8/17/05 Vol. 2 #23

Betsy says never mention the word vacation to her in August again.  I actually downplay it and call it the August “break” because we never really can just walk away from the place at this time of year.  We still have to do enough work to “keep the lights on” so that there will be something to harvest and sell when we come back.  We still harvest a little (if you don’t cut those flowers they go into decline early) and of course have to water the greenhouse and irrigate and deal with the turkeys and, and, and…  The break concept is important though because we are so worn down after five straight months it helps for the mind and body to heal a bit before heading into the last stretch.  The complication this year was that I strained a muscle so badly in my back that I was out of commission for most of the week and so Betsy had to take care of my “vacation” chores and well as hers.  She says this one is going to cost me jewelry!  But we’re back! and the staff is back, well rested and ready to go.

This is another one of those transitional weeks during the year that signal seasonal change.  We begin pulling out the very first plantings of tomatoes today as they are essentially dead.  No more Early Picks or Orange Blossoms.  Tomorrow we will begin and maybe finish the winter squash harvest.  One normally thinks of these hard squash as being ready more up into the fall months but we have to plant them early so we can avoid their number one enemy, pickle worm, which bore into the fruit and destroy it if we plant them too late.  So they are ready to pick now and we will have them through September.  The “mechanical frost” as Betsy likes to call it rolls in too.  We really begin to mow down many crops that are spent especially flowers that Betsy has stopped cutting because there are newer better looking plantings coming on in another field.  Now our thoughts turn to late fall and cool nights and travel to foreign places.

Picture of the week
New beautiful Zinnias
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5/24/06 Vol. 3 #11

It is the season for picking tiny objects.  Most folks think about temperature, day length and other weather related things when it comes to “seasons” but for us, sometimes, it is much more relevant to equate seasons with the task at hand.  Spring is filled with the harvest of crops that are either very close to the ground or down in it.  Spinach, lettuces, broccoli raab, radishes, turnips and the farthest down, carrots.  Strong backs are required for the hours and hours of bending over searching for the correct size of root vegetable to pull and bunch.  Even then there are only so many of these relatively large objects to pull, on a good day maybe 400 individual turnips to be harvested in an hour.  Beginning this week we started the change of seasons to more stand up pursuits  but with more tedious consequences.  What is he talking about?  Sugar Snap Peas and Blueberries.

While we do get to stand up while picking them, the harvest time goes on and on.  We (five of us) picked peas for two solid hours on Monday morning.  Yesterday was the first shot over the bow of Blueberry season with four people picking for several hours, thousands of tiny blue orbs.  For the next three weeks our lives will be consumed by the harvest of blueberries.  When it overlaps with something else like peas it can be mind numbing.  When we first began the transition from mostly blackberries (we had two acres in production at one point) to vegetables and flowers we designed June to be “berry” month.  We have never grown the traditional crops that begin in June; squash, beans, cucumbers, potatoes.  So I needed something to occupy me from the end of lettuce season and the other cool weather crops, at the end of May, until the beginning of tomato season at the beginning of July.  Betsy just won’t let me lounge around the farm without something to do.  Our original plan was to have blackberries and blueberries.  Several years ago when the last of the large blackberry plantings was waning and the blueberries where beginning to really produce, we had that overlap.  We learned that season that there were not enough people on the face of the earth to pick all those tiny objects.  When that planting of blackberries was plowed under we decided that June would be Blueberry month only!  As it is we still hire an additional four or five people to help us get them all off the bushes and into those little green pint containers.

Finally the turkeys got moved to the field.  Seven weeks old and tired of hanging around that old brooder building.  Now turkeys herd pretty well once they get used to it (they actually used to have “turkey drives” to get large numbers to market) but as I have said, the first time you introduce something new to them is always exciting.  After several years of trying to herd them from the brooder, the several hundred yards, to their first stop in the fields and having it get out of hand we now carry them over, two in each hand.  Yesterday we had six of us to make the job easier.  Two catching and four walking them over.  They are much happier now, lots of interesting bugs and weed seeds to eat and bushes to run around.  Every year we have a misfit in the bunch.  Last year it was Buckwheat and the half blind Blue Slate, the year before it was a broad breasted white with a crooked beak that made him look like a pirate.  This year it is Shrimpy.  Shrimpy is a quarter the size of the others, with shorter legs, but she runs with the rest of them as if there is no difference.  No one seems to notice and she is growing just fine only she will never catch up with the others.  Some one will be getting a five pound bird for Thanksgiving.

Picture of the Week
Happy but cold turkeys this morning

9/6/06 Vol. 3 #25

It is amazingly dark these mornings and it makes it hard to get going.  We pulled all the shade cloth off the little tunnels this week because the days are getting so short that the crops that were under the shade get too leggy trying to stretch for the diminishing light.  In August those same crops (lettuce, Brussels sprouts, celery, etc.) can’t take the heat so we give them the extra shade to get them going but with a snap of the fingers it becomes too much shade.  We now know that Labor Day is the changing point and by then the heat has begun to break as well.  Ernesto brought very nice rain without much wind, we had 2.5 inches that came down gently.  Then we had a monsoon type down pour on Monday with 2.5 inches more in about thirty minutes.  The river didn’t rise much and the creek is barely running again but things look much better around the farm, now the ground will not be so dry and I can begin to get soil ready for the fall and winter.  The early tomatoes get taken down today as we have to make way for planting campanula and other flowers for next year and so the preparations for the next season begin in earnest.

This is sometimes a difficult time of year for us as we have one foot still in this growing season, trying to make sure we get everything we can out of the crops that are left, and one foot in the next growing season.  We know that a big part of next year’s success is rooted in what we do over the next few months and so we become a little schizophrenic this time of year as we look way ahead while trying to keep a focus on the last few weeks of market.  This is one of those “sustainability” things that we realized a few years back.  In a conventional farming system the plans for the next growing season or crop only need to be made just before planting happens.  A conventional farmer may make the decision on how much corn to plant based on the commodity market in the spring and then just has to use fertilizer in a bag and plant.  For us the crop rotation dictates what crops go where and how much we will plant is based on what, you, our customers tell us you want.  Most of our “fertilizer” is from the organic matter in the soil that we resupply by growing cover crops in that same soil and then turning them under.  It is a much longer term view of farming.  That is why we stopped raising the fall cool season crops so that we could instead concentrate of getting the farm ready for next year.  Of course being able to go on vacation in October is not a bad side benefit either!

Picture of the Week
Lettuce started under shade, it will be ready in a week or two

6/18/08 Vol. 5 #14

What a glorious morning, just came back in from my morning perambulation (letting the turkeys out, turning on irrigation, general perusal of the place) and the 50 degree temperature that greeted me was almost shocking.  Thank goodness we are near the longest day of the year (and the first day of summer) because this waking up at 5:00 a.m. is not natural.  I always wake with the light and it is just not right to be up this early in the day!  The change of seasons is truly upon us as we are mowing down the spring vegetable and flower crops and planting more of what will be the late summer crops.  Under the tiller go the beet, carrot, spinach and lettuce beds making room for more zinnias, sunflowers and celosia.  We covered the last bay of the Big Tops last week and the guys built their last tomato trellis of the year.  Today we will plant the last round of tomatoes, the ones for August and September.  We do this planting no-till into a rolled down cover crop of grain rye and this year Austrian winter peas, just like all of the sweet peppers.  When we plant the sweet peppers we are always pushing the front end of using this no-till system because the cover crops are just barely mature enough to kill and the soil is still almost too cool under the insulating layer of mulch.  With the late tomatoes it is just right because the cover is well dead and the soil is warm but not hot.  Most farmers will plant their late tomatoes into white plastic in an attempt to keep the soil and the plants a little cooler, besides my disdain for using plastic mulch, we already have those conditions using the no-till.  Even with these more ideal planting conditions we only plant a limited selection of varieties because tomatoes don’t pollinate well in the hot nights of July and August so we only plant five beds and four varieties, a red, a pink, a yellow and of course Sun Gold cherries.

We really need some rain right now, not only is the pond going down but it is time to seed the summer cover crops.  As I was tilling yesterday the soil is getting very dry making it hard to incorporate the crop residues and difficult to germinate the new seeds.  This is beginning to look like last year where it was almost impossible to get the summer cover crops going.  Now that blueberry picking is almost over we are turning our attentions to catching up on all this planting, trellising and spring crop clean up, hopefully today we will also start the pepper trellising as those poblanos are getting tall and susceptible to being knocked over in a storm.  Friday we will begin the annual red onion harvest another sign of summer as right on cue the onion tops are flopping over, telling us it is time to get them out of the ground too.  As Betsy says, it’s like being a chicken on a hot plate, how fast can you dance?

Picture of the Week
Dan marking the beds, Cov planting celosia in the former spring lettuce beds

7/30/08 vol. 5 #20

Depending on how we look at it, it has been either 20 or 24 weeks since we started going to market.  Twenty occupying our regular Saturday spot with two spaces but with the market going year round now Betsy started going four weeks earlier with the first few anemones and ranunculus.  Either way it’s a long time without a break.  Twenty weeks for the staff as well, hot, cold, wet, dry, steamy, arid, seeding, planting, weeding, cultivating, harvesting.  Twenty weeks of dealing with each other and us, time for a pause.  As most of you all know we take a week off, every summer, in early August timed to hit just as the early tomatoes wane and before the peppers really kick in.  Now I always refer to it as the “break” and not a vacation because Betsy and I don’t really get to check out.  We give the staff the week off with pay and they usually leave town.  That leaves us here to water, and irrigate, keep and eye on the turkeys, pick a little bit of stuff that has to be harvested, etc.  The break is in not going to markets and doing regular deliveries.  We usually do a few hours of chores in the cool of the morning and then find some kind of diversion in the afternoons, eat a lot, take naps, read and other general sloth.  To that end there will be no newsletter next week and we will not be at market Wednesday 8/6 and Saturday 8/9.

This break marks the transition into fall and gives us the bit of rest needed to head into this most important time of year for the farm.  The ten weeks that follow the break are not only the end of our harvest season with peppers, tomatoes and the last of the summer flowers but it is the start of the next year.  We are busy dismantling all of the infrastructure we put in place all season to grow and support the crops; irrigation, trellises and more.  At the same time we are busy seeding and transplanting flowers for next spring, improving the soil with mineral amendments and seeding cover crops.  By mid October it will all be put to bed for the winter save a few hundred feet of row for the vegetables for Thanksgiving and the turkeys wandering around in their pasture.  In many ways the next growing season is decided and set in place during this period, we take it very seriously and when it’s done we then can take a “vacation” and rest assured that next year will be another good one!

Picture of the Week
Crazy Celosia heads

5/6/09 Vol. 6 #7

This is the kind of weather that berry and lettuce growers fear.  In the winter and early spring we hope for plenty of wet days to keep things cool and help the little plants grow.  During harvest season we prefer to have widely spaced rains with brilliant sun in between so the berries and lettuce can dry before the dreaded molds get a foot hold.  When we were in the wholesale blackberry business this kind of weather would give us sleepless nights.  We just knew that the beautiful glossy black berries we sent to the grocery stores would all be turning white with mold in the produce coolers and we would have to give them credit for many dollars worth of hard earned/picked fruit.  Because we were not going to spray fungicides it is one of the reasons we got out of the blackberry business.

On the lettuce side there is a soil borne fungus that is commonly called bottom rot and the lettuce heads just melt down.  Not all heads and just in places here and there in the field.  When the lettuce is at harvest stage and densely packed together on the beds the soil underneath them never sees the sun and stays moist, perfect for molds to grow.  We compounded the situation with this rainy period by irrigating Monday afternoon because we had to and weren’t sure if the storms would come, water on water.  Our only defense now is when we harvest, to try and cut the middle row out of the three on each bed to give them better airflow and hope the sun comes out.  Looks like we have a few more days to wait for the sun to appear.  Just when we are in the early weeks of delivering lettuce to Weaver Street Market, classic.

On the rest of the farm this is clearly a changing of the seasons.  The last of the lettuces are being planted while the first tomatoes and zinnias are in the ground and the peppers are going in next week.  In preparation for the peppers and other warm season crops the last of the huge winter cover crops went under the mower or the roller this week.  Some of the rye and vetch combos were mowed to turn under for the following crops but most were rolled down to provide mulch and slow release fertility for the sweet peppers, late tomatoes and winter squash all to be planted in the next few weeks.  The last pass through weeding the onions and other late spring crops, have to get all of these chores rounded up before the end of the month and the beginning of blueberry season.

Picture of the Week
Bright Poppies on a dreary day