Gratitude

This time last November we were still in the thick of our farm hunt. Every day we would check the real estate listings, and every weekend we would drive out through the country looking at places. I had no reason to be surprised that we had not found a place. We needed to stay in a particular geographic area, were working with a limited budget, and had some specific requirements for the land. Everything I read and everyone I talked to cautioned that finding a farm takes a while. But, still, we were starting to get discouraged.

Early in the summer, we looked at a nice place down the road from here. It didn’t have quite enough acreage, but the realtor assured us the owners would be willing to sell some farmland from an adjoining parcel. We pursued that place for a month and made a fair offer, only to find out the realtor was more interested in making a sale than being honest.

Later that summer, we came close with a property just north of here, near Conklin. As I was walking the fields, two herons rose from the other side of the low hillock I was climbing and flew over me with slow, loping wing strokes. Shel saw them, too. It’s a sign, we both thought, and were buoyed with hope. Then I studied the soil survey and dug around a little in the dirt. Too sandy. Good maybe for pasture, but a disaster for produce.

Then there was a small farm out toward Belding. The land was good, and the house was lovely, but the barn needed work. And it was clear that the dear woman who owned it loved her home very much (as well as her now-deceased Korean War hero husband), and was moving under duress. Not a situation we wanted to enter.

Also just south of Belding, two brothers showed us around the forty acre farm where they grew up. Everything about it had potential, but it was too far away from my primary Grand Rapids markets. We made the hard decision to pass on it.

There were more: Places that were right, but out of our price range. Places that were nice, in our price range, but too small for the sort of farm operation I was looking to start. Places that were good fits but which we were outbid on.

And then there were the places that were just junk.

The farm over by Lake Odessa where only one more stiff wind would knock over the dilapidated outbuildings, and where the interior photos on the real estate site looked like they were lifted from a crime scene file (suspicious stains on the floor included). One little farm up on the ridge that was lovely, except the house was missing a couple of exterior walls. And so many foreclosed properties, too many to count, most of which looked like they were hit by tsunamis. (Which, in a sense, they were.)

Then, almost exactly this time last year, the epitome, the coup de grace, the apotheosis, if you will, of shitty, run-down farms. At one time, it had probably been a nice little place. The house was small and unassuming, but the barn had been magnificent, once. However, for the last who knows how many years, the owners had used it for a haunted woods, barn, and corn maze operation, and all their paraphernalia still remained on the property. Halloween garbage filled the barn and outbuildings. Plastic skeletons littered the fields. The burned-out shell of a winnebago brooded in the middle of the woods. And everything — everything — was broken, worn out, and filthy.

That was a low point. That was when we worried we were going to spend another two or three years looking at lousy run-down farms. Worried that maybe lousy run-down farms were all we could afford without going so deeply into debt that it would financially hobble the whole operation.

And then, in January, we found this place. It went on the market in February, and we closed on it in March. It had its flaws, to be sure. It, too, was a foreclosure, raw with neglect, and more than a few things in it were broken, worn-out, and filthy. But the barn was sound, and the fields were clean. Its scale was correct. I could see wild turkeys from the back windows in the morning, and see stars in the sky at night. I could exit the driveway and pull into the Fulton Street Farmers’ Market in under twenty-five minutes, including time to stop for coffee.

What is more, we found it in time for me to start farming this season, rather than having to wait a year. An improvised and abbreviated season, to be sure, but one that let me figure out some things about my soil, systems, and markets. A season to discover what I was up against, and what gifts there were to receive.

So, yeah, I’m thankful.

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Garlic and Hope

I have been meaning to tell you about my garlic. Planting it was one of the final tasks of this year’s season, or one of the first of next year’s, depending on how you look at it. It is one of my favorite farm jobs, a defiant act of hope executed in the teeth of winter.

Allium_sativum

Allium sativum

The general idea, as I understand it, is to plant garlic early enough before the ground freezes so that it has time to send out some roots, but not so early that it starts to put on its spring growth. I have heard Columbus Day as a rule of thumb for when to plant. This year I had to wait for the field to dry out, so I planted the last week of October and mulched a couple of weeks later.

If my math is correct (and sometimes it isn’t), I planted over five hundred cloves, which should yield as many heads. Some I will sell, some distribute to the CSA, and some save for the following season’s seed. I am aiming to eventually build up my stock so that every year I can save enough for the following year’s planting, thereby keeping the crop self-sustaining.

Most of my seed garlic I purchased from Tom and Katie at Groundswell Farm down in Zeeland. It is a hardneck variety without an official name that Katie bought years ago from another organic farmer. Tom tells me its flavor is outstanding.

I also planted smaller quantities of two named varieties. Last year, Ana up in Oakshire Farm near Cedar Springs gave me a couple of cloves of Killarney Red, and I had some cloves of Music from when I was a farm manager at Trillium Haven Farm. (Garlic is great that way — a gift passed around from grower to grower.) Both of these I had been growing in my backyard garden in Eastown, and I made sure to harvest them before we moved to the farm this summer and to keep them safe so I could plant them this fall.

Then there is my most precious garlic, the one my parents brought up from Ohio when they visited here early this summer. It was handed down to my mother from my grandmother, who received it from her grandmother. So this garlic is a true heirloom, passed down through five generations. I will spend a few seasons selecting and replanting the best cloves to make sure I can preserve this piece of my family’s history.

Since all this garlic will be in the ground until midsummer, I picked a spot for it along the edge of the field where it will be out of the way of my spring fieldwork. This patch I tilled deeply, amending the soil with well-composted cow manure. I then broke down the garlic heads into individual cloves, which I planted about three inches deep, pointy-end up, eight inches apart in four rows six inches apart. Finally, I mulched the bed with six or so inches of straw, which should insulate the soil and help prevent the winter’s freeze-thaw cycles from heaving the cloves out of the ground.

If all goes well, early next season I should see green shoots pushing through the mulch — which is, along with blooming crocuses and the year’s first robin, a sure sign of spring.

Winding Down

Now it feels like fall has finally arrived. A couple of weeks ago, we finally had a frost hard enough to kill off the summer crops: the peppers and basil and what was left of the beans and tomatoes. And at the beginning of last week we had a three-day stretch of fair weather ideal for the farm’s fall clean-up. So I spent those three days pulling out or mowing off everything but the patch of fall brassicas (broccoli, brussels sprouts, cabbages, and the like), tilling everything lightly, and sowing a cover crop of winter wheat to protect the soil until spring.

This was a great satisfaction, to see the fields clean and ready for the next season, as though I pressed an enormous reset button.