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 combination of returning light and a few days of at least partial sunshine has been a balm to my soul. We had an incredible hike on New Years Day, a glorious experience of sunshine and comradery that I’ve filed in my most treasured memories. As we all sat in a group eating lunch, a bald eagle flew overhead and circled us a few times adding a feeling of reverence to an occasion already steeped in joy and tradition.
It’s been kind of an emotional rollercoaster for me lately, with some incredible highs of time with family and friends and also some deep lows of overwhelm about the year to come, the work to be done, the financial realities of a small farm with big government fees coming up for licensing and other regulatory costs. Thursday was kind of a turning point for me, a glorious day of mixed sunshine and overcast in which I charged out of the gate and into the new year of farming.
I prepped and planted bok choi and salad mix in the morning and then got out the BCS walk-behind tractor and mowed down the asparagus bed and some of Amber’s perennial beds in preparation for covering with cardboard, compost, and then a layer of straw. The cardboard will break down in time for the peonies, echinacea, asparagus and other perennials to pop up, but it will create a weed barrier that will knock bad the mallows and other overwintering plants and also slow or prevent the germination of weed seeds in the beds, giving the perennials a big jump on the season.
Getting moving again, beginning the year, stepping forward into the unknown. It feels good to break the stalemate, the waiting, and to kick things off proper. I’m still balancing rest with work, trying to take time in the morning to stretch and read and drink tea and broth after animal chores but before heading out the door for the day. Amber and I are spending time cooking, making big meals that can be stretched over a couple of days so that reheating is quick and easy.
I’ve always loved roasting season, lots of cauliflower, romanesco, brussels sprouts and winter squashes like delicata and butternut. I love that I don’t have to peel the delicatas; we’ve been halving them, cleaning the seeds and then cutting them up into bite size pieces to roast on a baking sheet with a little olive oil and some seasonings until the smaller pieces start to turn a little brown. Same goes for butternuts, although I do peel those first.
Braised pork chunks or a whole chicken go in the deep clay Romertopf baking dish, with turnips, carrots, onions, garlic and seasonings. The lid goes on top and into the oven for enough hours to make everything fall off the bones. Stovetop stirfys start with onions and ground meat browning, and then additions of chopped cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, romanesco, brussels or other heavy veggies. Next go the greens, kales and Asian greens like mizuna, bok choy, and Tokyo bekana. Each of these processes produces a meal and a covered pyrex dish of leftovers to combine for future meals. Big salads with lunch and dinner from the ample greens coming out of the garden.
This is the most abundant winter crop lineup I’ve ever had, and I’m absolutely reveling in it. As I write, the farm sits under the first hard freeze of the year, which is a month later than it has happened in my memory as a farmer. It snowed a bit Friday night, so I spent yesterday harvesting the more tender outside crops and bringing in the rest of the peppers from the hoophouses. It was a stunning 50 pound haul of peppers, unheard of for me at this time of year.
I harvested salad mix and cooking greens through the late morning and early afternoon, kneeling in the slushy snow and working my way down the rows with the blade of my harvest knife flashing when the sun poked out of the clouds. My new rain gear kept me dry and warm, though the knee that went to ground was quickly numbed by the snow contact. Thin rubber gloves kept my hands dry, which kept them from getting too cold, and as I gathered in the harvest I spent time in reflection. I found myself loving the work, finding joy in the abundance, and in the purpose of producing and procuring it for family, friends, community.
There is deep ritual for me in the work of food production. It is my anchor point to life, a deep core of my identity. Finding joy in the work is the antidote to overwhelm, the seeds of hope that guide me towards the future. As the first week of a new year draws to a close, I lean into the effort, reflect on the joys and challenges and remind myself to seek balance in work and play. As always, much love and great success to you on your journey!