Miolea Organic Farm

  (Adamstown, Maryland)
Organic Farming from a City Boy's Perspective
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Weeding is a four letter word

We seemed to always take pictures of our vegetable gardens in the spring when they looked clean and weed free.  I find very few pictures of established gardens in late July or August.  This took me all of one second to figure out why.  One word tells it all and conjures up the images that we lacked to capture digitally.  Weeds.

Weeds, is a four letter word on our farm and probably every other farm organic or otherwise.  We have spent more time then I care to admit testing weed suppressants, retardants, defoliants and pre-emergents.  Being organic you really are limited with what you can use but I think we are gaining the upper hand.  We have hands, hoes, heat, spreads and sprays that we use in our arsenal along with some mechanical means. 

The first couple years of growing, the weeds took over like they owned the place.  That first Spring we started with a very small garden but larger than any prior.  We weeded ever day, seven days a week.  Something always needed weeding and we would attend to it.  We never thought that missing a couple of days would doom us but it did.  In June of that first spring I was selected to give a presentation, as part of a seminar, at the Kennedy School of Government.  My thought was three days in Boston and away from weeding can't be too bad.  Besides the stress of the actual presentation everything was fine when I got back to the farm.  We had weeds but it looked manageable.

That Saturday it rained and kept raining until the following Friday.  Did you know that weeds grow in the rain?  Yep, no sun in sight but these things grew and the water helped other weed seeds germinate.   We soon learned that weeding is one of those chores done rain or shine.

Our main garden was under siege, we spent the better part of five days getting the weed pressure down only to put the corn in danger.  At times, we felt like cartoon characters bouncing from one place to another.  It was truly a losing battle in all senses of the words.  Yields were down; we lost complete crops like carrots and melons.  Overall we got a quarter of what we had expected that season.  But true to our mission,  that winter we hit the books and tried to come up with a plan to thwart the beast that stole our nutrients and minerals and made our vegetables puny.

Winter of 2004 we learned of and leaned towards black landscape fabric.  We could put soaker hoses down, lay the black fabric over it and place plants in it.  Thus eliminating light to all weed seeds.  Or so we thought.  At first weed pressure was minimal.  We literly had over 95% of our soils covered with landscape fabric.  We soon found that the wholes we punched in the fabric to plant the seedling was sprouting weeds.  Weed encrouchment from the sides started too.  I quickly learned the following:  once these things catch fire they burn and burn fast!  Two, the fabric will get sucked up and into the mower if you get to close while cutting the grass (see.  Keep your grass short).  By the end of summer we lost out again to the weeds.  It took six people ten hours to clear all the weeds out such that we could pull the fabric up.

We bought a mechanical tiller, one of those small personal tillers.  That lasted one year, it was pretty effective but we've never been able to get it to start again.  I spent time changing plugs, oil etc., but it refuses to work.  It was good between the strawberries and corn rows as long as you didn't hit the corn stalk and could get it started and keep it running.

We had the worst time using straw and newspapers.  Not only did it not work for us it actually added to our weed pressure.  We wasted water wetting the paper and straw only to have it dry out and blow away.  Then we learned about corn gluten as a pre-emergent.  A pre-emergent is a type of process that stops seeds from sprouting.  It stops the emergence of the seed, any seed good or bad. 

In the spring we tilled our production bed and plant seedlings.  The little plants will be in rows and can withstand the broadcasting of corn gluten.  As long as a plant has an established root system, corn gluten is not going to affect it negatively.  Because the corn has a NPK rating of 9-0-0 whatever is around the gluten will get a jolt of nitrogen.  We've been using it with limited success for the past two seasons.

Flame weeding is an easy way of getting rid of weeds but it is not systemic in its application.  The leaves will curl and some plants will die but most plants remain viable due to their root system.  Plants that have rhizomes are one type that comes to mind.  It is best to flame weed after a rain to reduce the spread of an errant flame or burning leaf.  It is always a good idea to have some water handy just in case a silo catches fire or something (see, Are We done Planting).

We have also found a concentrated vinegar and lemon juice mix that works as a topical defoliant.  It doesn't kill the whole plant but it does retard its growth and on a subsequent pass it can kill the plant.  Once again rhizomes will defoliate but you will not get to the tap root.

This year coming up we will focus on cover cropping as weed suppression between rows of vegetables and fruits.  This seems to work pretty well from what we've read and seen.  Our arsenal is vast and our knowledge improved but no matter the outcome Weeds is a four letter word.

Buy Local - From a local farmer not a chain that just uses the word.

p.s. we appologize to all our and every english teacher reading this!



No shucking

Did you know that you are not suppose to shuck corn at a farmers market?  It's one of those unwritten rules.  As soon as an ear is even partially opened, it begins to go to starch.  As a child I remember the Arraber coming around and he would pick the corn for you.  Depending upon where you were on his route you either got thirteen good ears of corn or a mix.  

That's another thing - whatever happened to a baker's dozen?  People seem actually surprised when we give them another ear of corn or put 13 into the bag.  That use to be standard operating procedure.  When the industrial food complex came into the picture you bought the corn pre-packaged or by the ear.  Please don't get me wrong.  We are a capitalistic society which is built around the principle of making money.  I think it's a wonderful idea but my frustration comes in when I see people cutting corners, ignoring safety, using techniques and tactics that are harmful under the guise of the bottom line.  Besides I'm also jealous that I don't make tons of money or even pounds for that matter. 

I know that when twelve people buy a dozen we lose a dozen. But we also sell by the ear and I learned long ago the smaller the quantity for sale the greater revenue.  Meaning, if 72 people each baught two ears of corn revenue would be greater because the per ear cost is higher.  So we look at it as a wash.  The goodwill it generates for our customers and then back to us surpases the pain of losing a dozen.  In the past six years we've lost more than 90 percent of each year's corn crop due to multiple factors.  So we're kind of use to losing corn.

Seven years ago we were selling at a farmers market, and we had corn that was raised organically but was not from organic seed.  It wasn't being sold as organic but it was local and it was picked hours before.  I was working with a customer when I saw an elderly lady go over to the corn and start to shuck the ears.    I looked right and saw my wife looking at her.  I kept talking to and taking care of my customer, but I noticed my wife's body language and non-verbal cues change.  She was getting agitated.

A minute goes by, I'm trying to finish with my customer but he has questions about cooking. Every so often I take a right peripheral view to see how my wife is doing.  At that time, I don't know why, I can't put my finger on it but my wife's reactions are catching my attention.  I follow her gaze and see the woman is still shucking her way through the corn. 

My customer asked about making a zuchinni recipe, we have adapted from "Chef's Illustrated," and I'm telling him about it and describing the nuances.  I feel my wife walking behind me towards the woman shucking corn.

My wife is one of the most intelligent, kindest, caring, level-headed people I've ever met.  She is the conotation of grace under fire and who you'd want to be with when trouble strikes.  But don't shuck the corn at a famer's market in front of her. 

Buy Local- from a farmer not from a chain that advertises "local"

p.s.  no one was hurt in the actual events or the retelling of events.




Corn Battles pt 3

Part 3 of 3

We learned with corn the best sustainable practice is called field rotation.  We let our soils rest for two years after it has been used to grow vegetables.  With cover cropping, planting green manures (grasses and legumes) and letting the chickens graze on them minerals, nutrients and tilth are replenished naturally.  We don't fertilize mostly because of these practices.  The corn, because it is such a heavy feeder, does get organic fertilizer once or twice during the growing season.  Other than that we rely on Mother Nature and the chickens for soil fertility.

We sell more organic fertilizer than we use but it was not always that way.  It has only been since getting the chickens and adding them to the rotational practice that we found soil fertility to be adequate for corn.  This past winter we had the chickens in the garden for over five months.  Once the new rye and hairy vetch came up the chickens were moved in.  We moved them once every two days up and down the length of the garden.  People tell us that our eggs have the best taste, once a customer compared ours to fresh eggs she had while in Italy.  Getting compliments like that is a humbling experience for a city boy.  I always thank our customers for their feedback and point out the chickens did most of the work.  I can't help but think the grasses and legumes are what make the eggs taste like they do.  One day I'll write about garlic eggs.

This year's production garden was tilled and ready for spring planting in March.  This was all good but I was waiting to plant the corn.  We had the garden mapped out and had our seed ready.  This year I kept the seed in the house instead of the barn.  Did you know that mice can tell good corn from not so good corn even when it is dry?  I didn't, so when I went to get my saved seeds from the barn two years ago I found that the yellow corn was mostly left alone.  Not true for the white sugar pearl.  They cleaned the cobs perfectly.  The mice climbed up a metal shelving unit to the top and over the basket that held the corn.  I had to give it to them, determined little (insert cussword of your choice here).

2009 was going to be a different year.  We had seed, a strong chicken wire fence and great soil.  We planted the first batch in April and followed those two weeks later with another planting.  The first started to coming up in nice rows.  The second planting didn't budge, and it didn't budge and didn't budge; after 3 weeks I tilled and replanted.

We weeded, watered, mounded and I watched over like it was gold.  I am proud to say that when the Maryland Small Farm Co-op had its field day at Foxhaven Farm on July 12th we took corn to sell.  Not just any corn but certified organic, white, sugar pearl sweet corn.  I had trouble getting in the truck my head was so big.  The question everyone asked was "Is that yours?" followed up by "How did you do it?"  Man that was a great feeling. We took twenty dozen ears of corn that day and sold every last one. I still have a Cheshire grin going.  We had a customer come up to my wife the following week at the Urbana Farmers Market and told her the corn she bought was the best she had ever tasted.

But being that it is farming, a couple of days later we found that the raccoons had defeated our perimeter defenses.  They cleaned out what was left of the first planting and are now waiting for the second planting to come in.  I got the tractor out and started dumping dirt around the bottom of the fences, and where the fence was old we added new chicken wire and placed posts around to keep the fence up.  So the corn battle still rages, but for one fleeting second my head was too big to fit inside the truck.

Buy Local - from a farmer not a chain store advertising "local."



Corn Battles pt 1

Corn Battles part 1 of 3 


I love eating sweet corn.  A dinner of fried red tomatoes and corn on the cob is what I dream about during the winter months when snow is on the ground or I’m out chopping wood.  So too do our raccoons, in February they sit in their dens with listening devices waiting for us to discuss corn placement during our planning sessions.  I know once we finalize our plans they start on theirs.  We are brighter than the raccoons but they win more times then they loose.

The first time we ever grew sweet corn was in a little plot in our kitchen garden at our old house.  We lived on four acres with 3.9 of it being woods.   It was four rows by six plants; it didn't get enough sun and wasn't pollinated very well. We got one ear of corn out of the entire crop.  But that one ear changed my view of fresh sweet corn for ever.  We did harvest it and I cut it in half for my wife and me to share.  Off the stalk and in the water it was our introduction to really fresh corn.  From that point on it was puppy love.

By 2007 we were getting better at growing corn but we had more to learn about keeping critters out of it long enough for us to harvest.  One thought I had was to plant as much as we could, the rational being the wildlife would eat some and we'd get the rest.  At least at the time it seemed like a reasonable plan.  We planted eighty rows by sixty feet. As it grew we strung over ten thousand feet of electric fencing around it.  I babied it, it was fertilized with 9-0-0, watered, weeded, mounded, I did everything but sleep with it.  

We plant corn in stages, every two weeks we plant another equal size plot of corn.  That way you get corn through out the season instead of all at one time.  It was a hot summer and the corn wasn't coming in strong but it was coming in.  Pollination was a problem in the first batch so we went through shaking the stalks to help with the other plantings.  We watered every seven days but we quickly found we were running out of our rain water barrels.  We have two; each one holds 3,000 gallons of rain water collected off of the barn roof. Even though we were watering it wasn't enough.  Because there wasn't sufficient water the corn growth was stagnant.  When we got water all the corn started to sprout together.  Succession planting went out the window and all the corn started coming in at once. 

It was a Monday; I went out to look at the corn to see if it was close to picking.  I picked a dozen that we ate at dinner that night.  It was good, sweet and tender not all the kernels were full but the taste was good.  We would harvest the rest in four days for Saturday’s market.

The corn was planted in an area that we could not see from the house.  Hence, the 10,000 feet of electric wire around the perimeter. One strand was six inches off the ground; the second was fourteen inches off the ground.  We did this because of a conversation we had with a full-time farmer.

Friday night the same week we took big tubs out to harvest the corn.  There wasn't any.  I mean there wasn't any, none.  Our jaws dropped as we went from row to row and saw clean cobs on the ground.  It was one of the lowest points we've had since we started growing professionally.  We were stunned and dismayed, which then led to depression.  I don't say this lightly.  It was one of the few times we ever contemplated throwing in the towel.  It was a low point.  Not only did we lose a lot of money, we lost confidence in our selves and our ability. 

After a couple of days we regrouped and set about finding out where we failed.  We learned that it was raccoons and groundhogs that did the most severe damage not the deer that I had suspected.  We learned this because of the way the cobs looked, picked clean.  A deer will eat the corn from the top.  These cobs were pulled from the stalk and eaten clean, much like you or I would eat.  That meant it was raccoons and groundhogs.  I called Dave at Nicks Organic and asked him about it.

He asked if I had strung electric fencing like he suggested.  I had and he asked if there was a high spot.  "What's a high spot?" I asked.  He went on to tell me that the wire has to be no higher than six inches off the ground.  A high spot would be anything higher than that.  "No," I replied but I wasn't completely sure.  I inspected the perimeter all 4,800 feet.  To my dismay I found a spot where I had brought the lowest strand of wire up to meet the solar battery.  The gap was less than twelve inches but enough to let them in.

Believe it or not that made me feel better.  At least I could explain and identify were the problem was, had I not been able to do that we probably would have given up on growing corn.  Having identified the problem it renewed my spirit to at least continue next year to fight the corn battles.

Buy Local - from a farmer not a chain store advertising "local"













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