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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.

May

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!

 

 

Adios April

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.

 

 

Bed-shaper Update

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!

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:

Marching forward

After so many posts on our Italian adventures and our little February flood, it’s time for a good old-fashioned farm news update.

Once again, we’re spending the late winter building greenhouses. Five of the six years that we’ve been farming have included new greenhouse construction – three at the old farm and both of the years we’ve been here on our new property. I wish I could say we were expanding the area we have under cover, but in fact we are replacing two 30’x90′ greenhouses that collapsed under the weight of rain-saturated snow just before we left in January. We weren’t the only farm to lose greenhouses in the January snow event – the snow was so laden with water that one of our neighbors physically could not push the snow off the plastic. We’re living in Seattle right now while we attempt to remodel our farmhouse kitchen, and we weren’t able to drive out to the farm during the snowstorm, so our greenhouses didn’t stand a chance.

Flattened

The good news is that the greenhouses we lost were (relatively) cheap, bought used on Craigslist, and our seedling greenhouse, which we bought new last year, weathered the storm just fine. Our old greenhouses were an ongoing source of stress. Their flimsy metal hoops meant they were vulnerable to snow, and they wiggled disconcertingly in the wind. We were hoping to get more than one season’s use out of them, but we’re glad to be replacing them with something much better.

Cold metal on a snowy day

So, greenhouse construction is once again on our agenda for February and March. Number one is already almost finished, and number two should be done in a couple weeks. Between me and Jason, we’ve built or helped build twelve greenhouses. We are getting really good at it.

Building the endwall on new tomato house #1 of 2

Of course, there’s other work happening as well. Our weekly seeding regimen is well underway, with somewhere around 15,000 seedlings already growing in trays in the greenhouse and under lights in our office trailer/germination chamber/farm stand: lettuce, kale, kohlrabi, chard, lots of onions, artichokes (!), tomatoes, leeks, parsley, celeriac, fennel, and more. With a little luck in the weather department, some of these will be going out into the field in a couple weeks.

Rawley filling flats in the un-flattened seedling greenhouse

Speaking of luck in the weather department, just yesterday we used the last hours of a very short break in the weather to get our first seeds in the ground in our main fields. We sowed radishes, mustard greens, arugula, kale, bok choi, and lots of other greens. It’s always a relief to get something planted in the field at this time of year. With ten days of rain on the weather forecast right now, it seems possible that yesterday’s seeding might be the only one we get in during the month of March.

Seeding with our new old Kubota L245H

It’s highly unlikely that this March 8th sowing will produce anything for us to harvest by our first Broadway Farmers Market, opening on April 22nd this year. The good news is that we have lots of overwintered crops in the field, all of which were spared by our late February flood. Of course, we could still have a freak flood or freeze event between now and April 22nd, but if not we’ll have lots of parsnips, carrots, kale sprouts, and beautiful radicchio!

Felix sampling overwintered radicchio.

We’re also doing lots of less-photogenic behind-the-scenes work. As usual, we have lots of ideas about how to do things better this year. We’re trying some new crops, putting more effort into our little farm stand, and adding the Duvall Thursday farmers market to our weekly schedule. What I’m most excited about is our plans for our Community Supported Agriculture program. After five years of sticking with a 20 week schedule, we’re embarking on a long-term plan to extend our season. This year we’re just adding two extra weeks, but are growing a lot more storage crops than ever before, giving us the possibility of offering more late-season produce options to our CSA members.



When we ponder the future and our vision for the farm’s growth, we see the CSA as the most likely means to reach a size and scale that is sustainable for our land and ourselves. We love the farmers markets, and I think we’ll always include a few markets in our business model, but, compared to the CSA, they require a whole lot of time off the farm. As our markets get busier (which is great!) they require more people to staff the booth on market days. As the CSA grows, we still need just one person to drive the van and unload the boxes. We don’t plan any rapid expansion of our CSA program, but gradually extending our season is the first step.

Frosty farm in December.

Well, I guess that’s it for today. Stay tuned for more exciting late-winter happenings, and think sun!

Roman Farms

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

Flood!

As I write this, the Snoqualmie River is flowing around all sides of our farm. There’s a lovely lake that’s appeared South of our home, and water is just reaching the fields we grew veggies in last year.

Our sometimes lake

I’m not sure how much higher the water is going to go tonight… could be a lot, or it could be just a little. The river forecasts for this flood have been a bit wonky. As of yesterday, they were predicting a 57.7′ flood. This afternoon, after the rain in the mountains had basically ended, they downgraded their prediction to around 55.5′. Then, throughout the day, they’ve been periodically raising the forecast: first to 56.3′ and now to 57.3′. In my experience, once they know how much rain has fallen in the watershed, their forecasts get more accurate throughout the event, as the water moves downstream. For some reason, that wasn’t the case today. The river is supposed to be cresting right about now at the Carnation gauge. But we are somewhere between 6-8 hours downstream of that gauge. So it should crest here sometime between 3 and 6:00 AM.

What’s nice about this flood, is that being trapped out here on the farm, in a weird way, makes it easier to be productive. Our new manager Rawley is here with me, and we’ve been rebuilding the greenhouses that collapsed in the January snow and seeding flats.

Putting up sidewalls

I should also have time to write some final thoughts about the farms we visited in Italy. I hope to have something to post on that front by tomorrow. Until then!

 

Our Italian vacation ends tomorrow. When we return to Seattle, work will be starting on our farm pad, we’ll be finishing the remodel of our kitchen, building two new greenhouses, and the planting season has already begun. Plus, it’s been such a mild winter, we should be able to start selling veggies right away.

Seedlings started in our absence

So far, we’ve visited five farms and had three very in depth visits to farms ranging in size from one to eighty acres. We’ve learned a ton. Yet what we’ve seen and learned has raised many new questions, and inspired many new thoughts and ideas. Small-scale agriculture in Italy is amazing. In many ways, it seems to offer a wonderful example of how small-medium scale agriculture can work in America.

Fava beans

But of all the things we will take away from this trip, what we’ll remember most will surely be the unfathomable hospitality of all of the farmers we visited. At every farm we visited, we essentially dropped in unannounced. Yet, each time, we ended up being invited to stay for a long lunch with their families. They took time to teach us how to cook regional specialities. We talked about cultivation techniques, vegetable pricing, labor markets, the Italian economy.

After lunch, we sat before the fire.

Before this trip, I honestly don’t know how I would have responded to a complete stranger arriving on our farm and asking a bunch of questions in broken English.

I do now.

Yesterday and today, Siri, Felix, and I visited three farms near Rome one unbelievably cute farm that’s about one acre, one, Caramadre, that’s about 14 acres, and another, Orto di Giobbi, that’s about 80 acres. Of the three farms we visited the 14-acre farm is organic and the other two, like us, grow organically but choose not to certify. After we’ve visited more farms on this trip, we’ll write a post (or two) about specific things we’ve seen and learned. Until then, here are some pictures and some initial thoughts and observations.

Plowed field at the tiny, hillside farm

Field of radicchio and greenhouses at Caramadre

Rows of puntarelle and escarole in one of Orto di Giobbi's many fields

All three farms are part of a new/old movement in Italy where farms sell direct to consumers. It seems that, a long time ago, like more than 30 years, all the farms in Italy used to sell directly to consumers. Every day of the week there were markets all over the cities and towns and each farm had their spots at their markets which they went to, week in and week out. The parents of the farmers we met sold at markets throughout Rome, and these farmers continue to sell at many of the same markets as their parents. However, the children of many other now-retired farms didn’t want to farm, so many of the markets around Rome were forced to allow vendors to sell fruits and vegetables they didn’t grow themselves. Whereas before most fruits and vegetables came from small farms, few larger than 10 acres, increasingly, fruits and vegetables were coming from ever larger farms, more consolidated farms.

We drove past a huge farm, harvesting hundreds of acres of carrots

Markets in Rome became much like the Pike Place Market: grocery stores with more character. Italians continue to buy fruits and vegetables from small, neighborhood markets, bread from their local panetteria, meat from their local butcher… but for the most part, the fruits and vegetables at the local markets aren’t grown by the vendor.

Puntarelle and fennel at a reseller's booth at the Mercato Esquilino

Apparently, sometime around the turn of the millenium, various organizations throughout Italy decided that this trend away from the localized, smaller-scale agriculture was a bad thing. As I mentioned in our last post, a few different groups sprang up and started American-style farmers markets throughout Italy. For instance, a group called Campagna Amica (friends of the countryside) seems to run or sponsor a bunch of markets throughout Italy; the City of Rome sponsors a market. According to one of the farmers we met, this trend towards direct marketing has been a boon for him and his smaller-scale farmer friends.

Nevertheless, the prices of vegetables here in Italy are unimaginably low. We bought beautiful heads of butter lettuce for 0.65 Euro cents each. This head of fennel only cost 0.68 cents. The quality of produce in the grocery store is very high, yet prices are very very low.

Cheap fennel, big as a baby's head!

The prices the farmers get for produce sold directly is much higher than they get when it’s sold into the wholesale chain. Nevertheless, just like us, prices for produce sold directly are heavily influenced by the retail prices of produce. One farmer told us today that the retail price for heads of lettuce are so low that he’s nearly stopped growing it… a huge contrast to our operation. The retail price of lettuce in Seattle is relatively high, and it’s one of our most profitable crops.

Yay lettuce!

One question these farm visits have raised for us is how it’s possible for farmers (here in Italy, in California, in Seattle) to make a living when they can sell a head of lettuce, a bulb of fennel, a bunch of kale for mere pennies. Clearly, huge farms are able to make a profit when they only make pennies on each item by simply moving tons and tons of their products, (not to mention paying their workers slave wages, exploiting the longterm environmental viability of their farms, using tons of chemicals, etc).

Yet, prices here are so much lower than in America, these things can’t completely explain the difference. My theory is that, despite increased consolidation of farms in Italy, they are still relatively small, production is still quite localized and seasonal (the mild climate helps), and the supply chain here is much much shorter. California (and Florida in the winter) basically supplies all of America with our produce. Your typical grocery store vegetable passes through many middlemen between the California farm where it was born and the grocery store in Massachusetts, Ohio, Texas etc where it winds up.

So what does this all mean? Does it mean small farms, selling within a regional market, directly to customers (or even into a short supply chain wholesale market) can make an honest living despite competition from large-scale, monoculture farms? Perhaps… All the farms we’ve visited so far appear quite successful in their own way. After we’ve had more time to decompress and marinate on all we’ve seen, we’ll post more details about each farm. Until then!

Until next time!