Cue the AC/DC – We’re Back!

You see that down there?

HooooRAYYY!

HOOOORAYYY!

That’s some baby garlic coming up in the field. Yeah, I’m excited. And for those of you who’ve had the Keith Stewart Rocambole, I’m sure you are, too.

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Hello, Starshine. We are so glad you could join us.

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Copyright Sarah Merusi

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Friend Sarah’s crazy fish lens captures the the mom/daughter planting excitement

The spinach is up. So is the kale, lettuce, beets, salad greens, assorted herbs and a plethora of other baby veg. The peppers are almost all up at this point, and every day my mom walks into the greenhouse and speaks softly and sweetly to the eggplants and tomatoes, coaxing them with promises of fun and parties if they hurry up and germinate (which I think Pennywise the Clown did too, right?)

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Tomato Kingdom

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And we seeded like 35 types of tomatoes, by the way.

In the field, the sorrel is chugging along, the perennial herbs are making their small and sturdy resurgence and the peas, radishes, beets and spinach I sowed last week should be up soon. Sometimes I find myself standing on the edge of the field wanting to seed and sun dance for them like the sisters in My Neighbor Totoro…but our field is just too close to the road. Too many people slow down to look at what weird things we are doing in the field on a day-to-day without drawing extra attention to ourselves.

And the garlic is up. THE GARLIC IS UP. Did I mention that? You can’t see this but I have paused in my writing to hug myself in excitement.

Two weeks back I took myself on a last grand adventure for the season. I headed out to Pittsburgh – one of my favorite drives and one of my favorite cities – to visit some dear friends, see Neutral Milk Hotel be great and spend hours in the Phipps Conservatory, a huge beautiful greenhouse building full of the most beautiful and exotic plants I’ve ever seen. It was a great way to kickoff a farm bound season in the beautiful LV.

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It’s a banana tree! In the middle of Pittsburgh!

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Oh look, a room full of airplants!

Not that there aren’t things to do in the beautiful Lehigh Valley. My friend Steve and I are slowly working our way through those delightful cases of our  Belgian tripel – and it was really satisfying to take a couple down to Philly and have the boys be surprised at how great it tasted (I am an okay baker, but the Keith boys know I am renowned for big ideas and bad delivery when it comes to cooking – see the twig debacles of 2012). The other day we transferred our maple coffee porter into glass for a couple weeks and added some bacon infused vodka – soooo we’ll see how that goes. But I’m excited nonetheless. I spent part of yesterday reading about herb-infused beers, and I can’t wait to give those a whirl this summer.

And this past weekend I had the pleasure of a lovely dinner with My Grandmother’s Table, a friend’s catering and dining experience company out of Allentown. A bag of sorrel for the dinner got me two seats at her small-party table at Ruby’s Floral Factory in Bethlehem for a night of food and fun that owner Dina Valentini Wanamaker modeled after her childhood Easter Table. I had a blast, made some new friends and she turned my bag of baby sorrel into a fantastic salad with Bulgarian Feta, watercress and garlic vinaigrette.

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The first field greens of the season. Makes my heart sing.

Add another five courses of pork marsala, chicken roulade with sage and mozz, and homemade raviolis, and you can imagine the evening we had. We’re working on a vegetarian festival meal for September, so stay tuned. We’re talking apps, herb-infused drinks and some amazing vegetable entrees, so get stoked.

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Sorrel and feta salad. Yummm.

It’s been a season with a lot of potential already. It makes me nervous, but I can’t help but feel lucky and excited, too. My cousin got a small cafe in Coopersburg to give me a call about buying vegetables this season. The sous chef at Curious Goods at the Bake Oven Inn reached out a couple days ago on Facebook. My boys have their folks at the Alehouse interested in some after-market vegetables. Tonight The Support Center for Child Advocates is auctioning off a CSA half share for an amazing cause at its Annual Benefit. The guys at Philly Foodworks and I haven’t met in person yet, but we talk frequently and are thrilled to be working together this year.

And for the biggest announcement – The Food Trust has given me a Wednesday Market in the La Salle-ish neighborhood in Philly. I’ll be over at the intersection of Mt. Pleasant and Chew on the Germantown/Mt. Airy border! I can’t wait. After a year of playing the scrappy huckster, I feel almost shell-shocked that folks have reached out to me to learn more and get involved in procuring some vegetables. Coupled with the Farm to City East Falls market, I am looking forward to a full and busy season in the city.

Which, of course, means wayyyy more vegetables need to be up and growing than last year. It’s a little overwhelming to think about, especially with all the weather delays this season, but my dairy boss reminds me regularly that everyone is in the same boat and that you can’t control these things. Which makes me feel better most of the time, aha.

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It can be scary to go out there and seed three or four times as much of a crop than I did last year, but I know it’s well worth it. Folks were so happy with what we had to offer last year, and with a little more experience hopefully there will be more of all the favorites. This is still a big experiment year – I am trying lots of different varieties of each vegetable to discern what works best in my soil and this area – but I hope all this research and studying pays off. People see my hauling this backpack of magazines and books around and ask me if I’m still a student – and while I know what they mean and assert that I’m not, I really am.

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In other Farmstead news, my folks are more than halfway moved up to the new home. Glenn has dreams of an orchard like the one on his childhood farm, so we ordered a pile of fruit trees from our Willow Haven Farm neighbors and got them in the ground last week. I spent a couple minutes making a cute and readable map for my parents to keep track of these guys, since they technically aren’t part of Crooked Row Farm (until I start stealing fruit in a few years, maybe).

Farmstead Tree Map

Right now they look much less exciting than the photo image

Right now they look much less exciting than the photo image

We’re doing a lot of mulching and they are doing a lot of painting and sanding and cleaning to get the current house in order to sell. Hope these new buyers enjoy all the secret tomatoes that are sure to pop up all around the landscaping by summer.

Glenn is also trying out a new toy – a Bobcat, which is really a glorified golf cart with shocks that drives faster. Matthew came up to seed tomatoes and make me some herb shelves the other day, and we spent a fair bit of time whipping around on this puppy. Old man Strider dog also enjoys a good ride in it.

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So excited he made some market shelves!

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Matthew is excited.

And so our journey continues. I just spent the morning seeding a bunch of herbs, and now I’m off to help landscape for the house sale. Here are some plant babies in almost-real time:

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Mizuna! Non nom nom.

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Itty bitties.

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Red Russian Kallllleee!

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Mesclun – coming to a salad bowl near you.

All the best!

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Rebuilding, Replanting, Reliving.

On Wednesday morning I rolled into the greenhouse at 7am and started to seed some herbs while I waited for my soul twin and partner in crime, one Matthew LaVergne, to arrive from Philadelphia for a day of major seeding projects.

The greenhouse was already warm enough for T-shirt attire. I could hear the woodpeckers in the woods all around. And for the first time since this frigid winter began, I could see the end. And for the first time since packing in Season 2013, I felt like I was home.

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Home sweet home

Two weeks ago my crew of beloved friends and neighbors assembled to help me finally get the greenhouse up at the new place. Stefanie Angstadt, seasoned Eckerton Hill vet and fledgling area cheesemaker (and, let’s be honest, my first farmer crush of 2012) arrived to help put in the center pole and side boards. And she brought coffee, because my friends are the sort of folks who bring breakfast when they come to do favors. I am a blessed human.

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I, on the other hand, am a terrible friend and failed to take a good action shot of dear Stef. But here she is in all her glory.

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Stef documents my successful use of power tools.

The next day my carpenter/substitute/pirate/beer-brewer childhood affiliate Steve rode up to help post up the end walls and make fun of my poor carpentry skills (which, hey, we blamed on the other guy who helped, because we could). After some sketchy work with a hand saw, we got everything where it needed to be. And then we brewed some beer.

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Not only is Steve great at putting up walls and brewing a tasty beer, but he is currently wearing a shirt with an anchor on it and sporting Badfeather, his bird, on his shoulder. At one point as we transferred our beer to the glass container to further ferment, he looked down at himself and said, “Hey, I’m dressed as a pirate!”

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No, this is not the correct order of things in terms of beer making. But my blog, my streamlined memoir. The point is, there is beer. Good beer. And it will be bottled soon, so if you want a happy homebrew, don’t sass me about logistics.

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Notice a pattern here? Next come’s the plastic. The following day Matthew slept in…but thankfully Teena Bailey, local farm-woman extraordinaire and mentor, did not. And as she ran off to collect our neighbor Reuben of Willow Haven Farm for some extra hands and an actually-functioning staple gun, my dear friend and Health Habits co-worker Gina Medvedz arrived with her adorable self to pitch in. Matthew did arrive in time, and the greenhouse finally became a greenhouse.

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Having four of my favorite people in such close proximity created this massive force of good energy across the fields. They were like superheroes.

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Gina, Teena (inside) and Matthew shore up the sides while I clearly do no work and just take pictures.

Teena and Reuben are pivotal folks in the area when it comes to small-scale, low-budget, sustainable vegetable farming. The two of them use composting manure bunkers for passive solar heat to start their seeds and keep their greenhouse warm,  and after some coaching from them, I decided to follow suit. Thus began a several day operation of leaving the dairy after work and picking up truckloads of cinder blocks, building four-foot walls inside the greenhouse for the manure bunker with said blocks, returning to the dairy for work and to collect truckloads of manure, and then up to unload the manure.

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One of the perks of working at a dairy (and having kind and generous bosses), by the way, is free manure. Thank you Excelsior Farm, for once again being awesome.

Repeat this a couple of times, with literally about three tons of manure and 120-some cinder blocks, and you get a bunker.

A bunker that is toasty warm for the onions nestled on it. A bunker that, though a bit smelly at the moment, will continue to heat and break down and become really lovely compost in time. A bunker that provides more room and heat than the manufactured grow cables or heat mats. And all I need is a pitchfork and a shovel to change its size and shape to suit my needs throughout the season.

SCIENCE.

So, there’s a greenhouse. And a bunker. Now it needs to be filled!

Grandma Wagner is always up for a trip to visit our Mennonite friends and supply vendors out in Berks County. We saddled up on a Friday morning and drove out to Meadow View Farm in Fleetwood to pick up a big order of potting mix, tomato stakes and ground cover.

We took Glenn’s truck because it’s cozier, and because his 80-year-old, 4’8″ mother is too short to get into my truck easily. It led to a morning of her shouting things like “Let’s burn rubber, kid!” and me repeatedly shouting back, “Yeah! Not my truck!” Because we are adults.

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Grandma chummed it up with Jay, the nice boy who pulls our orders, and then we dumped everything off at the farm and went for one last truckload of manure. While I stacked blocks of potting mix, Grandma Wagner tried her hand as a graffiti artist and spray painted some water barrels that we then filled in the greenhouse for extra heat retention.

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After a quick call in to my aunt, we reconvened at the house and loaded up my dad’s truck with the greenhouse tables and seeding trays and flats and other greenhouse supplies that had been lingering (much to Glenn’s chagrin) in the garage. We tied it all down and caravaned back to the greenhouse to unpack and settle in. My mom returned the next day to help finish the job, and all of a sudden we had a fully furnished greenhouse.

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With my crew of retired and semi-retired bored women, and a handful of crust punks, we will rule Pennsylvania.

In the midst of all these other things, some other work got done as well. I made business cards; I took a shank off the cultivator and drug it around with me to tractor supply stores and Internet searches until I procured the missing parts I needed for a full set; I finished Season III of Game of Thrones and didn’t cry all that much; I had a Tony Luke’s breakfast sandwich with broccoli rabe in it and missed South Philly. We’re chalking all these up as wins.

I’m talking to a food hub in Philly about selling them lots of greens for their CSA shares. I keep failing to rendezvous with my awesome extension agent to catch up and talk about building my cold storage unit. PASA posted my blog post about the conference on their pages – which was a totally amazing experience when a new friend mentioned how much she liked what she saw on the PASA Facebook Page. Next week I have a phone call with the membership coordinator of the National Young Farmer’s Coalition to discuss opportunities in this area.

What do you do at one in the morning? I replace sweeps.

What do you do at one in the morning? I replace sweeps.

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And so Matthew arrived, ice coffees in hand (see my earlier note about awesome friends), and we cranked out a full day of seeding. He kept seeding when I left him for two hours, and when I returned he had installed a doorknob and organized the space. And added a root vegetable to my 2014 wall (by the way, friends and neighbors mentioned in this post today – you all need to come back and sign the wall).

And that’s the thing. Mom Wagner and I got it done last year, and successfully, but I didn’t realize how lonely and exhausted and overwhelmed I felt so often until these folks were in my life asking what they could do to help. It is awesome to have this kind of community, and it is one that got built in the midst of the insanity of last year.

Working the dairy has taught me all sorts of things about farming in this area and animal care. I’m so much stronger now, and Andy and her family have been nothing but kind and generous with their time and aid. Jerry, the herd manager, is constantly bringing out newspaper articles about small farms and farm-to-table operations. The store gave me my first local following and my cohorts there love to promote the farm, and now even my parents’ chiropractor has joined the CSA.

My parents have tolerated a myriad of things parents shouldn’t need to deal with once their kids move out the first time. They’ve allowed me to stay here and work as much and often as possible to accrue some more business funds. Mom Wagner feeds me and helps fill in the watering, heating and covering gaps in our once again crazy schedule. My college friends, my runner friends, my office friends and now my sister’s college friends are ready for me to be back in Philly, and local caterer Dina at My Grandmother’s Table is the first person asking for spring greens.

Things are going to be crazy again for awhile. I wake up and drive to New Tripoli to uncover the trays. In the middle of the day, sometimes between jobs, they need to be watered. At night, also sometime between jobs, they need to be covered again. There is so much seeding to be done. Once I’m working outside I will be leaving the dairy (or at least incredibly cutting back my time there, because I may miss my new friends and the cows to much to really leave). With the help of Derek, Matthew and some other Philly friends, I am trying to pick up another Philly market.

There’s a lot of good people in my corner. And I’m not the scared, sad, indecisive girl of 2013. There is always the nervous feeling before the plunge, but there is too much excitement overriding everything else.

Thank you, thank you, thank you for reading, and for listening, and for sharing this adventure.

-Farmer Liz

Get ready. We are.

Get ready. We are.