Thursday, March 14, 2013

Keeping Busy

What Do Farmers Do in the Winter? They Keep Busy

People often ask us, “What do you do in the winter?” After the last squash is sold and the tools are stored, what do we do until next spring?  We get asked this question so many times that we have a short answer and a long answer. The short answer is, “Prepare for next year.” If you want to know how we are preparing this winter to be better farmers, grow the business and restore the property, here is a quick run-down! 
A fresh coat of paint turned a creepy hallway into a bright living space
First (after we exhaled, washed some clothes, cleaned the house, watched a movie and had a beer) we evaluated what went well and what we can improve. We talked with customers about what they liked and what else we could offer.  We did a post-season recap while it was still fresh in our minds. Everything from seed varieties to harvesting methods was discussed. This helped us make a new game plan. (One that includes a lot more Butternut Squash and some new flowers, too!)

Do More Every Year
Then, we plan, plan, plan.  We drew up a planting and harvest schedule spreadsheet for all 50 types of fruits, vegetables and herbs we will grow next season. The plan covers germination, planting, transplanting, cultivating, and harvesting. One new approach we are trying for next season is to map out now a plan for every week of the growing season. Our goal is succession planting, so we have steady harvests of fresh green beans, squash, and lettuce throughout the summer. We will also track how long each task takes. These two tools will help us get even more efficient during the high season. Then, in January, we placed our orders for seed, rhizomes, equipment and fish fertilizer. 
Seed packets all organized for next season
We did a farm business analysis and prepared and filed farm taxes. It is the easiest thing to put off and the most important to get done early in the winter so it does not hang over our heads.  

Re-charge and Renovate
We have fun, too! We reconnect with friends and family and explore some of the great restaurants and bars this area has to offer. We went snow-shoeing and sledding on the property when the weather was right and tried to go outside as much as possible, enjoying the farm’s winter beauty. We also adopted a puppy – an Australian cattle dog/shepard mix – named Ruby – that has us very busy training. 
Fresh snowshoe tracks from an evening hike
There is nothing like the satisfaction of seeing the place come to life with a few repairs and fresh coats of paint. There are so many renovations needed on the old buildings that the list seems never ending. Last winter, the growing project list completely overwhelmed us. This year we made a rule to finish a project before starting a new one. The list is prioritized by farm/house and then indoor/outdoor categories, so we have projects for any weather. This has allowed us to get more accomplished with less stress. Activities like painting hallways, repairing tractors and sharpening tools are prioritized. Big items like building cold storage space and putting up hoop houses are coming soon. Funny thing that when a project gets crossed off this list, a few more get added. That list never goes away!
Fixing a chainsaw on a cold winter's day
Winter is our time for learning. The NOFA-NY WinterConference in January provided a perfect injection of energy and new ideas to get us fired up for the coming season. We also attended workshops and classes through Cornell on everything from cost of production to pest management.

Season by Season
Needless to say winter keeps us busy. But it is a different kind of busy than the long days of summer.  By this time in March, we are itching to be back out in the field. With the first break in the weather, we started pruning the apple orchard with our new pruners. It seems everyone is ready to mark the passage into Spring. Birds start to sing. Geese fly in their V-formations overhead. We feel so lucky that we get to watch the land wake up for another year. 
Who put 'Grow a beard' on the list?

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Growing Garlic in the Orchard

Vampires beware: McCollum Orchards expanded the garlic crop this year!

Last year, we posted about our initial experiments growing garlic.  We planted three varieties in the fall of 2011 and had our first commercial harvest in July 2012.  150 bulbs seemed like a lot at the time, but the resulting large, healthy, storable garlic bulbs convinced us to expand.  So, to commemorate the end of the Twilight teen vampire saga, we planted 1,200 cloves of garlic last November.  
New garlic bed with fresh leaf and straw mulch
In addition to increasing the number of cloves, we also added a few more varieties. Some were from the previous year’s crop and others we added from local sources. Here are the varieties we planted:

Garlic cloves from previous crop
  1. German- hardneck with white skin
  2. Siberian – hardneck with purple skins
  3. Northern White – porcelain
  4. Italian - softneck
  5. Old World Sicilian - softneck
  6. Wild field & Wild forest garlic – mystery and spicy
  7. Lotus (Turban)  - an early harvest variety
Wild Garlic Found on the Farm
While clearing eight acres of overgrown farmland last fall, we discovered two different stands of garlic growing wild on the property. One variety grew in an open field. It had smallish cloves and tasty scapes. The other had large cloves and was found in the overgrown woods near an old burn pile.  A Cornell Cooperative Extension agent thinks it may be an old commercial garlic that got tossed out decades ago and took root near the pile. It was healthy and has a great flavor, so we harvested some to see if we could cultivate it.

Large-Clove wild variety found on farm
Another variety comes from the ‘Old World.’ Kind neighbors shared with us garlic that was originally brought over from Sicily by their parents. They have grown it in their garden ever since. 

How We Grow
Last year, we cut scapes in June and harvested bulbs in July.  We built a drying rack in the old fruit packing shed to cure them for nearly two months.  We had some garlic available at the farm stand that was great for cooking and sold out instantly. The biggest bulbs were stored for re-seeding to build up the crop. Like most vegetable seeds, the bigger cloves will produce bigger bulbs. 
Garlic Harvest 2012
This year, we tilled a 6x100-foot bed in the pear orchard. It was prepped with local slow-release organic chicken manure fertilizer from Kreher’s Poultry Farm.  We planted by hand on a 6” grid with space for a drip irrigation line. Everything was covered with layers of straw and mulched leaves to protect the cloves from frost heave during this winter. We’ll lay drip irrigation line once the ground begins to dry out in May.  Scapes will be cut after summer solstice.  Once the scapes are cut, the plant puts all of its energy into growing the bulb underground. The 2013 garlic crop will be harvested and cured a few weeks later.
Measuring the new bed
Learning by Planting
Learning from last year, we will improve our growing technique for garlic. We will make sure they are properly irrigated this time. They need about an inch of water per week. Last summer we kept waiting for it to rain, but it never did. We will also add more nutrients to the soil in the form of organic slow-release fertilizer.

On the positive side, we chose the right varieties – hardy hardneck – for this climate. We also ordered large seed cloves, resulting in bigger bulbs. Cutting the scapes at the right time caused the bulbs to grow almost three times larger than ones without the scapes removed. Mulching heavily helped protect them in the winter and building a good drying rack for curing helped them store well until re-planting.
The same variety garlic with and without scape
As the birds start returning and the air gets warmer, green garlic shoots can now been seen peaking out of their beds of mulch.  It makes us hungry for all the basil and tomatoes we are planting this spring to combine with our garlic for a delicious summer pesto. It’ll be here before we know it!

It's Springtime!  Here comes the garlic!