Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Week of September 27 2010 : Plowdown

(Here is a photo of Nathaniel running off with the fall cover crops. Part of his parole package (for boosting pumpkins) included seeding the cover crops. So much for The System ... We started with 70% Winter Rye, 25% Hairy Vetch and 5% Tillage Radish seed).

Notice the twine along the edges of the field.

Prior to cover crop emergence, geese lazily wander across plowed / seeded fields in search of greens on the other side. Thousands of little footsteps compact the soil surface thus reducing and delaying, if not completely eliminating, seedling emergence.

After emergence, geese merrily chomp the tender seedlings. Hundreds of geese can clear cut a field in a matter of hours.

Baah! Geese are such a threat to establishing a healthy cover crop. The solution? Exploit the laziness. Suspend a single strand of twine 8" above the soil.

This year the goose fence includes two improvements. Breakaway twine and tensioners.

Deer frequently wander through the fields. White nylon twine has the highest visibility (as opposed to natural sissal twine) but deer still occasionally snap the twine. I attach the twine to the wooden post with a horizontal nail. In the past, I would loop the twine around the nail. Now, on certain posts, I simply lay the twine on the nail. After monitoring the deers' traffic patterns, I strategically loop some posts and, in the high traffic areas, lay the other posts. The result is the twine falls off the post instead of snapping.

The other improvement is tensioners. Throughout the winter the twine tends to stretch and sag. Adding a second nail to the wrapped line posts allows me to wind the twine between the two nails effectively eliminating sag.

These two improvements allow me to maintain a twine line literally with one hand. Cutting, splicing and tying elaborate knots is fun, however, maintaining a twine line in less than 60 seconds is a lot more fun.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Week of September 20 2010 : Better Way

(Here is a photo of Nathaniel hand mowing the orchard. Nothing like crisp, arrow straight stripes to help showcase the fall apple harvest. But there is plenty of acreage so he had plenty of time to consider more efficient ways to mow. The next day he was checking price tags on toddler sized tractors.)

One of the attractions to farming is the working / thinking / improving cycle. Its always fun to "do" but even more satisfying to "do better".

I like to design and build clever solutions but some days OCD consumes me and I get stuck thinking about improvements and never actually get to improving.

For example, a tomato trellis. We have never lost a tomato plant due to trellis failure.

Yet I am still consumed with the idea of improving our trellis design. Forget practicality; I want to design a trellis so innovative that it will be featured in engineering journals. I realized I had gone too far only when I found myself studying mathematical equations for catenaries. Stop!

So as we begin to review our successes and failures and plan for next year, let's keep Nathaniel's lesson in mind. Do, then do better, and stay within reasonable limits.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Week of September 13 2010 : Guilt

Looking ...


Running ...

(Here are a few security camera stills of Nathaniel trying to loot the pumpkin patch. The get-away little red wagon was hidden between the corn rows. Such a sophisticated operation for one toddler ... but even during interrogation he never ratted out his crew).

So much for posting once a week. All season we were a few weeks behind now we are a few months behind. Thanks to everybody for patience and understanding; not a single reader ever complained.

As I remember, this was the first week I worked completely in the dark. The sun was setting as we read bedtime stories to the kids and dusk completely disappeared just as I headed outside. Having babies and toddlers also means having wholesale quantities of batteries so I plugged fresh batteries into the headlamp and went to work.

The headlamp worked well when harvesting some crops but not others. Some crops are harvested by size and shape other crops are harvested by color.

Examples. Sweet corn can easily be harvested in minimal light; just feel for complete tip fill then snap the ear. Tomatoes are harder to pick at night. A fruit that looks perfectly ripe under LED light doesnt look so perfect under natural light. Even so, after harvesting-at-night / grading-during-sunlight a few times, I was able to calibrate my ripe meter.

I enjoyed working during the night. Until I heard the band of coyotes. A pack of hungry coyotes has a certain, say scary, shrill. I still worked at night but only in the South field which is surrounded by a 7' foot fence.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Week of September 6 2010 : Nubbin' Ears

(Here is a picture of a our baby corn. For many of our products, we grow a traditional full size variety and a smaller single serving size variety. This year we experimented with baby corn but the results were somewhat startling.)

As we get into September, the insect pressure on sweet corn is intense. The unusually warm summer created an opportunity for a third generation of corn borers. The second generation of corn earworms are peaking. Science has certainly provided many solutions for these pests, Unfortunately the organic solutions are not 100% effective.

So that left us with a problem. We had really great tasting sweet corn. But too many ears had a bonus bug.

Rather than discarding the ears as unmarketable and heaving them into the compost pile, we significantly dropped the price and clearly communicated the problem to our customers. There were three distinct reactions.

About 25% did not care at all. They wanted sweet corn, they knew from experience we had sweet corn, and a bug was nothing but proof we dont use harsh sprays.

About 50% cared a little bit. They were more interested in bargain prices than worrying about bugs.

About 25% cared very much. They tactfully but without any doubt passed.

At the time, we thought this was a good compromise; our short term goal was to avoid wasting otherwise perfectly fine food.

But, now that we have thought about that compromise a great deal more, perhaps that solution contradicted our long term goal of establishing a brand and continuously improving quality standards.

Week of August 30 2010 : Trust

(Here is a picture of our market stand at Lake Farmpark Farmer's Market. OK the truth is I wanted to take a picture of our stand after it was setup but before the market opened. Customers arrived early then I remembered to take the picture only after I was done cleaning up. However this image captures the essence of how we feel after market. Lonely but fun to drive home with an empty truck / trailer!)

Its also fun to learn the various personalities of our customers. Some customers insist on inspecting each and every item to ensure it meets their criteria. These customers have different but specific preferences for ripeness, size, etc. We happily ask a few questions to assist the selection process: when will you prepare it, how will you prepare it, etc.

Other customers have no such preferences. They allow us to choose and they usually explain why: "I trust you". The implication is these customers trust our experience and knowledge to pick the best for them. We honor this sense of trust.

But all customers, whether they explicitly say so or not, trust us. They trust our production techniques. They trust our commitment to healthy, safe food. We honor this sense of trust too.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Week of August 23 2010 : Victory

(Here is a picture of our scare eye watching over our seventh stand of sweet corn. Unfortunately our sixth stand was damaged by birds. A few pecks are visually unsettling and exposes the ear to additional damage. The birds have avoided the corn since the scare eye took up patrol. Not often does a cheap and easy solution actually work!)

We won the Best Tasting Cherry Tomato award at the Geauga Fresh Farmers' Market. Woo Hoo!!! Our winning entry was the Sun Sugar.

Whenever taste is the topic of discussion, the discussion usually includes heirloom varieties and hybrids. Heirloom tomatoes are the most widely discussed but heirlooms of all vegetables exist.

Some people misunderstand hybrids. Hybrids are created using cross breeding and natural selection which are normal biological processes. Hybrids are not created using genetic modification.

Heirlooms are generally known for their superior taste and poor growing characteristics. Hybrids are generally known for flat taste and superior growing characteristics. But, of course, there are exceptions to these generalizations.

One of the many rewarding aspects of growing vegetables for market is discovering and learning about all the varieties then matching our experiences with the demands of the customers.

So when the Geauga Fresh Farmers' Market patrons voted our cherry tomato the best tasting, that affirmed our experiences and decisions of which varieties to bring to market.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Week of August 16 2010 : Geese

The Canadian Geese have arrived. Geese land in the open field that adjoins our fields then wander into the orchard in search of apples. The reason geese bother me so much is they are a sure sign that fall is here.

The irritating "squawks" of a huge flock of geese pierced my ears. I first noticed the geese while harvesting our Acorn and Blue Hubbard squash. I was surprised to notice them because I was busy hustling to beat the early sunset. Geese, winter squash and shorter days are a powerful combination of signs that cannot be ignored. NOOO!

The squash, including pumpkins, were timed to mature well after Labor Day but the hot summer hastened maturity. Although the squash are beautiful and certainly tasty, we are in no hurry to sample any just yet. Good thing the squash have great storage qualities.

The squash will easily store until Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years. In fact, last year we had one Blue Hubbard left over from market. We gave it to Nathaniel and he played with it all winter and into July before it showed any signs of aging.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Week of August 9 2010 : Triple Double

Here is a picture of our daughter scouting the corn field for the first time. Yeah for the smiles! She was born June 28 and this stand was planted June 29. Mother and daughter were still in the hospital and our son was in bed when I snuck out at sunset to plant this last stand.

We knew our lives would become more hectic by doubling our children, doubling our field capacity, and doubling our markets. When we write up the post season report, a phrase like 'very aggressive' will be appropriate. But this season and it's challenges provided several opportunities to learn about farming from yet another perspective and who we are as people.

Farmers focus on field operations. Smart farmers also focus on marketing techniques. And it has become clear to us that successful farmers are vigilant about defining priorities, making decisions and managing time.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Week of Aug 2 2010 : Really

This is the time of year when I remind myself how much I really enjoy market farming. Its easy to like growing early in the season when temperatures are cool, moisture is sufficient and pest pressure in minimal. But late season heat, drought and relentless pests really test one's mettle.

The challenges arrive on cue each year. Each year I bring out my notebook. The notebook contains past problems, solutions and results. I read old notes and add new notes. Although I certainly do not have all the answers, I am ready to take in any problem and work out a solution.

But like I said, relentless pests really test one's mettle including my own. This week, after a particularly busy market, after unloading the trailer, after spraying DiPel on the broccoli (for cabbageworm) and on the sweet corn (for corn borer and earworm), I washed my hands and headed inside to escape these pests and read some goodnight books to my son.

A new stack of library books was on the floor. I eagerly sifted through the pile to see what I would be reading tonight. What did I find?


Thursday, August 5, 2010

Week of July 26 2010 : Peg Leg

(Here is a picture of Nathaniel enjoying sweet corn and watermelon. We had him out in the field picking his dinner; he had fun snappin' ears and thumpin' melons. Well, maybe not snapping ears, more like bending stalks. But he really can thump melons. He screams with delight at the dull sound of a ripe Moon & Star watermelon. We think he actually understands the difference because he looks at us with confusion when he thumps a landscaping rock).

Our growing and harvesting season is at the peak. Our summer crops are thriving and fall crops are coming in too. Of course this leads to busy times at market. We need as much improvisation as we have busy to succeed with harvesting and marketing. The challenges creep in from every angle.

Last week while setting up for market our pop up canopy would not pop up. One of the 4 legs was somehow jammed. Seriously? This? But in the context of the Golden Rule of Problems, the most unlikely problem at the most inconvenient time, this was expected. Eager customers were arriving 1/2 hour early looking for sweet corn and here I was mystified by a tent. Always look for the opportunity in any situation.

Selling to the early customers emptied enough crates such that I could stack them upside and make a peg leg for the canopy. By the start of market we had a functioning and safe canopy.

After market we discovered one of the snap releases was bent, probably during the previous week's surprise thunderstorm.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Week of July 19 2010 : Feedback

(Here is a picture of a few of our cherry tomatoes. The orange variety really is great for everything; they add bright colors to any dish and are sweet enough for snacking. Over in the next row are all the heirloom tomatoes. Our favorite are the Nyagous).

Our fields are near a popular road. The road is not popular in a national highway sense, but in a scenic byway sense. Hot rods and Harleys frequently tool along. Packs of cyclists rack up some beautiful miles. The road follows a river bed so it is twisty, flat and shaded. However, along the fields, there is nothing to block the sun. As it turns out, there is nothing to absorb the sound of conversations, either.

While working the land I often overhear private conversations. I frequently hear comments about the garden. Although it is accidental, I really appreciate the feedback. Comments like "Wow, look at all that corn, he must be feeding chickens" and "Wow, now that is a garden" offer me a new perspective or validate my current perspective. That is the power of feedback. It gives us the opportunity to tailor our farm's output to match the needs and wants of our customers.

In that spirit, we wish we would get more feedback from our customers. We have developed loyal customers who are very candid about their opinions of our produce. But there are other customers whose opinions we never hear. We often wonder if those heirloom tomatoes added just the right mixture of sweet and tangy to the salad. Or if that watermelon was the hit of the picnic. Feedback would let us know if and how to improve our offerings and field operations.

The super markets want you to be happy with their produce. But farmer's markets are willing to work to make you happy with our produce.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Week of July 12 2010 : Switch

(Here is a picture of our Gonzales cabbage. We are growing two varieties, Farao and Gonzales. Both are intended for fresh use such as slaws, stir fries and wraps. The first plantings are already in the heading stage. The white plastic mulch suppresses weeds as well as deflects heat so this cool weather crop is surviving through this hot summer.)

This weekend we planned on opening up our market season at the Geauga Fresh Farmer's Market. We also planned on returning to the Lake Metroparks Farmer's Market soon thereafter. We doubled our capacity to meet the anticipated demand. We knew we would be busy and welcomed the challenge.

The uncertainty was our children. Last year, we attended one market and parented one child (not to mention the full time off farm job) . This year we planned a second market and prepared to welcome our second child. Like I said, we knew we would be busy and welcomed the challenge.

The arrival of our second child suddenly put the world in focus, big screen high definition. 19 month old boys are a round the clock responsibility. 2 week old girls are a round the clock responsibility. Suddenly we realized we forgot to consider quality of life. Although "getting it all done" was possible, we could not maintain all three: quality of life, quality of parenting and quality of produce.

So after thinking through our options, and discussing our situation and the market needs with our market manager, we are delaying our Geauga debut. Although disappointing, everybody wins. We will focus on quality parenting. The Geauga market has plenty of other quality vendors.

Now you have to visit us at the Lake Farmparks Farmer's Market instead.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Week of July 5 2010 : Knee High

(Here is a picture of a Moon and Stars watermelon. Remember the transplant? Just six weeks later we have melons. This particular variety will grow to 18" (10 lbs). We also grow smaller single serve varieties too such as Sugar Baby and Solitaire. Corn is supposed to be knee high and this year the watermelons are knee high too)

The pace out in the fields has slowed a bit. The early season tasks such as transplanting are nearly are complete, just one tray of cucumbers to set in the field. Now the daily tasks include irrigation and scouting for disease and pests. The plastic mulch and trickle irrigation dramatically reduce labor. Currently the notable pests are Japanese beetles. These pests target edamame and eggplant. A spray solution of water and Ivory dish soap provides enough relief to keep the plants alive. The beetles will disappear by the end of July, so although they are annoying beyond comprehension, there is little impact on the harvest.

Later in the season we will face two more pests. Corn earworm and voles. Worms of any kind are an expected pest and are usually easy to control. A spray solution of water and organic BT subdues the worms and does not affect beneficial insects. But earworms are different. BT does not destroy the eggs that moths lay in the corn silks; then young worms burrow into ear tips immediately upon hatching. BT is effective only when present on the silks during the short time window between hatching and burrowing. As a bacteria, BT breaks down quickly in the summer heat so management efforts are rather significant.

Relatively few growers face vole pressure. Fencing protects some of our crops from deer and other large animals. But remember that every action has a consequence; the consequence of fencing is the voles are protected from nearly all predators. With few predators and plenty of food, the population spikes quickly. This year cucumbers are the victim. At least the hawks, at night possible owls too, capitalize on the situation.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Week of June 28 2010 : Harvest

(Here is a (sideways) picture of our Hansel eggplant which is similar to the famous Lady Finger. This is our first growing experience with eggplant and are pleased with the results. The plants are beautiful with big leaves and delicate purple blossoms. Thorns attempt to protect the blossom and fruit from predation. The fruits are small, optimal size is 4" - 5"; they are thin skinned and are non-bitter. Unfortunately these plants also present a management challenge: Japanese beetles prefer these eggplant over edamame.)

So far this season there have been harvests in many senses of the word.

Of course we are harvesting vegetables. We planned our first day at the Geauga Fresh Farmer's Market to be July 17. The warm weather is certainly helping us meet that goal. We are already harvesting cucumbers, eggplant, snap peas and summer squash. No surprises there. We also have harvested a few peppers and tomatoes and anticipate several more varieties will mature in time for first market. Again, no surprises.

The big surprises are the cantaloupes and watermelons! The bees are busy working the blossoms and their work has produced a wonderful fruit set and may (though doubtful) have maturity in time for first market. Go melons!

We are also "harvesting" a lot of birds. Five Blue Birds fledged from our Peterson nesting box and the parents are already building their second nest. Five Tree Swallows fledged from our NABS nesting box. Robins have fledged two broods from their undersized nest on our front porch. And we have Purple Martins nesting in our garage; there are at least five, as many as seven, hatchlings.

And the other "harvest", we welcomed our baby daughter to the world.

Week of June 21 2010 : The Slide.

(I know, here is YET ANOTHER picture of our first stand of sweet corn. This is a close up of the silks. We nick named this Muppet Corn because the silks have a purple tint. These silks, contrasted with the dark green leaves, look really great in the field. I am sure our future market customers will agree the ears will taste just as great.)

Most of our back yard is cultivated. There is not much room for playing and there is less room for large children's toys like slides or pools. So when we acquired a slide / swing combo and a splash pool, we had to consider where to put it all. After strategic deliberations, we decided to put it near the pea patch.

Now that the peas are mature, we see just how wonderful that idea was. After a hard slide, our son lands then runs a few steps to the peas. He harvests a pod from the plant, crunches the peas and giggles as he runs back to the beginning of the slide to repeat the fun.

And hot days in the pool are even better. We help him harvest a handful then he sits in the cool water crunching away and giggling. This time last year he was still eating strained peas from a jar. We laugh and tell him this is the good food. He screams, YEAH YEAH, excitement mixed with bitterness, which means he never forgot the strained pea experience.

Unfortunately, the fresh snap peas probably will never make it to market. The warmer weather hastened the maturity and our anticipated market start date is July 17. The timing may not work out but witnessing a person so excited about humble snap peas reminds us why we farm for market.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Week of June 14 2010 : Blossoms, fruits and tassels.

(Here is a picture of a Satsuma sweet bell pepper. This is an orange pepper with the traditional four lobe pepper shape. Of course it has thick crunchy walls so it will add color, texture and flavor to any dish. The plant in the foreground is a victim of sunset photography; the flash causes the plant to look chlorotic but is healthy.)

Wednesday night was a very casual night. We were caught up on transplanting, pruning and trellising and there were no disease or fungus threats. So we casually toured the fields to review our hard work.

Since the recent days have been perfect growing weather, and the night time temperatures have remained unusually warm, we are accumulating growing degree days quite rapidly. This translates to early blossoms and fruit set. We were expecting to see fascinating things and we were not disappointed.

Not surprisingly, the snap peas and zucchini are already setting fruit.

The cucumbers, eggplants, peppers and tomatoes are also setting fruit. Usually the first tomato clusters have blossom end scarring known as cat facing; but the warm nights have allowed the plants to set fruits that are blemish free. Even the late season heirlooms, which are notorious for disappointing first fruit set, have set clean clusters.

The cantaloupes and watermelons are also in blossom but we have yet to scout any significant fruit set. Watermelons are such a fickle plant. During the seedling stage they are very sensitive to temperature; any variation will stunt growth. The seedlings do not have thick fibrous root ball so transplanting must be done very carefully otherwise the transplant shock will also stunt growth. Next year I will line the plug trays with Jiffy peat pots.

Of course we need to give some press to our sweet corn too. The corn is beginning to tassel! So much for the old adage, knee high by the fourth of July. This corn will be silking by the fourth of July. Last night we planted our sixth stand; still two more stands to plant.

Yeah for healthy plants. And yeah for healthy food!

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Week of June 7 : Correction

(Here is a picture of our first stand of corn. This corn has suffered frost damage, hail damage and wind damage. But it has survived each threat. The target harvest date is July 23 but with the warmer than expected weather this stand may be harvested sooner.)

My last comment, let it grow, was true but not the complete truth. While we did catch up on the transplanting that was not the end of the sowing. Ahh, and it was just the beginning of all the maintenance!

We need to accept a fact: we will never be done with all the maintenance.

There will always be more weeds. There will always be more bugs. There will always be more pruning and training. There will always be more threats of disease. My neighbor once gave me sage advice, harvesting a clean crop is both a physical and mental challenge.

Farming is well known to be physically demanding. But mentally challenging? Anticipating the threats and prioritizing those threats certainly requires knowledge and foresight. Discipline is also necessary.

Consider how many crops we are growing (14), how varieties (39) and how many stands (as many as 8 per crop). Just organizing the sowing schedule is challenging for me! Only now comes the physical labor.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Week of May 30 2010 : Push!

(Here is a picture of our Diva cucumbers. These feature a smooth, thin and no-peel skin. They are tender, crisp, sweet and seedless. Because they are a non-bitter variety they are much less attractive to cucumber beetles.)

The big push is over. During the winter months we carefully prepared a complete schedule of tasks, ranging from starting seedlings, to preparing the fields, to setting the transplants. Of course we expected some interference from the weather so the real intent of the schedule was not to define deadline dates but rather to assign an order and priority to all the tasks. The schedule was constructed such that, if the weather would just somewhat cooperate, we could complete a few tasks each day and avoid a major push.

So much for weather cooperation. So much for the schedule. We were left with nothing but a BIG push. Things had to get done. That meant putting fresh batteries into the head lamp and setting transplants until 10:30 PM. Then waking up the next day at 4:30 AM to continue setting transplants. But things got done.

Now its time to step back and let it grow!

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Week of May 24 2010 : Busy

(Here is a picture of Moon & Stars watermelon seedlings. The red fleshed variety is common but this is a less common yellow fleshed variety. Both the red and yellow fleshed varieties sport the same foliage. Interestingly that foliage is spotted! The spots are expected and not a nutritional deficiency or disease.)

The blue birds have hatched. The nest contained five eggs and all five successfully hatched. Lets hope the success continues and all five fledge in about eighteen days.

The North and South fields have been completely prepared. The raised beds have been formed, the irrigation trickle lines have been laid, and the plastic mulch rolled out. Forming the raised beds with the rotary plow was easier and quicker than I anticipated. That was a nice surprise! Working from the right edge of the field to the left, I simply made one clockwise pass around the edge of each bed. Done.

Now transplanting is furiously in process.
Suddenly I remembered the joy of direct sowing.

The first beans have been sowed. We are growing green, yellow and purple snap beans. The beans we are most excited about, though, are the soy beans. These are a 100 day crop so there is still a lot of time to anticipate those sweet beans.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Week of May 17 2010 : Soggy

(Here is a picture of our second stand of sweet corn. The first stand was damaged but not destroyed by the freeze. This stand was also were able to withstand several waves of thunder storms including hail. The third and fourth stands have been planted and are already emerging.)

Its a well known fact that the market farmer bylaws mandate lamenting the early season weather. In April, we had record highs. Earlier in May, we had a very low, low. Here in the valley we bottomed out at 27 degrees. That is not a frost, that is a freeze.

The cold weather was soon followed up with significant rainfall. In a few days we went from below average moisture to above average moisture. The problem? Remember the nicely plowed fields? Apparently primary tillage acts like a big sponge in a big tub. Nice absorbent soil in the middle of hard pan.

Now field work has been excessively delayed. We still need to form the raised beds. Which means we still need to lay the trickle irrigation lines and the plastic mulch. Which means we still need to transplant. So we have been busy watering and shuffling seedlings in and out of the garage. In an effort to minimize unnecessary labor, the garage door has been open more often.

Which produced an odd side effect, now we have a pair of purple martins nesting in our garage. Quick recap, we went from a rotary plow to a bird nest. The connection is obvious? (No).

In a sense, farming is like a game of chess. The grand masters must think several moves ahead. In farming, though, the impact is much less direct.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Week of May 10 2010 : Brrr

(Here is a photo of the back half of our farm. In the foreground is the North field, which will be planted to broccoli, cabbage, zucchini, cantaloupe, blue hubbard and acorn squash, and watermelons. In the background is a portion of the East field, which will be planted to sweet corn. And in the far background are the bird houses, the NABS house is on the left and the Peterson house is on the right).

The record high temperatures have been replaced with cold temperatures. The cold air rolls down the hills and collects down here in the valley. Early in the morning when the frost settles, our fields are at least 2 degrees cooler than nearby but higher areas. So the damaging effects of frost are magnified.

But this morning, there was a freeze, not a frost, advisory in effect. That is bad. Thankfully we chose not to transplant yet so were spared the damaging effects. Except for our first stand of sweet corn! The stand suffered extreme damage. Ironically the damage looks like the leaves are "burned".

Oh well. Those are the risks. We were prepared for disaster. We over purchased corn seed so if the seedlings are dead then we will simply replant the first stand when we plant the second stand. And hope for better weather.

The blue bird nest is in the Peterson box and now contains 5 eggs!

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Week of May 3 2010 : Nice soil

(Here are three photos. First, the good news is we finally found our son after an extensive 2 month search. (Ed. note to County Services - he was never lost, this photo is staged.) Second, after the flail mowing. Third, after the rotary plowing. I am impressed what 2 passes with an 11hp walk behind tractor can actually do!)

The concept of two nesting boxes may actually be working. The blue birds claimed the Peterson nest box as early as February and have dutifully defended it from any and all competition. The blue birds finally built a nest in early April but have not yet laid any eggs. I am convinced this is the behavior of a goofy first time couple. Tree Swallows have claimed the NABS nest box and recently started a nest. The two nest box theory sounds great but rarely works in practice. This is the first season (out of four) when it apparently will work as advertised.

In early spring it is hard to fathom mowing down perfectly healthy plants. But such is the life of a cover crop. The winter rye reached a height of 26" while the hairy vetch used the rye as a trellis. My trusty Palladino flail mower reduced these beautiful cover crops to organic matter in mere minutes.

Then the new Berta rotary plow incorporated the residue into the soil. That did not go quite as fast. I plowed to a depth of 12" with one pass but the sun was already down for the day when I finished up 2 hours later. My pattern leaves much to be desired, as there were many dead trips across the field.

I anticipate forming the raised beds will go much faster. Then there will be a flurry of transplant activity. And presto. Instant farm!

Each spring when I start working the soil I am reminded why cover crops are worth the extra effort. THIS SOIL IS SO HEALTHY! The soil is dark and sticky. The worms love it. In the fall of 2008, the soil was tested at 4.7% organic matter!

Week of April 26 2010 : 512+

(Here is a photo of one raised bed. This particular bed has been planted to snap peas and will be double planted to pumpkins.
Eventually I will form 20 more raised beds.)

The grow room is growing at maximum capacity. There are 16 trays and each tray contains 32 plugs so that is a capacity of 512 seedlings. The first wave of seedlings have been moved outside to harden off for a week before transplanting. Each tray moved outside will soon be replaced with another tray of seeds. The cycle continues. For a continuous harvest throughout summer and fall, we will be seeding and transplanting until mid July.

Seedlings and transplants are nice because we can get an early start on the growing season. But from a labor perspective, we appreciate direct sowing. So far, we have sowed snap peas and sweet corn. Peas are hardy and could have been planted much earlier but we intentionally delayed the sowing so the harvest would better coincide with our first market day.

We also planted the first of eight stands of sweet corn. This has been an unusually warm growing season and a lot of sweet corn was planted early. Although the weather permitted planting up to three weeks early, we decided to advance our planting schedule by only a few days. We planned to harvest corn late July through mid September. We have enough land for eight stands and not a stalk more so an earlier planting would not gain an extra stand. An earlier stand would eliminate a later stand.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Week of April 19 2010 : Measurements

Instructions on seed packets like "Plant in warm soil" really annoy me. What precisely is "warm"? Or descriptions like "Today is a beautiful day". There is something beautiful about every day, but does an emerging corn seedling agree it is a beautiful day?

So I like numbers and measurements. Temperatures. Growing degree days. Now we are talking specifics.

My trusty soil thermometers measure the soil temperature at 52 degrees. That soil is the coolest due to the cover crop. It retains moisture and shades the soil. At the other extreme are the raised beds; this soil is dry and has no shade. This soil temperature measures 62 degrees. Soil testing convention suggests sampling each morning at 9:00 AM. When the temperature meets or exceeds the minimum planting temperature for three continuous days then the soil is warm enough to plant.

Another fun measurement is growing degree days or GDD. It helps quantify the difference between a day in late April and a day in late July. As the growing season days come to pass, GDDs can be summed together to help predict plant maturity and harvest dates.

For example, sweet corn. Seeds are labeled with relative maturity expressed in days. If the seeds are not also labeled with GDDs, then the number of days can be multiplied by 20 to estimate the GDDs. Applying a little math to the daily high and low temperatures can predict whether the corn will mature ahead or behind schedule. Knowing the average GDDs over the season, you can pick target harvest date to calculate a planting date. You can also use GDDs to properly delay subsequent early season plantings if unusually cool weather delays emergence of prior plantings.

The sum of the average GDDs for the first 18 days of April are ~46. The sum of the actual GDDs for the first 18 days of this April? 197. That is a lot of beautiful days!

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Week of April 5 2010 : Covers

(Here is a picture of our cover crop. Last fall we seeded winter rye, hairy vetch and tillage radishes. The radishes winter killed last December, as expected, but first they established a long tap root. Now the rye and vetch continue to grow. The rye adds organic matter and the vetch fixes nitrogen from the air into the soil. The longer the cover grows, the greater the contribution to healthy soil but also the greater the difficulty working the soil.)

Normally floating row covers are critical to get transplants established in the field. The recent warm, no, HOT, weather seems to eliminate the need for row covers. But we should certainly be properly prepared for cool weather and frost.

Row covers serve two main purposes. They warm the transplants and exclude bugs. During the day, warmer temperatures encourage quicker growth. Warmer nighttime temperatures prevent frost. The covers also prevent pests from reaching the plants.

There are several row cover weights, but we prefer the lighter weight 0.6 ounce per square foot. The trick is to double and perhaps even triple cover the plants early in the season. As the season progresses and air temperatures rise, we remove one layer at a time. For particularly pest-sensitive crops such as cabbage we leave one layer as long as possible. Although this strategy demands more labor, it produces earlier and cleaner harvests.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Week of March 29 2010 : Lights

(Here is a picture of our Mandarin bell peppers, 6 days old. These peppers are orange bells but not the standard sweet bells. These are elongated European-style bells that are 6" long and are a deep pumpkin orange. Of course the texture is crunchy and taste is very distinct! Only one flat wanted to pose for the photo. Dont worry, we have a lot more.)

I wish I had a photo of a green house to show you. The problem is not so much getting a photo, the problem is there is no greenhouse to pose for that photo. Obviously greenhouses are ideal for getting transplants started during cold weather. Greenhouses are also great for starting transplants during warm weather too. HUngry bugs prefer the tender leaves of a seedling to the leaves of a more mature plant. And each bite inflicts more injury to a seedling than a mature plant. So there is a benefit to transplants even when soil temperatures would support direct seeding.

We dont have a greenhouse, so do we buy transplants?

No. We start everything from seed.

So how do we get our seeds started, keep the transplants safe, and get to market early?

Lights and mini hoop houses.

Over the years I have accumulated grow lights of all sorts. The standard fluorescent shop lights are amazingly versatile. They are used to germinate the seeds. Covering the moist seed trays with black plastic serves two purposes. First, the plastic retains moisture. Second, the plastic warms the soil temperature. Start with the lights about 2" about the plastic then use a soil thermometer to measure the temperature. Gradually lower the lights until the the soil reaches the target temperature. The shop lights also supply enough light for sprouts without the over drying effects of high intensity lights.

Once the seedlings start showing their first true leaves, they are switched to the high intensity lights. I have two 400W metal halide systems. One is a no frills Sun System V. The other is a P. L. Light Systems, the Netherland's finest. Both systems produce ample light and heat. Fans are used to cool the lights. The circulating air helps keep the grow room warm as well as strengthen the seedling's stems. The soil dries quickly so it is necessary to water the plants often, perhaps every day. Although its important not to over water either.

That is the basic process to start the heat-loving seedlings. Getting the transplants out into the field and keeping them safe is a very different matter. Next week I will write about our mini hoop houses.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Week of March 22 2010 : Plow

This winter has been dedicated to capital improvements. When people think of farms they usually think of big, green John Deere tractors. I am certainly one of those people! But once you really get involved with growing, on a personal, local market scale, then you realize that tractors are not necessary.

So the capital improvements this year have focused on post-harvest produce quality and marketing. Food-grade transportation totes. Refrigeration. A legal for trade scale. Side walls for our canopy.

But there was one operations improvement: a new plow.

Three years ago, after I gave up adjusting the cone clutch on my 1970 Sears Rotospader, I bought a BCS 732 2 wheeled tractor with a rototiller and snow thrower. Each year I try to add one implement. Of course I buy my implements from Earth Tools.

Last year was a Palladino flail mower to chop cover crops like sorghum sudangrass and cash crops like sweet corn. Yeah it lives up to the hype. Not only does it shred corn stalks, it shreds cobs too.

This year is the Berta rotary plow. It will be used as primary tillage and to build raised beds. One feature I discovered is the quick hitch is reversible. The plow can be attached in a fixed position such that the plow is level when one wheel is in the open furrow. The plow can also be attached so it swivels. Nice.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Week of March 15 2010 : Geauga!

Yeah for Geauga Fresh Farmer's Market!

Our application to participate in the Geauga market has been accepted! I started growing in Geauga soil when I was a little boy. Well, my mom had a garden and I helped pull weeds but mostly swatted bugs. The market is well rounded and very competitive. And we have many friends and family in the area. So participating in this market is gratifying from many perspectives.

In other news, we started the Scotch Bonnet habanero peppers. These seeds need to be started about two weeks earlier than other peppers. We have grown this variety for more than ten years and every year I marvel they actually set fruit and ripen to maturity. Its an angry little pepper. Whether we use them for cooking or sauces, we always include honey too. The honey suppresses the searing heat just long enough to taste the flavor.

What do they taste like? Visit our stand and discover for yourself! The Habaneros are usually ripe towards the end of August.

For people who need heat sooner, we will also have Anaheim, Jalapenos and Serranos towards the end of July. The Jalapenos are particularly awesome!

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Week of March 1 2010 : Beans

(Here is a file photo of soybeans and a comic strip too. Soybeans are such a beautiful plant and fun to grow. They are a tastee snack when eaten as edamame and they can be processed into foods such as milk and tofu. The plants are legumes, meaning they fixate nitrogen into the soil as they grow so they are part of a sound crop rotation).

Years ago when I was running and competing in road races, I found myself at the start line of a race. To everybody on the start line, this was no random point. To the real competitors, it was exactly 5 gut wrenching, soul searching kilometers from downtown Navarre. To me, it was the middle of some farmer's soybean field. While everybody else was warming up and stretching, I was oogling the beans.

So THAT was what real beans looked like.

My beans at home did not look like these beans. My beans were bean stumps. The seeds germinated and grew but the deer chomped them all down to stumps. The beans were determined and continued to grow. Soon the deer were back and the plants reduced to stumps, again.

Many years and a 7' fence later, my beans look like those Navarre beans. Although those were probably processing bean, I grow fresh market beans. Just like field corn is to sweet corn, soybean is to edamame. Both field corn and soybean are intended to be harvested dry then processed. But sweet corn and edamame are intended to be harvested fresh and succulent.

The most common use for fresh soybean is to boil in salty water then eat as a snack. My favorite recipe is roasted sweet corn and edamame salad. What is your favorite edamame recipe?

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Week of February 22 2010 : Twa-taw

(Here is a photo of Nathaniel on the twa taw which translates to "tractor". He celebrated his 15 month birthday by going solo. Butt on the seat. Hands on the steering wheel. The kid is certainly talented. Click on the photo for a high-res close up. Check out the INTENSITY!!!).

I still remember when my dad taught me how to drive our tractor. And I remember when he taught me how to push the lawn mower and how to drive a truck. Every lesson started with a safety lesson.

And I used this photo opp to give Nathaniel his first equipment safety lesson. I plan to repeat the lesson often. I already anticipate the rolling eyes and the shrugging shoulders. But those reactions only mean that I am getting through. Probably the most useful info blurb relates to patience.

Nearly all accidents can be traced to impatience. Whenever you feel impatient, stop immediately. Make time to reassess what is important to you. Accomplishing the task at hand may be important. But your personal safety is even more important.

My grandmother also shared her wisdom on the matter: It is better to get there late than not at all.

This time of year, patience really applies to growing too. It is easy to get caught up in the excitement and get seeds started too early. Bigger seedlings really dont mean earlier crops.

Thursday, February 18, 2010


I admittedly know very little about how to grow stuff. Ask Mike. I'm lucky if my annual flowers make it to August. I have always loved plants--inside ones and outside ones. Especially, my family's gardens.

Especially my great-grandfather's. He lived and gardened until he was 95 and I was 15. He lived in a suburb of Cleveland and had an acre of land, max. But he made the most of it. His house was up on a ridge and I remember climbing rickety stairs down the ivy covered hill to get to the shangri-la he maintained below. The first stop were the fruit trees: applies, plums and pears. I particularly remember how delicious the plums always were.

After the fruit trees were the berry bushes. He has lots of raspberries and blueberries. I particularly remember the blueberries. Yum. In fact, the blueberries ripening were always the draw down to great-grandpa's garden. Their lifespan is so short and the birds are so primed to steal them that we had to strike while the iron was hot! So, we'd load up the car with as many friends as we could muster to share the bounty and head on down to pile nature's most delicious blue candies in our baskets. Then we'd go home and bake blueberry pancakes and blueberry muffins and blueberry pie.

And then just out beyond the shade of the fruit trees, edged by the berry bushes was the vegetable patch. Garlic, chamomile, corn, beets, onions, carrots, tomatoes and peppers. Great-grandpa was from Slovenia and new all the old-country tricks for keeping the goodies all year. His house always smelled like the dried garlic and he always had something good cooking on the stove.

No, I could't keep a plant alive if my life depended on it, but all my life I've appreciated the fruits of others' labor.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Week of February 15 2010 : Farm in a Box

(Here is a photo of all the seeds that will become this summer's market vegetables. There are forty three seed packets and bags in the box. That is a 747 jet in the background just to give you some perspective on size. Thankfully I made no attempt to track how much time I spent researching and deciding which 43 varieties to purchase).

Laura posted a photo of her Vegetable Jambalaya, which featured vegetables from last summer's market garden. This time last year, those tasty vegetables where nothing more than seed packets waiting in my grow room. During the course of the growing season, I will share with you how we transform these seed packets into vegetable jambalaya.

The big bag in the middle may be my favorite seed: New Zealand White Clover.

White clover is a versatile cover crop. I grow it primarily between the cash crop rows. The clover can be frost seeded very early in the season; thus it has a chance to germinate first and establish a canopy to smoother weeds.

During the season, the clover stabilizes soil temperature and moisture. White clover, like sweet clover, does not flower until its second year, so neither attracts beneficial insects such as bees during the first year. But it offers protection for other beneficial insects that happen to be there. The clover also reduces splashing during rain storms. This means cleaner vegetables and more importantly suppresses the spread of disease.

At the end of the season, the clover is incorporated into the soil. This adds nitrogen and plenty of organic matter to the soil. I always inoculate the seed to ensure nitrogen fixation. The clover dies easily without herbicides the first year; after clover survives a winter then it becomes very persistent and can survive plowing.

This year, I am considering underseeding my broccoli and cabbage with clover. How exciting is clover !!!

Yes I know clover is not very tasty, even the cloverphile woodchucks prefer the vegetables over clover. I will be sure to share the rest of the seeds in the 'farm in a box' with you too.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Vegetable Jambalaya Stew

Mike is always touting my cooking skills. I guess it's time I prove it :) I like to make up recipes with whatever I have available. In the summer, this means playing Iron Chef with whatever Mike brings me from the garden. In the winter it means clearing out the freezer and the cans in the pantry. The winter is a particularly good time to make use of the crock pot!

Today I had some chicken andouille sausage so I figured I'd make up something cajun-inspired.

We'll call this concoction Vegetable Jambalaya Stew


- 4 stalks of celery chopped
- 4 carrots chopped
- 1 large red onion chopped
- 2 large cloves garlic minced
- 2 russet potatoes chopped
- 2 sweet potatoes chopped
- 1 cup frozen green beans (from last summer's garden)
- 1\2 cup frozen green bell peppers chopped (from last summer's garden)
- 2 pints of canned tomatoes (from last summer's garden)
- 12 oz of chicken andouille sausage sliced thin
- cajun seasoning to taste (I like Tony Chachere's)
- oregano to taste
- black pepper to taste
(I did not use salt because it is in the Tony Chachere's)
- 1 cup brown rice
- 1 cup dried black-eyed peas
- 2 cups vegetable stock
- 1 cup chicken stock
- 1 cup water (more as needed)

Put all ingredients in the crock pot and cook on high for 6 hours (I like the high setting to make sure the beans are soft by dinner time). Check every hour or so to see if you need to add more water. I usually end up adding a couple of cups to my concoctions over the cooking period. Serve with corn bread. Freeze all the left overs for later!

I used what I had available, but you could use any number of other ingredients in place of the ones I listed or in addition to them. I really love brussel sprouts with cajun seasoning, but I didn's have any. I think cauliflower would also be good. Of course you can also omit anything too--use all white or sweet potatoes, for instance. Also, any kinds of beans could be used--including canned beans--or you could omit them. Finally, you could add or replace the sausage with boneless skinless chicken thighs or shrimp (although wait until the last 1\2 hour of cooking to add the shrimp so it doesn't become rubbery).

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Week of January 25 2010 : Varieties

(This is not an actual photo, it is an artist's rendering of Corn Kitty. This blog is supposed to be about farming but recently animals in the orchard are making the headlines. Despite the eastern timber wolf, despite the prolonged frigid temperatures and deep snow, Corn Kitty survived and is back on patrol.)

I am finally done with all of my seed purchases. High Mowing Organic Seeds is my favorite store to buy seeds. They obviously get the whole organic-sustainable thing, they offer a reasonable variety of seeds, and customer service (if necessary) is excellent. I buy as many seeds as I can from HMS.

This year I consulted the 2010 Ohio Vegetable Production Guide for variety recommendations. Some vegetables such as peppers sometimes struggled under the valley conditions. The guide compiles research and trail plot results across Ohio. There are a lot of other good data in this guide too, for example, do you know how to calibrate a thermometer? Read page 25, Frost Control.

This year I decided to diversify some seed purchases. I am on a quest to grow perfect orange and yellow bell peppers. In particular, all yellow hybrids I have ever grown were disappointments. The plants set few fruits and those that survived to maturity were thin walled and lost crispiness. Enter OVPG which recommends the Lafayette hybrid. Let's hope this is the hybrid that delivers the thick walled crunchy 4 lobed fruits!

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Week of January 18, 2010 : Eight

(Here is another file photo, this time of a male Eastern Bluebird. Bluebirds are well established in the area and have made year round use of our nesting boxes. On cold winter nights, the boxes double as roosting boxes. During the recent warm spell, eight birds were perched on the fence wires, waiting to devour any insects that decided to enjoy the warm weather).

In addition to the bluebirds, we also have bald eagles in the area. The first nest appeared 4 summers ago, a quarter mile north of our field. Last summer another nest appeared, a quarter mile south of our field. Bald eagles dont exactly cozy in nest boxes so monitoring can be difficult. We are not expert birders nor do we have any binoculars so we have not been able to take full advantage of these opportunities.

But whenever we notice an eagle flying over the orchard, we always stop whatever we are doing and watch the bird until she disappears in the distance. Nathaniel can identify an eagle too. He undoubtedly knows geese and he has developed a distinct shriek when he sees geese. But when he sees an eagle he simply points. Last week we were sled riding and he observed the eagle first and pointed it out to me!

On very rare occasions, adult eagles will teach the juveniles hunting tactics in the orchard.

Now I want to push my luck and put up an owl box. Although I see them for sale, I dont know anybody who actually has an owl box and certainly not ever heard a success story.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Week of January 11, 2010 : Mulch.

(Here is a file photo of neatly formed raised beds protected by plastic mulch. Weed free without herbicides. That is what we all want, right? I usually laugh when I read extension articles about giant hogweed. Here I have giant purslane, giant velvet leaf, ... )

Another purchase arrived at the front door: black plastic mulch.

Deciding to switch to plasticulture was a difficult decision for me to make.

Sweet Peat is great. It does everything it is intended to do: prevents weeds, adds organic matter and so on. When I had a personal sized garden, this was the perfect mulch. I exchanged $35 for 1 cubic yard of mulch; considering the quality and results, I was satisfied with my purchase.

Unfortunately this solution does not scale to market sized fields. Consider a 50' dual row of peppers: 18" between rows and 24" between each plants allows ~50 plants per row. 1.2 cubic yards is needed to properly mulch one row (50' x 2.5' x 3"); thus the cost is $40.51 per row. As I learned, any attempt to skimp on coverage just shortens the time to weed domination.

By comparison, plastic mulch costs $1.61 per row.

Over the years, I have tried various methods and combinations of methods of weed control such as newspaper mulch, hoeing and critical weed free period. Last year my minimized Sweet Peat and newspaper combination failed; a little too much wind and soon the mulch was a little too gone ... weed domination.

This year, feeling significant pressure to reduce my labor, I reconsidered plasticulture. I already demonstrated how plasticulture is a 96% cost savings. Last year I averaged 4 hours per week (for 8 weeks until the wind storm) on weed management and still lost battle. I can easily discover 96% labor savings too.

Wait, there is more. There is a chance the plastic mulch will work.

So why was the decision to switch to plasticulture difficult? After all, plastic mulch is accepted by organic certifying agencies (provided the mulch is lifted at the end of the season).

Is plasticulture sustainable agriculture?

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Week of January 4, 2010 : Seeds

(Here is a file photo of Xtra Tender 277A. To a grower, the name 277 makes perfect sense. The "2" indicates Bi-Color and "77" indicates a relative maturity of 77 days. The name clearly answers the questions "What am I growing?" and "How long will it take?" Although I will admit a name like "Honey and Cream" has more market appeal).

The first seed purchase for the upcoming market season is complete! Sweet corn!

In my youth, my parents would purchase sweet corn from various road side stands and excitedly discuss the nuances of tenderness, sweetness and flavor. I could not detect these nuances so I could not share the excitement; my conclusion was simply it is better than city chicken.

Now I can detect these nuances, and I can share the excitement. But even more exciting, though, is accepting and answering the challenge to be the grower.

I want to be the person who grows the sweet corn that is the single purpose for driving out to the market!

The first step, last step and every step in between is researching, learning and honing my growing skills. It actually is quite a challenge both mental and physical to grow a premium crop on any scale.

There are so many natural challenges such as weather and wildlife; think about it , if corn is tasty to you, it is also tasty to deer and racoons. Most people do not know that the corn stalks are as sweet as the kernels.

And those insidious corn borers and ear worms.

And there are plenty of challenges even after the perfect ear has been harvested; this is a competitive market segment.

Defeating the challenges while besting your competitors, all while satisfying organic growing practices? Yeah it gets hard.

But that gets us right back to where we started: I want to be the person who answers these challenges, I want to be the person who grows the good stuff.

The cycle continues with this seed purchase. This summer, parents will pack up their surly kids and drive to market, hopefully to buy my sweet corn.