Wednesday, November 27, 2013

A Crate Full of Grateful

Thanksgiving is still our favorite holiday and we hope it will always be that way.  We take time to reflect and remember the things and people who got us where we are.  We thought we'd use a "Picture This" approach to show some of the things we are grateful for right now.  The list is opportunistic.  In other words, we selected pictures that we saw that made us feel grateful about something in particular.  There are many, many things that won't show up here and we hope that everyone takes it as intended - an opportunity to give thanks, with the knowledge that we can never be thankful enough.

And we resisted getting a tractor?
A working tractor with a basic set of implements has helped us to be more resilient and reduced the wear and tear on the humans.  We're particularly grateful that we've climbed the learning curve to the point that we're pretty comfortable with using the tools reasonably well. 

The high tunnel did its job in 2013
Putting up the high tunnel in 2010 was an incredible leap for our farm.  It wasn't a small investment and we put it up during our worst crop year.  We now look at it as the turning point for our farm.  We can honestly say that if we had not added it, we might have backed out of farming.  If we had not entirely ceased operations, we would have greatly reduced them.  In 2013, the high tunnel was our 'happy place.'  It's always good to have one of those on the farm.

After 2012's spraying event, we noticed a reduction in the insect diversity on the farm.  But, we started to see a slight rebound in our pollinators later in the season this year.  We hope this continues and are grateful that we still have some of these beneficial insects on our side at the farm.

It's good to be a friend to bees...
Dr Wyche's tomatoes...yum.
 The late Fall was a welcome reward for our persistence this season.  We kept at it despite Spring and early Summer rain issues.  As a result, we had a late, but sufficient crop of tomatoes and other fine vegetables.  We were both relieved and thankful for the respite.

It remains to be seen if Mrranda is also grateful for us.
 The companion animals on the farm provide us with a distraction from the things that are stressing us out.  There's something about a gentle purr that lowers the blood pressure.  There are times, of course, that we may not be feeling as charitable towards these critters.  But, overall, they are a positive.

And then, there was the first decent apple crop from our young trees.  Tammy loves her apples and it was satisfying to be able to provide her with plenty of Fall apples for consumption.

Something we haven't seen much of on the farm.
Cover crops - just a good thing to use.
 We're also pleased that research projects result in our using more tools on the farm that increase our resiliency, improve our soil health and/or identify best practices for our farm.  The research project for cover crops encourages us to use them even more often on our farm.

And then, there are vegetables that are new to us that we've picked up because friends who are also veg growers made recommendations.  Romanesco.  It just seemed like an exotic broccoli...or... cauliflower.  Whatever.  Then, Andy brought some for us to eat at a Gang of Four gathering.  Ok, good stuff.  This year, we managed to get a decent crop out of our trial group.  Looks like they're here to stay.
Romanesco - looks weird, tastes good.
 We managed to pick up a couple of flair boxes at auctions.  Sometimes, we are shocked when something we added to the farm at the beginning of the season gets integrated into farm work so completely by year end.  We're grateful to those who have helped us climb the learning curve that now finds us using these tools passably well.  Jeff has been particularly patient as we stumbled along the path to using larger equipment.
A little bit of flair for the farm.
Drip tape dispensers are indespensible
 This year was a year of trying to execute ideas that have been simmering for some time.  The drip tape dispenser has been on my brain for a while.  I knew what I wanted, but never found the time to do it.  Thankfully, Tyler joined us this year, and he enjoys building and working on things like this.  After some description and discussion, here it is.  This thing worked well for us. 

And, a recent post focused on the people.  That was one of our ways to let everyone know that we are grateful for them.  As always, thank you to everyone who supports us - as customers, friends, family, workers and persons who just wish us well. 
We glove our Farm Share CSA members.
 As always, beautiful things on the farm remind us to reflect on things that are good in the world.  This is why we plant and maintain flower beds.  Positive farmers keep growing good food.  Seems simple and sometimes simple works.

A very smart man helped us build a tool wall.
If we were unable to get help on the farm, we don't know where we would be.  Sometimes, we feel a bit guilty that we were not the ones who accomplished some of the tasks on the farm.  But, that goes away quickly when we ask ourselves "When exactly, would you have been able to do that?"  Then, we just remember to be grateful for the kindnesses shown by others and the honest labor provided by those we hire. 

And finally, we are grateful for the opportunity to visit beautiful places and to have a chance to recharge our batteries away from the farm every so often.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Texting in the 1800s

I do enjoy postal history from the 1860's - so you will periodically find that I put things I find interesting out onto our blog.  Perhaps some of you will enjoy them as well.  At the very least, it gives the farmer a chance to pursue and share things that are not directly related to the farm.

In this electronic/wireless age we take the ability to communicate instantly for granted.  In the 1860's, if you wanted to 'text' someone overseas, it took some time.  For example, a letter to England typically took 10 days to cross the Atlantic.  So, a very quick response to an inquiry would easily take 25 days to receive.

Here is a page from my collection with two envelopes sent from the United States to Europe.  Both of these have slits cut into them that were used to fumigate the envelopes.  These were cut open during a cholera outbreak in an effort to reduce the spread of the disease.  It was known at that time that the mail wasn't carrying the disease, but people felt better if it seemed efforts were being taken to protect the public.

If you want to read the details on the page below, the text will be bigger if you select the image and open in a second window.

If you look carefully, you can see both slits on the top envelope, for display, I have placed a white strip of paper into the slits to highlight where they are.  There is a single slit on the second envelope.

There are instances of mail being disinfected in the United States by fumigation, or sometimes soaking, in various ways to prevent the spread of disease as late as the 1920's.  Even recently, we have seen disinfection of mail using irradiation in response to the mailing of anthrax.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Where in the World?

The farmers got a break from the farm.  But, where did they go?  We're not telling (yet).  If you already know because you have talked to us, don't answer here.  Those who aren't privy to where we were headed can feel free to try to figure out where these pictures come from.

It was dry here.

And, there was a sharp dropoff

And, not too far south of there, we walked on a swinging bridge.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Pharm and Filately

November is the time of the year when Rob gets a chance to revisit his hobby.  That means you all get to see some of postal history and philatelic stuff he likes.

If you also enjoy this sort of thing - good for you!  If you think it's ok in small doses - also good for you.  If you dislike it.  Um...  Too bad, I'm still doing this!

Uniformity in production was prized in 1896.
One of the collections I am working on is a horticulture/agriculture related theme.  Of course, the closer they get to what we do, the happier I am.  And, yes, I do tend to favor the older material that has stamps on them.

That said - take a look at the carrots shown above.  Lohrman Seed Company was hoping you would notice the uniform shape and size of the carrots on the envelope here.  So, it is not exactly a new thing that growers and consumers emphasize looks, sometimes to the detriment of other qualities.  But, I will say one thing about carrots and uniform sizes.  If you want them to be uniform, you have to spend alot of time thinning the plants to make sure spacing is just right.  I'm afraid I'm not willing to do that.  And, frankly, alot of people like the smaller carrots and others like the bigger carrots.  So, we'll do fine with what we're doing.

You may also note that these carrots look pretty stocky and shorter.  At the time of this mailing, there were more efforts in developing shorter root carrots for growers with rockier or shallower soils.

Wheel hoes and wheeled seeders.  They've been around for a bit.
The Planet Jr. models for wheel hoes and wheeled seeders are often credited or some of the very tools we use on the farm today.  I haven't had the time to determine if the root of this model came from them or not, but I can tell you that when you tell another person who farms like we do that we use a Planet Jr type wheel hoe, they will typically understand.

S.L. Allen and Co also sold Flexible Flyer sleds.  Why am I telling you this?  I don't know.  Why not? 

Reverse of the Planet Jr envelope
Oh wait!  That's why I told you about Flexible Flyer - it's mentioned on the back of the envelope.  A little diversity in their product line. 

The picture depicted on the reverse side is interesting, to say the least.  That is one *big* field for five guys to cultivate with wheel hoes.  And, the rows seem pretty clean already.  However, I have to admit that this is probably the best time to be cultivating - before the weeds are terribly evident.  But, we all know the ideal is rarely reached. 

Why aren't any of the people in this picture wearing a red hat?  Strange.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Goals - It's About Reaching for Them - Part I

Weather has gotten colder and I have time to do a bit more with assessing how our year went and how we might like to move forward.  This year, there was a bit more motivation for season analysis with the Dream Big, Grow Here grant contest requiring some preparation and energy.  We're still processing much of went on this year, just as we are still harvesting and planting, but it is clear that the work load is shifting.

Every year, we set a number of goals for ourselves.  In some cases we fail and in others we succeed.  Sometimes the failure is through no fault of our own, just as some successes might have less to do with us than we'd like to think.  It isn't surprising that reaching goals gives much satisfaction and falling short can be a source of disappointment and frustration.  But, at the end of the day, it is the struggle to achieve the goals and the things we learned from the struggle that stay with us.  Failure forces us to learn and adjust.  It challenges us to improve and pay a bit more attention in the future.  Success encourages us to keep trying and reminds us that there are rewards to be had during and after the struggle to achieve the goal.  It is the act of setting and striving to reach these goals that helps maintain the desire to become better at what we do on the farm.

In our case, we set a number of goals - some are more formal than others.  Of course, there is the goal to "have a good growing season" and "keep our customers happy with quality produce, poultry, etc."  But, we'll focus on more measurable goals in a series of posts over the next few months.

1. Brrrrroccoli

In January, we asked our share holders what they'd like to see more of during the growing season.  Broccoli was mentioned several times.  The link above will take you to a blog post that discusses our goals for this crop.  But, to make it easier:

Broccoli(left) and Cauliflower
  • Double our production from 2013
  • Maintain a crop that continues to have outstanding taste
  • Provide 4 weeks of broccoli to the CSA minimum
  • Have additional broccoli for sales outside of the CSA
The late start to the season got in the way of implementing our plan for this crop in its entirety.  But, we were able to do a fair amount with it.  We did not double our production, but we did increase the production amount from 2012.  As a result, we were able to provide broccoli to our regular season CSA farm shares for 6 weeks of the season and 1 week in the Fall extended season.  On the other hand, we did not feel that we had excess broccoli at any given time to sell.  And, happily, we continue to be pleased with the taste of the broccoli.  The quality was excellent this year, even if the heads were a bit smaller than 2012.  Our strategies for 2014 will be a refinement of this year's approach.  We'll stick to Gypsy and Belstar (as long as seed is available).  It is likely we'll stay simple for 2014 and save variety experimentation with broccoli for 2015.  Instead, we'll run an experiment with cultivation versus mulch and see where that goes.

2. Improve Communication with Our Farm Share CSA Members

Ok, maybe you didn't see us actively share this goal with everyone in a specific post.  But, we do think persons who have been with us for more than one year have noticed improvements in this area.

We've been trying to share our responses to questions people ask us.  One example can be viewed in our What Makes Farming Fun post.   We've learned that people don't always ask on the blog or on Facebook, but they will ask us in face to face settings, or sometimes via email.  We're pretty good about responding in those situations, but then we realized that these are good opportunities to share our answers.  And, like the post linked above, we realize that many of you enjoy hearing answers to questions that are not necessarily specific to a function of the farm.

Of course, our email newsletters have evolved and we've stuck to a format in hopes that it will aid members in finding what they need.  We have to admit that Tammy wasn't sure Rob's humor was the best thing to add.  But, after the dust has settled and the groaning over awful puns was past, we have to admit that the tone of the communications going both ways tended to be positive.  And that was really our overall goal for this season's communications - we needed to stay positive!

We've been told that blog posts that have more pictures are favorites, so we try to do a 'picture this' type post, like this one for September, as often as we are able.  Another definite favorite is anything that features the views and opinions of our animals.  This Fall, we had a well-liked guest appearance by Jake the turkey.  And, we have to admit that we are not so good at giving views of the people on the farm.  So, we will continue to work on that.

We've continued to do some things that people have identified as favorites, such as our posts on vegetable varieties, such as our Veg Variety Winners.  And, our crop reports are simply a way to have something out there to keep you informed as to what is on its way (or not).

We continue to work on signage, email responses, order forms and any number of ways where we can make things more consistent and easier for you to work with us.  We're pleased with the efforts this year, but we're very aware that this is one of those times where continuous improvement will be far better than delayed perfection.

(to be continued)

Sunday, November 10, 2013

November Picture This

We have a few new photos to share, so we thought we'd use them as a way to tell everyone about some of our recent accomplishments.

First, many of you probably know that we move our high tunnel once a year - typically in the Fall.  Well, we got it done on November 2.  It was a bit later than we would like, but it wasn't that long ago that we picked a batch of tomatoes out of the building in the East position (Oct 23 to be exact).

A beautiful November day.
 Tammy was quick enough to grab the camera and take a picture of the high tunnel just inside the building to its East.  Here is the before picture - taken at about 4pm (the first picture was about 1pm).  You can see the door is already on the ground.  Take note of the grey carts at the right.
High tunnel in the East position (Nov 2)
 We were both a bit busy for the next few hours, so no pictures of that.  But, we did get the tunnel moved that day.  This picture was taken early on Sunday (Nov 3).
High tunnel in West position (Nov 3)
One of the reasons this happened on November 2 was the welcome help from a group of Wartburg students who spent a few hours on the farm Saturday morning.  Since it was a bit chilly, we focused on work in the high tunnel.  Though, we did get some portable buildings moved.  It's become a bit of a tradition to feed the birds at the end of the job.  This picture is pretty cool as it catches tomatoes in mid-air.
The last of the high tunnel tomatoes go to the chickens!
We've actually been graced with the presence of a few groups this Fall, and we've been grateful for each one of them.  The Environmental Biology class came out and got the nickel tour, then followed with a little bit of work on the farm.  We've had a couple of IS 101 groups out and we exchanged some food for a little work on Oct 18 as well.  The turkeys and hens were pretty pleased with the harvest these three ladies came up with.

Harvesting cull tomatoes for the birds.
Shifting gears.... we do still have some flowers on the farm.  But, I suppose the first picture might be construed as cheating a bit.... the plant is in the house.  But, when an orchid blooms, even if it isn't one of the more exotic ones, it is worth noting.
Our orchid rewards Tammy's efforts
The orchid was recently repotted.  It is our understanding that most orchids are pretty slow to show that they liked (or disliked) any particular treatment.  This plant is positively hasty for an orchid.  It flowered just four months after the repot.

On the other hand, we had a monkshood throw out a couple of flowers for us to see the first week of November.  It was shivering when I took the picture, but it still had flowers.
Shifting back to accomplishments....  We did manage to get our garlic into the ground this weekend.  Actually, some of it went in last weekend and the rest went in this weekend.  But, when you put in about 3000 garlic, who's worried about a week gap?

Northern White and Music garlic cloves to plant.

Tammy, caught in a picture!
We had some pretty strong winds from the East this week.  We noticed something looked a little different Friday night, but it was pretty dark.  The difference was confirmed Saturday morning.
The barn's new look.
Clearly, the angle of the wind had to be perfect.  It just rolled the entire lower section of the West roof line up and over the edge of the wall.
Nice of the barn to put the roof where Rob can work on it.
And, of course, we would be remiss if we did not make note of the Dream Big, Grow Here grant contest that GFF participated in this Fall.  We entered this program in an effort to raise some money towards a second high tunnel.  It started with a voting phase and our request for votes can be seen in this post.  We finished a close second (4 votes back) and earned the right to "pitch" our idea for the $5000 prize offered by the Cedar Valley regional contest.  The pitch occurred on Thursday of the past week and apparently went well.  We are now in possession of a big check that the bank doesn't want to cash.  Happily, the one they will cash can be picked up this week.

There's our start for a new high tunnel.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

What Priority is Higher Than Priority One?

You know everyone, I've been thinking.

***together now***
A dangerous pastime...
I know.

A constant task on our farm is the act of prioritization.  In fact, I suspect everyone will agree that many choices we all make every day is simply the act of prioritizing.

You have five minutes before you must get to a meeting.  Do you a)take out the trash, b)fix your lunch for after the meeting  c)don't do anything else and leave now  d) read the next chapter in your book because there is a cat in your lap.

Once the choice is made, you've effectively set some priorities for this moment (and some of the moments thereafter) in your life.  If you choose option d), you likely have decided that the consequences of removing a cat has consequences greater than those of the other choices.  So, your priority is to maintain peace with the feline and you'll accept the consequences that might follow with respect to not having lunch, leaving the trash in the house a bit longer and dealing with potentially unhappy persons you were supposed to meet.

Would you dare offend this cat?
 Decision making and priority setting is a continuous process for us at the farm.  We have long term priority setting, mid-term priority setting, short-term priority setting and "oh crap - we have to do all of these right now or else" priority setting.

An example of the last type of priority setting follows.  We have, of course, simplified it somewhat, but we think it makes the point:

Scenario:  There are four workers on the farm, including Rob and Tammy.  It is a Thursday in late July (ed. note: ok, rain in July the past two years makes this a fictional construct - but it is based on a real-life situation.  The names have not been changed either, so there.).  We must leave to deliver produce in Cedar Falls by 3pm.  It is currently 9am.  Greens are picked and hydrocooling, green beans are picked, but not bagged and little else has been picked.  Forecast is for possible storms and we can see the dark clouds on the horizon.

The easy part - we have alot to pick for 65 Farm Share CSA members.  It usually takes everything four people can do to pick, clean, pack and prep for the trip.  So, anything else on the farm is already lower priority.  This can be harsh on days like this if there are things that really NEED to get done before the rain.  Planting the next batch of green beans, cultivating the onions before the soil gets gummed up, etc.  And, because these priority one items cannot exceed the priority one picking items, we may find ourselves a week or so behind on them.  But, that's just the way it goes.

It looks like we might have 90 minutes before some stormy weather.  The underlying priority one issue is the safety of all workers.  There is lightning in this storm, so we will be pulling everyone in until it passes.  Once it passes, we might have another 90 minute block before we have to pack and leave.  Remember, it is likely that things will be muddy at that time, so that will play into our choices.

What do you do?

Pick the cucumbers?
Pick the summer squash and zucchini?
Pick the tomatoes?
Pick the broccoli?
Pick carrots?
Clean and pack the greens that are hydrocooling?
Bag the green beans?

Does the summer squash make the cut?
Or do we cut some broccoli?
All of you who decided to bag the green beans lose.  Go to the end of the line.  We can do that when it is raining.

If you chose to pack the greens, you might actually be right.  But, why?  First, you do not want the greens to soak too long in the water.  Second, our packing area is outside.  Third, one of the workers isn't comfortable with harvesting, but likes cleaning and packing the veg.  Ok, we have one winner.  After all, we've harvested this already.  Failure to finish the preparation results in wasting a crop already in hand for the delivery.  Not a good idea.

What do we do with the other three people?

Cucumbers, summer squash and zucchini need to be picked 2 to 3 times a week.  If we keep them picked, they keep producing.  If we fail to keep them picked, we end up with giant fruit that no one wants.  And, the production levels go down for future harvest.  It's still early in the season, so we can't afford to let these go at this time.  If we pick these after the rain, they're going to be muddy, so we have to spend some time cleaning OR give people produce with some mud on it.

Broccoli sets heads that hold for a limited period of time.  The next scheduled pick will be for Tuesday's shares.  A quick look tells us that we'll have about 70 heads of broccoli that will bolt if we don't pick them in the next three days.  We haven't had much for tomatoes so far and members of the CSA desperately want some.  Harvesting from wet tomato plants can spread disease.  If it were later in the season, we might figure it is not a big problem.  But, the tomatoes are just thinking about getting going here. And, the carrots require the most time to clean.  If we pick them before the rain, they will be easier to clean because they won't have mud clinging to them.  And, we could clean them while it is raining. 

Time is running out.
We eliminate the broccoli from consideration before the rain.  It will pick the same before or after the storm (assuming the storm doesn't have lots of wind and it blows all the plants over).  We will zip out with our lettuce knives and pick the broccoli right after the storm passes through.  Yes, we'll be walking in some mud while we pick, but that's true for all our options.  It's a priority one that isn't priority one in the morning.

We eliminate the tomatoes entirely for the day.  It is sad, but there really aren't that many ready to go.  It would take too long to run the whole field in order to locate enough for everyone to get a couple of tomatoes.  If we must, we'll pick over the weekend and make tomato sauce.  There will be more tomatoes ripening the following week and beyond.  And, only one of the three workers who picks tomatoes is Rob.   In other words, it is an inefficient use of time.  We are hoping to provide farm share members the best return for the picking time available.  Well, carrots will hold until next week.  Frankly, they should have been priority one yesterday (they were, but that's another story with another set of choices).  But, we could use the rain to do some of the cleaning.  And, if it rains alot for several days, it may be awhile before we want to work with them.  With the rain coming, we would have 3 people who could concentrate on cleaning and prepping them.  It sounds pretty appealing.  We have two broadforks, so we could have two people working on it to get about 75 pounds dug before the rain.

Then, there is summer squash, zucchini and cucumber.  We need increments of about 70 of each (to simplify matters).  Increments less than that leave us with ugly numbers that are hard to split with our farm share holders.

One worker cleaning and packing greens.  Tammy and another worker digging carrots.  Rob runs out and grabs as many increments of the zucchini, summer squash and cucumbers as he can, watching the progress of the storm and shifting so that each crop is visited and number needs for the CSA are met.

Uh oh.  We forgot the kohlrabi.

Ok, we got to them too.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Sometimes, It's About the People

We realize that many of our pictures focus on plants, animals, buildings and the work that happens on the farm.  We often fail to have pictures of the people.  Part of that, of course, is because the people are often the ones who wield the cameras.  And, we're often unsure how much our workers really want their pictures taken.  But, we thought it might be good to give a few looks that show you that *real people* have something to do with the Genuine Faux Farm!

If you haven't seen this magazine cover from 2007, you are missing one of the rare posed pictures of the two of us on our farm.  The irony is how little we have used the cultivating tool in Rob's hand.  The second irony is how clean our clothing is for the middle of a sunny day in Spring/Summer.

They're actually smiling!?
Bandsaw Man at work

Life in Chicken Prison...

Tyler and Jeff are two good friends who work to bring you some of the fresh produce that appears in CSA shares.  Tyler worked on our farm this past summer and helped us put up a couple of gates on the chicken pasture.  Eventually, we all figured out how to get him outside the gate.  Jeff helped us build our first high tunnel in 2010.  He's shown as the superhero "Bandsaw Man," as he wields a tool of mass construction.

Drolets everywhere!
And here as well!

We've had the privilege to have some fine people work on the farm over the past several summers.  And, it is difficult to name too many names for fear that we might leave someone out by accident.  However, we don't think it is a bad idea to mention Denis, Anden and Elliot in our blog.  After all, the Drolet clan has provided a great deal of support over the last several years.  They, at the least, understand why Rob doesn't own jeans without some sort of stain on the knees.
Then there are our fabulous farmer peers.  The group we have dubbed the "Gang of Four."  Why?  Why not?  Those who work in any given profession should have the opportunity to interact with those in the same profession.  We are honored to be able to share some time with the fine fold from Scattergood Friends School, Grinnell Heritage Farm and Blue Gate Farm.  Tyler could put gates on that fence because these folks helped us put the fence up in the first place.  The help and support are wonderful.  But, the friendship is what makes it all worthwhile.

Blue Gate Farm to the rescue!

Mark asks "Why'd you let this get so weedy?"

Andy holds the pole, Dana and Mark give advice.  This time, Rob wields the weapon of mass destruction.
And, we are also pleased that we can host various student groups at the farm.  Sometimes they come for tours and information.  In other cases, they are there to make observations of some of the critters on the farm.  And, many times, they are there to volunteer a little time on the farm.  We always do our best to treat them well and hope that their experiences here are worth their while.  Thank you to all who have volunteered a little time here!
Tuppance a bag?  Naaa.  Just get some bad tomatoes.

We also have some wonderful folk who come visit us during Tom Sawyer Days and during our festival days.  Sometimes we feel like we may not be as outgoing as we think we should be on these days.  But, then, we find out that all we need to do is be ourselves.  Huh.  Surprising that this seems to work and we have cool people coming back every year.  If you haven't attended one of these, watch for the calendar we come up with for next year.

Durnik, the tractor, is always a big hit.

We just had to do this.  For some reason, green carts are a kid magnet.

And of course, all of our CSA members help give us energy to keep going every week.  The positive responses and willingness to share good recipes and successful uses of kale or swiss chard go a long way towards our well being as farmers. 

The farmer saying goodbye to the vegetables as they go to new homes.