Summer Camp Nightmares

It was more than 15 years ago, but I remember my own summer camp nightmare like it was yesterday.  One summer, back when I was writing my master’s thesis, I spent four weeks teaching in Costa Rica. This wasn’t an ordinary teaching assignment. 

I arrived in Costa Rica ready to embrace high school students looking for a challenge. What I got, was 14 high school girls expecting a tropical vacation. We were assigned to a tropical bird sanctuary. And that doesn’t sound too bad at first. But our main task was to wake up at 4am, before the heat of the day, and weed acres of maize — essentially food for the birds. As we hacked our way through the underbrush, watching for snakes, I could hear the girls cursing me out. It wasn’t that they hated me. They despised me.  To make matters worse, we were all roommates. We were housed, in one tiny, one room cabin. I would fall asleep to either giggles, or grumbles as I got out of bed, or a cautiously knocked on the door, a small courtesy to check if everyone was decent.

I’d like to say that I learned a lot about organic agriculture that summer. What I did learn, though, was how to live, or at least cope, with teenage girls. I was surrounded by them, and none of us had hardly any personal space.  

Weeks, later, after having received terrible evaluations, and being placed with a group of coffee farmers, and an amazing group of students, I realized that I had made it through the worst.

This week, with many of our farm members and friends just back, or literally just off to summer camp, we are waiting for the stories to come in.  This week on the farm, we are trellising, staking, and pruning some of our most important and valuable crops. We are all working overtime, kind of a nightmarish camp re-enactment. At market we’ll have some of these crops tomorrow — the first peppers and some eggplant. And one of my favorite, a large abundance of heirloom summer squash.

As I write, Mary and Kayla are muddling through the work. We’ve just done a limited harvest for tomorrow since the plant care and maintenance this week is so important, even vital to good production of tomatoes, where each fruit week counts, just like the days going by at summer camp.

Since we have to get out and finish work, and we need the entire team on board, I’ll be brief. We’ll have our own summer squash recipe at market, but if you can’t wait until tomorrow, or want to swing by this evening, we highly recommend our distant friend’s blog, Dishing up the Dirt. Since we will have basil at market tomorrow, we recommend the Roasted Summer Squash Pesto.

You are family. Like it or not.

It's marathon weekend in Missoula, and even though it's been a few years since I've run that race, it's an event that feels like a family holiday. In the first five years, as the race grew up, I ran three fulls and two halves, and it's still my favorite road race anywhere (sorry, Portland).  My sister and her family have been to visit for that weekend for the last 8 years or more.  Amazingly, they continue to come out from Oregon each year, even though we now run this farm up the Bitterroot, and even though the second Sunday in July is pretty much when the weeds start to get out of hand in a most desperate way. But even though they'll be running 13.1 miles on Sunday, they happily pitch in to bring order and releif to whatever beds we point them towards.  Every year we wish we were more on top of it, wish we could host them better, apologize for the rough accomodations, our frazzled state, and the wall of weeds we simply have to tackle.  Every year, they tell us not to worry, they put up with our chaos and our late Friday night, take us to dinner at the brewery, and remind us that we are loved. 

Marathons have been on my mind all summer, and especially since the wheel came off the tractor, back on Memorial Day weekend. It was my old runing coach Anders' voice that I heard when I looked back at the parked Kubota on a Saturday evenign in late May, and realized that the wheel was coming off the tractor. We've made analogies from farming to marathons before, and this year more than ever, it feels apt. 

In the training class for my first marathon, Anders dismissed the notion of "the wall" at a certain mile.  For every runner and every race, he emphasized, the hardest moment would be different. The phrase he used instead was "when the wheels come off the bus.." If you go out too fast at first caught up in starting-gun excitement, if you fail to fuel properly, or if you don't adjust your pace when suddenly the temperature is 20 degrees hotter than most of your training runs, you can end up at mile 12 or mile 23, with the wheel starting to come off the bus. When the wheels come off the bus, it's hard to recover. 

That was how the farm felt, in late May and early June; we'd started off strong, but perhaps we tried to do too much, with the  infrastructure, labor, and systems we had.  There's plenty of analysis and thinking and planning to do to avoid this in the coming years.  But like in a marathon, we also have to figure out the best way to get through the season.  In the running class, we talked about how to prevent the wheels coming off the bus, but also how to deal with it if it did happen.  And that was when I started to understand I wasn't training to run just one marathon; I was learning to run, for the longer term.  If you're in it for the long haul, you don't want to just blast through and stumble to the finish line, swearing never to run a marathon again.  We talked about how to avoid hurting yourself in the long term, how to salvage the race with perhaps not the time goal you'd set out with, but maybe trying to enjoy the course, the community, the event. And, most importantly, to plan for the next one.  

We had to adjust our race goals for this season.  It's not that one bad tractor wheel thew us off; that was more of a symptom, really. Tryign to do too much, not on top of everything, we missed some basic maintenance.  The tractor out of commission for a week slowed us down, made many tasks harder, but it wasn't the thing that threw off the season; it was a slow-down that forced us, in a very good way, to look at our whole system and strategy, and recognize we were not on a very good path.  If we continued to push, we'd maybe manage to limp through the season, but we'd likely be too burnt out, exhusted, and depleted, to be able to manage other season of farming. We'd be the kind of runner who suffers through one marathon, and never ever does it again.  That's not what we want to be as a farm; we want this to be an annual marathon, enjoyable even though it's challenging, and something that we are in a habit of for life.  To get there, we realized, we needed to have some help, and we needed to face the fact that we weren't going to hit our income goals, and that creates some problems. At some point in a race, you simply can't go fast enough to make up for some slow middle miles; when 15 beds of greens fail, and a few more crops are paltry compared to the plan, we know it'll be hard to reach the income goals set in February.  

But it's ok.  We reset to realized that we could recover, we could continue to do it again, if we ended the year just breaking even (paying for the many improvements to the farm, like new fencing, new hoop houses and propagation house), and with a secure and comfortable place for us to live.  It was, in some ways, like changing our race-time goal to a half-hour longer, but seeing that we'd be much happier in the long run.  This is not our year to set a personal record, but it is a year for lots of learning, and a good bit of growing up as a farm.    

When I joined the Run Wild Missoula training class to prepare for my first marathon, I assumed I'd train for and run one in my life, check that off a list, and move on.  Instead, I found a whole family of runners, and a regular lifesaver of a passtime.  I haven't run much at all the last few years, but regular running again is one of the benchmarks of success that Noah and I have set for our farm.  If you start to see us at the meetups of the Bitterroot Running Club, or loping along forest service roads with our happy husky, you'll know we're starting to run a truly succesful farm (and life).  

Over the years, and especially over these last few weeks, we have felt love from our farm-family too. We can see all the ways we have fallen short of our goals (there should have been an earlier batch of carrots, there should have been another round of peas,  and half the time this summer, we've not quite had a recipe insert ready for member pickup up day).  We've apologized, wished we could host you better, and yet just like the family-family, the farm-family has come back again and again, put up with our shortcomings, and reminded us that we are loved.  We've heard from you, sometimes with teary eyes all around, that we matter to you, to your families and your dinner tables, and to the community here. We've been completely amazed at how you have pitched in, raising more funds, and more quickly, than we'd really ever expected. If you have not been following our kickstarter campaign to fund our yurt, the good news is, we passed our goal on the 4th of July, and are within $1,000 of the top-up goal that gets us an insulated panel floor that (most importantly) saves us probably 10 days of fall building time--time that can go back into the farm, bettering things for this fall and next year, too. We are just amazed, and so grateful.  

Next year's marathon will come again in July, and we'll be doing our best to keep the wheels on the tractor, and the wheels on the bus.  A home will be a huge part of that, and we thank you all.  

Holding Up the Sky

A little surgery on the 1976 camper top, before we added some timber framed supports.

A little surgery on the 1976 camper top, before we added some timber framed supports.

All last week, and maybe even the week before that, I was bracing myself.   It wasn’t just in anticipation of all the emails, calls, texts, visits and support we’ve been getting from our kickstarter campaign. Another storm was brewing.  That storm arrived from the west on Monday evening, pulling up to our farm in a small green Honda. Out stepped Kayla, our full time crew member. We’ve been worried about our tight and cluttered barn space, how to manage another person, when Mary and I sometimes, at our scale of production, are working hard to just manage ourselves .  

I feel like the stakes are high. We’ve just finished the main planting, and the weeds on most crops are beginning to explode. We are well into our main season, with weekly deliveries, and farm member pickups as well as continued planting, harvest, and planning.  How were we going to mesh Kayla into our rocky rhythm?  

By the time we got the timber frame brace built for the camper we bought from a neighbor, and by the time we had managed to safely load the camper on our truck, and lumber it on down the road (a few days late, on Wednesday), I confess we had fallen into our rhythm. Kayla is freeing up time by seeding, washing and packing, and harvesting. That left more time for me to work on our campaign, greet members, and actually farm. It’s an amazing what one more full time person can do. We’ve been scabbing it together this season — as many of you know. We've had some part time trained help, but with someone coming only one or two days a week, you fall out of the rhythm of farming, you forgot stuff.

And this week, with the arrival of Kayla, and even though she’s family, Mary’s niece, I feel like we can hold up the sky. This legally paid, on the books employee, is gonna help all of us. 

According to a 75-year, Harvard study, one of the biggest secrets to happiness, and I think farm and life happiness, is finding good relationships:  “Good relationships keep us happier and healthier. Period.....The biggest predictor of your happiness and fulfillment overall in life is, basically, love." 

What’s more interesting is that it’s not the number of friends you have, the data found. It’s the quality and depth of the relationships. 

“It’s the quality of the relationships—how much vulnerability and depth exists within them; how safe you feel sharing with one another; the extent to which you can relax and be seen for who you truly are, and truly see another.”

 

Not only does Kayla help us make time for ourselves, but the time we had to visit with you this past week, changed us.  The questions you are asking us, about the farm, ourselves, our strength, our future, they are good ones. From the questions and conversations and all the support you gave us this week, I'll confess you made us cry a lot. But, I think, that’s what we need. Thanks for letting us feel, and helping us feel that we can embrace one another, our farm, and on the best days, hold up part of the sky, even if it’s just to apply some screws and caulk to a problem we need to fix.

See you at market. Kayla may be around in the morning, will likely meet some of you, but she's got the day off to get to know her new summer home.  

What we haven’t said yet

We are tough people, and you know that, but at times like this I need to remind myself.  Mary is so tough that she can wrestle me to the ground; while traveling as a researcher in Panama years ago, she defended herself from a situation that could have been deadly.  About the same time, I broke up a mob that was on the verge of losing control in The Ivory Coast. When living in the Philippines, on assignment for National Geographic, I survived a fall down a ravine, that, while left me unscathed, landed a leech in my eyeball. And, this past winter, in Turkey, one an outside work trip, while suffering through a fever, I endured clients that unsuccessfully tried to bribe me, day after day, hour after hour to the extent that I started fearing for my safety.  And we farm. Yes, we are tough people.

Yet, when we had a visit from a distant non-profit last week, one that knows farming but not production agriculture, the leaders asked us tough questions. I ticked off our current challenges: $3000 of unexpected expenses (that week), a broken passenger vehicle (sitting at the mechanic), two large crop failures already this year due to bad germination and massive work on the new garden (mostly rock picking) and not enough organic matter. Mary and I take pride in our greens production, and it hurt when I mowed the ten 120’ foot beds over the course of this week and last week of greens that should have been high value crops: baby spinach, arugula, salad mix. Patchy germination, immediate bolting, and a thick layer of weeds left us with nothing worth salvaging, rather than the projected 1,000 pounds of greens—enough to supply all of our members, chefs, and the farmers’ market for two weeks.  Income from those beds, with good production, could pay my student loans for a summer or make a go at paying our annual tractor loan payment.   While we’ve completed our propagation house on schedule, we finished the new high tunnel late, and that will mean later crops.  Those two, two hundred hour projects have left us exhausted. We’ve been working 12-15 hour days, since longer than we can remember, and we are on the verge of burning out. While we’ve doubled our production and have purchased and built innovative tools that can change our farming, and makeit all more sustainable, but we don’t feel sustained. We have two thousand dollars of fence materials to put up and at least one other big farm infrastructure project this summer.  We’ll ask for at least one large workparty, but even prepping for this projects — so it can take people - seems exhausting. You all know as as happy people, and because of the exhaustion, I need to confess, we are not happy or feeling like ourselves these days. As we look at our very real shortfalls, it’s clear that we will not make our income goals this season.  We will be do a deep dive into our books soon, but the quick overview provides this brutally honest potential:

After we pay normal season debts, expenses, and labor, at the end of the season we may have precariously little money left to make it through until next season. We run a tight ship, with our $280,000 of debt (mortgage on the land and house we rent, my student loans, startup loans from family, and our tractor loan). Our cashflow projections, though, if we adjust them for some late plantings and shortfalls, give confidence to my gut for our long-term potential.   Butas I write this it’s ten minutes past two am and Mary is still washing and packing. Even for us tough people, this is extreme and not normal. We could have avoided this, perhaps with more rest and planning this winter, but we didn’t get that rest.  There are a lot of reasons for this.

We want to be a community farm, we want to feed all income levels, that Mary and I want to have time to be strong members of this community.  It’s clear to us that we are dangerously close of not reaching our vision, that we could not be around next year.

We’ve decided while we may need to take on work this winter, and that’s normal in the early years of farming, we cannot take on winter work if we are faced with another long winter of building, especially in a farm that doesn’t shelter us well from the elements — or have a kitchen.  We need housing, and while we can see a pathway towards building our core farm infrastructure, on that sustains us and our community, we can’t build a house — we don’t have the money or the time, for at least three to five years.

Because of this, we are taking some immediate and urgent actions. We will get our Jetta back from the mechanic, but we are not going to repair it. One vehicle will suffice till we have funds to fix that. 

An email is going out to our banker, later this weekend, letting him know we are okay for our tractor loan. It’s not this season that’s really in danger— it’s next.  We are communicating our shortfalls to the three chefs we work with and coordinating sales for other farms.  And, we are letting you, and our core farm members know that we are still on track to feed our community this year — despite the fact that salad mix will be short for the next two weeks and a few crops will be late. 

But the big thing, the thing that lets us continue this work, and can help us get through this season with more hope and excitement, is that we will need some winter housing, on farm, something that’s not our barn or the rental house, so we can work (on and off farm), recharge, and plan, or we just won’t be around next season.  This is a crisis, and like most farms that shut down, this is a slow one. We don’t want to fail. We have one good idea, one that we think solves the key problems, and it can give us a suitable home-space that is safe, easy, and comfortable enough to last as long as we need, allowing us to continue to build up the farm without wearing ourselves down. 

I know this a lot for many of you to take in, but I wanted to write now, letting you know what we are thinking and feeling and that, we are going to need help.  By the middle of next week we will outline our solution with more clarity. We are all in this together, and we are going to need some help.

We look forward to seeing you at market.

-Noah, Mary and SweetRoot

P.S. We have a growing pile of dishes and tupperware containers to the wonderful friends who have brought us nourishment this week. We love you.

THE FIRE MOUNTAIN SHEEP CHASE

It’s wildfire season in Montana.  This plume was from an evening when the fire made a huge jump in size, and had us wondering if it might even come over to this side of Blue Mountain.

It was a simple enough phrase, the short, shocking sort of call that can wrench a farmer out of bed at any hour: "Noah, the sheep are gone!" It was about the last news Mary wanted to bring from an early morning round of chores with a big day of garden-harvest planned. But this task needed both of us, and Noah was up andready in a heartbeat at those words. The dangers of farming vary by region, of course, but wherever they are based, nothing rips farmers out of a deep sleep quite like the knowledge that some portion of the year's food or income is gone or in danger.  

For our friends in the coffee lands of Indonesia and Papua New Guinea, it can be torrential rains that bring the fear of landslides.  For ranchers in Eastern Montana, it might be the threat of late spring hail and snow in calving season. We are gradually learning the challenges of our space here between Western Montana hills.  

That morning was not the first time our sheep had escaped. After one June thunderstorm, they'd shown up in a neighbor's pasture just down the road. That morning, even before 6 am, several neighbors rallied together to gather our herd. But this day was different.  The Lolo Complex fires had doubled in size the night before, fueled by dramatic winds, and the the whole valley had that smokey ominous light. We knew that when we closed our garden gate late the night before we had scared a herd of deer that thundered out of the pasture. If that was what had taken down some of the electric fence, it was possible the sheep had been loose for almost eight hours already. We had no idea where or how far they might have gone. 

After a hopeful first check of the property, we had to expand the search, and cruised the neighborhood in the farm truck, peering into pastures, knocking on doors, ducking through fences and behind barns of people we barely know, some we still haven't met.  It's not the best way to meet your neighbors, wide eyed and tense, with an opening line of "our sheep are missing; they escaped in the storms last night." 

So, we scoured river bottoms, crashed through brushy thickets and back pastures, crossing surprising little streams and holding barbed wire strands apart for each other. We began to form a whole new mental map of our rural neighborhood, surprising connections and secret-feeling passages. But the growing worry and frustration overshadowed any sense of excitement of discovery. We couldn't help but think of the stories from Ivan Doig's latest book The Bartenders Tale, which had helped us through some a winter drive this past year. The sheepherder Canada Dan is one of those rough western holdouts: independent, tough and weathered, a little outside of normal society. One day, also after big storms, he drags himself back to the Medicine Lodge bar, the center of the town, swearing never to go back to that work again after losing a whole herd of sheep in a surprise lightening storm.  Growing grim and tense ourselves, we exchanged looks, admitting that there was a chance these sheep, our flock of five, was flat-out gone. We could feel a new kinship with Canada Dan, worn down and ready to be done with it all, wondering what it would be like to be one of these neighbors who were just sitting on a porch enjoying leisurely weekend morning coffee. We wondered what we'd gotten ourselves into.  It’s hard not to think about how all the hours of work with these animals could end up being for nothing if we couldn’t find them.  

The coyotes who inhabit the nearby butte warned us and the dogs away from their particular rocky knoll on a morning hike this July.    We are very wary that our sheep pasture less than one mile away from one of the dens.

The coyotes who inhabit the nearby butte warned us and the dogs away from their particular rocky knoll on a morning hike this July.    We are very wary that our sheep pasture less than one mile away from one of the dens.

And yet, at the same time, we could be grateful that these sheep were not our complete and only income--grateful that we started small, and hadn't bet everything on the sale of a flock.  Because it seemed more than likely that these sheep had headed far out.  We're starting to think of ourselves as farmers now, at least in a small way, subsistence farming with the goal of eatingthe whole year almost exclusively what we have grown here; it's exciting and satisfying. But those moments of lost sheep can feel frighteningly powerless...what does one do with five sheep missing completely? We even considered calling in to the public radio station, like one might for a lost dog.  In the end, we just kept searching. It was all we could do. 

Back when we started working together in Forest Grove, we thought we were really getting into it with our eight hens, one bag of coffee, pilot coffee course, and coffee CSA.  And we were learning, digging in, starting our roots and even our homesteading in that triple city lot.  Some of you who have been with us since the start remember that first roast, the Chicken Chaser, named for those first forays into our home-growing and our coffee and farmer partnerships.    

We are in so much deeper now. Back then the chickens, the handful of raised beds, the greens in the garden window, the coffee, the student programs were additions, sidelines to other work and more-standard jobs.  Now it's a quarter acre garden, 21 hens, and the small herd of lambs intended to supply the year's meat for us and a neighboring family.  Not only that, it's agrowing coffee CSA in Missoula, steadily increasing list of mail supporters, coffee picked up by pallet instead of individual bag, and an all-out effort to launch a student course. We have let go of the stability of our old jobs, and the farming and the Forest Voices work has become our attempts at livelihood, so the stakes are so much higher now.  

Mary prepares to open our improptu sheep trailer after we've moved them over to a pasture we share with neighbors. 

When the sheep are out or the corn blows down, we feel those higher stakes now in a way that we didn't before.  And yet, we still have backups, still have some security.  Even if those sheep were never found, we'd have lost investments and time, but we wouldn't go bankrupt, though we'd be eating less meat.  If coyotes or raccoons found the chicken coop, we wouldn't go hungry.  We'd just have to make fewer omelets.   

Many of our farming friends and partners, in contrast, are all in and feel even more acutely those passing storms, rolling fires, and threats to the thin margin between making it and not. Storms in Indonesia are increasing, and while Eko and his team in Java work hard to protect microclimate and reforest degraded slopes, the coffee harvest comes with increasingly unpredictable timing.  Many farmers in Vietnam have to rely on a system of corrupt water trucks that ply delivery routes in order to water their vegetables.  And once they get the water to the nearest farm road, it still has to reach fruit trees and vegetables through pipe.  Those farmers who live too far from good access, have to buy or use a water pump.  These are the farmers that can do the math in their head, know how many of gallons of gas, how much time and labor a crop really takes. One thing we've gained in this sometimes tough year of planting and growing is a growing kinship with these farmers who, like us, are often small and often at the edge. Like us, they build stuff, break equipment and learn to fix it. 

Our neighbor Sig, who raised hundreds of sheep in this neighborhood at a time when, as he puts it “a pair of Levi’s cost $4,” lends a hand as we load up the sheep in the improvised stock trailer made of straw bales and Noah’s old art-booth panels (below) to move them to new and more-secure pasture. He hasn’t lost any of his sheep-handling skills since those days, and showed us a few good tricks, like how the right hold makes even our biggest sheep easy to put where we want. 

Sometimes we question this way, perhaps more often than we should.  But there are times when it can be a series of blows--yet another shock from the solar-charged electric fence, another animal out, another repair or trip to the emergency room.  We barter for what we can, and more and more, we buy the raw materials, the steel, wood, tools, seeds and animals instead of buying something ready-made.  It's all a way to build the soil and skills that, on our best days, make for a hand-crafted life.  

Language fails to find a term for this occupation,  maybe because it is so many rolled into one:  mechanic, repair person, conflict resolution artist, permaculturist, weight lifter, electrician, plumbing expert, animal doctor, laborer, soil builder, chef, lover, farmer.

We found those sheep again, in the end, not far from home.  Just as we had decided things were pretty dire and were returning home for some food and water before launching a several-hour scouring of the neighboring butte and low-lying areas along the river, the second sheep-news exclamation of the day changed our course of action again"Noah, look! The sheep!" Two of them had wandered out of the head-high thicket of thistle across the road where, apparently, they had all passed the morning hunkered down and ignoring our searching and calling. By the time we returned they had wandered up to graze Mike's lawn and drink from the irrigation ditch. With a bit of advanced herding we had all five back into the home pasture within a half-hour.  

Perhaps there are metaphors here for our new lives. As we dig deeper in, it's up to us, all of us, to neighbor better, to make those connections we always believed we could have.  Sometimes this connection is just lending a hand, helping round up sheep, or discussing a new idea over coffee or a meal. Yet other times, it's the wrangling of some sort of peace, doing deep thinking and acting with ourselves, our land, and neighbors.

We call this member of our flock "The President," affectionately termed because the way this ram leads our entire flock and comes running to us.

We call this member of our flock "The President," affectionately termed because the way this ram leads our entire flock and comes running to us.

Editor's Note: We first published this essay nearly four years ago, back when we were just homesteading, but decided it deserved a place here, on the farm blog.

2017 Crop Harvest and Availability Decoder

Every season, we try to push what we can grow. We try to grow new crops, both earlier into our season and longer. With just ninety days between our average last and first frosts, it's an interesting challenge.  The graphic above represents what we hope we can do, and what we plan on, using all of the season exstension tools at our disposal for our main market crops.  On our farm, this means row cover, hoop houses, northern-adapted varieties, and an arsenal of quick hoops to provide double and sometimes triple protection for crops.  

This table is a visual simplification drawn from our many enormous spreadsheets and our data on the 100+ different varieties of vegetables we grow. I love making information visual, having both the hard numbers that make our farm work, and these guides that show some of the big-picture goals of what we are after.

This is a good time to mention that what we have early goes first to farm members, particularly the subscriptions. If you haven't already signed up for a membership, you can view the options and sign up here

Farmer Dreams, Slumber Parties, and Broccoli's 3rd Grade Popularity

Above: Around a campfire late one night in Crocker Range National Park, in Borneo, I share stories with farmers while kids tend to our campfire, conducting their own slumber-party dances.

Last weekend Mary and I ventured off our farm, together, overnight, for the first time in almost two years.  We left a three page typed list of instructions with our farm sitter, Hannah, with the level of detail probably common to the first time new parents leave their precious baby.  Everything from what to do if the pipes froze to where the kittens like to hide, to all the helpful phone numbers we could think of, and instructions of how to handle an emergency in the middle of the night. (Two different neighbors were on alert for potential 3 a.m. door knocking). 

We were headed to an invite-only gathering of small market farmers in Idaho. The three-day conference on the lake proved well worth the intensive departure prep and anxiety.  Although we never completely forgot about our own farm, and Mary had to stop me more than once from phoning to ask Hannah how the chickens were, we were quickly immersed in discussions with our fellow farmers. 

We heard inspiring tales of success and also massive crop failures.  One family shared how a combination of bad weather and bad luck meant a loss of $12,000 of winter squash this year.  But they also talked about how they were weathering that, and shared their strategies for containing three wild kids during full farming season.  We laughed as they described their 9-year-old girl driving the tractor.
 
"She's basically the weight on the seat to keep the cruise control activated while we all pitch pumpkins in the bin down the row."
 
We heard of buildings being added on to, in not the best of ways, and commiserated about our own building experiences. We shared some of our own failures, and our decision cook outdoors again for second winter so we could grow the farm.  We relished being in a group of peers: people who believed, like us, so wholly in the rightness of good food grown well that they did not think we were crazy at all.

Above: In the shade and shadow lines, a farmer and I rest along a trail in Yunnan Province in China to exchange stories.

The first night, even after we dragged ourselves to bed exhausted, I couldn't stop "jaw-jacking," (a term I picked up there from farmer Sean). I was comparing ideas with Emily, a farmer from Sandpoint, in the next bunk from ours, about making a culti-packer, and seeding and care strategies for carrot plantings. Mary, knowing we had to start again early the next morning, kept elbowing me in the ribs. I just decided to take it because I was too excited about ideas, thoughts, and sharing, to stop and sleep. I'm stubborn, and I'm lucky she puts up with me.

It was just like a good old fashioned slumber party in that way, where you are too excited to sleep.  In some ways, it seems we are probably too old for slumber parties, but when we can make it happen, somehow we come away feeling younger, like both time and possibilities are on our side. Like maybe we are winning. 

Falling asleep, with a background of farmer voices, I thought back to years ago, when I traveled around Malaysia interviewing small farmers, learning about how they got started and challenges they overcame.  Back then, sleeping under the stars in papaya orchards and vegetable gardens all over Asia, I never thought I'd become a full-time farmer myself. But the seeds got in somewhere, added up and made part of me, part of the farm.

Above: I spent weeks camping out in Malaysia on farms, interviewing farmers about their own struggles -- growing and figuring out how to make it. Papaya trees sway in the moonlight while star trails and clouds move across the sky over the campsite.

At the conference, conversations circled widely.  A topic on pest and disease could end up touching on what we consider the "mental parasites" of self-doubt and fear. How, we asked each other, do we recover from failures, learn, and move on, without becoming disheartened?  And how do we collectively educate and inspire, build new generations of organic food culture? 

I got into it directly at the Victor elementary school this past week, as I talked about the farmer spirit of learning to live, building, and making. I had one third grade class spell bound when I talked about our inventions.

'But can you grown heaps of broccoli?' one of them asked. And suddenly I was inundated with questions about broccoli.  When I got back to the farm I announced, "The kids in Victor all want broccoli!' Mary looked up skeptically from filling in our complex crop planning spreadsheets, so I had to elbow her in the ribs, just a bit, to get my point across:  "I mean it, whatever you have mapped out, triple it!" 

We laughed and we both needed it. The flip side of sweet farmer slumber party dreams are the creeping winter-dark worries.  Last night, I woke with a start, from a dream in which the roof of our chicken barn had blown off suddenly in a storm. Zukes, hearing me wake, did his best to smother my fears by draping his full 8-pound purring kitten self across my face.  I managed to convince myself we were all OK and drift back to sleep. 

Above: Mary works on our crop planning, using one of many spreadsheets we've designed to track the location of crops, harvesting, and planting throughout the growing season. 

But worry is not just for the sleeping hours.  In the daylight, too, at this time of year, our complex mix of excitement and fear takes on many shapes.  We're buying seeds, potting soil, tools, and all kinds of building materials right now, with our first market income still far away.  In a huge step for us, we just took on our first bank loan this month: $20,000 for a tractor with enough power, and the capacity to start every week. We're not making these investments blindly. We have careful analyses, cash flow projections, and budgets based on real numbers from our past few years of sales.  But still, it can feel crazy. But we know, too, that if we don't make some improvements, some good investments in our systems, we will not hit our goals and will not produce enough to make our living. 

I joke to Mary that the more the ground thaws, the deeper our spending freeze should go, but my joke seems kind of lame and falls flat.  We know it's no joke that one credit card is filled, but we both snicker even if the joke is only OK, because maybe some jokes, some keeping it light is an important part of the slumber party feeling that helps keep the excitement up. 

The other thing we need, to be honest, are more farm members.  People willing to say "hey, I'm with you guys for the season, let's see what you can do."  The first spring payments from those memberships are what will get us through to the market season, but right now we mostly just need to know that you are on board; you can still reserve your membership with just a $20 deposit (and thank you, so much, to everyone who has done so already). 

We returned from the conference to find another great surprise: in addition to a few more members, an anonymous note had arrived in our mailbox, with a bank check for a donation to our eatership fund--enough to cover one peak-season share or large feed bag for a family in need. Whoever you are, we love you, and it will help! We have successfully raised about $1500 in Eatership funds, and have started making matches to families that need some help.  We need help spreading the word about our memberships and have tried to make the website as easy as possible to navigate and pay that deposit, whether you can cover the whole membership cost yourself, or if you need a boost.

As I write, the farm darkens. The chickens that I just checked are chortling on their roost bars. Malaya is snoring under my desk. Air from the open window wafts in; I smell spring coming, snowmelt, mud, compost. We are starting seeds so soon. I can hardly wait until I fall asleep, but I know I'll have late-night ideas to share. It'll take a few elbows I'm sure. But it's worth it.

Above: Broccoli, above, in our washing station sink.

Firewood Confessions: Wood Elves and Seed Bombs

Above: Back when I didn't know anything about weight limits, shock capacity, safe loads, or the utility of working brakes. Disclosure: before Mary. 

Back in graduate school, I spent one winter living in a remote cabin not far from the Blackfoot River.  I choose the location in order to focus and finish up my masters thesis, but like many new-to-Montanans, I became distracted with a rather serious addiciction.  From a used tool dealer, a mechanic working out of his shipping-container shop, I purchased a rebuilt Stihl chainsaw.  It was my first, and it was expensive.  To pay off the debt, I figured I'd sell some firewood. This began a descent into a rather unfortunate pattern. I'd drive up to the Potomac bar with large rented dump truck filled to the brim with freshly cut rounds; rather than make it back to the cabin (and back to that thesis), I'd wind up selling firewood right away, either while catching up with the locals at the gas pump or fueling up on free peanuts at the Highway 200 Bar. And before I knew it, I had a business with about 30 customers all demanding firewood during a harsh winter.  I didn't finish my thesis that winter (or even the next), but in the deliveries to home after home, I had a chance to see how an entire cross-section of people lived. While I certainly delivered to many well-equipped homes, I prided myself on giving good deals to those in need: people, well, like us: without enough insulation, some inadequate housing, and those in need. There was a time or two that I got more than I bargained for, for instance, when an elderly woman told me I had to stack all the three cords of wood; that was apparenetly what we agreed. On those nights I didn't even make the gas station, let alone last call at the bar. And, in driving around one valley, slowly, in a large truck, you hear things. You get to know how people are really doing. People whisper to you at the bar, or at the town pump, or when you are invited in, to warm up in someone's space, on a minus twenty degree day when either your bar oil won't flow or your dog (that's right, I had a husky then too) dug into your lunchbox and ate all the food in the truck.  

Above: The lure of a ponderosa pine firewood forest, as a young transplant to Montana looking for a distraction, was pretty strong.

It started out as an innocent question, a business proposition, really. How does your neighbor get his firewood?, I'd ask.

That's when I'd start hearing of the people who just couldn't afford firewood. It shook me. These were people who I'd met. They'd hunt, fish, or eek out of a living doing logging or guiding, or welding, or building, or a combination of all of it. These were the people who taught me how to process food, sharpen a chainsaw just right, put on tire chains, and get out of any kind of jamb that rural living could offer up: how to put out an electrical fire on quick notice, how to jumpstart any vehicle, what glowplugs were, how to dismantle a building in short order, how to stack hay.  These were people who let me listen to them, hear their stories, and photograph them.

So, I did what anyone would do. I became a firewood elf of sorts, delivering a few rounds, a Suburu trunkfull of firewood here and there, quitely, well after dark when I needed a break from my thesis, or I just needed to get out.

Above: Sanoma, my previous husky, and that old Subaru, before the business scaled up.

This cold winter, when Mary and I got the farm truck stuck four or five times in one day when trying to get wood up the West Fork, and then down Highway 43, somewhere over the pass between here and Wisdom, I thought of those jambs we've all been in, and those we got out of.  As any enterprising farmer may do, I got on facebook, and proceeded to make deals to trade my wood saw cutting time, to cut off other people's log decks, in return for some firewood. We had a hard run at this, cutting about 11 cords of firewood to get about 3 cords. Mary single-handedly stacked six cords of someone else's wood in one day. With our cold winter, and working in the shop, and keeping the barn warm, we are now again, a bit low.  We'll figure something out, as we always seem to. 

But let me be honest. During these darkest times of the year both Mary and I were in a bit of a funk. While we always fielded farm calls, and the egg hotline (as we call it), the voicemails from friends got harder to return. It's not just because we were probably fixing something, working on tractor wires or puzzling over projects. It's really because answering that question, 'How are you doing?' seemed harder and more complicated than it should be. And at times, when we were scared, or frustrated by our own living, thawing the pipes, or other projects, we didn't want to face the truth. We didn't have a good answer.

Above: Sometimes gathering firewood with others, as in this case with friends in Borneo, is easier than answering the tough questions.

And get this: it turns out that in our own search and asking others what they do when they find themsleves in a dire firewood shortage, we found out that there are firewood elves right here, in our own valley. There's at least one community firewood bank, for those in need, and possibly more. There are neighbors who lend us their log splitters, and all you have to do is ask at the gas station about firewood or The Bitterroot Brewery and someone will share their coveted source with you. This makes us feel like deep Bitterrooters, like whatever we burn or what we believe, we are all in this darn melting pot of a valley together. It makes us proud really, to farm here.

Above: This week, on the farm, we built a germination chamber that will enable seeds to sprout in precise temperature and humidly conditions, despite whatever temperature the barn (or greenhouse) may be at. We don't have a name for it yet, but we like to call it The Seed Bomb Machine. 

And lately, as we turn from gathering wood, we are in the shop and at the desk: making, building, designing, creating. From an appliance scrap yard, we purchased a standup freezer and wired in a temperature and hunidity controller to create a germination chamber.  We've organized the shop with oodles of bins, from salvaged plywood, for all kinds of farming hardware and tools. Our crop planning is deep underway, and we are doing germination trials.  We are busily designing the new garden and bed layout, and today, when we sat down with Dan at Bouilla over coffee to go over our growing plan, our varities, and announce another hoophouse build, we were all brimming with excitement. I could barely hold down my coffee. 

You see, we farm because it changes us. Before we knew anything and long before we became Bitterrooters, there was one weekend when we stopped neighbors from burning leaves, and brought the leaves (for mulch) over to our rented plot. That was the fall I knew I really wanted to farm with Mary; and back when we thought it was all much easier, I found myself falling in love with her wide eyed amazement of surprise harvests.

Above: We might bring trucks of leaves to our farm now, but back on our old rented plot outside of Missoula, we convinced families to truck over their leaves rather than burning them. 

Above: A surprise harvest, Painted Mountain corn. We grew it once, in a magical small plot we had with good soil and good luck, and we'll grow it again.

And while firewood, and the way it forces us to connect to the land, and to one another, has a certain magic, it's the realization that we all rely on natural resources that hits home. We all shape this community. This landscape is the real power and mystery. Our best endeavors make us foolish at the worst times, and while we stay young, these hard lessons help us grow, and we believe, help us grow up, better, stronger, to give us hope, heart, if not sore muscles and backbone.

Despite the fact that it's raining, stuff is outside and that our kitchen is literally freezing, there is a lot of innovation, planning and work here. It's a good work, and a good life. Even if it's rough right now, we see ever-increasing possibility of it all getting better, or making a good living, of providing good food, and being part of a community.

People like us: farmers, police, Bitterrooters

A farm laborer in Albania shows me how he replaces sage plants to keep his perennial herb garden healthy.

Rather than spending most of my days in Turkey and Albania galavanting and celebrating with small farmers, I hate to admit, but I spent an enormous amount of time waiting, just stuck. Like farming, I have to improvise a lot on these sustainability certification trips. For example, when I tried to enter Albania, I was literally detained by the police. Something went horribly wrong with my passport, the lingering effects of some losing-and-replacement years ago, so I was stuck in police custody for four or five hours while I enlisted a small army of people to help try and sort my record straight: Mary, Interpool, and the US Embassy. It took so long that I persuaded the police officer charged with making sure I'd didn't try to make a run, out to a coffee bar. During the hours we waited, huddling with small cups of espresso like young chickens under a heat lamp, we talked farming and politics. I heard a lot about people have given up hope: years of farming that don't pay and uncertain markets. Mary and I know a lot about that, and I shared images of our life on my phone.  As often happens, I come away with a sense of greater solidarity.

And in Turkey, when I was working with small apple farmers, who were drying them in high mountain villages, I needed to put aside my favorite job-- of hiking farm to farm and getting to know the farming practices of farmers, to hunkering down in the the villages, around coal burning stoves, and drinking cup after cup of tea, to discuss problems with global prices and lack of farming equipment. Sometimes the hardest parts of farming are not the growing.  

My time in Turkey was one of the worst trips I've had: with the food politics so intense and the balance of small farmer power so seemingly at odds with everything that Mary and I hold dear about why we farm,  I was forced to start asking hard questions in one village: why people felt so defeated, disempowered. At one point, with goosebumps on my neck, I carefully asked if people around me had been threatened by some of the players. 

In some ways, the sustainable agriculture network, part of a large global group of NGOs and farmer organizations that I've been hired to work for, is a sham. Policies that are meant to promote small scale agriculture and farms don't often require long term investments and farms and trust building processes that global agricultural business are willing to make. So, while I get to hear about real successes, and there's always something to bring back to our farm in Montana, there are real setbacks: farmers I know that will never get the training they need, farmers that never get fair, living wage prices for their work, and worse, farmers that feel alone, lost because they can't get access to adequate startup capital, a market, land, or because of labor costs, they just can't manage their farm how they envision. Mary and I know a lot about that, partly because we've felt the same things.

On my trips to check in on practices, I see myself in the role of the other: the small marginalized farmer, someone who is familiar with all the challenges of building a business, and sometimes just feeling heard.

For all these reasons, Mary and I are still at work. While I'm away, I'm happy to report that no police showed up to the farm, even to inquire about the time I threatened this summer to blockade one of our neighbor's hired spray trucks. Mary just kept harvesting. I'm back on building tasks, many this year, and we are already deep into our planning process for next season. We will get the last batch of our soil samples, all 14 of them, off in the mail, to help us figure out how we are doing with some of those preparations.

It's been a tough season for us, and but we've had some good end of the season serious wins: 1. the farmstore, still open and stocked; 2.)our new hoophouse, still packed with greens and surprises; 3.) and, you members. Our members are our favorite people in our world. We will expand on the Feedbag program this year and our weekly vegetable subscritpions kept us going. Part of our big vision for next year, is being able to feed more families, regardless of income. Not only is this our vision for a thriving local healthy food culture, but we see it as a way for our small business to contribute to the economics of families, growing and struggling. 

In many ways, Mary and I are just like you. We've learned to see some of ourselves in all of you, both near and far. I like to think it's because you've made me such a strong farmer and person, over the past year that I was able to stand up, as a proud farmer and citizen back in Turkey, talk about what is right and come back to the Bitterroot stronger and more resolute than ever - the belief that farming permeates life; the belief that it's our communities, and commitments to one another that are our strongest allies.

Social Working Wednesdays

A few weeks ago, our friend Samantha was visiting to pick up some produce for one of the O'Hara Commons Lunchtime Learning series events.  Looking at the two of us leaning on different corners of the washing station, clearly beat, and having heard already a little about our concerns of weeds and beds and plantings getting away from us, she skipped past the question of "how are you doing?" and straight to "So, what do you need right now?"  We both came up with about the same answer:  we need a serious work party--10 people for 6 hours would probably do it.  It has to happen within a week or so, or things get mowed.  We had just had to throw in the towel and mow one of our carrot beds that had gotten too weedy to save, and we knew we were on the brink of the same with beets, green beans, flowers, and more in the new field we had opened up this year.  

It seemed like an impossible task to us, to gather than many person-hours in a short time.  An oddity about needing a lot of help is that you often are too busy to reach out and recruit for that help.  But Samantha chewed on it for a minute, and said "I might be able to get that.  What days work best?"  Feeling a little encouraged, we agreed that Sunday or Wednesday could work, and that we would also try to get the word out.  In the end, that Wednesday was our first tackle-the-field work party day.  In the end there were 7 of us, including the two farmers, for the morning.  That, combined with big chunks of help from some other friends, got us at least caught up enough to keep those beds.

We are still behind, but feeling a bit more optimistic.  In addition to the plants freed from choking weeds, beans and flowers and beets starting to put on growth, we found that the conversations, the chance to settle into a task for a few hours side by side with some good people and time to talk, was also of huge benefit to us.  And so, we've realized, not just for the weeding but also for ourselves, we should make it a regular thing.  Wednesday mornings are now reserved for farm tasks that can be done with some good company and conversation: weeding, mulching, tending plants, cleaning garlic....there are all sorts of farm tasks that can also be social.  And that generated a new farm term:  Social-Working Wednesdays.  We hope you can join us this week, as we again desperately need a pulse of extra help within the next few days to help ensure healthy crops for late summer and fall, and allow us to tackle some key farm building projects.  If you can't make it this week, please keep it in mind for future Wednesdays.  Bring a friend you've been meaning to catch up with, and enjoy some quality time and satisfying work, as well as some farm treats.  

This week we will be working together with volunteers from 8:00 a.m. to noon on Wednesday, with a mid-morning coffee break around ten, including some delicious treats from our friends Dan and Mona at Bouilla.  Feel free to come for part or all of the morning, as works best for you and your schedule. 

Please let us know if you can make it by emailing farmers@sweetroot.farm, or by calling or texting 240-1050. 

Many thanks, Mary and Noah

A Little Less Broken: Coming Together at Market

Last week at market, rushing to set up as we had been up later than we should picking strawberries (yet again), I was tucked away behind our booth hastily arranging some boquets before I had to make a run back to the farm to feed chickens, cut more flowers, and make sure the sheep had not escaped yet (again).  

Kneeling on the sidewalk behind our booth, I was not in front-customer mode at all, a bit in a flower reverie even as I moved as fast as possible, parceling daisies and bachelor’s buttons between vases.  So I was surprised when a pair of feet advancing toward me from the side of our neighbor Lindsay’s booth were accompanied by a loud, rather gruff voice saying “Hey! Yeah, you, I was talking to you.  THAT’s what I have been looking for!”  As I looked up in surprise, I found the voice matched by a pointed finger on a long-haired grey-bearded man in a black sleeveless t-shirt who was fast approaching my little sidewalk flower workshop.  Trying to compute, I asked “flowers?” to confirm I was understanding correctly.  I know better than to judge what people might buy by their appearances, but this was certainly not the stereotypical bouquet customer.  His equally large and grizzled compatriot smiled amusedly at the scene from the other side of Lindsay’s booth, as the first man confirmed “yeah, I’ve been looking all over for flowers and nobody had ‘em yet.”  I explained I was just getting some ready to set out.  “Are any ready right now?”  “Well, if you can wait just a minute or two, I can finish one up for you right now.  Which do you like?”  I asked, pointing out the foundations of the 5 or 6 arrangements I had started.  “That one.”  He pointed to the sweet peas, and while I was internally noting that he certainly had some good judgement, he became less gruff and began to explain more:  “We come here every saturday, on our way to visit mom.  She has dementia, but she just loves her flowers.  We had to get her some.” 

A shiver ran through me and I froze, briefly, a calendula hanging in mid-air above the vase. Do I say it? Should I share? I snapped out of the freeze, stuffed flowers even more vigorously for a moment, then did quietly, a little shyly, explain that I too have watched dementia erode away parts of someone very close to me, over these last few years.  As I spoke, I choose the flowers even more carefully, though still moving fast.  She loves her flowers, she must need some daisies. Sweet peas for fragrance, old fashioned, that's good. Bachelor’s buttons, something blue, very bright blue, has to go in.  I was no longer building the boquet just for a table display, but for a woman, a mom who loves her flowers, whose days may be hazy now but flowers still are clear.  

I won't tell you who in my life has dementia, because it would become the only thing that most of you know about her.   Of all the traits and skills and experiences and wonderful facets of her life, it is the last one I want you to think of if you hear of her or meet her.  It dominates now, but it is not who she is.  Still, this man’s mother existed for me in only a handful of facts:  she had dementia, she loved flowers, and she had a son visiting her that morning.  I tried to put it all into that mason-jar boquet.  When it seemed full enough, I stood up and held it out to him, “How’s this?” I asked.  “It’s perfect.” he replied, then the question I had already been puzzling over: “How much?” 

I paused.  Given our shared experience, I wanted to give him these flowers.  Because really, I wanted that bouquet to fix it all.  To clear her mind, to ease his sadness, and solve my own.  To fix the thousand broken hurting things in all of us.  But I know that it can’t.  Instead, I mumbled a price half what I usually charge.  He raised his eyebrows, clearly on to me, and handed me a $20, saying, “just 10 back” accurately guessing the normal price.  I thanked him and took it, because of course, it won’t fix everything, and he wanted to help too.  

The flowers don’t fix the broken.  But if anything, the handoff, the interaction, the 4-minute conversation about a common experience, might have made the both of just a little less fallen-apart.  It was one of those moments that makes me so grateful for the market, for being a farmer, for direct sales to real people in my town. There have been a couple of articles circulating lately about how farmers are suffering because people treat the market more as a carnival or social hang-out than a place to buy food.  They lament the hipsters coming for coffee and pastries, wielding camera phones to feed their social media without buying any produce.  And while there can be real issues with that, worth going into another time, I think those articles were missing something good about the modern market atmosphere, too.  

Friday morning as I listened to the news over coffee and planning, a few tears fell onto the harvest sheet. I heard friends and communities mourning brokkennes and violence, crying out for a need to do something.  We have to do better.  We must fix this.  I wondered if I was selfish for just wanting to go out and harvest flowers, tend to carrots, plant more beans.  What am I doing, to help?  What am I doing, at all?  

But also I thought of community, of gathering, of how our market brings a range of ages, backgrounds, and viewpoints all together in a few blocks for a few hours each week.  Our favorite thing is when you talk to each other in our booth.  Sometimes is is old friends greeting each other in a surprise encounter at market, but often it is conversations between strangers, emboldened to talk to someone they have never met because we are all gathered here around the garlic scapes.  Sometimes it is a ringing endorsement of arugula pesto, or a fierce debate about how to best use beets, or whether our egg pice is a scandal or a steal of a deal.  But in any case, you are here, we are all out here together, connecting in some way.  And that makes our community, in the tiniest bits, over and over again a little less broken.  So bring it on: lattes and breakfast burritoes and baguettes and beets.  Whatever it is that brings you out, into your town and next to your neighbors.  Come join the gruff and grizzled dudes in their biker shirts and the sleekly manicured ladies cheek to jowl in the booth; just come on out and just be together.  

It won't fix everything.  It won’t undo anyone’s hurt or heal the families who are mourning someone lost because of the way they looked, the way they loved, or the uniform they wore.  Just like my flowers won’t fix it, the beautiful heads of romaine won’t fix it.  But gathering together, being people together may help keep us all just a little less fallen apart. And sometimes that, just that, is what we can do.  

Everybody eats.  Come on out and join us.