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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.