March-April farm projects & happenings

With the beginning of April, we’re now in the official busy season of the farm. March was our cutoff for late winter non-essential/non-vegetable projects, and we made reasonable progress on most of these. Fencing on our two main pastures is close to completion, garden fence upgrades are done, we’re been hard at work preparing & planting early spring crops, most of our brush piles have been chipped or burned, the packing shed infrastructure improvements are 75% complete, the orchard is underway, and more. Here’s a tour through some of what we’ve been doing, and what’s coming up through April.
We finally fulfilled a long-term dream, getting the first apple trees established in the orchard area we’ve spent the last few years clearing. These are various good homestead varieties, such as Arkansas Black, grafted onto rootstock specifically developed to handle the heavy clay soil and moist conditions this site offers. Hopefully they do well; we intend to slowly add trees each year so as not to over commit ourselves (we have 30 sites laid out overall). The plan for this orchard is to produce at least enough fruit to feed ourselves in a bad year, and surplus to sell/distribute in a good year.
We’ve been managing lots of seedlings indoors, waiting for decent weather to come for outdoor transplanting. And waiting. Finally we could wait no more, and started taking advantage of some reasonably dry conditions to start setting out onions, lettuce, and brassicas, while direct-seeding peas, radishes, carrots, beets, and more. The poor transplants had a miserable first few days, enduring everything from a hard freeze their first night to a subsequent high of 89ºF and 40+mph winds, then back down below freezing again. At least we didn’t get the hail we feared from a recent strong storm system, but that’s still a lot of stress for young plants. We’ll see what happens. Below are a young pea plant coming up, and Joanna setting out scallion transplants.
 Overall the goats are doing well, though this spring has brought more medical/management issues than past years, including a sick newborn kid that needed to be carefully nursed to health (he’s now doing great). One of the doeling triplets died recently, in a fence entanglement that we probably could have avoided but thought we had sufficiently prepared against, leaving her sisters (above) as virtually guaranteed keepers for breeding this fall and milking next year. This kind of incident really hurts, as it’s something you play over in your mind looking for something to do differently, but as any parent or farmer knows, you also can’t prepare for every possible stupid thing a young one does and you can’t watch them constantly. In larger herds, this would barely matter. In a small homestead herd, it’s a big loss and a hard learning experience for what to change in the future. There is always a silver lining, though, and in this case the remaining two (and the mother) are happier without three kids fighting for milk from two teats. Overall we’re getting a good supply of fresh milk from our two adult does, plenty to keep us in fresh cheese and yogurt, and the remaining three kids are now healthy and growing fast. These two are friendly and have a good lineage, so we’re looking forward to keeping at least one for a long time.
We planted or maintained several crops in overwintering beds, some as usual (like garlic) and some as tests (like parsnips, sorrel, and spinach). The parsnips and sorrel were a definite success, with excellent quality and flavor come spring (we just sold a batch of sorrel to Red & Moe, along with chives, green onions, and cress). We ran a test on the garlic, too, experimenting with using aged leaves instead of straw as mulch. Straw is an expensive and problematic input which we’d really like to move away from, whereas leaves are better for the soil and can be collected and managed during our non-busy times. So far, we can’t tell the difference between the straw-mulched garlic (below left) and the leaf-mulched garlic (below right), but won’t know for sure until harvest. 

Many of our management methods are aimed at improving long-term soil health, and spring certainly brings on a lot of interaction with the soil as we hoe beds, turn in manure as needed, cut and chop in cover crops, spread wood ash and other basic soil amendments, and overall prepare the ground for growing. Finding lots of big, healthy earthworms like the one above is always a nice sign that we’re on the right track.
– Finishing fence-building, including stringing wire, hanging gates, and running electric where it’s needed.
– Moving goats permanently onto pasture for the growing season, including setting up pasture shelter .
– Preparing to start two pigs, including an inspection and permit process from the Missouri Department of Agriculture so we can legally feed leftover vegetables & whey from the farm (stupid but apparently necessary).
– Lots more indoor & outdoor seeding, transplanting, bed prep, and general field work.
– Preparing for start of our market season in late April/early May, including final packing barn upgrades and updates to market signage, materials, and plans.
– Starting restaurant deliveries.
– Finalizing plans for farm workers; we’re still working out the best way to handle this in 2011. The most likely model will be a pseudo-CSA work-share arrangement in which people work 3-hour shifts for regular shares of produce and possibly eggs/milk. If you thoughts on this, let us know.

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