Miolea Organic Farm

  (Adamstown, Maryland)
Organic Farming from a City Boy's Perspective
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Damn learning curve

Farming for profit, has there ever been a greater oxymoron?  Okay, maybe humane slaughter is bigger.  At least from the small farmer's stand point, when more than seventy-five percent of all small farms in the nation, bring in fewer than ten-thousand dollars a year, of farm income, I ask can there be true economic sustainability in small farming. 

This year we changed our business model in that we are concentrating our selling on only high dollar produce and fruits.  We are still selling mainly on farm but have joined a market in the city.  We are hoping that by cutting back on different varieties and concentrating on a few things we can turn profitable.  Because of our size, we cannot grow, as much so consequently we do not have a large variety.  I want to be a successful grower, but we need to make a profit.  Selling only what we grow is hard because we do not have a bevy of different fruits and vegetables, so variety is not going to be our strong point.  

What we will have this year is strawberries, blueberries and sweet corn.  These crops sell for a premium and there is great demand.  We will be able to conserve the 12,000 gallons of collected rainwater because we will not have so many different plants to water.  Our organic chicken meat has not taken off as we hoped but this is only the third year.  We have increased our layer flock to 120 layers.  We are selling most of our eggs directly to Dawson's Market in Rockville.  Dawson's does not put them out on the shelves.  Instead, they call customers to let them know the eggs have been delivered.  We continue to expand the layers (we have 50 more day olds started) striving to get to where we deliver more dozens so we can make it onto the store's shelves.

Being a small enterprise has great disadvantages, especially, when we go up against the bigger growers and grower associations.  We did not take on this farm without knowing the physical, mental, emotional and economic sacrifice and that failure was more likely then success.  We are going back to the model that first made us money and that is by growing a few things and concentrating on value added products.   

We knew going into this that it was not going to be easy.  What we were not prepared for was all the different ways your heart breaks.  We lost another layer last night.  It was stuck under the trailer.  I had moved the house in the morning before I let the layers out.  I was tilling and I noticed the trailer looked low in the back.  I knew I did not crank the front back down after I moved the tractor away from the ball.  I saw it and made a mental note to lower the front of the trailer when I was done tilling.

Well the day got away and I did not lower the front.  Sunset comes and I go out to put the layers away for the night and that is when I found one under the backend of the trailer.  I can only surmise that it was stuck and died of a heart attack.  I took her over to the compost pile and as we have done with every other body, returned her to the earth that helped nourish her in her brief existence. 

I take it personally, you are not supposed to, you are supposed to let it roll off but I don't.  I know I am too attached at times to see the forest for the trees but that will not change.  As long as they are in my care, I will always take my mistakes hard and demand a greater awareness.  Five years we have been working with layers.  I thought I had been exposed to all the perils of layer life, yet here I am still in this damn learning curve.

BUY LOCAL: Do your family justice, find a local farm, ask questions and then support it if it feels right.  If you do not get straight answers, it is probably because they are hucksters not growers.  

 

 
 

Planting Seeds

We started planting the spring garden, growing lettuces, kale, and chard and of course, the strawberries.  We have been doing research for the past year to determine if anyone in the state of Maryland opened an organic pick your own strawberry patch.  We know of organic pick your own vegetables, but we have not found strawberry in particular.  We checked with the Maryland Department of Agriculture, well-established organic farmers in the state and news articles from the past two decades.  We have not found any, so I believe we are going to be the first in the state to do so.    

We are using landscape fabric this year even though I viewed a webinar on yield differences between fabric and cover cropping for weed suppression.  It turns out cover cropping increases the yield of corn, tomatoes and other vegetables.  The scientist went on to explain the chemical reaction that takes place causing the increase.  We had already committed to landscape fabric so we will store that knowledge for the future.      

After the planting comes weeding, watering and watching, the three w's of organic growing and producing.  Weeding is broken into the three H's: hoeing, hands, heat and spraying.  Okay spraying does not fit but we do control weeds by spraying concentrated vinegar, lemon juice, clove oil and lecithin.  The spray has a pleasant fragrance that I like but is not for everyone.  You can only use the spray if it is above seventy-five degrees and it is not going to rain for awhile nor should it have rained for awhile, which doesn't make it the most ideal weed control but we use it when we can.

My most favorite way to weed is heat.  The heat is easier than the other methods but it does have its drawbacks, I may have gotten a reputation for starting fires but it is not on purpose and I am very careful despite what my wife says.  I did set an old abandoned concrete silo on fire once, by mistake.  Let me explain before you determine my culpability.

The silo was made of concrete block, had no roof, and was loaded with old wood from the previous owners.  My weeding tool is a propane tank with a hose and torch attached.  You turn it on, rub the flint for a spark and you have about 25,000 BTU to kill weeds.  I had been using the torch for over a year before the day the silo caught fire and I was pretty successful not burning things down, with the except of weeds and maybe carrots.  I knew the silo was loaded with wood and in essence, it was a tinderbox, so I was careful whenever I was around it with the flame. 

It was late in a long day of work and I wanted to get the weeding done; I started around the silo then went around the barn and to the grape vines.  From the grape vines, I went to the production garden and started doing the perimeter.  Out of the corner of my eye, I see my wife running towards the silo.  I knew immediately why she was running; I turned to see flames licking out of the top of the silo.  When I got closer, I could hear popping sounds and then clinks on the tin roof of the barn.  The cement covering from inside the silo was heating up and exploding out hitting the roof.  I took everything off and went to the barn to get the water pump.  I pulled the pump out hooked up the hoses to the water tank and pulled to start the pump engine.  Of course, it does not start.  After three pulls, it coughs to life and water starts to come out.  Once the water was flowing, I was able to cool the fire down and eventually put the fire out.  It took about eight-hundred gallons of rainwater to accomplish that feat but we did get it out.    

My wife was standing there eyes wide open, heart pounding and shell shocked.  What could I say, I had a torch, the silo caught fire and I was in the area, there was no wiggle room, none.  I think we were both in shock at the time so we put the pump and hoses back, and we stopped for the day.  I look back and see how lucky we were, how things fell into place, the pump worked and we actually had water in the collection tank.  Any one of those things not happening and we might have lost the barn.  I still weed with heat but my wife prefers the hoe and hand method best.  I can laugh about it, my wife is to the point were she can grin and shake her head but not quite laugh.   

 Buy Local: But, make sure your farmer is actually growing what they are selling

 

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Who is Smarter

Fer coadee (Scottish for "protector") is sixteen weeks old.  We have her three days and four nights out of the week and Carol (the breeder/trainer) keeps her four days and three nights.  She is still a pup but shows great promise.

We have been working her with the chickens and she slowly understands that the chickens should stay in the pen.  One night we were putting the chickens in the trailer for the night and Coadee, seeing what we were doing, decided she could help.  She ended up herding the chickens into the house with nary an effort.  That part was effortless. No training, no nothing she saw we were putting them in the house and she went with it.

She helps weed too.  At least I am learning what dog weeding is verses human weeding.  While weeding the strawberries, I will pull chickweed and Coadee goes for the green.  She has bitten me on occasion while weeding but I get into a rhythm of pulling and throwing.  Coadee will chase after the clump of weeds bite them and come charging back.  I hope that I have gotten the next handful thrown before she does indeed get back.  If not, I ball my fingers up as she comes plowing mouth first into the greenery where my hand resides.  With a jerk of her head, she rips green out of the ground by the mouth full.  If strawberries happened to be part of the green patch, they go as well.  This is part of her instinct; she wants to help her master.  The veterinarian told us to make sure we take care of her because her breed will literally work them self to death trying to please their owner. 

The English Sheppard is a protector, herder and hunter by instinct.  They came to the new world with Scottish and English sheepherders.  The dog’s ability and intuition made them a valuable asset to animal farmers.  They instinctively want to be part of the action, so she watches what you are doing and tries to help.  If I get a stick and throw it, she sits and watches the wood take flight and land.  She does not chase it, but if I go get it, she grabs it from me and follows along as I walk.  Coadee trots along stick between her jaws teaching me how things work.  I was getting water hoses out of the barn, I felt a tug so I turned to see what I was hung up on and there is Coadee, hose dangling out of her mouth going in the opposite direction.  I apparently was taking them to the wrong place for her.

This past weekend the chickens started to show signs of respect.  As soon as Coadee comes out of the barn, the chickens that see her start to head back to the pen.  Some layers just jump back in when they see Coadee.  They are in the minority but it is a start.  She is still nipping at them and we yell “don’t bite or no bite”.  Then at other times, she just lays her big paw on the back of a chicken until we get there to pick it up and put it back in the pen.

She gets excited still when meeting new people so we try to introduce her to people while she is outside.  I took her with me, over to Nick’s when I picked up chicken feed.  I knew Dave (the farm manager) would like to see the dog.  I did not get her out of the truck fast enough before Dave walked over to the passenger side.  True to form, she got excited and I saw that the cloth seat was now soaked.  I am learning.

Coadee is in that oral stage of development as well.  Everything goes in the mouth at least once.  Stink bugs she learned and leaves them alone much to my dismay.  Wood, rocks, bark, bottles, hoses, chickens anything that you hold, anything that you wear, anything that you use or sit on, pretty much everything is something for her to sink her teeth into.  Nevertheless, she is also an asset.  I will be in the barn feeding the flock of broilers, if Coadee were not standing guard at the gate, they would leave and be all over the barn.  I bring her in the barn and have her sit by the gate.  I then go in to feed and water the group.  She has taught me that her patience is very short, especially when a group of birds approaches.

She still does not bite them but she does make the feathers fly.  By the time, I get her stopped, you can hardly see due to the dust-up from frantic escapes and chases.  So, I learn once more.  I shake my head and think who the teacher here is?  I was sitting with her in the morning watching the chickens.  When a chicken approached the fence I would get up and bring Coadee over, the chicken would turn around heading in the opposite direction.  This went on all morning.  The ones that actually got out Coadee chased down and I tried to teach her how to herd a chicken back into the pen.  This went on all morning; lunchtime I went in made a sandwich, wrapped it in a paper towel, filled a bottle of water and went outside. 

In that short period a jailbreak took place with the birds heading for the grapevines.  As the layers saw Coadee, they ran into the open barn.  I put my sandwich down on the chair, covered it with reading material and took Coadee with me to the barn.  We go in and Coadee starts after one, chasing her out of the barn and towards the pen and trailer.  A couple of seconds later I am chasing one out of the barn front to the pen.  I look to my left and there is Coadee sitting in the shade eating my sandwich.  She is in the shade eating a freshly made sandwich and I am standing in the blazing sun chasing a chicken.

Then there was the time I was working with her and it started raining.  I had my rain-gear on and kept working pulling weeds.  I soon notice that I was alone, I saw Coadee heading towards the barn so I knew she was there.  I thought okay, she is going in to check things out, get some water or food and she will be back.  Ten, twenty, thirty minutes go by; I am still out side weeding in the rain.  I stopped and walked into the barn, over on the side in a pile of straw is Coadee, sleeping. 

 I sighed, looking at her stretch out frame and that beautiful face of hers and thought who was the smarter of the two of us, the one working in the rain or the one sleeping inside nice and dry.

 Buy Local: Local farmers toil for their families, for your family and the environment.  Who would not want to support that?

 

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Slow Starts

We have to tear down the high tunnel and get four hundred strawberry plants in the ground, then fifty plus blue berry bushes and then half-acre of lettuces and another half-acre of potatoes planted.  We had hoped to have half of the lettuces and some tomatoes already planted in the tunnel but when the tunnel came down everything stopped.  We were getting ready to plant inside the following week.  The Tuesday before planting it snowed, which in and of itself was not bad.  The fact that it caved the roof in was.

We now have a four ton twisted mess of steel to safely disassemble and pack into a roll-off trailer.  The operative word is “safe” given the different stress and tension points in the structure.  The high-tunnel was put together like an erector set.  There are thousands of bolts, nuts and screws to un-tighten.  However, there is the inherent danger of someone getting hurt if we are not careful when working around steal that has stress pressure.

Much like bucking a tree and cutting it up, you have to be aware of what part of the tree is under tension and where that tension is coming from.  Is tension coming from the top or tension pushing up from the bottom?  The way to cut each type depends on knowledge and the will to live a long life.  While cutting you can bind the saw or worse have the force of the wood under tension released towards you.  Basically, hurting or killing you, I do not know of any other options when that occurs.

Given the fact that we have to plant spring crops, we will have to split the crews with two planting and three tearing down.  I need to till the area for planting, at night, draw up the plant location and turn our most senior worker loose with her own help, while the rest of us safely bring down four ton of twisted metal and cut it up to fit in the roll-off bin.  The goal is to minimize air space and fill the bin, as tightly as possible with metal.  

At this time, you are probably thinking about insurance and if it was covered or not.  Yes, it is covered, they sent out the adjuster, and then a structural engineer and now the go-ahead to start de-construction has come.  No matter, we will suffer a loss because we insured the thing for less then it cost us to put up.  Do not ask I would just come out looking bad in the end if I answered.

If you have read our exploits, you know deconstruction is my forte.  Nevertheless, to do this crushes dreams we had.  I mean we were really looking forward to using the high tunnel to get the first tomatoes, or corn, strawberries and other crops earlier.  We were eating fresh Maryland tomatoes in  December so, we know what is was like to extend the growing season.  When the structure came down it brought with it a lot of plans and things we wanted to test.  Tomatoe for instance and rain.

My hypothesis is that acid rain would leave chemical residues on tomatoes and leaves outside (duh!), while tomatoes, using drip irrigation in the high tunnel would not.  The true evaluation for me would have been what is in the tomato itself.  What I really wanted to know is when compared do the tomatoes themselves have any levels of chemicals in them.  If so, what kind and how do the levels compare from the control group to the experimental group. 

The control group gets overhead watering naturally (outside) while drip irrigation at the base of the experimental plant (inside), comes from one of our four three-thousand gallon rain collection barrels.  At least that was the original test plan.  For now, we will table the idea and get to it at another time.  In the mean time:

Buy Local:  Food is life sustaining and growing is sustaining life.

 

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Low Points

I saw my obituary the other day on-line.  The obituary was for a person with the exact same name, born 4 days before me but lived in a different state.  I thought it was par for the course given what we have gone through this past season.  What a difference a year makes.  I look at what I wrote last year at this time and it could not be polar opposites. 

I face this spring with the lowest energy level I have ever had.  I know in part because of how bad things were last year with the stinkbug.  However, that was just the start, the list continues from there.  The grass mower will not start, we have lost four more layers bringing the total since December to ten, the wood splitter engine gave up, the snow thrower picked up a large rock and bent the fly wheel, oh yeah, and a week before we were to plant in the high tunnel it collapsed into itself.  Those were just the most costly of things to go wrong.

I am trying to pull myself out and get that sparkle back.  I know I am supposed to take the hits and keep going.  That is the thought I cling to as I face the coming spring.  It just bothers me though.  My instinct is to get right back up when knocked down.  I do that, but it seems that it is taking me longer and that I am slower when doing so.

In the past, I could tell you what we grew good versus what did not grow so well.  I could take orders and know in spring that we would be able to fill those orders; it is the same with the summer months.  Before last year, we were known for Roma tomatoes.  We would sell over a thousand pounds a year.  I know it is not much but we expand the amount we grow every year. We lost ninety percent of our tomatoes.

I had just gotten growing organic sweet corn down when our entire crop fell to the BMSB.  The year before (read Corn Battles), we celebrated the fact that I had finally been successful.  With perseverance, everything fell into place and we produced the sweetest corn we had ever had.

So, I soldier on, I hold my little pity parties and boo-who meetings then I go do something and try to make sure I do not break anything.  Everything I have touched over this past winter has broken.  I am not exaggerating.  You read the list and it was not even complete.  

I know I will come out of this.  The minute I start turning the earth and planting cover crops the sooner I will get back into the rhythm of nature, growing food and providing my community the best I can.  James Carvel once said, “Next to love the greatest gift someone can give is their labor” and I truly believe that.

This is a low point but that is how growing and farming is.  You have ups and downs, but you try to even things out.  Besides, “nothing in this world is impossible to a willing heart”.  I tell myself this is just a low point and to even it out and keep going.  We are making changes due to the BMSB to counter-act their damage.  Hard choices and decisions are required in order to turn that corner.  We have plans to change our business model.  Plans that should help us turn the corner and avoid the cliff.  Time will tell.  In the mean time,

Buy Local:  Do not under-estimate the difference you can make.

 

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