The Changeable Season
Fall brings a sense of relief on Pyramid Farms, relief from the long days, the heat and its resulting sweat, the pressing planting schedule, the hustle and bustle, the it-needs-to-get-done-now-or-all-is-lost feeling. The days shorten and can be a bit cooler, the nights become much cooler and longer. Fall means some breathing room for the head farmers and our crew, a bit of space for relaxation and a bit of time for fun. Farmers’ market crowds thicken and our tables fill to overflowing, loaded with the veggies of both summer and fall, the best season for abundance. Fall leaves a bit more time for cooking, instead of just making tomato sandwiches for dinner. Fall is a glorious season, because it means we all can let ourselves relax a bit, not too much, but just enough to regain some sleep and sanity after the long days of summer.
END OF PLANTING
September in the northstate can be like summer and fall all wrapped up into one day. Or it can be like summer for a week, then fall, then back again. Let’s just say it’s changeable, and towards the warm side at that. At sunrise the temperature can seem very crisp in relation to August. I often start the day in long pants and a flannel shirt and quickly switch to shorts and ditch the flannel. For our farm, September brings the planting season close to the end. The shorter days and cooler nights and mornings mean that if I haven’t planted it that first week, the crop won’t perform well. The slowdown in the planting schedule is a sweet relief to all. Not having planting to do, with all the preparation required, means I’m free to work on other projects (or just procrastinate on other projects).
The first ten years I farmed, I spent a great deal of time sealing my double wide’s roof against the on-coming rains, in hopes to keep it from leaking. Gladly a new roof freed me to do other stuff. Farms tend to always have something to be built or repaired. We started with a blank slate here in 1998, and we have built quite the farm compound, shops with outdoor storage, employee housing, greenhouses, walk-in coolers, sheds, fenced pasture, goat and chicken housing. I didn’t build it all, but then again my strong suit is plants. I can’t build anything level and square without help. My favorite way to build things these days is to pay someone talented to do it. Yup, not very DIY of me, but I’m a farmer, not a carpenter. For the most part, infrastructure is now complete here, which helps me reclaim some quality of life in the fall.
Most flowers really don’t like hot blazing sun, so they enjoy September much more than August.
Transition is one word that describes life on Pyramid Farms in September. The crops we are harvesting transition. Kohlrabi makes its first appearance, and I so love its crunchy, mild sweetness in a slaw or as a vehicle for dips. Or I just peel it and eat it like an apple. Our fall run of kale hits its stride; its flavor mellows a bit with the cooler temperatures. And sweet, juicy, tender cabbage starts to come to market. The flowers begin to recover from the onslaught of summer heat and put on late flushes of colorful blooms. Most flowers really don’t like hot blazing sun and so enjoy September much more than August. Sweet potatoes, after being planted in May and grown all summer, ready to be dug and brought to market, fill our tables to overflowing to replace crops that are done for the summer. Yes, there are still tomatoes, sweet peppers, eggplant, basil, and cilantro that we continue to harvest, until frost comes and takes them or they have simply given all they can give. These are some of my favorite veggies to eat, so I relish the long harvest our climate provides. It’s also time to make sure I have put up our tomato sauce and peppers for the months without them available fresh.
September is one month that seems to go by very quickly on this farm. Maybe it’s the slightly lessened workload? Maybe it’s more naps or starting a bit later in the morning? Or it might be the few days Lisa and I escape to the coast to get off the farm and celebrate our anniversary. It’s a highly anticipated month and provides a bit of resting room and recharging time.
Climate change seems to have made our Octobers much more variable and extreme. They have definitely trended warmer and drier, but also the last two years we’ve seen our earliest frosts by far, last year October 11 and in 2019 mid-October. Those days ended a lot of our crops.
October brings garlic planting time, so their beds have their previous occupants mowed down, tilled in, watered, then tilled again, while adding needed fertilizer. Then I select the biggest heads from the year, and the crew gets to cracking cloves apart and planting. Garlic is the longest days-to-maturity crop we grow, planted in the start of October and harvested mid-June. I relish it getting in the ground, as it means the planting schedule is done and my tractor time is spent putting beds to sleep for the winter.
October usually brings much more fall-like weather, but the weather is still changeable. Climate change seems to have made our Octobers much more variable and extreme. They have definitely trended warmer and drier, but also the last two years we’ve seen our earliest frosts by far, last year October 11 and in 2019 mid-October. Those days ended a lot of our crops. Used to be Halloween marked the arrival of first frost here. We are located in a low spot, a hollow, so cold air settles on our farm, which frequently sees a frost when other area farms do not, and harder frosts than the surrounding areas too. (The cooler hollow here is nice in the heat of summer, though, as we are also a few degrees cooler in summer.) Early frost is especially inconvenient when it arrives on Thursday night, as it did last year, so all the sweet potatoes had to be dug that Friday, lest they get ruined. And a Thursday night frost doesn’t cancel a Saturday morning farmers’ market and all its prep required on Friday.
If we haven’t started harvesting our butternut or delicata winter squash, October sees that done and put in storage for sales throughout the fall and winter. A hard frost will damage both crops and make them unsellable. We still cut broccoli, and orange cauliflower starts to appear, surprising some who didn’t know it came in such a color. The other vegetable to grace our market tables in later fall is Romanesco, which also shocked farmers’ market customers years ago, with its light green spirals that go from the tiniest part to the shape of the whole head. It’s also super delicious, with a buttery and nutty flavor, definitely a conversations piece and one of my favorite vegetables.
Fall remains very busy on the flower front. Fall weddings and events come along, with Lisa hoping to have enough flowers for those and her markets. Many flowers need to be planted as it cools, to overwinter until spring brings them awake. Anemone and ranunculus bulbs go in, snapdragons, lisianthus, stock and poppies are transplanted. New perennials are seeded and existing ones transplanted, some divided to maintain their vigor. Summer annual beds have their tired and worn out plants removed by a tired and worn out farmer. The dahlias go through a review, as only those that produce beautiful and long lasting blooms stay on the farm. Over the years, Lisa has tested hundreds of varieties; many have visited the farm, only a few have stayed. Late fall is the time to start to ready the dahlias for winter sleep, and some need to be dug up and divided, while others need to be cut to the ground, mulched, and covered for the oncoming winter. Flower planting season lasts much longer than veggie season, so October sees lots of bed preparation for planting in winter.
The last time we increased our carrot price, I watched customers shun our carrots for others in the market and lost about 25% of our sales. I’m hoping that doesn’t happen this time.
SUSTAINING EMPLOYEES—AND THE FARM
October is otherwise a bit easier on the crew here. Their days start later, there isn’t as much weeding to be done, and harvest pressure lessens some. And their seemingly never-ending task of transplanting is done. Yes, there are lots of messy cleanup tasks to be done, but those go quickly. I sometimes remind them when they are pulling up stinking rotting pepper plants that those pepper plants helped to cover their payroll and that farm work has its inglorious side.
Farming can seem glamorous to the un-initiated, but it’s a lot of grueling, tedious, repetitive, dirty work, in all kinds of weather. When their peers are sleeping in and going to brunch on Saturdays, they are loading the truck at 5am and working market ‘til 2. Many young people have worked with us here, but not many stay working in agriculture for long. A few have moved on to work on other farms or even start their own, but most move on to another career path. By October, I start taking resumes and interviewing next year’s prospective hires, to replace employees who are moving on. I love it when they stay for multiple years, as I know what they are made of, can handle the challenging work, and aren’t going to quit during the first heat wave.
Our crew are employees. We don’t have interns working for room and board and a small stipend. Their wages and free housing, free vegetables, and trading at market equate to them making over $15/hour. And when you figure in unemployment taxes and workers compensation insurance, my labor costs include another 18% of their wages. They work really hard and deserve even more. (Please don’t get me wrong here. I fully support that no one should work a full time job without earning a living wage and having healthcare and affordable housing; for a middle aged business owner, I’m as progressive as they get.) Our farm employees have been receiving raises every year and are due another $1/hour in January. Our prices at farmers’ market have not increased for years, and our wholesale prices are also stagnant. The cost of supplies goes up every year; every part of our operation sees higher costs. The last few years, I’ve sought to balance rising costs with greater efficiency. I’ve been fine tuning the crop selection, and the bottom line has stayed steady. I make a decent living for a small vegetable farmer. Lisa is still working out the kinks, so she makes about $10/hour.
But, no, I’m not shopping for farmland in Mexico or anywhere else. We are going to continue to run the farm the best we can, adjusting and tweaking where we can to keep a sustainable profit line, but it’s going to take our customers’ understanding that tasty, fresh, local vegetables are going to cost them more.
But now there isn’t much fine tuning I can do, so I’m going to have to raise some prices. Carrots are the most labor intensive crop we grow: many many hours are spent weeding them, and then harvest is again labor intensive, then, of course, washing them, and then bagging them at market adds more labor, which pretty much keeps one employee at market busy the whole time. The last time we increased our carrot price, I watched customers shun our carrots for others in the market and lost about 25% of our sales. I’m hoping that doesn’t happen this time. I do understand people are used to cheap food, but I have to keep growing carrots profitably or I have to stop growing them.
Our farm couldn’t exist without you customers; we need you more than you need us. Half our sales of vegetables are done at the farmer’ market, yet selling at market carries a lot of expenses. Market takes two full employees and Lisa and me, so it’s labor intensive and takes a lot of effort. The other half of our sales are direct to stores, which brings along with it much lower prices received. California has seen a lot of its large vegetable farms go out of business, and wholesale prices have been stagnant for many years, due to a huge increase in vegetables imported from Mexico. Some California farm families have started operations in Mexico to keep the family working in agriculture.
But, no, I’m not shopping for farmland in Mexico or anywhere else. We are going to continue to run the farm the best we can, adjusting and tweaking where we can to keep a sustainable profit line, but it’s going to take our customers’ understanding that tasty, fresh, local vegetables are going to cost them more. We hope you find good value in supporting local farms. We all work really hard and sacrifice a lot in our lives to work as farmers. It takes understanding and support from you our customers to allow us to keep running our farms, and we hope you find the money you spend on local organic produce to be gladly spent.
Of this last in his year-long series about the four seasons on Pyramid Farms, in Chico, Matthew Martin writes, “It has been an honor to write these Sense of Place articles for you readers. It has been humbling to hear your compliments on my writing and how you enjoyed learning about our farm and what we go through to bring you fresh delicious vegetables. I wouldn’t have been able to write these articles without you who have supported our farm by purchasing our veggies and flowers over all these years—I wouldn’t have a farm. We hope to continue farming for many years to come. Thank you for being a Pyramid Farms veggie eater. We can’t do it without you.”
Matthew Martin, along with Lisa Carle, grows over thirty varieties of organic vegetables and beautiful flowers, and milks a few goats on Pyramid Farms. They sell their produce and flowers at the Saturday farmers’ markets in Chico and Grass Valley and directly to stores locally and regionally.