We started the first of the harvesting this week. It's always a big week because it marks the start of a period I like to call "Sorryicantdoanythingwithanyoneforthenext6months becauseimafarmer" period. I apologize now for any skipped birthdays or holidays.
Our first wholesale crop to be harvested are salad mixes: Spring Mix, Baby Kale Mix, Baby Spinach, and a secret blend of our favorite baby greens. The biggest buyer of them is Vinaigrette, a local salad-based restaurant with 4 locations. They can really go through the greens....in fact, each of the locations goes through about 100 lbs of spring mix, and 50 lbs of baby kale every week!
Baby salad mixes are actually prematurely harvested head lettuces and bunching kales. If we planted the seed at the proper 6" spacing and left them to grow for about 60 days, we would have full sized butterhead, oak leaf and romaine lettuce. They would look more like these heads of artisan lettuce that we grew for the CSA members last year:
However, we don't plant at this spacing. Instead of 1 seed every 6", we plant 60 seeds every foot! This reduces the room the plants have to grow, forcing them to stay small and to grow upright, which makes the harvest much easier.
When we first started producing salad mixes, we only did around 40lbs total a week. At that level we would hand harvest with knives; a labor intensive process that can really eat into an already slim profit margin. In fact, you can't hand harvest lettuce and still turn a profit once you are producing more than 25lbs or so a week. Enter the greens harvester, a small machine whose design is reminiscent of old sickle mowers. It works by using a serrated blade to cut the stem, and nylon cord to grab and throw the greens into a collection basket.
This machine allows us to harvest around 50 lbs in 20 minutes. It would have taken 2 people about 4 hours to cut the same amount by hand. At $10/hr, that is a savings of roughly $75 per harvest!
After that it is to the pack house, where we really set our product apart from the crowd. A quick dunk in some ice cold water removes the residual field heat and any soil that has splashed onto the leaves. We then hand sort every leaf. Any broken, wilted, or faded leaves are removed and fed to the chickens and turkeys (Yes, we have turkeys this year...no, we aren't selling them...yes, the kids can check them out when you come to pick up your CSA shares :-)). This is the most time consuming part of the entire process, but one that sets our mixes apart from the crowd.
Our process results in bagged greens that last at least 21 days in the fridge (I've left out a few of our secrets). It takes a very high level of attention to detail to get greens to stay fresh this long, and we like to think it is proof of our commitment to quality. We put the icing on the cake by packing them in a 100% compostable bag, before sending them out to be served in thousands of salads throughout the area.
Until next week,
This past week was all about potatoes. All in all, we planted 600 lbs of seed pieces. We started this process back in December when we placed our order for seed potatoes. Believe it or not, seed potatoes sell out fast!
We began by figuring out which varieties from previous seasons were the most popular. Then we research any new varieties that have come out, and decide if we want to give any of them a try. Once we have decided on what we want, we purchase certified disease free stock from Maine farmers.
You may remember me talking about potatoes a few weeks ago, when we cut them into seed pieces and started to chit them. They started out looking like this:
After a few weeks they started drying out, and the eyes began to sprout:
This process also allows us to remove any bad potatoes that would have otherwise rotted in the ground and could have potentially introduced disease into our fields. When you farm like we do, you don't have an arsenal of fungicides at your disposal, so prevention of disease becomes paramount. As we crate the potatoes up, we remove any gnarly looking spuds:
Then they are out to the field! We plant our potatoes in raised beds, and use a waterwheel to mark the spacing. Our goal is to get the cut side down, and the sprout side up. It doesn't always happen that way, but we give it the ol' college try:
You can see that me and the mother in law have to work in perfect sync to keep from making a mess of things. When she misses, I have to speed up and catch her skip by doing her planting and mine...and she has to do the same for me. We've had several years of planting with each other to practice, so we're pretty much robots at this point:
This year we will have our red, white, and blue new potatoes. All of the potatoes are gold fleshed, only the skins have color. For our main season potato we will have a German variety that is a gourmet delight. We will also have two varieties of fingerlings, for those that like to get fancy with their cooking. One is a Russian variety that tastes like it is already buttered, and the other a brand new development, called Pinto Gold. It produces a marbled, bi-color potato:
Photo from Johnny's Selected Seeds website.
I hope you all enjoyed learning a bit about what goes into getting local potatoes on your plate! CSA members should see them in about 5 to 6 weeks.
Until next week,
Can you believe this weather? It's the best we could hope for, and we have seriously seized the opportunity. We spent the week preparing the ground, forming beds, laying plastic, and getting as many things in the ground as we could.
Beans, carrots, radishes, summer squash, cucumbers, lettuces, kale, spinach, and beets were all planted this week.
Im putting a strong focus on perfecting our herb production this year. Some herbs take a considerable amount of time to provide a harvest, particularly the perennial herbs: rosemary, thyme, and sage. I couldn't source organic rosemary seed this year, so I ordered organic plugs several months ago (the process takes 15 weeks). Plugs are cuttings that have been taken from a larger plant, and rooted in nursery flats.
Sage (above), and thyme (below), were started from seed about 20 weeks ago, in the dead of winter. We are planning to plant around 250 of each of these 3 varieties.
This week I also started rotational grazing. Before we moved onto the farm it was managed on an open pasture system, which is where cattle are given a large swath of land to graze. It may sound idyllic for the cow, but a cow was never designed to live in one place. Cows are migratory creatures, and have a natural tendency to want to move away from where they have been. This keeps distance between stalking predators, keeps them healthy by keeping them away from their manure, prevents a build up of waste products in a small area (which changes soil biology and balance), and prevents soil erosion and pasture degradation.
MIRG (managed intensive rotational grazing) is designed to mimick this migratory behavior. Using a solar powered fence energizer, I can section off their large pasture into smaller paddocks, which I will frequently move them from.
The fence works by sending a positive charge down the wire fence from the energizer, which is then connected to a set of grounding rods (above). Like it is, it is an incomplete circuit. When an animal touches the hot wire (the fence), it completes the circuit, by connecting wire to earth, and delivers a small shock. Don't worry! I've now been shocked 4 times by the fence, and it's not as bad as it seems. It's scary, but not painful...in fact, it's a lot like when we were kids and would dare each other to stick our tongues to 9 volt batteries!
The idea of MIRG is to help the animals manage their pasture more effectively, and that involves a lot of math and plant biology. To make the process a little easier, I decided to create a spreadsheet that would auto calculate everything for me. I plug in the variables (yellow fields), and the formulas perform all of the calculations (green fields). This lets me play with the numbers without much effort, so that I can quickly see how a small change will effect the bigger picture.
I can then take those calculations and head to google earth. Using the gps coordinates of our fields, I am able to map out the required paddocks, which can get quite challenging. Trying to make sure that there is adequate shade and water in each and every paddock requires an abstract look at the fields. Your natural tendency to want to follow hills, valleys, treelines, and roadways makes this part just a bit aggravating.
Nevertheless, all of this extra work will not only help our land and our animals, but it will also solve a $40,000 problem. By grazing the animals in a single pasture for so many years, the soil nutrients are way out of whack, and $40,000 is what the fertilizer bill would have come to to correct things. What they don't tell you is that if you don't change your management style, you'll have to shell out that exorbitant amount of cash every few years to keep "fixing things". Sounds like a clever ruse, to me 🤔. No thanks, Mr. Fertlizer Salesman...you'll not fool us. I'll take the extra work!
See you next week.
Anytime I think we may get a few minutes to get off the farm , I am quickly reminded otherwise. We had planned to take the Easter weekend to spend time catching up with family, and getting chores around the house taken care of. However, on Friday, a little calf decided she had some better plans. She decided to try to cross the creek in a muddy spot, and got all four of her legs stuck. We were re-seeding the pasture that night, so we spotted her fairly quickly. It just wasn't fast enough. It was hot that day, and the sun wasted no time taking its toll on her. She was pretty dehydrated when we found her, and she had completely exhausted herself trying to wriggle loose from the mud. Even after we freed her, she still couldn't stand or walk. She could hardly even lift her head. It's common for a cows legs to go numb if she hasn't moved in a while. It can actually be very dangerous, especially for larger cows, who can stumble, fall, and break something. Or worse yet, the numbness never goes away, and they can never stand again. That's why it is very important to get them up fast. We gave the vet a call, decided on a game plan, and went to work. We gave her an NSAID to reduce the inflammation and relieve any pain, and to encourage her to stand, as it causes them to just overall feel better. It had also been a while since she had eaten, and she was dehydrated from the sun, so we also gave her concentrated electrolytes.
You can see at the end of the video that she can't even upright herself. She is so tired that she struggles to even keep her head off the ground. We got 1 pint of electrolytes in her, and we had to leave for the first of the Easter celebrations. When we returned she seemed to be doing even worse, not even able to lift her head to suck her bottle. Luckily, with a little help, she was able to nurse another pint. In this video you can see that I have to actually open her mouth and insert the nipple for her to suck. I use my left hand to hold her head up, and to feel her throat with my fingers. It is easy for a sick calf to get choked on liquids when they are ill, so I use my fingers to feel if/when she begins to have trouble swallowing, and give her breaks as needed. Her mother also required some convincing that I wasn't up to no good! After a quick taste test, she gives her approval for me to take care of her baby.
When we went back to check on her the following day, she had improved greatly, and was attempting to stand. We stood her up, and helped her to get her balance. We hoped she would go to her mother to nurse, so we headed back to the truck to wait out the rainstorm. After a few minutes, she stumbled and fell right on her face. We stood her back up, and made our retreat once more. After several long minutes, she wobbled towards her mother, and was able to nurse. What a glorious sight to see.
We backed away slowly, being careful not to disturb them. The calf was shaking from her attempts at standing...but she was still upright. We left them for the night. This morning I caught them in their same spot, down by the creek. The calf was standing, but not moving. As I got closer to her, she started to walk after her mother. It was obvious she was feeling much better, and for the first time I thought she was in the clear.
650 lbs of seed potatoes also arrived last week. Seed potatoes are generally graded under a wide range of sizes, so they often require cutting before planting. We generally try to keep 2-3 eyes per seed piece, which makes some of the cuts rather tricky.
After we have finished, they go into a warm area with lots of bright light. This allows the cut side to dry out and heal over, protecting the seed piece from disease and rot after it is planted. The bright light causes the eyes to begin to grow, giving us a little head start...this process is called "chitting". Here they are after a few days, nearly ready to be planted.
In other news, the strawberries we recently planted are doing awesome. The red plastic seems to really make a difference.
We also managed to get our early tomatoes and cabbage transplanted.
The berry bushes I wrote about last week are also leafing out, and doing great.
Remember the hardening process I talked about last week? I told you the process was done to prevent sunburn. Here is a photo of a table that we tried to harden off too fast, and did the one thing we were trying to prevent. Luckily it was a mild burn, and did relatively little damage to the plants. If anything, it just added a couple of days to the hardening process.
You have to love the busy season. It will be over before we know it, and we will be left wishing for its return. I hope you all get to enjoy this beautiful weather while it is here.
Until next week,
This week has been a whirlwind. Raspberry and blackberry bushes needed planting, tomatoes needed hardening, and our cattle needed moved from their winter pasture (but first they would need sorted).
When we bought our new herd, we quarantined them for the first few months they were on the farm. This allows for any illnesses to be addressed before we commingle our herds. In order to properly quarantine them, we had to increase our stocking rate much higher than the pasture could support. This wasn't an issue until this week because the cattle were eating hay through winter. Well, winter is now over, and the cool season grasses have resumed growth. It was time to move them into the lush spring pasture that they love more than anything.
Last week I talked about planting the strawberries for the berry patch addition. The berry patch will not only contain strawberries, but it also has Yellow Raspberries, Red Raspberries, and Blackberries. These ship to us as freshly dug 1-2 year old plants, and are highly perishable. They also have to be hand planted due to the size and nature of their roots. All in all, we planted 450 raspberry and blackberry bushes. They may produce a small crop this year, but we expect it to be next year before we get a decent harvest.
This week we have been happy to have the help of Tara, who is taking part in the WWOOF program. WWOOF (Worldwide Opportunities On Organic Farms) aims to connect people interested in farming with actual farmers. It is a worldwide based educational program that is rich with culture. Tara is originally from Guam, so we have been able to enjoy some pretty awesome Chamorro treats, like kadu (chicken stew with coconut milk), and latiya (a delicious cake/custard desert). We'll be sad to see her go at the end of the week!
We also managed to start hardening our tomatoes this week. Hardening is a process of slowly introducing plants to the harsh outside environment that they will be grown in. Up until now they have been in a warm and comfy nursery...temperatures carefully maintained at exactly 70-80 degrees, bright lights for exactly 16 hours/day, and a watering schedule designed to keep them disease free and healthy. Now they must acclimate themselves to the reality of growing outside: spring storms, fluctuating temperatures, and varying degrees of light and water. If we were to pluck them straight from the nursery and put them in the field, most would die and the rest would languish. So, we introduce them to their new environment slowly, over a period of 5 days. Each day they spend longer and longer outside, until they are finally "hardened", and ready to be planted in the field.
Lots of other things happened as well: we discovered beetles in our beehive which will need trapping, the storm blew the plastic off of several raised beds and will need to be repaired, and we had our first meeting with the Organic Association of Kentucky to begin navigating the waters of USDA Organic certification.
Until next week,
Berries and onions...that's been the focus on the farm this week. Strawberries are only productive for 3-4 years before they need to be removed and replaced, and ours turned 4 this spring. When we initially started our berry patch, we planted 500 strawberries. As we've grown over the years, they've become a favorite amongst our CSA members and restaurants in town. To keep up with demand we decided to plant around 1 acre of berries: 6,000 strawberries, 200 red raspberries, 100 yellow raspberries, and 100 blackberries. We've learned several things over the past 3 years of growing strawberries, and thus made several changes to our berry production method. The biggest change is the use of a red plastic film over our beds. This will keep the strawberries off of the soil, and thus improves food safety, confuses birds by camouflaging the ripe berry, and reflects specific light waves (IR), which produces a larger berry and overall greater yield.
We also selected several different varieties so that we can have and extend harvest season. An ever bearing type was added...this should give give us strawberries at other times of the year than just early summer.
We finished up the onions just before the big storm hit. This year it will take 15,000 onions to keep our CSA members happy. We managed to get them all planted in 2 days, an amount of time that I am quite happy with considering they all had to be hand transplanted.
Onions went into metallized mulch. Research has shown that silver mulch reduces the incidence of center rot, which claims about 20% of our onion crop each year. Center rot is a difficult disease to manage because there are no signs of infection until the onion has matured, has been harvested, and then cured. Only then does it show you evidence of infection. Last year the number of cull onions seemed to increase, and consequently, we didn't have as many onions for our CSA members as we wanted to have. So, this year we are trialling the metallized mulch, as well as just planting 20% more onions than what we actually need. Who knows, maybe this will be the year for an onion bumper crop 😊.
Until next week,
We have been watching the weather with great angst over the past few weeks. The 10-day forecast promised rain every other day...just enough to keep us out of the field. The weekend had other plans, and provided us with the perfect opportunity to work the ground. We spent both days forming almost 100 raised beds in anticipation of the spring planting.
This year we are trying out a few different colors of plastic on our beds. We have black, red, silver, and white, with each color having its own benefit; from insect reduction to soil temperature manipulation.
Another benefit is that we no longer have to wait for perfect conditions to plant our crops. After a storm we only have to wait about a day before resuming work, whereas with bare ground the wait can be as long as 3-5 days. This allows us to keep our plantings on schedule, and thus the harvest, too.
What is mother nature doing? Confusing my fruit trees, that's for sure.
While most fruit buds will tolerate the cold (down to 20F for some), they have a hard time when the temperatures stay that low for a long period of time. However, once they hit the color break stage shown in these first 2 photos, their cold tolerance drops significantly (peach tree is pink, plum is white).
Depending on the type of fruit trees you planted, you may be forced to just suffer a fruit loss because protecting it can be so challenging. I chose semi-dwarf trees so that they would stay a size at which I could easily manage them. It makes putting bird netting, harvesting, pruning, and in the case of this week, applying frost blankets much easier. If you do have full size fruit trees, all hope is not lost. Even at a 90% bud loss, you will still get a decent harvest. In fact, you could think of it like a natural thinning method, which is actually beneficial for fruit development. When the temperatures stay as cold as they have been though, you could lose all of your fruit. There has been a lot of success by constantly spraying cold water onto the trees, though it does not protect below 23-24.
Even with 8 degree frost blankets I still had about 50% loss, especially around the outer edges.
I cut the blankets off this week to find a good majority of flowers remaining. The bees were sure appreciative.
Even though putting the blankets on the trees was a bit of a nightmare (I thought the wind was going to whip me away to Oz), summer peaches will make it worthwhile.
Come on summer, cause I'm sure tired of waiting.
See you next week,
We significantly expanded our herd this year. From 50 cows and 3 bulls, to 161 cows and 10 bulls. After having a closed herd (no new cows brought in) for a long time, we are now seeing new diseases. When was the last time you heard of diphtheria? I remember it killing me on the Oregon Trail in 5th grade...wait, maybe that was dysentery?? Imagine my surprise when the vet diagnosed one of our new calves with it. Despite our very best efforts, she didn't make it.
And that's life on the farm. Luckily, most of the new cows have been very healthy. Despite a short bout of pneumonia that troubled a few of our girls, they have been doing great. They are becoming more docile and easier to handle by the day.
They are also giving us some pretty healthy calves...and some, like this little smoke charolais with a white face, are pretty dang cute too.There's a good chance she's my favorite.
We also ran out of nursery space this week. After planting 140 flats, there just isn't room for another tray. Since we moved to the farm, I've eyeballed this little dilapidated, antique greenhouse that my neighbor has in her backyard.
We finally called her this week to discuss buying and moving the greenhouse over to the farm. She was interested and invited us over to take a look.
It may not look like much, but this is an antique Texas Greenhouse Company classically styled greenhouse, with nearly all of the glass still intact. After negotiating the purchase, our very kind neighbor agreed to let us use it on her property until the spring plant is over, so that we don't lose valuable nursery time for our transplants. Moving it will take at least a week or longer.
First, we had to get a mass of vines out of it. If you never take my advice on anything else, heed this warning: NEVER PLANT VARIEGATED PERIWINKLE. It will take over your life. Or at the very least 2 hours of it...though Thomas doesn't seem to mind:
Seeing it all cleaned out really made us anxious for summer so that we can get it moved. We can't wait to bring it back to life. Hopefully I'll have photos to share next week of it full of seedlings.
Spring is such a wonderful time of year on the farm. The nursery comes to life,
the chickens resume laying,
new calves are being born every day,
the bees have awoken from the winter slumber,
and perhaps my most favorite of all, raised beds have been formed and the first of the spring greens planted.
It just doesn't get any better than this. See you next week!