Seeds, Spring, Software, and Spreadsheets

So I posted several months ago about choosing seeds and planning fields for the 2015 season. Well, now that the season is finally starting, our plans have come a long way, and it’s funny to think how much has gone into it.

As you place specific varieties of crops onto your Garden Plan in Mother Earth Garden Planner, it generates a sheet with the number of plants, when they need to planted, and more useful data.

As you place specific varieties of crops onto your Garden Plan in Mother Earth Garden Planner, it generates a sheet with the number of plants; starting, planting and harvesting dates; and more useful data.

After we looked over what crops and varieties we wanted to grow, we had to consider what farm planning software to use to mock up LaFarm. Last year we worked with AgSquared but it wasn’t able to do everything we wanted in the most convenient way, so we switched. First, we were considering the open source Farm Data, being developed by some friends at Dickinson College, but given its relatively rough current state, we chose to go with the Mother Earth Garden Planner. Though the Mother Earth Planner is not actually made for a full sized farm and is more apt for smaller gardens, we were able to fit it to our fields, and the useful visuals as well as the printable data sheets give us the information we’ll need in the field in a good form.

With a rough idea of what we wanted and where, we made a preliminary plan with this software. After that, it was time to narrow down some details. I looked through all our saved seed and made a very extensive inventory with Microsoft Excel that I was able to cross reference with information from our Garden Planner as well as from seed catalogs about growing and pricing.

With that information, I was able to revise our Garden Plan to be much closer to what it will likely look like. This office farming has been happening concurrently with the start of our outdoor work and the purchasing of our earliest crops like leeks, potatoes, and onions, (the last of which we already have in the ground!) The Plan will be indispensable for us in knowing what else we need to get, and keeping track of what goes where and when, and having it now means not having to do extra office work when there’s too much to do outside. Even in cases when we might have to change the plan because of unforeseeable circumstances like weather or a failure in someone’s greenhouse, having a plan already makes recouping from something like that much more manageable.

-Joe Ingrao, Spring 2015 EXCEL Scholar

Famous Names and Connecting to the Earth

Here at LaFarm, we figured a good way to get closer to our land was to give our fields and plots their own names, rather than the traditional 1 2 3, or A B C. And not just any names were good enough for our fields, no we decided to make our whole farm a history lesson. Each field we have is named after a famous agriculturalist. We even chose a lot of the names for our specific fields because those fields connected to the legacies of the people they were named for. And then we also decided to name our shed Eliot Coleman and our Gazebo Jethro Tull to boot!
Eventually I’ll be going into some more detail about who each of these people are, but here’s a quick rundown of the important names we have at the farm.

Sir Albert Howard
Many see Sir Albert Howard as the father of organic agriculture. Starting his work in England in the early 1900s, he was one of the first people to begin studying the effect of new agricultural chemicals on the health of the soil-and the nutrition of our food. Any familiar with Rodale over in Emmaus should know that it was information released by Howard that first shocked Jerome Irving back in the day to start all of his projects.

Lady Eve Balfour
If Sir Albert Howard was the father of the organic movement, Lady Eve Balfour was certainly the mother and, just like most mothers, ended up doing a lot more important things than Sir Albert in this humble farmer’s opinion. Howard started things off by studying them first, but Balfour started the Soil Association in England and really got the gears turning on an international alternative agriculture movement.

Masanobu Fukuoka
Because farming, and alternative farming, isn’t just a history of white people in the western hemisphere realizing that chemical agriculture isn’t sustainable, I made sure to bring up Masanobu Fukuoka (the original Japanese name order would actually make it Fukuoka Masanobu but he’s always referred to in the westernized order so that’s how it is here,) who pioneered what he calls “do-nothing” farming, which is a Japanese parallel to permaculture that uses no tilling, no chemicals, and not even pre-prepared compost. Doing this in Japan starting in the 40s and well into the 70s and 80s, Fukuoka was able to actual have yields that rivaled those of even the most chemically intensive farms in Japan. Also make sure to check out my small review of Fukuoka’s The One Straw Revolution on LaFarm’s Bookshelf.
Since he was very much about doing the least work for the most gain, we gave his name to our field of perennials.

Rudolf Steiner
Among this man’s many, many hobbies, he found the time to develop the idea of biodynamics a more extreme level of organic agriculture which has been both praised as amazing foresight and laughed at by others as complete insanity. The only people I know who’ve actually tried it all stand by the methods though. Just because hanging a deer bladder from a tree hasn’t been endorsed by modern agribusiness doesn’t mean it doesn’t keep pests away, and just because cow skulls aren’t in everybody’s compost doesn’t mean they don’t help aerate the soil.
We  have a small field that does very, very well which we named after Steiner, because that’s kind of how biodynamics have been working.

Gary Paul Nabhan
First person on this list who’s actually still living, GPN is an amazing farmer out in the desert who emphasizes social connections and slow money for farmers in their communities. He came to speak here at Lafayette last year about the Monarch Butterfly Crisis, and found the time to make it out to look at our two humble acres. Since he’s so well known for keeping high organic matter in his soil (Seven Percent! Seven Percent! That’s astounding!!) we gave his name to a field that we’ve kept well maintained with cover crop and has more organic matter than most of our others.

Ruth Stout
Gardening in a similar tradition to Fukuoka, Ruth Stout was a proponent of “no-work gardening.” She was very actively part of the gardening scene for much of her long, 96 year life, and gets major respect from us for starting the roots of much of no-till farming in America in response to not wishing to be reliant on men to do the plowing before she could plant, or waste her own time doing what wasn’t necessary in the end.

Will Allen
The founder and leader of Growing Power, an urban agriculture group dedicated to helping feed Chicagoans with sustainably produced food, Will Allen is an important name in the local sustainable food discourse for all his great work. He focuses on equity (being a black man in an inner city, it is understandably a very salient issue for him and Growing Power), solving one problem at a time and not letting discouragement stop you, wisdom I think we could all follow. We named the closest plot to our entrance after this former professional basketball player, to remind ourselves that what we’re trying to do starts at the grassroots level, just like Allen did.

Joel Salatin
An expert in animal husbandry without using unsustainable practices, and well known among LaFarmers as the author of Everything I want to do is Illegal, Joel Salatin is a great farmer who is quick to point out the problems of big farming and the unnecessary obstacles facing local farmers.

Sandor Katz
Perhaps most well known for his ideas about wild fermentation, Sandor Katz is an openly gay culinary author who is well respected for his skill and innovation, and gains major props for being one of the Radical Faeries trying to shake up the establishment.

Wendell Berry
Although his Agrarian Populism is problematic in many respects (see the book Agrarian Dreams on our bookshelf for details on what I mean by that), we had to give a spot to the famous poet-farmer Wendell Berry. He’s been a voice for the alternative agriculture movement since the 1960s and 70s when he challenged USDA secretary Earl Butz in his support of big, chemical agriculture.

Karen Washington
If Will Allen is the face of urban farming in Chicago, this amazing woman is the face of urban farming in New York. She studied at the Center for Agroecology at the University of California Santa Cruz and took her skills back to the Bronx. She helped urban gardening in New York greatly with her aptly named Garden of Happiness.

Crop Rotation

It’s an ancient tradition to rotate crops, because it didn’t take modern science for farmers to realize that growing the same thing in the same place every year wasn’t working so well. It’s widely accepted now that the longer your crop rotation, or the more time between growing the same family of plants in a specific place, the more healthy and balanced your soil and plants will become. There’s also generally accepted principles of which plant families “follow” each other best. Like onions work well following potatoes, and potatoes follow brassicas, meaning that each year it’s best to plant onions where last year there were potatoes and potatoes where there were brassicas, etc.

These things aren’t ironclad rules at all, and some people still say tomatoes do best if you don’t move them, but much of the reason crop rotation is really effective is the way different plant families interact with the soil. So corn for example, guzzles nitrogen from the soil, but legumes (beans, nuts, peas, clover grasses) take nitrogen from the air and store it in the ground, so they can replenish what the corn takes (or leave a good deal for the corn to eat up.) Other plants need other micronutrients (like Phosphorus or other metals) in higher amounts so they’ll do better in other places.

And there’s the even more pivotal result of crop rotation: pest and disease control. Growing tomatoes in the same place year after year, you’re bound to get some nematodes that love not having to move to find more roots to munch. And try keeping your squash anywhere near where cucumber beetles have been, or your potatoes in a place the Colorado Potato beetle knows to look. Devastation would result! And usually, just moving something 10 or 20 feet away will actually confuse bugs enough that they don’t find their food and die off.

We have a very good 10 year rotation plan (meaning nothing will be back to the same plot until it’s been 10 years since the last time they were there.)  That’s thanks to the wonderful planning and foresight of our garden manager Sarah, with some help from Eliot Coleman’s New Organic Grower. In the book, Coleman details how to plan your crop rotation, what follows what best, and goes into a lot more detail than I have here.

And while we were going through this years crop rotation plan, we also happened to name all of the fields after famous agriculturalists. I will be writing up some information about each of our fields and why the people they’re named after are important in the coming weeks. Look forward to it!

-Joe Ingrao EXCEL Scholar Spring 2015

Setting Up for the 2015 Season

A farmer’s job never really stops. There are definitely sudden lurches in the amount and form of work to be done, but even in the dead of winter, the LaFarmers are still hard at work, office farming.

Office farming is the vernacular we use for the plethora of activities farmers need to do in an office to make sure everything goes right on the farm. Probably one of the most important thing farmers can do to support themselves. Definitely more important advancement than a tractor, in my opinion (and it doesn’t guzzle fossil fuel like there’s no tomorrow to boot!)

We like High Mowing for their exclusively organic seed collection, their positive business structure, and their ease of reading.

We like High Mowing for their exclusively organic seed collection, their positive business structure, and their ease of reading.

The two things currently on the LaFarm office farm agenda are key to any garden or farm. We are planning what we are going to grow and where. We have some saved seeds from the last few years, but we also have to look in this year’s catalogs for the rest of what we want. Our personal seed catalog of choice is High Mowing (pictured at right) but for some of the crops and varieties they don’t have, or run out of, we turn to Johnny’s Seeds.

Please excuse my poor handwriting.

I like a good old pencil and paper, but Microsoft Excel is also conducive to this sort of index.

Choosing seeds isn’t easy even on a scale like that of LaFarm. There are so many factors to take into account; disease and pest resistance, nutrition, weed resistance, soil type, tastiness, reliability, germination rate, you name it; so farmers often have to be very careful in choosing what will work best. I was tasked with taking a look at our catalogs and creating a preliminary list of varieties that would be useful (pictured at left.) This is only the basis for what will eventually be our seed order, because we to not only confirm which varieties we want, but also determine how much of each we need, and then how much we can afford.

Simultaneously to the seed selection process, we are trying to plan the layout of our fields, which is easier than it could be thanks to our 10 year crop rotation strategy for our main fields, and our several satellite fields for growing whatever crops we need. That’s another thing we start out with on pen and paper, but software helps tremendously to finalize.

Preliminary, hand written notes which will be the basis of our crop plan this year. This year we are planning on using the Mother Nature Garden Planner, but there are alternatives like Farm Data and Ag Squared.

Preliminary, hand written notes which will be the basis of our crop plan this year. To finalize with software we are planning on using the Mother Nature Garden Planner, but there are alternatives like Farm Data and Ag Squared. Many farmers also swear by the adaptability and raw power of Excel to be the only software intense enough to handle a full plan.

These efforts are only the beginning, the metaphorical seeds for our whole 2015 year, but they are important steps. And maybe it’s nice to be able to work away from the blistering sun for some of the year. Long live office farming!

-Joe Ingrao, Winter 2015 EXCEL Scholar

The Importance of Planning

This Monday before doing anything else, Sarah led a 2 hour walk of the farm, seeing how the new crops were germinating, where we were getting weeds and where we weren’t, inspecting for pest damage, and checking which crops would be ready for harvest. This sort of farm walk is a must for small scale farmers who want to do what is needed at just the right time, instead of doing the same things on the same days every year and hoping for it all to work out.

The farm crew for today (Sarah, Jenn, and Eric) talking over and writing down everything we need to do this week.

The farm crew for today (Sarah, Jenn, and Eric) talking over and writing down everything we need to do this week.

Writing down what needs to be harvested this week really helps keep track of what we're producing.

Writing down what needs to be harvested this week really helps keep track of what we’re producing.

Going around and taking note of everything that we need to do for a week is a great time and energy saver, and allows us to get higher quality produce at the same time. For us, the employees, finally seeing the attention and work that goes into planning out the week and writing up what needs to be done on our chalk board (which we hang in an easily visible place) gives us motivation to do more. At the same time, it shows us all the things a farmer must balance on their land, thinking of what needs to be done and when.

The completed to-do list for the week. Of course, we don't hesitate checking things off, removing things altogether and of course adding things as the week goes on.

The completed to-do list for the week. Of course, we don’t hesitate checking things off, removing things altogether and of course adding things as the week goes on.

Overall, the time spent on the farm walk, which may feel less satisfying than going at 100%, 100% of the time, actually gives us more time to do what is needed, and brings us closer to the earth and the plants in both a metaphorical and literal sense. Not only do you get more of the feeling that you’re really working with the earth and your plants, but you actually understand how they work better by observing them actively rather than passively while doing some task. Some farmers do walks of their land at the end of each work day, both to review what they’ve done and plan for the next day, and at peak times in the season this may seem like a lot of extra work, but the time and crop saved is more than worth the effort.

-Joe Ingrao, Excel Scholar Summer 2014


Stacking straw in a ziggurat-like structure on top of wooden pallets

Stacking straw in a ziggurat-like structure on top of wooden pallets

So this isn’t very much like the other technique posts, but it’s closer to them than a general update. This post is about something that became very relevant to the farm this week. As you may have guessed from the title, this post is about straw.

We got a bit of a shipment of straw this week. A shipment of about 400 bales. That may seem like a lot, but apparently it’s not so much, as exampled by the shipment Prof. John Wilson was getting after ours, for 1000 bales.

Now let’s back up a bit. What is straw exactly?
Well, when most people see straw, they say hay. But there is a difference. Hay is for horses as they say, and it’s still got seed husks as opposed to straw which is made to be easier to lay down and has the seed husks removed.

The LaFarm crew stands victorious after stacking 400 bales of straw. Despite the intimidating nature of moving 400 15+ lb blocks of sharp sticks, we finished the job in only 45 minutes!

The LaFarm crew stands victorious after stacking 400 bales of straw. Despite the intimidating nature of moving 400 15+ lb blocks of sharp sticks, we finished the job in only 45 minutes!

So what are we going to do with 400 blocks of straw? Mulch! Mulching 6-8 inches of straw around a growing plant or on paths between plants is a great way to stop weeds (as long as you go ahead and weed or mow the area beforehand.) And around the time when student labor is getting harder to come by as summer break is nearing its end, having this protection against weeds is very necessary for our farm.

Straw is a really great mulch because it also adds a good deal of organic matter to the soil if you till it in at the beginning of next season, unlike plastic mulches. We’re really going to enjoy using it here at the farm, though it was hard work getting stacked up.

Straw could easily be the answer to your weed problem wherever you are, although you might need less than 400 bales (or maybe you need hundreds more!) But if you’re handling it, try to wear gloves and long sleeves, as it can be very irritating on the skin. It usually comes in large blocks called bales tied with 2 lengths of twine. When you have it where you want it, cut the twine and just flake it out underneath your plants or around your pathways until its layered 6-8 inches down.

And if a length of twine comes off before you get the bale where you need, don’t panic! You can take the twine that fell, cut it, and cross-tie it around the other piece, by taking it around the narrower edge and tying it to the other piece on each end.

Sarah looks out contentedly upon the farm and our new straw mountain.

Sarah looks out contentedly upon the farm and our new straw mountain.

Good luck with your weeds!

-Joe Ingrao, Excel Scholar Summer 2014

Potato Hilling

Potatoes before hilling

Potatoes before hilling

Shovel attachment for Wheel Hoe

Shovel attachment for Wheel Hoe

So, potatoes are really easy to get into the ground, but what about ways to get them to produce more potatoes per plant? A good and simple answer to this is to do what is called Hilling to your potatoes.

You start with your lovely potato plants, after they’ve grown to be at least a foot above the ground as shown in the before picture.

You take a wheel hoe, a handy dandy invention that’s been around a long time that Sarah recommends as one of the two most important tools for a small farm, and you attach a shovel-looking attachment.

You then run your wheel hoe with the shovel attachment alongside your potato rows, pushing the dirt up onto the potato plants. Your potatoes will then look something like ours do in the during picture.


Potatoes during hilling

Potatoes during hilling

Potatoes after hilling

Potatoes after hilling

The dirt should have been driven up around some of the bottom leaves of the potato plant. This won’t hurt the plant as long as it’s not completely buried. It will trick the plant into thinking that it must grow taller to get the same amount of sun, instead of growing wider as it does normally. Growing taller makes the plants store more starch in their roots, i.e., grow more and bigger potatoes.

To finish the process, you’ll want to take a regular old hoe and pull the dirt that was pushed up by your wheel hoe and bring it in closer to the plant, covering the first few layers of leaves. It’s safe to cover up until almost the very top, as long as at least the highest layer of leaves is revealed, but we just covered up the bottoms. You can see our finished product in our after picture.

-Joe Ingrao, Excel Scholar Summer 2014

Pests and Payoffs

So last week I mentioned how as organic farmers we’re always compromising. Specifically, we do our best to control pests without having to even use organic pesticide but when a good deal of our farm was at risk we bit the bullet and sprayed some PyGanic on the affected crops. To our great joy, this week we discovered that after only the one spray we were able to save our squash crop and eliminate the vast majority of the Colorado Potato Beetles on the farm (with mostly spot spraying damaged plants rather than spraying entire crops), without killing off all our wonderful beneficial insects. In other words, the best case scenario! Given this, we most likely won’t have to spray anything for the rest of the summer. Take a look at the difference in our squash plants. Before, they were struggling to survive through the assault of a beetle known as the squash or cucumber beetle, and now they’re thriving!

Now, there are so many insects on a farm that only an entomologist would be able to identify them all without years of working outside and learning bit by bit. So I’ll show some of the more common insects on the farm for you here:


First Veggie Van run in 2014

I don’t want to end talking about bugs though, so I’ll talk more about payoffs. There are three other excel scholars, Andrew Goldberg, Alexa Gatti and Rachel Leister who have a plot out at the farm, and they’re specifically working toward making vegetables in the community more accessible through their veggie van project, where they bring fresh vegetables to residents of Easton at no charge, with donations accepted. The first run of this took place just this Thursday from 5-7 at Pine and 10th street, and they will be doing this each Thursday at these times for the rest of the summer. Community gardeners who would like to support them can donate food by leaving it in the cooler by the shed at LaFarm.

-Joe Ingrao, Excel Scholar Summer 2014

Tomato Planting

Everyone knows the beauty of a good tomato. From tomatoes that are good for sauces (known as paste tomatoes) to heirlooms and big beefsteaks for dicing up and cherry tomatoes for throwing in salads, tomatoes are a versatile crop.

To plant a good row of tomatoes, you start out with a 3 ft wide tilled bed. With a post-hole digger you want to go down the middle of the row and dig a new hole every 2 ft. The depth of the hole depends on the size of the plant. Tomatoes are aggressive rooters, so they’ll grow roots off their stem wherever they’re on or in the ground, but you don’t want to bury much more than a fifth of the main stem into the ground. You should place the plants into the holes and fill in around the stem, creating a bit of a mound around the plant if it’s longer than say, a foot.

Our tomato crop, right after planting and trellising

Our tomato crop, right after planting and trellising

Make sure that if any leaves touch the ground, you remove the whole branch attached to them. These low hanging branches can spread pathogens easily and greatly increase the chances of blight. Also remove any little tomatoes that have already started to grow before you put your plants in the ground. Those and the low branches will just slow the plant’s overall growth. It’s also important to look out for concentric or patterned spotting on leaves of the tomatoes before they’re planted. These can be further signs of disease.

Some farmers let their tomato plants grow along the ground like some sort of squash, but they’ll generally yield more and be easier to weed and manage if you build a trellis for them. To construct the trellis, you should pound stakes into the ground between the plants, no further apart than 3 plants, unless it’s at the very end of a row. At the ends, make sure to use higher quality stakes, we use metal ones there and wooden ones in the row itself. To pound them in, you can use a normal mallet, or if you’re short like me, or just want to save your wrist, you can use a post driver, a simple device which is a hollow cylinder that is open at one end, sometimes weighted or even with a spring inside to assist with pushing the stakes in.


Tomatoes, 1 month later

Tomatoes, 1 month later

To complete your trellis, you want to take string and do what’s called a Florida weave. To do a Florida weave, you loop string around your first stake and then pull it along, looping it along each stake as you go. At the end of the row, you should loop it back around and go on the opposite side of each stake along the row for a second time. You should end up with string on each side of each plant. You want to do your first weave somewhere between 8in and a 1ft above the ground, and then you want to get your tomato plants in between the weave, so it will grow vertically. As the tomatoes grow taller, you want to weave again and keep letting them grow upwards. This makes it much easier to weed and harvest your tomatoes. There are handy tools you can find online that were made to help to make a Florida weave, and we use a length of PVC pipe that we pull the string through to help with looping around tall stakes.

As you can see from this later picture, after our tomato plants were off the ground we weeded underneath them and laid straw under them, as mulch that will block sunlight to weeds and eventually add organic matter to the soil.

Tomato harvest is going to be soon!

Tomato harvest is going to be soon! (This tomato is from another section of our farm where we chose to sow crimson clover under our tomatoes instead of mulching, and its working wonderfully!)

-Joe Ingrao, 2014 Excel Scholar


Small farms and organic farms have to make a lot of compromises. Some see not using industrial methods as a compromise of choosing the environment over production but that’s not the sort of compromise I’m talking about (and that isn’t so much of a struggle for me, where the choice seems obvious.) Rather, right now I’m talking about compromises of when we do have to use some of the more heavy-handed methods. When small farmers have to use a tractor instead of their draft horses for a job, or when all else has failed and organic pesticides are the only way to save a crop. The latter is happening to us at the farm right now.

We, and a lot of small organic farms, use what is called Integrated Pest Management at the farm. (for information on pest management strategies, look here) That means that spraying anything is our absolute last resort for managing pests. But unfortunately we have some nasty critters like the Colorado Potato Beetle, Squash Beetles, and Flea Beetles that are so well established here from a few years of less than perfect management strategies before Sarah got here that even intense crop rotation and other pest management has failed in defeating them in the last two years.

So we’ve been left with a lot of damage:

This left us with nothing we could do besides spray something (organic of course), otherwise these crops will be completely lost. Spraying always risks killing beneficial insects like ladybugs and lacewings, but not spraying will increase the chances of these bad bugs not only ruining this year’s crop, but surviving years to come and continuing to destroy food.


PyGanic, an organic pesticide.

We chose to spray PyGanic, pictured at the right. Also, we stuck to the lowest concentration that we could that would kill the potato, squash, and flea beetles and least risk killing any beneficial insects. The damage on the potatoes has not yet gotten so out of hand that we needed to spray more than the plants affected, but given the ubiquitous damage done to our squash and eggplant, those crops had to be sprayed equally ubiquitously.

It’s unfortunate we had to spray this week, but we have to sometimes make compromises. I think about some of the huge sprayers I’ve seen, indiscriminately covering fields with fossil-fuel based pesticides that will kill more bees, butterflies, and even some birds more than they will the actual pests, and I remember that it’s better to make compromises than to give in.

-Joe Ingrao, Excel Scholar Summer 2014