Over the Fence Urban Farm

Cooperatively farming small patches of Earth in Columbus, OH


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Scenes from the Field: 2.3.2019

Yesterday the sun came out and melted the dumping of snow we got last Friday, which followed a multi-day Polar Vortex that brought temperatures down to 0 degrees with windchills around -25.

As I ventured out back to see what survived, I was reminded of a story Eliot Coleman tells in Four-Season Harvest. I’m quoting it at length because a) I love it, and b) because it remains an inspiration for the season extension work we do at Over the Fence, and the seasonal eating we do in our home.

During [our] January trip across France, we had an experience that emphasized the point. We were visiting the Jardin des Plantes in Montpelier, one of the oldest botanical gardens in France. Like many such venerable institutions, it was showing its age. Some of the walls were beginning to crumble and panes were missing in unused glasshouses. But we were not there for the architecture. We had come to see the “non-existent” vegetables. When we had called ahead to learn the winter hours and had inquired about the vegetable garden, the nice Frenchman on duty told us not to waste our time because the vegetable garden was “non-existent” in the winter. Ah, well, we had heard that song before. “There is nothing in the garden” is usually synonymous with “it doesn’t look nice like it did last summer.”

The vegetable garden at the Jardin des Plants occupies one quarter of a parterre in front of the orangerie. Admittedly it probably did look nicer during the summer, but it was just what we wanted to find in January. Despite the disclaimers of the garden staff, this abandoned Zone 9 garden, which had probably seen no care since October, still contained ready-to-pick crops of chard, salsify and scorzonera, six different types of lettuces, radicchio, sorrel, mustard greens, turnips and turnip greens, kale, cabbages, winter radish, red and green scallion, leeks, and spinach. If that garden were in our backyard, we would have considered it a source of fresh main course and salad vegetables for the rest of the winter. It was a cornucopian example of a garden truth we have long notes–if you just look around in a post-season garden, you will almost always find something to eat.

After you read this post, head out to your winter garden and see if you can score some greens for your next meal. Here’s what I found yesterday, when the high got up to 55.

Not too surprisingly, Tatsoi did great.

Lacinato Kale is also tough and super cold hardy.

The few heads of  Napa Cabbage still hanging around lived to see another day.

And even these tiny heads of Romaine (which I left as a test) were insulated enough to survive.

The Arugula I didn’t chop down in January still tastes amazing.  Hoping for a small bounce back crop from these plants as temperatures return to the 30 and 40s.

The Swiss Chard was glowing.

A few heads of Raddichio are waiting for their turn at the table.

This Pac Choi was in the high tunnel, under a second cover, but managed to get burned. Need to investigate that.

Another cold weather winner, Giant Red Mustard, is ready for a growth spurt to welcome back Persephone.

As are these baby Red Russian Kale. Though they look like they could use a drink of water. The high tunnel can get a little dry this time of year. Might try to catch some of the rain coming this week and move it in before the overnight temperatures dip down again.

Our cold frame-within the high tunnel started seedlings are patiently awaiting transplant. In this box, Pac Choi, Red Russian Kale, and Tatsoi…

…and here, spinach….

…which looks amazing up close, and tastes like good health.

The biggest Polar Vortex surprise by far is that one of the chickens started laying! I suspect Hermione or Ginny since their combs and waddles are the most fully formed. Won’t be much longer until we’re (happily) drowning in eggs again!

As a reward, the girls got to come under one of the low tunnels for a snack and dust bath.

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And the humans all enjoyed post-Vortex salads with dinner!

 

 


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Naming Our New Flock

Our new flock of chickens are nearly five months old and finally have names. We (Read Cora who was 4 at the time) named most of our first flock the day we got them. When one died after just five weeks, a friend cautioned us not to name them so early again, it was bad luck or something like that. (Reminds me of the Jewish superstition against naming babies before they are born.)

At any rate, if we weren’t going to name them right away, at least we could talk about names. For me, it started with “Professor McGonagall.” When we got these chicks in September, I decided I wanted to name one after her. It’s just fun to say, and the thought of a chicken professor made the human professor in me laugh.

When a friend pointed out that McGonagall’s first name was Minerva, I got even more excited. Hens and vintage lady names go together like peanut butter and jelly. If you aren’t familiar with this habit, search the interwebs for “old lady chicken names” and read on.

The Professor was reluctant to have her photo taken, she kept coming after the camera and pecking at me, so this is the best I can offer of her at this time. She’s the Golden Laced Wyandotte pecking at the ground.

Hermione Granger, a Rhode Island Red, was more accommodating.

Ginny Weasley proudly posed for her glamor shot. Ginny is a Golden Buffington.

Luna Lovegood, a White Plymouth Rock is a favorite of Cora’s.

Madame Maxime is one of my favorite’s and the most gentle of the bunch. She is, appropriate to her namesake, a Black Jersey Giant.

Finally, Nymphadora (another amazingly fun name to say!) Tonks is a Dominque. Her comb is coming in the slowest. She’ll look a lot fancier once she’s got her crown.

Here’s looking to your six month birthday which we will celebrate by feasting on quiche, egg salad with fresh mayonnaise, and fried eggs on EVERYTHING!


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Scenes From the Field: 1.16.2019

Yesterday was overcast and the high temperature only reached 33 degrees, but somehow it didn’t feel as cold as it had the few days before. I spent a solid hour and a half out back harvesting greens and playing with the chickens who ventured into the yard for the first time in days. The weather is supposed to get nasty again the next few days and through the weekend, so I pulled up my snowpants and made the best of it.

Here are a few scenes from the field.

A solid blanket of snow covered everything and made accessing the tunnels a chore. I did a little maintenance, but have more to do to support the ends of our low tunnels when this melts…

While the world outside the tunnels was white, a bounty of greens lay beneath. This short tunnel (covered in Agribon and plastic) contains tatsoi, pac choi cilantro, romaine, and arugula. I’ve noticed growth increasing already since the winter solstice. I harvested most of the lettuces and left a little to see how they would hold up to the sub-zero temperatures coming early next week. I wondered if plants packed closer together would fair better than those hanging out alone, which I’m noting here to remind myself to check.

A bowl of arugula, some of which was buried under the row covers, which collapsed on the ends, from the weight of the snow.

Swiss chard, tatsoi, and pac choi under a low tunnel.

Same low tunnel – Lacinato and Red Russian kale in front, spinach in the back.

Close-up of arugula in a second short tunnel.

The high tunnel continues to enchant us. The pac choi on the left was hit hard by cold two nights before but completely bounced back (see below). I plan to add some low covers inside the tunnel in advance of the super cold temperatures coming next week.

 

Did you know cilantro embraces the cold?

Spinach starts in a cold frame, inside the tunnel. Surprising to me (but perhaps not to someone with more scientific understanding), these frames are not holding temperature as well as the tunnel itself (see chart below). These will be transplanted into a bed the next warm spell we see. (Note: This experiment was introduced in an earlier post, referencing the MidOhio Food Bank that made it possible.)

In the basket, chard, kale, and mustard for our harvest. On the ground, the chickens’ fodder.

After school, Cora helped me document temperatures in various locations.

 

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And the hens came out to play.

 

 

 


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Extending our Season Extension

Thanks to a grant from MidOhio Foodbank, we purchased some new season extension supplies this year. Some of what we got replaced things that were worn out or damaged, including the endwalls of our high tunnel. The most useful thing so far were two lightweight cold frames (also known as “hot boxes” since they capture sunlight like tiny greenhouses) we used to start seedlings for fall greens.

For the past few years we’ve been starting seeds in a cold frame The Spurgeon General build and set in the ground up by the house. It’s a great way to start a lot of plants all at once, without need for acclimatizing. Since they germinate and start growing outdoors, the seedlings are prepped for their move to the farm, under low tunnels to protect them from hungry bugs and and quadrupeds. With this system we can start hundreds, probably more like thousands, of seedlings at a time, with minimal effort. Keeping a 2 x 4 foot seedbed moist is a lot easier than a 24 foot row! The jump start the plants get in the frame, saves us time and space on the farm. Since we’re so small, this really impacts our growing capacity.

These new hot boxes are so light they can be lifted by one person. They have aluminum frames and UV-stable polycarbonate sides (which I am curious to see the longevity of) and screens – as well as solid – tops so they keep pests out and let rain in. We can use them in various locations, as space becomes available, then lift them up, move them to another spot, and start again.

We’ve used the frames for two rounds of seedlings over the past month and look forward to playing with them again, inside the high tunnel, after the Persephone Days have passed and things get growing again at the end of January.

Here are a few images of the cold frames in action! (Click for captions)


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Propagating with My Jewish Roots

 

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This past winter, Hadassah magazine ran an article titled, “My Daughter the Farmer.” If you have a Jewish mother, you won’t be surprised to learn my mom (lovingly) urged me to read it. When I did, I was drawn down a rabbit hole into the world of Jewish farmers and food educators. I had some idea of the Jewish environmental movement, particularly the concept of eco-kashrut, but the details were fuzzy. The article provided stories of individuals and links to organizations* bridging the gap between ancient Jewish wisdom about connecting with, dwelling in, and tending the earth and contemporary issues around sustainability and access.

As a result, I joined the Jewish Farmer Network on Facebook and began using Jewish hashtags on Instagram in order to connect with a new set of growers and community activists. In August I clicked on a link and applied for a scholarship to attend the Jewish Outdoor, Food, and Environmental Education (JOFEE) Network Gathering. A few weeks ago I was notified that I received the award and made plans to travel to the retreat, in the woods north of Detroit.

I didn’t start farming with Jewish values in mind. I am actively wrestling with the distinction Adrienne Krone, a scholar of religious studies cited in the Hadassah article, makes “between Jewish farmers and farmers who happen to be Jewish.” But when I stop to think about it, being Jewish is a huge part of my identity as an Earthling, and the Jewish values I was raised with are always with me. Growing up kosher made me actively aware of what I eat from an early age. In some ways it seems natural that I became a vegetarian as an adolescent, a cook in my twenties, and a gardener in my thirties.

But through the farm, specifically as it relates to environmental stewardship and social engagement around issues of sustainability and self-reliance, I have come to new questions and new understandings of what it means to mean to be Jewish and new ways to engage Jewish thought and practice. The JOFEE gathering showed me that I had only scratched the surface. I met too many amazing people, was exposed to too many new ideas, and experienced too many ineffable things to describe them all here. This winter I’ll find more time to reflect and write about them. I hope to also – and wrote about this in my scholarship application – find ways to share them with my kehilah (my Jewish community) here in Columbus.

Thursday, I joined other JOFEE participants in Detroit on an urban farm tour. I was excited for this opportunity to check out a scene that I heard referenced many times in conversations with other urban farmers in Columbus. I joined the tour late but got to check out three sites – Oakland Avenue Urban Farm, Coriander Kitchen & Farm, and Keep Growing Detroit (clockwise from left below).

While my time at each site was brief, it was great to get my eyes on new land. It is truly astounding how much of this once densely populated city has been razed and how much vacant greenspace there is. I got a personal tour and some history while driving Keep Growing Detroit’s Eitan Sussman back to his car after the tour ended. Through our conversation I learned that while the Detroit community gardening and farm scene is thriving, it’s still hard for farmers to earn a living doing this work. In addition, Billy, the farm manager at Oakland Park shared that it’s hard to get fresh food into people’s kitchens even when it’s free.

I left Detroit and drove about an hour north to Tamarack Camp in Ortonville. Tamarack is a beautiful 1,500 acre Jewish sleepaway camp and retreat facility. I didn’t realize how much I needed a few days in the woods with spotty cell phone service. The night I arrived, the temperature dropped into the 40s for the first time this fall. Facing the brisk breeze, with not quite the right clothes, added to my sense of being on retreat. It forced me to pay attention to my body and the very air I was breathing in ways I might not have had it been a bit warmer.

The program provided many options for networking over communal prayer, study, and meals. The current political and environmental crises we face were ever-present, particularly last week’s United Nations intergovernmental report on climate change. It was comforting to be in communion with people who not only care deeply about this news, but are working, and encouraging others, to respond to the predictions.

While I can’t say I have figured out what it means to me to be a Jewish farmer, I came home ripe with things to think about and new intentions for of approaching my work on the land and in the community I tend alongside our plants and poultry.
     How can I make the earth under my feet the promised land? 
     What would it mean to create forms of restraint that feel delicious?
     What do I love about living on Earth?
     How can I feel and express gratitude throughout my days?
     How can we increase our grit and resiliency?
     How can we connect with the inter-breathing spiring of the world?
While few of our CSA members are Jewish, we can all use some healing and I hope to find ways to do that on and through the farm in the coming years.

NOTE: I’m grateful to all the folks here in CBus who helped hold down the fort and farm while I was gone. This post is dedicated to them and everyone else who continues to support my exploration of the edges and overlaps of Over the Fence and other aspects of my life.

* For others interested in exploring the topic, I suggest this comprehensive listing of Jewish Outdoor Food, Farming, and Environmental Education partners.


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Chickens Come & Chickens Go…

This month has been really, really busy with life in general, off-farm work obligations, Jewish holidays, an art exhibition, and a special farmgirl’s eighth birthday. On top of all that, we got new chicks!

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Here’s the backstory…

Animals all over our neighborhood relocated this summer as a result of extensive and ongoing road and sewer work. After spending the second half of the season watching seedlings get trampled to the ground, giant half eaten tomatoes left to rot, and corn eaten off the cob while it was still on the stalks 5 and 6 six above the ground, we bought a trail cam. The Spurgeon General caught a series of images that shed light on the nightly garden parties happening out back.

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Three raccoons torment a rat in a trap.

 

In addition to the raccoons, skunks, and opossums that were eating our crops, we had rats. Rats?! They nibbled on tomatoes on the vine and they dug tunnels under our chicken coop and shed. The tunnels were so prolific they shifted the flow of water around the chicken run causing rain to seep in, creating the first foul smells we had related to chickens in the three years since we started keeping them. It was time to (temporarily) clear the coop so we could rid the rats by taking away any food source and shelter the hens were providing.

We spent a lot of last winter talking about the next step for our hens. They were approaching three years old (the average age heritage birds’ egg production seriously slows down – from November 2017-March 2018 we got ZERO eggs) and we always said we wouldn’t keep chickens that weren’t laying. But what then?

We had a few choices – kill them and bury them, butcher and eat them, send them someplace to retire, or give them to a friend to do… whatever she pleased. I personally had no interest in eating them. On the small scale we farm, the hens were our pets as much as our farm animals. They ran to the back door for treats when I opened it and followed me around when I called them.

I’ve learned a bit about chickens these past years. Meat chickens are slaughtered anywhere between 21 and 170 days old (that’s 3 to 14 weeks). This is surprising for folks who regularly who eat a lot of poultry. Noone wants to think they are eating such young creatures, but we are… Our hens were over 3 years old. You do the math. They were old by meat eating standards so even if I wanted to cook our girls, they would only be good for stock or stew and I don’t care nearly enough about either to do the work it would take to clean them for that. And, again, I couldn’t imagine consuming them myself.

In the end, we felt fortunate that Stratford Ecological Center agreed to take them. They would retire on a “real” farm with a bunch of new chicken friends. Maybe…

When flocks of chickens mix, the pecking order is disrupted and has to be renegotiated. The one time I tried to add girls to our mix so difficult to watch – like mean girls in a school cafeteria, but with blood – that I vowed never to do it again.

Also, Stratford has roosters and I couldn’t help thinking in putting our girls in with them was like putting 50 year old women in a brothel. As expected, they were spotted and stalked from the moment they were introduced to their new home.

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Check out the beautiful white breasted cockerel – far side of the fence – scoping out our girls, near side, moments after they made their debut on the scene.

I was also reminded at drop off that they could be culled anytime, as early as this week. And still I left them there.

I have spoken with many friends and family about this scenario. Many of these folks are poultry eaters, few chicken keepers. I like to think they learned something through our conversations – about the chickens they eat and the hens that lay their eggs. Most thought I did the right thing taking them to the farm to retire. You gave them a chance to live a little longer, they contended. You didn’t kill them, they applauded. But at what cost? And at what quality of life?

I have long loved Stratford as a place children and families in Central Ohio can go to learn how food gets to their plates, and how a small group of people can preserve a piece of land in the midst of a real estate development boom. But the current space they have setup for their chickens pales in comparison to our backyard full of trees and flowerbeds to forage and take dust baths.

I’m grateful for the time I had with R2D2, Dot, and Golden Honey. I appreciate every egg they laid for us. And I’m sorry I didn’t have the strength to kill them quickly and peacefully, to be the cause of their “one bad day.”

 


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The Farm as Artistic Space

I have so many thoughts to try to organize on the subject of this post. More posts will be necessary. Consider this Part I.

Three years ago I wrote an article for the art education journal Artezein (see Art Education in my Backyard) about the farm as it relates to and benefits from my training and experience as an art educator. But that was just a piece of the puzzle; a snapshot of my thinking. A meditation on what I offer others through the work. Since then I have been given more time to the notion of the farm as my artistic practice.

This has been on my mind since I got started. As I attended meetings of urban farmers in Columbus, I felt a sense of imposter syndrome. What qualified me to be in a room with these people? What did I have to bring to the conversation? In those moments, I often recalled the work of Nikki S. Lee who has positioned herself as a member of various cultural groups in oder to learn more about them, to try own their clothes and see the world from their point of view, and to make amazing photographs along the way.

After five years, I’m more confident in what I’m doing, and in calling it something like long-term, socially-engaged, participatory, performative, eco art project exploring relational and green aesthetics, and small scale economic theory. My use of all this jargon is part of the performance, as I play the part of academic as well as artist and farmer.

Since this all got started I have hosted numerous tours on the farm including a few for elected officials (see On Site with Columbus City Council Member Elizabeth Brown and City Council Farm Tour), blogged extensively, and offered spoken words and images at Pecha Kucha (check out a recording embedded in this post if you haven’t seen it already!). In each, I flexed my creative muscles – in multimodal directions.

After reviewing an exhibition of mobile photography at the Columbus Museum of Art, I started thinking about all the images I posted on Instagram to share the moments of “fleeting beauty” I experience while in the field. Like the conceptual artists who inspired me to engage farming as a creative practice, those images serve as documentation of my work. They serve as a gateway for people not accustomed to thinking of soil and water as artistic media entrance into the farm as creative space, not merely an agricultural one.

And so, it is with great pleasure that I am celebrating an exhibition of my photos at Global Gallery in Clintonville this month. The show was sponsored by the Greater Columbus Arts Council and will be up through the end of the month. I’ll be there for a reception this Friday night from 6-8pm. Hope to see some folks come out to talk about “The Work.”

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