It’s September 2011 and Mandy and I just arrived at the farm and we need to make beds enough for 3,000 strawberry plants in virgin pasture. I was no farmer and I really had no idea what a task that would be with just a walk behind tiller, some shovels, rakes and hoes. It took a solid week of 12 hour days to get the earth loosened up, the lines straight, beds elevated, grass raked out, irrigation laid, mulch rolled out, stretched tight, and covered with dirt to hold it tight on the bed for the next 9 months.
I’ll spare you the rest of the details, but if you are starting a farm, trust me, it’s worth taking a loan out to get a tractor, tiller, and a bed shaper. We were too stubborn to begin valuing our time enough to do this until our 3rd year. There’s a big difference between “we can do this” and “we should do this” and that lesson got burned deep into us. Grit and determination are attributes until they pass the point of diminishing returns and become pride, ignorance, and futility. What took us about 168 hours of work, would now take about 8 hours with the tractor and implements.
Young farmers. Your best chance at success is to learn how to increase efficiencies in every process. Step back. Challenge your bias. Is there a better/faster/more efficient way to do this? There most likely is.
Back to the strawberry fields though. The beds are made and we just unloaded 3,000 bare root strawberry plants from the back of our truck. We bought bare root starts, because they were cheaper and we had no income for the next 7 months or so (until the strawberries came in) and things were already tight. A lot was riding on these plants.
We spend the whole day squatting, kneeling, hunching over, poking holes in the plastic with our fingers, spreading the soil apart, slipping the bare roots into the earth, and squeezing the soil back around them. Mandy is way better at this then I am. She plants twice as many as me. My lower back is on fire in the first half hour. None of this is normal. It all hurts like hell, but….. commitment, determination, the greater good, a sprinkle of desperation…. all drive me forward.
It’s almost 4 oclock and I’m a rag doll in need of Advil. The last plant is in the ground and they all look horrible. Everything is limp and struggling and the sun has been beating hot on all of us the whole day. We frantically look for an explanation and discover to our terror that bare root strawberries require a constant shower of overhead water for 12-24 hours upon planting or they will die. Our irrigation is all drip irrigation. We have no sprinklers. There’s a 3rd of an acre of berries that needs constant rain to survive and it’s sunny and hot. Mandy calls an irrigation place in Watkinsville and they say they have the parts. She runs around for the next hour and a half with a hose trying to keep the plants alive, while I print out Mapquest (no smart phones for another 3 years) and race the 45 minute drive to get there before they close.
Just making it by the skin of my teeth, I get overhead sprinklers and tubing, zip ties and fittings and race back home trying to read Mapquest backwards on country roads that are all foreign to me. Mandy is running around still spraying plants, while I fashion 5 foot stakes to drive into the ground, put sprinklers on top with zip ties and run all sorts of irrigation and fittings to each one and eventually turn everything on. We have to move everything repeatedly until we get the right amount of overlap to get most of the plants. The water pressure isn’t enough to get all of them. so we end up losing hundreds of plants right off the bat. On the bright side though, we ended up saving about 2,500 plants. Skin of teeth. I collapse to the ground.
There’s another problem. Deer love strawberry plants and our field is adjacent to the state park. On any given night there’s 20-30 deer within spitting distance. We start to put up an electric fence immediately. When we finish by the next evening, it had started to rain hard. We were drenched, the ground was soaked, and we had no idea if the thing even worked. Lacking the proper testing instrument, I was volunteered as a substitute. Let’s just say that the rumors are true. Electricity does travel better through a wet conductor. The fence worked (for awhile).
For the rest of the Fall, I would wake up to find the bed empty. We had moles burrowing through our strawberries and pushing up soil. Mandy spent every morning literally walking barefoot in tiny steps around every single plant, to re-compact the soil around the roots of the plants, so they wouldn’t lose contact with food and water and die on us. She barely slept.
When the weather got cold, we would cover all the plants with insulative fabric to keep the flowers from freezing. Often, the winds were high on these nights. It was like trying to cover plants with a 150’ long kite in 30 mph winds, in the dark, with temps at 18 degrees. Needless to say it was extremely difficult and when you’d finally finish, you’d go back to find the first few beds had already been ripped off by the winds. I do not miss those times at all. Our only sale in the next half year was $60 in bamboo to 5&10 and I can’t tell you how good it felt to actually sell something. We dumpster dived for food that year. We couldn’t afford much in the way of groceries, so Mandy learned to bake bread and we ate a lot of it. The whole farm idea was a hail mary pass and it wouldn’t take much for us to drop the ball. It was like walking a tightrope. I do not miss the rawness and adrenaline and stress of that first year.
The certified kitchen (for making Honeypops, jams, and syrups) was almost built and the berry plants were flowering. The first farmer’s market was getting close. Anticipation and adrenaline filled the air we breathed. Could strawberries pull us through? Would they be any good? Can we actually find a way to make popsicles without an $8,000 dollar machine we can’t afford?
Again I’ve run long, so this is to be continued next week. Have a great weekend!