Life and thoughts from a small-scale organic farm . . . and its farmers

This is a blog that explores ideas around the growing of food and community at Glen Valley Organic Farm.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Watching the Indicator Puddle

One of the handiest pieces of technology we have on the farm is the indicator puddle. It isn't fancy, but it's part of our ear-to-the-ground system for relating to moisture in the ground.

Here's how it works: When the indicator puddle dries out (when it's no longer a puddle), we know that we can get the tractor into the fields to cultivate the soil. Water in the puddle? It's too wet; working the soil can either get the tractor stuck or severely compact the soil.

At this time of year we watch the indicator puddle closely, hoping to be able to get into the fields. The puddle sits in the driveway between the farmhouse and the barn, so we pass it multiple times each day. It's a constant reminder of what we want to be doing.

The indicator puddle is, of course, a good conversation piece. While everyone on the farm has a different source for weather forecasts, the indicator puddle provides a baseline we can all agree upon.

It's also a good illustration of the value of observation. Being able to relate the changes in the natural environment to our daily tasks and anticipation of the season is an important part to being in tune with the land.

A goal of mine is to practice phenology on the farm. In short, phenology is the observation of life cycles and their relation to seasonal changes. Simply put, many things in nature happen sequentially; watching changes can indicate general trends in a season.

In practice, this means keeping records of when things happen. This year, for example, we might note that we ate our first day lilies on 2 February and our first nettles on 9 February. It might also note that the daffodils by the mailbox opened on 19 February and that the first Hooded Mergansers were sighted on our pond yesterday.

The indicator puddle was dry enough for disking the fields on 22 February.

Over time, trends emerge that can help with planning the season. For example, we might know that it's time to plant fava beans two weeks after crocuses bloom because the soil is warm enough for germination. Or that potatoes can be planted one month after the first harvest of nettles.

The challenge of home-made phenology is remembering to take notes. My goal last year was to keep a daily record of weather and farm activities. It was an ambitious project amidst the birth of a new baby in March. It didn't happen.

This year the project is a bit less ambitious. We have a day planner that documents appointments, expenses and other activities. It now has notes about the nettles, hooded mergansers and other notable observations.

It isn't important to record everything. Having something written down here and there provides something to work with, though, especially next year when we're trying to remember when it was that the eagles returned.

Even though we don't have much written down from last year, we do have a few benchmarks. We were trying to make a big nettle pasta to celebrate Roxie's birth after 25 March. We almost couldn't find enough. And the rhubarb -- wow -- it's already growing at a time of year when it's often still dormant.

So, that puts us about six weeks ahead of last year.

What does this mean for our customers? The May markets just might be a bit more abundant with produce than usual.

Monday, February 15, 2010

The Season Begins

"And that's the start of the season." I remember these words from John, our farmer mentor, three years ago as we planted the first seeds of the season.

It's a moment I remember each time we begin planting in early February. Jeremy and I have been farming together for three seasons, with the fourth now underway. As we mix up potting soil, fill trays and begin sowing seeds I feel excited. Much of this comes from the sense of new beginnings.

The fresh start we get every spring is a major benefit of farming. And sometimes it's also a point of frustration as farmers, particularly on the prairies, consider their land to be the domain of "next year country". That's as in "There's always next year," regardless of what didn't go well in a given season. I'm not sure if that's considered cautious optimism or not.

The 2010 season at Glen Valley Organic Farm is off to an upbeat start. With the warm winter and early spring we almost feel as though we're behind -- for the last two years we started seeding our transplants indoors with snow on the ground.

We just sent out a renewal notice to our Community Supported Agriculture Harvest Box Program and are in the process of hiring apprentices for the season. Jeremy has been doing machinery maintenance and I've been seeding our onion, shallot, leek and green onion crops. While doing a delivery of sunroots and collards into Vancouver today, Jeremy is also picking up our seed potatoes. The potatoes were dropped off at Discovery Organics by Across the Creek Organics from Pemberton.

Rhubarb is already growing and we'll get compost onto those beds later in the week. As the weather dries up later in the week we'll be getting close to being able to disk the beds. Fava beans and peas get seeded outdoors this week and I'll be planting out beets we saved from last season that will flower and produce a seed crop for us this year.

This post is beginning to feel like a bit of a shopping list, but that's actually what life feels like at the moment. Numerous lists of things to do begin piling up as the next few weeks get planned. My family is making good use of a day planner as we chart out the days remaining before the season gets busier. Weekly farm team meetings are increasingly important as we make sure everyone on the farm is in the loop with projects, activities and events.

Over the course of the season this blog will provide some weekly insight into the activities of the farm as we work to provide food to the many people who eat from our farm. Originating from a weekly e-mail to our CSA subscribers, this should provide a more organized forum for regular updates about our farm to a wider audience. In addition to farm updates, there will be recipes, thoughts and information about larger issues in agriculture and notes about agricultural-related events going on in the region.

The season has begun and we're looking forward to what 2010 might have to offer.