Posted 5/16/2017 11:22am by Stephanie Bartel.
One of my favorite things to grow is tomato plants. I especially love watching them during their early life in the seeding greenhouse, when they grow and change every day. Because they grow so quickly, they require us to keep a close eye on them and to pot them into larger containers two times before finally sending them out to the field. It is tedious work, re-potting tomatoes, but the tomatoes are the most gracious recipients of their new pots. They don't mind being handled by us several times (unlike cucumbers, for example, who don't appreciate when we disturb them). And after each time we handle them they have a big growth spurt. During the growth spurt our tomatoes get bigger leaves and stronger stems and roots. This kind of growth makes for a healthy plant. And a healthy plant has the best potential for excellent fruit production.
This year's main tomato crop is looking good. We seeded them a little later than in past years, because we are getting better at maintaining rapid growth in our greenhouse, and I didn't want the plants to be ready too early. When tomatoes sit in their pots too long they get tall, spindly, and start putting on flowers. All these things are signs of stress. I remember looking at my tomato plants on April 14th. They had just germinated and were little more than tiny pairs of leaves poking out of the soil. Can you really be ready to go outside by Memorial Day? I had asked them. It seemed hard to imagine so much growth in such a short time. But here we are, one week away from the beginning of transplanting, and they are among the strongest, healthiest looking plants we've ever grown.
Because I love growing tomato plants so much, I started extra ones to sell to anyone else who loves growing tomatoes, too! We have over 20 different varieties including slicers, paste types, and cherries. We also have an assortment of specialty colored varieties like pinks, oranges, yellows, and Green Zebras. Come out to the farm Thurs-Sat, May 25-27 to buy some of our lovely plants!
Posted 5/10/2017 11:00am by Stephanie Bartel.
As we head into the height of our busy planting season, I am less likely to sit down and write much here on a weekly basis. My attention goes increasingly to the care of our vegetable plants. This time of year feels sort of like being under water. Once submerged in water, my senses are far less in tune with anything going on above water. There is always an awareness of what's up there, such as the sun and wind and maybe a distant sound of voices from people nearby. But when my head is under water, my focus is on swimming and everything else is somewhat dulled.
And when I dive into the vegetable growing season, my focus is on our plants and all the logistics of life at the farm. Even when we are not working, my mind is in tune with our crops and the things that need to be done on the farm. And so it is that when I sit down to write a note here, I find I can think of nothing else except what needs to be done today! A to-do list doesn't make for very interesting writing. So I'll just sign-off now and get back outside. Til next time -
Posted 4/26/2017 2:04pm by Stephanie Bartel.
Our busy planting season is upon us, and it is off to a good start. While parts of our fields are too wet to work, we have plenty of areas that we can plant in between the weekly rainstorms. Over the past couple of weeks we planted all the onions for our entire season. Onions require a long growing season and maximum daylight during their bulbing phase. This means we want them to reach their bulbing phase around late June when the days are longest. That's a tall order when our growing season barely starts two months before that. Nonetheless, our entire crop is in the ground as of yesterday, and the start of the showers today is most welcome at Old Plank Farm.
Planting onions is done by hand here. Our tractors help tremendously with field prep, but putting the young seedlings in the ground means we spend our days crawling around in the dirt. I wish we could teach Angelica's one-year-old brother how to transplant, because he sure enjoys crawling right now! I enjoy it too, but onion planting can be especially exhausting. It's early in the season so I am a little out of shape. Plus, each plant we put out produces only one onion. This is very different than putting out a zucchini plant, for instance, which generally produces much more than one zucchini. The sheer volume of onion plants makes for some very long planting days. And since onions are a staple cooking vegetable, we want to make sure we have enough for everyone for the entire CSA season, plus some to store all winter. So putting out 30,000 onion plants is what we've been up to here, lately.
As I was stretching out a couple of evenings ago, sore as ever but generally feeling good, I was reminded of training runs my high school cross country team used to do at Pike Lake State Park. We would go there a few times during the season, on the weekends, and run the hilly trails of the park until we were wiped out. The steep hills and rough terrain seemed like torture while we were running, but after the workout we'd hang out by the water and eat bagels and generally enjoy the rest of the morning. The trick to enjoying Pike Lake runs was to forget the pain of the workout. Your mind can't know what's coming, we used to say. Since we went there infrequently, this worked for me.
Much like the hills of Pike Lake, I tend to forget the aches and pains of onion transplanting shortly after the season. So by next year, when the ground first starts to dry out and warm up, I expect I'll be as eager as ever to start crawling around with handfuls of onion plants again. And now that I'm thinking of it, maybe I will go for a run at Pike Lake this weekend. I haven't been there in more than a decade. How hard could it be?
Posted 4/11/2017 11:07am by Stephanie Bartel.
One of the best parts about Spring on the farm is that it is the season for trying things again. When we fail at something, we are usually taught to try it again, until we succeed. That said, when it comes to planting things at the farm, there is usually a limited amount of time within one season that we can try failed plantings again. For instance, if our pea seeds don't germinate in spring, we wouldn't try seeding them again during the summer, because peas generally don't taste good during the hot weather later in the season. Likewise, if tomatoes would fail, we don't just try planting them again in October!
Seasons limit a lot of our work on the farm, to be sure. But each Spring offers us a fresh start. So yesterday I was excited that we had the opportunity to get an early start out in the field, planting the first peas and onions of this season. The ground was just dry enough to prep some beds for these two crops, which are usually first off the starting blocks each year. This time around we pre-soaked our pea seed to improve germination. The plump, green seeds went into the ground just before the rains came on again. The early start this year also gives us a few more chances during the next few weeks to seed more peas.
Another crop I'm excited about trying again this year is celery. We've never grown a good celery crop, so it's not one we ever promise to give out to our CSA members. But that doesn't mean we don't try it every year. The trouble for me last year was because it had never done well I found myself assuming that it never would do well. This mindset, which I noticed in myself last year when yet another crop of celery failed to germinate, is something I now think of as "celery brain." Last year I remember watering the flats of celery in the greenhouse and thinking about how they probably wouldn't germinate. And so they didn't. This year I've been intentionally combating celery brain. So far so good, as our first celery crop came up in the greenhouse with about 90% germination rate. It seems to me that it is important to be persistent when we are trying to accomplish something that we've failed at before; but it is equally important to not fall prey to celery brain each time we try again. If we don't change up our methods as well as our attitudes, then it's just plain crazy to try something over and over again.
I read a funny quote somewhere awhile back: "If at first you don't succeed...sky-diving is not for you." That's probably good advice. But farming may be!
Posted 4/4/2017 11:01am by Stephanie Bartel.
This past week or so I've been noticing perennial plants poking through the earth with this season's new growth. We have some daylilys that are coming up around the farm yard, and our garlic out in the field is looking healthy and strong. Whenever I see these, I get excited for the growing season ahead. Even though the farm is wet and muddy right now, the small green shoots of the overwintered bulbs are a welcome preview of the upcoming growing season.
What makes these perennial plants come up each spring? How do they survive a Wisconsin winter, then proceed to resurface during what is often a cold, wet, dreary season? Perhaps I should know the scientific answer to these questions, but I don't. Their re-emergence simply reminds me of their will to live. This is especially true of one little asparagus plant I saw several years ago when I had the opportunity to visit a farm out near Waupun. They had just built an earth-sheltered packing shed similar to the one I wanted to build (and currently am building!) at Old Plank Farm.
My visit that year was later in spring, and asparagus plants were sending up stalks. As we walked over to look at their new building, we came across an asparagus stalk sent up right through the middle of the driveway. The farmer said that before this was a driveway, there had been some asparagus planted there. But then the new building went in and along with it came dump trucks and backhoes and cement trucks, all parading over the old asparagus plant until there was nothing left but a compact, rock solid, dirt driveway. That was a year earlier. We stopped a minute to marvel at the asparagus. It had survived underground during the construction and then came up the next spring in it's usual way, cutting a deep fissure through the drive to make it's way to daylight. I was humbled by the willpower of that little asparagus plant.
Posted 3/21/2017 2:26pm by Stephanie Bartel.
As we set the new season in motion this month, I am often thinking about just that: motion. To sum up work on a veg farm in just a few words, I'd say we spend our time moving things around. Moving things around. Yep, that's about it. First we move plants and seeds and things out to the field. Then we spend time moving the weeds out of the way, moving water out to the plants, and finally moving the harvests out of the field and into our delivery vehicles. Okay, that's about the least glamorous description of life on the farm, but it does have a lot of truth to it.
With that in mind, I find it is worth more than a few minutes to set up systems on the farm to help make our motions easier on our bodies and more efficient for getting things done. This season, I am especially inspired to improve some tasks for comfort's sake because we are very excited that Sammi and Ryan Laswell are having another baby. That means another new field worker in five years. No, just kidding! That means that Sammi, one of our #1 field workers, will not be spending as much time in the field this season, because her baby is due in August. But in the meantime, I'm using some of my time in March (which is "project month" here) to do projects that can make work easier for her during the next few months.
One project was building a seeding station in our seeding greenhouse. I built a table that has a large hopper in the middle of it to hold potting mix. Now we don't have to lean over a wheelbarrow or potting soil bag to fill flats with soil, which is backbreaking work when you are doing it for hours at a time. Instead, you can simply sit at my new table and use the soil that flows out of the hopper to fill your flats. It kind of looks like a giant chicken feeder, where the feed (or soil) flows down onto the trough (or table top) as it is used up. The table and hopper I built hold enough soil to seed about 50 flats at a time. Sammi (and Angelica and I) enjoyed using it to seed over 100 flats of onions earlier this month.
While we try to reduce difficult motions, we are not trying to eliminate motion entirely from our work on the farm. Our bodies are designed to be in motion, and we often feel best when we are moving and interacting with our plants. Water, the source of all life, is healthiest and most nourishing when it is in perpetual motion. Maybe that's part of why I like motion so much too...because I am 70% water, right?? Okay, there is probably zero scientific knowledge to back up my logic here. Nonetheless, all life on the farm is moving or changing all season long, and us farmers want to be a part of it too. But for the good of my whole crew, I am always trying to better understand what motions are sustainable. I suppose this is just one more piece of the sustainable farming puzzle.
Posted 3/14/2017 10:02am by Stephanie Bartel.
Nothing sums up the weather patterns of this winter better than what I saw while driving through town one day last week. As I drove past a sign at one of the banks I saw it displayed the temperature of 46 degrees F. Less than a half block later I passed a sign at a store on the other side of the street which displayed the temperature of 22 degrees F. I didn't question the accuracy of either, nor did I feel surprised or confused. I just thought to myself, yeah, that sounds about right.
Day to day tasks have been somewhat challenging at the farm ever since we put the plastic on our seeding greenhouse just before the first of March. Since then, it seems we've had nothing but crazy winds, wet snow-fall, or arctic nighttime temperatures. Each of these weather patterns takes a beating on greenhouses, and me too! We haven't had any real problems, thankfully. But I saw one greenhouse at another farm that not only lost it's plastic during the 60-mph wind last week, but also the structure itself had caved in from the excessive force the winds bestowed on it. To make matters worse, it had been a brand new structure.
So, when I was out yesterday morning around 3am clearing snow off the seeding greenhouse again, I was thinking of the favorite Christmas story "How the Grinch Stole Christmas". The weather lately has been behaving like the Grinch, trying in whatever way possible to steal the joy from my early March work on the farm. But no matter what it does, I imagine myself and the others at Old Plank--including the plants--are like the Whos in Whoville who come together and make the best of the season anyway. I trust that by the end of March the weather-Grinch's heart will grow to three times it's current size and I will not have Christmas stories on my mind anymore.
Posted 3/7/2017 10:32am by Stephanie Bartel.
I spent a good portion of the day last Wednesday pushing snow off our seeding greenhouse during the storm. While it wasn't exactly a blizzard that day, the heavy and wet snow can easily collapse our nursery if I am not there to clean it off every couple of hours while it's snowing. During the winter we take the plastic cover off the structure, so winter storms aren't a problem for us. And even though it is technically still winter right now, we have young onion plants growing, which marks the start of Spring on this veggie farm. Snow or no snow, the nursery plastic is up and our season has begun.
So last Wednesday I took no chances with the nursery and the newly germinated onions inside of it. I don't know exactly how much of a snow load this particular structure can handle before collapsing, but I don't really want to find out. About five years ago we had a greenhouse collapse in the snow. The interesting thing was that I watched it collapse right as I was walking out to start pushing snow off of it. So I do know exactly what the limit is for that structure. Then again, it isn't a structure anymore. That's the problem with practical load testing. It's really not practical at all!
Late in the day last Wednesday the wind and cold had grown stronger but the snow was starting to slow. I was sore and tired from moving snow all day, but as night fell it looked like everything would be okay. Even so, I went to sleep a little unsure of what I might find the next morning. I was recalling another time many years ago when a creation of mine was put to a load test. That time, I was in the eighth grade and I had built a bridge out of raw spaghetti to be entered into a contest at school. My bridge withstood the load tests at my middle school, while most of the other students' creations collapsed as the weights were piled on. So my bridge went on to a spaghetti bridge contest hosted by Marquette University for eighth-graders from all around Southeast Wisconsin. Again, my bridge held up as weights were placed on it to test it's strength. In the end, it passed all the load tests and I won fourth place for it being both one of the strongest and lightest-weight designs. I got to go home with my bridge still intact and my fourth place trophy, too. I proudly displayed both on the kitchen counter at home.
The next morning I found my bridge smashed to pieces on the kitchen floor. I hadn't anticipated the final load test for the structure. My cat had knocked it down and was trying to eat the raw spaghetti when I found it there.
As farmers we can't anticipate everything that may happen during a season. The extremely variable weather patterns of recent months are yet another reminder that we really can't say what is in store for us. But there are still some promises we can make to the CSA members who choose to support us. We can promise to make the most out of every crop that we grow. We promise to be prepared for whatever challenges we inevitably face when working with nature. And we promise to go out during the snow storms and rain storms or any weather at all, if there is something we can do to help protect our vegetables.
When I awoke last Thursday morning after the snow storm, I was happy to find that the snow had not collapsed our greenhouse, nor had it been eaten by a cat. And the onions inside were warm and full of life, seemingly unaware of the winter-wonderland that was only a layer of plastic away.
Posted 2/28/2017 9:52am by Stephanie Bartel.
This past weekend several of the Old Plank Farmers attended the MOSES organic farming conference, a 3-day gathering of over 3,000 Midwest organic farmers. I spent the majority of my time there sitting in on workshops related to soil fertility, cover cropping and no-till practices. Soil health--and the organic practices which foster sustaining soil health (not all "organic" methods do!)--continues to be the focus of my work at Old Plank.
One of the more entertaining and fact-packed classes I went to was led by Allen Philo, a farmer and consultant for various organic fertility organizations in the Midwest. His talk revolved around managing microbiology for soil health. One of the many unseen forces at work in our soils is microbiology like bacteria and fungi. Philo is nothing less than an expert on this subject.
While I can't recreate the eloquence or humor that Philo shared with us in his slides on elephant and e-coli weddings, I can try to summarize a couple of interesting facts about these living organisms. According to Philo, someone has calculated--based on life and reproductive cycles--how long it would take elephants to multiply until there were enough elephants to cover the entire surface of the earth "one elephant deep." This thankfully hypothetical scenario of a planet earth entirely covered with elephants would take something like 500 years. Meanwhile, the same calculation has been done for a strain of bacteria, E. Coli in the example that Philo gave. For the bacteria, it would take a mere 24 hours in optimal conditions for it to multiply until it covered the surface of the earth "one bacteria deep."
This in itself was not entirely new information for me, although the picture of elephants getting married was. I was already aware that bacteria have a fairly quick life cycle, but I found that Philo's comparison between elephants and E. Coli illustrated the relative power that micro organisms can have in the world around us. If we manage our soils in a way that encourages beneficial microbiology to flourish, they can quickly get to work at healing the land and--in our farm's case--help to grow more and better vegetables. Creating an optimum environment for those beneficial microbes to flourish is what is so difficult on a produce operation and what is ultimately the focus of my work as a farmer.
Micro organisms are among the hardest working living things in a sustainable farming system, despite how small and insignificant they may appear to be. Philo coined the term "Size-ist" to refer to a person's prejudicial thinking that larger things are able to do more work than smaller things. He urged us not to be size-ists when considering how to manage the living organisms that contribute to the farm and soil life. I liked this idea because I don't want people to be size-ists when judging me, either! Even though I am built smaller than an average farmer I can certainly be just as productive and hardworking. If I am ever unsure of my work abilities I can just think of my buddies, the soil microbials, for a little inspiration.
Posted 2/21/2017 9:39am by Stephanie Bartel.
There's a sentence I never thought I'd say. Speaking of odd things to say, I'm always amused by the names that are given to different varieties of vegetables. Searching for trial varieties to grow this season, I'm discovering lots of new names in different seed catalogs I'm reading this time of year. Lettuces in particular can be awfully creative. A favorite of mine is Amish deer tongue. It's a green head lettuce I especially enjoy growing, and last year I named my favorite chicken after the lettuce. Amish Deer Tongue is a large, blond chicken who still roams Old Plank Farm as a free-ranging egg layer. She's accompanied by Darkibor, Bunte Forellenschluss, and several other hens also named after leafy greens.
Usually I'm less creative when naming things. As a kid, my stuffed animals' names were fairly routine. I had a cow named Cow, a kodiak bear named Kodiak Bear, a smaller bear named Little Bear, and several pandas named Panda, Medium Panda, and Giant Panda. When naming vegetable varieties, it seems there are no limits to what might be used. Sweet corn varieties are pretty funny, especially Luscious, Bodacious, and Sugar Buns.
But last week I was perusing the Territorial Seed catalog and came across a variety that tops all of these. It was a lettuce--no surprise there--named Drunken Woman Frizzy Headed. I want to grow it simply so that, on lettuce planting day, I can call across the field to Angelica, Did you remember to put out the drunken woman?! In the end, I didn't order it, as we have many other trial lettuces that have more merits than ridiculous names.
These days, creativity in naming kids seems to know no limits either. I'm fairly traditional here, too. I think the names Dustin or Russell are nice. In fact, I can't think of anything that makes more sense than a farm kid named Dusty or Rusty!
And then there's MOSES. Later this week my farming friends and I head to La Crosse for the annual organic farming conference, often referred to as MOSES. This stands for Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service, the organization who hosts the conference. But when I tell a non-farmer I'm excited for Moses, a follow-up conversation is usually necessary. Nonetheless, I am excited for the conference, as always. On top of great workshops and great organic food, we are renting a house for the weekend made entirely of metal. The absurdity of sleeping in a metal house beautifully balances the nourishing and inspiring atmosphere of the farming conference. During the day we enrich our minds with new ideas for sustainable farming. In the evening, we entertain ourselves by adding magnets to the already well-decorated metal walls and ceilings.