Archive for July, 2010

July Farm Update

Saturday, July 24th, 2010

Somehow I imagine every year that there will be this lull after I finish planting and harvesting. Just gotta irrigate and cultivate, right? Not really. Every year I seem to be figuring out some new irrigation scheme and never getting it quite right. That’s why Chris Bierwagen, my host in Chicago Park, says he sticks to the old, laborious method of moving aluminum sprinkler pipe every day. He knows they work, what kind of coverage they get, and how long he has to water for different parts of the farm.

reed on the green tractor preparing to plant on currently empty soilThis year I decided not to spend $700 on plastic drip tape that would only last a year, and try the pipe. Drip tape seems simple but you have to check it regularly for leaks and you have to lay it all out and then pick it all up, plus turning it on and off. I was able to borrow a trailer full of pipe but then I needed new gaskets and some new tips and sort out the various styles to find compatible ones. All in all, I was late getting started on irrigation even though I got the timing of planting just right. I was sure happy to see that the sprinklers were covering 60 ft. wide at a time. I figured I could go out three times a week and water everything. Then Chris pointed out that I wasn’t getting water on everything because high pressure tips on the sprinkler heads put all the water out at the end of the radius so you have to overlap 150% or more to get everything watered. The result was highly variable plant growth through the field. Meanwhile, with everything else and getting a new cultivator set up I only got to the weeds when the corn was so high that I will only get one cultivation. With great relief I thank the interns from Living Lands and Riverhill farms for coming out for a tour and hoeing all the quinoa while they were there.

As I was scratching my head over the irrigation the other day, Chris’s nephew Kevin suggested they might manage the irrigation for me. I jumped at the offer because they are on the farm all the time and can see what needs water when and are moving pipe all the time. I’m paying them whatever they think it’s worth because I was driving a 24 mile round trip four or five times a week and not even doing a good job of irrigating, never mind the weeds. The commuting issue has troubled me from the beginning because it eats up time, pollutes the air, and makes it very expensive to grow crops if you don’t live where you farm. Clearly, if you are farming full time and spend every day there it’s not as big a problem but most farmers have off-farm jobs to make ends meet and few young farmers can afford to buy land in this area. This arrangement, if it works out for both me and the Bierwagens, will solve the whole thing. Of course, it may turn out to be too expensive for the value of the product but it was getting that way when I was doing the irrigating too.

Another upside this year is that I did get the corn and quinoa planted just at the right time, late though it seemed, and the weeds were behind the crops in getting going. I plan to go out and hoe everything now that I have more time and will have a relatively clean field. I got my four row corn planter going this year so I was able to use the tractor to cultivate since the rows were even. We had to replant some of the red corn, either because the seed was old or because the plates in the planter that regulate the seed flow were not the right kind for that corn. The replants came up pretty well though and are catching up with the older plants. Quinoa, a relative of beets, spinach, and lambsquarter, is proving to be hardy stuff. For whatever reason, some of the seeds germinated within a couple days of planting and others didn’t come up for a week or more. With many crops the field will never even out, but once up, that quinoa just shoots up. It’s also pretty drought hardy so the uneven irrigation doesn’t seem to have harmed it. The beans I planted in Wheatland are being irrigated by my friend Jim Muck. I don’t know if we’ll get any garbanzos, but the other beans look strong, if weedy. Same problem with timing on cultivating down there. For those that want them we’ll have at least Black Turtle beans, Red Mexican beans, Jacob’s Cattle beans, and some black eye peas.

lots of harvested wheat sitting in a big brown pileIn the upcoming weeks I need to go bring back the wheat, rye, oats, and barley from Wheatland and start running it through the cleaner. Weed seed is as bad as ever in the red wheat and barley but the extended rains in May caused the white wheat, oats, and rye to get so tall I was able to cut them mostly above the weeds. I’m going to get more screens for my cleaner and figure out how to get more of the weed seed out. The yield on the red wheat was down but was up on the other stuff. I don’t think the cost per pound to produce has changed much as a result so it’s still expensive to grow on a small scale, but I keep honing the operation to reduce costs. I bought a larger used flour mill that came up for sale this winter, gambling that someday I will need the extra capacity. It will do an easy 100 lbs an hour of wheat flour and makes it finer, so it has reduced my labor cost somewhat.

There were some glitches in the first CSA shares as you all know. I hope that next time I am organized enough to get it all right. I hope that you all remembered to get your shares. When I was in Nevada City last week there was still flour and grains in the box. Meantime, Riverhill Farm is generously selling my products at the Nevada City farmers market for no reason other than kindness. My online store at will be up this week. Please note that if you are local and want to order other things that you should email your order to me so you don’t pay shipping.

I’m going off next week for a quick four day backpack trip since I’m liberated from irrigating. Shortly after that we have to move my son back to school at Humboldt State. Harvest won’t come until October because of the late planting, but the next CSA share will be in September.

Enjoy your summer,