New prep shed – construction

Starting construction of our new prep shed began with finalizing the design and milling the lumber. I intended to build this solely from on-farm lumber, purchasing only hardware and roofing panels. We have so many good, solid cedars available for use, and it would be so much cheaper and easier to use our own lumber. Plus, this way I can get just the dimensions and lengths I want (I have lots of nice, long 18′ beams to support the rafters, for example). Below you see the freshly milled lumber pile awaiting use near the final site:

First, however, I had to pour the foundation footings, which took quite a while to complete due to weather and other work requirements. We laid out the site and drilled the nine foundation holes with our auger, then poured concrete footings with rebar in place. We then filled the holes to ground level and inserted anchor bolts, to which posts could be nailed using appropriate hardware. It kept raining or freezing as I was trying to get this done, which delayed the project many weeks. Finally the foundations were ready.

Next, we raised the nine posts and braced them in place before beginning to install the framing and rafters for the second floor. As of the first weekend in May, this is where the structure stands:

It’s ready for upper rafters and then the roofing panels. Once the roof is on, we can begin to use it for storage and packing even before I get the walls on. We just can’t wait to get this done; our production this year is already overwhelming the kitchen and this shed will be far cleaner, more efficient, and just all-around better. My original goal for completion was end of April, and I now expect to have it done by mid-May. Not too far off, and not a minute too soon.
It’s already a really neat-looking building, with the all-cedar framing. It ought to be incredibly solid, as we milled all the lumber to true dimension (actual 2x4s instead of store-bought 1.5×3.5s, for example) and are using many full-length beams for greater strength. Already, the view from the second floor is a great platform for panoramic photos of the market garden (look for those soon).
I’ll post again on this when it’s completed.

National organic farm maps

The NY Times recently published an absolutely fascinating map showing the distribution of organic farms as compared to other types of farm operations. It’s a must-peruse for anyone bothering to read this blog. Just so cool. (Thanks to The Ethicurean for pointing this out, as we don’t read the Times much)
One quick point that leaps out here is a significant reason we chose to farm in Missouri; a wide-open market. The relative saturation of small, organic vegetable farms in the Upper Midwest and New England as compared to the paucity of such things here meant we had a better chance to establish ourselves. There were many other factors as well, but this kind of thing would be well worth considering for new/young farmers looking to get started.
The other point I want to make about this map relates to the overall existence and pattern of organic farms. Notice that they exist just about everywhere. There’s very little physical, climatological, or scientific barrier to organic farming. It’s the baseline for how farming happened in this country prior to WWII. Where organic farms are now clustered are in the areas where consumers and/or governments are supporting their efforts and choices, not necessarily in areas uniquely suited to organic farming. The fact that New England, in a very difficult natural setting to farm, is laced with small, organic farms shows that there’s no inherent barrier. The fact that Iowa, Minnesota, and Wisconsin are laced with small, organic farms shows that the Midwest is quite able to support such operations. It’s a matter of consumer choices and agricultural policy that really drives the patterns of this map, and fortunately those are the things we’re most able to influence.

Turtle season

Last week’s plentiful rain seemed to bring out the frisky in our turtle population. We ran across this happy couple of three-toed box turtles in the woods (insert turtle sex joke here):

While this young snapping turtle showed up in a large puddle in the goat paddock:

We carefully removed him to our pond, then counted the chickens. Everyone’s happy.

New prep shed – design

For our first two years of small-scale market sales, we could get away with washing and packing produce in the kitchen. We’d clean it well, clear the counters, and bring everything in. This was not ideal at all, but we had little choice. Our long-term plan was to clean out our larger barn, pour a concrete slab, run water and power, and convert that to a large packing facility with walk-in coolers. That’s still the long-term plan, but this winter we decided we needed a usable washing & packing facility in the meantime. Enter our latest construction project, the prep shed:

We needed something near the market garden and the field road, through which all produce could pass to be washed, sorted, prepared, and packed, with enough space for temporary storage. When all harvesting was done (or as needed) we could then transport items to our coolers in the house. The other main purpose of this structure was storage; right now most of our tools, supplies, hoses, and so on have to live in the house, which is a pain and means we’re constantly running up and down the hill when we need something. So we needed a structure that had useful all-weather storage as well.

Above you see the rough floor plan for the shed. The southern (bottom) half is used for washing, sorting, and packing produce. Items come in either from the market garden (to right) or via vehicle from the field (to left). They are handled along the 16′ counters along the south/bottom wall, which include multiple sinks. Once produce is clean and sorted, it is packed into appropriate containers and stored on the shelving in the NW (upper left) quadrant of the shed until it can be transported en masse to coolers in the house or stored in the truck for market delivery. The NE quadrant is reserved for tool/wheelbarrow/equipment storage, and also opens into the market garden for easy access. The partial second floor of the shed can be used for storing bulky items like irrigation hose.

The design incorporates as much natural light as possible, using clear roofing panels integrated into an otherwise metal roof to shed light on the washing space, and a set of windows along the ridgeline to allow light into the back of the shed. Several large doors also allow light in. This is important as I don’t intend to run power to this. Water will come from our nearby hydrant. The shed will tie into our garden fence so that we can move within the shed and garden without opening gates; loading/unloading from vehicles happens at the western door to the washing area.

That’s the design; in the next few posts I’ll cover the construction, which is ongoing.

Market Plans, May 2

We expect this week’s market to be about the same as last week. Lots of radish bundles, more spring lettuce mix, green onions, garlic chives, mint, catnip, lemon balm, and so on. I was surprised last week at the interest in fresh catnip, so we’ll bring some more of that. If we get to it, I might go out and harvest some wild onions as well; these are booming in the woods right now and have a really nice flavor. Though I have to mark them as non-organic since the woods aren’t certified…

Goose eggs are definitely done for the year. One goose has starting sitting on her nest and defending it, and the other is tailing off in her laying. We don’t know if the former will actually hatch anything, as sources tell us first-year ganders are often not “fully loaded” and the eggs may not be fertile. But we’re happy to let her try. A batch of goslings would mean more eggs next year and some nice meat geese this fall. Not to mention upping the cute quotient around here.

Those who’ve been to the market will notice that it’s been booming. The normal vendor slots were about full last week, and our customer counts are hitting levels seen in midsummer a few years ago. Many of us are a bit nervous about this summer and what a zoo it’s going to be. Hopefully it helps make the case that the market has really outgrown its current situation.

Popular items at Market, April

The most popular items so far at market have been our spring radish mixes and spring lettuce mix. I can’t bring enough of these; I have people who remembered the radishes from last spring coming up excited to see them back again, and I’ve had several repeat customers tell me the lettuce is some of the best they’ve ever had. Can’t argue with that feedback.

We’re really proud of the radish mixes. They’re a blend of six different heirloom radishes, all with different colors and flavors. We harvest them young, when they’re sweeter and tastier. Too many folks let radishes get really big, thinking size is better, but they get woody, tough, and strong then. Young and tender is far better, in our opinion. Also, selling as mixed bundles makes them more attractive and gives folks the option to try lots of varieties and get a really colorful salad or other dish. In the mixes are:

Cherry Belle (red)
Plum Purple (purple)
Helios (yellow)
Pink Beauty (pink)
White Hailstone (white)
Sparkler White Tip (red with a white tip)

Our lettuce is the result of plenty of work, as we grow it in open beds (no greenhouse) and mix 5-6 varieties of heirloom lettuces plus spinach. One of the keys to good lettuce, for us, is harvest method. We cut and pick the leaves directly into vats of cold water, which instantly chills the leaves and arrests any decay. Even leaving lettuce out in a basket for a few minutes on a warm day can start the wilting process, and take days or weeks off the shelf life. When you harvest directly into water, you keep it absolutely fresh with a better texture. We rinse it twice and keep it cold from the moment of harvest until market (though customers should still wash it before eating). This lettuce will last weeks in the fridge if you handle it properly and has a great texture. We intentionally chose our varieties to make an attractive mix of colors and textures:

Crisp Mint
Gold Rush
Rouge d’Hiver
Royal Oakleaf
Lollo di Vino
and more

You can see all of our planned produce varieties for the year on our website. Every few weeks I’ll keep highlighting different products as they come available.

Making good, quick bread at home

I received an email from a reader after posting about our quick bread-based meal, asking for the recipe. Our policy is to not reproduce recipes online that we get from cookbooks, feeling that the authors of good cookbooks have every right to expect that their intellectual property be respected by random bloggers not giving away their work for free. But I am more than happy to write about the process, and plug the book that taught us a great method.

The book is Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day, written by Jeff Hertzberg and Zoe Francois. Normally titles like that make us run screaming, as there are lots of cheap cooking gimmicks out there that subvert the reality of cooking. This is not one of them. What the authors (a scientist and a professional chef/baker) have done is figure out a great dough recipe that can be stored and used as they describe below:
A one or two week supply of dough is made in advance and stored in the refrigerator. Measuring and mixing the dough takes less than 15 minutes. Kneading, as we’ve said, is not necessary. Every day, cut off a hunk of dough from the storage container and briefly shape it without kneading. Allow it to rest briefly on the counter and then toss it in the oven. We don’t count the rest time (20 minutes or more depending on the recipe) or baking time (usually about 30 minutes) in our five-minute-a-day calculation since you can be doing something else while that’s happening.

This method turns out nice, crusty bread with a good interior that we are very, very pleased with. It’s far better than bread machine results, which invariably seem to turn out squishy bread with no crust. It’s still not quite as good as truly traditionally made bread, but leaps ahead of other shortcuts. We really are finding that we can quickly throw together a loaf during breakfast or before any meal and have it ready when we need it; it’s become my standard lunch on Mondays when I head off for a day’s work at Goatsbeard Farm and need something quick to take along.

The method works equally well for loaves, flatbreads, naans, and more, but you need the right recipe. The book is definitely a worthwhile investment; everyone we’ve served the bread to has raved about it. It’s certainly allowed us to eat more, and better, bread than ever before, and I think the authors deserve the income for coming up with this method and recipe.
One note: we’ve adaped their recipe slightly to include up to 1/3 content of our locally milled Missouri wheat flour, which really adds flavor. We round out the flour content with King Arthur bread flour, which has a high gluten content to balance the low-gluten Missouri flour. This combination works very nicely.

Plastic bags at market

I thought this was interesting: the Berkeley (CA) Farmers Market is banning the use of plastic bags and packaging. According to the article, they’re not the only ones working toward that goal.

This is something we’ve long thought about; one of the most wasteful aspects of our farm is the big rolls of thin plastic bags we routinely give out to customers for their produce. It’s a difficult problem, because we KNOW 98% of those are going straight to the landfill and we’ll have to buy more, but they’re also an important way to protect the high-quality produce people are buying from us. I don’t want to lose a sale of, say, lettuce, because the customer didn’t bring something to put the loose leaves in. And often you really do need to separate items or protect them somehow.

I’d love to have more customers bring their own; they can be reused over and over. We already do this for our bulk purchases at local groceries; I can use the same plastic bag for rice, beans, or spices many times in a row before it gives out. I have had a few people do just that and have profusely thanked them for it. And I definitely see a trend of more and more folks only asking for bags when they really need them (like for loose-leaf lettuce). Many of our customers seem more than willing to combine multiple items in a single bag (whether plastic or cloth). The same is true for the paper cartons we use for cherry tomatoes, edamame, and the like. I’d love to see folks bringing Tupperware or other such things to market to carry bulk items home in.

While the Berkeley experiment is interesting, you won’t find me advocating for bans. I don’t think it’s a market’s role to legislate things like that. I’d rather customers and farmers make their own decision, influenced by economics and ethics. We’ve considered putting a nickel surcharge on our bags, but haven’t so far due to the hassle of it (we work in quarter increments currently). So far I feel like the core customer base of a farmers market is thinking about such things already; the Berkeley situation seems like a classic case of over-legislation to me. Thoughts?

Market plans, April 25

Last week’s bundles of heirloom radishes were a big hit, and we’ll have more this week. Also available will be spring lettuce mix, garlic & regular chives, herbs (mint & lemon balm), and more.
We may be done with goose eggs for the year, as the geese haven’t laid many this week. We’ve gotten about 30 off each layer so far, and Toulouse are reported to lay around 35-50 annually (geese only lay in spring, not year-round like chickens). For 1st-year birds, I wouldn’t be surprised if they’re about done; their peak production is supposed to be years 2-5.
We’ve finished the overwintered bunching onions we’ve sold the last few weeks, and I’m not sure if the next round of onions is ready. We’ll make a decision Friday as to whether/what to harvest on the onion front.
We have many more beds of radishes, onions, lettuce, beets, and more coming on, so within a few weeks the stand will really begin to grow. I suspect this week’s stand will be a bit smaller, though, while the next round of plantings catches up after the past cool weather held them a bit dormant.

The kids arrive

Garlic finally kidded this evening, after leading us on since Sunday with a series of false alarms and indications that she was ready without actually taking the plunge. As it turned out, she gave us almost no warning. We’d been down nearby all day, working on rebuilding the southern half of the paddock fencing, and when we went in to make dinner around 6 she was showing no particular signs of anything changing. A little while later, Joanna was outside working in the herbs when she heard Garlic hollering, and we both charged down just in time to see kid #1 appear. #2 arrived just a few minutes later.

This is #1, who arrived kicking and ready to go. He was energetic from the first minute.

#2 took a little longer to deliver, and showed up pretty exhausted. He just lay around for a while, but is now catching up to his brother. They’ve both started nursing and trying to stand up, and I think by tomorrow they’ll be on their feet.
Their father is a Boer buck from Goatsbeard Farm, and they very much carry the Boer genetics (the brown head, white body, and head shape are very Boer). We were mildly hoping for a doe in the mix, whom we would have kept for breeding future meat animals, but these fellows will do just fine. Both seem quite healthy so far, and Garlic has accepted both. So all seems to be well.
Now we just have an incredible time sink on our hands during a very busy part of the year. How can we not just go watch these little guys play instead of getting work done?