Friday, January 30, 2009

Animal Dreams

What do vegetable farmers dream about?

Apparently this one dreams about being chased by farm animals. I wouldn't qualify this one as a 'bad' dream. I might say it was a 'funny' dream (alot of funny 'strange' a bit of funny 'haha'). In fact, when I woke up at the end of the dream, I remembered it well enough to think to myself - "Self, that was both weird and oddly amusing. You should blog about that."

My thought this morning after getting more sleep was, "Self (I call myself 'self'?!?), how could you have found that dream to be amusing? It's just weird and not worth sharing."

Suffice it to say that the whole thing started with cats on the roof I was trying to put on a building, followed by lots of turkey chicks being let out in the yard by some unknown individual who meant to cause me grief. Of course, the next part has me trying to deal with turkeys that had grown to be bigger than I was. I found I could herd them by leading them and found myself running through a maze of fencing with turkeys and numerous other critters following. The appearance of a car commuter lane on the right really added to the ambiance.

For those who might care - NONE of the animals were goats.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Local lunch

I am taking a couple of minutes for lunch (as in, I don't really have the time, but I am MAKING the time so I don't freak out in class in a few minutes). As I was snarfing my yummy food (taking time does not, unfortunately mean "slowly savoring"), I was reflecting on a) how nice it is that I have lunch here and don't have to do somewhere to find food and b) how colorful my lunch is today.

What's on this locavore's lunch list? Ham and Bean chowder - made with beans grown in my own garden (still experimenting with how to grow dried beans on any sort of doable scale), onions and spices from my own garden and ham from a friend's farm that is about 40 miles away. Also on the menu was some very yummy and very orange hubbard squash. While not from my own garden, darn that flood and those squash bugs!, it is still from within a county, and I know the farmer who raised the squash. So, a very nice local lunch today.


Monday, January 26, 2009

Veg is GOOD for you?

One of the advantages of being involved in a group such as Practical Farmers of Iowa is the possibility that other persons interested in things you care about might share things they find.

A recent post referenced a Feb 2009 article by Donald R Davis in the HortScience journal. While this is pretty much a literature review - the topic is interesting.

Here's a quick take:
  1. High yield cultivars (veg varieties) tend to have lower nutrient levels than lower yield cultivars.
  2. Average nutrient levels in fruit/veg in the US/UK has declined since the 1940's
  3. Application of fertilizer/chemicals increase the content of those elements while reducing other nutrients in vegetables.
I still need to read it more thoroughly (and this will likely lead to my reading many of the studies). And, I'm likely to write on this again.

First blush? I'm not surprised. In fact, these results make perfect sense to me. Want to know why? (that's called a "tease")

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Giant Jig Saw

We're putting the finishing touches on our field plans for 2009. And, even though I know better, I feel like I should be done any moment now when I hear the words "finishing touches".

However, in this case, the finishing touches are to figure out which dates everything will get done (the order is largely figured) and determine the final amounts of seed to order. It doesn't seem like it should take me so long to do. But, then I remember how many different plans I have to work with at one time.

We work with 11 different plots. Seven are in one rotation and four in the other. Each plot is approximately 10,000 square feet. And each plot has a different plan with nuances that give us a bit more to think about.

So, let's start with a relatively easy one. The tomato plot in the rotation. What's to think about?

First - you have to decide what varieties you want to grow for your tomatoes. This wasn't too terribly hard to figure out. You start with the cultivars from prior years that you want to keep. Make the final decision on the ones you discontinue and then look for a few new additions. HOWEVER, the cultivar selection has to be balanced so you have proper amounts of cherry types, snack/salad types, slicer, paste, large, small, etc. Oh, and we haven't mentioned that these are heirlooms, so we have lots of color types and taste varieties - so we'd better balance that out too. The good news? This process is fun - we love to check out different heirloom varieties - the hard part is limiting how many we do.

Next up on the list - how many of each of these cultivars will go in the plot? The balancing act begins. And, of course, there has to be some sort of back up plan if a cultivar fails to grow in our seed starting process. In this process, we determine which varieties are our workhorses and which are there as 'ornamentation.' They will all, hopefully, produce well. But, we know which ones have been most reliable for us -and we tend to grow more of those cultivars to provide the base for our tomato production. Workhorses for us have been (and will continue to be) Trophy, Wisconsin 55, Golden Sunray, Italian Heirloom, German Pink, Amish Paste and Speckled Roman.

Plot layout begins as step three (although it has been part of 1 and 2 - it's just hard to lay out steps when they are so inter-related). At this point, we determine placement of cultivars in relations to each other, spacing, trellising methods, mulching methods and companion crops.

Ah...companion crops. So, there is something we harvest from this field other than tomatoes. Basil, cilantro, summer savory and some other spices all go in this plot to help the tomatoes to grow. It just so happens that they also have value as a crop. So - guess what - we get to look at more cultivars and make more choices - hurrah!

Field maintenance - you know - cultivation, mulching, cover crops, compost application. That's got to be figured. In this case, we'll have a couple of undersewn cover crop trials going and a fall cover crop sewn where the shortest season tomatoes and spices reside.

Ok, got all that done. Now...what sort of supplies must be acquired and how much of each? Obviously, we must get seeds for tomatoes, companions and cover crops. The field plan helps us determine how many of each. But, wait - we also sell plants in the spring. Guess we better figure out how much of those we intend to carry too. Then there is the seed starting soil - how much of that do we need? And trays, etc etc. Wait a minute - do we have enough seed starting shelves built? hmmmm.

Now, when should we start these seeds? When do we get the cultivation done, and when are we going to need extra help? Rather than list all of our time considerations - we'll let you imagine them!

and remember... this one goes to eleven.

Trying to get a time line that works for all eleven plots is one giant jig saw.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009


I saw this cartoon today and started to think about perceptions. Is it smart to try to make people perceive you as smart? I was at work WAY too late last night, then could not get to sleep right away. So, any thoughts I had about being perceived as smart today are buried beneath the fog in my brain and bags under my eyes.

Wait - Pythagorean Theorem - that out to do it! Yes, you now know that I am smart! (Bonus points for anyone who can come up with a rhyme for Pythagorean Theorem!).

tf (not so qbt today)

addendum by rf:
Unfortunately for tf, her students may rebel if they hear about things that are math related...

Monday, January 19, 2009

No...not in threes!?!

The old saying about things happening in threes is true - as long as you know when to start and stop your counting.

For example, I sprained my ankle three four years. So, there you are - proof of the concept.

With this in mind, I am frantically trying to figure out a third thing to go with a pair of problems we are now having to deal with.

Our tractor (with the snow blower attachment) informed us last night that it was going on strike. This morning, our hot water heat in the house informed us that it wants some attention. We do not want, or need, a third such item - so I have to think of something of equivalent nature to add to them in order to make it a trio. Then we should be safe....until the urge to count strikes us again.

Friday, January 16, 2009

You know it's cold when...

  • the battery in your outdoor thermometer freezes
  • icicles form on your scarf after just 15 minutes outside
  • a high of 5 degrees Fahrenheit sounds warm
  • there is a duck in your kitchen (again)
  • it takes you a half hour to put on/take off the layers you wear when you go outside
  • chicken eggs chip the cement when you throw them against it - but the egg doesn't break
  • water droplets tossed from a mug bounce when they hit the ground
  • breathing through your mouth makes you cough and through your nose freezes your nostrils shut
  • your cat won't move from her box near the radiator
  • a 5 mile per hour breeze feels like gale-forced winds
  • the soles of your boots don't bend with your feet like you're used to them doing
  • you have to turn your whole body to look for something that is a bit to your right, just so you can see it (consider the scarf, hood, etc...)
  • even the sun dogs are trying to get inside
  • you can almost see the needle on the home's propane tank go down (but that might be the icicle growing on your eyelashes)
  • you can actually feel the difference between -30 degrees F and -20 degrees F
  • what you thought was the sound of a bird chattering away was just its knees knocking together
  • baling wire breaks when you try to bend it
  • you feel better only after you remind yourself of the winter you spent in Duluth where the temps didn't get above zero for the whole month of January...

Saturday, January 10, 2009

...or was it Continuously Delayed Perfection?

I'm sure this saying has been around for a while, but it is nonetheless a proverb that reminds us of lessons in the planning and production on our farm.

Strive for continuous improvement rather than delayed perfection.
Corollary - Continuous improvement versus extreme makeover.

January is our big planning month for the growing season. We have to avoid two diametrically opposed dangers. The danger of over-analyzing and failing to take any action and the danger of wanting to do it all - now. For our part, we try to walk the fine line that is an incremental approach. That doesn't mean we aren't aggressively trying to improve the workings of the farm - far from it. But, it does mean we realize a few key things about veg farming:
  1. What works in one growing season may not work the next
  2. What works for some farmers may not work for others
  3. You must be ready to make the change and be prepared to maintain it - otherwise it will fail
The first two make sense with no further discussion - but the third can be a difficult lesson to learn.

Case in point - Season extension.
We are certainly capable of expanding our season. In fact, on a small scale, we've picked fresh produce as late as mid-December and as early as April. Yes, others do better than this. Yes, we could do better than this. But, the question may not be "can we?"

We could invest in a high tunnel (unheated greenhouse) and work hard to expand our season on both ends. It would cost money to do this - but I suspect we could find a way to get funding. We've never put up a greenhouse - but we can get help and we're not helpless - we can figure it out. We've never grown things this way before - but again - there are plenty of resources and we have plenty of knowledge to start us out. So what stops us?

A shortage of resources? Yes, time and money are part of the equation. But, the real resource that isn't currently available for this project is personal energy to make it happen. People tend to forget what season extension implies for the grower in terms of workload. For an additional X weeks of the year, we will have to be planting/tending/harvesting/distributing. We're not ready for that responsibility. Perhaps if we didn't have an old house to maintain and a farm with older buildings to resurrect we'd consider it sooner. But, right now, we need the time away from the growing season to accomplish other necessary things in our lives!

So, what do we do? We concentrate on a reasonable season extension project - a new spring planting plan that refines what we already do so that we have a stronger first four weeks of the harvesting season. Some of our strategies for this year (for those who might care):
  • fall planted spinach and lettuce for early harvest
  • plan tray-seeded plantings of crops such as lettuce
  • over wintered leeks
  • better row cover preparations for spring (we've got some serious wind to deal with)
  • a week by week season plan
Fall planting

We've done this before with reasonable success. The hardest part was finding the time and energy to put these things in with proper timing. We were still harvesting tomatoes this year in mid-October and still delivering to our CSA through the month of October. That left little time for field cleanup, fall planting, etc. Things are not always so simple as 'just do it'....the list of things to 'just do' is often too long for that logic.

Tray planted seedlings

We favored direct planting until last year - when we had germination problems in the fields. Transplants may cost a bit more in terms of resources, but the success rate is far higher. So, the returns, in the end, are likely to be more consistent. It is far easier to keep a row clean with plants that are already established to the transplant stage. This year, we'll run our earliest lettuce planting as transplants and our summer plantings as transplants (when temps are too high for best germination rates). Eventually, we hope to convert to soil blocks so that we don't use the plastic trays as much.

Week by week season plan

This may sound a little excessive. After all, I've never been accused of failing to plan - at least where gardening is concerned. Up until now, our plans have been good, but not good enough to make the necessary improvisation that occurs each year any easier. Too much of the season plan resides in one person's head (and I'm a legend in my own mind...). Thus, making it difficult to allow for any modification other than those I make. There's far too much talent involved in this farm to limit it in this fashion. So, we're going to have a written week-by-week plan of intended tasks/goals.

I've heard from other experienced growers including Richard DeWilde and Elliot Coleman that this sort of planning is important -and I believe them. But, since I haven't tried to do this explicit planning before, it will be difficult.

Stay tuned and find out how we do with these changes!

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Uffda or RF

An update from RFs earlier post about the Draft. There is now less draft. Progress over the last few weeks included two new windows in the house, and, to my knowledge, zero cases of frostbite or hypothermia.

However, only a really crazy couple of people would think about putting windows in during freezing weather in December or January. In this case, we thought December worked out ok, so tried again in January. It is cold in January. The house is old. The old house does NOT follow conventional framing techniques. That means it takes a LONG time in the COLD to get a window back in. Many kudos to RF for being brilliant and stubborn (well, once the old was out, the new had to come in somehow - very appropriate for New Year's Day!).

Here are some pics of the first window (no pics were taken of window #2 - it was just too cold...). Before, during and after. Note the skillful use of the hammer! Note also that in the "Before" you can't see out due to the frost, but the after is nice and clear!

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Getting What You Deserve

I've been thinking (once again - a dangerous pastime).

Well, ok, I was prompted to laugh and then think. A box that held some sort of ab machine had a the tag line that was prominently displayed on the box:

"Get the results you deserve!"

Yes, I know what the advertiser wants us to be thinking - we deserve to have rock hard abs and they'll help us to get them. But, I couldn't help but wonder if somebody who helped with the design of this box/advertising/propaganda is also laughing up their sleeve on this one?

Clearly, you will get what you deserve with respect to your abs. If you exercise them (with this machine or not), they will be better. If you don't, they won't.

Call to the company from a disgruntled customer:

"Hello, may I help you?"
"Yes, this ab burning thingamabob by Rundleco isn't working."
"I see, how can you tell?"
"Well, it's been sitting here for a month and I still don't look like the model on the box."
"Ok. Well, are you certain you deserve to look like that model?"
"Are you sure you have earned the right to have abs like the model on the box?"
"I don't see what that has to do with...."
"I'm sorry, but it seems clear to me that you shouldn't have a thin and sexy torso. I'm afraid you are simply getting what you deserve."
"I... you... wha?"

"Look, our only guarantee is that you will get what you deserve. Clearly, you are receiving sufficient recompense. Have a nice day."


Thursday, January 1, 2009

A GFF Year in Review

It's the new year and the ridiculous urge to look at the year in review has come upon me. Why? We don't really know and I'm sure we're all hoping it will go away quickly.

Since it is still in my brain after typing the intro, we shall continue. Our top events/occurrences at the farm this year:

10. The Luddite's electronics
Yes, it's true. We finally got a cell phone in 2008. We added insult to injury by picking up an i-pod as well. The cell phone was, we feel, a necessary addition to stay in contact with customers. The i-pod gives us a chance to hear some music while doing some of the more repetitive farm tasks. And, yes, I still think most people rely overly much on silly gadgets (myself included).

9. What the...kale?
We introduced kale to the farm in 2008 for the first time. We didn't know what to expect from this crop. What a pleasant surprise. It was a great year for kale AND it just so happens that it is pretty tasty and can be included in many meals. And, I suppose I should mention that it is good for you - but we all know that most people don't want what's good for them.

8. Re-tooling
We reinvested in the farm business by purchasing some new tools. Our favorite tool/supply purchases (after a season's use) have got to be the wheel hoe and the stacking/nesting crates for picking. In most cases, the new tools helped us to work smarter without necessarily adding to our carbon footprint. A good thing for the bottom line this season given the gas prices during the growing season!

7. Open air laboratory
There are always a number of informal bits of research being done on the farm. This year, we had a couple projects that were given a little more attention. GFF participated in a tomato trellising trial in conjunction with two other farms. The year was atypical of most years - so the results were not terribly informative. We also worked with a student who checked on the influence of radish on winter squash. Again, the season halted any significant data collection.

6. CSA and only CSA
In each of our prior years, we have distributed produce via a subscription style CSA and farmers' markets, with additional produce being sold directly to various institutions/restaurants. In August, we became aware of an opportunity to expand the CSA. After a good bit of soul searching, we will not sell produce at farmers' markets in 2009 (we will sell plants early in the season). Instead, we will focus on the CSA with excess being sold to institutions/restaurants. A bold move. But, a good one as it reduces wear and tear on ourselves.

5. Helping Hands
We finally felt we could afford to hire a little more help this season than prior years. Was it worth it? Every penny. Thank you to our helpers! It made a difficult season tolerable.

4. Real Foxes
How ironic is it that we actually had a den with fox kits on the farm in the spring? Unfortunately, we can tolerate Faux's in the chicken coop, but not foxes. Happily, they moved on with minimal persuasion.

3. Outstanding in our fields.
We were able to host a Practical Farmers of Iowa field day at our farm in September. It was a rewarding experience for us and provided a chance to share with persons who were interested in trying their hand at a CSA or small veg farm.

2. We say tomato
And the hits just kept coming. The year was perilously close to a colossal failure. But, the frosts held off and the tomatoes finally ripened. We shattered previous season tomato harvest records by astounding margins. Diversity of crops wins again!

1. Rain, rain and more rain.
But, it was the rain and cold and more rain this spring into early summer that defined the year on the farm. Unlike other areas, we did not flood. But, like most growers in the region, we had trouble with germination, crops rotting in the field and... well... we simply couldn't get into the fields to work them. In general, crops that DID germinate were anywhere from 2 to 6 weeks behind. The heavy rains in August of 2007 and these rains in 2008 was enough to get small veg growers everywhere to question whether the effort was worth it.

But, we are resilient and we will continue. Perhaps next year's number 1 item will be something about bumper crops...

Happy New Year.