Saturated summer twilight rakes across the farm around 9PM. It is a fabulous time to slowly take a walk, maybe turning on an evening sprinkler, closing-in the chickens, or just getting out of the house to enjoy a cool moment touched by breeze. Whatever the urge, it often takes me past the flowers, looming spikes and unadulterated umbels. Pillars of beauty and beacons of pollination. The flowers are on now, unfolding their muted tones daily. They make me smile.
One again in 2014, we found ourselves waiting through spring for the ground to dry out enough to prepare beds and get our potatoes planted. And, once again, the day arrived on May 1st to finally trench and bury seeds. The first step was tilling, which we did with our landlord’s small Kubota tractor. In an effort to contain soil-borne disease, we are refraining from moving tools between each of the three leased sites we are farming this year. One setback of this is that we wouldn’t have the luxury of attaching our handy furrower to the BCS walk-behind tiller in order to mechanically dig trenches for the potato seed.
With the help of Nathan Levenson, our new — and first, and wonderful — intern, we revved our own engines up and dug 600 row feet of 12-inch deep trenches with shovels, on a lovely 80 – degree Mayday.Next came preparing the potato seed iteslf. We planted about half saved seed, set aside from last-year’s crops of Ozette and Rose Finn Apple fingerling potatoes, and half new seed ordered from Ronniger Potato Farm, a small seed company from Colorado. Some of the seed potato is small enough to plant entire potatoes individually. The larger potatoes we cut into chunks, leaving at least 3 eyes to set sprouts for each of the seeded spudlings. You can see that our potatoes were starting to set significant sprouts already, after a long spring of storage. This is not ideal, but not horrible, either. Had we more time and increased focus, we would have “chitted” them, as described in a blog from High Mowing Seeds, available here.When all 600 feet of spuds were placed, we covered them with most of the dirt that was dug for the ditches. The rest, we’ll hoe over the spuds’ sprouts when it is time for their first hilling — a few weeks from now.
Potatoes are delicious, nutritious, store all winter and are a joy to grow. We love them!
Hopefully, you will, too.
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….
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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….