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

 

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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.

 

 

coming up: spring plant sales

A Spring Plant Sale on the farm! Mark your calendar! Tell your friends! We’re excited to be hosting a fancy pants fancy plants sale this spring, offering a selection of what we find works best for us in this area as well as a few new-to-us varieties of garden vegetables, herbs, and flowers. All of our plants have been started from seed on the farm, they are all open-pollinated and grown using organic practices. Come by the farmstand, explore the gardens, peek in the greenhouse, and take home a few plants.

Farmstand sale days will be Saturday April 30th, 9 to 1, and again Mother’s Day weekend, Saturday May 7th, 9 to 1. Starts will be available for purchase and pick up at the farm during the week as well and throughout the month of May, please give us a call to arrange a time to come by.  Initially we’ll have herbs, flowers, brassicas (kale, cabbage, broccoli, etc.) for sale; tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, additional tender herbs and flowers will be available starting in mid-May. We are delighted to be offering tomatoes grown from our own saved seed, as we’re working on regionally adapting several varieties.

We will also have fresh vegetables for sale – lettuce, radishes, mustard greens, scallions, bok choy; as well as eggs, farm flower seeds, and fun, hand crafted goodies, including pot holders and wooden spoons.Also, friends! Check out this great introduction to soil health, a presentation given at the 2012 Quivira Coalition Annual Conference by Jill Clapperton (just about a 1/2 hr). She offers insights on nutrient cycling, cover crops, mycorrhiza, no-till – both educational and entertaining. We think you’ll enjoy this. And as you’re planning your garden this spring and readying beds for planting, think about your living soil and what a privilege it is to steward.

Thanks for your support and happy spring!

autumn update, in photos

The sandhill cranes have been flying over in super high vees these past two days, with their rolling, gurgling, chortle calls. The robins are gone, replaced by blue jays. Elms are doing that amazing yellow thing they do. It’s nearing mid-October and we’re still picking cucumbers in the field. We had a few wet, rainy days that teased us with fall and sweaters and cold hands harvesting greens, but this evening, as we unloaded compost onto next year’s winter squash beds with the sun setting, the thermometer read 75 degrees.

Here is an abbreviated autumn update from the farm, mostly photos.Acidanthera, fragrant gladiolus, blueberries milkweed chickens octoberWe tried out some bulbing flowers this year, testing our interest/ability/capacity for cut flower production. It’s incredible fun to include flowers in the CSA shares and it would be great to offer local, organically grown flower bouquets throughout the season. This is something we’d like to work on, figuring out the timing and diversity. It’s on the range, but shoved over on a way back burner …behind weed management and finishing cobbing in the greenhouse and a new gate for the chicken yard and… The mushroom logs responded well to this recent wet spell. This year we tried out shiitake, oyster and wine cap. For being somewhat neglected, they’ve been doing well this predominantly wet season. Despite our best intentions to curb superfluous farm projects (tangents? whims?), Jeremy somehow snaked in a patch of hardy blueberries this spring. They plants look great and we even got a crop of fruit this summer (like 7 berries).  We just wrapped up our final batch of pastured chickens last weekend. We raised 4 rounds of 50 Freedom Ranger chickens, took pre-orders, and sold chickens fresh from the farm the afternoon after butchering. This process worked well and we really appreciate our customers’ flexibility in scheduling and enthusiasm for good meat.cucmbers CSA grilled tomato seeds october The summer season produce just seems to keep on coming. The shares this year have been heaped with greens and cucumbers, summer squash and roots. We’ve been struggling to get peppers and eggplants to ripen before the slugs get at them and we lost out entirely on winter squash, tomatillos, broccoli. Our meager two rows of cucumbers have far outdone themselves, some of our CSA members have been canning and we’ve even been able to deliver cucumbers to the Spearfish Food Pantry. The farmstand has become a routine part of our week, with both the CSA pick-up and our Friday night market. It’s such a good space. And we just rotted, rinsed, and dried oodles and oodles of saved tomato seed. Still need to chase out the last of the lingering fruit flies.collecting bales As part of our no-till bed management, we stocked up on a whole heaping mess load of strawbales. We’re immensely grateful to have found a source for untreated oat straw to use. Plus we got to spend some time tossing bales in the shadow of Bear Butte.october bedsThis extended season has graced us with more time to tackle our absurdly long to-do list. One extra big check off the list was getting one of our field tunnels covered. This summer we constructed two modular low tunnels that we’ll be able to move with our crop rotation each year. With these tunnels, we should be able to increase our early spinach and other spring greens yield and help give our peppers and eggplants longer frost free time in the fall.installing solar panelsAnother big check off the list was getting our new PV array installed. With enormous help from Jeremy’s father, Dave, our new friend and comrade in clean energy, James, and our solar sage in Bozeman, Sarah, we are now able to produce good food AND electricity using sunshine.krauting workshop with Cis and RadishThis week we got to host a sauerkrauting workshop led by our friend and comrade in krauting, Cis Rongstad. We learned so much and are appreciative of Cis sharing her experience and knowledge on the chemistry, biology and good flavors of kraut. Cis brought 6 different types of kraut to sample(!); lemon dill, cortido, classic kraut w apple, kim chi, and a zucchini relish with fermented tomatoes(!!)… My favorite was one with curry spices, Cis’ recipe is shared in the Cycle Farm community cook book here.kale diverisityAnd lastly, here are some photos from our 4th annual Harvest Party celebration just this afternoon. We appreciate having the chance to share our farm with friends and neighbors, snuggling the lambs and taste-testing garlic varieties, gorging on a flight of potatoes, rainbow pico de gallo, ciabatta and chocolate beet cake. Conversing over edible flowers and a kale breeding project, guinea recipes and raspberry production, broom corn and sauerkraut. To all our Cycle Farm family: your support and enthusiasm means the world to us. You inspire us everyday. Thank you. potato flight and beet cake

Wishing you all a happy harvest season! Full bellies and big smiles, T and J

farm animals and harvesting beetles, garlic

Our schedule on the farm, day to day, has been quick-paced and varied. At any given time there are twelve things that need to be done. One urgent task may require four other things be done before finally getting to what you originally set out for. Some things are reliant on weather. Trays of succession plantings to seed, fall transplants to get in. Weeding carrots, thinning beets. Looming infrastructure projects that need tackled before the weather turns. Just as you feel settled into an every-other-day snap pea harvest schedule – BAM – better get those summer squash, quick! Each week’s CSA harvest brings something new. And now: potato beetles. The swelling to-do list evolves with the season, the length of the days. It’s a little shotgun, a little roller coaster.

However, there is also an underlying constant, a reliable rhythmic structure to the farm cycle – animals. Looking after the lambs and the chickens provides a very routine heartbeat to our growing season on the farm. Moving the tractors, grinding feed, carrying water buckets, tending to the brooder babes. Every day. Time spent watching the animals, checking in on how they look, their behavior. What are they eating? How much are they eating? This time is necessary and can’t be rushed – we work on their time.  Caring for the animals provides us a solid rock steady beat to our otherwise Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew farm schedule.

Pasture management proceedings. Pasqual, Isidro, and Ambrose are doing a great job, mowing, feasting, ruminating. Spirited, endearing and affectionate, each with very distinct personalities. We have them in a 10×16′ hog panel tractor (pronounced lamborghini) that moves (typically twice) everyday through the pasture ahead of the chickens. The hog panel tractor helps protect our young fruit trees from being wantonly pruned, it also ensures an even grazing of the pasture. By the time we move them, the lambs have generally mowed down everything evenly within their tractor area, rather than picking out just the best bits and over time selecting for a junky pasture forage profile. They avoid flax. They devour dandelions. Everything is trimmed down to chicken-friendly height.  A few days after the lambs, with the pasture grass newly mowed, the chicken tractors move through.Here’s a link to a short video of Jerm moving one of the tractors. The birds quickly figure out what it means when the walls start shifting. They line up on the forward edge and chase the tractor onto fresh grass and new buggy breakfast. The area they leave behind is covered in a healthy coat of chicken shit, all the grass has been pecked away. It seems pretty bleak. But then, in a week or two, the grass is back, dark green and lovely. The diversity and vigor of what grows after being swathed by the lamborghini and chicken tractor is gratifying and inspiring.  We’re excited about this for a variety of reasons, including: healthy, happy animals, providing good meat for our community, soil carbon sequestration, growing pasture diversity and nutrient cycling.In the brooder, we have our season’s last batch of little peepers, now not yet a week old. These will move out to pasture in a tractor at four weeks old and be butchered come late September/early October. If you are interested in, or would like more information on, pre-ordering some of our delicious pastured, non-GMO chicken, contact us.

As relates: we have a handful of brand-spankin’ new little keets on the farm as of this morning. The tiniest, most adorable, fluffball-things you ever did see. Soon to be obnoxious farm buskers, self-trained tick assassins.Also this week: we are defending our potato crop from an attack of potato beetles at the Eddy field. This involves hours of hand-picking bright orange larvae and stripey beetles off of our nearly denuded plants. Every other day. We haven’t yet made beetle pepper, but we’re thinking about it. We have seven different varieties of potato planted in about a 1/4 acre area. Some of these varieties are holding up against these little villains much better than others. One section of this field is being hit harder than others, this same section had been planted with potatoes last year. The Russian Banana Fingerling are holding strong, but unfortunately, the German Butterballs are getting annihilated. The gbs are in the section of the field that had been planted with potatoes last year. So we’ve got new potato butterballs in the CSA shares this week. Since starting our beetle collection and squishing strategy, we’ve noticed new, green growth on previously sorry potato plants – things are looking up.

This is a field we are leasing, north of town – an acre of dry beans, popcorn, winter squash, and potatoes. We have potatoes planted in our own field (at cyclefarm) and have never had this type of potato beetle pest problem. There are so many different variables that might explain this (land management, tillage/no-till, crop rotation, resident predator insect population, varying soil nutrients, moisture, and plant health). It’s been a great learning opportunity and has given us a whole lot to think about; we’re feeling appreciative of our healthy plants and the management decisions we’ve made here on our own fields.Between routine potato beetle collections, we harvested our garlic beds. Garlic is a special crop to Cycle Farm, our first seed planted and this best-yet harvest has us feeling hugely rewarded. There is something earthy-magic to the stinking rose. A mysterious gift to unwrap. The wily shrunken head, lleno de dientes. Toxin-buster cluster. Sticky fingers and the thick, enduring smell.  Four different varieties of garlic (nearly 1500 heads) are laid out and hung up to cure in the shed. Some of these are saved from seed originally planted in 2011 – great granddaughters – by our friends, Obi and Jill, at the very very beginning of Cycle Farm. Much of these we’ll set aside as seed for next year in the hopes of expanding our garlic production. Half the fun of harvesting garlic is getting another chance to peek in and explore this amazing soil – what thankful farmers we are.


The soil is the great connector of lives, the source and destination of all. It is the healer and restorer and resurrector, by which disease passes into health, age into youth, death into life. Without proper care for it we can have no community, because without proper care for it we can have no life. – from The Unsettling of America by Wendell Berry (..and here’s another good read, The Pleasures of Eating from What are People For?)

a no-till report

Here is a summary of our experience and experiments with no-till, the development of our thoughts and practices over these past few years, the incredible perks, the frustrating challenges and drawbacks, what has worked well, and what hasn’t.  As we got started, we found limited information about small-scale, no-till mixed vegetable farming. We referenced Rodale and made things up. Even just over these past few years, more stories and examples have been surfacing about growers doing similar things in different areas. If you are interested in no-till vegetable farming, here are some resources you might check out:

Our intentions:

Tillage breaks up soil structure and disrupts dynamic soil ecology. Based on our partial understanding of soil health, of biological and nutrient cycling, we were predisposed to prioritize and nurture our soil. The health and longevity of our farm system and quality of our food is absolutely reliant on -and is a direct reflection of- our soil health.  Having backgrounds in environmental science, we both came to farming via an interest in land health. Although we were convinced of no-till by the book and in our guts, we had no actual hands-on experience growing crops this way.

One of our goals is to minimize off-farm inputs (in terms of fuel, fertility, plastic farm garbage, etc), we’re able to pursue this goal through managing our soil nutrients through a no-till system, using cover crops and crop rotation, hand and bicycle power.

Methods:

We have employed a creative, varied suite of techniques and a veritable rainbow of mulches over the past three years.  We established locations for our permanent beds using a sod cutter. Each 30” row was cut in 2 passes, with an 18” sod cutter blade.  The sod cutter blade was set at 1-1.5” depth, trying to cut below the sod and roots, while having minimal amount of soil disturbance.  In retrospect, we should have gone deeper as we missed some of the perennial root mat.  Glazing of the soil from the sod cutter was noticeable during the first year, limiting some transplant root growth, but by the start of our second year this had been broken down, worked in by worms. After cutting, we manually flipped the sod. Our thought here was that the flipped sod would die out; exposed roots would break down, making a great cleared area to transplant and seed.  This worked better in some places than others.  It did not work in areas where the grass growing is rhizomatous/perennial and where we have bindweed.  We used the sod cutter to prepare beds early during the spring we moved to the farm.  Ideally, we would have prepared these beds during the fall before our first growing season, using heavy mulch and not fussing with the sod cutter.jerm flipping sodnotill_obiandjillWe mulch liberally.  So far we’ve used: newspapers, barley bags from the brewery down the street (triple-ply paper bags, the same width as our walkways; work great, break down within a year), a roll of craft paper (100% recycled, unbleached 36” wide; fancy red-carpet effect, but breaks down almost immediately after first rain), straw mulch (@ $4/bale, 2 bales/bed, > 60 beds, with bonus thistle seed), wood chips, and cover crops. We’ve grown winter rye as a cover crop which worked well to out compete early spring weeds, then laid it down in place as a mulch that we planted winter squash into. This is ultimately the direction we’d like to go with all our mulching – growing it in place as a cover crop.notill_ryeSmall-scale, mixed vegetable growers will often use plastic mulch, but this is something we’d  like to avoid. The plastic is used for one season and then heads for the landfill. Although effective at reducing weed pressure, it’s biologically a net-negative for soil health as it leaves the farm as waste, rather than adding to soil fertility. Biodegradable plastic mulches are beyond our budget and seem creepy.

We use intensive spacing in our plantings and companion planting in order to help out-complete weeds. And hand weeding. We spend a discouraging amount of time hand weeding perennial weeds (grasses). This method seems to be the most efficient at getting rid of the persistant roots. In some beds, we have used a hoe to break up clumps of sod, followed by hand weeding. This is laborious and results in more soil disturbance than we would like.notill_TRANSPLANTINGnotill_mulchingThis year we finally invested in a broadfork; it works infinitely better than a heavy peasant hoe, with less disturbance and better root removal. We had procrastinated in getting one for three years because they are mega expensive, but we’ve had this for a week now, and it’s completely worth it.braodforkTangentially, but pertinent:  we irrigate our beds using gravity-fed drip tape, with water from the Evans-Tonn ditch off of Spearfish Creek. The tape should need replaced every 5-7 years. We have over-wintered the tape on the beds in the field, under mulch. So far, this is working well.  A problem we’re running into is calcium build-up at the emitters from hard creek water.

Challenges:

Effective mulching inhibits early spring soil temperatures from warming up. As mentioned, our biggest weed pressure is from bindweed and smooth brome. We have let early spring dandelions go for the bees and, as a result, some beds have substantial dandelion pressure (but great dynamic accumulators). Good intentions, poor foresight. Heavily mulched no-till beds, as it turns out, are absolutely irresistible forage and habitat for gophers.  The amount of time it takes to prepare the beds, individually and by hand, each spring has been a big challenge.  We have found limitations in direct seeding the beds. Also, claiming the aisles between the beds has been hard, it is currently smooth brome dominated, but we would like to replace this with a low laying resilient ground cover (i.e. white clover).

Successes:

We have very little trouble with annual weeds. Our third year in, we were able to direct seed carrots into certain beds, we even used an Earthway seeder. Progressively, each year, bed prep time is decreasing and weeding, transplanting, and seeding are getting easier.  The soil biology is thriving: so many earthworms, spring tails, and other invertebrates. It’s positively distracting. The soil structure and moisture capacity is awesome – no ponding water, ever. Rarely is it too wet for us to get in the field to work. And, with the heavy mulching (and weeds), we infrequently have bare, exposed soil.

Going forward:

In the future, we would like to pursue more attempts with cover crops, part of this is getting them written into the crop plan and calendar. We need to establish routine monitoring with soil tests.  And continue with proven ninja tactics: persistent mulching and proactive hand weeding.  As soil health improves and soil biology becomes more active, mulch decomposes/ breaks down at faster rates, so we’ll need to figure out how and at what rate to lay down new organic matter/mulch and where to source it from.

Soil amendments so far have included compost applications (our own vegetable compost and composted dairy manure), compost tea, and biodynamic preparations (BD 500 and barrel compost). We’ve used cover crops primarily as weed suppression and mulch and would like to do more with them utilizing soil building capacity.  Buckwheat, clovers, sorghum, and field peas are things we look forward to incorporating into our cover crop rotation in the future. We have a brassica heavy crop list and finding a spot to include a brassica cover crop (radishes) is going to be tricky.

As part of our monitoring, we would like to figure out a way to measure and track how much carbon we are sequestering in the soil.  We can get a rough estimate of this by looking at soil organic matter percentages over time. And then, ultimately, we’d like to be able to compare this to the carbon budget of the whole farm.

Through experimenting, we have learned and will keep learning an enormous amount. Overall, we’re happy with the results we’ve found and the direction we’re headed. We would really love to hear other no-till tales, suggestions, criticisms – please be in touch.

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Since posting this, we have been asked questions about the walking crimper. Here are some notes from Jeremy: There is a photo of our crimper – angle iron on a 2×4 with rope loop handle.  It did not work exceptionally well for us but I think it was more construction flaws than concept.  Most of our aisles are built up from mulching. When I built the crimper I sized it to do the whole row in one pass, this meant the edges crimped well but too little pressure was applied into the lower centers of the bed and we had a lot of the rye pop back up.  We ended up going back in and pulling the rows by hand.  The crimper was a joy to use, easy rhythm, not fatiguing. The piece of angled metal we had on hand (some shelving bracket) was not strong enough and by the end of 500′ the edges taking the pressure had flattened to nearly useless, I think a stout piece of angle iron would probably hold up better.

farm update, with bonus photos!

We’ve wrapped up our beet and kohlrabi planting and have tucked in to warm our fingers. The early morning misty drizzle has evolved to a drippy, more stout rain. Quickly turned snow. It’s a good time for a farm update.

The greenhouse is glowing these days. We’ve just started pulling out radishes, baby bok choy will be next. Greenhouse April 27th

The earliest seeds have been sown out in the back field. Snap peas, garlic, and spinach have already popped up and favas, radishes, turnips, carrots, and beets should follow soon.  It’s snowing now, but the soil has already warmed up this spring; once this melts off we’ll transplant out our earliest kales, mustard greens, lettuce, and green onions.

We have added a few more fruit trees into the orchard. A couple of these are Evans cherries – especially cold hardy, tart cherries, which already seem quite at home here. We had the opportunity to learn how to graft at the MOSES conference scion exchange and, this past week, we planted four trees that we grafted ourselves(!) – three apples and a pear. Two of the apples are already budding from the scion wood end, the other apple and pear are either late budders or we botched the graft. in the orchard with sheep

Much of our time in the field these days has been shuffling things around. Materials handling: moving straw bales out to the beds for mulching, spreading wheelbarrows of compost, laying down wood mulch, flipping and sifting the compost pile, cleaning out the coop, leading sheep out to the field in the morning, herding them back to the garage at night, carting out seed trays, piling brush, vine clippings, and downed branches.

We are applying compost to the especially heavy feeders like the hops and ginger, and adding it to help build soil in the close windmill bed. We’ll be using straw bales again this year for hilling the potatoes. It worked well last year, not only for hilling the plants, but also for weed suppression and it made harvesting easy-breezy. Straw bales will go out in other rows too. Last year, we found mulching the beds worked well for keeping in soil moisture, providing lovely habitat (for worms, spiders, snakes, insects… and pocket gophers) and for reducing the amount of time we had to spend weeding the beds. Heavy mulch made a pretty good dent in our quack grass, and by keeping the soil so moist and loose (by worms, etc), the remaining rhizomes are a lot easier to remove in big pieces than in past years.  It will still take a number of years before our rows are mostly clean, but we’re making progress.  We have to wait until the soil warms further to see how the straw is doing with the bindweed/creeping jenny, that one will certainly prove a harder challenge. We’re using woodchips from a local landscaper for mulching grape vines and hops, as well as between the rows in the front field to help reduce weed growth.

Everything is pruned for the season and now things are starting to bud out.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

We’re feeling grateful for the help we’ve received this spring. Not only are the extra hands literally very helpful, it’s also a treat to get to spend time with friends and family. It means heaps that you are willing to spend your time out here with us, getting dirty.

We’d like to share special, super enthusiastic and muddy high-fives with SDSU’s Horticulture Club. HOLY SMOKES. Yesterday, a van-full of students from SDSU came out to the farm and helped us get a whole layer of cobbing done on the north wall of the greenhouse. With excellent conversation and in less than an hour we accomplished twice as much as it takes the two of us a full, long morning to do. Not only did these strong hands help us with the cobbing, they also offered us a short course in lamb/livestock husbandry, organic pest control techniques, and worm barrel composting. This is the future of agriculture in South Dakota – better hold on to your hat, Chicoine. Comrades in mud, thank you. Please come back again.

Here are some photos from our work together.cobbing1

Many hands. Muddy work.cobbing2

The greenhouse is designed as a passive solar structure. The north wall is strawbale and cob. The strawbales provide insulation. The cob (6ish”) will serve as thermal mass.cobbing3

Farm touring, talking no-till organic vegetable production, and checking in on sprouting hops.

We’re prepping beds for potatoes this week and we are hosting a POTATO PLANTING PARTY! We have 6 different varieties we’ll be planting this Friday evening, May 2. We’ll start at 5:30, bring a friend, dress for the weather. We’d love to have your help and share in the merriment of community, soil, and potatoes.

bonus photos from the farm! (and corresponding sentence fragments.) Planting our saved seed is even more fun. Compost flipped and cooking. We found a snake in the greenhouse. Lambs are enjoying foraging.saved seed_snake_140_sheepGinger is presprouting in coir. Lambs enjoy exploring the coop. The birds don’t so much appreciate the lambs exploring their coop. A pink ladybug! a pink one!
ginger_lambs_birds_pinkladybug

farm photos, herbs, tea party

august in the greenhouseTomatoes and cucumbers are growing well in the heat of the greenhouse. We’ll get these cukes trellised this weekend. The tomatoes are strung up on old baling twine that’s zig-zagging from nails in the rafters to pegs in the dirt. The greenhouse is serving us well, but needs attention, we haven’t finished cobbing the north wall. It’s on the list.

back field

Vegetables in the back field are growing, setting fruit. Some things stronger than others. Our no-till system is demanding an incredible amount of weeding, mainly hand ‘mowing’ the quack grass between the beds. Mulching with pulled weeds is working well to slow new weed growth. And we have lots of pulled weeds to mulch with. Although not always obvious, the weeding situation is, at this point, easier this year than it was last year.

bird snake bug feedersFlowers are brilliant right now. Everyone is enjoying them.

garlic grapes tomatoesGarlic is (mostly) all harvested and hanging to cure, grapes are blushing, and the tomatoes continue to tease us with glorious, green fruit.

eggplant tomatillo crooknecks

Eggplant, tomatillos, and crookneck squash are coming along. (disclaimer: this is the biggest eggplant in the field right now, the absolute, most heavy-yielding summer squash plant, and the largest tomatillo in the history of salsa verde – not representative samples of our crop right now, but certainly the most photogenic).

august 8 CSA shareWe’ve included pick-your-own herbs in the CSA shares these past couple weeks. The most recent newsletter is posted online here. The herb bed is new this year and we’ve been learning a lot watching them grow. We have both culinary herbs and medicinal/tea herbs. Here’s a list: sage, marjoram, thyme, oregano, lovage, tarragon, shiso, holy basil, anise mint, chamomile, lemon balm. Calendula, borage and bee balm are in there too, for the bees. The best part is getting to hear what people decide on, what they make. Lemon balm butter on fish. Anise mint in spring rolls. Tarragon pesto.  And the “oh, I’ve never used that before, I’ll take some of that.” SO GOOD. Thank you CSA members – you are wonderful.

tea partyAnd lastly, we are having a Tea Party / Weeding Party this Sunday, August 11th – please join us! We’ll be weeding beds in the back field, rescuing kale, eggplants, chard – and it’s infinitely more fun to work with friends! Bring gloves, if you prefer, and wear comfortable, farm-fiesta attire that you don’t mind getting dirty. Bring your friends and family, this will be a good chance to spend time together, get to know your neighbors, visit the farm, nuzzle baby eggplants… We’ll have several different varieties of farm-grown herbal iced teas for you to sample, create your own blends. We look forward to seeing you on the farm!

Up, up and away

It’s been a while. Lots to catch up on. Here are photos.

We had a Weeding and Wine Party at the farm a few weekends ago. Such a treat to have the time with friends, in the cool of the evening, together tackling the bindweed and Malbec. Somethings are most efficiently and enjoyably addressed with friends – and the potatoes look so good. Thank you for your help!Weeding and wine - Thank you friends!

The potatoes are now hilled and the beans are trellised. We’re using straw mulch and grass bits to hill the potatoes.  The beans in the front are all dry beans (Hidatsa Shield Figure, Bolita, and Jacob’s Cattle), only the Hidatsa’s are on trellises. Like a giant jubilant harp, the bean trellis is tuned to play in a major key. This took some time.beans and potatoes

An update on the bees: We just lost Lolita, our remaining hive from last year. The queen had been laying poorly for a while and we were watching the hive numbers grow fewer and fewer. We checked in on the hive last week, there was no queen, no eggs/brood, and only very few bees in the hive. We chose not to try and merge the hive with another because there were so few bees and the health of the hive seemed so poor – we didn’t want to possibly introduce problems to another hive. It is absolutely no fun losing bees.

We have two active hives now, Pygmalion and Bertha Mason – both swarms caught this year. Bertha Mason is the newest hive. She’s named after the wild, violent, insane, beast of a lady who was locked up high in the tower in the novel Jane Eyre. Collecting this swarm was a challenge, and we had thought for a while that we didn’t have the queen (maybe she fell out of the tower to her death – just like in the book?) – but it turns out they are doing alright. There is a queen, growing brood nest, and the ladies are collecting pollen. Pygmalion is also doing fantastically.july bee hives

Here’s a photo of the propolis in Pygmalion’s hive (we’ve been getting questions about propolis a lot at the farmers market). The bees collect propolis from pine trees – it’s not pine pollen, but pine sap. It’s the sticky goo a pine tree uses to help protect itself from burrowing insects. The bees collect it and use it in their hive to help keep themselves healthy and safe. It’s full of good things

This year, the early CSA season has been pretty challenging (disappointing, stressful) for us.  Due to the cool spring and hail, we’ve been working hard to fill in meager shares, trying to be resourceful. Early on we grew alfalfa sprouts, included jars of honey, and harvested wild spinach (delicious and ever-so good for you, but so absurdly time intensive, no wonder it’s not a cultivar). Our CSA members are being very gracious and are learning to love parsley. We are learning better how to manage the greenhouse space for early season crops. Here are some photos from these past few CSA pick-up days and links to CSA newsletters. june27CSAshareJune 27 CSA newsletter. Hail, Pygmalion, and garlic scapes.
july 4 CSA

July 4th, CSA Newsletter. Harper’s Index of Cycle Farm.CSA-newpotatoes

July 11, CSA newsletter. The heat sets in and new potatoes, parsley chutney.
week5 CSA pickup

July 18th, CSA newsletter, in which we discuss the merits of our weeds. Quick note: CSA members have been coming by to pick up their shares by bike (and on foot!), this is absolutely the most lovely thing.

CSA July 25

July 25 CSA Newsletter, chard chiffonade, a white lady bug, and rhizosphere adorations.

Sweet mama guinea hen, Annette Hanshaw, hatched her chicks last week. It’s not exactly the darling, sparkly-eyed Disney cartoon story that I maybe expected. It’s more of the shark attack, National Geographic, Texas chainsaw story. Gruesome. We have a fence up now around mama and her lil’ ones – to protect them from the chickens.set of july collage

Fruit set on the trees is promising. Pears! We’ve been delivering farm foods to an excellent restaurant in town, Killian’s Tavern. Radish especially enjoys her delivery duties. Please treat yourself to some delicious Spearfish Valley terroir at Killian’s. They support local farms. And bicycles. We are employing the basket weave technique for trellising the tomatoes this year. It’s working well. The calendula harvest is a go. The new herb bed is glorious and delicious.

Insectary, rafters, and chicken dinner.

The insectary is blooming. SO PRETTY. We’ve written about the insectary and how excited we are about it in this week’s CSA newsletter posted here.

And here’s a view of our CSA share this week..

And the greenhouse is growing. In fact, it’s just too glorious now to capture completely in one shot. So I’ve made a collage of several:

Polycarbonate sheets for the south wall and lower roof were delivered today, and next week we’ll put up the rafters. Jeremy’s dad has sourced rock for the wall foundation, we just have to collect it from a hillside on some generous fellow’s land.

And the birds really look like real birds these days. The awkward, punky feathers-growing-in stage is out. They are all sleek and sophisticated. A few of the males have started testing out their crow. There is one, one of the Orpingtons, who’s got it down. Cock-a-doodle-doo. With the head extended and the neck all fluffed out – just like in the cartoons. I mean really. The others are ranging somewhere between a sort of donkey bray, a big city bus braking, and a whoopie cushion. They try so earnestly. They are endearing. And soon we’re going to eat them. I think I might be having a little bit of a hard time. Can’t say for sure. Jeremy and I haven’t talked about it. So he might be having a hard time too. Every time I check in on them, to feed them or move the tractors, I can’t help but feel like the witch in Hansel and Gretel.. the one that feeds the kids sweets, just to fatten them up. So she can eat them. 

Looks like the straight run split is 24 hens, 24 roosters. Funny how that happened. This is one of our hens (below), a Salmon Faverolle. They are listed as a threatened poultry breed by Livestock Breeds Conservancy. This probably means we need to keep at least one of the roosters.. a Faverolle. We’ll still fatten him up though.

Two more things: One. The Soil Doctor, Doug Weatherbee, has a wicked cool new video/podcast posted online where he discusses soil microbial communities and even gets into the importance of no-till. This is certainly worth checking out – here. Thanks for hooking us up with this Austin. And Two. One of our CSA members is headed down to Durango for bicycle adventuring and has plans to visit a farm while down there.. turns out she’s headed to visit our friends at the James Ranch. The James’ family do magical things with holistic land management and are a wonderful inspiration for us, plus we owe the very beginnings of our metal workshop to their fine lathe. If you have an interest in sustainable agriculture, check out what these good folks are up to.