Preparing the field – permanent beds

With spring’s arrival, we’re working to expand and prepare our vegetable field for planting. We’ve been slowly expanding from our market garden into the larger field over the past few years, and are taking several significant steps this year toward really bringing the larger area into production. I’m going to be posting several items about our preparation methods, including burning and fence-building. In this post, I’ll discuss our philosophy on field management and our methods of establishing permanent beds.

Here’s our vegetable field, looking NW. To the north, south, and east are pasture areas, while to the west the field slopes down to our creek bottom and the ridge beyond (direction of view). We’ve set aside an area a bit over an acre for intensive vegetable production, with an option to expand into pastures to the north down the road. In the foreground you see a series of established 4′x40′ beds, covered in straw/hay mulch from the winter. In the background you see me starting to establish the next set of beds.

Our philosophy of field management is dependant on several goals. First, we want to minimize equipment use. Tractors and implements are expensive, repair-prone, require significant off-farm investments, and are damaging to the soil in the long run due to compaction and disruption. They are also very susceptible to weather and soil conditions. While they have an important role, we do not want to be utterly reliant on them.
Second, we want to maximize the efficiency of our land management. Vegetables are not grains; you have to grow them in rows with aisles in between, for equipment and manual access and also simply because the plants need space. Tomatoes and lettuce don’t take to being driven over, walked through, or packed together the way a corn or wheat field does. Typically, a farm would plow and/or till the entire field, spread whatever fertilizer they feel the need to use, then plant in rows with aisles in between. A mid-scale vegetable farm might use a mechanized raised-bed builder which drives along, mounding soil into beds, but still involves tilling and preparing the entire field (row and aisle alike). While that may be time-efficient, we see it as resource-inefficient, because inputs are spread over far more land than is actually grown upon, and the impacts of any equipment use and tillage are spread over the entire land as well. Put it this way: would you drive over your garden bed with your car, or spread compost on your driveway? I didn’t think so. We want to manage our fields to maximize our resource efficiency in terms of targeting inputs just where they’re needed, and conserving the soil’s texture and quality as much as possible.
Third, we want to minimize tillage. There are a number of studies and experiences clearly demonstrating the long-term detrimental effects of disturbing the soil’s natural structure, and we would prefer to follow the pioneering example of organic no-till farms like Foundation Farm in northern Arkansas.
With these goals in mind, we’ve been planning and establishing the vegetable field along the same lines as our market garden, using permanent bed locations that are spaced to allow both equipment and manual labor to function. When these beds are established, they will stay established, as will their aisles. All driving and tire weight will remain in these aisles, and all crops and inputs will remain in the beds. Better conservation and resource efficiency, balanced by somewhat less time efficiency (though not having to plow/till the whole field multiple times per year ought to balance that somewhat).
Above you see our wide beds, 4′x40′, established last year. These are designed to be straddled by our pickup truck, and are intended for growing crops that can be densely planted or need lots of room, like edamame, corn, squash, and so on. There are 24 of these.

Just west of these, we’re establishing a grid of narrower beds, about 2.5′x40′. These are designed to be straddled by our tractor, allowing us to do some basic maintenance like mowing cover crops or trenching potatoes, while being intended for items that like to grow in lines, like potatoes, tomatoes, and so on. Also, these beds are narrow enough to be straddled by a person, making some weeding and planting easier. The image above shows the future home of these beds, shortly after burning off the grass. There will be 48 of these beds (view a map of the field plants here, though the information is out of date).

Given that we’re establishing these beds in a pasture, breaking the sod is a near-necessity. We’ve done it here using a potato plow, a very simple implement which digs a single furrow at the center of the tractor’s path. Each successive row is plowed with the tires in the previous tire track, so that the overlapping tire tracks become narrow permanent aisles between beds that are never driven on. Look carefully at the left side of the photo and you’ll see this. In many of these beds we’re coming back through with a one-time tilling to break up the thick clumps of grass, but do not intend to use such methods again once the beds are established.

From here on, we’ll treat each bed as a garden bed, using hand cultivation, and mulch to manage weeds and soil tilth. Inputs like manure can be spread by truck in the upper beds, and a wide-wheelbase cart in the lower beds. This will sound like a great deal of manual labor to those accustomed to tractor farming, and it is. But equipment reliance brings with it a whole separate set of needs, like extra financial and resource costs that are often not properly accounted for. Using intensive, careful, organic methods, we expect to pull very high yields out of this area that will compensate for the labor needed. Patrice Gros at Foundation Farm in Arkansas has proven that such methods work very well when applied correctly, and we’re following in his footsteps while adapting the philosophy to our own needs. As he writes on this front page,

Many of the farming methods used at the farm are extensions of gardening
techniques fine-tuned on a small scale.

I think that’s a pretty accurate depiction of our philosophy as well, and it’s rooted in centuries of European small-scale farming that is very sustainable and practical for the small, diversified, non-mechanized type of agriculture we’re pursuing. Might not work for everyone, but we’re expecting it to work for us.

Organic Certification – It’s official!

Our mail today contained a most welcome delivery: our official Organic certification certificate, along with a copy of the inspector’s report and other documents. I’ll post more about these when I have more time (currently getting materials ready for market tomorrow), but this is the culmination of a LOT of work. We’re very happy to be only the third (possibly fourth) certified farm at the Market.

More details in a few days when I can get to it.

A thorough debate on local food prices

There’s been quite a little kerfluffle online lately, after the excellent food/farm blog The Ethicurean posted a provocative and thoughtful essay from a small hog farmer accusing small farms of “gouging” customers through their pricing. The essay, and the ensuing comment thread, are very much worth the time of anyone reading this blog. You will learn a great deal from all the perspectives offered:

Later, another food blog picked up on this, and got Joel Salatin to write a commentary about pricing of local foods. My thinking has obviously been deeply influenced by Joel’s libertarian approach to farming, and I thought his response was spot-on. There is some fair criticism that his Polyface Farm is, in fact, quite large and so its problems are not necessarily those of true small farms, but I think that misses the point. Even at a few acres, we run up against most of the same issues Salatin does with regards to inane bureaucracy, regulations, and limitations. In any case, read his take and the ensuing comment thread as well:

For my two cents, I think a core contention is whether farmers should be passing all costs along to consumers. I don’t think most people realize just how expensive it is to farm, especially at the market scale. I don’t mean inputs and seeds, though that certainly matters. I mean all the insurance and liability requirements, legal concerns, licenses, and so on, which are immensely expensive with regards to either the time to comply with them, or the money to hire accountants and lawyers to help you do so. And if you’re trying to farm full-time, add in all the basic costs of living a reasonable life that allows you to save for retirement or health care. I feel fully justified in including my health insurance costs and personal cost of living in my prices; this small business is intended to be my primary livelihood and I can’t separate that from the need to make a decent living.

If customers won’t pay the price I need to charge to make a living, that’s my problem. I chose this business and I’ll sink or swim with it. But one thing I won’t do is suffer an existence of poverty in a well-meaning attempt to serve people cheap food. My skills, effort, knowledge, and talents are too valuable to me to give away to an artificially subsidized concept of food. If I can’t make a living at this, I’ll quit and do something else, as will many other of the young small farmers just coming online.

Ball’s in your court, customers. I loved this comment from the second blog link:

Living expenses have snuck up on me, things I never paid for before. TV used to be free. I never had a cell phone until the last couple years. There didn’t even used to be an internet. I pay willingly for all these things, mostly for my own entertainment and enjoyment. How can I in good conscience justify paying $100 a month for satellite TV and cry “poor” about food, the very sustenance of my life?

One thing Joanna and I are working toward is open books; in a year or two, we’d like to make our books available to any customer at market, so they can see just how much it costs to grow each item, how much we pay in liability insurance, how many hours per year we spend wrestling with tax codes and regulatory messes, and so on. Some people seem to think market farming is like a garden with a business licence. Hah. Maybe it is if you don’t follow the rules, but it’s a classic case of ethical people taking the fall for everyone else.

Coming soon will be a long rant about the inanities of the insurance and liability issues we face as a small market farm, along with the equal silliness of the way tax codes and business structures restrict our ability to farm.

Market plants 4/11/09

As of Thursday evening, we’re intending to be at market this Saturday. Won’t have a lot to sell yet, but we feel it’s time to start making a presence. Probably 6-8 goose eggs and some fresh chives and mint, plus lots of farm information, a signup list for future on-farm events, and so on. Sounds like the first few weeks of market have been extremely busy, so we’re looking forward to seeing it first-hand.

No freeze damage

We recieved no damage from the early week’s freezes. Everything looks healthy and ready to start growing again. Such conditions do set us back, as much of the lettuce, beets, and radishes have not grown appreciably in several weeks due to the cold weather, but they’re alive. Now with more temperate conditions on the way, I hope they’ll get back to work. This will delay our real market products a few more weeks, but that’s better than losing them.

The temps here never dropped to a damaging level; our thermometer read 29 both mornings. Even accounting for the frost pocket down at the valley bottom, that’s not enough to damage what we had out. Still have no idea whether fruit growers were hit; I’ll look forward to making some inquiries at market on Saturday.

Random animal photos

Sometimes I just need to step back and view the blog from the reader’s point of view; what aspects of the farm just don’t make it through my lens? With that in mind, here are a few gratuitous cute animal shots:

One of our black Ameraucana hens enjoying her nest box. Look closely; I love the cheek feathers on this lady.

Toulouse geese on range, the source of delicious eggs and hopefully goslings. They also taste very good roasted. The fellow in the sunlight is the dominant gander, with his mate behind him. In the background is our other mated pair.

Gloria, our resident nun-goat. She hasn’t shown an interest in breeding in her life, much less actually born any kids. She’s currently kept around as company for our useful goat (see below) and for more pasture control until we start expanding the herd next year. Shown here doing her job, eating brush.
Garlic, our main dairy goat and source of milk and kids for this year. She’s due in mid-April, after which we’ll start having fresh dairy again as well as (probably) a couple cute and tasty kids.
We’ll be adding more chickens this summer, as well as five test turkeys. Look for hogs, sheep, and more poultry down the road.

Market forces in food

A fascinating article in the Washington Post this morning:

Simplicity Becomes a Selling Point

The authors document numerous ways in which food manufacturers are shifting to simpler ingredient lists and displaying those lists more prominantly.

Last week, Snapple Beverage unveiled a reformulated line of drinks and an eight-figure marketing campaign emphasizing that its iced teas are made from green and black tea and “real” sugar. Frito-Lay is boasting that its potato chips, tortilla chips and even Fritos are each made with just three ingredients. The hope: that consumers will equate fewer ingredients with healthfulness, even when it comes to ice cream and chips.

“It’s a convergence of health, food safety, taste and traceability,” said Phil Lempert, a food and consumer behavior analyst who calls himself the Supermarket Guru. “People are reading labels more carefully than they were previously. When they pick up a product and it has 30 ingredients and they don’t know what half of them are, they are putting it back on the shelves.”

This seems a very good development. Of course, there’s an element of greenwashing here, but greenwashing in the service of an admirable change is not the end of the world.

What I find interesting here is that once again, consumer demand and cultural shifts are doing a far better job than most government policies at creating a needed change. This new approach from food companies has very little to do with proposed laws; it’s all about the news and people’s shopping habits. If this really takes hold, far ahead of slow-moving government efforts to reform the food system, it has the potential to change our food system far to the better. Just like sweatshops and organics in Walmart, these shifts are happening because of customer feedback to companies who then willingly respond in an effective way, not well-meaning laws that force companies to respond in an ineffective way.

Now, there is very much a role for government here. Rather than mandating over-zealous food safety standards, government could instead mandate better packaging and ingredient standards. Requiring processors to make ingredient lists large and prominent, with the source of every ingredient (lists if necessary), would go a long way toward allowing customers to make the sort of informed decisions that appropriately influence a free market. Let customers make their own food choices, but make it very clear on the bag, box, or carton exactly how many countries those ingredients came from, what they are, and so on. Heck, I’d even consider requiring produce to have an informational card stating what pesticides and fertilizers were used.

Companies like Dole are moving toward this sort of thing, by inserting codes that you can enter online to see the farm on which the fruit came from. That’s cute, but far too susceptible to greenwashing. But it’s a start, and if they start doing the same thing for ingredients and growing/production methods, we’d really get somewhere. Imagine if Product A came with a large label saying “ingredients potentially from countries T-Z, with products from facilities in states A-D, final assembly in F”. That’s entirely doable from the manufacturer’s point of view, and provides the consumer with the information they need to make a decision. And, if you’re going to pass a top-down one-size-fits-all law, at least pass one that’s naturally easier on producers already doing what you want the law to achieve (like small farms and simple foods, for whom this would be quite easy to comply with).

Government itself is not the problem, just the current philosophy of how it should be applied.

First sales of the year!

We’ve officially opened our sales season for the year, setting up a booth at Saturday’s Spring Roundup Community Day, sponsored by the Columbia Farmers Market. We don’t have too much product yet, especially as the last few weeks’ cold weather has slowed the growth of our lettuce, beets, radishes, and so on. But we had fresh goose eggs, blown goose eggs, and fresh chives & mint. We sold almost everything, and had quite a bit of interest in the eggs. If I could magically conjure up more geese, we’d be able to sell a lot more eggs. I already heard back from one customer who loved them. I also talked to a couple whose young son is allergic to chicken eggs, and who are desperate for a local source of non-chicken eggs (they currently drive to Jeff City to buy duck eggs). We don’t have enough eggs to supply their needs, but I told them I had a few contacts who might, and to check back with us next week at market. A good example of the failure of our national food system to provide diversity.

The primary purpose of the day, however, was informational. We’ve spent some time putting together a good market stand setup with useful information, and wanted to give potential customers a chance to learn about us and ask questions. That, after all, was part of the point of organizing this event in the first place. On the table ablove, you see lots of photos, plus two binders containing our organic paperwork, records, and the NOP standards. I want customers to understand what Organic means and why it matters to have the seal. There’s also a signup sheet for notification of future on-farm events.

We’ll be at the Saturday market starting this coming week. It’s going to be a little while yet before we have enough product to financially justify coming, but goose eggs and fresh herbs are popular, and I want to start establishing a presence and drawing in customers. Look for us there!

Preparing for the freeze

We spent a busy Sunday afternoon preparing for the coming killing freeze, working as the temperature steadily fell and a cold misty rain fell that was almost, but not quite, snow.

I got a call from a TV reporter trying to find out more about the freeze and its effects on local farms; she asked if she could come out to film us working to protect our crops. I said no (I got the sense a lot of farmers had been turning her down). I have a very low opinion of TV news, and no matter how much they promise to not be in the way, they would be during a very busy day. It’s tough, though, because the media so often gets these kinds of stories terribly wrong. I remember an incident leading up to the 2007 freeze in which a local newspaper reporter called me to check facts on a story he was running the next day, in which he claimed that the freeze would mean no local vegetables that year. I had to explain the difference between long-lived, early-budding fruit trees and annual/seasonal vegetable crops that weren’t even in the ground yet; he really didn’t know the difference between an apple tree and a tomato plant. And if he hadn’t happened to call when I was near the phone that afternoon, that story might have run. Just frightening.

In any case, this is the sort of thing we’re trying to protect. Above, you see a just-emerged lettuce seedling. We have many beds of very young lettuce, beets, radishes, and more that are fairly cold-hardy when older, but when they’re just a day or two out of the ground, can be damaged or badly set back by sub-30s temperatures. We’re not sure how our larger lettuces and plants will do either, but if the next three nights knock all the newly emergent stuff out, we’ll have lost a lot of money. Hence work like this:

Above you see an example of the clear plastic hoops we use as mini-greenhouses on some of our lettuces, radishes, and spinach. They work pretty well and I think the more mature plants in these setups will be ok. Behind the hoops, Joanna is spreading thick straw mulch over beds with young plants or just-germinating seeds. Loosely scattered, the straw holds a multitude of air pockets that act as a reasonably insulating blanket.

The problem with straw is that it can be hard to pull back off, especially when you have very young and delicate plants underneath. For the youngest beds, we spread old sheets first and apply the straw over that. This adds another layer of temperature protection, and makes it easier to pull the mulch off the plants.

Of course, one of the problems of a multi-night freeze is that you can’t easily take these measures on and off during the day. So all these plants are going to have to hibernate under the mulch and blankets through at least Wednesday; we’re taking the risk that a few days without sunlight is less destructive than 25 degrees.

Plants aren’t the only thing we’re trying to protect. I’ve been trying to get the foundation piers for our new prep shed poured for weeks now, and haven’t had a window in which the ground was dry enough AND there wasn’t frost in the forecast. I finally got my window last week, but the concrete hasn’t fully cured yet. So I covered each pier with an old shirt or sweater, then a big piles of straw mulch. Hopefully this keeps the worst of the freeze away and maintains the integrity of the concrete:

All in all, though, we’re not the ones with the most to worry about. The biggest dangers of freezes like this are to flora with flowers and buds, like fruit & nut trees and berries. I told the TV person to call orchards and vineyards. I wish I’d reminded her of one other thing, too: this is NOT an “early” freeze. Average last frost date for mid-Missouri is April, and we can expect the possibility of frost through May. What makes this unusual and dangerous is the fact that spring is very early this year, as I’ve been documenting for over a month, which makes the buds on fruit trees and so on come out early and become susceptible to a later freeze. Vegetable folks like us take our chances, knowing this might come and planning our plantings accordingly. We have some control. Orchards and vineyards can’t really stop their trees, vines, and so on from reacting to natural stimuli.
Still, this isn’t likely to be the absolute disaster 2007 was; we’re expecting up to three nights of freezes, not four; and those temperatures were in the teens, not the 20s. Still, once you get below 28 or so it’s a killing frost for a lot of things. Much will depend on just how cold it gets these next three nights. Subtle changes in cloud cover, wind, and geography can mean the difference between 29 and 26, and the difference between loss and survival.

More freezes on the way

As of early Friday morning, the NWS forecast for Sunday-Tuesday shows another classic spring system moving through, with the typical low-pressure cycle of a very warm day followed by storms and a night or two of cold. In this case, we have another chance of snow and predicted lows for Monday night of 26.

One thing I’ve learned in years of closely tracking NWS; their forecasts are pretty good, but they always overestimate the lows associated with a strong cold front (or at least the St Louis office does). Any time you see a system like this, you can virtually guarantee they’re going to keep revising the nightime lows behind the cold front down a few degrees as the system approaches. If I could place bets on this, I’d have my retirement fund in hand. So when I see that they’ve already pegged Monday night for 26, I get real nervous about any vegetation and crops.

We can already tell the difference in our produce from the last few weeks’ readjustment toward cooler, wetter conditions after the absurdly early spring. Other than the peas, most things aren’t growing very fast. The lettuce and beets are just sitting there, going semi-dormant in the frequent cold nights. The beets are of especial concern, because most of them are still just emergent with their tender first leaves. Though they’re generally pretty hardy, a hard mid-20s freeze will hit a lot of plants; even if it just sets them back, it’s a problem.

And that doesn’t take into account all the natural vegetation; many trees are well into their bloom and many animals are becoming active. 2007 had multiple consecutive nights of temps near the teens; we’re not anywhere near that yet, but if this system stays on track you’re going to see a Freeze Warning issued by NWS for Monday.

Chances are we’ll be out there Sunday or Monday with lots of bed sheets, straw, and more to protect the many, many beds we now have in production.

UPDATE: Is there a Reno pool on the NWS that I could invest in? At 5:55AM this morning they posted the following Special Weather Statement:


I’ve been calling this for over a month now. Reporters, take notice.