Thursday, February 27, 2020

2020 Practical Farmers of Iowa Presentation

Once again the Practical Farmers of Iowa Annual Conference was a quality event and we were pleased that we were able to get there despite some very questionable weather.  In fact, attendance was actually quite good despite the storm that hit right around the time the event was scheduled to start.  It is amazing to think that there would likely have been more activity if the weather had been nicer!

The link above will take you to the current conference page that includes access to presentation slides and videos of sessions that were recorded.  So, if you missed the conference, you can still pick up some of the ideas and knowledge that were freely shared between farmers of all sorts during this event.  While there, Tammy and I attended sessions on establishing cover crops in row cropping systems, selecting plants for seed saving purposes, bush berry production, mechanical cultivation options and techniques and several others.  The staff do a fine job of identifying topics and presenters so that there is something for everyone.  Livestock, commodity crops, horticulture?  There is something of value to be had for each.

This year, Rob was honored to be able to give a presentation on mulching techniques in a vegetable production system.  Even better, this session was recorded.  Since we have had a few requests for slides from the presentation, we thought we would do one better and provide a direct link to PFI's You-tube channel and the actual presentation.

We think it went pretty well and we hope it will be useful to others.

Tuesday, February 25, 2020


There was a smell in the air that accompanied temperatures in the 40s that reminded me of something.  I admit that I often push back against the anticipation of Spring because it represents the beginning of our hectic season.  Yet, I still found that I perked up a bit when I recognized the air quality.

No, it wasn't manure spread in the field, you party pooper (literally and figuratively)!

It was more than a smell.  There is also a feel to days like this.  Some of it is a physical difference.  It was warmer than it had been and there was more humidity in the air.  In short, the air felt a bit like... hope of a promise to be fulfilled.
The apple trees will be covered with blossoms.
Sure.  We all call it Spring and we spend a great deal of time glorifying it as we anticipate its arrival.  But, I am hopeful that this Spring I'll do more to appreciate it when it is actually happening.   This is always a challenge because there is so much we have to do as the weather warms.
But, I actually WANT to smell sweet alyssum in the high tunnels again.
This is a funny thing about humans.  We spend significant amounts of energy anticipating good things and so little of it actually appreciating those very same things when they are happening.
Have you noticed how green conifers are in Spring?
There are hundreds of sayings that highlight the wisdom of appreciating the good that is in the moment we are living.  And yet, we all do a fine job of failing to put that wisdom to action.  It's almost as if we prefer to either anticipate or remember.  Acting, on the other hand, is simply too difficult.
Flowers patiently pose for us to give them recognition
 That is why I am making a promise to myself that this year, I will pick up the camera - whether I actually use it or not - more often than I have in the past couple of years.  You see, when I pick up the camera, I am telling myself it is ok to take the time to observe and appreciate.  Often, when I have the camera, I find myself forgetting to take photos.  But, I do smell the flowers, watch the bees and hear the whisper of the wings of a butterfly that flutters within inches of my head.
Bumblebees are a tremendous source of entertainment.
Strangely enough, I find that taking the time to appreciate something actually strengthens the quality and value of my remembrances.  In turn, my anticipation of a return visit includes more dimensions of the senses.  The purple flower stalks will be moving ever so slightly as the bumblebee forages in the flowers.  The sage plant it visits has a pleasing scent and I can even recollect the texture of the leaves.  The memory is a good one, but it is not perfect.  That is why I have a stronger anticipation for the next opportunity.  I know the actual experience will be better than the memory, so I look forward to it.

Thursday, February 20, 2020

What Once Was

When the motivation to write is not there - or the energy to write some of the more ambitious posts can't be found - I go throw some of our farm photos into a post and see what they bring to mind.  I suppose you could argue that some of the reason I like doing this is for the nostalgia, but it would be more accurate to say that I appreciate identifying the changes and improvements that have been accomplished after the moment in time that is captured by the camera.

Chickens on the Loose!
At one point in time the hen room was in the Southeast corner of the old barn.  We built the room using old lumber, much of which had been salvaged from discarded lofts that we were able to pick up from the college campus at the end of the school year.  A very early blog story about Yogi the duck had something to do with our early poultry lodging arrangements.

The pasture area bordered a cement area to the South of the barn and it was separated by the livestock gate you see in the picture below.
Hmmm. That looks like a Worley running in front of the chickens! (2008)
Such gates are not built to keep chickens in (or out, for that matter).  So, one of our earlier challenges was trying to keep the birds in their pasture and out of veggie growing areas on the farm.  The gate area was subject to a number of "chewing gum and baling wire" attempts to keep the birds in (and other critters out).  Since that time, the barn has gone through several stages of deconstruction and is no longer in use at our farm.  The pasture area is still used, but we prefer the solar powered poultry netting to protect our birds (and keep them in their pasture area).  It would be safe to say that the cement area and the barn have degraded over time, but the handling of our poultry flocks has improved significantly.  Sometimes it is difficult to even remember how we USED to handle our flocks because we have made so many adjustments.

Big Clean-Up Job
I think it was 2007 or 2008 when we lost one of our buildings to a very strong wind from the North.  Sadly, this building was probably a better size than the barn for our use, but we arrived at the farm a bit too late to be able to save it.  It took us a few years of on and off efforts to clean up the mess and which culminated in 2010 with us hiring a couple of college students to do some work while we started the growing season.

Part of the motivation was that there was good lumber in that pile and we didn't want it to go to waste.  We realized then (just as we do now) that a more time-efficient approach might have been to pile it up and burn it down.  But, we've never liked throwing away a perfectly useful resource.

Since the time of the big clean-up, this area has been home to cold frames for seed starting, a cleaning area for produce and a couple of raised beds were built in the area during some of our wet growing years.  This scene continues to evolve with last year's addition of our solar panels.

The Turkey Room Emerges
A significant amount of the recovered lumber was used to build a room for our turkeys in the building that we now call the Poultry Pavilion.  Most of the work was completed by Rob's Dad and Denis.  We realized then (and now) that working with repurposed lumber brings about it's own challenges, but we made things work.  I suspect Rob and Tammy did their fair share of the work too.  But, it happened during a time of the year when so much was going on it is pretty hard to keep track of who did what.

 This room has gone through a few modifications since it's initial use, but it remains the turkeys' home base from year to year.  They have access to pasture space by exiting out the back.

We also used some of the wood to put together a deck for a newly purchased hay rack.  The hayrack has always had problems with turning, so it has lost favor as better tools have come around.  But, it is still pretty amazing to consider how many things on our farm were built out of repurposed lumber and parts.  Even more amazing is how many of those things we built have actually reached the end of their useful lives.  I think it is safe to say that we didn't consider that aspect of farming when we started.

Pushing Things Too Far?
One of the things that has improved for us is the addition of tractors to our set of useful tools.  While I will admit that it IS good exercise to pull a cart full of kohlrabi 2500 feet from the harvest area to the pack area, it certainly is NOT very time efficient. 
We got away from using the lawn tractor to pull these green carts around after we lost all of our harvest when a wheel broke on the cart and the driver did not notice until they had driven the entire distance from the field to the pack area.  Um... yeah.

The Joy of Fencing
Perhaps the most shocking part of all of this is how much we have learned over the years.  One area of significant growth is our use of fencing.  We have gotten pretty good at using the poultry netting, but we are also quite pleased with the permanent fencing that went up around the hen pasture.

For those who want to learn a bit about how we raise our poultry you can visit our Poultry Slam post from  2015.  At the point we put that post out, the fencing had been up for a year or so.  If you recall the beginning of this post, you'll remember that we struggled with keeping the birds where we wanted them.  Despite an occasional escapee, this system has worked well for several years now.  The pasture has had bushes and trees added to provide shelter for the birds.  It's actually quite amazing to look at this picture and realize how barren the area seems as compared to what it looks like now.

Actually Growing Onions Successfully?
Early on, onions were not one of our strongest suits.  Our seedlings were often quite tiny when they went in and it was pretty difficult differentiating them from the grassy weeds that liked to come up in their beds.  It was bad enough that one of our workers confessed that they had real nightmares about weeding them.

 My how things have changed.  Like any crop we grow, there can be moments that make one wonder.  But, onions have been one of our most successful crops over the past six years (or more).  So, once again, we apologize to Anden for the nightmares.  On the plus side, he DID get to see the nice new flex tine weeder do its job for us.

Did We Actually Raise Ducks?
It really was not that long ago that we were raising ducks and actually getting featured on Iowa Ingredient for doing so.  Sadly, the joke is that if a small farm wants to stop raising a particular crop, they should get featured in Iowa Ingredient for that crop.  We know that is not entirely true and this is not to cast aspersions on an excellent Iowa Public Television show. 
The real reason for bringing it up is that I was actually surprised to notice that we had ducks in 2017, only a few seasons ago.  It actually feels like we exited that particular project eons ago.

Remember When You Lifted A High Tunnel All By Yourself?
 We added our second high tunnel in 2015.  When it arrived, the person who delivered needed us to unload it in an hour.  We did not have access to a tractor with forks to lift the pallets off.  That meant we had to disassemble the pallets to get things into portions we could lift without mechanical help.
We also needed to keep track of the components so we could ascertain if all of the parts arrived.

Yes, I lifted every component of the high tunnel in the process of unloading the trailer.  Yes, we got it done in less than an hour.  And no, I did not have to move each piece to the build location on my own (thank goodness).

Saturday, February 8, 2020

Water Obsessed

It was morning and there was only a light breeze.  A heavy dew coated the leaves of the plants and our feet were damp after having waded through some of the longer grasses to get here.  Rays of sunshine shot through the gaps in the canopy provided by the trees.  One of those beams of light directed our attention to a droplet as it swelled slowly to a size that would finally cause it to give up its tenuous hold on the underside of a leaf.

Until we started farming, I suspect we did not fully appreciate how necessary and how pervasive water is in a typical horticultural system.  Even now, I can be surprised by how much of our day revolves around water.

Most who read this blog can identify some of the basic uses of water on our farm.  We need to provide water to all of the animals - typically on a daily basis, but sometimes more often.  Our plants need water as well, once or twice a day when they are in pots or trays, but less often if they are in the ground.    Perhaps some of you will remember that we use water to clean much of the produce we provide to our customers.  Anything beyond that might take a little more effort to identify.

The containers we use to carry and store produce and meat need to be cleaned regularly.  Our truck that carries all of this food needs to be cleaned.  Our clothing and the towels we use in the cleaning and delivery process need to be washed.  And, oh yes, the eggs need to be cleaned before we package them and sell them in neat dozens.  We're not large scale producers, but we still ended up washing over 20,000 eggs a year.  With all of that cleaning, we also find that we must spend time managing how the 'dirty' water is moved.  In fact, we would love to manage that side of the process better - fodder for a future post!

Even more important is the role that lack of water, or excessive presence of it, can play on our farm.  Over the last few years, you have heard plenty about how difficult heavy rains can make it for us to even go about our daily chores.  It is less frequent that we deal with days when the water is short, but they occur as well.  Some of the hottest, driest days result in multiple trips to the animals to make sure they stay hydrated.  The irrigation systems are usually used in a tight rotation to provide adequate moisture and cooling to the crops in the ground.  We find ourselves working harder to capture the 'waste' water so it can be used in other ways.

A farm such as ours ignores management of this resource at its peril.  If you fail to treat it as having great value, your farm will falter when it runs short.  If you don't take the time to consider how you will manage the excess when it comes....   Well, we've been talking about that a great deal lately.  We are finding that we have to be obsessed with water if want to continue.

Perhaps that is why we were willing to watch a water droplet form, hesitate and fall from a leaf that stood in the spotlight of the morning sun.

Thursday, February 6, 2020

Saving the Birds

It has been difficult trying to find something to write about for the farm blog the past several weeks simply because every topic I come up with seems to require a great deal of effort.  Don't get me wrong.  I do not mind expending effort to accomplish something that may have some value.   The problem has been that so many of the topics that I've been coming up with are difficult to handle and are, quite frankly, depressing.  Depressing because they are topics that show me how unworthy we all are to expect anything more than what is left of the hand we were dealt now that we (humanity in general) have squandered so much of it.  Even more difficult is the fact that I wonder if what I write here will make any difference anywhere at all.

So, I find myself writing this blog post anyway.  Why?  Because it will make a difference to me.  Hopefully it will solidify some of the things I feel I can try in hopes that it makes even a little difference.  I refuse to quit trying to do what I can to make things better - and so should you.

I've been concerned for some time about our declining bird and insect populations as evidenced by this 2013 post.  Even more recently, I discussed concerns about how we farm at the Genuine Faux Farm and I wondered if we could do more. In that post, I mentioned a songbird I had to euthanize because it was clearly suffering and on its way out of this world.  Since then, I have witnessed another songbird going through the same process.  Once again, I found myself in the position of deciding if the merciful thing to do was to end a life.  This time, the bird took the decision out of my hands by expiring before I could reach it.

Graphic from Cornell Daily Sun story
 For a very brief moment in time, the news outlets and social media sources were flooded with the news that North American birds had declined by 29% since 1970.  That is 3 billion birds people.  Three.  Billion.  Birds. Fewer.

Barn swallows at GFF in 2010
Exhibit A from our farm is at the left.  This was the normal barn swallow population once the second hatching was completed for all of the nests on our farm.  The photo only shows the most densely packed areas of the electric lines as the fledglings and their parents took rests from flying and hunting lessons.

Now, ask us how many barn swallows lined up at the same time of year in 2019 (or 2018 and 2017 for that matter).  In 2019, we observed four adults and six young on the line.  Ten.  Contrast that to the approximately 50 birds in the picture at left and remember there were many more birds that were not in this picture. 

Giving you full disclosure, we will point out that our barn has been falling apart for the past several years, removing some of the nesting habitat that they had in 2010.  On the other hand, there is still plenty of available sheltered space in that old barn, in the granary and in the poultry pavilion that they could use.  In fact, they had used these in the past.  Usually, the granary would have three to four nests (one last year) and there were normally a few in the poultry pavilion as well (none last year).

I now give you exhibit B, which is presented in our June of 2018 post titled Bugged!.   We continue to see an increase in Buffalo gnats on the farm that seems to be corresponding with the decline in our insect eating machines (aka Barn Swallows).  Certainly some of the population change has to do with weather conditions, but don't you think a reasonable habitat with a plentiful food supply should result in an increase of our Barn Swallow population?  Yes, I think so too.

Ok, there is no disputing that our bird populations are declining worldwide.  The next question is 'Why?'  What is causing this precipitous drop?  One obvious culprit is reduced habitat - both in quantity and quality.  This is actually something we can address!  Take a look at the figure below that summarizes more of the data from the research showing population trends since 1970.

Graphic from this ABC news story.
Waterfowl numbers have actually gone UP.  And, over that period of time, Bald Eagle populations have recovered significantly.  Why?  Because people recognized they were causing problems with these populations and they were motivated to change a negative trend.  Admittedly, some of the motivation was because hunters want to be able to have waterfowl to hunt.  As far as the Bald Eagle is concerned - well, they are a 'national symbol,' which makes it harder to ignore their decline.  This is one case where the motive isn't pure, but the results are still worth noting.  If we prioritize something as valuable, we can make positive changes.

But, what are the changes we need to be making?  Part of the problem is that we have some suspicions about what is causing bird decline, but we don't have the whole picture.  For example, researchers in Europe have been finding that birds are exhibiting a deficiency in thiamine levels.  Additional research has found that some of the same symptoms could also be due to botulism, but there is no dispute that thiamine levels were lower than they should be in the birds tested.

I ran across the article above and this article which gives a fairly decent summary of the research in this area.  What I read here is frightening for many reasons.  First, it is likely that thiamine deficiency has to do with problems lower in the food chain.  These deficiencies are likely caused by a combination of factors, including climate changes, pollution and the use of various pesticides, fungicides and herbicides. Second, research is beginning to show that these deficiencies may be showing up in other wildlife.  And finally, the two songbirds I mentioned on our farm exhibited exactly the symptoms described for thiamine deficiency syndrome.  I am not an expert, so it could have been botulism or some other issue, but I find it interesting that my search for the exhibited symptoms led me to these pieces of research.

So, it the decline in our bird populations has been dramatic.  It's a scary thing.  Now what?

1. Retrain our values to give more priority to wildlife.

Clearly NOT a Ladage photo - but we did see this Snowy Owl
Get the kids outside.  Get yourself outside.  Learn a little something about a different bird or animal every week (or every day if you can handle that 'difficult' assignment).  Encourage research in our natural systems and give respect to the people who are experts in these fields.  Appreciate the fine work photographers such as Kip Ladage do in capturing creatures in their natural habitat.   If you like games, pick up enjoyable games that include educational components that feature nature.  Try Wingspan out if you like (or might find you like) birds.  Do you love watching birds already?  Then consider being involved in some 'citizen science' and record your findings in eBird.  I recall participating in the first public iteration of the online system by Cornell's Lab of Ornithology in the early 2000s.  It was a pleasant surprise to find the current version.

I believe that it much harder to ignore nature when you expose yourself to it on a regular basis.  Let others see your enthusiasm and let that enthusiasm light a fire in those around you.

2. Think hard about the things you can control that might make even a little difference.

You might be surprised by how much you do that is part of the problem and how many things you can do that move us toward workable solutions.  One simple step might be to not use lead ammunition when you hunt, if you are a hunter.  Or perhaps you can think a whole lot harder at what you get for your perennial garden.  And, you can consider more plants that are native and support wildlife while you are at it.  You can plant a little habitat in the corner of your yard.  Or, if you are like us and are stewards for larger chunks of land, you can plant bigger habitat areas.  You can think harder and longer about the herbicides, pesticides and fungicides you use and truly take the time to research what they do and what impact they will have on the small slice of the environment over which you have the most control.  You can make the decision not to let "Fluffy" outside and you can do things to help control the population of feral cats.  Of course, you can think harder about where your food comes from too - but you've read that here before.  And, you can take the time to tell your public servants (our representatives in government) and those businesses you patronize that you want them to do their part as well.
Look!  A Space Chicken!

3. Do NOT Give Up

I recognize in myself a tendency to become overwhelmed by things that are, in my opinion, wrong in this world.  I also recognize that my sphere of influence is small compared to that of others.  These problems I see are far larger than me and perhaps the world would give me a pass if I abdicated my portion of the the responsibility I feel for what goes on in this world.

But, I don't believe that.  I would not accept a pass, even if it were offered to me.  You should not give yourself a pass either.  We're all better than what we've done.  So let's be better.  To be better, we have to persist in our efforts.

Persistence does not mean we should be blindly stubborn.  It does mean we should be relentless in our search for the right in all things.  It means we should be aware that we can be mistaken and we need to be able to changes as we learn more.  It means that we recognize big change takes time.

And it means we take joy in seeing Cardinals on the farm after more than a year's absence.  Perhaps all is not lost.  And, even if it is, it will not be lost because I did not work to save it. 

Is this my one saving grace?  I can live with that.