Early Summer 2019 Newsletter

Riverbend Farm Early Summer 2019 Newsletter

Spring

Mary and I have had a busy and productive spring.  Plant sales were phenomenal. I think that we sold nearly twice as many plants as compared to last year, a very welcome boost to early cash flow. It also meant that April and May were a blur of seeding, potting up, repotting and delivering plants.  We ran out of 3½ inch pots, potting soil, plant labels, and even plants. It was great. Many thanks to everyone who got plants from us.

As the sales of starter plants were wrapping up we switched over to transplanting tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant, direct seeding cucumber, zucchini, and winter squash. We are pretty well caught up on transplanting and have made good progress mulching tomatoes. The wet weather has delayed some cultivating and the weeds are trying to take advantage of that.

Part of the reason that we are keeping up so well is that we are not growing any early greens and radishes.  Bunched greens are very labor intensive and can take up all or part of four days each week, not leaving a lot of time for everything else. We have been making the most of the crop mobs, friends and family to get things done. It makes a lot of difference when it is time to plant, mulch and stake 4500 tomatoes.

Drift

Earlier this spring we were drifted on by the contractor spraying the neighbor’s field. They were spraying RoundUp, Outlook and Verdict, burndown and preemerge herbicides.  It took several days to notice any damage. Mary spotted it first on some zinnias and wondered if there was a bug attacking them. Then we started seeing spots on a lot of different plants. The melons and cucumbers fared worst of all, they wilted down right away.

Looking back we figured that it probably happened a week before when they were doing field work across the street. It was just before a rain, the wind was out of the east, and the chemical smell was very strong. There is a windbreak at the edge of the neighbor’s field, the road, and the greenhouses are set back about 65’ from the fence, roughly 135 feet from when the spraying should have stopped. It was simply too windy to spray, the operator should have known better.

I called the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, our certifier and the guy who runs the land across the street. The person who answered the phone at the MDA was a lot less than helpful but finally decided that they would have to send an inspector.  MOSA had an inspector here in a couple days after being notified. Both the MDA and MOSA took samples to check for herbicide residues.  The MDA’s results didn’t find any contamination but their resolution is not very good, only 1 part in 20,000 for glyphosate (50 parts per million). Glyphosate is usually diluted 200:1 so the chances of them ever being able to detect it are slim. It is not uncommon for labs that test for pesticide residue to find glyphosate down to 10 parts per billion.

MOSA sent us a Final Determination Letter saying that none of the plants in the greenhouses could be considered organic and since we have to use organic transplants, none of the crops produced from those transplants could be certified as organic. Their reasoning was that even though not all the plants showed damage, they had been exposed to prohibited chemicals. There wasn’t time to grow new plants so rather than destroy them we planted them. The penalty is a one year decertification but it doesn’t look like we have a lot of options.

Just yesterday I talked to  MOSA about their residue samples and they said that the levels were detectable but so low that they could have been environmental background levels.  But since I had reported what looked like drift they were decertifying the transplants anyway. It seems a little odd but they had just been called out for certifying hydroponic operations so maybe it is time to stand up for organic integrity now.

The long and the short of it is that while we will have tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant available this year they won’t be certified organic.  All of our direct seeded crops will be certified organic.

Labor

Labor is still hard to find. I know that you are all shocked to hear this but it is true.  After today my crew dried up for most of the summer. It was great to have them to help with transplanting and getting a good start on mulching tomatoes. We would be scrambling if we were still trying to do bunched greens and radishes on a big scale. We have had a lot of help from crop mobs and friends who have reached out with a helping hand. There is another crop mob this Saturday.

Farming is not unskilled work. Even jobs like mulching and hoeing take a fair amount of practice to be fast, accurate and effective. Going beyond straight forward hand tools, it is virtually impossible to find someone who can drive a tractor. There aren’t many farm kids anymore and lots of people can’t drive a manual transmission. Even if they can operate a clutch smoothly it is very unrealistic to think that someone who has just climbed up on a tractor for the first time is going to be able to cultivate or even disk without getting stuck or worse.

Plans

I’m still working out the preorder replacement for our CSA. Without greens and radishes there is not a lot to offer right now. We will have peas next week if the heat this weekend doesn’t burn them all up. It is raining now but I’m going to move some irrigation over there so I can water them when it is 90º.  There will also be some turnips, basil, cornmeal, dry beans, rhubarb, etc. Sort of like a CSA box at this time of year but it will be ‘ala carte’.

I will send out a list of things that we have available. Prices will vary depending on how much you buy. For example, half a pound of peas will cost you more than 10 pounds on a per pound basis. If the peas make it there might also be a pick your own option at a reduced price.  Let me know if you are interested on being on the email list for this.

Our wholesale business will look a lot like last year but without the bunched items.

Repair of the week

One of the drive ratchets on the hayloader broke. Our hayloader is a prewar (certainly WW II, not likely WW I) piece of equipment that was used to make hay before balers were invented in the 1930s. Before that, hay was collected loose and made into haystacks or piled in the barn.

The camshaft that lifts the pawl in the drive ratchet broke. When the cam lifts the pawl the wheels turn freely so the machine can be moved from field to field. When the pawl is engaged and the ratchet is locked up the turning wheels drive the mechanism that rakes up the hay and pushes it up the elevator.  It wasn’t possible to just reweld the shaft because it broke inside the hub casting.

I roughed out a new camshaft out of a piece of 1 ¼” X 3/8” bar stock with a portable bandsaw and finished it on a lathe. It made me wish for a four jaw chuck for my lathe so it could hold rectangular pieces of stock. The lever that turns the cam presented its own problems due to the need for a 5/32” X 5/16” rectangular slot to attach it to the camshaft. Both pieces were assembled into the hub and riveted together.

Next project – a fluidized bed to separate unthreshed oats from hullless oats.  If anyone has experience with fluidized beds, let me know. I need to separate the less dense but larger unthreshed kernels from the denser and smaller grain. The particles have roughly the same aerodynamic size making any winnowing process less than 100% effective.

 

Crop mob on Saturday. Sign up through the Birchwood. Info is under Events on the Community page. Signing up lets them get an accurate count for lunch. We will be mulching tomatoes. Thanks.

 

Greg

Late Winter 2019 Newsletter

Riverbend Farm Late Winter Newsletter February 20, 2019

Snow. Plenty of snow. I looks great and we have not run out of places to pile it, yet. And more to come but I’ll take snow over rain any day in the winter. The days are getting longer faster now. Soon we will be out of the woods as far as really cold temperatures are concerned but the record low for today is still -20°F.

We feed the birds and even heat the bird bath so they can get a drink. After a cardinal got in and actually took a bath on a subzero morning I covered it with pine branches. Now the birds can get a drink but it is much less likely that we will find them frozen to a branch. There is a pileated woodpecker that is a regular visitor to the suet feeder. They are amazing. It is nearly has big as a small chicken.

It has been a busy winter for mechanical projects. Our daughter Jeri has her car (’92 Volvo 240) over here for the winter. It needed an exhaust pipe, fuel filter, water pump, and the odometer repaired. My brother brought his ’68 BSA Victor (B44) over to get it rideable and presentable. And I have been working at replacing the aftermarket Weber carburetor on my ’67 Volvo 120 with stock dual SU carbs. I’m also planning to add a third, high mounted brake light to supplement the two small taillights.

Mary has been burrowed in by the fire working crossword puzzles, reading, working a embroidery / quilting project, etc. She has been seeing a few more clients in her psychotherapy practice. I think she spends an equal amount of time doing paperwork and dealing with insurance as she does in sessions.

Once a week Mary takes our granddaughter Olivia to a tutor for help with reading. Olivia has a touch of dyslexia that made it hard for her to read. The tutor has really helped her read better. That has had a huge impact on her attitude and grades. It is really noticeable. Thanks to Evonne for suggesting Patricia (resultsreading.com).

I have been working on what I’m going to do this coming season on the farm. As you know our restaurant business dried up last summer which does appear to be due to the proliferation on new low priced beer and burger places in the cities. I think that business will eventually come back but it will be a while.

This year I’m going to grow a limited number of crops for our co-op customers and the restaurants that really are committed to making good food with locally grown organic produce. The list of crops is tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, zucchini, kale, and winter squash. I’ll also grow a few odds and ends because we treat the fields as our garden.

What I’m thinking for the CSA is to offer those crops and a limited selection of greens and radishes in a different format.

Last fall I had offered the last of our squash and potatoes to the Delano Community Group email list on a preorder basis. The list of available products varied from week to week and the price ranged from retail to wholesale depending on how much was ordered. For the small number of items available it was quite a success.

This year’s CSA would work along the same lines. Instead of paying upfront and getting what you get, you would receive an availability list emailed to you each week, you would select the items that you want and pay for the veggies when you pick them up. What do you think ? Interested ? Let me know.
Even with the snow it is time to start warming up the greenhouse.

Greg

Early Winter Newsletter Jan 2019

Riverbend Farm Early Winter Newsletter

Winter came early this year and stayed. It got so cold so fast that the rye cover crop, planted in early October never emerged. Now temperatures are 20° above normal. This past year was another year for weird weather.

Temperatures were 20³ below normal for late September, all of October and November. In early October We were hustling to get root crops out of the field before it got cold enough to damage them. Mostly we made it, only a few of the last potatoes out were frozen.

And of course lately it has been warm, record breaking warm. Which, really has been kind of nice except for the rain. Our yard ( the part we drive on. The grassy area is the lawn…) becomes unbelievable slick when there is a skim of meltwater or rain on top of the packed snow.

All this is erratic weather is due to blocked patterns that are a very noticeable effect of climate change. The jet stream is weaker due to the warmer temperatures in the Arctic. The weakened jet stream gets wobbly and does not move the weather patterns like it used to only a few years ago. This is the phenomena that created the cool damp conditions for late blight in August 2017, the very hot conditions that killed the pepper and eggplant blossoms in July, and the early winter this year.

The stuck nature of the weather is so new that no one appears to have a handle on forecasting the large scale blocked weather events. Part of the problem appears to be a lack of understanding of what conditions cause the weather pattern to stall and why they eventually start to move again. There are people working on it and have some interesting observations (https://www.aer.com/science-research/climate-weather/arctic-oscillation/) but the predictions are not very specific or necessarily accurate.

If we had temperatures that were 20° below normal in the spring / early summer we would have freezing temperatures well into the middle of June and 60s through all of July. As you can imagine that would raise hell with trying to grow any warm season crops here.

On the business side of the farm, our sales to local restaurants collapsed this summer. Just a few years ago restaurant sales were 60% of our business. This year they were about 30%. And 80% of that was from just four places. One of those restaurants changed chefs and the new chef is more inclined to buy off the US Foods truck than local farms.

It is possible that I pissed off everyone, but I think there is more going on. Early this summer Libby Wyrum sent out a plea to chefs to buy just a case of produce from farmers at the Linden Hills Farmers Market. I heard that the response was minimal and that 60% of the farmers were giving up. Dan Moe was in touch asking about how to maintain a relationship with restaurants. Irene and Andy at York Farm are calling quits. Patrick at Breezy Hill was sitting a huge apple crop when fruit used to be the hottest thing going.

Farming is a hard way to make a living. Our conventional neighbors can attest to this with the trade woes brought on by the Chinese tariffs on commodities. Not to mention that even in good years they need to farm 3000 acres to make ends meet. For some reason, well, probably several reasons, a lot of small organic farms have been calling it quits in the past few years. It looks like there is a shift in buying patterns happening across the board because CSA and direct market farms like us have all been affected.

I’m still trying to figure out what all this means for us. I have been talking myself into and out of doing this again next year since August but one of the things that has become clear is that I can’t continue to do what I have been doing.

As always, it is not just one thing like the market, there are several issues that are coming together to affect the viability of small farms: labor, weather, quality of life, income and expenses all are a part of it.

Labor is an issue for everyone. In the past few years it has been really hard to find help. Good bad or indifferent. Half of the people I talked to this past season either quit or never even showed up. Restaurants have been chronically short handed for several years.

Not having a reliable, hard working crew means that things don’t get done on time. And the way things work here is that there is only a small window to get a project finished. Mulching tomatoes is labor intensive and has to be done before the tomatoes are staked. Tomatoes need to be staked before they start to sprawl. Installing tomato stakes is also very labor intensive… Once those deadlines are missed there is no going back and fixing it. The next big job is waiting to get done.

CSA is a lot of fun but without the restaurant business to share the overhead of the 20 different types of crops that go into it, it becomes unaffordable. We have intentionally never had a big CSA. Having taken our members money there is a lot or pressure to produce. The way was it was we could put together bountiful shares without paying much attention to planting just exactly so many tomato plants or row feet of arugula.

Working through some numbers, assuming twice as many members, it would take close to an acre to produce the veggies for the CSA. A rule of thumb is that it takes about one person per acre for mixed veggies. Larger areas of a single crop are more efficient using labor. An all winter squash CSA would be a tough sell. With 20 different crops one acre there is no efficiency of scale. Twenty five CSA shares translates into just under $14,000 of income. Raising the price 10% brings the total to $15,000, almost enough to pay the property taxes and buy health insurance.

This fall we did try a direct market experiment with small scale orders for veggies. I sent out an availability list to the dcg email list. People could order any amount they wanted and the price varied between retail and wholesale depending on the quantity. It worked okay except someone didn’t show up for their veggies. The other thing is that all the crops on the list had been harvested and washed so I just had to weigh and assemble the orders.

Another idea that I have been thinking about is that we have a lot of land that could make nice pasture. I’m not interested in taking care of cows in the winter so pigs or sheep make sense. Nobody eats sheep so pigs could be a good fit. I have all the equipment to grow small grains and corn for their feed. We have (or at least had ) lots of produce that does not wind up going anywhere and would be appreciated by the pigs. Turkeys and ducks kind of fit into that mold too. The holdup is that other than a few hundred chickens I have never done livestock for sale.

There are a bunch of other enterprises along the value added line like smoked peppers, exotic paprika, nixtamal, etc. to be considered. Of course another option is to just get a job.

The are a lot of pieces in the puzzle and I’m not even sure that all of them are even in this box. If you have any great ideas, be sure to let me know.
All the best in the new year.

Greg

Late Summer Newsletter September 2018

Riverbend Farm Late Summer Newsletter

What a bunch of beautiful days. This is why people live here. Okay, the last couple days were a little warm and humid but in the shade the breeze has been a little cool. Lately the mosquitoes have been noticeable, but they have been missing all summer and are nothing compared to other years. Moderate temperatures, no hurricanes, forest fires, raining frogs, it is darn near perfect.

Every weed in the world is trying to go to seed. If you are an allergy sufferer then you know that ragweed is in full bloom. The blackbirds are starting to flock together. With all of the available seeds the birds have not returned to the bird feeder. The sun is moving south faster. Fall is coming.

Out in the field the late planted buckwheat is just starting to flower. If you look around all the wild flowers except for the goldenrod and the yellow daisy like flowers are done. The zukes and cukes are still putting up male flowers but they don’t seem to have enough energy to produce female flowers. Most of the annual plants have not adapted to the longer growing season yet. It has only been about 5 years so that would be a very dramatic shift for them.

Bees on the other hand are active until it freezes. Once it gets cold at night they start to settle down for winter. Beekeepers can feed honeybees but the native pollinator and predators don’t have it so easy. Hopefully they find the buckwheat patch. Buckwheat has a small flower is very accessible nectar. Even the tiniest bees can reach it. I did notice a lot of tiny flying insects (predatory wasps I suspect but they are too small to easily identify) are investigating the flowers already.

All the neighbor’s corn is turning brown and their soybeans are yellow. Our corn is getting a few brown leaves at the bottom and the ears are fully filled. Some of the stalks have to be 12’ tall. The variety is Reid;s Yellow Dent, an organic heirloom variety. I don’t know if it is the year or the variety but a lot of the ears were set over my head. It is only halfway up the plant, but still. The seed tasted good so I’m interested to try this corn. I think that it will make great cornmeal.

The Peregrine beans are starting to fade from green to yellow and starting to mature the beans. The romanos are mostly done. I may try some of them as shell beans but most of the remaining beans will go as seed for next year. We did have some of the mature beans with kale and pasta. They made a decent large white bean, but not knock your cocks off flavorful. The real test will be eating them cooked with a bay leaf and olive oil. Worst case, they are seeds.

The peppers are starting to wake up. It may not be too late for them. We really need something like CSI for veggies but I think that it was too warm for the peppers at the wrong time. Peppers drop their blossoms when it is above 90° during the day and it stays above 75° at night. IIRC there were some July nights in that range. And then it cooled off making them think it was fall and decided to wait for next year. Peppers are perennials so the are not too worried about setting seed. Now that it has been warm for so long the pepper plants are getting going again and are covered with flower buds. It will be interesting to see if they can produce fruit with the warm temperatures and shorter days. The might make it since they are tropical plants that evolved nearer the equator with more equal length of days and nights.

The cosmos did not start flowering until just a couple weeks ago either.

There are a ton of winter squash but they too are taking their time. Back in the olde days of weather they would be freezing to death in the next day or two. Now the fruit still have green streaks or stems that have not started to dry at all. It looks like there are a ton of butternut and kabochas out there. If It does not freeze in the next couple weeks and we don’t get weeks of steady rain, there should be a good crop of them. Hopefully you are looking forward to when the onslaught of tomatoes is replaced by winter squash.

The tomatoes are doing great. The hybrids in the first planting are blighting out. The Open pollinated varieties and heirlooms are holding their own. The fruit are generally a little smaller but there are lots of them. The second planting of tomatoes is starting to ripen. The first fruit always rot so I’m not rushing in there to harvest. If the weather holds we will have tomatoes until the middle of October, a month later than ‘normal’. If not, it has been good so far.

Greg

Late Summer Newsletter 2018

Riverbend Farm Late Summer Newsletter August 22, 2018

Another pretty normal week for August – hot and dry. I love it. Not really, but it does make everything taste better and it is the kind of weather that discourages late blight. The best parts are that there are no mosquitoes and it cools off at night.

Dragon flies and chickadees are back. Grasshoppers are thick. Hummingbirds are busy exploring the salvia, snap dragons and kiwi blue cerinthe flowers. Frogs and toads are also starting to appear. Something is building a nest in one of the paper tubes. It is mostly twigs with a little fuzzy stuff in the back. I pulled it out once but whatever it is filled it up again. Now I’m going to leave it and see what happens.

It is getting very dry. We have not had any real rain since the 3rd. Dragging layflat and lugging sprinklers around is not much fun but it is time to water. We did get a little sprinkle Monday evening. We had 0.08” last night, which was nice, but didn’t make a dent in the need to water. The weather is a little cooler so the water goes a lot farther. If it were 90° it would be a struggle to keep up. Maybe we will get some rain Thursday night.

The smokey weather has been kind of weird. Saturday morning it was foggy and there was a noticeable smell of smoke in the air. It does make for some very red sunsets.

It is a little risky to water the tomatoes after it has been so dry but they do need it. The tomatoes are just starting to really come on and lots o them are beginning to size up. The risk is that anything that is almost ripe will split. The plants have huge root systems (6’ across and 6’ deep) and are working really hard to suck up water. When they get easily accessible water they don’t react fast enough and the ripe fruit get so much water that they crack.

Not that the tomatoes care. They are trying to set seed. A split ripe tomato is going to rot and drop a load of mature seed. The next tomatoes in line will size up and ripen normally. A good watering now will carry them through the next couple weeks.

The potatoes are another story entirely. I could water them twice a week and they would use it all ( actually, I’m watering right now). Of course they are using all the water to make bigger potatoes so I’m not really complaining. As you might have noticed the new potatoes are getting pretty big. That is a good sign.

Peppers and eggplant are slow to set fruit this year. The plants are thriving in the hot weather, some of the hybrids are dark green, 2 feet tall but no peppers. I have heard the same thing from other growers around here.

The farm is shifting into a phase that is all about getting ready for next year. I have been busy disking under the cover crops and weeds everywhere I won’t be harvesting any of the rye seed. This is a little bit of a change from my usual routine. The perennial and winter annual weeds have adapted to the old pattern so changing it up a bit breaks up their lifecycle. The weeds are just coming into flower now that the rye is done growing. Since they are physiologically mature (flowering) they will not try to come back. It helps that it has been so dry too.

Disking in the cover crops adds tons of organic matter to the top soil. A typical hay crop is 3-4 tons per acre and the rye and vetch are much more than that. The rye and vetch that was a week ago is starting to come up. I have no idea where it found the moisture to germinate but it did. Once we get some meaningful rain, producing a thick winter cover that does not require any effort on my part. All the straw, old root mass and the new growth will add to the organic matter in the soil. Since we have so little clay in most of our soil the organic matter provides a place to water and nutrients to be held.

The hairy vetch will provide nitrogen for next year’s crops. A lack of N is the most likely nutrient to cause poor growth. The N that the vetch captured this year will be taken up by the newly sprouted rye, keeping it from leaching away. The vetch seeds will germinate and be coming up in a week or so and the new plants will continue to add N to the soil.

Tomorrow I am hoping to get some rye combined for seed. I’ll need that to plant cover crops in the areas that in vegetables now. Besides providing organic matter the rye will protect the soil from wind and water erosion. If the soil is bare and frozen the top layer dries out very quickly and will blow away. Even 2” tall rye will create a thick enough boundary layer .that wind can not pick up the lightest soil particles.

The other cover crop I have been planting is buckwheat. There are a couple areas that were infested with perennial weeds. I have let the weeds grow and cultivated them out all summer to wear down their root reserves. The buckwheat comes up quickly and shades the soil, starving the weeds for energy.

The other reason to plant buckwheat late is to provide nectar for honey bees and native pollinators. Brian Fredrickson from Ames Farm was talking about how the climate has shifted but the flowering plants lifecycle has not. All the annual weeds are trying to flower right now. If they don’t they wouldn’t have time to mature seed before they freeze in the middle of September. What they don’t know Is that it doesn’t get that cold until the middle of October now.

The bees don’t settle down for winter until it starts to freeze at night. The problem is that there aren’t any food sources for them for the last month of the season. Beekeepers can intervene and feed their bees. The native bees don’t have that option. If the weather cooperates (we get a little rain) the buckwheat will provide late flowers that all the bees can feed on. I count on the native bees and wasps for a lot of insect pest predation.

The other news is that I have finally decided that I have to do things differently next year. It is much harder to work all day on 90° temperatures and 70° dew points. By 6 PM I’m shot and being exhausted day after day for weeks at a time takes a lot of the fun out of farming. Not to mention that is not a healthy thing to do. And climate change is going in a favorable direction for this to improve. .

After 20 years I had to cut back on bunching green and radishes if I wanted to be able to close my hands. Now they don’t ache all the time but there arte still issues. My achin’ back, sore shoulder, etc., etc. Probably a sign to do something different.

The restaurant business in the Cities is changing. New restaurants are opening but some real classics have closed. Libby Wyrum sent out a letter begging chefs to buy from local farms. About half of the growers at the Linden Hill Farmers Market called it quits in the last year. Doug Flicker is running a bar. Our restaurant business has taken a hit this year, falling by about half.

Maybe there are just more farms selling to the same farm to table restaurants but it seems like there are more beer and burger places opening than places that actually buy local organic whenever possible. Restaurants are facing some big labor and cost issues even when more people than every are eating out. There does also appear to be some downward pressure on wholesale prices.

So the question is what are the next 20 years going to be like? The on farm CSA is still a lot of fun. Should we expand that ? Should we change direction a little and turn the most marginal land into pasture and raise some livestock ? Rent out pieces of the farm to people who want to start their own farm business ? Put in a pizza oven and do a once a month Pizza Farm event ? Do specialty ingredients for local restaurants that are still into that sort of thing ?

Lots of questions and not so many answers to far. My usual approach to problem solving is to try to understand the problem and then come up with an answer. This one is difficult because there are lots of parts to the problem and even more possible solutions. That’s what I have been thinking about for the last month or so. If you have any ideas, I’d love to hear them.

Greg

Newsletter July 2018

Riverbend Farm Newsletter July 1, 2018

In a complete turnaround form May, the end of June has been quite wet. Since Monday the 11th we have had just over 4.5” of rain. And it is actually raining, just raining right now. No thunder and lightning or big winds, just rain. The rain has been spread out fairly well and has not been too much yet. The mosquitoes have finally appeared but the horseflies are the worst. They are fast and the bite hard.

On last Monday Logan, Kathy, and I (one of our workers decided that this was not a good job for her so she called it quits a couple weeks ago) planted a few lettuce that had been hanging around, around 1000 fall cabbage, and 500 or so kale plants for fall harvest. We got almost 1 ½” of rain that night so they were well watered in.

On Thursday we set out another 300 tomato plants. It is late, but I’m hoping that they won’t catch up with the earlier planted ones. Our fall season has been going month longer before first frost than it used to. The plan had always been for the first planting of tomatoes to run out in mid September when we would get our first frost.

Since the season is now a month longer and it is the night time low temperatures that have been increasing, it makes some sense to plant later. Late plantings always seem to catch up to the earlier ones (everything always comes in at once…) but I’m hoping they will be far enough behind to have tomatoes through early October. This rain is ideal for them.

Yesterday we had our monthly crop mob. We would usually be pounding in tomato stakes but with the slow start to the season and being a little short handed we were not ready. The mulch has to be put down before the 4’ tall tomato stakes go in. The stakes make it impossible to pull a load of hay down the rows and carrying it in from the ends is a complete nonstarter. The mob split into two teams with one picking up the mulch and loading on to wagons. The other team weeded between to tomatoes and spread the mulch.

There are not many people who have driven a tractor but we had 3 of them show up yesterday. Our neighbor Norman got the hay cut on Thursday and the rain held off so it had a couple days to dry. We used the hayloader to pick up the hay and put it on the wagons. Hayloaders were used to make haystacks before there were balers. Loose hay is much nicer to work with than baled hay for mulching, no strings to cut and collect (they are treated and can not be left in the field), no bales to break up, much lest dust, etc. We were getting about one row mulched per wagon load of hay and got about half of the tomatoes weeded and mulched.

I have been making some progress on the seed garden. The tomato varieties that I was growing for seed last year are planted side by side with some of the seeds from the late blight survivors to see if there is any difference. There are a few ex-hybrid pepper varieties that I’m trying to stabilize and some Aleppos that I’m doing a second round of adaptation on. They did not like being here last year and only ripened a few peppers. This year should be better adapted to our climate and growing conditions. Prairie Road Organics has some pea seed that they say tolerates hot weather. We’ll see. If it does it could be popular around here. They are shell peas an no one can afford to shell peas, but they simply taste the best.

The warm rainy weather has also brought out the bacterial spot in the arugula. There are three short rows in the seed garden to continue the selection for resistant plants. When the plants start to show the disease I pull them out. The first time about 3% of the plants were resistant. The second time about 10% were good. Hopefully this time will be better. Next year I’ll plant the resulting seed to produce a seed crop for field planting.

The kale plants are producing decent sized seed pods so it looks like they were successful. This year I am adding a little more Lacinato genetics to the Rainbow Lacinato. The leaves were starting to shift to the curly Redbor style and losing the rumpled Lacinato type leaf. All the plants in the cabbage family (cabbage, kale, collards, broccoli, etc.) are self infertile so planting a Lacinato between the Rainbows should be enough to get them to recross. I’ll find out next year.

We are also part of an Organic Seed Alliance kale trial to try to find new varieties that will replace the hybrids that you usually see in the stores. In addition there are half a dozen blight resistant tomato varieties in the middle of the tomato field to evaluate for production, flavor and hopefully not late blight resistance. Some of the seeds from the tomatoes that survived the late blight are being grown at Perdue where they always have trouble with late blight. That is close enough, thank you very much.

Upcoming events:
4th of July Pancake Extravaganza fund raiser at The 221 in Delano. All the proceeds go to keeping the lights on and creating a nest egg to build a community commercial kitchen. The kitchen idea has been around for a long time and now there is a space. There are a lot more moving parts than I thought there would be but they all fit into the idea of making this a stronger community. The range is from start up businesses to providing meals for kids in the summer to a place where local farms can do a little value added to big family canning projects to teaching basic cooking skills.

Mid July there is a Co-op Farm tour where we will be showing people around the farm and having a look at the Organic Seed Alliance Kale Trial. There are 8 or 10 varieties of kale being grown side by side to compare how they do in real world conditions. My hope is to get some of our CSA members, produce buyers, chefs, other farmers and anyone else who is interested to come and sample some the possible replacements for Redbor and Winterbor, the red and green kale varieties you see in the co-ops. We will be hosting an official OSA field day in early August if you can’t make the Co-op Farm Tour.
As long as it is raining, I’m going to pickle some radishes.
Greg

Late Late Spring Newsletter 2018

Riverbend Farm Late Late Spring Newsletter June 19, 2018

The Summer Solstice is coming up on the 21st, the astronomical start to summer.

It was very draining to work in the recent hot weather. Now that it has cooled off 70° seems a little chilly. I’m writing this in a long sleeve shirt. The hot wet weather ( over 2.8” of rain since last Monday ) has been great for transplanting. Usually hot weather is really hard on transplants due to their limited root system. But when it rains every day there is water available to the plants that I can’t match with irrigation. The transplants recover and start to look better in just a day or two.

The weeds love this weather too. The down side of it raining so much is that cultivation is not very effective if you can do it at all without damaging the soil structure. Weeds make vegetable transplants look like real softies. A lot of weeds only need a tiny fragment of their roots covered with soil to survive and go on to thrive.

Direct seeded crops are loving it too. The warm wet soil is perfect for germinating crop seeds as well as weed seeds. I just started a nursery bed for fall kale, broccoli and cabbage transplants. Some of the seed emerged in two days and all of them were up in four days, which is not bad even in the germination chamber. In early July these seedlings will go out to the field and be harvested in September and October. Our first frost date has moved back from mid September to mid October which adds another month to our growing season. .

Last week was a big week for us. Besides getting a lot of planting done we got a new water line installed between the well and the house. This well also feeds the greenhouses and the packing shed. The yard is still a mess but having the water system back in action is simply great. You really don’t miss the water until the well goes dry. Water pressure is much better at the greenhouse and the packing shed. The water temperature in the shower is much more predictable and stable. It is great to be back to normal.

Working in between the rain showers Mary and I have been making good progress in the seed garden. We plant a lot of flowers to attract pollinators and other beneficial insects. We need pollinators to produce seeds.

There are several pepper varieties that I have been trying to dehybridize and last year’s tomato seed production was mostly wiped out by late blight. The cool August last year was a great selection pressure for cold tolerant okra. Germination was poor but the 25 or so plants that made it should be a viable breeding population. Prairie Road Organics claims to have a heat tolerant shell pea. We will see about that. They also have Hidatsa Shield, simply the best tasting dry bean. I’m just increasing the seed lots this year.

It has been raining a lot. We have sandy soil and everything will have to thoroughly washed before eating. Just sayin’. The easiest way to do this is to cut the bunches just above the rubber band and drop into a deep sink full of tepid water. Gently agitate the greens several times over a few minutes, giving the sand a chance to settle to the bottom. Move the greens to a second bath of clean water and repeat. If you taste a leaf and it is not gritty, they are ready to use. If they are still gritty, repeat the washing process.

This weeks CSA Share contains:
Arugula – salad green with holes.
Lettuce – the big one is Cracoviensis Listed as a distinct type, Asparagus Lettuce, in The Vegetable Garden by Vilmorin-Andrieux (1885). Highly prized in China where they peel and eat the thick fleshy stems like asparagus, a practice that chefs have adopted here. Lifted from The FEDCO catalog. It takes its name from Krakow Poland. It is unique as it does not get bitter even when going to seed. Mary peeled the stalk and added it to our salad like carrot sticks. It does have a slight asparagus flavor. The little heads are Salanova types, a salad mix style of lettuce. It looks great in a salad and tastes good too.
Kale – Nash’s red. Strip the stem and use the raw leaves in salad or saute them in a little water until just cooked. Eat with butter ( the vitamins in greens are fat soluble and are more available when eaten with butter or olive oil), salt and pepper, maybe a dash of vinegar.
Turnips – Chris Blanchard at Rock Spring Farm called them Spinruts. These are not fall turnips, they are mild and tender. Use in salad or quarter ( or dice) and fry in butter. Eat warm with a little salt. The greens are edible too. Saute them with the kale. The new Sioux Chef cookbook has a recipe for greens and corn cakes. We made polenta, but it was a great way to have greens.
Radishes – your choice of red or French Breakfast. Wash, trim, eat with salt, good bread and Hope butter. I read that a glass of good red wine is the traditional accompaniment.
Corn meal – Whole grain freshly ground corn meal. The deer ate all of our flour corn last fall so this is an organic yellow dent variety grown by Doug Lundeen over in Cokato. The oil in the germ will go rancid if stored at room temperature. It was so wet / humid today that I would store the corn meal in the freezer to keep any moisture that it may have picked up from causing it to spoil.
Rhubarb – You know, its rhubarb. I did hear today that someone eats it over breakfast cereal. That seems pretty hard core to me but I’m thinking I might try it, thinly sliced over granola with a little sugar. Or not. Yogurt is sour.
Garlic scapes – the flower stalk from garlic bulbs. All your saved garlic is dried out or moldy so this will do until fresh garlic is available again. Use it in place of garlic but It is fibrous so slice it thin. Or make it into pesto. Or pickle it.
Dill – herb for flavoring garlic scape pickles.
Sorrel – strongly lemon flavored herb. Use a little in salad or in soup.
Herb pot – the herbs can be separated and planted out or they can be left on the pot. If left in the pot, they look terrible by the end of the season, but still work just fine. If planted in less than average soil the oregano, chives and usually thyme are hardy perennials. The dill is flowering. The flowers attract lots of beneficial insects. Then you can use the seeds or let them drop and reseed themselves. Other herbs in the pot are basil, marjoram, and summer savory ( skinny stems with spiky leaves).

Soap box –
I’m not sure where I saw it but there was an article about inexpensively removing CO2 from the atmosphere. There was not a lot of detail but David Keith, a Harvard professor has proposed a method for converting atmospheric CO2 into ‘gasoline’. The article seemed to be promoting this as was way to combat climate change.

I see three problems with this:
1) the average cost of removing CO2 was said to be ~$160 per ton. On an annual basis about 35 gigatons of CO2 are emitted worldwide. $160 X 35,000,000,000 = $5.6 trillion. On a per person basis that comes out to $740 (in round numbers), not too bad. Except that only moves us back to 2017 ( or whenever this technology comes on line, if ever) CO2 levels which are still a problem.
2) The 70% of the world’s population that lives on less than $10 a day are going to have a hard time finding that much in their budget. Heck, I’ll bet that the 43 million Americans living in poverty ( approx. $25,000 for a family of 4) would have a hard time coming up with an extra $60 a month for CO2 removal.
3) Turning removed carbon into gasoline doesn’t actually remove any CO2 from the atmosphere.

It’s late. I was at a Kitchen Circle meeting with the Crow River Food Council. More on that later.

Greg

Late Spring Newsletter 2018

Riverbend Farm Late Spring Newsletter June 10, 2018

Our CSA will start up next week on Tuesday the 19th.

The past few weeks have bee a whirlwind of field work and planting, with a little cultivation thrown in for good measure.

The weather has moderated which has made my life a lot less stressful. Daily high temperatures have dropped back to a few degrees above normal and lows are 5-10° warmer than usual. The big change is that we have been getting some rain. There was a big one, 1.6”, after the tomato planting in late May and we have been getting about 0.6” per week since then. The rain showers have been well timed, usually coming a few days apart.

We have the ability to irrigate, but not having to do it opens up time to do everything else. This is our busiest time of the year. Besides getting cover crops turned back into the soil, there is the greenhouse to tend to, plants sales, a ton of planting to do, weed control, the first harvests, and simple stuff like just mowing that all needs to be done. Moving headers and sprinklers takes time and that backs up the schedule for everything else that needs to be done.

On the last Saturday of May about 20 people showed up for our monthly crop mob to plant tomatoes. It got to be another beastly hot day but we did set out around 5000 tomato plants. Even with watering as soon as we were finished some of the plants in the last section to get water did not make it. We will have to go back and fill in those rows with plants that were left over or plants from the second planting.

Direct seeding crops like beans, corn, and squash can get pushed back a little by the need to get transplants in the ground but they were all planted within a few days of Memorial Day, the traditional time to plant gardens. By then the soil had warmed up and dried out enough to be the ideal seedbed. The seasons have shifted around a little but it is still a deadline I try to meet to let the veggies mature before first frost.

A couple weeks ago, we, Logan, Kathy, Rachelle, and I planted a couple thousand pounds of potato seed and got them covered up a day before it rained. Mary and I have been planting onions. I’m still not giving up on growing them even though my success rate has been very low. Last week Logan’s dad, Dave came by and helped us set out 3000 sweet peppers and eggplant. On Thursday afternoon we put in a couple thousand hot peppers. I did have to water some of the hot peppers. Rain was forecast for Thursday night into Friday morning but it did not appear and some of the habanero plants weren’t big enough to be root bound in the flats.

If a transplants roots don’t fill up the entire volume of soil in the cell the plug of wet potting mix weighs too much and the plant can’t pull it out. In the process, a lot of the plant’s roots get torn off. We usually try to lift the plants out of the cell with a butter knife when that happens but it does not always work. Fussing with them to much when we have thousands of plants to set out is a non starter. We aim to plant about 500 plants per hour per person, but there is time spent making rows, marking rows, making maps. carrying flats, etc. The over all average is only 250-300 plants per hour, which still puts a lot of plants in the ground in a few hours.

On Saturday we had a rainy day. It was great, a nearly all day gentle rain. We did not need or get the 2-3” that fell just to our south. It made for a great day to get caught up on all the things that get set aside for later in the rush to do things now. Since it wasn’t raining first thing in the morning I was able to do some mowing, things look much better now. While it was raining I washed up all the trays and flats that we emptied when planting, sharpen and oil all of the clippers, organized and stored all the pot stakes we use for plant sales, cut some new row markers for the field, and do some basic clean up. It was very satisfying.

Looks Like a little more rain today.

Greg

Early Summer 2018 Newsletter

Riverbend farm Early Summer Newsletter May 24, 2018

I wrote this this morning and ran out of time to send it out before diving into my day. It started raining as Logan and I were setting up irrigation. So far we have received 0.07”, pushing us over ½” since the middle of April. And it looks like we are going to get more rain shortly. That does not change much of what wrote this morning. If we don’t get an inch of rain I’m still going to water before we set out the tomatoes.

The birds are back. The hummingbirds were in the apple blossoms. The oriels are zooming around doing what ever they do beside build crazy nests. The chickens are loving life. They have trees to hide under, bugs to eat, sun and dust. A safe place to stay at night. What more could a chicken want ? They produce 2 to 6 eggs a day. Counting what they get fed in the winter these are the most expensive eggs ever. But the yolks are seriously orange and they taste like eggs. A real luxury.

It is so dry that the weeds are wilting. We have had less than ½” (0.48”) of rain since the big snow in mid April. The winter planted carrot experiment was a failure this year. It never rained once the ground warmed up enough for them to germinate. The really sandy parts of the field are powder dry. Even the clay soils, where it is always touch and go because they stay wet to long, are dry. The wet spot at the end of the south field was the only area where there was a normal amount of moisture in the soil. Temperatures in the upper 80s to low 90s only make the situation worse. A 90° day takes about 1/3” of water out of the soil.

We need an inch of rain per week to keep up with our moisture needs. Averages are meaningless. One 4” rain a month is not the same. In the old normal climate pattern we would get that and then some in April and May. By June it would dry out a little and July and August could have a short dry spell. When we started this 25 years ago we did not have any field scale irrigation because we didn’t need it.

The changing climate is affecting my crop rotation. The weather went from Winter directly to Summer this year. Without the spring rains my rye cover crop is less than half as tall us it would normally be at this time. Many years the rye was over the hood of the tractor (~5’ ) when it was plowed under at this time of year. This year it is only 18”-24” tall. The lack of plant material cuts down the amount of organic matter that gets incorporated into the soil. With our sandy soil, organic matter is the component that holds water and nutrients. Without lush cover crops to maintain soil fertility I will have to change my farming system.

The real issue is that the climate is changing in easily foreseeable long term but unpredictable short term ways. Not to venture too far into politics but it is odd that party affiliation seems to be a reliable indicator of acceptance of science. Which is not to say that either political party had the will to do what was really needed to prevent large scale climate disruption.

No matter what anyone believes about global warming, I can’t see how it makes any sense to keep adding carbon dioxide (and other greenhouse gases) to the atmosphere. It has been known for quite some time that when you find yourself in a hole the first thing to do is to stop digging.

Climate change has been known about since the early 1980s. With the AMOC ( Gulf Stream) slowing, the polar ice melting, stable loops in the jet stream, etc., etc. it appears that we could be near or past a tipping point in climate change. Passing a tipping point means that adding CO2 to the atmosphere is not the big driver of global warmingr anymore. Changes to the physical planet take over as the driver of climate change. That would be very bad news.

The only way to cut down the amount of CO2 going into the air is to cut down on the amount of fossil energy used world wide. Individually I’m guessing that we are all doing our bit. Really, it is up to people like us to make meaningful changes that will impact the rate of climate change. Our grandkids are going to have to live with the effects much longer that us.

Unfortunately, it will take a reduction on a global scale. At this point the required reduction in fossil energy use will crash the global consumer / growth economy It is pretty clear why no political party has had the determination to do that. Knowing that does not do anything to change my opinion of short sighted self serving politicians.

There is actually an up side to the dry weather. Mosquitoes have been conspicuously absent. A real blessing.

The other good news is that there is a chance of rain tonight ( we have had a very useful 0.4” so far today ). But I’m going to water anyway. We have a crop mob on Saturday to plant tomatoes. With a fair chance for a record high temperature the little plants will dry out in a few hours even if we water when we set them out.

If you aren’t doing anything on Saturday come to the crop mob and help us plant tomatoes. It usually runs from 10 until about 2 but we will get done quicker if we get a bunch of people to help out. One thing – if you are coming, please check in at the Birchwood website (https://www.birchwoodcafe.com/event/riverbend-farm-crop-mob/ ) because they provide lunch and an accurate head count cuts down on food waste.

We ( Kathy, Logan, Rachelle, me and Mary ) have been busy in the greenhouse getting veggie starts ready for plant sales. Plant sales have been good this year. I’m hopeful that people are getting back into gardening and discovering how good ripe, fresh food can taste. Besides working in the greenhouse we have three successions of greens and radishes direct seeded, a quarter acre of summer cabbage, kale and lettuce planted and have been keeping up on hoeing and watering. They are a good crew, not a ton of experience but hard workers.

Kind of a downbeat newsletter, but that is what is happening on the farm and what I’m thinking about.

Greg

Spring Newsletter May 2018

Riverbend Farm Spring Newsletter May 2, 2018

This a much nicer weather than we were having two weeks ago. The chickens were excited to be finally let outside. They spend most of the time just sitting in the warn sunshine or scratching for seeds and bugs. The rhubarb has poked out a few small leaves and the tips of the first asparagus are starting to show. The river is up, flooding some of the river bottom. The first few frogs have thawed out, we can hear them peeping. Lots of the trees are budding out but the oak trees are still holding on to their leaves.

Of all the birds the robins enjoy the birdbath the most. The nuthatch chicks have hatched out. My sister spotted them in a knothole in a tree at my folk’s house. We are getting all the usual suspects at the bird feeder but the mob of blackbirds seems to have dispersed. Which reminds me – during the blizzard the blackbirds mobbed the feeder. There must have been a hundred of them. All of a sudden they would all fly. Then we noticing a hawk out in the field eating something. The blackbirds returned and the hawk made a second pass. It was quite something to see. I guess it was a bird feeding station for all the birds.

We are currently getting our first spring rains. They are gentle showers that don’t amount to much but will green up everything. The mid April blizzard sure put a damper on field work. Some parts of our fields are dry enough to work but none of our neighbors have started their spring tillage. Some of their fields still have water in them. The sandy parts of our fields have dried out but the heavier soil is still a little too soft to work. The big puddle in the field south of the house just disappeared over the weekend.

I finally got the first radishes and arugula planted yesterday. It felt like the season was finally starting. This year there is finally an organic hybrid red radish. I have three rows of red radishes planted. One Cherriette, a very reliable, productive, good tasting conventional hybrid, Sora, a decent organic open pollinated variety and Rover, the new organic hybrid. Exciting stuff, I know.

Lettuce and kale will start going in next week. The deer hunters were unsuccessful last year so I’ll have to invest in a new fence charger. Deer love lettuce and take just one bite out of the center of the head two days before it is ready to harvest. No peas this year. They are marginal when planted in the middle of April, now it will be too warm too soon.

Both greenhouses are up and running. While it was so cold after the storm the first one was crammed full. Now that it is warmer at night I have the second one opened up and have moved all the cool season plants over there. Peppers, tomatoes, and eggplant are a little behind the last couple years due to the cold temperatures. With the recent warm sunny days they are making good progress. Nights in the 50s are very welcome.

Since the frost has gone out I have been able to fix the broken water line going out to the greenhouse. The problem was a 30 year old piece of plastic pipe that had split. It is so nice to have the water on in the greenhouses. I had been running a hose out there and filling big tubs and then using buckets and a watering can to water the plants. That is not a bad way to do it when there are just a few plants or when they are very small, but on a warm sunny day a greenhouse full of medium sized plants takes 75-80 gallons of water. A lot of lugging buckets…

Mary and I have been busy repotting, moving things up from 98s to 50s or 3.5” pots (98 and 50 refer to the number of cells in a 1020 tray). Mette and Mark (two regular crop mobbers ) were out and gave us a hand with repotting a couple weeks ago moving the seedlings from 200s to the 98s.

A holdover from the cold April is that the bulk of my potting soil is still frozen. The good news is that the edges have thawed and I don’t have to chip off chunks and bring them into the greenhouse to soften up anymore.

We will also be selling starter plants at the Birchwood on Mother’s Day Weekend and the following weekend. If you can’t make it to either one of those sales, both the Wedge and Seward Co-ops will carry a selection of our plants. Otherwise we will be selling plants at the farm by appointment.

Back to the greenhouse

Greg