Oh My God, What Have We Done?

rows for planting running through soil

We got hit by hail again this week.

This makes our third hail storm this season but we’re counting ourselves lucky because all three have only dropped pea-size pellets. With row cover over our most sensitive plants, and a heavy emphasis on growing root vegetables, we weathered them all with minimal damage. Two other storms this season dropped golf ball size hail on nearby friends’ farms, shredding hoop houses and pounding tomatoes. We dodged that. And we’re grateful we did.

The indigestion that immediately kicks in the second I hear the familiar ping of ice on windows is that of the watching-a-train-wreck variety. I want to run down to the basement, cover my ears, and pretend it’s not hailing until the storm passes, but instead, I can’t pull myself away from the window, watching each little ball of ice come down while I repeat like a crazy person, “Ok…that’s the last one! Ok…now it stops! Stop, stop, stop, stop!” I run through a mental list of which crops weren’t covered and try and guess at how much damage the current storm is doing them. When it’s over, right before I step out into the yard, I feel like I’m entering some version of Schrodinger’s Garden, where the vegetables are both fine and not fine, until I actually walk the rows and discover whether they are the former or, heaven forbid, the latter, and we have to start over with planting.

Farming is hard.

It’s a refrain you hear over and over again, even from big commodity crop farms. The work is hard, the days are long, the weather unpredictable, and the profit margin slim.

It’s also all true.

So when we made the leap this year from running a tiny, but efficient farm on our small  homestead property to taking on an additional acre on a second property we…well…

We got absolutely flattened.

It’s been a rough season, and not just due to the hail. We’ve approximately tripled our vegetable production from last year, which means we’ve at least tripled our work (maybe even a little more, having to set up a whole new piece of land) but it’s still just Mike and me running everything. And both of us work “real” jobs – the ones that actually pay the bills – in addition to the farm.

 

It’s after dusk one night in May. We’re at the farm property, weeding and planting. We’ve been there since 5pm, which means that I had exactly enough time to get home from work, change, grab a snack, and run out the door. I finish weeding the row I’m on, look at the sun which is already behind the mountains, and tell Mike I’m ready to go home. We haven’t had dinner. I need to shower and get ready for work the next day.

He wants to get row cover over the tomatoes. “It’s just one row,” he says. I groan, but I know he’s right. The plants just went in, they’re still young and tender and the row cover is our primary guard against the Colorado hail and wind. I nod in agreement and we roll out 150 feet of cover, tying it down at either end of the row and draping it over hoops. Mike bends down and starts tying baling twine to the end of a hoop. One hoop of twenty.

“What are you doing?”

“I’m tying down the cover.”

“I thought we were just covering it then going home!”

“I don’t want it to blow away!”

There’s no reason for this to escalate into a fight, as farm bickering sometimes does. I look down the row lined with hoops holding up the row cover.

“Sweetie, I’m worried about it taking an hour and a half. It’s getting dark. I haven’t eaten. I have to work tomorrow. I’m tired.”

Mike is silent a moment. He doesn’t believe in “tired” when there is work to be done, but he acquiesces. We compromise by throwing down sandbags filled with rocks to hold everything down until it can be tied. We go home, eat leftovers at 9pm, shower and fall into bed.

I’m up at dawn to get ready for work – middle school admin –  and I spend the day pretending that I (or anyone) have any prayer of staying a step ahead of a building full of freshly-minted teenagers, then it’s home again and straight to the farm again, and another late evening, again.

Wash, rinse, repeat. Every night until the end of school in June.

 

After the second hail storm, our apple trees – once loaded with fruit – looked funny. The leaves were turning brown. Entire branches looked like they were dying. The fruit was gone.

“Uh-oh,” Mike said. A quick visit to the CSU extension website confirmed it. Fire blight. A spectacular year for it, in the front range. Of four apple trees large enough to produce fruit, one’s a goner, one is probably a goner, but we’ll make an attempt to save it. Two have blight but will limp along indefinitely. The thing about fire blight in Colorado is that it’s always there, lurking in the soil, hiding out in nearby affected trees, waiting for its in, and when it gets it (a wet spring, followed by hot dry weather, stress on the trees and then a hail storm) BOOM! it’s there. And once it’s there, there’s no known cure. Suddenly, the bark is cracked, the leaves are dead, the branches dying. The most you can hope to do is manage it. Either consistently douse your trees with antibiotics (no thanks) or prune back infected limbs with shears dipped in bleach. Strip and disinfect the wounds of bark cankers. Keep the soil healthy and the water regular. Constantly.

Some trees will succumb almost instantly. Others will mope around a few months or a couple years, and then die. Others…others will still be infected, perhaps show visible symptoms, but with proper care (and perhaps a little luck) will manage to continue on for years to come.

“It’s not unlike farming,” I tell Mike.

“What?”

“The self doubt. The insane work. The certainty that you’re never going to make it. It creeps in. Either you succumb, your leaves turn black and you die. Or you recognize that it’s there and you deal with it as best you can.”

“Oh. You don’t chop off your limbs with bleach-covered shears?”

I roll my eyes. Then roll my jeans into my muck boots and go wash carrots. Harvest these days lasts 6-7 hours with both of us working full bore. We haven’t really figured out how we’ll manage that once my summer break is over. We have exactly four weeks to puzzle it out. Plenty of time. I hope.

After carrots, it’s beets, turnips, and scallions on the homestead. Then, I head over to the farm to pick peas and summer squash while Mike waters seedlings and plants flats for upcoming transplants.

I return hot, sweaty, and covered in grime. But then, that’s been my state for most of the day. I flop down on the couch with a pint of ice cream I picked up from our local grocer on the way home. Denver recorded its all-time record high temperature today. 105 degrees at 2:20 pm with a hot, dry wind blowing. Murder on vegetable gardens. And small market farms.

Mike flops down next to me and eyes my ice cream.

“This is insane,” he says.

“What? The heat?”

“The farm. The work. This. All of this. What are we thinking?”

“That we love farming.”

“Do we love it enough to work like this? All the time?

I shrug.

“Do we need to decide that right now?”

Mike shrugs.

I take one last spoonful of ice cream, bringing the pint to exactly half full (or half empty, depending on how one chooses to see it) and hand it to Mike.

“Here. This will make you feel better.”

He takes a bite of the sea salt caramel.

“You’re right. It does. We’re at maximum capacity, you know.”

“For the farm?”

“Yes. With just the two of us working it.”

“I know.”

“And we can’t afford to pay someone else.”

“I know.”

“And right now, the farm doesn’t exactly pay the bills. It would have to get much bigger.”

“I know.” A pause. “Do you still love it?”

“I feel like it’s what I was born to do.”

“Well. Then.”

“Then?”

“Then I’m going to go finish packing stuff for the CSA members.”

“I guess I’ll go plant more flats of lettuce. What are we going to do long term?”

“Figure out how to make it work.”

“And if it doesn’t?”

I pause, then grab my favorite trucker hat off the floor and stick it back on my sweaty head.

“Then we’ll figure that out, too, when the time comes.”

Mike nods, then we both head back out the yard.

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