Sunday, September 26, 2010

More Farm News

It seems that last week's newsletter went out to only half the mailing list -- due to technical problems and pilot error. But I announced last week that "Frog Hospital," after ten years and a book of the same title, was finished, and I am now writing under the plain title of "Farm News from Fred Owens."

I am working on a farm right now, selling premium organic produce from the market garden, right on the outskirts of LaConner. I can look out the back of the farm stand and see the fields where these vegetables are growing.

I have the easy job, at the stand. I am too told to work in the field. I worked in the field three years ago on the transplanting crew. I lasted five days and I got so worn out that I just couldn't come back to work anymore. That was no disgrace -- everybody else on the crew was thirty years younger than me.

But I became a senior farm worker after that. Now I load the truck every morning at the packing shed. I back the truck up to the cooler and pick out about thirty different boxes of vegetables to sell at the stand -- looking for the very best Swiss chard and English cucumbers and Kohlrabis and not picking the stuff that looks too tired -- that goes to compost or it goes to Kevin's pigs -- but I load the best stuff for the farm stand.

The farm stand is a few hundred yards from the packing shed. So I drive over to the stand and unlock the door, then I unload the thirty boxes -- nothing very heavy. My motto is don't work fast. Fast and farming are two different things.

After I unload the boxes and set them about in an attractive way, then I drive over to the farm office and get the cash register from Mary.

Mary counts the till and keeps track of it all. She has assured me that the I have been keeping the dollars and cents in good order - balanced to the penny one day, she said, and close enough on other days.

First Frost. We have a lot of interesting conversations on the farm. Like when I made a joke on Monday morning, when I traipsed into the office and Mary asked "What's the word today, Fred?"

I said, "Walk softly and carry a big lunch."

They all laughed.

Today we discussed the first hard frost, which will kill all the flowers just like that. Bright blooms turn to brown almost overnight, and it's over for the year. The dahlias, zinnias, yarrows, and delphiniums -- the whole glorious show will end.

Last year the frost came in mid-October, but who knows when it will come this year.

Would that be like your first kiss? Frost is the first kiss of winter, the end of innocence, the nearness of mortality, and the quickening of time.

Frost improves the sweetness of some vegetables, notably the cabbage family. They say to wait until after the frost for the Brussel Sprouts to get tasty.

Some varieties of apple improve with flavor after a frost.

Winter squash seems hardy enough, but actually, a hard frost will hurt the pumpkins, and it is better to get them in storage before that -- if you can tell when the frost is coming.

Why is the frost like a kiss? You don't know when it's coming, but it changes things. And, with an Irish sense of humor, you know that every beautiful thing in life brings us one step closer to the grave.

Think of Orville and Wilbur Wright tinkering in their garage in Dayton Ohio -- not inventing an airplane, not inventing machines that harvest crops more efficiently, but inventing machines and technologies that improve the lot of farm labor.

American farmers are awesome innovators -- I have seen them do that with my own eyes.

Yet they have a blind spot to the comfort of labor, seeming to believe -- "it's hard, it's always been hard, and it will always be hard."

There are a thousand ways to improve the working conditions of the farm worker -- if we decide to focus on that problem.

Most agricultural technologies, beginning with McCormick's reaper in the 1830s, have been "labor-saving" devices, but the main result of these labor-saving devices was to get the workers off the farm and into the big cities to work in giant factories.

We see a different situation today -- an opportunity, if you will -- because so many Americans want to get involved in agriculture. They don't know how hard the work is, but they will find out, and I hope they will not give up, but instead, will finally insist on making the conditions and technology more suitable for the modern worker.

And those improvements will make food more expensive for the American consumer -- a topic I will be glad to address in a future newsletter.

Jane who was reading my Frog Hospital book, came into the farm stand and told me how much she liked my "stream of consciousness."

Well, I tried very hard to put things in an orderly fashion when I wrote the book, but it might only seem orderly to me -- marching forward from point to point and building to a conclusion.

We don't control how other people interpret things we have done. Frog Hospital is widely considered to be "at random."

I guess that's fine. Anyway, Jane is enjoying the book quite a bit.

Subscriptions and Signed Copies of the Frog Hospital Book. It used to be that you sent in $25 and did not get much more than my appreciation, but now you get a signed copy of the Frog Hospital book.

This book is a treasure that will still be worth reading ten years from now.

Send a check for $25 to Fred Owens, Box 1292, LaConner, WA 98257. Or go to the Frog Hospital blog and pay with PayPal.

Fred Owens
cell: 360-739-0214

send mail to:

Fred Owens
Box 1292
LaConner WA 98257

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Farm News from Fred Owens

My friend Karen in Alaska asked me what happened to "Frog Hospital" because she hasn't received one in more than a month.

I told her that I wrote the Frog Hospital newsletter for ten years and then wrote a book with the same title and I guess I am finished with that name and that concept.

So I came up with this very plain alternative -- "farm news" -- because that's where I have been this past month -- working at Hedlin's Farm on the edge of LaConner.

Specifically, I am working at Hedlin's Family Farm Stand selling premium organic vegetables to friends and strangers alike.

This takes up all my time. I can't complain. The farmer hasn't had a day off since April, but he lets me go home once in a while -- like today, for instance, Sunday morning, I'm sitting around the house drinking coffee.

Since this is the farm news, let's start with the weather -- awful, nothing but rain and overcast for several weeks now, which is bad for the sweet corn but good for the crucifers (cabbages and their relatives)

You can't grow sweet corn without heat and sunshine to make those ears pop out. Customers drive up to the farm stand, get out of the car, trudge across the sawdust to the little shed where I stand behind the cash register and ask me plaintively, "Is there any sweet corn?"

No, I tell them, and how many ways can I say that. "No sweet corn today, but we might have some in a few days. We have corn trying to grow out there, but all we can do is hope for it.

"How about some broccoli? We got boucoup broccoli. Heaps of it, luscious and green. The broccoli thrives in this wet weather."

But they want sweet corn, and they trudge back to their cars with their heads hung down.

I want to sing out, "We have cabbages too. Ten pounders. Solid and crisp. You could make enough cole slaw for your entire Bridge Club."

But they leave, heading down the road to some other farm stand, which might have sweet corn. I don't blame them if they want to keep looking, because they get this idea that it's late August and early September and you're supposed to have sweet corn.

But not this year, not in any abundance....

With the rain, as a way to be happy, flowers sales are strong. We are selling bouquets as fast as we can make them. I am learning to love dahlias. They are just astounding -- ranging from light lemon colors all the way to red darker than a bull fight in medieval Spain.

I can pick the zinnias and yarrows when the stand is not busy. These annuals grow right near the stand, so if I hear the crunch of the gravel, meaning a car is here, then I can get back to the stand and wait on the people.

But the dahlias are too far out in the field. I never go there, except last week, I asked Mary if she could cover for me to give me a chance to walk out to the dahlias and see them all. It was wonderful.

Anyway, I need to talk with the boss about this -- I can't hype the farm stand without coordinating with him, and her, and her -- it's a family farm -- so I will stop for now.

Subscriptions and Signed Copies of the Frog Hospital Book. It used to be that you sent in $25 and did not get much more than my appreciation, but now you get a signed copy of the Frog Hospital book.

This book is a treasure that will still be worth reading ten years from now.

Send a check for $25 to Fred Owens, Box 1292, LaConner, WA 98257. Or go to the Frog Hospital blog and pay with PayPal.