In a year of weird weather, garlic suddenly became ready to pull at Sundog Farm.
Some cloves began to burst and if the farmers couldn’t figure out exactly why, they decided to harvest it all before any more went past its prime.
It was a good call as the garlic heads brought to the barn were large and the crop was bigger than expected. It was an exceptional crop. The harvest took place on two days this week. I helped with the second.
Eight of us worked the field and racked the garlic for curing. It was hot work, and I couldn’t stand the sun and heat for long. After two and a half hours pulling garlic from the field, I changed to the racking operation in the barn to get out of the sun. There was plenty of work for everyone. Here are some photos of the operation.
After clearing the field of garlic the crew met at the farm house where we ate lunch of grilled brats and hot dogs, fresh grilled vegetables, and pickled asparagus put up last year. The grilled onions had been picked just moments before hitting the grill. Days like this one feels something got accomplished.
A thunderstorm with potential to create a tornado arrived about 8:45 p.m. last night. As the front of the cell moved over our house, we went to the lower level and waited in a safe corner, staying tuned to reports from news outlets. The National Weather Service precisely described our location in one of its tornado warnings.
The early warning system and technology supporting it are pretty amazing.
There was no tornado or straight line winds I could see or hear, although when the sun rises I’ll inspect the property for damage. The forecast is for scattered and isolated thunderstorms beginning around 2 p.m. today. We’ve seen worse storms than last night in recent years.
Wednesday I went to the warehouse club to fill a new eyeglasses prescription. On the way I stopped at a hair salon for a trim. Stylist conversation was about spring planting and how far behind many farmers are. We shared observations that fields have standing water and many farmers haven’t planted. One more manifestation of community talk about excessive rain’s impact our lives.
Farmers are giving up on corn, as it is getting too late to plant. They’ll switch to soybeans if they can get in the fields. From where we are today, they need a solid week of drying before running planters in fields. Estimates are 31 million planned corn acres remain to be planted, a few days work with modern agricultural technology. Because of wet fields with forecasts for more rain, it seems unlikely many will make it before the mid-June planting deadline to get crop insurance. 2019 looks to be a year farmers remain viable through insurance payments, federal subsidies and smart planning. Getting into wet fields not only poses risks of reduced yield for a current crop, resulting soil compaction would affect next year’s planting. So we wait.
I ordered my eyeglasses, fueled my vehicle and picked up groceries. The garden was muddy so I focused on inside work, still waiting for the weather to break. Last night’s thunderstorm indicated Mother Nature is not ready for that.
Monday didn’t happen as expected. There were three things involving arborists, health care and farming.
Without announcement, the arborist arrived to take down a maple tree I planted on the northwest corner of the house. Turns out I didn’t know what I was doing when planting the 12-inch, stick-sized sapling so close to the house in 1994.
Now fully grown, unusually strong winds already took out one of the main branches. We determined it would be less expensive to remove the tree than pay for a roof repair when limbs inevitably blew down on it.
It was a small way of mitigating the damage of the climate crisis.
The crew was four men with two pickup trucks to haul away brush and wood. The benefit of using an arborist instead of a tree service is the equipment is pickup trucks, ladders, and an array of Stihl brand chainsaws and old fashioned loppers. There is minimal soil compaction around the work site without heavy equipment and that’s important to a home owner.
The arborists took out the maple and trimmed the pin oak, finishing well before noon. Our next door neighbor engaged them for tree trimming and by the end of the day our corner of the neighborhood was looking good.
Monday’s main event was a trip to the local clinic to get checked out.
Last Friday someone called, saying I was overdue for a physical exam. They had an appointment the following business day, which in a small city is disconcerting. The hospital managing the clinic is already having financial difficulties. The fear is the clinic will close, making it neccessary to drive to the county seat for health care. I took the appointment.
We no longer have two physicians at our clinic as one was replaced with an ARNP or Advanced Registered Nurse Practitioner. I get that the United States is facing a physician shortage, and our ARNP fills a coverage gap. It makes sense to differentiate the skills being performed in a local clinic and find practitioners that closely match them.
I miss what I had for a very long time, a doctor with whom I established a relationship and could get to know in our community. I’m not saying it was great, or that we should go back. I miss it but am ready to move on, seeking an answer to the question how do people get treatment in a scenario in which part of every office visit is talking about how to pay for services?
I liked my ARNP. He explained something I hadn’t considered. He said I was scheduled for a physical exam and there would be a significant cost. I explained that’s what the Friday caller said I needed so I went with it. He changed the billing code and said, once a person reaches a certain age, the better course of action when seeking treatment is to come into the clinic for specific maladies, without getting a traditional physical exam. I have a history already, which when combined with age and lifestyle risks, along with my complaints, can determine a course of care without physical examinations as I’ve had previously. What their team did today was little different from what the last physician did, with the exception the prostate examination was delayed until the results of a panel of lab tests he ordered were known.
At 3:40 p.m. I drove to the farm to pick up our vegetable share of Bok Choy and Koji, Leaf Broccoli, Mixed Greens, Lettuce, Spring Garlic, and Garlic Chives. Each year I secure onion starts for our garden leftover once the farm has planted theirs. It was time. Usually I get a bundle or two of starts produced in Texas, but Monday was different. The farmers gave me two trays of locally grown starts still in soil blocks. It seemed a generous gift considering the work that produced them. I was thankful to have them.
A day that started with a headache from a 12-hour fast before my clinic appointment turned out for the better. I had a cup of coffee after the clinic and the day got progressively better. It was one more day of sustaining a life in a turbulent world.
There is nothing magical about 40 acres in the 21st Century. Today’s American farmers can make a living on much less, largely because of crop diversification, technology, and emerging markets for locally grown food.
For a beginning specialty-crop farmer, 40 acres might be too much to handle.
“40 acres and a mule” entered the vernacular as a way of dealing with the question of what to do with newly freed slaves during and after the Civil War. Give them 40 acres and a mule to get started as free men, or so the line of thinking went.
In 1865, William Tecumseh Sherman provided for confiscation of 400,000 acres of land in South Carolina, Georgia and Florida, to redistribute in 40-acres parcels to formerly enslaved farmers. The arrangement did not persist, although even today, presidential candidates posit the United States should pay reparations for slavery.
While specialty crop farmers work hard, long days to make ends meet and sometimes take a job in town to provide enough household cash, they increasingly seek to own their future. To a person, that means buying land. In Iowa good farmland is expensive.
For farmers, the desire to create a farm on less than 40 acres has to do with start up capital. To make a go of it as a specialty farmer on 40 acres, that means $350,000 or more for land, another $100,000 or more for an on-farm dwelling, and more for at least one barn, a couple tractors, and other equipment for cultivation, mowing, tilling, fencing and general operations. Finding a banker to finance such an operation is difficult without collateral other than the land. There is also the hurdle of what to do with all that land. While a small farm can grow into 40 acres with success and over time, a beginning farmer has much to learn and the scale can be intimidating.
Shouldn’t there be opportunities to start a farm on less than 40 acres? The county board of supervisors said no. Couldn’t you move to another county? The market is in urban centers.
In Iowa farms have an agricultural zoning exemption. Beginning farmers seek the ag exemption in order to make ends meet on narrow gross margins. To be defined as a farm in our county, and get the exemption, 40 acres is required. Some of my farmer friends have been asking for accommodation of smaller farms for many years and none has been forthcoming from the county board. The future belongs to the young and they will not be stopped.
That brings us to House Study Bill 239, an act relating to the county zoning exemption for property used for agricultural purposes. Farms are defined as follows:
The bill provides that property is used for agricultural purposes if at least 51 percent of the annual gross revenue derived from the property comes from the growing, harvesting, or selling of crops and livestock raised and produced on the property or brought to the property and not more than 49 percent of the annual gross revenue derived from the property comes from the sale of agricultural experiences and other farm-related activities.
The number of acres defining a farm becomes irrelevant should the measure pass the legislature and be signed by the governor.
This bill amounts to an end run around the county board of supervisors. While it didn’t clear the state government committee this session, it remains eligible for consideration and debate next year in the second session of the 88th Iowa General Assembly.
A representative from our county made it to the bill’s subcommittee hearing on March 5. In what was described as a long, arrogant speech, the official characterized rural residents who had been working with the county board of supervisors as “loud complainers.” Not a good look for anyone, especially a county official.
Today was a great day of spring-like weather. We can feel it in the air as farmers prepare equipment, tend livestock, and prepare for another crop. Whether on 40 acres or 4,000 there are many common threads running through farming. Whether they will be defined according to the same standard is an open question. It’s time to see if the legislature can resolve the issue for beginning farmers, since the county won’t.
The store manager from the home, farm and auto supply store phoned Sunday afternoon to ask me to work on Monday. The colleague who assumed my full time job last spring was visiting family in Nebraska and bad weather closed roads across the state, including Interstate 80. She couldn’t make it back in time for her shift.
In Iowa, helping out is part of our culture. I said yes I’d work and rearranged my plans so I could.
In addition, the farmer decided the weather was bad enough she didn’t want people venturing out to the farm. The roads were iced over and the wind howled at 30 miles per hour all day. Her sister, the shepherdess, posted social media photos of installing a new anemometer and weather station. Its LED panel displayed the digital message, “hold onto your hat!”
As I was settling in last night, the Washington Post put up an article about White House plans to form an “ad hoc group of select federal scientists to reassess the government’s analysis of climate science and counter conclusions that the continued burning of fossil fuels is harming the planet.”
In other words, the Fourth National Climate Assessment told the story of how dire our future could be without climate action. Rather than doing something, the administration is arguing with their own scientists that global warming is not caused by burning fossil fuels. These are times that will fry men’s souls.
Which part of yesterday’s howling wind was an amplification caused by global warming? The answer doesn’t matter because it’s the wrong question. We know the deleterious effect of burning fossil fuels. We also know thawing permafrost, agriculture, methane releases during oil production, building construction, manufacturing processes, air transport, deforestation, landfill decomposition and other human activities contribute to greenhouse gas emissions and global warming. We can’t get bogged down in details when the bigger picture is we have an obstructionist government led by Republicans and their conservative, dark-moneyed think tanks who would interpret the howling wind as something else. The better question is when will voters do something to fix this?
Yesterday’s wind was the kind that calls for hunkering down until it ends. Eventually we will have a calm, sunny day and the opportunity to work as normal. Or maybe it is something else, as Bob Dylan sang in the 1970s,
Idiot wind, blowing like a circle around my skull
From the Grand Coulee Dam to the Capitol
Idiot wind, blowing every time you move your teeth
You’re an idiot, babe
It’s a wonder that you still know how to breathe.
More than at any previous time I feel a goal line was crossed when I left full time work last spring.
So what’s next?
I don’t anticipate buying a fancy television with new, matching easy chairs to put in front of it.
My late aunt and uncle had that. When we visited their Alabama home our conversations turned to the evangelical Christianity their family had undertaken. It was a distance from the socialist and Catholic household in which she grew up with her brothers and sisters. I suspect aunt and uncle watched FOX News, although we talked the entire visit without turning on the T.V. Dinner was a tuna-noodle casserole taking me back to a time I hardly remembered. Mom never made tuna-noodle casserole at home. My uncle died shortly after we left them and she died soon after that. All that’s left are memories.
My fear is if we had a digital television I’d sit back in an easy chair, watch too much, and my mind would succumb to the blather that invades people’s lives from cable news. I’d spend the rest of this life talking about, to and at the television.
There is only one answer to the question, and that’s to stay active physically, emotionally and mentally. That’s really a lie. There are plenty of answers, although doing these three things can form a foundation upon which an answer can be built. Maybe that’s what I’ll do.
Birds eat from the feeder and a freezing rain falls on the county. Snow melt is filling the ditches and running toward the lake. Soon there will be floods in Iowa as the crazy weather continues.
Tomorrow I return to the farm for the first round of soil blocking. They already started seeds in the house, but these will go into the greenhouse despite the coming cold spell. I’m waiting another week to plant celery. At 120 days, celery has the longest plant to pick cycle.
Will farm work bring catharsis to my search for truth and meaning? I don’t know, but I’ll be spending time with friends again and that means something.
I’ll get to see the lambs, those sad but cute creatures destined for someone’s dinner table. I’ll be careful not to get attached but new life is always a pleasure. That’s what I need in the rainy, snowy, flooded Iowa I call home as the cycle of the growing season begins anew.
Moving the goal posts once they are set is not a good option in retirement. We may only get one chance for new goals and it’s important to be sure. I’ll be thinking about that as I make the soil blocks tomorrow morning. I’m looking forward to getting started.
A lone bald eagle soared over Rapid Creek north of Wild Woods Farm. We were pulling plastic over the new high tunnel.
The eagle lofted in the wind as if it were summer. We would rather the wind died down until we finished. The project was well-organized and it took an hour and a half for 20 of us to get the plastic stretched over the aluminum frame.
Someone asked how many inches of frost were in the ground. That struck me as funny while standing in two inches of sloppy mud. We have yet to have a hard freeze this winter. Vegetable farmers have ordered seeds and as soon as they arrive plan to plant onions in trays. Spring planting will begin soon enough. With the ambient temperature at 50 degrees it doesn’t feel like we’ll have a winter even though an extended hard freeze would be good for farmers.
The fact of a warming atmosphere is all around us. Eagles attracted to open water in January is just part of it. Climate has changed, disrupting weather patterns we learned to expect coming up. Local vegetable farmers dealt with the weird weather last season and could use a break back to “normal” this year. A 50 degree January day may be a fluke — a welcome one for this project — but there have been too make flukes.
During wait time I finalized a spring soil-blocking schedule at the two farms. It was a productive day of catching up with friends in mid-winter… talking about spring.
With winter solstice tomorrow afternoon, it’s getting late to be calling this autumn.
There are still fresh vegetables in the ice box and plenty of ideas for what to do with them. On Monday and Tuesday I binged on YouTube videos about street food in Pakistan and India, which led me to make a batch of egg fried rice.
To begin, I am shocked by how much oil or butter is used by these street vendors. It is well known that restaurateurs use a lot of butter in cooking. Eating in diners accepts a high level of saturated fats in food. But these videos? Oh My God! A quart of vegetable oil? Two or three cups of butter? It’s enough to give a person a heart attack… literally.
In an American home we don’t use so much cooking oil yet there are lessons to be learned here. I got out the wok and spent about half an hour prepping vegetables.
I found parsley, carrots, onion, celery, turnips, kale, collards, garlic, fennel and leeks and diced them up for stir fry. There was about four cups of leftover, cooked rice, enough to use four eggs.
If I keep making this dish I need to work on seasonings. I was tempted to add red pepper flakes to the oil in the beginning but resisted the heat to see what the other flavors would lend to the experience. I kept it simple with salt, ground black pepper, ground cumin and smoked paprika. It was good without hot peppers.
The rest is pretty easy. Place about four tablespoons vegetable oil in the wok and heat to temperature. Add vegetables one dish at a time in cook’s order (those needing most cooking first) reserving the parsley for finishing. Sauté and stir constantly until the vegetables begin to soften and add the eggs. Street vendors crack eggs directly into the wok, but I beat lightly in a dish and added them all at once. Stir constantly until the eggs begin to cook. Add the cumin and paprika at this point and incorporate. Add the rice and stir until the eggs are cooked and everything is incorporated and heated evenly. Add parsley and serve. Made four generous portions.
The kitchen was filled with the aroma of chopped fennel all day. In the finished dish it added a brightness that’s hard to describe. Stirring constantly helped prevent the eggs from creating a crust on the bottom of the wok and made cleanup easier. If I were to serve this as a side dish I’d reduce the number of vegetables to basic aromatics and some greens, maybe add some pine nuts. Stir fry is a flexible dish that can use up what’s on hand.
As fall turns to winter egg fried rice helped transition from ice box to pantry for food sourcing. I felt I learned from the experience of making it. In our kitchen, that’s what cooking is all about.
The phone rang as I was preparing for a shift at the orchard.
Heavy rains had Rapid Creek flooding its banks and the nearby pumpkin patches. Apple trees on the south side of the creek would be inaccessible until the water receded, maybe Sunday, my supervisor said. We chatted a bit then I let her go to call the rest of the crew. They’d only need a few people for the anticipated number of customers.
Crates of bell peppers and onions were stacked downstairs waiting to be prepped for freezing, so there was plenty to do on an unexpected day off. Like most low-wage workers, when I don’t work, I don’t get paid, so I’m ready to work when the creek surge passes. Working in the kitchen, while important, yields no currency.
The cancellation gave me a chance to arrive at the farm’s fall potluck dinner before the food was all eaten. I baked an apple pie from the orchard to share and drove over early for the first time in years. We toured the farm which was vibrant with fall colors. The food and company was excellent. I met new people and farm friends to hear their stories.
At home the ground was squishy with water. That hasn’t happened much since we moved to Big Grove. The garden continues to produce and I picked what is likely to be the last cucumber. I rely on my bartered CSA shares for fall cruciferous vegetables. Based on the visit there will be plenty this year.
Finding enough to eat has not been an Iowa problem. Ever since discovering and nurturing an ecology of food the abundance of nature became obvious and my focus turned local. What can I grow myself? What can I rely upon from my farmer friends? What can I get to improve the quality of our cuisine from the markets? Food ecology forms a framework upon which culinary culture is hung. Once recognized, nourishment flows like the rain that flooded the orchard and our yard.
2018 has been a year of weird weather and it is not finished. The state and municipalities did not adequately consider short, heavy downpours when designing our roads and infrastructure. Gravel roads were washed out after the storm. Flash flooding crossed major thoroughfares in the county seat. Call it what you will but the weird weather is taking a toll on food producers and their customers. We are all connected and the harm by changes in weather is obvious and everywhere.
It’s part of sustaining a life in a turbulent world.
It’s raining as I type on the keyboard. Rain is to relent and I hope it does because one of the farmers for whom I work is getting married today.
In our small family there are not many celebrations. I’m not sure what to do at a wedding, although I’ll figure it out by 3:30 p.m. today.
Jacque is steering me in the right direction. We bought a gift on line and had it sent to the bride’s home. She is making a card. She suggested I refrain from going directly from the orchard in my work clothes as I had planned to do. I looked through the closet to find something to wear and there was my blue shirt and a pair of slacks. I have a pair of dress shoes left over from when I worked in the Chicago loop. I need to pick a tie. My navy blue blazer still fits. Special things for a special day. I’ll change in the employee rest room at the orchard then head down to the county seat for the ceremony. Civilization at work.
It’s still raining.
Since my first retirement nine years ago I’ve kept track of significant activities.
I keep a balance sheet, a list of books I’ve read recently, and record every event, meeting and significant encounter with people outside immediate family who are part of my world.
Early on there was a purpose to this, although I’m not sure now what it was. Three full binders later, I’m ready to give up tracking things so closely. My last full report was in December 2017 as my Social Security pension began. My second retirement seems opportunity enough to let go of details and focus on main tasks at hand. Things like weddings, funerals, birthdays, housekeeping and the like. I expect I’ll get better at it.
September begins the turn toward winter. The garden is in late summer production so there are tomatoes, celery, cucumbers, winter squash, green beans, eggplant and peppers coming in, requiring processing. Fruit is also coming in from the orchards with pears, apples and peaches lined up on the counter waiting to eat. Cooking has taken a fresh flavor with local food dominating most menus. Cucumber salad is happening daily and we’re not tired of it… yet.
2018 is proving to be a year of transition. So aren’t they all?
I’ve been planning garlic planting in late September and haven’t decided whether to use the cloves I grew as seed or to get more from the farm. I picked a place for them and once the cucumbers are done I’ll prep the soil. I think I know the answer. At some point we have to live on our own — I’ll use the cloves I grew this year, hoping they multiply and eventually become self-sustaining. I’m confident they will.