The Season

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We could probably write an entire digital riff on snapdragons without breaking much of a sweat–how they tend to dominate the garden when they appear, how some flowers gently waft into your consciousness and some, like this bunch, blast right to your frontal cortex, and how these blooms signify that a very elusive summer is here, at least for the moment–and it is not a moment to waste.

But why go on blathering when we have more graphic evidence fresh from our camera. So here’s a little pictorial tour of the farm on a rare sunny summer morning. (Enjoy it, we probably won’t have too many more to share this summer.)

The crew was up early this morning to get the onions out of the ground before the next round of storms blows in off the Pacific.


You can’t see the bees buzzing through our lavender beds but there are hundreds–maybe thousands–in there. Their hum and the lavender scent is almost a sensual overload.

English lavender

We spotted these perfect little strawberries hiding in the bed Louisa has been carefully tending through the spring. First we shot a picture of them–then we ate them.


Rebecca and three apprenti took a break from their morning field chores to trim radicchio in the packing shed. On the farm, you can’t waste a minute when the sun shines.


Lately, whenever we get a sunny day Rebecca has been leading prospective brides through our flower gardens. By the time they get to the daisy patch everyone is giddy.


Most mornings we scan The Stranger’s blog, the Slog, to see what David Goldstein is thinking. Today, he was boasting about the peas in his garden. Well Goldy, you want to see peas…


We saved this snapshot of one of the cherry trees in the orchard for the last. We didn’t get many cherries last year because the rain and chill kept the bees inside. So we’re treasuring this year’s bounty.


Hard to beat a sunny summer morning on a small farm.


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Farmers shouldn’t put things off. You do that and the next thing you know the place has gone all to hell–the garlic’s rotting in the beds, the hens have gone broody, or the blog has gone blank for a couple of months. Okay, we’re guilty of the latter, and we’re sorry.  There’s certainly been lots to report on since that last post back in April but we’ve just been too busy, too lazy–or a bit of both–to do it.

But we’re back at it now and we promise we’ll do better in the future. Here’s a quick update.

Katt & Adam

The Apprenti–In addition to Hiram and Tess, who showed up at the start of the apprentice period in early March (seems so long ago now) our other two apprentices, Adam Favaloro and Katt Tolman, arrived from New Orleans, as advertised, at the end of March.

 Katt and Adam are both Vassar grads and both have done a bit of farm work in the past–he on a goat farm last summer, she on a tree farm and a couple of shorter gigs on vegetable farms.


They brought along Dinah, their spunky dog, who is about the size of our largest cat, Obie.  Dinah, Obie and Selmo, the farm’s other cat, seem to have reached a turf accomodation, something they never really worked out with Mongo, last year’s visiting dog. When Dinah ventured too close to the kitchen door of the farmhouse–cat turf–Selmo scratched her and sent her howling back down to the yurt meadow, where she holds sway. After that, the boundaries pretty much aligned themselves and everyone settled down.

As for the apprentices–they seem to have worked things out pretty well too and have become an excellent crew. They’ll be terrific on their own farms some day.

Katt & Tess


Hiram has already amply demonstrated his kitchen skills–a dozen years working in various spots down in Bend, Ore. under his, ahem, belt. He’s this year’s cooler captain–a really critical job requiring good organization skills under pressure.  Tess is a source of boundless energy and good spirits. She was walking around in a tee shirt and bare feet when the temperature hit 50 degrees in April–probably reminded her of summer weather back home in New Hampshire.

The Weather–Ah yes, the weather. We broke a lot of records this spring, it was colder and  wetter than ever before, according to our favorite meteorologist, UW’s Cliff Mass. Cliff’s own misery measurement, the “Barbecue Index,” registered the wettest, coldest spring on record, with just five days over 60 degrees by June. We didn’t need a doctorate in meteorology to tell that, nature’s voice spoke louder–our first lettuce heads and first sweet turnips arrived weeks later than usual this year; the bouquets we are taking to the Bainbridge Island Farmers Market were lilac-less well into May–a true loss–and we’re still waiting for much of our  lavender to bloom in mid-July.

Cliff promised better days–and we did have a couple of beauties earlier this month–but now he’s saying it is going to be June gloom right through July. Another Summer That Never Was?

Number 26

New Arrivals–We’ve got another flock of tiny turkeys scampering around the fowl pasture  down at the farm gate–Chocolate’s back on the job. No sheep this year, but we do have a trio of new neighbors–three young black steers who are summering next door on Don Stevens’ pasture. They go by Number 26″,  “Number 27” and “Number 28”–their ear tags–and they seem to enjoy staring through the fence at the chickens summering in the upper run.

Other Visitors–Tess’s dad stayed the night back in March when dad and daughter climbed out their car after seven straight days of driving from New Hampshire to the left coast. Both her folks will be back visiting later this month. Adam’s mom stayed for a week, baking up a storm for everyone. Katt’s dad and sis will be here soon and Hiram’s folks have visited twice.  

We spent three weeks hosting Pierre Dambricourte, a 15-year-old visitor from France who charmed everyone and earned his chops working hard alongside the local farm crew. That’s Pierre in the truck bed (below) with Rebecca and Tess. He’s a fifth-generation farmer and this was his first visit to the U.S. The first place he wanted to visit was the local MacDonald’s, horrifying the farm’s food purists. But had become a farm-food fan by the time he left–heading back home to harvest wheat on his family’s farm, 22 hours a day for two weeks. We hope to see Pierre back soon.

Pierre and the Persephone farmers

So, in mid-July, the story line is that we are deeply into a new season–a little chillier, a bit damper than we’d like but hip deep in produce and working hard. One last bit of info–Rebecca planted a couple of fledgling giant pumpkins under the big tree near the salad garden back in May. We’re still waiting for her to remove their row covers and let them see the sun. Will they break last year’s record? Will they grow huge on a sour milk diet? Will there be any sun?

We’ll keep you posted as the season unfolds.


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Rebecca keeps a copy of The Birders Handbook on her bedside table and every time an unusual spring visitor shows up outside our window she grabs it to check out the new arrival.

townsend's solitaire

We’ve had plenty of avian visitors this spring and the handbook is well thumbed. A red breasted finch showed up recently and we thought we heard a barn owl hooting a few nights ago. Rebecca definitely spotted a Townsend’s Solitaire last week.

 We’re not really serious birders–no lifelists or anything like that.  But one of the side benefits to raising a smorgasbord of chemical-free crops is the profusion of birds that show up to feast on the leftovers. Arguments may still flare between pro and anti-organic supporters but those birds know what’s good for them. 

It is early in the season–most of our plant starts are still in the greenhouse or huddled under row cover–but each morning these days we wake up to a cacaphone of calls from the local flocks of breakfasting, mating and nesting robins and chickadees. The sparrows are everywhere. You can just about set your watch on the arrival of the first Violet Green Swallows–April 16 last year. (Rebecca once insisted we do a Google search to check for possible swallow kills along our flock’s migratory route from Central America after they were week late arriving.)

The little birds scour the fields for leftover seeds and snatch early insect hatches on the fly, providing a wonderful display of avian aerobatics. Everybody seems to dig into the feeder we put out on the porch for Cleo, our resident pea hen. The big birds, hawks and owls, show up to feast on the little guys and on the rodents who foolishly poke their noses out of their burrows looking for seeds.

A young eagle has been cruising our fields for several days now, stopping here and there to pick up bits of straw and branches for a new nest up in the tall firs that fringe the hillside and, perhaps incidentally scouting the chickens who are busy scratching up their areas. At night, a couple of bard owls sit down by the farm gate, waiting and watching in the dark, and regularly sounding off  like tiny foghorns.

All this, of course, in addition to the hens, turkeys and ducks scrambling their own turf on the lower pastures. Some days it sounds like the Bronx Zoo birdhouse around here when the sun climbs over the horizon.

But the real actors are the crows. We have mixed emotions about these guys. They can destroy a newly planted row of starts and they occasionally scare the bejesus out of the chickens when the fowl are still small. The only thing we have found to be successful in scaring them away is to hang a crow carcass on a branch. Our neighbor and uber-photographer Bob Dash has been gaining some fame with this shot he made a couple of years ago.

Scarecrow and silver chimes.

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Ordinarily, we’d be going full-tilt boogie out in the fields at this time. But as we’ve already noted this has been an unusually slow start due to the bucketload of rain in early March and the late arrival of two of our interns, Katt and Adam. The weather is back to normal now–gray and cold–and we’re back at planting and getting things underway for the new season.

But we used the intervening down time to do some remodeling on our big yurt so Katt and Adam, will have a dry, comfy home when they arrive this weekend.

After the heavy wind and rain this winter we thought the yurt looked a little beaten up.

But Louisa, that amazing Jill-of-all-trades, used the downtime during the early March downpour to break out her sewing machine and, working on her dining room table, turn out a brand new set of outer panels for the struture. When the sun finally shone for a few hours yesterday the crew turned out to finish the facelift.

And, voila, the old girl looked as good as new.

Louisa, Hiram and Tess

There’s something special about a yurt. They are fairly mobile–in a pinch you can break it down and lug it off to another resting place (yes, we’ve done that.) With the wood stove glowing it is warm and cozy–tee shirts inside when it is snowing outside. And there’s nothing like the sound of rain on the roof when you are tucked in bed at night.

We make it a practice and a point of pride around here not to throw things away if they have some life left in them. We’ve got vehicles that are older than their drivers and CSA boxes that have held generations of produce. Our tools aren’t very shiny, but they’ve lasted a long time.
And the yurts–Trusty, Lusty and Gusty–they’re survivors too. (Gusty, on the windward side of the yurt meadow, is the one with the facelift. As for the other two–use your imagination.)
All it takes is a bit of tender loving care and things tend to hold up just fine.
Goes the same with the farmers too.

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In a word–rain.

Rain yesterday, rain today, rain tomorrow–rain forever, maybe. Plus thunder and lightening. The Seattle Times says we’ve had as much rain in the first two weeks of March as we normally get during the entire month. We’ll all probably look back wistfully on this gullywasher of a month when things dry out in the late summer, but it is hard to get the things in the ground when it is pouring like this.

How bad is it? At lunch today, Rebecca said she’d prefer to stay indoors this afternoon and work on her taxes.


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Our greenhouse measures 25 feet by 50 feet, not much of a footprint, even for a microfarm like ours. But at this time of the season it is the hub of the universe–at least our universe–the place where nearly everything gets its start.

It is still cold outside–close to or below freezing most nights. With all the apprentice yurts occupied,and their wood stoves fired up and wafting gentle smoky plumes, one side of the yurt meadow has the look of a busy small factory. But the real factory–a food factory–is running inside that greenhouse on the other side of the meadow. No smoke there.
More like fog. It was so warm in the greenhouse this morning that when we came in from the cold to take this picture of Louisa tending some pepper starts our camera lens fogged up.
But fog or no, it’s a pleasant place to work on a chilly morning and the farmers and apprentices are spending lots of time in there whipping up our soil mix–actually a soil-less, sterile seed-starting mix made with coir, perlite, and, in various permutations, lime and organic fertilizer. We don’t reveal the exact composition of that special sauce, we’re kind of like McDonald’s and Coke in that respect.

We’re also experimenting with a new sterlile soil mix we got from Specialty Soils  in Covington. Plus, we’re trying a variety of growing platforms this year–plug flats, seedling trays and regular open flats to see which work best for different crops. Some flowers, for instance, dont like their roots disturbed and we’ve got them in the plug flats and seeding trays. Other things like cauliflower, basil and some herbs we plant in open flats.

baby Chinese Cabbage in plug flats

In recent years, many farmers have switched completely to plugs and seedling trays because they use less mix. We still go with the open flats because…well, because they work and you don’t usually mess with success. Also, plug flats need more water, which can tie you down to the greenhouse in the early spring when they need a lot of tlc.

We’ve put more emphasis this year on growing starts for home gardeners–more variety and more diversity. Hard to say whether its the sagging economy, rising gas prices, or people just are getting more interested in growing some of their own food, but there is a noticeable boom in home gardening taking place.

We’re all for that, even if it means losing some of our Farmers Market veggie sales to home gardeners. But it should also prove instructive to those newbies–coaxing produce from the ground up is a lot trickier than it looks in the seed catalogs. Nice to get a running start with a tomato, pepper or basil start. We figure the trend will help make people appreciate what we do too.

In truth, however, we think the world would be a better place if a lot more home gardeners experienced the pleasure of nurturing and tending their own starts. We’d gladly cede some of that business–right now, our own little food factory is maxed out.


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Looks like the NY Times discovered a trend in the making with this piece today on more young people getting into farming. But you already knew all about it if you read our Oct. 8 post, Greenhorn Gathering, or any of the other post last year by and about our own crop of new farmers.

If you didn’t catch the Times article, take a look.


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.


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Around here, there are a couple of sure tipoffs that a new season is approaching. One is the growing pile of seed catalogs on our bedside table. There is something satisfying–no, better than that, there is a sense of momentum–in sending off the season’s first seed order. On the wall calendar it is still February and the weather forecast sometimes hints at snow, but that envelope has real promise that spring is just over the horizon.

early daffodils

A couple of other signs this week: The early daffodils have started blooming at the bottom of the drive and down in the greenhouse Rebecca is busy filling seed flats with spinach and leeks. Yesterday, we cranked up the BCS rototiller and started getting the garden ready for the first Walla Walla onions. Louisa, wasting no time, has already tilled and planted pea shoots down on the lower field

But the real indicator that the year is tilting into a new season is our swelling roll of CSA subscribers. CSA, for the uninitiated, stands for Community Supported Agriculture. Local Harvest, a web outfit that keeps a tally of CSAs around the country, estimates there are more than 2,500 CSA programs and there are probably almost as many ways they operate. In ours, you pay a lump sum up front–$650 for full subscribers, $500 for smaller split shares. Then, beginning in early June, you show up at the farm, or at our Bainbridge Island pickup spot, the Johnson Farm, and collect a weekly box of veggies and a flower bouquet.

Our CSA season lasts about 22 weeks, until the end of October, and it is a pretty good deal all around. The subscribers get 10% to 15% more produce for their money than they’d get at the local market; we, the farmers, harvest an early crop of cash to get us going on a solid footing.

This model has a couple of advantages. By rotating through a diverse spectrum of vegetables we enhance the soil, plus subscribers get a wider pallet of choices–it’s a big world out there, you never know whether you’ll like kohlrabi unless you try it. Of course, everybody has favorites, but if everyone just selected tomatoes and corn that would leave a lot of other veggies to be carted back home, uneaten, at the end of the market. We think our way minimizes leftover waste and spoilage and opens new gustatory vistas for our subscribers.

Rebecca is something of a CSA pioneer in this part of the country, having started her first program with 11 subscribers on Bainbridge Island, 19 years ago. Some of those early subscribers are still with us and the program has grown quite a bit since those early days and now includes quite a spectrum of subscribers. Last year, for instance, we delivered five weekly boxes of veggies to the Suquamish tribe’s Women, Infants and Children’s program and Rebecca taught a class in cooking them. We’ll be doing that again this year and Rebecca will be giving a workshop on CSAs March 5 at the West Sound Small Farms Expo at Olympic College in Bremerton WA. Drop by for the show.

Other farms use different CSA financial models–some, for example, let you choose your own vegetables at the farmers’ market each week, drawing against your deposit. Others deliver to your home or business. Some let you “subscribe” week-to-week. We chose our system because it regularly brings our subscribers to the farm for their food. “Farm to table” has become a bit of a cliche these days–and a not-quite-accurate one at that in many cases, unless, of course, you think that route includes side trips through a supermarket warehouse or a couple of delivery vans. 

In any event, “community” seems to be a critical element of the CSA model, but defining that word can be tricky. Can a community stretch across a thousand miles of delivery routes? Are you part of a community if your exposure to your tomatoes and chard never takes you near the farm where they are grown–or the farmer who grows them? Are you supporting community by picking up your produce at a supermarket?

Among other things, we plan to spend some time on this blog this year examining the concept of community–at least as we see it. We’d love to hear your comments as well.


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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 )

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 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.


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.


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