Spring is supposedly around the corner but all of this rain is making us feel somewhat water-logged. Regardless, we’re pushing on and have begun seeding our first trays. We’ve already planted over 10,000 seeds and they are starting to pop! It’s nice to see some signs of life again.
That being said, we need a field crew to help us plant, care for, and harvest this future bounty. Our Field Crew is instrumental in growing all annual and perennial crops including planting, watering, weeding, and harvesting. This is a part-time seasonal position, 6 hours per day Monday through Thursday with occasional weekend work. The work schedule may extend into Friday, depending on the needs of the farm. The full job description is here.
These positions (we’re hiring two) are ideal for someone with at least one season’s experience in market vegetable production. As a bonus, compensation includes farm-fresh produce and eggs, when available. So if you want to work hard and eat well, then this is the place for you.
It’s officially cucumber-tomato-summer squash-zucchini season. These trusty plants will continue to deliver for another few weeks. And yes, we know that it’s possible to tire of this wonderful summer fare so we try not to overwhelm our CSA members week after week. Speaking of CSA, we’ve extended the deadline to August 14th to sign up for the next 4-week session.
This year we’re trying our hand at growing pickling cucumbers. They can be found in our webstore (along with our ever popular tomato sampler). Here’s a recipe for super easy pickles; no canning required.
It was a good great first season. I didn’t have as much time to blog about the experience as I would have liked; although, I probably wrote a dozen or more posts in my head that didn’t materialize for the world to read. There’s always next year. Which also happened to be my working mantra for much of the season.
More cucumbers, strawberries, peas, and carrots? There’s always next year.
I really should have done more canning and freezing. I’ll be more organized next year.
Darn it, I made some mistakes in preparing the bees for the winter. Next year will be different.
We should have planted more of this, less of that, started earlier/later, done things differently, blogged more, done more research, laughed at ourselves more, soaked up the warm starry nights and reflected in amazement that our beautiful fields fed more than 70 households in any given week. That’s all going on the To Do list for next year.
I still pause when I realize that “we did it.” We, non-farmers, became farmers overnight – not fully appreciating all of the challenges that would be thrown our way. But week after week we managed to fill those CSA boxes, deliver them, and fill our wholesale orders. It certainly wasn’t perfect. Mistakes were made, as some would say, but nothing insurmountable and certainly nothing that we can’t correct next year.
On the other hand, everything was perfect.
We accomplished most of our objectives, the vast majority of our CSA members were satisfied, our children ate copious amounts of vegetables, and we got our foot in the door with some local restaurants. It affirms our crazy decision to become farmers when a celebrated local chef says that our onions are the cleanest and best he’s ever seen from a local farm. It’s exciting to get emails from chefs asking to purchase all of our broccoli, all the beets, the whole crop of brussels sprouts, all the chard, ALL OF IT. We’re still waiting for someone to request all of the cabbage, which is pretty much the last crop standing after the recent weeks of freezing temps. One can hope.
With this season still petering out, our sights are already set on next year. Since we’ve mastered the vegetables (kidding, ha!) it’s time to move on to animals. Two cows, 200 195 chicks, and three hives of bees are now permanent residents at Skylight Farms. Five barn cats will arrive later this week to form our rodent control team. What could possibly go wrong with so many animals in our care, a growing customer base, and two toddlers to take care of?
Our season definitely hit its crescendo over the last couple of weeks. It’s the beginning of September and we’re still harvesting luscious, mouth-watering strawberries, tomatoes, and melon. Sadly, those days are coming to an end. Somewhat abruptly too, I’m afraid.
A couple of weeks ago, we could barely keep up with the tomatoes and were scrambling to figure out ways to sell them. It was exciting to see the new varieties ripening each week: blush, black krim, brandywine, arbason, cherry, and belstar. Even more exciting to taste them, straight off the vine. I’ve never been a tomato-lover but these beauties converted me. Some were bursting with so much juice and sugar that they were literally exploding in the greenhouse.
And now, two entire rows of tomatoes in our field – 400 feet – are looking like a sorry mess. They came down with late season blight, which spread almost overnight. In an effort to save the greenhouse tomatoes and control the disease, all of the field tomato vines have been cut down. I cringe every time I walk past them. The gnarled vines are starting to turn black and the carpet of cherry tomatoes on the ground just makes me sad.
Likewise, the perfume-y, sugary-sweet melons that we’ve enjoyed daily for the last few weeks are afflicted by powdery mildew. In an effort to save them, the crew harvested almost 300 melons in a day. (So if you’re reading this and want a melon, call me.) Looking down the row where the melons have been discarded, it’s complete melon destruction. Melons are littered everywhere, over-ripe, split open, and swarming with flies. Not exactly the idyllic farm scene of just a few weeks ago.
On the bright side, many have tried and failed to grow both tomatoes and melons on this side of the Cascades but we managed to produce hundreds, nay thousands, of pounds of spectacular fruit. The kind that makes you swoon and shed tears of joy because it’s Just. That. Good.
Ah, to be an organic farmer. There’s only so much you can do to combat diseases. This is why organic, heirloom tomatoes cost $7 per pound.
Then again there’s nothing you can do to prevent Mother Nature from sticking her nose into your business. Take, for example, the 80 foot tree that decided to come crashing down across our driveway on Tuesday night, smashing through our fence and taking out some kale and strawberries. As if that weren’t inconvenient enough, the tree also knocked out the power, phone, and DSL service on the night before our CSA deliveries. Thankfully, Snohomish PUD was out in a jiffy and had the power restored by the wee hours of the morning.
When this kind of stuff gets me down, I like to look at the gallery of photos that I’ve compiled thus far into our season. It’s a good reminder that we’ve grown some incredible stuff, despite our recent losses. Do seasoned farmers just get used to this kind of stuff? I hope that I never get so hardened that I stop wincing at the sight of spoiled tomatoes lying scattered in the field.
One of Griffin’s favorite books is The Very Hungry Caterpillar. He’s memorized the story and is always excited to see the beautiful butterfly on the last page. As the book suggests, caterpillars are voracious eaters. We have some not-so-cute ones living and feasting in our fields: cutworms*. They are so ugly that I’m not even going to post a picture here. You can see a pic on our Facebook page or just google “cutworm” and you’ll find plenty of pics. Personally, I’ve never liked caterpillars. Not even the fuzzy ones that everyone seems to think are so “cute”. They just give me the creeps. Now I have another reason to dislike them.
If the book were about these critters, I would re-write the story thus:
On Monday, the cutworm ate through one lettuce. But he was still hungry.
On Tuesday, the cutworm ate through two lettuces. But he was still hungry.
On Wednesday, the cutworm ate through three lettuces. But he was still hungry.
On Thursday, the cutworm ate through four lettuces. But he was still hungry.
On Friday, the cutworm ate through more lettuces than he really should have. And the farmers got quite mad at the little twerp.
Luckily the damage has been confined mostly to the flashy troutback lettuce. It’s sad to lose them but I suppose it’s all part of organic farming. Pests will inevitably attack your vegetables. In some years the damage will be minimal and in others, it won’t. It is interesting to see how they favor a specific vegetable and don’t even touch the rows of succulent greens right next door. It supports the argument for planting a diverse mix of vegetables and changing the mix periodically so that the pests don’t get too fat and happy on a single variety. I suppose we can sacrifice one crop for the good of the rest.
For now we’re not grieving the losses too much because we had more seedlings in the greenhouse that we could use to replace the fallen lettuces. But so the battle begins.
* Cutworms are indeed caterpillars. They are the larvae of moths.
It’s starting to look a lot greener at Skylight Farms. The potatoes and onions are going gang busters. Lots of leafy greens are popping up.
The tomatoes and peppers are doing well in the greenhouse too.
And a lot of the seedlings are thriving. They’re practically jumping out of the trays, ready to be planted. Unfortunately some of the seedling got fried during the unusual warm spell that we had a few weeks ago. But only the strong survive, right?
And just because… I can’t resist sharing a photo of some very happy cows.
A recent exchange with a friend who posted a Smithsonian magazine article about the health benefits of playing in the dirt got me thinking about the contrasts between life in the city and at the farm.
When we decided to start the farm, we agreed to continue living in Seattle. Jonathan commutes every day and I join him about once a week. The base of support for me and the kids is in Seattle so I was reluctant to pick up and move even though it meant that Jonathan would spend about 2 hours per day commuting. Most days I’m glad we stayed in the city. We’re able to meet friends at the park and for play dates at a moment’s notice, the library is nearby and I simply love the funky shops and restaurants in my neighborhood.
But life in the city with two small, curious children who indiscriminately touch and taste just about every inanimate object they can get their hands on, means that I spend a good portion of the day wiping and washing and putting things out of their reach. I’m constantly on the watch for traffic, sharp objects, and other dangers. I also find myself repeating “don’t do that”, “don’t touch that”, “that’s not yours”, and “not in your mouth” all day long – which becomes tedious after awhile. In an effort to avoid illness, we wash our hands a lot and I use disinfecting wipes to clean the handles of shopping carts and public high chairs. Call it overkill. I call it my own personal war against the common cold.
At the farm, things are different. There’s a lot less “no.” Our rules tend to relax and Griffin can explore, dig in the dirt, pick up sticks, and throw rocks without us constantly trying to redirect him. He’s content picking dandelions or looking for bees, slugs, and worms. With a 20 acre playground sitting on the banks of a river, I love to hear him chatter about going fishing or helping Papa in the greenhouse, and seeing the pure joy he gets from jumping in puddles or stomping on clumps of dirt. I’m sure that our 9 month old daughter, Caia, who just started crawling, will join him in no time.
With this stretch of nice weather, we’ve enjoyed tromping around in the fields with the kids. In fact we can go for hours (gasp!) without washing hands or wiping faces. No disinfecting wipes here! But I’m okay with it because I believe that all the exposure to dirt, weeds, grass, and nature will bolster my kids’ immune systems in the long run.
As a farmer, you just have to embrace the dirt. Sometimes figuratively, sometimes literally.
Under most circumstances, I’m calm and keep my composure. I’ve climbed long multi-pitch routes up granite faces, skied down steep couloirs, and made speeches in front of hundreds of people. I’ve never been afraid of needles and I gave birth to my first child without the benefit of drugs. The prospect of a bee sting or two didn’t really phase me. Naturally I thought that I’d be able to keep my cool in the presence of 30,000 bees. And for the most part, I did.
I had done my homework, so I thought. I took a few classes, had my reference books on hand, read some articles online, and attended a live installation of bees into their hive. I was prepared! In the days leading up to “Bee Day” I carefully prepared the hives by painting and stenciling them to identify each hive, made a few gallons of sugar syrup, and was outfitted with the most fashionable bee suit on the market. (Kidding: much to my chagrin, it is impossible to look fashionable in a bee suit.)
The bees arrived on Saturday. They spent a couple of days in the garage and by Monday they seemed desperate to get out of the bee cage. I was both excited and nervous to release them. Taking the instructor’s advice, I decided to go ahead and install my bees bare-handed. I started with the carniolans – a pretty grey and black striped bee that has a reputation for being docile. Right off the bat I discovered my first rookie mistake: I had forgotten my utility knife so I couldn’t pop the cork out of the queen’s cage and replace it with the marshmallow. That threw me off my game a bit. Luckily, Jonathan was on hand filming and taking photos. He always carries a pocket knife so I was able to improvise. Regaining composure, I successfully installed the first queen cage. Taking a deep breath I thought, “Okay, this isn’t so hard. All I have to do is shake 10,000 bees into the hive.”
It’s hard to describe the kind of adrenaline rush that you get when hundreds of bees fly up around your head, crawl all over your hands, and are pretty pissed off that you’re shaking and banging on the box that has served as their home for the last few days. In my head I was thinking “they’re supposed to just fall out of the box into the hive, just like in the demonstration” and “deep breaths, DEEP breaths, DEEP BREATHS”.
Note to self: bees don’t just fall out of the box even with a great amount of vigorous shaking and banging. You’re supposed to be able to get every last bee out of the cage, but as my nerves started to get the best of me I decided to leave the last few dozen bees in the cage and let them escape on their own. I placed the frames back into the hive, and moved on to the next one.
Italians. I just love that these gals are called Italians. It seems like they should be friendly and jovial, like most of the Italians I’ve ever met. I was determined for the second installation to go better than the first. It started out fine; transferring the queen cage was a cinch and the bees seemed to generally cooperate when I started dumping them into the hive. But then OUCH! I got stung on the palm of my right hand while banging on box. With about a third of the bees still in the cage I had no choice but to press on. Then OUCH! Another sting, this time on my left thigh. Second rookie error: do not wear skinny jeans while installing bees.
With hand and leg throbbing, I gritted my teeth and just kept going. The bees were not going to get the best of me. And then OUCH! A third sting in my right knee. With almost all the bees out of the cage, I took a few more deep breaths and called it good. I could feel myself shaking a bit, and momentarily considered taking a break before installing the third hive.
Having gotten this far, it seemed better to just keep going. Part of me feared that I might lose my nerve and leave the third group to perish in their cage. I couldn’t allow that to happen. Jonathan stayed for moral support and despite a few hiccups the final installation went smoothly. I wore a glove on my left hand for a little added protection and was able to get just about every last bee out of the cage. Victory!
The whole process took about an hour. Not bad for a first effort. I’m proud that no tears were shed and that I largely kept my cool. I’m stoked to call myself a beekeeper, stings and all.