This article is the first in a year-long series by Paula Carli about the seasons on her and her husband Frank’s Windmill Farm in Gridley. The farm sells its produce through a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) system, in which people from Gridley, Paradise, and Chico subscribe to receive weekly boxes of vegetables, fruits, flowers, and value-added products like jams and baked goods from June through October. The Carlis also offer their produce at a small stand on the street side of their farm.
Hello from Windmill Farm.
The difficult part about telling people what we do and how we run our small CSA farm over a year’s time is there is so much to tell you and right now, August as I write, we are at the peak of the season! Now growing in our fields are cucumbers, peppers, yard-long Asian beans, Kentucky Wonder beans, several varieties of squash, tomatoes, Swiss chard, potatoes; watermelon, cantaloupe; rows of flowers; peaches, plums, apples, nectarines, pears, pluots, and figs. Today is forecast to be near one hundred degrees, and the last few weeks have been much hotter and humid. Some of our crops don’t mind the extreme heat, but others are showing signs of stress. The peppers along with some of the melons have burn spots. So yesterday morning we hung up some shade cloth all across the pepper rows. Any weeding and picking has to be done in the morning between six and eleven; after that it has been just too hot. I actually bought myself a few inexpensive beach umbrellas, and I stick them in the ground wherever I am weeding or picking to give me some shade.
A week before the heat started, we had lots of rain. I was originally happy about the rain, but I had no idea what devastation it meant. The crop of Blenheim apricots was not quite ripe before the rain, and after the rain the fruit started to split, so most of our apricot harvest was ruined. The nectarine and plum trees were also full with large, unripe fruit. After the rain, the high temperatures started and we lost about nine trees—they split in half or huge limbs just broke off. It was a matter of timing: rain, heat, and large, almost ripe fruit all at once. The trees sucked up the moisture and so did the fruits. They became just too heavy for the trunks to bear the weight. We had many limbs propped up with wood, but it all happened so fast. It has really been a blow to us to lose not only a great deal of our fruit, but the trees too.
Still, the tomatoes are doing well, and the cucumbers are spreading and yielding so fast, we have to pick them every day or they get just too big. We grow about five varieties of tomato so I will pick the very large slicing tomatoes one day and all the cherry tomatoes the next day.
My husband Frank and I were involved in ranching and growing vegetables most of the thirty-five years we lived in Nevada City. While raising our family, Frank and I had our day jobs, with the ranching and garden duties secondary. After retiring and selling our home, we decided to farm as our number one priority and to become as self sufficient people as we could be. We were not young but still healthy, strong, motivated, and very interested in growing food full time. We always loved farming and wanted to find a place where we could not only raise vegetables, but have stone fruit and citrus trees. If you have been to Nevada County, you know it is a beautiful place. But in a lot of locations, the soil was perfect for finding gold in the 1850s, but for growing vegetables, not really. At least where we lived, we had to bring in truckloads of soil and have raised beds to have a decent yard and gardens.
Our plan was to find a place to start a sustainable farm using only good land stewardship practices that encouraged wildlife. We wanted to restrict use of pesticides and utilize natural pest control on healthy plants, relying on good insects and companion plantings; we wanted bird boxes all around our crops; and we wanted to rotate crops so as not to deplete the soil nutrients. We found our current farm in Gridley after a short detour in Shasta County. The detour took us to Manton, an old farmhouse on good land, where we planted lavender fields and vegetables and tended existing mature apple trees. Unfortunately, a forest fire burned through the area, took our home, and scorched the land—changing our long-range life plans.
Searching for other land where we could farm, we found an ideal place with almost perfect soil conditions right here in Northern California in the small friendly community of Gridley. It not only has the best soil; there is ample and even abundant water. The farmhouse and property had a kiwi orchard on it, which we removed to plant over 250 new fruit trees; and we allocated more than two acres for vegetable and flower crops. Best part for us—remember we came from Nevada County—is the land is flat and doesn’t have rocks. Heavenly!
The first two years of farming, we sold our produce through the Gridley, Colusa, and Orland farmers’ markets. I had a lot to learn about marketing produce, how and when to pick fruits; how to store; how to pack; how to go through the process of certification. The farmers’ market experience aided us greatly, and I met people who have since become our best friends.
Yet I felt selling at various farmers’ markets was so impersonal. I wanted to tell our story about our crops, how we grow them, our sustainable practices. I guess I wanted to sell our healthy food to people who appreciate and are interested enough to know where and how it was grown. Our CSA business started in 2008 after a friend suggested it to me. We had a goal of a maximum of ten people. I kept telling my friend, nobody will sign up. She would say, just you wait. She was right: if you build it, people will come. We got our members and had a waiting list of another fifteen people. Our membership numbers have increased each year as we have learned how better to manage our production by timing our plantings and better organizing our time. Because Frank and I do all the farming without hiring any help, we limit ourselves to twenty to twenty-five memberships.
We are asked all the time how we manage to get it all done, just the two of us, and what it takes to have a farm. As weird as it may sound, the most important skills that I use right now are organizing and good office skills.
Organizing skills are almost as important as being a good farmer/gardener/rancher/orchardist. Frank and I may not be typical farmers in age, as we are senior citizens, but it doesn’t mean we haven’t embraced the new technology that can aid us in our farm. Luckily for us, we both had careers that required us to be good at organizing. Frank was a contractor and I was an administrator in the court system. But those skills needed some improvements to keep up with the high paced demands of communicating well with customers and keeping records on those customers. We both now have our CSA member information on our smart phones. Because we deliver our baskets directly to our members’ homes or wherever they wish it to be delivered, that information may change from week to week. We communicate via text or email. Of course they can telephone me, but sometimes I am at the top of a tree picking fruit and just can’t answer the phone. Most CSA farms have drop off spots and times. I know that is much easier and probably smarter for the farmers. But our plan was to still keep our business personal and connect to our members as we deliver. As changes happen to schedules, I document those on the delivery list of my smart phone, and I make notes there (e.g., check under bench seat; empty basket in garage, etc).
When we envisioned having a farming business, good office skills never entered our minds either. We soon learned we need them. When we first started farming, I had basic information related to our personal life stored just like everyone else at the time, in folders of paperwork. Our concentration was on growing produce, and it wasn’t until I actually started selling items at the farmers’ markets that I realized that I should be keeping track of not only money being made, but all the expenses along the way. One day, while waiting in line at my local bank, I started chatting with the woman next to me about farming. Her family had a kiwi business for many years, and we talked about the pros and cons of farming. I mentioned I didn’t know much about what records to keep, and she suggested I speak to her local accountant at a firm that specializes in farming. Her referral was the best advice I have ever received! Frank and I met with him; he set us up with guidelines and some suggested procedures, all revolving around keeping good, current, and accessible records.
As a result, I now use my computer every day of my farm life. I keep a calendar to track what I planted and when I planted; I keep a list of my CSA members, whether they want eggs, whether they want flowers, whether they want to purchase beef from Douglass Ranch, in Orland, our sole provider of fresh, grass fed, no hormone beef to our CSA subscribers. And then there is the $$$ side of the business. I now keep good records of what people pay, making sure I also keep track of how much is for the value-added items. And when I buy something for the farm, I record it as well. The record keeping processes take time, but they sure help me at the end of the year when I need to file my taxes or evaluate how parts of our farming business are doing, for example, flower or egg sales. This year, under California’s new Homemade Food Act, we obtained the permit to prepare and sell food made in our home kitchen, and that permit number has to be placed on our value-added products, such as jellies and jams. Where is that number? I have it in a folder in my computer. The more I keep the information together, up to date, and easily accessible, the rest of my farming has been easier—well, somewhat.
Frank and I can easily get distracted, so each week, particularly in our busy season, we make lists. There is the “to do now” list and the “to do later” list. “Do later” usually refers to general maintenance of equipment or repairs. The “do now” list means just that, do it now, such as plant the succession row of beans; or fix the broken drip tape on the tomatoes; or wash the delivery boxes. We delegate out what needs to be done by putting our “initial” by that job. Frank would rather be on the tractor than, say, wash totes. My “P” initial is on the list to take care of those totes today. Because food safety is paramount with us, the totes we use to deliver weekly vegetables to our subscribers—colored plastic containers with air holes to keep the produce fresh and handles for easy transport—get washed each week before re-packing. And now, it’s time for me to go out to my sorting shed and wash all those CSA totes for our next delivery.
From our Windmill CSA Farm, until next season.
In her spare time—when not farming; giving canning, sewing, or cooking classes at the farm; or readying and delivering produce to her CSA customers—Paula writes a weekly blog about Windmill Farm. Read it at windmillfarmofgridley.blogspot.com. Paula also offers frequent updates on the farm’s Facebook page. Windmill Farm—and farmstand—is located at 535 Obermeyer Avenue in Gridley.