The Power of a Fallow Season

Our first summer here on the farm, I started planting in the part of the field where it seemed most logical, closest to the barn. That turned out to be not the greatest choice. After years of conventional farming, the soil there was depleted and compacted and poorly drained. I fought with that soil one more season before moving on to other, better spots in the field.

But I wasn’t going to just abandon that soil. My plan was to put in a soil-enriching cover crop of crimson clover and then let it alone for a while to give it some time to heal. The cover crop thinned out after a couple of seasons and became a little weedy, dandelions chief among them. That was okay, I thought, because I surmised that the plant’s long taproot might help break up the compacted subsoil and bring nutrients to the surface. And from time to time I would mow the weeds and pasture the chickens there, letting them do some of the work of restoring the soil food web.

This winter I decided it was time to break ground there again and see if the soil had improved. In early summer, I cut the spring weeds short with the brush mower, then plowed them under. I waited for the sod to break down a little, then ran the disc through it to break it down further. Yesterday, I attached the three-point tiller to the tractor and made our beds for this week’s transplanting. And wouldn’t you know it, that soil had improved during its long fallow period. The final test will be how the plants perform growing in it, but I am encouraged to see how much the soil healed itself with only a little bit of help from me (and the chickens) in such a relatively short period of time.

Hopeful, is what it makes me, both for this farm and for this old, battered world of ours.

Free For the Taking

July is crunch time, the month that can make or break the season. So I try to keep everyone—myself included—on point and hustling, all of us working through that impossible to-do list. That’s as it should be: There’s no harvest without labor. But it’s all too easy to lose perspective in summer’s flurry of work, and when I need a little perspective, I like to take a walk out around the back of the property.

Our little farm sits on sixteen acres. On the front six are the house, barn, yard, and flower gardens. Behind them are maybe four acres for the greenhouses and orchard and vegetable plots. But further back are six acres not yet used, laying fallow. Those acres have been sown with a long-term cover crop—timothy, clover, alfalfa, and orchard grass—and I keep a path mowed around it for walking. So, last evening, that’s just what I did.

This time of year the grasses in the field nod in the warm breeze, their heads heavy with seed. The eastern and northern edges of the field I keep wild, and black cherries and flowering hawthorns like to grow there. In the spring sprout trout lilies bloom, and in the fall wild grapes hang heavy from the vines draped through the trees. Last evening, I found a patch of wild brambles I hadn’t noticed before, the berries already eaten by the birds.

Along the western edge of the farm I’m working to establish a wind break of white spruce and native crab apples. That’s also where I’ve set out some nest boxes for the bluebirds and tree sparrows. The sparrows seem to like them, but I haven’t seen any bluebirds take up residence yet. There must be a red-winged blackbird nest nearby, though—a pair hovered above my head, trilling and squawking me away.

And as I walked back toward the house in the growing twilight, the nearly-full moon rose bright and bold to the southeast, only slightly hazy in the thick summer air, and the fireflies began to drift in from the wild margins of the farm to hover and blink across the darkening yard.

It may be that there’s no harvest without labor, but beauty is free for the taking all around us, scattered by the fistsful.

Dividends Elsewhere

On the farm, there are urgent things, and there are important things. Sometimes these are the same things—staking and stringing the tomatoes, for example. And this time of year, the list of urgent things is long. The tricky list, though, is the set of things that are important but not urgent, things that could easily slide in the ferocity of the season.

The flower gardens, for example. Most of my farmer colleagues don’t grow ornamental flower beds. And when they visit our farm, they marvel that I have time to plant and maintain them. One of them mentioned to Shel that she feels like she’s so busy with the urgent business of farming that there’s no time to make things “look pretty.”

I suppose I could find arguments to justify the flower beds’ utility, how they attract pollinators or could be used to make bouquets to sell at market, but the truth simply is that they delight me and others, so I make it a priority to tend to them. I don’t quite see the point of having the farm be only about production and efficiency and work. It’s not like we’re making a killing in this vocation, so we might as well find our dividends elsewhere, in the beauty of the fields, in the generosity of the earth.

The Impossible Month

July is the impossible month.

For starters, we still have greenhouse work to keep up on. Not much, and not for much longer, but we need to seed crops like fall broccoli and kohlrabi, as well as successions of mini-cabbages and lettuces so that we have enough food for the CSA shares at the end of the season.

So that’s a few items on the to-do list.

And we are still transplanting. Though the main summer crops are all in the ground, we’re about to start planting the primary fall crops: fresh plantings of kale, plus collard greens, storage cabbages, cauliflower and more. Again, if we don’t keep up with these tasks, we run the risk of smaller shares in September and October.

A few more things on the list.

And we have to stay on top of the weeds. Granted, this becomes harder and harder the deeper we get into the season, and at a certain point the job becomes mainly triage, but we at least have to try. Otherwise, the weeds compete with the crops for sun and soil and rain, eventually choking them out.

This list is getting a little long.

And we have to monitor for pests and respond accordingly. The ones that showed up this week are the Colorado potato beetle and the cucumber beetle. The Colorado potato beetle infestation is small enough that we might be able to control it via manual control (a.k.a. smooshing them), but I will have to spray an organically-approved product for the cucumber beetles. Plus, I saw imported cabbage moths fluttering around the fields today, presumably laying their eggs. So a third infestation is waiting in the wings.

Three more items added to the list.

And we have to make time for maintenance tasks like driving tomato stakes and running irrigation lines (in the hope that someday it might stop raining).

Hold on a second while I set up this second chalkboard so I can fit the rest of the list.

Plus we’re harvesting two days a week, soon to be three, which is a joy and, really, the whole point of the enterprise, but, still, it takes time, which is in shorter and shorter supply even as the harvest docket grows longer. Plus there is tractor work for me to do to make sure we have fields prepared for the crops we are seeding and transplanting. Plus shopping for a new delivery vehicle for when the old farm truck finally gives up the ghost. Plus … well, I’m sure you get the gist.

July is the impossible month.