Sunday, July 28, 2019

The GFF Solar Project: Long Time Coming

 I was in 7th grade when I first 'researched' the options for solar energy.  At that time, it seemed as if solar would gain traction and become a viable option for rapid expansion as a major supplier for the power grid.  People were gaining direct exposure to solar power with the proliferation of inexpensive solar calculators (among other things) and the future seemed, quite literally, bright for alternative energy. 
1982 US stamp series featuring various 'energy sources'
Of course, some of the reason for all of the push was the rapid increase in oil prices during the 1970's.  But, we humans are fickle creatures and our attention spans can be notoriously short.  Oil prices fell in the mid 1980's and the pressure to promote alternative energy sources declined.  My old solar calculator still resides in our cash box during CSA distributions and continues to do a fine job.  And, Tammy and I have continued to pursue the dream of supporting alternative energy production - even though it has been a long journey.  And, that journey is not quite over.
Site for new solar panels at Genuine Faux Farm
We actually started to explore solar options for our farm in 2006, when we attended a couple of informational sessions in Decorah.  As is the case for so many things like this, we were going to have to revisit the process multiple times before we were ready to move forward.  We went so far as to have a site assessment and estimate in 2009.  That project was for 4 to 5 kiloWatt Hours and it was quickly superseded by other critical projects on the farm (such as a new furnace).  As it was, the cost was above what we could reasonably pay, even though we were willing to stretch to accomplish the goal.
Eagle Point Solar put in the GFF Solar Array
University of Northern Iowa's CEEE had a Farm Energy Working Group active in 2012 and we decided, once again, to go through the process of exploring our options.  This time, we were able to do a full site evaluation and report with the grant support provided by this program.  We were able to identify two possible site locations on the farm and we had a much better idea as to what it would take to accomplish our goals to power the farm using renewable resources.  But, once again, life intervened.  Our money had to go to other expenses that were more critical (ah, life in an old farm house!) and we simply ran out of time to follow up on the next steps of the project.

 And, here we are in 2019.  Tammy and I had our own little GFF Farm Retreat and we both put solar among the 'big projects' each of us had on our minds for the future of the farm.  Perhaps, just as importantly, we identified the need to make our farm into a place where we wanted to live instead of a place we tolerated living at.  While we grant you that the solar project was not a 'critical item' on the same level as 'make a kitchen that doesn't have a hole in the floor that leads directly to the basement' it still held an important place for us.  Why?  Because it is a part of who we are and a part of what we think is the right direction for the Genuine Faux Farm.

As is normally the case, the farm and everything else began to take precedence and the solar project was on hold until we heard about a possible "group buy" through Eagle Point Solar that could reduce the cost of new solar projects in the Black Hawk (and surrounding county) area.  We attended the introductory meeting and decided to go through the process.  If Eagle Point could keep the ball rolling, then we were going to try to give this a go this time around.

Nothing is ever as simple as you think it should be.  But, then again, if it were easy, you would have to question if the project were really worth doing.  Ok.  Maybe you wouldn't question it.  But, I would. 

We initially thought we could pursue a REAP grant to help with funding until we discussed it with a professional grant writer who as done multiple REAP grants.  Lets just say that REAP grants are NOT geared for farms our size and leave it at that.  It also turns out that the best location for solar on our property crosses the two parcels we own.  This required us to go through some legal processes to get that fixed so we could proceed with the identified location.  And, of course, there was/is the financing.

Installation was mostly complete after one day.
After one full day and a small portion of a second day, the solar array is installed on the farm.  We are now awaiting Alliant Energy as they must hook the panels to the power lines.  Once they do that, there are other processes before they 'flip the switch' and all is operational.  We have to admit that the build occurred far earlier than we were thinking it would - such is life when schedules of others are involved.  The farm had been using this area as our seedling nursery and cold frame area.  Needless to say, that had to be cleaned up before they could build.

At this point, it would be safe to say that the two of us are both pleased and in denial.  We have believed that this was the right thing to do for many years and we finally have an opportunity to follow through.  But, it's been in the works for so long and we have had so many false starts that it is difficult to bring ourselves to believe that this is actually happening.  We would like to share more with everyone about this project on our blog as we find time - so consider this a PART ONE blog post. 

And here's to worthwhile projects.

Thursday, July 11, 2019


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!