Friday, April 29, 2011

Tree Carnage and Baby Kittens: 48 hours on a farm

Tree Carnage

Just when we thought the end of the week would be calm – all winds broke loose. Literally. On Thursday, the wickedest wind storm in anyone’s memory tore through Lockport. Niagara Falls Airport clocked 80 mph winds. About 50 trees were knocked down, taking down power lines and cables on every single street around the property. The biggest was a 100-year old elm that took up part of the road and crushed a metal fence and a stone wall. All day long, people stopped to stare and take photos because it really is a sight to see.

From McCollum Orchards & Home

Newborn Kittens

Recovering from tree carnage on Friday, we tried to get back to work clearing the hops field. In the morning, Rich opened the tractor shed and heard some faint meowing from a corner. On closer look, he found a few (maybe 3 or 4) newborn kittens huddled together underneath the work table. They were definitely not there on Wednesday. That means they were born during Thursdays scary storms! We brought some milk and cat food for the mama cat and then left the shed for the rest of the day. Before we left in the evening, we peeked in and saw the mama cat’s eyes peering back. Most people don’t feed feral cats. But, we hope they’ll stick around and help keep the vermin away. As Rich’s mom says, a farm always needs a good mouser cat.

Always some excitement going on a farm!

Working on Sunshine

Spring sunshine has warmed up our little corner of the world. Everything is changing fast. The pears blossomed. Kermit green shoots spark against the grey-blue afternoon thunderclouds. Frogs in the ice pond summon the rains. Insects buzz by the thousands. After most lunch breaks, we find fresh deer tracks in the tractor tracks. They must be keeping an eye on our progress.
This week, we are clearing out the field for the hops’ new hilly homes. Before we can plant, we must clear a ¼ acre field between the pear orchard and the forest. So, we have removed a lot of trees. According to Rich, I’m “like a surgeon” with the Kubota tractor. First, I dug out the roots with the backhoe and then knocked down the trunks with the front bucket. Finally, I pushed the piles with the frontloader to a side wall. (So. Much. Fun.) Meanwhile, Rich chain-sawed 30-50’ foot trees that would have shaded the hops field. Yeah, who’s the surgeon?

As the warm weather has melted the snow and allowed us to spend 8 hours outside each day, we are getting to know our field. This is important because we’ll need to know how to best manage the soil to keep the hops healthy (and pears, apples and veggies, too). Upturning the trees, we found signs of good soil: loamy soil and huge earthworms (like foot-longs!). We also discovered a few bad signs: the water level was just two inches below the surface and 6-8 inches of standing water in some places. Drowned hops are not good. We tracked where the water tried to go and found it dammed up by a pile of discarded fencing and roofing shingles, which are of course waterproof. Sounds like a job for the trusty Kubota. We hope to get the field to drain some – in time for more spring rains.

Being outside this week has helped us visualize what the farm will be – not just what it could be. in next week for an update on planting the hops and construction of the hops trellis!
From McCollum Orchards & Home

Monday, April 18, 2011

Taming the Kraken or Pruning Vintage Apples

Early spring means pruning for fruit trees.  Along rural highways, we saw acres of dwarf apples standing in rows like stationary octopi with neatly pruned umbrella-shaped branches. If that’s what well-pruned apples look like, than our vintage trees were the Kraken of the Deep.  Our trees tower 25 feet, twice as high as they should. Entangled branches of neighboring trees fight for space.  Sucker branches (that grow straight up from the arm branch, but rarely produce) were 10 inches thick. Trunks were rotted. And then, there was the poison ivy – strangling several trees like an evil serpent.
At first glance, bushy unpruned trees look healthy.  But, in reality, without pruning, the tree goes into survival mode and pushes out as many branches as possible.  From YouTube tutorials, like this one from MSU’s horticulturist, we learned that pruning apple trees into the umbrella shape allows sunlight to get into even the center branches. Every sprig should get light, rain and attention from pollinating insects and to have the chance to turn into fruit. A retired Niagara County Cornell Extension agent taught us the adage, ‘if you can throw the barn cat through the apple tree and it doesn’t hit a branch, then you’ve pruned enough.’ Pruning our big trees would be like turning a bush into a bonsai, if we were Smurfs.
The question was: Could we bring them back under control and, thus, get a better harvest? Could we test our pruning skills minus the barn cat?
Then, we met Johnny. He started working on the farm at age 12, pulling weeds for Rich’s great-grandmother Mother Jo, and became the farm manager for nearly 30 years.  On a chilly morning, he walked the property with us for a trip down memory lane. He had planted those trees over 20 years ago – 150 pear and 100 apple – and managed the farm. During its zenith, there had been an estimated 10,000 trees on the property – pears, apples, plums, cherries and peaches, along with non-tree crops, such as tomatoes, corn, cabbage, pumpkin and sunflowers. In my inventory, there remain 74 pear (Barlett and Bosc) and 75 apple (Northern Spy and Rome).
He told us great stories: of the deal with the local butcher who unloaded chicken remains to plow into the field.  That rich soil grew some of the biggest pumpkins he’d ever seen. Of the year he raised 12 turkeys in the tractor shed.  His kids wouldn’t eat the Thanksgiving turkey because they thought it was their pet. He showed where the underground drainage system ran to the old ice pond. He also said we could probably bring those apple and pear trees back from the brink. The institutional knowledge that Johnny shared was invaluable.  We’ve met more people who worked on the farm and remember hauling vegetables to Niagara Produce Market (read Yelp review here of this amazing market). Each story gave us a glimpse into what the farm meant in Lockport’s history and gave us inspiration for what it could become.
So we set to work. The task started as following instructions, but quickly became an art form of balancing priorities with time and need. First, we cut away deadwood and poison ivy. Rich found out the hard way that you can indeed get poison ivy even during winter. Then, we pruned the major suckers to let light into the center of the trees. New tools, such as gas-powered pole saws, made pruning easier than in the days of wooden ladders and hand saws.  Finally, we had to clean up our huge mess.   

At the end, our efforts got a nod of approval from Johnny.
A key to profitable farming is to not be attached to any tree or crop.  Many would have advised us to start anew with dwarf varieties. But we decided they deserved one more chance. These 149 trees link the present with the past and are the living example that the historic property has always been a farm and orchard.  If we didn’t shock the trees in the pruning process, we should get a good fall harvest.  If not, we’ll have a few thousand pounds of pear and apple wood chips – BBQ anyone?

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Hop Around the Lockport, NY

Yesterday we drove 3 ½ hours to Foothills Hops Farm in the village of Munnsville in Central New York…and back again. We were on an adventure to pick up our order of coir –twine made coconut husk that hops love to climb best – and to check out an organic hops farm. Incidentally, this coir had shipped from Sri Lanka, the teardrop-shaped country in the Indian Ocean, just south of Chennai, India, where we’d lived for 10 months. We were going to feel its rough scratchiness again, here on the other side of the world, in New York.

When we arrived, the scene was already busy. Larry Fisher, organic hops farmer and a founder of Northeast Hop Alliance (NeHA), was forklifting a bale of coir (about 350 lbs.) into a customer’s Jeep. It was muddy, about 30°F, and the wind and snow had just picked up. Rich jumped in to help and they were able to squeeze, push and stuff the bale in there. Note to self: Purchase a real truck soon, so farmers don’t laugh at us!

After checking out the fuzzy cute reindeer they have – even got to feed one! – Larry took us on an eye-opening tour of the farm. Since 2001, they’ve planted about two acres of organic hops and are renting neighboring land to put in a third this year. Larry, a professional electrician, has built a hops harvester and separator himself. It is a truly impressive operation and inspirational for us who are just starting out. He’s made most of his operational set-up himself, which includes:

  • Trellis and irrigation systems
  • 15-foot platform attachment for the tractor
  • Harvester
  • Separator
  • Dryer
  • Compressor/Small baler
  • Cold storage
  • Hammer-mill
  • Pelletizer
  • Vacuum packager for nitrogen sealing

What impressed us most is just how much equipment is needed to get our precious little hops cones from bine to beer-ready! There must be 500 tools, supplies and equipment pieces in the hops production system that need to work in conjunction with one another. That’s not including the various nutrients and plant food needed to ready the soil. We realized that, while we may be able to harvest the first year by hand, we’ll need a harvester, and eventually a pelletizer, for any future scaling up of production.

Right now, we are just happy to have met the folks at Foothills Farms, who are working hard to bring New York hops and beer-making back to their pre-Prohibition locales. We learned much and are inspired by their hard work, hospitality and, of course, very tasty hops mustard. (I understand it is served at Empire Brew restaurant.)

On the drive home, we passed through beautiful farm country, past farms that are still thriving, their tilled fields waiting for spring, and past crumbling barns, symbols of once-proud farms that weren’t so lucky. We traced the Erie Canal past Palmyra, NY, where Rich’s ancestor, Joel McCollum, married Rachel Scovell in 1818. He went on to co-found Lockport in the 1820s and build the house where we’ll live this summer. We’d come full circle – modern day settlers on the Niagara Frontier, with a long family history behind us and long rows of hops in front of us!