Sunday, September 29, 2013

Big Projects

Each season has its “big” projects. Our latest goals have been getting the potatoes and the squash out of the fields. If it’s not done on time, you run the risk of the veggies rotting from too much rain. The sooner they are in the barn, dry, the sooner we can breathe a sigh of relief.

We tackled the squash first. Jen’s family came to help, and we backed the trailer up into the squash patch. Jen and I waded into the scratchy plants and clipped the squash stems. Then we tossed them, football style, to the kids on the trailer who caught and stacked them until the whole trailer was full. Butternut, carnival, delicata, acorn, pumpkins, spaghetti, hubbard… all sailed through the air except the biggest ones. When a few too many were dropped, we switched to walking them to the trailer, even though this method is far less fun.

Before we pulled the trailer to the barn, we realized that the amount of free space did not correspond to the amount of squash we had pulled from the field. That afternoon was spent cleaning out the garage, and we spread the squash onto tables we had set up inside. It’s important not to pile it up so the skin can cure and to avoid rot.

Next on the list were potatoes. For some reason they thrived this year and the field is full of them. This job is harder than the squash job. One person must dig under each potato plant with a shovel, while the other pulls the potatoes free from the dirt and spreads them onto the ground. Then we go back and put them into aerated crates, finally lugging the crate back to the trailer. The job is made harder because the plants on the surface have died back, leaving only a skinny brown stem where a full leafy plant used to be. Combine this with the hay we tucked around the plants for hilling, and you get a virtual treasure hunt. I was happy with the amount of potatoes we have this year, although a lot of them have green spots from where the sun touched them as they lay near the soil surface.

Again we had the problem of storage. The potatoes must last us through the winter, so we have to be careful how we keep them. They need to be cool (but not frozen), dry, and completely in the dark so they don’t turn green. Jen decided to buy more crates, so she went to a company that sells flower bulbs to get their leftover bins. As she pulled in after the pickup, I got my first glimpse of the monstrous pile of crates, stacked precariously on the trailer swaying to a height of about thirty feet. They had wrapped the crates together with plastic and tied them down with twine, but I was still amazed they had made the trip without spilling. At least we now had enough crates to store everything.

We are still digging potatoes and trying to get the winter crops planted. This means focus has moved to the hoops, which will produce most of our food for the cold season, supplemented with the crops we have in storage (garlic, potatoes, squash, and onions). I look forward to our next “big” project, which is planting garlic. 

Submitted by Stephanie Willette, assistant farm manager

Friday, August 23, 2013

Late August - already!

It seems like just yesterday that we were feverishly painting the barn and preparing it as our new distribution area.  And here we are in week 13 of the summer session!

Everyone asks about how the season is going - here's my attempt to summarize it in between children running in and out, etc.

March was frozen.  I like to have many crops in the field by late March which means you need to get in the fields by mid-March.  Frozen, wet ground is not conducive to a heavy tractor.  In fact, if you risk it, you're setting yourself up for clods of heavy, unworkable dirt for the next few months.  Not a good bed for seeding.  So, we didn't get into the ground until the second or third week of April.  A bit late for favas and onions.   Then we planted like crazy.  May was dry, dry, dry.  The garlic and onions suffered as I kept waiting for the rain that went around us.  June was wet.  Actually, it was perfect - we had nice, steady rains, supported by normal temperatures.  July was July - a week of hotness and storms.  Since then it's been a bit cool and dry but tolerable in terms of moisture.

Overall, the cool-weather crops are doing well and the warm weather crops (okra, eggplant, peppers and tomatoes in the field) are lagging but others are holding well.  It is all evening out.

In early June, we direct seeded many fall brassicas (broccoli, napa cabbage, cabbage, brussels sprouts, etc) which didn't do well.  We covered them with row cover to keep out the flea beetles and then the warm temps hit.  I think they cooked - not sure.  Anyway, we have few plants from that seeding.  So, we replanted in flats and transplanted about three weeks ago.  Hopefully they'll make it to maturity before the frost - we'll see.

We're preparing for winter now.  We've planted carrots in the hoops and another bed of beets in the field.  We'll mulch any root crops in the fields for harvest mid winter.  The hoop crops will hold with or without row cover.  Choi and baby kale have been planted in the hoops.  Chard and collards are waiting to be transplanted into the hoops as soon as I am ready to pull some other crops (either peppers or tomatoes).  It's an ongoing process of figuring out which crops are weigning and which are most productive.  Spinach and lettuce will still be planted in the fields with hopes of early spring/late fall harvest.  Daikon radish, cilantro, rutabaga, radishes, turnips, etc. were planted a few weeks ago and will probably go in again.  We've been mulching, fertilizing and weeding.  Not to mention harvesting.  We do a lot of that.  The potatoes are starting to die off which is when I harvest them - I leave them in the ground as long as possible as that's a good storage spot for them.  After they're out, I have to keep them cool and dark.  They are really producing this year!  It's quite a bonanza compared to last year with the drought.  Winter squash is also doing well although powerdy mildew has moved in.

Cucumbers are not doing well, as usual.  They produced for a few weeks but have succomed to downy mildew.  Death for organic cukes.  Other than that and powdery mildew, we've been very fortunate.  We've had some increased rabbit pressure and a bit of woodchuck issues early in the peas but overall, it's OK.  I still find deer tracks in the garden and some evidence of munching but they are grazers - a bite here, a bite there.  We just don't harvest those plants.  No real problems with the tomatoes (which is always my biggest concern re. fungal/viral issues) and virtually no damage from potato beetles.  That's highly unusual.  I attribute that to the theory that I left all larvae on the potatoes this year - some that I wasn't sure if they were potato beetles or lady beetles.  I think they must have been lady beetles which are voracious predators.  We also have the two spotted stink bug which preys on the potato beetle.  That, and I haven't had potatoes in this part of the garden for 3 years.  I'm going to go with the balance of bugs theory though, as it makes me happy.

Staffing is going very well.  Stephanie is a great assistant manager and has done very well while we were out of town. Owen has been with us since mid-April and did an excellent job but will be returning to high school soon.  Alyssa was with us for 6 or so weeks and has returned to college.  So, starting this week, it is Stephanie and I holding down the fort.  If anyone wants to come out to have some fun with the fall harvest, we'd welcome the help.

We're trying to solidify winter market plans.  The debate is Saline or Ann Arbor winter market and I'm waiting to hear back from the market managers as to options.

Let us know if you have any ideas, comments or questions.

It's been quite an opportunity to be able to grow food for you all for the past 5 years.  I look forward to working with you all for many years to come.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Garlic Galore

The garlic plants sent their flower shoots up, green tendrils curling around themselves into loosely twisted spirals. At the end of each tendril squats a potential flower, and it is our job to pick the shoot - or garlic scape - before the flower blooms. This serves many purposes. Firstly, the scapes are delicious, and I hope that all of you had a chance to try this brief seasonal treat that tastes mildly of garlic, but a gentler, greener garlic than the bulb. Secondly, pulling the scape prevents the flower from blooming, so that the plant puts more energy into its root. This way we get large, densely flavored garlic heads.  Picking scapes can be a game. If one is careful, the stem will slide out of the plant, finally emerging with a ‘pop’ as a full scape. More often, though, it breaks before the whole stem is pulled, snapping off before the most tender part of the scape is retrieved.

Just a few days ago we finally harvested the garlic itself. The heat index was above 100 and I was sweating profusely as I used the broadfork to loosen the soil around the bulbs. We are now in the process of bundling it and hanging it from the barn ceiling so it can dry. We’ve hung strands of twine from nails in the rafters with bunches of fifteen or so garlic plants staggered down the string. Now I know why the barn gets so dirty. Walking inside is like walking into a wall of garlic.

I’ve been going to Ypsi market each week and it’s always fun to talk with market goers and hear their recipe ideas. The ‘Double Up Food Bucks’ program has just kicked in, which is great for us and great for vegetable lovers. This program allows those with food stamp money to cash their stamps in at market and receive twice that amount of money to buy produce; though it only applies at farmers markets for vegetables.

Our CSA members have been receiving a lot of kale, as kale grows well in all weather and is a staple crop for any season. One good way I’ve found to prepare it is in a crushed kale salad. I slice the kale into very thin strips and poor a vinaigrette over top. Usually, I make the vinaigrette with half olive oil and half red wine vinegar, and add some honey to sweeten the tart taste. After pouring your dressing onto your salad, scrunch the kale with your hands for a few seconds. This will soften it and allow the flavor of the dressing to permeate. Yum!

 Submitted by Stephanie Willette, assistant farm manager, 7-21-13

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

April Showers and Barn Makeover

Contributed by Stephanie Willette, assistant farm manager

There was a flurry of planting as we tried to get everything in the ground once the warm weather hit on April first. So far we’ve managed to plant parsnips, chard, broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, leeks, onions, potatoes, peas, salad greens, beans and beets outside already. I’m sure there are a few that I’m forgetting.  The hoop houses are beginning to fill up with tomatoes and peppers. With the cold nights in April, tomatoes around the edges of the houses got burnt with frost, even though we covered them with cloth. I had to go around and replace the dead ones with leftover starts from our seedling area.

The large amount of rain last month left our fields flooded with water. The kids dragged a canoe to the backyard and paddled around in the new “pond”. Jen placed a pump in the middle of the flood, with a pipe that ran across the whole farm to the ditch near the road. We pumped the water out of the fields, but I fear the leeks suffered too much water damage to survive. Don’t worry though, we’ve planted more.

A big project for May was to fix up the barn. It got a new paint job and a flower bed around the border. We were worried about rain water rotting away the sides, so we broke out the tractor to regrade the soil. Jen pushed dirt to make a hill that slopes away from the barn so the water will drain away. The flower bed is also there to help soak up rain before it gets to the wood.

The chickens have been misbehaving and escaping from their enclosure. It seems they’ve forgotten their role on the farm and think they own the place. We fenced off a new area for them and cut a hole in the barn to create an entrance into their coop, so they can walk in and out with ease. Before, they were using the barn door for this, but we think this new feature will help keep them in their designated area. Before beginning construction, we tried to get most of the chickens outside so they wouldn’t freak out from the noise. Unfortunately, we missed one. As Jen turned on the saw to make the first cut, a chicken burst out of its nest with a squawk, just inches from her head. It startled both of us, and proceeded to lead me on a fruitless chase around the yard as I tried to catch it. I eventually gave up and let it find its way to its fellows on its own, which it did.

One of the ‘in season’ veggies I am super excited about right now is rhubarb. It has a wonderful tart taste but is great as a dessert, or paired with strawberries. In fact, it’s one of the few veggies eaten as a dessert, rather than in savory dishes. Try a recipe for a strawberry rhubarb crisp. Or, even better, simmer the rhubarb on the stovetop with water and a lot of sugar, until it cooks down to a syrupy consistency. You can poor this over pancakes or vanilla ice cream. Rhubarb has delicious stems, but its leaves have poisonous substances, such as a high amount of oxalic acid (something a lot of vegetables have, but which is bad for you in high doses). Still, one would have to eat a lot of rhubarb leaves for it to cause much harm.  Since it’s in season right now, I highly recommend keeping an eye out for this tasty veggie.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Spring, 2013

Can we call this spring?  It is April 25 so I guess we can.

After last year's record high March, things are much different this year.  March was cold - the ground was frozen for much of the month.  Then it warmed up and dried out - very dry.  So dry that when we seeded the seeds sat in the ground for about a week waiting for water.  Then the rain started.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

March Madness and April Gladness with... SPRING

We’ve started the seedlings. The barn is full of trays and trays of starts. They spill over the edges and take over every available surface: the cat’s bed, the barn, and the living room. I discovered some footprints between the tomatoes where the cat has walked for lack of leg room. In short, the barn – our seedling area – is now bursting with the new life that will soon miraculously transform into our dinners. It’s a guessing game, knowing when to put the plants outside so that we can start growing the food, but avoid that late frost date which could kill them all. 

We’ve begun ‘hardening’ the seedlings: a process of bringing them outside during the day for a few hours to acclimatize to the cold. It makes them hardier so they will be able to survive when we actually do transplant them into rows outdoors.

To start the season off right, we decided to build a large sign to go alongside the road. We made it big: about six feet tall and five across. Boards, which we can switch out, will hang from the side, advertising for our summer farm stand. Tomatoes. Cucumbers. Strawberries. As I began to dig the three foot hole necessary for the base of the sign, my shovel hit solid ice. A ditch runs alongside the farm, next to the road. It collects rainwater runoff, and right now that equals one frozen mess. 

I chipped away for a while. After ten minutes I had made a 1 inch hole in the ground for our sign. It was a little depressing. I moved back away from the ditch and toward the house. Better. I got into a rhythm as I lifted topsoil and clay from the ground with the posthole digger, making a very neat hole for the base of our sign. Jen and I carried it over together and plunked it into place. Check it out the next time you drive by. 

And finally, what is spring without lambs? Capella Farm has been showered with many of them. Some are strong and growing quickly. A few were born at night when it was extremely cold, and there is a definite difference. They weren’t able to walk, so we kept them inside the house by the fire to keep warm. A lamb should be walking within a couple of hours, but after a few days they were still having trouble. Jen would ask me to ‘Help the lambs stand up’ after lunch to strengthen their muscles. Terra, the dog, has appointed herself the lamb guardian and often checks on and protects them when strangers walk in. Just last week they finally found their sea legs and are up and at ‘em. We were able to transfer them back to the barn with the others and they are doing peachy.

Can’t wait to see what spring brings next!

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Harvesting leeks from the Frozen Ground

Contributed by Stephanie Willette, Assistant Farm Manager

The ground was frozen, but we had promised to donate leeks to the Food Summit’s lunch menu. Leeks are one of the few vegetables that can survive winter outside and even taste good. If you can pry them from the frozen ground, that is. So it was that Nick and I found ourselves armed to the teeth with shovels, gloves, hats, and all manner of sharp tools as we headed out to the leek bed.

It soon became apparent that the ground was not going to relinquish its hold on the leeks, so we decided to take it with us. With our shovels, we chipped around the plants as close as we dared, and dragged them, along with masses of frozen clinging dirt, onto the trailer. Then we drove the whole mess into the garage to thaw.

Another thing about leeks – you’ve never harvested as much as you think you have. In fact, they are one of my least favorite vegetables to clean because the process is so long and you end up with so little. The allium must first be cleaned, then its roots cut off, then peeled, and then rinsed for good measure. Our trailer full became two boxes worth of edible produce as we made our way through the pile.

Since a leek is an allium, it belongs in the same family as garlic and onions and shares similar health benefits. They have high levels of antioxidants and vitamins K and A, and help protect our blood vessel linings from damage. And they’re delicious, too. Ours ended up in a wonderful rice pilaf that was enjoyed by farmers and foodies at the Summit.

The Food Summit, for those who are unfamiliar, is an annual gathering of the Washtenaw County food community to discuss sustainable, local, and healthy food solutions. It’s a chance to exchange ideas and to catch up on what is going on. One exciting development that was discussed at the Summit was MAEP certification and the CSA Coalition. Capella Farm is looking into getting certified and joining the coalition. MAEP is a basic program that helps farmers asses their legal and environmental risks, verifying that we use environmentally friendly practices. The CSA coalition will be the first of its kind in the area.  Its purpose is to link together CSAs so that we may access larger markets such as universities and hospitals, and to define common standards for CSA farms (thus, the MAEP certification). We hope this will strengthen the voices and influence of small, local farms by linking us together.

As for the leeks, there’s still more out there. A second bed awaits harvest. But we are waiting for warmer weather, and for the ground to thaw.