The ancient Maya believe that you won’t successfully make it past forty unless you have one true superpower. Mary’s superpower is that she is completely stubborn. When she grips a tool to pull a nail out of a board, she might just break the tool before the nail comes out. Sometimes when she gets ready for a task, like when she gripped a shovel to move compost yesterday, her muscles flex and she gets such a determined look that I’m blown away by the raw power, the determination, the grit of this woman. Working this way with her, building our farm, is intense. You have to know when to step in, when to step to back, when not to speak. Mostly I just jump in, and try to catch up with her. Our season of winter building together, just about every day for four months except Christmas, has come to an end. Now it’s the season of shoveling compost, preparing, cleaning, getting ready to grow. Although we are well into shaping our first beds and starting our first seeds, I call this the-time-of-hauling.
One funny way we balance the intensity of this long hard winter building at the home farm is with road time. The road time is long and, like my old days of international travel working with farmers overseas, there is a certain romance about it. The hours slip by to the rumble of our diesel truck, hooked up to a trailer, pulling resources back to the home farm. We do this a lot as a young farm, bringing in equipment that will help us save time, build soil, and literally shelter our plants. As I write today, I can see from the time stamp on some photos that this time last year we did back to back trips, with Mary hauling steel for our unheated tunnels 600 miles and then me, the following week, hauling in our new-to-us Kabota workhorse from Oklahoma.
Sometimes the hauling is, unexpectedly, right here on the home farm. On a day recently, I woke up ready to move chickens. I knew that the mobile chicken was starting to freeze in to one of our growing spaces, and I needed to move it out. Mary had started reminding me about the intervals between raw manure application and harvest mandated by our food safety plan, and I knew I was pushing it. I’ve been moving the chickens all winter--if I not physically hooking up and pulling the triple-axle rig I built, I’d was shuffling the fence to a new compass point, or adding fresh bedding as part of my weekly chores.
But this time, when I hooked the drawbar of the tractor up to the building, I couldn’t budge it. I drove around to the chicken-door side of the building and hitched up to my emergency “pull from the other direction” backup option, threading a chain through a gap I cut in the human stairs I use to climb into the building. On even firmer, sandier soil, I couldn’t pull the building. I next fired up the truck, and then called Mary, because I was in trouble. I had her try to pull the building with the truck, while I attempted to push with the tractor forks from the other side. We were frozen in solid. I waited a week, and then on the coldest morning, with the ground a bit firmer, I tried again, without success. While I was under the coop, jacking up part of building and cracking a beam, a Bitterroot farmer texts me and asks me about a shipper and I text him back a Bitterroot trucker’s phone number. Like the changing light levels, the lengthen days, these are signs that hauling season is here—all of us who garden and plant and grow are working in earnest to get ready.
We brought in Glenn’s tractor from next door. His shop window has a front and center view to our farm, and I need to joke with him that he should consider a pay-per-view webcam business of our shenanigans. As I went to call him, Glenn was already rolling in through the farm gate, having been on alert since morning that we were in a jam. On his larger tractor, I thought he’d be my superhero and my spirits lifted. But even with all the push and pull combinations we could muster, both of our tractors still spun out. I finally called Phil down the road, and borrowed his battery of 20 ton jacks to try to get the building up out of the frozen ground. Hours later, I called him again, and he brought his four-wheel drive tractor down, and we managed to get the chickens moved. I thanked him, picked up pieces of our broken chain, a gallon jug of hydraulic fluid I had ready for the neighbor’s tractor, a small army of jacks, and started moving chicken fence. Whe I looked at my watch it was 9pm and I hadn’t finished that one first task I’d planned for the day.
I do this, I suppose, because we love the animal system; we love chickens; and we need the winter income they can bring, to make it to hauling season. But yesterday when I moved chickens, I realized that the third axel I welded up from an old truck was not strong enough. The chicken coop is listing to one side, um, rather dangerously. Or, as I told Hannah, our friend and seasonal employee, the other day, when you walk into the building, “it’s basically like you are skiing down a bunny slope” She and her brother and I all laughed, but mine was only a half-laugh.
Yesterday, I had farm friend and fellow maker and fabricator out to look at the situation. It’s the first time he’s seen the 400 square foot structure close up, and his eyes widened as he approached. When he said it’s big, I explained the needs chickens have, our approach to complying with organic standards, the physics of the building, and my desire to have just one structure, and not two or three or four. He got it, but as soon as he started listing the engineering solutions: adding two wobbly rear “crazy” wheels (read: large training wheels), maybe a wooden wheel, and potentially even cutting the building in half, I knew I was in trouble. Mike is seasoned Bitterrooter, he’s lived here his whole life and has learned an impressive array of skills. He can run any piece of heavy machinery one can dream up, it doesn’t matter if it an old tank that he happens to have on his property or an excavator, and he can weld anything. I tend to believe his assessments. ‘Yeah, you might get another year,’ he said, ‘but I don’t know. I’ll look around and see what I might have.’
Without thinking, I said, ‘I need to get through hauling season.’
He looked at me, eyebrows raised.
I explained that I was still working on my December list of things to do; it’s making and gathering season; it’s when other farmers like us, all over are bringing in stuff all over the country, all to make, to imagine, to start this dance that goes from spring to the edge of winter, something we push out each year, with passion, with luck, and it all starts, it all depends on hauling season. Now.
He got it.
So about that building. I’ll nurse it along for a little while. I’ll pick up one of the frames that will be more um, movable, from that’s a few hours away as soon as next week. Late in the growing season, and way past spring, we’ll get a couple smaller mobile chicken coops built. It’s all rather devastating to me, having put so much into that ark, and over the past couple of days I even wondered if the cost of getting sustainable infrastructure up for chickens to be integrated to our farm was just too great. When I expressed my deep doubt towards Mary, who is generally our farm’s chicken skeptic, she surprised me by voicing her support about this crazy endeavor of mine.
On the road today, hauling old irrigation pipes to Missoula to recycle, returning with more farm supplies, I broke down a bit, shedding a tear not so much about the re-building of one structure that took 40 days and a lot of help, but of the enormity of this project: to build a farm, soil, community, part of a food system, however small. We haul; we re-purpose. We know, or at least we learn, what needs to be built better and stronger.
I remembered holding my tongue at one of the early spring markets last season, when some of this stress and the worry comes to a head, when one of my now favorite market customers said that “it’s always tough for all of us.” I almost lashed back, but quickly I realized it was just my worry, my own insecurity that would be talking.
When I visited a successful farmer friend last spring, to get some advice about the flame weeder last hauling season, my friend Luci confided to me that she always worries about failing, especially in this part of the season. I got in the truck and started crying and let the wave of tears wash over me, driving home to Mary, my stubborn woman superhero, confessing with relief that even our most trusted and gifted mentors in our community worry. We all do.
While I write, working on this desk-farming, Mary is out digging beds in our no-till hoop house and putting the last of the finishing touches on the greenhouse organization so my task of starting some seeds, while she makes a long distance trip to Oregon and back, over the next few days, is a bit easier.
And whether they are road miles, or I’m just hauling here at the desk, I know that it’ll be hard. It is for all of us. As we grow up, and our farm gets more mature, we’ll have less building (and re-building). Some of the hauling we will avoid all together: not needing as much compost as we improve cover cropping systems; an end to the steel rib hauling when we complete our fourth hoop house someday. But there will also always be hauling. I wish we knew what the mental equivalent of two neighbors’ tractors, chains, and jacks was- the surefire way to haul ourselves out of the fears and worries before we freeze in too deep. Because we could all use that; it’s always hard, for all of us.
This odd time, of getting ready, of preparation, of anticipation, of fear, of wonder, it’s probably what makes me human, it’s part of a journey of becoming a farmer, growing up, and hopefully, just a little bit, digging deeper into this community we call home. One of my favorite things about the farm may surprise you. It’s the relationships that this creates. It’s the light of your eyes, it's the confessions, it’s that we all get a little bit more connected.
I can’t promise that it’ll get easier, but I know that hauling season ends soon, as it does every year. It just has to, because spring is about to start. And as we work to get back on solid financial footing – mostly from investments and challenges last year – we are making some steps for the farm to be more enmeshed in the community we want to help grow. The best thing to do, really to help us get past this hauling season is what any good community organizer or farmer may say: come on out, start thinking more about local cooking, get ready to support your farmers.
Join the Farm. Be part of the solution. Keep going.
If you know you are ready to join the farm, you can jump right to the online registration form here. Or read details of this years membership here.
We will see you soon.
Noah, Mary, SweetRoot