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].
The wind. It batters me as I work, shoving me with strong fingers caressing the pockets of my jacket, kneading my back and pushing against my efforts. The organic rice straw I have for erosion control and animal bedding is chopped fine, and the wind plays hell with it, blowing little bits into my eyes and imbuing my person with it. I find straw in my hair, in every pocket of my clothing, it covers my rain gear.
We are sodden, soaked, dripping, but life is good. The creeks are flowing with an abundant chatter that makes me smile; their sound soothes my soul. In our Mediterranean climate water is a feast-or-famine event. These days it’s a little over the top, reminding me of the big El Nino in the early 90’s when I was a kid. I remember it raining every day in February that year, and this year feels similar.
I rotate two sets of rain gear, so that when I come in from morning chores the first set can dry while I go back out after breakfast, and I can switch back to the first set after lunch. The morning begins in the dim light of dawn, making coffee, rebuilding the fire and feeding the dog, cats and rabbits. I head out for chores at the ranch, feeding pigs and chickens, giving the horse some alfalfa and chatting with him, though he doesn’t say much. Then home to eat and get ready for the rest of the day.
Now that the calendar has turned forward into January I feel the stirring of a new year. The light is beginning to return, a minute or two each day, and my efforts are underway for new crops. Yesterday I sowed salad mix, turnips, radishes, arugula, spinach, bok choy, tatsoi and hiroshimana in the caterpillar tunnels. I’m inching my way towards a full planting of winter crops, with 6 beds still needing to be cleared, prepped and sown.
The lettuce tunnel is a little bedraggled as I wait for some sunshine to encourage growth, but there will still be a nice round of harvests coming from those 4 beds. The cooking greens tunnel has been super productive the last couple weeks, with collards, kale and bok choy coming in strong. Cabbages, cauliflowers and broccolis are a long way out yet, but their tunnels have held well through the storms and the plants look great.
I’ve been thinking about how different my life is in the winter than the summer. Farming at this time of year means much shorter hours, crops and weeds grow more slowly, and much less irrigation is needed. The hoophouses are ultra productive because the simple layer of plastic creates a sheltered microclimate that allows plants to thrive. The crops grow lush and tender without the battering of the wind and the direct contact of the frost, though they often freeze inside the tunnels during the colder spells.
Now that the fences have been reinforced against the wild pigs, I’m waiting for a break in the weather to do some repair work on the damaged terraces and start looking towards spring planting. I still have garden breakdown to do, tomato cages to remove and bed prep to accomplish to make ready for late winter crops. I would have liked to get these things done before the end of 2022, but alas it didn’t happen.
Rainy days aren’t much good for garden work outside the hoophouses, but they’re great for cleaning and organizing! I always plan to spend time in January going through my shop, setting my tools to rights and throwing away the trash and broken things that have accumulated. By the end of the year everything is a mess, with cleaning relegated to the back burner during the pell mell rush of harvest. During these short, dark days I find delight in the renewal of a new season demonstrated in a clean work space.
I still need to go through the irrigation shed, organizing parts and assessing what we’ll need for the year to come. The rabbit barn is part way done, but still has a couple hours of cleaning to go, and same for the old pig barn, which is transitioning back to a storage space now that the pigs are located up at the ranch. As the farm grows and changes my needs from the infrastructure change as well, but I try to build so that everything is multi-purpose and can shift in function over time. The new year unfolds, and I am excited for the challenge. As always, much love and great success to you on your journey!