Thursday, June 20, 2013

Bugs & Bikers

Garden is in! All seeds are put to bed and now begins Triple W of farming - waiting, weeding and worrying.

Already, my Dakota Black popcorn arisen, plus squash, watermelons, lettuce, peas and onions. In all honesty, I've totally bitten off more than I can chew - although I chew an awful lot. The plot is ginormous but with this many plants - 50 varieties of 18 vegetables/fruits and/or herbs - surely something will come up, right?

Not the measles
Most days, I am faced with a choice: Do garden work in the heat of day when the mosquitoes are quiet? Or wait until evening, when it is cooler but during the bug commute? This week, I got (earned?) a touch of heat stroke (persistent headache, slightly dizzy) even as I was being ravaged by the bloodthirsty bastards. I'd really feel like I was earning my paycheck if there was one.

Anyway, rain is forecast over the next few days - fingers crossed - so that will bring some temperature relief but alas, more bugs. Some days you can't win for losing.


Last weekend, the nearby town of Cavalier hosted the 17th annual, "Little Sturgis of the North" motorcycle rally. I'd skipped it last summer but curiousity won out this year. It seemed like a well-attended festival, with tons of beautiful motorcycles and lots of nice folks celebrating a lifestyle they love in gorgeous weather:

I want one - dog too.

It was fun to see such a tiny town infiltrated by so much chrome and leather. I hung out for about an hour, wolfed down a watermelon slice and root beer float, and headed back to the garden, which has become both Baby and Boss in my life.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Grabbing For Bootstraps

My garlic
These past few days have been rough. Already teetering on a bluesy edge, I caught a bad cold Monday and got sucked right into a swirling vat of self-pity. I tell ya, feeling so shitty while being completely isolated, worrying about water, battling mosquitoes and picking f**king ticks off my body EVERY SINGLE DAY - well, it finally wore me out.

Image via TermiGuard
And so, come Tuesday, I broke down. Weeding the garlic and shallots, I burst into sobs. The rush of salty tears leaving dirt-streaks on my face felt terrible and wonderful all at once. (One of the benefits of being a woman: the tears come when they are ready, we've no delay mechanism like the menfolk.) At that moment, no matter that the watermelons, radishes and popcorn were coming through, all I could see were weeds. Woe is me, and whatnot.

I tried to be useful in my garden but it was hot, getting hotter, my head was full of snot and my body was being ravaged by insects. So, I said, "to hell with it" and went for a drive. I made up some excuse to myself about checking my mail in Cavalier, 18 miles away, to pick up my latest Netflix but really I just needed a breeze and a reason to sit still. Listening to kd lang's "Hymns of the 49th Parallel" CD (a stand-in for the lack of CBC Music this year - still a mystery), I felt sheepish and full of regret. What was I doing here? Does it matter? And why am I sacrificing my personal life if it makes no difference? 

Life: Green, sometimes black
But mostly, I thought, Today, this is HARD.

Such were my thoughts as I went along, drivin' and cryin', which is the best band name ever.

Today, I awoke feeling much better, though I had to deal with additional body issues (I'll spare ya) and the water pump whining that it was empty. So, before work, before breakfast, before anything, I had to start up the Tonka Truck and get the tank filled. Mission accomplished and I see a brighter day ahead for me, emotionally, though eventually I'll have to figure out what the hell is wrong with the awning.

I share this here because, for the three of you reading this, it's important to know that dark days descend just as effortlessly as the bright ones here on the farm. They say "misery loves company" but sometimes, when you are feeling pathetic and weepy, maybe it's just as well not to have witnesses.

However, yesterday  I did manage to squeeze in some high points before succumbing to sickness once again. In an effort to climb up out of the roiling pity pot, allow me to celebrate them here:

Positive Thing #1: As a contractor, I get paid by checks that come via USPS - direct deposit is not an option. (BlogHer paid me by PayPal but alas, that is now over.) When these highly-anticipated checks do come, I usually have to make the 103-mile round-trip drive to Grafton, the nearest Wells Fargo. Of course, this takes time and a considerable amount of gas, which is quite spendy for a 4WD pick-up with zero fuel efficiency. This year, we tried a new approach: Direct Deposit via Mom.

I kept my mailing address in Long Beach for the checks and Mama Iva made the 1.7-mile drive to the nearest WF and - presto! - she successfully deposited my millions. DONE. Hallelujuah!

Candy-striped flowers, also a positive.
Positive Thing #2: After soaking the seeds for 24 hours, I planted some parsnips, Turga variety. Parsnips are not appreciated like they should be - damn shame, I tell ya. The smell of cooked parsnips remind me of my Grandpa Wibur so I plant them in his honor. (Planting wet seeds in the wind MUCH easier than doing the same with dry seeds, just FYI.) Also, I planted some dill too - hope to sell a bunch come pickling time.

Tail end of a parsnip, from last year's harvest
Positive Thing #3: Brent invited me to ride along for a Pinto bean planting session on our land. Thanks to him, I've witnessed up close several aspects of industrial farming, including a Pinto bean harvest, but never a planting. The late floods are the only reason I am able to see them now.

Seeder, in action
This week is the final last-ditch effort by local farmers to get their seed in. Brent had been informed by the holder of his bean contract that the planting deadlines had been extended to June 20, so better get 'em in, pronto.

Brent, seeding Pinto beans
There, in the John Deere cab, I learned about seed plates that must be changed for every crop - they work similar to metal discs that go into player pianos, with holes and groves that convey a pattern. I pointed to things - "Brent, what's that long bent green arm thingy with the little tire on the end?" - while Brent explained - "It's called a 'marker', it's what we used before GPS came along. It marks where you're already planted."

Marker 'arm'

He then lowers the marker, just for my benefit, so I can the function in action. He nearly forgot about it when it came time to make a turn. Ooops!

Best of all, my lesson went down in view of our farm, gloriously awash in that golden, late-afternoon sun, which is about 7:30 p.m. here. 

Brent, in his office
Positive Thing #4: I briefly chatted with my cousins, Mark and Wayne, whom I really like.  They'd come to "the yard" - the area of our farm which is forever playing host to any number of giant farm vehicles - so we caught up a bit. Despite the terrible floods, they have managed to plant 80% of their fields - much better than I'd expected. 

Jack, the bar pup
Positive Thing #5: I got to pet three - count 'em - THREE dogs! First, there was Cash, Wayne's black lab who came bounding up to me while I toiled in the garden, battling thistles in the watermelon patch. Then, there was Abbey, the Great Dane, who never left the bed of Wayne's pick-up but was open for head scratches. And then there was was Jack, a sweet pup who I met outside the Western Bar in Neche. Later, he was let inside and I snuck him some pizza crust. Such a gentle boy. (Dogs do a lot of mental good for me; not having one is a bad idea that must be fixed in 2014.)  

Positive Thing #6: Though my beloved LA Kings did not make the Stanley Cup Finals (still proud with their double-overtime performance against the Chicago Blackhawks) I did enjoy more incredible hockey last night. Plopped down in the Western Bar (which has come to be my favorite local watering hole), I tried to keep a "hockey date" with Kirk, whereby we watch the same game while texting fired-up expletives all the way through. It's a gas.

Note: Deer antlers in the red box
In the first game of the Finals - Chicago Blackhawks v. Boston Bruins (Kirk's team) - I could see it wasn't going to be an easy win for either. Though I'd made a new friend (see "Jack" above), my head was getting dizzy and the snot level was rising; it was hard to breathe. Before I left my stool late in to the third period to run home to my Nyquil, the game was nowhere near over.

Ultimately, the heated match went into triple overtime and ended up being the fifth longest game in Stanley Cup history - so glad I got to see at least some of that beautiful madness in play. Thus, I went home pondering the reality that most great victories do not come easily.

So, I guess I'll give it another try tomorrow.

Wednesday, June 05, 2013

Farming: Some Patience Required

Behold this year's plot plan, which has changed and evolved at least 10 times already. It looks plenty organized on paper (or on screen, in this case) and sure, there are some neat rows and mounds going but my mind's rigid plan has long since dissolved. Add to that the persistent rains (more last night) and the required drying-out period, and the result is, I'm only half planted.

Comparatively, I am officially okay with this unfortunate delay when considering that some of my neighbors are unable to plant at all due to persistent flooding. Remember Evelyn's gorgous garden last year? This year, she has a pond instead:

Then again, she and her husband, Powerful Pierre (who hosted the Chicken Slaughter Party last year), also have a tries-to-be-mean-but-really-isn't dog named Preacher and a gajillion kitties, which I deeply envy:

Preacher, guarding the pick-up.

Victoria, not guarding, just being.
Last year, I had Kirk's invaluable assistance in planting the garden all in one hellish and totally sweltering day - June 6, 2012. We still look at one another and shake our heads, "I can't believe we did that all in one day....." Brent, too, is still amazed at our herculean feat.

This year, it's just me tilling, digging and bending over - oooof! - to gently place seeds in their row or on their mound, whatever the little darlings require. Some plants, such as popcorn and squash, have conveniently huge seeds, while others, like lettuce and tomato, have ridiculously small seeds. When I am not marveling at the miracle of Nature ("Just think, all the information on becoming a successful head of lettuce is packed into this tiny seed!" What a miracle!"), I'm cursing the godforsaken wind for stealing said seeds right out of my palm and distributing them like..well, like the wind.

I mean, c'mon, that's just too damn small.
In between rainstorms and knowing full well that sweltering days inevitably lie ahead, I scampered up the ol' grain bin to grab shots before that metal becomes too hot to touch.

These shots are from last Sunday, after planting onions (Valencia), radish (Cherry Belle) and lettuce (Romaine) - I've got more in the ground since then.

Facing north, the western half of the garden.
Facing north, eastern edge - garlic and shallots between the straw.
Oh, and hey! Since I'm up here, I might as well, document current SCRANCH scenery in all directions:

Western view, including the Mae Flower.
Looking straight south.
"Don't look down!"
And for no other reason other than I am madly in love with her, here is The Tonka Truck:


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.