September 2010

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Giant Pumpkin

Everybody’s got to have a way out-there goal in life, right? Some folks aim to run a marathon in under three hours, some want to memorize the dictionary, a few are set on flying into space.

 And then, there is Rebecca. Ask her about her goal and she gets this dreamy expression.

“This year,” she says, with the look of someone headed up Mt. Everest, “I am going to grow a really, really big pumpkin.”

Well, why not? True, these things can get a tad obsessive, but how many of us follow through on our dreams. Lots, it turns out, if you move in giant pumpkin circles. There are whole clubs of these people out there, prepping pumpkins for stardom. And their pumpkin pinup is this 1,725-pound whopper in Ohio last year. (Check it out at www.bigpumpkins.com )

Whatever floats your fantasy. But it turns out growing giant pumpkins isn’t all that easy. It requires focus,  skill, space, a bit of luck and even an occasional administration of pumpkin steroids for those who choose to go that route, we’re told.

We aren’t into chemical additives, but Rebecca has been reading up on growing giant pumpkins–her favorite book, “The Perfect Pumpkin”, is put out by Storey Publishing. For this year’s quest, she planted three pumpkin seeds in May in the squash patch on our lower field. They all came from good stock–Dill’s Atlantic Giant seed company boasts it is the go-to outfit for serious giant pumpkins growers. Rebecca’s plan was to grow the pumpkins to a grotesque size, then hold a guess-their-weight contest with the best guesser getting the massive pumpkin.

She and Joel, our apprentice, named the three little starters Puff, Tinkerbell and Ezekial and right off you could just tell these were no ordinary pumpkins. Even the seeds were huge.

Puff perished early–we’re not quite sure why, but it seemed to be from dehydration. Giant pumpkins drink lots of water and they also like hot weather, something else that has been in short supply around here this year. We did give the other two, known among the farmers conversationally now as Tink and Zeke, plenty of compost and they appear to be doing just fine.

The hard part came yesterday when Rebecca decided to narrow her focus to a single pumpkin as we head into the back stretch of the season. Tink…Zeke, Zeke…Tink…not an easy choice. After some serious back-and-forthing she picked Zeke. (We’re not sure why. These things are intuitive, not always easy to explain.)

Anyway, Zeke it is. And here’s a snapshot of the farmer’s choice. We stuck a gallon milk jug next to him for comparison.

Zeke, the soon-to-be giant pumpkin

 With Zeke’s selection for stardom, Rebecca has begun some serious grooming of her prize pumpkin. For example, she’s snipping off all the plant’s competing female blossoms, like so:

Then there is the compost–we’re using our best stuff on Zeke. But the most interesting tactic is a deft slit in the pumpkin’s stem with a wick attaching Zeke to a bowl of  milk. Okay, that sounds a little off-the-wall. But according to giant pumpkin lore, pumpkins love milk. If it works, Zeke should have a growth spurt soon, kind of like what happens when your five-foot-five teenage boy starts slurping quart cartons of milk out of the refrigerator. Next thing you know, he’s six-foot-four.

Zeke chowing down at the milk bowl

Sadly, for those of us who love pumpkin pie, Zeke is being bred for size, not for eating. With any luck, later in October, our little pumpkin will turn into a musclebound  giant–like a dinner table partner who isn’t much of a conversationalist, but has dynamite abs. We’ll keep you posted on his progress and maybe, when he grows up, you can join in the fun and try your luck guessing his weight.

If you win–and Zeke grows the way Rebecca hopes he will–you can come by the farm and pick up a thousand pounds of inedible, but handsome, pumpkin.

Persephone

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One of our new volunteers at the farm, Michael Corcoran, is headed for the Peace Corps this winter. But meanwhile he’s helping out here. On Monday, while Michael and some of the apprentices were ripping out just-harvested corn stalks and trundling them to a compost pile, he asked an interesting question.

Why, he wondered, were we deconstructing one half of the cornfield while the other half was still being picked? What was the rush?

Anyone who has driven past a farm with a large cornfield in early autumn is familiar with the bucolic view of row-on-row of harvested cornstalks sitting in the sun, waiting to be cut down–one of these days. No hurry there.

But here we practice what is known as succession planting and that means farming on the run. Two days after Michael and the apprentices stripped out those corn stalks, our apprentice Mondrian was wrestling the roto-tiller through the cleared-off corn rows.

Mondrian and the rototiller

In the afternoon, Louisa and the rest of the crew moved in to seed the patch with a cover crop of field peas. When those peas mature later next month they’ll be tilled in and we’ll plant garlic there.

So it goes all over the farm–harvest, clear and replant, over-and-over. When you are growing the amount of food we need to grow to satisfy CSA subscribers, farmers market customers, restaurant clients and others, all from a bit over two acres of cultivated land, you can’t let the grass grow under your feet–or the corn stalks sit around in the field. We usually get three plantings of corn into the ground during the season. We’ll do four bean plantings this year.

Succession planting can take several forms. You can harvest one crop and then immediately plant another in the same ground. You can plant the same crop at timed intervals so one or another planting is always maturing. You can also put two or more complementary crops with different maturing dates into the same row.

We do all of these. We plant salad greens, for example, about eight times a season, staggering some varieties and growing others successively. We also sometimes grow lettuce and broccoli together since they have different plant architectures but similar growing requirements. And of course we intersperse these with cover-crop planting to help keep up soil fertility.

Generally, we prefer to let nature set the pace for the farm. But sometimes it helps to nudge nature along.

Consider what we’re talking about here. Not only are we planting a variety of crops that will be ready to harvest at various times through the season–dozens in our case–but sometimes we’ll do several plantings of the same crop so that it will be available for a longer period during the season. Take spinach. People love to eat spinach in the spring and we grow a lot of it then. But they also like it in the fall, so after we finished up our spring crop we cover-cropped the field for the early summer, then planted the spinach we’re harvesting now.

A lot of people picture farmers sitting on their tractors, spending the late summer days moving leisurely up and down rows of crops that have been in the ground since Memorial Day.  Here’s another picture:  It is 6 A.M. and still dark outside. Rebecca is at the dining room table poring over the weather forecasts and diagramming the farm layout, row-by-row for next week, next month, and next year–constantly tweaking each layout. Should we be planting broccoli or cauliflower soon? What about beets? Which rows should be set aside for next spring’s arugula harvest? What’s the prognostication on early frost this year?

Call it pre-dawn farming. It is part of her daily routine–before she joins the rest of the crew in the salad bed, cutting, washing and packing greens for the CSA, the market, or a nervous caterer who needs 35 pounds of fresh salad by noon.

As we’ve noted elsewhere, this ain’t Farmville or some other simplistic kind of video-game farming. It’s a highly integrated, very complex form of agriculture that takes a lot of focus–like constantly manipulating an agricultural Rubic’s Cube. If you want to run a  successful microfarm, you learn how to do that. And done right, you can produce an amazing amount of produce off a relatively small piece of land.

Just don’t plan to sleep in.

Persephone

We were pretty much ready to hang the “Summer That Never Was” tag on this one and be done with it. Chill gray mornings, faded sunlight when Old Sol has shown his face, rain on Labor Day–rain on Labor Day! We’ve gone swimming on Labor Day in other years. This year, fugeddaboutit.

That said, this weather has at least one upside–our flower gardens are blooming like gangbusters. The dahlias (those not poisoned with herbicide-tainted compost–see our Aug. 6, Clopyralid Redux post,) zinnias, marigolds and sunflowers, all are exploding in these cool, wet days.

And a good thing too, because we’ve got another crop flourishing around here now–brides. Every week seems to bring another wave of excited young women, (some with  confused-looking grooms-to-be in tow,) intent on planning every last detail of their weddings down to the last delphinium. 

It should be noted here for those readers not from this part of the country that June–the traditional wedding month elsewhere–is at best a crapshoot if you are planning an outdoor wedding around here. July is a better bet, especially the second half of the month, but if you really want to stack the weather odds in your favor the experts say stick with August and September.

Not this year, of course. This summer has been so weird that Rebecca tells brides to check in with her 24 hours before the ceremony so they can decide whether she should be making indoor or outdoor flower arrangements.

Still, the parade of brides trooping through the farm’s gardens to see their wedding flowers in the making is at full march these days.

A couple of plugs here. Our brides are often referred to us by our friends Hollis and Anne, who run The Farm Kitchen, one of the nicest and most interesting wedding venues in the area. We’ve also done quite a bit of work lately with the wedding people at Port Gamble, another beautiful spot to tie the knot.

Among her many talents, Rebecca is a floral designer and she spends a lot of time helping brides prep for what she inevitably refers to as “your special day.” During the garden tours, everyone usually ooohs and aaahs at the showy beds of dahlias and China Asters that seem to be putting on their own late summer fireworks display for the crowd.

It’s a nice break from the late-summer vegetable harvest, which can devolve into a bit of a treadmill six months into the season. The brides and their families go home happy and we generally feel pretty good ourselves. Now and then, a rogue bride will insist she must have lilacs or Lilies of the Valley or some other out-of-season flower that only blooms in Chile at this time of year, but most seem to crave the elegant simplicity of the bouquets we grow in our own gardens.

The bride’s bouquet is Rebecca’s piece de resistance and she usually takes hours getting it just right. “Only the most perfect flowers are suitable for the bridal bouquet,” she says. Bridal bouquets, in other words, are the all-star team of the flower garden.

Here’s a sample of Rebecca’s latest work done for a wedding over Labor Day weekend.

The bride was Jeannie Duncan and her wedding took place at St. Paul’s Church in the historic New England-style community of Port Gamble.

We bring all this up because one of the things that makes a microfarm like ours work is diversity. It is no secret that most big monocrop farms struggle to make money–a lot of wheat, corn and soybean operations would be in the red most years without government subsidies.

We don’t do subsidies–diversity is our profit-making secret and brides are critical piece of that mix. When the economy cuts into restaurant sales, our CSA takes up the slack. In the slow season before the CSA kicks in, the farmers market often comes through. And brides, well, nothing really seems to slow down the wedding business at this time of year.

We’re dating ourselves, but we always liked that old song that goes: “Another bride/ Another groom/ Another sunny honeymoon/ Another season, another reason/ for makin’ whoopee.”

It’s apt. We might wish  for a bit more sunshine in this Summer That Never Was, but bride season is our reason too for makin’ whoopee.

Persephone

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Rebecca and Louisa often tell people that the most important and satisfying crop we raise on the farm is our annual group of apprentices. Way back in March when we started this blog we introduced this year’s group to you. We’ll have more input from them soon. But we are also proud of our former apprentices, some of whom are now running their own microfarms around the U.S. and just about all of whom are still actively involved in farming.

So in the spirit of fellowship we’d like to post this press release by one of our former apprentices, Chandler Briggs. He’s been farming for a couple of years now on Vashon Island, a few miles down Puget Sound, and he’s becoming a nexus for other young farmers through The Greenhorns, a national young farmers’ group. You can learn more about the group here and if you are in the area why not head to Vashon Oct. 4 for their Seattle-area gathering.

Here’s the press release:

Washington’s Young Farmers to Convene on Vashon Island

Grassroots Event Signals the Emergence of New Agricultural Leaders

SEATTLE – The Greenhorns, a national nonprofit organization led by a raucous posse of America’s new generation of farmers, will host a mixer for young and beginning farmers at the Vashon Island Grange Hall on Monday, October 4th at 5pm. An inaugural grassroots gathering, this event is co-sponsored by Northwest regional leaders in sustainable food and agriculture.

The Washington Young Farmer Mixer & Spit Roast is a multi-purpose event for networking and co-inspiration that will boost next generation entrepreneurs in a state where agriculture has long been the largest employer. These young farmers need and deserve support. Professional resources will be on-hand for over 100 young, aspiring and beginning farmers, rural & urban, from PCC Farmland Trust, Cascade Harvest Coalition and Farmlink. Attendees will mingle, swap seeds and learn while enjoying free farm-fresh food from local sponsors and listening to live music by The Tallboys and Polka Dot Dot Dot. The Washington Mixer is unique in hosting the preview screening of “The Greenhorns” documentary film about America’s young farmers movement, slated for wide release in 2011.

As in many other areas of the country, Washington’s young farmers are quietly leading a shift in agricultural demographics. USDA statistics show that Washington’s and the nation’s farmers are aging overall, with an average of 57 years old for principal operators in the most recent survey of 2007. However, Washington experienced a 32% increase in the number of principal farm operators 34 years-old and younger, between 2002 and 2007. During this same period, the number of all farmers under 25  – principal operators or not – more than tripled nationally. Those aged 34 or under more than doubled. These and other data describe a situation in which the prevalence of very old veteran farmers (65 years-old and older) dims the statistical reality and potential of a wave of new entrants. Events such as the Vashon Island mixer demonstrate that the crisis of aging is in fact being met by a movement of tenacious newcomers. This is a party with purpose.

WHO:                   The Greenhorns (http://www.thegreenhorns.net/)

The National Young Farmer Coalition (http://www.youngfarmers.org/)

WHAT:                 Washington Young Farmer Mixer & Spit Roast

WHEN:                 Monday, October 4th, 2010 at 5pm

WHERE Vashon Island Grange Hall, North End Park & Ride Parking lot, Upper lot

Walking distance from the Vashon Ferry, a pedestrian/bus/bike accessible event

10365 S.W. Cowan Road Vashon, WA 98070 Google Map

 

Contact for more information: Chandler Briggs (206) 463-0341 chandler@riseup.net