Apprentices

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This year’s season began at 11 Wednesday morning when Debbie Jauch drove her black and silver Kenworth dump truck through the farm gate (sending the watching chickens into a dither of feathers and squawks), spun the 105,000 pound behemouth into the lower pasture, and, in a nifty bit of dump-truck artistry, laid a huge pile of compost on the precise spot Rebecca and Louisa had selected.

compost dump

Ms. Jauch’s arrival was a kind of seasonal sign–like the first robin. You need compost to get a farm going and while we have plenty of the stuff sitting in steaming piles on the lower pasture, Rebecca and Louisa are still uneasy about its provenance. We know for a fact that some of those piles contain aminopyralid and clopyralid–two very potent herbicides made by Dow AgroSciences that, while they are harmless to humans, could cause much damage to some of the plants we raise if they were spread out on the fields.

We know this because, after a long hiatus since a state Ag. Dept. inspector tested those piles last summer, we were finally sent a report showing what was in the piles. Bad news there–trace elements of both herbicides, which made their way from some eastern Washington hay and wheat growers, through a horse farm that supplies our compost manure, and into our piles. Dow has since said it plans to tighten controls over their products to cut off that process. We’ll see how that works out, but meanwhile we’re pondering what to do with our existing piles.

Thus, the arrival of Ms. Jauch and her dump truck. Rebecca spent the winter scouting around for compost we could be certain was herbicide-free. Turns out that is almost impossible since most compost sellers either don’t know their product can still be tainted (Washington banned the spraying of clopyralid on lawns a decade ago to keep the contaminated clippings out of compost, but failed to do anything about hay) or they don’t test and therefore don’t know what’s in there. We’ve heard from loads of other Washington farmers and gardeners who have had compost contamination problems similar to ours.

Ms. Jauch’s compost came from Cedar Grove, a composting company that says it doesn’t allow manure in its product. It’s amazing what goes into compost–we’ve had sellers tell us they’ve found everything from particle board to ground-up plastic in their material. In any event, Ms. Jauch’s compost was black, with a rich, earthy aroma. We hope nothing else was in there. 

Ms. Jauch and her dump truck were barely out the gate before things began humming–new beds being measured out, beds turned over, seeds being sown. Two of our new interns–Tess Faller and Hiram Peri–got their foul weather gear muddied up for the first time. The other two, Adam Favaloro and Katt Tolman won’t arrive until the end of the month. We’ll have a more complete introduction then.

In their stead, Joel Sokoloff, one of last year’s interns, will be filling in for a couple of weeks until he moves out to Chimacum, on the Olympic Peninsula, to his next farming gig at Red Dog Farm. We got them all to pose for a quick snapshot.

Hiram, Tess and Joel

Meanwhile, Louisa was firing up her tractor to begin prepping part of our lower field for a new raspberry patch. Last year, that field was the domain of our sheep, but things never seem to stand still for long around here. We decided to forego sheep this year and raspberries seemed like a pretty good alternative use of the pasture. They grow well in our cool summer weather and there is an almost inexhaustible demand for fresh berries and for jam.

Plus, there’s not much that beats picking your breakfast off bushes right outside your door. Still, it was kind of sad watching that lovely green pasture disappear under Louisa’s box scraper. It didn’t take long to go from this.

                                        To this:

                           To this:

So it goes: A little lime to improve the soil, a bit of rain, some rototilling and planting and, voila, a new raspberry patch.  Agricultural statisticians tell us we’re losing about an acre of U.S. farmland every minute to developers. In our own small way we’re working to reverse that trend.

Persephone

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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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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

 

 

 

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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Maybe it’s the weather, or tradition, or the fact that one of Persephone Farm’s farmers is named Slattery, but March 17—St. Patrick’s Day—generally marks the start of potato planting around here. That’s the day when we transfer the sacks of seed potatoes that have spent the winter chilling out in Louisa’s pump house to a sunnier spot to begin to bring them back to life.

This year, the potatoes, which are about the size of hen’s eggs, have spent the last couple of weeks on the floor of the greenhouse, basking in the sun like Florida vacationers. Some years, when it is still cool, Rebecca brings them into the farmhouse to warm them up. One year, we had a couple of hundred stashed under the bathtub for a few weeks. But we’ve had an unusually warm winter in the Northwest and some of the more ambitious varieties, like the All Blues, already had nine-inch green shoots pushing up from the potato bodies when Rebecca, Louisa and the interns moved them out to the lower field yesterday.

Potatoes are a one-day planting extravaganza around here. By noon, the farmers had eleven 50-foot beds prepped and ready to go. The winter cover crop of rye grass and field peas were mowed down with the weed whacker and rototilled under, laced with compost, then tilled again. The interns got their first try at using a broadfork, a peculiar device that airs out the soil. Ours comes from Johnny’s Select Seeds in Albion, Maine, and was designed by Eliot Coleman, a icon for microfarmers everywhere. It has two wooden handles and five long tines. You jump on it and wiggle it around to loosen things up, then pull back on the handles. Like this:

We are planting eight varieties of potatoes this year: Ozette, Desiree, German Butterball, Carola, Rose Fir Apple, All Blue, Red French Fingerling and Yellow Finn. Some of these are heritage varieties, potatoes with a past, with histories as colorful as their names.

Ozettes, for example, came up the coast from their original home in South America in 1791, carried by Spanish explorers to the far northwest tip of the Olympic Peninsula. The peninsula’s fierce winter storms drove the Spaniards out after just one season, but they left their potatoes behind. After that, the knobby little fingerling potatoes all but disappeared from circulation. The only farmers who raised them on this continent were the Makah Indians, whose reservation sits on the rugged outer coast, and they weren’t discovered by outsiders until the 1980s. Now our farm and a couple of other small farms in the area raise Ozettes and they are becoming a  local star, much prized by chefs for their creamy texture and earthy flavor.

When the potato harvest concludes in October we will hold a potato showdown in the packing shed. Rebecca prepares samples of each spud variety, boiling some and roasting others with a little olive oil and salt. Then everyone sits down–farmers, apprentices and anyone else hanging around—and digs in. The potatoes are rated on their flavor, texture and general eating pleasure. Based in part on this scientific process, we usually drop some varieties and add others every year, but every variety has its fan club and no potato wins all the time.  Louisa always votes for the Red French Fingerlings; Rebecca is a Rose Fir Apple fan. Our current interns, Greg and Caitlin, who have some potato experience after a hitch on a farm in Maine, already have announced they are voting for German Butterballs, which they say make the best home fries and hash browns.

We’ll see. But everyone agrees that the heritage breeds are much tastier than the bakers you buy at the supermarket. Each year, we send out a questionnaire to our CSA subscribers at the end of the season. And every year, in the comment section, several subscribers sing the praises of our potatoes over storebought varieties. (Well, not every year. Back during the Atkins low-carb diet days no one seemed to want any kind of potatoes. Thank goodness that’s over and done with.)

Another nice thing about potatoes, from the farmer’s perspective, is they offer plenty of bang for your buck. Most years, we can expect ten pounds of harvest potatoes for each pound of seedlings we put in the ground, A really good year might get us up to 20 pounds. It all depends on rain and the summer weather.

Of course we’d be nuts to predict in April what kind of weather we’ll be getting in July. Oh, why not? Our potatoes are safely bedded down for this year and we won’t see any late blight, or flea beetles, or whithering sun, or untimely frost, and we’ll need dump trucks instead of wheelbarrows for the harvest.

April fool.

Persephone

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

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

Raam

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Persephone

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

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

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

Tom Posey friend of Persephone

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

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

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

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

Persephone