Past Blogs 12/6/2017-4/4/2018

April Showers

Posted 4/4/2018 2:58pm by Stephanie Bartel.

April showers bring May...snowmen? Is that how the saying goes? In Wisconsin, one never knows. We may have 4 inches of mashed potatoes on the ground right now, but in the seeding greenhouse our young plants are unaffected by the recent snow storm. Broccoli and Cabbage are germinating at the moment, among other things. Yesterday we gave the onions a haircut. They were getting pretty shaggy, and as the weather reminded us, they will have to sit inside for more than a few days before the field is ready for them to be transplanted. Trimming their greens seems to help encourage root growth. And it's awfully fun playing barber for 35,000 onion plants.

It is hard to imagine that within a month there will be vegetable seeds sprouting from our now-frozen fields, and within two months we'll be getting close to the start of our CSA harvest season. Harvest? Harvest what? Snow? It is hard to imagine how quick and how much the season changes this time of year. If it weren't for nine other years growing veggies before this one, I may not believe it possible at all. 

Springtime in a Greenhouse

Posted 3/29/2018 8:35am by Stephanie Bartel.

I check on our seedling greenhouse 3-4 times per day, to manage temperature and water needs of all our young plants. Right now the benches are largely filled with onions, but other crops are joining the ranks each day. Tomatoes are a bright spot right now, and Angelica's photos show them off. These are our farm-selected and seed-saved variety called Goldie. They are in their fourth generation of Old Plank Farm seed, and doing pretty well. I'm also germinating a lot of flowers these days. Each time a new variety pops up out of the soil I feel I am welcoming a new friend to the farm.

Because I look at the onions and other plants in person every day, I don't notice always realize how much they are changing. Day to day the growth is subtle, but when I look at Angelica's photos that are a mere two weeks apart, I am amazed at the strong and quick growth spurt of the onions, especially during a fairly chilly stretch of days and nights!

I can hardly peel myself away from the photos Angelica took. I love to look at photos of my onions, they are so simple and beautiful. But seeing the real thing, in the greenhouse, is even better. I find myself dawdling around the greenhouse benches in the evening, watching the plants and enjoying the evening light. Plants may not seem active, or seem to do a whole lot, but they are so very much alive. The more time I spend with them, the more I am aware of this. Springtime in a greenhouse has more life and more energy than anywhere else on the farm. I'm thrilled to be the caretaker, and I look forward to when all the time and energy spent with the plants transforms into a harvest that will feed our CSA members. What more could any farmer want?

Pizza at Old Plank Farm

Posted 3/8/2018 3:14pm by Stephanie Bartel.

A cold snowy day like today may not leave you with thoughts of outdoor wood-pizza and fun on the farm, but for me these things are on my mind right now. In fact, we've been working very hard throughout the winter to make plans for an upcoming season of fun on the farm, centered around our beloved pizza oven. When I built the oven three years ago, I envisioned creating a place where anyone in the community can come to enjoy good food and some outdoor leisure time with their family and friends.

Support from our CSA members goes directly to keeping the vegetable gardens going and putting food on the table for everyone who is a CSA member. Being a CSA farmer is tough, and being a member isn't always a picnic either (unless you take your veggie box outside and eat it on your lawn each week...!). But us farmers and our members are committed to the good food we grow, and it pays off for everyone involved in more ways than one.

That said, we know that joining a CSA isn't for everyone. Nor can our little farm support everyone, even if we wanted to!

So how can we make a taste of our vegetables available to everyone in our community? The answer comes from our wood-fired oven. Pizza-on-the-Farm is to be a Friday night tradition in summertime, where anyone can come and buy a pizza made with our fresh vegetables. We'll cook it for you in our wood-fired oven and you can picnic on our lawn and visit our vegetable fields.

We're almost ready for this, but not quite. There's one more step, and we need your help with it! Next week we are launching a fundraising campaign to support the work that needs to be done in the farm yard where our pizza oven is. We'll send a thank-you to our supporters in the form of a coupon for a free pizza from us, so it's not a bad deal!

We have plans for landscaping, building a shade structure, and more. Our rather barren yard has suffered neglect in the wake of the nearly endless work necessary for growing vegetables here every season. Now, ten years into the life of Old Plank Farm, we're ready to take a look at the land that isn't part of the vegetable gardens, and we're ready to give it as much love and care as we can. With your help, I know we can go a long way.

Early Farmer

Posted 3/1/2018 9:29am by Stephanie Bartel.

 

One of my all-time favorite movies is "Wallace and Gromit's Curse of the Were-Rabbit." This film is all about a town's giant vegetable contest and a rabbit who causes trouble for it. It's also a Nick Park claymation creation. I especially enjoy the artistic design of claymation, it is so much more fun to watch than a regular cartoon.

So when I heard that Nick Park--Wallace and Gromit creator--had made a new movie, I was excited to see it. The new movie is "Early Man", and I went to the theater last week to see it.

The claymation of Early Man is as good as ever, but the story line wasn't as exciting as Wallace and Gromit. The whole plot is little more than a soccer game between an underdog bunch of primitive cavemen and a highly developed, resource rich, advanced civilization. Kind of a predictable plot to me. Not nearly as creative as Wallace and Gromit, who use a BunVac 6000 and a Mind-o-Matic machine to brainwash bunnies and save vegetables...!

Nonetheless, I find I relate to the caveman tribe and their fearless leader Doug, and they kept returning to my thoughts throughout the week. At Old Plank Farm we are in the time of year where--in addition to starting seedlings in the greenhouse!--we need to sell CSA shares in order to sustain the farm for another season of growing vegetables. This time of year can be trying for me because--in addition to managing seedlings in cold and unpredictable weather!--we never know exactly if or when we will sell all of our farm shares. 

Over the last 3-4 years, perhaps longer, many small CSA farms in this region have gone out of business. And many other CSA farms have struggled to sell enough shares to make ends meet. It's not always easy being a CSA member of any farm: remembering to pick up your vegetables on a set day each week isn't as convenient as being able to go to a store any time of the week. And being committed to eating all the vegetables in a CSA box each week can be a challenge compared to eating out, or purchasing ready-to-eat packages of vegetables or other foods at a store. 

But small farms and the CSAs that serve their communities are important to the health of those communities and to each individual who participates. So it's worth being aware of the recent struggles CSAs face, and it's worth a look at what might be causing some of these struggles.

I believe the declining interest in CSAs is largely due to the supermarkets and agribusinesses who have jumped on the bandwagon of marketing local food products in the last few years. Corporations such as Coca Cola, Tyson, Walmart and many others have taken the defining words of CSA farms--sustainable, organic, quality, local, community-- and have popped these into their own multi-million dollar advertising campaigns which, intentional or not, has squashed many small farms. The highly developed, resource-rich corporations are no match for small farms when it comes to marketing. Superstores have advanced marketing resources that CSAs aren't likely to ever have. And so they get left in the dust.

Whether we want to or not, I think small farms are now being asked to compete against the multinationals in a battle to provide you with quality food. And even though we have very different definitions of quality, local, sustainable, etc., we are stuck out on the same field. Something's not right here, but for now it's the challenge we face.

And, like Doug and the cavemen, giving up is not an option for this particular small farm. Sign-up season at Old Plank Farm has been going alright so far. We are not sold out yet, but it is early in the game. And I am committed to having a productive season and to taking great care that this farm will survive and thrive in the years to come. But I can't do it without the support of the community. Please join us, and tell your friends and neighbors to try it too! Root for the Early Farmer team! In return we promise to grow vegetables that will support the health of you and your family all season long.

The Adventures of Beetie: Planting Carrot Seed

Posted 2/7/2018 2:38pm by Stephanie Bartel.

By: Angelica Immel

Meet Beetie. Beetie has just received his carrot seed in the mail!

Beetie is so excited to start planting and rushes out to the greenhouse. He plants a carrot seed into a bed full of compost.

Beetie waters his carrot seed. Not too much not too little. Just right.

Everyday Beetie goes out to the greenhouse to check if his carrot seed has sprouted. He continues to keep the soil moist and warm, ideal for germination.

"HAPPY BIRTHDAY!" shouts Beetie one morning when he discovers his tiny carrot seed has sprouted through the Earth alas!

Finally, the carrot is ready for harvest. Beetie digs into the ground with his homemade specially designed broadfork.

"YUM!" exclaims Beetie

A Vegetable Farmer Longs for Spring

Posted 2/2/2018 10:20am by Stephanie Bartel.

Our seed orders have arrived and with them a hint of hope for the season to come. While I generally like winter, this year I find I am quite often longing for spring. I've been sick more days than I have been well in January, and I attribute this to my need for warm soil beneath my feet, sun on my face, and fresh vegetables in my body. All this will come soon enough, when we begin seeding onions in the greenhouse at the end of the month.

Are you dreaming of summer too? If you're planning to make vegetables part of your daily diet this season, I hope you'll become a member of our farm. The partnership between farmers and community members is at the heart of Old Plank Farm. It defines who we are and what we grow. Seed packets arriving in the mail and member sign-ups arriving in our email inbox this time of year remind us that spring will come again. And we will be ready when it arrives.

Happy 10th Birthday, Old Plank Farm!

Posted 1/11/2018 8:17am by Stephanie Bartel.

Old Plank Farm is celebrating it's 10th birthday this season! But we're not busy baking a birthday cake to celebrate. Instead we are hard at work planning for the upcoming farming season.

My own birthday falls in April, and on that day I usually try to plan a long and challenging task, like cleaning the chicken coop or planting onions. At the end of the day I enjoy a birthday cake and some leisure time, but not before enjoying whatever work is on hand (and there is plenty to be had in late April!). Hard work can help remind us to appreciate that we are alive. And isn't that what a birthday is all about? 

Likewise, Old Plank Farm's 10th birthday is best celebrated by recognizing how special it is to be a small vegetable farm that is alive and thriving in this community. The farm will enjoy it's birthday best by working hard to make the most of the growing season.

I'd like to kick-off our 10th birthday with an invitation to you, to become a member of Old Plank Farm this season. You can learn more about what our farm membership offers here. I hope you'll join us; it's your support that makes us who we are! We want you to share in our celebration of good food, good community, and a good life. 

New Working-Member Opportunities in 2018

Posted 12/20/2017 9:11am by Stephanie Bartel.

Green bean picking, a popular Saturday morning pastime at Old Plank Farm. Now you can join in the fun in 2018!

This season we want to get more members involved in the weekly harvest work at Old Plank Farm. If you want to become a farm member but don't want to pay for a seasonal share, consider working a few hours a week at the farm in exchange for your membership.

We have two blocks of time available in 2018: Saturday mornings 8:30-11:30 and Monday afternoons 1:30-4:30. Small share members work the first two hours of each shift for their weekly box, and large share members work the full three hours for their weekly box. You only work during the weeks we deliver boxes (typically mid-June through early November).

Saturday morning workers will be out in the field and must be able to do harvest work, which includes lots of bending over and/or lifting of 40 lb crates. It also includes being exposed to the stresses of weather (hot or wet or sometimes near freezing temperatures in the last few weeks of delivery). Harvesting vegetables is fast-paced, rewarding and usually we have a lot of fun! 

Monday afternoon workers will be in the packing shed helping to wash, sort or bag produce. This job may entail having your hands in cold wash water and occasionally moving produce crates that can weigh up to 40 lbs. Otherwise it is not very strenuous, and is open to people who can't easily work out in the fields. 

If you want to join our working-member crew, send us an email (csa@oldplankfarm.com) and include the following info:

Name:

Small or Large Share:

Pick-up Site:

Work shift desired (Saturday morning or Monday afternoon):

Describe previous outdoor work experience, if any (if you want to work Saturday morning):

Working on the farm is a great way to connect more closely with your food, and your farmers too! We hope new and returning members will consider joining us as working-members this season.

Old Plank Farm Gift Certificates Available

Posted 12/13/2017 8:12pm by Stephanie Bartel.

 

In a season overwhelmed with holiday cookies and other treats, Angelica and I decided it would be nice to offer you a healthy gift idea to give to your family or friends this year: an Old Plank Farm Vegetable Share! While we can't put tomatoes in your Christmas stocking, we can provide gift certificates you can purchase for either our Small or Large Vegetable Shares for the 2018 harvest season.

If you want your family to be a member of our farm in 2018, or know of a family that wants to join us, consider buying your shares through our Gift Certificate program. Give an Old Plank Farm membership to your spouse or relatives or neighbors or co-workers. 

The prices for Small Share and Large Share gift certificates are the same as regular share prices + $2 (click here for regular share prices and details). A printed gift certificate card will be mailed to you, so you have something to wrap up and give away. You can order the gift certificates online, but you must be able to mail a check for full payment the same day you order.

We'll mail your gift certificates within one day of ordering them online (provided that you email us and let us know your mailing address)! However, the coupon code printed on your gift certificates (allowing the recipient to sign-up for their share at no cost) will not be activated until after we receive your check for full payment. Instructions are printed on the gift certificate so the recipient will know how and where to sign-up for the share you have given them.

If you're interested, here's what to do:

1. Go to our web-store and select the type of gift certificates you want to purchase ($2 each, payable through Paypal). 

2. Mail a check for the total cost of the shares you ordered gift certificates for. Please mail the check the same day you orderpayable to Old Plank Farm, W6028 County Road C, Plymouth, WI 53073.

3. Send us an email (csa@oldplankfarm.com) with your mailing address, so we can put your gift certificates in the mail right away.

4. Look for your gift certificates in the mail, then personalize, wrap, and give them away! Remember they won't be activated until after we're received your check in the mail for full payment (you'll be notified when your check reaches us).

Gifted Shares will be available to purchase through December 21st.

If you don't need a gift certificate, but want to become an Old Plank Farm member for 2018, you can sign-up online here. We're not requesting any down payment until January for regular sign-ups.

Questions? Email csa@oldplankfarm.com or call Stephanie at 920-917-8207.

Wishing you a healthy holiday season, from our farm to your table!

The "Vegetable of the Year Award" and other Reflections and Offerings

Posted 12/6/2017 9:32am by Stephanie Bartel.

We call this photo "Carrot tries to pick up a watermelon while Beetie the Beet watches." It's a working title... Carrots are the 2017 Vegetable of the Year award winner at OPF!

Dear Old Plank Farm members,

As 2017 draws to a close, I'd like to offer you a brief re-cap of our harvest season, along with some thoughts about what we are planning for 2018, our tenth growing season.

From the crops' perspective, this season was cool and wet and a bit overwhelmed by deer. Several of what I consider staple crops--broccoli and lettuces in particular--suffered tremendously from a combination of these conditions. Our much-anticipated treat of summer--cantaloupe--also threw in the towel before setting fruit. 

Nonetheless, each week we were happy to have a nice variety of other vegetables to deliver to you all. If we gave out a "Vegetable of the Year" award (I think we should!), CARROTS would most likely have won. Hats off to this wonderful veggie and the other staples like peppers, potatoes and onions that did very well this year. As our soils and my field management skills improve we continue to see more overall stability in the weekly harvests. Receiving a crop damage hunting permit from the DNR is also helping with our deer problem.

We found that we loved packing the choice boxes to go along with your shares! They seemed to be effective in dividing up crops that either yielded poorly or were grown on a small scale because they aren't always favored by everyone. Eggplants are one crop that regularly went in the choice box but not in the shares. If you wanted eggplant, did you get some? I hope so. I've been working on a questionnaire to help fine-tune our use of the choice box. It will also help us with general crop planning for the season, because it will be sent out to each member when you sign-up! This way we know what you want before the season. We are no longer doing a post-season survey, though we always welcome feedback you want to send us at anytime.

The 2017 season also brought us it's usual variety of ups and downs separate from what weather and field conditions provide. The highlight of the season for us was having our new packing and storage shed to work in. This glorified root cellar is just that: glorious. Being built into the hillside helped tremendously with natural temperature management. It is also spacious and well-designed, helping to make our packing and delivery days run more smoothly. We still have some finishing work to do on the building this winter. Next summer we look forward to having an open house where we can show off our new space to you!

The low point of the season for me was a tractor accident which left me with a broken arm. This happened the first week in October, making the last several deliveries more challenging than they otherwise might have been. Healing from my broken arm has been no easy task. I find that even with the cast now off there is still a long ways to go until I will have full strength and range of motion with my arm. That said, I continue to do the things around the farm that I would ordinarily do. It just takes me longer to accomplish things, and I am sometimes quite frustrated during the process. 

Not long after the accident, a friend said to me that she was surprised I am still farming. But of course I am still farming, I thought. As long as I am here I will still be farming in some way! Even during the darkest days of the initial recovery period in October there was not a single day where I wanted to be doing anything except working on the farm and helping my crew to bring out the best of our season's harvest. 

Working on the farm is more than a job, it's who I am. And so I am ever grateful to our members who help make Old Plank Farm what it is. I look forward to continuing to serve you as we head into 2018, our tenth growing season. 

I invite you to sign-up now for the upcoming season. There are no price changes and no other major changes. If we need to make any pick-up site changes we will notify you; should a change occur (not likely), you would have the option to drop out if it is no longer convenient for you. There's no immediate payment necessary either; we'll start requesting down payments in January. 

We want you to sign-up now because we want your input now! When you sign-up you will be sent a questionnaire that you can fill out to let us know how often you prefer to use each of the vegetables we grow. Fill out as much or as little of the survey as you want. This month we will be doing a lot of our 2018 field planning, and your input will help us fine-tune what we need to grow. This is your season and your farm, and I hope you can help us make the most of it. 

Best wishes for a healthy holiday season, and I look forward to keeping in touch with you throughout the winter!

Your farmer,

Stephanie

Past Blogs 6/15/2017-11/10/2017

Getting ready for winter

Posted 11/10/2017 8:12am by Stephanie Bartel.

As we head into our final week of delivery, most things are going well at the farm, despite the deep freeze that came down so suddenly upon us. We managed to get everything out of the field by yesterday morning, and we'll be washing and packing up those last few things for the CSA box next Tuesday. Some nice carrots and Brussels sprouts and other great fall crops, too! I look forward to sharing this last harvest with all our members, and sharing some of my seasonal reflections soon, too.

A tractor accident last month has left me with a broken arm, and I find that writing and typing is just as difficult as harvesting carrots, bagging potatoes, or any farm work at all that I now do one-handed. Nonetheless, we have been carrying on here fairly normally. This month we will be busy finishing up this season's work, tucking the farm in for hibernation, and beginning planning for next season. As I was planting the last of the garlic the other day, I couldn't help but get excited for next spring already. But before the garlic can send up its new green shoots next March it must go through a long, dark and cold season first. The garlic does this so gracefully, and we as farmers must get ready to do the same. 

The Last Pepper

Posted 10/26/2017 3:57pm by Stephanie Bartel.

We harvested the last of the peppers before the frost hit last night. It was a good year for our peppers, and a lot of the ones that went out earlier in the season were quite large and lovely too. At first glance, this last round of peppers doesn't look like it stacks up to the rest of the lot. These are smaller, often a bit misshapen, and also will be nearly a week old by the time they make it in the CSA boxes. That was my first thought when I looked over the harvest, and I even wondered if they are worth giving out.

But then I thought a little more about their hidden value. Unless you keep a heated greenhouse full of pepper plants in your backyard, this is probably the last fresh pepper you will get to eat until next June or July. This one rag-tag little pepper is meant to be enjoyed and appreciated because it celebrates the end of the life of this year's pepper crop. 

Seasonal change offers me a constant reminder to be grateful for whatever crops we are able to harvest at any given moment in time. Sure, you can buy a pepper in town this winter that will have been shipped from another community in some distant climate. In fact, I just checked and you can buy green peppers on Amazon.com and get them shipped to your door. But I think I'll pass on this convenience and enjoy looking forward to next year's crop instead. 

On the Importance of Greens and Commas

Posted 9/18/2017 6:40pm by Stephanie Bartel.

“ A panda walks into a cafe. He orders a sandwich, eats it, then draws a gun and fires two shots in the air.

'Why?' asks the confused waiter, as the panda makes towards the exit. The panda produces a badly punctuated wildlife annual and tosses it over his shoulder.

'I'm a panda,' he says, at the door. 'Look it up.'

The waiter turns to the relevant entry and, sure enough, finds an explanation.

Panda. Large black-and-white bear-like mammal, native to China. Eats, shoots and leaves. ”   ― Lynne Truss, Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation

The above quotation is one of my favorite jokes, combining my love of vegetables with my love of punctuation (I'm not exactly in love with punctuation, but I do appreciate the art of writing and the grammatical rules that go with it).

This week's CSA box includes shoots (sunflower shoots) and leaves (spinach for everyone, chard for some). So we can all have fun eating like a panda this week.

Besides acting like a panda bear (how could that not be fun?), eating shoots and leaves can be a great way to get healthy. Shoots (sometimes called sprouts or microgreens) are among the most nutrient-dense green things we can eat. A little container goes a long way; shoots make great sandwich or salad toppings. This week's CSA sunflower shoots got a little bit too big (sudden hot weather made a big difference in their rate of growth);but we are enjoying eating them and wanted to share them with all our members too. We'll try growing them again at least once more this season and hope to improve on flavor and texture.

Spinach and chard are among my favorite greens for smoothies. They taste great mixed with frozen strawberries, peaches, banana and a little honey. Besides taste, the nourishment is unmatched. If you aren't used to eating fresh greens on a regular basis, give it a try. I hope you'll notice a burst of energy in your day. Eating such lively food really can make you feel more lively, too. While all the Old Plank Farm vegetables are grown with love and filled with life, I think greens are particularly successful at transferring these energizing feelings straight into our bodies as we eat them.

With that, I'll wrap things up by saying: Let's eat CSA members!

Oh wait, I meant to say: Let's eat, CSA members!

Commas save lives...and so do vegetables.

Mother Nature Doesn't Give Participation Trophies

Posted 8/31/2017 4:17pm by Stephanie Bartel.

There has been a lot of ups and downs this season from my perspective here at the farm. As I walked around the field last weekend, I was particularly dismayed by the failure of our cantaloupe crop. We planted approximately 4-5 melon plants per CSA member this season. If a plant even yielded 1 marketable fruit we would have enough to go around this time of year. When we planted the melons we gave each plant a hearty scoop of compost, and then we side-dressed them with compost partway through the season. They are among the least-weedy crops on our farm. Onions and potatoes are among the weediest this season, and yet they just keep on growing. So since we worked harder than ever for our summer favorite, I am very disappointed to not have any fruit set on our plants, except a few small misshapen ones that start rotting before fully ripening.

But here's the thing: mother nature doesn't give participation trophies. She doesn't give us melons just because we worked really hard and hoped to have a good harvest. Instead she gives us cold damp nights in August, the last nail in the coffin for these poor plants, which were suffering from excessive dampness and poor pollination already. Some things will do fine in this weather. Some things won't. In general summer fruits have been below average so far, and the coming cold isn't likely to help much. A peek at the fall carrots and sweet potatoes which will start to be ready soon raises my spirits slightly. This reality that we as farmers and CSA members have to face is beautiful and cruel all at the same time. Regardless of how one looks at it, the point is that it's real. 

I am hopeful that we can find a good, sustainable system for growing cantaloupes in the future, without relying on plastics and soluble fertilizers which are all too common on both organic and conventional farms. But I won't dwell on this anymore now. It's the last day of August and we still have many weeks left in our season, many other crops to tend, and many other things to do before the North wind settles down on us.

Meet the Farmily

Posted 8/17/2017 4:31pm by Stephanie Bartel.

The Old Plank Farm Family, or Farmily, is everyone who works each year at the farm in order to grow your weekly boxes of vegetables. This year’s Farmily is largely the same as last season’s, except for a couple new faces (and one new birth!). Here’s a brief overview of all of us:  

Stephanie Bartel. That’s me. Yep, I’m still here, nine years after starting Old Plank back in 2008. What more can I say?  

Angelica Immel. Back after four seasons, Angelica’s experience and intuitive understanding of our way of farming makes her help here indispensable! She is often the one in communication with you all through our weekly newsletter. She also coordinates the packing and delivery of your shares, and does our Kohler delivery route. But most of her time (and everyone else’s time, too) is spent in the field, tirelessly working at planting, weeding and harvesting. She’s the best bean picker and carrot weeder east of the Mississippi.  

The LaswellsSammi used to work here more often in past years. This year she was pregnant with her second child. Sammi helped off and on throughout the summer, as her pregnancy allowed. This past Monday, August 14th, she gave birth to a baby girl, Elowen. We are all excited for this addition to her family! Sammi’s husband Ryan works full-time at NOURISH in Sheboygan, but also helps out here occasionally. He usually leads tours during our open house/pizza nights. Their 4-yr old daughter Finnleigh has recently been helping with these tours and is, apparently, quite good at it!  

Scott and Laura Bailey. The Bailey’s are Sammi’s parents, and they are the farm’s most behind-the-scenes awesome workers. Scott fixes everything I break (which is a lot!), and Laura takes care of the animals and does all our yard upkeep, among other things. Before Scott and Laura came to the farm three years ago, we had 8’ tall burdock growing around the yard, among other problems. Not anymore, thanks to the both of them.  

Jake Menzynski is here as a first-year intern this season. He’s also Angelica’s boyfriend, and has been a great addition to the farm so far. He’s able and willing to do anything that needs to be done. Our farm dog, Max, especially loves his presence here. Jake’s been training Max to eat vegetables, which is always amusing to watch during our lunch breaks. Angelica and I are happy that he’ll be working with us at least through the end of the season.  

Joe Drewry spent his summer here as a first-year intern this season, too. He heads back to college in Michigan next week, to finish up his senior year of environmental studies. After a summer of hard work out in the field, he should have no trouble lifting a pen! He’ll be missed especially when we are picking tomatoes; he is the only one of us not afraid of the huge tomato spiders that we find in the field.  

Cassandra Marthaler is our neighbor who spends her summers working with us. When she started here three years ago Cassandra didn’t know what kale was. Now she’s trying it out in green smoothies. We all love having her as part of the crew, and she will be missed when she heads off to her senior year of high school in a couple of weeks. She wants to go on to be a large-animal vet. But we look forward to one more summer with her next season before starting college.  

Nichole Kloss. Nichole spent her second summer here with us this year. She only works occasionally, when we need an extra hand, because she is busy on her own homestead, establishing an orchard there, and—as of this fall—teaching first grade in Milwaukee.  

That’s our core Farmily. Extended Farmily includes several other volunteers and worker-shares who help make everything run more smoothly during our busiest times. These people include:  

Bing Drewry. We grow a few things over at Bing’s homestead just outside of town. He turned 90 years old this past May, but continues to do much of the tractor work in his gardens for us. His favorite crops to grow are sweet corn and peppers. We have our potato crop down by him this year too, and it is looking like it will be a good one.  

Dan and Chris Drewry. The Drewry’s often bag up various items like salad mix and carrots on Mondays for us. They also do a lot of the work in their family’s woods, helping to bring us Drewry Farms maple syrup in your second CSA box.  

Jessica Gallipeau. Jessica has been helping pack shares on Tuesday mornings for many years! She also delivers our Sheboygan CSA shares, which helps keep our delivery routes manageable.  

The Immels. Angelica’s two sisters, Emma and Natalie Immel, come Tuesday mornings to pack your shares during their summer vacation. They start 6th and 9th grade in a couple of weeks, and we will miss them! Angelica’s mom Christine writes your kitchen blog, “A People’s Pantry” each week. Angelica’s dad Jason isn’t around the farm as much as the rest of the Immels, but you may find him helping make pizzas during some of the upcoming open houses…! Angelica’s one-year old brother Abe just entertains us with cuteness when he is around the farm. Next year he’ll be weeding for us. Just kidding.  

It is nothing less than humbling for me to share this farm with all these wonderful people. Without each of them, our farm would be missing a piece of the puzzle that sustainable farming inevitably is. I hope that as you unpack, wash, prep, and eat your veggies each week, you remember that your support of Old Plank Farm is so appreciated by all of us.      

Balancing on the Bridge

Posted 8/10/2017 2:31pm by Stephanie Bartel.

Last week we dug leeks and scallions. It went great, except that you couldn’t hardly tell them apart. Our scallions are some of the biggest and most beautiful that we’ve ever grown, and they were a joy to harvest. Our leeks were some of the smallest that we’ve ever grown, and were kind of a pain to harvest. In the end, they were basically the same size. Which isn’t really a problem, except that I generally expect my leeks to achieve bigger size than they did this time around.  

Both leeks and scallions were planted in the same part of the field and were exposed to virtually the same weather, weed pressure, and care from us farmers. So why did these scallions have their best season ever and these leeks have their worst? I can speculate, but can’t say exactly why this is the case. What interests me more is to look at how this situation sheds light on the idea of a perfect growing season.  

On a diversified vegetable farm, there is no such thing as a perfect growing season. This is because various crops thrive under various conditions. Though it isn’t a perfect growing season, I would say this year has been generally very good weather. Working around frequent rains has been a challenge, but not needing to irrigate has been a blessing. However, our leeks and scallions remind me that there is no such thing as a “perfect” season on a farm. Even when one variable—like weather—works in our favor, there are many other variables that can affect the final harvest (deer pressure comes to mind in what would have otherwise been a great summer for lettuce!).  

Rather than strive for perfection—an unrealistic ideal that could easily lead to frustration and burn-out—we strive to simply make the best of the conditions that Old Plank Farm is faced with. My perspective here is not meant to sound passive towards my role as a farmer, nor carry any hint of resignation to uncontrollable forces. Instead, I see my role is like being on a bridge between the natural world that governs all things and the cultivated world that I help govern on this farm. I’m always on the bridge, trying to stay in tune with what nature is doing for the farm and in tune with what I can do for the farm. Staying on this bridge is a fundamental part of Old Plank Farm’s growing practices. Making the best of what nature offers is a key to maintaining a sustainable farm.  

So much of commercial agriculture is largely out-of-touch with nature these days. Modern scientific methods strive more and more toward perfection in the field…uniform, large and early crops at nearly any cost has been a trend on farms, both organic and conventional. That sort of perfection may be desirable to humans, but not always to nature.  

So no, we aren’t having a perfect season. My leeks can tell you that. But we are having a good season, and I am still on my bridge, working with nature as best as I can.

Deer With Binoculars, and Other Field Updates

Posted 7/27/2017 4:21pm by Stephanie Bartel.

Last Friday around 11:00 in the morning I was out in the field prepping a bed for planting rutabagas later that day. As I walked down along the bed, moving the drip tape out of the way, I saw that there was a section that still had some nice head lettuce in it. A few weeks earlier we had cut most of the head lettuce from the bed. Actually, we had cut what the deer hadn’t already eaten, which was most of it. Deer have been a regular problem this season. They take one big bite out of the center of a head of lettuce and then they move on to a new one. In this way we have seen hundreds of heads of lettuce be demolished just a night or two before we are ready to harvest for our CSA.  

Anyway, in the bed I was walking last Friday there was a hundred or so good heads that both the deer and I had missed. So I left them, prepped the bed around the heads, and planned to cut them this Monday for the week’s CSA boxes.  

Later Friday afternoon we went out to plant. It was about 4pm when we came to the bed where I had found the lettuce earlier in the day. To my dismay I saw that the deer had eaten every single head from the bed.  

Our main vegetable field is a thirty-acre garden with lettuce and other vegetables planted all throughout it. How did the deer find that one little spot where I had been earlier in the day? How did they decide to go eat from it before we got back out to plant? How come they didn’t take anything but those hundred heads? I imagined them watching me from the woods with binoculars, planning their lunch. Though I don’t appreciate that they eat the lettuce (more often they eat the clover and that is perfectly ok!), it is interesting to be reminded of the presence of other lives all around my farm. If not binoculars, there was some other connection the deer had with me that day, even though I wasn’t aware of it at the time.  

Other than about 30% of our lettuce being ravaged by deer, we are generally having a good start to our harvest season. Carrots are the highlight right now, and members will receive a hearty helping in next week’s box, and in some August boxes too.  

Some of our fruiting crops, like zucchini and cucumbers, are struggling from a lack of pollination (I think). We see honeybees in our field, and know that they are attracted to our gardens because of the clover we plant and because we don’t spray anything harmful to them. That said, something is amiss with our zucchini and cucumber fruits, which are not developing properly. We have a few right now, and hope for better fruits on the later plantings that will mature in a few weeks.  

Fall brassicas that were recently planted are off to a good start. This includes the rutabagas, cabbage, broccoli, Brussels sprouts and others that we look forward to in late September and October. Planting season is finally winding down. It’s been a long one, and a good one.

To Spray or Not to Spray

Posted 6/29/2017 8:11am by Stephanie Bartel.

To spray, or not to spray: that is the question.

No, actually that is not the question to be asking if you want to get to the bottom of how your crops are being raised.

The question "Do you spray?" often comes to me loaded with the assumption that every spray a farmer may use is a non-organic, petroleum-based chemical in the form of pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers. It's true that this is one type of spraying, generally used in conventional and/or commercial agriculture. This type of spraying is not a part of organic and sustainable agriculture and so, in this sense, at Old Plank Farm we do not spray our crops.

However, there are other types of water-soluble, organic materials that a farmer may want to spray for any number of reasons. For example, at Old Plank Farm we are using compost teas this season. These and other Biodynamic solutions are perhaps some of the most sustainable and organic ways to help maintain a farm field. If you're interested in compost teas, Biodynamics, or any of Rudolph Steiner's teachings, here's one place to start reading.

So a question that will get you a more enlightened answer about a farm's practices may be, "What do you spray on your fields?" If nothing else, most vegetable farmers are spraying water at some point during their season! These past two weeks we have not had to water anything--except in the greenhouses-- as the regular rains are taking care of that for us. And in between the rains we continue to plant more and more crops, which will provide us with our fall harvests of cabbages, broccoli, carrots, and much, much more.

The Choice Box

Posted 6/22/2017 9:00am by Stephanie Bartel.

I tend to agree with Calvin's dad in this great comic strip, that there are often too many choices for things like peanut butter at your average grocery store. On the other side of the spectrum, the average CSA box offers the consumer virtually no choice at all but to eat what the farmer's put in their box every week. So if grocery stores are paralyzing with too much choice and CSAs are stifling with too little choice, what am I to do about that?

Well, in the big picture, not a lot. But for our little CSA at Old Plank Farm, we have come up with a way to mitigate member preferences while still maintaining the pre-packed box distribution model. We trialed it a bit last year, and we're using it every week this year. It's called the Choice Box. We are packing variety boxes to send along to each pick-up site this year. Taking 1-3 items from these boxes is what completes a CSA members' share each week.

The basic CSA box is still packed here at the farm and distributed to each member. But the choice boxes are then filled with more unusual vegetables, or contentious vegetables (like kale and parsley), or the things we have a surplus of. While one member may never want parsley--crazy, right?!--, another member may want it every week--crazy, right?!. By strategically packing the choice boxes, we are doing our best to get every CSA member more variety of the things they like most.

CSA members, please give us feedback on the choice boxes. While we can't respond to a request for watermelon in next week's choice box (because melons aren't ripe this time of year), we can likely adjust the ratio of salad greens to parsley in the coming week's choice boxes.

Well, I'm off to have a parsley smoothie. It's a good thing I live at Old Plank Farm, because the CSA boxes never have enough parsley in them for my tastes!

Happy Salad-Eating Season, Old Plank Farm CSA members. I hope it's a good one for you.

Field Updates - Planting Season

Posted 6/15/2017 1:15pm by Stephanie Bartel.

My world seemed to green up overnight, as it always does. Our fields that were brown and bare just a month or so ago are now a shimmering sea of green clover interspersed with strips of vegetable seedlings. The rains this week came at a great time. We had a dry stretch of weather last week for transplanting and seeding more crops, and now the warm, wet weather will help most of these get off to a good start.

Crops we've planted over the last month include melons, kohlrabi, peppers, broccoli, lettuce, sweet potatoes, scallions, leeks, eggplant, tomatoes, beets, carrots, salad mix, cilantro, basil, watermelons, cucumbers, potatoes, Swiss chard, pumpkins, pie pumpkins, zucchini, yellow zucchini, yellow squash, winter squash, fennel, celery, okra, and probably a couple other things that aren't at the top of my head. But most of the time all my vegetables are at the top of my head, especially during planting season. It's been a busy one. And now we are looking forward to starting harvest season, too.

Of course, most of those crops that were just planted are not yet ready for harvest. But other crops from early spring plantings are ready to go out in our first box next week. We expect to have salad mix, spinach, snap peas, garlic scapes, basil, lettuce, and parsley to harvest. Angelica's weekly newsletter will offer CSA members more details about the first pick-up. If you are a CSA member and do not receive her weekly newsletter, please let us know. That is our main way of communicating delivery information to you in a timely manner!

A few of our spring crops are not looking very good. Turnips and the very first broccoli transplants come to mind. Temperature stress and flea beetles have taken their toll, but we will still try to get some harvest out of them. Both these crops we will plant again, several times, and they often do better for us later in the season.

As planting season overlaps harvest season, we are at our busiest right now. Thankfully, weed pressure is not as bad this year as in past years,which lightens our load just a bit. We are using clover out in the vegetable gardens to help suppress weeds. Clover is a low growing, nitrogen fixing, non-threatening crop to plant alongside vegetables, and is something of an unsung hero in a sustainable vegetable garden. With more than 20 acres in vegetable/clover gardens at Old Plank Farm this year, perhaps it's time I write a song about clover! 

Past Blogs 2/21/2017-5/16/2017

Tomato Plant Sale!

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!

Diving In

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 -

The Hills of Pike Lake

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?

Celery Brain

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!

 

Plant Willpower

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.

Perpetual Motion

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.

How the Grinch Stole March

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.

Load Testing

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.

On Being a Size-ist

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.

Pack Your Magnets, it's Time for MOSES

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.

Past Blogs 10/8/2016-2/14/2017

The Green Pepper and the Beautiful Eggplant

Posted 2/14/2017 12:30pm by Stephanie Bartel.

In a little greenhouse on a bright new day,

A young pepper plant awoke to the first signs of May.

For everywhere he looked Spring was in the air.

And the eggplant seedling was growing ever more fair.

She had velvet soft leaves and wore a light purple blush.

The sight of her first flower gave the pepper quite a rush.

He longed to be near her and so felt very let down,

To be trapped in a pot where he was rather root-bound.

But the very next day just after the morning mist,

He found he was being carried in the gardener's gloved fist.

He rode in her left hand and to his delight,

The eggplant maiden also came along in her right!

The gardener dug two fresh holes then planted 'em deep.

After the transplant shock the pepper fell right to sleep.

And when he awoke it was a new morning.

His roots started to grow and his first flower was forming.

But too his dismay his leaves were still small.

Try as he might he couldn't touch her at all.

When the west wind blew he would reach farther out.

But then she'd lean away so he began to pout.

The gardener saw the pepper appeared to be wilting,

So she brought him some compost then went back to her quilting.

Days passed into weeks 'til it was mid-summer's eve.

The night air had grown hot and the pepper no longer did grieve.

For the gardener's rich compost was too valuable to measure,

At last the pepper and eggplant were happily woven together.

Happy Valentine's day, friends and CSA members! --Stephanie

Hide and Seek

Posted 2/7/2017 11:32am by Stephanie Bartel.

The other day someone asked me if I'll be ready to get back to work once the weather turns nice. I'm asked this often, perhaps because it appears that I do a lot of nothing when our world is frozen. You certainly won't find me out in the field with a hoe in my hand! (If you do, get help! And I don't mean grab another hoe and join in.) But when the world is frozen, the energy deep in the ground is actually at it's most active, and deep in my mind I am too. The earth beneath us is full of life right now, more than it is in summer when the vegetation upon the earth is most active. Plants may be dormant, or even dead, but the earth is not. Much can be done that never meets the eye.

And so I often reply, when asked if I'll be getting back to work soon, by saying that I am actually about ready to be done working and get back to playing in the dirt, once the weather turns nice. Summer on the farm is physically demanding, there's no doubt about that. But it's also a lot of work time that feels like little more than playing in the dirt. 

That said, a lot needs to happen at Old Plank before we begin to plant. Our new building isn't finished yet, for one. Although the construction is coming together beautifully, it is moving at the pace of a pepper plant in March. Greenhouses are in need of repairs too, all our seed orders haven't arrived yet, the potting mix is still frozen, and I am still trying to find a brush mower to replace the one we totaled last season. Anyone have one for sale? CSA shares still need to be sold, supplies still need to be ordered, and there are still sixteen books on my winter reading list.

I am looking forward to playing in the dirt soon, but I am not quite ready for the games to begin. I trust I will be ready at the same time that the soil is ready for me. That is how it usually goes on the farm, though it doesn't always feel that way! The life of the earth may hide in winter below where the eye can see, but when I am looking I know where to find it. Likewise, I know the energy that brings the new season will soon be calling to me, ready or not here I come.

Just Eat It! Or Read 'The People's Pantry'

Posted 2/1/2017 11:26am by Stephanie Bartel.

It's been awhile since I've written much of anything worth reading here. Much like running or any other sport, a brief lapse in disciplined practice has left me feeling very out of shape. This dawned on me a couple of days ago, when I sat down at the computer to make a few updates to our website. The day before I had added a welcome note to the site's homepage. But for some reason when I opened up the page the next day the text showed up on my screen in a bizarre and completely incoherent symbolic font. It was just a simple error in my web-editing from the previous day. But when I saw my note there on the farm's homepage in nothing less than alien-speak, the first thought that walked through my head was oh, this must be how everyone else usually feels when they read what I write. I laughed to myself and let the thought walk on as I corrected the web-page error. When it left my head, it was replaced with the resolve to pay more attention again to my farm writing. A few days of practice and I hope to be able to lift a pen with ease again.

I suppose I bother with writing here because it is my main method of communication with you, CSA members and friends. It's this communication that ties me to your vegetables and ties you to your farmer. I really appreciate having this link, however small it may seem. Good communication is second to good vegetables in my recipe for having a good day! 

And it definitely goes both ways, as I always enjoy the notes that come along with your CSA payments in the mail. My thanks to everyone who sends cards, post-its, scraps of paper or notes written on the side of the printed sign-up emails along with their checks. Even though Angelica mainly processes payments now, she shares these notes with me too. Wishing the farm well goes a long way. I hope that wishing you well, and helping to feed you well, will go a long way for you, too. 

And while I take this communication very seriously, I will also probably continue to write piles of nonsense from time to time, because that's just in my nature. And if you don't think you've read nonsense from me just yet, then ask to see my short story about the man in the freezer. Sometimes a little nonsense helps to make sense out of life, anyway.

Meanwhile, I'm super excited to introduce a new and far more practical blog to you. Angelica's mother, Christine Immel, is adding a blog of her own, "The People's Pantry," to serve Old Plank Farm CSA members this coming season. "The People's Pantry" will be communicating ideas related to using the vegetables that are given out in the Old Plank CSA shares each week. Her blog will be included in our weekly e-newsletter to CSA members, not here on the public website. However, I've added her introduction posting below this, so you can get to know her a bit if you're interested. 

Christine's practical experience and training in menu planning and veggie preservation makes her a great fit to help any CSA member who struggles with using up their veggies. This should be a fun and helpful addition to the weekly shares for both new and returning members. I know I'll like to read it! Because most often you will find that I have the same advice for how to use nearly every vegetable that I am asked about. That advice I usually give? Just eat it!

 

Preview Christine Immel's new Old Plank Farm blog, "A People's Pantry"

Top 10 Signs it's Winter at the Farm

Posted 1/24/2017 10:37am by Stephanie Bartel.

10. I can't remember what the color green looks like.

9. I swear I'll never complain again about being too hot. In fact, I'm fairly certain I never again will be too hot.

8. Anytime the sun comes out I feel like it's nice enough to start planting tomatoes.

7. Watching a fire burn in the wood stove is the most interesting thing to happen all day.

6. I spend too much time thinking about things and not enough time doing things. I start to think I'm going crazy, so I get out and do something. Playing ice hockey when the driveway froze over was something to do. I felt better afterward but then everyone else thinks I'm crazy.

5. Even after the seed orders are done I find myself drooling over pictures in the seed catalogs every evening.

4. There's no running water again, but I swear that next year things will be easier in winter. Tenth time's the charm, right?

3. I crave zucchini and salad and parsley and everything I got tired of eating last summer.

2. Every CSA member sign-up reminds me to keep doing what I'm doing, including the dreary jobs like taxes and planting spreadsheets. Growing vegetables for you all is what I'm here for, and I intend to spend all my time making meticulous plans for a great season ahead.

1. I get excited when I see a bug in the house because it reminds me of life out in the fields!

Word of the Day: "January Idea"

Posted 1/17/2017 10:49am by Stephanie Bartel.

January Idea |noun| Definition: A plan which seems brilliant in one's own mind but in reality is completely crazy to execute. | Example of January idea used in a sentence: Bringing a live ox into your living room is a January idea for how to heat your home.

As a veggie farmer who is one step away from hibernating, I find myself full of January ideas right now, stemming from a longing to be out in the fields and more active than my work this time of year allows.

A few evenings ago I sat watching the fire in the wood stove, my mind burning with ideas for the new season. My belly was full of hot chocolate and Angelica's home grown popcorn. I may not be physically active right now, but my mind continues to run marathons every day. There are so many things I want to make happen at Old Plank Farm, but each new idea that comes to mind this time of year needs to be carefully scrutinized. For example, starting a running club during planting season is completely crazy. Building a zero-gravity greenhouse is completely crazy. Using an ox to heat my mobile home...I still think that one could work...It is in this way that January comes and goes for me.

It's not that all ideas had in January are crazy. If that were the case it would make the most sense to simply pack up and head south to sit on a beach all month. Say, there's a great idea! Oh wait, it's January. I'm more of a wood stove bum than a beach bum anyway.

No, not all ideas had in January are crazy. But they are all tainted by rose-colored glasses my mind uses when looking forward to summer this time of year. While watching the fire the other night I had an idea to host a festival at Old Plank Farm to celebrate vegetables. I was thinking of a day in August that begins with a 5k race and continues with farm activities, tours, and opportunities to try our vegetables and our veggie pizzas, and ends with an outdoor movie on our lawn. It sounds like a lovely day. But it's January, and all summer days sound lovely right now.

Farmer or not, you have undoubtedly had your own January ideas now and again. They certainly keep life interesting! As for me, I'm mostly just working on field plans now and keeping the fire going. And choosing a 5k route.

Eat More Vegetables

Posted 1/5/2017 9:20am by Stephanie Bartel.

Happy New Year from Old Plank Farm!

My new year's resolution this time around is to eat more vegetables. Oh wait, my resolution is to grow more vegetables...but I hope that one of your resolutions is to eat them. And the best way to get excited about eating more vegetables is to join Old Plank Farm.

After a couple of months away from the farm fields, and mostly away from the computer too, I am now thrilled to be kicking off the new year with our 2017 CSA plans. Sign-up season is underway and 25% of our shares are already sold. You can sign up today at our website.

I am very grateful to everyone who plans to be a part of the farm in 2017. We have you in mind as we plan for the coming season. We'll be growing more vegetables than ever and hope that you'll join us in eating them.

Best wishes for a fantastic 2017!

CSA "It's like Christmas every week!"

Posted 11/24/2016 8:16am by Stephanie Bartel.

I spent much of last Friday putting finishing touches on Frosty the Snowman. Despite the warm sunny week we'd been having, I was in a holiday mood as I built a life-size wooden model of Frosty. Christmas music was playing while I worked at gluing pieces of charcoal on him to make his eyes and smile. But all the while the sun was shining and people were outside in shorts and t-shirts that day.

I built our Frosty out of old planks, something I always enjoy doing! The planks were scrap wood from the old mink shed we tore down last fall. It wasn't usable for a new building, but it certainly worked well to build Frosty.

He is sporting an Old Plank Farm t-shirt and carrying a sign that says "eat more vegetables." His nose makes for a tasty snack. I built Frosty so that he can be part of our float in Plymouth's Annual Christmas Parade tomorrow. The Old Plank Farmers are looking forward to being part of the event, and hope you'll come out for it! The parade starts at 7pm on Friday in downtown Plymouth.

When I finished working on Frosty last Friday afternoon it was near 70 degrees outside. Much of November had been this way. I left him in the shop that afternoon, the glue drying on his eyes and smile. I made sure to latch the shop door, since the wind was picking up quite a bit.

The next morning I awoke to a blanket of snow covering the farm. Wind chills were in the teens and the ground had frozen, as did one of our water hydrants. Wind gusts took my breath away as I went around feeding the pigs and chickens. After chores, I went into the shop, got a fire going in the wood stove, and sat next to it to warm up. I listened to the wind and watched through the cracks in the door as more snow came down. The farm was silent except for the wind blowing outside and the fire crackling in the stove. I couldn't help but notice how happy Frosty seemed to be, gleaming at me from across the shop. While I enjoy cold and snow a lot, I can't say I was ready for it yet. Frosty, on the other hand, looked especially pleased with the sudden change in seasons. Perhaps I just did a really good job gluing the charcoal to his face. 

Paying it Forward

Posted 11/14/2016 12:04pm by Stephanie Bartel.

This past week our community suffered the loss of Jerry Berg, who was killed in a car accident late Tuesday afternoon. Jerry was one of the original organic farmers in this area, long before there was much recognition for organics at all. He raised cows on his farm just outside of Cascade for nearly all of his life. Into his eighties he continued to graze cows on his farm and, equally important, to help other farmers all around the area.

I am among the young farmers who were grateful to know Jerry. He's helped my farm in many ways over the years. Favors like borrowing a tractor and other equipment go a long way on a fledgling farm like mine. There are signs of Jerry around my farm even now. He gave us the stainless steel bulk tanks that we use for washing vegetables, the manure spreader that we've hauled countless tons of compost with, and the old hay wagon we converted into a mobile coop for pasturing chickens. Two years ago, when I was just beginning plans for what is now the root cellar being constructed here, Jerry was the first to offer me a loan to help finance it. 

I can't say that I know much else about him, since our interactions were usually brief and always related to my farm. All I know is that I admired him for his dedication to sustainable farming and was truly honored when he would stop in to see how things were going at my farm.The start-up years at Old Plank Farm were endlessly challenging. Sometimes the fine line between success and failure lies in the strength of the support coming from the community. Jerry was one of the old-timers in this community who not only accepted me and my farm but also encouraged me to keep at it, and that has made all the difference. He was a role model who won't be forgotten.

Jerry didn't ever want much, if anything at all, in return for the help he gave. Perhaps long ago there were old-timers who helped him get his farm on it's feet, and, during the years I knew him, he had become the old-timer who was simply paying it forward. I hope, decades from now, I can be the same.

Four Seasons in a Day

Posted 10/15/2016 11:38am by Stephanie Bartel.

Late last week we set about planting some winter veggies in one of our hoop houses. It was a beautiful Fall day, full of sunshine. Of course, a sunny day means a summer day while working under the plastic in the hoop house. It was a balmy 80 degrees inside and I was enjoying the feeling of summer again. How quickly the mind seems to forget the difficulties of toiling away in the heat; just one or two cold mornings makes me relish a chance to be hot and sweaty again.

While the heat made me feel like it was summer, I realized my body kept thinking it was Spring, the season for planting. Crawling around in the freshly tilled earth with small transplants in my hands is something I associate with Spring, not Fall. I kept marveling at the notion that these young plants are going to grow and mature throughout the Fall and Winter instead. I'm very excited to be trying my hand at winter growing for the first time this season. If things go well, we may have some winter veggies for sale this year, like carrots, leeks, and fresh salad greens.

And to disorient my seasonal compass even further that afternoon, Angelica had her i-pod on while we were planting. Her music of choice? Christmas songs! 

Leak Week

Posted 10/8/2016 5:29pm by Stephanie Bartel.

Ah, there's a leek in the well!

Alas, there is also a leak in our well.  A crack in the well casing, five feet below ground. We found it when we were digging to put the new water line for the new building. A somewhat serious problem, to be sure. But it hasn't set construction of the new building back at all, and it will be fixed soon! That's not the only leek from this past week, though. Sometime I will write the story of this past week, and I will call it Leak Week at Old Plank Farm. Now is not that time. It's Saturday night, and I am late for game night with my fellow farming friends!

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!

August

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 cream..so 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!

Past Blogs 3/1/2016-5/11/2016

I'm Just a Farmer!

Posted 5/11/2016 4:42pm by Stephanie Bartel.

This is my all-time favorite Calvin and Hobbes strip.

I am reminded of it often when I sit down to write. Sometimes I just want to throw up my hands and announce that I am just a farmer, I have nothing else to say! This is one of those times.

The Perfect Bed

Posted 5/4/2016 6:39pm by Stephanie Bartel.

I take great pride in making beds. I don't mean the kind in our homes that we sleep in, I mean the kind out in the field where we plant our vegetables. But making the perfect bed in our fields is no easy task. One obstacle we face is the never-ending supply of rocks that get in the way of our bed-maker. Even if the tractor operator—myself or Angelica—is an expert at driving straight, the beds can turn out a bit wobbly because the bed-maker ends up bouncing around rocks hidden just below the surface.

Even more difficult than getting a straight bed is getting a perfectly clean bed. This is because we gave up rototilling last season. Many vegetable farmers have a love-hate relationship with the rototiller. We love it because it pulverizes the soil, demolishing clods and creating a fine-textured seed bed that is weed-free and easy to plant. We hate it because it destroys soil microbiology, ultimately reducing soil fertility. It also creates a hard-pan below the surface and brings weed seeds to the surface. With long-term soil health a high priority at Old Plank Farm, I felt the consequences outweighed the benefits of rototilling. It seemed wise to give up the practice while the farm was still young and our systems were not yet totally dependent on the routine that rototilling provides.

So how can we make a perfect bed without rototilling? I've tried adjusting and readjusting different settings on the bed-maker about a hundred and fifty times, and I've determined that it's rare to be able to make a perfect bed if we haven't first rototilled. We can make pretty nice beds if we plan ahead, adjust the bed-maker as needed, and do a couple of passes with it. Yes, our beds are often pretty nice, but rarely perfect like they can be after a pass with the rototiller.

Yesterday I was very frustrated by the imperfect beds that we made. But rather than succumb to rototilling, I instead found myself revisiting what “perfect” even means. It's hard to visualize perfection from another perspective besides my own. A rototilled bed looks perfect because it is clean and smooth and easy to work with. But that is not always what is most important to our plants. The soil microbiology just below the surface of the imperfect bed top is what matters more to the plants. By disturbing this unseen soil life as little as possible, we're creating an environment for long term, optimum vegetable growth. We're always balancing what is best for the natural habits of our plants with what is best for our own personal gain.

In an era of GPS-driven tractors and rototillers, it's sometimes hard to be proud of a wobbly, rocky, somewhat clumpy seed bed. But trying to see a perfect world from a plant's perspective helps keep me going. 

The Decision Quota

Posted 4/27/2016 3:39pm by Stephanie Bartel.

I once read that the human mind has a finite capacity for making decisions. I'm sure there could be all kinds of debate around what this implies. In fact, it's just the sort of debate I'm sure I would enjoy! Perhaps on a less busy day, though. 

The point is that a person will eventually reach a point where it is not possible to make one more decision. I'm not talking about making good decisions versus bad decisions, or what/who influences decisions, or difficult versus trivial decisions. I simply mean that there comes a point where if a person has reached their decision quota, and another decision of any kind is put before them, it will be impossible to respond. 

As a CSA farmer, I am often hovering around the upper limit of my decision quota. The past couple of weeks have been especially trying. Spring usually is. Our 35 vegetables and 175 different seed varieties each have their own unique needs. They have different planting dates, different water needs, different spacing needs in the greenhouse or field, and on and on. Sometimes I feel like if I am asked to decide whether the spring broccoli should be 18 inches apart or 24 inches apart my head might explode! On the other hand, when it comes to deciding whether or not I should take on a 20-year loan to have a new vegetable packing and storage facility built, I know without a doubt that my decision is yes. I am in the final stages of planning for and obtaining a loan to build our "modern root cellar." It took over a year to design the building and about 15,000 decisions came with it. It is a big commitment but, if approved, it will add big potential to what we can do at Old Plank Farm.

Sometimes the big decisions are the clear ones and the small decisions are paralyzing. Why is that? I don't know. But I once read that people "generally don't seem to know where they are going, or why. If they did, what powerhouses they would be!" Perhaps that is part of the answer.

A Moveable Feast

Posted 4/13/2016 4:37pm by Stephanie Bartel.

This week we've been working on building a new high tunnel. It will be home to our early pepper crop this spring. I like this new hoop house for two reasons. The first reason is because I bought it from Dan, my friend and mechanic who moved away to Iowa last fall. Dan has been a big help to Old Plank Farm since its beginning. Not only would he fix my tractors and other equipment, but he would also talk me through solving some of the problems myself. Helping empower me to be my own mechanic was a priceless contribution Dan made to my farm. He was friend and mechanic to several other organic farms in our area, and I'm sure he is missed by others besides me. Hopefully life in Iowa is treating him well.

I hadn't planned to build another greenhouse this year. Then, just a few days before Dan moved away from his own farm he asked if I might know anyone who would buy his hoop house, since he couldn't take it with. I immediately said that I would buy it! For some projects I spend countless hours making detailed plans, only to find that in the end nothing goes as planned. Other times I don't have a plan at all, yet things work out in perfect timing. And once in a great while I make a plan and everything goes exactly how I imagined it would go...actually I don't think that's ever happened! Neither way is inherently right or wrong. Maybe Old Plank Farm's 2016 plans aren't hinged on a need for peppers under plastic. But if we have a chilly spring, it sure will be a nice addition to our lot of greenhouses. And no matter what happens, I simply enjoy putting Dan's high tunnel to good use.

The second reason I like this high tunnel is because Dan built skids for it, which means we can move it around. This is our first structure that is portable, and I'm looking forward to trying it out. One purpose of a greenhouse on skids is to get two growing seasons out of just one greenhouse. For example, we want to plant peppers in the new high tunnel in early May. We'll do that, and we'll be harvesting from that planting all the way into late October, if not November. But by November it is too late to plant anything new in that same spot. However, in a different spot in September we can plant something like carrots. They will grow just fine without a high tunnel covering...until around November. At that time, we'll bring the high tunnel on skids right over the young carrot planting. There, under the protection of the tunnel, the carrots can continue to mature well into our Wisconsin winter. This is one of many tools and techniques that will help us extend our vegetable harvest season. It is nothing less than a moveable feast.

How to Build a Greenhouse Bench

Posted 4/5/2016 9:10pm by Stephanie Bartel.

Over the years, I've struggled to keep my seedlings warm in March and April. We continue to have freezing nights well past the time that we need to be starting tomatoes, peppers, and many other seedlings that need balmy growing conditions. Like tonight, for example, it's hard to believe that just two layers of plastic are what separate my seedlings from the cold, snowy weather. But it's not the two layers of plastic over the plants that keep them warm. Rather, hot water circulating through the benches where they sit is the key to their comfort, health, and growth.

As I've mentioned before, we recently built a radiant heat system similar to one that you might see installed in a bathroom floor. The main difference is that instead of built into a floor in a home, we built our system into benches in a greenhouse.

Our new benches have been running for three weeks now, and I'm fairly pleased with how the project turned out. Our old system transferred heat through the air, which was far too wasteful. The new set-up allows for heat transfer in the most efficient way possible, from circulating hot water through concrete and into the roots of our plants. We ended up building six benches, each 6'x10', which hold a total of nearly 200 flats of seedlings. The space is quickly filling up!

The system runs off of a 40-gallon water heater. From that I set up a closed loop of PEX tubing that circulates throughout concrete bench tops. The closed loop means warm water is constantly returning to the water heater, so the temperature is fairly easy to maintain, even on below-freezing nights.

So far, this year's seedlings look healthier than ever. The environment is stable and low stress for them, and for me too. Compared to other greenhouse heaters, the material cost was fairly low. However, it took a lot of work to set up. And some stress, too! I learned a thing or two about thermal dynamics, soldering, pressurizing a closed-loop (don't forget to bleed the air from the line!), and how to use a cement mixer. As a vegetable farmer, I often find that I have to learn new, random skills to complete projects related to our work with growing vegetables. How do I build a greenhouse bench? I wondered earlier this year. Right about the time that I finish doing it is when I feel like I have it figured out. So it goes, on to something entirely different. It's not likely I'll be setting up many more radiant heat greenhouse benches in the future...but if you happen to have a seeding greenhouse that needs a new heater, come check out our system, because I'm happy to share it with you. 

 

 

My Farm is a Third Grader

Posted 3/29/2016 11:56am by Stephanie Bartel.

One way to look at a farm is to consider it as a living organism, complete in and of itself, but also connected to its surrounding environment and the world that its a part of. While a human being is a different type of living organism than a farm, I often see some similarities between the two. And even though Old Plank Farm wasn't exactly born in 2009, it is my brain child and we are celebrating it's eighth birthday this season.

Years one through seven, much like a human child, were the formative years on the farm. These early years were when the most growth took place within the shortest time period. Old Plank Farm went from 20 CSA members in 2009 to over 200 CSA members in 2015. By this measure, the farm's productivity grew to ten times its starting size in just seven years. Given the farm's physical limitations (25 acres of land), it's highly unlikely we'll grow to ten times our current size ever again.

Instead, as we enter year eight, the farm is ripe with potential for other kinds of development. Diversification on the farm is key to our next phase of growth. For instance, instead of making our CSA bigger, we are working on growing and delivering produce over a longer period of time. Starting a Winter CSA is a goal for this coming season. Plans are underway for a new packing and storage facility which would allow us to do this.

As the primary caretaker of the farm, I am relieved that Old Plank Farm is not as needy as it once was. While babies are cute, a farm in diapers doesn't exactly draw in a crowd. During year one, the farm relied solely on me to keep it alive. Meeting basic needs was a struggle. To be honest, that was totally exhausting. Over the years I've been able to give responsibilities to other people, and that has helped the farm grow stronger and more resilient. And we are constantly developing systems so that the farm can better take care of itself.

But once in awhile, I feel a little sad when I can see that the farm no longer needs me like it used to. Between Angelica and Sammi and a handful of other people, day to day work runs smoothly without much direction from me. My little third-grader is growing up so fast! I actually have free time these days, now that all my energy isn't put into non-stop care of my farm. I think I'll use my spare time to learn guitar.

Old Plank Farm's eighth birthday is definitely cause for cheer. It marks the beginning of a new phase. The farm is still quite young and it does depend on me for many things. But it is getting stronger and more independent every year. And, much like most third-graders you may know, it is bursting with life and energy and a desire to meet new challenges all the time. Now is a great time to be a part of the life of Old Plank Farm.

Drewry Farms Maple Syrup Open House

Posted 3/22/2016 1:59pm by Stephanie Bartel.

Sap season is in full force! The Drewry's have been processing sap and making maple syrup for nearly a month now, and the season is still going strong. This Saturday, 11am-3pm is their annual Open House. Come to Drewry Farms on Winooski Rd in Plymouth to tour their maple syrup woods and processing facilities.

Our CSA members receive a bottle of Drewry Farms Maple Syrup in one of the first CSA boxes in June. But if one bottle isn't enough, or if you can't wait until June, you can buy--and sample--the Drewry's maple syrup at the Open House this weekend.

I help in the Drewry woods in the winter, working on sap line repairs and tree tapping for the nearly 6000 taps that make up the  Drewry's sugar bush. This time of year Old Plank Farm keeps me pretty busy, but I still plan to take time on Saturday to be up in the woods. I hope to see you there.

Spring Rocks!

Posted 3/15/2016 2:56pm by Stephanie Bartel.

As we head into the new season, the fields at Old Plank Farm abound with our spring specialty crop...rocks!

The recent snow melt revealed the work that lies before us. Despite picking rocks every year at Old Plank, each winter more are heaved to the surface of our fields. We'll pick many, many tons throughout the coming months, but still more will surface as time goes on. It's important to haul away rocks that could damage our equipment. I used to think that rock picking was tedious and tiring. I saw it as a battle; we had to fight the rocks in order to save our equipment from destruction. Rocks were an enemy. They got in the way of my real work, growing real crops.

In the spring of my first season at Old Plank, I asked a neighboring farmer if he would plow my field, since I didn't own a plow yet. His reply was a firm no. He politely told me that he knew what my land was like, and it was like plowing a gravel pit. He didn't want to damage his equipment. That was my first battle with the rocks. I envied farms that didn't have to deal with the rocks.

But over the years we started finding several creative uses for our rocks. My favorite project was building the outdoor pizza oven. The herb spirals Angelica built a couple years ago was a great use for some, too. Sammi has hauled many carloads to her homestead in Sheboygan where she's used them for landscaping. Now we're working on a fence line between our yard and the neighbor's yard. When it's done, I think it will be really beautiful.

The more projects we have involving rocks, the more I've started enjoying the harvest. When I walked around the farm a couple days ago and took this picture, I was surprised to find that I was actually excited about the prospect of our rock harvest this year. The work is the same, but the purpose for it has changed. There is no enemy anymore. Instead rocks have become a useful part of our farm. Instead of a battle, we use rock picking as a way to get warmed up on chilly spring mornings. We use rock picking as a training workout for Farm Olympics (a theoretical event, for now, but nonetheless fun to think about). And we use the rock harvest to beautify the farm. 

Finding purpose in whatever work we are doing is so critical to how we perceive it's value. Our whole outlook can change when the value of something has changed. And our outlook on our work ultimately leads to the success or failure in whatever it is that we're working on. On the farm setting, I've found over and over again that having the mindset of a battle is a recipe for failure. When we stop fighting, the farm starts to offer endless opportunity for meaningful, enjoyable work. And at Old Plank Farm, that includes endless opportunity for rock picking.

 

In Like a Lion, Out Like a Lamb

Posted 3/10/2016 10:19am by Stephanie Bartel.

I've heard March weather referred to as "in like a lion, out like a lamb." I think that means we start the month with harsh winter conditions and end the month with mild spring conditions. But the reality in Wisconsin is more like in like a lion, then comes a lamb, then the lion eats the lamb and then there's some zebra days before the lion eats those too and we end the month like a lion again!

People often ask me how I deal with the extreme weather and unpredictable patterns of recent years and how it affects my farm. I don't always like the extreme weather. And I may suffer some small disasters as a result of unpredictable patterns and the difficulty that comes with not being able to plan for so much uncertainty. But I am young enough that I can't actually remember what some of the old-timers tell me about weather patterns thirty or forty or sixty years ago, when weather was supposedly somewhat more patterned.

All I've known, from my farmer perspective, is the recent decade of unpredictable seasons, erratic rains, and extreme temperatures. So I don't find it especially difficult to deal with because I simply find it normal. Sometimes I have to spontaneously rearrange my week's work to accomodate 75 degree days in March. Wasn't this past Tuesday great? The farmer in me is concerned when we have extraordinarily beautiful days in March like we've been having this week, because it's somewhat reminicent of the start of 2012, the year of the drought. But the human being in me LOVES days like last Tuesday and Wednesday, and I relished getting to spend nearly every waking hour working outside.

Either way I look at it, I don't find farming harder than in the past, because I wasn't around in the past to compare it. I don't know if that's fortunate or not, it just is what it is. I have been around long enough to understand that I had better just play the weather-cards I'm dealt and make the best of them. This week at Old Plank Farm we made the best of the warm days by finishing up our new heating system in the seedling greenhouse. It's always less stressful to troubleshoot a new system during a week you don't actually need to use it. We'll be ready when the lion eats the lamb again.

Three Thousand People Dressed in Plaid

Posted 3/1/2016 2:13pm by Stephanie Bartel.

The annual Midwest Organic Farming Conference was held this past weekend in LaCrosse. More than 3600 people attended, including me and Angelica. And yes, we packed our plaid, as did a tremendous number of other attendees! It was a three-day weekend packed with classes, workshops, and lunchtime and late-night discussions all about food and farming. I've attended the event for the past five years, and I found this year's to be the most valuable experience for me so far. It was also incredibly exhausting! A day in my life at Old Plank Farm is a picnic in comparison to the information overload, constant social activities, and short nights of sleep with 8 other farmer friends crammed into a tiny rental house. Fun, yes. Intellectually stimulating, yes. Happy to be home and getting ready to seed onions, YES.

The one workshop that will stick with me for a long time was about Biological Management of Pests and Disease, presented by Dan Kittredge. It was truly excellent. Even in the organic farming world there are vast differences in farm management practices. Finding someone who shares my perspective on organic farming can be challenging, but I was thrilled to stumble upon Kittredge's workshop. I had not previously heard of him, but after just a few minutes I could tell his talk was going to be a good one.

Not all organic farmers hold the same beliefs about soil health, plant health, or human health. There is some evidence that organic farming as defined by the USDA is perhaps not as great for the environment or ourselves as we'd like it to be. I find that some of USDA organic farming practices are surprisingly similar to those of a typical conventional farm. For instance, one thing in common between conventional farming and USDA organic farming is the use of soluble fertilizers to increase yields. Another similarity is the use of pesticides (conventional) and biopesticides (USDA organic) to prevent pests from damaging crops.

But what about a third option? Temporary inputs like soluble fertilizers and biopesticides act like a band-aid for a problem, and they are needed repeatedly and indefinitely. Why not work to build a farm system that has the resilience needed to ward off pests and diseases so that band-aids don't need to be administered? In truly healthy, biologically active soils, it's been shown that crops and livestock grazing those soils are not susceptible to pests and diseases.

At Old Plank Farm, we focus on soil health as a means to achieve plant health and vitality. I've studied soil health and biological farming extensively over the years. To hear someone speak about these principles in the context of a productive, profitable vegetable farm was really exciting! Dan Kittredge did just that. There were other farmers at the conference who also helped shed light on tools and techniques for developing biologically balanced farms, including Gabe Brown and Greg Reynolds. But I found Kittredge's practical experience, excellent communication skills, and charismatic energy to be the most inspiring. Along with managing a diversified farm (in Massachusetts), he founded the Bionutrient Food Association. I will definitely be continuing my education through the resources this organization has to offer.

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 machinery...cool, 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.

"Eating Vegetables is Cool"

Posted 1/26/2016 10:54am by Stephanie Bartel.

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!

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