The first fall frost fell a few days ago.  And so this past week I set everything else aside to gather what was left from my small farm.  Some of it I cooked, some I canned, some I froze, some I pickled, some I gave away.  

By small farm, I’m talking less than an acre, or even half an acre.  In my case it’s .005 acres, which turns out to be the four raised garden beds and four fake whiskey barrels in my backyard.  It’s not a very big backyard or I’d be ten times the farmer I am.  But when you don’t live in the Eden of either your memories or your dreams, you do the best with what you have. 

I grew 30 different crops on my small farm this summer, or tried to.  Some had banner years:  the tomatoes, the oregano, the bell peppers, the hot peppers (as always), the pole beans, the swiss chard.  On the other hand, the beet seeds never sprouted, nor did some leafy Chinese vegetable Jie had me plant. At the close of each growing season, I like to take stock of my successes and failures, so I can improve.  Jotting notes helps me remember when it comes time to try again.  

I see similarities between running a small farm and leading a church. In both you have to be honest about what really happened, try to learn from your experiences, and distinguish between what you can control and what you can’t.  Pastors who can do this gain experience over the years.  Thus, I fancy myself having 49 years of experience in ministry, rather than one year of experience, 49 times over.  

So, here are this year’s notes, eight things to improve next year’s farm:

1.  Infrastructure, infrastructure, infrastructure.  Now that the congress has finally gotten around to passing a national infrastructure bill, I need to get busy in my own backyard.  The trouble started with my pole beans.  I planted the beans before I erected the poles.  It was like Jack-and-the-Beanstalk, without the goose. The beans, nurtured in the super-rich soil of the garden bed, shot up, tumbled and twisted all over each other, choked out the eggplant and basil, and starting running out over the yard.  By the time I got home at end of that week, it was impossible to untangle them without breaking all the branches.  Daughter Mindy helped me bring out poles, boxes, string, pieces of fencing… anything we could find in my garage to prompt them upward instead of sideways.  My bean patch looked like the front yard of an Arkansas hillbilly:  only missing a used refrigerator, ripped couch, and abandoned pickup, only because I didn’t have any of those things in my garage.  Next year the poles go in before the bean seeds.  And the tomatoes too, along with the cucumbers and squash, will have more vertical opportunities.

2.  Make my own compost.  In my first full summer in this house, I had to buy all the soil from a local farm store.  Each garden bed took 900 pounds:  a mix of ordinary dirt (about $4 per 100 pounds) potting soil, minerals, and super-enriched soils (up to $40 per hundred pounds.  Daughter Scarlette bought me a compost box so I can mix my own super-rich soils, using yard and kitchen wastes that will cost me nothing.  

3.  Increase my livestock.  I currently only have one head of livestock:  Earl-the-Cat.  I don’t make any money off of him, as photographs of him sprawled out asleep in the spinach don’t seem to command much of a market.  But daughter Alison’s father-in-law, Nolan, advised me to invest in worms.  It turns out that Uncle Jim’s Worm Farm (found on Amazon) will sell me 2000 red wigglers for 85 bucks.  This will be much more affordable than trying to buy 2000 pigs, and less objectionable to my neighbors as well.  It will also help me with the botanical garden I have planted in my front yard (57 different species of flowers and grasses) to loosen up the clayish soil that curses all modern subdivisions.  So, next summer’s small farm will feature 2000 head of worms, although I may not be able to tell their heads from their tails... but as long as they know…

4.  Don’t just harvest herbs at dinnertime.  I usually only mess with the herbs when I’m in the middle of cooking something.  I’ll think Oh, some oregano will go good with this, and some basil…  Then I’ll run around the house to find my shoes, slip them on, grab some scissors, and fetch what I need... and only what I need.  I’ve got a really nice book (from the Missouri Botanical Garden) on growing and preserving herbs.  I was going to read it in my retirement.  And so… I’m putting it on my GOODREADS list so I will not waste 95% of the herbs I grow.  

5.  Figure out how to do root vegetables in garden beds. Of all my crops, the ones I had the most trouble with this year were the root vegetables.  The beets never sprouted.  Neither did the spring onions.  The parsnips never grew roots, only leaves.  The carrots had splendid leaves, but their roots were the size of pencils. Luckily, I have several great recipes for carrot-tops. I’d love to plant yams, but until I figure out how to get roots to grow better around here, I’m holding off.  Root vegetables grew very well in Mattoon, where I plowed up the yard (rather than use garden beds).  So my investigation is started and I’ll pursue it through the winter, until something makes sense to me.

6.  Treat the okra like I treat my parishioners.  You can’t just pay attention to your parishioners when you feel like it.  You have to be disciplined:  keep an eye on them every day, respond in a timely manner to what is happening with them, stay observant.  Sadly, I’ve never been disciplined with okra.  If you don’t keep a constant eye on the okra, some of them will turn woody and unpalatable on you, just like some parishioners. You need to check the okra every day.  If you harvest them when they are short (four or five inches) and tender, they will work into anything you want:  pan fried okra, soup, eating raw…  But if you only check the okra bed when you have a hankering for okra (which may not be that often) then you will waste more than half your crop.  I’ve got to be more disciplined in the okra patch!

7.  Make better plans for abundant harvests.  I’ve been into gardening wholeheartedly for about ten years now.  And I’m still surprised that I can grow something that will end up on my dinner table.  I just can’t get over the miracle of it all.  Every time I pick a handful of beans, slice a homegrown tomato, or pluck a squash from the vine, I’m thinking, "I’ll be damned!"  It’s what you think when you realize that even though you were in the middle of some enterprise, most of what resulted came from somewhere beyond you.  It’s the same feeling you get when a parishioner tells you that something you did actually helped them.  It’s the warm feeling of humility.  

But it’s also the mindset that leaves you unprepared for abundance.  You never know from year to year which crop will surprise you.  But next year, I’m going to have a contingency plan for everything I plant.  Faith means getting all setup to can, pickle, freeze, dry, and give away... whatever comes.

8.  Get my recipes organized.  When I cook, I read cookbooks, look recipes up on the internet, innovate on my own with ingredients, and measure by intuition.  When something turns out great, I can’t remember two days later what I did.  If something is a disaster, I ALWAYS remember.  Most of my internet recipes and innovations are scratched down on the back of an envelope somewhere, or in the white space of an old newspaper or magazine. The whole point of a small farm is to bring the produce from farm to table.  There is exquisite joy in popping a cherry tomato in your mouth, or munching on a raw pepper.  But…oh the things you can do with recipes, simple and complex!  Every respectable farmer anticipates a well spread dinner table, even those of us with just a small farm.  

So now, it’s our winter sabbath.  Thanks be to God for all that has been given us.  And Lord, in your mercy, revive us for next spring.