Farm update: April 25

Hello, friends. It is the busiest time of the year on the farm and we have ten thousand different projects on at the moment. Here are a few things we’ve been up to lately, if you’d like to see.

Tomato starts before splitting.

The sunroom is packed with hundreds of starts, mostly warm-weather crops like tomatoes and peppers. I’ve started seventeen different tomato varieties this year, some new and some tried and true classics, plus thirteen different peppers ranging from mild and sweet to incendiary. After last year’s pepper bounty, I’m committed to expanding our production of the larger bell peppers; I believed that our growing season was too short for the full-size peppers but 2021 certainly proved me wrong. As always, the vast majority of the plants we grow are from saved open-pollinated seed so that we’re protected from the vagaries of the seed market. That said, I tried starting ‘Sungold’ tomatoes again this year; they’re a hybrid but if you’ve ever tasted these incredible gems, you know exactly why people go mad for them. I’ve obviously grown thousands of tomato plants and consider myself a pretty experienced grower, but three years in a row now my purchased ‘Sungold’ seed has failed to germinate. I contacted the seed company – a reputable Front Range outfit – about the poor germination and have yet to receive a response. Frustrating situations like this are exactly why we save our own seed, because we cannot rely upon companies to provide our food.

We will ship you a free kitten.

We live in an exceptionally impoverished county; a direct consequence of that is an absurd population of stray dogs and cats, because people do not spay or neuter their animals. In late March we unfortunately discovered that a feral cat had chosen our hay barn as a warm, protected nursery; now we have one adult cat and six kittens. While we’re happy to have some assistance in controlling the mouse population, we definitively do not keep any household pets so fate will run its course with this lot. An apocryphal quote attributed to Gandhi reads, “The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.” In this (see also: CAFOs) and in so many other respects, the U.S. is failing entirely.

So pretty! So aggressive! So invasive!

If 2021 was The Year of the Goathead, 2022 looks to be The Year of the Thistle. We’ve written before about cotton thistle (Onopordum acanthium), which is hugely invasive in our area and produces massive, thorny plants that are dangerous to humans and animals. As we work on spring cleaning and tidying around the farm, Thistle Patrol is a key task. If we can dig out the plants by the roots when they’re small, we can prevent them from becoming these treacherous four-foot monsters and of course from spreading seed to produce even more thistles. We travel around with a small shovel at the ready, prepared to vanquish our spiky foe wherever it might be found.

All the little blue tape pieces mark areas that have to be repaired. Sigh.

We are also at work on The World’s Lengthiest and Most Tedious Tiling Project, involving a complicated and not particularly interesting tale of obtuse angles, poorly manufactured countertops, a rickety garage sale tile cutter and many, many other challenges, surprises and obstructions. When (if?) we ever finish this project, it will hopefully look incredible; the road to reach that lofty point, however, still appears long and winding. Also someone in all those DIY YouTube videos should really mention that charcoal grout against white tile shows every chip, imperfection and error. “We didn’t know what we didn’t know” has never seemed so apt; we’ll chalk this one up to hard-won learning.

Will we harvest any fruit this year? Time will tell.

And finally, we’re excited to see blossoms on most of the fruit trees we planted in our first full season here. We of course live in the heart of Colorado’s commercial fruit territory, but the changing climate means that no plant is guaranteed survival any longer. Of late, we’ve endured punishing fifty-mile-per-hour winds plus overnight temperatures in the 20s; the big propane-fueled fans in the surrounding orchards have been on a few times recently in a desperate attempt to save their year’s harvest because these frigid temperatures are devastating for the fragile blossoms. The cherry trees in our area are likely gone for good, thanks to last year’s freeze. Many growers have started culling their delicate peach trees in favor of hardier apples; though peaches sell for far more per pound, the risk of losing the entire crop is also far greater. We are doing our best to adapt to a drier, hotter, windier place and to keep our plants (and ourselves) healthy while doing so.

And with that, we’re back to work! Wishing you a pleasant week ahead.

Hello there

“We are bewildered at what can happen out in the world in such a short time. We are not qualified to make heads nor tails of it all, and it is humbling to be able to do so little in response. However, we do our work of peaceful and close-to-home living as best we can. Try not to depend too much on the larger greedy systems that perpetuate war and its profits. The daily points where our bodies remain connected simply and physically to the Earth still need looking after – food, shelter, warmth, family –  the seeds sown, the wood chopped, the flour ground, the dough mixed.  It’s a blessing to be given the time and space to do those things, thoughtfully and with humility.”

-Barn Owl Bakery, Lopez Island, WA, March 2022

Kale: strong, resilient, nutritious. The plant I aspire to be.

Hello there. We are here, and we hope you are, as well. In a world that feels ever more suffused with madness each passing day – e.g., the IPCC thoughtfully released its latest report three days after the invasion, thereby guaranteeing we will all continue to ignore the existential crisis staring us right in the face while we focus instead on a pointless and devastating and intentionally distracting war – we are planting seeds, tidying winter debris, plowing new beds and generally readying ourselves for another productive growing season at Quiet Farm. Collectively, we’ve careened wildly from one catastrophe to the next over the past two years, and we are all exhausted, drained, sad and anxious. Once again, getting our hands into the soil and quietly producing something real, substantial, edible and nourishing seems far and away the most useful response to the ever-increasing chaos out there.

We hope you, too, will plant something this year. We’ll be back again soon.

A word on seeds

“The best way to oppose a system is often to create something better to replace it.”

Scarlet runner beans, grown mostly to attract hummingbirds but also delicious to eat. Plus the beans are gorgeous.

I read a Wall Street Journal piece recently that really stuck in my craw. The article details the ongoing global supply chain challenges, specifically focusing on the Halloween season:

“Ben Wieber, a 27-year-old professional services consultant in Kalamazoo, Mich., struck out trying to purchase a miniature haunted house in-store to add to his Lemax Spooky Town collection, a line of Halloween-themed animatronic figurines and buildings. He was also broadly disappointed in the amount of Halloween décor available at stores near him.

“I went to Lowe’s, Home Depot, T.J. Maxx, HomeGoods and I’m already seeing Christmas stuff replace the Halloween stuff, which is ridiculous,” Mr. Wieber says. “I’m like, hello? Are we just skipping Halloween this year?”

This appalling anecdote immediately brings to mind two things: 1. Obviously the pandemic is over and 2. Even more obviously the apocalypse is nigh. Late in 2021, after more than eighteen months of crushing loss and death and isolation and sickness and disinformation and loneliness and unrest and economic devastation and fury, we have clearly reached the point at which all of our mental energies – and our time and gas! – can be laser-focused on buying yet another cheap trinket that we don’t need but are angry that we can’t get. I’m like, hello?

We grew spectacular peas this season.

I am particularly caught up in this obsessive need to buy tacky, energy-intensive, disposable, Chinese-made plastic holiday decorations because at the moment, much of my own time and energy is focused on saving seeds from this growing season. We’ve talked about seeds regularly here at FQF HQ, but in the wake of what’s occurred over the past year and a half, and what’s certainly coming down the pipeline (I’m like hello, irreversible climate change!) seeds have taken on a new significance.

Cleaning saved basil seeds is a bit labor-intensive – the seeds are actually those tiny black specks in the lower right – but worth the effort.

To understand why seeds are so essential to human survival, it’s important to understand just how much has changed in only the past century. For about ten thousand years, since the shift from nomadic hunter-gatherer tribal living to established agriculture, humans have saved seeds. No seed companies existed until recently, of course, so the only way to ensure food for the following year was to save seeds from this season’s harvest, and to trade and barter with neighboring farmers for their seeds. Because seeds were so necessary for human survival, they were rarely shipped and therefore didn’t travel long distances; by their very nature, these seeds were perfectly adapted over generations to the unique microclimate of the area in which they were grown. Saving seed is so painfully obvious – the ability to grow food so clearly a basic human right – that it never occurred to small farmers that a seed could be patented as intellectual property, like a song or a book.

The squirrels didn’t steal all of our sunflower seeds this season!

This system worked beautifully until Big Ag wanted in on the action after World War II concluded. To summarize an incredibly complex situation in a few glib words: much of the world’s food supply is now based on patented hybrid and/or GMO seeds. Three large multinational corporations now control over 70% of the world’s seeds, and therefore over 70% of the world’s food. It is illegal under a variety of laws to save and propagate these seeds, and in most cases the seeds won’t breed true anyway. This global movement away from seed sovereignty (“the farmer’s right to breed and exchange diverse open-source seeds which can be saved and which are not patented, genetically modified, owned or controlled by emerging seed giants”) threatens everyone on the planet, yet apparently we’re too busy looking for unavailable Halloween decorations to care about that.

Even now, there are only a handful of seed companies in the U.S.; there used to be thousands, each with their own regional specialties. Buy from Johnny’s or High Mowing and you’ll likely get seeds grown out in Maine or Vermont or somewhere else in New England. They’ll probably produce, yes, but Maine and Vermont are pretty different climactically from the high-plains desert we grow in, and I’d like to have a greater chance at success with seeds adapted to my region. And of course we all remember what happened in the spring of 2020. Seed companies were entirely overwhelmed by demand once it became clear that the pandemic was here to stay, and seeds weren’t available anyway; if they did arrive, it was long after planting season. I’m simply not willing to stake my household’s food security on the rickety scaffolding of unprepared seed companies, global panic and the USPS.

Onion seeds are easy to harvest and save, but they must be collected before they’re wind-dispersed.

Back in September, the U.N. – an utterly useless pretend mafia of pompous self-important incompetent blowhards, if you want to know my real opinion – convened the first Food Systems Summit, which was theoretically designed to “determine the future of agriculture.” Yet the small farmers who actually grow the majority of the world’s food were not offered a seat at the table. Instead, in a move surprising to precisely no one, the loudest and most prominent voices were those of Big Ag and Big Pharma, mainly companies who have committed grievous biopiracy by patenting landrace seeds and inventing GMO crops that threaten both the planet and human health. Dear United Nations: Praising Monsanto/Bayer for its breathless promises to cure global hunger – an issue it directly causes AND profits from – by patenting seeds is like praising Jeff Bezos for his commitment to solving climate change. In effect, you don’t win a prize for claiming to “fix” a problem that you directly helped create (and made billions along the way!).

All this is to say: convening a bunch of billionaires – who have probably never grown a single tomato in their lives – in some sparkly ballroom in some fancy city far from any actual agriculture isn’t likely to solve the world’s food problems. And for that reason, hundreds of food sovereignty organizations, indigenous and smallholder farmer groups, and scientists boycotted the U.N. summit, and rightfully so. It is absurd to think that Big Ag and Big Pharma would have even the slightest interest in working in tandem with small farmers on improving food systems; their respective interests are entirely at odds. Seed companies don’t make money if people save their own seeds! To maintain the very profitable status quo, power must be kept in the hands of the few, and making seed saving illegal (and useless, in the case of GMOs and hybrids) is one very effective way to maintain that power. (These corporations would still do well to remember the other side of the coin: most revolutions start when people are hungry.)

Be careful with cayenne pepper seeds – gloves are recommended!

It is so easy to feel entirely hopeless and dejected in the face of the world’s mounting problems, and to feel as though our own actions don’t count in the slightest. It doesn’t matter that we conscientiously sort our recycling and bring it to the drop-off center; virtually all of America’s “recycling” is actually dumped straight into the landfill. It doesn’t matter that we don’t use A/C or heat in our house, and instead try to maintain comfort with fresh air and warm sweaters; most of the country is now accustomed to perfectly-calibrated indoor temperatures requiring vast amounts of energy. What does matter, however, is our seed bank. Saving our own heirloom, open-pollinated seeds, and sharing them widely with other growers in our area, actually makes a difference. That classic question about what you’d save in case of a fire? It’s a real consideration where we live, and our small, compact, lightweight, portable seed bank would be at the top of the list. With those seeds, we can feed ourselves, and there is no greater human accomplishment than self-reliance.

Marigolds always remind me of our travels in India.

We save seeds here at Quiet Farm because we want control over our own food supply. We save seeds because we want to share seeds and encourage others to grow food. We save seeds because we want to steward unique, rare varieties of plants that grow well in our challenging climate. We save seeds because we believe the only way to reasonably face climate change is through adaptation. We save seeds because we do not believe that Big Ag and Big Pharma have our best interests at heart. We save seeds because anyone can claim to be an ‘activist’ while not actually doing anything – but stewarding a seed bank is a tangible, useful, productive way to protest against our rapidly dwindling power as small farmers. We save seeds because it matters.

So save your seeds, friends. You might well need them someday. And save your animatronic haunted houses too – apparently they have some value on the resale market. Try Ben in Michigan.

Kale typically only sets seed after its second growing season here.

P.S. If you’re in our area (or even if you’re not!) and you’d like to learn more about saving seeds, please consider joining the Rocky Mountain Seed Alliance,  “a nonprofit organization working to assure an abundant and diverse supply of local seeds for the Rocky Mountain region through education, networking, and establishing community-based models of seed stewardship.”

Farm update: January 25

Hello there, and how are things in your world? We’re still in the slower season here at Quiet Farm, but we’re starting to think about spring planting and other farm tasks on our to-do list. The biggest issue on our minds right now is definitely water, or lack thereof – it’s been far too warm and dry this winter, with very little snow. We need about twenty feet of snowpack on the Grand Mesa in order to have decent irrigation run-off in spring and summer, and right now we have two feet – or ten percent of what we need. We are hoping for an exceptionally wet spring, but to be honest it’s looking as though our “extraordinary drought conditions” will persist, which likely means more wildfires, too. With that concern front and center, we’re always thinking of ways we can use the water we do have more efficiently.

We love our local library’s seed bank!

We are huge fans of the Delta County Library system, which does yeoman’s work on a painfully limited budget. In years past we’ve attended “seed-sorting parties” in late winter to help the library prepare its extensive seed bank for the spring growing season. Obviously we cannot gather in person at the moment, so the library managed a perfect pivot and created take-home kits for volunteers. Each kit contained donated seeds (we received bolita beans, marigolds and pink hollyhock) and we sorted and packaged the seeds into individual labeled envelopes. Local gardeners are encouraged to “check out” seeds in spring, grow out the crop, then collect and return seeds to the library in autumn to share with other gardeners. The seed library has been going strong in Delta County since 2013; this program not only encourages seed-saving, but also provides an incredible wealth of locally-adapted seeds and helps build our foodshed’s sovereignty. A task like this is well worth our time.

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Gone to seed

We talk a lot about saving seeds here at FQF, and since fall is definitely underway, they’re on our minds more than ever at the moment. In addition to all of our canning and preserving projects and other preparations for winter, collecting and storing seeds is a big part of our autumn task list.

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Collect your sunflower seeds before the birds and squirrels do!

We use the idiom “go to seed” to refer to someone or something that’s let itself go. It’s become messy or unattractive or disheveled or unkempt; it no longer appears tidy and neat. It’s obviously a phrase of agricultural origin, and this is the time of year when it takes on significance in the garden, as most annuals are coming to the end of their natural lives. In their quest to reproduce, the plants have gone to seed: typically they flower first, then the flowers produce seeds, which are spread by wind, insects, animals or human intervention.

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Lettuces are one of the easiest plant families from which to save seeds.

It’s unfortunate, truly, that so many gardeners are offended by the appearance of plants gone to seed, and especially in perfectly manicured suburban settings are likely to rip plants out at the first sign of flowering. Letting plants proceed through their natural life cycle teaches you a lot about botany and helps you become a better grower. Plus, if you’re careful and diligent, you can start building your own unique seed bank, which will both save you money and improve plant diversity.

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Gardening for beginners

The aftermath of both September 11 and the 2008 economic collapse brought a renewed interest in home gardening, and our current catastrophe looks to be no different. Garden centers have started operating online, seed companies are back-ordered for the foreseeable future and lots of people are reviewing their HOA regulations and eyeing available space in their suburban backyards. While it might not be practical to expect a backyard garden to provide all necessary food for a standard American family (how do you grow dinosaur-shaped chicken nuggets, anyway?), gardening offers an active yet meditative experience, an immense sense of satisfaction and self-sufficiency, and a deeper appreciation for how much work it takes to grow food. With that in mind, we offer a few basic tips for people looking to start their own garden.

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The current seed-starting set-up in our sunroom, expanding by the day.

Start small, and plant what you’ll actually eat. In moments of stress or panic (or when we suddenly have an unexpected amount of free time on our hands) we might be tempted to dig up our entire backyard and start an urban farm. This is great in theory, but if you’ve never grown a single basil plant before, we highly recommend that you start small – maybe just a couple of herb pots or a tidy little container garden on a sunny patio. It’s easy to think big and abundant, but when things return (somewhat) to normal, whenever that may be, you may not have the necessary time to devote to your garden. You can always expand if it turns out you love growing food.

Also in the interest of keeping things manageable, plant what you’ll actually eat. I’ve decided this year that I’m no longer going to devote precious garden space to eggplant, because although we don’t hate it, we don’t love it, either. And our vegetable real estate is exceedingly valuable – more so every year – and I want to plant things we adore, like tomatoes and peppers and interesting culinary herbs. When you’re choosing what you’ll grow, make sure you have a selection of vegetables and herbs that are relevant to your household, and if possible, try one new variety that you’ve never eaten before.

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Starting seeds

Welcome to March! Our spring is shaping up to be a bit too premature and a bit too warm and a bit too dry for our liking; we’d like to see quite a lot more moisture. This time last year, we still had at least four inches of snowpack on the ground; this year, zilch. Also last year, we were adorable, eager, optimistic, first-year farmers, and we started our seeds way too early. This year, we’re hardened, grizzled veterans, so we know better. And next year? Watch out.

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If you’re going to grow anything outside, the single most important piece of information you need is your average first and last frost date. This statistic is pretty much exactly what it sounds like; weather stations all over the country send data to the USDA, which in turn calculates average first and last frost dates. These dates are essential because most (but not all) annual food crops will not tolerate freezing temperatures.

Here at Quiet Farm, our average last frost is May 13, and our average first frost is October 4 for a 143-day growing season; this means we’re almost assured not to have frost between these dates. Keep in mind, however, that this is an average, not a guarantee – you’re safer assuming that frost is possible one to two weeks on either side of these dates. (The location of weather stations varies widely and can sometimes be inaccurate, so check where your closest weather station is located to ensure you’re getting the best information. Plus, the climate emergency is totally destroying the consistency and reliability of these dates. It’s all pretty much guesswork from here on out.)

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Save our seeds

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Our first hard frost is forecast this week, so there is much to be done. In addition to lots of canning and preserving, autumn on a small homestead means saving seeds. We’ve talked about the importance of seed saving previously, and each season we’re working on expanding our seed bank. Never before has it been so important to save our own seeds and thereby take responsibility for our own food supply; as seed companies are again and again snapped up by massive agrochemical conglomerates, our control of our own seeds – our fundamental birthright, and the source of our food supply – becomes ever more tenuous.

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Most lettuces and other salad greens encase their seeds in little windblown puffballs.

As I wrote in our previous seed post, “Today, nearly three-quarters of all seeds planted in the U.S. – both unmodified and genetically engineered varieties – are privately owned and controlled by three large agrichemical corporations. Growing food is a basic human right, and we are quickly moving towards a future in which we will no longer own the source of our food. Lack of food leads to hunger, which leads to unrest, which leads to revolution, which leads to profitable wars benefitting those same corporations. Building our own seed banks, even if technically illegal, means we still have some say in our food supply. Seed saving is a small but powerful act of resistance.”

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The FAQ Series: Tomatoes

People think of tomatoes as a summer crop – as in June and July summer. And perhaps you live in a Magical Land of Elves and Unicorns (hello, Florida and southern California!) where field-grown tomatoes are available virtually year-round. Here in western Colorado, however, field-grown tomatoes don’t come on strong until August and September – but of course all the food blogs and magazines are telling us that it’s now time for apple cider and winter squash and pumpkin spice everything. It’s a confusing period, this shoulder season.

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Seed packets offer plenty of information – and if it’s an heirloom, they’ll be sure to mention it.

There is no debate that tomatoes are the star of the garden. They’re by far the most popular crop for home gardeners as well as the biggest seller at farmers’ markets, and more tomatoes are grown each year than any other fruit in the world – including apples and bananas. There are more than twenty thousand known varieties of tomatoes, and new cultivars are developed every year.

Like the word organic, the word heirloom gets thrown around a lot in reference to tomatoes. But what is an heirloom tomato, exactly? And why do they cost five dollars a pound?

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Farm update: April 8

QF Purple Flowers 01 sml

The hills are alive…with weeds! But we call them “wildflowers.”

The snow is finally gone at this elevation, even though plenty can still be seen on the mesa. Our pasture is coming back with a vengeance, and we spend our days walking the land, looking at what plants are coming up and trying to decide whether they’re helpful or harmful to us. Since we bought Quiet Farm at the end of a blistering summer in the midst of a hundred-year drought, pretty much everything was crispy and dormant. We hadn’t yet determined what bushes and trees might survive, and what would need to be removed. We’re giving everything a generous opportunity to stage a spring comeback before we tear it out.

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