Old Plank Farm

Stephanie's Farm Blog

Posted 6/29/2017 8:11am by Stephanie Bartel.

To spray, or not to spray: that is the question.

No, actually that is not the question to be asking if you want to get to the bottom of how your crops are being raised.

The question "Do you spray?" often comes to me loaded with the assumption that every spray a farmer may use is a non-organic, petroleum-based chemical in the form of pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers. It's true that this is one type of spraying, generally used in conventional and/or commercial agriculture. This type of spraying is not a part of organic and sustainable agriculture and so, in this sense, at Old Plank Farm we do not spray our crops.

However, there are other types of water-soluble, organic materials that a farmer may want to spray for any number of reasons. For example, at Old Plank Farm we are using compost teas this season. These and other Biodynamic solutions are perhaps some of the most sustainable and organic ways to help maintain a farm field. If you're interested in compost teas, Biodynamics, or any of Rudolph Steiner's teachings, here's one place to start reading.

So a question that will get you a more enlightened answer about a farm's practices may be, "What do you spray on your fields?" If nothing else, most vegetable farmers are spraying water at some point during their season! These past two weeks we have not had to water anything--except in the greenhouses-- as the regular rains are taking care of that for us. And in between the rains we continue to plant more and more crops, which will provide us with our fall harvests of cabbages, broccoli, carrots, and much, much more.

Posted 6/22/2017 9:00am by Stephanie Bartel.

I tend to agree with Calvin's dad in this great comic strip, that there are often too many choices for things like peanut butter at your average grocery store. On the other side of the spectrum, the average CSA box offers the consumer virtually no choice at all but to eat what the farmer's put in their box every week. So if grocery stores are paralyzing with too much choice and CSAs are stifling with too little choice, what am I to do about that?

Well, in the big picture, not a lot. But for our little CSA at Old Plank Farm, we have come up with a way to mitigate member preferences while still maintaining the pre-packed box distribution model. We trialed it a bit last year, and we're using it every week this year. It's called the Choice Box. We are packing variety boxes to send along to each pick-up site this year. Taking 1-3 items from these boxes is what completes a CSA members' share each week.

The basic CSA box is still packed here at the farm and distributed to each member. But the choice boxes are then filled with more unusual vegetables, or contentious vegetables (like kale and parsley), or the things we have a surplus of. While one member may never want parsley--crazy, right?!--, another member may want it every week--crazy, right?!. By strategically packing the choice boxes, we are doing our best to get every CSA member more variety of the things they like most.

CSA members, please give us feedback on the choice boxes. While we can't respond to a request for watermelon in next week's choice box (because melons aren't ripe this time of year), we can likely adjust the ratio of salad greens to parsley in the coming week's choice boxes.

Well, I'm off to have a parsley smoothie. It's a good thing I live at Old Plank Farm, because the CSA boxes never have enough parsley in them for my tastes!

Happy Salad-Eating Season, Old Plank Farm CSA members. I hope it's a good one for you.

Posted 6/15/2017 1:15pm by Stephanie Bartel.

My world seemed to green up overnight, as it always does. Our fields that were brown and bare just a month or so ago are now a shimmering sea of green clover interspersed with strips of vegetable seedlings. The rains this week came at a great time. We had a dry stretch of weather last week for transplanting and seeding more crops, and now the warm, wet weather will help most of these get off to a good start.

Crops we've planted over the last month include melons, kohlrabi, peppers, broccoli, lettuce, sweet potatoes, scallions, leeks, eggplant, tomatoes, beets, carrots, salad mix, cilantro, basil, watermelons, cucumbers, potatoes, Swiss chard, pumpkins, pie pumpkins, zucchini, yellow zucchini, yellow squash, winter squash, fennel, celery, okra, and probably a couple other things that aren't at the top of my head. But most of the time all my vegetables are at the top of my head, especially during planting season. It's been a busy one. And now we are looking forward to starting harvest season, too.

Of course, most of those crops that were just planted are not yet ready for harvest. But other crops from early spring plantings are ready to go out in our first box next week. We expect to have salad mix, spinach, snap peas, garlic scapes, basil, lettuce, and parsley to harvest. Angelica's weekly newsletter will offer CSA members more details about the first pick-up. If you are a CSA member and do not receive her weekly newsletter, please let us know. That is our main way of communicating delivery information to you in a timely manner!

A few of our spring crops are not looking very good. Turnips and the very first broccoli transplants come to mind. Temperature stress and flea beetles have taken their toll, but we will still try to get some harvest out of them. Both these crops we will plant again, several times, and they often do better for us later in the season.

As planting season overlaps harvest season, we are at our busiest right now. Thankfully, weed pressure is not as bad this year as in past years,which lightens our load just a bit. We are using clover out in the vegetable gardens to help suppress weeds. Clover is a low growing, nitrogen fixing, non-threatening crop to plant alongside vegetables, and is something of an unsung hero in a sustainable vegetable garden. With more than 20 acres in vegetable/clover gardens at Old Plank Farm this year, perhaps it's time I write a song about clover! 

Posted 5/16/2017 11:22am by Stephanie Bartel.
One of my favorite things to grow is tomato plants. I especially love watching them during their early life in the seeding greenhouse, when they grow and change every day. Because they grow so quickly, they require us to keep a close eye on them and to pot them into larger containers two times before finally sending them out to the field. It is tedious work, re-potting tomatoes, but the tomatoes are the most gracious recipients of their new pots. They don't mind being handled by us several times (unlike cucumbers, for example, who don't appreciate when we disturb them). And after each time we handle them they have a big growth spurt. During the growth spurt our tomatoes get bigger leaves and stronger stems and roots. This kind of growth makes for a healthy plant. And a healthy plant has the best potential for excellent fruit production.

This year's main tomato crop is looking good. We seeded them a little later than in past years, because we are getting better at maintaining rapid growth in our greenhouse, and I didn't want the plants to be ready too early. When tomatoes sit in their pots too long they get tall, spindly, and start putting on flowers. All these things are signs of stress. I remember looking at my tomato plants on April 14th. They had just germinated and were little more than tiny pairs of leaves poking out of the soil. Can you really be ready to go outside by Memorial Day? I had asked them. It seemed hard to imagine so much growth in such a short time. But here we are, one week away from the beginning of transplanting, and they are among the strongest, healthiest looking plants we've ever grown.
 

Because I love growing tomato plants so much, I started extra ones to sell to anyone else who loves growing tomatoes, too! We have over 20 different varieties including slicers, paste types, and cherries. We also have an assortment of specialty colored varieties like pinks, oranges, yellows, and Green Zebras. Come out to the farm Thurs-Sat, May 25-27 to buy some of our lovely plants!

Posted 5/10/2017 11:00am by Stephanie Bartel.

As we head into the height of our busy planting season, I am less likely to sit down and write much here on a weekly basis. My attention goes increasingly to the care of our vegetable plants. This time of year feels sort of like being under water. Once submerged in water, my senses are far less in tune with anything going on above water. There is always an awareness of what's up there, such as the sun and wind and maybe a distant sound of voices from people nearby. But when my head is under water, my focus is on swimming and everything else is somewhat dulled.

And when I dive into the vegetable growing season, my focus is on our plants and all the logistics of life at the farm. Even when we are not working, my mind is in tune with our crops and the things that need to be done on the farm. And so it is that when I sit down to write a note here, I find I can think of nothing else except what needs to be done today! A to-do list doesn't make for very interesting writing. So I'll just sign-off now and get back outside. Til next time -

Posted 4/26/2017 2:04pm by Stephanie Bartel.
Our busy planting season is upon us, and it is off to a good start. While parts of our fields are too wet to work, we have plenty of areas that we can plant in between the weekly rainstorms. Over the past couple of weeks we planted all the onions for our entire season. Onions require a long growing season and maximum daylight during their bulbing phase. This means we want them to reach their bulbing phase around late June when the days are longest. That's a tall order when our growing season barely starts two months before that. Nonetheless, our entire crop is in the ground as of yesterday, and the start of the showers today is most welcome at Old Plank Farm.
 
Planting onions is done by hand here. Our tractors help tremendously with field prep, but putting the young seedlings in the ground means we spend our days crawling around in the dirt. I wish we could teach Angelica's one-year-old brother how to transplant, because he sure enjoys crawling right now! I enjoy it too, but onion planting can be especially exhausting. It's early in the season so I am a little out of shape. Plus, each plant we put out produces only one onion. This is very different than putting out a zucchini plant, for instance, which generally produces much more than one zucchini. The sheer volume of onion plants makes for some very long planting days. And since onions are a staple cooking vegetable, we want to make sure we have enough for everyone for the entire CSA season, plus some to store all winter. So putting out 30,000 onion plants is what we've been up to here, lately.
 
As I was stretching out a couple of evenings ago, sore as ever but generally feeling good, I was reminded of training runs my high school cross country team used to do at Pike Lake State Park. We would go there a few times during the season, on the weekends, and run the hilly trails of the park until we were wiped out. The steep hills and rough terrain seemed like torture while we were running, but after the workout we'd hang out by the water and eat bagels and generally enjoy the rest of the morning. The trick to enjoying Pike Lake runs was to forget the pain of the workout. Your mind can't know what's coming, we used to say. Since we went there infrequently, this worked for me.
 
Much like the hills of Pike Lake, I tend to forget the aches and pains of onion transplanting shortly after the season. So by next year, when the ground first starts to dry out and warm up, I expect I'll be as eager as ever to start crawling around with handfuls of onion plants again. And now that I'm thinking of it, maybe I will go for a run at Pike Lake this weekend. I haven't been there in more than a decade. How hard could it be?
Posted 4/11/2017 11:07am by Stephanie Bartel.
One of the best parts about Spring on the farm is that it is the season for trying things again. When we fail at something, we are usually taught to try it again, until we succeed. That said, when it comes to planting things at the farm, there is usually a limited amount of time within one season that we can try failed plantings again. For instance, if our pea seeds don't germinate in spring, we wouldn't try seeding them again during the summer, because peas generally don't taste good during the hot weather later in the season. Likewise, if tomatoes would fail, we don't just try planting them again in October!

Seasons limit a lot of our work on the farm, to be sure. But each Spring offers us a fresh start. So yesterday I was excited that we had the opportunity to get an early start out in the field, planting the first peas and onions of this season. The ground was just dry enough to prep some beds for these two crops, which are usually first off the starting blocks each year. This time around we pre-soaked our pea seed to improve germination. The plump, green seeds went into the ground just before the rains came on again. The early start this year also gives us a few more chances during the next few weeks to seed more peas.

Another crop I'm excited about trying again this year is celery. We've never grown a good celery crop, so it's not one we ever promise to give out to our CSA members. But that doesn't mean we don't try it every year. The trouble for me last year was because it had never done well I found myself assuming that it never would do well. This mindset, which I noticed in myself last year when yet another crop of celery failed to germinate, is something I now think of as "celery brain." Last year I remember watering the flats of celery in the greenhouse and thinking about how they probably wouldn't germinate. And so they didn't. This year I've been intentionally combating celery brain. So far so good, as our first celery crop came up in the greenhouse with about 90% germination rate. It seems to me that it is important to be persistent when we are trying to accomplish something that we've failed at before; but it is equally important to not fall prey to celery brain each time we try again. If we don't change up our methods as well as our attitudes, then it's just plain crazy to try something over and over again.

I read a funny quote somewhere awhile back: "If at first you don't succeed...sky-diving is not for you." That's probably good advice. But farming may be!

 

Posted 4/4/2017 11:01am by Stephanie Bartel.

This past week or so I've been noticing perennial plants poking through the earth with this season's new growth. We have some daylilys that are coming up around the farm yard, and our garlic out in the field is looking healthy and strong. Whenever I see these, I get excited for the growing season ahead. Even though the farm is wet and muddy right now, the small green shoots of the overwintered bulbs are a welcome preview of the upcoming growing season.

What makes these perennial plants come up each spring? How do they survive a Wisconsin winter, then proceed to resurface during what is often a cold, wet, dreary season? Perhaps I should know the scientific answer to these questions, but I don't. Their re-emergence simply reminds me of their will to live. This is especially true of one little asparagus plant I saw several years ago when I had the opportunity to visit a farm out near Waupun. They had just built an earth-sheltered packing shed similar to the one I wanted to build (and currently am building!) at Old Plank Farm.

My visit that year was later in spring, and asparagus plants were sending up stalks. As we walked over to look at their new building, we came across an asparagus stalk sent up right through the middle of the driveway. The farmer said that before this was a driveway, there had been some asparagus planted there. But then the new building went in and along with it came dump trucks and backhoes and cement trucks, all parading over the old asparagus plant until there was nothing left but a compact, rock solid, dirt driveway. That was a year earlier. We stopped a minute to marvel at the asparagus. It had survived underground during the construction and then came up the next spring in it's usual way, cutting a deep fissure through the drive to make it's way to daylight. I was humbled by the willpower of that little asparagus plant.

Posted 3/21/2017 2:26pm by Stephanie Bartel.
As we set the new season in motion this month, I am often thinking about just that: motion. To sum up work on a veg farm in just a few words, I'd say we spend our time moving things around. Moving things around. Yep, that's about it. First we move plants and seeds and things out to the field. Then we spend time moving the weeds out of the way, moving water out to the plants, and finally moving the harvests out of the field and into our delivery vehicles. Okay, that's about the least glamorous description of life on the farm, but it does have a lot of truth to it.

With that in mind, I find it is worth more than a few minutes to set up systems on the farm to help make our motions easier on our bodies and more efficient for getting things done. This season, I am especially inspired to improve some tasks for comfort's sake because we are very excited that Sammi and Ryan Laswell are having another baby. That means another new field worker in five years. No, just kidding! That means that Sammi, one of our #1 field workers, will not be spending as much time in the field this season, because her baby is due in August. But in the meantime, I'm using some of my time in March (which is "project month" here) to do projects that can make work easier for her during the next few months.

One project was building a seeding station in our seeding greenhouse. I built a table that has a large hopper in the middle of it to hold potting mix. Now we don't have to lean over a wheelbarrow or potting soil bag to fill flats with soil, which is backbreaking work when you are doing it for hours at a time. Instead, you can simply sit at my new table and use the soil that flows out of the hopper to fill your flats. It kind of looks like a giant chicken feeder, where the feed (or soil)  flows down onto the trough (or table top) as it is used up. The table and hopper I built hold enough soil to seed about 50 flats at a time. Sammi (and Angelica and I) enjoyed using it to seed over 100 flats of onions earlier this month.
 
While we try to reduce difficult motions, we are not trying to eliminate motion entirely from our work on the farm. Our bodies are designed to be in motion, and we often feel best when we are moving and interacting with our plants. Water, the source of all life, is healthiest and most nourishing when it is in perpetual motion. Maybe that's part of why I like motion so much too...because I am 70% water, right?? Okay, there is probably zero scientific knowledge to back up my logic here. Nonetheless, all life on the farm is moving or changing all season long, and us farmers want to be a part of it too. But for the good of my whole crew, I am always trying to better understand what motions are sustainable. I suppose this is just one more piece of the sustainable farming puzzle.
Posted 3/14/2017 10:02am by Stephanie Bartel.

Nothing sums up the weather patterns of this winter better than what I saw while driving through town one day last week. As I drove past a sign at one of the banks I saw it displayed the temperature of 46 degrees F. Less than a half block later I passed a sign at a store on the other side of the street which displayed the temperature of 22 degrees F. I didn't question the accuracy of either, nor did I feel surprised or confused. I just thought to myself, yeah, that sounds about right.

Day to day tasks have been somewhat challenging at the farm ever since we put the plastic on our seeding greenhouse just before the first of March. Since then, it seems we've had nothing but crazy winds, wet snow-fall, or arctic nighttime temperatures. Each of these weather patterns takes a beating on greenhouses, and me too! We haven't had any real problems, thankfully. But I saw one greenhouse at another farm that not only lost it's plastic during the 60-mph wind last week, but also the structure itself had caved in from the excessive force the winds bestowed on it. To make matters worse, it had been a brand new structure.

So, when I was out yesterday morning around 3am clearing snow off the seeding greenhouse again, I was thinking of the favorite Christmas story "How the Grinch Stole Christmas". The weather lately has been behaving like the Grinch, trying in whatever way possible to steal the joy from my early March work on the farm. But no matter what it does, I imagine myself and the others at Old Plank--including the plants--are like the Whos in Whoville who come together and make the best of the season anyway. I trust that by the end of March the weather-Grinch's heart will grow to three times it's current size and I will not have Christmas stories on my mind anymore.

CSA Sign-Up

Our 2017 CSA sign-up season is closed.  If you were a 2016 member and still want to renew your share, please email us to do so. All others who want to be put on our waiting list, please email us at csa@oldplankfarm.com

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