On The Farm: Week 3

Last week was another whirlwind of activity on the farm…we did a lot of bed prep which included pulling clumps of vetch and rye, side-forking and raking beds.  We had an awesome tool safety demo that covered not only how to be safe with the tools and each other, but with our bodies when we use them.    We also focused on how to weed and transplant quickly and efficiently without hurting your back.  When you spend lots of time bent over and looking down, your back lets you know it.  I’m a big fan of keeping my back happy, so I paid close attention to this part!

We also began our farm rotations.  There are five areas:

  • Irrigation
  • Propagation
  • Flowers
  • CSA  (Community Supported Agriculture)
  • Market

Students are paired up and assigned a month-long rotation in each area.  The first week of your rotation you are instructed…the following two weeks you run that rotation yourselves, and the final week you teach the next two people coming in to take the rotation over.  The rotations are staggered so that you’re able to do this.  I really appreciate the chance to have to show someone else the ropes – having to teach someone else how to do it really reinforces learning for me.

My rotation for the next month is propagation, and what perfect timing!  There are still plenty of seeds to be sown.  I’ll be spending a LOT of time in the hoophouse, not just filling and planting seed trays, but also watering everything.  In the hoophouse we need to check moisture levels every few hours.  Those seed trays and seedlings really can dry down that quickly on warm days.  We’re in there first thing of the day, last thing of the day, and several times in between, pushing our fingers into the bottom of seed trays and pulling out seedlings to see if the bottoms are moist.

We have had a lot of instruction and discussion about proper watering techniques.  We’ve learned about the importance of avoiding compacting the soil, avoiding creating a “crust,” what levels of “dry down” certain plants like or can handle, and the importance of even, consistent watering.

Every Friday afternoon we have a workshop, and last week’s focus was irrigation.  I found it really helpful to talk about the roles and functions of water, and why plants need water.  Honestly, I was amazed to find out how many jobs water performs for plants, and in how many ways!  It’s pretty incredible.  More on our Irrigation Workshop at the end of this post, but first – some photos.

The farm gets burlap coffee bean bags donated from a local roaster…they make terrific path liners between beds!

Here’s a new row of burlap sacks, ready to keep down weeds and stop the aisles from getting too muddy.

Here’s what they look like after months of use. They do a great job!

A visitor in the hoophouse…wish I knew what it was!

Some radishes harvested and washed for a restaurant order.

Me: “Um, are we going to get the chance to wear that thing at some point?” Instructor: “Oh yes, you definitely will.”   Me:  “Does it come with a pair of rocket boots?”  😉

Another awesome idea – stapling bicycle tire tubes to the finished tabletops to cover sharp wire tips! Lots of bike shops have old tubes that they’d be throwing away otherwise. Handy!

The first bed that we prepped from top to bottom, freshly raked and ready for transplants.

Lining up stakes to see if we raked out our 70 foot row fairly evenly.

Irrigation Workshop

This was the first of many lessons we will have on irrigation.  I loved our discussion about the many functions of water and the roles that it plays with regard to plants and soil.  Here are a few:

  • water sustains biological & chemical activity & mineralization
  • water promotes soil solution and the uptake of nutrients
  • water provides carbohydrate building blocks through photosynthesis
  • water provides plant structure / support within the vascular bundles
  • water promotes maintenance of optimal temperature within the plant
  • water can be used to lower freezing temperature

Through irrigation we’re also learning about soil structure and organic matter and how water is lost (through transpiration, evaporation, capillary action, evapotranspiration, and percolation) as well as environmental factors that can affect evapotranspiration:  light, temperature, wind, humidity, and soil moisture.

There is so much to consider when watering.  I’ve always felt it was a no-brainer in my garden at home, but I’m learning how important good watering decisions and techniques are on the farm.  (the way you water can cause pest / pathogen problems, for example.)

My favorite part of the irrigation workshop was sticking our hands in the soil to test for the “field capacity” of the soil – the extent to which it has reached maximum water capacity.  We reached down to the plant root level and brought up handfuls of soil which we then squeezed, examined, crumbled, and tried to make “ribbons” out of – all to determine at what capacity we thought the soil was (according to a chart.)  There is an ideal moisture level, for example, when you transplant into a bed, etc.

I think we determined this soil sample was in the “75% – 100% Field Capacity” category, due to the way it felt, the way it clumped, the way it broke into large “aggregates” when crumbled, and the fact that we could make a slight “ribbon” by sort of rolling it out with your thumb.

Looks can definitely be deceiving.  There were plenty of beds that looked dry enough on the surface but were plenty moist when you reached down into them.

The surface of this bed looked fairly dry, but squeezing a sample of soil from it revealed it was actually pretty moist – in the 50% – 75% range on the Field Capacity “chart.” We could definitely not make a ribbon with it and it broke into smaller clumps or “aggregates” when crumbled.

The farmers say the spend a lot of time every day just testing the soil this way, all over the farm, to determine how long a particular bed should be watered.

It made me realize I’ve been watering my plants based on what the PLANTS seem to tell me, not on what the SOIL has to say.  Hmm.  A bit of a different story since I grow a lot of my vegetables in containers, but still.   I’m learning a lot about what else to pay attention to, that’s for sure!

On The Farm: Week 2

Week two on the farm was a bit warmer than the first week.  Every Monday morning we do a “Farm Walk” to observe everything and make task lists of the work that needs to be done.  It’s inspired me to try to do some similar weekly assessment / task list in my own garden at home.

At the end of each day on the farm, we do record keeping and make sure that the sowing, irrigation, and harvest logs have all been updated and that any completed tasks are checked off.

While in the hoophouse on our Farm Walk this week, we notice leaf miner damage once again:  (sorry, I’ve forgotten what plant this leaf belonged to!  Chard perhaps?)

white blotchy area indicates leaf miners at work…

This spinach planted in the hoophouse also has a lot of leaf miner damage. We will have to thoroughly wipe each leaf of each plant in this row to hopefully get rid of them and prevent more damage.

I’m really excited to have the chance to learn some basic carpentry skills this year.  It rained on Wednesday, throwing our schedule off a bit, so we worked in the hoophouse.  Half of us pricked out basil…

While Bret & I got to make a propagation table!  First we stapled some hardware cloth to this existing frame to make a sturdier platform to hold seed trays:

this 8′ x 4′ frame will hold a lot of seedling trays. It’s stacked on crates, so it’s easy to move and/or store if need be.

The real treat was when I got to learn how to use a circular saw.  No big deal, really, but  power tools with BLADES do freak me out a little bit, so I was glad to have some supervised instruction!

Bret & I made this 8′ x 3′ frame, including the supports and corner braces.

We then covered it with some metal garden fencing wire using the staple gun.

Here it is filled with seed trays:

the garden fencing creates a surface sturdy enough to lots of trays

There were a few small restaurant orders to fill, so we got a lesson in harvesting last week as well.  Here are some large green onions we pulled, ready to be hosed off, trimmed, and cleaned up.

We got to harvest some flowers for the restaurant as well…

Flowers from sage, cilantro, crimson clover, and batchelor’s buttons

On Friday I got to help out with pH testing.  Every year they test the pH level of each and every bed on the farm.  It was pretty easy with this Rapitest reader.

Of course there was more weeding to do.  For some reason I’m really enjoying weeding on the farm.  (check in with me 4 months from now on that!)  It seems much easier and more pleasant than weeding in my own yard.  Go figure.

We also spent some time discussing special projects.  Time has been allotted into the schedule each week for us to devote some time to a special, independent project of our choice.  We need to make decisions by Wednesday of next week so that we can begin setting up a plan and timeline with the staff.  It’s going to be VERY difficult to choose what to work on.   I had hoped to do something with rainwater harvesting, but unfortunately the roof of the school is set up to drain into the center of the buildings, so we can’t collect water that way.  (Or at least it would be a much larger job than an independent project could pull off.)  We could, however, build a shed or structure that allowed us to harvest water…

I also thought it might be cool to have elementary school kids who come for field trips – perhaps through an art class – select a plant to sketch, draw, paint, or write a poem about – and to auction their artwork off later on at a fundraising event.

Some other ideas that were presented as choices included:

  1. hosting / organizing a community Farm Dinner  fundraiser
  2. working on the Farm’s presentation display and supplies
  3. creating educational signage for plants or for restaurants who use our produce
  4. organizing supplies in the shed and creating a system to make use of vertical space / hanging things
  5. making dibblers – suggestions included old bicycle tires with bolts attached…can be rolled down a row to create regularly spaced holes for seeds, etc.  Lots of opportunities to be creative with this one!
  6. a Farm Photo Exhibit – create a book or documentation of how one bed changes over the season, or of the farm in general…again, lots of ways you could approach this.
  7. social media – working on promoting the farm, creating online events calendars, etc
  8. silk-screening – using plants from the farm to create images for printing on bags and T-shirts, which could then be sold at our Farmer’s Market.  I assume we could use screenprinting presses in the high school for this…not sure.
  9. worm composing – building bins, signs and educational materials, and taking care of the worms, collecting compost tea, etc.
  10. creating value-added products that could then be sold at our Market (salves, oils, maybe even canned food products – sound like we have access to a licensed kitchen!)
  11. building a chicken coop – while BK Farmyards oversees another cooperatively-run chicken coop at different location, they’d like to get chickens here at the Farm as well.  Me too.  🙂
  12. growing mushrooms
  13. working on community outreach and events
  14. creating a poster board of insects and pathogens that are commonly found on the farm –  high school kids might be more inclined to go check out the poster board rather than consult a field book.
  15. build and maintain a kiosk / display case to inform the public about the farm, upcoming events, and how they can get involved.

As you can see, there is no shortage of great ideas!  I don’t know how I’m going to decide.  I think I can safely rule out social media, but there are a lot of things that really interest me:  building a chicken coop, making a dibbler, silk-screening, worm composting, value-added products for the market…I also have a little experience hosting fundraisers, but it might be nice to try something new.  By Wednesday I’ll have to have a plan!

On The Farm: Week 1

Last week was my first week training on the farm! There was a lot of getting acquainted – with each other and with the farm – but that didn’t stop us from jumping in and getting a little dirty.  (Neither did the weather, which was really chilly – thankfully we were able to spend some time in the greenhouse!)

There are 5 of us doing the season-long training, and we will be joined be a couple more people for the summer months.

During our first week we talked about the farm’s growing practices, learned about the history of the land, toured the high school, and got familiar with the layout of the farm.  We also had time to think and write about our own personal goals for the season.

The instructors are very big on safety and on taking care of our bodies…so each day we stretched, usually first thing.    We also had some introductory lessons in soil chemistry, soil structure, and irrigation –  WHY we irrigate and what plants actually DO with water.  We also talked about their methods of record keeping, and had a conversation about food justice and what it means to all of us.

On the work side, we jumped right into propagation and planted some seeds in the hoophouse, transplanted some crops into the ground, did a lot of weeding, and side-forked a bed that needed prepping.  Forgive the photos taken with my phone…still waiting for my camera lens to be replaced!

a row of strawberries, looking huge and already starting to bear tiny fruits! In April!

Collard greens, gone to seed

Starting with the row in the foreground, those are stock (flowers), hairy vetch and rye (cover crop), strawberries, overwintered lettuces and onions

In the hoophouse…I loved this simple work table (a “prop” table – short for propagation) made with hardware cloth – an inexpensive way to make a sturdy work surface.

We also planted lots of onions!

Using an old grill brush to clean off tools after each use – a great habit to get into, and the grill brush is a great idea.

Weeding tools

More weeding tools.  I found the curved tool incredibly helpful for cutting underneath the shallow roots of chickweed, which we weeded in great quantities!

These pink nodule-looking things on the roots of this clover are formed by bacteria and turn nitrogen into nitrate – which plants will then use. We tried not to pull up the clover but rather to turn it into the soil so that it can continue to fix nitrogen.

One of our instructors showing pulling up some beets, which we discovered had evidence of leaf miners on the leaves…

Of all the things I learned last week the thing that probably impressed me the most was how resilient those tiny transplants are!  When showing us how to transplant, our instructor talked about the difference between how you might do things gardening in your backyard vs. how they do them on the farm.  We got a big lesson on speed and efficiency.

She stretched out a measuring tape along the 70 foot row and had us very quickly scratch a mark in the soil every 8 inches.  Then she literally took a tray of 200 kohlrabi transplants, and without even bending over to lessen their blow, walked along the row DROPPING them right onto those marks in the soil as she walked along.  My mouth may actually have dropped open.  To plant them she used 3 motions:  pull soil back, set plant in, push soil up against / over.  Done.

What??  No digging a hole and gingerly placing each plant in it, then gently replacing soil and tamping down?  And dropping the plants onto the ground?

I was not the only one to ask “Won’t they break or get injured??”  In response she told us that even these tiny little transplants are tougher than we think.  Their roots actually need to be loosened a bit, which the dropping/landing takes care of.  As for whether or not they’d break or be injured, she talked about how on a farm this size they really only want plants that are tough – there is not enough time to give extra attention and TLC to plants that need help.  Wow.  Only the strong survive, huh?

I was also shocked that we didn’t really press them into the soil or tamp the soil around them…they seemed to sit loosely in the soil, with just a quick pushing of the soil over their roots.  They were practically lying sideways, as you might be able to see in this photo:

“They’ll grab on,” she said, “Just wait!”  And you know what, she was right.  Just two days later we were back and saw them standing up straight and tall.  They look great, and we got them done VERY quickly following her instructions.  It was pretty freeing to just “walk and drop” the plants, actually.

This was a major lesson in trusting in the resiliency of plants and in not being too precious, as I’m often inclined to do in my own garden!