Sunday, December 30, 2012

Snowshoeing to the winter greens

Ok, so we didn't actually strap on our snowshoes just to visit the high tunnels, but at the end of a trek down to the back field and timber barn, we did stop in to drape additional row cover over the winter greens.

The bundles of twine hanging from the ceiling are a remnant from the summer's tomato planting. We're going to try and reuse them for this year's tomatoes. Having screwed up my shoulder during a dismount from the rings years ago, I try not to make extra work that demands holding my hands above my head.

The blanket of snow on the tunnels (and the additional row cover) kept the greens from freezing last night, despite the low temps dipping down into the teens. The plants' roots are still growing, albeit slowly with the limited day light during the short days of winter. As the days get longer, they'll pop into high gear. It looks like we'll have a decent early spring greens harvest of claytonia, mache, kale, bunching onions, and spinach.

One of the other temperature-modulation approaches we're trying is incorporating more thermal mass into the hoop house. Because of the USDA rule attached to the grant we received, we're not allowed to use any mechanical venting, heating, etc. in the tunnels. So we put a 300-gallon cube of water (visible just inside the doors in the photo below) in the north end of one of the tunnels. Despite the low outdoor temps, the tank has barely a crust of ice along the edges. This extra mass might add a critical degree or so when the outside temps really plummet.

Now that I've let out and fed the chickens, checked the high tunnels, and come back indoors for breakfast, it's time to go snowshoe down to the back fields and check a gate, or something... :-)

Or maybe I'll harvest some more brussel sprouts, if I can find them.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Farm to pan

With my back flaring up again, I took a walk down to the timber barn and actually stretched out in the hammock for a bit. Farming is tough on the back and I'm finally learning to pace myself—sometimes.

This was my view— late afternoon (just before seven deer started grazing through the field) through the south barn windows, looking over the winter wheat that Thor planted in our fields this past fall.
It makes the fields seem so lush and green compared to the mottled brown of the uncultivated pasture, even though the wheat is just getting established. Come spring, it will have a good headstart on many of the weeds. Thor's wheat often goes to Farmer Ground Flour, and some of that flour finds it way down the road to Wide Awake Bakery, and sometimes, a lucky loaf ends up back on our farm. :-)

If you will be around Ithaca the evening of the 19th, I definitely recommend checking out their open house. The bakery is really interesting, especially the huge wood fired oven. Oh, and did I mention: there will be bread!

Everybody thinks we generally eat the freshest food among our friends. How could we not, when we frequently go back into the fields (sometimes with a headlamp) to fix dinner. But on Wed. Sharon found a bag of chard in the trunk left over from last week's CSA dropoff. With the cool temps lately, the chard looked better than anything we've seen at the grocery stores. So into the fry pan it went. Mmmm. Good addition to a quick lunch. And nice to know that the rainbow chard holds up so well after more than a week being "refrigerated."

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Winter Fun

Well, not exactly playing-in-the-snow kinda fun. There's been precious little frozen precipitation of any kind so far this winter.

Instead, we've been cutting hemlocks from the back woods to build a covered wash station and doing some overdue house repairs. We even took an afternoon and sketched out how we want to debrief on this year's growing season and how to plan for next year.

Our farmers' markets are over for the year and we only have two more weeks of CSA pickup left for the year. It seems like yesterday we were tilling the fields during a surprisingly hot January, then losing all the fruit blossoms to a late frost, then hurtling into a drought -- ill prepared, to boot. But we still managed to grow more veggies than we did in the previous two years we've been farming and now the pasture is lush with young winter wheat plants that our friend Thor has planted. Despite not bearing much fruit this year, the orchard put on plenty of new growth -- including buds for the crop of 2013 -- and our winter cover crops look solid.

The farm's lead hunter just took a doe and a young buck to the butcher and we're getting ready to hunker down by the fire to enjoy a favorite all-Tree Gate cabbage/potato/onion/pork sausage dish when it comes out of the oven. We've also been taste testing a few of the winter squash varieties we tried out this year.

Butternut, Hubbard, spaghetti squash, and a pumpkin heading for the oven. Last year we read Carol Deppe's The Resilient Gardener and learned that in some cases we weren't letting our squash sit in the root cellar long enough to get sweet. Now we're more discerning about which squash get eaten first and which can hang around till the spring snows have begun melting. We'll also keep a good stash of potatoes for ourselves this year and not sell them all in early winter. Among the simple rewards for all of the hard work that went into growing all this food: We sure do eat good.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Preparing for winter

While were only a few days past the end of summer, the farm is in full swing to prepare for winter already. It fell to 43 degrees the other night, so we've put the end walls back up on the high tunnels and have been busy preparing and planting beds for overwintering.
We have additional row cover for protecting the plants this fall, but if we're serious about overwintering plants in the high tunnels we're going to need to purchase more. More pictures of the newly planted beds tomorrow.


Friday, August 31, 2012

Pigs and chickens and veggies, oh my.

It's been a hectic August. Equipment issues have had us scrambling once again to make do with the few pieces that are working at any given time. Among the more frustrating has been the Kolpin system, the combination of gadgets that turn my 1995 Jeep into a tractor. On its second day back in the field after a long delay waiting for a new part, it broke again. That meant we lost the use of one of our most important field tools, critical for preparing the beds for winter planting. We're again waiting for a replacement part; in the meantime, out came the walk-behind rototiller and a hoe.

Happily, two significant rain storms fell here in recent weeks, making August the first month with normal precipitation levels in 2012. The USDA still considers our situation a "moderate drought," but we're irrigating as many of the crops as possible using a combination of captured rainwater and what we pump from the well. Crazy what a difference water makes!

The pigs are busy tearing up a section of the old farm driveway and weedy undergrowth beneath the trees to the west of the field. With the recent rains, the top few inches of ground are damp enough that they can dig a little easier. European Corn Borers (ECB) have begun invading the last of the sweet corn and those ears too cosmetically challenged for sale get turned into farmer food. We steam the ears whole, slice off the kernels for the freezer, and give the cobs to the pigs. Everyone wins.

Getting a good picture of the herd can be difficult, as curious little snouts can't resist inspecting the camera (and camera woman), despite all of the corn provided for distraction during the photo shoot.

With minimal voltage in the lower wires of the electric poultry fence -- due to wet grass and other factors -- the overly-free range chickens (ORCs) have helped themselves to bugs under mulched beds all over the farm. For some reason, repeatedly putting the mulch back around the plants brings to mind chicken soup. And stew, and dumplings, and . . . A day of aggressive mowing and clipping in the orchard, where the birds are currently pastured, seems to have improved the fence's function and increased their access to bugs closer to their coop. We're thinking of the effort as a stitch in time -- and with the light fading and days getting shorter, efficiency is an ever higher priority.

The irrigated beds are producing plenty of veggies these days and even the cut flowers have bounced back. We're awash in kale, tomatoes, zucchini, peppers, cucumbers, onions, and leeks. Since we have so many veggies, we're trying a wide range of dishes using as many ingredients stacked on the counter as we can. Last night's stuffed zucchini was particularly tasty.

Sharon made a few jars of dill pickles earlier in the day, which helped make more space in the house cooler (our stand-in for a refrigerator). Now that we're able to irrigate the high tunnel where the cucumbers, ginger, sage, licorice, and lemongrass are planted, we're seeing loads of lush new growth. Lots of blossoms on the vines -- now taller than I can reach -- give us hope for a few more weeks harvesting the cucumbers.

Time to get back out there and see if I can't get some of the equipment working. It's turning out to be quite a year for learning about engine repair. All of this quiet time in the tractor shed has been a great opportunity to contemplate our plans for 2013 -- what we'll repeat, what we'll do differently, and how to further our resilience.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Some happy harvest news

One of the brightest spots among this year's efforts is the condition of the interplanted rows of corn, beans, and squash (aka Three Sisters). We only know of the Kerr Center as others who are experimenting with the three sisters plantings in rows. This will be our third season with 500 row-feet or more. Here's how it looks so far:

At this scale, we were able to lay drip irrigation along the center of each row; the plants are also heavily mulched with hay cut in 2010. We water when we can and most everything seems to be ripening well. We should start harvesting sweet corn for market this week. We picked one ear for a corn-tortilla soup last night. The ear was a little unusual, but tasty all the same.

Since the squash seedlings are transplanted after the corn and beans (both direct sown), they get a little later start than if we were planting them on their own. Even so, we had the first zucchini for lunch and expect to pick plenty more in coming weeks.

Elsewhere on the farm, it's dry, dry, dry. Despite some heavy rains in the area this past weekend, we received just .11 inches. Happily, we've successfully installed an old jet pump in a well that the previous owners dug and now have the capacity to pump a few hundred gallons daily. It's enough to keep things going in the high tunnels, maintain some of the field crops, and make sure the pigs have plenty of drinking and wallow water. Since we don't know a lot about its recharge rate, we're taking things slow and steady, cautious of depleting this season's third irrigation system before the autumn rains.

There have been a good number of tomatoes and cucumbers coming out of the high tunnels and we harvested a decent sweet onion crop. Cabbages and leeks are holding on. The storage onions are sadly stunted and the potatoes, grown without irrigation, have almost completely died back. The yields on these plants is a fraction of our spring projections. We hilled more heavily the two rows of spuds we planted late, and they seem to be holding up. So maybe we'll have some storage potatoes for sale this winter after all.

Here's a picture of the sunflower, dahlia, and calla lily beds that didn't get irrigated -- we've always privileged food over flowers, whether it's watering or weeding.

All of these should be in full bloom this time of year. A heavy mulch, about a half inch of rain over the last two weeks, and one or two days of irrigating have jump-started them from not-dead to something more promising, but actually harvesting blooms for market won't happen any time soon.

Guess we'll just have to drown our sorrows in a big, fat Striped German tomato or two (the one below was 1.5 pounds!).

When we look at pictures of the baked corn fields out west, we feel quite lucky that while our fields are dry, the produce that has survived looks pretty terrific!

Saturday, July 28, 2012

When the rain passes by...

Ahhh, a little rain is finally falling on the farm.

While we're not as dry as some areas of the country, parts of upstate New York are now officially designated as drought-stricken, according to the official US drought monitoring website (,NE). The berries are pretty sparse and we've lost a few rows of crops, but mostly we've irrigated the high tunnels and vegetable rows as best as we could. First we used the rainwater capture tanks and when they were depleted (in June), we began pumping water from the creek with a small sump pump. When the upper creek dried up, we found a spring feeding a tiny pool further down the creek bed. That dried up last week and we've been trying to install an old jet pump onto one of the wells out in the field (where we're off-grid, so the project has also alternately included a borrowed gas-fueled generator and a daisy chain of several very long extension cords). Luckily, one of the rain storms didn't completely miss us last week and we got .21 inches of rain. That put some rain in the barrels and moistened at least the top of the ground.

Several of the recent storms have passed frustratingly nearby, but manage to miss our place, leaving many of the planting beds too dry to work in preparation for fall crops. I grabbed a screen capture of the radar this morning as evidence.

See the kind of triangular shaped (beige) field, slightly to the right and below (south) of the highway? That's our field. The green designates a light rain and the yellow a slightly heavier rain... we did get some rain here and there... and for that we're very, very relieved. As we head into August, I'll be working to get the well pump running and this winter we'll be thinking about how much we can invest in a more robust water storage system. Either finding bigger rainwater capture tanks, building a pond, or buying some solar pumps for the wells that the previous owners had dug.

If the effects of climate change are going to increase the likelihood of extreme weather events and more hot dry spells -- interspersed with torrential rains like the 9 inches we got in one week last fall -- we'll have to find ways to make our farms as resilient as possible, in our case within the budget of a small startup.

For now, I'm just happy that the water tanks aren't empty, the pigs have wallow water I didn't have to carry to them, and most of the crops will rebound with today's light rains.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Firing up the new cultivating tractor

Firing up- re: making the final connections to the battery bank and engaging the throttle
New- re: 1949 Grand Haven tractor (for an old ad, look here)

So some of you knew that I've been working on converting an old cultivating tractor to run via an electric motor. Those who didn't, here's the basic info:

Nearly two years ago I found the Grand Haven, near buffalo, listed for $175, with no motor, but otherwise in good condition. I hauled it back to the farm, and then later lugged it over to our local BOCES to have the students build a battery rack for me. When it finally came back, it still needed painting and then installing the motor, controller, throttle, and various electrical components. That's taken me almost a year to get around to, but with the growing season in full swing, we really needed to get the tractor into use.

So yesterday, I made the final connections to four 12 volt batteries, and with a fair amount of trepidation pushed the throttle forward. Anyone familiar with the roar of firing up a farm tractor, particularly when hand cranking an old farmall, would appreciate the quiet click of the contactor engaging and then just the hum of an electric motor as the tractor pulled out of the shed. Since it's basically a souped up motor for a golf cart, you get the idea. Here are a few pics that Sharon took while I tested how it handled running the hilling discs on the leek beds. 

Yes, the steering looks like something off of a windsurfing board. It gives you a clear line of sight to keep an eye on how close the cultivators are coming to your crops. I couldn't imagine doing close cultivation with the tools behind me and virtually impossible to see.

I'll post more about the conversion process later, but for now, here's some other exciting news. Our friend Thor Oeschner has started tilling the rest of our pastures and will be planting rye this year. We have our hands full with the acreage we manage inside our fenced area, so having Thor come with his big tractors and manage the rest of the field is really exciting for us. It's been weedy, rough pasture for a long time. So even with the big tractors, he's got his hands full.

Oh, and I almost forgot, we've started picking the Haricot Vert (fancy green beans) in the high tunnels, and soon we'll have tomatoes and cucumbers!!!

Yeah summer!

Friday, May 25, 2012

Deer inside the fence

Shortly after dawn, while chewing on some very spicy horseradish stems and picking nettles for our Spring cooking green mix, I noticed some deer droppings along the hedgerow between the wild elderberries and the rhubarb patch. Since this spot is within our inner fence, I was a little bummed that the deer had pushed their way through the thick brush where I haven't been able to close up the fencing yet. It was on my winter to-do list, but unspooling 50 feet of five-foot-high woven wire by myself just wasn't happening.

Anyway, as I filled the harvest basket, I worked my way to the edge of our dense blackberry thicket. And as I ripped out invasive garlic mustard plants (edible, but even we don't eat them) and gingerly picked the nettles (thick gloves are critical at the harvest stage, until they lose their sting off the stem), I looked down into two VERY big eyes gazing up at me.

Momma deer had found a good spot -- away from the neighborhood dogs and too close to the constant activity on the farm for the coyotes and foxes. I called Sharon over for a viewing, then we went back to picking flowers and greens for the salad mix with smiles on our faces. Hard to be mad at the doe for finding a well protected spot to rest her newborn -- just as long as she doesn't start wandering into the field toward the greens. Guess I'll be finishing up that fencing project after the fawn finds a new bedding spot.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Pigs on pasture: TGF 2012 edition

Our eight little pigs headed out of the wooden-fenced area for the first time this afternoon. They've become accustomed to the electric netting fence along the inside of one wall of the wooden fence. So today I put up one of our small net fences outside their pen and let them get out to dig some fresh ground. In the ten days that they've been here their eight little snouts have torn up every last piece of grass or edible root in the top few inches of soil. One particularly ambitious snout had been working on a hole about eighteen inches deep when I came to check on them after lunch.

Here's a few pictures of them discovering tall grass, taller than them in some places, and plowing through a section of an old wood chip pile.

I counted three who tested the new fence with their noses and one who was so engrosssed in going after a particular root that she worked her body around till her rump was pressed against the fence. I tried to warn her, but the next pulse caused a little skriek and she jumped away from the fence. I didn't feel too bad when her snout was immediately back into the ground and she just kept digging -- this time heading well away from the fence.

I worked nearby for hour or so, just to make sure all of them have learned to move away from a shock, and not charge ahead as their natural instinct seems to be... An electric net fence couldn't handle even one of these piglets if it were really inclined to charge. The piglet might get tangled for a bit, but eventually it would pull down the fence. Having them learn to stay away -- and back up when they accidently touch it -- is the only way to keep them moving around on the pasture.

In other news, Sharon got most of the peppers, plus much of the licorice and sage, planted in the greenhouse with help from her dad; meanwhile, her mom helped label the hundreds of eggplant, tomato, pepper, cucumber, flower, and herb transplants we'll have for sale at the Trumansburg Community Yard Sale on May 12 and the plant sale at the Ithaca armory on May 19. Perhaps happiest news of all: more than 600 gallons of water stockpiled for our irrigation needs, the mower is fixed, and the tomatoes have already started blossoming!

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Good fences make...

I know. Good neighbors. Blah blah blah.

Good fences make sane farmers.

A few hours after the piglets arrived, they took themselves for a little jaunt around the farm. Someone (with a snout) jiggled the gate just enough to pop out the tiny bolt I had hastily slipped into the two large eyebolts that comprise the latch. As I came around a corner, I got to watch the last two piglets leap, then wriggle through a slightly larger gap between the second and third rails to join their fellow escapees heading for the orchard. After a frantic phone call to Sharon (on the farm, when we get a signal...cell phones are as good as walkie-talkies), we gently guided the herd back around to the shed. Luckily, at this age they are still staying close to each other and with a little coaching they casually strolled back into their pen, en masse. We did some quick reinforcing of their wooden pen and substituted a longer bolt for the gate latch and they seem to be staying put. (Knock on wood!)

When the piglets first arrive on the farm, we spend a little extra time with them every day so they can become familiar with us and get used to our coming and going, heralded with a whistle to reduce the startle factor for creatures even more near-sighted than Sharon. Maybe our friend Chuck can outfit them with glasses? We also supply a little treat now and then, which will make moving them from paddock to paddock much easier.

Since the goal is for our pigs to be pasture and woodland raised, our next step is introducing them to the electric netting fence. When pigs get shocked or stung by a bug, their instinct is to barrel forward. So when we're first training them to the electric wire, we put it inside the perimeter of the wooden pen that (theoretically) they've already learned not to go through. Makes training easier on everyone: Being tangled up in an electric fence while getting intermittent shocks isn't fun. Just ask the farmer who got tangled up one evening when putting the chickens to bed...

Speaking of chickens, a few of them have taken to flying over their electric net fencing. We have a few sections of 42" fencing we bought from a friend enclosing a large area around their portable coop and the shelter that houses their feed tray and provides extra shade. Most days they stay in just fine. But right after we move them to a new spot, a few will try to return to their previous location. And then the chicken herding commences. It wouldn't be so bad, but they seem to really like to scratch and hunt for bugs in the freshly mulched-loose soil around plantings like the garlic and baby fruit trees. Finding young garlic cloves half excavated from their rows makes us less happy with the chickens. We love selling their eggs, appreciate the fertilizer they spread for us, and welcome their aid reducing pest pressure, but we had to break out our old 48" fencing to hold them in a smaller area while we planted potatoes yesterday. They couldn't resist coming over to visit us and look for bugs in the freshly turned soil. Happily, the 48" fencing seems to be working for the time being.

As we expand and reconfigure the main growing enclosure this year, electric fencing won't be the only kind we're moving. We'll also move and extend some of the eight-foot-tall woven wire fencing and twelve-foot black locust posts. We're expanding our fruit and vegetable production and with all the deer we have passing through the field, the only way to protect the crops is with a BIG fence. If anyone wants to come out and help string fencing in June, let us know. We always welcome help on large tasks like that.

An update on the high tunnels: All of the tomato plants are in, as well as the ginger, cilantro, and cucumbers. Peppers, eggplants, etc. are almost big enough to transplant as well. We had to open all the sides yesterday for the first time, as the temps were approaching 100° before noon.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Last week/this week and silver linings

Last week we were running around in shorts and planting out a variety of tomatoes in the high tunnels:

And this morning we awoke to three inches of very heavy snow:

Sorry for the poor-quality photo. With a dead digital camera battery, the best I can offer is a lousy webcam shot from my netbook...

The fruit trees are taking another hit from the heavy, wet snow and near-freezing air temps, but the blanket of snow on the ground is insulating the leaks, potatoes, fava beans, and lo-growing perennials -- including rhubarb and horseradish. Meanwhile, inside the new high tunnels and the smaller half-tunnel we've been using for a few years, the air temperatures are hovering around 40 degrees. Since we cover all of the seedlings with plastic or up to several layers of row cover (a lightweight, woven fabric) draped over frames spanning each planted row, our annuals shouldn't have any problems. They might slow down for a few days till the sun and temps come back...but we haven't yet started going to market at Felicia's Atomic Lounge or the Trumansburg Farmer's Market

With all of the seed trays and lugs full of potted plants, it's a tight squeeze moving around in the half tunnel (15'x20') tucked up against the south wall of the shop (the little red barn visible from the road). We've definitely expanded enough that if we continue at this rate, we're going to have to develop more efficient potting and seed-starting systems.

To help us figure out what we'll need, we've visited several of our friends' farms and they've given us great ideas about how to lay things out and what equipment works for them. Mom has gotten into the swing by volunteering at Red Knickers' Herbs and seeing how they produce thousands of incredibly healthy plants a year out of their house and a small greenhouse. We stopped down and visited with them briefly over the weekend and thanked them for all the information they've been sharing via her reports. They offered us pots, catalogs, and tons of great tips on how they make a living as a small nursery without all of the chemicals and less of the long shipping involved in the masses of plants found at big box stores. It was really great meeting them and here at TGF we've had some great followup conversations about what our greenhouse might look like someday. NOTE: IF you ever want to watch my head spin, ask how late blight obliterated most of our county's tomato and potato plants in 2009 due to the disease vectoring around the country. If you're interested in learning more, Sharon wrote a really great article about the epidemic and the issues of disease spread.

But really, back to the silver linings. The white snow is beautiful and I'll get some much needed work done on the tractors while the field is too wet to work, plus run some overdue errands to Agway and NAPA, and maybe even stop in and see our friends at the Piggery!

Monday, April 9, 2012

Seed potato distribution

On Sunday, we picked up a pallet of Saranac Valley Farms' seed potatoes from the Regional Access and dropped off West Haven Farm's, then came home and sorted the rest of the 50lbs bags into orders for Muddy Fingers Farm, Kingbird Farm, and ours. Sharon was heading out on a business trip, so she loaded the back seat of the Civic with Kingbird's and dropped them off on her way out of town.  So now there are about 150lbs of seed potatoes adding to the mudroom clutter along with the light shelves and various seed trays.

We're still getting the occasional hard freezes overnight, so they won't be going out quite yet. Some plants, like the leeks and onions, have been out in the the 1/2 hoop tunnel for a few weeks, but the tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, etc are still indoors, or living on the hot bed. What's a hot bed you ask?  It's a pile of fresh horse manure and bedding surrounded by square bales of hay. The composting action creates enough heat to keep the seedlings warm during the cold nights. We pull the row cover off during the day, except over the bin to the right that has some tiny pepper plants that I was worried might get too much sun...Yes, some plants can get sunburned too. Thanks to Muddy Fingers again for being such good mentors. We learned about the hot beds from them, and while Mathew was picking up their potatoes this morning, I quizzed him about a range of topics from high tunnel watering to their potato planting practices. It really helps to have such great resources in the community.

The fields are greening up quickly despite the hard freezes we're still getting intermittently. The 80deg temps we had in late February and March really threw off the trees and many of our perennial crops like the blueberries and hardy kiwis. We'll have to see if we get any fruit set from the plums this year...

Back out to finish running the irrigation lines out to the tunnels and maybe plant some early potatoes before it rains.

Saturday, March 31, 2012

Pig planning

We're planning on raising a few hogs again this year and went to visit the latest litters at Jim Linton's farm a few miles away.

We were mainly confirming that we could get ours set aside before he gives them certain vaccinations, or sells them to other farms. He's been doing a lot of business with our friends Brad and Heather at the Piggery. Their business seems to be booming, and it sounds like they could buy every piglet Jim raises. We feel pretty lucky that he let us pick out which piglets we want before he sells them off to other folks. Because our pigs are rotated through sections of our pasture, they need to be darker colored to protect against sunburn. A sunburned pig is a really unhappy pig!

We provide them a good sun shelter, as well as a sleeping platform, and move them under the trees before the days get really hot. So yesterday, we headed over to Jim's with mom and dad, and looked over the two-week-old litters. We picked a few of the darker ones and he'll separate them out when the pigs are weaned. None of us -- except mom -- are interested in bottle feeding them, so we'll go back and pick them up in 3-4 weeks, when Jim says they're ready to leave their mother's side.

Because organic feed prices keep going up, we've had to raise our prices slightly to $3.60 a pound; a $100 deposit reserves your half pig. Last fall, Sharon wrote a good summary of how we charge based on their final weight and which processing/packaging options each customer gets to choose. You can read that post here, or just e-mail us and we'll send you the long version with cut sheets and all the processing options.

If we're going to have more pigs this year...then I guess I'd better get going building a larger pig shelter and water/feed cart.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Chilling Out

The summer that we bought our land, we lived off-grid while we waited for the legal paperwork that would allow us to buy the farmhouse, sold off from the farm itself 50 years ago. When late autumn weather drove us back indoors in the form of a short-term rental, we kept using the ice packs and cooler that had stood in for a refrigerator during our camping days and Dean turned the apartment fridge into a funky entertainment/work station for his computer and monitor, with storage for the wireless mouse in the butter drawer. Finally in January 2009, we moved into the farmhouse, which had been vacant for six months. After cleaning out our "new" refrigerator, we left the doors open for it to dry out and the mice moved in. They made short work of the insulation in the freezer and that was the end of that appliance -- at least for household use. This winter, we returned it to service in the tractor shed, with a few modifications:

It's an cozy, insulated box to promote the germination of our heat-loving crops: tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, lemongrass . . . The idea is simple, stolen from Teresa and Brent, our friends/mentors over at Red Tail Farm. Dean drilled a hole in the side of the cabinet for a wire, then installed a light socket. Depending how cold it is outside, we screw in either a 60-watt or 20-watt bulb, then using a not-so-scientific system of plugging in the lightbulb or not, hold temps in the 70–90° range. Trays containing the most tropical plants (the spiciest peppers) take the top shelves, while those that prefer lower temps (lemongrass) get the bottom shelf. As each tray hits maximum germination, we move it into the hoop house for full sun and replace it with a freshly seeded tray.

In the coming week, we'll shift to an even more efficient heat source: Compost. Liz Martin at Muddy Fingers Farm has written about their system, for which we've slowly been assembling the components. Our friends Aaron and Kara over at Plowbreak Farm posted photos of theirs. On Saturday, we picked up mulch hay from Ringneck Preserve and later this week we'll get a load of horse manure and bedding from Kelviden Farm, just a mile from us here on West Hill. Turns out the hardest part was getting our hands on some affordable square bales for the "frames." When we did, you can be sure we stockpiled enough to see us through a couple of years' worth of hotboxes. So far, we're pleased with this year's progress. Here are some of the heirloom tomato seedlings, sunning in the hoop house:

One of the reasons we started Tree Gate Farm was our dual concern about energy and land use. We wanted to live more in tune with our values and demonstrate the possibility of an abundant, satisfying, and rewarding life in which conservation tops the decision tree. As weather patterns shift, we're seeing the value of a diversified system that turns waste -- whether old refrigerators or mulch hay bales and horse manure -- into resource. We're also keeping our fingers crossed that by diversifying our crops and income streams, we'll be able to sustain a farm resilient enough to withstand the crazy times coming our way. Already, we're clear on a critical point: We can't do it alone. Fellow farmers share ideas, resources, even tools. CSA members and our wholesale customers provide critical financial support, and both family and friends have been staggeringly generous with moral support. Thank you, all!

Monday, March 19, 2012

Just one word. . . plastic.

While I'm not a huge fan of plasticulture and growing plants indoors, with all the crazy weather we've been having, it seems like good insurance to have at least some of our production under wraps.

A group of friends joined us on Sunday morning to hang the plastic on the new high tunnels and have brunch. Just as we finished wrapping the first house, the wind began to pick up. When we stood up the first end wall on the second house, a gust flattened the plastic against the frame. After wrestling the 20'x17' sail back to the ground, I called it a day. But after a quick group conference, we decided to make a go for it. With a little luck, some fast teamwork, and a few shoulder-wrenching tugs when the breezes billowed, we secured enough of the wiggle wire to hold it all in place. (A side note: wiggle wire is so cool -- looks just as its name suggests. Snap it into its channel and it holds the plastic firmly anchored to the house frame.)

Whew. It was a busy morning. Time for stacks of oat pancakes, sprinkled with Tree Gate Farm blueberries, plus our super tasty bacon and eggs. Mmmm.

Here's the new view from the back door of the farmhouse. Soon, this house will be planted to ginger, lemongrass, licorice, cucumbers, and a variety of herbs. The one to its west will house the nightshades: four varieties of peppers, six kinds of tomatoes, and eggplants with companion plants including basil, calendula, lettuce, and spinach.

Today we worked on finishing the wooden doors and since mom brought more rhubarb plants from their house, we tilled another row and got the babies in the ground.

Last year at this time, we had running water flowing across the center of the field and we were fretting about when the ground would be dry enough to plow. This year with the warm winter and minimal snow/rain, we started plowing in late January. The only reason we haven't finished tilling in all of the cover crops is that the vegetables slated for the beds currently planted to winter rye won't withstand the frost almost certain to fall some night between now and the typical start of the field growing season in late April. At least the forecast is no longer calling for 90-degree temperatures later this week and we've been making good use of the mild weather to wrap up all sorts of projects. Ten days ago, it was snowing. Today we were slathering ourselves with sunscreen, donning our straw hats, and chugging water to guard against heat stroke. Good-bye winter, hello mid-summer! We hear next week, it will be spring.

Friday, March 9, 2012

On a light snowy day

I spent a relaxing morning indoors since it's snowing out at the moment and there are lots of little chores to do in and around the farmhouse that don't require wading out in the slick muddy field. Mending one of my favorite sweaters, planning yet another construction project, and remembering to write a blog entry before my relatives have to remind me.

Earlier in the week I managed to run a plow along a few of the new beds where I had planted buckwheat and then rye as cover crops last year.
For about an hour, the ground was frozen just deep enough so that the tractor tires didn't sink down in the soil, but the plow could still penetrate and flip the earth. As the sun rose above the tree line to the East, it quickly became too muddy to continue. Even so, it was a good test of the Farmall, which has been sitting idle all winter. Other than the generator not keeping the battery charged, it ran great. We knew this was a problem last year, but just recharged the battery between uses. I changed the brushes on the generator and starter this winter, but that clearly didn't fix the problem. So, a few more self-directed tractor maintenance lessons are in order. All part of learning how to farm.

Before we add the composted woodchips and manure to the beds, I moved some of the electric fencing and allowed the chickens to feast on the bugs and worms that the plow brought to the surface. The chickens' importance on the farm as pest reducers and in helping break up the soil is only matched by their ability to produce great eggs and LOTS of manure. Selling the eggs this year has been a lot of fun since most people have forgotten what real pasture-raised eggs taste like: "As though they have cream in them," according to one customer. Oh, and the round bales in the photo above are being composted, and will be added to the beds under the high tunnels next year. On top of each bale is a mound of household kitchen scraps, wood chips, and composted chicken manure; each time it rains, the microbes and nutrients get pushed a little deeper into the hay to speed its decomposition.

The first trays of this year's onions have sprouted and the leek trays will head out to the unheated greenhouse soon to make way for additional trays. This is the first year we're making extensive use of artificial lighting in the house to get the seedlings going. Our previous years' efforts at starting plants in the greenhouse and covering them every night was only partially successfuland we really need good germination to keep up with our customers' requests. There are also a few early trays of tomatoes and peppers germinating in an old refrigerator in a corner of the tractor shed. We put a lightbulb inside and it keeps the soil at a good 80-85 degrees till the seeds germinate, and then we'll bring them into the house...which we keep significantly cooler.

Sharon has written a few times about our amazing business customers and the individuals who regularly stop by our market stand. But last night after telling a friend about our customer's choice CSA -- pay $100-and get $110 dollar credit -- and having him immediately hand me a wad of bills just reinforces my view of how lucky we are to be starting a farm in a community that cares about the success of its farms. While it certainly hasn't been easy getting the farm started, having people really value (and not just monetarily) what you produce makes all of the hard work worth it.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Now that's a supportive community!

Since we ran out of brochures at the CSA fair this afternoon, here are details on our "market share" membership, as promised.

what we're offering: In April and May we’ll have veggie and flower transplants to give your garden a jump-start; soap made using TGF lard, herbs, and blossoms; fresh eggs from our pastured hens; and cut flowers. As the season progresses, we'll also have Thai and Italian basil, three types of green beans, striped Chioggia beets, berries in all shades, broccoli, chard, claytonia, sweet corn, cucumbers, Thai and Italian eggplant, edamame, fava beans, German red and white garlic and scapes, two kinds of kale, King Sieg leeks, lettuce, lemongrass, licorice, mache, sweet and storage onions, sugarsnap peas, hot peppers; Mirabelle, prune, and Damson plums, six varieties of potatoes, radishes, rhubarb, spinach, acorn, butternut, and spaghetti squash, six varieties of paste and heirloom tomatoes, zucchini, and more.

how it works: Pay $100 for a $110 credit at our market stand in front of Felicia's Atomic Lounge. From May through October, we'll be there every Friday afternoon, from 5–7pm. Members get a weekly e-alert detailing what we'll have at market. You choose from among each week's offerings; skip a week and the credit simply awaits your return. We do all the math, so all you have to do is bring a bag and your appetite. If you use all of your credit before the season ends, you can extend your membership at any time. To sign up, e-mail us at treegatefarm [at] gmail [dot] com.

And a big shout-out to the folks at Cooperative Extension who organized today's fair. What a crowd! More than 200 people came out this afternoon to talk to farmers and learn more about the many ways they can support local agriculture with their food budgets. TGF's roving photographer, Mom, caught a few scenes on camera:

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

To Market, To Market!

My paternal grandfather worked at IBM, so my earliest memory of the concept of shared risk and reward was in TV news broadcasts of the ’70s and ’80s, noting the rise and fall of the Southern Tier's tech behemoth. It wasn't until I moved to Ithaca in the early ’90s that I learned about Community Supported Agriculture, a business model that brings a taste of Wall Street to the kitchen table. Customers pay ahead for a season's produce; as members in the farm enterprise, they assume both the risks and rewards of the growing season. Back in the early days, there was an extraordinary volume of kale involved. At Tree Gate Farm, the 2012 season promises cut flowers, green beans, beets, berries, broccoli, corn, cucumbers, eggplant, garlic, ginger, herbs, horseradish, leeks, lettuce, lemongrass, licorice, onions, peas, peppers, plums, potatoes in shades of the rainbow, rhubarb, spinach, tomatoes, tomatilloes -- and kale.

Across town, CSA offerings across town have expanded to include meat, bread, arranged and u-pick flowers, fruit, and produce. They come as shares for a single person or a large household; include spring, winter, and summer options; even prepared foods -- known as Community Supported Kitchens, an idea we think is just brilliant. There are so many options in this area that for the last few years, Cornell Cooperative Extension has organized a late winter CSA fair to bring together prospective customers and CSA farmers all in one place (mark your calendar: this Saturday, March 3 at Boynton Middle School).

Like everything else at Tree Gate, we're modifying the standard approach with our own special twist. With most CSAs, the farmer sets the parameters, filling a box with the week's harvest or detailing choices available to members. We've decided to offer something we're calling "on-demand." Other farmers call it a "market share." Members pay $100 for a $110 credit for the season. In addition to insider scoops on what we're harvesting and special discount offers, they can choose from among our Friday afternoon happy hour offerings at Felicia's Atomic Lounge. The model works best for folks who are as quirky as we are -- they want a lot of tomatoes, or no kale, or just a bouquet of flowers every few weeks, or they know that between out-of-town travel and house guests, their needs ebb and flow through the season, making a weekly distribution tough to handle. We'll also offer $25 gift cards good for the Friday afternoon market -- the perfect birthday present or hostess gift -- and we'll be selling shares in our pastured pork.

As beginning farmers, we learn a new set of skills every year -- OK, every day. It looks like 2012 will be the year for getting serious about marketing, customer outreach, and . . . maybe even weed management.