feet of trellising until late August (far too late, but there you go), so I needed to get tall stakes for them to climb, as soon as I could.

“Scale” changes an awful lot, I’m realizing. 525 of anything requires a different approach than 5, or 10, or even 50.

I started out using scrap boards on the tablesaw, one at a time, sharpening as I went. But I quickly realized it would take me forever, that way, adjusting the table saw repeatedly, picking up the stakes as they fell, spending far too much time and energy doing nonproductive tasks.

Soon I’d devised a methodology: cut six or seven four-foot lengths of the rough 2x4s, then shift the tablesaw width to 1.3 inches, collect the lengths in a barrel as they fell off the tablesaw, then cut those in half, lengthwise, to about 1 inch. Then sharpen all of them, into the final pile.

A small exercise in process engineering, which I managed to do without losing even one finger. Overall, perhaps three times as efficient as doing one-by-ones.

It taught me (again) that I need to think hard, and frequently, about the nature of scale.

Pruning ten trees, or twenty vines is one thing. Pruning 430 fruit trees, 150 nut trees, and about 900 vines, bushes, and berries is another thing entirely. If I take a thoughtful three minutes per tree, that’s 1740 minutes — that’s 29 hours of tree pruning. If I take only two minutes per bush/vine left, it’s still 30 more hours of pruning.

And while February and March are best for most major pruning, it’s a task that should go on all spring, summer, and fall — once every few weeks, ideally, to remove unproductive directions of growth.

If I had a huge-scale monocrop — only 1000 apple trees, or only pears, or “only” anything — then I could focus on squeezing out every last % of efficiency toward that single goal. But we have decided to emulate biodiversity, have a wide variety of possible fecundity, and hope that at least a few of our perennials do well, in any given year’s weather pattern.

But such diversity raises the bar significantly, regarding appropriate knowledge, efficient operation, at this appropriate scale.

It’s clear that I’ll have to get good at that pruning (and other stuff) the way I once got good at two-handed selection of spoons, or forks, from the tray of mixed silverware fresh from the dishwasher at the cafeteria in the dormatory, where I worked in college for a year.

The goal was to grab all spoons from that tray as fast as possible, and put ‘em into the spoon racks, then gather the forks the same way, because then the knives could be just swept up easily.

That was an exercise in muscle memory and scale. I had to teach my brain to recognize certain visual patterns fast, because there were a lot of spoons: something like 1200 freshmen ate in the cafeteria, three times a day. I got so I could alternate grabs as fast as my eyes could find them.

Here at the farm, I’ll need to develop a rhythm, and an approach (first main branches, then remove spurs? First excess, then training?) that will scale, and quickly become muscle memory.

I’ll need to be sure to have good hand tools — sharpen-able pruning shears so that I can keep the cuts clean; the right kind of cart to collect the prunings, etc….

Will it differ with nut trees? “More research is needed,” I’m afraid. I already know it’s different with raspberries, and grapes.

More research will be needed with each different tree and vine and bush and berry — and each may take a different strategy. With most, the scale is sufficient to justify the research, and the special treatment. But oh, my, as I confront scale, I’m also acknowledging the commitment I’ve made, in the strategy we have committed to, by planting as we did.

Back at the farm, once I’d recaptured my breath, the next major project is quickly determined: the garlic is ready to cure, and we have potatoes ready to harvest and dry.

In the past, we’ve done pretty poorly at this last part — curing and drying. “Storing” is another question altogether — but just getting the garlic to have a good skin has been difficult, in this damp climate.

This year, because we built the Poultry Hotel, we decided to use the structure of the old first chicken coop (affectionately named “version 0.9″ by me) as a frame to construct a drying shed for garlic, potatoes, onions, and the like.

Of course, this needed doing *now*, because the garlic and many potatoes were ready to come out of the ground.

I still had excess wood, but things had changed. This wasn’t a “scale” issue — it was a one-off. I had a mix of 1×3, 1×4, and 1x6ish wood. I’d be building this once (with the presumption that I’d repair it, over time, of course), not over and over — but it would be used repeatedly, harvest after harvest.

The goal: to have a space that got good air circulation, but very little direct sun. That gathered heat, but never overly hot. That provided protection from rain, but also allowed good air movement through it….

The Internet gave us some clues, and we seemed in good shape to build it.

But this was *not* a “scale” task — this was handcraft.

Because the wood was of different sizes, every board had its accommodations. I didn’t have 24 1x4s, or 1x6s at 8′ or 12′ lengths — I had a bunch of different sizes, which might fit a bunch of different size requirements. We wanted bott0m-open, top-breezy, not-much-sun.

Here is the result:

drying_shed2

And here’s what’s in it:

drying_shed1

That pic was taken very late in the day — there’s about 20-30 minutes of direct sunlight through the board gaps at that time, for a small percentage of the potatoes and garlic, when the sun is setting. Is that too much? I hope not, because there’s more to do (as always). I hope this is sufficient for our purposes.

Building the drying shed took about half as long as the creation of those grape-vine posts. Which is the better investment of time?

Hard to say — the vine posts will become moot very rapidly, as soon as the trellis wires are in place, but they were keenly needed. Garlic and potatoes (and onions, etc.) will dry year after year, with only minor maintenance to the building. Which time-dollar is better spent?

On a mixed farm, a close approximation can be as good as on target, I think. The drying shed demanded to be built, because things needed drying. The grape vines needed to be pruned and to grow up a stake, into the sun, because the vines require a certain amount of attention, especially in the early seasons.

What the grape vines and the potatoes taught me was that there are middle grounds, approximations that could be sufficient, for what we’re trying to accomplish. And that I need to pay attention to scale as early as I can.

Farming as triage — I think that’s fairly normal.

There is no perfect answer — only doing the best we can, to result in the best fruit, and nuts, and berries that we can muster. I suspect we can accomplish 90% of the efficiencies of specialized growers (since the last 10% of choices usually costs the most, overall), or even just 80%.

Later, we’ll be able to select the best grapes, or peaches, or pears for market, as they grow. We may have fewer of them early, if I don’t do the pruning and care well — but a year or two later, that will all be forgotten.

We may in fact have more than we can handle already.

And so close approximation, in this context, will hit the barn door.

 

 

Share Button
08/6/13
Musings




()

Lessons from the Milky Way

I walk ten paces from my porch light, and because it’s a clear night, I can see the Milky Way.

For those few who haven’t recently gazed agog at it, the Milky Way is the massive spiral galaxy that our tiny little planet’s sun lives within. On any clear night, even in a city, you should be able to see a broad brightness of starlight banding across the night sky.

Here in rural Nova Scotia, ten paces from my porch, I see a vast, incredible complexity of stars moving in synchrony, at a galactic scale. I know it moves, just as I know that it continues on the other side of the globe, for distances I am unequipped to comprehend. We are within it; it’s not “up there.”

Gazing up at the Milky Way, the awe feels always new, even if I was eight when I first felt it. The Milky Way contains hundreds of billions of stars, moving in a slow, wide, turning gyre. Any one of the stars could hold a planet, upon which another being was writing a blog post about how amazing the Milky Way is, and how lucky he is to be ten paces from seeing it.

Continue reading

Share Button