October 2010

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Every evening, late in the season, we try to make time to watch the sun go down. The light at the end of the day can take your breath away; suddenly, the leaves on the trees are on fire and then, just as quick as it came, the fire disappears and the air takes on a new chill. Usually, this warmth/chill pattern would result in some fine fall tree colors. This year is far from normal and the Big Leaf Maples either haven’t turned yet or have turned a dull yellow. We’ll settle for a few stunning sunsets.

Low tunnels

We’re closing in on the end of the eighth month of this season and as it winds down it’s nice to make time  for these brief, fiery displays. The rest of it is going fairly smoothly–the corn is gone, replaced by new garlic beds, the other beds are mostly ready for winter. We’ve put up new low tunnels over the salad garden to wring as much heat out of these final weeks as possible.

Meanwhile, the apprentices have been busy sowing winter cover crops of rye vetch, wheat and some Austrian field peas. Next week will be the final farmers market and CSA pickup. And then–well, the appentices are already planning for the future (more on this in another post) and running down a final list of field chores to prepare for winter. Our neighbor and uber-shutterbug Bob Dash caught Caitlin yesterday as she dug out some of the last of the old sunflower stalks.

We’re still not finished. Early next month we will kill the lambs–yes, that’s a harsh way of putting it, but this is a working farm not a petting zoo, and we will do it as quickly and painlessly as is possible. Their meat will feed us through the winter and their wooly coats,tanned and fluffed, will make lovely Christmas presents next year.

Lambs in October

On the other side of the ledger we just installed 25 baby chicks in the brooder pen in the barn. They’re spending their first days warming themselves under the heat lamp and are already learning to peck food and drink water.

The New Chicks

These little girls (and a couple of guys we suspect) will stay in the barn for a month or so and then go into the upper chicken run to wait out the winter. Until the spring they’ll spend their time in and under the henhouse. The hens in that run now will get shifted to the lower pasture.

There’s a point to all this shifting around. The young chicks will be protected from the harsh weather in the upper run’s sheltered henhouse. And after the lambs are gone we’ll turn the older hens out onto the sheep pasture where they can forage, pecking out the parasites and larva from the sheep manure.

The hens love that stuff and digest it efficiently, fertilizing the land with their own droppings. At the same time they clean up the pasture so those parasites and eggs don’t find their way into next year’s flock of lambs. We suspect we lost our lamb, Weakie, to worms that infected this year’s flock from leftover manure.

There’s a nice sense of conclusion to all this. And to top things off our giant pumpkins, Zeke and Tink, became birthday presents this weekend. Rebecca offered our neighbor Clara a choice for her personal pumpkin to celebrate her eighth birthday.

Clara & Zeke

Clara chose Tink and her folks hauled both giants over to Wise Acres common house for her birthday party. We held a contest to guess Zeke’s weight with the winner getting to take Zeke home. The guesses ranged from ten pounds to 500 pounds, which probably reflects how you see the world if you are eight years old or 50 years old. Zeke weighed in at 94 pounds and the winning guesser–Elizabeth Unsel–posed for a picture.

Elizabeth & Zeke

So that’s where we are at this late stage in the season. Harvest mostly in, winter fields planted, lambs munching their last grass, chicks keeping warm, apprentices pondering the future, kids growing older–well we’re all getting older–and Elizabeth, she’s trying to figure out what to do with 94 pounds of pumpkin.

The wheel does keep turning.

Persephone

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We buried Weakie over the weekend. That’s the name the apprentices gave to the runt lamb in the small flock we put out on the lower pasture last April. Joel found him Saturday, down in the sheep pasture, with his colleagues apprehensively sniffing his body. Joel hitched a rope around Weakie’s hind legs, dragged him away, and covered him with wood shavings. On Sunday, Louisa dug a deep hole with the tractor and Weakie was consigned to the earth.

In one sense Weakie had a pretty good run. He and the other six lambs spent the summer having their pasture pretty much to themselves. Louisa and the apprentices coaxed the lambs over their bipedal uneasiness by shaking alfalfa pellets in a can and that got them running each time they spotted someone who looked like they might have a treat. It’s been a good summer grass-wise too, with lots of rain and moisture and none of the usual heat that turns fresh green meadow grass to straw around here.

Last month, we noticed blood on Weakie’s hindquarters, a sure sign the lambs needed worming. We did that, but the worms had apparently done irreparable damage to the smallest lamb and he was having trouble keeping up with the rest of the flock–hence his name. 

Like everything else around here things go along just fine–until they don’t. There are many, many details that must be attended to or they will come around to bite you in the behind, or in this case kill one of your lambs. We had gotten a bit complaisant about the lambs–they seemed content and we pretty much left them to their own devices. We should have been watching for signs of trouble and we missed a big one until it was too late.

So now there are six lambs on the pasture and they will graze until early next month. Then they’ll all join Weakie, at least in spirit. The rest of them will go into the freezer for dinner.

Persephone

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As if we have not been tossed around enough by the weather goddesses we now get to have our noses rubbed in it. We’re in the midst of a set of lovely fall days–highs in the upper 60s, lows in the upper 40s–with enough sun to let us strip to our tee shirts by mid-afternoon and watch the squash, corn and tomatoes sit there in the field, still green and waiting to ripen, day after day.

unripe squash

But they won’t, of course. The sun is already too low in the sky and the days are too short. Those squashes can read the weather signs–maybe better than we can–and they’ve pulled their remaining energy back from fruiting. That was last month’s work, when the sun was supposed to shine, but didn’t.

We’ve already given up on the bush beans and ripped them out. We’ll be tearing up the squash vines soon to make room for planting next year’s garlic crop. Our weather guru, Cliff Mass, says nighttime temperatures will soon be down in the upper 30s, so we will probably end up throwing those veggies–unripe and uneaten–into the compost pile.

Thanks for the sunny afternoons, weather goddesses.  You sure know how to rub it in.

Persephone

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This just in–take a look at this year’s giant, giant pumpkin here. Looks like Zeke’s got a way to go for the trophy. No mention of a milk diet.

Persephone

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We turned to our well-thumbed Websters New World Dictionary to get a precise definition of the word ‘greenhorn’ and Websters told us it means, “An inexperienced person; beginner; novice.”  That’s not quite an accurate description of the young farmers who came together at the Greenhorns gathering on Vashon Island Monday night to celebrate their ag status.

Most of the attendees–including our own apprentices–have put in many hours in the field and are becoming pretty well-versed in this new kind of diversified micro-agriculture. As our appentice, Greg Reed, reports, farming is in sore need of new blood and this group may represent the future, a promising counter to the more publicized trend of the aging American farmer. Here’s Greg’s report and some pictures Rebecca shot of the gathering.

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“Along with Persephone farm’s four resident interns and co-owner Rebecca Slattery, more than two hundred people gathered at the Vashon Island Grange Hall Monday night for an evening of food, music and dancing at the Washington Young Farmers Mixer and Spit Roast. The line wound through the hall and out the door for hours for a feast of homegrown, donated vegetables, cheese and pies. The dinner was cooked by volunteers and Vashon chef Meredith Molli of Vashon’s La Boucherie and included a brace of suckling pigs sizzling on a homemade spit.

Food may have been the filler but the driver for the gathering was farming. The farm apprentices mingled with start-up farmers, friends, resource providers and farm owners while The Tallboys and  Polka Dot Dot Dot played roots music for the crowd. It was a chance to socialize, share our passion for farming, and get to know regional organizations like The Greenhorns, National Young Farmers Coalition, Sustainable Connections, and others supporting both local agriculture and young farmers. When the dinner was over, there was a square dance and the hall and yard out back was packed.

 

While the USDA says America’s farmers are aging–half of all American farmland is owned by folks over 55 and half of them are likely to retire in the next decade–we are seeing a new trend in the making here in Washington. In our state, we had a 32 percent jump in the number of farmers  under 35 between 2002 and 2007.   

For the sustainable foods movement to continue to flourish and to grow, this means that young people must step forward and farm. But there are some big hurdles, including gaining access to land and the financial capital to farm it, affordable health care, and continuing education.

 It’s hard to say exactly what community events looked like more than one hundred years ago, when America’s Grange movement was in full swing and small farmers across the country gathered in grange halls to organize. But Vashon’s wood-trimmed grange was a fitting setting for young farmers of Washington gathered in pursuit of their dreams; a chance to participate in shifting our industrialized food system towards one that lives, breathes, and brings health to our land and to our people.

 

As the season winds down and Caitlin and I get ready to move on from Persephone, we take with us honed skills. Two seasons of working on small farms have taught us as much as we had hoped for. Now, we’re ready to strike out on our own.

We’ll be farming next year with a friend who is working leased land. It will be a part-time venture; we look for other work to afford it and to help pay our bills. As long as food prices remain as artificially low as they are now, farming will remain a risky and vulnerable way to carve out a living, but we want to find a way to make it work in the long-term. We are dead-set on continuing to grow food for ourselves, our families and our community. After eating from the fields instead of grocery store shelves, I don’t think I could do it any other way.

While stepping out of the nest and into the world, it is good to know that we are doing it in the company of friends and others with similar goals and needs. They say that high tide floats all boats, and the metaphor works for farming too. There is a movement afoot, an incoming tide. We, the young farmers, our proponents, mentors and families, are the ships and we’ll all rise together.

Let’s hope we are buoyant. I know we are strong.

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If there is one thing that doesn’t change on a farm like this it is that everything keeps changing. We’re getting down to the tail of the season and we realized we’ve left some loose ends undone. We’ve got a new post in the works on the big Young Farmer do Monday evening over on Vashon–our current intern, Greg, will be your correspondent on that and we’ve got some nice pix.

But meanwhile, here are a few updates on some of those loose ends.

The sheep: This has been a pretty good summer sheep-wise. The rain and cool weather produced a nice crop of grass on the lower pasture and the seven lambs have had it all to themselves since we put them out there last April. We wormed them last month without incident.

Last year’s sheep were pretty anti-social (and for good reason–we recently received a parcel from our processor with their tanned and fluffed sheepskins.) That day is approaching for this bunch too but this year’s herd is different. They’ve learned to associate humans with treats and come running as soon as a human ventures onto their pasture. They’re all still healthy and while we occasionally hear coyotes howling down that way in the middle of the night–and have even run out to chase them away at 2 a.m.–we haven’t lost any animals.

And you can see from the photo they’ve been into the alfalfa pellets and have packed on a bit of weight.

The lambs

Chocolate: Ah yes, Chocolate. Everybody, it seems, knows Chocolate and his harem, the five turkey hens. People stop on the road and peer in to see what’s, ahem…up. He’s been a busy turkey–31 offspring at last count. Here’s a snap of the man himself:

Chocolate and some of his harem

As we have previously noted Chocolate has matured from his younger, randy self into a great dad. The turkey babies are babes no longer, but he still shepherds them around the turkey pen like a scout leader. Louisa says Chocolate has now achieved the title of “stock producer” and will probably make it through Thanksgiving unscathed this year.

The Geese: Well, they’re not those cute fuzzy little goslings we saw earlier in the season. They are now full grown and greet everyone coming in the farm gate with noisy honks. It’s hard to tell whether these are friendly “How’ya doing. Cmon in” greetings or they’ve just turned into a turf-conscious pair of old biddies. Louisa says their future pretty much depends on their attitude and whether they refrain from pecking her when she goes into the pen to put away the turkeys for the night. We vote to keep them.

the geese

Zeke, the Great Pumpkin: Rebecca is still feeding Zeke old milk–and he’s still lapping it up, or whatever pumpkins do. But a month after Zeke was but a mere 20-pound stripling he’s suddenly blossomed into a 100-plus pound goliath. That’s just a guess since Zeke won’t be formally weighed until the end of the season. But these days he’s sprawled out over the pumpkin patch like Jabba the Hutt. He’s probably three times the size of Tink, the other giant pumpkin who Rebecca did not put on milk diet.

Zeke the great pumpkin

We’ve got more updates coming on Mongo and the cats, on Clopyralid and maybe on this year’s zucchini race. But we’ll leave it at that for now. Stay tuned for Greg’s report and pix on the young farmers’ gathering Monday.

Persephone

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bee and apple blossom

One of the highlights of our season has been our annual apple pressing. It usually takes place in early October and has become a local favorite, especially for kids who love to help turn apples into cider. Folks generally bring their own apples and apple dishes, and we provide the hand press, some apple nibbles and plenty of music, plus a bunch of our own fruit.

Not this year though.

In addition to being the Summer That Wasn’t we also lost another critical piece of weather this season. Usually, just about the time the apple blossoms flower in the spring, we get a stretch of nice weather. During that weather window pollinators–bees–stream into the orchard and the place comes alive with busy insects.

To get apples those bees must shift pollen from the stamen of one type of apple blossom to the pistil of another. They do it by tracking pollen from flower to flower as they flit around gathering honey. It’s elementary biology and the equation is pretty simple: spring sunshine + bees + apple blossoms=apples in the fall.

We could elaborate at length on this but the New York Times did a nice job in this recent story on pollinators.

It sounds like the East Coast had plenty of pollination this year, but here in the Northwest everything fell out of sync. Instead of sunshine, it was cold and rainy during apple blossom time. The bees don’t fly in that weather, so they stayed home. The blossoms came and went, many unpollinated, and now only about a third of our trees are bearing fruit.

Take a walk through the orchard now and it is feast:

 Or famine.

 The Spartans, Fiestas and Empires did just fine. Our Tomkins County Kings–a staple here in most years–were a bust.

Like so many things on a farm, it’s a delicate dance. When the timing works the results can be very satisfying. Our Japanese plums, for example, caught the flower/bee cycle just right and they fruited like gangbusters this year. The European Plum trees next door flowered a bit early and bore no fruit at all. Our cherry trees were so bare of fruit that Louisa didn’t even bother netting them, leaving the handful of ripening cherries for the birds,

So it goes. We’ve had a few apple pies this fall, but we’ll miss the homemade cider. And, even more, we’ll miss our friends and neighbors and the whole ceremony of making cider.

Better luck next year.

Persephone

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Generally, it is not a good idea to stray very far from the farm during the season. But this year has been unusual in many ways and it was time to leave the place in the capable hands of Louisa and the apprentices and take off for a bit.

So we did, heading north to British Columbia and Salt Spring Island to visit our former apprentices Zack Hemstreet and Molly Wilson. Zack proposed to Molly during their Persephone Farm apprenticeship two years ago and last year we attended their wedding back in North Carolina. Zack, Molly and Molly’s family recently bought a farm on Salt Spring. We could go on about those two and about their new island home–hard to beat seeing such energetic and talented people setting their own roots in such beautiful soil.  

But instead we’ll pass along this factoid from the Salt Spring Driftwood:About six percent of the food consumed by Salt Spring’s 10,000 residents is grown locally, according to the newspaper. We’re not sure who is keeping score, but if it is so, that is impressive. Around here, another farmer friend, Gerard Bentryn, who lives on Bainbridge Island and operates Bainbridge Island Vineyards and Winery, has been laboring for years to convince folks to make at least one percent of their meals from local produce.

Which brings us to the issue of food miles. Buy Local advocates often cite research that says most of the food we put on the table travels an average of 1,500 miles to get there, adding substantially to the pollution of the environment. That number comes from a 2001 study by Iowa State University’s Leopold Center a decade ago and, for us, it is probably wrong. That’s because the Iowa researchers focused their calculators on Chicago. Here in the Northwest, we’ve probably got more buyers of local produce per capita than  Chicago. Similarly, our ratio of farmers markets and other outlets for local produce is probably higher. And we’re seeing an impressive number of new young microfarming entrepreneurs like Zack and Molly in this area. (We’ll have a post on this next week)

Still, there has been a food miles argument going for the last couple of years and we’ve been itching to add our two cents. We’ll focus on the research that is often cited by critics of the food-miles thesis–“Yes, We Have No Bananas: A Critique of the ‘Food Miles’ Perspective”which was published in 2008 by the Mercatus Center of George Mason University in Virginia and written by Pierre Desrochers, a Canadian geographer, and Hiroko Shimizu, a Japanese economist. Google it and you’ll get more than 850 references, from the New York Times to Cattle Today magazine.

Desrochers and Shimizu maintain that the food-miles claim is a sham, dreamed up as a marketing ploy by Buy Local proponents and other locavores. As an environmental and economic strategy, they maintain, you’d do better buying apples flown in from New Zealand than apples picked in Yakima. Further, they maintain that specialized agriculture such as large-scale monocropping in Third World countries is more energy and labor efficient and less environmentally wasteful than locally produced food, even with long-distance shipping costs factored in.

The Mercatus study is not the first to push the economic advantages of using cheap labor, warm climates and scaled-up specialized planting to divide the world up into growers and consumers. British economist David Ricardo made that argument two hundred years ago. In 2006, New Zealand’s Lincoln University produced its own study arguing that grass fed lamb from New Zealand and sold 11,000 miles away in Britain has a carbon footprint four times smaller than homegrown grainfed British lamb. 

We’ll get to that. But before we do we ought to point out that some of George Mason U’s, and the Mercatus Center’s, biggest backers are two oil billionaires, David and Charles Koch. The Koch brothers are–or were–relatively unknown, but they gave George Mason more than $30 million between 1985 and 2002 to preach their gospel of market-based economics and far-right causes, most of which benefit their own business.

The Kochs were reluctantly thrust into the spotlight recently in an article by journalist Jane Mayer in The New Yorker magazine. Mayer documents that the Kochs have spent hundreds of millions of dollars pushing their worldview through a bunch of front groups and academic operations. They have also been major backers of  the Tea Party movement and have funded spurious attacks on President Obama and Mayer documents that they’ve also used these fronts to attack proponents of global warming.

Mayer’s reporting is her usual thorough job so there’s no need to pile on here. But we will add that Richard Fink, the Washington lobbiest for Koch Industries, was one of the Mercatus Center’s founders and David Koch sits on its board. 

As for Desrochers and Shimizu’s argument, well, we probably qualify as part of that activist locavore bunch–we grow and sell food and we are enthusiastic Buy Local proponents. You can do a lot with numbers. You can, for example, argue as Desrochers and Shimizu do that storing apples for months in a refrigerated warehouse in Yakima so they can be sold in supermarkets offseason, uses more energy than flying in fresh Granny Smiths from New Zealand in those offseason months.

But these arguments begin to crumble if you add seasonal eating to the Buy Local equation. If you crave strawberries in February, clearly those berries won’t be produced as efficiently or environmentally as they could be in the Southern hemisphere, even if you have to fly them thousands of miles to market. You could also probably grow them under heat lamps in Cleveland, for that matter, but why not wait for spring and eat them fresh from the field?

We eat peaches in September and apples in the fall, when they are ripe and ready in our orchard, not in April, after they’ve been sitting around in cold storage for months. We purchase berries off local farms in the growing season, not in the middle of winter when they have to be trucked up from Mexico.

In short, with the exception of an occasional California avocado or Florida orange–which we can’t grow locally–we mostly buy and eat fruits and vegetables that are raised right here, when they’re harvested here. We’re lucky in that regard–it would probably stretch any gourmet chef’s ingenuity and budget to buy only local produce year-round in Chicago.

(Nonetheless, another 2001 study by Iowa State’s Leopold Center measured the cost of a basket of vegetables purchased at Iowa farmers markets and found they were about 10 percent cheaper per pound than a similar basket of non-local produce from the supermaket. We also track the cost of our produce here on the farm versus the same supermarket produce and have found a similar contrast in our favor.) 

The real answer to the food-miles dilemma may be to take a new look at our collective diet. Perhaps Brits can do without New Zealand lamb and British farmers can figure out how to grow their animals without large infusions of energy consuming grain. We certainly can do without California strawberries in February. Our diets have been largely shaped by giant agribusiness companies that profit by introducing and then catering to demand for out of season and non-local produce. There is evidence that eating in synch with the seasons is healthier than the helter-skelter diet urged on us by these giant purveyers. 

This post has become awfully lengthy, and we didn’t even include any pictures. But healthy, tasty, locally grown food is what we’re about here on our farm and we think it is worth a post to remind people of that now and then.

We’ll get back to Chocolate, the horny turkey, and other topics quite soon.

Persephone

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