Thursday, March 29, 2012

Farming in the City: Variances Approved

We are very happy to report that all of our variance applications were approved on Tuesday by the city zoning board! This is a huge step in our efforts toward trying to save this family farm property. The meeting proceedings even made it into the local news, in the Lockport Union Sun & Journal and the Buffalo News.

In the springtime

The Process
We found out last month that the whole 100-acre property, that has always been farmland, was zoned residential. In order to operate it as a farm, we needed to apply for variances for land use, retail to sell in the barn, some signs and a place for people to park. Notices were sent to all our neighbors. Well, since we are located in a city, that totaled about 60 residences around the perimeter of the property. The process included a zoning board meeting that is open to the public. About 40 people attended and were able to hear our proposed plans and voice their concerns and opinions. We were able to address them with further clarifications. In the end, the board passed each of the variances unanimously.

Next, the plans go through the County Planning Board for recommendations. This is because our property line touches the town border. After that, they will go through the City Planning Board. These address more technical issues, such as size of the parking lot. For this, we will have to hire a landscape architect because all the plans need to be drawn up to scale.

This was an unexpected process to do this Spring. But, just like healthy soil for plants, we realized that it is a necessary step to make sure our farm business is on a solid foundation. Fortunately, the process has been well laid out and people have been very helpful, even though it is uncommon for the city to see this kind of business start up. We've come to find out that it is not all that uncommon anymore. More and more farms are being tilled in private and vacant lots in cities around the country.
Barn and Sheds from the yard

We're Not Alone
To prepare for the meeting and for our own knowledge, we reached out to friends who knew about the urban agriculture movement and to pretty much anyone who might be able to provide information or share experiences. We got a lot of responses. A school friend active in Louisville's local food movement was even willing to help go through ordinances with us. It is not just farmer's markets anymore. People are moving the farming right into the cities.

We were surprised and thrilled with what is occurring across the country. In February, the Boston mayor kicked off a zoning process to encourage community farming, as it beautifies the city and widens access to fresh, healthy food to people who can't usually get it. In 2010, Cleveland passed a very progressive recoding policy to make it as easy as possible to start farming in the city limits because it attracts and keeps residents. One of Milwaukee's two booming urban farms, Growing Power, is hosting the 2012 Urban & Small Farm Conference: Growing the Good Food Revolution. In Buffalo, there are four gardens/farms that we learned of who are growing fresh produce within the city limits: Wilson Street Urban Farm, Queen City Farm, and Cold Spring Coop, and the Massachusetts Avenue Project aquaponics project. Right here in Lockport, Hall Apple Farm is a historic farm that is in both Lockport the city and the town.

So far, we have mostly thought of our efforts as preserving this special house and property that has somehow remained intact and in the family by making it our home and restarting the farm. This week, we realized how much bigger it is than just our little corner. It is connected to the neighborhood, the city, and even to a trend that is taking a many people back to their roots and to the roots. We may have many more meetings to attend and rows to hoe, but we are more committed to offering fresh locally grown produce from our barn doors. Thank you to all those who have encouraged us along the way.
Sunset over the fence

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Hops Spring Update

We've had a surprisingly warm Spring here so far. Spring this year is five weeks earlier than last year, according to another Lockport farmer. That means that everything has started to bloom and sprout early. Including the hops. So, we get to give you an update on the hops a whole month earlier than we planned!
Those aren't asparagus, they're hops!
The first shoots have already sprouted and are about 5-6 inches tall. Early spring also means that we have to start preparing and maintaining the hopsyard a whole month earlier, too. Ugh, we did not think we'd have to weed in March. Today was a good a day as any to get out there. We pulled out mostly dandelions, a type of knotweed, grasses, and a few thistles and little maple saplings rooted in the mushroom compost after the whirlygigs landed in the fall. We got the two rows of Cascades weeded and cleaned out before it got too rainy.
Carefully weeding and not breaking grow tips
The weeding chore was brightened up by an exciting discovery. When we lifted up the fabric row covers, we found lots of worm castings hiding underneath. This means that the soil has maintained good organic matter! Hops typically require a lot of nitrogen. We need to make sure the soil contains enough for the mature bines. We're currently searching for sources of manure and straw to add more. In our seed order this year, we purchased Sweet Clover as a cover crop that we'll put in between the rows, which will help. Seeing those wormies and their byproduct was a welcome sign.

The Growth Plan
As exhilarating as it is to see the tender shoots pop up, most hop farmers prune back the first shoots. According to some research done at Oregon State University that we learned at the 2011 Fall Hops Conference, two-three strongest shoots from the second growth may be less prone to mildews than first shoots. Pruning the first shoots that come up between March and May and then training the strongest shoots from the second growth will help regulate the maturation time of cones. Since we'll probably have a few more frosts between now and May, including one frost on Monday night, we'll clip back these first shoots and wait for the May shoots. Except for a few we'll save to eat. People say they taste like asparagus and are excellent pickled or as an ingredient in Spanish paella dishes!

The Expansion Plan 
The hopsyard is going to double in size this year. Throughout fall and winter, we cleared the overgrowth surrounding (and shading) the yard. This will make way for five more rows of hops and have the size up to 3/4 acre. We selected and felled 25 more pole trees for the trellis system. In the winter, we ordered 150 more rhizomes through NeHA. So, the hopsyard will have:
  • 48 Centennial
  • 48 Cascade
  • 24 Fuggle
  • 32 Nugget
  • 32 Chinook
  • 32 Willamette
  • A few each of Magnum and Golding
We took out the Perles that we planted last year. In the end, we conceded that the chipmunks won. Every time we planted the Perle rhizomes in the ground, we'd return the next morning to find the rhizomes dug up and thrown next to the hole. Not chewed, just dug up. We even saw a chipmunk run from the hopsyard back to the packing shed. Eventually, the rhizomes dried up from all the exposure. Darn varmints.

In April, we'll also trench a drainage ditch around the hopsyard, so that rainwater runoff drains away from the hops rows. We also will level out the land where we had dug emergency trenches last Spring to prevent complete flooding.

An Experiment Plan
Hop clipping under grow lights
This post will wrap up with Farmer Rich's latest experiment. For more Fuggles, he is starting new ones from this year's clippings. If we can start our own, it would guarantee disease-free clones and bines we know are vigorous. It might be the start of a whole new venture.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

One Year Here

March 6th marked the one-year anniversary of our move to Lockport, NY to start our new life as farmers. It feels like only last week that we moved to a blanket of freshly fallen snow and set about cleaning out the barn until we were so cold we couldn’t feel our fingers. Then, growing a jungle of seed starters in our apartment and wrestling trees to the ground to build a hops trellis. This March, we're taken with a spring heat wave and watching the daffodils that we planted in the fall bloom early.
Daffodil foreground, Tractor and packing sheds background
The year went by so quickly. When we look back, we realize that we accomplished loads in that time. We have done a lot of farming, continued repairs on our new adopted home and begun organizing the McCollum family history. We’ve made wonderful friends and colleagues, too. Mostly, we’ve learned that we still have a lot to learn. 
The conviction that this is what we’re meant to do grows stronger with every soil block, every new bud, and every rookie mistake. We've been reminded many times by the property that we're the new kids on the block. This place - house, land, soil, barn - has been here for almost two centuries. Oh the stories it could tell. Slowly, we are peeling back the layers and listening to the old memories whisper. How did they plant back in the day? With all the changes we've made, we believe that the old spirits approve of what we're up to. (They haven't spooked us yet!) And, something interesting has occurred enough times that we have come to rely on it. Whenever we need something, some tool or just the right size bolt or a missing tile that they don't make anymore, we find it. Just like that, within a few days of wanting it, we'll stumble across it unexpectedly. We call it, "The House Giveth."  We've heard other farmers who work on old farms talk of this, too. Whatever it is, we appreciate this little "sign" from the ancestors that we're on the right track. (Well, it's fun to fantasize that's what it is!)
We want to thank all our friends, family and neighbors who have supported and encouraged us along the way! We cannot wait to see what this year brings. Hopefully, another step closer to our dream farm, a house that’s a little cleaner, and some good fresh-hopped beer to sip on.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Spring Training Farmer Style

The finished seed starting station.
Spring is here! Well, it's almost here. "Life is Skittles and life is beer." As beginning farmers, spring means we get to try our hand at starting seeds again.

If anyone remembers our seed starting efforts last Spring(here’s our post about trying to grow Basil in the Bathroom), they spread into every room, took over all the floorspace in our apartment. The contraption we built was very unsteady and basically looked like a college kid’s idea of a growlab.

This year will be so much better! We have drastically upgraded our seed starting system. We found this design through a farmer's Twitter post and saw it again in the book. So, we decided to try it. It is a pretty standard seed starting set-up. And, here are the reasons why it's so popular for avid gardeners and beginning farmers; it's A. Inexpensive, B. Easy to assemble, and C. Can accommodate several trays of seedlings. It’s the next best thing to building an actual greenhouse, but a whole lot faster.

Assembling the seed starter station
How To Build It
The seed starter unit is straightforward to make. It requires a 6-shelf metal unit. This one stands about 6'5" tall and 4' wide. The florescent shop lights come with small chains that allow you to adjust the height by raising them up as the seedlings grow. The fluorescent lights are the real neat trick. You can buy tube lights specifically for plants and aquariums that mimic natural sunlight, but they’re more expensive than regular fluorescent tubes. We made the same effect by putting one cool light and one warm light into each of the five shop lights. We used the highest light output tubes we could find. Then, we (well, Rich) put them all together. (I photographed.) The trays will sit over heating mats, so we can regulate the soil temperature in the trays. Once the seeds germinate, they’ll need 14-16 hours of daylight, daily. We plugged the five lights into a power strip that is attached to a timer. None of these supplies need to be special-ordered, we picked up all our items on clearance at Home Depot and Walmart. Altogether, it cost about $150, and we’ll use it every year. Best of all, it will hold up to 1,000 seedlings! That's a pretty good investment.

Lights, Camera, Action!
Right now, the seed starting station is set up in our home office, alongside the vermicompost bin. It was a choice between there or our bathroom, but the office stayed warmer. (Yikes!) The seed station definitely adds to that “farm-y” feel. With it right in our faces, we can check on the seedlings often. The shelves fit four trays each, which is great,because we have a lot of seeds to start in the next 11 weeks. We decided to invest in soil blockers to make the seed cells this year. Has anyone used those? We’d like to hear how they worked for others.

We’re sure that this year will be a better start for our seeds and we’ll have a higher germination rate than last year.Seeing the station makes us excited for the changing of the seasons. Now, for those soil blockers!

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

1,000 New Pets

We just added 1,000 new pets to McCollum Orchards! The best part is that they all fit in one box and eat our garbage! As you probably guessed by now, we started a vermicompost part of our overall composting system here on the farm. 

We've got worms, and we know how to use them

Why We Got Worms
Several books we’ve read about organic farming and self sufficiency, like this one we read most recently, suggest using worm castings as part of the compost and fertilizer mixture in the garden or small-scale farm. Worm castings are the by-product after worms eat decomposing stuff. You can make it into worm tea, which is just the castings steeped in water for oxygenation. It becomes a highly potent organic matter additive to soil mixtures, to help plants grow.

Worms stretching out
We are set on improving our composting system this year, and vermicompost is one strategy. We’ll add the worm tea to our compost mix for the vegetable garden and the hopsyard. It’s been proven in vegetable production, but not highlighted for hops, yet. However, we think it will be a good addition because, as we learned from a soil scientist at the Northeast Hop Alliance conference in December, hops need a lot Nitrogen, which generally comes from organic matter being replaced in the soil. A normal fertilizer just wouldn’t do it all. The compost session at the Northeast Organic Farming Association Winter conference in January gave us the kick to do it.

So, when we placed our vegetable and herb seed order this February, we also ordered one pound of worms, which works out to about 1,000 of them. The two kinds typically used in vermicompost are California Red Wigglers and Nightcrawlers. These types are ideally suited for dark environments and live off decomposing organic matter.  We got the California Reds through Victory Seeds in Oregon. Unfortunately, they arrived while we were out of town, so they had to hang out for a couple nights at the town post office. The employees were probably wondering what that compost aroma was.

How To Start a Worm Bin
Worm food and decor
In preparation, Rich constructed this super-easy-to-make, oh I mean, super-technical worm home. He drilled a bunch of holes in the top, bottom and sides of a 20-gallon storage tub. Then, he filled it half way with a mixture of moist soil, a little sand, eggshells, some stale bread, vegetable cuttings and wet, shredded newspapers.  Our worms will now be digesting The Wall Street Journal more than we do. Underneath, we put a seed starter heating mat, so the cold doesn’t make them go dormant, and a tray to catch the worm castings once they start accumulating. Right now, it is set up in our office so we can monitor their settling-in phase.

Once the worms get acclimated, they will start eating more. They eat just about anything organic except meats and fats. (They don’t want to end up looking like caterpillars.) Eventually, they will also start to multiply and we can keep dividing them into new bins to make more compost.

"I helping!"
 Vermicompost may be new to McCollum Orchards, but it is not new to farming. My dad, a retired farmer, raised worms in 1974. He had a sizable operation of 150 4x8-foot worm bins. That’s a lot of newspaper shreds. If ours grow that big, they'll have to get their own office and we’ll have to start getting the New York Times delivered, too!