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On The Farm: Farming life has its turns

Farming teaches you that nothing stays the same. Everything is in flux. In early spring in Minnesota (meaning it's still winter), we look for any signs that spring might be coming. As the bird migration begins, we keep a list of the different warblers and other migrating birds passing through our farm. As the days grow warmer, we welcome the return of the birds who spend the summer nesting and raising young at the farm: the tree swallows occupy the nesting boxes along our fence; the bobolinks nest in the tall grasses and hover in the fields making their unique robotic calls; and the American kestrels, who nest in a box we erected next to the tiny house, are raising their young for the second year.

In our first three years at the farm, the list of birds we have seen has grown to nearly 100 species.

We are vegetable farmers in what the US. Department of Agriculture classifies as Zone 3b. Simply put, we are trying to grow vegetables in one of the coldest growing zones in the country. It would be redundant to say that the start to our season has been difficult and unpredictable. That's true every year. What changes are the reasons why it's difficult.

April 1 is when we fire up the greenhouse to start the first seedlings. This year, we had to shovel a path through the snow to do that. At night, the temperatures outside dropped into the single digits, while inside, Heather-Marie got to work starting the seeds that will be planted in our 1.5-acre plot once the ground warmed up.

As we moved into May, the snow melted and gave way to muddy, saturated fields. All we could do was wait. The soil in the field was like chocolate pudding.

We got behind in our planting, but finally began putting plants out into the field.

We had two frost advisories in two weeks. We had to cover the tomatoes in the high tunnel with cloth (called "row cover") and hoped for the best for the other plants out in the field. We made it through with few casualties.

And then it stopped raining. And then it got hot.

Just a week later after frost advisories, the threat of frost was gone and our irrigation system was running nonstop trying to keep plants from overheating. One afternoon, we pulled back row cover to find a section of green cabbage completely scorched from the sun and dry conditions.

The last week of May, the temperatures were so hot we had to plant in the evenings and early mornings. One evening, we went out unprepared and transplanted Napa cabbage and bok choy as the mosquitoes and blackflies swarmed us. Nothing to do but keep planting.

With our first delivery day just weeks away, we fell into our routine: Up at sunrise (although the light in the sky starts around 4:30 a.m.), make a smoothie or shove down a trail bar, and get out into the field. The app that tracks steps on my phone tells me I average about 14,000 steps a day.

Everything else in our lives is on hold. The yard needs to be mowed. The recycling needs to be taken in. At day's end, we shed our dirt-covered clothes at the front door like astronauts returning home, walk into the house and collapse on the sunroom floor, covered in bug bites.

And it feels pretty good. This is work that matters. This is work that leads to something. We are growing food. We are feeding people. We are building community. And we are doing it as a couple.

CSA deliveries began this month and we were excited but nervous. This is the largest number of CSA shares Heather-Marie has had since launching her business in 2011. On top of that will be our weekly farm stand and a few other businesses that buy from us.

But we're ready. Heather-Marie began planning for this season over the winter and has calendars and notes and spreadsheets filled with information about how much she is planting and when she is planting it. The goal is to make sure that each week there is fresh produce and variety.

The other evening, after another long day, we sat at our fire pit and marveled at how fast the spring has gone. Almost without noticing, it went from spring to summer. Leaves are on the trees. And the lilacs bloomed almost without warning. And, of course, the bugs. So many bugs.

But most importantly, we are eating fresh, local produce again.

Throughout May, our neighbors (who are CSA members) supplied us with weekly deliveries of wild ramps harvested in their woods, knowing that we did not have time to pick them. We put them in risotto. We made ramp pesto. Best of all, we put them in scrambled eggs - eggs raised by chickens who live just down the road.

As is so often the case, good, local food tastes best when it's prepared simply.

Writer John Hatcher teaches journalism at the University of Minnesota Duluth and spends his summers helping partner Heather-Marie Bloom grow vegetables for her rural Barmum business, Rising Phoenix Community Farm.

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