The 2013 Season (Year 5 of ?)
By far, the biggest news of 2013 was the birth of our second child, a son we named Elias Leavy, who was born on May 9th. As I write this, he's a smiling, giggling, crawling, solid-food-eating little 8-month old. As when Willa was born (who is now 3), every day is an entirely new experience, fraught with challenges, but also delights. Sleep and routine are relative terms.
Courtney continues her part-time work in addition to teaching an online class for the University of Montana. I lobbied at the state legislature for a farm organization from January through April and taught an online class for UM as well. I also took on work as a substitute Postal Service rural mail carrier. That means that I deliver the mail when the main carrier is sick or takes vacation (about 30 days a year).
2013 was our first full season on our new farm. We had broken ground for the vegetables the previous fall, but felt we needed just a bit more room, so worked more ground in the spring. We have about 4 acres under cultivation. That ground also includes cover crops, milk thistle, our heritage and ancient wheat trials, and our dry flour corn.
We had one apprentice this year, but could have used more help. Our apprentice did a great job, though, and was a hard worker and a great person as well. She readily took on any task we gave her.
At the beginning of May, we planted 39 apple, pear, and plum trees as part of a multi-orchard research project being conducted by Montana State University Extension. Most of the trees did well and we look forward to seeing how well they grow and produce. We'll likely plant a few more trees this coming spring.
We were able to grow plenty of healthy, fresh, organic food for our CSA members, which included people from Conrad, Power, Dutton, Choteau, Great Falls, and Helena. We experienced a drop in CSA sign-ups this year, and aren't entirely sure why. We had a goal of 70-75 full shares, but signed up 51 full shares. We had never given much thought to selling our vegetables wholesale because our farm is pretty small-scale, but when we fell short of our CSA goal, we reached out a local Great Falls health food store and provided them with kale, chard, and salad mix, among other veggies.
This spring we finished building our high tunnel that we had moved from Conrad, and built four low tunnels, which are inexpensive plastic-covered structures made of PVC pipe and rebar. We planted cucumbers, basil, peppers, and eggplant and they all thrived with the extra heat. This fall, after one of the tunnels of peppers had frozen out, I took down the tunnel and re-built it right next to where it had been (a spot that we had been cover-cropping all summer), and planted cold-hardy crops like spinach, claytonia, minutina, scallions, and radishes. We offered a winter CSA that included these fresh vegetables, plus storage veggies like garlic, potatoes, winter squash, and onions, as well as whole grain and flour from our heritage and ancient wheat and barley. We delivered these four times, twice a month in November and December. We were able to get our members the fresh greens for 3 of the 4 deliveries (the fourth delivery was after the week of 30 below temperatures). We also transplanted some kale, chard, and lettuce in our high tunnel. I'm hopeful that those crops will really start growing in February and March.
Our farm also includes a 12-acre irrigated field of alfalfa and brome grass. Since the stand is only a few years old, we decided to hay it and sell the hay. We got two cuttings off the field, but both times, I learned that the timing for making hay is critical and the time to swath the hay and to bale it 7-10 days later was never a convenient time with all of the other tasks we had to take care of. With over 1,000 bales sitting in the field after the first cutting, I decided to hire someone to stack them for me with a bale stacker. Since most farmers use large round or square bales, nobody has the equipment for the small square bales anymore. I finally found someone and he got them stacked pretty quickly, but it cost me. For the second cutting, my sister and I stacked them by hand (about 600 bales).
With that education behind us, I think that next year we will hire someone to cut and bale it for us (probably in large round or square bales) and try to pre-sell it. We may get a handful of sheep to help with weed control and to provide us with manure for our compost. If we do, I may bale a portion of the field for the sheep's winter hay, but I don't think I should do the entire field by myself. Ultimately, we're vegetable and grain farmers, not hay farmers.
Because our 12 acres was in hay, we ended up leasing 6 acres about 5 miles from us to grow our various specialty grains. We've gotten to know a landowner who is very supportive of what we're doing. He has a large field that is already certified organic. So, we leased a few acres to grow our Bronze Barley, Prairie Farro, Sonora Heritage Wheat, Buckwheat, and Winter Pea cover crop (that we plowed down to add organic matter and nitrogen to the soil). Our crops did well, as did our friends' Doug and Anna from Vilicus Farms, who we collaborated with. We were able to clean the grains and legumes, package them, and deliver to our Grain CSA members in December. Next year we will likely lease the same acreage, as well as additional acres just one mile from us. The additional acres is currently in hay and is not certified organic, so we may hire someone to hay it for us while we transition it to organic over 36 months.
We still plan to install a flour mill as well as move our seed cleaning equipment from Courtney's dad's place to ours (and get it set up to be more efficient). Here's to hoping both of those things happen in 2014.
Our turkeys did well this year. We tried (sometimes in vain), to take a more relaxed approach to raising these crazy birds. This past winter, we'd kept back 10 hens and 2 toms in the hope that they would breed and hatch on their own. They certainly tried, but nothing came of it. So in the spring, we ordered 100 poults (baby turkeys) from a hatchery as we've done in years past. Twenty-five were dead upon arrival and since Eli was due any day, we decided to take the refund rather than get 25 more shipped to us, which would have forced us to raise 2 sets of poults separately until we could merge them later in the spring. This worked out fine and we let them wander the homestead rather than stressing ourselves out trying to herd them in a futilely fenced enclosure. The problem was, they rarely were where we wanted them (often times they were on top of our cars or in the yard or on top of buildings). But they grew to a good size and we had a very easy day of butchering. A friend of ours is the director of a unique university program called the Wilderness and Civilization program. They take field trips throughout the year, and she asked us if she could bring her class to help butcher. But of course, we said. So, 19 students showed up on the weekend before Thanksgiving and we processed our 70-odd birds plus a friend's 5 all in one day. I think we've convinced her to bring next year's class out.
Our nascent seed co-op continues to evolve. We will officially become a cooperative this year. The idea is that by working together across many farms, we will be able to better grow and market organic vegetable seed for northern growers. There are a handful of growers on the west side of the Divide, plus us on the east side of the Divide. We've had a couple of training sessions this past year, including a 5-day seed school put on by the non-profit Native Seeds/SEARCH, as well as a one day workshop by the plant breeder John Navazio who works with the Organic Seed Alliance. I think we're all pretty excited about our co-op and the work we've done and plan to do. Seed is such a critical part of our food system and of our existence as human beings. The seed industry continues to consolidate and to hoard valuable genetic resources, while at the same time a counter-movement of developing and preserving open-source and open pollinated seeds builds all over the world. Since the mid 20th century and the rise of agricultural chemical and synthetic fertilizer, plant breeding hasn't focused a whit on developing crops in organic systems. So it's a frontier, in a way, and wide open for opportunity and the imagination.
We continue to grow and evolve as we try to figure out just what sort of farm we want to be and will become. To be honest, if I could decide the kind of farm to be without consideration for our location and our markets, I would want to focus on specialty grains like farro, einkorn, heritage wheat and barley, as well as pseudo-grains like teff, amaranth, and quinoa. In addition, we would grow vegetable seed, improving existing varieties of open-pollinated crops as well as developing new varieties.
One final thing to mention is that this was a year that we could not have gotten through without the consistent support of our family, friends, and those who eat our food. Our family, in particular, continue to be unfailingly supportive and have provided critical help in so many ways. Despite the challenges of starting a business, and a farm business no less, we chose to move back home, and we don't regret it in the least. All we have to do is watch our daughter and son play with their grandparents to be quickly reminded of why we are here.
So, a toast to 2013 as we say farewell, and here's to a prosperous 2014.
at 9:39 PM