End of Year Reflections

Well, here we are at the end of 2013.  It’s hard to believe that just nine months ago – with the exception of garlic – we had not even broken ground.  We have come a long way in our first year, and have learned many invaluable lessons along the way.  Here are the top ten lessons from our first year of farming:

1.      Do not plant 600+ tomato plants.  Yes, everyone loves tomatoes and they are delicious, and it’s nice to have a variety, but oh my, this is way too many.  Next year we will plant a small fraction of this, take better care of them (pruning, clipping up, and weeding) and still have plenty.  We also have a better idea of which varieties sell best.  Turns out most people enjoy either the large and juicy heirlooms or the small cherry tomato snacks.  We had a number of medium-sized tomatoes that did not sell well at markets.  We’ll probably still plant a small number of paste tomatoes, which are great for canning (especially tomato sauce) because they are less watery, but we’ll cut out most of the medium-sized varieties.

2.      Row cover is amazing.  We conducted a series of trials over the growing season, with some crops under cover and our control group uncovered.  The row cover helps regulate temperature and retain moisture, and our covered plants consistently matured faster and looked healthier.  It does make weeding and picking a little harder as you have to pick up and move one side of the cover to get in there, but the benefits clearly outweigh any added challenges.  We plan to use a lot more of this in 2014.

3.      Stay ahead of weeding.  Having to play catch up is no fun.  It is so much easier to periodically run through the rows with the wheel hoe than to pull out large weeds by hand.

4.      Don’t mix up squash seeds.  I was devastated when I realized I had accidentally planted spaghetti squash when what I really meant to plant was pie pumpkins.  Sure, the spaghetti squash turned out well, but it’s just not the same in a pie.

5.      California Early White garlic (aka what you find in most grocery stores) does not like Wisconsin weather.  Neither does Spanish Roja.  Having lived in all three places, I suppose this does not surprise me.  We’re sticking to our heartier (mostly hardneck) varieties for next year, and are trying out a limited amount of new softneck varieties so I can work on my braiding skills.

6.      Sweat bees are the worst.  Even if it’s 100 degrees out, I vow to wear pants during the few weeks when sweat bees are out.  They land on you, mostly on your legs, and generally in annoying places like the back of your knee and they then sting you as soon as you move.  A dozen stings before lunch is pretty unpleasant.  Though I suppose if this is the worst thing that happens while working outside, and wearing pants can pretty much avoid it, it’s not too terrible.

7.      Don’t plant on the hillside.  There was a point this spring when we were desperate to get seeds in ground that seemed perpetually soaked, so we sought out higher ground.  This worked briefly, until the ground finally dried out and the seeds we planted too high up really dried out.

8.      Plant fewer varieties of corn.  Since this was our first year, our tendency was to plant lots of varieties to see which we liked best.   However, we have to plant it in four-row clusters to help with pollination, so it’s really best to stick to just a few types.  We also lost a fair number of stalks to mischievous raccoons, so we’ll need to work on a strategy to prevent this next year.  Corn is a tough crop to grow in a diversified farm, since so many farms do it large-scale for cheap.  A CSA we were members of in Seattle didn’t even bother with corn, saying it was too hard to grow and not worth it.  We like being able to offer a great variety of veggies to our customers, so I think we’ll stick with it, but hope everyone understands if our ears are not as massive as the ones you can buy from farms specializing in sweet corn.  For the record, though small in size, we thought our corn was big in taste.

9.      Take one day a week off.  This was the plan when we started out, but it didn’t really happen.  We just had so many things to get set up that we justified the constant work as something unique to our first year and that we just had to do.  Needless to say, we were pretty exhausted by the time fall rolled around.  Next year we plan to give ourselves a regular break, to relax, regroup, and be more efficient when we come back to work.  This reminds me of an Edward Abbey quote I’ve always liked:

One final paragraph of advice: do not burn yourselves out. Be as I am - a reluctant enthusiast....a part-time crusader, a half-hearted fanatic. Save the other half of yourselves and your lives for pleasure and adventure. It is not enough to fight for the land; it is even more important to enjoy it. While you can. While it’s still here. So get out there and hunt and fish and mess around with your friends, ramble out yonder and explore the forests, climb the mountains, bag the peaks, run the rivers, breathe deep of that yet sweet and lucid air, sit quietly for a while and contemplate the precious stillness, the lovely, mysterious, and awesome space. Enjoy yourselves, keep your brain in your head and your head firmly attached to the body, the body active and alive, and I promise you this much; I promise you this one sweet victory over our enemies, over those desk-bound men and women with their hearts in a safe deposit box, and their eyes hypnotized by desk calculators. I promise you this; You will outlive the bastards.

Of course, incorporating nature and exercise into our work is part of our plan to integrate what we enjoy into our jobs and make a lifestyle that is sustainable, healthy, and fun. That said, sometimes it’s still necessary to get away from the routine and recreate.

10.  Write more blog posts.  As I post this, I see our last post was in July.  Yikes.  We did a little better with our Facebook posts, and we did send out weekly newsletters to our CSA members, but we’d like to do better with our more in-depth communication next year.

2013 has been a pretty tumultuous year for many reasons. To name a few, we left stable jobs, embarked on a five-week antipodean adventure to visit dear friends and beautiful places, moved to a new state, started a business, lost a grandparent, supported two parents through cancer diagnoses (both are now happily looking healthy), started new part-time jobs, started remodeling an old farm house, and have been fortunate to take a number of trips to celebrate weddings and visit family.  When I find myself getting frustrated with the number of projects on my list and feeling like there is so much to do, Scott is good at reminding me of all that we have accomplished this year.  2013 will certainly go down in the books as an exceptional one.  I’m looking forward to a more efficient, less stressful, healthy, happy, and celebratory 2014. Happy New Year from your farmers at Plowshares & Prairie.

Catching Up on a Busy Summer

It's been a long time since either one of us took a few minutes to write a blog post.  Since those first posts, we've had a whirlwind couple of months, and now we find ourselves in the midst of summer, enjoying the beginning of the summer bounty that will hopefully result from all our hard work while already preparing to plant fall crops.  Way too much has happened to try to cover in one post or even several, so I'll just highlight a few things, and we will try to do a better job keeping up on our blog in the future.


We have 23 chickens now, 12 adults and eleven 2 month old chicks.  The chicks have just transitioned out of our sunroom to their new mobile chicken tractor, which is basically a bottomless pen we can drag around in pasture so they are protected but can still forage for plants and bugs.  It's been really fun raising them from chicks and watching how quickly they grow.  The adults are already laying eggs, which taste amazing, and have provided some entertainment and a lot of good lessons in chicken rearing.  It turns out that chickens are very trainable, and I discovered that when you need to get them back in their coop, it's much easier to get them to come to you than it is to suffer the embarrassment chasing them around.  So, we taught them to come to a whistle (with some grain mixture, which they LOVE) and that has made management a little easier. 


Much of our spring was very wet, though we have had a couple pretty significant dry spells, including one in late July that set things back a bit.  Watching and learning just how dynamic the soil conditions are and trying to manage them for the best plant growth has probably been one of the biggest challenges we've faced.  Learning when to cultivate, what to cultivate with, how frequently to cultivate, when to water, and where in our garden gets dry first and where the ground retains moisture longer has been a real eye opener.  The experience has made for both some frustrating and revelatory moments this year, and hopefully all that accumulated knowledge will make next year a lot easier.

For a while in the spring, the ground stayed pretty bare except where we planted.  Then all of the sudden, when the ground hit the right temperature, the weeds exploded.  We hesitated, trying to prioritize our precious time, and we're still digging out (or digging up) of the jungle that the weeds quickly created in some places.  However, we have substantially improved our weeding skills and strategy, and that in combination with the onset of drier weather is allowing us to finally catch up, which is very satisfying.  The lesson coming out of the whole experience; weed early and often, even when you can barely see the weeds. 

The wet year has also made the weeds in the prairie particularly large and aggressive, and we have fallen quite a bit behind in managing them.  Thankfully, prairies are resilient (moreso than veggies) and things are still looking pretty good, especially with all the yellow and purple flowers in full bloom right now.  We should have a little more time to get a handle on the invasive species we're trying to get rid of or minimize in the next few weeks, and next summer we'll have to squeeze in a little more time for prairie management.   

It has been both an overwhelming and exciting few months, and we're looking forward to taking everything we've learned and improving upon what we've already accomplished.  Packing our CSA boxes every week has been one of the most enjoyable experiences yet as we excitedly watch plants mature that we've worked so hard to grow and then get to share the delicious bounty they provide with our customers.  There have been busts, no doubt, but by and large our hard work has been rewarded with amazing food, and five months in to this new venture I think we're starting to figure things out!

Roosting on the edge of their sunroom pen

Roosting on the edge of their sunroom pen

Midsummer plantings where we're actually staying caught up on the weeds

Midsummer plantings where we're actually staying caught up on the weeds

Tassling corn; coming soon if the raccoons don't eat it first! 

Tassling corn; coming soon if the raccoons don't eat it first! 

Rhubarb in the Rain

This time of year, there's so much to do that you can't let a little rain keep you inside.  While rhubarb is a major ingredient in some of my favorite desserts, it isn't something we have a lot of yet, and it takes a couple years to get established.  Thankfully, we took a big step forward yesterday when we found an old rhubarb patch on our farm.  While it's a little later than ideal to transplant, we want to get it established in a better location and on its way to producing enough to sell, so I spent a good part of the afternoon today making that happen.  It was wet, it was muddy, and it was messy, but with less than half the patch moved, we've already got about 75 row feet of rhubarb.  Next year or the year after, that will make a lot of dessert!



Sunny days and dirty hands

After a couple of antsy months of indoor prep work and getting our transplants ready, we've embraced the sun and warmth and are ecstatic to get outside and get our seeds and transplants in the field.  So far we've put in thousands of transplants (including broccoli, cabbage, kale, lettuce, spinach, cauliflower, kohlrabi, chard, onions, leeks) and seeds (including carrots, radishes, arugula, peas, beets, turnips), as well as potatoes.  We're also establishing our berries and asparagus.

We have been learning so much from day one, and are enjoying problem solving (and sometimes improvising) and it's neat to reflect on how quickly we're becoming more efficient and developing our own strategies for various tasks.  It has been so exciting to see some tangible results as our plants grow big and strong!  Our thousands of tomatoes and peppers cannot wait to join their friends in the field.  Stay tuned...