Monday, December 24, 2012

Hoppy Holidays from McCollum Orchards!

We wish you a very merry holiday season! 2012 has been a exciting year and we are eagerly looking forward to the 2013 season. Here's our year in review in photos. Enjoy.

Doubled the size of the hopsyard
Picked the first commercial hop harvest

Hosted tours and groups on the farm
Supported local farming and organizations with charity dinners
Recalled the olden days on the Historic Lockport Trolley

Opened our first farm stand with fresh seasonal vegetables

Cleared eight acres of land for more planting

Hoppy Holidays...

From McCollum Orchards...

See you in 2013!

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Seeing the Veggies through the Trees (Clearing Farmland)

A glimpse of what once was

Big news for McCollum Orchards. This fall, we cleared eight acres of overgrown farmland. Over 30 years the property had changed from maintained orchards and farmed land to a scraggly, overgrown wooded area. The land was densely shaded. There were old, rusty trash heaps and burn piles. Beneath the tall swamp maples were rows of dead plum trees. Areas flooded where clay drain tile had broken long ago. Clearing it back to its original plane was the key to bringing the farm back to life. In order to expand production, we need more cleared land to grow vegetables, hops and fruit on.

Big changes in just 18 months
In October, we hired a crew recommended for agricultural land clearing. It took them a week to clear eight acres. Watching them work was fascinating. A large dozer uprooted the trees, then pushed them over to the excavator.  With its claw attachment, the excavator would lift a tree high up in the air and drop it. Repeatedly. This shook the top soil off the rootballs. (Afterward, the top soil got spread back onto the land.) The excavator would then do a maneuver where it gripped the tree in the middle, spun around and tossed it on top of the wood pile.  We are stuck with a few, strategically placed, giant piles of deadwood for now.  Whatever can’t be used for firewood will decompose. The piles also still provide the habitat that solitary bees need.
The excavator does its thing
Now, the place is starting to look like a farm again. In fact, the clearing uncovered a massive rock wall made with field boulders along the east side of the apple orchard. What we thought was a natural rise on the land is actually a manmade terrace. From the barn, the vista opens up onto the orchards and wheat field and sky. Many neighbors have stopped by to say how good it looks. Seeing the cleared land lets us visualize what the farm will look like in the future.  That’s both exciting and makes this whole endeavor very, very real!
With the land cleared, we can move ahead with the next several steps that have to be done before we can actually plant anything. First,we tested the soil on the cleared land and are waiting to find out the  composition and if we need to add any amendments.  Then, we need to clean up the stray roots and branches that were left behind and pile up the rocks that got upturned. (Ugh, what a big job.) In the spring, we will do heavy discing to loosen up the soil and smooth it out.

Taking soil cores
Next year, we expect serious weed pressure. The long dormant weed seeds have now been exposed to sunlight. We are already working on a weed management plan with Cornell Cooperative Extension on how to best manage them next growing season. 
Now, we can start to see the forest through the trees, so to speak. The land has taken shape into four main plots. We plan to farm two fields next year and the other two we will prepare for perennial plantings, like berries. We are chomping at the bit to get that beautiful soil back into production.
View of the barn, house and hopsyard from the cleared field
 PS: Things that were uncovered in the land clearing: 1) two metal fire escapes 2) a V-8 Engine 3) a swing set 4) half a pick-up truck (not near the engine) 5) countless beer bottles and cans 6) a broken arrowhead 7) a doll's head 8) a sleigh bell 9) lots of wild garlic

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The Spooky Spirits of McCollum House

McCollum House Circa 1910

In the spirit of Halloween, I thought I’d share some of the spookier tales we have uncovered about the property. Whether it is the Carveth Estate, McCollum Orchards or Grandma Josie’s house, this place has had many names over 180 years. However you remember it, the farm’s legacy and its stately buildings have become an almost endless source of lore. You would not believe how many people we talk to end the conversation saying, “Oh, by the way, I hear it’s haunted.”  

When we first moved in last year, we were greeted with a tale of a ghost sighting in the kitchen. Just a couple years before, the family hired a lady to help clean the house.  All was going well until she started on the kitchen.  The next moment, she ran out of the house to her car, face gone ashen white. Scared out of her wits, she said she saw a ghost.  “There is a woman in the corner of the kitchen!”  Needless to say, she never came back. Later, we found out that great-grandmother Josephine Carveth was bedridden in the kitchen for a long time and passed away there.  Could it have been her?

We have heard about rumors of secret passageways that were used during the underground railroad, buried treasure, and even unmarked graves on the property. Many people might find these kinds of stories unnerving, but I have heard them all my life. 

Music in the basement
Growing up, I spent parts of my summers on the farm alone in the house with just my grandmother. In a big, old house like this, things do not merely go bump in the night. Colds winds suddenly ripped down the hallway, doorknobs turned by themselves, figures were seen in the windows. You swore you heard the faint sound of music coming from the basement or a whiff of perfume as you passed an old portrait. This is on top of the usual squeaks and creaks that you might expect.  My grandmother always chalked it up to “the spooks” (whom she also blamed for misplacing her things).  At night, when the whole house would echo with the sound of shutters banging in the wind, it was enough to keep a young boy with an active imagination hiding under the covers.

Words entwined
We have found that the more we fix up the farm and buildings, the warmer and more inviting it becomes.  The chaos that much of the farm was in made it feel, well, creepy.  It is amazing what cleaning, organizing, and applying a fresh coat of paint can do to make it feel homey again.  But there is one mystery we cannot seem to solve. In the process of organizing the house, we kept finding stacks of books bound by twine.  Some stacks of books would be standing up, some would be on their side.  There appeared to be no rhyme or reason to their grouping, with the occasional library, school or phone book thrown in.  We learned that one of my great-aunts, who lived in the house in her later years, would compulsively tie books together with twine, like a nervous tic.  We did what most people would do and untied the books.  We cut the twine and organized them again.  The strange thing is that we are never done.  No matter how many books we set free, we keep finding more stacks.  It is as if someone goes through and binds them up again.  It became somewhat frustrating, so we just stopped trying and let the house spirits have that one. 
Some of the many books bundled with twine
The love and loss that this house has witnessed cannot be summarized in a single post.  Many people have asked us if we have seen a ghost here. Even though we sometimes catch ourselves looking over our shoulder, I honestly have to say no. This house holds memories of generations who called it home. Their memory is felt in their portraits, books, photos and letters that remain.  If there are ghosts here, they are my family, right? So, the next time you drive by the house and you think you glimpse a figure peeking out from an upstairs window, just smile and wave.  It might be a relative, stepping out of their place in time to check our progress.

Happy Halloween from all of us!

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Well, oh well...How will we water?

During this year, we saw an unusually warm winter and a dry, hot summer.  By early May, it was clear that if our hops and vegetables were to survive, we needed irrigation.  Weeks without rain and hours spent lugging around hoses and hand watering both the hopsyard and the garden pushed the issue to the top of our priority list.  With the help of Bree’s dad (a retired citrus farmer from Arizona) we developed an irrigation plan.
In the process of laying drip-tape irrigation
 Some plants need more water than others, so we built two types of high-efficient irrigation systems. Trickle irrigation for the hops, tomatoes and gourds/squashes, and drip irrigation for the other herbs, vegetables and flowers. Trickle irrigation is a small stream of water directly targeting the base of the plant.  Drip irrigation (using drip tape) uses considerably less water than trickle irrigation.  It lies on the ground along the rows of vegetables and delivers a continual drip of water. Ours is spaced 12 inches apart.
Trickle Irrigation in the Potatoes
The big issue we faced with irrigation is that there are no wells anywhere near the house!  This is very unusual predicament for a185-year-old property.  As a result, we had to use city water for irrigation.  If you have ever heard me talk about this issue, you know our biggest drawback is having to pay a sewage fee for water that will never enter a sewer. (Being located in a city and outside an agricultural district prevents us from obtaining an agricultural water meter that other farms typically use to get irrigation water from nearby fire hydrants.)  

After nearly three months of virtually no rain, (3/4 inch), it was clear we needed a well. References are everything, so we asked around and called a local drilling company that has worked in the area for over 35 years.  Together we selected a location behind the apple packing shed because it was 1) a low spot, 2) near the hops and garden, and 3) close to a source of electricity.

The goal was drill down about 30’-40’ and hit a gravel bed which usually has the highest flow-rate in a well.  This was a pretty typical result for wells in this part of Lockport and we were hoping for the best (while also knowing there was a possibility of a dry well).

They came early one morning, raised the boom on their high-tech drilling rig and went at it.  Things went smoothly at first and we had a good feeling about it until they hit something at the 10-foot mark.  Solid rock.  They punched another five feet down and realized this wasn’t some boulder that the glaciers left years ago, this was a huge mass of rock.  It was the Medina Sandstone formation, not something that should be so near the surface in our neck of the woods.  This isn’t the soft sandstone found out west. This dark red-colored stone is very hard and relatively impervious.

Bree's Father in his Supervisor's Chair
They switched the drilling bit to an air hammer and went back to work, blasting small chips of rock out of the well with pressurized water and air.  20 feet.  30 feet.  Still solid rock and little water.  The drill went down to 42 feet when we decided to stop.  We transected a few seams of water, but not many.  We were reaching a maximum flow rate of about 4 gallons per minute.  Very slow for an irrigation well.  Deeper drilling was unlikely to reveal more water.

We tasted the water collected at the base of the well and tasted something very familiar.  Salt!  And lots of it.  The experienced well drillers were as perplexed and disappointed as we were.  In their over 35 years of experience, they have never hit salt water at such a shallow depth in this area.  Somehow, we must have broken through a seam of salt leftover from some ancient seabed. What are the odds of that? (see video below of them flushing water out of the well)

As you probably know, plants don’t like salt (Fun fact: The Romans plowed salt into the fields of their rivals around Carthage to make their land barren for generations.)  We sent the water out for testing.  People can usually taste salt in water at 200 parts per million (PPM).  Plants are usually tolerant of salt up to 900ppm.  The test revealed that saltwater in our well was at 2,000ppm! Not good.  (As a reference, the ocean is around 35,000ppm).

Oh, well…So, we now have a saltwater well with very low flow rate.  All is not lost.  We will pump the well for a month and try to flush some of salt out and lower the salinity.  If that does not work, do you think there’s a market for a McCollum Orchards mineral baths and spa?  Or, how about an all-natural pickle brine?

Monday, September 10, 2012

Fall 2012 Produce List

The fall farm stand will run from Wednesday, September 19 to roughly Saturday, October 27, weather permitting. 

Here is what will be available:

Giant Atlantic Pumpkin will be on display

Decorative gourds
Birdhouse gourds
Acorn Squash
Butternut Squash
Sweet Peas
Green Beans

Romaine Lettuce
Mixed Lettuces
Rainbow Swiss Chard
Red Cabbage
Green Cabbage

 Wait...there's more....

Beets - 4 kinds
Parsnips (after first frost)
Salsify (after first frost)
Various herbs, edible flowers, lemon grass, sunflower seeds
Apples - heirloom, non-sprayed, good for baking and sauce
Packaged dried wholeleaf hops
Decorative hop bine wreaths
Rest of tomatoes - heirloom, good for freezing, canning, sauces

 An early fall?

Writing that list, I realize we still have quite a full garden and we're looking forward to fall! You know we are finishing an unusual growing season, when the pumpkins are ripe at the same time as the watermelon. That's why you are starting to see pumpkins in the stores already. It might be an early fall - the leaves are already starting to drop - but it's anyone's guess. We'll just have to wait and see. Until then, enjoy the cooler weather and we will see you next week.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Enter the Cone Zone - Builing the Hop Dryer and Oast

Hop Cones Ripening on the Bine
 In February I wrote ‘build hops dryer’ on the to-do list. Hops harvest was 6 or 7 months away, mid-August to mid-September. Plenty of time, right?  Well, in the midst of raising a market garden, attending zoning board meetings, expanding the hopsyard, and renovating old buildings, the hops dryer slipped to the back-burner. All of a sudden, August arrived. We needed that oast (hop dyer) A.S.A.P.!

An early spring and dry summer had caused the hops to sprout early and grow quickly. The harvest date came about two weeks sooner than expected. In our hopsyard, the Centennial variety is the first to bloom, and bloom they did. We estimated about 100 pounds of fresh-picked hops this year, mainly from the second-year Centennial and Cascades bines.

Fresh Picked Hops
We had learned from other growers that large piles fresh (wet) hops do not store well. A load of wet hops will actually start to compost within hours of harvest. The pile will naturally start to heat up from that reaction and spoil. The three enemies of hops (after they are picked) are heat, air and sunlight. 1) Too much heat will evaporate the some 250 essential oil compounds in the hop cones. 2) Air exposure can make them stale, and 3) sunlight exposure after picking can impart an unfortunate ‘skunky’ flavor to the cones. The best way to save hops is to dry them at low temperatures (under 100 degrees until they contain between 8-12% moisture), vacuum seal them and place them in a dark freezer.

Back in the day, hop farms had oasts, or barns especially made for drying hops. Nowadays, home growers use food dehydrators or air-dry a few pounds of hops. Modern commercial hop growers have million-dollar drying facilities and use jet engine-sized heaters to dry thousands of pounds. They deal in tons, we deal in pounds. We estimated about 200-400 pounds of wet hops in future years and needed a dryer that could accommodate those weights.

Back to early August. With harvest fast approaching, it was time to get to work and make that dryer. The resulting creation closely resembles a large, white Ikea wardrobe from the outside with surprising drying power capacity on the inside. We used melamine (coated particleboard) and drinking water-safe PVC in the construction, since they are easily cleaned and do not off-gas a smell or chemicals, like treated wood, which we did not want to transfer onto the hops.  
PVC - Easy and Clean to Work With
Bree Cutting the Screens for the Shelves
Here is the DIY breakdown of our dryer:
  1. Constructed a large box and placed on coasters - dimensions 6’x4’x3’. 
  2. Attached 18 PVC shelving brackets to each side of the box. 
  3. Added 4 adjustable exhaust vents to the top and sides to control air flow. 
  4. Attached 2 doors to the front that seal shut with piano hinges.  
  5. Attached an air duct with a filter to the lower-side of the box. (The other end of the air duct attaches to the blower of a modified floor dryer.) 
  6. Built 18 shelves with PVC frames and window screen mesh trays. 
  7. Added wind baffles to the floor and sides to prevent air pockets. 
  8. Sealed the whole box with silicone caulk
  9. Placed a small space heater in front of the air intake of the blower
  10. Turned it on, pressure tested it and sealed any remaining air leaks
The Finished Product
We tested the dryer with 10 pounds of fresh hops, and it worked like a champ. It dried them perfectly in about 36 hours.  Best of all, I could finally check ‘build hops dryer’ off of the to-do list, just in time for the hops harvest party! I don’t often say that something smells dreamy. But dreamy is the only way to describe the earthy and heavenly scent permeating from our new dryer when it is packed with trays of wet hops.
First Tray for Testing
Partially Loaded Hops Dryer
By harvest, we had McCollum Orchards’ first ever oast. The dryer came to be housed in the farm’s 100-year-old apple packing shed. We gave the building a thorough cleaning and fresh coat of paint. The new, bright hops dryer stands on one side of the building – representing our work toward the farm’s future. On the opposite side, it faces remnants of the wooden apple sorter and hopper used in the last century. We have to admit, after spending long we spent long hours working on the hops in there, whenever we would start to get tied, we just look across to the testament of the farm's previous era and get a little more inspiration from that long history.
Preparing the Century-old Apple Packing Shed for a New Life