Sunday, September 27, 2009

Farming knowledge, farming futures

This week we topped brussels sprouts. We didn’t spend all week on it or anything; in fact it just took four of us maybe a half hour to and hour to do all eight or so rows that we have. We each took two rows at a time and moved between them, methodically reaching in to the newest growth of leaves and breaking it off. I guess that this stops the further growth of new leaves (and overall height) on the plant, and stimulates the development and size of the sprouts that we all enjoy. Brussels sprouts will be among the last things that we distribute, giving out a couple of stalks with the sprouts still attached to every shareholder during the last couple weeks of the share, as we come near to Thanksgiving.

Every plant is different, and every plant that we grow for food has slightly or greatly differing needs to ensure its healthy growth and harvest. Tomatoes seedlings should be planted deeply, almost up to their first branching, to encourage thick root growth. Potatoes should have soil mounded up around the base of the plants after they have gotten well started, to smother weeds, to provide loose, easy soil for the potatoes to grow in and for easy harvesting. Basil leaves (and flowers) should be harvested from the tops of the plants to encourage continued growth. Winter squash should be harvested at full size and cured for a couple of weeks before distribution so that the skins can harden and much of the starch converted to sugar for best flavor and texture. Lettuce likes it cool and wet. Eggplant likes it really hot, especially unbroken heat through the night. Carrots like two or three fingers of space between each plant, beets like a little bit more. Watermelons should be harvested when they have that hollow bongo sound, have brown and withered tendrils opposite the fruit stalk, and a bright yellow spot where they laid on the ground.

There are thousands of these little tips and pieces of information. Some of these things are out of our control. Some we have time for. Some we don’t quite have time for. There are plenty of things that we don’t know, and probably lots of things that nobody knows. Some information fits readily into a sensible scheme of common sense, some information is easy to understand with a general understanding of biology, botany and/or ecology, some stuff you just have to learn and remember. As the season winds down (and after it ends) I hope to work systematically through all the things I have learned over the season and make notes about how we did things. For every plant, for instance, I hope to list how we started them out, where we put them, what we did to them, how we weeded them, how we harvested them, etc. And also look at systems and procedures the same way – weeding, tilling, cover cropping, etc. It seems to me almost a little unnecessary right now; almost every task we’ve done this season we’ve done over and over at some point, until it seems almost second nature, but still surprises always show up, and reasons that we do something a particular way often don’t come to light until much later in the season when we are doing our harvest, or an intermediate weeding, or some other procedure that depends on us doing things a certain way when we put the seedlings into the ground.

I’m not sure why I’m talking about this right now, except that as the season nears its ending I am giving thought to what I’ve learned and how I can make the most of it, and make it stick, and build knowledge and experience upon it next year instead of just repeating tasks. To that end I’ve decided that I will probably work at Appleton for a second year, and also take the opportunity to work part-time there over the off-season as well. For the off-season, I think it will be invaluable to get a look at an entire year on the farm, to see the entire process from start to finish, and to get a glimpse into some of the ‘behind the scenes’ activities, so to speak, like budgeting, scheduling, ordering, infrastructure projects, and the like. As to a second season, I think there’s a lot to be said for getting deeper into the reasoning behind the decision making that made up all the tasks that we did this year, why this, when, and how. Also to get the opportunity for a little more responsibility regarding the farm operations, whether it be managing a particular aspect of the farm (like the greenhouse schedule, or daily harvesting, or shareroom distribution, or direct seeding) or just having more independence in doing the tasks that await. I also think it would be very good to see how one adjusts from one season to the next, in part because of what worked and what didn’t in previous years, and also in reaction to new conditions that arrive with every spring.

Though nothing is certain, I would think that for a third year of apprenticing, if I chose to do that and had no managing jobs or personal farming opportunities that I was pursuing, I would go to another farm, to learn a new piece of land and new skills. I think that on any given farm, you can only learn so much about its operations in any given year, hence my desire to work a second year. I also think, and it may be very obvious to say this, that you can only learn so much about farming on any one farm. Even with the exact same business model and crops, every piece of land is different, but I am mostly referring to some things which I just won’t have the opportunity to learn at Appleton, or at least not in any great depth or that I can see. Things such as soil management and composting (which is done at Appleton but not in a manner that apprentices are really a part of), or livestock management (once again, we have a dairy and a beef operation but they are separate departments), or certain techniques like no-till agriculture, or grain and dried bean agriculture, among many other things I might choose to learn about someday, either on my own or at another farm. I’m learning tons at Appleton, but every farm has only so many things they can really do, though I sometimes dream (perhaps unrealistically) of having a farm that at least dips its toes into a little bit of everything.

Well, enough rambling. Peace to all.

No comments: