I grew up in a family that didn‘t have a garden. Frozen dinners brought home from the grocery store were just fine with me. Quick, easy, and they tasted good, or so I thought back then.
As an adult I moved to a major city and became a professional, living a busy life fuelled by coffee, sugar, and often ate take out meals. But one evening at a wine tasting event surrounded by friends, food and laughter, I reflexively brought my hand to my neck and felt a lump. Sometimes you can pinpoint an exact moment when your life changes. That was the moment for me. When the diagnosis was later verified, I knew it was time to reassess my life.
My daily diet became an area to take a good hard look at. Up until that point in my life, my attitude towards food could be described as – if it tasted good, I ate it. A nutritionist that specialized in cancer-free diets gave me new things to think about and I started to ponder the advantage of having a partner who had a long family history of farming.
The next thing I knew I had left my life in the city with three offices and two cell phones behind and moved to a small off-grid island.
The next thing I knew I had left my life in the city with three offices and two cell phones behind and moved to a small off-grid island. We had decided to become organic farmers and grow our own food. My city friends said, “Oh my God you’re going to live like pioneers.” I had no idea what to expect. Only that I wanted a life-style change that helped me be more responsible for my health.
There are many stories of the steep learning curve of how to clear the land of trees and their root systems, dig ponds (while accidentally pulling out our phone line too) and construct a five thousand square foot greenhouse, but what I’ve decided to share with you here are the things that surprised a newbie like me about farming.
Raising the Roof
The day came when we had all the metal framing erected for our new greenhouse and it was now time to put the plastic on. Huge sheets of plastic that were approximately 20 feet wide and 80 feet long had to be rolled out and brought evenly across the top of the looming structure. I was expected to climb the ladder about 12 feet up into the air and walk along a very narrow metal beam while holding the sheet of plastic evenly as my partner unfurled it from the roll. Furthermore – it was explained to me that if even the slightest breeze came along and caught that huge sheet of plastic, bad things would happen.
I am not usually afraid of heights but once I got high up in the air clutching the plastic and looking around for what to hold onto in case I started to teeter, and found there was nothing all, I took only three or four careful steps before my mind shut down and the panic set in. I had to be calmly talked through the steps of how to back up to the ladder and get down before I started to full-out scream.
So that wasn’t going to work.
My partner was afraid of heights.
So that wasn’t going to work either.
And the wind was picking up…
It was forecast that the next day was supposed to be less windy. Being new to the community, I called the only two people we knew and the next day eleven people showed up with bright smiles and amazing attitudes. Perhaps they wanted to see what kind of people would take on an endeavor such as this.
Island people are different. My favorite quirky moment came when a man I’d never seen before showed up in a leather jacket, leopard skin tights and black biker boots. He told me he was there to help as much as he could but that he couldn’t stay long because his monkeys were having issues. He ended up being a great help despite his monkey worries. Speaking of monkeys- someone else climbed up onto the beam without using the ladder and effortlessly pranced along the metal beam with that plastic while laughing and chatting away the entire time. Gah!
The entire greenhouse was covered by the end of the day and everything was clipped in. The saying “Many hands make light work,” comes to mind. People brought soup, homemade bread and desserts too. It all seemed like a miracle of sorts. When the last clip was snapped in, there were hugs exchanged, new friendships forged, and we had a greenhouse! No one wanted money, they all said they had a great time and thanked us for letting them help. I wondered if I would have experienced that in the city. That’s when I realized we had entered into a great community.
Becoming a Weather Watcher in a New Way
Before my farming days, weather was either sunny, which meant it was nice out, or it was gray and rainy which meant it was not nice out. It meant I stayed indoors or outdoors. It meant I wore cooler clothing or warmer clothing. I would bring an umbrella or not. Now I had plants depending on certain levels of sun and rain and this could make or break them. That meant I now became a weather watcher in a whole new way.
My first weather nervousness came when we had a backhoe dig our ponds that were going to be used for irrigation water. They were two deep intimidating craters in the earth just sitting there doing nothing. We were waiting for water. It was a dry summer and there were neighbors who told us it would be months before they filled. We did not have months – we had no water! So for possibly the first time in my life I was praying for rain. Each morning I would wake up and look out at the happy sun spilling across everything and find myself swearing under my breath. An irrigation pond full of nothing but dust is bad news.
One afternoon the clouds rolled in and broke open and I ran outside and skipped around up and down my driveway reveling in the wet drops that plastered my clothes to my skin.
One afternoon the clouds rolled in and broke open and I ran outside and skipped around up and down my driveway reveling in the wet drops that plastered my clothes to my skin. I became aware that this relief was ancient and had come sweeping across the ages. How many farmers since time began have danced their joyous relief in the rain? I felt linked with an age-old life-sustaining tradition. Was I becoming a farmer already?
In the days to come when crops were growing both in the field and in our greenhouse, the sun became a most interesting dictator. Weather becomes the boss when you farm and it does not take requests or even try to negotiate. In my city life, if I was late for a meeting, I could call and let them know and despite a few ruffled feathers it would generally be okay. But the sun did not listen to my pleas. It did not matter if I woke up late or that I had a splitting headache. That sun shone as intensely as it wanted to and would wilt any greens in its path if I didn’t get the water going or the greens picked in the early morning hours before the sunlight hit them directly. Some plants can even get scorched and suffer from too much sun. Yet not having enough sun can stunt a plant’s growth.
This was a whole new lesson in understanding balance. It was the same with water. Too much can cause damping off, root rot and mold, among other things. I knew the obvious, that plants had to be watered or they would die, but I didn’t know that even a slight wilt can affect production further down the line so my pride over merely keeping the plant alive was a bit naïve. Add in the factors of fertilization and soil amendments and I began to realize that farming is alchemy pure and true.
Farming as Alchemy
A tiny hard seed leads to a beautiful deep purple eggplant growing in amongst the green leaves, or a tangy orange tomato hanging on the vine. Of course I knew this, but I hadn’t witnessed the alchemy up close. I found it boring at first to put tiny seeds into the soil of the starter trays and to try covering them with only the right amount of soil. It seemed like fussy work. My attitude changed when a few days later there were little green sprigs poking up out of the soil. Different plants have different germination periods but it can happen very fast. Germination is utterly thrilling!
Watching the changes day by day was fascinating to me and when the time came to transfer the starters, which were now a few to several inches high, into the ground, it seemed like those plants really meant business now and I have to admit to feeling quite empowered. I think my normal walk may have turned into a strut. I was helping create life for goodness sake! By the time I had zucchinis, eggplants and tomatoes to make my own ratatouille, I was outright arrogant with pride but knew I played a small role when it came right down to it. It was up to me to try to manipulate the right balance of conditions in order to help the plants along but really it was all bigger than me. The elements do their thing as they always have with an intelligence that surpasses anything in my limited human knowledge. I became aware of sun, soil, water and wind, and the delicate dance they share in order to provide for us. I found myself asking the silent emerald bushes of basil, the cool smooth-skinned globes of yellow melon hanging from their vines and the long thin bodies of snap peas how it came to be that we have gotten so far away from this understanding.
If There are No Bees - You Have to be the Bee
I thought bees were mainly about honey. I knew they flew around to flowers and got nectar. What I didn’t know was that they are pivotal for crop pollination and that without them, certain crops that have male and female parts simply cannot happen. We grew melons and cucumbers, long rows of them. The plants were healthy and climbed up their trellises while swirling their tender vines artfully around the twine we had tied from the wire above. They reached up several feet. It all seemed to be a happening thing; but no fruit yet. The bees were scarce on this small island and as a result, the plants were just not getting pollinated. So I was given the job of doing the work of the bee. An hour or two of my day was spent gently tickling the long narrow stamens that held the yellow pollen with a tiny paintbrush, and wiping the pollen onto the awaiting stamens that can be found in the delicate yellow flowers. Talk about getting intimate with your plants! It worked. After a while those little yellow blossoms fell off and a slight swelling would begin to occur; the beginning of a melon. One of the more curious things that I have done.
The Zen of Raising Chickens
Baby chicks are cute but there is so much more about them that is great. There is a Zen to raising chickens that I could never have imagined.
First off, they came in the mail. Fifty of them. A box comes and they are in there cheeping away at two days old. That in itself was a very strange parcel to receive. Then we opened the box into our homemade brooding area that had to be kept at 90 – 95 degrees. They immediately began to tear all over the place like little yellow balls of energy.
I was supposed to keep the plastic cover to their brooding area closed because they need it so warm, but I had a hard time resisting sticking my head underneath the plastic to watch them. It is total chick mania under that plastic cover. It brought me great joy. When I pulled the plastic back, forty something little yellow puff balls would come scooting toward me screaming wild cheeps. It’s the closest I have ever come to feeling like a rock star.
Baby chicks eat with gusto. They throw their heads back and drink down their water and then they zip around in a great state of excitement with joy seeming to pump through their new little bodies. It occurred to me while watching them that they are simply being. Eating. Drinking. Being. Nothing else. No hidden agenda, no personal story. Just the joy of being alive. These are the first days of their life and they are partying. There were a few here and there that just sat with their eyes closed, and their puffy bodies would teeter slightly. They would fall over at some point, and just breathe for awhile longer and then stop breathing. Just like that. They didn’t seem to suffer. It seemed a peaceful death. Some little bodies just don’t make it. It wasn’t as sad as I thought it would be.
I was so immediately attached to these little beings that I slept in the chicken coop the first night because I was terrified that a raccoon or mink would get them.
I was so immediately attached to these little beings that I slept in the chicken coop the first night because I was terrified that a raccoon or mink would get them. You only do that once. After sleeping in the coop with my hand on the shovel handle ready to bonk any predator that came through the door, while enduring constant chirping in my ear all night long I realized that at some point you just have to let it go. I guess this is what farmers for thousands of years have been doing; worrying, and waiting to see how it all turns out. You plan, you work hard, and you hope to hell, nature and the rest of her cronies work with you.
The Other Side of the Chicken Life
This lesson was harsh but necessary. I learned that if you’re going to raise animals, you have to know how to kill them. Yes even if they are not animals you are raising in order to kill and eat, because sometimes it happens that an animal is ailing and needs to be put down and you want to do it quickly and humanely. My introduction to this reality was very upsetting.
When the chickens were full size and capable of getting up into high places, one of their favorite places (much to my chagrin) was on the ledge of the door to the chicken coop. Every night when I would come down to make sure the chickens were locked safely inside it was a big deal to shoo them off their favorite roost. One night I thought there were none left on the door and I slammed it shut. I felt sick when I heard the wild screams of the hen which had still been on the door when it closed. I opened the door back up and she fell to the ground with blood everywhere and her poor leg was barely attached to her body. That’s when I learned that chickens were ruthless and there is no flock loyalty in the chicken world. The other chickens began to maniacally peck at the poor hurt bird which I had to quickly rescue. I was pretty much hysterical myself and my partner had gone off the island for awhile. I once had to put a beloved family dog down. It was in a calm controlled environment with a doctor and proper sedatives and swift acting pharmaceuticals. I didn’t have to do anything other than stroke his head and cry. That was bad enough. Now there I was, in the situation of having no sedatives and crying wasn’t an option. I had to kill something myself and I didn‘t know how. My bias was that women don’t kill animals but when you have an animal suffering and there isn’t hope, gender biases don’t matter.
I was terrified of making the poor bird’s suffering worse by an unsuccessful attempt so I called my neighbor and asked if he could describe how to do it. My neighbor is a gentle soul and within minutes he was walking up my driveway with an axe in his hand to where I sat cradling my hurt bird. He told me to watch and pay attention as he took it from my arms and held it upside down by it’s good leg and slowly began to swing the bird back and forth while softly asking it to go to sleep. Apparently this upside down swinging motion relaxes chickens. She settled right down and before I knew what was happening he swung her up onto a stump and axed off her head with his left hand. That was that. There was blood but not as much as there normally would be because she’d already bled a lot of it out. I was told that it’s typical for the wings to flap afterward for a moment due to nerve endings getting confusing signals but it didn’t happen this time. He asked me if I wanted him to make a stew with her and I told him he could but that I didn’t want to eat it. He asked if I thought I could do that myself in a pinch and I said I thought I could. So off he walked with the headless body dangling. I walked over to the head that was lying on the ground and started to feel some queasiness when I heard his gentle voice say over his shoulder – “It’s a head.” Translation: “Get over it.” Later that night he called to tell me it was a lovely stew. Sometimes reality is like that.
What do you do when you don’t want to put pesticides on your plants but the plants are being inundated with bugs that are slowly killing them? One way is to bring in more bugs. These are bugs that eat the plant-eating bugs.
Ladybugs eat as many as 5000 aphids in their lifetime – that is approximately 50 to 60 aphids per day. Much to my surprise, we ordered a batch of ladybugs and a few days later a package arrived with a big bag of 1500 ladybugs. I learned that ladybugs have preferences and will fly away if they are not happy with their environment. This means they need to be released into the greenhouse in the evening so they are not too overwhelmed by the heat. They don’t fly at night so an evening release is optimal because they like to settle down when they have first been released. They also like their environment to be moist when they first enter it because they want a drink, so everything needs to be well watered. They prefer the plants to be close together, to keep humidity levels high. Who knew ladybugs had such desires? It was fascinating to watch a swarm of ladybugs find their way around the greenhouse.
Nematodes seek out and kill soil inhibitory insects and come in a powder form that had to be added to water and sprayed on. I thought we were getting little toads. I hadn’t seen the spelling. It was a little disappointing.
Tricogramma pretiosum wasps will seek out the eggs of moths that are leaf eaters in the larval stage. They come in the form of little white paper cards that we hung low into the plants and in a few days the wasps emerged. They look like little gnats and they don’t sting. I never thought I’d be purchasing wasps of any kind.
These insects were a great example of manipulating nature to help take care of itself.
Oh, There's Another Payoff for All of This
Every week at the local market I would set up my table and spread out all my wares. It was an impressive sight full of color, textures, and aromas. It was all there: long green beans, bright orange tomatoes, rich purple eggplants, bumpy green melons, yellow summer squash, and more, according to the time of the season. All I had to do was start putting fresh basil into bags and the delightful scent would bring people running to my table.
I was thrilled at the grateful attitude that my island community showed us. Our food was a hit. There were even good-natured arguments about who would get the last tomato from time to time. I remember the day that little Maria ate her very first strawberry from my stash. She was two years old and when I witnessed her face break into a surprised smile and hearing her moan “Mmmm,” and stick out her little hand for more, I was completely moved. Knowing that I grew that berry that set her love of strawberries in motion for a lifetime was an amazing reward.
At the End of the Day
Leaving the city and starting the farm was an adventure that turned into a solid appreciation for food and a new fascinating relationship with the earth that will last throughout my lifetime. A quote from Oliver Wendell Holmes comes to mind: “Man’s mind – once stretched by a new idea – never regains its original dimensions.” This woman found the same thing to be true.
I learned things about myself and the world around me that astounded me, and which many generations of farmers before me have always known. The connection I found with the earth and to foster a relationship with her has brought a new understanding of how important the need is for respect in all areas of living. I am now healthier and have found I’m much tougher than I thought. The city can keep its hustle. I’ve got a ladybug to visit.