Wednesday, August 28, 2019


Once we reach the end of the traditional school "Summer Vacation" months, the farmer gets a bit more contemplative regarding the ongoing growing season, looking at what has gone wrong and (hopefully) what has gone right.  There is typically a whole host of things that we won't share on the blog either because there is only so much time and motivation to write it up or the thoughts were too transitory in nature (or the thoughts were really no one else's business anyway!).

This year's late August into September thought process may have a bit more significance than other years because we did enter this season with some particular BIG goals in mind.  Our relative success or failure in reaching those goals were going to be our signposts for determining how the farm and the farmers were going to progress from this point going forward.  The path of least resistance is usually to just stay the course and not make changes.  But, when have you all known us to take that particular path?  We, of course, know we often fall back to what we know - even if it doesn't look like it to everyone else.    So, trust us, we are just like most people, we struggle with taking new directions, even when it is obvious that a living farm is one that is rife with change.

This season, perhaps more than others, I have been even more aware of how we adapt to the variability that the farm provides even on a day by day and hour by hour basis.

All it takes is a little storm to roll through and alter our landscape a bit and viola!  We have to adapt.  The season progresses and the crops that are ready change and the needs of the remaining crops change.  Last week's need to have a certain space open for traffic becomes the need to get that onion crop under cover and never mind the traffic.  Every year, I catch myself saying that we'll get better at being more consistent and efficient on our farm.  And, every year, I remind myself that much of the farm is variable by nature, which means certain types of consistency are actually not virtues and efficiency at the highest level is rarely possible.

One way to illustrate this is to show an early May partial 'chalk door list' of things that needed to be done.  From day to day, the list content varies.  Of course, every day has a list of 'chores' that have to be done every morning or every evening.  But, those usually just reside on the "mental chalk door list."  Some days, the written list is quite granular (sometimes including some chores), with the smallest tasks listed just to be sure we don't forget any of them (and the workers like to cross things off).  Other days, the list is something along the lines of "WEED!"  Yes, you could split that into smaller chunks.  But, why?  Other than giving everyone a starting point for weeding, there really isn't much need to say more.

The take-away for us on this particular set of reflections is that we can certainly optimize certain tasks, but our diverse farm will, by its very nature, prevent us from getting too comfortable with any particular set of conditions and processes.  We can successfully implement a process for harvesting garlic and getting it hung up to cure.  In fact, we have done so, seeing the time it takes to do that task decrease each year for several years in a row.  But, we just need to accept that every day is different and it will require an approach that is adapted to that particular day's traits.

Other reflections on this season follow a particular pattern.  For example, I walk by this patch of chleome every day.  I keep expecting that they will fade, but they appear to just be getting bigger and brighter!  The first thought is usually, "Wow!  Look at that!" The second thought is "Why didn't we plant more of those?  I wish we had.  How is it that we planted two trays of those and we only have that patch?"  But, the next one is, "But, you haven't planted them most years and here they are now.  How cool is that?  Let's plan on more next year."

The bigger issues are always underlying the smaller issues.  The smaller than planned number of chleome came about in part because of the late start the weather forced on us in 2019.  The other reason had to do with issues with our starting facilities - some of which we have addressed at some level already.  Other parts of the farm can follow similar patterns.  The picture above shows our portable feed bin that we take to the Canfield Family Farm to fill with the 3000 lbs of feed each time we go there.  The small issue is figuring out what to do when there is a couple hundred pounds of feed still in the bin, but we are scheduled to go down and pick up another 3000 pounds.  The bigger issue is that feed management is not as simple as finding a temporary home for a few hundred pounds of food.  But, that might be good enough for another post in the future.

The point is that the farmer brain is always part on the current problem "How do I deal with the old feed so I can go get the new feed?"  Meanwhile, it also has the larger issue running in the background, "Is there a better way I can manage our poultry feed?"  And, just to make it more interesting, there are also many related things running around in the farmer brain too!

"I've got to remember to do X,Y and Z for the birds today."
"What do we have to do to sell all of these chickens?"
"Is our sale price covering our costs?"
"Should we do this many birds again or do we need to change that?"
"Do we even want to keep raising broiler chickens?"
"How do I change things to help the pastures recover?"
"Should I spend time putting in a new access into the turkey room?"
"Oh yeah!  That hose is still leaking over by the hen pasture, I should fix that."

Safety tip:  It's okay to have all of this stuff running around in the background.  But, you should always be present with whatever you are doing.  Tractors can be dangerous.  A few thousand pounds of feed can shift and can be dangerous.  There - public safety message complete.  And, no, I am fine, I did not just have a recent experience that reminded me of this because one of the things always running through my head is "Pay attention to what you are doing!"

When I have no more workers on the farm, Tammy is at school and the weather is nice and there is plenty to do I often wish I could sit down next to Inspector and just have a nice session of thinking and reflecting (and perhaps napping too).  And, once in a while, I actually let myself have that sit down - for as long as my brain lets me.

But, the reflections often get drowned out by the "chalk door list" that resides in my head for the given day.  So, I put the reflections into the background where they churn around while I pay attention to what I am doing.

Perhaps I'll just have to go weed something.  That is one thing I can do AND I can reflect at that same time.

There's a thought.

Friday, August 23, 2019

Onions, High Tunnels and Choices

 We made the choice to expand our onion production in 2019 with the understanding that there was the likelihood that we would have some bulk orders for onions if we could successfully grow them.  After all, we have had pretty good success for each of the past several years, it seemed like a good bet.  Now, here we are in August after planting 10,000-12,000 onion plants this Spring and we're starting to bring in the onions. 

Ailsa Craig Exhibition sweet onions
 The first thing everyone should understand is that when we plant 10,000 onions, we do NOT expect to harvest 10,000 onions.  Some plants will not survive the cultivation process and some just won't produce a good onion.  We also realize that some of the varieties we choose will not provide us with consistent sizes or shapes.  This has not been a big deal because our CSA customers often have different ideas about what an optimal size for an onion should be.  The range in production doesn't hurt when your customer base likes some of the size options.
White Wing onions
This season saw a very difficult planting period with mucky soil conditions.  The difficulty is that if you want good onions in Iowa, you need to get them in early.  Our region tends to grow long-day length type onions better than short-day or day length neutral onions.  Essentially, long day onions are triggered to bulb by daylight periods of 14 to 15 hours.  So, we need to get onions in the ground in time so they can establish a healthy plant BEFORE they worry about bulbing out.  Typically, the more established the plants are prior to reaching the daylight threshold, the better the onion crop is going to be for consistent and larger sized onions.

So, what happened this year?  We got onions in at different points in time depending on when we were able to 'mud them in.'  The poor early soil conditions have led to inconsistent production.  We've got lots of onions, but the sizes are all over the map.  The taste has been good and we'll see how they store.  We certainly can't say that we are disappointed because there is some good onion production here.  But, it's not the picture of perfection we had in our heads.  Even so, it is marketable - so now we need to sell it all.  The whole plan falls to the ground if we can't move them!
Valhalla in late July
 The high tunnels, once again, were indirectly impacted by the early season weather.  The best laid plans for planting order and location never seem to be implemented because we are always making adjustments for the weather - even when we are inside buildings!

How does that work, you ask?  Well...  if you can't get a crop in the ground outside, you might press some of the inside space into service for something you were not planning.  And, if you were planning on moving a building, but it is too wet or windy to do so, you have to delay that move.  It is what it is and we go through this at some level every season.

If you look at the picture of Valhalla above, you will see a good deal of open space.  That is not the way it was supposed to be at this point, but, we've moved a few things around and they are now slotted for some late Summer plantings to fill in some of our Fall - early winter crop needs.  The trick is that we want the tomatoes, peppers and other crops already in there to stretch their production into late October (and maybe early November) so we have to select compatible crops that will germinate in the conditions found in the building in August.  It's a giant jigsaw puzzle.  Good thing we like puzzles.

Eden in late July
Eden is much more crowded than Valhalla for a couple of reasons.  First, we will move the building to the West position in October - we think.  Remember the adjustments and conditions issues that occur in the Spring?  Well, Fall has been an adventure the last couple of years.  Remember the continuous rain last September, for example?

We made a choice this year to hill up the planting space in Eden to deal with the issue of torrential rains flooding out crops in this building.  You might be able to see what I mean if you click on the picture to make a larger version.  The good news is that the couple of heavy rains that got Eden wet inside the building this year did not impact the crops.  The bad news?  Well, things in hilled beds dry out faster.  And, during normal weather, high tunnels are DRY areas that require irrigation.  Every choice has its consequences.

Regardless of the issues, we can say that our efforts have led to success.  The early Summer lettuce crop (that grows up in the shade of the young tomatoes) was great - except we couldn't sell it all when it was ready.  The birds were happy.  The tomatoes are looking very good, the peppers have already produced above prior year levels and beans are doing well.  The melons are about on par for a normal season and the basil looks great.  We do feel as if we lost some flexibility with this model as it doesn't really support some of the crops we traditionally have grown in Eden.  But, it all worked well enough that we can make adjustments rather than abandoning the whole thing.

And there you have it... onions, high tunnels and choices.

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Crazy Maurice Talks About Neighbors

Crazy Maurice is our farm's local creature correspondent for the blog and we felt it was about time that he give us a report on some of the natural neighbors we've seen recently.  For those who do not know, Crazy Maurice is the resident Weeping Willow tree on the northwest corner of the Genuine Faux Farm.  He first appeared on our blog when he gave his two cents worth last Fall.
Crazy Maurice
 The Pretty Lady and the Fuzzy Guy with the Red Top have not been out to see me nearly as much this Summer as they did last Fall.  I have to admit that I have been a little disappointed by this as I find their company agreeable.  However, they assured me at our last visit (when they asked me to write this post) that we would be seeing each other much more in coming days!  They also assured me that I would not have to deal with those silly chickens again this year.  If you'll recall, I found them amusing, but they can get on your nerves with all of the talking:

"That's my spot, get out of my spot!  That's MY spot! Get OUT of my spot!"
"I'm laying an egg!  I'm laying an EGG! I'm laaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaying an EGGGGGG!"
"Give me food!  I want more food! You call that food?!?  I want food!"

I was able to observe the turkeys last year and found them to be a bit less vocal and Pretty Lady told me I would get to see them a bit closer this year.  I think that will be ok, but I am learning that you don't really know someone until you live with them for a while.

 Once we got past June, things on the farm have gotten much dryer.  I realize the farmers are happy about it, but I don't wind the wet so much.  Still, I have to agree with them - the last year through early Summer was too wet for our farm.  Some of my tree friends failed to survive the Winter and the Fuzzy Guy was saying he thought it was because they were in some the areas that didn't dry out.  It was hard for me to watch while the farmer took out the remains of one of the 'Bristle Brothers,'  but it wasn't pleasant looking that spruce's remains every day either.

On the other hand, the wet weather has encouraged an increase in the number of frogs we have had this year.  I've had more tree frogs hanging around in my branches than I ever remember.  I admit that they tickle a little bit, but generally I like having them around.

Most of the frogs aren't looking for much attention, but we have a couple that are looking for notoriety.  Russell, the Cucumber Frog, has been in the cucumber patch most of the Summer.  Unlike past cucumber frogs, Russell doesn't like to jump out at the farmer much.  Instead, he'll just move a bit out of the way and observe as the farmer harvests.  Bob, on the other hand, likes to hang out in the tub that catches the water from the veggie cleaning station.  It seems like all he does is float around in the water, though I heard him singing the other day.

It is my understanding that the 'henlets' are on the other side of the Poultry Pavillion right now.

Pretty Lady collecting eggs.
Pretty Lady told me they were going to move the young chickens into the flock with the older chickens soon.  The next day is always quite an event.

You see, the hens are neighbors, of a sort.  They reside in the Poultry Pavillion at night and they come out to their pasture during the day.  Their pasture is not too far away from my location, but they ARE far enough away that I don't have to be bothered by their chatter most of the time. 

But, the day after moving day?

"Who are you?! That's my spot, get out of my spot!  That's MY spot! Get OUT of my spot!"
"I'm laying an egg!  I'm laying an EGG! I'm laaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaying an EGGGGGG!  Hey!  New bird!  Stay away from my EEEEEEGGGGG!"
"Give me food!  I want more food! You call that food?!?  I want food!  You can't have that food, it is mine!"

Ya.  Same words, just directed and with extra emphasis so it can be heard everywhere on the farm.

The farmers added a new bee hive to the farm this year (yes, we've had honey bees here before) and these have been very pleasant neighbors.  I especially like it when they come by and hum a tune for me.

Lately, I have been most entertained by the new hatching of dragonflies!  The wetter year has provided a bit more support for them and the Fuzzy Guy with the Red Top told me this is the largest population of dragonflies he has seen since he got here.  I can just sit here and watch them hover, dive and spin.  Some of them have favorite places to land in my branches.  They will often use them as a sort of 'jumping off' point to go grab some insect as a snack.  Then they come back and chew a bit.  Happily, most dragonflies know to chew with their mouth closed so we don't have to have discussions about manners.

Can't see the dragonflies?  Click on the picture to enlarge and look at the sky!

Sunday, August 18, 2019

August Faux Newsletter

Some of you may have noticed that we failed to put out an August newsletter in a timely fashion.  So, here is a fake newsletter to make up for it.  Well, actually, it's just a few pictures that represent some goings on at our farm that we thought we'd share.  That qualifies as a newsletter doesn't it?  It doesn't? 

Well, we're going to do it anyway.  So there!

Mini-Poof at the Farm (again)
It feels like we've had more wind gusts that have caused us issues this year than we have most years.  That is not to say that we have had more severe weather than usual.  It's more the fact that we've had more visible consequences this year than we usually do. 
Guess where this building WAS before the wind?
 The latest burst hit the farm sometime between 2 am and 4 am this morning (Aug 18).  Tammy woke up to raindrops hitting her face. 

*** pause for dramatic effect ***

Yes, she woke up because rain was being driven through our open window, across the room and into her face.  This is good because we had a few windows open that needed closing.  But, this was not the gust in question.  That came just after she got the windows closed.  Let's just say that the whole house shuddered when this one hit.  We do get winds that make the house move about a half dozen times per year, so it isn't a completely new experience.

In any event, the little sweet corn patch we planted for ourselves is completely down.  That's just a reminder of one of the reasons why we don't put much effort into growing sweet corn.  A section of our maturing broccoli got rolled over.  They should be ok with a couple of exceptions.  And, a chicken building got moved a bit.

The last item was the most concerning since we had just gotten our youngest batch of broiler chickens out to their portable building.  These buildings are meant to move, but they are usually moved with Rosie the tractor during the day when Rob and Tammy are around to herd the birds out of the way so it can be safely moved.  The good news is that there does not appear to be any real damage to the building and the birds seem to be fine.  Now, with 150 little birds that like to stay next to each other, you can't be completely certain - so we'll keep our eyes open for problems the next couple of days.

In the end, the damage is light and we can handle it. 

Horizontal Surface = Good Place to Nap
Our two Outdoor Farm Supervisors have been working extra-hard lately, which means they have been getting into some serious napping!
What?  You wanted to use this lawn tractor?  No, you don't.
 Just this morning, Tammy used the lawn tractor for a few minutes to help with some of the AM chores.  She parked it with the intention of coming back to it so she could do more.  The picture above is what she found.

Keep in mind that the period of time between parking and returning was probably not much more than 15 minutes.  And we still don't know how Soup would think that mower deck is a comfortable place to nap.
A good skritching is cause for a good nap.
 Inspector followed Rob into the granary while he went to load up some feed for one of the flocks on the farm.  He requested attention and Rob gave it to him in the form of a good, solid skritching.  After taking food to birds, Rob came back and found Inspector sleeping on the feed bin (seen above).  Apparently, that skritching wore Inspector out.  The sad thing?  Rob was not allowed to take a nap as well.

Anxious to Get It Running
And so, you have this big, beautiful solar array sitting on your property.  It took years of planning and then weeks of scrambling to do what it took to get it there.  It is collecting the sun, but that energy is going no where.  Why?

Well, it is all part of the process.  Alliant still needs to install the two-way meter and hook this system into the grid.  They have a period of time during which this is supposed to happen, so we are trying to be patient.  But, shucks, we have some very sunny days and we really would like to use some renewable energy on the farm!

We'll keep everyone posted as things progress.

Friday, August 16, 2019

Big Gap

We realize the blog has been silent for much longer than it usually is.  The reasons are the usual and the not so usual, so we will dispense with them for now and get to some Genuine Faux Farm stuff for those who might like a dose of it!

New Used Chicken Buildings
Our good friend known as the super-hero Bandsaw Man made a couple of very nice poultry buildings that can be pulled on skids to move birds to different pastures.  He was no longer using them and he offered them to us this season.  All I can say is, "How did we do the poultry without these buildings?"

Getting the building off of the trailer was an interesting process.
 At present, we have both buildings occupied by broiler chickens.  The 'boyus' are still a few weeks from their trip to "the Park" and the 'nuggets' just went into their own building today!  We try to move these buildings every other day so the birds have some clean area to rest in AND the pasture has half a chance to recover.  We've found that moving the building the first couple of times is a bit of a circus with the birds, but they get used to the routine very quickly.  We are grateful that we have Rosie, the tractor, to help us move these buildings as they are a bit big to move without the mechanical help. 

In answer to the question, "how did we do poultry without them," we had smaller buildings that we moved by hand.  We've had just enough near catastrophes with those over the past couple of years that it is nice to make this upgrade.  If you can't quite figure out what sort of catastrophe could happen with the smaller buildings, consider this:

Last fall was VERY WET.  We still had to move the buildings.  We moved the buildings by manually picking them up and moving them.  Grass gets very slippery when combined with poo and rain.  'Nuff said.

A Working Kitchen?!?
Believe it or not, I have not uploaded the most recent Genuine Faux Farm kitchen photos.  Here is the most recent I have. 

Since this picture, the counter has been put in, as has the sink.  The dishwasher is in place.  We can actually walk into the kitchen and wash out a dish or glass we have just used.  It's a strange, strange and wonderful feeling.  Is this how the civilized world lives?  Is it ok if we stay here?

Could You Try to Describe That Again?
I (Rob) have the distinction of having training in Computer Science, experience in raising vegetables and some knowledge in various other things.  In my opinion, computing professionals come in second to doctors when it comes to people asking questions of you once they find out what you do for a living.  Let me clarify - if you are introduced as a doctor, people are immediately tempted to ask about that twinge in their shoulder.  If you are a computing professional, it's a question about their email (or some such thing).

Before I get to it, let me say that I AM perfectly willing to answer questions as I am able and I am willing to hear about what you are growing - so don't let things I say here make you feel like I resent being asked.

It's a bit different now since I am a farmer.  I tend to get one of two things.  It is either:
1. A rundown of what someone is growing or has grown or their grandparents grow/grew and how good/bad it is/was.  And, of course, I get to deal with their 'surprise' when they find out the three tomato plants they grow in town in a raised bed are producing tomatoes now and my 500 plants have not really started yet.

2. A description of a bug, weed or plant condition that they would like my opinion on.  This is not so unlike what I often dealt with as a Computer Scientist.

But, often, the description comes out something like this (from a bird watcher's perspective):

In reality, I recognize it isn't just the describer's problem.  It is also my problem because I need to take the time to ask leading questions that might bring us to a reasonably good answer.  I hope I do a decent job of that.  Even so - every professional who is in the position of trying to give a professional response based on on a layman's description can appreciate the sentiment behind that graphic.  It's not just a doctor, computer scientist, farmer, birder issue.

You Mentioned Tomatoes

 Yes, yes I did.  Our tomatoes did go in the ground about four weeks late this year due to field conditions, etc.  Even our high tunnel tomatoes went in late because we were trying to extend some other things in them because... field conditions were still too wet for those things too.  Even so, we have green tomatoes on plants and a few of them are starting to ripen, giving us some tastes that are now on our radar for 2019!  (Ignore the 2018 date on the graphic - those tomatoes would be REALLY late).

Ain't That Grand?
If you've read the blog, you might recall that I am also a postal historian.  As a postal historian, I have worked for many years putting together an exhibit on materials from the 1860's that has been shown competitively about once a year for many years.  That exhibit has done well enough, receiving 'gold' and 'large gold' awards most recently.  For those who don't quite understand award levels, every exhibit is given a 'medal level' with gold and large gold being the highest levels.  But, many exhibits receive these awards.  Of those that receive large gold, one is given the 'Reserve Grand,' which is essentially second place and another is given the 'Grand' (first place).

Something good happened in Omaha in early August.
It is nice to have some affirmation that the work I have produced over a long period of time is well received.