First farm tour announcement

Our first farm tour of 2009 will take place on Sunday, June 14. This event is intended primarily for customers, as we feel strongly about folks having the opportunity to see where and how their food is grown. Toward that end, we’ve been collecting emails and contact information at our market stand since April, and last week sent out the first notice to the 40 or so folks who have expressed interest so far. We’re limiting the size of the tour, but slots are still available, so ask at the market tomorrow if you’re interested.

Initial announcement below:

Dear customers and neighbors of Chert Hollow Farm,
We will be holding our first farm tour of 2009 on Sunday, June 14 at 3pm. We will explore the farm while discussing our growing and management practices as an integrated organic farm, including our fields, fruit plantings, forests, and animals. We expect to finish by 5pm. There is no cost, and children of all ages are welcome. Please be aware that the tour will involved walking through a variety of terrains and conditions, including field, pasture, forest, and more. Those with mobility concerns may contact us directly about options.

The farm is about 12 miles north of Columbia, roughly 15-20 minutes drive. Due to limited parking space and desired tour size, as well as respect for our neighbors, we can only receive ten vehicles for a tour. These slots will be filled on a first-response basis. Please keep in mind that our entry road is steep, somewhat rough gravel. SUVS or higher-wheelbase vehicles are better, though our 1993 Honda Accord makes it through just fine with some attention. I will grade the road as well as I can for whatever conditions exist, but very nice cars with low wheelbases are your own risk.

Given our vehicle constraints, we encourage those signing up to consider carpooling with others who wish to attend. If you are one of the first ten, and would be willing to offer a ride to others, please provide your rough location and contact info and we will try to match you with others in your area. When the visitor list is settled, we will send those folks directions.

If you can’t make this event, we expect to do more throughout the year, so don’t despair. If you haven’t done so, please visit our website for a preview of the farm:

Market plans, 6/6/09

Saturday’s market will be the last chance at our garlic scapes this year. They flew off the table last week. We’ll also have the same varieties of fresh lettuce in various sizes.

New this week will be snap and snow peas, though not a large amount.

Done for the season are radishes and our saute mix. This latter was very popular as a test product and we’ll do a lot more this fall.

Coming soon will be mixed heirloom beets, kohlrabi, scallions, and more.

Seasonal Asian dishes

Spring is a good time for Asian cooking, with so many fresh greens, herbs, and more available. The meal below was thrown together experimentally, drawing upon my Filipino background, general Asian cooking experience, and loose consultation of a few cookbooks. It came out very nicely and was a great way to finish a long, hard day working in the field. While there are many non-farm ingredients used in any Asian meals we make, the menu is still rooted in the fresh produce of the season and could easily be replicated from our farm stand. What follows isn’t exactly a recipe, since I was making it up as I went along and don’t have exact amounts, but it’s a good guideline for anyone to follow in creating their own version. There are almost infinite ways you could vary the basic concepts here.


This was based on two quarts of beet green broth, though any broth made by simmering fresh greens would work. Once simmering, I added a large handful of mint and lemon balm leaves, along with chopped chives & cilantro, ground dried hot peppers, a dab of fish sauce, and a cup of leftover adobo sauce from another meal (this last is a staple of Filipino cooking, made in our household by combining garlic, soy sauce, rice vinegar, peppercorns, and bay leaves). I let this simmer for a long time to blend the flavors, then strained out the leaves. A few minutes before serving, I added a half-can of coconut milk and a few cups of chopped bok choi, and let it cook just long enough to soften the vegetables. The result was a light but rich soup with a nice blend of flavors.

These were a bit riskier, but came out good enough. I’d started dried black bean simmering hours before, and around dinnertime I moved on to the rest. I chopped and sauteed some garlic scapes in sesame oil, along with minced hot peppers and grated ginger. When these were lightly cooked, I added a half-can coconut milk, 1/4 cup brown sugar, and a cup of adobo sauce (see Soup, above) and let things simmer on low a bit longer. Then I added the drained black beans and some chopped rapini and mustard greens, mixed everything together, and let it all simmer on low to blend. The coconut milk ended up being a bit strong; I should have used half the amount, but otherwise it produced a nicely flavored dish with a good balance of heat and flavor.

I served these with a big bowl of freshly-picked snap peas, which complemented the main dishes really well. Each of the other dishes were rich and spicy, so after every few bites we would grab a few peas, whose fresh, sweet flavor really balanced the rest of the meal. It was a perfect touch

I had baked a strawberry-rhubarb pie as well, and reserved about 1.5 cups of juice from the sugared fruit. I mixed this with about 3 cups of orange juice and 1 cup of yogurt before chilling, to make a nice sweet fruity lassi kind of thing. This also balanced the rich, spicy main dishes perfectly.

Not very photogenic overall, but quite enjoyable.

New goslings

Our two geese have been sitting on nests for a while now, and we were starting to wonder if the eggs were fertile. Then we went down Saturday afternoon and found two newly hatched goslings stumbling about. There are still more eggs left, and we’re not sure how many will hatch, but two is a good start. As with all babies, they’re adorable.

Market conditions & recap

Last Saturday’s market was an excellent demonstration of the weather vagarities that make a permanent pavilion so desirable for everyone involved. When I got up at 5, the wind was gusting as lightning flared on the horizon. I packed the truck and drove to Columbia in the rain. It dried off while I was setting up between 6:30-8, but it was rather cold. Once market opened, the rain returned, varying from mist to drizzle to steady for a while, as the wind slowly picked up. Eventually the rain moved off, and for the middle part of market we had broken clouds with sun peeking through, and a wonderful temperature. Then around 10/10:30 the clouds broke and vanished, the sun began beating down with a vengeance, and the wind following the cold front really began to take hold. It got plenty hot by the end, but that wind was also shaking tents, blowing things off stands, wilting produce, and otherwise making life difficult. While the planned pavilion can’t stop all wind, it should keep sun and rain off while removing the dangers that wind presents. Days like this make the project all the more important.

Given all that, we still had a very good day. The fresh head lettuces were again popular, with many customers returning with good reviews from last week and desires for more. Just like last year, the scapes flew off the table with no trouble. Look for more next week. This was the last hurrah for radishes, and the last batch sold nicely. I’ll be selling on Wednesday this week as well as Saturday, so if you’re around between 4-6 that day come swing by for fresh scapes, lettuce, and peas.

Market plans, May 30

Our young head lettuces were popular last week, and we’ll have more of many varieties. We really like offering smaller, younger heads for sale; I’ve had multiple customers observe that they like the option to buy smaller items, whether for reasons of economy or serving size. Given that head lettuces are far easier for us to harvest, clean, and bring to market, we charge less for them than loose-leaf mix. This means you can assemble a really nice lettuce mix yourself just by buying a few of our small heads of different types and shredding them at home.

We’ll have a few new products this week, particularly garlic scapes. These are a fantastic side effect of growing hardneck garlic; about a month before the bulbs fully form, the plants send up a narrow seed stalk. If you harvest it at just the right time, it produces a long, tubular stem with a wonderful fresh garlic flavor that is simply unmatched by any other product. Our first batch of these are ready and will be available; I strongly urge readers to try them.

Peas are really close, and it will be a last-minute decision whether we’ll have them for sale this week. A sunny day Friday may push them fast enough to be ready. Probably a few pints of the earliest ones, with more coming on strong.

We’ll also have one more batch of our nice saute mix from last week, including baby kale, baby tat soi, pea shoots, beet greens, and so on.

Finally, we’ll have the last round of radish harvest until fall. If you’ve enjoyed our young heirloom mixes, this is the last chance to get them.

Fresh fish with farm produce

Joanna and I have recently started working our way back into fishing, something I used to do a lot of growing up, and on/off ever since. As a teenager, I spent a lot of days riding my bike to a railroad bridge about 5 miles from my house to fish and watch trains; I also did a fair bit of fishing while camping and canoeing on various family trips. We’ve been having fun getting back into the habit as a quick way to take a break while potentially producing something worthwhile.

We had a great meal recently which really highlighted both the taste of truly fresh fish and all the seasonal items we have to complement it right now. We brought home six bluegills from Lick Creek Conservation Area, a nice, quiet, wooded impoundment just a few miles away. After cleaning these up, I preheated the oven to 450 while melting some butter with chopped tarragon and chives. When the oven was ready, I put a bit of oil in two glass baking dishes, arranged the fish, sprinkled with salt, and drizzled on the butter mixture. I then baked the fish for about 9 minutes until they were flaky but still moist.

Served on a bed of fresh lettuce with the butter/herb sauce drizzled on, these were fantastic (if bony). The rest of the meal (not pictured) featured a salad of our fresh greens and radishes and fresh-made bread with our strawberry jam. This was a really easy meal to do with the fresh chives, tarragon, lettuce, and radishes on hand, all of which we sell at the market. If you’re not into fishing, it would be a great way to serve Troutdale’s fresh spring-raised trout or any other fish. Come by the stand on Saturday and try it yourself!

The joys of a prep shed

We’ve been able to use our new prep shed for the past few weeks, and boy is it an improvement. Though I only have half the roof on, and haven’t started the walls, we’ve got the first sink, counter, and table set up allowing us to wash and pack produce in a proper setting. It’s made a huge difference to our efficiency to not have to haul all the produce up to the house.

Above is a basic view through the shed back into the market garden. Produce comes in from the east, often harvested directly into tubs of cold water (in the case of lettuce, greens, radishes, and so on). We can then wash and sort items on the steel table in foreground (purchased for a song at a restaurant auction) before packing into lidded containers that are stored at proper temperature in old refrigerators until market.

Above is part of last week’s radish harvest in progress. I’ve washed and sorted all six varieties, and am about to start building the diverse bundles that customers have found very attractive and interesting. Doing this kind of work outdoors yet under shade and protection is just fantastic. When the shed is truly finished, we’ll have a series of stations like this, along with a great deal of shelving and storage space for produce, tools, and more. Having this close workspace also improves the quality of the produce, as we can get it chilled, washed, and packed that much faster, thus ensuring the long shelf life that folks have repeatedly told us our produce provides. Good stuff all around. Plus, made from all on-farm cedar lumber, it just looks danged pretty.

Market garden update

After yesterday’s long post about the big field, here’s the latest view of the market garden. Peas and garlic scapes are forming, and we expect to have the latter at market next Saturday. Pole beans are starting in the upper left corner, as are zucchini under the row cover in right-center. Beets are still taking forever, while the later lettuce heads are in their final growth in various beds. Sweet potatoes will be soon be going in the four radish beds at center-left.

We’re battling a frustrating fungus on our tomato and pepper starts, which resembles the common damping-off disease but is far more persistant and less responsive to normal measures. We resorted to direct-seeding some tomatoes recently just to make sure we had a backup if too many starts die. But we hope to have many of the farther beds in the photo above full of tomatoes and peppers by mid-late summer.

Establishing field beds

This year we’ve taken on the task of fully establishing our larger vegetable field in permanent beds. The goal here is to minimize the need for tillage and equipment use, while maximizing the efficient use of inputs such as manure and straw. Rather than plowing/tilling an entire field, and spreading fertilizer/inputs over the whole thing, and weeding the whole thing, we’d rather establish permanent zones of growth on which we can focus our energy and resources, leaving permanent aisles which we can ignore except to mow now and then.

Creating these beds has been an ongoing process over the past few years. We’ve grown in this area before, so have a head start on breaking the sod and improving the soil, but hadn’t yet established our permanent beds. Finally, last fall, we outlined a series of 4’x40′ beds and spread manure before mulching heavily with straw. This spring, these beds are carrying a serious load of earthworms and the soil beneath them is rich and ready to go. Some weeds still need to be pulled, but the near-permanent mulch has suppressed most of them. These are the beds you see in the foreground of the first picture, and the background of the second.

We’ve also been working to establish a large block permanent of 2.5’x40′ beds that will be managed in similar manner (see foreground of above picture). However, much of this area was still pasture with thick fescue, so it needed to be plowed and tilled to destroy the sod and create the beds in the first place. Our goal was to use the equipment once to really get these set up, and then never have to use it again. With careful management and strategic mulch use, we intend not to have to till, plow, or otherwise disrupt this soil again.

For this initial work we used a BCS borrowed from a friend. A BCS is a useful implement for small farms, basically a cross between a standard rototiller and a tractor. It has an engine and drive wheels, but also a PTO which takes a wide variety of implements including various tillers, plows, cultivators, mowers, and even miniature hay balers. They’ve very common on European small farms, where they can do most things a tractor can but for far less cost and far less impact in terms of weight. They’ve been growing in popularity on American small farms for the same reasons.

In our case, we used a rotary plow, which looks like a giant drill bit. As the BCS drives forward, the rotary plow chews the soil and throws it to one side, effectively mounding it up. It works very well for trenching and/or building raised beds, which is what we used it for. By marking out the permanent bed locations, and driving the BCS in circles around that location, we continually dug out a shallow lowered aisle and built a nice raised bed. Then we put on a regular tiller and tilled the top of the bed smooth in one or two passes to make sure we’d killed and chopped up the thick fescue and other growth remaining from the pasture.

A rough result of this work is shown above. The aisles are spaced to the wheelbase of our tractor, so that we can drive over them in the future if needed and never actually compress the growing soil. As this photo was being taken, we were spreading a light cover of wood ash from our stove to buffer the pH, then working the beds into their final configuration with a hoe. These will be planted in a wide variety of summer items like beans, edamame, okra, corn, sorghum, amaranth, sunflowers, and more.

The lowest and most virgin blocks of beds are being planted in a cover crop of buckwheat and clover this year. These crops improve the soil while helping to choke out remaining weeds. Above, you see the lowest bed blocks covered in a light mulch of straw following cover crop seeding; our intention is that they grow a thick canopy of those crops that will be maintained throughout the summer before being replaced with an equally beneficial winter crop of oats and/or rye. Then we’ll be in better shape to for vegetable planting next spring.

We’re very excited about the prospects for this field of permanent beds. We’re already seeing the benefits of a similar approach in our market garden, where the weed load is noticeably down compared to 2007 and 2008 and planting/management is far more weather-independent than on a tractor-reliant field. And keeping the permanent beds means we’re only working on the soil that actually grows food, while maintaining permanent aisles that provide habitat for beneficial fauna such as toads, snakes, and good insects. This year will be a good test case for managing this field, and in 2010 we’ll really dive into using it fully.