Normally I don’t let people read my mail, but I will make an exception because I trust you and because you probably wonder what the heck is going on at our farm. This is a long note to my mom. She will read the whole thing, because she is my mom. You are not my mom, so you don’t have to read it all. You might want to pretend like it’s a book and just read a little at a time. Or maybe you will read a sentence or a paragraph here and there before going back to your own busy life . . .
I guess we have probably had a busier week, maybe when Kelly and I got married or had babies, but I can’t remember one as busy or productive as this one. I will call you soon to share the details, but here is a summary:
Friday May 15th. My tractor was delivered. The delivery guy drove it off the trailer and parked it near the farm building. A few days earlier I had a 30-minute training session at the tractor dealership, where I sat on, but I didn’t actually drive the tractor. Rick, who owns the dealership, is great. I knew from our first phone conversation, held while I was waiting in line for tickets at the Final Four, that I would buy a tractor from him. I know he knows how little I know, but he is not even the slightest bit condescending. Nonetheless, I left my training session feeling like he might feel if I told him how to deliver a baby. I did read the operator's manual, with special focus on the various ways to kill or maim yourself on a tractor.
Pervis, the delivery guy, drove my tractor with my all-purpose seeder attached to the back, off the trailer and onto my land. Then he was gone. It would be up to me to get the tractor into the Morton building, but I thought I should practice using it first. I worked the loader--that’s the scoop thingy on the front, and I will deny having said it like that if you tell anyone--to move piles of wood chips for no good reason. Nothing bad happened. I parked the tractor in a shady spot, waiting for the electrical installers to vacate the farm building on which they were installing solar panels. They loaded the ladders and tools into a large trailer, but it wouldn’t budge from its muddy spot when they tried to pull it with their van.
“Can you lift the tongue of the trailer and push it back so we can hook it up to the van?” asked the foreman.
Um. Sure. I thought about mentioning my 14 minutes of tractor driving experience, but I suppressed it. The task seemed simple enough, and now that I have 19 hours of tractor driving experience, I know that tasks like this are easy for tractors, but I was damn cautious. I drove--more like inched--the tractor up to the trailer trying not to act unmanly (these guys had tool belts for godsake). I maneuvered the bucket under the tongue of the trailer, lifted it a few inches and pushed the trailer to drier ground. Nothing bad happened.
That same day was our anniversary, so after I was done farming I drove to Milwaukee to meet Kelly for dinner. She was there coaching tennis matches. It was good to have a relaxed evening. We ate at Goodkind, a ten-minute cab ride from downtown. The restaurant was small, the atmosphere casual and friendly and the food was so good I would have ordered the same thing for breakfast had that been an option.
Saturday May 16th. I left Milwaukee early to meet with Tom, a prairie enthusiast who is friends with one of the surgeons I work with. Tom lives just a few miles from our farm. After I called him, he invited me to see his place and talk about native perennial plants. It was everything I expected. Trees and plants everywhere you looked. Beautiful by my definition, but not formal or scripted. His backyard is a 10-acre grassland surrounded by tall trees that screen the reality of the surrounding cornfields. The prairie starts in the corner of the property closest to the house. Tom and his wife spend much of their time expanding it, plant by plant. The transplants drop seeds each fall and new prairie plants grow nearby. He calls that franchising. He took an interest in my farm, so I explained the concept of restoration agriculture and our plan to grow fruit trees, nut trees and berries, and eventually livestock, instead of corn and soybeans. His neighbors, traditional farmers, don’t like him. They think he is a hippie. He’s not. I could tell by the short hair. I knew Tom and I were like-minded when I offered to remove my boots when we went back into the house. “Oh no,” he said, “We don’t have time for that.”
Sunday, May 17th. Patrick graduated from college. We attended the commencement and we celebrated with his roommate and tennis teammate, Mike, with a party at Mike’s parents house. The commencement speaker spoke of the importance of being uncomfortable. She told the story of how she went to live and work in France, learning French on the fly. She was wise. I hope the graduates listened to her. I sent her an email thanking her for breaking the drought of pointless commencement addresses. I told her my France was a small farm south of Madison and that I just learned how to drive a tractor.
Monday, May 18. I rented a tree planting machine from the DNR. Duane, the Dane County conservation agent, delivered it. It's quite an innovative device. According to the web site, you can plant 3000 trees in a single day with a machine planter. One person sits on the planter, which is pulled by a tractor. A large plow cuts a trench into the soil. You stick the tree roots in it, then angled wheels on the back close the trench. I was less impressed by the innovation when realized that it would not easily connect to my tractor. A mad scramble ensured. As luck would have it, Peter, the farmer consultant who helped me with design and install had hydraulic hoses with the appropriate connectors. We hoped they would fit, anyway.
Tuesday, May 19. The hoses fit! Yae! But not yae. The controls didn’t work right. The raise lever raised the plow and the lower lever also raised the plow. Boooo. Also, WTF? After a several minutes of troubleshooting, Leanne, who came to help plant trees, showed up. Leanne is a chef, baker and candy maker by trade. She owns a successful restaurant. In her past life she was an engineer who helped design the very anesthesia machines I use when I am not farming. Peter and I had already showered ourselves in hydraulic fluid (which I don’t recommend for showers), so I asked Leanne to channel her engineer abilities to help us.
“Walk me through what you have done so far,” she said.
We explained what we had done and seen. She pondered it for a moment.
“Did you try switching the lines?” she asked.
We switched the lines and it worked. Genius, Leanne. Plan B was to plant all 2800 trees by hand, so I was beyond relieved. We had ten different people come help. Some hand planted, some helped Peter and me with the machine planting. We machine planted 1450 trees and our volunteers hand planted at least another 600. We had already planted 600 by hand, so by day’s end we had over 2500 trees planted in 12 acres of former corn field. We were so appreciative of our helpers.
Wednesday, May 20. With the help of my friend, Tim, we got 60 blueberries planted. Steve, the Dane County forester came out and walked the six acre forest with me. Great guy. He had many suggestions about sustaining the forest, which now is densely overgrown with garlic mustard and other invasive species. The very next day he sent me a management plan. The old forest is not as much as priority as the new forest, but it is definitely important.
I found out Tim has black locust trees on his property, which I believe he considers an infestation. I wanted to plant black locust on my property, but can’t because it is considered an invasive species. I get that. It’s kind of nasty on the surface. Thorns. Propagates from seeds or “suckers” that come up from the roots near the tree. Control is not a problem if you have grazing animals. They will eat the suckers. I explained to Tim why black locust is amazing. The wood is extremely rot resistant. It makes cedar and redwood look like used biodegradable toilet paper. I was told by one farmer that you can expect black locust fence posts to last 75 years. That should pretty much do it for me. I will soon look at Tim's black locust offerings to see what I might find.
Thursday, May 21. My neighbor Kevin offered to disc my fields for me. A disc harrow is a type of plow. I needed to disc because the corn stubble was too tall, and I did not think my seeder would go through it. It would have taken me a couple hours to mark all the tree rows and I felt bad taking up half his day, so I asked if he could teach me how to do it myself. “Sure,” he said. Ten minute lesson on his giant John Deere rig with a 16-foot wide implement and I was off to the races. His tractor was not hard to drive, but it took a little getting used to because the plow was so much wider than the tractor. And I was very careful, because the difference between my tractor and his is that if you fall off mine, it stops. Mine has the equivalent of a gas pedal. If you fall off Kevin’s tractor, it keeps going. With a disc harrow in tow you would have even odds falling of the edge of the Grand Canyon. It took me about 5 hours to disc all the alleys (the 30-60 foot spaces between the trees), but I got it done. And I only ran over 2 trees. Almost took out an entire row of blueberries, but stopped as the front of the tractor straddled the first plant. It’s not that easy backing up a 16-foot wide implement, but I figured it out. I exposed the soil. It was dusty. I felt bad that I was losing soil to the wind. Then I remembered that most of the topsoil was already gone. I was filthy. It is the last time this soil will ever be exposed to the wind.
Friday, May 22. With help from our friend, Tammy, we planted more trees. In the afternoon I picked up my cover crop seed order. Prairie, which will eventually fill the alleys and provide forage for my animals (sheep? pigs?) is best seeded in the fall, so the cover crop fills the space to compete with weeds and hold the soil until then. Beside an annual ryegrass, I planted some clover too. Clover is a legume, meaning it helps put nitrogen in the soil. Because the land was in commodity crops, there is very little fertility in the soil now, so plants like this are of value.
It was time to try out my seeder, which is another gadget that hooks to the back of the tractor. I studied the manual, which is pretty well written, at least if you already know a lot about seeders and hooking stuff up to tractors. I wanted to be sure I set it to deliver the seed at the right rate, so I weighed out 15 pounds of each type of seed and put it in the bins. I tested it, adjusted, tested, adjusted. The seeding rate was way too high. I figured out that one of the cups was all the way open, when it poured out about 8 pounds of ryegrass seed into a pile on the ground. But I figured it out. Glad nobody saw that.
Saturday, May 23. I was up at 5:00 a.m. just like a real farmer. I knew it would be a long day and I had to get the seeds in before Sunday’s rain started. I pulled the seeder to the big field. On the first row it got clogged with corn stubble and go stuck on mound of dirt created. I might have thought a swear word. But I figured it out. Not as bad as I thought it would be. I just had to watch and make sure the seeder’s front drums were still turning. Every few rows, I would lift the seeder, spin the drums backwards and all the corn stuff would fall off. My seeder is 60-inches wide. That’s a lot of passes to cover 12 acres. I felt like I was painting the Kohl Center with an artist’s paint brush. Kelly and Tammy planted 175 raspberry plants.
I took a break from the tractor to help our neighbors process chickens, which they sell by order to their online customers. I wanted to learn how to do it, and it was a good way to pay them back for use of the tractor and disc harrow. Four of us processed 45 chickens in three hours. I was able to use some of the skills (overstated) I acquired on surgery rotations in medical school. We had lunch--venison hot dogs from the first deer Keely ever shot. Did I mention Kevin and Keely are committed to sustainable agriculture? What are the odds?
After lunch I reached the lower fields at the west end of the farm by 7:30 PM. As I looked to the east I saw our newly-planted farm bathed in the warmth of the setting sun. Long shadows of the tall trees on the north border of the property reached out onto the hillside. Was this a literal example of foreshadowing? I didn’t have my camera, but it’s an image I will not forget. It got dark before I finished, but I got 95% of the seeding done. Kelly finished planting the last 25 raspberries next to the vegetable garden site. I saw her taking pictures of me before she left.
Later she told me that the parents of a friend stopped by to say hello. The dad had been a farmer. He couldn’t understand why we would decimate a perfectly good cornfield. He said that chestnuts “are a mess”. Kelly gave an abbreviated answer, one appropriate for someone who would never be convinced there might be healthier ways to grow things. I might not have been as diplomatic. I might have asked him how much he thought I would make per acre if I kept it in corn. It might be enough to pay the property taxes. Ours is a very small farm. It won’t produce a profit without forward thinking approach: planting mostly crops that don’t have to be re-planted every spring, planting many different species in close proximity, eliminating poisons and artificial fertilizers, building soil instead of depleting it and keeping the water on the fields, in the soil. Yep, another hippie.
As much as I wonder about conventional farming, I have great affection for conventional farmers. Yes, I do think they are stuck in a tradition that is mostly likely unsustainable (environmentally and economically), but they are the most hard-working, honest, compassionate, stoic, generous bunch you will ever meet. Besides, I know my place. I am the new kid on the block. A hobbyist, as far as anyone can tell. They farm this for a living. I respect that. I don’t intend to make change by coercion or criticism. I intend to make change by inspiration.
Sunday, May 24. I was on the tractor before 7:00 a.m. I finished seeding the lower fields and re-seeded the fields near the home site, just in case I screwed it up on Friday. On cue, it started to rain. I had too many clover seeds left over, so I put some in a bucket and I broadcast them by hand (meaning I threw them into the air) into the area where the vegetable garden will ultimately be and in the alleys closest to the driveway. I washed out and reassembled the rain barrels. Kelly arrived mid morning. Together we planted more trees--walnuts, chestnuts, pea shrubs and thornless honey locust. I like working in the rain. Didn’t have to worry about the tree roots drying out. Kelly is less waterproof than I am, but she persevered and I admired. She had her fingers in the dirt.. We are down to the last 200 trees. Or so. When we are down we will have 3340 new trees (including berry shrubs) on our land. Besides those mentioned, we have hazelnuts, pears, cherries, raspberries, currants, elderberries, persimmons, paw paws, seaberries, serviceberries, blueberries, aronia. A good start, we hope.
I have been asked what we plan to do with the harvest. That I have no idea is part of the design. There is so much to consider. If you spend too much time planning you won’t do anything. We won’t have much to harvest for a few years. By then I will figure it out like I figured out how to get a farm building built and how to make a walk-in cooler to keep the trees cold, and how to buy pine trees from the state nursery and how to shop for used trucks and how to drive a tractor and what to plant for a cover crop and how to get the seeds from the bag into the ground and how to rent a tree planter and how to use a disc harrow pulled by a giant green man tractor. I invested in discomfort. I have lost sleep over some of the details. Every night I look at my task list, which now has a few dents in it. Every night I remind myself that it is a privilege to be this busy. This night I will sleep well.
Much love, Ma.
Your farmer son, Steven