Self-healed beet, January 9, 2020

I admire this plant. All but eaten through by rodents, its leaves hung on to its roots by the one flap of skin that was left to it. Even in the cold of autumn and winter it summoned the strength to heal itself and put on new growth.

I admire these plants too. Even in a week when they were frozen every night, they somehow germinated right in the middle of our busiest pathway.

Weed seedlings on pathway, February 17, 2020
If you look really carefully at the bottom of the photo, you can see the little green specs growing on the pathway.

I hope I can be like these plants.

You never know what can happen when you flip open a book.

Back in January 2016, still psyched up after seeing The Force Awakens, I picked up an old Star Wars encyclopedia that a friend of a friend was giving away.

“It isn’t canonical anymore,” the soon-to-be-former owner of the sleek, black 3-volume set said dismissively.

I was intrigued. I’d read only one lone Star Wars novel as a teenager, but it was enough for me to know that JJ Abrams and the crew at Disney hadn’t followed the previously authored story line. Back when the previous timeline was still canon, I didn’t have much interest in it, but now that another story had taken its place, I wanted to know: what got rejected? What did they change? Which version do I prefer?

I sat down on the couch and pulled the first volume out of the almost-new cardboard case and thumbed through the first few pages. An entry titled “Agricultural Corp” caught my eye. It read as follows:

Agricultural Corps (AgriCorps) A place for young Jedi wanting to learn about the nature of living things and the importance of balance. Working in conjunction with the Republic’s Agricultural Administration, the AgriCorps helped feed the galaxy’s hungry…. Though many Jedi respected the aims of the AgriCorps, younger students feared placement in the program–it often indicated that they lacked the talent to become full Jedi Knights. Indeed, Jedi students who “washed out” from training and failed to be assigned as Padawans to Jedi Knights or Masters were often assigned to the AgriCorps.

The Complete Star Wars Encyclopedia, Ballantine Books 2008

As you can imagine, the idea of agricultural Jedi really piqued my interest. But I also felt really pissed off. Why did the AgriCorp have to be treated as a second class option for people who weren’t good enough to be Jedi knights? It made me feel kind of angry.

Yes, I know…Yoda says that anger leads to the dark side. But instead, feeling angry got me brainstorming ideas for a story, a Star Wars story where Agri-Corps Jedi would be the heroes.

This idea so caught my imagination that I daydreamed about it for the next six months. And then I quit. Why? I’d come up with some snippets of dialogue, a few ideas for plot points and a handful of character profiles, but none of it had any real umph to make me feel like the story really had somewhere to go.

I basically forgot about the idea until the following winter when I went to the theatre to see Rogue One and loved it. It occurred to me that what made Rogue One “feel like Star Wars” to me was that it has the same villains. A good story needs a good villain, I decided, and with that a character I named Ry Kyver was born. But what would happen when she met the not-so-battle-savvy protagonist I’d dreamed up when I first started toying with ideas for the story?

As soon as I asked the question, I knew exactly what would happen and why. And with that the story took wings. It stopped just being about agricultural Jedi and found the umph I needed it to have by becoming, at its heart, about what so many good stories are about: the choices characters make when that age-old battle between Light and Darkness becomes personal. First and foremost, it became the story of a young Jedi, Eo, whose unlikely mentor often pushes her to question whether she’s really willing to accept the challenge of her calling, whether she’s really willing to do the hard part of seeking the Light she says she believes in. Finding her own yes costs Eo more that she imagined, but opens the way for a true victory over her enemy.

That story unfolded in my mind almost as if I was watching a movie, but it still took far more effort that I ever imagined to painstakingly verbalize the images in my mind and to dig deep to understand not only what my characters were doing, but why, what their motives are, and how they see their own world.

This project has come to occupy much of my spare time for the last three years. Some people have asked me how in the world I find time to write while managing a farm. Part of the answer is that farm work allows time for thinking, so a lot of the writing I do is just transcribing the conversations that characters had in my head while I was driving the tractor, or writing down a character’s inner journey as it unfolded in my mind while I was hoeing weeds.

The other part of the answer is that writing has proven to be a fun way to do something creative other than farming, to have something I want to do badly enough to try to find spare time for it. And paper doesn’t cost much. It’s the sort of hobby you can afford on a farmer’s income.

The story has evolved into a two-part novel. My current draft of Part I, which chronicles Eo’s journey, is available to read now. Part II, the story of how the villain, Ry, deals with the effects of Eo’s choices, is currently a work in progress. If you’d like to take a look, you can find Part I here. It’s a bit over 50, 000 words long. If you don’t have time to read the whole thing, but want to take a look, I suggest jumping in at Chapter 15: Electrolyte and Mycorrhizae. (You can either scroll down or search for “Chapter 15.”) I really had fun with that part.

I’m challenging myself to become a better writer, and I can’t do that without seeing my own work through other people’s eyes. Any and all feedback or comments on the story would be most welcome!

One thing we really need to do this winter is to make some progress towards improving drainage at Umi Nami Farm.

Take a look at this field for example:

Field #5T3 on 2019/11/06

This is the field we call #5T3, growing a crop called kakina (a relative of kale).  If you look carefully, you can see that in some parts of the field the kakina isn’t growing well.  

For comparison, here is a closeup of the part that is growing well…

Healthy kakina on 2019/11/06

…and the part that is not growing well…

Poorly-growing kakina on 2019/11/06

So why are some plants doing so much worse than others, and why is this problem concentrated in certain parts of the field?

When you pull up one of the poorly-growing plants, this is what you see:

Kakina root check on 2019/11/13

Instead of the roots branching out strongly around the plant, these roots are bulbous and rot easily.  This condition is called clubroot.  It’s caused by a soil-borne microorganism known as Plasmodiophora brassicae.  That second part of its name, brassicae, refers to its host.  This little bugger only affects plants in the Brassica family: cabbages, kale, daikon, turnips, many Asian greens…in other words, almost everything we grow.  Not all species are equally susceptible, and resistant varieties are available for some, but still, this disease is a major problem for us.  

As I mentioned earlier, the instance of this disease in the field is localized: there are patches where the disease is severe and patches where plants show no signs of being affected.  Why?

I think it’s because of differences in drainage.  Both in this field and in others, the patches with the worst clubroot are the patches that are the soggiest in winter and take longest to dry out in the spring.  I’ve read that clubroot likes cold, wet conditions, which these soggy patches would certainly provide.  

Whether the correlation of wet areas with clubroot patches is directly the result of the pathogen liking the extra water or whether it’s that the extra water leaches nutrients and lowers pH to the brassica’s detriment and in the pathogen’s favour, it stands to reason that better drainage could shift the balance toward better crop growth.  

But apart from clubroot management, improving drainage would help us in other ways too.  Some of our greenhouses get so wet during our winter rainy season that we rarely if ever grow winter crops there.  Some of those wet greenhouses don’t get dry enough to till until April or so.  By then it’s too late to seize the chance to use those greenhouses to have greenhouse crops out earlier than other farmers.  This year Minami IV is a particularly severe example of a wet greenhouse:

Minami IV greenhouse on 2019/11/20

So we need to do something.  The question is what.  As far as I know right now, our options are:

  1. Get in a contractor to reopen existing drain lines.  Two sets of drain lines already exist on the farm, one put in about forty years ago by a prior farm owner with a back hoe, and another installed by underpaid Chinese labourers with shovels decades ago sometime during colonization.  From previous dealings with the water system here on the farm, I know that at least some parts of that old drainage system still work. I also know that the flooded greenhouse shown above sits on top of one such old drain line, which I have reason to believe is clogged, allowing water to pool in the greenhouse. So simply clearing mud out of existing drain lines is an attractive option.
  2. Dig new drain lines.  There are some challenges with this.  I’m guessing that new lines would have to go in around greenhouses and other farm infrastructure that wasn’t there when drain lines were installed decades ago.  But if the old lines can’t be affordably reopened, we might need to look at this option.
  3. Do nothing.  Continue to just live with some parts of the fields being especially clubroot-prone and some greenhouses being too wet to use in winter/early spring.  That being said, this may be a valid option if the cost of installing better drainage is too high.  We could also try making raised beds in the wet areas to get the growing surface up above the wet, but I’ve had mixed results with my initial attempts to do that.

Whatever the merits of each option, procrastination is not a solution.  I need to get off my tired-at-the-end-of-season behind and start doing some research.  Or better yet, I could push to find ways to rest up sooner rather than later and then do said research.  Either way, I could at least call a couple of contractors who have been recommended to me and start to get an idea of what exactly could be done and what it would cost to get better drainage happening.

I’ll keep you posted as this develops.

Sometimes we like to push ourselves. Or we like to push our crops.

This year we tried growing zucchini differently. Usually, we grow just one planting, maybe two, and keep the plants long after they get big and unwieldily. This year we decided to take a leaf from other growers’ books and plant four or five successions instead, finishing the plants once they start to show their age. Overall this gave us good fruit that was easy to harvest. We decided to push our luck, though, and see if we could have zucchini after other farmers were not longer offering it.

Our last batch of zucchini seedlings was transplanted in mid-August in a greenhouse that was uncovered but got covered in plastic by the end of the month (as part of a scheduled greenhouse plastic replacement). Besides the plastic on the greenhouse itself, we have been covering them with floating row cover at night for the past few weeks. At present, the plants are bearing the smallest of small fruits. There is no way they will possibly yield enough to make it worth our trouble, but I’m glad we tried pushing the limits to see what would happen.

Zucchinis protected by floating row cover. The plants have survived several nights of frost but are growing very slowly. Photo taken 2019/11/06.

Another new frontier is our later-than-usual greenhouse carrots. We usually plan on sowing our last greenhouse carrots by August 15. Carrots sowed the third week of August have, however, yielded a useful crop in those challenging days of early spring when we don’t have much to sell. So I decided to try pushing it a bit more. In addition to our greenhouse carrots planted in the third week of August, I sowed another batch on September 4th. To my surprise, they had already germinated one week later. That’s not usual for carrots. Even in the greenhouse it can easily be 10 days or more for carrot seedlings to emerge. I hope this bodes well for a good spring crop.

On the parts of that early September carrot bed that didn’t germinate so well, we transplanted lettuce. That’s a normal way for us to make use of space where a direct-sowed crop didn’t grow well. But what surprised me was this: wherever we watered the lettuce in with fish fertilizer, we found thick growth of some kind of white mycelium. I don’t know what it is, but I don’t think it’s bad. We often see white strands like that in the soil after spreading organic fertilizer in the spring, but I’ve never seen them this thick before.

White mycelia growing around lettuce plants wherever fish fertilizer was use. Photo taken 2019/10/23. You can also see some beets in the next bed over, as well as some random beets and turnips sharing the carrot bed (far right side of picture).

Although I’m keen to try small experiments like these to push the boundaries of our usual cropping patterns, the new frontiers I feel the most need to explore are with myself: how can I manage my time better? How can I make sure our work is set up so that farm workers are better equipped to do their jobs smoothly?

It’s so easy for me to get wrapped up in farm production tasks like weeding and planting (or get distracted by personal non-farm concerns) and then forget what my role is: farm co-manager. Management is a job and a skill set unto itself. I really want to make a renewed effort to be good at that, not only at the work of the farm, but the work of making sure that we have clear instructions for employees and well-thought-out plans for what we do when. I may have more to say about this in a future post, but for now, here is my reminder to myself so that I don’t forget:

My note to self: “You are a manager first, a farm worker second. Organization, communication, this is your job.”

In other news, today was a great day! We finished picking apples (Granny Smith is a late harvest variety) and did the first pass on winnowing our dry beans! We’re back in Standard Time and so it gets dark soon after five, which means that we have a natural cap on how late we can work. This week we passed the fall cross-quarter day (the midpoint between the autumn equinox and the winter solstice), so we’re into what I call the Dark Quarter of the year. That means less work and hopefully more rest!

Three snow geese fly over “Minami II” greenhouse, October 25.

Early last week I saw three grey things in the far east field of the farm (the one we call #5T10) and wondered if the wind had blown some empty plastic jugs into the field. Then one of them moved. I decided they must be geese of some kind. The cover crops on that field had just come up and I’ve heard that geese can totally kill a cover crop by eating and trampling it, so I set out to scare them away.

When I got a bit closer, I could see that these were indeed geese but not the Canada Geese that I’m used to. They were white and pale grey with some darker feathers around their tails. I wondered if they might be snow geese, and paused. I remembered a novella I read in high school called The Snow Goose; I don’t remember exactly how the story went, but it was set in the maritimes, and there was a young girl and a snow goose, and it was sad and beautiful. It made me not want to chase away anything that might be a snow goose. After all, they were probably in the midst of their migration, and needing a chance to rest before they went any further.

I walked a bit closer, unsure whether I should maybe scare them off anyways to protect the cover crops, yet also just wanting a closer look. As soon as they noticed me, they flew away. As they flew, three white geese against a grey sky, they seemed somehow symbolic of the Holy Trinity that is the heart of orthodox Christian faith. Chasing away a symbol of the Trinity didn’t feel right either, but I figured they were gone now.

But no. That same day they were back, in a different field, one closer to the farmhouse. All symbolism and narrative reference aside, that was not good: there were more cover crops nearby for them to potentially wreck and a whole field of beets and carrots to boot. I couldn’t let them get at those, so I chased them away, but it wasn’t long before they were back again.

This went on a few times over the following days: I’d chase them, they’d fly a short distance away, they’d come back, I’d chase them… Eventually I noticed that one of them has a bad leg; gradually they stopped flying away unless I run at them hard, waving my arms and yelling at them, and even then they come back much sooner now too.

“You should chase them more,” the farm owner told me.

“They aren’t scared of me,” I told her.

“It’s because you think they’re cute,” she said, “they can tell.”

So far (knock on wood) the geese are just eating grass on the edges of the field and haven’t caused any crop damage. I’m inclined to call a truce: extend hospitality as long as they stay away from cover crops and cash crops, but chase them hard if I see them anywhere near those two. This feels right somehow, a good balance perhaps, yet I wonder if I’ll live to regret being lenient with them. What if they’re back next year, only way more of them?

The geese start to consider flying away as I threaten to chase them out of our cover crops, but they aren’t exactly scared of me either. The younger cover crops planted October 11, the older ones on September 30.

Autumn sunrise over Umi Nami Farm.

Last week was a short week. I was away last Monday and Tuesday and the previous Sunday as well for a three-night trip to the Mainland for Thanksgiving.

I’m so glad I took time to do that. It was so good to have nearly three days of lazing around the house that my parents have lived in since I was twelve, seeing what they’re doing with their garden and just enjoying being around them in a space that is different but familiar to me. I had the chance to get together with my best friend in Burnaby and on the way back to the farm I was able to swing by another friend’s birthday party here in Victoria.

These things are important. In ten years of farming, the challenge that most consistently haunts me is the tendency to get isolated and overwhelmed, to seldom have time for rest, relaxation and relationships.

I don’t think that problem is unique to farming. It seems to dog the steps of many people who run businesses or work other demanding jobs. For that matter, this is the challenge of many, many adults: work, childcare, the demands of life, all these are all too eager to eat up everything and leave little to spare. So I think it’s useful for me to remember that I am not unique or even especially challenged in the difficulty of so easily becoming harried and isolated.

But this has been on my mind a lot lately. I want to farm, and I want to work with focus and dedication, yet I find more and more that “sustainable agriculture,” at a personal level, means being able to do my work effectively in few enough hours that I can still take time to be with people beyond the circle of the farm.

That’s why I pushed to take a full three nights for Thanksgiving where I would normally only take one. I pushed hard to make it happen, working extra hours the week before to transplant greenhouse crops and sow green manure. On the Saturday before I left work to go catch the 7 pm ferry to Tsawassen, I was still out on the tractor with only half an hour to go before I absolutely had to stop, when a broken cotter pin let a hitch pin fall out and the tractor tiller went swaying out of control and started gouging the tractor tire. I was almost grateful: it forced me to stop tractoring in time to run and check irrigation on young plants and seedlings in seven different greenhouses.

So I was pretty tired and wired by the time I headed for the ferry. I called the farm from my parents’ place to give some last minute instructions for stuff while I was away.

But having the time away was worth it, and it felt good to come back to the farm and find, contrary to my fears, that the seedlings were well watered and the sky hadn’t fallen while I was away. And why should it have? Umi Nami Farm has a great team, so going away need not be so impossible with proper planning and organization. That’s something I need to get better at doing.

The forecast has given us a deadline. That deadline is Tuesday evening.

The Tuesday night forecast is 3℃ and clear, which means that here in our little valley we expect frost. Wednesday night, which I’ve circled in the forecast above is even worse: clear skies and 1℃, which could translate to sub-zero temperatures overnight here at Umi Nami.

Frost forecasts really mess with the way I feel about fall. With the earlier sunsets and cool evenings, I want to slow down, relax and enjoy quiet evenings in a warm house. But a frost forecast is a kick in the pants that says “You’ve got work to do!”

Here’s what we need to do before the frost:

  • harvest the last of our cauliflower, broccoli and salad-type cabbage (these are likely to get damaged if they freeze)
  • bring in the last of our kabocha squash. We still have about 150 plants worth of squash to harvest after doing about 100 yesterday and more last Thursday.
  • harvest a few hundred daikon so that they’re in good condition and not frost damaged for weekend sales
  • cover some frost-vulnerable crops with remay (white fabricy floating row cover). These include our outdoor shungiku and our late-planted indoor green beans and zucchini
  • bring in water timers and drain water from any other vulnerable irrigation components

We need to do all this on top of our regular Monday harvest for our weekly box program.

I don’t want to sound like I’m complaining too much. Part of the cost we pay for the benefit of having a wide variety of vegetables to offer our customers is the effort required to save vulnerable crops that we’ve taken a risk on growing late into the season. The trick, I think, is to look ahead and be realistic about budgeting our time and calling in extra workers when needed.

Yet despite our impending deadline, I decided to take today mostly off except for a few light chores. Not only farms but all businesses have a way of eating every last scrap of time you make available to them, and part of managing the business is managing oneself in a way that protects time for rest and relationships. That’s why I didn’t work today, or not much anyways. Tomorrow, I hope, I’ll get at it early and work towards our deadline.

The Umi Nami crew harvesting kabocha squash last Thursday. You can see that the vines were already killed by a light frost last week.
In the process of taking down cucumber plants last Wednesday. You can see the piles of taken-down plants on the right.

Last Wednesday I took out the last of the cucumber plants.

It always feels a bit sad to take the cucumbers out. I spend a lot of time with cucumbers during the growing season. When we first transplant them in April, the roots already have a cucumber smell, and as the plants get established the new leaves are all plush and jewel green. As they get taller and put out tendrils, I train them up long pieces of twine so that they stand upright as you see in the picture. I spend hours pruning them so that their grow remains manageable and so that it’s not too hard to find their fruit.

Once cucumber harvest begins, I spend almost every morning going up and down the rows, both sides, with my wheelbarrow and crate, looking up and down for cucumbers at just the right stage to harvest: not too thin and spiky, fleshed out but not too much. Cucumber harvest is quiet time.

But I also feel glad to see the cucumbers go. By the time we finally take the plants down, the new growth is scrawny and the old leaves are so hard and yellow-white that they almost shatter. You search but don’t find much to harvest on plants like that, and as fall comes on I start to want to use that time to do other things.

This year I found I really needed my quiet cucumber time in the mornings, so I was glad to have another morning ritual waiting for me: cauliflower and broccoli harvest. In a way it’s the same: go up and down each row with my wheelbarrow and crate, looking for heads that are just at the right stage of growth, not too tight but not too open yet either.

*~*~*

This is unrelated, but one last photo. The white shining patches you see on the ground are the webs of some sort of ground-dwelling spider that makes a funnel-web on the surface and waits down below for prey. So many of them on a sunny fall morning!

It’s not often that I see one of these growing out of the cracks in the pavement.

On Saturday when I found this purple flower growing out of the asphalt in a parking lot off Craigflower Road, it reminded me of the life I had back in Vancouver, before I moved to Victoria to farm ten years ago.

Back then certain things were very important to me. One was plant ID. When I lived in Vancouver, I would have looked at that flower far more carefully. At a glance, I’m sure it’s some sort of pansy or violet, probably the offspring of an ornamental planting nearby, but back in Vancouver I would have checked very carefully to try to determine the exact species.

I used to do that sort of thing a lot. I even had a couple of friends with whom our friendship revolved almost entirely around the fact that we liked going for plant ID walks together. We usually did our plant walks in the forest or in the courtyard of the Biology building at UBC, but when I was on my own, plants growing in gutters and concrete crevices were particularly fascinating to me.

Besides plant ID, when I lived in Vancouver it was very important to me to cook. I used to go grocery shopping on Monday evenings on the way home from campus, then spend the rest of the night chopping and mixing and baking and stewing various dishes to eat and to share throughout the week. It wasn’t just about having meals ready to go in the fridge, though. It was a way of doing something with my hands and with vegetables that felt far more real and tangible than the work I did at my computer nine through five.

At the time, I felt that plant ID and cooking were two things I couldn’t live without. But for the most part, now I do.

I still like doing plant ID. I brought most of the rest of my plant ID books with me from my parents’ place last time I was there with a car, and every so often I stop and use my Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast to look something up. And I still have occassions when I enjoy cooking as a creative outlet that helps me to connect with other people. Plus, cooking from scratch is far cheaper than buying food to take to a potluck.

But I don’t crave either plant ID or cooking the way I used to. I’m OK with not trying to find out what species that little flower is. And if I went a week without cooking it wouldn’t bother me much.

I guess it’s like this: when I lived in the city, my studies (and later my work) in bioinformatics fed the most cognitive part of my brain but left the rest of me feeling shrivelled and hungry. I needed and wanted so badly to feel that I was whole and well in ways that computer-based data analysis could never satisfy. Plant ID gave me a way to open my eyes and connect to the botanical world around me by taking time to observe its details carefully. Cooking gave me an way to connect with vegetables through their aesthetic and culinary appeal, to work with my hands and to create something tangible that I could share to feed my relationships with people I knew and people I was only just getting to know.

Now that I’m farming, I don’t have much time or drive to do either plant ID or cooking. When I have spare time, I tend to eat it up trying to stay in touch with friends and family, or doing things that feed my mind, like reading books and writing stories. Farming isn’t everything, but it does give me a way to be connected to nature, to work with my hands, and to produce something I can eat and share. In short, farming is to me now what plant ID and cooking were to me then. It’s why I don’t feel a strong need for those things at this time.

But no matter how long I farm, I still feel happy when I see a plant beating the odds and growing in the most difficult cracks and crevices of modernity. Both then and now, encountering plants reminds me to open my eyes, regardless of whether they’re wild or agrarian or urban. What reminds you to open your eyes, your ears, your senses, your mind to the world around you?

Rain drips off ripe red apples

I woke in the dark to the sound of rain this morning. I love September.

Waking up to the sound of rain is different in September than it is in March, even though the hours of daylight are similar.

In March when I hear the rain, I wonder when the fields are going to dry out and whether it will be in time for us to plant potatoes early or whether everything will dry out only at the last minute and leave us with a boatload of tilling and planting to do all at once. Not that I begrudge the spring rain–we need full reservoirs more than I need an optimal tilling schedule.

But in September when I hear the rain, I relax. The fields are getting wet and so I can leave outdoor irrigation off the to-do list, as long as we don’t get another dry spell. And with the rain I can plant cover crops. You all know how much I love cover crops.

When I hear the rain, I relax because it means it’s time to slow down. We farm year-round, so it never really stops, and I don’t want it to stop, but I also look forward to coming inside early for a cozy evening with an audiobook or having more time to go out with friends.

I look forward also to rainy afternoons in my little office, planning crops for next year or working on ideas for how we can farm smarter not harder.

But with planning and socializing and catching up on things I want to read, it’s all too easy to forget one thing: rest.

I very much look forward to a season of rest. But ten years at the farm and however many years of studying and working prior to that have taught me this: reduction of work does not equal rest. Rest is a state of being that I need to choose consciously if it is to happen at all.

It’s not quite time to rest yet, but it is time to slow down if only a little. It’s time to be mindful of how to use this precious season as wisely as the one that went before it.