April 2010

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We’re a quarter of the way through Persephone Farm’s 2010 season and already there is a lot of catching up to do. What’s happened to Chocolate, the randy turkey? How are the new lambs doing? Which intern is wearing the tiara as the top Farmers Market seller?

We’ll start with Chocolate. When we left him, he had been introduced to the five lovelorn turkey hens, who immediately lined up to make Chocolate’s aquaintance. We’re happy to announce that Chocolate is now a proud papa-to-be. The hens are taking turns sitting on two clutches of eggs–about 80 in all–in a pair of nests in the rear corners of the turkey house.

But the bad news is that Chocolate is a lousy dad. He pushes the hens off the eggs and walks on them. He gobbles and distracts the mamas. Why? Who knows, but Louisa was running out of patience and it looked like, impending fatherhood or not, Chocolate’s days might be numbered. I suppose most of us would be a bit disconcerted at the prospect of fathering 80 kids, so we cut him some slack. Chocolate was exiled to a pen full of chickens, well away from the nesting turkeys. He’s not happy about it and spends a lot of time complaining but he’s escaped the chopping block. The chickens look at him like he’s nuts.

Chocolate in exile

And the lambs, well they seem sort of bemused by all of this. But it’s hard to tell. They watch, they graze, they move a little bit, then they graze some more. Maybe that’s how it is when you are a lamb. You never know what life will toss onto the pasture next door, so the best thing is to put your head down and munch some more grass. 

Our experiment in putting the lambs into enclosures for rotation grazing  has run into some problems too. The idea was to preserve the pasture by penning the lambs inside an electric fence within the pasture–both the keep them in one place and protect them from coyotes–then shift the whole fence to another part of the pasture after they mow down the grass. The problem is they keep busting out of the electric fence and gamboling all over the place. Of course, lambs are supposed to do that in the spring, and it certainly is more interesting than eating grass all day in one spot.

On to the tiara. Each week, Rebecca takes an intern to the Farmers Market. And when the totals are added up at the end of the market, the intern with the highest sales figure gets a cut of the take and is entitled to wear the farm’s ceremonial tiara until someone hits a higher number. Ok, it’s kind of goofy, but it keeps things moving along after a day of pulling weeds. So far, Greg and Caitlin are the tiara-holders–they worked together week two, befitting their unitary status.

Caitlin the Queen

No one remembers where the tiara came from, but it’s been around here for years and has passed through many hands. Sales at the market have been pretty good so far this year, despite the economy, so the crown will probably change hands a couple of times before things wind down. Meanwhile, the tiara rests in Greg and Caitlin’s yurt for safekeeping. Or maybe they’re afraid it will melt if they wear it in the rain.

One more item, for now.

Cleo, the lone pea hen, is still flying solo. She tried hooking up with Chocolate, and the chickens, and Rebecca’s Volkswagen van, and pretty much anything else around here that moves. Her mating methodology seems to be an odd mixture of stalking a potential target, then imitating her late mate–Ramm–by spreading her tail feathers and displaying, while issuing male peacock mating calls. Everyone finds this strategy a bit perplexing–Chocolate and the chickens included, no doubt. Going to be a long spring for Cleo.

Tune in again for the next installment: Rebecca gives a lesson in over-the-top tomato transplants.

Persephone

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If you’ve been following the season around here, we figured you might like some help figuring out what goes where. Here’s a (slightly dated) aerial view of the farm. If you click on the picture a couple of times it will get larger and easier to decipher.

The open field to the right of the picture is our neighbor Don Stevens’ land. He’s planning to build a house and put a couple of head of cattle out there one of these days. Wise Acres, at the bottom of the picture, is an intentional community–nine families on 18 acres of mostly wooded land. The farmers eat dinner with them every Monday night at their common house, which is right across Midway Ave., the dirt road running along the bottom of the farm. We’ll post more on our Wise Acres dinners soon.

Persephone

 
 Let’s start with some data. On our farm we plant 50-foot rows. The beds are three feet wide, separated by paths that are either one-and-a-half feet or two feet apart, depending on who is laying them out. Rebecca favors tighter paths. Louisa likes room to maneuver. They look like this.

And what has this got to do with tractors? Nothing. But that’s the point. We do have a nifty Kubota tractor that is Louisa’s domain. She loves that machine. Rain or shine, many days, Louisa is out on her tractor, turning compost, pushing around dirt, mowing grass, pulling rocks.

Everything, that is, except working the beds. Those we do by hand. Or mostly by hand. We do start by tilling the soil with our BCS rototiller and it is a brute. Spend an hour or two wrestling that baby through a field and you know you have taken on nature, mano a machino.

But after that, it is all handwork. You pull weeds from the turned-over earth, shovel compost and pile up the soil into beds, line up and furrow the rows and plant the seeds or starts, all of it by hand. When you are done, your knees are filthy, your nice garden outfit is a mess, and you reek of compost and sweat. Every year, someone visits our farm and says, ‘Why don’t you make life easier on yourselves and do it all with a tractor?”

The answer is either simple or complicated, depending on who is asking and who is answering, and how much time they want to devote to explaining the philosophy behind our farm.

The simple answer is that we plant on a scale that doesn’t easily lend itself to tractor work. Fifty-foot beds are too short to get much efficiency out of a tractor and the beds themselves would likely have to be redesigned farther apart for tractor work, meaning we would probably end up growing less. That’s not an asset on a microfarm like ours, where we strive to get as much as possible out of every square foot of ground.Plus, tractor work compacts the soil, which is never good for growing things

The more complex answer has to do with the fact that sometimes it just feels good to get your hands in the soil. There is a direct cause-and-effect process in this work that seems to perk up your lizard brain function–you don’t have to think very hard, you just plug into nature’s inexorable flow and that carries things along. It’s kind of like building a house–someone else draws up the blueprint, you just make it real and when you are done you have validated yourself with the product.

If that sounds kind of touchy feely, perhaps it is. More and more, these days, we are losing the touch and feel of our surroundings as machines intervene to make our lives more efficient and faster. Think carrots. When you buy one of those plastic bags of washed and scrubbed carrots in the supermarket it has been efficiently picked by a machine, ground to a nub by another machine, and is ready to douse in a dip that has probably been made with barely a human hand involved. At the end of this highly efficient process what’s left of the carrot?

This struggle between efficiency and authenticity seems to pop up everywhere these days. Perhaps it is no wonder that many of the applicants for our internships announce their availability with: “I really want to get my hands in the soil and get closer to nature…”

Well, you’ve come to the right farm–at least the right virtual farm blogsite. That’s right, stick around and we’ll show you how to get your hands really dirty and pull actual carrots out of the ground at the end. You may discover that it isn’t all about efficiency overcoming authenticity. All you need to supply is the ground, the seeds–and plenty of sweat. This ain’t Farmville.

Louisa kind of set the template with her post over on our farm’s website—-with her lesson on breeding heritage turkeys. It is a no-nonsense guide to turkey raising. A lot of people read that post, and continue to read it. So we’re going to ask Louisa and some of our other Persephone farmers to write guest posts over here, now and then, covering the finer points of how we do stuff.

You’ll probably end up knowing more than you ever thought you’d know, or wanted to know, about how to grow garlic, transplant tomatoes, pull weeds, arrange floral bouquets, and, yes, maybe even how to operate a tractor.

So stay tuned. You’ll discover your inner farmer right here.

Persephone

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How do you know spring is in full swing? Sometimes a picture tells it all. Louisa and Greg, our intern, were working this afternoon in the packing shed, getting ready to make bouquets for Saturday’s Farmers Market.

Lilacs. Close your eyes and inhale the essence of the season.

Persephone

Small farms are built on dreams. You dream that you will figure out a way to coax enough produce out of a couple of acres to make the sweat and hard work worthwhile. You dream you can find customers for your arugula, blueberries, boc choy, whatever, and they will be so delighted they will come back for more, and bring their friends.

In short, you dream big, or at least bigger. No doubt, that was Howard Schultz’s game plan in 1992 when he started pushing Starbucks from a local Seattle coffeehouse to 16,000 outlets. And it is how Andy Stout says he dreamed of growing Full Circle Farm when he and his wife, Wendy Munroe, started farming three acres of land in Carnation in 1996.

“We began Full Circle Farm with a few acres, strong values, and expansive dreams,” Stout says on Full Circle’s website. All true, especially the expansive dreams part. Full Circle now boasts 400 acres, with subscribers across Washington and Alaska. Its subscriber-based CSA operation is a marketing juggernaut, pushing produce for 13 farming partners and seven other food businesses.

So we had mixed feelings when a sign went up recently in the window of the Indianola General Store announcing that Full Circle was soliciting CSA subscribers here in our backyard. That kind of sign leaves you feeling like a local bookstore owner after Barnes & Noble announces plans to build across the street. Out of the 3,229 CSAs around the U.S., tallied by Local Harvest, which tracks small farm statistics, most, like ours, have less than 100 subscribers. Sixty have 500 or more subscribers. Full Circle’s 9,400 subscribers makes it the Mega-Mart of CSAs.

Persephone Farm raises produce on about three acres in Indianola and our CSA subscriber list is small enough that our stack of weekly produce boxes would hardly fill a corner of one of Full Circle’s delivery trucks. Still Full Circle is the realization of Stout’s dream and the CSA model is one of the reasons local farms like ours are thriving. And as Full Circle’s subscriber list has grown mightily in the last decade, its reputation for integrity has been fairly high among western Washington’s farmers.

Them

Us

So Rebecca wrote to Dave Hughes, Full Circle’s Kitsap County Site Manager, noting that our farm, and other small CSAs in the county, are worried that Full Circle’s huge scale and marketing budget could roll over us. Our small farms, she said, underscore community values as well as provide fresh produce, something that giants like Full Circle can’t do.  She invited Hughes to reply with his thoughts–“Farmer to farmer.”

Back came a reply that sounded more like pr man-to-farmer. Full Circle, Hughes assured us,  isn’t “in the business of putting other farmers out of work or stealing CSA members.” He promised  that Full Circle’s entry into the local market would mean “collaboration, cooperation, shared enthusiasms and meaningful relationships.”

He signed the note: “peace and carrots”.

That was cute. But his assurances might have carried more weight if we had not just read the latest issue of Growing for Market, a newsletter that closely follows small-farm issues. “Super-CSAs” like Full Circle Farm are a growing trend around the U.S., the Lawrence, Kan., newsletter says, and marketing in many cases has replaced local relationships as their driving force.

Growing for Market singled out Full Circle’s push into Alaska, a campaign that sounded a lot like its current effort back here in Kitsap County. Several years ago, Full Circle began posting CSA flyers on local bulletin boards in Fairbanks, inviting new subscribers to join its program. After a ferocious marketing effort, 70% of Full Circle’s CSA subscribers are Alaskans and its CSA is ten times as big as the dozen combined local CSAs in Fairbanks. Its boxes of produce, flown in weekly from the Lower 48, include some of its own produce but mostly items grown by someone else around the U.S. and the world.

When a group of Fairbanks growers met with Andy Stout last spring to tell him his operation was crushing their own CSAs, they pointed out that the bulk of the produce in Full Circle’s CSA boxes wasn’t even from his farm and asked him to stop calling his operation a CSA.

“I understand your point,” Stout wrote back. “I totally get it. But the best working definition of what we do is CSA.” The CSA label, he assured the Alaskans, was not done with the intention to deceive or harm the locals.

Now one nice thing about the CSA model is its flexibility. You can be small or big, deliver honey or chard, collect in advance or on delivery, go to your subscribers or have them come to you. But as a rule, most farm CSAs offer produce they grow, or at least process, themselves.

Stout acknowledges that only 35% of Full Circle’s annual CSA delivery to its subscribers comes from his farm. But, he added in his note to the Alaskans, “I’ve yet to see the harm done. What I’ve seen is the ability to have a small farm become successful. All we’re doing is chipping away at the grocery industry that has done everything in its power to take away the viability of farms.”

If you have trouble parsing that message, Full Circle apparently did too. It has since dropped the CSA label from its program, replacing it with an even less specific marketing slogan: “Farm to You”. It now promotes its service as an “organic produce delivery program.”

Stout may certainly be excused for his pride in marketing Full Circle to a successful niche in a tough business. But along the way his farm has apparently lost most of its small-farm roots and its original agenda—tying consumers more closely to the food they eat and the farmer who grows it. It’s a long way from that goal to a “delivery program,” shipping thousands of boxes of California strawberries and Mexican mangos to Alaska.

“The first part of Community Supported Agriculture is ‘community’” says Brad Jaeckel, who teaches at Washington State University and runs the school’s organic farm and 110-member CSA.“You need some boundaries to define that—five miles, ten miles, some kind of foodshed. My CSA members bump into each other every day, share recipes, swap vegetables. There are all kinds of neat interactions that take place in that community.”

“I just can’t imagine how that kind of interaction could be accommodated in such a large CSA,” he says of Full Circle’s business.

Neither can we. Of course, this wouldn’t be the first time such a shift in priorities has taken place in agriculture. The organic movement began with a bunch of renegade small farmers rejecting chemical herbicides and pesticides and setting high standards for their produce. These days, “organic” is a marketing tool, lobbied into near-meaninglessness by big agribusinesses, enabling them to reap fat profit margins while continuing their industrial farming practices. Can CSAs featuring “locally” grown produce raised a thousand miles away be far behind?

Maybe. Or maybe not. Last we checked, Full Circle had just one subscriber for its CSA here in Indianola. Ours is nearly full and we expect a waiting list.

Take that Big Guy.

Persephone

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The other day, when we showed up with the season’s first salad order, one of Persephone Farm’s restaurant customers clapped her hands and gave a little cheer. “We’ve been waiting for this all winter,” she said, snatching a bag of greens out of our hands.

So have we. Salad is Persephone Farm’s signature product. Its flavor and texture are so unusual it commands a price that, if it was just a little bit higher, would put us in head-to-head price competition with some very dangerous Columbian gentlemen. Nonetheless, we can barely keep up with the demand.

Rebecca and the interns work very hard to make the salad special—picking in the salad garden before sunup on delivery days so it will be delivered fresh and last for a week or more, double washing to make sure no rogue slugs make their way onto a customer’s dinner plate, and including an array of greens that even the late, great granddaddy of all salad foragers, Euell Gibbons, author of “Stalking the Wild Asparagus”, would have admired.

Take Miner’s Lettuce—no, go ahead, take some. Try a nibble, you’ll be surprised.

Rebecca picking Miner's Lettuce

Who would have thought this scourge of gardeners and lawn tenders everywhere would make such a nice addition to a salad. Miners Lettuce, it turns out, tastes “green and fresh”, according to Rebecca, and is rich in vitamins A and C. Baby mustard greens add a hot, spicy note to the mix. Cress is peppery. Kale buds: sweet.

And so on. It is easy to get carried away with this sort of thing and start sounding like a wine snob. But there is a resemblance. The salad that our restaurant client was so happy to see contains up to 60 kinds of greens, most of them snipped leaf-by-leaf that morning. No two pickings are the same and the makeup shifts as the season progresses. Lettuce, that old standby, is in there, of course, but it doesn’t dominate like it does in most commercial salads.

“Our salad is for the adventurous palate,” Rebecca says. “It’s not just a platform for the dressing.” In fact, when she visits restaurants the farm supplies she’ll usually recommend they use only a light vinagarette dressing on our salad so the flavor can shine through.

Which reminds me of an old friend. He was a meat-and-potatoes kind of guy who lived in Silicon Valley, but ate well. A few years back, he asked us for a recommendation for a place to stay on Vancouver Island with a really good restaurant. We sent him to the Sooke Harbour House, an elegant little inn that raises a wide variety of salad greens in its own organic gardens.

Next time we saw our friend we asked him about the visit. He frowned. The place was beautiful and the food was fine, he said, “but they served us weeds in the salad.”

Ah well, you can’t please everyone. And times have certainly changed since our friend’s eating adventure. These days, if you spot Chickweed in your salad you are probably dining toward the top of the food chain. Good restaurants tend to boast about the number of weeds in their salad mix and salad texture and variety marks a place that cares. Every time we go out to eat, Rebecca dissects the salad like an oracle examining the entrails of an animal sacrifice. She can usually tell when and where the salad was picked and sometimes, who picked it

You can do it too. Keep your eyes open for some of these varieties:

Anise Hyssop

Anise Hyssop adds an interesting combination of licorice and mint to a salad. Or this:

sorrel

With Sorrel you get a bright, lemony tang. Or this:

Kale buds

Kale buds are sweet and add a lively chewiness to the mix.

Of course, none of this comes easy. If it did, and could be done by machines, those giant California farm outfits would be doing it. They’re not. It takes one of our interns about an hour to pick a pound of salad. Rebecca can do three pounds an hour, but she’s been doing it for two decades and seems to have gotten the hang of it. They all usually pick twice a week, rain or shine. When the weather gets warmer and sunnier we’ll be supplying at least four  restaurants.

You can do the math yourself on this to figure out how much work is involved. We’re too bushed.

Persephone

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Lambs

If there is anything that says spring is now proceeding full tilt boogie at Persephone Farm it is the arrival of the lambs. This year, ours came from our friend Ann Morse, who bred our little herd of seven Suffolks on her Bainbridge Island farm. (Ann also supplied our farm’s peacocks.)

Now it is certainly possible to take the hard-nosed farmer attitude and proclaim that livestock is livestock, spring lambs or no, and should be treated as such. We are a working farm and raise our animals for their meat and eggs, not as pets etc., etc. No cooing, no looking on with big smiles as they frolic around the pasture, and above all, no names.

We tried that last year and pretty much succeeded since those lambs were a shy and aloof bunch, generally keeping to themselves at the other end of any pasture we both inhabited. We did slip a bit with Emile, the smallest of the flock, who was named by one of our interns who had spent time in France and thought the flock needed a Gallic touch. That fit: (Emile=a meal, get it.)

But this year it may be tougher not to engage in some anthropomorphism. For one thing, unlike last year’s flock, which arrived without ceremony in the back of the breeder’s truck, this year’s bunch was rounded up and loaded, lamb-by-lamb, by the interns. One of them hopped into Mondrian’s arms during the roundup, which probably ended any distancing on her part, and Greg hefted each one of the seven into the back of Joel’s pickup for the trip from Ann’s farm to our pasture. He’s hooked.

Now that is a lot of lambchops. The lambs didn’t seem to mind the trip in Joel’s truck and after a bit of coaxing from Louisa on arrival they hopped out and settled in to their new digs.

For the next few days we’ve got the lambs penned up behind a portable electric fence. After that, they are free to wander the lower pasture. We’re hoping they will get comfortable and settle in–and maybe even make some new friends. One of the cats, Selmo, watched the unloading from a prudent distance and a flock of neighborhood children already has paid the flock of lambs a welcoming visit. Mongo still has some socializing to learn.

But all-in-all, a fairly smooth introduction for a group of newbies who had not spent a night away from home before. With any luck they’ll be part of this whole (somewhat) peaceable little farmstead in a short while, with a whole summer to while away and plenty of good green pasture to roam. We’ll keep you up to date on their progress.

Have a good one little lambs.

Persephone 

 

 

The popularity of virtual farming websites never fails to amaze us. You know, those sites that allow visitors to select virtual seeds, plant virtual crops, gather virtual eggs, even sell their virtual produce at virtual farmers markets for a virtual profit. Farmville.com, is probably the biggest one, claiming a stunning 72 million visitors in a month.

And while we are all for the spreading interest in small farms and farming, even through websites like Farmville’s, there is something kind of odd about millions of wannabe farmers spending their time and cash constructing virtual farms on the web when the real thing is available right around the corner.

We’re talking about Community Supported Agriculture here folks. CSAs have been around for nearly 50 years, since the idea began in Germany. Several farms claim credit for the first one in this country, like New Hampshire’s Temple-Wilton Community Farm which started its CSA in 1986. We began Persephone Farm’s CSA in 1992, which makes us one of the oldest CSAs in the Pacific Northwest.

Each week, our subscribers show up at the pickup site—the Johnson Farm on Bainbridge or our own farm here in Indianola—and pick up a box loaded with whatever we are harvesting. Sometimes the boxes are jammed, sometimes things are a bit skimpy. In effect, by subscribing and paying in advance the CSA subscribers are joining our farmers in taking a stake in this year’s harvest.

our CSA pickup site

That model sounds pretty simple, but think about it. We try to have about nine different vegetables, fruits and flowers in each weekly box. That means calculating growing times, weather changes, insect damage, and a dozen other variables, to figure out in winter how to have an even supply of vegetables, fruits and flowers rolling out of the fields in the summer and fall. Rebecca, who masterminds this effort, has been making lists, working the calculator, ordering seeds, laying out beds, tending starts, and generally organizing this year’s CSA since January. Imagine plotting an ocean liner’s course through an ice field 50 miles ahead—you need to get each zig and zag right, before you even see the first iceberg on the horizon. 

There are other CSA models—some, for example, collect cash at the start of the season, like we do, then let subscribers pick out their produce at the farmers market as it becomes available, deducting the market price from their advance payment. Others simply deliver the produce to your door and charge you for it.

We like our model best for a couple of reasons. Everyone gets a share of the farm’s weekly bounty, which means that in addition to the usual favorites like corn and tomatoes subscribers get introduced to some vegetables they may never have heard of  before, like cardoon. (We usually put a recipe or two into the boxes for the uninitiated. This year, we’ll put them up on the farm’s website, www.persephonefarm.com)

cardoon

Plus, you get about 20% more veggies with our system than if you paid the market price for them. Different strokes for different folks. Ours seems to have its fans–a lot of our subscribers re-up every year and we usually have a waiting list by the start of the CSA in June.

But the best thing about our CSA is that you get to connect directly with the farm each week. Some subscribers, like Tom Posey, who we introduced  back in early March, stick around and get their fingernails dirty, helping out. (Perhaps we’ll get Tom to tell his own story with a guest slot on this blog a little later in the season.) We’ve watched our subscribers’ kids grow up knowing where their food comes from and bringing their friends to the pickups to show them around the place. Some folks just like communing with the turkeys each week.

The thing is, with a CSA the farm becomes a real place in your life and food is more than a disembodied, shrink-wrapped package you toss in a cart at the supermarket. You can sample the peas while they are still on the vine, sniff the basil out in the field and check to see how the spinach is coming along. In the fall, you get to press the juice out of the apples and you can reach into a nesting box to collect a just-laid egg that is still warm to the touch.

After you’ve done that, Farmville just doesn’t cut it.

Persephone

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The Season, that is, this blog, began with the arrival of the interns March 1. But the real opening day comes this Saturday with the start of the Bainbridge Island Farmers Market.

It’s a big deal. The local papers will run articles and pictures and signs go up everywhere. Two decades ago, when the market was new, it was just a collection of folks in a parking lot selling a few vegetables off card tables. Now, with four rows of tents offering everything from fava beans to felted hats, and professional musicians playing in the background, the market is a much-anticipated weekly event, a local agora, and a staple of local real estate pitches.

Between now and Saturday, Persephone Farm will be going flat out—everyone up at dawn harvesting the salad, rhubarb, beets, braising greens, chard, kale and other vegetables that will fill our market stand. We’re still a week or two away from spinach and radishes, but there are eggs to be washed, salad weighed, broccoli trimmed. And Sunny, the farm’s 38-year-old, canary yellow, Chevy pickup, will get a fresh supply of motor oil and have his bed swept out for the occasion.

Sunny

We don’t usually let Sunny off the farm—he’s a bit rusty, wheezy and cranky after nearly four decades of hard work, as might be said of us all. But this Saturday morning, and every Saturday morning for the next seven months, Sunny will lead the 16-mile parade from the farm to the market. His truck bed will be piled high with table tops, plant stands, E-Z Ups, bins of vegetables, and the rest of the market paraphernalia. We may even trim the grass growing out of his tailgate to make him a bit more presentable. Rebecca will follow with her van stuffed with flower bouquets. And behind her will come the interns, spruced up in their market finest. When they are done setting things up it will look something like this:

In a sense, the opening of the market establishes the pace that will gradually transform the remainder of the season’s days. Up to now, the focus has been on tilling beds, moving new starts out into the fields, introducing the chicks to the henhouse and generally adding to the farm’s inventory.

From now on, reaping will overtake sowing. As the season moves along, Thursdays and Fridays will become harvest days for the market. When our CSA begins in June, Tuesdays and Wednesdays will be given over to bringing in the produce and flowers that will fill our 70 subscriber boxes. Mondays, the farmers will be in the salad garden at dawn, picking for our restaurant customers. By summer, this production pace will be running at full throttle, with not a moment to waste.

Unless, of course, it gets really warm. Then we drop everything and head for the beach.

No time to think about that now, though. The leeks need to be trimmed and the beets want washing. See you Saturday, and bon appetit.

Persephone

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One of the pleasures of early spring on the farm is watching a sense of balance return to the place. Over the winter, a certain amount of discord and upheaval tends to set in. Without much green to peck on, for example, the chickens, turkeys and Cleo, our peacock, fall to squabbling among themselves over who is the alpha bird when the morning feed bucket arrives. The mice, voles and other rodent critters, deprived of their usual warm-weather veggie smorgasbord, gnaw at everything  in sight, turning overwintering turnips, carrots and chard into throwaways. In the greenhouse, droves of aphids take over.

By April, just about everyone, including the farmers, is ready for some order around here. And then, one day when the spring rains have let up, you look out the window and magic has happened. The gardens have gone from winter’s chaos to neat furrowed lines and blankets of gauzy row cover, laid out so precisely they look like a mid-Manhattan street grid. Young eagles and the red-tailed hawk that lives in the pasture next door have driven the rodents into hiding. The fowl are so deep in the new green shoots they’ve forgotten whatever it was that triggered their peckish behavior. And the aphids, after a soapy water bath, have gone wherever aphids go when they figure out they are insecta non grata.

But there is one loose bit of balance that will need to be tied up. Mongo, who our intern Mondrian describes as a “a Lab, Australian Shepherd, husky, chow mix” has not yet resolved matters with the farm cats.

Mongo

 The cats have tenure—Selmo arrived seven years ago, Oberon’s been here since 2006. Mongo showed up a little over a month ago in the passenger seat of Mondrian’s Toyota. Since then, he’s assumed the role of the lord of the yurt meadow, the stretch of grass between the interns’ yurts and the packing shed. You trespass on that turf, you answer to Mongo.

The cats prefer the area around the farmhouse at the top of the property. Selmo hunts in the perennial garden just below the house, proudly delivering his catch before dawn to the kitchen doormat. Oberon, who has put on quite a bit of weight since his arrival as a scrawny stray, watches.

selmo and oberon

And each morning, when Rebecca used to head down to the packing shed for the 7 A.M. briefing with Louisa and the interns, Selmo would tag along, maintaining a discreet distance, keeping just close enough watch to make sure everything was ship-shape. When the farmers headed out to start their early salad harvest, Selmo went with them, checking to make sure everyone was doing their job. When he was satisfied, he’d head for the house and he and Oberon would stretch out on the porch for a nap.

Not a demanding schedule, and nicely balanced.

Then Mongo arrived. Now, when Rebecca heads out in the morning, Selmo remains seated inside on the windowsill, watching his farmers from afar. No one keeps tabs on the salad garden anymore. Last week, when Mongo got a glimpse of Selmo venturing down toward the garden—his first clear evidence of the cats’ existence–he went nuts. Mondrian had to haul him to her yurt and lock him inside for the rest of the morning. The cats scurried under the house.

Clearly, a bit of the farm’s springtime realignment remains out of whack, but no one seems to know how to resolve matters in an equitable fashion. Selmo remains housebound, glaring at Mongo, who remains unrepentant and on patrol. The whole place has an undertone of tension to it. This screed is beginning to sound like a “Dear Abbie” plea for advice, so we’ll leave it hanging and keep you informed as events develop. But the lesson here is that farming requires balance, especially a small, complex farm like ours, where everyone and everything must co-exist in close proximity. Production must balance demand, predators must balance pests, and we all must balance out with each other.

Hear that Mongo?

Persephone

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