The Staff of Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Small Farm Viability

This year we begin to market our grain and seeds in earnest. We've created a grain and seed CSA where customers will receive close to one hundred pounds of a variety of different grains and seeds. Our goal is to provide them with heritage and ancient varieties; varieties that hold the genetic intelligence to adapt to specific environments and changing climate conditions, and that contain the genetic characteristics that we will need for our future. Many of those very important characteristics have long been forgotten in the mad dash for higher yields, more drought tolerance, and other attributes that contribute directly to the bottom line. Nutrition (besides protein) has been given a back seat.

This year our grain crops look beautiful. I recently rolled the lentils (to press any large rocks into the soil since we will be swathing the plants) and harrowed the grains to tear out the tiny weed seedlings. We aren't signed up for disaster assistance and we don't have crop insurance, so we hope our crop makes it to harvest. There have been numerous hail threats, with one storm dropping the hard white pellets just 3 miles north of us. A tornado struck eastern Montana. A tornado. In Montana.

Today I hauled last year's emmer crop to be dehulled and cleaned. I found somebody who was able to dehull it (an issue with some of the ancient hulled varieties like emmer, spelt, and einkorn) and who was willing to buy it - Timeless Natural Food. I will buy back what I need for our Grain and Seed CSA and for baking. Most farmers in this area can haul grain in their sleep. For me, it was significant. It signified another step in the process of providing ancient and heritage grains directly to customers. It signified the potential for grain in the pursuit of small farm viability. It signified the old and the new in cohort - the old 1957 International truck hauling the thousands-year-old grain to the modern grain handling facility to be sold in a modern marketplace.

Dumping the emmer into the pit.

The emmer.

In addition, earlier this spring, I cleaned the Sonora heritage spring wheat we grew last year and have been baking wild yeast sourdough bread with it. It has proven to be a success at the farmers' market. The way I've structured my schedule, I'm only able to bake 16 loaves for market each week. My home oven can fit 4 loaves at a time, so I bake 4 sets. With one loaf for sampling, the 15 loaves have sold out the previous 3 weeks. I'm going to try to bake 20 loaves this week.

Despite the dominance of commodity grain (organic or conventional), I believe that grain will find a role in the direct-market, small farm.

Sonora Farmer Bread.

100% whole wheat Sonora Farmer Bread: stone-ground flour, starter, water, salt.

The Clouds are Either Half Full of Moisture, or Half Full of Delay

The other day, Jacob pulled me into the greenhouse. "I want to show you something," he said. "Look at all of this. Look at what we've accomplished. Look at how much work we've done."

He was referring to this:

I laughed out loud. Just the day before, I took a moment to fully survey the greenhouse and got a little despondent thinking about all the work we had ahead of us. "All of this," I thought, "Has to be in the ground in the next few weeks."

So, the greenhouse is either half full of accomplishment or half full of work, depending on your vantage point.

Luckily Jacob and I have a knack for balancing each other. On days when I see work, he sees accomplishment. On days he sees a to do list, I remind him of all we've caught up on. That's what marriage is all about, right?

But back to the greenhouse. There are two main reasons it is still so full this late in the season:

Nights are still dipping down into the mid-30s, leaving us a little leery of transplanting things like tomatoes and peppers and the likes. Last Saturday, as a matter of fact, we got our last (knock on wood) frost and it got a few of the tomatoes we'd just put out to harden off. (They'll survive though.)

And, with all that cold is coming lots and lots of rain, which has hampered our efforts to get into the field to work beds and transplant.

But, as a kid who grew up on a dryland farm I'm never going to complain about moisture, no matter how much it's pushing us back. If there's one thing I've learned, it's that just when you think something is not working for you, like all the rain, you turn around and see that it's just what something else needed, like our emmer and Kamut and lentils:

Just look at that pretty stuff, popping up in nice little rows.

We delivered our first CSA shares this week and despite our worries about not having enough yet, we filled bags with lettuce and spinach and kale and radishes and our customers walked away happy -- some even overwhelmed with the bounty. We have so much spinach that we're delivering our first order to the local IGA tomorrow. So, the weather has been good to us in some ways, and bad to us in others.

There's the lesson.

The truth is, farming is an exercise in surrender. Surrender to weather and pests (we've stopped losing tomatoes, by the way) and schedules that are not your own. We control very little on this little patch of land and sometimes, that's just as it should be.

Now That's a Mouthful

Saturday kicked off our second season of the Great Falls Farmers' Market and as it always is, it was an exhausting, exhilarating day.

It's so heartening to see so many people interested and involved in food. The crowd was decent and the weather was perfect.

But, because it's been such a cool, rainy spring, we only have spinach, lettuce and a few perennial herbs (thyme and sage) in the PHF produce department at the moment. That meant we pushed our first CSA delivery to the second market (June 12.) By then, we hope to have a few more things to offer.

We weren't alone. Other producers at the market were light and bemoaning the chilly nights as much as we were.

But, the early season sluggishness is helped by a few greenhouse goodies. We brought a few tomato and herb starts and those always sell well.

And of course, Jacob's Farmer Bread -- whole-wheat sourdough artisan bread made from our wheat, cleaned on our farm and baked in our kitchen -- was a huge hit.

Our notes on last year's first market mentioned we were light on spinach. "Plant more spinach!" one of Jacob's little notebooks read.

This year, we heeded our own advice, apparently too enthusiastically.

We sold out of lettuce and bread fairly easily, but came home with a good amount of spinach and that means, it's spinach for the Cowgill clan for the week.

Here's Jacob getting an early start:

Mouse Wars, (Or Are They Birds?) of 2010

You labor over these guys for months and months, all the while trusting that they will, someday, bear fruit -- in the truest sense of the phrase.

But, then something, you're not sure what, decides to make them an early snack instead.

About a week ago, I noticed the heads of some of our tomato plants had gone, well, missing.

Mice! I thought. So, I surrounded the fortress with mouse traps. See how much good that did. Here we are a few days later:

At least 100 tomato plants, quite a few peppers and some of my precious basil are gone and no evidence of what did it.

Then, a few days later, the squash got it:

I've now started covering all the plants at night, thinking, maybe it's a bird? My newly transplanted snapdragons outside met the same fate and out there, there were no signs of mice or deer or any land-walking creature. But, in the greenhouse, there was one little clue:

And, would a mouse pull up a tomato plant and drop it some 10 feet away, like so?:

Whatever it is, it is really screwing with my chi. At first, I tried acceptance: "There's nothing we can do. This is nature. We work with it, and we work against it."

Then, after a few more plants lost their heads, I turned to pure rage. I even had a fantasy at one point of punching a little mouse in the face. Oooh. That would feel soooo good.

But, now comes the tough stage, the "universe-doesn't-want-us-to-farm" stage. The headless plants are only part of it. The weeds, the mice, the dying turkeys (it's been a rough spring for our young flock) -- I see them all now as signs telling us that this whole thing is ridiculous and futile.

This is what a cold spring can do to a farmer. The cold air and lack of much growth in your field breeds self-doubt. For months, you labor and get nothing in return. You don't eat from that field, you don't see your customer's face when she picks up a bright green head of lettuce. You're alone in the greenhouse for days, without anyone reminding you that you're doing something important. It's just so easy to forget why you do what you do after a cold, dreary spring.

But, hope is on its way. The sun is coming out more often and this weekend is our first farmers' market in Great Falls. While we won't have much -- tomato plants, pepper plants, spinach and a few herbs -- it will be great to see familiar faces and remind ourselves that people care about what we're doing, even if the mice, the birds and the weeds don't.
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