2 acre farm: February 2010

2 acre farm

The experiences, trials, and lives on a small farm in rural Illinois.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Gardening Doesn't End When Winter Arrives

The following is an article I wrote a while back for another site. Although it is a little out of season some of it is a good reminder for all of us gardeners, self included. I have to admit what made me think to post this is the fact I still haven't tuned up my tiller and need to get it done before I need to start it. Though I didn’t follow the engine maintenance part of my advice I think I stuck to the rest pretty well this year. How’s everyone else’s garden prep looking for spring?

Often we think that when fall and winter arrive it is time to close up shop in the gardening department. This thinking may work for your local big box store but if you want to have a thriving garden next year there are plenty of tasks to be completed before spring comes again.
Winter doesn't have to be the hum drum time of year many gardeners associate it with. In fact winter tasks can keep you as busy as or possibly busier than a garden in the full swing of summer production. Completing some or all of the following tasks will help ensure you have a successful garden next year and will also make your gardening experience more pleasant.

The first things to get done are the outside chores before winter fully moves in and it gets too cold to be outside. Always look over any outside equipment like composters, sheds, trellises, and fences. Check for repairs needed now while you have the time and aren't devoted to weed control. Take all those leaves you raked and spread them on your garden, compost them, or get some leaf mould in the making. If you bought any straw bales for fall decorations and are looking for a purpose for them, treat them like the leaves now before they weigh five hundred pounds. If you had a bumper crop of weeds this year or are planning to start a new bed get some preliminary tilling done now. Tilling in the fall or early winter will get sod rotting quicker and will often cause annual weed seeds to germinate and die before spring comes, greatly reducing the amount of weeds in your garden the following year. Finally take this time to empty out pots that contained annuals, clean them, and store them out of the weather so they do not crack from freezing.
As winter moves into full swing it is time to move into the garage or shed and get out of those blistering northern winds. Clean all your hand tools with a wire brush, then sharpen any edges that need it, and top it all off by wiping a liberal coat of linseed oil on all wood and metal surfaces to preserve them. While in the garage it is also a good time to give your mechanized tools their overdue maintenance. Change the oil, fuel filter, spark plugs, and clean air filters on all engines. Grease the necessary grease zerks and points of movement. Again sharpen blades on tillers and mowers. Clean or rebuild carburetors as needed. You'll be thanking yourself when all your engines fire up on the first pull or turn of the key in spring.

The last thing is to not forget the garden itself. Get your seed catalogues out and order your seeds by January. For most parts of the country you will need to be starting any transplants in February and March. You don't want to find yourself getting the infamous "out of stock" reply when you go to order your seeds. Nothing is worse than searching town for a particular vegetable seed you were going to grow, finally finding it and getting it out too late.
If these steps are followed you can expect the best results and the easiest gardening experience. Nothing can replace good preparation and no time is better for garden preparation than winter.

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Sunday, February 14, 2010

Cash For Crops

I could sit and pretend that I am doing all this for the love of gardening but then that wouldn't be entirely true and I’m not that romantic. Farmer's have bills too you know. I have been rereading Ron Macher's book Making Your Small Farm Profitable and have decided to write a bit about marketing and making money which is something that stills frightens me to the core but I am working out a plan. When trying to make a profit from farming it can become incredibly confusing and complicated but one main point from Ron's book stands out to me, diversification.
I am sure plenty of people know about diversification in crops and livestock but something that often gets overlooked is marketing diversification. While farmer’s markets are a convenient solution to selling produce to a ready supply of buyers it can’t be the only solution. One stormy nasty market day can take away a whole week of pay and leave you standing with hundreds of pounds of produce that has been going bad since the moment you picked it. So here is a list of the direct marketing options mentioned in Ron’s book (italicized is exactly what it is listed as in the book everything else is my thoughts on it):

1. Selling to Friends and Neighbors – This seems easier said than done. It also seems like depending on the relationship this could be awkward and hard to approach but would be a good source for word of mouth advertising.

2. Farmer’s Markets –I believe this is a must at least for the beginning but not the end all. I also think that booth fees, distance to market, and frequency of the market are all things to be seriously considered before plunging into a farmer’s market.

3. Roadside Stands – I think this could be good if you have a location or can find one to rent or barter for. Unlike the farmer’s market you have no competition here but again a bad weather day could wipe this option out. Again things like rent and distance must be considered unless there is a high traffic acceptable location on farm.

4. Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA) – In case you haven’t heard of this a CSA is where people buy a subscription to your farm and get weekly, monthly, bi-weekly, or however you organize it shares of the produce you grow. The shares are usually a set amount like 10-15 lbs a week and are either delivered or picked up on a regular day. I believe this is an awesome option that could be wonderfully coupled with a farmer’s market; CSA shares go out on Friday and sell excess Saturday at the market for example. I do not believe this is attainable until a person can confidently grow a certain amount of produce year after year.

5. Catalog Sales – I suppose this would be good if you were doing added value products like jam. I don’t see this in my future though. I have little desire to process anything I grow.

6. Shows and Fairs – I can see this for a marketing strategy but I don’t see annual fairs as a good way to sell produce. I think this is another good suggestion for added value products.

7. U-Pick Farms – Obviously this can be very successful. Everyone has seen how people love to flock to these but this isn’t in my future because of location. I do think anyone near or on a busy enough road should consider this.

8. Food Circles – This idea was new to me until reading it in the book. The idea is that you combine the ideas of a CSA and a cooperative. A small limited group of farmer’s all pitch into a CSA like situation and then get paid based off the share they contributed. I think with enough networking this could be a good option but it leaves you relying on the ability of other farmer’s to farm. It also causes problems with whether you are alright with the way the other farmer’s farm; organic versus conventional for example.

After that the book goes into wholesale options which I don’t consider an option but instead a last resort. I simply can’t grow enough of anything to make a living off of two acres. Has anyone used the methods or others not listed?

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Saturday, February 6, 2010

Vermiculture Nursery

If you’re not aware vermiculture is raising worms for their byproducts (worm castings or as bait). I started experimenting with vermiculture last October. I began with a wooden box I made lined with plastic and a modest handful of red wigglers. When I first started out it seemed to be going moderately well, I had castings (worm poop) and lots of worm eggs being laid. But I had a large problem also, vinegar flies aka fruit flies. I couldn't get the little varmints to go away and when cold weather came I was hesitant to bring my worms and flies inside mostly because of the flies. So consequently my worms all died, R.I.P.
So I concocted a new plan and made a new worm house out of a large styrofoam meat container. I then went and bought some new worms from, I hate to say, Wal-Mart. I found a distributor who sells European night crawlers to them as "pan fish and trout worms". These worms are the new hip composting worms. They reproduce less than red wigglers but are hardier and eat more types of food. In fact one online source claims they will eat any organic matter besides bones, a little creepy but efficient. I have had my European night crawlers in the basement since early November. All this time they have been eating and producing castings and laying eggs but there has been a problem. The eggs haven't appeared to be hatching because I haven't seen any babies. So I made a sort of vermiculture nursery. I thought maybe it was too cold in basement for the eggs to hatch since I had read multiple sources that said the eggs need temperatures between 60 and 70 degrees fahrenheit.
About two weeks ago I took about fifteen eggs and put them in a plastic sour cream container with a few knife holes punched in the top. I then shredded and wet a paper towel and placed some small morsels of organic matter for them to eat inside. Just yesterday I was inspecting my eggs and turning some of the newspaper over when I discovered babies! I was excited to the point where I am pretty certain some members of my household may be scarred for life. I also discovered why I wasn't seeing my little babies in the main worm house; the worm pictured next to the straight pin is two to three times bigger than the smallest worms hatched. I figure I will let the little guys keep growing and hatching for another week and I will move them to the main worm house. I also finally did discover some young worms in the main house that are about one inch long. I am not sure what I thought I was looking for before when checking for babies but I don't think it was quite this small.

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