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!