A Weekend in the Life of an Aspiring Farmer

Howdy! I got home yesterday evening after a very long but productive weekend at the farm I volunteer for, and I was so excited to get on here and actually write about some actual farming, so I took a shower, made a snack… and then went to bed. I was so exhausted! So here is my weekend, a day late, but definitely not shy in dollars!

Friday after I punched out of work, I headed straight to the gym to meet up with some folks with whom I was running a 5k that evening at the Charlotte Motor Speedway. The run was called the “Electric Run,” of which the theme was glow-sticks, electric lights, and techno music. There were about 20,000 people running in this event, so it wasn’t really what you would call a competitive race, and I was kind of disappointed to see that it wouldn’t even be timed, especially since I didn’t have a watch… but hey, it’s all for the fun of it! I think I did pretty well, I didn’t stop running the entire race, and passed what seemed like thousands of people! I have an addiction to tobacco, but I hadn’t touched the stuff all week, and had gone to the gym more than I have been, so I was pretty proud of myself, and feel as if I am in pretty great shape at the moment! I didn’t stick around after the race, but had the hardest time finding my way out of the middle of the stadium, and then had to walk another 5k to get back to my car, which took me just as long to find in the dark as it did to run the damn race! It was fun though, and I’m glad I did it, but I think that that was the last time that I pay to run 3 miles. How many t-shirts can a man have, anyway?

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From the 5k, I drove straight to the farm.

I need to give a little background on the farm I volunteer for and how I got involved there. When lightning struck me and I decided I want to be a farmer about two-and-a-half months ago, I immediately went online and did a google search for local farms. I stumbled across this website http://www.golocalncfarms.com, which sells goods from a bunch of local farms and specialty goods producers from around the region, and has little profiles for each farm. I wrote this long, extremely enthusiastic and heart-felt e-mail about why I wanted to become a farmer, to connect with the earth and save the world, so on and so forth, and began sending it out to every farm on that website. The first to respond was Joe, who actually runs the website. He and his wife, Dani, are just starting out on a farm of their own, called Rowland’s Row Family Farm. I went out to meet him that weekend, and helped him do some weeding, and the rest is history! I now spend my weekends with Joe and Dani, helping them with the farmers market, farm chores, their store, and whatever else they can come up with for me to do! Here’s a picture of them. They endearingly call me their “intern!”

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They were already in bed by the time I got there, so I snuck in and went to bed myself.

Saturday, I woke up just before 6. Joe was already up. He does deliveries and drop-offs all day for the GoLocal customers. Dani and I were going to the Atherton Mill Market, where they have a stand. We had a ton of stuff to sell: peaches, potatoes, tomatoes, green beans, zucchini, yellow squash, patty-pan squash, green peppers, hot peppers, eggs, blueberries, corn, cucumbers, eggplant, Japanese eggplant, duck eggs, okra, and I think that covers it! We were rolling pretty good throughout the morning, slingin’ produce left and right! Then, like so often this summer in Charlotte, the sky opened up and dumped buckets of water down upon us, all but putting a halt to the flow of customers into the market. We did some sales after that, but mostly just goofed off with the other vendors. Although I find the actual farming experience more exciting and enjoyable than going to the farmers’ market, marketing is the most important thing that will determine the success or failure of a farming operation. It’s only logical, right? You can grow fruits and veggies, raise pigs, chickens, cows and goats, but what good is it if you have no one to sell it to? With that in mind, I think that working at the farmers market is and has been an invaluable experience, if only to get used to speaking with customers, figuring prices, haggling, and just talking and learning about produce and other goods. It’s also a great place to talk to other farmers, as they might do things differently, and just to gain different perspectives based on their experiences. It’s also a good way to figure out what kind of products sell better than others. The patty-pan squash?!? You’d think it was contaminated by bubonic plague! I’ve cooked it several times, and think it’s great, but you couldn’t give it away at the market! There’s also this strange circumstance with the last of anything; no one will buy that either! If you are down to one last cucumber or one last peach, you might as well eat it because no one is going to buy it! People are strange… when you’re a stranger. Faces look ugly when you’re alone! Sorry, Doors moment. There are also things that will sell better if packaged, for example, the loose okra wasn’t selling very well, so Dani filled some ziplock bags with half-a-pound of okra, and those were gone in 15 minutes. It’s strange though, because some things that you’d think would sell better pre-packaged did fine loose, like the green beans. I suppose a lot of that kind of stuff is trial and error, and just gauging the consumer on a case-by-case basis. All told, it was a good day!

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Joe has been talking about possibly getting a stand at another market in Davidson, which I would really like to get involved with, and could possibly start making some moulah running the stand at that market! We shall see though. DON’T GET AHEAD OF YOURSELF, BEN! Sorry, gotta check myelf fo’ I wreck myself!

After the market, Dani and I went to the Elma C. Lomax Incubator Farm, which is a great farmer-training farm, where Joe got his start, and something I have been getting involved with. Hopefully, I will have my own plot there sometime in the not too distant future! More on Lomax in a later post. We dropped off some of the produce we didn’t sell, then took the rest of it to the little grocery store Joe and Dani run, called The Peachtree Market, which sells much of the same goods that are sold on the GoLocal website. I’m hoping to be able to start working at the store a shift or two on the weekends, so I can make a little extra money AND so I can keep gaining that valuable marketing experience! Joe has worked hard to increase the avenues through which he markets not only his produce, but that of other producers, via the website, the farmers market, and the store. He is thereby increasing the potential for generating revenue, and helping others to do so as well! Building your business vertically is one thing, but Joe is building both vertically AND horizontally, and is creating a lot of success early on in his farming career. I feel very lucky to be able to learn not only from Joe, but with him; he’s very business savvy and very driven, with a ton of energy! He also has a fantastic beard, of which I am filled with insurmountable envy!

After we dropped the goods at the store and got things set up a bit, we left it in the hands of Dawn, their employee and another Lomax prospector, and headed back to Rowland’s Row. Dani and I went to check on the chicks, and found five trampled turkey chicks… squashed flat and stiff. According to Dani, turkey chicks spend the first couple months of their lives trying as hard as they can to die! I’m assuming (or hoping, at least) that this is purely hyperbolic, and they aren’t actually suicidal, but I suppose they are very susceptible to anything and everything that might kill them. I think this time around, the cause was the fact that the wiring to the heat-lamps in the chick incubator isn’t entirely secure from wet weather, and when the heavy rain rolled through earlier, it shorted out the lamps, and the cold little chickies huddled together in a corner, inadvertently crushing their siblings. Such is life, I suppose. I’ve read and learned that to be a farmer means to experience loss. In retail, it’s called “shrink.”  Aside from the five deceased, there were a few more that looked a little punch-drunk, and it was uncertain whether they would last the night. One thing they were doing to try to prevent them from huddling in the corners was to eliminate the corners by wedging some pieces of cardboard in the corners. Dani told me that their neighbors at Creekside Farm kept their turkeys in a kiddie-pool, so there weren’t any corners. That seemed like a good idea to me! Don’t they have rooms with no corners in insane asylums?

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When we got done dealing with the chicks, we went and moved the broiler chicken tractor so they’d have some fresh grass. The chicken tractor is a double whammy, because not only are you able to provide the chicken with fresh pasture every day whilst keeping them safe and contained, but you are also spreading the chicken manure efficiently, which helps build the quality of the soil! When we got done with all that, Joe came home, and he and I went and worked on fixing the heat lamps in the chick house. Then Dani’s friend Hana came over, and we all had a delicious, all-local dinner of chicken, potatoes, and some kind of okra succotash that Dani whipped up. Hana taught us how to make ice-cream in ziplock bags with milk, ice, and salt, which actually worked, in spite of alls disbelief! Here’s Joe shaking up some ice-cream.

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The ice-cream was a little on the salty side, but hey, nothing beats homemade! We then played Apples to Apples and some Gin Rummy, both of which, I’m pretty sure, I won. Cuz I am all that is man. Then Hanna left and we all went to bed!

I had some crazy dreams that night, I think it was the salty ice-cream… Joe’s alarm went off (which is the loudest, most obnoxious alarm on the face of this green planet!) at 8 and woke me up. I got out of bed, expecting to find Joe out and about feeding the chickens, but I stepped outside, strapped on my boots, and found only Sarge, the dog. Don’t get me wrong, he’s a great dog, so I was very excited to see him! I figured Joe and Dani were sleeping in, which they were, so I went ahead and let the chickens out and fed them and fed the chicks and the rabbits. Then I got some baskets and collected eggs, and then just sat around, playing fetch with Sarge and messing around on my phone. Once those lazy farmers finally woke up, Joe and I got to work seeding some transplant trays for the fall and winter crops. We planted broccoli, cauliflower, spinach, brussel sprouts, kale, lettuce, and I think some other stuff too, which I can’t recall at the moment. All told, we planted upwards of 500 cells of transplants, but he wants to get something like 2500 plants for the season. These are only some of the trays. The ones that you see sprouting we seeded last Sunday, some broccoli, cauliflower, and brussel sprouts.1000746_10200432978018260_772622455_n

From there, we moved to the rabbit house. Joe always tells me things that he needs to get done, and when he does that, I kind of catalogue that and store it in the back of my mind. I know he’s an extremely busy guy and gets sidetracked by all the other things he has going on, so when I’m there and we do have the time AND the manpower to get some of these projects done, I like to bring them up as a reminder, but I make him think that it was his idea. It’s his farm, after all! I’m just the help! With the rabbit house, it was in desperate need of a cleaning. In an attempt to describe how the rabbit house is set up, it’s in a small shed, and the rabbit cages are against one wall, and are essentially boxes of chicken wire and wood, raised up about two-and-a-half feet off the ground. Under these cages are rubbermaid bins, set out to collect the rabbit excrement, which is great fertilizer, but a foul, soupy mess. Ideally, one should empty these bins on a regular basis, just to keep things clean. I don’t think these bins had been emptied once, and they were nasty! So first, we went in and took the rabbits out and put them together in their outdoor pin, hoping they would do what rabbits do best and get down to business… We then took the bins out and emptied them in the compost pile. Joe fixed the cage a bit. I should say, Joe ghetto-rigged the cage a bit, which I’m learning that ghetto-rigging is pretty much THE essential skill to running a farm. When something isn’t working right or needs to be fixed, the quick, easy solution is the most constructive of your time. I might argue that doing it right the first time is the best way, but when you are a beginning farmer, it’s often hard to determine which way is the right way. I just think of the old adage, “measure twice, cut once,” which I feel can apply to any aspect of life. Anyway, after we got everything cleared out and fixed, we laid down some bedding, and Joe drilled some holes in the bottom of the rubbermaid bins so the liquids could drain out, leaving only the highly nitrogenous solids. Needless to say, we left that job reeking of rabbit poop. I’ve come to realize, however, that farming can be a very poopy job at times

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We then moved to the compost pile, which had become a bit unwieldly and overflowing, so we got to work with our pitchforks and rakes and tamed that bad boy pretty quick, the whole time talking shop and strategizing on possible future profit-generating enterprises. We’re entrepreneurs, after all!

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Composting is essential to any farm. Essentially, what you are doing is taking all your by-products and waste and converting it into an organic, nutrient-dense, soil-building resource that you can add to your fields and increase the fertility of the soil and the biodiversity of the micro-ecosystem within the soil.

After we finished with the compost, we tied up a few odds and ends, extended the hose for the water for the broiler birds, cleaned up here and there, and called it quits. I drove Joe into town to meet up with Dani, who was working at the store, dropped him off, and moseyed on down 85 back home, where you can pick up at the beginning of this post, and then read it all over, and then start again, in an infinite loop of Ben’s farming weekend 7/26 through 7/28, until you start getting dizzy and your brain explodes! On second thought, don’t do that. I know that this was a pretty long post, and I hope you enjoyed it! It took me the better part of all day to write, and I’ve enjoyed a couple beers (Stone IPA, which you may be able to tell where in the blog I started drinking), and I was going to read back through it and edit it, but now I’m thinking more like nahhhhh. So hey, happy farming, peaceful living, and until next time!

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