Agropraxis Farm

  (Scotts, Michigan)
A Ultra-Low Carbon input farm using Eco-Bio methods.
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It's COOOOOLD!

The temperature bottomed out at -17 overnight. Whoa, it’s cold. I spent a couple of hours outside yesterday clearing snow and doing little chores like filling bird feeders. The cold really drained the energy out of me. Given time I’m sure I’d adapt. The weather forecaster said this is the coldest weather in nearly 2 decades. We have plenty of winter in Michigan, but with the big Lake nearby to moderate extremes we rarely get below zero. The storm that preceded the cold dumped a bit over 14” of snow for us to enjoy. Kids are home, everything is closed, and I have plenty of food and books. So we are in winter-joy mode…

 

The cold presents few problems for the farm at this time. The snow that blanketed everything before the frigid temperatures arrived, is insulating the perennials and ground. Last year we had bare ground for much of the winter, or only light snow covering. When the deer roamed through the fields they snacked on the strawberry foliage. It’s a bit protected now. Old farmers always commented that the snow was a form of fertilizer reducing what had to be added…I’m sure the minor ash and mineral content of snow can contribute a bit. I would speculate that the insulating effect of the snow on the soil, with increased microbial activity and the higher relative temperatures would have more impact than the snow’s contribution. A gain regardless!

 

In the days leading up to the storm I took time to move some stored food and seed potatoes to better  locations. I generally store in our unheated garage over the winter months. Experience taught me that sustained cold under 8 degrees would result in sub-freezing temperatures in the garage. All of the seed potatoes were moved to an insulated enclosure. Carrots, leeks, onions, parsnips, potatoes, celeriac, celery and other stored foods needed place to survive so they were moved to market coolers and similar protective enclosures. So-far-so-good!

 

Ever find something misplaced when doing another chore. As I was moving the stored items around I came across a bag of garlic that had been missing. I had been wondering why we were running low. The worst feeling of having to buy garlic had come over me. I found the garlic in a box of stored potatoes. Now we have what is needed to get to early June when the scapes will be harvested. I guess the bag was dumped in after market one week….

Farmer Pete

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Resolved...

It is the time of year to reflect and resolve. Reflecting I do as a matter of habit. Resolutions are rarely made since they are rarely successful. Regardless, this year I have in mind a principle of continuous farm improvement. I think making the effort to consciously work to offer better product for shareholders and customers and improve the farms soil, resources and resiliency will benefit us in the future. Good work for the new year…

 

Decades ago I learned the basic mechanics of prepping, planting, fostering and harvesting the produce of garden plants. With time a broader knowledge supported the development of CSA and Market farming.  I am astounded by the amount learned, but also humbled by all I still don’t know. The continued practice and learning about growing food plants is what I resolve to spend energy on this year. The more I learn the more I realize how much I don’t know.  

 

Happy New Year!

Farmer Pete

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Caribbean Break

We recently returned from a much needed vacation cruise in the eastern Caribbean. Stepping out of the airport upon return I received an embrace of icy cold that arrived during our time away. I reluctantly returned to the responsibilities and cold weather. The end of the first vacation in a couple of years, a reward for my wife’s hard work in her business, was hard to accept.

Our trip included time spent at farmers markets, talking to farmers and eating local foods throughout our travels. We spent time in Old San Juan Puerto Rico before becoming a time captive on the boat. A meal at respected restaurant, El Fondo El Jibarrito introduced us to Puerto Rican food. More savory and rich rather than fiery we enjoyed the complex flavors. Dinners came with hot sauce and condiments to add, similar to southern fare.We ate Arroz con Gandules, pork, seafood, yucca and plantains all prepared to local tastes. Add rum and enjoy…rum seems to go with everything. A pleasant surprise was the Puerto Rican coffee. Locals make a habit of enjoying their coffee and the coffee shops are always jammed. The locally grown, hand-picked and roasted coffee is flavorful and rich with complex flavors and a fruity characteristic.  It reminded me of similar care that went into a favorite Kona coffee.  A great introduction to Puerto Rico and the Caribbean.

 

We visited a fabulous Farmers Market: http://www.mercadoagricolanatural.com/                               Finding the market was a bit of a challenge. Three public servants gave bad directions (HaHaHa!!! Same as at home!) but we located the market when a shopper with a produce bag loaded with market goodies pointed us in the right direction. The market was impacted by three days of stormy weather. The farmers had trouble bringing to market all that they may have wanted. Produce, crafts and food was all exceptional. We had lunch and talked with kindred spirits before leaving to board the boat.

 

The boat cruised at night and dumped those who wanted to visit islands at ports in the morning. We stopped at St. Croix, St. Kitts, Dominica, Grenada, and St. Thomas. Each port had a veneer for when the boats docked. Getting a fair view of life on the islands was a bit complicated. We found the “winter climate” fabulous. The whole region was humid, and the temperatures only drifted between lows and highs of 75-85 degrees. It did rain and we were told it can rain anytime. The rain was intermittent and warm so it never stopped us from enjoying our time on the islands. We had time away from the port towns on several stops. Hiking, snorkeling and kayaking made for memorable days.  

 

Purchased meals were in local restaurants. You can eat at chains like KFC or Chinese restaurants in the ports. Recent immigrants like the chinese have impacted local economies and food markets. They now have asian vegetables that adds to the traditional produce. Produce markets are open most weekdays, and people shop frequently. Refrigeration is less prevalent so foods are purchased, fixed and consumed a bit differently than we are accustomed to. The grocery stores have cheese and milk products in cans or aseptic boxes in the middle of the aisles. Cold pop was $2.00. We enjoyed the local grapefruit soda, Ting. Not like anything at home, it was less sweet and very refreshing.

 

The restaurants fix a plate of rice and peas; chicken, fish or pork; a choice of 2 sides that can be anything from Mac N Cheese to yucca, plantains or sweet potatoes, with a chopped salad for about $7.00. One place in Grenada had breadfruit as a side. It was great. Different than what was expected for sure. It was more like a potato than a fruit.  All great food! Several times a side choice was blood sausage. The sausages are almost black and quite popular. They wouldn’t go over very well at home! If you finished the food you’d be set for 5-6 hours before you were hungry again.

 

Those that had land cultivated fruits and selected items for the table. We saw bananas, citrus, coconuts, avocados, and many unknowns. Drivers told us about how easy it was to forage and cultivate favorites. One driver shared his favorite was coconut water and rum.  The collapse of the sugar industry led to poverty and subsistence living on many of the islands. Without the influx of boat/tourist money many would have economic problems. Keeping chickens and goats was common as is small scale farming. Many small farms showed evidence of poor stewardship of the land with erosion and water handling issues at the top of the list. Local governments had billboards promoting local food production. We noticed them in St. Kitts, Dominica and Grenada. For decades food was shipped around the Caribbean. Local food was undervalued. Now they are trying to reduce trade for food and create local production capabilities. We were told that some places are desperate for food farmers. Makes we wonder what obstacles farmers on the islands have to overcome to create a living from the land? Probably not much different than what we must contend with…

 

We had great experiences and met some wonderful people. The islands are a great place to visit and offer a warm and inviting party life for the boat people. Reality is a bit different from the image. The history of colonialism and resource exploitation is an icy slap to the party life. Awaiting the trip from Atlanta to the islands we observed a group of agronomists from Dekalb (Monsanto), Pioneer (Dupont) and Syngneta. They were deep in conversation about the seasons’ seed corn production on the islands, chemicals, genetics and worker issues. They were “laboring” in the tropics during the winter so they’d have seed for the 2014 season. So happy to be a food farmer just vacationing…

Farmer Pete

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Popcorn Harvest

Popcorn is popped on the stove top at our house. Some oil in a hot pan, add a few test kernels, when they pop, pour in the rest, cover and give a good shake. We’ve purchased our popcorn from the Amish bulk food stores that serve our area. With such a readily available and cheap snack we never felt compelled to grow our own. This season we broke our habits and grew Dutch Butter Flavored Popcorn. We will have new habits for years to come from this small change!

 

Last winter we attended a presentation by William Woys Weaver. His talk inspired us to raise a broader range of Heirlooms. A packet of Dutch Butter Flavored Popcorn was added to our Fedco seed order. The packet planted 80’ of a 42” bed, double row with individual seeds set at 8”-10” apart, alternate. The bed had been butternut squash the year before with debris removed, lime (10lbs.) and 1 year old horse manure compost (400lbs) top dressed. The bed was lightly worked to check unwanted plant growth and hand seeded early June (bed prep, seeding and care 30 min. max!). Excellent germination and plant establishment had the corn several feet high by early July. No irrigation (we had timely rain) and two hoeing passes were made during the season.

 

The popcorn plants were slight and a pale green. Not like the big robust appearance of the synthetic boosted dent corns typically grown. Tassels emerged in early August and flowering was mid-Aug. Small ears developed slowly and weren’t ready till late September. The late development had me wonder if a crop would develop. Plants produced two ears. Most were 4-5” long with 12+ rows of small popcorn kernels. A few had poor fertilization and some were nubbins. Maturation was at about 100 days with a fairly high moisture content. Cool temperatures and above average rain in September resulted in plants that needed all the late season time we could give them to finish in the field. A harvest was made at the end of September, the ears were spread to dry in the barn and were distributed at our last CSA pick-up.

 

We popped the first batch shortly after harvest and had 50% unpopped. At a couple of weeks drying we popped more and had 95% pop. Wow, was it good! CSA customers asked for more. My family came running when they heard popping. A popcorn that needed no salt or butter added. It has a delicious flavor that is very satisfying. Tender and light, it is the best we’ve ever enjoyed.

 

Dutch Butter Flavored Popcorn is an OP (open pollinated) variety so some variation is naturally occurring. The yield is modest, but soooo good that this demo has become a new favorite. I can’t imagine not growing it every year now. Compared to what used to satisfy our popcorn desire, this popcorn is worth the bit of time it takes to grow and handle.

Farmer Pete

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Topics from my Reading

All through the growing season I fall behind on my reading. I’ve had a chance to catch up with the change in seasons. I’m dismayed by some of what I read. An example is a report on a conference called, “Food for Billions” hosted by Ohio State University(OSU). It was on food policy and attended by invitees from the food industry and think tanks. Praise is usually what comes from such efforts to address global issues. However, this conference appears to have been convened to support the Big Ag and Business interests while avoiding opposition views.

 

The conference had a keynote address by a journalist from “New Yorker” magazine, Michael Specter. Specter is quoted to have said, “[The] organic movement is an exposition of freedom of expression, but unscientific, with no proof of better quality or nutritional value, or any definition of what natural production means.” (Counrty Folks Grower, 11/13, pg 7). Specters reiteration of Big Ag’s talking points does not make them true even if he believes them. His cheerleading for GM crops and calls for investment in technological solutions for the “food crisis” casts him as an industry shill. OSUcould have advanced discussion on the topics but choose to champion the “money” side (re: Research Funding).   FYI: Follow this link to see the counterpoint to the “Food Crisis” schemeer,  http://www.independentsciencenews.org/un-sustainable-farming/the-founding-fables-of-industrialised-agriculture/

 

Elsewhere in the Ag publication pile I read about a meeting of the Council of American Phytopathogical Society (APS), an organization of plant health scientists. APS has 5000 members committed to “plant health”. At the meeting they affirmed an organizational position that is opposed to regulating food, feed, and fiber products solely on the basis of the particular technology used to create these products. They are stated to have a long history of opposing such regulation. APS President, George Abawi said, “Biotechnology will continue to be extremely important part of the toolbox for managing plant health. Labeling GM could be very confusing to consumers and could reduce the availability and use of this technology for the management of plant diseases.” (The Farmers Exchange, 10/25, pg. 3).

 

Wow! I didn’t know GM was so important to “plant health”.  I’ll pass on making a comment on that point. What I find worth comment is this “plant health” scientist saying that we don’t want to confuse consumers.

 

I meet consumers at Farmers Markets. They are of all sorts with different reasons to shop and points of view. When it comes to the food I market I play the role of “informer”. This allows the consumer to make a determination on how to best spend their money. A frequent question shoppers ask are what growing methods we use. I inform them, “organic methods, which means no synthetic fertilizers or sprays, we use minimal carbon based fuels since we farm with animals and our fertile soils promote the growth of nutrient dense foods.” I inform because I believe the consumer has the right and ability to determine how best to make their purchases. Mr. Abawi and APS feel that labeling would confuse rather than inform. Completely unlike my experiences.

 

Our government seems to maintain a passive role in allowing GM foods in the consumer marketplace. They are a big promoter of GM around the world. We are the subject of a mass public test of GM. Efforts to require labeling have been met with aggressive and well funded campaigns to maintain the status quo. Talking points repeated by shills like Specter and organizations like APS continue to misinform!

Farmer Pete

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"New" Experts

More than a couple of decades have passed since I first planted a seed. I was searching for a food experience that had slipped out of my life when as a young adult I started life on my own. That seed began a journey of learning and experimenting that continues. The natural world that we grow food in has complexity and simplicity that challenges our intellect. We study and draw conclusions that are  valid for a certain set of conditions. Change the conditions and we may find ourselves again trying to fathom the scope of factors that impact our practice of growing food.

 

The learning turns to books and trying to incorporate what other food growers have done during the shorter days. I was able to check out of the local Library, Sustainable Market Farming, by Pam Dawling. I’ve checked out many different books and had inter-Library loan get some titles to study. Most have a few things to help in learning. Sometimes a book has little value and I’m grateful that the Library could get it and I didn’t have to buy it. This recent read is a gem. Pam Dawling is an incredibly experienced farmer of organic vegetables and writes about her craft and understanding in a manner that helped me learn quite a bit. The book references many useful sources that allow for future learning. With decades of experience I consider her mastery of growing one to value.

 

So wouldn’t you figure that a thought crossed my mind the other day when I was in a school. The thought was about these kids and their I-Pads. They have them to incorporate the new technology into the learning curriculum. You know, give them an edge in learning and job skill development. What I see is a connected group with incredible gaming skills. They are all experts on their I-pads and games. Instant experts you could say. And the thought was that we also are creating instant experts on farming as well. With the wealth of internet information we have a new group of farmers that are suddenly expert at growing and learning about farming. I admit I’ve used the internet to expand my understanding. But, true learning and understanding comes from the practice of the principles of organic and biological farming. Pam Dawling has decades of experience at multiple places to draw on. I feel that the journey of understanding is a truly long one that can be aided by the internet but true learning is in the practice of growing and mistakes we make to learn from. The young farmers are lucky to access so much from the internet, and many are great at debating the points they have learned. I still think time and mistakes are important in educating farmers. And the sage advice of those who mastered their craft and continue to learn. With a few decades I too may have mastery in reach.

Farmer Pete 

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*Notice* Important Meeting

Southwest Michigan has a fantastic opportunity with the recent development of an integrative teaching initiative from a group of local educators and hospital administrators:

http://www.mlive.com/news/kalamazoo/index.ssf/2013/05/kvcc_and_partners_to_create_ne.html

A few months ago an invite to be part of a food producers focus group relating to Campus development came my way. I made time, changed plans and made the effort to attend. I wondered how such a broad ranging program would impact farmers and local food. I really hoped to learn more….

 

Meetings are hard for me. I always sit there, actively listening and following the presentations. The difficulty lies in the amount of time involved and crucial farm work that ends up waiting till I’m done. Sadly this meeting was no different and a brief consensus among other farmers that attended; it took time away from much more productive work on the farm.

 

Farmers at meetings like this wear their work clothes. It was clear to see that the meeting was as much for the suits as getting input from farmers. The invite was sent to a host of farmers in our area, and the sign in sheet included their names. Of the list of invites a small fraction did as I did and made time to attend. Those who stayed on the farm were the smart ones. The suits ruled and introduced themselves with titles and descriptions that were important to them only. Technology dominated the presentation and questions were often answered with, “We’ll get to that at a later point of our presentation.” Since the invite included “Food Producers” the group included corporate VP’s, CEO’s and the like that talked, wasting our time, but never saying a thing. As a result the meeting provided information that was no different than what you could learn from reading the newspaper. I really should have stayed in the field.

 

I looked at the clock as the meeting was concluding and realized that my CSA pick-up was going to be rushed and had to dash….

 

Farmer Pete

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Moments of Inspiration

As a home cook and farmer of quality vegetables, I find inspiration and purpose in exchanging ideas, helping other cooks to feed their households, and overcoming obstacles that keep some from enjoying food. I receive positive responses to CSA weekly newsletters, questions at market and from friends and neighbors about vegetables.  I suppose some would find a way to make a buck off the help or simple advice, I find the satisfaction of helping others more than enough.

 

I was inspired to think about this as the seasons last farmers market concluded in Vicksburg Friday. Our wonderful Market leader, Sue Moore, passed along kind words and thanks for helping out the market and making so many people’s experiences positive. All I could think was how much I enjoyed the interaction. I’ve learned so much from the market customers, I’m glad they feel the same way.

 

Some friends that come weekly to market and book the Kalamazoo Folklife Singers that entertain the crowd, were disappointed that we were out of beets. They weren’t beet fans till we shared some suggestions about roasted beet salads. They became beet-niks and enjoyed the broad varieties that we raise and offer at market. They learned to cook the greens and when greens weren’t available they gained a new love for swiss chard. They tried fresh carrots and groan about having to eat the poor tasting ones from the grocery when the season ends.

 

A market regular signed up for CSA this year and has become profuse in his praise for the CSA and how it has dramatically improved their enjoyment of their vegetables. Another family has already begun to ask about next season and shared their plans to bump up from their half share to a full. They get their basics covered with the half share but really want to try some other things and have a chance to maybe set a few things aside for later.

 

When someone asks how to fix a vegetable I always tell them how we enjoy them. Which methods we have tried and what became our favorites. This season was a great one for the Delicata squash. I would offer the suggestion to cut in half length wise, scoop out seeds and pith and place on a baking sheet cut side down. Put in the oven at 325 till fork tender. Let cool slightly and scoop out the flesh to enjoy. Soon the regulars were buying me out of squash. They’re all gone now but wait till next year…

Farmer Pete

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Extending Harvest

The last several years we have had frost by the 3rd week of September. The frost tender plants were done before October began. That meant fewer items in CSA shares and a skimpier table at Market. Not this season. Production continues though slower for the hot weather crops. I bumped up the CSA allotment since the market has tailed off with school in session and summer residents back to permanent homes. I had a small but really nice green bean harvest last week. A bit of a surprise that everyone seemed to enjoy.

 

An additional benefit is the boost the cover crops have had. They have never been so well established. The oats have fully taken over in the summer squash and potato rows.  The dry beans have had more time to finish this season. I like to see them nearly dry down on the plant than have to dry in the barn or basement. I was able to finish the pie pumpkins in the field. Most plants set 5+ fruits. The first few matured over a week ago, but the last few were slow to finish. A local micro-brewery needed some for a Harvest Series of brews it was doing. Really cool to work with them… http://www.latitude42brewingco.com/

 

Plans for next season are taking shape. I plan for production to meet need. This can be difficult with the biggest challenge being overproduction. One place I farmed they wanted overproduction and continue doing so. Touting their contribution to the local food bank. In a sustainable context of farm production the farmer really needs to be much closer to optimizing resources rather than planning for overproduction and wasting money and workers energy. This season has been an eye opener in general farm overproduction. The local market has been flooded with produce that it can barely consume. If local farmers aren’t able to expand demand for their own production then all of us will be met with declining marginal revenues that will have disastrous effects. Growing food is not too hard to do. Profitably marketing the farms produce is a challenge that many need to focus energy on in the offseason.  (Me included!!!)

Farmer Pete

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Falls Turn

What a busy time of the year. With added events like the SW Michigan Harvest Fest, Grand Rapids’ ArtPrize, and the kids activities at school, days go by with few breaks and little time to rest and recoup. There is no complaint with this mix. I love this time of the year. Weather is usually predictable and stable, farm issues are minimal and the harvest is on. Time to squeeze in a little fall enjoyment before the winter forces a rest.

 

I left Farmers Market last week with no tomatoes left. I usually gauge pretty well what will sell and keep the table stocked with a bit left as I pack and leave. You know a few for the farmers dinner and maybe the friend that needs one for the BLT. But there were none. Made me think about the words of the college Prof that said a successful ag marketing plan is one where you know where everything is going and sold before the seed is planted. This years’ plan has worked out kind of like that. Of course the work involved to achieve it can be monumental…

 

I spent some time yesterday prepping for my soil block mix making. The words of advice to make it months in advance and allow it to balance and “cure” is always taken seriously. I know many farms that buy theirs and others that mix at the time of blocking, but being a careful detail person when it comes to disease prevention and plant health I find the time and do the work with the intention to benefit from the time spent. So I gathered my compost for the mix. The compost is the 2012 season garden and farm scraps that have been heaped, turned, amended and tended and after a full growing season is now a nice crumbly mix with a pleasant smell. Like precious metal to a pirate. As I shoveled I ran across a cavity filled with pumpkin seeds. Or what were pumpkin seeds since only the seed coat remained. Must have been a chipmunk treasure at one time. A few hundred pounds and I’ll be ready to add the peat, sand and COF to complete the mix.

 

A row of Raab has succeeded in racing to flower ahead of my snips. With rain and harvest times getting tangled, the row has bolted ahead of  intentions. Oh well! What surprised me was the reception the bolted raab received from the honey bees (Apis melifera). Huge numbers worked the blossoms and set up a hum that was impressive. With goldenrod, asters, flea bane and other native plants also in bloom the attention to the raab seemed to indicate a preferred source. I certainly don’t mind the untimely bolting at this point.

 

More when time permits…

Farmer Pete

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Flight Patterns and Harvest Fest!

A row of flowers begins the cultivated part of our field; Sunflower, Cosmos, Zinnias and Dahlias. Beautiful! (Thanks Mom!) There is always insect activity here. I was bustling about trying to complete a harvest for CSA when a flash of orange caught my eye. The orange floated above the flowers and drew my attention. I stopped to watch for a moment and realized the attention drawing orange movement was a Monarch Butterfly.  It visited the Dahlias and Zinnias before moving on.

 

I have seen so few Monarchs this year. There are always patches of milkweed left in our fields for them. We used to observe the lifecycle with the kids. Now they rarely pass or lay eggs. Only occasionally one catching my eye. Nothing like the plentiful sightings we became accustomed to. So disappointing…

 

This is such a busy time of year. Not just on the farm but at home…Even a day not spent on normal farm work is filled with much to do. Over the last many years the Labor Day break begins the mental shift to the coming year. CSA plans, keeping field documentation up to date so planning and fall work will prepare for the coming year, and seed saving. I try to select strong seed lines to build diversity and local adaptation. I really needed to re-invigorate my tomato group. I lost a few varieties to diminishing quality, and poorly maintained seed. I also made an effort to isolate a few cucurbits with new seed. Saved seed should show fewer rogues.

 

The focus on the coming year is part of preparing for the SW Michigan Harvest Fest http://www.fairfoodmatters.org/harvestfest/ . A great time to spend a day in celebration of the current harvest and look to next year. Stop by and say. “Hi” if you make it to the festival. This festival happens on home territory here at Tillers International. Couldn’t be any easier.

Farmer Pete 

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Tom's, Bees, & Hawks

Vegetable farmers that grow a wide variety of produce with intensive methods are constantly adding important information to a broad base. There seems to be something new to learn or gain greater understanding of with every passing week. So much of the learning comes from the practice of vegetable growing but customers and kids teach me more. My family helped in the field the other day harvesting tomatoes. “I hate picking tomatoes”, my youngest exclaimed. My response was a typical, “The sooner we get done the sooner we can get home and you can go swimming.” Picking tomatoes is a bit of a chore. They require care; stems have to be removed, packed in container stem side down, not smashed together, blah, blah blah…They leave an interesting green stain and there is the occasional bad tomato. Overwhelming for those with limited experience and I realized, NOT FUN! Details I take for granted. Teaching others how they can be of help and enjoy their time in the field is part of my work. I had a chance to gently overcome her “hate” of her contribution of picking tomatoes. A lost opportunity…she left the tomato row for the green beans and satisfied a gnawing hunger for something fresh and green. I let her go…and await another opportunity.

 

Learning the details of growing great food is something I constantly do but I also enjoy learning about the intersection of the natural world that occurs on the farm. Last post I went on about the Praying Mantis. Well this week I spent time looking into Squash Bees. I co-habit the field with Bumblebees and not looking to close, always thought the bees in the squash blossoms were the same guys. Kind of look the same…then I was petting a bumble on the sunflower and realized the differences!!! Whoa, big differences. Both these bees are super helpful on the farm. Bumbles are amazing as they work through the bean row and do their valued jobs. I can be picking and they never bother me. Maybe I almost grab one as the beans are harvested but these busy bees keep on. They are a bit of a clumsy flier often crashing into leaves and stems but carry on. They can be petted when working and I’ve never been stung. Squash bees seem to have a similar temperament. They might get a bit testy when the blossom they are comatose in gets bumped in the way to harvesting a zucchini but they just fly off somewhere and leave all as it was. Sometimes the bees are so busy they can create a huge racket in the squash row. No matter, they don’t bother when I visit. Well, I finally noticed the difference!!!

 

A large bird winged through the field next to the ditch. I mean large. Much bigger than a crow…big as a Red-tailed Hawk, but different. Swooping low to the ground, and along the fencerow. Yep, a Harrier. And so I’ve seen the Harrier the last several times to the field. It’s a male, with an almost pure white underside. The other day it sat atop a post. Its dark colored back was to me as I gazed past the barn and compost piles. It swiveled its head to keep me in sight as I approached from behind. I stopped 50’ away and watched a bit. Must have made it a bit nervous to be watched. Off it flew in an initial swoop to the ground, then a couple of powerful wing beats away and a gentle arc up to a limb on a dead ash next to the ditch 150’away. Took a moment to fold and settle his wings, kind of like a person easing into a comfortable chair, then roosted and kept an eye on me. I went back to my work. Soon it started a series of calls and I heard them answered from high in the sky. Squinty eyed I watched till the answering bird came into focus. The mate…!!

Farmer Pete

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? Praying or Preying Mantis?

Monday’s are a busy day as I harvest and prepare for CSA Pick-Up. This Monday the day was stormy at the farm. About 9:30am the dark skies and rumbles of thunder let loose and it rained for almost 2 hours steady. Sometimes a simple downpour though a few times the rain was light so I could get out and do a few things; like fill wash tubs or run work debris to the compost pile. I spent time cleaning the storage onions, sharpening hoes and cleaning equipment. And, observing the insect life in the greenhouse.

I observed a solitary Praying Mantis on an end board. It mostly stood immobile, occasionally turning its head. For the first time I noticed its color was brown like the wood it was on. I recall seeing many in the fields that were green. So I had to check online and see if they have different color phases but learned they can blend colors a bit with their environment. I don’t remember seeing any red, orange or blue versions so I suppose they are limited in color choice. It is cool to finally realize that this “Preying” insect can adapt. We love predatory insect consumers like swallows, bats, toads and Mantises.

A few years ago I was similarly stormed into the shelter of a barn. I sat and watched the rain for a bit. What surprised me this time was that a couple of toads and spiders crawled into the barn to wait out the worst of the storm. With deliberate haste two toads hopped into the barn and found a convenient spot to avoid the cold, wet rain. Interesting company in a storm…

Eventually the rain stopped on Monday and I was able to return to my harvest. The field was spongy, the beans were soaked so they had to wait a few hours to dry, and carrots slipped out the ground easily. I had to hurry to get done. And, was left pondering the good fortune of the Mantis that can change colors…

Farmer Pete

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This is August?

I guess you might call it “juicy” weather. Lots of humidity and frequent rain. This isn’t typical weather for Michigan. This time of year we usually have high pressure ridges that stagnate over us and it might be weeks between rains. When it does rain we get half of the months rain in a couple of hours. Right now we still have dew on the grass at noon when the sun isn’t out to dry it. Exert yourself with farm chores and you’ll be soaked with body coolant (sweat) for the rest of the day. Like I said, “juicy”.

 

Some of the crops love this weather. Others suffer tremendously. The greens are amazing…best I’ve seen for August ever. I brought some collard greens in to sample before harvesting for CSA shares and the family was amazed they tasted so good this time of the year. Usually they are rather strong and we wait till fall for them to improve. The kale and swiss chard are producing exceptional crops. The root vegetables have been tremendous as well. Beets, carrots and potatoes have exceeded recent year production by a huge margin.

 

The plants that are struggling are all the hot weather crops, tomatoes, eggplant, peppers, and melons. I plant many short season vining crops and pickles, cukes and some tomatoes have crops but they are poor. Such a flip to last year when the opposite was the case. I’ve kept an eye on a favorite muskmelon and it has grown to spectacular size but is no closer to ripening than it was 2 weeks ago. A daily check of the forecast shows little chance of the desired heat to push these crops to maturity. As it is the tomatoes are harvested at full color and brought indoors to ripen. Then the plant can direct energy to other fruits to ripen. The juicy weather has made leaf diseases more prevalent among vining crops and tomatoes. Mulches were refreshed on the tomatoes and this has helped keep new incidences of disease to a minimum. Regardless, the weather has definitely had an impact on production again this year.  The weeds and blood sucking insects have been in excess as well.

 

Vegetable farmers in Michigan aren’t the only ones with interesting production stories. Fruit farmers are seeing a massive crop. Apples are so heavy on trees this year that desperate thinning is being done to keep the trees from being damaged by the fruit. I’ve seen some fruit trees with the full canopy down to the ground on bowed branches. Others with snapped limbs…

Farmer Pete

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Markets and Pricing

The growing season has been excellent for some crops. The cole crops, beets, carrots, peas, potatoes, onions and the early summer staples including beans, summer squashes and cukes have produced heavy yields. CSA customers are beginning to say “Enough!” The table at Farmers Market is loaded. Many vegetable vendors at Farmers Market are going home with unsold produce. I do just one market and  direct some of the extras to Tillers International. Discussion among some vendors about slashing prices to move extra produce is heard. This is a tough issue with many small growers; do we slash prices to move product or maintain solid pricing to meet our needed income?

 

I’ve found that maintaining prices on things I do well with and have loyal customers for is necessary. For many of the seasonal items oversupplied at Market, it is worthwhile to offer specials. The last few weeks have seen a huge potato crop at market. At first I held my price since I offer top quality potatoes and sort and pack carefully. But I lost sales. So this past week I offered quantity discounts, added 2nd’s to the table at deep discounts and told all that passed by the great specials I had that week. Sales rebounded and I almost sold out of potatoes. A situation where marketing in a different way with a big crop, reflected a lower price but higher net revenue.

 

The Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners has a price list that I was told about by colleague Gina W. at Tillers. http://www.mofga.org/Default.aspx?tabid=260 She indicated that this is a bench mark for her pricing. Here in Michigan it is nice to see where the East Coasters are pricing. I’ve found the listing quite different from what we achieve. High quality produce, well displayed and packaged sells at a premium to the list. Items of oversupply are at a discount during peak season and the marketers’ skill can also add a premium to the list. I would think Maine has different seasons and supply dynamics that add other dimensions. Interesting things to ponder. I do know that when I’m dog tired I can’t muster the energy to present my products they don’t sell themselves very well…

Farmer Pete

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