Experiments in small batch onion seed cleaning

We grow scallions, scads, succession planting for continuous harvest throughout the season. Fresh scallions are amazing, delicious, they are easy to use, in everything. So we grow a lot. Evergreen Hardy has become a favorite for both flavor and vigor, and we’ve been saving seed every other (ish) year. We haven’t yet invested in seed sieves and as a result we’re still working on a way to adequately and (time) efficiently clean our onion seed.

Yesterday morning we seeded over 5000 alliums (!) and feeling inspired, we pulled out the paper bag of Evergreen Hardy seed heads that we collected last fall and which have been lurking in the mudroom for the past 5 months. Seed saving references mention winnowing with water (eep!), so we gave it a try. Dunking your carefully tended, harvested and dried seed in a jar of water – even just for a few seconds – feels a bit like steeking a sweater. Not for the faint of heart. (deep breath)

Jerm couldn’t watch.

I broke the flowers off the stems and tossed everything around pretty vigorously in order to make sure the seed was good and out of the flowers. Then, handful at a time, I dropped the seed and chaff into a jar and topped it off with water. The chaffy nonsense floated to the the top along with junky seed and the good seed when right to the bottom. I used a chopstick to stir this around a bit. Decanting a few times left me with a bunch of beautiful seed at the bottom of the jar which I immediately spread out to dry. Quick. Everything expeditiously.Jeremy opted for dry winnowing. Using the two sieves we have (a pasta colander and a smaller, mesh strainer) he skimmed off the big chaff and removed the smaller dusty bits. We use a box fan for winnowing kale, beans and corn – but the onion seed requires a more gentle air current, and one can only do the “blowing birthday candles out” seed winnowing technique for so long before becoming too light headed to continue. So we made a cleaning tool that friends at Meadowlark Hearth introduced us to. A sheet of fabric wrapped around a frame. With this we were able to tap the onion seed away from the stems – real slick! This frame is a great way to clean round seed like brassicas and beets, and we are happy to report: it works well for onions too.

Here’s a short video of 1000 onion seeds bouncing on a bedsheet, accompanied by Kid Koala.Both methods seem to yield equally clean seed. Water-winnowing went faster. Dry winnowing was less stressful. We’ve kept seed from these two methods separate and we’ll try them out in side-by-side plantings to compare germination rates over time.

And a special note for all our fellow Spearfish Seed Enthusiasts: next Sunday (3/11)  is the Spearfish Seed Swap from 1:30-4:30 at the Spearfish Public Library. Come, bring your seeds and your friends, bring home your friends’ seeds!  We’re celebrating FIVE years! Even if you don’t have seeds to swap, come anyway, join with friends and neighbors for an afternoon of gardening camaraderie!

 

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a year of birds on the farm

Hooray-hooRAY and happy, happy tidings!

One of the exciting things about flipping over into another January is starting a whole new series of calendars, and we have no shortage of these: farm journal, planting calendar, daily planner, and our bird list.We started the bird list last January 1st in an effort to better monitor our avian diversity and as a way to record the comings and -especially- goings of migrating species, of particular interest: the robins and vultures.

And now with a complete year of observations, we can’t wait to share this. It’s SO COOL: 2017 farm bird list. (< click to view)

The calendar is set up by week with a note (x) for observed presence on farm during that week. This doesn’t account for number of individuals. 300 Grackles get the same x as one Rufous Hummingbird. However, this does show number of species and trends over the course of the season.  The boundaries we use for inclusion are not rigid. Fly-overs are counted as “seen on the farm” (i.e. Sandhill Cranes, Mallards), however wild turkeys seen parading about in the neighbors’ horse pasture don’t. To an extent, these boundaries follow Jeremy’s whims and fancies and mostly depend on likelihood of direct interaction with the farm.

A few things of note:
With these records we can see the two peaks (mid-May and Sept-Oct) of spring and fall migrations. It looks like the spring migration peak is a shorter pulse as birds are cruising on to breeding grounds, and fall migration is more drawn out. Over the course of the year, Jeremy got a whole lot better at bird observation and identification. This certainly skewed the data a bit towards fall abundance.

Our original list included 82 species that we thought we had seen on the farm over the past 5 years. This year we were able to confidently identify a total of 103 different species including 35 new-to-our-list species. (HOLYCRAP!)Bird highlights: We identified three species of hummingbird including the smallest bird in North America, Calliope (photo above(!) courtesy of Greg Albrechtsen). A Golden-winged Warbler. American Redstarts nested here. Regular visits by a Great Horned Owl. Our first Orioles. AND we learned to identify several of the warblers (at least 11 different species and variants), who had until this year just been lumped as “the little flitty birds in the trees.” It’s fun to have these visitors to the farm, to be aware that they have come through, but the species who make the farm their home are most intriguing to us. We are having big fun getting to know the behavior and personalities of these birds; the Juncos, Robins, Starlings, Blue Jays and Flickers.

Our biggest bird week (9/10) included a Sunday in which our sweet, smart friends, Greg and Mary Beth, came over and spent the morning birding with us. These two have been generous and contagiously enthusiastic mentors for us as we cannonball (bellyflop?) into the deep-end of the pool of birding.9/4/2017, birding w. Greg and MBWe’re especially excited to continue this monitoring and watch how seasonal trends appear over several years. And this year we will be planting even more Hummingbird Sage and Sunset Hyssop. Big cluster plantings, everywhere.

Wishing you all a joyful, healthy, and wondrous new year, t&j

(and for our birding brethren – if you would like a copy of our template, it’s here to share: 2018 Birds, annual record – SHARE Easy to edit.)

and now for something completely different

An octopus.

It’s snowing and we’re tucked in. Piles of books by the end of the couch, tea kettle spitting, we’re thoroughly nested in woolly things. We are reflecting on this past year and beginning considerations for next season. This year brought a number of changes to the farm: a new CSA market model, a nearly completely functional packshed, fewer than planned prepared and planted rows, our first hired farm hand (yea, Madeleine!), and a new mural.

In preparing for the construction of our packshed area, last spring (2016) we moved our walk-in cooler over to the south side of the garlic shed (‘garlic shed’ – currently a catch-all glorified junk drawer for wood working tools, bags of clean sawdust for nesting box bedding, and where we hang garlic to cure in the summer). The walk-in is an 8’x8’ insulated box cooled with an air conditioner and Cool-bot; the outside walls are cedar sheeting. A perfect spot for art. Big art. Last season was spent pipe-dreaming mural ideas as we walked back and forth by the empty, exposed wall of the walk-in cooler.

Vegetables and bicycles. Heaping baskets of vegetables. Butterflies and bumble bees. A giant lacewing. A schematic of the carbon cycle. Sunflowers? Lots of sunflowers! We schemed mural ideas.

…but why duplicate something on the wall that already grows right here, something we see routinely?

In the end, we decided that we needed something far removed from the daily activities of the farm, but something we are still connected to. The decisions we make here and our land management practices effect habitat and ecosystems far removed from our immediate farm. We are super far away from the oceans and yet, in not terribly obvious, ittybitty ways and profound, undeniable ways, we’re connected.  We are trying to grow good food as a means of working towards greater goals, a stronger community and a healthier planet.  And so, we decided the farm needs an octopus.

On the surface, we are radically different creatures, us and octopus (underwater invertebrates, eight legs and a beak(!), chromatophores (!?). Completely bizarre in every way). However, octopuses embody characteristics that we are inspired by and strive for in our farm management. They are intelligent, cognizant, and interactive. They are problem solvers. Curious. Adaptable. Flexible. Resilient. Strong, yet vulnerable. Playful. Emotional. Observant. Deliberate. They are ecosystem engineers, able to shape their community and benefit other species beyond themselves.Despite limited experience with oceanic invertebrates, our friend Rebecca graciously agreed to paint an octopus for us. Over the course of a few weeks, she came out to the farm and set to work. The October bright blue weather had her melting against the south-facing wall some days. And, on other days, we helped rig up a tarp shelter and space heater in order to help keep the paints – and Rebecca – from getting too cold. Over these days we had the chance to watch the transformation from featureless cedar surface to near-animate being.  A sketched outline projected on the blank wall became chalk. Then a bright blue silhouette. Turned orange. And an eye! Then suckers. Rows of plain white circles became many-hued dimpled orbs of early sunrise, each its own magical oystershell of pink and purple, blue, but still white. It’s no longer an it. She is an octopus. She is intricate and vibrant. She welcomes conversation and reflection. I think her name is Halcyon; Jeremy’s not so sure. Her presence is a nod to our own beloved, hand working, and omnipresent farm invertebrates. She makes us feel like we had better do a good job.  She is a reminder of what we are working toward.

We feel honored to have this beautiful piece on the farm. The thoughtfulness, creativity, generosity, and love that went into her creation are an inspiration to us. Thank you for sharing this gift, your gift with us, Rebecca.

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P.S. A couple additional comments of note: Jeremy’s father, Dave, pointed out with great mirth, it’s an especially apropos totem for the farm.  And Papa Jenkins thinks this is clearly a sign of our good taste. We have since discovered that there is a history of octopus murals in Spearfish, or at least one other.

August August, illustrated

A mid-summer photo dump. Annotated. In full.

The corn-beans-squash beds have exploded and are running amok through the rhubarb, climbing the greenhouse. You can almost watch the Rouge vif D’Etampes and Sundream swell. The beans we have planted in here are Hidatsa Shield Figure beans and the corn is a Taos Blue Corn that makes scrumptious atole and pancakes. We also planted in a few of the lesser known fourth sister, Rocky Mountain bee plant (cleome, spider plant), but it seems she may have been swallowed by her siblings. The sisters are planted in two beds near the greenhouse, it’s a small planting and we may have to hand-pollinate the corn. We have 8 additional rows of various winter squash varieties planted, but didn’t get our popcorn or other dry beans in this spring.

We’ve teased out a 4-year crop rotation that’s been working really well for our staple crops; potatoes then squash then beans then either garlic or popcorn. The field winter squash were seeded into alternating beds with our garlic planting. Garlic was harvested out in mid-July and Jeremy immediately seeded a buckwheat and oat cover crop in its place. Despite getting this seeded just before a good rain, the cover crop is really doing best near the drip lines. With the garlic out and the buckwheat/oats just getting going, there’s plenty of room for the squash vines to spread. We’ve been playing with integrating different cover crops and mixes with our vegetable plantings, some we haven’t mastered so well. This is one that we’re especially pleased with.Jeremy has been spending more and more time ooey-glueyied to the binoculars. The bird list is up to 87 different species identified on or flying over the farm this year. Most recently: Shrikes hunting grasshoppers in the orchard, a Red-eyed Vireo, hummingbirds (Ruby-throated and Rufous), a Great Horned Owl, Orchard and Baltimore Orioles, and a Lewis’s Woodpecker.

We continue to lose young trees to voles – usually they get girdled during the winter, but this summer we’ve lost several, probably due to tall grasses near the trees (sounds like we need some lambs again, eh?). There have been a few fruits this year, mostly apples and plums. Noteworthy fruits include a plum from the very, very first tree we planted on the farm, a pear from a tree planted in honor of Grandma Ginny, and a bomber crab apple harvest which we are currently climbing through the middle of. Oh yes! Even berries off of our brand spankin’ new, first year hedgerow shrubs (many thanks to those fine folks at the Lawrence County Conservation District). We planted over 200 bareroot cherries and berries around the perimeter of the orchard, immediately got them linked up to a drip line, and they’re doing great.This (below) is a shot of one of the hummingbird visitors we’ve had on the farm during these past few weeks. Most activity has been seen on Texas Hummingbird Sage and Sunset Hyssop. A young female Rufous Hummingbird, photo by Greg Albrechtsen.This season, we’re experimenting with a new farm share market plan and we’ve received good feedback from our farm stand family members. It’s sounds like there is significantly less food waste happening at customers’ homes and folks are appreciating the choice in produce and the flexible schedule. We’ve noticed that we have a much reduced stress level this summer versus previous summers.  And at least part of this we are attributing to our new marketing arrangement and how it is reducing our stress around filling bountiful and balanced CSA baskets.

Some of our worries with this new arrangement were losing the connection to the farm that a CSA membership facilitates and that a market style farm share plan might force us into growing only just the most popular vegetables. A carrot and tomato farm. These were unwarranted worries and we’ve found that, overwhelmingly, our customers are staying engaged with the farm through emails and newsletters, coming throughout the whole season, and are still trying new vegetables and supporting the farm by purchasing a diversity of vegetables.  We really appreciate our thoughtful community of farm supporters, they’re truly helping make this all possible.We’ve been having fun getting to know new flowers this year, both new-to-us annual varieties and several perennials that are only now setting blooms. Blue vervain, elecampane, lemon bee balm/bergamot, liatrus, hyssop, black cohosh, chocolate flower, Buddha’s Hand cosmos, butterfly milkweed, some crazy pink poppies, and arnica. We’ve also been having fun getting to know our native pollinators better. This spring, we built a native pollinator nesting box.  It’s outfitted with oat straw, sunflower, Valerian and chicory stems. Drilled holes of various diameters and depths. Nesting sites for all sorts. The box is set up near the farm stand and new pollinator/herb bed. It’s a busy spot and completely captivating. We have identified several: grass-carrying wasps, yellow-faced bees, leaf-cutter bees, mud dauber wasps, mason bees. And then there are all the ones we haven’t identified: tiny metallic blue bees, yellow-bellied bees, etc. It’s become a regular farm telenovela series. Return characters. Romances. Dark relationship dramas. A leaf cutter bee who lined and capped her nest with flower petals. A yellow-faced bee who robbed the saliva from one nest to build another. Earlier this week, we saw a Downy Woodpecker take off from near the box. When we inspected the holes, we found them littered with green leaf-cutter bee nest confetti. This bird had found the buffet line and loaded up. If it’s any consolation, we’ve read that mother bees will lay female eggs at the back of the nests, and male eggs towards the front.. for this very reason.

If you’re as stoked about native pollinators as we are (and why wouldn’t you be?), check out the Xerces Society, a great resource on invertebrate conservation, pollinator box worksheets here and here. Peek inside the solitary bee nests here, Resonating Bodies, and lastly here’s a neato video.The pollinator box has been so popular – with both invertebrate friends and people friends, that we hosted a native pollinator nesting box building workshop. It was a treat to spend the afternoon with fellow pollinator-enthusiasts, being constructive and creative together, building habitat for our beloved native solitary bees and wasps. Eight solitary bee boxes were constructed and are now up, scattered all around the Spearfish area in home gardens and backyards. In an uncanny yet completely obvious and timely expression of gratitude, we all watched, amazed, as a bee headed right into one box even before it’s roof was attached. This year, the front field is planted in alternating rows of beans and potatoes (with a few intercropped beets and a row of fall brassicas).  We are intercropping more this year than we have before, mainly due to space limitations. The limitation is not overall space, but ready-bed space. This season we have a lot of beds that are unplanted, 40% of our designated rows never got weeded and planted this spring. However, we’ve been putting time and money (via paid labor; thank you, Madeleine) into pulling rhizomes and getting this space ready for next year.Below is a view of some of the beds in the back field. From left to right: fennel in flower, lettuce, just germinating fall carrots, beets and tomatoes, peppers, more tomatoes, (and just out of view) cucumbers and cabbage. Bottom left, celery seed drying. We just learned that when celery plants go to seed they become ginormous. Don’t try and grow anything near them, because you won’t. Beneficial insects are all over the flowers though. And you can smell the heavenly celery from halfway down the field. Immediately after clearing a bed of lettuce(some) and celery(mostly), we added compost and seeded in carrots. (Specific no-till bed prep methods: pulled out lettuce, cut celery stalks at the base, seeded carrots using precision seeder / 6 rows, replaced drip tape, shoveled on compost, just a thin layer, raked gently to even the bed, hand watering with hose daily until germination, approx 6 days.) We’ve been having trouble with carrot germination, but these little ones look great and will be a welcome addition to roasted root vegetables and fall soups.

After three years without much for apples, this year, trees are super heavy with fruit. So far, we’ve collected over 200 pounds of crab apples from the tree by the farm stand. Most of this will be pressed and fermented into hard cider (Naked Lady Crab Apple Cider, 2017 vintage – harvest coincides with blooming Naked Lady flowers), plain wild ferment and a dry hopped batch.  At least 200 hundred more pounds have be raked up off of the ground for our chickens and the robins and doves have probably eaten that much as well.  The tree still looks loaded. (Interested in pressing cider? crab apple jelly? pickling? let us know.) The wild plums have their biggest crop in the six years we’ve been here.  We seem to have three varieties of wild plum (red, yellow and purple) of which we have only picked one so far, but the rest should be ready to pick by the end of the month.  And the grapevines have a good crop as well.  We use a refractometer to measure the sugar level of the grapes, and we start harvesting when they get up to 20-22 degrees brix. Harvesting grapes is not infrequently interrupted by shrieks, squeals, and big happy laughter as we find young garter snakes four feet off of the ground, looking at us eye-to-eye while we’re reaching for clusters of fruit.As the busy planting and weeding season passes the baton, clumsily, into busy harvesting season, we have found just a little time to sneak in infrastructure and other construction projects. Finishing the wash/pack shed is moving up in priority on the to-do list. We have spent the summer testing out different arrangements of the wash area layout and are nearly ready to commit to running water lines, lights and electricity and building out sorting tables and shelves. Earlier this week, we built a hand washing sink. It currently has a spectacular view. Also on the pack shed construction to-do list is a pair of sliding barn doors to enclose the north and west sides during times when inclement weather and harvest coincide. 

And, quickly and best of all, our friend Regina came for a visit, the sun went away then came back, and we received an award for Conservation Citizenship from Lawrence County Conservation District(!).

That’s it, pert near. Thanks, all! With grit and gratitude, t and j

 

agrarian riddims, vol. FIVE

Volume 5! It’s time for our annual summer mixtape love letter to the farm (inspired by a mixtape love letter to the parks that birthed hip hop).This special compilation of agrarian beats has been assembled as a reflection of our season thus far.  Many thanks to our friend Tom and the esteemed Kid Hops for inspiring good grooves, and to the artists who honor food, farmers, and the land through their music.

For more listening, check out our previous agrarian riddims compilations: Volume 1, Volume 2, Side C, and Volume 4.

The Agrarian Riddims mixtape, Volume FIVE is available to stream on a youtube playlist here. Or tune-in to individual tracks below.

Earl Sixteen – Natty Farming

Stand High Patrol – Big Tree

Ijahman Levi – Moulding

Sharon Little – Don’t Mash Up Creation

Clinton Fearon – This Morning

Macka B – Good Day

The Roots – Look Around

Biga*Ranx – My Face

Mungo’s Hi Fi – Warm Up

Phyllis Dillon – Don’t Touch Me Tomato

Beenie Man – Bicycle Man

Jay Family – Stakal Shedit

Fantan Mojah – Stronger

The Great Escape – Good Day

DJ Khaled and Sizzla – I’m so Grateful

With special nod to biodynamics, Brother Culture – Supanova

Dub Dynasty – Holy Cow

and Wicked Dub Division meets North East Ska Jazz Orchestra – Mama

With big beats and big beets,
Trish and Jeremy

nightlife

In celebration of National Moth Week (coming up: July 22-30th) and our fine nocturnal Lepidoptera friends, we hosted a Moth Party on the farm this past weekend.We strung up a white sheet on the laundry line and spread another out on the grass. Dusted off the chicken brooder lamps and lugged out our loupes and helpful (and less helpful) moth identification guides. And watched the happenings. It was captivating and incredible. And super fun.Here are photos of a few of the moth party attendees: (bigger! click on this image)So much more than moths joined the party. Special surprises include lady bugs, a bumble bee, dragon fly, and a mantid fly(!). Swarms of itty bitty leaf hoppers. Some spiders. Lacewings(!!) And a wicked smart wasp who spent the evening cruising up the illuminated sheet eating everything in its path, like Pacman.  A bzzzillion thanks to our friend Jane, a brilliant and enthusiastic young naturalist and coolest middle schooler we know, who came equipped with her own butterfly net and observation cage and helped us all with the evening’s invertebrate identification.This is a clover looper who has worn scales of her (his?) thorax, likely from wedging into flowers, under leaf litter, behind bark, or other tight spots. Crack climbing the farm. Farm nightlife is hoppin’. Thanks to everyone who came by and joined us in appreciation and admiration of all these little critters. We’re already looking forward to the next Moth Party.

P.S. We originally schemed projecting Mothra on a second screen (which attracts more moths: white light or Godzilla vs. Mothra?). Due to poor time management on the farmers’ part, we didn’t get the VHS/projector/screen set up as planned. Our apologies for this. Next time.

laying flock

This summer we’re taking a break from raising pastured meat birds and lambs and instead, we’re devoting all our coochiecooing attentions to our laying flock. We have Ameraucanas, Black Australorps and one sweet Dominique (barred bird in photo above). The Ameraucanas lay blue-green eggs, the Australorps and Dominique lay various shades of brown eggs.

In the past, we’ve ordered straight-runs of chicks as mixed grab-bags of heritage breeds from Sand Hill Preservation Center. We’ve had great luck with their chicks and through these birds we learned a lot about different types of chickens, good layers, not so good layers, growth rates, behavior, egg color, broodiness, comb-size and frost bite susceptibility, etc. And we enjoyed the variations in egg color.  However, in replacing old layers, we found it hard to distinguish between the newer layers and old hens. With the cost of feed, our profit margins on eggs are such that we can not afford to feed good sweet birds who are not laying eggs. Finally, after 4 years, egg production had become an economic folly and we decided to refresh the whole lot. Instead of ordering the mixed bag of heritage breeds again, we took a cue from our friend Julie at the James Ranch in Durango and decided to select birds by breed, such that we can establish an easier flock rotation. New layers this year are distinct (the Australorps are solid black, the Ameracaunas are either brown or white with mutton chops), the next chicks we get may be white or barred birds so we can tell the difference in age.

Our 43 hens spend the day patrolling for bugs, grubs and tender green things through our back grapevines. They dust bathe and rest in the shade of the spruce trees. We lug weeds out of the field by the bucket-load for them to manage. Periodically throughout the summer, we’ll let the open ditch run to water the trees; the birds always seem to enjoy an afternoon of puddle jumping and muddy worm gobbling. They eat things all day, lay eggs, and make great noises. And then they pick on each other and get broody and make even better noises. Currently we are ordering in feed from Buckwheat Growers, an organic feed mill in Minnesota. We order whole grains and use a small mill to grind grains, then mix the feed ourselves. The mill allows us to grind feed weekly, ensuring freshness and high nutrition.  We are trying to find a more local source for these grains and ideally reduce our shipping costs as well as carbon footprint.

We’re grateful for these feathered ladies, for eggs, nutrient cycling, and entertainment value.

brix, briefly

We pulled out the refractometer this morning after harvesting arugula and got geeky. Our curiosity was piqued after clearing out a bed of early arugula in the greenhouse and picking from an outside, uncovered bed and noticing subtle and not at all so subtle differences in plant form.

The arugula grown inside is uniform, unblemished, strong green, snappy, yet tender and delicious. The arugula growing in the outside bed is variable. This bed is a sparkly new raised bed built just in front of the greenhouse. We filled the raised bed with wheelbarrow loads of dirt that had been excavated for construction of our new pack shed. Since seeding in this bed, we’ve noticed patchy sections of really poor germination and stressed plants. All other inputs being the same, our best guess is that this is a soil quality/nutrient availability issue. Indeed, this crap sections of the bed are “wheelbarrow load-sized”, where we must have been loading from a poorer section of the excavated soil. Arugula plants in the meh soil, are super stunted (1-2″ tall), with yellowed leaves, and hit hard with flea beetle damage. The arugula growing in the good soil have dark green, broad leaves, limited flea beetle damage, and much better germination.

The refractometer is a tool we use to help determine the optimal time to harvest our grapes. The refractometer measures the dissolved solids in the plant juices, and are a good approximation of the total nutritional value and health of the plant.  Higher brix numbers (degrees brix, °Bx) equal more dissolved sugars and generally higher nutrition. With grapes, it’s fun watching the brix numbers climb over the course of a couple weeks, generally in August. For harvesting, we want the grapes to read at 22°Bx.  Of course this is typically 12 hours after the robins pillage the vines. A refractometer can also be used for the juices in plant leaves, though we haven’t explored this much. Until today.

This morning we started out with a quick look at a few of the arugula plants in the greenhouse, then out to the uncovered bed. At which point we couldn’t stop, so we went out to test the spinach and lettuce. Our test sample size is puny (3 or 4 plants), but the results have us stoked to look further into this.

Unfortunately for the sake of comparison, we’ve already pulled out the spring greenhouse lettuce and spinach plantings to make way for summer successions (basil, cucumbers and peppers). There are other things to look at. And we’re going to refractometer them all.

Greenhouse arugula readings were very close, 6.5-7°Bx. Please note, this summary is based of off a very (very) few samples. In the greenhouse, we measured brix from three leaves, 3 different plants. We were surprised to see how much higher the outside stunted arugula brix levels were, and then again, how close the brix from the stunted, flea beetle harassed leaves were to the much healthier looking, only slightly flea beetle damaged arugula growing right down the row. The spinach tested were from a bed that had overwintered outside,the variety Winter Bloomsdale. The wide range in lettuce (9-15°Bx) is interesting given these were readings all from one variety, Vulcan (this was a planting from fall 2016 that overwintered).  Jeremy has a special thing for lettuce, and grows over 20 different varieties, so there is vast potential for refractomtastic lettuce studies. Look out for our research published in Nature, or maybe Science, with more box and whisker charts.

These measurements were made mid-morning, after harvesting and packing things away. It would be interesting to compare degrees Brix of greens throughout the day. Are brix levels higher early in the morning, while plants are cool? Does this translate to optimum harvest time for highest nutrition content?

We appreciate the greenhouse for early spring harvests and as a refuge from summer hail storms, but looking at this comparison reaffirms our interest in learning how to better grow in accordance with the elements.

Rain and sunshine, t and j

lemon meringue and honeydew

We just got extremely excited about this and want to share.

While we are working in the field, we also spend a good amount of time inspecting little critters and watching birds, admiring nitrogen nodules and thanking earth worms. This evening, we noticed aphids on several of the dandelion roots we excavated, and always with the aphids were one or two brilliant golden ants. Rad. The sun was lowering in the sky, the plums along the north line were blooming sweetly, and every now and again there was a very distinct smell of lemons. Lemons? I pointed it out. Jeremy confirmed it. Weird. Keep working, it’s still light, lots of work to do. And then we pieced it together: the lemon smell was coming from the dandelion roots… with aphids… with ants. So we speculated back and forth, and then went in and Googled.

THIS IS SO COOL.

These little golden ants are lemon-scented ants (some sites call them “citronella ants”, I prefer “magical shimmery golden lemon meringue ants”). They collect and eat honeydew from aphids that feed off of dandelion roots. Honeydew is a lovely term for plant nutrients and sugars excreted by aphids. The ants’ lemon scent is an irritant to predators and a warning to their friend-ants that something is amok.So these magical golden lemon meringue ants are little dairy farmers, tending herds of aphids on the roots of dandelions (which are in and of themselves crazy fantastic magical, dynamic accumulating, tap-rooted, bee-feeding, photo-sensitive, wish granting plants). The ants drink honeydew, they glimmer like sunshine, and they smell as sweet as a lemon tree. This is the stuff of fairy tales. Only it’s real. And in our soil.This is a pretty crap image of one of these (elusive) magical shimmery golden lemon meringue ants. Can you see her? She was not interested in having her photo taken. She looks orange. I swear, she’s really golden. And shimmery. And she smells like lemons. Lemons! Jeremy’s hands are, in fact, that dirty.

¡Viva la hormiga! and magical shimmery love, t

spring snow and no-till perks

A snowglobe day, Common Yellowthroats in the plum trees, streaming Kid Hops, stretching, seeding lettuce in the greenhouse, and a quick update on spring bed preparations.

We’ve started in on getting beds ready for planting. Some are more ready to go than others. A first round of carrots, parsnips, radishes and peas are in and up. And blanketed in snow. Trays of brassicas and lettuces are eager to get out.

We have practiced no-till since we started growing on this property in 2012. Before we moved here, the back field had been mowed as a very tidy, very expansive lawn. It had been planted with hops as well, but the trellis had been removed and the whole area was mowed for a summer. To establish our permanent beds, we transplanted the hops, rented a sod cutter and cut 36″ wide strips at what we thought was just below root line. These strips were flipped in place in efforts to kill off grass with minimal disturbance to the soil structure. Unfortunately, this plan didn’t work so well. The brome grass popped right back up. With vigor. Since then, we’ve been slowly, earnestly fending off the brome with a broadfork and hand weeding. There are 85 rows, each 70′ long. Six of these are planted in perennials: asparagus and strawberries.

The brome had originally been our primary (pert near only) weed in the rows. We still have brome in some beds worse than others, but these last couple years we are finding greater diversity of weeds.  Bindweed, some annual grasses from a dirty batch of oat straw, dandelion, parsnips and lettuce and other vegetable crops gone to seed, and medic (yea! nitrogen fixing bacteria!).  These other weeds are a whole lot easier to manage and don’t seem to compete for nutrients with our crops quite so much.  Plus the chickens think the greens are fantastic.

Over the past few years we have found visible fungal activity in spots where we’ve put down thick wood chips, at the base of fruit trees, in herb beds, and the front field. Earlier this week, Trish was prepping a bed for lettuce and found a visible fungal network (mycorrhizae) in our soil, not in an area with wood chips. This is an encouraging, tangible sign that our no-till, minimal disturbance practices are contributing to soil health. By not tilling the soil, we’re allowing organic material to accumulate, roots in the soil and mulch on the surface, and decompose in place, giving the opportunity for fungal networks to become more strongly established.  As we’re feeding the soil, it is becoming more healthy and active; it is eating through organics faster and we’re certainly seeing this with the break down of straw mulch in our beds.

We just cleaned up a bed for transplants, mostly pulling dandelions. The biggest disturbance here was Jeremy unzipping a 6.5′ long plum root that was jetting beneath the surface of the bed from a thicket 30′ away. Pulling up on one end and whooop. The soil tilth is friable and dreamy, an amazing amount of macro pores, structured like the most delicious brownie full of worms.  Last summer we watched a garter snake scoot along a bed and then – zoop – disappear straight into the soil.

Our current management approach is to maintain beds that we’ve cleared of brome, and apply heavy straw mulch in the walkways. We are trying to figure out the best living mulch to use in the walkways, something to replace the straw mulch; clover, non-spreading grass, or a mix.The straw mulch is a continuous farm purchase and it’s challenging to find straw that hasn’t been sprayed yet isn’t full of weed seed. We’d rather have living roots feeding the soil instead. In beds where brome is still an issue, we do a pretty thorough broadforking and remove as many rhizomes as we can. We also mow around the immediately perimeter of the field to keep adjacent grasses from going to seed. That’s the idea at any rate. We are definitely letting things go to seed, undisturbed areas all over the farm, insectaries.  We are getting better at following our crop plan, but still have a hard time ripping out vegetable volunteers, lettuce seedlings, parsnips that will ultimately turn into a harvestable crop, but are geographically not where we want them.  For instance, the bed Trish just cleared for lettuce transplants (the one with the mycorrhizae-extravaganza), had celery last year, many of which overwintered and are coming right back.  She left those in place to plant lettuce around, because… celery seed is tasty.  This is not space efficient, it will undoubtedly cause minor challenges in harvesting lettuce in a few weeks. And yet. Celery seed.

If you are as excited about soil health and no-till as we are, here are some great resources to check out: Dr Jill Clapperton’s presentation at the Quivira Conference (2012). David Montgomery’s book, Dirt, the Erosion of Civilizations.The Natural Resources Conservation Service has all sorts of good stuff, including the South Dakota Voices for Soil HealthUnderstanding Roots, by Robert Kourik (on our yet-to-read list). Also, for a bit more background on no-till at Cycle Farm and a few additional, excellent resources, read this.