Thursday, June 30, 2011

A Nice Surpise

Allowing your chickens to free range, giving them their complete freedom during the day, has it's advantages and disadvantages. One of the disadvantages, especially in this area are predators, like coyotes, hawks, etc. So you just have to expect the occasional chicken loss to farm this way. I've been missing one of my Dominique hens for a few weeks now.

The good news is, we found her. The better news is that she wasn't alone.
If you have ever raised a chicken who has gone broody, you know that she has a distinctive clucking compared to the other hens in the flock. I saw this hen walking across the yard with this distinct cluck. She disappeared in a pile of brush.
When we went over to the pile, there she was, settled down in a nice nest of dried leaves in the middle of the pile, clucking softly. We saw 2 chicks, and there is at least one egg yet to go.

I have walked by this brush pile at least a half a dozen times a day, and never saw nor heard them until this afternoon.  It looks like I'm not quite ready to move that brush pile yet.

It is an exciting time for me and this little hen. She is my first Dominique to go broody, and my hope is that she passes this trait on to her babies.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Biodiversity and Permaculture for the Urban Gardener and Small Farmer.

A few of the things that my wife and I agreed on when we started this journey in farming were that we:
1) Would not only be good stewards of the land that God blessed us with, but of the livestock too
2) Wanted to hold ourselves and our farm to a higher standard then "organic", and
3)That we would "work the land" by hand, using simple yet proven methods that farmers have used throughout our history.

This might sound to some as a very odd way of talking about something like biodiversity or permaculture, but I ask you to bear with me for a few minutes.

Over the past couple of years, I have been hearing a few terms that have become hot topics in not only the farming community, but with many urban gardeners as well. Terms like biodiversity, sustainable farming, and permaculture. The truth of it is, they are all related and inter-connected.

According to Websters dictionary, the definition of biodiversity is:
"Biological diversity in an environment as indicated by numbers of different species of plants and animal." They say it was first used somewhere around 1985. I've read many an article on this term over the last couple of years, many dry and boring, and others where they have an agenda to them. There are a few good articles out there about this subject, if you look for them.

According to Bill Mollison, permaculture is "...a philosophy of working with, rather than against nature; of protracted & thoughtful observation rather than protracted & thoughtless labor; of looking at plants & animals in all their functions, rather than treating any area as a single-product system." (Source: permaculture.net)

These concepts are not new. There are many a book written in the 1700s and 1800s that teach how to garden and farm in a sustainable way that embraces what biodiversity and permaculture stand for. Back then, it was the norm, not the exception. But what does it mean to you and me, the urban gardener or the small farmer?

If you were to ask me what the definition of biodiversity and permaculture for a farmer or gardener was, you would get an answer like this: "When nature is in balance, and we are working with nature, not against it." It is so very simple when one thinks about it. We all know (or if we don't, we can easily learn) what is needed for a healthy garden, farm and world. Watch nature, be in tune with nature, and work with nature.

A natural setting contains more than just one plant or animal.
Nature has a balance, and when that balance is tinkered with, problems occur. Think back to the dust bowl in the early 1900s. Dry farming was being used in the prairie states, which is a great practice for arid regions. But the land wasn't given time to rest, and vegetation wasn't allowed to grow on un-planted fields. Nature was knocked out of balance, the life was drained from the soil, and ceased to exist there. It took years to recover, and in some areas it hasn't fully recovered to this day.

Today, monoculture farming is a big thing. How many farms and gardeners plant the same crops in the same fields or plots every year? We live in a world dominated by pesticides, herbicides, and chemical fertilizers. It's so easy to run down to the neighborhood hardware store or garden center and grab that can of pesticide to kill the squash bugs. Or grab that bottle of Round Up to rid you of those pesky weeds that are intruding on your prize tomato plants. The use of herbicides and pesticides are so commonplace now, that they are even in many of the seeds being planted. I'm not saying that all use of pesticides and herbicides should be stopped, but I will say that we need to understand how those powders and sprays work, and what the true result is. More people also need to understand that they kill everything, not only the unwanted bugs and weeds, but the beneficial ones as well.

May I offer an alternative? Understand nature, let her do her work, and stay in balance. We can augment her work by doing simple things that don't interfere with her delicate balance. Things like picking those "nasty" squash bugs and their eggs off the plants by hand, letting fields and gardens rest and lay fallow with a good cover crop or naturally-growing vegetation, using companion planting as an aid to pest deterrence, plant or crop rotation, getting away from those hybrid plants and seeds and planting crops that will reproduce true thanks to their natural genetics, or even planting things that attract beneficial bugs.

This list can go on and on. Even if we each did only a few of these things, our land would start regaining her health and we would begin reaping a healthy, wholesome harvest, instead of chemical-laden produce that poisons our bodies and our land.

Yes, doing things this way tends to be harder and is, without doubt, more labor intensive work. But our forefathers knew that if you take care of the land, the land will take care of you. We need to get back to this way of thinking, and get away from the "one-size-fits all" mentality that is prevalent in the farming and gardening communities.

I ask you to look at my opening statement again. I firmly believe that to be a good steward of the land, we must leave it in better shape than when we found it. I challenge you to be a good steward, and see what happens.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Farmer's Market and Flea Market Mentality

I hope that you can forgive me here for a few minutes while I ponder over a question.  Why is it that people, especially in the area where I live, treat a Farmer's market like it was a flea market?

I've spent a good deal of time selling our produce and wares in both venues over the past couple of years, and have noticed this trend with our customers in this area. Our product line is not organic certified, but grown or raised to personal standards that exceed all certified organic standards. My pricing is always based on the current market trends for "regular produce" sold in the stores. So our customers are paying at or right below regular store prices for an organic product that is higher in quality, flavor, etc.

Yet, when they come to the local Farmer's market, they fail to see the value in the products offered. If they have to pay more than $1.00 a pound for something that has a fair market value of close to $3.00, they won't pay it. Yet they will go straight from the Farmer's market to the local grocer and spend that exact same amount of money for something off of the shelf that was picked green, sprayed with a bunch of chemicals, and bred for it's shelf-life over taste.

I guess that I haven't been able to get my head around this mentality. Even with the time I have spent over the last year, trying to educate the customer base on all the positive value of locally grown, fresh produce. With the exception of a very few, they are still looking for "something for nothing".

Can someone help explain to me this mind-set? Or maybe even point me in the right direction in overcoming this.  I would love to hear what you think, both as a producer and a customer.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Dry Farming Southern-Style

It's been a hot dry spring here in South Carolina.  And since the day we've moved here and started building Weksny Acres, this has been the rule and not the exception. It seems that when the month of June rolls around, the temps soar and the rain all but stops.  So how do you grow a good garden or crops in the field without installing expensive irrigation or standing out there with a garden hose every day?  I've come up with a way of gardening that I am calling "Dry Farming- Southern Style".

If you do some reading about dry farming, you will learn that it has been widely used for centuries in arid regions around the world, including our very own prairie states here in the United States. If done well, dry farming will grow certain crops very well.  If done poorly, the result is a repeat of the Dust Bowl of the early 1900s.

I've coupled the concept of dry farming, with some of the principles found in the "intensive gardening" method, as well as some permaculture principles. The result so far?  Beautiful cucumbers worthy of any salad, pole beans that are putting out a bumper crop on 6 foot high plants, and an abundance of tomatoes ripening on the vine.

The first thing that I had to learn, was that I couldn't use every growing bed, every year. The beds need to produce for a year, and then rest for a year. This is a hard thing to swallow, because I have a very limited amount of space to feed my family, and still grow enough to provide a portion of our family's income.  To this day, I still struggle making myself do this, but I know it's better in the long run.

Once you've decided what to grow and how much space you can use for it, the next step is to plant your crops close together.  I realize this goes against conventional gardening wisdom, but adopting this intensive-gardening procedure will allow your plants' leaves to shade the ground, keeping it a little cooler so the roots don't bake in the hot dry ground. 

The final trick to this little system of mine is to mulch, mulch,and mulch some more.  Use leaves, compost, grass clippings, whatever you have...even the weeds that you pulled out of your garden once they are good and dry.  Mulch helps trap the moisture in the ground where the plants need it.  It also helps cut down on weeding, something we all want to spend less time doing.

I'll keep posting about this as the season progresses and let you know how it turns out.  I can say that at this point, the produce that we've harvested has a much richer texture and flavor then it's heavily-watered counterparts.  The vegetable or fruit may be smaller and/or less uniform, but the taste is more flavorful, in my opinion.

If you want to try this, take it one bed at a time and see what happens.  It sure beats standing out there running the water bill through the roof.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Flowers in Bloom - Zinnia

One of the things we wanted to do for farmer's market and here on the farm is to provide cut flowers for sale.  I bet I planted 15 varieties in the hope of having a very nice assortment for our customers to choose from.

It has been a struggle this year for our flowers for some reason or another.  Our troubles ran the gambit from poor germination, to late frost and then hail, and now summer heat in May and June.

Of all the seeds I planted and plants that I've transplanted, only an assortment of my Zinnia have survived in various stages of growth.

Today when I walked out to the gardens, what did I see but this beautiful blossom.

I hope I can get flowers to grow as plentifully as our herbs and vegetables do.  At the very least, it'd be nice to give my darling wife something extra-pretty to enjoy.