Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Indoor gardening

We'd like to thank a new customer who has written about us on their blog. Daniel, thank you for mentioning our herb disk set on your blog, "Your Home Kitchen Garden". He has some great gardening articles, and we'd like to encourage him to keep up the good work!

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Fatty diet

I am a big fan of Michael Pollan. I've enjoyed reading three of his books, and I appreciate his ideas and his writing style. He has both feet on the ground (er, in the garden), but isn't afraid to explore real ideas about food production in this country. That being said, I always feel a bit guilty after reading anything Michal Pollan has written. I won't lie: I eat my share of frozen dinners, and we do enjoy meat at our house. When I can afford (or find) it, I buy organic and local products (or pretty much anything with Paul Newman's face on it). I grow and can what my backyard allows, as you've seen in previous articles. Sometimes it's not possible to get local organic products, or, in the case of meat, it's ridiculously expensive to purchase, but I do my best. (So if you open my freezer, yes you'll find a bag of Tater Tots and a stack of Lean Cuisines, plus a few frozen meat markdowns, but you'll also find wild blueberries, and strawberries which I picked myself in June, and casseroles made with vegetables from my garden.)

Mr. Pollan has a fascinating new article at the New York Times website entitled "Farmer In Chief". The title made me think of Thomas Jefferson, and made me long for simpler times, when the office of the President was more about leadership than power. But I digress - I'll stay away from politics. Instead he goes to the heart of the matter, based in facts I hope that we can all agree on: America's food system is dependent on fossil fuels, and thus unsustainable. Cheap food in the grocery stores is in some ways a symptom of unsustainable farming (factory farms, feedlots, or big agriculture), and of a system in need of repair.

Repairing the system, to Michael Pollan, means returning to an older way of farming, based around the sun rather than the oil barrel. Modern fields of corn or soybeans, where you can gaze upon the same color, size, and shape of plant for thousands of acres, would be replaced by polycultural fields growing many plants, using sunlight, compost and other natural fertilizers for growth, rather than fossil-fuel based granules. Animals are part of the farm landscape, raised humanely with their by-products going to good use, rather than packed into a feedlot, creating pollution via extreme fattening for the table. A farm could be its own ecosystem, rather than a gigantic assembly line; the output many products, rather than just one. Pollan presents many ideas based in reality for bringing a more sustainable system to bear, and getting people to accept it. I especially liked his idea of putting a second calorie count on every packaged food: one that shows the amount of fossil fuel it took to create the product (everything from plowing to fertilizing to transporting). That would make me think twice about buying that bag of Tater Tots (even with a coupon), and I'm probably not the only American that needs that nudge. He discusses the propensity for current government programs to favor corporate farms, and shares excellent ideas about fixing this problem as well. I do hope you'll read the article and enjoy it as much as I did.

While we've watched the price of oil decline for the past few weeks, we should continue to bear in mind ideas of sustainability and alternative fuels. I seem to recall similar bounces in the price of oil around election time, and it doesn't seem likely that the current economic problems have somehow magically fixed the issues with the world's oil market. I recently read about a food shortage in Iceland, which was indirectly caused by the credit crunch. It's unlikely that Iceland will be the last country affected in such a way. If America is to keep up its strength, it must eat healthfully. We have all read about the detriments of a fatty diet, and petroleum just might be the worst fat upon which to base a diet.

What's New On the Farm - 10/16/2008

Hello faithful readers and new comers, alike. Brian has asked me, Susie Anderson, to write the article this week. Thank you for reading and enjoy your fall. Maine is absolutely enveloped in spectacular fall color…

The Farm Crew at Johnny's is in the throws of harvesting pumpkins and squash for seed extraction. Five to six people swarm around the harvest wagon like gulls around a fishing boat, lobbing pumpkins into the wagon. The air is crisp and the leaves are golden, yellow, orange, red, scarlet, and every color in between. The farm is beautiful and there's excitement as we wind the season down for winter.

Other creatures are readying themselves for winter, too. There's a lot of what we on the farm call "mammal blight” on the fruits we're harvesting. Small animals such as skunks, groundhogs, squirrels, and chipmunks have been feasting upon the fruit of our labor for the past two months. We set out live traps baited with all sorts of tasty treats like carrots, apple slices, and peanut butter on a beautiful flowered paper plate to entice them away. In most instances the fruit that we are trying so hard to protect is the object of their desire and the traps sit empty.

We have caught a skunk or two. One poor soul on the farm crew was unfortunate enough to find a Mephitis mephitis in a trap one morning. Fortunately he had full rain gear on therefore getting spray only on the impermeable that he was donning. The Latin name for the striped skunk, Mephitis mephitis, means, literally, Stench stench.

Skunks are omnivores, foraging at dusk and dawn mostly. This type of activity in mammals is known as crepuscular, active at the beginning and end of the day. They have poor vision, fabulous senses of smell and hearing, and are a primary predator of honeybees. The most famous feature of the skunk is the potential to emit a foul-smelling liquid from two anal glands, one on either side of the anus. This odiferous ooze consists of sulfur-containing compounds that smell like rotten eggs, burnt tires, strong cloves of garlic, or any other description that someone may feel befits the offensive stench. A skunk may hiss, dance, lift its tail, or growl before it sprays due to a limited number of sprays it has in its arsenal.

Most animals know to stay very far from this smell except the skunks' primary predator, the great horned owl. This raptor, like most birds, has a very poor sense of smell making it practically immune to the skunks' defenses. We as humans can smell skunks from almost a mile away if the wind is NOT in our favor! It took many months for the sulfury perfume to wear off the truck bed where our trapped skunk rode the short trip to its release site. Our farm crew member survived, although his raingear had to live outside for quite some time.

The striped skunk will be much less active in the winter, feeding sporadically and spending most of the time in a den in the ground. We gladly say happy snoozing to our striped friend. Amazing to think that some people domesticate this animal and bring them into the home, glands removed, of course! Happy autumn to everyone, including Stench stench!

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

River Valley Fencing

This past summer, Johnny's had a fence installed by River Valley Fencing. As Brian has mentioned in his "What's New at the Farm?" updates, we had a severe deer problem, and needed a solution. This fence seems to have done the trick!

Fence details:
  • It took twenty days to build the 8’ high, high tensile fence with fixed knot, black woven wire with 12’ posts of 6” diameter placed every 20’.

  • The wire is specifically designed for commercial vegetable and orchard operations. The bottom squares of the fence wire allow for biodiversity, helping to keep the mice and small vermin population down by allowing small predators through the fence.

  • There are 4 main gates, 24’ wide, and 9 smaller gateways. Gates are 98” high and have a 4”x4” welded galvanized mesh. There are a variety of gate widths based on Johnny’s access needs.

  • Posts were installed using a post pounder that has a rock spike because the ground conditions were especially hard. Although usually able to pound an average of 50 posts per day, we averaged only 30 per day at Johnny’s. The post pounding was the hardest that RVF has encountered all season.

  • Approximately 70 16’ H-Brace assemblies were installed whenever the fence changed direction or there was a gateway. These are required because the wire is stretched at high tension.

  • A 10,000 lb. tracked skid steer with a hydraulic wire stretcher was used to unwind the wire and to tighten the fence to the correct tension. The stretcher allows us to ‘tension’ up to a 1000 continuous feet, and to install up to 4000’ of wire in a day, depending on terrain.

  • All fence materials are designed for agricultural use and have a life expectancy of at least 30 years, with the wire lasting up to 40 years.

River Valley Fencing specializes in fences that are functional and beautiful. Using the finest materials, and the best suited to the client’s needs, this team of experienced fencers will build the fence that protects livestock or crops and beautifies the landscape. No job is too small or too large for River Valley Fencing.

Daniel Maltby, President and owner of River Valley Fencing has been farming for over 20 years and fencing since 1997. He will consults by phone and in person to assess the client’s fence needs. Following a visit, he will provides a written plan, with duration of the work and a cost estimate for the project. When the client is ready, Daniel will schedule the job, have materials delivered, and arrive with his fencing team to efficiently complete the project. Daniel is fully experienced in USDA Equip program grants and has completed many different jobs under NRCS specifications in all New England states.

Surveying for the fence

Setting preliminary posts

Eyeballing the fence post alignment

Carrying posts

Laying out posts

Setting posts in rocky Maine soil

Adding cross posts for stability

Strengthening the fence

Stretching the wire

Stretching more wire

Attaching the wire

Adjusting the wire

More attachments

Monday, October 13, 2008

October surprise

Oh, October! The time of year when so many of us long for summer to last just a little longer. We know winter is coming; we see and appreciate the signs, but we want summer to linger just a little bit longer. We savor every minute of each Red Sox post season game, willing them to keep going, just one more inning, just one more hit, to stretch the season into November. And those of us who garden watch the weather reports intently, taking necessary precautions in case the temperature dips enough to harm our precious plants. Perhaps we even silently plead with the weather reporter to give us a nice stretch of “Indian Summer”, a not-so-politically correct name for pleasant fall temperatures.

After a summer of too much water, my husband plays along as I turn the sprinkler on in the middle of the night, because the thermometer dipped to 35 degrees, to protect my tomato plants. I have too many to cover up conveniently, and our city water is not too expensive. The plants are still alive and bearing, and the past several days of pleasant autumn warmth have increased this year’s so-far pathetic tomato yield. Just cut any black spots off and you have home grown tomato goodness!

If I can get a few of my big beefsteaks to ripen, I’ll be a happy girl. So far we’ve had lots of cherry tomatoes and a few romas and medium-sized ones, but my favorite type, Black Krim, have yet to even show a shadow of their dusky glory. I’m still waiting to have that BLT. As soon as they show any sign of ripening, I’ll pick them and bring them in, setting them near other tomatoes to ripen, and keep an eye on them to ensure that they don’t rot.

Rain, however, is not always a gardener’s friend, even if it comes with warmer temperatures. I was disappointed a couple of weekends back to see that the first melons I ever grew in my garden actually exploded during a 4” deluge one Saturday. Cracked cherry tomatoes and beefsteaks with black holes were among the other “victims” of the rain. I want normal summery warmth, not the excess of water we had this year.

I’m hoping for summer to stretch just a little longer. Ripe tomatoes and the Red Sox go hand in hand in our household! It’s still early to judge the garden’s success this year, and I can’t yet complain. I’ve had plenty of zucchini!

Friday, October 10, 2008

Martha Stewart recommends our Swiss Chard seeds

TV host and magazine publisher Martha Stewart recently wrote an informative piece on Swiss chard in her blog -- the Martha Blog. She gave us a plug and posted a link to From the photos she posted, it looks like Martha may have used our Bright Lights and Ruby Red seeds in her garden.

Read Martha's blog.

Check out our Swiss Chard varieties

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

What's New At The Farm, 10/08/2008

Janika sent me an email yesterday that she saw a Praying Mantis in her yard, so I thought that would make a good topic for today’s article. Each time I do an article on an insect, I learn a lot more about them. Such is the case here; the life of the Praying Mantis isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

I’m sure everyone’s seen a praying Mantis sometime in their life. They are quite unmistakable in their appearance; sort of a miniature warrior in bright green. I’d hate to be an aphid and see one of these guys coming along. Finding them is somewhat like looking for tomato hornworms; once you know what you’re looking for they become easier to spot, although they are much rarer than hornworms.

I‘ve once seen them in my garden but I don’t recall ever seeing them here on the farm. They are commonly released by organic gardeners as predators but there are drawbacks with using them for that purpose. The biggest drawback is that they consume everything. Good insects, bad insects and everything in between. In certain applications they should perform well. We had a huge aphid problem this spring in the greenhouses and wanted to release some mantises, but we were too late to order them and they had been sold out. Next year it would be wise to order some early and keep the egg cases in the fridge until we needed them. Although I think the lady bugs did a great job on the aphids once a population got established. Something to look forward to next year!

Praying Mantises rely on their awesome camouflage to hide from their predators and trick their prey into thinking they’re a stick or stem and not something that wants to devour them. They look exactly like stems or sticks and it takes a sharp eye to spot them. Looking for movement in stems and sticks doesn’t appeal to me as very entertaining.

As for their life cycle, courtship and mating usually takes place in the fall. She often eats him while mating, starting with chewing his head off. The smart males will sometimes wait until she isn’t looking to jump off and run away, to perhaps find another female. She will lay between 10 and 400 eggs in a frothy mass which later hardens to become a protective case. Both parents will die in the winter, leaving the eggs to hatch in the spring. Once the weather warms the eggs hatch out into miniature mantises.

They grow like lobsters, shedding their skin as they grow. All stages look pretty much the same only larger until they become adults with wings. They shed their exoskeletons five to ten times depending on species. Two species were introduced into their US in the late 1800’s. The Chinese which were introduced in 1895 for pest control and the European which was into’d in 1899 in a load of nursery plants, the European which was introduced in 1895 as a predatory insect. The European is 2-3 inches long and the Chinese is up to four inches long which makes the two species identifiable.

Until next week, Brian.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

What's New At The Farm 10/01/2008

Tomatoes, tomatoes and more tomatoes!

September is typically tomato month here on the farm. Usually we harvest them all month for seed production, but this year due to not having any tomatoes for seed we're spending our time harvesting and seeding from the tomato workshop. Our tomato workshop is much larger than usual so we're spending more time seeding it out than usual. The warehouse has the distinct odor of rotting tomatoes. Kelly, Elisa, and Mike Bowman are spending their days squishing and sluicing tomatoes.

Elsewhere on the farm we had 3.5 inches of rain last weekend. I guess field work is done for a few days. Luckily we had planted all the cover crops before we got the rain. Well, at least all we could; some fields aren't ready yet and probably won't be before the weather gets too cold. Those fields will get chisel plowed with the contour to help prevent soil erosion. The ridges left by the chisel plow will freeze and keep the snow and rain in the field where it can soak down over time.

We'll harvest the squash workshop – probably next week. We'll also pick the foundation stockseeds in the next week to ten days and bring back to the farm for processing. Not a lot this year; eight or ten different lines at the most. It will take us about three weeks to process these although not three weeks steady. It takes a morning to process one, then a full day to dry it and a half a day to prepare for the next one. It's a decent job if the weather is warm, but it can be done in the rain, so all is not lost. Rain and mud make it more interesting anyways.

We've had only very light frost here at the farm so things still look pretty good. The light frost we did have dropped the leaves on the squashes and pumpkins making it easier to find them.

It's starting to look more like fall around the farm. The leaves are turning and the birds are gathering up for their trip down south. I notice the absence of swallows and hummingbirds first as well as the crows and lots of ducks and geese gathering together. Another two or three weeks and the bulk of the leaves will be gone until mid-May next spring. You know, if you think much about it, we only have leaves for five months. So that's seven months without them. I'm sure you think I'm leading up to something but I'm really not; just an observation. It seems like we have leaves most of the year but we don't. Leaves are associated with warm weather so you can extrapolate from there.

I'll miss summer, I'll miss working in the garden, but I won't miss the humidity. I'm headed out to the garden to see what's left; probably some beets and Brussels sprouts. The bees are working the Black Cohosh hard now; if you don't have any it does well on the north side of a building and blossoms profusely this time of year. The smell is indescribable; really sweet.

Enjoy the cooler temps, Brian.