Monday, June 27, 2011

how does your garden grow

This is a local high tunnel similar to the one I am planning to put up this fall. They have a wonderful mix of plants in each row - lettuce under broccoli and so forth - very inspiring.
The chicken complex, including a multigenerational triplex in the foreground with extensive covered yard area and a hen coop built by wwoofer extraordinaire Nick.

Well, inside the hoops, pretty well. I'm about two days away from full heads of broccoli and a week from the beginning of the great zuke fest - swimming in lettuce - tomatoes coming along nicely, even the basil looks slightly less pathetic than before.
We butchered the first batch of chickens today, and there are more coming tonight. It's crazy crazy days here on the farm. Crazy. But good crazy.
Mike and I spent the past couple days touring local hoop houses to see the different construction types. We are leaning toward a heavy-duty frame that looks more sturdy despite its size and using cables and turnbuckles to enhance that structure. We looked at the land a couple of days ago and it looks like putting it where the existing gardens are is the best idea. The only problem there, of course, is that the existing gardens are there. And will be. For months. So that means we won't be able to do the high tunnel installation until the garden is done. Which means late September or October, really. Which isn't the best time for all that since the snow is flying by mid-October, typically. But, we will just have to figure all that out as it comes.
The kids came back from a weekend with Matt today and welcomed 15 new baby peeps and a new Wwoofer, Olive, who is lovely and was immediately taken on the grand tour by both kids. It's so wonderful to watch them interact with all these new people coming through their lives. I think it builds big things to be a host to people with different experiences like that. Will it entice them into traveling themselves when they grow up, I wonder? Théa ate about a pound of chicken herself tonight, insisting not on chicken cut up into little pieces, but big pieces on the bone. Liam tried one piece. Hmm. Olive is a vegetarian. I think Liam might be moving in that direction. I hope he starts liking hard boiled eggs, then. Can 7-year-olds really be self-proclaimed vegetarians? I guess if anyone can, it's Liam.

Friday, June 24, 2011

High tunnel herald

Yesterday I got a call from the US. Dept of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service saying that they had found some extra funding and my application for a high tunnel had been approved.
The NRCS has funded some $4.1 million in high tunnels for the Homer and Kodiak area in the past two years. It’s an amazing figure. 150 high tunnels, each allowed more than 2,000 square feet of growing space, are going in all over town. When I first heard about this program, I thought I had missed the window – that all the funding had been used up. Soon, however, I realized it was ongoing and the chance was still there to capitalize on the funding. High tunnels are the latest in the wild world of plasticulture, which I have already been immersed in since I put my first house up last year. But this is such a larger scale of what I have been doing, it doesn’t even compare. I can get a 30x72 foot steel structure with this funding.
Immediately jumping to mind is what the impacts of this will be on our community’s economy. If only half of these tunnels survive, they will be able to supply a huge amount of fresh produce to our community and beyond. In a state where fresh tomatoes that taste and look like a tomato are almost impossible to buy and peppers are $3-$5 a piece, one can see the repercussions, not to mention the impact on those trying to limit the amount of drive time our food requires and the larger implications for our environment.
For my farm, however, it is a massive undertaking. All of a sudden I am catapulted into a world of designs and shipping costs and interviewing people and and and… so much to learn. So many things to figure out, decisions to make – do I try to put it up this year and reap some benefits? Do I put it up this fall to be totally ready for next spring? Do I wait until next spring? Hard choices to make, but even harder is what do I do with this thing – how do I make the best use of it so as to maximize my growing potential and also make a little money for my family. Tomatoes? Peppers? Heirloom veggie starts? So many choices. Hard to decide which direction to go. Right now, however, I am focused on the simple matter of finding the right high tunnel, buying it and getting it up here. No small feat, but one that is going to change the next four or five years of my life dramatically. It’s a big day. I can feel things shifting. I don’t know where all the pieces will fall when it is all said and done, but I am up for this. Bring it on.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Diamond days

It has been a cold summer so far up here in the land of the midnight sun - not so much of that sun stuff, either, and temps in the low to mid 40s lots of days. So when Friday dawned sunny and warm, I knew it had to be a camping day. A few friends and I had already made some fuzzy plans to do so, and the sun sealed the deal. But first, there was a lawn to mow, chickens to feed, a garden-sitting gig to tour, an acting class for Liam, work for me at the library, and finally, we all charged home to pack. And pack. And pack. Camping with kids is not easy, nor light. This camping trip was a short hike in, so it all had to fit in my backpack - no small feat. Final tally for the pack was 50 pounds - plus some extra stuff that I had to carry on the side. The kids twirled around while I tried to remember everything that I needed to remember - toilet paper! newspaper! matches! water! 10 pairs of extra socks! Per child! I'll admit that I had a few "what is the point of all this madness" moments before we finally piled in the car. I know what it takes to go camping by myself - not much. But just keeping Théa from stuffing every doll within reach into her backpack was a victory. Somehow, miraculously, we got out the door, to the trailhead, down the trail and found the primo camp site waiting for us, unencumbered. Phew!
Diamond Creek is a wonderful spot - you can park at the top of the road and hike a mile and a half or so in, or drive down to the top of the switchbacks and shorten the trip considerably by 3-year-old terms. The trail has eroded over the years, but still provides a pretty easy path down to the beach, where the mouth of Kachemak Bay meets Cook Inlet and a ring of volcanoes (Liam has them all memorized, even some I don't immediately know) circle the horizon. Diamond Creek spills out to one side over a 5-foot waterfall or two, providing a ton of fun for the 7-year-old Pooh-stick tossing child of mine. And for some reason, the wind seems to often be less vigorous against the bluff. There is one fabulous camping spot at the base of the trail - up off the beach a bit with lots of grassy area to pitch a tent. I was worried it would be taken, it being a Friday night and nearly summer solstice, but it wasn't. In fact, we were the only ones camping. Amazing. My friends Mike and Judy joined Théa, Liam and I on this expedition - and we quickly got wood for a fire, which lit with ease. The sun was bright and still high in the sky at 6 p.m. Liam found some other kids to play with and quickly got entranced in their games - Théa took her baby down to the sand and played for a long time. We roasted corn in its husks and the kids both zoomed in and out, eating constantly before zooming off again. Mike and I kicked back and enjoyed the sunshine and a little crosswording - couldn't really have orchestrated it better had I written the entire script myself. Judy came down around 9 or so - sun still high in the sky and fire crackling - she took the kids over to the falls area for a good half-hour and helped them burn off their marshmallows with some serious rock-throwing. I stuffed them into the tent after that - around 11 p.m. maybe? Sun still hadn't set. Read them stories, then left them to their own devices and they were out within 10 minutes. Joy. Mike crashed, but Judy and I stayed up till about 1 telling stories and laughing - still not dark enough to need a flashlight, though the wind picked up and it was damn cold if you weren't within a foot or two of the fire.
I think the part I like the most about camping is the morning - the moment when you realize this is no ordinary day but one that is completely different. I could hear the ocean, the gulls, feel the temperature start to rise in the tent as the sun finally moved over the bluff. We all slept till 8:30 or so - the kids a bit longer than I, which was great. Woke slowly - Liam started the fire all by himself, we got water on, kids had special "camping cereal" (rough translation - whatever sugary crap they want). Then we went for a walk on the beach - Judy showed Théa sea enenomies (sorry, no idea how to spell, let alone properly say, that word) and she learned how to touch them and make them close up, which she then did all the way down the beach, squealing each time. Zee raced after every gull, a few eagles, and a moth or two. Then, when we were waaaay beyond the camp site, both kids crumpled. I wondered what was going on until I remembered the cereal - good lord - sugar crash. Carried Théa all the way back. And people wonder why my arms look like they do. She's a big kid. Then it was back to camp - pack everything up and head back up the hill. Both kids did great hiking back up and cheerfully babbled. I could hear a different tone in their voice - a level of calm that comes from having had an experience that satisfied them to the core. Good stuff.
Back at home, Judy, Mike and I made short work of several big projects - moving the chicken coop that wonderful wwoofers Nick & Joanne built into position so the hens could get some space and stop beating up the meat birds - and popping out a water tank that I need to sell by climbing inside it and pushing up with our backs. What a team.
My chicken coop area is more like a chicken complex these days. The original coop that I built last year from one given to me by my friend Mo has been subdivided and is now a duplex / triplex depending on my needs. I've been raising different batches of chicks so that I don't have one big slaughter to deal with, but instead that means I've got four different age groups of chickens, some of whom don't like to interact with each other. The layers really need to be on their own at this point - they get pissy with the meat birds and peck the snot out of them. So they have been moved into a spacious new living quarters that used to be our dog run. We built a door and put the coop on the outside and secured the bottom four feet of the hen house with mesh, but this morning, one of the hens got out and really, the only way she could have done that was by flying up and out... amazing, but possible. Zee was giving her a run for her money when Judy found the hen, but it looks like she's going to be fine. Zee got in big, bad girl trouble, and I got some net from Mike to put over the top of the coop so history won't repeat itself. The hens otherwise seem crazy happy in there - green leafy things, bugs ... they've never had such luxury since there are too many dogs in our hood to allow them to be free range, even if my own mutts would leave them alone, which is questionable at best. In the other coop, we have the new batch of 20 week-old chicks in their own area, and a flock of 9 3-week-old birds cohabitating with the meat birds who are almost two months old and heading to the freezer on Saturday. Then another batch of 15 chicks will arrive in early July and everyone will move up a step. It's pretty cool if it all works. Judy introduced me to the merits of sawdust over straw and I'll never go back. for sure a better option. Yikes. Still, all this chicken is no small thing - lots of tending and watering and so forth. Tonight is the first night in quite a while I've had no chicks in the house. Quiet. In the end, if all goes well, I'll have 40 birds or so in the freezer and five more I'm raising for my friend Christy. Plus five more laying hens. That aught to help feeding the masses. Last year I raised 12 birds or so and you would not believe how much meat that produced, though this year's birds are going to be a lot smaller. It's all an adventure. We'll see how I do. So far, so good, though, with - as always - lots and lots of help.

Friday, June 10, 2011

More gratitude

It has been 8 years now since my brother-in-law Scott passed away. This is always an interesting day - recalling the details, the weeks that followed, the service, the amazing sense of community as people rallied around Samantha and the boys. Today, I drove back from Anchorage, and with four uninterrupted hours to think, my thoughts turned to the one kernel of wisdom that resonated from that tragedy. I remember having the shocking realization a few weeks after Scott died that most of what we do makes absolutely no impact on our sense of fulfillment and the few things that do make us truly happy are often the last things we do.
Scott was not like that. He somehow had figure out that he was going to have to be the one to take life and run with it. He did so many fantastic things with his life, lived so many wonderful stories, entertained, enjoyed, indulged... we all should be so lucky. I remember vowing to live my life more that way. Then I got caught up in the details and forgot for a few years. More recently, I think I'm doing a better job remembering. When I look at my life, there are frustrations, but it cannot be said that I am living an unfulfilled life. It is fantastic to come home after a night away, roll into the farm, do the rounds, look at all that is going on, things growing, life living, my children thriving, learning, laughing. I am so incredibly lucky and grateful.
And there is more I can do to slow down and enjoy what is right now. I have a friend who has had some dramatic stuff going on, the kind of stuff that makes me think about how much more we can appreciate things like health, laughter, food. I plan to fill totes with camping gear this weekend so that the next sunny day when I have the kids, we can throw those totes in the car and zoom off into the day, destination unknown, and have an adventure. There are friends I want to see, and people I'd love to have over for dinner. I'd like to finish another painting, and learn a new song. But my life is pretty rich and I do feel like I'm living it large, loud - I feel pretty alive.
Yesterday I bid a hasty goodbye to Nick and Joanne, who had been living with my family and I for a couple weeks. I suck at goodbyes but I hope they know how much I appreciated their efforts as well as the lovely way they meshed with my family. Sure, I'm looking forward to cooking in slightly smaller quantities for a few days, but honestly, it's been an awesome couple weeks.
As I said in the last post, Nick and Joanne, along with their friend Mel, who left a few days before them, arrived at the height of garden season. There is just no busier time than May. Not even harvesting or putting up or weeding the piles of chickweed compare to the chaos of putting in an ever-expanding garden. When they arrived, the dry erase board was full of huge, ominous projects like "build ends, beds and plant hoop house two". They tackled virtually the entire list and then some. Nick doubled the size of my woodshed and built a beautiful little chicken coop for my laying hens, while sick, and entirely out of junk I had laying around. A-Maze-Ing.
But like I said, even more important was how wonderful they were with the kids. Matt has been gone for a long time, and having Nick and Joanne and Mel and then my longtime friend Judy in the house for the past couple weeks has been a wonderful distraction. It's hard to feel lonely when there are so many people wandering around to take you worm hunting, shoot at targets with your bb gun, listen to your stories and even on a couple of occasions put you to bed at night so mom could have a much needed evening of adulthood. Matt gets back tomorrow night, and that leg of the marathon that is summer comes to a close. There will be more.
Years ago, I used to work in youth hostels, traveled around a lot and even after I settled in Anchorage, there were a lot of travelers coming and going. But somewhere along the line I lost track of that group. With Wwoofers, that is all coming back. Not just for me, but for the kids, too. It's not as good as taking them to far-flung cultures, but it's as close as I'm going to get right now, and it's pretty good. Plus, for the past two weeks, I've done very very few dishes. I LOVE that.
Garden update: Most of the garden is up now - little tiny sprouts unfurling their very first leaves. Everything is under row covers, which is generally a good idea, but this year, it has been so often cold, it seems even more appropriate. A few days ago there was ice - not frost, ice - on the water in Théa's wagon. Cold. Another banner year to have hoop houses. It's much, much warmer in there. I'm really close to harvesting lettuce for the first time. Peas are up inside and out. It's time to spend an hour weeding. The zucchini and squash are flowering. The beans are leaving out - and something, probably slugs, has nibbled its way through. Must investigate. Also need to learn more about plant nutrition through the fruiting process. So much to learn.
Chicken update - first batch of chickipoppers is about two weeks away from being harvested. Second batch is ready to move out. Another batch is ready to move in. Then another. YIKES. Got to get the laying hens moved out into their new coop so the teenagers can move into the main part of the house. My goodness. Need woodchips, too. But all in good time. That's the thing. It all comes together if you let it.