Mini Hoopty: Frost Free!

1 week after mini hoopty #1 went up, I built the second one.   In the spirit of experimentation, I spread a full inch of 75% cooked compost down to see how if the darker surface would hasten the snow melt.  The answer is a qualified yes – it is faster than pure snow, but I found an even better way.  Temps were averaging over 10 degrees warmer than the first tunnel, but with a full inch of compost, it appeared to be acting as an insulating mulch and the snow remained under the mulch for a solid week.  Once I figured that out, I initiated a 3rd trial in the footprint of the 3rd, not yet built, tunnel.  Onto this 6×80′ area I sprinkled 2 5 gallon pails of compost onto the shoveled surface (about 1-2 of snow left).  This flecked the surface, but only about 15%.   Verdict?  The flecked surface was snow free sooner than the covered hoopties!  The frost is still in the ground, as night temps are refreezing, but this very encouraging.  To speed it a bit, you can see that I have laid the tufflite from #2 over the footprint of #3 for the week while I beat the rye into submission.

Hoopty #2, frost free in 2 weeks. Witness the Quail Manufacturing sod cutter. Its bad ass.

Hoopty #2, the one that got the 1″ of compost, was frost free in 2 weeks.  Nighttime temps were 12-20 and daytime was 25-35 with some solid sunny days.  Once the snow was off the winter rye cover shot up like crazy.  this is posing more than a minor problem.  The soil is a soup of compost and snow melt, and even scuffle hoeing is doing as much pulling as cutting and the rye is re-rooting with abandon.   Looking through my agricultural arsenal, the Grillo was out – too wet even for the rotary plow.  Then I spied my Sod Cutter.  This thing is a beast, and it cuts 1-2″ into the soil.  My hope was that this wold offer enough resistance that the roots would be cut rather than pulled.  Even this is not working uber well, but I’ve hit the patch twice now and the rye appears to be getting the worst of it.

All this toil, from having to use an 8lb sledge to pound in spike to make holes for the hoops, to shoveling the snow and spreading compost, to having to then remove the hoops and try over several days to kill a cover crop speaks to the need to PLAN for winter farming in October or September.  Back then I was thinking to cut back on my activities this year, but then my work schedule changed and I ended up more than tripling my grow plans and added a greenhouse to boot.  Next year will be SO much easier!  Clear the summer crops, apply compost, seed the soil.  As November approaches I will cover with Agribon, then as the frosts get fierce, over this will go the Tufflite you see here.  Frost will NEVER get into the soil and I will harvest throughout the winter with replanting of transplants in late Feb.

In the mean time, my learnings are awesome and even without a harvest the ability to walk across delightfully spongey, frost free soil in my little 6′ strip of heaven while the rest of the farm is under 6″ of snow would have made it worthwhile.  Tomorrow this will get the remaining transplants, and the rest will be seeded to spinach.  I have 3 more flats of lettuce that will be ready when Hoopty #1 is frost free, and Hoopty #3 will be getting the 20#’s of potatoes sprouting in my basement.  Baby spuds in May anyone?  Excellent.


Cold Frame Update: Fully Planted!

Last week I did a trial planting of about 40% of the Cold Frame to see how it would handle a 12 degree freeze.  Figured they tranplants would be toast, but one never knows and I needed he room in the germination table.  Guess what?  They not on ly made it, but have increased by about 50% in size in the past week.  AWESOME!  So today in went another 80 transplants, about half this flat:

3 weeks old, in you go!

Awwww! Aren't they adorable!

The second shot give a good view of the soil that has been built up over the past decade on this permaculture CSA farm.  Yes, its that black!

About half the cold frame - its big, its bold, its beautiful!

I stretched the spacing a bit in the second half as the rye cover crop I planted last fall is being stubborn.  Despite scuffle hoeing, it is coming back more than I would prefer. 8″ centers or so to allow for later cultivating.  to have over a gross of lettuce seedlings in the ground on the second of March, with night time temps in the teens and 6″ of snow on the ground is still messing with my head.

But I loves it!


Pimpin the Hoopty

So I now have 3 Hoopty’s: my mini, the small one (11×25), and I am using the farmers “workshop” hoop house (26×72) for starts and compost.  Living the gangsta life!  Still, there are ways to add functionality even to these uber cool structures.

Vole Hotels

This might not be the sexiest item you ever add to your Hoopty, but wait 6 weeks for your spinach to sprout, only to have it mown down that night by a vole and you will see their beauty.  Simply put, voles are the bane of the winter farmer (and many a summer one).  Hoop Houses are IDEAL environments from a voles point of view – their are predator free, warm, and in the case of my winter composting of restaurant waste, FULL of food.  The small Hoop House was invested by January (one round of breeding) with a record 6 seperate sightings in a 10 minutes period – that is in only 250 sq ft, mind you.  Voles are tricky to catch as they are very finicky about what they eat.   Fresh greens and seeds are strongly preferred, with the voles ignoring cheese and peanut butter in my experience.  They can be so bothersome that Eliot Coleman spends more ink on vole control in Winter Harvest than he does on growing his Candy Carrots.  Here is my interpretation on his solution:

Voles check in...

Here is why they work – voles get that they are rock bottom on the mammal food chain.  Hell, if a chicken can eat you, you’ve got issues.  Knowing that, voles hug walls and burrow for all they’re worth.  Running along a wall in a hoop house and hitting the side of one of these, the vole will gladly duck into the hole (1″ hole saw) as its nice and dark in there (keep them covered).  By placing a trap immediately inside the hole, one can capitalize on this tendency.  Its not my favorite thing, but its effective and necessary.  In the field one can over plant and take 30% losses from bugs.  In a hoop house or germination area, its easy to feel that EVERY plant is important.  These are 1′ x1′, making very good use of lumber with only about 5″ of waste in a 8′ 1×4.  With such small lumber – pre drill all your nail holes to avoid splitting.

Germination Table

I direct seeded some spinach in the Small Hoopty about 6 weeks ago… and they just now sprouted.  Why?  Soil temps are about 43 degrees.  Once up, they are growing fine.  To max out winter season growing, transplants are the way to go – the key is to get them to pop out of their seeds.   And that takes heat.  In my compost germination table I got lettuce to sprout in 5 days.  FIVE DAYS! All thanks to soil temps in the 80’s.  We have a big compost pile, but still only about 5 flats fit on it.  I have 2000 onions to start so, for this year at least, I need more space.  Enter the farmer’s Germination Table.  He has 4 2×4′ heating mats that we cover with a double layer of old greenhouse plastic to keep them dry, and thusly we can start 15 flats.  Once the seeds germinate the flats are moved off the mats and start another 15. Slick.

600 shallots, 1000 onions, and 1200 lettuces. Here come the BOOM!

The heating mats are on the left side of the table – the table will hold two small flats deep (4′) and 16′ across under the plastic.  During the day the front of the plastic is raised with a simple pulley system to allow the plants to breathe, and this also helps to harden them off a bit.  At night, or on cold, cloudy days, the cover of a double layer of greenhouse poly is kept lowered.  The mats are set to 75 degrees.  From left to right: 600 shallots soil blocked 3/block in 4 flats, 1000 onions soil blocked 3/block in 6 flats, and 1200 lettuce plants in 6 traditional flats.  The Alisa Craig onions could net as much as 1500#’s of harvest.  Awesome.

All tucked in for the night. The short sides will get folded and weighted down with a block of wood.

A 14′ 2×4 on top of 2 cinder blocks provides a tent that will span the flats.  All told 64 sq ft of flats can be kept climate controlled, or at least frost protected, and half that is on heating mats.  this system is simple and effective, having been in use for over 15 years.  Improvments could be made in the covering – light must go through 4 layers of poly to hit the plants – that is about a 40% reduction in strength which I would like to avoid, but insulation is the name of the game in Febuary.  Next would be to ditch the heat mats as they suck up alot of energy.  The Hoopty Compost is directly to the north (thawing the bins of soil in the background) and in Fall 2010 I would like to work up a heat exchanger of some kind between the compost and the table.  Whether that means moving the table over the compost, or using water to move the heat remains to be seen.

With over 2500 plants on the table the season is well under way!


Mini Hoopty = 100% AWESOME

So this morning I met a friend, Lance for coffee and then headed up to the Market Farm to test out my new Quick Tunnel bender from Johnny’s Seeds.  Siting for the Uber Hoopty (30×96) is still underway, but in the mean time I have spinach and lettuce to get going so I opted to go small or go go home.  There is a very strong economics argument for these little tunnels – they are between 5% and 10% of the cost of a typical High Tunnel of the same area with a trade off in significantly more work to harvest and maintain.  Here is the price break down for the 3 beds I am planning on building (3 beds 6’x80′).

Grand total for almost 1500 sq ft under plastic?  $400.  The bender and the conduit essentially last forever, the sandbags and plastic will be good for 2-4 years – perhaps more as the plastic is only out 5 months of the year.  The 20′ chunks left over will be used in the Small Hoopty, and at our home beds.  I am hooked on these things.

Why?  Well, for one the 80′ row went up in 3 hours of pick a little, talk a little paced work despite 5″ of frost that we had to pound through.  The next one will go up in half that.  Next there is the solar gain – interior temps on a 20 degree day were over 60 in 90 minutes and we were still futzing withe synching down the plastic tight.  Damn.  Finally there is the earning / produce potential.  These will net me spinach and lettuce sales at least a month sooner – well over $100 a bed, and will then get me into baby potatoes over a month earlier – again at least $100 each.  Those of you mathey types will have already determined that I am at positive cash flow without labor costs.   These will then make growing sweet potatoes possible in our climate by protecting the slips for May planting.

Here are some pics of our adventures today:

Tabula Rasa. Great soil, but not producing much ...yet!

We had 6″ of snow 2 days ago, but today was sunny and no wind at all – ideal conditions!  20 degrees, but thanks to the sun we worked in long sleeves all day.  The plot above is about 25′ wide and the plot is 90′ long.

Quick Tunnel Bender bolted to my trusty trailer. Simple. Effective.

Not bad for a bunch of first timers! This tool is SUPER easy to use.

The first 15 pipes bent in under 15 minutes.  Yep, under a minute each.  It is simply not possible to overstate how well designed the bender is, nor how easy it is to use on 1/2″ conduit.  Quick, easy to learn, and consistent: our first bend was as good as our 17th.  It is so pleasant when a tool works BETTER than billed.  So very impressed – can you tell? Next we needed to pound through the frost – I found a 3/4″ diameter steel stake laying around and, when slammed repeatedly with an 8lb sledge, made quick work of the job.  Funny thing about BFH’s – they get shit done!

5' (ish) spacing. Next time we may be more particular about evening out the heights of the hoops, but it works!

This went smoothly, but took longer than anything in the job except scrounging long heavy things to weight down the plastic.  Having Lance help was great, allowing one to set the hoop while the other beat out a tempo with the sledge.

Tufflite laid out - it i important to not have much wind or this part would be a nightmare.

Final adjustments prior to pulling the plastic taut. Our Jack Russell, Jersey, provided helpful advice throughout.

Laying the plastic was simple, but we had NO wind.  Sandbags would make the final tightening much easier, but our scrounge boards and blocks worked alright for now.  2.5 hours in, but we were taking it easy and enjoying the awesome day – its not even noon and, look Ma!  No Jacket!

Lance admiring his work. Fast, effective, and simple. Outstanding!

3 hours front to back and the results are impressive.  Will let this cook the frost out for a week or so and then plant with spinach.  The other two will get lettuce and romaine.  4″ of snow and 5″ of frost out in a week?

Snow @ 56 degrees? I told you things were effective!

This was just in the 45 minutes it took us to pull the plastic taut.  After 90 minutes it was 62 degrees – laying on bare snow reflecting much of the heat.  I see why the Tufflite is only used in the dead of winter!

Next week once the sand bags get here, I’ll put up the other two as well as one in the Small Hoopty, Though given these temps, that may only be to break germination and then I will need to switch to Agribon.



Down to Business: Salute your Solution

The Sustainability Stool has three Legs.

  1. Ecology
  2. Social Justice
  3. Economics

Meaning that for any venture to be truly sustainable, it must support Ecological health (everyone breathes) while not sacrificing Social Equity by stealing from Peter to pay for Paul (the US with 85% of the wealth in 20% of the hands fails this) or forcing someone else to move like factory “growth” in India’s commercial districts displacing thousands of the poor.  The final leg is one that many environmentalists get queazy on with the whole aversion to capitalism and all:  It needs to make money or it will fail. (grants don’t count, but they can help w/startup).  We can beat around the bush and talk about barter economies and time banks (both absolutely vital for the decades AFTER this one), but the rub is that for the next decade or so money is the primary means of exchange.  My answer to the Queazy Leg (and hopefully the other two) is what this post is about.  While this may one day provide an income for us, in the mean time I need to make money to self-fund my ideas.

The farming year is shaping up to be a Big One.  I am a STRONG advocate of farmers planning for profit.  That means setting some real revenue goals and determining what they need to grow to get there – in systems thinking we call this backcasting: where do you want to be in 20 years and what do you need to do to make that future happen; everything I do on this blog is my answer to that question… but I digress.  For 2010 gross revenue goals,  I put mine at $13,500 for produce with another $1500 in compost sales, and $1500+ in tours and workshops.  Chump change or waaaay too much depending on where you are on the home gardener > professional farmer spectrum.  With a goal in mind, you then pull up records of last years sales (or reasonable assumptions [CONSERVATIVE] if you are new) and get to work.  The Organic Farmers Business Handbook is a huge help in this process. I will spare you the details, but I know that potatoes are my “cash” crop, but that my sandwich shop needs more diversity, but has the most room for growth since I am their only grower thus far.  Both my restaurant clients have fairly set menus and traffic, meaning that to make more money with them, I need to grow longer not more.  I.e. I can sell 150#’s of potatoes a week to one client.  If I can sell for a month, that is 600#’s and $900.  If I can sell to them for 8 months… well then I am rather far on my way to my revenue goal aren’t I?  Growing on this scale also helps the other side of my business plan: this is a part time business with about 10 hours of field time a week (on average – don’t check my time card in April or August!).  Harvesting 200#’s of potatoes a week is easy enough and can be done with hand tools, some sweat equity, and a VW Golf for a delivery vehicle.  Harvesting 5000#’s of potatoes in a week for wholesale means buying a “real” tractor and mechanizing my harvest ($20,000): not an option.  That arithmetic –less over longer– is what has been driving my research over the past several months and is really the only way for me to increase revenue given my time constraints.  Add it all up and I have committed “orders” from my two restaurant clients for over $11,000 if I can stretch the season to the extent I hope.  This will take alot of work,  some new tools, and more than a little money – hence the rest of the post and my business planning.

Quick Tunnel pic from Johnny's

Longer means that I need to get in the soil earlier, stay in the soil longer, succession crop, get funky with my cultivar selection, and look real hard about harvest extension / storage.  Some of this can be planned around (cultivars and succesion cropping), but season exstention means purchases.   To that end I purchased a low tunnel bender and 2 rolls of Tufflight from Johnny’s seeds.  The Hoopty is still in the works and is absolutely vital to the project going forward to its fruition, but siting is taking some time.  To get into the ground for 2010 Spring Spinach I opted to go small.  Two tunnels will get me 1000 sq ft of covered bed (4, 2.5’x90′ beds) for about $150/bed and the plastic ($75) should last for 2-3 years and 4-6 seasons, with the bender and hoops lasting essentially forever.   Use will look like this in 2010: Tunnel #1 Red Gold Potatoes for babies in May>field crop covering with Agribon>fall Spinach, Tunnel #2 Spinach>Sweet Potato Slips> overwintered onions.   1 tunnel 100′ long will get me 4 rows of spuds -400#’s mature or 100#’s baby.  Baby potatoes go for $3/lb.  Net profit on one crop (paid off the tunnel!), not factoring labor – and there is 9 more crops to come out of these hoops in the lifetime of the plastic.

Hoop House and Quick Tunnel growing mean that I am going to be pushing the soils harder than can be replenished naturally and in the Hoop House cover crops will not be practical.  That means compost – ALOT of compost.  For perspective that means that we are moving from measuring and thinking of compost in yards to TONS.   Much time has been spent on winter composting this year, and I have proven to myself that not only can I cook compost year round, but that I it function stacks nicely in hoop houses.  That helps with the “longer” part of the business plan.  Essentially I would like to be harvesting at least ton of compost every 3rd month, with peak in late summer and an annual production of about 10 tons (about 40 yards) total with 2.5 tons processed through worm bins.  Again, compost on this scale is significantly beyond my current few bins and a pitch fork.  Plans here include a PTO driven manure spreader, a 30hp tractor and a 40hp skid steer.  The skid loader puts bucket loads of browns alternating with greens into the spreader which is parked and flinging material out the back like an angry monkey.  When the monkey flung pile get about 4′ tall you pull the spreader forwards 5′ and let the monkey loose again aerating and mixing the materials.  Making windrows 100′ long this way is not overly hard – let it cook until temps start to drop, then repeat about 20′ away (the turning radius of a skid loader), but it goes faster as you are just scooping  up the compost from the old windrow rather than driving to a pile of manure and then a pile of leaves.  That is ALOT of money for equipment and would be impossible, but luckily I live a charmed life and all are available on site, though not in good working order.  I will need to do maintenance and tune-ups to get everything working, but cost should be within line with the 1.25 tons of worm compost I plan on selling ($1500).  So that means I will have fixed all the farmers equipment, learned a ton about 1940’s era tractor repair, and generated a surplus of 8 tons of compost to be reapplied to the fields.

Ok, some of you may be thinking: back up.  Where in the hell are you going to get 30 tons –60,000 pounds!– of raw compost material?  That is a GREAT question and one I have had to work to answer all winter.  First – I’m going to grow alot.  Sudangrass or summer alfalfa will generate 8 tons of biomass per acre, fodder Sorghum with its 13′ tall stalks will get me closer to 14 tons an acre.  Sunflowers and Dry Corn will be grown for chicken fodder specifically to get the stalks for carbon in the piles add all three up to about an acre of growth on site.  Another large component however will be restaraunt waste.  500# a week, every week.  Add to that the 50 truck loads of municipal leaves and the 150# of horse manure a day and I’ve got more than enough  We will also be planting a coppice nursery of willow and biomass shrubs for additional, long term, perennial biomass that will eventually take over for the restaurant waste should that or the leaf source fail.

Earth Tools: my implement dealer

To get all this material on site I will be purchasing a beat to hell dump truck with a fellow farmer.  $4000 or less won’t get us a pretty one, but it will get us a working one.  For chopping up all this material a shredder for the Grillo will be purchased very soon for $1200.  It will handle everything from orchard prunings for compost to chipping coppice wood (2″ and smaller) for the gasifier.  As the perennials biomass comes on line (and we are using it to power the whole system) we’ll need a bigger chipper.   Do not think that scaling up to this level is easy ethically – that is alot of dead dinosaurs I’m burning to make all this happen, but I gots that covered too.  More on that in a bit. 🙂

This is alot of stuff – tons of produce, tons of compost, and a decent amount of revenue.  But there is an overriding goal to all of this:  the growing, the composting, the planning– is to get us a revenue positive farm so that we can build the foundation and funding to finally move forward in 2011 with the energy side of the SAFE (Sustainable Agriculture Food and Energy) Centers which we have been trying to do since we did not get Stimulus funding in 2009.   With a market farm generating $10k+ a year in net profit, we will pay off our Hoop House in 2 years and generate enough additional revenue from tours to fund the real cutting edge work of building a novel synergistic energy/food systems that we feel will push the envelope of sustainability.  Our Mission from God (Blues Brothers fanatic)?  To build a true Energy Farm where the natural systems of nature: photosynthesis, decomposition, and carbon sequestration are channeled through permaculture to produce surpluses of not only food crops, but also fertility and grid electricity and transportable fuels like methane, ethanol, and biodiesel to power the equipment and the a part of community.  This project is the culmination of my three year journey as detailed on this blog – the tens of thousands of pages read, the hundreds of people met and networked with, the thousands of dollars and hours spent in experiments and reskilling.  Making food, energy, jobs, fertility, community in one system on under 5 acres with resource loops reaching out into the village.  And every component -from winter composting to gasification, to biodiesel, to small scale ag, either myself or one of my Co-op partners has already done and proven.  The only thing left is commit the time and money to put it all together.  All major expenses are covered -I have sourced over $20,000 in Slow Money financing in the community-  but expect a funding push soon to help with incidentals like a Worm Wigwam, the Grillo Shredder, etc.   If you would like to contribute – send me an email at one.straw.rob (at)

2010 is the year of the Tiger –36 years ago I was born a Tiger: courage and hard work will be rewarded.

This is the year.

Let’s get down to businss and be the change!!


Ghetto Fabulous Cold Frame: a Photo Essay

The owner of the farm I rent my land at is a Master Scrounger.  Scrap steel, fiberglass molds, barely working engines, and barrels and tubs of all sizes lay around in somewhat organized disarray.  Last year I helped him restack a few dozen 3’x6.5′ panels of tempered glass from a retail store front and have been waiting for this day ever since.  My vision?  A Ghetto Fabulous, monster sized, uber cheap cold frame.  Step one started, as do many of my harebrained ideas, on Craigslist.  I found a guy 5 miles from here with 100 bales of oat straw for $2.50 a bale so yesterday I motored over with my TDI Golf, trailer in tow, to load up.  17 bales fit oh so nicely, and with the ground frozen solid I was able to drive right up to the mini Hoop House.

This is why I don't drive a Prius... 42mpg pulling 800#'s of straw!

Once the straw was on site and chucked over the fence it was time to start breaking ground.  With the recent rains we lost over half the snow, but the resulting ice proved to an issue.  The top 2″ of soil were not fun to break through, but below that was frost free.  The plan was to scrape free the snow below the bales so that they rested on bare soil as much as possible.

I opted to use my wicked tough 4" Rogue Chopping Hoe rather than a pick axe. The first few swings needed a lot of wind up, but then progress was steady.

I intended to lay out the bed on an East – West Axis, again to minimize shadowing, with the beds about 5.5′ wide and at least 15′ long.  The width of the beds was determined by the length of the glass, the length of the beds is to avoid the shadow from the tree wind break located 30′ to the west, and I want to avoid the footprint of the planned 26×72 Hoop Structure to the East.  Here is a shot about 25% through the job (30 minutes) with the layout taking shape:

The soil dug from the foundation is piled into the bed.

You can see that there is alot of soil being moved.  This is entirely on purpose for several reasons.  A bale of straw is well over 12″ tall and casts a heck of a shadow in the low light angles of mid winter.  So I sunk the south run of straw about 4″ into the soil.  This, combined with the natural south slope of the plot makes for about a 5″ drop over the course of the cold frame.  That is good, but I want better.  For every 5 degrees of slope you gain about 125 miles of latitude to the south.  So the soil from the excavation is piled into the beds, and once melted, will be “leveled” to give additional slope to the interior of the frames to maximize solar heat gain.  Finally, the black soil will reduce the Albedo Effect of the white snow reflecting the heat to further increase internal temps and hasten the melting of the snow and frost in the frame.

The cold frame is really taking shape. 6' of glass bows a bit without support so I reused the bamboo stakes from '09's tomatoes for bracing.

Some of the glass no longer had their frames and were bowing more than I thought prudent.   Luckily I had kept the 6′ bamboo poles I used for tomato stakes last year and they worked fantastic.  Time on farm at this point was about an hour and change – much of that spent lumping glass which was stored about 100 yards away.  I’ve had more fun than walking that far carrying 60# plates of glass over icy ground  in winter winds…  But it was worth it:

Viola! about 70 sq ft of cold frame in under 2 hours.

The straw cost $40, but will get used at least 4-5 more times (mulch for potatoes, then squash, then shredded for compost, then fed to worms, and their poop put into 2011’s cold frames 🙂 ).  I realize that few people will have 6-7 panels of tempered glass just laying around, but salvage windows, storm doors, etc are remarkably common if you keep your eyes open all year.  Will it work?  Well with one panel still to go on, no loose straw chinked into all the gaps, and the thermometer literally resting on frozen soil, the interior was registering 46 degrees as I laid the last panel on.  Outside air temp was 21 with a steady 12 mph wind – easily enough to kill spinach and kale, let alone the lettuce I have in mind for this cold frame.  Wind is the biggest issue in winter.  If you can keep temps over 20 (25 better still) you can grow a remarkable amount of food if you shelter the plants.

This cold frame will hold  250-300 heads of Romaine.  Early lettuce will command $4-6/lb, which means that my straw and $2 in seed will net a profit of several hundred dollars for my labor.  More importantly my family will be in for fresh romaine in less than 3 months.  Awesome.  Next week I will build another (got 4 blisters today that need to heal), and may put a small one in the hoop house for kicks.


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