It was just over a year ago that we lost our cat, Fua-kun. He’s the one looking up at the camera in the photo below.

Fua-kun (his name roughly translates as “Fluffy”) first came to us through a no-longer-running program called Barn Rats Need Barn Cats, which re-homed feral cats as pest control agents at farms and even firehalls.

I can still remember long-legged Fua-kun, eyes wide with fear, trying to climb the bars of the cage he arrived in. Born and raised in the bush without human contact, Fua-kun and the other cats who came with him were scared of my slightest movement when they first came.

But as the months passed and he watched the Umi Nami born-and-bred cats coming to the front porch for meals and lapping up human attention, he gradually began to imitate San-kaku (the orange cat in the photo) by lounging luxuriously on the front porch and even, very tentatively at first, leaning in when we reached out to pet him. As he got more and more used to us, there were many times when I would startle him when he was hunting in some out-of-the-way corner of the farm, but if I called him by name, he would stop running, sit still and watch me. I miss those times.

He had only been with us a couple of years when the pandemic hit. Saddled with a bunch of extra responsibilities that came to me with COVID, I didn’t have time to stand in line at SuperStore to get the farm cats’ preferred brand of cat food, so I bought something roughly similar at a corner store.

I have to admit this other cat food did smell a lot more, well, cheap and junky, but the other three cats were fine with it. Fua-kun, however, refused to eat. I watched him get thinner and thinner until, alarmed, I got myself out to the Superstore to buy the right brand.

Yet even when I showed him the food he used to like he didn’t have much appetite. His strength did rally a bit, though, and I thought he would be OK.

A few days later, I found him lying on the walkway near the house. It was clear in his unfocused eyes that something was wrong. He looked as if he felt ill, almost wincing as he lay there. Every so often he would get up, walk with this awful stiff and stilted gait for a few metres, and then either lie down or fall down again, sometimes moaning, his breath shallow and laboured. He died that afternoon.

At this point, we will never know with perfect certainty why a young, healthy cat like him would die unexpectedly. As much as I feel really bad about the cat food problem, I doubt hunger was what killed him. Realistically, he was born in the bush. He knew how to hunt. There’s plenty of rats and other small game to be had around the farm.

But perhaps therein lies the problem. What if, in his hunger, Fua-kun was less discerning about which rats he ate?

While I don’t have an autopsy to back this up, we strongly suspect that Fua-kun died from rat poison. I realize that may sound unlikely: we’re an organic farm so we don’t use rat poison. And don’t poisoned rats just crawl away and die somewhere hidden without affecting other animal life? That’s what I’d been told anyways.

But here’s the thing:

Data shows that no matter what we might believe about rat poison staying where we put it, rat poison is out there in the food chain. Seventy percent of dead owls found in BC between 1988 and 2003 had at least one and sometimes two types of rodenticide in their livers.

And poisoned rats do make easy prey. Death occurs by internal bleeding, and they can survive days, almost two weeks even, after consuming a lethal dose. During that time they become lethargic, less likely to seek cover, more easily preyed upon by cats or owls or other predators.

Rats can also continue to eat more rat bait in the lag time between consuming a lethal dose and succumbing to it. This means that when a poisoned rat is eaten, it may be carrying far more than enough poison to kill an animal its own size. Most of the time, no one has the time or money to investigate the cause of a cat or owl’s death, but just two years ago a veterinarian confirmed that a cat died from rat poison right here in Metchosin.

Without an autopsy, I can’t prove that rat poison caused Fua-kun’s decline and death, but his symptoms — lethargy, staggering gait, shallow or laboured breathing — all line up with rat poison as the cause. The same is true, incidentally, of another farm cat we lost in years prior.

I was going to write about Fua-kun’s passing last year, closer to the time it happened, but my feelings were a bit too raw at the time. I also didn’t want my immediate neighbours to think I was accusing them personally of Fua-kun’s death. I’m not.

But I decided to write about this now because of an email a fellow farmer sent me, asking for help on a campaign to ban rodenticides in BC, specifically the second generation anticoagulant rodenticides that cause death by internal bleeding.

I will not attempt to outline the full case for why these chemicals should be banned; you can read more here. I will simply say that they cause undue harm and that alternative forms of rat control are available, including new types of traps that are more effective and more humane.

I do, however, want to ask two things:

First, if you do hire a pest control company to manage rodents at your home or business, please specifically ask them not to use rodenticides of any type (be warned, some companies may try to confuse the issue). There are alternatives. You can also search for AnimalKind pest control companies here.

Second, please do sign the petition to ban second generation anticoagulant rodenticides in BC. As long as these chemicals are out there, cats will die, owls will die, as will other hunters and scavengers.

Additional links:

Rat Poison Ingestion in Cats

Defending Nature Against Rodenticides

Rodenticide Topic Fact Sheet

We had a ton of aphids in “Minami II” greenhouse this spring. So many aphids on the turnips that they came off in grey-green gobs in the wash water. So many aphids on the greens that they were too badly stunted to bother trying to harvest for sale.

Maybe this happened because we put too much fertilizer on in the spring. We got a big load of okara (soybean pulp) from the tofu factory in town and laid it on pretty thick when we did our soil prep. Aphids like dry conditions with excess nitrogen in the soil, so our drip irrigation plus too much okara was probably the perfect combination for them.

Such a huge aphid population should also be the perfect situation for ladybugs and other aphid predators. Indeed, I did find a lot of adult ladybugs and a lot of ladybug egg clusters: orange pill-like cylinders all standing on end in neat little groups. I didn’t get a picture on the turnips, but you can see the same thing on the parsley below.

Cluster of orange ladybug eggs on parsley.

So the ladybugs certainly were coming to feast on the abundance of aphids, but there just weren’t enough of them to cut down the aphid population down low enough before we needed to harvest the turnips or before the growth of the greens was too badly stunted.

We don’t often have aphid problems that bad, thank goodness. Even in this same spring, I can point to two situations that worked out far better.

One is a recent batch of komatsuna. There were aphids, but not so many, and of those present, many had been attacked by parasites. The parasites (a type of wasp, I believe, but there are also parasitic midges) lay their eggs inside (yes! inside!) the aphid and the young larva eats the aphid from within. You can tell the parasitized ones because they swell up and turn bronze, then later go flat and grey with a hole in the middle. The hole is where the parasitic insect emerges when it’s ready to come out.

Parasitized aphids on a komatsuna leaf (from “Minami III” greenhouse). Near the centre of the photo, you can see one with a hole in the middle.

The situation on our swiss chard is even more striking. I only rarely find aphids, but I’ve seen tons of ladybug adults and ladybug pupae and nymphs. (Nymphs are the pre-adult stage; thinking of them as teenagers with teenager-like appetites for food). I really can’t fathom how so many of them could live there with so few aphids to feed on, but they must have been finding some way. Here is an example: three ladybug pupae on one leaf and not an aphid in sight:

Three ladybug pupae on a chard leaf.

So ecological pest control can work. In fact, it can work so well that we barely notice any pests. But as we saw in the case of those greens and turnips I mentioned earlier, sometimes ecology doesn’t happen on our schedule.

As for those stunted greens, my plan had been to hoe them down. Why let them be a breeding ground for aphids? But we didn’t get around to it.

Finally, two weeks or so after our intended harvest date, we came around to glean what we could for home use. They were still stunted and a little tough, but somehow some of them managed to grow to a size worth picking.

To my surprise, there were no aphids. Thin, grey empty shells of aphids all over the backside of the leaves, like nature’s version of discarded soup cans, but no living aphids that I could see. I did find a few lady bugs, so I guess our ladybug friends and maybe some other beneficial insects did come to the rescue after all.

Yes, it would have been nice if they could have done that earlier. But I’m not going to complain. Even if the timing wasn’t perfect, seeing that many aphids disappear is kind of natural miracle that makes me love farming.

For many years, I wanted to switch away from the paper-based system I’ve always used for crop planning and record keeping and start doing all of it on the computer. That would mean that all the charts I make about which crop goes in which greenhouse and how many seedlings we need for each crop could be posted online for farm staff to check if something happened to me and they needed to know what the plan was. It would also be much easier for them to check what the plan is on a more week to week basis if, for example, the information about where we’re planting greens next week was typed and easy to find, not scrawled in my messy handwriting on a piece of scrap paper in a file folder buried on my desk. Not only that, but all the records we keep — things like where, when and what we planted, and how much organic fertilizer we spread on each field and when it got tilled — if all that information was computerized, it would be searchable and sortable. That would be so much easier to use for our own future planning, and also much easier when we do our yearly report to our organic certifier.

Over the last few years, I’ve gradually been doing more and more on the computer and less and less on paper, but I decided that 2020 was going to be my year. I would take the plunge and go completely digital.

Yet my first attempt at fully computerized farm planning didn’t go at all as I’d hoped. I sat at the computer day after day, staring for hours at the screen, and yet having precious little to show for it. Whenever I hit a point where I had to think through a part of the crop plan that I wasn’t sure about yet, I would just sit there staring at the screen while precious minutes slipped by and next thing I knew half an hour would be gone.

Maybe the problem was in part that I wasn’t just doing the same method of crop planning as I did in the past on paper.  I was trying to plan crops and reinvent my planning method all at the same time. Maybe the problem was also that I just wasn’t feeling well.  I know now that my IBS was back with a vengeance and that was making me really groggy.

But some of the problem was, quite frankly, the computer itself. I kept on getting frustrated because it was hard to view multiple pages at once.  When I work on paper, I almost always have multiple pages in front of me on the table: a list of greenhouses and their penciled-in main crops, a chart showing how many metres of row we need for each crop, a notepad with a dedicated page for each greenhouse…  It’s not that I couldn’t replicate all those of the computer. It’s just that even with my computer’s rather large screen I could only lay out two or maybe three of them comfortably at a time.  

In the midst of my frustration with all this, I could remember how smooth crop planning felt when I was doing it on white and yellow lined paper at the farmhouse kitchen table, looking out the window every so often at the sun glinting off the greenhouses.  If I didn’t know for sure what to put down for some part of the plan, I’d just pencil something in and move on. I didn’t have that breathless feeling I get from using the computer and my eyes never hurt half as much. And at the end of a work session, I’d feel like I’d gotten something done. It was just like what I’d found with my creative writing: the computer is great for typing stuff up if I know what I want to say, but if there’s anything I need to figure out, it will happen far more smoothly on paper, away from the machine. And so I abandoned my attempt at computerized farm planning and went back to paper. 

My return to paper wasn’t exactly like what I did before. Instead of a file folder full of loose sheets, I set up a binder with two sections. The first section has a page for each greenhouse or field. The plan for the year is pencilled in and then there is space to write down what we actually planted, when we planted it, and what sort of fertilizer we used, etc. The second section has a page or two for each crop: the plan for when, where and how much we’ll plant, followed by space to write down what we actually did. In both sections, this meant providing far more page-space for both planning and record keeping than my previous method allowed. So it wasn’t exactly like what I did before, but it was still paper again.

I’m so glad I made the switch.  I knew I would be happier not looking at a screen, but going back to paper had some benefits I hadn’t anticipated. One unexpected benefit was that my new-and-improved paper method did a much better job of communicating with farm staff than my computer version could possibly have done.  One of my big goals this year is to make farm plans readily accessible to farm staff so I don’t need to be there if they want to know what crop is going in each greenhouse or if they need to double check how far apart we should transplant the seedlings that are going there.  My original plan was to print out my computer spreadsheets and put them in a binder but to keep the Real Version in the computer, reprinting spreadsheets as needed if plans change.

What I’m finding though is that the paper version invites far more flexibility and participation.  I did still print out spreadsheets for each crop, but they were just blank forms waiting to be filled in.  I neatly pencilled in what I thought the plan would be for each crop and each field or greenhouse, then invited farm staff to take a look.  It wasn’t long before they were pointing out missing information (“Where does parsley go?  I don’t see it on the Herbs page,”) or sitting down with the binder to fill in records of how many seedlings they started on the hotbed.  Given our (lack of) tech setup here at the farm, there is no computer platform that would allow us to work together on planning and record keeping like that.  

Making it Our Binder and not just My Binder is still a work in progress but I really want to push in that direction.  When I have a frustrating day, I try to ask myself what’s going wrong.  So often the problem is that our workflow is hitting a bottleneck, and the bottleneck is me.  Even now, so much information about what needs to be done and how we’re planning to do it lives either in my head or in scribbles on scrap paper that only I can either find or read.  The more we can get plans and instructions into binders and message boards that everyone has access to, the less our workflow depends on me being in the right physical and mental space to communicate it.  I can see already that my efforts to get information into forms that staff can access without me is paying off in less stress for me and more work satisfaction for them.

The binder isn’t perfect.  Sometimes I take it away to work on it and then forget to put it back where other people can find it.  Sometimes I forget to ask staff to use it to write down the records we need to keep about tasks they did instead of adding to my workload by talking to them and then doing the writing part myself.  But it’s helping us all communicate more and so it’s a step in the right direction.

But even if I was the only one using it, I would still be glad that I switched back to paper, and all the more so in the unexpected challenge that 2020 has become.  Despite being in a very clean and protected environment, COVID 19 and all that goes with it has addled my brain far more than I care to admit.  With my mind being the way it is these days, I can put in long hours at repetitive physical work but as soon as I try to do anything that requires real thought, I find it really hard to focus.

The computer never makes me calm at the best of times.  These days, it’s bliss to leave the screen in a different room and go sit outside with the binder when it’s time each week to update records and review plans.  I can sketch little maps of what crop went where in the greenhouse and add notes to chart entries in ways that come naturally to me without having to stop and look up how to do that in Open Office.  

This is grounding for me in a way that sitting at the computer could never be.  I’m not sure I’d accomplish half as much if I tried to do the same work at the computer in the state my mind is in right now.

I ask myself sometimes why I hate the computer so much.  Wait, let me back up: I really appreciate the way the computer lets me get my writing into a form I can share, keep in touch with friends, and keep up an online version of my normal activities that got cancelled when the pandemic reached BC back in March. But I do wonder: why do I find it so easy to get slow and stressed out when I’m looking at a screen?

Maybe I’m just an old fogey.  I can remember, after all, the days when not only were floppy discs actually floppy, but they actually mattered.  But I think there’s more to it than that and I’m going to blame it partly on the internet.

The internet is all about endless possibilities.  Want it? Buy it now, or at least add it to your wishlist.  Want to look something up?  There’s more information than you can dream of, all laced with little hyperlinks to other things you could read or watch or buy.   Feel bored or lonely? Check your email again, or Facebook, or Instagram or look up a new podcast or…

That means that as long as the internet is only a click away, I’m constantly making choices.  The choice of whether to focus on my work or to go look up that bit of information that I only sort of need. Then there’s the choice of whether or not to follow the rabbit hole that opens up when I do type that search into Google. And never mind the ongoing choice of whether or not to check my email again.

We need choice.  Without choice, we have no agency.  But constantly making choices is exhausting.  I feel far more free to work and to be creative when, by choice or by circumstance, I only need to make a limited number of choices.

I certainly can get distracted while looking at our current paper-based farm plan binder, but there’s no back door into my email beckoning from beyond its pages.  I’m free to just focus on my work.  When I finish, my mind is free to move onto the next thing without Messenger and YouTube clawing at it.

By going back to paper, I’ve found calm and freed up my mind. I’m so glad I did that. Have you ever found that you were better off going analog?  Whether yes or no, I’d be glad to hear about it.

The lean time of the year isn’t winter, it’s early spring. When the overwintered crops are past their peak and the new crops haven’t grown big enough to harvest, that’s when we really have to scrape together enough vegetables to harvest for our weekly box program.

It just so happens that more people than ever have been wanting to sign up. With the surreal circumstances of our efforts to slow the spread of COVID 19, more and more people are wanting to come to the farm, not go to the grocery store, to buy their produce.

While I wish the circumstances were otherwise, I’m really grateful for the people who have shown interest in our box program. The box program is the heart of what we do at Umi Nami Farm, but we also do a large portion of our sales through a farmers market (Moss Street Market) and a handful of local restaurants. Until some semblance of “normal” returns, selling through restaurants isn’t an option and while I’m hopeful that we can have a great farmers market season, it isn’t exactly going to be normal. Increasing the size of our box program is one way to make up the difference.

But there’s hope in sight: the greens we planted in early February are almost big enough to harvest. Below is a slide show to give you an idea of what’s growing now, both new crops and overwintered ones.

Nickle-sized turnips planted in the first week of February. A couple more weeks maybe?
The bok choy and other greens we sowed in the first week of February are almost ready!
Kale is has flower buds now. For a while, they’ll supply kale florettes, but this is the beginning of the end for this overwintered crop.
Shungiku (chrysanthemum greens) likewise is starting to have flower buds now, so maybe one more week or so for harvestable shoots on this crop.
Peas are growing! But harvest is still a month or so away.
Every cabbage starts with a small seedling. We hope to have cabbages in May.
Zucchini was transplanted last week! They’re still small, but if you look carefully, there’s a small side-shoot forming in the axle of the leaf. They’re growing!
Many summer crops are in the seedling nursery now. Here’s hoping for beautiful eggplants!

I really enjoy seeing the ant colonies become active in the spring. They aren’t so unlike us in some ways: they live in close cooperative societies, they mine/gather materials to build large colonies, and some species even farm fungi or ranch aphids. I find a bizarre sense of comfort in reflecting on how even though ants must have their own cycles of epidemic and disease, they don’t spend even one moment of their lives thinking about COVID 19.

They got a bit agitated when I put my finger near them, so I won’t do that too often. I wonder what they thought was happening?

It’s easy to get down these days, but I choose not to go there any more than I can help. I leave you with a life lesson from a farm cat.

We sometimes use plastic tarps to suppress weeds and keep moisture in the soil when we aren’t using a greenhouse. He uses them for napping.
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.