NEW FARMER JOURNAL: Stoney Lonesome Farm, Gainesville VA

The slow growth of a new farmer
Before you get overwhelmed with how far behind you are this season, this farmer advises, give yourself a bit of credit for just how far you’ve come.

By Pablo Elliott



Stoney Lonesome Farm
Gainesville, VA

Farmers: Pablo Elliot and Esther Mandelheim

First season: 2004

What they raise: Mixed vegetables (always lots of tomatoes)

Location: 35 miles west of Washington, D.C.

Marketing strategies: CSA, farmers' market

April, 2005. This seems to be the time of the year I find myself waking up in the middle of the night, sweating over the first field plantings and wondering how anything in the garden will actually make it to harvest. One groundhog can level a patch of baby broccoli in a couple of hours, meandering from plant to plant and nibbling off precious first leaves. This happened last season to my pac choi and it threw me into shock, losing so much work so quickly. A flock of birds can make off with half the pea seeds in a morning, and this also happened last year. So now we have floating row cover to protect newly seeded beds, and the electric fence is running, but it’s still difficult to feel at ease.

Our first real bout with poor germination of seeds in the greenhouse has us over-seeding every flat we start. The compost is not as finished as I had hoped. Our irrigation setup needs an overhaul. And the list of concerns continues, topped off by the areas of sod pasture we must convert to garden this year. Why didn’t we do that last fall? I look back at the off-season and wonder if we used our time wisely and why we didn’t plan more carefully or get organized enough to make our spring a smoother ride.

The questions of why we put ourselves through this farm frenzy begin to surface. Those doubts about our ability to farm I refrain from acknowledging until they are really forceful and permeate the air. That’s when friends come to the rescue, particularly those farming veterans who have mastered the art of handling stress. They tell me two basic things:

First, farming is hands down one of the most stressful professions out there, so I must realize that every other farmer is in the same boat, and that none of us is alone. Knowing this helps me settle down.

Second, you learn more than you think each season, but you don’t notice it because your focus is on the next mountain of farming activity and knowledge. It’s important to acknowledge that you are making progress, and it’s not uncommon to make the same mistakes multiple times. It can take several seasons, including a couple tough-weather ones, to develop that deeper knowledge of how and when to do what. So I must just keep on going and do my best.

Last year we were a couple of weeks behind on just about everything, and now it seems we’re about a week behind. Last season we had no on-farm compost; this year we have heaping piles of unfinished stuff. Last year we waited until emergency situations to ask for help; this year we have a couple assistants working with us for most of the season. And we start an hour earlier. A little at a time, I suppose.