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.
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.
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.
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.
Sap season is in full force! The Drewry's have been processing sap and making maple syrup for nearly a month now, and the season is still going strong. This Saturday, 11am-3pm is their annual Open House. Come to Drewry Farms on Winooski Rd in Plymouth to tour their maple syrup woods and processing facilities.
Our CSA members receive a bottle of Drewry Farms Maple Syrup in one of the first CSA boxes in June. But if one bottle isn't enough, or if you can't wait until June, you can buy--and sample--the Drewry's maple syrup at the Open House this weekend.
I help in the Drewry woods in the winter, working on sap line repairs and tree tapping for the nearly 6000 taps that make up the Drewry's sugar bush. This time of year Old Plank Farm keeps me pretty busy, but I still plan to take time on Saturday to be up in the woods. I hope to see you there.
As we head into the new season, the fields at Old Plank Farm abound with our spring specialty crop...rocks!
The recent snow melt revealed the work that lies before us. Despite picking rocks every year at Old Plank, each winter more are heaved to the surface of our fields. We'll pick many, many tons throughout the coming months, but still more will surface as time goes on. It's important to haul away rocks that could damage our equipment. I used to think that rock picking was tedious and tiring. I saw it as a battle; we had to fight the rocks in order to save our equipment from destruction. Rocks were an enemy. They got in the way of my real work, growing real crops.
In the spring of my first season at Old Plank, I asked a neighboring farmer if he would plow my field, since I didn't own a plow yet. His reply was a firm no. He politely told me that he knew what my land was like, and it was like plowing a gravel pit. He didn't want to damage his equipment. That was my first battle with the rocks. I envied farms that didn't have to deal with the rocks.
But over the years we started finding several creative uses for our rocks. My favorite project was building the outdoor pizza oven. The herb spirals Angelica built a couple years ago was a great use for some, too. Sammi has hauled many carloads to her homestead in Sheboygan where she's used them for landscaping. Now we're working on a fence line between our yard and the neighbor's yard. When it's done, I think it will be really beautiful.
The more projects we have involving rocks, the more I've started enjoying the harvest. When I walked around the farm a couple days ago and took this picture, I was surprised to find that I was actually excited about the prospect of our rock harvest this year. The work is the same, but the purpose for it has changed. There is no enemy anymore. Instead rocks have become a useful part of our farm. Instead of a battle, we use rock picking as a way to get warmed up on chilly spring mornings. We use rock picking as a training workout for Farm Olympics (a theoretical event, for now, but nonetheless fun to think about). And we use the rock harvest to beautify the farm.
Finding purpose in whatever work we are doing is so critical to how we perceive it's value. Our whole outlook can change when the value of something has changed. And our outlook on our work ultimately leads to the success or failure in whatever it is that we're working on. On the farm setting, I've found over and over again that having the mindset of a battle is a recipe for failure. When we stop fighting, the farm starts to offer endless opportunity for meaningful, enjoyable work. And at Old Plank Farm, that includes endless opportunity for rock picking.
The annual Midwest Organic Farming Conference was held this past weekend in LaCrosse. More than 3600 people attended, including me and Angelica. And yes, we packed our plaid, as did a tremendous number of other attendees! It was a three-day weekend packed with classes, workshops, and lunchtime and late-night discussions all about food and farming. I've attended the event for the past five years, and I found this year's to be the most valuable experience for me so far. It was also incredibly exhausting! A day in my life at Old Plank Farm is a picnic in comparison to the information overload, constant social activities, and short nights of sleep with 8 other farmer friends crammed into a tiny rental house. Fun, yes. Intellectually stimulating, yes. Happy to be home and getting ready to seed onions, YES.
The one workshop that will stick with me for a long time was about Biological Management of Pests and Disease, presented by Dan Kittredge. It was truly excellent. Even in the organic farming world there are vast differences in farm management practices. Finding someone who shares my perspective on organic farming can be challenging, but I was thrilled to stumble upon Kittredge's workshop. I had not previously heard of him, but after just a few minutes I could tell his talk was going to be a good one.
Not all organic farmers hold the same beliefs about soil health, plant health, or human health. There is some evidence that organic farming as defined by the USDA is perhaps not as great for the environment or ourselves as we'd like it to be. I find that some of USDA organic farming practices are surprisingly similar to those of a typical conventional farm. For instance, one thing in common between conventional farming and USDA organic farming is the use of soluble fertilizers to increase yields. Another similarity is the use of pesticides (conventional) and biopesticides (USDA organic) to prevent pests from damaging crops.
But what about a third option? Temporary inputs like soluble fertilizers and biopesticides act like a band-aid for a problem, and they are needed repeatedly and indefinitely. Why not work to build a farm system that has the resilience needed to ward off pests and diseases so that band-aids don't need to be administered? In truly healthy, biologically active soils, it's been shown that crops and livestock grazing those soils are not susceptible to pests and diseases.
At Old Plank Farm, we focus on soil health as a means to achieve plant health and vitality. I've studied soil health and biological farming extensively over the years. To hear someone speak about these principles in the context of a productive, profitable vegetable farm was really exciting! Dan Kittredge did just that. There were other farmers at the conference who also helped shed light on tools and techniques for developing biologically balanced farms, including Gabe Brown and Greg Reynolds. But I found Kittredge's practical experience, excellent communication skills, and charismatic energy to be the most inspiring. Along with managing a diversified farm (in Massachusetts), he founded the Bionutrient Food Association. I will definitely be continuing my education through the resources this organization has to offer.