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].
Sitting in the early morning glow of the Christmas tree, taking stock of the year. Today the light begins to return as we edge away from the winter solstice, the darkness begins to retreat. The days ebb and flow like the tides as the cycle of the seasons unwinds, setting the metronome of life.
With a huge storm coming in tonight I’ll be battening hatches, getting the pig enclosures and chickens ready with extra straw and making sure everyone has a dry place to cozy up during the fierce winds and heavy rains. On the bright side, if we get the more than 4 inches that is predicted, the ponds will be pretty close to full, ready for another year of dry season irrigation.
The time between Christmas and New Years always takes on a magical hue for me. It’s the lowest point of farm work in the year, the time where we focus on family, friendships, rest and rejuvenation. My brain has begun to tick away on job lists and plans for the new year, hope springs eternal in the heart of the farmer.
This is the final newsletter of 2022; there is much to reflect on and much to be grateful for, though this was a year of deep challenge and difficulty. The farm ends the year with a much-expanded animal operation, with greater capacity for future endeavors. The balancing act required to keep the different facets moving forward is tricky, and will require better planning from me than I have yet managed.
So often for us, farming has been just throwing things at the wall to see what sticks. We pay attention to what others in our field are doing, taking in information from as many sources as we can find. Our practices change and evolve over time, becoming more efficient and productive with less effort.
I’m enjoying the realization of experience in my field; my capacity to build or repair aspects of our farm, my capability in preparing soil, sowing seeds, tending plants and harvesting for market. Over time our niche has become clearer to me, shifting my focus and some of my efforts. More salad mixes and tender root crops, cooking greens and quick-rotation heading crops like bok choy. Limited numbers of large, heading brassica that take up too much space.
One of the struggles of vegetable farming is dealing with weeds. Our sloped terrain and terraced gardens leave lots of space that we need to keep well covered with growing biomass to prevent erosion. These plants tend to go to seed or cast their roots into the garden beds, making for extra work in order for us to bring a crop to market. Our strategies are varied, and have shifted over time.
At first we spent the time pulling the weeds by hand, then we moved to using old dep tarps on the beds for a period of a few weeks before planting. After prepping the beds, we lay out the tarps and hold them down with t-posts or sand bags; the weed seeds will germinate and die underneath during the time of darkness, and we end up with less pressure during the growing season.
We’re reaching a point in the farm where we need to do more tarping for longer periods to prevent or kill some of the more difficult species. The size of our operation has expanded enough that if we want to be at our most effective, we need to rotate areas of production through a period of fallowing under tarps. This additional timeline makes planning and execution more difficult, because I have to be far enough ahead of the game to be doing bed prep for areas that are weeks or months away from planting time.
I’m also looking at other strategies for lowering our overall effort. Some areas are transitioning to perennials that don’t need as much maintenance; asparagus, peonies, other perennial flowers that Amber uses in her bouquets for market. Focusing more on the high-value hoophouse spaces for the rapid-rotation crops and shifting my thinking around other plant allies that we can make use of for medicinal or fertility applications.
As another year comes to a close, the farm slows to a sleepy crawl, snuggling in for the long nights and blinking owlishly in the dim morning. In a few minutes I’ll head off to the ranch, smelling the sweet scents of feed and the funk of shit blended together. I’ll scratch heads and take stock, making sure everyone looks healthy and happy. As always, much love and great success to you on your journey!