Monday, June 25, 2018

Soup of the Jungle

We aren't able to treat the yard areas of our farm like others who live in town might.  Sometimes there are places that don't get trimmed up.  The reasons can be diverse.  Perhaps we just haven't gotten to it.  Or maybe we have another reason for leaving it the way it is.

Huh, that area has gotten a bit wild.  What to do?
We've had a couple of stretches of warmer than usual weather along with a bothersome infestation of buffalo gnats.  Unlike the humans, that just keep plugging away at farm work, the farm supervisors look for ways to stay cooler and get away from the blackflies.

There appears to be something in this grassy patch.  But what?
Soup apparently decided this particular patch was IDEAL.  She could keep an eye on all that was going on at the farm's center.  She could stay cool and apparently not be as bothered by bugs there.  Plus, she made it look awfully comfortable.

See!  Cats DO build nests.
 Needless to say, we left that patch alone.

Saturday, June 23, 2018

Man with the Plan?

Every so often, we get asked a question about what we do on our farm that makes me think a little harder after the conversation is over.  The question that got me going this time was presented by an individual that may have only been trying to encourage conversation rather than a deep philosophical exploration.  In any event, what this person got was probably what was wanted; a short, pleasant conversation that may have only scratched the surface of what could have been said.  What I got was a headache afterwards as I tried to figure it out for myself...

The Question:

What would you say is the most important task for you on the farm?

Whoa!  Are you sure the farmer is up for this one?
Whether I was right to do so or not, I immediately discarded a whole host of tasks on the farm that are critical items.  These are the daily farm chores that really need to be done.  Inspector (shown above when he was a kitten) might argue that feeding the cats should be at the top of my list.  And, in reality, it is at the top of our list every day along with feed the chickens and turkeys, water plants, get water to birds, open and close high tunnels, etc etc.  But, in the grand scheme of the farm, none of these is inherently more important than any other.

I suppose I could say planting, harvesting, weeding or any other crop specific task, but while they are all also critical, they aren't the most important by themselves.  Equipment maintenance?  Record keeping?  Habitat management for beneficials?   Weather monitoring?  Sales?  Building repairs?  Mental health?  Creating really good playlists to work by?  Being able to NOT scratch where it itches? 

Planning Wins the Day?

It actually didn't take me long to conclude during the conversation that planning was actually the most important task I perform on the farm.  Every day on the form has a VAP (Very Ambitious Plan) in some form or another.  I do not always write one out formally, especially when there is a large and very specific project that will dominate the day.  For example, I do not think I wrote anything specific out when we built a high tunnel.  But, anytime there are more workers on the farm than myself, there needs to be a plan that I can convey.

The Chalk Door - just one way to tell everyone what's up at the farm.
There is so much going on at the farm during a typical June day that the process of planning can be a project all by itself.  For example, our June 19 VAP had over 50 items on it.  Item one was "morning chores."  I only say this to point out that the list did not include a separate item for each daily task (such as scoop the litter box...).  With some of Tammy's family visiting (and wanting to be involved) the plan involved eight different people in some way, shape or form.  A good plan is one that keeps everyone as busy as the want to be (if they are visiting) or need to be (if they are part of the crew).  The plan also needs to consider resource availability.  After all, the lawn tractor can't be two places at once.  Or, at least, that seems to be the case on our farm - even if we try REALLY hard to put it two places at once.

The Plan Within the Plan

Planning for a single day usually has a basis within the plan for the week (or for some series of days).  I can tell you that we have a plan every week, and that would be true.  But, it is more likely that our plan covers three to five days with any accuracy.  It seems that I cannot predict how things will go well enough for any of our weekly plans to be terribly accurate towards the end of that week.  Essentially, the weekly plan occurs whenever the prior weekly plan is completely unhelpful for the upcoming daily plans. 

You might ask why we can't adhere to our weekly plans better (or why Rob can't manage to plan better so the weekly plan works).  Go ahead.  You can ask.  But, you know I'm going to answer even if you don't!

I'll give one example and that should be sufficient to explain how this can happen. The forecast called for a very low chance of less than a half inch of rain on Monday.  The rest of the week was supposed to be dry with seasonal temperatures.  Instead, we get three to four inches of rain over a couple of days.  Suddenly, the plan that called for prepping seed beds and numerous other things that need somewhat drier soil was entirely out of the question.

In short, things happen.  Weather can alter what you can do.  Equipment breaks.  We will discover tasks that must be done NOW even if we didn't plan to do them "now."  Blackflies can get so thick that we have to run screaming into shelter every hour or so to stay sane (I wish I were joking about this one).  Some items take longer than anticipated.  Others don't work out the way we planned and they have to be deferred until we solve another problem.  It's just the way it works.

So, just imagine how the entire season's growing plan must look when we compare to what actually happened at the end of the year?

Failure of Plans and the Need for Contingency Plans

You've got to figure that we probably spend some time with contingency plans since there are so many uncertainties in the first place.  And, you would be correct.  We do create contingency plans.  Most of our 'formal' contingency plans are created as a part of our season plan.  On the other hand, our daily VAP usually includes contingency items on it should conditions prevent something else from being done.  In other words, each VAP has more on it than we can hope to complete simply because we need items on our radar should we need to make a change.

Surprise Lilies are actually pretty predictable, as far as surprises go
If there are even chances of rain or dry weather, we often create separate plans for the actual weather conditions.  For that matter, if there is some sort of variable that could influence what we do, we'll try to account for it.  But, no matter how hard we try - we can still find ourselves in 'unplanned territory.'

When Contingency Plans Fail

After letting myself think about the original question as I wrote this post, I have to amend my answer to say that adapting is actually the most important task I perform on the farm

There is a practical limit to how much time one can plan without actually performing the tasks in those plans.  There is also no such thing as a perfect plan.  It's a matter of coming up with a set of plans that will be good enough most of the time. Then, WHEN (not if) they fail, you simply do your best to adjust and make the best of it.  After all, when plans A, B and C are off the table:

Rob: "It's time for plan D."
Crew Member: "What's plan D?"
Rob: "There is no plan D.  So, let's do this..."

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Mr. Bunting's Domain

We apparently have a pair of Indigo Buntings that are nesting not far from the center of our farm.  We have had Indigo Buntings that have traveled through our farm every Spring, but we have never observed a pair nesting on the farm.  If you don't enjoy birds all that much, then it may not make much sense to you that we find this to be a big deal.  If you do, then you might understand why we are enjoying this situation.

Click on the picture to see a larger version.  Mr. Bunting is on the clothes line.
Mr. Bunting introduced himself to Rob very early in the morning when Rob was sitting at the picnic table and trying to plan out the day for the crew.  Mr. Bunting hopped on to the clothesline and then to a pole by the corner of the garage.  He flew over to the potted hibiscus and back to the clothesline.  Eventually, he headed to the cherry tree, where we think they are nesting. 

 Mr Bunting was only "chipping" at me and not singing.  But, we have heard his song at the farm.  The following is a YouTube video from the American Bird Conservancy.

 Rob wondered if he could manage to get a picture later in the day and he DID manage to do just that.  The three pictures in this post are from those attempts.  Mr. Bunting is not willing to let me get too close, nor have I been willing to sit still long enough to try and wait for him to come to me (farmer... I DO have to do some work).  However, he has been getting bolder since we first noticed him.  He forgot himself once and landed on the clothes line as I was hanging something up.  Once he figured out that I was there, he returned quickly to the cherry tree.
Can you find Mr. Bunting?

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Lettuce Enjoy

Every year we make adjustments in an effort to get better at everything we do on the farm. Sometimes, we change varieties we grow. Often, we make small adjustments in how grow to adjust to the weather and circumstances on the farm. We may grow more or less of something based on the anticipated demand. Of all of the crops we grow, lettuce (and greens) have the most flexibility within our growing systems.

The truly wonderful thing about lettuce is its relatively short period of time from seeding to maturity. We can grow many successions of lettuce in one season, which means we might be able to adjust to late requests for certain varieties. If one succession fails, there is almost always another one in the pipeline. Our best season in recent years saw us being able to harvest fresh lettuce for 16 of the 20 CSA weeks in our farm share program.

A few terms or notes for the interested:

Heads of lettuce: When we refer to 'heads' of lettuce, we are referring to ONE plant. We are not claiming that the variety is a head lettuce. Most of our varieties are looseleaf, butterhead, crisphead, batavian or romaine. Do not confuse this term with the heads of lettuce that are in the iceberg family (something we do not typically grow).

Holding qualities in the field: When we make a note that a variety holds well in the field, we are indicating that plants will be of harvestable quality over a longer period of time without bolting or getting bitter. Some types, such as Gold Rush, tend to need picking over a short period of time once they reach mature size. Others, such as Crispmint, can easily maintain quality for periods up to three weeks. Many lettuces will hold in the Fall during the shorter days and cooler weather. Holding quality is much shorter in the Summer months.

Bolting: Lettuce is said to 'bolt' when the plant begins to tower (or get tall with a heavy stem) in an effort to produce seed. For many varieties, bolting occurs when the weather is too warm for the cultivar. In some cases bolting will be promoted when plants are too close or weed pressure is high. Competition can force bolting. Lettuce that 'bolts' typically has a taste that is more bitter than lettuce that has not bolted. This does not mean the lettuce is not edible, it just means that taste is not at a peak and may not be tolerable for many persons. Some lettuces, such as Grandpa Admires and Australian Yellow Leaf, tend to have thicker stalks and may give the appearance of bolting before the quality is greatly changed. We often will taste a variety in the field prior to picking it to make sure it does not have a bitter aftertaste. If it does, we will use that as a benchmark to determine which others of that type are no longer marketable. The good news is that turkeys and chickens like lettuce even after it has bolted or gotten bitter.

Ice Queen (Reine des Glaces)

Ice Queen is an heirloom variety that we have grown since at least 2010.  Some folks refer to this sort of lettuce as a crisphead, but I refer to it as a Batavian type.  They do form a loose head in the center and they do have a crunchy/crisp texture for persons who like that sort of thing in their lettuce (people like Tammy!).  The color is almost a blue-green in some light conditions.
Reine des Glaces
This lettuce tends to have a 'clean' flavor that matches up with the 'crisp' texture nicely.  In our opinion, the flavor is not strong.  Ice Queen is rated as being able to handle warmer temperatures (as with most Batavians) fairly well, but we normally don't like to grow it beyond June and won't start new until mid-August.

Bronze Arrowhead

This has been one of our favorite lettuces on the farm since the beginning.  This oak-leaf variety handles all sorts of weather and can hold well in the field.  It has a distinct taste and slightly softer texture for persons like Rob who prefer that sort of thing.
Bronze Arrowhead
One of the things we like about Bronze Arrowhead is that, while it has a stronger lettuce taste, it stays on the right side of bitter far longer than most lettuces.  If you think the standard iceberg lettuce is the way lettuce should taste (as in - it has NO taste), then you might be overwhelmed by Bronze Arrowhead at first.  But, then, you'll recognize that it is ok for lettuce to have a taste and may find it difficult to ever go back.

Bronze Arrowhead is greener during warmer weather and redder during colder weather.  While we don't grow it as a cut and come again harvest, a person could start a few plants and harvest leaves for an extended period of time.

Bunte Forellenschus/ Bunte Forellenschluss

This variety has crawled up the charts of our favorite lettuce varieties over the past five years.  Part of that has to do with finding the right time slots and situations to successfully grow this lettuce.  With more growing success comes more opportunities to assess the taste and qualities of the lettuce.  Apparently, it has not disappointed since we keep adding it to our grow list every season.

Bunte Forellenschluss
Some people might notice the two spellings and wonder about it.  Our seed comes from Seed Savers and the name spelling change merely comes from them.  While we have not spent time figuring out why this change occurred, we can guess that it had to do with some verification research on their part for the origins of this heirloom lettuce.

Bunte qualifies as a butterhead type with softer leaves and beautiful red/brown speckling on the leaves.  While we think it is a beautiful lettuce, we have had trouble with people misinterpreting the speckling as problems with the lettuce leaves.  Honest, they are supposed to look like this!

This lettuce falls into Rob's top two for favorite lettuce taste/texture combinations.  Rob prefers smoother leaves that don't tend to 'crunch' when you eat them.  Maybe a better way to put it is that Rob prefers spinach to lettuce if he can get it.  Lettuces such as Grandpa Admires and Bunte Forellenschus cater to that preference by having textures that are closer to spinach and tastes that are sweeter, for lack of a better description.

Grandpa Admires

One of our favorites to grow, harvest and eat.  Grandpa Admires would be classified as a looseleaf or buttercrunch type of lettuce. This variety is more heat tolerant than most, so it usually appears in our CSA shares in July and even August. It also grows just fine in the fall, but it tends to have much more red in it at that time and is much more compact. The taste is likely a bit sweeter in the Fall as well. Large leaves with a softer texture. Excellent for sandwiches. If it gets a little 'wilty' in the fridge after a week, revive it with a quick soak in cold water. If you don't like softer lettuces, you won't like Grandpa Admires. If you don't like 'harder' lettuce textures, you'll love this one. We were surprised how well this variety did in the high tunnel, with decent heads holding until December. We have not tried to overwinter this variety. Grandpa Admires will sometimes 'tower' without resulting in bitter leaves. If flower heads start, that is usually the point that the taste rapidly declines. We will plant Grandpa Admires for five successions most growing seasons.


Crispmint is an all season romaine. It holds up pretty well in the summer months, though the edges might brown (this is known as tip burn). We've overwintered these under a low-tunnel (plastic) and they take off once the weather warms in March. These can produce big (1/2 to 1 lb) heads that are very crisp, but in some conditions it will produce a looser head with less weight. In that case, the taste and leaf quality is still fine - even if it is not the size and shapre you hope for. CSA members have given a strong 'thumbs up' on taste for this variety since it was introduced. There are claims that the leaves get sweeter the closer to the center you get - and like most romaines, that can be ALOT of leaves. A reliable crop, enjoyable to pick, impressive to put on the market/CSA table and they hold in the field well. This is one we used to highly recommend for all purposes. Sadly, it seems that higher demand has led to poorer quality in the seed stock. We are considering selecting for some of our own seed in the future. We have noticed that romaines at full size do not hold as well in a high tunnel, with outer leaves breaking and dying and inner leaves freezing and staying frozen. It's in the nature of the plant. But, small plants will overwinter just fine. Crispmint will show up in five or six successions every season. We are exploring other romaine options to alternate with it.

Australian Yellow Leaf

This is one of our summer lettuces that is very slow to bolt and produces very impressive "heads" with very large leaves. In this case, a head is more of a stalk with nice big lightly savoyed leaves. Soft leaves, generally mild flavor. This, and Grandpa Admires are two lettuces that are fun to grow, beautiful to look at, can get some good size (so make sure you transplant with a little extra space - or thin - to prevent bolting), and if you put transplants in rather than direct seeding, you can get very nice reliable crops. We have noticed that heavy rains or winds tend to make these plants look "sad" with the large outer leaves laying down (on the ground or drooping). At this point, you need to pick this crop before the leaves lose their quality. They will look fine (and taste great) once picked, soaked and given a quick shake to get the leaves to realign (one of the things you can do with a soft leaf). If left too long, you can still pick the smaller leaves off the top. The lower leaves will lose their marketability (but will taste good enough in your own salad) since the light green color can go from interesting to sickly looking when damaged. We grow this lettuce one to two times per season.

Amish Deer Tongue

This lettuce is a little harder to describe because it is very different than many we grow. The leaves have a spinach-like texture, and that texture suggests spinach enough that some people might detect a hint of spinach taste. We're not sure if that's inferred or actual. The taste and texture are just different enough that they add interest to a salad with more commonly known lettuces. Plants are compact and tough. Probably a better cool season lettuce as they don't hold long in warmer weather. Note: don't plant too close or you'll get tall/thin plants that aren't as full as they can or should be. Crowding due to overplanting or weeds will encourage bolting. And, unlike other lettuce, storm damaged leaves don't just 'melt' away as the plant grows through the damage. As a result, storm damaged plants are often difficult to market because of their looks. We expected these to do well in the high tunnel and they did do well enough. But, like a romaine, they don't unfreeze like looseleaf lettuces might. So, target them for November to early December (at the latest) in Iowa, but don't try to push it too far or you lose quality. A good variety to add for different texture and taste in the salad. We are growing this variety less often because conditions have to be perfect to get the best looking heads. We won't mind growing it if asked, but it doesn't make the rotation often otherwise.


A beautiful spotted leaf romaine that does a great job in the early summer months. Hitting the timing for a fall planting is a bit trickier than some. These produce full and often heavy (1/2 to 1#) heads of lettuce, though we will often harvest smaller as the heat increases. They grow well during the summer - but you do have to watch to make sure they don't show signs of bolting - once they show any sign of it - they're going to go through the bolting process within 24-36 hours. Excellent all-around romaine. We have found that this lettuce may need an education component for sales. The brownish/purple spots are often misconstrued as 'bad spots' on the lettuce - much to the detriment of the seller (and the buyer who doesn't bother to ask, taste, or otherwise check out this variety). Once tried, people will ask specifically for this one. We did notice that this romaine handled life in the high tunnel better in December than the other varieties. It also overwintered well (get them to about 2-3 inches tall around Nov 5 and they'll hold there). We try to get two good successions in the Spring to Summer slot and will try to strike lightning in a bottle with a succession or two in the Fall. We don't usually try it during summer months.


Pablo has rapidly become a favorite of ours. This variety forms loose heads as they approach maturity, but can be harvested younger as a leaf lettuce. They are longer season (60 to 70 days) and hold very well in the field. The biggest thing this variety has going for it is the taste. Many people reported taking tastes of the lettuce head as they prepared a salad, only to find that the entire head was eaten before the salad was fully prepared. Beautiful plants with big outer 'loose' leaves and a moderate sized 'head.' You can plant these relatively close and not have to worry about bolting. The only 'knock' on these plants is the relative fragility of the stems on the transplants. As a result, you will benefit from avoiding overcrowding each tray cell (so you don't have to tease seedlings apart and risk breaking them). If you direct seed, then you have to be careful about accidently breaking plants you want to keep when you thin. Good response to high tunnel growing in the fall. Not necessarily the best candidate to overwinter. These can also be a little harder to clean and prepare since they hold alot of water in the center. We still love this lettuce, but they don't seem to be growing as well as they used to and we wonder if there is an issue with the seed strain purity? We still try to put Pablo in the ground at least four times a season.

Gold Rush

This one is definitely a colder season lettuce. Once the daylight hours get longer and the weather gets warmer, it tends to bolt quicker than many of our varieties. On the plus side, it is very cold tolerant and doesn't show much damage after overnight freezes. It can be overwintered if covered and is a good candidate for late fall planting for early spring emergence. Very ruffled, light green leaves. Very attractive on sandwiches or salads. Tends to have a 'firmer' texture. Heads don't hold together as well as some varieties, but that means you won't get as much stalk as you will with others. Reasonably good high tunnel production in the fall. It is possible that they will hold longer than others, but they were all picked before we could test that theory. We did find that they host aphids better than most lettuces - even though it takes a while before the leaves are damaged. We have also noted that seed does not keep very well. So, don't buy too much extra and expect to use it the next season. This one is grown only at the very edges of the season in the coolest weather.

Magenta lower part of photo

We grew this as part of a Summer lettuce trial in 2017 and we liked the results, so it returns in 2018. These are a very dense leaf lettuce that is reddish in coloration. This one fits the standard taste often found for large leaf lettuce put on burgers and other sandwiches in restaurants. It's not exotic, but it sure is a work horse. It will start showing up in late July and should run late into the season.

Winter Density

Don't let the picture at the left influence you too much.  We don't always get the camera out when plants are at their peak.  In this case, we pulled it out after a harvest/delivery and these were the ones that were left in for too long.  They exhibit some tip burn on the edges of the leaves.  However, I can tell you that they tasted very good at the moment the picture was taken because I sampled them after the photo op!

We've grown this one now for two years and we like the heavy green heads with heavy leaves. The texture is literally 'dense' and it reminds us a little of spinach texture. They hold well in the field and the taste remains mild even after they begin to bolt. They do have some issues with tip burn in warmer weather, but this variety also shows potential for being nearly as flexible as Bronze Arrowhead.

Other Lettuces We Grow

The following are lettuces we are trying out and have more limited experience with them. We will do our best to describe them here:

Nevada - 2018 is a first time trial for Summer lettuce. It is likely to be another heavy lettuce, like Magenta, but it will be a solid green. We will try to give more information as we gather it.

Bergam's Green - also part of the 2018 trial. The description sounds like it would be Nevada if you add savoying and wavy borders to the leaves.

Concept - a summer crisp type that is also in the 2018 trial. It is said to have some romaine characteristics.

Parris Island Cos - Here is one of our attempts to find a companion romaine for Crispmint. These should be very large green romaine heads. Early returns look very promising.

Red Romaine - We are trying to find a Red Romaine that produces better than Rouge d'Hiver. We are targetting later in the year for this variety.

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Stuck on the Farm Music Part III

Back in late January, Rob had his annual 'sick' that made it hard for him to sleep, so he sought some solace in song.  (I was going to say "music," but the alliteration was too much fun).  He played the "if you were stuck on the farm and could only have ten albums for music" game.  The first three albums are listed in Stuck on the Farm Music Part I.  We offered another three albums in part II a couple of weeks ago.  We now bring you part III.

The albums selected this far - because you all want a quick review and we really need to add to the suspense.  You know, just like all of those silly TV shows that tell you something special is coming just before the commercial break, then tell you it's coming during the entire next segment - but don't tell you until after the second commercial break?  Just like that!

Apocalyptica - Reflections
the Choir - Circle Slide
Future of Forestry - Pages
77's - Sticks and Stones
Evanescence - Synthesis
Over the Rhine - Ohio

The problem with lists like this is that you begin thinking about all of the great music you will miss out on if you have to make these choices.  But, the good news?  I don't have to live with this for real!  So, let's try to finish out the list.

Classic Crime - Phoenix
Again, there is superb songwriting.  Frankly, the work really shines in the mellower tunes, but I don't think they would stand out the way they do if there wasn't the counterpoint of rockier tunes.  This is another case where I would miss other work by the artist, but I KNOW I would miss this entire album if it were absent.   Any group that is not allergic to 3/4 or 6/8 time signatures and the periodic use of the cello is going to get my attention anyway.

Charlie Peacock - the Secret of Time
There is no getting away from a little bit of nostalgia in making a list like this.  But, I see nothing wrong with selecting an album that you have not tired of, even though part of its appeal is the memories it brings back for your inspection.  Tammy and I had the privilege of attending a Charlie Peacock Trio concert featuring Charlie, Jimmy A and Vince Ebo.  We witnessed musicianship at its finest that night and these songs reflect the skill and passion we witnessed.  And, we've heard very few writers use as many multi-syllable words in lyrics as Mr. Peacock does.

the Call - To Heaven and Back
There are certain vocalists that you would say they have a 'big' voice.  Michael Been's voice wasn't just big, it was huge.  We're not certain he ever really needed a microphone.  But, while it was big, it could still run the full range of emotion.  I was tempted to select Reconciled in part because it has one of the best tunes I've ever heard on it.  But, song for song, I actually like this album better.  Maybe I can get a flyer for "I Still Believe" and glue it on to this album somehow?

But, what do I pick for the tenth spot?  I really can't decide.  So...

I'll make you all wait for one more post!  (BWAAAHAHAHAHAAAAAAAAAAAA! - evil laugh)

Friday, June 15, 2018

High Tunnel Report

The obvious disadvantage of creating blog posts when time and the weather allows is that you're going to get some content that is 'dated' when it comes in the form of a farm report.  But, since that's never stopped me before - here we go.

The Genuine Faux Farm high tunnels are usually our happiest places on the farm when it comes to successful growing.  This year we have to admit that the success levels have not been where we usually want them, but there have been some good things so far (and more good coming).  The pictures and commentary shown here applies as of about June 8, so things will have changed dramatically by the time this June 15 post comes online.


We have named our high tunnels (in case you hadn't read about them before) and our first (and smaller) high tunnel was called Eden soon after our first Fall harvests in 2010.  This is the building where we learned new things about cold weather and metal structures

Eden is a 72 foot by 30 foot building and it can be moved between a west and an east position.  The plan is typically to move the building in the Fall to cover the late Fall and overwintered crops.  We did do that last Fall, but we are discovering more problems with a high water-table in that position, which reduces production significantly.  As a result, we moved the building AGAIN this Spring.

Every decision of this nature has a domino effect.  One of the dominoes is that the planting in Eden for the Summer crops went in later than we wanted.  They'll be fine, of course.  Just not the schedule we hoped for.  There are tomatoes on the far left with lettuce next to them.  Beets are seeded next to peppers.  Onion and melons in the center.  Peppers and green beans next followed by lettuce and tomatoes on the right.

Our bean and beet germination has been disappointing, so we need to address that quickly.  Otherwise, plant development is moving rapidly for the other crops.  Even as I write this and look at this picture, I realize that the inside of the building no longer looks like this.

The issue with the West position of the high tunnel will be addressed before we move the tunnel to that spot again this Fall.  The plan at present is to create semi-permanent raised beds on that end to get the roots up out of the wet soil.  A secondary item may well be to put some drain tile in.  If we can manage to find the time, etc we will do both.  But, we're pretty realistic about how much we can do and we'll be happy if we can manage one of the two before Fall.  Well - we'll have to be happy, because we really don't see how we could do both this year.  Even a slight improvement should help here, so we'll go for it.


We don't always remember what brought us to certain names for things on our farm, but once a name sticks, it sticks.  We consider ourselves warrior farmers of a sort since it takes a bit of battling every year to get things to go. Therefore, it makes sense to have a place for the warriors to go and reap a little reward... hence Valhalla.  It doesn't have to be completely accurate with Norse mythology - we just needs to be happy with the name.  Check.

Valhalla went up in June of 2015 and our blog post commemorating that event even includes a neat time elapse of the process.   This building is bigger (96 feet long by 30 feet) and it has water hydrants for each of the two positions.  We even had a ditch cut in next to it to keep the inside from getting too wet (see the issues with Eden we are now addressing). 
Valhalla is scheduled to house our late Summer crops and we target late May for a move date.  As of this writing, we hadn't gotten to it yet.  But, by the posting of this writing, we hope to have it done.  Remember those dominoes?  Well, the time energy for moving a high tunnel got moved on Eden, so we still need to create new time and energy for the Valhalla move.  Yay?
In the Spring, Valhalla is used to house trays and pots of plants awaiting planting in the fields.  We also grow Spring crops in there that we anticipate moving the building off of before they bolt.  This year, things got pretty hot pretty fast after being pretty cold pretty late.  That made our window for this building PRETTY short.  Ah well.  It will even out in the end, right?

There is some very nice lettuce in there still.  The kale looks fine and should be ok for continued harvests.  The early broccoli is healthy as well.  The tatsoi and komatsuna have been harvested.  The spinach didn't have a chance this year, so it is already gone.
Once Valhalla is moved to the West position, it will house more tomatoes, peppers, green beans, melons, carrots and other tasty things.  We are anxious to get this done and get those plants in, just as we very much want these plants to go 'outside' so they can finish off successfully.

Maybe this Summer will be the Summer BOTH high tunnels break some of their own records.  We can always dream - and then do what we can to make those dreams come true.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Before and After - Taters

 Potatoes and beans have been one of the more difficult fields for us to handle for the weeds.  There are a number of reasons for it, but rather than dwell on that here, we'd like to just show what we feel is a success story (thus far) this year.

Ok, that's not looking too bad.
William Tool Bar (flex tine harrow)
 We've been using our flex tine weeder on the potatoes more than we have in the past.  Part of the sacrifice has been to wait before putting the bush beans in to the adjacent rows.  As you can see above, the ends of the rows have some problems, but that makes sense when you consider Rob has to slow down on the ends and the cultivator is less effective.

Sadly, we didn't take time to show the middle sections of the rows with our camera, which would have made things look ever so much better.  It's one of those cases where one angle makes it look worse than it is and the other makes it look far better than it is.

Ok, we'd better get in there and do some weed control
The truth of the matter is that we did a very good job of sneaking the taters in right on time this season.  We made adjustments in planting that reduced the labor load and we were pretty pleased with ourselves.  But, it is clear that some adjustments must be made.  Isn't that always the truth?

Potato germination has not been as good this year as it normally is.  The Kennebecs have been awful with only about 15% germination.  The Mountain Rose's were around 75%, so we'll take that.  Canela is worse at about 50%.  Red Norland, Harvest Moon and Carola seems fine.  Perhaps conditions this Spring have had something to do with it.  However, we have heard from others that there have been some germination issues with certain seed.  We'll deal with that later since we're more interested in keeping the plants that are growing happy.
Oh! That's better.

 We did some in-row hand weeding and were pretty pleased with how quick most of it went.  This indicates to us that the early cultivation with the Williams Tool Bar worked.  The exceptions were the end of the beds and the southern most bed.

What's wrong with that bed?  Well, we planted these before we had our new power harrow and the 13th bed was a bit close to the path.  Weed pressure is higher there and the flex tine couldn't really find purchase in that area. 

This was supposed to be our 'throw away' or 'extra' bed.  We didn't expect it to do well.  Except - it was the first to germinate - and it germinated well.  Hmph.  So, we're working on it.  

Beans need a little attention still, but the rest is good to go.
Otherwise, things are looking pretty good.  Here's hoping for a nice tater harvest this year.

Monday, June 11, 2018

Not Melon Collie

 Every once in a while someone asks us how we go about some of our work on the farm.  Sometimes, the pictures I have line up nicely and I can share some of it.  Sadly, I didn't take the time to take photos of some of the equipment.  so, you'll have to use your imagination for some it.  I blame the blackflies for our lack of desire to take pictures so far in late May into early June.

Steps 1 & 2
 This year, we added the nifty power harrow to our arsenal (you can read more about it in our recent June newsletter).  We worked in cover crops (and weeds - of course) using the power harrow in this field (step 1).  Once we did that, we used the tractor to mark our beds in this plot (step 2).  Since we're trying to keep beds consistent with the size of our tractor for ease of cultivation and other future work, this makes sense - even if it costs a little compaction.  Each of our plots in the Eastfarthing (amazingly, this is the eastern part of our farm... we're so creative...) have the space for 13 beds - in theory.  Over time, things don't stay perfect, so a couple of fields are more like 12 and a half beds.  We're finding that the power harrow will likely help us keep the edges of our fields cleaner.

Steps 3 through 5
Melons are often heavy feeders, they don't typically like 'wet feet' and they need a certain amount of heat to reach maturity.  We have considered hilling them over the years.  In fact, ten years ago, when we grew a fair amount less, we raked dirt into row hills and seeded directly into those row hills.  Once we started growing over a thousand row feet of melons, we decided using a garden rake to make row hills was no longer a good idea.

We used our simple hiller on Rosie (the tractor) and created row hills that are only slightly smaller than the bed size (step 3).  The soil is a little rough at this point for planting.  It would probably be fine if we were using a mechanical transplanter - but we aren't at this point, so we like a slightly finer tilth just to make it easier on our bodies.  That means we run over each hill once with Barty (the BCS tiller - step 4) to make the planting area human friendly.  Also, the finer tilth helps to better cover the root balls of the transplanted melons.  We then use our wheel hoe to create a shallow indentation the length of the bed (step 5). 

This whole process gets the melon plants slightly above the soil surface of the surrounding areas.  If we get a heavy rain, this should keep the plants' roots above the 'it's too wet' danger zone.  Also, the hills tend to increase the temperature slightly at least early in the season.

Step 6
 In order to address the fertility issue, we fill the shallow trenches with finished compost (step 6).  At this point, this process is more time consuming than we want it to be.  But, we'll make adjustments in the future.  We're also thinking it might be nice to be able to filter out some of the sticks that are inevitably going to show up. 
Step 7 and 8
We like to lay our drip tape (and set up the header, of course) before planting because it gives everyone a guide for planting the seedlings (step 7).  Also, if you start the line a little bit prior to planting a row, you reduce transplant shock by getting water on the new transplants quickly.  As we plant the row, we use the excess soil on the sides of the shallow trench to help cover the new plants (step 8). 

The row in the center of the picture above is reserved for our borage planting.  We will seed it in directly in a single, densely planted row.  This hedge serves to attract pollinators, add some beauty AND provide a barrier so different varieties of melons don't decide to get in each other's way.  This is only important if you're trying to harvest without harming a later maturing crop (which we are).

Our goal
We hope to report back in late July and August that this field is looking like this one did in 2015!

Saturday, June 9, 2018

Stormy Weather

Sometimes a storm sneaks up on you a bit.  Other times, you get to watch from a distance as it rolls past the farm without going directly over it.  And sometimes, you get some advanced warning and prepare for it.

Today's episode was one we were watching for because the weather just felt like it was going to do it.  There were dark clouds to our northwest for some time, which allowed us to check radars and other resources with plenty of time to do all we needed to do in order to deal with potential downpours and heavy winds.

Looks like it could be serious, but plenty of time.
 In fact, we had time to get the camera out and take a series of pictures.  That is even rarer because that means we got everything pretty much closed up and prepared with time to spare.
Some very interesting clouds moving in opposite directions.
 Our afternoon activity just prior to this was to do a large tray planting with another succession of cucumbers, summer squash, brassica, lettuce and other goodies.  Since this work is done under shelter anyway, we had a good deal less to clean up than we might have if other tasks were on the list.
The first cell to the North was pretty serious.  Apparently some small tornadoes near/in Rockwell?
 It's the second cell developing south of that cell that we were concerned about at our farm.  We could see clouds moving different directions and the development of some interesting low clouds to boot.  There wasn't any bad looking rotation, nor was there evidence of super strong storm surge early on.
But, it got stronger as it got closer
 We had a moment in time where the sky to the South was still pretty bright, but the sky to the North.  Well, let's just say there was some amazing contrast between the dark sky and the red buildings and tractor that were still reflecting some of the light coming from behind me when I took the photo below.

I'd call that a deep slate blue.
 We did the "Typical Iowan" thing and stood outside for a while and watched this one roll in.  Neither of us was entirely happy about seeing this one come in because you could see it build up and get stronger as it approached.  We also had visions of the high tunnels at Grinnell Heritage Farm (our friends) being blown around by winds a few days prior to this.  We were not wanting our own version of this scenario.

Soon, the peas and carrots will be more visible in that field.
 On the plus side, the relatively slow approach of this storm, the presence of a stronger cell nearby and the lack of a bow in the radar image told us that we were not likely going to have a horrible "poof" coming our way.  On the other hand, this sort of thing often has a longer sustained wind.  At least that's been our experience at the Genuine Faux Farm.
Clouds can be beautiful, that's for certain.
 Sure enough, we got a fair amount of sideways rain and some sustained winds around 35 miles per hour.  The sky was inky black for a while and you couldn't see through the rain to assess whether the farm was still there or not.

At last count, we were over an inch of rain with more on its way.  We got 1.6" of rain yesterday and were glad for it because we needed it.  We're really not so sure we need more at this point.  But, we don't really get a say in the matter.  So, there you have it.

I guess all of the plans Rob and Tammy took the time to make for the next several days are going to have to be modified.  Such is the life of the Genuine Faux Farmers.

Friday, June 8, 2018


Working outdoors has many benefits.  We keep saying that to ourselves every year the blackflies (aka buffalo gnats) hatch and give us grief because we need the reminder.  This year, we've been needing that reminder a good deal more than normal.
Buffalo Gnat (courtesy IL Dept Public Health)
These gnats aren't like many other gnats that can be irritating - especially when they dive into your eyes, ears or throat.  In addition to the ability to seek out facial orifices, these little nasties also BITE.  According this article on the Illinois Department of Public Health website:

"... black flies bite using their mouthparts like scissors to cut into skin and lap up the blood. This results in painful bites that can produce bleeding, itching, inflammation and swelling, as well as allergic reactions that can be life-threatening."
This year, reports that the blackfly population has been higher than usual have come in from other farmers in Iowa, as well as locations in Illinois and Oklahoma.  And, I am sure there are plenty of other locations I just have not noticed.  In some locations, there have been reports of buffalo gnats killing poultry and a couple of the eagle chicks in Decorah succumbed to these varmints as well.  A few years ago, we lost several ducks to blackflies, so we can attest to the veracity of these reports.  Birds can look great in one instant and decline rapidly to a point where they cannot be resuscitated. 
Kennedy uses the 'cover up' approach to pest control
Of course, the humans on the farm have a tough time with these critters as well.  Early on during this year's hatch, Rob got caught with short sleeves and wound up with significant bites all over his arms after just 10 minutes of exposure.  Some have reported that vanilla helps repel the buffalo gnat, but we haven't noticed that it works for very long - if at all.  If you like the smell of vanilla, I guess that could be nice.  But, it seems as if you might need to re-apply every ten minutes.  That doesn't work very well if you work outside all day.

The Thistle Eradication Forces (TEF) know how to dress for success

We've found about all you can do to protect yourself is to cover up.  That means we're wearing long sleeves, glasses, ear protection and bandanas - even when temps get into the 90's (F). 

For those that are looking to chemicals for help - never mind.  See the following from the Ill Dept of Health page:

"Black flies are difficult to repel. Suggested “home remedy” repellents, such as vanilla extract, have not been scientifically proven effective. DEET-containing repellents that deter mosquitoes are much less effective at repelling black flies and have even been reported to attract the flies. Permethrin-containing repellents labeled for application only to clothing offer some protection.
The application of pesticides for black fly control often meets with limited success. In some situations, liquid residual pesticides may be effective when applied to surfaces where flies land. Fogging in the form of ultra-low volume (ULV) treatments like those used for mosquito control can be useful in some circumstances, but provide only temporary relief."

Our crew have handled the situation well.  Of course all of us prefer a good bit of wind during this time of the season because the buffalo gnat won't bother you much if there is a nice breeze.  Sadly, there have been many calm days of late, so we've just had to cover up and try to ignore the pests.  Rob and Tammy have both noted that the presence of blackflies tends to make both of us tense up a bit - so we're more tired than we should be by the end of the day.

Observations about blackflies on the farm from ourselves and the crew:

  • Yes, buffalo gnats DO hit your glasses or goggles with enough force that you can hear and feel them tapping on it.
  • No matter how hard you try, you cannot ignore a gnat that flies into your eyes, ears, nose or throat.
  • A gnat bite IN the nose can give you a nose bleed.
  • Gnats tend to find the borders/edges of clothing but usually do not go beyond that.  
  • Once you've been bit by a gnat, many more gnats are going to go for that spot or that area of your body.  It's probably best to make an adjustment early rather than trying to 'tough it out.'
  • We're all looking forward to the end of blackfly season. 
  • Blackflies do not taste all that bad if you give them a good 'chew.'

Saturday, June 2, 2018

June Newsletter

Black and Blue Division

Spring is the time of year when both Tammy and I rediscover all kinds of muscles as they report to our brains that they are sore at the end of the day (and the middle and beginning of the day as well).  This post from 2011 still applies and would give the curious a bit more of an idea of what we go through this time of year.  The first thistle stabbing a finger or the hand is always the one that hurts the most EXCEPT for the first time you put your hand on a dried up thistle.  That's a new definition of the word "ouch."

This year, much of the 'bruising' and fatigue is mental.  We are trying to catch up after the weather enforced a late start on the farm and then it jumped to mid-Summer mode.  This has resulted in some interesting early season crop challenges that will require some adjustments.  Add to the mix an early (and more difficult than usual) blackfly/buffalo gnat explosion during some of the hottest days and you have a recipe for a little bit of farmer disgruntling.  We've always wondered about the word 'disgruntled.'  Disgruntled usually indicates grumpiness, dissatisfaction, etc etc.   But, gruntling SOUNDS more like you shouldn't be happy, but the dictionary tells me it means "pleased or satisfied." Well, whatever.  We have NOT been pleased with the blackflies since both of us have had bites all over our arms and some on our necks, ears, etc.

On the other hand, the apple, pear and plum trees put on a wonderful show this year and we were able to enjoy the pleasant fragrance of lilacs a bit more than we often do.  We have already noticed our first Tiger Swallowtail and our first Black Swallowtail on the farm (usually we don't see them for a while yet).  A couple of monarchs have made themselves known.  The small flock of Cedar Waxwings and the group of Indigo Buntings that usually visit our farm on their way to somewhere else showed up in the same week.  The dandelion bloom was spectacular (and yes, we actually mean that) and the asparagus has tasted quite good this year.  And, if you want more of the positives, go down to the news shorts in this newsletter!

Weather Wythards

This year has been pretty wild, even when compared to some of the prior years we've experience on the farm that have not been what one would call 'normal.'   This year's claim to weather fame is exactly how diverse the weather has been each and every month.  May had some of what Tammy and I call, "Oregon weather" with temperatures around 47 and light rain.  It has also had some 'high plains' type weather with heat in the 90's with humidity that is comparatively low to some of the 90+ days we often experience in July.

May's Report
High Temp: 97
Low Temp: 42
Heat Index: 106  
Highest wind gust: 34 mph
Rain: 5.36" (mostly the first 10 days of the month - so now we're getting dry)

Year Through May
High Temp: 97
Low Temp: -20
Lowest Windchill: -34
Highest Heat Index: 106
Highest Wind gust: 46 mph
Rainfall: 9.86"
Barometer Range: 29.39 to 30.89

Field Report

Soil conditions have actually been pretty good this season.  We attribute this partially to some of last year's choices, some to our timing of working fields in relation to weather and field conditions and some to the addition of Vince.  Vince is a power harrow that runs on the back of the tractor.  The 'mixing' motion that a power harrow uses is less destructive of the soil structure than rototilling would be and it tends to help maintain a more consistent soil moisture level.
Vincent the Pricey - but worth it.

Why the name Vince?  Think "harrowing experience" and consider anyone named Vincent you might have heard of who was known to do horror/suspense type shows.  Yes, Vincent was "pricey" but he's been worth it so far.

At present, we have 2/3 of the onions in the ground.  All of the potatoes are in.  Germination of the potatoes has been spotty with some varieties and just fine for others.  Those that have germinated look great.  We have reseeded the peas since the first batch did not germinate all that well.  We are reseeding some of the green beans, while others did fine.  The field peppers and eggplant are all in the ground and 400 feet of basil plants are in.  Half of the melons are in the ground and the other half is due to go in on Sunday or Monday.  The first cucumber batch is in and there are some carrots that desperately need weeding.

We are trying to get much more lettuce and other greens going since some of the early batches have disappointed somewhat.  We have had some very tasty tatsoi, komatsuna and lettuce thus far, but the volume has not been there for us.  June may be a bit sparse, but once we get into July and August (and beyond) things should be just fine.

Picture of the Month

Flowering bushes and trees have had a good year thus far.  We attribute this to the enforced later start without temperatures dipping close to freezing in May.  Essentially, it was colder than usual, but it felt it had abused us enough that it didn't want to hit us with a frost or two in May.  I guess we can handle that.

Song of the Month

There isn't exactly a song of the month this time.  Instead, we are recommending that people consider giving a listen to and purchasing a new album by the Choir called Bloodshot that was just released on June 1 of this year.  But since we are supposed to do a song of the month, we'll select Summer Rain form this album.

CSA Report

We will continue to add people at pro-rated amounts if anyone wants to join us this season.  Thus far, our numbers are down from last year, so there is plenty of room to join us.  Our Traditional 20 season will start in mid-June and end at the end of October.  The Whole Enchilada share has been going for three deliveries and runs to just prior to Christmas.  We also have alternating delivery shares for those who feel that a delivery every week is too much.

News Shorts

We're never quite sure what to put in this section for the June newsletter.  Why?  Well, we do so much every day that our sense of time is often a bit off.  But, we also are so absorbed by the farm that we're not entirely sure what qualifies as 'news-worthy' to everyone else.  So, I'll just select a few things and put them out there and hope you are all amused for at least a second or two...

  • We moved the henlets into the horse trailer that we have used for broilers in the past.  This seems to be working because the little hens like to use the cross-bars in the trailer for roosting.  The broilers never could get up there and often started just staying UNDER the trailer rather than going in about this stage in development.  Score one for the farmers.
  • The broilers are in a building that allows the birds to sleep on the ground.  The biggest issue is the hit the pasture takes in those spots.  But, if we can move it often enough, it should be fine.  Score two for the farmers.
  • We're still trying to find the time to finish a couple of modifications on the new portable hen building so we can move the main laying flock into it.  But, with the event of all of the blackflies, it was probably better that the laying hens could go inside a building that was not on a pasture.  So, score three (by accident or lack of time) for the farmers.
  • We've done an even better job than usual adjusting equipment and handling small breakdowns with minimal delays.  The result?  Well, we'll see how it turns out.  But, while we feel swamped, we do feel like our toolbox is fuller than it has ever been.  Score four for the farmers.
  • There have been healthier populations of pollinators on the farm this Spring.  We could attribute some of it to the weather, I suppose.  But, we are also thinking that some of our work over the years has been paying off.  That's a whole fistfull of scores for the farmers.  We'll take it.
  • Both of us have taken to wearing long-sleeved shirts (thanks to the blackflies) even in the heat.  Rob's long-sleeved shirts are a weight that is more appropriate to early Spring, Fall and Winter, so it's been a bit difficult.  But, Tammy found a lighter weight long sleeved shirt that just may work for this situation.  We'll see if it is tough enough to handle life on the farm.  We'll take a half-point for this one in advance and we'll add the second half once we complete judgement.
  • The Sodastream that came as a gift for Christmas (thank you Brenda) has been absolutely wonderful, encouraging both of us to drink even more water than we usually do.  There is something about the carbonation and a little bit of lemon juice that helps us recover more quickly in the warm weather.  We'll actually take a point and half for this one.