Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Nature is party to all our deals and decisions

Last Thursday began like many others here on the farm: rooster crowing, coffee brewing, vests and hats to brace against the early morning spring chill, and a team meeting to set the pace for the day.

But a breathtaking sight faced our staff when they emerged from the office and made their way down to the fields.

In a freak overnight windstorm / microburst / tornado / giant beast attack, our beloved high tunnel -- just completed this summer -- had been utterly destroyed. A mass of mangled metal, unruly wire, and shredded plastic sat in its place, the chaos a stark contrast to the neat, orderly (completely unharmed) rows of baby lettuce on the ground below.

You can see more photos of the damage (and a video) on Flickr.

Strangely, everything else on the farm was in its right place, no trees down, no other tunnels damaged, rain gauges practically empty. We're still not sure exactly what happened.

In light of recent world events, the loss of our high tunnel is a minor inconvenience, we know. More than anything else, we are thankful that no one was hurt and that nothing else on the farm was damaged.

But clearly it is still a loss -- while it produced nearly 500 pounds of spring mix during its lifetime, it had not yet covered the costs of construction -- and it remains a harsh reminder that farming is always, ultimately, at the mercy of nature's whims.

So, farewell high tunnel. Thank you for the delicious, tender greens you helped us grow, and the food and warmth you provided for us even through the coldest winter months.

Now, on to scavenge the salvageables from your wreckage, keep calm, and carry on.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Hello, Holly!

Hello fellow Local Food Hub enthusiasts! My name is Holly, and I am one of the apprentices here at Maple Hill Farm. This is the first of many of my cameo appearances here on the blog, providing you with updates on what we’re up to out here, and to share my experiences as I learn the challenges and triumphs of growing food.

A little about me: Originally from southwest Virginia, I graduated from Clemson University last year with a degree in International Public Health and Spanish, and a minor in Anthropology. If you’re anything like my friends and family, you’re probably thinking, “Well, Holly, what the heck are you doing on a farm?!”

Throughout college I became increasingly fascinated with food – the culture, community, and tastes that it generated – and I buried myself in books ranging from farmer memoirs to food anthropology textbooks. It soon became obvious that the maxim “think globally, act locally” had more meaning than I realized, and that if I was going to learn much more about my local food system I needed to put down the books and put my hands in the soil. I needed to grow that stuff that I am, literally, made from. So here I am, three weeks into my apprenticeship. First lesson: turns out you don’t have to give up the books to get the dirty fingernails.

Here at Maple Hill, we have been hustling, shifting the farm from winter hibernation to spring awakening. Our greenhouse is bursting to life; we have sowed thousands and thousands of seeds over the past few weeks. Watching germination in the “seedling halfway house” is a thrill, another step in the miracle that is food production! My fellow apprentices and I have worked a great deal in the fields cleaning up the perennial beds that gathered dead leaves and weeds over their winter holiday. We weeded and prepped over a ¼ acre plot of asparagus, and expect their delicious heads to be peering out of the soil any day now. The raspberry and blackberry patch puzzle has been solved, and what was once a dark, thick muddle of limbs and thorns is now thinned, pruned, and ready to begin its work toward summer fruiting in earnest.

Our work on the farm has not been all cleaning and weeding – we have also harvested hundreds of pounds of lettuce mix and spinach that were “overwintered,” meaning they were grown in the field under high and low tunnels. These tunnels are “season extenders” and made of plastic, which allow farmers to cultivate food when the outdoor growing season is over because of cold. I am amazed that fresh, stunningly green nutrient-filled veggies are able to grow in the dead of winter.

As you know, we have a huge flock of chickens here on the farm. We have just increased their number by 75 more Long Island Reds, bringing our chicken grand total to two hundred. Those hens are a handful – they are rather young, the equivalent of wily chicken teenagers, and have provided me with a crash course in chicken wrangling and a sincere test of patience. They have recently begun laying eggs for our Local Food Hub customers, so you all will soon be able to buy their protein-packed marvels in your markets.

Working on Maple Hill Farm has been a grand new experience for me – although I have helped my family grow our vegetable garden for years, I have never been as immersed in farming quite like this. At times I get a bit overwhelmed at the scale of the task – four acres is a handful for five people to manage.  

But as I work elbow-to-elbow with my coworkers and farm managers, it becomes obvious that we can prevail over the challenges and achieve our food growing mission, one day at a time. I am lucky to have the support of the Local Food Hub team, and for the guidance and wisdom from Steve and Adri, our fearless farm leaders. And we are all fortunate to have you -- our supportive local food community.

Welcome to the season, readers! It is surely going to be delectable.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Stick a Fork in It: Lunch Line Movie Screening

On June 4, 2011, the National School Lunch program will turn 65. Signed into law by Harry Truman in 1946, the program now provides low-cost or free lunches to over 31 million children daily. While opinions certainly vary on the quality of these lunches, one fact remains: the program has the immense potential to address very real issues of hunger, nutrition and obesity for America's littlest eaters.

On Friday, March 25th a local coalition in Charlottesville will host a screening of Lunch Line, a documentary film that details the history of the school lunch program, followed by an exciting panel discussion that will explore what kinds of solutions exist and how you can help bring them to your school. Panelists include local school nutrition directors, UVA professors, a state representative, and even a leading school lunch-focused journalist!

Now is the chance to have your voice heard! Join the conversation and get involved!

What: Lunch Line screening and panel discussion
When: March 25, 6:30pm
Where: MLK PAC
How: Free and open to the public
RSVP: on Facebook, or just show up!

Panelist include:
Ed Bruske, chef, journalist, blogger and author of the Cafeteria Confidential column on Grist.
Alicia Cost, Charlottesville City Schools Nutrition Services Dept. Registered Dietician
Andrea Early, Director of School Nutrition Harrisonburg City Schools
Charles Green, Dir. Marketing & Development, VA Dept of Agriculture & Consumer Services 

Matt Trowbridge, Assistant Professor of Emergency Medicine UVA School of Medicine

Moderated by Tanya Denckla-Cobb, UVA Prof. Urban & Environmental Planning, author of "The Gardener's A-to-Z Guide to Growing Organic Food"

To whet your appetite, check out this trailer for Lunch Line:

Lunch Line Trailer from uji films on Vimeo.

This special screening is made possible by the following event partners and sponsors:
Local Food Hub
Blue Ridge Backyard Harvest
VMDO Architects
Univ. of Virginia Food Collaborative
City Schoolyard Garden Project
Cville School Food Initiative
Slow Food Albemarle-Piedmont
A Pimento Catering
Whole Foods Market Charlottesville

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Take a Gander at All That Green

If you've poked your head in our greenhouse lately, then you know it's packed to the gills with thousands of baby seedlings (and seedlings-to-be). And, thanks to some help from the CACF Future Fund volunteers, soon there will be even more!

Last year at this time, our greenhouse production was probably a third of what it is right now. In fact, we weren't even heating the whole thing. We just built a mini-greenhouse inside and heated it with electric space heaters. Now that's what I call ingenuity.

So why all the green this year? Glad you asked!  There are a couple of new projects that we'd like to tell you about:
  1. Most importantly, we're getting started much earlier this year. If you'll recall, 2010 was our first year on the farm — and we didn't even move in until March! This year we've had all winter to plan and prepare, and we made good use of that time.

  2. We also have a new farmer to tell you about! Brian Moss, one of our apprentices from last season, is returning in 2011 as a senior apprentice. That means he'll be working his own small farm on our property. Lots of the seedlings you see in our greenhouse are actually his. We like to think the senior apprenticeship program is the perfect next step for a young farmer in Virginia. Expect to  hear more about Mossy Acre in the coming weeks and months!

  3. We like to share. Not all of our partnering farms have access to a greenhouse, and even if they do, we know that heating it can be pricey. At the same time, getting a jump on plant production early in the season can be a major boost to farm income. So we thought, since we're already heating ours, why not add some plant starts for our farmers and then give them away for free? And that's just what we're doing.

  4. Finally, Save the Date! Lots of these seedlings will be for our plant sale and open house on May 7, 2011. Pick up some veggie and flower starts for your home garden (or as a eco-friendly Mother's Day present), tour the farm, have a picnic, take a free class or two, and join in some volunteer projects. It's going to be a family-friendly, action packed day.
So that's the scoop on the green. How's your garden planning coming along?

Friday, March 4, 2011

The Cheese Stands Alone

Spring is coming, and so is the chevre!  Get ready to take advantage of the amazing cheeses we have here in Virginia by signing up for Planet to Plate: A Study in Slow Food (Goat Cheese).  Designed and taught by Local Food Hub staffer, Lisa Reeder, this mini-course is a lighthearted way to focus on a locally grown or produced food while highlighting the people who work hard to make it available.

Lisa will be joined for one session by owner/cheesemaker Gail Hobbs-Page of Caromont Farm, and together they will lead a focused tasting of Gail's cheeses and some of their early spring accompaniments (think asparagus, strawberries and spinach, to name a few).

Students will learn the history and heritage of goat cheese (seasonality, craftsmanship, animal husbandry, and land stewardship), as well as gain insight into small-scale dairy farming in Virginia and its challenges. And did we mention there's a field trip?

This is Lisa's second Planet to Plate offering. Last fall, the course focused on the apple, and culminated in a tasting trip to Vintage Virginia Apples for an introduction to the Shelton family and their newest endeavor, Albemarle CiderWorks.

Lisa's dream for local food? To make Central Virginia's food heritage and culture available to everyone -- and to celebrate its deliciousness every day. 'Planet to Plate' classes are appropriate for all age and learning levels, so grab a kid who says they don't like goat cheese or a friend who is curious about joining Slow Food Albemarle Piedmont, and join in the fun.

For more of Lisa's adventures in local food and drink, check out her blog, A Local Notion.

When: Mondays, 7-9pm. Mar 28-Apr 11
Where: UVa School of Continuing and Professional Studies, Zehmer Hall, Lounge
Price: $100
Register: www.scps.virginia.edu | (434) 982-2779

image credit: regard 1400/Creative Commons