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].
Bitter is the North wind, blowing chills into my body and making me irritable. We’re into another cold snap, with two feet of snow forecasted starting Monday night through Wednesday. Though we’ve crossed the threshold into spring, winter refuses to let go its icy grip. It’s too frozen to harvest in the mornings, so I’ll be picking most of the vegetables this evening in preparation for market tomorrow.
This past week we started to return towards a sense of normalcy, getting some seeds sowed and inching towards the renewal of the season. We have yet to start any hot crops, while last year we were already planting foot tall greenhouse tomatoes, so I’m adjusting my planning for later spring salad mix harvests to make use of the hoophouse space.
It’s an odd feeling not to run into the usual crunch as spring crops vye for bed space with the oncoming season of summer plantings, a strange tickling in my head like something is out of place. I keep reminding myself that this year we’re just where we are, and to stop making comparisons with other years or other farms. Timing is a construct in my head, so I tell myself to stay present and be grateful for the magic of seeds and growth.
Looking back over the last 9 months I can’t help but reflect on how difficult the road has been, a series of natural forces that have often overwhelmed and humbled me. Starting with the fire that almost burned down the farm last July, moving into the crop and landscape devastation of the wild pig incursions in the fall, the atmospheric rivers in early winter and the massive snowstorms of late winter, it’s been one thing after the other.
Despite the difficulties, we have persevered, strengthening fences to keep pigs out and preparing for the season to come. There is still much work to do to repair the collapsed or damaged hoophouses, but the outpouring of support from community members is deeply appreciated and I have confidence that we’ll get to these tasks in the weeks to come. As is always the case, hope springs eternal and I am buoyed by the returning light, even on these chilly days and bitter nights.
We’ve made some crucial equipment upgrades this winter with the purchase of the paperpot planting system and the new addition of a drop seeder that arrived this past week. Pulling the transplanter down the bed as the paper chain of young seedlings unfurls into neat rows is a deep joy, and my back appreciates the lack of stoop labor that planting used to require. With 264 cells to a tray and spacings of 2”, 4” and 6”, I’m able to sow and plant all of the hoophouse crops with more accuracy, less seed waste and better germination than when I was direct-seeding in the beds.
The germination chamber (an old fridge with a single heat mat in the bottom) makes for even germination and the time that the seeds are getting going in the trays buys extra bed space for existing crops. Pest pressure is less able to damage crops because seedlings are going out after having already established true leaves, instead of germinating in the beds and being in danger from slugs, roly-polys, earwigs etc.
Having the drop seeder makes a tremendous difference to the process of sowing. Instead of dropping seeds into 264 individual cells, I pour the packet of seeds onto the plexiglass top plate, which is drilled with holes to match the size and desired quantity of seeds. I shake it around gently to seat the seeds in the holes, then tilt it towards me to move the excess seeds to the low side of the plate. I use the dibbler to make a hole in each of the 264 cells with one press, set the seeder over the top of the tray and push the click handle to slide the top plate to the side so that the seeds drop through the larger hole in the bottom plate. The elegant simplicity of the machine is a true joy, and the labor saving of being able to drop all the seeds at once rather than filling 264 cells one at a time is stunning.
Despite the many difficulties in the past year, I feel resilient and excited for the season to come. The new tools that are becoming available for small-scale market farming are a true paradigm shift that makes me more capable and efficient. I learn new methods and gain experience with each passing year, and I enjoy the challenge. As always, much love and great success to you on your journey!