Monday, May 21, 2018

Points In Between

Every May has a cooler period of weather after some warmer weather has allowed us to make certain progress on the farm.  As a result, we often have to take additional steps to protect more sensitive plants for future success.  It's just part of the game we play with Mother Nature.
Some critters don't play games, they just nap when it is cooler.
While we would love to also nap, we can't do that until we protect some of the plants that went outside to get hardened off for planting in the fields.  Our garage often becomes one of those places.  It's got a little bit of insulation and we do have a grow area with some heat mats in that building as well.

melons and cukes are started!
 Into the building go the houseplants we have already taken outside for the Summer.  Into the building go the trays of melons, squash and flowers we have gotten to germinate (we call it getting them to 'pop') in trays.  If we have to, we can start up some space heater(s) and keep the building just a bit warmer.  It does have the issue that it is not very bright in that building, so there are some issues if plants have to be sheltered for too long.

Time to top-dress these flowers, I think!
We have considered other solutions for this problem, but most of them include the construction of a lean-to or other building project.  Sadly, we only have so many resources in time, money and energy to spend each season and this project always seems to fall off the list.  Besides, this isn't usually a horrible thing, though it does get annoying during Springs that can't make up their minds.

Thinking about it - that would be most Springs.  Hmmmm.

Parsley needs some fertilizer too!  Better fix that!
The hardest part about the cooler days like this is that the humans themselves have a harder time wanting to do the work they KNOW they need to do.  They'd both rather sit in a chair with a cat in their lap while they (the humans, not the cats) read a book.  We have determined that Farmer Rob appears to be solar powered and too many days of clouds means he runs a bit slower than he should.  But, we get through it all eventually.

Lettuce and onions nearing transplant in the ground
Probably the most difficult thing about this Spring has been how slow some things have been to get going.  Normally, we would have started the Whole Enchilada and Alternating Delivery shares in the first week of May.  This year, it has waited until mid-May.  When things don't grow, you don't harvest.  When you don't harvest, you don't deliver.  Such is the life of a veggie farmer.

On the other hand, we are confident it will all balance out this year.  A slow start is fine because the setbacks have not been devastating ones.  Instead, they are small inconveniences that simply require some adjustment on our part.  We can handle that.

We're looking forward to the day when these melons bear fruit, the onions bulb out and ask us to harvest them and the lettuce have big beautiful (and tasty) leaves.

Saturday, May 19, 2018

The Sandman Retires

We live on a farm, and we have outdoor farm 'supervisors' also known as cats.  We have been fortunate to have a good track record with our outdoor friends that have lived very long lives.  Cubby left us a couple of years ago and we estimate that she was approaching fifteen years of age at that time.  Doughboy actually moved with us from Minnesota and made it to eleven (or more) years.  He even had the grace to let us know, in his cat way, that his time had come.  He was even more friendly than usual one early Spring day... and then he disappeared, as only a cat can do.
I must be going now.  I, the Sandman, have spoken.
Two years ago, Mrranda disappeared from our farm at only four years of age.  Being the soft-hearted and ever hopeful sorts, we held out hope for far too long that she'd just show up again.  Perhaps Rob more than Tammy since he is a bit less realistic about such things - but we both hoped, even though we knew.
The Sandman gets a 'virtual' skritch from the Farmer's shadow.
And now, we have to admit that the Sandman is not going to turn up after a prolonged absence that began just before one of the heavier April snows.  Surely six years is far too short of time to have known such an excellent creature. 
After all, who wouldn't love THIS mug?
We do have some Sandman sayings left to share in the future, so he may show up in blog posts with more things to say 'posthumously.'  After all, he has been speaking for us since 2012.  We even asked our farmers' market customers to put words into his mouth in December of that year. 
Ever helpful, that Sandman.
Perhaps the most revealing interview of the Sandman is this one from 2015.  You can really get a feel for his personality.  And, of course, he was ALWAYS helpful - even with the harvest.
Rest well, Sandman.  We, your farmers, have spoken.

Friday, May 18, 2018

Just Tooling Around

Every year, we make adjustments to the tool set we use at the Genuine Faux Farm.  Sometimes, we make a batch of minor purchases or perhaps a major purchase.  Most years, we make some repairs or adjustments to tools that we already have in our possession.  And, every year, we work on optimizing how we use each and every one of the tools at our disposal.  Sometimes, the result of our efforts to optimize is to remove a tool from the process.  But, usually, it is just a matter of taking the experience we've built over time to get better with the tools we have.

Big Purchase for 2018
We did make a decision to go through with a major purchase for the year when we acquired a Maschio power harrow for Rosie (the tractor).  We'll try to take video of it working some day so every can see exactly what it does.  But, for now, let it suffice to say that a power harrow does not treat the soil the same way a roto-tiller does.  We are hopeful it will make our work more efficient while reducing damage we do to the soil structure when we work it.

Welcome the GFF power harrow
Believe it or not, we have been farming five acres of vegetables since 2007 and we have never owned a tiller any bigger than the walk-behind tractor.  Most farms our size are likely to have access to a roto-tiller for the back of the tractor, but we have not had that tool at our disposal.  On the plus side, this approach has encouraged us to learn the value and proper use of the disk harrow among other implements.

We came to the conclusion that one of our biggest bottlenecks was bed prep for planting throughout the season and we agreed that addressing this problem would be worth the investment in a roto-tiller, a spader or a power harrow.  We estimated that the return on investment would be realized in between three and four years by saving hours of effort - specifically in Rob's work hours.  That means the most efficient planter on the farm (Rob) can be putting things in the ground for a higher percentage of the time.

What?  Were you thinking he would get to sit in the hammock instead?  I suppose that would be nice, but we have a ways to go until that happens.

Adjustments
There have certainly been (and will be) more than one adjustment made this year in tool use, but we thought we would feature one in particular.  The picture below shows one of our S-tine cultivators that has been built to cultivate the wheel tracks of our tractor.
S-tine cultivator at GFF
Why is it called an S-tine Cultivator you ask?  Your answer is in the picture at the right.

This is a tool that has actually been on the farm since about 2012 when we were trying to figure out how to use Durnik, our 1942 (ish) Ford 8n/2n tractor.   We were able to purchase a 30 foot long cultivator and cut it into smaller sections that fit our operation's (and our tractor's) size.  The second S-tine we put together (with Band Saw Man, Jeff Sage's guidance and help) covers the entire area behind the tractor and gets used infrequently.

But, starting last year, the wheel track cultivator finally got fixed up and adjusted to work in our system with Rosie as the tractor, instead of Durnik.  The tool bar has a bit more clearance than some of our other implements, which allows us to get around larger crops without beating them up so much. 

Note the new attachment on the back
After replacing some rusted and broken parts and adjusting the tool a bit, we now have an fairly easy on/easy off implement that can get the paths behind our vegetable rows cleaned up quickly.  It doesn't cultivate too deeply so we can weed without messing with the soil structure AND it is shallow enough that we shouldn't be unearthing any new weed seeds from deeper in the soil. 

One of the best parts?  It's a fairly low-tech solution that isn't too hard for this farmer to fix if something goes wrong.  We like that.

Smaller Acquisitions and Other Adjustments
Barty the BCS (walk behind tractor) has been with us for a while now (new April 2011).  Long enough that we needed to replace the tines on the tiller (badly).  That change, in and of itself, has already paid us back with fewer passes to make a seed bed for onions, carrots, peas and beans so far this year.

We added a removable wheel for the back of the BCS so transporting it to and from the fields has become MUCH easier for us.  And, we went ahead and purchased a furrowing attachment so we could create shallow furrows for plantings things like potatoes.  We also can use this to hill potatoes if we so desire.  However, we have made adjustments to the disk hiller created by Wade Dooley several years back so it serves that purpose with Rosie in a much more efficient manner.

Perhaps the biggest adjustment has been in attitude regarding equipment.  I have not been terribly confident in my abilities to maintain, repair and efficiently use equipment.  It is not part of my background prior to farming and I have never professed to particularly enjoy changing oil, etc.  However, I took a moment and signed up for a Practical Farmers of Iowa mini-course on equipment safety and maintenance with Shane LaBrake.  I attended the first of two days and came away believing that while I am not an expert, I was (and am) sufficiently competent to do this work.  It is amazing how easily we can talk ourselves out of doing something when we don't believe we are very good at it. 

Do I believe I am a mechanic now?  Pffft.  Of course not.  I don't always remember all of the proper terminology.  Repair and maintenance work will usually take me longer than it will others with far more experience, skill or inclination.  The tools in my 'shop area' wouldn't fool anyone into thinking I do much with this sort of thing.  But, I am not going to let uncertainty stop me any longer.  I've got this - just as long as I can be allowed to "cry uncle" when the task goes beyond what I know. 

Besides, I want these tools to work for us and work well - for a long time.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Pollinator Paradise - May 2018 Edition

By now, those who read the blog of the Genuine Faux Farm are familiar with our intent to provide better habitat for our pollinators and, by extension, places for those who will eat the pests that bother our crops.  And, if you are not familiar with this, you can check out this link that takes you to all of the posts that have the "pollinator paradise" label on our blog. After all, you had nothing else to do today except read a wonderful blog written by a silly vegetable farmer.

Eastern Borderlands Slowly Taking Shape
We put in most of our Eastern border bush planting in May of 2015, though we started the project in November/December of 2012.  Part of the motivation is to provide some vertical profile to our buffer zone between our production fields and our neighbor's corn/soybean field.  While we are aware that bushes won't prevent all chemical drift, nor will they catch every wayward item form our farm that might blow around in a 50 mile per hour wind, they will help.

This, of course, does bring up an issue that I think Iowa (and other agricultural states) needs to address: the need to begin encouraging buffer zones on all properties, certified organic or not.  But, that's a post for another day.
Ninebark is finally getting some size on it.
 The other reasons for the border plantings is to protect our pollinators and to provide additional habitat.  If you are curious about what we are hoping will happen, check out the picture at the right.  This is our much more mature Ninebark (with Nanking Cherry on the other side) that runs through the middle of our property.  They are just now budding out and turning green.  It's a little later than usual, but it will soon be a beautiful hedge.

This bush line provides us with a wind-break and habitat for birds... and rabbits.  Ok, the rabbits aren't such a wonderful addition, but we deal with that as part of the whole.  We have seen Eastern Goldfinch, Cardinals, Indigo Buntings and numerous other birds in this bush line.  We are also able to hide our irrigation supply line under this bush line so it won't accidentally get mowed over or otherwise damaged by farm activities.  It's now about eight feet tall and we suspect that's about all it will do for height.

If you look closely, you will also see another thing we like to do for our pollinators.  See that yellow in the path, especially towards the top of the picture?  Yes!  The dandelions are beginning their bloom!

Frankly, dandelions are an incredibly easy weed to deal with in our vegetable plots, so they do not worry us at all.  In fact, their root zone is so different than most of our veggies that we will often leave them in the plot as long as they aren't too numerous.  They grab micro-nutrients from deep in the soil and bring them to the upper soil regions.  And, the native bees love them.  That's enough reason for us to like them.

Unplanned, But Not Unwelcome
We did plant wild plum on our northern bush line back in 2005 and we have had to deal with additional wild plums showing up throughout the farm.  Sometimes, they land where we really don't want them, so we cut them out.  But, if they are in border or fenceline areas, we aren't seeing any good reason to remove them.
If you look towards the old barn you will see white flowering trees that would be our wild plum volunteers. 
Or, I can just take you a bit closer to see some of them.
 We also have mulberries here and there on the farm.  The berries provide some decent food for some of the wild-life.  Sadly, they also attract raccoons.  Once again, if the raccoons would just eat berries, we could get along with them.  It is their tendency to get into buildings and eat chickens OR get into buildings and destroy things inside those buildings that bothers us.  But, it isn't fair to blame the mulberries.

If you look from the Nanking bush line towards the northeast, you can see Valhalla (our newer high tunnel) and the northern bush line just beyond it.  That bush line was also established in 2005 when we put in the Nanking bushline in the center of our property.  The north line has wild plum and Highbush Cranberry.  If you look closely, you can see the white that indicates the wild plums are blooming.  The Highbush Cranberries will bloom a bit later.
 
We are also pleased that some of these bush lines produce fruits for some of the wildlife we would like to encourage on our farm.  The late Winter and early Spring birds get both shelter and a bit of food from our efforts.  We'll take that.

Encouraging Pollinators = Food for Humans Too
The way we see it, if we make our place as much of a pollinator paradise as we can, our friends will be there to pollinate things like our melons, squash or APPLE TREES when they flower.  This year is looking pretty good for us because the apples have been slow to bloom.  As a result, the pollinators can start getting moving with our wild plums and dandelions and they should be fully active by the time the apples are in full bloom.

Two apples are just starting to open their flowers.
I wish I could report that we see amazing amounts of pollinator activity on our farm.  Of course, we do see activity.  But, it is not what I remember seeing at prior points in my life at other locations.  I suspect part of the issue is that we are surrounded by land that has been corn and soybeans for years.  The other part has to do with our industrial ag practices that are rapidly depleting our pollinators in the state of Iowa.

Until we can convince more people in our state that it is important to allow our pollinators to do the great things that they do, we will try to provide a small haven for them as best as we are able.  Perhaps you should think a bit about what you can do as well?

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Veg Varieties in 2018

A common question that the farmers get every year is "what are you growing that is new?"  Apparently, the late Winter has delayed that question and I was asked for the first time in 2018 just this past week.  I was caught totally unprepared to answer that question because I think my brain's schedule says the time is past to talk about it.

St Valery carrots


While I am not going to list every variety that we will be growing this year, I'll feature a few vegetable types.  And, I can tell you that we grow between 30 and 40 different vegetable types and we typically order about 250-350 different seed varieties every year.

Tomatoes
We have the most variety in our heirloom/heritage tomato cultivars, so that is usually the place to start.  We did removed John Baer and Emmy from the grow list.  Neither has distinguished themselves over the past couple of years and we have other varieties with similar characteristics that have performed better on our farm.  We are adding Indigo Rose (Tammy's choice), which is not an heirloom variety, but it is an open-pollinated new introduction that is supposed to be high in anti-oxidants and will exhibit a very dark coloration in hot temperatures.  We'll give a few plants a trial in one of the high tunnels and see how they produce (and, more important, how they taste).
Dr. Wyche's Yellow

We were a little unhappy to discover that somehow, as we were seeding the tomatoes, the Tasty Evergreens did not get planted.  Rob may still put a couple of seeds in a tray to see if he can get a Fall treat or two off of a plant.  Usually, we don't get all that many tomatoes from them anyway, so most people will not notice.  But, the farmers certainly will.

Otherwise, our traditional favorites will be there.  Italian Heirloom, German Pink and Dr. Wyche's Yellow continue to do most of the larger tomato production.  Black Krim and Paul Robeson will provide the tasty 'black' tomatoes again this year.  Our snack tomato lineup of Jaune Flamme, Green Zebra, Red Zebra and Wapsipinicon Peach will be supplemented by Indigo Rose and the return of Stupice (a very early red tomato).

Lettuce
Bunte Forellenschus
Once again, we have our favorites, such as Grandpa Admires, Crispmint, Bronze Arrowhead and Bunte Forellenschus.  They will, of course, all return to the farm this year.  On the other hand, we haven't really been happy with Rouge d'Hiver, so it has been falling off our grow list slowly the past few years.  Amish Deer Tongue and Australian Yellow Leaf are only scheduled for one iteration since they seem to have very specific situations where they excel.

On the other hand, we are doing another Summer Lettuce Trial with PFI this year and we will see Magenta, Nevada, Concept and Winter Density in that trial.  Yes, Winter Density does not seem like a good Summer trial candidate.  But, we're growing it in part because it will show how a variety that is not rated to handle heat responds as compared to the other lettuces.

Onions
We have been very happy with White Wing and have already put in a full 200 foot bed of those for this year's production.  Redwing has also been a favorite and those are also in the ground at this time.  Sedona is the storage yellow that we have used for the past three years with success, but we are also extending our trial of New York Early to see if we can identify an open-pollinated yellow storing onion.  Gladstone will serve the same purpose for the open-pollinated white.  And, of course, we can't have a season where we do not grow Aisla Craig Exhibition as our sweet yellow onion.

Snow Crown
At present, the plan is to increase our onion production assuming we can get them all in at a reasonable point in time this May.  We feel like this is one crop we can manage to scale up without causing issues with resources, our rotation and our intercropping mix.

Broccoli and Cauliflower
Not much new to report here except that we will bring Imperial back for the "head to head" broccoli trial one more time with Belstar and Gypsy.  Cauliflower will continue to be a mix of Goodman, Amazing and Snow Crown.  Perhaps, one day, we'll feel as if we trust Goodman and Amazing enough (both open-pollinated) that we'll drop the F1 Hybrid (Snow Crown).  This year is not that year.

Melons
Pride of Wisconsin and Minnesota Midget will continue to anchor melon production with Pride in the field and Midget in the high tunnels.  Once again, Eden's Gem and Emerald Gem should help with early melon production.  We're hoping to encourage Ha'Ogen by growing an F1 Hybrid (Arava) as competition.  Arava will be the first non-heirloom melon we have grown on the farm.  There are numerous reasons for this trial, but this is probably not the place to enumerate them.  Regardless, Arava is supposed to be similar in style and flavor to Ha'Ogen.

We no longer grow Boule d'Or, but we will continue to give space to Oka and Hearts of Gold.   We're looking forward to a great melon year.
Winner

Kohlrabi
We have relied on Kolibri for our purple kohlrabi and Winner as our white kohlrabi for many years now.  Unfortunately, Winner is no longer available - thus the dangers of F1 Hybrid seed varieties for farmers such as ourselves is reconfirmed.   There were two new (to us) white kohlrabi's being offered, so we thought we would try some of each.  Kordial and Lech will be given every chance to succeed since we don't have many other options. 

For those who are curious, there are not many open-pollinated kohlrabi options out there. 

New to Newish
Other varieties that are new to us this year or were new last year are the sorts of things we try when we are looking for a particular quality.  For example, Keira is a basil that is supposed to be cold tolerant.  We are hoping to see if we can extend basil in the fall a bit to go with our late Fall tomatoes.  Arcadia is a broccoli that is also supposed to be very cold tolerant, so we are going to see if we can mature some broccoli for November harvest in the high tunnel.  And, Westlander kale provides stems that are very heavily ruffled with a lot of substance.  Of these, we have tried Westlander and not the others. 

Also newish to the farm are Silver Slicer cucumber, Blacktail Mountain watermelon and Danvers 126 carrots.  If any of these exceed expectations, you'll be certain to hear about it here.


Hoping for Rebound
There are always a few varieties that seem to disappear from the customer's perspective due to various issues every season.  A year after getting rave reviews for Gold of Bacau romano style beans, we were unable to harvest any in 2017.  It was simply a matter of timing and available labor at the point they matured.  When the resources don't line up, something has to give.  Last year, it was pole beans.


And, the watermelons were pretty much shut out in 2017 as well.  The spray drift incident finished off any remaining hope for a stray watermelon last year, but that crop was already pretty much lost due to weed pressure and poor field conditions.  As you might guess, it started with the latter, which led to the former.

Good-bye, Maybe Next Year?
Dunja
There are some cultivars that will not return to the farm in 2018 beyond the aforementioned John Baer and Emmy.  Raven, Midnight Lightning and Golden zucchini are all going to be removed from our grow list for 2018.  Dunja has outperformed Raven as the F1-hybrid main crop zucchini for our farm and the seed supply has become less reliable, so it makes sense for it to be removed.  Golden is a finicky grower and our customers do not seem to be terribly enamored with it.  Midnight Lightning, on the other hand, is a disappointment to us.  It is an open-pollinated zucchini developed by High Mowing.  It's first year of production was very good, but it has declined in quality since that time. 
Sunburst Patty Pan's production has gone down and people do not seem to be as happy with them as they once were.  Perhaps times will change and they will return, but not this year.  Table Queen acorn squash simply doesn't have the taste that Thelma Sanders (tan acorn squash) does and we think we can promote Thelma Sanders enough to make Table Queen's absence go unnoticed.  And, Jupiter bell peppers won't be on the grow list because seed arrived to late for us to start for this season.

 And there you are - a detailed answer to the question.  We hope you enjoyed it.

Monday, May 14, 2018

One Onion Two

There are a number of crops that we like to put in as early in May as we are able to.  With our farm's heavy soil, we often can't do much until we get past May 15.  But, you do what you can when you can and make the best of it.

Either way, we prefer to get peas, carrots, onions and potatoes in the ground early.  I am not really counting early season crops like radish, lettuce, spinach and the like.  We want to get them in as well, but most of those have multiple plantings during a season.  These others tend to get one shot at the Genuine Faux Farm and we want to get that iteration right!

Digression - Garlic
The great thing about garlic is that there is not much you have to do with it this time of year.  You just enjoy watching it push up through the mulch you put in last Fall/Winter and anticipate the yumminess that is to come (assuming you like garlic). 

Our garlic got a slow start this year with the extended cold weather but it is looking pretty good coming out of the gate.  Frankly, I have this belief that garlic will be better quality with a slightly shorter grow period with fewer dips into cooler temperatures during the process.  In other words, if we have enough warmth in March/April and the garlic starts, it is likely that we will have dips below freezing while the plants are up and over the mulch. While garlic can certainly handle it, I wonder if there is a point in the growing stages that a cold snap is detrimental.  If that theory is correct, this may end up being a nearly optimal growing season for our garlic.  We shall see. 

Summer squash, zucchini and shorter season winter squash will go into this field as well since garlic tends to repel some of the pests that cause problems for those crops.  Thus far, the garlic beds seem to be pretty clean, but it isn't until May that we start seeing some weeds getting through the straw.  After all, we wouldn't want to grow a crop that didn't need at least a little weeding would we?

Blades of Grass
We start our onions from seed in trays each year.  That means we have to transplant the tiny little onion plants into the ground each year.  If everything goes well with the plant starting, you could have a plant with a base that will be about 1/8 inch thick and a stem that might be six inches tall.  If your onions are in a high tunnel and the temps drop and the sun goes behind the clouds, your plants are likely to be much smaller.

As a result, it often feels like you are transplanting individual grass plants into bare soil, hoping they will rapidly fill in and make a lawn.  This year we were the beneficiaries of Grinnell Heritage Farm's success with their onions.  They had extra and they offered some to us.  After looking at our poor little plants, we happily took some of their extras home and put them in the ground. 

Our plants are fine and healthy - if a bit small at this point.  We intend to plant all of them as well, but the process for planting them is much more tedious and time consuming.  The bed pictured at the right has four rows of White Wing onions we raised from seed on our farm.  Can you see them.  You can click on the picture to make it bigger.  Honest... they are there.

The great thing about onions is that, if you keep them weeded and watered well enough, they typically will do very well.  They can look like they shouldn't make it at this stage and you'll come away with a fantastic crop in the end.  The biggest trick is to get them enough time prior to the Summer Solstice, at which point they stop putting on green growth and begin to bulb.  If you don't give them enough time prior to that point, you don't get much for onion bulbs that year.  Your only recourse at that point is to pull them out or... leave them in for the next Spring (see picture at left).

Last Year's Leftovers

Last year, we had soil conditions that prevented us from getting half of our onions in the ground in a timely fashion.  Once we did get them in, the plants grew and looked healthy, but a high percentage were unable to bulb out.  Since we already had enough onions, we just left them in the ground in hopes that they would regrow this spring.  And, in fact, some of them have.  We will now harvest these as some tasty Spring onions for our CSA shares this month.  That doesn't seem like an all bad situation to me.  But, ideally we would have harvested many more of those and only had a subset left to over-winter.

If you are having a difficult time seeing what is in the picture at the left, the white 'sticky' stuff are the stems of last year's broccoli.  They will be removed from the field and composted.  The four rows down the middle that show green stems every so often are the onions that were left in the field from last year's crop.  Some spots are empty, where we actually harvested an onion.  Other spots have evidence of an onion left behind, but the plant did not survive the Winter.  The bed to the right shows other crop residue that will be worked into the field prior to planting this year's crops.

Now - can't you just taste some fresh white onions in a stir fry?  Or maybe an Ailsa Craig sweet yellow onion on your grilled burger?  We'll see if we can't make that happen.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Plagued

Several years ago, I met a person who informed me that they had started a new vegetable growing operation and that they fully expected to make $100,000 in gross sales by their second year of operation.   They weren't asking for any feedback or advice, so I didn't offer any.  Clearly, they simply wanted me to be impressed that they were going to succeed and leave me in the dust - at least that was the implication they seemed to be pushing in our conversation.

Afterwards all I could think was that either they really did know something I didn't know or they were clueless and had no counter-balance to their overly healthy sense of self-importance and confidence.  Or perhaps, they just thought destiny/fate was going to smile on them in a special way.

Apparently, destiny/fate did smile.   But, the smile destiny/fate gave was either tinged with regret, irony or tiny bit of malice (perhaps all three) as this person didn't make it through their second year of growing.

Peanuts by Charles M Schulz
My favorite cartoonist as I was growing up was Charles M Schulz.  Even as a child, I found his humor and story lines to be amusing and engaging.  Now, as an adult (if I may be allowed to call myself an adult for the time being) I find even more meaning and humor in his work.  The cartoon above ran in newspapers on May 11th of this year and it reminded me of the conversation I outlined above.  It also got me to thinking, which is a dangerous pastime of mine.

Perhaps self-doubts, plague that they are, are healthy when you balance it with reasonable amounts of confidence, stubborn willpower, work ethic, knowledge, experience and critical thought.  Every diversified farmer that I have met and come away feeling that they were (or would be) successful expressed, in some way, that they had a healthy level of self-doubt.  This is not to say that they didn't also exhibit confidence that they would overcome adversity and do what was needed to succeed.  What I mean to say is that they weren't so blind to think that they were infallible.

The awareness of self-doubt encourages us to ask important questions - one of which is "what am I missing?"  After all, we are imperfect and we all have things to learn - even about the things with which we have the most familiarity.  So, here I am in May, plagued by self-doubts.  And, here I am asking myself, "what am I missing and how should I respond?"

We're not overconfident and we're keeping our eyes wide open.  We'll be fine as we follow our Paths to Produce in 2018.  We just need to remember that if we throw a low, outside-but-over-the-plate fastball to a left-hander, the ball is going to come back through the box at a high rate of speed and knock our shoes, glove, shirt, hat and socks off.

Friday, May 11, 2018

Ghost of May Past

I have been reminded by various people over the years that a 'living farm' is a farm that is not a stranger to change.  Every once in a while, when the "to-do" list seems insurmountable, it pays to look in the mirror and remind ourselves of what has gone before.  Below is proof positive that we do accomplish tasks and we do adapt from year to year as the situation demands. 
2008 - during our first Practical Farmers of Iowa field day.
 We don't have terribly many pictures prior to 2010 because we did not have a digital camera at that time.  Hey, do you remember having to develop film?  Indeed, it cost money to do that.  So, we tended to be a bit more selective with our picture taking.  In the case of the picture above, someone else with a digital camera took it.  And, this picture is from August.  Without it, we have no 2008 entry. 

A more recent photo (but in June)
You might notice a new roof on the house and on the granary.  You can't see the new roof on the truck barn, nor can you see some of the other building modifications.  But, you may notice that the big maple tree to the right and behind the house/garage is no longer there. 

2010 - old plastic cold frames
I had almost forgotten that there was a (non-working) pass-through door on the truck barn in the southeast corner.  There is a window there now and the electric service is now underground and enters in that corner.  But, more important is the changes in cold-frame and coverage we have used over the years to keep young plants warm.  Those plastic cold frames are now long-gone.  The plastic covers held up for a couple of years in our wind, but there were only so many times they could withstand a windstorm that uprooted them and tossed them around the rest of the property.
2011 - we wood if we could.
 The old barn still had siding and much of a roof as early as 2011.  Now, it is a shadow of its former self.  The wood pile is much of what came from one of the oak trees that used to reside in front of the house.  That wood pile is still there... sort of.  For some reason, it's a little shorter than it was in this picture - and it's not because we used the wood for bonfires or heating.  Hugelkultur anyone?
2012 - birdy paradise
 We used this semi-portable building for raising our broilers for several years until the cover started to break down and the wood frame started to rot out.  My wonderful Dad did most of the work on putting the frame together for the end walls.  The only real shortcoming was the 'semi' part of the portable....  It was just a bit too heavy for us to move with what we had.  So, it did not get moved as often as we really wanted it to.  That's ok, we managed.  And, the birds WERE tasty.
2013 - Here, let me help with that.
Some changes are not of our choosing, nor were they welcome.  Mrranda was one of our friendly farm supervisors who disappeared a couple of years ago.  When you live on a farm with outdoor cats you have to expect to lose them well before their 'time.'  We'd been lucky with other cats living very full lives of 12 to 15 years, so having Mrranda leave at about 3 years of age was pretty rough.  Sadly, her cousin, the Sandman, went missing this Spring.  I guess we'll muddle along without them, even if we miss our little friends.
2014 - DUCK!
 Other changes have definitely been part of the ongoing reassessment of what we should be doing on our farm.  We raised ducks for a few years with some success, even running a trial of two breeds.  For the most part, we enjoyed having them on the farm.  But, low demand and the growing reality that we just had too many flocks to care for led us to remove ducks from our production list.  Unlike the green, plastic cold frames, ducks COULD return to the farm some day.
2015 - Bush line time.
It took us until 2015 to finally put in the full effort to complete the eastern bush line on the farm.  This was something we wanted to do years before, but time and other resources often leave us with an annoyingly long list of 'maybe next years.'   A satisfying percentage of these bushes made it through year one and are doing fairly well at this time.  We'd still like them to be 6 foot tall and 4 foot wide right now, but we'll just have to let them get there in their own way. 
2016 - the Inspector arrives
The cast of characters can change as the wheel of time turns.  We have had a number of wonderful people work during the summer months on the farm, but we often have turn over in that group from year to year.  Our customer base also changes, once again with some fine people moving on.  But, each year, we find new characters that bring their own brand of goodness to the farm as workers, customers.. and farm supervisors.  

It's May and the farm season is in full swing.  Let's see what changes our living farm experiences in 2018.

Monday, May 7, 2018

Applecart Upset

Every year, it seems as if there are big things happening on the farm.  Some years we are putting up a high tunnel.  Or maybe a roof is being put on the granary.  Or... perhaps... your kitchen disappears.

Frankly, our house has gotten the short end of the stick when it comes to our resources UNLESS it is absolutely a critical repair (like the roof, well, furnace, windows - oh yes, they were critical...).  And, perhaps this one is actually no different than the others, since we were beginning to wonder if one of us would step through a hole in the kitchen floor.

I can see it now.  "Hey, where'd Tammy go?"
"I'm down here Rob."
"What are you doing in the basement?  I thought you were getting a glass out of the kitchen.... and why is it that I can actually see you and talk to you when I'm up here and you're down there?"

Of course, it's an old farmhouse that was built well before 1900 and there have been adaptations made (both good and bad) over the years.  There are issues.  And, no project is going to be as simple as you wanted it to be.  Therefore, our kitchen has disappeared.

The good news is that we now have a floor that we will NOT step through.  The other good news?  We're migrating parts of the kitchen to other locations so that we can make use of them both during AND after the transition.

Found: the kitchen sink
 You thought I was joking about that basement, didn't you?  Well, the kitchen cabinet and counter that go along with the kitchen sink found their way to that basement.  We've washed dishes in the bathtub before.  Actually, we did that for six months in a previous location.  Nope, not doing that again.

Ok, the location isn't beautiful..
 The great news is that this will serve as our egg cleaning sink once the kitchen has been completed.  Ok.  It serves as the egg cleaning sink now. But, it is still something we've been working towards for a while.  Mission accomplished. 
Not a bad sink in its own way
 There was actually a sink in this location already.  It just didn't have a configuration that lent itself to what we needed.  And... well... it didn't work either.  Now that it is down, we *might* be able to take the old faucet off and make use of the sink elsewhere.  But, that's for another day (or year).
Oh look!  The upper kitchen cabinets!
And, a story for another day.  The kitchen cabinets that migrated to the garage.  Who knows where they go next?

Friday, May 4, 2018

Available Starter Plants

While we no longer start plants specifically for sale, we do start slightly more plants than we need.  As a result, we do have some tomato and pepper plants that we can offer for your gardens this year.

All are certified organic.  All are heirloom or heritage varieties.

Plants will be available beginning May 15 and will come in 3 1/2 inch pots.  They will be young enough that they could stay in the pots for another couple of weeks if necessary and hardened off enough that they could go straight into the ground if that is what you desire.

Approximate number of available plants are below.  If you want descriptions of some of these plants, you will find them at this page on our website.

To order, email us we will confirm the order once we have it.  If we sell out of what you order, we will let you know.
Amount Available last edited May 9

Tomatoes (approximate available in parens):
Italian Heirloom (14)
Speckled Roman (12)
German Pink (9)
Moonglow (1)
Gold Medal (8)
Dr Wyche's Yellow (6)
Cosmonaut Volkov (6)
Rutgers (8)
Nebraska Wedding (7)
Wisconsin 55 (10)
Kanner Hoell (11)
Trophy (14)
Hungarian Heart (5)
Opalka (6)
Amish Paste (3)
Stupice (5)
Wapsipinicon Peach (0)
Hartmann's Yellow Gooseberry (0)
Tommy Toe (0)
Black Cherry (0)
Silvery Fir Tree (5)
Indigo Rose (4)

Eggplant:
Casper (6)
Florida Highbush (7)

Pepper:
Jimmy Nardello's (0)
Tolli Sweet (0)
Golden Treasure (2)
Chervena Chushka (4)
Garden Sunshine (4)
Wisconsin Lakes (4)
Quadrato asti Giallo (13)
King of the North (10)
Early Jalapeno (0)

Thursday, May 3, 2018

On Time for Taters

Considering we have been dealing with the Winter that would never end, it seems odd to be able to report that we actually put our potato crop into the ground when we scheduled them to go in.  In fact, we put them in on the front EDGE of the scheduled time slot.

Realities of a Farm Schedule

Given the multiple variables that can impact any schedule we might develop for any growing season, it is remarkable to us when we actually hit something *right on schedule*.  In fact, our schedules actually reflect our own recognition that we rarely hit the optimal date.  For example, my schedule for potato planting says "April 28-May 5 is optimal."  April 15 to May 30 are the outside edges.
Beds with the initial tilling complete (April 30)
Frankly, we were expecting that the fields would not quite be ready to go during the optimal period this year.  But, we had warm, sunny and breezy days that helped dry out the fields.  Usually, we are later putting in potatoes than nearly any other veggie grower we know in Iowa.  That has to do with weather and the heavier, wetter soil we have here.  The physical nature of potato planting may also play into it a bit.

Hard, But Not As Hard

Last year, Tammy and I needed two days to put in our potato crop.  That doesn't necessarily mean two FULL days, mind you.  But, there has usually been at least two planting sessions to get all of the planned beds put in for the season.  
Further proof that Rob DID fix Barty up properly.
What was so different this year?  After all, Tammy was only involved in the whole process for a few hours, instead of full days.  How could we possibly get things done faster with fewer person hours?

First, let me make something perfectly clear.  Many growers have tools that are specialized to help speed potato planting.  It just happens that we have never really targeted equipment specifically help us with this process.  And, in some cases, we actually HAD the equipment, but we didn't have a system that worked with that equipment.  Let's also not ignore the benefits of experience with some of these tools.

And, there IS one more thing.  We decided to drop back from 12 beds of potatoes to nine (but more intensively planted).  We haven't been terribly happy with our potato crops in recent years, so it is time to revamp the process so we can see more success.  One of our strategies for crops like this is to reduce how much we plant so we can improve the quality of what we do have.  If we need to, we scale back up once we feel we have a better approach for our farm.

Not Quite What We Wanted

Sadly, the seed potatoes for many of the varieties we prefer were not available this year.  At least they weren't available through the supplier we have relied on for the past several years.  We could possibly have gotten the varieties we wanted from other suppliers, but the seed might not have been certified organic or, more likely, the seed would have cost multiples of what we had been paying.  If you are trying to improve crop results through technique changes it may not behoove you to spend that extra money until you feel you have solved those problems.
 
Trenches ready in the beds for the seed potatoes
That means we don't get to harvest Purple Majesty, Carola, Rio Grande, Sangre or German Butterball this year.  Actually, German Butterball has under performed, so it was due to be removed anyway.  We thought Purple Majesty and Rio Grande might re-appear after their disappearance last year.  Sadly, that did not happen.  But, we had no clue that Carola and Sangre would go away this year.  Now what?

The good news is that Mountain Rose does return to the farm.  Canela will be our russet potato again as it has replaced Rio Grande in our grow list.  We don't like it quite as much, but it has been fine.  We're trying Red Norland for our earlier potatoes and Kennebec comes back to the farm after being away for nearly ten years.  We had some Carola potatoes left over in storage that we put in the ground and we are trying a bed of Harvest Moon again this year.

New Tools and Approaches

We added an attachment to Barty, our BCS walk-behind tractor that we might call a hiller/trencher.  We used it to make the trenches for the potatoes.  Unfortunately for Rob, he actually tilled the beds first and he probably should not have done that.  Or, better yet, he could have turned off the tiller while he was trenching.  It would have wore him out a little bit less if he had.

Even so, the trenches were made much more quickly and with less effort than previous years.  And, the even better news is that we expect it to be even easier next year (and years thereafter) now that we are a bit more used to the tool.  I think I can be forgiven for thinking I had to till more because we DID just replace the tines on Barty.  We were used to a certain amount of tillage in one pass last year.  (a hint - it wasn't very good)  So, it was a bit of a shock to get a beautifully prepared bed in one pass.

We understand that a middle buster on the back of Rosie, our tractor, would have done a fine job as well.  But, we don't have a middle buster at this time AND we're trying for a little more precision within the bed for intercropping reasons.  The smaller equipment gives us a bit more precision, so we'll go with that for now.

Once trenches were placed in the beds, we just needed to drop the potatoes in.  We just load up 5 gallon buckets and walk the row, dropping in the seed potatoes.  Yes, there are potato planters and other mechanized ways to do this.  But, we really don't mind walking 200 feet and dropping in some taters.  It's the simplest part of the process and it encourages us to observe what is going on with the seed and the field.  Clearly, I would have a different viewpoint if I planted much more than 1800-2000 row feet of potatoes.  But, I don't - so there you have it. 


Potatoes dropped in the trenches
The last step is to cover the potatoes.  The old method?  Rake the trenches in.  Usually it happened at the end of  long day.  We were tired and we really didn't enjoy raking that much dirt in.  This is where Rosie came out to play with the simple 2 disk hiller that we have.  The potatoes were covered (maybe a tad bit deep, but the soil is lose and will flatten out just fine) in about five minutes.  Celebration (and dinner) followed.

Why haven't we used this hiller before?  Well, we originally got this implement when Durnik (Ford 8n/2n) was our primary tractor.  Sadly, the hydraulic lift on Durnik couldn't be set to a desired height/depth on that tractor.  So, the result was that the disks would either be pushed in all the way (resulting in ridiculously high hills) or they would float out of the dirt - hilling nothing.  We tried to make the darn thing work two seasons in a row with no success.  I guess we rake it in, eh?
Picture added May 12 - rows hilled.

Frankly, those results soured us on using the hiller and we actually forgot we even had it in our arsenal until last year, when we hilled potatoes mid-year.  Ok, we sort of forgot it.  We also had trouble getting to it when we wanted it a couple of years ago.  That was one of the events that encouraged us to do a major farm 'cleaning' that corresponded with finally building our walk-in cooler.

We may not be the fastest at adapting, but we do get there eventually.  Here's to what we hope is a fantastic potato crop in 2018.