Farm Blog

Thank you again for braving the blizzard to celebrate, connect with great food, and 'planting an orchard'! Just imagine all those future cherry trees (don't forget to squat:-).
I am so uplifted from all the good vibes, intentions, laughter and seeds shared and planted.

We were able to raise $850.00 in funds! This will go a long way, thank you! Additionally, with all the seeds donated today and from what I've gleaned from others, The women growers in the Sine-Saloum region will be able to plant out a couple hundred row feet/farm. In the past we've planted shared 'demonstration beds' ie since many of the farmers share space/land to grow on we've constructed seeds beds to trial different varieties, plant insectory herbs and flowers and share techniques. From there seeds are harvested and shared forward amongst the individual farmers. So in essence your generosity helped plant teaching/learning/eating/

sharing beds of veggie, herb, and flower goodness!
 

I will honor my commitment and extend the immense gratitude, generosity that was shared during the workshop with the women farmers in the following ways:

Work with NCBA CLUSA Farmer to Farmer Program to transfer funds and mail seeds.
I'll also email and share highlights, photos forward later this week in celebration of our workshop success.

I am tentatively set to travel there Nov/Dec. or January in 2016.

I also finally remembered the name of third grower group, JUBO (means widespread). If you're interested in learning more about how they got started, here's a link to an interview I did as part of my last Farmer to Farmer adventure in Senegal.

I Will keep you in the loop as the project evolves and thanks again for sharing your generous spirit!

For the chocolate lovers:
Becky Otte, who made the amazing truffles, has more of her chocolate goodness to share and is selling some of her creations just in time for Valentines. if you're interested send her an email: raonine@gmail.com

Also Here is a link to Roots Chocolate website.

For the Fruit Lovers:

I've enclosed a handout of some of the different fruits we grow at our farm as well as a flyer highlighting this season's events at the farm! We'd love to have you venture out and tour the orchard, come visit us (though not nearly as cool as the orchard poses we did during the workshop).

Thank you again for helping me transition from being a butterfly weed seed (ie wind pollinated, not knowing where or how my intentions, projects might stick) to more of an oak or cashew seeds - wherein I can deepen my awareness, provide support in the same place(s) in Senegal for the growers and in my backyard in Wisconsin:-). Here's to planting the seeds of the as yet to be imagined on and off the yoga mat! Wishing you all much abundance.

Happy Mid-winter!

Yours in hardy kiwi,
Erin


PS If you are into exploring the planting side as well as enjoying more local fruit creations, we'll be hosting a Local Fruit Tasting May 16, details on our website.

 

Moments in Place spark Poems

How do you capture a single moment in a place you’ve called home for most of your life? Much less distill it into 15 words?

The possibilities are endless, encounters with woodchucks, a conversation with a friend, experiencing the floods, hunting morels, moonlit swims on Lake Redstone, the moment when swallows leave, luring a swarm of bees, the smell of spring soil, whew! We are grateful to have the land, our community and our imagination guide us. The end results are surprisingly asymetrically greater than the sum of its singular words—sunflower synergy

Seriously, this past winter Rob and I traded our broadforks and spades for pens and paper, digging into brevity in the hopes that we can tell a story or two about what we love about our home in the shape of a 15 Word Poem. This was part of the 20 Poems Project, convened by Reedsburg ArtsLink.

Words, like seeds, need a bit of dormancy before sprouting. They also need a little tending to before a plant or poem is born. I am grateful for to the editing eyes of writer friends, and fellow ‘Poetry for Everyone Workshop’ classmates (I gifted myself this class through Madison College for my 40th birthday). After three months and several iterations, we just learned that each of us will have a poem highlighted as part of the 20 Poems project.

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Getting Started

An annual rite of Spring for many vegetable growers in this area is the Upper Midwest Organic Farming conference which takes place regularly during the last week of February. Some growers insist they won't start seeds until after its yearly passage.

When I originally contemplated taking up community supported agriculture I ventured to what was the first such conference to try and get a grasp on whether CSA was something I should be undertaking in my mid-30s – vegetable production has a reputation for being murderous on the back and joints, as I already knew from gardening, and I wondered if I should be diving into it more fully as I approached middle age. I remember little of the conference but the presence of a number of participants much older than myself was reassuring.

While attending, I stayed with a couple of college friends who had recently moved nearby and started a family. When I reunited with the two of them again recently – after having rarely been in touch over the intervening years – I found myself trying to estimate their children's ages and getting it wildly wrong even after compensating for the passage of time. Not only were they past high school but through college and on into adult life.

Such unpleasant shocks are a hazard of age but a good reminder, at least to me, to be thankful that vegetable farming, whatever its risks to backs and shoulders, has at least one hallmark benefit: unlike other types of agriculture - or employment generally - vegetable growers are effectively dealt a new hand to play every year.

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Agency and the Allurement of 'Farmerhood'

While ice dams plague roofs, snow drifts cloak balsam roots, and the soil steeps in frozen stillness, I turn inward. Winter is not just a workout with the shovel, but also an exercise in exercising choice—if only to stir movement and heave the frosts of doubt that last season—the wettest, darkest on record for this farmers 12 year tenure stewarding Hilltop—threatened to erode the seedbed of my spirit.

Bone-weary, I fall back to the days spent pumping butternut barbels to meet the ossuary demands for the mid-winter dinner. Why do I persist? There is this lingering romantic myth in our culture that is perpetuated about farming. It goes something like this: Summer days are spent basking with butterflies and blooms, gallantly hoeing away weeds and cares, plucking peppers, and careening with carrots, so that come winter, farmers in the world's temperate regions, kick back, relax, sleep and feast the days away in a quiet merriment as there is 'nothing' to do. This world might exist, if only in fits and spurts, but do we really have control around our days, and who would really choose working 90 plus hrs a week in pursuit of plums? Life circumstances and societal demands of business plans, taxes, market analysis, crop plans, seed orders, grower conferences, 'off farm work to feed the farming habits and pay the interest on your operating loan', the unsatiable hunger of instragram and facebook feeding, and our longing to (re)connect with nature (ironically through social media datapoints and virtual realities) make it hard to take a step toward Enough.

What's a farmer to do?

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Fibonacci Numbers, Sunflower sequence, and Mid-summer's angles of reposeFibonacci numbers, mid-summer's angle of repose

Happy August! Wow it's really August and we are already at the mid-point of the Flower CSA season. There is a point in the growing season that reminds of my days in Washington's North Cascades pondering alpine glacial geology while collecting native plant seed for restoration education projects with the National Park Service. We would be along the trails seed collecting Elymus glaucous (blue wild rye) and a slough of floral friends. Now and then I would stretch my back and shift my gaze from soil to skyline. The glaciers would 'sit poised' when viewed from a distance, like a well fed cat, cool and contented on its perch. That such a mass of ice, could just 'hang out' along a 60 plus degree slope without an ensuing avalanche is a marvel. In geologic speak, this point is known as the angle of repose – the steepest angle at which a sloping surface, (in the case of glaciers ice) formed of a particular loose material is stable. It's a marvel that an icy mass of material withstands gravity at such an angle--that such stillness from a distance—can mask all the movement taking shape, giving form to the Earth upon closer viewing.

In the botanical sphere of your flower farm, there is a similar angle of repose,

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FRESH Start

In the short lull between seasons that we get at the top of the year, my mind is sometimes directed toward the wider landscape in which our CSA and others operate.

Generally unseen by CSA customers are the support organizations that provide help with visibility, marketing, professional development and skill-sharing necessary to the farms which grow their food. Fair-Share, the organization that provides these services in much of southern Wisconsin, is probably familiar to eaters as the sponsor of the annual open-house at which CSA farms advertise their wares to potential clientele. In its earlier years the organization was known as MACSAC (Madison Area CSA Coalition), a group of eaters as well as farmers who came together with a mission to educate the public about sustainable farming issues in order to help kickstart the CSA movement in Madison during the early 1990s. Given the solidarity and general bon ami that exists within the community of CSA practitioners, it might seem hard to imagine that there was a brief period of schism and dissension back in the first decade of the millennium.

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Reckoning

Better late than never.

With squirrely and uncooperative weather from almost start to finish this growing season, analysis of 2017's production – like all the rest the year's work – got pushed back by several weeks. But I've finally had a chance to compile the numbers. They are rather uninspiring.

While this growing season's rains (33.05” in total) were not quite as miserable as 2016 (37.88”), they were still 40% over the historical average for the April through October period. And, as usual, the specific timing of the rains was what was most significant. While last year's deluges came almost exclusively after the middle of August, 2017's were heavily loaded toward planting season – we were already 10 inches ahead of 2016 in the short period from the start of April to the end of June.

Cold weather accompanying the rains in the critical third week of May slowed drying and made soil preparation for popcorn and peppers an ungodly slog, especially since both crops were slated for a section of the garden with heavier, more clay-ish soils.

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Eclipse, Eclat, and Eclogue, Just another Season at the Farm

Admittedly, I joined the frenzied eclipse goers who jockeyed for the viewing rights along the path of totality in the heartland to soak in, for two minutes, a celestial phenomenon by way of 370th Rd., just northwest of Ravenna, NE.

While Rob poured over weather maps for points of cloudless skies along the way, I poured over our 1909 copy of Webster's New International Dictionary, wherein I mused over different iterations of the word eclipse and how the word itself relates to the growing season. Luminous discoveries and intentions prevailed.

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Keeping Mechanics at Bay

Like my back, our pickup truck creaks a lot more than it used to, but still functions. I take this as an augury that another season of vegetable growing is possible; indeed, with an April share already behind us, it seems to have leapt underway.

Both back and truck are indispensable to the enterprise of farming, though I got along without the second for a number of years simply by using my Geo Metro as a truck instead. I hauled uncountable tons of compost to my farm in it, which eventually led to blowing two of the three cylinders, as you would expect from a vehicle rated at 550 lbs live load. (Incidentally, the car operated fine, if wimpily, on one cylinder). After having the valves replaced I was able to keep hauling compost for several additional years. The setup was fuel efficient and cheap, minus the valve-job.

The '97 Nissan pickup is also often overloaded since this is the most efficient way to move things, though perhaps not cheapest in the long run. Road gravel is the usual cargo which I find myself schlepping a dozen times or more each year from the local materials yard to throw, by shovelfuls, into the ruts which climate change + gravity conspire to carve down the slopes of our driveway.

Farming involves an awful lot of moving things against gravity, so I'm glad my back has lasted. Like the truck, it has slowed down but still moves, so I am thankful.

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Tending to the Time We Take

When I first traveled to Senegal in 2012 for a farmer to farmer volunteer project, it was during the heart of the rainy season in August. The smell of ocean, fish, palm oil and traffic permeated the air as I arrived in a foot of water at the airport in Dakar.

Since then, Senegal has continued to flow into my farm life and professional journey—and the suddenness of the Saloum's riverine current combined with the predictability of tides gives me pause in considering what is in greater demand now than our attention? What during our brief time on this planet do we need to attend to most? I carried this question with me as I washed ashore in Senegal this past November, supporting a Farmer to Farmer project working with the women farmers who are just getting started with organic vegetable production in Thiangalahene Village southeast of Kaolack. Starting anything new is overwhelming. Their are myriad tasks you need to tend to, let alone the possibilities to explore for your markets. What has helped in my own farm journey is having opportunities to learn and share knowledge, resources with other farmers and eaters for perspectives and advice as well as engaging expert knowledge. This is why I am so attracted to the F2F program model and so appreciative of the opportunity to volunteer—supporting my farmer peers with insights I have learned about what to tend to when getting started.

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Simplicity, Gladiolus and the Magic of 3's

As August shifts to September with all the overabundance of fruit, flowers, and veg ripening in the fields, I thought I'd begin the month to celebrate simplicity in this week's bouquets and focus on the 'magic of 3's.

Farmer florists have a few patterns to draw from setting the structure for a bouquet. Like a recipe for a summer salsa (1 part hot pepper 3 parts sweet 5 parts tomato), flowers follow a similar recipe. Texture, focal, filler. 1:3:5. From here the variations are endless and sometimes chaotic colors emerge. So I've been playing with simplifying, finding beauty in the most basic of texture, focal, and filler. This week's bouquets will feature 3 flowers representing texture, focal, and filler and a play on 3 color types.

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Flower CSA Bouquets Abuzz with Gratitude

Such fullness and momentum abounds in the flower fields as we head into the peak harvest season at the farm. A lot is abuzz at your flower farm and I thought this week is prime time for pollinator appreciation from field to vase at Hilltop.

While National Pollinator Week has come and gone in late June (week of the 23rd this past year), I find that mid-July is when the pollinator flower power really kicks in on our farm. So this week we are featuring flower favorites of the bees, butterflies and all of our pollinator friends seen and unseen. I’m hovering over a currant shrub as I write this, making notes with one hand with the other, meticulously plucking the black pearls of the fruit world into buckets wishing I had a third hand to simultaneously pull the weeds that pop through the mulch.

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A Look Ahead

As you can tell from looking in your share bag each week, the season so far has been unusual in its pace and general fecundity – cabbages, beets and currants have shown up weeks ahead of schedule; potatos and carrots (July 4 share) are as early as they've ever been; and virtually all remaining crops (cross your fingers) look to be vigorous and likely to produce at, or ahead of, schedule. We can thank June's heat and restrained but adequate rains for much the largesse.

One possible exception is cucumbers. Cucumber beetles – 1/4-inch long yellow- and black-striped sap-sucking insects – have descended on our little patch and begun chewing holes in the leaves. Their damage is not excessive in itself since the insects are so small. But they tend to spread viruses and other pathogens as evidenced by the yellowing and drying of a noticeable fraction of leaves even at this early stage.

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"This Quilt is Covered in Dirt...On Purpose"

Urbanized populations are losing their connection to life-supporting soil. As farmers were letting the dirt speak for itself. 

You may have re-called previous musings on Soil and last season's Unearthing a Soil Quilt Project. Well like Amish Friendship bread, we had no idea what we and the soil have started. The story continues, and we are so thankful to the National Geographic Team for featuring our soil quilt project as part The Plate blog series.

 

You can get the dirt on the latest Soil Quilt iteration, from Whitney Pipkin, read on at:

This Quilt is Covered in Dirt On Purpose.

please feel free to share on social media @NatGeoFood and @WhitneyPipkin!

 

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Riding out the bumps and over the hump - CSA Underway

The start of year 23 at Hilltop has had its bumps, but been auspicious in some ways too.

The bumps include the first week of April which managed, with its Siberian cold, to kill our bees after an otherwise successful ride through the Wisconsin winter. In March, the workers thronged the entrance to the hive, enjoying the warm sun and searching for the first apricot blossoms and dandelions to appear. The following week, their exoskeletons poured from the frames of comb in piles as I lifted each from the box that had been their home.

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Your Annual Food Calorie Receipt

The calendar has gone November, so it must be time to reckon the season's work. You might remember that back in August, at share #14, I got out the calculator for a preliminary estimate and was sanguine enough to predict a record year in-the-making,“north of 180 lbs per share” as I optimistically put it.

Not quite, as it turned out.

But at 163 pounds, it was the highest yield in the past four years, a full 25 lbs (18%) more by weight than last year's paltry 137.5 pounds, the lowest of the past four years.

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Falling in Love with the Love Apple...An Homage to Quince

There's a quince in the kitchen, it's plump curvaceous, cherub of a fruit, marks the start of frosty mornings at our farm in La Valle, WI. This lovely fruit marks the end of our CSA season, tucked in the last share box next to the butternnut and onions, its slow sweet ripening on the counter diffusing hints of flowers in the kitchen, reminding us of season's past. We encourage our members and fruit friends to let its presence and scent linger. Then when you catch a nostalgic scent of springs past, cut and simmer quince with your apples for a hearty sauce, or enjoy solo, slighlty poached and drizzled with honey-invoking the spirit of Aphrodite and Venus – honoring the culinary traditions from Apicius to your Grandma's orchard, and marveling at how such an ancient fruit has been overlooked in today's kitchen.

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We're in Acres U.S.A. : Branching Out: Sustainable Farmers Embracing Alternative Orchard Methods

We've made it into Acres USA upcoming July 2015 issue.

Here's the article from Writer, Tamara Scully highlighting our farms and other farmers' approach to sustainable orchard management. Happy reading and our gratitude to Acres, Tamara, and all our farm friends for helping us write the future story of our farm and fruit.

Branching Out: Sustainable Farmers Embracing Alternative Orchard Methods
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Aural Fixation

The soundscape of our farm would not normally be a newsletter topic, nor would it even seem relevant to the enterprise of farming; but in the same way that we can often diagnose the health of our cars by the slightest variation in the sound coming from the engine compartment, so too is the overall health of the farm discernible just standing with open ears on the back porch.

In the early years of Hilltop – an era when hayfields were rather less assiduously kept -- the ecstatic vocalizations of a bobolink could be heard emanating from the neighbor's patch, nearby to the east. The birds had evidently found a corner routinely missed by the scythe in which to nest. From mid-May until July the riot of song would erupt, often with the male rising on wing to broadcast his message more widely on the wind.

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You're Invited for a Picnic in the Orchard

What do currants, soil quilts and fencing have in common?

We hope you join us on Saturday, July 11 from noon - 3 pm, for a relaxing picnic in the orchard to find out! Enjoy great food and conversation, celebrate the season, our new orchard fence that came together from a 2014 crowdfunding effort, and join us for some stories and stitches as we weave together the great soil quilt.

RSVP Today!

participants sampling fruit pies during Currant Events Fest

Highlights: an orchard tour,  picnic lunch, tips for using currants and other local fruits, and the opportunity to relax and enjoy great food and conversation. You will leave the day with fruit resources/recipes and the opportunity to participate in the making of a Soil Quilt to be featured during the Fermentation Festival, Farm Art D'Tour this fall.

We will have local fruit creations on hand to sample and a picnic salad to share.
Please plan to bring a vegetarian dish to share (guests included), your own table service, blanket/chair(s). Dress for an outdoor picnic, rain or shine.

Check out our Farm Events Page for more farm happenings.

Black Currant Fool. Photo by Erin Schneider

Black Currant Fool. Photo by Erin Schneider