Growing Gardens

Part of the reason that I was able to be hired on full-time at Blandford is because I wear many hats for the Blandford team.  In the winter, when there is not as much to keep two full time farm staff busy, I am primarily working as an outdoor educator:  teaching programs such as “Anishinabek Lifeways,” “Wildlife with a Backbone,” and “Winter Explorers.” I am also privileged to be collaborating with other Blandford staff to pilot a school garden outreach program (called Growing Gardens), and create a new educational program based on the farm to reach upper elementary students.

As an aside, part of Blandford’s history is collaboration with a group called Mixed Greens.  Mixed Greens was all about helping schools plan and maintain educational gardens, exposing students to many different kinds of vegetables and promoting healthy eating.  Mixed Greens and BNC ended up merging together, but sadly, the program could not be sustained in the long term.  The program I am working on with other BNC staff feels like it’s coming full circle to the intention behind Mixed Greens curriculum: making gardening and garden spaces more accessible to local schools.  

I am hoping my role as educator, farmer (and occasionally graphic designer) will act as a bridge between the educational component of Blandford and the Blandford Farm.  I believe that both aspects of the nature center have a lot to offer each other.

With moving into the new nature center building very recently, the acquisition of the highlands golf course, and all the internal planning of how we can expand our offerings to the community, it is certainly an exciting time to be on board!  I feel honored to work at a place that values my perspective and contributions, and I’m excited to see where the next few years take us!  I’ll try and hold on to that perspective come August, when it’s 90 degrees and I’ve been in the field for hours.  I know there will be highs and lows to come, but for the present, I am feeling good. (Cue Nina Simone.)

Related: Blandford Nature Center’s Environmental Consulting blog

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The Future Looks So Bright

During the month of January I get to spend most of the month planning for the future. There are a lot of meetings talking about long term plans for the farm. We discuss how to incorporate more education on the farm, what programming we can offer, what events we can host, and what new buildings we want to think about. All of these things are great and fun and keep me motivated to keep growing. But, what I really enjoy every January is paging through the seed catalogs and putting together my seed order and crop plan.

The crop planning does take a long time. It takes me a solid two weeks of staring at my
excel spreadsheet and the seed catalogs to get everything ready. Meetings and other distractions always come up so it usually takes the month of January to get through everything. Now that it is done, I have all my seeds ordered, and I have a detailed schedule of when and what to plant in the field and greenhouse. I also put together the schedule for everything we grow for plant sales in May and June. This image I included is part of the greenhouse planting schedule. I list out what week we need to plant each variety. I also include how many seeds we need to plant, in what container, how it will be transplanted in capturethe field, and when I hope it will mature. I’ll print out all these schedules and each week we’ll be able to see what we need to do rather than trying to figure it out later. The more I can get done this time of year the better.

During the whole process of ordering seeds and planning for this upcoming season, I always get excited about all the new thing we’ll be trying at the farm. For example, I am going to try some new strategies for using ground cover for weed prevention that will hopefully save us time. We are also investing in a new seeder for seeding carrots, spinach, cilantro, and beets. It will better space the seeds so we won’t over or under seed those crops. It always feels like there will be so many new and great things we are going to implement that the season will be the best ever. Mostly, things do get better each year, but it doesn’t take long into the season before I start thinking how the next year will be better.

Maybe the best part of this time of year is getting the seed packages in the mail. This 20170130_154129-1picture shows seeds from two orders I’ve gotten.
Every box I get can hold hundreds and hundreds of dollars worth of seeds and so much potential. All the food we’ll be growing comes in just a few small boxes. It is crazy how small the boxes are for how many pounds of food we’ll grow. It always makes me excited to get started growing.  From this post, we have less than two week from when we’ll start our first seeds. It isn’t coming soon enough.

 

Introducing…

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Hello, there! My name is Liz Visser.

You may or may not remember me from an earlier blog post (Liz’s Farm Memories…So Far) that I wrote as a seasonal Blandford Farm Assistant.  I am elated to have been hired on as a full time, bona fide Blandford staff member, with an official title of “Farm Associate and Educator.” I’ll be given more responsibility, as well as working with the outdoor education folks through the slower winter months. What this means for you is that if you have questions regarding your CSA share, are interested in a farm event, or have any other queries that you’ll be emailing the Blandford Farm about, I’ll be the person on the other end.

*You can reach me at liz@blandfordnaturecenter.org.

This past season, I didn’t make much of an effort to be around for CSA pickups because (quite frankly) I was usually exhausted and just wanted to go home and take a shower.  But this year, I hope to be more present, and to get to know CSA members a little better.

Because many CSA members (and other supporters of the farm) may not have gotten a chance to get to know me, I wanted to give a bit of context for myself since I will be working at the farm in a more permanent (yay!) fashion.

After my senior year of college, I realized that sustainable agriculture (and all its nuances) was something I was passionate about and wanted to pursue.  I also realized that I didn’t have any practical experience with agriculture.  So I decided to WWOOF (World Wide Opportunities on  Organic Farms) in order to learn more.  It is a program that connects people who want to learn about farming with farms that are interested in training/hosting a farm loving stranger.  I WWOOFed in CA, MS, and ME.

I have worked many seasonal jobs both on farms and at outdoor education centers in MI, OH, and WI.

I have traveled all over the US, but was always drawn back to Michigan. Fortunately, Blandford Nature Center is in Michigan, and allows me to combine all of my seasonal, educational, and traveling experiences into one meaningful job.  The main thing that got old about seasonal work was packing up and leaving every 6 months or so. I am very much looking forward to putting down roots (pun intended) at Blandford.

 

I welcome the craziness that is to come.

The best part of the season

This is truly my favorite time of the CSA season. It’s not because we only have a few weeks left or that things are starting to slow down a little. It is because I love the produce we get to harvest, I love the cooler weather, I love making warm food with the produce available this time of year, and I love planning for the winter months.

The produce this time of year is great. We get to harvest the leeks, brussels spround, winter squash, potatoes, celeriac, and all the root vegetables. I don’t know why I like harvesting them more than other crops. Maybe because I’ve been waiting so long to harvest them or maybe because I love to eat them all, either way I love it.

The best part of the produce though is all the great food to make with it. It is finally getting cooler so things like soup and using the oven seem appealing again. I love making soups. Squash soup, roasted carrot soup, vegetable soup, cauliflower soup, or my favorite potato leek soup. My wife usually gets tired of eating all the soup long before I do, but I could eat it all winter if I could. However, I could see how there are only so many times you could eat potato leek soup in one week.

It is also great to be cold again. It feels great to come in early on a harvest day bundled up with several layers with a coat and rain pants then by noon it has warmed up enough to get down to a t-shirt and pants. When I worked at Trillium and we had a crew of 10 or so the pile of clothes that would accumulate in the harvest vehicle would be enough to start a thrift shop (most items of clothing were not worth much more than thrift shop quality anyway). I will say that sometimes it does get a little too cold, but I would take it over the heat. Generally you can prepare with the proper gear for the cold, but you cannot do anything about humidity and 90 degrees.

I also enjoy going through all the storage crops we’ve brought in and rationing them out for the end of the season and into the winter. I will set aside everything we need for the end of the summer CSA then the winter CSA then what is left gets to go to the market. So with our onions and garlic, I knew that I wanted everyone to get a certain amount for the summer and winter CSAs and now what we have left we can bring to market until they run out. Unfortunately, the onions didn’t do quite as good and we are almost out of red onions already, but we do have some nice garlic to last for a while. I think I like this process because it is fun to see just how good these crops did and to be able to store them for when I need them.

I hope that you enjoy this time of the year as much as I do. Fall is a pretty season and if you don’t work with vegetables every day I’m sure there are a lot of other reasons to enjoy the season.

Thinking about 2017

It is 2017 budget planning time for the farm and Blandford. This means I get to think about what we want to do next year in terms of projects on the farm and how we want to grow. It is always a little tricky making the numbers work. Most of our expenses go toward paying for labor then we have all the costs needed to make the farm work like potting soil, seeds, repairs, and everything else, however, there is sometimes money we can put toward new capital investments. I don’t always get all that I request in my budget, but I do enjoy dreaming about some cool things for the farm.

As I mentioned, labor is the most expensive part of the farm budget. It is generally around 75% of our expenses, which means every time we want to be able to add people to the farm we need to be able to generate a lot of extra income for the farm. We are also trying to get over the hurdle of being able to have another farm person be around all year. This would help me with admin and communication that often get pushed aside when farming happens. We also have discussed doing more ed programs on the farm, which could be stimulated by having a year round farm staff. So we’ve had a few ideas, but getting over the hurdle of affording that person is a challenge.

One thing that is in my dream list in the budget is more winter growing capacity. So putting up for high tunnels to grow crops year round. We’d be able to expand our winter CSA and go to the market longer. This would help generate more revenue for additional people and help us increase our presence at the farmer’s market.

I’ve also been looking into upgrading and expanding our wash station. It can be a little cramped and we often end up having a big mud pit when we are washing our produce. I am hoping to expand our cement pad, put up some more permanent roofing, and organize it to be a little more efficient.

Building a portable chicken coop is another item I’ve wanted for a while. It would be great to let chickens run through the pasture or the crop field. This way they can eat bugs and weeds. They would also fertilize the ground right where we need it rather than hauling their manure there from their coop. I also am hoping to get some more fencing and try to run the goats in the crop field as well. This does make me a little nervous with the risk of them getting out and eating vegetable, but they didn’t ever get out of their fencing this past year.

Other projects are more functional like redoing the loft in the CSA barn. While we are working on that I’ve wanted to make that space more focused on being a CSA produce pick up area rather than a storage area for all our farm needs.

As you can see we have lots of ideas. I didn’t even go into other ideas like more fruit plants like raspberries or a bigger playscape and children’s garden. We most likely won’t be able to afford or tackle all these projects, but prioritizing is what we do on the farm all the time. Everyday I have to prioritize what needs to be done with our time and resources. Plus if we cannot get it done, then there is always next year.

Sorry I have not posted on the blog any farm updates in a while. Unfortunately, when things on the farm get busy the things that get dropped tend to be office/computer work. I’m hopeful this can be different in the future as the farm continues to grow and we can add more staff. It would be great to have someone dedicated on the farm to marketing and communications. In the mean time, I will have to do my best.

I thought I could give a farm update since I haven’t posted for the past month. It feels like things are getting closer to fall as the temperature is starting to get a little cooler each week. I don’t see any lows in the 40s coming up in the next 10 days. This is still a little warm, we’ve had light frosts by now other years. Along with the shift in weather temperature, some of the summer crops are starting to be done as well. The summer squash patch looks to be completely done along with the cucumbers in the field. The tomatoes have gotten a disease and are starting to die off as well so the numbers are much lower. Once we get a frost the tomatoes will be completely done even though that might not be for a few weeks yet.

The warmer weather definitely helped the tomatoes this year. I’ve never had so many tomatoes in a single week. The weeks we were getting so those massive quantities we were spending so much time harvesting and sorting all the tomatoes. It was great though to see all the tomatoes, there was one day we harvested over 1000 tomatoes from the field. Other crops that have done well over the summer have been the melons. I’ve never had such a good melon year either. We also had a bumper crop of field cucumbers.

All these fruiting crops have really enjoyed the weather and have done much better than other years. This makes up for some of the problems with crops earlier in the season. We did finally get an arugula patch and the salad turnips are finally good. I’ve planted 3 patches of salad turnips before this one and they all died off from the flea beetles. I’ve also been a little frustrated with the carrots, beets, and mini cabbage. I’ve been trying to figure out the best way to seed them and water them in. I think way may be best is a new seeder and some over head water, but that is a topic for another day.

We have 6 more weeks of the CSA after this week. Things are starting to come to an end. We do have a good amount of produce to get out to the CSA yet so don’t worry things aren’t slowing down too much yet.

Liz’s Farm Memories… So Far

This week’s blog post is brought to you by: Liz!

Hello!

To those of you who haven’t met me, I am a current employee of the Blandford Farm: signed on through October! *Applause*

I am still learning a lot about the plants I help to grow, and how to maintain a farm. I want to have my own farm one day, but I still have a lot to learn. So instead of sharing a specific piece of knowledge, I am going to share a few snapshots of what it’s been like for me to work here this season.

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The sweet acidic taste of a cherry tomato still warm from the sun explodes in my mouth as a line of sweat drips down my back.  It’s been collecting in little droplets between my shoulder blades for the last half hour.  A slight breeze feels delicious, if only for a few seconds. Somewhere ahead of me in the tomato jungle, a work-share is harvesting, too.  I wonder if we’ll be able to sell all these tomatoes at the market tomorrow?

* * * * *

When Aaron told me that I’d be taking the newly fashioned, air-conditioned-cooler-trailer to market for the first time, I was a little worried. Because that meant backing up the newly fashioned, air-conditioned-cooler-trailer. But I figured I’d just tie on my Rosie-the Riveter bandanna, roll up my sleeves and get to it. I had practiced a bit at the farm (backing up near the barn), and when I got to the market, everything went smoothly and without a hitch. (See what I did there? Hitch! …hitch, trailer…yeah…never mind.)

At any rate I’m only kidding.  I made a complete mess of it. A neighboring vendor or two kindly came running over to offer assistance, while the others quietly took bets on how long I’d take to get it right. I can’t prove that last statement. But if I were them, that’s what I’d be doing.  It took me what felt like an eternity, amidst shouts of friendly and conflicting advice, but I finally, FINALLY got it.

Now, a few months later, I’m happy to report that I’ve been told “Wow, you’ve really gotten better with that thing, we hardly notice when you get here anymore!” I think she was the one taking bets. J

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Walking into the greenhouse at the beginning of the season is magical. It’s warm, and smells earthy and rich in a way that the frigid outdoors doesn’t.  I soon shed my outer layers as we begin to seed. We end the day with scallions.  Which, for those of you who have never seeded scallions, means counting to 14. A lot. It’s meditative, quiet, work. Quiet, because counting to 14 again and again is hard to do while carrying on a conversation. It takes a long time, but I don’t mind.  There are worse ways to spend a Monday.

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There are so many more memories that I could share, but I’m afraid I’ve made this too long already.  Thanks for reading!

Cheers.