Farm Week: June 23, 2014 & Permaculture Convergence

This was a busy week on the farm, with the fields finally drying up enough to get some major cultivation done. We started on the upper half of the fields, covering as much ground as possible in the time we had between more planting and harvesting, as usual. Staring down more rain this coming week, we decided that we had better complete the catchup on the cultivation before we were forced out of the field again. So we put the call out to our trusty crew and to the 300+ people who follow us on Facebook, promising a delicious lunch in exchange for three hours of hard labor. Our call was answered, and on Thursday morning, there were nine people, two horses, and a tractor in our two acres of vegetables. Before everyone showed up, we went through the field and made an improbably long list of things we would like to accomplish with our augmented field crew. Lo and behold, we crossed every single thing off that list by the time we stopped working for a generous portion or pulled pork, Asian cole slaw, and brownies with super-ripe strawberries. Danielle and I were in agreement that the extra time spent cooking, prepping, and organizing people more than paid off in how much we accomplished with so many people making a continuous concerted effort. Now the rains can come as they please and we won’t have to worry about huge weeds, and can focus on the fresh flush of weeds that will follow.

Thinking about: many hands, vigor, aeration

Eating: see above, plus lots of salads, and a local vegan feast (see below)

Reading: Roberto Bolaño’s 2666, Michael Phillips’ The Holistic Orchard, Dave Jacke & Eric Toensmeier’s Edible Forest Gardens, Ron L Engeland’s Growing Great Garlic

This weekend, I attended a permaculture convergence put on by the Madison-area Permaculture Guild. Unfortunately, I had to skip the first night of the conference, which featured a potluck and a talk from the very inspiring Peter Allen of Savanna Gardens and  Mastadon Valley Farm. Better late than never, of course, and when I arrived nice and early on Saturday morning, I was met with a very interesting, knowledgeable, enthusiastic, and friendly group of people. We ranged from people who had just encountered permaculture and were curious to learn more to experienced permaculture teachers to permaculture practitioners on urban lots to young farmers incorporating permaculture practices into their farm designs. Like all of the conferences and meet-ups I’ve attended, there was an undercurrent of excitement to be around people who shared some of the same interests and enthusiasms. Especially for the rural among us, it seemed like this feeling was coupled with a relief not to be the odd one in the neighborhood for a weekend. The convergence took place on a farmstead where permaculture practices have been incorporated, and where we were able to put some more into practice over the course of the weekend’s hands-on workshops. Most notably, the first workshop that I attended on Saturday morning involved mapping out a key line swale with a laser lever and watching as a backhoe dug the swale that we had envisioned. Keyline design started (like permaculture) in Australia, its goal being the non-erosive movement of water from valleys to ridges using a 1% downward sloping scale. My Saturday also included an edible and medicinal plant walk, led by a super-knowledgeable forager named Little John. In the afternoon, some of us went to visit a local farm that’s put lots of permaculture into practice. Strause family farm most notably grows wine and table grapes, but is also unique because it’s composed entirely of sand and limestone. In order to increase the organic matter and be able to grow anything, they invite the local crews to dump for free things like branches, wood chips, leaves, etc, which they use to construct massive Hugelkulture beds. The Strause farm looks like a very fun, interesting, and interactive never-ending project. Saturday afternoon and evening were rounded out with an organized large group discussion, a delicious local dinner, informal smaller discussions about any number of topics, a great musical performance, and a bonfire. Sunday, I started out my day with an early morning wet-booted walk around the meadows and forests of the farm, stopping to check how the new swale performed in the rain overnight. The first workshop I attended was with master tinkerer and idea man Greg David, who brought some examples of rocket stoves and highly efficient gassifiers he had fabricated. His talk was fascinating, and I’m intrigued by the possibility of using a rocket stove to heat greenhouse beds for starting seeds. The last workshop of the weekend was a talk on animal husbandry and forest management with grazing animals from a young couple who farm in Stoughton, WI. Emancipation Acres, among many other things, raises stock for other homesteaders and permaculture enthusiasts, focusing on small heritage breeds of pigs build to forage and grow slowly. They had some great tips on general stockmanship, plus some very interesting ideas on how to use animals in a longer-term plan to improve your land. Besides the workshops I attended, there were others going on at the same time where other attendees learned to make yogurt, construct a small aquaponics setup, design and install a pond, and improve damaged soils, among others. The workshops were all interesting and informative, but as usual it was the conversations with others that stood out as the unrepeatable magic of such a gathering. The weekend ended with promises to stay in touch, plans of visits to be made, resources to be shared, and a resounding affirmation that this “first annual” is definitely deserving of a second!

Year in Review

It’s April, folks! That magical time of year devoted almost entirely to getting your shit together. For starters, it’s tax day today, the cornerstone of April togetherness. April is also for spring cleaning, to which I’ve devoted myself for these two weeks at my parents’ house. On the farm, April brings hours and hours in the greenhouse hunched over seed trays, and in the northern climes, a never-ending game of cat and mouse with the weather (case in point: yesterday’s snow showers). Anyways, as we all prepare for the real coming of spring, and gear up for the start of the farming season, I’d like to do a quick year in review here on the blog. Leaving aside the weekly “Farm Week” posts, here’s a look back at some of the things I’ve blabbed on about over the past year:

Farm-related musings:

Food-related musings:

Books I read, then wrote about:

Things other people wrote and I liked:

Random things I wrote:

  • A dramatic rendering of conversations with Argentine family about farming 
  • A special Farm Week post, consisting of a poem inspired by the soggy season 

Conferences I went to:

Other fun things I did:

Farm Week: April 8-12, 2013

Week two started in sun (and sunburn!) before reverting back to a frigid rain, but not before we had time to plow and till a few fields! We direct-seeded our carrots and spring turnips, got the peas in the ground, and transplanted some head lettuce and brassicas: kale, chard, cabbage, and bak choi. The continued greenhouse work of seated seeding was contrasted with the very physical rumble of the tractors and the flexibility and agility demanded by efficient hand transplanting, leaving us very sore the next morning.

I started my tractor education this week! After some basic practice driving a tractor around and (attempting to) back up a trailer, I got in some practice on my first three implements: the spin spreader, the chisel plow, and the rototiller. Spreading a custom blend organic nutrients is the first step toward preparing a field for planting in the spring, and it is a low-stress, high-dust introduction to the tractor. After emptying eight fifty-pound bags of nutrients into the cone of the spreader, I donned my protective eyewear (sunglasses), facemask, and earmuffs and headed out to the field. Then off comes the spreader and on goes the chisel plow. A much more intuitive tool, the chisel plow is dragged through the field at a depth of about eighteen inches in order to aerate and loosen the soil without inverting the soil profile too much. This trip to the field involved a little more coordination; it took a few passes before I got the timing down to lower the plow right where the row started and lift right when it ended. A chisel plow also shows you how mistaken you were about driving in a straight line. The third and most complicated implement we tackled this week was the rototiller. Far from your garden variety walk-behind model, this rototiller is over five feet wide, and when dragged behind a tractor at the right speed with the right power will make a bed so smooth and fluffy you just want to lie right down in it yourself. Running the rototiller can be a slightly nerve-racking experience. For one, besides lowering and raising at exactly the right time, you also have to stay in as straight a line as possible while also lining up in a precise way with your last row so as not to leave any untilled spaces or create ridges by tilling too close. As if you weren't concentrating hard enough already, each and every rock you pass over with the machine makes a clank so big you're sure that this time you've broken the thing. I tilled and "punched out" (drove over to create a bed and a tire track/path) six beds, and the whole time my face was frozen in a look of "yikes that wasn't a straight line at all what was that sound I'm not very good at this at all did I just break this thing?" When I was done, it turns out that the beds didn't look so bad after all, and the good news is that I'll only get better with practice.

In other news, fellow apprentice Dan C. and I put in an order on Friday for twenty-five Freedom Ranger chicks to be delivered in the first week of May. We plan on raising them for meat, both for our own consumption and to sell to any CSA members that are interested. Mostly, we're doing it for the learning experience, and if the first batch goes well, we might scale up production for future batches through the rest of the season. So look out for future blog posts on baby chicks in the brooder, chicken tractors, and adventures in chicken slaughter!

Thinking about: horsepower, routines, reciprocation, projects

Eating: sweet potato and black bean tacos; pasta salad with green beans, olives, hard-boiled eggs, potatoes and dijon-mayo; roasted beets, potatoes, carrots, and onions over refried borlotti beans

Reading: Wendell Berry's The Unsettling of America: Culture & Agriculture, Augusten Burroughs' A Wolf at the Table, Mark Shepard's Restoration Agriculture

Holistic financial planning

This past winter, besides my usual heavy dose of reading and movies, I spent plenty of time on the computer looking for ways to continue my agricultural education even in the off-season. While there is no real substitute for learning by doing, my natural bent is towards exhaustive research and planning. In my digital meanderings, I came across plenty of very helpful resources and eventually will take the time to share links to some of the site I have found most useful. It was through internet searches and reading blogs that I found out about MOSES, and about the Cornell Cooperative Extension. All land grant colleges have farm extensions, but Cornell's seems to excel in certain areas like sustainable farming and small farms. After reading through the different online courses Cornell offered through the winter, I decided that a course geared toward the economic side of farming might be the most helpful. After all, learning about financial planning on a computer is about as in the field as learning how to seed in a greenhouse! The course consisted of a weekly live webinar supplemented by readings and assignments for about seven weeks.

Holistic financial planning basically consists of financial planning with a view toward the "whole" person, household, or farm. Holistic financial planning for farmers consists of laying out your farm and family/personal values and goals, and make sure the way you run your farm business falls in line with those goals. For example, one might look at a budget and suggest lowering wages to the minimum wage to increase profits in a certain enterprise, but if one of the principles of the farm is to provide a good job for its employees, cutting the wage would not be an acceptable option. (The principles I outlined on the Farming Principles page are in fact the result of an exercise we did in the beginning of the course.) Included in these goals and principals is the quality of life that the farm as a business is expected to sustain. With an eye on these goals, you evaluate each individual enterprise on the farm and make sure they fall in line. For example, if you've always raised turkeys every fall, but they make very little net profit and you hate cleaning up after them, you might consider doing away with the turkey enterprise. If, however, you always have people asking for more chickens after you have sold out, you make a healthy profit on chickens, and you like taking care of them, you might look for ways to scale up your chicken enterprise to meet demand. On the more technical side, the course also went into how important it can be to really crunch your numbers as a farmer. After all, you don't know what your profits are for each enterprise if you don't keep track of your expenses. Enterprise budgets led me down another internet-fueled rabbit hole, further confirming my tendencies towards compulsive information-gathering (not bad, as far as compulsions go!).

Because I'm not currently running my own farm, the tools I learned in this course were mostly in the "file away for later" category. Additionally, I learned just as much valuable information from the other farmers in the course, who discussed the problems and solutions they had found in their own personal experiences. While I don't regret taking this course in the least, I'm not sure I would take another online course. I don't think the format is very conducive to my learning style, mostly because the slow pace of the webinars resulted in almost instant distraction. Since I was on my computer already, the ultimate distraction (interwebz!) was only a click away. Overall, however, I come away from the course a little more savvy in spreadsheets, a little more clear in my own goals, and a little more prepared for the task of running a profitable farm business, which is all I could have asked for (and more!).