Monday, February 27, 2012

Veg Variety Changes for 2012

The seed order is complete.  And, since it is complete, we thought we'd fill everyone in on new varieties, varieties that have gone from trial to full production and varieties we have dropped (and why).

New Trials:
   Chinese Cabbage - Minuet
   Daikon (spring) - Discovery
   Leek - Bandit (for overwintered leeks)
   Cipollini Onion - Yellow Borettana
   Bunching/Green Onions - Guardsman, Deep Purple
   Kale - Ripbor
   Green Bean - Empress
   Pole Bean - True Red Cranberry
   Melon - Minnesota Midget (for tunnel production)
   Zucchini - Golden Zucchini
   Summer Squash - Success PM
   Pea - Mammoth Melting Sugar

Move from Trial to Full Scale:
   Daikon (fall) - Miyashage
   Onion - White Wing, Redwing
   Kohlrabi - Gigante
   Fall Radish - Misato Rose and Black Spanish
   Lima - Christmas Lima
   Turnip - White Egg, Red Round
   Green Bean - Black Valentine

   Kale - Lacinato
 No more on the farm - unless we convince ourselves to reverse this in the future - or the seed is available again:
   Broccoli - Packman (seed not available)
   Pea - Blizzard (seed not available)
   Pea - Maestro (cutting back on shell peas - takes too much to produce enough for the CSA)
   Cucumber - Poinsett 97 (seed not available)
   Cucumber - Longfellow (seems that most people won't take these big cucumbers - even if they do taste great)
   Melons - Schoon's Hard Shell, Prescott Fond Blanc, Sweet Granite (we're cutting back on melons since we've had crop failures of late - trying to focus on a few that have had more reliable results in the past - no more playing around)
   Pepper - Buran will not be planted in the field.  We'll try a few in the high tunnel and see if they like that.  If not, that's it.
   Zucchini - Cashflow (seed no longer available - we have a few left over to plant)
   Summer Squash - Superpik and before that Multipik (This one annoys us - the industry has taken both out and it seems as if we can't expect any constancy in this area.  We're hopeful a new (to us) open pollinated variety from High Mowing will work.  If it does - we may have ourselves the consistency for straight neck summer squash we have wanted for years.)
   Winter Squash - Potimarron and Pennsylvania Dutch (neither liked us much, thus we didn't like them so much.  We have to admit that we wanted Potimarron to work and Penn Dutch was just for fun.)
   Leek - Prizetaker (we like King Richard better)
   Onion - Sierra Blanca (had to buy plants = $ with not so good results = "not coming back")
   Onion - Ruby Ring, Copra (we think we've found better options now)
   Lima - Henderson (we're going to try Christmas Limas - trials show there is potential for a more reliable crop that is easier to pick.  No real qualms about Henderson - but if you can opt to pick bent over all the time vs standing up at least *some* of the time....)

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Culture Shock

Here we are.  Back at home after a conference full of people who are interested enough in organic agriculture/agriculture/etc to attend.  Talk about a bit of a shock when you get back to the 'real world.'

At the conference, we could discuss something like a vegetable crop rotation and not worry so much about whether those involved in the discussion were even remotely interested in the topic.  In all likelihood - every participant in the conversation had their own thoughts on the subject and their own questions.  It was good to explore them with people who had some experience and definite interest.

  In contrast, while this is our blog and we have posted about our rotations, we limit ourselves to the surface to avoid overwhelming or boring everyone else with the topic.  Why?  Because most people who do read the blog are interested in what we do - but not so interested that they want that sort of detail.  Nor do they have experience or personal reason to fully connect with the topic.  We understand that - and that's why these connections with other growers can be so vital.  We can spend time educating the general public about what a rotation is and why it is important *AND* we can discuss various rotation decisions and details with other practitioners.  But, it sure can be hard to transition from one to the other.

Another culture shock for us is leaving a conference where so many people are sold on organic practices to the general public where most people barely care about them.  For those of you who do support organic food production and local food systems - we thank you and are grateful for you.  But, you have to admit that our farm would be considered a bit of an oddball by most people.  Happily, we don't mind being just a little different.  But, there is still adjustments we must make after we leave the conference.

The last isn't really culture shock.  But, it can be jarring nonetheless.

The conference gives us an opportunity to gather all kinds of new information and re introduce ourselves to things we may have heard before, but weren't ready for at the time.  Our time there is full of big ideas and high-minded goals.  It can be invigorating as we tell ourselves how much we hope to accomplish in the coming months and years.

Then we come home and look at the lists of things we already knew we had to do.  And we begin the work of trying to figure out which (if any) of our big ideas from the conference can be integrated into that which we already know we must do.

It can be sobering if we let it overwhelm us.  Yet, I still can't help but be hopeful.  And, I encourage that hope by looking back and seeing where we were one year ago, two years ago and five years ago.  Believe it or not, we've actually moved forward on a number of our 'big ideas.'  It can be done - it just isn't as nice and neat as we might like it to be when we first conceptualize them. 

And so - we see a big week ahead of us.  Let's see what we can achieve.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

An introvert walks into a conference....

Complete this sentence:

An introvert walks into a conference...
(note: this conference had over 3000 attendees)

a. ...and back out again.
b. ...covers his ears, shuts his eyes and starts humming.
c. ...and talks so much his voice is a bit raw by the end.
d.   wait...what?  There was an introvert at the conference?!?
Yes, we have returned from the Organic Farming Conference in LaCrosse, Wisconsin.  And, yes, I tend to be a bit introverted.  And the answer is "C"

Tammy and I have had the great fortune to find a couple of organizations and conferences that focus on bringing together people who are intent on growing good food and finding ways to care for the land and market our products.  It's a great opportunity to talk about what we (and others) are doing.  We can even tell farm stories without editing or explanation - and find that we're not the only ones who have gotten caught on barb wire, run madly after critters that thought a chicken dinner would be lovely or wondered if a combine could be modified for dry beans.

For all of the fine people we had the opportunity to see and converse with during the conference - it was great to see you and wonderful to hear about what you are doing and what you hope to be doing during the coming season.  Thank you for seeking us out or being gracious enough to seem pleased to see us when we sought you out.  It's the quality of people like you that encourage this introvert to interact and be, if only for a while, an extrovert.

And now, this introvert needs much sleep.  All the running around humming with my eyes closed and hands over my ears wore me out.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Promotional Push and Other Stuff

We're beginning our promotional push to fill up our regular season CSA.  One of the tools is the poster you can see below:

You will find this poster soon in the Hansen's Dairy stores in Waterloo and Cedar Falls.  We've long been avid supporters of Hansen's and their farming and business approach and have great respect for the Hansen family and their efforts.  That - and the milk is fabulous.  We're spoiled and have trouble drinking most other milk now.

On other fronts, we are officially moving our Cedar Falls delivery point to the Hansen's Outlet there.  It is very near our old location at Roots Market, so should not cause any undue problems in drive time for our share holders.  We love the Hansen's product and we feel that this is consistent with our desire to promote local, sustainable agriculture that helps you to see who your farmers are and how things are done.

Don't read anything into this, Roots Market fans.  It is primarily the issue that the Roots parking lot and our method of distribution are not likely the best match.  With the number of small children coming with their parents to CSA pickups, we felt this would be a safer location.  And, since Roots is only a couple of blocks away, you can still get all of your shopping done at Hansen's and at Roots after you pick up your shares!

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Liking Winter - Favorite Faux Phauxtos #6

I was waiting to post this picture for a prolonged batch of Winter.  But, we haven't really had that this year.

Winter is my equivalent of most teachers' Summer.  I get to do some different things than when the growing season is going full tilt.  There are conferences I can attend, speaking engagements that people ask me to do and opportunities to be creative.  And, perhaps it would be more accurate to say that I have opportunities to FEEL creative.  Sometimes, the growing season even drives that out of me.

So, if you are wondering why some of the phauxtos I like best are Winter shots, its because I often have more time flexibility to go out and take pictures that I think are interesting, in light that seems appropriate - rather than pictures that are intended to simply record. 

I realize many who read this are getting excited by the possibilities of Spring.  I'm with you on that - sort of.  The transition to Spring represents a transition from flexible time use to the "too much to do and less time to do it in" phase on the farm.  I love Spring, Summer and Fall.  Just not sure I'm ready for them just yet.

Friday, February 17, 2012

What's Cool About Intercropping/Companion Planting

Rob just had the privilege to speak to a group of cool people at Wartburg about diversity on the farm.  This included some information on 'companion planting.'

In the process of preparing for the topic, there were some quick searches to see what new things were out there on the topic.  The first thing I ran into was a short article that sounded like it was hot to debunk companion planting.  Since I want to hear more than one side of an argument, I read it.  And, it turns out that they do not like the use of the terminology because many of those who use that term also use questionable analysis in determining good 'companions.'  In fact, they agreed that there are many beneficial (and non beneficial) plant relationships.  In their mind, it is preferable to use "plant associations" to describe the concept.  They also concede that polyculture or intercropping would be a bit better as well.

Ok, I bit.  Web searches  for plant associations find me all kinds of articles, research, etc that primarily covers forests, prairies and even water systems.

While the terminology may be more accurate and less biased, I sure can't find anything I might care about for growing fruits and vegetables using those terms.  On the other hand, "intercropping" is a pretty good term - but tends to provide me with larger farming system information.  Personally, I am happy to see legumes intercropped with field corn.  But, I'm afraid my 14 acres won't accept that as part of my farming efforts!

On the other hand, there are some interesting studies out there with some cool results.  The problem is that there are only 'some' of these studies.  Funding sources don't appear to be as attracted to this sort of research as they are for GMO seed or the relative safety of glysophates (ok, don't get me started).  You can argue that these things have their place - but they are currently crowding out a whole host of viable tools in the farming toolbox.  When all I have in the toolbox is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

Here is one chart that amazed me.

Look at it carefully.  The control would be cabbage in a study that had NO companion plant nearby.  The others are different types of companions.  By June 9, every plant in the control had damage from cabbage worm/cabbage looper.  NONE of the others had damage at that point.  This is a small ISU study which admittedly only has 2 replications and could stand to be a bit more rigorous.  But, consider this - in other fields, a pilot study that produced results this clear would be followed up in a potentially grand scale -wouldn't it?  And, last I looked, four of the five could be a potential cash crop for the farmer as well as the cabbage. 

Well, perhaps not.  But, Practical Farmers of Iowa is looking to perform a study on cabbage looper and cabbage worm control in cabbage.  If it gets the go ahead, we anticipate that we will be involved in this study.  On the docket is thyme as a companion.  We'll see if others are included.

Friday, February 10, 2012

We're Listing Captain

We may be listing, but let's try to avoid the sinking part!

Everything is beautiful in February.  All the crops are growing well and weed free in our mind's eye.  But, our lists are also growing in February.  Who fertilized them so well?  We really want to know!

Things on our minds (and therefore our lists) at this time.

  • We really need to work on keeping rabbits out of the high tunnel.  We've identified what we want to do.  Now we have to do it.  But, it's frustrating to go out and see lots of nothing where there should be something.
  • Obviously, the barn is no longer an option for use.  That means some of the things we used it for have to find new homes.  We're starting to feel the pressure as the season creeps closer.  
  • Then there's all the paper work that really MUST get done.  We're plugging along, but paper work seems to beget paperwork.  Just like each line item on a list begets more line items.  Even when you cross one off!
  • Seed starting time is coming!  Yep, onions and perennial spices will get planted in trays very soon.  Uf.  Are we really doing this already?
  • Being involved in grants and research is great.  But, they all have their things that need to get done.  And, of course, they need to get done before we get to absorbed by the growing season.  Hmmmmm.
  • Are you beginning to wonder why a blog post is appearing when I have lists of things to do?  So am I!  But, there is no denying the therapeutic quality of a blog post for the writer.
  • It would be nice to accomplish a few house repair items before the season gets going too.  The humans deserve a decent place to live too, don't they?  No.  Ok, chicken room it is!  As long as we keep the hay fresh in the house, all is well.  And, I thought this list was supposed to help clarify my thoughts - now I'm confused!
  • On the plus side, most of our seed orders have already arrived.  Yay!
  • If you are familiar with our farm even a little bit, you might recall that there is a building slab with remnants of an old building still on it.  We've been working on cleaning that area up for years now.  This Spring.  We want it done.  It is time.  I said that last year.  Uh oh.
  • On the other hand, we don't have a giant maple tree to clean up this Spring, nor do we have to take down and level out a fence line that has been on the farm for decades.  Does this mean we have a chance to get to that building cleaned up?
  • The walk-in cooler project is resurfacing.  There is no doubt it needs to get done.  There is doubt in my mind as to whether it *will* get done.  That's the way things on the farm go sometimes.
  • More portable bird shelters are on the docket.  We're fine tuning.  There's a fine line between portable and kite-like.
  • Hmmm. Maybe we should start working on recruiting a work crew for the season.
This is how we cope.  The list we are thinking about/worrying about/considering/working on (pick the moment and one of these applies) is long and has alot of question marks.  But, we look at 2011 and see the amazing list of accomplishments on the farm for the year.  And we think about all of the help we received from a bunch of people (thank you all!).  That's when we realize that a) a list is only a list  b) we will accomplish a number of things this year  c) the list of accomplishments for the year will have its differences from the wish list of February.  That's how it is and that will be ok.

Monday, February 6, 2012

On the Fly

It's time for a quick farm report.  And, since I'm not feeling 'creative,' we'll just rely on a bunch of blurbs and see if it makes any sense in the end.

  • We have attended the PFI Conference (Jan) and will be attending the Cooperator's Meeting this week (PFI again).  We'll see if we can influence some of the research projects sponsored by PFI this year.  
  • The vegetable seed orders are in!  We still need to get the cover crop order in and the potato seed order in.  So, I guess we're not REALLY done.
  • Started the organic certification paperwork for 2012.  It gets easier every year as I'm able to build on prior years work.  That, and I know better what I'm doing. can be a good thing.
  • We're modifying and improving the field plans again this year.  Of course, I was hoping to just reuse last year's plans.  But, we learned so many things last year with our new equipment...  That and we're changing the rotation in hopes that it handles the last of the residual issues form 2008 and 2010.
  • Speaking of changing the rotation.... (*we were?!*)  For those who don't know or remember - we have two field/plot rotations.  One is a 7 year rotation and the other is 4 year (soon to be 5?).  We've flip flopped some crops between the two in response to what we've learned.  It sounds like a good move.
  • We are taking reservations for CSA spots this year.  Plenty of openings.  Spread the word.
  • The hens are laying, the hens are laying.  Something about averaging 4.5 - 5 dozen eggs a day.  
  • Speaking of birds.  We still have 2 turkeys available for sale.  Anyone?  Anyone?
  • Thinking back to crop changes.  We are anticipating using a paper mulch this year on a trial basis.  We'll probably talk about it more on the blog later, but suffice it to say, we're trying to hold the weeds down to a dull roar.
  • Lots of building, fixing and reconfiguring are on the docket for this season (again).  We're looking at new doors on two buildings, making a new hen room and chick room in another building, finally putting a deck on the back of the house... Ok, the list is long.  As always, balancing time and money is the issue.  
  • We'll be going to the organic conference in LaCrosse again this February.  Anyone want the A to Z cookbook?  Let us know.
  • Tammy is on sabbatical this term.  All I can say is that this is a much deserved change of pace for her.  She still has plenty to do, but it is nice to have the schedule flexibility.  I'm very proud of her work.
  • It looks like we're going to have our Cedar Falls drop off at Hansen's Outlet in Cedar Falls - it is only a few blocks from the Roots drop off.  But, we feel this will be a bit safer than the parking lot at Roots.  We were just getting a bit too nervous about all of the traffic combined with the smaller children, etc.  Certainly, Hansen's will be busy as well, but we think we can provide a more contained environment.  More on this topic at a later date as well.
  • We keep saying it, but our time seems to get swallowed up.  The big CSA signup push is COMING.  We need to get through the Cooperator's Meeting first, then we go!
  • Billing for the CSA.  The stamps have arrived, time for Rob to put the billing together!  
  • On another front, Rob is completing a postal history exhibit to be shown in Cleveland.  If you scroll down the blog a bit, you'll get an idea as to some of the contents.
  • If you are looking for presentations from the two of us - now is the time to ask.  If not, don't ask.  But, say hello anyway.  We are usually polite.  
Well...ok.  Tammy is polite, kind and good looking.  That guy with the red well.  He takes showers periodically.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Are we trying to fix what's broken?

We do a fair bit of reading in the Winter regarding various agriculture issues, philosophies, problems and potential solutions.  We also try to keep an open mind so we can understand all sides of the issue, even if we are decidedly opposed to certain approaches.  This alone can be quite a task, especially when the item just read was clearly written by someone who does *not* care about opposing views.

Some of the topics that I've recently read about that make me a little less than happy include, but are not limited to, grafting tomatoes, GMO seed, atrazine use, plastic mulch and commercial agriculture rotations.

In most of these cases, discussion boiled down to the bottom line - was the approach profitable in the end for the farmer?   I have no problem with this specifically.  In fact, I agree that it is critical for farmers (including ourselves) to earn a profit that is reasonable and appropriate.  But, I disagree with the tendency to boil it all down to dollars and cents to the exclusion of other things of value.  I especially disagree when I realize how easily the facts, numbers and analysis can be turned in more than one direction. 

In fact, I begin to wonder if these issues actually deal with what is broken? 

Example 1: crop rotations
There are now a number of studies that show that Iowa farms that would be willing to add a third year to their rotation would see increased yields.  In other words, conventional farms would get better corn and soybean yields if they added a grain, or some such thing to their rotation (a 3 year instead of 2 year rotation).    And yet, we see all sorts of research attempting optimize the 2 year (or even 1 year - corn on corn) rotation.  Is this because the 3rd crop has no value?  No.  But, it does require more agility or flexibility by the farm instead of a rigidly specialized system.  And, the bigger a farm gets - once it gets to a certain size - the less flexible or agile it becomes.

I realize this is, perhaps, an over-simplification of the whole matter.  But - I still have to ask:

Do we continue to work so hard to develop new seed, sprays and tools to support shorter crop rotations because we are trying to improve yields to "feed the world" or are we doing it to facilitate very large, specialized farms?  Since it tends to come down to the money, I suspect it is more of the latter than the former.

In fact, most farmers I talk to would admit a 3rd crop in the rotation would probably be a good idea.  But, they will stick with their shorter rotations and they have their reasons.  One of these reasons has to do with the system that rewards growing certain crops to the exclusion of others.  Another has to do with the infrastructure that has grown up to specialize in only a couple of crops.  In short, it takes some initiative to break out of a short crop rotation.

So - what really is broken here?  Is it the strains of corn and soybeans we plant?  The tools we use?  The herbicides, pesticides and fungicides we use to control weeds, insects, etc in our crops?  Or is it the fact that we need to increase the demand of corn/soybean products?  You would think so since so much or our R&D goes to these subject areas.

Maybe I'm wrong.  Feel free to tell me here - or tell me what IS broken.  Let's see where this goes.