Sliding into Fall

Well, I was pretty happy with the rain we got earlier in the week. It should have given crops the last push they need to fill out for the season. Even if we don’t get another solid rain and the temperatures are normal, plants are well assured of producing a crop. Before the rain plants were looking a bit stressed and I was running all over the place trying to get the last short-term crops of the year to germinate like fall salad mix.

This is an interesting time of year because you’re really in transition from summer to fall. Just the other day, somebody at the market was asking if things were winding down for the season and I looked at him like he was out of his mind “There’s still 1400 tomato plants with tons of green tomatoes…don’t you dare mention winding down!” For him, it was a fairly cool morning and the leaves had started to rustle a bit with autumn in the air; for me, I still in the trenches battling weeds and harvesting like mad. It shows how the perspectives of two people can really diverge when talking about the same thing. Still, even I feel things slow down a bit. July truly is the nightmare month, and it is about this time in August when I “let it ride” for the rest of the season. What I mean isn’t that I stop working, but I let go of the idea of tending the garden with the same intensity necessary earlier to keep up on the weeds and bugs and such. Just the shortened days alone cause growth to slow down. A weed which germinates this week probably won’t even go to seed before the frost, so why worry. And this is really helpful to us, because it may be a surprise to know that the real challenge about farming isn’t the physical work, but the psychological stress. A season really is a wild ride that you just have to keep on all the way to October. It’s filled with too many tasks to list and too many risks to think about and the stress of that can really grate on a person as the season wears on. That’s why I too celebrate hitting this time of year. Although there are many more things to do, we do start to slow down with the days.

Farm Stand Almost Done

I’m feeling pretty good about where things are at this week after last week’s aggravations. Seems like our electric fence is keeping out raccoons and those high-season crops are actually ripening (thanks to 85+ degree heat). It’s tough when you keep slogging through all that work and the plants don’t holding up their end of the bargain; I’ve cultivated, weeded, and trellised tomatoes, but the tomato plants are just giving me green fruit.

One project we’ve made significant progress on is the farm stand which we plan on setting up later this year at the end of our driveway. My father-in-law is a carpenter and he helped me do the framing this past weekend. Our concept is to make it an honest-to-goodness farm stand which makes for a good customer experience. Sometimes people just set up a card table with a couple of coolers or a Menards-built utility shed and try to pawn that off as a farm stand; it just doesn’t do it for me. What we’re building is a 10×6-foot lean-to structure made of recycled barn wood…something that really looks like a farm stand. I keep picturing it spilling over with fall crops this September, so much produce that extra bushel baskets overflow onto the grass…nice sight, eh?. It’s one of those projects you dream up without any sense that you’d ever get to it, but I’m excited it’s actually becoming reality!

The garden work is also in a good place or going according to schedule. We’ve just planted the last seeds for the year like salad mix and radishes. This should give them enough time to get into the boxes by the end of the season as long as we get some germination in this heat. Last night we set the kids up in the van to play (they really like playing in cars) while Mar and I pulled all the garlic out of the ground til nightfall—it’s always a good feeling to be heading to the house at dusk after finishing a job. Also we almost have all the mulch down in between the tomatoes, eggplant, and peppers.

It feels good to be mostly “on schedule” at this point because we’ll be hitting the high harvest period as the tomatoes, peppers, corn, and such come in. We end up in a blurry non-stop picking routine from now until mid-September, which makes it tough to get to anything else. Still, other big project await, like pulling all the onions to cure and putting tilling ground for this fall’s cover crops.

Racoon War ’08

I was going to write about the ins and outs of organic certification for you’all, but I’ve got coons on my mind right now and I can’t shake them.

A neighbor of mine says that coons are never a problem until the corn gets just right, then they will show up two days before you want to pick it. Well, I’d have to say that his thinking is right. They completely decimated the planting that I was going to pick on Friday…two days before, right on time! Yesterday I noticed that some plants were stripped of their cobs here and there, which was surprising because I’d never had any problems with coons before. I knew that once they had my number that they weren’t going to go away—kind of like zombies in an old horror movie…they just won’t stop. The major outcome
is that the good looking bi-color sweet corn which SHOULD have been in the box today didn’t make it.

With the next planting of corn ripening in another week, I’m guessing what I’ve now dubbed “Coon War ’08” does not end there. My mind is consumed with plotting the next round with these critters. I’ve already told my wife that the dog and I will be sleeping in the machine shed to shoo the racoons away—typically a dog will chase anything most garden-attacking critters, but ours is used to sleeping inside each night. I’m sure if we left him out on his own, he’d just sleep on the deck by the house, so he need a little encouragement. Also, following another neighbor’s technique, I’m looking to set up a polywire fence. Polywire is a tape that carries an electric charge. The trick is to set a single strand just a few inches off the ground. Since raccoons walk with the head down and low, the single strand keeps them out. I like this approach since it is in the organic production mold…pest prevention instead of pest eradication, which needs some form of poison. I’ll stand guard over the next week, and, if all goes well, deliver a slug of corn in your box next Friday—let’s keep our fingers crossed.

What makes a farm nowadays?

What makes a farm nowadays? The word farm has a split personality in our day and age between its “popular” and “modern” meanings. “Modern” farms produce a large amount of today’s output. Large scale operations which produce only a few crops, they are not what many think about when you say farm, but then again, today few of us have a direct connection to these operations. The “popular” notion of a farm invokes a diversified 160 acre farm with an old red barn, International H tractor, and a big old garden out of which grandma canned all the food for the family. My “modern” farm friends say that this is just an relic of the past…people have this nostalgic version of a farm stuck in their heads from the last century, but I say “not so fast.”

Sure, this popular vision of a working farm may be somewhat nostalgic, but we celebrate the diversified farm for good reason. One, these farms have NOT fully disappeared from the landscape. Many are still functioning over a century after they were begun and new ones are sprouting up daily like our own—take a look at the modern organic movement and the number of new growers who operate small farms across the country for proof. Two, there are real positive benefits which diversified farms bring to both the landscape and the local economy. Instead of simply pumping out one or two crops, a diversified farm balances animal husbandry with multiple crops, pastures, and gardens. This supplies not only cash crops for export outside the community and possibly overseas, but food for the family and the local community. The diversified farm is not only a big importer of outside inputs like fertilizer, herbicides, and seeds, but supplies its own fertilizer and compost by caring for animals as well as crops. Just having animals causes the grower to purchase local inputs in ways a number of large cash-grain farms simply don’t. You always need feed, supplies, and possibly vet services to keep a diversified farm going. I often think this is part of the reason many of those communities which relied on the agricultural economy just aren’t doing so well. These modern operations just don’t need what the community has to sell anymore; inputs are gotten in big quantities elsewhere, and modern farms just don’t need people when the only thing you’re caring for is one big tractor.

Farming with Children

People are used to seeing us spend most of our time running after our kids: Sylvia, 3; and Willem, 1. At this age, all you are doing is damage control, especially with the boy, stopping them from doing things like running in the street and destroying property. So, when people learn that we farm produce besides my day job, the usual reaction is “How do you do it?” We wonder this ourselves sometimes too, but, really, it comes down to some serious time management.

One thing we’ve learned is that we have to specialize our labor. We’ve tried working at the same time, hoping that the kids will just stick around, but it typically ends up a disaster. Something like digging potatoes or picking weeds holds a kid’s attention an average of 1-2 minutes; after that, they move onto bigger and better things. So, when we try this, one of us is always chasing after kids and we end up arguing over whose turn it is to catch them before they get hurt or trample a whole crop. Now we trade off a lot. One watches the kids and the other concentrates on farm work. Yesterday I took the kids for a 2-hour bike ride to the lake and Mar did some serious bean picking.

The great part of farming with children is watching them grow up with the farm. Sylvia knew the word “kohlrabi” at a very young age and Will THINKS he’s ready to drive a tractor. I read an article recently by an author named Gene Logsdon in Farming magazine about all the toys farm kids enjoy that you can’t buy in stores: everything from ponds to rocks and bugs. It made me think about the kids’ favorite toy of late: corn. For the past couple of weeks they keep asking us to go ‘play corn’ where they run up and down the corn rows screaming and trying to surprise one another and me. It’s pretty cool that we have four corn patches, so when they get bored with one area, they can move onto another. For me, as a parent, I just love it and I often think about the memories we make for our children. I have great memories of gardening at our plot near the sugar plant in East Grand Forks, wondering off looking for fox along the rail lines or harvesting corn with my family up by Warren, MN. And I grow concerned for those who will only have memories of Playstation, TV, and chatrooms…I’m concerned for their person and I’m concerned for a world where we have no real connection to land and family and community.

Soil Matters

I’m sure as I write you that each one of you have a slightly different soil in your backyard. Yours may be a bit sandy, good black loam, or a yellow clay. A grower has drastically different experiences depending on that soil type. At the farm, our soil is a pretty heavy clay. This has its advantages and its disadvantages. The major advantage is that it seriously retains moisture. For
example, last year when it was extremely dry after June, we didn’t have to set up irrigation until the end of July. Places with sandy soils like near Erhard and Dent had crops simply burn up. The couple disadvantages are compaction and soil
temperature. Both of these issues have been challenges this year since we’ve had the “monsoon season” most of the summer. As I’m sure your own plants did, many crops just sat in the mud not growing at all because of the low soil temperature as well as the retention of moisture. With so much water, plants were turning yellow because they simply weren’t getting oxygen due to saturated ground and not functioning to their best abilities because of the low temperatures. Compaction is the other issue which I think we’ve been skirting to the best of our abilities. The trick here with a clay soil is to use machinery only when the ground is pretty dry, if not, you’ll have cement where the tire tracks are and mud chunk cement pieces where you tilled—not good. This, of course, messes with when you can cultivate to take out the weeds. Basically I’ve been working on being more patient this season, so I should be a better person for it.

With our clay soil, we constantly do a bit each year to amend the soil both to increase fertility as well as change its texture. We want a fertile soil obviously, but we also want one which is more porous and loamy instead of dense yellow clay. In an organic system, this means adding compost and planting cover crops. For example this year we have a cover crop of vetch and rye planted as a cover crop on ground we’re bringing into production next year. Vetch is a legume which looks like a bushy vine with purple flowers; it both fixes a good amount of nitrogen in the ground and adds a lot a biomass when incorporated. By biomass, I mean, a lot a plant material which will decompose into the soil and improve its texture.