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.

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.

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!