It’s been a busy week and getting busier everyday. Here’s a quick look at what’s been happening on the farm.
It’s been a busy week and getting busier everyday. Here’s a quick look at what’s been happening on the farm.
Before you read any further you should know this isn’t about some tinkerlab project where we build a ride for rabbits. This is about the emotional ride I took this week with a couple of baby bunnies, their mother, and my family. It’s a story that starts with birth and ends with death. It’s a story that makes me sick to recount, a story many people won’t want to hear, and yet I feel compelled to tell it. Consider it a microscopic glimpse into the tough choices farmers have to make in getting food to your table.
Saturday morning Cora and I went out to dismantle the winter row tunnels, take care of some seeding, transplanting, and watering. Thompson (our farm dog) came with us. After about two minutes, Cora called, “Thompson has something!” I went to investigate and found him nosing what looked like a vole. I praised him for catching the seed thief before realizing it was actually a baby bunny, it was alive, and it had siblings. Thompson was being really gentle, the way I’ve seen him in the past after the couple of times he’s killed something. It always reminds me of Lenny in Of Mice and Men. It’s like he just wanted a playmate and can’t understand why the creature before him won’t return his gestures. This time though, the bunny was fine if a bit startled.
Time simultaneously sped up and slowed down. A million thoughts raced through my head. First, this is a vegetable farm and rabbits do not belong on vegetable farms. Next, oh my gosh they’re cute. Stupid fucking cute. Why do they have to be so cute? Then, how can I get rid of them? Can I get rid of them? Should I get rid of them. If I get rid of them, Cora will be devastated. Five minutes ago she didn’t know they existed and now they are all she can see. I can’t get rid of them. What am I going to do?
Dan came out to help me assess the situation. He agreed that they were unwelcome guests but assured me we would figure out what to do. I texted with a neighbor and CSA member who is a park ranger. She advised us to keep Thompson away from the nest and leave it alone. The mother would come and nurse at night and in a week or two they would be gone. Would they really? I had a hard time imagining that if they started life grazing on my greens that they wouldn’t want to take up permanent residence. We decided that for the time being we would leave them alone.
We got on with other chores but at lunch and into the evening I was glued to Google trying to learn as much as I could about wild rabbits breeding habits as well as their general social structure. I learned a lot but had questions that remained unanswered. Mothers visit their young in the nests about 5 minutes a day to nurse (that’s two feedings totaling five minutes!) and then they take off. They are often pregnant again by the time their litter is ready to leave the nest. All this lines up with the reputation rabbits have as heavy breeders born to wreck havoc on Farmer McGregor.
I had a harder time finding out what happens to the babies once they leave the nest. Do the young maintain any relationship with their mothers? Do they live in their mother and father’s warren or join another? What percentage make it that far and how many are eaten before they have a chance? In retrospect I realize I was trying to figure out if they had emotional attachments to their young of if it was just about survival.
I sent messages to a few farmer friends asking what they would do. One responded, “I mean, rabbits don’t really come up here because my dogs kill them pretty quickly. . . You have a few options, but you can’t leave them, they will ruin a fair amount of product.” Others offered, “I would kick them out. Rabbits are just not compatible with vegetables.” And “Without doing any research on it, I would get them far away from my garden. Please let me know what you decide. Good luck.”
I was tormented by the question of whether I should try to save the life of a creature who had caused me trouble in the past and I was nearly certain would do so again. Oddly enough, the mother rabbit didn’t touch any of the plants near where she made the nest (check out the top photo). Still I have too many bad memories — the time I transplanted hundreds of beets then found them all chewed to the ground the next day. The pea shoots munched all along four rows. But I also liked the spirit and advice Tammi Hartung offered in her work on wildlife-friendly vegetable gardening. I picked up a copy of her book at the OEFFA conference and I liked her ideas for figuring out how to live with, rather than fight against, garden pests like rabbits. The Chef’s Table episode on Buddhist nun Jeong Kwan offered another example of gardening in harmony with nature.
By Sunday the bunnies had opened their eyes which meant they were about 10 days old, days away from starting to venture from the nest in search of solid food. The clock was ticking. And they were getting even more cute.
And then it started to rain, really hard and I decided to cover the nest with burlap. To protect them. “Did you make them a tent?” a friend asked incredulous when I posted this image on Facebook. What the fuck was I doing?
That night I read about a strategy for moving the nest – 5 feet every two days – that would still allow the mother to find the babies and nurse them. I figured they were about 15 feet from the gate and if I could just get them on the other side of the farm’s fence, I would feel better. Monday afternoon I gave it a go. Cora and I made a ring of flour around the nest and Tuesday morning checked to see if there was any sign the mother had been by. Sure enough, part of the circle was kicked around and the babies were sitting up more alert than ever.
Cora had been picking them up which I originally thought was a terrible idea for various reasons, but once I learned it wouldn’t prevent the mother from taking care of them and experienced for myself the joy of holding them, I let her do it. I knew it would make saying goodbye harder however and whenever that had to happen but also that this might be a once in a lifetime thing. Wednesday morning she picked one up and it scratched her. She was mad and sad. I was kind of glad — seemed like the perfect opportunity to remind her these were wild animals that would be on their own soon.
Wednesday afternoon when I went to move the nest again, Thompson came with me. I’m not sure why and this is one of the parts of the story I kind of regret. But another part of me feels like it was the right thing to do, from a vegetable farmer’s perspective. As I prepared to move the bunnies to their new home, Thompson nosed the nest, again, ever so gently, but enough that two of the wee ones went running out of the nest, under the fence that was about 6 feet away. We never saw them again. Thompson chased the third around for a few minutes. And I let him. I decided I couldn’t tell him not to chase this rabbit if I wanted him to chase rabbits away in the future. He’s been so good with the chickens that I have no doubt he might make friends with rabbits. He had already been in the farm yard with me half a dozen times since he’d located the nest and paid it no attention. I was worried he was loosing his edge.
My mother-in-law came out as this was happening and was very upset. With me. I won’t go into the details of our interaction here but I will say that her criticism of my actions only made me feel worse about something I was already uncomfortable about. I wasn’t sure I was doing the right thing but I also wasn’t sure I was doing the wrong thing. I was sure I didn’t need anyone watching over my shoulder while I did it. In the end, Thompson didn’t kill the bunny. I was fairly sure it must have been injured but put it back in its nest and waited to see how it was doing in the morning.
That evening I determined to take the bunny to the wildlife center where he would either be cared for or fed to an owl. In the meantime, momma rabbit came around for an early evening feeding. It was strange. The sun was still up. It was the first time I had seen her all week. She was hanging around the yard outside the farm. Hoping I might catch her going to the nest I hung around a few minutes. Quiet and still. She didn’t move. After twenty minutes later I went inside for dinner.
When I went back after dinner, she was inside the farm boundary. She saw me and froze. I went one way, she went the other. This dance when on for a few minutes until she tried to escape by running straight through the chain-link fence. And there she stayed, half on one side, have on the other. She was stuck and we saw no easy way of helping her out.
We gave her some space and time to try to work herself back out the way she got in but she kept charging forward. That was where her story ended. She probably ruptured her internal organs. Awful.
While she was stuck I thought of other farmer friends who probably would have shot her to put her out of her misery or slit her throat and cooked her for dinner. All I could think about was the baby bunny and how hungry he was going to be by morning. If he lived that long.
I had trouble getting to sleep that night. And the next. I didn’t grow up “hunting, fishing, slaughtering livestock & butchering them” like one friend from whom I sought counsel. He candidly told me that “letting a dog kill a rabbit has no moral weight for me.” I’m on board with Thompson catching rabbits and other rodents. I’m just not sure I want to play such an active role next time.
We’ve had a busy and highly productive couple of weeks around the farm as winter surrenders to spring. We started a farm annex, weathered what we hope was our final arctic blast, and got lots of things growing in the fields.
This season we’ll be growing most of our potatoes and sweet potatoes at the home our friends and long-time CSA supporters, Andrew and Melissa Freuh. They bought a house in August and the yard is a blank canvas. Melissa marked out a 20′ x 60′ plot and we got a crew of friends to help us cover it in cardboard and compost. (We moved 10 yards in under 2.5 hours!) While we would have liked to have done this in the fall to give our lasagna garden some time to cook, we planted Groundhog Daikon Radish Cover Crop seed which should biodrill through the turf for us in the next few weeks.
I picked up ginger root then weighed, cut, cured, and tucked it in bed. Now we wait a few weeks and watch for sprouts. Lots of seedlings – kale, romaine, fennel, radicchio, and cabbage were hardened off and transplanted, once the cold past.
These onions were seeded in the cold frame. They lifted out effortlessly from the soil and were ready for transplanting to the field. I’m going to reseed the frame and try to stay on a cycle so we can have regular stock of scallions as well as some larger onions.
Temperatures got high enough that we were able to test the roll-up sides on the high tunnel.
And finally, we found a nest of baby bunnies under one of the low tunnels as we transitioned from winter plastic to spring row covers. We replaced them once our work was done to allow their mother to continue to visit and nurse them as we decide what to do next. They opened their eyes today. They are super cute which is super scary. I’ve been burned by bunnies a number of times before. The only things saving them right now are their sweet little faces and the fact that their mother didn’t touch a single plant under the tunnel when she nested. A recent read through Tammi Hartung’s The Wildlife Vegetable Gardener is probably also to blame.
This seems like a lot of work, and we got a lot of chores accomplished that weren’t sexy enough to make this post, but there is still SO much to do!
I have been doing a lot more reading, thinking, and planning for companion planting after hearing Dan Kittredge speak at OEFFA a few weeks back. (Read about the conference and talks in this post on OEFFA Conference 2017.) I’m interplanting things I haven’t mixed up before and looking ahead to what I can add later to long season crops beds I am sowing now. All this in order to create symbiotic relationships between the plants so they are feeding and protecting one another, and the microbes in the soil, better.
I’m also looking at the Farmer’s Almanac’s Garden Calendar for some advice on optimal planting dates.
“The Farmers Almanac Gardening by the Moon Calendar is determined by our age-old formula and applies generally to regions where the climate is favorable. Because the gardening calendar is based on the phase and position of the Moon, it is consistent across all growing zones.”
I’ve been wanting to get a better handle on biodynamics. Using the Farmer’s Almanac in conjunction with a few biodynamic calendars I’ve been consulting seems like a relatively easy way of getting started.
According to the calendar, today was an optimal day for planting root crops so I set some radishes, carrots, and beet seeds out. I added a bit of innoculant to the seed packs, per Kittredge’s suggestion that the minerals in this dust help germinating seeds develop the systems they need to absorb and digest nutrients throughout their lives. Kittredge compared this with the precious colostrum nursing mammals produce for their babies in the first few days of life. Colostrum helps human infants develop healthy gut flora. I want my plants to have healthy guts because I’m sure it’ll mean I’ll have healthier gut too!
Tomorrow is a good day too, so it isn’t too late for you to get busy on your own early-early spring planting plan. Here are a few scenes from the field this afternoon to get you planting your own fertile ground.
The sun was shining bright in Columbus, Ohio today. The temperature only got to about 38°F, but it I had a purpose to be outside, down on the ground, with my hands in the soil. And I was glad for that.
I transplanted onions I started inside and moved around field sown spinach seedlings so they were more evenly distributed.
This is the last night forecasted to go below freezing for the foreseeable future. While it seems awfully weird, we’re going to take advantage of it. Hope this inspires you to do the same.
This was my second year attending the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association conference. I was invited last year to host a children’s workshop and got my entrance fee covered as a volunteer. I spent that day sitting side-by-side with large and small scale, rural and urban growers learning about various aspects of growing food organically. I was hooked.
Last year the conference was at Granville High School. Granville is a small town known as the home of Dennison University a small liberal arts school. I don’t really know much about the town other than it’s in a beautiful setting and full of homes that remind me of New England. It’s a high-end real estate market with a school to reflects the resources it has available. A large garden on the grounds is maintained by one of the teachers and his students. The school has its own chef who includes ingredients grown in the garden in his menus. The students eat with metal silverware off ceramic plates, glassware, and reusable lunch trays. Anyone who has been in a public school in the U.S. in the past few decades knows this is very rare. Many kids these days are being offered free and reduced lunches that don’t look much different from what’s served in prison off styrofoam trays that they through away after every meal. It’s a disgrace on too many levels to get into here.
Granville high reflected the values of OEFFA and the conference. This year, however, in an effort to accommodate more people the conference was moved to the Dayton Convention Center. In that setting it lost its small scale charm and sense that it is doing something differently. I’ve been to lots of conferences in convention centers and all the centers feel the same – oversized, anonymous, depressing… To make matters worse, OSU Extension was offering a pesticide application program at the center on Friday. The irony was not lost on any of us. It was hard not to imagine this is what it would have been like if Sanders and Trump had held rallies in the same place at the same time.
I don’t have a solution for this problem and I’m not saying this as criticism. It is meant as a candid critique in hopes that perhaps it will be somewhere else next year. It’s great that the conference is growing! But is there someplace we can grow that might better reflect OEFFA standards?
I spent three hours Friday morning listening to Dan Kittredge talk about biological systems and creating healthy ecologies for soil, plants, and humans on our farms. While a lot of the concepts he talked about were not new to me, he spoke about them in new ways–mixing scientific knowledge with a deep understanding and respect for the development of human life, as well as plant life, and making comparisons between the two that anyone could understand. They got under my skin. By the end of his sessions, I was ready to run home and get working on new experiments with the land instead of just on my land.
Here are a couple of key concepts and quotations Kittredge presented that might get you inspired. I encourage you to check out the Bionutrient Food Association he helped found for more information on his philosophy and approach to farming.
On monocropping he asked “Is it good for all six-year-olds, or 12-year-olds for that matter, to be sitting in a row alone all doing the same thing removed from society?” Those who know me know that I am deeply skeptical of the prevailing educational model currently being employed in this country. Thinking about my plants and their relationship to the environment they’re growing in and how they collaborate and work together is something I’m going to give a lot more thought to. I started some new experiments with cover crops this past fall and Kittredge’s idea of maintaining them alongside, and in some cases up against the cultivated plants has me thinking about what’s next.
Kittredge emphasized the importance of how plants are treated at the beginning of their lives in relation to how they will do later on. He compared mineral inoculants offered to seeds before they’re planted to the colostrum breast-feeding mothers gift their babies upon birth. In each case, each supplement, help develop digestive capabilities. He questioned the use of cell trays. And asked “Would you put a child in a cell? What happens when you put a child in a cell?”
Kittredge shared a lot of information on both political and economic history of agribusiness. He added so much to the scaffolding I’ve been building on this subject, the fears I’ve been harboring about our food system, and what we might do to change them. Decades ago, Rachel Carson documented ways the government transferred World War II biological weapons research to the production of insecticides and herbicides. Kittredge reported they also started funding research at land-grant universities and directed those research projects in order to promote the use of fertilizers, pesticides, and insecticides in a vicious cycle that strips the land of its lifeforce. This has made the US farmers, as a whole, more dependent on the companies that sell fertilizers another artificial inputs and control measures and reduced the quality of the food supply, making us sick. Kittredge suggested, health care costs, not military or infrastructure spending is what will bankrupt our country. If, as Hippocrates taught and Kittredge reminded, we thought of and raised food to be our medicine, we wouldn’t might not get sick in the first place.
I spent lunchtime meeting with Gina Freeman who has run a “Giving Garden” program at the Columbus Jewish Day School in New Albany for the past few years. The program is funded by a grant from the Columbus Jewish Foundation for community partnerships. She and her students harvest the food they grow and deliver it to various residential facilities and shelters around Columbus. She’s a friend of a friend whom I was very happy to meet and share ideas for the future with over an amazing, locally-sourced meal.
After lunch I walked around the exhibitions hall. Sampled some tofu coming soon from Shagbark Seed & Mill (!) and spoke with some vendors about soil testing, seed saving, and mineral amendments.
After lunch I jumped around between a few sessions – one on cover cropping in community gardens, another on growing tomatoes in high tunnels, and finally to my femfarming friend Rachel Tayse’s presentation on Mindful Growing.
I look forward to talking with her more about the ideas she shared and my own interests in bringing mindfulness to my farming practices. I have written about the repetitive practices of some contemporary artist that I love and how they help me think about my work with the land as a creative practice. I feel like there’s a lot more room to explore a synergy between creative practices in the art studio and creative work on the farm. In addition, I’m interested in exploring farm work in relation to Jewish mysticism.
My final time at the conference on Friday was spent leading a workshop on rock painting with insects for about a dozen 6 to 10-year-olds. By the time I got to them at 4 PM, the children were bouncing off the walls. They were all eager to paint the rocks. But only a few of them painted insects. He’s one of my favorites.
Saturday morning I attended a session with Jim Riddle, whom the OEFFA conference catalog listed as “a 30 year veteran organic farmer, inspector, educator, policy analyst, and activist,” titled “An Agenda for Organic America.” Riddle was the keynote speaker Friday afternoon, but I missed his talk due to my volunteer shift. Riddle’s talk was based in his experiences as an organic fruit farmer and former member of the US Department of Agriculture National Organic Standards Board. The content of presentation could easily be its own post.
He presented the agenda for the session was: gains, stop bad things, build on success, what we need, and what you can do. As he presented this list, however, he acknowledged that these categories of information are not divorced from one another. Here’s an example.
Start with this gain: A new Organic Farmers Association group is going to be formed out of a Rodale Institute initiative and the Organic Farmers Alliance. Riddle highlighted that this will be a farmer-led interest group serving on behalf of farmers themselves, not industry lobbies which speak in favor of increasing organic consumption with little regard for production. Shift to stopping this bad thing: With farmers largely absent from policy conversations in the past, the size of the organic market grew built on the backs of foreign imports. International imports are not held to the same standards as US products. Some might be higher, some lower. But the regulations do not require imports to be labeled as specifically as homegrown organics, there is no traceability. Not only does this mean that we don’t really know what were eating, but it also depresses prices and market share for US growers who have to keep lots of records and pay lots of fees to be certified organic.
Riddle suggest that we build on successes like relationship marketing like “Know your farmer” projects. This is an idea Over the Fence Urban Farm is built. I hope that following our story will inspire folks, whether they are part of our CSA or not, to seek out the stories behind what they are eating. This also seems to be the only way to REALLY know what you are putting in your bodies. Riddle argues we need more advocacy – through regional farm bureaus, letters to the editor, and educational initiatives like farm-to-school programming – to highlight the relationship between human health and planetary health as well as providing more funds for those who want to transition to organic from conventional farming. This was a perfect lead into keynote speaker Robin O’Brien.
O’Brien spoke from her experience growing up in an extremely patriotic Texas family. It was America first all the way, she said. She went to business school and became a Wall Street analyst with a focus on the food industry. She watched the organic movement growing in the early 1990s, but just thought of it as a good marketing idea.
She had her come to Jesus moment after one of her children had an allergic reaction to something he ate. This tipped her off to the fact that not all food is created equal and that we’re not really sure what the foods that are genetically modified or consuming are actually doing to our bodies. She did research on GMOs and Monsanto and found a correlation between the number of hospital visits for children with food allergy reactions and the rise of Monsanto in the mid-90s. Building on her business experience and relationships, she got the ear of many executives and politicians who were willing to listen to her and shared that they also feared what they were selling and didn’t want their families to eat it.
Much of what she shared about GMOs and related pesticides was not new information for those in the room. As organic growers and consumers we already new about the proven and yet-to-be researched risks of GMOs on human people and the planet. But O’Brien brings lots of incredible statistics to the table about corporations like General Mills and Kellogg buying small companies like Annie’s and Kashi and then struggling to scale-up production using USDA organic raw ingredients like corn, soy, and wheat. We are currently importing large more than half of these from other countries. (Note how this links back to Riddle, above.) The good news, these corporations are now putting money towards helping American farmers transition to growing more organics so they don’t have to import them. While the news wasn’t all good, O’Brien suggested the time is ripe for Washington to pay attention to organics, and build on the new president’s “America First” and job creation focii.
I spent a few more hours in the exhibition hall and communing with Central Ohio femfarmer friends over lunch before heading home. All in all, it was a great weekend that got me revved up for the 2017 season!
Six word portrait of the day:
Sun shone down on Columbus today.
Spinach sown in high tunnel, under frost blanket, late-October. Mustard to the east, not shown, doing even better. Starting to grow thanks to the end of the Persephone Days. Needs to be spread around via transplant. Find space. Maybe between the lettuce?
Cilantro and parsley, PAC choi, arugula, and tatsoi transplanted in high tunnel under frost blanket and low tunnel, inside the high tunnel , late January.
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