Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Favorite Fruits

Welcome CSA subscribers!As noted in the digest I am looking for suggestions for annual and perennial fruits to plant at the Hurley Farm. If you have know the name of a favorite varietal please include that as well (Ex. Apple - Ashmead's Kernel). Just click on "comments." Thank you so much.


Monday, August 31, 2009

Why I farm

As summer flies along towards the glorious days of fall, digest articles begin to digress from the actual work of farming. You see, late summer is much like mid-summer, which is not dis-similar from early summer. Things are of course happening on the farm (we are planting brassicas), but it is not so interesting as to fill an article. So, I will leave aside the news and jump right into the opinion.

Why I farm.

I used to think of meaning as something that one had recourse to – a touchstone or a base. Now it seems to me that unless an act or occupation is suffused with meaning, constantly and indivisibly meaningful, it is meaningless. It is not possible to work at meaningless work, and then go home or to a church or to a museum and experience meaning, as one would recharge a battery. - Wendell Berry

Growing up I did not worry terribly much about meaning. As a youth the opportunities were narrowly circumscribed. Church, family, school, chores, and sports filled the time; and if meaning was not always apparent in any of them, it did not really matter as participation was not really optional (with the exception of sports). Once I graduated from high school and had to choose a college major, the quest for meaning began. I had a brother-in-law making fabulous money as a computer programmer, it was the late 90’s before the tech bust, and I had gained admittance to a good science and engineering university; so the obvious choice was computer science. Once I arrived at school I realized that I would have to find an all consuming fascination with computers and technology in order to compete in that environment. I did not have that fascination and it was going to take much more that visions of sports cars to tether me to a computer. So, I thought “hey, I like to build things, I’ll be a mechanical engineer.” Sadly, mechanical engineering was substantially similar to computer science (sitting in front of a computer, incredibly difficult multi-variable calculus). Which led me to graduate with a degree in literature. Hey, I enjoyed reading and I only had to be in front of a computer to write the papers.

Now as you may know from your own experience (or the useful messages from the Partnership of English Majors on A Prairie Home Companion) a literature degree does not exactly point towards a particular vocation. So I tried a number of them: mover, baker, arborist assistant, cemetery landscaper, youth minister, substitute teacher (I was considering teaching, and was disabused of the notion), and finally three years as a land use planner. The conclusion after seven years in the work force was that in order to make money I would have to sit in front of a computer, but that I was happiest involved in physical labor outside. As I have a very understanding wife who is gainfully employed, the choice was easy.

Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat of it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food… - Genesis 3:17b-19a

Such a description of my working life necessarily elides many influences, experiences, and thoughts. Perhaps the greatest of these influences was the writings of Wendell Berry. Here was practical philosopher grounded in the Judeo-Christian background that I came from, but whose philosophy was radically different from the prohibitive morality (Thou Shall Not…) I was familiar with. His essays had a particular ability to brilliantly illuminate what for me were only vague notions of unease with the world as I experienced it. Berry is also a farmer. Now, I did not become a farmer as a means of furthering my discipleship of Berry. Quite the contrary. What the agriculture writings of authors like Berry (farmer), Gene Logsden (farmer), Wes Jackson (farmer), Sharon Astyk (homesteader), Barbara Kingsolver (homesteader), and Michael Pollan (gardener) illustrate is that, far from being simple drudgery, farming done correctly is incredibly simulative. Drudgery for me is when the mind and body are consumed by work lacking in meaning. In my own life, data entry most closely modeled this definition. One is tethered to the computer and cannot really think about something else lest you lose track of what are doing. In contrast the most monotonous jobs we have (cultivating weeds, picking green beans) leave the mind free to explore, open opportunities for conversation, song, or argument. In fact, I do most of my writing in the field and only sit down to transcribe and proof it on the computer. In addition, the body is engaged, moving, strengthened and hardened to the work and the season.

While I was at that work the world gained with every move I made, and I harmed nothing. – Wendell Berry

A true land ethic as described by Aldo Leopold in A Sand County Almanac has the ability to heal much of what we have done to our lands and seas, and sustainable farming is a big part of that. Prior to becoming a farmer I was a gardener. My wife and I bought the mortgage on our house (if you think you bought the house, try not paying the mortgage) primarily because of the large, blank backyard. Now to look at the yard as it was then was not to see a little bit of Eden. Weedy grass with sunbaked blank spots, hard pan clay just below the surface, little evidence of any natural fertility. But after the addition of plants, manures, compost, wood chips, and water the natural desire of living things to reproduce in abundance begins to take over. The dirt becomes soil as the fungi, bacteria, and micro-fauna return. The ground begins to stay moist longer as humus is built up in the soil, and the fertility gains as plants convert the sun’s rays through photosynthesis.

To work, we must work in a place … their work will have a precise and practical influence, first on the place where it is being done, and then on every place where its products are used, on every place where its attitude towards its products is felt, on every place to which its by-products are carried. – Wendell Berry

That is not to say that absolutely nothing is harmed in the process of life. Tillage kills worms and microbes, the eating of meat requires the taking of life (and I am not a vegetarian), and farming requires taking measures to control pests. Even the encouragement of predatory insects could easily be understood as harm by aphids or cabbage loopers, were they consumed with such thoughts. However, the proper handling of land is healing to the place. To simply leave degraded land alone (and almost all land is now in that state) is to abandon it to a weedy purgatory. In contrast, careful cultivation can at times be similar to the physical therapist who works to restore function to that which is broken or torn in our own bodies. It is this process of finding ways of allowing plants and animals to express their natural functions while accomplishing agricultural goals that is most fascinating. A good farmer is not just blessed with the proverbial “green thumb”, but has integrated parts of the knowledge of the biologist, botanist, veterinarian, psychologist, chemist, builder, mechanic, weatherman, and there is scarcely one that isn’t a philosopher as well. In a society that encourages us to know more and more about less and less until we know absolutely everything about nothing (the event horizon for PhD’s) farmers are our Renaissance men and women. A truly sustainable agriculture will only come about by having dedicated and bright farmers who have committed themselves to solving the riddles of particular pieces of land. The food and fiber of that land will strengthen the minds and bodies of the farmers and neighbors who consume the food, and who are no longer sickened by the by process, products, and by-products of industrial agriculture as they currently are.

The land that I love is the land that I’m workin’ / But its hard to love it all the time when your back is a-hurtin’ – Old Crow Medicine Show [Take’em Away]

Before you all quit your jobs and rush out to farm (or encourage your kids or grandkids to do so) – let me quickly add that it is hard physical work. I have never worked so hard, or for such a prolonged period of time on a daily basis. You really do start with the dawn, and on occasion end at or after dusk. The work is never complete, and the monetary compensation does not begin to approach what can be made outside of agriculture. That being said, the pursuit of a sustainable agriculture is the central issue of our time. Unsustainable does not mean that it is bad, it means that it will someday fail to achieve what it has promised; and the failure of agriculture would quickly remind us that no civilization has long outlived the failure of the agriculture base on which it depends.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Guest entry: Twinkletoes...or learning to coexist with our (stinky) suburban neighbors

(Ok, this is not really food or plants, but I'm an animal lover, too...)

So we have a guest in our yard this year...we call him (maybe her?) "Twinkletoes". We noticed one day that something had eaten one of the ladies' eggs, and the ladies were not roosting where they were supposed to - they would hunker down over behind the raspberries and stay out at night. So the second or third night of this, the Campesino tried to shoo the ladies home. Juliet, our alpha-hen, stopped at the coop door and looked, and looked...and wouldn't go in. So Campesino opens the coop door, and from across the yard I hear, "Woah! OK ladies - you sleep wherever you want!"

Twinkletoes, in case you hadn't guessed, is our nocturnal black-and-white friend...a skunk. Of course, our first instinct was call someone to trap it - get rid of it. I called the federal trapper for the county, and when I told him what part of town we lived in, his response was, "Ah, the skunk capitol of the county." Great. So he was too busy to come trap Twinkletoes and he didn't want to accidentally trap one of the neighbor cats that roam our yard, either. So Twinkletoes (and family...there are at least two others) stayed.

Since then I've read that if you trap and remove them, other skunks or urban wildlife like raccoons will move in to take their place. I'd much rather have skunks, who eat the occasional egg, than raccoons, who kill full-grown chickens for sport, so I'm hoping the skunks discourage the 'coons from returning later this year. The chickens started laying in the ivy along the back fence, so Twinkletoes doesn't find the eggs very often (then again, neither do we...the chickens are pretty good at hiding them.)

Anyway, that was a few weeks ago, so we've decided to try to learn to live with our musky little friends. They're actually quite cute (I'll try and snap a photo one of these nights) and beneficial. They eat all sorts of undesirable garden pests: beetles, aphids, lawn grubs, black widows, rats and mice, etc. and downed-fruit, but so far nothing on the vine or plant. As soon as it's dark (and sometimes not even dark) Twinkletoes is out roaming the lawn and garden, nose down, sniffing and hunting very determinedly. We find these funny little snout holes all over the garden, about 3-4" across and 1-2" deep, where the skunk found a good snack to dig up. But they seem to be much less destructive than chickens can be in the garden - no digging up plants [Well, minimal digging up of plants, but not as bad as chickens - Campesino], eating ripe veggies or excessive scratching, just very targeted snout-sized digging.

Campesino has had some accidental but fortunately not stinky encounters with Twinketoes and sons, just surprising them out in the garden. But, as is usually the case with animals, they seem more scared of us than we are of them. We watched Twinkletoes hunt in the lawn for a few minutes the other night. He moved very quickly while hunting and didn't see us for a while, but as soon as he did (he was getting a bit close for our comfort - within about 10 feet) he shot back into a bush. Skunks are good diggers but crummy climbers and have very short legs, so they don't walk or bound like squirrels or cats, they...well, "twinkle". Think classic Tom & Jerry cartoons - you know when one is sneaking up on the other, only paw-fingertips moving with the "tinkle tinkle tinkle" sound effect? Just like that. They almost seem to levitate and travel without moving.

So, we'll see how co-existing with Twinkletoes and family goes!

Monday, July 14, 2008

What hast thou to do with me, Jacob?

We planted a type of bean called Jacob's Cattle this year. That's them at the the top of the post. The bean is a beautiful purple and white speckled heirloom variety. I don't know what it tastes like yet, but it sure is pretty. There is also a kind of sheep called Jacob's Sheep.


What does this have to do with anything you may ask. A more appropriate question is who is Jacob? Jacob is a biblical trickster character who tricked his twin brother out of his birthright and blessing; and then managed to get rich off of his father-in-law. Not exactly a paragon of virtue, but he is one of the patriarchs of the Bible. In fact his twelve sons begat the twelve tribes of Israel. {insertion by way of request from the campesino's wife: if you actually want to know why it is called Jacobs Cattle bean go to Genesis 30} Again, you might ask: So? I am in fact a somewhat religious person, but regardless of the meaning I take from biblical stories, I believe that in order to really understand western literature (or something as random as why a bean is called what it is) the Bible is required reading. I took a course in college called "Reading the Bible as Literature" and frankly it opened my eyes. I had read the entire book several times already, but only as a religious text. Frankly, you can not read Shakespeare or any number of authors from Augustine (maybe not the best example) to Margaret Atwood, and really understand what they are talking about, without a basic knowledge of biblical stories. So, if I was going to suggest anything I would say read the Old Testament (you can probably exclude Numbers). The New Testament has all kinds of interesting stuff, but the Old Testament has the best stories. You can't beat Eglon getting struck down by a left-handed man in his "cool private chamber." A simple story like that leads one to ask "Why the big deal over the left-hand?" and "would the fat really swallow up a knife?" Or, is the take home lesson from the story for the modern reader "Don't be an evil oppressive king" or "Don't talk to left-handed strangers while sitting on The Pot." These may not be literary questions, but I have wondered about them for many years.

Also, if you are reading Psalms, Proverbs, or really any book you need to use the King James Version. Not the most accurate but it reads like literature. The other versions make it easy to read (i.e. boring). Well, that last is not entirely true, but if you are reading it for literature, it needs to read like literature.

"I thought this was a gardening blog" you might say. So I leave you with Isaiah 5:8 "Woe unto them that join house to house, that lay field to field, till there be no place, that they may be placed alone in the midst of the earth!" So there you have it, a biblical injunction against hogging all the land. Not because you will hurt others, but because you will need friends and helpers. Gardening alone is peaceful (and enjoy it), but we are made to be in community. So, though I dream of moving off to 100 acres in the middle of nowhere I know that I will probably stay in the area I am. However, in the American Dream kids are supposed to be better off than their parents. So I am aiming for least ten acres anyways, because my dad has seven.

(I will try and get the guest blogger back, she is actually better at this stuff.)

-A Campesino

Monday, June 9, 2008

Guest blog entry: the beautiful Columbine

Keeping a garden sometimes takes more than one person...and sometimes so does keeping a blog! At the Campesino's request, I'll guest-blog on plants and food occasionally. The Campesino does most of the cultivation, but usually I'm the one who cooks things from the garden, and some of the plants we grow are because I chose the variety.

So, for my first contribution I'll extoll the virtues of a beautiful specimen from our garden, the Columbine (Aquilegia spp.), probably my favorite of the flowers we grow - it's fairly hardy, very unique looking, and comes in essentially all the colors of the rainbow. This State flower of Colorado has varieties native to many different parts of the northern hemisphere, including California. We have both the California native Columbine (A. formosa) and the European variety (A. vulgaris, shown here). Our Columbines started flowering by early March this year, but by now, the beginning June, the first set of blossoms are almost all spent. I dead-headed the plants this weekend and collected the seeds, and they may flower a second time this year by August or September. The flowers produce an amazing amount of seeds in five tubes of seeds per flower - like double-rowed pea pods. They look a little like star-anise pods, but the seeds are glossy black and tiny - around the size of the head of a plain, metal straight-pin (not the plastic-ended type). I took one flower apart to see how many seeds there were per flower - it had 112!! No wonder they survived as a wildflower in so many places.

In any case, they are a beautiful and easy-to-grow flower. We started all the European Columbines from seed, and in their 3rd year in the ground they're 10" tall, 18" wide hemispheres of leafy green with 2' flower spires. In our mild winter they die back to the ground but are only bare for a month or so before sending out new, somewhat maple-shaped leaves. The flower stalks are quite stiff - like wire or bamboo skewers - so even in the wild winds we've had this spring, where branches break and other wiftier flowers flop flat, these flowers never drooped a bit. They're best left outside - various parts of the plant are poisonous and they don't last too long as cut flowers - but when the plant is in full flower they're beautiful and last quite a while. In full bloom they remind me of a Roman Candle - my kind of fireworks: silent, don't reek of gunpowder, and bloom when it's not 100 degrees outside!

Anyway, blah blah blah, boring scientific post...grow something pretty! (Just don't eat this one.)

- a Campesino's wife

Thursday, May 15, 2008

The ladies - or why everbody needs chickens

This is an early photo of our first group of "ladies." You can't tell now, but the one we call Marilyn was really Marlon, and one of the silkies was Don Juan. We don't have any of our original chickens any more. We have lost 5 to raccoons, one became eggbound (a nasty business), and one became weakened by mites and quit eating. We caught on a little to late with the last two, or the causes of death were completely treatable. Less so with being eggbound.

However, chickens are not all death and sickness! They are also beautiful, clucking wonders who turn worms, grubs, insects, slugs, grass, and old vegetables into the most amazing eggs. The color and texture of a fresh free range egg beats anything you can by in a store. Chickens also love tofu, I am not sure there is anything they like better. But they are not vegetarians. As outlined above they will eat just about anything that runs, crawls, or squirms that is substantially smaller than themselves.

They are relatively quiet animals, more consistently noisy than some pets, but it is generally a soft clucking, with occasionally harsh "bocking." Unless of course you have a rooster. One of our chickens (Honker, a buff orpington) is fairly loud, but none of our neighbors have complained, and one has even inquired about getting chickens himself.


It is the first really hot day of summer. Over 100 degrees. So begins the long summer. So far we have planted garlic, onions, potatoes (at least 5 varieties), cucumbers, tomatoes, beans, corn, cilantro, parsley, chard, eggplant, assorted herbs, and assorted flowers. the only thing that is really producing right now are the strawberries. We have a ton of them, which is a good place to be. We just need to turn some into strawberry jam. We have already made some sorbet. I highly recommend grapefruit strawberry sorbet. It has just the right amount of tartness. If you want to see pictures of the garden, head on over to our flikr page. Here are the March blossoms:


I need to get May up there, we have some great roses, poppies, foxglove, and penstemon.