An onion life

An onion life

They were born in February and March.  Single, grass-like cotyledons springing up from the cold, moist potting soil in the nursery.  Thousands of them, soft and supple, forming a carpet of growing tips that I used to run my hand over as I walked through the winter greenhouse to check on all the babes.  I love the way they come out folded over-- creased right in the middle of that single fine stem-- and hang on to their black seed coats for a while, giving them a brief ride toward the scattered daylight.

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A week in brief

A week in brief

This is why I've been forcing myself to write every day: because when I set out to document and reflect on an entire week that's somehow slipped past me, the task seems impossible.  There are so many details and conversations and colors and projects that happen in one hour, let alone one day-- and forget one whole week!-- that to try to encompass the whole will be woefully inadequate.  Nonetheless, I guess, I'll persist.

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Argiope graces the farm

Argiope graces the farm

As always on Thursdays, my head was deep in Market Zone for most of the day.  Loading totes, displaying produce, checking off countless boxes ping-ponging around in my head to make sure that the farm stand sets up smoothly, beautifully, and on time.  Check.  Then in the late afternoon, as the interns overhauled our debris mountain into a working compost pile with Ted's guidance and a pair of sprinkler hoses, I found the Wild.  Something I never even imagined existed in this place.  At once terrifying and mesmerizing, she caught me in my tracks.

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A trip afield

A trip afield

We took our annual youth farmer field trip on Friday-- the first time I've been around to join in.  Jen finds a different farm to visit most years, as it's a difficult time for farmers to give up an entire morning for a tour.  A couple years ago the crew went to Open Oak Farm in Sweet Home, where Adaptive Seeds operates its breeding programs.  This year, we drove to Cottage Grove to tour Branch Road Farm with owner Andy, as well as FOOD for Lane County's Grassroots Garden in Eugene.

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Preparing for squash

Preparing for squash

It sounded so easy: "Transplant the winter squash."  They've been ready for a week or two already, so what's the big deal?  Just pop 'em in the ground.  

After a full week of trying to get such a seemingly simple project done, I am humbled.  Yes, amazed by how much zucchini is coming out of the fields, dumbfounded by how fast weeds are growing, impressed by the skill and pace of all the interns, and surprised by how much time irrigation management takes.  But mostly, I am humbled by this project that's not even close to done on the eve of our last chance for the week.

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Learning agronomy

Here's the trouble.  We have about eight new beds ready for planting tomorrow, and at least twenty beds worth of plants ready to get in the ground in the next week.  The cover crop in the Final Frontier field-- the next hope for making plantable beds-- was a jungle of tangled peas, vetch, and rye grass just a few days ago.  It's now desiccating atop a rock-hard plate of dry soil, and all its nitrogen will continue rapidly escaping back into the atmosphere until we can till.  We can't till until we irrigate to get the right moisture level, and then there's a couple days' window to incorporate the organic matter before the soil's too dry again.  We missed the window in one section already, and we need to keep the process in motion-- while keeping everything else on the farm watered with a limited number of irrigation lines-- until all that crop is mixed underground.  And even then, we wait.  One to two weeks for the crop to decompose enough to make fine beds.  Hours and days while harvest takes priority, training new volunteers draws us away from the tractor, and broken sprinkler heads foil our plans to irrigate on time.  We'll get there, but it'll be close.

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The last day before harvest begins

The last day before harvest begins

There's nothing and everything special about days like these, when the sun finally breaks out in the late afternoon and our backs are waking up for the week and I have no idea what to write about because any single moment could become an entire book if I explored it.  I'm searching to find the most magnificent part to share, but it's all magnificent.  It's all normal and wild, monotonous and exhilarating, tiring and energizing, frustrating and peaceful.  It just is.  And it's all really, really good.

So here.  Here's this most majestic, perfect squash blossom to top off this most sublimely imperfect last day before Harvest Season begins.  

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Everything by the minutes

Everything by the minutes

8:30 am.  University of Oregon Duck Store.  I'm buying two cases of Listo grease pencils for marking flags with planting dates and varieties at the farm.  We've tried "permanent" markers (they fade), China pencils (they break), and yellow crayon-like grease markers (they don't show up).  Now we have a seemingly endless supply that do the trick.

9:20 am. Strawberry patch.  I'm poking around the plants while Michael weed whacks the end of the bed so we can hook up irrigation lines.  All three patches have been swallowed up on either side by tall cover crop, and I'd almost forgotten about them.  To my delight, they're ripe!  I pick one deep red one and pop it into my mouth, stem and all.  I almost forget to taste it while I search through the beds, looking to see how many are ready.  But then I do, and stand there for a minute, letting that ultra sweet summer flavor sink in.  This sensation will keep coming until fall sets in.

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May morning photo journal

May morning photo journal

I arrived early today to finish revamping a little herb and flower garden near the farm stand, and to document all the beautiful crops approaching harvest.  I've been struck dumb a lot in the past couple weeks, walking through a field, looking down to notice how fresh and thriving the [insert broccoli, green onions, carrots, peas, etc etc] are looking.  It warrants another photo journal, since the brief evening one I did about a month ago caught nothing of this sort.  It's really time.  We're on the verge of harvest season.

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Pruning tomatoes

Pruning tomatoes

We finally pruned and trellised a bed of very overgrown bed of tomatoes in the greenhouse today.  Tomato pruning is one of my favorite farming projects: it takes some thinking and decision-making, you get to handle plants intimately, and the intoxicating resin leaves my hands black and my nose bizarrely satisfied.  

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Onions all day

Onions all day

They planted onions all day.  Patterson and Talon: yellow storage onions.  Michael, Phil, and Sophie, with Hao, Mo, and Huiyang helping until three o'clock.  Four beds that we'd prepped a couple weeks ago, covered with black plastic, and waited for the weeds to sprout and die off under the darkness.  Plants six inches apart, four rows in each bed: almost 5,000 onions.  Mo's mother is visiting from China for the next month, and she explored the fields to take photos while everyone tucked in all those plugs, one by one and two by two.

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Garden symphylans

Garden symphylans

Our visible achievements always get the glory and recognition, but for me the invisible is just as important.  And for all the conversations about life, learning about plants, skill-building and muscle memory developing in everyone's bodies and minds, I leave the week with persnickety obsession with what we have yet to accomplish.  It's such a relief to look backwards, see what we've done, hear feedback from people about how they've grown.  Maybe even more than the plants have.

Sometimes, that growth is wildly uneven.  We grow and learn only because the plants don't thrive as expected.  Take the first round of spinach from the greenhouse. 

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Reverse engineered to-do list

Reverse engineered to-do list

Thursday, April 26th: A reverse-engineered to-do list

  • Thin and fill out trays of lettuce and Swiss chard for the plant sale (everyone)

  • Prick out tiny ground cherry plants to pot up for the plant sale (Sophie and Alice)

  • Pot up green onions that are left over from a farm planting for the plant sale (Alex and Kiya)

  • Soak the trays we'll be transplanting (me and Ted)

  • Lay out spinach (me and Hao), plug it in (Kiya and Alice)

  • Transplant lettuce, fennel, bok choy, broccoli, cabbage (everyone)

  • Chat about how to get grandkids and nieces to eat foods they claim they don't like (me and Alice)

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The tractor was running

The tractor was running

While I was potting up tomatoes with volunteers, the tractors were running. 

While I was watering in the heirloom tomatoes, dousing the brassicas that'd been wilting, and unfixing a swath of plastic to let more air flow into the nursery, the tractors were running.

While our program manager, Jen, and I were giving short tours to our youth crew applicants, asking them the same set of questions eleven times over, and thanking them for their time, the tractors were running.

As I closed the nursery back up at the end of the day, spot watered a few trays that looked especially dry, locked up all but one shed, and packed my baseball cap into my bike bag to head home, the tractor was running.

On a day like today, eighty degrees after a week of dry weather and a smattering of rain coming toward us in the next few days, every minute counts. 

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The Black Wave

"Woooohoo!  Who's ready to surf the waaaaaave?!?"  

We've run the rainwater off to the side, straightened the sheet out, spread out to each corner, and it's time.  The Black Wave comes to life just a few times in the spring: when the sky's dry but the fields are still mucky, and the sun plans to stay out for at least a few days.  It's a joyous time of year.  The rains are abetting and we'll be able to get the tractor rolling soon, there's a team of people sprinting up and down the 150-foot-long fields, and the sun is bound to be shining. 

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Racing spring rains

Racing spring rains

Lunch.  I rinse out a bowl from our kitchen supplies and start to wander.  Duck into the last greenhouse and cut a couple heads from a small patch of salad lettuce that still stands.  Pluck a few big spinach leaves from the neighboring bed, and slip back outside.  Turn the corner to the single bed of flowering arugula and mustards, smell the pungent aroma of arugula flowers as I stride past and snip off a few buds, mindfully and playfully.  A few semi-opened tat tsoi flower buds for yellow.  Across the roadway, I grab several red cabbage flower stalks and toss them on top.  Eat the rainbow, they say.  I walk back to eat at the picnic tables, grateful for sunshine and vibrant everything.

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How to graft tomatoes

How to graft tomatoes

I said last week that I would describe tomato grafting in more detail, and now's the time because I spent much of the day finishing our stock in the nursery.  Before I dive into the nuts and bolts, I should note that our success rate so far over the past two years has been closer to 65 than 100 percent.  That's not bad in my book, but it's something to keep in mind when you're buying rootstock seeds. ...I'm truly in awe of the fact that any of them live at all!  To be able to continue growing and producing (better than before!) after having half their bodies chopped off and recombined with a foreign replacement is miraculous to me.  Plants are just astounding.  

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Spring begins

Spring begins

This was the first day I got to spend a big chunk of time in the trees with the core crew, and it was so lovely.  Pruning continues to be one of my favorite activities-- not just farming activities, but all-around all-time activities-- because it starts as a big jumbled mess, lets you climb trees and think three-dimensionally and move your body in unexpected ways, and ends with a much tidier framework for the tree to grow into the season. 

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(More than) operating heavy machinery

(More than) operating heavy machinery

I had a heavy machinery day.  More than anything else I do, I think I'm most attentive when operating vehicles that have the power to destroy: rototiller, flame weeder, tractor, box truck.  Today I tilled three of our greenhouses, which gets me even more attentive because I could easily rip a hole in the plastic (which, ahem, has happened), dent the metal bows, plow through a wall, or bury nearby crops.  So that's first on my mind.  Then there's the fun of creating what Sophie called "chocolate cake" on the ground: hundreds of square feet of fluffy, crumbly dark soil.  I have mixed feelings about tilling, which I hope to write about here in the future, but for today I relished the beauty and satisfaction of freshly aerated beds.

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Book review: Food Fight by McKay Jenkins

Book review: Food Fight by McKay Jenkins

When groups come to volunteer on the farm, I welcome them, give them a broad overview of what we do, and take them for a guided tour around the fields.  When I start explaining our agricultural practices, which I'll touch on here much more as the season progresses, someone from the group often raises their hand and asks a seemingly simple question: "Do you guys use GMOs?"

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