Winter 2020

Riverbend Farm Early Winter Newsletter                                                January, 2020

The season has turned around to winter again.  It’s cold. There is snow. The days are getting noticeably  longer.  There is time to catch up on projects and sit by the fire in the evening. The neighbor has been seeing as many as six otter at a time on the river. There had been open water up until late last week. The woodpeckers are eating about half a pound of suet per day and the blue jays can not figure out how to land on the feeder. They have been imitating humming birds to try to get the suet.

It was a busy late fall and early winter after a doubly unusual year.

The season started out with a contractor who was  prepping a  soybean field across the road drifting herbicide into our greenhouses in mid May. It was way too windy to be spraying. The herbicide blew 175 feet from the intended target, through a windbreak, across the road, past our brushy fence line, and another 60 feet into our greenhouses. A week later Mary started noticing yellow spots on a lt of the leaves and the melons and zucchini were all wilted.

Of course I called Jerry Untiedt ( he rents the land across the road), the Minnesota Dept of Agriculture and MISA, our organic certifier to report the problem. Jerry was very sympathetic since his neighbor had drifted dicamba into a pumpkin field. Jerry lost hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of pumpkins. The MDA and MOSA came and took samples and wrote reports. By now it was late May.

The herbicide test results didn’t come back until  mid June. Our organic certifier decided that even though there weren’t any measurable chemical residues, all our plants were conventional. Under the organic rules annual transplants have to be organically produced to have the crop certified organic. That meant no certified organic peppers, tomatoes, cabbage, kale, etc. Everything had long since been transplanted by then.

Sales of high value produce to the coops is a big part of our business. They don’t offer conventional peppers and tomatoes alongside  local organic. Without that market there would not be enough income in August and September to cash flow hiring a big crew for the season. We have always done lots of bunched radishes, arugula, and other greens.  Unless those crops are perfect and the crew is fast it is very hard to make any money with them. Consequently I didn’t hire much help last season. It wasn’t the worst year ever but in hindsight I should have thrown out 80% of the transplants in May.

It has been really wet all year. For most of the summer and fall the river stayed as high as it was in the spring. We routinely got 1½ to 2” of rain  every week and sometimes more. As you know, we have fairly sandy soil and there were places I could not go in the middle of June without seeing water in the front wheel track. This fall I was driving a on a field road with a load of pumpkins and got stuck. It was wet.

In addition to the wetness it was cool. The summer months that were above average in temperature had warm night time temperatures but there was not a lot of heat during the day. We came up short on growing degree days and that affected the maturity of all the heat loving crops.  Our neighbor’s corn never matured to the point where the shanks of the ears dried up and drooped. The ears continued to point up and filled with the fall rain, leading to a lot of rotten corn.

Tomatoes didn’t seem to mind except for the cherry tomatoes. Most of them were really flavorless. Beefsteaks and heirlooms did well but lacked a little too, tasting a bit like greenhouse tomatoes.   Heirloom paste tomatoes continued to shine in the so-so weather . The hybrids were smaller than usual.  It was an off year for tomatoes going to the schools so I think I’m going to quit doing that.

A  brand new thing that was interesting was trying to grow millet. Nobody in the seed industry knows anything about millet for baking so I tried a couple different types. The Proso was a lot larger seed than the Foxtail but the Foxtail had a lot fewer weed problems.

The real issue with millet specifically and local small grains in general is that there is no  infrastructure for cleaning them. I can get a semi load cleaned but a 50 bushels ( ~2500 pounds) is a problem.. Millet, oats, barley, and to some degree wheat, need to be hulled.  I have worked out how to do it but the process needs a little more work. It can’t involve me wielding a one quart scoop  There are a lot of scoops in 50 bushels.

Winter squash was kind of a bust this year. The zucchini didn’t do anything either. The problem was there weren’t any female flowers. There was an early first flush and that was it. I heard from several farms and gardeners who saw the same thing. The problem wet from rural to urban. One of Mette’s neighbors in Minneapolis had beautiful squash vines, but just male flowers. On the other hand pumpkins and cucumbers did fine.

Climate change is making a shambles of my 4 year crop rotation. The loopy jet stream looks like it is settling into a pattern of high pressure in the Gulf of Alaska causing a hot dry ridge along the west coast, amplifying warming in Alaska and burning up California.  Downstream from the west coast ridge, a trough of cool weather sets up east of the Rockies. That brings us Canadian Arctic air, keeping our summer relatively cool and  truncating the slow slide into winter that we have been used to.

At the end of the season I went from getting peppers out of the field to digging potatoes to blowing out water lines.  Our fall was compressed into about 10 days. Our last crop mob took advantage of a few dry days and we pulled all the dry beans. Dry is a relative term, the beans went from the field to the greenhouse so they could dry enough to thresh and store.

The month of 20-30° below normal temperatures that we had starting in mid October eliminated the chance to do any field work after the warm season vegetables are harvested and it was so cold that it kills fall broccoli, kale, and cabbage. It got so cold so quickly that the ground froze early. After a week of frozen soil it warmed up for a few days. I was able to get my fall plowing done and plant winter rye cover crops. In the areas shaded by the trees in the fence line I was turning up six inch thick chucks of frost.  It was too cold for the rye to emerge in the fall. I’m hoping to see it sprout next spring.

Repair of the week.  The 2000 Subaru Forrester that Gabe and Bri left In our yard a few years ago needed a timing belt, head gaskets and a rear wheel bearing. The cost of the repair exceeded the value of the car so it stayed here. Those repairs went okay but I only drove it for a few months until it spun a rod bearing.  It still ran. The spun bearing must have blocked the oil way in the crankshaft and kept the oil going to the rest of the engine.

One ice storm last winter Margaret’s daughter rolled her 2001 Forrester and that engine now sits in the 2000. I’m still chasing various and seemingly random Diagnostic Trouble Codes  and struggling with the alarm. The online Subaru guys say that the cars are fussy about seeing the same sensors. Using the original the intake manifold and throttle body takes care of most of that but clearly not all. The alarm has this annoying feature of disabling the car when the battery is disconnected and locking all the doors. At this point I’m just taking short trips with it to see that it is a reliable driver..