The jack-of-all-trades or The Janitor

We don’t just grow food around here. Farmers have to be ready to handle just about anything. And Greg is no exception. We’ve been together for almost 10 years, and although the novelty has worn off, I must admit, he can still amaze me from time to time.

First, he’s a great father. It doesn’t take much for Evelyn to entice him into a game of chase, tickling, or a good book. He stops what he’s doing to give her the love, attention, and respect that she deserves. I think they’ve got a good thing going.

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That said, I imagine it’s hard for Greg to put the farms needs to the back of his mind. If we had to hire a professional for all the things Greg knows or figures out, we’d be broke.

In the early Spring we called in Ferguson Heating to help get our greenhouse heaters started- Greg was having trouble with them. Jimmy, one of their more pleasant repairmen, worked on the heaters, but couldn’t get one started. He said we’d need a new part and they would call with an estimate. The next day, Ferguson calls to inform us that the replacement part would be $200-$450 depending on how long it would take to fix! Jimmy informed Greg that we were using the heaters in the wrong context – our Modines we’re not made for greenhouse use and were getting ruined (actually, they are designed for greenhouse use…).

So, Greg took apart the heater himself- and found a tiny spiderweb had clogged one of the gas vents. He wiped it off cleaned the whole system and ta-da! The heater works perfectly. A narrow escape from a heafty bill!

Yesterday, my trusty Allis Chalmers G just quit running as I was driving up to the hilltop fields to do some seeding (Nero de tondo radishes and daikons). We’ve had some issues with the battery and alternator, so I popped out the battery and charged it for half the day. In the evening, I came back, hooked up the battery and……nothing. So, Greg gets the call ” my G is broken, I can’t get it started”. He stops everything he’s doing and comes to my aid. 20 minutes later he comes chugging up to the tomato field with the G. I’d put the battery in backwards (not my fault- someone had rigged the G up with red battery cable that should have been black and the other one is clear!).

I remember when Greg and I started dating- we were always impressing each other. Wow- he knows how to fix a computer, install solar panels, build a pulley system, do macrame! Oh! She can knit, grow food, cook, can, and drive a tractor. So, we’ve been together long enough now that we pretty much know what we are both capable of. It’s harder to impress, and easier to have expectations- sometimes taking each other for granted.

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But each time Greg fixes something on the farm, each time he completes a long drawn out project, each time he hooks people in with his passion of the farm, local foods, and local economy, and each time he holds his ground against the gas drillers, I think…..that’s my guy. I love him and I’m with him forever. I’m proud of him.

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2014 Newsletter Updates

Here’s our
Intro Newsletter
Week 1 Newsletter
Week 2 Newsletter
Week 3 Newsletter

Week 4 Newsletter

Week 5 Newsletter

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Ode to the “G”

IMG_6737A couple of days ago,we were able to get into the fields for the first time. Being in Western Pennsylvania, and not too far from the Allegheny river; our fields are mostly comprised of clay and shale.  This does not bode well for someone who wants to farm in the wet spring weather. It takes about a week of beautiful, sunny, and windy weather for our soil to dry up enough to tolerate a heavy tractor tilling and prepping the beds. If we venture out too soon, we risk compacting our soils.  Compaction means the soil takes longer to dry out, and the air spaces are compressed between the soil particles (think microbe apartment housing). One farmer told me that it takes 15 years of good soil management to recover from one day of compaction.

IMG_6732It’s so tempting to jump the gun and get out there and work the fields. And that’s just what we did. There should be a lot more planted in the ground by now – but March was super cold and wet and we certainly haven’t had a week of dry weather. Soooo, Greg got the second-to-lightest tractor out and tilled a few rows for me on a south-facing hill (one of the fields to dry out the quickest).

IMG_6736The rows were so pretty, fluffy and soft. I went down to the purple garage with my backpack full of seed packets. And there she is, ol’ Allis. When we bought this farm, we inherited a 1952 Allis Chalmers G with it. Obviously, they don’t make ‘em anymore, and they can be hard to come by. The G can be a very handy tractor to have in a smaller vegetable operation. It’s lightweight, it’s designed for cultivation, and it has the engine in the back. The farmer can look down between her legs and see what’s happening as she drives over the crop rows. It’s a sweet thing, and a bit dangerous – we call it the “death trap” so our apprentices and interns can appreciate the gravity of using this old thing.

For a while – the G didn’t have reliable brakes.  I would make sure to start out on low gear at the top of a hill – and be sure to coast to a full stop on the flats before crossing Ridge Rd.  The Basket Weeder (think wire baskets that turn on an axle as you drag them across the ground), and the Planet Jr. Seeder have a habit of pinching my toes as I move the tool bar up and down with the hydraulics.  There is no roll bar, no seat belt, you have to lean far back and pull the on/off switch (about the size of a golf T) out in order to turn off the tractor, or try to stall it in case of an emergency.  Inevitability, the basket weeder gobbles up the drip tape (irrigation), the shoes scoop up the main irrigation hoses, and the seeder clogs with rocks and weeds.  There’s a short in the wiring -so we’ve got to charge the battery when we aren’t using the G, or it won’t start.  Other than that – it purrs like a kitten and I love using it.

IMG_6730I used to think I should take up smoking  and wear worn out overalls when driving that tractor.  There’s just something classic, harsh and farmy about that tractor.  It’s a very simple machine, compared to our big shiny red tractor that gets most of the love and attention.  It’s Jen’s tractor – and that’s how I like it!

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The value of work shares…

Each year we are blessed by about 10-15 Work Share CSA members. A Work Share is an opportunity for folks to experience a bit of farm life, get some fresh air and exercise, and help us out. In exchange, these wonderful members get a weekly CSA share and a great community meal.

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Each Tuesday (June- October) from 9:00 am – 1:30 pm our work share members show up for a (half) day on the farm. Mostly they help with harvesting and washing vegetables – but will sometimes be put to a group chore.

We farm about 13 acres in veggies, fruits, legumes, grains, and cover crops. We harvest for about 150 CSA members and 2 farmers markets. With two full time farmers and a crew of (ideally) 5 apprentices, it’s just about all we can do to keep up with everything. So, our weekly influx of Work Shares helps relieve the pressure of a big harvest. Many hands make light work.

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Its an experience that even folks on a busy schedule can appreciate. The field conversations are as exciting as receiving the freshly picked vegetables at the end!  Since we all work side by side and switch crews constantly, everyone has a chance to get to know new people and to collectively share their knowledge of growing food and preserving the harvest.  Of course the farmers and apprentices are always around to answer questions and contribute a tid-bit of farm wisdom, there’s no school in the nation that could provide such a rich and rewarding curriculum!  After an action packed morning of harvesting and weeding, we all break for lunch at 1:30 pm.

Work Shares are invited to eat with us, of course. It’s a great opportunity to sit down with the whole crew (sometimes over 20 people!), talk about life and the farm and eat a great home cooked meal. Most people wait until late November to have a once-a-year huge home-cooked meal, but here at Blackberry Meadows its a weekly event, not to be missed!  The rich diversity of our food community, the laughs we share about field follies and failed recipes and of course being able to enjoy a fine dessert!  After stuffing themselves with food and good tidings, they grab their CSA shares and go home to take a nap!

We always welcome inquiries for new Work Share members, so please get in touch. We typically accept about 5 new members each season. You can send questions to jen@blackberrymeadows.com

 

 

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Emerging from winter hibernation

Can you see it? The morning light has changed. I don’t exactly know when it happened, but I can tell that Spring is here (ignore the snow on the ground!). At one point, we were milking the cows in the dark, both morning and night. Now, our morning milking is kissed with a little coral sunrise.

IMG_6188Those frigid weeks were an adventure. It can take about an hour and a half to do the animal chores; milking, hay, water, feed, eggs, and general barnyard conviviality. When it’s -15 degrees out, it’s really important to milk quickly. We milk by hand, and with Jersey cows (who have notoriously short teats) our ring and pinky fingers just kind of hang out waving around cold, while the rest of the hand is busily trying to get as much milk out of that udder. I found that if I gooped my whole hand up with lotion or coconut oil, it would slow the eminent frostbite of the two extraneous digits on each hand.

For my morning chores, I would layer up with merino long underwear, flannel pj pants and then a pair of ‘Sherpa’ lined Carhart pants (think knobby fleece lined canvas pants that weigh 20 lbs and can stand up on their own). Then a flannel shirt with a merino sweater, a sweat shirt, a scarf to cover my nose, and a winter work coat on top of it all. Of course I donned two pairs of gloves too. I could hardly walk, let alone, bend down and milk cows for a half hour. Greg dresses just about the same for his arctic evening chores, but with more pairs of socks.

Luckily, we have a semi-trusty golf cart. We load it up with our milk buckets, iodine water and milk can. When there was an arctic chill in the air, my eyeballs almost froze, the snot dripping out of my nose froze. It’s really cold. I quit wearing my glasses outside because they would freeze my to my face.

So, we (Greg or I, depending on whether it’s morning or evening chores), would jet out to the barn on our golf cart, and get inside as quickly as possible. It’s actually tolerable once we were out of the wind. The cows and their bedding warmed it up a bit too, I’m sure. First we fed Socks, the cat. He’s a cuddly gray and white guy that likes to be pet, but not so keen on being held. Our resident mouser. Then we go up to the hay loft and toss straw and hay down through the shoot. Socks has a sweet hay castle upstairs that he burrows into during the long arctic nights.

The sheep yell at us until we give them fresh flakes of hay (they are quite picky eaters and seem to only eat 1/16 of what we give them, strewing the rest all around their stall). We toss a few flakes into their feeders to keep them quiet.

Then we give the cows a small incentive of organic oats and corn to come into the milking stanchions. They greedily slurp up their treats and then patiently graze their hay and chew their cud while we go about the business of milking.

After about 15 minutes of hand milking and freezing pinky fingers, we are done with the cows and ready to move onto the fowl. Let the hens out, give them more grain and water, feed and water the guinea hens too, then back to the house to jar up the milk and get on with our day.

It’s a nice routine, one that will be broken up soon, with the arrival of our 3 apprentices. Greg and I are looking forward to the coming help, the excitement of live-in apprentices , and a busy and fruitful growing season. There’s also a bit of a sad farewell to our quiet winter, hunkered down as a family.

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Busy Spring days (although, technically it’s still winter)

Frost on the barn window at Blackberry Meadows Farm

Frost on the barn window at Blackberry Meadows Farm

We have a big office calendar on our fridge.  When we use it – it helps Greg and I keep track of who’s coming and when, where we need to be, what we need to buy, and why we’re starting to go crazy.  You can tell we’re on the up hill journey towards craziness when you see that a whole week is covered in chicken scratch.  Then, throw in the activities of a toddler (library & swimming – not that overwhelming) and the week is over before you know it!

We warmed up the tractor and hauled up potting soil to the greenhouse

We warmed up the tractor and hauled up potting soil to the greenhouse

Yesterday was a big day – our potting soil arrived from Ohio Earth Food.  Granted, we had a few bags left over from last year – but now we are prepared to go full steam ahead.  We’re not eager to heat up the greenhouse when it’s 3 degrees outside – so we’ve maximized the warmth and coziness of our laundry/furnace room.  We can start 30 trays of something there – and that’s just what we did.  We’ve got herbs, flowers, peppers, eggplants, tomatoes, leeks and onions started and will still plant broccoli, cabbage, kale and other leafy greens (almost all of an heirloom variety or another) by the end of the week.

Laundry room turned germination room

Laundry room turned germination room

Also – Evelyn got her first 2014 ride on the tractor with Papa!

Evelyn and Greg take a ride on the Case

Evelyn and Greg take a ride on the Case

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Invite to returning CSA members: Time to join!

It’s that time of year again!  Our seed orders are in and we’re going to be putting seeds to soil before you know it!

Since you were a member last year – you can join at last year’s prices. Please see the attached documentPrint out the Shareholder agreement form and mail it in with a check.

This year we’re increasing our heirloom varieties – with more colors of tomatoes (white, purple, green, and variegated), unusual squashes, and unique greens.  Of course, there’s going to be the old-standbys that you can expect to see too.  I wish there was a way that we could post up our seed purchases online – then you could get a detailed view of what we’re putting in the ground this year!  We spend about $2000 on seeds each year, then another $2000 on potting soil and organic soil amendments.  Then, there’s irrigation supplies, row cover, fuel for the tractors and heat for the greenhouse.  Our organic certification usually costs around $1000, then taxes, the mortgage….. you know how it goes – it all adds up!

This is why running a CSA program is so cool.  You folks help defray a lot of these up front costs – helping to disperse our flow (in and out) of cash throughout the growing season.

So – please sign up!  You can join the CSA as a basic share, half share (every other week pick up), or plus share (2 times a basic share, every week – the most economical – buddy up with a friend and enjoy the savings!).

We’re adding a new drop site this year – up in Butler Co.  at the intersection of Bonniebrook Rd and Rt 422, at Crossfit Bonniebrook.  So, if you know folks  up that way that would like to join a Certified Organic CSA – send them our way! (The 2014 shareholder agreement and pricing in on our homepage at http://www.blackberrymeadows.com )

New members for 2014 can go to our homepage and download the 2014 shareholder agreement.

If you end up recommending our CSA to a friend and they sign up – please encourage them to give us your name.  We’ll give you a $20 credit for purchases towards our farm products – like eggs, meats, cheeses, honey, etc.!

If you would like to join as a workshare – member and trade your CSA share for labor – please get in touch!
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