A Sense of Place: Gambling in Spring
Story by Margaret Jensen
By now you’ve probably heard the joke about the farmer who wins a million dollars in the lottery. He’s asked about what he intends to do with his winnings, and he responds, “Well, I’ll probably just keep farming until it’s gone . . .” When we small-scale farmers hear this one, we laugh, but there’s so much truth in it. The only way we might ever get rich is by winning the lottery, and given the risky nature of farming and the farmer’s insistence on continuing to farm, well, chances are that even a lucky farmer will end up happy to be a farmer, flat pocket and all.
Here at Good Work Organic Farm, spring is the season when I’m most inclined to meditate on this joke, because spring feels like the gambling season, when we dream of winning big, but place our bets wide. We roll the dice: Will spring come early? Have the gophers left us anything of our fall-planted crops? Will we have snow until May? Will we get a killing frost right after we plant out the tender seedlings? Will we get the perfect rains to supplement the irrigation? We pick a number and place our chips, watch the weather wheel spin. . . it’s possible to lose every bet and run through that “million dollars”—or maybe just a few thousand—very quickly.
Wait! It’s spring! Time for optimism, hope, rebirth. No grumbling here! Preparation for spring began back in January or February, as we decided what we wanted to plant, ordered seeds, and planted the earliest seedling trays, which spent weeks under artificial lights before early spring days were long enough and warm enough to warrant the use of the greenhouse. Unless, of course, we get a lovely warm spell in February, and then trays go out to the greenhouse, grow quickly. . . and then have their growth stunted during days of freeze and fog during March.
Dagnabit, I’m back to grumbling again. Spring is just like that here, at 3,000 ft. in Round Mountain. One day glorious, the next day a disaster, all the way until about mid-May, when our last frost date is truly past and we can mentally relax a little.
For Gerry, the first signs of spring emerge while he’s pruning apple trees. We never finish pruning before the earliest trees bud and the orchard grass shoots make it difficult to rake up the smallest prunings. A chorus of frogs announces the lengthening of the days, and in the trees nearest the pond it’s arguable whether the frogs or the electric pruning saw is louder. If the weather doesn’t cooperate, in March we still have piles of pruned limbs sitting on the edges of fields blocking tractor access where we need to till. Some years Gerry is pruning apple trees in full blossom, almost dizzy from their intense fragrance and the buzz of bees around his head.
Early in spring we overdo it, working for four or five hours when our bodies are really only ready for two. We leave the house without a hat, intending to be out in the sun for only twenty minutes or less, and an hour later we are sunburned and still haven’t fixed the problem we set out to fix. We debate the ergonomics of particular hoes and accuse the other person of hoarding the more comfortable one. As the days suddenly get much longer, if the weather is good, we can’t move fast enough. If the weather is bad, we play catch up when it turns nice, moving at double speed. Somehow, though, we also just stop and revel in the beauty that is the orchard in full bloom and happy bees. Or the soft soil of a newly-tilled field warms up just enough so we throw ourselves down and lie spread-eagle in it, eyes closed, face up at the sun, listening to a bird chorus. Muscles relax into the warmth. . . ahhhhh! If we’re lucky after such abandon, we’re not too stiff to stand up without help and resume spring tasks.
Spring tasks: Fill seed-starting trays with potting soil. Seed them. Label them. Carry them. Water them. Repeat hundreds of times. Fill thousands of 3-inch or 4-inch pots with potting soil. Discover you didn’t order enough potting soil and make special trip to pick up pallet of bags of potting soil. Discover that the store has not stocked the certified organic potting soil that we must use, and deal with that. Haul potting soil; fill more pots; transplant thousands of little seedlings. Label flats; eventually make label for each individual pot that is going for sale to the farmers’ market. Move flats around greenhouse. Keep inventory to track what’s going for sale, what will be planted in our fields. Water. Repeat hundreds and hundreds of times. Move more new transplants out of the house and into greenhouse. Never, ever forget to water anything, anywhere, especially the stuff you didn’t know had gotten moved. Finally, prepare beds in the field, round up young, supple bodies to do some hard work, carry seedlings to field, and plant the damn things. Repeat, repeat, repeat.
Meanwhile, some of the garlic varieties we planted back in October stick their shoots above ground in spring warmth; others are halfway grown before February. Those crops always require spring weeding; it’s just a question of how often. About half the weeding can be done fairly quickly with a wheel hoe—a wonderful, fork-handled tool with a wheel in front and a hoe blade behind. A person with reasonable upper body strength pushes the hoe at an angle that cuts the blade under the weeds in paths or alongside the plants. Weeding also needs to be done between the plants, and that means the slow slog of hoeing and an occasional dip to yank out something by hand. After a few thousand feet of hoeing, it’s hard not to feel grateful to the gopher who has so courteously eaten forty feet of garlic and thus relieved us of the need to weed those plants. (The photo below shows a gopher’s near miss on a young spinach plant.) Of course, the rhythm of hoeing encourages the mental math of adding up the value of all the lost garlic and onions. Last spring we lost thousands of feet, translating into thousands of dollars. Remember, we’re organic, so the solutions that feature napalm as a means of gopher control just aren’t going to work for us, however effective (and tempting) they might be.
If not occupied with mental math, Gerry composes great odes to the tractor. Some verses go “#@%^&*@#$%” when the tractor won’t start or when a critical implement falls apart, and some proclaim our thanks for the tractor’s many heroic deeds, like compost hauling and plant trench digging. Odes often tell of tragedies that befall the hero along his journey, so there are verses that honor the snakes and nesting animals that are disturbed—yes, even killed—by the tractor and other verses that note the tractor’s mistakes in driving over a vulnerable irrigation pipe or backing into seedling trays invisible in the grass. Those are, of course, not the farmer’s mistakes—the ode is about the tractor, after all.
But finally, spring is about taking our earliest produce to sell at the Saturday farmers’ market in Redding. I believe Gerry is the lottery-winning farmer who keeps farming for the love of it—though I’d like to test this belief by winning big someday. Me, however, I’d probably be able to give up farming, but I’d hate to give up the farmers’ market. I move through those tiring spring tasks by remembering how happy it makes me to offer delicious spring spinach to a customer who raves about its flavor, or to introduce someone to the joy that is green garlic pesto. I love encouraging customers who’ve never planted a garden to try not the fussy seedlings but a stalwart zucchini and a robust Goliath tomato plant. We may have to cover a lot of bets in the spring just to be sure we’ll have enough crops to be successful, but we win in April when we eat the first of our spring greens and sell the first bag to an eager customer. We don’t need to win the lottery. We’ve got a farm in spring.1
By Ian Long
Days like these. . . are the days that farmers long for during high season. Sunny, with only a light breeze outside, and not too chilly. By all accounts, a pleasant day. . . for February, at least. When we have such days, however, and all the time and opportunities they bring, it is all too easy, to quote Pink Floyd, to “fritter and waste the hours in an offhand way.”
Writing this article is a welcome distraction from taking notes on this week’s physics and U.S. History chapters, but I’m having trouble deciding exactly what aspects of the farming experience to elaborate upon that my mother hasn’t already eloquently conveyed. We’re now ending her annual cycle of “A Sense of Place,” with her articles for summer, fall, winter, and this issue’s spring edition. Perhaps something she hasn’t gone into so much would be of value, something that can be told only by someone who never wanted it and never asked for it, but who’s come to live with it.
My earliest memories date back to about five and six years old, really, to Good Work Farm’s humble origins in an Anderson backyard. My father’s childhood dream, the farm started out when his love of nature met with his desire to produce food in a sustainable and environmentally responsible way and when he felt a dash of displeasure for the workings of government bureaucracies and their required paperwork. Voila! The seeds (excuse the pun) of the project began. When we moved to Round Mountain about Thanksgiving of 1999, the greater land mass and our own spring-fed water supply practically begged for more plants, more production, more market days. . . and more work.
With my mom taking her job at a non-profit here in Round Mountain and my dad leaving his county job, the farm became our primary source of income, and every year it seems that we add a new field or embark upon some new project for the farm. Removing dozens of apple trees to make way for new fields. . . building our half-mile long deer fence. . . erecting our high-tunnel greenhouse. . . I’ve even caught myself measuring my life not by the year in which events happened, but instead by the milestones of seasons or big farm tasks or construction projects.
I’m reluctantly forced to admit that farming, quite frankly, builds character. Spending hours and days and weeks of your life in the dirt and sun have a way of forcing you to become comfortable with yourself. The land, weather, and lady fortune have a way of laying waste to the best plans and hopes and stripping away your pride. There’s a certain value in working with your hands, in seeing a visible fruition to your labor, and in knowing intimately the people you work with (I’ve heard stories from hired hands and my parents that are almost too nuts to be true). I’ll laugh at my parents, and laugh at other farmers, and laugh at market customers when they tell me that I’m gaining valuable life experiences and learning patience, people skills, and business sense by working on the farm and at the farmers’ market and when they tell me that no matter what I do, I’ll never be able to truly escape the farm. But here—in writing, preserved for posterity—I’ll admit that I’ll never be content behind a desk. I’ll never be content with a nine to five job. I’ll always need to feel the sun, breathe the air, and smell the scents of the great outdoors. I’ll always need to have the type of (relative!) freedom that being your own boss allows. Most importantly, I’ll always need the knowledge of being a small person, in a big world, making an impact, however small, and making people happy by doing what I love.
But don’t tell my parents I finally admitted it!
Saturday Redding Farmers’ Market customers know The Garlic Lady Margaret Jensen and her seventeen-year-old son Ian, too, who often helps her at the farm’s booth and here composed the post script. Although this is the final article in Margaret’s year-long series writing about the seasons on Good Work Organic Farm, readers can look forward to more articles from her.
Edible Shasta-Butte is the guide to local food, dining, and gardening in Northern California’s central valley from Butte County north to the Oregon border.