Friday, March 16, 2018

A Hidden Treasure

Maybe it's the excitement and the anxiety of the day. Perhaps it was those last 3 gulps of Noble Coyote Rise and Grind coffee leftover from breakfast that I made into a tepid, cafe mocha with my late light dinner. At any rate, about 2 hours after the cat decided she was hungry, I'm still wide awake. At 3am. Mind racing, replaying the events from the past week, and still, more anxiety over the many tasks yet to do. 

When all else fails sleep, it usually helps when I just start writing down what's racing through my head. Today is a harvest day, though, so that means there's no laying back down at 6am once this energy burst wears off. Maybe, if I am fast enough in the field, I'll have time for a quick power nap later. But for now, I empty my head out onto the keyboard.

It's not easy for many people to reach out and ask for help, and I'm certainly one of them. I was raised, I suppose, to be pretty self sufficient; learning to run a household, care for a younger sibling, myself and in essence my father, will tend to do that to some kids. And even though you miss out on a lot of your childhood and getting to do normal youth stuff, having that kind of responsibility early on can certainly have its benefits. I have not had to rely on any one other person, much of my life, other than myself.

 But when you bite off the responsibility of running several businesses, one of them managing a 14 acre piece of property, you learn quickly that being nicknamed the Energizer Bunny or Superwoman, comes with its limitations in real life. Even superheroes need assistance from time to time. And, thankfully, it's always seemed to come through just when I need it. If, I give myself permission to ask.

I never really set out to be or do anything that I thought was all that special or spectacular in life. Ever since I was a kid, I guess, all I wanted to do, or thought I was supposed to do, was the “right thing” whatever that was.

I was taught to always be thoughtful of how what I did affected others around me. I was careful not to purposely upset anyone, or take advantage of a situation or person's kindness. It may be why it's been so hard for me to speak up in certain situations until things really get uncomfortable.

Somewhere along the way, life didn't exactly turn out quite like I had always expected it would, and I found myself here, farming some land, in a place whose demographics reminded me quite a bit of where I grew up. Simple, hard working, honest, thoughtful people. A bit more rustic perhaps, but quite familiar in many other ways.

Farming, I suppose, came naturally to me for a variety of reasons. For one, I have always enjoyed the outdoors. And having something solid to show for my work, is very satisfying. Unlike shuffling paper, which I did for many years, after putting seeds in the dirt, toiling over them for weeks and months, you have something tangible to hold in your hands. Something that not only yields a monetary return, but something that, I have found, is valuable to others, too.

When those people who value the work of my hands, come back to me, sometimes years later, just to tell me how much the farm and what I do here, what I shared with them or what they learned here, has meant to them and how it changed their lives – well, it is very moving to me. I never imagined knowing what it would feel like having someone I really didn't know all that well, tell me that something I shared with them changed their lives for the better. Helped them improve their quality of life, their health, their children's lives. But I've been very fortunate to have learned what that feels like. And I've
got to tell ya, it feels pretty darn cool.

It often seems to help fuel the super powers, that some seem to think I posses, when they're running low. It certainly gives me something to think about whenever a difficult situation arises and I have to consider the potential solutions. It has only added to my already determined, (or, as some may call it stubborn), nature to push on and through challenges others may chose to call it quits over. I've been tempted on more than one occasion, trust me. But that pull of knowing that what I am doing here day in and day out is having such a lasting, pleasing and positive affect on people, keeps gnawing at me to push through adversity, heartbreak, hot or cold days, floods or droughts – to the next season. Plant that next row of transplants. Start that next flat of seeds. Pull out those crop plans. Mow that path down.

Build it, as they say, and they will come. And they, many of you reading this, have, indeed come. And you have done so over and over, for the past 10 years. 

It's nearly time for you to come yet again to what will be the start of our 11th season of Market Day. This little market has seen its ebbs and flows. Just like the 4 seasons of the year. We started out just planning to meet once a month, but without any other producer-only markets in Dallas at the time, demand morphed it into a twice monthly event that drew people from as far away as Arlington, Allen, Crandall, Duncanville and plenty from the Lakewood area. Now with so many little pop-up "markets" scattered all over the metroplex, this little market has struggled to retain its customer base at times.

Over the years, I've met and hosted many farmers who, sometimes just by virtue of the occupation itself, too, cycled in and out. Sometimes finding that they just couldn't commit to the time it took to produce enough to make driving to a market worth their while. Others, faced family or health hardships that forced them to withdraw. Still a few perhaps lost through attrition of other sorts, and were either just not replaced, or not invited back. And some, found more traffic at new markets near where perhaps some of our original customers actually live and now could walk or ride bikes to, instead of drive the 15 or 20 minutes it took to get here. 

But that's ok. Because people everywhere have to eat. And everyone deserves the opportunity to nearby access of this Real Food, Grown with Integrity. I can't be everyone at once, and neither can other farmers. So we've made due and I meet up with farmers on the road sometimes and buy a box of this or that, hang a sign with their name and town on it, and let their farm be represented here in their absence. That's as close to "re-selling" as it gets around here.

The policy I have always held is that the food sold here will first and foremost not be what you can find at any big supermarket, and likely not what you will come to expect at a big "farmers" market, either. There are no wholesale resellers here, for one thing. Never have been. Never will be. And no one who sells here, is a conventional farmer. You can't just pull up in your truck and open the tail-gate and sell to my customers if I don't know you from Moses. You all have come to trust me to vet your farmers and I'll continue to do so.

And even though when I started out, I wasn't a farmer but simply a garden center retailer, I wanted you to be able to shake the hand that feeds you. I wanted the farmers and ranchers themselves to be here to meet you, to answer any questions you may have about certain cuts of meat – because heaven knows I sure couldn't answer most of those. I still can't. It's all I can do to remember the variety names of the 20 some odd types of tomatoes, squash, garlic, melons or other vegetables and fruit I grow. I used to be able to tell you the Latin names of most of the perennials I sold, but if you had asked me the difference between an heirloom and an open pollinated seed, or a cantaloupe and a musk melon, I may not have been able to give you a very good explanation. Now, I probably couldn't order off of an ornamentals availability list to stock a nursery store shelf without Google's help, but I can probably tell you the optimum soil temperature in which to germinate a lot of vegetable seeds.
But that's ok, too. I found somewhere along the line, that growing, and sometimes selling, seeds and plants that people are going to eat, that are going to provide physical nutrition, in this neighborhood, was more important than growing eye candy. I often miss growing lots of flowers, and I've vowed to do more of it each year. But there is something immensely satisfying about growing food that is nutrient dense, delicious beyond the wildest imagination and that's not been doused with toxic synthetic pesticides or fertilizers that strip the soil and pollute the water or that can make some people sick. I can take little kids or elderly people alike, with their fragile immune systems, and not worry about them succumbing to the temptation to grab and eat a cherry tomato or tasting the sweetness of snow peas straight off the vine, or popping open a fava bean sheath and chewing on the pod till the beans squish in their mouths or pulling a carrot up out of the ground, wiping some of the dirt off it, and crunching into it, right there in the field.

And whenever, (in this business, it's not ever “if”), I've gotten into a jam, there are always those thoughtful and capable folks out there, that roll up their sleeves, or pull out their checkbooks, and pitch in to help me keep this farm going. Thankfully, I've learned better how to ask for help. And this place has survived many a challenge, so you can keep coming to get what you've learned to expect here, and I can keep experiencing the high I get watching you bite into that first burst of summer tomatoes or melons, squeal with joy over a baby chick, and laugh at the antics of Tom Tom the heritage turkey.

I'm inviting new farmers who share my growing habits, and although many are members of TOFGA, most are not certified organic either, to join us this year at Market Day. I call us the un-conventional farmers. We come from different backgrounds, have different reasons for doing what we do, but in general, we share one thing in common, if nothing else; We want to give back to the soils. That, my friends, is a true, organic farmer's mindset.

At times I've been a bit conflicted to find myself in a position to buy and take over the stewardship of this hundred year old homestead. It wasn't always what I wanted to do, and yet, now I work hard to preserve its integrity and beauty for anyone else who wants to enjoy it. I really now feel a bit of a sense of obligation to preserve a place I've been so very fortunate to find.

I often find I have to try very hard to show some people that haven't been here, the value of this place, that many others have helped me to see. This land, this homestead, really is a treasure.

I myself didn't realize its true value, until I started working the land with my own two hands; restoring topsoil that washed away decades ago. Walking through the wooded areas, watching the life on the pond and back at the creek where native birds and insects and plants thrive, gives you new filters through which to see things. Seeing the children in awe of the place, always brings a smile. And adults taking a deep breath as they disconnect from the city, reminds me, often, to stop and take in the beauty, too.

As one of my long time CSA members just recently put it in a beautifully written letter to the city in our quest to protect the farm from a recent building development threat; creating “...a meeting place where people come to fill their baskets and bags with healthy, sustainably-grown produce and share their lives and stories with each other.”, has become an unexpected extension of a long-time past tradition of gathering at the springs just up the road from the farm, at Mr. John Balch's homestead.

Come gather with us this season, fill up your baskets and bags, starting in April. Won't you? 

Bring your stories, your kids and your reusable shopping bags. 

We'll leave the gate open for you! 


Eat Your Food - Naturally!

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Two Birds with One Stone

Lately on various farming forums, I hear “there aren't any lady farmers doing farming how-to videos!”

And, I get asked sometimes how I start seeds in the winter here at my farm.

(I can hear it now - As if N. Texas really has a winter. But really, it's not like it's hot here all year round either, so for seed starting purposes, yes, we have winter temps to contend with, even if you Iowa farmers think we're wimps because our average low is 10F and that rarely happens in most winters. Just for the record, this year I had two consecutive nights of SEVEN degrees F - and yes, it killed most everything I had planted.)

So, back to the two issues. Let’s tackle both of them with this one entry!

I guess this blog will kind of turn into a vlog - with the occasional video going forward - and eventually, once I master it, a podcast, too. But don't worry, you'll be able to access all of it from this one spot! So be sure to bookmark it! But, I'm definitely a lady farmer, and I'll do my best to show you "how to" do stuff. So there's my contribution to resolving the lack of lady farmers with how - to's on line.

Now, it takes a bit of time to edit videos and I'm just learning the ropes, (and farming about 3 of my 14 acres on my own full time, too), so they'll be pretty brief and a little amateurish for now. But you'll (hopefully) be able to get the point and learn something from them. Feedback is good - just be nice. :)

So here we go - and while after 10 years I don't profess to be a pro, quite the contrary, I still consider myself a rookie, I’m going to share with you how I start seeds in the winter on a shoestring budget! 😉

Here’s a little video on it I did.

But in a nutshell;

  • I bought a used waterbed heater on Ebay, although I’ve seen new ones for pretty cheap – like, $50 or less, 
  • I slipped it underneath an air mattress, purchased for less than $20 at a big box sporting goods store, that was filled about half way with water. 

 That's IT! 

This creates a nice big heated seed starting bed! 

I can fit a dozen flats of seeds on there, get them germinated and even keep them warm in the event of a deep freeze, by covering them with a frost blanket over night. 

The soil temp when I went in tonight after chores was a cozy seed starting happy 70 something degrees. That's just perfect for starting your warm season seeds! On a sunny day, you may have to remove them from the heated bed if the temp starts to get too warm. 

Easy peasy! Much less expensive than a half a dozen seed starting mats and/or a fancy artificial lighting set up. (My greenhouse is pretty simple, but even if you set up on a table in an extra room with a trouble light and a sunny south window, this will work.)

Now, I have to give credit where credit is due – this is not my brainstorm, but that of retired farmer Gene from Oak Ridge Valley. He was always very helpful and sharing in ways to help other farmers grow – and I wanted to pass on that knowledge in the same tradition.

So there you have it, ladies looking for a lady farmer on You Tube, and How To seekers for seed starting on a shoestring budget!

Farm On!

Here's to Spring! Hurry up!!


Eat Your Food - Naturally!

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Let's Get This Growing! The Continuing Saga of Acquiring an EQUIP High Tunnel

Wow, August of 2018 will mark my 10 year anniversary of breaking ground and diving into commercial farming. The above photo was taken right after the ground had been run over with a disk, rained on for 5 inches and then later tilled. It was right before we'd spread composted horse manure and used the little tiller and hoes to make rows.

The color of the soil, a light brown, is clearly indicative of how sandy the soil is here at Eden's. Contrary to the dark, "black gumbo" that most of Dallas County "enjoys", my farm is sitting on a deposit of soil quite unlike anything I'd ever grown in before.

As I've covered in past blog entries, growing on sandy soil has its challenges. Trying to keep nutrients available to your plants during flooding winter and spring rains, among one of the greatest.

Heavily mulching helps, to some degree, but even then, when the flooding keeps coming over and over, that mulch is often washed away, down the footpaths, with a lot of the topsoil.

The water rushes down those footpaths and erodes the rows' edges away, leaving little in the way of a solid bed on which to grow healthy plants; without first re-establishing the soil's biology. This process takes time, and so expensive organic amendments are added to aid the current season's crops.

If you'll remember, last year I was finally approved for a high tunnel through the USDA's NRCS EQUIP program. (Geez, how's that for a bunch of acronyms?) And of course, it comes right in the middle of peak growing season, when a farmer has nothing else to do than sit down and fill out paperwork, hunt down lenders (because it's not actually FREE, you have to pay for it up front, then be reimbursed from the USDA after inspection and approval), get it selected and ordered, find a contractor to put it all together at the time you can have it delivered, actually then have it delivered, inspected and then money is made available to you. So, yes, timing is everything. Unless your flush with a little over 10k.

Fellow farmer and friend Bev Thomas of Cold Springs Farm ran into a jam last summer upon being approved for her EQUIP tunnels and a bit of a, well, we'll call it a mix-up, with the FSA loan she'd worked for months to secure. (I'm guessing she might have a different way of describing the whole event, but I'll leave that to her.)

However, in doing so and mentioning the struggle to me, I remembered dealing with the DFW branch of Slow Money Texas and thought maybe they could help her out. So, I reached out to them and they put her in touch with a group out of Austin, the Austin Foodshed Investors.

So once I finally got through the fiasco of the much colder than I expected fall season, which followed a much warmer than normal early fall season, the holidays and a terrible cold I couldn't seem to shake, I, too reached out to these folks for help securing what they call,
"Small Batch Capital To Local Food Companies" so I could finally get my high tunnel ordered, installed and get growing in it in time for the 2018 season. 

Approx what my tunnel will look like
So far, the process had been less than seamless with my original NRCS agent taking a tumble and being out of commission for several months. My application may or may not have been delayed, but upon a conversation with some folks at last year's TOFGA conference, a new agent showed up in my driveway two days after the event ended. My conservation plan was updated and the application was approved within a few more weeks. Thank you, Michael. 

So now I'm on my way to join the ranks of hundreds of other farmers using season extending and more importantly in my case, soil protecting, equipment, in which to grow Real Food. 

I'm excited to see the results and quite honestly, I can't wait to get to hang out in my little plastic wonderland on days like today when the outside temp is below freezing. One of my favorite jobs before moving to Dallas from Chicago was a part time gig I had at the park district's conservatory and greenhouses. Winter raged outside, but in those greenhouses it was as warm as a cool day on a tropical island. I loved it. And I'm really looking forward to the benefits of having one in which to grow delicious vegetables for both my market customers and CSA members.  

Farmer Bev tells me it'll change my world, having a high tunnel in which to grow crops. And the bonus of getting a bit of a head start with the warmer soil gained under protection of the plastic, is pretty cool, too.

Keep it here and I'll chronicle the process. 

Hope to see you at this year's TOFGA conference, too. We can compare notes on growing, and I'll introduce you to Jarred and his company, so you can get your small batch loan, too.


Eat Your Food - Naturally!