BCS rototiller

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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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 Let’s start with some data. On our farm we plant 50-foot rows. The beds are three feet wide, separated by paths that are either one-and-a-half feet or two feet apart, depending on who is laying them out. Rebecca favors tighter paths. Louisa likes room to maneuver. They look like this.

And what has this got to do with tractors? Nothing. But that’s the point. We do have a nifty Kubota tractor that is Louisa’s domain. She loves that machine. Rain or shine, many days, Louisa is out on her tractor, turning compost, pushing around dirt, mowing grass, pulling rocks.

Everything, that is, except working the beds. Those we do by hand. Or mostly by hand. We do start by tilling the soil with our BCS rototiller and it is a brute. Spend an hour or two wrestling that baby through a field and you know you have taken on nature, mano a machino.

But after that, it is all handwork. You pull weeds from the turned-over earth, shovel compost and pile up the soil into beds, line up and furrow the rows and plant the seeds or starts, all of it by hand. When you are done, your knees are filthy, your nice garden outfit is a mess, and you reek of compost and sweat. Every year, someone visits our farm and says, ‘Why don’t you make life easier on yourselves and do it all with a tractor?”

The answer is either simple or complicated, depending on who is asking and who is answering, and how much time they want to devote to explaining the philosophy behind our farm.

The simple answer is that we plant on a scale that doesn’t easily lend itself to tractor work. Fifty-foot beds are too short to get much efficiency out of a tractor and the beds themselves would likely have to be redesigned farther apart for tractor work, meaning we would probably end up growing less. That’s not an asset on a microfarm like ours, where we strive to get as much as possible out of every square foot of ground.Plus, tractor work compacts the soil, which is never good for growing things

The more complex answer has to do with the fact that sometimes it just feels good to get your hands in the soil. There is a direct cause-and-effect process in this work that seems to perk up your lizard brain function–you don’t have to think very hard, you just plug into nature’s inexorable flow and that carries things along. It’s kind of like building a house–someone else draws up the blueprint, you just make it real and when you are done you have validated yourself with the product.

If that sounds kind of touchy feely, perhaps it is. More and more, these days, we are losing the touch and feel of our surroundings as machines intervene to make our lives more efficient and faster. Think carrots. When you buy one of those plastic bags of washed and scrubbed carrots in the supermarket it has been efficiently picked by a machine, ground to a nub by another machine, and is ready to douse in a dip that has probably been made with barely a human hand involved. At the end of this highly efficient process what’s left of the carrot?

This struggle between efficiency and authenticity seems to pop up everywhere these days. Perhaps it is no wonder that many of the applicants for our internships announce their availability with: “I really want to get my hands in the soil and get closer to nature…”

Well, you’ve come to the right farm–at least the right virtual farm blogsite. That’s right, stick around and we’ll show you how to get your hands really dirty and pull actual carrots out of the ground at the end. You may discover that it isn’t all about efficiency overcoming authenticity. All you need to supply is the ground, the seeds–and plenty of sweat. This ain’t Farmville.

Louisa kind of set the template with her post over on our farm’s website—-with her lesson on breeding heritage turkeys. It is a no-nonsense guide to turkey raising. A lot of people read that post, and continue to read it. So we’re going to ask Louisa and some of our other Persephone farmers to write guest posts over here, now and then, covering the finer points of how we do stuff.

You’ll probably end up knowing more than you ever thought you’d know, or wanted to know, about how to grow garlic, transplant tomatoes, pull weeds, arrange floral bouquets, and, yes, maybe even how to operate a tractor.

So stay tuned. You’ll discover your inner farmer right here.


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