Uproot Farm Series: 2015
A FIRST TIME FOR EVERYTHING
A few weeks ago I detected the turning of winter (thank the stars!) while walking around the golf course by my house: the earth and the woods and the ponds emanate the distinctly spring smells, warmth and potency again, which was our signal to return to the farm and begin documenting the 2015 season!
We drove out to Uproot Farm last Thursday to catch up with owner Sarah Woutat and to feel the vibe on the farm (and, to be honest, just to leave the city for a few hours), but before we begin this year’s chronicle, take a moment to recall the start of last year: it was a cold, rainy, muddy and windy spring that delayed the growing season well into June. This year is starting out very dry due to the lack of snow, but the temperatures are promising and there is rain in the forecast. Plus, dry soil is much easier to remedy than water- logged soil.
When we arrived at the farm Sarah was in the middle of taking measurements on her tractor for an implement she is rebuilding; a rusty old grain drill or seeder that came with the farm five years ago, stuck half-way in the ground, will be reborn as a fertilizer spreader. As we walked from the tractor shed to the hoop houses we were filled in on the prognosis for this year - and were awestruck by the developments that just one winter can bring about. Sarah told us that she learned the most about the farm during her worst year ever - last year - and is on schedule for the first time since she started the farm. This is what happens when the seasons cooperate and provide a couple of weeks early on when preparations can be made and projects can be finished (or started, depending on one’s propensity). One thing I noticed that was different from the beginning of last season is that the farm looked tidy, as much as a farm can look tidy. What I mean is that the equipment, implements, fields, and buildings are all prepared and ready. I’m assuming that every year starts like this except last year, which threw organization out the window… but the anticipation was palpable. Additionally, one of Sarah’s past interns, Vivian, is returning to Uproot this season to work as assistant farm manager, which has allowed them to take on a third early market in Minneapolis, in Linden Hills. This will provide five weeks of market sales even before the start of the CSA period. I asked Sarah about supply and demand associated with farmer’s markets, and she said there are not enough customers to support the number of markets that continue to open in and around the metro area. This means that shoppers are able to pick and choose which market(s) to buy from, yet the thinner the customer base is spread out, the more each farm’s revenue decreases. If you shop at farmer’s markets, you can help by buying your food from the least number of vendors possible, and stick with one or two markets!
First we were shown some of the many improvements that have been made for this year. Sarah is building a new, mobile cold frame on an old hay wagon so she can tow it around the farm and transfer the plant starts into the ground in one step! The old cold frame that was built last season is undergoing conversion into a third hoop house. We then stepped into the primary, and much larger, hoop house to find it full of overwintered spinach. Sarah plucked a few leaves and chomped one as she told us how delicious it is - and it really was the best tasting spinach I’ve ever had. Who knew overwintering would make a good vegetable even better? There are also carrots and beets growing in this hoop house. This is the first year that beets have been planted by March twentieth, which is hopefully an indication of a great season. Sarah plans to install wire supports in the bigger hoop house for growing tomatoes, similar to what we saw in the smaller hoop house last year but on a larger scale.
We then browsed the greenhouse, in which Sarah has custom-built a heated germination table for specific seeds that usually start in warmer temperatures, like tomatoes, eggplant and peppers. The seed flats sit on top of two inches of sand that has ice-melting cables running through it. The sand is kept moist which provides ambient heat for the plants. The rest of the greenhouse is growing the spring brassicas (kale, cabbage, broccoli), leeks, lettuce, parsley, sage and a mix of micro greens. Sarah took a look at the seedlings and exclaimed that the “farm nightmares” had already begun… dreams like one she just had when the plant starts in the greenhouse were ready to transfer before the fields were ready.
At this point nothing is planted in the fields except the cover crops (rye, buckwheat and wheat) from last fall, which are just starting to come back to life. A couple of trials happening this season that Sarah talked about are those of kale and garlic. Remember that last year was the first time Uproot had a successful garlic crop. Sarah saved the seeds from that bed and planted them last fall…which we anxiously await, as we love to use garlic in almost everything! As for Kale, we learned that there is a shortage of certain types of kale seed, so farmers are not able to plant as much kale as they intended. In light of this, Sarah is planning to grow several less common varieties of kale that are attainable and attempt to save her own seeds for future seasons. As we walked around the farm to reorient ourselves to the land, we wanted to stop to see the old and new chicken fields. Recall that the field where the chickens will graze this year is adjacent to last year’s field, and will soon be green with clover and oat sprouts. The chicks will arrive in late May and be out in the field early June. Last year’s (hyper-fertilized) grazing field will be planted with spring brassicas.
Finally, I should mention a very important milestone coming up this summer: Uproot Farm has now operated with organic methods for the required number of years to receive the USDA certification as an organic farm, and is in the application process! Congratulations, Sarah… Here’s to your best season ever!
March Photo Gallery
We started our documentary as early as possible this year in order to document as much of the season as possible; in other words, we were excited. While we found that not a lot happens visually in the first couple of months on a farm, there is an enormous amount of thought, research, planning and physical labor that do happen (which is just as intriguing to learn about, by the way). We would have made the drive out to Uproot Farm for an April segment, but Sarah’s brief recap of the month was: “Nothing looks different”, so we decided to let the warm sun revive the soil and wait until after the first plantings were done when there would be more to show in pictures. To be honest, I greatly enjoy our monthly visit to the farm for other reasons as well: walking through the open fields is restorative, and seeing and thinking about the ecosystem in action is enlightening. All the work necessary to grow organic vegetables inspires me to continue caring about food that is “good, clean and fair”, as Carlo Petrini says in his book ‘Slow Food Nation’. People everywhere are tuning out the messages from the food industry and seeking the wisdom of the food movement. Writing about and photographing Uproot Farm has been an opportunity to learn about farming in a personal way, and is helping us restore the tangible connection between us, our land and our food - a connection that had almost been lost in this country due to the producer/processor/consumer arrangement of the industrial food system.
The environment at the farm this month was all about the aromas: humidity, blossoms, dirt, pollen, hay, and the smell of vibrant green plants. We were joined on our tour by Sam, this year’s intern; and Vivian, a former intern who has returned to be the first-ever assistant farm manager at Uproot. One of our first stops was the garlic bed. Sarah estimated that there was almost one-hundred percent germination, which is fantastic since last year was the first time sowing garlic using her own saved seeds. The first stage of garlic is the scapes (the edible green shoots at the top of the plants) - sometime in late June; and then the bulbs form sometime a month after that. Across from the garlic is a field of early greens, including arugula, red kale and mizuna. These will be harvested for the early farmer’s markets in Minneapolis.
Our second stop was the bed of kale from which Sarah was attempting to save seeds by letting last year’s stalks over-winter. Sarah wanted to experiment with growing her own kale due to the current shortage of seed for curly kale, which is the most popular variety. We found out that the kale plants had met their unfortunate demise in the bitter cold, but fear not, there are many varieties of kale that are just as delicious!
We then took a look at a field newly planted with perennials that will be left alone this year to establish roots, including mint, rhubarb, artichokes, strawberries and asparagus. Then we came to the field of spring brassicas - the field where the chickens grazed last year - and Sarah mentioned that since the soil should have more than enough nitrogen from the chickens’ fertilization last year, she is holding out to see if any additional fertilizer is needed. There are one hundred and forty chicks coming in late May and they will be brooding inside the granary this year, which is a different location from last year.
We walked to the fields at the back of the farm and checked up on tiny new shoots of peas, cilantro and dill, and also tried to identify all the weeds that Sarah kept pointing out. She just glances down at the dirt and sees tiny weeds popping up where it doesn’t look like anything is growing, which is impressive. I’ve written about many of the factors to contend with on a farm such as weeds, insects, bugs, weather, soil conditions and plant viruses, but Sarah shed light on another factor that can benefit or harm a farm (or any enterprise): the farmer’s attitude. There seem to me to be almost an infinite number of tasks that a farmer could spend her time on day in and day out. Some of the tasks have a large impact in the grand scheme of a growing season, and some tasks have little to no effect on the outcome of the farm. The lesson of “Learning to Let Go”, as Sarah says - when a task could be done yet that time could be better spent - is a hard lesson for first-time farmers, but makes a huge difference in productivity.
On the far reaches of the Uproot land is a field planted with wheat; its use has yet to be determined. Between the field of peas and herbs and the next field is a triangle-shaped patch of ground that Sarah is turning into a monarch habitat revival, following the conservation efforts of the Xerces Society, by planting milkweed. Spring salad mix is planted in the adjacent field, a field that was dried out and unproductive last year but is hearty this year, as well as beets, carrots and scallions. Vivian and Sarah were both extremely excited about how beautiful the beets are turning out. Walking on we could hear frogs, a pheasant, many birds and geese, and butterflies were plentiful. The field where last year’s fall brassicas grew is sown with buckwheat, not yet showing new growth. This year’s fall brassicas will go in last year’s winter squash field. The field where the onions were last year is sitting this year out in cultivated fallow, to restore its fertility.
Next we saw what was in the hoop houses. The biggest one is growing summer squash, spinach, tomatoes, cucumbers, chard, mini sweet peppers and kale. The kale was encountering aphids for the first time, and Sarah was planning to let loose a horde of ladybugs, which eat aphids. In the medium-sized hoop house were turnips, carrots and beets. In the small one, which was a cold frame last year, is a planting of spring salad mix under plastic cover. The plan for this hoop house is to transplant the strawberries here from the field in the fall so that they come back in early spring next year. Our last stop was the greenhouse, in which ground cherries, tomatoes, eggplant and peppers are growing plus all of the regular season market starts.
Outside of the greenhouse sits the newly built cold-frame-on-a-tractor that we’ve been anxious to see since hearing about it on our last visit. Sarah and Vivian both said it works great and cuts down on the time/steps it takes to transfer plants to the fields. Another new idea that will be implemented this year is making a perennial insectory strip between the two larger hoop houses. I’ll need to follow-up on this next time to get more information as to what it does, but it has something to do with diverting invasive insects from munching on the veggies.
The momentum is building as we look ahead to the start of the CSA program, and we think about how the veggies are doing every time it rains… hoping for the perfect growing conditions.
May Photo Gallery
It’s been seven weeks since our last visit to the farm and it’s crazy how much of the season has come and gone in that time! As a side note to the readers of our documentary, Laura and I welcomed our first child on June 11, making the past seven weeks even more monumental! We brought Felix along as a test of his stability out of the house and as an introduction to the biosphere. The rainfall has been great in the cities so far this year, with significant amounts falling every week plus plenty of warm sunshine - our backyard garden had tomato and squash blossoms at the end of May! I anticipated hearing the same from Sarah but found that not to be the case. She said there hadn’t been any useful amounts of rain at Uproot thus far; that all of the rain showers headed her way moved off in other directions. She has, however, been successful with irrigation, and without a doubt the vegetables look incredibly hardy and healthy - I wanted to pick some and eat them right there (which would probably have been allowed). As I said, much of the transition from the greenhouse and hoop houses to the fields took place in the interim between visits, and we completely missed seeing the baby chicks in the brooding pen. The energy all around the farm, however, was heavy with anticipation for the bounty to come.
I had to send Sarah some questions by email after our visit in order to help us fill in the gaps. First of all the barn has needed to be re-roofed for a while, and is now revamped with a glinting and sleek metal roof. I was also curious to know what the benefit is of the oats that were planted after harvest last fall to be winterkilled. The answer is that the oats die and protect the soil from wind and water erosion, then break down quickly in the spring, adding biomass to the soil which benefits the next sowing of seeds or plant starts. Two points of interest about the seven-week interval are: 1) Sarah said the early markets in Minneapolis were mainly a success, although selling at two markets on Sundays seemed to stretch the veggies she had to sell too thin; and 2) We were waiting to hear if the fertilizer from last year’s chickens was enough to sustain the field of spring brassicas, and the answer is an emphatic yes! Apparently the chickens will be contributing to Uproot Farm every year! We also give a huge congratulations to Uproot for earning the USDA organic farm certification!
We began our walk among the fields toward the road, the first one we looked in on was the Solanaceae group. The sweet potatoes were unseemly, although Sarah said they always look half-dead right after they’re transplanted to the field, even though they’re fine. There were also peppers and lots of eggplant, which had been under row cover since planting to stop the potato beetles from invading (a big concern because there will be no potatoes grown this year, making the eggplant the single source of food). We watched as Sarah pulled up the row cover for the first time to reveal large, unblemished green leaves. Then we came to several rows of staked tomato plants that were very lush and promised a bountiful harvest. The next field was a rye field that was only sprouts last time we came, and was now almost five feet tall! Sarah told us she might possibly have it harvested and baled to use for mulch. Next we checked out the garlic bed and saw the remaining scapes left on the stalks - the majority of them were already picked and packed up in the CSA boxes. The fourth field held beans, celery and celeriac, and parsnips which were inundated with weeds. A section of this field is a stale seed bed, which I’d never heard of before. This is a method of weed control by cultivating weed seeds to the surface and letting them germinate (because seeds can remain dormant until the conditions are favorable to sprout), then removing them from the soil. Sarah plans to plant buckwheat here after the weeds are gone.
In between the front fields and the back fields are the hoop houses and the greenhouse, which we went in first. In the greenhouse were the fall brassica starts, a second planting of cucumber and zucchini, and a few other various lettuces and herbs. The attempt at growing ground cherries in hanging pots didn’t work out due to higher than expected temperatures. Outside, the cold frame tractor was loaded up with salad mix starts ready to take out to the field. There are three different sized hoop houses, and the big one is where the annual CSA members’ farm dinner party is held. Presently, however, it is plumb full with robust zucchini, tomato, chard, cucumber and kale plants, plus a section of mini sweet peppers. Last time we were here Sarah was planning to release ladybugs onto the kale to see if they would eat the horde of aphids, and that plan definitely worked. As we made our way to the medium-sized hoop house we talked briefly about the progression of the summer months. Sarah told us she was preparing for the last plantings of the season, and said she’s almost done, even though it’s not even July and there have only been two CSA deliveries out of eighteen. I need to ask more about this next time to understand the process, but apparently they will be starting to wrap up the fields as they end production in two weeks. We were too late to see the action in the medium and small hoop houses, but got the scoop that there had been carrots and beets in the medium one and lettuce mix in the small one. We were also informed of a strawberry experiment that will take place at the end of the season, when strawberry plants will be overwintered in the small hoop house with the hope that they will bear fruit in early spring next year.
This being our son’s first visit to the farm meant a very short attention span for all of us, combined with the heat and the proliferation of mosquitos, so we decided it would be best to continue our tour riding in the farm truck. I rode in the truck bed and tried my best to hear everything Sarah was telling us through the cab window, and tried even harder to keep my pen steady over the bumps to take good notes. We started towards the closest field and I was astonished at the brilliant, almost electric colors of the plants. These were the spring brassicas and they looked amazing! Sarah told us she would be spraying that field with BT (an insect repellent approved for organic farming made from natural bacterium) the next day. We passed a rye field and a buckwheat field that will both be allowed to reseed and continue growing; a former rye field that has been prepared for planting the fall brassicas; and a field of corn the use of which has yet to be decided.
We drove to the very back corner of the farm to find a field in use for the first time. We stopped and got out to walk through the rows of zucchini, cucumbers, summer squash and melons - all under row cover to protect them from cucumber beetles. Sarah pulled up the cover over the melons and revealed very healthy plants already with blossoms not far from bearing fruit. We then passed a triangle-shaped parcel of land covered with clear plastic - a method of killing all biological activity in the soil called solarizing. The plan for this patch is to plant it to monarch habitat in the fall. In addition to this diversification, Sarah is experimenting with annual insectory strips - rows of specific plants that will attract beneficial insects - in between fields… I’m very intrigued to learn more about this idea.
We briefly saw a field containing spring salad mix, scallions, fennel, carrots and beets, and then moved on to a field with the mid-season brassicas, including kale and Brussels sprouts, plus a variety of herbs and a beautiful bed of snap peas which had already been picked once and were ready for a second picking. Sarah told us this was the best crop of peas she’s ever had and picked a few for us to taste: they were incredibly good, crisp-tender and the right combo of sweet and bitter. Another small trial was taking place in this field as well: Vivian had interspersed a variety of plants, including cilantro, buckwheat, cosmos and sunflowers, between the veggie plants to see if beneficial insects would be attracted to them, which would help control the harmful insects. I learned after our visit that the project did not succeed because too many weeds crowded them out, but another attempt will be made next year with a better weed management plan ready.
As we talked more about inventive ways to be more efficient, one administrative issue came up. Sarah explained that her to-do list keeps getting longer as the farm expands and that most of it is management of time and labor, which are things that can’t simply be checked off - they have to be prioritized, which means deciding when to put in the effort and when to walk away. I’m not sure if I’ve said this before but farming is a gargantuan undertaking that requires many different abilities to solve endless problems. That brings us to this year’s chickens, which we got to see briefly before Felix started protesting at the length of our walk. This year Sarah mounted the chicken tractors on wheels, so now they can be moved by pulling them with the truck! The last field we looked at was the newly created home of perennials such as asparagus, strawberries, chives, horseradish, mint, sunchokes, rhubarb and lovage (an herb with leaves similar to cilantro and a stalk similar to yet sweeter than celery). The asparagus and rhubarb won’t be ready to eat for a while, but they will be making a great addition to what Uproot Farm has to offer.