farmville

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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.

Persephone

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The popularity of virtual farming websites never fails to amaze us. You know, those sites that allow visitors to select virtual seeds, plant virtual crops, gather virtual eggs, even sell their virtual produce at virtual farmers markets for a virtual profit. Farmville.com, is probably the biggest one, claiming a stunning 72 million visitors in a month.

And while we are all for the spreading interest in small farms and farming, even through websites like Farmville’s, there is something kind of odd about millions of wannabe farmers spending their time and cash constructing virtual farms on the web when the real thing is available right around the corner.

We’re talking about Community Supported Agriculture here folks. CSAs have been around for nearly 50 years, since the idea began in Germany. Several farms claim credit for the first one in this country, like New Hampshire’s Temple-Wilton Community Farm which started its CSA in 1986. We began Persephone Farm’s CSA in 1992, which makes us one of the oldest CSAs in the Pacific Northwest.

Each week, our subscribers show up at the pickup site—the Johnson Farm on Bainbridge or our own farm here in Indianola—and pick up a box loaded with whatever we are harvesting. Sometimes the boxes are jammed, sometimes things are a bit skimpy. In effect, by subscribing and paying in advance the CSA subscribers are joining our farmers in taking a stake in this year’s harvest.

our CSA pickup site

That model sounds pretty simple, but think about it. We try to have about nine different vegetables, fruits and flowers in each weekly box. That means calculating growing times, weather changes, insect damage, and a dozen other variables, to figure out in winter how to have an even supply of vegetables, fruits and flowers rolling out of the fields in the summer and fall. Rebecca, who masterminds this effort, has been making lists, working the calculator, ordering seeds, laying out beds, tending starts, and generally organizing this year’s CSA since January. Imagine plotting an ocean liner’s course through an ice field 50 miles ahead—you need to get each zig and zag right, before you even see the first iceberg on the horizon. 

There are other CSA models—some, for example, collect cash at the start of the season, like we do, then let subscribers pick out their produce at the farmers market as it becomes available, deducting the market price from their advance payment. Others simply deliver the produce to your door and charge you for it.

We like our model best for a couple of reasons. Everyone gets a share of the farm’s weekly bounty, which means that in addition to the usual favorites like corn and tomatoes subscribers get introduced to some vegetables they may never have heard of  before, like cardoon. (We usually put a recipe or two into the boxes for the uninitiated. This year, we’ll put them up on the farm’s website, www.persephonefarm.com)

cardoon

Plus, you get about 20% more veggies with our system than if you paid the market price for them. Different strokes for different folks. Ours seems to have its fans–a lot of our subscribers re-up every year and we usually have a waiting list by the start of the CSA in June.

But the best thing about our CSA is that you get to connect directly with the farm each week. Some subscribers, like Tom Posey, who we introduced  back in early March, stick around and get their fingernails dirty, helping out. (Perhaps we’ll get Tom to tell his own story with a guest slot on this blog a little later in the season.) We’ve watched our subscribers’ kids grow up knowing where their food comes from and bringing their friends to the pickups to show them around the place. Some folks just like communing with the turkeys each week.

The thing is, with a CSA the farm becomes a real place in your life and food is more than a disembodied, shrink-wrapped package you toss in a cart at the supermarket. You can sample the peas while they are still on the vine, sniff the basil out in the field and check to see how the spinach is coming along. In the fall, you get to press the juice out of the apples and you can reach into a nesting box to collect a just-laid egg that is still warm to the touch.

After you’ve done that, Farmville just doesn’t cut it.

Persephone

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