Getting the Veggies in the Ground!

... between the raindrops, that is! We've not had much time to post since our last big rain event because it's been raining on and off since then, which keeps us really busy trying to squeeze crops into the ground and stay on top of the weeds (which LOVE wet weather).  We can work around the rain but it's a lot harder--your boots get so heavy with mud it's like walking through quicksand.

Peas, lettuce, and spinach in the mist!

The last month or so has certainly been up and down. It's been quite a challenging spring this year--what makes the challenge most impressive is that we have had pretty much every spring weather situation occur here that could be a challenge in NY:  a cold, late start, a drought period with constant high winds, deluges, cold nights, and more.  And we actually were somewhat lucky here at the farm--we missed the mid-May snow that hit the upper Midwest, the late May snow that reached NH and VT, and the remnants of Andrea that dumped on the Hudson Valley!

Standing sentinel... Arlo is getting tired of all the rain!

Because we are new to our land, these challenges have also brought some learning opportunities as to how our soils and site can handle things.  On the positive side, 2012's drought was a powerful lesson in irrigation, so we are definitely better on that front.  We also better utilized our hedgerows as windbreaks this year, which was a huge help on some of the days where it hit 60 mph.  Our row cover investment lets us get almost an acre under row cover, and has definitely paid off--reducing pest, wind, and water stress on all the crops lucky enough to be under it.

Row covers in action (here they cover our broccoli family crops--mostly for pest control from our nemesis, the flea beetle).

On the negative side, we have been facing one huge challenge.  We have this beautiful lower field that we've been prepping since last year to hold 3 acres of our summer and fall crops (which is half of the acreage we grow).  We've spent hundreds of hours working on getting this ground ready, including a huge chunk of time in the last 3 weeks.  However, after getting more rain in just over a week than we did all summer, we learned that some of our fields are slower to drain than others.  Specifically, these 3 acres just aren't drying out.  After waiting and trying to work it and waiting some more, we realized we had to radically change our cropping plans in order to get the summer crops into the ground.

Mulched beds in the lower (wetter) field--so far the plants seem happy!

Fortunately, we had an area in the northern field that we had seeded down to oats to rest and rebuild for the 2013 season.  We realized that we needed to pull out the oats and get those summer crops in there.  We are lucky that we had this overflow option, but having to prepare these extra few acres has definitely strained our time resources (and our backs!).

One of the rougher areas tilled up for flowers--the green is just oats, which should break down quickly (we hope!).

We ended up tilling these beds and they look really good.  The soil seems very nice (and most importantly is DRY!).  We fit the beds for summer crops with black plastic.  We aren't huge fans of using the plastic, but it does a great job of warming up the soil (which is key for peppers, eggplant, melons, and tomatoes), keeping down weeds, and trapping in moisture.  We are also lucky enough to live in Madison County, which does recycle this at our dump.

All the summer cropped beds prepped and ready to plant.

We played hookey Sunday to go see the Civil War reenactment at the Gerritt Smith estate--so much cool history in CNY!

Making holes for the tomatoes (Matt's back is feeling this today!)

Eggplant and their protective clay cover (we dip them in clay prior to planting for some bug protection)

Before the rain Monday, we finished off all these beds!  It feels good to have these crops in the ground, and now we have time to assess that tricky lower field and learn what will work for using it.  Since that big rain (4" over a couple days) that flooded the field, the ground has been slowly drying out, and it seemed to handle our 2" rain storm well, which gives up hope that it will be fine in the future with some more moderate weather!

Tomatoes getting started (our main crop is all in the ground now!)

Arlo supervising as we get ready to water in transplants with our fancy new hose cart.

 

Rain! Rain! Rain! (and lots of May pictures...)

For the past three weeks, we've been having scary flashbacks to last summer's drought.  At the farm, only a half inch of rain fell during all of May... until this week, when two inches pounded down.  While the rain was a bit rougher on the baby crops than ideal, we are not going to complain!  It's supposed to be tapering off today and tomorrow, and then we hope for some good drying weather so we can get back in the fields, where our crops, cover crops, and pastures are growing like crazy! Weeding and rock-picking the brassicas (broccoli, cabbage, kale, and collards).  The white fabric is our insect pest excluding row cover.

Pasture, oats, rye, and windmills--on blustery days, it's all very ripple-y and gorgeous in the wind!

 

The rain brought us a real feeling of relief.  We have the capacity to water all our fields, but it takes a long time--irrigation after a three week dry spell runs to 3 or 4 hours of extra work a day.  This recent rain will basically give us the time equivalent of having an extra person in the field!  Even with irrigation, the crops don't seem to grow quite as well as they do from real, actual rain.  We can already see a jump in growth out of the peas, greens, and broccoli!

Early May pre-rain shot of garlic with baby onions in the background--everything's a lot bigger now!

Third times a charm!  This is one of our pastures where the grass seed just keeps not germinating.  Fortunately, it's starting to come along now (and this rain will help greatly!).

 

We've been laughing a bit because the weather for much of May has been poster child weather for days that you shouldn't transplant crops--dry, hot, and with battering winds.  Yet when plants need to go into the ground, sometimes you have to put them in on these terrible days!  We shifted our schedule to start transplanting around 3 or 4pm many days, and stayed out there to water crops in by flashlight as late as midnight.  Starting late means the plants will get the cool evening to settle into their new homes (and it's often less windy here at night), and watering each newly planted crop heavily helps get the roots to make good contact with the soil (and gives each plant a supply of water for its first few days).  It also leads to groggy farmers in the morning...

Thanks to our great volunteers--John, Mary, and Ben--who helped us plant onions, potatoes, and more.  Thanks too to everyone else who's come out to the farm to help plant these past few weeks!

Heavily watered in baby broccoli (before they get tucked away from flea beetles under their row cover blanket).

 

So far, all of the 2014 strawberry crop is planted, the potatoes are in, and all the spring crops are seeded.  We did lose a couple beds to poor germination (and one to the row cover blowing off one windy afternoon and our nemesis the flea beetles invading the arugula... but more on them next week), but all the transplants that went in under May's non-ideal conditions seem to be doing great!

Even our canine supervisor is dusty.  Pre-rain (and pre-bath) picture...

First working of potato field using a new tillage tool we are borrowing--it breaks up compaction and makes the soil much easier to work!  (Thanks Robert for letting us borrow this!)

Matt working up the potato field with the scarifier.

Wild apples... great for critters and for our fall cider making!  Last year's cold spell destroyed all the blossoms, so we are enjoying their blooms even more this spring.

Happy hens--they are a little obsessed with us so it's hard to get a candid shot (or to move around the field without almost stepping on them!).

 

Ups and Downs and Ups of Early Spring...

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Well, it's not really early spring anymore, but since it was so cold late into April, it still feels pretty early!  Last week was our last semi-quiet week on the farm, and now we are in full steam mode until the fourth of July.  So far in the field, we have peas, lettuce, spinach, beets, carrots, chard, kale, collards, cabbage, broccoli, radishes, turnips, and tons of greens in the ground.  Waiting their turn in the greenhouse and garage are potatoes, onions, leeks, scallions, shallots, and tons more lettuce, broccoli, and all sorts of greens.  Whew... you can get tired just thinking of it all!  Fortunately, the weather, while a bit dry, is certainly pleasant enough to be working in! Matt laying down anchors for row cover.  Last year we had terrible flea beetle issues in our brassicas, so this year everything's going under row cover!

The finished field... this cover will keep off the bugs and provide a few degrees of cold protection.

The big challenge we faced this week is that the 4 acres of pasture and aisles we so carefully seeded completely failed to germinate, which is weird and quite frustrating.  All the areas in the field that should be coming in nice and green are sad and brown-looking.  This led us to a big rush to track down seed to replant these areas and means we are going to be extra busy during an already busy week.  Let's keep our fingers crossed the seed we are replanting has better luck and we get some rain in the next few weeks so these grasses can get a good start!

Some of the rye that did germinate... it's doing well (and is 4" higher already!).

This also means our chickens won't be grazing inside the electric fence, but will be out in the larger pastures, which gives them a shade less protection than we planned for, so we are working out how to do a bit more fortification.  Fortunately, the hens have really settled into being good outside birds and are grazing and digging up a storm.  We've kept them in the yard to acclimatize these first few weeks, but they are making the big trip out to the back field tomorrow!

The ladies have overcome their initial fear of the sky, sun, and grass, and are loving life now.  More eggs come each day!

Greenhouse seeding is coming along well--we have some pictures below of some of the process.  As of this weekend, the greenhouse was over half empty, but we've repopulated it pretty quickly with more eggplant and peppers, tomatoes, and early fall plantings of leeks, chard, and kale!

Our almost empty greenhouse Sunday.

This afternoon's project--seed 60 flats!  (Mission accomplished!)

Maryellen repotting peppers into larger containers

Carefully lifting by the leaves...

Starting to plant apples!  We are putting in a few trees each year and slowly building towards an orchard.  Look for apples in those 2018 CSA boxes! :)

We had a midnight visitor... anyone recognize the bite marks?  We almost think it was a bunny standing on their hind legs...

 

Building the Mobile Coop and the Hens Arriving!

We are excited to have animals on the farm this year!  The first arrivals came Tuesday--100 pullets that should start their laying hen careers in the next few weeks.  We are pasturing the birds using a mobile coop and flexinet electric netting (which theoretically keeps predators out). This year we went with nearly full grown birds (rather than raising them from chicks) since we don't really have good indoor facilities to brood baby birds in.  We plan on getting chicks this upcoming fall to brood over winter for next year's addition to the flock.

Matt's been busy building the coop this past week.  We had hoped to use an old hay wagon base, but couldn't find any old bases near us, so we decided to just run it on skids.  The skids work fine and it moves easily with our tractor, but we still would like to get our next coop up on wheels.

Here's a close up of one of the skids (a bolted together 2x12 and 2x8) and the notched 4x4 floor joist.

 

It's pretty cozy for the number of birds that we have, but we felt like this would work well since it's just a seasonal pasture coop.

Half of the completed base--with skids, floor joists, and cross bracing.

Close up on some of the diagonal bracing.

More bracing!  Since this will be dragged over rough ground, we wanted to make sure the base platform stayed stable.

 

We needed it to be heavy enough to be stable in the Fenner wind, but light enough to move around easily.  The solid base should anchor it (in combination with some heavy duty anchors for storms), and the greenhouse top has very little weight.

Attaching the frame bents and exterior plywood sheathing (to deter larger predators).

 

The sides are 3/8" plywood to help deter predators.  We based our plan on this great Blackbird Organics design we found online:  http://theruminant.ca/2012/03/30/farm-glance-blackbird-organics-mobile-chicken-fortress/  The one change we made was to add the base for better wind resistance and to keep out any digging predators.  We've seen fox, coyote, racoons, random dogs, and mink on the farm, so we wanted to protect our hens as much as we can.

Arlo inspects the finished base.

 

Here you can see the boxes before the swinging access doors were added.  We have 24 boxes for 100 birds, but can add another row if this seems to be too few.  The openings all have 1/2" hardware fabric stapled over them against mink and weasels.

Adding in the nest boxes (some are different sized since we mostly used scraps of wood).

Door end with hardware fabric added to the openings (to deter the mink we've seen around the farm).

 

Here's a look at the finished interior.  It's mostly just a place for the hens to sleep and lay eggs, since they will be busy outside eating grass most of the day.  We shortly moved all these waterers up onto blocks so they stay clean.

Roosts ready for the move in day!

 

This is the transit box Matt built to go get them. We kept it fairly small so that they would be close to each other and not slide around in transit.  It worked really well, and the birds seemed fine upon opening--they were snug and warm despite the icky day!

Coming out of their transit crate (it's compact so that the birds don't slide around or get on top and crush each other!).

Opening up the crate--the hens are not sure about this new home.

Empty transit crate--it was two 12" levels, with each holding 50 birds.

 

The chickens spent their first afternoon recovering from their busy day in the coop, figuring out things like how to roost and bonding with their new home.

Making friends

 

Here's a picture of the completed coop.  We used a silver reflective tarp, thinking that would keep things cooler.  In this picture, the rain is keeping the hens from venturing out.  They've been pretty hilarious in the yard as they learn how to run, eat grass and bugs, and discover their wings.

The final shot of tarp roof, with rain curtains over the hardware fabric.  We just need to paint the exposed wood and let the hens settle into their new home and fields!

 

A few intrepid ladies are venturing out in the rain to check out other food options.  We hope the rain will break soon so the grass starts growing faster for them!  We should have eggs starting in a couple of weeks, once the layers start getting some spring grass!  We'll have more pictures of the hen exploits on our Facebook page (Hartwood Farm).

One of the field feeders Matt is experimenting with.  So far it seems to work well.

Cleaning House!

It was a busy weekend on the farm as the weather starts breaking.  Yesterday, we headed over to NOFA-NY's Syracuse CSA fair and got to meet a lot of great folks.  We love seeing how more and more people are getting interested in CSA.  We might be biased, but it really is a great way to connect with your local farms and enjoy delicious seasonal food! With today's beautiful days, a bit of the fields are starting to poke out through the snow.  (Since we are at 1400 feet elevation, we have a bit longer a thaw than everyone living down in tropical Syracuse or Utica.)  Matt used the break in the weather to finish cleaning the greenhouse in preparation for firing it up this week.  We have all our trays, seeds, and soil ready--we just have a few more heating system tweaks and we are good to go!  I'm working hard to control myself from starting seeds too early.  Last year we had such good early growth the plants were ready before the weather was!  This year we are waiting an extra 5 to 10 days on our first seeding round.

Greenhouse spring cleaning!

While Matt played in the greenhouse, I finalized (for the sixth time) our irrigation order (I definitely got the bum end of the deal).  Each year I tell myself I'm going to pawn off irrigation planning to a high school algebra class, but each year I forget to do it until midway through the process.

We survived last season with our existing irrigation system, but the severity of the drought definitely made us realize that even though we have a pond, we need to be more frugal with water (since the pond is not limitless).  This means changing around our set-up quite a bit, and each change involves solving for a range of variables (flow rates, water pressure, length of the lines, and more).  Hopefully we have perfect weather this summer (3 days of sun followed by 1 day with a gentle 3/4" of rain) and don't need all this irrigation, but we want to be prepared just in case!