2018-01-11 16.09.24

Vacation is over. It’s time to work! In January there are certainly outdoor tasks to be done: harvesting, tidying up what’s left of last year’s crop residues in the greenhouse, and laying silage tarp on bare fields to protect the soil and give the worms a chance to work the soil more thoroughly. It’s indoors and at a desk, however, where most of my work keeps me these days. There’s enough office work to last all of January, but this week my focus has been crop planning.

Crop planning is the most exciting part of winter office work. Budgeting is a little depressing because you see in cold, hard numbers just how much running the farm is going to cost for the year (if everything goes according to plan, which it may not). But crop planning is about hope for the new season. It’s about bringing together the dreams that popped into your head last fall: what if this field could be squash next year? Or what if that greenhouse would be a really great place for cucumbers?

I start by making a list of the crops we plan to grow and how many metres of row we grew last year. Based on last year’s numbers, I set a target for how many metres to grow this year: more of a crop that was in short supply last year, less of the ones we had trouble selling or that have a track record of growing poorly.

Then I make a list of our greenhouses, and note when each one will likely be ready to plant. Some have overwintered crops that won’t be finished until March, others are so wet that you can’t till the soil until April, so I need to prepared to work around those limitations. Then I start my massive yearly Sudoku-puzzle game of crop planning proper, matching the amount we want of each crop to fields or greenhouses where that target can be met. First I note which greenhouses haven’t had anything from the tomato family for the last three years, and schedule our tomato-family crops there. Next I slot in the crops that are crucial at the start of the year, like our first greens or our early snow peas. Then I just go through the list of crops until I’ve found a place for each vegetable such that 1) we can meet our target amount and 2) no field or greenhouse has the same crop two years in a row.

After all the crops on the list have a place in the field or greenhouse, I double check my work. On a piece of paper I go through greenhouse by greenhouse, field by field to see if there’s unused space I didn’t know about or if I double booked the space (like scheduling 8 rows of greens where the greenhouse width only allows for 6!). Then I go through the whole thing again and ask myself when the soil preparation would have to be done in order to sow crop X in greenhouse Y by date Z. Is it realistic to prepare the soil that soon? Sometimes no. Much of Umi Nami Farm is quite wet in the winter. Until we get better drainage put it, I sometimes have to change the planting schedule to account for a later soil prep date. I said earlier that crop planning is about hope. Actually, it requires as much realism as financial budgeting. You’re just budgeting field or greenhouse space and time instead of money.

Although it’s still early in the year, I crop-plan up til early November, which is the end of our planting season. Something always changes by the time you get to those fall crops, but if I don’t have a plan in advance then I might make the mistake of not having the space ready when we need it in the fall. Some years I’ve done a second crop planning session in late summer for the fall crops, but that uses time when time is at a premium. Right now, I can afford to sit and think, so I do. It pays off later.

I hope you don’t think it’s too late to say Happy New Year! One of the most exciting things about 2017 was that I woke up to my love of writing again. It’s beautiful to have readers to write for, so thank you to everyone who is reading my blog. Best wishes for 2018!

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2017-12-21 16.17.49

You would think the week of Winter Solstice would be quiet, but no. Umi Nami Farm tends to be a couple degrees colder than the forecast when frost strikes, so with -3 and -4 degrees Celcius always hovering at the end of the six-day forecast, we decided to harvest all of our rather excellent crop of cabbages, all two-hundred-plus of them. Some we shipped off to our friends at Tama Organic Life in Vancouver, but most are now piled up on a tarp in the apple room, covered with brown paper and an old quilt so that they don’t freeze if the temperature drops too low. Our apple room isn’t insulated, so extra cold temperatures can damage produce even in storage.

Although I did some harvesting today, I actually spent the morning transplanting a type of bok choy called Joi Choi. It was a day of brilliant blue sky, and the sun, though low on the horizon, was bright. Once I was in the greenhouse with the door closed against the sharp wind, it could almost have been spring, and the little seedlings I poked out of the seed tray shone jewel-green in the sunlight.

We sow Joi Choi in October or early November on the seed tray, then transplant in mid to late December. Somehow this little brassica is able to take root and grow even when it’s transplanted in the darkest time of year, giving us beautiful fleshy-stemmed bok choys to harvest in March when there’s little else to offer.

Joi Choi is a nice enough vegetable, but what I really love about it is the wonder of pressing those little seedlings into the soil even in the the very week, or some years on the very day, of the Solstice itself. For ancient peoples of Europe, evergreen branches symbolized the hope of spring and of renewed life even the face of winter’s darkest days. Perhaps for me, Joi Choi is becoming that symbol. Even in the darkest time, it’s still worth planting something, knowing, or at least trusting, that it will come to fruition as the sun returns again.

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Not everywhere has nice tap water, so I was pleasantly surprised to find the tap water in Cambridge hard but sweet. From a quick online search, I learned that Cambridge’s tap water comes from boreholes drilled deep into the chalk strata south of the city. Rainwater naturally filters through the chalk layers to renew the underground supply, not unlike how the clay and such beneath our soil filters surface water to replenish the aquifer that feeds Umi Nami’s well.

While doing this search, I came across a link for the Cherry Hinton Chalk Pits Nature Reserve. It wasn’t far from where I was staying, so I biked over to take a look. One of the first things that struck me was just how huge the chalk pits are, the work of centuries of quarrying out the chalk to build the beautiful colleges of the University of Cambridge and to make quicklime for agriculture. What was it like for the people who did that work, much of it in an era without petrol-powered machinery? I tried to picture it but couldn’t. The landscape itself prompted other thoughts, thoughts of something epic like dinosaurs or the battles of ancient Greece.

Given that the website describes the nature reserve as a “spectacular wildlife site,” I was surprised how sparse the vegetation was in the vast central area of the chalk pits. In many places the ground is almost bare, at least at this time of year: just some thin, scrubby grasses and what one might call weeds stand between ecology and utter barrenness.

That being said, there hasn’t been much time for a complex ecosystem to form. According to the website and the sign by the gate, chalk was quarried here as recently as 1980. Ecology certainly did step in—in the form of invasive Buddleia, which was cleared out in 2009. At that time the chalk surface was mechanically broken up to allow the smaller plants of the native chalk grassland to take root.

I’m used to thinking of nature reserves as places where lush ecosystems are set aside to prevent any alteration from their pristine state. The Chalk Pits Nature Reserve is different; it doesn’t exist to preserve an ecosystem, but rather to make room for one to come into being. The side of the chalk pits where visitors are allowed to walk is in fact the younger side, very early in its ecological succession—hence the apparent sparseness and simplicity of the vegetation. The other side is closed due to the instability of the chalk cliffs, but it hosts a much more structurally diverse vegetation, with young trees, shrubs and lusher, greener grasses.

Simple things, they say, come from the minds of simple people, and so to be fair, there were many things I likely couldn’t see in my walk through the chalk pits. According to the website, the chalk pits are one of only three places in England where the rare “moon carrot” grows, and in the summer visitors find glow worms among the grasses. Sixty species of birds can be found there, though perhaps not in this season, and I imagine that unseen fungal mycelia are working to make the chalk into a living soil. Not years, but decades and centuries will reveal what this ecosystem is becoming.

 

I had a great day today.  I’m staying with my sister near Cambridge, England for my vacation, and I biked into town today, aiming for the Fitzwilliam Museum, but along the way I took a detour and explored the bike path along Cherry Hinton Brook, a shallow stream flanked by reeds and small trees, with the occassional brown duck and a graceful wading bird something like a white egret.  It passed by two fields of allotment gardens, and I took the liberty of walking through to take a look at the kale and Brussels sprouts and fava beans all nicely laid out by someone’s labour of love.

I had in mind to head straight into town along Mill Road, but arrived there only to find that the entire length of it was blocked off for the Mill Road Winter Fair.  Thus began the best detour of all.  I listened to a couple street bands before finally giving in to parking my bike and getting myself a cup of mulled wine from one of the roadside vendors.  I really enjoyed milling around with the crowds and taking in the vibe.  Mill Road is a little like Commercial Drive, very eclectic and multicultural, but far less gritty and much narrower (this ‘main road’ is about the width of some side streets in Greater Vancouver).  One lone singer with a guitar sang a song about an old-time miner, which added a poignant note to the afternoon.

I did eventually make it to the museum around 4 pm.  It was still open (and free admission) so I took a quick look at the Degas exhibit.  I appreciated the commentary about how he, in contrast to many of his contemporaries, chose to carefully study the work of earlier artists through imitation rather than focusing solely on spontaneous expression.  It fit with thoughts I’ve been having lately about wanting to be more intentional and disciplined about my writing.

Nonetheless, I found I couldn’t really settle into enjoying the exhibit.  I’ve found it somewhat challenging to find precise locations among Cambridge’s narrow, curvy streets and knew I would need time to find St. Ephrem Orthodox Parish where I was hoping to attend Vespers.  I did indeed need time to find it, way in the back of a courtyard hidden behind a big wooden door in a brick wall, but I’m glad I persevered and found it.  It was lovely to be at Vespers, and a few people invited me to eat together afterwards at Itsu, an Asian fusion place nearby.  There were six of us around the table, representing a few different countries of origin.  It was special to share a moment so local and so placeless, bowing our heads to say the Lord’s Prayer before we ate.  Somehow we managed to end the evening seeing how many different languages we could sing the Paschal troparion in.  This is the crowning hymn of Easter celebrations in the Orthodox church.  ‘Christ is risen from the dead…’ in Slavonic, Greek, Romanian, Arabic, Spanish…we tried not to sing too loud, since we were in the restaurant.

I biked home well after dark but somehow felt perfectly safe.  It’s been a great day.

 

At this time of year I sometimes wonder whether anyone has ever invented something like snowshoes for walking in mud. They would be rather useful for harvesting beets and carrots from C1, the field down near the creek here at Umi Nami Farm. There’s probably good technical reasons why such a thing doesn’t exist, and it’s easy enough to put a few boards down on the ground for stability, which is what I did on Tuesday when I was harvesting beets for the box program. From the pictures below, you can get an idea of what our beet patch looks like right now.

You might ask why we grow a fall-harvested crop in a field that’s all but flooded at this time of year. We do this mostly because beets and carrots are sowed in the summer, which is very dry, and the soil here hold water better than anywhere else in the farm. Beets and carrots take a long time to germinate, so a place that’s easy to keep moist is a huge plus, especially given our limited irrigation system.

I feel very blessed to be harvesting crops from outdoors at this time of year. That being said, the downside of late fall crops is that we don’t have time to plant a cover crop. Without some kind of plant cover over winter, all that rain we’re getting now washes nutrients out into the subsoil (which doesn’t need them) or the ocean (which doesn’t need them either). Also, good soil consists of granules combining clay with organic matter, but with all the rain we get, the unprotected soil gets smashed into a single undifferentiated layer on top.

The challenge with cover crops is that they need time to grow before winter, which means cleaning up the summer crop and planting the cover crop no later than mid October. If we don’t get a cover crop planted in time, I also like to cover the soil with plastic. This is especially good when we want to have an early crop there the following year, because the soil is perfectly clean underneath and free of any plant material, easy for planting potatoes or early greens. I usually feel like I need to apologize for using all this plastic. But the truth is, tilling the soil is not particularly good for soil organisms, whereas all sorts of macro- and micro-organisms are very happy and active under the plastic cover. Last year, I even succeeded to turn a pasture into a perfect field by covering it with plastic all winter and then making a single pass with the tiller, whereas without the plastic I would usually have to till at least three times to kill the grass and get the field good for planting.

In the pictures below you can see a couple fields covered in plastic for the winter. One is shows a cover crop in the foreground. I’ve also included a close-up of our best green manure crop this year, a combination of rye and vetch sowed in September. I’m excited to see it grow so thickly, because the stronger the cover crop, the better it will protect the soil over winter. I think it grew particularly well on this field because this location (field #1T4-6) gets more sun than some of the lower areas of the farm. We did sow the same cover crop mix on the same day on other fields but it didn’t grow as well in the places that get afternoon shade.

I realize as I’m writing this how challenging it is to explain all the what, why and how of something you do all the time to readers who aren’t as familiar with it.  Please feel free to leave a comment if you want to ask questions!

When I first started at Umi Nami Farm back in 2010, there were twelve farm cats.  We are now down to four.  Three are buried near the holly bush behind one of the greenhouses.  Five have just disappeared.  The four that remain are all over ten years old now and far less inclined to hunt than they once were.

Suffice to say our farm’s ecological balance has shifted in favour of the rats.  Now we sometimes see them scuttle across the garage, and when I emptied the kitchen scraps one time, five of them jumped out of the black plastic compost bin.  More than ever before, we have to cull produce that rats have sampled.  A particularly insulting episode was what they did to our beautiful crop of Chinese cabbages last year.  You’d see a big, huge “haku-sai” and go to harvest it, only to find that a rat had chewed a hole in the side, eaten the heart out–and left a few droppings in the empty core.

Yet I find it hard to hate them.  The rats of Umi Nami Farm have bright black eyes and soft shiny fur.  They hold their tails just so.  “At Umi Nami Farm, even the rats have dignity,” a friend said.

Hate them or not, I have resorted to using rat traps.  I feel little remorse when I clean the traps and throw the dead to the tall grass near the fence.  This is farming: I do what I need to do.

I said I feel no remorse, but I still think it’s sad.  I do not believe our relationship was meant to be this way.  May the day come when the lion shall lie down with the lamb, and the farmer make peace with the rats (and the wireworms, and the aphids, and the flea beetles, and the weeds, and…).

In the meantime, ecology finds its own balance.  This year, we often notice a hawk or falcon perched on a greenhouse frame or an apple tree.  In the past, those small raptors never used to come.  I love seeing them, but I still plan to seek my own balance and look into getting more farm cats for next spring.

This is year number eight that I’ve been at the farm. That in itself is beautiful yet hard to believe, but I wanted to write a few observations on the late summer and early fall.

As I said, this is year number eight, and although my role and the ethos of my life at the farm has changed over time, every August I notice that I tend to let my hair down and relax a bit. I feel happier and freer. Most years I go swimming at the lake more often. I don’t worry about “stuff” as much. Why is that? It’s not as if August isn’t busy. Summer is still ON and we’re also preparing fall crops at the same time.

It could be that by August most of our big transplanting jobs are done and more of the work lies in harvesting. Whereas planting could well mean alot of work for no reward if things don’t grow well, harvest = reward, period. Speaking of harvest, there’s lots of nice things to eat in abundance: tomatoes, eggplants, peppers, feral blackberries, plus all the usual greens and daikon. We can afford to give produce away.

But I wonder if there isn’t one more thing: in August, the earth is warm. Even when it cools down at night, you can sit on the grass and look at the stars and not get cold.

Now it’s October, and the earth is finally soaked with rain again. I’ve planted cover crops and their bright green shoots shine in the morning sun. The ground is a little cooler now, but something of that warmth still remains.

Somehow it hasn’t quite happened to sit down and write any of my ideas for a blog post, but I have been writing quick little posts on Facebook, so I thought I’d bring the recent ones together to share here.

April 20

The busy season started this week, which makes sense since the whole season seems 2 weeks early this year, and two weeks from now is the midpoint of the equinox and Solstice, which usually marks the beginning of the high season. We transplanted cucumbers in the greenhouse today, and on the to-do list for the week are squash, melons, tomatoes, shiso and more, plus lots of field prep…the soil is really drying out! I won’t be surprised if we don’t have meaningful amounts of rain again til the fall, but you never know.

April 21

Squash (日本カボチャ) transplanting done, last batch of cucumbers sowed, and a lovely bike ride over to Sea Bluff Farm for lunch. A lovely day 🙂

April 22

I’m really enjoying kabu (Japanese turnips) these days. Almost ever evening we share one as a salad for dinner. This is last year’s photo…we did lots of hoe-weeding today so when I see the weeds in this photo I want to scrape them down but I can’t. Ironically, most of the weeds we kill are edible, too.

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April 23

Melon transplanting (round 1) is DONE. Took way longer than I thought it would, but it’s DONE.

April 26

A lovely and very social weekend…Melody’s birthday party on Friday, farm party at Three Oaks on Saturday, and an excellent clothing swap tonight. Now it’s time for a hot foot bath and a good sleep 🙂

April 27

I used to wonder why the old vice/virtue schemes posit laziness as the opposite of courage. Farming, it makes perfect sense. You work hard when you have the courage to try even if there’s a risk your effort might fail, even if you know you’re already behind your schedule and even if you have a dozen past mistakes staring you in the face.

April 30

April 30, 2009 was my first day volunteering at Umi Nami Farm. Six years later, I’m grateful for the opportunity to continue on and share in running a business here.

May 6

Some kind of weird exhaustion hit me like a ton of bricks just after lunch today. House sickness maybe? In the greenhouse, you get drenched with sweat, then step out into 12 Celcius and wind, go into the next greenhouse, get drenched with sweat…your body just goes on strike after awhile.

This winter, my goal is to finish all the records and planning work before the end of February.  This includes, but is not limited to: farm and personal taxes, organic certification, and detailed crop planning.  It all means (mostly) sitting in a chair with alot of papers and/or a computer screen.

I find it odd how much I’m enjoying it, since this is part of what I was happy to get away from in my pre-farming work, but enjoying it I am (despite the sore back and feeling of poor circulation that comes with sitting so much).  Taxes are actually exciting this year.  For the first time I’m filing my taxes with the Form T2042 Statement of Farming Activities instead of the usual one.  (Last year was my first year of self-employment, after the land owner here invited me to be her business partner.  Thank you Yoshiko!)  Organic certification papers are a bit dry, but useful.  We have to report on each and every input we brought onto the farm, the quantity of various crops harvested, and our plans for crop rotation in the coming year, as well as providing affidavits from various suppliers, showing that our seed was non-GMO and so on.

The real octopus is crop planning.  Week by week, I’m trying to lay out what we plan to plant in the coming year, and then fit together the jigsaw puzzle of how to fit it all into the space we have available at the times we want to plant it.  As you can see, I’m taking a break right now.  I got stuck somewhere in mid-March because the only space available for planting greens, beets and turnips that week will be needed for watermelons and eggplants before the greens etc. would be finished.  I’ll sleep on it, and go at it again tomorrow.  The greenhouse I’d hoped to schedule for green manure might have to be row crops instead.

I went to a truly excellent crop planning workshop last week.  I’m not planning to do everything exactly as the speaker described (I would have had to start alot earlier to have time for his level of detail), but it still gives me a framework to guide a very multidirectional and potentially confusing task.

Tonight as we were in the garage preparing our harvest for this week’s market.  The temperature began to drop rather sharply.  For us, this invokes a sense of fear common to this time of year.  We still have so many crops outside, and not all of them frost hardy.  Cashing in on those crops (or not) is a bit of a gamble.  When we see the risk of frost, we have some key decisions to make: do we cover them with floating row cover?  Do we harvest them and store them?  Do we wait and see?  How much can we get done in the dark?

Tonight Yoshiko and I harvested chinese cabbage and cauliflower, which now sit in wheelbarrows in the garage, where the cold shouldn’t affect them as much.  If there is no frost, we will have lost the chance to spread the cauliflower harvest over a slightly longer period of time.  If there is frost, we’ll be glad to have saved what we could.

A factor in these decisions is energy.  At this time of year, it’s easy to feel tired or even burnt out.  Nevertheless, for us year-round farming means putting in huge bursts of energy to save crops at short notice when frost threatens.  On one hand, pushing ourselves too far beyond our limits isn’t really profitable in the long run.  On the other hand, underestimating our capacity to keep working also means a loss of profit.

In other news, I got my soil test results back today!  Very exciting.  I can’t wait to start working through the numbers based on a soil analysis book I read earlier this year.  More on that one later.