The Tool Heist of 2018: Neighbors, Implements, Employees, and Feed Bags.

Every minute of spring is precious on a small farm, so when our neighbor Glenn asked me to stop in Idaho and pick up a tractor implement he'd found on Craigslist, while on my way to pick up a trailer base for the next best chicken barn, I was a little leary.  But it's hard to say no to the kind of neighbor who wanders up on a July evening to pass a plate of barbecued ribs and a packet of cornbread over the fence while we move irrigation pipe. (And Glenn is from Lousiana, so when he says he made barbecue, you take it seriously, trust me.)  

He assured me that I could make it a quick stop, didn't need too much mental energy, and that if the envelope of cash he handed me wasn't enough to convince the seller, then I could just continue on my way.  Of course it ended up a little differently than that, and not just because the old rancher I found turned out to be selling most of his place, "keeping the house and a couple of mountains, but selling off the rest."  

The moment we guided the old s-tine cultivator off the tractor tines, dropping it into the truckbed with a thunk, I knew I was sunk.  I wasn't sure what Glenn had been planning to use it for, but it was exactly what I wanted to try for cultivating beds of broccoli, squash, cabbage, and kale, this season.  The whole drive home I fretted and schemed, wondering how I could convince Glenn to let us buy this tool instead of him.  From a rest stop, I texted Mary "I've been scheming."  

Coffee is pretty much my go-to tool for convincing anyone of anything, so I asked Glenn to join us in the yurt the next morning for a cup.  A little nervous, not wanting to offend or outbid him, but knowing Mary is a tough negotiator and had my back, we chatted about all sorts of neighborly things for a while before going to check out the tools.  I showed him our "quacker" first, a burly iron clawed tool built by our friend Leon, and informed him I'd drop it as his place later, for him to use whenever he wanted.  By the time we had perused the assortment of trailers I've collected, talked a little more about alfalfa and seeding, he was pretty easy to convince to sell the cultivator to us for exactly what he paid for it.   All he wanted was to take a quick look at "the implement I just bought and sold" in our truckbed.  


We hope that hauling season is winding down, but as we get closer to planting season it seems that the season of wheeling and dealing may just be ramping up.  Which reminds me, we are still signing people up for our farm "feed bag" memberships.  Whether you reserve one for yourself, or convince your neighbor to get one and then hustle if off of them, it's all good for us!  We have about half our membership slots filled, and hope to have the rest reserved as soon as possible.  If you know you are ready to join, you can jump right to the online registration form here.  Or read details of this years membership here.

In the finale of wheeling and dealing, we could also use your help finding our final team member for the season. Glenn doesn't have any employees we can steal,  he's done some  fabrication for us, and we already hijacked the youngest daughter of some of our closest local friends, so we need you to help spread that word that we are hiring one half-time employee for the full growing season (early April through mid-November).  If you or anyone you know is interestedin a season with this scrappy farm team, have them email us for an application.  

Hauling Season

Quail, chickens, the farm tractor, and us along a farm road.

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.

Mary unloading totes of organic potting soil with one of our favorite tools, purchased with our first real bank loan in 2017.

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.

Hays and Vince from Shelter Designs help load our yurt on the farm truck November 10th. While the structure took about 4 days to put up, it was more than 15oo hours of finish work this winter.

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. 

Mary shovels compost from our tractor bucket.

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.
With love,
Noah, Mary, SweetRoot

Farm friend Joanna caught this image of us in our shop this winter while we were building kitchen cabinets.

Persephone and Potatoes: Tilting Towards Winter on the Farm

Fall tends to be a time for high drama.  We neglect to check the weather for 18 hours, and the predicted low for Wednesday night has dropped by 12 degrees (cue a scramble to re-cover dozens of beds that had lost row cover in the last windstorm). Days swing between lows in the low 20s and highs in the high 60's, and what can seem like the frozen end of the world in the morning is, a few hours later, a glorious harvest day--one in which we are simultaneously excited and exhausted.  

People have been asking us for at least a month whether we are “winding down” or “starting to button things up” or “wrapping up for the season.”  Depending on the mood we are in, and the task we are in the middle of, people may have gotten a laugh, a long list of everything we are still harvesting, or a snappy “No!  We are still working just as hard as ever!”  It’s a bit of overreaction, in any direction.  Some of that comes from the funny seasonal tension of being tired enough to be ready, in some ways, for things to slow down, to be done whether we like it or not. But at the same time we want just a little more time, a little more nice weather, to have one more shot at a goal we set way back in the dark of last winter, or just one more round of greens and cabbages. I drained the irrigation pump this week, and pulled the intake valve from our little lateral ditch that has now dried up.  I felt a familiar both-and pang, as I was pulled between the sadness of already missing the burbling of that ditch and the possibilities it brings for watering, warming, and keeping our whole farm alive in an arid climate--but also feeling the relief of knowing that it would be months before I would again be racing back to the pump house to restart the pump after a blown gasket, puzzling over where a leak might be, or laying face-down on the plank above the ditch, shoulder-deep in cold water, clearing the intake screen.  If we believe social media, it seems that all the other farmers we know are neatly wrapping up their seasons: garlic is planted and mulched, cover crops are lush and established, interns have been sent off with farewell parties, and the farmers are enjoying their drink of choice with their feet propped up by the woodstove.  
We are sometimes still so young and bumbling as a farm, despite the fact that SweetRoot will soon turn four.  Here we are, just maybe getting to our garlic next week, finally making the call that a fall-seeded cover crop won’t establish in time to be worth the effort by next spring, scrambling to put our row cover back onto those greens for the fourth time after a windstorm, and trying to figure out how to contain the husky who can now break out of the barn by jimmying the cat door.  Getting our last market harvest in as the temperature drops below freezing, even though we don't have quite the multiple truckloads to bring in that we did in the peak of the late summer season.  

For a while this morning, when the turnip leaves were frozen solid even under their two layers of cover, it felt like the end of the world.  This is part of my personal fall melodrama, enacted several times each year with the first big freezes, and Noah was graceful enough to just wait patiently for it to pass.  Because in fact many of our little tender-looking greens are so much tougher than they seem.  They thawed out, we harvested, spread leaves, and moved chickens to a new field block where they are perhaps the happiest they've ever been.  

As we find our way through the ups and downs of the days, seasons, and yearly rounds, we are so grateful to have you all on the ride along with us.  Please come out and celebrate the end of another market season tomorrow  (Saturday) morning. Though things were frozen this morning, and though it is the last market of the year, we will be bringing a wild abundance and hope that's ready to eat.

We'll have more eggs than I think we have ever brought, and plenty of advice on how to use them in good combination with the mountains of potatoes, greens including salad mix, Asian mix, arugula, baby kale, and baby spinach.  Onions, garlic, sweet peppers, hot chilies, cilantro, the last tomatoes (including some harvested today), winter squash, beets, carrots, cabbage, salad turnips, and more will join us for this final Saturday morning market.  We hope we'll see you there. 

-Mary and Noah

p.s.  If market doesn't work for your Saturday, rest assured the farmstore will also be stocked all week!  

The world doesn't end at 22 degrees, but this is your last chance at Farmers Market for the year.

Hannah harvests cilantro at the end of October!

Hannah harvests cilantro at the end of October!

We may be snowed over, but we're still going!  Above, our fall farm helper, Hannah, harvests cilantro after peeling back its snow-covered frost protection fabric.  

Happy November, local eaters!  Thank you for a wonderful last farmers market last week! For us, at least, it certainly proved that the extension to the end of October is well worth it. 

The first week with no market is always a big transition for small farms, and when it couples with the first winter storm warning of the year, we really notice!  With our extended market seasons this year, we had 28 Saturdays in a row of late Friday night harvests, early Saturday morning market setup, and the wild nine-to-noon festivities of market itself. We will miss seeing you all at market these next few months, but have to admit that sitting in the barn drinking coffee and watching the sun come up and the snow fall is rather nice this morning.  

The good news is, you can still get plenty of local produce even though market season is over!  Believe it or not, we are still harvesting, still delivering to most of our restaurant accounts, and still working in the fields. The farmstore is open all the time, and loaded with goodness: baby greens, onions, garlic, cabbages, boc choi, carrots, beets, salad turnips, and potatoes (so many potatoes, we have enacted our fall potato special:  buy 3 or more bags, and each bag is $3 instead of $5!) hot chilies, and more. There are always eggs now, as the young flock revels in cleaning up the field blocks after our final harvests. Feel free to swing by anytime that is convenient! The farmstore is always open (the sliding door sometimes gets a little sticky in wet weather, but it's never locked--just pull harder if it's stuck), and we will keep it stocked as long as possible.  If you haven't been to the farmstore before, you can find it at 76 Bell Lane; just pull on in the the driveway past the house, and enter through the sliding glass door at the front of the barn. Our roasted coffee beans are currently out of stock, but will be back on this week as soon as we pick up our pallet of raw beans from the shipping dock in Missoula, probably on Monday. 

We have been focusing most of our work this week on getting good progress on the yurt that will be our new, everything-under-one-roof home starting this winter, preparing the platform to be ready to set the yurt up hopefully late this coming week. We'll be out there today, enjoying the clearing weather that's coming in, and will be posting some updates to the Kickstarter campaign soon.  Thanks, again, to all of you who supported us there or cheered us on along the way!

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The Case of One Eye, Strong Women, and A Soup Doctor

Mary and Hannah, on one of the many trips to gather farm firewood in Roaring Lion.

Mary and Hannah, on one of the many trips to gather farm firewood in Roaring Lion.

As the receptionist for the Big Sky Eye Clinic unlocked the deadbolt on the entrance and took a look at Mary and I, she remarked, ‘I think you are the dirtiest people to ever come in here.’ 

It wasn’t a funny comment, really, just a fact. I nodded, and looked at her with my one good eye.

Mary gracefully smiled, and then quickly grimaced from her rapidly swelling upper lip.     

We were a sorry pair, coming down from our third day of gathering firewood from a Roaring Lion side canyon, in between harvests and farm tasks.  We were blackened from felling trees in the burn, bruised from lugging and wrestling rounds of fir into into our truck, sometimes with straps hitched to the truck, but mostly by sheer determined might. We were wide eyed from the adrenaline of a 4-wheel-drive and odd angles that reminded us of when the wheel came off our Kubota this spring. We were tired from another long day, one that was supposed to be recreation, but left us rather beat up.  Mary had gotten whacked in the lip when the branch she was using to hoist a big round gave way, while I had injured my eye with a chunk of wood that had someone managed to fly at me, at an odd angle behind my glasses.  

In the chair, after a few gasps by the doctor as he pulled the offending debris out of my eye and prescribed some ointment, I profusely thanked  him for his pronouncement that I’d most likely be back to normal within a day or two — or so.  


I promised to shake his hand the next time it was clean, and we assured the receptionist that we were farmers, not full-time professional firewood gatherers. After we wrote a check for the most expensive cord of firewood we collected this season (last year it was tire chains and half a tank of truck fuel), we reminded our two newest acquaintances that the farmer’s market is, well, this Saturday. Tomorrow.

It's hard to believe it's been six months since the first spring markets, and the load we'll bring tomorrow is far more than that first early market in the park in April. As I write, Mary is washing and packing the last of what we have. It’s more than you might expect, given the prediction of cold October day in Montana.  One entire side of our walk in cooler, a long row, is lined with waxed boxes of food — broccoli, cabbages, cauliflower, potatoes, spinach, all our greens, turnips, carrots, celery, peppers, tomatillos, so much food. Crates of winter squash and fresh tomatoes sit at the ready in the farm store, waiting to load tomorrow morning. 

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Even though we had our usual rush of tasks, plus some wild high winds this week that lofted some of our row cover all the way over toward the Pharoplex (really), I still think of the farm as a refuge. You keep coming out to the farm, with so many of you this week buying produce, sharing with us gifts like the box of apples, the hand-me-down insulated overalls in near mint condition (those were in use tonight).  And even though we were deep in our own world of tasks like cutting  firewood this week, (so we don’t run out before the weather turns) the news, of the hashtag #MeToo, didn’t escape us.  Our farm wouldn’t be what it is without my strong Mary, and as I listened to her stories, those of her friends and our community, it was a reminder of how often our world is not quite how we want it to be.  

Although we don’t know everyone as personally as we like, we like to think of the farm as a refuge for everyone in our community.  Often it’s proud families, moms that tote kids and households around the farm.  One of our new members, this week, chasing her boys outside the chicken coop, like a giant mother hen. Toby and Amanda, both farm members, know our place well enough to give a guided tour. And even if our current kitchen is short on hot water, Hannah, our fall crew, knows just where to go if we ever need hot water to clean up and scrub washing and packing tables.  And sometimes, you are the ones that make us cry, telling us about your own sweet victories from deep within this space we call home, the Bitterroot. To me, that is why we farm, it’s a refuge of sorts, it makes us better than we are, it makes us realize what we can be.

So, even though the weather is sure to be terrible tomorrow, come on out. Farmers markets are democratic places, where ideas and voices count. Mary will be doling out soup recipes with a new twist. Let me be clear: this is a prescription. Tell us what looks good, what flavors you like and what you don’t, and we will come up with a soup recipe, on the spot, just for you, based on what we have on hand. Mary says that if you don’t like what the soup doctor prescribes, we’ll buy back your soup, or your produce! After a long day in the fields, she says she has far more inspiration for soups than time to write recipes, but would love to be challenged to come up with the perfect soup for your week.  Mostly ingredients in the booth, under $10, directions easy enough to fit on an index card, and we get a conversation to boot.  If you are up for the soup-scription challenge, stop on by the booth tomorrow morning. 

Heroics and Hangovers: Wild Farm Week

Our compost spreader, coated with frost on a 20 degree morning last week.

Our compost spreader, coated with frost on a 20 degree morning last week.

Left alone last week with our part-time helper away on vacation, we found ourselves in a sort of bizarre farm party spiraling out of control.  By the end of the week we were dodging piles of storage crops in every corner, cleaned out of frost-protection materials, and fighting a serious chicken hangover. I don't remember what project it was, but I do remember once coming across Noah in the midst of something and asking, only half-joking, shouldn't there be some kind of adult supervision on this?”  

It was kind of just a perfect storm; another night of frosts on Saturday after a market drenched with rain, and then a deep-freeze on Tuesday with temperatures around 20. Sizable orders for the growers' co-op, our local wholesale accounts, and the farmstore needed harvesting.  The transitioning of the old laying flock to stewing hens, which we'd been stalling for over a month, reached a state where it could no longer be ignored as the new young flock clamored from their moveable chicken tractors, demanding their move to the big-house and larger pasture spaces, mobbing the feed bucket and cracked door more excitedly each day.  

Graham, Maria, and Emily help bag our most recent potato harvest.

Graham, Maria, and Emily help bag our most recent potato harvest.

By the time we reached Friday, and needed to harvest for the Apple Day market, we’d already weathered 2 nights of being up past 2 a.m., a number of early mornings, and were trying to count up the number of heroic farm acts we'd accomplished in that week. 

Our final onions brought in as the freeze settled on the ground (3 more full "giant" bins). Thousands of bed-feet of frost protection. 64 chickens butchered. Fixing a flat tire on the 6-wheeled mobile chicken barn. An epically rainy market last week. Demolition of an old platform in preparation for building the base for the yurt. It was hard to keep count. 

Luckily we had help from a spate of small-farm heroes through the week: Greg, who came on Sunday to help finish shingling half the roof of the farmhouse, and begin deconstruction work on the building site for the yurt.  Toby, who brought food more than once, and her able hands for harvesting on Friday night, staying, as a wild-party guest might, well past the time when she’d planned to get back home.  Graham, Emily, who showed up with a friend shortly before dusk to weigh and bag 200 lbs of potatoes.  The un-identified customer who grabbed on to one leg of our canopy as I held another, when the worst of the wind gusts came through on Apple Day, toppling one of our display shelves and tossing neighboring canopies all up and down Bedford Street.   Graham, who threw us a tub of Tucker Family Farm chocolate ricotta mousse as we packed the truck to go home from Apple Day.  And of course all of you who consistently support us, coming to market in the rain and wind, adding a stop up our gravel road to your grocery errands to buy from the farmstore, or boosting us with a hug or a keep-the-chin-up pep talk at market when we could barely do math through a cold sleepy stupor.  We are grateful for you all!

And after our wild week, we collapsed into bed before it was fully dark on Saturday, and slept an incredibly long time, but still both stumbled around a bit Sunday.  I can’t remember the last time either of us suffered from a classic drink-and-party hangover, but it turns out that over-indulging in hardcore farming and too many chickens can leave a person with a similar feeling.  We are vowing to be more temperate in our chicken butchering and fall farming in the future.  This weeks' cure was more sleep, a good walk with the husky, chicken soup, and generous helpings of pickled beets.  

We're back on track folks, with a farmstore and member shares packed with goodness, and three more Hamilton farmers markets left.  Come on out and see us, load up with fall produce, and see what kind of farm-fueled party of your own you can throw!  

With love, gratitude, and winter squash,
Mary and Noah

Noah and Greg do demolition work for the yurt platform.

Noah and Greg do demolition work for the yurt platform.

Winter squash cure in our proportions house.

Winter squash cure in our proportions house.

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.


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