Monday, July 19, 2010

Lessons learned

       Let me preface this piece by saying that farming is the hardest work I have ever done.  I love it, and it is often very rewarding.  However, it is physically and mentally demanding, and coupled with nature's constant shifts and changes it makes for an endless struggle to achieve the balance of sun, wind, water, and timing - the ultimate moving target.  Time itself is a big part of farming.  Seemingly little things over time become big problems for which there is no quick fix, and other things require extreme patience.  It takes years for soil to develop into fertile matter, so we are constantly adding to the soil through minerals, compost, organic fertilizer, and amendments. 

     My tomatoes have had their roughest year yet.  I planted them in a new field which has the poorest soil out of the three fields.  I added compost and lime to the field, but I also should have added soft rock phosphate, greensand, and a good organic fertilizer.  This fall I will be adding these along with planting a cover crop, which adds organic matter to the soil while preventing weed growth.
     In years past I have used hay for mulching and added organic matter to the soil as the hay breaks down.  The downside of hay is that it contains lots of seeds, which grow vigorously and infiltrate and dominate the garden beds.  So this year weeds have grown out of control, and the watermelons, squash, and beans are struggling.   This season we are trying a biodegradable paper mulch that comes in a big roll that you stretch across your garden bed and plant right into.  After your crops are done for the season, you just till it in the remaining mulch.  So after a couple of years of using it you will have less weeds.
     Mistakes made in the past years can come back to haunt you, unless you maintain consistent attention to each of the moving parts that make up a successful farming operation.  It is a test of patience and one's ability to multi-task successfully.  Sometimes I can keep the balance, and other times I end up learning lessons the hard way.  Either way, with each season the farm develops and the soil gets better and better. 

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Smooth Sumac

Sumac.  That one word strikes fear in people as most automatically think of poison sumac.  There are actually several different kinds of sumac - most of which are not poisonous.  The predominant one around here is Smooth Sumac - a shrub or small tree that grows anywhere from 3 to 15 feet tall in fields, along the edges of woods, and abandoned lots.   It is a pioneer plant meaning it is one of the first plants to come up in a field before trees start to crowd them out. During the early summer time the plant starts making a greenish-yellow conical flower head that all kinds of bees love.  The flowers produce small, red berries with tiny hairs all over them, and eventually the red berries will develop a white coating which is ascorbic acid, also known as Vitamin C.   These tart little nutritious berries were a favorite ingredient for a type of Native American beverage.  In the fall the leaves turn a brilliant red color, and in the winter smooth sumac is an important wintertime food source for many wildlife species.    

     In contrast, Poison Sumac grows in bushy and swampy areas.  The flower head hangs down like grapes.  So as long as the flower head grows upright you are safe from the poisonous variant of sumac.

Smooth sumac growing along the edge of woods.

You can see the ascorbic acid all over the red berries.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Of Blackberries and Chanterelles

This winter and spring were interesting as it was colder and wetter than usual. As a result, some things like fennel and spinach did not get planted; wet and cold ground takes the longest to dry out, so by the time they could have been planted it would have been too warm for them. Mache has proven to be extremely hearty and is one of the few vegetables that tolerates the cold weather quite well. This was my first year to grow it, and its steady growth has made it an excellent candidate for next year’s winter garden

On the foraging front right now there are several things going on. Blackberry season is in full swing, and dewberries are starting to ripen. Dewberries look like Blackberries, but they are bigger, juicier, and have bigger seeds. Wild ginger and sassafras are growing all over the place in the hollow. The red berries of the Smooth sumac are starting to develop their white coating of ascorbic acid. The green version of the Japanese herb shiso as well as Wild Mountain Mint also grow wild all along the road through the hollow.

It is also a great time of the year for foraging Smooth Chanterelle mushrooms. In this part of the country they start appearing in early June along creek banks, draws around the hollow, hillsides where water drains, and along the road through the hollow. The picking has been good for the past two weeks. The smooth chanterelles are so fragrant and delicious!

This year has also been one of reflection. As I get older I think more and more about money and family and the long term. My girlfriend Elizabeth has pushed me to not only think about farming as a way of life, but also from a business point of view - which I find particularly challenging as a farmer. She has also helped with the marketing aspects of running a business to help spread the word about the farm. I am becoming more and more determined to become a hard nosed businessman while maintaining my vision and ideals for the farm. This has involved taking a closer look at the garden from a business and profitability standpoint. What was in high demand last year? What should I eliminate from the growing roster this coming season? It is one of the major challenges of farming – to decide where to scale back and where to expand…all while staying in sync with mother nature.

I am extremely excited for one of the new ventures for the farm – egg production. The little chicks should be arriving in the next several weeks, so I am scrambling (pun intended) to prepare the tractors and fenced area where they will live. This is a joint effort initiated by a Birmingham based restaurant owner and chef who was looking for a local source for organic farm fresh eggs.

The farm is participating in a new farmer's market this year. It is in downtown Homewood at the corner of 18th Street S. and 29th Avenue. We are there every Saturday from 7:30- 12:30. Hope to see everyone there!

Hard work, determination, and some savvy planning will keep Hollow Spring Farm on the path to profitable sustainability and biodiversity.

Smooth Sumac

Smooth Chanterelle