Saturday, March 31, 2012

Amending the soil and big tractors

Despite the cooler, wet weather this week the soil was certainly dry enough to till. Friday turned out to be a sunny day and a perfect day to plow. Luke, the farmer up the road was available and met me at the farm around 5pm Friday afternoon with his big tractor and disc-harrow. It did a great job breaking up the cover crops and working up the soil. I was skeptical that the discs would do an adequate job and thought we needed to use the plow, but I'm glad I was wrong. We plowed the field in the Fall using a moldboard plow and discs. The moldboard actually slices and inverts the soil's top layers. If you think about soil as having most of its complex life in the top 6", you can see why disturbing this and burying it is not good for long-term soil building. Continuous plowing in this way will also create a plow-pan beneath the soil in which roots cannot penetrate. A great book to read more about this is the "Ploughman's Folly", written in the 1940's  had a huge and controversial impact. Luke mentioned having a chisel plow in his collection of implements, so I think I will try that out in the future. The chisel plow cuts through the soil, deeper than the discs, but doesn't disturb the soil layers as much. I'll let the green manures decompose a bit, add to soil fertility, and awaken microbrial activity.

To aid in this process, I add soil amendments to bring the soil's nutrient levels and ph to an ideal level for growing veggies. Based on the analysis of the soil test I took last October, I amend the soil with various products from the Fertrell company, which are approved for organic growing. I mainly use rock phosphate and greensand. Not only do they add valuable minerals to the soil, but they also improve soil structure by binding my sandy soils.

I am excited about how easily the soil crumbled under the discs. No clods, no shiny surfaces, that indicate compaction and damaged soil.

We will be planting peas, carrots, kale, and lettuces into this wlcoming soil very soon!

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Greenhouse work

The seedlings have really taken off with last week's warm, sunny days. We have lots of seedlings growing quickly, new growth daily, and lots of newly germinating flats under the lights. My seed starting routine has not changed these last couple years. For Spring transplants, I start by over-seeding open flats and then put them under the lights to wait for germination. Once the little ones have started to develop their first true leaves, I pot them on into large cell-type flats where they will continue to grow into full sized transplants. This method is time consuming and uses a lot of growing mix, but for now it helps save valuable space in the greenhouse and under the lights...which saves me money. This method seems to work just fine for the quick growing brassica crops, like broccoli, kale, and cabbage. It also is a favorable method for tomatoes, eggplants, and peppers which grow very tall and require a strong stem.

Flats of Red Russian kale in their new home. They will grow quickly now.

Work at the farm is picking up now and we should be tilling the fields soon! Then, there will be more rocks to pick...yay! I love this part of the year, looking out at the greening fields envisioning all the crops that will quickly fill the space.  My pace around the farm these days is slow, contemplative. But I can picture the mid-season bustle of trying to race the sun clearly now.

The garlic is pushing through the straw! Its about 6-8" tall now! As it grows, 
I'll add more straw mulch to keep the weeds down.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Time to throw out the rule book?

As the temperatures quickly climbed to above 90 degrees in my greenhouse this morning, I like everyone else is wondering what this season will bring. This winter, many people asked me what effects the lack of snow would have and now about this early Spring. I don't know yet...we will find out together. We are all learning together what will result from these climate changes and severe weather abnormalities. I do not have enough years farming experience to do anything but learn from this. However, I have a plan and I force myself everyday to stick to it. I may lay awake at night psyching myself up to just go for it, put seeds in the ground...push everything 2-3 weeks it! Everyone will be so happy! But morning brings reality and I hold myself back. Planting too early when we could still get very cold weather would kill the tender crops and set the farm back weeks.
So I'll control what I can and feel satisfied that at least I did that. I will come up against a lot of uncontrollable factors this year. If temperatures remain unseasonably warm, the spring cool-loving crops, like broccoli, may struggle to make it to harvest. Broccoli doesn't handle the stress of temperature swings well. 
Farmers and gardeners everywhere are realizing this will be a difficult year for pests and diseases that winter failed to control. A winter void of a long, hard freeze allows these populations to remain strong and eager for a farmer's hard work of planting their favorite meals.

This is the reality of farming. And while many farms are spraying every inch of plant material to make it so undesirable, the bugs won't touch it. We will rely on building healthy soil and an environment for beneficial insects to keep our harvests safe. I rely on crop rotation and intercropping to confuse the insects and out-compete the weeds. And I will recognize that I will lose crops...probably quite a few. But this is why I plant a wide variety of crops and make sure to keep careful notes on how each variety does in a difficult year. Weather predictions are hard to make, so we just go for it and put our faith in knowing there will be a bounty.

I'm looking forward to this new year!

Friday, March 2, 2012

Seeds and Scale

The seeds are ordered and delivered and some are already packed away securely because they will no longer be needed this season. I have started all the onions and leeks for the 2012 season. They are germinating under the lights and growing taller every day!

While I did notice some higher seed prices this year, I came out about even with what I spent last year. I was surprised by this since more than doubling my growing area for this year. Granted, I am using quite a bit of last years seed (having passed my seed germination tests). And I certainly did not sacrifice taste or reliability for cheaper seed prices. I tend to stick with what has worked in the past on my farm and splurge on varieties that I know have superior taste and quality.

I think I have settled into a sweet spot on the farm this year. I have reached a scale that makes sense...lets hope this feelings lasts! Many small farms reach this point eventually and have to ask themselves, How big do I need to get to stay in it? Farms need to become viable, and for me that meant increasing production. But to increase production I need to think about adding costly equipment to my operation. And how much do I need to grow to justify (and pay for) this costly equipment? That is one nasty pickle! And one that could lead me to grow way too large too fast...Get big or get out right?

No, there are plenty of models of successful small farms and much research is being done to help small farms with cost effective equipment that makes sense on their scale and land. I think this year's little growth spurt will help me see exactly where I want our farm to be.