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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.

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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.

Unicorns and Fairy Dust and Loan Applications

16 Oct

Today, we visited the most magical universe in the whole galaxy. Okay, so maybe not for everyone, but I swear the flourescent-lit, retro-carpeted FSA building full of women with big hairstyles and men in overalls is a farmer‘s/information whore’s wet dream. There are booklets, and packets, and worksheets, and CLASSES, AND LOANS, AND GRANTS, AND SOIL SAMPLING KITS AND AND AND!!!!

We walked in and I was immediately terribly shy. But my mother has 40 years of being a strong, independent woman on me, so I forgive myself for letting her do most of the talking at first. We were there to ask about loans for small growers, and after Janice (the woman who helped us) sized me up and got a good look at my tattoos, she seemed surprisingly okay with what she saw and kindly escorted us back to a meeting area.

Side note: I don’t care when Janice in the FSA office in Brighton, CO looks at me like I may or may not be a dangerous weirdo at first glance of my urban look. Janice probably never has had a young twenty-something with tattoos and short bangs walk into her office asking about green much. What really gets me are people in downtown Denver who stare at me for 5 minutes and look like they’ve already seen my future where I am nothing but an old, saggy, wrinkly lady that does nothing but sit in a rocking chair regretting the pretty pictures I put on my skin. Anyways.

She went over all types of loans, we asked her a bunch of questions, and my parents, Victoria, and I left with a huge loan application and a little more excited (if that’s even possible!). Janice appeared to love us and our ideas. She seemed to genuinely love helping people and I really think she liked to see young women looking to be organic growers. I felt oddly surprised at her reaction. Having been into music recently, I expected it to be like walking into a Folklore shop knowing nothing about acoustic guitars: you are demeaned if not ignored and it is generally an unpleasant experience. Maybe farming is the heart of America. Based on my family members that are farmers and the people I’ve met so far in agriculture, it seems like there are many, many good hearts.

We had a good talk with my parents on the way back home. We talked about living arrangements, Victoria and I settling our debts and taking tons of classes before turning in our application, and got some ice cream. My parents are really wonderful people. It’s amazing how you don’t know this until you’re old and have really screwed up and treated them like trolls for years, but I guess that is the human condition. I just feel blessed to know this and have them now. I plan on being the best daughter forever and as possible. It’s the very least they deserve.

So, after all this mushy-talk, there is much business to do. I mean, this loan application is BIZNIZ. We need to calculate crop yeilds before we have even farmed a piece of land, meet with several other CSA/Farmer’s Market growers, gain some sort of experience and education, take 20 some odd soil samples to CSU Extension, and come up with a complete financial evaluation of our first year. All that and we still may not get the loan. But that just takes me right to what my mom said to us as we were sitting watching the Bronco’s game tonight,

“If you really have a dream, and it burns you to not have it yet, you have to keep going. There are no setbacks if it is something you really want. This is coming from someone who was once a single mother. There are no setbacks. You just keep going. You find a way.”

Meaningful Menial

16 Oct

My latest big observation from the journey to the farm: You never notice the community you have built in your life until you undertake a new adventure.

I kept the news of the farm quiet for quite some time. There are a lot of reasons for this, the main one being that I was afraid it was going to be passed off as yet another of my many whims destined to fall on the wrong end of the filter called “reality.” They did a study somewhere (this is why I’m not a scientific writer) that came to the conclusion that, when people state their dreams out loud, it is occasionally detrimental. This is because simply saying an idea can bring on an often undeserved sense of accomplishment before anything is done towards achieving the goal. I have to admit that sometimes, for some people, stating a dream is an accomplishment. In my case, however, it has always come back to bite me in the butt because, for the most part, my “dreams” involve having copious amounts of time, money, no debt, and being stunningly beautiful and talented.

As time progressed, however, I began to realize that this may be really happening. I may be helping my parents farm 5-7 acres of their land. I told a couple of close friends and shut my eyes, expecting for everything to fall apart because I opened my big mouth about one of my grand ideas again. But it kept happening. Then I let it slip to a few of my favorite customers at work and shut my eyes. And there it was: still happening.

Then, something even more amazing began to unfold.

People. People I see every day and generally take for granted, people who are generally customers/acquaintances, occasional irritants, and that I have served for more than three years suddenly came to me out of their own volition to offer themselves. I didn’t know that the guy who may or may not get highlights in his hair, drives a really fast BMW, and refuses to drink out of anything but a to-go cup is actually a high-acreage farmer with an old tractor he doesn’t use for sale at an unbelievable price. And the woman who shows up 5 minutes before opening every day has been an Urban Homesteader for 25 years and wants to help us at harvest time and offer any advice on what grows well in Colorado for free. And then there’s my coworker who, unbeknownst to me, has a Master’s in Geology from DU and spent three of her years prior to working at Kaladi helping run a CSA near Chatfield.

And believe it or not, these are just 3 of many examples of the people in my community coming forward with free advice, information, and contacts to help me on this path. I didn’t even know that I had a community. I often feel very alone outside of my partner and my close coworker friends. I have felt tired, unappreciated, and unfulfilled in my job. I often wondered if I was a complete waste of a life. It is easy to feel that way in the service industry- it becomes all about money and very little about people. I mean, I serve around 200-500 of them every morning. It is easy to lose track of individual meaning in 2-6 minute interactions.

But today, I am looking at it very differently. I have learned loyalty from this job; I would do anything for the owners of Kaladi because I believe in their business practices and honestly, they have helped me out when my power was shut off and it seemed all was lost. I work hard and as perfectly as I can not just because if they fail I lose my job, but because if they fail, I fail. I have learned how to treat employees if I ever have them. I have learned the ins and out of a complex wholesale business. I have learned to show up on time and work when I don’t want to. I have learned to be nice to people when I am two weeks into the flu, haven’t had a day off in 14 days, and could curl up on a bag of green beans in the back and sleep for hours if I wanted to. And now because of all of this, I have earned a huge, caring community.

It makes me feel like the luckiest girl in the world.

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.

Surprise!!!&()^%()&^%(!!!

9 Oct

Six months ago, maybe less, I wrote furiously in my journal that typically remains untouched unless I am super upset or confused. This day, I happened to be both. The writing is (I like to think) unbecoming of me. I think I can write myself a pretty verse once in awhile- this page is a mess of the same questions over and over.

What do you want? Who are you? What is it that you want? Why do you not know what you want? What is it you feel you are supposed to do?

Blah blah blah, etc. etc.

It wasn’t pretty, but I really meant it. It is something I have felt my whole life. I hate to sound so egotistical, but that’s probably because I always have been egotistical in one way or another. I like to feel important, unique, special. I have felt these things since I was young. I wish I could blame it on my upbringing or a teacher I had in school, but really, I think these feelings are innate in me. Instead, I’ll blame it on being a Sagittarius with an Aquarius rising and a Hippie Moon.

It’s true, though. My whole life has been in specific pursuit of being the ultimate revelation of my uniqueness or important-ness to the world, and nothing has ever made me feel like I am meeting this purpose. I never know what I want, except that I want to be the best or the most original at something. When I discover whatever that “thing” is, if I’m not the original-est or absolute best-est after a certain amount of time, I quit. I mean, think about it. Melancholy poet with deep-seeded emotional issues? Check. Rock n’ roll singer with a string of wild girlfriends? Unfortunately, check. Near-enlightenment 200-hour registered yoga instructor, college soccer player, straight-A student chosen for a coveted internship, broke tattoo-ed struggling artist working at a coffee shop- You name it. I’ve tried every way to be original and have fit exactly into those molds, making me absolutely and troublingly normal. None of these things have made me happy, and let’s face it, the real way to be extraordinary in today’s world is to be happy.

So imagine my amazement when suddenly something absolutely simple gets thrown in my life, the missing puzzle piece, and is the least lit by lime thing you could possibly think of. Imagine a camping trip, my parents and I sitting by a fire, and them mentioning that they really wish they had someone they could trust who would run their farm an hour outside of Denver.

“I’ll do it,” I say.

And boom. There is who I am telling me what I want.

Why does it sometimes feel like periods in your life are waiting rooms? Or are they preparatory schools? Or is nothing in life really serendipitous?

Either way, in the next two years, I will be a farmer by trade, and my ancestors in the sky will all have lost their bets.