Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Catching Everyone Up

Once again, you may have noticed a gap between blog postings and/or other electronic "hey remember our farm still exists" type of posts.  This is just a reminder to us that we both wear many hats (even though it seems to everyone that Rob only wears the one hat ALL OF THE TIME) and sometimes you have to hang one up for a while in order to get things done.

Then, there are other hats you really WANT to be wearing, but you can't.  Below is a picture that has been seen far less than we want by this point in the growing season.
You are witnessing a rare photo for the 2019 season - one with the farmer on the tractor actually do some field work.  And, actually, in a way, this wasn't much for field work.  We had a very short period of time where we thought the soil might tolerate a little work even though it was wet just below the surface.  This field had already had the power harrow run on it in April (well before the soil was warm enough to plant). We did that in hopes that it would help it dry out a bit quicker for May planting. 

Did it work?  Well, sort of - but we have so much soil moisture after an all-time record for precipitation from May 2018 to May 2019 that there really isn't much we have been able to do to combat the problem.

What you see above is our method for marking our planting beds in a field.  We use the tractor to mark beds that are the width of the tractor.  When we cultivate with tractor implements, we just make sure to drive in these wheel tracks.
 After marking the beds, we used Barty (our walk-behind tractor with the rototiller) to soften the planting space with a single pass.  Then, we dashed back with trays of onions and put them in these beds.  We got two beds in (about 3500 onions) before we ran out of time (it rained).  Thus far, we have five beds of onions in and two remaining that we want to plant.  We don't want to plant any onions after June 1 and we'll toss anything we have left after June 5 because they won't turn into much of anything.

We are now up to four poultry flocks on the farm and will likely peak at six flocks this year.  The henlets are residing the nice, "shed on wheels" that will serve as their home until they are ready to be integrated with the main laying flock. 
With all of the wet weather we've been having we are finding ourselves pressing parts of the farm into service as pasture that we haven't intended on using.  But, we have to find places that aren't giant puddles so the birds have a place to run around and be... well... birds.  That, and we need to allow some of normal pasture areas a chance to recover - assuming conditions dry out enough to allow it.
 We haven't taken many pictures of late because we are tired of taking pictures that remind us that everything is damp.  Actually, our rainfall at the farm for May has been about an inch above normal, but not so far out of the norm for Spring.  It's the cumulative effect of MONTHS of precip at above average levels that has caught up to us.  The soil starts to dry out at the top inch, but anything below that has consistently been mud (with a short break of mostly workable soil in the 3rd week of April or so).
Casa Verde
So, you might ask - "what are you doing with yourselves, since you aren't doing the field work you usually do?"

Go ahead!  We know you want to!  Ok.  We'll ask for you.  What do we do with ourselves since we aren't doing the normal field work?

I'm glad I asked - so I'll tell me (and you).

We keep trying to find places to put plants so they stay safe AND can get watered and fertilized until we can put them in the ground.  Sadly, one of those places that has had a history of being safe (Valhalla, the high tunnel building) was invaded by woodchucks not once, but twice.  We lost all of our broccoli, cauliflower, kale, cabbage, chard, early melons and a few other things in a very short foray or two by those varmints.  That means we have had to reseed a couple thousand plants AND create a new location to protect those plants until conditions are right to plant them.

Thus we now have the building we are calling Casa Verde (CV for short).  Now that it is in functioning order, we're working on shoring up Valhalla so we can put some crops into that to make up for some of those not in the ground elsewhere.
You can probably guess that we simplify things a bit on our blog - because there have been plenty of other things going on at the farm to keep us busy.  Per the norm, there has been no lack of stuff to be doing.  The farmhouse kitchen slowly progresses.  Being an old farmhouse, we keep discovering more things that need addressing to actually finish the job.  If you have seen the movie titled the Money Pit, you have some idea of how it feels at times.  Our VAPs (Very Ambitious Plans) for each day are usually far too long to hope to complete them - and yet they always have a host of checkmarks at the end of the day.  It just gets difficult running full days of checkmark worthy tasks without running out of steam every once in a while - especially when weather conditions and worry about getting crops in and getting the CSA filled and and and...  Typical wear and tear for a season, but magnified by extraordinary weather conditions.

So, we added some workers to the farm this past weekend.  There are now TWO queens on the farm.  Queen Boss Tammy and the Queen Bee.  The Queen Bee brings thousands of workers with her that will be around to pollinate the crops that will theoretically go in the ground at our farm this year.  In the past, we have hosted hives cared for by others and we always work to support native pollinators.  This year, Tammy is trying her hand at beekeeping.  This is not a honey operation, it's a pollination operation.  They've only been here a few days, but one has already landed on Rob's hat and inspected him.  Apparently Rob or the hat passed inspection.

We're guessing it was the hat. 

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Sustainability by Doing

In our prior post, we talked about how we try to maintain the three pillars of sustainability by NOT doing certain things.  Quick!  What are the three pillars of sustainable farming?  What?!?  You forgot them?  Good thing we're here to remind you:  Environment, Community and Financial (or Economic)

Some folks seem to equate sustainability with only environmental matters, which we understand.  After all, it feels like the environmental cost is too often the one humans are most willing to ignore.  And, of course, the financial costs are the one we are most likely to pay attention to.  The Genuine Faux Farm, if anything, tends to make the mistake of placing the economic factors lowest on the list simply because we ARE trying to make a point.  But, that doesn't mean it doesn't come into play.

In any event, we discussed things we have opted (or are opting) NOT to do and here we thought we'd mention the things we are consciously doing to make our farm more sustainable.

Re-Using and Re-Purposing
The idea of re-using and re-purposing has never been foreign to farming.  The old saw about on the fly farm repairs relying on chewing gum and baling wire is simply a reflection on the necessity of innovating when things break.  On the other hand, there are other ways we can planfully re-use and re-purpose - such as the intentional purchase of seed starting trays that are sturdier and able to last several years.

I know some home gardeners will act like this is a simple thing, but it is not so simple when you are talking about many hundreds of trays being used every season.  We can't spend time being gentle with every tray as we remove plants to be put into the field.  That means they start to show wear as we work with them.  And then there is the matter of cleaning them to prevent the potential spread of pathogens from one planting to the next.  When you have ten to twenty trays, that's no big deal.

Still, we would prefer not to fill our landfill up with single use plastic every season, so we opt for these trays - and they work well for us.  We could move to soil blocks, but our starting system does not support that at this time.  We really need a dedicated seed starting building and then we could move that far.

We also find ourselves re-purposing many items on the farm as our operations changes.  The building at the left was initially purchased several years ago as a semi-portable chicken building  After five or six years of service, the wood frame we put on the bottom started to fall apart and a wind storm bent a couple things up.  We put it in a stationary position and covered it in plastic so it could help with seedling production, but it was a short roof and we had to squat to get in and out of it.

So, now we are working to make it a small seedling building by making it a bit taller and putting semi-permanent sides on it.  This should have been done a month ago - but, that's how things go sometimes.  We still have our hearts in the right place - right? 

We've re-used windows and wood others have discarded.  Useful lumber from old farm buildings that have come down has shown up on hayracks, poultry rooms and other projects.  The hardest part is usually trying to find a balance between working with previously used resources (that take more time and effort) with new resources (when time is short) - all the while having to consider the money factor.  You can argue that time is money all you want, but saving two hours of time on a project doesn't actually result in a check arriving in your mailbox to compensate you directly for that time - no matter how much you might want it to.

Natural Resources
On our farm, we usually get our fair of sunshine and our fair share of wind.  So, we use both.  We like to line dry our laundry so our reliable electric dryer gets a rest through most of the months from April to November.  This is actually a big deal simply because we generate a great deal of laundry for two people.  Farmers sweat.  Farmers get mud and other things on their clothing.  It's normal.  But, we do like to clean up at least a little bit - I am sure you appreciate that.  After all, you all look more attractive when you aren't wrinkling your noses at that smell that seems to be accompanying the farmer today - so I appreciate it too!

We rely on poultry netting that is charged using a solar panels connected to batteries.  We also use shorter netting to protect young plants from rabbits and woodchucks (it works much of the time - but is not foolproof).  We're thrilled with the staying power of the Premiere One fencing as most of our fencing sections have multiple years of use.  We are starting to see some wear on the chargers that is needing more attention and we have been rotating out batteries as they end their useful life.  It's things like this that cause us to keep asking if we are doing the best thing.  Solar sure sounds good, doesn't it?  Yep.  But, how much does this need for new batteries reduce the positives?  Thus far, we'd say it's an overall positive, but we are always watching to see if there is an improvement to be made.

And then there is drip tape.  We like it and we hate it.  It reduces our irrigation water use significantly over delivery systems that spray water over the top of the field.  The water is placed right at the root zones of the plants we are growing and doesn't waste water through evaporation and application to areas where we don't want the water.  But, it only lasts for one season in the field and then we have to throw it away.  In our minds, the net effect is still a positive, but we are looking for alternatives as well.

And, of course, there is the soil.  We compost weeds and cash crop residue along with the manure and bedding from our poultry.  This is the ultimate in re-use and re-purposing - since all of that becomes nutrients we can put back into our soil.   But, that's not all we do for our soil.  We incorporate cover crops into our growing plan and we use a power harrow for most of our tillage instead of a roto-tiller.  We limit our deep tillage to very specific situations where more of our plots might have a deep tillage process once every three or four years if needed.

Balancing Farm Use with Natural Use
We remind ourselves that we need Mother Nature more than she needs us on a daily basis.  So, we do things to invite Mother Nature to be kind and provide us with workers who help us in the long run.  We do not graze or till every square inch of our fifteen acres.  Instead, we try to leave some areas alone to provide habitat for snakes, toads, frogs and other critters that control populations that would like to decimate our vegetables crops.  We want our native bees to have good places to live so they might come and work for us by pollinating our melons and squash. 

We do mow a decent part of the farm, but we actually try to time our mowing to avoid disrupting pollinators and we often leave clover patches un-mowed until they are past peak bloom.  Then, we mow them to encourage another, later bloom.  We leave clover/grass paths between each of our plots and we are happy to have dandelions on the farm.

In the end, we find that nature is supporting our decisions to never use pesticides, herbicides and fungicides by providing some of those services without the help of synthetic chemicals.  It doesn't always work perfectly (from our perspective) but it works better than relying on the chemicals.

We are also big proponents of intercropping and planting annual pollinator crops as part of the intercropping plan.  Not only does it make parts of the farm look nicer, but it provides habitat for beneficial critters that end up working for us. 

Local Sales and Local Connections
Once again, you can see that much of our focus might seem to be on the environmental side of things - even though each has a component for the other two pillars.  That doesn't mean we don't expend effort elsewhere as well.  For example, we have opted for local sales of our product so that we can maintain a positive connection with the surrounding community.  We host visiting groups from area schools, colleges and universities and go to speak to classes about some of the things we try to do.  We do our best to source the things our farm needs from sources closer to home.  For example, we purchase our poultry feed from the Canfield family by Dunkerton and our hen and turkey chicks come from Hoover's Hatchery by Rudd. 

As always, there is more to say on this, but perhaps more words won't make the point any better than spending more time doing.

Charging What Food Is Worth
All of these things are probably worthy of their own post, but sometimes we just do what we have time for! 

The economic factors still come into play because our farm cannot be sustainable if it doesn't make enough money for us to keep doing what we are doing.  One way we work towards sustainability is to be very mindful of what production of the food costs us in terms of time, money and resources so we can charge a fair price that gives the purchaser a good value without requiring a complete sacrifice on our part.  This actually leads us to an interesting result for our farm.  We are certified organic, so we could potentially charge more because we are certified organic assuming we could connect ourselves to the proper markets.  But, we don't do that.  We simply charge what we need to charge.  Sometimes our price is higher, sometimes it is not.

The other components of the financial side of things are producing the product for sale and then making sales (of course).  Neither of us is particularly fond of promoting ourselves, so the latter can be difficult sometimes.  Assuming the weather goes back to something approximating the old 'normal' we think we have a history that shows we can do the former.

Always Looking to Improve
At the end of the day, we feel like we are doing a reasonably good job at maintaining the three pillars of sustainable farming. But, perhaps the most important thing of all is this:

We do not believe we have all of the answers.  We have no illusions that we have found the perfect balance.  Instead, we are still seeking more complete answers and a better balance.  And, perhaps that is how you can identify a truly sustainable operation.

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

Sustainability by Not Doing

Tammy and I had a number of conversations over the past off-season about how we WERE or WERE NOT meeting our goals to be the best stewards we could be with respect to how we farm.  It is important to us that we follow up all of our "big talk" about making choices that are best for the environment, the community and our farm with real effort and works.  Every year, we have some pretty big goals for our farm - and every year we fail to meet them all.  But, I think it is fair to say that we usually make progress. 

All that said, we thought we would share a little bit about what the Genuine Faux Farm is currently doing to be a "sustainable farm."  First, let us make it clear to you that this is NOT a contest and we do not think we are better than everyone else.  The competition here is between our words and our actions.

We are unveiling a series of three blog posts that will appear throughout the month of May this year that highlight our efforts.  We are splitting it into three parts: the things we have been doing, the things we are planning on doing and the things we don't do.  As odd as it may sound, we're going to start with the last!

Paper mulch - kind of a "do and not do", actually
No plastic mulch for us

A significant number of horticulture farms of any size use rolls of plastic mulch to help control weeds.  In fact, there has been research that has been exploring the colors of plastic mulch that most promote the growth of certain crops.  The Genuine Faux Farm decided a long time ago that it would not use plastic mulch solely on the basis that we had environmental issues with it.  We don't like the idea of throwing all of that plastic into the landfill every season and we don't like the idea of what it may be doing to the soil microbiology around it.

On the other hand, we understand the financial reasons for using plastic mulch.  First, the increasing number of 'wet days' in our region has been making it more difficult every season to cultivate and it has encouraged more weed germination.  From a pure cost standpoint, rolls of plastic mulch are inexpensive and fairly easy to install if you have the equipment (which we do).  There is additional labor in the removal of the plastic and there is extra cost in irrigation.  And, plastic mulch has been shown to do the job of suppressing weeds fairly well.  We see the appeal.

But, sustainable farming has three pillars: environment, community and financial.  Plastic mulch helps with the farm finances.  But, we see hidden (from our bottom line) environmental and community costs that we are unwilling to pay.  So, we say no to the plastic mulch.

We are saying 'yes' to more paper mulch this year.  Paper mulch is permeable, so the rains can get through it and we think it is less likely to cause problems for the microbiology in the soil.  Paper mulch will break down by the end of the season and becomes organic matter in our soil.  And, paper mulch also keeps the weeds down next to our cash crops.  So, in a way, this is a 'not doing' and a 'doing' item for our list.

No pesticides, herbicides, fungicides
This is another choice that we made many years ago and we still stand by it.  We understand why these tools are used, we just disagree with the frequency with which they are used by most growers and agriculturalists.  Overuse of these tools is actually leading to the eventual ineffectiveness of these same tools.  This is incredibly annoying to us because we have found that a well-balanced system tends to take care of the extremes that pesticides were made for most of the time.  Nature does have cycles where things go out of balance, and that's a good time to consider use of the chemicals.  But, we use them as a matter of course and left all thought that goes with a potentially dangerous tool sitting on the shelf.

In the end, we make our contribution in this area by not using these tools at all on our farm.  Are there moments in time when we rue that decision?  Of course.  But, they have gotten rarer and rarer as the years go by.

Not pre-packing CSA shares
We have to first admit that we do some prepping and we do use some plastic for things like green beans and spinach.  But, we try to reduce the amount of single use packaging of any sort as much as we can and still maintain a process that considers food safety, product appearance and product quality. 

Re-using coolers is better than limited use packaging! I, the Sandman, have spoken.
 A common CSA model is to package the share into a box and then drop the box off for the customer.  In some cases, the boxes are re-used, which we applaud.  In our case, we prefer the bulk-style delivery method.   Our customers help us do the right thing here by re-using their own containers.  This is one of those cases where we are asking the community to help us out a little bit.  In return, we feel we are doing something positive for the environment and we are doing something positive for the farm's bottom line.  Pre-packing shares takes a considerable amount of time and labor to do - and labor is a significant portion of any hort farm's expenses.  If you add in re-using boxes, then we have to collect them, unload them and clean them before the next use.

Stay tuned for part II!

Thursday, May 2, 2019

May Newsletter

Never a Dull Moment
In a former life, we tilled, planted and fenced our garden in a single, glorious Saturday.  This wasn't a tiny little garden plot - it was actually a fairly serious bit of garden that was perhaps 900 square feet in size.  At least, I believe that's a reasonably serious garden for growing food for only two people.  In our current life, we're planting nearly every week from April to August. 

In a previous life, taking a wheel off of an old farm cart would have completely stymied me.  In the current life, I was stuck for a while until I realized that "tight to the right and loose to the left" does not apply to the nut that holds the wheels on the cart shown below.  The real difference, actually, was the fact that I knew this might be the case already and it didn't really take all that long to figure it out.

Part of this has to do with the fact that we are naturally curious souls who have a thirst to keep learning and trying to do things.  But, the bigger part has to do with the fact that these two curious souls have a farm to run.  And running a farm means that there is never a dull moment.

Ok, I suppose you can have a dull moment if you purposely ignore the things that need to be done on the farm.  But, I don't think that will count. 

Read on to so you can learn about some of our most recent exploits!

Weather Wythards
The weather is the weather and there isn't a thing we can do about it.  At least that's what I've been told by Mother Nature.  The end of April snow storm wasn't quite as much as the big event it got hyped up to be - yet we still got some decent snow on the farm.  What was surprising to us was how much we still had at the farm the next day and how little points just ten miles South had.

We also had a serious pooof of wind on April 17.  The weather station read it as 49 mph, but there are some obstructions that might impact the reading from that direction.  The various bits of damage on the farm are consistent with 60 mph or so.  We've got some repairs to make on the high tunnel in the picture below, among other things.

April's Report
High Temp: 84
Low Temp: 26
Lowest Windchill: 21
Barometric Pressure Range: 29.33-30.75
Wind: 49* mph from Southwest
Rain: 3.81" and counting at this writing
Snow: about 3"
    * the wind event that got this reading left damage that was consistent with a 60+mph wind gust

Year Report
High Temp: 84
Low Temp: -29
Lowest Windchill: -53
Rain: 5.62"
Wind: 49+ mph from SW
Barometer Range: 29.14 - 30.90
Snow: you know, we lost count.  We'll deal with it.

Veggie Variety of the Month - Bronze Arrowhead
We are featuring Bronze Arrowhead lettuce this month because they were the most successful lettuce in our over-Wintering efforts for 2018-2019.  In fact, nearly HALF of these plants survived a particularly tough Winter in the high tunnel and are now reaching peak size and taste.  While it might seem odd to celebrate a loss of about half of the plants put in last November, you have to realize that we planted twelve different varieties and this was the only one with a survival rate anywhere near that mark.
As I said, it was a rough Winter with temps getting down to -29 a few times.  We typically expect some of the plants to fail, but this group was poised for success - looking fabulous as we entered January.  The plants were in the high tunnel and under cover.  They had sufficient soil moisture and they were exactly the size we wanted them to be for over-Wintering.

But, there is a limit to what even these hardy plants can take - but Bronze Arrowhead was the hardiest of them all.

Like many lettuces that have reddish coloring, Bronze Arrowhead features darker and more prevalent reds when grown in colder weather.  The picture above is actually NOT a recent picture and shows you what they look like in warmer weather.  I guess we need to get the farmer to go take a new picture!

Bronze Arrowhead has been in our Veg Variety of the Year posts multiple times and has shown the ability to grow well in all types of weather.  It has a solid lettuce taste that is quite a contrast to bland iceberg lettuce types and works well in salad mixes or on sandwiches.

Song of the Month
I gave up trying to keep track of our "songs of the month" to make sure we weren't putting out duplicates.  After all - those who read this aren't keeping track are you?  If you are - tell me if this is a duplicate!  

Duplicate or not, Future of Forestry's Homeward Bound has a beautiful lyric and interesting musical arrangement.  We find it to be a comforting song at a time when it is needed.

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 have entered Phase I of the CSA season where current members are able to use their CSA "credit dollars" to purchase early season veggies.  Things like lettuce, spinach, rhubarb and yummy asparagus!  Scroll down and look at some of our informational posts on the blog!

We're Trying To Reach You
One of the things that has gotten increasingly difficult over the past five years is making contact with people who are interested in our CSA.  We sometimes get an email that we respond to and then never hear from them again.  Every once in a while, we learn that our attempts to respond go into spam folders - but most of the time, we can't tell if it is indifference or failure of our own responses to get through.

Suffice it to say, we ARE trying to reach you.  Please follow through and help us to help you - thank you!

Farm News and Announcements 
There are a whole host of things going on the farm right now - even if the ground is too wet to prep the fields, much less plant in them.  Our house continues to be a construction zone, but we are making progress on the farm house's kitchen.  We are hoping to have the drywall up this weekend - that would be considered a huge accomplishment.

But, the kitchen is not the only 'construction' project going on at the farm.  We're rehabbing what used to be a chicken shelter and then a plant starting building into a new and improved plant starting building.  This version should not require walking bent over at the waist upon entry.  Ya, that was getting really old....

Tammy and Rob have been looking at maintaining honey bees at the farm for several years.  In the past, we've tried to have others house a hive or two at the farm.  The problem with that is that we were often subject to the whims of others when it came to the timing of bee presence on the farm.  This is not to say that it was an all bad thing at all, mind you.  But, Tammy finally took the plunge the rest of the way this year and this will be her 'something new' project for 2019.

Speaking of experiments (were we?), we also have this interesting plant tower.  It is now constructed and has soil in it.  We got it last season and just never found the time to put it together.  We've been asked about vertical gardening techniques by a few people, so we thought we should try this out so we can give better answers.

Other recent developments on the farm - in bullet style for those who just realized they've been reading our blog and the boss is coming towards them:
  • the henlets have been moved from the brooder to the portable hen building - they will stay there until September.
  • the first batch of broilers (the Nuggets) are in the horse trailer until we set up their pasture area.  
  • we are anticipating reading our solar energy proposal from Eagle Point Solar in the next week or so.
  • we have had some excellent volunteer help this Spring for which we have been very grateful, we hope to feature that a bit more in a future post.
  • the onion seedling experiments are going very well so far this Spring.  We hope to put them into the ground as soon as things dry up enough to do so.
  • we had a bad plug in the brooder room that (happily) was not allowed by the circuit breaker to cause any significant damage.  But, it does make us wonder (even more) about the less expensive outlets.
  • we've got a couple of trees that were pushed part way down in the wind and we hope we can straighten them.  Saturated soil made them candidates to be pushed over, but it may also allow us to address the problem.
Happy May everyone!