Graceful Farming

The new year is off to a good start at Old Plank Farm. Better than ever, in a lot of ways. The winter checklists are getting done, and getting done ahead of schedule. Even taxes. That’s never happened before. Pipes haven’t frozen in the kitchen. Pipes have never not frozen here. I’m not suggesting the season will be nothing but smooth sailing. In fact, I know it won’t be. That knowledge is another sign of a good start here.

Some years it seems like farming is nothing more than one fight after another. Farmers fight the weeds, and the bugs, and the big box stores taking over “organic” food sales. We fight the rain, we fight the dry spells, we fight to pay the bills on time. And on and on. Fighting is no good for us or for our farms. The harder we fight, the harder the opponent fights back.

But giving in is not an option, either. We can’t let the weeds take over, or the bugs, or the big box stores. We can’t let the dry spells kill our crops and we can’t let the rain drown our crops. So what other options are there?

Well, we can dance. It takes flexibility, timing, discipline, and passion to choose to dance rather than fight. For instance, if farmers are in tune with the constantly changing needs of their soils and plants, they can grow healthier crops and prevent weeds and pests from becoming aggressive towards them. It takes a lot of practice to learn these moves, but in the long run it’s better than grabbing the spray gun and filling it with pesticides (organic ones or not) to drive away the enemies. When we fight using the spray guns, the bugs come back stronger. When we listen to the underlying needs of the farm and move with rather than against it, the farm gains strength through resiliency.

Good farming practices are like a dance with nature and with everything we are connected to in our communities. It takes a graceful farmer in a lively environment, rather than a soldier in a war-torn one, to grow food worth eating. I can’t claim to be an especially graceful person, but every year I am a more and more graceful farmer. And I believe the food we grow at Old Plank Farm is very much worth eating. I hope you’ll join us in the new year, in a new season of lively eating and healthy living.

“Beetie's Night Before Christmas”

by Stephanie Bartel

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T'was the night before Christmas, all through the greenhouse,

Just one creature was stirring, it was a fat pesky mouse.

A mouse trap was set by the veggies with care,

In hopes that the pest wouldn't eat all that's there.


The farmers were nestled all snug in their beds,

While visions of cabbages danced in their heads.

And Beetie in the root cellar in his night cap,

Had just settled down for a long winter's nap.


When by the greenhouse there arose such a clatter,

Beetie rushed outside to see what was the matter.

Through the deep snow he did leap and then dash,

When he got to the greenhouse he threw up the sash.


The moon through the plastic gave off an odd glow

To the carrots and salad that all lay below.

Beetie looked at the roof and what should appear

But a big heavy sleigh and eight grass-fed reindeer.


The little old driver was not very quick,

Reindeer's hooves poking holes had made Beetie sick,

More rapid than radishes Beetie called him by name,

And down from the roof they quickly all came.



"Now Dasher, now Dancer, now Beetie, now Vixen!

These holes in the greenhouse, oh how can we fix 'em?"

"Get the poly-patch tape on the garden shed wall,

Now dash away! Dash away! Dash away all!"



St. Nick looked for the tape by moonlight from the sky,

When at last it was found a half hour'd gone by.

The carrots were getting cold, now that much he knew,

Farmers should organize their things, he realized too.


He gave the tape to Beetie, who jumped to the roof,

St. Nick watched from below, as if he needed some proof.

The legend of this beet had been told all around,

But seeing him there raised his faith by a bound.



A beet who was brave from his head to his foot,

Who protected Old Plank veggies from smog and from soot.

A bundle of compost he'd fling on his back,

And if a veggie cried out he'd open his pack.


His eyes, they were beady! His smile how merry!

He was healthier than carrots or even a cherry!

Beetie's fresh greens were all bunched in a bow,

Those greens are the healthiest part, don't you know.


Our hero held the poly patch tape in his teeth,

The holes were soon fixed while Santa watched from beneath.

When Beetie was done he slid down on his belly,

The elf caught him before he could splat into jelly!


He was chubby and plump, a right jolly young beet,

St. Nick laughed when he held him from head to his feet!

A wink of Beetie's eye and a twist of his head,

Let St. Nicholas know there's still a task before bed.


Inside the greenhouse, Beetie went straight to work,

Harvesting some carrots; then he turned with a jerk.

They're for the good little children St. Nicholas knows,

He loads his pack heavy then outside he goes!



He sprang to his sleigh, the deer stopped eating thistle.

And away they all flew when he let out a whistle.

But he heard Beetie exclaim, 'ere he drove out of sight,

"Happy Christmas to all, and eat your veggies this night!"


Happy Holidays from all of us at Old Plank Farm

The Health Quest

What we eat passes it's life to us. The more alive it is, the easier it can do this. There is nothing morbid, or scientific, about this. It is intuitive to me that seeking food that once had (or still has) it's own health and vitality in life is the best guarantee for carrying on (or rebuilding) our own health and vitality. It's certainly a better guarantee than the USDA Organic label stamped on all sorts of processed, long-dead foods these days.

I'm not suggesting, in our quest for health, that it's a bad idea to seek out organic food. But the term organic that's used today has lost a lot of it's value, as has the food under it's label, now that it's been so heavily commercialized. There are all kinds of USDA Organic foods that I wouldn't touch with a 39-1/2 foot pole, if my goal was to eat something organic. I'm not going to contest the USDA--at least not right this minute--but it's worth thinking about. Cornucopia is an Institute here in Wisconsin that does a fabulous job pointing out flaws in commercial organics, especially in regards to mock organics in livestock production. At best, commercially available organic brands tend to follow the letter of the organic law, but not the spirit.

So if we want organic food full of spirit, the next place we may look is at local food. In our quest for health, local food often holds as much or more organic value than USDA Organics on the grocery shelves, even if it doesn't have the USDA label. All you need to do is talk to a local producer to learn if they are using organic methods. Old Plank Farm is among the local farms that easily meets USDA standards, but does not carry the organic certification the government offers.

But here again, local food can miss the mark as often as organic food does, if we’re focusing on eating foods full of health and vitality. I'm a fan of local donuts at the farmer's market as much as the next person, but we're not fooling anyone if we think that's helping us on our healthy food quest. And if you live next to the Hershey's Chocolate factory, then local food probably isn't your best option.

The holy grail of health can be found in the lowly, living vegetable, straight out of the organic garden, preferably with a little dirt still clinging to it. Vegetables are particularly well equipped to pass their life force straight to us because we can eat them when they are still alive.

This is a fairly unique quality that vegetables possess. For instance, it would be quite a bother to try to get a live chicken (even a local, organic one) onto your dinner plate, let alone into your mouth, without causing trauma to either the chicken or you. Or consider Christmas dinner with a turkey at the table. As if it's not hard enough to have in-laws, grandparents and a horde of wild cousins all in the same room. Add a live turkey and you'll wind up with a dining room that looks like Clark Griswold's in the movie "Christmas Vacation" after the dog fails to catch the runaway squirrel. So it would seem best to continue cooking our poultry, for everyone’s sake.

Vegetables, on the other hand, are so much more agreeable at the dinner table. No feathers, no feet, no fuss. And the more alive, the better. 

"We're Beet!"

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After a long and busy season, some of us at Old Plank Farm are beet!

For those who are totally beet, there’s plenty of time to get some rest and read a few good books.

For the rest of us, who are only a little beet, there is still plenty to do. The snow and cold came early this year, but we were well on top of our fall field work so it is of little matter to us. Next year’s garlic is planted and mulched, and we have many beds cleaned and ready for the early spring plantings. Last year at this time we had just put our garlic in the ground, my arm was broken and in a cast, and no fields were cleaned yet. “2019” is off to a good start!

Meanwhile, we’ve got a few greens growing in the greenhouses, which we hope to make available to members who pick-up at indoor sites (mainly on-farm and Sheboygan). We’ll keep in touch when we have more available to share with you!

I’m also rebuilding our website. It’s been great fun looking through photos and starting to work through plans for 2019. With the promise of a long winter, I find it hard to not feel depressed now that I can’t get my hands in the dirt. Planning for next year’s growing season is the best tonic to lift my spirits!

I’ll publish our new website next week. We'll be including information about our 2019 season on our new website, with more updates and sign-up info coming throughout December. In the meantime, if you have any feedback about this season that you’d like to share with us, please send us an email. We love to hear from you and welcome advice for how to improve our program!

Past Blogs 4/13/2018-10/4/2018

The Five Senses of Fall

Posted 10/4/2018 1:44pm by Stephanie Bartel.

 

All my favorite sights, sounds, smells, tastes and feelings seem to come around in the fall in Wisconsin. I love the colors of the leaves changing on our trees that surround the farm fields. My favorite sounds are the geese calls overhead; we listen to them fly by on their way south when we are out in the field each day. The best feeling of all is warm sun on my face in the morning while picking the last of the summer fruits. The sun's warmth takes the chill out of my body from the early morning cold better than any number of sweaters and hats can do.

And who can argue with the delicious smells and tastes that come from the kitchen on a dark fall evening? Hot apple sauce on the stove top and delicata squash roasting in the oven (don't forget to roast the seeds, too!). Yes, nothing beats fall in Wisconsin. And nothing beats working in the vegetable fields in the fall. Of course, it's not without it's challenges, the cold and damp weather being the main test of our strength!

It's been a pretty good season at Old Plank Farm, and we are nearly to the end of the outdoor harvests. Our last three CSA deliveries will likely consist of storage staples like potatoes and squash, along with fall brassicas like cabbage and brussels sprouts, and a few other treats like arugula, leeks and maybe some salad mix finally. Other than a shortage of carrots, garlic, and salad mix, we've been happy with the end-of-season deliveries. My hope is to share the best parts of fall with all our Old Plank Farm CSA members. We'll provide the squash for roasting; we hope it adds to the joys that fall brings to you! Best wishes for a beautiful and productive October.

1+1=6

Posted 8/23/2018 5:57pm by Stephanie Bartel.

While I do believe that Mother nature is the ultimate mathematician (there are lots of great books out there on the subject of math in nature!),  I can't help but feel that Mother Nature's veggie-plant math doesn't always add up.

I'm thinking about our sungold cherry tomatoes, which are a highlight of our CSA boxes this month. When we planted the cherry tomatoes this year, we decided to put out almost twice as many as we planted last year. Last year's crop wasn't super, and we didn't give out as much as we hoped to. I wanted this year to be different. It sure is. We've already given out 3-4 times as much as we gave out the entire season last year. And they keep on producing more. We expect another double ration in the boxes next week. Sometimes I wonder if it is too much. I know for some people it is. But I think for most people it's been enjoyable to have a lot of these. I hope you can eat or share all your sungold cherries this season. They take a tremendous amount of time to pick, but we hope they are enjoyed by you, which makes it all worth it to us.

Another math puzzle for us this year is our cucumbers and zucchini. We actually planted a little bit less than last season of these staple crops...but have delivered much more this season than last season.

Mother Nature's math doesn't always work in our favor, either. We planted more carrots than last year, because we know they are farm member favorite. And yet, we've had hardly any to share with you so far. So it goes. I'll spend less time worrying about math and more time picking cherry tomatoes. And a few carrots, this week...hooray! 

August Crop Notes

Posted 8/2/2018 10:47am by Stephanie Bartel.

I want to tell you the story of the deer, the woodchuck, and the missing tractor pin, but no one would believe it anyway. So here's a more important story, a crop update! I won't dig into all the crops, but here's a few notes on some of the bigger ones.

Today we are going to dig the first of our potato crop. Despite a late start and a dry season, it looks like we may have a pretty good crop. But we won't know until we dig down and find the potatoes. (I test-dug a few plants last Saturday and they were excellent!) It's like digging for gold, and is such a delight to find these treasures hidden among the dirt and rocks. 

Our cucumber crop was the highlight of the first half of the season. Mostly what you received came from our cucumber greenhouse. It is still producing, and likely will for another week or two. But expect less of these in the coming weeks. The field ones have produced some too, and we have a later planting which includes a lemon cucumber variety. But they aren't likely to produce more than one or two per member to try out. Other late cucumbers may give us a nice harvest, but we shouldn't expect quite the same as we've been having in the past weeks.

Sungold Cherry Tomatoes are just starting to come in. They are a bright spot in the field. They are ripe when they are orange, and very sweet. A member favorite that we hope to have regularly until fall.

Our Greenhouse Tomatoe plants aren't doing well at all, stricken by early blight or something of the sort. They seem to be fading already, rather than producing into September like usual. We think that our field tomatoes will produce enough so you won't notice the shortage of greenhouse ones too much. But our favorite farm-bred variety, Goldie (the big orange/yellow tomato) isn't likely to reach you too often.

Summer staples like zucchini, yellow squash, peppers and eggplant are doing well. Yellow squash is about finished, but then we have a later planting of a patty-pan yellow squash to take it's place. 

Cantalopes look great, and should be ready to start harvesting in a week or two.  I think we'll have enough to go around this year, unlike last year. 

Garlic is a crop failure this year, one of the biggest disappointments we've seen. Most of it just didn't make it up this spring, and what did was weak to begin with. Along with a waaay to dry eight weeks in late May through early July adds up to virtually no crop at all. We'll try to give a bulb or two out next week. And we will buy-in bulbs to plant for next year's seed (normally we save our own, but in doing so we'd have absoultely no bulbs to give you this year).

Fall brassicas like cabbage, cauliflower, and broccoli look healthy. They usually mature for the last of our boxes in late September through October. They taste best after going through some cool days and even frosty nights.

We started planting our fall greens, including spinach, arugula, salad mix, and salad turnips and radishes. These, along with winter squash (which looks great out in the field now! Small fruits are already on most of the varieties, including acorn, delicata, pie pumpkin, and more).

Sometimes early August boxes are a little small, since we don't have many spring greens, and we don't have any fall brassicas (but our red spring cabbage looks good for next week's harvest!). But if our melons, corn, potatoes, and tomatoes do alright, it will at least be a tasty month of in-season, farm-fresh eating!

I saw some geese fly overhead this morning while we were picking the cherry tomatoes. The sound of geese makes me think of fall on it's way. But wait! I called up to them, First we want melon season, then we want fall!! 

Pizza Season is Here-What to Expect

Posted 7/12/2018 6:00pm by Stephanie Bartel.

It's Pizza Season at Old Plank Farm! We're celebrating our 10th Anniversary growing season with Friday Night Pizza open to the public every week from July 20th through September 21st, 4:30-8pm. Pizzas are cooked to order in our outdoor wood-fired oven. We use organic, non-gmo flour from Wisconsin, organic pizza sauce, local cheese, and our own organic vegetables. We aren't licensed to sell meat on our pizza, but you are welcome to bring your own pre-cooked meat topping if you want us to add it to any pizza you order. All pizzas are approximately 14" (hand-rolled) for $15. Cash or check only.

Pizza Night at Old Plank Farm is a great way to meet your farmers, visit your farm, enjoy farm vegetables, and have some outdoor family fun! You can bring picnic blankets (some picnic tables available too), any other picnic food you want with your meal, and any beverages. Water will be available.

We are full time vegetable farmers, and we're in the middle of a very dry season. When you come to the farm, expect to see both the challenges and the successes that the season brings us. Even in times of difficulty we want to share our farm with you, and celebrate the successes that come despite difficult conditions. We are grateful for every crop that our dry dry soil is able to give, and we look forward to a time when rain comes to us (maybe this weekend!! But maybe not...gotta love Wisconsin.). 

Check our Facebook page for weekly menu and other updates!

The Rain Key Game

Posted 7/3/2018 7:27pm by Stephanie Bartel.

Whenever rain seems imminent (something I usually am very happy for during the growing season!), I like to play a game I call The Rain Key Game. When the gray clouds roll in, I start to think about what I am supposed to do to help the farm before the rain sets in. What I'm looking for is the key action from me that will bring on the rain. Sometimes the game is easy and I find the key right away. It'll be an open window on our delivery vehicle. I better close the window so rain doesn't get in I'll think to myself, then off I go to do it, and as soon as it's done...BOOM...rain! That's the Rain Key Game. Sometimes the game is harder. After closing open windows and still no rain, I dig a little deeper. Maybe I am supposed to plant one more bed of salad. So I'll plant a bed of salad and as I'm finishing....BOOM...rain! Another win at the Rain Key Game.

Some days I'll play the game all day long, accomplishing one task after another that ought to be done before rain, and still no rain comes. Close windows, close doors, disc a field, pre-make next week's planting beds, plant some salad, mow here, weed there, plant some more salad, put away tools left outside...and on and on. At the end of those days, I figure I lost the game but at least I got a lot done!

While Milwaukee and most other parts of the state have had ample rains in the last five weeks, Plymouth has been under a very dry spell. In the last five weeks we've only had one soaker rain and a couple of drizzles that don't soak in to the soil or reach the plants' roots. This is somewhat difficult for us, since June is planting month, and new plants need rain! Lawns all around here are browning, fields are dry, even some weeds are wilting.

So we are spending a lot of time and energy irrigating to keep healthy as many crops as we can. Most things at Old Plank Farm look really good right now. The warm weather coupled with some irrigation has helped us to have some great early summer crops! Meanwhile, we are facing the reality of what a dry spring means. Some lost greens, slowed growth when irrigation just isn't enough, and a risk of running the well dry. Even Beetie is a little wilty right now, but he and I are confident that we'll find a rain key sometime soon and everything will perk up!!

Crop by Crop update

Posted 6/21/2018 2:46pm by Stephanie Bartel.

What's up in the fields of Old Plank Farm? A lot is "up", but not much is ready to eat yet. Today is the first day of summer, and just eight weeks ago we did our first plantings shortly after the last snow fall of the spring. Time flies, the crops are growing, but it is still early to be harvesting too much. We stress this again, for the new folks who aren't yet used to eating seasonally. Curious about what is to come this season? Read on... Need a bed time story that will put your kids right to sleep? Read on...!

Our greenhouse cucumbers and zucchini harvests are a bright spot right now. They help add something besides greens to these early boxes. I hope you've been enjoying them. We expect several more weeks of harvest from them, and then our field zucchini, cucumbers, and yellow squash may start producing. They are young now, but healthy and flowering.

Our tomato greenhouse also looks healthy and has lots of green fruit that may be ready in a few weeks. We're also happy about our field tomato crop, which includes the sungold cherry tomatoes, and paste tomatoes. These showed the least amount of transplant shock than any other year, and are growing nicely now. Fruit to come in mid-late July I would expect. We have drip irrigation on these, to help them through any dry periods that may come.

Spring favorites were late to get out (often we plant them in early April, but this year we still had snow until late April). Carrots, Beets, Scallions, Cippollini onions, broccoli, cabbage, kohlrabi are pretty healthy looking, but not ready for harvest for probably two or three more weeks. We planted more plantings of broccoli than any other year. They are staggered, so we hope to give out broccoli more regularly than any other year. This is because over half our members replied to our survey saying that they would use broccoli regularly if we have it. But broccoli plants won't make a nice head of broccoli if they are too stressed from heat, so we may loose some of the mid-summer crop if it is a hot one. Our drip irrigation set up on these beds can help the plants get through hot spells (like the one last week!), so not all hope is lost on this favorite even if it is 100 degrees in July.

Angelica took a picture of the largest carrots, it is in the newsletter she sent out...clearly still too small to give out. These are another favorite that we have scheduled to deliver on a regular basis, as long as we get a decent yield out of each planting. We have plenty of compost and irrigation on these to help make that possible. Last year it went well for carrots, and we have no reason to think that it won't this year, too. But we don't know how it will be until we start digging. Beetie hopes for good carrots. He's more apprehensive about giving out beets. The beet crop looks good, we hope to mainly put beets in the choice boxes every week that we have them available, so that if you love eating beets you can have them every week. If you don't love eating beets but love Beetie, then stay tuned for our upcoming Beetie Fan Club T-shirt! 

Onions are a staple crop, they are a little weedy right now but, and were late to get out. But we planted a lot, so even if they are small, we still have quite a lot of volume that should provide us with a regular supply from early August until the end of the season in late October or early November.

Our garlic crop struggled tremendously this spring (it has to overwinter in the field, and winters aren't always favorable for it). We're not likely to have it very regularly available this season, but there will probably be at least a couple deliveries with some nice bulbs, and then it may end up being a choice item, to help spread it out to those who are most eager for it.

The first melon and watermelon planting went well and the plants are healthy right now. We were just out taking care of these beds today, trying to do everything we can to get the plants to make fruit (keeping them weed free, well watered, and well fed with compost). We know it's a favorite! This crop would probably start to be ready in August, and we will plant more melons two more times so that we can try to give them out at least three times to everyone.

Ahhhh, somebody call a plumber, there's a leak in the field! Oh wait, it's just a bed of leeks, one of my personal favorites. According to our survey it's not a favorite among members, so we'll try not to flood the boxes (pun intended) with them. But if there are any plumbers who are members (I know there are), I hope you'll take some extras and use them to make leek jokes while you are out on plumbing jobs!

Winter squash. We had excellent germination of all our winter squash varieties including delicata, spaghetti, pie pumpkin, butternut, and acorn. Plants are still very young. Sometimes we see bugs on squash plants (very common on organic farms in this region), but there are none here so far. We made sure to put a big scoop of compost on each seed as we planted it. That's for 2+ acres of the crop, which was a big task but well worth it! Many organic farmers still spray "organic" pesticides that are honeybee killers on their squash crops to get rid of these bugs. Our experience has been that creating a fertile, stress free environment is enough to keep our squash plants healthy and bug free, no pesticides needed and not too much crop loss. So far so good this year. Fruit usually starts being ready for harvest in September, with spaghetti and delicata ready first.

Potatoes were planted a little late (four days later than last year, which was already towards to later end of potato planting window), and they were dry for the first week in the ground. But they finally got a good rain last Sunday. It is too soon to predict how the final crop will be. We planted quite a bit extra this year, because we want to do at least one July delivery of "new potatoes", which are small ones that are such a delicious treat. If the crop doesn't look especially good, then we will not do a new potato delivery, and wait to get maximum yields starting with harvesting in late August or early September.

Our first bean and corn plantings didn't look very good when they came up (kind of small scraggly looking seedlings), and I'm not sure why. It was pretty dry, and now they look okay thanks to the good rain we had Sunday night, I think. We do 3-5 plantings of each of these crops, so even if the first ones don't produce much, we have more chances for later harvests. But they may be a little late (August-September).

Peppers and Eggplant are not in a greenhouse this year (they were last year), so we don't expect to have any early ones. We planted more though, especially of peppers, so we do still expect to have them on a regular basis once they start making fruit (late July at the earliest).

Spring turnips and radishes got demolished by flea beetles. I haven't solved the flea beetle puzzle yet. Even copious amounts of compost and water don't seem to help these poor seedlings fight against the flea beetles. Our consolation is that flea beetles only attack these crops in spring. We will plant more in AUgust for harvesting in September and October and there won't be a flea beetle in sight (in a normal year, anyway). The same is true for Arugula. Weird, right? But we won't have any of these crops in the upcoming boxes.

I think that covers a lot (though not quite all) of what is planted, besides the herbs and greens. In short, cilantro and parsley look good right now and we will start harvesting them next week, basil looks below average. Last year deer ate TONS of our lettuce, so this year we planted it in a different spot, up by the greenhouses where it is far less likely to be attacked. I expect we'll have lettuce, salad mix, or kale in over half of the boxes delivered this season. It's about all we seem to have right now, and that's because it grows quickly in spring. So I hope enjoy it now, but if it's not your favorite, I hope you can eat it anyway and look forward to more variety to come in a few weeks.

Well if you made it through this long and boring blog but are still excited about eating vegetables, then we are thrilled to have you as a CSA member! We'll keep working hard all season to make it a good one for you! Thank you for caring about our farm, your health, and the world we all share.

Happy First Day of Summer!

-Farmer Stephanie

The 14-wheeler

Posted 5/20/2018 8:05am by Stephanie Bartel.

This cloudy, cool, drizzly morning is a welcome thing at Old Plank Farm right now. Over the last three days we did our biggest spring transplanting of the season. And transplants do best when they have a cloudy or cool or wet day to get accustomed to the field they've been put in. And us farmers do best when we have a cloudy or cool or wet day to get a little rest!

In the last three days Angelica, Jake and I planted over 22,000 spring transplants for this season's CSA members. Included in our transplanting routine is a scoop of compost for every plant and a drench of water. The three of us accomplished this somewhat daunting task in such a short time thanks to two things: our 14-wheeled homemade transplanting wagon, and our wonderful volunteer tractor drivers.

The 14-wheeler lets us ride along over the field and set the plants out and scoop the compost out and pour the water out without having to carry everything and bend over 22,000 times. It has a tank to carry the water, a mini-gravity bin to carry the compost, racks to carry the plants, and seats to carry us! All pulled by the tractor and built largely out of scraps from around the farm. It means we can get the plants out efficiently and with the least amount of stress for plants and people.

If you want to be a volunteer tractor driver for our next big planting (sometime between June 1-7), let us know! You don't have to know how to drive a tractor, we'll teach you. You just have to drive straight, drive slow, and for goodness sake you have to stop when we yell STOP!

Welcome, Spring!!

Posted 4/27/2018 5:47pm by Stephanie Bartel.

We are finally in the field for the first time this season! Yesterday we prepped and planted 9 beds of salad mix, spinach, snow peas, snap peas, radishes, turnips, carrots, and Beetie's kin. Today we prepped more beds for upcoming plantings. Last week we were plowing snow, this week soil. Time changes everything, and being a farmer in Wisconsin keeps me very much in tune with that fact. 

Sharpening Our Axes

Posted 4/19/2018 1:37pm by Stephanie Bartel.

"Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe." - Abraham Lincoln 

I've always appreciated the wisdom behind Abe Lincoln's quote about sharpening the axe, but it's not always been in my nature to heed his advice. I used to hurry around a lot, and often was impatient about this and that. Many things on the farm show this part of my personality. But within the last few years I have been getting much better at planning and thinking ahead. And never more than this spring. We are better prepared than ever to plant, weed, and harvest our crops as efficiently as possible. So this week's snowstorms aren't bothering us much at Old Plank Farm. We are kept busy putting the finishing touches on new gadgets to improve our planting rates. So when the snow does melt, we will be ready to get everything in the ground and off to a good, if not early, start!

The Adventures of Beetie Episode 2

Posted 4/13/2018 12:13pm by Stephanie Bartel.

The Adventures of Beetie: In which Beetie tours the Old Plank Farm Seeding Greenhouse. By Angelica Immel

Beetie says: "It is thyme for an adventure!"


On Beetie's journey through the greenhouse he comes across some Peppers and Eggplant.
"Did you know" says Beetie, "that it is called eggplant because the fruits of the plant were originally white instead of purple, so they looked like big eggs!"


Venturing on into the green, Beetie finds tomato plants. They are is favorite variety 'Goldie'.
He says to the plants, "I love you from my head, to-ma-toes."

Next he encounters baby zucchini and cucumber plants...
"Happy Birthday!" Beetie shouts to the newly emerging cuke and zuke plants.


In order to get to the other side of the greenhouse, Beetie must trek through a forest of onions.


After that long trek through The Onion Forest Beetie says, "Wow, I'm Beet!" and as he plops down in a bed of Beetie sized greens, "Lettuce Eat!"

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.