Past Blogs 5/19/2016-9/23/2016

And Then There Were Walls

Posted 9/23/2016 6:53pm by Stephanie Bartel.

They say a picture's worth a thousand words. Perhaps these ones taken on my old flip phone are only worth five hundred. Either way, I'm not in a very expressive mood this evening, so I'll leave this picture to do the job. The walls of the new root cellar are going up beautifully, despite the over-dose of rain we've had lately.

Meanwhile, we slipped and slopped our way through a very muddy week in the vegetable fields. The gardens are saturated with moisture, but the crops look okay right now.  Our raised-bed systems are keeping the vegetables' heads just above water. But if we get another inch of rain tonight I may have to break out the veggie life-jackets.

Set in Stone

Posted 9/9/2016 8:07pm by Stephanie Bartel.

The first of the concrete for our modern root cellar was poured today. Before the concrete was set, two dump truck loads of stone were brought in and poured on the floor of the excavation site. Then the concrete footings were poured and next week the 10' sidewalls will be poured. Then a little while after that the concrete floor will be poured on top of the stone foundation. So much stone, built into a rock solid building set into the earth of Old Plank Farm. That, in a few words, is the design of our modern root cellar. 

But set in stone isn't my style! I can hardly wrap my mind around the idea of having a building that can last my lifetime. I work with plants that live and die in just a few short months before snow flies, spring melts the snow and we start all over again. Every year over and over again and no two years in a vegetable field are ever the same. 

Besides that, I'm a do-it-yourself wanna-be carpenter with a motto "measure once, cut twice." I'm used to having perpetual building projects that are never quite done, never quite right, and never quite sure if they'll survive a heavy snow. Mobile homes and tiny homes and campers and tents and tree-houses are the usual smattering of buildings here, and they come and go and fall apart nearly as quickly as a squash plant comes and goes from the earth. 

Yet here is this concrete building that so many other talented people are building for me. I bet it will look out of place because it will be the only thing on this entire farm that is actually square. My head is spinning from seeing so much progress this week, and from seeing new machines and new faces coming and going from the farm each day. 

This modern root cellar may take some getting used to. It may be difficult to get used to having running water in the winter. It may be difficult to get used to having an office where the computer doesn't literally freeze up on cold nights. Then again, this may be one big rock I don't ever want to move.

The 200 horse-power scalpel

Posted 9/3/2016 6:03pm by Stephanie Bartel.

We broke ground today on our modern root cellar here at Old Plank Farm. It took all of spring and summer to finalize the financing, get permits approved, and plan the different agendas for each part of the project. While I had hoped to have the building done before the 2016 harvest season started (actually, I hoped to have it done before the 2015 season started, but things never go quite as I plan!), I am finding that now is as good of time as any for the construction to take place. After all, it is a building that is meant to serve the farm for many, many decades, so one additional year spent now to get it done right is well worth it. I have been waiting a long time to improve our packing and storing capacities here, but I can wait a little more. 

When it is done, our modern root cellar will contain three coolers/storage rooms, a packing room, an indoor loading area, a small kitchen, and a bathroom and farm office. It is being dug into the ground for the most efficient use of space and climate control. While the building won't help with whatever seasonal challenges we face in the farm fields every year, it will help with efficiency on the post-harvest side of things here.

As the first few scoops of earth came up in our yard today with the huge backhoe, I found that--much to my surprise--I couldn't bear to watch. My nerves prickled with anxiety, and I broke into a sweat. It only took a minute for me to realize I needed to find other work to do today, and I left the excavator to do his work. It feels like my farm is undergoing surgery, I said to my friends later in the day, as the backhoe dug on, with several other folks standing by to watch. When the day's work was finished, I wandered over to see the progress when no one else was around. Our excavator had maneuvered the 200 horse-power backhoe with scalpel-like precision, cutting away the earth in just the right spots to leave the least damage to the surrounding area. So far, the farm's surgery looks like it is going very well!


Posted 8/26/2016 8:49pm by Stephanie Bartel.

It has been many weeks since I've written here. Though I think about it almost daily, writing is not a habit I'm able to keep during the mid-summer heat. We've been busy as ever at the farm, and when the day is done I never seem to find the energy to sit down and write. Compared to the energy needed to work in the field during the day, writing a paragraph or two shouldn't be as daunting of a task as it is. Yet any writer might agree that taking a pen to paper isn't any easier than taking a harvest knife to a field of salad mix.

Summer has been fairly normal here. I am ever grateful to the wonderful team of people that help me at Old Plank Farm. We've all been working hard keeping up with planting, weeding, and harvesting during the last couple of months. We've had some great CSA deliveries, and some that I felt were lacking. We've had lots of great feedback from CSA members, which I always appreciate hearing. Long days in the heat are well worth it if our CSA members are happy with what we are able to provide. I hope the best of the season is yet to come.

I feel we are well prepared for fall harvests, and the OPF crew and I will be looking forward to some cooler weather, a taste of apple cider, and the start of soup season! Several crew members leave us in the fall for school and/or jobs related to school. We'll miss Ryan, Cassandra, and Nichole once it's time to hit the books.

We're also looking forward to breaking ground on our new packing and storage building sometime in the next few weeks. With over a year of planning underway, I am ever anxious to share more about our "modern root cellar." However, until we actually manage to break ground, I will keep my mouth shut!

August will be over almost as soon as I finish this thought. Have you made the most of summer? I dread winter and at the same time I long for it. I am eager for summer to be over and at the same time I am heartbroken that it is passing so quickly. Like I said, things are normal around here.

Thinking Winter

Posted 7/10/2016 7:25pm by Stephanie Bartel.

Three of the Old Plank Farmers (myself, Sammi, and Angelica) attended the Mother Earth News Fair in West Bend, Wi today. This time of year it is especially nice to take a day and get off the farm. That said, we still spent our day immersed in organic farming topics. We also ate pizza and ice in many ways it was a typical day for us!

The highlight of the fair for me was listening to Elliot Coleman speak on winter growing practices. He talked about his first-hand experience using high tunnels and other season extension methods to farm year-round on the East Coast. At Old Plank Farm we are planning to work long into the winter this coming season, to bring fresh greens and other cold-hardy crops to members of our community. Coleman's talk offered a many practical tips, some humor show-casing a few disasters--something all us farmers can relate too--and the inspiration needed to help me get focused for the upcoming winter season. 

With summer CSA season barely underway, and busy as ever, it is difficult to start planning ahead for when the snow flies. But carrots don't grow overnight, especially when night is below zero. It is essential to put some serious thought now towards what we can harvest here in Wisconsin later this year. An hour listening to Elliot Coleman was just what I needed to get focused. I jotted down a full page of notes during his talk, even though I usually don't take many notes at all during lectures. After the talk I folded up my sheet of notes and tucked it in the back pocket of my jeans. Then, on second thought, I took the paper out and put it in my front pocket, where it would be safer. Don't want to loose that, I thought to myself. Then I laughed, realizing that in my back pocket I was carrying around $50 cash. Maybe a page scribbled with notes from my long-time farming idol and winter-growing veteran Elliot Coleman really is worth much more than that.

Great Expectations

Posted 7/1/2016 6:29pm by Stephanie Bartel.

Our harvest season is underway. After next week's delivery we will already be one month into our CSA program. Time flies, and as it goes by it takes with it the never ending list of tasks, never mind whether or not the tasks were finished.

June was great for getting young plants established, particularly because of all the good rains we had. But along with the rain comes weed pressure. We have more weeds this year than ever before at Old Plank Farm. I often think of my fields as a work of art, and the excess weeds disturb the view of the vegetables. Even though some of the weeds aren't jeopardizing our crops, I am frustrated by the unfinished to-do lists. If we don't finish weeding 2-inch tall lamb's quarters (a common weed here) one week, it turns into weeding five-foot tall lamb's quarters a few weeks later. This time of year planting and harvesting overlap with weeding and we can't spend all our time on excessive weeding.

So it is the point in the year where my expectations are tested. It's been four months of really intense farm work, in everything from snow to 90 degree days. Yet so far all we have to show for it is a few spring crops, mainly lettuces, that went out in the CSA boxes over the last three weeks. The majority of the vegetables aren't ready yet, and I start to get a little crabby. So much work for so little harvest, it seems. 

Most of our upcoming fields look nicer than ever, but I don't always see it this way. My expectations for the farm and myself get more demanding every year. Every time I improve one facet of the farm, I see something else that could be done better. But at the same time I enjoy my farm and my work more every year. It seems that I am happier with my farm the more I am discontent with it. This paradox is not new to me. I see it in other people, and I've seen it in myself before. 

One of the best ways to keep my expectations focused is listening to feedback from you, CSA members! Your interest and enthusiasm and suggestions for the farm are really valuable. CSA is not just an exchange of money and vegetables. I am growing food specifically for you, and that is exactly what I want to do. It doesn't matter much to me what the going rate is for a case of carrots; what matters is if you and your family are eating and enjoying our farm's vegetables. Sometime throughout the season, I hope you'll take the time to answer some of the weekly feedback questions that Angelica sends out, or to send us an email with your thoughts about the farm, or to stop out and say hello. Doing any of these things helps keep the farm growing strong.

Judging Puddles

Posted 6/12/2016 8:24pm by Stephanie Bartel.

It's a quiet Sunday evening at the farm. No one is out in the fields save the occasional deer and rabbits, the sun is quickly setting, and the wind has finally taken an evening off. We've had several big storms come through over the last week. And with the storms came plenty of rain. How much rain? Plenty of rain.

There are times when numbers come in handy, and times when adjectives do just fine instead. 1 inch of rain, or "plenty" of rain? I find myself favoring the latter type of description more often these days. It seems more accurate from the farm's perspective because it's based on qualitative observations of the farm. It's linked closely to the life within the farm, and it forces me to be a part of that link.

So what is plenty of rain? I have my own benchmarks to measure rain. Instead of looking at a rain gauge, I look for specific puddles after a rain. I find that if we have puddles on the path between the pigpen and the trial garden, we've had a good rain, enough to saturate newly planted fields and give me a night off of irrigating. And if we have super soggy gravel in the spot between the chain link fence and the tree with the day lilies underneath it, that means we've had a lot of rain and it will be too wet to work the field that day. Likewise, I know that if water doesn't start leaking through the kitchen roof of the old mobile home that means we haven't had enough rain yet to call it a good rain. And if water does start dripping through the ceiling…well that's usually cause for cheer!

I put a lot of effort into honing my observation skills—and not enough effort into my roof-patching skills—in part because I think it's critical to the success of my farm, and in part because observations are what keep life interesting. A leaf of spinach is more interesting when you notice the veins that run through it. A chicken is more interesting when you see each feather separately. And knowing the different patterns on the bark of a tree is handy when you are looking for Maples to tap. Plants and animals can't talk, and I am glad of that. But I’m also glad of how much they can tell us, if we only take the time to listen with all our senses.

First Borns

Posted 6/1/2016 5:12pm by Stephanie Bartel.

Have you ever noticed how first-borns usually receive more attention than future offspring? For instance, my older sister has whole photo albums dedicated to her first year or so of life. I am the second child in my family, and you may find a few baby pictures of me, mixed in with the family albums. But there is no book of firsts for me. Then again, perhaps that's because my sister has always been more photogenic than me! 

First-borns also usually receive the brunt of parental doting, which includes their worrying and their stricter disciplining. I was reminded of this phenomenon the other day, as I was watering our fourth batch of tomato seedlings. These tomatoes are already one month old, and yet I realized that I have hardly glanced at them. They slipped through the cracks of my scrutiny, but are alive and well all the same. By the time they germinated, our busy planting season was already underway, and they grew without my noticing. Meanwhile, our first-born tomatoes still receive my daily attention, as they grow up in our greenhouse. They are being trained to grow up on trellises, with the hope that they will be our most productive tomatoes. They are the serious ones, the goal-oriented ones. Meanwhile, the rest of the tomatoes will have a more carefree upbringing out in the field, where there is no trellising and much less day-to-day scrutiny. Perhaps you've also seen the first-born tomato photos posted on our Facebook page. They sure are photogenic! But did you even know that we have three other tomato plantings? 

It's hard to say what causes the shift in perspective from one tomato planting to the next, or from one child to the next. I don't believe it's from any lack of love or care. I think it's related instead to a shift in how time passes. The clock may tick steadily on, but time on a farm is anything but linear. A tomato growing in March has much less competition for my attention than a tomato growing in June. Because an hour in March is not equal to an hour in June, a rainy hour is not equal to a sunny hour, and an hour in the greenhouse is not equal to an hour in the field. One isn't better than the other. They are simply different, no matter what the clock tries to tell me.


Rain Goggles

Posted 5/28/2016 7:36am by Stephanie Bartel.

My whole world looks different after a good rain. For starters, all our crops look bigger, greener, and more lively. Brassicas are especially beautiful with beads of water surrounding their leaves and glistening like jewels in the sunlight. The plants stand out against the soil that's darkened with moisture. And unlike when we irrigate, the edges of the field get just as much water as the middle. Everything looks healthy and hopeful after a good rain.

But other things look different, too. After a good rain, my shop doesn't look as messy. My to-do list doesn't look as long and overwhelming. My broken-down tractor doesn't look as difficult to fix. And my stack of bills doesn't look as high.

As a farmer on fairly sandy soil, rain is the single biggest factor in determining my mood and my immediate outlook on life. I struggle more than the crops do during a dry spell. Irrigation, and the problems that come with it, frustrate me more than any other challenge I face in farming. Likewise, when it does rain I am as refreshed and renewed as my crops. Listening to rain on a summer night is the most beautiful lullaby I've ever heard. And getting rain on a summer day makes me want to sing and dance and make pancakes. 

So if you ever need something from me, ask me for it after it rains!

Confessions of a Greens Addict

Posted 5/19/2016 5:55pm by Stephanie Bartel.

The trick to eating thistle is to make it look like it tastes good. I can do this especially well, taking a prickly leaf and placing it on my tongue like it is a delicacy. Mmmm, I'll say as I chew and swallow the weed, smiling when it goes down. It looks at first like it might hurt, being that it is a plant covered with spikes that poke into my fingers if I grab a handful without gloves. But it doesn’t. When I place a leaf in my mouth--just one, because a mouthful probably would hurt--and start to chew, the prickers disintegrate and all that is left is a leaf that tastes a little like bad spinach.

It is good to eat thistle every once in awhile, to make sure that I can do it, and to surprise anyone who is watching and expecting it to hurt. So instead I make it look like it tastes good. Otherwise I am just a person eating weeds. 

Our first spring spinach germinated last week, but is not yet ready to be eaten. We transplanted our kale a couple of weeks ago, and it is still very small. It takes some self-restraint to keep myself from raiding the patch in the middle of the night.

But thistle abounds right now. Last year I thought it would be a good idea to make a smoothie with thistle. It wasn't. Yesterday I made a dandelion/lamb's quarters/thistle smoothie. It was an improvement from straight thistle.

Ohh, how I long for the first spinach and kale to be ready. Our CSA harvest season is just under one month away, and I don't think anyone is looking forward to it more than I am!