Changing Seasons, Chicken Catastrophes and Chasing the Dream

I am standing in my parents’ kitchen, on their landline, shouting into the phone.

“This has gone on long enough. Do you think I have time to get the magistrate involved in this mess? I don’t want to, but this is not how adults behave. This is not how commerce works, and this has gone on long enough.”

I am shouting this at the boy (some 21-year-olds may be men, but I’ve given this one the benefit of the doubt for far too long), because he is the direct cause of our chicken catastrophe, and my patience in handling this nightmare has expired, and I am just so, so tired.

Let’s back up for a moment.

It’s early July. Our chickens are laying, and laying well, and are happy in their pasture, we provide them with chicken treats once a day every day. We had some troubles with foxes and hawks earlier this season, and at least one coyote, and are down about thirty of our girls from sneak attacks.  We’ve moved them across the property to a less hawk-filled territory and are talking about tracking down some layers to get our numbers back up. I find an ad for the type of chicken we already have, from someone nearby who, according to the advertisement, just has too many chickens and is getting too many eggs, and they’ll deliver them to the farm. My neighbor and I collaborate on the chickens, so I tell him about the ad. We agree it’s a good decision.

Perfect, I think. This is perfect.

The chickens arrive the following week at my neighbor’s property, where the chickens live. These new chickens are a little smaller than ours, and a little scrappier, but I chalk that up to the coop syndrome, where too many chickens crowded in get picked on and scruffy from the lack of sun and pasture. We’re doing these new girls a service, I think, and I’m glad.

Since then, I’ve heard from other farmers that you ALWAYS quarantine new animals. It makes sense, of course, after the fact. But also for every farmer who tells me that, there’s another who assures me that they don’t, and that they would have never thought to, either.

The point is, about four days after the new chickens arrive, all of our chickens, all two hundred plus of our happy little flock, stop laying eggs.

Concern, panic and straight confusion set in. Are these newcomers stressing the flock? One of my neighbor’s workers is a seasoned chicken lady, and as we walk around investigating the newcomers and original hens alike, we start to hear sneezing, see glassy eyes and drippy beaks. Something is amiss here, and we round up the questionable girls and move them to a coop offsite to keep an eye on them. We put colloidal silver in their water, Thieves around the coop, and start researching what this could be and how to treat it. Colloidal silver generator will help maintain clean bill of your chicken’s health.

Then the hens start to die. It’s a couple at first – two, then five, then seven. A handful every day. I call the guy who sold us the new hens and he says some obvious nonsense about new chickens not being acclimated to the outside. He assures us none of the other chickens he’s sold have had any problems. After several more days of these inexplicable casualties, the phone calls get more tense, and he discloses that he’s purchased these chickens from a poultry auction and that he has no sense of their history or what could be wrong. The smoldering anger in me starts to catch.

We have researched some diseases and a few seem to fit the bill. We take a couple of our deceased girls to a pathologist in Kennett Square, and she calls a day later with disheartening news – the flock has mycoplasmosis. It’s a contagious disease that causes respiratory infections that lead to death. Lack of eggs is another primary symptom. Once a chicken has it, only antibiotics can alleviate the symptoms (at which point we can’t sell the eggs or the meat) – and the minute you take the flock off the antibiotics, the symptoms and the carnage resumes.

The news is devastating.

“How does this happen?” I ask. I’m sitting in my truck, head pressed against the steering wheel, and that smoldering is getting stronger.

If chickens are on antibiotics while in the poultry houses, they may not exhibit symptoms while the auction is happening. But once off the medications, the symptoms can come back, and that’s what makes the birds contagious. There’s no cure, and no way to manage this problem on the scale we operate on. Except culling the flock.

I call the guy who sold us the chickens and calmly tell him all this information. I tell him that if he has other chickens on his property that he needs to get them tested, so this isn’t spreading any further. I hear his distress and his confusion. I don’t feel he was maliciously trying to unload sick birds on us. But there is an adult, mature way to do business. We aren’t looking for the thousands of dollars in compensation for lost birds, unused feeds, the eggs we’ll have to buy in for the rest of the season. We just want the money back from our purchase with him, a few hundred dollars to close the loose ends on this horrible ordeal. Because who wants to talk about small claims and damage suits with another farmer, especially another young farmer?

The guy resolves to get the money together and we hang up. Shortly thereafter, he blocks my phone number.

Cut back to present. To the world where I’ve had to use a different phone to call these people, to where another human answers the phone and tells me to leave him alone and stop calling and I have to pull out aggression I didn’t know I even had anymore to get my point across and get this issue settled, to a world where the chickens we’ve enjoyed and cared for since the season began have gone to the great green pastures in the sky.

It’s exhausting, and a true part of this lifestyle I have had yet to experience. Working with animals tempers your emotions, I’ve known that since my first season at the dairy, because life and death are the worlds we deal with in agriculture. But this, this is something new. Something that leaves me feeling responsible, under-educated, and angrier than I’ve felt in years. I’ve watched my parents suffer emotionally over the distress of these birds and my subsequent duress. My neighbor and I, already in the throes of summer exhaustion, were just handed an additional hefty plate to handle. This is something that smolders.

We are very lucky to have such a strong community of food in this area. We’ve found several sources of fantastic eggs for the CSA shares and markets to carry us through the rest of the season, and I can’t thank those folks enough for working with us and empathizing with this satiation. My friends and fellow producers and family have been nothing but encouraging and supportive as my emotional turbulence has ebbed and flowed in the last two months. My neighbor and I have been discouraged by this, as I’m sure you can understand, but are talking about what next year could look like with our new education in this realm. Personally, I’m not sure if I can handle it right now. Ask me again in a few months.

But here’s the undercurrent of all this. Those sick chickens came from somewhere, right? Somewhere where hens are cooped up and blasted with medication to suppress these illnesses. And then when the manufacturer is done with them, he dumps them out into the world for us to face the consequences.

I’ve become so much more meticulous about knowing where my meat comes from, and my eggs, and all my animal products in the last few years, but now it feels imperative. It feels like a weight in my stomach that is with me all day, a weight that I’ve been sitting with, scared to talk about, but now it can’t just sit in there anymore. If this is something that happened to us, it has to be happening somewhere else. Maybe many other places. And it deals with the food that you and I put into our bodies every day.

So this is the lesson I’ve learned this year. This is the hard, long, painful lesson. We need to demand food transparency. We should want to know who is raising the animals we rely upon, and how we are raising those animals and that food, and we need to support the growers and producers who are making the responsible, moral choices.

I know the usual Liz on this forum is very bubbly and hopeful and energized. And she’s still here. I’m looking forward to writing more, very soon, about growing the Lehigh Valley food community, about the workshops I’ve been leading and talks and festivals we’ve been attending, about the amazing feedback we’ve had for the Blue Mountain Farm Market in my hometown, and for the growing interest in growing and using herbs. I can’t wait to tell you about how happy the CSA folks have been this year, how much fun I’ve had sprouting fruit trees, and how exhilarating it is to be building infrastructure for next year as we move into the fall.

But today we pause and acknowledge our girls, those lovely hens, and the choices they represent in our food systems.

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-Liz

Happy CSA Day!

FBP5Yes. Turns out we have our own day now – Happy CSA Sign Up Day!

“In 2015, Small Farm Central released the 2014 CSA Farming Annual Report, which gathered data from more than 250 CSA farmers and almost 53,000 memberships. Among other interesting facts, the report showed that the most popular day for CSA Signups in 2014 was Friday February 28. So in 2015, the first National CSA Signup Day was held on Saturday February 28. CSA farmers offered special CSA Signup Day discounts and promotions and enjoyed an influx of signups from members wanting to support local agriculture. This year, CSA Day is about more than getting lots of CSA signups; it’s a whole day dedicated to the celebration of community-supported agriculture.” – csasignupday.com

It’s resources like this that really make me feel like small, local agriculture really is making the strides I imagine it is. That this many folks are involved in creating such a push (including the social networking imagery and skills some of us don’t prioritize) for farmers and shareholders alike to check signing up off their to-do list.

end of csa

By the way – sign up here!

If you’ve been waiting – today’s the day! Sign up for our Crooked Row eats today!

This year is the again the year of veggies and eggs, but also bread from the Wayfare Baker in Allentown – a man who grinds his own flour just before he bakes! – coffee from our Bethlehem Food Co-Op friends at Monocacy Coffee Co., and, of course, kombucha from the one and only at Lehigh Valley Kombucha. Once you’ve signed up for your vegetables and egg shares, we’ll be passing along the details of these other phenomenal add-ons. Because collaboration is key, friends. In all life, but most definitely in food.

onion babies

And we are ready for you. The onions are already germinating in the hoophouse. The spring broccoli is right behind. We’re planting to the Stella Natura calendar this year, and I’m looking forward to understanding the Earth and its day-to-day interactions with lunar phases and other energetics in new and exciting ways.

calf and cat

I am making some guest appearances back at the old stomping grounds. Excelsior dairy has all the adorable animals you remember from a couple years back, and more. It’s been loving catching up with them, re-learning how to milk in their barn and work with their animals.

PASA 25 years

A few weeks back I made my way back to Penn State for the 25th annual PASA Conference – the place where small growers get to hang out and feel the love from friends they sometimes only catch up with once a year. It’s like a distant family reunion – one I am always so proud to be a part of year after year. I learned a lot, as usual, and ate some great food. And, for the first time since I started wandering the halls of the Penn Stater, I was able to introduce some of my oldest farm friends to my partner in crime, which felt really wonderful. And, at the Green Heron tool booth, I opened their catalog to find this little gem!

hers and hers ad

We’re famous! 

We had an additional opportunity to visit with some farm friends and enjoy some wonderful food and beer at Curious Goods at the Bake Oven Inn in conjunction with Lehigh Valley Beer Week! Farm friends from around the area, including our fan favorites Stef from Valley Milkhouse  and Teena Bailey at Red Cat Farm, set up shop for several hours and talked to folks about our goods and seasonal offerings. Crooked Row herbs shared a space with LV Kombucha, and there was much rejoicing.

liz and gary booth red cat

In other news, my mom moseyed out to Kutztown this week and returned with supplies for two beehives. In two months we should be receiving a nuc, which is a family of bees that has been raised together on hive frames for one, and a package of bees to incorporate into the other. All this is riding on the heels of our bees in the tree, which is a feral honeybee colony (apparently a rare thing these days), that took up residence along our driveway and has been surviving the winter in that rugged tree. It was our catalyst to take these classes int he first place, and we’re looking forward to bringing some more pollinators into the mix.

We’ll come full circle on this one. Happy National CSA Sign Up Day! Hooray! And even if you aren’t looking into a Crooked Row share this season, know that I love you and am just happy you’re considering supporting some beautiful small ag on this lovely morning. There are lots of us out there looking for your support. Take your mind off the chill and daydream about some beautiful veggies.

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Hugs and Growing Holidays,

Liz

 

Home Again – The End of Travels, The Beginning of a Season

I arrived back to the States a week and a half ago, and already the trip is starting to take on this dreamlike quality.

I’ve told “The Travel” story about a dozen times already, and it is starting to pick up its own rhythm. But whenever I open the picture folders to send a couple off to some of the friends I’ve made or get some printed just to have, I remember more.

After Christmas, I traveled further inland with Josephine, my Dutch traveling compatriot, to La Fortuna. There we hiked the Cerro Chato, swam in a lake that was once a volcano with our new guy friends from the hostel, and spent an evening by candlelight at the locals’ hot springs.

From there I found myself back in Alajuela, the city outside of San Jose where the airport actually is. During this leg of the journey, from long bus to long bus, I was adopted by a lovely Tica woman who, on realizing I clearly had no idea what I was doing at the bus station, had her husband buy me a bus ticket, loaded me onto the bus with them, and fed me some of the lunch she had packed.

This happened a lot. I don’t know if it’s my constantly half-amused, half-puzzled facial expressions that do it, or just the locals’ general kindheartedness, but I was forever being rescued.

Thanks, Costa Rica. Like so many places with so many people, you are so good to me.

My taxi driver friend from the first day, Jose,  was there to greet me at the airport when I hopped off the bus, and he got me to a city hostel where I spent a couple days adventuring to outer towns (Poas was an accident when I was trying to find the Poas volcano, but it was a lovely little town I was happen to spend the day in), taking myself to see Star Wars, looking around at clothes and food and malls and parks, and spending a lovely evening with Jose and his family, drinking coffee and practicing Spanish and learning that all little kids all over the world love Frozen.

And then the cavalry arrived. Gary flew in and we proceeded to have a whole new dynamic in the adventure, one with four-wheel drive adventures around the Chirripo River at the foothills of the national park and into The Osa, the southernmost peninsula of the country that is mostly just accessible by boat.

We jumped off rocks into rivers, met local chocolateers and cheese makers and yoga instructors, hiked into the jungle for hours, meeting monkeys and agutis and all sorts of birds (and a couple biology classes from Penn State, small world), swam at gorgeous beaches up and down the Pacific Coast, camped in the car and sat around a beach fire outside a hippie hostel in Uvita, and read one of The World Made By Hand books and drank local kombucha at a vegan restaurant in Dominical.

I was starting to fray at the seams by this leg of the journey, exhausted from traveling and thinking about getting home, but it was a truly incredible time. I’ve never had such fun, or seen such beauty.

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And then, after hours of customs and an overnight escapade at the Atlanta airport, I was home.

Just in time for the start of season.

“In January?” you ask.

Yes. There is planning to be done, supplies to be ordered, and it’s CSA sign-up season! Three days after I got home I was sitting at the Bethlehem Food Co-Op’s general meeting, explaining my excitement about the forthcoming store to a room full of people and talking about my last four years with Crooked Row.

I’ve been updating flyers, planning for our new chickens, discussing coffee shares with the guys at Monacacy Coffee. A truck delivered minerals to our field and the PASA Conference is just a couple weeks ago, as is my brief return to dairy work. The truck needs a tune-up. Northampton Community College bought more teas for its campus Slow Market on Wednesdays, 10am-2pm. You should check it out.

Planning the season is such a vibrant use of the winter. Hibernating is too, and much warmer, and I highly recommend some of that. A lot of that. But as seed catalogs arrive and e-mails trickle in asking about CSA group buy-ins and new drop-off locations, I can’t help but hop up from the blankets feeling excited.

Looking for a vegetable adventure this year? Join the Crooked Row 2016 CSA. Vegetables, eggs, and some excellent coffee. Holler at me for details.

Oh, and Mom and I will be taking beekeeping classes through the Lehigh Valley Beekeeper’s Association. Who’s excited?!

Hugs, Frozen Kale and “She’s too tan for January,”
Liz

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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.

Hey! We Built a Greenhouse Part II: Frames, Plastic, and Victory

If you think this post was a long time coming, you should have watched our building progress.

Essentially, my only building experience up to this point was four years of week-long crash-course carpentry during my time with Project Appalachia, one of La Salle’s renowned and incredible service trips. We’ll get more into this amazing little adventure and how it essentially made me want to be a farmer later (in two weeks, when the next batch of kids is heading down to Harlan, KY).

The point here is that we needed to frame two end walls, with little to no understanding of geography, leveling (this was my fault completely – I hate using levels so I just don’t), or most of Glenn’s tools (at the outset – after some tinkering Matt became handy with all the tools at his disposal).

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Building, building, building a frame.

After some discussion about what this frame should look like within the scope of the hoops, we picked a basic model a number of folks use in greenhouses. We built one wall outside and the other in Glenn’s sweet back garage, though it wasn’t until later that we realized that springing for extra-long screws instead of settling for free nails would have made a sturdier frame in probably a third of the time it took us. Ah well. Next time.

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Matt may make the argument that the reason he is in all these pictures is because he did most of the work. But someone had to document (though he is also correct in much of this case)!

So we fit these frames under the hoops and attached them with metal strapping to the hoops. We then covered one wall with plastic by stapling old drip tape from last year’s irrigation over the plastic and into the wooden studs. On the front end we covered the frame with plywood and created a space for the door.

Glenn donated his graffiti-door to the cause. We hung it in place like that for a day, but don't worry, it's a nice happy green now.

Glenn donated his graffiti-door to the cause. We hung it in place like that for a day, but don’t worry, it’s a nice happy green now.

Through all this, Strider insisted on being very involved in all our processes. Which included pretty much moving in to Matt’s bedroom with him. That dog shunned his family and spent the weeks of Greenhouse Parts I&II in a fine display of ridiculous dog enthusiasm and traitordom.

He thought he was helping...

Sabotage!

No, dog, you're not helping.

No, dog, you’re not helping.

Before the walls were built, we collected some old fence boards and attached them to the sides of the greenhouse with metal strapping to create a base for the wall plastic. At some point Glenn and Matt were actually dismantling some of our house fence to do this, further evidence of our family’s unraveling.

We had to wait a few days to get a day without wind – and by this time it had snowed so it was snowy inside the greenhouse and we are still contending with that a bit – before unrolling our 6ml greenhouse wall plastic from Agriculture Solutions. We stapled the front end of the plastic to the front plywood through more drip tape, and then began to travel down the sides of the greenhouse doing the same with the baseboards.

So if we pull from here, is it tight yet? What about here? Man, plastic is the pits sometimes.

So if we pull from here, is it tight yet? What about here? Man, plastic is the pits sometimes.

I cannot really explain how long and daunting a process this was as we desperately pulled to tighten each section, swore and got furious when it wouldn’t tighten as we’d hoped, and how many staples we pulled out and put it again before we got the hang of it.

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There’s still some air movement within that plastic, and we probably could have made it tighter with a couple extra hands pulling (but where’s the fun in that?) but by God, we did it. And it’s warm inside, folks. And beautiful, and ours.

Yesterday Donna and I filled in the gaps between the baseboards on the sides and the ground with wet newspaper and sod to block the air from getting up and under the inside of the plastic. She was excited to be getting her hands dirty, and it is well worth it to bask in the heat inside that structure in the middle of February.

Other things happened during this time that I will save for next week’s blog fodder: Matt built greenhouse benches, we created a heating bed with sand and some soil heating cables, all my seed arrived, I assembled a solar cooker one night while he perfected his Wii Tennis. He’s back home in Indiana again, but still advising with seeding, manure, and all those farm things he understands a lot better than I do.

Don't be fooled by this hardworking photo, readers. Matt still got some vacation time in, eating sushi and bowling and playing all sorts of Wii Sports and bringing the new plague of Katamari Damacy into my home.

Don’t be fooled by this hardworking photo, readers. Matt still got some vacation time in, eating sushi and bowling and playing all sorts of Wii Sports and bringing the new plague of Katamari Damacy into my home.

Victory faces.

Victory faces.

But there is a greenhouse. And about a billion other things to do. But there is a greenhouse.

Enter: Greenhouse

Enter: Greenhouse

Home Is Wherever I’m With You, Part Two: My Mom the Superhero, Greenhouses, and Getting it Together

This post should have been written two weeks ago, but here we are. 2013 has been quite something,

For reasons that are strange, somewhat unknown and exhausting to rehash, our family spent the first week of the new year hanging out with Mom Wagner in the hospital. She’s fine now, and thanks everyone for the food, thoughts, beer, visits and everything else.

A shout out to my cousins Chris and Bernie, who brought flowers to the hospital. These are beautiful. And to Melissa, who showed up with bread, soup and muffins.

A shout out to my cousins Chris and Bernie, who brought flowers to the hospital. These are beautiful. And to Melissa, who showed up with bread, soup and muffins.

While we were hanging out in the ICU, mom woke up one morning and promptly sassed me about not figuring out my greenhouse plans.

Long story short, Donna Wagner, exhausted and, uh, did I mention pretty sick?, insisted I get my ass in gear. Because in case you didn’t know, she’s a superhero. And now that she wants to farm, we’re in this for serious.

That was the real kick I needed to get my act together. I made a couple phone calls to some farm friends. One helped me get in touch with folks about grant questions. Matt started researching greenhouse prices and calling companies for quotes. And that was how we met H. Schwartz and Sons, the folks I visited with Glenn on Friday to pick up my greenhouse.

Yes. Yes, yes. After all the false starts, big ideas with no direction and easy ways out, the greenhouse pieces are here. There’s no turning back now.

On Friday morning Glenn and I packed up at 5:30am and headed down to Wilmington, Delaware, where H. Schwartz and Sons has a giant warehouse/garage surrounded by piles of steel pipe. That’s his primary business, but he gets bundles of seconds steel for projects that have been bent or can’t be used for some reason, and since he’s bending it to make greenhouse and tunnel hoops anyway, can utilize this rejected material and make affordable, sturdy greenhouses from galvanized steel.  His frames perform well in snow, which is very important up in these parts.

Some of us felt some trepidation as glenn and set out on our greenhouse drive. We don't always do so well together. But it was actually a lovely trip. We may (knock on wood) finally be starting to understand each other.

Some of us felt some trepidation as glenn and set out on our greenhouse drive. We don’t always do so well together. But it was actually a lovely trip. We may (knock on wood) finally be starting to understand each other.

Next weekend we start assembly. We may just put up 45 feet of the 96 foot frame and use the other half for a high tunnel, or get so excited we build the whole thing. That remains to be seen.

Loading up!

Loading up!

This will become a 96-foot greenhouse. In the words of one of my farmers, booyah.

This will become a 96-foot greenhouse. In the words of one of my farmers, booyah.

These pieces will connect the hoops with the center purlin.

These pieces will connect the hoops with the center purlin.

The ground cover for the floor arrived first on Thursday, puzzling the UPS man as he handed me half a dozen packages for my mother and a 15 ft., heavy roll of the stuff from the back of his truck. The plastic for the roof and sides has yet to arrive, and then my co-builder and I must price out some lumber for the base and doors. We’ll need some other pieces as well – once we are in the building phase I’ll try to document the steps and tools as specifically as possible, because other than YouTube videos, there aren’t a whole lot of detailed assembly instructions with photos floating around out there.

We also had a nice visit from my dear Tomato Boys Matthew and Derek as they set off on their winter cross country adventure. We caught up doing what they love best – eating pizza. They’ve made it to Memphis and last I heard they were bouncing around New Orleans somewhere. Derek is taking notes – maybe one day if I get it together I’ll be able to replicate some of their trip on my own. They may be staying at some farms along the way, so maybe they can’t report back on their arrival in San Diego.

This doofus drove hours out of his way to get some upside down pizza. Derek, who despite many appearances on my blog, hates having his picture taken and is loafing in the back.

This doofus drove hours out of his way to get some upside down pizza. Derek, who despite many appearances on my blog, hates having his picture taken and is loafing in the back.

In other news, I continue to wander the Lehigh Valley and Philadelphia area looking for places to sell garlic and market my future produce. Over a dozen small natural food shops, restaurants and other similar venues have seen my nervous face and heard my bumbling, awkward spiel as I thrust some garlic bulbs on them and scamper out, but we’ve yet to see any returns. Keep your fingers crossed!

One of the owners of Food for All, however, seemed particularly excited (Nate Adams suggested this little number for lunch so I could talk to them about my garlic. Thanks, dude.). The store/café receives a lot of its food from a Lancaster-based co-op, but Food for All seemed interested in an additional food source. She asked if I would have my produce listed online to order – which is something I had not thought of, but is something that Matt seems to think is a good idea and is something his computer/farming brain can create. So that may be the avenue here. More to come with further investigation.

My first issue of Growing for Market came last week along with a hard copy of High Mowing’s seed catalog and a new Johnny’s catalog. I spent the better part of a day reading all the descriptions of the Maine Potato Lady’s seed stock and picking out my favorites. After some discussion, Donna and I came to the conclusion that since PA is a potato state, we should pick potatoes folks wouldn’t normally see, and will be choosing some organic stock that were bred for their antioxidant and vitamin content. Plus, they are beautiful colors. And I’m going to try some sweet potatoes, which have a growing process that isn’t quite the same as a regular potato, so it should be an adventure.

I mailed in my registration of a fictitious name and EIN application to the state and federal offices. I have to look into buying liability insurance if I’m going to sell produce at a market. And I need about two thousand more pieces of equipment and materials, from plows and discs to potting soil and trays, before I’m ready to roll. But we’re getting there. Inch by inch, we’re getting there.

Not the most organized planner...

Not the most organized planner…

And I’ve had nothing but support from my friends and family. One is helping me knock around branding and marketing ideas. One makes sure I’m trying to using my newly-created farm Twitter account to my advantage. Others make sure I’m not falling off my game. And some may not even realize how they help – I’ve got a friend traveling through Southeast Asia, another living in Japan, one becoming a father, one writing about music in a way that never stops making me laugh, and one picking up writing again, and reading their blogs motivates me on my own adventure and encourages me to be a more diligent writer.  And Nate has let me start writing for Patch again, so I’m getting back into the swing of what I loved most for such a long time; sitting down at a computer, making some phone calls, and starting to write.

Add soil and stir. The Farmer Liz gets back in the saddle.

Hey - this is my 3 and 1/2 acres from the sky!

Hey – this is my 3 and 1/2 acres from the sky!

Home is Wherever I’m With You, Part I: Coming Back

12/30/12, 7:30am (Most of this was written in real time as I wandered through Philly yesterday)

I am sitting in Chapterhouse, a coffee shop in South Philadelphia, drinking a Dominican Mocha and eating pizzelles from Sarcone’s Bakery, and my brain is have this strange, double life, mashed up meeting of worlds hemorrhage.

I finally got to see The Silver Linings Playbook last night, which is a move that is particularly dear to me because the author of the book, Matt Quick, was a Collegian editor, writing man from La Salle whom I’ve met with his writer wife before. I wrote a book review of Sorta Like a Rock Star, his kick ass young adult book that came out a couple years back. This couple gives me hope and brings me home to the a place that was so defining to me as an adult, and seeing the Philly skyline on the movie screen may mean nothing to everyone else, but it got me, right down in the pit of my little college girl, writer, big dreamer heart.

So I got up at six this morning, dressed in the dark, and drove down. As I rounded the bend on 76 and the skyline came into view, even on a gray, unassuming morning like today, something in my brain stilled. Some part of me that was and is always moving in high gear just…calmed down. It was weird, but it was most welcome.

I searched for free parking down off Washington and began my trek through my old lands. I haven’t been here for some time, and I guess overall I did spend a lot of time in New York City over the past eight months. But Philly is the one that feels like my city.

But I know I have been gone. I went searching for Benna’s coffee shop – the dream of one of their Open Fire steamers hasn’t left me since last May – but the storefront appears to be a young, hip website design company now (unless I got lost and went to the wrong intersection, which is highly possible. Even when I lived here I was always losing track of Benna’s). I walked through the Italian market, mouthwatering at all the cheap produce the vendors were setting up, and laughing at the burning trash cans they always set up in winter. Derek loved the thought of a farmer’s market full of smoky burn barrels. I hope he has the chance to come see them and get a good laugh.

But I feel like I have one foot in the city and one still stretched out across the state lines at Keith’s farm. I ripped open the bag of pizzelles before the door to Sarcone’s closed behind me, and as soon as the mild taste of anise hit my tongue a dozen memories flashed into my brain. Hanging out in the herb beds up in the 09 field in my first couple weeks, planting anise, the smell and taste of its purple flowers.

This has been happening constantly. And most of the time, it’s okay. I keep walking past stores in the Italian market with garlic in my bag and a half sheet about Keith’s farm and the garlic and my forthcoming farm, but I keep panicking and walking past. I am sitting in my old coffee shops but instead of working on papers or trying to write mediocre fiction or working on something for Child Advocates, I’m researching tax-exempt status forms and IRS paperwork for new farms. I haven’t adjusted to not seeing my farmers constantly and continue to have some pathetic minor dialogue with them in my head when I make a joke no one gets or the like.

And then Sara walks in.

sara

Sara has known me for longer than almost anyone at this point in my life. We met at the PA Governor’s School for the Arts, RIP, the summer before my senior year of high school. I was a scared little fiction writer who from the country who had never left town, and she was the Philly artist since the day she was born. She has been with me and supported me through the toughest, most defining moments of my life, and she is the person who sees my best self. Because that is who she is. She lights up the room, or the coffee shop, or the subway station, and then she lights you up, and you want to be that smiley, playful, loving person she draws out of you. She was the first person to show me this – back when I was 17 and awash with kid emotions – and she does it now, still. I can tell her anything and she can assess and process me and my next tentative moves about men, about my family, about my farm and about myself, in a way that is as efficient as a seasoned therapist with as much love as anyone who has ever loved me – which is why she is and has always been my wife.

She is an incredibly grounding, beautiful person. When I am lonely or upset or ecstatic and in love with my life, I just want to talk to her. So that is what I did. And things that have been so very hazy for me in my personal world for the past few months have sharpened in clarity. The one foot stuck in Keith’s farm is slowly rising to join the rest of me back here, in this new era of my life.

Sara is also an artist in the whole sense of the word. I am writing this portion of this post lying in her bed (I loiter here a lot. Her family tolerates me, to the point that they all asked about the farm when I walked in, and I love them for it), which has an instant, calming effect on me. Her walls are painted with sunflowers and trees and poetry, every nook holds a plant or a candle or an old air conditioner or a guitar or a clay sculpture. And we have this thing about her shoes. When I start new chapters of my life, Sara retires a pair of her worn, paint-covered Converse and bestows them upon me, sometimes filled with hand-sewn dolls and teddy bears, or, as in the case this holiday season, with a pot of basil to plant in them. This is a weird, quirky thing that we do as strange, silly women, but it is impossible to articulate what this means to me since the last pair six years ago. This is the ending of so much, and a shiny new start on even more. And she has almost more excited for Wagner Farmstead than I have since its outset, and that feels good.

I leave Sara’s and catch a ride around the block with Jess, who drove in for lunch, aka bottomless mimosas.

jess r

This Jess is a gal I met about a year and a half ago, right as I was starting adulthood in Philly, whose presence and attitude also helped change the course of my future. I was just starting to work at Child Advocates and looking for some new scenes when I signed up to run with Back on My Feet (and if you read back to the very beginning of this blog, you will see how this program made me who I am), and Jess and Sarah and Scott and Erin and Caitlin and all the runner guys I met helped me become this confident, loving person I had forgotten about during a college. And running with these guys gave me the strength to take the plunge on this whole adventure in the first place.

Scott and Sarah, my other lovely farmer/runner friends who grew up near the farm.

Scott and Sarah, my other lovely farmer/runner friends who grew up near the farm.

Jess is hilarious and sweet and interesting and interested and practical, and a million other great things. It was great to see her and catch up.

And then I arrived at the home of my old, dear friend Nate Adams. We watched some West Wing, grabbed some dinner and then headed off to see The Hold Steady, who may once again be my favorite band of life. If you like rock music, and guitars, and positive jams and narrative stories about druggie kids in the Midwest, you would and will love The Hold Steady. Watch this, and this, and this, and then you will understand. Craig Finn is the happiest frontman in rock music, and this kick ass rock has been a part of my history and growth for six years now. The show was awesome, and it was great to share it with someone who has always been on the ground floor of my life and has supported me and this insane endeavor from the start.

Do you need a best man? Rock star? Great friend? Secret agent? Constant chore? Here he is.

Do you need a best man? Rock star? Great friend? Secret agent? Constant chore? Here he is.

To come back to this city and see this band and spend time with such excellent and admirable people was the perfect real beginning to my time back in Pennsylvania. And tomorrow, in Philly Part II: The New Year’s Sequel, it will continue again with Olivia Biagi, my college love of my life and the girl who wrote an article for the La Salle alumni magazine about my farm adventures.

And here is that hilarious nugget, for those without Facebook.

And here is that hilarious nugget, for those without Facebook.

In the new year I know I will have to knuckle down and start my planning. These things aren’t just going to fall into place. But for these few brief days, just to rehash the Keith’s farm experience with the people who matter and dream big dreams with the people who care about the adventure is all that I could ask for.

-Farmer Liz

Needed a farm picture in here somewhere. Cutting watercress at runner Sarah's childhood home.

Needed a farm picture in here somewhere. Cutting watercress at runner Sarah’s childhood home.

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