If you’ve been reading this regularly, or just happened upon it, I have some news!

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Michaela

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The tomatoes have sprouted.  The greenhouses are full of tender leafy greens.  Eggplants and peppers are trying to germinate over specially heated mats.

And the forecast is calling for a low of 21 degrees Fahrenheit tonight.

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Delicate tomato seedlings await a deep freeze.

In December or January, we would have just closed the greenhouse doors to protect the lettuces and called it good.  Today though, we have a couple weeks’ worth of new crops to keep from freezing.  They’re in one of the most sensitive stages of growth: only the first leaves, known as cotyledons, are present in any of the crops that have germinated.  In this very young state, even hardy crops like broccoli and lettuce can succumb to temperatures below 25 degrees.

So there’s been some rearranging.

I went out to the farm this afternoon to finish the weatherizing that Ted had started on Sunday.  He closed all but one of the big greenhouse ends, and I cut a new strip of plastic to attach to the last one.  Now they’ll all retain a few extra degrees of heat from the sunny day, hopefully keeping the crops from melting under frost.

At this time of year, all the greens in the high tunnels are destined for FOOD for Lane County partner agencies and meal sites.  That’s a few thousand pounds of highly nutrient-dense food to lose in one night, and covering the ends of the tunnels is the best we can do for them.  Cross your fingers.

In the propagation house, we have a few more tools at our disposal.  Ted transferred all the starts (minus a few trays of leeks that aren’t up yet– they’ll be fine!) to the inner bench, over which we drape a long strip of plastic to act as a second heating tunnel.  That should keep the spring crops happy with lows in the mid-twenties.

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This inner plastic tunnel and row cover within the nursery greenhouse provide extra protection from low nighttime temperatures.

The heat-loving crops– like those tomatoes and the yet-to-germinate eggplants and peppers– could still freeze in those conditions, though.  So, in addition to getting bottom-heat from the heat mats they’re on, I covered them with a swath of row cover and set up a small space heater nearby.  The row cover will give them an extra degree or two of warmth overnight, and the heater will kick on once it starts to get cold in there.  If the electrical system can handle it all and nothing breaks (again, cross your fingers), that should keep those summer varieties alive.

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Sungold cherry tomatoes getting tucked in for the night.

One night.  One night could ruin everything we’ve done this season so far.  Or, it could just be a small shock that the plants recover from quickly.  It’s supposed to jump back to the low thirties tomorrow and stay there every night this week.

After a night of 21 degrees, a few light freezes will start to feel easy to us all.

“Do you want to try some chickweed?”

I get laughs, and more questions: “What’s that?” “Is it a weed or a vegetable?” “What will it do to me?”

I scoop up a few more sprigs of this rampant, delicate garden weed from our greenhouse beds and hand them to the fraternity brothers that’ve come to volunteer today.  A couple try it and nod ambiguously.

“Tastes like grass!” they say with smiles.  At least they seem to like it.

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Arugula flowers in a heap after the work party.

Dozens of groups come to volunteer at the farm each season.  Churches, businesses, school groups, clubs from the university, and a ton of fraternities and sororities.  I’ve been wracking my brain about how to best take advantage of the captive audiences, and especially the Greeks.  They are not much older than our youth crew, immersed in college life, being fed by their house, and majoring in fields like business, marketing, economics, and political science.  They come from a wide array of backgrounds in suburban and urban areas, and while some of them helped out in their grandparents’ gardens as children, few have much direct experience growing food.  Or even wondering where their food comes from.

This particular fraternity, Alpha Sigma Phi, has been one of the most consistent to volunteer since I started at the Youth Farm two years ago.  I recognize most of them now, which is starting to give me hope that we can have a real impact on their lives.  I asked the returning members to recap what they know already for their new brothers, and it was the first time I’d done this and gotten meaningful responses.  They’re starting to remember!

We broke them off into different groups: filling seeding trays, prepping trays for next week’s seeding party, weeding the greenhouse garlic, and going after the weeds in our new big greenhouse.  Chickweed, speedwell, purple dead nettle, and grasses had overtaken our long beds of spinach, salad lettuces, and escarole.  In fact, the whole greenhouse had become a sea of low-growing vines that were slowly strangling the greens.  The greenhouse crew went to town on it all, and by the end of the day the space was transformed.

I kept rotating back and forth between groups to make sure everyone had what they needed to get their projects done.  In the middle of one of these rotations, I was showing a couple guys which paths to run a wheel hoe through, and happened to be standing on the other edge of a patch of flowering arugula.  The buds are one of my favorite additions to salads: nutty, spicy, and a bit sweet.  I plucked a couple from the patch and handed them to the hoers.

“What part do I eat?”

“The whole thing!” I say while breaking off a handful of tips to bring to the others.  In between more questions and offering sprigs and endless comments, they all took the flowering tips and one by one nibbled, chomped, or inhaled them.  Some wanted more.  No one balked.  In my mind, a wildly successful volunteer party.

It’s been a mild winter.  A bout of freezes in December, some storms in January, but overall relatively warm and dry.  And now February in the 60’s.  The trees are coming back to life, faster than I’d like.

Early spring, between seeding and tending the nursery and harvesting overwintered crops, ends up being a race to beat the fruit trees.  We have about 80 of them: mostly apples with a smattering of plums, cherries, Asian pears, pears, peaches, and even a couple almonds.  Luckily, each type of fruit starts to blossom at a different time, so we start pruning the first to break bud and chase the gradual onset of flowering throughout the orchard.

The plums are first.  They’re so close!

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Plum blossoms about to break open.

Next week they’ll be a sea of white petals.  For now, it’s time to focus on pruning so that the tree’s hormones and energy aren’t wasted in all that flowering.  By pruning in the winter when the trees are (theoretically) dormant, we promote new growth and can help shape the trees to optimize fruit yield.  More on all that later.

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The indispensable orchard ladder and extension pruner.

For now, let this be just an announcement: the race has begun.  From now until mid March when the last pear tree is pruned, I’ll be chasing blossoms.

Wednesdays in February are unique on the farm, not only because they’re when we make huge gains on filling the nursery to the brim, but also because they bring a sudden surge of diverse people to the farm.  We’ll spend these next three Wednesdays seeding our entire inventory for the spring plant sale in April, and because it’s a cooperative fundraiser for the Youth Farm and Grassroots Garden, volunteers from Grassroots migrate to the farm to help with all the seeding.

There’s the staff: myself, Ted, Rachel from Grassroots.  We rarely work together, so it’s a treat to have Rachel for a full day on the farm.  She knows all the Grassroots volunteers and has helped with this process for a few years, so it’s key to have her help in doling out the seeds and keeping everyone busy and happy.

Today, there were also a few internship applicants.  We offer three paid intern positions each season, and now is the time to interview the promising ones so we can hire in time for a March 1st start.  An all-time all-star youth farm crew leader was the first to arrive, and didn’t even need to volunteer with the main group to remind Ted what an amazing learner and farmer she is.  Later, a man came who’s always had office jobs but has dreamed of an outdoor, garden-related career.  He was eager, bright, and far more promising in person than on paper.  Later, a young student from the University of Oregon came and worked alongside me while Ted interviewed another applicant that’s been volunteering at Grassroots for years.  After today and meeting a few more potential interns last week, we’re in a good place: it’ll be hard to make a decision with so many qualified applicants.

The bulk of the group today were Grassroots volunteers: several middle-aged woman on the “seeding crew” at the garden who come every year, a couple of newer volunteers, the gentleman applying for our internship, and a stellar man who volunteers at both gardens and always has experiments and ideas up his sleeve.  This year, he said he’s throwing everything he thought he knew about gardening out the window because of a book he read about the soil food web.  He’s inoculating roots with fungal mycelia and considering no-till methods for this season in order to promote a healthy soil ecosystem.  Our systems at the farm seem so established, but ideas like that remind me that no method is set in stone, and that we can all continue to learn and refine our growing techniques.  I’m looking forward to picking his brain about it more in the coming weeks.

There was a brand new Youth Farm volunteer today, too.  A retired man who’d never been to the farm dropped in soon after we opened, and stayed well past lunch time.  We’re always excited when new individual volunteers show up: they become incredibly helpful once they get to know the farm, there’s time to really get to know them when they volunteer regularly, and they tend to teach me just as much as I’m teaching them.  He rode off happily with a handful of chard and bok choy when he left.  I hope he comes again.

Duck Corps, a volunteer group from the U of O, had their first service day today as well.  They are four strong this term, and all seem eager and curious about the farm.  Because they plan to come once a week for many weeks in a row, I like to spend longer than usual talking with them about the farm and our mission, showing them around, and learning about their own experiences and interests.  It’s these conversations that give this place so much meaning for me, and even more so for the people that visit.  I’m reminded that the things I start to take for granted– Community Supported Agriculture, direct-to-consumer sales at markets and farm stands, organic growing methods, locally sourced food at food banks– are usually novel to the hundreds of volunteers that come here each season.  There’s so much happening, and there are so many people that have yet to be involved!  It’s discouraging because it feels like we haven’t made progress, but also encouraging because there’s so much room for growth.  One person at a time.  Or four…

And last, there’s the first: when I arrived at the farm about 40 minutes before we opened, one of our regular volunteers was already waiting there.  He’s been coming to volunteer with us since before Ted’s time.  He’s consistent when his work schedule allows, and he’s probably learned how to do just about every task we do.  He usually needs just a little guidance, and likes to make sure he’s explaining himself more than fully, and doesn’t seem to want praise or reward.  When I started two years ago, he came like clockwork every Wednesday for over a year, so that I didn’t think much of it– until he stopped showing up last summer.  I think he got a job that interfered with our schedule, but it was a shock.  Such a sure figure can just one day stop being there.

So now, when I start to feel overwhelmed when there are a lot of people to lead or orient or work with, I try to remember that they might one day stop being there.  That now, here, with each other, is all we have.

Game on!  There are now, suddenly, about 170 flats of seedlings waiting to germinate in the greenhouse.  We sprung into action today– a bit late, by commercial standards, but just in time nonetheless– and set in motion a process that will continue for months to come.  The onions we seeded could be sitting in your pantry at this time next year.  The hot peppers will be dried and still spicing up local gardeners’ salsas in the cold, darkening days of the coming winter.  All those cabbages may turn into sauerkraut that bubbles well into summer.

All that, and so much more, started in a few hours on a sunny day in early February.

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Storage onions ready to be tucked in.

We arrived a bit early to set up: boards and tables for prepping seeding trays, seeds and tags for labeling each variety, the vacuum seeder to speed up the process, and the seeding chart, which might as well be called the Farm Bible.  Right at ten o’clock, a pair of our consistent volunteers drove up and said they’d been waiting all winter for February to roll around so they could come back to the farm.  They were a heart-warming start to the day, and a reminder that my experience with volunteers gives me back exactly how much I invest in it.  If I slow down my to-do-list-brain, work alongside the wonderful people that show up, and let go of the amount we’re accomplishing, the real work of educational farming starts to blossom: a shared memory, an exchange of ideas, a connection that sparks our imaginations, a reassurance that this is what matters.

So I kept at it with volunteers this morning while Ted interviewed three internship applicants.  The pile of over a hundred flats to be vacuum seeded– a task that so far only staff has been trained on– loomed in the corner all morning.  The trick is, vacuum seeding is an incredible time saver.  The machine sucks seeds onto tiny holes in a metal plate, and keeps them in place while I turn over the plate onto a tray.  When I block the suction, the seeds instantly drop into their places on the tray, turning a 5-15 minute job into 30-60 seconds.  It’s fun!  It’s also really loud, and means that I’m working alone, and any volunteers are left to themselves.  That can work, of course, but when it’s the beginning of the season and reconnecting is just as important as getting seeds in their places, I push the vacuum seeding aside until most everyone has gone home.  Then one of our neighbors, a teenager that started volunteering alongside the youth crew last August, is comfortable working on peppers by herself, and I step outside the now steamy greenhouse into direct sunlight, pop on our industrial ear muffs, and start in on those onions.

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The vacuum seeder set-up.

Ted took over while the last internship applicant worked alongside me hand-seeding green onions and greenhouse tomatoes.  When the young man said goodbye, we gradually picked up our pace as the sky turned from grayish blue, to gold, to orange, and then faded.  I made up a few more trays to finish seeding all the Swiss chard flats we need while Ted scrambled to keep the seeder running.  Minus a few trays of tomatoes and eggplants that can wait until next week, we miraculously finished our long seeding list.  Onions, scallions, lettuce, tomatoes, peppers, kale, kohlrabi, Chinese cabbage, bok choy, collards, cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, spinach, and that Swiss chard that slipped in at the final hour.  Fitting for the first day of planting: work until night falls.

I road my bike home under stars.

This is, in my wildest imaginations, the first of a daily reflection on my experiences at the FOOD for Lane County Youth Farm, set squarely in the midst of a painstakingly gradual and messy rebuilding of a food system that sustains us all.  The process is gradual and messy enough to have me believe that whatever I write will have no impact on the longterm path of our unprecedented global trajectory.  Because what I do every day on the farm seems to somehow chink and chip away at it– seems to create a shift, subtle though it may be, in my self and those around me and the material world in which we engage– I can’t help but believe that sharing it with a wider audience might strengthen and quicken that shift.  Where the change comes from I hope to articulate throughout this season.  Where it is bringing us, I have no idea.

May it be beautiful.


“Thurs.  Farm seeding.  72’s- 12.  128’s- 75.  200’s med- 31.  288- 30.  6-packs- 119.”

For all the anticipation, pretty pictures to look back on, and ideas brewing throughout my month off from the farm, the start of the season was predictably unglamorous.  The last couple hours of my day were spent mostly alone, filling tray after tray with potting soil.  12 trays for spinach.  75 trays for Brassicas like early broccoli and cabbage.  Each tray will temporarily house up to 128 baby plants, which will grow comfortably in the propagation greenhouse until we hoist them out to harden off and give them each a wider berth in the fields in April.  31 trays for lettuces and the like.  30 for onions.  The 119 6-packs for our spring plant sale didn’t get filled today– sunset cut me off.  They’ll have to wait until Saturday.

I find that the potential for monotony in such projects quickly disappears with company, with mindful attention to what I’m doing, and with a deeper understanding of how my actions affect a greater whole.

Filling trays in old shoes

Filling spinach trays in old shoes

Company came with Ted and Joe.  Ted, for anyone that doesn’t know the farm, has been managing this piece of land for over a dozen years.  More on him later.  Joe is one of our longstanding volunteers, who I actually met through a friend years ago before I started at the farm.  He shows up randomly and sparsely throughout the year, but reliably when we’re really in need, like trying to build greenhouses in the middle of harvest season.  Or, when we’re not expecting any help on our first day, but there’s a ton to do already, and he happens to be “in the neighborhood.”  He’s grumpy, argumentative, breaks stuff on a regular basis, and is one of my favorite people to see walking up to the tool shed.  Not just because he’s game for any crazy project we need to do– more likely, it’s because he doesn’t pretend to be anyone else but himself, and has a kind heart, and laughs out loud with me while we pull apart empty old cracking seeding trays on our hands and knees.

The attention rushes in when the seeding trays stick together.  All too often, they compress in their nested state of storage over the winter and don’t budge apart, or clamp back together after teasing me with a teeny wiggle apart.  It can be infuriating!  Sometimes I find patience to pry each corner apart, millimeter by millimeter, until the whole tray starts to loosen away from its neighbor.  Sometimes I throw the whole block of trays aside and find another chunk to work on, or do something else for a while.  The whole time, regardless of whether the process is smooth or clunky, I come back again and again to how my fingers are moving, what sounds the trays are making, how my breath feels under so many layers of winter jackets.  Between those moments of coming back, my mind drifts to my next task (filling the trays, carting them to the greenhouse), the errand to run after work (buy storage containers, eggs), my insecurities (am I taking too long? what if I spill that entire cart and have to re-do it all?), and back again to the moment at hand (breathe in, pull that last corner, breathe out, rip the tray away with a crackling of plastic).

And what of the whole?  Why in the world am I choosing to spend my attention and energy stooping awkwardly over piles of crackling plastic trays?  Despite the romantic appeal of small scale food production– the gorgeous produce, smiling sun-kissed crews, ethos of perseverance and wholesomeness– the day to day projects I find myself doing are often laughably ordinary, difficult, and repetitive.  I know intuitively why I do it, but it’s a long story to try to put into words.  My hope is that by the end of the season, the answer is unarguably clear to everyone that reads this.

Thanks for beginning with me.

The salmonberries are already blooming in Portland’s Forest Park.  I wonder whether they’re blooming in the coast range, and near Opal Creek, and in the nooks and crevices of our urban parks and green spaces.  Their deep pink petals hang lightly in defiance of the torrential rains we’ve been seeing the past few days.  “Yes,” they are declaring.  “Yes, we will create and thrive amidst the chill.”  Somehow, the rain supports them.  The pollen clings to the anthers underneath that halo of pink, a bit safer from being washed away that the elder flowers’, whose tiny flowers cling together in clumps that seem to melt and mash together in the soggy air.  I can’t hide my excitement as I tramp up, up, up the switchbacks and wind my way out and around every ravine and creekside slope of exuberant green mosses.  Trilliums splay out lavishly on the forest floor, and I’m reminded of a time long ago when I knew nearly nothing about this community.  I was drawn to the showy flower as a camp name back in grade school, but I knew nothing of when it emerges, what companions it finds, how it reproduces, or how people could work with it beyond admiring its silky white and pink petals.  A herald.

Now, despite greater knowledge and deeper experience in Cascadian woodlands, I am more humbled than ever by their complexity and beauty.  I have yet to know hundreds of plants that grow here, year after year, in the first flushes of spring or the dry spells of late summer.  I have yet to see native pollinators alight on myriad flowers, and the development of so many precious seed pods and fruits that will fatten over the next several months.  I know nothing of what lives between and beneath the thick humus layer that cushions my step and absorbs, so patiently, the steady drips and rivulets of a spring storm.  When the sunshine trickles past the gray clouds and brings the hundred hues of green back to their full brightness, I wonder how I– already nearly thirty years past and likely no more than twice that to come– could possibly know this forest in my lifetime.  There is so much to observe, to care for, and to love.  What birds are nesting overhead?  When do they sing, and what are their songs?  How many years will it take for that stream bank to crumble and create bare soil for new life to begin, again?  Who else loves this place, and what do they see that I yet overlook?  The minds and hearts that perceive these hillsides extend the realm of my humility that much further.  I know the crevices and crannies of my own self only one short lifetime more than I know the life outside.  There is much work and play of knowing at hand.  Let us continue it.

It is time to begin, again.  The emergence of spring’s heralds– the crocus, the daffodil, the ornamental cherry blooms in every third yard around Eugene– brings me to anticipate, look up, shake my winter-softened arms out a bit.  It’s been a whole year.  Almost thirteen moons, since I began the last season of watching plants grow and the burst of life run its course.  I revisited my garden journal from 2015 recently and found that I was inventorying seeds, making garden maps for my new beautiful home, purchasing trays and flats and potting soil, and seeding onions at this time in February.  I was re-visiting all my farming practices that I had first learned in this city three years prior, but unlike then, I lacked some of the key elements to start seed this early.

My onions grew ever so slowly, tiny green shoots that lazed by my bedside and reached toward the filtered, too-dim sunlight as it reached past apple tree shadows and spring rainbow storms.  The tiny cabbage sprouts, so eager at first, faced a gradual death as they succumbed to an unknown wilt.  Ah, and the beets!  Direct-seeded outside, they suffered recurrent infestations of life miners, which, I learned by bringing a leaf in to the Master Gardeners next door to my office, were decimating home crops of chard, spinach, and beets all over the county.

Small failures aside, there was a most magnificent burst of life and bounty over the course of our warm spring, dry summer, and even into the golden fall.  I made my first attempt at growing oats, Avena sativa, and fell madly in love with their dancing grains and sea-foam striped stalks.  The birds nearly thwarted them all, but the few that grew from the first and second plantings were well spaced and vibrant, interplanted among four stout Purple Bumblebee cherry tomato plants.

Oh, the tomatoes!  It has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life to place tiny flat seeds in a few planting trays and, nearly a year later, be relishing bag after bag of frozen garden tomatoes.  This year I grew five varieties: the Purple Bumblebee, which produced few but stunningly flavorful, purple-smeared bitefuls of juicy summertime.  The Woodle Orange won out for flavor, though.  They turned from soft yellow to bright gold when ripe, and I watched the process on our two plants with delight and anticipation of adding thick slices to freshly rinsed salad greens.  For preserving, my favorite was the Jersey Devil, whose seeds I saved carefully for this year.  The tomatoes are long and pointy like peppers, and their uniform ripening and detachable skins won me over as I boiled and peeled gallons and gallons of saucers.  Unfortunately, the majority of my paste tomatoes were of another variety called Sheboygan, which was delicious fresh but is not well suited for processing.  Process aside, I’m grateful for their stamina into the fall and their weight and sweetness in my chest freezer.  Bread and Salt was the last variety: a pink, heart-shaped tomato that was certainly enjoyable, but not memorable enough to save seed.

I jumped ahead; the story of the tomatoes begins months before I had any idea about the fruits.  They sprouted to March’s full moon, folded and skinny, curving up daintily from their cozy potting mix into the dim light behind my sliding glass door.  There is so much hope this time of year: that each plant will thrive, that dreams will coalesce into tangible life, that warmer days will bring freedom and clarity to the fogginess of winter’s routine.  Whatever will grow this year is already germinating in last year’s compost, on the bright surface, deep in the shadows, searching for the light and warmth of another springtime.

 

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