Egads! The Bugs!

Harvesting with bug nets and full sleeve coverage to keep the mosquitoes at bay.
Harvesting with bug nets and full sleeve coverage to keep the mosquitoes at bay.

The theme of the latter part of last week was definitely bugs, with the mosquitoes getting worse each day, until Friday. The early part of the week was moist and cool, with warmer temperatures on Thursday and Friday – perfect mosquito breeding weather. Friday was incredible, and to this Vancouver Island gal, was almost beyond belief. However, in my defence, Sarah said she has never seen the mosquitoes so bad in Pemberton, ever.

I’d never actually worn a bug net before last Thursday. Now, I am a convert. Amazing inventions that they are, the bug nets made it possible to work in what would have been otherwise, rather intolerable conditions. In fact on Friday I only took it off to eat lunch, and that was because we took refuge in Sarah’s kitchen. The only thing exposed at all during Friday was my hands, and I even ended up with a smattering of bites on the backs of my hands. Oh well, with the hot, dry spell that has arrived (low to mid 30’s for the week to come – gulp) the mosquitoes shouldn’t be too bad for too much longer.

Aurélie is a big fan of the bug net too.
Aurélie is a big fan of the bug net too.

On another note, I really enjoyed the pigs last week, and am looking forward to another week of getting to know them a bit. They are quite far away from where any vegetables are being grown this year, and so we don’t really get to see them all that much unless we go out on a pig-specific mission, or it is one of our mornings on chores. Here are a couple more pictures from my first morning on chores with the pigs:

The pigs venturing out for their first breakfast.
The pigs venturing out for their first breakfast.
It took several minutes for the other pigs to catch on to the fact that their was another trough. Which worked out for this little pig, one of three smaller, younger ones.
It took several minutes for the other pigs to catch on to the fact that their was another trough. Which worked out for this little pig, one of three smaller, younger ones.

On the Farm With the Weeds and a Little Slice of Wilderness

Some beautiful arugula, with a bit of a weed problem. I meant to take an n "after" shot of this bed once we had finished with it, but I was too busy weeding.
Some beautiful arugula, with a bit of a weed problem. I meant to take an “after” shot of this bed once we had finished with it, but I got distracted with other weeds…suffice it to say, it looked glorious.

The time for weeding has arrived at Rootdown. I mean, we were weeding before this, but now we are really weeding. The hot, sunny weather, interspersed with a bit of rain here and there, and the long days as we approach the summer equinox means things are growing fast. The cultivated crops are growing fast and doing awesome too, but weeds have this way of always growing faster than the things the we are actually trying to grow. Their inherent vigour and strength is, in many ways, what makes us consider them weeds, and they can feel like the bane of an organic farmers existence.

Of course there is a lot of interesting things to ponder about weeds – such as how to reduce weed pressure on a farm, long term; or in a more permaculture line of thinking, how to make them work for you, why are they there, and what some of the benefits they may bring are. And while I think all of that is very interesting, and I enjoy seeing how people are experimenting with more natural ways of farming, I also know how much I love a well weeded bed of anything, and how much better annual crops grow when they aren’t competing with weeds for nutrients and water. I hope to be able to play with with some of those concepts in the future, but I am pretty sure weeding will always be an aspect of organic farming, and I am okay with that too. We are, after all, choosing to eat and therefore grow human-bred crops, and so some level of management between the cultivated and the wild is to be expected.

Almost all of the weeding at Rootdown is done with hand tools or with the ultimate hand tool, our fingers.

Rootdown's collection of hoes. From left to right, the stirrup hoe, the loop hoe, and two different sizes of colinear hoes.
Rootdown’s collection of hoes. From left to right, the stirrup hoe, the loop hoe, and two different sizes of colinear hoes.

These long-handled beauties are designed to, if used properly, save your back, and maybe even make weeding enjoyable, at least some of the time. They all have their advantages, and are best used in different situations with different weeds – the loop hoe, for example, is fantastic in tightly planted beds (like salad mix) and with small, delicate seedlings (like carrots); while the stirrup hoe is great for pathways or wider spacing between rows. The usual order of operation is to hoe a bed, getting as close to the planted rows as possible, and then to go back and hand weed within the rows if necessary, which it usually is.

Sometime last week we pulled out the sharpener, and it was made very obvious to us all the benefits of a sharp hoe! It is a piece of advice I have read about in numerous books, and yet it is not so easy to put into practice when you are busy and in the field. However, it is well worth the effort to bring a sharpener out to the field with you, as a sharp hoe is much more effective than a dull one.

Sarah, wielding the flame weeder.
Sarah, wielding the flame weeder.

The only piece of weeding equipment used at Rootdown that I hesitate to call “manual” or a “hand tool” is the flame weeder. Blasting small, emerging weed seedlings with fire is hardly something one could call hand weeding, and yet the flame weeder is carried on a persons back, and is not tractor mounted (although those exist!). I think it comes down to scale – it is definitely not a hand tool, but this model is still something that has been designed with the small scale farmer in mind, and it is (sort of) human powered.

And while we have definitely been battling nature in the form of keeping the weeds at bay, there has also been a recent boom in the population of the native western tiger swallowtail butterfly on the farm.

Western Tiger Swallowtail  butterfly.
Western Tiger Swallowtail butterfly.

We have seen them flitting here and there all over the place, and the other day when I went to put irrigation on the south field I noticed dozens of them congregating on the wet soil where we had previously irrigated.

Swalltail butterflies "mud puddling" on a freshly irrigated field.
A little hard to see, but just by the upper row of green lettuce, you can see swallowtail butterflies “mud puddling” on a freshly irrigated field.

With a little bit of research, I found out that these butterflies were “mud puddling,” a behaviour common in butterflies, but one also found in some other inspect species. The males land on certain moist substances, such as mud, carrion, or rotting plant matter, and suck up the liquids to obtain salts and other necessary nutrients. The males then transfer some of these nutrients to the females during mating. This enhances both reproductive success, and the survival rate of the ensuing eggs.

I also learned that western tiger swallowtails often lay eggs on trees such as poplar, or cottonwood, of which there are many along the edges of the fields at Rootdown.

Seeing butterflies indicates the presence of many other invertebrates in an ecosystem, which lends itself to a healthy and balanced ecosystem overall. Butterflies and other insects provide many environmental benefits such as pollination and they are part of a natural “checks and balances” pest control system. They are also an important part of the food chain for birds and bats, which also provide major benefits in the form of agricultural pest control. On top of these more tangible benefits, they are also beautiful, and bring a lot of  joy to people when they see them. In short, it’s pretty cool to have them around!

And so while, on the one hand, we have been steadfastly beating nature back from the fields in the form of weeding, we are also helping the butterflies, the birds, and the bats and enhancing overall ecosystem health by preserving some wildness on the edges of the fields, and irrigating our domesticated crops.

Hurray for the coexistence of farmland and the natural world!

Things Are Heating Up

It has gotten HOT recently in Pemberton. The last several days have gotten up to the high twenties according to the trusty Weather Network, but according to Simone, the farm usually gets higher highs and lower lows than predicted for the town of Pemberton. Not to mention that the thermometer that is in the shade on my back deck in town read 31 degrees yesterday at 5:00 pm, which is when things have already started to cool down. Needless to say, it’s been pretty extreme temperatures compared to what I am used to, especially in May.

Farming often necessitates working in extreme weather conditions, be they hot, sunny days, below freezing temperatures, wind storms, rain, mud, etc. And that is because the work generally needs to be done regardless of the weather. If animals are involved, then animal chores need to be done; and if vegetables are involved then things must still be harvested, weeded, and planted regardless of weather.

The heat has always been more challenging for me than the cold, and when things begin to heat up, especially when it happens suddenly, I find myself struggling to adjust. My brain gets addled, I might get a sunburn or two, and I am completely wiped by the end of the day.

However, after a few days, things start to change, and on a physiological level my body seems to adjust and I begin to function better again. I also get smarter. My sun hat becomes a near permanent fixture on my head, I wear lots of sunscreen, drink litres of water, and this year I’ve even started wearing a long sleeved collared work shirt during the hottest part of the day.

And something starts to happen on a pyschological level as well. I become accustomed to the heat, and find myself expecting it rather than being broadsided by it. That moment happened for me earlier this week when I found myself volunteering to stand on a ladder in the greenhouse in the afternoon, to hang tomato trellising strings. It was somewhere between 40 and 50 degrees in the greenhouse. And yet I felt okay with it. I was hot and sweaty, sure, but I was functioning and felt pretty good. Sometimes that kind of extreme heat becomes cathartic in a way, and a greenhouse can bear a remarkable similarity to a sauna….

Things have been heating up in other ways around the farm as well. Today we had our first official harvest – salad mix and kale – which went to a high end restaurant and a grocery store in Whistler. It was a small harvest, but the produce was beautiful, and it is a sign of things to come. From here on out we will likely be adding new things to the harvest list every week.

And while it is still not the flat-out busy time of year, the overall pace is picking up. The heat and the lengthening days means everything – including the weeds – is growing like crazy, and all the crops need to be on a regular irrigation schedule to keep them growing well in this heat. The piglets will be arriving on May 30th, and so among other projects that means we are working on the new pig shelter and pen and running water and electrical (for the fencing) out that way. The mixed flock of baby laying hens are growing fast, and six baby turkeys are slated to come mid-June.

And so with the increased doses of sunlight, things at Rootdown are heating up. It is, like all farms, a truly solar powered kind of place.

In Search of Roots

A wandering farmer may seem like an oxymoron. And I admit, it somewhat is. Aren’t farmers, after all, people who belong to a place, people who know the cycles of the seasons on one piece of land, people who spend years or lifetimes in one place putting down their roots, both literally and figuratively speaking?

Ideally, yes. But, as most people know, our ideals rarely match up perfectly with reality. And in this day and age, with fewer and fewer people being born into farming families and the price of farmland rising out of reach for most, those somewhat crazy, slightly delusional, and ridiculously hopeful among us that choose to go into farming have to get creative about how we go about it. Because we did not grow up on a farm absorbing this knowledge from a very young age, because we do not have the privilege of having an intimate knowledge of a piece of land we may one day get the chance to inherit, we must gain those things in other ways. We must work on the farms of others, harvesting knowledge from them the same way we harvest the bounty of the fields; using it to nourish our minds the same way the food we harvest nourishes our bodies. We must be nomadic as we search for our roots.

This year, I am going into my fifth season of working on the farms of others. I have decided this is what I want to do with my life. I want to farm. I want to produce healthy, nourishing food for people. I want to work with plants, and possibly animals. I want to work with the soil. I want to spend most of my days outside and dirty.

I am now, finally, comfortable saying that I am a farmer. When people ask me what I do, I respond by saying that “I farm.” And yet, I am a long way (or so it seems) from having a farm of my own, from having land of my own, from putting down my roots. And so I am a wandering farmer. I am, for now at least, a nomad farmer.

As J.R.R Tolkien wrote in his poem All That is Gold Does Not Glitter, “Not all those who wander are lost.” That strikes a cord with me as I do not feel lost, but I am definitely still wandering. I know where I want to go with my life, I just don’t yet know exactly how I will get there.

And so I am writing this blog to chronicle my journey as a fledgling farmer as I learn from other farmers, and learn from the land itself. I am writing this in the hopes that it helps me to focus and reflect on what I am experiencing and learning, perhaps giving it a deeper meaning in some way. The reasons for this blog are mostly personal, but in making it public I hope to a.) make myself accountable to others, and commit to writing and reflecting on a (somewhat, at least) regular basis; and b.) keep my family and friends around the world updated on what I am doing should they so choose to read my musings. You can expect mostly writing, and hopefully some photos too, at least when I get around to taking them.

And so with that, I humbly invite you along for the adventure!