In my last post, I mentioned something about it maybe being a dry spring... well, apparently I can tell the future because sure enough, it's dry! Now, if that would work when I predict that I'm going to win the STARS lottery... by the way, if you bought a STARS ticket - well done! I always buy a few because I've had a family member go for a live saving ride on that angel in the sky, and our farm here, is directly under their flight path, so STARS is quite often on my mind.
Back to being dry... part of me loves it, because there is no mud in the feedlot. The other part is looking at my empty 3000 gal water storage system and thinking about the plants in my header house that need to be set out as soon as possible. So, today I'm going to drive off to town and come home with a water tank and start hauling water until it rains, from our dugout at the brim of the coulee. Now, I was going to include all this detail in my monthly newsletter, but then I decided that I wasn't going to subject my newsletter readers to my long winded writing - I'll save that for the blog instead!
So, before I start I should give a little description of one technical term E.C. or Electrical Conductivity. I'm going to assume that we all have a relatively good understanding of pH. E.C. is a way for greenhouse growers to ensure that their plants are getting the right amount of feed from the nutrients they're mixing with the water. Okay - Brace Yourself, it's going to get technical and I'm going to dredge up Alllllll those terms you thought you'd forgotten after your last Chemistry exam in high school. Pure water, has poor conductivity because it lacks ions. As you add ions, the conductivity increases (increase in EC reading) because ions carry the current. Got that? It might be easier to remember that low EC when dealing with raw water = good, and high EC = bad.
With that out of the way, I'll outline the issues I face when I have no rain water. I've tested our rain water, and it has a pH of 6.8 with an EC of 0.02mS/cm, and when I add fertilizer, that ends up dropping the pH to 5.8 and increasing the EC to 1.67mS/cm, which is exactly where I want it for growing in the greenhouse at this stage. As the plants grow, I'll increase that EC to between 2.5-3mS/cm. When you are starting out with basically raw 'empty' water, you know that all the nutrients you're adding, are exactly what's behind that EC reading, which is Perfection. Also, the acidic pH reading is where you end up getting optimum nutrient uptake for crops like tomatoes. When you get a higher pH, like 8, you can start to run into issues with nutrient uptake, especially regarding your micronutrients.
I've tried using well water, but it's pH is 7.1, and the EC is 1.5mS/cm... so what are those ions floating around in that water? Sodium most likely. Plant's dislike sodium and generally do not thrive on our well water. We can drink it, but we aren't plants. The end result is, that unless I can split this water with rain water, I can't use it.
My next thought was to use water from the dugout. I tested it, and the EC, while not perfect, is workable at 0.8mS/cm. This issue here is, the pH is 8, and that's likely because we didn't get a good run off, and a good flush through the dugout. However, I think that with the tendency of the fertilizer to drop the pH 1-1.5 points, I should be able to make this work. In order to meet tomatoes voracious demand for Calcium, I apply lime throughout the season to the media. Lime is what farmers will apply to soil that is too acidic, to make it more alkaline, and peat is naturally acidic, so in the past, these two things have balanced each other out. I'll have to make sure that I don't end up applying too much lime and negating the acidifying affect of the fertilizer.
Yesterday, Max, my now 9 month old puppy, and I went on a 3 mile walkabout. I know that might not seem like a long distance to a lot of people, but consider this: you're wearing coveralls, heavy jacket and rubber boots. You're walking in 2-6" of black central Alberta mud. Elevation change of about 100'. Over fences. Over running water. Through sloughs.
Needless to say, it was quite a workout, and Max loved it, as you can see by the fact that all of his white fur is slightly muddy. Every so often I find it important to get my boots on and go for a walk. It allows me to get a different perspective of the land than what you get from a truck or tractor seat. At this time of year, the air is still, because there are no leaves on the trees. When you stop walking, all you hear is the silence. This quiet isn't the same as that that appears in the fall. Fall is a silence that is almost oppressive, it weighs on your shoulders, and you can feel it in your breastbone. It is full of the promise of winter storms to come, and long dark nights full of hot cocoa and reading. Spring's silence is full of a completely different promise. It's broken every so often by the chirping of a bird that's just returned from it's winter time holiday, or an abrupt gust of wind that rustles the dried brome grass. It doesn't weigh as heavy, because it is full of anticipation of the summer to come, the vegetables and field crops to get planted and harvested, the cattle to sell, the flowers yet to bloom and the friends to go and visit.
Part of the reason for this walk was to help me clear my mind and think about what story I want to tell for an upcoming project. People often ask me what I do in the winter when I'm not growing and delivering vegetables. My answer is the same as many other farmers, I just switch focus to other ventures. I help with the family feedlot for one, or do some repairs and maintenance on equipment and buildings. I also focus on the next growing season and outline plans, maps, seed orders and list what other input items are needed. I've also started building herb planters and bird houses to help pass the time. Winter is also a time for a lot of farmers to focus on their community and volunteer work. I've been a part of the local land conservation society for three years now, and find being a volunteer to be quite rewarding and, in the case of this story project, a bit of a challenge. When challenged to think of something, going for a walk, or working with plants always helps me work through it, and since yesterday was a glorious day for a walk... a walking I did go.
I'm glad for spring, but a bit worried as well. The runoff hasn't been that big, which usually foretells a dry season to follow. For all the water I crossed, and the sloughs I found, the volume of water is no where near what it has been in the past few years. Many sloughs are empty, and most of the running water is just a trickle. However, our land is seed ready, so all we'll have to do, is put the seeds in the ground and pray for rain. I always find it easier to deal with too much water, than not enough, but I'm learning to not get stressed out over things I can't control!
My internal clock is still not on this daylights savings time schedule, but the wall clock is telling me it's time to go make some lunch. I hope you all find time to go on a walk and find the promising silence of spring.
Hands down, the hardest thing I have to do every year is advertise. In everything we do, we are bombarded by marketing. I'm comfortable growing over an acre of garden, and taking care of three greenhouses by myself, but when it comes time to sell my product, that's when my palms get sweaty and my heart starts racing. The last thing I want to do when I'm advertising is be irritating. I want to hit that point with people that this is what I'm doing, and if you're interested in having fresh produce delivered to your door, contact me here... but how do you do that in a world when you are just one tiny (and shy!) voice out of millions?
I looked at ads and tried to think of the ones that really stood out, so I could take some of their techniques and apply them to my own strategy... Then I realized that most of the ads that I've paid attention to are the annoying ones that make me hit mute, or change the channel, or that make me mad because they are marketing fear. When was the last time you actually saw an advertisement that made you go, Hey, I like that! or that gave you a good feeling, or made you laugh?
The above ad by KiteBio- out of all the ads I've seen- is one that really sticks out for me. How brilliant is it??? That is exactly how I feel. I'm not sure if it's because it has a bit of a self depreciating sense of humor, or if it's because it's literally just marketing a fact that get's me to pay attention. There is no fear, there is no putting down of their competitors, there is no annoying music, it's just simplicity at it's finest. I like the idea of not using gimmicks, and just keeping it factual, simple and truthful.
I am also offering my customers a word of mouth referral, because out of all the possible advertising you can have, your customers are your greatest champions. I know that I wouldn't be able to be where I am at now without them, since about 90% of my return customers all found out about my farm through their friends. I've been blessed to have them and I hope they keep sharing where they get their vegetables from!
I've discovered another thing about writing a blog, it's a marvelous way to keep myself accountable and get things done! On that topic, I decided to talk about cover crops, since that's what I've been busy penciling out today. This year is shaping up to be a drought year again, and it's imperative to keep the ground covered to reduce water loss from evaporation. One of the best ways to do that, is a cover crop.
A cover crop can be a way to suppress weeds, add nutrients, prevent erosion, limit water loss, house beneficial insects, and even give the mice somewhere to hide from the resident Great Horned Owls... although I wish them luck with that (Also, how great is it that my mouse control is a pair of Owls!?). This year, I will probably have about 12' between my rows so I can run my tractor up and down them, if needed. The reason for that, is in case the weather turns snarky and wet, I will be able mow and cultivate the weeds if my cover crop fails, and not have to spend 18hrs a day hand weeding. By putting in a cover crop, I can suppress the weed growth and get the added benefit of supplying nutrients back into the soil, and, once again, no more 18 hrs a day weeding! I've noticed in the last four years of growing, that I've lost a great deal of soil tilth. I look at tilth as including trash cover and trash inclusion in the soil (trash = previous years plant residue), aggregate formation, and overall ability to withstand compaction. If there is one main thing I do Not want to do in this garden, it's mine or otherwise harm the soil, so I am taking steps to improve it. Garden vegetable residue breaks down insanely fast to my conventional crop growers eyes. On a barley stubble field, you will see residue all the next year, whereas in the garden, the residue is gone about mid-June.
So, here's my plan. Well, today's plan, I can't guarantee it won't change when I talk to my seed suppliers! They are, after all, the experts in this sort of thing. I'm going to plant a mixture. I've listened to speakers on youtube, and attended a seminar where they touted the benefits of having numerous species in one cover crop mixture, because of the different benefits each plant brings to the table. One might have a deep root system that breaks up the hardpan, one might fix nitrogen, one will add bulk and protection with its height, one might be flowering for insect food.... the mixes are endless and I will be able to formulate one specific for my needs. Our organic matter here is around 8% and that's mainly because we are in the black soil zone, and we routinely spread manure on our fields.
Soil Needs Are:
Nitrogen fixation. Why? Nitrogen is imperative for good plant growth, and it's ridiculously expensive to buy. Why not get it for free from wonderful soil borne organisms?
Flowering (low growing): Why? Flowers are not only pretty, but they attract insects, which pollinate, and feed various bird populations.
Bulk: Why? Because I want to build up the tilth in the soil and get some good organic matter back in there, and, I want something that will help slow down the wind. There's nothing worse on a drought year than wind, because it will suck the soul right out of your soil, the soul in this case, being water.
Compaction Busting: Why? After four years of walking on, driving on, discing, mowing, super wet years, then super dry years... I have some serious compaction happening. Our soil might be wonderful black manna, but I tell you, if you get it wet and dry it out immediately afterwards, you are in for some serious concrete problems (And, leads to an interesting time trying to cultivate with your tractor continually pulling a wheelie, which is not good because that's why things break!)
Brassica Inclusion: This goes back to a previous blog post about wireworm control, the more biological warfare I can wage on pest insects, the better.
That's all from me for today! I'm going to head back to area calculations and seed mixes :-)
It's been a week, so I'm back at the blog. My goal is to try and write a new post every week - we shall see how that goes during the busy season. Last week, I included my recipe for Chili Peans, and this week, I'll let you know how it turned out.
b- that was a lot of peas
So, next time I try this recipe, I'm going to use about 2/3rds the amount of peas, and add in a can (or two) of tomato sauce. The day after, we had the leftovers and added a can of tomato sauce and it just added in that extra little bit of moisture that chili is supposed to have.
I've never really been a huge fan of store bought split peas, because they always seem to taste the way an empty grain bin smells - kind of like cardboard. It was with a great deal of trepidation that I tried my first bite of the chili peans and I have to say, that the second third fourth etc followed quite swiftly because they tasted nothing like store bought split peas. They have a fresh, light, almost nutty flavor, and are entirely lacking in any starchy taste. They are also very, very filling. This recipe fed myself and one other a supper, a lunch, and a supper, so it would likely do a family of four, one meal? Of course, I served it with biscuits too, so that might skew the results a little bit. I will continue to experiment and post the results!
I'll admit (again) that I am quite possibly one of the worst bloggers around, but I'm going to try and change that this year. There is so much in the media about farming, and every time I read an article I can't help but cringe. It has gotten so bad that I have to brace myself before reading anything. The other day, I was talking to a professional storyteller and she really made me think. Why not tell my story? It's a lot easier for me to do that in a situation like this, than it is to try and read comments under news stories (with lots of antiacids because the vitriol that breeds in those areas is acidic.) and resist the urge to set the record straight with people who think farmers should still farm with a horse and plow. I know my blog is just another in a slew of words on the internet, but I'll try to keep writing anyway. If nothing else, maybe people can utilize it as a sleeping aid :-)
The other day I watched a farming documentary, License to Farm, which can be found here http://licensetofarm.com/ and it really hit home for me, especially the last message of 'Don't let your silence take away your licence to farm'. I will not be silent. Here is the start of my story.
What most people don't know about 9 Mile Coulee Farms, is that I started it as a way to stay on the larger family farm. Instead of driving to work each day, I made the decision to start up my own little venture that would compliment the feedlot and grain operation. Honestly, I really didn't think much of it, I just started growing vegetables. Ever since I was a little four year old, jumping from one of my Dad's footprints in the snow, to the next, all I've wanted to do, is grow food. Healthy food. Nutritious Food. Food so good that it melts off your fork into your mouth and makes you eat until you're so full your eyes close and you can't see the dishes for dreaming of how delicious that steak was. And guess what? I'm doing just that... but, with every comment on the internet, I'm finding that people don't think I'm doing it the right way.
This family farm has been here for five generations, and has seen massive, massive changes. My Great Grandfather used to farm with a team of grey Percheron horses, I farm with a team of 55 horses under the blue hood of a New Holland Tractor (Or, 245 horses in one of the Big Farm tractors - that tractor has air conditioning and a cab = Happy Sarah at harvest time!). The skills my Great Grandfather had, are completely different from the ones I've developed, because technology has the tendency to change in 100 years. I've driven a team, (of Belgians, sorry Grandpa!) once, but I've lost track of how many hours I've spent on a tractor or a truck. I've never had to make my own butter or milk a cow - for some reason that feels like a confession - but, I do know how to do those things because that knowledge has been passed down. I might have had a near butter incident with some whipping cream that started that conversation, but we won't go there right now.
I've found myself in a particularly unique position in the agriculture industry. 9 Mile Coulee is pesticide free and the Big Farm is a conventional farm. I have direct contact with the people who purchase my vegetables, and I'll never know the people who buy our beef, or our barley, canola or peas. I feel like I'm right in the middle of an ideological battleground between conventional and organic producers, and I really wish we could all just get along and learn from one another. An example of this, is wireworm control. Wireworms are a predator of barley, and they also make a mess in a potato patch. They can decimate a barley crop, which happened here a few years ago. In order to combat that, the Big Farm changed seed treatments. The treatment doesn't actually kill the worm, it just kind of slows it down until the plant is big enough to fend for itself. A barley seed is just a bit bigger than a grain of rice, and seed treatments are applied before the seed is planted. By harvest time, all of the treatment is gone; it's done it's job and has been broken down by soil microbes, so there's no risk of any treatment ending up in your food. Anyway, I digress. See? This is where I run into Blogging issues... getting sidetracked from my story with science and facts. Okay, back to the story.
The first year I planted potatoes in the garden, the tubers were full of shot holes caused by a wireworm infestation, because the crop previous had been barley. I spent the winter researching and trying to figure out a way to control them, because there are no chemical controls for potatoes that I could use. I found out that Mustard planted the year before reduces the population, because it's not a preferred food source. My horticultural brain started thinking... waiiiiit a second, mustard is a brassica.... there was canola beside the garden this year.... canola is a brassica... ding ding! Here we have a cultural control! I also discovered that wireworms dislike cultivation. So, I planted that years potato crop on canola ground, that had been cultivated and guess what? No shot holes, no wire worms, no chemicals. We've noticed that in the rotation with the barley as well, after a canola year, the damage is much less, and, if we fall fertilize aka cultivate, the damage is much less as well. I guess what I'm trying to say, is on the Big Farm, we don't just spray spray spray to get rid of a problem, we look for cultural controls, and physical controls as well. Everything we do, is a tool in the toolbox, and if we didn't think that what we are doing is safe for everyone to eat, we wouldn't be eating food grown on our own farm. Tonight for supper I've made Chili Peans, which is Chili made out of peas instead of beans, and everything except the tomatoes, was grown on our farm, and yes, the peas were sprayed, the beef had an antibiotic treatment, and the beans, onions, and peppers were grown without chemical treatments. It's all safe. It's packed Full of nutrition, it's carbon footprint is way, way smaller than anything bought from the grocery store, And it smells deeeeeelicious.
Recipe: (Forgive me, it's a Sarah recipe, so that generally means... there was no recipe and I made it up as I was cooking and forgot to write down and/or measure anything)
2 pounds of ground beef, cooked
one sandwich bag of whole yellow peas (Soak overnight)
one half sandwich bag of dried baking beans (soak overnight)
one can of diced tomatoes
one banana pepper
chili to taste
summer savory to taste
Cook the ground beef, drain the peas and beans, cut up the pepper and onions, mix in the spices, place in a slow cooker and cook for about 6 hours.
So, here is where I admit to possibly being the worst blogger in the history of the blogosphere. I had every intention of keeping up with my potato blog, but then something marvelous happened. I started selling potatoes. And, I mean, I started Selling Potatoes by the 20 lb bag and by the 150 lb bag, and I got too busy to think about blogging. It was incredible! I want to thank each and every single person who bought potatoes from me last fall because nothing went to waste and I sold out early.
I have saved my own potato seed for planting this year l and ordered a few bags from Eagle Creek Seed Potatoes out of Bowden, so there will be plenty of potatoes to go around this year too. Are you looking forward to spring as much as I am??? I can't wait to feel the warmth of the soil, and smell that wonderful smell so unique to spring. Ahhhhhhh.... it can't come quick enough!
Today was a beautiful day! The wind was calm, the sun was shining, and the blue jays were singing (if you can call their scolding, singing.) And, to make things even better, I sold another 20 lbs of potatoes. Now, I know that doesn't seem like that much, but each person who buys 20 lbs, is another person who gets to enjoy some delicious potatoes.
I set myself a goal three days ago, that I was going to bring back the spud. Make it popular again. Make it fascinating. Take away the boredom@
Today dawned a cheerful -7 degrees. A few days ago when I was pushing hard to get the potatoes dug, I had last nights forecast in my mind. I didn't sell any potatoes today, but I did decide that I'm going to start cooking with potatoes in creative ways and posting them on my social media sites. If anything, it will help everyone realize that they are a versatile food, and if there's a bonus... maybe someone will purchase some potatoes to make some new recipes! I do like to experiment in the kitchen, and tonight I was craving pizza. So, I searched for potato pizza crusts online and read a few different recipes, before concocting my own. It turned out pretty good! I do have to refine the recipe a bit before I post it, but that's half the fun of cooking and experimenting, right? Do you have a favorite potato recipe???
Yesterday, I finished digging potatoes about twenty minutes before the cold front and rain hit. It was a huge adrenalin rush getting them off the wagon and into the header house. The first rain drop splattered on the brim of my hat as I was driving my tractor in from the field (There are times I wish I had a cab... this was one of them) but before the deluge hit, I was able to get all of the bags safely under cover. I shut the door on the potato digging and went into the house to cook supper.
This brings us to today. Day #1. I'm considering this Day #1 because this is the first day of trying to sell potatoes. I opened the door to the header house this morning and discovered that it was full. Well, maybe not "full" full, as there is still a small area to walk to the other end. Still, there's about 2000 lbs of potatoes to sell! The bounty of the garden never ceases to amaze me, even on a year such as this when the growing conditions were beyond challenging.