Pest Control and the Fungus Among Us

The weeks are starting to get busier, and our enemies are drawing near.

Today is a venture into the wars we lead against the rodents, bugs and other pests that lay waste to our good veggies. And know that, not two years ago, I was carrying bugs out of my classrooms at school to let them free outside. But this is a whole different situation, and our crops and my paycheck on the front lines.

Flea Beetles.

 

Flea Beetle damage. Drats!

Within three weeks of my arrival this season, flea beetles had laid waste to our first mesclun planting. They riddle brassicas leaves, like our kale, mizuna, tatsoi and arugula, with these little holes. It doesn’t affect the taste or sanitation of the plants – we are still taking coolers of mesclun to market – but the greens look shot full of holes, and regrowth is pretty slow/nonexistent. Our second planting is under rowcover and hopefully will survive another onslaught.

CPBs – the worst!

CPBs, or the neat-looking but deadly Colorado Potato Beetle, are already tromping through our tomatoes, but have thankfully not hurt our potato crop…yet. I remember being a kid and pulling these critters out of our swimming pool, but at the larval stage they can seriously destroy leaf growth and way more as an adult. I still apologize to each bug as I squish it between two rocks, but at a point, when there are so many that we are sweeping them off the plants, I will have overcome my tree hugger mentality.

Cucmber Beetles.

Cucumber beetles have not arrived yet, but we are anxiously awaiting their arrival and have covered our summer squash in row cover. These guys  not only cause physical plant damage to plants and stems, but also carry a wilting disease that wipes out plants beds. Then, as if that’s not bad enough, their larvae tunnel into the ground and eat plant roots. You can’t catch a break with these guys.

Matt sprayed the eggplant with PyGanic mixed with fish emulsion to wipe out all the different bugs that want up on our black beauties. PyGanic is an organic pest control,so it won’t kill big things like possum, but it wipes out all the bugs and knocks the plant back considerably in the process, so you supplement with the fish emulsion. The possum facts is relative and I would invite anyone interested to research on their contribution to this ecology.

Deer. Rabbits. Chipmunks. Groundhogs. Yeah, I think they’re cute and lovely and all those things, but now that they are eating everything from my hardening off trays and out in the herb beds, and in the lettuces, they’re nothing but a hassle. We’ve mounted ten foot deer fencing and the deer still climb under. I just pieced together some netting for one of our hardening off tables –we’ll see if it works. And last week the guys set a crazy trap for a groundhog that was wasting our mesclun – and we got him.

Keith and Matt survey their conquest.

As does Jay, with more excitement.

Another discouraging note – the damp, wet weather up here is hurting us considerably, and has taken shape as a minor plague through one of our garlic fields. We are getting white rot on our bulbs in the center of one of our fields, and though this is apparently something that lives in the soil, the murky conditions of southern New York right now are helping it spread. We’ve lost maybe a hundred plants so far, which is not much in comparison to how much we’ve grown but is still distressing in terms of profit margins.

There are certainly more pests, methods of protection and other wars to wage on the farm, but this is where we are right now. So keep your eyes out and your ears to the ground, and together we’ll defend the farm.

-Farmer Liz

Entrepreneurs and that Awful Green Stuff

Once again we are trapped by a week of rain.

It softens the dirt and so we have trouble getting in the beds to plant, rock pick, weed, or really virtually anything else. We’ve been making up all sorts of jobs – we’ve seeded so much in the greenhouse that we’ve run out of rooms on the heat mats, I spent three hours yesterday cleaning and sweeping out Keith’s tractor shed, and we’ve weeded in the herb beds (which have sod pathways that we can walk through) for hours every day. I miss the sun. We used the Cut My Plastic to help build our greenhouse windows.

We did get a little planting in this week. Our eggplant and summer squash are in the ground – just waiting for some love as we hoop them and cover them with row cover to prevent bug and deer damage. Our high tunnels are full of peppers and newly-transplanted rosemary, which demand astronomical amounts of water. Matt and I staked for a celeariac planting, but the thunderstorm has rain checked our plants. Another girl came to interview Tuesday – she had previously been in California for a few months with some forest and desert conversation projects, and she seemed like she could be a pretty solid fit.

Farmer Nate

The green algae of death.

The squash that Nate and I seeded over the weekend has germinated. It’s fun to go into the greenhouse and see them looking all happy and alive.  Especially as opposed to my recent ventures into the greenhouse, which have left me frustrated at myself. When watering, there are a whole number of factors one must take into consideration – the weather and temperature outside, the cell size of each tray of plants, etc. So I’ve been in charge of the greenhouse for a couple weeks now, and I’m still trying to figure all this out. This weekend was hot and dry, so I watered the plants a bunch. But I have been surface watering them a bunch instead of giving them a long drink a couple times, which is bad in prolonged overcast weather because this crusty algea-like green stuff forms over the tops of the dirt. It doesn’t kill the plant or anything, but it slows root development because the soil doesn’t aeroate so well. So I have been more than a couple hours sitting in the greenhouse during rain and before work officially started scraping the tops of trays to pull off this green stuff. No one is mad – it’s an inevitability in this weather – but I am trying to rectify it.

But that has truly been my only low-ish point here. On the flipside, I have been getting better at remembering nuances of this job and helping with directions for some of the newer folks. As we finished seeding in the greenhouse yesterday, Casey remarked that it seems I have a knack for this, and that adrenaline rush carried me through the rest of the day. I know there’s still plenty of time for me to show my greenness, but I’m trying really hard to stay ahead of the curve.

This includes trying out some farming extracurricular lessons. Matt is here for his third year and has learned the ropes of being an entrepreneur. He takes some of the garden space Keith creates for the workers and grows a couple things Keith doesn’t sell at market. Keith gets 25% of the profits and workers can only tend to those crops during off time, but it’s a chance to see how other things grow and grow some extra food for ourselves, so I got on board quick. Broccoli raab (inspired by our Philly trip) is coming up strong, as are the Brussels sprouts and cauliflower. The delphiniums have a longer germination, but the nasturtiums just sprouted and the sunflowers look great. Tomatillos are up and husk cherries are in the works. And last night Matt wandered out in the damp fog and direct seeded some dill into one of the unused beds. Annnnd watermelons! It all means more work, but I’m just excited to learn.

Broccoli Raab!

Sunflowers 🙂

And now, to work!

-Farmer Liz

Garlic, Peas, and Weekend Farming

In the words of a Hold Steady song, it’s 3am and I’m wide awake.

I have never seen as many stars in the sky as I do right at this moment. Where I grew up you can see them pretty well, and where we vacationed in the summer in central PA you could see them even better, but this is a whole different world. It’s not just a smattering of lights in the sky – it’s a full on blanket. Takes my breath away.

I finally spent my first Saturday on the farm, and as I suspected, I couldn’t help but work a little bit. There’s just so much to be done! And Nate came up for the weekend, so it was really nice to have him around and to have him help out so enthusiastically. He cleaned seeding trays, helped me totally reorganize the greenhouse and seed some butternut squash. Pretty good work for a journalist. Throw in some barbecuing – everything from portabella burgers to salmon to kielbasa – some guitar and little whiskey, and the handful of us that stayed here for the weekend had a pretty great time. Matthew returned from Boston with his dog, Mya, who is beautiful and sweet. And last night we discovered a bird nest right under our porch.

We call her Myooooo because that’s the sound she makes. How cute.

Babies.

The green house project was a monster task, but I feel like I have a better understanding of what we’re growing and what different seedlings look like now. I tried to stick all our brassicas – our bok choy, kales and arugula together, as well as our other mesclun elements of the same size. I did a similar move with the plants we are hardening off outside, and then kept the cilantro and basil together despite the size differences, because they sort of take different water levels. I may be fooling myself, or I may be starting to get the hang of this. Regardless, the greenhouse looks pretty cool at present.

Here’s the greenhouse before we tackled it.

So much kale!

Basil in three stages.

My sister and mother are out in California right now, so Glenn Wagner has been left to his own devices for a few days. Thankfully, that means he has full credence to roam around and by stuff, which I caught him doing yesterday morning when I called and he was at the store buying me a seed broadcaster. It’s this backpack sort of thing that you strap on and walk around with as it sprays seeds. I shipped a 48 pound bag of oats to our house the other day for the Wagner Farmstead, so either he or I will be doing that sometime soon.

On Friday when Nate arrived we drove Matt to a bus station in Warwick, which took us through Pine Island. Warwick, for those of you with any familiarity with New Jersey, looks a bit like Collingswood. Pine Island is this stretch of land where farmers have full access to the coveted black dirt that we grow our best onions in. As far as the eye can see, there are farms and trailers for workers out in this deep black soil.

The rest of this week was just as eye-opening and challenging as the preceding weeks The rain at the start put us back on planting, but we had plenty else to keep us busy. Casey arrived on the scene and has jumped right into the work. He’s worked on a number of farms before, one very close to Kutztown, so we have plenty of Pennsylvania news to talk about. Chelsea, the saving grace of girl number two, has arrived, and we are both relieved to have each other.

Some of the crew and a visitor eating another amazing Matthew meal.

In the words of many, nom nom nom.

Here’s Mateo dancing.

At the start of the week we buried ourselves in the milk room and the lower barn to sort about a dozen giant boxes of garlic strings. When it comes time to harvest the thousands upon thousands of garlic from out in the fields, we knot them on ropes of varying lengths and hang them everywhere – all through the barn and anywhere else we can fit them. The different rope lengths help space the garlic for drying, but are taking quite a while to sort through.

I got to put some of the skills I learned from my previous job at the Support Center for Child Advocates to good use on Tuesday and Wednesday when Keith asked me to help orchestrate a mail merge for a mass mailing to some of his loyal customers. He likes to send one of Flavia’s postcards to about 450 people announcing our return to the market, but struggles with the process on the computer. Thankfully, I did like four or five of them while I was an assistant, so it was easy as pie. The guys were stoked to have a different, non-farm sort of task on hand and couldn’t understand why I was so unenthused about hanging out inside putting return addresses on postcards. I’m still too close to my previous office life to appreciate this sort of stuff as a diversified task. Give me some mud to roll around in, I say.

As for the garlic in the fields, well, it looks great. After days of hand weeding and wheel hoeing (which I totally love to do), we have saved our crop from the devastation of quack grass, Canadian thistles and dandelions. And as I was helping Matthew drop the walls of the high tunnels last night, which involves lifting and turning these big metal poles, I realized how much stronger I’ve become in a matter of days. Count me impressed, farm life. And appreciative.

But my number one favorite farm job by farm has been to trellis the peas. Matt and I started this last week, but we were derailed by the weather for a bit. On Thursday and Friday Matt, Casey and I knuckled down finally finished our four rows of trellising, and it looks awesome. After a day of having the netting in place, the peas had already started to climb. Keith said they’ll climb taller than I stand, and I am not sure why I am so excited to watch, but I am. Even on Friday afternoon, when I was sunburned and covered in itchy and covered in fiberglass from the poles we forced into the ground and strung with netting, I was excited.

My favorite accomplishment to date – trellising the peas.

Look at them climb!

We are getting ever closer to market – the first one we attend as a farm is next Saturday. Though he’ll probably just be taking the experienced guys for the start, I’m still looking forward to the day I get to try my hand down in Union Square.

-Farmer Liz

Steam rising off the pond in the morning. It’s like the rest of the world doesn’t exist out here.

Thou Shallot Not Kill

Another weekend has come and gone, and I’m reeling from information overload, lack of sleep, straight happiness and greens, greens, greens.

Friday was a day of weeding – hook and crooks, stirrup hoes and wheel hoes were out in full force as we traveled around the beds disturbing the soil around each plant and pulling out the bigger, nasty weeds. The onions and garlic down in the black dirt were an easy fix, and then we moved to the peas, lettuces and mesclun. On further inspection Matt and Jay realized that flea beetles have already begun to munch away at our dainty little Lacinato Dinosaur Kales and Arugalas over in the mesclun beds – and so the war against our insect enemies begins.

Our garlic bed will prove to be a daunting challenge throughout the year Some of the soil wasn’t turned as much as it could have been because of an onslaught of rain last fall that prevented too much tractor use, so there are patches of one of our garlic fields that is almost literally more weeds than garlic. We have already dedidcated hours to this fight as a team, and apparently Matt and Mateo had done the whole thing twice before the rest of us arrive. We arm ourselves with wheel hoes and dandelion weeders and hike on out past the compost piles for hours of weed thrashing. Canadian thistle and dandelions run rampant, and there roots are long and thick and a real pain to pull out from the bottom. Quack grass runs rampant between the rows – there are parts I can’t even push a wheel hoe through right now because the grass is so thick. But the garlic is our cash crop, and our babies need some TLC.

And if you’re still wondering what a wheel hoe is, hang on a little longer – we’ll take a tool tour later this week.

Friday afternoon presented itself with a tragic project- replanting shallots that didn’t make it through the first part of the week. I volunteered for this unsavory task before I realized the extent of the damage. I walked out to the bed behind the tunnel to find a massacre. Dozens of holes in the plastic where the shallot had literally been fried in the sun – after 48 hours, there was no sign of the little green shoot we had planted. This was a huge problem in the first band we had planted, apparently because we didn’t widen the holes in the plastic enough. We punctured the plastic with a trowel in four rows down the length of the black plastic, but if the plastic had some give around the hole edges and could move with the wind, it covered the shallot throughout the day and promptly toasted it.

I spent the afternoon sadly replacing our hundreds of fallen little guys, widening holes in plastic and putting rocks everywhere to prevent this mess from happening again. Though the task was sad, redundant as of Tuesday and a little frustrating, I think we all learned what not to do when planting this way.

We used stirrup hoes to work this bed of lettuces. Pretty, right?

The future bane of our existence – garlic fields. But look how nicely weeded this part is!

Throughout the day I scurried off to the greenhouse to water and check on our plants – on sunny warm days I could be over there every hour. Keith showed me how to pull out a plug from a random tray and test the soil to tell who needs more water when. The little cells need it more often because there’s no space for water. The tomatoes need to be watered heavily once a day in the morning, but the Mediterranean herbs prefer less water. Before I water the tomatoes, I take a broomstick handle and run it across the tops of the plants for a few minutes – this is called mechanical stimulation, and it simulates the feel the plant has in the wind outside. This makes for squatter plants instead of the leggy tomatoes that get a lot of length but not width. Pretty cool, right? This is what I’m learning. And I haven’t killed anything yet, which is also a good sign.

I left the guys this weekend and traveled down to my parents’ house for family times. My little sister is moving to California next week so we had a going away/graduation/Mother’s Day extravaganza. Nate bought my mother and me flowers and stole the show, as he does. My cousins all talked to me about the blog and asked me all sorts of questions about farming and living with smelly guys and commented on how happy I look. One of them gave me a stack of farm supply magazines and my dad and I almost convinced each other to drive up and look at an Allis G tractor an hour away. I am already excited to visit Jess out West when I’m unemployed in November. And I took stock of our own tool shed, and while it’s pretty empty comparatively, we are on the right track.

The Wagner Tool Shed.

We got tools! But need more. If you have some you don’t want holler at me.

Glenn Wagner manipulated our drainpipes into this band of four connected rain barrels with a spigot, because his mechanically-minded brain loves projects. It’s really cool.

I also got to tell some of my guy friends from home about my new adventure, which was fun and exciting and is totally off the wall from where they thought I would be. But they want to come visit, and that makes my day. And it didn’t hurt that throughout the weekend the farmers were sending me photos of their banjo-playing, town-wandering exploits and asking when I was coming back.

I’m eating a sweet potato for breakfast while Matt prices out heat mats and Jay ignores his wake up call for another few minutes. Matthew is home in Massachusetts for a few days and the house already feels emptier.

It feels good to be home.

-Farmer Liz

 

Roosters and Potatoes – Farming Day #1

First off, let me just say that if you are new to this story, you should read this quickly for some context. Now, read on!

Have you ever walked into a place and felt immediately at home?

I haven’t, not really. I am usually totally neurotic in new situations.

But as I got out of the car tonight with Jay and Matt from a trip through the tri-state area, I felt like I’ve been living here for months.

I must admit, when I showed up Sunday morning and discovered that of the five interns I was the only girl, I was a little taken aback. I had prepared myself for the mix of guys and girls, the awkwardness of sharing a house and all that that entails.

I made it to the farm about fifteen minutes before a class from Vassar College arrived for their Contemplation and Landscape class. Conveniently, Keith showed them around and told them all about the property and its history, so I got a helpful updated tour and got to meet Matthew and Matt, two of the other interns who were lounging around on their day off. Matthew is from Massachusetts and had been here for a week. Matt has returned here for a third season. Jay, who I met later in the day, worked here last year and came back to live and work again. We’re roughly the same age, here for similar reasons and have already taken to eating meals and lounging around after work together.

The guys all play guitar, and Matthew and Jay bake bread. What more could I ask for?

As Vassar students asked us and Keith all sorts of questions about the farm and farming and other subjects I couldn’t really speak to yet, I caught myself staring at one of the students. Of 26 20-somethings in this random class at a college I’d never heard of at a farm I’d just arrived at, I ran into Anna, a girl I went to the Pennsylvania Governor’s School for the Arts with for a summer back in high school. When these sorts of random things happen, and they have been with some frequency in the past year or so, I feel like I’m being led by some higher force in the right direction.

Matthew offered to show me around the intern space. He was living with Jay in a small intern house on the edge of the property. Matt and the mysterious fourth intern I haven’t met yet have posted up in the two standalone cabins. And beside the house sat am empty modular home with three bedrooms.

“We cleaned for you,” said Matthew as he showed me into their house and offered me some of his freshly-made garlic and rosemary bread. I didn’t even need to see the room at that point – I was throwing my stuff into the third room of their – our – house.

At some point during all this the boys informed me that Keith had a rooster that needed to go. Though Keith typically only keeps chickens for eggs, this extra rooster was causing strife in the henhouse, and sometime since Matt’s arrival he decided he was going to take care of this.

Long story short, I had not expected anything like the escapade that followed, but the guys caught the rooster, gave it as merciful a death as they could manage (they watched an inordinate number of YouTube videos to prepare for this task), and Matthew and Jay made this fantastic stew we had for dinner tonight.

After a brief chase, the culprit was apprehended.

Rosemary, thyme, potatoes, onions, garlic, carrots, and yes, our dear rooster. And it was delicious.

I cannot articulate how amazing this was. An honorable end for an honorable bird. And my cook housemates already blow me away.

It was not what I expected on my first day on a vegetable farm. And work hadn’t even started.

I slept straight through the night last night – which is something I haven’t done in months.

This morning we rallied in the greenhouse at 8am for our daily tasks list. Today was potato day, and we spent hours moving half a dozen different types of potatoes from the basement of our house, sorting by size and cutting bigger potatoes into smaller pieces, dunking them in T22 – an organism-based fungicide that is organic and protects the harvest from disease – and planting them in one of the upper lots.

We put 500 pounds of potatoes into the ground today, and that’s only half of what will be in there. I learned more about potatoes than I ever would have expected – I mean, have you ever seen a blue potato? It’s arguably one of the most beautiful blues I’ve ever seen in nature.

This year Keith bought his potatoes from Maine Potato Lady (who is the owner of this particular picture). Beautiful, right?

Today a driver arrived with a 550 pound barrel of fish emulsion. Sounds gross, right? Apparently Neptune’s Harvest is known for its seafood based fertilizers, which will go in the orchard and on some of the crops throughout the season.

Tonight the four of us sat down for dinner – rooster stew, freshly-baked bread and a salad made from mesclun and kale from the high tunnels – and, like I said, it’s like we’ve been here for months. Jay and Matthew sit in the kitchen and take turns playing Andrew Jackson Jihad covers, Matt wanders in and out of the house, they take turns reading, rearranging the furniture and playing Starfox on Jay’s N64. It feels like freshman year of college a little bit, but it’s not an unwelcome feeling right now.

We went for a drive tonight, and it was breathtaking how dark it was after being in the city for so long. I miss Philly, for sure, but the sky out here is incredible, and the air is clear and crisp.

I’ll try to get more technical about the farming as I wrap my mind around all of this. But bear with me as I get my kid giddiness out.

I’m sure things will get tough, rough and dirtier as the season progresses. But right now, I feel nothing but excited.

-Farmer Liz

Connecting the Dots

When I finally decided I was going to give this farming thing a go, I had to make sure I knew what I was doing before I told anyone about my plans. Unfortunately, Craigslist doesn’t have a lot of agricultural job postings.

I am notorious for long, wordy, fruitless Google searches. I’ve spent hours searching through listings for the phrase “room into lake” to find this:

So I went into my search for “organic farming jobs” more than a little skeptically. All I knew was that a dear friend of mine from my days at the Collegian had said her friends were heading off to travel and do farm work – and I thought the program started with a W.

As it turn out, I would of course stumble upon WWOOF pretty early in this quest – though not as soon as PASA. The Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture offers a number of services for members and folks interested in sustainable and organic farming, which includes job postings. And that’s where I found Snipes farm, where I would have my first interview.

Snipes Farm was appealing for a slew of reasons. It was local (Bucks County), it was huge, it taught farm-to-school programs and summer camps and, on inspection, it was beautiful. The house that the interns lived in was quaint and beautiful, the growing fields were sprawling and diversified, and Brad, the guy who interviewed me and the young Jersey hippie who was also there for an interview, was passionate and engaging about his work.

I was still in the early throes of guilt about sneaking away on the weekends to potentially leave my job, but as we fed the chickens and tromped across the grounds on that unnaturally warm January day, everything about this trip felt right. I texted my roommate, my references, my sister, Nate. I wanted to be a farmer. And while I didn’t get the position at Snipes – they took a couple on for the season, though had they chosen to single folks as interns, I was told I would have been one of them – I had some reasonable idea of where to search next.

I fired another few letters of interest off into the Internet farming abyss and looked briefly into WWOOF – World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms. This was what my friend on the newspaper had been talking about. WWOOF is wildly popular network which links licensed volunteers with organic farms across the world. Woofing is a great way to travel. You get to live in cool areas on the short term in exchange for labor, and I’ve met a bunch of folks who have done this to great success. But I wanted something a little more stable, somewhere I could stay for awhile and, if possible, something that paid. After all, I was going to have to look Glenn Wagner in the eye and tell him I was leaving my job for this. Something with a cash incentive would ease that pain.

Then I found NEWOOF. NEWOOF, or North East Farmers on Organic Farms, is a directory similar to WWOOF, but you don’t pay to be licensed. It’s sponsored by the New England Small Farm Institute and lists regional farm apprenticeship placements. I sent away a few bucks for the 2011 directory and found an amazing world I didn’t know existed – in Pennsylvania and in the surrounding states farmers were transitioning land, plowing with oxen and hiring young interns who wanted to learn how to get back to the earth the right way. And Keith Stewart was one of them.

Keith had a comprehensive listing and was engaging and helpful from my first tenuous e-mail. And when I knew I was going to send over an official letter of interest, I ordered his book, which documents his own adventures on his 13-acre vegetable farm. I took another weekend to drive up and spend the day meeting Keith and his wife and learning about the farm, and as we munched away at some mesclun from his high tunnels, I knew this was where I wanted to be. If you haven’t read any previous posts, let’s just say you’ll be hearing more about this farm soon.

That being said, I had heard back from a couple other farms in the meantime, and as Keith met with other applicants and geared up to call my references, I headed out to western PA with my mom to meet Carrie Megginson and Dan Earnest at Buckland Farm, a vegetable and hog operation that also operates a bed and breakfast near Raystown Lake, one of my family’s favorite haunts. Dan and Carrie were lovely and welcoming. We met their friends who come to help out with the farm, their most recent Woofer who was in town for a week, and a D.C. chef-turned-farmer who was taking a sabbatical to learn about the origins of food and to help the farm establish some more ties in the restaurant business.

These folks were relatively new to the farm scene, but their operation was incredible. Chickens ran wild near the house and the barn where over a dozen piglets slept in a giant pile under a heat lamp. This season they discussed planting morels and watercress along the stream for foraging crops. Dan took us through fields that grew a wide range of crops, from hops to salsa ingredients, up to the woods where their grown hogs lived, foraged and looked impressive. The pigs had cleaned out all the extraneous brush from the woods and were looking chipper and enormous.

The cutest little pigs you ever did see. I mean, besides Babe.

I stood petting the 850-pound papa pig and, while thoroughly struck by the magnitude of the project, I knew in my heart of hearts I was too much of a wimp to raise some pigs and then eat them later. Maybe that will change in time, but my head’s not there yet. But at the end of the day, I was humbled by Buckland Farm’s hospitality, and hope that I can someday be as diversified, ambitious and, well, cool, as them.

As I watched this 850-pound guy roll over for a belly rub, I knew I couldn't hack it on this farm - at least not yet. I may have to be a vegetarian veggie farmer for life.

I was on a weekday vacation with Nate up in the Poconos when my references began to text that Keith had called them. I raced us off to somewhere with actual Internet access and sure enough, there it was – an e-mail saying that he would be delighted to have me on board for the season.

And the rest, my friends, is watercress.

-Farmer Liz

Dreaming of Dirt

April 17, 2012, 6:00 am

The sun has been rising steadily over South Philadelphia for the last hour or so, shifting the black outside into formless gray surfaces across our backyards. A grill, a concrete divider covered in matted green ivy, a fence slowly come into focus as 6:00 am approaches.

I have been lying here listening to the tenuous cries of feral cats, mounting birdsong and my own breath in the muggy morning air. A bean tree has created its crooked, stubborn life in the partial dirt alley behind our house, and starlings and, today, a wayward seagull have paused to give a call before moving east toward the water.

Ninety degrees in April? Unfathomable. How this uncanny weather is about to affect my future is anyone’s guess, at least right now. Lord knows I’ll have to start figuring all that out soon. But right now I’m not thinking about weather reports.

I am thinking about dirt.

Two weeks ago my family, Nate and I dug up thirteen shovels of dirt from a two-acre perimeter on the property in the Lehigh Valley. We carried it home, mixed it together and laid it on newspaper to dry overnight before shipping it off. Penn State will test it for phosphorus, arsenic, nitrates and a slew of chemical words whose boxes I checked without understanding the names. Soon we will have some guidance as to what is happening in that shale land that may become my home, and hopefully we’ll be able to figure out how to coax it to life.

As 2012 rolled in this year, I knew two things for sure: I was unhappy with my work, and I was, for the first time in five years, growing disillusioned with the city. I talked to Nate, I talked to my friends, and I talked to my parents, and for the first time in a long time I started to think about dirt in a big way. And it felt right. I started sending out applications to organic farms for work at the end of January.

I started visiting farms, reading books by farmers and articles about high tunnels and farmstands. I e-mailed the Food Trust for a farmer’s market application, knowing full well that we are probably years pursuing this issue further. I drove to New York to interview with Keith Stewart and his wife. Keith is known for his work and runs a well-established farm that he’s been tending since the 80s, and for the next six months I’ll be working for him along with a handful of other interns I’ll be meeting soon.

My success, failure and love of dirt at the end of all of this will determine my next move, which at this moment may include creating and operating a farm. My parents, who have always been amazingly willing and able to roll with the punches their daughters have thrown over the years, went from coolly skeptical to wildly interested over the past three months. This past week my father assembled nearly a dozen rain barrels and my mother attended her first Exploring the Small Farm Dream class at a Penn State extension office. The guest speaker talked about creating CSA shares for people in the SNAP food aid program and running classes and summer camps to teach kids the importance of sustainability, and I could hear the excitement in my chest reflected in my mom’s voice. For the first time, I started to believe we might pull this off.

Last June I joined Back on My Feet, a running group in the city that partners with homeless shelters instills a sense of self-worth and purpose through running. Three days a week I leave my house in the morning dark and run to meet my team at Broad and Bainbridge, where we run with guys from the Ready, Willing and Able shelter nearby. This team is what I will miss the most when I leave – I know that unequivocally. These guys have pushed me to try harder, to run faster, to dream bigger than I ever have before. Without them, I never would have realized how much I needed to shake up my post-grad existence, or that I want to be working and living and sweating outside instead of feeling my eyes give out behind a desk and a computer.

When I told them I was leaving, my guys immediately started to call me “Farmer Liz.” This blog and this journey are in honor of them and everyone in my world who has encouraged me to take this plunge (and to share it with them). I hope this undertaking will, at the very least, pleasantly distract you for a few minutes a day. Maybe you’ll start looking for some dirt of your own. Regardless, stay tuned. It’s sure to be an adventure.

-Farmer Liz