Monday, October 8, 2012

Week of October 8 2012 : Oh Yeah!

Here is a photo of Francie eating a butternut squash.  She was already done eating her dinner.  But instead of whining for a dessert, she calmly walked to the serving dish, pulled up a chair, and continued eating the butternut.

This summer was somewhat different than previous summers.

Most everything was the same.  We were busy watering and weeding.  The plants looked healthy, the vegetables had great taste, and we worked late into the night to maintain the harvest.  We went to bed certain beyond any doubt we put forth full effort.

But somehow this was easy.  There was less stress.  There was no strain.  What was different?

Oh yeah, I forgot about the blog.  I wasn't thinking about which photos to take, dreaming up catchy titles, or wondering if a topic was appropriate.  And I wasn't hunched over a keyboard hoping I could translate thoughts into a post.


Now the down side is we didn't tell our story.  We won't be able to share all the fun we had on the farm.  How Francie got lost in the squash patch.  Or how Nathaniel learned to prune a tomato plant.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Week of July 30 2012 : Thumper's Thumb

One of the stressful aspects of growing is harvesting the fruits and vegetables. Growing is hard work, but all the work could be for naught if harvesting is too early or too late.

Determining the ripeness of some vegetables, like tomatoes, is rather easy. Others, like watermelons, are not as easy.

Watermelons are often purchased to be enjoyed as a dessert after a special family meal. The moment when that watermelon is first cut in half is a very deciding moment. Will the family enjoy a crunchy, juicy melon bursting with flavor? Or let out a collective moan?

That is why deciding when to take a fruit or vegetable can be stressful. The stakes are high as no grower wants to sell a watermelon with the 2" thick rind and pale pink interior.

Conventional wisdom says to thump a watermelon and listen for a hollow sound to determine if it is ripe.

However, "hollow" is not a precise measure. There are many tones of hollow, and not all indicate that perfect combination of crunch and flavor. The thump test may be accurate enough for watermelons that ripen as they are long-haul shipped.

But more accuracy is expected from farm market watermelons purchased directly from the growers. So how do we determine the perfectly ripe melon?

Vine condition is a good indicator. The little shoot (formally called a tendril) directly opposite the stem, will begin to whither. When the tendril is completely withered to the healthy vine then the watermelon is well on it's way to ripeness.

Bottom color is another good indicator. The surface that contacts the ground should be yellow.

Perhaps the most accurate indicator are worms! When worms cozy up to that yellow spot, that watermelon is ready to be enjoyed!

Monday, July 23, 2012

Week of July 23 2012 : Odds

Here is a photo of an Elmo-spotted toddler not-so-quietly sneaking through the rows of sweet corn. The most loveable of all critters, she is also one of the most destructive. But once I hear her joyous giggles as she runs up and down the rows discovering her foods of choice, I just dont want to stop her. Go, free range Francie, GO!

Agriculture departments at many universities publish research documents that classify certain events as likely to occur every year or possible to occur some years, or rare. This classification is useful to estimate the probability that an event will occur, and therefore, estimate the likelihood that a solution is necessary.

For example, powdery mildew on winter squash is an event that is likely to occur every year.

However, this year's hot and dry weather has certainly disrupted the typical events, for both better and worse.

One of the better disruptions has been the apparent impact on Japanese beetles.

These beetles have usually appear during the first week of July and made a disgusting nuisance of themselves for at least 6 weeks.

This year I scouted the first beetle on June 15, nearly 3 three weeks early, and I braced for the swarms that were sure to come. Several weeks later, the swarms still have not arrived. The ultimate Japanese beetle magnets, edamame plants, had only one leaf skeletonized and few nibbles on other leaves.

I am savoring this small victory and not at all wondering the effects on next year's generation.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Week of July 16 2012 : Orange

Here is a photo of Nathaniel harvesting the first cherry tomatoes of the season.  The irony is he rarely eats tomatoes.  But he eagerly gathers the tomatoes for Francie who gobbles them down.

We have to be careful what we say at the dinner table.  Anytime the word "tomato" is uttered, regardless of context, Nathaniel now yells "turtle speed!" and runs out to the tomatoes and picks a few more for his sister.

She likes to pick her own, too, but at first was somewhat confused.  It took a few moments with the toddler-to-parent translator, but I finally realized she was asking "these apples, where tomatoes?"

She thought the towering tomato plants were actually apple trees.  Oh to be so innocent.  Once she realized they were in fact tomatoes, and learned where to find the ripe fruits, she can clear a cluster like a hornworm!

Monday, July 9, 2012

Week of July 9 2012 : Blossoms

Here is a photo of a pumpkin blossom. Squash generally have large, delicate and beautiful blossoms but these pumpkin blossoms are gorgeous! They measure over 6" in diameter and have a deep yellow almost orange color.  Restaurants have offered as much as 40 cents per blossom ... maybe that is why they are so beautiful!

Flowering and pollination has always been a mesmerizing aspect of growing. Walking through any large field or orchard during active pollination is certainly a memorable experience. Bees buzz, no doubt, but thousands of bees buzzing almost shake the ground.

This year I approached pollination from another perspective though, because I needed to pollinate seedless watermelons. The challenge is that seedless watermelons cannot pollinate themselves. Typically special pollinator varieties are inter planted with the seedless varieties. The pollinators do not produce marketable watermelons but produce a lot of pollen for an extended period of time.

Being small scale growers we need to maximize our growing space and decided against the pollinators. Instead we chose to inter plant the seedless with seeded watermelons and time the plantings such that the flowering periods would overlap.

The theory has been proven viable although the timings were a few days off. The seeded reached peak blossom about five days before the seedless. Even so there was sufficient overlap to get good set on the seedless.

Another oddity of seedless watermelons is the vines grow continuously throughout the season. Seeded watermelons have vegetative and reproductive phases; vines stop growing during the reproductive phase. But seedless have a vegetative phase only.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Weef of July 2 2012 : Lost

Here is a photo of Nathaniel inspecting the portable greenhouse and looking for his cabbage.  As the saying goes, be careful what you wish for because you may get it.  Everybody I know was wishing for rain.

We sure got it, and with it came the complimentary high winds.

Anytime the forecast calls for winds greater than 30 mph I simply roll the greenhouse into the garage.  On this fateful day the weather forecast called for sustained winds between 15 - 20 mph.

After the storm rolled through I instinctively went outside to estimate how much rain fell.  Soon I noticed the tell tale signs of high winds then noticed the street lights were not casting the usual shadows across the driveway.  But the street lights were on.  So what was missing?

Uh Oh.  It took me a few moments to remember the greenhouse and all it's transplants growing for the fall.

Greenhouses don't just disappear but they can blow a long distance.

Although we lost the first wave of all the fall transplants, the second wave has been sowed and is off to a good start.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Week of June 25 : Bees at Work

Here is a photo of the result of the honey bees hard work.  The bees were working the cantaloupes then switched rows and began to work the watermelons.  This is a Sugar Baby, which is the classic red seeded ice box variety.  The growing conditions this year havent been particularly favorable for most crops but the melons are sure loving it!

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Week of June 18 2012 : Bees. BEES!

Here is a photo of a bee.  A real, and hard working, bee!  There are many bees working the blossoms this week.  This particular bee is working the rows of cantaloupes.  His hive friends are nearby working the watermelons.

Part of successful farming is timing.  We won't say how much of good timing is hard thinking and how much is blind luck because proper strategy is easily negated by the weather.

One of my habits as a grower was to start transplants too early.  My attempt to get plants to set fruit early actually back fired and caused them to set fruit later.  Just as the plants were accepting a life of being root bound in a tiny flat and begrudgingly beginning the reproductive phase, I would then set it out in the field.  Excitedly the plant would shift back to vegetative phase for a few more weeks before shifting back to reproductive phase.

This year I intentionally started the plants later.  It was a hard habit to break.  But the timing has worked out much better.  The plants have not had to waste time shifting between phases; as a result the plants reached vegetative maturity earlier and are now in reproductive phase.

Sure the heat helps the plants grow and encourages the bees to work a full day.  Combine better timing with great conditions and cantaloupes have set fruit about 3 weeks early.

Hopefully our watermelons share this same wonderful experience.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Week of June 11 2012 : Extras

Here is a photo of Nathaniel and Francie looking at the extra transplants.  They are discussing and deciding which seedlings they want to transplant.  Nathaniel is well prepared with his green shovel.  They chose two cantaloupes and further decided the best location was in their sandbox.  It's great to share the experience.

All the spring transplanting and direct seeding is finally done.  The eggplants, peppers and tomatoes were transplanted about three weeks ago and are already setting fruit.  The cantaloupes and watermelons were transplanted about a week ago and are already vining.  The transplants has been unaffected by the dry weather.  In fact, they are thriving in the heat.

The direct seeded plants are more of a challenge.  The dry soil has hampered germination, although we have taken measures to counteract the conditions.  During seeding, we incorporate vermiculite into the soil to minimize soil crusting.  Then we laboriously hand water until the seeds germinate.  This technique has produced great results.

Next up is the fifth and final stand of sweet corn.  Four stands have been planted, emerged, and are in various stages of growth.  Once that stand is planted, then its back to the greenhouse to start the fall transplants!

Friday, June 1, 2012

May 2012 : Capital Improvements

Here is a photo of Nathaniel protecting his transplants.  Each night we read a story at bed time, and lately his favorite book is "Bear and Bunny Grow Tomatoes".  It's a story about an over achieving bear and an under achieving bunny and their relative successes at gardening.

There is a specific passage about Bear growling to protect his tomatoes.  Nathaniel decided his role is the bear, so he is empowered to growl at me.  Logic doesnt get too far with toddlers, so I dont bother explaining that I cannot be stealing his tomatoes because young transplants dont have tomatoes.

This was the spring I learned another valuable lesson.  I will never say I am busy, ever again.

This year I decided on another significant capital improvement.  Fencing the entire field.  This meant removing the existing fence and installing the new fence.  Easy enough.

But just as I was pulling the last corner post, my wife walks outside with a slow but purposeful stride.  I have seen this stride before.  A life changing conversation was coming my way.

The following exchange confirmed my suspicions, that our third farm hand was in the early stages of development.  Great!  Except for the wicked morning sickness that soon followed.  Morning sickness is not limited to mornings; afternoons, evenings and night times are equal opportunities for sickness.

I soon took on additional responsibilities around the house, from laundry and dishes to being the first responder to every middle-of-the-night yelp.  That and the full time plus, off the farm job kept me moving and tired.

Factor in the fencing project.  Moving faster and very tired.

Now factor in the starting seedlings, shaping beds, laying irrigation and laying mulch.

Somehow I survived these loong days.

The fence is up and the majority of the early season work is done, all on schedule.

Now we can relax and watch it all grow.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

April 2012 : Broccoli

Here is a photo of Nathaniel posing with his broccoli.  For some unexplainable reason, he loves fresh cabbage.  I lured him into the garden by promising he could help me transplant the cabbage.  And we did, but I never mentioned when we finished transplanting the cabbage and started the broccoli.  Surprisingly he injured none of the plants.  His sister, though, was busy trying to eat the leaves.

Here is another photo of the broccoli, nighttime with the dew glistening in the flash photo.

April was a busy month as usual.  In addition to the usual pre-season tasks, greenhouse tasks, and field tasks, we participated in a Good Agricultural Practices training seminar.  This seminar focuses on food safety and covers the time period from field preparation through the point of sale.  That is a long period of time and there are many threats along the way!

All topics were interesting but one topic was almost startling.  How many people reuse containers?  Vendors reuse containers while measuring pints and quarts.  Customers reuse shopping bags to carry produce from market to home.  Both practices are intended to be environment friendly but violate good agricultural practices!

Reusing containers and bags increases the likelihood of surface contamination.  For example, produce such as berries or tomatoes can easily be damaged thus contaminating container surfaces.  Bacteria has a place to grow during the week between markets.

Reusing containers and bags also complicates tracing product's history.  Another example, when a bag is the source of contamination, did it get contaminated at today's market?  Or was it contaminated weeks ago at the grocery store when it was set on the parking lot ground while searching for the car keys?

Ultimately food safety is everyone's responsbility.  The GAP training identified several similar scenarios as well as practices and techniques to minimize the risk.

Friday, March 30, 2012

March 2012 : Subsoiling

Here is a photo of Francie sitting in a field. She is thoroughly upset. Where is the broccoli?

My first attempt at subsoiling was somewhat of a bust. Proper subsoiling fractures the soil to a depth of upto 24". The surface is minimally disturbed and certainly the soil is not inverted. This technique requires big horsepower to reach maximum depth and maintain high speeds.

In my thought experiments I knew I would not be able to maintain both depth and speed so I opted to maintain speed to achieve the desired fracturing action. Multiple passes would be necessary to fracture to the proper depth.

Two variables I had not anticipated. Shallow subsoiling, particularly with a well rooted winter rye cover crop, forms large clods. The surface was more than minimally disturbed. These clods forced the second pass to be completed at slower speeds. The soil was not completely fractured to the desired depth.

So my first subsoil experience was less than perfect. But the field conditions are better than before I started. The shallow hardpan is certainly gone. And revving and roaring a tractor with a ground engaging attachment was certainly a thrill.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

February 2012 : Subsoiler

Here is a photo of our new ripper. It's a rather rugged piece of equipment weighing in at 248 pounds. It has a 24" working depth and will shatter hard panned soil. Usually these implements are known as subsoilers but this also rips tree roots. Yikes, hence the name, ripper.

Soil health has always been a passion of mine and I have read several books on the topic. My favorite book is Building Soil for Better Crops. Once our soil was limed to the appropriate pH to the appropriate depth we minimized our tillage practices. We plow occassionally to make raised beds and turn under cash crop or cover crop residues but work the soil as little as possible.

But about 12" beneath the surface there has always been significant soil compaction. This was the year we vowed to correct this final soil deficiency.

So off to Earth Tools website I went, happy I would finally buy another implement, a subsoiler, for our beloved two wheel tractor. But I was greeted by a note that the subsoilers were temporarily unavailable to fit BCS -- undergoing redesign.

That started me on a detour that, well, let's just say, was the scenic route. Three months later we have a subsoiler and then some. We also have a new-to-us four wheel tractor.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

November 2011 : Harvest

This might be my favorite photo of the year. Francie is helping harvest the broccoli. The farm to fork distance doesnt get any shorter than this!

Even though we are done with markets for the year, we are still growing for our own table. We underseeded the cool weather crops with a winter rye cover crop, so there are few disadvantages to letting these hardy crops grow as late into the season as possible.

This is Francie's first full year on the farm and she already gets it. When she wants some food for dinner or a snack, I head towards the refrigerator and she points to the farm. Now I get it too!

We walked out to the broccoli together and while I was busy trying to harvest a few heads she was already busy snacking away.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Week of October 17 2011 : Drainage

Here is a photo of Nathaniel helping with the drainage. The plastic snow shovel is certainly not an effective digging tool but is much safer than a steel dirt shovel. All he really wanted to do was get muddy anyways. And this year there has been no shortage of mud!

Moments after this photo was taken, he also got his feet stuck.

This year Berta the rotary plow served another purpose. In addition to the usual tasks of plowing and making raised beds, this fall she also made drainage swales. With two passes lengthwise through the lowest area of the field, we are able to drain nearly all the surface water. Surface drainage is no substitute for underground drainage but the time vs. benefit ratio justified the extra minute of labor.

This fall seems to be warmer than normal, particularly overnight temperatures. The first frost still has not occurred. (Update - the first frost did not occur until October 27). Although the summer crops probably would still be growing and producing had we not turned them under, the quality and taste would be disappointing. The broccoli and cabbage, on the other hand, are still growing well.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Week of October 10 2011 : Bluebirds

Here is a photo of our male Eastern Blue Bird. My "camera" is really a Blackberry. The photo function works well but has an annoying characteristic: there is a several second pause between clicking the button to snap a photo and the photo actually being snapped. Produce doesnt move very fast, so the photo function works well enough to capture photos of sweet corn, etc. But birds move much faster. So I am particularly pleased with this photo ... which is to say I got very lucky.

This year was another successful for our Blue Birds. There were two broods. The first brood contained five eggs and all 5 fledged on June 2. The second brood contained four eggs and all 4 fledged on July 26. The Tree Swallows also had one brood with seven eggs and all 7 fledged on June 26. The protective guards worked as intended and we lost no eggs or birds to predators.

We finally planted the winter rye cover crop. Ideally we like to finish fall tillage and plant the cover crop second to last week of September. But we will delay tillage and sowing if the cash crops are doing well. This year we didnt have a choice and had to delay due to significant rainfall.

The conditions never were ideal and more rainfall was always in the forecast. I had a very narrow window to get it all done so I put fresh batteries in the headlamp and worked until 3:00 AM to turn under the crop residues and sow the winter rye. Let's just say no neighbors stopped over to thank me for getting the work done. But it did rain every day for the next six days and conditions only dedgraded from there.

We wont get much top growth this fall or next spring, but will get sufficient root growth to make it worth the effort.