The Up, The Down, The Absurdly Turbulent Roller Coaster Of Starting A Farm
We meticulously plan our farms and businesses, yet are at the whim of so many forces that could throw us off course. My approach for this year is to ride out the things thrown at me, and try to laugh rather than cry at the absurdity of it all. In the place of news from all over the West and Northwest or practical how-to’s, prepare yourself this edition to go deep into the (re-)building of B-Side Farm with some drama, hyperbole, and long-winded metaphors. As farmers, ours is a hilariously bumpy ride, and finding some composure and even footing amidst the daily ups and downs is a challenge.
November: Climbing Steadily
I signed the deal on the first of my new fields late last fall. I had just given notice at my job running Petaluma Bounty, a little educational farm I was at for three years before I realized my heart was in the flowers. B-Side Farm was about to be my full-time thang.
The new field was a great deal: a third of an acre in the back of a commercial kitchen and workshop space. I knew the property owner, and was able to get a fairly long-term lease: 5 years that could probably turn into 10 or more, enough to finally get some perennials in the ground. The building and beautiful grounds were perfect for the workshop curriculum I was building. It was great.
I got the land just in time to sow some cover crops and even shape a few beds for flower crops to overwinter. Ranunculus, anemones, and 20 peonies I had been carting around with me got in just before Thanksgiving. Felt good.
January: Hovering Up There
The plan was to stay and continue growing annuals on the half-acre where I lived, start to put perennials into the new third-acre half an hour north, and start to casually look around for a bigger piece of land to move the annual field in a year or two, once I grew the business a bit and put some new systems in place.
Seemed simple and slow-building and I didn’t yet have to shed my training wheels. I spent a good chunk of the winter getting the back-end of the business going strong and preparing for more weddings and design work. If you build it they will come, people. I got my website looking great, took down bad quality pictures and asked my brides to put out the word, and the weddings started pouring in—I’ve got 18 on the books for 2016 after doing just 6 in 2015. I would keep the farm small-ish, focus on building my design skills and get those design dollars coming in, and then scale up the farm a bit down the road.
February: Up, Up!
While away on a trip I got a call from a friend who told me that there was a three-acre parcel of farmland that just came up for rent—literally across the street from my new perennial field. I knew the plot; it was farmed by some guys I kind of knew who had gotten a bigger field elsewhere. I took it as a sign, a chance to consolidate the farm and stop waiting to start building the larger farm I dreamed of in the future. I could jump in sooner and grow into the space over time.
I quickly called my friend Eliza to see about splitting the land; she was looking to start a small vegetable operations. I didn’t need 3 acres—I didn’t even need 1.5 acres but I knew I could manage it. She wanted in, and things were quickly set in motion. We drew up a lease, settled on the terms, and were good to go. It was all happening.
February: A Slight Dip
The night before we were going to sign, I was in the car headed somewhere when Eliza called me and backed out of the deal. She had too much going on this year, too much debt, and had decided to stay another year at her job before going out on her own. Of course I understood, but of course I was bummed out.
I pulled over and thought for about 30 seconds, and then just listened to my gut and decided to take the land anyways. Three acres, plus the other small field across the street. This was pretty far from my original plan for 2016. But I figured I could cover crop most of the land, get to know the soil, build it, and have the option to rotate fields, something that hadn’t previously been in the cards for me. It was $2,000 / year for 3 acres—a good deal for insane Sonoma County, California, and I could just swing it with an small impending operating loan from California Farmlink.
March: Seatbelt On
I rode it out through the wet winter, and frequently sat in my car on the side of the road in the pouring rain staring at the huge field. It was a wet, low spot that floods even in a dry winter, and I knew it would be a late spring for me but the soil come May would be worth it.
Across the street in perennial land I watched the cover crop grow and the ranunculus and anemones sprout. And then the rain kept falling, and falling, and falling.
It started to become evident that water was pooling in the pathways right next to where I had planted the peony roots. It continued to rise, until it sunk in that this was absolutely the worst spot for them—the lowest spot in the field with perhaps the most compaction. I couldn’t have known this but that’s a lesson in itself and one of those that may only really be internalized by learning it the hard way: prep your soil well, learn your land, and certainly don’t take a gamble and rush getting your nicest long-lived perennials into an unknown spot. There’s just too much that could go wrong! So I dug out the peonies and potted them up until I could find the right spot for them (since we all know the only thing they love more than wet feet is being moved).
As for the big annual field across the street, it was completely swampen (a word that should absolutely exist). I scheduled tractor work, re-scheduled it, adjusted my sowing dates, and then adjusted them again. The land just wasn’t drying out. We ended up not being able to get in there to disc and shape beds until May 15th—horribly late for this otherwise hospitable, dreamy northern California climate. (9B problems, I know, I know).
May: Making Lemonade (and mixing metaphors)
In the meantime, this meant that I had an extra month or so to head back across the street and really whip my perennial field into shape, as it had already dried out to perfect moisture. I hired a guy with a small tractor to get into the tight spaces of this backyard farm. I really wanted to get it ripped or somehow deeply cultivated, thinking back on the water that just sat there around the peonies and didn’t seem be able to penetrate the subsoil. But we couldn’t find the right solution—ripping it with just one or two shanks (the most his HP could accommodate) would require so many tight turn-arounds and funny passes that it would create compaction as much as it would undo old compaction.
So we decided to forgo that step. I wasn’t excited about it but I figured some careful and thorough discing would be enough, and the plan was to really loft up the raised beds and have distinct trenches as pathways where water could drain in winter. Coupled with the benefits of the great stand of cover crop that had grown all winter long, I figured we were in the clear.
The discing got done and he made a pass or two with the tiller, a step I wanted to avoid if possible but the soil seemed to need it. And then he moved on to the bed shaper and my heart sank as I realized that it was simply an attachment on his tiller. To get the beds as raised and defined as I would like, we would have to do many more passes with the tiller, potentially exacerbating a fairly shallow hard pan I was already worried about. It wasn’t perfect for the stellar perennial heaven I dreamed of. (Results are still pending on that one. Some crops will be fine and others might suffer come winter with soggy feet. For beds where I had planned particularly fussy crops, I got in there with a digging fork—not something I expected to do on land that had just been tractor cultivated, but so be it).
And then I spent a month filling the field with goodies: astilbe and astrantia, eupatorium, filipendula, eucalyptus, dusty miller, baptisia, columbine, mums, Japanese anemones, hellebores, sedum, and more.
Still May: Uh Oh
My deal to sow my transplants in the greenhouse at my old farm fell through as they ran out of space, so I scrambled for another solution and thought I had found a great one in a friend and fellow flower farmer’s greenhouse just 30 minutes from me. I set up shop there on a number of days sowing thousands of seeds that I would pay her to water. It was a good and fair deal, she has the greenest of thumbs and a state of the art greenhouse.
But as the weeks went on and I had less and less time to go check on them, the texts and pictures she started sending me spelled danger. I had ridiculously low germination rates. We realized that our micro-climates were just too different for me to expect to be able to sow spring crops in April and May where she was. Schedules that had worked for me in years past were just not cutting it in her crazy heat.
By the time I got up there to assess the situation, it was clear that I would have only a small fraction of the plants I had planned. I had never experienced germination rates anywhere near this low. The big annual field I was so impatient to get into would have only a few trays worth of plants waiting for it.
I took a step back to regroup, move on to summer crops, and write off spring for this year, and direct sow more than I had planned. But not before I jumped into designer mode for a bit.
Later in May: Upward Facing
I heard about a small Farm Aid benefit concert and dinner at a nearby winery and called on a last-minute whim to see if they needed flowers. They excitedly commissioned five big arrangements, offered to promote me, and comped me two VIP tickets to a show I could never otherwise afford. It was a night to remember: everyone oohed and ahhed over the flowers, thanked me for farming (when does that happen?), and Grace Potter (rock star extraordinaire) carried the flowers I had given her on stage and gave me the nicest shout-out I could ask for.
The next day was my first big wedding of the season and it went off without a hitch, reminding me that I could double-task with the best of them, and that all the months of meeting with brides and writing and revising contracts through the winter would really pay off as the design end of my business was proving to be the more stable of the two.
It was time to finally get into the big field! I lucked out and got 20 yards of great compost donated—had it tilled in, beds shaped, and was ready to go.
In the grand tradition of urbanite turned bumpkin, I’ve still got a lot of friends in the city. I decided to invite them up to the farm for some beers, PB&J picnic lunch (the most hospitable I get), and some good old-fashioned farm work in the sun. I got about ten bites and promptly put people to work setting up a big chunk of my freshly tilled one acre. It was fun, it was just the moral support I needed, and we banged out some serious work.
We got drip laid out, fabric out on some, and sowed some last-chance spring seeds just in case they worked and the weather agreed: larkspur, poppies, phlox, ammi, grasses, bupleurum, and even some more realistic beds of summer zinnias and sunflowers (crops I used to always transplant due to crazy weed pressure but thought I would give a go right in the ground in the new field). The day ended and I was elated—I had a real field now, not just an empty vast expanse of soil waiting for plants.
June: Bumpy Ride
It took a few days and the requisite five trips to the irrigation store to get water safely and soundly flowing from the well via pump and rented generator to the field, but it happened. Not great and by no means best or normal practice to have seeds sitting out in the sun in beds un-watered, but the soil was dry, the seeds buried and over-sown for good measure, the soil dry enough to store them; I figured some would live and some would scorch to death and I was just fine with that at this point.
I fired up the generator for the first time, alone in the field as the monstrous roar filled my ears and I stood in what I imagined to be some low basketball stance with legs bent wide and arms outstretched, ready to pounce in any direction to fix a problem or save myself if something were to blow up (silly yet real irrational fear). I clearly looked ridiculous.
And then as it fired up and I remained crouching, I found no catastrophe, no exploding pieces, just glorious, wet, rushing water. Water! Through the main line to the header of this little section and then to my drip lines and my thirsty seeds: 20 beds, 100’ long, 4 lines to a bed. I had a field! I was growing sh*t!
I luxuriously slept in the following day, for with irrigation set up, 2016 had really begun, I had arrived and I would have flowers, even if sales began a month or more later than I had hoped. I drove out to the field just as the morning fog lifted and I could fire up the water just in time to keep the seed beds moist. I turned on the generator, nonchalantly this time, and sauntered over to the block I would be irrigating.
That’s when the geysers began. One at a time, going down the lines as the water traveled. My jaw fell open and at first I thought I must have severely miscalculated the pressure capacity in my setup. But that didn’t make sense—the lines didn’t bust open or come off the header, these were just leaks. JUST leaks, 23 of them, overnight. And yes of course I counted, how else would I complain to you guys?
I realized that birds were the culprits —crows and smaller birds who I don’t know by name (only by their thirsty little beak-sized bites). I’ve been career farming for only 6 years but I’ve seen some stuff in that time. I’ve never experienced this. BIRDS eating my DRIP. Does this happen to you all?
For now I’ve fixed the leaks. There are still new ones every day but not in those numbers. I’m hoping my presence at the field more and more will deter the birds, and I’m implementing the half-ass solutions of flashy tape on t-posts, remay on some beds (though I’m one of those farmers who avoids using remay at all costs because for some reason it drives me nuts). Next year I may upgrade my tape to something thicker than 8ml; this will also come in handy if I keep planting in fabric as I’m sure the gophers will go to town on the drip underneath (next month’s rollercoaster, no doubt).
Present Day: Riding It Out
There continue to be little highs and lows that on a bad day can feel like this is all a mistake and on a good day make me burst into laughter. The horror of the realization that I’m about to have a huge bindweed problem, the saving grace of booking a few more weddings at the tail end of the season when summer work has died down, finding all the saved celosia seed that came from Frank via Mimo, and getting excited to jump into new varieties of summer crops, and so on and so forth with the good the bad and the ugly.
Looking at it all as a ridiculous cyclical tale of good fortune followed by comical mishap is, I think, serving me well for now.