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learning to farm

March 5, 2011

this is a repost of my guest spot in the blue house farm CSA newsletter last july. as i embark on my next season of farming, it’s good to reflect on all i learned in the past year. the original post appears here.

bringing in the cabbage harvest (photo courtesy val garrison)

A friend recently asked me, “So when you finish this apprenticeship, do you get a certificate of some sort, or is it just something to add to your résumé?” I’ve known all along I’m not here to get a piece of paper, but her question prompted me to articulate why the experience of working at Blue House Farm has deeper value to me. I’m here to learn and practice my chosen vocation – growing good food, really well, in a way that honors the growers, the eaters and the earth. Every day of work I gain more knowledge and experience that will help me become a successful organic farmer.

One of the highlights at the beginning of my apprenticeship in April was learning to drive the tractor. With many acres of cover crops to mow and turn under this spring, Ned and Ryan let Brooke and me take turns operating the mower and spader. After I got the basics of safety and what all the levers and pedals do, I had to figure out how to drive in a straight line (hard!) and begin and end each row in the same place as the last one (even harder!) I was thrilled to see how in a few hours I could transform a field of shoulder-high cover crop into cultivated soil that would soon be filled with vegetables. It would have taken weeks to do the same work by hand.

As the cover crops were incorporated and beds were shaped, we started doing a lot of planting. I’ve been gardening for years, so I thought I knew how to sow seeds and transplant seedlings, but everything is different at production scale. I’ve learned how to pull six seedlings out of a flat at one time, eyeball the 8-, 12-, 18-, and 24- inch spacings appropriate to each crop as I drop a plant on the bed every few seconds, and quickly make a hole, place the seedling in it, firmly cover the root ball with soil, and move on to the next one without ever letting go of my trowel. Early in the season Ryan gave us lots of practice with the mechanical transplanter putting in those 2.5 acres of tomatoes, and last month Rachel showed me how to use the vacuüm seeder in the greenhouse, which allowed me to sow 9600 kale, collard, broccoli, cabbage and cauliflower seeds in the space of one Saturday morning.

Since late May, a lot of our time has been spent harvesting. As each new crop comes on, I get to learn how to harvest, wash and pack it so our CSA members and market customers get the freshest, tastiest and most beautiful produce: pull the cotyledons off the radishes; dunk the lettuce in cold water ASAP; don’t dunk the cabbage (it soaks up too much water) – spray it off instead; make sure the fava pods are filled-out, not just big; cut the ends off the chard leaves after you twirl them into a bunch; wait until the cauliflower starts to emerge from its nest of leaves before you cut it.

This month, I get to be in charge of the drip irrigation. I have to stay on top of the schedule to make sure all the beds get watered 2 or 3 times per week, monitor the soil moisture, check that the water pressure is neither too high nor too low, and walk all the lines of black plastic T-tape to make sure they’re close to the plant roots and to fix the leaks that invariably pop up. A roll of electrical tape now joins the Swiss army knife I always carry, and I’m even more thankful for the hot days when the soaking I often get fixing leaks dries quickly.

At the beginning of every week, either Ned or Ryan takes an hour to do a field walk with Brooke and me. As we walk around the farm, we talk about what needs to be done, when crops will be finished and what goes in the ground next, and have a chance to ask more in-depth questions about farm management. This week we talked about which crops to rotate with strawberries, and what we’re going to plant where the first round of kale, chard and broccoli now stand, to ensure a continuous harvest through the rest of this season and into the next. I enjoy almost every moment of my time here. And I’m looking forward to applying all I learn to wherever I end up farming next.

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