Kitchen Garden

Spring, but not All

Seedling Starter
Seedling Starter on a Heating Pad

LAKE MACBRIDE— A layer of snow covered everything this morning, indicating that the calendar start of spring meant nothing to Mother Nature.

A few days ago, I checked the soil in the garden— it was still frozen. During many a previous year, the lettuce had been in the ground for three weeks, and seed potatoes were in the garage, waiting to be cut and seasoned before planting on Good Friday, now just five days away. Spring is not all it was expected to be this year.

I decided to try starting my own seedlings again. In the past, I failed miserably, but after making soil blocks at the CSA, found the confidence to try it again. The cells are mapped out on graph paper, and yesterday, I started putting the trays on a heating pad set to low for a few hours at a time. When I looked at the green pepper seeds this morning, they had begun to take root after this first heating pad session. There is plenty of moisture in the soil mix, so I’ll continue the practice and see how the seeds sprout and grow. So far, so good.

In an effort to avoid the deadly intersection of cabin fever and spring fever, I have been exploring some new writers and found Girl Gone Farming, which is a blog by someone who recently moved to a farm in Pennsylvania after living in New York City for three years. Worth reading here, especially for readers who are city folk.

The snow continues to float through the air, morning has turned to afternoon, and it appear to be spring, not at all, in the garden.

Kitchen Garden Writing

Knowing our Farmers

Germinated Seeds
Germinated Seeds

RURAL CEDAR TOWNSHIP— The seeds I planted last week had sprouted when I returned to the farm for shift number two. The work was easier this time and I finished quickly. I used a water bottle to stay hydrated, and it helped a lot. The greenhouse is starting to fill with the flats of seedlings for three growers who use the space.

Even though it was only my second day of making soil blocks, the skill had been learned, and I trained another worker.

The CSA where I work is not organic. “We can’t afford that,” said the producer. This attitude is common among vegetable growers, and while some equivocate, saying they use “organic practices,” the truth is the discussion about organic is based on penetrating markets. While it is not mentioned much anymore, the purpose of Community Supported Agriculture is to know your grower, and how they raise vegetables. It requires the buyer to have a depth of knowledge beyond fungible commodities. Being part of a CSA is about more than just the weekly share of vegetables, even if our consumer culture focuses on that aspect of the arrangement.
Most consumers don’t have time to know the farmer, and buy food at the grocery store. Maybe there is an alternative, and while labor intensive, it starts on farms like this one.

Kitchen Garden

At the CSA

RURAL CEDAR TOWNSHIP— Yesterday was the first of a long series of work days at a local Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) project. I spent three and a half hours making blocks of soil mix to grow seedlings, then planted lettuce seeds in some of them. I had no expectations for the day, but mostly because of dehydration, had to cut it short. (Note to self: next time take a water bottle). I am not physically ready for farm work, but hope to be soon. As this growing season evolves, my physical condition should improve. The reason for being at there was to learn how a greenhouse works in late winter, and about growing lettuce from seedlings. I am also trading labor for a share of produce.

If one would write about local food, some experience on a CSA seems mandatory. It is one thing to talk and write about local food and another to grow it. The latter takes more work than people realize. What was immediately apparent was the labor intensity of sustainable agriculture in its current iteration. Machines could have done all of the work I did more efficiently, but with substantial capital investment. Local, sustainable agriculture starts out behind in the race with large scale operations over efficiency. It is a conscious choice among options for how to spend limited capital, and as long as cheap labor is available, capital investment will be directed to other things on a long list of priorities.

We didn’t talk much, but between periods of work, managed to catch up on news, and what’s going on with family. The only thing to report is that local CSAs continue to struggle to find customers, with some of last year’s customers cutting back to half shares, or not renewing this season. Managing a base of members whose investment is less than $1,000 per year is also labor intensive.

My sense is that there are pockets of strength in the local food movement in Johnson County. It is not really a cohesive system yet. People enjoy going to the farmers market to buy produce, but they often do so with discretionary income. In a tight economy, discretionary income can be reduced or evaporate completely, effecting farmers markets and CSA business alike because they are perceived as an indulgence rather than a way of life. There is inadequate attention paid to the role of home cooks as buyers/promoters of sustainably grown food. That needs a remedy as well, but is also labor intensive, and the planting season is here.