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.

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.