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Hold onto your hats

May. 26th, 2009 | 09:53 pm

A week ago Tuesday and Wednesday we spent two hellacious days dearly hoping that our greenhouse and hoophouse plastic would make it through the 55 mile per hour sustained winds.  If there ever was a reality check for beginning farmers and our interns, it was dust bowl era winds plowing through your seemingly bucolic Spring day.  We nearly lost our hoophouse plastic, and it sounded as if we might lose the whole hoophouse structure itself.  Adam happened to be standing nearby when the hoophouse plastic began to rip.  He ran for the tape and we patched and patched and patched until 7 p.m. when the winds died down.  Adam actually worked all day wearing ear protective gear normally reserved for heavy tractor machinery, just to block out the screaming sound of the wind and slapping plastic.  I kept thinking about our other farmer friends and acquaintances wondering if they still had their hoophouse plastic.  At least I knew we were not singled out in our agony--many of us all across the Midwest were cowering in disgust at the brown dirt skies, watching the topsoil from the corn fields all around us blow up up and away.  

It is nearly dry as a bone and sometime it actually is drier than a bone.  I've been comparing soil dryness to actual bones that our dog digs up from who knows where.  Sometimes the bones are moister than the soil and the moisture is not just from Toblerone's drool.  These are the type of very scientific things I do every so often.  Literally dry as a bone.  I heard from one meteorologist that we are losing an inch of soil moisture every three days with the eighty degree temps and 20 m.p.h. winds.  A bit of a weather break today and tomorrow, and then back at it.  It is beginning to feel again that we will never get rain.  After hoping for so long, I begin to get over it and try to figure out how to best cope with the possibility of no more rain.  We have not received anything much over 1/10 of an inch since last fall.  We are irrigating newly transplanted and seeded crops constantly.  Most are surviving ok, some seem to be thriving.     

Better news: Our transplants out of the greenhouse look stupendous, and this hot dry weather is good for one thing, and that is getting out lots and lots of quackgrass from our fields.  Insane amounts of quackgrass.  Long, sinuous rhizomes pulled up out of the soil and baking in the sun.  Basically it's the only way we can kill it.  And we have to transplant in these fields before too long, so gives us a head start.  There's a moratorium of rototilling and discing any quack on this farm (otherwise you cut it up with the rototiller/disc and it sprouts a gajillion new shoots.  Rototilling it is like a farmers death sentence.) We're using a field digger and drag all the way.  So in the least, we got some good weed killing conditions.  This week's farm motto is "the glass is half full". And our CSA is Sold OUT!  Goal reached. 125 shares. 50 local shares in Central MN.  Rest are in the Cities.  The glass is definitely over 1/2 full.  

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Alive and Green

May. 14th, 2009 | 09:48 pm

Wow, time is flying. Sunup to Sundown we are working on farm projects.  Or if not working, then making making food for us to eat so that we can do more work.  We've got three interns working here now, plus the farmers so that makes five peoples to get projects done every day.  I finally feel like my head is above water here--we are starting to catch up on greenhouse work and trying to catch up on planting.  Hoophouse and greenhouses have been overflowing with early greens, radishes, hakureis, baby head lettuce that we are selling at market.  We've had some really gorgeous stuff come out of the hoophouse.  It got a head start from the flea beetles, aphids, and is nearly perfect.  Our radishes were in the Star Tribune today--great color photo, a mention of us and the market.  Thanks to Rick Nelson.

20 high school kids from urban St. Paul came out on Tuesday to get a tour and plant our edible flower garden.  It was Windy--40 mph gusts that stung your cheeks and eyes with dust and dirt.  At least it didn't rain though!  When you are outside every day, inevitably sometimes it is terrific and sometimes it is terrifically miserable.  Still the work has got to get done.  The kids were great sports, very enthusiastic, and were probably more excited that I to be out and planting in the wind.

After 2 days of blowing hard, the wind finally died down at 5 p.m. so we could get in some more Brassicas in the field.  The Savoy cabbage queen:

Planted Cabbages:

To see a 15-Second Short on Savoy Planting starring the electric tractor and 2 interns:


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Electric Tractor Transplanters Make Happy Farmers

Apr. 26th, 2009 | 08:40 pm

A light drizzle with bouts of heavier rain fell today.  Just what we needed, but I think we still only got around a 1/4 of an inch.  Still.  No complaints. 

Friday and Saturday we planted all of our onions, using a rudimentary but awesome transplanter attached behind our electric tractor.  Adam worked on this just a couple hours before we started planting, putting a little pink foam on boards for us to sit on.  It's a butt dragger, but SO much faster than crawling along and planting by hand.  We could plant a 150 foot bed with 4 rows of onions in 30-45 minutes.  A furrow makes a row for us and we plopped the onion in and covered it with soil with a quick brush of the planting hand.  Meanwhile, the other hand is grabbing another onion to hand to your planting hand.  It is very quiet too of course!

After finishing the onions on Sat. afternoon, we used the transplanter to throw in a 100 pounds of early red potatoes.  Just in time for the rain overnight.  We also have peas, carrots, beets, mesclun, and scallions seeds planted in the fields.  We're eating tiny radishes from our heated hoophouse and the arugula and purple mustard is big enough to start cutting soon. 

Photos ensue:
(Thanks to intern, Katharine for photos)

Onions sitting on the tractor, waiting to begin.

Adam making some last minute adjustments.  Pink seats for us to sit on!  The neighbors sure were gawking as they drove by.

Planting the first onion.

2 rows planted.

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In the Fields!

Apr. 19th, 2009 | 06:38 pm

Spring glorious Spring.  Could it be more perfect?  Of course, a nice gentle inch of rain would be welcome indeed for most of the State, but the dry, sunny, and warm-ish temps have allowed us to get into the fields and PLOW.  We have done some serious plowing here.  And we're not done yet!  It is incredible to go from a farm covered in grass, weeds, cover crops, whatever and then have strips of black, moist, deep soil teeming with life: tens of earthworms in every handful of soil, centipides, lots of little crawly bugs that I don't know plus millions of microorganisms we can't see with our naked eyes.  I think of what it must have been like to plow this ground for the first time way back in the late 1800's.  It is actually a process that we've experienced to be very full of emotion: the hope, promise, excitement and peril that comes with the foray into cultivating new land.  The plowed fields give our farm a different character too.  We are still getting used to looking outside at our newly created fields, and we just walked and measured several more fields that will be plowed this week.  

Adam is plowing below and pulling a drag section behind him to level out the soil and break up clods.  He then went back and disced the fields on Saturday, hoping rain was then going to come.  No such luck, but these fields will probably get disced again once we start getting the first flush of weeds.  And then either we will leave them fallow to work the weeds out over the summer to follow with a covercrop like buckwheat or we will start transplanting into them in late May.

We have crops planted in raised beds in our heated greenhouse, and the radishes, arugula, red mustard should be ready in 7-10 days.  They are scheduled to be ready for our May 9 farmers market, and I think we will make it!  Spinach, hakurei turnips are not far behind.  In our large hoophouse (unheated) we have mustards, radishes, spinach, cilantro & dill, and newly transplanted baby bok choi and prize choi.  Swiss chard and lettuce will be transplanted in their tomorrow--filling up that structure.  It is great to have crops growing in the ground, but we also are discovering all the new types of weeds we have here and we have an unbelievable amount of weeds.  Always this time of year you get the first Spring flushes of weeds that we try to cultivate out a couple times before planting, but hoophouse ground was planted early and couldn't be cultivated more than once before we planted.  I already know that weeds will be our biggest obstacle here, this year and for probably the next 5 years.  Well, weeds will always be an issue for us organic farmers, but there is a spectrum of weed pressure.  On this farm we have lots of foxtail, quack, some thistle (lots of thistle in some places), lambsquarter, ragweed, and mallow.  Mallow is a new one to us.  It's also known as barnyard weed which makes sense since not only is it near our barn but this farm had horses on it for a few years in the late 90's and I guess  its affiliated with being in horse & livestock pasture.  Not sure why.  When I saw it last fall it reminded me of a wild geranium in terms of its leaf shape and growth habit.  If you haven't seen it before or identified it, here's a snapshot of a mallow flush. Yes, taken right out of our hoophouse.  It has slightly heart-shaped leaves.  (Sorry readers, can't figure out how (and don't have the time to try) to flip my pictures around)

Photo below is newly planted Baby Bok Choi in hoophouse grande.  This is a new crop for us, previously we had such a hard time with early Brassicas because of the flea beetles.  We're wondering how many weeks this will take to mature before harvest.  I'm betting in just over 2 weeks we may be able to cut it as little baby Pacs. 

Much more is going on from farm clean-up to welding to constant greenhouse seedling transplanting.  The season is upon us, just like that.  With Spring weather like this and a farm to explore, we are welcoming it with open arms.

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A recap

Mar. 25th, 2009 | 09:53 pm

Last week brought us welcome warmth and thawing ground.  The frost has come out up to 8-12 inches in some areas on the farm that are on full sun.  Our irrigation pond is filling up quickly.  We have been observant of where and how water puddles, streams, and runs through the different parts of the farm.  We are lucky that most of our farm is already covered in grasses and/or cover crops so that with all the water moving through, there is very little, if any erosion.  On the wet, low-lying parts of the farm there is a different type of grass species altogether, which gives us a clue about where we want our field edges and borders to be.  I saw an awesome dark green salamander on Sunday heading straight for the pond.  Probably have to wait until April for those frogs though... The temperatures have been dropping into the 20's at night now.  Those temps really do a number on your greenhouse heating bill.  We are aghast at how much propane it takes to heat a little plastic house just so you heat the air to heat your soil to get your plants to germinate and grow.  It does not feel very "green".  Our greenhouse mantra then is to come up with a better source of bottom heat next year. 

Adam put on the finishing touches on our hoophouse, digging some drainage around the outside edges to minimize puddling.  Note to self and anyone else putting up a hoophouse for the first time.  Dig your ditches and level your ground inside the hoophouse FIRST. before you put it up.  We also tightened the plastic on Saturday, with the help of our great, local intern Katharine.  Sunday we had 40 m.p.h. gusts from the east--exactly where we have no windbreaks.  The structure groaned, muttered, and creaked with the wind, but plastic stayed tight.  We were waking up every morning and peering outside from our bedroom window, saying "it's safe. plastic's still there."  What a wild ride this farming thing is.  And we've only barely begun the season!  

My photo of the week (the only one I managed to take) is of our hens and rooster checking out the lean-too of their new dwelling.  We stole our dog's house and moved the chickens out of the barn and into the dog house so we can begin clean-up.  Don't feel too bad for the dog.  He has a comfortable dog bed in the mudroom and hadn't slept in his house for months.  





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Seeds and skunks

Mar. 16th, 2009 | 08:59 pm

What a day!  Reaching up into the 60 degree range, melting snow, and slowly filling up our 1st greenhouse.  The birds are coming back too.  Hundreds of red-winged blackbirds perched amongst the tree-tops with their "oak-a-lee", "chek", and "cheer" calls.  I'm waiting for the frogs though.  I'm sure we'll have them in our wetland areas sometime soon.

The day started off with a brisk walk around the farm, and our dog, Toblerone, (a chocolate lab) found a skunk in the cattails and proceeded to bark at it for 2 hours while the skunk sprayed its glorious fumes up into the southern breezes right towards our farmstead.  So invigorating to smell a fresh skunk while you are seeding onions!  Toblerone showed up a few hours later with skunk in mouth, prancing around and showing off his catch.  We weren't so happy.  Not only with the stench of it all, but also the fact that he killed a perfectly harmless skunk just hanging out in the cattails minding its own business.  He's such a loveable dog though--we just love him from a distance now.  

It's been a great rush of adrenaline with this burst of warmer weather and thawing ground.  New things to constantly discover on a farm that we've never seen in the Springtime.  I'm hoping we might have some morels on the property??  Lots of dead elms around... We've also never had our own greenhouse, and never been able to devote ourselves full-time to farm life this time of year.  Normally we are both juggling full-time jobs into April/May.  Many firsts this season.

Flats waiting to be seeded into lettuce.  This is in the small greenhouse, which is a lean-too greenhouse off the South edge of the barn.  It was a piping 85 degrees in there today.

Germinating onions:

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Farming through March snowstorms

Mar. 9th, 2009 | 03:44 pm

Officially the season begins! You'd never know we were farming already with another snowstorm on the way, but this is standard mid-March.  Right about when local farmers are beginning to turn on their greenhouses we get below zero again, and we feel that familiar obsession with The Weather tug at our sleeve again.  The National Weather Service's website is getting a lot more traffic these days...and we stare twice as long at the sky now, wondering and waiting for that beloved sunshine and warmth.   

Still, I count the beginning of the season as last Friday when my fingers touched soil (albeit potting soil) for the first time.  One of our interns and I seeded 4,000 onions on our way to 12,000 total onion seedlings to be transplanted out.  It is always great to smell the earthy mix after a long winter inside. Our onion seedlings right now are in our basement, on 75 degree heat mats, and will probably take at least a week to germinate at which point they'll move out to the small greenhouse.  We can have 30 flats getting heat at one time in the basement, with some creative layering on the heat mats, and each flat contains 200-400 potential seedlings.  Starting onion and leek seedlings, it becomes tangible to us that we will indeed be able to grow, and more importantly eat, our own vegetables sometime soon!  Which leads us to think about transplanting out these 12,000 onions and the 5,000+ leeks.  Normally we do this by hand, but an innovation may be on the way.

Adam is working on a very basic transplanter attached behind the Electric Tractor that will allow a couple people to sit or lie down and plant onions (and other crops for that matter).  There will be a furrower to make the onion rows straight, and then the people sitting on the transplantor just have to plunk down the onion into the soil from their seat.  Hopefully, if this set-up works out, it will make onion planting much more ergonomic for us the planters.  Planting onions by hand, sans transplantor, involves crouching and hunching over for 8 hours or so AND since one of our electric tractor's best assets is its ability to creep along at miniscule speeds, it makes perfect sense for us to do some transplanting off of it.  What great fun to experiment with these things.  It would be even more fun if it actually works out.  And to transplant on a quiet tractor!  Usually transplanting involves a lot of yelling at the tractor driver: "Slower", "Faster!", "Wake UP and drive straight!" over the din and clang of the motor.  We may inadvertently improve farm communication and relations with this quieter machine.

Organic Farming Conference in La Crosse last weekend was stupendous.  Over 2600 like-minded loonies gathered together.  We both especially enjoyed Dr. John Biernbaum's 2 classes.  One on Hoophouses and the other on Compost Production on Small/Mid-Sized Farms.  John's a professor at Michigan State University, where they have offer an Organic Farming Certificate Program.  He was able to provide to us farmers really practical information that was tested and researched at the MSU student farm.  The Student Farm's the real deal--running a 48 week CSA in Zone 5 (one zone warmer than us here in MN).  Imagine graduating from college and knowing such practical skills such as hoophouse construction and production, compost production, and growing organic food.  What a concept!  

I also wrote this in my notebook at the Compost Class: Worm Castings = Golden.  Instead of using fish emulsion to fertilize your greenhouse seedlings or houseplants, just sprinkle a 1/2-1 cup of worm castings over your plants, water in, and they will be green as grass in a couple days.  With no potential e-coli./salmonella or other contamination.  If you can't have chickens to eat your kitchen waste, then worms are just as good and provide you with black gold.  Keeping the fertility local and out of the landfill.   Aww yeah.   

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Moments of Spring

Feb. 25th, 2009 | 04:19 pm

Punctuated by zero and below zero temps.  Tomorrow an ice, snow, and wind storm will pass through right on our heels as we high-tail it out east to the MOSES Organic Farming Conference  (I still just call it MOSES for the organization that puts it on) in La Crosse, Wi.  Our 2nd organic farming conference in a week, this one will be the kicker with Vandana Shiva as the keynote.  The local winter's conferences has brought in some of the top icons in the Organic Farming World: Eliot Coleman at St. Cloud, Joel Salatin in Northfield last weekend, and now Vandana.  

The conferences are always a a grounding highlight of the winter, and this year was no exception.  With a full list of to-dos, in addition to increasing our acreage, dealing with the soil conditions and microclimate of a new farm, and managing 3 interns (not to mention ourselves!), we've got one full plate lined up for this season.  For me this can be the most anxious time of the year--these last weeks before we actually are able to start doing things.  The last stages of planning need to be wrapped up, maybe re-evaluated, while still going full-force with CSA marketing.  And then get ready to fire up the first greenhouse.  We'll be using a little lean-too greenhouse on the south edge of the barn to begin, before we have enough plants to fill up the big greenhouse. 

A lot of people ask what we farmers have to do over the winter, like isn't it just one big vacation? Yes, actually we just lounge around in our p.j.s and eat organic bon-bons!  Really though, I've been keeping track this winter of how many hours we actually put in towards farm-related activities, and we both are spending 30-50 hours/week on farm related stuff.  Adam is also still working off-farm in addition to this, and I have been doing several odd-jobs.  Certainly we have more farmwork to do this winter than we may have in the future years, but still this is supposedly our "off-time".  We expect to put in over 5000 labor hours combined (so 2500+ hours each) this year.  Most farmers don't keep track of labor hours.  I understand why.  Frankly, it is pretty depressing.  Our first year independently farming, we technically got paid 62 cents an hour for our labor.  This measly wage ranks right up there with Florida Tomato Pickers, which by the way if you are eating any fresh tomato (from the supermarket, from the co-op, from a restaurant fast food or otherwise) it is most likely coming straight out of Florida and from their hands. 

Of course, we expected that our first few years of farming would not provide us with a profit.  Like many beginning businesses, it was our plan to plow back all our profits back into buying machinery and equipment that we needed to run a small farm.  My larger point though is: how do we support equitable pay for our farmers and farm laborers?  Especially for small farmers who cannot compete with the large monoculture and industrialization of mega-farms, organic or not?  One scenario is that we must pay more for our food, but like anyone wants to hear that right now, even if it is fair and equitable.  Or federal farm subsidies could also be directed towards small-scale, family farms that are actually producing whole, nutritious foods.  And/or college students could have part or all of their student loans forgiven by interning at local farms, becoming the storehouses of sustainable agricultural knowledge, and eventually growing all the food our local communities need.  Or....??...there are probably a million other ingenious scenarios.  Food for thought.  What do you think?   

Living a less complicated existence (at least on our farm):

Chickens have been loving the warmer weather, finished most of their molting, and are now laying 6 or 7 eggs a day!  Thanks ladies.

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Another Day, Another Tractor

Feb. 1st, 2009 | 11:51 am

This is our 5th tractor, our 2nd IH 140, and probably the last tractor we will be buying for awhile. Knock on wood.  We bought this last year and finally it got delivered to us yesterday to complete our fleet.  It sure is cute with its red paint job.  Our other 140 is a later model from the 1970's and is yellow.  This red one is an Industrial 140 and is one of the earliest models.  They (yellow and red) are virtually the same tractor though.  The basket weeder will be transferred over to the Red 140, and the Yellow 140 will be outfitted with our homemade plastic mulch layer to lay plastic mulch for our outdoor tomatoes, melons, and cukes.  

I don't like using plastic mulch, however for cukes and melons we feel the benefits outweigh the waste.  We use a silver reflective plastic mulch that repels cucumber beetles by reflecting sunlight underneath the Cucurbit leaves.  The cuke beetles often hang out on the undersides of the Cucurbit leaves, munching, spreading disease, and mating.  There is significantly better yields, plant health, and less disease when we use silver reflective mulch.   

After using the mulch layer, we (well, not really "we", but Adam the mechanic) will set up the Yellow 140 to be a standard 1 or 2 row cultivating tractor that we will use for cultivating row crops like green beans, corn, brassicas...  We both will appreciate having 2 different cultivating tractors so if need be, we can both be cultivating different fields at the same time and get in the fields at the perfect time without having to fool around with switching out one cultivator for the other.

New tractor.  It's in the shop awaiting some work on the hydraulics.

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We're getting closer right?

Jan. 24th, 2009 | 11:51 am

The bitter cold and wind this winter is making an indelable mark in our memories this year.  There's just nothing to stop the wind out here on the edge of the prairie.  Luckily we have a pretty good windbreak around our house and farm buildings so that one can be outside even on sub-zero days and have a bit of shelter from the wind.  It has got us thinking good and hard about a north windbreak to provide some shelter to our fields, both for the benefit of the farmers and the benefit of our crops.  We also get to see first-hand how much soil erosion happens even in the winter in semi-snow covered fields.  We have snow drifts allover the farm with patterns of black soil imprinted.  We know it is not likely from our farm, since there is barely any bare land here, but all the corn and soybean land around us ( and everywhere else in corn country) is bare, black soil.  A reminder to us to cover as much ground as we can with a fall cover crop or green manure.   

The poor chickens are stuck inside the barn most of the time, and most are also molting so are left looking small, bald, and slightly miserable.  Days will go by without even one egg, or the egg will already be frozen by the time we get to it.  Although we did get an Araucauna egg today--that was a first since we moved in last October basically!  The light green-blue was an especially beautiful surprise of color today.  I have heard the same egg drop-off from larger organic egg producers--stories of 3 dozen eggs a week from 500 layers.  We are doing our best to treat our hens as queens, but there's not much we can do about the cold.  The 2 barn cats hang out in the lean-too greenhouse that gets pretty warm for them during the sunny days, although the younger one loves to "roost" next to the chickens and eat kitchen scraps.  It's a hilarious sight to go out and see him crouched in the middle of all the hens.  He's definitely after their food, but spends quite a few nights in there with them as well.

Despite the cold, we are still enjoying ourselves and quite content to be here, even in the midst of a memorably hard winter.  Doing A LOT of farm planning, which is exciting and semi-frightening just in terms of how much work there is to do and making the budget stretch to cover all the capital improvements needed.  It would be even more frightening to go into it with our eyes wide shut though.  There will be a crew here next season to help!  Three lovely ladies with farm experience, and both Adam and I will be here full-time.  The stillness and quiet of January will vanish rapidly come March and April. 

Last week brought the MN Organic Farming Conference, with a special Thursday session on Winter Hoophouse Growing by Eliot Coleman.  It was good to see this esteemed author in person and hear about the myriad of season-extension techniques they are doing in Maine.  It did prompt us to think harder about getting a moveable hoophouse.  They give you so much more flexibility--we wouldn't have to get our fall tomatoes out early in order to plant a fall spinach crop.  However, they can be 3 times as expensive as a plain old hoophouse.  Food for thought for the future as we plan to put up at least 2 more hoophouses in the coming years.  What I wouldn't give for some fresh hoophouse spinach right now...

Be well and stay warm!

We need more of these here:

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