Lettuce Sucks

Man planting garlic

We got the garlic in the ground this weekend.

800 cloves of it to be precise, which required pulling the very dead tomato plants that had previously occupied those rows, dumping a load of fresh compost (part of our never ending battle to turn Colorado clay into soil,) rebuilding the rows, popping 800 cloves out of their bulbs, and getting them in the ground.

All in all, not all that much work in the farming scheme of things. Only took us two days, which is why it’s part of our grand plan to manage farming with MS.

In the short time we’ve had to digest Mike’s diagnosis and recognize that we’re not willing to give up because of it, we’ve realized If we’re going to make our farm work, we have two realities that are pretty non-negotiable:

  1. We need to make more money.
  2. We need to keep physical labor to a minimum.

Anyone who has farmed/ is farming/ even thinks about farming probably knows enough to howl with laughter at both of those propositions.  Farming, especially small time farming (and we are super small time)  is a notoriously poor paying choice of career requiring a staggering amount of physical labor. But these are our realities, so we will work within the box we’ve been given.

More money, less work. In other words, every crop we grow needs to produce as much money as possible for as little effort as possible.  Mechanization is largely out of the question.  We’re so small that everything we do is by hand. Vegetables that can more or less be plopped in the ground and left to grow for the season with relatively little care have a distinct advantage.

Additionally, any crop we can grow that can be used for multiple purposes also has a distinct advantage.

Take garlic, for example. Garlic is planted in the fall, gets its roots established, then goes dormant during winter months.  In the spring, when the weather is warm enough, it perks up, starts growing in earnest and is ready to harvest around mid-July.  To harvest it, we pick it, brush off the excess dirt and hang it to dry. Voilá! The end.

Let’s compare garlic with lettuce.

Lettuce has to go in in the spring, like many vegetables.  But lettuce is picky.  Plant it too early in the spring and it won’t die, but it also won’t grow.  It just kind of sits there and stares at you until things warm up. Plant it too late, and it grows too fast and bolts (meaning it goes to seed and tastes bitter.) If you manage to get it right and the weather cooperates, lettuce grows and then you have to harvest it.  Which means one of two equally unpleasant battles.  If it’s leaf lettuce, you get to 1) trim it with scissors like you’re giving it a haircut 2) throw it in a container of cold water and wash it thoroughly 3) put in salad spinner to dry it 4) store it in a perfectly cool place even during hot farmers markets so that it doesn’t wilt and look pathetic.

Head lettuce is no better.  You pick the heads, then wash in them in a large container of water. Head lettuce has an infinite number of nooks and crannies in which lovely little creatures like earwigs, worms, spiders, and aphids can hide, so you then spend more hours of your life trying to make sure these that every one of these critters had been drowned or picked out, then you set out the heads to dry.  Dry them too long, and they wilt.  Dry them too little and they wilt and get slimy.

Lettuce sucks.

And you know what you can use lettuce for?  Salad.

Garlic? We can sell garlic bulbs fresh.  We can dry it and make garlic salt. We can pack it in jars of vinegar and herbs and sell pickled garlic.  We can braid the soft necks into functional decorative pieces. We get four products out of one plant for minimal work.

So what if we built our entire market plan around less variety but more efficiency and multiple types of products? Beets and carrots, we can get two plantings of in one season. Cucumbers have produced in something bordering on obscene quantities for us over the last few years.  All can be sold fresh or pickled. All, in the grand scheme of things, are fairly low-maintenance.

And so begins the outline of a manageable plan. We’ll work hard on the garlic – perhaps the most versatile of the food we grow.  We’ll grow large amounts of the other vegetables we know we can do, do well, and use in multiple products, like the beets and cucumbers. On the side we’ll keep a large garden of all types of food that we’ll use to feed ourselves.  Still a lot of work, but much less than trying to sell all types of everything at the market.

And we’ll see how it plays out.

The plan’s not done yet.  We still have a number of problems to solve. How to manage the hot hours at the market and in the yard when multiple sclerosis is aggravated by heat.  How to organize ourselves to make the busy planting and harvest seasons manageable with both of us working full time and one of us not up to par. Finding other outlets for sales when the market’s not in season and we still have product.

Making time for us, as individuals and a couple, to just be.  To do non-farming, non-work, non-multiple sclerosis related things.

But we have time.  We have a beginning. And today, between wheelbarrows full of compost and bales of stacked hay, we know that this is exactly where we want to end.

With our shoulders in the sun, our knees on the ground, and our fingers in the dirt, farming.

4 Replies to “Lettuce Sucks

  1. Have you thought about mushrooms? Indoor growing is little effort and HUGE profits, depending on what kind. Chanterelles and shiitakes I mean…..

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