Moon Dog Farms

Certified Naturally Grown family farm growing fruits, vegetables & flowers in the Texas Gulf Coast

MoonDog Farms is dedicated to stewardship of the land, reinforcing a healthy community and producing great food.  

Filtering by Tag: travails

Mud that stinks and a tough reality: A story of hope

Many a wreck has been the result of taking the family to the country, and afterwards having part or all of it become thoroughly dissatisfied. There are so many rough realities in a life of this kind that it takes the poetry out of the visions of joy, peace, contentment and success that arise in the minds of many.
— H.W. Wiley, 'The Lure of the Land'

It's been a rough go these days.

We've drawn eye-to-eye with the kind of deflating experience we hoped might skip us  but innately knew (because, how could we avoid it?) would eventually hurdle us as beginning farmers.

This time last year, we felt on top of the world, like we were really doing this thing-- and doing it well. Sure, tons of stuff was messy and so much was still to be figured out, but we were making smart choices, growing sustainably and seeing success. 

We arranged to double our Spring production, the most profitable season of the year, into over 2  acres of crops. We were gonna rock in 2015. 

Instead, what we've done is find ourselves poring over a grimness that's left both Alex and I bewildered, and without answers. The murky, smelly grimness reflected in the standing water covering most of our farm  has left us feeling stagnant and stuck along with the soil.

 What do we do when everything is soaked through, for months on end? What do we do, when it's not just plan after plan that is delayed then dashed, but also our hopes for making enough money to keep it going? Our farm library nor our intuition had a compass that gave us solace.  Every instance where we thought we'd devised a creative solution to a problem or advised patience and faith to one another, another 10 inches registered in our rain gauge. 

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And so. There's been some gnashing. In fact, a lot of gnashing--turns out I can be quite the jaw grinder when stress dreams abound--and there's been some heads held in hands. I've cried, Alex has scowled. Then we switched. 

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You may have noticed, a blog post has been conspicuously absent here for weeks. Self-absorption and concentration on stanching damage aren't the only reasons, but they're high up there. I didn't want to share nothing but despair here. I started this blog to increase awareness of our farm, help myself process our beginning years and discuss both triumphs and travails. But it just didn't sit right with me to speak only of how discouraged we felt, and it also felt disingenuous to speak around how discouraged we felt. 

So, let's be clear. We're still grappling with discouragement. Although we know our situation could be so much worse, in endless amounts of ways, it hurts to feel that our rug was pulled from underneath us and we could only watch it float away. 

I have always confessed to having that teacher's pet problem, you know. 

But here's why I can write about this now and feel at ease: when the rains started back in October and we saw flooding in our fields, we said, "Not good.  But we still have the rest of fall. There's time." And essentially, we haven't stopped saying that, about each new field that needs tilling and prepping, each new crop and every thwarted plan. "We still have the rest of fall/winter/spring."

But it hasn't dried out, and time has run short. And I don't think you'll ever hear a Texas farmer say, "Well, there's always summer."

So now, we just deal.   

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We don't have to push hopes further on down the road, crossing fingers for more sun or a really, really large straw. 2015 hasn't gone the way we wanted. At all. We ended up planting most of our summer one crops on an empty orchard bed, 10 feet wide and a quarter-mile long, which makes us felt like absolute nincompoops.  I've read selections from 5 Acres and Independence: A Handbook for Small Farm Management that made me feel like I've been prancing around in high-heels expecting money to bud out on the pear trees and earthworms to answer my call, all the while leading my future to ruin. (Okay book, but 'tough love' is putting it lightly.)  We've wondered what will become of us, if this is how it's to be from now on.

We've  worried that our bad agricultural luck might be a harbinger of environmental tides and inevitable trends to come. Maybe. 

But what's more likely is that it's a clap in the face and the biggest reminder to date that what we're trying to do is so much more than throwing seeds in the ground and smiling at Sunday markets. We've got to take these past 6 months and figure out how to shape ourselves around it. What does Moon Dog Farms do when nothing goes our way? That's our task for the rest of this year, as far as I'm concerned. So much has gone in our favor, and we won't fall apart now.

Well, to be fair, we'll fall apart in private (a little bit, very tastefully) and then get back to rubbing sticks together until we make fire.

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It's still hard to walk out in our fields right now and look out at thick, smelly mud and yellowing leaves. I don't like that this same week last year we had over 40 bouquets to sell, and this year all the flowers are no higher than 5 inches tall. We're now tasked with researching and creating better drainage for our fields, reorganizing the farm layout, revising  growing techniques and undertaking reconsideration of a whole lot of things. 

But that means we're growing. And people still support us--even the ones not related to us! (thank you, thank you, thank you). We can move forward, and I know we can still find the poetry in this life of 'rough realities.'

Besides, there's always summer. 

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How Things Can Be.

To complain of an excess of something when that something is a precious resource is typically a no-no. It's considered even poorer taste when the something is historically in scant supply for lots of the people you know (and, perhaps, maybe, your whole state). 

Which is why I haven't mentioned the rain. 

Well, until now. 

One of the fields to be planted for Spring crops. It'll have to wait a while.

Oh, the rain. It feels like it hasn't stopped, since before Thanksgiving.  It's funny actually, how Alex and I have been settled here for just over 2 years, yet we'd already formed notions of "the way things are" at this time of year. Of course, I don't see why we wouldn't, considering our status as 10th generation farmers born and raised on these coastal prairies, emerging from the womb with a pelican and pitchfork in each hand. However, our notion about Winter didn't include incessant precipitation. Because, it like totally didn't rain like this last year. But it totally has this year.

I guess it was time for Mother Nature to mix it up. And time for us to deal.

  It rained cats and dogs like this when we first arrived in 2013,--that I'm sure of,  because I complained about it then in one of our early blogs. But this Winter's rainfall has aimed to beat the band. And perhaps, McFarmer's spirit. 

Now, of course my dear partner's spirit hasn't been broken. He's stronger than that, and far too level-headed. He has, however, had quite a few choice words with puddles and stormclouds in the back of the orchard, safe from listening ears. We'll just say it hasn't been visitor-friendly. 

The problem is, when it rains every week and rains several inches every week ( sometimes upwards of 6 inches at a time), your field doesn't have time to dry out in between downpours. Add to this Winter's habitual grey skies and cutback on sunshine hours and you've got a very, very wet situation. 

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On our farm, plans for direct seeding most of the Spring crops were pushed further and further back, either because we can't get into the fields (does you no good to seed in the driving rain) or if we did, the damage we'd do to our soil quality would be too great. It's lucky we made the beds during the last semi-dry spell, but that's only done so much good as we haven't dared to work in them.

Major rivers impede our movement in the aisles, and no seed appreciates a new home of mud. The poor beets, scallions, radishes, peas and many more have just had to sit tight. 

Meanwhile, the plants already established back in the Fall have braved weeks of holding their own as their beds become less and less rows in a field and more and more islands in a mired gulf laden with funk and crawfish. There's been at least 3 inches of water in every aisle for 2 months. Cabbage leaves yellow from saturation and the lettuce's growth is stunted to the point of paralysis. I've found myself more than once in the peculiar situation of harvesting kale only to find that while busy and my back turned, my tub of harvested leaves has floated 15 feet away from me down our canal of an aisle. Woof. 

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It's a bummer of a time, to be sure. But also, it's impossible to see it as anything but a timely reminder that we, as ever, are not in control. The sun will return for good eventually, and our fields will dry. In the meantime, we might lose several hundred feet of crops and miss a few planting windows that will hurt down the line. But we've also learned so much already. 

Now we know what its like when it rains heavily for 3 months at Moon Dog Farms.  It's a painful lesson, but a lesson nonetheless. When everything seems amiss, there's always something else to consider. I'm incredibly thankful that during all this rain, we had working greenhouses to protect the thousands of plantbabies on whose petals and cotyledons now shoulder even more value. We've had better germination than ever in our greenhouses this season, even with the more tetchy flower varieties we're trying out for the first time. Compared to January 2013, when all we had was an old door and a shipping box, things are looking good. 

We've had secret talk of building a bio-dome-esque structure to shield us from all unwanted weather, but we'll probably settle on rebuilding the drainage ditches leading to the back canal, work to create even better flow and drainage of water in the aisles and investigate the use of high tunnels and higher beds.

And we'll make a note of "how things can be" during the Winter season.  Of course, that means it'll probably never happen like this again, but we'll have some other unexpected phenom to adapt to.  

We'll give it our best.

Plus, there's always the back of the orchard for our less mature moments. 

Working it. Or, how we yell "Phooey" and eat strawberries.

Work can hold so much promise.

Or so much dismay.

These scallions needed to be weeded much earlier than they were. Of course, we also needed to plant nearly 1,000 plants. They'l be fiiine.

The rolling tide of work, chores, duties or whatever moniker you like for your Necessary Tasks is a rhythm I find often has me swimming between several states of mind.

A frothy, struggle-filled drift further and further out  to sea as I watch the shoreline slip away is often preceded by a sometimes-frantic, sometimes-gleeful treading with chin barely above water. And at times, there's even moments of purely contented floating with no awareness of what's beyond the near horizon, unless its to enjoy the hiss of sunset melting into the waves.

But enough with the water metaphors. We live close to the ocean, so it seems appropriate to toss them in every so often—and I have always had a knack for treading—but we grow vegetables and fruit, so I'll coast back into soil-based talk.

Okay, now no more.

McFarmer mulls tilling options with our neighbor.

Soil is one of the topics that we jabber over everyday. It's the most basic building block for farming, and thus a Necessary Task that we analyze nearly everything about it. It's a Necessary Element to Growing Wholesome And Delicious Food.

In putting our field together for Summer One (the period of time we've designated spanning from now until June) we've had more talk than ever about soil. Because of timing with rain, the field's previous Winter crops production cycle and the generally-agreed upon 24 hours in a day, we have less-than-optimal beds with which to nurture our first round of young summer crops.

I've mentioned the gumbo clay before, and indeed, it strikes again. One large downfall of the use of a tractor is that while tilling/discing the dirt to make a more plant-able material in your field, it also compacts and smooshes the field as well. Tractors are mighty heavy.

Jericho romaine lettuce, planted on a blustery March day. Hold on, babies!

Jericho romaine lettuce, planted on a blustery March day. Hold on, babies!

And in our case, after pushing our till-day back over a week, we opted to use the tractor on soil that wasn't perfectly dry in order to avoid an additional wait of another 10 days because of the likelihood of more rain the following days. Therefore, we have beds of very smooshed, very compacted soil made up of dirt that's already something you might want to throw on the potter's wheel.

All this means that our baby plants are having a time of it. And that Alex begged me not to share too many photos of said plants that may or may not make it in the following weeks, growing as they are in unfavorable conditions that might choke off their tiny hairlike roots. Not to mention that Moon Dog Farms is located in a windtunnel. 

(We almost forgot from last year how much the Wind likes to show off in Spring. We definitely remember now.)

A tomato here and a pepper there have bit the dust. And then a few more.  Direct-seeding anything requires both the annihilation of your cuticles from tunneling into our crusty soil and an hour of preparation spreading softer-bodied compost across the entire bed before laying down one single seed. And we worry about our field's viability, her fertility. The next window to plant cover crop as a green manure in that field won't occur until after summer.

 

Perhaps publicly displaying our anxieties isn't  an award-winning marketing plan. But I say "phooey."  We aim to share the good and the bad. The triumphs and travails of a tiny Texas farm.

And the thing is, so much around here is still pretty damn good. Berries ripen.  We've got more fingerling potatoes to plant than we know what to do with. Wildflowers have begun to dot hills surrounding our barns and roads.There's a gopher in the Spring field. Clearly, this is a potential travail, but presently he's simply amusing and funny-looking. Bok choy continues to break all our expectations and grow like a champ. And lately, people don't act so scared of bok choy at market. That's a true plus.

 

And so, while not all things are smooth-sailing, we're absolutely not lost at sea.

 

Eric's twin will save your life.

Imagine, if you will, the blowout of a tire.

The telltale swerve of the vehicle's rear, swaggering all over a 6-lane highway like some belligerent alligator. 

Now imagine a 20ft trailer loaded with roughly 10,000lbs of compost attached to the back of your drunk reptile.  Cow manure flying, eyes widening, and a gulf of fear deepening by the microsecond.  

McFarmer is so sad.  His compost day did not go as planned.

Somehow, your brave McFarmer in the driver's seat manages to wrassle the injured beast to the shoulder of I-45, where you promptly lock in relieved embrace and contemplate barfing.

(He later confesses to blacking out during the panic.) 

Luckily, no one barfs, but unluckily, you find yourself in even more predicament. 

The lug wrench set for the truck doesn't fit the trailer wheels. The trailer's too heavy for the jack.  Over the deafening tidal wave of constant traffic noise, you hear Triple A say "No dice--we don't cover the trailer."

 Nearly 10 phone calls later, not one tow truck, highway auto service or dude with a wrench will come to bail you out; the trailer doesn't have a spare, and no one wants to bring you a tire before they put it on.  You're starting to feel not only woefully unprepared, but just really woeful.

What do you do? Leave it as a testament to the dangers of old tires and too much cubic yardage? Where do you turn now?  This was freaky-expensive dirt.

Then parts the gloom, and an automotive messiah emerges midst the Houston haze.  

The man himself.

I sit, with pounds of compost in my pants, in resignation to our fate.

"I'M DERIC---LIKE 'ERIC,' WITH A 'D!'" he yells over the din. "I'M A TWIN. HIS NAME IS ERIC. LET'S GIVE THIS A TRY! 

He's  actually RUNNING to help us.

He proceeds to boost the whole trailer, remove the shredded tire, drive Alex to a tire store, put on the new tire, follow us to a parking lot off the next exit and change another tire for us (just in case), and give us use of his drill and fancy self-tapping screws to secure our flapping tarp.  All of this with a reassuring smile.  

Deric is the owner of State Farm Towing, and he's not affiliated with the insurance company.  But he is forever affiliated with my gratitude.

Just look at him go.

Thank you so much, Deric.  And thank you from our parents, to whom we did not tell this story until much later.  

Deric Lopez, the man of my highway dreams.  I didn't know I had such dreams.  But now I've been acquainted with the taste of a highway nightmare, and I understand what it means to have them answered with a dream.  

A dream named Deric Lopez of State Farm Towing, who's got one lucky twin named Eric.

No more resignation here, only microbial jubilation!  We're spreading this hard-won compost.

Compost spread through nearly the whole field. The lines mark where our veggie beds will be.