Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Growing season issues and new projects underway

As a beginning farmer, any new challenge or normal than expected weather is perceived as an issue. The new land on which I am farming this season has started to reveal it's secrets only now. The soil test doesn't do much except tell you the nutrient levels of the soil. The information is helpful but not the only information important to a farmer. On a previously unused land with just grass and weeds, creating productive space for growing food is in itself a challenge with many factors to consider. Laboratory tests do not reveal all those factors. It is you to whom the secrets will be unearthed !

I started this season on a high note after my land was tilled and beds prepared. It was very generous of my neighbor to come with his tractor and do the initial tilling of the land. Without this first step, it would have been hard to remove the grass. April was dry and cool and perfect for direct sowing cool season greens.

As you can see from the picture above, the farm was tilled using a four wheeled tractor with a roto-tiller attachment. It took less than 2 hours for the entire area (a third of an acre) to be tilled. My work started after that.

Removing sod: After the land was tilled, there were huge chunks of sod all over the farm. Removing them by hand was the only option I had at hand. To make things doable, I targeted removing sod for one bed at a time. After the major portion of the sod was removed, I covered the bed with a huge
40'x100' tarp so as to stop weeds from germinating. Removing sod by hand was tough on the body and seemed like taking too much time away from main farm activities. The tarp helped. However, 6 weeks later, the area uncovered by tarp has grass regrowing over it. Plus with all the walking, some area of the field has been compacted again. I could have tilled the land more but it wasn't an option. I did not own a tractor and didn't want to ask the neighbor again to do the hard work. Plus the soil was not ready to be tilled. Shortly after, I purchased a two wheeled tiller for preparing beds and mixing amendments. The two wheeled tiller is a somewhat useful machine. When a certain soil bed is covered under tarp or landscape fabric for a few weeks, the grass underneath dies itself and the soil remains loose. Using a rototiller on such a bed becomes easy. Better yet, sometimes tiller is not needed to loosen the soil under the tarp.

Dealing with soil and it's issues: The kind of problems clay soil will create when wet was not something I had thought about previously.
On the left is a picture of a bed I prepared for sowing spinach. The bed was under black plastic for five weeks.Even under the plastic, the bed was somewhat wet as water percolated under the bed from nearby areas. I uncovered it one day after heavy rains to let it dry. But rains every week never allowed the bed to be dry enough to sow seeds.

Although clay soil holds a lot of nutrients and isn't all bad in itself, when it rains, brace yourself for some work. Clay soils don't drain well. After every rain, a few areas of the field would not drain at all for anything to grow on them. I abandoned some of those areas and let grass grow on it. It would take days for low lying areas of my field to dry. At this time of the growing season, I do not have time to solve problems that require professional help and use of heavy machinery. I do plan to install a french drain of some sort around the field so that the water flow away from the main areas. Since a huge part of the farm outside the current growing area requires drainage to be fixed, it is a project that requires considering multiple long term solutions. Raised bed is the go-to solution for such a soil. Digging trenches by hand on compacted clay soil is hard and not worth at this time. I even rented a trencher from Home Depot one fine evening only to return it the same day (and loose money).
To improve some of the existing soil, I purchased $500 worth of top-soil with some compost in it with the intention of amending all my beds with quality soil. Two months later, half of the top-soil that was not used is growing weeds on it. In another part of my farm, peppers and okra (both heat loving crops) are growing in wet soil. How long will they survive before it dries is a test of time. It may not be clear in the picture but there are two small trenches dug along the sides of the bed of okra to allow some water to drain.

I have also amended some of my beds with horse manure. I got some good quality horse manure just recently. For a few days, I kept thinking if it is okay to use manure from an unknown source in my farm. And then I did. So far, the plants are not harmed and since most of them are under landscape fabric, weeds from horse manure hadn't been an issue. I give myself a brownie point every time I get hold of a useful thing that is low cost.

Weeds: The grass on the other side always looks greener', they say. In my case, that green grass is two feet tall and growing. I had anticipated weeds to be a challenge this first year. My previous years gardening experiences helped me understand this right. Out of the five acres, two acres of adjacent field has not been put to production this first season. As such, grass is growing freely in that area and when sun shines, the seeds spread to the adjacent growing area. I know I had to mow the nearby area soon. I don't own a lawn mower and hence I have to think what could be the best way to have the grass cut economically. Most landscapers are not willing to mow two acres of land with wet areas in between in the peak of busy summer season. I recently purchased a walk behind lawn mower to do some mowing every now and then. I don't like mowing as it takes a lot of time away from important farm work. The plan is to have a compact tractor by end of season.

Rains and wet weather: I love rains. I used to love them more in my past non-farming leasurly life. Now that I have to deal with farm and the soil, the rains don't always give a thrill. The month of May this year has been unusually wet for New Jersey. After already having transplanted peppers and okra in somewhat wet soil, I want to hold back on disturbing the soil when it is wet. Not a wise thing for anyone to disturb or put plants in soil that does not drain or dries well. The 4000 square feet of tarp has helped keep some area of the farm protected by rain and weed free. The issue is I haven't removed the heavy tarp to sow much under it. Every time I think of removing the tarp, the weather shows rains in forecast. The area under the tarp is the only area that is somewhat dry.

Germination of direct seeded crops: Germination has been an issue for me at some point or the other. I hand seed my crops in the field. A seeder would have been good but will delay the purchase for next month of two. Tatsoi and spinach are the two greens with spotty germination. I built a raised bed for tatsoi and it is under row covers most of the times. So is spinach. They both are tender greens and the row cover protects it from birds, mice and pests. I couldn't understand what exactly caused the spotty germination of tatsoi. I am going to continue sowing tatsoi and spinach in another soil beds during the growing season. That said, here is a picture of the first harvest of a handful of tatsoi. It tasted GREAT. Hoping to harvest more of it this season. So far, the pest pressure had been minimal.

Restore farm out buildings: I am blessed with a few buildings on my farm that already exist. I say blessed because without these buildings, I wouldn't have been able to find storage space for most of my farm supplies and equipments. A small missing roof above the shed or squirrels getting inside the storage shed isn't a big deal. I recently completed having an existing horse barn cleaned. Those barns are a lot of space for me to utilize for farm equipment and storage needs. I may convert one of them into a cold storage unit though I don't think they are clean enough for storing vegetables. Restoring some of the buildings is a project this season that I am excited about.

Fixing drainage issues: A landscaper whom I recently contacted about installing some kind of drain pipe to take the water away from my field gave me estimate of more than $6000. The length of drain pipe needed is more than a 100 feet. A lot of water logged low lying areas don't drain well. Unfortunately, they are near the growing area and stagnating water is not a good thing to have. That said, spending a lot of money right away to fix this problem is not in my budget. I am exploring options for fixing drainage issues that are cheaper than the above number. Once the rains stop, I may rent a trencher to dig a trench and throw a drain pipe in it and cover it with dirt.

Fencing: So far 400 feet of fence in already installed. The project is not done yet. The installation was done by hand by two people. One person stretched the fence tight, and the other stapled it to existing wooden fence post. Since the fence is not dug under the ground, it may not do good for those animals that burrow under the ground. So far, it is protecting my farm from deer.

At times, the issues and projects undone make me sleepless. I have committed to a farmer's market for the season and I worry if I will have enough produce to take to the market with all the above challenges. But then, someone has to start somewhere. Had I not started growing anything because of not having optimal growing conditions, I would be hurting my prospects. The best thing is I am not doing it all by myself. And better yet, the first step is already taken. 

Friday, March 24, 2017

Starting a commercial scale market garden

It's been a while since I sat down to write a new post. First the good news: I purchased a new house. Here are a few pictures.

My last 5-6 weeks were spent in moving, opening boxes,  having a broken HVAC system fixed and acknowledging the highs and lows of home ownership. Ever noticed how, when one moves to a new place, it takes a while for mind to consume the new and leave the old behind. I have moved thrice in last seven years. Every time I am at a new rental apartment, I look at the blank walls of new place to feel that this is going to be my place of dwelling for a while. Leaving behind a place where you have built memories and moments together with a loved one, is slightly disturbing.

Start small will be my mantra for this year. I will only be utilizing half acre plot to grow my garden. I will also be growing fewer vegetables than what I grew last year.  Growing fewer vegetables will help me focus on production and management of a small set of crops. Each crop family has different nutrient requirement. Providing the right set of growing conditions for few crops is much better than growing a variety of crops on the land, at least for a beginning grower with limited resources.

This year I will be taking my produce to a nearby farmer's market. My reasons for being at a farmer's market are two fold. Firstly, I wanted to meet new people and share my produce with the community. It will also be a way to know how the system works, what is trending in specialty produce and the food choices of people in 2017. Whether or not I will be able to generate sales will be a test of time. I am totally new in direct marketing domain and there are a lot of unknowns in front of me. Unless I do it, I won't know it. Secondly, selling wholesale requires a larger volume of produce consistently that what is required at a farmer's market. I am farming on a new land this year and it will take some time to know what grows and what doesn't. I have yet to think of what to do with the unsold produce that comes back from the market. Any suggestions are welcome.

Experimenting new methods on new land

I will be making a few tweaks in my methods this year. The tweaks come from failures and mistakes of last year.

Seed germination and indoor growing: I started putting seeds indoors since the beginning of March. Spring onion seeds were put in 5 72 cell seed trays. I also switched my seed growing medium to PROMIX (biofungicide+mycorrhizae). So far, the results have been good. It is still early to give a final verdict on this product.
Soil growing medium
Unlike last year, when I put my seedlings in an unheated hoophouse, I am using indoor grow lights in my basement this year.  I made two purchases. One was an Agrobite Fluoroscent Grow light unit and the other was a set of T8 fluoroscent bulbs purchased from Lowe's. The former is a T5 bulbs unit, hence a bit expensive. The later one works fine too, although the output is slightly lower than T5s. I wanted to experiment with different growing lights to see how plants perform under each one. I also purchased an 18' long incandecent rope light to put under my seed trays. The lights provide extra warmth to the seeds growing indoors in my basement. This is most suited for my pepper seedlings (peppers are a heat loving crop). There are a few other changes that I did in watering techniques, seed sowing methods, temperature control and monitoring.

Spring Onions
Happy peppers
Spring Onions under lights

Tillage and land preparation: There are a host of different ways in which soil can be prepared for growing food. It all comes down to resources at hand, scale, time and type of soil. I am on a land that used to be an old horse pasture.  All that is currently growing on the land is grass, some weeds and lots of trees. In order to make turn this land into a productive vegetable garden, I am debating between using no-till seed bed methods versus the conventional tillage. Since I have limited tools and no heavy machines, I am inclined towards no-till raised garden bed for growing most the greens like lettuce, salad greens, spinach and herbs. Raised bed will give me greater control over the soil for tender greens. Weeding will be easy and protecting and covering them using row covers or shade clothes will be easier. As for all other vegetables, raised beds will be cost prohibitive. I am leaning towards asking someone else with machinery to do a  one-time initial tilling. There aren't many people who do this work in my area. I may end of buying a small used roto-tiller for myself along with a few hand tools like a stirrup hoe. No-till techniques are something which I am very interested in experimenting with this year. The less disturbance in soil, the better it builds itself.

Soil Amendments: The pH of soil on my land is around 5.6. Acidic soils are not very ideal for growing most vegetables. To start with, I am looking to source local mushroom compost to add to my soil to build some organic matter. I will have to get the compost tested to see what exactly is the N-P-K ratio is. In absence of knowing the compost source and the facility in which it is produced, it is hard to comment on its quality. I am also trying to find someone who can deliver aged horse manure to my place in bulk. No luck so far. Lime is another important amendment I will be using this year. And to add some more flavor to the soil, bags of used coffee grounds from Starbucks will be mixed in the garden soil.

Farm Infrastructure: The mention of a farm brings up two images in mind - Tractors running on large fields or farmers toiling in the hot sun. Both images are a depiction of economies of scale. On a urban farm which grows specialty produce for specific consumers, production techniques and manpower available determine the investment needed to benefit the bottom line. My major infrastructure investment this year will be a pick-up truck (without which I absolutely cannot move heavy stuff from point A to point B), fence, hand tools, low tunnel tools, irrigation supplies and cold-storage. These are not the only investment though. At some point in the journey, there will also be a few unforeseen (and unpleasant) expenses. When I read and watch other small scale farmers utilizing some amazingly innovative tools and techniques, I most definitely want to have those tools. I do, however, have to hold my horses before making an impulsive purchase.

Know Thy Market: I have worked in corporate America for a while and I realize what it takes to 'Know Thy Customers'. It takes a lot ! Being an introvert, relationship building isn't my natural skill. On top of that, unknowns and fear of failure scare me. Being a farmer's market and meeting new people everyday is a chance to confront those fears and get past it. I will write a separate post at the end of growing season about my experiences at the market.

Crop Planning: One of the most important things in planning a diversified farm is having a plan that guides a grower throughout the season. A plan, in its basic form, involves knowing succession planting of each crop to be grown. It also involves planning the active areas of the field for its relative suitability for each crop. A good plan comes with some experience in growing and managing a field or garden for a few seasons. I have a rough outline of what I will be growing in summer and fall.

The variables and unknowns I have this year are a welcome challenge. When I write some of my thoughts here, it helps me understand what I am dealing with and hopefully to educate and inform anyone reading it. Suggestions and comments are welcome.

Happy Planting.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

How much did my vegetable garden cost - a detailed breakdown

I love numbers. Adding and subtracting them, analyzing them, using them to derive insights or just playing a number's game. As much as I hated mathematics during high school, I love it now. Sudoku is my favorite solitary activity.

My garden budget for the year 2016, the year I first started a vegetable garden, was drafted to keep track of how much was I spending on every trip to Home Depot and shopping at Amazon. My initial estimated budget for garden was $500 for entire season. My garden, as you will see from my expenses below, was far from being 'on budget'. I will elaborate on the reasons. It may help you understand, based on your level of expertise and experience gardening, where some expenses can be avoided.

Over the course of this year, I came across articles on web that talked about 'gardening on a budget'. Some gardeners spent as little as $75 on their garden while harvesting hundreds of pounds of vegetables while others spent $500 in building a bountiful garden to grow produce they eat. Many of the principles discussed in such articles did not apply to me in 2016, when I just started growing food for myself. Being on budget depends on scale and skills. I still read articles and blog posts from where I can gather information on building a commercial garden on budget. However, I take the advice with a grain of salt. As a beginner, you spend some money learning about materials and equipments that work for you. The budget presented here are the costs I incurred. Not everyone will incur the same when they start. The following costs were incurred because I was growing 8-9 different vegetable varieties in garden. Your expenses, if you start small, will be way less than mine's.

First, a look at my (extravagant) garden expenses for 2016.

Materials                                       Cost (US Dollars)
Vermont Seed Company Seeds.............12.15
Baker Creek Heirloom seeds.................14.50
Soil Testing (Rutgers University)..... ....27.00
Cress seeds.............................................2.50
More vegetable seeds.............................19.25
Fish Emulsion.........................................13.00
Echo 16" grass trimmer..........................150.00
Weedblock Fabric...................................39.94
Pre mixed fuel (for trimmer)...................7.97
Spray bottle.............................................3.78
Wood Chips............................................50.00
Galvanized steel wire hoops (25)...........47.56
Hoophouse materials (Home Depot)......55.00
Planting Pots (Single).............................19.00
Garden Labels.........................................6.00
Seed starter trays....................................12.95
Growing trays.........................................16.00
Potting Mix (organic).............................12.00
Pitch fork................................................10.00
Fence posts (20)......................................75.00
Woodsaw + Hammer...............................7.00
Trash bin for food scraps (for composting)....10.00
Water sprayer + clips...............................2.50
Wheelbarrow + Potting Mix+Additional Seed Trays.....78.00
Pot (planting ginger)................................9.00
Leaf Compost 10 yards...........................200.00
Pulverized Lime......................................13.92
Rototiller Rental......................................474.32
Hose Pipe 100 ft + Spray Nozzle.............47.00
Pulverized Lime (more)...........................10.41
Spray Mask...............................................5.47
Agribon Row Cover...................................56.00
Garden stool...............................................75.00
Tomato stakes 20........................................40.66
Raccoon Cage trap.....................................50.00

Total Expenses:  $1833.16

Why did it went so high and where can costs be cut

  • My major expenditure the first year was rototiller rental to turn up the soil and prepare the garden for vegetables. Can it be cut ? Sure, if you own the right equipments or can get land prepapared by a friend. Another way is to practice no-till gardening, prepare raised beds with wood pallets or practice other permaculture methods. Based on my experience, in any way, there will be costs incurred in the beginning. Some people suggest digging garden by hand using broadfork or other tools. It's way too hard to do on hardpan soil that has never been worked before. Moreover, my garden was close to quarter acre. 
  • My second major expenditure was compost and wood chips for the garden. By summer, the weeds were spreading too fast and lack of any kind of weeding tool made it hard to do weeding by hand. I figured covering the rows between vegetable beds with black plastic or spreading woodchips over layers of cardboard would help. It did. Mulching reduced my effort a lot. The best thing, mulching can be done on big or small garden alike. The only problem was I did not have any cheap access to lot of cardboard sheets at once. I found a free source of cardboard sheets on Craigslist and brought whatever I can in my SUV. As for leaf compost, it is a wonderful thing for garden IF YOU CAN GET IT FOR CHEAP or build your own. Lot of horse manure was readily available for free from nearby towns. Bringing it to home was not feasible as I did not have my own pickup truck. Home Depot and other garden supply stores sold compost and manures in 40 pound bags. The quantity of store brought compost or manure was too less for a garden of my size. Additionally, I did not entirely trust the big store brands when it came to superior quality compost. I paid $200 to a garden supply store that delivered 10 yards of leaf compost for me. I did made little bit of my own compost but it wasn't sufficient for entire garden. In future, I would continue to build my own compost or have a truck which can be used to bring animal manure from nearby places. 
  • My third minor expenditure was on some not-so-necessary single planting pots. These pots did look good with it's bright yellow color but could not be used for the purpose I had in mind. They are good if you are gifting potted plants to someone or simply want to keep small pots in kitchen window. I still have them and would find a better use of them for next growing season. 
  • My fourth expenditure item that I did not need in large quantity for my garden size was leaf compost. I ordered 10 yards of leaf compost. I could not use all of it in the vegetable beds. I could have ordered less. Remember that local compost suppliers need you to order compost in bulk for them to deliver. I must say that leaf compost added organic matter to soil and made soil beds loose and workable in addition to being a useful soil amendment. I had not ordered any other fertilizer in bulk except leaf compost. 
  • My fifth minor expense was on purchasing this garden stool. I purchased it thinking it would save my back but since I was doing all the weeding by hand, I still had to bend to weed. It is a great sitting stool but is good for tasks like trimming flowers where you do not have to bend all the way down to do it. Additionally, dragging this stool seemed like a chore. I could have avoided the purchase. 
  • My sixth minor expense was on seeds. The cost of seeds can be cut to a minimum if you are part of a seed exchange group, a community garden or have a good gardener as friend. I ordered organic heirloom varieties of seeds from farms outside my state because I trusted their seed quality over what's available in Walmart, Home Depot or Lowes. If you do order seeds, I would suggested order all your needed seeds at once. You will save on shipping costs. Local garden supply centers, if they grow open pollinated organic seeds, are also a great source for getting seeds. I prefer to grow all of my vegetables and flowers from seed instead of cuttings. I like to learn and understand the entire lifecycle of a plant. Sowing a seed and watching it grow helps me accomplish that. 
All the other expenses were necessary in one or the other way. I should have purchased wheel hoe or something of the sort to tackle weeds in between vegetable beds. When I first started thinking about planning my own vegetable garden, I planted more crops than I could handle and understand. While quarter acre of land doesn't sound like a big land to manage, the varied tasks on different crop families can be a lot of work. For example, weeds were out of control by Sepetember on portions of garden uncovered by mulch. Sweet peppers and melons planted in summer succumbed to the weed pressure. 

Growing a few vegetables in the garden really isn't an expensive task. If you cannot spend much time or money, plant some easy growing crops that do well in your region. Use winter weekends to think and plan that beautiful edible garden. 

Wishing everyone a happy and healthy 2017. Share your winter garden pictures and feel free to post a comment.