Monday, January 31, 2011

We have traveled faaaaaaar.....

(note: the title might be an oblique reference to a bad Star Trek movie...unless it is not)

The Winter months encourage dreaming about the future and looking back to see how far we have come.  So, today's blog post focuses on that AND on poking a bit of fun at ourselves.  Things that loom large in our lives, decisions that seem so difficult and tasks that seem insurmountable at the time don't look nearly so bad when we look back...

Lesson 1 - Invest in proper tools
In 2005, we had a riding lawn mower, a walk behind tiller and some hand garden tools.  We saw buying a shovel as a major purchase of tools for the farm.  I tilled nearly 1.5 acres with the walk behind tiller that Spring until it died an untimely death (for us).  It was our first lesson in properly scaled equipment.  It IS NOT a waste of money to acquire tools that are intended for the work load required.  In this case, we put a new engine on the walk-behind AND we purchased a tiller attachment for the lawn tractor.  Ok we didn't shoot very high on this one - but it was the beginning of a good lesson learned.

Lesson 2 - Adjust growing techniques to a new scale
The following year (2006) taught us that we were no longer home gardeners.  There are things that work if you are growing for yourself that do not when you have the responsibility of growing larger amounts for yourself and others.  For example - straight rows are actually important.  And, certain companion crops are not efficient enough for the grower to pull them off.  Case in point  - we knew onions and tomatoes were good companions, so we put our onions in between tomato rows.  This had worked when we grew a couple of rows of tomatoes and one row of onions, so it should have worked again, right?  Unfortunately, the companions were too close - so hand weeding was required.  There was much to more to weed than there had been in the past so the onions were soon buried in weeds.  We knew they were there, so we refused to till it under or mow it.  The result?  We lost most of the onion crop and reduced our tomato harvest.  What do we do now?  We interplant basil and carrots - with proper spacing to allow for access AND..... we apply the next lesson.

Lesson 3 - Know when to give up
It wasn't until 2007 that we fully realized that we were not just a couple of people with a very large garden.  Yes, yes - the hints were there already.  But, we can be slow to learn some things in our lives.  Gardeners can relate to the stress and worry that comes with knowing a patch of vegetable needs weeding (or some other task) combined with the knowledge that you don't have the time now and you are already behind on the task.  As a gardener, you rarely give up and eventually make the time to 'save' the plants with a grand weeding party.  And, as a gardener - you celebrate harvesting each and every thing you manage to get from the 'saved' crop, even if it is a bit on the sparse side.  As a grower at our scale - you HAVE to give up.  You till it in and plant something else in its place.  The crop is already lost, it simply won't produce enough to be worth the effort to 'save it.'  We learned that admitting the loss can lead to a better overall result.  And, after the initial grieving process, we found ourselves to be a little less overwhelmed (but only a little).

Lesson 4 - Growers should be humble and persistent
After last season's weather issues, memories of 2008 may have faded for many of us (except those who were flooded out of their homes or businesses).  But, now that I've mentioned it, I'm sure you'll remember it now.  The prior year was a fairly good growing year for us at the farm.  The wet late summer and fall was difficult, but we still had good harvests overall.  Lots of variety, lots of volume.  We actually struggled finding a way to move all of what we harvested.  We planned for a year that was going to be even better - and we got - well - 2008.  As farmers, we work with nature.  Sometimes, nature has a nasty sense of humor and we have to work with it.  It may sound like a broken record, but we commiserated with other growers and took solace in the fact that we were not the only ones struggling.  Then, we re applied ourselves to those things that could be worked with.  The persistence of these farmers led to record tomato crops that were harvested starting in September deep into October.  Go figure.

Lesson 5 - Full service can lead to no service
A phone call in August of 2008 led us to consider making a major business plan move in 2009.  Prior to this season, we had about 60 CSA members and attended four farmers' markets per week.  The CSA customers picked up at three of the four markets.  In a nutshell, we were rapidly wearing down under the work load.  We streamlined our business by doubling to 120 CSA members and removing farmers' markets (with plant sales and tomato sales being exceptions).  The result?  We made our first profit that could pay Rob something reasonable for his work and the reduction in required labor was the equivalent of adding a half-time, fully trained person on the farm.  Yes, that's how much time we spent OFF the farm that really was needed to do work ON the farm.  A farm can only be sustainable if you don't use up your 'personal capital' by trying to do everything for everybody.  This is true even if you like to be wanted or needed and even if you are nice people who want to be gracious, helpful and kind.  Since Tammy is nice and wants to be gracious, helpful and kind, this applies to us.  We're not sure what it has to do with Rob.

Lesson 6 - Just keep planting
In a way, Lesson 6 is a corollary to Lesson 3.  You have to know when to give up on one thing so you can move your energy to something else.  Weather patterns in May, June and July this past year made it impossible to plant some crops and resulted in crop failures for many things we did get planted.  To put it succinctly, our long season crops failed - with only a few exceptions.  The season had some success because we accepted the failures in a timely fashion and then insisted on trying to grow more short season crops for the second part of the season.  We're not sure if people in the CSA were aware of just how close we were to giving the whole thing up as a bad job in July.  But, we take our responsibility to our members seriously and worked hard to get things in the ground that had a chance of maturing before the season's end.  The result?  There are a lot of crops that can survive a few frosts and produce some excellent food in the fall.  We already knew this - but in a regular season, we are extremely busy pulling in the full season crops.  But now, we have the experience to put in the late season crops AND find ways (and helpers) to pull in the full season crops. 

Lesson 7 - Keep educating, informing, sharing
It's a little early to identify a lesson for this year - but we're going to anyway.  In general, we've had good success on the farm - even with some difficult growing years.  But, our energy and focus on keeping people informed on what is going on has declined.  Part of this is due to the difficult years themselves.  It isn't easy to find the energy when problems on the farm drain it out of you.  And, then there's the worry that people will think you are whining or playing for sympathy.  What we really want is understanding for the realities of growing good (and local) food.  Looking back on last year, we realize that perhaps we did NOT do a very good job of initiating new CSA members.  It is possible that we did a poor job of making it clear to everyone what was going on in the growing season.  It is likely that we need to be clearer with what we intend for the season and with the reality of the season as it progresses.  And, so, there will be some changes made on that front for the new year.  Stay tuned and we'll clue you in on them.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Winter Werk - part 3


The following is a continuation of the prior posts addressing what this veg farmer does during the "off-season."

So - what DO you do in the Winter months?

 Ok - so I've avoided the original question for two entire posts on this topic.  Guess I'd better actually answer it.  Take a deep breath......

  • Finish recording and analyzing the prior year's growing and harvest data.  Compare it to other years and use it to project capacities and make decisions about growing options.
  • Complete organic certification packet and submit it.
  • Complete financial analysis for the prior, complete taxes for the farm and create a budget for the coming year.
  • Inventory remaining seed.
  • Review prior year's field plans and create field plans for the coming year.
  • Use the above to create seed orders and place them.
  • Finish any paperwork for the prior year's CSA, develop new promotional materials, begin to promote the new season CSA and work on billing.
  • Winter and early Spring is "presentation season"
  • Review existing tools.  Determine what is broken and whether it can be fixed.  Determine what is needed.
  • Fix tools and equipment.
  • Research new equipment for the farm and determine what will be bought from whom (and when). 
  • Produce a plan for workers in the coming year and begin the process of locating workers for the coming year.
  • Set up research tasks for the coming season.
  • Refine record keeping methods
  • Refine task planning methods.
  • Apply for grants or report on tasks undertaken for grants.
  • Update the farm website (currently working on it)
  • Do all the household stuff that doesn't get done during the growing season.
  • Got house projects to do?  Better do them now.  What? It has to be done in nicer weather?  Never mind.
  • Spend some quality time with people you like.
  • Read books on horticulture, pollinators, cover crops, farming techniques and dragons (hey! I'm allowed to read fiction once in a while!)
  •  Begin planting in late January.  (yes, you read that right)
  • Harvest and sell what you can that is in the high tunnel.
  • Assess winter storage crops and determine if you need to sell more of it since you won't eat it all.
  • Reestablish alliances/agreements/contacts with other growers or related individuals or groups prior to the start of the season.
  • Figure out the growing season event schedule (festivals, Tom Sawyer Days, markets, etc etc)
  • Determine and place orders for poultry chicks to be raised in the coming year.
  • Research more sources for local and sustainably raised meats and foods.
  • Respond to requests for information or services.
  • Figure out how to sell/deliver eggs (go ladies go!) 
  • Do what I can to support Tammy in her real job (teaching at the college)
  • Inventory and then place orders for supplies (trays, soil for starting seeds, feed, etc)
  • Prune trees.
  • Do whatever outdoor tasks you can manage to do so they aren't stacked up in one of the busiest months (May).

Friday, January 21, 2011

Winter Werk - part 2


The following is a continuation of the prior post addressing what this veg farmer does during the "off-season."

Is Winter a break from physical labor?
Once again, we can answer with both a yes and a no.  Doesn't that figure?  I'm either wishy-washy or a teacher (I'd consider the second a compliment).
We certainly do less physical activity in the Winter - which explains the additional pounds on my frame that require Spring to burn off.  But, there are still physical activities to do in the Winter for the farm.  And, when you do them, you can be surprised by how much more difficult they can be.  After all, you have to struggle with the multiple layers of clothing.  Things like balance and flexibility feel like attributes that you will never again have as you stumble around in the snow and ice.  And, everything just takes longer.  Hauling water out to the chickens seems like a small task - but it can become an adventure on uneven, frozen ground with patches of ice and snow.  It's even more exciting when you have drifts *on top* of the uneven frozen ground with patches of ice.  'Nuff said.

January - Month of Dreams
Is this heaven?  No, it's Iowa.
In January.

There are reasons for an uptick in blog posts or newsletter articles over the Winter.  Obviously, I have more time for such things.  And, it is certainly a method to promote the farm - I cannot deny that.  But, it is more accurate to say that it is one of several outlets for creativity as it pertains to the farm.  Without that creativity, the farm becomes a dead place with no opportunities for improvement.  And, if we do not dream, the farm and its work could become dull and lifeless - not the job description that would entice me to stay on for more.

And, so, we dream about how we will do things differently in the next year.  We review and report on what has happened in the prior year and learn from it.  We read and discuss with others so we can collect new perspectives and ideas.  And, most importantly we plan for how we will make the coming year something to view with anticipation, rather than with trepidation.

(to be continued - part 3)

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Winter Werk - part 1

Every January I feel compelled to report on what I do - being a veg farmer.
Because I am asked by many people about my work load.  And, sometimes, answering the question motivates me to prioritize and accomplish things I do not wish to do.

Usually the question is merely a way to start conversation or make a simple greeting a little more personal.  Often, the question is meant kindly and is taken kindly.  Rarely, the question feels like an accusation - a feeling many teachers get during the summer months.

Oddly enough, I find that I'm never satisfied with my answer.  It's often simplistic, incomplete and somewhat inaccurate in the feeling it conveys.  So, without writing an immense essay, let me give it another try.

Is the Winter an easier load?
Of course, the answer is both yes and no.  The pace of the Winter months is definitely more laid back - and thank goodness for that!  The order and pace of things are not dictated by a crop of (fill in the blank) that needs (fill in the blank) done *right now*.  There isn't the big rush to get things picked, cleaned, packed and delivered.  We can consider going to conferences, visiting people, etc.

On the other hand, there is plenty to do.  Much of it is office or paper work.  All of it is important and needs to be done before the growing season prevents me from spending quality time on it.  So, I am plenty busy.  I am not unhappy about this, but I can be overwhelmed by it all.

The most difficult part of all is the desire to relax and not get too worked up about work.  As a result, I often have more of a fight to get going.  I am fully aware that once things get going for the growing season, they will not stop for a long time.  So, I think I can be forgiven if I'm a little reluctant to get too fired up on things in January.  Yet, it all needs doing - so I find ways to complete tasks and still try to stay low key about it.  This balance is....a work in progress.

(stay tuned for part 2)

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Survey Says (ding)

Results of the survey given by MBA students at UNI are in and we thought we'd share some of the results and ask for thoughts.

Favorite Produce:
  • Tomatoes
  • Green Beans
  • Kale
  • Eggplant/Summer Squash/Lettuce (tie)

Trouble Figuring out How to Use:
  • Swiss Chard
  • Kohlrabi
  • Kale
  • Pok Choi
  • Arugula
What does this tell us?  Well, for one, kale is a love/hate relationship with CSA members!  But, it encourages us to have more recipes on site to hand to everyone.  We're working on having these ready before the season starts this year.  Most years, we just can't seem to find the time.  This year, we'll make the time.

Satisfied with the CSA?
  • 66% indicated that they were satisfied (overall) with the CSA
  • 47% were satisfied with portion sizes and 28% were not
 Frankly, we don't like these numbers.  But then, *we* weren't satisfied with the portion sizes ourselves.  So, it's what we have to expect for a year like last year.  And, failure to give portion sizes that people desire results in lower overall satisfaction numbers.  No quarrels with that.  ON THE OTHER HAND, many indicated that they understood fully that the CSA is an investment in the farm and that a bad year is...well...a bad year.  None of us were happy that it was a bad year.  Of course Tammy and I would like to blow you away with so much good stuff you can't stand it.  That's the goal for 2011.

Getting what you paid for?
  • 55% said they got less than they paid for in 2011
And again, it's the way the season went.  On the other hand, we did do a market analysis again this year.  The value of crop offered (using farmers' market pricing) to standard shares was $294.  A standard share cost $325.  So, why did it seem so low?  It's because in other years we give a value that would be more equivalent to approximately $450 (or more) in veg for the $325 price tag.  That's actually the number we aim for when we plan - to give 1/3 to 1/2 again the value paid to our CSA members.

Would you rather get a smaller amount of veg X every week - or more of veg X every other week?
  • 55% said the smaller amount every week is to their liking.  31% opted for the roller coaster.
  • The weekly emails were appreciated (80%)
  • We have 9 responders who read the blog (9%)
  • 1 asked for a paper newsletter - but this is a bit unfair to participants who might have favored a paper copy since the questionnaire was online - with only a few mailed to those with no internet access.
  • Most indicated knowledge of our events (Tom Sawyer Days and Festivals) 76 of 85 respondents
  • But, 58 of 85 indicated that they have not attended an event.
  • 12 indicated no interest in festivals and 10 no interest in TSDs
  • 14 indicated that distance was an issue for them.
We respect that some folks don't want to participate.  We understand busy lives and respect decisions involving priorities of what to do with ourselves and our time.  But, the survey seems to indicate people WANT to be involved in these.  So, we need to find out what we can do to make it possible for those who might like to be there to actually be there.  Ideas?

Friday, January 14, 2011

Looking Ahead

And, in an effort to complete the end of year/beginning of year list making - we bring you a list of things we hope to accomplish on the farm in 2011.  Some things go without saying - as they are things we try to accomplish every season.  So, we will try to stick with major changes, additions or events.  It could be interesting to see how close we get to this list at the end of the year.

New Roof on the Granary
We've said it before, we'll say it again.  One of the hazards of buying an older farm is the need to repair all of the buildings.  The granary will fall apart if we don't get a roof on it soon.  So, if you're wondering what some of our larger outlays will be in 2011 - here's one.  And, no, I don't intend on doing that thing myself.  It's taller than it looks - there is a reason the paint stops where it does!

Reconfiguring the Triangle Field
Triangles are fun - we like them.  But, triangles are a pain when they are the shape of one of your fields you have to work with.  They're hard to plan for, difficult to till and they don't lend themselves to efficient operations on the farm.  So, we're going to try to get rid of them (we'll use triangles in other things, thank you).  But, this requires removal of fences, stumps, irrigation lines and sod.  We can always fall back on the old configuration - but we'd really rather not.
Adding Durnik (the tractor) to the Work Force
Just because we have the tractor, it doesn't mean it has been integrated into the farm fully.  We still need to acquire appropriate implements.  But, that's not all - the planting plan needs to be modified to handle new spacing requirements.  Like all things that are worthwhile, it isn't as simple as it seems to just add the tool to toolbox.  We've got to learn how best to use it.

Spring Growing in the High Tunnel
This enters into the 'we've never done that before' category.  We don't know the timing.  We're not sure about any number of things regarding using the high tunnel.  We've read plenty, we've thought about it plenty and we've asked plenty of questions of those who seem to know.  None of that is a substitute for actually doing it.  So...awaaaaay we go!

Finishing Adaptation of the Poultry Palace/Pavilion
This task is far bigger than we give it credit for.  In fact, an entire blog post would be required to explain what we hope to do there.  Suffice it to say that we only have on secure room in that building for poultry right now.  We are looking to build three more.  This includes access doors to the outside, ramps, fencing and whatever else.  The former hog pit needs filling and the lean to structure needs to come down.  This doesn't even mention the desire to add solar collectors (among other things) to this building.  We'll just be happy to get the poultry moved over there.
Adding a Walk In Cooler
This was on last year's list and the prior year's list.  It simply has to get done.  If our capital is not devoured by a new boiler for the house (as it was last year) we should be able to get this done.

Putting the Fence(s) Up
It seems like this task never ends.  Maybe if we can get motivated, we can actually become somewhat skillful in doing this?  Here's hoping.

Acquiring a Sustainable Energy Grant/Loan
It's time for us to work on this one seriously.  We have a great roof for mounting solar panels (poultry pavilion/palace) and we'd like to find ways to use sustainable energy for the farm needs.  The problem with things like this is the need for significant chunks of time to research and complete the applications.  Then, the real work begins once you do get the money.

Complete the "Truck Barn Repurposing" Project
It was named the "Truck Barn" because we could put our truck in it.  No, not very creative.  Sorry.  However, this is the season we feel we need to complete the work that has been ongoing for the past few years.  It has a new roof, it has shelves.  We now need to reframe both the east and west walls, replacing one large door with a standard sized door and window.  We need to put a working large door up and rearrange the west door a bit.  I think we were reminded why this is important when we found that the snow blows all the way to the west side of the building (inside) through the gaping hole in the east that is supposed to have a door in it.  The walk in cooler goes here as well.  So, I guess we had better get electricity to the building.  hm.

Create New Washing/Packing Area
We'd like to have our cleaning and packing area a bit closer to a water source so we don't have to drag hoses around so much.  But, if we want it, we first have to finish cleaning up the old downed building (mostly done).  We might be happy enough to finally get it all cleaned up.  Anything more will be gravy.  I like gravy.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Top Blog Posts of 2010

Before we go to far with this - we thought we should point out that our most popular posts are now linked at the left.  You may want to scroll down and check them out if you would like to get a flavor for what happens here without having to slog through the entire blog.

And, per the norm - this list goes to 11.

Monday, January 10, 2011

2010 in Review

What were the top 10 "events" on the farm in 2010?  I'm glad you asked!

We realize that you've seen some of this already - if you've been reading the blog.  If you have not, maybe you can get an idea about our year by reading just ONE post.  Ok, that's too much pressure.  How about if I just list 10 things that were fairly big occurrences for us at the Genuine Faux Farm starting with......

10. Challenging Growing Season
Ok, this could, once again, be our number one event for the year.  We don't want to dwell on it - yet we cannot ignore it.   Entrenched weather systems made life very difficult for us.  Excessive rains saw many of our crops die as they sat in/under water for periods of time that were simply too long for them.  It's a terrible thing to watch crops you've worked hard to get going turn into nothing.  It's even worse if you feel the weight of responsibility of growing for your CSA members.

While we don't wish for this sort of growing season ever again,  we have to admit that some very important things happened that might not have if it were a "normal" year.  For example, a normal year would not have encouraged us to work so hard on short season crops for the fall.  As a result, we learned how to successfully time and grow a number of fall greens, legumes and root crops that we might otherwise have thought about, but not tried.  As has been said - it's an ill wind that blows no one any good.  It was an ill wind, but we still see positives coming from it.

9. Durnik the tractor
This may rank first. as the 'surprise' of the year.  This purchase was not in our year plan and was only barely on our radar as a potential future purchase.  But, the opportunity came and we took it.  While we're still locating implements for it and we are only just getting used to it, we see this tractor as one of our moves to become a more resilient farming operation.  And, we still think of our neighbor, Kent, as we use it on the farm. 

8. the Poultry Pavilion/Palace
We initially called this thing the Poultry Palace, but we are wondering if Pavilion might be a better label?  The reality that the barn will likely not be repaired made it important that we begin working on new shelter for our poultry.  Step one occurred this year with the cleaning of the old hog confinement building.  One room was built inside for the turkeys with a door to the back pasture area.  Fences were put up for one of the three paddocks.  There is still much to do with the pasture and the building.  But, a successful start on converting the building is sufficient to make the list.  Where will we find the time and resources to complete this project?  We'll figure it out, it is worth it.

7. Cold Frames
The seed starting operation in the Spring includes time consuming tasks that desperately needed addressing.    Our first move was facilitated with the construction of some fine cold frames (thanks Dad).  There is certainly much more that could be done in this area.  But, the first step is often the most difficult. 

6. Supportive CSA Members

One of the ideas behind Community Supported Agriculture farms such as ours is the idea that farmshare holders invest in the farm and accept that they will deal with the success OR failure of the farm during that given season.  It is one way we can get around the fact that farms such as ours cannot get reasonable crop insurance.  But, having that insurance does not mean you wish to use it.  In fact, we do our best to do everything we are able to do in order to avoid using it in any way, shape or form.  That is our responsibility - to work hard, make intelligent choices and to continue to learn so we can provide produce in nearly any growing season.

On the other hand, if we had not had difficulties this year, we might not have fully realized exactly how much our CSA members mean to us.  Rob was actually somewhat embarrassed to have farmshare holders remind HIM that their membership in the farm included an explicit agreement to be supportive through the good and the bad.  Suffice it to say, the support we received from our members this season kept our heads above water (literally and figuratively).  If it were not for them, we would not have had the energy to put into our late summer and fall activities.  As a result, we had excellent fall crops and energy to work hard to find ways to reduce the impact extreme weather might have on our crops in the future.

5. Changing of the Guard

We have various non-human 'farm managers' at GFF.  2010 saw some of them leave us.  Doughboy had long been one of our farm cats who could be counted on to accept a good skritch behind the ear and share opinions about our cooking.  For an outdoor cat, ten (or so) years is pretty good.  But, we were still sad when he left for warm car hood in the sky.  Bob, the barnyard manager, ran into a problem he couldn't handle and he is now succeeded by Harold - who looks very similar to Bob - but with less of a penchant for posing.  And, the most painful loss occurred when our female indoor cat, Eowyn, left us after nineteen years.  While we still miss her and her brother, Strider, we are honored with the presence of sister cats Bree and Hobnob.

And, perhaps on a less dramatic level, we finally retired our computer of 7 years and purchased a new one.  New computers are nice, but they don't necessarily equate to more productivity.

4. GFF Takes a Break

The hardest thing for us to do is to GET OFF THE FARM.  But, if there is one thing we are learning, it is that we need to take care of ourselves so that our work continues to be productive and positive - even if the year is a tough one.  During the summer months, Rob plays baseball in Newton - which forces time away.  The good news on that front is that he managed to get his first and second wins as a pitcher for the Newton Cardinals.

During the height of the season - while most growers were slogging through mud - we had the opportunity to participate in the filming of a discussion of Iowa growers for an HBO special that will air regarding the 2012 farm bill.  It was interesting to be involved, but it was so much more helpful to commiserate with others about the season and its difficulties.  Even better yet, we had some friends from Scattergood Friends School farm come up and work on our farm for half a day.  We can't explain how much better our attitudes became after that.  And, another oddity for us - we went to a concert in the middle of the growing season.  We must be getting lazy.

The year culminated in a trip to Florida to visit family.  The simple fact that we were not doing chores every single day was a blessing. 

3. Our first Extended Season CSA

With the addition of a high tunnel, we have produce later in the season.  And so... we created an extended season CSA that ran for seven weeks (Nov-Dec).  Participants received excellent variety of greens and other short season crops.  We're pleased with our first attempt at extended season growing in the high tunnel.  We feel the share value given to our members was excellent.

2. New Feed Bin

Our method for securing feed for the poultry has been to load the truck up with 11 trash cans (used exclusively for feed - in case you worried about this).  We would then drive up to Frantzen farms and load each can separately, pushing it to the front of the truck as they fill.  Upon returning to the farm, we had to unload each container and move it into the barn or Poultry Palace/Pavilion.  Each can probably weighs around 200 lbs.

Well, say hello to efficiency!  Thanks to Jeff (the superhero Band Saw Man), we now have a trailer with a bulk bin on it.  The filling goes much faster and the trailer merely needs to be placed under shelter when we return.  I guess we need to improve our backing up the trailer skills. 

1. Construction of the new high tunnel

We held a field day for the construction of the new building and we were able to grow for an extended season CSA all because of this structure.  It's the most visible change on the farm and it is the one that has changed what we do the most.  We've blogged about it before and we'll blog about it again.  So, we'll just leave you with a picture.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Weather Information Statement for 2010

We noted the following on Wudnerground and thought we'd pass it on.  At least we have some ideas as to why we had less than steller crops in 2008 and 2010.  The numbers will be different for our area (probably higher numbers in 2008 and perhaps slightly lower in 2010?), but they give an idea of the scope of things.

... 2010 precipitation records for Des Moines...

2010 was a very wet year across Iowa... including at Des Moines where
annual totals approached records in several categories as detailed

Most total precipitation for a calendar year

1. 56.81 1881
2. 55.88 1993
3. 51.77 2010
4. 49.42 2008
5. 47.60 1882

Most days with at least 0.10" of precipitation

1. 100 1993
2. 94 1881
3. 92 1983
4. 87 2010
5. 85 1982

Most days with at least 0.50" of precipitation

1. 39 2010
2. 38 1993
3. 35 2008
   35 1881
5. 31 1982
   31 1928
   31 1882

Most days with at least 1.00" of precipitation

1. 17 1993
2. 16 1982
   16 1881
4. 15 1902
5. 14 2010
   14 1900
   14 1882

Saturday, January 8, 2011

More Veg Recommendations

We have no problem sharing what we've learned with respect to varieties that do well on our farm.  But, the key of recommendations such as these is the fact that it is very specific to our soil, regional weather patterns and our cultural practices.  So, take these for what they are worth - they work well for us AND many people in the area have taken these recommendations with success as well.

The rules of this list are that we recommend these with no reservations whatsoever.  These are, in our minds, the best of the best.  Not all veg are represented here - which probably means we don't have a variety that we give our highest recommendations.

Also, you may want to consider viewing our (slightly dated) web pages with variety reviews.  These can be found here.  All listed below are open pollinated unless you see "F1" near the name, these are hybrids.

Tomato: Amish Paste, Black Krim, German Pink, Green Zebra, Italian Heirloom, Golden Sunray, Speckled Roman, Trophy
Sweet Pepper: Golden Treasure, Jimmy Nardello's Frying Pepper, Napolean Sweet, Tolli Sweet
Hot Pepper: Wenk's Yellow Hot, Beaver Dam, Joe's Long Cayenne, Hot Portugal
Cucumber: Marketmore 97 or 76, Green Slam
Legumes: Jade (green bean)
Brassica: Kolibri (F1 kohlrabi), Red Russian (kale), Black Summer (F1 pok choi)
Root Crops: St Valery (carrot), French Breakfast (radish), Helios (radish), Chioggia (beet), Detroit Dark Red (beet), German Butterball (potato), Music (garlic), German Xtra Hardy (garlic), Sierra Blanca (F1 onion), Ailsa Craig Exhibition (onion), King Richard (leek)
Summer Squash/Zuke: Costata Romanesco (zuke), Raven (F1 zuke), Tromboncino (zuke), Sunburst Patty Pan (F1 summer squash)
Squash/Pumpkin: Musquee de Provence (pumpkin), Long Island Cheese (pumpkin), Burgess Buttercup, Waltham Butternut, Marina di Chioggia
Lettuce: Bronze Arrowhead, Pablo, Grandpa Admires, Crispmint, Forellenschus
Greens: Bloomsdale (spinach)
Herbs: Sweet Genovese (basil)
Melon: Pride of Wisconsin, Oka, Sweet Siberian (watermelon), Mountain Yellow Sweet (watermelon)
Eggplant: Rosa Bianca, Listada de Gandia, Pintung Long
Companion Flowers: State Fair Zinnia, Empress of India Nasturtium, Borage

Friday, January 7, 2011

Highly Recommended

To continue our mini-series of vegetable variety posts, we thought it might be interesting to play a game of 'lifeboat' with the different varieties we grow.  After all, the seed catalogues have arrived and we (and many of you) are looking at them with thoughts of beautiful, weed-free gardens to come.  What better way to celebrate this feeling than to consider and share what we feel have been some of the best varieties we can recommend?

The biggest difficulty?  Limiting what we put here.  We could do a top ten, we could choose the best of each type of vegetable...we could do any number of things.  Regardless of what we do here, there will be others we would happily recommend - but such lists lose some of their interest if we just list everything we think is a good choice.

So, the rules of this list are as follows:
1. It must be a variety we have three or more years of history growing.
2. Crop failures due to weather that resulted in crop failures of all of that vegetable do not count against a variety.
3. To make the list, the variety must be the ONE variety we would grow at GFF if we were FORCED to grow only one.
4. We must balance productivity, taste, reliability, etc to make our choices.  Choices are not necessarily the one variety we might recommend to a new gardener, nor are they necessarily our absolute favorites for taste.  Selection does not mean we wouldn't miss other varieties.  But, it does mean that, when push came to shove, we would pick this one over others.

Tomato: Italian Heirloom
No surprise here if you've read other things we've written.  But, with all of the other great varieties we grow, this was NOT an easy choice.  But, we still couldn't see ourselves selecting any other if we had to choose only one.
Lettuce: Pablo
The taste is fabulous.  The plants are beautiful and they seem to work pretty well in most weather.  We might not recommend this one to a beginning gardener, and it doesn't give Tammy the romaine she would like.  Suffice to say, we had a good debate about Bronze Arrowhead and Crispmint for this category.  In the end, Tammy lets Rob win the argument - but barely.  Please note that we avoided breaking lettuce down into types of lettuce to get around the difficult selection!
Sweet Pepper: Golden Treasure
So many wonderful peppers with so many different things to offer.  But, like the tomatoes, one variety defines all that is good about the vegetable.  We just hope that nobody actually makes us grow one variety!
Hot Pepper: Wenk's Yellow Hot
This one was also very difficult because there are so many types of hot peppers.  And, each has their uses.  But, we went with one that we felt might get the most general use of the group.  These don't leave an aftertaste like jalapenos, but can be used in their place.  They're not too warm, look good, are easy to grow and have a great taste. 
Eggplant: Rosa Bianca
Not even close here.  Rosa Bianca all the way.  The best taste by far and very much the 'gateway' eggplant that encourages people to try others.
Garlic: German Xtra Hardy
We like Music, but rather than a few large cloves, German Xtra has more cloves per head at a more moderate size.
Kale: Red Russian
The best all around kale with the widest temperature range for production.
Green Beans: Jade
Beans that taste better even when beans are on the bigger side.  Plants that just keep producing once they start.  An incredible gourmet taste. I don't remember what encouraged us to grow these, but thank goodness they made our grow list when they did.
Dry Bean: Arikara
Consistent production with dry beans that can be used for most any recipe.  We have to admit that dry beans have not been given the serious attention they deserve.  We grow them as much for their companion effect with potatoes than anything.   But we do use the dry beans much more on the farm as a winter staple. There was a strong vote for Lina Cisco's Bird Egg and Jacob's Cattle.  But, in the end, we went with the one that is most consistent on the farm.
Winter Squash: Waltham Butternut
It's awfully difficult to say no to Burgess Buttercup or Marina di Chioggia, but we find ourselves doing so here.  Waltham tends to store better and be much more reliable for production.  The solid stems of the moschata prevent losses to borers.  And, of course, they taste good too.  Tammy wins this argument even after sad faces by Rob with regards to the buttercup.
Summer Squash: Sunburst Patty Pan
One of very few hybrids that make our list.  The reality is that we have yet to find an open pollinated summer squash that produces the way we need it to.  And, these spaceship shaped fruits have a slightly buttery taste that we both like.
Zucchini: Raven
Another hybrid.  We choose this in part because some of our open pollinated varieties fail to meet some of the criteria for being grown on the farm for 3 years or more.  We might prefer to recommend Black Beauty (open pollinated) for longer production periods, but Raven develops softer and smaller seeds, so you can stir fry larger zukes when they get away from you.  And, you can just do succession plantings if you want to extend the season.
Melon: Pride of Wisconsin
A sturdy muskmelon type.  They taste great, are reliable and they travel and store better than many.
Watermelon: Mountain Yellow Sweet
There was a lively discussion on this one.  We might choose differently if our criteria were more specific.  For example, we might not choose this one for a beginning gardener nor would we choose it if it were the only watermelon we were growing for the CSA (though we'd be tempted).  Simply put, this is the watermelon we've missed the most in years when that crop doesn't come through for us.  We are very much hoping to have a good melon year next year so we can share this taste with everyone.
Carrot: St Valery
Classic carrot shape and color.  Rarely gets woody.  Tammy loves the taste.  They hold in the field very well.  They also store well.
Turnip: White Egg
We break a rule with this one.  We have only grown White Egg for one year, but the taste and texture was superior to all others and production was similar.  That, and we wanted to avoid recommending the standard (Purple Top White Globe).  We don't dislike Purple Top, we just like this one much more.
Radish: French Breakfast
It was close between Helios and French Breakfast.  But, this one seems to have a wider range of viable temperatures.
Kohlrabi: Kolibri
Purple kohlrabi!  Gotta like it.
Broccoli: Early Dividend
There is a significant problem with this selection.  The industry has apparently discontinued it.  so, we have been scrambling to find something to take its place.  This illustrates one of the reasons we prefer open pollinated seed as this was a hybrid.  For taste, we like Umpqua (open pollinated) but it is inconsistent in forming heads.  It does provide alot of side shoots, so would be great for the garden. We're not so sure we'd put our eggs in this basket if we have to fill CSA shares.
Cauliflower: Early Snowball
Beautiful white heads on self-blanching plants.
Basil: Sweet Genovese
It's produced for us even in the worst years.
Beet: Chioggia
The 'gateway beet.'  Get someone try one of these and they'll realize beets really can be pretty good.  Next thing you know, you'll be willing to try other beets.  We still prefer this beet to any of the others.  Consistent production that hold in the field well.
Potato: German Butterball
Who needs Yukon Gold when you can have one of these?  You haven't had a potato until you've had a German Butterball.
Cucumber: Marketmore 97 or 76
You'd better like cucumber though.
Edible Pod Pea: Oregon Sugar Pod II
We actually liked its predecessor better, even though it was more susceptible to powdery mildew.  But, the taste is similar and production can be a longer season if you are SURE to keep it clean picked.
Cut and come again greens: Bloomsdale Spinach
We admit that we are partial to spinach over other greens.  Anything that will grow in December and can be harvested in January under plastic is worth considering.  Just don't expect to have much success in the heat of summer.
Sweet corn: Silver Queen
We tend to prefer a bit more of the traditional corn taste to some of the super sweet varieties that are so popular now.  Silver Queen is a white kernal corn with a longish season.  Get it picked on time and eaten and you have a real treat.  There is a reason corn can be considered DESSERT.
Pumpkin: Musquee de Provence
We both agree that Long Island Cheese would be more reliable.  But, we also both agree that Musquee is a better pie pumpkin based on taste alone.  I'd be happier getting one ripe Musquee than if I was able to get 3 Long Island Cheese from the same hill.  Obviously, my opinion changes if I have to select for commercial production.  But, I wonder if growing just Musquee would lead to efforts on our part to innovate to provide it with what it needed to produce more.  Please note that this is not a knock on Long Island Cheese, it is a great pie pumpkin - but we had to pick one.

Have any comments or questions on these?  Feel free to comment on the post!

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Prior Year Veg Variety Winners (Where are they Now?)

We find it very useful to review prior year 'awards' because it shows us whether or not we have 'one season wonders.'  After all, if we're going to recommend a variety to others, it makes sense to review them and make sure we don't have selective amnesia about their production.  Since we are now in planning season, it makes sense for us to take the time to review prior years at this time.

1. German Butterball potato
2. Pablo lettuce
3. Chioggia beet
4. Jaune Flamme tomato
5. Quadrato asti Giallo pepper
honorable mention: Listada de Gandia eggplant, Waltham Butternut squash, Jade green beans, Crispmint lettuce, Jimmy Nardello's Frying Pepper

2009 was such a different growing season than 2010.  Potatoes and winter squash drowned in the June rains this past season.  Eggplant barely survived to give us some (very late) fruit just before the frosts.  But, of all the potatoes we put in, German Butterball was the only one that gave us anything.
Of those crops that produced this year, we can make some comparisons.  For example, Pablo and Crispmint, the two lettuces in the 2009 list, did just fine this year.  In fact, Pablo very nearly made the top 10, and Crispmint would surely have been top 20. We've learned a bit about Crispmint's holding ability in very cold weather (not as good as we thought it would be), but it really doesn't make us all that unhappy, it just changes how we will use it in the high tunnel next fall.  Our opinion of Pablo couldn't get much higher, but it's performance in the high tunnel might even increase it a tad.  Only a weaker spring kept it from 2010's top 10.  Jade green beans are still the taste standard, but the plants are less happy with cool, wet weather.  Hence, they didn't do as well as Provider in 2010.  And, Chioggia beets still are our favorite beet - we just couldn't get many of our succession plantings of beets (any kind) to germinate.  When they did germinate, Chioggia and Detroit Dark Red still led the way.

1. Dr Wyche's Yellow tomato
2. St Valery carrot
3. Dwarf Blue Curled Scotch kale
4. Crispmint lettuce
5. King Richard Leek

Dwarf Blue Curled Scotch kale is a beautiful and tasty variety that will not leave our production lists any time soon.  But, this season illustrated for us why we try to grow more than one variety of each crop.  This variety disliked the wet feet more than Red Russian, and if we had relied on it as our only kale, we would have been disappointed.  Otherwise, this variety is consistent in most seasons.  St Valery is still our favorite carrot and it was valiant in its attempts to do something this year.  Crispmint is still a favorite lettuce and King Richard is the most consistent leek we grow.  In fact, King Richard has a milder taste and very long stems that are prized for leeks.  The disappointment comes from Dr. Wyche's Yellow tomato.  We wonder if it couldn't stand the pressure of being number one?  We will grow it again in 2011, but it will be given a short leash as we consider replacing it with Kellogg's Breakfast.  Our suspicion is that it is a variety that is more susceptible to the blight that ran rampant the last two years.  Since these things cycle, it is possible that this tomato will return to prominence.

1. Jimmy Nardello's Frying Pepper
2. Mountain Sweet Yellow watermelon
3. Italian Heirloom tomato
4. Sweet Genovese basil
5. Burgess Buttercup winter squash

Jimmy Nardello's Frying pepper is still tops in our book.  Every pepper took a hit in 2010, so you can't blame the variety.  You see Italian Heirloom back on the list this year, so it remains a top variety for us.   Burgess Buttercup made a nice comeback in 2009, but drowned like the rest of the winter squash in 2010.  So, we still like this one and have actually increased the row feet this variety will cover in 2011.  Sweet Genovese remains our primary basil, giving us consistent yields of excellent green basil.  Last year was not a great basil year only because we could not get into the fields to transplant them.

The watermelon is yet another story.  Our taste buds still remember this watermelon fondly, so we plan on growing it yet again.  But, the reality has been that watermelon is one of our lower priority crops.  If weather puts us behind in our planting or weeding, then watermelons and sweet corn often get the short end of the stick.  Provided the new equipment does what is required of it, we should be able to get these into the ground in 2011.  I have this dream of a watermelon tasting event this summer - let's make that happen!

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Top Ten Veg of 2010

A newsletter tradition for GFF has been picking the varieties of veg we grow that get our TOP TEN honors for the year.  This season, the top ten goes to the blog. We had some difficulty choosing this year because it illustrated for us how many crops and varieties did poorly this growing season.  On the other hand, it reminds us how much we are still able to grow even in a down season.

10. Practically any cucumber variety - but we'll go with Marketmore 97

Yes, this was the year of the cucumber.  Ask any CSA member and they'll tell you that we were even suggesting grilling cucumbers (it actually works pretty well).  The turkeys also received more than a fair share of cucumbers.  But, since we have to choose one variety for this list, we select Marketmore 97.  We have also grown Marketmore 76 with great success in the past.  The plants are sturdy and very productive.  Plants produce larger slicers that are typically straight and uniform in shape.  If we were forced to grow one cucumber - we would go with a Marketmore.

9. Italian Heirloom Tomato

As we were planting the tomatoes, I was heard telling someone else that the Italian Heirlooms were our most important tomato.  Why? Because they consistently give us more pounds of marketable tomato per plant than most varieties.  And - they give us great tasting and easy to process tomatoes.  Perhaps some of the reason they do so well is the elevated status we give them in comparison to most other tomatoes.  But, I feel they've earned the honor.  The real kicker was the 200-300 tomatoes we pulled off of 6 plants in the high tunnel in October.  Most were still green - but the size and quality of these were amazing.

8.  Costata Romanesco Zucchini

Production levels were consistent, but not on a par with most hybridized zucchini (3.8 per foot with a difficult start).  They are not as uniform, they're skin is softer and they tend to vine more wildly than hybrid zukes.  These are all things that will cause most commercial growers to pull these from production.  On the other hand, these vines survived being surrounded by water for three weeks and some of our hybrids produced less well than these.  The real reason for being here was the *taste* of these zucchini.  In a vegetable stir fry or grilling packet, we found ourselves picking out the Costata's to eat them first.  They are that good.

7. Provider Green Beans

We tend to overlook our green beans when we do our end of year selections.  I suspect part of the problem is that we only grow two varieties of green beans and 30+ varieties of tomatoes.  Provider consistently gives us good yields, seems to handle adverse weather reasonably well and the beans taste great.  They beat out Jade because they produced a much better crop this last summer.  The best news for us is that Provider has a long history and is unlikely to disappear from seed catalogues.

6. Red Russian Kale
 The early season kale started us off right, but quickly died in the wet June weather.  The last to go were the Red Russian plants.  But, the last planting paid us handsomely with excellent harvests that went well into November.  These plants are easy to harvest and provide us with a kale that can be used in a wide range of recipes.  Leaves can get fairly large before they get too tough for eating.  The jury is still out on high tunnel production of this variety, but early signs seem positive.  We'll see how the plants perk back up when the hours of sun increase.
5. Tiger Eye Shell Bean
We have had difficulty growing standard lima beans on our farm with any consistency, so we thought we'd give Tiger Eye a trial.  These can be used as either a shell bean or a dry bean.  The shell beans are a perfectly fine replacement for limas - not exactly the same - but those who like one will like the other.  These plants handled adverse conditions and did not need the amount of heat that limas typically desire.  They produce in a shorter season and give you an opportunity for either a late planting or doing early harvest for shell beans and late harvest for dry beans.

4. Kolibri Kohlrabi
 I admit that we favor open pollinated varieties to hybrids, and now is not the time to discuss the why's of it.  But, here is a hybrid that we let crack our top ten list for the year.  Kolibri is a purple kohlrabi.  If you peal it, you will find the center to be white like any other kohlrabi.  The fruit tend to be a bit smaller and are usually much more tender.  Given the choice between a green kohlrabi and one of these purples, our resident kohlrabi taste expert (Tammy) will choose kolibri every time.  Is the taste dramatically different?  No.  It seems to be more of a texture difference.  Kolibri tends to get ripe earlier than our other kohlrabi and they tend to be consistent in their production.

3. Black Summer Pok Choi
Pok choi is not one of the crops we have great familiarity with.  Last year was our first foray into growing pok choi as a fall crop. The success of that crop into November encouraged us to do more this season.  Black Summer maintains a beautiful vase-like shape throughout its development, allowing us to pick them small or large.  They hold in the field well and can handle very cold temperatures.  Don't try this variety in the spring as it tends to bolt.  The pok choi was a wonderful bright spot for us this fall.  Enough so, that we will look for a variety that might work in the spring as well.  High tunnel production of pok choi was a good thing.  If we can manage to get into the tunnel this week, we expect to find a few more for us to pick.

2. Music Garlic
We had a very good stand of garlic this year, but had some difficulty getting them pulled out before they rotted in the wet June weather.   Of the group, we were probably most pleased with one of our standbys.  Music is an excellent all-purpose garlic that tends to give larger sized cloves.  Plants are hardy, handling all kinds of weather.  For our area, we would tend to recommend Music to a person who is looking to grow garlic for the first time.

1. Bronze Arrowhead Lettuce
Lettuce that can handle cold weather.  Lettuce that can handle warm weather.  Lettuce that holds in the field well.  Lettuce that can be used as cut and come again plants.  Lettuce with good taste, getting a bit stronger in the summer.  Lettuce with excellent colors.  Lettuce that is easy to start, transplant and harvest.  Lettuce that still sits in our high tunnel waiting for us to pick January.  What's not to like?