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The Perfect Bed

5/4/2016 6:39pm

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. 

The Decision Quota

4/27/2016 3:39pm
I once read that the human mind has a finite capacity for making decisions. I'm sure there could be all kinds of debate around what this implies. In fact, it's just the sort of debate I'm sure I would enjoy! Perhaps on a less busy day, though. 
 
The point is that a person will eventually reach a point where it is not possible to make one more decision. I'm not talking about making good decisions versus bad decisions, or what/who influences decisions, or difficult versus trivial decisions. I simply mean that there comes a point where if a person has reached their decision quota, and another decision of any kind is put before them, it will be impossible to respond. 
 
As a CSA farmer, I am often hovering around the upper limit of my decision quota. The past couple of weeks have been especially trying. Spring usually is. Our 35 vegetables and 175 different seed varieties each have their own unique needs. They have different planting dates, different water needs, different spacing needs in the greenhouse or field, and on and on. Sometimes I feel like if I am asked to decide whether the spring broccoli should be 18 inches apart or 24 inches apart my head might explode! On the other hand, when it comes to deciding whether or not I should take on a 20-year loan to have a new vegetable packing and storage facility built, I know without a doubt that my decision is yes. I am in the final stages of planning for and obtaining a loan to build our "modern root cellar." It took over a year to design the building and about 15,000 decisions came with it. It is a big commitment but, if approved, it will add big potential to what we can do at Old Plank Farm.
 
Sometimes the big decisions are the clear ones and the small decisions are paralyzing. Why is that? I don't know. But I once read that people "generally don't seem to know where they are going, or why. If they did, what powerhouses they would be!" Perhaps that is part of the answer.

A Moveable Feast

4/13/2016 4:37pm

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.

I hadn't planned to build another greenhouse this year. Then, just a few days before Dan moved away from his own farm he asked if I might know anyone who would buy his hoop house, since he couldn't take it with. I immediately said that I would buy it! For some projects I spend countless hours making detailed plans, only to find that in the end nothing goes as planned. Other times I don't have a plan at all, yet things work out in perfect timing. And once in a great while I make a plan and everything goes exactly how I imagined it would go...actually I don't think that's ever happened! Neither way is inherently right or wrong. Maybe Old Plank Farm's 2016 plans aren't hinged on a need for peppers under plastic. But if we have a chilly spring, it sure will be a nice addition to our lot of greenhouses. And no matter what happens, I simply enjoy putting Dan's high tunnel to good use.
 
The second reason I like this high tunnel is because Dan built skids for it, which means we can move it around. This is our first structure that is portable, and I'm looking forward to trying it out. One purpose of a greenhouse on skids is to get two growing seasons out of just one greenhouse. For example, we want to plant peppers in the new high tunnel in early May. We'll do that, and we'll be harvesting from that planting all the way into late October, if not November. But by November it is too late to plant anything new in that same spot. However, in a different spot in September we can plant something like carrots. They will grow just fine without a high tunnel covering...until around November. At that time, we'll bring the high tunnel on skids right over the young carrot planting. There, under the protection of the tunnel, the carrots can continue to mature well into our Wisconsin winter. This is one of many tools and techniques that will help us extend our vegetable harvest season. It is nothing less than a moveable feast.
 
 

How to Build a Greenhouse Bench

4/5/2016 9:10pm

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.

Angelica helps build the new benches.

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. 

 

 

My Farm is a Third Grader

3/29/2016 11:56am

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.

 
Years one through seven, much like a human child, were the formative years on the farm. These early years were when the most growth took place within the shortest time period. Old Plank Farm went from 20 CSA members in 2009 to over 200 CSA members in 2015. By this measure, the farm's productivity grew to ten times its starting size in just seven years. Given the farm's physical limitations (25 acres of land), it's highly unlikely we'll grow to ten times our current size ever again.
 
Instead, as we enter year eight, the farm is ripe with potential for other kinds of development. Diversification on the farm is key to our next phase of growth. For instance, instead of making our CSA bigger, we are working on growing and delivering produce over a longer period of time. Starting a Winter CSA is a goal for this coming season. Plans are underway for a new packing and storage facility which would allow us to do this.
 
As the primary caretaker of the farm, I am relieved that Old Plank Farm is not as needy as it once was. While babies are cute, a farm in diapers doesn't exactly draw in a crowd. During year one, the farm relied solely on me to keep it alive. Meeting basic needs was a struggle. To be honest, that was totally exhausting. Over the years I've been able to give responsibilities to other people, and that has helped the farm grow stronger and more resilient. And we are constantly developing systems so that the farm can better take care of itself.
 
But once in awhile, I feel a little sad when I can see that the farm no longer needs me like it used to. Between Angelica and Sammi and a handful of other people, day to day work runs smoothly without much direction from me. My little third-grader is growing up so fast! I actually have free time these days, now that all my energy isn't put into non-stop care of my farm. I think I'll use my spare time to learn guitar.
 
Old Plank Farm's eighth birthday is definitely cause for cheer. It marks the beginning of a new phase. The farm is still quite young and it does depend on me for many things. But it is getting stronger and more independent every year. And, much like most third-graders you may know, it is bursting with life and energy and a desire to meet new challenges all the time. Now is a great time to be a part of the life of Old Plank Farm.

Drewry Farms Maple Syrup Open House

3/22/2016 1:59pm

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.

Spring Rocks!

3/15/2016 2:56pm

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.

 

In Like a Lion, Out Like a Lamb

3/10/2016 10:19am
I've heard March weather referred to as "in like a lion, out like a lamb." I think that means we start the month with harsh winter conditions and end the month with mild spring conditions. But the reality in Wisconsin is more like in like a lion, then comes a lamb, then the lion eats the lamb and then there's some zebra days before the lion eats those too and we end the month like a lion again!
 
People often ask me how I deal with the extreme weather and unpredictable patterns of recent years and how it affects my farm. I don't always like the extreme weather. And I may suffer some small disasters as a result of unpredictable patterns and the difficulty that comes with not being able to plan for so much uncertainty. But I am young enough that I can't actually remember what some of the old-timers tell me about weather patterns thirty or forty or sixty years ago, when weather was supposedly somewhat more patterned.
 
All I've known, from my farmer perspective, is the recent decade of unpredictable seasons, erratic rains, and extreme temperatures. So I don't find it especially difficult to deal with because I simply find it normal. Sometimes I have to spontaneously rearrange my week's work to accomodate 75 degree days in March. Wasn't this past Tuesday great? The farmer in me is concerned when we have extraordinarily beautiful days in March like we've been having this week, because it's somewhat reminicent of the start of 2012, the year of the drought. But the human being in me LOVES days like last Tuesday and Wednesday, and I relished getting to spend nearly every waking hour working outside.
 
Either way I look at it, I don't find farming harder than in the past, because I wasn't around in the past to compare it. I don't know if that's fortunate or not, it just is what it is. I have been around long enough to understand that I had better just play the weather-cards I'm dealt and make the best of them. This week at Old Plank Farm we made the best of the warm days by finishing up our new heating system in the seedling greenhouse. It's always less stressful to troubleshoot a new system during a week you don't actually need to use it. We'll be ready when the lion eats the lamb again.
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