Monday, December 28, 2009

Week of Dec 21 2009 : Ethics

(Here is the most recent creature to visit the valley, an Eastern Timberwolf. Also roaming out there is a black cat, named Corn Kitty because last summer it patrolled our sweet corn fields. C.K. does not run too fast on 3 and 1/2 legs but so far has managed to evade E.T.).

A recent timber wolf sighting made me ponder the ethics associated with agriculture and responsible land stewardship. For example, we are all familiar with the genetically modified organisms debate. Should humans introduce artificial traits into the food supply? But the ethics associated with a wolf fall into a grayer area.

The valley has everything an animal could need or want. The river provides water. The hills provide a shady respite on summer days. The tall trees provide a forest. The open fields provide green forage. And the varying combinations of these features make the valley an inviting place to animals including us humans.

And agriculture and responsible land stewardship only increase the appeal. Two summers ago my sorghum sudan grass cover crop attracted a female ring necked pheasant. Last summer my buckwheat was home to 3 wood chucks. But what happens when a predator accepts the invitation?

A wolf may not sound so bad. He probably would not be interested in vegetable crops but would prey on my enemies. Wood chucks. Raccoons. Canadian Geese. The wolf would help me solve many problems and not introduce any more. Except maybe personal safety.

A single male wolf will not be single for long. First a den, then a mate, then the pups. Suddenly there is a pack with aggressive hunting techniques. Humans are an unlikely but possible target.

Now I am forced to think very critically about responsible land stewardship. Stewardship is good, but it too must be balanced. So what are our obligations to a predator?

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Week of December 14, 2009 : Tracking Deere!

(Here Nathaniel leads the Deere tracking expedition. The group has spotted the elusive 2440 with its winter coat. 60hp makes for great sleigh rides. Dad, can I bring it home?)

It is so nice to have Deere in the orchard. My favorite season is fall when the Deere pull trailers full of overflowing apple crates. Hopefully Nathaniel will cherish his toddlerhood memories.

When I was his age, I had a pedal tractor. My dad gave me a trailer for it. Soon after, I was in the hauling business.

I hauled everything everywhere. The older and stronger I got, the harder I could pedal and the heavier I could haul.

I hauled buckets of water to fill my frog pond. I hauled dirt to build mypitcher's mound. Finally, one day, when I was hauling building supplies to my fort, the tractor broke. The rear axle snapped in half.

Well I had a problem. A loaded up trailer and a busted down tractor.

I thought the tractor was forever broken, wood rotting in a rusting trailer. No fort.

I cried until my dad came home. He quickly assessed the situation. He picked me up with one hand, picked up the tractor parts with the other, and walked us to the garage. He calmly explained the situation to me.

Its OK, little buddy, we can fix this.

With that, he strapped welding goggles on me, handed me the striker, and asked me to light up the welding torch.

He fixed the tractor, the trailer was rescued, the wood delivered and the fort built.

It seems each day I find another life lesson hidden in that memory.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Week of December 7 2009 : YES

(Here is the "63 day" Fiesta broccoli. Seeded May 30. Harvested Oct 24. Abducted by aliens?).

People who plan enjoy safety. People who improvise enjoy adventure. This is the first lesson I learned while reading a book named "Improv Wisdom".

Another important lesson I learned is always answer YES. Answering yes eliminates roadblocks to adventure.

While planning Pheasant Valley 2.0, we considered if we should skip the season. The reason for this hesitation? As the prime market season arrives, so will Baby 2.0

But honoring our yay-sayer attitude, YES, we are participating in the upcoming market season. Of course farming rewards those who plan well. But this year will also demand that we improvise well.

Planning alone will not resolve competing time lines. Just as babies have very definite needs at very definite points in time, so do the fields. Bottles. Weeds. Diapers. Insects. Now.

So planning skills will determine the over all schedule but improvisation skills will get the moment to moment tasks done.

One necessary concession, though, was to minimize (hmm, let's say focus) the produce selection.

Of course we are growing sweet corn. Our fields are part of a legendary sweet corn field and I want to chance to resume that legendary, large scale production. Until I get that chance, though, I am honing my skills on a smaller scale.

The rest of the line up, perhaps typical, will be so fresh and healthy!

Beans and peas, peppers and tomatoes.


Summer squash green and yellow zuchinni; winter squash blue hubbard and acorn.

Cantaloupes and watermelons.

Broccoli, cabbage and kale.

Now its time to listen to the cold winds howl, page through the supply catalogs and envision the seeds, the vegetables and the satisfied customers!

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Week of November 30 2009 : 2.0 Upgrade

Here, Nathaniel (wearing the red hat, on the red sled, in the red trailer) inspects the cover crop: 65% winter rye, 30% hairy vetch and 5% tillage radish.

Pheasant Valley 1.0 was a success. At the beginning of the 2009 market season we had seed packets and empty seed trays. By the end of the season we had authentic market space and repeat customers.

A lot of work took us from seeds packets to repeat customers. Some experiences reinforced our expectations (like weed control) but other experiences were somewhat unexpected and certainly more gratifying.

I expect people to buy food to eat it. But sometimes eating takes on additional significance.

One of our customers liked our Roma tomatoes enough to purchase 10 quarts spread among three purchases. During the summer, she was already thinking ahead, thinking about the holiday season and sharing special meals with family.

She used those tomatoes as ingredients for a sauce recipe that would be served during Thanksgiving meal. Knowing my tomatoes were chosen to be on their table is very gratifying.

The operational aspects of farming motivated me to get involved in market farming. But the direct customer contact motivates me to make Pheasant Valley 2.0 a bigger success.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Blue Birds got chomped.

Each day I scout the fields. Its rewarding to walk around and admire nature. This is a picture of a frog nestled in a corn stalk. But the surprises are not always good.

The blue birds were working on their second brood. The first brood was reasonably successful. Five eggs were laid, four hatched, and three survived fledging. The second brood was off to a great start too. Four eggs were laid and four hatched. Oddly the male blue bird mysteriously disappeared after the hatchings. After ten days without a visual I accepted the worst. But with the female and four healthy little ones the future seemed bright.

Today on my tour the male was on the fence singing a song. This wasnt the courting song or the mating song or the build the nest woman song or the feed my children song. This was certianly a new song almost sad. But he was singing from the highest branch on the largest apple tree and he followed mama all around the orchard. Odd behavior particularly since neither bird approached the nest. Those nestlings must be hungry?

Lets just say the suspect has paws and claws. Muddy paws and sharp claws. Upon close inspection two nestlings were buried under the ransacked nest. Very weak but alive. The wrecked nest was fashioned into a less wrecked nest; not as neat as the original but at least it had a deep cup. Two frail nestlings were placed back into the nest. I also tucked in a few wishes too.

Within five minutes both mama and papa were on the scene. Papa was singing a different song, this time less sad more confused while mama scrounged for juicy bugs. So there is hope.

The lesson here is education and preparation. Next time I lack the time to learn something or the motivation to be prepared, I will think of the horror my little blue birds endured. Nature is nature and cannot be defeated but with education and preparation at least we can improve the odds.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009


Today was a good day. Each day when I return home from work, my son is waiting for me (with mom) for his daily tour. We talk and walk around the garden. We check out the blue bird house, we scout the cover crop, monitor the apples then swing around the corn field. This is the fun part. I stand him on the ground and he looks at the corn. Normally he looks down, but with each passing day he looks down a little less. For a few days he looked ahead. Then he started looking up. Today was the first time he looked way up. Although he cannot talk, his eyes said WHOA. The corn looks good and hopefully I can raise a son as well as I can raise sweet corn.

Sunday, January 25, 2009


Well lets quickly review my goals and opportunities for the 2009 growing season. This will complete the oh-so-not-exciting virtual tour. Soon we will roll up our sleeves and start getting stuff done.

My primary goals are simple. In the South field, grow tomatos, peppers and soybeans. In the North field, grow sweet corn, pumpkins and squash. In the Big field, grow sorghum x sudangrass cover crop.

Each of these goals provides challenges, er, lets restate that as opportunities. Drip irrigation, trellising system and cover crop management are some of the fun challenges. These can be researched, thought out and completed. The outcome is (mostly) within my control.

Disease and pest management are some of the annoying challenges. These can also be researched and thought out, but never really completed. The outcome is outside my control. Scouting a field is a non-deterministic event. The result is either a casual walk to the house or immediate triage.

This one of the attractions to farming. I love the thrill of being properly prepared then instantly tranforming from idle mode to problem solving mode. The preparation, challenges and solutions are solely my responsibility. The fields are significant participants but they are innocent.

This is the exact reason I hate Corporate America. Sure I am presented with challenges and am expected to provide solutions. But these problems are fabricated by people who are not properly prepared. These people are not innocent.

Experience has taught me that deer, beetles (spotted and striped cucumber and Japanese) and worms (cabbage, corn earworm, and tomato hornworm) are the significant pests. Blights (early and late) and mildews (downy and powdery) are the significant diseases.

Now lets get to work!

Saturday, January 24, 2009

The Big Field

The Big Field is also my big question mark. There are three reasons why working the Big field gives me reason to pause: blue birds, apple trees and commitment.

I absolutely love my blue birds. There is a nesting box in the perfect location. It faces away from the sun, away from the prevailing winds and towards the orchard. After a one time misunderstanding with tree swallows, the blue birds have assumed full time residency. Its a nesting box during the summer and a roosting box during the winter. Working this field may encourage the blue birds to nest elsewhere in the orchard. This is a very minor threat and is not considered a loss-of-habitat. Yet I take responsible land stewardship very seriously therefore I must fully consider the possibility.

The field was recently part of the active orchard. The carefully landscaped ridges and furrows still remain. This does not complicate growing and would actually facilitates some crops such as cucubrits. I particularly like canteloupes but I want to grow apple trees too! I never realized how beautiful, how challenging and how rewarding growing apples can be! Yet I will do absolutely nothing that may potentially compromise the orchard's integrity. Furthermore biodiversity is another facet of responsible land stewardship.

Working the Big field is a very significant commitment to my market farmer dream. Currently my growing capacity exceeds the quantity requirements of a family yet does not meet the quantity requirements of a market. This field's capacity will allow me to cross that threshold. I will need to do something with these vegetables. This is a very interesting and potentially profitable challenge. Yet it is also a commitment in terms of time and resources and I need to be very sure the family understands and accepts this commitment.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

The North Field

The North field is my no-till experiment. Last year I grew a sorghum x sudangrass cover crop to renovate the soil. The roots loosened the soil and the biomass boosted organic matter as expected. Optionally a legume cover crop could follow to complete the renovation but in this situation this step is unnecessary. Soil tests indicate the field is able to support a healthy corn stand.

The goals of the North field are to grow sweet corn, practice multi planting and manage disease and pests. There will be six varieties of sweet corn: early season bicolor se+ and sh2, mid season white se+ and sh2, and late season bicolor se+ and sh2. The early planting dates are dependent on seasonal field conditions such as water and temperature. The late planting dates are dependent on the anticipated end of the growing season. The early plantings are targeted for beginning of May. The late plantings are targeted for end of June. Plantings are spaced two weeks apart so there is plenty of cushion to account for expected problems such as weather delays and many unexpected problems too.

Another goal is to practice double planting and companion planting. The early season corn stands will be harvested then replanted to broccoli. The broccoli may be directly seeded or started in trays then transplanted after the first corn harvest. The broccoli can then grow deep into the fall because it is tolerant to frost damage. The mid and late season corn stands will be companion planted with carving pumpkins and winter squash. These stands will be harvested then the stalks will dry down exposing the pumpkins and squash. These hold well in the field so there is no pressure for a timely harvest.

The final goal is to manage disease and pests. These are standard goals; this field in particular will suffer from deer and earworm. The deer problem can be solved with a fence but this solution is too costly for a market scale field. So this is an opportunity to evaluate alternate methods. The most interesting challenge is corn earworm. These little buggers are insidious! They do not eat until they burrow through the silks into the ear rendering foliar sprays ineffective. Powdery mildew resistant pumpkin and squash varieties minimizes my disease concerns.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

The South Field

My dream begins with 3 fields. The term plot is more accurate but we will use the term fields. Whatever we call them, they are frozen and covered with a foot of snow. There isnt a whole lot of planting and growing this time of year; we can only plan. There is a danger in planning too much. Some plans depend on experience and experience can only be gained by planting and growing. So my winter goal is to document my summer goals and timelines then fill in the details later.

So lets discuss these fields: the South, North and Big fields. I have grown mixed vegetables in the South field for two years. I grew sorghum x sudangrass in the North field to loosen the soil and add organic matter. The Big field is still fallow. The South and North fields each measure 50' x 50' and the Big field will measure 50' x 100'

The South field has a proven crop history. This year I want to trial various tomatos, peppers and soybeans. The tomatos will be a mixture of dark, red, orange and yellow slicers, processing tomatoes, red cherries and tomatillos. The peppers will be a mixture of green, yellow, orange and red bells, orange and red European style gourmet peppers, and pungent peppers. The soybeans will be edamame grade.

Even the astute reader will not notice any big-wows buried in the last paragraph. These are all safe choices for a very definite reason: the primary goal for the South field is to trial drip irrigation. The other goals include white clover living mulch cover crop and tweaking my disease and pest management.

This leaves plenty of open space for fun stuff for the kitchen table.

Next time we will discuss the North field.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Pheasant Valley

I wish this blog was dedicated to sharing the history of this land. But that is not my history nor have I earned that privilege. All I can say is this land is worked by a fifth generation apple grower.

Except for one acre. The bank reminds me every month that I own this acre but its spirit is still dedicated to agriculture.

This blog is dedicated to my efforts to preserve one acre of this land. It is about my dream to become a small farm operator.