Last week Old Plank Farm CSA member Erin, from Shorewood, forwarded an article to me titled Tips for Smart Seed Shopping. It briefly addressed some concerns about seed source and seed quality that affect both farmers and gardeners. I was pleased to write back to tell her that we are patrons of several of the seed companies that the article recommended as reputable that follow the Safe Seed Pledge. Old Plank Farm's primary source for seed is Fedco, a cooperative seed company based in Maine. Other sources include High Mowing Organic Seeds, Seed Savers Exchange, Johnny's Seeds, and a small amount of our own saved seed.
Ordering seeds from catalogs is a lot of fun. Looking at beautiful pictures of vegetables and reading descriptions that make each variety seem like the answer to all one's problems is one of the most exciting things a vegetable farmer gets to do in January. My seed wish lists are always longer and even less practical than my wish lists were to Santa as a small child. But even as I enjoy the process of ordering seeds, I am convinced that seed saved from one’s own crops is a more sustainable choice than anything a catalog has to offer.
Seeds today, even from reputable companies, don't cost too much. Seed shopping, rather than saving, is the norm. I think seeds are often valued at little more than their monetary footprint, or a 5-10% chunk of a vegetable farm’s annual financial budget. Yet homegrown seeds were once one of the most valuable possessions a farmer had. The life force contained within a seed was recognized, and generating that life force from one's own fields was priceless. This shift of perspective, the loss of respect for the power of a seed, is hardly sustainable. While the USDA places no value on saved seed when considering a farm for Organic Certification, I feel it is a vital part of a truly sustainable farm.
If saving seed is important, why don't many farmers do it? For one, it requires a level of knowledge, planning, and observation of plants that's not necessary when the only use for the plant is harvesting the edible parts, as is the case for many vegetable farmers. On a diversified farm it's especially complicated because each family of plants has a different anatomy and therefore produces seed in a different way. A lot can go wrong when saving seeds, and by the time the problems are apparent, it's usually too late in the season to correct the problem. Yields and profits can be lost.
Yes, there are many reasons that vegetable farms, especially diversified ones, aren't saving seeds. However, with a little practice, I think the benefits of saved seed will be once again worth the learning curve involved. That's why two years ago I started learning the art, and last year we began our own seed saving projects.
As of this writing, our 2016 seed order is complete and most of our seeds have arrived in the mail. I am very grateful to Fedco and our other seed suppliers for their expertise and hard work to make vegetable seeds so readily available and easy to purchase. But for me this year, the arrival of my seed packages is a bit like the first Christmas after a child no longer believes in Santa. Sure, it's still exciting to open the packages. But it's also a bit of a let-down because I no longer believe that the magical seed-Santa will always bring us what we wish for. It's our own seeds, raised and saved right from the soils of Old Plank Farm, that I am most excited about, even though I wrapped them up for myself!
“But what do you do this time of year?” I am continuously asked this question, and often the perplexed and well-meaning citizen emphasizes the word do, as if trying to get me to admit that ever since the first snowfall I, a vegetable farmer, have had nothing to do. There are far fewer physical demands this time of year, and yes that leaves time for much-needed rest. It also leaves time for much-needed reflection, learning, and planning. These tasks, while abstract, have a tremendous impact on the health, growth, and success of Old Plank Farm. A well-planned growing season is far more resilient to the inevitable adverse conditions faced when working with the natural world.
In addition to making plans for the growing season, I am spending this time of year studying books on farming. Based on the idea that 10,000 hours of practice is what’s needed to become an expert in one’s line of work, this year I qualify as an expert farmer. But does that mean there’s nothing left to learn? I do recognize the growth in my skills since the beginning of my farming days ten years ago. But as an expert I have observed one more thing that may be worth noting: I’ll never be an expert at farming! After 10,000 hours of practice I simply have enough experience to be humbled by the nature of managing a diversified fresh-market farm.
To help ensure a highly successful growing season at Old Plank Farm, I like to leave room for continual learning and improvement. This winter alone I’ve read nearly a dozen books on topics such as seed saving, plant genetics and breeding, farm financial management, soil health, and modern root cellar design and construction. There’s usually time every winter to reread my old standbys too, like Joel Salatin, Michael Pollan, and Bill Watterson. Some of these are more relevant to farming than others. I spend more time at the library than in my farm fields. Perhaps in winter it would be fitting to sing about the farmer in the library, rather than the traditional nursery verse about the farmer in the dell. Maybe not—it doesn’t have quite the same ring to it. But that’s where you’ll find me this time of year!
My co-farmers, Sammi and Angelica, and I meet regularly for farm book discussions, which will help us all work well together when it’s time to get our hands dirty. We’re also looking forward to attending the three-day Midwest Organic Farming Conference at the end of the month, where there is always a wealth of new information to be had.
My father, an airline pilot, would often spend his free time studying his flight manuals when I was a child. At the time, I found this disconcerting. After all, he had already been flying planes for years; I’d hoped the passengers didn’t know that he still hadn’t finished learning how to fly! My inaccurate assumption, of course, was that my father was studying the manuals because he didn’t know how to fly. This couldn’t have been further from the truth. Thirty years later, he is one of the best captains in the world, and he still spends his free time reviewing his flight books. Likewise, one needn’t worry about my competence as a farmer just because I am still reading books on the subject. Quite the opposite, in fact. I don’t intend to ever stop learning, or farming, or reading Calvin and Hobbes.
Let's face it, farming is cool. Especially organic farming. That simple, albeit subjective, fact is perhaps one of the biggest reasons for the current successes of the local food movement. I’m no trend-setter—although for a brief period I did think that collecting clocks would make me cool—but I am proud to be among the organic farmers who are helping spread the move toward healthier foods and more sustainable growing practices.
As little as one generation ago, I don't think farming was as trendy as it is perceived to be now. You certainly couldn't find "I heart Kale" running socks to wear. Now you can buy them at Target and wear them to local races, like the Old Plank Farmers did last month! Thirty years ago, CSAs were virtually nonexistent. And becoming a farmer? That was anything but cool.
There are many more important reasons to join a CSA than simply because it is cool. But that sure is a powerful one. After all, isn't that why more than a few people tried smoking? I find it encouraging that now something truly positive—growing and eating healthy food—can spread in our society in the same way that smoking once did, but with a vastly more positive outcome. We live in an era where there is potential that eating one's vegetables is cooler than smoking. That's pretty amazing. That's one step toward regenerating our society's health. That’s how we can turn all our friends and neighbors into locavores!
Right now, joining a CSA is kinda cool. Let's make it really cool. Tell your friends to join our CSA. If they ask why, it's great to share facts and information about sustainability and the environment and why natural foods may be healthier than processed foods, and on and on. Or you could tell them Hey! The Old Plank CSA is pretty cool...just try it!
by Farmer Stephanie
It's been a long time comin'. Welcome to the new and improved Old Plank Farm website. Here you'll find all the information you need to know about the farm. Take a minute to look around and get to know us better. Read about the farmers behind your food, check out our Best of 2015 Photo-show, or go to our online sign-up page to become a CSA member today. The drop-down menus at the top of the page will help you find whatever you are looking for.
At the recommendation of several CSA members, I'll also be keeping up with a farm blog here. If you are ever wondering what we are up to, check back here to read the latest news. The big news right now is that our CSA sign-up season is underway. Just two weeks after kicking off our sign-up season, we are already 33% full. That's a new record for us. 80+ returning members signed up right away, all of whom I am very grateful to for their dedication and support. Don't miss your chance to sign-up, too. You can do it right here on the website.
Once you've toured our new site, perhaps you'll be inspired to get out and visit us on the farm, too. Wait until summer though, please, the farm is hibernating right now! In today's digital era, let's not forget to make real connections with each other. I hope to see you all out at the farm this season.