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  (Climax, Michigan)
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The Long Winter of 2014

April 4, 2014 and there are still piles of snow scattered about the farm, some still almost waist deep where it was piled from plowing driveways. It isn’t even close to being warm, but we’ve had a few sunny days of late and we are grateful for that! It’s amazing how quickly a little sunshine will warm up the greenhouses and high tunnels.


Normally we grow salad greens all year long, but it didn’t turn out that way this year. Lots of things froze solid during the really cold and windy stretches in January and February. The cold that seemed to go on forever. Even though Larry kept the wood burner well stoked, we still lost the lettuce crop once.


Starting the greenhouse tomato crop was delayed by several weeks due to the cold and a forecast of continuing cold for several weeks. Rather than risk losing the crop of 2,000 tomato plants, we delayed seeding as long as possible and still have tomatoes for the summer. Fortunately, temperatures, although not warm, are much more moderate now than earlier in the year. And the snow has finally melted so that we can get to all of the high tunnels. At one point the snow drifts were as high as the peak on a couple of them. Even for us, that's unusual, although we get a fair amount of snow here in SW Michigan. We shouldn’t have to worry about soil moisture this planting season! We do have plants started for the high tunnels but soil temperatures are not where they need to be just yet for transplanting. Maybe a few more sunny days and we’ll get there.


Spring 2011

Well, no one can say that the spring of 2011 wasn’t interesting. Cold, yes. Wet, yes. Without sunshine, yes. As I am writing this, the sun is shining and the temperature today is expected in the “really hot” range, and with a good southerly breeze blowing, but still, the gardens are too wet to work. Kevin and his friends got them plowed on May 1st, and we haven’t been able to work in them since. If you will recall, it had been rainy the week before that and it just happened that he was able to get in them then, with rain that afternoon. Add insult to injury, another round of thunderstorms is predicted for this afternoon. The bad news is that we’ve planted nothing in the gardens to date. It hasn’t stopped raining long enough to dry out so that we can plant. There are lots of plants waiting for their “forever” homes in the gardens, and wanting to be moved out of the high tunnels, but if we get another round of rain today, they won’t get moved anytime soon. Our soils compact to a cement like substance if they get worked while wet, so we’re careful not to even walk on them while wet, let alone run a tractor and equipment over them. The good news is that Larry and Hank did find a narrow window to plant a couple of batches of sweet corn early on, and the field corn got planted, actually about the time soybeans are usually finished being planted. Not many soybeans are planted yet. Typically, both are totally planted by mid-May. Field crops are a lot less cold sensitive than vegetable crops.


Cold? Yes. Wet? Yes. Without sunshine? Yes. Just another day on the farm? Yes. Are we up to the challenge? Yes. We just keep telling ourselves that.




What's it's going to be...winter or spring?

Well here it is, mid April, and we just had a couple inches of snow. Can't believe it. Temperatures are running so far below normal that we are still up every night to fill the wood burner so that the tomatoes don't get cold. To add insult to injury, most days have been cloudy and that means that the greenhouses and high tunnels don't warm up from the sunshine. Normally by now the soil in the high tunnels would be warm enough so that we could plant in them. No so this year. Cold, rainy, basically miserable.

Still, we continue to prepare for the summer growing season. I say summer growing season because we also have a "winter" growing season for salad greens and a few other crops. The crew is seeding flats so that we have plants to start in the gardens, as well as the high tunnels. High tunnel soil amendments have been worked in. Supplies have been ordered for the farmers market stalls. We've had way to much rain to do any work outside in the gardens. Wet soil compacts, and that is not a good thing! Besides muddy shoes/boots means mud getting tracked in and that is also not a good thing!! March is usually our "mud season", guess it's just a little longer this year.

Our CSA slots are filling up fast. That's a good thing and helps us feel positive about the coming season. We always look forward to seeing our members, whether they come to the farm to pick up their share or we deliver it to them. With fuel prices steadily increasing, and no end in sight to the increases, we are a bit anxious about how high the prices might get. We waited as long as we could to set Share of the Farm prices, all the while keeping an eye on fuel prices, and kept them as low as possible, but if gas really gets above $5 a gallon, we will probably have to use the ol' "fuel surcharge" method. Really hate to see it come to that! High fuel prices also mean that other prices will increase over the season, including shipping from our suppliers.

Oh, well. Every season is a different set of challenges. Some times it's too wet, too cold, too dry, too hot, too stormy, yadda yadda,yadda,  Sometimes it's all of it in the same growing season. Gotta love it!


Feels Like Spring Today and Other Ramblings

March in Michigan seems to be a month of extremes, weather wise. I call it mud season. It can be cold, snowy one day and sunny with 60 degrees the next. Yesterday and today were very pleasant days when we didn't have to bundle up in order to spend some time outside. The rain will be moving in tonight though.

Most of the snow piles are gone with just a few tiny piles left over from where it was piled when we plowed. Snow storms were heavy early this winter and we did have an actual blizzard. Not the worst I remember, but still a blizzard.

The ground has thawed, allowing the puddles to drain. Now instead of plowing snow out of the driveways, we're fixing the pot holes, a never ending task. The other never ending task is picking up sticks from the yard. Since we had a couple of ice storms recently, there are lots of limbs to clean up, as well as branches. Still just a nuisance, nothing like other areas have seen. We're high enough here not to flood, although there are areas nearby that do, along the rivers. Lakefront properties can flood as well, but that's more of a "high water" issue that pretty much remedies itself. We have some low spots on the farms that will have standing water periodically, but for the most part our soils drain well. We only have one farm that has any tiling on it, but we also have county drains that run through or near the farms. Other parts of Michigan are totally dependent on tiling and drains, and you'll see rather deep ditches along the roads in those areas. If we flood here on the Climax Prairie, we're in a world of hurt, as they say, since we are at a much higher elevation than the communities in the Kalamazoo River valley.

We are still heating the greenhouses and cutting wood this time of year can be a challenge. The cutting crew heads out early in the morning while the ground is still frozen and before everything turns to mud. The wood burner keeps the boiler pumping heated water into the root zone heating in the tomato house. Got to keep those tomato plants nice and warm.

We're just starting to seed flats for the gardens. After ordering seed, it's the next period of excitement for the coming growing season. We start most of the plants for the gardens and high tunnels, however since there is a very large bedding plant industry in the Kalamazoo, Portage and Comstock areas, we know lots of greenhouse operators. A friend who runs one of them will start some of the standards for us. He can do it very cost effectively because they're doing thousands of flats, compared to us doing less than a couple of hundred. We fill flats by hand while they have fillers. They have automatic waterers, compared to us with a hose. There is also a greenhouse co-op and they purchase in bulk. Germinating mix prices have gone up again, so every little cost savings helps.

Just a reminder, that this is National Agriculture Week. You can learn some fun Ag Facts at www.agday.org/education/fun_facts.php






August is a Wonderful Month

We think August is one of the best times of the year. Not only is it fair time in our county and many of those nearby, August means really yummy things from the gardens, like sweet corn, watermelon, muskmelon, and tomatoes. It also mean yummy things from the orchards like plums, peaches, nectarines and early season apples. 

If there is one less than wonderful thing about August, it is the time of year our college student employees start leaving to go back to school. Our crew this year has been great and we'll miss those three college football players with their muscles. They had great attitudes, too! Even after working in the heat and dirt all day they would go work out for another two hours or more! School resumes for our high school student employees on the Tuesday after Labor Day. The rest of us just stay here! Even after all the students are gone for the season, we still have at least two months of heavy work load left. As if there is ever a time when the work load isn't heavy on a farm. There is always work to be done, regardless of the season. Not complaining though, at least we have jobs!


The Corn is as High as an Elephant's Eye

The market gardens and high tunnels are looking good, even as hot as it has been. Night time temperatures during the month of June were running about 10 degrees above normal and we certainly had sufficient rainfall. Unfortunately, that wasn't good weather for strawberry production and the season was disappointingly short. But the good news is that we are getting blueberries and dark sweet cherries extra early.

The field crops are looking good, too. In fact, the corn started shooting tassels on July 2nd. We can't remember ever having the corn so far along as it is this year. At the farmers market people are always saying something about the corn being knee high by the 4th of July, and I try to explain that we hope it's more like head high! This year it is more like the saying "high as an elephants eye". But then there aren't many elephants around here to use as a measure!


Radishes on the Grill

Radishes on the Grill

Avalon Farms Style

You will need:

  • aluminum foil
  • radishes
  • kosher salt
  • 1 teaspoon butter, approximately
  • one ice cube

Wash, top and slice a bunch of radishes into rounds, 1/4 to 3/8 inch thick.

Lay out a piece of foil large enough to fold a packet holding the sliced radishes, butter and ice cube. Place the radishes, ice cube and butter in the center of the foil and sprinkle with kosher salt. Fold the foil into a packet.

Place the foil packet onto a hot grill, turning the packet at about five minutes and allowing it to cook about five more minutes. You will need to adjust the cooking time depending upon the amount of radishes and the temperature of the grill. When the radishes have softened slightly, about fork tender like potatoes, remove them from the grill, carefully open the foil packet and serve as a vegetable. Cooking totally changes the flavor of the radishes so don't expect the radish "bite", but radishes are delicious prepared this way.


First It's Spring and Then It's Not

It's the second week of May and the thermometer reads 42 degrees. And it's raining! It's a really good day to work in the office, getting caught up on things and perhaps even get a little ahead before the next wave of crazy outdoors (yes, I'm probably dreaming). Fortunately, rainy weather has keep us from working outside in the market gardens planting because two nights of freezing temperatures this week wouldn't have done new plantings much good.

The "tomato house", as we call it, actually the hydroponic greenhouse where 1,660 tomato plants are warm and cozy, is looking good. The bumbles (bumblebees) are busy pollinating. Now these aren't the big, fat bumbles one might find in their backyard, but rather a very docile, smaller variety. They very rarely sting, unless they get pinched under someone's arm or something, and are very efficient at pollination since they know exactly when the blossom is ready. We use bumbles rather than honeybees because unlike honeybees the bumbles orient to their surroundings when they come out of the hive, then fly "low and slow" staying within the canopy of the tomato plants. Honeybees on the other hand would just fly out the roof vents. Hives are replaced about every 6-8 weeks.

The "lettuce house" where we grow salad greens hydroponically is in transition from old crop to new. A good cleaning and it's ready for the summer months.

Both high tunnels (unheated hoop houses) are full. The oldest tunnel is full of salad greens, Swiss chard, collard greens, radishes, salad turnips, broccoli, basil, cilantro, kale, and parsley. Since our Saturday farmers market started the first Saturday in May, we can move some of this product. The second high tunnel, which was built just before the ground froze last year, is full of all the plants we have started for the market gardens. The high tunnels take lots of watering on sunny days, when they warm up very quickly.

Our Friday Farmers Market starts next week Friday. It's a new market in Vicksburg and we are looking forward to it. There is a great core group of vendors and volunteer management from the community. At the beginning of June, all the other farmers markets start so we will be loading trucks on Monday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday until the end of October. Now you know what I meant about the next wave of crazy!


Seed Catalogs

Oh, the hours I spend pouring over seed catalogs. First, I go through each of them with a highlighter and sticky tabs, marking everything I think we need or want. There is a difference between need and want, you know! Some companies write such tempting descriptions. I particularly enjoy the ones that include how to cook with them in addition to descriptions of the plants growing habits. Photos make choosing a variety easier and I wish all companies offered a photo of everything they offer. Actually, ordering online seems to offer the best and most photos. Then I start making lists and comparing to last years order forms. That's the easy part...figuring out how much to order and where it can be planted is much more difficult.

I love when the orders start coming in. It's a subtle signal that planting season is coming soon, and that warm and sunny weather is just around the corner. Now, come May when I'm sun burned, hot and sweaty, and beat right down to my socks from working in the market gardens, my attitude will be different, but in March it seems really appealing.


It's Been A Busy Winter

The winter months have been busy at Avalon Farms. Getting things cleaned up from last season, which includes the office (ugh!), is a chore but we feel better when it's done. Not everything we did was routine, however. A new high tunnel was completed and another is on its way, the latest one cost shared with NRCS funds. Norma and Jenny spent most Fridays at the Bronson Hospital Winter market making new friends. We hosted several tours at the farm, which are always fun, but the most interesting by far was through a program for homeless veterans who had completed a work training program for jobs in agriculture. They were from the Detroit, Flint and Lansing areas. Seemed like a really great group of guys, well trained to work in the greenhouse industry. Wish we could hire them all!
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