Sunday, July 24, 2016

... On the Farm

It is hot.  It is humid.  There is some rain.  The farmer is now allowed to blog for a few moments.

Smiles on the Farm
Tammy and I like our iris in the Spring and our day lily flowers in the Summer.  We have a wide variety of day lilies and they are really putting on a show this season.  The farmers need to get out there and take more pictures so we can share them with you.  Or, better yet, you should arrange to come weed for an hour and then take a tour of the flowers yourself.  Much more satisfying for everyone, we think!

Flowers don't always pose, but these did on this day.
The upside of day lilies is the fact that they tend to grow in clumps through which other weeds cannot grow (with only a few exceptions).  So, if we can keep the area around them somewhat weeded, they'll look good.  Iris are not quite so easy to get along with (sadly).

I wish I could remember the name of this particular variety of day lily off the top of my head.  I took a minute and did a quick search and I think it is Donald T Eaves.   The blooms are larger than average and the height of the plant is impressive.  If we don't get heavy winds or heavy rain, they look great.

Curiosity on the Farm
The turkles are very nearly ready to start heading out to pasture during the daytime.  They've just about got the size on them that we feel they need.  And, of course, they are every bit as curious as every other turkey flock we have raised.  They also have the short memory span - which means they are eternally curious.

Hey!  What's that?!?
It only makes sense.  If you forget the answer almost immediately, but you are curious....  You just keep asking the same question.  Ok, they aren't quite that bad.  But, don't expect any of these birds to memorize the Gettysburg Address.  For those who might like to learn a bit more about turkeys on the farm, this blog post from a couple years back is a good one!

The Color Red on the Farm
It seems like we get some red paint slapped on the granary every few years.  What do we expect?  It's an outbuilding that wasn't necessarily maintained for many years prior to our arrival.  This year, we have Kaleb painting the North side and putting another coat on the South side. 

Will Kaleb finish?  (the answer is yes!)
Painting the area on the West and East ends that leads to the peak never seems to reach the top of our priority lists.  I wish that wasn't the case, but when your lists are long, something has to give.  This would be an example of an item on our VAPs that has a very high VAPCON number.  What?  You haven't read the VAP post?  Look, if you want to fit in around here, you should catch up on your VAP statistics.

The Lack of Vampires on the Farm
I have noticed that many vegetables farms take the time to get pictures of the garlic harvest.  In fact, the garlic harvest may be the most common social media post for farms like ours during the Summer months. This actually makes perfect sense to me since it is one of the most dramatic harvests during the month of July. 

Chelsea and Emma are pleased with the harvest this year.
One day, you've got rows of tallish green plants and the next day, they're all on carts or hanging up (or whatever the farm does with them at that point).  In our case, we have three 200 foot beds that have three rows of garlic in each.  Once they are pulled, we typically have over three thousand garlic harvested.  That number may sound large to some people and small to others depending on your frame of reference (or maybe farm of reference).

The great thing about garlic on our farm is the fact that the improved quality of our soil allows us to simply pull the garlic out of the ground.  We do not have to dig them.  Once dug, we put them on different hayracks/trailers to make sure we don't mix varieties (Music and Northern White).  We prefer to leave them on the carts to dry in the sun for a couple of days, which works great unless the forecast is wrong and it rains (which happened this year).  After two to five days we hang them in bunches of 25 from the beams in the truck barn.

Later in the year, we cut them down, trim off the stems and clean them for distribution and sales.  We select the heads we need for seed for next year and we break those apart and plant them in November - even though we tell ourselves we'll get them in by the end of October THIS year.

Yes, yes.  We say that EVERY year.  And, we still plant in November.  This is one task that makes our VAPCarOvRat look bad.  What?  We had a lot of fun with that VAP post, did you expect us to not reference it later?

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Iris Fest

For all of you who did not have a chance to see some of our iris bloom at the farm this year, we thought we'd do our annual iris picture festival for you.  Enjoy!

Friday, July 15, 2016

Lettuce Eat!

 Here is our webpage that features lettuce and greens.

Our Favorite All-Around Lettuce
We've talked about Bronze Arrowhead for several years and it has often gotten a ranking in our annual veg variety of the year awards landing at number 1 in 2010 and number 4 in 2011.  After that, we unofficially eliminated it from competition out of fairness to the other veggies we grow.

The thing about vegetable varieties you grow over a period of time - you can gather some very interesting information about them.  
Bronze Arrowhead

Bronze Arrowhead

heads weight wt/head
2011 369 193 0.52
2012 597 268.3 0.45
2013 679 282.2 0.42
2014 419 115.9 0.28
2015 45 18.4 0.41
2016 375 199.7 0.53

2016 numbers through July 10.

We had some overall issues with lettuce head size in 2014, so it is hard to blame Bronze Arrowhead when the weather made all lettuce difficult.  But, the issue with 2015 had more to do with seed problems and farmer problems.  And, when the lettuce doesn't germinate, you don't get heads of lettuce to harvest.  In fact, the poorer than usual results over the past two years caused us to re-evaluate our lettuce production in hopes that we could turn it around.  If you take Bronze Arrowhead as any indicator, we appear to have addressed the problems fairly well.

The truly encouraging thing about this is the fact that we currently have another succession of Bronze Arrowhead in the field right now that is being harvested this week - and it looks just as good as the first batch.  So, something is going right this year.

Romaine Calm Everyone
Our most reliable and well-liked romaine heirloom lettuce is Crispmint.  We usually enjoy growing this variety and we are usually quite proud of how nicely they size up.  They look fantastic on the market table, grab some attention and they can handle some of the Summer temps.  We had some seed issues in 2014 (different supplier) and we weren't sure the strain we got was of the same quality and I really can't tell you what the deal was in 2011.  It is possible that it was our first year with this variety, but I am not willing to dig around to make sure of that right now.  (hey, you're getting a blog post in July, you'll be fine without that detail)



heads weight wt/head
2011 303 98.9 0.33
2012 171 115 0.67
2013 329 194.8 0.59
2014 261 112.7 0.43
2015 161 93.6 0.58
2016 103 61.6 0.60

2016 through July 10

What is mildly astonishing to me is the inconsistent number of heads harvested from year to year.  On the face value, it doesn't look like I'm committed to the variety.  But, when I do a bit of digging, I find some of the reasons for the variations.  For example, in 2012 (a very very wet May/June and early July) we lost a big crop of Crispmint to ponding water.  Two successions, as a matter of fact.  If they hadn't drowned, we'd be looking at about 300 head for the season.  And, in 2015, our high tunnel build messed up the early season lettuce successions (farmer issues...) resulting in at least one succession short.  It really doesn't take much for things to move. 

Love Hate Relationship

Amish Deer Tongue
I have yet to start a batch of Amish Deer Tongue for 2016.  I find that to be kind of sad since I do like the spinach-like texture of this lettuce.  The timing for this variety needs to be 'just so.'  And, if you get a storm at any point after they are at half-size, the damage doesn't really grow out of the heads.  Add to this the fact that deer actually LIKE this type of lettuce and you start to think twice about spending time on it.

I'm sure we're going to try a Fall planting and target September as the maturity date since that's when we got good harvests in 2013 and 2015.  But, I guess I won't cry too much if we don't get them in either.  There are so many other good options for us, it just may not be in the cards this year.

Now, if you are one of those people who love this variety and you buy from us at market or are in the CSA - you'd better say something!  If you do, it will get planted.  If you don't, it is up to the whims of the farmers.  Don't want that do we?

Back in the Saddle

Reine des Glaces (Ice Queen)
Ice Queen disappeared for two years, in part because it was also a bit picky about timing.  It actually had less to do with our knowledge about when to slot this lettuce and more to do with that being a difficult slot to meet.  But, the addition of Valhalla (our second high tunnel) and the plan to move that building in the Spring, we have a perfect slot and condition to grow some great Ice Queen lettuce.  This Spring we pulled in over 100 quality heads that weighed in at over a half pound on average.  The only time Ice Queen did better than that was a smaller Fall batch in 2012 that nearly weighed a pound per head on average.

There is another slot in the Fall that we will likely try to hit as well, but even if we don't, we'll be pleased with what we got out of this variety for 2016.

Hot and Cold Running Lettuce
We also grow a couple of varieties that have let us know that they really like cooler weather.  Gold Rush and Red Salad Bowl only show up very early or very late at our farm.  Once again, this gets easier to increase production of both of these when we have the two movable high tunnel system going for us.
Bunte Forellenschus

All lettuces we grow tend to prefer the cooler weather, but some of them can tolerate (and even thrive) in warmer temps.  Bronze Arrowhead, Crispmint, Australian Yellow Leaf and Grandpa Admires have all shown good tolerance to heat.

And then, there are the varieties that Fall in between - or seem to show some flexibility with some variability from year to year.  Obviously, the inconsistent response can be linked to inconsistent weather or perhaps, issues with the farmers' management of that succession.  I certainly am not sure that we can blame the variety without a bit more information to go on.

Why the Renewed Success?
We could always point to the weather or to seed sources that have changed, but we don't think that's really the root of the turning of lettuce fortunes at GFF.  The biggest issue is actually discussed in this brain storm post from last September (read the last part of the post).   Essentially, it was our lettuce crop's turn to get re-evaluated as to how we can best grow it with our farm where it is right now.

holes drilled in for drainage
Very early in our farm's lifetime, we moved from direct seeding lettuce to starting plants in 72 count trays and then transplanting these into the ground. This year, we moved on from those trays and started using these tubs.  The observed results thus far are that we feel we are using less seed, have a longer window during which we can plant and we take less room with these trays for the same number of transplants.

Less seed is a minor benefit and only occurred after we got used to the seeding process with the tubs.  On the other hand, the longer transplant window is a huge blessing for us since we are often unable to get the plants in during their optimal window with the 72 count trays.  And, if these trays take less space for the same (or greater) number of transplants, we are less likely to delay the next planting due to space reasons.

We had feared that transplanting might be more difficult, but after the first planting, it really came out as a wash.  We also wondered a bit about transplant shock since all of the plants essentially get bare-rooted with the tubs.  But, as long as we get the drip irrigation to them quickly, all is well.  In fact, we really don't feel there has been any more transplant shock other than a day or two slow down than what is exhibited by the 72 count trays.

Perhaps we're just not looking hard enough for the downsides.  I would suppose that if these fall apart after one season, that would make us reconsider.  But, for now, we're happy with how this is working.

Friday, July 8, 2016


One of the things that we do in order to help us keep track of things is create lists.  In fact, if you want to see our theories about 'to do' lists, you can look at one of last year's posts on the topic.  Or, perhaps you should just put reading that post on your own "to do" list.  And, if you're smart, you'll go read that one and THEN add it to your "to do" list so you can cross it off right away.  Instant gratification.

This year, Tammy and I decided that we needed a better name for our daily/weekly plans rather than "to do lists" or "daily plans/weekly plans."  We don't want to be boring you know...

VAPs for GFF
So, we have decided to call these things VAPs.  And, in the weekly case, they are WVAPs.

Of course, you can figure out that the "W" stands for "Weekly."  The VAP part is short for "Very Ambitious Plan."  But, since we are not ambitious enough to say 'ambitious' each time we refer to our daily or weekly lists, we now say "VAP."

VAPomatics - Statistics for the Farm?
The great thing about a VAP is that it almost sounds like one of the various abbreviations used for baseball statistics.  In fact, I've been considering adding some statistics to our farm as it relates to the VAP.  Maybe a VAP Completion Ratio (VAPCoRat) so we can have a statistic that determines how well we do completing most of our VAPs.  Since each line item has a different difficulty level, we might have to come up with a VAP Difficulty Rating (VAPDifRat) and then we can come up with a Weighted Completion Ratio (VAPWtComRat) so we can compare days that have a shorter list of items (but some very difficult) with a day that has a longer list of things with less difficulty.

One of the things we also do is record what actually gets accomplished during the day.  Some of this is important for organic certification.  For example, if we apply composted manure to a row, then it needs to be recorded.  Some of it is important for future planning.  It could be useful to know that it took three days with two workers to spread straw mulch in the tomato field.  Clearly, as long as an item is ON the VAP, we can record that it was done by simply checking it off.  Simplicity!  Sometimes, I might also have to record specific details (irrigation ran for 2 hours, etc), but that's ok.  It's all part of doing business on the farm.

Discovered VAP Items
But, with any list, there will be 'discovered' VAP items.  These are things that either were forgotten when the list was being made and rediscovered as the day progressed, things that were uncovered as being necessary to do in order to do something else on the VAP or something we just decided to do because.. .well... we wanted to do it.  Oh... and don't forget the things that became necessary for whatever reason (woodchuck getting into the brassica again - better get that electric fence fixed up).

It might be interesting to develop a VAP Discovery Ratio (VAPDisRat), which could be broken down into VAPRedisRat, VAPDisNecRat, VAPJusCuzRat and VAPArrrgRat.

CarryOver VAP
By their very nature, VAPs rarely have a 100% VAPCoRat.  What? you've forgotten your VAPamatics already?  Ok.  VAP Completion Ratio.  So, with every VAPCoRat under 100%, there will be uncompleted items on the VAP that will carry over to a future VAP.  This leads to several new and exciting potential statistical categories!

VAP Carry Over Ratio (VAPCarOvRat) is the ratio of items that carry over from day to day.  You might be temped to say that this is all of the items on a VAP that didn't get completed.  But, this would be incorrect.  If the next day is a harvest day for CSA, then many of the uncompleted items from the prior day won't carry over directly.  They may move to another day.  These would belong to...

VAP Delayed Carry Over Ratio (VAPDelCarOvRat)

Sometimes, an item keeps showing up on a VAP and just doesn't get done.  So, each item could be given a Carry Over Number (VAPCON) that counts the number of times an item has been deferred.  Just think of all of the neat-o stats we could make up on that one!

Then, there are the items that build up a big VAPCON (lots of deferrals) only to get to a point where doing that item is not longer pertinent.  Hmmm.  We've had plant the pine tree on there since May and it has a VAPCON of 200.  I think the ground is frozen now.  I can't decide whether this should have a statistic called VAPOopsRat or VAPMehRat or maybe VAPWWYTRat (VAP What Were You Thinking Ratio)?  Perhaps we could have a VAPWWYTRat Red Flag Warning for the farm....

Watch out for the OAP
If the number of items with high VAPCONs is ridiculous and your VAPWWYTRat is high enough to warrant a farm-wide Red Flag Warning, then you are probably not actually dealing with VAPs.  Instead, you have succumbed to the temptation of creating OAPs (Overly Ambitious Plans).  And, we all know what that leads to...

A NAP (No Ambition Plan).

Monday, July 4, 2016

How We Farm

Every so often, we get questions about how we farm and why we farm the way we do.  We've written several blog posts that answer parts and pieces over the years and we thought it might be interesting to put a batch of them together.  We started this blog post in January and it kind of sat around in the "Office VAP" (VAP is Very Ambitious Plan) for some time. 

Many of these blog posts are written with an intended audience being those who are thinking about doing some or all of what we do (or those that already do).  However, they can be interesting to anyone who just wants some insight about these topics.  For example, if you want to understand a bit more why it is important to us that we maintain organic certification, then you could view some of these posts:

The last one might be the best general purpose post for those who maybe don't care so much about the working of a farm but they wonder about the question the title poses.

I KNOW there's a watermelon here somewhere.
If you are more interested in the psyche of your farmers (no, that wasn't "psycho"), you might be interested in these posts:
There are several others out there.  But, both of these are posts that represent a bit more effort on my part to put them together and they really do give you a look into how we feel and what we experience.

And, since we will be helping to host a Practical Farmers of Iowa field day with the Xerces Society on August 20, we should share some of our posts that focus on pollinators and beneficial insects:
  • Flower Power - Why we put flowers in our vegetable growing areas.
  • Feeding the Workers - Things we do on the farm to support our pollinators and beneficial critters.
We really do believe that we are responsible for taking care of our beneficial insects on the farm and take our role seriously.  Certainly we can improve upon what we do, but we give it our best shot every year.

Last Season (2015), I had so many things running around in my brain that I actually spent a rainy weekend just spilling it all out on paper.  In the end, some of it came out in the form of blog posts.  We find that some people actually appreciated just getting a view into how we are thinking about what we do and the issues we consider during the decision making processes. 

Sometimes, Rob is asked to give presentations or talk about some of the things he does with people who want to hear some of the nitty gritty.  Sometimes, these things find their way into a blog post as well.  There was a series that some people enjoyed very much.  Don't ask me where Part II went.  I haven't had time to find it.
A few other posts that cover some specific topics are here:
Are these posts for you?  I don't know.  But sometimes, it helps to put links to related topics together so you can skip some of the other things in the process of exploring these items.


Saturday, July 2, 2016

Why'd You Call Me a Drip? (Revisited)

Back when this blog was young, I created a post titled "Why'd You Call Me a Drip" that discussed the stages of wetness your farmers periodically encounter as a part of their job.  Rather than link you back to it, we're just going to modify and update what was there for your reading pleasure!

We have a new(ish) weather station on the farm and we think it lies.  Either that, or it doesn't take too much rain on our farm to make it ridiculously damp.  To be fair, the weather station resided in the high tunnel during its first couple of months on the farm last year.  Needless to say, it didn't record ANY rain in there.  So, it MUST be accurate.  But, now it is outside and is happily giving us reports of all things weather related.  Don't get me wrong.  We do like this weather station very much and find it to be reliable.  It's just that our human perceptions don't always line up with what it reports.

However... when your shoes are making squishing sounds with each step and your jeans are five times heavier than they were when you put them on, you may have entered the "Fifth Stage of Dampness" (see below).

The Farmer's Guide to the Stages of Dampness

Stage the First 
You see it coming and you rush to complete whatever you are doing in hopes of getting it done AND getting in before the rain hits. Adreneline rush time.  You might feel a random drop or two at this point, but it isn't really raining.  Most of the moisture comes from your own person as move quickly.  The last fifteen plants you are putting in get jammed into the ground in rapid succession.  You try to nab the final 20 bunches of kale before the rain catches you.

Exception to Stage the First - Threatening Weather
You see it coming and you see something that you really don't like.  Maybe heavy lightning or a squall line of some kind.  Depending on how much time you *think* you have, you and the workers grab all of the tools and get them back in.  High tunnels get closed up, windows get closed up and everything and anything else that needs to be dealt with gets dealt with.  The irony here is that the farmers usually recognize these situations in time to get things battened down and get themselves under shelter before they hit much more than stage two... unless... you see something you forgot and you go back out into it.  In that case, we normally skip right to Stage the Fifth.

Stage the Second 
The rain starts and you rush to get anything undercover that really must not get wet. You feel every drop of rain and you might even see steam come off of your shoulders as the cold raindrops hit you.  Sometimes you can't help but let out a bit of a yelp.  Cold cold cold COLD!

If you haven't completed your task that you really needed to get done and there isn't anything that really needs to be moved under cover (should that radio still be out here?), then you keep working.  You're still moving quickly in hopes that you won't get any wetter.  Perhaps it will stop?  At this point, there is hope that you won't get all that wet and a change of clothes will not be necessary.

Stage the Third 
You are damp, but there really is 'just a bit' more to do and you really don't want to leave it (or can't leave it). So, you keep rushing in hopes of getting done before you get too wet/dirty/both.

The soil starts to get a little sticky and you notice that you are now a couple of inches taller than normal as your boots/shoes collect some dirt that you can later bring into the house with you.  You have started to use your jeans more frequently as the portable rag that it is.  You are starting to realize that whatever it is you are harvesting is going to have a little mud on it that will need to be cleaned off before it is delivered.

If you are planting, you have to quit at this point.  Seeders get jammed up.  Plants stick as readily to your hand or planter as they will to the dirt.  Weeding can continue until you have too much mud on your hands to grasp weeds properly or you spend more time cleaning the blades on your tools than you are weeding.  How many of you have tried to pull wet crab grass?  Ya.  Not happening at this point.  so, planting and weeding means we quite and start bringing things in.  We just *might* avoid the next stages of wetness.

Stage the Fourth 
You can still get a little bit wetter, but there really is no more hope of getting done and in before you have to change to new clothing, etc. As a matter of fact, if you stand up from a typical harvest position, you will discover your remaining dry spots on your person.  Your back is pretty well soaked and you probably have water dripping off the bill of your cap by now.  You've either decided that the rain isn't as cold as it was or you simply don't care at this point.  The pace slows down, it really doesn't matter how fast things get done anymore. Part of you accepts that being in the rain can be somewhat pleasant - except if it is a downpour - or there is lightning and/or heavy winds.

The ground has moved from tacky to slippery.  Part of you still worries about slipping and falling.  The other part looks at the jeans you have been using as a rag during the rain event thus far and you wonder if it would make a difference.  Your shoes are heavy and your shirt is plastered to your back.  Some point between stages three and four you had the unpleasant experience of the first drip or two of rainwater running down the small of your back and into places we won't mention on a family blog.

Stage the Fifth 
There is no way you can be wetter - even if you submerged yourself in a pool. You could wring a few gallons out of your underpants if you had to. At this point, you only keep picking because you have to - and it still doesn't matter if you go in. The only thing that stops you is if you will be doing more damage to the crop and field than you should. Even then, you keep picking if there is a deadline to meet. The rain is no longer annoying. The issues listed above no longer bother you. This is likely because you have reached a stage of numbness that is known by CSA growers, truck/market farmers and other folks who have to perform tasks in this sort of weather once in a while.

Oops.  Farmer Rob just remembered the little notebook he keeps in that side pocket in his jeans.  Well, we'll just have to get a new one and hope this one dries out enough so he can decipher the notes later when it dries out.

The farmers finally get themselves inside and try to figure out how to take off the soaked clothing.  The only thing worse is trying to put on dry clothing.  If you reach stage five, it almost seems as if your skin won't dry off easily.  It's a disturbing feeling to have a clean (and dry) t-shirt rolled up and stuck as you attempt to pull it on.  We won't even talk about the underwear you're having trouble with.  Oh.. .and the SOCKS.  Ugh.

Recent Events
Over the years, we have gotten better at getting things done before the rain hits.  But, when a more severe system hits, we find ourselves running around in downpours (some of them sideways) in an effort to take care of things.  We recently had a system move in from a direction we aren't used to watching and it forced Rob and Tammy to spend some quality time in sideways rain while they worked to shut down the high tunnels.  Sometimes you just have to have a good Stage Five Dampness to make the day complete.