Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Veg Variety Winners for 2018

Every year we attempt to identify the top varieties that were grown on the farm during the year.  Criteria include production, quality of fruit, taste and plant health.  Additional factors that may increase the rating for a variety might be performance as compared other varieties of the same type or one that surprised us by doing far better than anticipated.  You might also note that we will give a tie break to a variety that has not been awarded a top slot over one that has.
For those who want to see what has gone before:
About 2018's Growing Season
As part of my pre-writing work for this yearly post, I review the prior year's post to balance my response to the current year.  The summary for 2017 was that it was a pretty well-balanced year with some record crops.  That actually helps me to feel better about a 2018 season that was among our most difficult that we've experienced at the Genuine Faux Farm.  If my summary for 2017 had also highlighted the negative, I would need to review more years to see if this is a multi-year trend.

To be blunt, this list was difficult to put together because so few of our crops made us happy this season.  We will grant you that we keep trying to raise the bar for measuring success, so it is harder for any crop to blow us away at this point in our careers.  So, we'll balance the realities of the season and our historical results and provide you with a good list - even this year!

15. A and C Pickling Cucumber
It is likely that the A and C Picklers deserve a spot further up this list because any difficulty they had this year had nothing to do with their production.  But, we have another cucumber variety on the list and we normally try not to overload our lists with one type of crop.

Our goal for cucumbers is to try to get eight to ten marketable cucumbers per row foot that we plant.  This year's A and C's were not far off at between six and seven.  Before you get to critical, you need to realize that we had to throw a significant number of good looking cucumbers because of a chemical drift issue this season.  If you add those in, we would pass the target number.  We were pleased to have a good cucumber season after the debacle that was 2017's cucumber crop.  But, we should not be surprised.  Wet conditions in June favor cucumbers and wet conditions in August helped them to continue.  When you also consider that most of the production came from the later successions that came after the spray incident, you can't help but be a little bit impressed by this variety.

The fruit for A and C Pickling works equally well if they are harvested small (pickler size) or large (slicer size).  We tend to just try to keep them picked by harvesting two to three times per week.  We were very impressed by the bee activity during the month of August in our cucumbers and the flower density if usually quite high for this cultivar.

14. Quadrato asti Giallo
Quadrato asti Giallo is one of those variety names that sound great mostly because it is an Italian name.  An English equivalent name would be Four-Lobed Yellow Bell Pepper.  Ya, I agree, let's go with the Italian this time.  There are clearly a couple of strains of this pepper floating around because we have gotten some very different results over the years.  One season saw us getting huge, rounded yellow bell peppers and another saw an increased number of fruit that were on the smaller side.  This year tended to see smaller sized fruit, but they were more likely to turn fully yellow than some strains have shown.

Nearly every choice on this list is going to have a caveat this year, which is just the way it is when you have a challenging year.  All of our field peppers were impacted by Dicamba drift and we harvested less than ten marketable peppers from several hundred plants out there.  That means all of our pepper production came from the high tunnels.  Luckily for us (and all of you) we had some Quadrato's in Eden this year and they even managed to survive wet weather that soaked the soil in that building multiple times.  In fact, it seems to us that Quadrato is probably not as happy in a high tunnel as they usually are in the field.  Perhaps we need to increase the amount of water we give them when they are in there?

Fruit taste pretty good even when green, but they taste best when there is at least some streaking of yellow.  Pepper wall thickness is average to marginally thick and the texture is excellent.

13. Westlander Kale
After a slow start, the kale was doing fairly well for us until we hit September this year.  We over-planted kale a bit last year, so we dialed it down, only to find a place that would buy kale from us (doesn't that figure?).  Of course, as the demand seemed to settle in, the rain did as well.  The net result is that all of our kale struggled in very wet soil, so production pretty much stopped once we got into the Fall months.  This is not typical since we usually expect kale late into the season.

We prefer open-pollinated varieties when we can get them, which is why we grow the likes of Dwarf Blue Scotch, Vates and Westlander for our green curly kales.  The Dwarf Blue has been with us since we started growing kale and we still like it.  However, Westlander seems more likely to give us a more consistent, tight curly leaf that restaurants seem to prefer.

12. Dr. Wyche's Yellow Tomato
Believe it or not, we have tomatoes on this list this season!  Dr. Wyche has been on this list in the past as an "Honorable Mention."  These plants produce a beefsteak style fruit that averages around a pound in weight and have a slightly sweeter taste that is common for yellow tomatoes.  The plants themselves tend to be larger and have been known to lift their supporting cages out of the ground before finally succumbing to gravity and taking the cage with them.

Clearly, Dr. Wyche's Yellow prefers high fertility since they landed in a spot that had free-range chickens the previous season.  We'll keep that in mind for future seasons and give them a bit more to work with than some of our other varieties.  Our regret this season is that the wet weather that began in August resulted in the lost of a significant number of beautiful fruit.  We did our best to pull fruit before problems got to them and managed to get a reasonable number of them before the entire crop of outdoor tomatoes were terminated.  Dr. Wyche was the last to give up.

11. Bunte Forellenschus Lettuce

This season was a fairly balanced one as far as lettuce varieties were concerned.  This was, in part, because we were consciously trying to measure results of a wide range of cultivars this year.  Overall, lettuce production ran near our average for number of heads produced, but the average weight was lower than usual.  We really can't say that any particular variety stood out completely from the rest this year.  The numbers bear that out, but we still felt that lettuce did well enough that it needed a representative on this list.  So, we went with the lettuce that we were most proud to hand to our customers this season, Bunte Forellenschus.

Bunte Forellenschus is a butterhead type of lettuce that has a slightly softer texture than some lettuces.  The darker green leaves have chartreuse speckling that make these lettuce heads very attractive in our opinion.  We have had some people worry that these speckles are indications that the lettuce is 'going bad,' which couldn't be further from the truth.  When Bunte is going well, they are a joy to grow and harvest.  They cut easily at the base, clean easier than many lettuces and give a good looking-proportional head at all stages of growth.

10. Imperial Broccoli
We participated once again in a Summer broccoli trial with the Practical Farmers of Iowa Cooperator's Program this season.  As was the case a few seasons ago, we ran a randomized replicated trial with Gypsy, Belstar and Imperial.  The two former varieties have been with us for several years and have a good track record with us.  Imperial was not available last year, but it got its second chance with us this season and we were pleased with the plant health, head size, shape and taste.

Imperial is a F1-hybrid, which is a strike against it in our veg variety posts.  But, we have yet to find a single open-pollinated broccoli that will do what we need it to do (note, we have found cauliflower that works).  Very few seed companies seems interested in developing an open-pollinated broccoli, so we are left with hybrids.  Head size during this season averaged around one pound and the plants did not seem terribly interested in producing side-shoots.  Like so many of our crops, the late broccoli was severely reduced by wet weather.  Our Fall succession is still sitting in the fields trying to decide if it will head out and the Summer succession lost side-shoot production in the standing water.

9. Tolli Sweet Pepper
Tolli Sweet is one of the varieties on our farm that just keeps plugging on from year to year.  It never seems to get the respect it might deserve and it rarely gets much by way of recognition.  Well, this is the year, Tolli Sweet!  You made it to number nine!  Well, ok, Tolli Sweet got some love last year as well at number 13.

Tolli Sweet Peppers are a carrot shaped pepper that is best when it is allowed to turn red.  The fruit size is quite variable and the pepper wall is fairly thin.  Persons who have some trouble with digesting peppers may find that Tolli Sweet is much more tolerable to them and they are good for fresh eating, sandwiches, salads and nachos.  The plants are small in stature and prefer not to have wet feet, which makes them perfect for high tunnel production.  Fruit do not hold on the plant particularly well either, so you want to keep them picked at early to mid stages of ripeness.  Waiting too long tends to result in splits or issues with the fruit.  Despite that, we get a decent harvest every season from Tolli Sweet and the taste is excellent.

8. Thelma Sanders Acorn Squash
We have been telling people about Thelma for many years (both growers and consumers).  In our opinion, we think the quality of this tan acorn squash is better than most green acorns and Tammy and I prefer the less stringy texture.  Even better, the production numbers are quite favorable.  Once again, we had trouble with wet weather, which did reduce our yield on the Thelma's somewhat, but the fruit did not suffer from rot the same way many other squash seemed to.  As a result, we had a reasonable yield of these for the season.

Thelma Sanders is showing up in more seed catalogs!
Thelma Sanders seems to be handle some weed pressure, dry seasons, wet seasons and it doesn't seem to struggle too much with pests.  In short, it's a tough cultivar that is prepared to compete and succeed.  Perhaps you could find acorn squash varieties that will produce more fruit per plant, but we doubt they'll have the same quality.  If you need further argument, we no longer grow any other acorn squash at the Genuine Faux Farm.

7. Dragon Carrot
Oh my goodness!  A carrot made the top variety list for the Genuine Faux Farm.  This is not the first time it has happened, but it is certainly not a common situation for us to be in.  As a matter of fact, it is so abnormal that we don't usually take pictures of our carrots.  We actually still have some more in the ground in one of the high tunnels, so we may add a picture later.

Dragon has a purple exterior and bright orange interior.  The taste has a slightly spicy overtone that many people seem to enjoy.  The carrots themselves seem to germinate better than many varieties and handle a wider range of adverse growing conditions.  The biggest danger seems to be in letting them get too big, at which point they have a tendency to split, though they don't necessarily get pithy at that point.  Dragon makes the list by virtue of a decent stand in the field and a correspondingly good stand in a high tunnel this season.  Essentially, it did what it was supposed to do, which is better than many crops this year!

6. Redwing Onion
We have been very fortunate to have some level of success every season since 2014 when White Wing made it to our top 10 list.  Redwing shared the limelight a couple of seasons ago with Ailsa Craig, but it gets to have its own spot on our Veg Variety list in 2018.

Redwing at the right
Amazingly enough, the success or failure of our onion crop this season was balanced on a razor's edge.  Our seedlings just didn't want to put on any growth and we were placed in the position of wondering what to do if they didn't get up to a transplanting size.  Happily, our friends at Grinnell Heritage Farm had numerous extra onion starts that they were going to compost unless we wanted them!  We certainly wanted them.

The net result is that, while we didn't get to grow some of the varieties we wanted to grow, we still got to grow Redwing.  The size this year tended to be between a half pound and three-quarters pound and the taste was good, as expected.  The only issue was a fair amount of stem and root rot that was noticeable at harvest and later in storage.  We did have to work hard to check and re-check our stored onions to be sure we didn't lose them.  Once again, we believe much of this has to do with the wet season.  So, while we lost some good sized onions to those issues, we still have some beauties in storage at the end of October.

5. Dunja Zucchini
Dunja is being sneaky as it was number 8 last year and it has moved up three slots to number five this year.  Once again, this is a F1-hybrid rather than an open-pollinated variety.  But, once again, we just haven't found an open-pollinated zucchini that will do what we need it to.

Dunja plants tend to stay smaller and have an open growth habit that helps us to see fruit before they get too large.  As a result, we can typically keep from growing an absurd number of "Louisville Sluggers."  They are also consistent with fruit set and tend to produce nice, straight fruit without bulbed ends.  It doesn't hurt that the seed cavity is often smaller and the texture is consistent throughout.

We will admit that we had a harder time this year getting the harvest in before fruit size got a bit larger.  As a result, many of the zucchini crossed the one pound mark.  The good news?  Dunja doesn't get seedy at that size and are perfectly good to use in a wide-range of recipes.  

4. Berries and Cherries
This is one thing we never thought we would put on our veggie variety list on the farm.  First, berries and cherries are not a crop we've ever really intended to turn into a marketable crop.  Second, we really haven't intentionally done much with varieties of these things - we just make sure to give them space to do their thing each year and if we have a crop combined with the time to pick some -well, there you are.  And finally, these aren't veggies, so all of our veggie crops are probably offended that we put this in here.

Here's the thing.  We had a great year for mulberries, raspberries and Nanking cherries.  We had a poor start to the season for our veggies and we needed to harvest something for our CSA members.  There it is in a nutshell.  We maintain a diverse environment on our farm and in a poor year that diversity stepped up to help us out.  While I didn't think of it that way until recently, that is exactly what happened.  We got some payback for our efforts in the form of these tasty treats.  Given that, I think we would be remiss if we did not recognize this in our winner list for the year.

And, before everyone gets excited that we're going to expand or otherwise increase our berry/cherry production for our customer base, you need to remember that these crops are very season-dependent.  You also need to remember that we have never set ourselves up to be berry/cherry farmers.  This is just the happy by-product of trying to maintain a healthy farm.

3. Silver Slicer Cucumber
Our cucumber grow list has been fairly stable for a number of years now, so we can't exactly explain what made us decide to trial Silver Slicer last year and then continue with it this season. We already grow Boothby's Blonde, which has made it onto our lists more than once.  We did decide to stop trying to grow True Lemon because we couldn't quite find the harvest niche on our farm for them.

It turns out that Silver Slicer has a great fresh-eating taste that makes our local cucumber taste expert (Tammy) very happy.  When the rest of the crew confirmed her initial opinion, it seemed reasonable to grow them again this season.  Silver Slicer seems to be fine with a late season start and doesn't seem to have a tendency to grow the cucumbers too large, having what seems to be a top size at about 8 inches.  We like to harvest them around six inches, but the size doesn't seem to impact the taste or texture too terribly much.  Like many open-pollinated varieties, it has more to do with age on the vine than actual size of the fruit. 
2. Macintosh Apples
Here is another entry that breaks with tradition.  As is true with the berries and cherries, apples are not something we have advertised as a Genuine Faux Farm product.  While it is true that we have planted apple trees (and other fruit trees) on the farm, we never expected to become an orchard of any repute.  We have friends who do that professionally and we respect what they do too much to even pretend that this is anything more than a diverse farm wanting a few apple trees for themselves.  The thing is, this year was perfect for our apple trees (unless you count the poor tree that was taken down by winds this year).

We selected the Macintosh as our 'variety' this time around because these trees were most productive and seemed to give us the best quality apples of the group.  We do like our Fireside Trees (and the others too), but the Macs had the best quality overall (and they didn't fall down in the wind).  We believe this year's late Spring actually was favorable for our apple crop, encouraging our apples to wait until later to bloom when more pollinators were available.  On top of that, that period of the Spring was less windy than usual.  The net result is that the blooms stayed on longer and the pollinators had more perfect days to visit flowers.  We are certainly grateful, but we also do not expect a repeat of this performance in 2019.

1. Minnesota Midget

Minnesota Midget
Minnesota Midget is no stranger to our lists, showing up at number 2 in 2015.  This year, they take the prize, setting a record for high tunnel production this year on our farm.  During a season that saw so many things go wrong, it sure is pleasant to look at a crop where most everything seemed to go right.  As a matter of fact, things didn't go perfectly with Minnesota Midget since the planting in Valhalla did not go in on time, so they performed poorly.  But, the earlier succession in Eden did so well, it set a production record for the farm ALL BY ITSELF.

Fruit size can be variable, though a consistent watering program can reduce that variability.  The hard part is trying to reduce water prior to ripening so the fruits set more sugars for a better taste.  The net result is that later sets may be smaller in size due to the reduced watering regimen.  Regardless, our CSA membership were able to have some quality melons in their shares this year and the farmers were also able to enjoy melons for breakfast on a semi-regular basis.  We'll call that a win!

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Captain Obvious

If you have ever farmed, you can appreciate the fact that exclamations are going to come out of your mouth in response to what is going on in the moment.  This is especially true if you are frustrated by whatever is happening.  I am not one to drop "swear words" very often, but every once in a while the words that are uttered make you stop and consider the situation for a second or two before moving on.  Perhaps one of the best examples I can think of is the nun who was a Social Worker in a county where Tammy worked some years ago.  Apparently, words that are not associated with a nun came out of her mouth.  If a nun says "damn it," you can't help but wonder if there is more impact than if I were to say it!  In her defense, I just have to say that the field of Social Work can be incredibly frustrating - and so can farming.

You... You... TURKEY!
Growing up, I learned that you could call inanimate objects, animals and sometimes your siblings a 'turkey' if they got on your nerves.  It's a fairly safe thing to say and few people will be overly offended by it if it is overheard.  Drop a wrench for the second or third time and watch while it bounces into a place that's hard to reach that third time?  Well, call it a turkey. You get to express displeasure in a way that is 'family-friendly' that way!

But what happens when the thing that is getting on your nerves is...
Yes, I was trying to finish loading the truck to get to a CSA distribution.  Yes, I was on time, but I didn't have much EXTRA time.  Yes, I heard interesting chirping noises coming from the area of the turkey pasture.  And, what did I find?  Most of the flock had managed a break-out through the fence.

I hustled out to try to get the birds back into their pasture and most of them complied with minimal fuss.  Except for one bird that wanted to make life more interesting.  After the third time that it managed to go in entirely the WRONG direction I found myself forcefully saying,


I stopped moving.  The turkey stopped moving.  We looked at each other.  I could swear I could see it thinking, "Yes.  That's me.  What do you want?"

Not All Birds are Turkeys
I'll admit that this was not the first time that I've called a turkey a "turkey" with the intent of expressing displeasure and finding that the turkeys are pretty much immune to that particular insult.  But, normally, I find myself being much more judicious with my exclamations after this sort of thing happens.  The conversation goes something like this:

Analytical Me: "Ok, you just called a turkey a turkey.  Good for you.  If you are really getting so upset as to believe it will do any good to do that, you should back off a second and figure out a better way to do what you are trying to do."

Not So Analytical Me: "Stupid bird!  Of course it has to be a turkey so my yelling turkey at it doesn't make a difference!  Grrrrrr!  I need to go drop a wrench or something!"

I finally got the last turkey in and got the CSA distribution done.  The next day, I was feeding and watering the broiler chickens.  Usually, I don't let the birds out of their building before I give them their food and water.  When I do let them out too soon, they are underfoot and they make the task just that much harder.  So, of course, on this day, I let them out FIRST.  Ooops.

Now I had to watch every step I took and had to push birds out of the way so I could set the food bucket down.  As I did so, one bird acted like it wanted to take me on.  Chickens have a hard time with perspective.  You LOOK smaller when you are further away, so they figure they might be able to beat you in a fight.  But, as you approach, you keep getting bigger, which results in their decision to high-tail it away from you.  As I looked down at this particular bird and it looked up at me, I saw the tiny hamster-wheel in its head spinning.  The conclusion it made was to turn around and run away from me.  It was a good choice, but before I knew it, I was yelling, "CHICKEN!!!!"

Yes, yes they are.
Unlike the turkey, they didn't stop what they were doing and they really didn't pay much attention to me.  They were more interested in the food and water.  I was disappointed because I thought I was being inadvertently clever.  Yes, that's correct, I wasn't trying to be funny.  I wasn't even thinking about it, it just came out.  Once again, the target audience found my commentary to be accurate while failing to inspire or dissuade them in any way.

Analytical Me: "You need to stop letting the weather and the farm getting under your skin so much.  One of these times, you're going to let something slip that will have actual consequences."

Not So Analytical Me: "Yelling 'chicken' at a wrench doesn't make sense."

These Things Come in Threes
The third time, of course, was the charm.  This time, it was a (largely) inanimate object that incurred my wrath.  You see, the hen room needed to be scooped out.  The process pretty much consists of using a pitchfork and a shovel to take loads out to the bucket of the tractor.  Once the tractor bucket is full, you take it to the compost pile.
Portable Poo Producers
Unfortunately for us, we don't have an opening immediately next to the room to throw the 'used' bedding and poo into the bucket of the tractor.  Instead, we have to walk each 'load' on the pitchfork (or shovel) through a door and then an opening before we can toss it into the bucket.

I had a nice big load on the fork and I made it successfully through the door of the hen room.  I only had a few more steps to go and the load slipped off the fork and onto the floor.

The intelligent words that escaped my mouth at that moment?  "Oh, shit!"

Yes, yes it was.

Friday, October 26, 2018

Why Do You? - Talking Turkey

Every year, when the turkeys approach the point in time that they go to "the Park," "Freezer Camp" and then are "Guests of Honor" at various homes for Thanksgiving, we get a batch of questions about how we raise our birds and/or why we do things the way we do with respect to our turkey flock.  Sometimes these questions are directly posed to us and other times, they are implied.  Either way, we hear them and we'd like to take some time to answer at least some of your questions.  After all, we realize that we are definitely part of a small portion of the population that actually raises turkeys - so we should not expect everyone else to understand what goes on without a little bit of help.

Other Blog Posts that Talk Turkey
We have written about our turkeys multiple times AND we have even asked some of our turkeys to write blog posts.  We encourage you to visit some of these if they might amuse you or address your specific questions:

  • What does a turkey sound like?  You can at least get a sampling in this blog post.
  • Our most popular turkey post is the one that discusses the stages the birds go through on our farm.  This includes an introduction to some terminology.  Want to know what a snood is?  Go to this post.
  • Jake the turkey provided us with a very useful turkey perspective that many people also enjoy.  His perspective about "little bald turkeys" might amuse you a little.
  • Before you think turkeys are less than intelligent, Ima Turkey's documents revealed some of the research the turkeys have undertaken in the past.  
  • And, before you think everything is all 'honey and light' here, we do have a post that features dark humor about a situation involving rats in the turkey room.
Day Ranging Turkeys
Our birds are 'pasture raised' but we tend to prefer the much more accurate term 'day ranging.'  Our turkeys are given access to a nice pasture (see below) during the daylight hours.  But, for their protection, they go into a building at night.  This is especially important when they are smaller and might be more a matter of principle when they are larger.  Once turkeys establish a 'home' they tend to go back to it - even if they are a bit SLOW about it sometimes.  Tammy and I get a little frustrated with them when we just want to GO INSIDE OURSELVES and they aren't interested in marching right on in just yet.  This is especially true when it is raining.

Yes, turkeys stay outside, even when it is raining.  They could go inside their room because we leave it open for them.  The hens often go inside when it is raining, but turkeys do not.  They might try to stand under a tree or the eave of the building.  But, at you can see, the trees are still a bit small and the eave area can only accommodate so many birds.

They will not allow themselves to be herded into their room before it is night time, so don't even suggest that we try.  They want their outside time and they are going to get it, darn it! 
Oh look! Damp turkeys!
Why day range these birds?  Well, first of all, we feel that the turkeys are healthier than those that are raised in a confinement/building environment.  That does not mean we won't lose a turkey to injury or illness.  That's just a part of life.  However, these birds have the opportunity to find a corner of the pasture away from other birds if they want - though most of them just stay with the flock.  We stick with about 60 birds in our flock and they will often splinter into 'cliques' of ten to thirty birds - especially when they get out of their fenced pasture!

Because these birds are given the opportunity to forage, their diet is more diverse.  They are encouraged to walk and run which improves the overall muscle tone.  One of the positive results for carnivores who like turkey for dinner?  The quality of the dark meat is every bit as good as the white meat.  More of the bird is truly useful, so you get more bang for your buck as well.

Feeding Feed and Whatever Else They Find
Some folks have asked if we just let the birds forage for their entire diet.  The answer to that is definitely a 'no.'  While we understand that some people are asking because they want us to raise these birds more 'naturally,' we need to point out that we would need a significantly larger farm to have a prayer of doing this.  And, you have to consider the issues of protein and sufficient bulk to keep the birds happy.

If you look at the pasture photos, you'll see that the birds have trimmed the grass very short and there are no tall weeds for the most part.  They will eat bugs - and frogs - and whatever else that we haven't necessarily witnessed.  They receive veggies from the farm and they get straw in their room that probably has some seeds in it still.  We have aronia berries in the field that they also seem to enjoy.  The service berries were too good since we're not sure those plants will survive.

But, the reality is that the pasture does not hold a full diet for this size flock for the entire time that we have them.  The berries are there for a week or so.  Frogs learn to NOT be in that pasture quickly.  And, the grass doesn't grow much when the sun doesn't shine and it gets colder in October.

We are blessed to have a connection with the Canfield Family Farms.  Earl and his family do a fantastic job of raising diverse crops and creating feed mixes that are well-balanced with many grain types.  All of the grain products come from THEIR farm and we trust them to provide high quality feed in ways that are in harmony with nature and excellent farming practices.  This is how local foods is supposed to work - and we're very happy to be doing things this way with our turkey flock.

Late October Processing
We get the most questions that have some relationship to processing, the timing of that processing, the cost of the birds and the size of the birds.  That certainly makes sense since people who want a turkey are going to be looking at these things.

But, why late October processing when most people don't want a turkey until late November for Thanksgiving?
62 turkeys sitting quietly waiting to be taken home by their new families.
You asked, we'll answer the first question now and the others later:
  1. The pasture growth is slowing/stopping in October and won't improve in November.  We need that pasture to recover so it is available next season.
  2. Veggies aren't as easily available.  The diet becomes increasingly feed intensive at a time when they want MUCH MORE to eat.
  3. Our friendly, state-inspected processor in Greene, Iowa (Martzahn's Farm) is a small business with limited capacity.  They can't process everyone's turkeys in mid-November!  We like their work very much, so we work with the schedule they have (and yes, we schedule the processing date in the Spring, it's not a last minute thing).
  4. The farmers are getting tired of poultry by this time of year.  We've been managing four to five flocks for several months in a row and our help declines as we go deeper into the year.  
  5. Water is necessary to keep birds healthy and alive.  If you haven't noticed, water freezes when it gets colder. Huh.  Who knew?
  6. We've learned that if we want to get all of the turkeys sold prior to Thanksgiving, we need to have them for three to four weeks prior to that date. 
We Actually Do Miss Them - Sort of

Turkeys, wondering if they should have been ducks this year.
Our turkey flock does tend to interact with us more than the broiler chickens or the laying hens.  They are curious and interested in the world around them.  They crowd gobble at the crows that fly-over and taunt them.  They run in a knock-kneed fashion that is humorous to watch.  They get excited when they hear power tools for some reason and they think visitors are part of a rival flock that they need to impress.

And yet, we're still ok that they are now at Freezer Camp and will be going to other homes for Thanksgiving.  Except for the bird that has been invited to ours - that one can stay.

Saturday, October 20, 2018

Of Course It Did!

At some level, we were actually prepared for this to happen, believe it or not.  It was Sunday, October 14 and we knew it was supposed to be cool, windy and perhaps raining.  We were scheduled to go to Wabi Sabi farm for our Gang of Farmers gathering and we were prepared to do a little work in less than idea conditions.  We ended up working in the high tunnels and as we weeded, we heard a sound that didn't quite sound like raindrops on the plastic.

It was sleet.  Then, it was snow.  By the time we left, there was about one inch of the white stuff on the ground and it was good for snowballs.  We drove back to Tripoli in snow and found an inch of the white stuff on the farm.  It was still there in the morning.
An October 14 snow this year.
 I had actually told someone that this year was perfect for a Halloween snowstorm.  Close enough.

Just like the April snow, October snow can be pretty
If I might be so bold, let me remind you of our April 25 blog post entitled Paths to Produce.  In that entry, we discussed the multiple snowfalls in April, including a final one on April 18.  The snow pattern was kind of odd considering how little we'd gotten in the prior 'Winter' months.  Let me reminder you all that we actually got over 2 inches of RAIN in one storm during January.  Snow in April wasn't completely unheard of, so we reminded everyone (including ourselves) that we shouldn't be getting upset

If you actually took the link to the Paths to Produce post, you will notice that we were more concerned about how cool things were (and a relative lack of sunshine).  It had caused some issues with many early crops.  Of course, we got to the end of May and we were talking about the Heat Being On.  Our five inches of May rain all happened in the first week.  Spring, we hardly knew ye.

You've heard us talk about gnats in prior years, but conditions were perfect for them for a significant period of time this season.  They started in May and we fought them through July and into August (with a few additional appearances even later).  They were bad enough that we actually dedicated a post entirely to them

We are used to periodic June storms.  But, once they started, it seemed they didn't want to stop.  Our total rainfall for June was right around 9 inches. An average June would see 5.35" of rain.  Nine is not entirely unusual, but it is wet enough to cause some issues.  And, it was enough to encourage more gnats. 
There are still tomatoes and peppers in that high tunnel!
July was actually a decent month for weather, with only three inches plus of rain.  The gnats were awful, but we were learning to deal with wearing various protective clothing despite the warmer temps.  Sadly, we had to deal with chemical spray issues again.  If I was wondering why we feel so beat down at the end of this season, I am beginning to understand it.  We finally get a month where the weather is relatively kind to us (setting aside the bugs) and our neighbors find a way to add a level of difficulty.

Things started to get absurd in mid-August.  In fact, we got another 8 and a half inches of rain that month, which was again well above the average amount.  It encouraged another hatch of gnats and delayed our potato harvest, which would have later consequences for us.  Why?

Well, because the Rain of Terror that was September started on.. well, September 1.  We considered building an ark, but we tried to be philosophical about it all.  It should stop sometime soon, we thought....
You all know what has happened since.  We were able to work in the fields only two days for the entire month of September and through the first week of October.  Of course, we DID do work in the fields, but it was only to get what harvest we could out of it in difficult conditions.  Hey, we got over 14 and a half inches of rain for the month.  That's quite a ways over on the right-hand tail of a bell curve folks! Simply put, it's been a tough, tough season.

I believe this record has been surpassed now.
 Waterloo has set a record for the wettest Fall and Fall has done all of its bit yet.  Nothing like giving yourself plenty of clearance when you jump over the bar!

 And so, it snowed on October 14 this year.  We've already had multiple nights under freezing, so when people ask if we'd had a frost yet I tend to laugh.  Sorry if I do that, I'm not laughing at you.  I'm just laughing because there is nothing else I CAN do.  It's ok, we're coming to grips with all of this and we'll make all the adjustments we can.
The "cacophony" is on the move!
 Speaking of adjustments, the Redwing Blackbirds were using the oak trees on the farm as a quick resting spot as they fly South.  So, while I was out taking pictures of the pretty snow, I tried to record their passing as well.  I thought I heard them telling me I should flap my arms really fast and maybe I could join them.

I think I'll pass.  I've heard the weather isn't necessarily better in the South anyway.  Besides, I want to throw some snowballs still.

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Confidence Builder

Something I said to Tammy a couple of days ago just might be the turning point we need on the farm for this season.  I said something to the effect of, "I'm not letting this season beat me.  We're going to come back next year.  And, if we're tired of farming after that, or we can't figure out how to turn this around, we'll know we gave it our best shot and I can be content that we did what we could."

The sun is setting on this particular season
A couple of posts prior to this one on the blog found us feeling a bit less certain about our future at the Genuine Faux Farm.  You can certainly find similar sentiment at various points since we started this blog post in 2008.  After all, farming is very much a bit of a roller coaster ride all by itself.  If we were to portray it as anything other than that, you would receive an inaccurate picture and I think that would be a mistake.  We put many of our posts out here because we want to facilitate learning.  If we were to paint a picture of perfection, it would be a lie and if we paint a picture of abject misery and failure all the time it would be a sign that our lives need a new direction.

It Stopped Raining
The first thing that significantly helped me to think more positively was the appearance of the sun.  It is absolutely amazing how long we went without seeing it AT ALL.  On the other hand, it is interesting how Mother Nature decided to terminate that cycle of dreary and wet days.

Yes.  It decided to snow.  The official reading was one inch in Tripoli.  The first full inch of snow is more typical of mid-November than mid-October.  But, given the history of 2018's weather, it actually seems appropriate.  I was actually predicting that we would have a Halloween snowstorm, but I think this actually qualifies well enough.  I just had the feeling that some early snow was going to happen - and there it was last Sunday.

Fall Crops Are Historically Our Strong Suit
I took a couple of moments to remind myself that August through October is typically high time for crops and crop variety on our farm.  Yes, it is true that the Summer crops quickly dwindle in September (cucumbers, zucchini, melons).  But, we've also used our high tunnels to good effect to extend tomatoes, peppers and green beans most seasons.  Broccoli and cauliflower are often wearing their best clothing for us at this time.

Just like last year's cauliflower
In fact, our September CSA shares were actually still quite strong this season.  But, we saw how things were shaking out with the weather and we have seen significant losses.  October has been (and will continue to be) uncharacteristically weak for us.  And that is the key.  This is NOT normal for our farm.  And that is one reason to have hope for the future.

Better Results Are Only a Year Away
Last year was not our best season on the farm, though it did have a number of highlights.  We broke long standing farm records for broccoli, cauliflower and cabbage.  We also set shorter-term records for things like cherry tomatoes and turnips.  Other crops did more poorly than usual (cucumbers and melons to name a couple) and we had continuing issues with chemicals and normal issues with weather and life as usual. 
Early reports on 2017 Winter squash was very good.
The point here is that we can have another chance at this if we want it and better results have occurred as recently as last year.  For that matter, we had better results for some crops THIS year.  We've just been so overwhelmed with the difficulties the wet weather has presented us that we have trouble seeing that many of the tomatoes were looking pretty good up until the point things got wet in mid-August.  The broccoli was doing pretty well and we did harvest many beautiful heads of broccoli this season.  The sunflowers looked great, as did the zinnias.  And the apples?  They were fantastic.

It Isn't Because We Don't Know What We're Doing
Ok.  Ok.  You could argue that we don't know what we're doing if you don't agree with what we're doing.  That's fine.  In fact, I frequently criticize myself for how things end up getting done (or not getting done) each and every season.  But, we do have documentary proof that our techniques continue to evolve as we learn and that they have resulted in some decent results at least once in a while.
The early beans on the left look FANTASTIC!
What we need to recognize is that the game rules keep changing.  There has always been seasonal weather variability.  There have been droughts and floods, cold snaps and heat waves, etc etc.  It's the human tendency to want to shape, mold and control everything that is actually leading to more, not fewer variables for farming operations such as ours.  I believe that most people who work on the land have recognized for generations that humans can create micro-climates with things as simple as a hedge row.  It shouldn't be much of a stretch to recognize that billions of human beings living on this planet at the same time are going to be able to impact global weather patterns.

The point here is that between issues created by a changing climate and issues created by alterations in chemical applications by agribusiness, there are some harsh realities that growers are going to have to face.  One such reality is that we will continue to see an increase in lost crops every season.  Happily, a farm such as ours is able to replant many of our crops until the window opens up for a crop to be successful.  We just need to set ourselves up to be even more willing to terminate failures and try again.  We've had success before, we can have success again.  We just have to persist.

Building Confidence for Future Success
It is tempting to think that someone who has done something since 2005 has no need to build confidence.  After all, if our farm is still going in 2018, we must have had some success and surely there is no self-doubt. 
This is where I think humans often err.  We have this tendency to believe that any business, organization or service that has been around for five or more years has been around "forever" and we forget that while they might have more stability than newer groups, they still have struggles.  One struggle that is specific to farms like ours is the realization that there isn't really a magical point in time where it all "gets easy."  If you are doing things right (in my opinion) may parts of farming "get easier," but a good farm is one that is perpetually looking to improve.  And improvement is hard.

A season like this one, however, is more than just the trials of struggling to improve.  This one was a gut check that shook even the parts of the farm that we felt had 'gotten easier' for us.  That is why we are taking time now to plan for 2019 before the lessons of 2018 have any chance to fade.  It is also why we are looking to prior success to build confidence that we can do again what we have done in the past with one difference.

We intend to do it better.

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Little Things

We recently had a group of students from Waverly Shell-Rock at the farm and it was interesting to get a glimpse of what the farm looks like through the eyes of others.  No matter how many times I give presentations or provide tour opportunities, I can still be presented with questions that make me pause and think a bit more.  One such question was a very simple one - "How do you know where each crop is?"  It's a great reminder to me that I take various landscape cues for granted and I don't always recognize that other people cannot see exactly what I do without a little guidance.  Another person asked me what "small" changes we had made that worked out well for us.  Rather than quibble with defining what a "small change" might be, I thought I would dedicate a post to some of the "little things" we have done over the years that had more impact than you might think.

August, 2008 on the farm.  Look!  We had rain then too!
Running Rows the Long Way
It doesn't seem like a big deal, but we made a switch on the orientation of our rows in our Eastern plots several years ago.  The picture above shows our rows with a North-South orientation.  Our plots are oriented East-West, so the rows essentially went the "short-way" on our plots.  We changed our row orientation to go East-West with the "long-way" on the 60' by 200' plots and it led to improvements in mechanization that has helped us to continue with the farm.

Sure, the short rows made it easier for weeders to feel a sense of accomplishment.  You can certainly finish 60 foot rows faster than 200 foot rows.  The short rows also provided more natural breaks for crop successions and crop variety.  But, if you run any sort of equipment, you spent an awful lot of time just turning around.  In the end, the simple idea of changing the orientation of rows in our plots may have had as much impact on changing our farming strategies as any other thing we've done on the farm.

July 2010, yep had rain then too.
These Are Not Show Gardens
The earlier versions of the Genuine Faux Farm leaned closer to obsessive gardening rather than horticultural farming.  We had visions of beautiful fields with easy to read signs so the flocks of people who would come to visit the modern marvel that was our farm would thoroughly enjoy the experience.  We even considered growing a 'show garden' that would highlight specific veggies in one plot.

I will grant you that there was nothing wrong with that plan if our goal was to provide more of an agri-tourism business versus what we actually ended up doing.  We also didn't have a good enough feel as to how much we could actually manage to do without being able to afford unlimited labor.  Everything looks doable when you plan it out during the Winter months.  But, when fields get too wet to work, or the delivery and market schedule eats up more of your time and energy than you thought it would...  Well, let's just say, you re-assess what your goals are.

Once we made the decision that we do not have the temperament to take the agri-tourism route (and our location probably wouldn't make that work anyway) we spent less time on things like cute little signs showing the pepper variety in a field that was flooded during a year where several hundred plants gave us seven peppers.  But, we also learned that putting together a decent operating farm is actually interesting to others and provides good learning opportunities in and of itself.  Once we got rid of the old attitude, we were able to figure out how to do what we do well - which usually results in some pretty good looking fields anyway.  We'll call that a win.  

Happy to get new chicken crates in 2011.
Sometimes Making Do Doesn't Make Sense
When we first started raising chickens for meat, we did not have our own cages for transporting birds to the "Park."  Initially, we would borrow a batch of old, patched wooden cages from a neighbor.  They hadn't been used for a while and they were in awful condition.  In some cases, the chicken wire was attached to chicken wire which was attached to the rotting wood of the remaining frame.  Usually, we would have to cobble together some additional repairs just to keep chickens in them.

We finally gave ourselves permission to look into and purchase new, uniformly sized crates for transporting.  Yes, it cost us some money to do this.  But, it really did not cost all that much in the grand scheme of things.  It is amazing how much savings in time and effort this simple acquisition has provided over the years.

Let's just use a quick example:  Each cage will hold thirteen to fifteen full-grown broiler chickens for a total of 100 to 120 pounds of weight.  It's dark, late and raining.  The two of you have to lift this crate up high enough on the truck to stack it on another crate.  If crates are uniform size, don't have various wires sticking out everywhere and do not threaten to fall apart when you lift them then life is good.  If we were still trying to use crates that were in poor repair and various sizes and shapes, we wouldn't be using them.  Why?  Well, we wouldn't be raising broiler chickens anymore.  It's just that simple.

Heirloom tomatoes at market in 2012
Not Returning Home With More Than Half

We are asked periodically if we are willing to return to farmers' market sales and our answer remains the same.  No.

This is not an indictment of farmers' markets in general, but it does highlight the limitations.  There is not enough of us to go around to spend the hours it takes to prepare, set up, staff the table, tear down and clean up for each market for the limited return we can get from the smaller farmers' markets in our area.

The table you see at left was our heirloom tomato offering September of 2012.  Frankly, the trays full of different types of heirloom tomatoes look pretty impressive to me (and there was more in the truck).  We even had lettuce and offered BLT specials.  And, we DID have several fine customers who purchased from us that day.  But, we still went home with more than half of those tomatoes after the market was done.  And this was not the exception to the rule.  You had to have plentiful product to get people to come to you, but there wasn't a chance that you could go home with an empty truck.

Simply put, if we wanted to move more product we had to try something else.  We could have gone to another farmers' market that was located in a larger city, but that didn't address the time consideration and still didn't guarantee that we wouldn't come home with significant amounts of produce.  And there you have it, an explanation as to why we pursue the types of sales we pursue at our farm.  CSA shares and other direct sales that are order based means we don't have to lug excess from the farm and then back TO the farm.  If there is excess on the farm, it can stay there and get processed or fed to the poultry without the extra travels.  In both cases, we get more value out of them without the extra expense of loading them into a truck twice.

Tyler finishes a gate at GFF in 2013
You Won't Believe the Good a Fence Can Do
Neither of us grew up on a farm and our backgrounds really didn't lend many opportunities to develop fence building and maintenance skills.  Thus, we were grateful to receive assistance from farmer friends when the hen pasture fence went up.  We just can't quite list all of the things that become easier once you have a good, solid fence in place.  It's enough to make you think that we would find the energy to put up some other fences that could be equally as valuable on the farm.  But, while we're much more certain about what we would need to do to put up new fences, they always seem to reside just below the last item on the VAP that gets done. 

It really shouldn't come as a surprise.  After all, putting up some good fencing requires some capital as well as a decent investment of time.  Argue all you want that you will have a net savings of time once the new fence is up.  But, if you don't have the necessary chunk of time to put the fence up in the first place, the point is moot.

That, and a fencing project won't really go all that well when any post hole you dig fills up with water immediately.  Given our current situation, we can't find the ground in some places because there is too much water already in the way.   So, I guess fence building continues to reside on the 'do this later' list.

 Don't Be Stubborn - Stake and Weave is a Fine Solution
All out with stake and weave in 2014
Many years ago, we participated in a research trial involving multiple trellising techniques.  One of those is called the Florida Stake and Weave method.  We found that this technique tended to be troublesome for us in our fields because the plants kept getting blown out of the weave.  You could argue that it was because we weren't particularly good at stake and weave and that wouldn't be completely unfair.  But, we actually weren't stubborn about stake and weave either.  We trialed it in different situations over time and eventually opted for square collapsible cages in the field and... stake and weave in the high tunnels.

It might be more accurate to state that the 'little thing' we are highlighting here is a willingness to keep trying something that has promise until that promise is realized OR it becomes clear that this is just not the right solution for us and our farm.  We have seen so many people give up on something after experiencing failure on the first try and we don't want to be that way ourselves.  After all, what makes us think that we can pick up a skill without any practice?

Giving Flowers Their Due
We've always had flowers on the farm and we have always had a good idea as to all of the positive things flowers could do as a part of our farming system.  But, growing flowers because you like them and think they're good is one thing.  Being committed to growing them because they are a critical component for making the farm a successful farm is something different. 
A re commitment to flowers in 2015
The natural follow-up question we get after we make that statement has to do with whether we sell cut flowers or not.  While we could certainly try to do that, I think people are missing the point here.  The flowers do NOT need the extra justification for their existence on the farm that flower sales would bring.  They bring value all on their own without requiring us to turn them into an additional enterprise. 

Like any other crop we grow, we have successes and failures.  Sometimes the weeds win.  Sometimes the wet weather wins.  And sometimes... the butterflies win.  Win or lose, we're going to keep playing this game and include flowers in the line-up.  Besides, if the only reason were because they make your farmers smile, that should be a good enough reason.