625,000 Calories on 1/10th Acre

Well we are officially 3 weeks in to the Great Potato Harvest, and the Yukon Golds are about done. They are sizing up nicely -with a few rare lunkers coming in at almost a full pound –each. With today’s take of 170 lbs we are officially at 575lbs in, and my best guess is about 5-600#’s of Carolas left, on top of the last 150#’s of Yukons. Add in a hundred combined of Green Mountain and Buttes and I just might break 1500#’s yet. The pic is from the first batch of baby Carolas 2 weeks ago they are continuing to add weight -I am getting about 25% more poundage per Carola hill than the average Yukon hill.

On top of that the Carolas are living up to their billing as the “Brandeywine” of potatoes. Super moist and tender, they all but melt in your mouth after roasting, frying in a skillet, or soaking in a wet curry. The Yukons are much firmer and have been perfect for our potato salads. It took 3 weeks, but we are slackening our passion for potatoes -we had gone almost 2 weeks with them at 2 of 3 meals per day. Still, they are carrying a meal a day most days.

And that is why I like spuds -they are what I call a “calorie crop”. It is difficult to just eat Peppers, Cucumbers, or Tomatoes etc as a main course -even for vegetarians. But Corn, Potatoes, Squash etc can anchor a meal. It is also said that Potatoes pack more energy per acre than any other crop. My 4500 sq ft (1/10th acre) will net 625,000 calories if my figures are right (26 calories per ounce for 1500 lbs). That is ALOT of calories!! Considering this is harvesting at baby weight, and/or using low yielding varieties like Yukon I don’t feel bad about being significantly off the typical yields of 30,000 lbs per acre conventional. A field of Purple Viking left to maturity would come very close to that.

So next time That Guy at work says we can’t feed the world organically, shove the figure of 6.3 million calories per acre at them and be comfortable that there is still 4 million calories of production on the table!!


Commuting Commutations

So I have used this forum as a sounding board on many occasions, and will continue to do so since the advice and comments are typically of a pretty high caliber. What we are continuing to struggle with is our transportation conundrum. We had spoken of earlier of the need for another 4 door vehicle. We live in semi rural Wisconsin – which is incredibly pedestrian -UNfriendly. We have a 7 mile drive to the nearest grocery store for example. There is essentially no mass transit Our children are starting extra curricular activites and only having one 4 seat vehicle is starting to be more than just an inconvenience.

We have looked at the new generation hybrids -Civic and Prius, but moving from a 65mpg Insight to a 48mpg Prius is frustrating, especially when the ticket to ride costs well north of $20k for a used one. I am also REALLY interested in plug in technology and we had an earlier post to that effect -but with the economy going to crap my funding scheme (the conversion adds another $10k) is faltering -we still have 15 of our 80 barrels left and it would have been much worse without a Gaia-Sent order of 50 from a Municipality. We need to sell 160 to fund the conversion. Plugins are essentially out. Selling the Insight is no problem -they have actually gone UP in value despite my adding 30k miles to it.

So now what? Still frustrated by the cost of the new hybrids -though that is driven by the fact that I am getting 65mpg now -rationally I think they are worth it. But with the economy crapping out and energy bills for home doubling, adding $13k in debt is not appealing. So I am coming back to diesel. TDI’s are getting cheap as the price of dino diesel goes up. I have some alerts set up on Autotrader and TDI Jettas and Golfs with under 100k miles are availible for less than I can sell my Insight for. New Beetles are to be had for under $8k. We would want a wagon, but both the Jetta and Passats came in wagon models. A 4 Door Golf might also work. I have always LOVED the Passat Wagons -which are an A4 Audi wagon with some very slight body mods, and even more so when I learned that they have a stronger TDI engine (60lbs more torque than our Forester and better brakes!) that would tow barrels just fine. But the Passats are holding their value VERY well and cost as much as a used Hybrid, though they are more useful.

The reason I am willing to get 44mpg on a TDI vs 48 in a Hybrid is that I can make my own fuel. I am firing up my research again on the decades old debate of home Bio-Diesel still vs a WVO conversion in the trunk. Price is similar if you build your own still and we have a Coop in Madison that does installs on the WVO kits and use a very high quality German system. WVO is cheaper and to some extent easier, but I see WVO becoming a commodity in less than 2 years, so either way I would want to get a 4-5 yr “right of first refusal” contract with a local restaurant before I dropped several bills on a kit. BioD takes some time to make, and you have things like lye and methanol in the garage. Both are alot less noxious than they first appear, but still something to think about. There is also the energy consumed in heating the still (though it could mate with a gasifier just fine if I could get one in the garage!) which needs to be considered. That said, making bio-fuel is a skill I want to learn, I would like to be able to grow my own fuel someday. Either way we could have a eco-fueled TDI for about $15k -or $17k less than a Plug In Prius, and $7k less than a plain jane Prius. I want air-bags so the old Mercs, etc are out. But for a farm truck, I have found a BEAUTIFUL old Land Rover pickup out east that was imported from Europe and is titled. Those things are bullet proof! But that is a few years out.

I would love to hear about personal experiences with home Bio Diesel manufacturing and WVO conversions to help me out.


Why I love Slow Food

I love Slow Food. Yes, of course I love slow food -the kind it takes all night to make -like a good curry, or all week like a good sourdough, or all year like a good onion. But what I am talking about today is Slow Food -the group of individuals reconnecting Americans and other citizens of the over commercialized planet with the goodness of local, heirloom, and often organic/sustainably grown foods -and why that goodness is a value worth our time.

I am growing alot of potatoes. Perfect harvest (10#’s for every 1 planted) would bring in just shy of 1900 lbs. As I planted alot of Yukon Gold (low yielders) and am harvesting lots of baby’s, end harvest will likely be well shy of that, but I still think over 1000#’s (5:1) is very feasible. That is awesome. It also scares me. Last week I harvested a bit under 200#’s. I sold it all, which felt really good. But that also took care of everyone in our mini CSA, friends at work and family. Many bought 10-20#’s as we gave price breaks there. That also means that these people are out of the potato buying business for many weeks. And the Yukons are READY and need to come in. No root cellar can take potatoes yet, and we don’t have that much fridge space.

Worry set in, so I started to look for a local resturaunt (I know I should have done that months ago…) and found that a chef in the next county started a Slow Food Chapter a year or so ago, and he is a friend of the farm owner so I gave him a call. Long story short I spent most of the morning harvesting 120#’s for him. For this week. But that isn’t the half of it. We had talked price ranges on the phone. I quoted what my CSA members were paying -which is about 25% above Whole Food prices for California organic Yukons. I’ve seen and eaten their potatoes, and mine are significantly better. He seemed fine with that, and ordered 100#’s -plus 20#’s of my baby Carolas -which are divine.

The delivery was great -Chef Jack is a good guy in a very high end “members only” restaurant at a Yacht Club-and he gets it. We looked at the spuds, and then he looked at the invoice. I had billed him $1.25/# for the Yukons and $2/# for the Carolas which was in the range we mentioned. Then he crosses out the $1.25 and makes it $1.75. I was floored. When I stammered a question, he simply replied something like: “these are great potatoes and I don’t like looking for new farmers. I’d rather pay what their worth and have them around rather than save a buck and have them shut down.” Amen.  I would wager that many a Slow Food Chef has had a similar conversation with a farmer.

I love Slow Food.


PS Again, the power of being open to your neighbors pays off. I would never have found this chef, let alone have the ground to plant on if I hadn’t talked to my friends.  Talk to people -you’ll be better for it!

July Learnings from the Garden

So we are about half way through the gardening year. Early and Mid spring crops like Spinach, peas and lettuce are gone, early summer crops like potatoes, beets, and carrots (as well as Hoop House peppers!) are harvestable. Tomatoes are heavy on the vine but still green, corn is 4-5′ tall and starting to tassle, fall squash are sending their unruly vines through the paths, and onions are bulbing. Fall crops are being planted in flats -kale, spinach, and lettuce #4 to refill holes in the potato patch and other areas. With a breif respite from chores, its time to document some of my reflections.

Seeded Crops

To a row, our direct seeded crops have failed. Our market garden plot is a 9 mile drive from our house. That means that I am really only up there once a week for any appreciable time. While the main culprit for this was the 15 inches of rain we got in a 10 day period in June, but even in a “normal” year (haven’t seen one yet) I know the weeding would have gotten away from us. In freshly plowed ground like we started with, carrots, beets, bush beans, onions, and direct seeded lettuce will all be out competed by weeds without almost daily attention the first several weeks. Some rows have been inundated with a perrenial, rhizomatous sedge, but our main problem is super vigorous annual weeds: amaranth, lambs quater, button weed, and thistle mostly. Left unattended these will all crest at over 5′ tall, and in a week they easily get bigger than any growth carrots can put on. My biggest learnings here are that I will simply not even try these on fresh soil again. With more frequent attention mulching and/or wider row spacing would either smother many of the weeds or allow a wheel or scuffle hoe between the plants. I planted them in “wide” rows and the weeds took care of every gap I left.  I was planting based on maximizing yield per row ft like I do at home, but at the farm I have all the land I need -I need to focus on ease of maintenance, to maximize yields.  I am retrying carrots in the compost beds which have a fraction of the weed pressure to see if that might help.

The B.V.V. (Big Vigorous Veggies)

That last section was depressing… this one will be more triumphant.  The same insane fertility that makes the lambsquater put on a foot a week in height does the same for equally vigorous veggies.   Our potatoes, corn, fall squash, tomatoes, and cucumbers are unbelievably lush -deep green leaves, great height, and from the harvests on the potatoes at least -very productive.  Even at baby stage I am seeing 1# per linear row foot of Carolas, and at full size should see 2-3#.  These plants are either very aggressive in and of themselves (potatoes, squash, corn) or transplanted in at decent height (cukes, and tomatoes).   In the seeded crops I have weeded about twice 2 weeks in, and  again at week 4.  After that they  are so robust that nothing else stands a chance of causing any significant harm and I only weed to prevent them dropping seed.  In the tomatoes/cukes I planted into freshly tilled soil, and the mulched.  Again, they put on so much mass that little can cause them harm.  This amount of work better matches the amount of effort I am able to put in.

Drip Irrigation

Its fabulous.  I bought mine from Fed-Co and love it.  Thus far I water about once a week (in the 2 times we haven’t had an inch of weekly rain).  Routine is to pull into the farm, turn on the water, unload, weed, harvest, transplant, whatever for 3-4 hours, pack up, and then turn the water off.  Done.  Its pricey, but will last for several seasons and it has already paid for itself in time savings.  I also have 2 auto timers for when the dry season gets here, I just haven’t needed them yet.

In addition to providing some food for local folks and restaurants, the main goal of this project is to make my mistakes and take my learnings on land that doesn’t have a mortgage riding on it.  It is easier to be Zen about mistakes when you have no debt!  So here is the sum of them:

  • Start with Big Vigorous Veggies (BVV) on fresh land if you can’t smother the weeds out first.  I will never try carrots, etc on freshly tilled soil again.
  • Match your plants to your time constraints.  Potatoes are great crops for periodic spurts of energy in the garden.  1 Day planting.  2-3 half days weeding.  1 Day pulling beetles/spraying Bt (if needed!).   Lots of little 1 hour days harvesting -and harvesting potatoes is  not even remotely considered work by me!  Yields will be well north of 1000#’s, with 180#’s already in the hopper in July Wk 2.  Corn and Squash are about the same, with less time harvesting.  Tomatoes get alot more time harvesting, but the harvest is much easier.
  • Consider weed pressure in your rotational planting.  In years 1 and 2 of my garden I will plan on growing the BVV almost exclusively and then trading the surplus for beets, beans, and carrots.  The BVV will be on the leading edge as my gardens expand and will always follow any freshly tilled in green manures -the tilling will have brought up more weed seeds.  Carrots etc will only go in favored beds that allow for extra attention and will get wider spacing to allow better cultivation
  • When considering a truly Sustainable Garden -time needs to be factored as an input just as much as water and nutrients.   Time will make a garden economically unsustainable if poorly managed, and the entire garden could fail if the time inputs for various crops are not considered wisely.

I am a long way off of using the Sustainable Market Garden Plan, but the idea is still sound.  Incorporating these learnings will only make it better.  While there have certainly been some disappointments this year, being able to pull out bushels and bushels of potatoes with so little input is making up for it in a BIG way!  Other things still to work out -these gardens are not “permacultured” yet, and are still very “problem” intensive when compared to Fukuoka’s Natural Farming (the problem of weeds, the problem of plowing, the problem of fertilizer).  In other words the design is messy.  Need to work on that!


Ultimate Rain Barrel Delivery Vehicle

Hell Ultimate ANYTHING delivery vehicle!  This came up on Hybrid Cars today.  100 mile range, virtually as much payload as a F-650 (what its based on) and coming to America?  I just hope I don’t short it out with my envious drool on the test drive.  Diesel Sprinter eat your heart out!


Great Bennie Bug Guide

Attracting “good bugs” to our yard is a primary design consideration in both our home permaculture gardens, and at our market gardens.  Having permanent Beneifical Insect Populations and Sustainable Soil Fertility are the two main reasons I designed the, as yet untested, Sustainable Market Garden.  But I am not an entimologist, so how do I know what bugs I am attracting?

Luckily there are resources out there like ATTRA to help a brother out.  They put up a PDF from the Oregon State University, which is a high quality “pocket guide” to benificial insects.  I took the liberty of posting it here:

Pocket Guide for Beneficial Insects

Very high quality photos help you identify the buggers, and put a name to them -and if the guide is short on text it will at least allow you to have a solid idea of what is in your gardens, which will allow you to go back an ddo more research.

Speaking of research, this field is WIDE open -start tracking where you find soldier beetles and hover flies and get it on the web.  We all need to learn from each other


First Spuds!!!!

Here at One Straw we love potatoes. In fact I have an inordinate affection for the entire solanacea family which makes my rotations difficult in the garden, but that is another post. This year we went Big Time and planted 1000 row feet of potatoes from about 200#’s of seed stock from local growers and FedCo. The beds they went into were pure finished compost on a permaculture farm north of here. I had concerns about planting a monoculture block that large, we didn’t test the soil so I had concerns about that too -it was all leaf mulch compost -would it be deficient in nitrogen? minerals? But with time pressing in we jumped in and winged it. I will try to get some pics up soon from the fields, but suffice it to say that many of the Carola plants are over waist high! Better yet, the MASSIVE rains here in the upper midwest seem to have completely obliterated the Colorado Potato Beetles on the property. I have used essentially ZERO inputs on the planting -no BT, no fertilizer, no amendments, and only irrigated one day thus far in 60. Is it working? The pic at right should answer that question. We started harvesting baby taters last week -and we are already getting 12-16oz of spuds per plant. And the largest is barely 3″ long – with another month to bulk them up 3-4# per plant may be possible. Add in the fact that I have about 700 plants left to harvest, and I think my 1-2000# harvest is doable!

The dish pictured is about 1/3rd of a plant of baby taters, fried up with garlic scapes picked fresh, along with olive oil, rosemary and sea salt. Crap, I just drooled on the keyboard…again.

The skin on the Carola’s is so delicate you can actually rub it off when you are cleaning them and they keep their firmness amazingly well in the frying pan. Delicious!


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