Thursday, January 26, 2012

What do farmers do in the wintertime?

Once upon a time, during my first farming apprenticeship, I asked my mentor what is the most popular question he gets asked.  Is it "what IS this vegetable?"  Is it "so what does organic mean anyways?"  He said it was actually "so what do you do in the winter?" a question I hadn't actually thought of yet, and at the time it was November!

So WHAT DO farmers do in the winter?  Well, it depends on the farmer.  Those that have livestock year round obviously have to take care of those animals year round - yes, even on Christmas.  No holidays for cows.  Orchard farmers do a lot of their pruning in the winter.  In the northeast they also plan out their treatment strategies, whether organic or not, to deal with the immense pest pressure we've got going on up here.  Grain farmers manage their store of grain and plan for the next season.  Veggie farmers, like me, try to recoup from a long, exhausting and dirty season.  Then we plan for the next one.  Sometimes we do winter markets.

Essential components of crop planning in order of importance: 1. hot tea 2. seed catalogs (aka veggie porn) 3. garden bed plans 4. spreadsheets 5. writing implements
 I just finished my crop plan for the year.  I don't know whether other gardeners/farmers on my scale go through such painstakingly detailed lengths to plan out their garden, but I do because otherwise I'd be lost during the season.  I actually find it really hard to see an empty bed and visualize what can go in there.  Doubly so when things are companion planted.  What goes into crop planning?  Well, for me, first is daydreaming: what would my perfect garden look like in 2012?  Lots of tomatoes? Little to no chard? (I hate chard) endless garlic? A few essential flowers?  Then it's the steamy stuff: looking through seed catalogs.  Every farmer I know loves it when seed catalogs first arrive in the mail.  It's like a Victoria's Secret catalog, except all the models are replaced by stacks of unblemished veggies.  And all the descriptions are filled with measurements that would make you blush.  Five pound melons, cucumbers the size of your forearm, you get the picture.  After I've circled way too many interesting items in the catalogs, it's time for the nitty gritty: looking through my notes from last year.  What worked?  What didn't?  What would work if I just tweaked it a little?  This way I can determine what needs changing.  I'd like to think that someday I'll get everything perfectly right, but it seems I have a long way to go.

With catalogs and notes in hand I start to draw out the beds and then type up the spreadsheet.  The bed plan is a visual reference for how everything will fit into the space I have.  For years I skipped this part because I had much more space to plant and a pretty good idea of where to put everything.  Now that I have only 2,300 sq. ft., it's much more of a jigsaw puzzle.  Not only do I have to fit everything into the space, but also in time, most beds get planted at least twice, some up to four times before the year is up.  It's really intensive, but I'm hoping that my additions of compost, humus, microbial inoculants and trace minerals help keep the system balanced.  The spreadsheet is where the magic happens...on paper at least.  Every vegetable variety, every planting and seeding date, plant spacing and even projected harvest's all in there and because it is on a computer I can click a few buttons and organize it any way I want.  I don't know what farmers did before spreadsheets.  I imagine they just had an innate sense of how much and when.  A pity or progress?  Who knows.

Finally, finally I get to write out the seed order.  I make an inventory of seeds I still have in stock and I double check the catalogs (including the Hudson Valley Seed Library's online catalog) to compare and contrast.  For the most part these are the factors, in order, that affect where I get what seeds from: local/small scale supplier, organic, open pollinated, price.  To be perfectly honest, sometimes price is a big factor.  I'd love the totally awesome, new, open pollinated, organic seed from High Mowing, but I could also get something similar, but not organic from Johnny's at 1/10 the price.  So it goes.  Fortunately I am at a scale where lots of the HV Seed Library stuff is appropriate, and they top the charts on all of those previously mentioned factors, especially because I get a membership every year and that gets me a discount on the seeds. By the way, just because your seed catalogs at home look small and friendly doesn't mean they don't send money to Monsanto in some convoluted way.  Most seed companies do not raise all of their own seed, they buy it from larger seed houses and big corporations have long sticky tendrils that even go into organic seed suppliers. Read more about it in this HV Seed Library post. (By the way, can you tell that I totally love that company?)

Actually, I have one more step, and I'm about to do it on Monday.  There's a couple of other super small farmers around that get together to do a swap and share.  This means that we compare crop plans and then either swap seeds that we have extra of or share an order to get the price break.  This worked out really well for me last year because there are a lot of vegetables that I only need a few plants, but the minimum order was for 100 or more seeds.  Even in 5 years I couldn't use all of those seeds.  So we all get to shave off some bucks and then have a nice dinner afterwards!

Phew!  That was a lot of work huh?  Well, since this was a very word-heavy post, here's a picture of that radicchio that I forced for the winter.  I had some for a salad last night.  Very mild and tender.  Yum!

By the way, you did know that I am total maniacal dork, right?

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Well-Intentioned Vandals...and other News

The oxy-moronic phrase "well-intentioned vandal" is surprisingly not new here in Kingston.  I will say as objectively as possible that there was a bit of a scandal some months back when a fleet of stenciled red goats appeared on concrete planters days before our newly-renovated uptown was scheduled to be announced to the press.  Our city community was divided into sects that either applauded the goat painters' efforts to undermine the system that brought the unpopular renovation to uptown or applauded the administration's efforts to keep the integrity of the renovation intact and turn the vandals into an example - no one will be excused for vandalism, even if their intentions are "good" or their damage is "innocuous".

So why am I even talking about this, except for the fact that goats are farm animals and I actually do want real goats doing real goat things in Kingston?

Well, yesterday Daniel, the dogs and I went to the farm to meet up with my cousins-in-law and a few buckets of alpaca poop destined for the compost.  That all went well, but as we were waiting for them to show up I noticed something odd on some of the beds...
If it just looks like dirt, look carefully...that's right, sunflower seeds.  Hundreds, maybe even thousands of them, densely strewn all over my cleaned-for-the-winter beds.  Since we are in the 21st century, my first reaction was, "WTF?"  After the shock was over, my second reaction was, "Why?"  Why had someone broken into the farm, not to steal anything, not to destroy anything, but simply to spread sunflower seeds all over the place?

I have my theories, and in fact I have a suspect.  I won't name names, but I do think that whoever did this was well-intentioned.  Perhaps they saw my empty and bare beds (the rest are covered with straw) and didn't know that I left them bare on purpose, so that I could easily sow them with spinach in the coming weeks.  Perhaps they thought "a bare bed is a dead bed," and decided that covering them with something, anything would be better than leaving them empty.  Perhaps they like the idea of birds coming and eating the seeds or the idea of a whole bed crowded with bright sunny flowers.  But you know what?  That still doesn't give them the right to do this without my permission.  I am all for growing things, and I like birds and flowers as well, but really this is just ridiculous and disrespectful.  And I am dreading cleaning this up in the early summer.  What is a weed?  It is a plant that is growing in the wrong place at the wrong time.  And that is what these will be.  Thousands of weeds in what used to be weed free beds.  Dammit, I am still mad.  I left the garden open as a space where people can come, learn, relax and enjoy.  It is a community garden in the sense that the community is welcome to enjoy it, but I took it over to manage as single lot on purpose, so that the design and the produce would be coherent and cohesive, not a product of Guerilla farming.  Perhaps this decision was not agreeable to everyone involved, but I stand by it and I think that it has helped the space develop in a positive direction.  Whoever did this, please don't do it anymore, and please contact me first if you want to be involved with the project!

So ya, well-intentioned vandalism.  It's been on my mind recently.

On a happier note, I am pleased to report that the Winter Market at the Old Dutch Church in Kingston has been going very well.  I have a table there that I am sharing with Hudson Valley Seed Library and Prime Print Shop.  That means this Saturday (and every 1st and 3rd Saturdays through April) you can find me, shoots and sprouts of all kinds, heirloom seeds in artful packaging AND handmade letterpressed cards in original designs all at one table.  The last two times we sold out of green stuff, so be sure to get there early!  Doors open at 10am.

Also, a couple of my Winter Experiments are doing fairly well.  As mentioned above, the shoots and micro-greens are growing well. As a matter of fact you might notice that I am growing sunflower shoots...It's all about place and time.  The funny looking rosettes are those radicchio roots that I dug up earlier in the fall.  Further research turned up the fact that I don't need to blanch these like they do endive, so they are under the growlight with the other greens.  They are doing so well, I wish I had saved more of them.  The sideways picture (I don't know what's going on with blogger, but it won't post it right no matter what I do) is my somewhat sad-looking, but still alive lemon grass.  It's got another four months until it can see the ground again...I am hopeful that it will make it.

That's all for now! But if you see someone besides me at the farm suspiciously planting in the middle of the night...let me know!