Monday, August 23, 2010

Tasty Treats and Cover Crops

Well, the hot weather returned as predicted.  Luckily, Claire promised us a special treat at the end of the day, so we began working in earnest to complete our tasks.  We discovered on field tour that there were still plenty of weeds to consider despite the lateness of the season.  It's going to be tough getting out carrots this year.  The last bed we did had weeds as large as small trees.  Winter squashes are ready to harvest.  There were also several late-season crops emerging: dill, cilantro, spinach, and radishes.

First thing, we transplanted lettuce, kohlrabi, bok choi, and basil.  If all goes well, we'll have a nice diversity of crops to give the CSA in the later weeks.  Next, we moved on to harvesting.  As usual, we had herbs to harvest for wholesale.  Others worked on the multitude of tomatoes that continue to produce at their peak.  Later, a group worked steadily on edamame.  Between today and Friday, they harvested 125 pounds!  Claire worked on the tractor today, tilling in beds that are no longer in use, mowing, down beds with huge weeds, and tilling in the seed that I was planting.

I spent my day broadcast seeding cover crops again.  In section 1, I spread rye and vetch in the area that was once occupied by onions, shallots, and garlic.  In section 2, buckwheat went in where there were once successions of lettuce, kohlrabi, fennel, and others.  In section 3, I dispersed oats and peas where the fallow field of clover stood.  The buckwheat will be allowed to grow, then will be tilled down later and a winter cover crop put in.  For the other fields, this will be the last time they will be planted before the snows fall.

As promised, at 2:30 we departed for... Culvers, right down the street.  It was sublime sitting in the air-conditioned restaurant eating ice creams, shakes, sundaes, and other frozen delights.  After several weeks of hot, humid, bug-filled days, it was a real treat.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Fall is just around the corner

Well, it's still August, but early this week you'd think it was September.  A cold front came through Madison Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, so the long sleeves, pants, and jackets that most of us were wearing to keep out the mosquitoes were actually comfortable, at least during the first few hours of the day.  Today, the heat has returned.  But we clearly saw a glimpse of what's in store for us in the next month or so.  Mostly, it is welcome, as the heat and bugs are somewhat unbearable conditions to work in.  However, none of us are ready for summer to be over, because we know that means winter is coming.  Still, I prefer the cycles of weather to sameness.  I don't think I'd like living in San Francisco even if it meant I could grow year-round.

This week, I was in charge of creating the CSA harvest list, while Jenna and Meghan worked on the distribution of tasks throughout the week, including harvesting and any other chores we decided needed to be done on field tour.  Claire helped us make decisions and finalize the lists.  We tried to go heavy on the harvesting on Monday and Tuesday so that Wednesday morning we could finish the harvest by 10:30 am, put the share in the cooler and finish other tasks Wednesday afternoon.  We almost made our goal, which is better than we've done for several weeks.

We also did our annual tomato tasting this year.  As Claire revealed in her newsletter, tasting tomatoes is not a straightforward task.  What tastes great to one person may be less so to someone else.  The other difficulty is that they all taste like, well... tomatoes, so after about 10 of them they become more difficult to distinguish.  I discovered that I liked Defel tomatoes and Amish paste, among others, and that I didn't like Japanese black, though they have a distinctive flavor (somewhat smoky, though one intern described it as tasting like root beer).  Basically, as in all things, variety is necessary to please every palate.  Not to mention that slicer tomatoes and paste tomatoes have their different uses as well.  Let the canning begin!

This is week #12 out of 21, so we are well over the halfway point.  Hard to believe!  More and more fields are being put into cover crops.  We had been doing buckwheat for the summer, but this week, Jake and Claire announced that they were going to switch to the fall/winter covers of rye/hairy vetch or oats/peas from now on.  The summer squash are winding down, the tomatoes and tomatillos are at their peak, and the winter squash is starting to ripen.  Fall is on the way!

Here's a pic of the triangle field I seeded a couple of weeks ago, and of some buckwheat after it's grown in a bit:

Winter squash and pumpkins:

Monday, August 9, 2010

Outstanding in the Field?

This evening, some lucky folks in Madison are going to enjoy a dinner made with produce from Troy Farm and prepared by Underground Food Collective.  The sit-down dinner is going to be served at the farm, on one long table, under a tent.  Sounds wonderful, right?  Except that last night, we had an epic windstorm paired with pelting rain.  This morning, the tent was in a sorry state.  So they took it down and will be sitting near the prairie.  This might be ok, but that wave of mosquitos (and other bugs) is still upon us.  Oh, those poor diners!  When Claire gave us interns the opportunity to attend, we all politely declined because we know the truth:  those diners are going to spend their entire dinner swatting at themselves and each other and trying not to scratch fresh bites.

Most interns went around in full rain gear today, despite the heat, just to protect themselves from the onslaught.  I wear long sleeves and long pants, but I still loaded up on bug repellant.  I almost finished the bottle!  And guess what?  It still didn't keep the little buggers away.

Honestly, I was worried about today.  The rain makes the ground very soft, and the forecast predicted we'd get more throughout the morning.  Luckily, they were wrong, and when the sun came out for good around 10 am, things started drying off.  This makes our workday go much more smoothly, because we can get more done.  We had a big list:  harvest kale, cucumbers, summer squash, zucchini, herbs, tomatoes, cauliflower, broccoli, tomatillos, and sweet onions; vent the hoop house and place the tables in it; harvest the storage onions for drying in the hoop house; wheel hoe in section 2; mow the drive roads and cover crops (Claire); and generally make the farm look presentable for the dinner.  We did it all.

I also made a list of possible items to include in the share this week: sweet onions, salsa baskets, tomatoes, beets, beans, an herb choice, and possibly kale, eggplant, peppers, or cabbage.  I'm not sure if we have enough peppers and eggplant, though we could do a choice like we did last week, and I also don't know if we took all the cabbage out of the field yet.   Either way, it's a great looking share.  I'll find out Wednesday if Claire thinks my list will work.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Topic: Tomatoes

As you can see from the videos below, we have been talking tomatoes a lot lately.  Tomatoes, as you know, are some of the most precious of fresh commodities, and their season is a much-celebrated event.  While we are all looking forward to eating the first tomatoes of the season, we are also acutely aware of the shortness of that season and the probability that we can get a decent harvest to fill our canning needs throughout the year.  And here lies the problem.

Last year, the tomatoes got what is called late blight, which is a fungus.  It's the same fungus that caused the Irish Potato Famine.  We got it around week 3 of the harvest last year, and lost a good portion of the harvest.  It was extremely sad to see all that work we had done being thrown away.  This year, the chances of blight coming back are fairly high, since there are most likely spores in the air created by plants that weren't properly killed last year (not our plants, but of other farmers and home gardeners).  Also, as you are aware, it has been very rainy and wet this year, prime conditions for fungus.

We got word last Thursday that the blight had been found in Wisconsin already.  This is very disheartening as we have yet to harvest ripe tomatoes.  We may lose the entire harvest!  So Claire sent out a letter to the members of our CSA asking for their input.  In the video, she talks about the compelling arguments that people wrote in, in both directions (the members were split as to what to do).

On the SPRAY side, Troy has never used copper to control disease before, so it would be a learning experience for the farmers and the interns to see how effective the copper is at keeping the tomatoes from getting late blight.  Copper is just a physical barrier, not a fungicide.  The plants will eventually succumb, it's just a matter of time.  Application will also help to slow the spread of the fungus across the country.  However, while copper is approved for organic application, it is also toxic to people and wildlife, and can cause harm to plants if sprayed often, caused by build up in the soil.  See this article from the UW-Extension about the application of copper for organic control of late blight.  At Troy, we bought copper hydroxide to use on the plants.

There are also other costs, such as labor time to spray the plants.  It would take one person a full 8 hours to do a thorough job.  That person would have to wear a hazmat suit, mask, and goggles the whole time.  In this heat, it would be dangerous.  Rehydration would be difficult and breathing restricted.  That person would not be able to contribute to other tasks on the farm, straining our already stressed labor.  In order to be effective, the copper needs to be sprayed once a week.  Each time, no one would be allowed to enter the tomato field for 24 hours after application.

For those who would choose DON'T SPRAY, the reasons are obvious.  As a Certified Organic producer, Troy doesn't spray anything (not even compost tea) on the plants other than water.  It didn't feel right to spray a known toxic substance on the plants just for the pleasure of eating tomatoes this year.  Just because copper is approved for organic use doesn't mean that we must choose to use it.  It's a reminder that organic law is written with production in mind, not necessarily the health of the producer or the consumer.  Our customers would need to be reminded to wash their tomatoes thoroughly, perhaps twice.

If you watched the video, you saw that Claire made the decision to spray the plants.  Later that day, she did.  The next day, we went to Tipi Produce for a field trip.  There we saw many new techniques, equipment, methods, and tools.  It made an impact on the interns, and on the way back to Troy we continued the discussion.  And in the end, all of us (save myself) had decided that not spraying was the right choice for Troy.  I was still interested in the experimental aspects of applying copper.  I still am, though I would like to study it in a controlled environment.  But after reading in more detail about the effects on humans and wildlife, I too changed my mind.

So all of us are crossing our fingers that the late blight doesn't spread to our plants quickly.  The heavy rains we got on Thursday and Friday probably washed the original application of copper hydroxide off pretty well.  I was heartbroken when we lost a portion of the harvest last year.  I really hope that our luck holds out as long this year.  Tomatoes are my favorite vegetable (I know, they're really a fruit) and I would hate to go another year without tasting a fresh one.

Who knew there were so many implications to organic control of late blight?

Tractor Time in Mosquitoville

On Monday, Claire taught me two new skills:  using the broadcast seeder, and driving the tractor!

The broadcast seeder is really just a big shoulder-strapped bag (that holds the seed) with a disc on the bottom that turns as you crank it, throwing seed up to 7 feet or so, depending on how fast you crank it and how quickly you walk.  I used it to broadcast buckwheat seed on two large sections of the field: where the peas used to be in section 1, and on the triangle field out back.

Seeding looks like a pretty easy task.  You're just randomly throwing seed down, right?  Wrong.  Since the seeder only throws at a certain radius, you need to carefully measure the distance between passes down the field to get even coverage.  Then there's the matter of cranking at the correct speed to get that 7 foot range.  All the while, you need to walk fast enough so that you don't use up too much seed in one place.  Buckwheat seed is expensive.

It turns out that the speed I needed to walk to cover such a large area was at a near clip, causing me to appear as if I was leaping all about the field clumsily.  In actuality, walking that quickly caused me to trip several times, as the soil was uneven and 'trashy' from the last tilling.  I never fell, I just used the momentum to propel me ever forward.  At that rate, I used one bag for each field.  We have one bag left to cover small patches here and there as the crops on them are harvested and no longer in use for the rest of the season.

Once the seeding was done, Claire taught me the ins and outs of the farm tractor.  First, she inserted one key into the battery at the front of the nose.  Next, I climbed up and sat on the old, springy seat, complete with padding.  Claire inserted the second key into the ignition.  All around me were gears and levers, cranks, and dials.  Starting at the center were the gear shifts.  There were two; one for high and low which I didn't need to worry about since I would always be driving in low, and one for first, second, third, and reverse.  I wasn't planning on leaving first gear.  On the steering wheel was a throttle lever, and on the floor on the right there was a foot throttle, also not to be used.  The brake was next to the foot throttle.  On my right was the hydraulic system to raise and lower the tiller.  Claire told me to keep one hand on it at all times, as a reminder to pull it out of the ground when reaching the end of a bed or when stopping mid-field.  On my left was the gear that would engage the PTO, or Power Take Off, which in this case was connected to the tiller.  And on the floor to my left was the clutch.  Press halfway down to shift gears, and press all the way to the floor to engage the PTO.  Watch this video to get an idea of what I'm talking about:

Once the orientation was complete, Claire had me drive the tractor around the back fence towards the triangle field.  I got off and Claire completed the first pass of the field for me.  I got on and tried for pass number 2.  Going down the field in a straight line was pretty easy, as was turning for the return pass.  Getting in position for the next pass, however, proved difficult, as the field is in a triangular shape and this was the tight corner.  Also, the amount of room available to get in position was small, and the hitch from the tractor to the tiller was rigid, meaning that the tractor needs to be lined up before any moves are made, as turning it will cause torque pressure in the tiller, increasing the odds for damage.

After about six passes or so, I started to get the hang of it.  That weird angle basically meant that I had to go in reverse to line myself up before starting a new pass, so I got to practice going from first to reverse and back many times.  I completed the entire field, then went back for one last angled pass to clean up the edges of this oddly shaped piece of land.  We'll see next Monday whether or not I did a good job on both of these tasks.

Meanwhile, back on the farm, the mosquitos have gone into phase 2 of their operation, swarming us with the latest round of their reproductive efforts.  All the rain has compounded into multiple problems: there are so many weeds this year that it has been difficult to keep on top of them; standing water between and on the plants has made for many places for mosquitos to lay new eggs; now when we go into the field to harvest or weed, we disturb these mosquito nests.  We wear long sleeves and pants, spray ourselves with OFF and DEET, wear nets over our heads and necks, and the little buggers still manage to create havoc with our skin.  Yesterday, I counted twenty bites on my face and neck alone.  It is very tough to stay concentrated on the task at hand when you are swatting at mosquitos all day.  Their buzzing is nearly intolerable.  Apparently, this is something that happens every other year or so.  It makes me want to invent a body net, though such a thing is probably impractical.

In other news, we finally constructed the hoop house!  Heavy snows collapsed it last winter, and this week we put up the walls and the faces, covering it all with heavy duty plastic.  Now we are ready to cure onions and garlic, and we have another space out of the rain.  The only drawback is that apparently, mosquitos tend to create an intense community within its walls.  Hopefully we missed that problem since it wasn't up until this last burst.  Here, Jake, Claire, Rosemary, and Michelle put the finishing touches on the construction:

Summer is definitely here!  On field tour this week, there were ripe tomatoes:
Ears of corn:
Even brussels sprouts are forming, though we aren't going to harvest them any time soon, since no one wants a brussels sprout in August.
We even got a visit from some sandhill cranes.  I tried to snap a photo as they flew by:
On Tuesday, we had a discussion regarding our field trip to Tipi Produce a couple of weeks ago.  I am in the process of trying to get this discussion online, but I'm having problems with my software.  Hopefully I'll get this fixed in the next week or so.  Until then...