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].
As I made coffee and fed the animals this morning I watched a rainbow grow. It began as a small, vertical patch against the mountains to the West, shining with the iridescence of mother-of-pearl. I noticed it as my morning began, reveled in the unique beauty of it, and then moved on with the chores. When I chanced to look back a few moments later, it had grown into a full-blown rainbow, arching across the sky. I stepped onto the porch to take a photo, and as I did so the sweetness of gentle rain began to fall.
Moments of such profound beauty are a humbling recognition of the world around me, with a joy that sings deep in my soul. I am grateful for the experience of something that feels supernatural, almost beyond my understanding. While I have a vague grasp on the science that causes rainbows, there was still something so magical about this that it took my breath away.
The sun rises in the East, the first rays shining into my window as swollen biscuit-roll-fish-scale clouds roll in from the West. I am hopeful for more rain in what has been the driest winter that I can remember. The woodstove ticks and chatters as the fire comes to life, emanating a dry heat that comforts my return from morning chores. The coffee is hot and flavorful, sweetened with milk from a friend’s cow. Despite the stresses of life and farm, I revel in this moment as I sit to write with the morning rays upon my face.
This week has been one of triumphs and losses, victories of advancing skill and capacity coupled with humbling realizations of the lack of control that is a farming life. The warm, dry weather over the early part of the year has resulted in some of the beds of salad mix and tender root crops going to flower much faster than expected, throwing a monkey wrench into my crop planning just as I was starting to think I had it all figured out.
Beware the farmer’s hubris, for every time I think I know something, I am reminded of how much is outside my control. With the loss of some of the greens and a huge bloom in pest populations with the warm weather, I’m scrambling a bit, although overall this is still the most productive set of winter crops we’ve ever had.
With 9 hoophouses in full production I’ve been surprised at how much effort it takes me to keep all the beds in operation, clearing old crop detritus and replanting as fast as I am able. The slug and roly-poly population explosions have been demoralizing, sending me to market with tattered salad mixes, although the leaves are very crisp and tender. I always say that holes in leaves have no flavor, so I try not to worry about it.
Amber dug yogurt containers into the surface of the bed so that the lip of the vessel is right at the soil surface, and filled them half full of old beer. The creatures are attracted to the fermented liquid, drowning en masse in an orgy of alcoholic revelry. Amber and I use the flame weeder on freshly prepared beds to knock back some of the populations before sowing in an attempt to help the seedlings get up and grow before the voracious jaws can chew them to shreds.
Farming is an ongoing battle with the creatures who want to eat the tasty things we grow, from gophers and ground squirrels down to slugs, roly-polys and the dreaded harlequin beetles. I have been most dismayed to find harlequins already out and about at this early point in the year, hammering the leaves of brassica and breeding in abundance. They will decimate summer brassica; all plantings need covering with insect netting, though even this effort will not prevent all the damage.
There is a part of me that can see and understand the trajectory towards murder and poison in the industrial farmscape. It is demoralizing to see a bed of seedlings ravaged by bugs, or to lose most of a row of cabbages to gophers. My motto has always been to grow enough to share, some for everybody, so that I don’t have to stress the losses. It works well up to a point, but if the pests cause a crop failure then a threshold has been crossed that requires action. We set traps for gophers to try to control their populations, and we make use of beer traps for insects. Flaming helps, and lots of hand-picking and squishing of cutworms, harlequin beetles, cucumber beetles and slugs. Exclusion with row cover is effective so long as the pests aren’t already present in the bed when the covers go on.
The warm dry weather this year has created a sense of urgency, as though I’m already behind. I keep reminding myself that it’s still February, and I try to be present with the work at hand. The return of cool days, overcast weather and moisture has eased some of the stress, and I hope for much more precipitation in the weeks to come. As always, much love and great success to you on your journey!