The Body and Farming

As I sit here this morning, I ache. My hands a bit sore. My neck kind of tense. I may chalk up the feeling to my getting older (I’m 42), but I remember feeling the exact same way at the end of June when I was a 26-year-old apprentice. Instead, I simply acknowledge that my body acclimating to the season, just as it’s done for 18 farm seasons.

Jon_Solinger_Photo_07581_August 29_ 2014-EditYou see, I’ve observed the same progression year after year. The spring is work, but of a different flavor than summer. Spring work is quite mental and preparatory as I worry about seeding schedules and planting times. Tilling the ground and popping in some seeds isn’t strenuous at all. Now, however, it gets physical. Starting in June, vegetable farming becomes all hoeing, hand weeding, and harvesting. Three to four of us invested eight hours yesterday doing nothing but weeding onions-the job is still incomplete-and that was after some recreational hoeing in the morning and before picking peas and setting up for the boxes.

I don’t write about my being tired and sore looking for sympathy. I write about this experience because, in my mind, I’m telling the story of most of human history. From the fertile crescent until this century, we shared this season of labor. This ramping up of physical work fits the flow of the calendar and the natural seasons of the year. The light and heat of summer confers the energy we need to give a big push of effort, which, for a lot of history, was necessary for survival. If you didn’t move in July to make hay, you literally starved in January.

Our bodies adjust. My own aches subside as I chug through July, and, by the end of August, I’m all wiry with a really strong grip. It feels good to get on the other side. It also feels good to relax on the deck in a cool October. For that season will come too.

In the box:

  • Snap Peas: Edible pods…just eat them, don’t shell them.
  • Broccoli
  • Romaine Lettuce
  • Radishes
  • Curly Westlander Kale: The bunch with a blue band.
  • Spinach: Big and green with a pink end. This is a full-sized savoy-type spinach.
  • Baby Arugula: The small oakleaf-shaped green. We grew this under a row cover, so I’m happy to report minimal holes in this crop from flea beetles (unlike in the mixed greens last week).
  • Garlic Scapes: These are shoots off of hardneck garlic which you can use in a recipe to replace garlic.

Seasonally Challenged

Well, we’re back again for another season, a well-worn path by this time. Starting the season takes not just a shift in schedule, but also perspective. Since a box must go out each week, I need to continually focus on the many moving parts of the operation. I obsess over details of each crop, weather captures my attention, and stringing together many small tasks each day seems to consume all my time. Alas, the life of a vegetable farmer. At the same time, I celebrate the rituals to starting up the farm for another season. Setting up the packing shed. Trellising in the high tunnel. Even assembling the 2019 member email list.

Ryan with newly set up packing area
Wash Tubs and crates clean and set up for a new season

The big story so far this year has been the weirdest start of the season that I’ve ever experienced. Snow in May, followed a mini-drought with 90-degree heat, and lately the coldest and driest June I can remember. We thankfully have started to receive some rain in the past five days, which makes a big difference. The effects of this strange weather, however, have already been felt on the crops.

For 15 years I’ve always had garlic scapes in the first CSA box. This year I can’t find a single garlic scape emerging in the field (a scape is a shoot that comes off the greens of the garlic plant). Since garlic is planted in the fall, this is clear evidence that it’s not my disorganization in planting, but actually the weather which has set back crops. Only now are peas laying on flowers and early crops like broccoli and cauliflower plants are just not to their usual size. Arghh! You can see why I pushed back the start date a week. But ‘the show must go on’ and we managed to scour the fields to get something out the door.

The life of the vegetable grower, however, isn’t all stress. It can be magical. I think about the summer solstice last week when we weeded onions until dark. Walking away from the field with the smallest touch of light still hanging around, I felt great. My hoe slung over my shoulder, I walked by clean rows of onions to join my family rounding the woodshed and heading to the house. As we climbed the hill, I looked over the back field. A sense of togetherness and accomplishment sat in my heart. On this longest day of the year, we were my ancestors, a peasant family engaged in the oldest of traditions. This is the magic of farming as a family that I feel grateful to experience.

In the box:

  • Green Leaf Lettuce
  • Spinach
  • Swiss Chard
  • Baby Bok Choy: These are not the prettiest I’ve grown (flea beetles got out of control in our mini drought), but should cook up well. See video below or at https://youtu.be/UvMAAYtYPDw
  • Spring Greens Mix: This is mix with a nutty frisee (endive), spicy arugula, and lettuce. Dress with a lemon-based dressing (https://tastykitchen.com/recipes/salads/a-simple-spicy-arugula-salad/). Frisee is my favorite green. I sat down last night with a bowl of this mix and simply a lemon, olive oil, and salt and pepper.
  • Sprig of Basil

Springtime Planting Gamble

Snow greeted me last Thursday as I sped down I-94 – SNOW! This experience gave me a little pause as I looked at our broccoli and cauliflower plants suffering in their trays, running out of fertility. Last weekend’s sunshine and warmth sealed the deal, however, and we planted all weekend in earnest. Nearly 800 broccoli plants and 400 lbs of potato seed joined kale, swiss chard, and cauliflower in the ground. Whether we see snow again or not, the field season’s begun and there’s no turning back.

Jon_Solinger_Photo_07569_August 29_ 2014-Edit

Friends often ask me considerate and caring questions this time of year about spring planing progress. I appreciate their interest, yet, I always need to confess that I both love and hate this time of year. It feels good to get started after the preparation mind game which is early spring. But getting something in the ground is only as satisfying as scratching an itch. I’m mostly anxious until all things are in. The sound of my neighbor’s tractors running all day and night as they plant seeds gives me a feeling like I should be doing more than I am. And if I miss a window of time before a rain I beat myself up for doing so.

But experience helps this time of year. This is year 15 at Lida Farm and I’ve seen all sorts of, shall-we-say “sub-optimal” spring planting activities. Potatoes planted in soil with a texture of small boulders. Tomatoes first in about June 14 in a very rainy spring. Cucumbers frozen out at the end of May. Even with these past mishaps the season carried on successfully. I remind myself no matter how late or poorly a planting season seems to go, rains still come and so does sunshine. Things get done, so take it easy.

Support our Kickstarter Project

I sometimes get despondent. Whether news on climate change or cancer rates, I find myself feeling overwhelmed with how big our problems are. How can we ever overcome? Maybe we won’t and the world will spin off into a Mad-Max like disutopia in my children’s lifetime. Kids at Harmony

But then I think about actions I can take and one’s I’ve already taken. Over time I’ve realized that our one farm cannot change agriculture in America just as our one family cannot fix a whole community. We can only take the actions before us and consider the greater good. 

For me, this has brought me to my latest project: A collaborative farm stand at Manna Food Co-op. It’s not just a farm stand for the use of Lida Farm, but open to other growers and artisans associated with the co-op. It’ll be a nice addition which just won’t give producers a sales outlet, but, I hope, build a little community on-site as we do some Friday evenings farmers markets there. 

To date I’ve been gathering partners and ideas to launch it. A group of Amish builders are constructing this timber-framed building and we’ve been in conversation the co-op and other growers on how this could work. I just need to pull in a little more funding to make it work. I think the idea is a good one and I hope will be one more step to helping to make the world a little bit more cooperative and filled with good food.

Please read about the project and consider sharing and contributing at this kickstarter page at http://kck.st/2W0zw3g

 

A New Year and New Committments


The plane touched down in Minnesota. The air was crisp and dry. The energy of New York City closed off our 2018 with fireworks, but coming back into the terminal and seeing a bunch of boring Midwesterners in brightly-lit and orderly MSP felt good. I felt a sigh of relief.

20181225_152630A week ago, Amtrak brought our family through a cross-section of the US. A whistle stop in Winona. A quick hike through downtown Chicago. A two-hour romp down the mall in Washington DC before pulling into the glorious chaos which is New York City. We enjoyed the subway and people-watching, no doubt. We contended with crowds, witnessed a police raid, and ate really awesome pizza. The kids are a bit more street-smart, no doubt.

Back in my subzero home, not unlike all of you, I’m reflecting on the year and setting intentions for the new one.

I think we found a nice pace to farming in 2018. A little organization gave the season a flow while still pumping out some great produce. I should kick back and celebrate this new-found ease after so many years of pushing, but I’m an accomplishment junkie. I’m now dreaming up projects so I have a new mountain to summit. Still, I’ve begun to think about farming more of a practice than a series of tasks. As I eye 2019, I would like to continue the practice of soil building. Last year we produced just as much stuff on four acres as we did on five acres in 2017. If we are to continue this march to greater productivity we need to better manage fertility to make every square foot count.

My farming ambitions were in check in large part because I dumped so much time into Manna Food Co-op and rode all the ups and downs of a start-up retail storefront. We experienced the highs of a huge sales day at Mannafest, a successful search for new employees, and the opening of the deli—where you can get the ever-popular Ryan’s Green Machine 🙂 We also felt the lows of leadership changes, labor stresses, and worry about making payroll. As the guy who writes the checks and jumped into the fray to help manage the store during the summer, I must say that I’m stronger for the experience and grateful for the many people who have taken us this far – all board members, suppliers, staff, and customers. I think slowly but surely we’re building something good.

20181028_183650-1One of my personal intentions for 2019 is to re-commit to the local businesses and people that transform the pretty landscape in which we live into a really cool and interesting place. If we want a strong local community, we need to commit to being part of that community, not live with one toe in and our hearts focused elsewhere. The universe produces lots of things that pull our attention not only from community life, but even our own families. I hope I can make 2019 a year of reconnection, a time of living my ideals.

Seasonal Cycles

From the earliest time of man, we have followed the season. Hearkening back to my college anthropology class, from the Ancient Greeks to Mayans, cultures and traditions have built events around the seasonal milestones.

18aee-20132bharvest2bparty2bbarn2bpic

For us, our seasonal milestone is our annual harvest party. Like other farm operators this is our time to celebrate the bounty of the harvest and just getting through one more season – phew! The event was a lot colder than we ever expected—snowflakes were falling on Saturday morning. The hearty souls who made the trek did their utmost to stay warm, and, I hope enjoy themselves. We’ve always hosted the party at the end of September, which coincides with the fall equinox, but the weather’s fairly unpredictable. Two years ago, we had 82 degrees!

These gatherings are nothing too elaborate, but I feel it has the elements for a good end-of-season celebration: good food, drink, and a coming-together of people. Farming can be lonely at times and I so appreciate the opportunity to talk to some of you face to face instead of being a name on my CSA checklist. I also appreciate the opportunity to say “Thank You” for joining us for the summer. I say this each harvest party: CSA member make Lida Farm. Our family can do this only through the willingness of you, CSA members, to sign up with us for a whole season.

In the box:

  • Butternut squash
  • Russet or Mountain Rose Potatoes
  • Pie Pumpkin
  • Black Spanish Radishes and Watermelon Radish
  • Parsnips
  • Brussels Sprouts
  • Spinach
  • Yellow Onions
  • Garlic
  • Harlson Apples
  • Carnival Squash

Farming = hip and creative

We often associate creativity with urban settings. We picture uber-cool designer types whose days criss-cross between open floorplan offices and a bunch a hipster coffee shops. If I was searching out a bunch of coders and graphic designers, I’d seach places like Seattle, Chicago, or Uptown MPLS. But farm country?

Wormfarm
Farm/Art DTour  in Rural Wisconsin – Wormfarm Institute

I’d argue that this urban image is much too narrow and there is no greater plalatte for creativity than farming. On any given day I have about twelve ideas that I have no time to implement from new cover cropping strategies to ways to add value to veggies in season. Starting up a pizza farm? Engineering another root cellar for dry crops? How about a tool to get plastic tight on greenhouses? This wide range of needs makes farming so damn interesting. Every day I need to juggle biology and business to make the place work, and, oh, troubleshoot some IT issues, write a bit, and learn about some new plant disease or bug.

What I find inspiring is that you can find this rural creative class of farmers in small towns all over. While some are deep into new composting methods and others are testing recipes for market or organizing on-farm accomodations, all are adding to this good energy of rural communities. I’d love it if the rest of the country would stop pinning us as simple-minded dolts and wake up to the notion that you do not need to be in New York or LA to find smart people doing interesting stuff. Some of them may even kiss Uptown goodbye and pack up for beatiful Otter Tail County to join the scene where all the cool kids are.

In the box:

  • Red Kuri Squash
  • Butternut Squash
  • Delicata Squash: I’m such a fan of stuffed squash this time of year. You basically just make stuffing however you like it and bake in the squash. This works great with acorn, delicata, buttercup, or kuri: https://www.thekitchn.com/how-to-make-stuffed-roasted-squash-cooking-lessons-from-the-kitchn-101662
  • Carrots 
  • Parsnips: The white carrots 🙂
  • Russet Potatoes
  • Rosemary 
  • Salad Mix
  • Celery
  • Haralson Apples: This is a good cooking apple which makes a nice apple sauce. We quarter, add water, and put through one of those cone things when soft. Add cinnamon.
  • Yellow Onions
  • ‘Montana Giant’ Garlic