Farm Update: The Space Race!

We ran out of space! Two weeks ago when we went to plant our watermelon plants, we discovered that we did not have enough room for all of the plants that we had.  

This seems to be a theme for us this year. We had a lot of extra tomato and squash plants that we just had to find a home for, which is why we now do not have room for the watermelons. We currently have about 500 homeless watermelon plants.
We had been debating converting a hay field over to produce. The question was really not “if”, but “when” we were going to convert this field. Typically, you want to do this over several months to give the grass time to die and compost into the soil. However, the only way we could save the watermelon plants was to open up this field. And in doing this… we would not have months, we would have 1 week.

  
It takes a lot of work to convert a hay field over to produce, so it was no surprise that the last week pretty much sucked. I commented many times during the hours I spent picking up rocks in the heat on my hands and knees that I was doing prison work. Hay is basically grass, so you have clumps of sod, weeds, LOTS of rocks – and it all must be cleared out before you can work the soil and ultimately plant a crop. 

 
As of last Friday, we finally made a home for our watermelon plants. The soil is not ideal…I certainly do not want to give the impression that doing this was a great idea, but it thus far seems to have worked. We will see once the plants begin to grow!

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Tony’s Thoughts: Rock Farming

 I have harvested a nice crop of rocks out of the produce field so far this year.  Rocks are something that you don’t always want to take the time to deal with, but if left in the field they can be responsible for a lot of equipment damage. Just like most things, the more time and energy you spend on the foundation, in this case the soil, the better your chances will be for success.

We have spent several weeks getting our produce fields ready. Picking up rocks, clearing our sod that did not die over the winter, working the soil. When the field was finally ready to form into beds and cover in plastic, we ran into a problem with our tractor. When I was about finished working the soil, the tractor overheated. After Abby and I spent a day adjusting the mulch layer, we discovered we were missing a part, which I had to call on Monday to have shipped.

It was time to trade in the old tractor. I spent some time getting advice from other farmers, talking to dealers, discussing what tractor would be best for our little farm. We settled on a New Holland tractor, which arrived on a Wednesday. unnamed
So Wednesday evening, we had the equipment we needed, Abby and I were ready to begin making the beds…and it began to rain. Argh ~ just a typical day in the life of a farm!

 With the plastic down, we were ready for “plugs”, or the starter seedlings our friend Myron Hess was growing for us. Myron let us know that the tomatoes, peppers, and basil plants were ready to go in the soil, with squash and melon plants coming in a few weeks.

The tomatoes are in, along with about 500 stakes that I pounded into the ground. A drip irrigation system also needed to be installed along the rows.

Spring Fever: Planning the Home Veggie Garden

Our kitchen garden at Hometown Harvest Farm

The beginnings of our first kitchen garden last spring at Hometown Harvest Farm.

Nothing is as local as your own backyard. In planning a backyard vegetable garden, you can get as complicated as you want, though if this is your first attempt, focus on just a few types of plants. Get to know how much sun the plants need, if they are cool weather plants or grown in the summer, etc. By keeping your garden simple, it keeps things fun, and hopefully will allow you to stick it out until harvest. Best of all, you can get your hands dirty and reconnect to the soil.

This will be the third year that Hometown Harvest will deliver locally grown garden plants right to your door. Along with the plants, we can deliver bags of organic top soil and compost from Maryland-based Veteran Compost. Available for pre-order now in our Garden Goodies Shop page, the plants will arrive the week before Mothers Day, also the week before I will begin planting on the farm. The plants arrive healthy and ready to plant, in much better condition than what you might find shipped to a home improvement center or grocery store. I always hate seeing plants that are unhealthy or have early signs of disease at the big box stores. Having the plants and top soil delivered to you will help to keep the dirt out of your car, and help to make things just a little easier getting your garden started this year.

IMG_0603With produce, it is better to start most plants in a greenhouse. When you purchase a packet of seeds, most of the time about 75%-85% of the seeds germinate. So by starting the seeds in a greenhouse you give the seeds a better chance of germination plus help the plants to establish a stronger root system before you move them out into the fields or garden.

The seeds we intend to plant this year at Hometown Harvest Farm have already been sent to our greenhouse partner to be planted. The more I learned and talked with farmers the more I realized that it is important to work with a greenhouse that has a lot of experience in starting produce plants. For example did you know that it is very important to plant a watermelon seed facing the correct direction? If planted facing down, the seed will not develop correctly, and you will not get a plant. Watermelon seeds also need to be planted in a very warm and high-humidity environment, which is sometimes different than what the rest of your plants need.

IMG_0607In our garden this year, we are planting lots of herbs. Abby has been very into essential oils over the past year. Often the oils are made from herbs, or can be mixed with herbs to boost their effectiveness. So we are planning lots of mint, lavender, thyme, basil, sage, and dill. In our kitchen garden, we also have several blackberry plants, as well as red raspberry plants. These are perennials, so they come back every year.   We actually thinned the raspberry plants last year – moving a large group of them out to a fence. This was our first attempt at transplanting raspberries – so fingers crossed that transplants survive and even thrive in their new locations.

IMG_0608My dad used to tease me that I could walk through a corn field and somehow come out the other side covered head to toe in dirt and mud. Honestly, I do not seek out the dirt and mud…but If it is between me and getting the job done, then dirty I shall get!

There is something natural and therapeutic about getting up early in the morning, with a little dew on the grass and a warm cup of tea in your hand, and heading out to the kitchen garden to get your hands a little dirty. After about an hour or so of pulling weeds, working the soil, planting, and harvesting you really feel that you have accomplished something. It is a sense of pride that really can only be found in planting and growing your own food. Even if you do not have a backyard, no worries–planting tomatoes, carrots, herbs, lettuces, and other greens in pots on a deck or patio work well also (for some added fun, throw a couple of rocks in the pot that you plant carrots in. The carrots grow around the rocks, giving you crooked and different shaped carrots). What is planted in a garden will vary a lot depending on the space available, the location, sun exposure, and most of all what you like to eat.

Winter Farming: Seeds!

Seeds have arrived! …Now what?

IMG_3468The Plan: I have been working on the Hometown Harvest Farm crop plan for 2015 for well over a month. It has honestly been something I have been stressing over. This plan is what I will follow for the entire season, so I need to try my best to work through all of my mistakes on paper (when they are cheaper).

Pretty much weekly, I would create a plan, then begin to change it a little…then a lot…then I would realize with so many changes all of the seed numbers were wrong…and I basically had to start over. Repeat.

One of the “seeds of wisdom” that I took from the Mid-Atlantic Fruit & Vegetable Convention last month was that I needed to simplify my crop plan, as well as plant a small field in the same configuration that I plan to use next year when I move production to our big field.

The main adjustment I made to the plan was to focus more on “block growing”, a method that consists of grouping crops into blocks. I may plant different varieties of that crop in a block, but it will be the same crop. For example, I am growing 7 different types of heirloom cherry tomatoes grouped into one block. This type of planting helps me forecast the supplies I will need, as well as the various diseases, insects, and weeds I need to become more familiar with. Plus, next year when we move to the big field, I hopefully will be very comfortable with these plants, and be ready to add additional types of produce to the rotation.

The Seeds: Now that my plan was in order, I created our seed order. It felt really good to finally submit the order and know that this step is now complete. I am invested in this direction now. The Hometown Harvest Farm is on its way!

The seeds arrived a few days later with a few on backorder to arrive in the next 30-45 days.

FullSizeRenderIt is pretty amazing to see those packets of seeds n my desk, and think that this little amount of seeds cost nearly $1000. I guess I was picturing a huge box arriving for that money…another one for the learning curve!

So now that the seeds have arrived…what’s next?

The Questions: While there are obviously countless things we still have to learn about our first year of sustainable vegetable production, here are a few questions that we are studying at the moment.

  1. What is the best way to stake tomato plants, especially when you are planting over 1800 plants?
  2. What specific supplies will we need? And how much more will that cost?
  3. This year we do not have an onsite greenhouse to get seeds started. Last month, I began a conversation with a local greenhouse grower about having him start the seeds for me. How much will this ultimately cost and how will the timing of the planting be affected?

I have plenty more items on my farm agenda, but these are the most immediate issues to be worked out. Good thing there are plenty of subzero days to keep me inside and working it out!

Winter Farming: It’s All in Your Head

My desk at the moment: seed catalogs, planting spreadsheets, tractor manuals...it must be winter!

My desk at the moment: seed catalogs, planting spreadsheets, tractor manuals…it must be winter!

The winter is typically a slow time on a produce farm.  The air is cold, the ground frozen, and there are simply limited things that you can do.  It’s a stark contrast to the busyness and long days of the spring, summer, and fall seasons.  Winter is the time of year that planning for the upcoming season happens: which plants and more accurately which variety of the different plants will we grow this year?  This, on the surface might seem like a simple answer, and maybe it would be for a more experienced farmer.

After years in dairy farming, livestock, and working with local growers, this year is my first year growing produce on my own at our Hometown Harvest Farm (yes, we’ve renamed Spring House Manor Farm as we continue to settle into our home).  So I am taking a lot of time to do the research, and gain an understanding of the different varieties of plants available and what I’ve come to learn about what you, the Hometown Harvest customer, prefer.  What minerals need to be in abundance in the soil for optimum health?  What are the common pests, and how do you deal with them?  How many seeds do you need to order?  How close do you plant the plants?  Do they need to be trellised? Covered?  Do I pick a wider variety of crops, to spread my risk out, or do I pick a few number of varieties to simplify my plan?  These are all the questions that I am exploring and learning about right now.

Every year, for almost 6 years, I have sat down with our growers in the winter to discuss our needs and plans for the year.  I have always come to those meetings with a deep appreciation for their hard work over the past season, and excitement for the growth that we both will experience in the upcoming spring.  This year, though, I will sit down at those meetings with a new understanding and admiration of their knowledge and ability to plan each year in order to provide us such a wide variety of high quality produce, especially given the growth that many of our farmers have seen through your support.
Chicken tracks in the snow at Hometown Harvest Farm.

Chicken tracks in the snow at Hometown Harvest Farm.

The Source Report: Preparing for a Green Winter!

The temps are dropping and there are preliminary reports that we could be in for another nasty winter. Unlike most CSAs or farmers markets, Hometown Harvest commits to providing fresh produce year-round, so how do we offer local food in the winter time? That is a great question, and one that I have been asked over and over. When we first started Hometown Harvest 6 years ago, it was honestly a struggle. A few farmers extended their season with row covers, and even fewer with hoop houses, but offering local foods in the winter was simply not something that could be done sustainably due to low resources.

Over the last 6 years, we have built some great relationships with some great farmers. Every year around this time, we sit down with our growers to discuss the upcoming season. Part of those discussions now include what can be planted in the mid to late fall to grow for Hometown Harvest customers during the winter. Your support has made it possible for more and more area growers to invest in season-extending, sustainable methods. With winter on our minds, we have just begun a partnership with a new kind of grower: Larry Gude.

greenhousepic1

His family has been in the greenhouse business here in Middleton, Md for 125 years. Historically, his family has raised flowers for independent garden shops including larger box stores like Home Depot. Unfortunately the risk, cost, and margins in that business got to a breaking point, and Larry simply could not continue. After some months, Larry has began to switch his operation from growing “big box” flowers to growing organic food.

greenhousepic13 greenhousepic2

This past Monday was an exciting day, as Hometown Harvest picked up our first batch of lettuce mix from Larry, marking his first sale in this exciting new direction for his greenhouses.

We are pretty excited also, because as you can see, Larry has a quite a bit of lettuce varieties to offer and plenty more to come. In addition to lettuces, Larry is working on herbs, arugula, spinach, brussels sprouts, and several different types of kales.

greenhousepic4

The kale is being grown in a super cool way. He plants them in flower baskets, then hangs the baskets on a track that rotates around the greenhouse. The track even has automatic irrigation to ensure the kale is kept well watered and in ideal growing conditions.

greenhousepic5

So even though the Farmers Almanac might be calling for a colder and snowy winter, our local food forecast is looking pretty good this winter.

~T

March at Spring House Manor Farm

DSC_0002Our baby chicks are growing quickly. This coming week they will be 4 weeks old (hard to imagine).  Chickens do not start to lay eggs until 18-20 weeks, so we still have a little while to go until we begin to see any eggs. It has been a very enjoyable learning experience for our family. The birds are now about 5 – 6 times the size they were when they first arrived.  Most of the babies have lots of feathers now.  I would best describe their “look” as that of a teenager.  They are a bit awkward in how they look and move.  As they grow, they are losing their baby fluff, and feathers are starting to grow in.  During this time, feathers are sticking out in all directions, and there are some bare spots as new feathers are waiting to come in.  We have 5 different breeds of chickens in this first group—a variety which will provide us with “rainbow eggs” in a few months.DSC_0003

We have also found that raising chickens has been much more expensive then we first expected.  This is due to how cold it has been this winter, along with the high price of keeping them warm.  Baby chicks need to be kept at around 90-95 degrees for the first few weeks, then you can drop the temperature a little down to 85- 80—not an easy feat when the wind chill pushes the outdoor air to negative temps!
With this high cost in mind, we have decided to go ahead and purchase our next round of chickens to arrive in June.  This should hopefully defray some of the costs in raising the chicks, plus will allow us to have more eggs around the holidays.
DSC_0018
During the wind and rain of the last few days, I have started to work on a new chicken coop design for our soon-to-be pastured chicks.  It is amazing how many different ways folks have tried to raise chickens on pastures.  There are a lot of things to consider—everything from protecting the birds from weather (cold, heat, wind, rain, snow) to protecting them from predators (hawks, coyotes, foxes, skunks).  You also must have enough roosting space to allow the chickens plenty of room to comfortably sleep.  Laying hens prefer to sleep on roosts, whereas broiler (meat) hens prefer to sleep on the ground.
The new design is really nice, but will be my personal biggest carpentry project to date.  Abby thinks I am a bit crazy taking on this size of a project… especially considering that I want to have the birds out on grass by the middle of May. But isn’t that one of Joel Salatin’s tag lines: “the sheer ecstasy of being a lunatic farmer”?DSC_0019

The Farm of Many Faces: Bruscos Trip to Polyface Farms

At the end of June, Tony, Abby, and the Brusco kids headed down to Swoope, VA to visit Polyface Farm and learn about the sustainable farming practices that have been revolutionizing the organic and local food industries in recent years. The Bruscos have recently purchased a 30-acre farm outside of Frederick, MD, and they hope to implement the highest standards in sustainable farming as a model for and in line with our many fellow Harvesters.

Many of you will probably recognize Joel Salatin, owner of Polyface Farm, as the farmer from the film Food, Inc. (and in fact, that film probably inspired many of you to seek out our delivery service to begin with).

Joel Salatin

Joel Salatin gives the Bruscos a tour of the sustainable rotation practices at Polyface (in the rain).

Though it was a rainy day on the farm, the Bruscos were able to see how Polyface cares for its pigs, steers, and chickens, as well as use integrated animal/crop management. Salatin says that he was able to “heal the land” on his farm without ever planting a single grass seed or applying any chemical fertilizers, instead managing the harmony of animals and plants.

Tony was especially impressed by the management of the pigs and chickens. Because his new farm in Frederick has several wooded acres, he was pleased to see that he would be able to follow Salatin’s model of setting up large paddocks in the woods for pigs to root around and discover as they do naturally. One thing that was missing from the Polyface pig setup? The smell.

They were just a few feet away, and yet there was no smell (or very little).  This is compared to a ‘traditional’ farm, where whenever I had to get in the pig pen to do something, my wife could smell me from a mile away and I always had to shower as soon as I was finished with the pigs.

The chickens were no different. Out in the fields were “mobile chicken houses” designed to give the birds a place to lay eggs and shelter at night from roaming foxes and other predators, but complete freedom during the day. The wheels of the houses make it easy for them to be moved to new locations every few days, allowing the chickens to clear out the bugs and fertilize a new stretch of field.

Chicken house on wheels

Mobile chicken houses give birds freedom with protection from predators.

Another method used at Polyface for chickens are the “tractors” that are moved along each day to fertilize and clear bugs in more targeted areas. Using a pattern of carefully positioned tractors, the broiler chickens are given safety and plenty of space as they help to gradually prepare a field for the next round of grazing steer. This is known as “mob grazing”.

Chicken tractors

The chicken “tractors” are lined up to slowly fertilize the grass and clear bugs–eliminating the need for pesticides and fertilizers.

In just a few short days, the chickens will have moved on from the field and the grasses will be ready for the next group of steers to come and feast on, bug-free, fertilizer-free, and pesticide-free.

Grazing grass

Lush, diverse grass to feed the steers, full of the nutrients they need to avoid medicines and processed feed, resulting in a high-quality meat and a good quality of life.

It’s a good life for the animals at Polyface Farm, and it’s what Tony & Abby hope to bring to Frederick alongside many of our established Harvester partners who already farm this way. It’s not just good for the animals; it’s good for the people who get to enjoy higher quality products. It’s also good for the land and surrounding land, streams, and other wildlife.

But is it good for the farmer? Tony points out that by eliminating the need for costly chemical pesticides, fertilizers, and feeds, the farmer can save a significant amount of money. Using mobile chicken houses and tractors cuts down on the overhead of buildings and expensive large farm equipment that put farmers into debt.

It’s also a much safer environment for families. The Bruscos are raising two kids (as are many of our Harvesters), and the added comfort in knowing there are less dangers on the farm from big equipment or toxic chemicals is worth a lot. Tony hopes to be able to bring our Hometown families out to tour his farm in the near future, so the safety benefit of a fully sustainable farm is very appealing, too.

“Closer to nature” is not only a good principle when selecting foods to feed your family. Tony says it best, that “sometimes managing something well is knowing when to stay out of the way.”

Thoughts From Tony: Fall’s Fading Daylight

It is a moment most of us share; some earlier than others, some perhaps not at all:  it was dark when I woke up today.  When did that happen?  Certainly not overnight.  When each day is appreciated for every hour, sometimes every minute of daylight, you notice.

This is the case for our Amish growers who do not rely on electricity and who value daylight in ways we no longer appreciate.  Many of us flip a switch without another thought, but daylight does have its influences on us whether we realize it or not.

We hope you enjoy the quiet changes of the season.