Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Farming in winter

While attending a dinner party with friends and new acquaintances, someone asked us what farmers do in winter. My first thought was, "We get to eat what we've grown the rest of the year." Our flock of hens is still laying (12–16 eggs daily), we have horseradish yet to dig, and -- due to the mild weather so far -- we're still harvesting chard, kale, leeks, and fresh herbs. We have winter squash, onions, garlic, and potatoes stored all about the house and in the basement. We froze corn, edamame, plums, tomatoes, peppers, and more. The pantry is crammed full of stewed and juiced tomatoes, elderberry syrup, apple sauce, pickles, and hot pepper jam. We butchered our 24 roosters in October and put a half from one of our pigs in the freezer the next month. In December, a good friend shot a young buck on our land and on top of giving it to us, he provided a a full lesson in butchering and packaging, plus sausage making, to us and a kitchen full of friends. As if that weren’t enough in the counting blessings department, we have a terrific local resource here in Regional Access, through which we get great prices on bulk items like flour (from our friends at Farmer Ground Flour), oats, raisins, and other pantry fare. With such a full larder, we're enjoying sharing the bounty with our wonderful friends and planning for next year's adventures on the farm.

Getting back to the question at hand, I'm curious what kind of assumptions yield the question of what farmers do in winter -- besides eating well. I’ve often assumed people have some basic understanding of things that I take for granted: plant physiology, impacts of weather patterns, the business of farming, the effect of cheap food on farmers . . . But then some question or blank response reminds me that the particulars of farming are so foreign to so many people and I struggle with where to start in explaining something like what we do in winter.

To me, it seems fairly obvious that all of the tractor maintenance, repairs to the shed roof, tool sharpening, all of the deferred housekeeping and maintenance we put off during the growing season, and the myriad other chores we couldn't tackle during the busy days of summer now patiently await our attention. At least I assume they are waiting patiently, since they don't seem to fix themselves or go away... There's also the little issue of planning next year's farming effort. There are spreadsheets with varieties, planting dates, seed price, quantity, and row feet to be planted , as well as lists of which beds to plant, mulch, manure, compost, and cover crop, on what schedule. On Christmas Eve, we ordered 150 pounds of seed potatoes; the rest of our seed orders will have been placed by mid-January. There are still lots of decisions to make, but we have our major crops selected and we know where each will be planted in the field. We’ll start some early seeds indoors in mid- to late-January and since we'll install new high tunnels sometime in February, this winter will be especially full with farm chores. Our work days may be shorter than the 14-plus hour dog days of summer, but there is still plenty to be done -- most important, the dreaming and planning for next year.

Thinking about how next year's farm enterprises will play out, it's impossible not to reflect with tremendous gratitude on how we survived this year's crazy weather and busy days due to the mentorship of the many farmers who have generously taken us under their wings, our family and friends, and of course the incredible support of our loyal customers.

Happy New Year and best wishes from Tree Gate Farm.

Sharon and Dean

Special thanks to:
Groundswell Center for Local Food & Farming; Cooperative Extension of Tompkins County; Motherplants, Andy Leed of Starflower Farm; Michael, Karma, and Rosie of Kingbird Farm; Brent and Teresa of Red Tail Farm; Matthew and Liz of Muddy Fingers Farm; our migrant laborers (mom & dad); West Haven Farm; Felicia's Atomic Lounge; Rose's Home Dish; Garden Gate Delivery; The Piggery; the TGF acquisition team Kat and Mark; the world’s best neighbors, Mark and Julia; and of course, Scott: every day we appreciate some token of your generosity and sorely miss both your wisdom, counsel, and good cheer.

Friday, October 28, 2011

A little snow to kick off the season

The farm looks and feels a bit different this morning. We have about an inch of snow/ice/crud on everything, and yesterday our friends at Snug Planet wrapped up a two-day blitz of insulating our attic and basement. As they were starting to clean up the rain/snow/ithacation mix switched to straight up snow. We woke up to a lovely scene this morning.

Yesterday, before there was too much slush on the low tunnels, I picked the few ripe and nearly-ripe hot peppers and tomatoes that were left on the vines. We drained all the rainwater capture tanks for the season and rushed around putting things undercover before dark. Then we cleaned up and gave ourselves a nice treat and went out to dinner (on a gift card we've been forgetting about for nearly two years) with our good friend Kat. Sorry, Kat, no more bouquets for a while.

We didn't get all of the trees we've been propagating in their final spots yet. But there should be a few warm days next week to at least hill them in temporary spots. Our pork is all sold and the last three pigs leave the farm early next week. We'll share more about our ideas for next year's farm enterprises...as soon as we figure out the plan.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Pigs in the Woods

When we brought our six Duroc-Berkshire-Mulefoot cross pigs to Tree Gate in May, they were six-week-old weanlings, weighing in at just 40 pounds each, and extremely wriggly. Since our pigs live outdoors, we chose those with the darkest coloring to reduce the risk of sunburn—and ended up with five males, despite a general preference here for females of all species.

Initially, we housed the piglets in a straw-filled nest in the tractor shed with access to a pen shaded by saplings. There we trained them in the way of Tree Gate Pigs. They learned the whistles we use to call them, discovered that a good belly rub can be quite a treat, and decided that since the electric fence bites, it's best to avoid touching it. Those lessons mastered, we introduced them to pasture in late June. Ever since, they've moved to fresh grass every 10 to 14 days. Initially, it took several people to manage the process, because untangling electric netting and keeping six exuberant pigs from running amuck can get a little hairy.

This last move was our most ambitious -- we've been anticipating it for weeks, and despite our fear that it might end with loose pigs roaming the gorge at our property line and wandering downtown, it went like a charm. Once we dragged the pigs' house and feeder a couple hundred yards from the pasture and into the woods, we opened an alley of electric nets to guide the pigs to their new home. Dean had a bucket of apples (their current favorite treat) to lead the way, but they were so energized by the adventure, they quickly outpaced him in their rush to explore. Already, they've discovered all sorts of new tastes and textures in the soft soil beneath the trees and they seem more alert and energetic in this new setting.

In a few weeks, we'll introduce a trailer and start feeding them inside it. Getting used to going up and down the ramp ahead of time makes loading them for their trip to the butcher much less stressful for everyone. In the meantime, we're marketing the meat, which will be available around Thanksgiving, to people intent on filling their freezers with all of the bacon, sausage, chops, roasts, and hams associated with one side (half) of a pig. Our customers get to specify such butchering details as seasoning for their sausage, how thick their steaks and chops are cut, which pieces get cured or smoked, and how it's all wrapped.

Here's the FAQ we wrote for prospective customers:

about the pigs: Piglets on large farms are often prophylactically treated for worms or with antibiotics to compensate for unnatural living conditions and diets. Instead, we keep ours on fresh pasture and make every effort to eliminate health-compromising stressors.

your cost involves two factors: the hanging weight of your pig and the cost of butchering.

hanging weight: This is the weight of the carcass before it is trimmed into individual cuts, the lard and gristle removed, and so on. We aim to send our pigs to butcher at between 250 and 300 pounds' live weight. The number is variable because while our butcher date is fixed, the growth of each pig depends on everything from the weather (weight gain slows as the temperatures drop) to each pig's personal appetites. The actual weight of what goes in your freezer also depends on your instructions to the butcher. If you want bone-in roasts, for example, you'll put slightly more in your freezer than if you have the bone removed. Smoking reduces weight through moisture reduction. Last year, our fall pigs had hanging weights of 128–130 pounds/half (at $3.50/pound, same as last year, that works out to about $450/half). For freezer planning purposes, the volume of meat in a half fills roughly 2 office paper boxes.

butchering cost: this depends on your pig's hanging weight and your instructions to the butcher -- paper or plastic wrap? what gets smoked? do you want the lard rendered? Last fall, the fees at our butcher (USDA-certified Shirk's in Dundee) ran about $100–$125/half; plastic wrap and smoking are pricier options than paper wrap and uncured cuts.

what you'll get (results will vary! In this example from 2010, hanging weight per half was low -- just 80 lb. We anticipate hanging weights closer to 110 lb this year. Cuts were bone in with ham, bacon, and shoulder
bacon: 7-8 lb
sausage: 6 lb
ham: 12 lb (roasts &/or steaks)
chops: 10 lb
butt: 6 lb (roasts &/or steaks)
shoulder: 4 lb (roasts &/or steaks)
ribs: 6 lb
hocks: 3 lb
bones: 1 lb
lard: about 3 pounds, rendered (good for biscuits, soap, salves, or decline your share and TGF will pay for rendering, then make soap)

cut sheet: your instructions to the butcher. We will walk you through this form, but first you'll have to make some choices:
• wrapping: butcher's paper ($.50/lb) or vacuum-sealed plastic (.65/lb)?. We recommend paper; cheaper and very effective for up to a year.
• smoking ($.80/lb): nitrate free or conventional? ham fresh or smoked? additional cuts smoked?
• how many pounds/cuts per package? (ex: 1 ham steak/pkg, 2 chops/pkg, 1 pound sausage/pkg)
• sausage seasoning (pick one or two): none, regular, hot italian, mild italian, breakfast, scrapple (we found these all a bit salty and half-seasoning quite tasty)
• sausage casing (pick one per seasoning): loose, rope, or links
• ham, shoulder, butt: roasts or steaks? for those sharing an order among several freezers, steaks are MUCH easier to divvy up
• thickness: of steaks and chops: 1 inch thick? 2 inches?

hand-off: Because we have two butcher dates, half of the meat will be available just prior to Thanksgiving and the rest just after. Please let us know which date you prefer. We'll give you at least a month's notice and make an appointment for a mutually convenient hand-off to insure that your meat remains frozen during transfer.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

The Rose Wars

When we established Tree Gate Farm, Dean and I unknowingly stepped into a family tradition stretching back three generations in which food and flowers grapple for space, time, and attention. Mom filches compost for her blooms from dad's vegetable garden and in late fall, sneaks delicate potted perennials behind the garden fence for added deer protection. He grumbles, then winks. Grandma shared sunny yellow primroses with neighbors far and wide while Grandpa tended vegetables; the only bickering between them that family members ever recall was due to the clandestine transplantation of certain landscaping elements.

In 2008, Dean's mom delivered a wedding gift -- delayed several years by our search for land -- of divisions from her own perennial flower garden, many of which had been gifts from relatives and neighbors decades ago. Mom's vision and the legacy of relationships it represented created a garden that brightens the entrance to the orchard from last frost until the snow flies. That same spring, we rototilled a spot in view of the kitchen window and planted a plot of sunflowers. In 2009, family friends shared a handful of dahlia tubers that lend their exuberant forms and colors to the mix.

As the farm grew into its own as a business, I began selling cut flowers -- including salmony phlox from mom's garden and those dahlias -- to Business is Blooming. Under the tutelage of a talented neighbor, I learned to craft pleasing bouquets as gifts for friends, family, and favorite farm customers. This summer, when TGF angels Amelia and Leah invited us to set up a Friday afternoon mini market at Felicia's Atomic Lounge, where they feature our fruit and horseradish in their specialty cocktails. As a thank you for their hospitality, we crafted a weekly bouquet for the bar; as our summer vegetable inventory diminished, we started including cut flowers to round out the offerings. At our final market, the bouquets sold out.

Like every farm enterprise, flowers demand a rigor the hobbyist can forego -- planting on a staggered schedule, pest management, detailed recordkeeping, proper care throughout the season to optimize yields, thoughtful process to streamline the harvest for maximum efficiency. Ambivalent about the tension between function and fancy, I've been haphazard in my attentions to the blooms. This past spring I divided and planted several hundred feet of dahlia tubers, sunflowers, and a few other random ornamentals, all scattered across several acres, wherever I could find space amidst the higher priority vegetables. Then I abandoned them to the weeds as food crops -- potatoes, leeks, onions, plums, berries, chickens, and pigs -- clamored for attention. Amidst July's drought, the flowers languished, but with the deluges of late August and early September, they bounced back, setting buds and rejuvenating my enthusiasm. A week ago, having determined that even admidst such distracted management, the flowers might have something to contribute to the bottom line, we decided it's time to put the flower question on the table for our winter planning sessions: In 2012, will we devote a portion of our attention to their cultivation and marketing, or relegate them to the sidelines?

Forecasters are calling for a killing frost tonight and while the red sedums will retain their grace and the calendula blooms will weather the chill, the dahlias won't take it well. By morning, their distinctive forms and flashy colors will be reduced to a universal black slime. The cheery yellow petals of the sunchokes will likewise blacken and send sugars hurtling down to the tubers that already hold the promise of next summer's blooms. Since unlike the sunchokes, dahlias generally don't survive the winter in our climate, the tubers must be dug, labeled, and stored in a root cellar, then planted out late next spring.

Each fall, they present a choice: check that each plant is labeled and prepare to dig them for storage, or abandon the enterprise. Yesterday, I checked the labels. I a few weeks left to decide whether -- and how many -- to dig. This year, we'll take the decision seriously -- on a farm founded with a dedication to supporting the local food movement and preparing for energy descent, what place do cut flowers have in the mix? The neighborhood pollinators will have plenty to eat here, even if we never tend another cut flower. But there's something to be said for the joy of an extravagant bouquet, the visual appeal of shape and structure, the creative outlet of crafting an arrangement. Perhaps, like Dean's parents and their parents before them, we're destined to struggle with these questions not just this fall, but every fall. . . .

Friday, September 9, 2011

At least someone is enjoying all this mud

The pigs are thoroughly enjoying all the rain we've had this week. (7.81 inches for the week measured at the weather station at nearby Ecovillage at Ithaca).
They usually spend about 2 weeks on a given area of the field, and then we move their electric fencing. But they're doing such a good job at digging, and eating all the weeds, that we'll have to move them this weekend after 4 days on one spot. And they're so playful in the mud that they're almost dangerous to get in the pen with. Not that they're aggressive. Just that they're getting heavy enough that a good sideswipe from one spinning around in play (at knee level) that you have to watch yourself in the pen. I've been tossing apples to them to just to watch all 6 of them run after the apple all at once. Imagine a four-legged rugby scrum and you get the picture. We'll be selling them around Thanksgiving, so they'll be really big by then. You can buy 1/2 a pig at $3.50/lb plus the processing cost which varies by smoking, cuts, and packaging options. Just ask for details.
Leeks surrounded by their own moat

As you can see, the crops are mostly surrounded by water so no mechanical harvesting for a few days. We harvested and lugged by hand crates of tomatoes, potatoes, corn, soybeans (for edamame), leeks, onions, tomatillos and some flowers for our "market" at Felicia's Atomic Lounge this evening for happy hour (5-7). Since we're delivering produce to them anyway (for some of their locavore drinks and toppings for their pizzas) we get to hang out with our friends and sell a little bit of our produce along the way.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Farm report

Thanks for all who checked up on the farm after hurricane Irene passed by.  We had one tree fall on across a trailer, but amazingly nothing broke. Since the storm passed on the eastern side of the state, we didn't get more than about an inch and a half of rain and wind gusts up to 40mph. We lost about 50 stalks in the sweet corn plot, 1/2 of our heavily fruited hot peppers have tilted over and another dwarf apple tree is falling over, but it was already starting to do that anyway. Seems to be their thing. The apples and remaining plums dropped tons of fruit in the high winds, but as I get around to picking them up, the pigs are really happy! And they have a great swimming hole under their sun shelter.

Off to prepare to harvest another several hundred pounds of potatoes for West Haven Farm's CSA. We made our first delivery last week, and we have 7 more weekly harvests before their CSA ends for the season.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Brown rot & black knot, but lots of local connections

I'm sad to say, our Mirabelle plum season is over, but we're still getting a few of the German Zwetschgen and a larger variety that seems to just want to rot on the tree before they are ripe. Since the trees were young and there were almost no fruit being produced on the trees in our first two years on the farm, we basically neglected the few non-apple trees that Kate and Jeff so lovingly planted a few years back. Now that they are old enough to produce some fruit, we've noticed a few black knot infections in the limbs, and we had a full bloom of brown rot until Sharon spent a few hours clearing every fruit showing any signs of spores from the orchard. We're still losing a good percentage of the fruit, but far less than a few weeks ago. I had no idea that you could lose 100% of a harvest from brown rot and black knot could kill the trees off entirely. We'll have to start paying more attention to that end of the orchard! The pigs are particularly disappointed that the plums season is waning, since they've been getting all the non-diseased seconds. But the apples are dropping lots of fruit now, so they're getting plenty of treats added to their pasture and grains diet.

The mirabelles sold very well. Most went to Felicia's Atomic Lounge and we sold another 25lbs to patrons and pedestrians on the sidewalk outside the lounge during a friday Happy Hour. They invited us to set up a table outside. And since they're serving drinks with some of our fruit..it sounded like a good connection. It turned out to be a fun time, and we did it again last friday with a few plums, tomatillos, tomatoes, basil, and magic molly potatoes. Other than selling some produce while tasting the amazing fruit drinks and pizza made at Felicia's (all while visiting with our friends), the coolest part of the evening was having Stefan and David from Wide Awake Bakery stroll by with baskets of their bread. They have a drop off of their bread CSA down the street at the Ithacamade store.  When they're done they stop by Felicia's and sell their remaining loaves. We traded our leftover tomatillos for a few loaves of their amazing bread (which was made from our friend Thor's wheat grown and milled at Farmer Ground Flour). Talk about a local deal.

Sunday we caught up with a few friends at Todd and Christine's wedding celebration. We found out that the Piggery will be opening up the cafe side of the Piggery Deli this tuesday! They also sell at the Ithaca Farmer's Market and through a meat CSA. We're excited to try everything out, and we'll be bringing down some dill for their potato salad. We've been leaving nose prints on their windows (they're across the street from the Farmer's Market) for a few months, and checking out the big harvest table made by another friend, Maria at Double Dog Timber Works, and watching the progress as they transformed the space.

One of these days, I'll sit down and write about my beliefs on the valuation of an economic multiplier for purchasing local food, and how it is under-represented in traditional economic impact studies. But right now there are tomatoes, plum, and pears so ripe they're just falling to the ground, and the birds are raiding our elderberries. And the much needed rain has stopped, so I'd better get back out in the field.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Fruit at the farm

Finally got some rain...about two hours after we finished a two and half day blitz of digging a 6ft deep trench from the house 100+ft towards the creek (with a small storm water catchment basin before it reaches the creek) cutting a strip through the broken-up concrete layers in the basement and hand digging another 6 inches and running 4in pipes to drain the basement when it floods in the spring (which it does basically from February to mid-June). Now we won't have to worry about the sump pump burning out anymore, and we'll have running water to our new wash station. Thanks to Ken, excavator-extraordinaire , who made it possible for us to do all this on our budget and in the midst of a busy summer.

Now I can get back to the wonderful fruit we've been harvesting this year. Our strawberries were ripe and then gone in about two weeks in June, the pie cherries have about had it, and we're wrapping up a good year for the 'wild' black raspberries. The mirabelle plum trees (Prunus x domestica ssp. syriaca) that the farms previous owners' (our friends Kate and Jeff) planted are getting old enough to produce, and we've been picking 10-30lbs about every other day (except over the weekend where all we did was dig ditches and break up concrete) for the last week.

It also looks like a good year so far for our apple trees. Both the house apples and the orchard (which are cider apples) all seem to be loaded with decent fruit. Of course we haven't sprayed anything on our trees, so the fruit isn't picture perfect, and we have some scab and other blemishes showing. Last year we had the chickens in various sections of the orchard during what we think are certain life cycles for these pests, but damage to the fruit was still pretty pronounced. Some combination of low-toxicity sprays, like a refined kaolin clay, and hungry chickens will be next year's effort.

The hardy kiwi's didn't bear fruit this year (transplanted mid-year 2009). Last year we lost all but a few blossoms to a late frost with high winds, but nothing this year, but they are growing well, so better luck next year. The semi-wild blackberry areas that I've half-heartedly mulched and weeded, are showing lots of berries starting to change color, and areas in the unmanaged hedgerows show some healthy blackberries on the way too. We'll enough of a mid-day break, time to get back to picking the blueberries before the birds peck away at any more of the ripe fruit. More updates later on the red raspberries, highbush cranberries, elderberries, and aronias.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Summer fun

The wet spring has led to a bumper crop of black raspberries, raspberries, and cherries this week. We shared some for ice cream toppings at a friend's birthday party last night, and Amelia from Felicia's picked up a few quarts of black caps for their mixed drinks. We'll have to head down for happy hour this afternoon to try their "Black Cap Yap".

The 3,000 row feet of potatoes for Westhaven are getting hilled with hay mulch. We had planned on using discs to just push dirt on them, but between the last start, and equipment issues, we just skidded a few round bales from the field and spread them around the plants. More hand labor than we'd like, but with the exception of the voles picking at some of the above soil potatoes, we get pretty good yields. I also wonder about the cover of the hay being good for beneficial insects. We've seen very little colorado potato beetle pressure in our hay mulched beds. We also plant buckwheat nearby to provide cover and flowers which attract beneficial insects. Squash beetles are another concern of ours, and I'm hoping our tests with various compost teas will work again with the larger sprayers (one 12v cart-mounted and one PTO driven) that we picked up with the Farmall this year.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Pigs and tractor

We picked up a "new" tractor and the pigs have finally gone out on pasture yesterday. The wet spring really put us behind schedule, which was a bit of a frustration. But getting a 1953 farmall super A on the farm is very exciting. The jeep tractor has been great, but as we are expanding our acreage under cultivation it's become clear that we weren't equipped for the all the new crops going in the ground.

The pigs are now out on pasture with a new shelter and rolling water/feed cart. We're playing with using the electric net fencing to rotate paddocks around the shelter. Last year we had a movable shelter, but it would often get stuck in the mud, and was too heavy to move without getting the jeep into the paddock with the pigs.
Since we have 6 pigs (4 last year) we have to move them more often, so anything to make their moves quicker and easier seemed like a good idea. The cart came with the farmall purchase, and it fit a 55gal drum with two feeders mounted on the sides. We'll see how well it holds up to the pigs' abuse.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Ramping up for the new season

We planted ramps last year...time to go check and see if they're sprouting in the Marshie Marsh. This year at Tree Gate Farm brings a ‘new’ electric tractor (built in 1949), new plantings, and new farm relationships. We placed a large seed potato order, our other seed orders are in, and our tiny greenhouse is already almost full of seed trays, and pots filled with overwintered plants.
We’ve been busy looking at the numbers from 2010, planning for 2011, and repairing the roof on the tractor shed. We still have to do something about the roof over the shop and decided we’ll also have to rebuild or deconstruct the potting shed before it further deconstructs itself. Currently it seems like our farming life is more about repairing old stuff (equipment, buildings, and me) than about growing things, but I guess that’s the nature of the season.

Late last fall, I purchased an old, Grand Haven Tractor. It’s a cultivating tractor, built between 1948-51, and was one of about 1500 made by the Grand Haven Stamped Products Company (Now known as the GHSP Co.).  The tiny, simple machine was intended for cultivating over a single row of crops, and with a 27” clearance, it can continue to weed a row long after most machines would be causing damage to the crop’s upper leaves. I took the tractor to our local BOCES heavy equipment class, and they’re working on some welding repairs and installation of a 48 volt electic motor, controller, and batteries for me. I’m really looking forward to putting it into use this year as we’ve already doubled our garlic plantings, have ordered 10x the potatoes, and will have significantly more pigs, chickens, corn, beans, squash, etc. over last year’s crops. So a little mechanized help with the weeding will definitely be appreciated. More on the tractor when we get it back to the farm.

Last week Sharon and I dug some horseradish for our friends at Felicia’s Atomic Lounge, who use it in their amazing Zen Mary’s. The owners have really been appreciative of our fresh horseradish and it’s been apparently very well received by their customers. We just have to remember to wash the roots outside as they're rather potent! We replanted the tops and smaller pieces of the roots, as well as two buckets full of small pieces we stored in the basement from last year’s fall harvests. We now have over 200 row feet planted, and we still have a dozen pots in the greenhouse with 3-5 tops from last year which are just sprouting and will get planted out elsewhere in the field in a few weeks. Our rhubarb plants have started budding up through the mulch, and we’ll be transplanting more divisions from my mom’s garden shortly.

Off to go open the greenhouse before it get’s to hot.