I am enjoying being stationed in Sarvodaya Farm’s groovy, new and improved nursery. Like a little seedling, I am soaking up as much of Farmer Rishi’s seed starting knowledge as I can. I feel a bit like the plug trays we use to start seeds: sometimes the water is slow to absorb and pools on top, other times the water immediately drips down and out the bottom of the tray . Likewise, I occasionally feel overwhelmed with the sheer amount of information I am receiving and compiling in my head on the farm (Eg. Do you remember how to harvest fill in the blank and answer in 2 seconds?), while other times I can’t get enough knowledge about a particular aspect of farming (Eg. compost, microgreens, microgreens, and, well, microgreens.)
Okay, so yeah I am particularly excited by the microgreens. They are relatively straight forward to grow and seem kinda hard to screw up from what I can tell. Another plus is that they have a quick turn around time (10 days I think with our first batch) which appeals to my sense of impatience. But most importantly, microgreens are highly nutritious and rightfully valued by healthy eaters and high end restaurants. Microgreens are basically one inch stems consisting of the cotyledon leaves (the initial leaves from the seed). The flats of microgreens sit low to the ground so they resemble a lush, green carpet. For an admitted looks-ist like myself, microgrens are very appealing to my sense of style. Could a microgreen station at the farm be next? Melissa, please try to restrain me lol.
Our first batch of microgreens at the farm were grown from daikon seed. They packed a powerful punch of a taste. I am already plotting to use daikon microgreens instead of daikon root the next time I make Vietnamese banh mi sandwiches. But that’s the tip of the iceberg, I see so many possibilities for microgreens in my future!! There’s just SOMETHING about one inch microgreens. Do you agree?
This week we let the new chickens out of their coops. They have been cooped up 24/7 for the past week as we introduced the new flock to the remaining old flock. The coops have been right next to one another with the burlap curtains up, to afford the chickens a view of one another, without being able to touch one another. Manju said this helps the chickens get acquainted beforehand so that when they are put together there will, hopefully, be no drama as they establish their pecking order. So far, so good.
Now that the chickens are loose in the chicken area, I have been able to see them in action and am getting to know their personalities. We had already named some of the chickens: Holly (who is orange and black like Halloween), Jackie (who is Jack O’ Lantern colors), and Fally (who also has a fall color scheme). On Friday, I realized that my favorite looking chicken, Jackie, is also my favorite acting chicken. Jackie likes to pose on the tree stumps and has a lot of presence. She has a gorgeous coat which is black with bright orange peeking through. I asked my teammate Maya if it was okay if we revised her name to Jackie O. Maya is 11 and didn’t initially know who Jackie O was, but now she does. So that’s how my favorite chicken came to be named after a former first lady.
Pictured above is our youngest urban farmer intern, 5 year old Sabi, kissing his new favorite chicken at the farm: an orange bantam which got lots of love this week. As much as the farm is about favorites – grabbing the pitchfork that fits in my hands the easiest, choosing the most cooperative of the wheelbarrows – it’s also about just being here and taking it all in. In that respect, it is really hard to choose a favorite. I embrace it all!
This past week started out with my finding out that a trap I set last Friday caught a gopher over the weekend. That’s right… The trap caught a real, dead, kinda big, kinda gray haired, completely gross looking gopher. I didn’t get to see it in the flesh, but Chika was thoughtful enough to snap a photograph before she fed it to the cats. Thank you, Chika. It felt good to catch a gopher! It made me feel useful! Hopefully this catch saved a few vegetables and put the word out to the other gophers to be a good neighbor and stay below ground or something.
This week my team found out we are on “Animals” for the next six weeks. This means we will be responsible for taking care of the chickens and the cats. This will still involve plenty of field and harvesting work. On Wednesday, for instance, my team mate Melissa and I harvested rat tailed radishes for the csa boxes. They get their name from looking like peas and tasting like radishes.
Later that day, Maya and I helped Lynn move the worm bin (that’s the pretty wood box in the photograph next to Maya and Lynn). We are redecorating at the farm in order to set up what I am calling our new “Compost Tea Room.” This will be a covered area by the compost piles where we will make compost tea and hopefully sit and drink regular tea as well.
The week ended on Friday with my teammates belting out a rendition of “Everybody” by the Back Street Boys. This was a funny thing to watch and listen to as we stood in the chicken run, just ask Maya and Sabi. I’m not a 90’s kid like the bulk of my team, but I will admit to singing out the initial line of “Everybody” based on something we were learning with the chickens. My teammates took it from there. They knew every single line! I was dying. YeaaaahAaaaa.
All this is to illustrate that I never know what will happen on the farm. Sometimes surprising things make me laugh out loud here, or feel sentimental, or solve problems in my head. There are so many reasons to be here at this farm in Pomona, not the least of which is the “naturally” silty soil. Yep, we learned in farm class from Rishi that Pomona land is way better for planting vegetables than glamour girls Claremont and Upland because of the make up of the soil. As a Pomona girl, that made me feel even better than catching the gopher.
Until next week…YeeaaahAaaaa.
This week marked the end of our first trimester of training on the farm. I have been assigned to the “fields” team for these first few weeks. My team next moves to either “animals” or “nursery” as our focus, and another team will take our place on “fields.” I guess it’s only fitting that on Friday, my last day on “fields,” my team (all 2 of us present that day: me and Maya) walked the fields with Farm Manager Manju. Manju had Maya and I walk the field by ourselves first, with the purpose of taking mental notes of what we saw that needed attention. Then we walked the fields together with Manju who pointed out to us things we missed and some we actually noticed on our own. We kept stopping and wanting to take care of things that needed attention along the way, but Manju repeatedly urged us to “keep moving” so we could complete our walk of the fields. We did manage to do some partial tasks along the way, just so we would know how to do them in the future. We moved parts of an old watering system, filled in the end of a bed, and the usual picking of weeds and dead leaves. But the main thing we did was compile a growing mental list of “things to do and look for on the farm.” Maya and I both agreed that it was our biggest day of learning and it was a bit overwhelming. I think walking the fields served to put all the pieces together that we have been learning separately, plus it added some pieces we had not previously learned.
The ultimate take home for me is that observation and work are the most crucial tasks performed by a successful farmer. The title of my post is “The Radishes Are Ready” because one of Manju’s most important observations on our field walk was that the radishes were ready to come out immediately or many would split open over the weekend since there was rain predicted. (Oh yeah and a farmer also needs to be aware of the weather forecast.) Since the radishes were a high priority, we picked the ones that needed to be picked. These were generally the ones that were starting to bolt, were of a larger size, needed thinning due to overcrowding, and the ones that were literally sitting on top of the soil asking to be picked. I’m glad we were able to save them since they make gorgeous food (plus they match Manju’s jacket).
After the farm day was over, we shared another locally sourced meal prepared by Elinor and the former interns around this table. At the end of the day, I have mixed emotions about passing the torch to the new fields team because I’m only just starting to learn myself. Farewell fields, gophers, cabbage worms, mulch mountain, enzyme wash, not actually so smelly compost…I’ll miss you all while I’m busy tending to the nursery and the animals!
What I love about composting is the idea of different ingredients and people coming together for a common cause: Great Soil. From the sticks we gather around the farm for the base of the pile, to the sycamore leaves I’ve been bringing from my tree at home, to the brewery waste Lynn picks up from brew pub dude, to the food scraps Elinor contributes from the farmer’s market, and, of course, the green waste from the farm itself; it’s a true community effort. Compost is all about people cooperating: to build the compost pile, turn it, turn it again, sift it, box it and then use it in the garden beds. It takes a community to compost at the level we do at the farm!
I love learning about the history of things and the people behind them. Now obviously decomposition has occurred since the beginning of time. The earliest composting techniques were recorded by Roman quipster, author and naturalist Pliny the Elder (AD 23-79). Pliny authored 37 volumes of books called The Natural History, which were basically the precursor to the concept of encyclopedias. The method Pliny described was letting organic matter sit for a year, but he had no insight as to why it made such good soil. Like modern day composting, Pliny’s work was a community effort: he had a slave who worked as his reader and a second slave who was his recorder. Their names, sadly, have decomposed over time and are thus lost in history…
In the early 1900’s, a British botanist named Sir Albert Howard was one of the founders of organic farming and specifically dubbed the “father of modern day composting.” Howard actually owed much of his composting knowledge to 30 years spent in India where he learned from Indian farmers how important healthy soil was to India’s incredibly healthy plants and animals. He called his style of composting the “Indore method” and it involved alternating layers of vegetable waste and night soil. Albert’s wife Gabrielle was also a botanist. When she died unexpectantly, Albert married her sister Louise. Both of his wives are said to have made significant contributions to organic farming themselves, but this is also, for the most part, lost in HIStory. We don’t hear the Indian farmers’ names either.
Probably the most colorful contributor to composting advocacy was J. I. Rodale who self proclaimed himself “Mr. Organic.” Rodale was a Jewish American playwright and publisher whose real name was Jerome Cohen. He published many books on the naturalistic lifestyle and farming, including an iconic guide to composting. His books were so controversial for their time that the Federal Trade Commission ordered he stop publishing them. Not that he did. He was also one of the first public figures to question vaccinations. Rodale died suddenly in 1971 while a guest on the Dick Cavett talk show. Rodale’s son Robert picked up the cause and their Organic Life magazine continues to be published to this day. There is also a 333 acre organic farm and research institute in Pennsylvania named after the Rodale family that continues their work.
At Sarvodaya Farm we have master composter Lynn Fang who is teaching us the “hot composting method.” The philosophy is that a high internal temperature and frequent turning accelerates decomposition. I’m sure Pliny the Elder and J.I. Rodale would be proud! As for me, I’m happy to be a part of composting history here at the farm.
This week I conquered my fear of setting gopher traps. Gophers are destructive on the farm with many plants being destroyed. Because the gophers live in tunnels underground, and because the cats roam around freely at the farm, the farm staff has been setting wire gopher traps and placing them down the hole and inside the tunnels (placing a pink flag by the trap to warn us humans). These traps are like a typical rodent snap trap, but slightly more complicated to set. I initially decided gopher trapping would not be my “thing” because I was afraid of the “snap.” My teammate Chika caught one gopher in a trap she set last week, which was a relief to me to have Chika become the go-to-gopher-catcher NOT ME. Fast forward to this week when Chika demonstrated to me how the traps are set and how there is no chance of my fingers being snapped if I place my hands in a certain area of the trap. Something about the way she explained it made something click (or perhaps I should say “snap”) in my mind and I finally GOT IT. Not only did I set two traps, I wasn’t afraid of holding a trap willy nilly in my hand while enthusiastically sticking my other hand in holes looking for a good tunnel. I kind of surprised myself that I got so into gopher trapping.
The photo above is of Chika upon finding a three way gopher mansion along the southside fence of the farm. This hole had tunnels extending in both directions. I stuck my hand in the tunnel and set my trap on the 90 degree tunnel to the left; Chika set her trap on the 90 degree tunnel to the right. Hopefully the rest is farm history. We’ll find out this week what we caught. Of course if we are successful, I will then have to get over my phobia of seeing dead rodents in the trap lol. But all this served as a reminder to be less afraid of the potential snaps in life and always go for what makes me happy.
Head Farmer Rishi just ordered a sound wave gopher repellent that has a range of 1/3 acre. We will be setting that in the middle of the farm next week after we get 4 “D” batteries for it. Who knows if this contraption will work or if it is just profiting Duracell. It looks pretty groovy and it will be nice if it eliminates the need to kill gophers. I think with anything, we just have to do as many things as we can to try to eliminate them, and we may never know exactly what worked. I did some reading about gophers, and apparently they hate the smell of dog crap (Melissa was the one who first brought this up), Tasbasco, coffee and moth balls (which are actually a neurotoxin), so I vote for using spicy coffee in the holes.
While I may not have initially been a natural at gopher traps, it seems I have a knack for spotting cabbage worms. I got three to every one else’s zero. I scored big points with the chickens who promptly ate the found worms I tossed to them. So if you are looking for me on the farm, you might find me lost in the cabbage aisle looking for more worms. Or not.
I like the idea of wearing overalls to work. But what attracts me most to being an urban farmer intern is the opportunity to grow as a person. There is a feeling among the interns that we are lucky to have found the farm… and each other. It seems I am not alone in coming to the farm to grow vegetables and, in the process, myself. It is only fitting that even the farm itself is in a stage of change and growth.
With growth comes both uncertainty and excitement. I wasn’t sure how I could swing the time commitment for the farm, I just knew I would. I worried I might be exposed as a crappy broccoli grower, but fascinated about being applauded for maybe having a knack for composting. One thing I am constantly observing at the farm is how vegetables in the same bed, under the same conditions, will grow completely differently from one another. One plant might bolt while still small, another might be eaten by a gopher, and another may be a photogenic piece of veggie art! So it will be interesting to see how other interns and myself grow and falter and succeed in our own unique way. I just hope I’m not an early bolter! Anything but that.
As the first larger group of farm interns, it will be our responsibility to help the farm move to it’s next level of being. As interns build tables for the expanded nursery and lay down a new path for the north side of the farm, the physical growth at the farm is undeniable. Even the tent has outgrown it’s former self. I got involved in reorganizing the tent area on Friday. The tent is the hub of the farm. I enjoyed making it more efficient, pleasing to the eye and better able to serve the farm. This is a work in process.
The farm is already a place that feels right and good to be. I can’t predict the effect the farm will ultimately have on myself or others. Nor do I know how the farm will look and feel as it expands. But I am certain we are all the better for having shared this moment in time together at the farm.
Week two started out with rain on my side. I knew beforehand I had to miss Monday, so I was relieved when that morning’s training was canceled anyway due to rain. Oh and not just rain, buckets and buckets of it.
Wednesday was the usual frenzy with getting the C.S.A. baskets ready for the customers. Someone asked me what C.S.A. meant and I realized that while I knew it referred to produce boxes the farm sells to local residents, I didn’t know the actual translation: Community Supported Agriculture. I’m glad I goggled it, because I had a second person ask me later in the week what it meant. It was nice being able to answer their question with such conviction. I must have sounded like a real Urban Farmer in Training.
I found this week’s harvesting day more challenging than last week. Rishi bought these miniature scales for us to take out to the fields to weigh the produce without having to walk all the way back to the tent. While these scales are cute and friendly looking, I found them fickle, giving different readings every time I placed the same item on the scale. The mini scales still gave me a ball park estimate, but in the end, it will still be necessary to develop the ability to “eyeball” the amount and later verify it on the larger scales.
Some of the weight issues can not be blamed on the scales though, but on human error. Mainly mine. Chika and I went from thinking we had double the amount of spinach we needed, to thinking we didn’t have enough, to finally coming out so much ahead that all the interns were able to take home fresh spinach that day. Some mistakes have their benefits, beyond the learning that takes place.
I’m becoming more confident with regard to the harvesting of the vegetables, well most of them. I’m very clear on when the root vegetables (like the daikon, carrots and beets) are bolting or where there are too many growing in one place and room is needed. But I am still unsure about the broccoli, and exactly what leaves to cut when trying to preserve the plants and point the energy to growing the master head. It was nice to come home to my own garden and know to pick the kale leaves at the stem by moving left to right or right to left. I harvested some backyard broccoli and cauliflower too. But I wondered if I picked the broccoli too soon or too late as it was not nearly as tasty as my cauliflower. I see the benefit to comparing my farming skills in both my backyard and at Sarvodaya Farm. It helps to practice what I know and clarify what I am still in need of learning.
Friday was both the best and most challenging day on the farm. This was the first day my four person team was all at the farm working together: Chika (pictured above in all her shoveling splendor) Melissa (who was recovering from strep throat) and Maya, the homeschooler. For I think three hours straight, we shoveled, hauled and dumped freshly delivered mulch out to the north side of the farm to make the existing swale into a path. Here’s the finished path:
The mulch will also make it possible to lengthen the veggie beds. This was hard work, especially on the hands. We all struggled in our own way. But dang if we didn’t get to the bottom of Mulch Mountain together. Apparently the mulch was from a pine tree, but it smelled like straight up lavender to me.
Special thanks to Krista, a trainee from last session who was our fearless leader on Mulch Mountain. She took the above picture of me (with Melissa and Maya in the background) from the top of the hill.
Lunch never tasted so good as it did on Friday at the farm. Elinor’s cooking and nutrition class with locally sourced food was our reward for a hard day’s work. I’ve been craving root vegetables doused with coconut oil, salt and pepper and baked at 375 degrees ever since. Ready for week three! (Sorry for the sideways photos, I’m not sure why wordpress is switching them back after I correct them.)
So many things have brought me to the Sarvodaya Farm’s Internship Program. When my husband and I were given a one percent chance of ever getting pregnant, even the fertility doctors thought we were a lost cause. This started us on a path of fighting and researching for ourselves. Ultimately, we proved the western medical establishment wrong by getting pregnant with our now 14 year old son. In the process, we discovered how important our food, water and environment was to general health, and in turn, fertility. It was only natural we would eventually want more control over our food in terms of growing it ourselves. About six years ago, I removed our backyard grass and planted vegetable beds. Four years ago, I left my job with the county and fulfilled my goal of raising chickens and leading a simpler life. Recently, with the help of my son and neighbors, I won my 11 year battle with the City of Pomona to stop pesticide and herbicide use at the local children’s park.
Meanwhile, I have seen my adopted hometown of Pomona continue to struggle as a city. Sometimes I am at a loss as to why outsiders give us such a bad rap, because Pomona is my favorite place I have ever lived (and I have lived in Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, San Francisco, Berkeley and my other adopted hometown Oakland). Other days, as I pass the growing homeless population on Garey Avenue or read about yet another shooting in town, I am reminded there is much room for improvement here in this underdog city. I see urban farming as uniquely suited to Pomona’s relatively cheap but rich land, vast sunshine and hard working, down to earth people. I would like to help the existing urban farm community in Pomona be more connected to each other, as well as more visible and active in helping transform Pomona into a more positive, groovy and lucrative environment. At the farm, I hope to obtain the skills and farming confidence necessary for me to be a big part of making that happen! And, of course, I would like to be more successful in growing food, saving water, egg laying and composting in my own backyard farm too.
I also see the power of farming to help under served communities beyond just Pomona. As a private investigator working for the accused for the past 25 years, I have seen much tragedy and sadness. I have found farming in my backyard to be very healing. Most of all it makes me happy. Especially in my work defending people against the death penalty, I have met too many families who have lost loved ones, either to violence or long, often indeterminate, prison sentences. These fractured families get little support and sad stories are often repeated by the next generation. I feel a great need to give back to this particular community. I hope to find a way to use farming to do so.
Finding out how my fellow interns came to be at the farm has made me all the more grateful and hopeful to be here. I look forward to all the learning, conversation and work we have ahead of us.