Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Corn Smut and Other Surprises

My blossoming peas
Without a doubt, I am a much better farmer than I was last year. I still sleep more than the average dirt lover but at least weeds-wise, I'm ahead of the game. I greet my exploding plants every day ("Hi, babies!"), inspect everyone, pull the beetles off the eggplants, encourage the tomatoes and redirect the over-achieving squash vines, often in vain. When things don't come up, I don't waste time and replant with lettuce, spinach, onions or herbs - something with a short maturity time.

My table at last week's Farmers Market
During yesterday's plant check, I came across a disturbing sight on my Painted Mountain ornamental corn:

A bulbous alien invasion on my cob
Something evil is attacking my plant! Tragedy! But after some research (meaning I posted a photo on Facebook and got informed), it's less disastrous than originally thought. Yes, it's a fungus but it's called Corn Smut (technically huitlacoche, pronounced "weet-la-KO-chay") and is actually a delicacy that tastes like mushrooms. And while I may not get the beautiful patterned corn I was hoping for, I did get introduced to a whole new crop - a natural disaster I can eat!

Once I figure out how to cook it, that is.

Ripening canola field off Hwy 29
Yesterday, I also harvested lots of sage. I planted two bunches right at the end of the carrots, an effort at companion planting. The sage is thriving, however, the aforementioned greedy squash (3 kinds) vines are taking over like an insatiable Audrey II so I wanted to harvest while the plants could still be located.

I hear things about using sage for seasoning, especially turkey stuffing, but really, all I want is to make sage bundles for burning away bad juju. The smell evokes both my beloved California desert home in Twentynine Palms and Colorado Circles, held with friends of spirit and laughter. I hope to burn many a bundle, send off a few, save some for gifts or maybe even sell 'em. We shall see.


Approximately 30 minutes after I posted my bit about not being ready for bigger markets and lacking things like, y'know, adequate produce quantities and food scales, Brent pulled up and whipped out a fancy scale for me to use:

Ta-da! Spinach not included.
Talk about service! I still have to get enough baby spinach leaves to make the delivery to Grand Forks worth my gas but I may do it regardless. Can you imagine? SCRANCH produce for sale in a real organic store? Do you know how long this milestone would take in California? It boggles the mind.

Me with a wind turbine arm - it's like a whale
Here's the big headline for this week: I'm getting an intern!! (And yes, I just used more than one exclamation point, something I am otherwise vehemently against, but this calls for additional punctuation.) I won't state her name or use her image in this space until I have her express permission but she is the daughter of a longtime friend and she arrives on Monday for a 5-day visit. I am PSYCHED.

Edge of a wind turbine
I can hardly believe it, the very first intern at Second Chance Ranch. While she is here, I plan to harvest the garlic and test out of the solar oven, among other things. It's unbelievable to me that such a bright young woman (a botany student!) would willingly visit my empire of dirt but if she's that crazy, I'm open to providing all the entertainment and plant-related enlightenment she can stand.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Market Sort-of-Ready

Watermelon patch view: popcorn on right, squash on left
Second Chance Ranch produce - is it market-ready? Well, yes and no.

Yes, because the local Farmer's Market (in Cavalier, Pop. 1,302) started last Thursday and I certainly had the most produce of any vendor there. I brought three kinds of lettuce - Romaine, Buttercrunch and Marvel of Four Seasons - plus two kinds of spinach (Lavewa and Monstrueux de Viroflay), plus Lemon basil, cilantro and onions. Not much, but enough to kick off the season.

Gotta move those heads!
There were just four vendors and most had brought baked goods - always a big seller. I always get nervous about how much to pull for the market - too much and you've got leftover produce; not enough and you are missing sales. It's a tricky deal and I worry about it all market-day long. Still, I was so proud of my lettuce heads, they were so massive, so green and so beautiful! I felt like a proud mama, albeit, one that is willing to sell off her babies for $3 a pop.

Lettuce bed
Bonus, there was a sweet little girl there named Shelby who sold me an Orange Soda cupcake for 75 cents:


I ended up making about $42, which is a healthy start. Tomorrow's market should be bigger as they are having an annual Art in the Park thingamaroo with music, games, hot dogs and the like. Hopefully, it will bring in more people; the biggest challenge here in these parts is not enough customers. 

Western half, coming in thick!
SO, on my way back from Fargo last week, I stopped in Grand Forks at my favorite NoDak organic grocery store, Amazing Grains, to inquire about their produce needs. Some fellow organic farmers (Shelby's parents, actually) had mentioned that they might need some local spinach. 

Mind you, I was just curious about it. Well, in about five minutes, I had a deal with the produce manager, Rex, to deliver spinach. Currently, they sell spinach shipped from California and would much prefer to sell locally grown. I scribbled down a few of their needs (baby spinach, loose leaf, 20 lbs. a week, triple-washed, deliver in 2 lb. bags) and told Rex I'd follow up by phone. He is open to starting out with even a 4-lb.-per-week delivery but would like to schedule a "tasting" with his staff since I have so many varieties.

Reality is, I don't think I can fulfill this order. I've got lots of spinach but most is large leaf varieties and the one baby leaf I've planted (Bourdeaux) hasn't shown up yet. Plus, do you know how much spinach it would take to make 20 pounds? Or even 4 lbs.? A LOT. 

How would I weigh it? Where do I find 2 lb. bags? Would the money I make even cover the petrol cost of the 190.6 mile round-trip weekly delivery drive?

Sadly, the answers are 1) I don't know 2) I have no idea and 3) Not likely. 

Eastern half, including the fancy new water tank!

Looks like I'm too big for the little market and still too little for the big market.  Still, it's encouraging to know how easily I can get my produce into stores here and that there is definitely a market for organic produce in the land of industrial farming.

Monday, July 15, 2013

DIG IT: Tilling Traditions, Sprayed Down

North view from the Pembina Museum tower
This time of year is truly beautiful here in North Dakota. Under wide open blue skies, fields in every direction are a gorgeous lush green, bursting with the potential of sugar beets, wheat, corn, soybeans, edible beans, canola and sunflower. My eyes have grown so used to a deep-green-and-powder-blue palette, they may never accept the color grey again.

Which is exactly why it is so startling when one comes upon a "dead field" that is a crispy pale brown:

Dead field - note the sprayer tracks.
What's up with these sad fields? Evidently, there's a relatively new approach to dealing with a damaged field, and unfortunately, it involves adding more chemicals to the soil. As with all things farming, such methods are directed by market demands, fuel prices and efficiency. When one is dealing with a limited growing season (May-October, sometimes less), time is money, in the most literal sense.

Dead field
Back in the day, letting a field lie inactive was a standard part of crop rotation, a way of 'resting' the soil and planting a simple cover crop (oats, rye, flax, alfalfa, etc.) to add more nitrogen in the spring. (This also helps minimize soil erosion, especially in a windy place like NoDak.) But that was in a time of cheaper land - say $300 per acre as opposed to $8K per acre - and these days, farmers must use every available scrap of land to justify investment costs.

Dead field with water damage
Due to heavy rains and and flooding in the region, this is a record year for fields that cannot be planted. (In farming and, likely, insurance jargon, these are known as "prevent-plant" acres, or simply, PP.) Government estimates reveal that up to 2 million acres of North Dakota farmland will lie empty this year and all of those acres in the upper half of the state - North North Dakota, if you will.

But even when the rains stop, waiting for a field to dry out and become till-able again is a risky guessing game. Too soon and your expensive machinery can get horribly stuck, all the while making mud balls and damaging the land even further with deep ruts. Wait too long and you'll miss the deadline. Cut off dates for planting are determined by (government-subsidized) insurance companies, and once the date has passed for planting corn (say. May 25), that's it - no corn for you.

Planted field quickly being overtaken by weeds
At this point, the average farmer would simply "till under", meaning they would cultivate the topsoil under and leave it black - this is called "summer fallow". This ancient practice kept weeds from taking over the field completely and it had to be done at least twice before planting a cover crop.

These days, a farmer faces a decision: Till it under or spray the whole field with Round Up?

One local farmer famously insists on tilling - no RoundUp
Fact is, it has become cheaper, and more efficient for a farmer to take the Round-Up route and kill off everything without tillage. This practice has become the norm within the last 5-6 years, thanks to several factors:
  • Cost of diesel fuel went up and stayed there
  • Cost of equipment is always increasing
  • Cost of Round-Up has dropped
This last point is worth noting because Monsanto's patents on Round-Up expired in 2000, thus, all kinds of generic versions of Round-Up (anything with glyphosate) now flood the market. Manufacturers such as Bayer, Dow AgroSciences, Du Pont, Cenex/Land O’Lakes, Helena, Platte, Riverside/Terra and Zeneca essentially sell RoundUp under these product names:
Accord, Aquaneat, Aquamaster, Bronco, Buccaneer, Campain, Clearout 41 Plus, Clear-up, Expedite, Fallow Master, Genesis Extra I, Glyfos Induce, Glypro, GlyStar Induce, GlyphoMax Induce, Honcho, JuryR, Landmaster, MirageR, Pondmaster, Protocol, Prosecutor, Ranger, Rascal, Rattler, Razor Pro, Rodeo, I, Silhouette, Touchdown IQ.
Also, I learned that RoundUp has to "hit the leaf" of a growing weed, otherwise it won't work. The chemical actually causes cells of the plant to duplicate themselves until it essentially shuts down. (Same basic theory as making foie gras, from what I understand.)

There are ongoing debates about no-till farming, with proponents insisting that tillage causes carbons to escape, thus adding to the climate change problem. Honestly, I have no idea but this recent trend of adding even more chemicals to the soil makes me uneasy.

RoundUp field, as seen from the local high school track
Is the spray solution the lesser of two evils?

Whether till, no-till or spray, weeds are a constant headache to the farmer - this much I know personally. In farming, there is very little control over production costs, a constant race against time, and then there's the wild card of Mother Nature - definitely a risky way to make a living. With the new generation, it seems this spray trend is here to stay, but some old timers resist the easy way out.

As one young farmer told me, "My dad still can't get used to the idea of spraying and no tilling. It's just not the way it was done in his day. He's not a fan."

That makes two of us. 

Tuesday, July 09, 2013

A Little Help, Please

Stripes of cut hay, waiting to be baled
Feeling strong about the garden these days, confident about my knowledge growth but MAN, my body is taking a real beating. I am a walking meat-sicle to so many tiny, hungry beings right now; like a one-woman meat market.

Lately, I've been working my ass off in the garden, often until I can no longer see - which is past 10 p.m. In these hours, the mosquitoes are out in full force. The other night, the bugs finally figured out the once place where I do not apply repellent - my lips:

Take that, Nicole Kidman!
And just like that, I got the full collagen treatment for free, compliments of nature. These last few days, the skeeters have also discovered the blood-rich area that is my facial scar and that has been an itchy torture.

I'm now a snack food.
 Then, this morning, I awoke with two big bites right square at my throat, not unlike the fang marks of the undead. Being a vampire would actually be a big help, I thought to myself, then maybe I'd finally have time to get everything done.

Hay baling in my front yard
But the worst was last Friday, when I awoke to a throbbing right appendage. A horrible pain shot from my shoulder, down my arm, and I could barely lift it without severe pain. I replayed the day's physical tasks over in my mind, 'What could I have done to piss off my arm so much?' The only thing I could think of was carrying the heavy industrial extensions cords that run my new water tank - I'd done it with my right arm.

Could I really be that out of shape? Am I becoming delicate in my advancing years? What if I broke myself? I don't have time for that!

Garden progress - Western half
I'd been down this road before when I dislocated my right elbow after falling down a flight of stairs in San Francisco. I already knew what the two hardest tasks would be - bra on/off and the creation of my daily ponytail. (When it is 90 degrees and high humidity, the 'tail is mandatory.) I had no choice, I had to recruit Brent for the job. He's just lucky (unlucky, maybe?) he didn't get the bra job too.

Garden progress - Eastern half
I found him out near the shop, where he'd just introduced his grandsons to their new (meaning he bought them used and broken, then fixed 'em) 4-wheelers. Levi and Layne were beyond excited, Layne especially. (I caught him kissing it the other day.)

Layne and Levi, with Grandpa Brent
"Hi guys. Um, I know you're having manly bonding time and all but I need somebody to put a ponytail in my hair. I did something bad to my arm and I can't lift it. Brent?" 

Brent looked at me, terrified at the prospect, and stammered, "Well, um, I, don't have any idea how... my hands are dirty... I don't know..." 

I shuffled in front of him, shoved the elastic in his massive paw and gave him no option to refuse.

"Time to learn something new, Brent. Now, just gather up all the hair into a tube, kinda, then wrap the elastic thingy around it and..."

Lordy, I wish I'd had a video of Brent, with his big always-dirty hands, fumbling with a head of female hair and a tiny yellow piece of elastic. The man is known as a mechanical genius in these parts - he can assemble and reassemble any John Deere around - but had never before faced the complicated design of hair control.

Grandpa Brent, with Levi, at the Pembina Fair
The best part was when I tried to explain how to tighten it up the finished product, Levi (age 13) jumped in:

"No, grandpa. Like THIS. See, you take the ponytail and split it so the band goes up." 

Impressed, I asked Levi where he'd learned that trick. "I have friends with long hair," he said, like the worldly being he is quickly becoming.

With my battered mop secured for the day, I left the men to their machines. Brent, still stunned by the morning's unexpected lesson in hairdo creation, went back to the world that he knows, one without pesky, one-armed, puffy-lipped females with and their silly hair needs.

Thursday, July 04, 2013

Independence Day

View from The Mae Flower porch.
Happy Independence Day! As always, 'tis a fine day to be a free American woman. Yes, I'm a bit behind here (thanks for all the concerned text and emails) - promise to get more regular. Too many lessons and adventures going on all at once...


"You're a farmer now, so you must get up really early."

I hear this frequently and it always gives me a chuckle. I set my alarm for 8:30 a.m. and even that is a struggle. (My natural body clock prefers a 2 a.m.-10 a.m. sleep schedule.) Thing is, folks, I stay up late, sleep deep and dream heavily; lifelong efforts to resist my natural wiring have failed. No more fighting.

The Office
The first half of a typical day is spent on the contract work which pays the bills. These days, I put together analyst reports for a global semiconductor company and in this regard, I stay happily connected to my Silicon Valley career roots. Plus, I dig scary-smart people who ruminate on the future for a living so it's an ideal gig.

I had an exec recently tell me, "We're always promoting the idea of constant connection and working from anywhere but you are actually living that ideal. We reference you in meetings." Makes a nerd proud, I tell ya.

On Tuesday, about 30 minutes shy of wrapping up my report, the Millar family - my cousins - knocked on my trailer door and announced they had brought a picnic lunch to share. I offered up my camping chairs, made my apologies and let them start without me in my lush church-garage area.

My personal church view, where I thank the Universe for everything.
Eventually, I finished up and joined them for chicken sandwiches, raw veggies, cherries and Rice Krispie treats. Y'see, people drop by here without much notice. There is no doorbell, there is only appearing in the gravel drive way, usually with food. Kinda nice.

Picnic Time
Walter is 93 so his naptime always imminent. Post-lunch, he rested in the car while Carol and Eileen checked out my garden. I was embarrassed that the western edge was overrun with thistles (the eastern edge with Quackgrass) but I aim to get ahead of the evil weeds over the weekend. (Weeds, I've found, do not understand national holidays - they just keep growing.)

Walter and Eileen
After they left, I did dishes, which must be done every single day, without fail. Living in such a small space, you cannot forgo household chores or it quickly becomes chaos, similar to living on a boat, I imagine.

My wee kitchen.
Then, I tried tracking down the local lawyer/tax guy, Wes Argue (the perfect lawyer name or what?) but was unsuccessful. When I tried to get my taxes done in March, my LA tax person told me, "Heather, you started an organic farm, that's a whole different set of tax codes that I am unfamiliar with. If you make a movie, I can help you, but not this. I'll get you an extension and you get them done in North Dakota." Ugh.

Because this week is so friggin' HOT (today was 86 degrees, tomorrow will be 90) and humid, I can't do full garden duty mid-day at risk of overheating. But the aforementioned weeds were gnawing at my conscious and I couldn't stand it any longer - discomfort be damned.

Weed piles amongst garlic
Around 3 p.m., I went out, doused myself in bug repellent/sunscreen and liberated a long row of garlic. Though I have a hoe, too often, I am not satisfied with mere decapitation, I seek full root extraction, which requires close-to-dirt action and direct removal with a hand spade, my own personal death grip and a few choice words. It also gives me an opportunity to kiss the leaves of my plants and tell them how much I love them and how proud they make me. I feel very strongly that this display of love is the key to a successful garden. Plants are cells, just like us. How do you respond to kisses and love? I tend to glow, not wilt. (Same goes for water and rice.)

Still a sucker for pop culture, yo.
After about two hours of this, I became dizzy - always a sign to quit. I wobbled my way back to the Mae Flower, removed my steaming boots and locked myself inside with the air conditioning on full blast. Cradling a glass of ice water, I reclined on my teensy couch and read about the blossoming career of Channing Tatum in the latest issue of Vanity Fair - the subscription, a recent gift from my wonderful friend, Susie. (I also received an amazing care package this week from another amazing woman, Rachel. My girlfriends are the cream of the crop, people. It keeps me afloat.)

Care package of goodies from McSchmoinkles
Then, after supper (not dinner, that's at noon), I received the text I'd been waiting for all day. From Brent: "On my way to farm. You have time to get trailer?" At long last, the day had come - I was going to have an on-site water tank for the garden! With a dry week ahead, I was getting desperate for a solution. Brent to the rescue, as usual.

Happy to be away from the bugs, the heat and the isolation of "the box", we went for a drive to Bathgate, a nearby town (18 miles) with a population of 43. (Bathgate was featured in the movie, "Fargo", with a massive Paul Bunyon statue, pretending to be Brainerd, MN.)

Driving anywhere with Brent is a delight as there are endless teaching opportunities that arise. First, we stopped to check his fields near "the bush" - a section of our land that is mostly trees and a sizable section of the Pembina River. The May floods had weakened sections of the field, the river overflow had removed nutrient-rich topsoil, and he showed me where he'd replanted edible beans.

As we continued along Hwy 55, we came upon a filthy young man on a huge red and yellow machine cutting roadside grass, a common sight at this time of year. Naturally, we stopped to chat. When he smiled big, his white teeth glowed through a dark tan and much filth; it was then I realized that (surprise!) we were related. His name is Mel and he married my cousin, Jill. Super nice fellow and obviously, a hard worker.

This contraption is called a swather and like so many machines around here, is from the 60s. The big yellow blade you see? It's made of wood - not metal, not plastic - WOOD. Remember that stuff?

Behold, the colorful swather
It was blazing hot, he'd started at noon and would be swathing - cutting the grass for hay - until about 9 p.m. - not an easy gig.  Mel was, literally, making hay while the sun shines. (So many sayings and cliches come true out here. I once led a horse to water and, well, you can imagine what didn't happen...)

When Mel had purchased the swather, the gas tank was so rusty, it was un-usable. He improvised by redirecting an engine hose to the yellow gas can you see next to his legs. I see this type of clever innovation over and over again out here, especially when it comes to machinery. People don't buy new that often; they patch up, fix and make due so as to squeeze the most out of everything, machines especially.

Mel Symington
Back on the road, Brent opts for a teachable moment. We swing by "Horsley's place" so he can show me something. A cultural note: sections or parcels of land are often described not so much by the people that own them now but those that owned them several generations back. A guy named Horsely once owned this land - three owners ago - hence, Horsley's Place. Names stick around here. A corner of our land is still called "The Fife Place" named after people who farmed it maybe within the last couple of centuries. Nobody can remember meeting an actual Fife.

So, we come upon a corn field and Brent says, "You see that light green square there? You see how it stands out against the dark green? You can see exactly where I ran out of fertilizer." This season, I have come to learn that light green is generally not good, it either means water damage or lack of nutrients and/or fertilizer.

Can you see? Non-fertilized on left.
Brent went on to talk about the advantages of using (primarily) nitrogen fertilizer and high costs of doing so. "When I was a kid, fertilizer costs $18 a ton. These days, it's $500 - $800."

In a series of post-texts, Brent explained fertilizing philosophies further:
"There are many ways to buy. Liquids are bought by gallon. Dry by ton. Gas by ton. When figuring price, you do it by unit of nitrogen. All have chemical make-up. Soil samples tell you what to use. Depending on crop - wheat and corn take a lot of nitrogen. Soybeans want phosphate. Dry beans - a little nitrogen, a little phosphate. Liquid is almost always the most costly. There are places where liqui is the only way, such as when using a starter fertilizer on a row crop. Not hard to put down - generally better unless you need a lot." 
Bottom line: The market demands that a farmer (in this industrialized setting) apply fertilizer lest his crops yields diminish to the point of money loss.  I have yet to understand the science (and safety) of various chemical fertilizers but I tried to picture myself trying to convince a farmer not to use these inputs and I could not. Moments like this are why I am here - to see for myself the reasons why farmers make the decisions that they do.

Onward to Bathgate where we come upon the most beautiful site - a 1500-gallon water tank on a flatbed trailer. The man selling it, Doug, was nowhere around - gone fishing - and told Brent he could borrow it for a few days, to make sure it didn't leak. I asked about the cost of the tank/trailer and, as per usual, was not given a vague answer. "Not sure yet," said Brent, "he and I are going to have to arm wrestle over it and he's a big dude."

Brent had found the used tank for sale in a local paper and made damn sure that it had only held water - never any chemicals. His complete dedication to my strictly non-chemical way of growing things is quite admirable, considering the world lives in. It's very simple, without Brent, very little of my SCRANCH dream would be achieved.

We hooked that baby up and headed back to the farm. Along the way, we stopped at one of those mysterious little brick buildings that I see everywhere. Finally, I was going to discover their function.

First, Brent unhooked some sort of weighted pulley attached to a giant hose:

Then, he had me direct the hose into the water tank itself, since we were only going to fill half-way:

Then, he flipped a switch or two and -voila! - water came gushing out:

"But how do we pay for it? How does the water company know who took the water?"

Pointing to a mailbox containing a clipboard with attached forms. "That's how," he said.

On this sheet, a person offers their name, where they live and how many gallons of water they've taken, all on the honor system. Brent filled it out and marked 1250 gallons on the sheet. "So, do they send you a bill then?"

"I have no idea," he says. Good to know we are both winging it.

As cars and massive trucks drive passed us, honking and waving, a small red pick-up pulled in behind us. A smiling man with a handful of complicated papers says to Brent, "Since you are stuck here for a minute, I thought I'd catch you..." and proceeds to pepper Brent with questions of a mechanical nature.

The affable redheaded man is known as Dewey, though I think Dwight is his real name. He's a fellow mechanic working on a big tractor-fix job and is, it seems, in over his head just a titch. He's come - as so many do - to seek the infinite mechanical knowledge of Brent, known far and wide for deep technical expertise. (He worked for John Deere for 30 years, retired 6 years ago and they still call him with questions.)

"And what about this?"
For at least 20 minutes, I stood there like a girlie goof and listened in on their super-manly conversation. I couldn't help but think to myself, 'I don't think I would ever hear anything like this is San Francisco.' I do this type of thing often, compare out of context - lil' hobby of mine.

Dewey had one question after another and Brent knew the answer to each one. Most of the time, it sounded like a different language, like programmers discussing code, brain surgeons comparing notes, Greeks being Greek. A few things I caught:

Brent: "Y'see, there's an O-ring behind this...."
Dewey: "But there's no O-ring on the diagram."
Brent: "I know. Trust me, it's there. I had to learn that the hard way..."

Such is the weight of experience. 

After a slooooooow drive back to the farm - 1250 gallons of water weighs about 15,000 pounds - we park her right next to the garden. After having no water source on the property, this could mean big convenience for me and, occasionally, Brent too. Very exciting!

There, we were able to hook up the water pump that Kirk (Yay, Kirk!) bought me this year and give it a go:


We still need a stronger hose and a few key parts to stop some of the pump leakage but for the most part, I think Operation Water Tank is good to go. Now, I won't have to lie to my little green children - "Rain is coming this week, m precious babies, I swear!" Big relief.

That night, I stayed in the garden until the bugs drove me out. Walking back to the Mae Flower, I caught an intense red sunset - a giant ball of crimson dipping below the horizon - and I gasped aloud. What a blessed day at Second Chance Ranch.

Sunset through my "garage"
Then, I drank a beer (toasting the water tank and the birthday of fellow farmer, Jay Kirkpatrick) and passed out wearing a satisfied grin.