Late winter farm projects

Now that the snow has melted and the weather is moderating somewhat, we’re trying to get back on track with all the winter outdoor projects that have mostly been on hold since November with near-continuous frozen ground and/or snow cover. We effectively have until the end of March to do non-vegetable work, as once April comes we need to be in full produce-farm mode. Here’s a mostly complete list of our potential and desired projects.

Starting this year’s mushroom logs

Last spring we inoculated 26 fresh oak & maple logs with shiitake spawn (see above). We got our first small flush in the fall, and expect/hope for production for the next 3-5 years. We’ll keep adding new logs every year; this spring we’re doing around 40. I hope to offer more detail on the methods and considerations involved in a later post. We did 20 on Monday, and will do 20 or so more on Thursday.

Preparing for goat kidding & milking

Above is a very wide goat. She’s only a few weeks away from kidding, maybe less, and I have a few cleanup/organizational chores around the goat barn before that happens (getting a sink set up, preparing a kidding kit, etc). We’ve been present for every kidding on the farm so far, though sooner or later we’re going to miss one, especially as they’re now farther from the house and thus out of earshot. But we’re very excited to see this year’s results, as we desperately want a doe (female) after years of nothing but bucks. We even bred to a dairy-breed buck this year, to ensure we’d want to keep any females that resulted. Spring means more goat chores than simple winter feeding, but also the return of fresh milk for us (we’ve been getting by on our aged cheese and lots of milk frozen in the fall). With both Frankie & Garlic pregnant, we expect anywhere from 3-5 kids this spring.

Preparing earliest spring crops

Onions are already started indoors, and we’ll start seeding radishes and lettuce outdoors soon. Other indoor seeding will begin soon as well. The first small hoops are going up, to start warming and drying out the soil. Several overwintering crops should also start to regrow, including collard greens and spinach (below), possibly allowing for some early sales. The beds in foreground are garlic.

Clearing fence lines and building fences

This is a big one. As we continue to expand and improve our pastures, mostly cleared from overgrown/abandoned fields, we get to the point that putting in permanent fencing becomes practical. Long-term this will save a lot of management effort over rotating our temporary reel and net fences around, and is high on my priority list to help make livestock management more time- and cost-effective. So far I’ve nearly finished clearing the lines of our two top-priority pastures and will start building fence very soon (I need the ground to dry out some so I can auger corner post holes). We’re also working within these pastures to thin out the existing trees and brush to achieve a better balance of shade, mixed habitat, and lusher ground cover/goat browse. The photo above shows a typical fence line project, establishing a boundary between the established forest (to the right) and the brushy cedar scrub (left) within the pasture.

Cleaning up brush

Clearing naturally means disposing of the results. We chip what we can for mulch, and use larger logs for fenceposts, firewood, and lumber. But there will always be lots of scraggly top branches, dead wood, and other scrap that needs to be burned. Even here we try not to create waste; every fire pile like this gets sealed in with soil once it’s burned down, choking off the oxygen to effectively make biochar, a form of charcoal. This makes an excellent soil amendment, richer and more neutral than wood ash, returning many of the trace nutrients that trees draw from deep underground to the surface soil where vegetables can use them.

Rebuilding the garden fence

This was supposed to happen last year but the season (and another harsh winter) kept us from finishing. We’ve pushed back the thick cedars on the south side to get more sunlight into the lower beds, and want to expand and improve the fence on this side to allow us more room, and to be more deer-proof. This will involve taking down the existing one (digging the chicken wire out of the fescue & mud), felling one remaining large cedar that’s going to fall into the garden, then trenching and building the new fence in its proper location.

Packing barn improvements

I built our walk-in cooler last year, but our main packing barn still needs more infrastructure to reach its potential. This spring I intend to build/install a stretch of sinks/basins and washing tables along one wall, with parallel moveable work stations in the middle of the floor, to allow larger-scale and more efficient washing and handling of produce. We’re also intending to install a small water heater and hand sink in this barn to allow proper hand washing, and to finish cleaning up the rest of the barn so we can gravel in the remaining dirt floor. I also hope to take down a few trees that are preventing us from establishing a turn-around at this location, which would make tractor and truck movements easier at this busy site.

Pasture/landscape burning
There are multiples areas we want to burn off, to encourage native plants and discourage invasives. The photo above shows us burning the northern fence line of our bramble/berry area, but we extended this burn up through the rest of the orchard. There are several pasture areas we’d like to get to as well, though we may wait until May for some of these to get the proper timing for specific plants.

Orchard & tree work

Every year we increase our fruit plantings, seeking to slowly establish enough production to feed ourselves in bad years and make some sales in good years. We recently thinned and pruned all the brambles (blackberries and raspberries), and are chipping hardwood branches & saplings to generate mulch for our blueberries. Later this spring we’ll be establishing our first five apple trees higher up in the orchard, and will need to finish preparing those sites. Strawberries and asparagus will be needing attention before we know it. We also ordered bundles of saplings from the Missouri Department of Conservation, including mulberry, osage orange, and pecan, that we’ll be trying to establish in various parts of the farm.

Time budget
There’s more on the list, including lots of little projects like cleaning and sharpening tools, tractor/equipment maintenance, updating/changing market supplies, finalizing employee plans for this year, and…oh yeah, taxes.

We sat down to do some estimates of project times, and came up with 50 person-days from now until end of March for just the outdoor infrastructure work (that doesn’t include any work on actually growing produce, like bed prep, seeding, irrigation setup, and so on, or other mini-projects). From mid-February to end of March, assuming we work 7 days a week, there are about 80 person-days. So once you factor in the reality of runs to town, occasional days off, personal/household chores, produce needs, and so on, it’s not clear we’re going to get all this done. One item that has already been temporarily stricken from the list is a new and larger chicken shed, to accomodate a hopefully growing flock. That can wait if it has to, and so it will. So can the hoped-for improvements to fences on other parts of the farm. We’ll reassess our situation at the end of March and decide what else can be cut or added from the list.

Weather will certainly play a huge role; the forecast for the next week of continuing rain and storms doesn’t make me happy at all. On the other hand, it’s wonderful to finally have my ideal working temperatures (40s), some sun, spring birds passing through, and a general sense that 2011 is finally getting underway after a long winter that made me very antsy. For better for worse, we’re on our way into this very important year on the farm.

Welcome to spring at Chert Hollow.

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