Past Blogs 2/2/2016-2/23/2016

On your mark, Get set ...

Posted 2/23/2016 1:02pm by Stephanie Bartel.

In the classic running movie, Chariots of Fire, world-class runner and Christian missionary Eric Liddell compares faith to running in a race. It’s a great scene that discusses the challenges and triumphs of each of these life experiences. This comparison got me thinking about a similar one, between running in a race and farming.  

A farming season has all the ups and downs of, say, the mile race. On an outdoor track, the mile is a four-lap race. The first two laps are similar to spring and early summer on a vegetable farm. Farmers tend to be full of energy in spring. We work long, hard days to get crops planted on time, and we feel good doing it because we are well rested and excited to be working outdoors again. In a mile race, the first two laps are often the easiest, and a runner may go out fast and feel good doing it. By the third lap, late summer, our strength and endurance are tested. Work is more challenging because we are only halfway done with our vegetable delivery season, but we are tiring out by then and the hot dry weather can drag us down and may make us want to quit.

Once we reach lap four, autumn on the farm, we get a new surge of energy. The end of the harvest is in sight, and if we’ve been having a good season we are able to carry through to the end with a strong finish.  

But it is the warm-up to the race that has been on my mind recently, as we near the start of this new season. Just like in the mile race, or any track race, how we begin the season can make or break the entire road ahead. This past weekend, with the snow melting, the sun shining, and the warm days, I feel we have approached the starting line of our race, our season ahead. But instead of a matter of seconds between lining up at the start and waiting for the gun to go off, we often live through days or weeks between getting to the mark and when the gun goes off for planting time.

The occasional balmy February day can make a farmer want to jump the gun on planting season. The sunshine can make a February day feel just like an April one. The feeling is beautiful, but it also makes my heart skip a beat. Should we have already seeded our tomatoes? But the greenhouse isn't ready for planting yet! I long to get my hands in the dirt and my seeds in the ground. But the ground is still thawing, and I haven’t decided on this season’s bed spacing. Nervous tension mounts as I toe the starting line. A part of me wants to rush into all these early spring activities, to get ahead while the sun is shining. But a few seasons of farming experience reminds me that it is not really spring, and all those things will happen soon enough, in the first lap of our season. If we jump the gun on planting, we may suffer when the hard frosts hit again, as they inevitably do in March.

Yes, a false start can be costly. Right now, on the mild late-February days that break up the winter, we are quivering on the starting line, balanced between getting set and going! It is a true test of my patience. Staying calm and focused is critical to having a good running race, and a good start to the farming season.  And in order to help my farming self stay calm and focused this time of year, I like to lace up my running shoes and get out for a few miles on the country roads!

For the Love of Farming

Posted 2/16/2016 5:16pm by Stephanie Bartel.

While I never get tired of leek jokes ("Somebody call a plumber, there's a leek in the tub!" is my favorite one when we are washing leeks at the farm), others may appreciate more variety in their vegetable humor. In which case, check out these funny Valentine's Day cards, from Modern Farmer. I especially enjoyed this tractor one.

With just a little word play it's possible to create a romantic twist out of a mundane piece of farm, right?! Food, good food, is always cause for celebration. On the other hand, maybe sending farm-themed Valentine's cards is going a bit far. Even though farming is cool, perhaps it's also kind of annoying to see farm themes cropping up in everyday life. I mean, there's kale socks, people putting beets in birthday cakes, and now tractors on Valentine's cards? I, of course, think all those things are great. But I am a farmer. I also happen to think that kale bouquets trump bouquets of roses, and that a wedding dress made out of Row Cover--the white fabric used on organic farms to protect crops from bug and frost damage--is a great idea. Ok, now I'm wondering if this is why I'm not married yet? But I digress.

Even if you don't grow your own food and you don't want a pair of goats on your Valentine's card, you may still want to have a farm, or several farms, be a part of your everyday life. You don't have to share my sense of humor to appreciate the vegetables we grow. By joining a CSA like Old Plank Farm, you are supporting a farm. But the farm is also supporting you, by providing you and your family with healthy food and by encouraging you to make vegetables and other real foods a part of your daily routine. Vegetables are more than a side dish. They are a way of life. On Valentine's Day and every other day of the year, too.

Seed Shopping or Seed Saving?

Posted 2/9/2016 11:09am by Stephanie Bartel.

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!

The Farmer in the Library

Posted 2/2/2016 2:38pm by Stephanie Bartel.

“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 SalatinMichael 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.