Cover-crop, cash-crop rotations: saving the environment and your checkbook

May 3rd, 2011

I’ve mentioned before that on my small scale, and given my commute to farm, all the time and machinery and fuel and labor adds a considerable cost per pound to my grain. I’d really like to be able to make it more affordable so more people could enjoy it and I’d get some more economy of scale. So I’ve been looking into the thirty years of research at Rodale Institute on organic cropping systems…specifically no-till. That is a system where you plant your cash crop into an existing mulch or living cover crop. No-till production of corn and soybeans has been well established in that time, but it relied on herbicides to kill the cover crop and any weeds. Rodale has been working on the organic side of that using a roller to kill the cover crop, but their research is oriented to the wetter climate of the Midwest and East. In California it’s not clear how well their system works because there have been some anecdotal failures.

Recently, a video was placed on the ATTRA (Appropriate Technology Transfer to Rural Areas) website showing research done in North Dakota aiming at continuous organic no-till that has me excited. You can watch it if you want, but be warned that it’s an hour long:

A local Soil Conservation District has done extensive work with local ranchers on improving soil health with cover crops there, based on the idea that it was all native prairie at one time which had huge stores of organic matter and perennial plants that sustained it for thousands of years and fed the seemingly limitless herds of buffalo. the farmA prinicipal part of that health would seem to be the microbiological life of the soil, as I mentioned in my previous post on tillage. The soils there are sandy loams without high fertility and they only get about 16 inches of water a year. Plowing up the soil loses a lot of the soil moisture and makes it hard for fungus, bacteria, and nematodes to survive. Since they help extract plant nutrients from the mineral soil it’s vital to support them.

Their research has been based on always having cover on the soil, avoiding tillage (plowing, disking, or otherwise turning over the soil), and using grazing animals to process the cover crops so planting of cash crops can be done. They use as many as fourteen species of plants in the cover crop mix, attempting to replicate the diversity of native prairie. The grazing down of the cover crop avoids driving heavy tractors over the soil and ads food for the microbiological life in the form of manure, hair, and saliva [1]. They did side-by-side trials at their Menokan Farm test site with compost and compost tea on one side and nothing but the cover on the other. The corn in both plots outyielded the county average and, even without compost or tea, had yields within a few bushels of the composted side. The idea is that from here on they will plant a cover crop into the corn stubble after grazing, graze that down, plant a cash crop into the cover crop stubble, and so on. No messing with the soil. Now that’s exciting.

the tractor and the disked cover cropThe Land Institute in Salina, Kansas has been working towards restoring the prairie while producing grain for many years. On their website you can see photos of soil cross sections of native prairie soil and soils that have been tilled since settlement. The native soils are about three feet deeper! The Land Institute has been trying to breed perennial wheat varieties that could be harvested and never disturb the soil, but success there is still decades away. What excites me about the North Dakota trials is that it’s something that can be done now to rebuild soil and, by the way, sequester carbon. Living plants all hold carbon that is released in the atmosphere when they are killed and decay. Soil organic matter holds twice as much carbon as plants and while soil organic matter comprised six to ten percent of untilled soil, today’s typical fields only hold one to three percent. Rodale Institute has done thirty years of research on the subject and concludes that with soil organic matter returned to the levels they achieved in their test fields, the 434 million acres of farmland in the U.S. would sequester carbon dioxide to the equivalent of taking one car off the road for every two acres. That’s only their research but it holds great promise.

Admittedly, North Dakota has a different climate and soil than California Central Valley and foothills. For one thing, we have soils very deficient in calcium, as I explained in the last post. But they are worse off for organic matter so the comparisons are not entirely inappropriate. One concern for the long-term future that I have when looking at my soils and most agricultural land is that our supplies of mined gypsum and lime are finite just as petroleum is. I need to add a lot of both of those two but somehow I have to avoid doing it forever. I think that’s where the microbiology will come in.

the combine at work in the fieldI am planning to do some of my own trials to see if I can use continuous cover crop/cash crop rotations. There is a cattle farmer who is renting land where I’m farming and he has divided my thirty acres into three plots. I’m hoping to put in a multi-species cover crop on the grain stubble in the fall of this year and have him put his cattle on it in late winter, taking soil tests before and after the grazing to see what happens. I will be plowing down my legume cover crop on the plot where I’ll plant grain this coming fall so that I can get some serious increase in organic matter. The soil tests on the grazed plot will guide what I do in coming years. If I can get good increase in organic matter and balance the minerals with surface applications of lime and gypsum, I hope that one day I can put away the disc and just plant into stubble. That would not only save lots of carbon dioxide emissions but would save me a lot of money in fuel, tractor repairs, commuting, and sitting on the tractor. My grain would become much more affordable as a result. That’s my project for the next few years. I’ll keep you posted on the results.

[1] The tests aren’t entirely organic because some of the fields started out with heavy weed pressure so they wanted to give the cover crop a running start with herbicides to suppress the weeds. After the one application of herbicide, though, they just grew a cover, grazed it down, and planted corn right into the stubble.

Planeat: a documentary full of guilt and deliciousness

April 28th, 2011

On a whim, my girlfriend and I went to see a Whole Foods-sponsored movie this weekend with the (unfortunate) name of Planeat. Planeat is a movie that takes a lot of things we’ve sort of heard and shows very smart people providing actual data to back these up. The arguments are these:

A) Animal product-based diets are significantly more damaging to the environment [1]
B) Plant-based diets are significantly better for our hearts [2]
C) Animal product-based diets help activate cancer [3]

While the science was fascinating and sobering, what was remarkable about this movie almost wasn’t this overwhelmingly convincing data. It was the food. Unlike your traditional eco- or agro-guilt movie, Planeat is full of delicious foods, cooked by professional vegan chefs. Instead of walking out of the theater feeling like you can never eat anything again, you’re hungry for delicious vegan food. Literally we walked out of the theater and headed to Cafe Gratitude, a delicious vegan cafe in Berkeley, to begin planning the seitan meal we were going to make that night.

So what’s the punchline? First of all, see this movie and take your friends. This doesn’t just affect the planet or your love handles, this affects whether you’ll die of intense heart disease at 40 or switch to a plant-based (or mainly plant-based) diet and live until 80 (which is the tremendous transformation one person made in the movie).

Second, whenever we’re trying to communicate these great, world-changing concepts to those in doubt, we should keep in mind: these heavy messages go down a lot better with a spoonful of delicious vegan soup.

Planeat is still screening across the country.

-Evan Hamilton
Reed’s son and web guy

[1] It takes something like 13 pounds of grain to get 1 pound of meat.

[2] Heart disease patients put on a plant-based diets saw incredible improvements.

[3] Rats that had been exposed to cancer-causing agents saw major cancer growth when on animal-based diets and no cancer growth on plant-based diets.

The Science of Nature: the history of tillage, fertilizer, and soil tests

April 26th, 2011

I have been doing further research on fertility and tillage, or working the soil.  My soil consultant is an advocate of mineral balancing for all minerals rather than just nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium.  Those three are the elements that get the primary focus in conventional farming.  A guy named William Albrecht did a lot of research back in the 1920’s and ’30’s on the subject before commercial fertilizers were common. Today, Neal Kinsey and Charles Walters are the most well-known authorities on the subject.  At that time the primary fertilizer was manure because most farms were small and diversified.  Most farmers didn’t didn’t do much soil testing to know what they were doing. Results were based on observation, but that is vulnerable to misunderstanding.

periodic tableAfter World War II chemical fertilizers became available and were cheap and easy to apply, so farmers and the fertilizer salesmen took to manipulating mostly those three: N, P, and K. Cheap and easily-handled fertilizer led to larger farms and concentration on commodity crops like corn and soybeans. Nitrogen particularly has been cheap because it is produced using petroleum but it’s getting more and more expensive as petroleum stocks decline.  The other downside of focusing on just those three is that the overall fertility and health of the soil has declined steadily.  Advocates of mineral balancing point out that minerals and trace elements interact in the soil and affect a plant’s ability to take up available nutrients.  Just having lots of applied nitrogen in the soil does not mean the plants can use it.  Excess nitrogen often leaches away, ending up in our waterways.  The same is true of phosphorus which promotes algae growth in rivers and streams and then leads to lack of dissolved oxygen.  The means by which minerals become changed in the soil is the relative amount so materials with electrically positive charges versus those with negative charges.  Sounds like voodoo, but it is basic soils science.

pile of soilSoil tests on my field this year showed that I had 2.8 % organic matter (not too bad); pH of 6.6 (which is a little acidic for grain); nitrogen of 76 ppm (not terrible); sulfates of 15; phosphate of 43; calcium (Ca} of 44.32; and magnesium (Mg) of 41.97.  The problem is that all the nitrogen isn’t available and that other elements are in reverse balance or in oversupply.  I need the sulfates to be 50, the phosphates 250, calcium 68, and magnesium 12.  That 68/12 relationship of the last two is the linchpin of Albrecht’s theory of mineral balancing.  Sometimes it’s stated as 65/15 but it means the same thing.  Calcium and Mg not only affect fertility but the texture of the soil, it’s ability to hold moisture, and what weeds will grow fastest.  I won’t bore you with all the calculations, but the prescription was four tons of compost to neutralize some of the Mg and Ca allow more uptake of nitrogen, two tons of lime to help balance the Ca, and one ton gypsum for the same reason. Organic matter is also important because it bonds with the positively-charged elements that I need for plant growth.  My soils are heavy clay so they have a pretty good ability to absorb nutrients in the right balance, they hold water a little too well, and they are gooey. The compost plus my heavy, leguminous cover crop add organic matter which decays to humus which has a negative charge and so bonds with those essential minerals with positive charges.  I have a problem with wild radish and field bindweed, both of which like low calcium soils, so those will be suppressed with mineral balancing, I hope.

mushrooms poking their heads out in the fieldI’m on a program now to grow a cover crop each fall on the field to be planted the next year to grain and then apply the compost, lime, and gypsum as soil testes indicate.  It’s a big first-year expense but should decline rapidly after that.  What has confounded me, though, is testimony from many sources, included Kinsey, that what mineral balancing does really is foster microbiological growth in the soil like nematodes, fungus, and bacteria.  These guys do the real work of converting sunlight to healthy plants.  Every time you chop up the soil with a disc, plow, or cultivator you disturb that biological life.  On the other hand, most grain crops are opportunists looking for some soil disturbance to get established.  Archaeological research indicates that the first farming took place in southern Turkey where nomadic people took to spreading seeds of wild grains on riverside soils after flooding in spring.  How do I balance those two needs?

Periodic table image courtesy of BlueRidgeKitties.
Soil photo courtesy of Scout Seventeen.

Sustainable (and affordable) Fertilization on an Organic Farm

November 29th, 2010

One of the puzzles I have been pondering the last three years of my grain operation is how to affordably and sustainably fertilize and manage an organic crop.

Non-organic seed and fertilizer are cheaper, you can use chemicals to control weeds and pests, and the record-keeping is simpler. I am convinced, though, that petroleum based fertilizers are unsustainable for society and that endless use of chemicals is destroying the soil and the environment.

My first year of farming grain I didn’t have time to do anything but buy fertilizer so I bought the amount the rep suggested. I got a pretty good crop but the cost was astronomical and certainly not feasible for the selling price of the finished grain. I tried to grow a berseem clover cover crop but it failed miserably because there wasn’t any rain for quite some time after I seeded and then it was cold so the clover didn’t grow.

a mustard cover cropLegume cover crops create nitrogen, contribute biomass, suppress weeds, hold moisture in the soil, and help balance other minerals and trace elements in the soil. My second year I was leery of spending money on a cover crop that might fail but it was clear that I just couldn’t spend so much on fertilizer. I set a limit of $1000 for my 8 acres, and that turned out to be not enough. The result was a mediocre yield and really low protein levels in the wheat. I just didn’t have enough nitrogen and had too much of other things like manganese. Nitrogen has a major effect on protein and protein is necessary for good rising in bread. Last fall I put in a cover crop on the fallow (unused for a cash crop) ground and got a stupendous crop because of rain through the spring. I plowed that down in the spring and am planting into that this fall so I have the benefit of the nitrogen it created for my grain crop.

This fall I got that same soil tested and found that pretty much everything except manganese was still very low. Excessive manganese inhibits plant uptake of calcium and therefore limits the grain plant’s ability to use nitrogen available. To solve this I need to put in as much as 4 tons of compost per acre (as it offsets manganese) plus lime and gypsum on top of the cover crop. I can’t really afford to do all that in one year and have a reasonable sale price on the grain, so this fertility building is a 3- to 4-year project.

reed on the tractor getting ready to plantAnother aspect of the whole puzzle is the cost of tillage (turning the soil with farm implements and tractor) in labor and fuel, compaction of the soil from that tillage, calcium depletion from tillage, and suppressing weed growth. The simple way to suppress weeds is timely is using a disc or field cultivator but it’s not good for the soil because it destroys microorganisms and depletes calcium, compacts the soil making it less water absorbing and harder for plants to extend their roots, and it costs money. There has been a lot of interest and experimentation with planting into cover crops that have been rolled with a heavy implement mounted on a tractor. This avoids the excess tillage, suppresses weeds with the mulch of cover crop, and gets fertility from the legumes.

It seems to work well in the east where the Rodale Institute has been experimenting with it for some years. One of my problems is that I need to get a lot of organic matter from decayed plants into the soil to allow the microorganisms to grow and increase the carbon-to-nitrogen ration for plant growth, so I can’t skip the tillage right now. If I get the soil built up, theoretically I could grow a perennial legume cover crop that I could plant into with a planter that can penetrate the cover (no-till drill).

Another problem we seem to have in dryer climates is that the mulch makes great rodent habitat. I know of growers who have tried it and had major problems with them eating the cash crop. In Australia farmers often use what’s called a ley system where they plant a perennial legume cover crop that reseeds itself. Every other year or two they till in the cover crop and plant grains. In the intervening years they graze animals on the cover crop that has come back up. In California the problem is that those type of cover crops succeed as perennials because they are good at taking up water – water the grain plants need too. I’d like to try that but I’m wary of putting much land into an experiment without some more research.

green wheat plants with heads just filling outIn the long run, agriculture must manage with less petroleum input. With vegetables that’s more feasible than with grain, where much of the work is mechanized. I keep looking for the magic formula that would avoid the damage and cost of tillage while still building the soil, suppressing weeds, and keeping my costs as low as possible. In addition to the direct benefits of such a program, cover cropped fields are very effective carbon sinks, something we need desperately as we deal with climate change. At the moment I don’t have the answer and I can only experiment so much without risking a major mistake. I gotta have something to sell.

As of this date I have found I can get the compost mix I need but can’t get a spreader to put it on. I’m scrambling to find blood meal fertilizer (high nitrogen) and half the lime and gypsum really needed so I can get it on and plant before more rain. Using half the lime and gypsum is just so I can keep my cost of production down. If it increases yield from 1200 to 1800 lbs. per acre the fertilizer alone will still cost $.20 per pound, not to mention fuel and labor to put it on and the same for planting the grain. Besides that I’ve got the labor, fuel, and seed that went into planting the cover crop. All this has to be figured into my selling price and that’s why small scale organic grain is expensive. If I were using the same machinery on 30 acres and buying three times as much lime, gypsum, and compost or fertilizer the cost of the inputs would be lower and the machinery cost spread over more pounds of grain.

It looks like I may not get a cover crop in this year because of the rain, so next fall I will have to compensate with more blood meal and plant a cover crop on the field for the 2012 grain. Both the 2011 and 2012 crops will get lime and gypsum as the soil tests indicate with hopes that by 2013 I will have to spend far less money on them and my grain production will have increased substantially.

As with every farm, mine is an exciting gamble and experiment. I don’t claim to have any answers but I hope this post has informed and inspired you. I’d love to hear from other farmers about how they’re tackling these challenges.

-Reed Hamilton

The New York Times Talks Local Grain

November 6th, 2010

delicious fresh baguettes with a light dusting of flourWell folks, it’s official – you’re ahead of the curve. The New York Times (!) is just getting around to talking about local grain now. You’ve beat the tastemakers at NYT (now you just need to listen to some Lady GaGa and you’ll be 100% on top of pop culture).

We’re fans of the article both for it’s love of the deliciousness of bread baked with local grain, but also their coverage of the mindset behind local food:

“Fred Kirschenmann, an organic farmer and a distinguished fellow at the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University, told the Kneading Conference that industrial farming must eventually change. ‘It is not possible to maintain the current system,’ he said. The main problem, as he sees it, is the cost of energy, but others include the decreasing availability of water and a less stable climate.”

They also cover some of the issues that my dad has been writing about here and on his mailing list and how farmers are overcoming these in unique ways (like turning an old jail into a gristmill!).

Grab some of your favorite bread made with local grains, dig into this great article, and rest assured that you’re part of a great trend.

-Evan

Image courtesy of Let Ideas Compete

September Farm Update

September 21st, 2010

A couple weeks ago I cut down the quinoa stalks with a couple helpers and spread them on tarps to dry. Last week before I left for a quick bicycle trip I picked it all up and stuffed it into a shipping container in case of rain. It drys down to fraction of its green weight, but the process is still very labor intensive. I have to finish restoring my antique harvester before I can thresh it and that will be done by hand too. I’m not really sure it’s a feasible crop at this scale. Unfortunately, mechanical harvesting doesn’t seem very possible because of major seed loss. It’s easy to grow, doesn’t need much fertilizer, doesn’t need much water—just hard to harvest. We may be getting it at the store courtesy of low-paid labor in South America. We’ll see how much my experiment works out.

corn stalks blown over from the storm

Storm damage

The corn is still very green. It got planted nearly a month late and the cool summer has delayed maturity. As long as it stays reasonably warm and we don’t get any bad blowing storms it can be harvested into November. Back in the Midwest corn harvest in the snow isn’t unusual. The yield may be affected by the late start but there will still be plenty for the CSA. When it comes time to pick I’d love to have some help for a day. We can make a party of it. I’ll keep you posted.

We pulled what was left of the beans a couple weeks ago and piled them to dry. Mice ate most of the black turtle beans, Red Mexican beans, and Jacob’s cattle. We’ll get some for seed but not to give out. Most of the black eye peas did survive. Fortunately, I can buy organic black beans and kidneys from a neighbor for those of you who want them.

partially tilled field with the yellow tiller waiting to work on the restAll this may sound like downbeat news, but that’s just the way farming is. You get different conditions every year, sometimes too much rain, sometimes to little. Sometimes the mice are bad, sometimes not. I learn from every failure. The risk does make farmers cautious about trying new things, at least on a large scale. I’m confident we’ll get beans next year.

Right now I’m getting ready to order my cover crop seed because the forecasts are for a wet fall. I want to be all staged for planting if we get early rain. I need to test the soil that had a cover crop last winter to see how much nitrogen it provided. Red wheat especially needs good nitrogen to get high protein and thence make good bread. Whatever I don’t get from the cover crop I need to get through organic fertilizer, which is very expensive.

If you’re a CSA member I’m hoping you are enjoying the rolled oats. I took a long time deciding to by the machine but it is really fast and makes oats much more useful. I find also that if I roll the wheat before making flour the mill doesn’t work as hard and stays cooler. If you run out of rolled oats, the Briarpatch Market in Grass Valley carries them now. You can also find my wheat and rye berries, white teff, and whole wheat flour in the bulk section. The deli also makes a nice whole wheat baguette from my flour. Ike’s Quarter Cafe and the Flour Garden are also major customers.

Enjoy this fine fall weather while it lasts,

-Reed

Nevada County Knows How to Come Home to Eat

September 1st, 2010
Men in aprons grilling up local veggies at the come home to eat event

Photo by Cathy Colvin, from The Union

Last month Nevada County celebrated local agriculture at the annual Come Home to Eat event. We attended and were were thrilled to see how big this event is getting. These sort of events are key, because we firmly believe that mass-produced, homogenized, and far-shipped food is not healthy, sustainable, or enjoyable. The more we can become aware of all the fantastic local producers (of cheese, meat, veggies, and of course grains) the most we can be good to our bodies, good to our community, and good to our environment.

Here’s what The Union had to say:

“They’re working on a single message for Nevada County consumers: When you buy fruit, vegetables, flowers, meat, eggs, poultry and other products from local farmers, you also are buying the open space, the wildlife habitat, the fire breaks and the rural quality of life those farmers maintain, Johansen and Hoek said.”

Amen!

-Evan

July Farm Update

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 grassvalleygrains.com 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,

-Reed

May Farm Update

May 16th, 2010

As you will all have noticed, it has been a very cold spring with lots of rain. That has done the winter grains lots of good because they were very late developing. As of early April the red wheat and barley were well headed out but the white wheat and oats had lots of stalk but no heads. The rye was barely a foot-and-a-half tall and no heads. Two weeks later the white wheat, and oats were fully headed with a bumper crop and the rye was double in size. As of last week the rye was about half headed. Unfortunately, the heirloom white Sonoran wheat had been knocked down a lot by the wind since the stalks are so tall. Modern wheat varieties tend to be short-strawed for that reason. Late rain also really helps the weeds, particularly wild radish, so there will be the usual long cleaning job this year.

flowering mustard cover crop with a blue sky above it

The rain also really worked for the oats, bell beans, peas, vetch cover crop I put on half the fallow ground. I finally disked it down when it was chest high on me at 6’4″. I am hoping that the crop will provide enough nitrogen for the grains I plant this fall. It would save a considerable amount of money and time, but there is a time lag before using it, I’m not sure how that will turn out. The purple vetch, triticale mixture I planted at the Bierwagen farm in Chicago Park also was nearly the tallest Chris Bierwagen had ever seen there.

Planting of dry beans in Wheatland is a month behind schedule. The soil has just been too wet and cold and now rain is predicted for Monday night. This crop is a joint venture between me and my host there, Jim Muck. It isn’t a disaster if we plant by June as long as rain doesn’t come too early in the fall. I had hoped to plant quinoa first in Chicago Park, then amaranth, then corn but that soil was still too wet to work on Thursday. In the meantime I’m working on my corn planter swapping various used parts, and my antique harvester that I plan to use for the amaranth and quinoa. I’d like to test it on the small plantings of oats, barley, and rye in June as well.

My son who works in the social networking world is helping me set up my website for online sales of products. You can already sign up for the CSA there. He is also setting it up for me to blog. This is a new world for me, but most small farmers are seeing the value of these electronic connections in marketing so I’m grateful for his help.

For those of you who have been receiving my emails over the last couple years where I have documented my difficulties in making a small grain operation work, I want to report that I am currently in the black. A fair amount of that money should be counted towards my loss and labor last year, but there is still some left over. If I don’t have too many expensive repairs this year I expect to make a small profit. This is good in the short term and the long because someday I hope to hand this over to somebody younger. Sorting out what works for CSA share members and for me is an ongoing project and the CSA is the lynchpin for profitability. Let me know what you like or dislike about what’s in your shares and how the whole thing works. Recruit your friends too.

-Reed

Welcome to the new Grass Valley Grains blog!

May 13th, 2010

We’re busy farming right now, but we’ll be posting some great stuff up here shortly! Interested in something specific? Post it in the comments below!

-Evan Hamilton
Son, Website Guy