Can’t believe it is still February

February is almost over. Instead of looking out our window at beautiful snow, or wishing we could go outside without getting half frozen, we have been planting veggies already! In February! So far what we have accomplished is:

Beets (hopefully first of many plantings)
Pull onions and scallions (probably more will be planted)
Carrots – 4 heirloom varieties! (There will be additional plantings as well)

We are hoping to get radishes in today before the rains tomorrow. It will either be that or prepping for planting peas.

We are very hopeful that this strange weather and early planting will lead to some good early crops. The big question is going to be what if we start seeing things ready for harvest before the markets start this year. We will let folks know and likely have produce to sell to Common Market earlier than usual:-) We will keep everyone up to date on how things are progressing!

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The 2012 vegetable season, in theory anyway:-)

This weekend I completed the seed inventory of what we had on hand that was still viable, got it all on the computer together and used that to determine our seed orders for 2012. We have some things we feel pretty good about, good lord willing and the creek don’t rise. We have some other things that we are trying something new with, but have hope that it will work, and a few shots in the dark where we have some seed, and if we can find a spare patch of dirt we are going to toss the seed out and see what happens!

We got back with our prefered vendor this year for most of our seed potatoes, so we are hoping to avoid some of the mess that happened with that last year. Varieties are:
Adirondak Blue
Adiorndak Red
Yukon Gold
Green Mountain
Red Thumb Fingerling.

We are hoping for four or five kinds of garlic this year, although fall planting proved challenging with the crazy wet weather. What we hae out is looking pretty good, and we are hoping the rest will go in and thrive in the spring.

Spring greens are going to be Spinach and Kale we hope. We have a new trick for the flee beetles that we are hoping will help.

Beets, carrots and radish will round out our early spring plantings. We have found an old heirloom type of carrot that is supposed to be the best for clay soils that we are going to try. We have a few other tricks with the root vegies that we didn’t have available to us last year that we are hoping make a big difference.

Lots of peas on tap this year. 2 types of sugar snap, one early and one main crop. english shelling and snow peas as well. We learned a lot with the peas last year and are hoping to increase our yields considerably. Plus we will have about twice as much seed, so I hope everyone is in the mood to give peas a chance!

We really messed up the beans last year, but what little we got out of them was great. We are coming back with 2 green beans, yellow waxed, dragon’s tongue and a burgandy pod for fresh snaps. Also planning butter beans, black eyed peas, two kinds of dried beans and a surprise variety that we hope works for us!

Okra will definitely be back, with both red and green again this year. We did well with the Okra last year, but think we can do better this with some luck.

Summer squash and zucchini will see the yellow straight neck (the kind with the nice soft skin), heirloom dark green zukes and the Costada Romanesco that we had a little of last year (the pretty baby zukes with the flowers still attached).

We will have the same European slicing cucumbers that we did last year along with an heirloom american slicer and pickling cuke. We are curious to see how much interest there is in the little pickling cukes. We are hoping for lots of interest, otherwise we will be putting up a ton of pickles!

We intend on trialing a bunch of mellons this year. Around 5 varieties each of musk mellon and water mellon. Some old heirlooms and some newer favorites. Sugar babies and a golden midget watermellon will make nice little icebox mellons. We will also have an orange fleshed that I am curious about.

Have a few different fall squash on tap, to include butternut and three kinds of acorn. Also have a few varieites of pumkins that the weather was too dry to plant last year. Everything from your standard orange jack-o-lanterns to whites punkins, flat punkins and warty punkins. Some good pie and canning varieites too.

One of our biggest crazy ideas this year will be corn. We are putting in two heirloom types, both of them are decorative and milling types. The hope is to get a good harvest and be able to take them to one of the small mills in Pennsylvania and have corn meal. As heirloom organic seed corn is both expensive and not very plentiful, we will be trying to save seed as well. This will involve an elaborate routine of collecting pollen and bagging the individual ears of corn so they don’t become contaminated from nearby GMO crops. If this goes anyplace, I am sure you will be seeing lots of pictures of the adventure over the course of the summer.

We will keep our fingers crossed for all of the above, and let folks know about things getting planted, and how they are doing. Hopefully you will be able to track things from the catalog, through the field and to your table this year! See you at the markets soon!!!!!

Jan and Ray

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Bleeter or twogger?

I am finding that the tweet size facebook status updates are just too small to talk about the farm and what is going on. At the same time, I never really feel like most of what I have to say quite justifies a blog, so I guess I am somewhere in the middle.

Today was another great day. First day without rain in who knows how long. I was able to get out and run the mower deck on the tractor for a while, which is always enjoyable. Mowed around the bee hives and they were just abuzz. I am very happy to see the numbers in the hives building up, lots of foraging bees going to and fro, and lots of nectar and pollen returning to the hives. Brings a big ole smile to my face!

After some mowing it was time to pick one of our two most reliable crops, rocks. Don’t know which is better, the rocks or the thistle. Both of them have you either bent over or crawling around on your knees. Both are very uncomfortable to crawl around in on your knees too. The thistle is a very sharp, stickly mess that always seems to come back. While the rocks are not as likely to poke you uncomforatbly, they are much heavier to haul around in buckets. They seem to always come back too. I have to say it is a good thing that I really don’t mind dealing with either of them:-)

At the end of rock moving, it looks like there is enough room cleared out to till for the beans and the summer squash. Hopefully tilling and spreading fertilizer will be tomorrow. It is definitely time to get seed in the ground! For beans this year it looks like Black Turtle and Red Kidney for dry beans and for fresh snap we are hoping for Provider green bush, Gold Rush yellow wax, Dragon’s Tungue, Burgandy Bush and Kentucky Wonder for the old fashioned green string bean! Getting them in the ground shouldn’t be hard, keeping the stink bugs off of them could be another issue altogether : /

When I had moved just about as many rocks as I was up to it was time for the fun part of the job, harvesting! Picked the first batch of Sugar Anne Sugar Snap Peas. They are fatnastic. Won’t have many of them, but should have a pound or two by the weekend. In another week or so our main crop Sugar Snaps will start to come in, followed by English Shelling and finally Snow. We have been really pleased with how they are doing this year, and if our customers like them half as much as we do, we will definitely make them one of our staple crops!

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Feeling like a farmer

That time of the year is upon us when we can start transitioning from all of the planning and paperwork and start doing actual farming things. It is actually coming a little early this year, so much rejoicing is being had by all. Last year at this time we still had unmelted snow and ground out in the fields. This year we are completely thawed, just wet around the edges. I was able to get out on the tractor on Saturday and till out the top vegetable field! Last years potato field was another matter all-together, but thankfully Mama J, or trusty tractor, is a four-wheel drive beast that was able to claw her way back out again!

In all fairness, we are still in the paperwork phase. Friday, I got a call from NRCS with some additional programs they wanted to list for us, including one really cool one that involves planting forage grasses and wildflowers for pollinators. We got on line real quick and looked and it seems like it could take 30 or so pounds per acre of wildflower seeds to get things kicked off. We are hoping to find native species to plant so that they can reseed and help us manage seed costs down the road. I think we are going to shoot for one acre this year, split between our place and the leased land, and then go from there next year.

While it was absolutely grand to experience that first smell of newly turned earth for the year, there is one drawback to the early spring – I am feeling dreadfully behind. I have to keep reminding myself that this year’s fruit trees don’t arrive for another three weeks, and that last year we didn’t get our first serious vegetable planting done until half way through April. Still, with sunshine and daytime temps in the 50s, it sure does feel like peas, spring turnips, beets and spring greens should already have their little heads up greating the sun. Hopefully seed will start going in the ground today and I will be chasing rabbits and deer away from seedlings before you know it!

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More bee news

Things are moving forward on the bee front. This weekend I finished building a roof for the first hive. After much debate I put together a peaked A-line roof of a very standard sort. The paint started going on last night, so we should have something to show in the next day or so. The biggest problem is coming up with a workspace big enough to put a roof together. Four feet long by two feet wide just doesn’t fit well on the old black and decker workmate:-) As a result it isn’t quite as square as I would like, but I think it should keep the weather out, so no real complaints.

The other big news is that we received confirmation for our bee order. two 3# packages of Russian bees should be arriving in Baltimore in April 16. The vendor that we are working with is an apiary supply store that goes down to the bee breeding yard in Georgia and brings back everyones order. This is a much better set-up than having your bees shipped through the US Post Office. We will just drive over and bring them home from the shop. Jan is already getting nervous about this proposition, but I keep assuring her they won’t get loose in the car. Hope I am right!

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A place to put our, uhhhh, stuff

Since the weather was so uncharacteristically warm this weekend I had a chance to get out on the tractor for a little while. The ground was thawed and I managed to get post holes dug with the auger for our new compost management area. With the ever increasing cost of fertilizers, especially the organic ones that we are required to use, it only makes sense to get this up and running.

For those of you who are not aware, organic farming has a very different set of rules for compost and manure than conventional farming. Manure can only be used in an organic application either as ”Raw” (uncomposted) at least 120 days before a crop is harvested from a field or if you have officially composted the manure. While we do plan to use “raw” manure in the fall to help boost nutrients for overwinter cover crops, it will also be nice to have something on hand that we can add in over the summer as we figure out exactly where different crops will be planted or between crops to help meet their nutrient requirements.

In order to officially compost manure, you have to do a number of things, and keep a log of all of your comopsting activities. The log needs to include what you add to a compost pile and when, turning and general maintainance and most important a daily temperature record of the compost pile. In order for a pile to be officially compost, it has to reach an internal pile temperature at or above a certain level for a number of consecutive days. In order for us to keep a revolving compost operation where we are able to use some compost at any given time and add new material to be composted, we need to have a number of different composting bins as you can’t add new material to a processing pile without starting over again from scratch.

With all of that being said, we have almost completed construction on the first of what is planned to be six bins, each 6′ x 6′. With any luck, we should have some official compost available to us toward the end of the summer!

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One of the reasons I thought I was excited about farming was to get out of an office environment. Ha. I was mistaken! Monday we had our third meeting with MDA representatives this year. This was fairly straight forward. We had to go to the Farm Services Agency (FSA) to fill out a financial disclosure statement in order to have some other paperwork processed. While we were there, we also got copies of the control of land statement that we need to fill out and return, a tax information release form that we need to mail in to the IRS and saw another guy we know there who scheduled another meeting to come out and look over our leased land.

This was all one day after we had a two hour farm market board meeting Sunday morning. Still working on getting all the paperwork up-to-date after that one too:-)

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Don’t worry, bee happy!

This winter has largely been about bees. As many of you know, we got two hives of bees late last summer. We were intending to get bees because it was something I was interested in, but mostly because we need the pollinators for the orchard and to support open pollinated vegetable varieties. I had a plan in mind for how I wanted to develop bees for the farm, but when an opportunity presented itself it was too good to pass up, even though it went in a different direction than I had planned.

To make a long story short, the bees were doing well up until the big storm we had right before Christmas when a piece of debris knocked the hives over and we lost both colonies. This was a very upsetting experience which is largely why it has taken me this long to write about it. After some soul searching and reflection it was clear that we needed to move forward with the project despite the initial loss. There was good that came out of the experience too. I had a few months to work with bees and get practical experience. With bees in hand it was also possible to take what I had been reading and thinking about different styles of bee management and housing and evaluate first-hand what I was doing vs. what I thought I wanted to do. As a result of the experience I now have the spirit and conviction to go in the direction that I had been planning from the start.

OK, so what the heck does that mean you ask? The next few paragraphs are more of a technical discussion of what I think I know and what I intend to do and why. I find this incredibly interesting, and hopefully some of you will too. I do encourage everyone to bee curious and learn a little bit, especially if you use and enjoy bee related products or are interested in the plight of the honey bee. As with any product, the more you know the better choices you can make.

Honey bee hives: we are all used to the nice, uniform, white rectangular boxes that bees live in. This style of bee hive is a relatively modern invention called the Langstroth Hive, commonly referred to as langs. At the simplest level langs consist of hollow, four sided boxes with no top or bottom. These can be stacked multiple boxes one on top of the other. The boxes are stacked on a base which has a screen bottom and have a covering or two stacked on the top. Each of the boxes holds eight or more usually ten honey comb frames that have a man-made foundation that the bees build their comb on. There are more pieces to the process than this, but in general, this is a good outline. There are some real advantages to this style hive that include industry standard dimensions so that any beekeeper can easily get equipment from any source and know that it is going to work together. The hive is easily expandable to accommodate seasonal colony growth and honey storage needs. Similarly a hive can be collapsed in the fall after honey harvest to help concentrate the bees to maximize winter survival in harsh climates. Langs also maximize honey production and standardize management for the beekeeper, beek for short.

While langs certainly have advantages, there are downsides too. One of the problems in developing countries where small scale agriculture is vitally important and the role of the bees is crucial is availability and expense of Langstroth equipment. While there are certainly older domestic hive options such as the good old hollow log or the traditional skep (the rounded top bee hive of illustrations and advertising) most of these methods involve great damage or even destruction to the colony at harvest time. One alternative that has made great gains recently is the ancient and mainly African model known as the Top-Bar Hive (TBH) (see for further information). The top bar hive is relatively easy and inexpensive to construct, gives the beek a functional range of management options and is more in tune with letting the bees live the way they want to as opposed to the way we want them to.

Our first top bar hive

The equipment that came with the bees we got last year was lang equipment. I was personally not as comfortable with this equipment as I had already decided I thought I preferred the TBH option. To inspect the bees and make sure they are doing what you want them too, you have to dismantle a lang hive by removing the roof and unstacking the boxes one at a time and removing each of the frames. This leaves the bees stressed and feeling exposed and the beek to deal very directly with the bees. This was a bit intimidating as a beginner. One of the features of the TBH is that instead of frames for the bees to build comb on, you supply wooden bars across the top of the hive and the bees attach their own naturally made wax comb to the bars. The bars are cut to a width that they touch all the way across and the hive has a natural closure that you don’t have with lang equipment. The beek removes one or two bars at a time during inspections or when doing other work with the hive and the bees are left largely unmolested in their homes where they are much happier and less stressed which is beneficial to both the bee and the beek.  

On the downside, TBH hives produce less honey. This is not a big drawback for us as our primary interest is in developing pollinators. Many would say that TBH is also much more difficult in that the beek largely has to build their own equipment as opposed to just popping down to the local bee store and buying equipment off the shelf or ordering it on-line. Personally I enjoy woodworking projects, so this has been a plus for me. Most bee keeping classes, especially in the US, are geared toward lang equipment too. This puts the TBH beek in a position to either find another TBH beek to learn from, or having to do a lot of independent reading and research. Again, I enjoy reading and researching. I have always been much more of a “learn from the theory up: person than a “memorize and add experience as I go along”.

The final vote for the TBH comes from the overall design. While langs are stacked and will always have a certain vulnerability to the type of misfortune that ours encountered, a TBH is a fairly closed, one piece unit that is much more likely to resist the high wind storms that we are prone to on our farm and theoretically should resist animal intrusion better as well.

In case you hadn’t guessed, I have two TBHs under construction in the basement. One is just about finished and could house bees tomorrow if needs be, while the other is a few steps behind. They will both easily be ready by the time we get new bees in April. I should have pictures posted soon, possibly even this weekend. There is a whole group of posts about their design and construction and it has been a very rewarding process so far. I haven’t even gotten into natural vs. conventional management yet either, so stay tuned, there is plenty more to come:-)

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A Late Night Walk in the Orchard

OK, I have to tell a bit of a story here. It is about 9:30 and I just got back in from outside. It was time to take dear Angus for his evening constitutional and we noticed a couple of deer out in the vegetable field. I decided to let Angus go on patrol and see if we could discourage the unwelcomed visitors. One of the little guys took a long run up into the orchard so Angus and I headed up there for a walk through to spread some big dog scent and try to discourage them. Needless to say by the time we got to the top of the orchard there was nary a deer to be seen.

On the way back I decided to take us down the row that the Fulford Galas were on as they had been showing some nice color for about a week. On a whim I decided to pick one and bring it in to see how they were doing. We got it in and gave it a good look and were pleased to see that it had a beautiful finish with no blemishes. When we cut it open the seeds were nice and dark in color indicating it was getting nice and ripe. The final test was the taste test. Please excuse my net slang but, OMG! That was a fantastic apple.

The bad news is that we have less than a bushel hanging on those trees this season. They did set lots and lots of fruit this spring, but most of it was lost to the late freezes we had at the farm. Hopefully we will have better weather next spring in conjunction with one year older trees and have a nice harvest and be able to bring some of these apples to market.  In the mean time we do have good news, the Gala season has started with our friends at Hollabaugh Bros and we will have great Galas available at market this week.

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Growing Pains

After plowing down crops earlier this week I was feeling a little disgruntled. Last night I was out digging potatoes for an order after we got back from market and I had time to take stock.

The first year at the farm we put in a tiny little test garden just to see if we could get anything to grow. We had an old beat-up riding lawn mower that we were using to take down a 3 acre field of weeds that were taller than I was, a madoc and a hoe. We managed to do pretty good even though all of the hand labor nearly killed me.

The next year we got the tractor and put in more sutff, nearly a quarter of an acre. We also planted our first 45 apple trees. The potato patch grew. We worked and worked to get nearly 100 pounds of potatoes planted, lost the battle to the weeds and didn’t have much else do well. We did manage to get our Organic Exempt status and make it to our first farm market that year though and ended up quite happy!

Last year we added many more trees. We also pushed the vegetable garden up to nearly an acre. We lost the battle to plant the nearly 400 pounds of potatoes we ordered. We did have a good weather growing season and did pretty well. We made our first wholesale sales to Common Market and had a very good market season. Lots of growth and potential.

This year we managed to get an actual potato planter to solve that problem. Planted 550 pounds of potatoes too! The weather absolutely has been hideous, we had some equipment failures and the weeds took over. OK, so we did lose a crop or two that we were hoping for this summer, but we did have a good spring, we have potatoes, we have mellons doing well and we are hoping to be able to replant for a good fall. We have learned some important things about the crops we want to grow. We also have learned that we need to upgrade our weed management aresenal. Thankfully we have a strategy and probably enough income off the farm to get the necessary equipment. We might have lost a few battles this year, but we are making strong progress.

We are also starting to see into the future a little too. Next years major obstacle will be harvesting, washing and storing all of the bountiful crops!

Peace and Happiness!

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