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.

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