On the Farm: Catching the Currents

 Small farmer, big dreams. Mary stands at the entrance to the newly built--and very large--sliding hoophouse doors.

Small farmer, big dreams. Mary stands at the entrance to the newly built--and very large--sliding hoophouse doors.

Timing can be everything, on a farm. For most of last week I was solo here at SweetRoot. Noah had taken a 5-day work assignment in Oregon, as we had hit the common spring gap where last year's proceeds and the early spring sign-ups weren't enough to cover late spring bills. It wasn't ideal, some things will get to market a week or so later, but it's what we had to do.  

Weeding and prepping beds alone, I noticed I was muttering to myself, repeating a few words:  "white thread stage...white thread stage."  It was not the murmerings of a madwoman (or at least not only that), but a sort of farm mantra, both a search and a celebration. Because in fact, as I raked and hand-rubbed that bed to prepare it for boc choi transplans, I kept turning up the tiny just-germinated stage of weeds where they are almost all root.  They sparkle as they hit the surface little two and three inch strands of white, hence the name "white thread stage."  This is the ideal time to take out weeds, 10-14 days after germination, when they can be distrupted and rubbed out with just a gentle pass of hands, rake, or harrow. The white thread stage came up repeatedly last year when we grilled other more experienced farmers about how they had such clean and lovely weed-free beds and fields. It has become a bit of a holy grail for us, an attempt this year to hit the timing of weeding and cultivating right, so we do not have the waist-high thistles, the impenetrable mats of quack-grass, or the sea of lamb's-quarters hiding a tiny trickle of carrots.  

If you hit the timing right, with a variety of cultivation methods that try to pop that top layer of weed seeds before the intended crop emerges, we learned, we could save hours, days, weeks of hard hand-weeding through the summer.  As I worked my way down the bed, celebrating each sparkling white thread of a weed that would not be here in June, I thought of other skills, passtimes, passions I have had at other parts of my life, where timing, too, was everything.  
 
And that's how I found myself surrounded by mountains, 600 miles from the Pacific, thinking about sea kayaking despite our dry valley spring. Even now, hands and knees in the soil, I could feel the swell of waves, and the muscle memory of learning to roll a sea kayak, of finding my way to just how far to lean, when to plant the paddle and nudge into a current to turn a 17-foot kayak in a sweet fast pirouette.  I haven't paddled that boat much in the last few years.  Embarassingly, it has gathered a lot of dust, hanging in our shop in that time. But I can still feel the way the timing of one placement of the paddle, one gentle dip at exactly the moment time along the edge of the current could make the difference between feeling pulled into the eddy by a strong and graceful dance partner, or, if mis-timed, being pummeled, pushed, filled with water, and shoved back out to the unwanted rush, forced to paddle back upstream fighting hard to get nowhere.  

I thought, too, of mountains and learning to ski and that same difference between a gracefully carved turn and a fall that can somehow fill both face and pants with cold hard snow.  It's all in the timing.  And I realized that farming has that in common with these other adventures: we work with a huge, powerful, larger-than-us force. It's a little bit different, but also familiar.  Like pushing off into the current, or pointing the tips downslope, we launch our farm out into the wild ride of soil, wind, frost, rain, insects, pollinators, sun, and the finite number of hours in a day. We make plans, spreadsheets, calendars, and goals, but at the end of the day--or the start of the season--all we can do is try to line these plants up into the proper place and time to ride the current of this whole, huge, natural world we do not control.  If we do it right, time it well, we ride along on the force of that ecology so much more powerful than us. Things grow, bloom, and ripen before our eyes, pure farm magic.  If we miss, we struggle, fight against it, we paddle upstream, and we get the farming equivalent of a sinus-full of saltwater.  Trust me, we have had more than a few of those experiences.  

This is an exciting and a terrifying time of year.  We do not yet know how steep this summer's slope will be, or how swift the current.  We think we have gotten better at reading the waves, gotten a little bit smarter and more practiced, that this time might be easier.  But there is no way to know for sure untill we are out in the thick of it.  If you see us around town looking a little harried or dazed, just recognize that: we are launching again, still recovering from the last tumbles, and we do not yet know what is around the next bend.  But it's a good time for us to remember advice from fellow farmers, those with a few more seasons under their belts.  The ones who admit to that same mix of excitement and fear every single spring, 30 years into it.  The ones who explain "I have to be reminded sometimes, that that is part of my love for farming--the fact that it is a little wild, a little unpredictable. It's a serious adventure."  

We hope to hit our timings better this season--to sweep out weeds at the white thread stage, and enjoy a leasurely salad and summer drink with farm supporters, instead of only visiting with weeding tools in hand.  But we'll see.  Whatever the current season brings, we hope you'll be here with us on the wild ride.  

In the rest of the newsletter you'll find more updates on farm projects and programs, descriptions of our summer CSA shares, and even a recipe--perfect for the last of last year's frozen greens, or this year's first fresh ones.  And we'll see you soon, at the first farmer's market, just two weeks away!