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.

Zero Shenanigans

CNGcolorlogoIt’s official: Blackbird Farms is now Certified Naturally Grown!

Certified Naturally Grown (CNG) is a grassroots alternative to the UDSA’s Certified Organic program. CNG follows the Certified Organic standards, but the inspections are conducted by other CNG farmers rather than by government inspectors.

This past winter, I went back and forth on whether or not to become certified. (Other farms have been dealing with this issue as well.) On the one hand, for small market farms like ours that sell directly to their customers, certification seems irrelevant, because the relationships we form are their own kind of certification. Want to know what my practices are? You may ask me directly, or you are more than welcome to visit to the farm to see for yourself.

On the other hand, after a couple of seasons in the marketplace, I have seen too many shenanigans regarding farms’ claims about their growing practices. Friends, the fact is that some farmers play fast and loose with terms like “natural,” “sustainable,” “homegrown,” “local,” and even “organic.” (There was an excellent recent article about the false claims made at farmers’ markets and farm-to-table restaurants in Florida, and I assure you the same sorts of things are happening right here in West Michigan.)

I concluded that some sort of third-party authentication would set us apart from these others, and CNG appealed to me more than USDA Organic, mainly because of CNG’s emphasis on collegiality and community among like-minded growers. Rather than a top-down approach geared toward punishing violations, CNG farmers come alongside each other to bring each other into compliance. I like that.

And now our customers and members can be extra confident that we are doing what we say we are doing: growing fresh, nutrient-dense produce with zero harmful, synthetic chemicals according to sustainable and ecological principles — in other words, we are Certified Naturally Grown.

Joining the Dance

Truth be told, the CSA model can be a demanding one, for both farmer and member. On my side, I need to master growing all of the vegetables (I’ve lost count of exactly how many kinds) and orchestrating their yields so that the weekly shares hold a bunch of different and tasty offerings. What’s more, I get to be the in-house accountant and mechanic (though sometimes I outsource those jobs), marketing director, human resources department, customer service agent, crew foreman, field hand, delivery driver, CFO, COO, and CEO. Knowing how to swing a hammer, dig a ditch, and wrangle a chicken comes in handy, too. I’m not complaining. I love the diversity my day holds, and there’s always something new and interesting to learn from the farm.

Being a member of a CSA holds its challenges, too. It requires a sense of adventure, of intrepidness, of delighting in being given a share full of good, sometimes unfamiliar, food and creating wholesome meals from it. I came across a quote in Joel Salatin’s Sheer Ecstasy of Being a Lunatic Farmer that I think does a good job of describing the kind of customer a direct-market CSA needs — the kind of customer this farm has been lucky to have:

“Without customers, you can’t have a direct-market farm…. But more importantly, a direct-market farm needs the right kind of customers…. We need customers who love their kitchens. We need customers who enjoy trying new things, who will try to use the entire vegetable or the whole chicken…. We need customers who put a high priority on food and who want farmers to enjoy a white-collar salary…. We need customers who show up at rendezvous points on time, who chat you up to co-workers and neighbors, and who forgive the occasional mess up.”

And he concludes,“This is a partnership.” He’s right. Belonging to a CSA means joining the dance between sun and soil, between farmer and field, between this farm and, well, maybe you. So, come, friend. Join us. I can’t promise you it will be easy. But it will be delicious.

Grow Vegetables the Blackbird Farms Way!

Dig For Victory - Grow You Own VegetablesI 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!)

Gardening Basics 1
Baxter Community Center
April 6, 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 13, 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.

The Theory and Practice of Organic Gardening
Frederik Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park
May 4, 6:30-8:00 PM
Fee: $20 FMG members, $28 non-members
Get the basics in this introductory class on five critical organic practices: composting, companion planting, crop rotation, beneficial insects, and cover crops.