This is our farm column from farmer Casey O’Neill. O’Neill is the owner operator of HappyDay Farms north of Laytonville, and a long time advocate for the cannabis community in Mendocino Co; more of his writing can be found here. The opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer. If you would like to submit a letter to the editor feel free to write to [email protected].
BELL SPRINGS — We try to make multiple uses of each garden bed each year, planting and harvesting 2 – 3 crops and a round of cover crop and seeking to maximize productivity and soil-building. We harvest pea/bean shoots and mustard from the cover crop for market because they are tasty spring edibles and because we are limited on the volume of production this time of year.
The process of harvesting the shoots and mustard is very laborious because there are so many other plants growing right with the edible ones. I have two methods for harvesting; I can pick limited volumes by hand, plucking each individual leaf or stem which takes a long time but results in a harvest that is ready for washing and bagging.
The oher method is to use the mechanical greens harvester, which takes in large volume but harvests everything in its path. This means that the harvest itself is very fast, but the post-harvest processing becomes a lengthy labor of separating the harvest from the grasses, vetch and other nonedible plants.
I’ve gone back and forth with which way to do it, and have come to the conclusion that I would rather harvest rapidly out in the weather and then spend the time going back through and separating the saleable from the animal fodder while under cover and standing up. This is easier in terms of the overall ergonomics and comfort level, but is very time consuming.
Labor costs, including our own, are the biggest line item by far in our farm budget. When I factor the sale price for produce it has a great deal to do with the labor requirements to bring that crop to market. I also evaluate the season and the timing for crops; as the old saying goes, “bring it to market early, late, or ornate”.
Winter produce is often a higher cost because it is produced during a season in which I value my downtime more than my labor, because some parts of the production cycle are very labor intensive and because we are often using high-cost/high-value hoophouse space that requires a higher return per square foot to be effective in the farm operation.
Each year we get a little better at producing quality crops while becoming more efficient in our methods. I was thinking about my excessive time costs for winter produce as I was harvesting the mixed cover crop this week. I’ll spend as much as four hours working on this one process, meaning that I often have to split the harvest day and do some on Sunday afternoon and some on Monday for market.
There are times when I ask myself “what the hell am I doing” as I’m out in the cold on a winter day harvesting produce. It would be an easy answer if it were about the money, but it’s so much more than that. I think about the joy that I receive from interactions at the farmers market, from the happiness that people express about our produce. I think about the honor and responsibility of providing nourishment for people who I know and love. I also think about the stress of scarcity, of how I feel when there isn’t much on my table to offer.
It feels good to get back into the swing of going to market, fulfilling a passion and drive that is one of the dominant threads in the weave of my life. It can also be overwhelming as we gear into a new season, balancing all of the maintenance and harvest with the need to prepare for the season to come. This balance is the essence of farming, one foot in the present and one in the future.
It is imperative that we stay anchored in appreciation of the experience of the present, and that our planning for the future is clear, concise, and returns us to the present ready to do the work. Too much time in the future leaves us with anxiety, just as too much time in the past can leave us with melancholy. Our power comes from operation in the present with awareness of what has gone before and understanding of where we want to go.
Just like we value multipurpose infrastructure, I am always looking for ways to stack functions with the crops we grow. Interplanting scallions with squash or heading brassica; planting a whole round of greens, onions and other root crops in the early season in between where the cannabis will go when it is ready for planting; harvesting nutrient rich bounty from the cover crop during a time of year when there is not much food available.
I’m coming to realize that I have a whole potential utility in the cover crop process that has not been activated. We’ve always been passive participants, purchasing a set blend of seed and then adding a few things to it. Because the seed blend contains a mix of salable and non-salable plants, we have always struggled to separate the two in our harvest process. It hit me the other day that if I take a more active role in crafting the seed blend, I can grow only edible plants that I want to harvest, and can access the benefits of winter cover crop and the volume of production that makes for a sustainable winter market table.
If we are able to implement a cover crop blend that I can pick with the mechanical greens harvester and have minimal post-processing, then we will be able to increase the availability of produce at a time of year when there are fewer options in the local food system. We’ll cut down on the harvest labor, which means that we’ll be able to offer a lower price for the same quality of produce. This is the kind of thinking that excites me and drives me forward feeling invigorated by the challenge rather than worn down by repetitive effort. May we all find invigoration in the challenge, much love and great success to you on your journey!
The preceding article was an opinion column, or letter to the editor, and the opinions expressed therein are the author’s, not those of The Mendocino Voice. It was not necessarily edited for punctuation, capitalization, spelling etc. While, we reserve the right to copyedit and fact-check opinion pieces, and letters to the editor — and to annotate such pieces with fact-checking — we do not habitually do so.