Uproot Farm Series: 2014
The life of farmer Sarah Woutat, owner of Uproot Farm in Princeton, MN, is equal parts physical labor, problem-solving, and hoping for good weather. Sarah bought her farm, which had been farmed with conventional methods, four years ago. From the start she has been using organic farming practices, transitioning the soil into nutritionally rich, biodiverse organic matter, and expects to acquire USDA organic certification next year. Uproot Farm is surrounded by other farms, none of which are organic, yet Sarah has said that many of the neighbors are supportive of her endeavor and have helped her out by lending farm machinery to her that she doesn’t have.
Last year we bought a CSA share from Uproot and were able to visit the farm late in the season for a CSA shareholder’s farm tour. Over the winter we came up with a photo-documentary project to capture the 2014 growing season at Uproot Farm by visiting once every month. Sarah was enthused about the idea, and so we visited in mid-May for the first segment of our series. We arrived in the morning and were allowed to follow Sarah on her morning routine. We are very unskilled when it comes to farms, even when it comes to looking at farms, yet we quickly saw the focus and dedication that farming requires, and also learned that this year began unlike any of the past three years at Uproot Farm. Normally, when the sun grows stronger and the snow melts, that water is distributed through the soil and the conditions are right to prepare the fields for planting. This year, however, was excessively wet and muddy during the first month of good weather.
Sarah is an amazing farmer with so much information swirling around in her head, and an ability to discern the instructions coming from the soil itself. We were hard-pressed to jot down legible, not to mention coherent, notes as we walked around the fields, but the pieces of the organic farm puzzle were beginning to connect. We talked to her first about the off-season and were told that the non-growing weeks of winter, starting in early January, are spent planning the layout of the fields, making the schedules for planting and seeding, and ordering fertilizer and seeds, among other things. In addition to her booming CSA business, Sarah sells produce to several food co-ops and at a farmer’s market in Minneapolis, plus donating plant starts to several community organizations. She described to us the challenges brought on by a very wet spring: the standing water in areas to be planted; the clogging of the seeding machines; the inability to take her tractor over the saturated fields; and a prolonged germination period due to the dense, compacted soil. Also, the layout of the fields had to be completely reorganized based on which ones were ready (dry) enough to be tilled with the tractor.
Despite the delays this season, Sarah’s greenhouses were already growing hundreds of plant starts, as well as tomatoes, CSA cucumbers, best-selling radishes, beets and carrots, chard and spinach. Many of these, we were told, would have been transplanted to the fields about a week or so after we were there. Improvements are always being made on the farm, step by step, and this year saw the addition of a cold frame, which we learned is a transition phase between growing the more delicate produce in a greenhouse and transplanting them to the fields. This step is used to decrease “transplant shock” - allowing the seedlings to adjust to wind, rain and sun, plus making it easier to provide additional soil nutrition. Already planted in the fields we saw zucchini, kale, potatoes, bell peppers, chives, rhubarb, arugula, cabbage and scallions. This year there is also a bountiful planting of garlic.
Next we talked to Sarah about the rotation planning aspect of the farm. A large percentage of the acreage is always planted with cover crops such as rye grass, in rotation with the fields, in order to “rest” the soil. This process ensures the plant (and animal) diversity of the land, helps to eliminate invasive insects and other pests, and allows the soil to replenish the nutrients needed to grow more crops. Finally we asked Sarah what she likes the most about farming. She answered that the need to be innovative is the most satisfying part, and explained that she is constantly inventing ways to accomplish her goals.
After our tour we were shown into the chicken shed to see the chicks which will be raised for a chicken share, all of which have sold out for this season. The chickens will be raised on a field of oats and clover, which means that field will be well-fertilized by the chickens and also have a diminished bank of weed seeds due to the grazing.
Our June visit is coming up soon and we’re looking forward to seeing the progression of the fields, and to find out more details about the growing season. If you or someone you know is interested in a fantastic CSA share full of hand-grown organic veggies and herbs, they are still available to buy from Uproot Farm! Check out www.uprootfarm.com or visit the stand at the Fulton Farmer’s Market on Saturdays in south Minneapolis.
Our second visit to Uproot Farm took place on a warm and sunny summer solstice, when our delight in the drier weather became an insight into the life of a plant. Just a month ago we were wearing hooded sweatshirts and winter hats. The heavy rains that inundated farms everywhere have slowed down, yet those downpours re-rooted many of the weeds, forcing Sarah to repeat some of the weeding. We had many guesses beforehand as to what changes we would see, but were astounded to witness the biological complexity taking place. In addition to seeing what we thought we might - the drainage of standing water and the vegetable growth - our morning was a lesson in perseverance and perpetual adjustments.
We checked in first with the chickens, which had been out on pasture for four weeks and had grown tremendously. We followed Sarah as she brought out the daily ration of veggies & feed to two mobile “chicken tractors” she had built. These are square wood-framed coops about two feet high with chicken wire on all sides that are movable. The roaming tractors were half way down the second row of the field prepared for the chickens with plantings of clover and oats - the trail left behind them was completely foraged and bare, but now aerated and fertilized. The size of the field looks like possibly three or four rows to cover per tractor. Sarah explained how she decided the number of chickens to be raised, which was a calculation based on the amount of field to be grazed and how much each chicken eats. She then told us that due to the rainy spring, the grazing field wasn’t ready soon enough to train the chicks to forage, thus increasing their reliance on feed. This means they hadn’t been grazing the field fast enough to correspond with their growth. Now the chickens could reach full weight before the entire field is grazed, and the plan to revitalize that field by grazing will have to change.
The evidence of a delayed season was everywhere: remaining pools of water; one tractor stuck in the mud; premature bolting (when a plant flowers and stops producing new growth); and the presence of many beetles and worms - everything is trying to make up for lost time. On the other hand, the farm has sprung to life with amazing greenery all around, and there are many surprising developments. We talked a while about how Sarah goes for a walk every evening to check for new growth, and inspect for and get rid of invading insects. We learned that potato beetles can eat an entire potato plant or eggplant every day. We saw a few of these pests, including cucumber beetles, squash bugs, cut worms in the bok choy, and looper worms, which eat cabbage leaves. Sarah would pull these pests off the plants as she found them and not hesitate to squish them between her fingers. To get rid of the clusters of little worms on the kale (we weren’t sure what these are called), she would snap off the compromised leaves, fold them in half and press it together to kill the worms. For the cucumber beetles and squash bugs, Sarah is spraying the plants with a solution of water and kaolin clay dust, which “disguises” the plants from the insects’ perception. Also around were flea beetles, which like the leafy greens such as mizuna and kale, and wire worms, which eat potatoes. Sometimes, if a severe infestation occurs in a field, that field cannot be planted for two or more years in order to organically eradicate the pest. Some of the more susceptible seedlings, such as melons, get covered with row cover, the sheets of white plastic in the photos, to keep them warm and protected from pests.
Some of the early plantings that took root while the ground was oversaturated, such as spinach, carrots and radishes, did not survive. Others, such as tomatoes, scallions and kale have pulled through and are growing well. A large field that is on higher ground is planted with tomatoes, in which Sarah and her interning farmers had just finished staking the rows before we visited. The tomato rows had to be weeded with a tractor one final time before the stakes went in, and now the weeding will be done manually. Plants that are in the ground for a longer time (they take longer to germinate and to produce fruit) such as tomatoes, eggplant and bell peppers are more susceptible to being crowded by weeds. At this stage of the growing season there are many herbs: sage, basil, thyme, oregano and parsley; and salad greens. Sarah also planted cilantro but it didn’t take to sprouting, so there will be a second planting. The spring brassica plants: broccoli, cauliflower & cabbage, are the most robust of the current veggies, yet some of these have buttoned (when plants start growing the head too early, before the plant can support it, due to environmental stress). Also growing are celeriac and bok choy, which looks like it will be ready for the CSA boxes very soon. In the greenhouse are rows of cucumbers, kale, lettuce greens and tomatoes.
Throughout our tour we were shown several unexpected yet beneficial developments, one of which is a couple of patches of sunchokes. Sarah had planted sunchokes last year and had harvested them for the CSA boxes, but there is really no way to completely harvest all of the veggies. She explained that sunchokes left in the soil will seed and come back as a perennial plant, and that’s why they are growing this year. Another surprise is a row of asparagus that survived after a supposedly unsuccessful planting. Sarah told us that one of her interns notified her that asparagus had started growing out by the tomatoes. Finally we came to the field planted with garlic, which were just shoots last month, and our jaws dropped at the nearly waist-high growth of the stalks. Not only that, but the garlic scapes (these are the “flower” of the garlic plant) were abundant, and we received a bunch of them in our CSA box this week!
We also checked out the fields of cover crops: rye grass and buckwheat. Several of these had already been mowed to be used for mulch, but one field of rye had grown over our heads. Rye grass is very good for building organic matter in the soil and reducing erosion and field runoff. It also has an allelopathic effect (creating a biochemical condition in the soil that kills other seeds) on competing plants, which eliminates the weeds as well. Buckwheat is beneficial due to it’s broad leaves, which shade out weeds; also reducing erosion and field runoff; and the fact that it flowers throughout the growing season - providing pollen for bees and other pollinators. Another large area is planted with field peas, which also flower.
As we made our way back to the house we stopped to see the “G” tractor, or basket weeder, which had just been repaired earlier that morning. This tractor cultivates the rows with two implements of rotating “baskets” of metal rods that uproot the weeds in the soil surface. I didn’t tell Sarah this but I hope I get the chance to drive the G sometime in the future!
Before we visited Uproot Farm for the third month of our project, we learned that Mondays had been announced as volunteer days, on which CSA shareholders could come to the farm to help with the tasks for that day (if you purchased a CSA I highly recommend making it to the farm!!). We weren’t able to come on a Monday, yet we still had the opportunity to get down and dirty and volunteer. Our Saturday morning began as Sarah and Ian, the intern, finished planting the last row of a bed of lettuce seedlings. I was mesmerized by the deft maneuver that planted each head of lettuce: it was one quick circular swoop with one hand to dig a pocket in the dirt and place the seedling in with the other hand. After finishing the planting, we all knelt down in between rows of kale and proceeded with a session of hand-weeding, which was highly enjoyable (yes, I actually liked it!) as it was a tangible link to the veggies we receive in our CSA box every week. The kale had been planted in soggy soil, but the soil had dried out so much since our last visit that the weeds, thick as they were, pulled out fairly easily. We found out that since the heavy rains ceased, the weeds and the invasive insects have asserted a formidable presence among those veggies planted before the soil could be tilled. My weeding skills were pitiful at the start, but they improved as I got the hang of it; although Sarah seemed to stay a half-row ahead of me at all times. I had to be very careful around the kale stalks in order not to break the leaves. I have to admit to another instance of my lack of knowledge: the connection between seeds, roots, plants, and flowers - the growth cycle - was fuzzy to me until I weeded this kale. Now I grasp the concept of pulling the weeds out before they reseed so they won’t grow back. The goal, since I still needed coaching, was to pull out as many roots as possible, clearing the ground around the kale so that dirt could be thrown back onto the rows with a tractor, thus preventing the weeds from growing back. There were, I repeat, many weeds, and the more I pulled out the more were exposed in the dirt. I could have become OCD about it but, again, I was way behind. While weeding I came across a few of the kale pests, including zebra caterpillars, which we hadn’t seen before. Not knowing if it was friend or foe, I pointed it out to Sarah, who identified it and quickly broke it in half. It oozed a neon green goop. Evidently, zebra caterpillars’ bodily fluid takes on the color of whatever they eat; another fun fact about insects! We asked if it was true with red cabbage and got an affirmative, and disgusted, answer.
We weeded for a couple of hours before taking a break, when we sat on the lawn in front of the farm house with cups of coffee and talked a little about the business side of the farm, which differs greatly between small farms based on the climate factors affecting each farm. Sarah told us that the farm is bouncing back from the difficulties of the wet spring, yet the effects have been evidenced by a reduced variety for the CSA boxes. We are impressed by her determination to be more than a good farmer and provide the best possible array of veggies and herbs, yet the standards that Sarah has set for her farm are higher than we might have thought. She explained her passion to grow beautiful, delicious food without compromise, and to do everything she possibly can to achieve that goal.
Another farmer that I’ve visited said there are more things that cannot be controlled on the farm than things that can be. In my opinion, great (organic) farmers do all the work they do in order to create as perfect a growing environment as they can by making the best use of the variables they can control; including irrigation, cover crops, crop rotations, fertilizing and weeding. Fundamentally, organic farmers are not so much growing vegetables as they are building the organic matter in the soil. Improving the vitality of the soil ultimately improves the health benefits of what is grown in that soil. The business model here is different from that of a commercial or industrial farm - it is ecological, meaning it is based on quality, not on quantity. Sarah is steadfast in controlling her growing environment, however, and explained that she is producing more than enough food for her CSA customers, who are the first priority. A delayed start to the season is a detriment to the overall success of the year, yet Sarah is tirelessly devising new strategies to increase the fruitfulness of her fields all the while allowing the organic process (weather, weeds, bugs and all) to run its course.
Another process that has run its course for the season is the flock of chickens, which had grown to the desired weight and are now gone from the farm. We walked past the field that had been their pasture and were told that they had grazed the entire plot; we couldn’t believe how much the clover and oats had grown back in the few weeks since then. The chickens were processed and delivered to those who bought chicken CSA shares this year.
We went on the monthly tour of the fields, stopping first in one planted with leeks, parsnips and celeriac that are growing very well, in addition to a first-ever planting of celery that seems to be coming along. Sarah told us that stalk veggies like celery that sometimes turn white at the bottom do so because the tops of the plants grow big enough to shade out the bottom, thus “self-blanching” from the lack of sunlight. Next we checked on the first seeding of summer squashes, which were still too light green to produce fruit - the color of the leaves indicating the level of fertility. In another field is the second seeding of summer squashes, cucumbers and zucchini, which will take a few weeks to mature. Then came a field of melons and winter squashes: acorn, buttercup and spaghetti, which were all flowering and starting to set fruit. We walked by the potato field that had been lost to oversaturation and wire worms and now planted with a buckwheat cover crop, which is not a host crop for wire worms. This field will be left alone for at least two years, letting the buckwheat reseed perennially. We perused a section of field with a row of rhubarb and a row of asparagus - both being perennials that are not ready to harvest. A large field of herbs is growing up nice and lush, including thyme, dill (which we got in the CSA box this week), cilantro and basil. Next to that is a bed of Brussels sprouts and beets, looking a deep shade of green. The tomato field on the higher part of the farm had grown higher than the support wires, with green tomatoes starting everywhere. Adjacent to the tomato field is one with tomatillos, sweet potatoes, eggplant and peppers. The last stop before looking in on the greenhouses was the field just planted with the fall brassicas: collard greens, cauliflower, and broccoli.
We talked about the considerations Sarah expects to make over the next month, all things remaining “normal”. She showed us the veggies still doing well in the hoop house, such as Swiss chard, green beans, basil and cucumbers. The greenhouse, however, was winding down, as the growing conditions have normalized in the fields, no longer requiring plants to start inside. Since the ground has drained of all the excess water it is now apparent how sandy the soil actually is, and so the irrigation system is in place, and all of the fields are now protected with electrical fencing. Evidently, though, there are plenty of predators around the farm to keep any animals tempted by the produce to stay under cover. We also discovered a multitude of baby toads hopping around everywhere - another sign of a wet spring. Many of the plantings that had a rough start are getting “side-dressing” - extra fertilizer after the plants have established roots to replenish the soil nutrients and boost their growth. The worst appears to be over except for the effort now needed to revitalize the soil and recover from the diminished output. I don’t know what goes into the planning of the field arrangement for next year, but I could tell that Sarah has already begun to organize it in her head.
The state of the farm on our August visit was quite unexpected - it was a whirlwind of veggies that all seemed to be toppling over themselves to finish up their growing season as quickly as possible. The urgency we felt in the plants may have been due to the longer interval of time between our last visit as compared to between the previous months, but could also very well have come from Sarah, who seemed to be nearing the end of her patience for the season as well. She exclaimed how thrilled she was to be over the hump (the peak of the season) of this difficult year, and said that most of the plantings were winding down. We were amazed at how much things had changed in five weeks. Indeed, many of the fields were clear of veggies and had already been “disced” (turning the dead plant matter into the soil with spinning discs on a tractor), ready to be planted with cover crops, including the field of kale that we helped pull weeds out of last month. Another nugget of farming wisdom we gleaned while touring the fields is that leaving the cut down plant matter on the ground over winter reduces erosion, helps keep the weeds from growing back in the spring, and improves the soil fertility. What I had imagined I’d see was a scene of overabundance in every row of every field on the farm: a much slower trajectory of growth and harvest over the next couple of months, along with less strenuous days for Sarah and her intern Ian (as a good thing!). The reality was one of acceleration towards the winter season and looking ahead at all the work needed to prepare the farm for the cold, although many of the veggies will continue to produce even after the frosts come (which is forecast to be early this year).
We visited the farm for the first time in the evening, during the “golden hour” when the slant of the sun casts a beautifying light over everything, and watched as Sarah sprayed the last two rows of cabbage for the day with BT for the pesky loopers. We learned that BT is one of the approved insect repellents for use on organic farms, as it’s made from naturally occurring bacterium. Besides the loopers on the cabbage, everything else seemed unhindered and looked awesome: the kale, parsnips, leeks, rutabaga, celeriac, fall squash, chard, Brussels sprouts, fennel, broccoli and cauliflower. Sarah told us she doesn’t really like late season squash, so she picked a delicata squash and gave it to us to test for ripeness - we roasted it with oil and salt and ate it rind and all - it was delicious! A beautiful bed of arugula had been harvested once and was almost ready for a second picking; and another bed had been seeded. We also perused a planting of fall turnips, carrots and beets that were just seedlings. The last picking of summer squashes and cucumbers had been done. The onions in the field, unfortunately, did not develop and became too dry and woody. The hoop house where we saw cucumbers, chard, green beans and basil last month had been mowed over and was waiting to be planted with spinach and lettuce. The tomatoes in the other hoop house were at least six feet tall and covered with green tomatoes. Sarah was hopeful that the temperatures would rise enough in the coming weeks for the tomatoes to ripen, but I’m looking forward to lots of tomatoes, no matter what color!
We briefly saw a few of the preparations taking place for this time of year; including plantings of rye grass (for its alilopathic effect) in a former wheat field and a former potato field; a few of the most recently planted rows were under row cover for protection from insects and the colder nights; and the extra kick of side-dressing that had been given to the rows of brassicas. Apparently these veggies (kale, broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, et al) are very heavy feeders and require much higher amounts of nitrogen (180 lbs. per acre), but also like a good frost. Sarah told us that these veggies will become a bit sweeter after it frosts. As we passed by the field where the chickens had grazed a few months ago Sarah gave us a glimpse of her layout planning for next spring: that field, fertilized by all the chicken manure (nitrogen!), is to be the spot for spring brassicas. We started to see the logic behind field arrangements as a process of learning the lay of the land - that the conditions of each parcel of soil - sandy, wet, rocky, dry, etc. - determine where things go. Sarah’s sharp eye for these details has clearly coalesced into a second nature, especially after the circumstances she dealt with this year of prolonged cold weather, excessive and heavy rains, muddy fields, and incessant weeds, worms and beetles. Another brilliant tactic of Nature occurred to me as I’ve thought about field rotation: how the plants growing in any one area are “rotated” by the dispersion of seeds via insects, birds, animals and the wind. We do not see Nature producing fields of monocrops because an ecosystem requires biodiversity to remain healthy and healthful, and the same is true on a farm. Speaking of biodiversity, there were so many toads around Uproot Farm that we had to constantly step around them; and we saw snakes, grasshoppers, bees, hornets, butterflies, and three birds that were possibly herons, but that’s a guess. The presence of all these other creatures really makes the farm feel alive.