Spud-tacular Start

Things are getting a slow start at the MArket Garden this year.  The soil is quite cool and most of the farm completely waterlogged.  However, I was able to get into the potato patch the past two weekends.  Below is 100#’s of potatoes – 50 each of Yukon Gold and Kennebec.

 

720 row feet of potatoes

720 row feet of potatoes

The Grillo does OUTSTANDING work in this application.  The Berta Rotary plow will cut a 1′ wide, 1′ deep furrow through the soil, neatly mounding everything to the right.  I then rake out the furrow to an even depth (not really necessary) and plant the seed spuds.  Then comes my favorite part, I turn the Grillo around, putting one wheel on the mound and cut the next furrow working my way back up the plot.  As I work along, the plow throws some of the soil from the new furrow up over into the seeded furrow neatly burying the seed, and leaving enough soil mounded between to “hill” the plants as they come in.  The result are seen above.  Working at a leisurely pace, I can see 360′ (40-50#’s) in a couple of hours including chasing chickens out of the plot and stopping to chat with the other tenants.

Soil prep on this plot was done about a month ago – it was planted with a rye/vetch mix last October and very heavily grazed by 100 chickens and 2 dozen geese all winter.  There was very little top growth, but decent root mass.  More importantly, there was significant manure, so I tilled it in lightly with a rototiller to get the soil breaking that down.  That is the only fertilizer this plot has received in 2 years.

Counting that hour of tilling, I have about 5 hours of work so far in this plot.  There will likely be another 5-10 in hilling and weeding, and it will take me about 10 hours total to harvest it.  Worst case scenario, I about 25 hours for 800-1000#’s of potatoes, which I can sell for $2/lb.   Time to market will be another 5 hours in delivery.  That works out to 30 hours of labor.  Seed was $200, cover crop about $10, and fuel less than $2.  Net Profit will be about $1500.  That works out to $50/hr.  I love growing potatoes.

-Rob

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!!

-Rob

Hoop House Phase #2

Kory has been pointing out that I am overdue for some Hoop House shots, and that is mostly because I am overdue for getting into the Hoop House! April here was VERY wet- with decent rains every other day like clockwork. Soil work was out of the question for almost the entire month. About a month ago we moved the Hoop House off the greens we overwintered in it as it was too hot for the Spinach and mache –pictured in the background behind the trash can (full of Comfrey Compost Tea!). At this time in a smooth system it would have been placed over fresh ground ready to plant, but the ground was not prepped, the Grillo was not in yet, and the soil far too wet for anything bigger. So it sat as a solar heated shed for a month as the soil dried out. The second shot shows the weeds to the south of the house that thrived in the warm, moist air. The ground to the East was turned by the Grillo -more on that in a post this week (hopefully!).

The trick was to till all around the house, and then move the structure with the help of 2-3 others. If you click on the pics to expand them slightly you can tell that the structure is free standing, but stoutly built. It is essentially riding on 4×6″ treated lumber which serves as skids, frame and foundation. We are getting better at it: basically you get 2 people per side to prop it up with 6′ levers (pipe, pry bars, whatever) and slide planks under it. Then you lift it again and put some rollers under it -we chopped up some old fence posts last year. 3 per side do it nicely. Then the teams switch to front and back with the back team pushing with their levers, and the front team steering. The ground is not level and we typically fall off the planks a few times, but start to finish we can move a 500#, 12’x25′ structure 30 feet in about 30 minutes w/o a tractor. Nice.

So what’s in it? 37 Peppers (Valencia Orange) and 20 Tomatoes( Isis Candy, Oregon Spring, Cosmonaut, and Brandywine). The peppers are on the perimeter as they only get about 2′ tall, and the maters are in 2 rows down the middle. Temp in the house at the time of this shot is 92 degrees with an ambient outside of 68!


The Tomatoes will be allowed to grow in fairly densely, but are spaced close enough to pick from 3 sides. The paths will be between the peppers and the tomatoes on all 4 sides. As the tomatoes grow I will string some baling wire across the inside of the hoop house about 6-7′ up and then drop jute twine down to another wire line. This will allow the tomatoes to be trained up these for air circulation and ease of picking. I should have tomatoes 4-5 weeks earlier than if they were planted out.

Key Learnings:

  • Plan your moves. My ‘maters would be 3’ tall now if I had moved the house onto prepped ground
  • Plan your space. Due to lack of time I just through the plants in -with better planning I could easily have fit 20% more in
  • Plan your plantings. Next time I will surround the Mini-Maters with lettuce transplants. That way I would be harvesting from the soil for an extra month until the tomatoes fill in.

Speaking of tomatoes here are some better shots of the transplants. My first transplants were a decided failure -all spindly and sad. My farming mentor stressed the need to up the intensity so I doubled the lights and this is what I have now! These are the first batch -about 4-5 weeks old and well over a foot tall. They are in 2.5 inch pots and getting a bit root bound. One thing I MUST get better about is not fretting about culling the seed trays. I let 2-4 tomatoes fight it out in there -I planted the trays heavy due to old seed. But come planting time the transplants then have to be teased apart, damaging the roots excessively and hogging time like crazy. The next day I went back to my home transplant rack and counted 96 more pots -each with 2-4 plants in them. My goals are only for 110 plants… I started pinching.

When it comes time to plant the tomatoes, I had great success with trenching them. The transplants are about 12″ tall, but I pinch off all but the top sets of leaves. I then dig a long, shallow hole big enough to fit 3/4’s of the plant laying it down, and then carefully bend the last bit above the soil so only the top 4″ are showing (at right). Tomatoes will root anywhere the vine touches soil, so the 8″ of buried vine will send roots out within days, and removing the leaves helps prevent transplant shock. The shallow trench also keeps more of the tomato roots near the soil surface which is the warmest soil in this critical early time -even in a hoop house.

MUCH to learn, but Hoop Houses are absolutely incredible tools for stretching growing seasons up here in Wisconsin. The Hoop House uses about 350 sq feet. With 1600 sq feet you could set up a path grid of 4 400 sq ft spots and rotate the house around it as you overwinter spinach, get a jump on an early set of tomatoes, and leave 1 more for melons/squash in the open air, and the fourth in cover crop.
Ah the possibilities!

Even if you weren’t growing food, the joy of walking into 90+ degrees of humid air thick, with the heady aroma of tomato plants would be worth it on the crisp May Days!

-Rob

The Money!

Placed another BIG Fedco Order this morning. Like $367 big.  That might not be a Grillo, but it is amazing all the things needed to tool up for market gardening.    Included in this order are two set of 600′ of drip irrigation complete with regulators, etc -one each for both farms.  Also included is 10#’s Japanese Buckwheat for weed smothering and benificial attractant, 2# of Dutch White Clover for undercropping, a broccolli knife for lettuce harvest, etc etc.

Obviously the drip irrigation is the lion’s share of the order.  But the regulators and main lines should be around for up to ten years with good storage and care, and the “T-Tape” lines should last several seasons. They claim they can last up to 5-10, but 2-5 seems more reasonable.  The freedom and accuracy that the drip irrigation will give me is worth (almost) every penny.  Irrigation is now a matter of flipping on a spigot and letting it run for an hour or so while I harvest or weed instead of spending an entire evening a week watering each plot.

I had about $200 budgeted, but after spending 10 hours planting potatoes and figuring on the $2000 in harvest I am hoping for, $50 in annual irrigation seemed like a good insurance policy.  The kicker with starting up this operation is the incredible upfront costs.  I am getting dang near $6k and haven’t sold a dime in produce yet.  Luckily I have a diversified “farm” business and the barrels are offsetting most of this.  Some things need to be considered:

  • I am sparing little to no expense -we are relatively cash rich, but time poor right now in Suburbia with our Real Jobs so I am choosing to buy quality (the Grillo) instead of used fixer uppers as I need the tools, irrigation, what have you to start the first time, every time.  I get about 90 minutes a day in the field once you factor out my Real Job, transit, and dinner with the kiddos…   If you are in the reverse this could be done for a fraction of the cost.
  • I am front loading the expenses.  When we move out of suburbia to the townships I will need what little cash we will have for payments, livestock, fencing, tools and the hundred other things that will pop up once we have land.  Going in with my irrigation, tillers, hand tools, etc paid for (and lessons learned on!) will be a big advantage.
  • I am building things that aren’t on the balance sheet, like dirt under the nails knowledge, time with mentors in the field, and perhaps most importantly: my market

Doubling my mortgage once we have land means that gardening for profit stops being an academic excersize with the first bank bill and I need to have a working business plan in place before I do that.  If we get anything larger than 1-2 acres (and I want 5-20) I will need to be able to demonstrate to a banker that I can (and have been!) generate income from growing vegetables.

Even though the bills are becoming a bit stressful as we edge in and out of The Black on the balance sheet YTD it all becomes moot every time I fire up the Grillo, pull the soil over the potatoes, or transplant a romaine.  “Find something you love doing, and then find a way to make money doing it”  Add in the very real aspect of I am helping a dozen people eat a percentage of their food locally while gathering information to help hundreds others do the same and I am feeling pretty good depsite the sore back and pocketbook.

Be the Change

-Rob

Potato Planting

The forecast was for still more rain, but it has been spotty and much of the rain missed my farm plots so it was back to the gardens. Wednesday night I was able to get 4 rows planted with help from the family, but much time was spent determining layout and a decent way to do it. Tonight I was able to get 5 rows planted in about an hour or so with the help of the Grillo and my experience from Wednesday. At the picture at left (click on it to enlarge it some) you can see the trench dug by the Grillo (background) and how the rotary plow throws the soil to nicely cover the previous row. the inital trench does need ot be slightly pulled out with a rake for proper depth, but the soil is so fluffled that it is easy work.

The beds are about 50′ long so one row is about 55 plants. Between the two days I have 9 rows in; about 500 plants! It looks like 190 pounds will work out to about 8-900 plants or 800 row feet -thats allotta spuds.

I love potatoes for many reasons. They are a “calorie crop” that can form the base of a meal- tomatoes, etc are mostly sides; they store forever; they are easy to grow; they are a blast to harvest -its the garden equivalent of scratch off lottery cards; and you can get two crops in one season.

This weekend I will get the remaining 80 pounds planted and will seed the “aiseles” with carrots and buckwheat. Time and weather permitting I will re till the true market garden beds and make the final call on weather to plant them with veggies or plant a smother crop. Next week will also hopefully see the hoop house replanted, in a new location, with tomato and pepper transplants.

Potato Prep

In the last post I showed the beds about 30% done. I have spent another 5 hours in them since then and the main, flatter bed is ready to plant, and the mound is about 75%. So after spending an evening putting the finishing touches on the beds with the kids {Mia was at a work dinner so they tagged along for 2-3 hours. Usually it is only Sprout, who is 6, is possessed of a healthy fear of getting lost, and is becoming self sufficient so we manage fine. Our daughter, Bird, is 4 and Knows No Fear. Numerous escapades ensued: the first started with the yelled exclamation “Look Daddy a Dead Bird” With my daughter holding up a distinctly un-alive and rather mauled robin. Guess its bath night!} We came home for dinner and after getting the kiddos to bed I hit the garage to prep the taters.

Prepping potatoes is simply sorting through them to make sure they are all ready for planting. This is the time to cull any “off” potatoes that are rotten or very soft. It is also the time to sort through them and cut up the larger ones. At left is a shot of my highly unscientific sorting process. Using my apple crates as a makeshift table, I went through my 200 lbs one tater at a time. True “seed” potatoes are shown at far left -golf ball sized with several eyes. At right are larger potatoes that could be planted, but most choose to cut in half to stretch the harvest. The trick to cutting is to ensure you get at least 2-3 “eyes” per half to ensure good growth. Last year when I only planted 4lbs that meant meticulously hand turning each large “Seed” to ensure proper placement. With 200lbs on deck and it being past 9 (I get up at 3am) effeciency ruled the day -I cut them in half, but if one end was sprouting I wne toff center to give the sprouting half a smaller chunk as I knew it had enough eyes.

Once you start cutting up seed potatoes you need to let them “scar”. This is simply storing them with decent air flow for a day or three to let the cut potato flesh to “skin” over. Last year this meant leaving them on the kitchen counter. With 50x the amount this year, I stacked them in bunches of 20-25lbs in apple crates and stacked the crates 3 high (at right) alternating them to allow each to breathe. I will start planting the Yukon Golds tomorrow as none of them needed cutting. The Carola’s, Green Mountains, and Butte’s will go in by Monday weather permitting.

Speaking of weather, it is freaky wet here. Maybe this is not much wetter than normal, but now that I need to be out prepping soil I am VERY cognizant of soil moisture levels. I will not be able to get into the true Market Garden plot for weeks since I will need to retill it knock the quack back. This all adds up to no carrots, beets, etc. not to mention the 800 lettuce transplants! Time for plan B.

Plan B makes so much sense it should have been plan A: All of the above will be planted in between the potato rows. I will stretch the rows out to about 18-24″ centers and run rows of lettuce and double rows of carrots/beets in the space. These will be out of the way by the time Potatoes shade them out. This is what they call intercropping, and its slick -if I can pull it off.

-Rob

Sub Acre Ag: Bed Prep

I have spoken much about the fabulous compost mounds at one of the farms I will be at so I figured it was time to post some pics. At left is a shot of the mound I will be working. It was about 7′ tall about a month ago, and I hacked away at it for several hours with a rake and hoe to make it into the flat(ish) mound you see now. This is the newest mound on the site, and there are still patches of raw leaves mixed in. This mound had unstaked tomatoes on it last year with squash mixed in in no particular order. I have pulled off the top foot or so of compost which seems to have eliminated most of the weed seed -it has laid bare for 2 weeks with almost no new germination!

To give some perspective of the fertility Mecca I have stumbled upon, look at the sheer amounts of compost available at this farm. To think that 10 years ago it was perfectly common for leaves, the raw materials of all these mounds, to get buried in a land fill!! The mounds are spaced to allow the valleys in between to be flooded during the drier months from uphill ponds that have refilled with the spring rains. The mounds then self irrigate by capillary action. The owner seems to have read some Permaculture books!

In January, I had planned to use the tall mound that I leveled as well as the nearest mound in the background. That mound is being used by the super sweet (and helpful!) Hmong couple that also uses the mounds, but the owner gave me a second plot-I was a bit concerned at first… The pic at right about as close to a “before shot” as I can get. Imagine 1,000 more of those 8′ weeds covering a hodgepodge of moguls form 4′ to 6′ tall. The good news is that it is still compost -just 10 years old. but in the mean time it had hogs on it intermittently and sat fallow last year (hence the weeds)- both good for a fertility standpoint. The owner rough cleared the ground with a Skidsteer- honestly I don’t know how else it would have been made tillable. It was still pretty beat up, but the end product was very nice -hell its 3000 sq feet of compost 2′ thick!

At right is what it looked like after about an hours work this past Sunday with the Grillo and Berta rotary plow. You can see the tilled soil on the right and my “test” trench on the left. The Grillo is every bit as good as I’d hope. As it turns the soil (albeit this soil is DIVINE!) it fluffs it remarkably -the end product is essentially a double dug (first you throw it out to make a trench, and then throw the soil back on top) 18′ deep and amazingly light. Doubt me? If I stray into the tilled soil when I was walking behind the Grillo and I sank almost to my knee! I finished this plot tonight -with some double work to try to level it a bit better it took only about 3 hours to till up 3000 sq feet with a novice operator. In that time I only used about a third of a gallon of diesel. I want to switch to B99, but I can’t use enough fuel to refill the tank! Working the Grillo is certainly much easier than using a pitchfork, but its not a spectator sport. The Grillo and plow weigh in almost 350lbs, and you have to steer it -manually. Both times I have tilled I have needed to stop after about 90 minutes as my arms were shaking with fatigue and I was dripping in sweat despite the 45 degree temps.

Here is a better shot of the tilled ground. Fluffed, light, and over a foot deep!

There are some hazards of working at the farm. First off its wet. Here is one of the chickens making the most of it:

Next there are geese seemingly everywhere -the flock is over 24 and growing. At almost every turn there is literally a mother goose hissing you warning for being to close to her clutch of eggs! If her warning is unheeded, Daddy goose is on his way to give you the old “What for”!

The Insanity of April is behind me. I am out of Rain Barrels until late May (I have picked up, built, and delivered 69 in the past 6 weeks- that is over 160,000 gallons saved annually!!) and the speaking engagements are behind me. For the next several months I will be able to focus on parenting and husbandry (both agricultural and otherwise). Looking forward to it!!

I have about 4 posts in the queue- hoping to catch up this week. In the mean time, the moral of this post is that NONE of this would be possible if I hadn’t reached out and started to work in the community on Sustainability issues. If I hadn’t become active I never would have found this resource in unused and freakishly fertile land

-Rob

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