Tending

Laura Grace Weldon Tending.jpg

I like the feeling of dropping the needle onto a new album. Some of the tracks will be familiar already, thanks to radio, and others will be new, like unexpected gifts.

Laura Grace Weldon’s volume Tending is like that. The words are chosen and arranged beautifully–the images uniformly delightful. Some are songs I recognize and others are fresh and unfamiliar, their authenticity validated by the truth of those familiar.

I’ve never been a teenage girl with an imaginary boyfriend, but I have stretched to reach a distant blackberry (the best ones are always the farthest away), briers grabbing my clothes and tearing my face. And I’ve learned from experience, as she has, how to hold the bowl when you stumble.

I never learned tea party manners, but I have baled hay deep into the night, enjoying the satisfaction that comes from a long hard day sweating in a field with one’s children. Those days are in my past now, but I nod in agreement when I read: “even swallowing this day/I couldn’t feel more whole.”

I’ve never seen a window washer reading poetry while dangling from a skyscraper, but I have been moved to prayer at the sight of a CAFO.

And I think it’s like prayer
to farm, mindful
that plants and animals
need to be exactly where they are,
seeing as nature is God drawing circles
for us to learn the shape of things.

And, increasingly these days, I too am

weary of those who talk
in slogans stamped and packed
by someone else, like
long distance truckers paid to drive
without knowing the weight
hauled onto that dark highway.

Yes, well said, I think, smiling at the reminder of a tractor in a hay field “circling ever inward,” and journeys that “trace all the way back to blessed dirt.” And likewise at the image of some future archaeologist discovering the truth of the aluminum salesman’s pitch.

This is a record whose grooves deserve to be well worn.

Winter Spinach

IMG_3084.JPG

While our lettuce has grown best, the best-tasting thing we’ve grown this winter is spinach. Whether because of the weather, the hoop house conditions, or some other factor(s), it’s the tastiest spinach we’ve ever grown.

IMG_3088.JPG

We’ll definitely grow it again next winter.

Lettuce Be Thankful for Lettuce

We’ve grown lots of different types of lettuce over the years, in the spring and in the fall. Most of the varieties we’ve planted in the past have, for a variety of reasons, fallen by the wayside. Now we only grow lettuce in the spring and we only grow green romaine (from transplants) and a salad mix (from seed).

But it looks like that is going to change.

We installed our hoop house in mid-October, a couple of months earlier than anticipated. The site we picked out for it happened to be where we grew sweet potatoes this year–the last crop we harvest. It also happens to be some of our most difficult soil to work–red clay.

So there was no time to do much soil prep (not much that could be done, in any event) before the hoop house went up.

It’s new to us and I had no idea what to plant in it. Figuring I had nothing to lose, I  broke up the crusty clay with a shuffle hoe, shoveled in a thin layer of leaf compost, and broadcast some extra seed we had left over from earlier in the year. On October 29. If nothing grew I figured we wouldn’t have lost anything–spring was when we expected to begin using the house anyway.

Our favorite lettuce mix is called All Star, from Johnny’s. It’s a mix of lettuces, green and red, intended to be planted thick and cut while little. We had some of that seed left, so I tossed it onto one of the improvised beds and waited to see what would happen.

And guess what? Shut my mouth if we didn’t get ourselves a fine crop of baby lettuce.

IMG_3015.JPG 

img_3019

 
We’ve been eating it and sharing it with our farmer’s market customers for months now. It grows slowly this time of year, and so far (despite a crazy warm/hot winter) it hasn’t bolted.

I’m still not sure what all we’ll be doing in the hoop house next winter, but I’d say the odds are very good that overwintering lettuce will be one of them.

Machine Work

One of my friends at the farmers market, a large scale conventional vegetable grower, told me that our big local nursery just bought a machine that will do the transplanting now. That machine eliminated 15 jobs.

By now I’m sure most people are aware of how rapidly automation and robots are eliminating human jobs. From cashiers, to truck drivers, to anesthesiologists–everybody seems to be on the firing line. I’ve seen estimates that as many as 60% of American jobs could be eliminated over the next 20 years.

These stories are usually in the context of concern about what will happen to the people who are working those jobs. I’ve written about that myself, several times.

But there is an interesting agricultural angle to this, that seems under-reported to me. Industrial agriculture is frantically trying to mechanize, not so much to increase profits as to address what they’re calling a crisis: the shortage of labor.

The cover story of last month’s Vegetable Grower magazine was titled: “The Disappearing Workforce. Vegetable Growers Need Labor.” The article began:

The No. 1 issue for vegetable growers isn’t pests, food safety, or even weather. It’s a lack of labor. Growers handle a lot of issues, from pests to uncooperative weather to heavy regulations. But all of those pale in the face of labor issues.

There are stories of crops rotting in the fields. For a variety of reasons, the labor source upon which the industry has historically depended is drying up.The growers are saying that their survival depends upon finding ways to harvest crops with fewer workers.

For commodity crops like corn and soybeans, automation isn’t very difficult. All you need are long rows and a big pile of money.

Mechanizing vegetable harvests is considerably more difficult, as machine harvesters damage the produce in ways skilled human hands don’t and, at least until lately, machines haven’t been able to distinguish ripe from unripe produce.

The agricultural machinery manufacturers are predicting a coming boom in sales, as they start rolling out newfangled machines that will do the old-fashioned human jobs. It’s interesting to see the kinds of changes that are being required by growers.

Row spacing has to change, to enable the machine to have enough room. Double row beds are being replaced by single row beds. Vegetable varieties that mature all at once are being engineered, so as to allow single-cut/destruct harvesting. Breeders are generating varieties that cluster their fruit more tightly, facilitating mechanical harvest. And now there is even a machine with an electronic sensor “eye” that can supposedly tell a green tomato from a ripe tomato, brushing one into one bin and the other into another (this after another machine yanks up the entire crop, vines and all, and delivers them to the sorter machine, which also grinds up the vines).

I can’t imagine that the taste and quality of vegetables will benefit from these changes.

My Project

Three or four weeks ago, once I was satisfied that I’d completed enough of my long overdue “winter projects” around the farm, I finally got serious about working on a new writing project.

My idea was to write a history of this community in 1918, with the hope of publishing it in 2018.

Our memories of the past dim quickly, and that is only natural I suppose. Current events demand our attention and their importance is magnified by their immediacy. The past is, after all, past.

My hope was to draw some attention to life one hundred years ago, if for no better reason, to shine some light on the path we walked to get where we now stand.

I spent a few days in the library, reading the local newspaper from 1918.

There were some fascinating things occurring in 1918. The U.S. was preparing to enter the deadliest war in human history and, as if that wasn’t enough, the world was on the eve of the deadliest pandemic in human history. Here in the U.S. the states were in the process of ratifying constitutional amendments granting women the right to vote, and prohibiting the use of alcohol. As a result of the coldest winter in recorded history, and the demands of war, there was a severe coal shortage, leading the federal government to order all American businesses to close for five consecutive days in January. There were food shortages too. In January the President called on Americans to have two “meatless” days per week and at least one meatless meal per day. Meanwhile, the Great Migration of southern black folks was underway as they moved north for high-paying factory jobs. Virginia was debating whether to require compulsory education of children, with our local paper complaining that to do so would be “a hardship on the people” and a denial of the right of self government. Evangelist Billy Sunday was drawing huge enthusiastic crowds around the country. And so on. These were just some of the headlines in the first month of the year.

I never got around to reading the rest of the news from 1918. This story from January 4 stopped me in my tracks.

IMG_3030.JPG

For a while I plodded on, but the story kept coming back to haunt me. I started dreaming about it at night.

I wondered if that story should be my writing project. Who were these people? What happened to them? Maybe that’s what I should research. Maybe that’s the story I should be telling.

I ran down a few fruitless rabbit holes searching for them, then something unexpected happened.

The story started coming to me. And then it came pouring out. I started dictating voice memos as the details emerged, sometimes in the middle of the night, and now I have hundreds of them. I’ve been typing it out a little each day, but my fingers can’t keep up. Still, they’re trying. I have about 25,000 words now and I reckon the story is about 1/3 told.

It’s not the “real” story, of course. I don’t know what happened to the actual Mrs. Scruggs or her children. But there is a story, a family and a set of lives that I am trying to capture, and in a bizarre way they seem real to me.

It’s strange. I don’t feel like I’m inventing the story. I genuinely feel like it was already there and I’m just writing it down. Those of you who write fiction are probably thinking, “Well of course. How did you think it happened?” But this is new to me. And exciting.

I don’t know if this story will ever be published or not. But it has become my writing project.

 

 

Rowan

IMG_8686.JPG

We had no intention of owning livestock when we first moved back here. But our daughter was horse-crazy, so we agreed to buy her a horse. So she would have a riding buddy, we also got one for her friend who lives down the road.

We bought the horses from a nearby girls boarding school. Often when the girls graduate they’re unable to take their horses with them, so they donate their horses to the school. Our daughter got a black mare named Domino and her friend got a big gelding named Rowan.

I have great memories of seeing the girls riding, and the lessons our daughter learned from taking care of her horse have been beneficial to her in the grown-up world.

About 8 years ago Domino contracted a rare disease that caused her to lose her ability to balance. We had to have her put down, breaking our daughter’s heart. And Rowan’s.

He eventually adapted to life among the goats. Occasionally affectionate, often grumpy and always amusing, Rowan has been featured in plenty of my posts over the years.

Rowan passed away on Wednesday. Although he was entering horse old age, his death was unexpected.

We buried him in the pasture next to his old friend Domino.

He will be missed.

IMG_5312.JPG

IMG_8909.JPG

DSC_0731.JPG

IMG_9299.JPG

 

The Sunflower Verdict

IMG_1038.JPG

Thinking about this year’s garden rotation this morning and I have sunflowers on my mind.

Since the plan is to have far fewer gardens in the rotation this year, we’re not going to have enough space for everything we’ve planted in the past. So what about sunflowers? Do they get the ax?

We grow a large garden of them every year and, truth be told, they don’t do much for the farm economically. We sell a few of them. They feed the pollinators and the chickens. They’re a good biomass summer cover crop. But they’re not making much of a contribution economically. So should we replace them with something that might have more marketing potential and still be pollinator-friendly?

Nah. They’re staying. When I weigh all the pro’s and con’s, the pro that carries the day for the sunflowers is simply that we like looking at them. Whenever I see the sunflowers I get the sensation that the garden is smiling at me. What’s that worth? Enough to keep them.

We’re going to increase significantly the  size of our onions garden. It seems we never have enough of those. And as soon as they’re harvested in July, we’ll follow them with sunflowers. A cheerful image on a cold February morning.

IMG_7871.JPG

IMG_7874.JPG