2015 MOSES Keynote – Locally Adapted Seeds

Locally Adapted Seeds

This is mostly  about vegetables but the ideas apply to just about any seed bearing plant.

Why Bother

Are your favorite varieties of Kale, Cauliflower, Onions, Peas, or Zucchini hard to find this year ? Are all those seeds, are all your seeds coming from someplace else ? Do you ever wonder why that is ?

Farmers have been selecting and saving seeds since the dawn of Agriculture. Why aren’t we doing that anymore ? There used to be 100s of regional seed companies, with dozens in Minnesota and Wisconsin. Now, three corporations control more than half of the worldwide seed business and none of them are located here.

I had been resistant to saving vegetable seeds for years. I didn’t want to wait until harvest time to find out that I had a seed crop failure. If two thirds of your  purchased Delicata seed doesn’t emerge you know you have a problem, but you might have time to do something. If your Delicata  crop matures to be some weird zucchini – spaghetti squash hybrid, you have seen them in your compost pile, it is more than a little too late to do anything about it.

There are several reasons that I have changed my mind. A big one is Quality.

As a matter of fact, I have had two thirds of my purchased Delicata seed fail to emerge. The seed may have germed in some lab somewhere, but they were not vigorous enough to emerge when planted in real dirt. I don’t want my money back for that seed. I want a truck load of Delicatas.  Now I’m three weeks behind, One week for them to come up, a week of wondering ‘Are they coming up?’, and a week to get new seed. I don’t know where you are from, but I can’t afford to give up one sixth of my growing season on a tender hundred day crop.

In general I have been finding that overall seed quality has been decreasing.

Another reason is Availability. Good varieties disappear. And when a hybrid goes, it is gone.

I trialed red slicing tomatoes for three or four years, evaluated dozens of varieties, and came up with two organic hybrids that worked for me. Primetime and Paragon. They were both good tasting, solid, productive uniform varieties that worked in our low input conditions. One year only 25 seed packets of Primetime were available. That’s odd, but… The next year there was no seed available. Now what ? Another three or four years of trials for five or six years of production ? No way. I started trialing open pollinated tomatoes.

Reason number three – disease resistance.

In those trials I found that a lot of promising sounding open pollinated tomato varieties blighted out right away. It looked like someone had flame weeded out tomato field.  You’ve seen it, heirlooms with these little wobbly stems with a little tuft of leaves on the tips. My experience has been that tomato plants without leaves are not  very productive.

Along the same line is the issue is seed borne disease. A lot of arugula seed has a bacterial spot that causes watery looking spots that spread to cover most of the leaf. The disease spreads through rain splash and will infect most, If not all, the greens in the mustard family.  The seed bags don’t come with a little warning label that says These seed are disease infested and will not produce a saleable crop’. We went from selling 15,000 bunches of arugula per year to under 2000 due to the disease. That’s not quite the result that I was looking for.

An even larger issue is Global Climate Chaos. In 20 years we have gone from not needing irrigation to having ten weeks in a season with out rain. not to mention that it does not rain in the summer anymore. When I was a kid, it would cloud up and rain straight down for a day or two. Not so much that it would run off, but a nice steady gentle rain. We don’t get that anymore. We get storms that dump two inches of rain in a couple hours, with winds that break off the trees. Last year we had three inches of rain every other week in June. Bad timing and a little more than we needed.

Looking back just a  few years, in 2012 we had a very warm March, a freeze that the apple growers will not forget anytime soon, a hot July and a very dry summer. The spring of 2013 was cool and wet. There was a deh-REY-cho, a huge wind storm in June, July was hot. 2014 we had four months of January, lots of snow, the soil temperature did not get above 55° until mid June. There was so much rain last year that between 500,000 and 600,000 acres were not planted in Minnesota. Then we had a freeze on September 13th. This winter started off with a bang, but lately we have been in a drought. If this were summer people would be watering their trees. We have had weeks long stretches of record warm and record cold weather so far. How does this spring look ? Any guesses for this Summer ?

You could say that our climate is not very stable anymore. Seeds that are bred in moderate climates don’t do well here. The Olympic Peninsula is the world’s best place to grow brassica seed. It gets down to 25º in the winter and stays under 70° in the summer. Broccoli plants bred to a place like that don’t know what to do when the temperature hits 80°one week and falls into the 40°s the next week. Actually, it does, it buttons and bolts.

As I was wandering around the country last summer I found that the climate in seed growing areas is changing too. The Olympic Peninsula had record cold last winter and record heat in the summer. Remember all that missing kale seed ? The cold was hard on their overwintering brassicas. Their rainfall patterns are shifting too. It used to be dry until October, now it is raining in September. One grower I visited with had $200,000 worth of beet seed ready to harvest when it started to rain. They harvested maybe ¼ of it.

Back at home, plants on our farm are busy dealing with weeds. I know you are shocked, but we have weeds on our farm. Seeds grown in cushy, clean conditions may not have the competitive nature that gets them out of the ground and ready to go root to root with weeds to grab the nutrients they need. Weeds are not an ideal condition, but they are a fact of life.

Seeds grown in places where it never rains don’t express foliar diseases. Organic seed grown in input substitution systems don’t do well in cover crop based rotations. We need seeds that do well in cold, dry, hot, wet, all kinds of crummy conditions.

Access to productive, locally adapted seeds is important to me and I suspect they will be important to all of us in the next few years. It will be too late to start adapting seeds once the need is apparent. It takes time to adapt seeds to all the various conditions they will face in the future.

How to do it ?

There are three main steps in local seed production Adaption, Selection, and Saving. The seeds themselves take care of the adaption part. Most varieties have genes that they are not expressing. Our pro GMO friends are saying that farmers have been doing genetic modification for centuries. Remember Calgene’s Flavr Savr Tomato ™?  Apparently the Calgene guys were clever enough to select for tomatoes had fish genes. Nonsense. Besides, everyone knows they should have been selecting for tomatoes with bacon and lettuce genes.

Plants do have enormous ability to adapt to their surroundings. They have to since migration is not really an option. If they couldn’t adapt, they would die out right away. Besides adaption there are a few lucky mutations, but they are rare. It is up to us to select the adaptions that are most beneficial. Selecting and saving seeds for even a year or two makes a huge difference in how well they do.

For example, we grew out some Misato Rose Radishes for seed in the spring. In the fall we planted them along side two rows of the same purchased seed. We only harvested radishes from the saved seed row. The purchased seed radish leaves were all yellow and spotty. The saved seed radish tops  were bright green, they looked like new growth. The smallest saved seed radishes were the size of the largest purchased seed roots.

Years ago, I bought a bag of conventional Winter wheat seed, planted it and it got about a foot tall and yielded 9 bushels per acre. Norman Borlaug would have been so proud. Planting that seed in the fall produced a normal crop of three foot tall plants and about 30 bushels per acre under no input conditions.

Back to the tomato trials – I want a lot of big, good tasting, non cracking tomatoes on disease resistant plants. I started with a few open pollinated varieties that seemed like likely candidates – Peron Sprayless, Martian Giant, ORLST,  and saved seed from the plants that weren’t all blighted out at the end of the season. After a few years of selecting and saving seeds I have productive tomato plants that look pretty good at the end of the season.

Another characteristic to select for is weed competition. Sometimes unintentionally, and more often that not our seed garden is neglected and, yes, more than a little weedy. If a crop is not going to thrive in less than perfect conditions, it has no place on our farm.

My latest disaster, selection experiment, was with emmer and einkorn, both ancient grains. Last spring was miserable, cold, wet, and went on forever. No weeds would germinate in stale bedded ground. The wheat started to come up and was completely overtaken by foxtail. In no time the bed looked like the most beautiful lawn. The grain matured and ripened. I forced my crew to hand harvest it, head by head. They were good sports about it and we got several pounds of seed. Those seeds are competitors.

That’s not the way it is supposed to happen, but what are the chances that we will have less than perfect planting conditions in the future ? This spring I’ll look to see if any of the grain self seeded. If it did, I’ll be sure to get back there and harvest it. It the mean time, I’m going to increase the seed stock that I have. It does well in tough conditions.

Open pollinated varieties are a good place to start, but hybrids are a great source of genetic material. They have some outstanding characteristics, but need to be selected and stabilized. Sometimes it takes years. Other times, I’m not so sure they were so hybrid in the first place. A fair number  of the F2 pepper and eggplant varieties have around 15% off types.

I suppose that I should have told you this at the beginning, but I have no background or training in plant breeding and plan to trample all over the correct nomenclature. Defining a couple terms  will make the rest of this easier to follow. F1s are the hybrids. They are the result of crossing two, typically inbred, parental lines. F2s are the seeds saved from hybrids. F3 seeds are saved from F2 plants and so on. At some point I suppose the new variety should be given a new name.

Like I said eggplant and peppers seems to be fairly true to type. Tomatoes are a little wilder.  I really like Early Girl. Early Girl is an old Hybrid, a 1962 All American Selection winner. It has the right balance of sweet and acid flavors, and is reliably early. Saving the seeds of the Early Girl hybrid produces F2 plants that are very non uniform. F2 seeds from other hybrid tomatoes act about the same.

Some interesting things happened . The F2 Early Girl seed produced almost exactly two thirds normal tomato leaf plants and one third potato leaf plants. Usually you would expect 25 or 50% using basic genetics. In any case, there was an heirloom in the parent lines somewhere. We divided the plants by leaf type and created two populations. Plain leaf and potato leaf. Both types of the F2 plants had a variety of sizes, shapes, maturity, disease resistance. The next thing we noticed was that some of the plants were much earlier than the rest. They provided the seed for our F3 generations.

Both F3 generations produced the earliest ripe tomatoes last year (remember, it was a cold, wet season). The fruit was more uniform, but there was still a fair amount of variation in the size of the tomatoes. This time we let the plants sprawl and selected for disease resistance in addition to earliness. Some of the ‘reject’ plants had larger than normal fruit. It still tasted like an Early Girl, but bigger. There weren’t a lot of those so we mixed the fruit from the plain leaf and the potato leaf varieties to get a big enough sample. This will be the start of a third line of early tomatoes.

I should also say that some of these selections take place in our production areas. I’m not stuck on seed preservation. That’s where the Seed Savers Exchange excels. They do a great job. I want seeds that are better adapted to our conditions. you know that the heirloom seeds that your great grandmother saved ? It came out of her regular garden and she was selecting the best she had.

When you are saving tomato seed  you should save it from at least 25 individuals to get a good genetic base. The number of individuals you need to form a good base varies with species and is not perfectly straight forward. In general, if the plants self pollinate like peas and lettuce, you don’t need as many, maybe as few as five individuals for a viable gene pool. If they are pollinated by insects, like kale, you need more and if they are wind pollinated you need a lot more, something like a couple hundred. Don’t get too hung up on this right away, you are probably not growing the only Lacinato kale seed on the planet.

When we plant tomatoes for seed selection I like to see 200 plants in the bed. That way we can reject three fourths of them and still have a bigger population than we need. It lets us be really selective. A lot of the tomatoes that we rejected for seed saving went into our CSA or to our restaurant accounts. Just because they ripened a little later does not make them bad tomatoes.

One thing that does need some attention is isolation. Every variety of kale will cross with any other variety of cabbage or kale, except Red Russian, which is a different species, closer to a rutabaga than a cabbage. Maybe this isn’t the best example, or maybe it is, but anyway unless you are breeding a new variety,  you will be disappointed when next year’s Lacinato comes out looking like  a kohlrabi.

In general plants in the same species will cross with each other. For example Brassica Oleracea contains Broccoli, Brussels Sprouts, Cabbage, Cauliflower, Collards, Kale, and Kohlrabi. They will all cross with each other. Red Russian is Brassica Napus and won’t cross with them.

Isolation distances depend on whether the plants self pollinate or are pollinated by insects or wind. If you are growing seeds for your own use it may not matter if a few of your hubbard cross with a buttercup. The result could be delicious. I know that Miami crossed with hubbard tastes good. But if you are selling produce, your customers could be put off by a 40 pound buttercup.

Mistakes happen and there are ways to fix them. Miami is an old variety of winter squash from the Miami people who live over in Illinois or Indiana. Somewhere along the line it got crossed with a hubbard. The original squash is three feet long and six inches in diameter. The miami-hubbard crosses may be a little football shaped or they may look like a pink hubbard.

I received some of the crossed up seed and was asked to see if I could straighten it out. There are a couple ways to do this. You know how squash have a tiny fruit under the female flower ? We are going to plant a block of this mixed up seed and look at the fruit under the female flowers. If they look like an off type we will pull out the whole plant. Once we have those cleaned out we will go through the bed and pick off all the pollinated female flowers and small squash even if they look perfect. The next day’s flush of flowers can only be pollinated by pollen from plants with the right looking squash.

As a back up we will hand pollinate several flowers to produce what should be purer seed. I’m sure that it will take several years to clean up this variety.

Messing with seeds is fascinating stuff. So a word of warning. Selecting and saving seed is a vicious cycle. The more you get into it, the more it pulls you in. The next thing you know, you have big tubs full of hundreds of bags of different kinds of seeds. It is not quite as bad as cat hording, but you know….

If you are finding yourself needing to know more, there are some very good books on the subject. To mention just a few that I have used:  Seed to Seed by Susan Ashworth and The Organic Seed Grower by John Navazio  both are very good and available at the MOSES bookstore. A book that is available for free on line is Return to Resistance by Raoul Robinson. It is less technical and more inspirational.

So then what ?

And finally, My vision is for local seed company that produces and distributes well adapted, resilient, productive vegetable varieties. I have no idea how this would work. It could be a producers co-op or a straight ahead seed company. I do know that it will be a collaboration of several farms due to the need to produce more than one kind of kale, cabbage, and onion seed. Lets start now.

Thank you.


Depths of Winter

Depths of Winter Newsletter                                                            January 19, 2015

The days are almost half an hour longer now. The holidays are over. We still have about 10 weeks of winter left to go.  It will be over before we know it. This has been a seriously weird winter.  It started with 8” of snow and a month of subzero nights (at least it seemed that way), then all the snow melted and we had a week of warm dreary air pollution. Now we have a few inches of snow and are past the coldest weeks of winter. Not that it won’t get cold again, but on average…

Six inches of seed catalogs have drifted in. I have all my accounting and tax stuff done for last year so it is time to look ahead to next season.

Some of the long range forecasts say that it looks like cool wet springs and warm dry summers could a new trend of this part of the country. The National Weather Service says there is an equal chance that we will have above or below normal temperatures and precipitation.  They don’t say what those chances are.  I’ll bet they have no idea. The real trend appears to be more volatility in the weather. Less all day soaking rain. More big storms. If  I could figure out a way to thrive on uncertainty, I’d be set.

The uncertainty makes it hard to come up with concrete plans.  For example, I’m looking out the window at the snow covered fields wondering which ones will flood and when.  Last year flooding in June was the problem. Small seeded crops that are direct seeded are the most at risk from stormy weather. Transplants and large seeded crops (beans, corn) hold up better to erratic weather, but I have had some of those wash out too.  I’m not at all excited to farm by the seat of my pants and deciding what goes where and how that all fits in my crop rotation on a moments notice. The volatile weather is likely to continue and the only good options for planting in July after the flooded ground dries out are winter cereals like rye and wheat. Less land in vegetables translates pretty directly into less vegetables.

To deal with some of the uncertainty I have been working on adapting seeds to our local conditions.  Plants that can grow in cool wet conditions and produce in a short season have the best chance to thrive. Seeds grown in Washington, Oregon, California, Peru, or China don’t have the characteristics we need.  There does not seem to be much attention paid to disease resistance either. How many of you have had your tomatoes blight out just before they should start to pump out the tomatoes ? I have been selecting for disease resistance for a few years and we have noticeably better results with saved seed than purchased seed. It is not perfect and probably won’t ever be, but it is a start. I have applied for and received a Minnesota Seed Dealers license and plan to offer a few local seeds this spring. This year will be a low key effort so I can learn the ins and outs of the business.

The larger movement afoot is people relearning cooking skills and how to move away from packaged, processed food.  The next step is  that people know how to garden, and grow some of their own food to feed themselves. We don’t grow all our own food, but we do produce nearly all the vegetables we eat. Most, but not all, because tzatziki is not the same with frozen or pickled cucumbers.

Part of this year’s plan is to grow more garden starts and offer complete garden packages.  So far the ideas for garden themes are Heirloom, Preservation (canning and freezing), Salsa, Salad, Summer Cooking, and Kids gardens.  Working out all the details is a bit of a challenge and the gardens won’t be a good fit for everyone. I’m sure some people interested in the preservation will want to have more than 60 pounds. Some people might not want tomatoes at all (heresy!). Individual plant sales will provide some ability to customize the varieties offered, hopefully without making it a hugely complicated mess.

Our CSA focus will move a little closer to home. The farthest flung CSA pick up sites are getting dropped and I’m going to make an effort to have more people pick up at the farm. My CSA plan is to keep the CSA as 25% or less of the farm business.  The idea is to have plenty for the CSA no matter what kind of year we have.

Bigger picture, the legislature is back in session and there will be another push to label GMOs. It think that it is inevitable that either they will be labeled or they will be removed from our food. Right now it is a very uphill battle since there are some very big vested interests who want people to eat what ever they are given without thinking about what the chemicals in the plants is doing to them.

The good news is that more and more people are becoming aware that there are novel proteins and pesticides in conventional food that their bodies react to over a period of time. They are also realizing that some of the chemicals are endocrine disrupters and really bad for little kids. The big chemical, agribusiness, and food(like substance) companies say that there are hundreds of studied that ‘prove’ GMOs are safe. The problem is that Toxicology studies only say that the product won’t kill you within 90 days. Beyond that who cares. Right ?

There will be a GMO Label Day at the state capitol on January 27th.  If you are interested in this issue go to www.righttoknowMN.org  to learn how you can get involved. If you are interested in the Lobby Day you should sign up in the next few days.

Less urgent, but still important is a move to change Minnesota’s Seed Law. Currently it is illegal to give away or share seeds in Minnesota. Did you know that? I was sure surprised. This outlaws Seed Libraries,  Seed Swaps, and sharing seeds with your neighbor. No kidding. I wonder what problem they were trying to fix with that one ?

That’s the view from here today. See you in the spring




Early December

Riverbend Farm Early Winter Newsletter                                       Dec. 3, 2014 

It’s been awhile since I sat down to write a newsletter and a lot has happened.

If you are living in Hawaii or Costa Rica, in the second week November it  suddenly turned to winter.  One day we got about 6-8 inches of snow. Daytime temps dropped to  the 20s. Night time temps are 0, +/- a degree or two.  A very dramatic change in the weather. The first week of the month there was no snow and it was not getting below freezing at night.

It seems like it has been winter forever now, but the two day reprieves the few couple weekends have sure been nice.  And we are less than a month away from the solstice. Before long, the days will be getting longer. Winter is almost over…

Back in the middle of October Mary and I took our ’67 Volvo station wagon up to the North Shore for a few days. We were only gone for three nights but it was great. The first day was sunny and warm so we hiked to several waterfalls in State Parks up the shore from Grand Marais. The next day was rainy and cool. Perfect for bumming around Grand Marais and sitting by the fire at the cabin.  It was a great little get away. Since then it has been pretty busy.

Noelle minded the farm while we were gone. Andrew was over in South Dakota planting 20,000 (or some such number) bulbs of garlic. And then they were off to the North Shore and helping Bud at the meat market  for deer season.

With the sudden snow cleaning up and putting away all my toys made for a few hectic days. Batteries got charged, oil got changed, equipment was shuffled around to fit  in the shed. Besides the snow, the bottom was falling out of the thermometer so the well and waterlines needed to be blown out, hoses drained, potatoes, carrots, and other root crops moved into the root cellar.

Not everything got done. It was close, but I did not get any collards harvested for us and did not get any of the kale or collards dug up for seed production next year. The collard seed may be an issue. It is a several years old and the germination is starting to drop off. Other than the Lacinato, the kale produces seed like some giant weed so there is plenty of that.

Deliveries for the season just wrapped up with the last few pumpkins going to our restaurant and co-op accounts.  Now I can get started on my winter to-do list.

Everyone wants to know what I do all winter, well, here is my project list:

Tidy up the Satoh: 1)Check low compression on #1 cylinder 2)Fix hydraulic leaks 3)   Change transmission oil, hydraulic oil 4)Fix sticky shift linkage 5)Keep front wheel from falling off 6)Replace belts and hoses

Replace Dodge window motor. Part of getting a pretty clean ’83 Ramcharger ready to sell

Wire the root cellar. I have pulled the wires through 35 feet of conduit already and installed a temperature and humidity sensor. It is really interesting to see what happens to the humidity when we get below zero temperatures. The temperature changes very slowly. I need to finish the wiring for lights, a fan, and possibly a heater.

Reassemble the Norton. This bike (1970 Norton Commando) was take apart a couple years ago to straighten a bent frame. The frame was straightened last winter and now I need to reassemble the parts.

Build bean roller. This is a machine that consists of two inclined cloth covered rollers that clean broken beans, twigs, unthreshed beans, etc. out of dry beans. The rough edges on the bean trash get caught on the fabric and are thrown over the side. The smooth beans travel down the incline and off the end of the rollers.

Build barrel washer. I have a small barrel washer that needs to be replaced. A barrel washer is a rotating inclined barrel that is make of closely spaced wooden slats. Root vegetables are dumped in the high end of the washer, sprayed with water, and tumbled to clean them. They gradually work their way down the incline on drop out the low end.

Spread compost (not going to happen…). The wet spring prevented me from getting the second phase of my green manure program planted. Not to mention that the winter squash went into part of that field also on account of the wet conditions. I bought 200 cubic yards of compost to replace the nutrients and organic matter that would have been produced by the green manure.  Unless we get a big warm up the compost will not get spread until next spring.

Thresh beans and sunflowers. Part of getting ready for snow was to pull up the beans that will be saved for seed or used for dry beans and store them in the greenhouse. They are still in there, leaves, vines and all. For small quantities like this I usually spread them on a tarp and drive over them.  With the snow on the ground it is a little harder to thresh them and keep them dry.  The sunflowers are a link in the process of experimenting with growing pole beans on a large scale.

Package saved vegetable seeds. All the tomato, pepper, eggplant, and squash seeds that were collected in the fall need to cleaned and packaged for storage.

’67 Volvo wagon. This car needs all new rubber gaskets around the doors.  The cargo area window gaskets are leaking but the word is that the ones currently being made don’t fit. I’m also going to pull the cylinder head off and see why one cylinder has higher than normal compression. There are a lot of minor things that need doing as well.

’92 Volvo wagon. My ’87 wagon is rusting away at an alarming rate. This ’92 is fairly clean, but was given to our daughter as a parts car for her sedan. She needs a parts car like we need another winter like last year. Needless to say it will require more than a little attention before it is a reliable daily driver.

Radiant heat. Our kitchen floor is always cold and using the wood stove fools the thermostat for the furnace into thinking the house is warm. That saves a lot (25% or more) of energy but leads to a cold kitchen. Radiant heat is also energy efficient and keeps your feet warm. The floor joists below the kitchen and downstairs bathroom are exposed so it will be relatively easy to install.

Of course there is wood to split, snow to plow, customer meetings, conferences and all those regular things that take place in winter too.

Stay warm


Early October

Riverbend Farm Newsletter                                     October 5, 2014

It has been chilly the past few days, but weren’t the last two weeks just spectacular ? Weather like that is why people live here. Friday was rainy and raw, but since the wind has died down it has not been too bad, a lot like October.

The forecast is for temperatures to be a little below average for the next few days, a reminder that winter is coming and it is time to get busy cutting wood.  It has been nice to have a fire in the woodstove for the past few days.  The growing season is obviously coming to an end.

Last weekend about 15 people showed up for the final crop mob of the season and harvested a couple  wagon loads of winter squash and pumpkins. We unloaded the wagons in the greenhouse before lunch.  It was very warm which made working outside pretty enjoyable.

After lunch (provided by the Birchwood, thanks Tracy) everybody was beat and went home. Ginger and Mark made it as far as the gas station, turned around and came back.  They thought there was just too much squash lying on the ground and offered to help pick it up. We filled another wagon with pumpkins and then called it a day.

We harvested the rest of the winter squash on Wednesday. With a little careful stacking it all fit in the greenhouse. It was good to get it out of the field. The forecast had dire predictions for lows in the high 20s to very low 30s for this weekend. If the temperature drop below 28º squash in the field would be  damaged.  As it turned out it has not been as cold as predicted, but it was not worth taking the chance.

On Friday the forecast was still calling for a freeze so the crew ( Zach was back for a few days between jobs) harvested peppers and eggplant  to keep them from being ruined by the expected freeze.  I hear it was a miserable morning, rainy, windy, and cold. We have only had frost the past few nights (lows up by the house around 32º) but it would have been enough to ruin the peppers that were exposed to the sky.

In the afternoon we pulled up all the tomato stakes.  It was much easier pulling them out than putting them in. Yesterday afternoon I mowed all the tomato vines and weeds in the winter squash.

I had an odd mechanical failure while mowing. The tractor quit, just like it had been shut off. That usually indicated an electrical problem. It turns out that the spring for the ignition points snapped.  The spring is the electrical connection between the coil and ground. No ground = no collapsing magnetic field = no spark.  Replacing the moving half of the points fixed the problem and the tractor fired right up.

Today I disked the winter squash and the heirlooms. Andrew had broadcast rye and vetch over the tomatoes and squash a couple weeks ago. Only the rye in the mulched tomatoes has come up yet.  In the unmulched tomatoes and squash the seed is mostly just lying there.  Disking those areas will get the overseeded rye into the soil and get it to sprout.

The neighbor has been hauling in loads of composted cow manure from the SMSC Compost facility. It looks and smells like black dirt. The compost will be spread in the field that should have been in the second green manure phase this year. It doesn’t completely replace the green manure, but it certainly helps.  We will start spreading it this week and keep seeding cover crops.

The days are getting short and winter is coming.

Don’t forget about our fall potluck on this Saturday October 11th. We will gather around 2 and plan on eating about 4:30-5:00.  We are planning to do pumpkin carving and a hay ride.  We’ll have cider available, but if you want something else to drink  feel free to bring it.




First Frost

Riverbend Farm Newsletter                                                 Sept. 13, 2014

We had our first frost of the season this morning. It was 32º at the house and colder out in the field.  Up here everything was pretty frosty. Down in the field things were kind of frozen. The mustard and arugula leaves were very solid.

Most of the tomatoes were ruined. They are the very sensitive to low temperatures. Even a light frost will burst the cell walls under the skin and form a ‘bruise’.  I don’t know what causes it but once they have been frosted the flavor changes and it is not the same as freezing tomatoes to preserve them.  Well, the tomatoes got frosted pretty hard this morning, The greenest ones  fared a little better, but almost all the leaves are shot.  It will take a few days for the plants to decide if they are dead or not. If they survive the green tomatoes will ripen if the weather holds up. This tomato will not make it. The dark area on top was frozen.

The peppers and eggplant held up pretty well. There is a much better leaf canopy on the plants, compared to the tomatoes. The fruit is also much more solid so it takes longer to freeze. I’m sure there will be some losses, but we never get 100% of them anyway.

The squash hate any frosty weather.  It does look like we will have a good crop of winter squash. Most of the squash appear to have matured before the low temps killed the plants. I think a little frost improves the flavor of the squash, making it a little sweeter.

The beans up in the seed garden did alright. The top leaves are just lightly toasted. The ones in the field are worse.  It did not get cold enough to kill the corn crop, but unless a miracle happens it won’t mature. The largest ears are in the dough stage, but not showing any color.

The radish leaves look like they were scorched by the low temps.  The roots are probably the best they have been all season,  but the bad leaves make them a tough sell in the co-ops. Turnips are unaffected by the cold weather. The afore mentioned arugula and mustards looked fine this afternoon. Sometimes it takes a day or two for the damage to show up.

Yesterday afternoon we pulled up all the shallots and put them in piles. We covered the piles with two layers of tarps to keep the shallots warm. Freezing temperatures and onions do not go together very well.  This morning it looked like they had all survived the night in fine form.

The cabbage and kale get better in this weather. They think that they are going to survive until next spring and go to seed. The low temperatures cause the starches to start turning into sugars, creating a natural antifreeze.  Little do they know that we have other plans for them.

By the smell of the winter squash in the oven, it is getting to be time to eat.




Mid July Road Trip

Riverbend Farm Newsletter                                                             July 19, 2014

Well, I’m back. If you didn’t notice, I was away for the past couple weeks. If you didn’t notice, you will know that our crew did a great job while I was away.  Things looked great around here when I got back.

I have a collection of motorcycles and they do me no good in the winter. I like a summer vacation. This was a year for a bike trip. My default trip is out west and usually I take my ’70 Norton Commando. This winter I had straightened the frame on the Commando and ran out of time to put it back together.

My ’82 Honda Silverwing (GL500, not to be confused with the new scooter with the same name) got the call. This is the only bike that I have ever bought new.  The Goldwing is Honda’s top of the line touring bike. Now they are 1800cc, 900 pound two wheeled Honda Accords (it has a bigger motor than my Civic).  They are great bikes. For $24,000 they should be, but not my cup of tea.

Back in the day, I figured that the Golding was Honda’s take on a BMW and the Silverwing was their idea of what a Moto Guzzi should be, but still a bit of a rolling physics experiment. The GL500 has a 500cc engine in what used to be a full sized motorcycle frame. The bike weighs about 500 pounds and is pretty manageable even if it does not have a reverse gear.

This year has had its share of farming challenges. Last year did too. Lately it seems like I have been trying to manage chaos, working from crisis to crisis. Exciting, but really not that much fun, and very hard to plan for.  It was a good time to get away and see a bit of how the other half lives.

My friend Steve had proposed a trip down into Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, etc. back in January. I said ‘it is hard to know how the season will play out, but pencil me in.’ A couple weeks before we left, he says he is bailing on the trip. My response was ‘if  you aren’t going, I’m going to Washington and Oregon and visit some farms that are growing veggies and veggie seeds.’  He says ‘I’m in, but I want to see this land I inherited ( 1/18th share with some possibility of an oil lease) in Utah.’

As we worked our way towards Brookings, there were a lot of fields that were not planted this spring. As it turned out, over half a million acres in Minnesota were too wet plant. They were either weeds or cultivated fallow. As we got farther west more fields were planted, but they still had big areas that had been drowned out. Into South Dakota the corn looked better, but the soybeans were still pretty tough looking.

As we crossed the Missouri the landscape turned to desert. There is a lot of desert out there. And it was hot.  Steve’s bike ( ’89 Honda Transalp) started to misfire and eventually would quit running all together. We checked the power and grounds ( somewhat loose) and eventually replaced one of the CDI ignition units. It did not help. I think he has a bad coil pack.

After a beautiful run down from Green River Wyo. Into Vernal Utah his bike ran okay. Once it got hot going into Duchene, it started to misfire again. He was going to look at the land the next morning and I was looking at the map. Fiddling with his bike had eaten up a couple hours each day and at this point had cost us most of a day. Sequim Washington is about 1100 miles from Duchene Utah and I was planning on being there in a couple days.

Steve was thinking about visiting his son and son in law near Leavenworth Washington on the way back. And he would not be back from visiting the land until at least 1 on the afternoon.  It was looking like either a pair of 500 and 600 mile days or 400 and 700 mile days. Neither were very likely nor sounded like much fun starting in the afternoon.  I proposed meeting him in Leavenworth on Sunday. By morning, he decided his trip was over and was going to head home.

It was a long interstate run to Olympia WA. 101 North was a beautiful trip. It should have been the height of tourist season, but the roads were deserted. It put a smile on my face and a little more tension on the throttle cable. My destination was Nash’s Produce in Sequim Washington. Nash grows a lot of vegetables, small grain and organic vegetable seed.

The northern shore of the Olympic peninsula is the perfect place for growing brassicas, carrot, beet, kale, lettuce seed.  It rains in the spring and then stops. The winter temperatures are typically close to freezing.  Until recently any way.  Now it has started raining in September, just when they are trying to harvest their vegetable seed and small grain.  Not to mention that last winter was exceptionally cold and damaged many of the over wintered crops.  It was a very interesting visit. I spent almost an entire day there.

John Navazio is an organic seed breeder with the Organic Seed Alliance. He spent a couple hours showing me his test plots of spinach, onions and carrots. He is most interested in a purple sprouting broccoli. It is hardy enough to survive their winters and produce in April. I don’t think it would work the same way here, but it was fascinating hearing about how he selects for disease resistance, plant stature, winter hardiness, taste, and storage.  All at the same time. It takes years of selection to produce a new variety.

On my way south I stopped at Midori Farm.  They have been farming for several years and had just bought a new place on some of the best soils on the peninsula.  I helped out harvesting and cleaning crates while Marko and I talked shop. They were in the middle of a heat wave and crops were coming in much earlier than usual.  There were no tomatoes grown outside, they were all in hoophouses.

The last farm visit I had planned fell through. The guy was going to the Oregon Country Fair. I had been hearing about it since Idaho. I had to see it for myself. It cost $42 to get in and park. This was clearly a big deal.  Except there was nothing country about it, lots of crafts, tie dyed clothes, and ceramics with several music stages. The site was huge. It clearly was not the west coast version of the Common Ground Fair. It struck me as the Renaissance Festival for Hippies, but without the turkey legs. I’m obviously missing something because 40,000 people go through the gates in three days, but I don’t get the Renaissance Festival either.

There are some great roads between Oregon and here, but I’m not going to tell you about them.

While I was away I did not keep up on the daily news. As it turns out, I did not miss much. There is an article that turned up a while ago about avoiding the news.  I think they have it mostly right.  http://dobelli.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/08/Avoid_News_Part1_TEXT.pdf

Once I was back the crew graciously let me take a few more days off to catch up on things that I should have been doing  instead of wondering around the country visiting farms.

In the days or horse drawn agriculture there was piece of equipment that picked up loose hay and piled it on a wagon. Loose hay works great for mulch. I can just throw it off the wagon and skip the step of breaking up hay bales. A few years ago I found a hay loader that was in fair shape but needed the wooden parts replaced. It took a coupe days to get it back into working order.

Now when it is too wet for my neighbor Norman to make hay I can cut and pick it up for mulch. Even if the hay isn’t dry it can be picked up and spread as mulch.  This year the weeds in the tomatoes got ahead of us because we had the tomato stakes in before it was dry enough for Norman to make any hay (for mulch).

Here is a picture of the business end of the hay loader. The teeth on the very back rake the hay ahead until there is enough that it caught on the tines that are attached to the light colored wooden bars. The big crankshaft with the bars turn ‘backwards’ and the tines push the hay up the inclined bed.  It is a very cool machine.




Early summer (out of order)

Riverbend Farm Early Summer Newsletter  May 25, 2014

Suddenly it is summer.  I think every tree we have is flowering right now.  It is great.  People are thinking about gardening and we have been selling vegetable plants like crazy. On Saturday Tracy let me sell veggie starts in front of the newly reopened Birchwood. Andrew was selling them in Delano. We had a great day. Mette will be at the Birchwood this morning selling tomato, pepper, and eggplant transplants again. Thanks Mette (and Tracy).

Andrew, Charlotte, Hannah, and Noelle have repotted all the tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant into 1½ X 1½  inch pots for the final grow out before they go into the field.  It took a solid week of greenhouse work.  The greenhouses are starting to clear out. At least there aren’t any trays on the floor any more.

All the potatoes are planted. This year we are trialing a new variety from the UofM, MonDak Gold. Since all the potatoes in America are eaten as french fries or potato chips, that is what Christian Thill gets paid to work on.  These spuds  are good fried ( cut into wedges, tossed in oil and baked in the oven), on pizza, or baked.

About half of the cabbage, kale, broccoli have been transplanted. We used the two row transplanter. It is everyone’s favorite machine once they get good at operating it. About half of the lettuce is in. All the onions have been set out. There are many fewer onions than last year. I have never had great success with onions so I’m having Jerry Ford grow onions for me.  On Thursday the first zucchini went out. They had to go in three different places to find enough space.

The deer will eat all the lettuce unless we keep it covered.

Direct seeding is kind of keeping up.  The wet weather has limited the places that I can go with the tractor  and consequently is causing some back ups in stale bedding (early cultivation to let some weeds come up before a crop is planted) and planting. At this point, the forecast is backing away from rain in the short term.

Actually, we need rain. We don’t need a thunderstorm and diownpour. The trouble is that  the big rain we had during the last week of April. It saturated the soil and there is no place for the new rain to go. The rain we have had since then has been 1 – 1½” per week, just the right amount. As the temperature has warmed up there has been more evaporation and the rye cover crop is really growing again, both are helping get rid of the some of the excess water. The river is still much higher than it was when the ice went out.

Our neighbor’s hay fields look great but no one has planted any corn yet. Norman was just able to get into the driest parts of his fields on Friday.  Usually corn planting is done by early May (treated seed doesn’t rot in cold soil) and soybeans are planted mid to late May.  It is getting late to plant corn. They will see a yield reduction for every day planting is delayed after May 1st. Planting at the end of May cuts their production by about 20%.

The big farms that benefit from subsidies and federally paid crop insurance programs will probably decide not to plant any corn if they can not get in today.  It is a silly system. Typical corn yields in Wright County are about 180 bushels per acre. 80% of that is still 144 b/A.  It would seem worthwhile to me but with they will make more money taking the crop insurance.

As much as the Corn Growers talk about ‘Feeding the World’, it is really the money that matters. This is a point to remember the next time you hear someone talking about how much GMO seed and technology is needed in production agriculture.

As an aside about GMOs: I see in today’s Strib that I should be able to cross tomatoes and fish, or bacteria and corn. I am so deeply disappointed. I’m such a slacker when it comes to selecting and saving seeds. Where do they come up with this crap ?  And of course, why do they print it ?

Our neighbors have dairy cows so they will still plant corn. They are not just growing yellow stuff to put on trucks and send off the farm. Besides picking ear corn they chop a lot of green corn  for silage ( kind of sauerkraut for cows ) and use that stalks for bedding.

It is interesting to compare a real family farm that grows crops and milks cows to the industrial scale farms that produce the vast majority of milk in this country.  Norman, his sons, and grandsons do all the work on their farm.  They grow their own feed, make hay, milk the cows, clean the barn, spread the manure back on the fields, rotate their crops.  I’m very sure the owners of Metro Dairy would be able to identify a cow. Everyone thinks their milk comes from farms like Norman’s.

Okay, I gotta go. I’m going to seed a few rows of radishes and arugula and work up some ground for tomatoes. The first crop mob on Saturday will be planting them.


Late June

Riverbend Farm Newsletter                                                 June 28, 2014

It has been a busy couple of weeks.

You probably have seen that the Crow has been flooding.  There is a lot of water out there. Last Friday Gina from Three Crows sent out a note that the crest was forecast to be 21 feet and they needed help to keep the river out. The city had mostly given up on protecting them.  The cafe is on the wrong side of the dike…

On Friday Brad and I draped a sheet of plastic around the back of the building to try to slow down the water coming into the building.  A crew of local characters was busy moving everything out of the back of the shop to keep it from being ruined by the water. As we were finishing up the water was lapping over the edge of the sidewalk.  A truck load of  refrigerators and perishable items went to Brad and Gina’s garage. Mary and I got home about 11 pm.

On Saturday we sandbagged between the existing flood wall and the building to keep the river from running in the back door. We also sandbagged the patio to slow the water running into the basement and along the side of the building to keep the water out of the main room.

The fundamental problem is that the whole river bank is made up of chunks of granite from the Granite Works. There is about 3’ of soil on top of the fill, but the fill is very porous. When the river gets high it finds the gaps in the fill and works its way toward the street.

Saturday night Brad kept an eye on the pumps as the water came up to  18.5 feet. On Sunday the water came up about another foot. The river was up to the bridge deck. One of the pumps crapped out and Brad and Gina’s daughter Liza went and got a couple more.  At the peak we had seven pumps running. The sand bag dikes started leaking and they needed to be higher and wider to keep out the projected crest of 21 feet.

Sunday night we took shifts running pumps and keeping an eye on the sandbags.  The water was high, it was starting to flow around the east end of the bridge and up along the south side of the building. When we shut down a pump to refuel the water would come up 2-3 inches. We were holding our own, but just barely.

Monday the water kept coming up. In the afternoon Brad and Gina decided that they could not fight it any longer. The high water was forecast to last  until Thursday and they were afraid that the water eddying next to the building would wash out the foundation or the big trees on the bank. Either would be catastrophe. If the foundation failed,  the back part of the building would fall into the river. If the trees went, they would take the sandbags and the patio with them. It was too much risk to ask their friends to take.

With the clay dike in front of the building all we could do was set stuff up on blocks and hope for the best.  We started shutting down pumps and pulling them out of the way. At 3pm the river flowed into the cafe, closing that chapter of Three Crows.

Gina is planning to reopen. See the Three Crows website: www.thethreecrows.com .


Around here things are shifting from planting to harvest, such as it is. We had been getting out butts kicked all spring with the stormy, cool wet weather.  This week I disked under five plantings of arugula, radishes, and other greens  that were never going to amount to much, to make room for fall brassicas and the last round of zukes and cukes.  Weed control continues.

Here is a little photo tour of the farm (you will notice that it is raining…)

This is the seed bed where I am selecting seeds from F2  and F3 generations of some good hybrid eggplant, peppers, and tomatoes to make stable open pollinated varieties.

A killdeer nest next to an F2 eggplant. It is amazing that any of them ever survive.

Sorghum sudan grass cover crop.

This should look like the previous image, but it has been too wet to get in and plant. It is not a complete disaster. The plants with the yellow flowers are sweet blossom clover. The purple ones are hairy vetch. Both are good soil building plants.

Winter squash that is planted in part of teh field that should be sorghum sudan grass. It looks good.

The next arugula and radishes.

Crop mob was here and installed a couple thousand tomato stakes before it started to rain. Thanks everyone.

Nice looking cabbages and kale. The broccoli looks good, but the crummy weather has made it all decide to bolt to seed rather than produce a large head.

A spot that is simply too wet.

A zucchini that was produced from seed that was hand pollinated. Cocozelle is supposed to have the light stripes.

The onions are doing well this year. The tops are a little beat up from the wind.

Arugula seed (on the right) and french breakfast radish seed.

Cippolini onions going to seed. We stored the onions in the basement over the winter and planted them first thing this spring.

Kale seed that is almost ripe. These plants were stored n the root cellar before planting them out this spring.


Mid June Newsletter

Riverbend Farm mid June Newsletter                                            June 12, 2014

We have been planting non stop for the past two weeks or more.  At the end of May we set out thousands of lettuce and kale plants. The Birchwood Crop Mob stopped by on the last Saturday of May and kicked off the tomato planting. We got rained out a little early. It seems like the first crop mob always brings rain. It was great to see some old friends and meet some new ones.

Our crew has been planting everything that will fit. We finished up the tomatoes and moved on to the eggplant and peppers. Right after that we started on winter squash and pumpkins. The pumpkins continue today. The last round of lettuce is also set to go in this week.

I have been staying a little ahead of them, working up ground and marking out rows. The weather has not been terribly cooperative with getting things done.  The problem continues to be periodic, very heavy rain.  At the end of April we had a month’s worth of rain (5.5+ inches) in a week.  May 31st and June 1st brought  4+ inches. We have been getting an inch or so every week, which is about perfect, but the big storms saturate the ground and there is no place for the regular rain to go.

The southern quarter of this year’s vegetable field has been too wet to drive on, much less work.  The road over to the land I have rented from our neighbor Cathy has been under water for about six weeks. At this point it is above water, but about half of it is washed out.  The ground over there is heavier and it dries out slower than our land.  It might be possible to plant late cabbages over there, but at this point I am not counting on it.

All this has put us in a bind for tillable acres. I figure that we are short about 1/3 of the land I was planning on planting. The only ground that is accessible is part of the field that was in oats and peas last year. It was supposed to get a second soil building crop of sorghum sudan grass this year, but I have decided to plow some of it and start planting there. It feels a little like eating our seed corn,  but there are not any other good options, especially if we get 2-3 inches of rain in the next week.

With spending all of our time on planting we had gotten behind on weeding. A crew of about 20 people from Common Roots came by on Tuesday and helped us get caught up on cultivation.  They hoed all the onions, most of the peas, and about half of the potatoes.  It was great. And we got a break from planting.

Monday June 16

We picked up another 2½ inches of rain over the weekend. We did not need that much, but it seems to have come down slow enough or with enough breaks that we did not get any severe erosion. Once it dries up a little I’ll be able to see if the soil got packed from the heavy rain.

We did get all the pumpkins, zucchini, and cucumbers planted. Noelle was excited to see that the little fruit behind the female flowers on the green and yellow zucchini that she had hand pollinated last year were indeed green and yellow. In theory, we (she) can grow seed for all the vine crops.  Cucumbers are next.

Dave Rieder stopped over Friday afternoon to fix a broken shingle on the barn and helped Andrew, Noelle, and Zach set out all the tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant that we will be selecting  seed from this fall.

Our CSA will start up this week. We will be dropping off the first CSA shares on Wednesday. I have sent out a separate mailing to our members to verify their choice of pick up location. If you are one of them and have not seen that message, please let me know.

A Wet Week update

We have had ( as of 6 am) 4.2″ of rain since Saturday night and a little over 5″ in the past week. It is wet. We did get about 900 kale and cabbage plants set out while the weather was nice last week. I seeded a few rows or radishes and arugula too.

Seeds are still showing up
This is $276 worth of squash, broccoli, and cabbage seed.  There are a total of 4000 seeds in those packets.

Knowing that the rain was coming I tried to get the oat and pea green manure crop seeded on Friday and Saturday. Disking and most of the planting of the oats went well, but
progress came to a rather sudden halt when I drove through a dead furrow while turning around and snapped the the spindle off on the right front wheel.
Here is another view where you can see the dead furrow and the grain drill behind the tractor.
I had broken the spindle on the other side about 15 years ago trying to pull out a dead apple tree. At that time our neighbor Marty welded it up and I put it back on.  After that I had bought a spare spindle just in case the weld didn’t hold. The welded spindle is fine to this day.
The spare does not look a well made as the original, but the tractor was fixed and moving again in about an hour. I did not get the peas finished, but did get them planted in what would be the wettest part of the field. Now if it dries up even a little I can plant the rest of the peas and not get stuck or make a mess. Hopefully the weather will dry out at the end of the week and we get back to planting.