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Thursday, March 24, 2016

Money matters

A common dilemma most farmers or serious gardeners face is how much to invest when you don't know how long can you sustain it. The talk-of-the-town among people in agriculture community is that a serious farmer who sees the prospects of his products will invest in the necessary resources from the beginning. These could be soil amendments, farm infrastructure, marketing, building relationships with prospective customers and so on. A hobby farmer or someone experimenting on a temporary basis will just throw seeds out of his window on soil and wait for them to sprout. An apartment dweller may be more interested in container gardening with store brought soil, seeds and fertilizers (if any). Since they won't worried about selling their products to make a living, huge investments in capital may not a priority.

There is another league of people that are often unaddressed in the agricultural world. These are farmers who are serious about farming yet also want to first explore it as an economically viable career alternative. Most government grants in farming are not given to someone just experimenting but to someone who has been on the land for more than two years (five years in best case). This also holds true for private investments in farmlands. However, a toddler needs support when he/she is just learning to walk or attempting to balance on his two feet and not when he can run and ride his little tricycle. I believe that if beginning farmers in their first or second year of farming are not supported (worse, are not even eligible for support), the rate of failure increases and so does a disinterest in the field. I can't change or fight government policies so I won't delve further.

Often beginning farmers will just put the basic required resources to start out and will scale up with time (if they do). They may or may not register themselves as a farm. They may also not own a farm or a home. They may not know if they will be living at their current location the next year. A change in family's circumstances or spouse's job may force them to relocate to a different city (or country) down the line. That does not mean they aren't serious about what they are doing. It just means that they may not want to build a fancy barn or buy a rototiller right away for their land. Should such people just be hobby gardeners ?  It is difficult to say because farming is more capital intensive that other professions. Even for a season or two, working on a farm requires putting up fences, having proper irrigation systems in place, a basic facility to store and process the produce, among other things. A farmer who is just starting as a gardener will understand what is needed to implement ideas that are financially feasible and scalable in the long term. In farming, time is an important factor that tests a person's resilience from the very beginning. It takes time to build a good soil, it takes time to understand customers and sales channel and it takes time to understand what works for your plants and what doesn't. This time could be in years. Nothing comes cheap. If selling to restaurants isn't on the cards the first year (because half of chefs won't return your call and other half will ask what are you good at), then direct marketing within the community should be the way to go. This is just one way to test an idea without dwindling a bank account. Testing ideas also requires some initial spending. Expenses easily add up when testing more than one idea at a time. And when financial support from any institution or government body is not on the cards, the going for a common man gets tough. After all, why should someone support you when you can't demonstrate the seriousness of your idea and prove a market demand.

In today's economy, people can't think of being in the same place at all time with same people. The same applies for farmers. People move and along with them, their careers. An agricultural enterprise that works in one location can work in other location too (and probably in better ways).  Trials and errors should not be taken as a sign of frivolous endeavors. Investors, governments and everybody else who champions for sustainable agriculture, should turn their skepticism to some level of trust when it comes to supporting fledgling farmers who are taking a SERIOUS yet small steps in starting their careers in a not-so-glamorous yet extremely fulfilling career alternative.

Best Always

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Temperature troubles inside a hoophouse

It's still March madness and with cold winds, the temperature says 'No' to warming up for more than a day (if at all). Here in west New Jersey, the temperature fluctuations this month have taken me (and my plants) by surprise.  I am relying on my little hoophouse to keep my seedlings warm at night. However, an unheated hoophouse isn't the best bet to keep young plants in place when temperature drops to less than 35 degree Fahrenheit at night.

Today started on a not-so-happy note. I saw the sad demise of my fenugreek seeds potted in a plastic container that were kept inside the hoophouse overnight.

The other seedlings in the hoophouse were not affected so much as fenugreek (as you can see in the picture). They were in a different stage of growth.

Cress, basil and another set of fenugreek look okay

Since the fenugreek stems became spindly when I saw them today morning, I just got rid of the entire sprouts. I knew they wouldn't recover. I am guessing it's the temperature variations that has caused the effect. You see, seeing your plants dead on a beautiful sunny morning doesn't make a happy start to the day. And that too fenugreek. Fenugreek is dear to me - I love its green leaves that can be cooked or eaten raw in more than one ways. The bitter taste gives fenugreek it's distinct, crisp flavor.

Lesson learnt : bring seedlings inside the house at night when temperature falls to 35 degrees Fahrenheit or below. While some who reading this blog, may say, Oh, didn't she knew it, young seedlings cannot resist freezing temperatures, it's common sense. I knew very well that seedlings are not so cold hardy. I used to bring my plants inside every so often whenever temperature dipped. The reason I put them out in the hoophouse overnight was to see if hoophouse was warm enough for the plants to survive. I could have tested the inside temperature by a thermometer but lessons learnt hard and lessons learnt best. The plants do well in the hoophouse at nights when temperature is above 40 degrees and the day had been sunny. The hoophouse gets warm enough on sunny days to keep the plants safe at nights.

I am not disheartened. I planted another round of organic fenugreek seeds (store brought) in the container. In less than a week, the seeds will sprout and the green baby leaves will make me happy again. Trial and error is a part of learning.

Have a wonderful day.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

The very first construction project

I call it March Madness. My first ever (and yet successful) attempt at building a mini greenhouse for the garden. The purchased equipment was lying in the garage since two weeks, waiting for the right weather and conditions to be put to their use. Spring is a beautiful time. Animals and humans both, start coming out of their holes (and homes). I like the warming up exercise weather does in march. 

I started the construction of greenhouse by selecting a location which gets at least six hours of sunlight. It was easy to find. I chose a location from where I could see my hoophouse from my living room and kitchen. It's easy to monitor that way. The first step involved laying two black plastic sheets on the ground at the chosen site. This was to heat up the land and also to inhibit the growth of grass underneath. I then put an old wooden tray on top of it to hold the plastic sheets together. I found the wooden tray in one of the many barns on the property.

The next step was to position the three PVC pipes in place. I used six rebars cut to 8" in length to be inserted into PVC pipes to hold them tightly in the ground. The PVC pipes, if inserted by itself directly in the ground, would have the strength to be in place. I inserted the rebars in the ground first and then put the PVC pipes through them. At times, the PVC pipe would not fit snugly into the rebars. The rebars had rough edges and the PVC pipes were smooth from inside. A little pressure was needed to fit the two together. At other times, I decided to first put the rebar into the PVC pipe before inserting the rebar in the ground. This was a better approach. It was important to have the PVC pipes inserted into the ground properly. Putting the iron rebars in the ground was a work of strength, and I am not the best person to do this (sometimes).

Once the PVC pipes were in place from both ends, they formed a nice semi-circular loop. I decided to tie the pipes together with strings to hold them together in windy conditions. I had a jute string which I tied on the lower half of the three pipes on both sides. Another measure to keep the structure in place was to give them strength from the top with a wooden bar. I had purchased a six and half feet long wooden bar which I screwed to the PVC pipes on the top. Ideally, I wanted to put the wooden bar underneath the top of PVC pipes but due to lack of long screws, I had to do it otherwise. I had screws that were around 4” in height. This height was not sufficient to put both the wooden bar and the PVC pipes together (the combined thickness of both was around 7”).

I then moved forward with the last task of putting the white sheet on top of the structure to cover it up entirely. I had a 10’ X 25’ long sheet. Two of these were needed. I taped the two sheets together first on a flat floor using a duct tape on both sides of the joint to give it extra strength. I lifted the sheet and put it on the PVC pipes to cover them from top.The sides of the sheet was held by two lightweight wooden bars. The purpose of these was to easily roll the extra sheet and keep it folded. (I understand that instead of stones, a wooden bolstering would have been much better. I didn't want to spend too much on buying so many wooden bars). The last part was folding the sheet together, clipping then with tarp clips and putting heavy stones to hold them together against heavy winds. And I was done. FYI, for steps that required strength, it was my husband who held me and the rebars together. 

It has been three weeks since the hoophouse above was built. So far, it has done incredibly well and has survived winds in the region (I mean winds with speeds upto 10-15 miles per hour, not tornadoes) along with periods of rain. I have built this hoophouse as a temporary, cheap and easy-to-construct structure that could provide protection to my container plants in spring and fall. It is not built for stormy weather and heavy snow. It is temporary because I don't know if I will be tilling the soil on this farm next year as well. Occasionally, I need to take care of it and put additional arrangements to keep the sheet in place during gusty winds. To provide ventilation, I open the hoophouse from one side everyday from late morning till evening depending upon weather. This step is a bit manual and I have to attend to the hoophouse twice a day. If you love to take care of plants, you woudn't mind a little bending and some light manual work. 

From trash to treasure

Happy St Patrick's Day. Weather St Patrick knew or not, I associate the color green with nature, in all forms, it is beautiful. It is a beautiful cloudy morning but soon the sun will make it's way through the clouds and shower it's abundance to the earth. No wonder, people in some parts of the world consider Sun as a god and dutifully offer their prayers everyday. Prayer, to me, is a way of expressing gratitude.

As a city-dweller all my life, I would not think working with trash could be something I will be excited about. Considering the cleanliness freak I am, I like to wipe away dirt and trash to as far away and as often as I can ( and so coexistig with me can sometimes make some people roll their eyes

 The spring of 2016 is different. I started my first urban farm on half an acre plot on a rented house this year. I have to say hear that half an acre is only a fraction of the 100+ acres of property I am residing at. It is a beautiful farmland with amazing views of rolling fields in the back. Every morning, after waking up or after my tea, I sit on my stairs and spend a few minutes gazing the views. For someone who has spent all of her life in urban settings, an open area is a break from norm and oh so 'aha'  experience for the eyes and the mind.

I am building a compost bin in my backyard so that I could use the compost as a natural organic fertilizer for my garden. After reading a lot of 'how-to' blogs and viewing 'how-to' videos on youtube to know how to build a compost bin, I started one of my own. I bought an old discarded piece of wooden box 3'x3'x3' to use as a bin to fill my composting materials. I drilled small holes in the bin on all sides to allow for air circulation. I filled it with alternating layers of dry branches, green leaves, old grass clippings and some food scraps. The hard part was breaking the branches of the shrub that I was putting in my bin. The shrub (shown here) needed a trim and I thought of using the branches for compost. I am not sure of the name of this shrub but here is a picture.

The shrub branches I was using was an alternative to hay as brown carbonaceous material for the compost. I did not own a shredder of any kind and breaking stiff branches by hand was time consuming. Professional grade shredders are a good investment but since they are expensive piece of machinery, I rather skip making costly investments in my first year. The material so far filled only half of my bin. Since I did not have enough food scraps at the time, I just started with whatever I have. I also added some top soil with grass in the compost so as to have earthworms in it to start the decomposing process. Earthworms truly are a gardener's friend. I watered the materials to make it damp, then covered it with a black plastic sheet and put a discarded wooden tray on top of it to keep the plastic in place. The black plastic sheet would protect the bin and it's contents from predators and weather. There is a fat groundhog in my garden that calls the garden it's home. Here is how my bin looks.

I plan to get the hot composting process taking place so that I can use this home-made compost this year in my garden. I don't want to wait for an year to get the end product. I had read somewhere that in order to speed-up the composting process the materials in the compost should be finely shredded. Well, they aren't in my case. I plan to add layers of food scraps every week in this compost and turning in the pile every two weeks to speed up the aerobic processes inside the bin. As an alternative to active material, I caught some earthworms from my garden and put them in the compost bin. I was laughing at myself while catching earthworms and feeling little awkward inside. The whole process of piling up trash and breaking branches and working on the bin was surprisingly new for me and hence the feeling.

My inner motivation for taking up this task was to experience how nature turns trash to something useful and seeing the processes unfold. I am trying to mimic the process as nature wold have done it without any intervention (over a long period of time). Compost, in it's natural form, is nature's way of giving back what we take from it. Pure magical alchemy.

Feel free to offer feedback in comments below.