Thursday, November 22, 2012

The Weight of a Life

Chicha (left) and Boda (with the "B" on his forehead, in August

A few weeks ago, we had our first pig harvest.  We "harvested" Boda, who was named for the event he was intended for, our wedding.  Once we decided to postpone that event, his name became less meaningful, but his purpose was merely shifted; instead of feeding our wedding guests, he would feed us, and our friends, throughout the winter.  We decided on the last weekend of October, just before the apprentices left, when we could mark the end of another season with a celebration of life.  That day, Harvest Day, was incredible, for many reasons, and I will tell the story in a later post.  But something happened before that that made me appreciate the experience of slaughtering and processing that pig more than I would have otherwise.

A week before the harvest day, fall arrived.  Until then, days had been consistently balmy and cloud-free.  The rains expected each year in October had yet to arrive, and there was no sign of their arrival, until Sunday.  When I went out to feed the animals that morning, I was greeted by the first gray sky day in half a year, and a chilly breeze made the air suddenly, unexpectedly autumnal.  The pigs were staying in a paddock in the garden, where the tomatoes had been, up until two weeks earlier.  With such mild weather, they had been sleeping outside, and, having decidedly destroyed the EZ-Up tent we had set up for them as shade protection, they had no shelter.

That morning, as usual, I dumped a full garbage bag of vegetable scraps, retrieved from One Speed the day before, and let them work on that while I filled two buckets with grain and water.  I thought it strange when only Boda came running up to the edge of the paddock to greet me, grunting hungrily and plowing his nose through the pile of scraps almost before I could free them from the bag.  Chicha, his sister, remained lying in the corner among a nest of dying tomato vines.  Usually they both approach in anticipation of a meal, or even the possibility of one.  They had become less and less enthused by the vegetable scraps the longer we supplemented them with grain, but surely she'd get up as soon as she saw me mixing the grain buckets.  When she still didn't get up at this point, I gave Boda his bucket and walked over to Chicha, still listless and prone in the far corner of the paddock.  When I approached, she  attempted to get up.  After a couple of unsteady wobbles, she stuck her nose in the bucket, sniffed the grain, and retreated, collapsing again into the nest of tomato vines.

This was not good.  In the five months since we had gotten them as 13 week-old piglets, neither of the pigs had been anything but lively and voraciously hungry.  Chicha was definitely not well, and with the weather forecast predicting rain and continued chilly weather, we'd need to take care of her as soon as possible.

Inside, I called Jared, the farm manager at the Ranch, and told him about Chicha's behavior.  He gave me the number of the vet they use, who visits our animals when they're sick and treats them, often free of charge.  His wife had just had a baby, Jared warned me, so he may be difficult to get ahold of.

I called the vet and left a message, and then Eric and I went out to inspect her.  We decided the first thing to do would be to build a shelter.  We planned to move the pigs back to the area where their house was, but it was far from the tomato block, and with Chicha barely able to get up, we knew that it would be all but impossible to get her there while she was sick.  We built a house for them with straw bales instead, laying folding tables on top for a roof and covering it with a giant tarp.  She quickly moved into the shelter, but continued to refuse food and all but the smallest sips of water.  Later that day, I still hadn't heard from the vet, so I called again and left another message.  Meanwhile, we'd spent the day researching porcine diseases and their remedies, and Eric decided to buy some penicillin and hope for the best.  He gave her the first of two injections that evening.
Eric comforts Chicha before giving her a Penicillin injection
That night, I worked at One Speed.  When I returned, Eric said there was no change, but Boda had knocked down one of the walls of the shelter, leaving one end of the roof propped up and the other on the ground.  As they were still protected, we decided to wait until the following day to fix it.

At 1am, I awoke from a dead sleep to the sound of a hard rain falling, the first since May.  My first reaction: panic.  I spent the next thirty minutes thinking about the animals.  What if Boda had further destroyed the shelter, and our sick pig was now getting soaked?  Our ducks were in a paddock that lacked shelter, too, save for a few small fruit trees.  After multiple prayers for the rain to stop proved unsuccessful, I finally got up, pulled on my rubber boots, headlamp, and rain jacket, and went out the back door.  I shined my light on the pig paddock, and as I approached, I could see that the shelter was still in tact.  The ducks, I reasoned, are water-loving animals, and would survive a night in the rain.

The next morning the rain had stopped, the farm was covered with small lakes, and Chicha showed no improvement.  Nor, thankfully, was she any worse, but with no response from the vet, we knew now that if she was going to make it through, it was up to us.
The flooded farm post-rain storm

All day Monday we took turns checking on Chicha.  We reinforced the shelter, set up a new paddock and separated Boda from his sister.  We continued to try to get her to eat and drink, with little success.  Now we worried about dehydration.  We hadn't seen her defecate, and she had consumed mere sips of water for the last day and a half.  That afternoon we decided to try to give her saline solution through an IV.  As a medic's assistant in the army, Eric had received extensive medical training, and read up all day on how to apply his skills to our sick pig.  With the light fading, we brought our supplies to Chicha's shelter, and Eric went to work.  An hour and a half later, he had managed to insert the needle subcutaneously and feed her a few hundred milliliters of saline solution, as well as the second injection of penicillin.  We went to bed with fingers crossed for signs of recovery the next day.

Dr. Eric goes to work on our sick porker
Feeling (in vain) for a vein in Chicha's ear

On Tuesday morning I had to be at the Ranch at 8am to lead a field trip.  I thought about checking on Chicha before I left, but time was short and I knew that, should I find a sicker or worse, a dead pig, I would be in no state to drive myself to the Ranch and lead a group of second graders on a field trip.  I decided to leave it to Eric.  It wasn't until 1:00 that afternoon that I was able to check in.  Before I could even ask him, Eric reported that Chicha was better.  I think I literally shouted "Really!?! Woohoo!!"  She had leapt up and approached hungrily when he went out to feed them in the morning, ate and drank heartily, and seemed like herself again.

Before Chicha got sick, I don't think I fully embraced our role as caretakers of these animals' lives.  I fed them daily, moved their fence, hosed them off in the hot afternoons and laughed at their dog-like playfulness, but never really understood that they were my responsibility.  Their lives were in my hands.  It sounds obvious, writing it now, but it wasn't until Sunday night when, waking up, heart pounding, I realized they might be out in the cold rain, sick and suffering, that I knew--really knew--that they were mine.  I--Eric and I--had promised to keep them safe and well and happy, to ensure a good life for them, and this part, even in these last weeks before they met their fate, was just as important, no, even more important, than the part after their death, when their purpose was fulfilled and their meat was in our oven and in our bellies.  If Chicha died now, from being cold and wet while sick and weak, it would be my fault, and it would be a waste.

Thank goodness, she didn't.  She bounced back, thanks to Eric's doctoring and our protection of her.  She's still doing well, living over at the Ranch, busting up the boards of a pen designed to hold the much smaller Guinea Hogs they raise over there, and eating as many scraps as she could ever want.  In a few weeks her life will end as well.  It will be hard, but this is her purpose, and we will honor her by cherishing the meat she provides.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Is it October yet?

This phrase became a running joke during the most brutal days of summer last year at the River Ranch. "Is it October yet?"  During the time when most of our time--nearly every day--was spent harvesting endless rows of tomatoes, the weeks stretched on interminably, and it seemed there was no end in sight.  "Is it October yet?" was code for, I need a friggin' break.  October, we were told, was when things finally slow down.  Days are shorter, so the workday starts later, the weather is pleasant, and the bulk of the harvesting is in the past.

That phrase definitely came up a few times this summer between Eric and I.  The weeks before the Fall Equinox Fundraiser at the Hurley Farm, on September 22, were frenetic, with extra hands on the farm helping to mow, weed-wack, weed, and beautify the place for the big party.  It felt great to see the place all spiffed up, and so gratifying to have so many people come that evening, and to join them in eating great food, drinking free microbrews and celebrating a great season.
Michele and Hurley, all dressed up for the Fall Equinox.

And then, it was October.  After the fundraiser, I really started to feel like the season was ending. Most of our plants had been pulled, our tomatoes were slowing down, and we're due to finish now in less than two weeks!  We've spent the past couple of weeks slowing down, treating our sore bodies to yoga classes again for the first time since spring, waking up a little later, and enjoying the lack of stress and the absence of that feeling of too-much-to-do.

I thought taking the tomatoes down last week would be bittersweet, but it turns out, it wasn't so hard to see them go.  Eric and I were finally sick of tomatoes--even the giant, tangy heirlooms--and have rediscovered our love for winter squash, kale, and arugula.   Eating seasonally is great in this way, because each seasonal change brings newness and excitement at the return of the vegetables six months ago you never wanted to eat again.  It's kind of like the first day of school, except instead of homework, you get to cook delicious food :).
Some of the winter squash, pre-harvest.

Fall out here is nothing like fall in the Northeast.  It was 87 degrees today.  It still hasn't rained since May, and the only fall colors we have are the golds and rusts of dried out grasses and shrubs.  Fall is more like spring in the way that, despite the lack of rain, new growth comes from cool nights and dew lingering longer in the morning.  Spring crops come back--our rhubarb plant has exploded with the cooler weather, and the strawberries have picked up again (for real!).  There are still apples and pears and pumpkins.  I kind of like the Central Valley autumn, even without the leaf peeping and sweaters.
Tomatoes are down, and pigs are enjoying their "last meal."
(You can see their cute ears peeking from behind the white tent, on the right.)

In a couple of weeks, the field and garden at the Hurley Farm will be tucked in for the winter under a blanket of cover crop, Boda the pig will be "harvested" and in the freezer, and Eric and I will be closing the door on this little adventure in hand-scale farming.  At some point this winter, we'll move back to the River Ranch, into "the duplex," over there, into one of the two staff apartments (the cozier side), and I'll be moving into a couple of new roles at Soil Born.   I'm excited about winter at the Ranch.  It's lambing time, and three little babies have been born this week.  There will be two calves, in February and March, which means fresh raw milk again!  The farm is beautiful and quiet in the winter, with everything green and damp, the animals fattening up on lush winter pasture.  It will be such a gift to have the river and the parkway next door, and a bit more of a buffer from the concrete jungle of "parking lot-landia," that is outer Sacramento.  I couldn't be happier that it's October, and that finally, the dog days are over.

 Here are some of the ways I've taken advantage of "October":

Eric and I played hooky and went to the beach in Half Moon Bay

Ian and Anila came for the weekend and we visited the Ranch....

....and then we visited Meg in San Francisco

I went on a gorgeous solo overnight hike in Desolation Wilderness, near Tahoe.

This is how happy it made me.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

What it's all about

Radish seed in the hopper, ready to sow
I've pretty much been running non-stop since my last post.  Well, not running, perhaps, but walking, bending, digging, squatting, weeding, lifting, pulling, watering, driving, selling....

Basically, the rain stopped and it's been all farming, all the time, ever since.  

An almost-ripe Pluot

The fruits of our labor so far have been incredible.   Walking through the field and seeing nearly ripe cucumbers on plants that have been quietly growing for weeks and weeks is an occasion for joy.  Making a huge meal of sauteed summer squash with Cippolini onions and garlic, steamed Red Russian kale and a tomato-basil salad with fried eggs--all of which we grew here at the Hurley Farm--makes meals doubly delicious.  Upon hearing feedback from a picky chef that he thought our strawberries were "amazing," our faces light up with involuntary, blushing grins.  As anyone who has ever cooked, built, or made something for an audience, it feels so good to see your hard work come to fruition and make people happy.

Our two newest farmily members, Chicha and Boda
When we finally got all of our summer vegetables in the ground a few of weeks ago, we walked around the farm and took a breath for the first time in months.  

The season has brought with it daily lessons.  We've grown some beautiful veggies, as well as entire beds that failed completely.  We spent hours thinning fruit and pruning our apple trees when their branch tips started drying up and dying only to discover two weeks later that codling moth had bored its way into nearly all the fruit.   Farming this season has been an entirely different experience from farming last year.  While a half-acre of 200 foot-long beds is shaped by a tractor in a half hour over at the Ranch, Eric and I, with the help of our generous volunteers, spend half a day shaping three or four 90 foot-long beds with a tiller, shovels and rakes.  Luckily, we have the help of some awesome, enthusiastic friends and volunteers.  We couldn't do it without them.  

A view of the garden back in May
Meanwhile, we're constantly bumping up against our own beliefs, ideals, and goals.  Is it possible for us to make a living farming sustainably without running ourselves into the ground?  Would we even enjoy farming if we had the pressure of producing and hustling to make a profit?  Can we nurture the land and raise happy animals using methods we believe and still run a business?  Every couple of weeks we manage to pull up a bit from our labor and daydream to each other about how we'll incorporate farming into our lives in the future.  Fruit trees or vegetables?  Pigs or cows?  For income or just for ourselves?  Compost business?  Bed and breakfast?  East Coast or West Coast?

It's so easy to get wrapped up in how the plants are doing, and how much we're selling or not selling to restaurants and farmers' market customers.  We have to keep reminding ourselves that this year, selling veggies is not the point.   All the lessons--the bed of bolted radishes, the realization that selling kale might never really pay the bills, the harvest morning spent training and managing ten new volunteers--

that's the point.  And with all those beautiful, delicious berries we didn't sell at the market the other day,   it's a great excuse for strawberry shortcake.

Perfect berry

Monday, March 26, 2012

Slow is Smooth...

(I wrote this a couple of weeks ago, but "forgot" to publish it.  Also, pictures don't correspond with writing. Sorry!)  

Certainly, the weather affects everyone.  But as a farmer, it goes beyond just affecting your mood.  It started raining on Tuesday, and is expected to continue, on and off, for (Yikes!) the next two weeks.  When it rains, we can't till, we can't dig, we can't weed.  We can't even walk around in the garden very much.  We're basically paralyzed, work-wise. 

In the Central Valley, winter is usually the rainy season.  Typically, it rains from October through February, and then dries up and doesn't rain at all between April and September.  At the Hurley Farm, this prevents the farmers from fall planting.  The soil is heavy with clay and has a shallow hardpan, which means it is slow to dry out and floods easily.  So a slow winter is expected, with lots of opportunities to cozy up in front of the glow of the computer screen and set up budgets and plans. 

This winter, not surprisingly, has not been typical.  Except for a week of rain in December, it's been dry all the way through.  Hence, Eric and I have gotten ahead in the garden, shaping beds and planting our first successions, planned for early March, in late January.  We've been busy, and I had started to believe that the rain would never come.  But then it did.  And while it comes at a thoroughly inconvenient time, there's nothing we can do about it.  No matter what we'd like to do, we're at the mercy of the rain gods.

A view of the Hurley Farm during brighter times.

So this week I've spent a lot of Q.T. in front of the old MacBook, trying out different coffee shops in town and finally getting through the daunting task of estimating our monthly profits and losses for the season.  Eric has midterms, so he's able to hunker down and study. 

Our first harvest!
With this forced break from busily 'doing' in the garden, some unexpected but important revelations have come up in both of us.  They've manifested themselves in different ways, but ultimately boil down to, “Slow is smooth, smooth is fast," a military saying easily applied to most things in life.  Slowing down means you're more likely not to make mistakes, which makes things smoother and ultimately faster.  Eric and I are eerily similar in certain respects.  We are both impulsive and tend to jump into tasks without fully thinking them through.  This has already resulted in many "learning opportunities.”  This is not a bad thing, as we are learning an enormous amount from our mistakes, and have the amazing opportunity to learn this way through this second year of training.  But it is true that the real stress is just around the corner, with summer harvest season bringing with it more to do than there is time in the day.  Soon we won't have time to spend hours fixing mistakes we could have avoided by slowing down and thinking things through.  

So I spent part of my rainy-day time yesterday adding all of our seeding, sowing, and transplanting dates to our main wall calendar, a no-brainer maybe for those of you planning-oriented folks, but an oversight to yours truly, causing a frantic afternoon and evening of bed shaping yesterday (until 8pm) before the rain started, so that they'll be ready for their scheduled planting (hopefully) during a break from the rain next week. 

I'm so proud of these leafy little greens.

I’ve been trying to take the “Slow is smooth, smooth is fast” mantra to work with me at OneSpeed.  My shifts are often super busy, with more customers to get to than I can reach as quickly as I’d like.  The mistakes I’ve made have been during these busiest shifts, when I failed to take the time to double-check my order pad before sending the order through the computer to the kitchen.  I seem to trust my memory more than I should.  Luckily nothing dire has happened yet, but nothing will change if I don’t change the way I operate, remembering the carpenter’s motto of “Measure twice, cut once” and taking the time to double-check my orders before I send them to the kitchen.  I can only afford to buy the guys in the kitchen so many rounds of drinks for putting up with me :).

The proud, nerdy farmers.
Fortunately, the rain won’t last forever.  The ground will dry up, and all of the “getting ahead” we’ve done this winter will have vanished, replaced by more tasks than we have time to complete.  But hopefully the lesson will stick, and we’ll end up with less time lost to fixing mistakes and more time to revel in the beautiful life we get to tend this year.  

Monday, March 5, 2012

Coming back

I've had itchy fingers for a while now.  I've had lots of time to think, and I've found bits of narrative floating through my brain, just begging to be written down.  A few weeks ago, I listened to the audiobook version of David Sedaris's  When You are Engulfed in Flames, which he narrates in his delightfully dry, nasal voice.  That week David Sedaris narrated my thoughts.  It was awesome.

But I haven't written a post since last June, and, though these fingers have been itching since at least January, it's taken me until now to take the plunge.  To be honest, I've struggled the most with the question of honesty and audience.  I am so eager to share what I'm doing and thinking, but at the same time, I'm scared to death of just that.  My written self is way more revealing than my spoken self; it's scary to think about how much I'm exposing through these posts.  On the other hand, I love having an audience,  and I think that, however uncomfortable, the vulnerability I feel because of what I share with "the world" is ultimately a good thing.

And while I also struggle do decide who I want to write for (for me? or for you?  Both, I think, but who more?), I know that I often feel very, very far away from many of the most important people in my life, and I want so badly for them to know about my life on the other side of the country.

So my (growing) season resolution will be to sit down and write, every now and again.  I'm not going to fuss with finding the perfect words, or the perfect photo to fit the post, because those details, I find, have more often kept me away from the keyboard.  I will sit, I will write, I will click the "Publish" button, and I will share my stories with whoever wants to read them.  Starting now.

There is SO much to tell, and I just can't let it pile up anymore!  One month ago, Eric and I moved from "The Ranch" where we had lived for eleven months (first in tents, then, starting in December, in a room in "The Duplex" with the rest of the farm staff), to the Hurley Farm, or more precisely, "The Farm on Hurley Way."  This is the one and a half-acre backyard farm that the founders of Soil Born Farms took over twelve years ago and slowly transformed into a Garden of Eden in the middle of a sprawly, shopping plaza-filled neighborhood.  Eric and I have been given the amazing opportunity to farm this little jewel for Soil Born as contractors through a farmer training grant from the USDA.  After learning the ropes last season on the ranch, this year we will attempt to apply what we've learned and see what it's like to be new farmers, with the bonus support of our mentors at Soil Born.   We live on-site at the Hurley Farm, and have a significant amount of autonomy, which is both liberating and scary.

So far, things are going really well.  Winter has skipped the Central Valley this season, and instead of the rain cloud that usually camps out over Sacramento from November through February, we've had nothing but blue skies and mild weather.  Which means that instead of starting planting in early March (this week), we started back in January, and have been shaping garden beds and readying the farm for the season ever since.  We're going to grow a range of produce this season, which we'll sell to Soil Born for the CSA and farm stand, as well as to a few restaurants in Sacramento, including my new employer, OneSpeed Pizza, which makes ridiculously delicious pizzas out of high-quality, responsibly-sourced ingredients.  I started serving there two nights a week in January, which has been a great complement to the farm bubble.

One of the exciting projects we're taking on this year is raising ducks!  We now have twelve hilarious Indian Runner ducks, most of which are much bigger than they were in this photo, and happily living outside in their own little house, spending their days running around in a cluster and munching on grass.  We will move them around on some of our garden beds when they get a little bigger, eating up the slugs and aphids and weeds, and will lay yummy eggs for us to eat and maybe sell.  We also snagged a bunch of hens from the Ranch, so we are poultry farmers now, doing morning "animal chores" and deriving entertainment from watching these little ones and wrangling chickens when they get out of their "paddock."  (I've got to get Eric tackling a chicken on video one of these days, it's hilarious!).

Much more to tell, but I'm spent! Also satisfied to be at it again.  Thanks for reading!  It feels good to be back.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

The Sweetest Fruit

I ate a ripe peach off a tree on Monday. This morning we harvested our first gorgeous, multi-colored potatoes for a restaurant order. And this afternoon I reached down into the depths of the tomato plant jungle I was trellising and plucked the first burstingly juicy, ripe Sungold cherry tomato. The lunch Emily and I made today had summer squash in every dish. It's official: summer is HERE!!

It's been months since I last wrote. For a while I felt a nagging twinge of guilt whenever I'd think about how long it'd been since I last wrote a blog post. But then I got over it. I'd write again when I felt like it! In the meantime, I was busy living (and loving) the life I wasn't writing about. Nothing wrong with that!

Admittedly, there are weeks that have been harder to savor than others, days when I find myself glancing at my watch, living from break to break, losing patience with the endless weeding stretching from here to October. But then the fruit started coming, and I now understand how unspeakably precious this food is, for the patience and the dedication and the sweat and the sore backs and the love and the sore feet and the sunburns and the blisters that made it possible. Growing food is hard! Growing good food, in a way that leaves the earth you use and the people you feed better than they were before, is REALLY hard. And indescribably important. I'm so blessed to be able to help out.

The L-R-B (Leaf/Root Block)

Weeding the Squishes.

Our first pepper, just hangin' out.

My first tiny-tomato bite.

And finally, some potato portraits....





And Me.