I take great pride in making beds. I don't mean the kind in our homes that we sleep in, I mean the kind out in the field where we plant our vegetables. But making the perfect bed in our fields is no easy task. One obstacle we face is the never-ending supply of rocks that get in the way of our bed-maker. Even if the tractor operator—myself or Angelica—is an expert at driving straight, the beds can turn out a bit wobbly because the bed-maker ends up bouncing around rocks hidden just below the surface.
Even more difficult than getting a straight bed is getting a perfectly clean bed. This is because we gave up rototilling last season. Many vegetable farmers have a love-hate relationship with the rototiller. We love it because it pulverizes the soil, demolishing clods and creating a fine-textured seed bed that is weed-free and easy to plant. We hate it because it destroys soil microbiology, ultimately reducing soil fertility. It also creates a hard-pan below the surface and brings weed seeds to the surface. With long-term soil health a high priority at Old Plank Farm, I felt the consequences outweighed the benefits of rototilling. It seemed wise to give up the practice while the farm was still young and our systems were not yet totally dependent on the routine that rototilling provides.
So how can we make a perfect bed without rototilling? I've tried adjusting and readjusting different settings on the bed-maker about a hundred and fifty times, and I've determined that it's rare to be able to make a perfect bed if we haven't first rototilled. We can make pretty nice beds if we plan ahead, adjust the bed-maker as needed, and do a couple of passes with it. Yes, our beds are often pretty nice, but rarely perfect like they can be after a pass with the rototiller.
Yesterday I was very frustrated by the imperfect beds that we made. But rather than succumb to rototilling, I instead found myself revisiting what “perfect” even means. It's hard to visualize perfection from another perspective besides my own. A rototilled bed looks perfect because it is clean and smooth and easy to work with. But that is not always what is most important to our plants. The soil microbiology just below the surface of the imperfect bed top is what matters more to the plants. By disturbing this unseen soil life as little as possible, we're creating an environment for long term, optimum vegetable growth. We're always balancing what is best for the natural habits of our plants with what is best for our own personal gain.
In an era of GPS-driven tractors and rototillers, it's sometimes hard to be proud of a wobbly, rocky, somewhat clumpy seed bed. But trying to see a perfect world from a plant's perspective helps keep me going.
This week we've been working on building a new high tunnel. It will be home to our early pepper crop this spring. I like this new hoop house for two reasons. The first reason is because I bought it from Dan, my friend and mechanic who moved away to Iowa last fall. Dan has been a big help to Old Plank Farm since its beginning. Not only would he fix my tractors and other equipment, but he would also talk me through solving some of the problems myself. Helping empower me to be my own mechanic was a priceless contribution Dan made to my farm. He was friend and mechanic to several other organic farms in our area, and I'm sure he is missed by others besides me. Hopefully life in Iowa is treating him well.
Over the years, I've struggled to keep my seedlings warm in March and April. We continue to have freezing nights well past the time that we need to be starting tomatoes, peppers, and many other seedlings that need balmy growing conditions. Like tonight, for example, it's hard to believe that just two layers of plastic are what separate my seedlings from the cold, snowy weather. But it's not the two layers of plastic over the plants that keep them warm. Rather, hot water circulating through the benches where they sit is the key to their comfort, health, and growth.
As I've mentioned before, we recently built a radiant heat system similar to one that you might see installed in a bathroom floor. The main difference is that instead of built into a floor in a home, we built our system into benches in a greenhouse.
Our new benches have been running for three weeks now, and I'm fairly pleased with how the project turned out. Our old system transferred heat through the air, which was far too wasteful. The new set-up allows for heat transfer in the most efficient way possible, from circulating hot water through concrete and into the roots of our plants. We ended up building six benches, each 6'x10', which hold a total of nearly 200 flats of seedlings. The space is quickly filling up!
The system runs off of a 40-gallon water heater. From that I set up a closed loop of PEX tubing that circulates throughout concrete bench tops. The closed loop means warm water is constantly returning to the water heater, so the temperature is fairly easy to maintain, even on below-freezing nights.
So far, this year's seedlings look healthier than ever. The environment is stable and low stress for them, and for me too. Compared to other greenhouse heaters, the material cost was fairly low. However, it took a lot of work to set up. And some stress, too! I learned a thing or two about thermal dynamics, soldering, pressurizing a closed-loop (don't forget to bleed the air from the line!), and how to use a cement mixer. As a vegetable farmer, I often find that I have to learn new, random skills to complete projects related to our work with growing vegetables. How do I build a greenhouse bench? I wondered earlier this year. Right about the time that I finish doing it is when I feel like I have it figured out. So it goes, on to something entirely different. It's not likely I'll be setting up many more radiant heat greenhouse benches in the future...but if you happen to have a seeding greenhouse that needs a new heater, come check out our system, because I'm happy to share it with you.
One way to look at a farm is to consider it as a living organism, complete in and of itself, but also connected to its surrounding environment and the world that its a part of. While a human being is a different type of living organism than a farm, I often see some similarities between the two. And even though Old Plank Farm wasn't exactly born in 2009, it is my brain child and we are celebrating it's eighth birthday this season.
Sap season is in full force! The Drewry's have been processing sap and making maple syrup for nearly a month now, and the season is still going strong. This Saturday, 11am-3pm is their annual Open House. Come to Drewry Farms on Winooski Rd in Plymouth to tour their maple syrup woods and processing facilities.
Our CSA members receive a bottle of Drewry Farms Maple Syrup in one of the first CSA boxes in June. But if one bottle isn't enough, or if you can't wait until June, you can buy--and sample--the Drewry's maple syrup at the Open House this weekend.
I help in the Drewry woods in the winter, working on sap line repairs and tree tapping for the nearly 6000 taps that make up the Drewry's sugar bush. This time of year Old Plank Farm keeps me pretty busy, but I still plan to take time on Saturday to be up in the woods. I hope to see you there.
As we head into the new season, the fields at Old Plank Farm abound with our spring specialty crop...rocks!
The recent snow melt revealed the work that lies before us. Despite picking rocks every year at Old Plank, each winter more are heaved to the surface of our fields. We'll pick many, many tons throughout the coming months, but still more will surface as time goes on. It's important to haul away rocks that could damage our equipment. I used to think that rock picking was tedious and tiring. I saw it as a battle; we had to fight the rocks in order to save our equipment from destruction. Rocks were an enemy. They got in the way of my real work, growing real crops.
In the spring of my first season at Old Plank, I asked a neighboring farmer if he would plow my field, since I didn't own a plow yet. His reply was a firm no. He politely told me that he knew what my land was like, and it was like plowing a gravel pit. He didn't want to damage his equipment. That was my first battle with the rocks. I envied farms that didn't have to deal with the rocks.
But over the years we started finding several creative uses for our rocks. My favorite project was building the outdoor pizza oven. The herb spirals Angelica built a couple years ago was a great use for some, too. Sammi has hauled many carloads to her homestead in Sheboygan where she's used them for landscaping. Now we're working on a fence line between our yard and the neighbor's yard. When it's done, I think it will be really beautiful.
The more projects we have involving rocks, the more I've started enjoying the harvest. When I walked around the farm a couple days ago and took this picture, I was surprised to find that I was actually excited about the prospect of our rock harvest this year. The work is the same, but the purpose for it has changed. There is no enemy anymore. Instead rocks have become a useful part of our farm. Instead of a battle, we use rock picking as a way to get warmed up on chilly spring mornings. We use rock picking as a training workout for Farm Olympics (a theoretical event, for now, but nonetheless fun to think about). And we use the rock harvest to beautify the farm.
Finding purpose in whatever work we are doing is so critical to how we perceive it's value. Our whole outlook can change when the value of something has changed. And our outlook on our work ultimately leads to the success or failure in whatever it is that we're working on. On the farm setting, I've found over and over again that having the mindset of a battle is a recipe for failure. When we stop fighting, the farm starts to offer endless opportunity for meaningful, enjoyable work. And at Old Plank Farm, that includes endless opportunity for rock picking.