Every month we have one or two big projects we try to complete. One of our projects for March was to finally build the chicken “family pen” we have mentioned in previous posts. The plan was to build a small pasture in the woods so that some of our best hens can live and make babies with a big robust rooster. We hope this family area will be a constant source of new hens for our laying flock, so we can stop ordering hens from the hatchery every spring. Buying new chicks every spring gets expensive, peepers can be challenging to raise to maturity, and is not very sustainable. We like the idea of letting nature take its course and allow the hens to sit on and hatch their eggs, as well as take care of their little brood. We would like them to live as independently as possible. We will start our family area with Barred Rock chickens. These birds are beautiful and make great laying hens or even meat birds if we wanted to go that direction. We already have a big beautiful rooster I got from my niece. He is happy to be here and quite excited about this new plan!
Our second project for March was to build a place to raise rabbits. Rabbits reproduce quickly and taste great. They are an excellent source of sustainable meat. The more we can grow our food ourselves, the happier we are. Not only are we planning on including rabbit in our dinner plans, we also have several chefs who have asked about it. My grandmother used to cook rabbit on a regular basis. I remember her putting it in a crock pot before church. You never know, we might even have a few adventurous CSA members who want to try it. Either way, it will contribute to our food independence. Sadly though, so far it has been a fail on the rabbit project. We spent so much time fighting the weather and keeping the lowtunnels over the crops that this project fell off the page. It will rise again though!
One of our projects for February was to build cold frames for starting seedlings. Mission accomplished! We now have two new very basic cold frames. These are very simply made by making a rectangle out of cinder block. Get planks with a 6 inch width and cut them to the length of the rectangle. Then cut them into a wedge shape. You also need a plank to nail them to what goes across the back of the cold frame. Then buy a big piece of plexiglass at Lowes and voila! They were simple and cheap. Total cost was $150.00. The purpose of the cold frame is to have a nice warm place to start seedlings. In the past, we have approached this by either contracting a local greenhouse grower to grow out our seedlings, or else just plant the seeds directly in the field. We had problems with having our seedlings grown by a local grower. The seedlings were not ready on time and when we finally got them they were spindly and weak. They also were very expensive. That is a bad mix. We also had problems with direct seeding into the field. The issue with direct seeding is that it wastes a lot of seeds. When a crop is direct seeded, the seeds are often placed a little too close together and later thinned out when they are fully emerged. Often the seeds we choose are extremely expensive and we simply can’t afford to waste seeds by direct seeding. I hope the cold frame solves the problem. We planted our seeds directly into the garden soil in the frame. They are very close together but that’s ok. We are going to dig them up when they are sized and transplant them at the appropriate spacing in the field. This is not as easy as transplanting plugs but hopefully will be a happy medium between the expense of greenhouse plugs and the waste of direct seeding. Crops seeded in the cold frame include fennel, onions, broccoli, cauliflower, brusselsprouts, cabbage, kale, and some fancy purple broccoli called Purple Peacock! By the end of March they are out of the cold frame and in the field! Let’s get ‘er done!
March is when the field work begins in earnest. Fields need to be tilled and prepared for seeding. Sometimes during the winter the fields can grow lots of weeds so the weedy fields need tilled down several times to kill the weeds before they can be planted. The problem we have had this March is that it has either been freezing weather with high winds that forced us to spend huge amounts of time keeping crops covered, or repairing tunnels, or it has been raining! It has rained several times each week in March with some of it being flooding rains! When the fields are wet they can’t be tilled and the weeds just keep on growing. This has caused much stress when it comes to getting things planted. Normally by the end of March we have all the spring crops in the ground and many of the really early crops such as spring rabe, Asian vegetables, or baby lettuce are already big enough to harvest. This year the things that are under the tunnels are looking pretty good because they stayed warm and dry. But, the things that are planned for the bigger fields that are not under cover are either just now at the tiny seedling stage or are not even planted at all! We are ready for farming to not be quite so hard.
The good news is that after the last week of March, with 28 degree weather, the forecast is looking much more spring-like with temps in the 70’s and several days of no rain! We will be in a planting frenzy! We also will throw off the row covers and try to get everything cleaned up for spring. Once spring hits and we get a little warmth, the weeds will really start to come on strong. If we don’t stay on top of it, the weeds will take over to the point where they can’t be easily hoed and they will take critical nutrients and space from the crop. Weeds are probably the biggest challenge to pesticide free growing. Without using herbicides, there are not a lot of easy solutions. Our strategy is to plant the crop very dense in an attempt to quickly shade out any competing weeds. We also want the crop to be growing fast and strong and we quickly hoe the weeds when they are very small. This gives the crop the best chance to outcompete the weeds and hopefully get big enough to have the upper hand. It is never perfect. If you visit any pesticide free farmer you will see that there are weeds in the fields. It is not cost effective to pay labor to keep everything perfectly clean. You just can’t sell the produce for enough money to warrant that type of labor investment. So we try to keep things clean enough and balance between managing labor costs and growing a good crop. That normally means there are a few weeds! We try to look on the bright side and consider that weeds also are habitat for beneficial insects to reproduce and live. We need the weeds!
Speaking of weeds, we recently went to several classes on wild edibles! We read a book called Eating on the Wild Side by Jo Robinson. We also saw her give a lecture at the Acres Organic Conference this year. This author discussed the nutritional benefits of wild plants and how we have bred many essential phytonutrients out of the crops we grow. Traditional plant breeding has bred for color, pest resistance, growth habit, shelf life, and many other traits. However, rarely are crops bred for nutritional value. As a result, the nutritional value of many crops has declined significantly over the years. Being knowledgeable about wild edibles allows us to grow these plants for the adventurous eaters and chefs, as well as bring back some key nutrients that we may be missing. March is the perfect time to find these.
Since there was so much work required in the fields in March, there will not be an “In the office” post for March. As always, the weather dictates much of our activities around here. We are thankful for sunny skies and the start of our Spring 2014 CSA this week! And see this post for information on our “Farm to Fork” Dinner here at the farm in June.
Eat your veggies and Eat Wild!