Beginning, Once More

Two Saturday mornings ago, walking the trails at Grand Ravines, I heard the sharp trill of spring’s first red-winged blackbird—a sure sign of the season, and a call for me to get to work.

That work began for real and in earnest a little over a week ago, when I spent the afternoon in the greenhouse seeding leeks, onions, and shallots. These seeds are little larger than a grain of rice, jet black and irregularly faceted. Scattered on the work table, you might mistake them for tiny chips of rock, maybe basalt or obsidian.

I sow these seeds into little furrows I make in the long cells of special twenty-row germination flats. Once they’ve grown little slender sprouts like a single chive leaf, I pot up the baby onions into larger-celled trays, from which they are transplanted into the field. Admittedly, potting up all these tiny plants can be a touch tedious, but the special attention now makes for higher yields down the line. Besides, this extra work happens in March when I have (relatively speaking) extra time.

I also seeded herbs for the first weekend of our May farmers’ market plant sales: thyme, oregano, sage, and parsley. Parsley seeds are about the same size, shape, and color as the celery seed in your kitchen pantry. Sage seeds are larger and look much like unground black-pepper berries. The thyme and oregano, though, are the smallest seeds of all, like grains of sand or specks of dust.

All these get started in 288-cell germination flats, which are then are placed on heated propagation mats. The small size of the flats’ cells—about a three-quarter inch cube—helps them be heated evenly. Many seeds like to germinate in soil warmer than the ambient greenhouse temperature, and heat mats help provide those optimal conditions. Once these herbs germinate and unfold their first true leaves, they also will be potted up for sale this spring.

I left the best task for last: potting up rosemary plugs. Rosemary grows slowly, so it’s challenging to coax it to marketable size starting from seed. I had dropped rosemary from our plant line because purchasing plugs through the mail had gotten crazy expensive, but this winter I discovered a local greenhouse willing to sell single flats at a nice price point. Handling these richly fragrant growing things while the rest of the world is still cold and frozen is one of the better parts of my job.

In fact, March and April have long been my favorite time of the farming season. Plenty to do, but not so much to be overwhelming. Time enough to tackle farm projects, or just to enjoy the spring’s greening. And, in the greenhouse, a chance to be somewhere warm and sunny, rich with the smell of thawed soil and full of little green plants. Work to occupy my hands but room enough in my mind to plot and ponder. And everything so manageable, all my responsibilities comprehendable with one glance—the whole shape of the season contained in spreadsheets secured to my clipboard, gathering in the greenhouse and readying to burst into the fields come May.

Spinning On Toward Spring

What makes an organic farm go?

The idealist might say peace and love. The practical-minded, compost and manure. Sometimes, if I’m feeling sassy, I’ll answer, money.

But the real answer? The sun.

At its root, a farm is a device for collecting and storing sunlight. Farms convert solar energy into calories to feed their farmers and animals, ideally with enough surplus to fuel the rest of civilization. Even the tractor runs on sunlight, albeit gathered three-hundred-million years ago during the Carboniferous Period.

The longer I farm, the more attention I pay to the sun—its passage through the sky and through the year and how that affects the farm.

Around the beginning of this past February, I was out and about in the early evening and was struck by how the sky had traded winter’s gray-blue tones for the blue-pink tints of spring. And I was taken by how light it was so relatively late.

None of that should have surprised me, of course. Groundhog Day (astronomically the day about midway between the winter solstice and the spring equinox) is the tipping point, when January’s unrelenting darkness finally yields to the strengthening sun. I sure feel it. I think the earth feels it also—the world seems more lively, somehow, despite its blanket of snow.

The chickens surely notice it as well. While flower bulbs break dormancy in response to soil temperature, and trees to air temperature, chickens are truly sun worshippers: Day length affects how many eggs they lay. All this past winter I gathered just a couple of eggs a day, but throughout February that increased to the point that I can now count on over a dozen.

So we’ve moved from dormancy through expectancy to preparation and now action. The seeds have arrived. The potting soil, too. And the first of those seeds were sown into that soil last week, to start taking advantage of all this growing solar power.

The world spins on toward spring. Here on the farm, we spin with it.

The Culprit

The culprit, it turned out, was a possum. I found it last Friday evening in the live trap I set near the hole it clawed through the chicken coop wall. It huddled in the corner, bright black eyes staring out from that prehistoric face, mouth open and teeth bared, scared witless.

I would have felt compassion if it hadn’t already killed four of my hens. In the morning, the carcasses would be lodged in the corners of the coop, sometimes eviscerated, other times their heads gnawed off.

What if it was a weasel, I worried, something small and devious that could slip through the electrified netting set around the coop to prevent this very thing? What if I couldn’t defeat the weasel, couldn’t make the fence secure enough or the coop tight enough to exclude it?

Best to discover for sure what I was up against—hence the live trap, baited with raw ground beef. After fretting about the hypothetical weasel, I was relieved to find the possum. I can strengthen the fence and tighten the coop enough to prevent future possum incursions.

But what to do with the prisoner?

According to the Michigan DNR, if a creature like a possum is doing harm, or about to do harm, it’s legal to trap and kill it. In fact, it must be killed. It is not permissible to relocate and release any animal on another’s land.

Which is too bad. Our first summer on the farm, I learned I don’t have the stomach for killing. A groundhog had burrowed under the foundation of the barn, which, if ignored, would cause big problems for the structure down the line.

At the farm where I did my apprenticeship, we would often have groundhog troubles, so the farmer owned a collection of rusty Conibear traps he’d deploy at the entrances of their burrows. When Frank Conibear designed these traps in the 1950s, trappers considered them a more humane alternative to old-fashioned foothold traps. An animal caught in a foothold trap is often left alive and suffers, but a Conibear trap should kill it instantly, the jaws snapping shut and breaking the animal’s neck.

So that is what I decided to use. I bought a Conibear trap and set it by the burrow’s entrance. The following morning, when I went to check it, I found that the groundhog had somehow backed its way into the trap—which shut around his hindquarters, not its neck—and, though gravely hurt, was still very much alive.

I didn’t own a firearm at the time. The only solution I could devise to quickly kill the poor suffering creature was to use a short length of steel pipe to break its neck.

That turned out to be far harder than I first supposed.

When that ordeal was at last over, I felt sick to my stomach. I released from the trap the beaten carcass and buried it. When a friend later borrowed the trap, I didn’t bother reminding him to return it.

So maybe I did dispatch that possum with my grandfather’s old .22, which he used to kill groundhogs and starlings on his farm. Maybe I retrieved it from the house, chambered a bright bullet, and clicked off the safety. Aimed between its bright black eyes. Took a deep breath. Squeezed the trigger.

Maybe that’s what I did. In truth, being a rule-following eldest child—a zealous advocate for the Oxford comma, a religious user of crosswalks, a strict obeyer of library rules and store return policies and light bulb wattage limits—surely I must have done that.

Though maybe I did something else: Maybe I instead placed the trap with the terrified possum into the back of my pick-up and drove across the river to a county park. There, after making sure I was away from prying eyes, I set the trap on the ground and released the door. The possum, panting with fear, gripped the wires of his cage, not moving. I tipped the trap and shook it gently. At last, it bolted and trundled across the crusted snow toward a brushy ravine to make for itself what I hoped would be a long and happy life in its new home.

March Class Schedule

I am thankful for the opportunity to once again present a few classes on home gardening this March—I would love to see you there! Look for some additional classes, including a couple to be held here at the farm, to be added later this spring. (And if you are interested in my speaking to your organization or institution, please view the “Teaching and Consulting” tab above. Thanks!)

Beginning Vegetable Gardening Bootcamp
Frederik Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park
March 7, 9:30 AM–1:30 PM
Fee: $40 for FMG members, $50 for nonmembers
Starting from the ground up, learn methods for preparing your site and the importance of good soil. Discover how watering, fertilizing, pest management and selecting the best varieties of plants will ensure an abundance of vegetables all season long.

New and Unusual Vegetables For the Home Gardener
West Michigan Nursery and Landscape Association March Garden Day
March 14, Event Registration at 8:00 AM, Breakout Session at 11:45 AM
Fee: $50 in advance, $60 at the door
Discover some vegetables maybe you haven’t heard of, some you maybe didn’t know could be grown in Michigan, and some old favorites grown in unusual or innovative ways.

Beneficial Insects
Grand Rapids Community Seed Exchange
March 28, 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!

Godspeed You, Blue Farm Truck

Sunday I sold the blue farm truck for scrap. The front brakes failed, and repairing them would have cost more than that old truck was worth.

Which is fine. I knew this day was coming, and we had been shopping this winter for a new truck anyway. But I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel a little pang watching it being towed away.

As much as I don’t like to admit it, at times I can be very—perhaps even weirdly—sentimental about certain objects. For example, kept in the barn is a scruffy 7-Eleven-branded styrofoam mini-cooler. “What is this, and why do you keep it?” visitors will sometimes ask.

This is why: Several years ago, on vacation in Shenandoah National Park, I hiked solo up Old Rag Mountain. The plan was for Shel to drop me off at the trailhead, go do something she liked to do, and then pick me up after. It was a fantastic hike. On the way up, great boulders blocked the trail, and I had to scramble over them, the mountain dropping away and open space yawning beneath me. On the way down, in a ferny hardwood forest, I startled a shaggy black bear, who lumbered across the two-track in front of me.

I had brought too little water, though, and was ferociously thirsty. While waiting back at the trailhead, I decided to practice my mental telepathy. As one does. I fixed all my conscious thought upon Shel, wherever she was, and sent out into the universe one yearning thought: water. Then I waited. Shortly, she arrived, parked her little green Honda Civic, and got out. She waved, then from the back seat retrieved a styrofoam mini-cooler. And when I opened it I found, better than water, a six-pack of a local IPA.

So I hung on to that cooler. In the early days of the farm, it entered the rag-tag flotilla of coolers I used to keep my produce fresh at the farmers’ market. I use it now to bring popsicles and beer out to the crew on hot days with difficult jobs, like driving t-posts for stringing tomatoes. And every time I see it, I remember that good day long ago, and my good fortune marrying someone who knows me often better than I know myself.

But I was talking about the farm truck. I bought it used, fifteen years ago, after I left graduate school for good and was becoming a carpenter. As soon as I bought it, I realized a truck was the answer to a question I didn’t even know I was asking.

The truck was built for work—with a heavy-duty towing package and a no-frills interior—and I put it to work. It hauled tools and lumber and drywall. It helped me renovate a couple of porches, build my in-laws’ back deck, and install cabinets and pre-hung doors. After I became a farm hand, from time to time it delivered bumper crops of eggplant and winter squash to the CSA pickups. And then there was that one time it ferried a dead sheep into the city so that one of the interns could skin and dress it in the front lawn of his house. Which is a story for another time.

The truck really came into its own when we moved here, to our own farm. During the farmhouse renovation, it hauled loads of demolition rubble and construction debris to the landfill. Salvaged metal to the scrap yard. Stacks of two-by-fours and sheets of plywood. Replacement windows and bathroom fixtures, including a cast-iron claw-foot tub found on Craigslist. And then when the farm ramped up: Potting soil, wood chips, soil amendments, and straw bales. A brush mower, a disc harrow, and a three-point tiller. Nursery flats of transplants and crates of vegetables. And during one weird fall, caged feral cats to be neutered.

So, yeah, I had gotten pretty attached to that truck, not necessarily for what it was—an ordinary, base-model work truck built when Bill Clinton was president—but for all the good work we did together all these years. I’ll confess my heart broke just a little when, after that final, fatal breakdown, a hard-used man with a cigarette dangling from his lips came and hauled that old truck away.

Traveling Companions

Next month marks seven years since Shel and I took possession of the farm, and approaching that anniversary has got me thinking about this journey we’ve undertaken, especially all the traveling companions who’ve joined us along the way.

The very first was a little white kitten, just a double-handful of fluff, who appeared on our doorstep shortly after we moved. At stressful or difficult or perplexing moments—of which there were many that season—it was a comfort to have that little kitten curled up on my lap. That August, after my first Wednesday evening farmers’ markets, I would sit on the porch and watch the sun set, marveling that we had actually started a farm, while the kitten played at my feet.

The second batch of companions were all those members who joined us the following year for the CSA’s pilot season, one chockablock with challenges: a wet spring, poor soil fertility, high weed pressure, and more. In the midst of all that, I was still developing my systems and building my infrastructure. I’m still grateful everyone was game and gracious and rolled with my inevitable first-season slip-ups.

Another important companion arrived that fall: our first intern, Ethan. A colleague at the sustainable agriculture program at GVSU pointed Ethan our way, and his presence was a revelation. Up to that point, I had been doing all the labor myself, with the occasional assist from Shel, so when things suddenly took half as long as they once did, or when two things happened at once—that was amazing. That was the moment I finally felt that this venture was doable.

Over that winter, we gained our first work share, Bailey. We met that fall at the farmers’ market, where she wondered if I would be interested in her volunteering. She had experience in sustainable farming and wanted to keep her hand in it. She, along with Ethan and also Rachel, whom I knew from my days back at Trillium Haven Farm, formed the core of our first crew.

The next year, even more members joined, doubling the size of the CSA. And that season we brought on our first paid employee, Angela. There was a moment early that June when I took a look around the farm and realized that, with doubling the CSA, even with the work shares, I could be in over my head. Then Angela contacted me out of the blue the following day asking if I had any room in my crew. Originally from West Michigan, she had been away working on organic farms all across the country, and was back home for the summer and was wondering if I could use a hand. Truly, she had enough experience that she should have been running the farm, and I should have been working for her.

And that’s how it went on down through the following seasons. More and more people joined this little journey—additional members, additional work shares, additional paid crew, plus a throng of other well-wishers, friends and family, and assorted allies. All kinds of folks whose stories wove into the farm’s story, some for a season, some for the long haul. And now for this coming season, our sabbatical year, I again, as in that first year, mainly will be doing the lion’s share of the farm work—but now not alone, not by a long shot, surrounded and supported, as we are, by a great crowd.

What the Season Holds

In the off season, I’m often asked about what the coming season holds: what I’m looking forward to, what new crops I’ll be growing, what new markets I’ll be attending. This year, I have a different—and pretty radical—answer: In order to continue doing the CSA at a high standard and to further explore the possibilities of this place, Shel and I have decided to take a break from the CSA for one year and return to it in 2021.

I know that may sound alarming. Certainly, those friends I floated the idea past had been (initially) alarmed. So I want to be clear on a couple of points:

• We are not doing this because we have grown weary of the CSA model. We are not burned out, nor is the farm’s business model failing. We are not hoping to transition into a new format or different kind of operation. We love and are committed to the traditional CSA model and how it connects people to their food. Our every intention is to spend this season experimenting with ways to farm more efficiently and sustainably so that we can return with renewed energy and purpose in 2021, and for many years after.

• We will continue farming this year, though on a much smaller scale. So much of this project relies on finding efficiencies in the CSA model, and in order to do that, we need to keep growing things. So we’ll still do our plant sales this spring and will sell our produce at the Sweetwater Market from time to time throughout the season.

What we are doing could best be described as a sabbatical. I mentioned this plan to a professor friend, and he immediately understood the reasoning because in his line of work, it is common to use every seventh year or so as an opportunity to research, explore, and initiate new projects. Which is exactly what we have in mind for 2020.

This wasn’t a decision we reached easily, though there are plenty of reasons behind it. Primarily, we are needing to find capacity to implement new projects and enterprises on the farm, but more than that, we are looking to build sustainability not only for the farm but also for our life here. Sustainability to us means that we need to attend to the needs of the farm and all the creatures and plants that inhabit it–but we also need to ensure that we balance the health of the farm with the thriving of the people who run it. While this past year was this farm’s sixth full season, I have been working in sustainable agriculture in West Michigan for nearly fifteen years and have been able to observe what farms like ours do to individuals, families, and marriages. The CSA model is a demanding one for the farmer, and sometimes those demands can break these things. Farm work will always be difficult, messy, and busy, and I fully embrace that fact, but I am hopeful that we can find a more sustainable balance of work and enjoyment.

To be clear, we are not envisioning 2020 as a year of rest and relaxation (though there may be a touch of that). No, we have plans. So. many. plans.

After six years here, we have accumulated quite a running list of pretty mundane tasks we’re hoping to tackle this season: barn repairs and renovation, infrastructure improvement and maintenance, cleaning and sorting and culling. We also hope to experiment with how and what we grow in the field: things like alternative ways of trellising tomatoes, experimenting with different methods of weed control, and exploring possible equipment purchases. And growing on a smaller scale offers us the chance to give most of the field a year-long rest where I can intensively invest in the soil’s health.

But that’s not what excites us the most.

When we first moved to the farm nearly seven years ago, we saw nothing but potential. Since then, we’ve spent most of our energy developing and tending to the CSA. And yet we see that we have not even begun to tap the possibilities of this place. We are planning that this next year will give us the time and space to explore some new ventures—workshops and classes and concerts and more—and live into that potential we first saw on a cool late-fall day many years ago. We’re looking forward to exploring and then building the vision we have for this beautiful place we get to call home.