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).
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 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.
“I’ll just hang on!” It’s the kind of phrase that might make anyone cock their ear towards their partner uttering it over the deep rumble of an old truck engine. It broke my arugula-washing reverie that afternoon, snapping my head up away from the washing sink where I was trying to rush the process of triple-rinsing baby arugula leaves and plucking out the lamb’s-quarters weeds trying to masquerade as salad greens.
It might not have grabbed my attention so dramatically except that the rumble Noah was shouting over was the dump truck full of lawn clippings that our neighbor Phil had driven over, a huge gift of mulch loaded into the 1952 beast of a vehicle. When he stopped by earlier to let us know he’d finally gotten something up and running to haul the grass over, Phil had casuallymentioned, regarding the now-running truck he’d repaired “Of course, it doesn’t have any brakes just now, but out here on the flat, you don’t need brakes so much.” Eager to keep harvesting since we had just said “yes” to the largest order of greens mixes in our farm history, Noah and I both heard that statement, paused a moment, and then exchanged a glance that was basically a shrug of “well, ok.” Phil is a good bit past 70 but has reigned as patriarch of our little dead-end gravel road for many years, and he's just the sort of guy you trust. If he figured he could bring us a load of mulch with no brakes, I wasn’t going to let it get in the way of my greens packing.
When I looked up from the washing sink, Noah was up in the top of the elevated dump truck bed, and Phil was climbing into the cab to pull the truck forward a bit to get more of the grass out. It was the first time all day that I held still for a moment, trying to watch and judge just how precarious this “hang on” might be. It is my fond hope that 30 or 40 years from now Noah will be the chatty helpful old-man-neighbor of Bell Lane who has every tool a couple of young upstarts might want to borrow, and is still showing off the chicken-plucker he built back in 2016. I can picture it clearly, an older and greyer Noah still wiry and caffeinated and ambitious, hosting visitors with coffee in hand and cracking himself up with puns about chickens and spinach varieties. But some days it seems the main challenge is ensuring that he manages to live long enough for that vision to come to fruition.
From the washing station, It was clear that there wasn’t much I could do to stop this “I’ll hang on” moment, but I still held my breath a little as I watched the pair of them finish the unload, Noah pushing grass out from the truck bed as Phil inched the brakeless dump truck forward. It all came out fine, in the end—the grass clipping got dumped, no one got hurt, nothing was even dented, and we almost (just barely) got the harvest in in time to meet the Western Montana Grower’s Co-op truck. We don’t quite know yet if we can pull off a similar feat with our farm and life in general.
Since that visit from Phil and his brakeless dump truck last week, we’ve joked often about being a farm with no brakes, and certainly no breaks. We’ve realized our farm and the season have been accelerating and at times it feels a good bit out of our control. We collapse into sleep sometime after dark each night, thoroughly spent but never quite caught up.
Even though it made me a little nervous, I think Phil has a point about brakes. When you are in flat, predictable, known terrain the brakes aren’t so crucial, really. You know the speed, you can see where you are and where you are going, and you can push forward when needed and coast to a stop at the right place. The problem with our brakeless farm at the moment is that we haven’t hit the flats yet. We have ideas of where we are and where we are going, but not enough experience to know for sure if we are on target. The learning curve for new farmers is notoriously steep, maybe also curvy, and we feel it daily and weekly as we try out best to hang on for this wild ride. Just barely beginning our third season of farming, not even on this land for three full years, we are just beginning to see the extent of what we do not know: balancing growing and tending and harvesting, direct sales and wholesales, volunteers, time, labor, effort and wear on both our own bodies and our equipment. We hope that over time we get closer to a level place, and we can ride the acceleration of summer knowing that we’ll coast back down in fall and land right where we need to, but we aren’t there yet.
A few days ago we barreled past our average last frost date and a host of planting goals like a runaway truck (or a herd of sheep over a weak point of fence, also a recent experience). We wished that we could slow time down a little and catch up to the list of things due and overdue, but that isn’t how it works. We can’t put brakes on the season—June comes, ready or not, every year. And really, do we want to put the brakes on the farm? If we want it to support us, we need to achieve a certain velocity. I’ve had experience with old farm trucks, and I do know that the flip side of no brakes is the touchy brake that can send everyone pitching through the front window. We could use a good deal more breaks on this farm, but I’m wondering if we just have to accept that there may not be brakes, if we want it to go.
If we want to ride this farm to where it needs to get, we may need to concentrate on just steering and hanging on. Hanging on with both hands and maybe anything else we can wrap around a foothold. And that may be where we call on you all to help us hang on. You help tighten our grip when you visit us at market, when you sign up for or tell friends about our feed bag and CSA programs, when you show up with a cold drink and an hour to pull weeds. When the teenager in your family lights up at the thought that she gets a bag of salad mix of her very own this week. And when we write and share, we remember all of that, all of the reasons to hang on tight.
Most people would not fire up a truck with no brakes. Most people do not start a farm. But you’ve met us, right? We are not most people, and so far we are still hanging on.
On our farm, it's like the night before Christmas. Tomorrow is our first CSA day of the season. The chickens are chortling as I write, chicken tractors - all four of them - are resting in good pasture. Malaya, fresh from a bath in the irrigation ditch, and tired from a day of greeting visitors and digging, is in the cab of the open truck, sleeping and waiting for Mary to get home. She's been away, with family in Oregon for the past few days, and the farm has been in my hands. At times, it's been disasterous. My voicemail filled up. All of my electronic communication dwindled and I resorted to texts and people relaying messages to me in other ways. I ran out of food (other than greens, of course) and I one low point in the past few days, I purchased some low-priced, terribly chewy pizza. The next morning, I succumbed to feeding it to our hungry laying flock. It's been an adventure.
Today, for example, in my rush to water plants in our greenhouse, and then get to harvesting, I toppled over a plywood table, spilling dozens of delicate plants. I potted them up, forty five minutes later. I told Mary that I'd get to digging postholes for a clothesline for the washing machine we just plumbed as soon as she left. And, while I picked up our shovels to mix potting soil with our own compost, I haven't gotten those holes dug even though it's been on my list for the past several days.
And yesterday, running the quacker through our field, one of our favorite no-till tractor tools, my foot got tangled in bailing twine on my dismount, and I went flying, face-first, right into the soft soil. But then I tasted a bit of our soil, soil you've all helped build, with compost, and leaves, and I remembered how far we've come. On these warm spring nights, where summer doesn't seem so far away, and the outdoor kitchen isn't so bad, I feel a great deal of hopefulness. Today, if you are reading this email Tuesday morning, is our first CSA pickup.
This is our early season, filled with abundant greens. We may one or two surprises from the field tomorrow, but most of the bounty comes from our no-till hoophouse, fertilized by our compost, help from the composting operation of Hulls Dairy, and our previous laying flock that moved out early last winter into some of your freezers.
We've been delivering to Bitterroot Brewery, The Western Montana Growers Cooperative, Bouilla, and snuck in one pre-season delivery to the Hamilton Marketplace and the Stock Farm but we cannot wait to get you our food. It's our community that our farm is really about, and it's our mission to get food to you, personally, and we finally have the chance to do it. I can't wait to harvest our spinach early in the morning, spicy greens, and salad mix. Mary is a pro at the radish bunching, and she'll be at it with me, early in the morning.
While Mary has been away, spending her last time with family before the market season starts up, I've been up to my own tricks, unsupervised with many unathorized initiatives. In no particular order, here are some highlights:
With our friend Leon, at his farm, I welded up the frame for our giant mobile chicken coop. I've never really helped weld anything, and like putting up a new hoophouse, wiring our greenhouse, and putting together an idler arm on our farm-built chicken plucker, this is yet another new skill that I never thought we'd be getting (or need) a couple of years ago. When Mary goes away, I always try to accomplish something big.
This new chicken coop is our next step to raising a sustainably and healthy laying flock, and it's a huge step for us. The frame of a 32 foot long mobile trailer, farm-made and fabricated, sits outside our workshop. Tomorrow we'll have butcher paper and pencils so the young (or older) can add to the list of features we'd eventually like to have added. As we are still building the deck, design submissions are welcome! You can also find out about joining our flock share, and make arrangements for your first meat chickens which will be available this week. We'll have more information about that at the farm tomorrow and flock shares help make these projects possible.
I planted more potatoes than I should have. We had a workparty with our friends one evening last week, planting a bunch. Then volunteers showed up and we planted more on Sunday. Mary has yet no real idea of the scale of potatoes I've planted. It was a good excuse to mulch a large section of our field, but it's going to mean some careful inside planning, making some new bedspace on areas of our farm animals have been helping build for the past couple of years. I've excited about this and dream about the possibilities of large quantities of dry corn, big dry bean harvests for soup making parties, but we are worried about the work and it's going to mean at least one - if not more -- calls for help later this spring.
I washed the dog. This may not sound like a big deal, but Malaya was recently coated in vegetable oil from a spill in our filtering operation -- since we run our Jetta on used fryer oil. Many of you haven't seen this part of the farm tour, well, because it's a little greasy. All the oil is packed neatly in drums, but we are happy to show you the operation on a farm tour. It took a full 90 minutes to wash Malaya, and I'm not saying how much shampoo it took.
And today, I literally watched our field grow. We have nearly 1/4 acre of crops fully under row cover and today, I removed most of that row cover to give the plants additional light and breathing room. By dusk, as I was recovering the plants, a ritual we sometimes spend one hour doing with the full acre in the fall, I could literally measure the growth of spicy mix, arugula, and kale. I started estimating the amounts of pounds we will have for market this Saturday and, my immediate thought was that we'd have to hook up the tractor to the under-construction chicken coop. We like that feeling, it makes a feel rich, plentiful, and like we have more than just ourselves, our stories, and our love to share with one another and our community.
As I was running out of the field to greet our friend Scott, who came to pickup some of our farmer coffee, he saw me running and yelled 'Let's Go Team.' I like that and even if it was just me on the farm today, with the visitors, and with all of the chaos, it felt just like that, just right, with just the right amount of team. For me, who frets about fiances and leaves home -- twice now this spring for outside work - that's a good feeling and one that I will hold on to. And of course today, while I was running around and about to head off on a farm errand, Ed brought me tacos, which in my bachelor routine I had taken on my old ways, eating at odd hours. I added greens and dove on in.
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!