winter here in the Midwest has been a blessing and a curse,
as with most winters, I suspect. This past fall we began action
on our long-anticipated building projects; a new cooler-wash
space, a mechanic’s shop - machinery shed, and a new
greenhouse. The abnormally warm weather has meant that progress
continued most every week, right through the winter. However,
the yard is littered with remnants of the construction, piles
of dirt and disturbed soil, which is mostly in the form of
mud! The machinery shed actually got built and even the inside
is 95% finished. The hoops and purloins of the greenhouse
are up, plastic, electricity, and end-walls await. But progress
on the new cooler-wash area went only as far as moving what
was previously there and leveling the building site. Instead
of a new cooler-wash area, the view to the northeast is a
vast, oddly flat and open space, covered with large puddles
and something akin to the La Brea Tar Pits on warm afternoons,
and a treacherous skating pond on cold mornings.
You have to understand, Harmony Valley is in a truly narrow
valley. We seem to have grown to the point that no matter
which direction you look you will see something fairly vertical
not far away. From the middle of our yard, I see my house
and its attached packing shed to the south. Then, on the east
it’s the current too-small cooler. To the west lie the
greenhouse, both old and new, the new machinery shed, and
behind them the hills. Finally to the north, it’s the
white farmhouse and green pole building we park the tractors
in. Sometimes I walk to the northeast corner of the yard and
luxuriate in the open, flat gap that will soon become the
new, very badly needed, cooler and wash space.
In September, when Richard began planning our expansion,
we wondered where all these buildings would go. After a couple
of drawings and sitings with Richard’s transit we were
reminded that there’s very little level land on this
farm that we don’t plant to crops. No matter how we
tried, something would have to be built across the road from
our farm yard. This presented complications and forced us
to make some hard choices.
If the new greenhouse was built across the road from the
current greenhouse where the transplants would be germinated,
how could we efficiently move the seedlings on a cold day?
What about water and electricity which was now installed only
on one side of the road? If we constructed the new cooler
and packing area too far from the existing packing shed and
cooler it would complicate bringing produce from the field
to a central location. We’d need new ways to get product
from the washing areas to the coolers if they were not nearly
joined to the existing ones.
Ultimately, we settled on the greenhouse and machine shed residing
on the other side of the road and the washing-cooler facility
being built just north of our existing cooler, connected by
cement so we can wheel pallets and carts of product from one
area to another. Electricity and water would be pushed under
the road to service the new shop and greenhouse. The new cooler,
with its upgraded amp service was best kept close to the existing
central electrical service pole and other buildings with complimentary
electrical needs. Richard and I felt we had covered all our
bases; taking into account electrical load, water supply, drainage,
and equipment, truck and implement access. Richard even designed
a tractor-mounted carrier to transport dozens of seedling flats
efficiently from one greenhouse to the other. The final hurdle;
how to make enough flat space in and around our yard to accommodate
the buildings. We’d have to move considerable dirt from
the upside to the down side to make flat building sites. That’s
where Vern and Ole come in.
Vern and Ole are originals. They have lived in Vernon County
for more years than we have memories. Both should be retired,
but neither has heard the word. Vern has been bulldozing so
long that he can remember when he worked on constructing the
first airstrips for O’Hare International in the cornfields
outside Chicago. Knowing their reputations, we called on Vern
and Ole for some advice and for their professional skills
operating heavy equipment.
One late September morning Vern and Ole both showed up at first
light to begin the task of creating three needed building sites.
We quickly got used to their habits; they take no lunch break
and you know they are around because there is a constant hum
of diesel motors and clinking of dozer track. In a few short
days they transformed our hillside and pasture to the northeast
of our yard into a flat, open space. The future machine shed
and greenhouse across the road had an equally level home marked
by stakes and pink ribbons.
When Richard watched Vern and Ole work their magic with big
machines, he stood transfixed. At first he maybe didn’t
understand quite how skilled they were. Vern took a look at
the site, with the fence, some tall, scruffy box elders and
cottonwoods and our summer farm cook’s humble trailer
home. We all agreed, the fence would be removed, and then the
trees would come down. But, Vern didn’t think our cook’s
trailer would have to move at all. There stood Richard, eyes
moving from the tops of the trees to the little white camper
sitting just yards away, skepticism written all over his face.
Before long Derek, our summer farm chef, was toting his stuff
out of the trailer and Richard, on the Allis Chalmers, was pulling
it to the other side of the yard. NO FAITH! By early afternoon
the trees were gone, off in a pile, and the empty spot that
had once been the camper’s location remained unscathed,
not even a branch or twig rested nearby. Lesson one had been
learned. For the next couple of days Vern and Ole teamed up;
Vern on the seat of the dozer, shaving off the hill, and Ole
scooping up the dirt with a giant end loader, moving it across
the road. Then Vern began the tedious job of leveling the dirt
Ole had hauled. That’s when Richard learned lesson two.
Years of operating the dozer gave Vern an instinctive eye that
really didn’t need the help of Richard’s expensive
laser transit. The transit sat unused until Richard came along
at the end of the work to confirm that Vern was dead-on.
||"Although we’ll never be
“locals,” -- Richard has only been here twenty
years, and I, thirteen – being involved in farming
has afforded us the opportunity to get to know many of
One day, before Vern and Ole loaded their equipment back
up we managed to coax them to the lunch table. Derek had made
grilled cheese on his signature sourdough and vegetable stir-fry
with carrots, broccoli, parsnips and burdock! Both men ate
with gusto, but it wasn’t lost on them that at least
one of the vegetables was unfamiliar. When Richard told them
it was burdock, instead of guffaws, Vern told us a story.
He was hired by an old timer, a Polish immigrant, to “do
a little work.” When Vern arrived, the 84 year old man
had already begun the job. He had excavated 1 foot deep all
around the foundation of his barn, moving it with a wheelbarrow
and shovel; tons and tons of dirt! Vern was amazed. Vern later
learned the man’s secret of vigor into old age. Balls
of burdock burrs hung in the rafters of his barn. The man
said it was the burdock tea he made with the burrs and drank
daily that kept him strong, and not sick a day in this life!
Wonder if Vern and Ole felt especially energetic after Derek’s
lunch that day?
Although we’ll never be “locals,” -- Richard
has only been here twenty years, and I, thirteen – being
involved in farming has afforded us the opportunity to get
to know many of the locals. Like Vern and Ole, they have much
to teach us. We like to think that they learn a little bit
from us hard working, burdock-eating organic farmers, too.
There’s a satisfying sense of mutual respect born of
every opportunity to work together. This latest building project
was no exception.