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Season of Change by Lorraine
Pandemic and shutdowns added more change and uncertainty to this time of transition while early spring and the farm provided beauty, continuity, and rewarding work. On Facebook and our website we’ve offered alternatives for learning and invitations to visit the farm at this time when so many activities are curtailed. Even though we haven’t been able to visit Springbrook again, we’ve continued to make connections there.
When local schools closed, I realized that many families were now involuntarily ‘homeschooling’ and suggested to Joanna that we share some of the activities we had enjoyed when she and Zach were children learning at home. She set up a Live & Learn page on our website and I wrote about things we’d done and ways we’d coped with just being at home together most of the time. Joanna posted the ideas on FB groups and added photos and more pieces about things she remembered doing.
Spring started early, and as I worked in my perennial herb and flower gardens I wondered what to do with the plants that needed dividing since people weren’t just coming by as they often do in spring. Again Joanna posted in a couple local FB groups that we had perennials to give away, and the response took us by surprise. We had planned to dig plants before people arrived, and to have them set out separated enough so people could keep 6 feet away from each other. But the first car arrived well ahead of the 10 o’clock time we’d posted and we’d just begun digging and hadn’t put on our masks. Soon there were cars in the parking area and up and down the road. I kept getting newcomers to make a widely spaced circle so I could talk to them about which plants they wanted and to answer questions about plant care. Soon the plants we’d started with were gone and Jo was digging up more. Some people were experienced gardeners and some knew nothing at all but ‘wanted to plant something’ with their children. Joanna went in and updated her posts, saying the plants were gone and canceling the afternoon hours. People still came in the afternoon, but not as many, and we gave some of them plants and asked others to come back the next good-weather day.
Several people who live just a few miles away had never heard of the farm before and seemed pleased to have found it and said they’d be back to walk or birdwatch. I’d been nagging Zach to mark the woods trails and that seemed more important this year when our walking with people is more awkward. Joanna has posted photos of the trails and told what is blooming at different times and invited people to come and walk. Several families have done so at different times, but not nearly as many as came to pick up plants. Those who have come have told us they had no trouble following the trails. A woman who came with a 3-year-old and a younger child in a jogging stroller said it worked well on the pasture loop. Although spring started early, it hasn’t warmed up much from March into May and I wonder if some have been waiting for warmer weather to come and walk.
Early in March, just before things shut down, Peg from Springbrook came to lunch and helped Joanna start tomatoes in the greenhouse. We made plans with her about our next trip to Springbrook and she meant to come back for walks and to help more, but all those plans had to be canceled. In March we realized we had more potatoes in the root cellar/well house than we would be able to use before they began sprouting. The soup kitchen had closed but we knew Peg and a few others had been planning how to feed residents in case of a shutdown. We ended up taking more than 50 pounds of potatoes as well as some onions and garlic. When eggs started piling up and we had more milk than we could use, we took eggs and cheese, calling ahead to say when we’d come and then just leaving whatever we brought in the entry. One time we took art materials and games because people were feeling bored without visitors or being able to get out. Several times we’ve taken books since the library across the street has been closed. Soon we’ll also have herbs and vegetables from the garden to take.
News about the benefits of getting outside and the increased interest in gardening remind us of what the farm has to offer. Our work and our walks help us keep our balance in this time of uncertainty, and Joanna continues to post on FB encouraging people to walk our trails, offering to answer garden questions, and inviting people to learn by helping with our work. Local volunteers would be especially helpful while we are unable to host live-in visitors. When visitors come to help or walk, we have more time to hear their stories and answer their questions, and it is easier to maintain appropriate distance. Even though I am slowing down and doing less I am thankful to be at the farm and glad to have plants and the place to share.
Transition and Uncertainty by Joanna
In our last newsletter I wrote about the time of transition coming up, about Zach and Lorraine’s plans to move on from the farm in the next couple of years, and about my hope to find new community members to join the farm and carry on the work. I came into this season with a sense of uncertainty, and now the pandemic has added new uncertainties for everyone. Lorraine has written about how our day-to-day connections with neighbors have changed and continued. Other parts of our work and transition also continue in altered forms.
The Board is helping us to find our way through these uncertain times. We held our annual Board meeting by teleconference in late April. Jill (introduced in our March newsletter) and Zach joined the Board. Lorraine and Margaret retired from the Board, though Lorraine is still a Core Member here and taking part in the daily decisions and work as she always has. Andy, Sarah, and I stayed on. Sarah and Jill offered suggestions about how to reach out to neighbors who are becoming interested in gardening/farming. Outside the Board meeting Jill has also given me helpful advice about conflict resolution in various contexts. I am very grateful for the Board’s help and support, and I look forward to the time when we can meet again in person.
The Pulaski Community Services Task Force, where people from different local helping groups meet monthly to talk about our work and find ways to support each other, is also sharing resources, updates, and questions by phone and email instead of meeting in person. As agencies work out the details of supporting people without endangering their health, and as we scramble to fill in the gaps and meet the new needs this crisis creates, there has been much sharing and updating of information. I am grateful for what the various groups who meet in the Task Force are doing for neighbors. I miss the mutual support and the informal conversations that happened much more readily when we could meet in person.
I’m still searching for new community members. I’ve listed St. Francis Farm in the directories of the Foundation for Intentional Community and the Global Ecovillage Network and posted information about our search for new community members on various Catholic Worker and intentional community sites. I’ve begun to correspond with several potential new community members who seek to integrate work and prayer, to serve the wider community, and to learn farming skills. The next steps are not yet clear, because we aren’t scheduling visits while New York State remains on pause. But I hear from some people that the present crisis is making them think about how short our lives are and about what they want to spend their time doing. In this time when our systems are visibly shaken, people may find the idea of an alternative way of living less impractical.
The last transition at St. Francis Farm also happened at a time of wider crisis. My family arrived in early July 2001, and by the end of August the people who lived and worked here before us had moved on as planned. Then the September 11 attacks happened.
Some people speak warmly of the solidarity they felt we experienced as a nation after 9/11. My memories of that time are more complicated. I remember the fear and the scapegoating. We heard from new friends and neighbors here about Muslims being harassed by hostile neighbors and also by law enforcement, about attacks on migrant workers, about a Sikh temple being burned down. I also remember people working for unity amidst the fear. We attended the interfaith peace service that followed the burning of the temple, and we heard that many people from different faith traditions were giving money and labor to the rebuilding. We went to the local Catholic church to hear an imam speak about the things our faiths hold in common and about how we can support each other in faithfulness to the God whom we follow through different traditions.
We looked for small ways in which we could support the work of peace-building. We welcomed migrant workers for religious retreats and hosted some who were injured on commercial farms. We tried to keep the farm a space where people from very different religious, economic, ethnic, and political backgrounds could meet and support each other as human beings. As people shared silent prayer, meals, and the basic uncontroversial work of growing food and helping neighbors with immediate needs, they could see the goodness in each other even as they acknowledged their differences.
In this time of crisis I see the same mixed response. I hear neighbors, friends, and public figures fixing the blame for the deaths, the suffering, and the ongoing uncertainty on some group of Others—immigrants, Communists, Democrats, Republicans… In arguments over whether and how this area is ready to reopen, I have heard people on both sides assert that their opponents must be stupid and malevolent. But I have also seen people coming together to make masks to give away, to deliver groceries to elders, to get farm produce into the hands of families who might otherwise go hungry, to help children stay active and connected while many things are shut down. I know people who have drastically different political views who still come together to help their neighbors.
I am grateful for this shared work, and I hope that St Francis Farm can continue to be a place where people can come together across their divides. One fine April morning my mother took a new visitor for a walk on one of our nature trails. I watched them setting out, enjoying each other’s company and the beauty of the day. I also noticed the visitor’s NRA shirt and thought how good it was to see people with quite different political views at ease together. (My mother said afterward that she hoped the visitor would return, and that she hadn’t noticed the shirt.)
The Catholic Worker movement began in a time of crisis, in the depths of the Great Depression, when the immediate unmet needs of neighbors were very evident and when our economic and political system was shaken. I think of what Peter Maurin wrote about building a new society within the shell of the old. I don’t know what will happen next to our nation or our economy. I am not altogether sure that I know what should happen on the large scale. But I think that the disciplines of tending the land, strengthening relationships with neighbors from different backgrounds, and listening to the still small voice will fit us to respond better to whatever may come.
[Crisis] can mean the instant of choice, that moment when people become aware of their self-imposed cages and of the possibility of a different life
–Ivan Illich, Toward A History Of Needs
This spring has been unusual in a number of ways, but so far my tasks are still mostly able to be done. After the CDC guidance changed to say people should wear masks when in public places I sewed a fitted mask for each of us out of 2 layers of cotton. I used strips of aluminum flashing to make the nose bridges fit tightly and be adjustable. Since the restrictions went into effect I have been the designated person who goes to town, and have been going in every week or two to run errands.
Our maple syrup season was somewhat short this year, and the sugar content in the sap was unusually low throughout the region, so although I boiled about the typical amount of sap that I would in a year we got less syrup from it. We made about 6 gallons instead of the 9 to 10 that I aim for. Because of the early snowmelt this spring I was able to get to the woods earlier and more easily than usual to cut small oak logs to grow shiitake mushrooms. We inoculated a smaller batch of logs than in recent years, so it only took a couple of mornings to get them done by ourselves.
In March I put all of the wood that I had cut in the winter into the woodshed, as soon as the snow melted off it. Then I cut enough firewood to fill the rest of the shed and had it done in the first few days of April. This is the earliest I’ve had the shed full in our years here. Some springs I have not been able to get out to the woods till mid-April because the snow lingered for so long. This year we did not burn any of the wood in the emergency backup woodpile out in the new building. We had an early start to spring, but then April was about as cold as March had been. I began burning wood from the summer woodshed in March, but it was mostly filled with ash and other high-BTU wood, so even though we’ve needed more heat than normal in April that shed is still half full and should be enough to last as usual.
We had good lumber sales at the sawmill in March, but toward the end of the month they tapered off and we only had one customer in April. This was good from a public health perspective but not as satisfactory in terms of income. I have decided to remain open if customers want to come, but to ask that they wear a mask, as I do. This seems like a reasonable compromise but I don’t know for sure. I have not been working much at the sawmill this spring as I have not been selling lumber, but I will continue to cut some as time allows when there is space to store it. I don’t know yet if we are going to go ahead with selling ash logs to a broker this year as planned. All of the markets are in flux and I don’t know whether the price will still be worthwhile once the ground dries out enough to make skidding a lot of logs convenient.
In April I tried again and after some online searching finally found a source of affordable plastic circles to use for marking the trails in our woods. We have been talking about doing this for years, but now that social distancing has come it seemed more urgent to make the trails easy to find for people to walk on their own. A few people have come and walked on them, and we hope that more people from the local area will take advantage of the relative seclusion of our woods and field paths compared to the state parks and other busier places.
I have gotten back to making the rustic nightstands I used to build years ago and we have sold 5 on Craigslist this spring. They are quite inexpensive to produce, and not a great deal of work. We have an almost infinite supply of small trees that are being shaded out and dying to use for the legs, and I can use boards that are too irregular to be wanted by most of the sawmill customers, since I am cutting them into short pieces anyway. I’ve got a lot of dry ash ready to work with now so they are something I can continue to make on rainy days, and I have been putting them on the porch of the farmhouse in the open air when a customer comes to pick them up.
The last two years I haven’t begun building ramps for ARISE till after I got done working on the roof, sometime in the summer, but this year I don’t have any big projects planned here at the farm so I have been able to get an earlier start. I have built one ramp in Orwell in late April and another in Altmar in early May. I will continue to be available for the rest of the season if ARISE has more ramps that they want built in this area.
There are a lot of small repairs around the premises that I need to make this summer, but nothing large or pressing. It looks like the haying may be a bit later starting this year, as the grass is growing quite slowly. Maybe once the weather warms up the grass will make up for lost time, I don’t know. We weren’t sure how the coronavirus situation would affect getting a piglet this year, but our usual suppliers were able to get one in late May. We’ll hope that the processing facility is still open by the time the fall comes.
Farming Update by Joanna written May 15
The spring opened early and then turned very cold. In the last few days the weather’s been milder again. I planted peas late in March, but they’re still only a couple of inches high (shorter than they were at this time last year, when I’d planted them in mid-April), though they look healthy and should grow apace as the weather warms. The first asparagus spears poked through the soil just before the polar vortex dropped the temperatures into the twenties and I re-mulched them. I’ve just unmulched them after a week of suspended animation, and I hope we’ll start harvesting soon. Zach’s begun to harvest rhubarb. I’m cutting lettuce from the cold frames as well as the pots we started in the greenhouse. On the coldest nights in early May I had to pull that lettuce back into the greenhouse along with all the seedlings; there wasn’t space to spare. Yesterday I set out kale as well as one bed of tomatoes (all that we’re well equipped to cover if the nights dip below freezing again). I’ve set the other seedlings outside on many cold windy days, so they’re staying fairly compact, and I hope they’re also hardening off. I’ve planted potatoes, carrots, turnips, onions, and parsnips out in the garden. We’ve had abundant harvests of wild leeks, and a few shiitake mushrooms from stumps out in the woods though none yet from the logs closer in to our buildings.
Our goat Amada gave birth to a doeling on April 21, on a cold, windy, sleety evening. I helped a little, as the kid was rather large. Amada stopped pushing and settled down to cleaning her kid, so after about an hour I decided she was done, cleaned the stall, and went to bed. In the morning I found the doeling up and looking lively, and another kid, male, dead. The doeling, Star, continues to thrive. Someone who wants to start a home dairy herd has already agreed to buy her once she’s old enough to wean. In the meantime we’re enjoying watching Star learn what she can do with her four fine new legs. Amada is producing plenty of milk for Star and also for us, so we’ve had extra cheese to send to Springbrook.
Our rabbits got off to a slow start this year. Limerick didn’t give birth the first time we bred her. Our two younger does had their first litters without trouble, but they were small: one had three kits, and the other had seven, of whom two died from unknown causes early on, though the others are growing well. Limerick did conceive on the second try and had seven kits, all fat and flourishing. Everyone’s enjoying the abundance of fresh grass, dandelions, etc.
I’m grateful for this grounding work, and also for the ability to provide some of the food that we and our neighbors need. Ever since we first began hosting injured migrant workers I’ve had a sense of how people are harmed in the usual course of commercial food production. During the pandemic the danger is even greater and clearer. I’m glad that people seem inclined to try growing their own food on a small scale, or buying from local small farmers, now as the commercial food supply chain is disrupted. I’ve read news stories about CSA membership rising. The local Agway has been rapidly selling out of seed starter, and we’ve had visitors who want to learn more about raising gardens or animals. We’re always glad to pass on what we’ve learned, and I hope that after this crisis has subsided people will still be interested in growing fresh food.
“A home landscape enables personal subsistence but also generosity. It enables community to exist and function”–Wendell Berry, What Matters
Nature Notes by Lorraine
Spring started early and proceeded slowly this year so spring flowers in gardens and in the woods had long bloom time. Now in the first week of May trillium, trout lilies, marsh marigolds, violets, and dicentra have recently blossomed while spring beauty is still in flower.
I haven’t found a woodcock nest this year, but the males have been displaying at dusk since March. Most evenings they can be heard (and sometimes seen) on the hilltop above the parking area, in the long field up the road, and near the orchard. We hear owls (barred and great horned) and heard migrating loons calling overhead, a first for us here. So far bluebirds are nesting in at least 4 houses. Tree swallows were late arriving, but have claimed a couple houses. I found one robin nest over a shed door, Zach found one in the sawmill barn and one on his logging arch, and Jo found one on the outdoor table where she keeps seedlings. Mourning doves are nesting near the peak of the garden shed where robins had nests for the past few years. We’ve seen herons, great blue and green, along the little stream—I’m still watching and waiting for the kingfishers.
Now a couple weeks later the robin eggs have hatched, orioles and warblers are back, and I’ve found a couple more nests. Phoebes are building under the eaves of the winter chicken shed and yellow warblers in the rugosa roses.
ST. FRANCIS FARM
136 Wart Road
Lacona, NY 13083