Ants, drought, punctuate a day on the farm
EarthDance, a 13.93 acre farm founded in 2008 by Molly Rockamann, trains individuals to use organic methods. The program has 24 new apprentices, who attend classes and must spend a certain amount of time working on the farm, and eight returning apprentices.
Farm manager April Shelhon, who completed her apprenticeship program in 2010, works with volunteers and apprentices. She said a typical day involves planting new crops, weeding the beds, mowing, putting up a trellis for the tomatoes and using organic pesticides. Wednesday and Friday are harvesting days at EarthDance. The yields from the harvest go to farmers' markets in such places as Ferguson and Maplewood and are sold by the apprentices.
The number of workers vary daily, Shelhon said and are divided into planters, weeders and tenders. I joined in with the planters, hands protected by a pair of spare gloves Shelhon lent me. An assembly line system was in place to plant chard, a dark green, leafy vegetable. First, holes were dug in two rows, six inches apart. Then fertilizer was added before the seedlings were put in place, the hole filled and the plant watered.
As I dug hundreds of holes, other planters chatted about field trips the apprentices took and the trouble the drought was causing. A lawnmower rumbled near the field; Shelhon's dog, Petey, could be heard happily chasing groundhogs away from the crops.
At first it appeared as though planting all the trays of chard seedlings would take hours. But nothing was growing in many of the trays' cells. Shelhon said the heat has drastically affected seed germination. And seeds that have begun to grow may be lost once transplanted into the ground.
"It's been really challenging this year," Shelhon said. "We've lost a lot of crops."
EarthDance has lost lettuce, scallions, beans and sweet potatoes to the heat. Shelhon said tomatoes are one of the few plants that have survived so far, but on the day I visited she said she discovered the newly transplanted tomato plants had died as well.
The affects of the drought are clearly visible. As I dug holes, the dirt was almost sand-like, so dry it would blow in your face like dust. Even digging deeper, there was no moisture, just more dry dirt that scraped away easily with just your hand.
Ants go marching
Shelhon said that the number of ants increases in times of drought. As she said this, I looked down and saw thousands of ants scurrying across the ground. To try to stop ants from eating all the crops, Shelhon said workers have been making ant traps with borax and sugar water. As you walk through vegetable patches you see the ant traps filled with ants, but their effectiveness is questionable. As I dug into the loose dusty earth, ants spilled into the hole from all sides.
Caitlin McCommis, an apprentice on the planting team, said it was likely that ants would eat the seedlings we were planting. McCommis started as a volunteer at EarthDance last summer. She became wanted to improve her food habits and learn where it comes from.
The ants have also caused a great crop loss to the farm. Basil and kale have both been lost to the ants; and eggplant and peppers are being affected by them.
"We can't keep up," Shelhon said.
McCommis, who works farmers markets as a part of her apprentice program said they only had grape tomatoes to sell on a recent weekend, most of the other crops had not survived.
As I dug hundreds of holes and planted the sickly looking seedlings of chard and later brussel sprouts, I found myself rooting for them to survive. It is easy to understand the devastation Shelhon and others felt at the loss of another crop. After so much care and work to keep them alive, after sitting in the field all day covered in dirt and sweat, I found it difficult to think the work could have all been for nothing.
In her weekly email updates to the farmers, Shelhon said: "Farming is not a sure thing, and we diversify to ensure that we will have a harvest. Farming is an exercise in humility and letting go — something I am still learning. There are far too many very important variables that are out of your control — pollination, heat, moisture, pests and humidity."
One thing that seems to have no problem growing on the farm is weeds. Toward the end of the day, Shelhon switched the planting team to the weeding team.
The small, growing tomato plants were hard to find in a jungle of thick weeds. I kept checking with others to make sure I wasn't about to pull out a tomato. But the weeds did, at least, pull out easily from the ground, each tug showering the person in dirt. The pile of uprooted weeds grew high besides us as we ripped them from the loose earth.
After about an hour, Shelhon called it a day. As we traipsed back to the picnic tables, dirt covering our faces and filling our mouths and noses, we expressed satisfaction with the days work.
"Despite the heat, we can no longer hold off planting for this fall," Shelhon said in her email to the farmers. "Fall is traditionally more abundant than any other season. What we sow now, we will reap this fall."