Farming is a funny thing. Here at Waltham Fields, we farm as a team, within the context of a larger nonprofit organization doing work that goes well beyond vegetable production. The winter is the time for all of us to work together on the big organizational issues that we try to work out in advance of the upcoming growing season: how are the parts of our organization integrated? How do we communicate with one another? How can we support each other, financially, programmatically, and emotionally during the busiest parts of our individual seasons? What is the 'big picture' and the future for our farm operation? Our education programs? Our volunteer program? Our organization overall? There are always more of these conversations than we have time for in the winter, so I always smile a little when people ask us what we do in the off-season.
Organizational conversations merge with spreadsheets and seed catalogs as we plan out the farm for the season. Our fertility plan takes shape at this time of year, as we pore over soil tests and recommendations for each crop, then figure out the most cost-effective and (hopefully) sustainable way to deliver what the crops need. We also spend the late winter and early spring doing maintenance on our tractors and other equipment. Dan and Zannah attended a wonderful workshop on small tractor maintenance up at Moraine Farm this spring, and Dan hit the ground running working on our three older tractors like an expert. As a result, they are running... well, I'd better not say any more about that. One of the hats we wear as farmers, a little like baseball players, is the irrational and superstitious.
We built a high tunnel: Erinn was the main carpenter and project manager, while the rest of us tried our best to follow directions. We pounded posts, measured and re-measured diagonals, bolted bows together and lifted them into place, framed endwalls and finally, on a gusty day in March, skinned the house, lifting Dan and Zannah completely off the ground as the giant piece of plastic floated up and over the bows. Then Erinn seeded greens and radishes for Sprout, our spring fundraiser, and sold a few pounds to local restaurants before clearing the field house to re-plant with a variety of trial crops this week.
As the spring progresses, we become plant whisperers. The greenhouse is the main focus of our activity in March, as we remember how to seed each crop under Erinn's expert guidance and with the help of many volunteers who enjoy the warm, sunny greenhouse during the unpredictable weather of spring. What do the plants want? What's the perfect time to seed them? To pot them up? To harden them off and plant them out? At the same time, we seed spring cover crops and begin to turn the fields, preparing beds for the earliest crops (onions, carrots, and beets) with the disk, the chisel, the drop spreader and the basket weeder. We become experts at farm math: in order to apply 10 pounds of 8.3.3 organic fertilizer to a 200-foot bed, we have to drive the little Kubota in 5th gear with some throttle. Fish emulsion is sprayed on the garlic at a rate of 1 gallon per 45 gallons of water once a week in May, using the Massey Ferguson in turtle 3. Sprayer and spreader calibration, cover crop seeding rates, measuring fields that we've never used before and trying to apply our 200-foot bed system to an irregular polygon -- these are all the kinds of things on farmers' minds in the spring.
Weed control is another thing that has been occupying our minds this spring. Dan has learned to use our Williams spring tine weeder much more effectively on our onions, fava beans, peas, and many other crops, often alternating it with our basket weeder to kill very small weeds, some even before you can see them. We spent $600 on a flame weeder that covers the entire bed top in one pass, cutting the time spent on this critical task (which kills weeds without disturbing the soil to bring up more weed seeds) by 2/3. Sutton set up our field at the Lyman Estate, traditionally a terrible weed problem for us in the hot summer months, a little differently this year and has been working on innovative ways of cultivating them; one day she brought a colinear hoe to the field and hoed the shoulders of the beds from the tractor seat as Erinn and Naomi set out spinach plants on the transplanter behind her. Sutton has also been using her iPhone to keep track of the time we're spending on different tasks for specific crops, a critical component of determining our costs.
Meanwhile, Zannah has been working at our four acres at Gateways Farm in Weston to get acres of beds made, fertilizer applied, biodegradable plastic laid, cover crop turned in, irrigation set up and fences turned on. Memorial Day weekend, she also took on a big new project when three nine-week-old pigs arrived on the farm and Zannah became a livestock farmer. Red Pig, Little Pig and Other Pig will turn and fertilize a fallow field at Gateways for the season, enjoying all the comforts of their Pig Palace and the taste of field peas and buckwheat before they are sent off to market in the fall.
We troubleshoot equipment, seed, weed, water, fertilize, and think through a LOT of logistics -- with three fields, seven tractors, six farmers, one amazing work share, one wonderful spring intern, hundreds of volunteers, forty crops, three trucks, lots of mix-and-match attachments, and never enough hours in a day, this spring has been a four-dimensional puzzle that has challenged us in every way. Bugs and diseases, of which we have apparently every one known to the Massachusetts extension service, are just beginning to make an appearance on the farm to complicate matters further. And then, somewhere around the beginning of June, those rows and beds, fields and trays become something additional: food. Our first few meals of spring greens from the farm remind us why most of us got into this in the first place. With all the hats we wear in the winter and spring, all the processes that we try to manage, at the most fundamental level we are, as all of you are, eaters. Eating is what we love, and sharing the food we grow with others is the best reward for the complexities of spring. Enjoy the harvest.
Amanda, for the farm crew
Photos by Rebekah Carter (2012 - 2013).