On Finding Balance

Happy farmers enjoying a day off.
Happy farmers enjoying a day off.

Farming is not often a lifestyle equated with balance. It might be equated with wholesomeness, with “the simple life”, with healthy hard work, with passion, but not, I would say, with balance. And maybe that is because many people who get into farming are driven by a passion for what they do, enjoy a little bit of hardship, and do genuinely love a hard day’s work.

None of those things are necessarily bad things. Even enjoying some hardship is not, in my opinion, a negative thing, as it makes one appreciate the luxuries in life all that much more, and not take them for granted. Ask anyone who does some kind of hard physical labour for a living how good a solid meal tastes at the end of the day, or a cold beer, or a cup of tea, and you will begin to understand how hardship, and hard work can really heighten your appreciation for the little joys in life.

But back to that elusive balance thing. Farmers are well known for working from dawn till dusk, working long, long days, and, as a consequence, not taking care of their bodies sufficiently for long term use. I know, as I have done all of those things on past farms I have worked on. I have worked 12-14 hour days on a regular basis, 6-7 days a week; I have worked from sunrise until sunset or sometimes past, using a headlamp to finish the day’s task; and I have worked my body to the point of chronic pain and total exhaustion. And the weird part, is I have still loved farming through all of that. But, I have also realised that, for me at least, that level of work, that kind of abuse of my body, and that complete and total immersion into all things farming, is not sustainable in the long term.

For me, balance is also important. I love farming, I love working hard, I love the physical labour of it all, however, I also still love other things. I still have other interests, and would like to continue to do so. I think time away from the farm, time off – a foreign concept to many farmers, at least during the growing season – is a definite positive. It helps to clear your mind of farm troubles, rest your body, and gives you a fresh perspective on problems when you return to work.

This is yet another area in which my experience at Rootdown has been a very positive one. Simone and Sarah have both done a very good job of working some semblance of balance into their busy lives as small farm owners (they take one day off each during the farming season, and then take winters off as well, aside from planning for the next year), and they have in turn, offered Aurélie and I a very balanced work experience this season. We have worked Monday to Friday since the beginning of the season, and have only occasionally worked overtime. This overtime was almost exclusively in the busy harvest months of August and September, it was predictably on the same days each week, and it was never expected of us – the option was always ours to leave at the end of 8 hours if we needed to.

I knew I needed a more balanced life/work balance when I came here, however I didn’t realise quite how much I needed it, or how much I would appreciate it. I have loved, absolutely loved, having time at the end of the days and enough energy left to cook good meals for myself. I have also greatly enjoyed having weekends off and, once again, enough energy left to explore the beautiful Pemberton Valley. It has been amazing to get out there in the mountains, to hike, to camp, to explore. It has also been so great – and this may be the most important thing of all if I am to continue farming for years to come – to heal my body and not be suffering from chronic low back pain or sore wrists such as I have in farming seasons past, or to be suffering from a level of exhaustion so extreme that I feel as though I may not physically be able to finish the season.

Because as much as I think it is important to love the work you choose, and as farmers (especially once the threshold from farm worker to farm owner is crossed) we are choosing hard work, long days, and sometimes sore bodies, I still feel as though balance is important, and quite possibly even essential for a life long career in farming. Too many farmers nowadays seem to suffer from burn out, either physically, mentally, or emotionally exhausting themselves and losing the love for what they do, or simply feeling too burnt out to continue. I have known or met a few myself in recent years.

Splashes of fall colour in the alpine, captured on a hike to Semaphore Lakes.
Splashes of fall colour in the alpine, captured on a hike to Semaphore Lakes.

I am grateful beyond words to Simone and Sarah for giving me perspective and letting me experience, once again, a balanced farm lifestyle. As I go forward in farming, I will take these lessons with me, and try to find that sweet spot, striving to find a sustainable work/life balance in what I do.

A hike to Blowdown Pass overlooking the breathtaking Stein Valley on yet another day off spent hiking.
A hike to Blowdown Pass overlooking the breathtaking Stein Valley on yet another day off spent hiking.

Harvest Season

Harvest season is officially in full swing now at Rootdown. And while it has been pretty full on for a while, now, harvesting happens six days a week, which leaves very little time for other farming tasks!

Mondays are our biggest harvest days, as we harvest the majority of our crops for both our restaurant and grocery store customers, as well as for the CSA box program which goes out the following day. Luckily we have a crew of dedicated and hard working volunteers who come every Monday and work four hours on Mondays in exchange for a weekly box of veg. Still, even with their help we are usually hard pressed to get everything harvested, washed, and packed away by the end of the day.

Then on Tuesdays we harvest salad mix and other delicate, leafy salad greens, and wash and pack those for the CSA and orders. We have an hour or two on Tuesday afternoon once Simone or Sarah leave to do the deliveries in which to do some field work. It usually involves some frantic weeding.

On Thursday we repeat the Monday routine, adding more wholesale orders to the day  but taking away the CSA and the volunteers, and then on Friday we repeat the Tuesday routine.

Another beautiful week for salad mix - even when it is challenging to harvest, the results always amaze us.
Another beautiful week for salad mix – even when it is challenging to harvest, the results always amaze us.

So that leaves Wednesday for us to get the rest of the farming tasks done. Wednesday is an immensely satisfying day. It’s not that I don’t like harvesting – I do like it, a lot. It is the time where you get to see the results of your labours in the field and harvest a beautiful and nourishing product to sell to grateful customers. Harvesting is, in fact, almost the epitome of why I love farming so much. It is when we, as farmers, get to feed people, which for me is one of the main motivators to farm and grow food in the first place.

However, I still love Wednesdays at Rootdown. It is when we get to catch up on all the weeding tasks that have been evading us for the rest of the week. Well, maybe not all, but the most pressing ones, anyway….we are only mere mortals, after all. We also get to other projects that need doing – pruning and trellising tomatoes and cucumbers in the greenhouse, or moving the pigs to their new run as we did this Wednesday morning. It is also good for moral, as it makes us feel very productive and efficient, a little bit as though we were super-farmers. And everyone deserves to feel like a super-human from time to time.

Even Wednesdays are not wholly free from harvesting these days. We have to harvest beans on Wednesday, as they have to be picked often, every 3-4 days, in order to maintain good quality, and we also usually try to get a head start on our bulk root harvests for Thursday on Wednesday afternoon. Bulk root harvesting is fun and quick. Beans, not so much.

And, last but not least, Sarah has been harvesting salad mix for a special weekend order as well as zucchini (to keep the size down) on Saturdays.

However, I am not complaining – it is the harvest season, which, after all, is the whole point of farming, isn’t it? A busy harvest season means you have been successful, and achieved at least some of your goals as a farmer.

Aurélie harvesting onions.
Aurélie harvesting onions.
Strange bedfellows - onions share a wheelbarrow with melons!
Strange bedfellows – onions share a wheelbarrow with melons!
Beautiful rainbow coloured carrots, ready to be mixed and sold to some of Whistlers finest restaurants.
Beautiful rainbow coloured carrots, ready to be mixed and sold to some of Whistlers finest restaurants.

Death – and Life – on the Farm

So the week before last we lost two of the six baby turkeys. When Aurélie  and I first agreed to take on the raising of turkeys for the farm, the idea was to raise one for each of us – so four turkeys total. But because, upon doing some research, it seemed as though turkey poults are extremely easy to accidentally kill (for example if the temperature is too hot or too cold, if they catch a disease called blackhead that chickens carry but do not get sick from, or if they simply fail to find the food and water you have given them), we decided to get two “insurance turkeys.” That way if we lost a couple we would still each have a turkey. And a good thing too, for two weeks ago  coccidiosis struck our happy, healthy little flock.

Coccidiosis is a disease that is spread by protozoan parasites of the genus Eimeria that all poultry are susceptible to, although it seems (as usual) that turkeys are more likely to get it than other types of poultry. They are also more likely to get it when they are younger and their immune systems are not strong enough to fight it off. Because it seems a little bit like the common cold or the flu in humans – birds will almost definitely be exposed to it and come in contact with it, it is whether or not they are strong enough to fend it off that determines if they will get sick from it. And while young birds can be given medicated feed to begin with or antibiotics if they become ill, that did not seem to be the route we wanted to go. It also all happened very fast – a matter of days – and we didn’t really get the chance even if we had wanted to.

Not that we knew any of that when our first poult got sick. But sick she definitely was – she was huddled up in the brooder, with her head drawn back into her shoulders. She wasn’t moving much, and she wasn’t eating or drinking much either. Without knowing what was wrong with her, we put her into a little incubator brooder, with food and water and a heat lamp, and hoped for the best. She was dead by morning.

At that point I had done some research and was pretty sure it was coccidiosis, but by the end of the day, another poult was showing similar signs. So into the incubator he went, and two days later he was dead too. The other four poults seemed to be healthy and strong, but we gave their brooder area a thorough clean, nonetheless, and began putting apple cider vinegar into their water as a preventative immune booster. And maybe we were just lucky, but the remaining poults seemingly had strong enough immune systems to fight the parasites off.

On a happier note, the lucky (or strong) survivors got moved from their brooder to their new range last week. We decided that at six weeks old they were big and feathered out enough to survive the still somewhat chilly night time temperatures. Which is a good thing, as they were fast outgrowing their brooder, and kept on trying to fly the coop – literally. Not to mention that while we had to keep them in an insulated brooder to keep them warm enough at first, animals with access to fresh air and pasture always seem so much healthier and happier than their cooped up counterparts.

It has been a fun week watching they poults explore their new home. At first they were very perturbed, and simply sat inside the new brooder, refusing to go outside. But then they realised there was grass, and shade and probably bugs too, and now they are all over it. In a few weeks we will expand their run more, giving them access to more space and grass, as well as some trees for their roosting pleasure.

And so while there was death on the farm, there were also turkeys that survived to see the great wide world outside of the brooder. Now they will get to enjoy the fresh air and the grass – at least until Thanksgiving.

The young turkeys cautiously exploring their new home.
The young turkeys cautiously exploring their new home.
Getting a little braver now…

The Fullness of Summer

A mornings harvest of greens, fresh in from the fields.
A mornings harvest of greens, fresh in from the fields.

Summer on a farm is a busy time. Most of the days on a farm are busy, but in summer, things really ramp up. July has been a busy month at Rootdown as the CSA (weekly veggie box) program began the last week of June, meaning that in addition to the harvest, weeding, seeding, and transplanting we had already been doing, we added harvest, packing, and delivery for a 70 person CSA to the weekly docket. The good thing is, that while there is some overlap, the spring and early summer tasks of weeding and planting do start to wind down just as the crazy harvesting of high summer begins (that continues to build right into the fall – the peak of harvest season).

And while summer is busy and rather hectic on a diversified, mixed farm, the benefits are huge too. As Simone said the other day at lunch when we had our first large tomatoes of the year, “The season of eating has begun.” There is heaps of food right now. Salad mix is beautiful and abundant; there is kale, chard, collards, broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, carrots, beets and more. The real tell tale signs of summer have arrived as well – namely, cucumbers, basil, tomatoes, and even eggplant. Those last crops are serious heat lovers, and only produce after a significant amount of hot weather. Oh, and we also began harvesting the garlic last week, even though it is apparently not normally harvested until August here. But it has been a crazy year, and everything is about two weeks early, it seems.

Garlic, one of the most satisfying crops to harvest.
Garlic, one of the most satisfying crops to harvest.
Cherry tomatoes, a sure sign of summer.
Cherry tomatoes, a sure sign of summer.
Aurélie showing off some beautiful radishes.
Aurélie showing off some beautiful radishes.
Even some melons are on their way.
Even some melons are on their way!

 And so we feast, spending much of our time working in the fields dreaming of what will be part of dinner that night, or the next, or the next. I often lament that there are not enough meals to keep up with high summer. And, while I do work up an appetite during the day, it is not enough to keep the inevitable bucket of something from ending up on the compost pile. Sigh, oh well, it is going back to feed the soil next year.

On another note, we had a week of crazy smoke a week ago in Pemberton. As is evident from the news, BC is going up in flames these days. Scary, when you consider that the wildfires were off the charts by beginning of July, when normally fire season in BC doesn’t really get going until August. It was also scary to be in area so affected by the fires and the smoke. I had never before experienced that. The mountains surrounding Pemberton disappeared in the haze, and the thick smoke made it feel like a foggy winter day on the West Coast. The smoke, however, was a lot less pleasant than a foggy day, bringing headaches, scratchy throats, and mosquitoes along with it.

Thankfully, however, the smoke cleared last week, and there were some cooler temperatures and even a small bit of rain. While the wildfires near Pemberton are still burning, I have heard that they are getting closer to containing them, and that the Ilaho fire (the largest one) has at least not grown in size this past week. Fingers crossed. It would probably also be appropriate to say here how much I appreciate the work of the fire fighters working to combat the fires – yay fire fighters!

A field near the farm - on the worst days we could not even see the mountain in the background.
A field near the farm – on the worst days we could not even see the mountain in the background.

Other than smoke and the busyness of summer, everything else is trucking along. The animals continue to grow bigger and fatter – the pigs are getting rowdier every day at feeding time, the little chicks are almost full grown chickens now, the turkeys seem bigger every time I see them, and the lambs (yes, there are a couple of lambs too) are growing plump on their diet of fresh grass and dandelions.

And I am enjoying the fullness of summer on a farm.

The pigs are much bigger than this now.
The pigs are much bigger than this now.
Making friends.
Making friends.

On Project Turkey and Farming Cooperatives

Project Turkey has begun at Rootdown – a.k.a. the six day-old turkey poults arrived in the mail from the hatchery last Tuesday. They are still cute right now, before they turn into awkward and homely turkeys. A few weeks back Simone and Sarah approached Aurélie and I and asked us if we wanted to take on raising some turkeys, with the idea being we would raise one turkey for each of us. All would share in daily turkey chores, but Aurélie and I would be the ones keeping tabs on what the turkeys needed and when and why. We were definitely into it.

Apparently, however, turkeys are very sensitive to temperature and can die if they get too cold, and there are a few diseases that they are prone to catching that can be fatal. They also need to be shown repeatedly where their food and water is in the first few days, as they may not find it on their own and can die of starvation with food right in their pen. Basically, young turkey poults are delicate creatures, and so we decided to get two “insurance turkeys” on top of the four needed for us each to have one by Thanksgiving.

We constructed a small turkey brooder out of cardboard in the corner of what used to be a very well insulated winter chicken house, put in the necessary heat lamps and heaters, and all has been going well so far. Aurélie and I camped out the first night so that we could monitor the temperature and make sure the turkeys survived their first night at least. Since then, we have had some cold nights, and the brooder temperature has dropped down a couple of degrees below what it should have been, but our turkeys seem to be fine, and in fact seem to prefer it a little on the cooler side. They also caught on to eating and drinking quite fast. Must be good genetics. Fingers crossed this keeps up!

On another note entirely, Aurélie and I went down to the lower mainland this weekend past to visit a couple of different farming cooperatives, which I am very interested in. On both we were generously toured around the farms, with our hosts giving us their valuable time in order for us to glean some inspiration from the workings of other farms.

Farming coops or even business partnerships, such as the one between Sarah and Simone at Rootdown, seem to offer many benefits, not least of which is the ability to share the workload inherent in running a business and in farming. Being a small business owner, and a farmer to boot, means small scale organic veggie farmers have a lot on their plates these days. On top of the work needed to grow and harvest the veggies, it all most be sold, your farm must have an attractive logo and online presence, and customers need to be looked after. So why not share some of that with a business partner or other cooperative members?

The first we visited was Glen Valley Organic Farm Co-op, which is a model where about 50 or so members cooperatively own the 50 acres that the farm is on, and there are two independent farm businesses on the farm. It is a beautiful farm on the banks of the Fraser River, in a beautiful area, complete with a wooded area as well as pasture land. The farmers who run the businesses are also members of the coop, and are also the residents and main caretakers of the property and infrastructure. In this way, the land is kept as farmland by caring and concerned citizens, as well as being made more affordable for farmers wishing to make a living running a viable organic farm business. Glen Valley Coop has been operating as an organic farm for over 15 years. Currently the two businesses that are part of Glen Valley Farm Coop are Close to Home Organics, and Pitchfork Organic Farm, although they are accepting applications now for new resident farmers next year…hmmm…tempting.

The other farm we went to was Glorious Organics, which is a cooperatively owned and operated farm in Aldergrove. It was a beautiful farm as well, with many different fields and meandering pathways, lots of native vegetation, and trees. Glorious Organics is the farm business, and it is situated on Fraser Common Farm, a separate housing cooperative that owns the land. Many members of the housing cooperative that live on the farm are not part of Glorious Organics, and some members of Glorious Organics are not part of the housing cooperative. Or at least that was how I understood it. Fraser Common Farm has been cooperatively owned and managed for nearly 40 years, with an organic farm business running successfully since 1986.

Glorious Organics made their name, so to speak, by doing beautiful, high end salad mix. While we, regretfully, did not get to see any of the finished product, we did see their flower greenhouse and area, where much of the flowers and herbs that go into some of their mixes are grown. There were wild roses, chrysanthemums, nasturtiums, borage, annise hyssop, and many more that I can’t remember or couldn’t identify. One of their salad mixes is called the Celebration Salad Mix, and I imagine it does feel celebratory opening that bag of loveliness.

Reverend, the lama. In the background are the chickens that he guards.
Reverend, the lama. In the background are the chickens that he guards.

We also visited with my good friend, Teresa, and saw the farm she works on. Zaklan Heritage Farm is a farm run by a young couple on some family land smack in the middle of Surrey! It is amazing – you can’t even tell it is there until you turn down a little dead-end cul-de-sac, and lo and behold, tucked in amongst the suburban neighbourhood of Surrey sits a beautiful mixed vegetable farm, complete with bees, chickens, and a lama named Reverend. And yet when you are on the farm you feel decidedly as though you are, well, on a farm, and can almost forget you are in the middle of the city.

The weekend filled me with inspiration and ideas. It was great to see some interesting cooperative models of farming, meet some friendly and interesting farmers, and geek out on all things farm related. It was a decidedly nerdy weekend, in a very farmy kind of way, but I thoroughly enjoyed myself!

One of Those Moments

A lovely morning at Rootdown, taken from the northern most of end of the farm.
A lovely morning at Rootdown, taken from the northern most of end of the farm.

I had one of those moments today. One of those, “Ah, yes! This is why I farm,” moments. One of those moments where my gratitude for having found this work washes over me. One of those moments where I am exactly where I want to be.

It happened unexpectedly, when I was hand weeding salad mix with Aurélie. We were weeding and chatting; the sun was out, the wind was up, both cooling us down and blowing the cursed mosquitoes and blackflies of the morning away. We were hypothesising on a curious sort of death that was happening in the salad mix, where a bunch of the weeds, and a little bit of the seeded crops were withering and dying – was it sun burn? Was it damping off due to too much water? Was it some kind of beneficial insect that mostly targeted the weeds (how great would that be!?)? 

And as we discussed and wondered, as we weeded, as the sun warmed me and the wind cooled me down, I suddenly realised how perfect the moment was, and how I wanted to keep doing this forever. Not that I wanted to hand weed salad mix forever, but that, if it is within my power, I wanted to keep farming for the rest of the time I’ve got. That I wanted to keep trying to figure out how and why plants grow, that I wanted to keep working outside with the sun and the wind and the rain and, yes, I suppose I can even accept the bugs when I must. I realised in that moment, and with startling clarity, how I want to keep learning the complex art of farming for many, many more years to come.

And while I am not a religious person, in that moment I felt truly blessed. And I still do.

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.

The Pigs Are Here!

My first glimpse of the new piglets in the trailer.
My first glimpse of the new piglets in the trailer.
The new piglets, starting to explore their new home.
Starting to explore their new home.

The pigs have arrived at Rootdown! How exciting.

They arrived at the very end of our work day, so I only got a brief chance to see them and say hi, but I am definitely smitten already. While they seemed hot and a little bothered from their trailer ride from the lower mainland (Chilliwack, I believe), they seemed to start getting very comfortable with their new digs very quickly. It took them no time at all to find their water (and climb into it to cool down!), and to start chowing down on the grass and rooting around with their noses for tasty – you guessed it – roots.

The smart little guy was the first one into the watering trough to cool down.
This smart little guy was the first one into the watering trough to cool down.

They are Tamworth-Berkshire cross, and Sarah and Simone sell them through a Pig Share program. People pay a deposit early in the season on either a half or a whole pig, and then pay the remaining cost once all is said and done and the pigs have been to the butcher. Tamworth pigs are a hardy breed that are good on pasture, and Berkshire are renown for the amazing flavour of their meat. I’ve yet to try pork from a Berkshire pig, but it sounds like a pretty good mix to me.

Later this week we will start training them on the electric fence, (by running electric fencing just on the inside of metal fencing) so that by the end of the week we can do away with the heavier duty metal fencing, and give them a larger run using only electric fence to keep them where they are supposed to be. And least that is the theory, we’ll see how it goes in actual practice!

Much more to come on the topic of pigs later, you can be sure.

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.