Farm Field Trip: Kirsop Farm

Leona Palmer

Leona Palmer › Leona Palmer was a native of rural Wisconsin before becoming a time-tested New Yorker. After having ...

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Kirsop Farm and Evergreen College’s Sustainable Teaching Farm

I recently took a week from Massachusetts farming to visit the Pacific Northwest and couldn’t leave without visiting some farms as well, facilitated by Marnie McMullin, a childhood friend studying sustainable agriculture at Evergreen College and working part-time on Kirsop Farm, a certified-organic family operation.

This part of the country is outrageously, yoga-video gorgeous. Pristine mountain views, thickly flowing river beds, a temperate rainforest hosting vibrant-hued mosses and lichens of almost limitless variety, ferns bigger than most kitchen tables and white trilliums blooming amid emerald foliage; need I go on? One interesting fact is that the tree size in the PNW does not signify age because the near-constant precipitation allows the trees to grow at amazing rates and to amazing heights, like fibrous sponges.

The same goes for the kale. At a distance I mistook it for perennial bushes at almost four feet high with a trunk four inches thick. It had wintered over, harvested almost continuously, and allowed to bolt. The florets are tender, with a look similar to broccoli rabbi, and many times as sweet. This is because sugar freezes at a lower temperature than water, and so plants will converts cells to sugar after a frost or, as temperatures decline, in order to protect themselves from cellular damage. Good for them, and good for us.

Kirsop Farm is owned and thoughtfully run by the talented Genine Bradwin and Colin Barricklow. With five acres around their home and another twenty rented off-site, their certified-organic CSA and stall at the Olympia Farmers Market offer a wide range of produce, as well as beans and grains—including cranberry, black and “triticale“, a protein rich hybrid of wheat and rye. They also sell “broilers” (chickens raised for consumption) on the farm. Their inspiring philosophy of local, sustainable agriculture and economics is beautifully worded on their homepage.

From the driveway I caught sight of the farm truck painted with their impressive logo: blue and purple flames shoot out of a perfect bunch of orange carrots. This was farming with oomph. I then bee-lined to their beautiful new mushroom house, a small toolshed-like structure housing metal racks on which clear plastic bags stuffed with spore-innoculated straw were bearing huge, velvety oyster and shiitake mushrooms. Branches leaned against another wall, just beginning to sprout little mushroom buds.

We found Colin feeding new chicks (whose fluffy cuteness I cannot overemphasize) in the chicken house. The grit he fed them allows for mastication in their gullets of their feed, mixed with a pro-biotic powder. They’re water, meanwhile, was electrolyte enhanced. Grown chickens, “layers” (of eggs), were in a field scratching, aerating, weed/pest controlling and fertilizing. We gathered eggs from a coop built upon a trailer hitch, for easy portability to other fields. We gathered eggs by gently reaching down and under the hens’ front. Some are oblivious to this, some peck. Some “brooders” (those hens that sit on their eggs until hatching, rarer than it would seem) have been known to hide their eggs, to sit on other hens’ eggs, or generally be protective and stubborn. I couldn’t blame them as I later washed the eggs gingerly and admired their hues of green, blue, and brown.

Other notables were “low tunnels” (covered tunnels just tall enough to walk through) housing brilliant red radishes, arugula, and spinach. The greenhouse nurtured pepper sprouts under lamps and sprinkled with “vermiculite” (tiny, natural mineral particles that retain moisture, insulate the trays and help maintain a sterile environment). A vacuum seeder automatically portioned and shot the seeds down into the individual cells of trays. An incredibly large compost spinner rotated by motor-power—tilted higher at the input side and lower to the ground at the output side, it tumbled out rich, brown compost. The wash-station was protected by an awning (plentiful in the PNW, needing cover from rain) and featured an ingenious cement-mixer turned root vegetable-washer. Its floor angled into a gutter that emptied in a small dugout pool–allowing the water to sink directly back into the water table. The topper was a farm sauna, on many a dream-farm wish-list and an absolute necessity after a long day of bending over, squatting, lunging, lifting, and hauling. Kirsop Farm: they know how to do things right.

The next day took us to Evergreen College and their sustainable teaching farm, which includes a permaculture garden, small orchard, four greenhouses, a chicken house, a gnome house (containing wheelbarrows), herb garden and various beds of flowers and produce. This five acres is managed by the incredibly competent powerhouse, Melissa Barker, who not only runs a killer farm that basically supports itself by CSA, direct marketing, campus farm stand, and on-site sales, but does so while holding classes for an ever-rotating cast of students. After hearing farmers on the East Coast sigh over the weeks-long learning curve of their first-year apprentices, I contemplated this endless cycle of young laborers and the courage of their manager.

I got a quick but thorough education on various subjects as we toured on our chores. First in Aquaponics (growing mutually beneficial species of plants and fish together). Secondly in the ideal composting of chicken bedding which, if the ratio of straw, shavings, and moisture is correct and it is turned over sufficiently, should only need changing a few times a year. Also, dirt is more desirable than concrete, as it adds to the microbial life that breaks down the compost. Evergreen takes composting seriously—it is housed here in huge metal vaults labelled “Reactor” and numbered one through three. We took the temperature of each, which you do by stabbing a very long dial-thermometer into the heart of the heap. It varied between sixty and one hundred degrees Fahrenheit. These represent the low and high ends of the heat cycle of compost. Each time it is turned and moved between reactors adds oxygen, activating the microbes and going though another complete cycle from warm to hot to warm, unless the ratio of brown (carbon) materials to green (nitrogenous)—the ideal being a ratio of 30:1—or the moisture content needs adjusting. When the heat cycles all but level out you know that all the nitrogen is fixed and you have premium compost.

In the course of the day we also transplanted flower seedlings in the heated, cedar-tabled greenhouse, harvested tulips and gathered and delivered eggs for sale on campus, erected a trellis for peas, and seeded a green lettuce mix. I was turned on to  the Small Farmer’s Journal whose founder Lynn R. Miller lives in Oregon as well as the benefits of horse- or oxen-drawn equipment which decreases petrol dependence, increases sustainability and provides incredible fertilizer.

My head full of new information and my belly full of treats, I left the PNW satiated, inspired and comforted by the knowledge of another community of people who are learning, nurturing, and laboring  their way to a healthier, more productive and beneficial lifestyle. My enchantment with the area even led me to contemplate a future relocation… and then I thought of our asparagus popping up, the strawberry’s blossoming and the summer tomatoes warming under East Coast sun. You just can’t have it all. At least not at the same time.

Photo Credit: Leona Palmer