Friday, May 6, 2011

What do farmers do when they visit each other?

Farm together, of course.
Early last week I took a madcap driving trip to Surrey Maine, a very small and rural coastal village where a friend of mine has set herself up on a farm that runs right down to the water. Because I'm a dope and didn't take a camera, you'll just have to imagine how beautiful it is. It is in fact so beautiful, that even though there is silty-clayey soil that has yet to be broken and ammended, my friend is making a go of it, planting almost 3/4 of an acre her first year.

The friendship of Kate and I goes back to our Poughkeepsie Farm Project days when she was still a student at Vassar, and I, as a recent grad, had come back to the campus to become a farming intern. At this farm we learned about growing food in a way that was socially and environmentally responsible and yet agriculturally productive. We hustled with hoes and we lifted 60 lb crates of eggplants to feed CSA members, soup kitchen patrons and downtown market customers. We drove a Ford 3610 tractor with a moldboard plow and we drove an Allis Chalmers G with a belly mounted basket weeder. We learned how to be careful but efficient and how to deal with ornery machinery as well as finicky 13 year olds. We learned how to be farm dorks.

And we carried this knowledge to other farms in the northeast, me to Phillies Bridge Farm and Kate to the Food Project in Boston. Having finally reached the stage when we can strike it out on our own, we have both started small, very small. One in the balsam woods on the coast and one in a city of the Hudson Valley.

As we compared and contrasted our farms we lamented the planning process of a small space when one is used to acres and acres to play with. Using the same Excel template, we compared quantities and planting dates. We are hopeful that we have planted enough but not too much of one thing or another and admitted that we are trying new crops because for once it is truly our call. That rare variety of hot pepper? Sure! Asparagus in acid soil? Why not! We also noted that even though new farms and farmers are popping up all around us we find it hard to scope out those that are willing to accept us for the farm dorks we are. I am lucky to have this Yahoo group called Hudson Valley Growers Network which is a great place for trading growing practices or equipment, but I still need to find the farming folks that are up in the Kingston anybody out there?

During my stay we seeded carrots, spinach and beets, we potted up and seeded in the greenhouse (lucky girl) and we limed some of her fields - a dirty and dusty business, especially when done by hand. By the time we were done with the lime, our clothes, kerchiefs and hair were a powdery white and I'm pretty sure the insides of my lungs were too. But it felt good to help my friend and instill confidence in her and her abilities to farm. We are both used to working with a crew, so to be farming on our own can be a little alienating. I love, love working with volunteers and visitors, but most volunteers will not seed a 72 flat in 2 minutes, water everything at once and then carry the whole stack of flats to the germination box on instinct. Sometimes you just miss working with a fellow farmer.

We of course did other things, mostly food or farming related, most notably we took a visit to Four Seasons Farm, Eliot Coleman's farm and a kind of mecca for market farmers, and had a look around. We stared in disbelief at broccoli plants that were maybe days from harvest and artichokes that were easily twice the size of mine in a gardening zone 2 below the Hudson Valley. Kate has work for Eliot, so when he came by he said hi and proceeded to talk about the grafted tomatoes and eggplants in front of us (more dorkdom, I ate it up) and then mentioned he had extra eggplants to give to us if we wanted. How fortunate, since Kate was having eggplant issues. Kate met some prospective farm friends in the form of interns at Eliot's farm. As we drove around to the other destinations, the beauty of Maine kept hitting me like a brick, but more pleasantly. This is the kind of place where millionaires have "cottages" read: grand estates, for the summer. Somehow the sunny weather came just for my visit.

Before I left we shoveled authentic Maine coastal seaweed into a trash bag for me to take home and turn into a nutritious slurry for the plants. Kind of like a souvenir for my plant babies. I also picked up a couple of nice rocks for Daniel - he likes rocks. For myself, I stopped at the Johnny's Selected Seeds retail store (another mecca, legend has it the founder of Johnny's and Eliot are old friends) on the way home. Unfortunately Fedco wasn't open or else I would have stopped there too. I stocked up on seeds for next year and got some sweet deals on in-store tool specials: a digging fork and flat garden spade from an old forge in England. Yup, farm dork.

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