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Our visit to Stonebridge Farm near Lyons, CO

18 Nov

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Well, if there were ever a more pristine farm in the world, I would have to see it to believe it. Stonebridge is nestled comfortably in the foothills about 30 minutes outside of Boulder, CO, and their operation is 20-some years in the making. I didn’t know how important it was for us to go and meet them (although I was well aware how generous it was of them to invite us), but it turns out that it was essential.

I hate to sound repetitive about people in the organic farming community, but John and Kayann were extremely helpful, kind, and welcoming. If they were cautious or judgmental with us at all, I didn’t sense it. We invited our parents along to see their CSA (since my parents didn’t have a whole grasp on exactly what Community Supported Agriculture was) and, even though it shouldn’t have, it made me a little nervous. I was afraid that the dynamic would shift- that Victoria and I would be seen as extremely young and treated like children. I also had the fear that every teenager knows all to well; I didn’t want my parents to say anything embarrassing. In case you didn’t already know, they didn’t.

We headed out to Stonebridge quite late. I got off work at 1pm and forgot to bring home any coffee for us, my parents, or Stonebridge. Anyone who roasts good coffee for a living knows that this is a CARDINAL sin. Typically nice family members and friends turn into violent, raging animals spiraling out of control if they wake up one day and you forgot to bring them their coffee. So, on top of normal things you do when you get off work, I had to go back to work to get coffee that I had roasted thirty minutes earlier. I was pissed at myself.

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I only tell you that we were late because, when I called Kayann to let her know, she seemed disappointed that we wouldn’t have as much time to talk! I mean, if this isn’t a switch from the city to farming life, I don’t know what is. I made the presumption that we were probably a huge burden on any farmers that gave us a tour. They made us feel like welcome guests.

One of the biggest things I learned from them is to start small. I’ve been slowly learning this on my own when I wanted to start with 7 acres (go ahead and laugh, I can’t beat you up through the internet), then it went down to 2, now I’m pretty sure we’re starting with ½ to 1 acre. Us city folk have no idea what an acre means, but now that I am transitioning, I understand that it is A LOT. Like, a lot a lot (to help my city friends with translation). They have slowly but surely grown to 4 acres over their 20 years, and their operation is much more in-depth, organized, and essentially bigger than we can be in our first years. I was extremely impressed that they had built a community rather than customers, and even then, those are one and the same. I love that they have parties for their shareholders and how intricately they involve them with the produce- their shareholders come to the farm and pick out their own baskets, wash their produce, etc. It saves them money and brings in the type of people they want to be around. So. Cool.

Also, there is no way I could’ve understood sowing green manure or the equipment needs without seeing it. I’ve read (and re-read) The New Organic Grower where these things are outlined, but squiggly drawings and lists don’t always cut it for real learning. I saw a walking hoe, and a rototiller, and I saw oats growing over as a winter crop.

There is way too much for me to completely include here, and I am still mulling all of it over in my head as I write. I think, however, the lesson in this blog post is not to relay all of the information I learned from the lovely people at Stonebridge directly to you, but rather, to impart that visiting other farms is absolutely essential. There is only so much your brain can read and truly, truly understand. But talking to people doing what you dream to do is an unbelievable resource. Tour other farms, talk about successes and failures, laugh about accepting an organic grower’s relationship to weeds, and smile over coffee. There is no replacement for this.

I also wanted to include Stonebridge Farm’s contact information here. I would encourage anyone in the Denver/Boulder area looking for a quality CSA to inquire about their shares and support a wonderful, local organic grower that has been thriving for over 20 years. If you want to know how it’s done, they’re doing it! They also offer classes for writing, farming, anything. Check it out.

http://www.stonebridgefarmcsa.com/
And their blog:

pearlmoonplenty.wordpress.com

Crop yields, Fundraising, and our visit to the Chatfield CSA

3 Nov

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After my week-long stint with discouragement, I am back on my feet again. Talking to my Mom the other day really helped, and today I got my first email from my Dad that oozed with plans and excitement. Watch out world- I wasn’t gone for long.

The last few days, I had been taking baby steps in preparation for getting back into real work today. This was mostly done inside my head, mulling this and that over, but I don’t think this thought process should be denied it’s importance. It is always the first step towards achievement.

So today, I woke my butt up and drew a hardly-to-scale map of the two acres of farm we are planning on turning into beautiful rows of veggies and separated it into 8 equal sections for our crop rotation. Two acres is approximately 87,120 square feet. Divided into 8, it gives us around 10,000 some square feet per section. After accounting for walkways and our 45 inch rows and taking some square roots here and there, I discovered that just one row of tomatoes could contain a huge amount of plants.

I guess I didn’t realize how big an acre really was.

After that, I got on my phone to deal with some financial matters. I called my sister, Andee, because she is the goddess of all things fundraising (and all things in general). She has four kids and still manages to organize a 5k for her son’s hockey program every year, be on the PTA, have a job as an executive assistant, and keep her house clean. This is just the tip of the iceberg. I don’t know when she brushes her teeth, but I’m sure she does. I wanted to see if we could hire her to organize a benefit to raise money for startup for this year, and as I expected, she’s brimming with ideas already and we are meeting next Friday to get started. We are considering a wine tasting/art auction with CSA memberships for those who donate over $300 and perhaps having a kickstarter or indie-gogo for our out-of-town friends and family. Friends, keep this in mind- what a great Christmas present… fresh, local veggies from a startup family farm for an entire season! (Oh no, I’ve already begun advertising and we don’t even have a date yet.)

After that, we weren’t done. I had called the Chatfield CSA outside Denver to see if we could come check out their operation, but no one answered. We decided to take a chance and head down there anyway, and were we glad we did! The Chatfield CSA has about an acre of veggies growing there, and their one acre feeds 55 families for the year. It absolutely amazes me. Why are we shipping in produce from anywhere again? Imagine the Colorado economy if we only bought produce from local farmers. I’m getting off topic, but we found out a lot of other important things too. Like drip irrigation; they use it everywhere, just as we suspected. They also have a great herb garden on the side for their CSA members since herbs grow so well in Colorado. What a great idea; send them some oregano to go in their veggie stews!

After a quick tour of the old homestead there, we decided to hit the road back home. We were tired, but we are re-energized and more ready than ever to start up next spring. We have emailed several other Colorado CSA’s back and forth as well, and for the most part, they have all been extremely welcoming and informative. We have plans to visit two of them, and one nice lady who lives deep in the mountains promised me a long phone call soon while her son is taking a nap.

One thing I have really learned from all this is to REACH OUT. Most people think I’m pretty outgoing, but inside I feel so shy and anxious all the time. But I wouldn’t have come nearly as far without the support from my family, friends, and strangers. And I would never have gotten the help I have gotten if I didn’t ask for it. There are so many resources in the world, and I haven’t even begun to touch them all. If I succeed, I will never be able to say I did it alone.

And I would never want to.

Soil Sampling

22 Oct

So, the first thing you want to do when farming a new piece of land is find out what you’re working with. We do this with everything; from buying a new car to having a first date at a hot wing joint. You want to see what’s under the hood (and in the case of dates, whether or not someone will still look you in the eye with orange sauce surrounding their entire mouths). In the case of farming, you want to do a soil sample.

Now, lucky for us laymen, you don’t have to be much of a scientist these days to do this. Any Extension program will give you instructions on gathering soil, take your samples, and tell you what to do with the information they pump out of their scientist-brain-machines. We use CSU Extension here in Colorado, and they are a well of other information, too. I would recommend any beginner farmer to check out what Extensions have to offer.

Anyways, today we went to do our soil sampling thang. I know, in my heart of hearts, that CSU must fundamentally believe that their instructions for collecting samples make sense, but really, I read it seventeen different times and could’ve translated it into about that same amount of ways to go about collecting. But on time 18 of reading it, I decided I was a logical enough human being to infer what they wanted and follow the few basic rules and get it done. These rules are as follows:

1. Don’t use a rusty spoon… I mean, shovel. Or augur. Or anything that gets dirt from out of the ground. It will add iron to your test results and you don’t want that.
2. Take 20-30 samples from the field/fields you are going to be farming. If there are creek beds, strange areas where nothing seems to grow, or changes in landscape and you want to get a sample from them for whatever odd reason, keep them separate.
3. Dig at least 8-12” deep. You want to get all parts of the soil and you want to see the nitrogen you’ve got way down there in case you ever need to tap into it.
4. Mix the 20-30 samples together to form a composite of your field.
5. Do not put a lid on whatever you’re storing the soil in. They recommend a plastic Homer bucket (the orange ones you find at home depot). A lid can change the environment around the soil and then change the soil.
6. Allow the soil to dry before you put it in a little plastic baggie (you can use a Ziploc, but often your Extension Program can provide you with something less homey. Our EP is in Fort Collins and we said, “Nay, we aint drivin’ all that way for a damn plastic baggie.”)

So I followed all those rules, using the mile markers and telephone poles as the digging guide so we were sure to be as thorough as possible. After painfully digging with our sorry excuse for a shovel 25 times in a field that was hard as rock and full of goatheads (read: super pokey things that make you bleed and send razor sharp splinters into your hands that break into tiny pieces and make you wish you were a kid again so you could cry at that sort of stuff), and after we did our fair share of exploring and feeding other people’s horses and goats while they were at church, we started to head home.

But curiosity got the best of us. We had a bucket of soil in the back seat of the car that could tell us how easy our lives would be in a few months. That, and we live in Colorado where it’s cool for people to grow marijuana, so there are little shops everywhere that sell stuff for growing, and we wanted to do our own soil sample test, too! This is America and we wanted to know NOW! So we stopped at a classy place called Way To Grow and picked up a home soil testing kit for $16.50.

These things are rad. They test for pH, nitrogen, phosphorous, and something else I forgot (I haven’t done that test yet). They have little chemical pills in different colors that you add to soil and water and they tell you the future! But in all seriousness, you add a little soil, add a little water, add a chemical pill, and wait for it to change colors. It comes with several little pills for each test so you can do it over and over in the course of a year (or month if you’re a masochist). I will be buying these a lot.

I also really wanted to check the amount of clay, sand, and silt in the soil. You don’t need a fancy kit to do this: just a clear jar with a lid, water, and your soil sample. Fill the jar with one part soil to three parts water, give it a good shake, then let the formula settle out for a few minutes. Once it’s all settled, you’ll see that it has separated. The clay will be at the top, silt will be in the middle, and sand will settle to the bottom. There you have it.

Needless to say, we will still be absolutely using CSU for a more thorough test. You get averages with these home tests and if you don’t have filtered water at home, it can effect your results a bit. CSU will also provide us with recommendations and plans based on our results that will be very beneficial. But we got a general idea of what problems we will and will not be having; our nitrogen is depleted so we will have to compost this year, our pH is a magnificent neutral (if not a tiny bit acidic), and we’ve got a really good combination of clay, sand, and silt on the land. This tells us what we can grow, how we should prepare the soil, what we should do to help next year’s crops, etc. It is indispensable information.

If you’re getting ready to start up farming next year and need to gather a soil sample, here is my advice: put on good pair of boots, make sure you’ve got a whole day to get it done, bring gloves, make sure that your tools for digging aren’t rusted or pieces of crap (trust me), and if you get a little antsy to know what you’re looking at, grab a home soil testing kit and check it out yourself. Don’t skip out on your Extension program’s testing, however. You’ll need that scientific data- and home kits don’t check for metals, and in places like Colorado, you need to know about it.

That’s all for today! My fingers are full of splinters and I have to go back to my day job tomorrow morning. Until then.

The Prodigal Daughter returns to the homestead

9 Oct

After visiting the farm for the first time in years, I am in awe at Eastern Colorado’s landscape. When I was young, it seemed barren, dry, and miserably hot compared to my beloved camping trips to the Western Slopes. It is nothing like that to me now. The Rocky Mountains are visible all the way out in Keenesburg, CO, and the plains are nothing like the flat, deserted areas of Nebraska I remember driving through on our way to visit my grandparents in Illinois. In fact, Eastern Colorado is full of beautiful rolling hills, dried creek beds with natural grasses and trees peeking up through the center, barns that seem plucked from a postcard, and a silence that is occasionally blessed with the whisper of wind through corn ready for harvest.

The pleasantness of the view on the way there was disturbed once we arrived on my family’s own 180 acres to assess its current state, talk about plans, and drive around the property lines. My parents have always had the farming done by hiring local farmers and paying them a share of the profits after harvest. This seems like a lovely setup for city folk who own land and water rights but aren’t set up to move an hour out of town, give up their lives, and start farming. In reality, it isn’t proving well for them. They have never made a profit from the farm in its 15 years under their care, and seeing its state myself, I see that the land has not been loved

I understand why, too. I don’t want to seem like I am not compassionate. Farmers have it hard enough on their own these days, and in their mind, adding the care of some city couple’s farm (who only visit on occasion) for what is likely to be a measly pay wouldn’t be my cup of tea. On the other hand, these are men my parents pay and trust to care for land they have poured thousands of dollars into maintaining. My parents are not rich people. To see it the way it was made me sad and more than a little bit angry. It is obvious that not only have the farmers put in a lackluster performance for the last however many years, but that also word has gotten around that the farm is unoccupied and is a perfect place to dump things that no one wants anymore. It isn’t as bad as it could be, but we drove by at least one refrigerator and three giant dead trees accompanied by tracks made by a truck dragging them in.

We also drove to the well. My parents own a full acre around it, and we pulled up to find someone else’s corn occupying the acre. I doubt my parents were ever asked for use of this, and I doubt even more that they will receive any payment for the crops grown there. On top of that, nearly all the dirt roads in the area are fully on their property (typically, farms split roads between the lines so that nobody gets screwed on any land). I almost can’t write any more about the problems because it makes me feel weird and angry/sad/nostalgic. It gives me insight into how I am in business and in love, however. No one is unjust with me or anything/anyone around me without having to pay.

The only thing that brightens up my outlook is the hope of taking over at least 6 to 7 acres in the upcoming year. I love, adore, and admire my parents. I also have this hokey love connection with the land, with excruciatingly hard work, with soil, and with my family. I feel like this is the best light at the end of any darkness that my parents and this farm could ask for. I don’t blame anyone for any of this. I just wish it didn’t have to happen. I could feel my mother tensing as soon as we stepped on the property, and I still can’t distinguish if it was shame, disgust, or just old-fashioned disappointment. It is probably a mixture of all of those and a lot of lost dollars.

We did talk about a lot of exciting ideas. So far, it seems like the winners are setting up a small CSA, attending farmer’s markets with produce, and using 3 of the acres to plant an orchard of apples and peaches to start. They may decide to keep the current farmer for the rest of the areas with alfalfa and hay, as it requires machinery that we don’t have at the moment. It is pretty early in the planning stages, though, so you never know what will happen.

I guess that makes it even more exciting.