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Archive for the ‘Small Farms’ Category

Just like every other spring we’ve experienced since we started Local Roots Farm eight seasons ago, this one has been quite unusual. This March, we endured the wettest month in the PNW since November 2006. Usually, around here, November through January are when it rains the most, and the most often. Lately, we’ve noticed that the winters have been drier than normal and spring wetter. In addition to the unfortunate effect this has on the quality of the skiing, it also makes getting our year started a bit more difficult. We end every year planting cover crops and we begin each spring turning those cover crops into the soil. But when the ground is wet, you can’t work it…. and so throughout March, we mostly waited.

Using the Perfecta II as our primary tillage tool

Using the Perfecta II as our primary tillage tool

Thankfully, the weather gods were kind enough to us to provide a few opportunities to start turning fields of cover crops into fields of beds ready for seeds and transplants. We have adopted a new regime for taking a field from cover crop to seed bed that we are very pleased with. After we flail mow, we are using a Perfecta II field cultivator as our initial tillage tool. We like the fact that you can work up a field pretty quickly with it, and the action of the tool seems to encourage drying. In prior years we’ve tried spading (slow and surprisingly ineffective), disking (neither of our disks is heavy enough to do an adequate job), and tilling (slow and bad for the soil). The results from the Perfecta have been great. It slices cover crops just below the soil, killing most of the plants, and it fluffs and aerates the top few inches, promoting drying.

We follow the Perfecta with the spader. The spader works wonders when spading a field that’s already fairly clean. We like the spader because it works well when soil is damp, doesn’t require much horsepower or traction, tills deep, uncompacts the tire tracks, and doesn’t leave a hardpan below its working depth. The major drawback to the spader is that it’s very slow. 1 mph slow. It takes nearly three hours to spade an acre. But for early-season tillage, it’s probably the best tool out there because you can work a field earlier with the spader than most any other tool.

Spading

Spading a field destined for carrots

For those of you following along at home, you know we had an exceptionally cold winter that killed off nearly all of our overwintering plants, leaving us with very little early season produce to sell. We have planted nearly all of our greenhouses to fast-growing arugula, radishes, turnips, and baby lettuce…. and 100% of what we’ve been harvesting has been going to our favorite restaurants around Seattle.

d'Avignon French Breakfast radishes

d’Avignon French Breakfast radishes packed up for a restaurant delivery 

When, then, will we return to the farmers markets? A good question. We have just started harvesting from the first succession of direct-seeded beds planted outdoors. We are just beginning to see the first trickle of that bounty starting to flow in. We also have a good amount of lettuce and kale lying in wait, ready for us to begin markets again.

5000 heads of baby lettuce

5000 heads of baby lettuce

If this were an ordinary year, we would have probably started vending at the Broadway Market already… but it’s not. Siri and I are expecting our second child in less than a week and we’ve decided to hold off on farmers markets until we’ve gotten over that hurdle. Right now, we are aiming for May 11th to be our first market of the year. Come see us, and say hello to the newest addition to the farm!

Look at that garlic!

Look at that garlic!

 

 

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It’s been a long while since we updated the blog. And no wonder. The weather for the past month has been amazing. Especially, with the memory of the past two cold and wet springs still fresh in our mind. This time of year is probably the most stressful around here. We have hundreds of thousands of little seedlings in the greenhouse waiting to be transplanted, we have fields growing cover crops waiting to be mowed, disked, spaded, and made into beds for seeding or transplanting…. if only it would dry out enough for us to work the soil. Well, this year we have mostly been spared the stress that comes from too much rain in the spring.

Mowing cover crops

Mowing cover crops

Indeed, with the wonderfully warm and dry weather we’ve had, we’ve been wonderfully busy. The Broadway Farmers Market started in April, and the Duvall Market started in early May.

Harvesting Radishes

Harvesting Radishes

Broadway Market

Broadway Market

We built our new NRCS funded greenhouse and immediately planted it with tomatoes. Our second round of tomatoes, and our peppers and eggplant will be going in next week.

First round of tomatoes

First round of tomatoes

We have already seeded or transplanted around 4 acres of veggies, and in the coming weeks we’ll be putting in a whole lot more.

Emerging zucchini

Emerging zucchini

Transplanting Brassicas

Transplanting Brassicas

Seeding Beets

Seeding Beets

Once the plants are in the ground, comes the task of watering, weeding, and otherwise caring for them. Before the rain returned again last week, we were forced to start irrigating earlier than I can ever remember.

Lettuce and drip tape

Lettuce and drip tape

We also got out and did some tractor cultivation. Here’s a video I made while cultivating lettuce. The black object that keeps flashing through the screen is the steering wheel.

Wheeeee

Wheeeee

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This past fall, a journalist was interviewing Siri and me, and asked us what made the biggest difference in our recent success. Neither of us had an immediate answer, but before my brain really had time to decide whether I meant it or not, I blurted out, “Having Felix.”

Thanks!

Thanks!

At first blush, it sounds crazy. How could having a child be the primary reason our small business, which until recently seemed to require both Siri and I to never stop working, was doing so well? But when Felix was born, it quickly became apparent that our farm was no longer the most important thing in our life, and working long hours, 7 days-a-week was no longer a possibility. At the same time, that same farm is what earns us enough money to pay for insurance, food, our mortgage, etc. Having a baby forced us to get creative, to get a little bigger, to become more efficient, to pay our employees more so they’d stick around for more than one season, to refine what we grow, focusing on the most profitable crops, and it has definitely worked.

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Success!

I can definitely say, it hasn’t been easy. The transition in 2011 from old farm to new with infant baby in tow was unquestionably the hardest thing I’ve ever done, and probably will ever do. But we seem to have emerged out the other side substantially better for having made the transition. Indeed, Siri and I have been talking all year about how we could possibly afford to buy the 40 acres next door.

Our farm is on the right, the new 40 are on the left.

Looking South, our farm is on the right (with all the vegetables growing on it), the new 40 acres are on the left (with all the dairy infrastructure on it).

The 40 acres we have been farming for the past two years was originally the West half of an 80-acre dairy that operated here for over 100 years. When we purchased our 40 acres, the seller subdivided the property into two 40-acre parcels and sold us half, as we couldn’t afford all of it (at the time, at least). However, we have done very well these last two years, and, more and more, we have been thinking about how we could afford to buy the other 40 acres. Our intention this past year was to wait until the season was over, look at how much we could afford, and put in an offer. But back in November, the seller called me to let me know that he had just received an offer that he was going to accept unless we could come up with a better counteroffer. So much for waiting until the year was over! That week, we scrambled to get a counter offer in. The seller accepted our offer in early-December, and for the past few months, we have been working to find financing we could afford (more on that later)

Farm from the East. Note all the barns, manure lagoon, etc

These new 40 acres are a wonderfully complicated mix of well drained areas, poorly drained areas, massive barns, dilapidated dairy buildings and infrastructure, and a million gallon manure lagoon. In the near future, much of the infrastructure is going to prove to be a bigger headache than asset. It’ll be expensive to maintain, a possible liability, and much of the fields are currently too wet to farm. So why did we make an offer on this property again?

The driveway dividing the property during the flood this past February.

The driveway dividing the property during the flood this past February.

One of our farming goals is to grow more extensively so that we can reduce the amount of inputs we use to grow veggies. That is to say, we believe that by fallowing large amounts of our acreage, we can grow our own fertility through cover cropping. Another of our goals is to pay our employees a fair wage. We are still looking for the scale that gets us there, but it seems like it’s a bit bigger than we are now. In order to fallow half our land each year, and in order to make enough to pay all our employees more, we simply needed more dry acres than our 40 acres has (if our whole farm was flat and well drained, I think we’d have enough ground now, but it isn’t). Together, these 80 acres have somewhere between 30-40 dry acres, which is as much as we believe we’ll need to get where we want to go. Fixing the drainage issues and having 80 dry acres is a topic for future blog posts.

One day, all 80 of these acres will be farmable.

One day, we hope all 80 of these acres will be farmable.

As exciting as the increased acreage, what the new 40 acres comes with is a host of barns, buildings, and assorted infrastructure. This infrastructure is priceless because the way King County enforces FEMA flood regulations essentially prohibits all construction of anything in the flood plain (other counties enforce the same regulations more favorably for farmers – another topic ripe for a blog post). So although all us farmers very much need all sorts of infrastructure, we aren’t allowed to build anything. The sheer number (and poor shape) of the buildings we are buying is intimidating. Our most immediate need is to enlarge and streamline our wash station, and we will turn one of the three huge barns over there into a more efficient wash station with lots of cooler space and storage. Beyond that, we have to deal with are two other larger barns, in relatively good shape,  a falling down calving barn, a milking parlor, and office-y space. We are thinking that one of the barns will be a nice spot to host parties, events, and weddings.

Peri and Jesse used one of the barns for some of their wedding pics last summer.

Peri and Jesse used one of the barns for some of their wedding pics last summer.

We officially closed last week. There’s much more to say about how this all came about, and what’s next for our farming plans. For now, we’re happy to share this news with all of you. The rest will have to wait.

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Although it is barely February, if you look closely you can see signs of spring everywhere. (NB February 1st is the Celtic holiday of Imbolic, considered by some to be the true first day of spring). We just returned from a three day trip, where Siri was a presenter at the Washington State Farmers Market Conference in Vancouver, WA. We followed that event with a trip to see our friend Justin, down in the Willamette Valley in Oregon. We stayed a couple nights on a stunning property of pasture, oak trees, and grapevines, owned by some professional beekeepers. They were packing up their bees to bring them down to California for the almond pollination (spring!). We were so busy having fun that we failed to take any photos, except this one of a lovely candelabra fitted up with hand-dipped beeswax candles:

Image

We also visited a farm that I’ve been obsessively following on the interwebs for many years now, Gathering Together Farm. Their blog is incredibly detailed and beautifully illustrated with photos that are both pretty and SO useful for a farm of our size. GTF farms about 50 acres of mixed produce, and partners with Wild Garden Seed, a seed growing operation that is the source for many of our most favorite things: lettuces, interesting mustard greens, kale, Delicata squash, sweet peppers, and so much more. Wild Garden Seed’s diverse offerings of seed variety has always been impressive, but much more so now that we have dabbled a little in seed production of our own.

Anyway, we were too busy checking out GTF’s greenhouse designs, seed-starting facility, and packing station to take any photos, but their blog has it all – much better than any photos we could have taken with our little phone cameras. The climate in their part of Oregon is a bit milder than ours, and they are a few weeks ahead of us on their seed-starting schedule (spring!). They already had the first round of tomato seedlings up and growing, as well as chard, peas, onions, and a few other early crops. Although GTF has about 5 times more acreage in production than we do, the basics of their operation felt very familiar. It was both inspiring and reassuring to witness a farm operation that has been in business for 25 years and has lots of happy current and former employees, loyal customers, and owners that seem to still enjoy what they do.

Back on our farm, the signs of spring are there too, although many of them are happening behind closed doors. The obvious signs are the glowing seed-starting room, with trays of just-germinated seedlings poking up, the noticeable increase in egg production by our small home flock, and the first little flush of weed seeds that broke out in the 30×90 greenhouse after we ran the sprinkler in it last week.

Two weeks ago, we seeded our first round of veggies to be transplanted into a greenhouse: 2400 baby lettuces of various varieties.

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Sam, using the vacuum seeder to seed lettuce

They are growing happily under lights in our germination/seed starting room. This week, we started 4800 Walla Walla onions, 2400 shallots, and 2400 cippollini onions.

Baby baby lettuce

Baby baby lettuce

Today, we spaded some of our greenhouses, getting them ready to be planted with our first direct-sown crop of 2013 – radishes, spinach, and carrots.

Spading

Spading

Then, we tried something new. We used the tractor to seed radishes in the greenhouse (We’ve always used a one-row push seeder).

Seeding radishes

Seeding radishes

The carrots and spinach, though, we seeded using the push seeder.

Siri, seeding spinach

Siri, seeding spinach

Last week, we finally finished fixing the above-mentioned spader. Spaders are amazing tools for small farms like ours. They do deep tillage work, loosening soil deep down and breaking up compaction, but they require but require a small fraction of the horse power required for traditional tools used for this task. A spader’s drawback is that is’s a finicky, complicated contraption that has a zillion moving parts, Zerk fittings to grease, bolts that can loosen, etc. We bought ours used, and towards the end of both 2011 and 2012, we had a bearing fail putting our spader out of commission before we were ready to stop using it. Last winter, we replaced some of the main bearings. This winter, we replaced all the rest. It’s an annoying job, but it’s finally done and hopefully will keep our spader working well for a few more years….

The spader, stripped down

The spader, stripped down

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Good as new! *knocks on wood*

The winter and early-spring continue to be a whirlwind. Next week, we are being flown to Spokane, to speak at the annual convention of Northwest Farm Credit Services (click this link, our picture is front page on their website!!!). NWFCS is the bank that administers the Washington State Beginning Farmer loan program which is part of the complicated package of below-market-rate loans we got when we bought this place. The following week, we head back down to Oregon for the super-amazing, farmer-only Farmer to Farmer Exchange convention held at the Breitenbush Hot Springs at the base of Mt. Jefferson. By the time we get back, we hope to see some radish sprouts pushing their way through the soil in the greenhouse. Spring!

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It’s been quite a while since we’ve managed to write a blog post. This is not surprising. Mid-June through August are busy times around here. We are harvesting a lot, while still planting, seeding transplanting, and watering. On top of that, we experienced the driest August/September on record (nearly zero measurable precipitation). So we were extra busy moving around drip tape trying to keep everything well watered. Also, we have a two year old.

Well watered lettuces

But the real excitement this summer was all the parties! Siri’s sister, Peri, got married on the farm in August. We also put on some awesome dinners, one with Russ Flint who owns Rainshadow Meats, one with Marie Rutherford who cooked at Boat St. Cafe and now The Whale Wins restaurant, and a “barn” dance with Dave Sanford who owns Belle Clementine restaurant. We also had the Food Network out here filming a television show with Russ Flint and Renee Erickson from Boat St Cafe. July and August were busy.

Farm Dinner!

Farm dining

Farm Wedding

Farm String Band

When we finally finished cleaning up after all that partying, it was time to start the process of putting the farm to bed for the winter. The first step in that process is seeding cover crops into every available field and bed.  This year, we bought an old grain drill from our neighbors down at Jubilee Farm. Now, a grain drill is a wonderful thing, because it allows you to accurately (or fairly accurately, at least) gauge how much cover crop seed you are seeding, and to do so at an even rate. It also buries the seeds – as opposed to a drop spreader or a cone spreader, which simply lays the seeds on the surface – helping ensure a higher rate of germination and, thus, a thicker stand of cover crops.

Grain drill!

Once it finally (finally!!) started raining in mid-October our fields of cover crops started germinating. We are very pleased with the tidy looking straight lines of vetch, rye, clover, and peas that are emerging around the farm. One of the aspects of farming we are most excited about is experimenting with using cover crops and fallowing fields for long periods to increase fertility and battle weeds. As with all money-making ventures, there is a strong urge to maximize what you can earn. And we certainly could farm every inch of our farm, every year, and make more money… in the short term. However, farming the same piece of ground year after year is similar to a mining operation. Nutrients and minerals are extracted, never returned. A more interesting, challenging, and holistic approach is to use long-term fallow periods to increase soil nutrients and organic matter naturally, resulting in higher fertility, better drainage, better moisture retention, and fewer inputs to grow our veggies. The most basic step towards that future begins every fall when we seed our fields with cover crops.

Last year’s well established cover crops

Another exciting project we are carrying out involves saving our own seeds. It all started last year with the disappearance of commercially available seeds for one of our favorite unusual vegetables – Spigariello.  Around the same time, farm employee extraordinaire Brady Ryan was getting into small-scale seed saving. One interesting, and key, fact about Spigariello is that, although it’s very brassica-like, it happens to have a white flower. Our hope was that Spigariello wouldn’t cross with any of the many varieties of yellow-flowered brassica that were all over the farm. We had planted our last Spigariello seeds last spring and were facing the prospect of never getting to grow it again. Before we mowed in that last planting, Brady suggested we let the plants make seeds to see whether they’d come up true to type, or whether they would have crossed with anything. When we germinated the seeds, they came up true. This year, we have been growing spigariello from our own seed!

Spigariello, at the Broadway Farmers Market

Emboldened by our Spigariello seed saving success, Brady has spearheaded saving seeds from varieties of vegetables that are increasingly difficult to find or that we want to see an improvement in their genetics.

“Perfection” variety fennel flowers, on their way to becoming seeds

Super cold tolerant Lacinato kale seed, drying in the summer sun

The biggest and nicest Red Cored Chantenay Carrots harvested from our fall planting. We will replant these roots next spring and harvest their seeds by August.

We have successfully saved seed from Spigariello, Lacinato kale, and Perfection fennel. We are attempting to save seeds from “Piricicaba” our favorite sprouting broccoli, the seeds of which don’t appear to be available any longer, Red Cored Chantenay carrots (pictured above) because we want more uniformity in the variety, and Treviso radicchio, because it’s our favorite vegetable. Seed saving is a really exciting new project that we will be doing more of in years to come.

In our last bit of exciting news, yesterday, farm employee Rawley took delivery of 500 baby chicks! As a side project, Rawley is going to raise these chickens to offer an egg-share to our CSA and to bring to market. Right now the chicks are living in our greenhouse in repurposed apple bins, divided into groups of 100. If all goes well, we hope to be able to offer 100 (or more) egg shares next year.

Baby chicks living in an apple bin

The weather has definitely changed, and fall/winter is upon us (it feels more like winter today, with a high of 48 and steady rain). Ordinarily, this is the time of year when things begin slowing down. Yet we continue to harvest lots and lots of food. In fact, this week was a record for restaurant sales. The Broadway farmers market continues to have very good sales. And our CSA continues for two more weeks. Once our CSA is officially over, we will begin an experimental 3-week CSA addition. Our plan this year was to try growing a bunch of new storage items with an eye towards continuing our CSA well into flood season. Previously, the risk for us in extending our CSA past November 1st has always been the prospect of a flood inundating our fields and making our veggies, according to the USDA, adulterated and unsafe to eat (in reality, there probably isn’t anything unsafe about eating veggies that were submerged in water from the Snoqualmie River, but it’s a national policy). On our new farm, with much more cooler space, we have the ability to harvest and store a lot more food than ever before. So, after a very successful experiment this year growing and storing a modest quantity of daikon radishes, watermelon radishes, storage turnips, storage carrots, celery root, and more, we feel pretty confident that we can extend our CSA season to 25 weeks next year.

And so, we soldier on, wet and cold, but happy. Because for us, continuing to harvest lots of vegetables through November is truly the difference between a good year and a great one.

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“Cultivate” is a funny word. It’s used to mean, “to tend” generically. But it also means, “to tend your crops,” by killing the competition. This year, we have been cultivating more with our tractors. I have been wanting to write a post about tractor cultivation, but it’s something quite new to me and I don’t feel like I have enough experience with it to have anything worth saying…. nevertheless, a comment on a recent post has inspired me to, at the very least, chronicle what we are doing to kill weeds…

Something that’s clear to anyone who has had a garden, or even has met a gardener, is that weeds are generally despised. They compete with our crops for nutrients and water; they shade our plants and stunt their growth; they make the place look unsightly.

Clean beds are pretty

But, there are many reasons why weeds aren’t always so bad. The worst weeds on our farm, not by prevalence but by sheer awfulness, are thistles. Their spiny leaves hurt a lot when accidentally touched, even when they are small. Nevertheless, they are a refuge for ladybugs and ladybug nymphs, beneficial insects which feast on aphids… so thistles, they aren’t all bad. Yet, I wouldn’t be sad if I were able to rid them completely from my farm…

Now, the most effective strategies for keeping the thistle (and buttercup, and lambsquarter, and pigweed, and shepherd’s purse, etc) population in check don’t actually involve tractor mounted cultivators, per se: fallowing a whole field and stale bed cultivation. The easiest way to deal with weeds is when you can take a mower or a disk to an entire field that doesn’t have any crops growing in it.

One acre left fallow adjacent to an acre being planted. The truck in the background is spreading lime, to raise the pH of the soil – we spread 4400 lbs per acre!

This year, we have taken a few fields we used last year out of production. More than anything, we simply want to rest as much of the farm as we can, so our wonderfully fertile ground can stay that way. Yet, it’s also a really easy way to keep weed populations in check. The fields we’ve been fallowing were cover cropped last fall. This spring and summer, when flushes of weeds appeared amidst the oats and vetch, we simply mowed the whole field, setting back or killing the weeds, and giving the grass another opportunity to put on more growth. Similarly, we had a few new fields plowed this year, one of which we aren’t using until next year. Every so often, we take the tractor out there and disk in all the weeds that have germinated. It takes very little time and is very effective. Next year, we anticipate that field having fewer weeds…

For fields that we do intend to plant into, to the greatest extent possible, we try to use stale bed cultivation to control weeds. Whenever you work up soil, getting it ready to plant into, you are also creating a very hospitable environment for weeds. Weather permitting, we try to have a field we are planting into spaded three weeks to a month prior to planting. In that time, weeds will have germinated and started to grow. Right before planting, we make beds with our tiller, which does in most of the weeds that had appeared since the field was spaded.

Makin’ beds and killin’ weeds

Of course, in the lovely Pacific Northwest, the weather rarely is permitting. And for a good portion of our season, dry weather windows that allow us to work the ground are few. So, we frequently spade and till the same day or week, and we don’t get the opportunity to do that sort of stale bed cultivation. Now, it sometimes happens that beds get tilled and marked, but nothing gets immediately transplanted into them. By the time we are ready to transplant into one of these forgotten beds, if it has been colonized by weeds it gets a second tilling. One observation we’ve made, is that these beds are almost always the most weed free beds on the farm. For now, maintaining good soil structure is a higher priority than killing weeds, so we won’t be double tilling all our beds any time soon. But as with everything, there are always tradeoffs to be made and other possibilities to consider.

Our fall broccoli field – cover cropped, stale bedded, spaded, tilled, and ready for transplants this week!

Once crops are in the ground, it’s much harder to kill weeds because you don’t want to accidentally kill your veggies too. Larger, modern farms use herbicide and GPS guided tractors with 30′-wide cultivators.

Big tractor cultivating corn

But back before all that, commercial farmers used tractors with special weed-killing implements mounted in front of the driver to kill weeds. They stopped making these types of tractors in the early ’80s, but small-scale farms like ours still use them because they are the right scale for our sized farms. On our farm we have a Farmall Cub from 1951 and a Kubota 245H from 1984 that we use for cultivation.

Farmall Cub, about to cultivate winter squash, Mt Rainier and Kubota 245H in the background

I have a suspicion that the terminology for these tools might vary, but on the Cub we use what we call “sweeps” and on the Kubota we use what we call “knives.”

Sweeps, and lacinato kale flowers
Knives, and rainbow chard

Basically, sweeps are sharpened shovel blades mounted on the end of an adjustable shank. They throw soil in both directions. Knives are sharpened unidirectional wings on the end of a shank. They throw soil in one direction (mostly).

The sweeps are really nice to use because they don’t require so much precision. The shovels run down the middle between rows and are a good ways away from the plants, cutting a 6″ swath and throwing soil another few inches, depending on how deep in the soil you set them. You can go pretty quickly and not worry so much about killing your plants. They seem to work well with bigger weeds and grasses, but they aren’t especially accurate because they are fairly far from the crop. Because they throw soil, sweeps seem best suited to bigger plants that can stand having soil tossed on them, like transplanted brassicas, leeks and onions, corn, etc.

Siri cultivating brassicas with the Cub

Knives (or beet knives as they are sometimes called) only throw soil in one direction and only cut in one direction, so you can cultivate very close to your plants. Knives are best suited to plants you don’t want to bury such as lettuce, carrots, and beets when they are small.

In my limited experience, knives work really well when weeds are small and the soil is dry enough to flow around the blades. As soon as the soil is clumpy or weeds are big enough to get hung up on the blade, the knives start pushing soil onto the crop you are trying to cultivate and they don’t work nearly as well. It has also been my experience that getting the depth set just right really improves the outcome. On our farm, are fields are generally flat, but with many undulations and rolls. Our bedshaper does a pretty good job squaring up our beds, but it’s really obvious when one isn’t level when I’m trying to use the knives because it’s impossible to adjust the height of the knives accurately across the bed.

Rawley cultivating carrots

The act of tractor cultivation itself can be a bit like a crazy video game. Especially when you are using the knives, the plants, spaced every 8″ or 12″, seem to be flying by at a million miles an hour. If you could take your eyes off what you are doing for a second, you’d see that you are crawling up the bed at less than 1 mile per hour. It’s fun, and a bit stressful, especially because the third row isn’t visible from the driver’s seat. This is why it’s so important to have the rows in each bed be parallel with each other. As long as the knives that you can see aren’t killing the rows of carrots you can see, you can be pretty sure the knives you can’t see aren’t killing the carrots you can’t see. Nevertheless, I tend to stop every so often and check to make sure.

One last thought about these cultivation techniques – we invested in the Kubota this past winter for two reasons. One reason was that I was the only person on the farm who could reliably get the Cub started, so it was difficult to have anyone else do any cultivation (side note – the Kubota starts up every time, and after some wintertime maintenance, so does the Cub). The other reason is that the Kubota is built to use modern cultivation tools that you can buy at your local tractor store. Finding an inexpensive Farmall Cub or Super A is easy. They were some of the most popular tractors ever made. However, the Cub uses what’s essentially a proprietary system that was discontinued sometime in the 1960s. Finding cultivator parts for the Cub is an exercise in ebay frustration…. do you know how much it costs to ship hundreds of pounds of steel across the country? More than the parts costs. It is possible to have a local welder adapt the Cub’s toolbar to take the standard sized modern shanks and clamps, but that’s pretty expensive too. Sweeps and knives can be purchased relatively inexpensively from a tractor dealer. Farmall cultivators can be found on ebay, craig’s list, etc. But as far as I can tell, they never made knives. Whether knives are worth investing in, I can’t say. But I like having them because I like having options when it comes to killing weeds. Some crops like one cultivator over another, as do some soil conditions.

On that note, we also invested in a tine weeder this year.

The tine weeder, ready to tickle the weeds

We still haven’t used it much, but as our big fall plantings of beets, carrots, brassicas, and radicchio all go in this month, I think we’ll start “tickle weeding” all the beds pretty soon. The tine weeder, they say, works best when the weeds are at their “white thread” stage, meaning their root is just one thread-like radicle. The tine weeder agitates the soil, gently hitting your crops too, but the agitation is rough enough to uproot the baby weeds. One reason I bought the tine weeder, is that it’s an aspirational tool, meaning we’ll really have our act together when we can get at every bed with the tine weeder at just the right stage…. This aspect of the tine weeder is also the reason we haven’t used it much. But it’s something to aspire to.

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Phew. *wipes sweat from brow* That was one amazing month. For nearly three straight weeks it was warm and dry. The weather was so nice that when rain started falling last week it felt like a relief. It’s watering in all our seeds and transplants. It’s giving us time to regroup.

While our neighbors were making real hay in the sun, we made proverbial hay…

The farm from the air

We have been doing (or paying for) a lot of infrastructure improvements out here. During every dry-ish spell from January through mid-May we’ve been getting truckloads of fill delivered to build a farm pad.

Hill of fill… it took about 500 dump truck loads to build our pad.

What’s a farm pad? Our farm is in a flood plain and every so often, we get a flood. A farm pad is essentially a man-made hill that’s higher than the peak of a 100-year flood. Now, ours looks like this:

Top of the pad. 5000 square feet, raised up 4 feet.

While the excavation guys were here with their heavy equipment, we had them dig us a trench to bury some irrigation line.

Now we don’t have to disconnect the hose crossing the driveway every time we leave the farm.

Watching all the heavy machinery doing grading and leveling work got us thinking… Despite the wonderfully dry weather, we have a field on our farm that still hasn’t dried out enough to work. It’s lower than all the rest, it’s where about half our farm drains to, and its drainage is blocked by the driveway. Even after those three weeks of warmth, there was still standing water in parts of this field. We had hoped it would be dry enough to use this year, and it should be by mid-June. But we’ve decided to let it sit another year. Instead, we are going to hire the contractor who built our pad to grade it and improve the drainage so it’s usable earlier and more consistently…. we are hoping that happens sometime in June.

Because we’ve decided to take this area out of production this year, we needed to find more ground. We talked to our neighbor, and he let us plow an acre of his property. Until a few weeks ago, we’d always hired someone to do plowing for us. It’s something that’s difficult to do well, and when it’s not done well, can cause you lots of trouble down the line. But, a different neighbor happened to have an old two-bottom plow lying around and I wanted to try it out.

Learning to plow

Now, the way a plow works is by inverting ribbons of soil. The grass (or whatever was growing there before) is killed or set back by being turned upside-down and deprived of light. A bad plow job doesn’t invert the soil completely, resulting in strips of grass that keep living. Our 1-acre plowing experiment went fairly well, but it was far from perfect. We’ll be planting easy-to-cultivate zucchini and winter squash there, so hopefully we’ll be able to stay on top of the grass.

Speaking of cultivating, we’ve had the opportunity to do a bunch in the warm weather. The thing about killing weeds, whether by hand, with a hoe, or using tractors is that it doesn’t work nearly as well when the soil is wet. Hoes and cultivators don’t move through wet soil well, and even if they did, uprooted weeds reroot easily when there’s moisture available to them.

We have been using the Farmall Cub with a set of 4″ sweeps to cultivate bigger plants that don’t mind having soil thrown around them.

Siri using the Farmall Cub to cultivate brassicas

We also went up to Farmers Equipment in Burlington and bought a set of shanks, clamps, and beet knives for the Kubota 245H. Beet knives work well for smaller plants that you want to keep clean because the knives only throw soil in one direction.

Beet knives

The other new cultivator tool we invested in this year is a tine weeder. The tine weeder is neat because it tickles the whole bed, including the crops we planted, with it’s tines. The tines uproot weeds when they are at what’s referred to the “white thread stage” but it doesn’t harm (much) the plants we planted.

Tine weeder

So far, we haven’t used the tine weeder enough to say whether it was worth the investment. For some reason, it hangs from the 3-point frame by chains. This made it hard to adjust properly. Next time I have a free minute, I’m going to drill holes in the frame and bolt the tine weeder to it.

Of course, we’ve also been spending tons of hours seeding and transplanting.

Seeding

We now have over 3 acres planted, and have already started turning in our first few succession plantings of salad mix ingredients, turnips, and radishes.

Lastly, a quick update about our bed shaper – it’s awesome and has saved us countless hours so far. Not only do we get a tilled and marked bed in one pass, but the increased uniformity of our beds has made cultivation way easier. If anyone out there is interested in having Gary build you one, I recommend giving him a call – 206-900-9362. He hasn’t figured out a price yet, but my guess is that it’ll be somewhere in the $1000 range.

I had a few requests to post more pictures. So here they are:

Shaping & marking beds

Bed shaper disconnected from the tiller. It takes less than 5 minutes to take it off/put it on.

Beds freshly tilled & seeded into

Well, that’s probably all we have time for today. There are still thousands of little plants in the greenhouse asking to be transplanted, and millions of weeds in the field needing to be attended to… Happy spring!

 

 

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The fact that the calendar turned to May today completely escaped my notice, until I heard about the May Day riots that happened today in Seattle. My second reaction, upon hearing that news, was, “It’s already May? ” Needless to say, April has been a busy month. We have officially left our pied a terre in Seattle and are now full-time residents of Duvall, WA. To celebrate, we had a few friends over and shot guns at clay pigeons.

On the farm, when we weren’t moving 12 years of accumulated junk to our closet-less farm house, we have managed to accomplish a few things.

Greenhouse

We rebuilt the two greenhouses that collapsed back in January, and have already filled them up. One with our first planting of tomatoes.

Tomatoes going in

The other with fast growing lettuces, mustards, turnips, and radishes. All which must vacate the premises pretty soon to make room for our second round of tomatoes.

Yum

We’ve also had a relatively dry and warm month, so we’ve been able to do a lot of work in the field. We had our neighbor plow a few more acres for us.

 

Plowing

We have been having a lot of fun with our ever evolving tiller/bed shaper. Its latest iteration involved putting hilling disks in front of the tiller to better define the walk paths and to block soil the tiller was throwing forward. It really works like a dream now.

Version 3.0

We have already seeded or transplanted into about two acres, and lots more is on the way.

Lotsa Lettuce

Finally, farmers market season has begun. Broadway started two Sundays ago, and the Duvall farmers market starts this Thursday. We were lucky to have a relatively mild winter, and tons of veggies survived. So we’ve had kale, chard, leeks, parsnips, beets, radicchio, and more to bring to market to accompany the turnips, radishes, arugula, and salad mix from this year. The result is our best opening day market by a huge margin!

Broadway Market, opening day.

The month, of course, hasn’t been without its hardships. We have a pretty bad cutworm problem in one of our fields, drainage is proving to be worse than we’d hoped in part of our field, we have had very limited opportunities to kill weeds… but that’s farming, I guess.

 

 

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What phenomenal weather we’ve had here in the PNW the past few weeks. We’ve been so busy using our new equipment, I haven’t had time to write about it. Since I last posted, we have been mowing, spading, disking, tilling, seeding, and transplanting up a storm.

Lots of brassicas

Today and yesterday we also planted about a third of an acre of potatoes. We made a furrow with hilling disks on the Cub and, after placing the seed pieces in the furrow, turned the disks around covered them up. It was an amazingly fast way to plant potatoes.

You put the potato in the furrow...

...then you cover them like so.

But the most exciting part about the past few weeks was experimenting with our modified tiller/bed-shaper.

Bed-shaper v 2.0

What we’ve created is basically what’s known as a pan-style bed shaper attached to the back of the tiller. What’s cool about it is that we can take it off and put it back on in about 5 minutes or less. And, if we ever get a new tiller, we can easily take the attachment parts off and attach the bed-shaper to another tiller. Pretty nifty.

Off

The shaper starts out as wide as the tiller, 60 inches, and funnels the soil down to 48 inches. The rear pan is adjustable up and down using a jack-screw. The sides of the rear pan are also adjustable, so it can make a bed that is between 3 and 6 inches tall. Being able to adjust the rake of the rear shaper pan was especially useful early last week when we were tilling moist soil and wanted to till super shallowly but still needed downward pressure on the bed for the shaper to work.

Using the shaper in damp soil.

I’m especially pleased with the removable row markers. They’re nothing more than 3 bolts attached to the rear pan. But combined with fact that the shaper makes the walk path too, it saves us a pass with another tractor to mark beds for transplanting, and I feel that we are ending up with straighter rows.

Straight rows of lettuce

The next modification is going to be the addition of hilling disks in front of the tiller. We use a reverse spinning tiller which throws soil forward, irritatingly filling the just formed walk paths with a ridge of soil. Our hope is that disks will both block this soil and also channel more soil through the main channel enabling us to make taller beds. We hope to have version 3.0 of the bed shaper up and running by our next dry spell… Until then!

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Siri and I spend a lot of time looking at our finances, thinking about the size our farm, wondering how big it should be. Our goal is to be as small as possible without overtaxing ourselves, our ground, or our employees. When I look at successful, larger vegetable farms, one of their distinguishing features is that they have specialized equipment making the all their processes as efficient as possible.

How a big farm harvests carrots

In my opinion, one of the hurdles standing between small farms like ours and true sustainability and profitability is that there is very little equipment out there that can help us gain similar efficiencies but that also fit our size farm and pocketbook. It’s easy to find 4 to 6-foot wide tillers, mowers, plows for small tractors, and such. What’s lacking is smaller equipment that can mechanize harvesting, washing vegetables, or tractor implements that can do more than one task per pass, or that can help reduce labor costs by streamlining our systems. There simply aren’t enough small farms out there to make it worthwhile for companies to produce specialized equipment for small farms. In response to this dearth of small-scale production equipment, groups like Farm HackOpen Source Ecology, and others have created forums where small farmers like us can share designs, information, and techniques that have worked for us. But we still have a long way to go.

Green bean harvester

3-in-1 Disk-Chisel Plow-Soil Conditioner

One process that I’ve always wanted to improve is the way we make our beds. When we make beds to seed or transplant into, we make a lot of passes with our tractors. When the weather dries out enough for us to work the ground, we’ll be spading or disking in our cover crops. This probably will take two passes.

Spading

Then we’ll till as shallowly as possible to make the topmost layer of soil into a fine medium so we can accurately gauge how deep we are planting our seeds and cultivate effectively with a tractor (i.e. kill weeds with tractor mounted tools we drag behind or underneath the Cub or Kubota).

Ready to till & seed

Lastly, we’ll make a pass with the Farmall Cub (or Kubota 245 H) when we seed or mark rows for transplanting.

Siri, marking rows with the Cub

We want to mark beds as straight as possible. Straightness matters because tractor cultivation is significantly faster and easier when the vegetables are planted in straight, parallel lines. With fast and effective tractor cultivation comes more uniform plant growth and faster harvesting. For many crops we grow, these sorts of efficiencies may be the difference between that crop being profitable or not because of reduced hand weeding, faster harvesting, and increased yield.

To mark parallel rows for transplanting, we built a row marker that attaches to the back of the Cub. It scratches three parallel and equidistant lines in the bed that we use as a guide. But it’s really hard to do as accurate a job as I’d like with our equipment. Because its’ so imprecise, I’ve found this process of making beds unsatisfying.

Not to mention, it’s always felt like the final pass, when we mark the rows, was an unnecessary pass with a tractor. This is compounded by the fact that, because the tiller throws a wake wider than its frame, it’s really difficult to accurately line the Cub up with the exact middle of the tilled path. Over the course of a bunch of beds, a ridge of soil the tiller makes slowly creeps into the row we want to seed or transplant into. This makes transplanting, seeding, and, later on, cultivating more difficult. But what’s most unsatisfying about our till/mark/seed process is that the Cub is hard to drive perfectly straight, especially when that ridge of soil is directly beneath the front tires. And every jog or jag, every time you start drifting in one direction and correct your mistake, every time you deviate from perfectly straight, you make cultivation much much harder and slower.

Really large farms ensure perfectly straight, parallel beds by using GPS guided tractors. When they plant and cultivate, the GPS steers the tractor. Beds are perfectly flat and uniform. Plants are all spaced perfectly. Robots could probably do a lot of the work… Smaller, but still big farms, don’t use GPS technology. But they do get perfectly level and uniform beds by using a bed shaper. They ensure their beds are parallel by using a long row-marking arm that scratches a line next to the tractor showing the driver what to aim at during the next pass.

Bed Shaper

In a business with a lot of overhead and relatively small profit margins, the sorts of efficiencies I’ve been writing about can make a huge difference in profitability. We have been thinking about improving the way we form beds for a while now. We can considered buying a bed shaper that is appropriately scaled for our farm. They aren’t even that expensive. But it wouldn’t eliminate a pass with the tractor; it might even add one, as some of the smaller bed shapers suggest making multiple passes roughing in beds before tilling and then doing a final shaping pass. What we are looking for is efficiency, reducing the number of tractor passes we have to make, but also improving the uniformity of our beds. After much internet research, I learned about tiller/bed shaper combos. They tend to be prohibitively expensive and designed for massive tractors.

But perhaps, I wondered, could we design and build something that would achieve the desired effect? So I got to talking with Van, our local plowman/mechanic/welder/cigar aficionado. I showed him pictures of various designs that seem to work for larger equipment and I asked whether he could build me something similar. Van passed along the project to his friend Gary, and Gary has now spent countless hours modifying our tiller to be a combo tiller/bed shaper.

Tiller/Bed Shaper

It isn’t completed yet. And even if it were, it’s been so incredibly wet this spring that we wouldn’t have had a chance to try it anyway. But I’m very hopeful that this small modification of a stock rototiller could be a tool that can help small farms like ours achieve the efficiencies of large scale productions farms. It’s things like this that can help us lower our production costs and become profitably sustainable. That is…. if it works.

I’ll be updating this blog with news about our progress with this design. But if anyone is interested, I know Gary is keen to build more of these, once we’ve settled upon a successful design.

For those of you who have read this far, our design is for a 60″ tiller and makes a 48″ bed-top 4″ high, but this is customizable. The bed shaper comes off easily, so the tiller can be used normally as well. If you get a new tiller, the bed-shaper is transferrable with only a little welding of parts onto the new tiller. Downward pressure is adjustable to make a more or less compacted bed-top. It looks like it’ll add about 300 lbs to the total weight of the tiller. Here are a few more pictures:

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