I wasn’t sorry when the first substantial fall rain came early this year.  It’s been a long, hot, dry summer and it was nice not to have to think about outdoor irrigation anymore after early/mid-September.  But what energizes me is this:

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This is winter rye growing in between rows of broccoli.  This is what success looks like.

Every year, it pains me to see long stretches of uncovered soil in between rows of fall broccoli plants that will be dead by spring anyways.  But the challenge is that until we get rain, I can’t get cover crops to germinate in our bone-dry soil because we don’t have overhead irrigation.  Usually, we don’t get rain early enough and so I’m stuck sowing cover crops later in the fall, which means that they don’t grow enough to provide the kind of substantial soil cover you see here.  Add to that the fact that I usually forget to leave enough space between rows for even our smallest tiller (needed to bury the seeds), and you can see why it’s exciting for me to finally succeed to have our slightly-broader broccoli pathways under a nice green carpet for the winter.

This technique of planting cover crops in the pathways is not without challenges.  If the rye gets big enough, I’ll have to trim it, probably using a line trimmer since the pathways are too narrow for the mowers that we have.  That will probably damage the broccoli leaves a bit and also send bits of chopped up vegetation onto the broccoli heads.  Have you ever tried to pick grass clippings off a broccoli head?  I’m sure you can see why I don’t want to have to do that.  The blade attachment on our brushcutter might do a better job of trimming the rye without making so many small pieces, but if I slip with a spinning saw blade like that it could take a whole broccoli plant out in the blink of an eye.  So far though, no cutting has been necessary, and the main head has already been harvested from most of the broccoli plants.

I managed to interplant green manure with one other crop this year.  Below is our summer snow pea and shelling pea crop, interplanted with oats and crimson clover.

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Bare soil is never ideal for soil health, even in the dry summer.  Living roots foster an ecosystem of soil organisms, and so I was very happy to walk by and see a green carpet instead of bare soil between these rows of peas.  However, you can see that the peas aren’t doing very well.  Is that because the summer weather was so hot and dry (which peas don’t like), or is it because the roots of the oats and clover competed too strongly with the peas?  The only way to know is to try again next year and see what happens.

What surprised me even more than the substantial rain of September 7 – 9 was the long dry, sunny period we’ve had this October.  If the current forecast for showers on the 23rd is correct, we’ll have had a full two weeks of October without rain.

My big goal during this time of year is to get cover crops planted wherever I can, and I usually try to sow a day or so before a rainfall (such as a September 18th sowing followed by September 21st rain for the rye sowed between broccoli shown above).  This long dry spell has meant that I can till whenever I want to bury the cover crop seeds, but I was a bit worried that the lack of rain would mean germination problems.  Few things pain me more than seeing a field with a few scattered, struggling stems of rye and vetch being pounded by the rain all winter.  You might as well not have bothered spending money on seeds because weeds could have done a better job if you hadn’t killed them when you tilled the cover crop seed in.

But even though we haven’t had rain since the light showers of October 9, when I went out one morning a few days ago, I saw one of the fields I sowed October 10 bristling with the first red-tinged spears of rye thrusting up from the soil.  The quiet awe I feel at seeing this is akin to looking up at a night sky full of stars.  This flush of germination speaks power: the power of a seed to push up through the soil, to die to being a seed and to be born as a plant, not just one but thousands strong all rising up to defend the soil, beat back the weeds and then die again to feed the armies of soil organisms that will power the soil ecosystem through next spring and summer.

You only learn by trying, experimenting and sometimes failing, sometimes succeeding.  That’s true of many things in life, but cover crops have been a notable frontier for me to push myself to keep trying even though I feel nervous about getting it wrong.  Looking back over our weather data and the germination results I’ve seen, I realize that these grains are far tougher than I’ve given them credit for.

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I had no idea what a weight it would take off my shoulders to get the last of our pre-fall transplanting done.  We transplanted swiss chard and “salad cabbage” in the greenhouse last week (with the help of visiting friends!) and this past week Wednesday we transplanted haku-sai (白菜), otherwise known as Chinese or napa cabbage.  Transplant, partially finished, is shown below.

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I was particularly worried about the haku-sai.  We sowed the seeds in 72-cell trays, which are only about 5 cm deep and 3 cm square at the top, but by the time we got around to transplanting them the seedlings were nearly 10 cm tall and looked way too overgrown for those little cells.  Optimal crop performance happens when plants are able to grow continuously without running into barriers posed by unfavourable temperatures, constrained root space or lack of either water or nutrients.  Cell trays offer at least two of those barriers–lack of space and with lack of space, lack of water and nutrients–to an overgrown seedling.

 

So I was worried that our haku-sai, a valuable fall/winter crop that customers love, would be set back because the seedlings were left to languish in the cell trays too long.  But when we poked the seedlings out of the cell trays, the roots looked just fine!  In fact, if we had planted them earlier, the roots may not have been fully formed, which makes it hard to take the seedlings out of the cell tray without breaking up the little block of potting mix and damaging the roots of the seedling.

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We only recently (as of the last few years) switched to using cell trays, so we’re still getting used to their particular combination of benefits and challenges.  One such challenge is that the ideal window for transplanting is rather narrow.  The seedlings ideally need to be big enough for their roots to hold the potting medium together when you take them out of the cells (we poke them out with a dibbler through the hole in the bottom of the cell), but not so big that the plants get stressed out from not having enough room for their roots.  That window can be only a few days, depending on the growing conditions.

And of course, cell trays equal more plastic.  We do our best to avoid breaking the trays so that we can reuse them multiple times, but it’s hard to be gentle enough with them, especially since the cell trays currently available on the market aren’t actually designed to be durable.

I’m still glad we made the switch, though.  We used to use (and still sometimes do use) either 6 packs or 4″ pots, which require far more potting mix and take up far more of our limited seedling nursery space.  It’s faster, too, to transplant smaller seedlings, and easier to plant them into the plastic mulch that we use for crops like haku-sai that need more warmth and moisture in the soil.  I like the way it feels to poke out all those seedlings out onto a flat tray and then carry them through the field, like a waitress with a tray of appetizers.

All that being said, I often remember what a farmer who spoke at Farmer 2 Farmer one year said about his own refusal to use cell trays: “How would you like it if you had to grow up in a little plastic bottle?”  Maybe someday we’ll find another way.  Maybe someday petroleum products will be scarce enough, or socially unacceptable enough, that we’ll have to find another way whether we want to or not.  But right now cell trays are allowing us to manage our space, time and personal energy in ways that work.

Perhaps this is a bit melodramatic, but getting all those seedlings out of the seedling nursery and into the field has made me feel like a new person.  It’s been a busy and sometimes overwhelming summer.  There’s something about walking past too-old seedlings and not having time to get to them that just makes me feel hopeless.  But now that’s done, and I have time and space of mind to turn to other jobs: getting soil prep done in the greenhouses so we can direct-seed more fall and winter crops, cleaning up weeds that got overgrown in more places than I care to mention, and pruning the mite-infested branches out of our eggplants so that they can (hopefully) continue to produce into the fall.

But what I’m most excited about now is planting cover crops.  After months of hot, dry weather, we’ve finally had a few days of rain, real rain, not just little sprinkles, so the soil has moisture now to germinate rye and vetch and whatever else to help build good soil for next year and years to come.  I’m realizing more and more that that’s really where my heart is in farming.  I love planting and weeding (yes, actually), and even though I sometimes wish someone else could take care of it while I go do field work, it feels good to spend time harvesting, too, but what I love most is taking the big view, looking at a field and asking myself: how can we make the soil better for next year?

Few things were sweeter or more soothing this year than the first taste of watermelon on a hot day. We’ve had a lot of firsts-of-the-season in the last couple weeks: not only the first watermelon, but also the first melons, the first tomatoes, the first eggplants and peppers and the first okra.  Also plums, as you can also see below, have been enjoying their two-week harvest season.

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Perhaps it’s this bearing of fruit that makes this time of year special. We certainly still have plenty of work to do, but it doesn’t wear on me the way the work of May and June does. May and June are all about preparation: tilling soil, transplanting summer crops. So many things need to happen at once to lay the foundation for summer crops, but while we’re doing those things we have no sign as yet of whether we’ll succeed. It’s only now that we have proof: yes, the pepper plants look beautiful (they didn’t the last two years); yes, those yellowish eggplants seedlings are producing just fine; and no, the raccoons are no longer able to break in and raid the watermelons.

Whereas the work of May and June is heavily varied, late July is pleasantly monotonous: when we aren’t harvesting, we’re transplanting fall cabbages. There’s something beautifully mindful yet mindless about cabbage transplanting. Hundreds upon hundreds of seedlings all exactly the same. Over and over again, we dig a double line of holes alternating in a triangle pattern, apply liquid fish fertilizer in each hole, and lay out the little seedlings. Then we make a dent in the wet soil with two fingers, put the seedling in and firm up the soil around it. A final touch of liquid fertilizer around each seedling, then we lay drip tape and cover the row with remay (floating row cover) stretched over wire hoops to form a long white tent that wards off the ravages of wind and insects. Almost always, as we work there is brilliant blue sky overhead, warm sun on our backs and a fresh breeze to cut the heat of the day.

Below, you can see our six-hundred-plus cabbage seedlings as they were earlier this past week. They grew more quickly than we expected, and so we seized the chance to transplant them on Friday, though we ran out of time and haven’t put on the remay yet. We still have three hundred or so broccoli seedlings to go next week, and then kale and kakina seedlings some weeks later, but the process is all the same.

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One step we’ve added to transplanting cabbages (and kale, broccoli, etc.) in recent years is the addition of a dry fertilizer called bokashi to the hole for each seedling. There are several ways to make bokashi, but ours involves rapid composting of wet alfalfa pellets with rice bran. Within a day or so, that mixture heats up to be almost too hot to touch in the centre of the pile. We stir the pile with a shovel or digging fork to aerate the mixture daily until the temperature drops and stabilizes, then sift it and bag it so that it’s ready to use at transplanting time. In the photo below you can see a cross-section of a pile a few days into the process, showing how the fungus that colonizes the pile forms a white layer visible a few centimetres below the surface. When we stir the pile, we break up that layer and it reforms each day for the first several days of composting. Keeping the pile covered with cardboard or something keeps moisture in so that the fungus stays happy.  The whole process takes about 1-2 weeks.

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I won’t say that everything is going smoothly right now. Our greens and turnips, which we grow more or less year-round, have not been germinating well and those that do germinate are growing poorly. Is it the soil, the weather, or a faulty watering system? We still don’t know. We always cover those crops with remay (floating row cover) to keep out the flea beetles. One mistake was using old remay with holes in it. The flea beetles had a heyday inside and yet for us on the outside it was hard to check exactly what was going on under there. Other crops are doing well, so it’s not the end of the world, but the cost of those lost greens and turnips are certainly another tuition payment in the school of experience. The only problem is, we’re not sure yet what the lesson is.

The field I wrote about in my last blog post is tilled and half of it is planted now.  I managed to use a little lawn sprinkler to wet the soil, moving it I-don’t-know-how-many times every four hours until the field was moist enough to till.  It wasn’t an ideal use of well water, but it worked.  You can see the before and after below, June 4 and 28 respectively.

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The soil condition is actually a lot better than I’d expected.  I thought I would get this awful powder and/or what a friend calls “clay-rocks” when I tilled, but we actually got fairly good tilth out of it.  In the picture below you can see the result.

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The remaining challenge is that there’s still a lot of undecomposed grass and kale stalks in the soil. That means that nitrogen from the alfalfa pellets I spread may not be readily available to plants, as the microbes will get first dibs on soil nutrients while they work to break down the carbonaceous grass etc.  That could slow the growth of the kabocha squash we planted there, but kabocha is tough, so maybe they’ll be OK.  The seedling below is a week and a half old, and looks normal to me.

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The more immediate challenge lay in burying the edges of the plastic mulch (for moisture retention and weed control) and of the white floating row cover (aka “remay,” for wind protection until the seedlings get bigger).  I was able to use a rotary plough to dig trenches wherein the edges of the mulch/row cover rest, but we cover soil on the edge of the plastic mulch with a Japnese hoe called a kua, and that task was noticeably more difficult with all that undecomposed grass than it would have been if we’d tilled earlier and had the time and moisture for it to decompose.  But properly burying the edges of the mulch and remay is not negotiable. Get that wrong, and it will all just blow away in the wind.

With the kabocha squash planted, all our summer crops are in the ground.  Now we get to enjoy a bit of a lull before cabbage transplanting we starts, time catch up on mowing and other maintenance tasks.  We stand now at the crown of the year: the summer solstice is just past, and from its peak we look down into the valley of winter as we turn our attention to soil prep and planting for the cooler seasons.  It’s all downhill from here, in a good way.

Happy Canada Day!  I tussle with what it means to say that, knowing even a little of our history with the Indigenous people here, but to me it means recommitting to doing my part to care for this place, one local kabocha squash at a time.

 

Do you remember the post I wrote back in April about waiting for the soil to dry out? Playing the waiting game is something I do every year, but this year – for at least one field – I played and lost. Look at this soil: it’s dried rock solid. See those cracks? The clay contracts as it dries, and when those cracks open up they let air in.  With more air, the soil dries out even more thoroughly and at even deeper levels.

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You can’t till soil like that. Well, you can try, but running a rototiller over soil like that will be completely useless with a walk-behind machine, and on the tractor, it will be more like running a jackhammer than anything. With the higher horsepower of the tractor, you might perhaps be able to crawl along in first gear and pulverize that soil to the point that it looks kind of like crushed rock, but the noisy and very very dusty time you spend doing that will be only the first of your worries. I’ve had the sad experience of trying to transplant into that tilled-too-dry, crushed-rock-like soil. Work takes longer because it’s harder to dig in it, you’re kicking up dust yet stumbling over unwieldy soil clumps, and all the while you’re haunted by the knowledge that for all the time you’re putting into your work, you aren’t going to get the kind of return on investment out of your crop growth that you would have had if you’d just tilled on time.

Why did this happen? The first time I had this experience years ago I could chalk it up to just not knowing. I don’t want to be too hard on myself, but it’s important to ask why these things happen. It’s not that I didn’t check. I did check and kept finding that it wasn’t ready. Then I stopped checking for a while, and came back to what you see in the photo above.

Again, why? For one, we were short-staffed this spring, and I got overwhelmed. I put the blinders on and ignored some things so I could focus on others. Normal behaviour, but undesirable consequences. Then I ran out of fertilizer. In retrospect, I should have just tilled anyways, and then tilled again when the fertilizer came in, but I was trying, ostensively, to be efficient and not till twice. Why did I run out of fertilizer? I’ve been a bit scattered and distracted this spring for my own reasons, so I was late in placing our second order of the season, plus I had assumed I’d get a quicker turnaround from our supplier than what they were able to accomplish.

The third why is why I like plastic. The third why did I let the soil dry out? is this: the soil was bare all winter. It got rained on and compacted, so it took longer to dry out than it should have, and when it did dry out at all, it dried out all at once, making it easy to miss the narrow window in between. That kind of soil compaction and sudden drying doesn’t happen if the ground is covered either with a solid cover crop, or with a nice sheet of plastic.

Organic farmers aren’t supposed to like plastic, right? But I look at it this way: if we buy high-quality, made-in-Canada plastic silage tarp, it can last us a good ten years.  In those ten years, again and again you can pull that silage tarp over a field where the crop finished too late to plant a cover crop, and then walk away while the rain is kept from leaching nutrients out of the soil and while the worms are protected to work away at tilling the soil for you. Come back in the spring more or less at your leisure, and there will be plenty of moisture still in the soil. Till, then cover with the plastic tarp again, and all that natural moisture is locked in by the plastic so that it’s there for you when you go to plant your crop. The weeds don’t grow, so you don’t need to till the soil again to kill them. Now you’ve saved water and treated your soil better, all with a sheet of plastic that you can use for years to come.

Take a look at this. The two photos below are literally two feet or less from each other. One is just outside the plastic tarp, the other is just under it. I don’t know whether you can see it in the photo, but the bumps on the soil in the lower photo are worm castings.

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Does this justify the environmental costs of plastic? I think we’d need a full accounting of all the costs and benefits to figure that out. Admittedly, the plastic will eventually break down too much to be usable and end up as garbage.  Partly for that reason and partly due to financial cost and logistics, I’m not going to go hog-wild with it. In the field you see below, on the left is the too-dry area and on the right is the plastic-covered area. That plastic costed us more than $500.

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It’s too late now to throw a plastic tarp over my too-dry field.  At the time when it would have helped the soil, I couldn’t because we still had kale and other overwintered brassicas there (with plenty of bare soil in the pathways between them). Bit by bit, I’m running a little lawn sprinkler, moving it along at four-hour intervals, to gradually re-wet the soil since we don’t have a large-scale overhead irrigation system here. Is that a good use of irrigation water? I don’t think so, but if I don’t we won’t have anywhere to plant winter squash this year.

Let’s end on a positive note. I lost the waiting game on that field, but I won another game elsewhere: two of the terraces uphill from that field got planted with cover crops for a season-long rest this year. Those are hard-worked fields that haven’t had a break in a decade or more. I feel really good about seeing the curly little vetch seedlings coming up among the rye and oats and clover I sowed there.  The photo below is when they were first coming up a month ago.

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You’re always up some and down some. I choose to remember that.

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As a side note, many thanks to Midland Industrial Covers in Vancouver for helping us source high-quality made-in-Canada silage tarp from AT Films in Edmonton, Alberta.

Even on a busy harvest day, I enjoy taking a moment to enjoy a sight I often encounter when I’m harvesting greens (komatsuna, mizuna, wasabina, etc.)  As the plants grow big enough that the leaf canopy closes and keeps the soil surface moist, the little white roots of the plants appear at the soil surface, as you can see if you look closely at the soil near the mizuna plants below:

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This never ceases to amaze me, but what amazes me even more is that sometimes a clump of fertilizer or even a clump of soil at the surface induces an additional phenomenon.  In the photo below, you can see the roots thickly clustered around a few soil clumps.

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Isn’t that amazing?  I didn’t get a photo, but when I tried to take the top off one of these soil clumps it broke off along a clean line parallel the soil, showing a layer of white roots growing up into the soil clump from under the soil.

I wonder if the greater surface area of the soil clump allows more oxygen to the roots, so that they can feed more effectively, being able to breathe.  After all, it’s only the leaves that exude oxygen.  The roots need to breathe oxygen and give off carbon dioxide; it’s by sensing higher carbon dioxide levels that pests such as wireworms find their way to roots in the soil.  I wonder whether these concentrated clusters of roots indicate that soil is oxygen-deprived (compacted maybe) and so once the soil surface is consistently moist enough, the roots are coming up there where they can breathe?  Not sure, just a hypothesis.

One last photo: only a few surface-roots here, but this is red mizuna, rather than the white you see above.

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I was very happy to score the chance to get a truckload of okara this past Tuesday.  Okara is the white pulp left over from tofu production.  Like manure, it’s a good source of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, but unlike manure, it’s not a significant source of human pathogens, so we don’t need to worry about the rules that govern the use of manure on food crops.  That’s also true of alfalfa pellets, our usual fertilizer, but okara carries more phosphorus, and farm lore has it that unlike alfalfa, okara can suppress a disease called clubroot.   I’m inclined to give that lore some credence since we’ve had way more clubroot in the years after lack of okara obliged us to switch to alfalfa.

But unlike alfalfa, which comes in dry pellets that can be stored almost indefinitely, it takes only a couple weeks or so for okara to turn into a stinking mass of slime that’s lost much of its nitrogen content to the air via those foul-smelling molecules.  Also, I had to return the bins it came in today and no later.  My challenge, therefore, was to find somewhere with soil dry enough to spread the okara and till it in while it was still fresh and easy to work with.  Unfortunately, with the wet April we’ve been having until now, many of our fields and greenhouses still have patches where the soil is wet enough of form those compacted rolls when I rub it between my hands.  The frustrating part is the patchy nature of the situation.  On the field shown below, the area just up from the middle of the greenhouse is too wet, while the whole rest of each terrace is well and truly dry enough.

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My solution has been twofold: in one case proactive, in the other case reactive.  On the third terrace from the top of this field, I took a broadfork and loosened the yet-untillable area so that it would dry out more quickly.  That was on April 11th, and good thing too, because just a couple days after getting the okara, I was able to spread it while it was still fresh and easy to handle, then till it in all on the beautiful sunny afternoon of April 19th. (You can see one tilled strip on the left, and an untilled strip with the white okara on the right.  The orange bit is the nose of the tractor, as this photo is taken from the driver’s seat.)

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Part of my drive to take the time to fork that terrace came from the need to plant potatoes there ASAP.   On the next terrace down I didn’t do that.  It still had mounds left from daikon grown the previous fall (we grow daikon on raised mounds so that they have a greater depth of nice, loose soil for those long roots).  Since the soil on top of the mounds was dry enough to till, I spread what was left of the okara on there but not on the pathways beside them, which were still too wet in that stubborn patch just up from the greenhouse.  I elected to till the okara in with our rototiller,  which is narrow enough to drive only on the mound, versus the wide and heavy tractor which would have greatly compacted the wet soil in the pathways.  The result wasn’t pretty, as you can see in the photo below.  Heavy weed growth on much of the terrace was hard for the rototiller to turn under, so a lot of those deep-rooted weeds are going to just keep growing, whereas the tractor could have left the field looking much cleaner, with the weeds nicely buried.  But using the tractor would have come at the cost of greater soil compaction in that wet middle part of the terrace.

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I could afford to do a somewhat superficial job of tilling the field in this case because unlike the terrace destined to grow potatoes, we don’t need to plant anything on the terrace shown above until July when cabbage transplanting season hits.  In the meantime, I can wait for the pathways to dry out properly and then till again, using the tractor.

This is the sort of waiting game I play each spring.  Try to till early, but not too early.  The irony is that once the weather turns warm and sunny for a week or more at a time, I need to rush to till before everything gets too dry. I’ve missed that boat more than once.  Till a dry field, and the weed or cover crop residues don’t decompose properly, causing germination problems when we go to sow our weekly greens and turnips.  Not only that, but a field tilled too dry can turn into an awful mix of big clay clumps and fine powder (rather than a nice crumbly tilth), terrible for the soil structure and a pain to either plant or transplant into.

And so I wait, but watch lest I wait too long.  Given this week’s sunny forecast, the wait is going to be over as fast or faster than I can keep up.

 

You know that feeling when you try to tell a funny story and no one gets it? I’ve been reflecting on an incident like that from last summer. We’d just gotten a new priest a church, and being the choir director, I emailed him my Choir Operating Plan, which was based on a business plan template I got at a Young Agrarians conference. I assumed that a priest wouldn’t know anything about business management, so I was pleasantly surprised when he wrote back with detailed suggestions for how to improve the plan that sounded as if he’d been to the same management workshops as me and then some. Things like “SMART” goals, stuff like that.

I thought it was hilarious, the juxtaposition of my assumptions against the reality that I actually stood to learn something about business management from this new priest of ours. I thought it was so hilarious, that I told the story to a few people later that day. From my hearers’ reserved responses, they clearly didn’t think it was either wonderful or hilarious. They thought I was saying that my new priest wanted to run the church like a business.

That’s not what I was saying, and I couldn’t understand how I could have been so badly misunderstood, so I spent some time reflecting on this incident and what it might mean. Was I just not a very good storyteller? Possibly. Was it that non-church people sometimes (and often understandably) have negative impressions about priests and other symbols of Christianity, and so wouldn’t find any church story very funny? Possibly.

I wonder if the truth has more to do with what I was and wasn’t meaning when I said it was nice to have a priest who knows something about business management. On the most literal level, I have to admit I’ve gotten sloppy. I tend to use the term “business management” as a catch-all phrase for being smart about how you use your time and resources to reach your goals, even if there’s no money involved. My sloppy use of the term “business management” could lead to the second, and possibly more important misunderstanding.

I suspect that the word “business” tends to evoke a sense of “it’s just business, not personal.” In other words, “business” equally putting money before people, before environment, before everything. And maybe even not just putting money in front of everything, but more generally speaking putting things like efficiency and hard-and-fast numerical results in front of human needs. I can respect why anyone would recoil from the idea of using “business management” at church, if that’s your definition of business.

The thing is, I’ve come to forget that “business” can have such negative connotations. Some of this flows out of attitudes I’ve seen in Yoshiko, the farm owner, while in other respects my positive connotations around “business” have to do with my own role as farm business partner, where being smart about money is a way to safeguard the opportunity we have to care for this land and to maintain the community that’s grown up around the farm.

I admit I didn’t start trying to learn much about business management until a conversation I had one day with, yes, another priest. My previous priest used to live near the farmers market, so I’d go and talk with him sometimes after I’d finished with packing up the vegetable stand. On a number of occasions, I asked his advice about the ongoing frustration and anger I felt around certain situations at the farm. I expected that being a priest, he’d have something really spiritual to say about this, like something about patience and self-sacrifice maybe. Instead, to my surprise, he simply said, “The problem is that you need to learn more about business management.”

As we talked more, the priest told me stories of a man he knows who owns an auto mechanic shop.  Even in his sixties, this small business owner has business management audiobooks playing in his truck so that when he’s on the road, he can get tips on how to run his business more wisely. The payoff? When a long-term employee developed mental problems and wouldn’t be hireable anywhere else, he was able to keep him on payroll and engaged in meaningful work, even in a situation where many business would have simply fired the same person. Because he paid attention to business management, he could offer this generosity while still making sure that the business would still be there to provide for his family and for his other employees’ families in years to come.

Is this vision of “business” as a way to support an extended family of employees through the long-term overly idealistic? I’m not sure it is. The more I read about “business management” and leadership, the more I hear professional, secular voices saying that in the long run, being smart about business means being smart about people, and being smart about people means being a good human being: take care of the people around you, foster trust, foster cooperation.

I will end with a link. “If you don’t understand people, you don’t understand business” and other talks by Simon Sinek are manifestos for the vision of “business management” I’ve been talking about here. I don’t see how we can loose if we do this at work, at home, at church, anywhere. 

After finishing a good draft of our 2018 crop plan, it was clear that I had to do some soil prep ASAP or we wouldn’t be able to plant on schedule. Because the organic alfalfa pellets we use as our main fertilizer need time to decompose in the soil before planting the crop, I usually try to do soil prep at least three weeks before the next crop is scheduled to go in.

The most urgent greenhouse on the list was the one we call Minami III. I checked the soil on Saturday, January 13th, by digging up a clump of soil about 10 cm deep and rolling it between my palms. By this test, if the soil crumbles easily, it’s OK to till, but if it rolls up into something resembling a turd, it’s better to let the soil dry out more first. I was surprised and very grateful when the soil crumbled easily in my hands, even in the wet eastern part of the greenhouse.

Last year it wasn’t like this. I left the sprinkler on too long in fall 2016, and so in spring 2017 the soil in Minami III stayed wet far longer than normal. I tilled it anyways, so that we could plant on time to meet our production schedule, but I felt horrible about doing it. Clay soil tilled too wet goes all clumpy when it dries out, which makes it hard to hoe-weed and decidedly not ideal for planting. This might be why the root crops we had in Minami III last spring (after that too-early tilling) were below average quality.

This is why it felt so good when the soil crumbled nicely in my hands this January 2018. Plus, the next couple days after were sunny, allowing the soil to dry even more. On Monday this past week (January 15th), a beautiful mild sunny day, I wheeled a couple wheelbarrows full of pre-soaked alfalfa pellets down to Minami III and scattered the green mash evenly over the soil. The rototiller coughed and spluttered a bit and had to be restarted partway through the first couple passes, but the soil crumbled easily beneath the tines. It helped that I tilled the west and mid part of the greenhouse last fall and planted an oat cover crop, but even the east side of the greenhouse (which didn’t get tilled since harvesting the 2017 fall greens crop) gave no trouble and easily tilled up into a nice seedbed.

I get a deep sense of satisfaction from early soil prep done right. It means we can care for the soil and also be ready to meet our production targets. There is no single beginning to our growing season, but that first time of tilling the soil in the new year feels like the real start of farm work for the year for me.

While I was tilling I thought a lot about symphylans. Symphylans are tiny, white millipede-like creatures that thrive in the loose, open soil and irrigated conditions of organic vegetable culture. Add a greenhouse to make things warmer, and they’re set for life. They eat the roots of plants, so in a bad infestation direct-sowed crops may not even make it out of the ground at all. It’s hard to spot symphylans because they shy away from the light, but we do find them sometimes, and we sometimes see symptoms that suggest their presence: patchy germination, and stunted seedlings growing next to ones that are thriving just fine.

I thought about symphylans while I was tilling because of the oat cover crop I was working back into the soil at the same time. Adding organic matter in one form or another is key to organic soil care, but symphylans feed on dead and decaying plant matter as well as living roots, so the organic matter we add today to help build the soil can also spell more symphylans and more crop damage tomorrow. This is just another twist on the farmers dilemma: do I care for the soil even though it means more symphylans, or do I treat the soil like dirt to limit their numbers?

I’m hoping that some advice from Steve Solomon’s Growing Vegetables West of the Cascades will help. He suggests that in their native habitat, symphylan populations are constrained by the lack of moisture in our dry West Coast summers. Irrigating the soil all year makes it possible for them to keep feeding and reproducing all summer. But perhaps here we can gain an advantage: after the spring greens crop, Minami III is scheduled for summer fallow. I could throw down a plastic tarp to suppress the weeds and lock in moisture for the fall plantings, but I think I won’t. I hope that if I let the soil go bone-dry, it will hold back the symphylans. Not putting a tarp on the soil will mean more time hoeing down any weeds that come up, but hoe-weeding uncropped space is pleasantly similar to running a vacuum cleaner over the carpet in an empty room: easy and mindless. Then in August, I can put on the sprinkler to moisten the soil and loosen up the hardened pathways, spread some more alfalfa pellets and till again to be ready for planting greens in September and October.

This is farming. Balancing the dilemmas of cost and benefit, long and short-term gain, always thinking about the next steps in the great circle of the planting cycle.

Here are a few pictures of the soil prep process in Minami III on this past Monday, January 15.

Spreading alfalfa…

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If you look closely you can see the green alfalfa mash scattered on the soil under the oats…

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Tilling: the rototiller stalled so I figured I’d stop and take a picture…

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The finished result…

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The oats were small, so they were easy to till down…

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Afterwards, we laid down plastic tarps to block the light so that the oats will decompose instead of regrowing.  The tarps will come off at planting time.

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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