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Archive for the ‘New Farm’ Category

Well, the water has mostly receded and my island is a peninsula again. This flood, 57.2 feet, got into all our lowest fields – the fields we didn’t plant in last season – and stopped right around the edges of the fields we used last year. I’ll post some pictures of the flood once I’ve put them on my computer. But first, as promised, here’s the thrilling conclusion to our three week Roman holiday….

Italian farms. In many ways, the farms we visited were a lot like ours. In a lot of ways they were very different. Personally, the ways they are different are the most interesting to me, so I’ll talk about those. I suspect that the core differences we observed are due to two things; gas is really expensive in Europe so they limited tractor use; and the supply chain is really short so the price they got for their vegetables is relatively low.

These fava beans were planted and hilled... by hand

The amount of hand labor done on all the farms we visited, from 1 acre to 80 acres, seemed inordinate. However, because diesel costs $10/gallon, it seemed that most farms chose hand labor over tractor work. What amazed me the most was that things that we direct seed – carrots, broccoli rabe, chicories, etc – these farms seeded by hand. And I don’t mean with a push seeder. I mean, they literally scattered the seeds atop the beds by hand and raked them in. Even the largest farms we visited seeded broccoli rabe and chicories by hand. They also did most of their transplanting by hand. Farms in the US not much larger than us tend to use a tractor pulled transplanter for this task. But not the farms we visited. (Although most of them had a tractor mounted transplanter mouldering in the back of their barns.)

Acres and acres of romanesco hand transplanted

To me, the most impressive farm we visited was Azienda Agricola Paolo Giobbi, in Ariccia, about 40 minutes South of Rome. It was also the largest of the farms we visited. Paolo has become renown for his varieties of artichokes and romanesco. He saves his own seeds, and has refined his varieties to the point that he has different romanesco varieties for different months of the year.

Romanesco... or as the Romans call it, 'broccoli'

What makes the feat so amazing is that in America, you can hardly find any commercially produced broccoli/cauliflower varieties that aren’t hybrids – and certainly not Romanesco. Yet his plants were some of the most vigorous and healthy we’ve ever seen – and open pollinated. Nice. Not that there’s anything inherently wrong with growing hybrid varieties. It’s just a reflection of the mastery of his craft that Paolo is able to develop such a healthy and vigorous gene pool on his own.

On our last day in Rome, we showed up unannounced at a farm very much inside the city. Across the road that bordered the farm were mid-rise apartment buildings. At the far end of their field was a derelict Roman aqueduct.

Can you spot the aqueduct?

This farm, of roughly 40 acres, sold everything they grew at a permanent market near the Vatican and what amounted to a farm stand. It looked like they had grown about 50% of the food in the farm stand at the time we visited. And this was in February. The pineapples they’ll never grow. But by summer, the tomatoes, peppers, eggplant etc will be theirs and I suspect the farm stand will be filled with mostly their own food.

Farmstand

What amazed us about this is that you basically had to already know this place was there if you wanted to find it. Signage was poor, and nothing about the building said “come here and buy our vegetables.”

Poor signage

Yet, this non-descript store (and its sister store near the Sistine Chapel) moved 40-acres worth of produce every year and made enough money to support what seemed to be three or four households. All this, at rock bottom prices.

Flawless purple artichokes at rock bottom prices

We still are having a hard time getting over the amazingly low prices we saw. Prices for imported things like bananas and grapes were roughly the same as they’d be in America. But things grown in Italy, and especially things grown in and around Rome, were so cheap. Our theory is that this is a consequence of a very short supply chain. All the farmers we visited complained of the wholesale market driving prices down. As best we could understand, the wholesale market was quite literally a market, where growers brought their goods to be purchased directly by grocery chains or wholesalers who sold the veggies to grocers or restaurants. This means there was only one or zero steps from grower to seller and at most only one entity taking a cut.

Produce department at your typical Italian grocery store

By comparison, here in America, nearly 95% of the vegetables sold come from either California or Florida. As best I can figure, a head of broccoli leaving a field in California goes from the farm to a regional distributor in California, to another regional distributor in the part of the country closer to its final point of sale, to a local distributor, and finally to the grocery store. That’s three different middlemen between farmer and grocer taking a cut and adding to the price of that broccoli. This is the case even for locally grown produce here in the Northwest, I’ve heard that produce grown at Full Circle, our neighbor in Carnation, frequently travels down to a regional distributor in Portland before being trucked back to Seattle grocery stores. Efficiency!

The most fascinating part about all this is that I think this means our prices are as high as they are due, in large part, to the long supply chain here. That is to say, if it weren’t for the existence of big California farms and their long supply chains, our little direct market farm might not be financially sustainable because we couldn’t charge prices high enough to live off of. Is it possible that for the small-scale, direct market farms in America to be successful, we need large-scale agriculture to keep prices high?

On the other hand, if we can extrapolate from what we saw in Italy, it may mean that by returning to a truly regional food system, the price of healthy, high quality fruits and vegetables may become much more affordable simply by eliminating the number of people taking a cut as the food gets transported from point A to point B…. so long as the farmers can still make a living.

Short supply chain at the Broadway Farmers Market

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As promised, here is the thrilling second part to my as-of-yet-undetermined-number-of-parts series on small farm equipment: The Jang Seeder.

Seeding in the early spring

On our farm, we make vegetables in two ways; we either start them in the greenhouse and, when they are big enough, transplant them…

Transplanting Broccoli

…or we direct seed them.

Direct seeding, at its core, is how plants propagate themselves. Seeds carried by wind, animal, or gravity end up on or in the ground, whereupon they germinate, put down roots, and grow. When Siri and I had a garden, we direct seeded vegetables by hand – scoring a line in the soil, dropping seeds in every little bit, and then covering them with dirt. This method works fine for small spaces, but as the length and number of rows you want to seed increases, using a mechanical seeder is much more efficient.

There are a variety of mechanical seeders available. For the smaller scale, push seeders such as the well known Earthway seeder and the Planet Jr are inexpensive small-farm staples. We have an Earthway and a European Push Seeder for using in our greenhouses (and as backups in case something happens to our big seeder). Push seeders are great, and many farms larger than us use them exclusively. The advantages of push seeders are that they are inexpensive ($100 for an Earthway, $400 for a push version of our Jang seeder), don’t need any additional equipment to operate, and can be used by anyone. It has also been our experience that, because the operator has such a great view of the seeder and the seeds as they are dropped into the furrow, push seeders work better in imperfect soil. The person doing the seeding can respond to issues – blockages, clods, etc – immediately.

As you start using tractors for tillage and cultivation, and as the acreage you want to direct seed increases, using tractor mounted seeders becomes more efficient. Larger tillers (see my previous post) can create a very fine and level seedbed, and with three or more seeders ganged together, you can put a lot of seeds in the ground in pretty short order. For small farms like ours, the Planet Jr. seeder, mounted on a tractor, has been the gold standard since it was invented some 60 years ago. The problem with the Planet Jr is that it’s imprecise. The seeder works by brushing seeds through varying sized holes. The operator determines the seeding rate by choosing larger or smaller holes holes. We found that seeds go in too thickly or too sparsely and rarely just right.

So, given the opportunity this past spring to start afresh, we decided to try an untested (for us or anyone we knew) but decidedly more modern seeder. There are many very expensive, fancy vacuum seeders that big farms have used for decades. These seeders can cost upwards of $5000 per row. They use vacuum technology to separate seeds and drop them, one at a time, at predetermined intervals. Seeds are spaced very precisely, such that farmers on large farms can precisely plan how many seeds they’ll need, and how many plants they’ll get per acre. The Jang seeder, which can be calibrated nearly as accurately as the vacuum seeders, costs about $1100 per row for the 3-point hitch mounted version we chose.

Instead of using a vacuum to singulate seeds, the Jang seeder uses a nifty combination of brushes and a roller with precisely spaced divots sized for the type of seeds you are using.

If you look closely at the picture below, you’ll see a black roller with divots in the middle of the clear plastic hopper. Each divot is sized (more or less) precisely for each particular type or family of seeds.

Looking down the hopper from above

When the hopper is filled with seeds, the seeds fill the divots in the roller. The roller passes by a brush, ensuring that only one seed remains in each divot, before it drops the seeds, one by one, into a furrow created by the seeder. An interchangeable gear and chain system, similar to one found on a bike, can vary the rate the seed roller turns. In this way, the seeder can space seeds as closely as 1/2 inch and as far apart as 9 inches.

Attached to a makeshift 3-point hitch on the Cub

Using a precision seeder has changed the way we farm. In years past, we’d invariably have spaced our turnips, beets, carrots, etc too close together (the advantage of spacing seeds closely was that the number of bunches we’d get per bed would be higher, even though the time to maturity and speed of harvest was slower). Harvesting would involve searching through a sea of leaves for appropriately sized roots to bunch. The smaller, unharvested neighbors would be left for days or weeks to be given time to grow. Harvesting took a long time.

Now, all our roots are spaced exactly 1/2 inch or 1 inch apart. They mature mostly all at once, and harvesting is very fast. The issue we were dealing with changed from, Will we have time to harvest all the radishes we can sell? to, Can we sell all the radishes we have harvested?

Clean-harvesting a bed of radishes

This altered the way we think about seeding, harvesting, farm labor, what size farm we should be… with this new seeder we found that we were able to harvest much, much faster. We brought more food to the market, so we sold more food. We also turned beds over faster. This year, we put nearly every bed we used directly into a cover crop when we were done. But if we had wanted to plant a second crop, there were more opportunities to do so.

The seeder does have a few drawbacks…. the biggest issue we had this past season is with beets. The seeder does a great job of picking up one seed at a time, so long as the seeds are uniform in size. The problem with beets? Their size varies a lot, their shape is not uniform, and each beet seed is actually a bunch of seeds clumped together. So seeds ended up getting jammed in the divots and seeds went in too thickly or much to sparsely. We did a few things to semi-solve this problem. First off, we bought a special roller that was extra deep, to keep the seeds from getting jammed in the divot. Second, we raised the brush a little and removed the curved, felt-covered seed guide. This stopped the seeds from getting jammed in the roller. The problem this created, unfortunately, is that it resulted in seeds going in too thick, since the deeper roller often had two seeds in it and there was no system to knock the second seed out of the divot. I think we’ll try spacing our beets even wider next year to see whether that effectively counteracts the spacing problem.

Another drawback of the seeder is that you have to buy a lot of seed rollers. We have a three row unit, which means that for each type of seed we use, we need three rollers of that type – and the rollers cost between $20 and $40 each. We bought rollers for turnips, radishes, two sizes of lettuce (we only use the larger size), three different sized rollers for beets (sigh), spinach, and carrots. I think we ended up spending an additional $300 on rollers. Also, as I mentioned above, some rollers work better than others. The rollers for turnips, radishes, and carrots are phenomenal. You could set your ruler by the seedlings. Rollers for other things, irregularly shaped seeds specifically, aren’t so precise. We also ended up using some rollers for seeds they weren’t intended for, because we hand’t bought, for instance, the parsnip specific roller.

One last note on salad mix. For things we like to plant super thickly, like salad mix and arugula, we ended up using a roller that picks up many seeds at a time because the seeder can only space seeds as close as 1/2 an inch. This worked really well. We used the larger lettuce specific roller (a divot shaped like a plus) for all direct seeded arugula, lettuce, mustards, etc. We found that this system spaced the plants more widely than we had been accustomed to, but adequately close for harvesting baby-sized greens. We noticed that the greens grew faster, due to the slightly wider spacing, and seemed healthier, also due to the wider spacing.

Adequately thick salad greens

One of the coolest aspects of the Jang seeder is how it has introduced us to other farmers around the country. We seem to be one of the few farms out there that have one, and certainly one of the only farms out there blogging about them. So we’ve been contacted by a bunch of farmers out there who want to know more about the seeder. I think the information sharing this has facilitated is amazing. When we started farming, it felt a little bit like we were alone in the woods, trying to reinvent a million wheels all at once. Information felt hard to come by and frequently outdated or not specific to our operation. We love getting the opportunity to teach and learn and share with everyone out there trying to reinvent their own wheels… hopefully, together, we can make all our lives just a little easier, more efficient, and more profitable.

 

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Nearly Winter

While searching for driving directions the other day, I noticed that The Google updated their satellite photo of the farm. Whereas, before all it showed was a grassy rectangle…

now it shows our fields, laid out in fairly straight rows, in its August bounty.

If you look closely, you can see the shadows of people harvesting carrots.

Today, if you looked down on our farm from the heavens, you’d see a few areas that still have rows of vegetables. But mainly, you’d see grassy fields again. This time, though, the grasses are (mostly) cover crops.

And the (much longer) shadows are of people harvesting storage vegetables. For the first time ever, we have a place to store storage crops. So for the first time ever, we are harvesting and storing carrots, beets, parsnips, etc instead of leaving them in the ground and hoping they aren’t killed by cold weather or flooded.

With a forecast for temperatures into the 20s tonight and tomorrow night, roots in storage or not, our season looks to rapidly winding down. All our tender greens, many “hearty” greens, and our tolerance for cold fingers are going to take a hit this weekend.

We are harvesting today for this Sunday’s Broadway farmers market, and that will most likely be our last market of 2011… thus beginning what’s probably the most fun part about farming: planning for next year.

What worked? What didn’t work? What should we have planted more of? What should we have planted less of? What new equipment will make our lives easier? What new practices will streamline our process? In what ways do we want to the farm to grow? In what areas do we want to scale back? What all begins with back of the envelope figuring, will end, next season, with a different looking aerial photo of the farm. More land under cultivation? Straighter rows? Newer, better varieties? Fewer weeds? We shall see…

 

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It has been a very long time since we made a blog post. Our intention when we started this blog was to post something every week. From late-Fall through late-Spring, we are able to stick to that schedule pretty well. Sitting here now, looking through the morning fog at fields of vegetables and cover crops, I’m amazed that we mustered the energy this summer for the few posts we did write.

This has been one hell of a year for Siri and I. Mostly, this has been a year filled with phenomenal good fortune combined with an ungodly amount of work. Thrown into that mix have been a handful of tragedies and misfortunes. These deaths and illnesses somehow felt both more poignant and less poignant than they otherwise might have, due to the compressed time and mental space we’ve had to process them.

Now that we are entering a slower season, we can finally stop and reflect on what we’ve accomplished this year. Until now, all of our attention has been on Felix and making sure the most important tasks were accomplished. So focused on our daily and weekly work, that the day we finalized the purchase of this farm, we didn’t stop and celebrate. We didn’t do anything. In fact, we just went back to work and didn’t even remember to tell anyone that we had completed the purchase.

And now, it’s fall. Time to finally slow down and think. I’m not trying to be self-congratulatory, but as I sit here writing, I’m amazed by the list of things we did this year. On top of raising Felix, a full-time job itself, we navigated the very tenuous purchase of our new farm, securing our low interest Beginning Farmer loans between government shut downs and threatened budget cuts aimed at our loan program. Luckily, we knew the loan process would be long, and began leasing the property in January. Once we had a signed purchase and sale agreement, we got busy moving our whole farm to this new property. Somehow we made the transition almost seamlessly. In so doing….

We built 5 greenhouses

We tried to baby-proof the fixer-upper farmhouse

We survived a big flood

We bought a couple of tractors

We grew eight acres of vegetables

We harvested a lot of food

We grew our CSA by 20 families

We had our best farmers market season ever

We grew almost 14 acres of cover crops

We took a lot of pictures of Felix

We have never worked so hard in our lives. Still, we often took shortcuts or let some projects go unfinished, or unstarted. Yet despite the fact that we haven’t had a real day off since March, I’m looking forward to next year. I know we can do a better job, and I’m oddly excited to get started. On the list for next year includes planting an orchard, fixing up the farmhouse, getting better at killing weeds, plowing 5 more acres, growing more cover crops, growing new and interesting varieties of vegetables, and, of course, spending more time playing with Felix.

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Late Winter Goings On

So much has been going on out here, it’s hard to know where to begin…. I suppose I’ll begin with today and work backwards…

Today, we finished building our second of three 30×90′ greenhouses.

These two greenhouses I found used on Craigslist. All of the hoops are slightly to severely bent, the purlins are curved, the swages are squished…. but they are done and relatively plumb and square (for hoop houses). We seeded arugula, radishes, turnips, and bok choy into greenhouse #1 on Monday. And when we finished greenhouse #2 this afternoon, we moved our seedlings into it from greenhouse #1. Soon, we’ll till the rest of #1, to get it ready for the seedlings now residing in #2. Greenhouses #s 1 & 2, we consider our practice greenhouses. Tomorrow, we begin building the new greenhouse we bought from Steuber’s. It’s also 30×90′, but has a gothic arch roof, instead of a round one. Ultimately, that will be the house in which our seedlings live. The other two will get tomatoes.

Yesterday, we had our new 1951 Farmall Cub tractor delivered!

Why buy an antique tractor? One of the funny parts about the kind of farming we do is that they don’t make equipment for our sized farm any more. Today, most farms are hundreds, thousands, or dozens of thousands of acres. But back in the ’40s and ’50s, farms and farm equipment were smaller. They also didn’t use as much herbicide, so they had to use their tractors to kill weeds. A Farmall Cub is a really neat, eleven horsepower tractor designed for seeding and cultivating small acreages. The engine and driver’s seat are offset to the left so the driver can watch the cultivating knives kill weeds (the black dart-shaped things under the tractor) as they pass by rows of vegetables.

We bought our Cub last month, but until yesterday it was being worked on by a neighbor, who was helping us figure out how to mount our fancy new Jang seeders to it. Initially, I wanted to put them in front of the driver so he or she could watch the mechanisms on the seeder to make sure everything was working properly. However, the seeders are too tall to easily fit under the tractor. So we opted for the significantly easier rear-hydraulic mounting system. As it turns out, all the finicky parts we felt we needed to keep an eye on when we were seeding with Planet Jr. seeders aren’t visible on the Jang anyway. And mounting the seeders behind the tractor will make it way easier to change seeds.

We also had a new used field disc delivered, which we’ll use to level recently plowed fields to prepare them for the year’s first seeding.  We’re going to start with garlic, field peas, turnips, and radishes. We have also seeded (in seedling trays we keep warm in the greenhouse) over 50 flats of vegetables, including onions, shallots, kale, chard, lettuce, and tomatoes.

Speaking of plowing, as I just mentioned, we had a neighbor plow two acres when we got a lucky weather window at the end of January. We are hoping that the predicted dry weather this weekend will allow us to have another four-five acres plowed.

Those are our biggest accomplishments recently. Along with all that farm work, we are also still busy  working on the financing to buy this farm and, oh yeah, raising a baby. Felix loves working with us. He was an integral part of the greenhouse construction…

and helped us put the plastic up on greenhouse #2 this morning.

 

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