Farm Journal Part 5: The First Harvest

Ruth Burke / Heavy Table

University of Minnesota Agriculture student Ruth Burke is spending this summer interning at a CSA farm called Cramer Organics of Delano, MN. Throughout the growing season, she’ll share weekly updates about the experience with readers of the Heavy Table.

Part 5: “Less Talk, More Billy Joel — The First Harvest”

Courtesy of Ruth Burke / Heavy Table

Rain dripped off my hat as I stooped to slice the base of a prime-looking head of lettuce. It was fat, with bright green crinkled leaves. It was perfect.  Behind me and up the narrow footpath was a string of equally beautiful heads, all sliced neatly at their bases and tilted on their sides, waiting to be picked up and brought to the harvest tent. Many of them were dotted with mud at their bases; a testament to my weak harvesting skills. It takes a little while to develop the single-swipe technique that Joey has; her lettuce was practically spotless despite the rain and mud.

Soon I moved on to the kale and chard, which were much easier to harvest. All I had to do was break the best looking leaves off at their bases and bunch them together in groups of 5 or 6. Spinach and green onions were similarly easy; pull them out of the ground, trim their roots and bunch them together. My favorite vegetables to harvest (so far) are the kohlrabi and radishes. The kohlrabi have tough roots to cut through, but they are so lush and beautiful, it’s a joy to gather them in the baskets and wash them in the tent. The radishes remind me of Easter egg hunts. You have to look for the hint of color popping above the soil line, and they range from a deep purple, to a rich red, and even to a creamy white!

My back was stiff and my legs were sore after only a few hours of bending and standing. This was truly a workout! My forearms were even a little tired from all the cutting, bunching, and rubber band maneuvering. The on and off showers of rain didn’t help either, forcing us to don rain jackets and rubber boots.

Gloves became pointless; your hands were soaked regardless. It was also humid and muggy when it wasn’t raining; the perfect atmosphere for gnats and mosquitoes. I discovered that to the gnats, my ears were particularly tasty.

Ruth Burke / Heavy Table

A sense of hustle was in the air as we worked — in order to keep the vegetables at their freshest, they must be cleaned and stored in the coolers immediately. We moved as fast as we were able without making mistakes and damaging the produce. This meant that conversations were limited to random spurts of jokes and laughter. At one point several of us burst into various renditions of Billy Joel songs, lightening the serious atmosphere. Later, as we all washed and packed vegetables under the harvest tent, idle chit chat sprang up regarding our excitement about the first harvest. We dreamily tossed about ideas of what we would cook first. This prompted one of the workers, Madrone, to quip, “Less talk, more Billy Joel!” And right there, our harvest motto was born.

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Ruth Burke / Heavy Table

Farm Journal Part 4: First Impressions

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

University of Minnesota Agriculture student Ruth Burke is spending this summer interning at a CSA farm called Cramer Organics of Delano, MN. Throughout the growing season, she’ll share weekly updates about the experience with readers of the Heavy Table.

Part 4: “First Impressions”

A few weeks have gone by and I’d like to describe some first impressions of, well, everything. I’ve had many realizations about the form and function of community supported agriculture (CSA). I’ve also had a few insights as to my personal connection with CSA and how my dream of farming means a lot more to me than I previously thought.

With regards to the realizations I’ve had about CSA forms, I must admit that I was pretty naïve before this summer started. I had this mental idea that organic farms were the same thing as CSAs. This is most certainly not the case! CSAs do not necessarily have to be organic, and there are definitely many organic farms that do NOT sell individual shares. There are many models of CSAs as well; they form a spectrum of sorts. There are CSAs that are entirely member-run and operated on one end of the spectrum, and on the other end you have subscription CSAs where members simply contribute a set dollar amount at the beginning of the season and have no other contact with the farm other than to pick up their shares. And of course, there are many that fall somewhere in the middle. As far as function, many opinions abound on the role a CSA should play. Here’s my personal take:

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

The main idea behind CSAs is to connect a specific community with a specific farm. This relationship is a connection among the people who eat the produce, the farmers who grow it, and the land from which it is grown. However, this relationship goes beyond food. Depending on the CSA model, this relationship creates a thriving community of people conscious of where their food is coming from, and who is growing it. I would even suggest that this relationship could be very spiritual, if that is your bent.

What do I mean by spiritual? Well, I can only explain this in terms of my own understanding, but I feel as if being a part of this relationship gives me a purpose. When I work with plants (which I have been doing for many years now), I feel as if a blanket is thrown over the rest of the world and my focus can narrow to just one thing: the plant in front of me. At no other time am I able to shut things out. I am constantly distracted by a multitude of thoughts and sounds when I’m studying, in lecture, exercising, even when I’m trying to sleep! However, when I’m digging in my garden, or watering my houseplants, or even working in the greenhouses at school, my mind goes silent. And in these moments I can see the connection between nature and myself. I can see how my actions affect the plant I am tending and how that plant affects me. Working at Cramer Organics is no different; it’s just larger.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Suddenly I can connect how my actions are a part of the larger cycle. I work the earth, replenishing the soil, and am rewarded with produce. Furthermore, I help to feed the many people that are members of our CSA. I can be proud of my work, because I am an integral part of that relationship that I described earlier. Essentially, I have a purpose. And isn’t the debate of humans’ purpose on earth one of the central questions for many religions? Naturally this purpose would not suit everyone, but I am inclined to believe that we must find our own purpose and then live accordingly. Therefore, I feel that for some people, CSA is quite spiritual (and you can count me among them).

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t mean to imply that CSA or organic farming is nothing but spiritual bliss. It is far from it. I don’t want to fall into the trap of romanticizing farming (although I recognize that my previous descriptions of CSA being spiritual belie that statement). I’ve discovered that my estimation of the physical aspects is quite accurate. It’s hard, dirty, sometimes tedious work — exactly what I expected. I used to landscape and I also used to work as a package handler for UPS, so this type of labor is not foreign to me. And although I enjoy the work now (even the monotony of hoeing weeds), I’m sure my appreciation of certain aspects will eventually wear off. It’s also a lot of work for relatively little pay. There are very few wealthy organic farmers (contrary to popular belief). Then again, most small farmers in general (be they organic or otherwise) are not “rolling in the dough,” and honestly, money doesn’t mean that much to me. Should I let these concerns stop me from pursuing a career in agriculture? Nope. I am beginning to realize that only time will decide whether this is something I will stick with all my life, or whether it is a passing phase that I will go through. Either way, I can’t know right now. But I’m okay with that.

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Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Farm Journal Part 3: Transplanting 101

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

University of Minnesota Agriculture student Ruth Burke is spending this summer interning at a CSA farm called Cramer Organics of Delano, MN. Throughout the growing season, she’ll share weekly updates about the experience with readers of the Heavy Table.

Part 3: “Transplanting 101”

Ah, the joys of transplanting! We are currently in a transplanting blitz at the farm, trying to get everything from the greenhouse into the ground. Once your seedlings are large enough (usually a few inches in height) you can begin to slowly “harden them off.” This means to slowly introduce your greenhouse seedlings to life outdoors. For the first few days, you should bring your seedlings inside overnight, but then you can leave them outside all the time.

After about a week (and this can vary) your transplants should be ready to go in the ground. Make sure that when you transplant them, their new homes have been given plenty of water. You might even mix a small amount of fish emulsion in with your water. (Fish emulsion is essentially fish puree, and its scent is vaguely reminiscent of tuna and worms after a rainstorm — the plants love it!) Also, transplanting should be done as early in the morning as possible. Watering and early morning planting are important because they lessen the effects of transplant shock, which is the inevitable jolt the plant experiences at being taken out of its small plastic home and shoved in the ground.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

If you have a large enough farm, you might even have a watering transplanter (which Cramer Organics happens to have). This nifty implement attaches behind a tractor and allows for workers to sit and plant transplants while simultaneously watering them.

Now that you have a little background knowledge of transplanting, let me detail some of the aforementioned joys I have discovered about transplanting:

1. It’s a great lower body and core workout. You have to make sure to balance your upper body so that you don’t strain your back as you bend over to plant the transplants, and thus your core gets lots of exercise. If you kneel in the seats to plant, hamstrings and quads get quite a workout as well.

2. You will get soaked with fish emulsion water and caked with mud. This is simply the nature of the beast. A shower will never feel better than after transplanting!

3. If you’re lucky, you will trade off who gets to drive the tractor. This is a blast! I will write more about learning to use farm equipment next week, but suffice it to say, there is nothing cooler than driving a tractor.

4. At the end of the day, expect to be tired. But, as you look back over your beds (filled with hundreds of plants), expect a feeling of satisfaction from a job well done.

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Farm Journal Part 2: A Can of Worms

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

University of Minnesota Agriculture student Ruth Burke is spending this summer interning at a CSA farm called Cramer Organics of Delano, MN. Throughout the growing season, she’ll share weekly updates about the experience with readers of the Heavy Table.

Part 2: “A Can of Worms”

A little non sequitur before we cut to the heart of this installment: It’s amazing how one week spent interning on a farm can rival an entire college semester’s worth of education. If this seems like a rather extreme claim, try it yourself. My summer has barely begun, but if last week is any indication, fall semester will, by comparison, be a walk in the park!

On my very first day, I was introduced to the cutworm. Anyone who gardens or farms will eventually encounter this pest, and although they are rather nondescript, their damage can reduce a freshly planted bed to nothing, overnight. It is disheartening (to say the least) to spend hours planting a bed of seedlings that you have nourished in a greenhouse for several weeks only to come back the next day and see half of them chewed off at the base of their stems.

Cutworms are the nocturnal larvae of a few different species of equally nondescript moths that have one life cycle per season. They mate and lay their eggs in late summer, then these eggs hatch and over-winter as partially grown larvae. In the spring, as transplants are planted in their beds, the larvae become active and begin living up to their namesake, wrapping around and severing the stems of young plants. Often they eat very little of the plant they destroy, making them particularly frustrating because the plant material is usually found right next to its roots. By midsummer, they burrow into the soil to pupate and emerge as moths a few weeks later.

The cutworms in the fields at Cramer Organics seem to be especially fond of our brassica crops (broccoli, kale, etc) and have even attacked some of our pea plants! When Joey (our manager, center photo below on the right) found the first cutworm of the day, she called us (the interns) over to explain that they should be killed when we find them. She then promptly squashed the thing between her (bare) fingers. I didn’t think at the time that I would have the stomach to pop the little buggers; it was really messy. However, by the end of the day, I was happily squashing them with the rest of the workers. Quite frankly, any sympathy I had for the pests dwindled apace with their voracious appetites.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Organic farms face a dilemma with pests such as cutworms, especially since cutworm moths prefer to lay their eggs in grass or plant debris in the fields. The simple solution would be to just have bare fields, but this runs counter to one of the foundational tenets of sustainable agriculture: building healthy soils. Practices involving cover crops like grasses (winter rye, sudan grass, etc.) and leaving debris in the fields over winter add nutrients to the soil and reduce erosion and carbon loss. And while there are a few organic cutworm control measures (BT toxin, beneficial nematodes, parasitic wasps), these are not always effective and can be dangerous to harmless insects as well.

In a non-organic operation (conventional or otherwise), there are various pesticides that can be applied as pre-planting treatments or post-emergence treatments — examples include Asana, Ambush, or DiPel. While pesticides are very effective at controlling cutworms, they are harsh on other lepidopteran species (moths, butterflies, etc.) and they can contribute to ground water and stream pollution. Also, applying such pesticides goes against the grain of sustainable agriculture (not to mention organic guidelines.)

In the end, you have to assess which practices lead to an overall benefit for the farm. As Joey and Katie (her daughter) pointed out, we need to think of the farm as a whole, and not always analyze individual parts. This means accepting certain weaknesses and strengthening them where you can. I find myself agreeing with them. Which means I’ll be squashing a lot of worms this summer.

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Farm Journal Part 1: “Jump and Figure It Out on the Way Down”

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

University of Minnesota Agriculture student Ruth Burke is spending this summer interning at a CSA farm called Cramer Organics of Delano, MN. Throughout the growing season, she’ll share weekly updates about the experience with readers of the Heavy Table.

Part 1: “Jump and Figure It Out on the Way Down”

“You’re what?”

“I’m working at an Organic CSA.”

“You mean like a farm?”

“Yup.”

“But you don’t have any experience with that.”

“I will after this summer.”

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

I’ve always been a “jump and figure it out on the way down” sort of person, so my choice to intern at an organic farm this summer did not come as a surprise to many of my closer friends and family. I firmly believe that the best way to learn something is to throw yourself into it and get your hands dirty (literally, in this case). Over the past few years, I have slowly been preparing myself to take over my family’s small farm in Iowa. Food production is simply the next step. Next summer will be focused on animal production. And at some point: basic machinery and carpentry skills (both of which I woefully lack).

Beyond my personal goal of continuing my family farm however, I have another, larger, and significantly more important goal: I hope to become a steward and educator in the sustainable agriculture movement. How did this dream come about? I’ll tell you:

Born in Long Beach, I’m a Californian at heart. I actually grew up in a few states, including Iowa and Minnesota. I did most of my schooling in Minnesota, and I graduated from Osseo Sr. High School. Upon graduation, I was burnt out and not ready for college.

So, I did what every confused, burnt out, and desperate-for-direction graduate does: I joined the military (specifically, the Marines). I was stationed in California, and while serving, I attended a few college classes. One of them was a geology class, and I knew then and there that my future would involve natural science. After my discharge, I headed back to Minnesota to attend college, filled with drive, determination, and (yes, even the cliché) discipline. I spent my first couple of college years at North Hennepin Community College, taking basic science courses and attempting to flesh out my career goals.

It didn’t take long for me to discover that I enjoyed working with plants, and at the suggestion of my research advisor, I decided to head into agriculture at the University of Minnesota. After my first agronomy class, I was hooked. Then all I needed to do was learn how to farm (not an easy task, I assure you).

Most of my fellow students were raised on farms, so things like tractors, rotations, and cover crops are familiar to them. Although my family has several farms in Iowa, my uncle farms them all and the rest of the family moved into various cities years ago.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Therefore, apart from the occasional holiday spent down on the farm, my experience with farming was limited. And, truthfully, this isn’t a skill that you can just “pick up” if you were raised in the city.

So, last summer, I jumped. I got a job working in the wheat labs at the U of M, and I experienced first hand the dirty, messy, hard work of growing, harvesting, and processing wheat. And although I’m still picking chaff out of some of my shirts and socks, I enjoyed the work and I found true satisfaction in what I did.

A year (and several courses, workshops, and volunteer experiences) later, I now know a great deal more about farming, and the kind I want to do. Even more importantly, I discovered a passion for responsible land stewardship.

You can’t learn about agronomy nowadays without also learning about our country’s soil degradation and water pollution issues. I’d like to not only take over my family farm, as I mentioned, but I’d also like to become an educator of sorts on sustainable agriculture.

My first step for both goals will be interning at a small organic CSA called Cramer Organics in Delano, MN. The owners are focused on sustainable practices and have made it their goal to educate their interns on such topics as composting, cover crops, rotation patterns, integrated pest and weed management, and proper post-harvest storage and safety (stuff that every good farm kid already knows, right?)

They routinely tap into and take advantage of research reported from the University of Minnesota on sustainable agriculture practices and new organic methods. The farm is also hoping to participate in research this summer through the NCR-SARE Farmer Rancher Grant Program that studies various weed-suppressing mulches.

I’m looking forward to becoming an integral part of their operation this summer as I intern from mid-May until late September. Each week, I’ll share a journal of thoughts, concerns, and descriptions of the positives and negatives that come with operating a small organic farm.

Expect to see topics ranging from current political tensions in the organic farm community to lighthearted stories about my experiences throughout the summer. I’ll try to keep a balance of serious discussion, humorous tales, and frustrating problems as they come about this season. By the end of the summer, I expect to have learned a great deal about local food from the ground up, and hopefully my readers will too!

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Becca Dilley / Heavy Table