Tuesday, November 5, 2019

Winged Intruder

Sleeping solidly through the night when you live on a farm isn't always something you get to do. At least, I don't. I seem to sleep with one ear still "on"; listening for out of place noises

Living on a farm one block north of a freeway in a place with a prevailing southerly wind, makes discerning noise a bit tricky.  When the breeze is out of the north, or calm, it's very quiet around here. But when carried by Gulf breezes, the constant hum of freeway noise, blow outs or hot rodders; it's not always easy to separate noises.

Well, last night, there was no doubt the sound of the Great White Pyrenees alarm, followed almost immediately by the screeching guinea fowl alarm. 

I jumped up, threw on my robe and slippers, meaning to put on my Sloggers, and grabbed my phone - in the event it was a two-legged intruder - and rushed out the back door to see what the clatter was all about. 

And it's not even the night before Christmas.

Anyway, I arrived and looked around, scanning ground and then sky - just in time to see the shadow of a pair of vast wings slowly ascending off into the night sky. I so wish I could have fired off a photograph. But as it flew off, unable to make out if it had something in it's talons or not I supposed if it had something, I'd have seen it. Perhaps. 

I didn't stop to grab my spectacles on my way out the door. 

It grew quiet almost instantly as the winged invader flew off. And the only noise now I tuned into, was that of the creaky, squeaky noises the guinea fowl make when they're not screeching at full volume. 

I located where it was coming from, and quickly counted the white heads that almost glowed in the dark. Four. I should have 6. Not believing even a huge barn owl would carry off two birds at once, I decided if the other one, or hopefully both, were still around, they'd be huddled together in silence. 

So I herded the four I could find through the dark of the night with my familiar "feeding whistle tune" and slow movements into the chicken coop area they are supposed to sleep in. Locked up the door, and when back to try to find the others. 

There it was! I heard the distinctive noise, quiet, yet familiar. Was that a flash in the brush? My good flashlight lay on the desk; I will remember to put things back where they belong so I can quickly grab them; some day. 

So all I had was the dim light from my cell phone to search. Then from behind me, I heard a much more distinct chatter. Up in the tree was the lightest colored of the birds, one of the males, near the lower branches; not where he usually roosts. Surely they were rustled out of their sleeping spots. Of that, I had no doubt. 

I searched and sat quietly for over 10 minutes but just couldn't find the other bird, likely this one's mate, anywhere. So I decided to let him stay in the tree for the rest of the night. If indeed it had been the other bird I'd heard, and not just this one's call bouncing off the wall of the barn back at me, he'd find her in the AM. 

And I would be out at dawn with feed, to be sure they didn't wander off before accounted for. 

So, with that in mind, as if an alarm went off in my head, my eyes popped open at five after six and off I went, fully dressed this time, to the barn to snatch up some feed for my likely sleepless, feathered friends. 

First I called to the male in the tree, and as soon as it was lighter, he swooped down and came running for his snack. Trying to lead him to the other 4 in the coop, I walked slowly dribbling grain behind me. 

He came as far as the gate to the enclosure and then ran back towards the tree. No, this way! Silly bird. So I let the other 4 out, giving them some grain as well, and to my pleasant surprise, I turned back around the rain barrel to find my guinea pair - reunited! 

I was so happy I nearly cried. You see, guinea fowl, as I understand it, mate for life. And if they're separated for some reason, will often remain unpaired for the rest of their life. That always made me kind of sad to think of, so I was very happy to see his mate had survived the attack from our late night, winged intruder. 

Perhaps, but not likely, they will choose to sleep in their enclosure now..... one can only hope. Because, our intruder will surely be back.


Eat Your Food - Naturally!

Sunday, August 18, 2019

It's a Dozen!

aprx 12 min read
Here is the garden right after an old cowboy boyfriend spent several days running over old, hard, over grazed pasture with an old arena disc, then getting several inches of rain, and then paying a farmer with a tractor powered tiller.

Heavens to Betsy - I'm starting my 12th year of farming! Looking back over old photos, blog posts, both of mine and fellow farmers, so much has changed on this farm in Balch Springs, TX since I broke ground in August of 2008.

I had full time job, a tiny little tiller, (still somewhere in the garage), that would beat the heck up out of me when I used it on the west side of the gardens due to the mix of red clay; and would sink practically up to the motor on the east side, because it was nearly all sand.

Some "young" farmers posing for TXYFO at a TOFGA conference in Rockwall, TX
 I was fortunate enough along the way to have so many wonderful TOFGA farmers to turn to for advice, guidance and good deals, especially when I first started out in 2008. The great, late, Farmer Larry, from Austin's famed Boggy Creek Farm, (far left) sold me two heavy duty walk behind tillers for less than it cost me to get a brand new motor and have it installed in one of them. I do still pull that one out to fluff up the soil when I need it, or to break up the mixed clay/sandy clods when the soil is just the right consistency.

Local former feed/farm store owner Jack (r) and his nephew another Larry I knew, (l), with the "big blue" tractor and tiller when new ground needed to be prepared.

Then one day early in 2009, I lost my father. I had originally left my full time job working for an ornamental grower to help him as his health was not good. Up until then, I was only farming part time, at night after or early in the morning before my job. I was going to work the farm in the morning while an aid tended to my dad for a morning nurse's shift, then clean up and head to my father's apartment to get him an early dinner, his RX's, and get him to bed. My plan, also, was to build him a 10x10 tiny home on my property to live, so the commute to Richardson would end. He, being a heavy smoker, and I, having an affinity to catch bronchitis, couldn't ever be roommates. But having him on the farm would enable to keep an eye on him, cook (good food) for him and run him to the doctors as needed.

He'd only been to see the gardens once since I broke ground and it was on a wet, cold, November day. I was bringing him home but detoured to the farm to cover tender crops with frost cloth before an impending cold front. He shook his head, almost in disbelief for the project I had only recently told him I'd undertaken. "Where's all of your help?"  I remember him asking when I returned to the truck, soaking wet from the cold rain. I think he thought I was nuts for becoming a farmer. But what he didn't know was that the cathartic value of being in Nature, working the soil into something living and the reward of seeing the fruit of my work, would be what helped carry me through the season following his death. 

Later that year, JD came into my life and nothing was ever the same! JD was not very big, as some might say, but he was strong, and he didn't have very many hours on him, yet he never complained how many hours I worked. He came with a brush hog and a free mini-tractor driving lesson so I could get him home; about a block down the street.

JD - one of the best investments for the farm I ever made!

Having this tractor enabled me to clear an area of weeds and grass myself, then using the walk behind tiller, mix in amendments and have a nice, fluffy bed in which to plant. Plus, I was able to mow trails for hiking around the farm - so I didn't have to fight off chiggers....

 Later that summer, the local tractor store - that I miss so much today - turned me on to a place called Steven's Tractor in Louisiana where I got a multi-purpose implement that further made my life easier. It had a large spade, for digging ditches, planting and harvesting potatoes, as well as cultivators (which I'm still not very good at using), and a set of scalloped discs for helping make raised beds.

They carry all sorts of custom tools and parts for older tractors like mine. Bookmark them and if you're on it, Like them on FB! If I had more cash flow, I'd be a regular shopper and have all sorts of more tools!

Work-share families helped make a little lighter all of the weeding and harvesting.
But, I learned to get along with what I had for the most part and in the early years I seemed to always have at least 2 or 3 work-share members that came out once a week to help make a little shorter some of the backbreaking work.

Back in 2015 I guess it was, I did add another valuable implement from Larry - with the big blue tractor - who was selling off his smaller tractor attachments. I picked up a disc, which has nearly replaced my need for the walk behind tiller. It isn't as harsh on the soil, not that sand really builds up much of a hard pan, but it also helped me to bust up Bermuda grass over and over during the hottest part of the summer, helping to kill it out - for a  season anyway - and get my fall crops in a little earlier. I now also use tarps to help with this task. You can call it a 1 - 2 punch I guess.  That devil's grass still comes back thriving each spring though....

And that's been probably my #1 biggest pest - Bermuda grass. Starting a farm smack dab in the middle of a horse pasture, once seeded with common Bermuda no less - was to be a lot more troublesome than I expected. I have not ever used a synthetic herbicide on it, so exhausting its food source from the sun is my best option. However, being what it is, persistent, unless I did this to the entire perimeter around the 2 or so acres, it would always find a way to creep back in; under the ground, over the cardboard, around the barriers. To fight it to its death naturally has thus far proven futile. All I can do is delay it.

If I had any real sense I guess I'd invest in some square bale equipment and just become an organic hay farmer - and don't think I've not considered it.

But growing food for people's consumption is what drove me into this field of work and unless we really evolve, hay is not in our diet. Not directly anyway. In 07 when it became clear that there weren't enough local farmers growing unconventionally in the area to fuel my Market Days, I decided to grow some myself. I picked up a few farmers each season, but rarely did they consistently have produce year round. Many retired, moved away or were lost to this world too soon. But until the past few years, I was always able to share a few farmers and organic value added producers with other local markets that only met opposite my market's days. That ended several years ago and it became harder and harder to compete with the higher traffic markets. My community appreciated me being here, but not in the numbers needed to help support multiple farmers needs.

So over the past decade I've learned a ton about growing seasonal food for myself and my community and strive to provide as much as I can above and beyond what I grew for my CSA, who are my main source of income. I never imagined I would have to learn to grow at such large quantities and I still struggle to do so with the limited equipment and lack of help I currently have.

Joan Firra, semi-retired physical therapist & original member

My CSA membership's core of about 26 +/-
paying members have been with me for an average of 9 years, with one being an original member from day 1! We pick up new members each season, and we lose a few as well. Some families move away, or decide that CSA just isn't for them.

Eating primarily in season off a local farm that you visit once a week is a lot to ask someone. But understanding that the small, local farmer is not usually intending to totally replace your trip to a farmer's market (or, even a supermarket if need be), is important to feeling like a CSA is worthwhile for some.

Sometimes people are not happy that I don't grow what they're used to getting at a supermarket. There are just certain things that, over the years, I've learned are not viable to grow here on this farm. At least not that I've found a way to grow yet. I'm always trying new varieties of vegetables and fruits, and most recently have been adding perennial things such as fruit trees and working to tame our asparagus. The Bermuda actually makes perennials more difficult to grow because I can't just toss a tarp over a freshly mowed area or I'll wind up killing the food crop, too.

I'd like to be able to produce sweet potatoes, probably more than even my members, as it's one of my most favorites. It's not a highly labor intensive plant, but I have an army of rabbits that enjoy eating the vines as well as a soil that seems not to support a very robust crop. Each spring it seems we get heavier rains that wash nutrients out of the soil that are important to the healthy development of sweet potatoes. Thankfully, harvesting my own slips from a local sweet potato farm saved me tons on that lesson learned.

But not so much on the hundreds I spent on shipping in certified organic seed ("Irish") potatoes from CO for several years. I never could sell enough through the garden center to pay for them, so it is a crop we all miss dearly. And one I'm sure I'll look for a way to re-incorporate back into the mix at some point.

Probably the most important piece of equipment I added to the farm other than the loader for my tractor - which was made possible by a crowd funding campaign in 2016 that blew me away and still does - was last year's acquirement of the high tunnel through the USDA's NRCS program and built primarily by volunteer farmers from the area.

Thanks to the urging by dear friend and fellow lady farmer Beverly Thomas of Cold Springs Farm, I took the leap and signed a contract to get the 30x96' structure, fully reimbursed or I'd never been able to afford it.

Now, a high tunnel in N. Texas may seem odd to those who use them for cold weather season extension in the north. But protecting the top soil from our ever increasing flooding spring rains, means less leaching of nutrients (that become expensive to add each year over and over after flooding rains), less loss of seeds sown, and less erosion. It also made a big difference in the heating degree days for our late fall and winter crops as well and we enjoyed a more robust harvest from November through late spring than in most of our past years.

Every year I learn more and do my best to pass on some of my knowledge to others. From work share members who go on to farm their own land, to on farm residents and interns to garden center beginning gardening classes; it makes me so happy to learn that others have benefited from what were sometimes, my mistakes.
Last year a young man from Wisconsin wandered on down to Texas to pass some time away from the cold winter and found my farm through the local FFA group. He was amazed at our growing season and gleaned all he could, taking back his new-found wisdom vowing to grow more food up north and return this winter to work with me again.  Maybe even permanently! Boy that would be a big help!

Chef Dave Gilbert was the first chef for whom I grew produce
As for now, I've downsized a bit, only growing for my CSA and local market, chefs as I'm able, instead of relying on that income and killing myself with all of the extra hours it took to harvest it all, (at one time I was offering crops to 15-20 chefs a week). Once I get the hang of growing in the protected environment of the high tunnel, which is different that out in the field, I hope to be able to again become a regular name on a few menus around town.

Since it's hot as a kiln and dry as a bone outside as I write this, you can imagine other than watering everything endlessly, there's not a whole lot of farming going on. Fall seed trays are going in hopes that the ground will be ready to receive the transplants when they're ready, tomatoes, peppers, a bit of arugula and eggplant are hanging on for dear life in the high tunnel, which desperately needs a $500 shade cloth the farm just can't budget for right now. And the fields are hosting watermelon and more eggplant but just last week laid to rest the cucumber and what was left of melons patch. Okra is stunted for some reason, but putting out a little bit of produce whilst providing some much needed afternoon shade to recently planted winter squash transplants we hope to have in time for Thanksgiving shares.

 Farmer Brad Stufflebeam's (left, barking out information to us students) priceless grower's symposiums that I attended on his farm in Brenham two years in a row my first and 2nd years farming...

Farmer Beverly Thomas - an overwhelming source of support and information to me
I owe any success I can claim to the many farmers who came before me, some to whom I owe much more than others, as well as the many DFW area folks who strive to consume a more clean, local diet that pay my salary so I can scratch out a living doing something I love;

An early days Market Day

One of my favorite parts of Market Day guests; sharing the livestock
Former CSA member took me to lunch just before moving out of state.
both as their own private CSA farmer and to those who have come to the many Saturdays of market days when we have enough produce to go around.

And to the many, many volunteers who have come to pull weeds, shovel compost, harvest produce and so much more - I never could have done it all without your generous gift of your time!

Ground breaking, spreading manure with volunteers and neighbors

Happy Anniversary to Eden's Garden CSA Farm, and here's to at least another twelve!! 


Eat Your Food - Naturally!

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

Real Life Reality Doesn't Have a Script

(This is the fuller version of a post from the farm's FB post, which also contained 2 additional tales by other farmers.) 

Sometimes reality is shocking to those who don't live and breathe it every day. Farms are hurting and many of them look like train wrecks. Not Better Homes and Gardens centerfolds.

I JUST THIS WEEK got cucumbers in the ground. Along with that, the 2nd planting of watermelon and cantaloupe went in yesterday, and some were seeds to make up for the transplants that expired in their pots waiting for it to be dry enough out to plant them in the ground.

I have half the tomatoes in the ground I usually do this time of the summer - but I'm still seeding with hopes some of the new varieties I'm trying will take the Dallas heat. 

As I pulled out winter crops in the high tunnel, because the ones in the field drowned, I put in peppers and tomatoes, beans and squash. The bees didn't find many of the squash blossoms in there - but, ironically, the squash vine borer and the cucumber beetles and squash bugs - did. So much for an early start. Squash transplants will go outside tomorrow in the last row I was able to get prepared - before it rained all day today.

Prior to this week's mowing (I've been spending at least one day a week, every week, mowing, for the past month and half) and disk/bedding, this place looked like a giant, overgrown, mudhole. 

It's slowly starting to take shape again. I outwardly heaved a sigh of relief last night - at 7pm - as I purveyed the work I'd started - at 7am - and saw it finally showing progress.

It was embarrassing to let my members wander out through the pasture last weekend, but they "get it" because I keep them abreast of what is going on here. Weekly. Pictures. A newsletter. An open invite to come see and work - mire in the mud with me.

And some of them do come. They see the evolution and then the ebb and flow of things when Nature goofs off and doesn't do her part.

Customers who don't get it, complain;
There's not enough choice in produce, I found a bug/hole/it's too small
The 3 different times/places to pick up aren't convenient enough for me.
I can spend $6 for a cup of coffee but a dozen eggs?
Well MY garden has xyz growing in it....

Planting a garden plot is NOT the same as growing food for 20, 30, 50 families, plus a market or two or three, etc. It's not the same as getting something from the warehouse and putting it on a shelf. Or ordering it on line from a clearing house and putting it in a box and shipping it out. Organic chicken feed is twice the price of the conventional stuff in a feed store - you are what you eat, eats, and we care about that.

You can not magically put in raise beds where you once planted 300' rows by tractor, when you farm alone. It's pretty much physically impossible for one person, without some equipment, to farm on that scale. Harvesting alone will nearly kill you.

And as much organic matter as you put in, one or two heavy downpours essentially makes it all obsolete when your ground is mostly sand and it filters it to the top and floats off. So you have to prep your land - all over again.

That's why I got the high tunnel. It saved our winter harvest. I listened to my mentor, Farmer Bev. She told me it'd help and it has. She's had her challenges with them this year - mice, grasshoppers. They're not a silver bullet for sure.

Thankfully, I found a huge snake skin in mine - and she/he seems to be doing a decent job, for the moment, on what was almost a mouse invasion in there. The local birds found a way in (and thankfully out) and seem to have gotten the grasshoppers under control - for now. That was after the I kicked out neighbor's chickens that got in there and ate down our spring seedlings to wash down some grasshoppers.

I got lucky. Not all farmers get lucky. Some of them lose it all - or their lives trying to save it all. And it shouldn't be that way. These people grow our food. We'd all die without them. If the auto makers go away, we can still walk. Or ride a bike.

No Farms. No Food. Get it?

We need to find ways to support our small, struggling farms, without breaking our own banks, so they can get through tough times. They aren't all good at asking for help, or for telling you how bad it really is, until it's REALLY bad. "There's always next season" is the farmer's mantra. 

Till several years of bad seasons string together and nearly wipe them out. 

Drought, followed by a dip in the economy, the insurgence of 3rd party Venture Capital backed mail order "farm to house" companies, flagrant lying "farmers" buying wholesale and selling it as if they grew it, floods, grasshoppers, health issues, livestock dying - and sometimes, ALL of this stacked up on top of each other over the course of 4 or 5 years - and there's nothing left. 

If you can afford a CSA but can't use it - find a farm that offers them, and gift it to someone. It makes a cool "I care about you" present for in-laws, relatives, parents, etc. 

Cold Springs Farm CSA is west of 35 and needs full share members for the summer season. Which will be starting late, b/c - RAIN. But Bev grows awesome corn, melons, tomatoes, cucumbers and more. 

Eden's is east of 75. I'm sorry, we don't service outside of downtown or Lakewood. I'm one person. Bev is one person. We don't have a fleet of drivers or even another part time employee. It's one woman operations. Two Lady Farmers, remember? Till the Dallas farmer's market went back to wholesale selling and treating their farmers like dirt. Now we each are back to CSA and a local market. But we need you to buy. Highway 19 produce and berries lost a ton of crops this spring to flooding. They're out east of me. They need your help, too. 

If a farmer has value added products - buy them. They also make great gifts if you don't happen to like pickled okra, dilly beans or whatever they had time to make. Yeah, $9 is a lot for a jar of vinegar and veggies - but it was made with care, attention to detail, by hand, in your farmer or artisan's kitchen - with you in mind. That's pretty priceless.

Many farmers farm as their sole way of earning income. They really love what they do, but if there's not enough of a market to buy what they grow, they can't stay in business. and then what? 

You are forced to then buy food grown from a big, faceless farm. And you'll complain. So why not complain about the small farm's prices and being out of the way to get to; than the big one's facelessness and all that comes with it?

This is not a local DFW issue. It's happening all over the country. More farmers are committing suicide now than ever before. Farming used to be sustainable. It CAN be. But we have to have a market for it. YOU are our market. 

No one expects anyone to spend all of their grocery money with one place. Find something you can afford or that you know you can't find at the supermarket, and commit to getting it from your favorite local farmer, dairy(wo)man, rancher, fisher(wo)man, artisan, etc. 

We'll all be glad you did.

Eat Your Food - Naturally!


PS - my hat is off to all small business owners everywhere. Owning and running one is hard work. Endless hours spent thinking, planning, doing - only to have an employee or you make a mistake that costs money and time lost, or Nature - in the case of farming - wipe out an entire planting, which can't be replaced for weeks, because, farming is not magic.

Keep doing what you do because it's worth it to someone. Hopefully it's worth it to YOU. If it's not - it may be time to do something different. Life is short and hard work is one thing, but please, don't risk your health or life for it. And whatever you do, don't end your life over it. Too many people value you beyond what your business is. Taken from the original post off FB that started this blog entry - if you are a farmer reading this and you feel helpless, hopeless and lost... there is help, and there is support. https://farmcrisis.nfu.org/