And So It Begins!

                      -Early morning barley-
 
This Wednesday will be the official start of The Cloverleaf 2012   season. On Wednesday our CSA (community supported agriculture) members will find their way to our Davis drop-off location and get their first box of delicious vegetables! We are extremely excited to be launching our CSA and to begin feeding our community. But we are also concerned. As beginning farmers we know that there will be some bumps in the road, but this feels like pothole heaven.
Last summer, when Emma and I started The Cloverleaf, our tomatoes grew faster than we could keep up with and our newly-planted melons took over the furrows in a blink of an eye. We did the necessary soil sampling in the fall, added soil amendments in the winter, and did our best with proper irrigation and planting. Unfortunately, this year, our summer bounty is in the ground and it is not growing. Between the four of us we have over 10 years of farming experience. We have labored over the reasons for the lack of germination and poor growth of transplants. Do we not have enough wind protection? Are our pest pressures too high? Was our bed prep not deep enough? Did we water too much? Did we water too li ttle? With all of these possibilities,  no clear answer has presented itself. Luckily, our early summer greens, beets, herbs, garlic, onions and turnips are happy, healthy and growing. Because of this we will have vegetables for the next few weeks, but beyond that we are unsure of the future. Do we replant? Start over? Can we afford to start over? These are the types of questions we are facing now, just as we start harvesting for our first CSA baskets.
What we do know is that we need to keep moving forward, continuing to talk to farmers, extension advisers, doing our research and adding a little fish emulsion here and a row cover there. We are trying our hardest to overcome the challenges of growing produce on land that we do not yet fully understand. Despite these initial setbacks, I have faith in our collective farming ability to find a way to have melons, cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers, basil, corn and all the rest of our summer crops covering our little plot of land and filling our CSA boxes with a plethora of summer produce.
                                         -Delicious turnips!-
-Sasha Klein
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The Craziest People

Well, that would be us … who decided to start farming on the side of I-80. When Sasha and I first looked at the land, I wasn’t sure about it – it was a 16 acre parcel in the middle of vast, large scale agriculture with a prime view of the highway. Now we have two more partners (Marisa and Aubrey) who have joined this wacky venture. It is a far cry from the cozy Capay Valley. No rivers or lakes nearby; all our water comes from the vast buried river that is our groundwater. But over the last two farming seasons, I’ve grown to love this little piece of land and also all the unpredictability that comes with it.

The noise from the highway is actually surprisingly quiet and soothing – we are always surprised when we look up from weeding carrots and we’ve forgotten about I-80 altogether. We always daydream west, to the beautiful view of Berryessa Gap, but occasionally it is nice to turn east and face the traffic head on.

Other things are less soothing – our locked shed was broken into this week and the most random and infuriating list of farming tools was stolen (two trowels, one hula hoe, drip valves and goof plugs, a weed-wacker that took us two weeks to find, our donated bike). I can’t imagine that whoever stole them could find as much value as we did from those rusty looking tools.

Our road-side stand comes with both the good and the bad. We are always amazed to think that 20,000 people drive by Kidwell exit every day. What an enormous potential market! I always smile at the traffic when driving home on the tractor – maybe one day, someone will wonder about what that tiny tractor is doing and stop at the stand. I’ve met friends at the stand that I went to high school with in New Hampshire and haven’t seen since. Of course, some of the customers are less than ideal – in addition to our loyal customers, we just love the people who drive by the stand (which is all of 120 square feet) super slowly, look us directly in the face, and then peel out when leaving. Or the people who call out from the window for us to carry them a melon. This is a different way of meeting your farmer.

We have a vision for our road-side stand, which is always being revised as we encounter opportunities and obstacles. My original thought is that we would complete revolutionize the highway pit stop! You could get a farm-fresh smoothie, some healthy snacks of vegetables and nuts, maybe an extra treat of a pie, go to the bathroom in a composting toilet – perhaps someday in the future, use our solar-powered wi-fi and fill up on biodiesel. Certain things change for the better – our friend Sarah from Pop Nation is going to be bringing us some delicious popsicles, made from the fruit on our farm, to sell at the stand. Pies and snacks are in the works for this year as well. The toilet – well, not so much. It turns out it is completely illegal to have any kind of composting toilet in Solano County. We are only allowed to have either flush toilets and use up our groundwater resource (and install a leaching field) or have a porta-potty and have people truck our waste, mixed with some questionable blue chemicals, to who knows where. I’ve worked on multiple farms with beautiful composting toilets, and shoveled them out to fertilize some big apple trees, but not here. Bike smoothies – also not allowed in Solano county. I think we’ll figure out some alternative solutions – we’ve got our thinking caps on. Starting a farm can lead you down some mighty interesting (and unexpected!) paths.

Two weeks ago, we had a visitor who took the cake for unpredictability. We met a pigeon racer, who drives about 160 male and female pigeons from Berkeley to our farmstand a couple of times a year. I briefly talked to him last year, but didn’t understand at all what was going on. I got the full story this time. He releases the female pigeons first who fly straight from Davis to Berkeley roughly at the speed of a car. About a half hour later, he releases the male pigeons that over time are trained that the first guy to Berkeley gets all the honeys. These pigeons are fast! He likes the farmstand location so much because, from Kidwell exit, I-80 points directly to Berkeley. Along the way home, the pigeons recognize the truck and will fly right alongside. The flock merges with traffic, crosses above the truck and then behind, swooping back and forth in a game of pigeon tag.

I like to think of the pigeons flying west, along with the vast, murmuring flood of traffic, above the imperceptible flow of our groundwater to the sea. In just a few weeks, some of our vegetables will join the migration. Who knows what effect that will have: whether the people coming by the stand will decide that stealing from beginning organic farmers isn’t worth it or whether they’ll decide that was the best popsicle they’ve ever had, and come back for more.

Gratitude

March 31, 2012
The past few months have been incredibly busy at the farm. We realized a hair too late that we didn’t have our equipment situation quite set up, and had to scramble to figure out how we were going to till and shape our beds this year. Last year we contracted out our bed-shaping and planted on 60” wide beds. This year, we realized that we’d like to use a tractor for weeding, but the only tractor we have available creates 44” wide beds, which would only smash the edges of our current beds. So we reached out to some local farmers for advice, suggestions, and help. Mike Madison lent us his chisel plow. Chris Hay lent us a tool bar and some furrowing shovels and discs for bed shaping. And our landlord Rich Collins decided that he needed a rototiller for his tractor anyway. So he bought one, and we get to borrow it. Now we were set up to take down our old beds and build some new ones. How lucky are we?
I’ve wanted to write this entry about gratitude and generosity for a while now. Since we started on this crazy venture, we’ve all been blown away at how generous and supportive the greater farming community has been around us. Rich giving us a deal on the land, the orchard, providing us with irrigation tanks, and letting us use his equipment was in itself an incredibly generous gesture, and the only way that we were able to make this farm work in the first place. But so many other people have helped us along the way; we decided that we need to share these experiences.

It started with Carl Rosato, renowned organic peach farmer, famous for his incredible flavor and quality, (of his peaches, that is) agreeing to come out and give us some advice on pruning our peach orchard. Carl came down on the way to EcoFarm and I met him at the orchard to prune some trees. He worked over two entire trees with me, explaining his decisions at each cut.

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Carl giving me a peach pruning lesson

It was invaluable to get these lessons from a master, to have them on video, and know where we stood in his opinion. It turns out Carl is also a soils guru, and he happily interpreted our soils tests during a two hour chat with Aubrey at EcoFarm. She walked away from that with a sheet full of calculations on amendments that we needed to add. Like I said, how lucky are we?

In the last two months we’ve gained so many mentors, notably Carl (who patiently answers our emails and desperate phone calls), and Mike Madison. Mike feeds us a delicious meal and then lets us barrage him with questions, and was ready with advice and equipment when we were stuck.

Mike helping us load his chisel plow to borrow

Paul Underhill of Terra Firma asks us the questions that none of us have thought of yet, and answers our emails at midnight. Chris Hay invites us over to explore his array of equipment, patiently explains how he uses each one and whether it would be useful to us or not. Then he sends us home with bags of grapefruit (and an attachment for our tractor).

Empty tool bar that Chris lent us – looks better with discs and shovels

And last but not least is Rich, our landlord and yet another mentor, who lets us cut our teeth on a brand new rototiller (that story in a few weeks) and sends us off with a hacksaw to cut the PTO shaft to the right length, calling behind us, “Just make sure you measure more than once!” with his typical good-natured wink and huge smile.

We don’t even know how we can possibly start repaying these people, to whom we owe such a debt of gratitude for sharing their knowledge, expertise, implements, and most importantly, their time. Theoretically we are all competitors, and there’s absolutely no good business reason for them to help us out so much. But the world needs more farmers, and from this perspective, it makes sense for the farming community to stick together and help each other out. Maybe the best way to say thank you is to take their lessons and turn them into skills, do our best to make this farm a success, grow good food, survive in the market, and make this farm work. So, here we go. A huge thank you to all of our mentors for your time and efforts. We hope to make you proud!

posted by marisa