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A Bend in the Road

“A bend in the road is not the end of the road…unless you fail to make the turn.”

-Helen Keller

Sandhill cranes flying over the farm this autumn

Truly, friends, if I could sketch the road we’ve followed since we started Larch Grove Farm during the deep winter of 2006, it would zigzag all over the place like an old prairie river. There have been stretches where the vision has been clearly laid out in front of us and the work has flown by, and there have been places where we’ve doubted our choices or have had to wait for strength, funds, time, or energy, and the farm’s progress has curled back in on itself like a leaf. One thing we have deeply learned over the past eleven years is that no matter how we plan, dream, and hope, the land is a living entity, powerful and breathing, with its own agenda. We are lucky enough to live here, to walk with and protect this piece of the boreal, but we are reminded time and again that we have to fit our rhythms and goals to what the land has in mind. We’ve come to understand that we need to make all moves on the farm with a careful eye to what’s going on in the ground beneath our feet, the forest over our heads, and the weather all around us. Our goals have to meet the land halfway.

So many of us on the land have found that the past few years have brought weather like nothing we’ve witnessed before. Yes, there have been drought cycles and rainy cycles throughout the history of the Prairies, but never swings quite this large, quite this unpredictable. That’s what the future holds: more frequent weather shifts from year to year. It’s tough to anticipate the jig when you can’t hear the caller shouting the steps.

In 2011, our county flooded, and again in 2013. We and our neighbours had a couple of years to rebuild our fields and tend to the overwhelmed forests around us, and then this year, we all flooded yet again. Although we’d managed to bounce back from previous floods within a matter of months, the very wet spring/summer of 2017 kept Larch Grove, our market garden, and the forest on the quarter underwater for the entire summer. We lost the market garden for the second time in under five years. In some places, we lost chunks of the forest because of new berms on our neighbours’ farm, which flooded the rainwater into the huge stand of trees. And, for the first time ever, we almost lost the cabin: the water came right up to the edge of the gravel patio around our small home.

It was a summer unlike any we’ve ever known on this land. The mosquitoes were unbelievable, making talking outdoors – even breathing, some days – a challenge. The ground couldn’t hold our feet, our yard cart, and especially not our truck. The garden (last year a productive, veggie-and-flower-filled haven) was rank with anaerobic swamp muck. Our perennial plants and vines died (again, as they did in 2011), and we couldn’t get the greenhouse going because it threatened to sink into the boggy ground. The land told us to stop.

Farming, like so many lifeways, is one where you carry the past with you as an essential part of what you do every day. You learn the land from those who came before you, from the community you find yourself in, from the wealth of stories of those around you, of all different backgrounds. Bad things befall farmers who think they can go it alone without a weather eye to the history of the land. This summer, we pulled out the old aerial photographs of the quarter, taken many years ago, showing the traces of old drainage ditches crossing the hayfield at the other end of the quarter – ditches that had been ploughed under by other farmers, years later, probably during dry summers. These drainage ditches showed the reason for the current swamp patches on our hayfield. A quick scan of the neighbours’ new berms around their field showed why the water was backing up into our forest. And the faint lines of those old ditches, ghosting in across the aerial photos, told us what we needed to do to help the forest and our neighbours’ farm.

We set our plans aside this summer, and we dug.

Day after day after day after day. We dug down twelve feet through the new berm and opened the old ditches, allowing the backed-up floodwater to drain into the field’s perimeter trench. Week after week, we walked back and forth along the quarter, through head-high marsh grass, hidden hornets’ nests, clouds of mosquitoes, and swamp mud to check the land’s drainage. When lavender oil stopped working, we doused ourselves in Deet and went back at it, spitting out mosquitoes and black flies, sweating through our thick bush clothes on the +30 days. We chopped and spaded long hours until we were crying from exhaustion; then we showered, slept, woke early, and went out to do it all over again. It was the hardest lesson we’d ever had to learn on the land. But it worked.

Today, late September, our market garden is free of water. The ground is still damp, but it’s tillable. The cabin is safe. And we’ve finally cut down the path to the hayfield, clearing the head-high marsh grass to allow the boggy spots to drain and dry. The recently opened ditches are doing their job and pulling the pooled water away from grateful trees that spent much of the summer suffocating.

If there’s anything we’ve learned from being on the land and talking with our community in this area, though, it’s that severe unpredictability in the weather is becoming our new norm. We’ve realized that if we want Larch Grove Farm to grow into the amazing off-grid artist residency, safe house, and teaching place we dream of, we’ve got to learn from summers like this past one.

And so we’re growing, trusting what we’ve learned this summer and the past flood years. Instead of having our farmhouse close to the flood-prone forest, we’re relocating to the hayfield at the other end of the quarter. This will allow us to grow the farm in the directions we’ve dreamed without impacting the forest. A full-house solar array will be possible, beyond the simple one that powers our 250-square-foot cabin. We can restart the organic flower farm that drowned in the old market garden this summer. Our bees, already thriving, will do even better on the hayfield with improved air and light. Most of all, we can build our farmhouse under the sky, on higher ground. The soil will take work, but we relish the task of rebuilding the soil that has been hayed by the neighbour and his big tractor for the past decade. Can we bring this field to full, thriving organic production? We sure intend to try.

We’ve built a good place here, but the climate continues to be completely unpredictable, and so we need to craft a home that can ride out what will come in the best way possible, while staying focused on protecting the large chunk of boreal forest on the quarter. This summer has set us on a huge new journey, and we hope you’ll walk with us over the coming months as we figure out this path. The first step is a quarter-mile gravel road over the muskeg and out to the hayfield – we’ll be starting that in November.

It was a hard, hard summer. But we got to spend it on the land, under the sky, and that was good learning.

Our tiny cabin, a place of beautiful light and happy farm cats!

Exhilarated and Exhausted!

Hello, friends!

Many of you have asked us whether things are all right on the farm (wondering, perhaps, whether the den of coyotes got us, and that’s the reason for our radio silence!). We thought we’d write a quick update about all the amazing and not-so-amazing things that have happened in the life of Larch Grove since the new year.

If you’ve been following the blog, you already know that Larch Grove is a dream in progress. We didn’t inherit a farm. We didn’t inherit a house, a garden, a pond, a way of life out on the land. Like so many others who work with the earth, we did have an incurable desire to live on the land and be part of something that would sustain us. And so it’s been a long-haul job of some eleven years, working full time during the week, and then turning around and working full time during the evenings, weekends, summers, and holidays on the farm. Along the way, we’ve been gifted a place in an amazing community (Barrhead), among mentors who awe and inspire, and in a landscape we can’t live without. It’s been an incredible journey.

Along the way, we’ve had another journey, one that we don’t talk about quite as much on here: our journey as teachers. We’re both career educators, Thomas with elementary school students, Jenna with high school and then college/university students. We teach because we love it, because we believe in talking with young people about the land and our relationship to it, and because teaching gifts us something as well: at the same time that we’re able to give back to our city communities, we’re also able to continue to support our farm and its growth, and to protect the wild land on the quarter we call home. If you grew up in a rural community, you already know this town/land story. It’s one farmers have been living for generations.

Three big things happened this year, two of which have given us great joy (and also some serious exhaustion), and one of which is heartbreaking but expected. First, after twenty-nine amazing years working with children, Thomas is retiring – TODAY! It’s been a crazy year for him, readying his students for his departure, preparing paperwork, and looking toward a future that, for the first time in twenty-nine years, isn’t bound by the school day. This means more time for him to look after himself and his needs, and to spend more days on the land that he loves. It’s a beautiful and well-earned thing.

Jenna ended one stage of a journey this year, too, achieving tenure after nineteen years of working toward it. She’s able to settle into a college community and one single job, instead of shifting with the wind as positions come and go. Not only can she now help to create positive change for others where she works, but her job also means continued support for Larch Grove as we grow into an artists’ retreat and apiary. The work on the land transfers into Jenna’s classroom, too, where she works in creative and environmental writing. One stage of the journey is done, but there are so many more to come!

And the not-so-great thing, friends? If you live anywhere in Alberta, Canada, you’ll probably have experienced the unpredictable weather of the past few years. And if you’re in a farming community, you probably know neighbours who are really struggling: the canola crop didn’t come off in time for the snow last winter, and the land has been too wet and windy to plant this spring. Many of our growers are really behind, and they’re having a hard time. Larch Grove is no different. This spring, we had our second flood year in six, and the market garden was once again a boggy mess (but – bright side – our pond is better than it’s ever been!). The windstorms in June caused huge damage to the province, and so, like many others, we’re on a rebuild year. We’re doing it exhausted, after the past three years of living and teaching in different cities, meeting up to work the farm every spare moment, but we’re doing it with goals and dreams in mind, also knowing that the land will tell us what it needs, and we’ve got to be in tune with that.

We know we’re lucky, and that, as farmers and teachers, we have a backup plan as the climate continues to be more and more unpredictable. But there are many career farmers out there who are really having a tough time, and we can all lend our support. Friends, if you can, this is a great time to buy local and support the growers in your area. Every market gardener and local producer could use your help. It’s been a mad season, and we need to step up for each other so that food can keep coming from here, where we live, instead of thousands of miles away.

As for Larch Grove? Well, we might have been (literally) underwater this spring, but we’ll be in rebuild mode this summer, following the land’s lead. As the ground dries out, we’ll be raising again our organic growing beds, readying for next year, crossing our fingers that we’ll be allowed a good season in 2018. And in the meantime, there are wild berries to harvest, jam to make, and the earth to get reacquainted with after a soggy spring. No matter what happens, there is always, always beauty.

Working Through the Grey Days

Happy January from Larch Grove!

We hope you’re well after the holidays, and that you’ve enjoyed a time of rest and abundance with family and friends.

We took some time away from the blog over the late months of 2016, mainly because the start of the winter means that both of us are off the farm more often than usual during the weekdays as we return to our teaching jobs for the cold months. In the classroom or the lecture hall, we enjoy talking with our students about the land, and all through the deep winter, we save like mad for the farm and our plans for the spring garden. It’s a heck of a lot to juggle, but it makes the winter months of work well worth the effort. It’s reassuring to know that our farm will be properly set up for the spring and summer, and we get to have some pretty great discussions about what makes living on the land so grounding.

January and February on the Prairies are the months of deep cold, more often than not. The lights and festivities of Christmas are over, and spring is four or five months out. Internally, we know the solstice has passed and the light is coming back into the days, but at the start of January, we can’t see much evidence of that yet. The months after Christmas are often the dreariest ones to push through.

Low light and deep snow in the market garden at the farm

Cold season visitors to the bird table

Like so many of you who grow, garden, and dream, the main thing that sees us through the dark months is the thought of getting our hands back into the soil. Catalogues have been arriving in the post since November, and we’ve sent in most of our seed orders for the spring and summer to come. Small bundles of seed packets arriving in the mailbox make for a welcome sight!

Garden planning

Another few weeks, and we’ll start the perennials under grow lights so they’re ready for spring planting in the garden. It always feels slightly sneaky to sow out lavender and rosemary in cell packs in January, as though you’re getting a sly jump on the season right under winter’s nose. We’ll also sow some early greens to feed garden cravings as the light returns and the days lengthen. Sunflower shoots, pea shoots, and cut-and-come-again greens will brighten salads and sandwiches until the market garden thaws.

Spring dreaming…of early salad!

And in the meantime, there are photos, catalogues, and garden plans to linger over in the small spaces between work and dark. What are you planning for the season ahead, friends? What are you holding up against the grey months of January and February until the sun tracks back again?

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