March 29, 2009

Some days are better than Christmas. One person’s junk is another’s treasure. Yesterday was like both of those.

In the early afternoon, my farming parner and I were clunking along on what I fondly call "a toad". A "toad" is any vehiclular voyage involving my farming partner, because all such trips take on an air of Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride at Disneyland. The only certainties are that the vehicle may or may not perform to standards, and that one cannot know where one might end up. Barely being able to offload our load of gravel at a local airstrip got the afternoon started, and soon we were bouncing along in the International bobtail truck on our way to a Colusa lumberyard….going out of business. The men who ran the yard were wonderful, as in, the more stuff I asked about, the more things ended up in the back of the International. Pressure-treated 4"x4"s for free, 2"x2" redwood cheap, huge redwood timbers cheap, C/D plywood sheets cheap, roofing sheet free, paint brushes cheap, slighly damaged bags of sand free, screen doors cheap… only got better with time. However, it seemed like about a half century of dust lay on a lot of the items since as we left clouds swirled off the flatbed of the truck. And that was just the beginning, the next stop was a foreclosed country home in Maxwell. Friends run a business that cleans up properties after bank foreclosures. They invite others to come in and troll for treasure, since anything that gets taken away is one less item they have to clean up. Sheets and sheets of metal roofing were added to my goodie pile…sans the really gigantic rat that had been making a home there. And a huge, heavy doghouse of 2"x6" construction may be obtained another day. So all in all I saved probably $600+ in supplies for building poultry housing as a result of the day’s adventure. And I almost forgot to mention that in the morning, a gift came from some local neighbors who cleaned out a storage area–a brand new stainless steel 3’x’6’x 8" wash table with stand included. After 20 minutes of polishing, it’s out there flaming in the sun, waiting to clean its first batch of vegetables. Yes, Christmas in March, and what a "toad" it was……..

March 12, 2009

  I don’t think I’ve ever written in any depth about "CSA day". That’s the term I use for the day our main farm product gets assembled and sent out the door each week. This is a big deal, both for the work involved and the small matter of this being our main source of farm income. You may cue up your personal copy of Queen’s "The Show Must Go On", if only in your mental background. See the picture? That used to be our living room. That’s 3 tables covered with 30 filled CSA boxes for our customers, with our box storage table in the background.

CSA day really isn’t just one day, as work starts on Tuesday. A phone call goes to my farming partner to ask for citrus, which he generously picks and delivers to the farm. He is told how many boxes, and he picks citrus in increments of the boxes. For example, if I want 8 lemons in each box and 4 oranges, he knows he needs 275 lemons and 150 oranges. No, my math isn’t wrong, we need extra because invariably some of the fruit is too damaged (or just too ugly) to be sent to clients. Quite often the fruit is dirty, because birds and dust and weather all work their special magic. The best case scenario is that they need a light rinse with the hose. Worst case, each fruit needs to come into the house for individual scrubbing with soap and water and a towel dry. So just the citrus prep alone can take anywhere from 90 minutes to 4 hours. If I am including bagged items like rice, almonds, etc., this is also the time I’ll pack those and set them aside in a bin for tomorrow. Tuesday also sees the box preparation. I take my notebook, which lists every client getting a box that week and any particulars pertaining to their delivery ("needs melon", "no grapefruit", whatever the case may be). Each box stacked on the storage table is taken down and referenced against the notebook. In a perfect world, a returned, pre-labelled delivery box from each client exists somewhere in the stack. Alas! The world is never perfect! Boxes with ready labels are noted by a single checkmark next to each client name, and placed on one of three tables according to delivery region: Davis, Woodland or Colusa County. Then the notebook is examined for who doesn’t yet have a box. Some new boxes may be brought into service, but more commonly other extras are re-labelled until the tables are complete and there is a box for every client. Next a second check of the boxes takes place, with a second checkmark in the notebook. A physical count also takes place, the number of boxes on the table must match the number of clients listed in the notebook. Somewhere in there, time spent in the office produces a last check of email correspondence prior to packing, any needed labels, and correct entries into the accounting software for all charges and any new client information. There is also a double check of the information in my iPhone and on iCal, which are the electronic backups for my paper notebook. Whew. Next each box needs a clean plastic liner. Box lids are opened, liners attached, and any recycled/returned packing materials sorted. New liners usually need to be brought out and used on boxes where the old liner didn’t come back. Once this is all done, it’s time to get outside. I survey the gardens late on the weekend in order to have a general idea what will be picked. Before Tuesday is over, any citrus will already be placed in the boxes. If I have ordered cabbage from another farm, I will drive to obtain that produce. I meet with a lovely woman named Aloon, who does all the field work with her friend Mun. I am likely misspelling their names, both ladies are from Southeast Asia and both of them are phenomenal in the field. They deliver heavy boxes of perfect organic cabbage or broccoli that we both struggle to lift into the car. I then drive home right away and store the cabbage in the cool dark of our shop. If it’s broccoli, each head needs to go right away into an individual  plastic bag to maintain humidity. By now it is often mid to late afternoon. I have to decide if I am picking salad…if so, it takes hours to wash and dry the leaves and I should start picking right away. If not, I can turn to other jobs. Especially, collecting eggs. Our egg sales have been very popular and it is a good idea to collect and process eggs before work stops for the day. Each egg is washed in soap and water, air dryed, and examined under a candling light to make sure there are no defects. The egg cartons are filled, dated, and placed in the refrigerator. It depends, but often work is occuring until about 9pm or later. But don’t feel too bad, I don’t get up at 5 am. 7:30 is more my style. If the woodstove is used to heat the house at all on Tuesday evening, it must be kept damped down so the house will be as cool as possible for the benefit of the vegetables on the next day.

Wednesday morning, and now crunch time starts. But NEVER before coffee at my farming partner’s house. (I have to greet Smudgepot my little grey kitty ["Smudgie" for short] and feed her.) More bad work is done without coffee and the morning comics page than is worth the risk….Three different gardens have harvest-able vegetables. First I drive to Dunnigan for kale bunches, fennel, cilantro, turnips, and maybe spinach. Spinach is picked as individual leaves into buckets, the buckets are turned out into bins in the back of a Toyota station wagon. Turnips may be stacked in the front seat, and fennels may wave out the rear passenger window. Everything picked must get home quickly before it can wilt. Spinach goes into a clean 35 gallon garbage can filled with fresh water. Greens do much better if soaked. Insects float to the surface, dirt sinks to the bottom. Spinach espeically needs two different cans of water because the leaves become splattered with soil during rainfall. Turnips need their roots trimmed and soil washed away. After everything is squared away, it’s time to go to the other gardens. Anything ripe and threatening to become over-mature needs to be picked, regardless of what it is. Then the guesswork starts…do I have enough to fill the boxes? Too much? I usually err on the side of too much. I look next for other mature vegetables. Right now that could be collard greens, kohlrabi, more cabbage, beets, chard, radicchio, who knows. Anything I find that will work all goes into the garden cart and is hauled back to the house. As each item is washed and checked, the stacks pile higher in the clean yellow tote bins we use. In the meantime, I also have to run interference against the birds. The turkeys and peafowl see the bins of vegetables and if left unattended, they’ll help themselves to any greenery that looks good to them. At some point, hopefully not later than 3pm, it’s finally time to fill the boxes. Tote after tote is carried inside, and one by one the vegetables are placed in the boxes. Some vegetables are huge, others not so much. Because of the size difference, two boxes with technically the same contents can appear quite different as to fullness. If a box doesn’t seem full, I go in search of extra items I can add to fix that. During the packing process, I write down what vegetables and fruit I’m using for reference later. It’s so easy to forget about items! Finally, all the boxes will be full, the liners are wrapped over the vegetables to retain moisture, and the lids closed. Next the notebook and I go to the office, and it’s time to write the CSA email. There are always three parts to this: the recipient list, announcements/discussion items, and information about the vegetables. It can take anywhere from 45 minutes to 2 hours to compose and send this. Next it’s time to do the delivery lists. Ken and I each get seperate printouts of who gets what for the next day so that we can double check the boxes against this list as we load our cars…it is the final inspection that we didn’t forget anyone or goof anything up. Special instructions or changes to the routine must be noted here. For new clients it is sometimes necessary to search and print maps. Now it’s time to label eggs. Back goes the notebook and client labels are placed on egg cartons. They are then packed into an ice chest and loaded into the cars with the boxes. Next it’s back into the office, because usually some clients have questions or concerns which need a response. Since we want to be personally accesible to all our customers, some hours each day are spent in correspondence. Finally, I package and store any leftover produce for later use so it stays nice and fresh. And then, at last, it’s time to stop work. Just a little glimpse into how those boxes come to be!

March 7, 2009

"And that, madam judge, are the reasons I have placed the cabbages in the order of 2, 1, 3, and 4".  I spent most of this Saturday listening to about 60 variation on that speech, because I was invited to be a judge at a vegetable crops contest for FFA (Future Farmers of America) hosted by the Vegetable Crops department at UC Davis.

There were onions, tomatoes, potatoes, and of course the cabbages for the students to evaluate, in addition to a wide variety of other horticultural tests and questions. I find myself musing as to the series of events that paved my way there. I by no means consider myself a professional cabbage grower quite yet, but this year I was introduced to farmers who are, the McAravey brothers in nearby Dunnigan. My farming partner has been friends with the brothers for many long years, and would often tell me about their growing operation. I remember being mystified upon learning about them, since at that time I was busy following the "lies and fairy tales" contained on the back of the packets of cabbage seed. I had thought you couldn’t grow cabbage here, because of after years of carefully following the instructions on the seed packets, I had never grown a decent cabbage. Yet, if someone was doing it, there was obviously a method. I learned how the seed is started in June or July, under shade cloth, in the blistering summers. Then the transplants are put into the field sometime in late July or August. And on this schedule, with even watering, they grow……who knew. So for the first time this season, I have been able to see the progess of a cabbage grown at the right time from seedling to maturity. There is no substitute for personally viewing this process in any crop, in fact, it’s essential to observe this in order to understand the plant in question. When I was asked to come to this contest initially, I was going to bring table beets. But, the goal involves showing the students relatively common commercial vegetables, and all the beets I grow are very un-common. Not to mention, I have either 10 lb. titans that I’m hoping to raise for seed, or small baby beets that I don’t yet want to sacrifice to outside purposes. So, I needed another crop. Coincidentally I had just purchased some cabbage for my CSA clients and had rather over-ordered. So, cabbage it was. Then yesterday I realized, I need to know a lot more about this. Three hours online and a phone call to the McAraveys later, I had more information on cabbages than I’ve ever been aware of. Did you know they are one of the most consumed vegetables in the world, ranking in the top four? That they have more vitamin C than oranges, have four main classifications (green storage, savoyed, red, and miniature/specialty)? That many of the modern hybrids are bred for superior sweetness and disease resistance? Of course not, who would? The FFA students had the task to rate four plates, each holding two cabbages selected and arranged by me. They weren’t allowed to touch the cabbages, and then had to come into a room with just the two of us, introduce themselves, and state clearly and in an organized fashion their choices (best plate to worst) and the reasons for their rankings. A lovely gentleman who is on staff at Vegetable Crops guided me through the first part of this process, as I’m unfamiliar with the world of FFA. The interaction with the students fascinated me, as it was a chance to see into the mind of the typical produce consumer. Many of the students obviously knew nothing about cabbage except what they read somewhere, and likely had never purchased or eaten one. So for those who had no experience with the vegetable, choices were made based on visual appeal that were not in the best interest if selecting the highest quality vegetables. I was also supposed to be judging their rhetorical skills and their overall poise and presentation. There were the students who were so prepared and articulate that it was hard not to stare open-mouthed. One young woman quoted verbatim the USDA cabbage standards for stem length and quantity of allowable wrapper leaves for market….that reflected, in my opinion, exceptional effort and preparation!….but really, the best part of all was seeing what FFA is doing for these young people. How many, in today’s world, can say they met a teenager who introduces themselves, gives a firm handshake, looks you in the eye, and then without looking at notes, speaks clearly and in an organized fashion as to what they think on a topic for a minute or two? These students are being prepared to be successful by having the life skills that matter to interact with other people in a confident and polished manner. It is worth anyone’s time to contribute to this kind of effort, and I was very pleased to have been invited to participate in this. It also made me realize that in ag, maybe more so than in other facets of society, people tend to be evaluated quickly by their comportment–how they carry themselves, how they speak, their manners, their ability to portray themselves as knowledgeable and genuine. Future Farmers, indeed.