Monthly Archives: July 2008

beet it!

Sorry for the pun, but I’m about to beet it. (Shudder, that was awful, I know. What is it about puns that make people cringe, anyway?)

Anyway, I’m journeying to some family reunion action (Emmett’s, then mine) for the next little while. It’s been unbelievably stressful to even consider leaving the vegetables right now — everything’s fruiting at the moment — but hopefully we’ll leave that stress behind as we set off eastward today. (Emmett’s whole family is rarely in the same place, since many of them live in Canada, and I have a little cousin who I haven’t yet met. So there should be some good times ahead.)

We’re leaving the farm in the capable hands of a caretaker, who will be helped out by a couple of awesome farming women who’re going to make sure the cukes don’t get out of control. (Why do I have the urge to write ‘farming women’ instead of just farmers? I think it comes from being on a field all day where I’m the only woman; all of the people who work on the vineyard are men, and obviously Emmett’s a man, too. Somehow it makes me want to draw attention to the specialness of female farmers in what’s historically a pretty male-dominated field. Ugh, another pun.  But seriously, if you use the gender-neutral word ‘farmer,’ how many people actually think of a woman first?  I’d hazard a guess that most people picture a dude in overalls with a pitchfork and a big ole hat, possibly with a straw of hay or grass between his teeth.)

Excitingly, for one weekend Emmett’s parents will be going to the farmer’s market in our stead. (It was part of their ploy to get us to go to the family reunion. Friends have promised to snap surreptitious photos of this historic event.)

Posts will still appear on this blog for the next week, so keep checking! They won’t exactly be timely updates, but some good info (hopefully) on some of the more interesting varieties of produce we’re growing as well as some tips on what not to do. Also, stay tuned an update on the squash disaster (dun dun duuuuun).

After these messages, we’ll be right back.

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heirloom failures

So by now you know that Emmett and I handily killed $300 worth of seeds. (Well, it was really Emmett’s doing, but solidarity, you know.) When I arrived on scene, I suggested that we plant more tomatoes — even though it was getting quite late in the season. (By that time, it was June.) I thought it would be good experience, to get ready for next year–and besides, we could dust off our reputation as from-seed tomato growers.

At this point, our reputation as from-seed tomato growers remains, um, slightly burnished.

We water them every day. They’re in 4-inch pots with organic potting mix. And while some of the starts at the farmer’s market tower 2 feet tall in pots this size, we can’t seem to get more than 2-4 leaves on our little one-inch wonders. Heck, a dozen of the pots we planted (and we planted at least 3 seeds per pot) refused to sprout any seedlings at all.

I just don’t get it. These little guys (pictured above) are one month old. We’re putting them in the ground for the heck of it, hoping for a no-frost Indian summer.

This one below–a potato-leaf variety–seems to be “thriving,” although it’s sickly compared to the plants we purchased wholesale from a local nursery earlier this summer. (Some two-week-old tomatoes we bought from the nursery were bigger than this one. Do they pump them up with nitrogen? What’s the trick here?)

Some other near-fatalities, transplanted weeks ago with 2-4 leaves, have started to grow into decent-looking plants. The black plums seem to be the most hardy of the bunch; we had considerably less luck with chocolate cherry and green zebra, two varieties we were most excited about.

[Drumroll, please!] After two months of trying, this is our most successful from-seed start:

Emmett and I have grown more traditional varieties (a la Early Girl) successfully from seed. What’s the trick to starting heirlooms? For now, it eludes us; when it comes to the farmer’s market’s most iconic produce, we clearly have some learning to do.

Now that‘s a tomato: from-the-nursery red plums that are just starting to turn.

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the che(e)p brooder

I made the decision to buy day-old chicks instead of older pullets or laying hens. Why? Simple math: day-old chicks are about $2 each (for females), whereas a laying hen will set you back anywhere from $15-30.

30 chicks times $2 = $60. Pretty manageable on a farming budget, if I can keep the other costs down.

But 30 hens times $20 each = ouch. No thanks!

And while there are some additional expenses associated with day-old chicks — they require a brooder, plus more feed to get to the laying stage — in my estimation, the little guys will still save me a bundle. (Also, I’ll get the experience of hand-rearing a flock from day one, which I’m pretty excited about.)

So how about those other expenses? A commercial brooder will set you back $200. Fortunately, the internet can make a brooder a whole lot more cheaply. (Ah, I love the internet.)

I stumbled across this brilliant site, and on the advice of the author, headed straight to Wal-Mart. I really only ended up buying the 90 qt. tubs at Wal-Mart — the rest of the materials were easier to find (and equally cheap) at our local Ace Hardware or feed store. (By the way, the tubs are now $11. Inflation, I guess.) And now, onto my slightly revised cheep brooder design…

Quick revised list of required materials:

  • 90 qt. tub (one or two, depending on flock size)
  • clip-on flood lamp
  • red 100-watt bulb for lamp
  • hardware cloth
  • heavy-duty stapler
  • 2 pieces of wood (at least 3′ long, whatever sort you have lying around will probably do the trick)
  • chick feeder
  • chick waterer
  • paper towels to line tub (not pictured)

And here are a few slight modifications to the original design that, in my mind, make the brooder just a tad easier to build (as well as reusable for the future):

(1) For those of us who aren’t planning on raising chicks 24/7/365, why wreck a perfectly good storage tub lid? (After the chicks are grown, these tubs will–with a little bleach–make great harvesting tubs for bringing produce to market.) So instead of cutting into the plastic lid and ruining its usefulness as a storage container, just take two pieces of wood (here I used some extra wood flooring material, but two by fours or two by twos would also work), staple the hardware cloth to the wood, and voila, you’ve saved the tub lid for future use. (Note: the hardware cloth takes a bit of bending, as it’s curved from being in a roll. You can see I don’t quite have it straight yet in the photo, but I eventually wiggled it into flat submission.)

(2) Don’t mess around with mounting a lamp on the hardware cloth. Instead, get a flood lamp that clips on to the side of the tub. The whole lamp — including the reflector, clamp, and guard — was a tad under $10, and the red 100-watt bulb was $7. (Red, incidentally, reduces the instances of the chicks pecking one another.) This type of lamp also seems more useful for future purposes — it could easily be clipped inside a coop, or wherever else you might need a bit of light for that matter. The clip is quite strong, so I’m not too worried about it falling off (knock on wood).

(3) I don’t know how much hardware cloth the other folks used, but get 1 foot of 3-foot wide hardware cloth, which will cover 2 side-by-side tubs quite nicely and cheaply.

Note: I bought 2 tubs, since I’m thinking that 27 chicks will pretty quickly outgrow one. (I haven’t gotten a second feeder & waterer yet, but they’re only $3 each, so I think I can spring for another set soon!) I’d imagine that if you were only raising 10 or so chicks, they’d be fine with one tub. In that case, if you wanted to save the plastic lid, you could use a half-plywood, half-hardware-cloth combo for the top.

Anyway, there you have it. For a grand total of $40, you too can build a brooder with mostly reuseable parts! I’ll let you know how well it works once I get the chicks and test it out. Until then, you can rest assured that the design has the official tail’s-up seal of approval from Jasper the Cat.

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growing fancy: quinoa

It’s not something I ever would have thought of growing myself. But when Emmett and I were wwoofing on a small family farm in New Zealand, our hosts had a few quinoa plants going. They were healthy, bushy, beautiful things, and their grains were just starting to dry.

So, when we were on our online seed-spending spree a few months ago, we thought ‘why not?’ and ordered some Temuco Quinoa. It sounds fancy — and I went most of my life never having heard of quinoa — but it’s pretty practical stuff. It’s one of the few plant-based complete proteins — a protein that has all 8 amino acids. As such, it’s especially useful for a mostly-vegetarian like myself. (Other sources of complete protein include: spirulina, amaranth, soy, buckwheat, and hempseed, but I’m really not too sure how to serve some of those guys, besides blending them into some disgusting protein shake.) Quinoa’s also really pretty when cooked. The little hard seeds, once boiled/simmered sufficiently, burst open into tiny white spirals. They’re a pretty and healthy addition to soup–just throw ’em in 15 minutes or so before your soup’s done–and can make a nice side salad on their own, with some seasoning and veggies thrown in.

But back to the growing side of things. So far, so good: the plants have proved quite hardy. Sure, the cucumber beetles munched the leaves a bit, but let me tell you these plants looked absolutely wretched when we transplanted them. They were victims of our seed disaster–stunted, tiny things with only a couple of leaves apiece–and it was only Emmett’s deep-rooted sense of optimism that led us to put them in the ground at all. Good thing we did! They’re now hip-high bushes, vigorous and a pretty shade of grey-blue-green, and they’re starting to form buds. We’ve barely had to weed them–once they got going, they quickly shaded the weeds out–and water them about once a day. They haven’t minded our slightly soggy clay soil one bit. My only complaint: the stalks are on the brittle side, and break easily. But really it’s our fault for planting them too close to the chard row, which we harvest a lot (which means I sometimes back into the quinoa while trying to snip chard leaves and avoid stepping on the chard’s floating row cover, which we take off and put on the ground).

I’m excited for a quinoa harvest. If it’s successful, this might be something I plant in bulk in future years. It’s not too often you see grains at the farmer’s market, and I’m guessing people might be excited at something unusual like locally-grown quinoa. (I also have a hunch it might make an awesome protein supplement for chickens, but I’ll have to try that out first.) It’s a good storage crop; we’ve kept store-bought quinoa for close to a year without any sort of problem. Since most of our sales right now are in salad and chard, I can’t wait for something that doesn’t have to be harvested day-of-market!

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farmer’s market recession

For the past 6 weeks — since we first started attending the Windsor farmer’s market — we’ve made more money each subsequent weekend, because we’ve brought more (and a greater variety of) produce each time. Every weekend, we sold out of our pre-bagged baby red-and-green leaf lettuce mix before the market closed. We kept telling ourselves, Gosh, we really need to bring more!

This weekend, things changed.

It started yesterday, Saturday, at the Healdsburg market. Now last weekend we brought several harvest-tubs full of Bright Lights rainbow Swiss chard to the Healdsburg market, and sold every bunch but one. This weekend, we brought the exact same amount of the exact same quality produce, and we sold maybe 1/3 of what we brought.

We were pretty shocked, not to mention distraught over the thought of all of this highly perishable food–well, perishing I guess, and in particular perishing without doing anybody any good. Emmett ran the excess chard over to the local food bank, only to learn that it’s open just 2 days a week: Mondays and Fridays. Then he did a “drive-by charding,” leaving his office refrigerator full of chard. (His boss, an environmental writer and publisher for whom he works part-time, has pigs & chickens, so anything not eaten by humans will still find a belly-home.)

But one refrigerator can only fit so much. A pile of sad, sad chard still sits on our kitchen floor. (See above picture, taken last night. It’s still there, only it looks even worse. We’ve been too busy to pick it up.)

Then came today. For the first time, we were prepared for our red-and-green salad onslaught. We brought 49 bags of the lettuce mix….

…And sold considerably less than we’d sold in previous weeks. At the end of the day, we had a bit under thirty bags left.

We drive-by lettuced fellow sellers at the farmer’s market, giving away $3 bags of salad mix to neighbors, volunteers, and people we’d never met before. Still, it was depressing: all that lettuce bed weeding and early-morning-snipping-and-bagging and hoped-for income just disappearing into thin air.

To make matters worse, it was just one of those days. Over the course of my 14-hour workday, I stubbed my toe twice. I slammed my finger between a car door and a support beam. I whacked my head getting into the pickup truck. Even caffeine couldn’t seem to rouse me from my stupor.

And the insult on top of the injury: I’m pretty sure that today I made the same amount of money as the young girl with the lemonade stand at yesterday’s farmer’s market. How do I know this? Having sold out of her lemonade, the little girl walked by our stand to bring 10% of her day’s earnings to the manager for her stall fee. (It was an adorable sight, and even without knowing her, I felt proud of her.) Clutched tightly in her little hand I could make out a $10 bill and several ones — less than I paid to the market manager yesterday, but about what I paid to the market manager today.

(Let’s not even go into how many more hours it takes to grow organic vegetables than to boil lemon juice, water, and sugar to make lemonade. Clearly, I’m in the wrong business for working a sane amount of hours while still earning money, and this depresses me. Ah, if only I were cute and young, maybe with freckles, I’d totally jump ship and get into the lemonade business while the gettin’s good!)

One more sad story, and then I promise I’ll draw this tragic tale to a close: at the end of the day, when we were pretty beaten down at the thought of all our un-purchased bags of lettuce, Emmett was told by someone what he would be paid for our produce. This person, a well-dressed older woman with coiffed hair and pretty necklaces, said, “I’m only paying $1 a pound for zucchini. That’s what they’re selling them for at…” [At this point, her voice trailed off; neither Emmett nor I could figure out what she said. Whole Foods? Safeway? Wal-Mart? Who knows.] Then, a command: “Here, weigh these.”

This, despite the fact that we don’t have a scale and do have a sign posted with fixed prices for “small” and “large” zucchinis. We price the really small zucchinis higher than $1/pound, because they’re more tender, are tasty eaten raw, and are harvested as a special item, sometimes with blossoms attached. There’s an opportunity cost associated with these guys: we could let them grow into ginormous one-pounders and get our money’s worth out of each female blossom, but we like to offer customers a variety.

It seemed a little absurd to watch the woman walk away with 6 beautiful, perfect baby zucchinis (a couple with still-fresh, edible blossoms!) for a dollar. At that price, it isn’t really worth my effort to harvest them, let alone grow them. But honestly, we were too tired to fight it. And $1 is better than nothing… although I’m not so sure about that, actually.  Sometimes dignity is better than $1.

Sigh. We got home after 7 p.m., having left the house in the 5 a.m. range. We cooked our classic Sunday dinner, which is (if it isn’t burritos from the local Mexican joint because we’re too pooped to cook)… drumroll… whatever’s left over from the market!

Over our dinner of market leftovers (lots of salad!) we discussed ways of genuinely making money as a farmer. I’ll keep you updated if any actually work.

Now, it’s time for bed. As always, tomorrow’s a new day.

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the dance of the beans

From the moment they rear their little heads — seed noggin, leaf-ears — out of our crusty clay soil, I fall in love with beans. The way, even as youngsters, that they politely tuck their leaves down at night and raise them to greet the day each morning. The patterns that emerge from twining so irregularly around whatever happens to be in their path, leaving loud cursive loops leading up to the runner’s final serif.

Sure, there’s something a bit dark about them — clambering up each other, grabbing desperately for light, using other things to support themselves rather than developing a strong enough stem on their own. But if it’s dark it’s also beautiful: the evolutionary efficiency, the speed of growth, the brilliance of the bean’s little dance that leads it to twine around objects. It’s a marvelous adaptation. (Have you ever seen a strangler fig?  Gorgeously sinister.)

Next year, perhaps, we need to plant them further apart… there are sometimes five or six stalks to a single piece of fence wire, and I have a feeling it’s going to be tough trying to locate beans in the midst of this forest, come harvest-time. It’s practically a full-time job trying to hook errant runners onto the fencing, too.

Still, I enjoy the dance.

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the amazing maize technique

A man named Enrique taught us this trick for planting corn. Previously, we’d just planted it, covered it with dirt, and then watered it every day — which led to highly irregular sprouting, and some unfortunate kernel-rotting, too. (Our soil has a fair bit of clay, so it crusts over easily, and I think the corn had a tough time breaking through.)

This technique — “la sistema Mexican,” as Enrique (who’s from Mexico) called it — seemed to help the corn sprout more quickly and evenly. It’s also easier, because you never have to water!

1. Hoe out a trench, about 6 in. deep in the center.

2. With a hose, fill the trench with water. (Note: if your ground is sloped at all, this is easier said than done. On a slight slope, run the hose from the top of trench, and do it a few times, switching frequently so the water doesn’t overflow at the lower end.)

3. Leave trench overnight. In the morning, test the trench to see if it’s wet enough: you should be able to easily stick the top section of your finger (to the joint) into the soil. If not, give it a little more water before planting and test again.

4. Sow your corn the recommended distance apart, and press each kernel gently into the soil with a forefinger.

5. Cover corn with approximately 1.5 inches of wet soil from the sides of the trench.

6. This is the fun part: now walk on the planted corn, carefully placing your feet heel-to-toe for maximum coverage.

7. Top off with 1/2-1 inch of dry soil.

8. Voila! You don’t have to water your corn again until it sprouts.

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