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
  • Spring Greens Mix: This is mix with a nutty frisee (endive), spicy arugula, and lettuce. Dress with a lemon-based dressing ( 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

Is Farming a Lifestyle or Business?

I’ve had a number of people remark that they admire our lifestyle. They like that we work closely with nature, instill work ethic into our kids, and serve a higher purpose. In today’s world where most of us earn a living by moving pixels around a screen and selling bits of information to each other from identically-sized cubicles, I totally understand the sentiment. At times I feel adrift myself and the idea of farming seems straightforward and tangible.

Me Graham and Lamb
Graham and I with newborn lamb, 2012

But there’s definitely a tension between making a living and farm living. I know many farm operators who are barely making it, or losing money every year but they carry on all the same. It’s been an age-old question: Is farming a business or a lifestyle? Tough call., but one thing I know for sure is that you cannot farm and NOT make it your lifestyle. It’s all encompassing.

There hasn’t been a day in the past 14 years that I haven’t thought about the farm in one way or another. The daily drama of the farm just becomes your life and farm moments becomes family milestones. I’ve measured years in relation to when we got our milk cow and when the tractor rolled down the hill and busted out the side of the barn. These are the highs and lows that imprint in your mind and I’d say that farms supply these moments in greater frequency than town life. Almost knocking down the barn – yup, making memories! The daily pattern of work also sets the pace for life. There are times when we must frantically get together the CSA shares and others when I just sit back on my heels and leisurely watch trumpeter swans take off from the pond. If a person can make some money along the way, all the better. Still, farming gives so much material that one cannot help but live a full life if they are paying attention at all.

In the box:

  • Eggplant: With zucchini and onion in the box, you are pretty close to ratatouille 
  • Carrots
  • Sweet Red Bell Pepper
  • Anaheim Peppers: These are long, slender peppers and hot – one green, one red.
  • A Few Tomatoes: Pretty sure these are the last of the season, so savor them.
  • Bunch of Cilantro
  • A Little Lettuce
  • Bok Choy or Swiss Chard: I was short on boc choy, so Fergus and Pelican people are getting chard…maybe that’s a relief or a huge disappointment, I don’t know. For boc choy, check out this garlicy bok choy recipe. 
  • Red Onion
  • Buttercup Squash
  • Spaghetti Squash
  • Rutabaga: Yes, some of these are huge! The Food Network roasts them in this recipe but I always just put in with a roast in oven or crock pot or in something like a beef stew.
  • Zucchini: Most of you got yellow zucchini (don’t worry, use exactly the same as green).

Family Labor

At one time all labor was family labor. Picture a Russian serf family or a tribe of neanderthals trying to make it…kids, husband, wife all pulling together to survive. In modern times, few have experienced this dynamic, and, when they have, it makes an impression. Ask someone who lived through the great depression or a natural disaster and they will often share not about how miserable they were, but how they pulled together as family.

Sylvia and farm statnd
Sylvia with the farm stand project we worked on Sunday

Like other fathers and a husbands, I can feel like I carry the weight of the farm business on my shoulders. Men like to be dramatic this way, as if they are the lone hero of their life’s story. Their great and amazing willpower and vision brings great success, but the hero at times is also trapped alone in a task only HE can do. Psychoanalyzing all men aside, I feel this at times. I can be trudging through a week and worn down. At times like these, when I don’t think I can pull off another CSA harvest, my beautiful wife Maree takes on two or three time-consuming tasks or the kids jump in to help pack boxes on the line. The work goes quickly or a crop which was looked impossibly lost in weeds a week ago is now simply beautiful. This is the joy of any small band in a common endeavor – together we do great things. Even the ‘great man’ concedes that he cannot succeed without the support of his wife and family.

Don’t let me be overly romantic on the topic lest you think we’re this picture perfect farm family, happily going about farm work like a scene from the Sound of Music. We still have all the same 21st century problems. I swear that I spend about half my day monitoring kids’ device use and many hours are spent shuttling children from place to place as we’re wrapped up in the same over-scheduled environment as every other family.

Working with kids takes time, and, although I could crank something out more quickly alone, I do muster the patience some days to slow down and let them take on a task. But when I do, the reward is often greater than simply the job getting done. I hope my kids do leave this place one day with some skills and ethic that will carry them through life.

In the box: