Thursday, July 11, 2019

Mulchable

One of the biggest 'knocks' on organic agriculture is the idea that organic fields rely on cultivation, which is not good for promoting organic matter and supporting micro-organisms in the soil.  It can also be argued that constant tillage increases erosion.  However, if you are certified organic, the list of herbicides you can use are extremely short and if you have any kind of scale beyond 'big garden' most allowed applications fail to control the weeds.
Winter squash soon after planting into paper mulch.
 Like so many arguments that are used to discredit (regardless of what the topic is), they make so many assumptions about what it takes to steward a certified organic crop/field/farm that I would be tempted to laugh.  EXCEPT...  People actually listen to these short and to the point arguments without looking any deeper.

Soil Health is a Key to Certified Organic

First and foremost, it becomes clear to me that many people who blindly support the 'organic is bad because they till/cultivate too much' argument have no idea how much territory a certified organic operation has to cover to be certified.  It's not just 'don't spray these things.'  Certified organic farms must have plans on how they will maintain and improve soil health on their farms.  They must also consider how they will control or respond to diseases, pests and weeds, among other things.

 Use of a Broader Set of Tools
Another common argument people use to defend their choice to NOT convert to a certified organic operation is that the toolset is so restrictive and they don't see how they can use a limited tool set and succeed.  Ok, I'll grant that the fact that we can not use synthetically derived chemicals (which includes most herbicides, fungicides and pesticides) does limit the toolbox.  But, this is the equivalent of cutting the number of screwdrivers in your toolbox - they are all the same class of tool.

I tend to argue that those who sell themselves out wholly to using the chemical applications to solve all problems on the farm have limited their toolbox more than I have with my organic certification.  They've got every screwdriver known to the world, but they got rid of all of their saws, hammers and wrenches.  On the other hand, a certified organic operation is encouraged to explore the use of all types of tools available to them

One of the tools we are using more than we have in the past is mulch.

Two kinds of mulch, do you see them?  Keep reading and you will learn what they are.
What is "Mulchable?"
The first question we have to ask at the Genuine Faux Farm is "Is this crop mulchable?"

We grow enough crops with different requirements that we actually have to consider if the growing process for each crop will actually benefit from the addition of mulch.  Then we have to ask ourselves what kind of mulch will be the best choice.  And, after we've figured that out, we have to decide if we can actually implement this as part of our mulch plan and overall farm plan for any given season.

the Winter squash are starting to show some size.
What Type of Mulch Will We Use?
There are actually numerous mulching options available to us at our scale and there are others available to those who are either larger in scale or smaller in scale.  For example, you can use an organic based mulch such as straw or grass mulch.  The issue with these is that you must acquire the raw materials and then you have to spread it where you want it to be.  If the raw materials don't come from your farm, you have to ascertain that they did not have any chemical applied to them that will cause problems.   We have grass mulch in some of our green beans and in a bed of our potatoes.  We use straw mulch for our garlic.

And, we use dirt mulch on our potatoes as well.  If you can cultivate properly, the topic inch or so of soil will deplete the weed seeds in its seed bank.  That soil can become a 'dirt mulch' that could get hilled up against the base of the cash crop to help prevent further germination of weed seeds in the area that is hardest to weed.  So, there is your answer for picture #3 - there is grass mulch and dirt mulch there!

Larger scale operations often find that spreading grass would be far to labor intensive, though we are seeing some tools that could help automate spreading.  These operations also often find that straw mulch is also too labor intensive.  In fact, we (and other farms we know) have found that those who work on our farms tend to dislike spreading straw.  If you add in the fact that most farms who use straw as mulch do not have the space to grow their own, that adds an expense and all of the extra worries that come with sourcing off the farm.

Most operations of a decent scale will tend to use plastic mulch that is laid down by a mulch layer.  We fully understand this decision because the area in row with the cash crop is the hardest area to control weeds and it will often take more labor than the farm has in its resource pool.  However, we also made the decision that plastic mulch is not for us, which means we need to look elsewhere.

This year, we are using 3 foot wide paper mulch that comes in 500 foot rolls.  We have a mulch layer (the same tool that can lay plastic mulch).  The paper is put down in the bed, then we punch holes and plant into that mulch.  We increased the use of paper mulch this year and we are now using it in most of our vine crops, out tomatoes and much of our brassica.  These are all crops that are in the field long enough to warrant a mulch (whereas lettuce is not) and they are all crops we transplant.

So far, mulching has been working for us this year.  In other words, the plan has been a pretty good one for how this season has turned out.  The real test is in the next two weeks.  Can we keep up with the weeding cultivation of the crops that were not mulchable?  

We shall see!

Tuesday, July 9, 2019

June to July: the Difference a Month Makes

We are honored by the opportunity to observe the changes that happen on our farm every day, but we don't honor every change that happens by taking a photograph of it.  Why not?  Well, photography is not our primary job here - I think it has something to do with growing good produce and raising quality poultry.  If I'm wrong, let me know and we'll change the prioritization.

Still, we do manage to take some pictures that show the progression of how things change at the farm.  And, even more rare, we sometimes put out a blog post that shows some of the progressions and we often remember to give them the label before and after.  

The Raised Bed does its job!

A few years back we had another wet Spring and one of our responses was to put in a few raised beds so we could manage to plant SOMETHING.  Well, we've had a few wet Spring/Summer/Falls since that time, but these raised beds are still there.  Well, two of three are.  Two have been upgraded to corrugated steel sides.  The third has yet to have that treatment.

RB3 (Raised Bed 3) in June

 We used one of the raised beds to get some more lettuce into the ground when things were still way to wet in June to plant elsewhere (except the high tunnels).  About 100 heirloom lettuce plants were transplanted in.

RB3 in July
 And, as of last week, we had harvested nearly every head of lettuce in that bed.  The picture above is just after the first (light) harvest.  I guess I should have taken a newer picture so you could see a mostly empty bed - but that's usually not all that interesting to look at.

Casa Verde and its occupants

If you have kept up with our blog, you have seen the construction progress of Casa Verde - Home of Plantlings. 
Casa Verde in June
 Part of the motivation of this building was to provide a woodchuck-free zone for our little plants after the "Massacre at Valhalla" this Spring.  
The other side of CV in June
 If we still had even *some* of the plants the Dred Pirate Chuck Woody McChucksterface Woodchuck ate, the building would have required more 'shelves.'  But, he did eat them so we didn't need the extra shelves.  Even so, Casa Verde was pretty full.

CV in July
 There is now a good deal of space available in Casa Verde, though we are seeding another succession this week.

The Lettuce Tree






























 The Age-Old Question: Will the Genuine Faux Farm get decent taters this year?

It certainly will not be without trying and putting our best efforts forward.
Beans and Taters in June
 We opted to use paper mulch in several other crops so we could concentrate our cultivation efforts on crops, such as beans and taters, that do not lend themselves to paper mulch.

Beans and taters in July
And... the Ever-Present Kitchen Project

When you live in a construction zone, it is tempting to say:
1. You've always lived in that construction zone and,
2. It will never get done / no progress is being made.

GFF's kitchen in June
 This repair effort has been going on for a long time, that is true.  And, both farmers are very tired of having to deal with hauling dishes to the basement to wash them, etc etc.  Anyone who has worked on a kitchen or bath in a house knows the drill.  Dishes in the bathtub (at least we put the old kitchen sink in the basement, so we haven't had to do the bathtub thing), a stove that moves back and forth depending on whether you are going to work on the kitchen or work on dinner and piles of tools everywhere that dishes, foodstuffs and place mats used to be. 
GFF's kitchen in July
The good news?  July has lots of days left in it.  Let's see how far we can get on some of these before we get to August!

Saturday, July 6, 2019

July Newsletter

The Wall
There are stages in every growing season that I think most growers and many other folk will recognize.  At the Genuine Faux Farm, we have a couple occurrences of hitting the proverbial "wall."  One of them typically happens around the 4th of July when we realize that we've put in a year's worth of effort and we still have a few years' worth of effort to go until the season is completed.  Exaggeration?  Perhaps - but when you are talking about how we feel, I am not sure it matters whether it is an exaggeration or not.

This 'wall' might have something to do with the ridiculous push we had to put on just to plant everything and now we find ourselves needing to cram in three weeks of cultivation and weeding into two - assuming the weather allows it to happen.  We will not bore you with the litany of things we have on our 'to do' lists (also known as VAPs at the Genuine Faux Farm), but we assure you there is a fine variety of mental and physical tasks for each of us to do.

What makes it harder is that there are at least a couple of unforeseen circumstances every month that complicate our farm lives.  You could argue that they are not entirely 'unforeseen' because we have come to expect that we will experience them.  But, we have yet to read the entire manual on the crystal ball we picked up this Winter to help with that problem.

One of our most recent 'additions of flavor' to the farm is the not so neat little storm that backed in from the Northeast just as people were arriving for a PFI gathering at our farm.  Apparently, the Poultry Pavilion roof has decided that we are giving far too much attention to the other parts of our farm right now.  In a desperate attempt to gain our attention, the metal on the roof threatened to go flying around the farm.  Happily, the grounding wire for the lightning rods held on and the sheets of metal merely flapped around merrily in the 60+ mph winds.

Well, add that one to the VAP.

Weather Wythards
A typical Iowa June at the farm this year.  It was warm, it was cool.  It was wet and it was... less wet.  There was wind and calm and there were gnats!  At least the buffalo gnats have come no where close to last year's silliness.

June's Report
High Temp: 95
High Heat Index: 119
Low Temp: 48
Windchill (believe it or not): 46
Rain: 5.58"  (average: 4.96")


Year Report
High Temp: 95
Highest Heat Index: 119
Low Temp: -29
Lowest Windchill: -53
Rain: 17.3"
Wind: 60+ mph from NE
Barometer Range: 29.14 - 30.90
Snow: you know, we lost count.  It was a lot.


Veggie Variety of the Month -Pablo lettuce
This one seems a little odd for a selection, even to me.  Why?  Well, we have not harvested that much Pablo so far this year.  But, the few we did harvest were absolutely beautiful and had the great taste we grow this variety for.

Pablo is best known to us as a decent Summer lettuce as it falls into the Batavian class of lettuces.  We are very hopeful that Pablo will pick up where some of our cooler season lettuces are leaving off!  So, there you have it, we listed a veggie variety in hopes that it will come through for us.  But, that isn't so different than last month's selection of  snow peas.  Speaking of which, the peas didn't start producing until July 1.  I guess it is going to be a very short pea harvest this year.  Sure hope I didn't jinx the Pablo lettuces!


Song of the Month
Been a while since I've listened - really listened - to some U2.  How about One Tree Hill for this month's song?


CSA Openings Abound - And CSA Phase I has Begun!
We still have plenty of space in our CSA program, so we would welcome new and returning members at any point this month.  We could certainly still add people throughout the season, but we'd really rather start with you on board now!

We will enter Phase II of the CSA season when we enter the month of August.  Until then, current members are able to use their CSA "credit dollars" to purchase early season veggies.  Things like lettuce, turnips, peas and the first of the cucumbers!

Farm News and Announcements 
We were mentioning unexpected challenges in the introduction.  The picture below shows a plug that decided to have a problem in the Poultry Pavilion earlier this season.  Happily, the circuit breaker did its job and were able to trace down the problem.  The temporary fix, in that case, was to take out the plug and just wire through it for the time being.  We'll put a new plug in later.

Another photo from earlier in the season that deserved to be featured earlier is this one from Tammy's phone.  The eave on the portable building for the henlet flock is open.  When the henlets were smaller than they are now, they thought it was supposed to be the ultimate roost.  It was mildly amusing to look up and see these sleepy little birds looking down at us.




Speaking of little birds, it is amazing that we've actually had the turklets on the farm for a couple of weeks now.  Tammy did manage to get a couple of pictures on the day of their arrival at the farm.  They are much bigger now, but still quite small.  The great news is that they appear to have the normal turkey 'curiosity' that amuses us sometimes.  Unless they get out of the pasture and we have to look for them in the dark.  That is NOT amusing - at least not to the farmers.



The farm house kitchen project continues to progress one step at a time.  As we have mentioned before, we try to set aside one day a week to make some progress (usually Sundays).  The dry wall has been taped, sanded, top-coated and now painted.
Next up- cabinets!
 One of the things that happens when we hit the wall?  The farmer doesn't quite get enough gumption to go out and take pictures of the fields.  We have a few we can show, such as this one from July 5.
As you might notice, we've hilled a bed of potatoes and mulched a couple beds of beans.  We are also experimenting with grass mulch on one of the potato beds.  Here is hoping that we have success.  Sadly, we couldn't get the beans in on time again this season, so the Colorado Potato Beetles are causing us some fits again this year.  The two beds with minimal problems?  They are adjacent to the one bed of beans we got in on time!

And finally - East Bremer Diner is trying out purchasing some veggies from the Genuine Faux Farm.  It may not be much, but we've got to start somewhere!
The Born & Raised Burger at East Bremer Diner - July Special
We were able to sell the Diner an assortment of heirloom lettuces to put on this burger that features a bun made by the nearby bakery, wagu beef from Hansen's Dairy in Hudsen and cheese curds from Hansen's as well.  If you are inclined to visit the Diner, please consider going and supporting them, Hansen's and us by asking for a Born & Raised Burger during the month of July.  We've tested it and it tastes extremely good!  Success here can lead to more collaboration later!

Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Moving Day

The Genuine Faux Farm features two high tunnel buildings.  If you don't know what a high tunnel building is, you are soon going to find out (assuming you actually read this blog post!).  We have named the smaller of the two buildings (72' x 30') "Eden" and the larger (96' x 30') is called Valhalla.  A high tunnel is essentially a hoop building/structure that has a plastic covering.  The intent of a high tunnel is to grow crops in the ground under this structure.  Needless to say, the protection provided by the building can allow for growing crops earlier or later in the season AND it can help control the amount of moisture (most of the time) during wet seasons.

The cool thing about Eden and Valhalla?  Well, unlike most high tunnels, these two buildings MOVE!  And Valhalla recently had a moving day.

Valhalla was in its West position
But, we wanted it moved to the East position.
We admit that this move happened later than we planned, but the season has forced us to make some choices that lead us to this situation.  Tammy and I moved Valhalla on a Saturday with no other helpers.  It took longer than it has most years because there were a few roadblocks, but we figure it was time well spent.  We actually managed to take some pictures during the process this year which means we can FINALLY give everyone a moving day rundown!
Step 1, clear the tracks
 We are often able to spend some time prior to moving day getting the area around the tracks cleaned up.  That was not quite the case this year.  The weed whip came out and we spent time getting things out of the way.  If you have sharp eyes you might notice an irrigation line and a hose over the track as well.  It is usually NOT advised that you should leave such things on the track on moving day...
Step 2 - free up the apron plastic
We have all kinds of high tech methods for keeping the plastic down.  I sometimes wonder how technical we should get on our blog, so I am hesitating telling you about this part.

Oh, ok.  It's just some t-posts. 
 Now that we are no longer mystifying everyone with our clever ideas and techniques, we shall now discuss wind.  Lots of wind.  And the things wind can do to our high tunnels.

Step 3 - put the wheels BACK on the track
Both high tunnels have multiple attachments to the ground to keep it from getting away.  Even so, strong winds can move the building off of the track enough that we have to put those wheels back on the track before we move the building. We typically use a sturdy board as a lever to put these sections back on the track. 

Step 4 - Pound in the anchoring posts that secure the track

Unfortunately, the pictures I have of this just don't show what I'm talking about.  Suffice it to say that there are rebar stakes that hold the track to the ground.  These tend to pull up a bit over the course of the year, so they all need to be pounded back in with a 3 pound hammer.  If they are not put back down, the risers on the building will catch on them and you have to stop the moving process until they ARE down.

Step 6 - admire the crops currently in the building
One of the reasons for our delay in moving the building was the lack of dry ground to plant in on the farm.  We adjusted and put some of our crops into the side of the building that was going to be exposed after the move.  It's not our ideal plan, but sometimes you just do what you have to.

Tammy can be seen at the left cleaning up the track INSIDE of the building.  What?  You though we only had to clean the track outside the building?  Silly you!  Any obstructions on the track tend to cause difficulties during the move.  So, thank you, Tammy, for clearing the tracks!

Step 7 - take the doors off of each end

Step 8 - can you see the difference in this picture from the step 6 picture?

Remember, you can click on images to see a bigger picture.  So, what do you see that is different here?  Yes, the tracks are clean.  Good job, Tammy.  Maybe the crops have grown just a wee bit since the last picture?  

Step 8 - remove the T-Posts that secure the end walls

I realized AFTER I pulled the t-stakes that I hadn't really taken a good picture of them.  But, since the building moves, we have to be able to raise the end walls in some fashion to allow it to move.  When the building is in place, there has to be a way to secure those end walls to the ground.
Step 9 - take bolts out of end wall that attaches end wall flap

This is usually the step where one of us trudges back to the garage to get the socket set that we didn't bring out with us to take these bolts off.

Step 10 - take the poly-carbonate cover off the corners over the tracks

These little pieces of poly-carbonate keep the critters out in the corners over the tracks.  Unfortunately, you can't lift the tracks when they are on, so we have to take them off.
Step 11 - dig out the flaps
We throw some dirt in front of the outside (and inside) of the flaps to help hold them in place.  But, that means you have to dig that back out when you want to raise the flaps.

Step 12 - Raise the flaps and tie them up

And, step 13 - nest the roll up bars on top of these flaps so they don't create drag when you move the building.

At this point, the building is pretty much ready to move EXCEPT, we have yet to disconnect it from all of its anchor points with the exception of the end walls.  If the wind were to pick up at this point, we have the option of putting the flaps back down and closing the building up.

But, things were fine, so we decided to proceed.

Step 14 - disconnect the building from the track
There are several sets of turnbuckles connecting the building to the track.  These must be disconnected, which means loosening the turnbuckle and then opening the c-connector to free them.

Step 15 - loop turnbuckes onto hip 'board' to avoid making these an obstacle when moving the building.
 Laugh all you want that I give this its own separate step.  You won't laugh if you forget this step - we'll just leave it at that.

Step 16 - take off the turnbuckles that connect the building to ground anchors
 We save this one for last usually because these anchors could probably hold the building in place if a freak poof should come along at this point.  The idea is to have the building unsecured for the briefest amount of time possible without getting sloppy.  You might notice the orange tie to keep the turnbuckle up and out of the way of the wheels on the track.  We usually use duct tape for that task, but the roll we had with us was old and not meeting expectations.

Step 17 - inspect everything one more time
 THEN, HEY PRESTO!  Your building is moved.
See?!?
 I suspect many of you are now suspicious that I was tired of typing all of this out and I took a short-cut there.  No, that's not true.  At this point moving the building is pure magic.  We say the magic words.

"Please, Valhalla, will you move to the Eastern position that we have meticulously prepared for you?"

And then you....

Hook the building up to your tractor (Rosie) with a rope
Oh.  I forgot that part.

In any event, this process is slow and deliberate and usually includes several stops when wheels pop off the track or we identify a potential issue as we move the building.  
Oh look!  Valhalla DID move.  Yay!
The temptation at this point is to celebrate and go eat lunch, or some such thing.  But, the building is still not secured.  So, we need to reattach the turnbuckles to ground stakes and the track (there are ground stakes set for each position the tunnel resides in) and it is a good idea to at least put the flaps down before you have a sandwich.

After lunch, which was a bit late on this particular day, you get to put the building back together again.

The final steps?  Prep the soil and plant your crops.   

QED (?)

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Always More to Do

The difficult thing about trying to share all of the things that are going on in a blog when you are farming in Iowa - during the month of June - is finding the time and motivation to take timely photos and THEN organize them into posts.  No time for creativity in writing for this farmer!  Just the facts, sir!  Ok, maybe there will be some additional exposition, perhaps a pun, maybe a speculative comment... but definitely some....

Chickens!

We asked the henlets if they would take some pictures.  They said, "no."
We asked the henlets for a volunteer to take some pictures on the farm and we were roundly rejected.  Instead, they just wanted the food Tammy was carrying at the time.  We asked Inspector, but he just looked at the camera and then walked away.  We'll take that as a rejection as well.  Soup spends most of her time sleeping, so that was a non-starter from the beginning.

The next solution?  Use pictures we already have from earlier in the month!

Capital idea if I say so myself.  So, here we are.

We made the decision this past Winter to go 'all in' on the paper mulch idea this year.  Now, when I say 'all in' I don't actually mean that every thing we grow will be on paper mulch.  There are things where we feel it will work well and then there are things where we don't think it is a very good match.  However, we are growing melons, winter squash, summer squash, tomatoes, broccoli and cauliflower on paper mulch this season.

The photo at right shows some vine crops recently transplanted into paper.  We're using 3 foot wide paper so we can avoid weed pressure right next to the crop.  Our most time consuming weed control efforts are always in row, closest to the crop.  While we have cultivators to help us with the work, we have found that the last several seasons have been too wet for us to get out and cultivate when we need to.  The result is that the weeds get too big for the cultivators, so the effort becomes much more labor intensive.  While it is true that the paper mulch will eventually break down, the goal here is to get us past the heavy weed development season in June, July and early August.
 

The heavy planting push saw us using some of our equipment for long stretches of time.  The picture above shows our walk-behind tractor (Barty, in blue) and our tractor (Rosie, in red).  The mulch layer is attached to Rosie in this picture.  For those who figure that equipment like this makes the job 'easy' for the farmer, allow me to point out that Barty is not a small machine.  It takes some effort to keep him going where he is supposed to be going.  Rosie is a bit kinder, allowing me to sit down.  But, there is never a time when I spend long stretches in that seat - there is normally a good deal of climbing up and down to and from said seat.  Oh, and the you can really feel every bump wherever you drive.

Another, less expensive, piece of equipment that has seen time is the 'irrigation cart.'  It's a simple green cart that carries tools and supplies for setting up irrigation on the farm.  There is also a nifty holder that allows us to feed out drip tape for new rows.

It may seem a bit odd to be doing so much with drip tape when we've been so wet and we certainly see the irony in it.  But, transplants live in the top couple of inches of soil, which dries out quickly.  Until they expand their roots into the zones deeper in the soil, we have be prepared to support them with some extra water.  We have also learned that if you haven't got drip tape down, it will stop raining for.. like... three years or something.  Until you get the drip tape in.  Then it's ark time.  Not sure which way to go!

We were also graced with the presence of some fine people recently when three of Tammy's good friends from high school days visited the farm for a day.  It is always difficult to explain to people exactly what we do and how we do the things we do.  It becomes much easier when they can see some of it in person.  Seriously, a 200 foot row of any crop becomes much more real when you stand at one end of it!

Thank you to Angie, Missy and Lee for your visit!  It was good to see all of you.

We are also continuing with attempts to keep the farm house from falling apart this year.  We have been trying to designate some time on Sunday's to do some work on the kitchen and are now at the point where we need to tape the sheetrock.  Both farmers are getting VERY tired of not having a decent sink for doing dishes and no counter tops.  But, we remind ourselves that the old counters were falling apart, the floor was threatening to send us to the basement and the electrical was not, shall we say, the safest arrangement.  We just keep telling ourselves it will be worth it in the end.

Right?  Oh, c'mon... give us a little affirmation!

The farm house projects continue with efforts to try to get some help making our back entry a bit less precarious.

But, if you look more closely, you might realize that this old farmhouse is going to require a bit more than just some new steps....

Ah well.

It's all part of living in an old farmhouse.  Every home needs repairs over time, we just have this thing for acquiring 'projects.'  The good news is that the two of us are fairly handy and able to do a wide range of things.  The bad news is that Tammy is a teacher and Rob is a veggie farmer.  It's not always a good combination with home remodeling.  Here's hoping we can get a little contractor help with some of the more time-critical things on this project!

And there you have it - the things that popped into my head as I looked at pictures from earlier in the month.  I wonder if it will motivate me to go out and take more pictures? 

No, I think I'll go tape some drywall though.