Birth and Rebirth on the Farm

As an odd winter – of early warm and then (way below) freezing temps, a late abundance of snow and ice, cancellations and snow days, and now flooding – draws to a close, we’re excited to transition to a new chapter. With spring approaching and some exciting new developments in our lives, it seems appropriate to write about birth and rebirth on the farm.

Birth

The most exciting recent news on the farm is that our baby girl Maya was born on Valentine’s Day! She is just perfect, with a full head of hair, adorable expressions that my dad refers to as “a parade of faces,” and a fun personality already showing through. As our first child, she is teaching us what it is to be parents, and to love a little person so fully.

Proud parents welcoming Maya to the world

Proud parents welcoming Maya to the world

We are quite smitten with our little Valentine. We’re adjusting to sleeping in spurts, spending a lot of time feeding her (she was thankfully healthy but small at birth, so we’ve been putting a lot of effort into chunking her up), and trying to get things done while babywearing (I’ve upped my Moby tying game from a D to a B+; still room for improvement).

The only bunny these farmers like

The only bunny these farmers like

We’ll be making some adjustments this season as we learn about the realities of integrating newborn care into our farm routine. We plan to move forward with the help of Scott’s parents, babywearing, and a little extra help from our field crew. While I used to do most of our Madison deliveries, Scott will likely take on this role this year, as well as regularly attending the Fitchburg Farmers’ Market. We’ve also decided not to do our local Argyle Market this summer. We needed to let something go and unfortunately in recent years this hasn’t been profitable enough to justify the time we put into it. However, if local customers still want to purchase some extra produce from us, we’re always happy to sell it directly off the farm.

We’re looking forward to introducing Maya to our community – at markets, events, or here at the farm.

Our little dino

Our little dino

Rebirth

Anyone who has driven by our farm in the last 9 months (yikes!) surely noticed we’ve been undertaking quite the house remodel. After years of living in the old farm house that had little insulation, lead paint, snakes in the damp basement, and other less than ideal living circumstances, we decided it was time to invest in our home and in ourselves, and build something more comfortable to raise our family in.

This included quite a few additions: a new master bedroom facing the fields instead of the road, a nursery for the baby, a home office for Scott, a finished basement, a great room also facing the beautiful view, and a garage. This feels like a lot for our small family, but this isn’t just our home – it’s also our farm headquarters, and a place where we work remotely a lot for our off-farm jobs. We designed the house to function for all three of these uses. We now have a guest bedroom for family and friends to visit, which we’re encouraging so those who don’t live nearby can get to know Maya. Scott and I now each have places we can comfortably and effectively work from home. Our new garage will not only be convenient for us to do less ice scraping on cars and treacherous walks to the driveway with the baby, but is also designed to serve as a greenhouse in spring to start our seeds and a space for caterers to use for weddings and other events held in our barn. The basement underneath will serve as a root cellar to better store our fall veggies in optimal conditions.

To assuage our environmental guilt of building extra square footage in the house, we also implemented several energy-efficient features. We added a ton of high efficiency windows and insulation. (We were only somewhat surprised to learn that our freezing kitchen was only insulated by 1930s newspapers.) All lights in the house are LEDs. The biggest upgrade we made was the addition of a geothermal system. Also called a ground source heat pump, this heating and cooling system uses a heat exchanger to draw energy from the difference in temperature outside (from horizontal tubes buried underground) and the house. The system then heats (in the winter) or cools (in the summer) the inside air, and also heats our water.

1930s “insulation”

1930s “insulation”

Perhaps our favorite room in the remodeled house is the kitchen. We added an island and have tons of counter space, which lends itself well to all of our cooking, baking, canning, and other food preservation projects. We got a new stove which is hybrid – propane and electric – and also has both conventional and convection settings. A local woodworker made us beautiful new cabinets so we can keep all our kitchen gear and gadgets better organized and more accessible. We can’t wait to do all kinds of cooking with fresh fruits and veggies this summer!

New favorite room in the house

New favorite room in the house

And of course, we’re also seeing rebirth all around us on the farm as we transition into the growing season. Scott and his mom have a competition each spring to spot the first robin, and this year Scott found one very early – at the end of February. This week we started to plant our first seeds of the season – lots of alliums including onions, shallots, and leeks. It won’t be long before the snow melts and the daffodils appear, many migrating birds return (we also heard the conclareee! of our first red-winged blackbird this week), and we spend a lot of time with our hands in the dirt sowing this year’s bounty. One of the things we love about farming is the inherent tie to the seasons. There’s a time for dormancy and rest, rebirth and growth, incredible abundance, decay and regeneration. While this winter wasn’t as relaxing as we’d hoped (see prior blog post – “A Wild Winter Week”), we still enjoyed a change of scenery and tasks, so after several months away from the day-to-day work of growing food for our family and community, we’re ready and eager to step back in. (We still have spots in our 2019 CSA, so if you’d like to join or refer a friend, please visit our sign up page!) We’re looking forward to launching our seventh season here at Plowshares & Prairie Farm, bolstered by the support of our community and the new birth that brings much joy and purpose to our lives.

And sow it begins…

And sow it begins…

A Wild Winter Week

During our first season on the farm, we did a little blogging to help our friends, family, and CSA members understand what our days looked like on the farm as we dove headfirst into a new adventure. Then we took on more and more projects and additional off-farm jobs, and decided we didn’t have enough time to do it all so the blog fell by the wayside. We’re still busier than we’d like (more on that in a moment) but we really want to share a little more about our lives on the farm – the fantastic community that embraces us, our intimate relationship with the land, the highs and lows of this rewarding but unpredictable work – so we’ve decided to give blogging another go. While we expect the coming months to be full of happy but sleep-deprived days, we’ll do our best to provide more regular updates. For now we’re excited to relaunch the blog, and start with a little insight into a crazy and amazing week we had recently. We hope you enjoy this little window into our lives here at Plowshares & Prairie Farm!

Winter is supposed to be a time for rest, reflection, and recovery for farmers. I can’t say that’s how this one has shaped up for us at Plowshares & Prairie Farm. First of all, Scott and I both have off-farm jobs doing environmental work at nonprofits in Madison. We’re thankful that we get to fully explore our passions for promoting healthy communities and planet, pairing our tangible work of farming with this additional work on clean water and climate change. We’re also grateful that our off-farm jobs allow us a lot of flexibility – frequent work from home to cut down on commuting and adjustable seasonal schedules. But that means that in the winter we’re actually working a lot at our other jobs, which leaves less time to recover from the physical and mental exhaustion that accompanies any growing season.

This year was also exceptional in our personal lives. We’ve been undertaking a major house remodel for months. As is often the case, the number of updates snowball into more and more, and the timeline stretches and stretches. The wet weather last fall only contributed to the delays. What started as a completion date of October quickly shifted to December, then the New Year, then Jan. 15. We were fortunate to be able to stay just around the corner with our in-laws during the most disruptive months of construction, but we were eager to get back into our space and our routine. We finally moved back in on Feb. 1 after three months out of the house. We have a way to go to get fully settled in, but for now are so happy to be in our home and are loving the comfort (insulation! a geothermal system!), functionality (so much kitchen counter space!), and beauty (lots of windows looking over the farm!).

There’s still some outdoor work to do, but we’re so happy to be back in our farm house.

There’s still some outdoor work to do, but we’re so happy to be back in our farm house.

The even bigger and most exciting change is that we’re about to meet our first child who will be joining us any day now. Though we’ve been preparing for months it’s hard to believe we’ll be meeting the little one soon. We’re just so excited to meet this little wonder, and to raise our child in this beautiful place.

So, there has been a lot going on. However, there was one week in particular which I think might go down in history as our busiest ever: Jan. 20-27. It was also a week where we felt incredibly loved, supported, and honored.

On the 20th, our cousin threw us a festive baby shower. Family and friends showered us with love, advice, and some adorable baby gear. 

The “parents to bee” at our baby shower.

The “parents to bee” at our baby shower.

On the 22nd, we were invited as guests of honor to attend Governor Evers’ State of the State address. He wanted to acknowledge farmers with significant contributions in sustainable agriculture. We’re proud of all that we do to manage our produce fields, prairies, and wetlands on our farm in a way that keeps our soil and water healthy and stores carbon in the ground. Still, it was a surprise and complete honor to be recommended and selected to be the face of sustainable agriculture for the new administration. Before the address, we got to meet Governor Evers in his office, as well some of the other guests of honor and a couple cabinet members, including DNR Secretary Preston Cole and DATCP Secretary Brad Pfaff.

Meeting the Governor before his State of the State address.

Meeting the Governor before his State of the State address.

We were then ushered up to the gallery where we got to sit (and stand up to clap a lot) during the Governor’s address.

Watching Governor Evers’ State of the State address from the gallery.

Watching Governor Evers’ State of the State address from the gallery.

Later in the evening, we were invited to the Governor’s Mansion where we again chatted with the Governor, ran into State Representative Mark Spreitzer who we’ve met at Wisconsin Farmers Union events, and enjoyed hors d'oeuvres and picturesque views on a beautiful snowy night.

Outside the Governor’s Mansion.

Outside the Governor’s Mansion.

On the 23rd-25th, I headed to Appleton to host a summit on energy and resilience for local leaders. This is the biggest annual event that I organize for my off-farm job which involves months of planning. I’m happy to say this year’s summit was a big success – I think the best one yet. We had record attendance, Lieutenant Governor Mandela Barnes delivered our welcoming keynote address, and our panels were the most diverse yet (by gender, ethnicity, geography, and age). It was also held in a gorgeous location – at the Bubolz Nature Preserve – where we watched cross-country skiers on the snow-covered trails outside our plenary room and enjoyed a tour of the microgrid that powers the nature center.

Mandela Barnes delivering the welcoming keynote address at the Powering Local Leadership summit. (Photo credit: Amanda Shilling)

Mandela Barnes delivering the welcoming keynote address at the Powering Local Leadership summit. (Photo credit: Amanda Shilling)

On the evening of the 25th, I caught a ride to Johnson Creek on the way back from Appleton to meet Scott, who had already begun the Wisconsin Outstanding Young Farmer (OYF) award weekend.

Last fall, we were nominated to apply for this award for farmers under 40. From WI OYF’s materials:

GOALS OF THE OYF PROGRAM ARE:

  • To foster better urban-rural relations through the understanding of farmers’ challenges, as well as the appreciation of their contributions and achievements

  • To bring about a greater interest in farmers/ranchers

  • To help build an urban awareness of the farmers’ importance and impact on America’s economy

We submitted our application late last year, and soon learned we were selected as finalists along with seven other farms. The WI Outstanding Young Farmer program judges farms based on: progress in agricultural career; extent of soil and water conservation practices; and contribution to community, state, and nation. Through a number of questions in our application and during an interview that Scott completed on the 25th, we shared our accomplishments in each of these areas.

To make our weekend even busier, we were actually double booked, and hopped back and forth from OYF activities to child birth classes in Madison (which of course we had booked before we learned about the awards weekend and was the only weekend we could take them given our timeline) on the 26th and 27th. We were sorry to not be able to fully participate in all the OYF activities (including a sub-zero degree tour of a local farm), but appreciated how supportive the group was of our balancing our family needs. Before we left for the Breastfeeding 101 class on Saturday, some of the dairy farmers in attendance joked with Scott about never making any comparisons to his wife about milking cows.

We quickly discovered that the very best thing about the OYF weekend was the welcoming and supportive community of farmers, past winners, and volunteers that make this program a reality. It was a pleasure and a privilege meeting all the other finalists who are doing some exceptional farming across the state - large and small, conventional and organic, dairy and produce. Talking with the other farmers throughout the weekend, it was obvious that despite the differences in our scales, methods, and what we grow, we have many of the same challenges and values. We were thrilled to make some new friends and are honored to be part of this community of hard-working, community-oriented farmers.

WI OYF’s 2019 finalists.

WI OYF’s 2019 finalists.

We were especially proud to win 2nd Runner Up! After learning about all the hard work, community leadership, and innovative techniques that the other finalists were doing all across the state, it was a true honor for Scott and me to have our achievements be celebrated among this impressive group with this award. As a small, organic, community supported agriculture (CSA) farm, we’re not necessarily the first thing that comes to mind when people think of farmers in the Dairy State. It meant a lot to have our growing and conservation practices recognized, and we're happy to be included as part of the vision for the future of farming in Wisconsin.

Proud 2nd Runner Up winners. (Yes, I wore the same dress 3 times during the course of this week – that’s what happens when you’re 8-months pregnant and only have one nice outfit that fits.)

Proud 2nd Runner Up winners. (Yes, I wore the same dress 3 times during the course of this week – that’s what happens when you’re 8-months pregnant and only have one nice outfit that fits.)

Like I said, it was a wild week. But it was also one where we got to meet the Governor and Lieutenant Governor, educate ourselves and celebrate as we prepare to welcome a new family member, and exchange ideas with leaders from across the state on farming practices and environmental stewardship. I would have been exhausted even if I weren’t 8 months pregnant. But I can say this week is one I will never forget, and I feel so lucky to have had these opportunities. Scott and I work hard to live according to our values. The life we have chosen is by no means simple, but it is simply meaningful. While our winter hasn’t exactly been relaxing, we came out of this week inspired, honored, and reinvigorated for all that awaits us in 2019.

End of Year Reflections

Well, here we are at the end of 2013.  It’s hard to believe that just nine months ago – with the exception of garlic – we had not even broken ground.  We have come a long way in our first year, and have learned many invaluable lessons along the way.  Here are the top ten lessons from our first year of farming:

1.      Do not plant 600+ tomato plants.  Yes, everyone loves tomatoes and they are delicious, and it’s nice to have a variety, but oh my, this is way too many.  Next year we will plant a small fraction of this, take better care of them (pruning, clipping up, and weeding) and still have plenty.  We also have a better idea of which varieties sell best.  Turns out most people enjoy either the large and juicy heirlooms or the small cherry tomato snacks.  We had a number of medium-sized tomatoes that did not sell well at markets.  We’ll probably still plant a small number of paste tomatoes, which are great for canning (especially tomato sauce) because they are less watery, but we’ll cut out most of the medium-sized varieties.

2.      Row cover is amazing.  We conducted a series of trials over the growing season, with some crops under cover and our control group uncovered.  The row cover helps regulate temperature and retain moisture, and our covered plants consistently matured faster and looked healthier.  It does make weeding and picking a little harder as you have to pick up and move one side of the cover to get in there, but the benefits clearly outweigh any added challenges.  We plan to use a lot more of this in 2014.

3.      Stay ahead of weeding.  Having to play catch up is no fun.  It is so much easier to periodically run through the rows with the wheel hoe than to pull out large weeds by hand.

4.      Don’t mix up squash seeds.  I was devastated when I realized I had accidentally planted spaghetti squash when what I really meant to plant was pie pumpkins.  Sure, the spaghetti squash turned out well, but it’s just not the same in a pie.

5.      California Early White garlic (aka what you find in most grocery stores) does not like Wisconsin weather.  Neither does Spanish Roja.  Having lived in all three places, I suppose this does not surprise me.  We’re sticking to our heartier (mostly hardneck) varieties for next year, and are trying out a limited amount of new softneck varieties so I can work on my braiding skills.

6.      Sweat bees are the worst.  Even if it’s 100 degrees out, I vow to wear pants during the few weeks when sweat bees are out.  They land on you, mostly on your legs, and generally in annoying places like the back of your knee and they then sting you as soon as you move.  A dozen stings before lunch is pretty unpleasant.  Though I suppose if this is the worst thing that happens while working outside, and wearing pants can pretty much avoid it, it’s not too terrible.

7.      Don’t plant on the hillside.  There was a point this spring when we were desperate to get seeds in ground that seemed perpetually soaked, so we sought out higher ground.  This worked briefly, until the ground finally dried out and the seeds we planted too high up really dried out.

8.      Plant fewer varieties of corn.  Since this was our first year, our tendency was to plant lots of varieties to see which we liked best.   However, we have to plant it in four-row clusters to help with pollination, so it’s really best to stick to just a few types.  We also lost a fair number of stalks to mischievous raccoons, so we’ll need to work on a strategy to prevent this next year.  Corn is a tough crop to grow in a diversified farm, since so many farms do it large-scale for cheap.  A CSA we were members of in Seattle didn’t even bother with corn, saying it was too hard to grow and not worth it.  We like being able to offer a great variety of veggies to our customers, so I think we’ll stick with it, but hope everyone understands if our ears are not as massive as the ones you can buy from farms specializing in sweet corn.  For the record, though small in size, we thought our corn was big in taste.

9.      Take one day a week off.  This was the plan when we started out, but it didn’t really happen.  We just had so many things to get set up that we justified the constant work as something unique to our first year and that we just had to do.  Needless to say, we were pretty exhausted by the time fall rolled around.  Next year we plan to give ourselves a regular break, to relax, regroup, and be more efficient when we come back to work.  This reminds me of an Edward Abbey quote I’ve always liked:

One final paragraph of advice: do not burn yourselves out. Be as I am - a reluctant enthusiast....a part-time crusader, a half-hearted fanatic. Save the other half of yourselves and your lives for pleasure and adventure. It is not enough to fight for the land; it is even more important to enjoy it. While you can. While it’s still here. So get out there and hunt and fish and mess around with your friends, ramble out yonder and explore the forests, climb the mountains, bag the peaks, run the rivers, breathe deep of that yet sweet and lucid air, sit quietly for a while and contemplate the precious stillness, the lovely, mysterious, and awesome space. Enjoy yourselves, keep your brain in your head and your head firmly attached to the body, the body active and alive, and I promise you this much; I promise you this one sweet victory over our enemies, over those desk-bound men and women with their hearts in a safe deposit box, and their eyes hypnotized by desk calculators. I promise you this; You will outlive the bastards.

Of course, incorporating nature and exercise into our work is part of our plan to integrate what we enjoy into our jobs and make a lifestyle that is sustainable, healthy, and fun. That said, sometimes it’s still necessary to get away from the routine and recreate.

10.  Write more blog posts.  As I post this, I see our last post was in July.  Yikes.  We did a little better with our Facebook posts, and we did send out weekly newsletters to our CSA members, but we’d like to do better with our more in-depth communication next year.

2013 has been a pretty tumultuous year for many reasons. To name a few, we left stable jobs, embarked on a five-week antipodean adventure to visit dear friends and beautiful places, moved to a new state, started a business, lost a grandparent, supported two parents through cancer diagnoses (both are now happily looking healthy), started new part-time jobs, started remodeling an old farm house, and have been fortunate to take a number of trips to celebrate weddings and visit family.  When I find myself getting frustrated with the number of projects on my list and feeling like there is so much to do, Scott is good at reminding me of all that we have accomplished this year.  2013 will certainly go down in the books as an exceptional one.  I’m looking forward to a more efficient, less stressful, healthy, happy, and celebratory 2014. Happy New Year from your farmers at Plowshares & Prairie.

Catching Up on a Busy Summer

It's been a long time since either one of us took a few minutes to write a blog post.  Since those first posts, we've had a whirlwind couple of months, and now we find ourselves in the midst of summer, enjoying the beginning of the summer bounty that will hopefully result from all our hard work while already preparing to plant fall crops.  Way too much has happened to try to cover in one post or even several, so I'll just highlight a few things, and we will try to do a better job keeping up on our blog in the future.

 

We have 23 chickens now, 12 adults and eleven 2 month old chicks.  The chicks have just transitioned out of our sunroom to their new mobile chicken tractor, which is basically a bottomless pen we can drag around in pasture so they are protected but can still forage for plants and bugs.  It's been really fun raising them from chicks and watching how quickly they grow.  The adults are already laying eggs, which taste amazing, and have provided some entertainment and a lot of good lessons in chicken rearing.  It turns out that chickens are very trainable, and I discovered that when you need to get them back in their coop, it's much easier to get them to come to you than it is to suffer the embarrassment chasing them around.  So, we taught them to come to a whistle (with some grain mixture, which they LOVE) and that has made management a little easier. 

 

Much of our spring was very wet, though we have had a couple pretty significant dry spells, including one in late July that set things back a bit.  Watching and learning just how dynamic the soil conditions are and trying to manage them for the best plant growth has probably been one of the biggest challenges we've faced.  Learning when to cultivate, what to cultivate with, how frequently to cultivate, when to water, and where in our garden gets dry first and where the ground retains moisture longer has been a real eye opener.  The experience has made for both some frustrating and revelatory moments this year, and hopefully all that accumulated knowledge will make next year a lot easier.

For a while in the spring, the ground stayed pretty bare except where we planted.  Then all of the sudden, when the ground hit the right temperature, the weeds exploded.  We hesitated, trying to prioritize our precious time, and we're still digging out (or digging up) of the jungle that the weeds quickly created in some places.  However, we have substantially improved our weeding skills and strategy, and that in combination with the onset of drier weather is allowing us to finally catch up, which is very satisfying.  The lesson coming out of the whole experience; weed early and often, even when you can barely see the weeds. 

The wet year has also made the weeds in the prairie particularly large and aggressive, and we have fallen quite a bit behind in managing them.  Thankfully, prairies are resilient (moreso than veggies) and things are still looking pretty good, especially with all the yellow and purple flowers in full bloom right now.  We should have a little more time to get a handle on the invasive species we're trying to get rid of or minimize in the next few weeks, and next summer we'll have to squeeze in a little more time for prairie management.   

It has been both an overwhelming and exciting few months, and we're looking forward to taking everything we've learned and improving upon what we've already accomplished.  Packing our CSA boxes every week has been one of the most enjoyable experiences yet as we excitedly watch plants mature that we've worked so hard to grow and then get to share the delicious bounty they provide with our customers.  There have been busts, no doubt, but by and large our hard work has been rewarded with amazing food, and five months in to this new venture I think we're starting to figure things out!

Roosting on the edge of their sunroom pen

Roosting on the edge of their sunroom pen

Midsummer plantings where we're actually staying caught up on the weeds

Midsummer plantings where we're actually staying caught up on the weeds

Tassling corn; coming soon if the raccoons don't eat it first! 

Tassling corn; coming soon if the raccoons don't eat it first! 

Rhubarb in the Rain

This time of year, there's so much to do that you can't let a little rain keep you inside.  While rhubarb is a major ingredient in some of my favorite desserts, it isn't something we have a lot of yet, and it takes a couple years to get established.  Thankfully, we took a big step forward yesterday when we found an old rhubarb patch on our farm.  While it's a little later than ideal to transplant, we want to get it established in a better location and on its way to producing enough to sell, so I spent a good part of the afternoon today making that happen.  It was wet, it was muddy, and it was messy, but with less than half the patch moved, we've already got about 75 row feet of rhubarb.  Next year or the year after, that will make a lot of dessert!

Scott

RhubarbinRain.jpg