Friday, July 22, 2011

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Down on the Farm, Part 2

Woke up Sunday to a gloomy day. It had rained most of the night and the ground was wet. On the way to the outhouse it didn't feel so chilly, so I put on my gumboots and decided I'd head back to the farm for another day of it. I got there just before 11, and all was quiet; except for the huskies in the dog yard and the poultry in their run the place was empty. It wasn't raining, and I was here, so I decided to work anyway. Yesterday before I left the farmer had shown me a yellow-flowered weed whose dried fruit is a bur that the dogs pick up on their coats and spread everywhere; he wanted me to pull up the whole plant wherever I found it, de-head it, and collect the heads in a pail to dump on the compost pile. I recognized the plant as being in the rose family, a type of avens in the genus Geum, a rosette of toothy lobed leaves and hairy stalks bearing small five-petaled yellow flowers that mature into round prickly fruits. Little does he know, I thought to myself, that he has a plant biologist volunteering for him--leave it to me, Mr. Green Jeans, Sir!

By the time he showed up nearly two hours later I had removed virtually every last one of those damn things from the east end of his property. I had attacked them with such relish, and the wet ground made it easy work to yank them out roots and all. I flung them hither and thither, hanging on willow branches and fence posts to die a horrible death in the hot sun. Bwahahahahaha! I was about to proudly tell him all this when he bent down to examine one and said it was the wrong weed. "It looks alot like it though," and lead me across the farmyard and through a dense thicket of willows and young spruce that scratched my bare arms to a clearing around a small pond thick with wildflowers: deep magenta fireweed and a lovely tall plant with delicate yellow flowers. "This is it," he said, snapping off a cluster of yellow flowers for me to inspect. "Just collect the heads in this bucket and bring them to the compost pile."

It was now about 2:00. I looked around me; what had been a lyrically beautiful meadow an instant ago had transformed into a battlefield with at least a couple hundred enemy forces. Kristin Kimball in her book The Dirty Life writes eloquently of the battle against weeds she and her husband fought during their first farming season together:
Farming, I discovered, is a great and ongoing war. The farmers are continually fighting to keep nature behind the hedgerow, and nature is continually fighting to overtake the field. Inside the ramparts are the sativas, the cultivated plants, soft and vulnerable, too highbred and civilized for fighting. Aligned with nature are the weeds, tough foot solders, evolved for battle.

Inspired by her words, and with digging tool in hand, I bent down and attacked those tough foot soldiers, one by one, and brought them all to their doom, bringing their heads back in my bucket, not as trophies but as future compost. Now I could finally say it: BWAHAHAHAHAHAHA!

After a late lunch the farmer showed me around some more. I got to visit the greenhouses. I have to say, the row crops were beautifully planted, but the greenhouse was a thing unto itself.

I've never seen such dark-green, healthy, sturdy-looking hothouse plants. They were interplanted in two foot wide wooden beds that ran the length of the greenhouse embedded with special pipes of warm air heated by woodstove to keep the roots warm: tomatoes, bell and hot peppers, herbs of all description, beans, peas, cucumbers, watermelon, muskmelon, cantaloupe, pumpkins. Every square inch of soil was taken up, but the plants did not look messy or crowded. The peppers were studded with white star-shaped flowers, the tomatoes and cukes with yellow bells, and the pumpkins and melons with minature orange lampshades of blooms. In the middle, wedged between two beds was a simple cane-backed chair on which rested a cigarette lighter and rolling papers. Classical music played in the background. I won't reveal the farmer's secrets except to say that he works with northern-adapted varieties, uses lots of natural fertilizer and bone meal, and inter-plants with radishes for natural insect control.

These greenhouses don't go year round--it's just too cold in the winter, and during the collar seasons the woodstove can't be left untended. In this part of the world keeping roots warm is critical. Of course air temperature is important but a healthy plant with a good root system can withstand temperatures above freezing if the roots are protected.

It was quite an education. Here was this humble looking guy, gray bearded, grimy clothes, smelling of tobacco--The Wizard of Plants if ever a Wiz there was!

During the tour the wind picked up and it grew chilly, and dark clouds in the east meant a storm was coming. Before I left the Wizard went down into a cellar and produced a carton of fresh eggs for me to take home. I was grateful. I ate two in an omelette shortly after and they were amazing. I'll go back again and hope to learn more.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Garden vs farming

In my never-ending quest to find some higher purpose to my life (or is it because I have a long holiday weekend and need something to do while Joe is up at Toolik?) I decided to volunteer at the organic vegetable farm down the road. It is run by one man, who told Joe and me he has been at it for seven seasons. I asked him how he does it all by himself, and he answered without a trace of irony: "Drugs."

His farm sits on a couple of acres of open ground a bit higher and drier than Simon's, where he raises outdoor crops typical of this area: potatoes, cabbage, cauliflower, turnips, beets, as well as beans and squash, and some herbs and tomatoes grown in a couple of small greenhouses. Animal-wise, in addition to the usual dog yard full of bored-to-death huskies lounging on their dogboxes all summer long, he keeps a small flock of poultry--chickens mostly, and a lone tom turkey that parades around ostentatiously like a royal personage displaying his flashy feathers and puffed out chest.

I stopped by the farm after work yesterday evening to propose my services for the following day, and he seemed agreeable to the idea, so after a hearty breakfast I biked over to meet him in his driveway at 10:30 (he is not one of those early riser-type farmers). He immediately put me to work to weed a row of raspberry bushes along the fenceline abutting the dogyard. At first the huskies barked and fussed, and the turkey gobbled, whenever I stood up to dump weeds in the wheelbarrow, but after a while they calmed down to doze in the midday sun and I settled into the quiet rhythm of the work. The weeds yielded easily--the earth was deep and fluffy and brown-- obviously this guy knew what he was doing to transform the dense native silt of this area. I noticed rows of large-leafed tobacco interspersed with potatoes and kale, and if I stepped accidentally into a row the soil smushed pleasantly the way barely moist dry cake mix does when you pinch it between your fingers.

The only thing that bothered me was the smell of fresh dog poo. It smacked me in the nose just where I was yanking up the weeds--as if a dog had just taken a dump. After awhile I realized it wasn't coming from the dogyard but did in fact seem to be close at hand. I had heard from Simon that this farmer has been known to compost his dogyard waste and use it as fertilizer, usually considered a no-no because of the risk of parasites, but after finishing for the morning and returning home I noticed that the smell of dog urine is clinging to my jeans. He must make a fertilizer tea and apply it to his rows. Hmm.

Joe and I bought some of his veggies last year--kale and cauliflower, and found them very good. It doesn't really bother us that he uses dog manure, in fact, I commend him for using the cheapest and most logical source of nitrogen for his crops. The dogs all look healthy and well fed, and it makes sense that a farmer, especially a small-scale organic one, has got to get back some of what he spent on animal feed in the form of fertilizer.

Two hours and three wheelbarrow loads of weeds later I was covered with grime, but I managed to finish the row and told him I would be back tomorrow. I could have easily spend a couple more hours but I have plans later this afternoon and decided to go easy on my first day.