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You might say that our 2011 season began back in the mid-fall when Rebecca started fielding apprentice inquiries, but with the approach of winter the pace has begun picking up. And if  the past is prologue, we’ll get well over 100 serious applicants for our four openings this year. (Thank you George W. Bush for cratering the economy, so eight months of living in a yurt and pulling weeds on a Puget Sound microfarm looks like a good alternative to applying at Goldman Sachs.)

Depending on how you gauge these things, you also could say our four apprentice slots are more sought-after than a spot in next year’s freshman class at Harvard. But who’s keeping score, right?

our glamorous yurts

Rebecca has just started wading into this year’s pool of apprentice queries. The emails are piling up and they’re coming in at the rate of one or two a day. (Don’t let the Harvard thing scare you off. We don’t pick our apprenti by GPA. We’re looking for wanna-be farmers who are willing to work hard and eager to learn. Some applicants have  farming experience and are looking for a chance to polish skills gained from previous apprenticeships before heading out on their own. Some are total newbies. It is always an interesting mix. In the past we’ve had inquiries from a longtime golf pro–we picked him– and a guy serving time in prison in Texas–nope. Join the pile by writing Rebecca at www.persephonefarm.com )

Who knows how Rebecca’s mind works in these things, but she’s very good at picking  winners. Over the years, she’s chosen a personal chef, a gay bartender, a librarian, and a woman living in her car with her dog. They all turned out to be good farmers. 

Our applicants come from all over–many find us on the National Sustainable Information Service’s ATTRA   website or a similar site for prospective apprentices at Growfood.org. We’ve been listed on these sites for years and have found many of our apprentices by way of them. The sites are a terrific resource and worth checking out.

As a rule, Rebecca starts winnowing the list around mid-December. We lose some very good applicants right off because we insist on a couple of basic criteria: We don’t take smokers–in addition to the obvious health concerns, tobacco leaf virus, which sometimes shows up in cigarette butts, can be very destructive to many of the crops we grow.

You will also need a licensed and insured vehicle. That may seem harsh but we often use our cars and trucks during the season to transport produce to the farmers market and to our alternate CSA pickup site on Bainbridge Island. Plus we have found it is just a good idea to be able to get around on your own–you can see the lights of Seattle across Puget Sound from here, but in fact we’re in a very small town in a somewhat isolated spot, with limited access to mass transit.

sunny

On the other hand, we’re not too picky about vehicles around here. Our farm truck, Sunny, is bordering on antiquedom. One recent year a pair of our apprentices drove their VW van here from Denver. They made it as far as the farm’s front gate, where the van  wheezed and quit. They arrived on foot. (We eventually got the van moving and it made it through the season. For all we know, it is still running.) 

Finally, we require our apprentices to start March 1 and continue through the season, which ends Oct. 31. True, that is a long haul, but there is a lot to learn, from late-winter greenhouse planting in March to buttoning up the farm for winter in late October and we’ve found it is worth the effort.

We’d also strongly urge any prospective apprentice to spend a little time reading back in this blog to get a sense of life around here during a season. It changes every year, of course–this past season we seemed to spend more time on animals and weather than some years in the past. Next year–who knows?

In addition to sending us a resume and starting to collect a few references, you’ll spend a little time on the phone with Rebecca, if it gets to that. We’ve also found that a visit to the farm really helps us choose good candidates. That won’t work, of course, for those people who live far away but it gives those who can make it here a chance to get to know us a bit better as well as scope out the place. Eight months is a long time.

All in all, we’ve been remarkably fortunate when it comes to our apprenti. They’ve coped and laughed and learned and grown, and nearly everyone agrees that spending a season on the farm is life-altering. We’ve seen some dramatic shifts in perspective. One year, an apprentice showed up right from his graduation, with big plans for a career as an anthropologist. He’s doing pretty well raising cows and making cheese in Vermont now.

Hard to say what your measure of success is, but if you pay attention you’ll probably see that this whole microfarming thing can actually work as a business. Meanwhile, you’ll be amazed at how much stronger you’ll get, emotionally as well as physically, after a season here. Forking beds in the spring rain builds both character and muscles.

The point is, growth is what this whole season thing is about. Everybody learns, everybody grows–us too. No wonder we’re more popular than Harvard.

Persephone

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Six inches of the white stuff on the ground, and counting. Almost makes you want to start humming “Over the river and through the woods…” 

Almost.

But Rebecca and Louisa still had a bit of harvesting to do out here in the Brussels Sprouts beds for our winter CSA:

And some other chores too:

It was an impressive performance. In the midst of the season’s first snowstorm, subfreezing temperatures–and without power–the farmers managed to assemble all 22 winter CSA boxes and Rebecca delivered the 15 Bainbridge Island boxes to their Johnson Farm pickup site, and orders to our B.I. restaurant customers, Blackbird Bakery, Hitchcock and Pegasus cafe, with help from our neighbors Matt and Mary Rain and their four-wheel drive truck. Many, many thanks.

Traffic’s a mess, the power’s still out, but Thanksgiving dinner’s on the way. Welcome to The Season–frostbite version.

Happy holiday.

Persephone

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Anyone keeping track of the economy knows these can be precarious times when it comes to housing. Here today, gone tomorrow. Well, to stretch the parameters a bit, that goes for chickens too.

Our laying hens, all 26 of them, were evicted from their cozy home this week to make room for the new chicks. After a hard day of egg laying and pecking mites in the upper chicken run, the girls had just settled into their henhouse for the evening when Rebecca and Louisa appeared, armed with a pair of shears. Louisa clipped the outer feathers off each hen’s right wing. It doesn’t hurt–it’s kind of like getting a haircut, but no doubt more traumatic–and it keeps them grounded on their new turf.

And then the farmers packed the hens into carriers and toted them off to new digs on the lower pasture. All in all it went pretty smoothly–for the farmers at least. 

The move went from here:

Old hen house

To here on the lower pasture.

New hen house

From a chicken’s point of view–which, admittedly, we lack–the change probably wasn’t such a bad deal. There’s lots of grass around the new place and plenty of bugs to scratch up. We didn’t see much change in the egg-laying so the girls have probably adapted.

But from another perspective, nobody likes being booted out of their comfy old house, especially with a winter in the offing that everyone seems to think will be extra cold and wet. That new place looks a lot like a gypsy wagon to us, and kind of drafty even with the Astroturf Louisa used to line the laying boxes.

Plus, getting evicted for a bunch of youngsters can’t do an ego much good, even if that ego belongs to a chicken. You just know those hens spent their first night in the gypsy wagon grumbling about how they are the productive ones and the unfairness of it all.

Life on a farm does sometime mirror the larger world in strange ways. People are losing their homes all around us these days through no fault of their own. Likewise, they get pushed down the pecking order without so much as a say-so on their own behalf. Someone else always gets to make the big decisions, it seems.

We’ve been fortunate in what for too many folks has been a season of trial. We’ve still got the farm, plenty to eat, and more demand than we can satisfy for what we grow. Nobody has come out of the blue to boot us out of our home and our wings remain intact. No Astroturf, but then nobody’s expecting us to lay an egg every day either.

Makes you appreciate Thanksgiving.

Persephone

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Eight months is a long time. The apprentices are gone, scattered to both coasts, leaving behind one lone flip-flop, lying forgotten on the driveway. The sheep and a bunch of the birds have been butchered and packed away in the freezer for winter meals–our friend Judith Weinstock cooked three of the stewing hens in a delicious soup a couple of days ago for our weekly Wise Acres dinner. (You can see more about these dinners and Wise Acres at our May 10 post “Dinner for 40”)

We are moving into what one of our icons, Eliot Coleman, refers to as “the Persephone days.” In Greek myth, Persephone was the lovely daughter of Demeter and Zeus, spirited away to the underworld by Hades while picking flowers, not to re-emerge until spring. In her absence, the earth became a dark and barren place. Her return brought back sunshine and new life.

Rebecca chose Persephone for her farm’s name nearly two decades ago, an especially apt  name for a farm operated by two women. In addition to the sign hanging by the gate, one of the first things visitors see as they round the bend at the top of the driveway is a mural of the Persephone myth on the side of the washing shed. It was drawn several years ago by Thom, an Israeli woman who stopped off here for a couple of months during a world tour of visiting farms as part the Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WOOF) program.

Thom's mural

We’ve been especially fond  of Thom’s work and never more so than at this time of year, when the days grow dark and the mid-afternoon shadows of the now-leafless maples stretch across the pastures. It reminds us of the other half of the myth–the spring part–when things will come back to life again.

For now though, Louisa and Rebecca putter around the gardens tidying up loose ends, spreading mulches of fallen leaves on the garlic and leeks and digging up the remaining potatoes and onions for the winter CSA. We’ll be shoveling out the chicken run soon to make way for the new flock of laying hens and making sure there is enough gas to keep the generator going if the winter storms everyone is predicting, arrive.

It’s quieter these days down by the gate with the geese and hens gone and the swallows off somewhere in Central America. Some of the turkeys are still around and they let loose with a chorus of gobbles when provoked–it is always amusing to see perfect strangers outside the fence gobbling away to get the chorus started. But they tend to hang back especially since the pre-Thanksgiving culling of the flock.

We miss Mongo too. We watched him drive off in the back seat of the van our apprentice Mondrian and her friend Terry are driving back to the east coast for a couple of months r&r. We kind of got to like him, although he never really figured out the whole manners thing. His departure couldn’t come soon enough for the cats, Selmo and Oberon, who never did get along with that dog and are now slowly reclaming their territory down in the yurt meadow. 

Greg and Caitlin, two more of our apprenti, are headed for Vashon Island to spend next season farming  at Island Meadow Farm with Chandler Briggs, yet another former apprentice. And Joel, our fourth apprentice, will be heading for New Mexico for the holidays, but he too plans to come back this way for some kind of work that will likely involve animals. 

All in all, Persephone Days probably won’t be that dark this year, with apprentices, new and old, nearby and everyone settling in for some lazier days. We’ll still check in with a post fairly often to keep things current but we’re taking it slower too.

Persephone has moved on to her winter home but she’ll be back for the new season. And so will we.

Persephone

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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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