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A Moody Farmer

5/28/2016 7:36am

My whole world looks different after a good rain. For starters, all our crops look bigger, greener, and more lively. Brassicas are especially beautiful with beads of water surrounding their leaves and glistening like jewels in the sunlight. The plants stand out against the soil that's darkened with moisture. And unlike when we irrigate, the edges of the field get just as much water as the middle. Everything looks healthy and hopeful after a good rain.

But other things look different, too. After a good rain, my shop doesn't look as messy. My to-do list doesn't look as long and overwhelming. My broken-down tractor doesn't look as difficult to fix. And my stack of bills doesn't look as high.
 
As a farmer on fairly sandy soil, rain is the single biggest factor in determining my mood and my immediate outlook on life. I struggle more than the crops do during a dry spell. Irrigation, and the problems that come with it, frustrate me more than any other challenge I face in farming. Likewise, when it does rain I am as refreshed and renewed as my crops. Listening to rain on a summer night is the most beautiful lullaby I've ever heard. And getting rain on a summer day makes me want to sing and dance and make pancakes. 
 
So if you ever need something from me, ask me for it after it rains!

Confessions of a Greens Addict

5/19/2016 5:55pm
The trick to eating thistle is to make it look like it tastes good. I can do this especially well, taking a prickly leaf and placing it on my tongue like it is a delicacy. Mmmm, I'll say as I chew and swallow the weed, smiling when it goes down. It looks at first like it might hurt, being that it is a plant covered with spikes that poke into my fingers if I grab a handful without gloves. But it doesn’t. When I place a leaf in my mouth--just one, because a mouthful probably would hurt--and start to chew, the prickers disintegrate and all that is left is a leaf that tastes a little like bad spinach.
 

It is good to eat thistle every once in awhile, to make sure that I can do it, and to surprise anyone who is watching and expecting it to hurt. So instead I make it look like it tastes good. Otherwise I am just a person eating weeds. 

Our first spring spinach germinated last week, but is not yet ready to be eaten. We transplanted our kale a couple of weeks ago, and it is still very small. It takes some self-restraint to keep myself from raiding the patch in the middle of the night.
 
But thistle abounds right now. Last year I thought it would be a good idea to make a smoothie with thistle. It wasn't. Yesterday I made a dandelion/lamb's quarters/thistle smoothie. It was an improvement from straight thistle.
 
Ohh, how I long for the first spinach and kale to be ready. Our CSA harvest season is just under one month away, and I don't think anyone is looking forward to it more than I am!

I'm Just a Farmer!

5/11/2016 4:42pm

This is my all-time favorite Calvin and Hobbes strip.

I am reminded of it often when I sit down to write. Sometimes I just want to throw up my hands and announce that I am just a farmer, I have nothing else to say! This is one of those times.

The Perfect Bed

5/4/2016 6:39pm

I take great pride in making beds. I don't mean the kind in our homes that we sleep in, I mean the kind out in the field where we plant our vegetables. But making the perfect bed in our fields is no easy task. One obstacle we face is the never-ending supply of rocks that get in the way of our bed-maker. Even if the tractor operator—myself or Angelica—is an expert at driving straight, the beds can turn out a bit wobbly because the bed-maker ends up bouncing around rocks hidden just below the surface.

Even more difficult than getting a straight bed is getting a perfectly clean bed. This is because we gave up rototilling last season. Many vegetable farmers have a love-hate relationship with the rototiller. We love it because it pulverizes the soil, demolishing clods and creating a fine-textured seed bed that is weed-free and easy to plant. We hate it because it destroys soil microbiology, ultimately reducing soil fertility. It also creates a hard-pan below the surface and brings weed seeds to the surface. With long-term soil health a high priority at Old Plank Farm, I felt the consequences outweighed the benefits of rototilling. It seemed wise to give up the practice while the farm was still young and our systems were not yet totally dependent on the routine that rototilling provides.

So how can we make a perfect bed without rototilling? I've tried adjusting and readjusting different settings on the bed-maker about a hundred and fifty times, and I've determined that it's rare to be able to make a perfect bed if we haven't first rototilled. We can make pretty nice beds if we plan ahead, adjust the bed-maker as needed, and do a couple of passes with it. Yes, our beds are often pretty nice, but rarely perfect like they can be after a pass with the rototiller.

Yesterday I was very frustrated by the imperfect beds that we made. But rather than succumb to rototilling, I instead found myself revisiting what “perfect” even means. It's hard to visualize perfection from another perspective besides my own. A rototilled bed looks perfect because it is clean and smooth and easy to work with. But that is not always what is most important to our plants. The soil microbiology just below the surface of the imperfect bed top is what matters more to the plants. By disturbing this unseen soil life as little as possible, we're creating an environment for long term, optimum vegetable growth. We're always balancing what is best for the natural habits of our plants with what is best for our own personal gain.

In an era of GPS-driven tractors and rototillers, it's sometimes hard to be proud of a wobbly, rocky, somewhat clumpy seed bed. But trying to see a perfect world from a plant's perspective helps keep me going. 

The Decision Quota

4/27/2016 3:39pm
I once read that the human mind has a finite capacity for making decisions. I'm sure there could be all kinds of debate around what this implies. In fact, it's just the sort of debate I'm sure I would enjoy! Perhaps on a less busy day, though. 
 
The point is that a person will eventually reach a point where it is not possible to make one more decision. I'm not talking about making good decisions versus bad decisions, or what/who influences decisions, or difficult versus trivial decisions. I simply mean that there comes a point where if a person has reached their decision quota, and another decision of any kind is put before them, it will be impossible to respond. 
 
As a CSA farmer, I am often hovering around the upper limit of my decision quota. The past couple of weeks have been especially trying. Spring usually is. Our 35 vegetables and 175 different seed varieties each have their own unique needs. They have different planting dates, different water needs, different spacing needs in the greenhouse or field, and on and on. Sometimes I feel like if I am asked to decide whether the spring broccoli should be 18 inches apart or 24 inches apart my head might explode! On the other hand, when it comes to deciding whether or not I should take on a 20-year loan to have a new vegetable packing and storage facility built, I know without a doubt that my decision is yes. I am in the final stages of planning for and obtaining a loan to build our "modern root cellar." It took over a year to design the building and about 15,000 decisions came with it. It is a big commitment but, if approved, it will add big potential to what we can do at Old Plank Farm.
 
Sometimes the big decisions are the clear ones and the small decisions are paralyzing. Why is that? I don't know. But I once read that people "generally don't seem to know where they are going, or why. If they did, what powerhouses they would be!" Perhaps that is part of the answer.

A Moveable Feast

4/13/2016 4:37pm

This week we've been working on building a new high tunnel. It will be home to our early pepper crop this spring. I like this new hoop house for two reasons. The first reason is because I bought it from Dan, my friend and mechanic who moved away to Iowa last fall. Dan has been a big help to Old Plank Farm since its beginning. Not only would he fix my tractors and other equipment, but he would also talk me through solving some of the problems myself. Helping empower me to be my own mechanic was a priceless contribution Dan made to my farm. He was friend and mechanic to several other organic farms in our area, and I'm sure he is missed by others besides me. Hopefully life in Iowa is treating him well.

I hadn't planned to build another greenhouse this year. Then, just a few days before Dan moved away from his own farm he asked if I might know anyone who would buy his hoop house, since he couldn't take it with. I immediately said that I would buy it! For some projects I spend countless hours making detailed plans, only to find that in the end nothing goes as planned. Other times I don't have a plan at all, yet things work out in perfect timing. And once in a great while I make a plan and everything goes exactly how I imagined it would go...actually I don't think that's ever happened! Neither way is inherently right or wrong. Maybe Old Plank Farm's 2016 plans aren't hinged on a need for peppers under plastic. But if we have a chilly spring, it sure will be a nice addition to our lot of greenhouses. And no matter what happens, I simply enjoy putting Dan's high tunnel to good use.
 
The second reason I like this high tunnel is because Dan built skids for it, which means we can move it around. This is our first structure that is portable, and I'm looking forward to trying it out. One purpose of a greenhouse on skids is to get two growing seasons out of just one greenhouse. For example, we want to plant peppers in the new high tunnel in early May. We'll do that, and we'll be harvesting from that planting all the way into late October, if not November. But by November it is too late to plant anything new in that same spot. However, in a different spot in September we can plant something like carrots. They will grow just fine without a high tunnel covering...until around November. At that time, we'll bring the high tunnel on skids right over the young carrot planting. There, under the protection of the tunnel, the carrots can continue to mature well into our Wisconsin winter. This is one of many tools and techniques that will help us extend our vegetable harvest season. It is nothing less than a moveable feast.
 
 

How to Build a Greenhouse Bench

4/5/2016 9:10pm

Over the years, I've struggled to keep my seedlings warm in March and April. We continue to have freezing nights well past the time that we need to be starting tomatoes, peppers, and many other seedlings that need balmy growing conditions. Like tonight, for example, it's hard to believe that just two layers of plastic are what separate my seedlings from the cold, snowy weather. But it's not the two layers of plastic over the plants that keep them warm. Rather, hot water circulating through the benches where they sit is the key to their comfort, health, and growth.

As I've mentioned before, we recently built a radiant heat system similar to one that you might see installed in a bathroom floor. The main difference is that instead of built into a floor in a home, we built our system into benches in a greenhouse.

Angelica helps build the new benches.

Our new benches have been running for three weeks now, and I'm fairly pleased with how the project turned out. Our old system transferred heat through the air, which was far too wasteful. The new set-up allows for heat transfer in the most efficient way possible, from circulating hot water through concrete and into the roots of our plants. We ended up building six benches, each 6'x10', which hold a total of nearly 200 flats of seedlings. The space is quickly filling up!

The system runs off of a 40-gallon water heater. From that I set up a closed loop of PEX tubing that circulates throughout concrete bench tops. The closed loop means warm water is constantly returning to the water heater, so the temperature is fairly easy to maintain, even on below-freezing nights.

So far, this year's seedlings look healthier than ever. The environment is stable and low stress for them, and for me too. Compared to other greenhouse heaters, the material cost was fairly low. However, it took a lot of work to set up. And some stress, too! I learned a thing or two about thermal dynamics, soldering, pressurizing a closed-loop (don't forget to bleed the air from the line!), and how to use a cement mixer. As a vegetable farmer, I often find that I have to learn new, random skills to complete projects related to our work with growing vegetables. How do I build a greenhouse bench? I wondered earlier this year. Right about the time that I finish doing it is when I feel like I have it figured out. So it goes, on to something entirely different. It's not likely I'll be setting up many more radiant heat greenhouse benches in the future...but if you happen to have a seeding greenhouse that needs a new heater, come check out our system, because I'm happy to share it with you. 

 

 

My Farm is a Third Grader

3/29/2016 11:56am

One way to look at a farm is to consider it as a living organism, complete in and of itself, but also connected to its surrounding environment and the world that its a part of. While a human being is a different type of living organism than a farm, I often see some similarities between the two. And even though Old Plank Farm wasn't exactly born in 2009, it is my brain child and we are celebrating it's eighth birthday this season.

 
Years one through seven, much like a human child, were the formative years on the farm. These early years were when the most growth took place within the shortest time period. Old Plank Farm went from 20 CSA members in 2009 to over 200 CSA members in 2015. By this measure, the farm's productivity grew to ten times its starting size in just seven years. Given the farm's physical limitations (25 acres of land), it's highly unlikely we'll grow to ten times our current size ever again.
 
Instead, as we enter year eight, the farm is ripe with potential for other kinds of development. Diversification on the farm is key to our next phase of growth. For instance, instead of making our CSA bigger, we are working on growing and delivering produce over a longer period of time. Starting a Winter CSA is a goal for this coming season. Plans are underway for a new packing and storage facility which would allow us to do this.
 
As the primary caretaker of the farm, I am relieved that Old Plank Farm is not as needy as it once was. While babies are cute, a farm in diapers doesn't exactly draw in a crowd. During year one, the farm relied solely on me to keep it alive. Meeting basic needs was a struggle. To be honest, that was totally exhausting. Over the years I've been able to give responsibilities to other people, and that has helped the farm grow stronger and more resilient. And we are constantly developing systems so that the farm can better take care of itself.
 
But once in awhile, I feel a little sad when I can see that the farm no longer needs me like it used to. Between Angelica and Sammi and a handful of other people, day to day work runs smoothly without much direction from me. My little third-grader is growing up so fast! I actually have free time these days, now that all my energy isn't put into non-stop care of my farm. I think I'll use my spare time to learn guitar.
 
Old Plank Farm's eighth birthday is definitely cause for cheer. It marks the beginning of a new phase. The farm is still quite young and it does depend on me for many things. But it is getting stronger and more independent every year. And, much like most third-graders you may know, it is bursting with life and energy and a desire to meet new challenges all the time. Now is a great time to be a part of the life of Old Plank Farm.
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