The seventh season of Raleigh’s Hillside Farm is officially underway!
My Carrot and I began seeding a little over two weeks ago with an epic afternoon spent dropping thousands of tiny onion, leek and scallion seeds into soil. And somehow, a short sixteen days later, greenhouse number one is nearly full. Brassica, lettuce, fennel, parsley, celery, and celeriac flats are packed onto pallets and heating mats.
It all happens so quickly. These first weeks of seeding will soon give way to field planting and then first harvests. A new year, a new cycle, a new rhythm has been set into motion.
Since the spring frenzy is nearly upon us, I wanted to take a moment today to reflect on our winter, to explain to all of you aspiring farmers and friends how the cold, seemingly non-farmy months of November through February really shape these first weeks of spring (especially during a year of so much shifting, adjustment and change) because though the physical seeds of 2019 only went in a couple weeks ago, the seeds of this year’s season were actually planted months ago.
As you may remember, way back in December we made the somewhat bold decision to continue to double down on our CSA business. After growing from 110 families to 200 in 2018, we decided to continue this growth into 2019 with a goal of serving 280 families this year.
It wasn’t exactly what we were planning for year seven. We had always expected to grow our CSA and wholesale accounts in tandem for pretty much as long as we were farming, but last year the wet weather and inconsistent communication from chefs caused us to change our strategy a bit. We decided to dramatically scale up the CSA while scaling down our wholesale accounts.
It wasn’t a decision that came lightly and it certainly involved a lot of discussion between my husband and I, but in the end we decided that CSA is not only our pride and joy–the thing that keeps us excited to farm each and every day–it’s also the farming system we truly feel excellent at. Communication and administration of the CSA comes (relatively) easily to me. Adjusting crop plans for CSA when weather becomes erratic has always been a place my Carrot has excelled. Growing high quality produce for a dedicated group of people who we love and enjoy educating feels like the best way to have impact in a complicated food system.
And in general, CSA feels stable in a farming economy that rarely feels it has any degree of security anymore. So we went with it. We decided the massive (for us) growth of our CSA would continue one year more.
Along with this decision came a lot of other fine tuning as to how to make the crazy world of CSA work within our lives in the longer-term because for all its joys and benefits, CSA can be incredibly demanding.
The biggest adjustment we made was shortening our CSA season from 20 to 18 weeks and adding on a two-week storage share program in the fall. This will allow us to start our CSA one week later (something wonderfully beneficial on our slow-to-warm north-facing slope) and also take a break between the regular CSA and fall storage shares to celebrate our wedding anniversary.
In other words, this winter we turned pretty much every aspect of our business on its head to at least some degree which meant we needed to go into our field plans and planting calendars and adjust them accordingly.
Before this year, we had been in this lovely rhythm of just scaling everything up by 20 to 30% each year we’ve been in business and not really doing too much re-mastering, but expanding the CSA while also shortening the season, adding a more robust fall share, and reducing our wholesale presence meant a whole new crop mix. We would need more onions and less head lettuce, more carrots and far less fennel, more lettuce mix and less plantings of beans. It may seem a subtle difference to the outside observer but in reality, it meant we had to rework everything.
So we started at the beginning. Since we knew we had to reconfigure everything anyways, we used this year of change as an excuse to really dive deep into our CSA members’ hearts and bellies and figure out exactly what they wanted. We sent out surveys. We held meetings and chatted over the phone. We took that data and feedback to design the ideal CSA boxes from June 12th to October 9th. We plotted it all out in one giant spreadsheet I aptly named “CSA perfect box planning doc.”
We added in columns for the wholesale crops we felt we had a market for and wanted to maintain. We added in columns for our ideal fall storage boxes and we summed every row until we knew exactly how much of each crop we wanted to grow in 2019.
We added columns to our giant spreadsheet for average yield of each crop so we could see exactly how many beds we had to grow of everything and assess the results. Could we jump from six beds of carrots in 2018 to eleven this year? Did we have the right tools for that? Was it reasonable to grow 15 beds of broccoli on our limited acreage? Would that mess with our crop rotation?
This was the big work of our farm retreat. The assessment and proper adjustments were made over beers as we looked out over Lake Superior waves.
It took what felt like an eternity to get all those pieces into place, all those numbers input, all those crops organized, but it was the next step that was perhaps the scariest. We had to see if our dream scenario could actually fit on the land we currently lease.
We drove home from Bayfield and my Carrot spent the next couple of weeks fitting it all into our field maps. We had to change and adjust some things to make room. It all fit, but just barely. We decided we’d scale back slightly on cover crops and fallow fields this year but request several more acres for next year so we could have a much better balance of cover crop to vegetable production.
Then finally came a brief break from the spreadsheets and grid paper. My Carrot poured over the dozens of colorful seed catalogs that had been sent in the mail, stopping only to clean out and inventory the seeds we had leftover from last year. This was all in late January. By February 4th, our $3000 seed order was made.
“All” that remained was creating a new plan for a new year of production. My Carrot took that seed order and field map and deftly turned it into a blueprint for our season. We passed Google docs back and forth aligning greenhouse seeding, direct seeding, field prep, transplant and weeding calendars with our “CSA perfect box planning doc.” The spreadsheets are abundant and the planning is meticulous: the most intentional we’ve ever been.
Now, each day we head to the greenhouse feels easy and light. We know exactly what needs to be done and can accomplish it with focus and joy. We blare Hamilton on my iPhone. We don’t need to talk unless we feel like it. We get planting. We grow.
Happy spring everyone,
SLOW COOKER BEEF & BOK CHOY FRIED RICE
We’ve really been working to use our crock pot more like this: whipping together something simple in the morning before we head out for the day and then finishing the meal when we get home. If you aren’t a crock pot person, feel free to make the beef in a Dutch Oven in your oven at 350 degrees for two hours prior to beginning your meal.
Also, since we’re talking about gadgets and kitchen efficiencies here. This recipe works best with rice cooked a few days in advance so feel free to make an extra two cups in your rice cooker or instant pot on Sunday when you prep rice for the full week.
Takes 30 minutes of active cooking time + time for slow cooker to do it’s thing (7-8 hours on low heat; 3-4 hours on high heat)
3-5 pounds beef short ribs or beef neck bones
1/2 cup soy sauce
1/2 cup beef broth
1/4 cup brown sugar
2 tablespoons toasted sesame oil, divided
1 tablespoon freshly grated ginger
2 teaspoons crushed red pepper flakes, divided
1 tablespoon sesame oil
1 large bok choy
5 garlic cloves, minced
1-1/2 teaspoon Kosher salt, divided
3 cups cooked white rice
3-4 tablespoons vegetable oil
1/2 bunch scallions
- Place beef short ribs or neck bones in a crock pot.
- In a small bowl, whisk together soy sauce, beef broth, brown sugar, 1 tablespoon toasted sesame oil, grated ginger, and 1 teaspoon red pepper flakes until combined. Pour over beef short ribs or neck bones. Let cook for 3-4 hours on high heat or 7-8 hours on low heat. Once cooked through and very tender, shred meet from bone and place in large bowl. Reserve 1/2 cup of the delicious juices for later use.
- When you are ready to start your meal, use a knife to separate the bok choy leaves from your stems. Roughly chop the greens and set them to the side. Thinly slice the stems.
- In a large skillet (preferably cast-iron or other non-stick surface), warm remaining tablespoon sesame oil over medium heat. Add bok choy stems, garlic and 1/2 teaspoon salt to pan and saute gently for 5-10 minutes until garlic is fragrant and stems are well-softened. Place in bowl with shredded beef.
- Add two tablespoons and 1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes to same pan. No need to wipe it out. Let it heat for a couple minutes then add about half of the rice followed by 1/2 teaspoon salt. It should sputter and splatter a little bit. Let it cook for a couple minutes. You want the bottom of the rice to crisp. Saute generally (scraping rice so it doesn’t stick to the bottom as necessary) for an additional 5 minutes until all the rice is coated in oil and a little golden. Add to bowl with beef and cooked bok choy stems.
- Add another tablespoon of oil and remaining 1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes followed by remaining rice and salt. Cook this second batch of rice just like you did with the first one. Add to bowl when crisped.
- Reduce skillet to medium low heat and add last tablespoon vegetable oil if the pan is dry (it likely won’t be).
- In a small bowl, whisk eggs together and then add bok choy greens. Add to skillet and cook for 5-10 minutes turning occasionally with a spatula until softly scrambled.
- Add eggs to bowl of rice along with the sliced scallions. Stir to combine all ingredients. Taste and add beef juices as desired for more flavor. Serve warm.