Thursday, August 2, 2018

FSA Approved

 At this point in my journey, I am fairly used to tears. There have been so many reasons to cry in recent years. So many losses, so many challenges, so much fatigue, so many barriers, so many overwhelmingly discouraging moments. I definitely feel like I have earned the tough skin I wear, these days. However; the news I received this afternoon completely caught me off guard and now the waterworks just won’t shut off. I am once again overwhelmed, literally puffy-eyed from sobbing. The irony is that this time… they’re HAPPY tears. ‘Cause guess what??? We’re finally buying a farm, Y’all!!! 

Against all odds and 5 years of planning, jumping hurdle after hurdle and almost literally clawing our way toward our goal of land-ownership, we finally made it. Five beautiful little words after five long years and in the middle of a disastrous farm season... “Your loan has been approved.”

Sweet relief! Sweet joy! So many thoughts and emotions! So NOW can we for real plan for the future?! Now can we implement our long-term goals for the farm and for our lives?! Do we finally get to make some place OUR OWN?! No more moving every couple of years? No more wondering where our markets will be or when we can finally put stuff in the dirt that can stay there… for decades???

I am one happy damn farmer, today, and one grateful farmer, too. We never would have made it this far without all the folks who believed in us, supported us and showed up to us out. Our friends, our family, our fellow farmers. Our CSA shareholders, our Farmers Market regulars, and everyone else who JUST SHOWED UP. More to come later, but for now… 


Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Carry on and carry a big pitchfork

Today is one of those days in which putting one foot before the other feels like walking in boots made of lead. Everything is so much harder than it needs to be.

As if farming in-and-of itself weren’t hard enough, winter is refusing to release her icy death grip, (almost 8 inches of snow today on April 3rd and record low temps coming our way tonight!), I am facing health issues for which I’ve been avoiding treatment for, because my husband Josh and I are still struggling to pay off medical bills from the last two years, (thank you crappy health insurance!), and are becoming quite weary of always being broke. Our landlord decided recently to start giving us a hard time about our responsibilities as care-takers - which is part of our rental agreement - and when we expressed that we did not feel it was in our best interest to write a new contract at his request, (the one we have is still valid and binding and I spent a lot of time researching and formulating it), he sent us a 6-month notice to vacate the property. This, of course, would have us moving at the height of farm season, a time in which keeping up with fieldwork is a taxing task drawn out over very long and physically demanding days. The thought of trying to move – not just a home, but also a farm business - at that time of year, while still having to fulfill our markets came just shy of giving me a major panic attack. And of course… we would need a farm to move to. I have been searching feverishly for a suitable farm to buy for the last six months, but so far nothing has come along that we’ve felt strongly enough about to make an offer. Moving an entire farm operation to another rental property and then having to move it again once we buy land was something we set out to avoid from the start, with this place. It was supposed to grant us an opportunity to build up our business over 2-3 years until we could buy our own farm. (For which we are on track! We are beginning our 3rd season on this property and prepared to make an offer on a farm as soon as we can find something that suits us). Thankfully, I wrote us a solid contract that would make it illegal for us to be forced out mid-season, without seriously neglecting our end of the agreement, of course. Which we have not. Still, I spent a considerable amount of time these last two months wringing my hands and wasting oodles of invaluable hours reading up on Wisconsin laws regarding agricultural leases and seeking legal counsel, rather than finishing the overdue business plan for our lender, and accomplishing other time-sensitive promotional work. 

Everything about farming revolves around time. There is either far too much of it, or not nearly enough.

Life as a beginning farmer has certainly been exciting and often joyful, as well. Tucked between the exhaustion, fear and frustration are regular moments of wonder, gratitude and contentment. Winnowburrow Farm is finding it’s identity as Josh and I hash our way through the thick, testing out available markets, discovering our growing passions, assessing our resources verses our limitations, and integrating into a wonderful and supportive community. Starting any new business is bound to be wrought with adventure, coupled with stress. Farming is no different, and in many ways, presents a multitude of unique challenges that most business models would have great difficulty navigating. The simple immense feat of land ownership is the most prime example. There are far more beginning farmers in America today that do not come from farm families, than do. (Sadly, there are not very many beginning farmers at all compared to the population that is retiring. Yet another important and very overlooked topic in our great nation). With land prices driven up by Big Ag farms scooping every tillable acre they can get their hands on at a premium price, access to affordable, farm-able land is a beginning farmer’s single greatest barrier.

We have been fortunate to find opportunities which allow us cultivate soil. It has been the pure generosity of land-owners trusting stewardship to us that has laid the groundwork for our current success. Three years ago we were seeking a farm internship and today we are running a unique CSA (Community Supported Agriculture), growing rare and endangered Heirlooms and developing a successful cut flower business. We have many plans for our farm, most of which require ownership to execute and we are more than ready for our “forever farm” so that we can continue to grow a viable business. Just waiting for that small miracle to come along!

Everyone told me this would be hard and of course I knew that it would be. Is it harder than I anticipated? The answer is absolutely, unequivocally YES. I thought I had a pretty good idea of what I was getting into, but the truth is, when you are actually presented with the daily challenges the life of farm start-up throws at you, you find that it requires far more energy and patience than a sane human can generally handle. Especially when the property you are starting on lacks basic resources… such as running water… (I’ve always said I enjoy a good challenge… Commence eye-rolling…)!  Ultimately though, being tired isn’t the worst thing ever. The rewards far outweigh the bummer moments. I imagine new parents feel the same. (To my beginning farmer friends who are also new parents... my sympathies)!

It is my sincere hope that more young folks choose this career path. And also that the strangling laws and regulations this country so unnecessarily impose on farmers and food systems loosen, so that folks like us have an easier time succeeding. If I have any advice to offer, based on my journey thus far, it is to stay positive, believe you deserve it, share your passion with everyone, dig for resources and do not be afraid to ask! The resources are there. Trust me. And if you’re motivated to do good work, people will not only support you… they will help!

Manifestation is a great spade to have in your tool shed. It goes beyond dreaming. It is also believing, planning and doing. People won’t believe you are successful unless you believe you are successful. And you won’t reach your farm goals unless you stay patient, stay motivated and follow all the steps. Self-education is key. A horticultural degree might be right for some, but there are plenty of other ways to learn how to grow, without going into massive debt. The Land Stewardship Project and MOSES offer many classes, workshops and farm field days. Local Farmers Unions chapters provide resources. Many farms offer internships. The WWOOF network makes it easy to travel and learn about organic farming.  Many states also have small non-profits which provide programs for learning opportunities, such as the WFAN, based in Iowa and Nebraska, which is how I managed to score a kick-ass mentorship with Denise O’Briene, who is still my mentor, today. Farm Service Agency (FSA) and National Resources Conservations Service (NRCS) offer financial resources. There is also the internet, of course, and it is an invaluable resource for farming as much as anything else.
For those who are not destined to become farmers, please, please, please, do what ever you can to support local farmers! Buy from them, volunteer to help them, share their stories, share their product, connect them with potential markets if you have resources to do so. Just give them money. (Kidding, not kidding). None of us are out here struggling and toiling and destroying our bodies to make it rich. Our richness is in a lifestyle of connectedness to nature. It sure is worth a lot to us, but it generally doesn’t do a great job paying the bills. It’s a trade-off. The cheap and fast food society that we've become is not working to anyone’s advantage. We all need to eat, and the folks providing the food are suffering the most, these days. An article was recently circulating about how farmer suicide rates in the United States are significantly higher than that of war Veterans. That’s a scary notion and being three-years-deep myself and already feeling on the verge of burnout, longevity in this field is a concern to me. How can we – as a society and individual communities - overcome this disparity together and realize that - in many cases - our relationship to nature is manifested most by what we put in our mouths every single day? And that the folks who work damn hard with endless obstacles are making sure we all still have something to put in our pie holes?

Just some thoughts from a rambling, unnecessarily stressed out farmer. Carry on, and carry a big pitchfork. (Whether literally or metaphorically).

Monday, June 19, 2017

Green womb of the Woods

June wind combs the landscape, igniting stillness to action. Quietly sitting in the green womb of the Woods, I listen. A masterpiece is sounding. The melody of Birdsong never ceases, not day or night. It only changes theme. The trills and pulses of Insectsong, signal time. Morning comes, the Dragonflies hum and Birds flurry. Hot, mid-day sun starts Flies buzzing. Night falls to the Crickets whose rhythm and timbre soothe like gentle purring of a much-loved Cat. Rising moons invoke silhouettes of Whipoorwill, a pair of Owls, of Coyotes deep in the thick. Even when it’s still, and the hissing of the Leaves become silent, Nature speaks: Acorns fall, clacking Branches along the way until landing with a crisp puff upon tissue-paper Leaves. The snap of Twigs beneath a Deer hoof. A visiting Treefrog. A rustling Rodent.

There is nothing that brings deeper love and respect for Nature than by living in it. The Universe makes so much more sense when the cycles of Life are clear and present. Death makes more sense. Healing seems more possible. Hunger is the guiding force of behavior.     

Nature’s beauty – and the curiosity about it – is not only satiating, but filling. When Sunset after Sunset is the prettiest of all, lusting for something more is obsolete. When each and every Day reveals a newly discovered Bug… or Plant, or Bird, or Disease… boredom has no room to exist.  The lessons are endless. The limits, boundless. The joy, irreplaceable.

There is nothing that brings deeper love and respect for Nature than by living in it. A place becomes a Community when relationships are developed between it’s tenants. A frenzied Bumble Bee in the outhouse becomes a regular. Spider, the ally, crouching patiently in it’s corner, always on patrol. The Hummingbird pair, who visit daily, become friends. Even not-so-desirable Critters gain respect for the very simple fact that they are alive and want to thrive, too. Love is the power which fuels this incredulous ballet between Energy, Matter and Life. Earth spins like a giant, spherical amphitheater, projecting an endless multi-media performance out into the great void of the Universe. It’s been happening for millennium, it’s happening now, and it will continue to happen for longer than a brain can fathom.

Every single sound is miracle that it can even be a sound at all. Every. Single. Sound.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

The Farmsteader - Part II (A Purposeful Life)

There is nothing that feels so good as being amongst trees. They bring the most calming peace. Sometimes, while walking in the woods, I will stop with a start… something catching my attention from the corner of my eye. Today, it was a mist. Or so I first perceived. A surprising conjecture, given the biting cold and breeze. When I stopped moving, my eyes adjusted to what had caused the illusion. An interesting play by the filtered late-day sunlight on the ashy purple bark of the pines. The long, narrow, evenly-spaced trunks seemed almost water-colored. They possessed a character all their own.

At another junction, tall, young oaks with mossy bases were knocking vigorously on one another, whipping and creaking in the increasing wind. They clacked as if hidden woodland gnomes had surrounded us, furiously beating large sticks against their hard trunks to scare us away. My pup was so bewildered, she growled and ran the other way.

 I love the personalities of trees and the little neighborhoods they create in the forest. Over here is a wide, dim swath of rusty-gold carpet beneath a canopy of evergreen. Over there is a bright and inviting hillside with sparsely scattered hardwoods bending in charismatic stances. Up on the hill is the peaceful birch grove overlooking the meadow, soft and pink at sunset. On the river’s edge - at the foot of the bluff - massive white pines loom with eagles hung in them… and sometimes gliding between like ominous spirits. There’s a feel to the woods. Auras that radiate up from the roots. A community, diverse in look and function, but deeply connected. The more I walk in the wild, the less wild it feels. In fact, quite the opposite. It seems orchestrated and purposeful. Left to her own devices, Mother Earth creates beauty beyond imagine. She’s the original artist.

Nature has always drawn me near. It’s what lead me to do the work I am now so committed to doing. Work I couldn’t possibly walk away from, because of it’s incredible importance. Abandoning this work would be abandoning my own Mother. She needs to be cared for in these times. She needs to be protected. The human race has become a threat to The Earth and to it’s own existence. I personally  never felt healthy living in the city. Since becoming a farmsteader, I feel so much more at ease in my heart. My body and soul feel nourished. My conscience is more clear by lessening our carbon footprint and by doing something that makes a difference in the world. I am synced with the natural biorhythms. Longer days mean more intense work. Shorter days mean more rest. It’s the way the world had always functioned… right up until the industrial “revolution”. The more time I spend immersed in nature, the stronger my desire grows to protect it.

A new documentary has been made, which I am eager to see. It’s called SEED – The Untold Story. I don’t even need to see it to know how important it is and how impactful it could – and hopefully will - be. I know what drove folks to make it. It’s what drove me to become a farmer and to focus my work on heirlooms and seed-saving. It rests on one very basic, terrifying fact that most people don’t know and probably don’t want to. The human race is on the verge of a global food system collapse. It’s not a lie , it’s not a conspiracy, it’s not even an over-exaggeration. 94% of all plant species that humans eat are now extinct. In the blink of an eye they disappeared and are continuing to do so. The move to conventional farming and loss of small family farms and backyard gardens erased many thousands of foods that had been selectively grown and adapted for many thousands of years, leaving the genetic diversity of our food supply vulnerable. They were gone before we even knew they were in danger. And now, with climate change drastically affecting farmer’s ability to grow food, many of those naturally adapted disease-resistant, pest-resistant, drought-tolerant fruits and veggies are gone. If the 6% that are left experience one really bad year – or more likely, several really bad years – humans across the globe will suffer severe food shortages. Genetic diversity is just as important in food species as it is in natural ecosystems. And here’s the real kicker: it won’t get better. It won't reverse. Because seeds don’t live forever. They are living things. They die if they are not grown year after year. They die if they are not stored properly. Moisture and mold are a stored seed’s worst enemy. If small farms and backyard gardeners don’t do the work to grow endangered heirlooms and properly save and share seeds, the human race itself will go extinct.
So there you go. Welcome to Winnowburrow Farm where we are saving the world one seed at a time!
In all seriousness though... see the film. And consider supporting our farm by buying into our heirloom CSA. Or another farm close to you. You can save the world, too!

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

The Farmsteader - Part I

The whole farm season came and went and I never managed to post a single blog. I’ve been mentally kicking myself in the pants for years now, to no avail. There is just so much to document, and with each passing day I grapple with the fleeting sense of lost opportunity to share. A long stint of writer’s block? Maybe. One thing is for certain. There has been a whole lot more doing than “planning on doing”. Time is of the essence... when it's available!

It’s hard to believe that in just one year we got married, moved out of state, rapidly transitioned to (mostly) off-grid homesteading and started a new farm operation on unfamiliar soil. Now, winter has arrived in Wisconsin, after the longest, warmest – and possibly wettest - growing season on record. We were recently blanketed with nearly 14 inches of fluffy, powdery snow. It has turned the farm and surrounding woods into a positively magical landscape, sparkling white hot in the bright sunlight, glowing blue in the full moonlight, playing with all of the light, casting shadows and softening shapes. It takes intention to even think about farming, presently. The cabin has become a cozy den, flickering with the warmth of candles and the ever-whispering draw of the chimney from the wood stove. And now, a simple, lightless Christmas Tree stands in the corner, a glimpse of snowy shiitake logs visible over its shoulder through the frosted window. Greenery and ribbons and shining spheres add cheerful splash to window sills and tables. The smell of wood smoke permeates everything. I have never felt so much at HOME.

This morning I sit down to finally write. I feel blessed to even have time to write. The summer is so demanding to the farmer and the homesteader, alike. We have become both at once. Endless lists of chores lurk onerously, tacked to a wall or cork board, peeking from some pile of paperwork or another, wedged in a notebook or crumpled in a pocket. And yet, they give me purpose. The lists are not empty, soulless demands made by a greedy employer or burnt out manager at a dead-end job. They are a moving, organic process, literally a function of survival. Nearly everything on these lists are about sustaining daily life on the farm and in our household. Hauling water, hauling wood; watering plants, harvesting vegetables, collecting eggs, preserving the bounty; feeding and watering the chickens, cats, the dog; making sure the baby chicks are warm enough, the house is warm enough, we are warm enough. Ultimately, it’s about the basic needs for life: Food, Water and Shelter. We are just doing it the “hard” way. For me, it’s the only way. I truly love waking up each morning, ready to tackle the needs of the day; slowing down and being a part of each process, connected to the Earth, respondent to the weather. Because… on the other side of those chore lists… is everything that feeds my soul.

This morning as I finally sit down to write, breakfast has already been made, dishes done, wood stacked in the house and my husband is out the door and off to work. It’s not even 10 degrees outside yet, but I am cozy with a cup of wild raspberry leaf tea steaming within arm’s reach. The sun is warming my back and melting the frost from the south facing windows. One of our very own organic, free-range chickens is aromatically stewing in the big pot on the wood stove. Plans for a venison pot pie linger on the horizon of the day’s tasks, Christmas cards wait to be sent and my cross-country skis lean kittywampus with a big question mark hovering over them. The hard work of the warm season is finally paying off and the quiet peace of the holiday season feels tangible in new way. Now I truly understand where all of these traditions come from. It makes perfect sense from this perspective. It feels right. I’m looking forward to continuing this journey.

Monday, April 6, 2015

The Search Begins

Long ago, in a southern state far far away, a little girl dreamed of a life immersed in nature. Her playtimes were spent in solitary fantasy tromping around the Northern Kentucky woods, longingly imagining a life lived by ancient humans, gently foraging the abundant natural resources and living in  harmony with the Earth and it's beings. She imagined that someday, when she grew up, she would get to live this life for real.

Friday, May 9, 2014

I've got a fever...

It's May in Minnesota and the "gardening itch" has spread to a full-blown rash.  If you're a gardener, you know what I am referring to.  For me it usually happens sometime in March, as the sun moves a little higher, the snow threatens to (finally) melt away and, a sudden 50 degree heat wave startles me out of a long hibernation.  Then it hits me; the burning, itching, prickling need to plant something.  Before long a fever comes on and I become delirious with frenzied garden ideas swirling in my head.  Can I convince the landlord to dig a garden?  Should I expand my container garden?  What variety of tomatoes do I want to grow this year?  Should I get really adventurous and try to start asparagus from seed?  I wonder if I can get mammoth sunflowers to grow in the alley outside the privacy fence?  Can I convince my pal with 40 acres to let me plant some perennial herbs...?  Then the seed buying starts.  Those little packets with dozens of tiny, organic, heirloom seeds with so much potential start jumping into my hand at the co-op and into online shopping carts.  Trips to the garden center become absolute necessity.  I have lost control in my delirium...

Seeing as how Minnesota is a (mostly) Zone 4 state, (the new USDA hardiness zone map has placed parts of Minnesota in Zone 5), the quest to avoid overspending on plants means painstakingly nursing seedlings indoors over - as some 'Sotans like to say - a couple, three months.  Without a greenhouse, it is not an endeavor for the lighthearted.  This year I planted my first seeds on March 20th; the vernal equinox, marking the first official day of spring.  Since then, I have had flats and pots gradually taking over my living room.  A 72 cell flat of asparagus, (out of which one sprouted.
Argghh!   Time to start over!), a variety of herbs including Hibiscus, Chamomile, basil, thyme, mint, chives, echinacea and lavender, (which also had to be re-started) and some veggies.  I rigged a grow light with a florescent and an electronic piano stand behind the couch and put together a small hot house from a bakers rack and parked it in the driveway.  It was easily constructed with tape and some random scraps of plastic that my loving partner snagged from his warehouse per my request.  Most of the plants live within the safe confines of the plastic, or on the patio table on the warm days, and cozy up in the living room on cool days and nights.  Obviously, this means I am moving them daily - outside in the morning, then inside at night - always trying to place them within a balanced environment of light and temperature, rescuing them from a sudden downpour, or from an unexpected heat spike, or the cats who have overturned a pot in their decision to spat about who is going to sleep in the window...  More than once I have had to call Josh from work because I forgot to put the hothouse flap up, (or down dependent on weather conditions).  It's a labor of love and possibly more demanding than owning a puppy.

Now, after months of diligently servicing their every need, some of my plant babies are thriving, some are not and some have been lost.  It's all part of the process, and each time, there is more to be learned. Next year I won't leave my Hibiscus out over night until temps stay above 60 degrees.  I will wait to start lavender outside once nighttime temps are around 40 degrees and I will cold stratify asparagus seed and separate them from the berry pulp.

All in all, it's still only May and the gardening has just begun!  I can't wait to reap the rewards of the bounty.  Let 'er rip!