Meet this week’s vegetables:
- Bok choy — We’re finally diving into the plants in our field greenhouses! How grateful we are for these two simple buildings, which this winter weathered a significant flood before we planted in them for spring. Today (Monday) it is raining again. We do have transplants in the field now too (planted into well prepped ground last week! Hoorah!), but it’s wonderful to get a few tender early spring treats from these greenhouses. If you are unfamiliar with bok choy, it is a very mild Asian green that is wonderful for quick cooking (stir fry style) with Asian sauces — would pair well with the radishes, rapini, broccoli and leeks. It’s also tender enough to chop for a salad.
- Radishes — Also harvested from the greenhouse!
- Salad mix
- Purple sprouting broccoli
- Celery root — Our new favorite way to eat celery root was inspired by a delicious dinner we had at Community Plate last week: celery root puree. Prepare the celery root as you would potatoes for mashed potatoes and then puree with a little liquid (depending on the flavors you seek, it might be good with a strong stock or cream). Season to taste!
This last week marked the beginning of a new era here at the farm — on Wednesday, we welcomed to their new home, two bred Jersey heifers. Willa and Annie (renamed from Prissy) came to us from Bob Bansen’s organic dairy in Yamhill.
The handoff was remarkably without drama. The only complication in the morning was that we set up an electric fence enclosure and were still fiddling with it when Bob arrived with the animals. He was kindly patient, and soon enough it was ready to go. We intentionally put one end of the fence near the county road, so he backed up his trailer, we opened the fence, and off the girls walked into their new pasture.
The heifers explored the area inside the fence for a few minutes and then stood there looking around, looking at all of us, pondering the situation. We stood there, looking back at them, pondering the situation as well. Eventually, they started eating, and within a short while the sun came out and they lied down to bask.
All in all, it was such a simple morning event — yet so profound for all of us on the farm. Casey and I have been pondering animals on the farm for years. Nine years ago, when we started talking about farming in real terms (as in, “we should work on a farm!”), vegetables were the place we wanted to start, in large part because those were the farmers we knew who were successful and profitable.
But we also were both drawn to plants and green growing things — perhaps Casey’s interest was out of deep respect for the photosynthetic process, something he learned most intimately when earning his degree in biochemistry. I think that for me, the draw to plants was culinary and aesthetic based — I loved the diversity of flavors, colors, textures, and shapes of vegetables as I worked with them in the kitchen.
I have no doubt that we chose the appropriate direction for us — vegetable growing was and has been a delight. It is endlessly fascinating, rewarding, and yes profitable.
It also feels like it was the right starting point, because the more we learn about farming from our own and others’ experiences, the more we see this: all growing things start at the same place — the energy from the sun. And, only photosynthesizing plants can harness that energy directly. Everything that nourishes our body (and the bodies of our animals) comes from this source — sun to plants (possibly to animals) to us.
This energetic connection has always been inspiring to us and made us want to bring that added level of complexity (animals) onto our farm. But we have never felt that we had room to add animals without dramatically reducing our vegetable footprint, since as plant growers, we knew we wanted to grow the feed for our animals as well.
What a gift then to have had this opportunity to manage so much more acreage so that we can diversify what we do without cutting back on any one part. And, since since a primary part of the work and cost of keeping livestock is feeding, it feels wonderful to have spent so many years learning how to grow plants well before we added our first large animals.
In fact, as vegetable growers, we were a bit surprised at first by the challenge of growing and properly integrating field crops like oats and clover (i.e. our cover crops). It took us several seasons of experimenting with sowing timing, irrigation, seed sources, and tools to get reliably really good (not too weedy) stands of these crops. Learning to grow field crops has been a slow process too, simply because we only get one or two opportunities to try out new tactics each year (whereas we can plant lettuce every week all summer if we want, giving us plenty of opportunities for trial and error).
We have rejoiced over the recent seasons watching these fields of clover (or sudan grass, or whatnot) grow vigorously, knowing that the benefits to our farm were numerous (decreased weed pressure, increased soil fertility, increased soil life and health in general, decreased erosion, etc.).
But all of that excitement was eclipsed by the moment we watched Willa and Annie begin to eat these crops. Unbeknownst to us years ago, at the same time that we were practicing growing cover crops, we were preparing for a grass and rotation based animal operation on our farm. Watching Annie curl her tongue around a two foot-tall clover plant gives us all the same satisfaction as watching a child run up to the CSA stand and beg his parents for a carrot “right now!” We love growing food for animals of all sizes!
Willa and Annie have already gotten to see new land daily, as we’ve begun putting into practice principles we have been researching on the side for years. We’re “strip grazing,” which means opening a small section of new ground every day. This was a useful philosophy for welcoming them onto the farm, because the field we want to them to be in for the next few weeks is rich, lush clover — rich enough that we wanted to give them a slow introduction to avoid bloat (i.e. really bad cow gas that can actually kill an animal!). They’re in the field now and doing great.
The clover field is on our home farm, because we wanted time to get to know these animals before moving them over to the new land and most of our work still happens here (this will change starting this summer!). We also want them to be close to the house for easy watching during calving later this month. But eventually we will move them over to the new land (along with the sheep we will be taking on at that time), where there are many fields of oats and clover awaiting them!
So, it’s wonderful to take on our first large animals with the confidence that we can feed them, but we also realize there is more to keeping healthy, happy livestock than feed.
Which is where more research comes in — visits to other farms (in the past, present and future), and lots and lots of reading. Our experience with vegetable and plant growing has taught us that nothing can replace first-hand experience for true learning, but we’ve also found books and other written resources to be invaluable as well. So, we’re working through several big stacks of books from the library right now — books about beekeeping, calving, general cow care, dairying, animal welfare and emotions, and more.
I have the most time to read, so a lot of this “head knowledge” is falling on me. I have no delusions that my pace of reading will make me any kind of expert, but my goal is to pick up key concepts and to get a sense of what “normal” and “healthy” look like so that we can quickly clue in when something is wrong (at which point, we can go back to the resources for more guidance).
We had affirmation of this strategy this weekend, when we had our first bee related “incident.” Jesse has been taking the lead with bee care, and he came out on Saturday afternoon to check the hives. Casey and I happened to wander into our south orchard before Jesse had made it over there, and I noticed that the bees did not seem right. There were bees all over the outside of the hive, acting pretty crazy, and there were even bees that looked like they were fighting in front of the hive entrance. From what I had read, this seemed like an example of “robbing” (when one stronger hive attempts to steal the honey from a younger or weaker hive — this wouldn’t be surprising given that our cherry orchard neighbors just to the south have many professional hives in them right now and the bloom in the cherries is waning quickly).
I rechecked the resources (including looking at some videos of hive robbing on YouTube!), compared the activity to another hive on the farm (mellow and calm), and decided yes it was robbing! Casey and Jesse took action immediately, following the directions in the book (plug up entrance with grass so only one bee can come and go at a time and then cover hive with a wet sheet). Things calmed down immediately, and we’ll watch the hive carefully until the professional hives are removed (which should be any day now).
Apparently “book learnin” can be useful too! But we are grateful to also have several more experienced animal folks on or around the farm as we continue to add animals to our operation: my mom lives next door and has kept sheep for many seasons now; Emily worked on a diverse animal farm before coming here and has experienced a little bit of everything; and one of our new employees Kimmie (starting later this month!) grew up on a cattle ranch in California and has a degree in ag business and a minor in animal science. So, we’re not all as “green” as Casey and me.
Anyhow, we’re pretty excited about our upcoming new adventures. We know enough about farming to know to expect the unexpected, but we also know that the challenge is part of the reward. And, those Jersey cows are just about the sweetest, prettiest creatures any of us has met. We’re smitten.
Someday I’ll have to add more to my ending tagline, but for now it remains the same. Enjoy this week’s vegetables!
Your farmers, Katie & Casey Kulla
… and the rest of the farm crew!
~ ~ ~
Next week’s vegetables (probably!):
Rhubarb • Bok choy • Pea tops • Rapini • Radishes • Parsnips • Fingerling potatoes • Leeks