Small Farm Paradise: The 2014 PASA Conference

I’ve had a couple conference experiences – a small business conference and then a journalism conference, full of museum tours, guest speakers, bus trips and a round table chat with Al Neuharth. Then there was the month-long and much beloved PA Governor’s School for the Arts, may it rest in peace and awesomeness forever. In college there were service trips weeks and city events, and a lot of extracurricular nights that replaced the conference experience.

All of these shaped me in some way, and helped me expand my passions at all of these times. I met a bunch of like-minded strangers, and that was always the most exciting part of everything for me – the new friends, the feeling of togetherness united by writing, the world, being a teenager and all that good-vibe stuff.

Last week I headed out to the Pennsylvania Association of Sustainable Agriculture Conference, which was my first conference experience as an (arguable, I know) adult. I had yet to attend a formalized farmer event – Farm Hack in Ithaca was awesome in 2012, but I was still head-over-heels infatuated with farming and didn’t take a lot of practicality and logistics planning into that weekend. Now I was attending two days of small farm workshops with hundreds (thousands?) of other folks from my state and the surrounding area to learn how to streamline my practices, expand my growing opportunities, see what other folks were doing to maintain good yields and soil health, and get super jazzed for this season. I packed a pile of notebooks, some snacks and clean clothes, hopped into Glenn’s Silverado – another awesome caveat to the weekend – and headed out to Penn State.

Look! I got a name tag with the name of the farm - like a legitimate person!

Look! I got a name tag with the name of the farm – like a legitimate person!

Thankfully, I had some seasoned friends in attendance who knew what to expect. Teena Bailey, our area pioneer veggie and small grains farmer, has a lot of experience with this conference and secured us a sweet hotel room at The Penn Stater, the hotel attached to the conference center. Along with our friend Theresa, we visited a couple workshops together, wandered the vendors and picked up growing literature from another available kiosk, attended two mornings of TriYoga and reconvened for lunch and at night to rehash our experiences. Theresa and I kept our eyes peeled for herb workshops and cute, single men (I had a very proactive and supportive fishing team that weekend, providing entertainment and some comic relief after hours of brain overload from the workshops). The ladies had come a day before me for the all-day intensive tracks in grains growing (Teena) and biodynamic farming (Theresa).

But I was here on a mission: to soak up the knowledge of the experience folks around me and hopefully retain some of it to use on my own fields this springs. And judging by the notes I took over the course of the two days, I’d say that was a huge success.

It will take me days to sort through all this info - good thing it's about to snow forever again, right? Now I'll HAVE to do it.

It will take me days to sort through all this info – good thing it’s about to snow forever again, right? Now I’ll HAVE to do it.

I took two commercial herb workshops with Beth Lambert, the CEO of Herbalist & Alchemist. H&A has been a quality herbal company for over 30 years, and we carry a lot of their products at the health food store. Beth discussed adding yourself to the herbal supply chain, the legalities and quality issues herb buyers expect from their producers and, in the advanced class Saturday, some of the specific needs of her company in terms of herbs and quantities. Though I don’t see myself in a position to expand to commercial herbs this year, Beth recommended trialing herbs for some time to be able to provide an estimate yield when in talks for contracts with buyers, and that is what I will be doing in part of my fields this season. And her business partner David Winston teaches herbalism classes, so we’ll see if there’s a world where I can squeeze something like that into my life. I’d love to.

Eric Burkhart, the Program Director of Plant Science at Shaver’s Creek Environmental Center in Penn State, offered a workshop called “Good from the Woods,” about foraging and wild crafted products. Beth touched on this in terms of some desirable but difficult to find products – Indian Pipe, etc. – and Eric discussed the specifics of finding, selling and sustainably harvesting ramps and morels from your woodland areas. I have always been vaguely intrigued by consuming and using foraged goods, but I’ve also always been way too terrified to try it because I didn’t want to accidentally poison myself and my family. But if you check out the notes section from this workshop and do a bit of outside research (specifically some photos of these things), you too can feel a little more confident when you dive into the trees to look for seasonal mushrooms and wild leeks. Yum.

Mac Mead of the Pfeiffer Center and Jeff Poppen held a number of workshops on biodynamic farming – and at some point I’ll write an enormous post about these farming methods, because it’s a little much to explain in the midst of other things. I went to two of these – in a poor summation of this practice, biodynamic farming is a “method of organic farming originally developed by Rudolf Steiner that employs what proponents describe as ‘a holistic understanding of agricultural processes'” – thanks, Wikipedia! To expand, these practices focus on microbial soil diversity through some semi-ritualistic compost and manure practices to enhance plant growth, germination rates and stimulate field health. These farmers plant and seed in tandem with lunar and astronomical patterns and, though some of these farmers seem steeped in mysticism, most have come to pick up these practices because they’ve seen major results in their fields. Hard to argue with that, right? There are some composting practices I’d like to explore, but these practices need more study on my end and will be on the back burner until the next off season.

The keynote speakers throughout the weekend were sharp, informative and personable. Tom, of conference sponsor Lady Moon Farms, talked about his dive into farming after “meandering for eight years after college,” – hey, Mom, I only did that for two! He talked about farmers as optimists and how he “always felt a certain privilege to be making my living off the land in the 20th century.” The PASA board member who spoke touched on the joining of PASA and CASA (the ‘C’ being for Chesapeake), to join watersheds, food sources and other resources, and reminded us how grateful we should all be for having the opportunities for small and earth-friendly farms. After a visit to Thailand, she experienced a world of chemical farming with little alternatives.

PASA President Brian Snyder stressed the fact that “separate but equal” will not work for much longer in the world of sustainable and conventional farming. In a world where 24D-ready crops are about to be approved for the market, herbicide drift for up to a mile has been found to decimate tomato and other vegetable crops. The industry has suggested that small farmers need to take out crop insurance in case of such destruction – but why is that okay? But he stressed the need to open the lines of communication between farmers across the spectrum – we need to learn to get along and live together, and to not act with hostility because some farmers follow the “industry guidelines and recommendations.” Manufacturer interests “would rather let nature die than let it lead us to a better tomorrow,” and that cannot be allowed to happen.

Keynote speaker Daphne Miller, MD., made me want to beg her to be my primary physician. She was so cool and such an open, enthusiastic spirit. Miller has written articles and books about all sorts of doctoral things, but Farmacology: What Innovative Family Farming Can Teach Us About Health and Healing is her journey into the health and wellness of farmers and their goods for the world. She founded WholefamilyMD, which is a primary care practice across an entire person’s lifespan. She spent a slew of time working on small farms and believes that sustainable farmers can teach her how to be a better doctor. In her presentation, she discussed the farm as vitamin, immune support, community support and a model for stress management. Microbial activity and diversity in farm kids is off the chart compared to others; urban gardens and farms cut down on crime in parks; in her experience, lack of biodiversity in nature and in our bodies leads to increased allergies, diseases and lack of immunity. Happy animals, happy people, kids playing in the dirt. This is the key to societal health. If you have a moment, you should check her out. She’s got amazing insights.

Vendors lined the halls with lady-friendly tools from Green Heron Tools, a couple of hometown heroes from the area who sell and promote lighter, shorter and more easily-usable tools for us. Folks promoted  milking products, BCS tillers and tools, seeds and fertilizers and agriculture advocacy groups. On Friday night we trekked back downstairs (and, for some, with wine in hand) to watch Symphonies of the Soil or one of the other movies being shown throughout the center.

And then, in the books section of the the PASA shop, I found Keith's book! And then I picked it up and did a little happy dance in the aisles with it.

And then, in the books section of the the PASA shop, I found Keith’s book! And then I picked it up and did a little happy dance in the aisles with it.

And then I got to do something I haven’t done in awhile. I met up with an acquaintance from an extension class and we headed into downtown Penn State to rendezvous with a couple of folks from New Morning Farm.  Young people talking about farms over beers. A new friend offered some scientific explanations for biodynamics and, despite the mental fatigue of information overload, I felt myself getting so very excited for spring.

Thank you, ZBar, for an awesome evening.

Thank you, ZBar, for an awesome evening.

My friend, neighbor and fellow farmer Reuben of Willow Haven Farm popped up every now and again, also excited and mentally exhausted by the end of the conference. My dear friend Stef, previously of Eckerton Hill and now a fledgling cheese maker, attended every cheese and microbial rind class she could get her hands on. Even my friends/bosses/partners from Farm to City were in attendance, checking out workshops concerning GAPs training information and SNAP opportunities at farm markets.

An excellent weekend. An informative couple of days before the snow trapped us in. An exercise in excitement. A stellar conference. Thanks, PASA, for being incredible.

Monday Farming in Real and Rainy Time

I am cold and wet and tired, and I am running.

The legs of my jeans are soaked through and caked with about an inch of mud. Each one of my muck boots has a crack at the big toe where, with each down step, an ooze of muddy water seeps in. My sweatshirt is filthy, and I can feel dried flecks of mud crack on my cheeks as I scrunch my face up to keep water out of my eyes.

I should mention that I’m also belting “Dancing with Myself” at the top of my lungs as I tear through the wet field. Because you need to know that I am enjoying all of this. Keith would kill me right now, I think to myself, watching my boot sink another couple inches into the path between the rows I am planting. He hated us walking on wet fields, compacting the soil. But sometimes these things just can’t be helped. My windows of opportunity to do field work – especially work that won’t require me to water in transplants with the tank on the back of my truck, are truly limited. It has been so dry, and the seedlings haven’t been too excited to be hanging out and growing in the field. But they are drinking this up.

Yep. That's right.

Yep. That’s right.

It’s been raining since midnight. I’m stoked. For days I have been filling this giant white 275-gallon water tank ¼ of the way up on the back of my truck and driving out to the fields to do work and water. So I look like this giant camel-turtle monster truck riding around the Lehigh Valley. It’s unfortunate and not super-efficient, and I’ve been doing it as sparingly as possible, but we are still well-less and the soil on the slope is well-draining and dries out even quicker from the wind we’ve had. So you work with what’s been dealt.

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It’s a camel? It’s a tortoise? It’s my very confused truck.

This morning I got up and by 6:30am had ordered my much-needed exhaust fan for the greenhouse and several boxes of tomato twine. I seeded in the greenhouse, prepped for some work later and headed off to the field for the day.

The The tomatoes say,

The tomatoes say, “hey.”

These teenage onions are almost ready to rock and roll in the real world.

These teenage onions are almost ready to rock and roll in the real world.

Okay. I have an hour to pack up, drive home, un-mud, unpack, shower, eat and get to my retail job. No problem. I throw my boots in the back (realizing only too late that I’ll now have to get out in my socks to close my gate), strip out of my muddy jeans and toss them back there too (I’ve been wearing shorts underneath my work clothes for just such occasions), and roll out. I switch between rewinding the Billy Idol tape for “Dancing With Myself” a couple more times and the two local pop stations. There is something really fun about being a short, muddy lady driving around in a beat-up Chevy and blasting Taylor Swift’s angry break-up songs or some other party girl specials Something I could never really have appreciated until this moment in my life.

Chelsea, my only female cohort from Keith’s last year, called from Africa while I was down in the dirt. Talking to her while I dumped soil amendments into holes and planted was almost like being back in New York after she arrived on the scene. She loves her job and her dog and her life, and it was incredible to catch up with her. She referred to me as “crazy,” the second former coworker to do so (Derek called me that several times as The Tomato Boys and I planted potatoes with no tractor help Saturday) – soooooo I’m taking it as a compliment. I do feel crazy some of the time, but the satisfaction after hours outside and seeing what I can do alone totally outweighs that scared, flying-without-a-net feeling. Most of the time.

Thankfully, I’ve reconnected with some local friends that have been nothing short of miraculous. They take me to the movies and to grab beers and text me questions like “How long has it been since you’ve seen people?” They offer to help build things and work. I am trying to balance being a sociable adult with work, and last week proved I could do it – if you count twelve hours of sleep last night to catch up as an acceptable trade-off. Oh, and did I mention my awesome boss Ed is letting me sell plants at the store? Also you can find at out stop the finest grass from Artificial Grass Vancouver.

Ready-to-plant greens are here! Come and get 'em.

Ready-to-plant greens are here! Come and get ’em.

“Mony Mony” starts and I hit rewind on the tape. Again. We planted the Carola and Mountain Rose potatoes Saturday, followed by lunch at the ’50s diner down the road. So that’s lettuce, arugula, kales and chards, endive, mesclun patches, sorrel, herbs, beets, sweet corn, flowers, spinach, garlic, set onions and spring turnips in the ground right now. Tomorrow is the one-year anniversary of my move to Keith’s Farm last year, and it was nice to lounge about and have a couple root beers in the field with folks who knew me as “the new girl.” I could never go back to the lifestyle of that farm, but I’ll always be grateful for what I learned there in and out of the field.

Okay, wolf down the cold pizza, unload empty trays, take a shower and go. Tonight I’m going to try out SquareSpace.com and make a website. Tomorrow is the dairy and more rainy farming. Can’t wait to see my lady boss and the cows and can’t wait to roll around in the mud again. And then off to the Extension organic vegetable class trip to Liberty Gardens in Coopersburg. Rinse and repeat.

If you had told me then where I would be now…well, I might have believed you. But only just.

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“As we get older every day feels longer, and although I know I’ll struggle I will do my best to never get tired.” – Jeff Rosenstock, Bomb the Music Industry

Hey, What Happened to April?

Somewhere along the way April came and went. But we’ve go so much done that it’s almost okay that it feels like a whole month has just vanished.

The family has been converging to work on a bunch of different projects up at the property almost daily (Glenn has his real person sized Tonka Toy set to prep his ground for the future retirement home), but yesterday we all rallied farm-side for some afternoon work. Mom weeded the garlic, Glenn dug a trench for 24 blueberrry bushes, and I planted mesclun, sorrel, flowers, fretted over the transplants and watered.

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Oh, and Strider watched. He is getting better at walking on the baths and not through the seeded and transplanted areas. He was very excited about the blueberries, clearly.

It’s been amazing to watch things grow – even more so than at Keith’s since these are all my plant babies. We have a bunch of greens in the ground, carrots and beets and peas seeded, and the garlic is already coming up. But it’s nerve wracking as well. I don’t want these guys to get too cold or eaten by the wiley groundhogs up there. There’s a lot of factors at play I don’t have any or very little control over, and it has been challenging to just deal with that.

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I’m super stoked about these blueberry plants. They are already so beautiful. We planted them inside the fence – Glenn dug a trench with his New Holland, mom collected bags of pine needles to lay in the bottom of the trench and mulch around the top, and I bought some Espoma soil acidifyer to help amend the PH levels since blueberries prefer crazy acidic soil.

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My dear former roommate Olivia became the first non-Wagner to come do some work at the farm. It was also to show someone around and get excited. She planted broccoli raab and mesclun and lettuces, and as of yesterday they were all chugging along nicely. It was so great to have someone from college and Philly and everything before come up and see what’s happening here and be excited. Plus, she’s just the best.

And there it is again! Ruby streaks mustard, please grow big and don't get eaten.

And there it is again! Ruby streaks mustard, please grow big and don’t get eaten.

My friend Lauren as here a few weeks ago also on a rare trip home from New Haven, and she helped me seed in the greenhouse and then we went for a run.I realized how awesome it was to have girlfriends around, and I miss them terribly. Lauren and I have signed up for a run together for Back on My Feet in July, and I hope I’m together enough by then to make this all work.

Mom has been doing tons of whatever needs to be done. Hands down the best co-worker I could have asked for.  She brings my car so Strider can come up (he’s hurt himself somehow so he can’t jump up into my truck right now), leaves to check on the greenhouse when she needs a break, and does everything from seeding to weeding garlic. She’s just the best.

Grandma Wagner even came up to plant peas and give me some grandma advice.

Grandma Wagner even came up to plant peas and give me some grandma advice.

A couple weeks back I went north to pick up some food-grade, 275-gallon water storage takes in lieu of us not having electricity for a well yet, and since I was halfway to Keith’s farm packed his blueberries and headed up for a visit.He’s got a room full of set onions and potatoes, and enjoying having his new manager. He’s trying celery this year and incorporating broccoli raab into his rotation (go us!), and was excited to hear about my projects. He was looking forward to the arrival of his interns – who started work Monday. Derek and Matt and are back and have already created the New Boyhouse in the trailer.

I spent the night in New York with Jay at Peace and Carrots, the farm he is starting with his friend and former Keith’s Farm intern Laura. They’re using some of Laura’s family’s land for a CSA, and they’ve already been written up in Chester’d Dirt Magazine. At the time I visited, Jay was living in a camper while they built a shed/house to live in, and he was tending the greenhouse was Lara was away. They have a woodstove in there for heat and some happy looking plugs. We drank coffee and stayed up for hours talking about what we were nervous and excited about, and bounced ideas and planting notes off each other. It’s hard to explain how amazing it is to know someone pretty much in the same boat – I feel like I’m texting him a few times a week now with questions and to compare progress.

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Matthew has his own projects in the works while he’s working at home in Massachusetts as well. He sent me some pictures of the cold frame he built to grow some vegetables. He is doing a small CSA of his own, and hopefully that bum gets down here to visit soon (because visitnig means free labor – you have all been warned).

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The deer fence is up and functioning at 8,000 volts produced by a solar powered energizer. Mom and I put the whole thing up ourselves, and Glenn tweaked our end post so it wouldn’t short out. The fence is around about half the field – most of what I’ll be using to start. The alliums are off on their own because they don’t really get eaten. And after a bit more tweaking, hopefully today, I’ll have the end pushed out to incorporate a tractor path and I won’t have to do anything else but remember to shut it off before I shock myself (again) when I’m in there working.

The fence is up and working!

The fence is up and working!

The greenhouse is well. The onions had a couple haircuts – a Keith trick to make stockier stems – the squash and zucchini is almost ready to be planted, and I’ve set up some plants to go out into the world as potted plants for sale. Going to try that tomorrow at the store, so we’ll see if folks are interested in gardening with kale and broccoli raab and arugula. I put together the Earthway Seeder and have used it for carrots, radishes, beets and spinach. The peas are starting to germinate, so I guess I’m doing it right!

Earthway Seeder! It rules.

Earthway Seeder! It rules.

Peas!

Peas!

People are signing up for the CSA! I am so honored and excited and ready to bring you all delicious vegetables. If you’re looking for more info about that, I have some side and top links on this blog that link to the information and CSA agreement.

In other news, I’m moonlight (sunrising?) at a dairy farm, and have been for about a month now. I totally love it.I am now quick enough to dodge a swift cow kick, I have a whole new understanding of how the milking process works, and my boss and her family are really sweet and lovely folks. It’s a dairy right near my house that has over 100 cows – somewhere between 80 and 90 that need to be milked twice a day. The farm sells its milk to Land O’ Lakes, and they are a couple generation dairy farm. It has been fun to learn and work like this so early in the morning, and they’ve been great with everything from offering insight into the new farmer/old farmer mind sets and offering advice on everything from farmer’s markets to Lancaster Farmer articles to read to where to get the most affordable soil amendments.

Feeding heifers. They are so hungry!

Feeding heifers. They are so hungry!

And did I mention the calves and cows are super cute?

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The other day Mom, Strider and I sat up where her house is going up and watched the sun set. It was incredible. And now that things are coming together, none of us can wait to be full-time farmers.

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Onion Babies!

Working in the dirt.

Working in the dirt. You know, sort of.

The season has officially begun!

Yesterday after some bribing and coercing (just kidding) I wrangled my mom and aunt out for some farm work. We set up on a future greenhouse bench in the back garage at the house and spent the better part of the morning and afternoon seeding onions.

We mixed the Pro-Mix Organik potting mix with a pit of Gard-N-Tone organic soil amendments for an added kick.

We mixed the Promix Organik potting medium with Garden-tone soil amendments for an added boost.

And what better to do on a rainy Wednesday in February? Armed with Keith’s new book, a radio and a Frankie Valli CD, we drilled holes in the bottoms and some of the lids of piles of old salad containers Mom’s been collecting for a year or so, covering the excess clear patches with black tape. We then filled the containers with potting mix from the wheelbarrow, moistened the soil with a spray bottle of water, made little furrows in the containers (about 1/4 in deep, one in apart), and dropped in something like 20-35 seeds in each furrow depending on length.

What a ham.

What a ham.

Here are all the onions we'll (hopefully) be offering!

Here are all the onions we’ll (hopefully) be offering!

We then labeled the sides of the container with the seed’s variety, company, organic status (some of the Fedco and Johnny’s seeds aren’t certified organic), and date seeded. I set them up in our newly-erected heating mat (more on that later), dragged out a hose and misted the flats. This may sound simple enough, but all told we ladies were chugging away for a few hours (with lunch breaks, of course),  and seeded something like 5,000 onions! I’ve got a bit more to do today now that I’ve made some space and know that the heating coils won’t burn down the greenhouse (there was some concern, if only from my insane brain, that that might happen, which led to many visits to the mats throughout the day and night).

Seed those onions!

Seed those onions!

We also seeded a few cells of basil and lemongrass for fun. The lemongrass seed smells great, and I’m going to start some basil and other herbs soon to sell in Jiffy Pots over at Health Habits, where I’m working part-time (or to any of you who want some!).

My little babies. all waiting to be tucked in to bed.

My little babies. all waiting to be tucked in to bed.

Last night I brought out some leftover greenhouse plastic and tucked the little onions in for bed. Covering them at nights keeps some of the heat from escaping. But when you lift up the containers the bottoms are warm, which is just what we wanted! Thank you, ladies.

"Goodnight, onions," she said in her best Christopher Walken voice.

“Goodnight, onions,” she said in her best Christopher Walken voice.

And thank you, Keith. His book is intricately outlined and details propagation, transplanting and harvest for most of what I’m growing. And I hear his voice with that light New Zealand  accent as I’m reading, which is awesome and hilarious.

Our dear friend Anthony supplied us with drum caps for our passive solar heat!

Our dear friend Anthony supplied us with drum caps for our passive solar heat!

Yesterday was also a big day for mail! My friend and farmer compadre Anthony ordered some cap samples for me for our water barrels, which I’ve covered with black trashbags and which we hope we can use as passive bottom heating for our trays as the water in them heats up. Caps are trickier to find than the barrels themselves, and it was great to have such a helpful resource to procure them.

Two other recent purchases arrived – one was a riveting book about manure, that I feel will be helpful but know I’ll already have a really difficult time reading.

This looks like a college desk - this is why I DIDN'T go to grad school, ahhhh.

This looks like a college desk – this is why I DIDN’T go to grad school, ahhhh.

The other arrival was more fun – A walk-behind Earthway Seeder. These guys are perfect for direct seeding all sorts of produce, from beans and peas to turnips and radishes. You change the metal plates to the size of seed and – well, I haven’t even assembled it yet. So we’ll talk more about this awesome gadget when I gear up to use it.

Isn't mail great? Earthway Seeder arrived!

Isn’t mail great? Earthway Seeder arrived!

Now, to take a closer look at that heating system:

So when Matt was still here we spent a fair amount of time researching the best way to create a heating area for germinating seeds. Keith had a number of heat mats that the user would plug in and set at a certain temperature, and it was a good system because of it’s simplicity for the user and it’s ability for temperature control, but it’s an expensive one and now something I can use right now. So we searched around and Matt found some Gro-Quick soil warming cables and I found some online instructions from a farm that has been using them successfully.

Our heating bed!

Our heating bed!

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These are the warming cables sticking out at the end. Despite some questionable customer reviews, they are warm to the touch, and I could feel the heat in the sand and in the bottom of the seedling containers. We’ll see how they do!

We built a wooden frame, braced the bottom with some old board fencing from the Papa Wagner scrap collection and some cinder blocks, and then attached hardware cloth and 1/4  sheet of insulation on the bottom. We ran over to a supply store for buckets of sand and then dumped 1/2 of sand over the insulation. We then took one set of the cables and laid them back and forth in the sand in an S-shape sort of pattern, and then covered the cables .

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Two of these cables were the cost of one heating mat (which only holds three trays). We are stretched them over a space a bit further than suggested, but the sand seems to be helping in the transfer of heat. Of course, lots of people use all sorts of methods to start seeds. My aunt is going to give us some windows to set up some little warming spots in our old garden to see how that works.

And Teena Bailey, local farmer and grain grower extraordinaire of Red Cat Farm,  uses these incredible cinder block bunkers packed with manure and bedding and covered with compost, to heat her seedlings. Teena opened her farm to me yesterday morning and showed me her area where she cleans and stores her cold produce and eggs, and her big and beautiful greenhouse that can fit a truck inside and where she has her enormous and impressive bunkers. It was great to speak with her – she’s a local legend and just the spunkiest lady farmer I’ve ever met – and it’s exciting to know that folks like these are so close at hand.

All in all, this has been a great week. Still looking for equipment (and am thus far empty-handed), and applying to markets. I re-applied through The Food Trust with a more extensive and articulate application, and I’m making strides toward finishing the momentous Greenmarket application (which is daunting but has really made me organize my field planning, which has been great). Must finish seeding onions and starting some more herbs.

And I’m thinking about a small Philly and local experimental CSA, as I may have mentioned before. I’ve already had some folks express interest, but if you’re up for an adventure in vegetables, drop me a line at liz.m.wagner@gmail.com. I’ll have more specific details and plans in the next week or so to share.

A Farm Flyer For Your Thoughts

This is the flyer I’ve been handing out to folks with my garlic around the area. Take a look and let me know what you think! I’m thinking of doing a small CSA as well, if anyone in my world in the Lehigh Valley/Philly area is interested. Prices and planning coming up.

This list is pending, of course. Seeds are on the way so I’ll have a more concrete list soon – and like the flyer says, I’m still taking requests!

Wagner Farmstead Flyer

To give you a brief idea of what’s going on – I’m making friends with local farmers, I’m reaching out to area stores, co-ops and restaurants (but no definite takers yet), and Matt has been toiling in the cold PA winter building the greenhouse. Perhaps today or tomorrow I’ll post a step-by-step process of our adventures and mishaps.

And now, back out to the cold – today we’re painting and putting up more plastic!

On Moving Home, Christmas Garlic and Real Person Life

On Sunday I finished packing my car, stuffed any remaining crevices with raw milk from Freedom Hill Dairy for the last time and garlic cloves from Keith (yep, I even filled my boots with them), had a brief cry with Flavia, hugged Keith, Matt and Kobe goodbye, and moved home.

I realized on Christmas Eve, one day later, that I would not be able to settle down. Also I needed a repair foundation service because the foundation was in a really bad shape.

On Christmas day, I coerced Glenn into helping me oil his rototiller, and with the help of my cousins Greg and Allen, we tilled two 40-foot beds in the lot next to my house. That night after the rest of my family left, I went out with my headlamp, my mom’s soil knife, a yardstick and a boot full of garlic, and planted 200 cloves in the first bed.

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Late night garlic party!

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Yeah, it’s dark. That doesn’t stop us!

It is apparent that Mom Wagner is already concerned about my mental stability.

But with all this garlic sitting around, knowing some if it is in the ground was a huge relief. And the next morning, when everyone in the Wagner house woke up before 5am like a pack of freaks, Jess and Mom decided to join team Farmstead. We suited up, Jess in her second rate running gear and mom in her new muck boots, and went out to the farm where my uncle Butch has been piling pheasant manure for the field. We loaded up buckets and tubs in the back of Glenn’s truck, hauled them back and mom and I worked through the then frozen second bed to plant another 200 cloves and spread manure over both beds. So, 404 cloves in two days. A pretty nice haul for the Wagner women in the midst of the holidays.

The Wagner women working hard.

The Wagner women working hard.

Mom Wags and our trusty sidekick getting our garlic maintenance on.

Mom Wags and our trusty sidekick getting our garlic maintenance on.

Christmas itself was a blast. All my aunts and uncles and cousins come to our house for a day of awesome, and everyone was excited that both Wagner daughters were home and in fighting fit. All of them offered me a couch or a room when I need a break from living at home, to which I am very, very grateful. The family got garlic and veggies and dried herbs, Mom Wagner got Carhartt hats and a Leatherman work knife, and Glenn literally got a mountain of meat from some of my favorite vendor neighbors, like a duck from Ben at Garden of Spices Poultry Farm, skate and tuna steaks from Blue Moon and Amanda and Mike’s incredible meat from Tamarack Hollow in Burlington, Vermont. Farmer Christmas was a huge success.

Christmas braising mix - it warms my heart to hear my family say they like kale.

Christmas braising mix – it warms my heart to hear my family say they like kale.

Meat mountain! And yes, Glenn cut a Keith's Farm-style Christmas tree, so I cleaned it up and gave it a home.

Meat mountain! And yes, Glenn cut a Keith’s Farm-style Christmas tree, so I cleaned it up and gave it a home.

But now there are inches of snow between me and any more progress, and some of my friends are already concerned that I will snap without a task to do. But little do they know, there is always something to be done.

Now that I am confined to a house, I have been 1) forced to unpack (much to my mom’s enjoyment), 2) obligated to set up a bedroom workspace (which used to be reserved for bad fiction writing of the young adult fantasy persuasion, and then just fiction for pseudo-adults, and now farm plans and field maps), 3) coerced into blogging  and listening to the last Pandora quickmix that Matthew left up on my computer before he left (not that I don’t want to blog, just that sleeping forever is so much more appealing in this icy wasteland of Pennsylvania – and the Mountain Goats just came up on this playlist, Matthew so good job), 5) moseying down to the Health Habits, the health food and supplement store where I’ll be putting in some hours to stay busy, and 6) perusing seed catalogs and using some of my sweet, sweet Christmas money to buy seeds.

So, as you can see, there is plenty to do. I just have to get it together and do it. Which can be easier said than done when you are a person who hibernates through the winter months.

But my family is excited, and it’s contagious. Everyone has some anxiety about Glenn and I functioning under the same roof, but on Christmas morning we showed each other that we might survive this. I was out running on the treadmill, he came in and got on his elliptical machine, and we ran side by side for half an hour watching Fiddler on the Roof (which, if you know anything about the musical, is one that Nate Adams refers to as “Daughters Will Kill You: The Movie”). So, you know, that’s something.

It is weird to wake up in my kid bedroom now. I’m having trouble adjusting to being around clean, non-farmer people who believe in taking showers daily and washing their dishes thoroughly. And though I had no idea this would happen so soon, I miss my Tomato Boys. I miss Keith and Flavia. And I’ll never be able to thank them for all they’ve showed me and done for me in the past eight months.

But I have a lot of catching up to do in my home state, and a lot of new adventures to begin. I can’t wait.

Christmas Farmer Liz - Yeah, maybe I wore this for the last week and a half on the farm. But with a Santa sweater like that, wouldn't you?

Christmas Farmer Liz – Yeah, maybe I wore this for the last week and a half on the farm. But with a Santa sweater like that, wouldn’t you? And sure, I look like a hot mess. But so would you if you worked three markets and were an emotional wreck right before the holidays. Womp womp womp.

-Farmer Liz

Winter Is Coming….

It’s December.

That means less than a month left on Keith’s Farm.

I’ve been meaning to sit down and write for some time now. But instead I’ve been hanging out with the boys, sleeping 9-11 hours a day, and pretty much shutting myself down for winter. It was a little easier to ignore winter in the city – there is still so much to do and see, and small walks in the cold lead to your destinations. Philly was great this way. But winter in the country was what destroyed me as a kid, and I feel it creeping up to do so again now.

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The cold, foggy winter of Keith’s farm.

But there’s a lot of good things happening to combat these winter blues, too. Things are winding down on the farm – we took down one deer fence last week, and there isn’t much to collect in the way of greens anymore. We have a few tubs of braising mix, two and sometimes three of the hardier kales, waning tubs of mesclun, and collards. We are moving into a phase of just preparing storage crops for transit, which involves dumping them into coolers, loading the truck, and then throwing a small ceramic heater on the truck inside so everything doesn’t freeze. These are vegetables like winter squash, cabbage, carrots, the last of the celeriac and kohlrabi, potatoes and turnips. They live in the root cellar in the meantime. The days on the farm are so much slower and entail a lot less work, so now there is some time when those who are left here are hanging out in the last moments of daylight, and the rush from tomato season almost feels like a dream.

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We store our crops in our root cellar.

Roots crops - what remains of our produce.

Roots crops – what remains of our produce.

Veggie party in the root cellar!

Veggie party in the root cellar!

What remains of our mesclun is living under row cover in one of the high tunnels.

What remains of our mesclun is living under row cover in one of the high tunnels.

Chelsea has been gone for weeks. It is strange living somewhere without any other females – Flavia is around, but only sporadically because she spends a lot of time during the week teaching in the city. But Chelsea sent me an e-mail from Africa the other day, and it was nice to read of her new challenges in adjusting to a managerial office job, and to read that she has finally finished watching The Wire. Jay has been gone for over a week as well, though I’m sure he’ll be around a bit before I move home. Mateo left during Wednesday market last week – for where, I am not sure. And sometime soon Casey will be shoving off as well. So Matthew, Matt, Derek and I are the ones left for seemingly the end of the season. Matt has moved into Jay’s old room, and Derek is about to take over Mateo’s cabin. We are downsizing for winter.

Miss Chelsea has moved on to save Africa.

Miss Chelsea has moved on to save Africa.

Mountain Man Ready moves to a warmer climate - the house.

Mountain Man Ready moves to a warmer climate – the house.

Our surplus of garlic is on the brain, now. With potentially Keith’s biggest garlic harvest still hanging out in the house basement and the root cellar, we have a lot to process and clean. Matthew and the boys make beautiful braids (a skill I lack pretty severely), and we’ve been selling piles of net and burlap bags. We have been selling a lot with an incorporated volume discount since Thanksgiving, but there is still so much to account for. Matt has talked Keith into asking Greenmarket for a Monday market spot as well, and it seems we’ve snagged it. I think I’m going down tomorrow with a downsized tent and a ton of garlic to try at our luck.

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Garlic braids!

Me with my arch enemy, gartlic braids. I'm just not good at making artsy things.

Me with my arch enemy, garlic braids. I’m just not good at making artsy things.

Another exciting point as far as winter on Keith’s farm – Christmas decorations! Matt and Derek made some beautiful herb wreaths for the Saturday market that almost all sold. We have metal frames, and attach bunches rosemary, thyme and garlic combos to create these gorgeous little wreaths. Yesterday I went out shopping in Warwick and came back to Matt’s morning adventure – he went out into the woods, collected a bunch of conifer limbs, and created some giant garlands to sell from spruce, yew, pine and fir trees growing around the property.

Garland!

Garland!

Very cool, right? And now at the end of each truck load we throw on half a dozen of Keith’s famous Christmas trees, wall trees and boughs – charming, Charlie Brown-esque litte numbers that  are sustainable because they are just tops and big limbs from his massive trees. We throw the trees on top of the coolers and lugs, throw on the hand bailer, and head off for our winter markets in the city.

Bailing the first Christmas tree sold of the season.

Bailing the first Christmas tree sold of the season.

Treeeeeeeees.

Treeeeeeeees.

Christmas market!

Christmas market!

I am excited at the thought of going home after a relaxing afternoon in the spa from http://www.haircrazesalons.com/ and getting ready for the next big adventure – and to visit my sister, and see my friends, and just generally unwind and sit back and think about this whole eight month journey. I’ve learned a lot about farming and a lot about myself, but when you’re in the thick of it, it can be hard to sit back and process everything. I am excited, but I am scared and sad and pretty regularly overwhelmed. Last night Matt said that the hardest part of all this is having to think of everything at once – planning a field map and deciding what plants to grow and working out a planting schedule for all of it – and right now, as I lie in bed feeling achy from the cold, it’s all daunting.

But I’ve got a family who is geared up and ready to help. I’ve got an uncle who has been delivering pheasant manure to the farm, a dad who found the perfect tractor (though she’s still nameless), cousins who are curious, supportive and helpful, and a mom who is impatient to come be a mom farmer. I have friends who are excited for me to be back and who already want up on these vegetables, whatever they happen to be. I have co-workers to help me plan and help me out in a hundred little ways – they make me laugh and hug me when the cold is too cold, they tolerate my cartoon movies, they cook for me. We all want to make the most of the time we have left here. And despite the snow and the ice, I am looking forward to December.

No, I don't know how to drive this tractor yet. I'm just sitting on it.

No, I don’t know how to drive this tractor yet. I’m just sitting on it.

Farmer Liz

Sticking through Sandy…and It’s A Girl!

Hold the phone.

I started this post writing about our Sandy exploits, garlic planting and our now so, so frigid evenings, but yesterday there was a game changer.

I now own a tractor.

My parents, who have been nothing but excited and supportive through this entire venture, spent their day yesterday in Lebanon, PA at a Meyerstown tractor auction. The night before Glenn called to ask my spending limit, and Monday afternoon my mother rapid-fire texted me photos of the two tractors they were coming home with – a Case JZ 1100U for Glenn, because he likes machines with wheels that he can take down trees with, and because he wasn’t going to leave the day without a Dad-sized tractor because that is who he is, and an International 274, which is the perfect gal-sized, old-school, cultivating tractor for Wagner Farmstead.

Isn’t she lovely? My mom sent me a flurry of pictures with the title “She’s coming home with us.” Because obviously the farm equipment on Wagner farms would also be female.

Look, I don’t know all that much about machines, not even tractors here, but here’s the specs I got: She’s got all sorts of equipment goodie hookups, a 3 Cylinder Nissan engine, she takes diesel (which, friends, means she could totally be converted to French Fry Oil in the future or some crazy awesome not gas product like that), has shanks for Front Cultivators, PTO (Power Take Off, which means the machine can power more than just itself, like a baler or a log splitter or other implement),  and so, so much more.

Glenn checking out my girl.

She is the definition of a sexy tractor.

These tine deals on the back will prevent soil compaction in my tractor paths. Booyah.

She needs a name, though. Any thoughts?

I cannot articulate how excited I am right at this moment. There’s been this warmth running through my body that I can’t shake. I am finally, for real, doing this.

And now, on to your regularly-scheduled post.

Much like everyone else on the East Coast, Keith’s Farm braced for Sandy last week as well as we could. The boys who had off on Monday went and got some water and, most importantly, dark chocolate bars for me. We filled spackle buckets with water, stockpiled some batteries, hard boiled some eggs.

And then, at the end of the workday Monday, our power went down. What commenced thereafter were three days of chilly nights, food in coolers, and NO WEDNESDAY MARKET. Instead, we became foresters for two days, cutting down trees and clearing away some fallen ones near our front orchard. It felt great to work a bow saw for a few hours. On Tuesday we wandered off to John’s Chainsaws for a  new bar and some chains, and it was crazy to see how many people were in need of his services for downed trees – and what a town looks like without power. Even the grocery stores were closed in those first couple days in this area.

Jay, Chelsea and I sat in the dark one night and made cookie dough. It was an awesome moment during the Keith’s Farm 2012 Blackout.

And it’s not like we got hit like NYC, or even where my parents were in PA where they had no power until Friday, but wherever there are trees and storms, there will be complications. We did a lot of moving around by candle and flashlight, rationed our battery-powered computers, dug out our crank lights and radios and did a bit of homesteading as we hauled more water from the nearby creek. It was fun, but it was stressful and exhausting and cold as well, and we all cheered when the power kicked back on Thursday evening.

All the surrounding areas got power back before us, so we spent a lot of lunch breaks eating Westtown Pizza.

By which I mean, eating pizza and watching Cable TV, huzzah.

By which I really mean, being unwashed and dirty and eating pizza just to be in the warmth with people and TV.

Our biggest blow was our inability to hold a Wednesday market in the city. We harvested a bit on Monday, expecting the worst, but we couldn’t not go into Manhattan because there was no power in most of the area at that point, and Union Square had become an emergency staging area. Greenmarket was stressed out and desperately trying to accommodate the farmers, but it didn’t pan out by Wednesday. Who can blame them? Folks need their fresh veggies, but when the city is flooded with water and people are cold and powerless for days on end, it’s obvious that farmers markets could take a back seat to getting the town fixed.

By Friday Greenmarket had finagled the Satruday farmers some room at Madison Square park, and we packed a light load and prepared for our 24’x10′ spot in some random location – our tent normally being 24’x24′ on a Saturday, if you didn’t know. Clearly, there was some concern.

Derek and I had off on Saturday, so we decided to drive into the city and take stock of this new market and see what had happened in Manhattan while we were farmbound. Other than some serious lines for gas as we drove through New Jersey, we didn’t notice much out of the ordinary. And we were pleasantly surprised at the next-to-no traffic in Manhattan and the prime real estate (and free!) parking we landed a block from the market.

Here is one of those people gas lines they kept showing on the news – as we didn’t have the news this was a crazy sight to us.

Gas line, gas line.

When we arrived at the new space, we were thrilled to see how cool our stand and the area looked. This park puts you right up on the sidewalk, and people noticed. In the brief time we visited the stand, I watched new fans ask Matt when we would be here again, and saw our elated regulars discover our relocated stand and beam with joy that we had come all the way down in this mess to bring them food. It certainly feels good to be appreciated.

The Saturday folks really rose to the challenge of a smaller stand and made a totally adorable display in the limited space.

Keith’s Farm stand, in miniature.

 

 

 

We will be at Madison Square Park again this Wednesday, which is exciting and a bit nerve-wracking as we aren’t sure what size space we’ll get until we get there. But keep your fingers crossed for us!

Yesterday we spent all day planting garlic. We are quite behind on this as it’s been so wet, but we’re steadily chugging along. We’ve planted somewhere in the vicinity of 40,000-50,000 cloves so far, which is about 2/3 of what need to be in the ground. What I’ve learned from this is how seriously the weather can jeopardize your livelihood – and it’s a lesson I won’t be forgetting anytime soon. I’ll give you all a more in-depth lesson on garlic planting later this week, when I am mourning Chelsea’s upcoming departure.

It’s 1am on Tuesday morning, and I’m hitting the sack once more. We spent part of the day yesterday covering greens in the field and garlic in the barn as the temperature plummeted to 19 degrees in the night – I am anxiously awaiting to see the state of our veggies come daybreak.

TTFN,

Farmer Liz

Fall Kale Parties, Farm Hack, and Getting Older and Colder

I’m still reeling from an incredible birthday week and an amazing farm adventure weekend in Ithaca, so please forgive me for jumping all over the place.

Our fall greens are continuing to kick butt. Chelsea and I are picking insurmountable piles of kale. Here are what they look like:

White Russian Kale

Lacinato Kale – aka Dino Kale

Rainbow Lacinato Kale

Winterbor Kale

On a Friday, Chelsea and I (with the help of our compadres once they finish their tasks), will bunch somewhere in the vicinity of 325 bunches of our six different kinds of kale. Then we clean garlic, bunch turnips, radishes and scallions, and clean carrots and other veggies depending on mud levels.

A little reminder that my friends and family love me 🙂

In the midst of all our pick day things, my birthday came and went on Keith’s farm to much fun and enjoyment. I got some great books, a bag of Keith’s garlic for planting stock on Wagner Farmstead, some great winter socks, chocolate, homemade cupcakes and a forthcoming delicious dinner, and a number of reminders that I am loved and missed, which is always comforting and exciting to see. We went out for Mexican that night, and then Friday night after our harvest day Chelsea, Jay and I packed up the car and headed to Ithaca for the our weekend adventure. On Friday night Jay and I saw the Mountain Goats, my potentially second favorite band of all time, and it was an incredibly little evening preceding our two day Farm HACK fun.

Birthday Cupcakes!

Farm Hack Ithaca was my first real exposure to the world of farm innovation – and farm socializing. We spent two days learning about DIY farm projects, farmers-turned-engineers and vice versa, and the amazing new ways farmers are surviving and thriving. If I’m not too tired in the next couple days, I’ll elaborate on this incredible experience – from couch surfing in Ithaca to meeting folks from all over New England who are paving the way for innovative, affordable farming everywhere.

The Farm Hack Adventure was encouraging for a number of reasons. We attended a discussion about “Building Your Farm Shop,” where Rob Rock from Intervale talked about welding and farm equipment and creating and re-engineering your own tractor equipment and tools. And though I know nothing about Tig and Mig welders or anything, I looked at these tools and thought to myself, “man, Glenn Wagner has all of these!” And then I remembered the trailers and go-karts Glenn made from scratch when we were kids and I felt amazingly better about this whole endeavor.

And I had that feeling throughout this whole weekend, especially during an impromptu discussion about rainwater catchment, where this fellow discussed how we waters his 7-acre garden space with rainwater and a bilge pump. You see, Glenn and Donna have been using this very system, handmade, all summer in their garden. I could totally make this work next year.

Alll in all, it was an incredible weekend, week, and real start to fall.

-Farmer Liz

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