Thursday, August 25, 2011

Vegetables Can Win

We’re taking a break from farm renovation stories – don’t worry there are still plenty of those to come – to tell you about the main theme that’s cropped up this week: Vegetables! They have completely won us over – in the garden, in the kitchen and even on the baseball field.
August corn field. Don't worry, no baseball here.

Harvesting all the beets and carrots freed up a few plots in the test garden. So, we decided to plant a for a fall harvest. Two garden harvests in one year? It’s a winning streak! 

We tried to plant some traditional fall vegetables because they’ll actually taste sweeter after the first frost (around October 15th here in Zone 6a). It is a scaled down version of the spring planting – mainly because the beans, tomatoes, melons, cabbage, kale and onions are still going strong.  

Before planting, we prepared the beds. We loosely followed these straight-forward instructions and re-tilled and added some compost mixture to re-invigorate the soil. Then, we hoed the rows and dropped the little seeds in. This is what we planted for fall:

  • Beets – golden and red
  • Sweet Potatoes
  • Bibb lettuce
  • Radishes
  • Spinach
  • MachÄ›, or Lamb’s Lettuce
  • Chives  

We also tried our hand at inter-cropping, where you plant two types of vegetables that are compatible in one bed. It works particularly well when one type is fast-growing and can be harvested before the other crop needs room to get big. We interspersed fast-growing Bibb lettuce in the rows of beets. The lettuce grows above ground, while the beets grow below the surface. I admit, with the first sprouts just popping up, I’m already thinking about building cold frames to grow through the winter months. (And the crowd goes wild!)

Vegetables CAN win
We might be planning for frost, but it is still 85 degrees and the summer’s tomatoes are  producing like gang-busters. It is true what they say that all the tomatoes ripen at once. We get 6-15 ripe fruits off of nine plants every day. We’ve given away a lot to friends, family and neighbors. But, we’re still left with a bunch. 

1-1.5 lbs of fruit -> 1 pint
One long afternoon, I canned 12 pints of crushed tomatoes and had enough left over to freeze 3 pints. (Note to self: canning is more fun as a team sport.) I used this recipe because it is very detailed and got rave reviews. Crushed tomatoes can be used as the base for all sorts of stews, soups and sauces in the coming season. I also learned that you can freeze whole tomatoes! After finding Rich’s great-grandmother’s old jars and paraffin seals in the barn, I’m very thankful for the invention of the freezer. If you’re short on time or don’t want to spend the hours canning, just core the tomatoes, seal them in a freezer bag and throw them in the freezer until you have time to do something with them. Ours is now party central for gallon-sized bags of tomatoes, green beans, carrots and cayenne and banana peppers. 

Vegetables can WIN
Buffalo's True Mascots: Chicken Wing, Celery and Blue Cheese
Last weekend, we went to our first local baseball game - the Buffalo Bisons won in a nail-biting match up against the Toledo Mud Hens. The Bisons, like any self-respecting team, has a regular mascot – not surprisingly – a bison. But, they're three other mascots that are the true local heroes: a chicken wing, a celery stalk and a tub of blue cheese dressing. (Yes, really.) At one point during the game, the three food mascots ran a race from first base to home plate. According our friend who is a Buffalo native, the celery never wins. Is this a metaphor of the ongoing battle of fresh veggies against processed food in America? Regardless, we cheered our hearts out for that gangly green underdog. With us, the vegetables always win.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

To Pee or Not to...

Deep Thoughts
...That is the Question. Apologies to the Bard, but this has been a week of delayed satisfaction.  As we wrote last week, over the last couple weeks we have been working on the issue of farm water.  More specifically, getting drip irrigation to the hopsyard and farm buildings (tractor and packing sheds).  By law, and for our own sanity, the farm must have a functional restroom. This required a complete overhaul of the dilapidated bathroom in a corner of the tractor shed. 

Definitely, not functional
Face mask required
Like the rest of the building, the bathroom had been neglected by humans and taken up by cats and squirrels for about 30 years. The closest comparison to this bathroom would be the one in the movie Trainspotting.  Getting it back to a place you’d want to sit with The Sonnets has taken over 40 hours of hard labor, along with drills, shovels, power sprayers, respirators, Brillo pads and enough Comet and Lysol to level a college dorm.  

Despite clogged drains, moldy walls, rusted pipes and a massive squirrel nest that fell on Rich, the process was straight forward. We removed the appliances, cleaned and sprayed mold barrier on the walls, unjammed the window, installed drywall, painted the walls and ceiling, spread concrete and tiled the floors, and finally installed new water pipes and working fixtures in the toilet and sink.  At the same time, we trenched and laid irrigation pipe to both the hopsyard and test garden.  Overall, we felt quite proud of our handywork.
Teaching plumbing

But, just as we were putting the Charmin’ in place, the old farm threw us a curve. On our first attempt to open the pipes, three geysers spouting from split pipes in the packing shed showed us exactly what water can do when it is left to freeze in pipes over the winter.  Just when we thought we fixed the problem, we lost all water pressure. Then, we found a 50-foot long bubbling swamp that had surfaced near the garden, about 200 yards from the shed. Upgrading things around a 180-year-old farm is never going to be easy.

Undeterred, we leapt into action. First, we would locate the leak in the underground pipe and then figure out how to fix it. We fired up the backhoe and started digging. The water had spread to cover 700+ sq. feet of the lawn. We started at the highest wet spot. About three feet down, we found a pipe. Ah, here it is!

We were just going to clear off 10 feet or so, find the leak and fix it. Nope. When we turned on the water to locate the leak, water bubbled up elsewhere. We’d uncover those and it would bubble from another spot, three feet away. “No, it can’t be,” we thought, “How is the water coming from beneath the pipe?!”  So, we dug another two feet down. Aha! Another pipe!  Completely rusted through and spraying water in every direction.  

Finding the second pipe, nearly 5 feet underground
We have no idea what the first pipe was used for. Or why the water pipe is beneath it.  Apparently, in the intervening century and a half, Rich’s ancestors simply put down a lot of pipes, some over the others, turning some off and others not. As we were digging, we found an old plow blade, a silver spoon and several chunks of coal - a trip for Rich the former archaeologist.
Getting pipe to the garden

At the end of the day, we opted for our own modern temporary fix – we ran a PVC pipe above ground from the house to the buildings, hops field and garden. (Until next summer, when we’ll trench it underground and hook up our rain barrel system.) The pipes will supply irrigation to the garden and hopsyard and go to the sheds. This will significantly minimize the hours we spend hand watering. Also, it will help us regulate watering for the garden vegetables and hops. From what we’ve read on this garden blog and this one, tomato problems we’ve been having, like Blossom End-rot, splitting and slow-to-ripen, can be prevented with a regular watering schedule.

But, by far the best upgrade is that, with ersatz juggling and a few chosen words, our lovely bathroom will be in business, with an affirmative answer to Mr. Shakespeare.
Renovated bathroom, with tractor-print curtains to match :-)

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Farm Transformation in Full Swing

August has started with farm renovation in full swing. It’s time to ‘pay now or pay later.’ We’ve cleaned out, no, we’ve transformed our old tractor shed and packing shed – the farm’s two most important buildings – into efficient spaces. The packing shed is from the early 1900s, while the stone tractor shed is from the mid-1800s. Getting the farm in working order is imperative so that next year we hit the ground running. 
Garden follows the wall of the old, stone tractor shed
Packing shed (left) and tractor shed (right), and 27 bags of garbage

Old horse harnesses we found
My parents are visiting for ten weeks. They are retired, so they came to help us with fixing up the farm (and also to escape the Arizona summer heat). Dad was a citrus farmer for 30 years and renovated old homes, so his experience is invaluable. Mom is an energetic project manager. We are amazed at how much we can accomplish with four people. It goes much quicker when five hours of work equals 20 hours of productivity. Plus, Rich has learned lots of useful handyman skills, like plumbing and carpentry.

We tackled the daunting task of cleaning out the tractor shed and the packing shed. The tractor shed has become our office – our command central. This is where we plan projects and keep necessary equipment. But, it had been unused since the 1980s. We were constantly tripping over rusty tools and avoiding three decades of dirt (and animal poop).  

So, we pulled out everything, sorted it and organized the useful tools and equipment. We swept and sprayed down the floors and ledges. We constructed nearly 200 sq. feet of new shelving and put new tops on the work tables.  We also ran water to the shed and completely overhauled the bathroom – but that deserves its own post next week when it’s complete. 
Everything is organized
We moved on to the packing shed, where pears and apples were cleaned, sorted and packed for market. We emptied old boxes, barrels, harvesting backpacks and power-washed the lot. The job required haz-mat suits for protection from the toxic dust. In the attic were old yokes and harnesses for the horse teams that plowed the fields and transported the apples to market in the farm’s heyday. 
Cleaning 30 years of dirt away

The test garden has flourished, much to my first-time gardener amazement. Just 45 days after planting, we harvested beets and carrots, along with green beans, kale, cayenne peppers, banana peppers, broccoli and tomatoes. We are thrilled to get such a big bounty and to share it with new friends. We just planted fall lettuce, spinach, mache, radishes and… more beets! Stay tuned, we plan to pick our first watermelon by Friday and maybe even begin to harvest the hops.
Harvest time

Rich in his work suit
This week’s economic craziness has once again confirmed our life change. A recent, popular article and interview with Brooklyn Brewery owners shows how the craft brew industry is growing even during “The Great Recession.” We believe that building local food systems builds strong local economies, so agriculture is a good bet during an economic downturn.

Our first-year learning curve with farming is steep, and not without tough choices. (This week we had to miss out on a family tradition – an annual summer trip to Maine.) But, with all its hard work and tricky decisions, we are embracing this new farm venture. After a long day, we are raising a toast to all the entrepreneurs out there…with fresh watermelon and kale chips!

Monday, August 1, 2011

With a Litle Help from Our Friends

Welcome to the hops jungle
Helping friends made it possible
In the last three weeks, we finally completed construction of the hops trellis system. We could not have done it without the huge help from our friends and family. They even said they had fun sweating in the afternoon sun, pushing and pulling heavy 21’ poles into place. Thanks to them, our hops are happy climbing up and up and up!

Happy hops farmers  
The trellis system design and construction plan are Rich’s brainchild. Here is how we planned ours, in case you ever get the wild hair to do one. (Don’t bother, just get your hops from us!)

Used a 10-inch auger to dig holes
Rich looked at several hops farms to see how trellises were designed, including Leavy Farms in Oregon and Foothills Farms here in New York. Trellises have some structural requirements. Hops are large climbing vines, so the trellis support poles must be 15-21 feet tall and able to support the weight of 1,000 lbs. steel cables and hops and withstand wind and weather. The hops are planted in rows with 4 feet between plant mounds and at least 8 feet between rows so you can get a tractor or truck between them for spraying and harvesting. Each plant needs a line to climb up that is attached to the support wire above (coconut fiber rope, called coir, is the most popular). The trellis becomes a grid of poles connected by cables. It also needs an irrigation system because hops love water.
Poles were cut from woodlot

There is no one way to build a hops trellis. Each is unique to its setting. Ours needed to fit into the space allotted and be made with the stuff we had on hand. Our system needed to fit 110 plants in an area about 75x115 feet. Each of the seven varieties needed its own row to avoid confusion. Rich designed (and redesigned) the system into sections, so it could be expanded or dismantled. To keep setup costs low, we cleared a test field and cut our own poles from the straightest hardwood trees we could find in the woodlot.

Here’s Our Trellis Project Plan

Made cable loops from old garden hose
Step 1: Cut support poles 21’ for 3’ below ground and 18’ above; cut top ends at an angle for rain/snow run-off, painted the ends with deck sealant to prevent rotting and capped them with aluminum to extend the lifespan, then added a large hook 6” from the top of each pole to support the cable.

Step 2: Dug 22 holes 3 feet deep, 1 foot wide; used an auger for most and our hands to dig out the rocks.

Step 3: Measured and cut cables for each section between poles. Used 1,000 feet of 3/16-inch galvaniz ed cable for the main support lines , and 800 feet of 1/8-inch cable for the lateral support lines (so the trellis doesn’t sail away in a storm).
Poles ready to raise for each row

Step 4: Looped the ends of each section of cable, lined them with old garden hose, and clamped each cable end loop with two wire clamps. These cable sections are looped over poles and rest on the hooks. Instead of having one long cable weighing down the length of the row, the cable sections make it easy to lift off the poles when harvesting the hops vines, and add or remove sections of trellis.

Used two clamps for each loop
Step 5: After poles were raised (see below) and cables looped, we anchored the ends of the cables of both the main rows and lateral rows (22 in all) with earth anchors and tightened the cables to secure the poles in place.

Step 6: Strung the coir, secured with W-clips in each mound and trained the vines, wrapping them clockwise around the coir to follow the sun.
The Great Trellis Raising

Brace to help raise poles
The most daunting part of this whole process was raising the really heavy, long poles (essentially tree trunks). We were fortunate to have friends who were willing to help us and we ended up doing it by hand, using the tractor only to drag the poles into place and carry dirt to each hole. Here is how we raised the poles:

Rich designed and built a brace that was placed into the 3-foot hole. It acted as a pivot for the pole to slide down and also to prevent the sides of the hole from collapsing.

Group effort to raise poles
We had a good system going with loops and pulleys (and brute strength). The base of the pole was positioned against the brace in the hole. Rope was looped around the top of the pole held by someone beside the brace. Another rope was looped around the middle of the pole, two other people stood on either side, holding the ends and guiding the pole to prevent it from swaying to either side. A fourth person stood near the top of the pole, he lifted the end of the pole above his head and walked down the length of it, pushing up with his hands, raising it upward, while everyone else pulled on the ropes. We got pretty good at this and could raise a pole in about 13 seconds – check out the 13-second video!

Hanging the coir twine
Finally, the pole was straightened in the hole to align the hooks and then pond mud was packed around the base. (We didn’t use concrete to set the poles, so we can remove them, if needed.)

In the end, we all sat back and enjoyed a cold adult beverage while surveying our job well done.Back in March, we rookie farmers naively thought that we could just construct the trellis one week and plant the hops the next week and be done with that. As with most big projects, the actual process took us 1,000 more steps and four months longer. And we’re not done yet. Our next project is to install drip irrigation. Thankfully, family in town has offered to help. We hope to get that done before the hops are ready to harvest!

Completed hops trellis