DIVERSE VEGETABLE AND FLOWER FARM IN THE HEART OF THE PUGET SOUND

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Sprouting Broccoli — One Joy of Spring

Overwintered sprouting broccoli is an ephemeral and fleeting gift. Long, tender stalks are sweet from winter’s frosts and offer a much needed changeup from starchy storage crops that dominate our off-season diet on the farm. Most years the vulnerable broccoli plants survive through immured months of short days and freezing spells, but it is not unusual for the Pacific Northwest to deliver robust enough periods of cold to kill our sprouting broccoli before it ramps up to offer harvestable quantities in spring. That uncertainty makes it all the more special.

This winter was a cold one for sure, with at least a couple rounds of clear, cold periods that offered daily high temperatures reaching into the mid-twenties for weeks at a time. Half of our purple sprouting broccoli was protected in a low-tunnel and survived the cold; the remaining bed was devoured in the field by hungry deer.

What we ate was as delicious as we’d hoped for. Reminiscent of asparagus, the skinny stalks shine on the plate and in the tummy when sautéed lightly in olive oil. What we sold did not last long in the farmstand — it seems the purple broccoli has a cultish and attentive following of ravenous admirers who stripped our shelves bare as soon as we could fill them up with those precious few bags.

Unfortunately, the harvest period was short and already has come to an end. We planted a variety (Rudolph, from Osborne Seed) that puts up all of its bounty rather early rather than taking its time to provide side shoots for the taking deeper into spring. The good news is that purple sprouting broccoli is just the harbinger of things to come. We’re on to salad now, and nettles and spinach and braising mix and all the leafy greens that color our plates and fortify our souls through these enlivened and ever more productive days….

Salad Mix

Bean Threshing Time

It is late September and the to-do list around here grows seemingly longer every day. Weed, harvest, prepare beds for winter cover cropping, harvest, market, harvest, make compost, harvest, remove irrigation hoses from the field, harvest….

You get the idea.

But every year at this time we also stop the gears from turning for a moment everywhere else on the farm. During that last spell of warm, dry days in September the dried beans must get harvested and threshed, or removed from their pods, before the inevitable transition occurs into drizzly, cool and gray off-season conditions more familiar in the Pacific Northwest.

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Farms that grow grains on a larger scale than ours have the room, and cash flow, to utilize big machinery for the harvest and processing of their dry-seeded crops. Combines don’t make any sense for us, though, and intermediary, appropriate technology is hard to find in this day and age of industrialized agriculture.

So, we harvest and process our beans the old-fashioned way, by hand, with a great deal of help from as many people as we can find.

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Vashon Island is bestowed with a number of small, diversified vegetable farms, many of which hire season-long apprentices. The Vashon Island Growers Association organizes a series of workshops each growing season for these apprentices, as well as other interested community members, where participants gather monthly on different farms for instruction about a specific topic of interest, followed by a short work party. We at Island Meadow Farm don’t have the luxury of full-time staff, but still participate each year in the workshop series. This time around we stumbled upon a good idea for the event; small-scale dried bean production.

We learned in 2011 that the best method for us to use when harvesting our plants was to snip them just above the level of the soil. That way, dirt and rocks held in place by the plants’ roots do not become incorporated with the beans during threshing. That season, we collected the plants on tarps and beat them with sticks to force the beans out of their pods.

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Last year, we decided to experiment with another approach to threshing. Holding two or three plants together, we thrashed them around inside a clean 50 gallon barrel. It worked well, and felt more effective for us than the flailing with sticks, but was still relatively slow and certainly felt tiring to the arms.

Motivated to streamline the process, we continued researching how other farms bring in their dry-seeded crops. One great set of ideas emerged on the High Mowing Seeds blog about seed saving.

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After harvesting a bed’s worth of plants onto a clean tarp, we folded the tarp up and jumped on it. Then, we drove our small pickup back and forth on the tarp to further crush the dried bean pods, forcing the beans from their shells.

Our plants still had a significant number of green leaves on them come harvest day, which inhibited our ability to get all the beans out of their pods just by jumping and driving on the tarp. So we sat together and picked the remaining beans out by hand. This step was slow, bringing the “bean burrito” method into a pace equivocal to the barrel banging approach. But plucking beans out of pods on a sunny September afternoon with friends and community members was pleasant, to say the least. In the end we harvested over 150 pounds of heirloom dried beans.

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The beans are an important crop for us.

Primarily, they are incredible to eat — far surpassing in both texture and flavor typical supermarket beans. The beans also save well, and we can sell remaining stores during spring of the following season when other food crops are still scarce and start-up cash is sorely needed. We are the only farm selling dried beans at our local farmers market, offering us a unique niche product. They are also a high-protein crop on this vegetable farm, serving as a great accompaniment to the veggies and poultry that are our focus here. Finally, we love both growing the beans and connecting with our friends to get them out of the field.

We grow a handful of varieties, inculding Tiger’s Eye, Jacob’s Cattle, King of the Early, and Ireland Creek Annie (which are in the photo up top). Kenearly Yellow Eye were new to us this year.

We still need to winnow the beans, pouring them back-and-forth from bin to bin in front of a fan in order to clean away any remaining leaf and plant material. Now that the beans are inside and safely stored, though, this final step in the process can occur at a more leisurely pace.

There is still a long list of projects to get done this fall on the farm, but now that the beans are in it feels like we can work around the rain. Bring it on.

Fleeting summer images….

Our watermelon experiment succeeds!

Our watermelon experiment succeeds!

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Mmmmm. Basil.

Caitlin tills for fall plantings.

Caitlin tills for fall plantings.

Buckwheat is a favorite summer cover crop of ours.

Buckwheat is a favorite summer cover crop of ours.

Heirloom tomatoes.

Heirloom tomatoes.

Duncan picking parsley.

Duncan picking parsley.

Mushroom logs.Mushroom logs.

Caitlin mixing carrot seeds with sand....

Caitlin mixing carrot seeds with sand….

.....and seeding the mixture into furrows. The sand spreads out the seeds so that carrots do not emerge too thick in the row.

…..and seeding the mixture into furrows. The sand spreads out the seeds so that carrots do not emerge too thick in the row.

Back to the watermelon voctory!

Back to the watermelon victory!

Nursery starts.

Nursery starts.

Hazelnut and Tumbleweed.
Hazelnut and Tumbleweed.

Ferry dock at the end of the day.

Ferry dock at the end of the day.

 

Cooped-Up and Running Free

Towards the end of the 2012 season, it was time to re-evaluate the chicken scene at Island Meadow Farm. With an aging flock, two coops that, although portable, required a great deal of back-bending human effort to move, and thoughts of procuring a small tractor rattling in our brains, it was time to rethink the poultry plan.

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We began by starting a new flock of hens late this winter. Lacking better options at the time, we ordered some birds through the mail. That’s right, the sixty day-old peeps were shipped in a box from Pennsylvania, where they were hatched. Upon getting a call from the Vashon post office around six o’clock one morning early in February, we threw-on some sweats and zipped into town to bring them home to their preliminary situation — a bedded brooder box, indoors, where heat lamps and careful observation would help them grow into healthy young chicks.

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Then came discovery of a suitable, free, old double axled trailer frame on which we could build a new coop. This second generation design would consolidate all of our birds into one home, allow for the flock to grow in numbers during the coming years, and get moved with the 1987 Ford tractor we managed to purchase in March. Here is a photo of the trailer midway through the construction process; at this point the rear six feet were already cut off by our friend Leslie and his cutting torch, the second axle was stripped away using a Sawzall, and preliminary framing was underway.

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It was an effort to get the new coop during the accelerating workload of early spring, but with some hard work and kind generosity of numerous family members and friends, we managed to cobble together a rough-draft plan, scrap together a good deal of salvaged materials and get the hens’ new house built in time to move them out of the brooder room in April.

You don’t need to look too hard to observe the joy of chickens leaping out of their coop when it’s opened in the morning, racing to scratch the dirt looking for bugs and worms, eat grass, and generally run around with the wild look in their eye that only chickens get.

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But the effects of raising chickens on grass goes far further than just that. It is well documented that eggs from chickens raised on pasture are nutritionally superior to those laid by hens subsisting entirely on grain for food — as is the case with most commercial eggs.

According to Mother Earth News, the eggs from pastured hens contain one-third less cholesterol, one-fourth less saturated fat, two-thirds more vitamin A, twice the Omega-3 fatty acids, and seven times more beta carotene than eggs from hens fed only grain. Read more here: http://www.motherearthnews.com/eggs

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Judging from the electric orange hue of the yolks from our birds out to forage on lush spring grass, I believe every word. We go to a substantial effort to move our entire flock every few weeks, closing the girls in every night to keep them (hopefully) safe from raccoons and other predators — all to give them access to fresh grass.

Try some eggs for yourself and let us know what you think.

Remember Today While Eating Carrots in July

 

Carrot Weeding

I will think about today while eating carrots in July.

We attempted to flame weed our carrot beds before seeding them this April, with the hopes that would scorch some of the early season weeds that spring back up from wet soil after tillage that time of year. It didn’t work too well. The weeds grew like crazy anyway, attempting to overtake the wimpy carrot tops that somehow support those orange taproots we love to cook with and eat.

So, we weeded them by hand all afternoon in a light spring rain. An effort at reclamation. Hopefully, more carrots remained in the ground than in our muddy hands!

These days move quickly, though they are already quite long. Dusk falls at nine PM and the birds are chirping before I can usually wake up. There is so much to plant, weed harvest and till. Our work does not seem to end now, but it is satisfying to know that it will pay off in ripe summer vegetables.

We work because we love what we do, and we work so that our people will be fed….

Down With Cover Crop!

Rye & Vetch

Rye and vetch cover crop that survived this winter in our filed on the westide of Vashon.

Sometimes it feels like we bully cover crop on this farm; building it up only to tear it down — akin to the low self-esteemed mongers that ravage middle schools everywhere.

But our chopping up of green manure is an act of love, as is the way we till it in, building soil with organic matter in an attempt to restore fertility to this farm rather than deplete it through exhaustive, industrial methods that are found elsewhere.

We just got finished tilling in the overwintered cover crops planted last fall, and they are breaking down in the soil as we speak. We plant a good deal of  vetch and rye in the fall — which we grow together consistently through the winter, as rye is a unparralled achiever in the tall- growth category, depositing lush amounts of green material to break down in our soil each spring as long as we get to it early enough, tilling boot-high stands before the grain’s seed pods start to form and the plant shifts from  being primarily nitrogenous in nature to wielding a composition that is heavier on the carbon end of the scale.

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Lush cover crop at the perfect stage for tillage in the field that will become this season’s home for our dry bean crop.

Carbon is good to us in the soil — as are humus, lignin and the simple microbial life that comes from allowing nearly anything at all to decompose in the soil — but let’s be honest, nitrogen is even better, which is why we rush to get our cover crop tilled before the plants run away from us and start to dry down in the field. Most of the vegetable crops that we grow love nitrogen, conventional farmers douse it on their fields by the truckload full of petroleum-based, synthetic fertilizers, and we are not at all above the stuff, either. But at Island Meadow, we add nitrogen gently, using organic compounds and relying heavily on cover crops and compost to build the fertility of our soil.

Vetch is the perfect companion to our rye. While rye takes off early in the fall, creating a good canopy and root material to prevent erosion and mineral leaching through the saturated winters that we know well and somehow come to love in the Pacific Northwest, vetch really shines come spring by climbing the tall rye strands (which look very similar to grass) and reaching for the sky once the spring equinox passes and our days begin to stretch out to sanguine lengths. And vetch hails from the pea family, therefore fixing nitrogen in our soil in a way that no other plant family can. It’s almost magical.

In a nutshell, Rhizobium bacteria live on the roots of plants related to peas, like vetch — the fabacea. These bacteria allow pea-family plants (clover, fava beans, vetch, peas, and others) to pull nitrogen from the air that is unavailable to any other plants. The nitrogen is drawn into purple nodes where the bacteria lives on the roots of our vetch. When we till, the bacteria, roots and nitrogen all break down in the soil leaving plant-available nitrogen in a form that was not there before.

For all these reasons, we plant cover crops again and again and again. We sow them in the fall to cover the soil through the rainy season, but we sow them in spring and summer, too. Some, like the field peas we get locally from Nash’s Organics, in Sequim, we are able to harvest and sell as food. Others, like buckwheat and phacelia that are planted in the warmer months, attract beneficial insects and pollinators that help our cash crops to thrive. But all the cover crops allow us to build our soil, which is a tendency we rely heavily upon — for if the soil we humans depend upon for food is depleted, as much of the world’s soil has been over time, we’ll be hard-pressed to find more in this late-stage of human development.

This is one facet of what makes our farm “sustainable.” At least we hope. Stay tuned…..

Gathering Seeds — a look at what we sow

We had great weather last fall for harvesting our heirloom beans.

All winter long we have been neglecting the blog, and now it is well past the idle season of flipping through seed catalogs and anticipating warmer months when life springs forth, anew. Already we are pulling seeds out of their storage containers, sowing them in greenhouse flats, and rotating an armada of seedling trays from the heated coils where they get started to unheated benches nearby. The propagating greenhouse is packed with beets, allium, flowers and brassica seed sown in February and March, and we haven’t even begun the process of direct sowing seeds into the farm beds outdoors.

But we want to take a moment and look at what seeds we are using, and why, at Island Meadow Farm.

When possible, we purchase organic seeds to be used at Island Meadow. Organic seeds are grown in organic farming systems, and therefore are more well-suited to producing plants that will succeed in the growing culture we employ on this farm. Conventional seeds are produced by plants offered synthetic pesticides and fertilizers. It follows that the plants grown from those seeds will thrive under similar conditions — which we are not going to give them! We would rather use seeds produced by plants that flourished and successfully made viable seed with organic farming methods similar to how we grow our vegetables and flowers around here. They are more likely to do better that way.

In addition, seed crops generally are left in the ground much longer than the vegetables they grow from. To grow biennial crops like carrots, chard and beets, the veggies are grown a full season, left to overwinter, and then make seed only in their second year of life. For a conventional seed crop, this means that pesticides and fertilizers are added to the environment for a full two seasons just to get the seed that growers will then sow. Even annual crops like lettuce must be left in the ground for a long time to produce seed. First the lettuce plants have to grow, but then they are left in the ground long beyond the point where harvest would typically occur, for the seed heads have to develop and the seeds must dry down on the plant before collection. In purchasing and using organic seeds, we are less concerned about exposure to residual chemicals on the seeds themselves than to the environmental impact of using those chemicals during seed production.

That brings us to another decision — to grow open pollinated or hybrid seeds. At Island Meadow Farm, we grow both.

Open pollinated seeds are those older varieties whose genetics have settled down enough to produce a relatively similar plant generation after generation. As long as your open pollinated plants are isolated from other species with whom they might cross (don’t get your cucumbers too close to the summer squash, for instance), their seeds can be collected and used the next year with predictable results. We love using open pollinated varieties because it feels democratic. By growing open pollinated seeds, communities are more likely to be able to maintain their own seed stock independent of the large businesses edging their way into control of the seeds we depend on to survive.

Hybrid seeds, too, have their merits. Hybrid seeds are produced by crossing distinctive varieties in order to get a new, different strain. These strains are often extremely consistent in their size, color, and in the days it takes to grow them to maturity — making them convenient for farmers who want the whole crop to be ready at once. Sometimes, that uniformity is great for us. In addition, they have a certain “hybrid vigor” often observed in both plants and animals, often growing vigorously and well. The downsides to hybrid seeds are that saved seed is unpredictable and usually produces plants that vary widely from their parents. Also, the seed stock maintained for crossing the hybrid species is consistently owned and controlled by large seed corporations —  a nefarious approach to food production, in our opinion.

We save some of our own seeds at Island Meadow Farm, although not many. It occupies a good deal of space to keep the crops in the ground long enough to harvest seed. It also takes a unique set of skills. We’ve started with some simple species like dry beans (in the picture above), sweet peas, potatoes and garlic — thought we hope to grow more in the future. Stay tuned!

For more information about seed production, take a look at the Organic Seed Alliance.

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