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

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Our First Hop Harvest - A Cascade of Fun

The hop harvest is in!  Saturday, August 25 was our first commercial hop harvest. About 30 people braved the blazing heat to come and harvest a whopping 50 pounds of wet (fresh) Cascade hops!
We teamed up with the fine folks of Community Beer Works - a local nano-brewery - to make the party a success. Along with promoting the event, they brought along a sample of the amazing “Wet Frank,” a rendition of their popular pale ale, wet-hopped with McCollum Orchards’ Centennials harvested a week earlier. Wet Frank debuted at three Buffalo bars Coles', BlueMonk, and Mr. Goodbar.
Packaging loads of hops at McCollum Orchards

We kicked off the harvest party with a tour of the hopsyard and the renovated 100-year-old apple packing shed, where we showed off the dryer and sorting system we recently built. Then, with all eyes on him, Rich climbed a ladder and cut down the first hop bines. Volunteers then took them to the tents and tables in twos, carrying bines between them like a victorious hunting party back from the jungle.  
Getting ready to harvest the first hop bines
Soon, everyone was gathered around long tables set up under tents and harvesting. In no time, full bushel baskets of fresh-picked cones were ready to be sorted. Rich and a smaller group managed the sorting station inside the hop house. They spread the thousands of fragrant, emerald green cones on 3x6-foot burlap-covered screen trays, and cleaned out extraneous stems (called sprigs) and leaves before sliding the trays into the dryer. As an aside, most large, commercial hop merchants require at least 96% “clean” hops from farms. But, our pickers and sorters did such a good job that our harvest was 99.9% clean!
Check out the lupulin inside the dried hop cone
The party was a place for people to get acquainted and have fun around loads of fresh hops.  The crowd was a great mix of homebrewers, hops growers and local Lockportians. We were thrilled that local brewers joined us. In addition to C.B.W., folks from Big Ditch Brewing, Gene McCarthy’s, and Nickel City Brewing came out. Our good friend set up a homebrewing demonstration with fresh (wet) hops that had just been picked.
Pouring the Brew
 Our friend, and top-notch wine and beer writer for New York Cork Report, Julia, posted a superb write-up about the harvest. (And here's C.B.W.'s write-up, too.) The harvest was the culmination of over a year and a half of hard work and problem-solving to grow the hops into healthy bines. Seeing her report and everyone’s photos of brewing with McCollum Orchards’ wet hops was, in a word, awesome.

Getting to harvest them and see them put to good use in local brews made the whole endeavor come full circle. I’ll leave you with this image. As you turned in a circle, you could see the hopsyard, the harvest under the tents, the sorters and drying, the homebrew demo and a finished keg being enjoyed. Now, that’s a “farm to table” event – something only local producers can achieve together.
Results of a very good day
At the end of the looong day, a full seven pounds of fresh hops went home with local homebrewers…and 43 pounds went into the dryer! A week later, we packaged and stored 11 pounds of dried Cascade hops. They, along with our Nuggets and Centennials, are available at the farmstand on Wednesdays and Saturdays, and maybe more locations soon. We cannot believe the harvest is nearly over this year. We are already thinking up ideas to make next year’s harvest party even better. A big, huge, hoppy thank you to everyone who made our first harvest a success!