Stories from the Farm - Field Notes Return to All Stories
August 11, 2015 Field Notes:
This week's predicted spell of hot weather reminds me we are in the Dog Days of summer here in the Midwest, which according to the Old Farmer's Almanac, end today despite another few week's of this type of weather still to come. Incidentally, this phrase, which evokes images of the season's sultry heat and humidity, got its name from the fact this time period coincides with the heliacal rising of Sirius (aka "The Dog Star") in Canis Major.
While this celestial body is the brightest star in the sky, it really doesn't add to summer's heat like people in ancient times believed. But the image of a tired dog laying on a farm porch does seem a fitting image for a hot summer's day. So the name is nothing if not evocative, even in its modern interpretation.
It is hard to believe we're already approaching the middle of August. The grasses have entered their dormant phase and we're supplementing the equine's pasture grazing with some free choice hay. Smart creatures they are, they much prefer the fresh to the dried kind. I think they understand the season for fresh greens has a limit, so they try to get their fill before the killing frost appears.
The trees usually begin to show their first hints of yellow and orange right around this time each year and our big American Linden tree is right on track with a smattering of golden leaves appearing amidst the thick green foliage. This subtle change is the first harbinger that summer is beginning to wane. But the peak of Autumn is still a ways off yet and there's no rush to get there. Like the saying goes, the seasons know exactly when to change.
August 4, 2015 Field Notes:
One of the nice things about this time of year is that summer is really at its peak. While the days are beginning to grow shorter, it's not yet noticeable. The early signs of autumn are still a few weeks away and the crops in the field are at the top of their performance.
Our days in the field are accompanied by the gentle buzzing of bees pollenating the vegetables and the intermittent call of a pair of killdeer that have taken up residence in our pasture. Their companionship makes farming on a hot day something to be enjoyed.
An equilibrium has been struck and while I don't want to jinx it, there seem to be less mosquitoes out, as nature has let forth a variety of predators to keep this insect in check. I was in a field piling some hay, being annoyed by a constant barrage of biting bugs, when all of a sudden an armada of low flying dragonflies and higher flying barn swallows appeared in unison to dine on the annoying bugs. Combined with our nightly visit from a large number of tree frogs plus a brown bat we've named Chubby, the insects are being kept in check. Nature does have a way of maintaining a balance to things.
Sometime in the last day or two, the tassels appeared on the corn, which now stands head high. While the Spring-planted vegetables you've been receiving in your CSA box are nearing their end, later plantings are about ready to begin producing, with the last round of seeding scheduled to begin next weekend. Farming really does bring you closer to the rhythm of the seasons and the subtle changes that accompany this endless flow of life. And so the cycle continues of which we are just a small part.
July 28, 2015 Field Notes:
This morning was sunny, hot and humid, with only a faint breeze blowing out of the southeast. But this gentle air was enough to set the corn rustling its chorus-like tone of leaf rubbing against leaf. So I set down my grub hoe for a while and just listened.
Of all the crops we're growing, corn is one of the most fascinating. A few weeks ago it was just a series of small shoots only a few inches tall marking out the hand sown rows that gently veer and bend, lacking the precision of our neighbor's GPS-plotted corn rows, but making up for this by showing that human hands, and not a computer-powered, diesel-fueled machine, planted the seeds.
As of his morning, the corn stand is about five feet tall. In a few short weeks, the plants will have grown taller still, the cobs will be full and ready for harvest. Then, after this growing season has drawn to a close, the barren dried stalks will be disced into the ground on some cool Autumn morning by a pair of Belgian draft mules, one human, and a primitive agricultural device, with the only sound being the crunch of wheels on the moist soil. Which makes today's Midsummer corn choir all that much more memorable as a reminder of how impermanent things are.
The beauty of this is, with nature, nothing goes to waste and everything, whether we realize it or not, has a purpose on this earth. As humans who reside in a too often disposable culture, we lose sight of this fact. But if we open our eyes and listen with our ears, examples surround us and we can be grateful for this subtle lesson in life. The corn, that today stands full and tall, will one day soon return to the soil from which it sprung, seemingly gone forever. But as long as we or future generations farm this land, it will return again next season as something else transformed. It will be part of the nutrients and the soil that will nourish another season of plant life that today are only seeds as yet unplanted.
July 14, 2015 Field Notes:
Tenacity. That's what occurred to me as I was harvesting the beans for this week's CSA shares. These little plants have been through a lot. Those that weren't submerged in a flooded field have spent what seemed like an eternity in waterlogged soil during their formative weeks. Because the soil was an impassible murky bog for so many weeks, the weeds infiltrated the bean rows because, unlike other plants, nothing deters a weed and there was nothing there to stop them.
After the flooding, most of the beans quickly died or turned yellow and withered. The plan was to get more seed in the ground in other fields to make up for these lost rows and then Loretta, Emmylou, and I would go back over the dead rows and turn them in with the disc. But for some reason, this row of beans held on despite the odds. So after the other field was planted, I held off discing this row in and waited, partly curious and partly hopeful.
This morning, as I was filling a harvest basket full of beans under a cerulean blue sky dotted with puffy white cumulus clouds, I realized patience with a smattering of faith pays off. While the other rows are now dried and gone, this one row had some marvelous green beans hanging from the small but resilient plants. Nature has a way of succeeding even against seemingly impossible odds.
July 7, 2015 Field Notes:
Despite last night's passing storm, the relentless rain finally ended and we've had a dry spell that's helped rid the field of the standing water. This has given us the chance to make a thorough assessment of the crops in the ground and figure out the next steps.
In the plus column, we've been able to begin a long campaign to battle back the weeds that have overtaken so much during last month's rains. We were also able to plant another fifteen rows of snap peas, green beans, cabbage, kale, and a really cool heirloom collard from North Carolina. It will take about seven weeks before we begin to see the results, but this will help offset all that was lost last month.
In the minus column, a lot was lost. What didn't drown straight away turned yellow and wilted from being exposed to too much water in the days following. Simply put, we lost most of what was in the ground.
The one exception has been the cucurbits. The squash, cucumbers, and melons took a bit of a hiatus in their growth and are now about three weeks behind schedule. But this morning's field check showed a positive sign. Both the summer squash and Amish melons have begun to flower! That's a good sign that they are ready to restart their growing and pick up where they left off a month ago.
June 30, 2015 Field Notes:
The theme continues to be rain. Our fields are well past the saturation point and the low parts still are full of water. Even the soil in parts without standing water is waterlogged. We've lost about 75% of what's in the ground. As a result, we've made the decision to disc in about half our planted acreage to see if we can replant some of what was lost.
The good news is, Sunday was actually dry and gave us a chance to gain a little ground. We began the battle to knock back the weeds that have gained a foothold and we even got some new seed in the ground. Normally, we'd be planting successive crops throughout the season but this is the first new seeding in a month. I had held back about 1/4 acre that, fortunately, remained relatively dry. That gave us some ground to work with that didn't require full prepping. So fourteen rows of lettuces, collards, cabbage, Japanese greens, plus some beets and carrots, were planted. We should begin to see this round ready for harvest in mid-August if weather is favorable. Better late than never.
As for what was lost, it's too late in the season to replant some of the vegetables. They simply take too long to mature. Also, a lot still depends on the weather. If we have a dry spell over the next few days and the ground firms up, Loretta and Emmylou should be able to join me in the field over the Fourth of July weekend and we can begin the process of turning in the old drowned vegetation to prepare for the new. At which point, the organic matter needs about three weeks to break down in the soil and we can begin to replant. So if weather is favorable, there's still a chance we can make up some lost ground in the second half of the season with a good Autumn harvest.
June 23, 2015 Field Notes:
It's been a rough month. Rain, rain, rain. We haven't just beaten the record for June rainfall. We've decimated it. Normally, June sees about 4.2" of rainfall for the entire month with the previous record being 8.3" set in 1903. Here at Bray Grove Farm, we're already hovering around 16" total rainfall and there's still a week left in the month.
Needless to say, we've taken a hit. Many of our neighbors have lost entire fields to the water or, as a result of last night's tornado, lost their homes. So it could be worse. So far, about 75% of what we have in the ground has been killed by the flooding. There's just too much water in the soil. There are still vegetables to harvest, but we're keeping a close eye on the forecast and will have a better sense of how our remaining crops fair in the days ahead.
Likewise, with fields that have resembled the Mississippi River delta more than an Illinois farmfield, it's been tough getting work done. I haven't had Loretta and Emmylou out working with me. As a result, much of what we're doing is by hand. Our goal is to replant what we can, but weather conditions are keeping that step on hold for the time being.
June 16, 2015 Field Notes:
Rain. That's the word this week. While much of the Chicago area has seen more than their share, it seems Grundy County has been particularly blessed. We're somewhere around 8" of total rain in the last week and the forecast calls for more precipitation.
Needless to say, things are wet. Our field is saturated and we have a large section that is a small lake right now. Fortunately the plan for the season was to leave this section fallow, so none of the vegetables are currently threatened. Sadly, many of our neighbors have vast tracts of land fully submerged. Quite a contrast from the ongoing drouth out west.
All this rain combined with the heat has kicked the vegetable crops into high gear. Some things are actually now a little ahead of schedule due to the weather. Although a little dry weather with a bit of sunshine would be a nice change.