Agropraxis Farm

  (Scotts, Michigan)
A Ultra-Low Carbon input farm using Eco-Bio methods.
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Ag Census

What a delight to comply with USDA’s agriculture census. Page after page of detail and monetary facts to assess the state of agriculture. A mandatory filing for most farms. For a small, intensive vegetable farmer this simple formality appears pointless. We generate so much of our own fertility, work so much of our lands with animals or hand tools that the monetary determinations the census asks for are irrelevant. So much of what happens with the biological life on the farm that is pivotal in our continued existence cannot be monetized.  It’s no surprise that many of the industrial organic and conventional farms that the Census relies on for the “true state” of farming skew the data to reflect their practices. For them it’s all about purchased inputs and paid for services.

We purchase some of our seed, some soil minerals, and some supplies for our marketing efforts. Beyond that our purchases are minimal. Our farming methods are more labor intensive than capital intensive. We also put to work the biological systems that are crucial to providing for the farms fertility needs. The microbes in the compost heaps are at work while I do other things. The cover crops hold the nutrients in the fields for future benefits and exude crucial compounds that the soil fungal life thrives on. As these life forms multiply and support more diverse life we promote a compounding of life sustaining energies that improves our farm and the produce from it. The census has no way of ascertaining these processes.

The industrial organic and conventional farms are in the money rat-race. Borrowing from a bank (or endowment), importing fertility and compost, paying for services, purchasing seed and plants, and ignoring the role of fostering the biological life that builds the diverse biology needed for sustainable production. 

When the numbers are reviewed we small farmers do okay. What isn’t measured is we produce in a manner that we can sustain….

Farmer Pete

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Working on 2013 !

Back in October the first planting for the 2013 season was made. The garlic went in and has been overwintering in the field. When the soil warms in spring they will be one of the first crops growing. This January weekend is time to begin many of the remaining allium crops. 

Every farmer strives for efficiency, cost effective production and simplicity. My methods work for my work style, resources and production needs. Having made most of the mistakes possible I have also learned what not to do. I begin with quality seed and varieties that have proven results. For onions I like Ailsa Craig for fresh eating/slicing, Copra for everyday/storage onion, and for leeks I plant Lincoln for late summer production and the giant/blue late season/winter varieties. These are all started from seed. 

Onions are started in two manners. For individual onions like the Ailsa Craig they are seeded into a seeding flat that has been filled with bedding mix. This is the same bedding mix I made back in October and have allowed to cure/stabilize for the last four months. The mix has a mild, earthy smell that tells me it is in good condition. The crumbs improved and texture is loose but held together by the extensive fungal hyphae. The flats are filled and watered and given a few days to settle. Seeds are dropped in on a tight grid. I use the Biodymanic calendar to determine appropriate days to seed. Anne Elder of the Community Farm of Ann Arbor taught a session at a CSA Conference years ago that introduced me to Biodynamics. Many of the concepts and ideas have valid impacts on growing. The calendar is one areas of the Biodynamics I have experienced positive results from.

 The other onion method is to multi-seed paper pots. The pots are made of unused newsprint that I bought from a local printing shop. The Print shop gets a couple of dollars for several hundred linear feet on end rolls. I can make thousands of paper pots with that. The pots are hand rolled to about 2” diameter and 2.5 inches high.  The pots are placed on food trays in staggered rows that maximizes space. They are filled with bedding material and tapped down firmly with 1 ¾ “ dowel. A 3/8” dowel, sharpened in a pencil sharpener, is used to make a seed cavity about ¾” deep in the center of each pot. Four/five seeds are dropped into each. I like the deeper tight space of this method than the small divot on soil blocks that is commonly recommended. Many onions and leeks grew twisted or fell over in blocks. I tried plasticulture and found it much less space efficient. Transplanting paper pots is a about as easy as soilblocks. The whole thing is placed in the soil. The paper degrades in a short time. The only drawback is that the paper can create a type of collar that sticks up. This can wick moisture when it is dry so I make sure to tear back or plant deep enough to keep this from occurring. For leeks I use the same paper pots as I do for onions. The only difference is they are transplanted deeper to blanch a long segment. 

 

With multiplant techniques like this additional space is needed around each grouping of plants. This space makes for easy cultivation after transplant and mulching or side dressing as the season progresses. These methods are covered extensively in Eliot Coleman’s books on Organic farming and Four Seasons methods. Even with the tight grouping of plants, production is robust. 

The food trays with paper pots are first placed on heating mats for ideal germination. When the alliums emerge they are moved under shop lights that are kept on for 24 hours a day. With a cool basement (60 degrees) and just regular 40w bulbs, the plants grow slow and vigorous. Having read through University research the total amount of light and intensity come out fine. No, the plants don’t seem to be affected by not having a dark period. They don’t get leggy like warm greenhouses either. The seeding flats need to have their onions clipped otherwise they grow through the lights. The others seem to grow slow enough that they only get tall enough to be a problem about the time they go outdoors to harden off. They are transplanted according to the Biodynamic calendar in April once the soil is workable. In a good year some are harvested in June for fresh onions and the remainder during July and August. 

Some years I’ve bought onions starts. Their cost is quite a bit higher and they don’t yield as well with a lot of variability among plants. They are available from local greenhouses and cost ~$2.00 per 60 plant bundle.  I have bought some directly from the monster onion producer in Texas but with shipping they add up to about the same price for the quantities I order. The producer clips the tops and roots of these starts. I tend to think they also boost them with liquid fertilizers. On my organic soils they have a rough transition and never seen to thrive like my own plants. Some local growers rave about them, but they also use a lot of nitrogen fertilizers and irrigation water to create softball size fresh onions. 

It’s good to be planting and working on the current year crops….

Farmer Pete

 

P.S. A favorite quote I ran across this week: “ We are changing food system one acre at a time.”

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Records and Seeds

Typical January weather includes snow, frozen ground, wind and lake effect snow showers. On Saturday the 12th we had record high temperatures and spring fever. Climate change is wacky sometimes. 

During our warm day the kitchen scraps were added to the compost pile. Many honey bees (Apis mellifera) were working through the heap looking for sustenance. The weather had them out of the hive and foraging. We have no flowering plants at this time of the year so they scavenge for edibles. I watched as they worked over squash goop, and other partially decomposed compost ingredients.  With the weather as mild as it’s been I’m sure the bees are doing what they are genetically inclined to do, gather food when weather warms. It’s still early winter so the spring fever is temporary.  

Back in December I had ordered seed for the main crops. What remained were trial items. I enjoy trialing different crops to see how they might contribute to the farm offerings. The tempting descriptions and possibilities are fun to explore. Some trials succeed , some need to be repeated to better gauge value, and some fail. For example one time I ran across an Italian herb/green called Agretti. The description was tempting and a packet was ordered and planted. The agretti grew and was harvested as recommended. It was cooked and presented. The overwhelming response from all who tried it was that it tasted like a pine tree! No one could imagine how it would contribute to their table and food enjoyment. So agretti was a non-repeater. It may be of value in Italian kitchens but unlikely to be of value here.

One conclusion has come from the trials. Seed vigor and plant viability varies from lot to lot and from variety to variety.  Many of my trials are searches for more vigorous and better producing  varieties.  For example I’ve grown Rosa Bianca eggplant for quite a while. I was often disappointed with production and plant vigor. A shift in supplier resulted in healthier more vigorous plants. Production was the best ever. Was it the season or the seed?  Clearly I had run across seed with more vigor. The last few years I’ve trialed Open Pollinated(OP) seeds searching for plant vigor and eating qualities. Many of the “new” and “organic” seeds lack these features.  A Golden Zucchini was glowing in description but a poor producer in the field.  Given a couple of years and careful attention it still lacked qualities for future inclusion. This season  trials will include new zucchini varieties, a wax bean, a traditional eggplant, OP carrots and rapini. What fun….

Farmer Pete

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What to Post?

Putting a blog post up each week is a simple thing. It doesn’t take much time. During the week ideas come from things I’ve read, heard or experienced. This week I had a multitude of ideas and had started a post about “Sustainable Ag”. I’ve run across so many definitions and concepts from  ”economically sustainable” to “ecologically sustainable”  that the topic is a mess of conflicting POV’s. I started on what sustainable should represent. I ended up lost in the topic…not making sense or having a clear thesis to press forward. I’ll have to put more thought to “Sustainable” before I post.

Another topic might have been about  waste from agriculture. By waste I mean  product that farmers and those in the supply chain don’t find a consumer for. There have been articles and research on how much food never gets to consumers. Staggering amounts that spoil or are produced at a time that nobody can utilize them. This topic is a classic that scratches at the ignorance about food production and utilization. Farmers massively overproduce. What doesn’t find a consumer is basically compost. For some reason the public has an ethic that this overproduction needs to be directed to the needy. In a market that is encouraged to over-produce, we don’t have a method to deal with excess. Some high density population areas have developed food banks and gleaners to address this but realistically the over production is still compost. I saw a presentation by the director of “Growing Power” that showed how they composted tons of grocery chain spoiled produce for their gardening program. Why are we surprised that we have excess? I had hoped to delve into the management issues a farmer deals with in planning for the “right amount” of production. Again a topic that needs time for thought…

And, another topic is our continuing weather uncertainties. Drought impacts a large portion of the country. Here in SW Michigan we have minimal short term issues but a level of concern underlies future planning. The winter precipitation has been way below normal. Subsoil moisture is low and aquifer levels are down. Will we hear more stories about lakefront homeowners having to walk 200’ to the shoreline that used to be out the patio door?

The FDA has released a new Food Safety document. To be expected, not everyone is happy. In trying to address some glaring failures of the food system the FDA has tried to encompass food production with this document. I wonder if the writers have any concept of what small, direct to consumer farmers do to protect themselves and customers. Farmers are the key in determining methods of production, handling, and education of consumers. Ask any farm marketer what steps they take to insure the wellbeing of their customers. With generous exemptions and low levels of inspection capabilities this whole effort from the FDA will have more impact on big industrial farms. It’s nice to see that the big guys will have to use some of the common sense methods we small farmers have used for years and prove it!

And there are more ideas….just not ready for the blog yet. Ideas that bounce around and slowly gel to become something coherent. Or sometimes set aside to allow a more pressing topic or rant surface. Always more to think on and share than ever gets put up! Maybe something good for next week…

Farmer Pete

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