Update and Storm Recap

To save time I will revisit the update I sent to our googlegroup CSA:

Unfortunately the update this week will mimic much of the news we have
all heard all too often lately in Southern Wisconsin -too much rain!
The plan was that by this time in June we would be harvesting dozens
and dozens of full heads of lettuce, and be within weeks of carrots,
beets, and nasturium among others.  Unfortunately the hail from last
Saturday’s storm has severely damaged our Romaine and Lettuce crop –
essentially what we were unable to get out Saturday Morning is a total
loss. Also, all of our seeded plantings of carrots/beets/etc has
washed out twice.  We will replant (again!) as soon as we can enter the fields again
-“homegrown” carrots are simply too good to let a little (or a LOT!)
of rain stop us!  I knew there was a reason we bought 5000 carrot

The earlier crops that are up, are severely compromised with weeds as
we’ve been unable to cultivate our fields for the better part of 2
weeks –the soil is like quick sand.   Hoeing the fields by hand is
critical to organic systems as a physical means of reducing weed
competition with the crops, vs spraying a herbicide over “Round-Up –
Ready GMO Crops”.  The situation is salvageable, but we have much more
work in front of us this June than expected.

But enough with the depressing news!  On the Bright Side -the potatoes
are unbelievably robust -rebounding from the killing frost with such
vigor it is almost impossible to tell it ever happened!  I had high
hopes for our large potatoes plantings and thus far they are coming
true!  VERY excited to harvest in about 5-6 weeks!  Also, the Hoop
House Tomatoes and Peppers are right on track.  The Hoop House
plantings have allowed the tomatoes to form incredibly thick stemmed
“shrubs” despite the relatively cold late spring which is setting back
most tomatoes planted outside.  In fact the vines are so vigorous we
will be trellising them this weekend.  Hope to have photos up this

On the home front we are incredibly unaffected by the 15+ inches of rain in the past 2 weeks.  Our sump hasn’t even run once…  That said getting around is very difficult -the two major rivers in our county -the Rock and Crawfish rivers are 30% above record levels and the Craw is yet to crest.  80% of the bridge crossings are out -to go west to Madison (30 miles away) will take us an extra 50 miles in detours to find a workable bridge!  Luckily the public has been mostly smart about it and deaths and injuries are amazingly low considering that 12+ tornadoes have hit the state in the past 12 days.

This is either the best (due to all the learnings and getting my hubris smacked down) or worst (because semingly everything that can go wrong, is) year to start a market gardening operation.  I am remarkably Zen about it so far.  Mostly because all my tools are paid for and no bills are riding on a successful harvest.  Still we have managed to sell a bit over $100 thus far -mostly Romain- which is not bad considering the Global Warming induced climate insanity.

They are calling this past storm a “500 year storm”.  But seeing as we’ve had 4 50yr events in the past 5 years I have no confidence we will get a 499 year respite from flooding on this scale again…

Gearing up for my presentations of our Earth Victory Gardens and Gasifiers at the MREA (Sustain Jefferson) next weekend and my hosting of a Permaculture Group and the Sierra Club of Madison for a tour of my “sustainable yard” in 2 weeks.  Waaaaay too much to do!



Funny thing happened on the way home from my 6th, of 7, deliveries to my Big Rain Barrel Account.

Wonder what this could be...

Yep! The Grillo is here!

I was concerned that it was still in the box -Joel at Earth Tools had said it would be “ready to go”… No worries though:

From box… to this in about 20 minutes -including mounting the rotary plow-look at the teeth on that thing! The wheel in the back is for transport, and can also be set a depth gauge. Perspective in this shot is difficult -trust me, this thing is BIG!

Earth Tools does a hell of a job, the tranny was full of grease and oil, and there was even a gallon of diesel in the tank. You could literally have this dropped off at the job site and been “in the dirt” within 20 minutes. Nice! Course I had to try it out. I quick dug up a chunk of the backyard, you know, to test it out 😉 Once I figured out how to shift it and engage the PTO (new square cut gears=rough shifting) enough not to embarrass myself I loaded it up to take out to the Market Garden to play.

The shot at right gives a better sense of the size of this tractor.  The trailer has a 5×8 bed with 2′ sides…   The owner was stoked to see what it could do, so we did a test run in the garden plot with the rotary plow.  Unfortunately, it is still a bit wet, so no pics of that yet.

But, he needed to till under a section of their garden for their onions so we swapped on the tiller implement: changing implements is straight forward -you need a 19mm box end wrench and the ability to dead lift a hundred pounds. It really only takes 2-4 minutes like they claim.

I bought the tiller implement to turn under crops and prep beds for seeding with an Earthway Seeder. Here you can see the fine work it does on precut beds. In the pic, I am going back over my first tilling so you can see the difference. The inital till was perfect for transplanting, the second till leaves an incredibly smooth tilth that an Earthway would be a breeze to push through. I was very pleased and the farm owner was impressed at its precision in working in the planted beds in the background. On these long rows I was glad I got the locking differential: get it pointed straight, lock the diff and you can follow along with one hand -the locked diff keeps it arrow straight. 1st gear is a very slow walk, 2nd gear is a steady/fast walk. 3rd gear (8mph) ripped the tractor out of my hands and engaged the auto kill…

A better shot of the tilth after a second light tilling at it shallowest depth.

Very excited to put this to some real work in this week if the rain holds off. After my initail trials, I think the rotary plow will make a wicked good potato planter- it digs a 10″ wide furrow 8″ deep and throws the soil 18″ to the right. I think I will be able to cut a row, plant it, turn the tractor onto the next row and throw that soil onto the first. MASSIVE time saver. I am stoked!!

About 1 hour in the soil and by eye balling it, I used about a cup of diesel fuel.

I like my new toy.

Will have more posts soon as cut the garden in earnest (it is over 50% quack grass- damn it!) and start planting the 40# of potatoes (Green Mountain and Butte) and 400 onion sets that showed up from Fed-Co today. Saturday I pick up 100#’s of Carola and 50#’s of Yukon Gold. I hope the furrow trick works!


Chicken/Rabbit Tractors: Sub Acre Ranching

One of the most perplexing challenges of my Sub Acre Agriculture project will be to consistently and sustainably increase fertility in the soils to optimize yields over time. While this can be done exclusively through green manure cover crops, it is more efficient to combine a planned cover crop rotation with livestock manures. Andy Lee states in his book Chicken Tractor, that while he was at Intervale Center in Vermont he saw yields increase in one year with manure to the levels it took 4-5 years with (very) heavy compost applications. As this system is designed to be used in small landholdings, specifically medium to large Suburban yards, traditional livestock such as goats, horses, and cattle are not really an option. That leaves smaller critters -specifically poultry and rabbits.

Rabbits are a great option if you want to eat them for meat: they breed like, er, rabbits, they have manageable feed needs, and their manure is “cold” which makes for great vermi-compost and can even be directly applied to your beds (though wait before applying raw manure to any food crops!).  If, like us, you are not into eating your livestock you may go the route that Patti, the Garden Girl has chosen and raise Angora’s for fiber while still getting all the fertility benefits of the manure. She keeps them in rabbit “tractors”, portable pens that are sized to fit in her small raised beds so they apply their manure directly onto her gardens. Slick! Plus they are dang cute and very gentle around little ‘uns.  Think of them as a functional petting zoo!

We will be using chickens as I want to leverage several very useful attributes of being a chicken: scratching for food, pooping, laying eggs, and eating bugs. When confined to a small space, chickens will scratch to bare soil in their search for seeds and critters, all the while manuring as they go. In a traditional chicken pen this leads to hardpan and toxic levels of nitrates which can kill the soil. The trick is to let the chickens stay put long enough to prep the ground without damaging it-in other words you need to move the birds. Enter the Chicken Tractor. Much like Patti’s rabbit tractors, chicken tractors are moveable pens that house, feed/water, and protect the chickens while confining them to a specific area. In our case the beds are planned to be 3×40’. So our “tractors” will be 3.5′ x 12′-ish with roughly 10′ exposed to the ground allowing the birds to be moved down the beds eating, scratching, laying, de-pesting, and manuring as they go. The tractor will be mounted on 2×4 skids, perhaps with wheels on one end if it gets too heavy -I want it to be one person portable, and will be wrapped in poultry wire with a hutch for laying on one end.

Initially the Sub Acre Market Garden was designed to include the chickens within the rotation-moved as needed to strip off a crop and prep the ground for the next. This was proving to be very complicated: Where would the chickens go from late June to August when the majority of the beds were in crop? Would the chickens be able to scratch down the perennial covers like red clover? How in the heck would I maneuver the tractor into the middle of a diversified bed? Lots of problems. Thinking within this rotational framework was proving fruitless, and was sapping critical time and energy, so I broke down the rotation and rethought it from scratch. The solution I came up with was permitted by the fact that I have virtually unlimited space at the farm (20 acre farm, .1 acre garden). I now plan on laying out 2 gardens that mirror each other. The first will be tilled this spring with the 48″ tiller on the owners Kubota -this should be the only time that tines hit soil in this project. The beds will then be planted on a modified rotation, basically removing the perennial covers (Red Clover/Alfalfa) that were intended to add fertility-replacing them with the missing legumes like dry and snap beans. Covers will still be used, but they will be annuals like buckwheat and oats to keep the soil covered in between plantings in the Spring/Fall beds. Come fall the beds will be sowed with a rye/vetch or other winter hardy mix.

Meanwhile in the “mirror bed” will be the more locus for actually building fertility.  Cover crops, unless left in for more than a year, typically only maintain fertility when used in a vegetable rotation.  Taking the “mirror” bed out of production will allow it to be under cover for a full year, building critical root systems, while also adding fertility and building soil ecology through active additions of animal manures.  Goal is to add at least .25% organic matter each rotation.  Not only will this boost yields, it will also sequester roughly 2.5 tons of CO2 per acre!

To get things going, I will do a rough sheet mulch to remove the pasture grasses, and that will then be planted with a PVO mix (Peas, Vetch, Oats) on parts and Sudangrass on others to build fertility and smother any remaining plants. Planting both (and any others that you can recommend) I will be able to experiment with a variety of crops for ease of incorporation and their ability to sync with this system. Into this I will use a system of mowing (hopefully with my new scythe!) then chicken tractoring to harvest the lush growth and manure the beds all year. The chickens will be moved frequently enough to not kill the mixes until late in the season. Seeing as both the PVO mix and the Sudan Grass are capable of putting on 4 tons of biomass per acre I should have plenty of extra growth for supplemental on site composting to provide compost for our Eco Victory Garden projects. In 2009 these beds will be prepped for the veggie gardens that will rotate over. Beds that will hold early spring crops will be fall planted with a crop that winter kills like Oats. The mirror beds may also be used to grow winter fodder for the chickens by letting some oats go to seed. Making the paradigm shift to the Mirror Beds has completely freed my thinking to move onto other, more practical matters like Chicken Breeds, veggie cultivars, pen design, and problem solving how the heck I plan to grow 1000 transplants without a greenhouse! Expect a flurry of posts on these topics in the coming weeks before I start being forced to spend less time posting and more time doing.

I have already begun meeting with my restaurant clients to get their inputs and commitments. 2008 is shaping up to be a great year! To say that I am stoked for Spring is a huge understatement!

-A very excited Rob

Be the change!!

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