May 15, 2010

This post was written over a month ago but not uploaded. Still, here it is…..

It’s been awhile, hasn’t it? I’ve always found it amusing that almost every blog starts out with some variation on “I’ve been really busy lately” but lately I have indeed sailed into Uncharted Waters of Busy-ness. Most of this concerns having fired all the hired help. I don’t regret that decision for a minute, but it certainly does cut into the time one has to type and eat bonbons.

So spring has come to the farm and summer is knocking at the door. Many, many changes have been made. The soil in certain garden areas, while never robust, has demanded a new approach. For a long time I’vegrown vegetables with minimal or no fertilizer, and that no longer works. Our class AA sandy loam has always had poor tilth and available nutirents, and developing a functional strategy to boost that up to acceptable plant levels takes time. We are working on a two-pronged solution. First and foremost, feed the plants. The easiest way to do this is tha traditional N-P-K fertilizer….whterh granular or liquid, a single application of some moderate numbers (16-16-16 has seemed good) can do the job. But the second approach has to address longer term issues…I think it’s unacceptable to grow on crappy dirt while only addressing three nutrients. So the second approach involves top dressings of good quality compost, addition of rock dust to rows to take care of micronutrients, and when possible more reliance on mulches (especially between rows) to offer plant matter to break down over time and provide moisture retention. What I’d really like to explore more is traditional cover cropping but that isn’t as simple as everyone thinks in permanent garden beds. First, the seed is expensive and has to be sown at just the right time. The cover crop needs just as much attention and support as a food crop. Then it has to be tilled under at the right time…lacking a garden tractor, this is no small job. Then the crop needs time to decompose (more irrigation needed). And after all that, it’s golden. That is a huge amount of time, resources and labor to allocate to a traditional soil enrichment project. Over time, we may have enough resources of fava bean seed to be able to try this out in a test area. But for now something is better than nothing.
Another significant project is crop removal. Not every crop “works” and comes to harvest. Some plants decide that temperatures are too high or there wasn’t enough humidity and bypass being edible in order to go straight to seed. Once a plant heads for flowering, it is usually worthless for eating and needs removal if there is no need to save the seed. This isn’t easy work either. Each plant has to be dug out with a shovel in order to release the roots. Extra soil needs to be shaken off the roots, since the object is to keep soil on the garden beds. This year I am simply laying the removed vegetables down in the bottoms of the furrows between rows. The good news is, they will slowly rot and release nutrition back to the soil. The bad news is, until they break down somewhat I’ll be tripping over them, and every earwig in the garden will have a haven. Also, some weeding happens during this process, since it’s unusual to have a row still be weed-free at this point in the cycle. Each short row takes about 45 minutes to complete.

And of course there is picking. Right now we have three pea crops in full swing–shell, snow and snap– each of which should be picked once to twice a week. Very soon there will be fruit added to the load of vegetables to harvest. The first cherries are within a few days of being ready, to be followed by the apricots and beyond.

Weeds have been a lot of work but I’m hugely determined to keep on top of them this year. I’m paying the price for all the years I wasn’t working full time on the farm and weeds were allowed to go to seed. This year, no matter what has to be done–mowing, spraying, hand-weeding, the goal is to keep them from forming seed. And even the poultry pens had to be mowed. In some spots the weeds were two and a half feet tall, which is a danger on many levels. Certain grasses form “foxtails” that can burrow into the skin or even ears of a bird and cause an infection. And should a fire occur, the unthinkable would happen. This is the time of year when large fuel loads that feed summer wildfires grow tall and thick with the extra spring rains we’ve had. It was an eye-opener to me to learn about how a rangeland fire can move, especially in any kind of wind. We’ve done 10 acre field burns in which I’ve seen 40 foot flames roar out of nowhere. The heat is searing and unapproachable. So I’ve taken note from what I’ve seen of others’ tragedies: what isn’t there can’t burn.

Planning and efforts toward the summer crops have also been necessary to the outcome. A  lot of work had to be done in the greenhouse to get tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, melons, cucumbers, basil, onions, leeks, etc etc ready for the summer garden. Many were transplanted 3-4 weeks ago. The tomatoes, eggplants and peppers need to be transplanted from their starting trays into larger cells, so they need an extra step in order to make it into the field. Every year for the last four years some accident or disaster has befallen one of these three plants in the greenhouse. And I have to chalk this up to me leaving the work to someone else. It’s the old adage:”If you want it done right, do it yourself.” This year I was able to head off every problem that we’ve had in the past by being hands-on and having the chance to realize what the plants need and when. Right now is the last battle before the plants go outside…every year the aphids invade the greehouse and try to suck the life out of the young starts. But this year they didn’t have much of a chance with my trusty bottle of Dr. Bronner’s peppermint soap. So I feel that this year was a success, and the end of a basic learning curve that has taken a long time. It isn’t easy to start certain plants from seed. And it also isn’t easy to understand how to work with a greenhouse. We’ve had ours for several years and it “behaves” uniquely. Learning how it heats, how it cools, how each kind of plant responds to living inside of it and in which location (there are warmer and cooler zones within the structure) has taken considerable observation and recordkeeping.

In the avian realm, there has been plenty of work as well. Without going into all the details, we either hatched or purchased not quite 40 chicks. Some of those are sexed hens, others were, well, not sexed and we’ll find out eventually. We have decided to basically not raise any new turkeys this year except Beltsville Small Whites. The expense of feeding them, coupled with meat sales that have plummeted since the economic downturn, have made it seem a good idea to put the turkeys on hold until times are better. We’ll keep our breeding stock but not much more. And, we’ve been exploring ideas, such as offering classes. We held our first class on Backyard Poultry Processing for a group of interested persons. There is a growing number of people who would like to know how to supply themselves with their own meat. And while our grandparents would have laughed at needing a class for this, so it is. This has become something of a lost art, and having experienced firsthand the frustration and uncertainties of having to learn to do this “from scratch”, I’m glad to be able to offer something useful.
The orchards are gaining steam for the season. The fruit trees become more rewarding every year….in the beginning it seemed like we would wait an eternity for fruit, but the time has passed and we are starting to have to think more and more about how to manage harvesttime than when the baby trees will give us fruit. Every year the trees are a bigger job to keep up with. This last season we failed to keep up on dormant season orchard tasks. We applied dormant spray too little and too late, so we are currently contending with a significant outbreak of peach leaf curl. This will be powerful motivation to be on time with those jobs next fall, but for now we have to look at some ugly peach and nectarine trees. Another problem will be last year’s discovery of a full=blown codling moth infestation in the apples. We had almost 100% of the fruit be ruined from this pest. The new and fancy method of controlling this is to use pheromone disruptors in the orchards to make sure that male moths can’t find females with which to mate, but those methods are very pricey to use, over $100 for about seven trees…..I don’t think so. So we are going to apply a barrier chemical called Surround that basically coats the fruit with a film of clay in order to keep the moth larvae from burrowing into the immature apples. It has to be applied carefully, about three times during the growing season.
Recently we attended the annual Field Day at the Nickels Laboratory. This is an event presented by UC Davis which rolls out new and relevant research pertaining mostly to almond production. However, I find that many of the topics are also quite valuable to my understanding as a Grower of Everything. Topics included discussions of the contrast between producing almonds organically and conventionally, new techniques for getting the most out of chemicals for weed control, and how trees respond to minimal irrigation in times of crisis (drought). Events such as this bring cutting-edge data from academia into useful formats that allow those who actually do the growing to make better decisions about their practices. The only downside was, it was gusting up to 40 mph that day. During lunch one farmer let go of his plate for just a minute, and next thing he was wearing his beans. These things happen.