Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Frost seeding

There is one good thing about the freezing temps at night in late March: frost seeding.

Yes, we're skeptical, too. But it's worth a try if you don't have the equipment or power to till a field to turn it into pasture.

Jason and his hand-cranked seed spreader
What you need: green manure seeds to blanket your field and a stretch of days with freezing temps at night and above freezing during the days. We chose red and white clover as our green manure seeds because they are perennials and provide important nutrients to the soil. Jason got up early one morning (when the ground was still frozen), filled his hand-cranked seed spreader, and went forth to prosper our pasture!

The idea behind frost seeding is to let the ground do the tilling work for you: as it freezes, there are cracks in the soil where seeds (the smaller the better) can get through... as it thaws, the seed gets worked into the soil, safe from birds and with plenty of water to help it germinate. A few days of this freeze/thaw cycle is best to make sure the majority of your seeds have been worked in. And that's it. Then you wait for spring to see if it comes up.

So... we wait.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Why we're double-digging (part I)

We learned all about double-digging from two sources: (1) the farmer, Josephine, we apprenticed with in Argentina and (2) John Seymour's book, "The Self-Sufficient Gardener." Both are invaluable to us, and fortunately, we can flip through the book anytime we have any how-to questions (I resist the temptation to just search for it on the internet).

Simply, double-digging involves digging into the earth two spade-lengths down. That's about two feet. In the process, you aerate and loosen the soil as you dig. Seymour recommends starting with the first row of your bed by removing the sod and then digging out the soil and placing it at the head of the bed exactly how you take it out. So the SW corner stays in the SW corner, etc. Once you've dug down 2 spade-lengths, then you fork (or in our clay/rock soil case, pick axe) the soil at the bottom to loosen it up. Place the sod back in the bottom of your row (it won't take root again since it's deprived of light), place the bottom soil on top of the sod, and the top soil back on top of the bottom soil. Meanwhile, mix in as much organic matter (e.g., manure, compost) as you want/can. You end up with a row of loose, aerated, organically-supplemented soil that is now raised up a few inches above the ground line. Continue along your bed, row by row, in this fashion.

The major pros of double-digging are to loosen the soil (i.e., aerate it so roots and earthworms can find their way through and to promote drainage) and to add organic matter to it. Because our land had not been cultivated for many years, it is in dire need of air and organic matter, so this is why we double-dig.

Some people recommend against double-digging because it is not a no-till method, meaning it disrupts the soil structure. We understand their point, but our soil texture (i.e., clay), rock problem (i.e., many), and nutrient and pH readings (i.e., hungry for some minerals and acidic) provide an ideal situation for double-digging. Not to mention two ready, willing and able bodies to dig, dig, dig.

I could write a book on double-digging, spelling out the pros and cons. But I won't (and would rather read Seymour's). We will just continue to report on our lessons, techniques and production using this method (which could turn into a quasi-experiment if we get too tired and our latter-dug beds end up being single spade-lengths).

Monday, March 21, 2011

Putting our methods where our mouths are

Davinci's human powered "wing flapper" plane
After four hours of hard digging what will be the first of our future vegetable beds, I looked at the small patch of soil that had been cleared; it made just enough space to sit down in Buddha-style.  This is appropriate, because I was suddenly pondering what we thought was so important about human-powered farm techniques in the first place.  The image of a mini-back hoe I had seen in a rental company catalog came to mind.

In every farm project we undertake, we employ human power over machine (and gas driven) power if possible and rely on scavenging existing materials from around us instead of renting or buying new.  Perplexed looks abound, from my mother looking on as I haul a volleyball sized rock out of the ground to a local well guy who thinks my shovel should be hanging up in the Smithsonian next to the horse-drawn buggy.

In an American culture with abiding faith in the unquestionable benefits of technological innovation as a cure to what ails us, the idea of choosing "inefficient" practices (time-intensive, small scale, requiring labor) over "efficient" ones (low labor, highly mechanized, scalable, and profitable) draws disbelief and doubt.

So with all the obvious costs from "inefficiency", why are we trying to practice this type of farming in the first place?  What belief system makes this pursuit worthwhile in the face of all of those blisters, back aches, and creeping progress?  Here is a summary of the beliefs behind our chosen methods:

It makes farming more accessible and affordable.  For someone without a lot of savings or money, the upfront capital costs of getting into modern-day farming are a high hurdle: tractors, front loaders, fence post diggers...the list can go on and on once you set down that path. Truly sustainable farming means building

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Rock Hall-of-Fame

We've rolled out the red carpet for what is sure to be an impressive Rock Hall-of-Fame, securing two prize-winners in as many days.

Our very first entrant starred in "Draining out the natural spring that seems to be emanating from our cold frame," based on a true story where two new farmers had big, bold plans to start numerous seed boxes outdoors by mid-March, only to have their dreams not only delayed, but cut in half. Mother Nature, her water table, and Rock #1 played a triumvirate which has yet to be conquered. Well, Rock #1 was taken down (i.e., out) and is now our first Rock Hall-of-Fame star.

Our second entrant is really a conglomerate of rocks, but we call her a collective Rock #2. As we broke ground on our first vegetable bed, we ran into a whole clan of rocks that have been hiding out, being pushed upward by the frosts, just waiting to be discovered by our shovels and aching joints. We threw the first 4 sq. ft's worth into a bin with hopes of bringing it to an appropriate piling spot. Boy, was she heavy.

Jason suggested we build our outdoor parrilla this fall with the rocks we dig out of our land. Sadly, our parrilla may be ready for construction after only our first bed is prepped. Grilled chorizo, anyone?

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Compost collective

Our neighborhood compost collective has been launched!

This past weekend we hand-delivered a letter to all 78 mailboxes on our road introducing Longhaul Farm and our compost collective. Our neighbors' organic waste is valuable to us because it decomposes into rich organic fertilizer. Members of the collective will receive a new organic waste bin and an introduction to composting do's and don'ts. Members can throw any organic waste into their compost bins - yard waste, leaves, grass and hedge clippings, weeds, coffee grounds, food waste, vegetable peels, egg shells, wood ashes and more - and we will collect and clean the bins on a weekly basis.

We will add our neighbors' organic waste to our compost piles, where we will manage the conditions to encourage decomposition into "black gold," so they say.

We've piloted this project for the past six months with two very special nearby neighbors.* Now that it's launched, we've received our first official new member of our collective, who emailed us at to join. We've even gotten an offer from a kind neighbor to share in her 30-year-old compost pile!

I hope this compost collective brings our neighbors together, either to share their waste or share their gardening stories. Thanks to all who join.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Spring comes

Winter packed its bag and caught a taxi out of town in the dead of night.  Spring arrived in a torrent of snow-melt and rain, creating a sing-song creek running through the vegetable garden field and a pool in our backward.

You wait and wait for winter to end and then all of a sudden it does and it seems like it never existed.  Winter's taking leave every year is a small reminder of how quick change can occur; the earthquake and tsunami in Japan and continuing revolutions in the Middle East are the same principle writ large.  The precarious nature of life, the possibility of change even when things seem locked in routine; notions both fearful and hopeful.

Water everywhere.  Neighbors say there's been nothing like this in twenty years.  It flows from an underground creek over the stone wall and comes up from an invisible spring in our backyard.  We had planned to plant out our hot-frame (a protected outdoor space for seedlings), but once I started digging it out, it filled with water and when we bailed the water it kept coming in through cracks in the cement wall.  Sometimes the best laid plans can't compete with nature, so we're waiting for the water table to drop and keeping busy with other things.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Safety in numbers

It feels good to be part of a movement.

That’s how it feels being a young farmer.

We are part of a generation of minds and bodies who have seen our parents plunked into offices, our food turned into industrial cardboard-tasting semi- nourishment and our contentment hard-wired to the accrual of stuff. That doesn’t mean we have to follow this path, but it does mean a commitment to change.

Some say it takes guts, some say it takes land, some say it takes unhappiness in your first career choice to be able to make the move. But I want to throw another one on the list: it takes safety in numbers.

With more and more consumers wanting a greater connection to the food they take home and eat, non-industrial organic food production has a place in today’s world. There’s a demand for it. People feel angry about what’s being poured onto crops, disgusted by large-scale poultry production and concerned about what the future will bring for our families and our ecology. We do, too.

It feels good to know that we are not alone. There’s young blood in the field listening to older, wiser minds. There are smart souls convening to solve big, bad problems with simple, solid practices.

That’s right. It’s a movement. Even The New York Times says so.