Multitasking

Doing more than one thing at a time, that’s where farmers and food professionals excel. While a normal day for me might be slow cooking a chunk of meat that will provide meals all week while doing laundry as I keep an eye on young stock being trained to electric netting while I muck out the barn as I listen to the new book from my favorite author, today that’s not the kind of multi-tasking I’m talking about. No, I’m going to explain how some of the goodies you find at the farmers market can offer multiple iterations. My inspiration came from a customer who complained about the price for a bunch of fancy onions, a.k.a.—ramps.

Seriously dude? Let me tell you about the value of those ramps.

Yes, Allium tricoccum—ramps—will cost you around $20 a pound, but like truffles, sweetbreads and a well-aged Macallan single malt, the rarity of this harbinger of spring is what makes for a pricy onion.

But don’t they grow wild? Absolutely! While ramps do produce seeds, there’s no guarantee they’ll reproduce when purposely planted. Ramps are native to damp, shaded areas of the forest, the complete opposite of commercial agriculture. As a foraged crop, as opposed to cultivated, ramps run the risk of being depleted when over harvested which is why many farmers keep mum about their location. I’ve heard once too often a farmer lament thieves sneaking in and decimating a prized area they’d been sustainably harvesting for years. Sometimes the area bounces back after several years, sometimes it doesn’t.

Additionally, ramps are highly seasonal, appearing at the spring thaw and lasting a little more than a month before going to seed and retreating back into the soil until next year.

There are four parts to the plant: the leaves, the stalk, the bulb, and the rhizome, each quite useful in its own way. Although most people tend to chop up the entire plant to use in cooking, I’ve found that I can part them out into individual components to enjoy now, during the year and hopefully, for years to come.

Let’s start with the leaves. Unlike most members of the onion family which have hollow leaves, ramps have one or two broad flat leaves that are two to ten inches in length. Their strong, pungent flavor holds well in thinly sliced ribbons both raw and cooked. Macerated with a little olive oil, they make a delightful pesto perfect for tossing with pasta. For those of us who want a little luxury year-round, the leaves can be frozen or dried. You get lots of leaves in a $5 bunch of ramps, plenty to last until next season.

The stalk is the thin neck that supports the leaves as it rises out of the bulb. They tend to be reddish purple in color and can be as thick as a pencil in larger specimens, but generally the width of a piece of thick spaghetti. I use these for cooking. They get tossed in the pan with whatever I’m cooking until they are translucent, releasing their aroma and flavor. If I’m feeling decadent I’ll use the bulb, too, but I prefer to save them for my favorite thing to do with ramps—pickle them.

My first introduction to pickled ramps was when a friend who harvests his land for New York City chefs showed up at the farm with a jar for making Rampatinis. We spent a sultry summer afternoon sipping cocktails on the porch and I was hooked on pickled ramps. A few years later pickled ramps showed up on a charcuterie board at the home of Mitch Berliner and Deb Moser, founders of Central Farm Markets. After a particularly slow week at market thanks to cold, spring weather, a few weeks later jars of pickled ramps showed up at market offered by the same vendor who sold them fresh. I’ve used them in salads, in cocktails and even for snacking.

I realize not everyone will be able to use the fourth part of the ramp—the rhizome. Rhizomes are rootstalks which develop from axillary buds and grow horizontally with new shoots growing upwards. You will find the beginning of an axillary bud in the center of the roots at the tip of the bulb. Some vendors trim off the roots completely, but the ones who leave the roots intact offer you the ability to give planting ramps a try if you have the right environment. From now on I will always plant my ramp roots down by where the drainage from the fields enters the riparian flood plain under a stand of mature deciduous trees. Maybe some day I’ll have my own patch.

So pick up a bunch of ramps while they are in season and give them a try. You can divide them into their individual parts using each one for something different or toss them whole with a little olive oil and caramelize them on the grill. However you choose to use them, trust me, they are well worth the price. Rampatini is one part Ploughman Cider Plenum Vermouth, two parts Butterfly Spirits Elderberry Vodka, a splash of ramp juice topped with a pair of pickled ramps. Ramps are pickled using David Chang’s recipe.

The Healing Power of Gardens

Last week when the native plant vendor showed up at my standing looking for something to grill I traded him for some perennials. As much as I love the big showy annuals in planters for my porch, I’ve begun focusing my attention on plants that will return year after year with little intervention. So far I’ve amassed irises, poppies, peonies, and an assortment of spring bulbs. I tried planting sunchokes last year only to have the wild critters excavate them for winter meals. Let’s hope they are as persistent and invasive as promised. Each spring when I help Mom clean up her yard she’s sent me home with an assortment of bushes that have spread beyond their bounds—lilacs, holly, gooseberry, spirea, pampas grass, and pussy willow.

I’ll admit I’m a bit spoiled in that my compost pile is the size of a Metro bus and that I can scoop up a couple cubic yards at a clip. But that’s nothing compared to the field farmers who cultivate on a scale few can imagine.

Last year at this time we were in the early stages of locking down and coming to grips with what was happening. The trend wasn’t hard to miss as customers toted boxes and pots of vegetable starts, herbs and ornamentals in addition to their regular items. “Can I sit this here for a minute?” became a common request from patrons juggling more than they could carry. I was surprised by how many people admitted to never growing something for themselves to eat.

The results were more infectious than the Corona virus as people found they could grow cherry tomatoes in pots on their balcony. Some ripped out ornamental plants for food plots, a few went so far as to purchase homes with room to grow their own. Regardless of how much they chose to grow the response is always the same—this is a lot of work. “I eat way more than I have room to grow,” was the reality most encountered. Now try doing that for hundreds, even thousands of people every single week for an entire growing season. The seasonal growers returning to market and some of the year-round farms, too, have begun their outdoor cultivation on a scale that would gobsmack most.

Plots of peppers the size of the parking lot, rows of chard the length of city blocks. Take a look at the vendors’ tables and count the variety of products. Mock’s Greenhouse grows 30,000 pounds of tomatoes each year selling not only at regional farmers markets, but to larger grocery stores like Whole Foods. Mock’s also grow lettuces and herbs in their 14 greenhouses.

Spiral Path Farm has 300 acres under Certified Organic production for their CSA with over 40 locations, including the Bethesda market where they offer a wide variety of produce. Additionally, they are a local supplier for Wegman’s.

Westmoreland Produce with 120 acres farmed by the Medina family since 1989 was back at market last week for the first time since last year. Always well stocked with vegetable starts for containers and backyard gardens this time of year, it’s not hard to see why patrons decided to give growing a go themselves.

It really felt good to put my hands in the dirt,” was another sentiment passed along from my urban-dwelling gardeners. It’s no secret that dirt has the power to sooth the weary soul. Physical contact with soil, especially the bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae has the ability to raise serotonin levels similar to the chemical effect caused by pharmaceuticals.

So hustle on over to the farmers market and find something to plant. Get your hands in the dirt to help shake off the blues of this last year and look forward to all the delicious fruits and vegetables about to come into season whether you or your farmers grow them.

What It Takes

Over the last year I’ve been communicating more than ever with customers via text, email, chat, and telephone. The conversations mostly center on availability, special orders, and questions about specific items. But last week I received a text from a customer that put me to reflecting on the skills necessary to farm, either as a homesteader or as a full timer.

There are so many resources available to new and beginning farmers these days from YouTube videos to conferences along with plenty of books and magazines. But as I began to reply, I realized all the additional skills needed other than knowledge of plants and animals.

It’s easy to get caught up in the romanticism of plucking the perfect tomato from your garden or cuddling adorable baby animals. Blogs, social media posts, videos and glossy magazines make it all appear so glamorous with immaculately coifed farmers in their trendy togs telling us we, too, can farm if we follow them or sign up for their workshops and coaching. While it’s true they might explain permaculture, biodynamics, and food sovereignty, rarely are the meat & potatoes of successful farming discussed: basic skills.

As I went about my week, I mentally cataloged all the skills in addition to farming I needed in order to, well…farm. These are the skills that usually make or break one’s decision to succeed in agriculture and are rarely discussed up front, instead rearing their heads in a time of crisis (i.e. when something breaks).

My week started with two flat tires, two non-functioning electric fence chargers, three broken tool handles, a broken chainsaw, three spots where babies where squirting through the fence into areas they should be and a backed-up sink.

Now this might sound like a nightmare to most people, but for a farmer it’s just Tuesday. One of my mentors once told me if I’m not breaking things, I’m not farming. There’s a reason the winning team on the first season of Junkyard Wars were dairy farmers. One of my favorite things to do is poke around other farmers’ shops to see what tools they keep and what they’re fixing. Always the most telling is the bone pile of cast-offs and broken bits.

I’ve come to realize that some of the most critical skills of farming are carpentry, electrical, plumbing, mechanical, and business. A bevvy of followers aren’t going to help when the well pump goes out or the tractor won’t start.  Instead of using screen time to post videos, how about crunching numbers on a spreadsheet to make sure you’re profitable or at the very least, breaking even.  

Last year when people rushed to buy chicks so they could ensure their supply of eggs when grocery store shelves were empty I doubt they were tracking expenditures to see eggsactly what dozen finally ended up costing. I’m guessing anywhere from $10 to $15 a dozen by the time the fox, hawk or racoon got to them.  And how are you going to preserve a dozen eggs a day you’re getting for a family of four? You’re going to want them when the birds slow down or quit laying over the winter. Great grandma had skills. She knew how to store eggs in lime water (calcium oxide, not the fruit).

Oh sure, there are plumbers, electricians, mechanics, carpenters, and CPAs, but think about how much it costed the last time you hired one. Now consider the logistics of coordinating all of those professionals. Did I really need the mobile tire guy to come out for the flat tire on the walk-behind mower? No, I needed a socket set and a bottle jack. Same for the flat on the runabout. 

When I was in junior high school I was required to take electrical shop. Those lessons have stuck with me becoming invaluable when dealing with electric fencing, but I’m flummoxed by people ten, twenty years younger who don’t know the difference between volts and amps or that when their $300 fence charger quits working it’s usually a 99-cent fuse—no, you do not have to buy a whole new charger. By the way, organizational skills are a plus so you can find the spare fuses when needed. The other charger needed a new set of alligator clamps. I made sure to get the copper ones, they’ll last longer than the cheaper ones. 

The chainsaw was missing one of the nuts that held on the bar so the chain stayed in place–$0.39. A drain snake that fits on the end of a drill saved me a call to the plumber to clear the birds nest out of a clogged barn spout.

The broken tool handles posed a bit more challenge. The claw hammer handle went on easily, but the broken pitchfork needed to have the hard ash burned out of the ferrule and the sledge’s new handle needed a little sanding to fit in the steel head. The bonus—replacing just one of those with a new tool would have cost more than all three of the replacement handles combined.

Even when professionals do the initial job, such as installing fences, nature has a way of undermining good work. The last project of the day was metal shop, cutting wire fence panels to fit into the voids created by erosion which were exacerbated by animals crawling through. Worn paths and fur on the bottom wire of the fence are the tells as to the escapees’ paths to freedom.

One trip to town with a stop at the tire shop and hardware store combined with skills that are rarely taught, yet absolutely critical when it comes to farming and self-sufficiency had me back up and running in a day.  My reply to my customer’s text was just that—learn the basic skills of electrical, plumbing, mechanical, and carpentry. It will also turn out to be good business.

Uniquely Wonderful

This Sunday will be a strange one at market—the kickoff of the main season yet many vendors absent due to the Easter holiday. I get it. If we all celebrated each other’s religious holidays throughout the year nothing would ever get done. People, be they vendors or patrons, have every right to observe the traditions of their faith without impunity. After all, that’s one of the guiding principles on the founding of this country.

In addition to our calendars and houses of worship, no where are our holidays more evident than in our kitchens and at the family table.

With customers from over sixty different countries since I began my journey farming and selling at farmers markets, I’ve had many unusual requests over the years, learning about foods that are traditional for some and exotic for others. I tell people I’ve become polytheistic as I celebrate all my customers’ holidays regardless of culture, faith, or ethnicity.

A melting pot of customers end up at the farmers markets looking for traditional foods that the American industrial grocery industry has ignored. Only when an enclave warrants a chain or big box carrying more than the token international foods isle might I find plantains in the produce section or masa beside the cornmeal and bread flour. Otherwise, it’s a trip to a specialty store.

But last Sunday I had an encounter with a gentleman and his daughter that led me to realize this phenomenon has infiltrated even the paradigm of stereotypical Americans who are losing their choices as to what foods they want to cook and eat.

The pair requested a large seven-bone chuck roast. No, there are not seven bones in the crosscut center cut of the shoulder roast. Instead, the bone is shaped like the number seven. Over the years I’ve ended up eating a lot of chuck roast because they’re not a good seller at market. First, they’re big. One of my long-time regulars wanted a one-pound chuck roast. My butcher and inspectors called that a steak, telling me a roast can’t be that small.  Instead of fighting them I had it all turned into ground.

But with families cooking at home more during the pandemic I opted for chuck roasts. What’s the worst that could happen? I would eat well if they didn’t sell.

Oh thank you!” They exclaimed and I cautiously stated the large size of the roast, well over the two-pound limit I’d stuck to outside of premium holiday cuts. They’d braved store after store in search of this particular cut and the farmers market was their last hope. It was for their grandmother’s recipe which specifically called for this particular cut of meat. After the last year we’ve all had I could see in their faces, hear in their voices just how important it was for them to be able to follow the recipe exactly.

I haven’t shopped for meat in a grocery store for thirty years. Occasionally I’ll cruise the meat case at local grocers and boutique butcher shops to check out prices, cuts, and quality, but it’s mainly a passing browse instead of an in-depth investigation. I had no idea that once common cuts are becoming rare giving way to modern goods that reflect smaller households and quicker cooking methods. Gadgets like Instapots and air fryers eluded me.  Meals for six, eight, even ten people are no longer the norm unlike Sunday dinners at my own grandparents’ home which would include their two children, their spouses, and several grandkids. Pappy made the best mashed potatoes from scratch.

So much of the food industry has been automated and pre-packaged, now more than ever. I wonder if people turn to these options because they no longer have the raw ingredients for the simplest of recipes. Grandma was no dummy. She knew having a bone in her roast meant more flavor, the transfer of minerals and micronutrients. But retailers look at that same bone and think equipment for cutting, packaging, lower price point.

This spring holiday season it doesn’t matter if you’re serving lamb, ham, matzoh or pakora, it all begins with a farmer. Throughout the pandemic many people have discovered how participating in their foodshed can help to ensure food security when there are interruptions in national supply and distribution. But go one step further and realize all the ingredients you are able to source when you shop directly with the producer. Rarely does a week go by when I’m not privy to someone squealing with delight at finding something you never see anymore. Delicious and nutritious locally produced foods bring people to the markets, but I think that being able to procure foods that can no longer be found in stores is what brings shoppers back time and time again.

V is for Vaccine

Since the vaccine rollout in mid-December over 45 million people have been fully vaccinated. Although that is just shy of 14% of the country’s population, it’s beginning to show. Last Sunday I saw masked faces of customers who hadn’t shopped in person for over a year.

As the months have rolled by vendors have learned to put their pre-orders into two or three piles—Farm to Fridge if they participate, curbside and in-person. Being creatures of habit I’m fairly accurate on how the regulars will procure their pre-ordered market goods…until last week.

Several customers who has opted for curbside since the start of the pandemic lockdowns last March walked into the market last week to pick up their orders. “I am fully vaccinated,” each one told me, their eyes smiling as they took their first steps toward what was once taken for granted. The urge to run around my coolers for a big hug was great, but I knew that I was a week away from my second shot and a few more for immunity.

But not all my customers shared their enthusiasm for Pfizer, Moderna or J&J’s path to safety. “I think I’ll hold off until I see no one grows horns,” said one when I inquired as to theirs and their elderly parent’s status. In jest, I took off my hat to show no horns has sprouted on my head as of yet.

They are far from the only one I’ve encountered hesitant to be vaccinated.

My generation has taken vaccinations for granted. Gone are the scourges of my parents’ generation like polio, although I remember relatives who used crutches because of a bout as a child. There are still plenty of people alive today living with the lingering effects of polio. Global infection rates went from 350,000 in 1988 to 22 in 2017 thanks to vaccinations.

But it’s just not humans who benefit from vaccinations. The truth is if it weren’t for vaccinations against contagious diseases your food would be much more expensive and scarcer. Practically every form of animal protein requires some type of vaccination. From day-old chicks to stocker cattle for beef, vaccinations guard against diseases that have become common due to domestication.

One of the biggest misconceptions is that Certified Organic practices don’t allow vaccinations. Given that many of the treatments for diseases included medications not approved for use in Certified Organic products, prevention is paramount and this includes vaccinations.

Having farmed for over thirty years now I’m often tapped for information by new and beginning farmers. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve received a call about livestock that continually do poorly or die from people who want to farm naturally—aka: without vaccinating. These are usually the same folks who fail to take into understanding the lifecycles of common parasites. Or my favorite, no vaccines are needed because the animals are out on pasture. That’s akin to saying that you won’t get COVID19 because you live in a good neighborhood.

That’s not how disease works.

Backyard chickens are equally susceptible to Marek’s disease (chicken herpes) as industrial flocks numbering in the millions. Pigs from a pig house or ones raised on pasture both need vaccinations to protect them from Mycoplasma (pneumonia), Erysipelas (infectious cellulitus), and Circo Virus, an infectious disease that causes a number of maladies leading to unproductive livestock. Cattle—both beef and dairy—are vaccinated against several transmissible diseases including Infectious Bovine Rhinotracheitis, Bovine Viral Diarrhea, leptospirosis, clostridial and E. coli infections and mastitis.  Sheep and goats are susceptible to Clostridium perfringens type C + D and tetanus, yes, tetanus…just like the vaccinations we, as humans, should maintain so we don’t end up with lockjaw from wounds exposed to the spores of the Clostridium tetani bacteria commonly found in the dirt.

A few years ago I actually got my tetanus booster at the farmers market from Dr. Ernie. It cost me a fresh chicken and a dozen eggs. Now that’s a house call!

Consumers have been speaking out against the use of antibiotics in their food for years and farmers have responded. But for anyone who has also complained about the use of vaccinations in livestock intended for food purposes, you can’t have your cake and eat it, too. Without vaccinations, we’d end up with sick animals needing treatment or dead stock.

I’ve heard every excuse there is against vaccinations. Medical research and vaccine production have come a long way from the days of using orphans as human vaccine incubators (yes, we did) and transferring the infection from a sick cow to a healthy person using a scratch from a knife. People will spend hundreds of dollars every year vaccinating their pets but turn their backs on free inoculations in the name of public health. My personal favorite was a tattoo aficionado refusing to get vaccinated because they weren’t going to let anyone inject anything weird into their body. Let’s not gloss over the issue of human cell tissue lines that have been cultivated since the early 1970’s earning the ire of certain religious groups, yet there’s nary a peep when similar cell lines are used in research for cancer and Alzheimer’s.

Disease is a natural part of the biological world. We, as humans, have developed vaccines in response to pestilence that would once have resulted in illness or death.

For the last year I have gone each week to market wondering if this is the week I’ll be exposed to the Corona virus and worried what will become of the farm, my customers, should I contract COVID19 becoming terribly ill or worse. I feared being asymptomatic and passing it along to others to the point for months I made an extra trip to town each week for routine testing. I have always done my best to rely on modern technology to aide in the health of my animals and feel it is prudent that I do the same for myself and my community. How about you?

Daylight Spending

Anyone in the food business knows how for two weeks out of the year everyone’s circadian rhythms are jumbled about with the misnomer that we’ve either lost or gained an hour.  Clock time is purely a human construct, but the true schedules of our lives are ruled by many more aspects that numbers on a dial.

When springing ahead it never fails that market patrons will be sparse for the usual first hour and then all at once the floodgates open. That last half hour that is usually slow, now filled with customers venturing out on their internal clocks. When I was in the deli business years ago I noticed with the clock change, the lunch rush shifted, too.

Searching information for this subject one often finds farmers getting the blame for advancing the clocks forward in spring thus offering more daylight to align with clock time. This is utter hogwash. Farmers are going to farm no matter what the clocks say. You really want to see some cranky critters when the time change comes, just delay feeding or milking time by an hour. Livestock and farmers alike have their routine and it doesn’t matter what clock time it is when we do it, only that it happens at the same circadian or solar time.

What’s the difference? A circadian cycle is based upon 24 hours. When clock time and circadian time align everything runs smoothly until we either turn our clocks forward or back by an hour mucking up everything. Solar time is when our daily rhythms adjust based upon the position of the sun. For instance, a few years ago during the solar eclipse when the sun dimmed in the middle of the afternoon, all the sheep and goats came in from the far pastures just like they normally do at the end of the day to where they bed down for the night. As the daylight changes, so do their schedules.

The reality is Daylight Savings is a practical convenience for modern societies who don’t want to wake up with the sun, preferring their daylight at the end of the day. Farmers have their own schedules which are often determined by factors other than the clock or the sun.

I talked to my groggy fellow farmers on Sunday to get an idea of what the driving factors are in their lives that set their schedules. It’s usually not our clocks, but our thermometers. It can be the soil temperature, humidity, and even the water temperature t hat determines your farmers’ schedules.

Shane Hughes of Liberty Delight Farms and I were both doing the same thing last week—spreading compost on our fields. “The weather is perfect for it right now and the ground is dry,” agreed Hughes as I lamented missing a day of fieldwork while going to market. If fields are too wet, the heavy equipment causes damage. A sunny day with little wind is also preferable. If need be, we’ll work in the dark. Yes, tractors have headlights.

Another aspect of temperature is humidity. The crew at Young Harvests go into overdrive with the rise of both as delicate greens can quickly be ruined by too much of either.

Although we many do not think of our watermen at farmers, they are in every sense of the word—seeding their beds when the temperature is optimal for growth, tending their stock, and bringing in the harvest when ready. However Kellen Williams at Toby Bay Island Oysters pointed out that he must contend with a factor determining his schedule that most would fail to consider—the phase of the moon. “You know how the moon affects the tides?” he asked when we were discussing what external factors influence his farming schedule the most.

Sometimes it’s not the weather conditions or the temperature that determines farm work, but the crops themselves. Planting, cultivating and harvesting is a given for all of us, but the orchard folks like Tommy Evans of Two Story Chimney Ciderworks are alerted to action as soon as the trees begin dropping their leaves. “That’s pruning time for us.”

No matter what’s going on at the farm, we’ll revert to clock time on market days so we’re in our spots and ready to go when the customers begin streaming through the aisles. 

The Year That Wasn’t

It’s been a full year since one of my customers showed up with a plastic bag full of medical face masks, handing them over with the ominous prediction, “You’re going to need these.” Little did they realize that in the coming weeks and months their generous gift would become both requisite and scarce as COVID19 took hold turning our lives upside down.

In the one-year anniversary reflections of the pandemic the comments tend to focus on what has been lost. Anger and grief flare at unmet expectations and rights-of-passages canceled or reduced to digital experiences.

The reality is none of us get a free pass from adversity. As a farmer I have learned this lesson on many occasions. It’s part of the job. Maybe that’s been the impetus to move through the changes, the emotions, becoming innovative for some things and steadfast for others.

With one in four adults in America now vaccinated I’m hearing a collective sigh of relief at the light at the end of the tunnel. Last week I kept a running tally of customers who informed me of their vaccination status—a full 97%. For the record, I have one Pfizer injection down and one in two weeks. That doesn’t necessarily mean life will ever go back to normal. Normal would be pre-COVID19 and the novel virus shows no signs of going away anytime soon.  

For everyone who has asked about how vaccinations will affect the re-opening of the farmers markets, please be aware we will continue to follow the recommendations and restrictions put in place by the Montgomery County Health Department which includes wearing a mask in public and socially distancing.

In retrospect, I can’t help wondering if 541,449 people would have lost their lives had the United States responded to the pandemic with the same speed, efficiency, and policies that we do for disease outbreaks in agriculture. This country has one of the most well-funded, monitoring and response systems to threats from diseases affecting agricultural commodities.

When I first bought a farm and moved back to Pennsylvania, my plan was to follow in the footsteps of my ancestors in Adams county and plant a stone fruit orchard. Unfortunately, that was in 2000 when Plum Pox had quarantined the south-central portion of the state, my farm included. Inspectors cruised both commercial and residential properties alike in search of the dreaded pestilence. If your property had stone fruit trees within a certain perimeter of an identified infection you were forced to cut down all your stone fruit trees even if they were healthy. Compensation was only for the cost of the tree, not for the labor of planting or loss in production no matter where the trees were in their lifecycle.  It was also illegal to plant stone fruit trees. Even after the quarantine was lifted I was advised by a senior farmer not to plant an orchard, to farm something else. “If you plant an orchard and the pox comes back, you’ll lose,” I was warned.

Did I lose out? Nope, still farming and feeding people just as I’d set out to do only in a different way.

That’s how I’ve taken the disappointments over the last year. Practically everything was canceled and that which wasn’t was moved online. It was the little things that disappeared that had the most impact. I missed the music and chef demonstrations at the farmers market. There was a palpable disappointment when there was no sheep in costume for Halloween or no occasional bottle babies. Fear not, lambing season is extremely late this year so there may be the opportunity to snuggle one in the near future.

But with the year that wasn’t came the year that was. Who would have ever considered having Zoom happy hours with old friends no matter where they live? I’ve become spoiled by the rise of digital events having streamed concerts, conferences, workshops, classes, and social events I would not have been able to attend in person either due to budgetary constrains or agrarian responsibilities.  If anything, the pandemic may usher in a new era of digital participation thanks to not having to travel to each event. One teacher who had been traveling to festivals and conferences since the early 80’s admitted she’s going to scale way back on all her traveling even when people begin congregating and traveling again. A big plus also is being able to teach to a wider audience.

The most poignant observations about the loss of a year came from a customer who was a refugee. “I lost five years in the process of coming to America and I survived. We’ll be fine. We adapt and life goes on.” 

A New Season

The week marked the arrival of meteorological spring. Wait…isn’t the first day of spring on March 21st? That would be the astronomical spring based upon the position of the earth in relation to the sun, aka, the vernal equinox.  But to keep things simpler, climatologists have broken down the seasons in relation to the calendar months that best reflect the temperature meaning March kicks off Spring.

It doesn’t take a meteorologist to tell me change of seasons is underway. There are plenty of signs breaking through the crust of snow and ice, the first being the green tufts on the horseradish. They bust up through the barren brown soil alerting me to the impending arrival of spring rituals and celebrations that require their harvest. Also peeking out are shoots from early bulb flowers like crocus, hyacinth, and daffodils. When it hits nearly 70 degrees early next week they’ll shoot up inches practically overnight.

This is the time I year I take the first long walk along the waterways and creek in the areas of the farm that are left out of production for conservation purposes. As much as I’d enjoy this trail on a daily basis, the wildness of it reduces the trek to several times a year.

The walk starts out at the top of the woodlands where open pasture meets the steep hillside thick with hardwoods and a dense undergrowth of wild raspberries. This time of year all is bare leaving the deer trails easy to follow down to the floodplain. The pastures, saturated with melting snow, create seasonal runoff priming the riparian for the first bursts of spring. It’s still too cold to explore for the colorful salamanders and newts, but the abundance of water rattles the food chain to begin a new cycle.

The wetlands area of the farm are just that, a boggy area surrounding the year-round run meandering parallel to the woodlands as they taper into rolling pastures. This time of year the footing is what farmers call greasy—wet and muddy on the surface, frozen underneath. This is the most ideal time to explore this area as much of the year the boot-sucking mud makes it nearly impossible. Despite the creek being swollen from melting snow and rain, there are slick spots on the banks revealing abundant wildlife activity. Telltale footprints show me that I don’t want my poultry anywhere near this area or the mink, weasels, and raccoons would be eating large. The racoons will traverse the woodlands for an easy meal; fortunately, the mink and weasels do not. I still relish signs of these carnivorous predators as it means the ecosystem is abundant enough to support them.

Bird life is the next bellwether of spring. Today I spotted crows, killdeer, woodpeckers, eagles and Canadian geese, the big reason I tend to avoid this walk during nesting season. If you’ve never been chased or pinched by a goose you wouldn’t understand. Only when I see the adults with their goslings on the pond will I begin to venture back into the wetlands.

The vernal ponds are my favorite. These are the depressions on the floodplain that will fill with water only for a month or so, just long enough for a cacophonous symphony of peepers to lay their eggs in gelatinous masses that will hatch into tadpoles and morph into frogs as the shallow ponds give way to grasses.

The big movers and my favorite dinosaurs won’t head up over the banks and through the pastures to the pond until late spring. I’m talking about turtles. They’ll be busy feasting on the salamanders, frogs and even the goslings before their trek begins to the big year-round pond where they lay their eggs. Anyone who thinks these cold-blooded ectotherms aren’t smart hasn’t seen a line of snappers waiting to go through the only open spot in a half mile line of fencing.

The biggest sign of spring by far on my walk is all the activity around the burrows and hollowed out trees which makes this trail treacherous when there is snow on the ground. In addition to groundhogs, fox dens are showing signs of increased traffic along with bunny warrens and vole trails. The path leading down into the cave (yes, there’s a big cave here!) is even showing signs of use. I haven’t rigged up the trail camera yet so I can’t tell if it’s coyotes which I have begun to hear at night or bears who are the sign of meteorological summer in June.

While I understand that you can’t go on that walk with me to witness all the signs, what you can do is take a stroll through the farmers market to see all the signs of spring like green garlic, spinach, duck eggs, and my personal favorite that I indulged in last week—shad roe. And the biggest sign of spring…farmers markets are again open at 9 AM so get there early so you, too, can enjoy the first bounties of the new season.

Science Fiction

As I set out the round bales using the skid loader, a quasi-tractor piece of equipment with hydraulic lift arms on to which a number of end tools can be attached, I couldn’t help noticing my tracks in the snow and mud while pondering the landing of Perseverance on Mars earlier this week.

This machine is my number one tool right now. Mounted on a quick-connect armature is a bale spear—actually three spears that stab into 900-pound bales of hay. Other attachments include a bucket, a manure fork, and an auger. To operate the diesel driven powerhouse I basically sit inside a cage and use joysticks and foot pedals depending on what actions I want the machine to perform. Each time I strap into the seat I feel like one of Dale Brown’s CID robots, only not as cool.  

Within days my tracks will melt, dry, and fade away only the have the process repeat each time I reloaded the livestock’s hay feeders, but how long will the tracks made by Perseverance, well…persevere? We’ve been leaving tire tracks on Mars since 2004 when Spirit and Opportunity rolled around the Red Planet.

Blame it on Battlestar Galactica, but I’ve been a fan of science fiction and space exploration since the day Mom called us in from outside to see Neil Armstrong walk on the moon. I’ve gone from watching Captain Kirk and his communicator to having my own Motorola Razr. My favorite genre of science fiction are the stories that weave actual science with the moral implications new technologies and interstellar/multidimensional exploration examines. Classic authors like Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov, Ursula K. Le Guin and Terry Pratchett are always a good bet. A big fan of audiobooks on my weekly treks to the city, a good story always makes the drive much easier. One of my more recent listens, Margaret Atwood’s Orxy and Crake hit a little too close for me as a farmer, especially the ChickieNobs.

One of my high school friends who left for MIT his junior year and went on to be a particle physicist hunting muons and neutrinos at the South Pole described the Universe to me as a giant set of Legos. The whole darn thing is made up of the same parts that get assembled and disassembled on a scale so grand that we can’t fully comprehend with our human minds.

Had he become a farmer instead of a physicist, he would have been blessed with seeing this process on an Earthly scale. Each season I watch as sunshine gets turned into someone’s dinner, with all the steps from growing grass to fat lambs headed off for processing. Each output is dependent on an input, an allocation of energy. For instance when the snow subsides and the soil begins to warm, the first places to green up will be the spots over which the portable chicken pens were moved last year. It will look like a fictional giant took a fat marker and scribbled emerald lines on the dull brown fields.

As I rolled around in my own version of a rover leaving tracks I thought about what it is our explorations of Mars hopes to find—biomarkers, signs of (past) life in the barren geology. NASA and the scientific community are focused on microscopic evidence. But me with my penchant for science fiction and agriculture wants to find something else–artifacts.

Explorers never know what they’re going to discover when venturing into uncharted territories. From early civilizations circumnavigating the globe using only the stars as their guides to ROVs finding abundant life in the deepest ocean trenches feeding on the sulfur from volcanic vents, we’ve amassed an astonishing amount of information about the world in which we live and often that knowledge runs contrary to what is the accepted current belief. We are so attached to our truths that throughout history we’ve put people to death who reveal new information based upon science. Better yet, take a good look around at all the anti-maskers believing COVID fiction over pandemic science.

This week I’m going to take a little liberty with science fiction as to what I’d like Perseverance to discover and question what impact it would have on society.  What if we found evidence of planetary farmers? They’re working with the same basic elements we know today—all the inputs needed in order to sustain life—as their own planet began to die. If we discovered irrefutable evidence of a mass extinction caused by a path similar to our own global emergencies, would we change for the sake of future inhabitants?

Another environmental conundrum is that of invasive species. In science fiction, it’s always invaders from another planet we worry about, like Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone episode To Serve Man and Mira Grant’s lab engineered zombies and tapeworms. However, we’ve got plenty to deal with right here on Earth. From multiflora rose overrunning the pastures to Spotted Lantern Flies infesting crops, farmers are often on the front lines when it comes to being on the losing end of an unwanted biological invasion. The determination between good and bad often exists on the outcome being either beneficial or destructive. Despite honeybees being non-native to North America, introduced by European settlers in 1622, they are now considered beneficial, actually quite critical to our food system.

But what if it is humans that are the invasive species gnawing the Earth down to bare rock? Imagine if we would find evidence that we’ve done this all before…on Mars. I keep asking myself how humanity as a whole would react to the discovery of evidence that turns our entire existence on its head, where an ancient species of beings farmed a new home, seeding a young planet, like a spring field, with the building blocks; four simple nucleic acids to code life in a new environment of elements.

I scour the stories of JPL’s success, follow NASA’s social media, and enjoy the images and information beamed back from over 132 million miles away, intertwining it with my daily wonderings of what if. For now, I need to go shovel more Legos on to the fields in preparation for spring.

Being Prepared

I was a Girl Scout. From Brownies through Seniors, I went camping, earned badges, volunteered, traveled, and learned many basics that have followed me throughout life. Even today I continue to live by the Girl Scout motto, Be Prepared.

It seems like lately we’ve been collectively beaten up by one emergency or another. We’ve been hit with a pandemic, insurrection, snowstorms, ice storms, and now the nation is experiencing a massive polar vortex reaching to the Gulf of Mexico leaving millions without electricity and heat. As much as we may feel like things are getting worse, the truth is there have always been disasters. What is happening is we are getting worse at being prepared.

I’m not talking about emergency systems on a national, state, or local level, but at the family and personal level. Between social media and major news outlets I’ve been flabbergasted by the reports of how many were unprepared at the most basic level. As another snowstorm bears down on the region, I want to devote this week’s Dishing the Dirt to simple steps we can all take to mitigate any hardships we might encounter due to weather related or manmade events. Planning to be prepared is simple. It will give you peace of mind and might even save your life.

Electricity. We pay for it. It’s not gift or a right, but a service. We are not entitled to an electric source 24/7/365 (unless you have the foresight to install personal solar or wind and even that’s not a 100% given). Travel to remote parts of the globe and you might encounter societies who only have access to electricity a few hours intermittently and do fine. We’ve become spoiled by the lights always on paradigm. But things like big floods, high winds, fires, accidents, and ice can bring down power lines causing outages lasting from minutes to months.

There is zero excuse to be caught unprepared for weather related events. Just about every mobile weather app offers the ability to receive alerts. Additionally, many local governments offer alert services through both text and email. My phone has been chirping every few hours with updates from Montgomery County’s Emergency Alert Service that is hooked into the National Weather Service. For those who eschew smart phone technology, television and radio also broadcast emergency weather alerts which often start twenty-four hours in advance—plenty of time for a bread, milk & toilet paper run.

Living in California for twenty years, emergency preparedness was second nature thanks to a geology professor who made his students build Earthquake Kits for a lab project. I still have mine and have pulled it out a couple times over the years when the power has gone out. This year I finally upgraded the Radio Shack Weather Cube for an emergency radio with a crank and solar charger that can also charge USB devices (like a phone) and has a powerful LED flashlight. It was $30. Isn’t that worth it instead of having to go outside to your car to charge your phone in the middle of an ice storm, hurricane, or blizzard?

Disasters by their own nature cause discomfort. Emergency rations for a few days aren’t meant to be Michelin starred MREs, but enough sustenance to get by. Think peanut butter and jelly, granola bars—anything that doesn’t require refrigeration. Toss in a chocolate bar or two as a treat. Have on hand at least a gallon of water per person in your household per day for drinking. Similarly, I like to fill a few five-gallon buckets ahead of weather events for basic sanitation.

Many fears are centered on keeping warm in the event the loss of electricity leads to no heat. It’s much safer to pile on layers and snuggle under blankets than it is to try to heat your living space by methods that could lead to carbon monoxide poisoning. That means never, ever use charcoal, camp stoves and generators inside your home.

Getting through a weather-related emergency is mostly common sense. It’s asking yourself, “What do I need for the next few days?” and making certain you have it. Some of my must-have items include a bag of salt or ice melt for around my doors so when I do venture out I don’t fall. Many of the items on an Emergency Kit list are everyday items for me as a farmer—flashlights, headlamps, heavy gloves and boots, a sharp knife, and basic tools. During potential disaster events my workload seems to double, but for most folks they’re going to need something other than their mobile phones to pass the time. Break out the board games, a good book, a deck of cards, a cribbage board, dominos, an origami book, and colored paper.

Most importantly, look out for those around you. Check in with your neighbors, especially those who are elderly, infirmed, or who live alone.

Emergency preparedness is not about if, but about when. Paying attention now will reap the benefits when disruptions occur.