CLEANING THE FIELDS
The season is winding down and we starting to feel it around the farm. Amazingly, the weather has been holding out with near summer temps day after day. Our average last day of frost is September 13. And we’ve met that goal many times. Back in August we took a gamble when we pulled all the cucumbers in the high tunnel and filled it with beans, salad turnips and carrots. These vegetables are doing exceptional. We have been watching the turnips closely and sampling as needed. They will be shared along with radishes in the near future. We carefully roll the tunnel side up during the hottest part of each day to allow pollinators inside to reach the bean blossoms. Only a handful of tunnel tomato plants have been removed and the rest are still thriving, with a half bushel or more every other day. The greens are growing like crazy in the caterpillar tunnel as well. We should have produce well into November at this rate. What a lengthy growing season!
In the back of our property, we have noted rapid growth in the winter rye cover crops planted in the areas we will utilize next season. The weeds are growing as well, but better to have them germinate now than next spring perhaps. We also noticed that we were able to walk through the new field after an inch of rain this week. This is unheard of in the old field, where we would sink in up to our ankles in heavy mud. Even the pigs are happy to have the warm weather and lengthy fresh pasture as they will be overwintering with us and fed dry grass until it greens up again in the spring.
As the nice weather carries on, so does the work harvesting and cleaning out old crops. Expired plants are coming out of the ground and added to the compost pile. Each week, we remove more rows of black plastic mulch and irrigation line, a dreaded job. We’re also searching for posts, wires and large rocks we inadvertently left lay about for any number of reasons before the weeds consumed the garden. Hopefully Dennis and the rototiller won’t hit too many hazards next spring when everything starts over again.
Enjoying this fall weather,
Eric & Rebecca
Week Seventeen Newsletter
Frame of capped honey on top with bees still working on capping the lower half at We Grow LLC.
This week, we spent a half a day picking rock in a two-acre field at the west end of our property. We spread manure, disced and planted winter rye in the space with plans to grow a majority of our produce in this “new” area in the spring. The soil in this field has a sandy texture compared to they heavy clay we have been working on the east end and the drainage is much better. The soil doesn’t clod into large chunks when wet and we find fewer rocks.
As a farmer, it doesn’t take long to realize that every step in the growing process hinges on our soil type and condition. From seed germination and water retention to laying plastic mulch and getting into an area with a tractor. Rather than forcing the process in an unsuitable area, we are taking the operation to better ground and can not wait to see what this new ground will bring. And for once we feel like we are putting the horse in front of the cart getting some cover crops in rotation before produce.
So while we are out in the field picking up rocks, we can’t help but look around at the piles of moss-covered rocks scattered here and there in each of our fields and pastures. The piles are quite large and centered to make the shortest walk from any part of the field. Some of our piles have rocks as large as a 55-gallon drum! It makes a person wonder about the people who put those rocks there. Who were they? What tools did they have to make the job easier? We know some of these piles were started back in the late 1800’s when this area was homesteaded. Were their children in the field helping or off climbing in the trees along the wood’s edge? What would they think about their land today? Did the deer come eat on their crops like ours today? Were predators a problem for their livestock? Did someone have their hands on this huge rock and try to get it out of the ground a century ago only to find it too large to budge? What it must have been like here when those rock piles were started? How much harder they had to work? How much their lives depended on their ability to be successful in their growing season? How much they relied on community support?
Humbly picking our rock,
Eric & Rebecca
Week Sixteen Newsletter
Dene assisting with the old fanning mill cleaning the rye seed.
Catcher of Rye
Farming has been a learn-as-you-go process being neither of us has a farming background. Oftentimes, we simply don’t realize what we are getting into when we get an idea into our heads. From underestimating the necessities involved in making hay to trying to raise animals without a barn.
So this week, we found ourselves borrowing another piece of equipment to do another specialized task on the farm. We needed to clean our rye seed. Taking the grain to a mill to have it cleaned may have been an option, but then we take the risk of it being contaminated with non-organics. Shortly after we harvested the grain, our neighbor came by to buy some rye seed for planting a food plot. Being unclean, we weren’t willing to sell. He proceeded to mention he has a grain cleaner in his old barn we are more than welcome to use. Just like that! We were considering driving 60 miles and right next door, in the back of an old barn is exactly what we need.
Something similar happened two years ago when we had five acres of grass to bale for bedding. We saw an old abandoned baler and rake in the neighbor’s field. He explained it had been sitting out unused for 15 years. It was buried in the mud. A little TLC and we got the old equipment running like a charm and have used it for two years! It makes us stop and wonder what else is out there in the old barns and rock piles that we could use. A lot of the old equipment is too small or no longer useful to large scale operations. Keep your eyes peeled because we will be looking for things like a chisel plow, hay wagon, gravity bin, planters, a potato digger, etc.
This week, when we started to run our rye seed through the neighbor’s old grain cleaner, we heard their stories about hours and hours spent each fall running the year’s harvest through the old machine. Our boys began to ask questions and eventually took over the process on our farm. Turning the seeds at the end of one season, into the seeds that start the next like it was done before hybrids and seed patents.
Living back in the ol’ days,
Eric & Rebecca
Week Fifteen Newsletter
Bounty of Generosity
This week went by way too fast! What a busy time on the farm to keep up with seeding fall greens, getting end of season goods harvested, and prepping all the fields for next spring. Sounds simple, but that last one is a lot of work. To prep a field, we have to remove plastic mulch and trellising from this season, rip the ground to try and get the grass roots out, plow and disc, scoop manure and spread it over the ground to add fertility, and finally plant winter cover crop. All with the full cooperation of the weather.
Wednesday was an exciting day as our entire family went to Stoney Acres to dig through a bed of carrots and harvest what we need for our members to finish out the season. Kat and Tony have also had some root rot, but they let us sort through and find the good ones in exchange for working with them during their CSA pack. Our worker Susan came along to assist and our parents, Ron and Holly even got roped into the washing action. They also had to drive our “load” back to farm as it was too much for the old minivan to handle. We always learn new things from other farms and seeing their root washer in action was a real eye-opener. We’ll be putting together one of those, maybe this winter.
What would have taken us an entire day with a sprayer took about twenty minutes with their washer. And it was fun to use! We owe a huge thank you to these folks. And if you happen to go to Stoney Acres pizza on the farm on a Friday night, tell them “thanks” from We Grow.
Looking ahead, we have are already making plans for next season. As we start field prep, we need to decide where to plant the garlic this fall and how much we need to put in. What the best layout will be in the new fields to better mechanize planting and weeding, and how to best get organic matter into our soil this fall. This week, we also reserved our spot at the MOSES organic growers’ conference in LaCrosse this winter. This is always an inspirational trip where we get overloaded with valuable information, meet lots of other growers, eat great food and come home ready to grow, motivated to make a difference in our food system.
Grateful for the generosity of others,
Eric & Rebecca
Week Fourteen Newsletter
The Fall Harvest
The Farmer’s Market Customer Appreciation Event was a washout with rain on and off all day, but we still have a lot of fun. Marilyn’s Catering always does a fantastic job prepping samples with the fresh produce we give her, coming up with creative recipes for people to try new things. We had drawings for gift certificates for the market all day and the big zucchini weigh-in had five entries ranging from 5.5 lbs to 8.8 lbs. The greatest part was that one of our farm volunteers, Linda, and her family grew that largest zucchini and won the contest! It made our week!!
Back home on the farm, we got another 4 inches of rain that day. With the cooler weather, the fields are not exactly drying out much. Somehow, we managed to get the rye field turned over and disced and ready for fall manure application. Barely even got stuck. Now we will continue to time the weather for planting our winter cover crop of rye.
Many of our fall crops and new seedings have perished, so please bear with us as we are missing a few things from your shares we had planned on for the rest of the season. Even our kale in the field has given up on living with wet feet. We will be filling in the gaps with other creative short season crops as best we can. Our apologies in advance as we may have some weeks with “choose an item” type situations where we have you choose from a variety of veggies to help fill your shares.
On a positive note, we grew our first melons ever. We aren’t exactly sure when they are ripe, but we have been listening carefully as we knock on them with our fists to try and find the hollow sound of ripening. We’re still not sure if they are ripe so perhaps don’t commit your melon to a potluck just yet. Typically melons with too much rain lack in flavor, so we’ll be curious to see how they turn out. The one we sampled was very good. While picking melons, we began to get nervous about the deer eating the winter squash and started harvesting. We picked the three varieties that seemed most ready and have the butternuts left to go. We’ve got lots for shares!
Knocking on melons,
Eric & Rebecca
Week Thirteen Newsletter
Dene eating tomatoes in the new pack shed at We Grow
“It could be worse” might be every beginning farmer’s slogan. Our fall schedule is being rewritten as more produce succombs to last Thursday’s flooding. We continue to get more rain and we continue to see things perishing in our poorly drained soil in the main field. First it was the tender arugula, then the kokhlrabi, parts of the cabbage and brussel sprout rows. Some of the beets aren’t going to make it either. We are even finding the celery is rotting from the root up through the stem. The worst of it wasn’t realized until Tuesday while digging potatoes with volunteer Tom and finding them rotten from standing in water too long. We quickly turned to the carrots – enough for at least six weeks – to find them rotten as well. While the carrots are lost, we do have a sizeable late planting of potatoes in the back field.
Wasting no time, Wednesday we pulled the cucumber vines from the high tunnel, compost was added and volunteer Greg rototilled the beds in the scorching heat. We put in more carrots, turnips, and greens. Then we turned to the caterpillar tunnel, opened up some wasted space and filled it with radishes, mustard greens, lettuces and more. We’ve got more plans this week for spinach, peas and kohlrabi, largely in covered spaces to help us control the precipitation. Let’s hope for some good growing weather yet as we have lots of 40 and 50 day varieties going in the ground the past few days. Just like that, we are changing up the second half of the season as quickly as the weather that brought us this eye-opener.
There is always something to learn from every situation on our farm. In this case, we realized we absolutely must switch to a raised bed system. We own a bed-shaper but avoided using it this spring for we saw it as additional work – an extra pass over the field with yet another implement burning even more fuel. We never had to deal with so much rain in a field of produce before. Chalk it up to lack of experience perhaps, but at this point, we can only do better next time and hope the weather straightens out for the rest of this season. Keep the rain clouds away from Westboro!
Living and learning,
Eric & Rebecca
Week Twelve Newsletter
Family and friends helping the boys build the pack shed at We Grow
This summer, it seems like whenever it rains, it pours. Literally. It poured on Thursday morning! We received over four inches in just a few hours. Walking around the field that morning, we were amazed at how much of the garden was underwater or a in a river. One of the town road ditches had purged its banks and rushed through the middle of the caterpillar tunnel and washed the top soil to the far end. The water even made its way over the walls and washed through the high tunnel. There is any serious damage aside from erosion, but it sure has made a mess.
Digging field potatoes in the slop today was a bit of a challenge to say the least. Water filled the holes behind us. Thankfully, it is only wet and nothing too serious like high winds or lightning might cause. We can move forward from here with a few nice days of sunshine and smaller rain events. Please.
The pack shed made huge progress over the weekend. One day it was just a cement slab, the next day there were walls and the next day there were trusses and sheeting. Next thing you know there will be shingles and siding. We owe a lot to the kind folks who have come and helped put it together. Giving time to someone else in this day and age is a very generous gift and we are fortunate to be on the receiving end.
This project has been a day dream for so long, working inside the new building is a welcome reality. The past year we have washed vegetables on a plastic table in the yard dealing with rain and mud, the blazing hot sun and wind. At least this year, we added a sink on saw horses to the station.We have worked under a canopy as weather allows or demands. In the cool weather, we have been bringing the produce in the house or freezing our fingers washing and scrubbing outside. And something we often forget is how much less daylight there is as the season stretches into September and October. In the new building we will have lights so we can continue to work as needed. And not having to put away all the packing supplies three days a week is going to save us a lot of time.
Taking one step back and two steps forward,
Eric & Rebecca
Week Eleven Newsletter
THE HALFWAY POINT
Variety is the spice of life. Trying new things keeps life interesting. In the depths of winter, as we mull over our seed list, we contemplate every variety we plan to grow in the coming season. We consider the previous year’s results, we take into account what other farmers recommend and also keep in mind how we can keep things new and changing for our members.
This time of year, we start taking tomatoes to market and we have more varieties than your average garden. Especially this year, being we received hundreds of replacement plants from other farms back in May. Folks who are “tomato connoisseurs” always ask for information about each of the varieties and we heartily explain each one. They know that some are sweeter, some are less acidic, others have very few seeds, some are better for saucing, juicing, the list goes on. In all, there are about 45 different tomato varieties growing here today. Nearly every one is open-pollinated, which means we will save to seeds from our favorites for replanting next year.
Variety was also the hot topic between farmers during the field walk this past weekend. Sunday, we hosted an impromptu lunch and afternoon of socializing with three other local CSA farms. We spent time walking thru the fields and going over each section variety by variety. We shared our own experiences and tips for success or stories of failures all the while jotting down mental notes of variety names and conjuring up our spreadsheet of seeds and rattling off the seed’s sources. The difficult part was getting eight CSA farmers to stop working and just relax!
As our share season marks the half way point, hopefully you have tried a few new varieties of vegetables from our farm. Asian greens? Arugula? Patty pan squash? Hopefully you have added some variety to your meals the past few months. More variety, means more nutrition and healthier you. Even after 12 years of cooking together, this week we discovered zucchini noodles and could not believe how tasty they were! There are always new things to learn and new things to try, the spice of life.
Heading downhill from here,
Eric & Rebecca
Week Ten Newsletter
Dene and Eric working on the slab for the new pack shed building at We Grow
This week we had a group of high school kids from Prentice come and tour our farm. They are part of a summer gardening class lead by Mr. Quan Banh. We’ve heard of the renowned Mr. Banh from others in our journey to try and integrate our farm into our own school district with little avail. The students toured several farms that day, visited the extension office and even came to see us again at the farmer’s market at the end of their day.
The running theme of the day, aside from learning how to grow things, was that in rural areas, growing, selling and buying from local producers makes our economy go ‘round. The dollar you spend on the tomato at our farm is paid to our worker Susan, who in turn pays buys eggs from her neighbor Don, who then buys a gift of pottery from Linda, who buys beans from us. And the example came full circle while the kids were at market that afternoon! Spending your dollar at a big box retailer may save you fifty cents, but the reality is, a majority of that dollar will never be returned to you like it would be if spent locally.
Mr. Banh is proof that it takes one person willing to go the extra mile to make a huge difference in the lives of these young people. Without ag or horticulture classes in school, a majority of our kids are not taught that they are capable of growing their own food. He goes above and beyond teaching them how to grow food, but that is topic for a much longer letter.
New farm connections come with each person who gets involved with We Grow. We purchased piglets from a family whose son started working for us shortly after. Turns out he also works for Jane Hanson, a new vendor at Rib Lake market. She was given our information by our volunteer Sally and knows Mr. Banh. Another new connection! The same thing happens when volunteers help us sell produce at the farmer’s market. Customers recognize a face and make a connection to our farm.
The connections and word of mouth recommendations our CSA members and volunteers provide is invaluable. Tony Schultz from Stoney Acres told us this when we started selling shares back in 2014. We underestimated how important these connections would be in our success as we see the web of community support taking shape around us.
Eric & Rebecca
Week Nine Newsletter
Two subjects come to mind we would like to share this week. The first concerns our friends at Red Door Family Farm in Athens who suffered a great loss Thursday morning when high winds destroyed their three high tunnels and a majority of the crops within and adjacent. What a tragedy! As we would expect, they already have plans for moving forward and these do not include dwelling on the loss. The rebuild is underway and their weekly CSA shares have been packed as they head to market as usual.
The irony of the situation is that back in May, when we lost our tunnel tomatoes due to a deep-freeze, Red Door was the first farm to insist we come get replacements. No questions asked. Last week we harvested the first tomatoes from those plants. Perhaps now is the perfect time to return their generosity. Our philosophy of doing good deeds and having it come back two fold continues to be exemplified. Their success as an organic CSA is our success as long as we work together getting people to value local food.
The second topic comes from the Tuesday market, where a person walked up to our stand, briefly browsed our products and stated, “Hmphf. I don’t believe in organic.” Not being one to debate in this situation, I let the opinion go unaddressed. Sharing the statement with Mr. Farmer, we both wanted to know what part of being organic is unbelievable to her? Building the soil to prevent pests and disease? Fearing cancer comes from chemicals in our food chain? The price? This woman, two generations older than us, is fortunate to have experienced life before organic had a label unlike our generation. Her blanket statement is hopefully derived from experiences with organics far from our farm.
Buying organics from a local farm cannot be equated to buying organics shipped thousands of miles. You’re helping more than just yourself. You’re supporting a local family that in turn supports the local economy with the side effect of getting more nutritious, chemical-free, non-GMO food. While there are skeptics, we realize there are more supporters. Summarizing everything labeled “organic” in the same group is a simply a lack of research whether you believe in it or not. Spread the word.
On the defense,
Eric & Rebecca
Week Eight Newsletter
White rock hen debuts her baby chicks much to our surprise in mid-July at We Grow LLC
As our returning members are aware, garlic is an important crop for our farm for several reasons. We sell a lot of garlic at our market stand which equals income, we include it in our CSA shares as much as possible which means more tasteful meals for you, and it is a staple in our kitchen (and medicine chest) year-round. We have been pulling samples of each of the seven varieties we have on the farm this season to see which is going to be included in your shares in what order. So there will be a menagerie of garlic varieties without labels this first week. After this, we will have your garlic more organized with better details.
Things happen every day that we don’t necessarily plan. Of course, it seems like we always have a machine breakdown when we are trying to get chores done early. Or Tuesday, when we were on cloud nine after a great afternoon at market to find our pigs have been visiting the neighbors and are no where to be seen. But then there is the other side of the coin. Like finding out those stinky caterpillars that have been mowing down our fennel and parsley – those caterpillars that the kids have been harboring in a glass jar in their bedroom – are actually beautiful swallow tail butterflies. Or when Gus was doing his evening chores last night and came running into the house to exclaim that the big white hen hatched out some eggs. The whole family joined Gus in his excitement and marched outside to see it with our own eyes. She is now getting a chance that every hen only dreams of. What an awesome, adorable surprise!
It’s easy on a farm, or in any situation, to get caught up in all the unplanned misfortune because we work so hard all the time, but the reality is, there are far more great surprises that we probably realize. We just need to take a second to look around and find them. Dwell on those events, the ones we need to reflect on when we try to figure out why we do what we do.
With garlic on our breath and our hands,
Eric & Rebecca
Week Seven Newsletter
Buckwheat cover crop provides easy to break-down organic matter, weed suppression and pollinator habitat
Entering week six, we are getting excited about all the up and coming produce. The fresh garlic bulbs, green beans, red potatoes, tomatoes… the list goes on. Things are growing so much better than they were in 2015, we are elated with every small success. We actually have too much of some things! What a nice problem to have.
The photo above is our buckwheat planting gone to flower, adding a nice aesthetic quality to our main production area. We chose to plant this in an area just west of our existing high tunnel where we plan to construct our second large high tunnel next spring. Laying a good foundation will be key. We chose buckwheat because it suppresses weeds and attracts beneficial insects and pollinators. It is easy to kill, and extracts phosphorus from the soil better than most grain-type cover crops. The pollinators love the tiny white flowers. If only we could harvest the seeds off this buckwheat. It would be useful in Grandma Celia’s kishka recipe.
As we hit mid-growing season (we started in February!), we are looking ahead at our fall cover crops. We will be planting some new varieties in the coming weeks. The 2.5 acres of winter rye will be harvested for the seeds, which we hope to replant and put more acreage into production of small grains. We will also harvest the straw for valuable mulch in the coming season. Then in the rye field, we are going to grow a quick turnaround biomass building crop that will be tilled under either in late fall or more likely after the snow melts in the spring. The residue will keep the soil safe from erosion over the winter. We use on farm manure as our primary nitrogen source which complements cover crops that build organic matter, something we are seriously lacking in our heavy clay soil. If we have only learned one thing in the last two seasons farming organically, the success of our farm is entirely dependent on the health of our soil.
Dedicated to the job at hand,
Eric & Rebecca
Week Six Newsletter
BEING A FAMILY FARM
It was a pleasantly quiet week at We Grow with pigs staying in their new enclosure on pasture, volunteers heartily tackling weeds every day and no major break downs. We’ve been taking time to reassess what is growing and planning the next few weeks of planting with fall harvests in mind. We have many things that we tried to get in early this spring that did not turn out and need to be removed to free up the space. Some Asian greens that went straight to flower, radishes that got wormy, turnips in which only a few seeds germinated, kohlrabi the slugs ate, spinach that drowned, kale we simply have to much of and the jury is still out on the beets. They may live a few more weeks to see what comes of them yet. Seems devastating when you start writing it down, but it all part of keeping a garden. In our case, a really big garden.
We are starting to get a few cucumbers, but not enough for every member. About half of our cucumber vines inside the high tunnel froze on May 14 and about a third of the zucchini row (outside – covered) didn’t survive as well, so we have been anticipating being short come early July when they start to ripen. Since half of what we planned is not enough, we are going to give shareholders cucumbers OR zucchini. We would like to make sure each member gets to try both so we will make a note and give you the second item next week to the best of our ability. This is our plan rather than waiting several weeks for the replanted cukes and zucchini to catch up to where we have enough for all 48 of you. Thank you for understanding!
We’ve been having fun with our boys working on the farm this summer for a wage of $1 per hour. We find simple tasks for them like picking peas, composting weed piles, and weighing bags of carrots. They are starting to understand that we all need to work together to be successful. Except when one makes more money than the other and maple fudge is at stake.
Working as a family,
Eric & Rebecca
Week Five Newsletter