Saturday, December 13, 2008

Temper Tantrum Turnips

Last season I started out planting most of my seeds with an Earthway seeder (see photo below). My initial impression of this inexpensive seeder is that it looked like a big wheels. Its brightly colored plastic, with those big plastic wheels reminded me of that kids toy which, no matter how fast you pedal, is a completely impractical mode of transportation. However, at least with a kid’s big wheel, you’re moving forward. It may be faster to walk, but there’s still progress. Not only did the Earthway seeder not drop most seeds with the consistent spacing necessary to actually grow crops, it often wouldn’t drop any damn seeds. Instead, it would grind them up in the hopper.

The way these walk-behind seeders work is, there’s a hopper where you dump the seeds which pass through a plate that has holes sized for specific crops. These holes are spaced a distance that allows the seeder to sow in a relatively consistent manner and at an optimal spacing. You then walk behind the seeder, pushing it forward while it digs a trench, drops the seeds and then buries them. It’s difficult to see how many seeds are actually falling, and it needs to be a somewhat exact science, so one must have faith in his or her seeder. For example, when I plant the lettuce for my salad mix, I like there to be at least three seeds per inch. Radishes and sugar snap peas, on the other hand, should be spaced about one seed per inch. My Earthway seeder dumped however many seeds it wanted wherever it wanted, but, like I said, mostly it just ground them up.

I haven’t actually started ranting full speed yet. I first want to make it clear what a disaster this was. In order to grow food one must till up the soil, make sure the soil has the correct organic nutrients for a given crop—often an expensive and time consuming factor—then seeds are planted and irrigated. One then waits anywhere from a few days to a few weeks for germination. When the seeds don’t germinate, one waits longer because plants sprout inconsistently. So…potentially weeks have passed before a grower realizes that, hey, nothing is GROWING. In the meantime, if nothing’s growing, there’s nothing to sell. In my case, I then go to the farmer’s market with NOTHING and I have to explain to EVERY CUSTOMER ALL DAY why I came to market, set up a tent and tables with NOTHING ON THEM!

Okay, I’m being dramatic. That never happened. But, I guarantee you, I stayed up many nights worrying that would happen. Fortunately, I start a lot of my crops in the greenhouse and transplant them out in the field. Also, I had no faith in my stupid Earthway seeder from the get go, so I always planted extra, sometimes by hand.

Some people swear by Earthway seeders, others don’t, but most people have experienced the seed-grinding phenomenon. So, I went online to figure out how suckers who use this implement fix it. Remedies ranged from soaking the seed plates in soapy water and then letting them dry with the soap on, to soaking it in soapy water and then rinsing it off, to walking at a slower or faster speed. There were many other remedies and I tried all of them. The final straw was when I oiled the rubber belt on the seeder, which was recommended by more than one farmer. This last attempt definitely didn’t stop the grinding, which was surprising, because the seed plate barely turned anymore. Apparently, oiling the belt takes away the friction needed to turn the seed plate consistently, which is the action that drops the seeds. So, what happened was, I was trying to plant purple top turnips, and the seed plate wouldn’t turn for a while and then it would LURCH, crushing every seed it could. Then I’d push the seeder further and the plate wouldn’t turn again. After a while of this, and after having spent hours and hours trying to fix this and many more hours replanting crops and explaining to customers why I didn’t have certain crops on certain weeks, and after having wasted way too much soybean and alfalfa meal fertilizer, I finally started just smashing the stupid seeder on the ground, seeds spraying everywhere. I then stormed off, throwing the seeder ahead of me, picking it up and throwing it further and further and further until I made it to the barn, where I threw it and where it rests still, five months later.

Unbeknownst to me, I had, for the first time all season, planted mass quantities of perfectly spaced purple topped turnips. Granted, they were dispersed in a circle instead of neatly lined rows, but they all germinated in half a week and I tilled around them for the next couple months, leaving this incredibly productive crop circle which probably accounted for a quarter of all the turnips I had all season. That may not sound like a lot, but it was. I planted turnips every three weeks for about four months. I’m telling you, there were so many turnips jammed in this space that no weeds could grow, and they weren’t spaced too closely because I didn’t have to do much thinning.

So, to any Earthway seeder owners out there, if you want the seeder to be functional, fill the desired seeds in the hopper, go out to the general vicinity of where you’d like the seeds and smash the seeder on the ground while swearing.

If you’d like a bit more consistency, I recommend the Planet Junior Seeder or the one I bought from Johnny’s, which they call a European Push Seeder (see photo below). While this tool costs almost three times as much as the Earthway, it was the best investment of the season. Not only does it have 39 different seed holes, which accounts for just about any crop imaginable, it also has an arm that marks the next row. For me, this added feature is THE GREATEST THING IN THE WORLD! With this new seeder, not only am I able to plant seeds with relative accuracy and consistency, I can also space each row evenly. The beauty of this is that I space my rows based on the needs of the plant and also the sized hoes I have for weeding. For example, I space my beets and salad greens in rows that are seven inches apart. This allows me to use my wheel hoe (see photo below)—with its 5 inch oscillating hoe—and go in between the plants, weeding entire 200 or 300 foot rows in a few minutes. Trust me, weeding is the bane of all organic farms and the key to having even a chance of overcoming at least SOME of the weeds, is to space rows evenly.

Disastrous Earthway seeder with a Delaware hen strolling by.
Miraculous European Push Seeder (it has another name, but that's what Johnny's Select Seeds--which is where I bought it from--calls it). Note the green arm sticking out, which is what I use to mark the next row. Also note that the barred rock hen did not trip on the arm. Below is the wheel hoe that I use to weed between the rows that I plant with the seeder.

Mr. Chili

Monday, December 8, 2008

Off-season Employment

I’m the only person I know who used to strike out in kickball. And soccer…I can’t tell you how many times the ball escaped the real soccer players in my high school gym class, bounced my way—even slowly rolled towards me—and I missed it. As a teacher (during the off-season), I often tell my students that the greatest step towards overcoming something that seems insurmountable is to believe you can do it. I tell myself that, too. There’s no way I would have started a farm by myself if I wasn’t able to tell all those voices—mostly internal—that I can and will make it work. However, in the case of my inability to kick a ball, I don’t think I psyched myself out. It just seemed so easy. Every time the ball rolled my way, I forgot past failures and was so convinced I’d wallup the thing, my positive attitude only made the shock of completely missing that much worse. Mostly, though, I was just baffled. What was genuinely traumatizing, however, were my efforts at head-butting. The bloody noses were bad enough, but they went away quickly. It was the broken glasses and lingering headaches that cause panic, to this day, every time I see that stupid black and white checkered ball.

There was a highlight to my high school gym class soccer career. Unfortunately, that too turned out disastrous. At the time, I enjoyed bonding with the other kid who stood as close to the sidelines as possible without failing gym. He was a tall, lanky math genius who always got in trouble. We had spent several detentions together, throughout the years, and there he would always threaten to beat me up. But, on the soccer field, me and math guy were allies. Mostly we’d pick on other members of our team, but then shout out encouragement—completely opposite to the insults we’d mutter to each other. This kept the gym teacher happy and was mildly entertaining for us. Honestly, I would just say something along the lines of, “Miss it, miss it, miss it,” every time the ball bounced towards one of those star players, and then I’d roar applause if he made a goal or something. I was always a little uncomfortable with what math guy would utter. It was usually more diabolical, like, “I hope he falls and breaks his neck,” and then he'd shout, “Oh, great kick. Oh yeah, keep up the good work. Go team.” Turns out, at that time in his life, math guy was a practicing serial killer, which definitely obliterates that one little beam of sunshine from my soccer career.

But this isn’t about hand/eye coordination or serial killers. This is about off-season employment. I want to be a back-up punter in the NFL. This profession contains the challenge that I like—the potential to better myself, but it also allows me to be profoundly lazy and make a (relative) ton of money. In addition, the timing of this job is perfect! I think. I don’t actually watch football, so I’m not sure the exact dates of employment, but it seems to mostly be in the winter and mostly on the weekends. This shouldn’t interfere with either farming or teaching and it will allow me to maintain both of those less lucrative careers.

While I will definitely have to practice kicking stuff, I believe I can succeed, so I’m halfway there! Of course, if this doesn’t pan out, I may have to quit teaching since I’m known for my boring—though charismatic—soap box lectures on the think positive theme. However, the second part of the thinking positive strategy is a realistic plan of action and a ton of determination. I’m starting out slowly in order to gain experience and confidence. I’ve begun by kicking things that don’t move. Already, in these early days of my professional punter training, the ruthless determination has become necessary. After kicking a filing cabinet and breaking two toes on my left foot (I’m a lefty), I’m now actively kicking things with my right foot. I’ve decided to put my energy to good use and I’m mostly just kicking my attack barred rock rooster. This isn’t cruel. It is completely in self-defense. The bird runs at me—every time I set foot outside--with his spurs up and his beak aiming for blood. He usually comes back for more when I kick him with my right foot—mainly because I miss him and he thinks it’s funny. But, believe me, when the two toes on my left foot heal, Muddy Farm’s going to be a safer place and I’m gonna’ become a professional football player.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

On the left is a row of hakurei turnips covered with agricultural fabric. In the center are two rows that I planted with winter rye that didn't come up as thick as I would like. On the right is a covered row of radishes. Both covered crops are still alive, depsite several nights in the lower teens. This section of the farm is a tiny hidden nook between the pond and some shrubs. Its location, in addition to the row cover, insulates plants from the cold.

To the left is a covered row of hakurei turnips that I harvested yesterday. On the right is a dead row of radishes.
Last Harvest?

It’s ironic that, as the the season is on its last breath—the low tomorrow night is supposed to be 14--I’ve just started documenting its daily travails! Not true. I did a good job, last December and early this Spring, of conveying what it’s like muttering to oneself while erecting a deer fence as a neighbor with a gun is stalking behind me wondering if I qualify as deer or not. But, that whole period where my field is full of vegetables—it did exist. I swear.

True to form, I've decided to write about yesterday, which may have been the last outdoor harvest of the season. A friend of mine who grows similar organic crops in New Paltz, which is just on the other side of the Shawangunk Mountains from me, said that the only thing still alive in her field was spinach. I was expecting that crop and kale would also be alive in my field, but nothing else. Like I wrote the other day, it’s very difficult to predict what will happen at any time of the year, particularly as winter approaches. I was amazed, yesterday, when I uncovered my radishes and hakurei turnips, which are a baby white Japanese turnip, that both those crops look perfect. They are growing in a little nook of the farm, in between the pond and some shrubs, which moderates the cold. In addition, I covered them with agricultural fabric (see above). This stuff protects the plants a few degrees—depending on the thickness. I tend to buy the thinner fabric because I cover certain crops all season. In addition to insulation, it also keeps out bugs. Most of the non-lettuce greens in my salad mix, such as arugula, red Russian kale, all of the mustards, and others would get devoured by flea beetles if not for this fabric. Even the thin stuff helps in the winter. The proof is that the uncovered rows of radishes and turnips were killed by the cold (see above). They are right next to the covered ones I harvested yesterday. In addition to the root crops, the kale, as expected, was also alive. I was surprised that thyme, rosemary and sage were also hanging in there. I got a few bunches of each. Perennial herbs are a crop I will focus on a lot more next year.

All of this harvesting was for the Rosendale Farmer’s Market this Sunday. While the weekly market season is over, both of my markets still happen once a month. The main crops I should have through winter are eggs and sunflower greens. I grow the sunflower greens indoors. I will also have strawberry fruit leathers, which are like fruit roll-ups that aren’t rolled up. Their ingredients are local apples and strawberries--nothing else. I’ll also have apple chips and my dried heirloom tomatoes from this season.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

A Typical Day (Sort of)

The fact that I haven’t written since July 23 is one small, unfortunate sign of a successful season. When I started out last spring, it seemed too good to be true that I’d be doing markets again on Saturday and Sunday, and that my week would follow the pattern of weeding and planting early in the week, harvesting at the end of the week and doing markets on the weekend. It had been several years since I’d done that. Another sign that this season was a success is that, now it’s hard to imagine NOT doing this. Even with the challenges of a typical day, or the excessive challenges of a more difficult day, I still have enough perspective to appreciate what I’m doing and how I felt in the four years I wasn’t farming.

For some reason, my mind’s been running through one of my last Friday’s of harvest, in Mid-November, before the regular market season ended. Like every morning, that Friday began with me leaving the chickens out around sunrise. Then I wandered around the field for a sense of what I could harvest that day. By November, it’s hard to know ahead of time what will be available because you never know what will survive the nighttime lows. This year, the cold came early and it was mid-October that even frost-hearty crops—such as mustards, arugula, lettuces, turnips and radishes started dying. Muddy Farm is a bit slopey. (I don’t mind that MS word doesn’t recognize slopey because it doesn’t know arugula, either.) There are also barns and sheds scattered around, as well as entire rows that are partially sheltered by trees. While the downside is shade, all of these things around the field actually moderate the temperature and shelter some of my greens from the extreme cold. As for the slopeyness, (I’m going to forcefully expand Bill Gates’ vocabulary) the crops that are on higher ground survive longer because frost travels like water and settles down low, killing those crops first.

So that Friday morning in November, I established what I could pick for my weekend markets. I also took note of just how frozen the leaves I would soon harvest were. The low had been 21 degrees the previous night and the high for the day was supposed to be in the low 40’s. It’s better to wait until the leaves are thoroughly thawed before they’re picked, so I would only have a small window of time to get everything.

While waiting for the sun to rise above the trees and slowly melt the crops, I took out a scuffle hoe to clear the quackgrass (take that, Billy G.) from an otherwise beautiful patch of Tokyo Bekana (how you feeling now, Microsoft Corporation?) mustard. Tokyo Bekana is frost tolerant and can also handle the summer heat more than most other greens. It’s an excellent tasting mild mustard, which makes an exotic substitute for lettuce when it is either too hot or too cold for most lettuces to grow. However, this particular morning, that noxious, virtually immortal quackgrass was beginning to smother my beloved Tokyo Bekana. Harvest is MUCH EASIER when I don’t have to pick out individual blades of grass from between each baby leaf. Inevitably, a few pieces of grass will sneak through and I’m likely to hear about it from whatever customers get them. Usually this comes in the form of, “That salad mix was delicious, and it lasted all week, but, David, my husband found a blade of grass in it.”

By 10:00 the hose, which I intentionally left out in the sun, had thawed enough that I could give the chickens water. By the time I was done with that, the greens in the middle of the field—the ones unsheltered by trees or buildings, had also thawed--so I could begin harvesting.

The arugula and lettuce up high were still alive, but the stuff at a slightly lower elevation were burnt red by the cold. Next, I cut the scant spinach that had germinated—back in September—ahead of the quackgrass. I plant greens every week, and by the end of the season, each sowing was a race against that one weed. After the spinach, I picked the bok choi (clearly, Bill Gates prefers Twinkies to specialty greens). This crop looked fantastic because it’s sheltered, to the northwest, by the trees. This means it didn’t get much shade, but received a lot of protection from the cold. The problem I found, though, is that little green cabbage caterpillars and slugs took shelter between the leaves and the base of the plant. So, instead of having to inspect everything for grass, I had to pick out worms. (I realize I’m bolstering anti-organic stereotypes out there, but hey, it’s still better than the invisible gross things that are sprayed on leaves. At least you can see your enemy on organic food. Besides, It’s incredibly rare to have this problem, and I warned EVERY CUSTOMER that bought the bok choi). What was possibly worse than the bugs themselves was the poop they left behind. (relax. It’s only the die-hards that come to outdoor farmer’s markets in mid-November). For the record, though, I picked off each worm I could find in each little head of bok choi. The poop, however, was the customer’s problem. Next I went to the broccoli raab. (They’ve heard of Hostess Ho Ho’s but not the raab of broccoli?) This was another crop that looked perfect and, I’m pleased to say, was worm free. The challenge with this green was that it was beneath pine trees, so there were pine needles adhered to every leaf. I carefully picked clean each one. I was pleased to note, though, that in the past week most of the plants had made the little florets that broccoli raab is famous for. Finally, I harvested the collards and kales. I got those last because they are the most cold tolerant.

As the sun disappeared, my hands were stiff with cold—like the leaves would soon become. Whether or not there was more to harvest, I convinced myself I got it all, just in time to close up the chickens for the night.