This year’s best canoe ride took us past some familiar landmarks that were in a not-so-familiar context. Yes, our fields went under six feet of water in mid December. The Russian River rose an amazing 30 feet in 24 hours. We spent 3 days preparing and even more afterwards cleaning up. While it was a major pain in the butt– and we lost a lot of crops and income– at least we can say we have a nice new layer of silt to boost the productivity of our fields.
I wrote this post last June, as I was trying to make sense of something awful that happened on the farm. I will warn you now, it’s a little disturbing, so if you’re looking for some light reading — this isn’t it. But if you are a young person considering starting a farm, read it. You should know what you’re getting yourself into!
I am writing to say: do not farm. It will crush your soul. For three reasons.
1) The first problem with farming is that it is incompatible with modern life.
Yes, there is that thing where you spend Friday nights harvesting vegetables instead of going out; where you work weekends and weekdays sunup to sundown; where vacations are complicated by the fact that you a) have little money and b) have to hire an entire army to take care of your beets/goats/cows/chickens/farmstand/markets while you are gone.
But parents of young children don’t often go out on Friday nights; there are other vocations that yield little money; and other people sometimes hire armies to take care of their homes in their absence. So none of those things are unique to farming. Farming’s incompatibility with modern life runs deeper.
As a farmer, you will occasionally go to the city. In the city, you will realize that you have become a country bumpkin; you do not understand this pace of life, you do not understand that some people are responsible to and for only themselves. You will go to the grocery store and wonder how any of this makes sense. How many cows were milked together into the tank that this gallon of milk came from? How many cows are in this carton? You will wonder why no one is asking these questions. What was your name, cow? Where do you live? You will wonder at the fact that most of the people buying milk have never touched a cow; have never placed their cheek against the soft side of an animal and smelled the sweet musk of her as they trap milk in her teats and squeeze it out into the silver bucket. Psh, psh.
2) The second problem with farming is that you will become far too comfortable with death.
More so than most — save, perhaps, the climbers of Everest or those who still sail the seven seas — farmers live on the edge of survival. Is this just melodrama? No. Farmers are constantly surrounded by entropy. We wage war against insects to protect our precious plants. We harvest those plants, then till them into the soil, burying them. As cultivators of life, we are constantly thwarting and constantly hastening death.
More problematic than our proximity to death is the role we play in it. As a farmer, you quickly learn the terrible power you wield. You are the lord of your kingdom; judge, jury, and executioner. A rooster attacks you so you mete out punishment: off with his head, his body boiled in the stew pot. What begins as justice morphs into a commitment to quality. ‘Breeding program’ means keeping the strong, and ingesting the weak.
Then, one fine day, you will learn that you can put a bullet through the head of an hours-old baby goat who has just learned to walk. By all rights, she should grow up, produce offspring, spend quiet minutes each morning in the milk room grinding away at her grain as her udder empties out into the milk pail.
But none of these things will happen, because she has an umbilical hernia. Her intestines are sliding out of her body: wet ropy coils, unwinding. It is nighttime. You have a .22. She is suffering. And her suffering arms you with a terrible knowledge — that leaders must be able, in a moment, to shut off their emotions.
You kill her, and yet you feel nothing — nothing, perhaps, but a distant horror, a vague unease. This is tragic! You should cry! But you did not cry and you felt nothing because to feel something would be to admit too much. It would require admitting that life really is that fragile; that the world really is that cruel. There is no meaning to be found in a tiny creature with so much will to live and so much brokenness in her body, whose only destiny is to be shot in the head in the middle of the night in a hasty, shallow grave dug across the road. There is no greater good, no feast deriving from this death, no meat to share from these brand new bones, no happy life with one bad day.
There is only the one bad day. And three bullets, because the breath did not stop after one.
3) The third problem with farming is you can never go back.
The trouble is, farming is addictive. Like a gambler you get yourself in so deep — poker chips of livestock, infrastructure, equipment — you can’t get out, except by continuing to play the game.
But the addiction is psychological, too. As a farmer you find yourself deeply connected: to plants, animals, death, life, the universe, and everything. Everything needs you. The goats need you daily: to be fed, to be given water, to be milked. The plants need water and food too, in their own way. But those are the obvious things that need you, the things that are most like your own children, organisms that live and reproduce and grow old and die. But they are not the only things needing you. Fences and tractors need you. Shovels and shears need you. In a strange way, the land itself needs you: it calls out to be worked.
Even if you did not farm it, even if it were not cultivated, the land would need you to manage it, for trees fall on power lines and fences. And if you do not believe in those things, fine: let the trees fall where they may. But trespassers leave behind half-empty handles of drug store vodka, and those, I think we can all agree, need to be removed.
You are connected to all of this: the animals and the plants and the fences and the vodka. To dissever yourself from these things would leave you lost. Walking away from farming would untether you, and while it would free you, perhaps you have come to fear freedom. Perhaps you have learned the value of roots. Perhaps to pull up those roots would make you feel like you were walking into a life of quiet vacancy, if not outright desperation.
In these ways, farming crushes your soul. If you love and hate those roots, if you can’t imagine life without them; if you have a personal hierarchy of life (bug, plant, chicken, turkey, cat, goat, dog, us) and you thank God when you find out from your spouse that it’s just a laying hen he’s burying, and not a dog or a goat; if you can do what needs being done, when it needs to be done, no matter how horrid…
Then I’m sorry, dear soul, for you too are a farmer.
On the farm, it’s that time of year — the best of times, the worst of times. The time when all I can think about is Charles Dickens. And, because many of us forget what comes after the first twelve words of A Tale of Two Cities, I’d like to refresh your memory as to the entirety of that first fantastic paragraph…
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”
Why is it the best of times and worst of times on the farm? And why, frankly, is that an utterly ridiculous and entirely mundane thing to say — particularly when it comes to a farm?
To answer the first question, our farm is currently a blank slate. An empty pad of paper. A newly pregnant woman, full of possibility with no idea what is about to befall her. As someone who has been pregnant, I can say that it’s a state both magical and a terrifying. So is February on a farm, for much the same reason: so much hope and potential and yet so much work to do to realize the achievement of the tiny dream kicking within.
At the moment, our fields are empty, save for a few lingering storage crops (cabbage, carrots, beets). Our supply of winter squash stored in the barn — which in fall consisted of thousands of pounds of a dozen varieties stored in towering macro bins — has dwindled to a few lonely harvest bins full. Our desks are filled with seed porn (AKA seed catalogues: Baker Creek, High Mowing, Seed Savers Exchange, Johnny’s). The possibilities are endless. It’s easy for a creative soul to get high on the potential: new tomato varieties — vintage wine! chocolate stripes! black zebra! New chicken breeds — bielefelder! jubilee orpington! New crop combinations — food forest! New composting techniques — red wiggler worms*! (*Can you guess which of those ideas belonged to Emmett?)
And yet possibility is never without its alter ego, a shadowy combination of decisionmaking, work, and expense. The amount of work that must be done before May — when seasonal markets and the CSA begin — is monumental. And all of those beautiful and exotic sounding seeds cost money at a time when the farm isn’t earning much. Last year, we spent $3,700 on seeds and seed starting supplies (supplies primarily being germination mix, and new flats to replace broken ones). Of that, approximately $2,500 is spent directly on seeds; these receipts and the seeds shown above are just three of the orders that recently came in. We’re still in the process of tracking down a few hard-to-find varieties, like Djena Lee’s Golden Girl (one of our favorite yellow tomatoes). More expenses.
And yet even as the bank account dwindles, there are few things more beautiful in life than sowing the first seeds of the year in the greenhouse. Because in that moment, the farm is being reborn, and it will be different than it was last year and different than it will be next year — it will never be exactly this way again.
So yes. Dickens. It’s a time of year when the farm feels very much in the world of superlatives. Which is why it’s especially good to remember Dickens’ tongue-in-cheek admonition: don’t be too dramatic, farm woman. Any day of the year could be the best of times, and the worst of times, on a farm. Because, while farming can be philosophical, while farming can be highly technical, or technological… Farming is fundamentally what we all do. Fundamentally, farming is surviving. Any moment could be the best or worst. Wild pigs could destroy your crop overnight, a baby goat could be born with a defect requiring her to be killed immediately. Or a friend could offer to build you a fence to protect your crops, or a mother goat could present you with huge, healthy quintuplets. But those are other stories, for another time. Right now, I need to go track down Djena Lee’s Golden Girl, and do some thinking about food forests….
Yes, it finally rained in Northern California. But that does not negate one simple, important, all-consuming fact: Saturday’s flash flood warnings aside, we still have no water. We have NO water. We have no WATER.
The human body is 65 percent water. Herbaceous plants are 90 percent water. In outdoor education classes, we are taught the rule of threes: one can last three weeks without food; three days without water; three hours without shelter (in extreme temperatures); three minutes without air. We farmers generally consider food to be pretty important, and the fact that water (3 days or perish) ranks above food (3 weeks or perish) in the Survive The Apocalypse Rulebook suggests the immutable importance of that miraculous molecule, H2O.
Oh, and as farmers, there’s that one small detail we are hyper-aware of: it takes water to make food. Which is why, even if you don’t live in California, you should care about our drought. California produces over half of all U.S. grown fruits, nuts, and vegetables. According to the CDFA, in 2012, the state’s 80,500 farms and ranches received a record $44.7 billion in sales. That makes California the number one agricultural state in the nation. We bring home 11.3 percent of the entire nation’s agricultural income (cash farm receipts, both livestock and crop). In California, food is a billion dollar business, and the food we grow quite literally feeds America.
Here on Foggy River Farm, I admit, we don’t feed America. We feed Sonoma County and sometimes the greater Bay Area. We are small potatoes, a four acre blip on the radar of the California farm economy. But to us, our ability to grow food is everything. Farming represents our income, our livelihood, our community, and our own food security as well. Which is why, when we walk over the hill from our house to the irrigation pond built by Emmett’s grandmother decades ago, the bridge jutting out of it feels something like a compound fracture breaking through skin. The bare banks feel like razor burn. The hills — though finally muddy from this week’s rain — still look more like July than February.
Y’all, this is serious. How serious? You decide. Here are some photos I took for my brother and sister-in-law’s engagement session in early March 2013. I re-framed the shots (with Emmett and Miss G, since the happy couple has since moved to San Diego) right before this current rainstorm to provide a perspective on just how dry things are here.
It’s February. We have one month to go to provide that perfect “one year difference” shot. While our recent storm is great, consider how miraculous rainfall will have to continue to be in the next month in order to get us to where we should be — or rather, where we were last year, which was actually a very dry year, all things considered.
This rainstorm dropped 3 inches of rain, 6 inches, even a foot — depending on where you’re recording in the county. That is wonderful and we are thrilled. The grass will begin to grow; the cover crop may make it after all. But when you look at the irrigation pond, you’ll realize that even one foot of rain isn’t going to cut it. And even more importantly, while one massive rainstorm may help the creeks to rise and the ponds to fill, it’s not going to recharge the groundwater in the way that consistent, winter-long rain will: with a sudden storm, the ground quickly saturates and most of the water shunts off in the form of flash floods. And guess what? While the irrigation pond provides water for the back vineyards on the property, our farm — along with most of Sonoma County — relies on groundwater.
So please, don’t be fooled by the mud. At present, we are half a foot of rain short of the worst drought anyone can remember (1977). In other words, we are still in smack dab in the middle of the worst drought in living memory. Continue to wash your cars, clean your windows, misplace your umbrellas and raincoats, dance and pray for rain. Because we still need it.
(Yes, that’s the same dog, as a 4-month-old puppy on the left and a grown up yearling on the right.)
Hello, blogging world! It has been, ahem, a few years since we’ve spoken. But I’m hoping that, like good friends, we can settle back into a routine and start talking up a storm… you know, in that way that good friends forgive you for falling out of touch because when you finally do reconnect you’re just so damn comfortable together. Like that perfectly worn-in pair of jeans, or the sneaker with the hole in the sole that you just can’t throw away — though your mother says you should — because it’s just so wonderfully comfortable. Even though it gets your sock dirty every.single.time you wear it. Yes. I am calling myself a crummy sneaker. I stink; I have holes; I will wreck your socks. But for all that, I hope I’m a little bit lovable, and that you won’t toss me into the trash… just yet.
So, salutations! Hi, hello, howdy, and ahoy! I’m here. I’ve returned. I’m back in the saddle again.
To get you up to speed: Yes, we’re still farming. Yes, we’re still learning. From April 2010 to June of 2013, I worked at our local newspaper part-time (and occasionally full-time), which pretty much ate up all of my writing energy. Between weekly deadlines at the newspaper and weekly deadlines on the farm (markets, CSA), I had zero free time. OK, I usually had about one hour of free time late in the evening, which I without fail used to watch either 45 minutes of whatever movie Emmett and I had managed to rent for free from the local library… or The Daily Show. (Yes, I am a liberal who was born in 1983. My watching of The Daily Show is predetermined by those two facts.)
But! I am no longer working at the newspaper. I am full-time on the farm. Partly because in November of 2012, we welcomed a new little farmer-in-training into our family and into the world. Part-time reporting + full-time farming = madness. Part-time reporting + full-time farming + motherhood = failure on all fronts. Farming and parenting is still a challenge, but falls into the more familiar “madness” category. Miss G, our wee milkmaid, is now 14 months old and walking and talking up a storm. She loves her goats and chickens and turkeys, and eats her fair share of dirt. We’re looking forward to seeing her toddle around the fields picking her own cherry tomatoes for the first time this summer.
But there’s a long way to go before we get there — “there” being that miraculous part of summer where the farm brims with produce and the bounty we are lucky enough to consume begins to consume us. Seeds must be sown in thousands of tiny plugs of soil; two greenhouses must fill and empty; a new field manager must be hired; row cover (if any grows in the drought) must be tilled under; goats must be born and turkey chicks must hatch. An off-kilter blue-eyed Catahoula dog must run alongside an old Toyota pickup truck, down a long dirt road between some grapevines to a barn some 840 times. Then, the toddler can have her cherry tomatoes.
Oh, and the Lazarus chicken? Yeah, I learned a few things from the newspaper business — sometimes your headline doesn’t have much to do with your article, but if you write a good one, people will click on it. So, for the PBS documentary on the Lazarus chicken (a rooster that lived despite its beheading) click here.
We cut our first ever true asparagus harvest today! It’s on its third year since planting–and since we started from seed it needed the full three years to develop a good root mass before we could steal very much for eating…so last year we only snagged a spear or two for a taste. But today we discovered plenty of nice fat stalks, snapped them off and ate them for lunch no more than 15 minutes later!
My beautiful asparagus-toting wife…
A little olive oil in a hot pan, salt and pepper, and a roughly 3 minute cook time. When you have really fresh asparagus, you hardly need to cook it. It’s also deliciously crisp and tender eaten as a raw snack.
Lunch for two.
Last fall, we got to talking about how to better integrate our livestock with our vegetable fields. Our property straddles a country road. On one side of the road is the flood plain of the Russian River. That’s where the vegetables grow. On the other side, hills rise quickly up over the valley. That’s where we live, and where our animals live too. In this set-up, whenever we want to make use of the rich manure created by roosting chickens or feeding goats, we have to cart it all the way from the hillside to the compost pile a half mile away down on the flood plain. So, one day while we were grumbling after having spent hours mucking out the chicken coop or goat stall, we started brainstorming solutions to that unpleasant and time-consuming task.
One of the ideas we came upon was to try to bring the animals to the vegetable fields more often. (Of course, we’d still have to move them up to dry land in the event of a flood during the winter, but that would usually only be for half a month or so of every year.) Rather than shoveling chicken droppings out of the chicken coop, where the chickens roost at night, why not have the chickens poop right where we want to use their manure!? We could move the chickens around in a mobile coop, where they could graze old vegetable fields once they’re not being harvested any more. Then, after an appropriate rest period while the manure aged and bacteria were broken down, the newly fertilized fields could be tilled and planted again.
So, since winter time is project time, when January rolled around, we decided to begin enacting our plan. First things first…we had to find a long, skinny, sturdy trailer. After trolling Craig’s List for a while, a good one popped up in Lake County, and we brought it home.
Then, the walls went up. Most of the lumber came from the local compost company, which sells used lumber at reasonable prices.
We chose to make the coop pretty low-profile, to keep its weight down… so the walls are 4 feet on one side and 5 feet on the other. The eggs will be collected from outside, and the floor with allow droppings to fall through–so we shouldn’t have to crawl inside for anything on a routine basis.
At this stage, in the picture below, I started getting envious of the chickens and coveting their trailer as a farmer’s market produce display. Isn’t it just starting to look like a hot-dog cart or some food truck? “Step right up, get your kohlrabi! Get your cauliflower! Get your cabbage!” As much as I was tempted to veer off in a new direction on my project, our new chicks we already ordered (I think by this time they had actually already arrived and were in the brooder) at this point, so the clock was ticking on the coop.
We cantilevered the nest boxes out over the tire, to maximize inside space left for roosting.
The nest boxes have a slight slope, so that the eggs will roll away to a soft cushioned landing–making them easier to collect and less likely to get dirty. Maybe we’ll post some more details photos and explanations of the roll-away nest boxes once the hens start laying and we have a chance to see how well they work.
Below, all the walls and the roof are on, and all that’s left is finishing up the nest boxes and a couple other details. Notice the little white door that’s swung open at the far end. It’s about four feet tall; we bought a narrow solid wood door at the dump and sawed the top few feet right off, turning it into a little hobbit door. There’s also a small door on the near side, which will be hooked to an automatic closer/opener triggered by light and dark (See two versions here and here.) The doors will allow the hens to be out foraging during the day, while safely inside at night.
Once the chicks had been moved down into their new digs, we could peer in to check on them through the hardware cloth windows.
The floor is double layered, to discourage raccoons from reaching their little claws up and groping for chickens in the night. The top floor, for chickens to walk on, is made of 1×1 welded wire mesh (which was very hard to come by locally.) The lower, raccoon barrier is just made of chicken wire secured about 8-12 inches below the coop floor.
It’s a brave new world, chickies!