March 2010

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In addition to all the activity around Persephone Farm at this time of the season, spring brings one other little gift–the spring cold.

While Rebecca, Louisa and the interns have been wrestling the place into shape, some of us have simply been wrestling with endless sniffles, coughs, a bit of fever and the like.

Nothing to do but wait it out. We are almost done and should be back online in another day or two with the next episode of the season.

Persephone

Wearing our other hat, we have posted a story on Crosscut.com about what appears to be a nascent trend–large suburban developers trying microfarms as a new amenity to lure in homebuyers, instead of the traditional golf course development. The focus is on Olympic Resources, which plans to develop about 1,000 acres of land around the historic little village of Port Gamble, in our home county of Kitsap. The piece went up on Crosscut on Wed., March 17. Take a look .

Here’s the bet we are making on this: Over the next few years, fuel costs will go up, and up. And that will lead to higher food prices at the supermarket, where oranges are trucked in from Florida and sit next to Kiwis flown in from New Zealand. Our prices will go up too, but much less since we drive our produce just 16 miles from the farm to the Bainbridge Farmers Market once a week. Of course, we’ll also pay more for gas for our rototiller and other farm machines, but we don’t do much tractor farming here and our fuel use is fairly small.

At the same time, we have most of our 13 acres in ag-tax status, which means we can carry the land at relatively low cost for some time–provided we don’t sell it off to developers. Plus, we farm organically, which means we don’t have to shell out more cash for oil-based pesticides and herbicides like many big farms do.

You can see where this is headed, right? Over time–and we think, not too much time–our produce will cost relatively less than those oranges, kiwis and other long-distance veggies and fruits on the supermarket shelf. Plus it will be safer (no feedlots near our spinach) and it will certainly be fresher.

Makes sense to us. How about you?

Now back to our usual programming. If you are still interested in turkeys, and who wouldn’t be given our previous post on Chocolate, our randy Tom, take a look at Louisa’s instructions on how to breed and raise heritage turkeys on the Persephonefarm.com site. We’ll have more about the Persephone turkeys here, later in The Season.

Persephone

As the late Cosmo editor, Helen Gurley Brown, used to say, “Sex sells.”

And here you are, reading, right?

Louisa named our new Tom turkey “Chocolate”. She found him on Craigslist and he arrived at Persephone Farm last week looking big, brown and very randy.

Chocolate is a strutter, all right. He did a lot of huffing and puffing when we put him into the turkey yard, pretty much ignoring his audience of Louisa, Rebecca and Mondrian. Then he headed straight for the five lonely turkey hens.

Those hens hadn’t seen a male turkey since Thanksgiving, and they were ready for some serious action. They preened and clustered around Chocolate, rubbed his neck with their necks and cast coy turkey glances in his direction. Then they lined up—one, two, three, four, five—squatted down, and that was the end of any coyness. Chocolate hopped to it, and after a few minutes he was one tired Tom.

Watching something like that can be, um, distracting. We never did get a chance to run back to the farmhouse and grab a camera. (Chocolate’s turkey orgy would certainly have been good for a couple of hundred thousand YouTube views.) We’ll just have to leave it your imagination, and Mondrian’s description.

Observing turkeys doing what turkeys do speaks volumes about the sexual drive that seems to be rampant around here these days. From Louisa’s turkey yard, to the swallows in the barn rafters, to the 50 new chicks that we just installed in our homemade brooder in the barn bathroom, there’s a whole lot of shaking going on. Dylan Thomas, the wonderful Welsh poet, called this mysterious power, “The force that through the green fuse drives the flower”.

We don’t spend much time these days quoting Welsh poets around Persephone Farm—or watching turkeys at play either, for that matter. The to-do list of startup chores Rebecca posts each morning in the packing shed gets longer every day and time is precious. But sometimes at this early point in the season it seems like the whole place is a little like Spring Break in Ft. Lauderdale.

Take the greenhouse. It would be hard to imagine a less sexy spot—nothing but pea shoots and tomato plants sitting in pots, right? Ah, but if you look closely you’ll see that same force at work in there.

From cotyledons in greenhouse flats, to Chocolate in the turkey pen, the farm is alive with an awful lot of prurient activity at this time of year. We love to have people come visit Persephone Farm, especially with their kids, so we can show them around and explain where their food comes from and how things work in the natural world. But perhaps at this time of year we ought to put a note on our sign at the front gate: “Warning, this farm is x-rated.”

Persephone

This year, we got lucky. Most of the seed catalogs, and most of the seeds, arrived on time. Most of the usual wet and cold March weather did not. Rebecca and Louisa have been touring the farm, assessing winter’s toll. No serious structural damage to the yurts, the greenhouse, or any of the other outbuildings, but the cold snap in December withered the kale and much of the purple sprouting broccoli and left the turnips in bad shape.

We’re not sure what got our peacock, Raam, one night in December. He disappeared without a trace, leaving us with only Cleo, our pea hen. For years, the two of them walked together through the lower pasture at dusk to their favorite roosting tree, munching their way through the gardens. Now Cleo makes the trek by herself, sometimes stopping to call out to her absent friend. The silence is filled with sadness for all of us.

Raam

But the season doesn’t wait. Persephone Farm is officially underway now. The greenhouse is filled with freshly planted flats. At dawn, Rebecca hurries down to see which sprouts are pushing up through the soil. Louisa fires up the rototiller and turns under more winter cover crops, making way for the new rows. In the coolness of the early morning, our compost piles steam away. Compost is amazing stuff, nature’s alchemy, transforming the farm’s bare winter soil into summer’s food-and-flower-making machine.

The gardens are filled with finches, robins and sparrows, pecking away at the last of the winter’s seed harvest. On the lower pasture, a young eagle has been gathering some of our newly cut grass for a nest and a new bard owl has moved in as the spring collection of rodents surfaces. And it won’t be long before the first flights of violet-green swallows are back. It is one of spring’s joys, watching them swoop and dart at sunset, in patterns only they can know.

But the real harbinger of spring is the arrival of our four new interns—Joel, Caitlan, Greg and Mondrian (and her dog Mongo.) There is a kind of electricity in the air when a group of  people we barely know, some of whom have never handled a compost fork or pulled a carrot out of the ground, pile out of their cars for the first time, settle their stuff into the yurts, and get ready to spend the next eight months of their lives learning to plant, weed, compost and harvest. It’s a long haul, but we have been fortunate over the years to get the pick of the pool, and this year is no exception. You’ll get to know them better as we move through the season, but we’ll give them a chance to briefly introduce themselves here.

First Caitlan and Greg, just back from three months of biking and volunteering on farms in New Zealand.

Joel caught our attention when he told us that he had just spent four years at the other end of the pipeline—in the produce department of Whole Foods store in Portland.

We wondered how Mondrian would combine her love of children with what we do on Persephone Farm. She convinced us.

What will happen with our interns during these next eight months can be as amazing and wonderful as watching the farm itself flower and grow.

If you took a map and studded it with pins to show where our former interns are now running their own microfarms, it would stretch from Maine to the Northwest. It is pretty heady stuff, knowing you have helped launch these farms and nurtured an ever-expanding crop of young farmers. When cutworms kill their arugula, or a late frost wipes out their tomato seedlings, we usually hear from them. But they also check in when the news is good. Each year, we make two promises at the beginning of the season: we’ll be there if you need help down the road, and if you get married after you leave, we’ll show up with your wedding flowers (four of those to date.)

Big-ag bureaucracy is way behind the curve on all this. The feds and Washington state don’t even have definitions for “microfarm”. But we can see  signs everywhere that they are flourishing. In the last five years, the number of big farms in the state—averaging 1,667 acres—has dropped by 700 while small farms–averaging about 50 acres–grew by 26%. And farmers markets, where most microfarm produce ends up, more than doubled in the state over the last decade.

The numbers come from Washington’s Office of Farmland Preservation’s “2009 Indicators Report”, which we plowed through one recent chilly evening. Kitsap County, where we farm, out here on the west side of Puget Sound, has no big farms left. But microfarms like ours are sprouting up all over here, and the average farm income in our suburban county is up a spectacular 80% since 2002.

You can read between the lines to get the message–rural big farms disappearing; suburban microfarms thriving. Of course we knew that without a 44-page government report. All we needed to do was read the intern applications pouring in from all over the country for our farm.

Persephone

When we started discussing the idea of writing a blog about a season on Persephone Farm, a few years back, we were still on the cusp of the local food movement. The term “locavore” wasn’t on anyone’s tongue and microfarms like ours were off the industry’s radar. We had 25 laying hens and our Saturday veggie sales at the Bainbridge Island farmers market sometimes were skimpy enough that we ate the leftovers through the following week. By June, when our CSA began, we were still scratching for subscribers. We did select a terrific pair of young interns that year—out of a handful of serious applicants.

How times change. The opening-day lineup of our loyal market customers grows longer each year, recession or no. Our farm’s livestock inventory is now 130 White Leghorn and Golden Sexlink chickens, five heritage turkeys and five sheep. We’ll be expanding again this year—and that doesn’t include Cleo, our resident pea hen, or the farm cats, Selmo and Oberon. Our CSA subscriber list is filling up fast and it is only March, and we picked this year’s four new interns came from more than 100 applicants. The last time I Googled “locavore”, there were 452,000 entries.

With all this going on, we figured it was time to get to it and invite people to come along as this year’s farm’s season unfolds. So here we are with a brand new blog. We plan to keep everyone up to date on what’s happening on our little farm—the good, the bad and the really, really dirty. You will get a chance to see what it is like to start from scratch—quite literally from scratch as we dig the furrows that hold the seeds, that grow the plants, that become the meals for the hundreds of people we feed each season.

Tom Posey friend of Persephone

You’ll get to know everyone around here, from the newest arrival, Mongo,  an exuberant mixed-breed husky/shepherd, who arrived last week with one of our interns and promptly chased Cleo onto the chicken-coop roof, seriously wounding her pride and barnyard status, to Tom Posey, one of our CSA subscribers, who showed up years ago to pick up his first box of produce on a Wednesday afternoon, and has come back every Wednesday since then to help out, getting dirty and sweaty along with everyone else. Tom even brings beer to share when we are done for the day.

We’ll introduce you to the farmers, Rebecca and Louisa, and to our interns, Greg, Caitlan, Joel and and Mondrian. We’ll show you around the place—the lavender patch down near the gate, Louisa’s orchard, where the plum trees are already in bloom and the apples are starting to bud out. You can visit the gardens where we grow 53 kinds of veggies and watch as we harvest salad greens so delicate they have to be picked at dawn, before the sun gets at them. If you stick around you can watch while we pluck a chicken and sample the new tomato crop. We’ll introduce you to our neighbors, Wise Acres Community, who include some world-class chefs and musicians, and with whom we share a meal every Monday evening. You can sit in on our garlic-harvest party in July, watch our apple pressing in October, and help choose this year’s farm entry for the annual Bainbridge Island zucchini race.

Along the way, we’ll spend some time chatting about more serious things like the economics and politics of food—subjects that are reshaping what we grow, where we buy it, how we eat it, and how it is changing our lives. Turns out, microfarming like we’ve been doing here for the last two decades, has suddenly become the hottest part of agriculture—the world is catching up and we’re right in the middle of…you got it…a trend. Don’t just take my word for it, ask Michelle Obama or click on the Farmville website, where 72 million vicarious farmers checked in last month.

So welcome to “The Season.” Be prepared to get some virtual dirt under your fingernails. It should be an interesting and exciting year for us all. We’re glad you are here, hope you’ll stick around and tell more people about us.

Persephone

Coming soon: “The Season”, a running account of life through the growing season on a microfarm located west of Seattle. Our season runs from March 1, when our four apprentices arrive from around the U.S., to the final slaughter of our turkeys and lambs in Nov. Over that time, you will get to know Persephone farm through words, photos, videos and sound bites, and we will discuss issues of food economics and politics through the lens of our farm. Join us in this annual adventure.