Crop Planning presentation, weather and resilience

<div style=”margin-bottom:5px”> <strong> <a href=”https://www.slideshare.net/SustainableMarketFarming/crop-planning-60-min-presentation” title=”Crop Planning. Pam Dawling 60 min presentation” target=”_blank”>Crop Planning. Pam Dawling 60 min presentation</a> </strong> from <strong><a href=”http://www.slideshare.net/SustainableMarketFarming” target=”_blank”>Pam Dawling</a></strong> </div>

My presentation on Crop Planning to the CSA Expert Exchange Online Conference on Friday 3/7 went well, after a short delay due to slow website loading. Joys of rural living! I just learned that our Internet runs slow on rainy days because the water in the soil affects the underground cables. A s a farmer, I’m very used to considering the effects of the weather, But I never would have guessed this one. Now I realize I jinx myself when I work outside in nice weather and do my desk work while it’s raining!

Spinach bed with a row of peas in the middle. Photo

Spinach bed with a row of peas in the middle.
Photo Kathryn SImmons

This week has been challenging in the garden because of snow followed by very wet soil. On Monday we managed to transplant a bed of spinach and the first week’s round of lettuce. That felt like great progress! Even though it is a month later than we would “normally” hope to do those tasks! We chose to work on the driest section of the raised bed area. Before that we had been weeding the grapes and spreading compost. Having some perennials to take care of makes good use of our time in the winter, early spring, and whenever cultivated soil is too boggy to step on (in).

These considerations are all part of a list we keep to help us choose tasks suited to the conditions, so we can make best use of our time without doing damage. A lot of our garden work is done on 3 or 4 hour shifts with up to 11 people. The honcho needs to be on the ball to keep all those people gainfully employed! Our honchos/honchas are the more experienced people, and will usually prepare for the shift beforehand, making a list of possibilities.

Some of the shift time is harvesting (only spinach currently, apart from getting potatoes from the root cellar and sweet potatoes from the basement). That’s our top priority. We try to get some harvesting done even if it’s very cold or raining lightly. The crops that wilt fastest get picked close to the end of the harvesting period, so they don’t deteriorate while we get other crops.

We have a Task List for the week, and our sequence of priority is generally harvest, plant, mulch, prepare beds for planting, hoe, hand-weed. “Prioritize planting during the planting season” is one of the mantras we embrace. Sometimes other factors come into play. A new member pointed out that all my answers start with “It depends. . . ”

We try to do the more aerobic jobs (especially jobs involving shovels) in the coolest part of the shift, or on the cooler days. We also try to offer each person some options, because people do better when doing tasks they prefer. Sometimes we just have to grin and bear it: “This is the job we need to finish today.”

We are often including visitors in our work, so we need to make sure we mix up members and visitors on each task, so that visitors get enough directions and help. We also need to check in to see how they’re doing with the heat/cold and level of physical activity. We don’t want them to collapse! We also need to be firm about pulling them off a job if they are causing damage, and trying to find some other task that might suit them better.

Having the entire crew finish the shift at the same time is complex choreography! Putting tools away as we go along helps reduce a mammoth task at the end, although having some people cleaning and storing tools as the finish time approaches can be a good way of evening out the workload. The honcho needs to pace the planting, watering and rowcovering. It’s no good transplanting 500 feet if you don’t get it watered and covered before leaving the scene.

Our root cellar for potatoes. Photo McCune Porter

Our root cellar for potatoes. Photo McCune Porter

Sometimes it’s easier to start everyone on a big hoeing or weeding project, then leave an experienced person in charge of the straightforward task and most of the crew, while you pull out a couple of people to get a complicated task started. Next add more people once it’s up and running. Or send one or two experienced people over to set up, and then send more crew over as the set up work is done It’s awful having 9 people stand there while you try to figure out how to do a planting!.

We have contingency plans for specific situations:

If the day is likely to be very hot, have an “aerobic segment” at the beginning of the shift and get the physically taxing tasks done first (especially anything involving shovels).

If the morning starts out with a heavy dew, postpone harvesting cucurbits, nightshades, strawberries and legumes until the leaves dry, to reduce the spread of disease.

After heavy rain: mulched perennials (fruit and asparagus) are the easiest places to work without getting bogged down. Don’t work in sinking mud, it compacts the soil, which means the plants go short on air, and the soil will be slower to drain after future rains.. Standing on boards is an option for harvesting or planting..

If heavy rain is expected and you might have to stop in a hurry, do weeding, not planting. Don’t hoe if it’s about to rain, it’s a waste of time. Hoeing is best done in an area that won’t get irrigated that night. Likewise don’t leave pulled weeds on the beds before rain. They’ll re-root.

If you feel frazzled, choose a big simple task lots of people can do, like weeding strawberries, or hoeing corn. Or choose two tasks geographically close, so it’s easy to keep an eye on everything happening.

Book Report: Cindy Conner’s Grow a Sustainable Diet

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Cindy Conner: Grow a Sustainable Diet: Planning and Growing to Feed Ourselves and the Earth. New Society Publishers 2014.

 

“This book will help you learn how to calculate how much food you need and how much space you need to grow it, ” proclaims Cindy Conner. It  is written for the backyarder or homesteader who takes food self-sufficiency and ecology seriously. To grow food crops without depleting the soil or bringing in outside inputs, for instance, you will need to dedicate 60% of your land to growing compost crops or cover crops. This challenge is not for the faint-hearted. But here you have the leader-in-a-book, you are not going it alone.

Cindy explains what she means by a sustainable diet and includes a fascinating exercise “What if the Trucks Stopped Coming?” – where would you go to get all your food within 100 miles from home? Within 50? 25? What foods would you be eating and what would disappear from your life? Would the existing farmers be able to supply everyone’s needs locally, or would you need to provide more for yourself and your household? What would your priorities need to be? Your first thought might be that you’d need to make secret stashes of food, and get guns to keep away your hungry neighbors. Cindy says she doesn’t believe guns will keep hungry people away and the better answer is to act from compassion, and work with your neighbors to meet whatever the future brings. None of us can survive without community, so let’s make sure our community is strong enough to meet the challenges.

In the Garden Maps chapter, Cindy explains how to divide the available garden space up into smaller plots or sets of beds, increasing your ease of access without losing a high percentage of potential growing space to paths. Beds curved along the contours will reduce rainwater runoff and erosion. On the other hand, straight lines are easier to hoe quickly. Design your garden to suit the ways you use the space – how you get to the chicken pen, or the compost pile. Permaculture design principles have influenced Cindy’s choices.

Next you can chose your crops. If all your nutrients are to come from your garden, you will need to pay attention to growing enough calories. otherwise you’ll lack the energy to get to the end of the season! Cindy reports that potatoes, Jerusalem artichokes, sweet potatoes, parsnips, salsify, leeks and garlic are on the list of calories/area. Personally I can’t imagine getting a lot of calories from garlic. Besides the overwhelming flavor there is the issue of the work involved – garlic is labor intensive at certain times of year. Leeks similarly don’t seem a good source of calories per pound, even if they are good per square foot. And winter squash are easy to grow and surely full of calories. They do take space to grow, but I wouldn’t rule them out for that reason alone.

If you grow a lot of the calorie crops already mentioned, you will also be growing a lot of protein. Legumes produce more protein, at the cost of needing more space than the high calorie crops above. Beans, peanuts, peas can be interplanted with other crops to get that protein in the most space-saving way possible. Grains provide amino acids that are complementary to those in legumes, and the straw of grain crops is valuable for mulch or compost-making. Calcium is vital for bone health and there is plenty to be found in leafy cooking greens. A little oil or butter on the greens will help assimilate vitamin D, which is as important as calcium.

Oils and sweeteners are the two space-hogging challenges when it comes to food self-reliance. Sunflower and pumpkin seeds and peanuts, whether eaten whole or pressed, supply oil, as can some tree nuts. The home-grown vegan diet would be short on oils. Those who drink milk and eat eggs get some fats that way, easier by far. Some fruits store for out of season use. Honey, maple syrup and sorghum syrup can be home-produced, although you’ll be shocked the first time you see how much land and how much work goes into the vegan options. (Honey is made by small furry animals, it isn’t vegan.)

The question of  How Much to Grow is important, if time, effort and land are not to be wasted. Locally-adapted varieties and your personal culinary preferences, as well as potential yields per area will influence your planning. After your first year, your record-keeping will be your guide to making improvements.

To keep your garden productive year after year, you will need to feed the soil. You can do this by bringing in organic materials as mulch or to contribute to your compost. If you worry about the reliability of the supply from outside, or whether it is contaminated with herbicides or car exhaust, or whether its production is truly sustainable, you’ll want to be as self-relaint in that department as in the rest of your enterprise. You could grow mulch crops (straw or hay) as part of a bigger farm, in rotation with grazing animals. Or you could grow all your compost and mulch crops within the boundaries of your garden.

Compost is a priceless soil amendment, adding not just organic matter and the basic nutrients but also a fine collection of microbes. There are almost as many ways of making compost as there are compost-makers. Cindy prefers the cool, slow method (using a relatively high proportion of carbon materials to nitrogen materials), in order to “farm” the particular mix of microbes that result that way. The annual pile is part of her garden rotation, built on top of one of the beds, starting in the fall. The next fall, after that compost is spread on the garden, winter rye is sown.Next spring this is cut and left as mulch. The rye has scavanged any compost left from the pile and returns the nutrients to the soil as it decomposes around the corn seed (sown into the mulch).

Earlier, I said you need to plant 60% of your garden in compost crops or mulch, to have a sustainable system. Two thirds of that space would be in carbon crops and one third in nitrogen crops. Happily, some of the compost materials will be grown as a by-product of a food crop (corn stalks are a good example). The book leads you through the process of identifying suitable crops, and best of all, provides a worksheet to help you determine Bed Crop Months. For each bed, from your plan you determine how many months that bed has food crops and how many months compost crops (remember that one crop can be both!) Winter cover crops really help achieve the goal! After considering each bed, you tally up and see if you need to find more niches for compost crops.

All the work in Cindy’s garden is done by hand, including cutting down cover crops, and this is carefully explained. The space is used very intensively, often planting several crops in the same bed to get best use of the space, and so that one can take over from another later.

Scheduling so your crops mature when you want them is the next big task, followed by planning a good crop rotation,and fitting everything into the space you’ve got. “Lay out your intentions, stay flexible and keep learning.” More worksheets are provided to help you.

Sections on looking after your seeds, on including animals, on food storage and preservation and on sheds, fences and other support systems follow. About animals: “You can plan a diet of only plants, but you would be hard pressed to fill all your nutritional needs without taking supplements, which are not part of a sustainable diet.” Hear, hear!

Cindy’s book will set you on the path to providing healthy food for your household without depleting the Earth in the process. Her conversational style will give you confidence as she breaks complex ideas into manageable steps. Beginners are talked through the process step by step. Cindy’s years of teaching college shine through. One reframing exercise I liked was this “if you have thought of weeding as drudgery, something you have to endure [b]egin to think of weeding as a harvest of materials for the compost pile.”

Twin Oaks January Calendar – Starting a new garden season

A flat of newly emerged lettuce seedlingsPhoto Kathryn Simmons

A flat of newly emerged lettuce seedlings
Photo Kathryn Simmons

Yes, really! On January 17, I sowed flats of cabbage, lettuce and mini-onions (cipollini), and the cabbage and lettuce are already up. Onions usually take 10 days, so I’m not surprised not to see them yet. It’s fun to see new seedlings, even though my energy isn’t ready for taking on another growing season yet. I’m still enjoying hibernation!

The cabbage varieties are Early Jersey Wakefield, a quick-growing small pointy-head open-pollinated variety, and Faroa, a quick-growing fairly small round hybrid that has been very reliable for us. These are for a bed of early cabbage, to eat after our stored winter cabbage is all gone. We’ll sow our main-crop cabbage on 2/7, in much bigger quantities.

I sowed two lettuces: reliable old Salad Bowl and the unusual Cracoviensis, a pink veined sturdy leaf lettuce, that we have found is only useful for us at this first sowing. It bolts too easily once it gets even faintly warm. It tends not to get bitter even when bolting, but our diners aren’t going to believe that!

We’re also still busy with various stages of our garden planning. yesterday I updated our harvest calendar, which tells our cooks which crops they can expect when, and also our food processing calendar to tell the food processing crew when to be ready to tackle large amounts of broccoli, beans or paste tomatoes, for example. I’m part way through revising the document we call our garden calendar, which is really a month-by-month task list. If you were following this blog in the fall, you’ll remember some of those monthly garden task lists. We’ve planned which crops are going in which of the 60 permanent raised beds and identified the ones we need to spread compost on and till first. And then we twiddle our thumbs – lots of rain last week (and a bit of snow) mean it will be a couple more weeks before the soil is dry enough to till.

Here’s our short Twin Oaks Garden Task List for January:

Planning: Prune the catalogs, do the filing, consolidate notes on varieties and quantities.

Week 1: Finalize seed orders, if not done in December. Revise Seedling Schedule using seed order.

Week 2

    : Revise Outdoor Planting Schedule. Plan labor needs for the year.

Week 3

    : Revise Raised Bed Planning Chart. Plan raised beds for Feb-June.

Week 4:           Revise Garden Calendar, Lettuce List and lettuce Log.

Order Bt, spinosad and predatory beasties, coir. [sweet potato slips for shipping 5/12-5/17 if not growing our own]
Repair greenhouse and coldframes and tidy. Check germinator-fridge and heat mat. Repair flats, and make new if needed. Make stakes. Clean labels. 

Check equipment: rototiller, discs, and mower – repair or replace as needed.  Repair and sharpen tools.

Freeze out greenhouse to kill pests, or spray with soap or cinnamon oil every five days.  Import ladybugs.
Check potatoes, sweet potatoes and squash in storage.

Mid-Jan: In greenhouse sow lettuce #1, early cabbage, mini-onions, early broccoli, onions.

Late Jan: In greenhouse sow lettuce #2, scallions #1, spinach, tomatoes, peppers for hoophouse
Plant small potato onions, 4-5″ apart, ½-1” deep, in a mild spell. Remove mulch to plant, then replace it. Plant shallots & mulch.

Perennials (see November list). Weed blueberries, raspberries, asparagus (spread compost), grapes, rhubarb, strawberries.  Add soil amendments, fertilize (not strawberries) and mulch. Prune blueberries, (take cuttings if wanted). Fall raspberries: cut all canes to the ground, remove canes from aisles. Summer raspberries: remove old fruiting canes & canes from aisles.

Harvest: (Chard?), collards, kale, (senposai?) spinach, leeks, (Yukina Savoy?).

Our freshly mulched asparagus patch.Photo Kathryn Simmons

Our freshly mulched asparagus patch.
Photo Kathryn Simmons

Turn Here Sweet Corn, by Atina Diffley. Book Review

 

This new book (published by the University of Minnesota Press) offers a real-life organic vegetable farmer’s memoir. Normally, I look for inspiring reading during the winter, to refresh myself for the next farming season. This book, however, is a perfect mid-summer revival aid for farmers and gardeners flagging in the heat. It gives us perspective on our troubles as we read of Atina’s and husband Martin’s struggles with wild weather (hailstones the size of B potatoes!), continuous hard work, and land lost to developers and threatened by a pipeline. The immediacy of their powerful and tender story and Atina’s decision to stand up and become a leader for what she believes in gives us inspiration. We can feel validation of our work as organic vegetable growers as we read that 1¼ acres of kale can produce 182,000 servings, and if our marketing is as good as the Diffleys’, we can sell them all within 42 miles of the farm! Organic farming sequesters 15-28% more carbon than industrial farming, with a 33% reduction in fossil fuel use.

Atina and Martin owned and operated Gardens of Eagan (one of the first certified organic produce farms in the Midwest) from 1973-2007, so you can be sure Atina knows farming! Starting as a confused teenager (as many of us do), Atina grew into a strong, committed passionate leader of the organic farming movement. Her descriptions of the beauty, deep satisfaction, multiple stresses and sheer exhaustion of farming ring so true. She talks about the meaning in the daily life of organic farmers, of investing in the soil life, creating balance, seeing the potential of each field, and bringing that out. “Dirt is just soil that’s out of place. Soil has structure. Dirt does not.”

Early in the book, you might wonder if she’ll ever make it as a farmer, but her determination and perseverance, and the quality of attention she brings to what happens on the farm ensure her success, and our gripping reading. The Diffley family farm is lost to developers, who carve and churn up the soil even while Atina, Martin, their two children and their crew rush to harvest their crops. They decide to piece together a farm from patches of land they buy and rent, until they find the perfect farm to buy. Being itinerant farmers is no easy choice, and requires exceptional organizational skills.

One of their organizational strengths comes from using Holistic Management tools learned at a workshop. She and Martin each write “quality of life” statements, answering the question “If we lived perfect lives, what would it look like?” Each winter they quit farming for a week, party and relax in clean clothes, with clean fingernails. Even talking about the weather is an “illicit act” during the Quitting Week. Then they state their goals for the year and recommit. When they farm again it is a conscious choice. Decisions have to fit their quality of life statements.

Atina says: “I have the same nightmare every winter. If I think about everything it takes to pull off a successful season, it seems impossible . . . [but] if we have a plan in place and I stay in the present, then the work is manageable. . . I just have to remember not to look too far ahead.” Exactly the same is true for me, maybe for you too.

One year they decide to simplify their crops and cut a deal where each picks a crop to drop. Goodbye to potatoes, onions, winter squash, leeks. Sort of. Atina admits that she and Martin then each sneak some winter squash in, unable to completely let go of the experience they have gained in growing this crop.

This amazing book also has gems of practical information embedded in the story, and they’re worth noting. Techniques include the use of farm micro-climates (the first place the purslane germinates is the best spot for early tomatoes and melons); moving flats of aphid-infested seedlings out into the center of a field of vetch for the day, to have the insects in the vetch feast on the aphids; accepting up to 50% defoliation of broccoli plants between the six-leaf stage and heading, because it will not decrease the yield; reducing the chance of aphid-vectored diseases in a squash planting by sowing a “toothbrush strip” of wheat around the perimeter (when the aphids chew on the wheat it cleans the viruses from their mouthparts, so the squash stay virus-free).

The farm grows in size and complexity each year, with a bigger work crew and more refrigerated trucks. They also develop a massive supportive community of consumers and produce retailers, which is to prove its worth as the story develops. When the Diffleys find their new farm, they can finally set the washing-line poles in concrete. But a big cloud comes over the perfect horizon – Koch Industries claim eminent domain to route their pipeline through their farm. Atina fights this, not just for their farm, but for other organic farmers too, establishing a protocol for safeguards to be taken if organic farm soil and wildlife habitat is disrupted.

The normal legal process for a farm trying to prevent a pipeline across their land involves proposing other people’s farms as possible alternative routes. This process divides us and causes each of us to need to compete with each other and fight individually. Atina Diffley created an Organic Appendix to the Agricultural Impact Mitigation Plan (AIMP) that is legally required when farmland is dsirupted. Atina and her legal team got the pipeline company to accept that (in the words of Dr Deborah Allen) “The losses to an organic vegetable farm from diminished soil quality are of a different character and order of magnitude than on a conventional crop farm.” Healthy soil is necessary for a successful organic farm. By creating this Organic Appendix and getting the pipeline company to accept it, Atina made something other organic farms could also use to prevent eminent domain devastation on their farms. It could also encourage other farms to transition to certified organic and benefit from the Appendix. Far from falling for the individual solution and fighting only for her farm, while further jeopardizing other farms, Atina found a way to unite with other organic farmers in fighting the assault.

This mixture of heart-breaking and encouraging is what makes the book so engaging. Atina tells us: “Every winter I do recover from the season’s exhaustion, but if I push too far, I won’t. As we age, personal balance will require more consistent time for renewal.” In keeping with her wisdom, after 35 years of farming, Atina and Martin retired from active farming to become educators and consultants about organic farming. See their Organic Farming Works website for more info.

Potato Planting and Carol Deppe’s Writing

A ladybug on a potato leaf, looking for pests

We’ve just planted our second crop of potatoes for the year. At 3450 row ft (about a quarter of an acre), this planting is a bit bigger than our March planting. We aim to grow a whole year’s worth of potatoes for a hundred people. Planting in June has several advantages – for us the main one is that we can store this harvest in a root cellar over the winter, without using any electricity to control temperature. If we planted our whole year’s supply in March, we’d harvest in July and have to store them over the summer, and then all the way round till the next July. It’s also nice to split the work up into smaller chunks.

Up until this spring, we made furrows for our potatoes and covered and hilled them using a BCS 732 rototiller (or walk-behind tractor, as the retailers prefer to designate it). This is doable, but labor-intensive. This year we set up a toolbar on the tractor with sweeps to make furrows, and then discs to form hills. It’s been a learning process, with some teething troubles, but  I do think it’s the way of the future for us. (I just don’t have the stamina for all the rototilling any more!).

Compared to using the rototiller, the tractor needs a lot more space to manoeuver. We were lucky in having an area of cover crops next to the potatoes for this planting, so we could run over the edge onto “next door”. In the spring planting, we had a hydrant in the middle of the patch. that’s a minor problem with the rototiller, but a bigger problem with the tractor. Keeping the row spacing tight is harder with the tractor, and in the spring, we ended up with some wider spacings, which lead to more weeds than usual, and poorer hills. This week (our second time using the tractor), we managed much better row spacing. Next year, we’ll allow more space to turn the tractor, right from the planning stage.

Another “surprise feature” this time, was that it rained right after we’d planted (yes, before we’d covered the potatoes). The forecast had suggested a small chance of showers later in the day, but the 3/4″ drenching was a complete surprise! So we had to wait two days for the soil to dry out enough to take the tractor again. The soil was clumpy, but not impossible. Probably we could have covered and hilled sooner with the rototiller, as it weights less, and compacts the soil less. And the soil would have ended up with a finer texture. Overall I think the trade-offfs of using the tractor are worth it.

The potatoes came to no visible harm sitting in their furrow for two days. We had pre-sprouted them, so the sprouts grew a bit bigger and greener. Luckily we didn’t have extremely hot temperatures those days.

Recently I learned some new information about ideal soil temperatures for potato planting. This came from a workshop on Sustainable Potato Production by Rusty Nuffer at Southern SAWG in January 2012. In spring, wait for soil temperatures to reach 50F (10C) before planting. In summer, the ideal soil temperature is 60-75F (15-24C). Ours was 70F (21C). It’s possible to pre-irrigate to lower the soil temperature in summer. (And hopefully nature won’t mid-irrigate for you as it did for us this week!)

 Carol Deppe, author of the wonderful book The Resilient Gardener: Food Production And Self-Reliance In Uncertain Times, has written a very interesting article The 20 Potato a Day Diet versus the Nearly All Potato Winter about the nutritional and gastronomic wonders of potatoes.  It will inspire you to grow and eat more potatoes!