Wednesday, September 29, 2010


No, this is not a reference to 'Talk Like a Pirate' day..or week..or whatever it is.

The season for doing alot of tilling is past - 'tis true. However, there is still tilling to do for some late season crops and some cover crops.

So, of course, the tiller attachment on the lawn tractor just seized up on me. hmmmm. I have never seen this, nor did I expect to see it. But, the housing that covers the chain has a puncture *through* it, from the outside (the metal is curved inward). I really didn't think the metal would be that thin to allow this to happen.

I still haven't identified what went through it. It could have been an ironworm (a buried metal part in the field). It likely was not a rock with this sort of puncture.

Guess I'll have to figure out how to fix it.... so, fix it fast, Faux.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

What's A Cuke Worth?

Once again - we have a number crunching post.  For those who don't get much out of these, you can scroll to the end and see what conclusions we make for the farm.  For those who do like them - enjoy.

One of the questions we get to ask ourselves is "What is this veg worth?" It is important to figure these things out in order to inform our pricing for the CSA, direct sales and for market prices.  Clearly, none of this is perfect and precise. But, the exercise of getting the numbers lined up is informative and useful to us.

This year, we have harvested 7200 cucumbers (all numbers are approximations)
  • 4200  have gone to the CSA
  • 50 have sold at market
  • 400 have been sold to other outlets
  • 1400 have been donated to various locations
  • 1100 been used on the farm to feed birds or for events, promotional usages, etc
If we assign values
  • We sell cucumbers for 75 cents at market
  • We assign 50 cent values to cucumbers given to CSA or donated. We figure in these cases that there is a discount because of the ability to move bulk amounts.
  • We sell to other outlets in bulk at 40 cents.
  • We assign 5 cent value to things used on the farm. There is still value - even if it is used to feed birds (or even compost).
That gives us a value so far of $2900 for this one crop.
This works out to about $4.32 per row foot assigned to cucumbers.

Working at it from the other direction, we ask ourselves what the costs are for this crop:
  • Seed cost isn't terrible. $62
  • We direct seed these (into the ground, no starting in pots or soil blocks)
  • typically we only irrigate to get them started. However, a dry year will require more irrigation.
  • Labor includes early cultivation before plants crawl and two weedings once they crawl.
  • and, of course, labor to clean, pack and distribution. Packing and distribution is often a portion of overhead cost for all crops. Cleaning is only really necessary after a rain makes fruit muddy.
  • But, the real labor cost is in the picking.  
Estimate of person hours labor spent on this crop = 160 hours.
Assign a value of $10/hour and you have a labor cost of $1600
For a net value of $1238 from the crop, not including overhead expense splits.

And, what does this exercise tell me about this crop and our farm?
  • We could increase our direct sales to increase the value of this crop (realizing that marketing does add some labor hours - so it may be a matter of finding the time).  
  • Labor cost in this crop is relatively high during picking.  It has physical costs as well since we allow cucumbers to crawl over the ground.  Picking vining cucumbers requires a fair amount of stretching and bending with this set up.  We could look into trellising to see if there is a net labor savings.
  • We did not "lose money" on this crop in 2010.  Since most of our produce goes to the CSA - you might consider this a moot point.  However, we have to balance crops that are loss leaders (such as green beans) with crops that have a profit margin (such as cucumbers and tomatoes). 
  • We do not need to increase production of this crop, nor do we need to consider a reduction at this point.  A fairly small portion of the crop was not utilized in a fashion that was best for the farm.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Gut Check

We took a trip to northwest Iowa this past weekend to help my brother and family move into a new home.  And, as many of you may have noted, there has been some heavy rain in southern Minnesota, northern Iowa and Wisconsin over the last week.  The farm got a total of 1 inch of rain from these systems - which is quite nice.  But, even areas such as our that got less can have troubles because of the rain upriver!  A quick look at the Cedar River in Waverly confirms that. 

However, the thing that got both of us really thinking was what we saw up by Estherville.  There was a sizable pumpkin patch with a large number of ripe pumpkins.  This patch was going under water when we drove up - and was fully under water when we drove back.  Even worse, there were nearly 2 dozen bee hives that had been washed or floated down towards the river.  Very clearly, the hives were finished.  In either case, the bee keeper is out the bee colonies as they either drowned or swarmed (if they were lucky bees).  And, of course, the hives and all of the investment in them was likely lost.

From the looks of the patch, the worst thing the patch owner might have been dealing with was the fact that the pumpkins looked to be fully ripe at the end of September - a little early for sales - but salvageable from a business perspective.  I suspect they may also have been bemoaning a poor honey year.

And now?

It is doubtful that they will save any colonies of bees.  It is likely they will only salvage a fraction of the hives.  It is only possible that things will dry out to allow them to harvest at least some of the pumpkins.  And, we'll wager a bet that there is no insurance involved to cover the cost of the hives, the colonies or the lost income from this event. 

If there is one thing we've learned over the course of a few growing seasons - it's empathy for fellow growers.  Whoever put the work into those hives and fields, we wish for the best possible outcomes.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Sept Farm Report

Farm Report for Sept 19:

  • The cooler evenings spell the end (or at least a weak last gasp) for some of our summer friends. The cucumbers will be lucky to give us a couple of dozen fruit at best. This is, of course, normal - and we are not surprised by it at all.
  • The summer squash and zucchini slow down dramatically, but the 3rd planting looks fairly healthy. We have not been out to check on the fruit this weekend, so we don't know what they will do for us.
  • Lettuce is looking good and we may get lucky and have our successions mature at just the right speed. We are certainly hoping this will be the case.
  • The main feature for a time will be greens. The swiss chard looks healthy. The older kale that survived June/July can be picked, but the number of plants are limited. There are a few volunteer arugula plants that will be harvested.
  • Tomatoes are winding down, but we expect a few this week for everyone. We'll pick the rest of the basil with the belief that they will not survive much longer.
  • We will see how some of our root crops are doing. There MAY be some carrots, turnips, beets and parsnips this week. But, as is always the case with these, it is hard to tell what you've got until you dig them.
  • Green beans? That is always the question. We never know until the rows are picked. It could be a long 'fruitless' task - or we could be pleased. And, we'll be starting the potato hunt. Let's hope the surviving plants did well for us! It is possible the potatoes in a compost pile will produce the best. We made sure not to turn the pile over these plants once we recognized the losses in June and July.
  • Ducks will go to the processor (park) in the beginning of October. Chickens on October 18 and turkeys at the end of the month of October. So, it is time to consider ordering birds.
  • The CSA is planned for six more weeks. We will inform everyone if this plan must change.
  • Late season crops are growing well in the fields. We have broccoli, kohlrabi, cabbage, collards, lettuce, onions (which we hope to harvest as green onions), kale, pok choi, radish, daikon, etc. There may be a gap between the summer crops and the late season crops. And, of course, there is always the possibility that nature will step in and reduce these crops to nothing. But, for now, suffice it to say that we are keeping these crops weeded, mulched and are doing what we can for them.
  • High Tunnel crops are two-fold. The melons, tomatoes, peppers and beans inside the tunnel right now are intended as a trial. And, any resulting fruit may be a part of the CSA. The melons are borderline successful at this point. It is clear that we missed the start by about 2 weeks. But, the tunnel didn't exist prior to that, so we can't really be upset by that. It is possible we'll get all of one or two melons. In that case, we call dibs. It is also possible there will be more. In that case, we will share as we can!
  • High Tunnel part 2. In case you forgot, the high tunnel moves. The winter crops are planted in the east plot. We intend to move the high tunnel over these crops in early October. But, we'll react to the weather as we feel we must. We'd like to give the current crops as much time as we can afford. But, the winter crops are an important part of paying off the high tunnel! Currently in this plot are lettuce, pok choi, broccoli, kohlrabi, arugula, carrots, spinach, chard, mustard, collards, amaranth, cabbage. We expect to add some onions, leeks and brussels to the mess. This is our first try at this, so we are trying a few more crops than we might otherwise (some more than others). Contents of the high tunnel will not be ready for the current CSA season. However, we would like to implement a winter CSA season for 20-30 interested persons. If you are interested, let us know.
  • We have identified and are now looking for implements for the Ford 8n. At present, our goal is to acquire a chisel plow to deal with some soil compaction issues. A disc harrow is likely up next. Here's hoping.
  • Building modifications and improvements are going way up the list right now. There is only so much time before much of this work becomes difficult due to the colder weather. The difficulty is in finding the contiguous chunks of time to tackle each problem - as we are still planting, weeding, mowing, mulching, harvesting...
  • And then there is the paperwork. One item is recording problems, results, etc from this year. We need to get this down so we don't forget when we have more time to plan for next year! And, of course, there is lots of learning to do! Neither of us has worked with implements like we will dealing with on the Ford. Neither of us has grown veg in a high tunnel. And, there are things like an effort to write a grant to add a solar array next season and a walk in cooler.
Feeling overwhelmed yet? Don't worry, we do too. But, we'll figure it out anyway - and enjoy the ride as we do our best to accomplish it all.

Friday, September 17, 2010

So...What's the Cause?

I started thinking while I was in the field today. Then I wanted to look at the information. So, I came in and worked on a few numbers.

The question: "We blame the growing season's weather anomalies for crop problems. But, is it possible there are sizable chunks of it that have to do with fertility or farmer error?"

Obviously, the answer is that these two things likely play a part in it. BUT..

Check this out:

Mulipik Summer Squash by Foot by Planting Succession

p1 July p1 Aug p1 Sep p2 July p2 Aug p2 Sep p3 Aug P3 Sep
2007 7.5 3.9 0.3
2 0.5

2008 0.9 3.6 0.1
2.4 4.2

2009 2.2 2 1 1.3 2.9 0.8
2010 0.6 3.9 0.3
2.9 1.9 1.2 1.3

We remove the variable that it has to do with the variety of summer squash by only looking at our productive straight neck (Multipik). We remove changes in how many feet we plant each time by figuring by the foot production. Weed control was pretty similar each year. Each year, rows were diligently picked. No significant infestation or disease specific to these plants took anything other than the normal toll each season. We always have some cucumber beetles, squash bugs, borers, powdery mildew, etc...

The only variable that may play a role here is that succession planting dates do not line up perfectly. Planting 3 was planted too late in 2009 (for example).

The results? I can point to weather or weather events that correspond with the numbers in all cases. Hmmmm.

2007 started with beautiful growing weather - but we got torrential rains in late August and well into September - result ridiculous July numbers, getting progressively poorer.
2008 was disastrously cold through most of the year, but gave us a gloriously long fall. Result, very poor early with surprising September production.
2009 evenly cool, making it difficult for warm season crops, but not impossible. A cool start resulted in poor germination in succession 1, so we start #2 earlier. But, this explains a poor per foot number set in planting 1 - they took the same number of row feet, but fewer plants per row.
2010 very wet early, drying out later with normal temperature ranges. Result is a disastrous early season and a normal appearing August and September (still some picking to do)

What might we expect for a normal year?
Planting 1 would give us 4 per foot through both July and August and be pulled in before September is very old.
Planting 2 would give us 3 per foot in August and 2.5 in September
Planting 3 would give us 1 per foot in both August and September

But, what we really see here is that a crop that is not full season can be reasonably successful even in a poor year if we have succession plantings in an effort to "capture" weather that works for the crop.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Laboring on Labor Day

Our thanks to the IS 101 classes who came out to the farm on Labor Day! There were tours, chances to watch turkeys chase cucumbers, a rainbow of sliced tomatoes and some interesting tasks for all.

As a tribute to these efforts we submit the following photos:

The tractor is there for decoration. It's the leaning pole that was sunk all the way to China that was a task for this day.

Eventually, this building WILL get painted. Much thanks to those who kindly scraped on this side of it to prepare it for further work this month.

Oh, and now we can keep an eye on the chickens with the tall ragweed down!

And, the tall weeds along the new poultry palace have been under attack all season. It looks like we may finally be winning the battle!

And the garlic is cured, so it is time to trim off the stems and the roots so they are ready for the CSA, for seed and for other sales.

It's always a good thing when you can SEE the swiss chard and the beets. It is especially important to allow for ease of picking the chard. It gets tedious pulling out grass and other weeds when we cut the chard.

Our poor peppers. They've not had a very good year. But, the weeds were removed so we can do some cover cropping in here.

And salvaged wood is only good if the old nails are removed. Excellent!

And, when you want to use a chicken shelter made of wood, a new coat of paint can help make it last.

And that pole we mentioned at the beginning? The crew would not desist until it succumbed to their combined efforts. The original goal was to take it out in one piece. But, hey - we did mention that the thing went down quite a bit. We contacted BP to tell us how to cap the well we had to dig to get this one out. They had no suggestions that worked. So, we simply filled the hole up with dirt. Seems to be fine now.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Focusing on Success

I realize that I go through an analysis-phase every season. It has something to do with September and the start of school for so many people. I think.

Also, there is enough of the season completed that it makes sense to evaluate while things are still fresh in our minds. Again, I say this every year - often in newsletters...and now, blog posts.

And, while it has been a difficult season, it helps our attitude to look at some of the successes we've had this year.

  • Growing Black Krim tomatoes. These have to be some of the best tasting tomatoes we grow. And, over the last few years, CSA members and farmers' market customers have become fans. The problem? Tomatoes in this class are notoriously difficult to keep from going bad before you get them to the customer. Also, the production season of 'marketable' tomatoes is shorter than many other types. So, we tried a couple of things this year and we are seeing success. Black Krim has produced through the entire peak period (Aug 17 to present) this year. The same number of plants have doubled 2008's record production and tripled last year's mark. Part of the strategy - quickly pulling any bad fruit from the plants to prevent spread of any fruit disease. Another strategy is pulling them on the 'front edge' of ripe. Waiting for them to become 'fully ripe' (soft with deep color) only asks for splits and failure to travel. And, happily, they rapidly reach full color in 24-36 hours off the vine and there is no appreciable taste difference. The problem is that this is a developed skill (to recognize the correct stage to pick) that I cannot quite explain. So, it is a task that can not be delegated. It's a good thing I like the task then!
  • Finding better timing on our last summer squash and zucchini planting. (see below post)
  • Weekly emails to CSA members. While we may have missed (see this week's bounced email for Thursday), we've found the weekly email to be a good way to disseminate information and remind everyone of the impending pickup for the week. We've found that 'attendance' (if you can call it that) has been better than last year. And, special situations have been handled much more easily from our perspective. In prior years, we admit to having fallen back on a more generic reminder and/or have completely forgotten to send them out. Part of it is a function of our internet connection (slow) and the other part is a function of the amount of time spent in the office (very little) during the summer and fall. But, it is clearly an important thing to do - so we'll do our best to stick with it!
  • Improving mechanical skills. NOTE: we are not claiming expertise. "Improving" can mean something as small as changing the oil on a tractor. But, the reality is - we are getting better at maintenance, making repairs and using the chewing gum and baling wire fixes and modifications often necessary to keep things going on the farm. In prior years, we would often shy away from these tasks. They are still not the first thing either of us wants to do - but it isn't as scary as it once was. Last year's move to two JD lawn tractors of the same model is a key to this. Consistency is helpful.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Summer Squash & Zucchini

The cucumber analysis was interesting (to me). And, we have enough information to begin doing this work. The question is (of course)..."WHY?"

The answer is - so we can confirm for ourselves that what we are PLANNING is matching what we INTEND for our farm, the CSA and our fields. We are finally at a point where we have a few years of data, so we can actually see some trends - even if the weather and growing seasons have been odd. We can't let that matter too much since odd might be the new normal.

It is also important for us to assess what this farm is capable of. We owe it to our CSA members to check and double check that we are doing what we can to give them a fair amount of good produce. We owe it to ourselves to determine what is the best way to maximize our effort on this farm. We can only be sustainable if we are a sound farm business in all senses of the word.

So, this brought me to looking at summer squash.

Week 1 Week 2 Week 3 Week 4 Week 5 Week 6 Week 7 Week 8 Week 9
2006 0 30 60 137 112 92 165 138 159
2007 186 275 480 351 569 390 314 100 79
2008 0 98 184 329 257 212 337 221 147
2009 10 83 154 245 330 329 147 193 168
2010 0 5 31 67 187 269 228 373 496

We just completed week 9 of our range for summer squash production. Our normal is 11-12 weeks.
2007 was again an excellent year for this crop UNTIL the heavy rains in August destroyed our late planting. This year is a direct opposite with heavy rains destroying the early crops and the late crops moving in to save the day. Note that the production level steadily increased each week this growing season.
2008 and 2009 were weak years due to low growing degree days. But, these serve as a baseline for a weak year.

If we wish to do a reasonable distribution of 4 summer squash for a large and 2 for a standard every week (assuming 20 large shares and 100 standard shares), we need 280 summer squash.

Zucchini looked like this:

Week 1 Week 2 Week 3 Week 4 Week 5 Week 6 Week 7 Week 8 Week 9
2006 0 11 30 43 22 22 50 42 63
2007 281 292 243 444 382 309 144 54 29
2008 3 126 270 268 172 174 268 112 59
2009 39 117 336 385 189 195 117 163 61
2010 0 18 71 51 212 268 201 321 366

The beauty of these crops is we can combine the two to provide larger numbers and distribution possibilities. And, consistent supply over a few weeks means we can alternate peaks in distribution. Monday/Tuesday gets a larger amount one week and Thursday the following week.

Once again, the numbers confirm for us that when the crop is right - we have plenty of excess beyond the CSA need. In fact, even in poor years (2008 & 2009) reasonable amounts could be distributed - but little (if any) could be sold as excess. Capacity appears to be yields of 300-400 zucchini from mid July through August (about 7 weeks) with smaller amounts stretching out on either end a week or two. We approached capacity in 2007 with 2200 units. So, there appears to be adequate evidence for us to continue to operate under the assumption that our plan using the existing varieties, planting succession and row foot allotment is not in need of extreme modifications for 2011.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Wait A Minute

First, a post various people have said they enjoyed about the varying stages of acceptance of rain induced wetness can be found here. It is one of our top ten posts all time. I suspect Tammy reached stage five yesterday, but had to quit because she had to go in to work and you shouldn't pick green beans when they are wet if you can help it.

Second, another popular post was our Law of Expanding Lists post.

Why bring these up?

Because I have a new list! The Wait A Minute or What's Your Hurry? list. We often find ourselves on the short side of time on distribution days. And, here are several ways life on the farm slows us down (whether we want to or not).

  • If you reach Stage 3 or higher of our "rainy day stages" and you have a distribution or market to go to, you will be required to change your attire. Have you tried recently to change clothing QUICKLY when you are soaked? I think you all know what I mean. Shirts, underwear, etc all like to roll up into a ball as you try to take them off. There is no way to do this quickly. But, wait, there's more. Try putting dry clothing on quickly! It doesn't work. If you've gotten rain soaked you just can't dry off with a towel as effectively as you can when you take a shower. You either have to be patient and air dry a bit or go through the whole "rolling up" thing with the dry clothing too. UGH! *and no, I did NOT hear your suggestion about au naturale* And, the side effect is seen in the laundry as well. Those tightly rolled balls of cloth are SOCKS. I think.
  • And in reference to the Law of Expanding Lists. Imagine being in a hurry. But, you have to record something before it gets forgotten. And, it WILL be forgotten if you don't write it down. You get the paper, you get the writing utensil, you write it down. You pause. Something else just came to mind. No, you have to hurry. But, you MUST write it down or you will forget. So, you write it down. Then two more things pop into your brain...... Try explaining this to people when you aren't on time.
  • There is nothing like a batch of ripe tomatoes to slow one down. Why? Because, your tomatoes are nothing if you run back with your cart over the rough terrain between the field and the packing building.
  • Playing weather predictor is always a good way to stop the train that is our departure for distribution or market. "Hm... those clouds look semi-serious. Should we?" "Do we HAVE to?" "Ya." Put down the cold frame covers, close the house windows, roll down the high tunnel sides, put anything that might blow away into a building, move the tools into the building (you know, the ones you should have put away anyway but wisely thought could wait until you came back). etc etc.
  • You packed the truck. It is well-packed. In fact, you are all the way to the back of the truck now. And someone points out that there are three white trays sitting over there (who cares where exactly) that need to go too. The only way to get them into the truck? Unpack the truck and stack the trays in the front with one more tier.
  • Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaa! Where are my keys. I just had them. Are they on the key hook? No. In one of the pairs of jeans I had to change out of because of a pair of stage 4 events? No. In the car? No. Garage? No. Kitchen table? No. Desk? No. um.... How about ignition of the truck. oh.