A running joke on the farm this Spring has been a quote from none other than the Mattress King. In a recent NPR interview, the Mattress King, who as part of an advertising scheme for his business made a losing bet of 1.2 million dollars on the favored horse for the Kentucky Derby offered this wisdom upon losing. “After I got over the quick punch to the gut I remembered resilience. I firmly believe that every setback is an opportunity for a comeback!” While this nugget of wisdom seems questionable coming from a man who has the privilege to flippantly bet 1.2 million dollars it has been our only option to live by in a spring season filled with adversity. Every setback is an opportunity for a comeback.
We began the spring aware of some of the immense challenges in front of us. We knew that we would not be able to grow any produce on our original space at 4th Reformed Church. We would be without the soil, the irrigation, the drain tile and all of the tunnels we had established over an eight year period. Over 50% of the produce we grew last year came from our location at 4th. We spent January and February finishing our new propagation greenhouse at the Farmhouse which we put up in the snow the week before Christmas in 2022. We then waited for the snow to melt so we could begin dismantling the nine tunnels that still remained at 4th. Over three weeks in March, in on and off snow and with the help of a rented excavator and moving van, we were able to disassemble and move over 600 hoops and transport them to our new location at Plainsong Farm in Rockford. We were able to rebuild two of these nine tunnels ahead of our April 1 plant date for our spring shares.
But we encountered an unexpected detour. Our largest tunnel at our other growing site at GVSU was due to be planted on April 1 as well, but it was consistently under water and unable to be planted. So we had to quickly pivot our tunnel building efforts to drainage work. We rented an excavator again and spent a week digging ditches around the property so we could get the tunnel to drain properly.
We then expected to resume tunnel building at Plainsong but it was clear we had a new problem. While GVSU and its clay soil was flooded with water, Plainsong and its sandy soil was too dry. While we were aware that the irrigation system that Plainsong had in place would not be sufficient for us in the long term, we had hoped we could make due with it for this season. But the system that was in place could only water one drip line at a time (each tunnel had six lines, six lines times nine tunnels would be 54 lines). With this level of irrigation we would need a full time person to simply turn water off and on all season long. So once again we had to make a pivot. We rented a trencher and a tractor and spent two weeks running 1000 feet of larger diameter irrigation line so we could get back on track.
By the time we more or less completed the irrigation in early May it was warm enough that we decided to simply forgo tunnel building so we could get all of our plants in the ground. We knew this was a risk. The tunnels offer protection from the cold, allowing us to plant a month earlier than we would otherwise, and they also offer us protection from a new foe that we have seldom encountered before in our urban spaces: deer. But our plants needed to be planted, so we had no choice. We crossed our fingers and planted out 20,000+ plants in just a week in our newly prepared field in sunny warm temperatures.
The deer didn’t wait long to gobble down 1000 heads of lettuce along with a side salad of young kohlrabi shoots in just one night. Fortunately, at least up until the time of this writing, they haven’t entered the two tunnels we finished, and they haven’t eaten the majority of our plants there which are tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, eggplants, leeks, bok choy and fennel. Plainsong staff erected temporary electric net fencing to offer some additional deterrence. If we can complete our tunnels by the time our fruiting crops fruit in July (deer will happily eat tomatoes and cucumbers, just not the plants) we should be able to manage this new challenge until we are able to secure funding for a deer fence.
When we had moved past this loss, a mid-May freak frost that only impacted rural spaces took out 20% of our peppers and tomatoes we had just planted. We were grateful for this minimal loss and that we had extra plants from the plant sale to more or less replace the lost plants, but it was another opportunity to mutter in unison again that annoying phrase, “Every setback is an opportunity for a comeback.”
We don’t often refer to our Farm Share as a CSA share. Not everyone knows what CSA stands for, and we don’t want to lead with a confusing acronym. But it has been important to remember this spring season that CSA stands for Community Supported Agriculture. The concept of CSA was developed because small farming is difficult and unpredictable and requires a community of support to survive. I’ll admit I’ve been skeptical of this concept before. I know our paying customers are putting their hard earned dollars into a farm share because they want to support us, but I also know our customers have households to feed on a limited budget. I’ve done everything I can in my ten years of growing to not rely on the fallback of community support. This is likely because I have issues asking for help, but I’ve also seen other CSA farms not control what they might have been able to control, taking advantage of the idea of community support. They haven’t installed irrigation, and then a drought hits and they ask their CSA base to accept less produce for the season as a result. They haven’t installed drain tile, and then their fields are flooded. They haven’t built tunnels or deer fences and produce comes up short. I strongly believe that the farmer in a CSA has a responsibility to hold up their end of the CSA model. They need to do everything they can to ensure that the shareholders that support their farm are met with competent farming skills and needed infrastructure. So it has been difficult for me to accept that this season we will need your support.
Our spring share will not look the way that we, at New City, expect our farm shares to look. Our yields are lower than we would want because of all the setbacks that have piled on top of us this spring. I hope that you will continue to support us through these setbacks. We have reason for hope that these setbacks will be short lived because we have come so far in the last three years. We survived COVID and discrimination, we renovated the Farmhouse, restarted Café with a new and improved pizza oven, built a new wash station and walk-in coolers, completed our new greenhouse, built three new irrigation systems, and started the Farmhouse and GVSU sites that are now thriving. We will have our new tunnels rebuilt by year end at Plainsong. We will still have more work to do by installing a deer fence and improving the soil but we are nearly there. I expect an abundant summer and fall share this season and we hope that some of our best growing seasons are in front of us as we learn the nuances of each of our three new sites. I know we would have given up if it wasn’t for the overwhelming support we have already received from the community. We are supported, and we are incredibly grateful for that support. We will come back stronger than before.