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The Magic of Compost

Orizaba Farm's new location in Milwaukie, Oregon

Orizaba Farm’s new location in Milwaukie, Oregon

The green tarp crinkled as I pulled it back from the large pile of leaves, straw, and kitchen scraps.  Digging my hand into the moist pile, I moved aside the top layers until I reached a mat of coffee grinds.  An eruption of warm steam billowed from the center of the pile and a red wriggler worm squirmed out from beneath a coffee filter.  I tossed another bucket of kitchen scraps and coffee grinds into the hole I created and covered the pile back up with leaves and straw.  Creating a good compost pile is a bit like baking bread.  It needs the right mixture of ingredients; the right amount of moisture – not too wet or too dry; the right environment to foster rapid but controlled microbial growth and activity; and the right cooking time and temperature.  Like baking, the process may seem tedious to the eyes of the uninitiated.  But once the process is complete – and if done correctly – I knew that I would be rewarded with a bountiful garden harvest the following season, as rich and filling as the heartiest loaf of bread.

Our nursery of berries, grapes, and figs

Our nursery of berries, grapes, and figs

I had only been at our new home for two weeks and had already accumulated a massive pile of leaves from a nearby church, pine needles from a local school, wood chips from the Portland Urban Forestry Center, a tall stack of cardboard boxes from a local appliance store, pallets from an upholstery shop down the road, newsprint from a local printing press, coffee grinds from our neighborhood coffee shop, and 15 bales of oat straw from our community’s organic farm supply store.  We have a trunk full of seeds we saved from our last farm in Maine, two dozen raspberry plants that I had dug as sprouts from Suyematsu Farms on Bainbridge Island, a dozen blueberry bushes, and several grape and fig plants we propagated from cuttings last year.  My parents, grandmother, and our numerous green-thumbed neighbors hold in reserve for us countless varieties of perennials from which we will take cuttings to populate our urban farm:  figs, grapes, kiwis, raspberries, thornless blackberries, rhubarb, and huckleberries.  Our community is full of fruit trees from which we will collect scionwood for grafting onto rootstock.  Our half acre farm plot will be productive, and our plates will be full.

Leaves, firewood, wood chips, and pine needles to feed the soil

Leaves, firewood, wood chips, and pine needles to feed the soil

This is what it was all about.  Nutrient Cycling.  Feeding Life from Death.  Composting.  The continuous circle of matter and energy facilitated by that miracle of organization and defiance of entropy we call “Life.”  This is why I left academia to become an organic farmer.  This is why I forfeited nearly $100k in fellowship stipends:  to dig my hands into the soil and pull forth Life.  Because, as my best friend Josh Ellis puts it, “Cultivating Life is infinitely more rewarding than studying it.”  And Life begins – and ends – with compost.  So, in a word, compost is the reason that I left the nation’s top Ph.D. program in Ecology, Evolution, and Marine Biology.  Compost:  to create Life; to transform it; to become a true student of Life.  Not by experimentally manipulating and statistically analyzing it as a scientist would; rather, by observing, feeding, producing, and consuming it.  By becoming an organic farmer.

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As the rain pours down relentlessly outside, irrigating our early spring crops, we are finally taking a break from our hectic teaching, school, and farming schedules to compose our third Orizaba Farm newsletter.  The recent weather has been quite unpredictable and highly variable lately, making it challenging to decide when to water the garden, when to wait for rain, and when to head for cover as surprise thunderstorms appear suddenly from previously clear skies.  Just two days ago, a powerful hail and windstorm struck during Thom’s bike ride home from school (where he teaches math part time), knocking over two massive trees and numerous power lines on our road, blocking vehicular traffic.  Fortunately, our farm was spared any major damage.

Despite (or perhaps because of) the weather, the lettuce and spinach in our garden are ready for their first thinning and harvest, and our peas are sprouting densely.  The fall garlic is shooting up vigorously from their beds of mulch, already exceeding a foot in height.  Everywhere we look, new life is emerging from the rain-drenched and sun-warmed soils:  tulips in full bloom, berries and fruit trees setting their delicate flower blossoms to lure pollinators, ferns unfurling in shaded clearings within the forest, mushrooms sprouting from the compost pile and leaf litter, and bees frantically gathering nectar and pollen from the sea of golden dandelion blossoms.  Of course, the vitality of spring has its ups and downs.  While the land is coming alive and creatures of all types are awakening from their winter hibernation, arriving from long distance migrations, or hatching from thawed eggs, we are already finding it nearly impossible to keep up with weeds in our gardens and berry patch, and black flies swarm us incessantly every moment we spend outside.

To celebrate the arrival of spring, Thom, Mike, and Dean participated in the annual Kenduskeag Canoe Race.  Despite never being in a canoe together, the three of them pulled off a 5th place finish in 3 hours, 23 minutes, 50 seconds, out of a field of 43 canoes in the Open Division (for canoes with more than two people).  In the end, they were happy merely to have successfully navigated the 16 miles of river and maneuver through challenging sets of Class III rapids without once overturning their boat. The record low water levels this year made for a slow and obstacle-laden race, with many canoes striking treacherous rocks hidden just beneath the surface, capsizing in rapids and calm stretches alike.  You can see photos of the race at the following websites:

http://www.kenduskeagstreamcanoerace.com/Galleries/2010/large-107.html

http://mbarkerphotos.zenfolio.com/p418954081/h2af2c8ba#h3e19e2b1

Back at Orizaba Farm, the excitement of springtime takes on a slower pace, in time with the rhythms of seeds germinating, trees leafing out, and flower blossoms opening.  Almost every day, a new seed is sown or crop is transplanted from the nursery to the gardens.  This past week, we planted our sprouting potato tubers that we saved for seed (and had professionally inspected for late blight), and we will soon be seeding our first rows of carrots, beets, and radishes.  We’re currently in the process of transplanting several hundred onion and leek plants, and have moved peppers, tomatoes, okra, and tomatillos into larger pots as they are growing rapidly in our sun-warmed plant nursery.

The chard we seeded are just starting to poke through the soil of their raised bed, elucidating a new discovery for us:  each carefully spaced chard seed that we planted is producing on average three, tightly bunched seedling sprouts, a novel trait that we have not yet witnessed in any other seed types.  As always, the daily lessons in cultivating life continue to emerge at Orizaba Farm from our constant stream of trials, errors, successes, and careful observations.

Just as the first rewards and surprises of the growing season have emerged, so have its first tribulations.  A mystery pest attacked one-third of the broccoli seedlings we transplanted during their first two days in the garden, killing and maiming the smallest seedlings.  Few clues have been left behind in the wake of the carnage to reveal the identity of the killer.  To cover our bases, we have sprayed organic castile soap and diatomaceous earth, covered the broccoli with floating row covers, and even placed mousetraps in the row.  Fortunately, as we continue our investigation of the scene of the crime and ramp up our defenses against this unseen predator, dozens of broccoli plants await and grow strong in our nursery, planted from seeds we saved from last year’s broccoli crop – reinforcements to answer the call of duty and head out into the garden once they have attained a more resilient size.  Another crop lost:  another invaluable lesson learned.

In our endeavor to learn the priceless art of seed saving, we have transplanted a number of carrots and onions from our root cellar into our garden.  As biennial crops, these vegetables do not flower and produce seed until the second year of their life, making it a challenge to save their seeds in the highly seasonal climate of Maine.  After storing the root crops in our cellar for the entire winter, we replanted the largest and healthiest individuals into our garden in hopes that they would, as the old saying goes, go forth, be fruitful, and multiply.  Most of their sprouts have finally emerged and we anticipate harvesting a healthy crop of seeds from them later this year, which we will plant in 2011 to continue the ongoing cycle of life.

Anticipating a possible out-of-state move next year, we are taking every possible opportunity to experience unique aspects of the Maine culture and environment during our potentially short stay in this breathtaking state.  To that effect, Thom finally had a chance to participate in a favorite spring pastime of Maine outdoorsmen:  fiddlehead hunting.  As the weather warms and spring rains bring hibernating vegetation back to life, tiny ostrich fern fiddleheads begin to lengthen and unfurl along the banks of streams and within the flood plains of Maine rivers and creeks.  Creeping along close to the ground, one can pluck gallons of furled fiddleheads in a few hours, enough to freeze and continue eating for the rest of the year.  The fiddleheads are a delicacy and highly prized by locavores, New England chefs, and wild food connoisseurs alike.  They are equally delicious sautéed with butter and garlic, pickled in a sweet mustard sauce, or combined with other local, seasonal vegetables in a variety of dishes, ranging from stir-fries to pastas to hash browns, or even as a pizza topping.  We sautéed our first batch with butter, last year’s garlic, and steamed wild nettle gathered from the same site.

Although the narrow window of opportunity for gathering fiddleheads has since closed, the wild dandelions are flowering and our tiger lilies are sprouting.  As we patiently await the first greens from our garden, dandelion fritters and stir-fried lily sprouts prove themselves a reliable staple accompanied by the remaining potatoes, onions, and garlic from our root cellar.  As the seasons turn, our gardens evolve with the changing weather, our behaviors adjust to accommodate the changing needs of our plants and soil, and our diets gradually shift from the energy dense storage crops of the winter to nutrient-rich spring greens.  We are, ultimately, what we eat, and we have become a reflection of the natural world that surrounds us and flows through us, through the matter and energy contained within our food.  For better or for worse, at Orizaba Farm we continue to strive to maintain as intimate a connection with our immediate environment as possible.  With the promise of a new growing season upon us, we look forward with anticipation to the unique permutations of energy and matter that will manifest and flow from our soil.

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March 2010 Newsletter

29 March 2010

The final patches of snow and ice have finally melted from the shadiest spots of the forest, the maple sap has flowed and stopped, and the flower bulbs surrounding our berry patch have begun to bloom with brilliant colors, ranging from delicate white crocuses, to a beautiful orchid-like flower with vibrant yellow streaks against a deep purple background.

In the Pacific Northwest where I grew up, we used to say that “March roars in like a lion and heads out like a lamb.” As spring has reared its head here at Orizaba Farm, this pattern has been clearly inverted. We were greeted at the beginning of the month with dry weather and clear skies, perfect maple tapping conditions with cold nights and warm days forcing me to head out twice a day to collect sap from our 30 maple trees. By the arrival of the vernal equinox, daytime temperatures began soaring into the high-50s – perfect gardening weather! Although the maple-sugaring season ended abruptly with this early warm weather, leaving us a relatively meager syrup harvest of only three gallons compared to over four gallons in previous years, I was enthusiastic to get my hands dirty and begin cultivating life in our gardens.

Lulled into a false sense of security, I eagerly headed outside to remove the mulch from our berry patch and begin spring plantings. I was delighted to see young rhubarb, fall garlic, and tiger lily sprouts pushing their way through the compost and mulch and decided that an early spring was a fair exchange for a disappointingly short (and early) maple season. I direct seeded thousands of spinach and lettuce in our cold frames and planted our old onion seeds into our upper garden to see if they would germinate. Alia hung the birdfeeders outside and filled them with sunflower seeds we grew in our garden last year, hoping to attract a diversity of birds eager to replenish their energy and fat stores after the long winter or distant migrations. We started hundreds of onion seeds and dozens of broccoli and celery inside our plant nursery, in anticipation of the warm days in May when we would till our soils and begin transplanting directly into the garden, after the threat of frost had passed.

With such beautiful weather signaling a shift from the frigid Maine winters, I dusted off and oiled my road bike (The Blue Pseudopod), and made a commitment to begin riding to work every day instead of driving (I teach math four days a week at Bangor Alternative Education). On my first ride of the year, the sun shone brightly as I pedaled to school and the gorgeous weather convinced me to leave my coat, gloves, and winter gear at home. As I sat in our classroom, my heart sank as I watched the winds gradually pick up, dark clouds loom into view and blanket the skies, blotting out the sun. Snowflakes began to fall from the ominous clouds above, their path through the sky shifting from vertical to nearly horizontal as the winds gusted to 30 mph from the north. The calm day transformed into a full-blown snowstorm. Riding home through the snow, against the wind, soaking wet and barely making headway as I battled the gusts and low visibility, my bare hands stinging from the cold and eventually going numb, I resolved to never again underestimate New England weather or allow it to lull me into complacency.

Two nights later, the temperatures plummeted into the single digits overnight, forcing me to cover our garlic, berry patch, sprouting rhubarb, onion seeds, and cold frames with hay mulch and floating row covers to protect them from the deep freeze. Since then, we have been faced with intermittent downpours of rain, snow flurries, and frequent windstorms. Despite this, the lettuce seeds are sprouting in their cold frame, the flowers continue to bloom and rhubarb to sprout, and our berries are slowly awakening from their long winter slumber. We too are trying to awaken from our own winter hibernation, spending increasing time outdoors, pruning our apple trees, collecting firewood, taking our dogs on walks, and enjoying the snow-free ground whenever a break from the weather entices us outdoors.

Nonetheless, at this time of year, we often fantasize relocating to a warmer clime with a longer growing season. Here in Bangor, Maine, we have merely five months in our growing season, from the last frost date of the spring, on May 1, to the first frost date of the fall, October 4. Such a short growing season permits us to grow and harvest only one crop for most plants, with a few exceptions such as leafy greens, peas, and broccoli. As a consequence, we have been without greens in our diet, excepting those that we froze and pickled last year, since last November. The bounty and dietary diversity of the summer quickly give way to a rather monotonous diet of potatoes, onions, garlic, winter squash, beans, carrots, pickles, berries, apple cider, maple syrup, eggs, and dairy throughout the winter. Our anxiety and impatience for fresh, green vegetables prompted us to plant a meager indoor crop of lettuce and spinach to supplement our typical breakfast of eggs, chai, and hashbrowns, but this has hardly been sufficient to satisfy our cravings.

Only a month ago, Alia and I traveled to Portland, Oregon to visit my family and attend an Ocean Sciences conference. Although located at the same latitude as Bangor, Maine (45 degrees North), Portland, Oregon enjoys a much milder climate, with nearly eight months of frost-free days for gardening. Despite still being in the depths of winter (February), the weather was quite temperate, with cool nights and warm days. I helped my parents with some pruning and began constructing cedar garden boxes for their raised beds. It was a tremendous learning experience, as Alia and I hope to design our own raised bed vegetable garden in the near future in order to facilitate crop rotations and permit easier soil tilling and amending by hand. We thoroughly enjoyed our visit and it left us longing for farmland in a location where two or even three crops per year might be possible.

Back in Maine, as I sit writing this newsletter, a downpour of rain is resonating its staccato drops against our roof, the nighttime temperatures are still regularly below freezing, the threat of a frost ever-present. Although the growing season in Oregon commenced two weeks ago, we have over a month to wait for the beginning of our own. I just peered casually out our back window and was surprised to see a flock of ten wild turkeys creeping cautiously from the deep forest and begin foraging across our northern field. We quickly set up the spotting scope and watched them pecking through the pasture for seeds, insects, and edible plants and then head back into the shadows of the trees, passing immediately under the maple tree we planted at our wedding. The allure of the wild Maine countryside, the most heavily forested state in our nation, still holds its mystical appeal. There remains much in this state unexplored and we have only begun to scratch the surface of its deep wilderness.

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31 January 2010

Welcome to our first monthly Orizaba Farm newsletter!  This letter is a bit longer than subsequent ones will be, as we review our gardens’ first growing season, update you on our winter activities, and discuss our plans for the upcoming year.

2009 In Review

Despite the record high precipitation, anomalously cool weather, and a diversity of pest and disease outbreaks, our gardens and berry patch thrived and our apple orchard produced a huge bumper crop.  Using exclusively organic techniques, we managed to stave off numerous pests and save the majority of our produce, while gardens throughout our community collapsed or were abandoned mid-season and farms throughout the state experienced massive crop failures and struggled to stay afloat.  Despite losing our entire tomato crop and being forced to harvest our potatoes two months early due to the introduced late blight epidemic, we have not had to visit the grocery store for over half a year, save for bulk items such as wheat, oats, rice, and sugar, and are regularly giving away surpluses of food to friends.

Throughout the season, our housemate, Mike Andrews, offered a tremendous amount of help with much of the farm labor:  planting, weeding, turning and spreading compost, and harvesting right alongside Thom and Alia.  Mike and Thom together managed to buck, haul, split, and stack over a dozen cords of firewood from our forest in just a few days.  We also had frequent visitors who assisted with numerous tasks, including Dean who helped cut firewood, constructed Napoleon’s pigpen, and assisted in Napoleon’s slaughter; Emily, Laddy, Haley, and Ruby from Featherfoot Farm who planted potatoes with us; Cinamon and Ben who helped plant our brassicas; Thom’s mom, Joan, who helped us plant carrots, tomatoes, basil, peppers, tomatillos, squash, and okra (to name a few); Alia’s brother, Yousef, who helped us harvest potatoes and turn the compost; and Brent and Shanna who helped us slaughter Napoleon and plant our fall garlic.

Thank you to all who assisted us throughout the year to make our growing season a prolific and successful one.  We owe you all a debt of gratitude and a few homegrown meals, on us.  Our doors, our fields, and our forest are always open to friends and family, so please drop by and visit us anytime.  We may put you to work alongside us, but you can be certain that you will have a warm hearth, healthy food, and a bed to sleep in at your request.

An Abundance of Food

It has been two months since our final harvest (Brussels sprouts), and three months before our first garden plantings (peas).  Yet, this deep into the winter, and it appears that we grew more food than we can possibly eat this year and cut enough firewood to last for three years.  Despite making steady progress on our storage crops and preserved foods, we still have several bags of potatoes in the root cellar; a few dozen winter squash and pumpkins; a bag of onions; a crate of garlic; a bucket of carrots buried in sand; three crates of apples; a few gallons of flint corn, popcorn, and dry beans; 40+ gallons of cider; dozens of jars of pickles, dilly beans, canned tomatillos, jams, relish, and maple syrup; a diversity of dried herbs; two coolers full of Napoleon the Pig; a chest freezer packed full of mixed berries, rhubarb, cole slaw, and misc. frozen veggies; a diversity of seeds that we saved for replanting; and a continuous supply of eggs and goats’ milk.

Keeping Busy in the Winter

As the third year at our farm in Bangor, Maine commences, we are looking forward to the upcoming growing season and gradually working our way through the sheer abundance of food we produced last year.  Although not much actual “farming” takes place in Maine during January, we are actively storing seeds we saved from last year’s garden; sifting our finished compost and making pots for planting; mucking out animal housing and adding to our new compost pile; reviewing our successes and failures from the past growing season; planning next year’s crop rotations; organizing and taking inventory of our seeds; and discussing prospects for selling produce at a local farmers market.

Meanwhile, Alia is keeping busy with her graduate studies in Fisheries Biology & Policy and plugging away at her Master’s thesis, all the while caring for our menagerie of rescued animals, and continuing to cook up a storm of delicious meals with our stored farm food.  She is also dancing at Thomas School of Dance three to four nights a week plus rehearsals with Bangor Ballet, working the front desk once a week, and pet sitting on the side.  Alia was also inducted into the Board of Directors for Bangor Ballet in October.  On top of everything else, she has been diligently learning HTML and CSS code and designing our farm website.

Thom is teaching math at Bangor Alternative Education, studying for his teaching certificate exams, leading a movement in Bangor to pass a domesticated chickens ordinance, and continuing to research and investigate last year’s late blight epidemic.  Thom was recently elected as a Board Member of Food AND Medicine (FAM), an affiliate of Jobs With Justice, serving as a representative for our local organic farming community.  He also serves as a member of FAM’s Agriculture and Development Committees.

In the Coming Months

It won’t be long before Thom is spending most of the daylight hours outside, pruning our apple orchard and berry patch, collecting maple sap and making syrup, and selectively logging our forest for firewood.  Our plant nursery is ready for the first garden seeds to be sown and will be filled with trays of seedlings within a month’s time.  Impatient for some edible greenery, we have already planted some lettuce, spinach, and radishes in our nursery, in hopes of harvesting a few salads long before the snow melts and the garden soil thaws.

Healthy Soils and Happy Plantings!
Thom and Alia

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It is the middle of January.  A deep blanket of snow is covering the gardens and draping the forest.  It has been nearly two months since our final harvest, and three months before our first garden plantings (peas).  Yet, this deep into the winter, and it appears that we grew more food than we can possibly eat this year and cut enough firewood to last for probably three years.  Despite making steady progress on our storage crops and preserved foods, we still have several bags of potatoes in the root cellar, a few dozen winter squash and pumpkins, a bag of onions, a crate of garlic, a bucket of carrots buried in sand, three crates of apples, a few gallons of flint corn, popcorn, and dry beans, 40+ gallons of cider, many, many jars of pickles, dilly beans, canned tomatillos, jams, relish, cole slaw, dried herbs, and maple syrup, two coolers full of Napoleon the Pig, a freezer packed full of berries, rhubarb, and misc. frozen veggies, eggs, goats’ milk (only 20 oz/ day right now), and a few more chickens to butcher this winter.  And we just planted some lettuce, spinach, and radishes in our nursery!

Just to get through all our storage crops and preserved foods before the end of next season, we have started to give away some of our surplus potatoes, winter squash, and preserves to various friends.  We may need to resort to selling much of what we grow next year at a local farmers’ market, and we may have to sell some potatoes this winter at a local food co-op.  We may also be able to replant some of the storage crops as seed plants (e.g., biennials like carrots and onions, if replanted next year, should produce seeds that we can save).  Unfortunately, due to the introduced late blight epidemic, we will probably be unable to use our sprouting spuds as seed potatoes without having them inspected and certified.  Instead, we may resort to giving any sprouting potatoes away to friends, or donating them to local homeless shelters and food banks.

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animal products
eggs (free-range, organic)
dairy (raw goat’s milk, yogurt)

forest products
firewood (mixed hard and softwoods)
maple syrup

berry patch
strawberries
raspberries (red, yellow, and black)
blueberries (highbush)

fruit trees
apples (cider)
apples (table)
cherries (pie)
elderberries

perennials
rhubarb
oregano
herbs (thyme, sage, peppermint, catnip, lavender)
echinacea

garden produce
potatoes
garlic
onions
leeks
green cabbage
purple cabbage
broccoli
brussel sprouts
winter squash
summer squash
zucchini
cucumbers
sunflower (seeds)
shelling peas
sweet peas
bush beans (incl. shelling and soup beans)
pole beans
sweet corn
dent/flour corn
pop corn
bell and pimiento peppers
okra
tomatillos
green tomatoes (late blight)
green basil
purple basil
mixed cut flowers
celery
carrots
radishes
spinach
parsley
cilantro
chives
mustard
tatsoi
rapa
spicy salad mix
lettuce mix/mesclun
nasturtiums
chard
collards
choy

foraged foods
acorns
dandelions (leaves and flowers)
tiger lilies (shoots and flowers)
wild lowbush blueberries (Featherfoot Farm)
wild apples
salad greens

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