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

Cover Cropping

This post comes at a very good time as the National Working Group on Cover Crops and Soil Health recently released a top ten list of ways to improve soil health. So, since these are some of the things we’re doing out at LaFarm, it makes sense to share some basics about cover cropping.

Last year we covered a 40'x40' plot with sun hemp. Sun hemp fixes nitrogen in the soil, can be used as cloth, and is very effective at shading out weeds (also you cannot smoke it.)

Last year we covered a 40’x40′ plot with sun hemp. Sun hemp fixes nitrogen in the soil, can be used as cloth, and is very effective at shading out weeds (also you cannot smoke it.)

Cover cropping is the act of purposefully planting a non-food crop on your land for one of a few reasons. You can use leguminous cover crops to increase nitrogen in the soil (or a whole host of other crops to increase organic matter or specific micro-nutrients) to protect a plot, bed, or field from weeds before or after you’ve used it for food in a season, to mark permanent walking paths between permanent beds, or even sow a crop that doesn’t grow tall under a food crop to shade out weeds so you don’t need to weed under your taller plants.

One of the main differences between cover cropping and just growing buckwheat, sun hemp, or any of the other numerous plants commonly used as cover is that generally you’re not planning on using the product of the crop, but instead are planning on tilling it under before the next season or composting it to increase soil fertility-though that’s not necessarily the case. You can grow oats as a cover, hand-harvest the oats and then still till under the crop. Likewise we could have harvested the sun hemp we grew as cover last year to use as fiber for clothes and left the leguminous nitrogen nodules in the ground for this season. But the main goal with cover cropping is the soil health benefits, not the produce of the crop.

As I’ve mentioned previously we had to pull a whole row of potatoes after the storm on June 30th. Because there’s a good deal of growing time left, we decided to cover crop it with cowpeas and buckwheat. We chose these because cowpeas fix nitrogen in the soil, and the buckwheat will live for longer into the winter, keeping protection on the bed, but both will die before next season, so we can till them under for increased soil nitrogen and organic matter. This handy guide by the USDA is a great quick reference for what kind of cover crop you may need.

We started by tilling the bed, and then getting out our Earthways Broadcast Seeder. When broadcast seeding, you can spread by hand, it just takes a lot of time on any significant scale. We filled the seeder with the cowpea and buckwheat seeds, and then walked it across the newly tilled row. With cover crops, soil compaction over the seed is actually desirable (unlike with vegetables where it is to be absolutely avoided.) After just one pass with the seeder, we used a soil rake to cover all the seed. It was that simple! And since we’re not harvesting this crop for food, we don’t need to pay any more attention to the bed really (except for some optional hand weeding if weeds start getting too big before the peas or wheat get established.)

This was just on on a single row. At the farm, we’ve also cover cropped all our permanent pathways with crimson clover, which doesn’t grow very tall, shades out most weeds, and marks the areas we can walk on, and we’ve covered whole plots with buckwheat, Sudan grass, sun hemp and other crops. For that, you just till the whole plot, broadcast seed until you see seed over most of the area of the plot, and then step all over it and/or rake it into the ground. Some farmers tie wooden boards to their feet to help step on the whole area faster.

Hope this helps some diversified growers out there!

-Joe Ingrao, Summer 2015 EXCEL Scholar

Natural Disasters, Resiliency, and Agriculture

Hey Farmers,

The storm now weeks past brings to light a lot of issues that are becoming increasingly salient for people around the globe. As an educational establishment, standing with one foot in agriculture and the other in academia, we at LaFarm study the broader food and agriculture system and its interconnectedness with human society as well as the rest of the world beyond humans. Therefore, it is necessary to discuss the ripple effect of non-human events (natural disasters, even small ones) through this indelible network of human and non-human processes.

This storm was not actually too huge. It’s definitely not the biggest storm that’s hit this area in the few years I’ve been here (as we should not forget hurricanes Sandy and Irene.) And yet the damage it did to us was devastating. As I said in my last post, this storm could have easily ended a young farmer’s career. The localized hail and wind damage alone took a good percentage of our overall yield away, and the cost of dealing with the ramifications is high enough to make a farm dip far into the red.

So consider farms at our scale. Very small, very local. Other such farmers could sell to a local market, run a CSA with a few dozen shares maybe, or a combination of both. Even a minor natural disaster, one where no person was too seriously injured, maybe one downed power line or already is having a huge effect on these people. The farm gets hit hard, the farmer and their family is out of a job, and could lose the land. CSA members may get a refund, or maybe the farmer can’t even get that money back to them. Thousands of dollars are lost or turned into debt, and a lot of families’ economic situations are complicated. A market gardener loses supply and the market doesn’t make them money any more, they lose customer loyalty and even if they somehow make it back to the market next year, they now have a harder time competing. Think about this happening to an area that’s close to a food desert. Imagine the families buying fresh vegetables from the market on SNAP benefits, or who rely on their local urban farm who might not be able to get produce from anywhere else around. So there’s hits in the health and stability of families as well.

Now think about the problem scaled up. Imagine a mid-scale producer being hit with a bad storm or an awful flood. If they sell wholescale to the local hospital or school, there’s going to be a lot of economic disruption for years to come, not to mention the potential for a food shortage. And then a large farm being hit with a bad hurricane, tornado, earthquake, or drought (I’m thinking out west right now.) The potential ramifications will have effects on thousands of people easily.

So given that storms and other natural disasters are going to get worse from here on out, what can help the food system become more resilient against the potential of natural disasters? Well, a lot of things:

  1. Local food networks. Say you’re the administrator of a hospital, looking at where to source your food. If you buy all of your food cheap from mono-croppers halfway across the country, and any one of the few farms you source from gets hit, that’s potentially catastrophic. But, if you source from 20 different farms within 100 or 200 miles of the hospital in any given direction, than one single event can’t completely disrupt your food supply.
  2. Grassroots support organizations. With farmers helping each other, CSA members who are willing to come help after a storm or flood, a co-op designed to support its member farms, or a myriad of other possible formal or informal partnerships, every producer benefits in their time of need.
  3. More diversified growers. If you run an just orchard, a hail storm can destroy a whole year’s crop, if you grow only annual vegetables, a bad flood could wipe away your whole farm. But only the worst flood could carry away an established nut or fruit tree and hail can’t annihilate forage crops grown in the understory of a food forest.
  4. Better policy support for small, diversified farmers. Large mono-croppers can get some form of crop insurance, but diversified growers cannot. There’s plenty of subsidies for conventional corn growers, but not so much as an assistance program for diversified organic growers. We need policies in this country (and in other countries as well) that can support the sort of system we need to be sustainable.

In addition with the slow plodding push for that sort of change, already started by others, individual farmers can prepare themselves in several ways:

  1. Educate yourself about how to deal with damage due to natural disasters. Look for webinars, ask your USDA extension agent, or learn from other farmers.
  2. Form partnerships with other farmers. Tool lending libraries, co-ops, and even just friendships with other farmers in your area will help you and them be prepared with both the knowledge and skills necessary for when disaster strikes. In addition, if everyone helps each other become established, everyone will already be in a better place when something does happen.
  3. Educate your customers about agriculture’s relationship with natural disasters, and society in general. This will make everyone a better ecological citizen, who may be more likely to be understanding and not need a refund for part of a CSA share lost to drought, or pay extra for your remaining produce at the stand after a storm.

There’s a lot of work to be done to make our food system sustainable in the face of a climate-change stricken world

Documenting Damage

Hey Farmers,

So we’re going to continue with the sad storm news. Although it has been two weeks since the storm, that does not mean the damage is no longer affecting us. This storm will have an impact on what happens on the farm for the rest of the season. In the overall scheme of things it will have even further reaching impacts, and I’m going to dedicate a full post later to discussing that. For now, I’m going to catalog and analyze the damage in as much detail as I can based on my experiences and what Sarah and our USDA extension agent Tianna DuPont say about it.


Walking out on the farm on Wednesday, already a day after the storm, I was astounded by how much had been done. On campus, we had just been told to stay inside for half an hour as the worst of the storm passed, and the amount damage that happened to the farm in that little time left me speechless. On Wednesday and Thursday, I spent over an hour just walking the field, taking pictures and notes on all the damage, afterward talking to Sarah about what the damage would mean.

Some of the impact is obvious. The first thing through the gate of LaFarm, our onions, fall into this category, as do all our peas and a fourth of our potatoes. This damage is pretty obvious: destroyed plants can’t finish their life cycles. For our peas, the damage was absolute: broken stakes and hail damaged pea pods mean the last week or two of pea harvest was no longer feasible. Even what was on the vine wasn’t even safe to give away; hail damage to the peas would mean they would probably rot on the vine, none of it would keep long enough to be eaten. This led to hours and hours of work pulling the plants, stakes, and trellises when previously that work was going to help establish other crops. As for onions and potatoes, we could salvage what was there but a good amount of potential was lost. Our onions would have grown a significant amount more in the next several weeks, but we needed to rush to harvest and cure every onion in our northern most plot. Of our four rows of potatoes, the oldest, northernmost row acted as a wind break for the other three, but was devastated in the process. We harvested that whole row of potatoes that day and sent them to Chef John on campus, who luckily needed them that day.

Most of the rest of the damage was less obvious, and will require more work to overcome in the long run. With these peas, onions, and potatoes, we just had to salvage what we could and rip the rest. For many of our grown but not yet producing crops, we’ll be nursing them to health for the rest of the season. USDA Extension Agent Tianna DuPont recommended to us and the other organic farms hit by the damage 5 different organic chemical treatments, plant steroids and the like, to help remediate the damage. This damage is also more uncertain in its impact. We know roughly how much we lost in time and food between the above crops, but since our other plants are still in the middle of their lives, we’ll never know for sure how much this storm took out of them. And this insidious damage comes in two degrees as well: the first is the direct damage. Trellis cages blown away, hail holes in leaves and vegetables, broken branches and stems, etc.

The second is much more indirect, and more long lasting. Healthy plants are more resilient against pests and diseases. This is obvious even on our scale with potatoes and eggplants: this year we composted our potatoes, and even though there are Colorado Potato Beetles around, we have hardly seen a lick of damage on them compared to last year when we didn’t compost them; our eggplants went in the ground this year before a long hot period without any rain, and were unhealthy, soon they were devastated by flea beetles. So now all of our plants are hurt, and spending their energy on trying to heal. This means they have less energy to fend off blights and beetles. It’s no coincidence that Wednesday, the day after the storm, was the first day Fletcher, Peter and I remember seeing Japanese Beetles in such huge numbers around the farm. And with early blight hitting many tomatoes in the area, we’re on the lookout and have been pruning like crazy.

This is where the damage is obviously far reaching, even if only considering LaFarm. A bad pest and disease year means for years to come we’ll have to fight back against further pest and disease damage. As Sarah put it, the storm hitting the farm is like someone training for a marathon getting in a car accident: they’re going to be spending a lot of time dealing with their injuries and probably won’t be able to finish their training before the marathon, and those injuries could hurt for years. For a starting farmer, the amount of lost money and required additional work and investment this sort of storm event caused us, this could mark the end of a career, and the loss of a farm. A CSA may have to cancel most of a season and probably need to supply refunds of money they already spent, a market gardener would lose thousands of dollars of income between direct and indirect losses. And this has a lot of implications on the broader food system, which I’ll be writing about at length in my next post.

– 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

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

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