Here's a menagerie of photos from this past week. The first is a picture of a loaf of whole wheat bread I baked. If you'd like the recipe let me know because it really works. I actually just got it off the back of the flour package. The next 4 pictures are from a hike up Buffalo Mountain just after it rained. We decided not to let the rain defeat us this time and it paid off. At the top, clouds flew all around us and we could see for miles and miles. The last four pictures are from our visit to our friend Ann's house. She has a fantastic garden and lives on a land trust that has a nice little river flowing through. She also has a charismatic cat as you can see.
Ask any farmer or person with farm experience their thoughts about hay baling and they'll likely reply: "Terrible, worst thing ever, avoid." That's certainly what we heard at least in the days leading up to the event. The thing about hay is that it will always have to be baled and picked up on a hot, dry, sunny day. Otherwise it won't dry out and will mold before it can be used. So today was that hot sunny day that we were looking for. While most of the time-intensive work is done by one person on the tractor, it's the rounding up of the bales and stacking that is most loathed. That's what we did today. At this farm we don't have animals to feed so we use the hay mainly for mulching and killing weeds. A fun fact: hay comes from grasses while straw comes from grains. Straw is the by product after the grain has been removed. That is what strawbale houses are made of. We use hay here because it grows all over the open fields.
Here's how the process goes. Tall grass is mowed down in all the fields, grass is left to dry out, hay is then tetted to fluff it up and dry it out more, it is then raked into continuous lines, the baler is put on which sucks in hay and spits out bales all over the fields. Then comes the crew: one person drives slowly while others grab the bales and stack them on the trailer. This is interspersed with trips to the barn to unload the bales and stack them again. Overall we loaded and unloaded 5 times to pick up 245 bales, all in two hours. Hay has a mysterious way of getting everywhere and there's no worse time for that than when you're sweating and sticky. It will go down your shirt, your pants, socks, get in your gloves, your hair. It's relentless. But, this is nothing a little swimming can't fix. After baling, Josh and I jumped into the big pond to cool off and it was certainly cool. The massive lily take-over meant we had to swim through a patch of it but once past we were in open water. We didn't last long though. It gets deep very quickly and the exhaustion from the week magnified with every tread of water. It was worth it anyway and the sun did a good job of drying us off.
Broccoli in our garden
In other news, we finally planted our personal apprentice garden! Could have planned it a little better though. We have 8 tomato plants, 8 peanut plants, and 10 watermelons. Since these take up the majority of the plot, we're either going to be entirely overwhelmed or supremely disappointed. We have, however, thrown in a variety of other vegetables including bell peppers, herbs, broccoli, lettuce, beets, and brussel sprouts. Anything else we will get from the CSA's surplus. Not too worried about starving. We also threw in some beneficial flowers for fun: marigolds and sweet alyssums which bring in good insects to eat the bad insects. We've also heard marigolds repel rabbits. Keeping our fingers crossed. Off to slumber.
It's been a quick couple of weeks. June already! The madness of May, with all the harvesting and distribution, made it fly by in a snap. We've been mighty busy and it's really starting to weigh down on us- or a better way to say it: challenge us. We're surviving though and enjoying what we have here. As hard as it is, physical labor is tremendously satisfying. When your muscles ache, your feet throb, and your lungs heave, you know you're really doing something. I was worried I wouldn't be able to do it but in truth, people can do a lot more than they think they can. Exhaustion is a side effect yes, but the sense of accomplishment is greater, or at least equal. It's a direct relationship. Now, I say this but I'll admit I do like those rainy days where we do some light cleaning in the barn or work of similar intensity. Can't refuse a bit of rest.
Loving on the Cherries
The past few weeks involved many things that signify the growing presence of summer. First of all: the fruit share. Because Polly was able to sell enough fruit shares through the CSA, she received 2 free shares- one for her and one for us. I can't say how much we were looking forward to that. When I, and probably most people, think of a farm, I think of vegetables, green leaves, and the need for cooking. I know first hand that's not necessarily true, fruit is a big part of farming too. It just takes longer and the anticipation just seems so great. I've always been a fruit person and always will be a fruit person (which probably follows the reigns of my sweet tooth). Sometimes it's hard to understand that a raw plant product could be so glorious straight off the stem but that's the case with the 5 pounds of cherries we received in an unassuming paper bag last week. While some are better than others, it's the experience that really matters- and how far you can spit the seed. Further along in the summer are apples and peaches. Things are looking up!
A blocked view of the arbor
Along the same theme of signs of summer: the arbor project for the blueberry bushes. Birds have been a problem for the past several years, feasting on the berries and probably getting stomach aches- stomach aches meant for us! I guess they're fruit lovers too. This year we're trying to change that issue by building an arbor. And, this involved more skills! Really tiring skills. If you've ever dug post holes you'll know what I mean. And if you've ever dug post holes, realized you needed more posts, then went into the forest, chainsawed a few locusts and carried them out one by one, then you'll really know what I mean. My arms were sore for 4 days. If anything, this entire experience has taught me how much people can do for themselves in a reasonable amount of time. They just can't expect to be awake much past 10pm each night. Anyway, the arbor looks good in its own quirky little way and we're thinking it will work.
Lily, the ancient one- 20 years old
In other news, my mother came to visit for five days. A strong woman, she worked along side us the entire time- shoveling, planting, weeding, row-covering, and conversing. Everyone who's been to college knows a visit from a parent means great things in terms of the contents of one's refrigerator. And, despite working just as hard as anyone, she washed our dishes and cooked on occasion too! It's hard to say whose vacation it actually was. A marvelous time indeed. The weather was cooperative as well, showing her a range of conditions from hot and humid, dry and cool, and a big, spectacular thunder storm. In fact, a bolt of lightning struck just a few hundred feet from our cabin with a blinding flash and a deafening crack. That's plenty of entertainment for me. No need for more of that sort of thing, though I do love me a good thunder storm.
In conclusion, exhaustion. Goodnight.
As expected, small towns just don't have as much going on. I'm used to the city, having lived the last 4 years in Minneapolis, and have a tendency to think there is always something to do somewhere if I just look hard enough. At the very least a coffee shop, Hard Times Cafe, or a bar will be open for hanging out. It's not like that here in a county of 15,000. We just don't have the in yet to all the things happening out there, because I know they exist. So, for that reason we spend a lot of time at the farm entertaining ourselves. Saturday night resulted in the very delicious entertainment of a campfire and s'mores. We dug a new fire pit out in the middle of the field (since the last one was sitting under pine trees and among dead pine needles) and created small flower beds made out of cinder blocks. We were lucky to have a rainless night Saturday so it seemed like a perfect thing to do. Josh got the fire started with the contents of our small recycling bag and eventually the moisture steamed out of the logs until they were burning too. I'm quite sure s'mores are god's gift to the world, just saying. Here's a look at our foggy bonfire. Oh, and lunch.
Another thing to get used to, and I've talked about this before: the rain! On Sunday we did laundry and Sunday afternoon it rained. Our clothes never get entirely clean so in reality we put our clothes into a machine, it dampens them, and then they take up space in our cabin and kitchen, basking in the moist air.
Harvesting salad greens
This morning started with a 6am alarm clock and a 6:40 accidental wake up time. This was different than normal. While usually we get up at the oh so lazy hour of 7am, on Tuesdays and Saturdays from now on we will be getting up at 6am (or the last possible minute to get dressed, eat, and get to work). On days like these it's good to get any amount of sleep possible because once we got to the barn we were loading the truck with wood baskets, laundry hampers, knives, and tools too take over to the 1st harvest crop: salad greens. We worked in pairs on opposite sides of the row and met in the middle, delicately slicing the petite leaves of red russian kale, mustard, and arugula. Polly, speedy as always, did nearly half the bed while the other four of us mowed down the rest. They call her The Pollinator for a reason. Within a half hour we filled 4 hampers, enough to fill 48 bags, but we weren't able to marvel in our feat for long, it was on to the next crop. As we were tossed and turned in the truck bed on the way up the hill, the fog held on to the tree tops and distant mountains. The gardens squished under our boots as we walked up and down the aisles trying to pick out the most worthy heads of lettuce and keep count of how many we'd picked- not such an easy task. 144 lettuces, 144 bok choys, lots of radishes, and a guestimated amount of green onions. The onions were tedious because once pulled up they needed to have the outer skin of the bulb peeled off. So after the madness of the previous picking we were all able to huddle around the onions pealing, stacking, and chit chatting.
It was then that we returned to the CSA barn and got down to business. Two CSA members showed up to work their required hours and deliver bags to the drop off sites. A part-time employee and excellent organizer, Kim, had us all whipped into shape washing, weighing, and bagging vegetables- and again counting. I need to work on that. It's no wonder the vast majority of members ask for half shares. In each was 3 heads of lettuce, 3 bok choys, a big bag of salad greens, a handful of radishes, and a hand full of scallions. Full shares got double of that. Better have a chicken coop full of children to get that finished. Still, it's good stuff so for those who like salad, it will be like heaven, especially after a long winter of grocery store lettuce. The great thing about working on the farm is getting the excess, and we started to eat them on the job. Radish snacks? Not quite peanut butter, but it'll do.
Produce a Plenty
And it was quiet again. After lunch it was down to three of us and with the impending rain we found things to do away from the gardens. The most essential but frustrating: learning how to drive manual transmission. To have a true, legitimate farm, it's required to have old beater trucks, many of which we have here, and because they are old they are stick shift. We both killed the trucks multiple times and gave everyone a good jolt but it was a crucial step in becoming more useful around here. We ended at 4pm as the rain made its way back to our mountain and later I took a shower as the rain fell just feet away. A bazaar, fantastic experience.
Wearing the hot pants
Rain since Friday and no sign of stopping for a few days. Just have to remember that we're going to miss this in July. Well, on to bed. It's almost 10:30! (How standards change)
I've never lived in the mountains. I've never even lived anywhere with hills. That is why everything here seems so exciting. On Thursday morning it was cool and damp and when I walked out of the cabin I realized I was standing in a cloud. Fog had settled into our little section of the mountains and lay thick enough that we could see it moving by. We walked to work and with each step the road revealed itself to us little by little. The weather is just as strange. It seems to have fallen into a pattern. Monday and Tuesday are almost guaranteed to be cold and/or wet, generally uncomfortable, Wednesday is a toss-up, while Thursday and Friday are generally warm and sunny (aside from this week). And guess what the forecast is for the next two days? Rain and highs in the 60s. Gotta respect consistency. And as far as farming goes, you can't get much better than a weekly rain. We will see how it goes over the rest of the summer. Here are some photos from the morning:
And for your viewing pleasure, I have a few pictures from a short ride along the Blue Ridge Parkway. On Saturday, after taking a slow morning, we decided to drive to Mabry Mill, an old mill restored to its picturesque glory. In the 1860s a man and his wife moved there and somehow, by the grace of god, the man built a mill for grinding corn. It's hard to comprehend how people did things back then without the use of trucks, machines, and motorized tools. Everything must have been a chore. Of course, while we were there, the mill closed, just as everything else in this area, so we never actually saw the inside of the mill. Such is life in rural everywhere. On the way, we stopped at a Rock Castle Gorge overlook. It was pretty incredible. Take a look:
This was our last two full day weekend. Starting this week, we will be getting up at 7 am on Tuesdays and Saturdays to harvest for the CSA. Saturday will end at 12 and naps will begin at 12:15. So long slow morning, so long.
There are about 9 people that live and/or work on this farm. Here are a few of the quieter folks around.
View from the shower
I hate to say it but my clothes have reached a degree of filth previously unknown to me in my 23 years. Despite washing my work jeans weekly, they are now permanently stained with dirt. In fact, while drying on the line they had a faded stripe of light brown down each leg and the ends of the legs have changed color all together. Of course, I have other clothes for the evenings and a shower to use so I don't let the filth last. It's nice however to have clothes that can get anything on them without a care- grease, mud, cleaners, manure...
One of the compost piles
Yes, manure. The best way to make rich compost is to use animal excrement combined with hay and let it sit for a long time. To assist the breakdown process you must turn the compost every couple of months or so depending on the size of the pile. And that's what we did on Friday. Polly brought in the backhoe which has a bulldozer implement. She picked up huge loads of manure and moved it a few feet away to create a new pile. Our job was to use fork hoes to even out each layer of manure and cover it in hay. As the pile got larger the new loads became less stable on top and, as you can guess, large blobs would come rolling down, right onto our boots. So now there is manure on my work clothes too. It was a fast process so once it ended we'd hardly had time to think about it. The best part about it all was the fact that we were soon going to take a welcomed break and go to a tea party. No, not the political kind, it's doubtful those happen around here. One of Polly's friends has people over every other Friday for tea, snacks, and conversation. So Polly, Josh, and I had been working with manure and Ann had been working with the tractor. In other words, shit and grease...and tea. They still let us in, and even let us sit in the nice dining room. The woman raises chickens, rabbits, and ducks and gave us eggs. The duck eggs are huge!
Attempting the wonderful
Other than forking cow poo, we did a LOT of other things this week. Raked the irrigation pond (aka muckraking), replaced hoe blades, vacuumed the office, thrashed and planted oats, sharpened knives, moved the brush, transplanted seedlings, planted geraniums and begonia cuttings, cleaned the outdoor shower, planted leeks, scallions, lettuce, broccoli, carrots, weeded the radishes, and the salad mix, cut branches off a tree, cut barbed wire, and set up sprinklers. It's hard to list all of that. Doing so much really makes the week fly by. At night we can hardly do more than the most basic tasks. It's a successful night if we can take showers, use the internet, and do laundry. One night we showered, used the internet, popped popcorn, and watched a movie. That was huge.
Floyd on a Friday night
As for this weekend, we have a consensus: Floyd > Roanoke. For a change of scene, Josh and I decided to drive to Roanoke to see a movie. When we got there we were both hungry and couldn't find a decent place that wasn't too fancy or closed. After driving up and down the same streets we realized this place was not very cool. We finally found a Mexican restaurant and did what anyone would do in a lame town: get drunk and sing really loudly all the way home. We didn't even go to the movie. Oh well. Favorite song right now: Sweet Tooth- Dave Rawlings Machine. Look it up!
One would think that living in rural Virginia would mean monotony and weeks of isolation, aside from the occasional crazy redneck out shooting squirrels. Well this is wrong. I know we've only been here two weeks but we really haven't been bored nor have things been monotonous. Nor are there squirrels, oddly enough. (What do the rednecks shoot?)
First of all, like I've mentioned before, the weather is absurdly unpredictable. Monday was chilly but sunny and eventually I was down to a sweatshirt. Tuesday, however, was entirely different. We woke to temperatures in the 30s (both inside our cabin and out), put on a few layers and headed to work. By 11am it was still freezing, cloudy, and windy and beginning to rain. At lunch I made it up to 4 layers and long underwear. Naturally the sun came out later. Wednesday was very cold too. We spent a good part of the morning working with Ron and Kevin (one of Ron's workers) to help them set up a new tractor sprayer. This meant frozen hands dealing with nearly frozen water. Later it warmed up but it was slow-coming. Thursday was much nicer and Friday was downright hot. It supposedly never gets above 90 here so I can at least count on that. The good thing about living at your job is that you can go home and change at lunch if necessary. So far, that's been needed.
Today and last night have been the most eventful, however. Last night we made our way into town and ate at a restaurant with live music. Afterward we wandered the street (singular). With the livable temperatures come the lively people. Rather than everyone cramming into the Country Store's Jamboree, people hung out on the street and formed pick-up bluegrass bands. One had a woman singing "Keep on the Sunny Side of Life". I know that's an old song but I can't help but think of "O Brother Where Art Thou". This is no sleepy town, perhaps because of the population. This town is filled with old hippies (and their tie-dye), new hippies (and their tye-dye), young farmers, old farmers, hicks, and everything in between. It helps that everyone knows at least someone in every circle so it's easy to get people together. We still haven't tried out flatfooting but maybe someday. It'll take a few beers though.
Sunset in the Blue Hills
Today, after having a welcomed slow morning, we headed to visit a friend from the farm and drop off some eggs for her. She gave us a tour of her cute little house and garden and then we went to visit some people next door we had met before. They both also work on farms in the area. We eventually made it into town for sandwiches and an outdoor concert. The music was good and old timey and the breeze was nice. Another friend was there so we talked with him for a while. Already exhausted from social overdose, we headed to the next activity. The farm next door (as in through the woods and up a hill) had a birthday party and invited everyone they knew and didn't know. Josh and I have been talking about trying to meet everyone in the community and learning their different trades and I think we met them all tonight. There was a toolmaker, a brewer, a fruit grower, vegetable farmers, chicken farmers, cattle farmers, farmers farmers. It was a great bunch. There were also a few great dogs lying around which was probably the best part. The night ended with a bonfire and some yodeling. Can you top that?
We've officially been here one week. Our first work week ended with planting many, many onions, and a row of cabbage, a welding lesson, more tree pruning, and hauling more water. Like any new job, the first week feels like an overabundance of information that doesn't seem to stick. Endless questions for the person in charge and hesitation with just about every decision. Nevertheless, things are becoming more and more familiar and we aren't trusted with too much responsibility yet.
While planting individual onions (with their roots soaked in compost water) can be monotonous, Polly's husband, Niana from Ghana, sang Ghanian songs. Everyone that works on the CSA gardens is very nice and they all throw out tips to us when we are doing something new. Usually it is just Polly, Ann, Josh, and I but often Niana will join and occasionally friends will come by to help as well.
Friday night, Josh and I, tiring of our forest abode, went into the big city, Floyd. About a 15 mile drive down the road is THE (as in the only) traffic light where we turned and parked and made our way to the Country Store. Yes this town has a stoplight, and an active one at that. Things would get pretty wild on the weekends without it. Friday nights attract a diverse crowd of folks to the Country Store for the weekly jamboree where people flatfoot dance to live bluegrass and eat ice cream from the front counter. One thing I've learned from watching this event is that stereotypes have to come from somewhere. You know the old country bumpkin with the grizzled face, missing teeth, and indistinguishable speech? He lives here. Another man wore a shirt displaying a field of horses galloping into the scarlet sunset. His lady donned a long dress and a well-crafted braid down her back. It was a cultural experience and everyone seemed to be loving it. We stood back this time, just surveying the scene. Perhaps next week will bring our feet to the floor.
Laundry- notice the hippie shroud left for us
Saturday a big event happened, one that still continues today. We did laundry. Very exciting I know. There were clothes from our two-week trip out here as well as from this past week. This big event was accompanied, of course, by another event- a rain storm. Hanging wet clothes on the line is not terribly effective when the air is wet too. Our cabin became militantly occupied by an army of soggy denim and cotton. Not a fierce platoon but a persistent one at least. Today it still hangs over me, literally, as I write this and the propane heater warms my skin. Dealing with this blob of wet clothes is really not so bad, it just requires patience. We have nothing to do today but be, so why not dry clothes at the same time.
It was a pancake morning and will be a soup night. We had a chocolate chip cookie evening and may have a wheat bread tomorrow. All of these glorious things and plenty of time to make them. And the wind-up radio continues to play.
I apprenticed on a farm in southwest Virginia from April-October 2010. This blog contains all the anecdotes and observations from that adventure.
See more of my photos here