Community, Work, and the Bounty of the Summer Harvest

Hello Farmers!

August has rolled in and we at the farm are seeing the benefits of all the work we put into our land, enjoying our pickings and looking forward to all the great autumn harvests we know we’ll have this year. Those harvests will be going to the dining hall, to the veggie van, and we will be selling at market on campus again when classes start.

Through all my work with LaFarm, interacting with the Veggies in the Community and other farms, and all my other Lafayette work that has brought me in contact with the Easton Farmers Market, Buy Fresh Buy Local, the Easton Hunger Coalition and others, I have always been most astounded by how much food and agriculture can so easily create a sense of community. Wherever I meet farm workers, farmers, gardeners, food distributors, cooks, or anyone else whose life revolves around food, whether it is at market, them visiting LaFarm, me visiting another farm, at a kitchen or anywhere else, there is always conversation to be had, information to be exchanged, goals to accomplish, and a friendly feeling of being in this life together with a shared purpose. That is one of the main advantages of centering one’s life around such a quintessential part of the human experience, the sense of community we all share.

Being in this community has brought me to look back at all the work we’ve done on the farm and take even more pride in what we’ve produced. So I took the time to bring together many of the pictures I’ve taken (and a few that I’ve been in) during this work:

What we all can accomplish together is amazing. look at this harvest from just one day this summer:

From the ground work we have laid this summer, we expect harvests like this once or twice a week for the next few months, albeit with the exact types of vegetables changing a good deal over that time. Out of the rather small chunk of land we have, I definitely find this impressive, and I know that despite our struggles this is all possible because of the many, many hours of hard work that all of the people working or even just helping out once at our modest farm. So many thanks to Peter, Leslie, Miranda, Alexa, Rachel, Haley, Brandon, and all the volunteers and visitors we’ve had this summer, and of course a special thanks to Sarah, without whom none of this would happen, and Profs Lawrence, Cohen, Germanoski, Brandes, and all the others who help make the farm a part of Lafayette! I look forward to another great year as I enter my last Fall semester at Lafayette in this community of food workers.

Joe Ingrao, Summer 2015 EXCEL Scholar

Kaolin Clay

There aren’t many things that we spray at LaFarm. But in the wake of the storm it is more important than usual for us to do everything we can to protect our plants from any further damage. That’s why right now, when the worst of the pests are around, we’re protecting our most vulnerable crops with Kaolin Clay.

Kaolin Clay is a completely organic substance, it is in fact a finely ground clay powder. When mixed with water, Kaolin Clay can be sprayed on plants to coat them in this powder, which (with an effectiveness that surprised me) confuses pests, who confusedly find that instead of a tasty eggplant leaf, they’ve landed on a weird clay bush. This way, it doesn’t actually kill anything or disrupt the ecosystem, it just protects the plants you spray it on.

Kaolin Clay is not completely effective for all plants against all pests, but it’s definitely effective enough that we spray our squash (especially young transplants) to protect against cucumber beetles or squash bugs, our eggplant to protect against flea beetles, Colorado potato beetles or anything else that might want a munch on them, and on a few others like Brussels Sprouts.

Stirring Kaolin Clay solution with the broken handle of an old digging fork.

Stirring Kaolin Clay solution with the broken handle of an old digging fork.

To use Kaolin Clay, you first need to mix it with water. We go for the Surround brand Kaolin Clay, which calls for 3 cups of Clay to be mixed with every 1 gallon of water. We put the Clay in a bucket and then add water and stir until the Clay is mixed enough that it doesn’t stick to the bucket or whatever we use to stir. Also at this step it’s safest to wear something over your nose and mouth; although the clay is not toxic, you still don’t want powdered clay getting in your lungs.

It is most advisable to spray on days without direct sunlight. When the liquid pools on a plant, it can magnify sunlight, which can burn the plant, making it less healthy, defeating the purpose of spraying. At the same time, you do not want to spray if it’s going to rain soon. Rain can wash off the clay, especially if it’s been applied only recently.

We use a hand-pumped backpack sprayer, dumping in the mixture from the bucket once it’s ready. It’s theoretically possible to spray it from a smaller spray bottle if you only needed enough for a plant or two. Some farmers will mix fish emulsion into the clay (fish emulsion can soak into the leaves of mature plants, giving them additional nutrients) but this is not advised by the USDA. It’s important to spray every leaf of any plant you’re trying to protect, and both the tops and bottoms of each leaf. Otherwise it would be like building a wall around half of a town to protect against invasion: it won’t help when they come from the other side.

After spraying, most pests will be confused by the clay and not eat your plants. That is especially important if you have hail- and flea beetle-damaged crops like our eggplant, or if you’re about to transplant 50 zucchini when you’ve noticed some cucumber beetles around the farm.

Happy Farming!

-Joe Ingrao, Summer 2015 EXCEL Scholar

Staking and Trellising Tomatoes

Hello Farmers and Gardeners!

Some say that tomatoes are groundvines, meant to crawl all over the place. But tomatoes on the ground yield less, cannot get weeded, and in our region get all sorts of diseases from their leaves being in contact with wet soil. So although there may be proof that tomatoes evolved to be groundvines (the way that the stems will grow roots if they’re in contact with soil for example,) as stewards of human-controlled ecosystems we need to recognize that in the context of modern American farms and gardens, it’s best to trellis tomatoes.

Our 5' wooden stakes. In retrospect, we should have bought 6'

Our 5′ wooden stakes. In retrospect, we should have bought 6′

There are many ways to trellis tomatoes–trellising is just the process of giving the tomatoes a structure to keep them upright, and I can think of a million ways to do that. Gardeners can get pretty creative with their trellis work if they only have to take care of 10 or so plants (or use nice, reusable metal tomato cages for a simpler path,) but with upwards of 700 row feet of tomatoes on the farm we have to use efficient, scale-able trellising techniques. Even this way there’s a lot to consider, especially as an organic farm.

Generally, you need stakes for any large row of tomatoes, and right there are a few variables. Stakes come in different lengths for different purposes, so you might want longer or shorter stakes for large or small tomato varieties. Then there’s the material to think about. Wooden stakes are much cheaper, but until recently there was no organic approved cleaner that a farm could use to soak them so they would be safe to use for more than one year (as wood is notorious for soaking up pathogens,) and even then it’s a lot more work (and outside resource input!) to reuse wooden stakes than the alternative: metal stakes. Metal stakes though, are more expensive, heavier, and generally more difficult to put in and take out of the ground. At the same time, they are easy to clean, durable, can be reused for many years, and run almost no risk of snapping during the staking process. On the farm, we have a broad collection of metal stakes of various lengths, and many wooden stakes. Some years we use a combination of both on each row, putting the metal stakes at the end and in the middle of each row to give strong anchors to our trellising; this year we used all wood stakes on several rows and all metal ones in another, and placed metal wire cages around some tomatoes in short rows we had.

Supposing you’ve decided on your stakes, then there’s still the decision of what to use between the stakes for the actual trellis. Most methods require some kind of sting or twine made of something like cotton (which is biodegradable, but not very strong) or some polymer (which will be in a landfill for a long time, but is very strong.) Again, we used a

Our 20+lb stake driver

Our 20+lb stake driver

combination of different choices on various portions of our tomatoes. For many of our tomatoes we used a twine to do a Florida Weave which is a complicated technique to describe on its own. For a specific bed where we planted 2 rows, we used a completely different technique involving metal wire.

We’ll get back to that though. Before your do any trellising, you have to stake. In order to stake, you’ll need your chosen stakes, something like a mallet to begin getting them into the ground, and something to drive them with. This year, we have a nice powerful stake driver for that job, but it’s possible to use the capped end of a pipe (very, very securely capped) or even a sledgehammer if you’re desperate.

One person with a mallet goes along the row with the stakes and places them upright at the correct spacing. It’s important to make them upright or the tomatoes will follow the leaning, and the correct spacing depends on how close your plants are, how many stakes you have, and how you’re going to trellis them. We go every 2-3 plants, 2 on our rows with 2 ft spacing and 3 on our rows with 1.5 ft spacing for our Florida Weave, and we went every 3rd plant for our metal wire method. The leading person uses the mallet to get the stake somewhat in place, and then a person follows with the stake driver to really get them into the ground (I made sure to wear ear plugs for this part because the stake driver makes sharp, very loud dings.) Metal stakes usually have a little t-bar that should be buried, and wooden stakes should just go into the ground by at least a foot or two (which you should take into account when purchasing!)

Then it’s time to trellis. Florida Weaving involves a box of twine and potentially a short piece of PVC pipe to help guide the twine. For each of your newly staked rows, you take your twine and run it in a horizontal line about 1 foot off the ground, circling it very tightly around each stake and keeping the twine taught, and then back the other way at the same height, tying each piece off at the ends. You take your tomatoes and tuck them between the lines of twine, and do it again a foot higher when the tomatoes grow taller.

Or there’s our metal wire method. I like this way a bit better, and it actually gave us a use for some previously used polymer twine we had saved. It does require metal stakes though, because of the tension required. For this you take a roll of metal wire and run it along the tops of the stakes, wrapping it very tightly around each to make sure it’s very taught, and occasionally tying it off to increase loss in tension from overly-long lengths of wire. You want the wire so tight that you’re actually pulling the tops of the stakes toward each other every time you tie one. Once you have metal wire over the full row, you take some twine and tie a double length of it over each plant. This means you take a length of twine that goes from the wire to the ground, double it, and loop it around the metal wire so both ends get down to the ground. Then you take black tomato clips (which can be washed and reused, but sometimes break over the course of a season,) and clip each plant into the twine. Some plants that have multiple main stems will need a clip on each one (with one end of the double length of wire in each clip.) And as your tomatoes get taller, you only need to take more clips and add them higher up on the plants.

That is one of the most important job on any farm that grows a good number of tomatoes. There are many more methods than those in this post, you can tell us about your favorite in the comments!

-Joe Ingrao, Summer 2015 Excel Scholar

Compost Hilling Potatoes

June 24th 2015

Hello Farmers and Gardeners!

A row of potatoes, pre-hilling

A row of potatoes, pre-hilling


The same row of potatoes, post-hilling

So last year I made a post about hilling potatoes. Hilling potatoes yields more potatoes per plant, keeps weeds down so less weeding, and stops the potatoes from widening and getting all over the place, tricking them into growing higher instead. So hilling is advantageous for many reasons, but there are many ways to do it. My last post about it just involved using dirt. We’ve also used straw and compost to hill, and they are very different techniques. As you may have guessed from the title, this year we’ve been hilling with compost, and that’s what I want to explain in this post.

For this you’ll need a flat hoe, a wheelbarrow, a shovel, and compost (obviously.) Once your potatoes have grown up a foot or so, you can hill them, we’ve been hilling our potatoes that went in the ground in late April for the last 3 or so weeks, so most potatoes don’t require much more than a month or so of growing. We always do make sure to weed each row of potatoes right before we mulch them this way, and we mow the paths between the rows to make it easier for us as well.

The growing point-or the place where the stem will continue rising, is at the convergence of the highest set of branches on any plant, right here on potatoes. This is the part that it's important to never block from the sun.

The growing point, which is the place where the stem will continue rising, is at the convergence of the highest set of branches on any plant, right here on potatoes. This is the part that it’s important to never block from the sun.

First thing you do is fill a wheelbarrow with compost, and dump it right next to your potatoes. It’s ok if it get’s right on the plants, as that is the point of hilling them. Once your potatoes are nice and strong, you can pile the compost 6-8 inches or higher, as long as you don’t cover the growing point on each plant (pictured.) After you’ve poured it on, you can take your flat hoe and kind of rake the compost into place, covering the bottom branches of each plant as best you can.

After that, you leave the potatoes as they are. They will grow up very happily and yield many delicious spuds for you. Happy Farming!

– Joe Ingrao, Summer 2015 EXCEL Scholar

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

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

My First Market

I worked our second week of market today, my first time on the selling end of a farm stand. Being there with an experienced farmer and farm marketeer, Sarah, was a wonderful chance to learn the ropes of direct marketing to customers in a situation where my income didn’t depend on my performance, which isn’t the case for most farmers standing behind their tables. That’s another reason I’m so glad for this continuing opportunity to learn what it’s like to really be a producer, without the risk of losing my livelihood if I fail.

And it went very well! We sold out of tomatoes within twenty minutes (we promise to bring more next week,) sold out of zucchini, and sold the majority of everything else we brought. Harvesting in the morning, setting up the stand, being engaged with customers for the market and then tearing everything down was hard work, but all farm work is hard work that’s more than worth the effort.

Here’s some pictures I was able to take between customers:

It was very nice to be able to hand someone a bag full of potatoes I had picked only hours ago, to physically see the food we’ve created get sent into it’s next step in the food loop. That satisfying feeling is well worth the time.

-Joe Ingrao, Excel Scholar Summer 2014