Winter’s stillness has thawed. Spring has ceased the repose of colder shorter days and now vibrates pure motion that can’t be stopped. Spring, this coil of a noun, advancement of a verb, an onomatopoeia, Spring! Spring is a deep, content breath, one that you take in to the core and then become overwhelmed by your blessings and the beauty of the world around you. Spring, a force projecting up, out and into the fields of the season. With the weeks of warmer, longer days, cocooned buds are coaxed out from last year’s stems and burst open to reveal winged blossoms that become blushed with the kiss of the golden sun. We witness these blossoms, taken in through our own eyes, and it’s as if we can feel flowers growing inside us. This is what spring does. We’ve all felt that internal germination.
The greenhouse is alive with this year’s generation of plants. Seeds sprout in their trays, verdant first leaves glow. These first leaves, called cotyledons, are different for each plant family. You can read the shape and know which family they are kin to, like a thumbprint. Brassicas unfold, first looking like four-leaved clovers before their true leaves arrive. Yogic onions begin bending down then reach for the sky. Tomatoes sprout their green fingered leaves. There’s always work to do in the greenhouse and it’s a magical place to take in vitamin D and tend the incubating season. With the hopes of spring I tend to each plant, manifesting its potential, but as a farmer I can’t know for sure what’s ahead.
Spring is the season of speculation, of mystery, and of dreaming. Winter provides some foreshadowing for the young spring months that we’re now in. A relatively moistureless winter has me worried about water availability during the always dry and hot summer months here in the Shasta Valley. Keeping a mental note of how that could translate in this year’s season, I have planned our crops.crop The field is planted first on paper, with rows of the unique heirlooms that have become standard for this farm. In spring, everything grows successful in my mind. The season is ripe and fruitful, although seedlings are yet young and tender. It’s a potent time of year for excitement, for deeply tilling in new plans of action and goals. Green grass dominates the hillside, and crocuses are awakened and quickly bombarded by hungry bees. There is no room in these scenes for thinking anything else but positively about the season to come. In these thoughts are where the gravity of farming can be felt. A season can not be simply planned, penned out, quantified, and projected. In spring, every farmer steps onto the land, takes the soil in hand, and the air into lungs. We compile our accumulated knowledge learned by observing and doing. Knowledge is a crucial cornerstone for readiness to the season ahead, but of greater importance is the response asked by the daily tasks, to be on the clock at all times, to react quickly the things that can not be planned for: for the potential snap-freeze in June, the earwig attack on the young beets, or the rain and wind that could lodge the corn. There are numerous variables that come into the year without schedule and it is the response, the physical and emotional investment to the plants, that defines the success of the season. That the farmer knows. In spring I enjoy the possibility, the optimism, the mystery, and although I know there will be unexpected battles, I hold tight to the “this will be the year” motto.
At Homeward Bounty Farm, spring started off with a return from a cold and wonderful vacation to the German and Austrian Alps with my husband. We explored the snow filled streets of Salzburg, celebrated Fastnet with dear friends (Fastnet is Southern Germany’s Mardi Gras, a week-long celebration before the start of Lent), and snowboarded in Austria’s Tyrol area. Leaving in February isn’t easy, leaving the farm is never really easy. Even in the slower months there are important tasks to do. Before we left I drove to Green Fire Farm, the farm of my mentor farmer Grady, where my first love of farming grew. There I sowed numerous trays of the eight different allium varieties grown at Homeward Bounty, such as leeks, shallots, storage and fresh summer onions. Grady, with his gracious care and attention, from the hands and heart of this seasoned farmer, tended to the baby alliums while we were away. It always takes a village, and for a farmer to go on vacation (which is sometimes unheard of), it takes even more support. It is odd to think that something like sowing, watering, and nurturing for onion seedlings could keep someone from stepping away for a bit, but such is farming. With the return from our trip, we went to pick them up, like children at daycare. I am sure they were sad to leave the beautiful farm of Green Fire, I know I always am, but they adapted well back in a greenhouse of their own.
Soon, thousands of these verdant green blades will be planted individually in the ground, every four inches, weeded with care, harvested and brought to market, to the delight of the regulars who know them well and have adopted them as a summer staple. Onions have become a sort of farm mascot here. I grow thousands and thousands of them. Local customers have fallen in love with fresh, green topped summer onions, onions that have not cured and don’t have a dry wrapper around them. These you simply can’t find at the grocery store. They are sweet and excellent grilled or raw in potato salads or on burgers. Dice the whole thing up, green tops included. People ask for them by name and with salivating anticipation. “When will the Red Torpedo onions and Siskiyou Sweets be available?” Yes, we grow a variety of sweet onions appropriately called Siskiyou Sweet! It’s a Walla-Walla type sweet onion, big and white, with lots of flavor. The variety was a reselection of Walla-Walla seed, selecting the seed line over and over again, to best meet the growing environment near the Siskiyou Range. This project was fostered by Don Tipping of Siskiyou Seeds in Southern Oregon. I love being a Siskiyou County farmer and keeping this namesake alive and thriving in the homes and bellies of other Siskiyou locals! It’s a seasonal favorite at Café Maddalena in Dunsmuir as well, where every week a delivery is made and always happily received.
The onions share the greenhouse with a wide diversity of vegetable families, along with herbs and flowers. A trip inside can be a global experience, one where a passport is not needed to travel well beyond Siskiyou County and onion fame. The stories these heirlooms must harbor, passed on in their inherited genetics, brought to life by hands of past gardeners, farmers, grandmothers, and grandfathers, the seed savers and collectors of the past. There’s a world map found within the varieties of seeds in this small sunny greenhouse, names written on tape labels: Oregon Giant, Rosa Di Milano, Palestinian, Red Russian, Georgia Green, Boston Marrow, Andean, Odesa Market, Bridge to Paris, Bulgarian Triumph, and Blau of Kazakistan. Spin the globe, there’s a seed with a hidden story. Then there are the people. Who were they? Immortalized in heirloom variety glory, to be loved by generations, as long as their lines stays alive: Jimmy Nardello, Tante Alice, Aunt Molly, King Richard, Ella Kropf, Pablo and Martino’s Roma. There is an automatic sense of adventure, of curiosity, mystery and laughter. Yes, some varieties just have funny names: Drunken Women (a farm favorite lettuce variety), Pink Berkeley Tie Dye and Mortgage Lifter. You could think of them as just plants, but they are very much life forces, with their brilliance and lineage. As a farmer isn’t it an honor to sow Jimmy Nardello seeds and keep this variety alive, then introduce this amazing sweet pepper to everyone at market. A pepper that, much like the onions, customers now also ask for by name. To know varieties intimately is a power of local food and communities. It deepens our connection with each other and the food that we choose to be a part of our story. When it is not just sweet peppers, but Jimmy Nardello sweet peppers that are part of your story, it means that these seeds will be loved and tended for generations and not lost. Every sweet pepper isn’t the same. We know this, we can taste it.
A morning in the warmth of the greenhouse spoils me, as walking out the temperatures feel much cooler. Spring brings sun, but not the comfort of core-warming heat. I put on a jacket layer to walk the fields. Lettuce, spinach, peas, beets, carrots, radishes, mustard greens, turnips, and more have been sown. During persistent cold nights, they hold on sometimes until mid-June up here at the top of the state, a durable cover of frost cloth anchored down to protect them. Keeping an eye on the weather is a non-stop job in the spring. There are often nights where I know the temperature will drop below freezing, as the clouds abandon the sky and leave it with only crystalline stars. We often have spring winds and I have to wait for the sun to set and the wind to settle, before Jonathan and I are able to get to work, wrestling frost cloth with head lamps on. Our breath lingers in the vapors of the cold clouds it has created. These cool nights are the first elements to shake the optimism of spring dreams. I still hold on though, because I have to. How cold will it really get? How harshly will the plants respond? “Should I get on my gear and put another layer of frost cloth on the crops?” is always the three a.m. thought that wakes me. On the farm I have to do my best, give what I have. Spring propels me, the farmer, up, out, and into the field. It is the beginning of all the “asks” that will come, a sampling of the many months ahead. I put on my head lamp, because this will be the year, and I go out with a smile, because it’s always the year. I always learn. I always grow. I always enjoy the deep breath of happiness from life on the farm, especially in the spring.
Kate O’Brien-Mann fills most of her days with the tasks of running a farming business. When she’s not in the fields, she finds time for hiking, music concerts, gatherings with friends and is training for her first marathon, along with her husband, the date of which is on their first wedding anniversary. This is the first of a four-part series in which she brings readers through four seasons on her farm in Grenada, in Siskiyou County. homewardbountyfarm.com