Kennebec Poatoes i.e. The Lunker Spud

Moose Tubers bills the Kennebec as a potato capable of throwing some “lunkers”.  It is also known for being fairly simple to grow and an easy potato to cook with -good for everything from frying to baking to boiling.  Easy to grow and easy to cook -plus it produces big spuds?  I’m sold.

I am less than 15% of the way into my Kennebec patch, but I can personally confirm the “Lunker” claim.  In 60#’s of harvest potatoes this evening, I had 8 spuds over 1# each and 1 monster that broke 2#!  Also, we have a new Record Holder in the 1 Plant Harvest contest:

4 lbs 13 oz.  from one Kennebec Plant.  Top Left is 1# 1oz Top Right is 1# 13 oz!

4 lbs 13 oz. from one Kennebec Plant. Top Left is 1# 1oz Top Right is 1# 13 oz!

DANG are those some big spuds!  The “small” potatoes to the left would be considered larger than average Yukons.  Pretty impressed!  The 25′ tape is 3.25″ long for reference.   Unfortunately, the crop seems to be a bit sporadic – some plants are barely hitting 1# – the July drought came at a really bad time.  The plants that did well were in patches of mycorrhizal fungus that must have added to their water / nutrient intake – a trend I have seen all season and last.  Again, these potatoes were grown with no irrigation and no amendments other than a rye/vetch cover and over wintering 100 laying hens on the plot – about as close to zero input as possible.

It was great to have some good news  – tomorrow I am dropping my tomato tissues off at the Ag Extension for positive ID – but am fairly certain its Late BLight.  Also looks like it is hitting my other plot some too.  That sucks.

Again, good to have such huge potatoes to lighten the mood – baked potato for 3 anyone?

-Rob

Advertisements

Potato Towers Month 4!

Yeah, you got that right.  Month FOUR.  Potatoes are supposed to be half dead, wretched looking things at much past 90 days, but tower #1 went  in Apil 27 and is still vibrant and strong.  The spuds I field planted at the same time have only wispy desiccated brown leaves left – some are already decomposed.  Here is Tower 1:

Tower #1 Month 4With almost 3′ of root zone, This tower could be very productive if the theory holds.  Flowering for the 4th or 5th time – the repeated deep hilling as levels are added to the tower is acting like a “reset button” for the life cycle of the plant: each time it will stop flowering, and put more energy into growth and converting the former stalk to root.  My one concern is when to let the top growth go – I figure it will take a syck amount of leaf area to produce enough sugars to grow 25-50#’s of potatoes.  The main reason the plants die back is that they are pulling all their sugar into the tubers and there is no where near enough leaf are to do that now – will the longer season have offset that?  This may be the last rung on this tower and I have hit it with Fish Emulsion to give it some boost.  Still very little pest or disease pressure – though the University Extension just sent out a Late Blight (of Potato Famine Fame) bulletin – it’s in Wisconsin and stiking terror into all us organic potato growers – it can wipe out a field in as little as a week.

Towers 2/3, which went in 2 months later, are doing fine with one variety – I believe its the Purple Viking- having about 6″ more growth (1 rung).

 

Only about 5 weeks in and over 20" of root zone.  These guys are vigorous!

Only about 5 weeks in and over 20" of root zone. These guys are vigorous!

 

Tower 2.  Great leaf coverage, but about 25% slower growth than tower 3 with only about 15" of root zone.

Tower 2. Great leaf coverage, but about 25% slower growth than tower 3 with only about 15" of root zone.

At the same time I put in Towers 2/3 I also planted a double row of Purple Viking in a Straw mulch.  Initial Results were very solid, but the limits of this system are becoming apparrent.

 

Purple Vikings with 6 weeks growth using straw for "hilling".  5 Gallon bucket for scale.

Purple Vikings with 6 weeks growth using straw for "hilling". 5 Gallon bucket for scale.

The issue I am having now is that the bed is getting freaky wide- the straw keep sloughing off to the sides as I try to add height. this is about the limit I think I can reach without adding an insane amount of straw to the outside of the bales- I have already lost 2/3’s the path on each side.  If yields are good, next year I can see “fencing” the bed with full bales to give it some structure, “hilling” with loose straw inside, and post harvest turning the whole thing into a giant sheet mulch or fungus bed.  Again, this could be a VERY productive way to de-lawn a hundred square feet of your lawn over 18 months.

On a final note, here is a shot of what the yeilds of the towers will be up against:

 

Current Record harvest for 1 Yukon Gold Plant: 3.5#'s!!

Current Record harvest for 1 Yukon Gold Plant: 3.5#'s!!

This is the best yield for one plant (3 sq ft) so far.  At this rate, a tower will beat field spuds in yield per sq. ft at bout 5#’s per tower.  Expecting the bar to go up as I harvest the higher yielding cultivars like Kennebec and Purple Viking.  Still, this was a GREAT yeild for one Yukon plant.  My challenge in the field is to figure out how to ge this much (about 2.25x normal) from each plant!

Weather remains crazy mild – we have yet to break 90 ?! — and extraordinarily dry.  My sunchokes and Cupplant are withered and dropping leaves – these are hardy native perennials.  Even the week with 1″ of rain only bought a brief reprieve – the soil is dry down several feet and will likely not recharge until winter.  That said, the humus rich soil at the market gardens are doing much better.  The yukon yield above is from an unirrigated plot.  Yet another reason I like to plant spuds early to take advantages of the June rains.  The Late Plantings will likely suffer significantly in tuber weight due to the low rain.  On the flip side – tomato flavor is UNREAL since the fruits are not nearly as watery.

  While the shoulder injury has been a pain, it has really forced me to SLOW DOWN which has had the benifit of increasing that most important farming / permaculture skill of observation.  If I am only harvesting at 50#’s an hour v. 100#’s I spend more time looking at pest damage, tracking soil moisture and tilth, and just plain thinking which is making me a better person.  A time to reap, and a time to sow…

Be the Change!!

-Rob

6′ Tall Weeds…

Funny thing happens when you build amazing soil, add a week or so of rain, and have taken a month off of farming. The good news is that I could readily see the reason why inter-row weeding with the wheel hoe is worth it at about 30 days from sowing the seed potatoes – the rows where I did this had very, very few weeds since the vigorous spuds had out-competed them.  The rows I missed, well lets just say I needed two hands to pull up the Amaranth, and the Lambsquarter I needed to put my back into play.  I had a 80′ row of 5-7′ tall weeds, with some isolated Amaranth specimens the size of mature dogwood bushes.  Sorry no pics (forgot the camera)- but trust me, the weeds were impressive.  

Though I still have some naggin pain which isn’t seeming to ever fade, I have 90+% back in my shoulder and most of the issues are as much from muscle atrophy as the injury.   I worked for 5 hours today, with almost no consideration given to the injury, so how it feels waking up tomorrow will be interesting.  All plots are now back in manageable condition – it is amazing how much work can be done in a day, and I definitely owe a debt to the crew of Michael Field’s students that pulled weeds 2 weeks ago in my late potato plot. And yes, I realize how amazing it is to have a crew of organic farming students helping out during my injury!

On the harvest side things are just beginning to trickle in: the first cucumber is in, I got 2 peppers from the Hoop House, and have been getting tomatoes for 2 weeks from the Hoop House as well -though they are splitting very early and have had no edible ones yet since they are rotting by the time they are red.  If I can figure that splitting out (they get steady water so it ain’t that), I must say that Silvery Fur is one of the most productive varieties I have ever seen – I have counted 4 dozen tomatoes (mature size about 4-5oz) on just one vine!  That is about 20#’s of tomatoes from 3 sq ft!!  In about 2 weeks I will have more produce than I know what to do with.  My restaurants can take up to 30#s a week, and we plan on canning / freezing a lot this year -August will be NUTS!

From a spud standpoint I am on the last rows of my Yukon Potatoes.  With 50#’s planted, I have about 175# harvested, with another 80-120#’s in the ground.  Figure just a bit over a 1:5 ratio, but given Yukons rep for low yields and that over half were harvest at baby size (33% mature weight but OHH so good!) I don’t feel to bad about that.  Carolas will likely be next and in about a month I will be swimming in spuds and ready to begin deliveries to my commercial clients.  Again, August will be nuts and thank the gods that the shoulder seems to be mending.   Dear god, I have 1750-2250#’s left to harvest…  

Hopefully the market holds at $1.50 to $2 per pound – I plan on building (finally!) my Bio-Diesel production unit ($600), doubling my home’s garden space ($400), buying a freezer ($300), building a root cellar ($500), and thanks to the new tax credit possibly a down payment on putting in a wood stove ($4000) with the proceeds.  Al-Queda has poppies, I have potatoes…

Happy Harvest Everyone!

Be the Change.

-Rob

Journey’s

This weekend we traveled up to Minneapolis to visit friends and see Cirque du Soleil’s Kooza -which was amazing.  While there, we took an extra day to add in 3 more meals so we could sample more fine dining – it has been several years since I have eaten at Hell’s Kitchen and we also wanted to try some great vegetarian/organic/local food paces as well.  We had a pre show bite at Goldens’s Deli (organic and almost zero waste)  and then dinner at Galactic pizza featuring a “CSA” pizza with a revolving toppings list (2 die for!) ended up at Cafe Agri for lunch (veggie biscuits and gravy!) ,and capped the weekend off with stop at Common Roots for dinner on Saturday (they had a sign up asking patrons to come weed the onions at their featured farm!).  Awesome weekend with the family, and we got to eat other people’s garden raised food for a change!  On the way home I wanted to eschew the interstate as much as possible and cruise down the Mississippi for a bit as well as visit the Organic Farming Mecca of West Central Wisconsin -specifically Viroqua (the town that Beat Wal-Mart).

I absolutely idolize the area around Viroqua and La Farge, WI.  They beat Wal-Mart; its the home of Organic Valley Co-Op and hence, has what is arguably the highest density of Organic Farms in the country.  And thanks to the vagaries of the last Ice Age – alot of the topography is still intact meaning that the counties in this region are breathtaking -full of bluffs, rushing rivers and the land is mostly wooded.  Thanks again to that topography it is very hard to have large farms here – too much of the land is hilly.  This favors smaller garden operations, diversified farms, and small dairies which are typically organic to make it economically viable on less than 50 head.   We often dream of “unplugging” and moving to Mecca.  But this trip was a bit of an eye opener.  While we didn’t spend much time in Viroqua, we spent several hours talking about it on the final leg of our journey home.  

First off, it is exactly what we are looking for in a “sustianable” community.  That means it is so dang far from everything (85 miles to Madison) that it is used to living just fine on its own, thank you very much.  They have lots of local culture, a strong community spirit, and all the other things that I look for in where to raise a family in Energy Descent. It also means that, if anything, there is too much local food (is that possible?!).  Prices for local organic veggies at the co-op were less than what we pay in Madison, and the quality was significantly better.  That tells me that the market is flooded with local produce and the Co-Op, rather than the farmers, can set prices. More than that, with the quality on hand, either their farmers are way better than me (very possible) or the Co-Op is only taking their top 20% in quality.  That adds up to making it very, very hard to make a living as a farmer.  In fact, median income for Virquoa is a staggeringly low $33kish -for an entire family!-  vs $50k for my working class hamlet.  Sure, farm prices are significantly lower, but there aren’t many homes with even 2-3 acres for less than $150k.

On our way into Virquoa, my wife and I had been kicking around our perrenial idea of what our cafe/store  would be like if we ever opened one.  This is as much to wile away the time in the car as anything, and we came up with alot of good ideas.  In Viroqua, every one of the niches we had planned to fill with a corner in our  “Cafe and Sustainable Sundries” shop has its own dedicated store.  Again, a bittersweet note to how prepared they are, and how difficult it would be to eck out a living with so many niches filled.   Most telling, after a quick run through Realtor.com, and especially a long look at the “for sale” board at the Co-Op and we left with a feeling that plenty of idealistic people have left the city to try to make a go at This Organic Life in Viroqua only to fail to either makes ends meet.  Lots of supply, and not much demand.  Great for thriving on the downside of the Peak, not so great when you are wallowing in more debt than you would prefer.  Virquoa is a paradise for those paying cash for capital assets. We are not those people yet.

Also, to be perfectly honest, the fine dining and culture in Minneapolis was excellent and we had a fabulous time.  There is still a strong portion of both my wife and myself that really enjoys the accutrements of a medium to large city like a Madison, WI or Minneapolis, MN.  We both agree we could never live *IN* a city that size, but we definitely enjoy visiting, and -at least for now- we need access to a market that size for our produce and services.  I could easily see myself selling produce to any of the restaurants we ate at, but not driving 90 miles to do so.  A few months ago in a fit of strategic planning, we came to the conclusion that we would like to live on 3-10 acres (no more!) of land about a 20-30 minute drive from Madison.  Preferably in the 90 degree ark west and north of the city.  Close enough to have a market and a cultural outlet, far enough away to be able to afford land, and have some peace and quiet.

Now, after having spent a great weekend in a large city, followed by a day spent touring the hinterland along the Mississippi and then on into Organic Holy Land, I can say that where we are now, is actually pretty close to where we should be (HOA notwithstanding).  Would I prefer to be on acreage and have a masonry stove heated strawbale home?   Of course!  But this is a “long emergency” and will be more of a Journey than a Sprint.  We have likely have the time to be planful, learn skills, and to  try things out on a small scale before making firm commitments.   It felt good to come home, and I’m enough of a poet to think that perhaps that there was something symbolic in the fact that we entered our driveway to see one of the boldest double rainbows I’ve ever seen flying over the town.  

 

Home is where the heart is...

Home is where the heart is...

 

-Rob

Transitions: Small Scale Ag

Several items have dominated my thinking throughout the course of the past several months:

  • I am doing too much:  Real Job, small scale energy production, entrepreneurship, family, home-scale permaculture, community building, and farming… I get to pick 3.
  • The Next 20 years will be nothing like the Last 20.  Preparing for a successful “transition” will take thought, planning, investment, and action.
  • I love Pushing the Envelope.  Challenging the Status Quo, Answering Big Questions by putting Theory into Practice and then telling people about it is incredibly important to me.

To paraphrase, having come to the conclusion over the past year that the future that I was raised for (Eternally Progressing, Consumer Credit Based Capitalism) was not going to be the reality for myself, and certainly my children (Declining Energy Availability with all its Uncertainties), I reacted by attempting to shore up all facets of my life that were unsustainable -at once- and to help others by holding workshops, blogging, going to meetings, and giving tours all of which I loved doing.

But looking back over the past 2 years in the relative calm of the past month I have reached some conclusions.  I need to find a more focused approach to the next year that still leads me to a more sustainable life, but also adds to the dialogue of Sustainability in a meaningful way. I have chosen to refocus most of my efforts on Small Scale Agriculture, especially here at our personal home.  And to all you that have commented “I don’t know where you find the energy!” this is your answer – we’re all human and possessed of finite resources.  The sooner we learn this for ourselves the better off we’ll be.

2 years ago when we began market farming, there was literally no one in our surrounding villages that was producing local organic produce.  Now, thanks in at least a small part, to our efforts there are 2 young men doing some amazing things.  Neither of them have the external commitments that I do (family and Real Job) so they are doing a much better job than we were and making a bigger impact.  Our community has caught up to where we were going.  Leaving the Farm will be very difficult for me as I am happiest with my hands in the soil; it is possible that I may keep a toe hold there, but I need to move on until I have our own property.

The Appropriate Scale Renewable Energy front is even tougher.  When we built our first gasifier 18 months ago, we had a group of only 4 people doing it.  In the time since, as many as 2 dozen have shown up for our “Work Days” and with the publicity of the MREA we now have folks literally driving down hundreds of miles to learn from us.  It is hard to say that this area is ready to move out on its own, but I am facing the reality of hard choices – and the engineers in our group are better suited to this stage of our project than I am.  I will continue to think on applications for this “triage” technology, and to trial biomass crops, but spending 20 hours a month on this project will be a thing of the past for now.

That leaves Home Scale Permaculture in my initial list (Family is a no brainer, and we are not ready to quit the Real Job yet).  When I go back and re-read my title page for my Sub Acre Ag, I remember how excited I was before I diluted my energies with actual farming and energy projects.  When I surf the web, and especially when I look around South Central Wisconsin, I see very few people pushing the envelope on creating sustainable Suburban Lots.  2 years ago we grew 500#’s of produce from our yard, last year was not even half that and this year will be barely better, despite the improved soils and maturing ecosystems.   More concerning, the weeds, especially the Quack, have gained such a foot hold that we will not be giving any tours this year.  

So I have reached the determination that what our community most needs, now, is tangible examples of productive Suburban Yards.  In my Sub Acre Page, I took my vision to some “logical” conclusions.  If even my own small village of 1200 souls was able to follow our example, we would be a net exporter in seasonal fruits and vegetables with our production of over 1,000,000#’s of produce annually.  What a dream!  Pushing the envelope on this facet of Sustainability -blooming where you are planted- is where I would like to see us spending more of our time.  It gets me more time with my family, while better preparing both us and our community for the coming uncertainties.

I am drawing up plans to drastically reduce the amount of space we have dedicated to paths in the “annual veggie” quadrant of our yard while also better defending it against Quack.  Looks like a 50% increase in growing space is very doable on almost the same foot print.  Connecting my permaculture “islands” will allow for a more continuous soil ecosystem and niches for many more fruiting shrubs.  We have yet to grow edible fungus here, most systems are underperforming their potential, and the “zen” of the backyard is a Hot Tranny Mess that is neither soothing to the soul, nor pleasing to the eye.  There are plenty of “problems” here to keep my mind occupied, and the work is intrinsically good.   Maybe next year will be the year I finally lobby for an urban chicken ordinance… 

I will still be active in many other fields, but of course, a house divided cannot stand.   Ironically, the MREA fair this year helped to catalyze my thinking here.  Literally as I left my workshop on Victory Gardens I had an epiphany that next year I wanted to host a workshop on Suburban Food Production combining Biointensive Gardening with Edible Landscaping and Guilded Plantings within the ethics and goals of Permaculture.  

I have learned so much in the past years, but not everything has been skills in composting or welding. Yesterday we picked over 2 gallons of raspberries and currants from the yard to make muffins and 3 pints of jam… and we left 2/3’s of the berries on the canes.  And because it was my backyard, the “we” meant my wife, my 7 year old son, and our 6 year old daughter rather than whoever was at the Farm that day, which felt fantastic.  Our harvest was so bountiful, I literally felt like I was at a “U-Pick” berry farm.  We have achieved the Permaculture goal of creating a Surplus, and we are just getting started.

Be the Change

-Rob

Blooming Where You’re Planted

new-house-029Several Years ago we moved into our current home saying “We’ll move to a rural home in a few years…”  

Our current home is on the freeway- literally: this picture was taken with me leaning on our back fence… which is owned by the D.O.T. Follow the link for the backstory on that.  Our land was a farm field before we moved in – so in every sense of the phrase: we are urban sprawl.  The rich Wisconsin topsoil was mined and replaced with quarry pilings as backfill.  In this dead denuded landscape I found the inspiration to Be The Change.  I intended to spend the years that we had in this home building the skills I needed to become a small scale farmer, and just maybe adding something meaningful to the growing body of knowledge on small scale agriculture and (sub)urban farming. tour-resizeBy the third season, we had taken our soil from the above apocalyptic scene where not even dandelions would grow, to gardens producing 500#’s of produce annually.  We had packed enough design and beauty into the landscape that we were literally holding tours.

We had always intended to move – in fact 2009 was the the planned exodus.  I have learned most of the skills that I need to start a small farm, but the economy is not playing ball.  Due to the fall of our home’s value and the simultaneous ratcheting up of loan requirements, it will be 2-3 more years until we have the down money for our Someday House.  There are certainly some bright spots – Matt commented that one of his friends sold his home on craigslist due primarily to his descriptions of their edible landscape.  That is certainly encouraging, but for now we need to hunker down and Bloom Where We’re Planted.

Goals for this year at the Home Garden:

  • Declare War on Quack – it will be pushed back into the lawn and methodically eradicated by oversowing Dutch White Clover which is the only thing I have found that will outcompete it.  I am spending too much time disturbing my permaculture beds rooting out rhizomes.  
  • Fertility – the fruit trees have lanquised in the poor soil.  Time for some serious uppening!  Major 2′ deep sheet mulching projects are planned .
  • Function – many of the guilds are haphazard right now.  I plan on revisiting them to stack in more functions to reduce our grocery bill and add to our produce sales.
  • Beauty – the backyard is a Hot Tranny Mess of paths, half finished beds and conflicting design patterns as I have sought to try out the theories from whatever book I had just read.  It needs to be redesigned from a master plan level to repurpose current work and add direction to future efforts.  
  • Trees –  we have not planted many Apex Trees due to our planning on leaving soon.  I am not sure that will be an option if the bottom continues to drop out, so Hybrid Chestnuts and other fast growing yet functional trees are on the docket as well as more mid story trees like Black Locust and Cherry to begin to add a canopy.

backyard-resize

While we loathe the freeway and still dream of acreage, the house is nice and the gardens a source of pride.   The work we are doing here is meaningful as we work to demonstrate the possibilities in the suburbs and with the partnerships we have formed I have access to all the additional land I need to satisfy my farming itch.  

This year is already incredibly busy and I have already bitten off more than I can chew, but the work is pleasant and needed; my problems are High Level.  The goal will be to continue to refine my ability to focus and define what  is most critical to increase my ability to do more with the resources I have at my disposal.  Growing 2000#’s of food sustainably in a suburban backyard is still a huge goal, and so is the Market Gardens and our side business of ecological landscaping.  Finding ways to accomplish my personal goals without sacrificing my family life or paying job will be an ongoing struggle as I fight burnout.  Taking time to look at those first pictures of the property and comparing them to the bounty we have now is always refreshing.  We have done many things well in a short time.

Be the Change.

-Rob

24 hours

Random snippets from the past 24 hours or so:

  • Upon visiting my home town after almost 15 years I actually said “Huh.  The trees look bigger…”
  • We took our kids to the only Lego Discovery Center in the country yesterday and it was awesome.
  • I shopped in the Uber Mall near where I grew up and left feeling that the Suburbs of Chicago have a long way to go before they “get it”.  My god the wanton consumption!
  • Carharts, beards, and practical shoes are not “In” (yet!) with Upper Middle Class Chicagoans.
  • Apparently I bought over 4 dozen different cultivars of veggies and herbs over the winter …and they all came yesterday.
  • My son (whose in 1st grade) momentarily halted the dinner conversation tonight with the random, but perfectly reasonable, question of “If Mammoths went extinct… how did they evolve into elephants?”
  • I came home to a giant mound of UPS boxes in my driveway that I can only assume are my 310#’s of potatoes as Fedco reuses boxes
  • I got my annual review today at my Real Job and feel guilty about my raise.
  • I am excited to be giving two presentations to the 4th Grade tomorrow on Composting and Water conservation for Earth Day.
  •  I voted for Change at a local level today
  • Thanks to the barrels I have sold in the past 2 weeks 40,000 gallons of rainwater will be saved annually for the next 10 years and all the above seeds and spuds are now paid for.

I have much to be thankful for, and too much going on to realize it on a daily basis.  

We probably all do.

Be the Change.

-Rob

%d bloggers like this: