Miolea Organic Farm

  (Adamstown, Maryland)
Organic Farming from a City Boy's Perspective
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One season ends another begins

I count myself fortunate to be able to experience the change in seasons.  Not that there is anything wrong with living in a mono-climate but, a change in seasons thrusts you into changing or makes a difference that has you either looking forward to the coming weather or mourning the passing of your favorite season.  I love to grow fruits and vegetables but my window of growing is limited.  Now we may be able to keep growing through the fall and winter.  Thanks to a research grant funded by the USDA through the National Conservation Resource Services (NRCS).  That is the good news. 

The fact that the High Tunnel cost us three times more to install (we had to pick up that tab) but it was built on top of some of the worst ground on the property making that factoid icing on the cake.

We got the soil test back and it just confirmed what we had guessed.  Even having come from the city I could still tell what good soil looked like.  I played baseball on many of the city's fields.  There were some that where lush and green with soft spongy soil, while others would be hardpan, infield and out.  The soil in the high tunnel is bad and lacking in minerals and what is known as tilth (in essence fluffiness of the soil), it is low in PH and micronutrients and it is mostly sand and clay on probably fifty percent of the entire inside of the 96x35 foot print. 

In July, we had planted some of the cherry tomatoes inside the tunnel once it was finished.  They have turned out to be hardy plants.  We had to feed them organic fertilizer because the soil was so bad and then watered them periodically.  Periodically, in this case, meant that the plants where forgotten and watered incidentally. 

To my surprise, after forgetting about them longer than usual, I walked inside the tunnel expecting crispy critters and found them alive but stunted.  They were about a foot and a half-tall, straight stem with small leaves.  Two plants actually had small cherry tomatoes on them.  We have since watered them more frequently and gave them another side dressing of fertilizer.  They are still growing but growing slowly.  In the mean time, we are hauling in topsoil from around the farm and will take the compost pile and spread that throughout the tunnel.

Next comes planting seventy-five percent of the high-tunnel footprint in Hairy-Vetch and Winter Rye and then setting up the irrigation (we have decided on overhead sprinkler for this year).  Once the grasses are established, we would turn the chickens loose and let them work their magic on the soil.  We had to get a special exemption for this but the Natural Resources agent actually liked the idea, especially after showing him the sandstone that was in the south-west end of the tunnel.  The cherry tomatoes are not growing like any tomato that I have ever grown.  They are all one stalk towering straight up. 

We planted the same kind outside and they grew nothing like these are growing.  I know neglect, bad soil and lack of moisture has everything to do with it and is interesting to see how the plant is adapting to such a bad environment.  It is going to be interesting watching these things grow into the winter and see how far they get before the chill really gets to them.  We will also get a feel for how efficient the high tunnel is at keeping the tomatoes living late into the season.  We have since planted spinach to also keep track off and experiment with. 

In the mean time, we have some serious work to do before we can plant anything of substance in the tunnel.  The PH needs will be raised to get it to at least 6.0 if not 6.5 and to do that we have to add lime and in this case water.  The micronutrients concern me more and that is where we need to focus our efforts.  Being organic has its limitations and it takes time to bring soils back to a healthy state, naturally, so we know that we will be using fertilizer in the short term.  We need to meet the requirements of the program so there is some pressures to do something other than grow grass.

For nutrient rich soil we have found that we really need at least two years of planting cover crops, chickens, tilling, planting cover crops, chickens and so on, for at least four times in those two years.  Our chickens are moved to new rye and vetch when their occupied ground has been devastated.  Really, devastated, has the wrong connotation in this case.  What the flock leaves is a fluffy, nutrient rich little specimen of Mother Earth; the soil is aerated and devoid of insects, weeds and grasses.  There is this cyclical event with putting on nitrogen fixing grasses and keeping chickens concentrated in order to maximize their own nutrient potential.  At least two out of three flocks stay inside their fences, which helps us with our nutrient calculations. 

I am hoping that we can take flock three inside the high tunnel and keep them there in a feeble attempt at breaking their free roaming ways.  So I get to grow into the winter.  After this terrible season with the drought, marmarated brown stink bugs and high heat level it might actually be enjoyable to see how things turn out.  We will have to see.  In the mean time,  

 Buy Local: Emeril does.















This is no easy project!

We applied for a USDA research grant through NRCS (Natural Resource Conservation Service) to evaluate high tunnels.  The research entails reporting to the USDA what and how much we plant, amendments used on the soil and what our yields are, each year for three years.  We have read about high tunnels, their limitations as well as benefits so this gives us a leg up.  Because we are new farmers (under ten years of farming), we qualified for a 90/10 split on costs.

We received word that our application was accepted and that we would be in the first round of funding.  Theoretically, it was a 90/10 split in costs.  Actually after everything is said and done, it will be about a 70/30 split which still isn't bad but we are absorbing the greater of the two numbers.  What is bad is that these things are sold as being easy to set up.  I swear, we were told it could go up in a week and just about, anybody could build them.

Now, I have documented on these pages what skills I have when it comes to building (see, Why I Should Stick to Growing).  Nevertheless, this was an opportunity that seemed to good to pass up.  First great thing we did was call the general contractor that worked on our house.  In order to budget we had to find out his costs.  He gave us a period where he would have a window to fit the project in.  He said he needed to add another person and that would be an additional cost to the one already quoted.

Here is where the first major mistake took place.  I decided that I had the ability to follow orders and could quickly learn what needed to be done in order to   a.)  Help, b.)  Not be a hindrance and c.)  Learn how this thing was constructed for future reference.  The second major mistake was when Bob, the contractor, decided to use me as his help.

From the beginning, things were hard, starting right out of the gate with the delivery.  I knew it was coming in a tractor-trailer and that eighteen-wheelers cannot make it up to our barn.  Fortunately, there is an area in front of the driveway were we can accept deliveries like 3,000 gallon black water tanks and high tunnels the size of a football field.  The day the tunnel arrived, I was prepared to take delivery.  The driver gets out of his truck looks at my tractor with pallet forks and says, "You going to use that to carry this thing?”  "Well, yes I do or thought I was".  He asks, "Do you know what this thing is?”  I wondered, does he often have customers that order things without knowing what they are getting, sort of the adult version of grab bags? 

"Yes," I answered "Of course", while my anxiety is hitting new highs; he is opening the back door.  I guess I forgot to mention the high tunnel is 12x35x96.  I do have a small tractor, a John Deere, and it is a workhorse.  Slowly but surely we got the thing off the truck, piece by piece.  Now the tractor almost tipped over a couple of times but it was brief seconds of terror interspersed with sighs of relief.

It took me all of three hours to unload the truck and move the pieces up to the staging area.  Add another four hours to unpack and inventory everything except for the missing parts.  They would come later on after a phone call to the company.  Bob told me when he would be available and I took off work for that week.  The company told us, it would take about a week to put up.  I forgot to ask if that estimate was metric or decimal, I remember a NASA mistake like that once. 

We were basing the work estimate and people needed on the information from the company.  DO NOT BELIEVE THEM.  IT IS NOT EASY TO PUT UP AND YOU NEED MORE THAN TWO PEOPLE.  I will not go into details mainly because of heat stress related reasons and I forgot allot of what went on that first week.  Temperatures ranged from 85-96 degrees with heat indexes rising as high as 110 degrees. 

I do remember drinking a gallon and a half of water each day, being too tired at the end of the day to do anything other then shower, drink water and sit in front of a running fan.  I remember day four, it was 96 degrees and we were drinking water every half hour.  We were digging wholes were the motorized post whole digger would not sink into the ground.  In that, 35x96 foot print the soil ranged the whole spectrum of grades.  You name it we ran into it, sand, clay, loam, silt.  We hit sand stone.  When you would hit the sand stone with the digging bar, it had the timber of hitting cement. 

We quit at 2:30 that day.  I went in the house and sat in the shade on the front porch.  I had a big jug of water and I started noticing that my vision was getting hazy and I had stopped sweating.  I realized these to be signs of heat stress so I headed up to the shower to get a nice cold drenching.  I took a prolonged shower and started feeling refreshed.  I got dressed and went down stairs to sit in front of a fan.  The house is air-conditioned but that was not enough.  Before I got down the stairs, my muscles started cramping all over my body, my legs, my fingers, my stomach muscles and back.  Because of various reasons, we have a bunch of those blue ice packs in the freezer.  I was placing ice packs and ice jugs all over my body and forcing water down my gullet.   

I kept ice on my body and kept drinking water.  Had I gone to the emergency room that was all they were going to do so I saved my self the trip.  Slowly the muscle spasms abated, my vision got better and I started going to the bathroom.  All good signs, so I just kept up with what I was doing.  When my wife got home, she asked how things went and as I was explaining, she asked, "What is wrong with your voice?"  I was tired, my energy was at a low point, and I told her so.  Last thing I needed was for her to know I was suffering heat stress.  There probably would have been an over-reaction and she would not have let me out to play the next day.

"What are all the ice packs for?"  She is observant, "muscle ache.”  I said.  She was okay with that answer and she went on to change clothes and take care of the chickens.  I was no good, usually I work two hours a day on farm related activities, after getting off work but I could not do it.  Once I was inside that was it, I was getting ready to go to bed.  Time of day did not matter getting my energy back for the next’s day work was the point.  My wife said that she has never seen me sleep as I did that first week.  I do not know that for real I was sleeping, so I could not tell.

Well, one week stretched into two.  I worked the weekend to catch up on the farm stuff.  By the second week I had to go back to work on Thursday.  Monday was Memorial Day, so I had that off and did more farm work.  I worked with Bob on Tuesday and Wednesday.  I was never so glad to get back to my real job, as I was in my entire life.  I do not see how people in the construction trade do it.  I thought for as hard as I work growing for six months and during the cold months cutting down dead trees and splitting them for firewood that I could keep up.  I was close but I was wrong.  I have always had respect for people in the trades especially those craftsmen that take pride in their work, like Bob.  It was great working for him and I did not want to let him down but in the end, I had to give it to him.  I was ready to go back to work and glad for it.

The high tunnel is completed and we have planted tomatoes in it to see how far into the winter they last.  We are going to try to grow throughout the winter so it should be interesting.  I know this thing is going to be great!  How do I know this?  Because, nothing good ever came from something easy and this was no easy project!

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