Saturday, June 01, 2013

Screaming Trees and Mud Balls

The wind screams so loud through our trees at night here, it sounds like a gigantic waterfall. Many years ago, camped near Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe, I would listen to the rushing water as I lay in my tent and wonder, 'Why is the water in such a ferocious hurry?'

Now, I ask the same of the wind. What is she screaming about?

Possibly, she is echoing the distress of local farmers. Though we had a few days of dry sunshine last week, we've just endured another two days of rain. Forecast says cloudy but dry for a few days and then, mid-week, back to rain again. If that happens, Brent says flatly, "We're toast."

In that brief, dry window, last Tuesday, I managed to plant all my popcorn. The growing season is so short here, maybe five months, that there is always an urgency to growing. Of course, I only experience a tiny whiff of the creeping panic felt by farmers who depend on their crops to feed their families and pay their bills.

With all the crop insurance, planting deadlines, seeding contracts and set per-bushel prices - not to mention a seemingly endless list of legal exceptions and requirements - farming has become a maze of paperwork, requiring a gambler's iron gut that can also handle the Wild Card aspect of Mother Nature. As my cousin, Wayne, said to me recently, "Farming used to just be farming, now it's all business."

Brent, re-tilling my garden plot last week - huge help.
Behold, my popcorn varieties and days to maturity: 
  • Dakota Black (95-105) - attempted last year, edible
  • Strawberry (85 - 100) - ornamental and edible
  • Painted Mountain (65-90)- ornamental only
Last year, my Dakota Black didn't make it - a combination of inconsistent watering, mold and possibly, some animal snackage. I'm giving it another try with my muddy fingers crossed. It's a local organic seed (Prairie Road Organic Seed) and produced by a nice North Dakota girl (and her family) that I met at the Organic Farming Conference in 2012.

The other seeds are from Landreths', officially D. Landreth Seed Company, established 229 years ago. (Their catalogs are gorgeous. You should order one - the illustrations alone are exceptional. Everything is designed and printed here in the US.)

The day after planting popcorn, I sowed watermelon - which I had tremendous luck with last year - eggplant, peppers and tomatoes. My chosen varieties and days to mature:
  • Moon & Stars watermelon (85)
  • Sugar Baby watermelon (78-80)
  • Black Beauty eggplant (80 days from transplant)
  • Canary Bell peppers (72 days from transplant)
  • Rainbow Blend, cherry tomatoes (65 days from transplant)
  • Red & Yellow Pear Blend, cherry tomatoes (75 days from transplant) 

So, yeah, most of this stuff should have been started indoors back in March or April but alas, I do not have a system for that and no, I don't have enough room in my pick-up to carry delicate seedlings all the way from Long Beach. This puts me at a disadvantage but my optimism and ignorance served me so well last year, I'm hoping the magic holds.

Lilac trees on farm
Meanwhile, the weather is wreaking havoc across the land. Brent is on edge and nervous, to say the least. ("Good thing I'm not a drinkin' man.") Crop insurance deadlines loom and there are too many farmers now facing a lost year and summer fallow. Even a total stranger on Twitter sent me a direct message, wishing me luck: "Cheers to making the crop insurance deadline!" People who live off the land, in all directions, are on pins and needles right now.

This morning, Brent described one guy with 8,000 acres who only has 1,000 acres seeded due to flooded fields. Another guy, too impatient to be held off by mud bulls, tried seeding one of his fields and quickly regretted it. His seeder (ginormous machines with six-digit price tags) got stuck in the mud and had to be pulled out with a "stiff arm" (back-hoe); ultimately, the machine had to be taken apart and removed in three separate pieces - a logistical, financial and emotional disaster.

"It's like my dad always said to me, 'If you have a good year, then a bad year will surely follow,'" said Brent. "And sure enough, last year was peaches and cream, so here we are."

To avoid another night literally boxed in here, I bought myself a ticket to go see Eric Bergeson, "the country scribe", tonight at Akra Hall in Cavalier. He's a five-time author, pens a column, "Down on the Farm", and speaks all over the region - kind of like a super-local Garrison Keiller, I presume. His site offers this rousing review:
"Thanks so much for your performance last night and for upping the attendance at our annual Pea Soup Supper. You even got some of the reserved Swedes to show their teeth when they smiled!"
So, there's that.

Image of Akra Hall: North Dakota Parks and Recreation Department
 Also, the wide-eyed girl who sold me the ticket claims that Strawberry Rhubarb and Juneberry pie will be available. Before the show, I'll be getting my propane tanks filled up and searching for a bar that is showing the LA Kings-Chicago Blackhawks game. Chances are, I'll be having a whiskey with that and toasting to dryer soil SOON. 

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