Wednesday, January 28, 2009

What's New At The Farm? 1/28/09

As we near the end of January, the time to start thinking about plans for this year's garden is upon us. What changes will we make; what crop shall we grow more of and which crops shall we not plant at all? How much better will we do things this year? How will we keep up on the planting and weeding and watering and harvesting? How will we accomplish all we've set out to do and still have some time to do some other fun activities before summer slips away? Here are a few thoughts I'm going to implement this season.

I'm not going to plow my garden this year. I plowed it last year; the first year in forty it had been plowed and it looked like a kid plowed it. Better to till it before any farmer friends see it. I dragged up all kinds of roots and rocks; stuff that's been buried for quite some time. And the size: originally I had planned on planting half of it and cover cropping the other half. Well, I planted it all two years in a row. Now I don't mind growing some extras but this is getting a bit much! Last year's garden had 150 feet of green beans; I need 20 feet. The goat ate most of the balance. I did cut back on potatoes: from 400 feet to 300 feet. I like growing potatoes but I think 400 pounds of them is a bit much for two people.

Leeks! She had to have them. I like onions but am not particularly fond of leeks; I find them bland. OK, I'll grow some. I bought some plants, planted about fifty of them and the rest went sailing off into the fencerow. Planted, weeded, watered and they're still there. No leeks in 2009.

And, yes, I will cut the garden in half.

Put something over the popcorn to scare the birds away. We would have had plenty to eat this winter but the birds preferred to eat it last spring. Blackbirds I think, as the garden is near to several swamps with cattails. Bird scare tape and bird balloons work fine as do those CDs that seem to be everywhere. If I string them above the crop by a couple of feet perhaps I'll have some popcorn next winter.

Increase my use of plastic mulch. OK, OK I've heard the whole thing about plastic mulch. I've also seen what it will do: allow me to grow warm season crops here without weeds and worries about dry soils. I can grow melons here without too much concern. I can have oodles of cukes, summer and winter squash, tomatoes, peppers and some flowers with no weeds using plastic mulch. If I use row covers, which I usually do, I can grow all the above mentioned crops without insects bothering my plants or the occasional driving rain turning my crops into broken and useless plants. Last spring I put down 100 feet of poly, planted cukes, summer squash and tomatoes and still had 35 or so feet left. I direct seeded some castor beans. They grew much better than the ones we transplanted into the field at Johnny's. I grew so many summer squash, and most everyone grows way too many, the goat and the chickens feasted on them most of the summer.

Strawberries; take better care of them and not plant quite so many. 150 plants is more than adequate for the whole neighborhood. I'll plant 50 this year and take better care of them. I'll put them in my regular garden and not up on the hill. I dislike that garden up there anyways; I think I'll put that all into brambles. Plant a few more fruit trees; like some apples and get some mulch around them. The old mulch is getting pretty thin. And add a heavy layer of mulch around the blueberries. And start a new rhubarb patch; leave the old one for the chickens. And I've got to plant fall carrots and rutabagas in July!

And spend more time in my boat – yep, looks like another busy year.

Until next week, Brian

What's New At The Farm? 1/21/09

Today we are exactly one month into winter; seems like more than that. We're also just two short months away from the first day of spring – works for me. It seems like a short amount of time since I was in the field last but by the looks of things I guess it's been a while. We'll be firing up the greenhouses before you know it so I need to get busy ordering supplies.

Last weeks cold temperatures were a reminder we are very much in the midst of winter. We had an official minus 23 here in Albion and I had minus 29 on Friday morning. The wood pile is taking a beating now; I was concerned we weren't going to use that much this year and what would I do with all that wood I ordered for next year. I don't foresee that as being a problem now.

We are using our antique wood cook stove frequently this winter mostly for baking and cooking on the stovetop. The stove is a Modern Clarion, made in Bangor, Maine around a hundred years ago the best we can figure. Things were made to last and be used back then and it's in remarkably good shape considering its age; I hope I'm in that good of shape when I hit a hundred. Last weekend we made jam from the strawberries we'd harvested from our garden last summer. We also baked beans from a local grower and made a big pot of pea soup with homemade biscuits. The biggest problem with the stove is that it takes "biscuit" wood, which is short and split fine. Furnace wood is 2 feet long and split coarsely so it doesn't take long to stack up a couple of cords. Biscuit wood on the other hand is 14-16 inches long and split into two to three inches pieces and takes forever to pile up. White maple, alders, ash and a little bit of oak is the best for the kitchen stove along with some small pieces of hardwood slabwood.

So, by now I suppose some of you are wondering what exactly this has to do with Johnny's farm. I know we're looking forward to using our woodstove to cook and process the vegetables we harvest next summer out of our garden. We harvest crops like strawberries and tomatoes, freeze them and the cook them down on the woodstove in the winter. There are a couple of reasons for this: we don't have to spend precious time in the summer processing certain crops, and we've got the woodstove running in the winter anyway, so the heat is free. I find it somewhat hypocritical that we would use propane in the summer to replace what the wood can do in the winter. I don't want to use any more energy than I have to so this methodology works for us. It also gives us something to do in the winter, besides cramming the stoves with wood and complaining about how cold it is.

Of course there are many crops we can't use this method on. Any crop that needs to be blanched cannot be frozen, blanched and refrozen, so we have to resort to the gas stove for these. In the old days many people had a "summer" kitchen. My grandmother had one in her house and as I remember it was well designed for preserving the harvest. It had a wood cookstove, a sink, lots of shelves for canned goods and nice big windows that could be opened to let out some heat. It was just off the kitchen so it was handy but wouldn't heat the house up using the kitchen would have. I think if we were going to do lots of preserving it might be a good investment, especially if I was using a wood cookstove!

Although I work at Johnny's where we often get to take veggies home, we have a big garden with lots of fruit trees and berry bushes. We raise our own chickens; both meat and egg birds. We wild harvest some plants, especially crops like fiddleheads that you can't raise in the garden. So summer evenings we are often involved with harvesting something, or getting it ready for freezing or another method of preserving. I get a few people tell me it's a waste of time to preserve my own vegetables and fruits when I could buy them so much cheaper and easier. Apples and oranges here folks. I try to explain that the green beans I have just harvested in my garden, the ones that will be snapped, blanched and frozen within a couple of hours are so much better than those ones you find in the supermarket, having been frozen for who knows how long. The varieties I grew were selected for taste and not for ease of mechanical harvesting. They were picked, snapped and processed quickly so as to retain their fresh taste and crunchy texture in the dead of winter. I know we have 20 quarts of green beans ready for winter and I also know what year they were grown and who processed them and how long they should last. I also know that I'm not so busy as I can't spend any time getting my own food – pretty basic concept here.

I also know "where our food comes from". This catch phrase is quite popular now. Our veggies comes from Johnny's or my own garden, our chickens come from our own flock, the beef we eat comes to us by way of a local beef farmer, and during the summer some of our produce comes from the local farmers market. The local Mom and Pop store and the natural foods store gets support from us, and yes, we do visit the grocery store on occasion; a couple of times a month in the winter and a couple of times during the summer.

The best way to know where your food comes from is to be more involved in the whole picture. CSA's are gaining in popularity and many are available. Farmers' Markets are in nearly every town and city and offer fresh, local produce and farm products in season. And there even a few open all winter now offering root vegetables and other crops fresh. Buying directly from the farmer pretty much insures it's local and fresh; at least you can ask them. Of course you can always have a garden; then you know exactly what's going into your food. I like to garden; good thing as being Farm Manager at Johnny's kind of requires an agricultural interest. My garden is big; not because I need all this food, but rather because I can have a big garden and can grow food for people less fortunate than I.

Until next week, Brian

What's New At The Farm? 1/14/09

It's cold at the farm as well as everywhere else. As I sit and write this it's 2 above zero and calm. Good thing the wind isn't blowing or it would be a heck of a lot colder than it is now. There's plenty of cold weather forecasted so I guess we'll have plenty of snow and ice this year and perhaps, just perhaps, have a normal spring.

Last week I wrote about Indian meal moths; a pest of stored grain. Another pest of stored grains is the grain mite – today's subject. Last fall while feeding my chickens one day I noticed a patch of tiny insects on the side of the garbage can (where I store my feed). Always alert to insects in the henhouse I investigated the clusters to make sure they weren't bird lice. Upon close inspection one day as I was loading grain into the bins the patches were indeed masses of tiny insects about the size of chicken lice. There were thousands of them clustered near where the handles are attached to the cans. They crawl like bird lice but don't eat anything but seeds and grains so are harmless to humans. Evidently they don't bother the hens as they got dumped into the feeders whilst I was feeding the hens.

Grain mites infect all kinds of food and feed products, cereals, dried vegetable materials, cheese, corn and dried fruits. They thrive in humid conditions; high humidity and warm conditions. At 90% humidity and 75 degrees, their entire life cycle may only take nine to eleven days to complete whereas under lower humidity and cooler temps the same process may require up to a month.

Females lay up to 800 eggs in their lifetime at the rate of twenty to thirty per day. She may lay them in clusters or singly on the food surface. As the young mites grow they may change into a stage called hypopus. At this time their body walls may harden and they develop suckers on their legs with which they use for transporting themselves by attaching to other insects and mice to hitch a ride. This is how they migrate to other grains in storage. At this stage they are more resistant to insecticides than at other stages of their lives. Once they find a new home they simply drop off, lose their hardened shells and resume growing.

While I was researching this article I didn't see anything to point to their being a hazard to livestock but I was anxious to get rid of them anyways. They are quite resilient to pesticides in certain stages of their life cycle. Freezing (like for Indian meal moths) works marginally well, microwaving works well for small lots but I do not see most people microwaving their grain stocks. There are some insecticides labeled for their control but I'd rather not use them in the henhouse; insecticides only knock down their population but does nothing for longer term control.

The official answer to everyone's question is: "The best way to avoid an infestation is not to get them in the first place". You know, I've always hated an answer like that. Too condescending; if I didn't have them I probably wouldn't be reading and writing about them. I want a solution that is least toxic, easy and achieves the goal of eradication.

I found that simple steps in good sanitation eliminated the population. Eliminating grain dusts, using my older grain first, not buying more than I needed for a couple of weeks at a time, and giving the grain storages a good and thorough cleaning out between batches of grain, I haven't seen the mites since. Of course its winter and I wouldn't see them now anyways. I'll keep an eye open for them next season but I don't expect to see them again.

Until next week, stay warm.

What's New At The Farm? 1/7/09

Moths flying out of my pretzel bag can't be a good sign. This week's article will be on Indian Meal moths; their identification, life cycle and control.

Indian meal moths are the most common pest of stored grains, seeds and flour products. They may be brought into your home in birdseed, dog food, flours and grains destined for your pantry, or any product that includes seeds or nuts in its makeup. Craft projects that incorporate grain heads can be home for enough insects to begin an unwanted population in your home. Open boxes of crackers, cereals and not-often used baking supplies (rarely used flours) make ideal homes and highways to bring the moths in. Nuts and seeds brought in by squirrels and mice can also harbor them.

One of the first indications you may have an infestation on your hands is their webbing. Webbing is often found inside bags of birdseed, especially if the seed is leftover from the previous year or stored where it's warm. Adults flying around are a give-a-way as well.

Identification of the Indian meal moth is relatively easy as the moth is about 3/8ths of an inch long with a wingspan of about 5/8ths of an inch. The overall color is dirty gray with some rusty brown on the tip portion of the wings. The adults do not feed, but rather are an indicator of a problem brewing.

The larvae is a cream colored caterpillar with a brown head about 2/3 of an inch long. It is capable of chewing through thin plastic and cardboard so keep this in mind when storing dry products. It can often be seen crawling ever so slowly where the walls meet the ceiling. These caterpillars are looking for a place to pupate. When pupating they surround themselves with a loose cocoon, and after pupating emerge as winged adults looking to mate and lay their eggs to repeat the cycle again. Three to four generations per year are common.

Now that you've got them, how do you control them? Notice I said "control" and not eradicate them. They're nearly impossible to eradicate without constant vigilance. The moths are easy to spot and easier still to kill as they are relatively a slow flying insect. A flyswatter will easily kill them; you can usually catch them while in flight although it's not as dramatic as catching a housefly in mid-flight. The larvae can be vacuumed up along with their webs when spotted. A thorough cleaning and checking of pantry supplies will go a long way in cutting their numbers down. Be aggressive in cleaning out the pantry. If a package is open or loosely sealed it probably has some eggs or larvae inside. For most products a trip to the compost pile or henhouse is in order.

A few things that "we can't live without" may be repackaged in a strong plastic or metal container and placed in a freezer for at least two weeks. Freezing will kill the adults and the eggs. Be fore-warned though that as soon as the product comes out of the freezer and put back on the pantry shelves it can become reinfested all over again. This treatment will only kill the insects, not remove them so if you see webbing or larvae you might toss these as well. The freeze treatment works best for products that have no signs of moth infestation but may be in close proximity to foods that do.

And so what to do once the moths' population is down or pretty much eradicated? I store all small batches of flours and baking goods in glass mason jars with tight fitting lids. Nuts, large bags of flour and whole or coarsely ground grains (like rolled oats) get stored in the freezer, especially in the warmer months when we don't use them so often. If I buy birdseed in the summer, it gets the two week freezer treatment then gets stored outside in an unheated building. Bird seed bells also get stored outside and dried ornamental corn gets put out for the squirrels. When buying bird seed check the bags, especially around where it is stitched, for larvae and webbing; if you see any don't buy it or at least store it outside.

Pheromone traps are available for the moths, but since they only attract the male moths their effectiveness for control is somewhat questionable. Traps should be used to monitor populations and if a population is discovered then the above mentioned controls can then be implemented.

Until next week, Brian