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.