Growing Pains

Two farmers planting garlic

Around the time the tomato plants all died, we decided it was time to scale back the farm

The demise of that ultimate summer vegetable did not directly prompt our decision – we’d been considering it for weeks already. However, the loss of our entire tomato crop was one in a series of events that convinced us of what we probably already should have known:

We had bitten off more than we could chew.  Even if what we were chewing was locally grown, super fresh, farm-to-table goodness.

The tomatoes succumbed to spotted wilt virus, an infection caused (as best we can tell) by a lethal combination of infected weeds, a new plot with poor soil, thrips (a really irritating little bug) and a brutally tough growing year. That same virus took out a fair amount of our peppers and likely was what killed our tomatillos. But it wasn’t just the nightshades that suffered this summer.

Our first round of cucumbers came out so bitter (too little water, apparently,) that we pulled them all, fed them to the chickens (who didn’t seem to mind) and did a second planting. The potatoes didn’t do diddly squat. As in, they didn’t grow. The grasshoppers chewed on the beans. And the rhubarb. And the basil. They even went after some of the carrots this year, which they’ve never done before. The squirrels went for the squash. The cabbage moths hit the cole crops, the asparagus bugs hit (you guessed it) the asparagus, and the bindweed and the goatheads sprouted up from the 7th circle of hell and overtook every non-vegetable square inch of the garden, despite our best efforts to keep them at bay. 

In reality, though, none of this is unusual. If you sign up to grow food without using synthetic shortcuts, you’re signing up for all the work (and the pests) that come with it. So, in the end, it wasn’t the caterpillar moths, squirrels, or even the grasshoppers that made us decide to cut back.

We’re cutting back due to…growing pains.

Which, perhaps surprisingly, means that we aren’t quitting. We’re growing. But in order to grow, we have to regroup.  

A couple of years ago, on a trip to her family’s farm in the bootheel of Missouri, LeeAnne had a conversation with one of the local farmers about growing rice, which is starting to take hold along with all the other commodity crops that area has produced for generations.

“You know,” Farmer Massey said in his slow southern drawl, “They told me you only need to know 20 things to be a rice farmer and I thought, ‘Well, that seems alright. 20 things ain’t so bad.’ What they don’t tell you though is that you only learn once thing a year.” He chuckled with merriment at his own joke. A thousand miles west and on a farm a tiny fraction of the size of his, we can relate.

This past growing season, depending on how you count the different varieties, we grew somewhere between 35 and 50 different crops. This means we need to know the planting, growing, and harvest time for each crop. Then, we need to organize their planting in order to guarantee weekly harvests and to keep every row in constant rotation. All crops then get a watering schedule (too much water and tomatoes crack, too little water and lettuce bolts) and a fertilization schedule (cabbage is a heavy feeder, beans are a nitrogen fixer.) That means we figure application techniques for their preferred types of non-synthetic fertilizers. (A little fish emulsion here, a little composted chicken poop there.) We also need to know the common pests for each crop, recognize early signs of infestations and control them without industrial chemicals. Ditto for the common diseases.

And just when we think we’re done and things are growing nicely, we realize that every vegetable has to be harvested, washed, and stored differently. So we learn a new set of skills and make a new organizational list. Three, actually.

Yet again, however, none of this is unusual. Small vegetable farmers all over the country do it day in and and day out all year long.

Which is where we hit the bump in the road that eventually changed our course.

As much as we wish it were, the farm is not our primary income. To be truthful, it’s barely an income at all. Both of us work “real” day jobs (leaving for later debate the question of if the real job is the one that pays the bills or the one that feeds the soul) and also work the farm which desperately needs at least one of us (honestly, probably both of us) full time. We make it work as best we can, but while the market table on Saturdays may look pretty, we’re barely eeking by. 

Most small farms have at least some full-time help, be it in the form of the farmers themselves, farm interns, paid employees, or a combination of all of the above. We have none of these. We do, like most people, have a mortgage and, unfortunately, we also have Mike’s medical bills which rival a second mortgage. And when you’re staring chronic illness and health care coverage in the face, throwing caution to the wind and becoming a couple of carefree, uninsured, hippy-dippy farmers isn’t really in the cards.

Plus, retiring someday would be nice.

So over the course of the summer, we had some serious heart-to-hearts about how to make the farm work. We could give up entirely and close up shop (er…farm…) But that goes against every belief, passion, and desire we have. We could hire help, but looking at the books with our size and our capacity, even a minimum wage employee would probably put us in the red. We could move to a cheaper state, somewhere where we could get more land, more water, and pay less for it, but that would mean leaving all our friends, LeeAnne’s years into the state pension system, and – most importantly – one of the few healthcare providers nationwide that covers Mike’s hard-to-get drugs.

So we made our list of non-negotaibles. We are staying in Colorado. We have to keep our day jobs. We would not close the farm. We would not kill ourselves trying to keep it open.

Which brought us back to garlic. Two years ago and fairly quickly after Mike’s diagnosis, we had identified garlic as a potential way to keep the farm running (you can read about that here), due to its relative simplicity of care. We had started expanding our seed garlic stash then, and have continued to do so, but in several bursts of untempered enthusiasm (and, thankfully, good health) we had also expanded the vegetable offerings as well. 

It was time to pare back. If we could do one thing well – really well – we could be so much more efficient. We would only need to know one set of planting and harvest times, one crop’s worth of pest, disease and fertility management. We could predict when the big bursts of labor would come and roughly schedule those into our calendars. We could learn the 20 things one needs to know to be a garlic farmer, and with some luck and perseverance, perhaps we could learn them a bit faster than the rice farmer from Missouri.

So that became our plan, and we’re sticking to it. For now. We’ve learned that plans change. Tomatoes die. Grasshoppers thrive. The weather is almost impossible all the time, if you talk to any farmer.  And health is fragile. 

But for now, we’re moving on and learning to let go of what was. It’s not easy. We spent years building a reputation as vegetable farmers. We took pride in our carrots, we liked to show off our beets, we worked hard to know our customers by name. We stashed treats behind the stand for our regulars: a hidden head of lettuce on a week when none was for sale, a stray carrot for the carrot-fiend pup and his owner, a sweet pepper for the vegetable-chomping toddlers. We tried to work every detail to make the farm as warm, welcoming, and successful as possible. Yet, we still need to scale back.

We’ve broken the news to a few customers while chatting in town. Word gets out in a small community. (I heard you’re not doing vegetables anymore. Is that true?) Each time we have that conversation, it stings a little. Sometimes a lot. The right decisions aren’t always the easiest. 

We don’t know how this new venture will go. We don’t know how many customers we’ll lose. We hope for some that we’ll gain.

But most of all, we hope our decision allows us to keep farming. To keep our hands in the soil, our bodies outside, and clean food on the table…even if the variety is limited. Even if it is only garlic.

You’ll still be seeing us around. We’re working on scheduling some classes on garlic braiding, some shenanigans around Halloween (we are the best at repelling vampires after all) and likely some workshops on gardening. If we can’t grow all of your food for you, we’ll happily teach you how to do it yourself.

We hope you’ll join us on the journey. We understand if you’re bummed. We are, too. 

But for now, we’ve found a way to keep on keepin’ on.

And that is fully what we intend to do.

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