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Well, the water has mostly receded and my island is a peninsula again. This flood, 57.2 feet, got into all our lowest fields – the fields we didn’t plant in last season – and stopped right around the edges of the fields we used last year. I’ll post some pictures of the flood once I’ve put them on my computer. But first, as promised, here’s the thrilling conclusion to our three week Roman holiday….

Italian farms. In many ways, the farms we visited were a lot like ours. In a lot of ways they were very different. Personally, the ways they are different are the most interesting to me, so I’ll talk about those. I suspect that the core differences we observed are due to two things; gas is really expensive in Europe so they limited tractor use; and the supply chain is really short so the price they got for their vegetables is relatively low.

These fava beans were planted and hilled... by hand

The amount of hand labor done on all the farms we visited, from 1 acre to 80 acres, seemed inordinate. However, because diesel costs $10/gallon, it seemed that most farms chose hand labor over tractor work. What amazed me the most was that things that we direct seed – carrots, broccoli rabe, chicories, etc – these farms seeded by hand. And I don’t mean with a push seeder. I mean, they literally scattered the seeds atop the beds by hand and raked them in. Even the largest farms we visited seeded broccoli rabe and chicories by hand. They also did most of their transplanting by hand. Farms in the US not much larger than us tend to use a tractor pulled transplanter for this task. But not the farms we visited. (Although most of them had a tractor mounted transplanter mouldering in the back of their barns.)

Acres and acres of romanesco hand transplanted

To me, the most impressive farm we visited was Azienda Agricola Paolo Giobbi, in Ariccia, about 40 minutes South of Rome. It was also the largest of the farms we visited. Paolo has become renown for his varieties of artichokes and romanesco. He saves his own seeds, and has refined his varieties to the point that he has different romanesco varieties for different months of the year.

Romanesco... or as the Romans call it, 'broccoli'

What makes the feat so amazing is that in America, you can hardly find any commercially produced broccoli/cauliflower varieties that aren’t hybrids – and certainly not Romanesco. Yet his plants were some of the most vigorous and healthy we’ve ever seen – and open pollinated. Nice. Not that there’s anything inherently wrong with growing hybrid varieties. It’s just a reflection of the mastery of his craft that Paolo is able to develop such a healthy and vigorous gene pool on his own.

On our last day in Rome, we showed up unannounced at a farm very much inside the city. Across the road that bordered the farm were mid-rise apartment buildings. At the far end of their field was a derelict Roman aqueduct.

Can you spot the aqueduct?

This farm, of roughly 40 acres, sold everything they grew at a permanent market near the Vatican and what amounted to a farm stand. It looked like they had grown about 50% of the food in the farm stand at the time we visited. And this was in February. The pineapples they’ll never grow. But by summer, the tomatoes, peppers, eggplant etc will be theirs and I suspect the farm stand will be filled with mostly their own food.

Farmstand

What amazed us about this is that you basically had to already know this place was there if you wanted to find it. Signage was poor, and nothing about the building said “come here and buy our vegetables.”

Poor signage

Yet, this non-descript store (and its sister store near the Sistine Chapel) moved 40-acres worth of produce every year and made enough money to support what seemed to be three or four households. All this, at rock bottom prices.

Flawless purple artichokes at rock bottom prices

We still are having a hard time getting over the amazingly low prices we saw. Prices for imported things like bananas and grapes were roughly the same as they’d be in America. But things grown in Italy, and especially things grown in and around Rome, were so cheap. Our theory is that this is a consequence of a very short supply chain. All the farmers we visited complained of the wholesale market driving prices down. As best we could understand, the wholesale market was quite literally a market, where growers brought their goods to be purchased directly by grocery chains or wholesalers who sold the veggies to grocers or restaurants. This means there was only one or zero steps from grower to seller and at most only one entity taking a cut.

Produce department at your typical Italian grocery store

By comparison, here in America, nearly 95% of the vegetables sold come from either California or Florida. As best I can figure, a head of broccoli leaving a field in California goes from the farm to a regional distributor in California, to another regional distributor in the part of the country closer to its final point of sale, to a local distributor, and finally to the grocery store. That’s three different middlemen between farmer and grocer taking a cut and adding to the price of that broccoli. This is the case even for locally grown produce here in the Northwest, I’ve heard that produce grown at Full Circle, our neighbor in Carnation, frequently travels down to a regional distributor in Portland before being trucked back to Seattle grocery stores. Efficiency!

The most fascinating part about all this is that I think this means our prices are as high as they are due, in large part, to the long supply chain here. That is to say, if it weren’t for the existence of big California farms and their long supply chains, our little direct market farm might not be financially sustainable because we couldn’t charge prices high enough to live off of. Is it possible that for the small-scale, direct market farms in America to be successful, we need large-scale agriculture to keep prices high?

On the other hand, if we can extrapolate from what we saw in Italy, it may mean that by returning to a truly regional food system, the price of healthy, high quality fruits and vegetables may become much more affordable simply by eliminating the number of people taking a cut as the food gets transported from point A to point B…. so long as the farmers can still make a living.

Short supply chain at the Broadway Farmers Market

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Flood!

As I write this, the Snoqualmie River is flowing around all sides of our farm. There’s a lovely lake that’s appeared South of our home, and water is just reaching the fields we grew veggies in last year.

Our sometimes lake

I’m not sure how much higher the water is going to go tonight… could be a lot, or it could be just a little. The river forecasts for this flood have been a bit wonky. As of yesterday, they were predicting a 57.7′ flood. This afternoon, after the rain in the mountains had basically ended, they downgraded their prediction to around 55.5′. Then, throughout the day, they’ve been periodically raising the forecast: first to 56.3′ and now to 57.3′. In my experience, once they know how much rain has fallen in the watershed, their forecasts get more accurate throughout the event, as the water moves downstream. For some reason, that wasn’t the case today. The river is supposed to be cresting right about now at the Carnation gauge. But we are somewhere between 6-8 hours downstream of that gauge. So it should crest here sometime between 3 and 6:00 AM.

What’s nice about this flood, is that being trapped out here on the farm, in a weird way, makes it easier to be productive. Our new manager Rawley is here with me, and we’ve been rebuilding the greenhouses that collapsed in the January snow and seeding flats.

Putting up sidewalls

I should also have time to write some final thoughts about the farms we visited in Italy. I hope to have something to post on that front by tomorrow. Until then!

 

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Yesterday and today, Siri, Felix, and I visited three farms near Rome one unbelievably cute farm that’s about one acre, one, Caramadre, that’s about 14 acres, and another, Orto di Giobbi, that’s about 80 acres. Of the three farms we visited the 14-acre farm is organic and the other two, like us, grow organically but choose not to certify. After we’ve visited more farms on this trip, we’ll write a post (or two) about specific things we’ve seen and learned. Until then, here are some pictures and some initial thoughts and observations.

Plowed field at the tiny, hillside farm

Field of radicchio and greenhouses at Caramadre

Rows of puntarelle and escarole in one of Orto di Giobbi's many fields

All three farms are part of a new/old movement in Italy where farms sell direct to consumers. It seems that, a long time ago, like more than 30 years, all the farms in Italy used to sell directly to consumers. Every day of the week there were markets all over the cities and towns and each farm had their spots at their markets which they went to, week in and week out. The parents of the farmers we met sold at markets throughout Rome, and these farmers continue to sell at many of the same markets as their parents. However, the children of many other now-retired farms didn’t want to farm, so many of the markets around Rome were forced to allow vendors to sell fruits and vegetables they didn’t grow themselves. Whereas before most fruits and vegetables came from small farms, few larger than 10 acres, increasingly, fruits and vegetables were coming from ever larger farms, more consolidated farms.

We drove past a huge farm, harvesting hundreds of acres of carrots

Markets in Rome became much like the Pike Place Market: grocery stores with more character. Italians continue to buy fruits and vegetables from small, neighborhood markets, bread from their local panetteria, meat from their local butcher… but for the most part, the fruits and vegetables at the local markets aren’t grown by the vendor.

Puntarelle and fennel at a reseller's booth at the Mercato Esquilino

Apparently, sometime around the turn of the millenium, various organizations throughout Italy decided that this trend away from the localized, smaller-scale agriculture was a bad thing. As I mentioned in our last post, a few different groups sprang up and started American-style farmers markets throughout Italy. For instance, a group called Campagna Amica (friends of the countryside) seems to run or sponsor a bunch of markets throughout Italy; the City of Rome sponsors a market. According to one of the farmers we met, this trend towards direct marketing has been a boon for him and his smaller-scale farmer friends.

Nevertheless, the prices of vegetables here in Italy are unimaginably low. We bought beautiful heads of butter lettuce for 0.65 Euro cents each. This head of fennel only cost 0.68 cents. The quality of produce in the grocery store is very high, yet prices are very very low.

Cheap fennel, big as a baby's head!

The prices the farmers get for produce sold directly is much higher than they get when it’s sold into the wholesale chain. Nevertheless, just like us, prices for produce sold directly are heavily influenced by the retail prices of produce. One farmer told us today that the retail price for heads of lettuce are so low that he’s nearly stopped growing it… a huge contrast to our operation. The retail price of lettuce in Seattle is relatively high, and it’s one of our most profitable crops.

Yay lettuce!

One question these farm visits have raised for us is how it’s possible for farmers (here in Italy, in California, in Seattle) to make a living when they can sell a head of lettuce, a bulb of fennel, a bunch of kale for mere pennies. Clearly, huge farms are able to make a profit when they only make pennies on each item by simply moving tons and tons of their products, (not to mention paying their workers slave wages, exploiting the longterm environmental viability of their farms, using tons of chemicals, etc).

Yet, prices here are so much lower than in America, these things can’t completely explain the difference. My theory is that, despite increased consolidation of farms in Italy, they are still relatively small, production is still quite localized and seasonal (the mild climate helps), and the supply chain here is much much shorter. California (and Florida in the winter) basically supplies all of America with our produce. Your typical grocery store vegetable passes through many middlemen between the California farm where it was born and the grocery store in Massachusetts, Ohio, Texas etc where it winds up.

So what does this all mean? Does it mean small farms, selling within a regional market, directly to customers (or even into a short supply chain wholesale market) can make an honest living despite competition from large-scale, monoculture farms? Perhaps… All the farms we’ve visited so far appear quite successful in their own way. After we’ve had more time to decompress and marinate on all we’ve seen, we’ll post more details about each farm. Until then!

Until next time!

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Quick update – As you may or may not know, we are in the midst of a three-week vacation in Italy. We arrived on Wednesday and, though we have not suffered much jet lag, Felix has expanded his anti-nap routine into the night. Now, he doesn’t much sleep during the day or at night. Luckily, he has started walking a lot, so we are trying to wear him down by making him walk everywhere.

Walking

Today, we went to two farmers markets! One in Testaccio and another near the Circus Maximus.

Testaccio market

My sense is that farmers selling direct to consumers is relatively new in Rome. Both markets had a new feel to them. At both markets, the signs were clearly new. And the Circus Maximus market had lots of shiny posters advertising farms and products from Lazio (the region Rome is in).

Farmers Market of Rome: Testaccio

Farmers Market: Circo Massimo

Much of the advertising seems tied to regional farm and farm product cooperatives that have seized on the local food movement as a way to promote their members’ products. There’s a related  movement called Kilometer Zero that promotes regional eating and reducing food miles.

What I find most fascinating about the local food movement in Italy is that appears to be copying the American farmers market movement. For instance, consider the use of the phrase ‘farmers market’ written in English to describe the event… I’d say that borrowing the American term for the market is evidence of the newness of the concept in Italy.

Yet, my impression of the American farmers market movement is that it was trying to recreate a regional and seasonal food culture lost to Americans, but still found in other parts of the world. Based on the food I’ve seen in more traditional markets, super markets, fruit and vegetable vendors on quiet cobblestone streets, Italians have probably never stopped eating regionally and seasonally.

Radicchio bianco e ricotta

The newness of the farmers markets here in Italy is the direct-to-consumer-ness of it.

cavolo nero etc

Most interesting of all are the prices. At the supermarket and at the Equiline market (not a direct to consumer market) prices were unimaginably low. Prices for fruits and vegetables seemed, on the whole, a bit lower than they’d be in America. Then you’d realize that prices were for a kilo, not a pound. The bad Euro/Dollar exchange rate notwithstanding, these veggies cost less than half what they’d cost at a market in Seattle.  At the farmers markets we went to today, prices were higher, and I was glad to see it.

I met a few farmers at the markets today and we hope to visit a few farms near Rome this week. I’m so excited I can hardly contain myself… 2000 year-old ruins and priceless art be damned. I want a busman’s holiday.

I’ll update the blog again soon, hopefully with some pictures of an Italian vegetable farm!

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One of the funnest parts about moving our farm to our new property is that we got the opportunity to rethink everything about how we had been farming. Should we change the length of our beds?  Should we squeeze more rows per bed? Fewer? How should we best manage nutrients and fertility? What tools will we use to make our system work best?

I really love thinking about systems and the equipment that makes them most efficient, so this year was especially fun for me. Many people are drawn to the idea of small-scale agriculture because it relies much more on human-power and less on internal combustion horse-power. Our experience, however, has been shaped by a gradual recognition that in order to make our business financially sustainable, we  have to farm more acres than can be worked solely by human power. We are constantly thinking about what the best size is for our farm. We want to be big enough to support our family plus the families of our workers, but small enough that what we do each day can still be called farming and not managing. Right now, we think that 10-12 acres might be the right size (though… ask me in two years, and I’ll probably have a different opinion).

Looking South

So, with the idea that we’d be farming in the 8-12 acre range for the foreseeable future, this past winter and spring we set about acquiring the right equipment for our farm. We invested in four categories of equipment – things that till the soil, things that kill weeds, things that put seeds in the ground, and things that power the other three categories i.e tractors. Earlier this year, we wrote two posts about what tractors are for. For this post, I’m going to focus on the first category – things that till soil. Next post, I’m going to write about our fantastic new Jang seeders.

As you may know, vegetables prefer a coddled existence. They don’t like neighbors living too close, they don’t like slugs or bugs, they like their soil just so, not too dry, not too wet, not too compacted, not too fluffy. As farmers and gardeners, we help our veggies thrive by creating the right environment for them.

Coddled Kale

On our farm, after a field has been created by plowing, it takes us three or more passes with the tractor to get a bed ready to be planted. First, we use a reciprocating spader or a mini-chisel plow for deep tillage. These tools loosen the soil 8″-12″ deep or more – aerating it, improving drainage, killing covercrops and weeds. Next we use a rototiller, tilling as shallowly as possible to pulverize the top layer of soil into a fine medium. Lastly, we make a pass with the Farmall Cub to create walk-paths and mark our rows for planting (though this winter, I’m working on a modification to the tiller that will, hopefully, eliminate the need for the last pass with the Cub).

The Cub and just marked beds

As far as our choice of implements for making beds, we are very happy with these three tools.

For the Pacific Northwest, the spader is surely the best tool out there for working soil in our wet springs. It’s positive attributes are that it doesn’t require a lot of horsepower or traction, it works better than anything else we know of at turning and aerating wet soil, and it doesn’t harm the soil structure by pulverizing or inverting it. The  three drawbacks of spaders, that we’ve found, are that their operating speed is very slow (1 mph or less), they are delicate, finicky tools that can be difficult to fix when they break, and they are really really expensive (like $10k or more new).

This spring, while I was perusing Craig’s List for farm equipment, I found one for sale and hung my head. “Siri,” I said reluctantly, “looks like we have to buy a spader now too.” It was relatively inexpensive for a spader ($3000) and tilled a 60″ width… exactly what we would have been looking for, had we been in the market for a spader. So we bought it.

Spader

We learned about the spader’s drawbacks the hard way this summer. After relying on the spader to do preliminary field prep on most of our acreage this summer, I noticed that one of the many bearings on the machine was severely worn. It still worked, but I worried that continued use could result in catastrophic damage. I managed to repair the bearing, but it was a big project that ended up taking a few weeks to complete.

Luckily, while on a trip to Oregon to buy our Farmall Cub this past winter, the farmer we bought the Cub from happened to have a rusty, old Fergusson Field Cultivator (or mini-chisel plow) sitting in his yard. I knew about this implement, because its virtues were extolled in a great book called The Organic Farmers Business Handbook. I asked the farmer how much he wanted for the chisel plow and, $300 later, we had unknowingly

bought ourselves a fantastic insurance policy.

Mini-Chisel

As it turned out, from August until the end of the year, we used the mini-chisel in place of the spader for all of our deep-tillage bed prep work. It also doubled as a great way to incorporate old vegetables back into the bed once we were done harvesting them.

The greatest virtues of mini-chisel plows are that they are really inexpensive ($1000 new, $300 used), they loosen soil deeper than the spader, they are very sturdy, and the faster you go the better they work. It would take us 3-4 hours to spade an acre, but only an hour to chisel it.

The chisel plow does have a few drawbacks. They require more horsepower than the spader and good traction, so they won’t work well in our wet springs. They also leave furrows, requiring us to till more deeply on our tillage pass to get a smooth, even surface. In one part of our field, the chisel left the field so cloddy, that we ended up having to make two passes with the tiller. It also can get clogged with debris if it’s working ground that has a lot of weeds or vegetable matter still residing in it. Nevertheless, for the time saved and the way it works our ground so deeply, I’d heartily recommend the mini-chisel to anyone farming on this scale.

Chisel plow in action

The second pass we make when forming beds is with the rototiller. Despite its bad reputation, for a vegetable farm like ours, a tiller is a very important tool. The reason the tiller is so important is the same reason it’s so reviled; the tiller pulverizes the soil. For the microbial, organic health of the soil, this is terrible. Tiny particles mean lots of surface area, which means (initially) lots of oxygen burning up organic matter. It also means lack of soil structure, which means compaction, poor drainage, lack of oxygen, lack of beneficial microbes… the list goes on.

Tiller tilling

However, for the vegetables that get planted into just-tilled soil, life is good. Life or death of just-planted vegetable seeds can be determined by fractions of an inch. Too deep and the just-germinated seed won’t reach the surface to begin photosynthesis. Too shallow and the seed may not germinate, or might germinate but not be able to get to the moisture below the surface. Tilling the surface of the soil enables us to calibrate our seeders accurately, ensuring consistent germination of the many rows of vegetables we direct seed.

Seeding into freshly tilled beds

Tilling also makes killing weeds easier for us. Clumpy, cloddy soil is really hard to work with a hoe or with tractor cultivators. In order for us to coddle our vegetables, to create a weed-free environment for them without chemicals, we either hoe or use knives mounted to a tractor to uproot or slice weeds at the surface of the soil. Clods make this cultivation impossible. The tiller makes the soil a uniform medium through which our hoes and knives can flow without obstruction.

Knives kill weeds between the rows

This past winter, knowing that we were moving our farm to a new location, we were faced with what seemed like a tidal wave of necessary and expensive purchases. The most important may have been the rototiller. Tillers are fairly inexpensive. We were looking for one that tilled 60″  wide, and these seemed to cost between $2-4000 new. I found, also on Craig’s List, an unused tiller that tilled (allegedly) a 58″ swath and bought it. It has served us very well, even though it’s lighter duty than we want and actually only tills 54″.

The reason the tillage width is important is because, following behind the tractor, it doesn’t un-compact the soil compacted by the tractor’s rear tires. Our beds are 60″ wide: 48″ of bed-top and 12″ of wheel path. The area the tiller misses shouldn’t matter, so long as we align our wheel path exactly over the untilled/compacted strip. This, however, is more easily said than done. Frequently this year, we observed rows of vegetables that weren’t as happy as their neighbors. When we dug beneath them we found their roots growing in compacted soil.

In retrospect, I wish we had done a few things differently in regards to the tiller. I wish we had either purchased a heavier duty tiller that tilled 60″ (or even 66″) to ensure that the wheelpath was tilled, or bought a tiller that only tilled 48″ so that the tiller only tilled between the wheels of the tractor, letting the compaction left by the tractor tires be the walk path (which is what ends up happening anyway, when the Cub makes the final pass to seed or mark rows). As I alluded to earlier, this winter I plan on modifying the flap on the back of our tiller so that the final product it creates is a raised bed 48″ wide with rows marked by the tiller. I hope to have some pictures of that project to post by early January.

Stay tuned, for the next exciting installment of the Local Roots Small Farm Equipment Review: Part II – Our Awesome New Seeder.

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Nearly Winter

While searching for driving directions the other day, I noticed that The Google updated their satellite photo of the farm. Whereas, before all it showed was a grassy rectangle…

now it shows our fields, laid out in fairly straight rows, in its August bounty.

If you look closely, you can see the shadows of people harvesting carrots.

Today, if you looked down on our farm from the heavens, you’d see a few areas that still have rows of vegetables. But mainly, you’d see grassy fields again. This time, though, the grasses are (mostly) cover crops.

And the (much longer) shadows are of people harvesting storage vegetables. For the first time ever, we have a place to store storage crops. So for the first time ever, we are harvesting and storing carrots, beets, parsnips, etc instead of leaving them in the ground and hoping they aren’t killed by cold weather or flooded.

With a forecast for temperatures into the 20s tonight and tomorrow night, roots in storage or not, our season looks to rapidly winding down. All our tender greens, many “hearty” greens, and our tolerance for cold fingers are going to take a hit this weekend.

We are harvesting today for this Sunday’s Broadway farmers market, and that will most likely be our last market of 2011… thus beginning what’s probably the most fun part about farming: planning for next year.

What worked? What didn’t work? What should we have planted more of? What should we have planted less of? What new equipment will make our lives easier? What new practices will streamline our process? In what ways do we want to the farm to grow? In what areas do we want to scale back? What all begins with back of the envelope figuring, will end, next season, with a different looking aerial photo of the farm. More land under cultivation? Straighter rows? Newer, better varieties? Fewer weeds? We shall see…

 

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“It is the time of the autumn equinox, and the harvest is winding down. The fields are nearly empty, because the crops have been plucked and stored for the coming winter. ” -Patti Wigington

Nelson carrot mountain

Nelson carrot mountain

Fall is definitely here, but thankfully we’ve got rain gear. It’s been a wildly busy season for the behind the scenes team at Local Roots- A rotating cast of characters have come through to work their hearts and bodies out on the farm. We shared meals cooked on the fire, endless hours harvesting vegetables for the CSA, two Farmers Markets and more than a dozen restaurants, and a few collective minutes swimming in the Snoqualmie on one hot summer day. We all traveled down to Olympia at the beginning of the month to square dance and mingle at the Washington Young Farmers Mixer where there was constant apple cider being pressed by young farmers from all over Washington state, and tons of farm-fresh potluck dishes. It felt great to take part in a community event created by and for young farmers- the whole movement feels to be gaining so much momentum and energy from young people who want to serve their country food. We feel lucky to have been a part of such an important year for Siri and Jason- the beginning of so many new and exciting endeavors and unprecedented success. We are so grateful to have learned such an important trade from young farmers who are truly passionate about their work. It has been a pleasure and a privilege to spend this season out at the farm, and here are the photos to prove it!

The Apprentices
Leah, Brady, Rita, Marisa, Cara and David

text and photos by Marisa

The Apprentice uniform: Carhartts and black boots

Tatsoi peeking out from under row cover

Siri teaches how to cut springtime salad mix in the greenhouse

Tiny Tom Thumb baby butter lettuces get a bath

Jason, tractor and a very baby Felix

turnips and radishes piled high at the Broadway Farmers Market

prospective green butter lettuces waiting to be planted

Siri and Jason thinking about building a pepper and melon greenhouse

Felix takes a nap in the greenhouse

Rita rides the little engine that could

Bright Lights chard in its prime

Harvest vehicles waiting to be filled with vegetables

Leah, Jason and Scott carrying potatoes

Siri gets her caffeine fix

Farm dog Buster working hard in the grass

Rita with radicchio

Collin carrying carrots

Cara carrying beets

Cameron picks some turnips

Summer lettuce bounty

A sweet sprouting broccoli

Morning fog and sun in the turnips

Zinnias!

Marisa in a kale cloud

Tomato harvest aftermath

A foggy valley morning

A fine summer evening

Harvest moon

Tractor, farmer, tractor, farmer's brother

Haying time

Large lettuces are a Local Roots speciality

David and beets

Kale and Cara

Felix is finally on the move

Cara and Rita harvest arugula

Fresh sheet at the Farm Stand

Slowly ripening heirloom tomatoes

Our blue truck is full of kale and there's more on the way

A summer sunset through our tomato greenhouse

Full crew at the Queen Anne Farmers Market

Fall garlic bounty

Fall spread: shallots, romanesco and Savoy cabbage at the Queen Anne market

Leah and Brady take a break from washing and boxing parsnips

The Pickering's pigs down the road get some local roots for lunch

Harvesting Fall cherry tomatoes in the greenhouse

A shallot bounty

Harvesting whole basil plants for our CSA members

Brady and Leah lifting the last of the cherry tomatoes from the greenhouse into the truck

Getting ready for a fall farm bonfire

Getting ready for a fall farm bonfire

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It has been a very long time since we made a blog post. Our intention when we started this blog was to post something every week. From late-Fall through late-Spring, we are able to stick to that schedule pretty well. Sitting here now, looking through the morning fog at fields of vegetables and cover crops, I’m amazed that we mustered the energy this summer for the few posts we did write.

This has been one hell of a year for Siri and I. Mostly, this has been a year filled with phenomenal good fortune combined with an ungodly amount of work. Thrown into that mix have been a handful of tragedies and misfortunes. These deaths and illnesses somehow felt both more poignant and less poignant than they otherwise might have, due to the compressed time and mental space we’ve had to process them.

Now that we are entering a slower season, we can finally stop and reflect on what we’ve accomplished this year. Until now, all of our attention has been on Felix and making sure the most important tasks were accomplished. So focused on our daily and weekly work, that the day we finalized the purchase of this farm, we didn’t stop and celebrate. We didn’t do anything. In fact, we just went back to work and didn’t even remember to tell anyone that we had completed the purchase.

And now, it’s fall. Time to finally slow down and think. I’m not trying to be self-congratulatory, but as I sit here writing, I’m amazed by the list of things we did this year. On top of raising Felix, a full-time job itself, we navigated the very tenuous purchase of our new farm, securing our low interest Beginning Farmer loans between government shut downs and threatened budget cuts aimed at our loan program. Luckily, we knew the loan process would be long, and began leasing the property in January. Once we had a signed purchase and sale agreement, we got busy moving our whole farm to this new property. Somehow we made the transition almost seamlessly. In so doing….

We built 5 greenhouses

We tried to baby-proof the fixer-upper farmhouse

We survived a big flood

We bought a couple of tractors

We grew eight acres of vegetables

We harvested a lot of food

We grew our CSA by 20 families

We had our best farmers market season ever

We grew almost 14 acres of cover crops

We took a lot of pictures of Felix

We have never worked so hard in our lives. Still, we often took shortcuts or let some projects go unfinished, or unstarted. Yet despite the fact that we haven’t had a real day off since March, I’m looking forward to next year. I know we can do a better job, and I’m oddly excited to get started. On the list for next year includes planting an orchard, fixing up the farmhouse, getting better at killing weeds, plowing 5 more acres, growing more cover crops, growing new and interesting varieties of vegetables, and, of course, spending more time playing with Felix.

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Late Winter Goings On

So much has been going on out here, it’s hard to know where to begin…. I suppose I’ll begin with today and work backwards…

Today, we finished building our second of three 30×90′ greenhouses.

These two greenhouses I found used on Craigslist. All of the hoops are slightly to severely bent, the purlins are curved, the swages are squished…. but they are done and relatively plumb and square (for hoop houses). We seeded arugula, radishes, turnips, and bok choy into greenhouse #1 on Monday. And when we finished greenhouse #2 this afternoon, we moved our seedlings into it from greenhouse #1. Soon, we’ll till the rest of #1, to get it ready for the seedlings now residing in #2. Greenhouses #s 1 & 2, we consider our practice greenhouses. Tomorrow, we begin building the new greenhouse we bought from Steuber’s. It’s also 30×90′, but has a gothic arch roof, instead of a round one. Ultimately, that will be the house in which our seedlings live. The other two will get tomatoes.

Yesterday, we had our new 1951 Farmall Cub tractor delivered!

Why buy an antique tractor? One of the funny parts about the kind of farming we do is that they don’t make equipment for our sized farm any more. Today, most farms are hundreds, thousands, or dozens of thousands of acres. But back in the ’40s and ’50s, farms and farm equipment were smaller. They also didn’t use as much herbicide, so they had to use their tractors to kill weeds. A Farmall Cub is a really neat, eleven horsepower tractor designed for seeding and cultivating small acreages. The engine and driver’s seat are offset to the left so the driver can watch the cultivating knives kill weeds (the black dart-shaped things under the tractor) as they pass by rows of vegetables.

We bought our Cub last month, but until yesterday it was being worked on by a neighbor, who was helping us figure out how to mount our fancy new Jang seeders to it. Initially, I wanted to put them in front of the driver so he or she could watch the mechanisms on the seeder to make sure everything was working properly. However, the seeders are too tall to easily fit under the tractor. So we opted for the significantly easier rear-hydraulic mounting system. As it turns out, all the finicky parts we felt we needed to keep an eye on when we were seeding with Planet Jr. seeders aren’t visible on the Jang anyway. And mounting the seeders behind the tractor will make it way easier to change seeds.

We also had a new used field disc delivered, which we’ll use to level recently plowed fields to prepare them for the year’s first seeding.  We’re going to start with garlic, field peas, turnips, and radishes. We have also seeded (in seedling trays we keep warm in the greenhouse) over 50 flats of vegetables, including onions, shallots, kale, chard, lettuce, and tomatoes.

Speaking of plowing, as I just mentioned, we had a neighbor plow two acres when we got a lucky weather window at the end of January. We are hoping that the predicted dry weather this weekend will allow us to have another four-five acres plowed.

Those are our biggest accomplishments recently. Along with all that farm work, we are also still busy  working on the financing to buy this farm and, oh yeah, raising a baby. Felix loves working with us. He was an integral part of the greenhouse construction…

and helped us put the plastic up on greenhouse #2 this morning.

 

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So, we’re buying this new farm, and basically starting everything from scratch. At our new place, we have a fabulous huge garage, two houses with lots of… potential, and 40 acres of beautiful farm land.

What we don’t have:

greenhouses for starting seedlings

greenhouses for growing our tomatoes

running water for washing vegetables and irrigating

a wash station/packing house

internet access

etc,

etc.

Other things we didn’t have, but now do, include a tractor, several essential tractor implements (seeders, disc harrow), a heated indoor space for germinating seeds, and all the parts we need to build three 30’x90′ greenhouses. Actually, we even have one of those greenhouses completely constructed (so I was exaggerating a little before when I said we didn’t have greenhouses yet). Here it is:

Between buying this property and acquiring all the items we need to grow and harvest vegetables, we’ve been spending a lot of money. Real estate transactions involve all kinds of upfront costs, like getting inspections and surveys, and we’re still in the process of applying for two government-guaranteed beginning farmer loans, so we don’t actually own the place yet. It’s a little bit of a scary situation, but we do have an agreement with the seller to rent the property until our loans close, or through the end of this growing season. That means we’re sure to be able to complete our growing season here, even if the worst comes to worst and our purchase agreement falls through.

In the meantime, we’re moving ahead, getting the houses cleaned up, chopping wood, building greenhouses, starting our first seeds, and taking subscribers for our community supported agriculture program.

When I tell the story of how we started Local Roots, back in 2007, I say that the three of us “founding farmers” each put up only $500 for our startup costs. To be sure, we were starting out at a piece of property that already had a greenhouse for starting seeds, and our landlord/partner allowed us to delay paying rent for the land and use of his equipment until the end of the season. Still, we had lots of costs in January, February, March, and April, and didn’t sell a single vegetable until markets opened in May. We had to buy seeds, seedling trays and soil mix, harvest bins, tools, and a van, pop-up canopy, and tables for the farmers market.

Me, at our first farmers market, almost five years ago.

We spent over $5,000 on all these items, but with careful planning and judicious use of a credit card, we were able to buy everything we needed. How did we do it? With the miracle of Community Supported Agriculture (CSA). In January of 2007, I sent an email to everyone I knew, saying that I was starting a farm, and that they could send me $300 and I’d promise to supply them with a season’s worth of vegetables every week. Even now, I can’t believe that a) I had enough confidence to believe we’d actually be able to live up to that promise and b) anyone took me up on it. In fact, 60 people took us up on it our first season. $300 checks started appearing in my mailbox in early February, allowing us to pay off our first credit card bill, and start shopping for a market van.

As it happened, we did manage to grow plenty of food our first season, and supplied our wonderful CSA members with a box of vegetables every week for 20 weeks.

A CSA box in early July 2008. Lots of green in there!

By the end of our first season we had made a little money. Not enough to live on, but enough to believe that we could someday make a living farming. Each spring, our CSA members help get the farm up and running by sending in their subscription payments several months before they will ever see a single radish. As we’ve grown, we’ve been able to set aside more money each fall to carry us through the lean winter months, and have become a little less dependent on the CSA money for our spring purchases. We’ve been able to invest in better equipment, a second delivery van, and pay for health insurance.

This spring, though, is more like our very first year. Jason and I are lucky enough to have a nest egg that will be our down payment on the new farm, but we’re spending our cash hand over fist right now buying seeds, equipment, and greenhouses, hiring a neighbor to plow our first field, and considering the costs of a well upgrade and a new roof for the farmhouse. Today, I’m more appreciative than ever of the community that supports our farm. Although I’m again watching checks arrive in the mail without yet having planted a single seed in the ground, we’ve been here before, and I have about 1000 times more confidence about our ability to grow a bounty of food than I did five years ago at this time.

If you want to be part of this adventure in farming, we are currently taking new subscribers for the CSA. You can find out about it here: Local Roots CSA.

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