Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Brain Storm (Part II)

As each Summer goes by, I get a number of problems and possible solutions that run through my head as I work outside.  And, it can get pretty exhausting having all of that running going on in my head while I'm trying to harvest tomatoes.  The good news is that I often will take a rainy weekend day in August or September and try to get some of that stuff out of my head and onto paper.  Since a certain person from Blue Gate Farm has asked twice what came of the brainstorming effort, I thought I'd share some of them in a series of blog posts.


Don't Forget Tools You No Longer Favor
Each year, we do things a bit differently than those that went before.  Sometimes, a technique or a tool falls out of favor simply because we have found what is, in most cases, a better way to accomplish the same thing.

Drip vs Overhead Irrigation
For example, we use drip irrigation for most of our watering needs.  Drip irrigation gets the water to the base of the plants, it doesn't inadvertently water a bunch of weeds and it reduces water use.  At one point in time, we would rely on overhead watering for crops that could handle it, such as vine crops.  Part of the reason for it at the time was that we were going through years that stayed pretty wet AND it does take a little effort to learn what all the parts are for drip irrigation and how to use them.  Overhead sprinklers are easy to purchase and hook up to any garden hose.

Once drip irrigation took hold on our farm, we pretty much let our overhead sprinklers get buried in our equipment building.

But, what happens if you want to establish a cover crop and the rain goes away?  This is a perfect time to use that overhead system (sadly - we couldn't find ours in time).  And, the second time it would be perfect is when we need to prep a Summer/Fall planting and the soil is too dry or hard to work.  Anyone who gardens knows how a gentle rain can loosen up the soil for you.  While overhead irrigation isn't exactly the same, it can do some of that work for you.

Row Hills
Another technique we've abandoned that may make a comeback are 'row hills.'  As gardeners, we were raised using the technique of making hills for vine crops such as cucumbers and squash.  When our need for volume increased, we had to move to rows.  Early on, we would use a garden rake and rake up a long hill and plant seed directly into that hill.  It worked, for the most part, except the time needed to rake 200 feet for a long hill would be prohibitive (and tiring).  Row hills help keep the plants out of pooled water when Spring/early Summer is very wet and it allows the surrounding soil to warm more quickly.  On the other hand, weeding is quite a bit more difficult.

Now that we have a tractor and a bar with a couple of disks, we can create a row hill (aka an unshaped raised bed) that accomplishes the same thing, but only takes a couple of minutes to do.  The "hill" is wider and doesn't need to be as steep, which should allow for mechanical cultivation and wheel hoe use close to the plants.

In the interest of full disclosure, we have tried this once, but success was limited because we didn't have enough control on the lift bars with our older tractor.  The disks were either all the way down, or they were out.  The resulting beds were too steep.  And - to top things off - we had a very dry season that year.  With more experience and tools at our disposal, things should work much better.  Our intent is to target the fields that tend to be wetter, regardless of crop type.

Paper Mulch
Paper mulch is expensive, as compared to plastic mulch, but we prefer it because it is more in keeping with our ideals.  However, the issues we had with paper mulch in 2014 pretty much discouraged us from using it at all in 2015.  We fully realize that conditions were perfect for the early destruction of the paper mulch last year, so we'll not say "never again" to this tool.  But, the increased use of our flex tine cultivator and the potential for row hills won't necessarily see us increasing paper mulch use significantly on the farm.

We did, however, use some paper mulch in our tomatoes this season.  We were aware that there was a strong Canadian Thistle presence in our tomato plot and we knew from experience that straw mulch will not suppress it for the season.  We also know that we are not able to expend labor pulling those thistles once we hit August.  And, if they get any purchase in the field, the tomato yield will drop and so will the crop scheduled for the next season.

So, we put paper mulch under our straw in a couple of rows to see how that would work.  And, happily, the thistles have not yet made a strong appearance in that area.  Now, we have to consider if this is a cost-efficient use of this tool.  If crops next season don't have to fight the thistles in that area, I might be tempted to call it a win.

The other thing we noticed is that there was a much higher seedling death rate for Eden's Gem and Ha'Ogen without paper mulch this season.  At least half of the Eden's Gem survived, so we had a decent crop.  Very few of the Ha'Ogen survived.  We suspect that if we want better success for either of these, paper mulch might have to be in the equation.  Our prior research has also confirmed that Golden Zucchini prefer paper as well.  So, the question is still whether any of these crops will provide enough value in return to make the paper worth the investment.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Brain Storm (part I)

As each Summer goes by, I get a number of problems and possible solutions that run through my head as I work outside.  And, it can get pretty exhausting having all of that running going on in my head while I'm trying to harvest tomatoes.  The good news is that I often will take a rainy weekend day in August or September and try to get some of that stuff out of my head and onto paper.  Since a certain person from Blue Gate Farm has asked twice what came of the brainstorming effort, I thought I'd share some of them in a series of blog posts.

Admit it - This Belongs in One (or Both) of the High Tunnels
One of the things we do not like to do on our farm is put all of our eggs (or even all of one crop) in one basket.  In other words, we like to split our crops up and not become to reliant on a crop being in one field or having only one succession.  It has become clear, however, that there are some varieties or crops that we should pull out of open fields and grow exclusively in our high tunnels.  The good news about this?  We have two high tunnels, so we can still hedge our bets with different locations, soils and succession times.  So, we still follow some of our key strategies.

Snack Tomatoes
Next year, we will not grow any snack tomatoes in the field.  Some might call these salad tomatoes, but we've gotten used to calling them snack tomatoes.  At GFF, we recognize that we don't usually have time to pick cherry tomatoes, but we can manage these.  Sizes are typically .15 to .25 pounds each.  We focus on four varieties: Red Zebra, Green Zebra, Jaune Flamme and Wapsipinicon Peach (#1 Veg Variety in 2013).

Over the past three years we have had excellent production in the high tunnel for each of these, with per plant production numbers that make us very happy (Red Zebra - 94/plant, Green Zebra - 60/plant, Jaune Flamme - 105/plant, Wapsi Peach - 110/plant).  In their best years in the field, plants *might* reach 50 marketable fruit per plant.  But, more typically, we will get 30 per plant.  Many fruit from the field just do not pass the quality test, so go direct to birds or suffer from "hand to mouth disease."  If we move these plants to the high tunnels, we can grow fewer plants for the needed production AND spend more effort helping other field plants get what they need, rather than expending effort on plants that won't give us the same return.

Melons and Green Beans
Other crops that will make a similar move include Jade green beans and Minnesota Midget muskmelons.  Jade green beans are good in the field, typically yielding a pound per foot, which we believe is a good baseline number.  But, when you put these in the high tunnel, it extends the pick season dramatically and you can get 2.5 to 3.5 pounds per row foot.  And, these are high quality beans.

Minnesota Midgets produced over 220 melons in 65 row feet this year, which is in line with our trials over the past two years.  Field trials were never so promising.

The result of this brainstorm is that we'll run a row of Minnesota Midgets in each building and we'll grow three rows of Jade between the two.  Black Valentine will take Jade's place in the field since we can harvest them for green beans if we need them, or we can let them go for dry beans if we don't.

Black Krim Tomatoes
And, last, but not least, are the Black Krim tomatoes (#4 Veg variety in 2012).  We are thoroughly convinced that Black Krim is the tastiest tomato we grow at the Genuine Faux Farm even though it didn't win our tomato tasting in 2014.  The smallish plants can be reasonably productive in the field with fairly short trellising.  But, if the season is a bit wet, you're not going to be very happy with Black Krim.  It definitely prefers arid conditions - just like the kind you might find in.... hm.  Maybe a high tunnel?

The tomato you see in this picture is a 'perfect' Black Krim.  There are no cracks or blemishes.  It probably weighed in between a half pound and 2/3rds pound.  The color was tremendous and the taste was out of this world.  While every Black Krim out of the tunnel will not reach this level of perfection, they sure do approach it far more often than in the field.   And, like many thin-skinned tomatoes, some will split in transit - but that won't stop a Black Krim tomato lover from taking it home and consuming it immediately.  With only five Black Krim plants in our high tunnel this year, we have already pulled in 131 marketable tomatoes.  We admit that this number has gone up each year, but we attribute that to continued improvements in high tunnel management.

Other Success Stories
Growing in a high tunnel environment has a learning curve, and if you are a grower who doesn't admit that you have adapted how you do things over time in response to what you've learned - then you are a grower that needs to reassess how you evaluate success.

Clearly, one strategy for us is diversity in the high tunnel.  We've played with combinations and have found that tomatoes and lettuce work well, onions and melons are good and carrots/beets seem to be fine.  The pepper/bean combination might need to be reassessed, however.

Part of our strategy over the past several years has been to identify crops we often have trouble with in the fields that might benefit from a more controlled environment.  For example, we often have trouble hitting the window for a good beet crop in the field.  So, for the first time ever, we planted Golden Beets in a bed with carrots (center row).  Both crops were a success.  But, we also readily admit that what the high tunnel did was increase our focus on these crops and their needs, while removing some of the variables that occur outside.  We suspect that we will see increased success in our field beets, just as we saw improvement in the carrots once we trialed them in the high tunnel.  However, we're still quite willing to hedge our bets with some carrots and beets in the high tunnel next season.  After all, those Golden Beets were awfully good.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Casting Stones

It's been a while since a 'dangerous pastime' post has appeared here.

Our farm uses Facebook, at least a little bit, to keep people aware of us.  I have to admit that I'm not entirely dedicated to it since I realize that the system Facebook utilizes does not favor our getting word out consistently without paying them.  And, even then, I'm not sure there is any way to confirm that anything we put out there is actually viewed by our 'target audience.'  But, that's really aside form the point.  The point is this - I take quick looks at Facebook now and again because some of my friends and acquaintances put important news out there and neglect other venues.  As a result, I miss alot of things and I end up seeing things I really didn't need to see.

For example, memes and short, badly written articles that fail to confirm facts or are written to spread misinformation appear frequently.  If that isn't bad enough, we are then treated (?) to commentary that we all might have been better off if we had not seen it.

It's almost as if they want to beet each other up?
"People are freaking idiots."  "Really, anyone who believes this is just plain stupid."  "Well, of course the (fill in the blank) people are clueless."
Here... some flowers will help to calm you.
It's really very easy to forget that posts on Facebook, Twitter and other social media sites are intended to elicit response.  And, the more passionate and inflammatory the response, the more attention (and hits) it will get.  Talk about a great way to encourage people to skirt the facts - or at least come up with a title that will get us to look, even though it is inaccurate.
These eggs found quarters on the sidewalk.  What happens next will SHOCK you!
In fact, these techniques seem to be so successful, I am considering using this technique to get our farm more attention!
Eight Subtle Ways Chickens Will Tell You They Want Food (#5 will shock you!)
You Won't Believe the 24 Things These People Found in Boxes (#14 will drop your jaw!)
But, seriously, what bothers me most is how willing we are to assume the worst of those who have an opinion different than ours.  This is especially true if you don't think very hard about it.

Consider this: odds are that half of the people you encounter each and every day will give a simple answer to a politically or ethically loaded question that you would strongly disagree with.  But, if you were given an opportunity to spend some time with many of these people you would disagree with, you would find that a couple of things (at least) are true...

1. They are not necessarily idiots or evil or ... whatever anyone who disagrees with you might be.
2. If given a chance, you will find some common ground  with most of these people - even potentially on the subject that might otherwise cause you to call them bad names.

I don't know about you, but I'd rather collect more friends than enemies.  And, oddly enough, I'm willing to respect that my friends don't always agree with me.  After all, that's what friends do.
Power companies hate him for this one amazing trick.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Scavenger Hunt Key Part III

11. Eyebolt on green trailer
12. Tires on cement slab
13. S-Tine implement north of granary building
14. Rope on slip scraper West of granary
15. Flap on high tunnel

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Crop Report

Last season, we put out a post in October that showed some of our progress with respect to our crop goals for the year.  Some people found it interesting to see what we are aiming for and how well we are doing.  In fact, there were a few people that actually noticed we updated the numbers as the season continued.  We realize the people most likely to care about this are your farmers.  But, we also believe that our CSA members might find it of some interest and our workers (who have all moved on) might enjoy seeing how things worked (or didn't).

We tend to set two goals for ourselves.   The first is a number we think is reasonable AND should provide us with plenty to meet obligations (CSA, etc) and provide additional sales opportunities.  The second is a goal we think we really have to get in order to just meet obligations.  Additional sales would be minimal in that case.
All numbers with * are subject to change as the season continues.

Green Beans
   goal - 800 pounds                                                   minimum goal - 650 pounds
   2015: 888.5 pounds *                                              2014: 812 pounds
Broccoli
   goal - 500 pounds                                                     minimum goal - 400 pounds
   2015: 369.8 pounds *                                                2014: 674.4 pounds
Cucumber
   goal - 4000 fruit                                                        minimum goal - 3000 fruit
   2015: 2898 fruit                                                        2014: 2142 fruit
Garlic
   goal - 3000 head                                                       minimum goal - 2000 head
   2015: 3393 head                                                       2014: 3153 head
Bell and Sweet Peppers
   goal - 4000 fruit                                                       minimum goal - 3000 fruit
   2015: 4121 fruit  *                                                   2014: 4405 fruit
Zucchini
   goal - 1400 fruit                                                       minimum goal - 1000 fruit
   2015: 936 fruit                                                         2014: 1318 fruit
Lettuce
   goal -  750 pounds                                                   minimum goal -  500 pounds 
   2015 -  323 pounds *                                            2014 -  457.1 pounds
Melon
   goal - 500 fruit                                                        min goal - 300 fruit
   2015 - 644 fruit                                                      2014 - 385 fruit
Onion
   goal - 2000 bulbs                                                    min goal - 1500 bulbs
   2015 - 3598 bulbs                                                  2014 - 2298 bulbs 
Winter Squash
   goal - 1000 fruit                                                     min goal - 500 fruit
   2015 - 638 fruit    *                                                  2014 - 64 fruit
Snow Peas
   goal - 250 pounds                                                  min goal - 100 pounds
   2015 - 445.4 pounds                                            2014 - 66 pounds
Potatoes
   goal - 2500 pounds                                               min goal - 1000 pounds
   2015 - 867.2 pounds *                                          2014 - 416.4 pounds
Carrot
   goal - 600 pounds                                                min goal - 400 pounds
   2015 - 296.3 pounds    *                                       2014 - 36.5 pounds
Kale
   goal - 300 pounds                                                min goal - 250 pounds
   2015 - 396.4 pounds    *                                       2014 - 287.2 pounds
Pok Choi
   goal - 400 pounds                                                min goal - 300 pounds
   2015 - 166.4 pounds    *                                       2014 - 628.2 pounds
Spinach
   goal - 100 pounds                                                min goal - 75 pounds
   2015 - 94.6 pounds    *                                       2014 - 63.5 pounds
Snack Tomato
   goal - 2000 fruit                                                  min goal - 1500 fruit
   2015 - 3161 fruit    *                                            2014 - 1925 fruit

This is just a sampling of our harvest so far and some of the general goals we set for ourselves for production.  If you have interest in some of our other crops, let us know and we'll add them to this list!


Obviously, some of the crops listed here will have their numbers change dramatically very soon.  For example, the potatoes and winter squash tend to get harvested as whole rows rather than as things ripen.  And, we have many feet of carrots still to be dug from the ground.

Other crops, such as zucchini and green beans, are clearly winding down and their numbers may not change much from what you see here.  On the other hand, the Fall lettuce is in the ground and won't get harvested until October and November, so you can expect changes in those numbers.

A Note About Units
 You might note that some of our crops are measured in pounds and others by the fruit.  The reality is that we keep measurements for both for many of our crops.  Counting the number of heads, fruits or stems is a function of how we harvest for our farm share CSA.  If you have 60 people to deliver tomatoes to then you need tomatoes in increments of 60 or more.  Depending on the tomato type, that could be 10 pounds or 60 pounds.  For some crops, we have not kept weight records every season, so we revert to the standard count (zucchini for example).

The Good
Minnesota Midget
We've had some very nice success stories this season with some of our crops.  And, in a couple of cases the increase in production is partly due to a cumulative effect from efforts we've undertaken to improve these crops.  In other words, these are not just flukes - they are a result of some concerted efforts to make production of these items better on our farm.  The melons and onions have been improving from year to year for some time now.  So, it is really nice to see the spike this year.  We suspect we'll cut back the peas a little bit since the numbers we had this year might be unsustainable for us.  The melons on the other hand, are close to where we want them.  Though, we might like a chance to find a market for extra melons in the future.  Can you imagine?  Certified organic melons in the Cedar Valley.  Hmmmmmm.  But, for now, we'll settle for replicating 2015 numbers in 2016.

The Not So Good
Black Beauty
We've had a number of crops that are doing well enough, but certainly not making us want to sing their praises.  For example, the eggplant keep plugging along, but they make Rob visit every plant to make sure he has enough for each distribution.  On the other hand, the quality of the eggplant for taste has been high.

Other crops that didn't exactly make us really happy, but on review, they did (or are doing) what we need them to do (but not much more) include cucumbers and lettuce (just to name a couple).

We should probably work on our attitude regarding these crops.  It is natural for us to set high goals for every single crop and it is equally natural for us to be somewhat disappointed if we don't hit the higher goals for each and every crop.  But, if you look carefully, the cucumbers did just fine (and did far better than many other farms' cukes).

And the Ugly
We did not have many really bad crops on the farm this year.  Yes, we planted alot of watermelon plants in order to get our 20 or so watermelons.  So, that one would qualify as a crop failure if it weren't for the small batch of Orangeglo watermelon plants we slipped into a corner by the melons.

The issue this season has been some of the abrupt exits of crops that we expected to go longer into the season.  Usually, we would just now be saying good-bye to the cucumbers.  But, they've been done for weeks now.  And, usually, we would expect all kinds of side shoots from our broccoli.  But, this year, we have some problems due to the humid, cool weather that are likely going to force us to remove the plants.

It's hard to gripe about these things when we can honestly say that we had some fabulous broccoli prior to this point.  And, Tammy and I will treat ourselves to one of the dinged up Orangeglo watermelons this weekend (we've tried one already and it's fabulous).

So, here's to a year with limited Ugly!

Belstar

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Low Energy Blog Post

Creativity is currently at low tide.  Therefore, I decided to grab some recent pictures and use them to construct a blog post.  Apparently, picture taking energy is also currently at low tide.  So, here is what we have to offer.

Monarchs in bloom?
We are extremely pleased that we got some very strong zinnia and borage plantings in our fields this season.  In particular, the zinnias in the melon and tomato fields are doing very well.  As a result, we have seem alot of hummingbird, monarch and bumblebee activity.  And, there must be a wild hive of honey bees in our area because they are making a strong appearance right now. 

The monarchs and the hummingbirds are an interesting contrast.  The monarchs lazily float around the zinnias and will take their time on a flower if left undisturbed.  This is why we were able to get a series of monarch on zinnia pictures a few days ago.  On the other hand, below is one of my attempts at capturing a hummingbird on film.

Do you see the hummingbird?  Neither do I.
Ya, we failed in the attempt.  The hummers are apparently very concerned that another hummer might infringe on the 200 foot row of zinnias, so they are frequently participating in aerial duels.  As I am picking in the field, it is not uncommon to hear their little chirps, followed by some loud buzzes that go right by my head.  I did have one hummingbird inspect my hat ever so briefly.  It decided I was probably the wrong kind of stinky for a good flower.

The one moment I could probably have caught a hummingbird on film was the moment the camera was about 100 feet away.  Never mind.

The melons were GOOOD this year.
We've been enjoying the melons this season - and we hope our CSA members have also enjoyed them.  Each of the past three years has found us making advances in growing this crop that have resulted in more melons for our members.  We realize there are some who do not like melons at all, but we suspect that many melon haters have never had a truly ripe melon.  If all you've had are the tasteless, out of season, unripe melons, then we think you need to give some in-season heirloom varieties like these a try.  Top left is Hearts of Gold, top right is a Pride of Wisconsin and bottom is Oka. 

Each of these varieties have their characteristics for taste, texture and growing habits.  We're hard pressed to pick a favorite of these three because we've enjoyed each of them.  And, if you add in the small number of Ha'Ogen melons we've managed to grow and nice number of Eden's Gem and Minnesota Midgets...  Well, we've been happy.  I don't know how we'll react when we don't have any more melons for breakfast on the farm.

Then, there is this.
One of the great things about getting produce from a local producer is the probability that you will have a chance to take home an odd-shaped veggie once in a while.  Thank you Sam Larimer for taking these photos of Carrotman! 

Carrotman with cape - still could not save his fellow veggies from the fry pan!
Carrotman came from Jeff Sage's fields this year and Sam was quick to identify him and pull him out of the bin.  Last we heard, Carrotman still resided in the fridge.  If we only had time, we'd put together a whole series of pictures and come up with a blog post for it....  But, two pictures will have to do for now.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

GFF Scavenger Hunt Key Part II

And here are more of the GFF Scavenger Hunt pictures and their surroundings for your viewing pleasure.

6. Two Bottom Plow north of the granary
7. The yellow cart
8&9 - lights in the spruce and the trunk of the gingko tree


10. Plant stand by the garage

Saturday, September 12, 2015

GFF Scavenger Hunt Key - Part One

We realize that a single blog post as a key might be a bit too long, so we thought we'd provide a few at a time.  We are glad people enjoyed the Second Annual Scavenger Hunt at the farm this year and we hope you appreciate finally seeing the bigger picture for some of these items.

1. Center wheel for the mechanical transplanter


2. Design on bag of wood mulch in front of the house

3. Wrought iron design on front steps (this one was turned sideways in the handout)

4. Hardward on the front of the green flair box (by the barn)

5. The weather station out by the hen pasture