Monday, 27 May 2013

First Wilting

A rainy wednesday was followed by a dry, cool and windy Thursday through Sunday.  We came to the plot in the early evening and noticed a dullness to the green of the little plants poking out from our little patch.  A couple of plots over the green was brighter.  They had put up a fence, which indicated that they meant business.  I suspect they were coming more regularly than us.  I took some comfort in the fact the our immediate neighbours' tomatoes looked worse, were lying on the ground as if in sickly fatigue.  Our tomatoes were upright in their cages, but a couple of leaves on each plant were a bit browned, some were shriveled and dried.  The cold perhaps?  It had dipped down to just above zero and most likely had not been pleasant for the fledgling plants.  But it was the poor cucumber that was most wounded.  The cucumber beetle was out, eating away at leaves, leaving them looking like little kids with whole punches had gone at them.  Of course the beetles were doing it for their livelihood.  Our aim for future crops would be either to leave the beetles to starve by putting a row cover over the young plants, or finding a suitable predator to make the beetles their livelihood.

One recommendation I noted from an organic growers website:  consider building a bat habitat.  Now, the idea of planting deterrents like flowers is more palatable to me, but it's harder to have confidence in a passive, stationary enforcer.  We had marigolds in between the tomatoes but they were nowhere to be seen, hardly en garde.  The idea of working with bats made me queezy.  As a French speaker, I also know them as "bald mice." 

We did try to stamp out the ones we saw present on our visit, but more would come.  We couldn't be there every day to patrol them.  I was mostly stoic about the fact that one of our crops was already looking like it would fail, and early on, noting that they would be taking one for the team.  Hopefully the plants around them would continue to thrive as they kept the cucumber beetles distracted (these pests also like tomatoes, peas and beans).  But it was sad seeing something we had fostered now near death.  I hated to imagine the bamboo support structure with nothing to support.

It was sobering.  Before transplating from the insular environment that is our living room, I may have been assuming that pests would pick on someone else's crops, that the nice birds would eat pests and leave seeds alone, that as organic growers, somehow the positive live force of unadulterated seed and soil would just prevail.  We did research pests for each vegetable we planted, but with lists of deterrents and remedies that can go on for pages, ranging from the practical to the practically superstitious, we counted on luck.

For CSA farmers, how does it feel to have to throw out a patch of browning broccoli and resort to the next best brassica, deferring plans and hoping that the harvest will be enough that portions will not have to be made scanter and scanter with each failed crop?  There's the stress of farming, that we've felt already on a tiny scale.  Four failed plants that we may still be able to retry.  In the meantime, we will need to keep an eye on the other plants prone to predation.  If our abundant tomato planting were to fail, it would be a solid blow and may leave us tempted to quit for the season.  But this is our chance to see a season through and accept if it fails.  If it does and we have gained some sense of the risk of disappointment and the ways of dealing with challenges (such as pests, poor soil and bad weather, all of which we are up against) then we will have been successful test-croppers.  That is still the goal.

Tuesday, 21 May 2013


It would make for a more dramatic post if, after labouring all day Saturday, we had come back on Monday to find everything trampled or eaten by deer.  So far though, the seedlings have survived three days of ambient weather.

Highlights of first planting:

The soil, though tilled, was gravelesque.  We carved out our trenches and, by default, our beds, and began hacking away at huge clumps of rock hard clay.  I suspect that the tomatoes will do fine, and that most everything else will find enough nourishment, given that the plot has been left fallow for a couple of years, save for cover crops which should have maintained a good nutrient composition.  We added some compost to the spots where seeds were inserted, and then watered.  In the absence of softer soil, we then piled chunks of the clay around and atop which gave the spots the unsettling appearance of little tombs.

I was a bit of a hack as I crouched or sat on the unsown bed below me, resting my crossed legs in the trench as I sprinkled seeds into furrows in the row in front of me.  when in doubt, I scattered a bunch of seeds and hoped they would suffice.  As I finished the parsnips, rows abutting rows, I checked the back of the seed packet again and I realized rows were to be a foot apart. 

Thursday, 2 May 2013

The Plot

The course has since ended, and we are now into our practicum.  We are test farmers on a local farming project where aspiring farmers can, for a reasonable fee, use a piece of land for a season and see what comes of it.  It is a community where informal mentorship is said to be abundant, which is gold to us right now.

After one of the coldest early springs on record, we drove out on a Sunday afternoon to have a look at our plot of land (most of our endeavours in farming have thus far been bookended with a good long drive).  We would be test farmers alongside a handful of others, on a small space of land surrounded by the housing developments of Brampton - the suburb of Toronto where even townhouses are seen as oppressively tiny.

The soil in this region is good thick clay, and this patch is protected from being bought up and paved.  It has a slope in the middle that then dips downward to a stretch of long, lush fields with greenhouses at intervals that are already teeming with vegetables before the last frost.  The test farmer plots are on the other side of the slope, abutting the road.  They were still wet and would not be ready until they could be plowed - at least a week yet.  There were a few plastic containers leftover from the previous year - failed tomato plants that had been planted with the pots intact. 

An Indian man, one of two other farmers that had made it out for an informal meet-and-greet, said the pots were from one of the farmers who had quit early on in the previous season.  Most of the test farmers wouldn't make it through the summer because of busy schedules and setbacks like deer visits and long hot stretches of summer that dried out the soil and made for a lackluster harvest.  The other farmer who turned up was also from India, Both he and the first guy lived within a minute's walk from the farm.  He was full of excitement for the start of the season, said he would be getting up early every morning working a couple of hours before going to work.  The first guy, who worked a good hour's drive away from his home and neighbouring farm plot, said his wife and children would be helping with his 2,000 square feet.  he already had garlic coming up, which he'd planted the previous fall and he was clearing brittle okra plants while we spoke.  He wanted to have more land, to do more farming, but it was only his second year, and with this farm, you graduated to higher acreage over time. 

Some people were up to 5 acres, which was enough land to be a real farmer, not just one who fits it in before work in the morning and on weekends.  But 1,000 squre feet was what we had for this our first growing season and the test was to see if we finished the season with something to show for it, or at least a desire to continue the following spring. 

Just being on the land for the first time, even though it wasn't yet workable, was a pleasant reprieve from the endless, overwhelming car-and-retailscape.  This little farm's existence was a matter of effort - at keeping the apetite of suburban sprawl at bay, at instilling the will in people weary of the extreme industrialization of food to cultivate their own even when it means a steep and seemingly treacherous learning curve, which includes the ever-looming possibility that even having done everything meticulously, the crops might find a way to fail completely.

Before we left, having established rapport with our neighbours, we wandered around the area, met a couple of more seasoned farmers who were getting started on their early seeds.  A woman sat on the stoop of a tool shed, filling cells with seed and soil.  She said she was planting okra. That word again. "What's that?"  I asked.  She explained that it was a mucousy vegetable used in gumbo.  She and her husband had a couple of acres and had been working at it for a few years.  They made a living, or a partial living at it.  I could see him fiddling with the rows of a patch he was preparing.  I didn't know what he was doing but he seemed sure of himself.  Would I remember the feeling of being a novice when I was as good as them?  Would I see it through to where I was the kind of farmer from whom others sought advice and asked "what's that?"  We drove back home, the full 40 minutes in Toronto's usual aggressive traffic.  We had our work cut out for us.  But it was nice to realize that we hadn't dropped out of the scheme just yet - here we were getting ready to do some actual farming.