Feeding time in one of our paddocks, early March. Standing and watching animals eat is a highlight of our day, and not because our days are ever boring! But watching animals eat, in all of their various ways, is one of the perks of living with them. I find these views endlessly fascinating and peaceful. Sometimes it is difficult to pull myself away to tend to the work that still needs to be done. But then I remind myself - that's what the work is all about! Getting to participate in the lives on the farm...
When I came in from the 6:30am lamb check, I made an espresso and settled down for my cozy everyday meditation on the couch. I lit my candle, took my deep, centering breath --
and immediately heard a frantic scratching in the unlit woodstove to my left. I could see a tiny white body battering itself against the front panel glass. Darn. Assuming the trapped animal was a mouse, I was filled with dread at the prospect of engineering a capture and felt my precious morning me-time slipping away. But then I realized the prisoner was a bird. Birds I like. Birds I can handle. Literally, I can handle a bird. Especially a bird in a small box. I opened the side door of the stove and found a chickadee, head cocked sideways, looking at me. We contemplated each other for a moment. Then the bird ricocheted around the sooty oven and pause in a corner. I grabbed, one handed, and triumphantly snatched the bird up. Success! But I was unprepared for how shockingly minute the body was - I am quite used to chickens! - and the panicked chickadee deftly twisted out of my grasp.
Double darn. Now I was in exactly the situation I'd dreaded - a pooping wild animal loose in the house and a busy day with the daunting and likely time-consuming task of catching it. The chickadee flew into one windowpane and wall after another and finally alighted on a sill in the mudroom. Abandoning the idea of personally evicting the intruder, I looked around for options and determined I could open the two windows in the house that were missing outside screens. I reasoned that the bird would eventually land on one of those sills and hop accidentally into freedom.
As soon as I raised the first window, I had cause to gasp and thank my little companion. For at once the house was filled with riotous birdsong. What joy expressed in rapturous chatter! Such cheerful banter, melodic cheeps and piercing calls! I heard a rare black pheasant crowing on the hill and bluejays scolding from the plum grove and the sharp chirps of cardinals at the feeder. I heard the whole daybreak celebration symphony that is a hallmark of early spring here in the countryside. I heard it because my windows were open for the first time since September.
My daily winter habit is to meet the sun each morning at its most wondrously colorful expression as it rises above the wooded hill to my east. But I had shut out all of the glorious musical accompaniment against the cold. I smiled, sighed, breathed and pondered the gift: today a diminutive messenger had flown down my long narrow chimney to deliver the news that spring had sprung and the time had some to start participating in the dawn chorus.
Alas, my rosy epiphany was terminated by the appearance of Cora's quizzical face in one of the open windows. Cora is a rambunctious marmalade barn kitten, one of ten I'd raised through the winter to oppose the grain-eating rats, and the fiercest hunter of them lot. I sprung out of my reverie to find the still-at-large chickadee and shepherd it out the opposite window from the one through which Cora was now climbing. Wholly beyond my control, the panicked bird ran right into the glass pane above the cat, who deftly nabbed it with minimal effort.
The silent bird lay pinned beneath daintily crossed kitten paws. I felt dread gather in my stomach for the second time in this eventful morning. But the kitten hadn't yet bitten and the bird laid still enough to avoid injury. So I slowly bent down to the oddly quiet pair and carefully enfolded the tiny still chickadee with two hands this time. I held my breath and gently tossed the bird out the open window toward the now-risen sun and
away my little blessing flew, with a strong cry, into the brightening day.
I watched the fluttering wings disappear, then closed the windows save for one small crack, just enough to allow the sounds of the birds into the living room where I sit and pray. I will surely be opening that crack at dawn for the rest of the spring. And perhaps somewhere in my morning meditations I will find the grace to accept all such pesky interruptions in my days as invitations to a greater good. Amen.
This muddy gap between seasons certainly holds a lot of hope. Seeds are germinating in flats in the greenhouse, lambs are born in the fields, goat kids frolic in the barn, plans get placed on paper. We don't know what the summer will hold for us as we look out on the last quiet days of winter, but we know it's likely to taste pretty darn good.
We lost Howie this fall and still feel his absence quite acutely. What a noble creature and faithful friend. He was an undeserved gift - a grace. May everyone have the opportunity to experience a pet like that once in their lives....
It's been an extraordinarily fun summer so far here at Circle M Farm. And one of the main reasons it's been so fun is the awesome crew. Seriously, we have the most amazing crew! Granted, I might be a little biased, especially since one of them is my daughter, but it's truly an honor to have such hard-working, compassionate, and happy crew members surrounding me all day. Talk about blessed! Here's a little snapshot of these amazing young adults...
Abby Van Orden
Things are popping here at Circle M, in spite of the foot-deep blanket of snow that cushions the farm on this early March day. Popping right out of the soil, in fact! Skinny shoots of onions, shallots, parsley, lettuce, celery, kale and broccoli have exploded from their seed coats and are pushing first leaves toward the sun in our cozy humid greenhouse.
While we were talking via cellphone recently, a friend asked me what was going on at the farm. When I told her I was standing inside my walk-in cooler tapping shallot seeds into black plastic plug trays she said, “You should write about that! I bet very few people know how it all works.” So here goes: The Story of a Seed from Plant To Plate at Circle M Market Farm.
A market farmer’s garden year starts quite bit earlier than a home gardener’s might, so first of all, don’t panic if you don’t have seeds in the ground yet. Our CSA Farm Members will be getting Shares delivered the first week of June, so we start planting inside in mid-February so we’ll have lots of different veggies to put in the boxes by then. But there are plenty of things you can start now if you want to, if you have the right set-up (sunny window or shelves with lights) to take care of them. And certainly, there are things you have to start now if you want to grow them from seed in our somewhat short northern growing season. If you want to see a complete seed-starting table for all possible garden crops, see this great one at Johnny’s Selected Seeds, one of our favorite seed catalogs.
Our earliest starts are onion family members because they need at least 100 days of full sun before the days start to shorten in August. You can plant onions from little bulbs, called “sets,” in May and still grow nice big bulbs by August, but you can’t buy sets for the tasty heirloom varieties we like to grow. So February 15 we seeded Walla Walla, Cippolini, Red Torpedo, Rossa Milano, New York Early and White Wing onions. We also seeded Red Prisma and Yellow Saffron shallots on that day. March 1 we seeded King Richard leeks.
Our next earliest starts are parsley family plants like, well, parsley, but also celery and celeriac. These have to get in early because they take up to 3 weeks to germinate and they need a long season to grow. We seeded these February 16 along with a few edible flowers we like to have ready early to add to our salad mix: pansy, violet and calendula. Finally, on February 28 we seeded broccoli, head lettuce and kale because we want them to be big and ready to transplant outside a few weeks before our last frost in May.
All of these “starts” are, of course, transplants. We don’t actually seed these things into the outside ground at this point – we can’t even see the ground! We drop them onto the surface of small cells in plastic plug trays filled with our homemade seed-starting soil. (Way back in the fall, we made up nearly a ton of this soil mix from peat moss, perlite, compost, sand and various rock powders and minerals. And thank goodness we did – our compost and sand are too frozen to dig now.) I’ve been doing this seeding, messy as it is, in the walk-in cooler in which we store our harvested veggies during the growing season.
Why seed in a cooler? Well, I’m using this very-well-insulated room as a “germination chamber.” Right now, I keep it warmed to 80 degrees with a very small space heater and this is where almost all of our seeds rest until they pop up, or germinate, from the soil. Most seeds just need warmth and moisture to get rolling – they don’t need light until they actually emerge from the soil. So I stack the seeded flats on top of each other on shelves in this warm chamber until I see the tiniest little plants poking up. The flats need to be checked every day, though, because once the seeds have germinated they start growing and they grow fast. Every flat with a few sprouts visible goes immediately into my glass greenhouse.
If at home you want to start some seeds now, the top of your fridge is a nice warm place to put flats until they germinate. Simply put seeds in the soil, water very well, and stick the flats in plastic bags to hold the moisture in. Check every day and once you see some sprouts, put the flats in a very sunny south-facing window, or put the flats in shelves with fluorescent lights hung over them.
This is a rather boring, peaceful little clip. But I love these vignettes of life here on the farm. Moments like these make doing chores in a snowstorm well worth the bundling up and the freezer burn on the nose.
This tiny ram, Hero, is the lone lamb on the farm right now. His mama, Mille, got pregnant somehow before we put the ram in with the ewes. (We know how she got pregnant, of course, it just wasn’t part of our plan. The wacky weather last summer caused some of the baby ewes to cycle early, and she ended up being bred by one of the baby rams before we separated them out. Ah, the joys of animal husbandry!) He’ll have company soon enough, though, since the rest of the lambs are due to arrive in mid-March. March madness indeed…