Stewards of the Heartlands

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Best Laid Plans of Mice and (Wo)men

(The story in this dispatch from Wood Farms in Indiana is interspersed with photographs, captions for which appear by moving your cursor or finger over each one.)

Twenty-seventeen is the year Wood Farms experiments with adding organically grown produce to its already ambitious production cycles of growing organic hay and raising antibiotic-free, non-GMO Angus cattle.

Farmhand Cathy Bartz began the produce endeavor last winter by researching what it takes to garden organically on a large scale. You don’t have a real sense of how large an acre is until you stand at a corner of a freshly tilled, blank acre of soil and contemplate hand planting it. And watering it. And weeding it. And harvesting from it. All of which pretty much means being bent at the waist or crouching on the ground for long periods of time.

But since much of what Wood Farms grows this first year is earmarked for use at BRAVAS restaurant and its food trucks, a full acre of the good stuff makes sense.

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In late winter, Cathy ordered seeds and planted batches in trays kept at the windows inside the farm’s office and workshop building. The plan was for tomatoes and peppers to be sprouted come spring and hit the acre garden as seedlings. Sounds wise – to have plants producing earlier in the summer – and quite easy, right? What can go wrong with keeping seedling trays watered and rotated in front of the window?

Well, the best laid plans of mice and (wo)men oft go awry, it is said.

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On a farm, it’s impossible to seal buildings from wee critters, especially in the cold months, and those critters were delighted to find that the kind and generous staff at Wood Farms had planted a salad bar for them. As soon as the seedlings began ascending from Cathy’s trays, thoughtfully placed in the sun’s warming rays no less, the mouse buffet was open. Such tender greens! All you can eat until it’s gone!

Cathy whisked the chomped-on vegetable shoots off the farm and to her sealed house, nursing them along the rest of the winter so she might actually have something to plant in the spring along with seeds for other produce. Joining these tomato and pepper seedlings would be corn, green beans, herbs, potatoes, and onions.

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So it’s widely regarded that the last chance of a hard freeze in northern Indiana is Mother’s Day. In fact, this winter was quite mild with little snow and the last freeze came and went a bit before we celebrated mothers everywhere. All was on track for planting produce during the first half of May.

Except for one thing. It. Would. Not. Stop. Raining. A record ten inches fell in May, preventing most farmers in northern Indiana from planting. Farm fields became holding pools because the earth was so saturated. Cathy’s seedlings continued to grow indoors at her house as she watched the garden acre of land at the farm remain wet and untillable even as June approached.

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Finally with a break in the Midwest May Monsoons, the ground dried enough for the Woods to transform what had been planted in organic hay to an acre of prime produce-growing earth complete with manure from their Angus herd folded in to provide natural fertilizer.

It wasn’t until a full month after Mother’s Day, on June 12, that Cathy was joined by Kristen Wood, Esme Martinez, and Karen Rivera to begin, finally, a several-day-planting spree in this easy-breezy attempt to grow a garden at Wood Farms. As you can guess, seeds and seedlings need to get into the ground if they’re going to grow and produce anything, say, before Christmas. Crop farmers across the region were equally delayed.

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It had been reaching only into the 70-degree range the week before: spring weather, perfect for planting. The garden acre was finally dry enough to receive seeds and young plants and the planting crew arrived on the sunny morning with high hopes. Cathy brought the thriving seedling plants back to the farm, eager to sink their roots into the cool ground so they could start growing rapidly towards the sky.

But by noon, it was obvious that the coolness of the previous week had been chased away by some mean, early summer heat. While the crew planted long rows of potatoes and then seeds for sweet corn, the seedlings remained in their trays alongside the garden plot, awaiting the planting crew’s attention. The thermometer kept its pace upward as the sun beat down on the dripping workers bent at the waist, working as quickly as possible to plant row upon row that makes up an acre.

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Shortly after a much-needed lunch break and time out of the sun and heat, the crew – now down to three – returned to find the seedlings that had survived being a salad bar early in life, a transfer in cold winter to another location, and another transfer back to the farm were now severely wilted from their first taste of summer heat. And this before even making it into the ground. Cathy contained her distress over her “babies,” as she and Kristen rushed to get the water buggy, newly manufactured by Woods’ son, Dan, to provide relief to the struggling plants.

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It was 93 degrees under a merciless sun and not even water could restore much life to the now four-month-old seedlings that were to produce a bounty of lush peppers and tomatoes.

Moving quickly, the trays were triaged and placed back in vehicles and returned to shade in the farm workshop. It was unknown whether any of Cathy’s carefully raised seedlings would survive to be planted on another – cooler – day. There was talk of maybe needing to just buy replacement seedlings, a considerable expense given the sheer quantity of plants needed.

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The next day brought a high of 95 degrees but Cathy and Kristen persisted in getting more seeds into the ground. Elsewhere on the farm, hay was being mowed, raked, and baled and cattle and their calves were tended. Just as they do when Old Man Winter is blowing hard, farmers keep going when the sun bullies. A few days later, the temperature returned to a more seasonable range and, quite miraculously, many of Cathy’s now very well-travelled seedlings had regained strength in their protected environment and were ready to try the ground again.

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Cathy and company managed to get the garden planted in about a week’s time, including companion plants and flowers that help reduce pests and weeds in an organic garden. These include sunflowers, chamomile, nasturtiums, and marigolds. Nearby organic-growing guru and Wood Farms' friend, Rick Ritter, also contributed extra seedlings he had cultivated winter into spring.

And then guess what happened?

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Heavy rains returned. And unseasonably cool temperatures, unfriendly to especially pepper and tomato formation, also returned. After a 1.75” rainfall in a couple-hour period this week, the garden looked more like a rice paddy than a produce garden. However, farmers have to hold on to hope when dealing with Mother Nature, and so Cathy and Kristen and all others at Wood Farms go about their chores, monitor the weather forecast, and hope for the best possible outcome for their labors.

Some of their peppers and tomatoes are going to taste mighty sweet when harvest time comes.

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