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The State of the Onion
Musings from Sam Cantrell

Editor's Note: We're accustomed to reading the words of Sam Cantrell in this column, but due to relentless other demands on his time and what can only be described as a case of writer's block, his piece for this newsletter has not been forthcoming. So, instead of waiting any longer, I went to the farm and asked him a few questions.

We've just experienced one of the coldest, snowiest, and longest winters in recent memory. Is this a concern?
Yes, it's been a tough fall, winter and spring. The ground became too wet to work in October and was frozen solid from November through late March, so we've ended up being way behind on chores such as chisel plowing, composting, tilling, cover cropping and even planting. We were unable to plant garlic at all last fall — this will be the first year we haven't had garlic. And we weren't able to even begin working the soil this spring until a week after St. Patrick's Day, which around here is the traditional day for the first planting of peas. (Last year we had our first seeds in the ground by the end of February.) This sort of uncooperative behavior on the part of Nature could really get you down if you weren't constantly reminding yourself that Nature works according to its own schedule and that, ultimately, Nature works. Since our attitude towards Nature is to try to cooperate with it, rather than to try to control it, we should be asking Nature, "just when can we expect to have mature crops for our shareholders?" While Nature seldom responds with a straightforward answer, the hints I'd been observing earlier had seemed to indicate that it wouldn't be until sometime after our first scheduled harvest day, May 28th. However, more recently I've become more optimistic and am currently planning on keeping to our original schedule.

So, the bottom line is that you're optimistic?
Yep, vernal optimism strikes again. And it's a wonder that it does, given the weather and the many other difficulties we've been facing. But let's look at some of the reasons to be optimistic. First of all, we're no longer in a drought situation. There's moisture in the soil, much, much more than at this time last year. And there's organic matter in the soil as well, much, much more than one would expect to find on a conventionally managed farm — from 7.1% in the beds we've been working the longest down to a more normal amount of 3.2% in the beds we've just tilled for the first time. We've, finally, just finished installing the permanent main lines of the irrigation system for Field 3, so if the weather does begin to dry out excessively, we're a lot closer to having a completed irrigation system than we were in the past. And speaking of Field 3, we've begun the process of establishing beds in all of what we call Upper Field 3. We're adding some 6,000 feet of beds to the 23,000 feet we've been working the last couple of years. That's an aggressive expansion plan that will permit us to increase our membership to around 180 households this year, which we've had to do in order to hire a Farm Manager. And we needed to hire a Farm Manager — no, we desperately needed to hire a Farm Manager — in order to avoid the diminished productivity we experienced last year. I'm not going through another year like that.

How is the new Farm Manager going to help?
He is helping already, a lot. His job is to keep the Interns productive by motivating and inspiring them by being there to instruct them and answer their questions and make sure that their time here is as educational as it can be. And Sharat is doing a great job of it. While I'm in here, overwhelmed by the volume of administrative/educational/conservation related work that the non profit generates, Sharat is out there making sure that the seeds are planted properly in the trays, that the seedlings are planted properly in the beds, that the Interns are receiving the guidance that they need and that the work is getting done at a reasonable rate. His presence here is probably the single biggest reason for optimism this season.

What else is new at Maysie's Farm this year?
Well, the 30 x 96' hoophouse project that we began in the rain and snow and freezing weather of last fall is conspicuously underway but definitely unfinished. Since we don't have the staff to be working on it at the same time that we're struggling to overcome an extreme winter and grow more food than ever before, the project would be sitting absolutely untouched except for the generous help of a couple of our members. Jeannine and Jeff Harris have volunteered to keep the project moving forward and will be putting one or more Saturdays a month, hopefully with the help of other members, into constructing the hoophouse. The plan is to utilize this new structure to extend the season for certain crops by growing them in the ground in the protected but unheated hoophouse, while still using our existing 14 x 48' heated greenhouse for starting seedlings in trays.

We've established a new bed for culinary herbs just below the barn (where we'd had cherry tomatoes last year) and, as soon as the various plants reach the appropriate sizes, we'll be offering the herbs on a pick-your-own basis. Eventually, we'll have a lot more culinary herbs than in past years. We're also improving the sanctuary for endangered, native, medicinal herbs that Charlene Briggs started last year in the woods at the lower end of Field 2. We've done some further clearing in there and Charlene has replanted the specimens that succumbed to the deer and the drought last year. She's fashioned metal cages around the plants to thwart the varmints and has already made use of the hydrant we installed at the entrance to the sanctuary. She's so optimistic this year that she's already scheduled an herb walk for Saturday August 16th.

In addition to the pick-your-own flowers that we've had in the past, the interns plan to offer some ready-made bouquets for purchase. They've planted separate flower beds for this project, so they won't be decreasing the flowers available as pick-your-own, and they'll be arranging the bouquets on their own time, so they won't be detracting from the vegetable production work either. And the proceeds will supplement the interns' stipends, which, while twice what they were two years ago, are still miniscule by real world standards.

Will you be offering apples this year?
We hope to. We've been offered the opportunity to harvest the apples from a young orchard in exchange for maintaining it. Mike Tomlinson is a retired hospital administrator whom I met at a PASA conference several years ago, around the time he planted some 400 apple trees, mostly pre- Civil War varieties, on a lovely old farm property he owns near Elverson. His plan was to retire there, tending his trees and pursuing his hobby of making hard cider (which he does with superlative results), but, it turns out, ol' Mike just isn't the retiring type. He called me in December to tell me he'd accepted a position as director of the county health department in Santa Cruz, California. (Sharat and I can understand the siren call of Santa Cruz, where I received my bachelor's degree and Sharat received his agroecology training.) So we're in charge of the orchard this year and seeking advice and assistance in order to meet that responsibility.

Both Sharat and I are in the learning phase of fruit growing, and we're not sure what the yield will be since this is the first year most of the trees will be bearing fruit, but we hope to be selling apples to the shareholders later this season.

And you'll still be offering chickens and eggs from Green Haven Farm?
Yes, I believe these cooperative marketing opportunities are key to the future of farming in Chester County. I'm still researching sources of other local, organic foods, such as meats and dairy products, since I know some of our shareholders would appreciate being connected to sources of high quality food that they otherwise might not be able to access. And I should mention that Brian Moyer, of Green Haven Farm, was elected to the Board of Directors of PASA (the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture) this winter. He's a PASA Director, he gets farmers markets started, he's our "chicken man" and his band will be playing at our annual party in September... Be sure to congratulate him when you see him.

I heard a rumor about Bessie...
Yes, Homer came over for a visit, actually three carefully scheduled visits, and, although it's too soon to say for sure, if everything goes as it has in the past, Bessie should be giving birth to another litter of beautiful puppies right around the beginning of the CSA season. Just one more reason to be optimistic this spring.

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From the Editor:

Maysie's Messages welcomes and encourages all submissions. The opinions expressed in Maysie's Messages do not necessarily reflect the views of Maysie's Farm Conservation Center.

Send submissions to:

newsletter@maysiesfarm.org or to
Maysie's Farm Conservation Center
15 St. Andrew's Lane
Glenmoore, PA 19343

For more information about Maysie's Farm Conservation Center or Community Supported Agriculture, contact Sam Cantrell at (610) 458-8129, or at either the e-mail or postal address above.

Art Direction/Layout for the paper newsletter: Lisa Henry Lacek
Editor: Colleen Cranney
Webmaster: Amy Guskin

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