One Month In

sunset

The less you hear from me, the busier I likely am. Such is the case since my last update on the farm. I spent a week manning the farm by myself while the family headed down to Texas for the wedding of Sam and Katelyn, who run the urban farm in the Detroit area I visited a few weeks back (and again yesterday, for a brief bit). We’ve been planting in the vegetable garden, seeing the world through the new eyes of the baby chicks, and making progress on the food forest.

On top of that, the tax man wanted lots of money in the form of the self-employment tax, so I’ve been using my down time to make some extra scratch to send the government’s way. Finally, I was enjoying myself and didn’t bother to take the time to write.

Now that my justifications for lack of content are done, let’s see what’s been going on.

One Month Anniversary!

I can’t believe I’ve already been here a month. I’ve gotten into a routine by this point, and I feel pretty confident. The vegetable garden is mostly under my sole jurisdiction by this point, and the entire farm was left in my command the other week. That was a wonderful chance to see what kind of work is required to keep an operation like this going. Nature has a way of making sure things happen when they need to, so the farm survived my tenure with flying colors.

Of course, I had a little bit of help from Jack while I transplanted tomatoes.

jack helps transplant

Farm Marketing

In addition to my outside work, I was also tasked with creating a website and some flyers to hand out at the farmers market. The site is up at http://heritage-gardens.net if you want to get a sense of what the farm is all about. There’s plenty of work yet to do and lots of content to add, but you can get the general idea.

I was pleased with how the flyers turned out. Kudos to the local print shop on a job well done!

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The market starts up in May, so the clock’s ticking for us to get things ready.

In the Greenhouse

packed greenhouse

We delivered the Lacinato kale to the urban farm in Hamtramck yesterday, which opened up a lot of extra space in the greenhouse. It’s just in time, since the peppers, tomatoes, and herb seem to be expanding every day. There’s plenty of transplanting to be done to get the little plantlings ready for the market. Every plant gets her own little cup, which serves as an apartment until someone takes her home for good. Since Kathy has planted a number of new seeds in the greenhouse, space is at a premium.

In the Vegetable Garden

The vegetable beds are coming along, and it won’t be long before we have lots of little sprouts coming up. I’ve planted beets, radishes, spinach, broccoli, cabbage, peas, leeks, onions, and potatoes so far. Soon to come are the carrots, beans, and melons. When we can trust the weather to stay warm, I can put out the peppers and tomatoes.

Animal News

Teddy, the golden retriever, continues to have a blast running around and saying hello to everyone. He caught a mouse the other week and ate it in two bites. I have also spotted him with, at one time or another, the back half of a rabbit, the skeleton of a large fish, a tennis ball, and a chewed-up stick. He’s a fun dog.

Buddy, the mostly blind roly-poly of a dog, is also a lot of fun. He joined me for the sunset one night during my week alone, even though I had to tell him what he was looking at.
Buddy at sunset

The cats are all doing well. Pixel has outed himself as an emo cat who prefers to spend the day hiding in the dark basement until 11:30 at night, when he wants to go outside. Jack continues to wander around and keep an eye on the farm. Patches misses Mr. Bumble and Max, the only cats around who would lick him. Crazy Tony is having a blast chasing the baby chicks around the yard.

Did I mention that the baby chicks are finally old enough to go outside during the day? We let them out this week for the first time, and it’s been fun watching them learn what their doorway means. They now scratch around the mulch and compost looking for food, and I’m hoping they get too big to fit through the fence by the time they venture near the vegetable garden. Otherwise, our seeds are toast.
chicks on the prowl

The rooster finally let me get close enough to capture him crowing for a brief moment. You can see how embarrassed he was by the way he runs around the corner right after seeing me filming him.

As for the ducks…we had a delicious duck egg quiche the other night. They’re all doing well, quacking about as they do.

My own reputation for not letting the majority of things on the farm die must be spreading. I’m now sitting on offers to work at two other WWOOF farms in Indiana whenever I decide to move on from Heritage Gardens. Plus, I found $20 in an Easter egg today. Things are looking good.
Self Portrait During Isolation Week

Bonus: Book News

On the trip to Detroit yesterday, I paid a visit to the fantastic John K. King Used & Rare Books. There are four floors of used books stuffed to the gills. I intended to buy one book but obviously walked out with four. I’m excited to enjoy them. Here they are — respectively, they are a recommendation from a friend, an old favorite I haven’t read in ten years, a classic I should have read by now, and the wild card that called to me from utter obscurity.

Winesburg, Ohio – Sherwood Anderson
The Short Stories of Saki – Saki (H.H. Munro)
To the Lighthouse – Virginia Woolf
November Grass – Judy Van der Veer

I’m in the middle of a book called City of the Bees, by Frank S. Stuart. This was given to me by my friend Jonah, who also recommended me Winesburg, Ohio. Stuart spent a year studying the activity of a hive in Scotland, and his book is a unique mix of science and poetry in telling the life of bees. The Queen is an omniscient goddess, and the survival of the hive is her great epic.

Today I came upon his description of a single drone bee that floored me: a “little exquisite pellet of living dust.” Aren’t we all?

Animal Update

I still owe you all a tour of the grounds, but there have been some significant animal updates since I last addressed the subject. Here’s the quick rundown:

Dogs

No change. Teddy is as friendly as ever, and Buddy works up enough energy to wag his tail when I greet him in the mornings.

Cats

It’s been a bad week for cats. When I came downstairs for breakfast on Wednesday morning, I saw this note on the counter.

R.I.P. Max
This type of thing seems to happen with some regularity on the farm. Being situated on a road with frequent semi-truck traffic has its disadvantages, and there’s seemingly no end to the stories about the gruesome road deaths of various family animals over the years.

Before I arrived on the farm, I posted some musings on the nature of death. It’s good that I prepared myself for this ahead of time, as it made the surprise end to Max a little less shocking. Still, I’ll never get to learn the nature of Max’s sad face, and I’ll regret that I rebuffed his attempts to sit on my computer the night before he died.

The next morning, I awoke to questions about whether I had seen Mr. Bumble recently. I had not, but I mentioned that a Bumble-sized cat had attempted to crawl into bed with me early that morning — attempts I refused to allow. When no sign of Bumble could be found, I wondered if my rejection of cat affection had become a kiss of death.

This fear was only partially allayed by learning that my visitor in the night had been Patches. We were able to conclude this because Bumble had, like Max before him, been killed in the road sometimes during the night. I then learned that Bumble was a nephew of Max, and that neither of them had been considered particularly smart. Is there a genetic predisposition to making fatal mistakes in judging traffic patterns?

On a more positive cat note, I snagged a picture of the outdoor cat that looks a bit like Tony.an outdoor cat

There is another outdoor cat that I haven’t seen since my first day or two here, but I’ve been told she is pregnant. There will soon be mystery kittens running around.

The remaining indoor cats are handling the deaths of their roommates with the same attitude that one bring to news of the sky being blue. Jack sits next to me right now, sleeping as comfortably as can be.

Chickens

The chickens are growing quickly. Many of them have doubled in size in just this past week. Kathy also went back to the store to pick up a few more chicks. She got two guinea hens (one of whom has since gotten sick and died) and two Welsummers (in honor of my Dutch heritage). So I now have two Dutch chickens with whom I can practice my language skills (“kukeleku” or, according to Google, “buig een krabbeldoo”).

Ducks

Who knows? There are five of them. I’ve learned the difference between normal quacking and the panicked sounds that accompany mating, so there’s no further need to look up from my work to see what passes for romance in the duck world.

Trip to Detroit | Urban Farming

I recently wrote about the urban farm that Sam (Kathy’s son) and his fiancée are putting together in Hamtramck, Michigan (pronounced Ham-TRAM-ick). I’ve been interested Detroit’s urban farm scene for a while now; it’s fascinating to see the great ideas and unexpected conflicts that come up when a city is forced to re-imagine itself. What’s the plan when you are down to 900,000 people living in a city built for 2,000,000? That’s what Detroit is trying to figure out, and the 1,000 or so urban farmers in the area seem to have some of the best ideas.

Last Friday, Martin (another of Kathy’s sons) and I went to Hamtramck with a door for a tool shed that Sam’s building. Since my previous trip to Detroit happened was when I was six, I was excited for the opportunity to see things as they are now and where they might be heading.

Sam and Katelyn purchased four abandoned lots for about $1,000. In a typical practice for modern-day Detroit, they’ve also claimed two adjacent empty lots as their own. The owners of those lots haven’t responded to any attempts to contact them, and they’re years behind in property taxes. As such, the plan is just to use the land until they hear otherwise.

For the most part, it seems like Detroit’s residents are happy for anything positive to be done with abandoned land. We went with Sam and his intern, Michael, to a nearby lot to pick up a few tree stumps to serve as a base for the water cachement tanks. As we were trying to lift the stumps into the pickup truck, a man drove up and asked what we were doing. Once he learned that we were trying to remove something from the lot instead of dumping there, he told us to help ourselves to whatever we wanted.

shed and gardens

Scavenging is a common occurrence for urban farmers in Detroit. There are so many abandoned homes, factories, lots, and neighborhoods that you can find nearly anything but scrap metal (which is quickly snatched up to be sold). Sam and Katelyn are building their shed out of shipping pallets and cinder blocks, have placed the aforementioned tree trunks for a water tank foundation, and are sodding their growing beds with used grass and sprout squares that a local company donates. Even the wood chips for the walkways come from folks looking to offload them. One person’s waste is a farmer’s treasure.

You can read a more about how Sam and Katelyn reuse Detroit’s waste on their blog, Grace and Peas.

One of the challenges in building an urban farm in Detroit is trying to stay below the government’s radar. As many people trying to improve the environment can attest, the government can often be more of a hassle than a help. The leaders in those positions simply are not able to keep pace with the rapid changes in culture that are happening. Urban farming is as foreign to them as it is to most people, but they are in a position to make laws that can directly affect how successful it can be.

The city recently sent a letter to Sam stating that he needed a permit to build his pallet shed. This would require bringing in a property assessor to determine the value of their land. An earlier assessment already increased the value of their property well beyond what they paid for it, causing their yearly property tax bill to be half of what they initially paid for the land.

There are conflicting laws about urban farming on the state and local level. The state of Michigan passed a right-to-farm act that allows for urban farming, but Hamtramck will occasionally try to pass ordinances limiting those same rights to farm. All in all, it can seem like there are frequent efforts to stymie the attempts of these farmers to improve their own city.

grass mats and compost bins

Still, there’s ultimately a lot of hope and excitement in Detroit about the future. The urban farming movement is growing at such a rate that it’s only a matter of time before things fall into place. Sam and Katelyn showed us a documentary called Urban Roots that provides a fantastic mix of perspectives on what’s happening in the city right now.

Before to long I’ll be off to Hamtramck again to deliver some kale and tomato plants to the farm. I can’t wait. Many thanks to Katelyn and Sam for their great hospitality. The homemade pizzas and growlers of Atwater beer were perfect.