It’s official folks… it happened two weeks ago.
Once a year, like clockwork, in late February I sit in the recliner, watching the sun move across the sky and realize it. Before the greenhouse seeding starts, before the field prep begins and before my hands roughen up from the soft winter work. After I go on my house cleaning rampage, the laundry is all clean and folded, the pups are walked, fed and trained and after I’ve already started my silly elaborate dinner prep (even though I haven’t had lunch yet). I realize it... I’m bored. This yearly occurrence always sneaks up on me as if it’s a special farmers holiday like Good Friday or Christmas. Other symptoms include inane comments to my husband about things I normally don’t have time to think or care about like, “Why didn’t you text me back at all today?!” or almost (ALMOST!) taking a nap in the recliner in the afternoon sun. Sure, I could start seeding earlier and do an early spring CSA share; all of which I’m not sure are good ideas for other reason. But every year when this happens, I look at my calendar pining for that first seeding date and realize my late winter, stir-crazy, farmer boredom has a cure!
The MOSES Organic Farming Conference! I always look forward to this weekend full of farmer education, inspiration, socialization, eating and drinking. It’s the perfect cure for my boredom that snuck up on me, gets me pumped about new ideas to implement on the farm and offers that last bit of winter fun amongst fellow farmers before the entirety of the season engulfs us all. And this year I was especially excited because my husband, Travis, came with! After going 4-5 years alone, it was so special to be able to share that wonderful weekend with him; to introduce him to more of my farmer friends and to get him more immersed in this organic world now that we will be land owners by the end of the month.
The other special thing about this year was that I was a presenter! Well, sort of. I was asked to co-lead a small roundtable on women farming solo! These round tables are a great way to get advice and ask questions within a small group atmosphere (usually around 8-12 people total) that are held in between each workshop. Well I got there and was handed a microphone to talk in front of over 60 women! Jane (my co-presenter) and I were very surprised but went with it and told the women our stories. Jane does livestock and I do veggies. Jane has children and I want to have children soon. It was a perfect balance. We got pelted with questions and I was completely blown away by how many women were there. It was so incredibly inspiring; especially since it was only 4 or 5 years ago that I sat at my first MOSES conference workshop and was brought to tears of inspiration by farming women whom I still look up to today. Although talking to that many people was nerve-racking, I am so glad that many women showed up. I think next year we need to have a whole workshop slot devoted to women farming solo! I am grateful my story can be inspiring to others.
Each year, I take away something different and dive into new topics at the workshops than I did the year before. This year definitely had a theme to it: “what not to do on our future farm land” or “what to do but use extreme caution with.” I feel like as I have grown more as farmer, I feel I have become more realistic (some might call it pessimistic) about entering into future enterprises on the farm. I now have a firm #1 enterprise which is definitely a full time job April through October: organic veggies! And therefore I am extremely conscious and selfish with the small amounts of personal time I have during the growing season. I am now more realistic about the realities of farm and am therefore more skeptical about the actual work that goes into any variety of farming enterprise. I think this is also about having healthy boundaries and reigning in my serial-entrepreneurial tendencies…
Here are some examples of those things I want to remind skeptical of as I develop my relationship with our new land:
· Meat rabbits: We went to a fellow farmer’s workshop on pastured rabbits. Julie Engel raises rabbits for restaurants in Madison and Milwaukee and discussed her Coney Garth system for pasturing her meat rabbits. Although we enjoyed raising rabbits this past year, I think I am realizing I will never be comfortable making my living on animals. Although I love animals and I enjoy eating the animals we raise, I much prefer making my living from vegetables. Rabbits are also one of those farm animals that 1) you can't find a processor willing to butcher them and 2) your not supposed to butcher them yourself for sale to restaurants now. They aren't quite legal but also not totally illegal.
· Grapes: As much as I love grapes, apparently growing grapes in the upper Midwest is really challenging. We spent about 15 minutes in that workshop and left- they must be coddled and cared for and sprayed against all sorts of pests and diseases (even organically); you practically have to hold their little leafy hands to maturity! Nope, not for me! I prefer my hardy broccoli and prolific tomatoes.
· Biochar: Have you ever even heard of this before? Well I am beginning to think there is a reason for it. It sounds so great: put this charcoal in the soil, sequester tons of carbon and see increased soil life and crop yields. But what we learned was that we have literally no idea what the mechanism behind biochar is! How does it work? Isn’t charcoal inherently anti-microbial so wouldn’t that be bad for soil (that thrives of and practically is mostly microbes)? The soil physicist who presented the history and production uses of biochar talked about a few studies showing positive results but we still don’t understand why or how it works. So I emailed him later asking if we could be apart of his soil study! He is going to mail us a bag of biochar to bury in the soil for a few months to a year and we will mail soil and the biochar back to him after. I love that we will have land that I help further this amazing food movement.
· GMOs/GEs: I surprised myself when I stepped into the workshop titled “Biology Behind the Technology of GMOs.” Normally I steer wide away from the GE/GMO topic because there is so much intense energy and feelings on both sides about it. But perhaps after the biochar workshop, I was hungry for more science! As a certified organic grower, I am not allowed to use an GMO/GE seed even if it was available and if I wanted to. I wanted to better understand: what exactly does GMO/GE mean? How does it work? I wanted to understand the science behind it so I can have respectful conversations with others about it. Within ten minutes, I learned a ton; most importantly I learned why the National Organic Program doesn’t allow GMO/GE seeds to be used in organic production. When breeding plants in the classical way, we select for the traits we want, knowing full well how this might change the entire system within the plant. The plant adapts and changes according to the trait we want, following the natural order of life. Most times, the plant will adapt to the criteria we are asking it for in a way that removes a trait we liked in the parent plant. For example, we want a better tasting tomato but this might result in thicker, less tasty skins. We are working with plants to optimize our goals and criteria with the reality and limitations of their genetics. We let the plants find their own solutions to our criteria. Whereas when we genetically engineer crops, we are dissecting the system, inputting a different organism’s gene(s) and creating a silver bullet that the scientist predicts will be the best. And now they then have to go through the traditional plant breeding process to find the optimal plant combination to suit our needs. Below is a really good illustration of the process. Bacteria DNA extraction and isolation, cloning and designing of those genes, insertion of genes into plant host genes, growing and developing the plants genes in cell and tissue culture (which can have unknown possible results since we don’t know where exactly the genes were inserted into the host plant genes) and then traditional plant breeding to patentable cultivars. The result is that with traditional plant breeding, we are working with the plants to create a balance between what we need and what the plants can give us (and they are so willing to work with us!). As someone who greatly respects plants and all they have to teach us, being pro-natural plant breeding is something that comes naturally to me and I will continue to be certified organic and avoid growing and eating GMO/GE crops.
Overall is was a great weekend full of lots of science and embracing what my gifts as a farmer are. I’d like to end this blog post with my favorite nerdy farm quote from the whole weekend from the keynote presentation, “Invertebrates are generally under-represented in the ecological conservation circuit.” And I agree- they are!
In CSA news, we are nearly 50% full already! That's a record folks! Sign up soon if you want to reserve your spot.