Up and Down: A Look Back at 2010

What a roller coaster ride the year 2010 was out on the farm!  Who knew life in the country would be so exciting?   What is the phrase – “the glory of victory and the agony of defeat”? That comes closest to describing this past year.

We started out smug.  The greenhouse was up and the seedlings started out nicely.  The joy of not having seed trays all over the kitchen and living room was sweet.  Perusing the seed catalogs was fun because the possibilities had become possible, not just wishful thinking.  But we all know smug is not attractive, complacent is dangerous and the last week of January 2010 was heart breaking.

The temperature went down to 17 and stayed below freezing for 4 days.  The blue norther was carried in by strong winds that blew our hoop houses apart.  We lost 52 of our 58 citrus trees.  The rest of the planted vegetables, even protected by frost blankets, were lost too.  The agony of defeat. (Honesty compels me to confess that unlike in the movies, I don’t cry pretty: runny nose, stuffed head, hiccups and of course there is the howling and honking.  I scared the dogs.)

In time, we cleaned up and replanted.  The seedlings in the greenhouse had survived and we scrambled for replacements for which we had no backups.  Winter turned to spring and we celebrated our first peach crop.  There were four different varieties of peaches, three of plums and oh heavenly day, the nectarines were a triumph of juicy sweetness. Our daughter married a wonderful man; we acquired a new son.  We had chefs come out to visit and get to know the source of their food.  We had them dig potatoes and help bring in the vegetables and so now they understand our end of the food production business.  And we cooked lunch for them.

Summer brought wonderful tomatoes and an amazing bounty of peppers.  In August, we discovered the hidden and overlooked watermelons under the new citrus trees.  Our screen porch ended up looking like a scene from “Attack of the Body Snatchers”, the pod nursery.  At night it was sort of creepy.

Fall started with the sweetest green beans we have ever grown and wonderful sweet potatoes. Change of season means a welcome change of vegetables and tastes, and as we slipped into winter we snuck in one late crop of yellow zucchini and eggplants that made our Thanksgiving dinner really special.  Family joined us and our niece made her first sweet potato pie by digging her first sweet potatoes: another convert for local and fresh.

Winter rolled in Thanksgiving weekend along with broccoli and cauliflowers and cabbages and five kinds of kale.  And so 2010 came to a splendid end.  And 2011?  January saw potatoes planted, and leeks and onions set out, and the peaches came into bloom.  And now at the beginning of February, sleet and snow and sub freezing weather for 4 days and the peach crop has probably been destroyed.  Agony.  But due to extraordinary effort and uncounted rolls of duck tape, the citrus trees have been protected and are thriving. Joy.  And so begins another year on our hardscrabble farm, just the simple, peaceful life in the country.

2009: A Year in Review

It was written somewhere that people who are not students of the past are doomed to make the same mistakes over and over. From that I would extrapolate that successful organic farmers must fall somewhere between Pulitzer Prize winning historians and Nobel Laureates. Note: I said successful farmers, not neophytes like us. We close out our third year of growing for market and are amazed at how much we have accomplished and how much we have learned.

Looking back over the year we have had an interesting mix of both anticipated harvests and the some quite unexpected success. An abundance of great early spring spinach was the result of hard earned lessons of the previous year. Giving the kitchen over to 17 flats of various squashes to get a jump start yielded an incredible crop of summer and winter beauties. Then the extremely early and unexpectedly hot, dry spring while devastating to tomatoes and peppers, got the onions bulbing and allowed the garlic to develop large wonderful cloves. And the improving garden soil was finally able to grow whopper leeks.

We have had a good share of disasters too, but these always take us by surprise. Our part of the state continued on under severe drought conditions and despite the drip irrigation we installed, the effects were felt deeply. Stressed, unhappy plants just do not produce very well. The only crop that truly prospered under those conditions were the stink bugs (green and brown varieties and some purple from sucking the blackberries), wire worms, leaf footed bugs, grasshoppers, potato beetles, cucumber beetles, cabbage loopers ,fireants and the running ants that ate the figs. I don’t think anyone plants a seed expecting failure. Why anyone without a basically optimistic nature would attempt farming is a mystery. If you really do not believe that you will be able to harvest an edible crop, it would make more sense to go to a casino to throw away your money and skip the hard work.

We, at Knopp Branch Farm, believe the seeds we plant will sprout and bear fruit. Not only will we feed our family, but the fruits and vegetables will be so wonderful, people will want them enough to actually pay us for them. That is a real kick!

Looking back at 2009, what have we learned? We will never again use alfalfa hay as a mulch. The resulting plagues of blister bugs and click beetles were positively biblical. We will not crowd the tomatoes and we will never, ever plant sweet potatoes among okra. And the first sign of opossum or raccoon in the melon patch will trigger an all out total war. No period of negotiation, no attempt at appeasement, no search for compromise. We will treat vermin like vermin: rabbit stew and roasted squirrel to be part of the spoils of war.

Farming is not an avocation to be judged worthwhile based solely on a balance sheet. Living on the land and building a sustainable business model is as much of a lifestyle choice as it is a financial investment. We intend to make this work for our family. While we are clawing our way out of the red zone and into the black, you will be seeing Knopp Branch Farm at the market more often in this New Year. We are very excited about the variety of vegetables we have growing and the ones for which we have started the seed trays in the well house and the new greenhouse, not the kitchen, this season. Already that represents an incredible leap forward. We really believe wonderful things are going to be happening this coming year on our hard scrabble farm.

 

Why We Plant What We Do

When the children were small and I was a stay-at-home mom, cooking dinner every night (yes, it was another era), the challenge to provide a variety of meals was daunting. To cook something that my husband would enjoy and the children wouldn’t complain about was a daily battle. We didn’t do fast food or takeout or meals from boxes. I would cook big batches (as my mother and mother-in-law taught me) and freeze dinner-sized portions and then incorporate the rest into leftovers with additions. We ate cheap, but we also ate fresh for the most part. We had turned the backyard into 14 raised beds and had fruit trees in the yard.

But there were times, dark times, when I was tired of my own cooking – sick to death of all the dishes in my repertoire and completely uninspired by every recipe in the no-picture cookbooks I owned.

That is when, in desperation and to the mortification of my children, I would accost strangers in the grocery store and ask what they were doing for their dinner. Some people responded in a surly fashion. Couldn’t be bothered. One memorable older woman thought I was begging for the children in the grocery cart and offered me cash to help me feed my kids. Tempting as that money was, I explained I just wanted inspiration. She was generous with that too. I found those the most enthusiastic about sharing their menus were people I’d meet in the produce department. What is it about fresh vegetables?

Now, we plant what we want to eat ourselves. Because more and more we eat only seasonal, fresh vegetables, each ripening crop is much anticipated. But there comes a time when transplants are set out, seed is sown and sprouting, and there are still some empty beds. What more to plant?

I go back to accosting strangers – at the Farmers Market now – and ask what they would like to eat. The chefs are a great source of inspiration. But best of all are the regular folks who would just like to taste the fresh vegetables and fruit varieties of their memories. That’s how we came to plant Delicata squashes for the first time, and Black Diamond watermelons, and small French carrots. By sharing their yearning for a favored taste, Market customers help us discover new and wonderful treats.



 
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