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Archive for June, 2009

A few days ago I heard a local farmer share about the devastating weather their farm has received this year.  They run a small (2 acre or so) farm, growing for 30 CSA members and a few farmers markets throughout the week.  I don’t know the couple very well, although we recognize each other if we see each other in town or at markets, but I have felt a great deal of loyalty to their farm since L and I moved to Fort Collins.  Perhaps I felt a connection because I could see myself in their shoes or maybe I was aspiring to cultivate the earth with the same philosophy the they hold.  Either way, when bad weather comes through town I find myself wondering how their farm is holding up.

As I listened to this woman share about being hailed out and having to wait in limbo to see if any of the crops would come back, only to be hailed out a few weeks later I was at a loss for words.  They have been able to fill three weeks of CSA boxes, but it doesn’t look like they’ll have veggies for the farmers market this week or CSA shares in the weeks to come.  My heart is really heavy for these two people I call my friends.  I feels awful that our farm has fared pretty well through all of the hail and tornado and heavy rain that our town has seen.  I can express grief and offer to help in any way, but I don’t know what it’s like to have to struggle through the decision to replant this late in the season.

This is the reality of small farms that I feel gets overlooked when discussing a small, local food-shed.  What do the farmers tell their CSA members?  What do the CSA members do if they find out that the money they spent on a share of veggies for the whole season was gone after three weeks?  What about the people who anticipate buying their produce at a farmers market or food coop?  The loss of this small two acre farm greatly impacts the community.  But we don’t often speak of the possibility of tomato plants stripped of all their leaves because of hail or carrots rotting under four inches of standing water.  These are not picture from the idyllic scenes we paint when we are talking of the importance of building a local food economy.  Yet this is the reality of growing food.  We try to harness the earth and sky to encourage plants to grow and produce fruit, but we cannot control it.

This year interest in CSA memberships have greatly increased.  Farmers markets have received a lot of attention from all types of media.  Whether this is due to the poor economy encouraging people back into their kitchens to prepare meals from real,whole foods to save money, or if it caused from people wanting to be able to answer the question, “Where does your food come from?”  Whatever the reason, this is a great thing for small farmers.  But as new visitors arrive at farmers markets this year, will they understand why a farmer has only hail damaged greens to sell?  Does the first year CSA member expect that their first experience could be cut very short due to devastating hail?  How do we talk about these realities of a local food economy without scaring people away into the “security” of the conventional food system?

What do you think?  Have you had to answer these questions yet?  Do you think that people are pretty understanding of these possibilities or is this the loose thread that could unravel a local food economy?

I don’t have many answers to these questions, but I do know this.  When I go to the farmers market I’m going to ask the farmers if they have any hail damaged crops to sell and I’m not going to expect to buy them at a discount.  I’m going to introduce myself and thank them for pouring their life into something that they ultimately have no control over.

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Last week flew by.  In fact, time has still been flying by.  I think this is largely due to the fact that I started taking an Organic Chemistry class last week.  My time is now split between the farm and this class.  I know that it will be good to get this class out of the way, but I’ll sure miss being out at the farm all day.  Since I’ll be on campus for a few hours in every morning I’ll be working on a greenhouse project on campus.

I spent most of last week cleaning and setting up one of the greenhouses to grow Asian greens for the CSA shares.  I needed to make sure that the water-wall was operational.  The water-wall (at least that’s what we call it) is a cooling system that drips water down through cardboard and uses fans on the opposite end of the house to draw air through the greenhouse.  There are opened vents behind the water-wall, so that as air is being drawn through the cardboard it pulls cool air/moisture through the house.

After I made sure the water-wall was set up and working properly I set up a few wooden racks that will serve as tables for us to put soil on and grow the greens in.  We could put the soil right on the ground, but then we would have to bend all the day down to harvest.  The tables allow us to be a little lazy. I like that.

After the tables were set up I set up 16 bags of certified orgaic potting soil on top of the tables, cut a few drainage holes in the bottom, then opened up the top to sew seeds directly into the bags.  Greens don’t need a whole lot of soil to grow in, so we could either dump out the bags of soil out on the tables 5 inches deep, or leave it in the bags which was already 5 inches deep.  I’ll be setting up a few more tables in the next week, and will plant a second round next week.  This should allow us to have a continual plant/harvest schedule throughout the season.

The disappointing part of last week was that I wasn’t able to spend much time out at the farm.  I missed having my hands in the dirt and the growing camaraderie that is developing out at the farm.  Only one and a half week until the first CSA pick-up!

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The field continue to be too wet to do much work in.  We were able to do some hand weeding through the Brassicas, onions, and herbs, but we sure did a lot of sliding around in the mud.  The big project that we accomplished this week was putting the strawberry house together.  Last year we grew strawberries in hay bales for a few reasons.  First was the convenience of not having to crawl on the ground to pick strawberries.  And secondly, it gives you a bit more time to weed before the strawberries are overtaken by them.  The challenges to growing berries this way is that the bales, being so porous, must maintain relatively high moisture, since the roots are growing in the hay and not in a moisture retaining soil.

We are hoping to improve on our methods from last year by using polycarbonate panels to create a trough for the bales.  Using polycarbonate panels for this purpose would normally be an expensive choice, but the panels we are using came off of the University Greenhouses that are being renovated.  The panels have served their purpose on the greenhouse and now we are re-purposing them so they don’t go to waste.  Here’s some pictures of the process:

They are ready to be planted in.  We’ll make a small hole in the bale and put some compost in the bae and plant the strawberry in the compost.  The compost helps the plant establish itself in the bale and provide nutrients, too.

The weekend has been pretty dry considering the past weeks of rain.  Hopefully things will dry out and we can get back to our regularly scheduled work.  Our first CSA pick up is July 2, just a short two and a half weeks away.  Exciting time for the farm.

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The rhythm of the season is starting to kick in. Transplanted crops are stretching their roots in to deeper soil and overcoming the stress of transitioning from a controlled environment to the wild and unpredictable climate of the farm. Crops that were direct seeded are showing themselves for the first time. With one month left before our first CSA pickup, things feel like they are shaping up for a great season. These good feelings do not get rid of all the other work that still needs to be done. We have a row in which we will be doing some no-till research on. Last year rye and a vetch crop were sown in the row as a green manure, and soon we will knock down the rye and vetch and use a no-till drill to plant peppers, tomatoes, lettuces, melons, cucumbers, and a few other crops. The potential for no-till methods has yet to reach it’s peak, so we are really interested in the results we get. I would love to see large farms exclusively use no-till methods one day, but I feel like that is still a bit down the road.

Last week was split between being rained out of working in the fields and pulling weeds.  We are at that time of the season when everything in the fields is growing like crazy, including the weeds.  Oh, the weeds!  The pigweed and the mallow and spurge and nap weed and thistle and bind-weed.  Weeds are an expected chore when working on an organic farm, and for the folks I’m working with we’ve tried to make some games out of it.  We have a “longest root” challenge, where we see who can pull the longest weed’s root out of the ground.  At this point in the season we have pulled an 8 inch bind-weed root, a 7.5 inch thistle root, and 6.5 inch pigweed root.  It’s a silly game we play, but it helps us not get too bogged down with the work we are actually doing.  There are really two main methods of weeding that are used on small organic farms: hand weeding and tool weeding.  Using a stirrup hoe or wheel hoe works great if the soil is dry, but as soon as the soil gets significant moisture on it using a tool to weed with doesn’t do much good.  One method of weeding that doesn’t seem to be used too often is that of flame weeding.  The process is pretty self-explanatory in that you are weeding with a flame.  At the farm we use a propane tank (like the one hooked up to your BBQ grill) with a hose hooked up to it.  Open the valve, put a flame near the gas, and start burning weeds down.  For smaller, annual weeds you don’t need much heat…just enough to the cell walls of the plant to burst, but for more established, perennial weeds you might need to leave the flame on them enough to actually torch them.  The nice thing about flame weeding is that you can do it when the soil is too wet to use a hoe or other cultivator.

I spent almost two days last week flame weeding.  It became a relatively mindless task, provided I was watching what I was aiming the flame at, and so I spent a good part of the two days questioning the use of a propane torch as a form of weed control.  Using a small tank like we were using is not very economical.  Part of the reason is that we are purchasing propane in small quantities, which cause the per unit price to be considerably higher.  There are some flame weeding systems that are pulled behind a tractor, but we don’t have one of those.  I spent a good deal of time thinking about whether or not flame weeding could have a place on a farm that was striving to be “sustainable.”  Our farm might be organic, but by it’s very nature of being a research based farm we aren’t sustainable.  For research purposes we might choose to use methods, like black plastic mulch or flame weeding, to offer data to local small farms.  There’s a farm just down the road a bit from my house that has chosen to rely very little on gas.  They choose to drive as little as possible, forgo a washing machine and clothes dryer, and use a tractor for as little as work as possible.  They are wonderful consistent in their convictions of being a sustainable farm.  I thought about them as I was flame weeding and wondered what they might say about it.  I guess I’ll have to ask them.

I guess that’s about it for week 3.  It’s hard to believe how quickly the season is moving along.  Soon it will be August and I will be ready to pass out from all the harvesting.  I suppose I should enjoy the meditative nature of weeding while it’s still cool outside.

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As I spend more and more time in the garden I am able to distinguish certain plant families from one another. There are certain familiar traits that different groups of plants hold and it’s exciting to be at a point where I can differentiate different types of weeds coming up through the ground, the particular cotyledons that the Brassica (broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, etc.) family has, or even being able to recognize volunteer tomato seedlings sprouting up in my garden from fallen fruit from last year.

On of my favorite qualities of the bean family is the way that they burst through the soil to emerge. From an inch below the soil surface they push their way up, cracking and breaking the soil on their way to freedom. And as soon as there is an opening, they elbow their way out, pushing aside any soil left in their way.

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I went to a seed swap about a month ago.  A seed swap is a group of people who came together to share seeds and stories with fellow gardeners.  It’s a great way to get to know people in your community who share in a love for cultivating ornamental and edible plants.  I traded some Lemon Cucumber seeds for some Daisy seeds, swapped some mesclun mix for some arugula, and was offered to leaf through worn-down shoe boxes filled with seed.

I’ll offer you this word of advice if you visit a seed swap: Label the seeds you pick up.  Don’t try to convince yourself that you’ll remember what they are.  I picked up some seeds, put them in an old envelope, convinced myself that I would remember what type of plant the seeds were for, and quickly forgot about it by the time I got to the next table.  A few weeks passed by and I was sorting though my seeds when I came across that blank envelope with the funny looking seeds inside.  I have no idea what they are.  The exciting part about not knowing is that I can plant them and wait in anticipation until they come up.

At the seed swap I was offered a small, brown envelope with 15 bean seeds in it and on the outside was written “Hutterite Soup Bean.”  I was handed the envelope while I was deep in conversation and don’t remember what we were talking about when they handed it to me.  When I was sorting through my seeds after the seed swap I found the little envelope with the bean seeds in it.  After a quick Google search I found my way to Slow Food’s Ark of Taste.  Here’s some info about Ark of Taste:

The Ark is an international catalog of foods that are threatened by industrial standardization, the regulations of large-scale distribution and environmental damage. In an effort to cultivate consumer demand—key to agricultural conservation—only the best tasting endangered foods make it onto the Ark.

Since 1996, more than 800 products from over 50 countries have been added to the international Ark of Taste. The US Ark of Taste profiles over 200 rare regional foods, and is a tool that helps farmers, ranchers, fishers, chefs, retail grocers, educators and consumers celebrate our country’s diverse biological, cultural and culinary heritage.

It turns out the the Hutterite Soup Bean is a great bean to cook with because it doesn’t require any oil to cook the beans down into a nice chowder.  I planted 10 of the 15 beans in my garden.  I made a small bed for them away from the other beans I’ve planted.  I’ll need to find out if there is a way for me to cover them to ensure I wont have any cross-pollination with other beans.  Beans are generally self-pollinators, but there is always a risk that there might be some cross-pollination via bees.  I’m hoping that I’ll be able to produce these to true seed and be able to pass some on to other gardeners.  After harvest I’d like to have some people over for a meal that focuses on the Hutterite Soup Bean.  This was one of the suggestions on the Ark of Taste website as a way to preserve the history, the flavor, and the seed.  I’ll keep you updated on it’s growth and how I try to keep it from cross-pollinating, and then in the fall you’re welcome to come over for some soup.

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