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.
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.