“Perfect is the enemy of good.”
UNTIL LAST YEAR, I had never sat on, let alone owned or operated a tractor. I had never been in a barn and could not have told you the difference between a Root Cellar and a Milk Parlor. Then we bought a farm. The mistakes I’ve made – so far – would fill a book, let alone a short story. They call it “Experiential Learning”, ha!
In our first year, besides my garlic encounter – which I’ll get to shortly – I have broken my new tractor and implements too many times to count. I’ve crippled my Kubota ATV unnecessarily (including a small branch that punctured the electrical cables) and famously got it stuck in the swamp for 48 hours with water up to the pedals. Our friend’s friend then got his raised 4WD V10 Silverado stuck in the same muck. After almost decapitating our electrician/friend Brian when the tow-rope broke on the tractor while trying to pull the Chevy out, we finally got a tow truck the next day and pulled everything out. I felt like an idiot for getting it stuck in the first place.
Note to others, Italian design is great for suits and fashion, but not so much for industrial-grade tractor implements for the newbie farmer. Not knowing what I didn’t know, I bought a Gaspardo Sickle Blade (see picture, I had never heard of one). This seven-foot dangerous beast was even more temperamental than my own moods! It was eventually traded in for a Brush Hog (another new term for me) – essentially a five-foot wide giant rotary farm-mower. I broke those blades more than once on rocks, logs and stupidity. Same for our new industrial-grade Cub Cadet lawn-mower we bought to complement the giant tractor blades.
At first the Cub was super satisfying and fun. It’s a ‘Zero-Turn’ mower, with a comfortable seat and cold adult beverage holder. Michelle would say I looked (momentarily) happy out there mowing with the headphones on. It didn’t take me long to figure out why the Cubs are so great on golf courses. There aren’t any hidden boulders, logs, or mesh wire hazards to hit and break your mower.
A couple of times, it was all me. I nonchalantly ran over our flexi-hose which got fantastically wrapped around the belts and blades and put it out of commission – the first, but not the last occasion.
Plus, to make it more aggravating and expensive, it’s not like your car or push-mower that you can drive to the repair shop. Until we get a pick-up truck and trailer, we have to pay the companies to come pick it up and return.
I wasn’t much better on power tools that should be indestructible. While I love my Ryobi battery-powered multi-purpose weed-whacker/edger/trimmer, I’m on my third or fourth after finding a way to destroy components through always different ways.
I always considered myself a decent small-scale gardener, but this is different. In the covered greenhouse, I swore to many that the tallish plant growing amidst the rest of the artichokes, was indeed an artichoke. Until it became several feet tall, and I had to acknowledge it was a sunflower. Yes, the yellow and black flower gave it away eventually. Worse, now I know a number of the starts we sold in the early weeks of the Farmer’s Market were mislabeled. Some melons were sunflowers. Some peppers might have been tomatoes. One time, I think we accidentally sold parsley instead of cilantro. In my pepper patch, what should have been serranoes, were not. Tomatillos, it turns out, look nothing like them. Rabbits ate the few pumpkins and squash that grew despite my irregular weeding, feeding and watering. Slugs hungrily devoured my young and tender cabbages. No matter what, my carrots wouldn’t grow properly. (Thinning, looser soil and nutrients might have helped!)
Sadly, dozens and dozens of starts died – until I got a better method going and learned about better planting techniques – and also that the main greenhouse has its own micro-climates.
The Upside-Down Garlic planting is an instant classic mess-up, for missing one important bit of the directions. Our ambition is to sell from seed to start to produce, eventually getting our license to sell salsas, sauces, pickles, relish and related. We’re working then to focus more on the tomatoes, onions, cucumbers, peppers, cilantro/dill for these products and our own-grown garlic is important in most of our planned recipes. I did (most) everything right. I ordered the bulbs from an organic, specialty garlic growing farm back in Wisconsin and read the directions several times over before even starting the planting process. It’s a tedious and laborious deal – like most everything on a farm. Several pounds of growable garlic yielded about fifty bulbs that needed to be carefully separated into around five hundred viable cloves. After that, they must be specially sterilized in a prescribed solution, dried and then fertilized overnight in another custom nutrient-rich soup. Of course, first one must carefully prepare the raised beds with proper soil, drainage, spacing, food, light and all the essential ingredients.
I felt ready. With some classic rock blaring on my portable speaker, I happily made hundreds of indented holes where the cloves would begin their six-plus-month journey to maturity. One-by-one, I carefully put each in their new beds, paying attention to having the early green sprouts growing towards the ground; thinking they were the roots(?). While they got plenty of sun and water, I was worried when I saw nothing growing above ground but thought that was normal. Not. Garlic takes time, right? A month or so later, I was planting some Gladiolas that Michelle had suggested and again after carefully reading the directions, I stopped when I saw the phrase, “plant with Pointy Side Up”. “Oh crap”, I thought, “I didn’t plant the garlic upside down did i?”.
When I confessed later to Michelle, she asked, as I had also thought naively, “if they could turn themselves right-side up?” The answer, friends, is no. I wasted money, hours of time, water, resources and well, now it’s funny. The gladiolas came up great though!
I got back on the Garlic Bike and read up, talked to some people and I just planted our 2023 crop of garlic, hopefully pointing the right way. Learning from others, I found Hardneck to be our best option and “Music” as the variety of choice. They’ve been in the ground now for a couple of weeks and the early shoots give me some confidence for a good yield in the late spring/early summer. Until then, the chilly winter will harden them and make them stronger and more vigorous in the warm months that hopefully follow here in the Pacific Northwest.
On the other hand, I am kind of proud of us getting accepted into the prestigious Olympia Farmers Market and the season we just concluded and our successful growth, sale, harvesting and edible food that we’ve grown and sold from just little seeds. I can’t tell you, or maybe some of you know already as gardeners, how satisfying it is to pluck that tomato off its bush and taste the intricate flavors that are not evident in store-bought. When I have time to reflect, I think of the succulents I propagated, that were purchased from us, with many of them given names from the young (and old) folks that acquired them for their windowsills. The pleasure of having a repeat customer at the Market saying how well their pepper plants are doing and wanting to buy more and learn our tips and tricks is pretty cool. Growers tend to share more on what’s not working than what is – without competition – we’re all just trying to help each other grow.
In my experience so far, being a “farmer” is like being a salesperson. In my past corporate life, we’d complain that only about 10-20% of our time was actually spent selling, while the rest were business reviews, forecasts, account plans, managing, traveling, and political maneuverings to stay employed. (Thank goodness this was before mandatory Zoom video conference calls, yuck!) Like everyone, though, I always got energy from being with partners or customers, even if it was joint problem solving, as it often was.
Now, I’ve come to expect my farm-life to be interrupt-driven and to be a daily problem-solver. I’ve tried to be a plumber (terrible), electrician (scary), mechanic (sigh), landscaper, garbageman, pest-controller, painter, and 24/7 handy-man. My parents said I’d be a ditch digger if I didn’t go to school … I’m a degree-holding ditch digger – and honestly, I’ve never been happier.
Michelle says I’m the happiest and most at peace when I have my hands in the soil; and it’s true. There are times we can sit back and be proud of what we’ve accomplished as late-in-life AARP farmers. When we’ve closed for the day at the Market, and fifty or more starts or succulents have been sold, the cash-box is a bit fuller, and our bins are emptier is a pretty nice moment We always end up however talking on the way home on what we can do better next time. But knowing my ‘babies’ are off to good homes is a special feeling of satisfaction. (I tell prospective buyers that the cacti are up for “adoption” and looking for “good homes”, and I really feel that way.)
I have always had tremendous appreciation for tradespeople, but exponentially more now. No offense to my networking techie friends and colleagues, but when the stuff hits the fan – like when the sump pump under your house stops working and starts flooding – no one is more valuable than someone who has experience. I’ve always thought of myself as a decent “utility player”; one who could play multiple positions such as sales, marketing, partners, development or general management, and I think that’s a good mindset to have as a farmer. I’ll still continue to make mistakes, missteps and errors (as I did in my corporate world), but like that universe, I’ll continue to learn a little more each day from others and from doing and accepting that growing is not like writing code. One writes a program, and you’ll know if it has fixable bugs, and it most often does what you tell the system and software to execute.
Growing garlic, or anything on the farm is like Sales. It is for sure an art and a science. You have to do the basic things right (side-up!), pay attention to the minute details, and also knowing Forecasts to Plan are never going to be perfect. Just like the incalculable variables in developing, selling, installing and maintaining a complex technology network, growing at scale takes time and patience. (In fact, underground mycorrhizal fungi networks are thought to intelligently connect trees, bushes and plants over wide-area distances.).
While I hope to not make the same mistakes twice (or several times in some cases), I’m undeterred. The harder the challenge, the more we’re motivated to get better. I just hope it doesn’t take 10,000 hours. But it probably will.