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.
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.