The Idealism Native To Farming

This past fall I came across a Wendell Berry passage that struck a chord. (For those of you who don’t know, Mr. Berry is a farmer-poet from Kentucky, now in his eighties, who has been writing on agrarian themes for going on sixty years now.) His words are good enough to quote at length:

“There is a kind of idealism that seems to be native to farming. Farmers begin every year with a vision of perfection. And every year, in the course of the seasons and the work, this vision is relentlessly whittled down to a real result–by human frailty and fallibility, by the mortality of creatures, by pests and diseases, by the weather. The crop year is a long struggle, ended invariably not by the desired perfection but by the need to accept something less than perfection as the best that could be done.” [From Tobacco Harvest: An Elegy, Wendell Berry (University Press of Kentucky: 2004)]

I was struck by these words because they so perfectly describe each season’s farming experience. I do start the year with such a “vision of perfection.” I have certainly felt that relentless whittling down. (What a perfect description that is!) And the challenges Mr. Berry lists crisply outline the things that can keep me up at night.

All of which is to say, I suppose, that farming is one long schooling in hope, expectation, and, above all, faith. In writing those words, I fear they sound exalted or pretentious, or worse, pious. But the reality they attempt to describe is far more homely. Tasks like drafting the budget, working out the seed order, plotting out the year’s work, and hiring the crew–all these jobs are done in hope of a good season and with faith that all will be well.


Axis Of the Season

Yesterday was the winter solstice, so, as farmers have done for thousands of years, I went out last evening, lit a bonfire, and thought about the past season and the one to come.

The past couple of months have seen us getting the farm ready for winter, doing chores like securing the greenhouse against the cold and snow, mulching the garlic beds, moving the chickens to their cold-weather housing, and putting all the tools and supplies back in their places. And the weather had been so mild that we were able to go to market up to the second weekend of December, which brought a little bit of welcome extra income.

All those jobs are pretty well wrapped up, and it’s time for me to start laying the groundwork for next season. To tell the truth, I’ve already been thinking about it, imagining what new possibilities could be in store for us. Now comes the work of making those ideas real. The first step will be drafting the budget, and then laying out the field plan and seeding schedule so that I can put together the farm’s seed order, which will need to be placed the first or second week of January. There will be research to do, as well as marketing for the 2018 CSA. And then come March 1 or thereabouts, I will fire up the greenhouse, open that big bag of potting soil, and sink my hands deep into the possibilities of next season. I can’t hardly wait.

Before the Plunge

What strange weather we’ve been having, more like early April than late February. This past weekend, I saw the first red-winged blackbird of the season, and the daffodils in the farmhouse flowerbeds are poking though the soil. People have asked me what this early warm-up bodes for the coming season, and, honestly, I have no idea. Right now, it sure makes chicken chores easier, and the hens have enjoyed being outside in the fresh air and sunshine these past few days. I know my farmer friends who raise livestock are grateful for this weather, especially the ones who are elbow deep in lambing and farrowing right now. And warm, sunny days mean greenhouses burn less fuel, so that is welcome as well.

But no matter what the weather does, our season is set to begin in earnest when it always does, at the beginning of March — on the sixth, as a matter of fact, when I start in on the greenhouse schedule. Onions, leeks, and shallots are the first crops I’ll seed, followed by parsley and celery a week later. And as the greenhouse ramps up, I’ll start crossing other pre-season tasks off the to-do list: things like making sure I have enough flats and pots for planting and totes and buckets for harvesting, repairing what needs fixed and building what needs made, and deciding what gets planted where and when, and so on. And all these plans and preparations need to be well in hand by the beginning of May, when the madness of spring planting takes up all our time. So right now is a sweet time on the farm, that last quiet moment before the deep breath and long plunge into the cycle of the new season.

Spring Gardening Class Schedule

grow-more-foodI am thankful for the opportunity to once again present a few classes this spring on home gardening, and I would love to see you there! (And if you are interested in my speaking to your organization or institution, please view the “Teaching and Consulting” tab above. Thanks!)

Cool Crops for the Spring Vegetable Garden
Frederik Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park
March 9, 6:30-8:00 PM
Fee: $25 FMG members, $33 non-members
Discover crops that can be planted in cool spring weather—such as peas, fava beans, hardy greens, broccoli and kale—and begin enjoying your harvest sooner. Receive tips on soil preparation, frost protection, fertilizing and more!

Tools and Tool Tips from the Pros
West Michigan Nursery and Landscape Association March Garden Day
March 11, Event Registration at 8:00 AM, Breakout Session at 11:45 AM
Fee: $45 in advance, $50 at the door
With Paul Keifer, owner, Specialty Gardens; and Allison Jesky, Irrigation Specialist, Hope College. In this panel discussion three gardening professionals will discuss their ‘go to’ gardening tools and provide tips for sourcing, using, and maintaining.

Beneficial Insects
Grand Rapids Community Seed Exchange
March 18, Seed Exchange 10:00 AM-1:00 PM, Workshops noon-3:00 PM
Fee: $5 suggested donation
Come to exchange seeds with various local farmers, then stay for a series of gardening workshops!

Gardening Basics 1
Baxter Community Center
April 5, 6:00-7:30 PM
Fee: donations appreciated
Designed for the novice gardener, this class will help you set your gardening intention, select an appropriate garden site, understand your growing season and hardiness zone, choose appropriate plants and cultivars, and create an effective garden layout.

Gardening Basics 2
Baxter Community Center
April 12, 6:00-7:30 PM
Fee: donations appreciated
Continuing Gardening Basics 1, this class will present basic practices for soil preparation, seeding and transplanting, watering and fertilizing, weed control, and pest and disease responses, as well as harvesting guidelines.

Beginning Vegetable Gardening
Frederik Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park
April 20, 5:00-7:00 PM

Fee: $25 FMG members, $33 non-members
Learn how to successfully grow your own vegetables, whether you have a large yard or small space. Discover why companion plants should be an essential part of your garden. Learn which crops should be started from seeds and which to grow from transplants. Find out the best time to plant outdoors.

Preparation and Expectation

img_0436January on the farm is all about planning: What new thing will I try? Who will I hire onto the crew? Where did those tax records go? When will I fire up the greenhouse heater? Why, again, am I doing all this? (Sometimes, even, how in the world did I get myself into all this?) And each season’s plan begins with my drafting three connected documents: the seed order, the budget, and the seeding schedule.

I usually complete the seed order first, which, frankly, is backwards. I should really draft the budget first so I know how much there is to spend on seeds, followed by the seeding schedule, so that I know exactly which and how many seeds to order. But I like to have my seed order placed by mid-January. If I wait much longer, the greater the chance I’ll encounter back-ordered and sold-out varieties. So to make sure I get what I want, when I want it, I do a couple of quick, back-of-the-envelope estimates, and go from there. I can always place a supplemental seed order if I find later I’m a little short.

Once the seed order is completed, I turn my attention to the budget. To be honest, this is one of the more stressful chores of the season. Like a lot of businesses, farming’s margins are razor thin, and even a slight miscalculation can make the difference between ending the season in the black or the red. So I work hard to make the budget as accurate as I can, even overestimating costs a little so that there’s a little give in the numbers, just in case. But each year making the budget does get a little easier. As we build up our infrastructure, there are fewer critical big-ticket items to pay for, and as our membership grows, there’s more income to help pay for everything.

Finally, I draft the farm’s seeding schedule, which is the most exciting of the three to prepare. This big spreadsheet is the roadmap for the farm’s season, telling me how much of what vegetable to start, when to start it, what size pot to plant it in, when to transplant it into the field, and at what spacing. By November, it’s stained with coffee, smattered with mud, crinkled, creased, and covered in hastily scrawled notes — a historical artifact, of sorts, embodying the course of the season, and something I refer back to as my primary guide when the process starts all over again the next year.

And with each passing day in January, the farm stirs more and more from it’s hibernation, like some great animal eager for spring. To tell the truth, I’m eager for it, too.