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: