What a nice week here at the farm. The warmth seemed to wake up all the plants, all at once. We love the beauty of the flowering trees, especially the stone fruits (peaches, plums, cherries, apricots) and pome fruits (pears and apples). Even if these trees are tricky to get good fruit without sprays, they're worth planting just for the spring blossoms. Some of our trees are flowering for the first time this year and some will flower in late April to early May (apple, persimmon, pawpaw) and on into June (jujube). We hope you enjoy these fruit blossoms and hope it even spurs you to start your own little orchard!
It’s hard to believe that Spring is just one week away. The sun is slowly winning the battle over the cold and snow and our thoughts have turned to warm afternoons spent out in the orchard, ideally eating handfuls of berries.
A winter of learning
This has been an eventful winter. One of our favorite times this winter was our time spent at the annual PASA Conference held in State College. This was a jam-packed two day event full of seminars on every imaginable topic on sustainable agriculture. The attendees are as varied as the topics, from Amish folk to hippies. Kat contemplated dreds for at least two weeks afterwards but I talked her out of it. At the conference I mostly attending soil health topics while Kat focused on animal husbandry. We were exhausted (in a good way!) at the end of two days.
I also had the opportunity to attend the Real Health Conference held at Lancaster Ag. I spent the day listening to Michael Phillips, an author and proponent of holistic orchard management. It again was a wealth of information but was exciting to hear from a person managing an organic apple orchard.
The remainder of the winter has been spent reading as well as attending our Beginning Commercial Tree Fruit Course put on by PSU. I appreciate the course and the information, but the majority of the content is focused on conventional production rather than organic. It’s really hard to find good sources of information on organic production where folks are doing it on a larger scale. Still, we’re up for the challenge.
2014-2015 Winter Recap
Winter was a rough one this year. Okay, maybe rough is an understatement. Things started out okay in December but goodness, once the snow really hit it didn’t leave until, well, this week. Mid-to-late February ran a good 15-20 degrees below normal for the average highs and I believe we might have even set a record low or two. Still, on the whole, the winter didn’t seem as severe as last year’s and we only hit -3F (yea, only -3F, but at least it wasn’t last year’s -5F!). Snow cover remained intact for pretty much the entire cold period so I’m hopeful that it will help some of the borderline plants to survive the cold.
There were a number of our plants put to the test this year. Spring will tell the full story of how they fared, but I expect the story with our figs to be close to the same as last year: almost completely top-killed. Still, I expect most to survive and push up again from close to ground level. My curiosity is centered on our Asian persimmons, rabbiteye blueberries, and the Salavatski pomegranate. I've done a few scratch tests on the bark of each of these and everything looks good so far, much to my surprise.
Last year we lost the flower buds on all but one Asian persimmon, Great Wall, which happened to bear a great crop for the year. Okay, Saijo also produced one fruit, but that really doesn’t count. I’ll be curious to see how the plants fared this year, especially some of the newer cultivars that had just one year in the ground.
I also picked up a number of rabbiteye blueberries this past year and planted them. Supposedly they begin to start experiencing damage at 0F with major damage and death around -5F. They’re in a somewhat sheltered location so this should be a good test for them.
Our Salavatski pomegranates are another curiosity this year. Supposedly they can stand around -8F in a protected area (like against a house), but ours are out in the open in our orchard (a bit wind-sheltered, but still). With -5F last year they all died to the ground (or close to it) but resprouted like crazy last summer and grew quite a lot. With a less severe winter this year and another year in the ground, perhaps they’ll fare better.
So what IS reliably hardy even in these two harsh winters? Pretty much everything else we have planted. Pears, apples, northern highbush and half-high blueberries, currants, lingonberries, honeyberries, and most raspberries seem to shrug off this kind of cold like it’s nothing. Pawpaws, jujubes, and stone fruits are much the same and would likely be okay down to at least the negative teens (though peach and apricot flower buds don’t necessarily survive this cold). Blackberries seem to vary on location. At the orchard where I worked, some the blackberries froze out last year while others did much better. At our own orchard I didn’t see any damage, even on some late-planted varieties that I had considered perhaps borderline (Kiowa and Osage).
Plans for the growing season
So what’s on tap for the growing season? Lots! This year our efforts are focused on soil health and infrastructure.
The PASA conference this year really underscored for us the importance of establishing a healthy soil: one high in organic matter and biologically active. Since the field we’re planting in has been farmed conventionally for quite a while we’re not sure of its condition. We’ll start in the spring with a soil test to assess where we’re at, then proceed with a cover crop rotation through the spring and summer to both build up soil organic matter and jump-start the soil biology. We also plan to have the goats graze the cover crop via moveable pastures.
Infrastructure is another big part of what we’ll be focused on this year. We’ll be tearing down much of the existing electric fence that runs the course of the field and either replacing it or changing it over to an orchard fence to keep the deer out. We’ll also be fixing up the existing wooden fencing to move our goats or chickens over to the farm. We should pretty much be experts in fencing, and completely tired of it, by the end of the growing season.
Irrigation is another big project this year. We were blessed to have a functioning irrigation well already on the property from its days as a tree farm. We’ll fix up that system and run main supply lines to various spots in the orchard to set the stage for planting next year.
Finally, we’re readying our nursery area to begin growing out our production fig trees as well as those we’ll have for sale. We’ve also ordered native trees to help landscape the wood line around the orchard and enhance the beauty of the landscape.
New Plants for a New Year
What would a new year be without some new plants to try? It seems like each year we experiment with a few more new plants or at least a few new cultivars of plants we already grow.
So I know by all reasonable measures we’re growing enough figs. Though another way to look at it is if we’re currently growing around 80 varieties, what’s 3 or 4 more, right? This year we’re trying out Sodus Sicilian, Bisirri #3, Petite Aubique, and LSU Champagne to see how they fare here (likely in pots).
We’ve grown just two varieties of pomegranates so far, Salavatski and Kazake, and are branching out to try a few more. Salavatski and Kazake are purportedly some of the most hardy varieties, withstanding some dips into the negatives and making them mostly hardy for our 6b/7a climate zone. We’ll try out some earlier fruiting varieties this year to evaluate them for early production: Ambrosia, Azadi, Eversweet, Kaim-anor, Kaj-acik-anor, and Suhr-anor.
For Asian persimmons, we’re branching out this year to try a few varieties in pots. Yea, that might be a little crazy but if we can determine a few that produce early and are non-astringent (meaning you can eat them while they’re still hard), then they might be candidates for growing in high tunnels. For Asian persimmons we’re adding Wase Fuyu, Hira Tanenashi, Gwang Yang, Chocolate, CoffeeCake, Izu, and Maru. For Asian/American hybrids, we’re trying Nikita’s Gift (Nikitskaya Bordovaya), Rosseyanka, and Kasandra. For American persimmons we’re trying Prok, Celebrity, Wonderful, and 100-46. Now about finding a place to plant most of them…
What else? We received some seeds from a supposed Iranian lemon, which are growing nicely. I confess, I have a love/hate relationship with citrus. I love the evergreen leaves and the smell of the blossoms, but I can never seem to overwinter them all that well. I’m also curious about a recent introduction, the Sherbet Berry (sounds good, right?), Grewia asiatica. It’s supposedly deciduous and fruits on new wood like figs. However it may not stand up well to freezes so I’m not sure how we might overwinter it, even in pots.
Wrap it up already
It’s finally warming up after a steadily cold winter. All this cold may end up being a blessing in terms of later bloom times and suppressed insect populations. Look for an update from us in the next month as plants slowly begin to wake up.
Enjoy the remainder of winter everyone, the busy season is just around the bend! We look forward to serving you this coming season.
As the growing season is now at an end, naturally, this is the question we most frequently receive. Catch up on our reality TV and soaps, of course! JUST KIDDING. :-)
While what we do for a living is dependent on sunshine and temperatures that are 60+, we also need this time of cold. Every fruit and vegetable has a season in which they will bear. In order for our fruits to bear again next year, they need a certain number of chill hours. Just as God puts our plants into a season of rest through the cold weather, we too take this time to slow down and rest. The busiest months of the year for us are March-June - the months we ready ourselves for a summer of growing and harvest. In reverse, the months of November-February are our slowest months because there is not urgency with attending to plants and harvest. This does not mean we sit around watching TV all day though.
Here are the top ways that we use our winter months:
Preparing for winter
In early November, Tim moved all of his potted figs up to our driveway where they entered dormancy. Once dormant, he took over 400 (yes 400!) cuttings, which will each grow into a fig tree. He then moved the potted trees to the cold cellar to protect them through the colder winter temperatures, and then he will move them back out into the garden in the late spring.
With the cuttings he took, Tim has been diligently filling pots, hanging lights, wrapping cuttings, and placing them in soil. Because the figs entered dormancy before the cuttings were taken, now that the cuttings are in soil, under lights, and warmer, they think that it is spring and they are starting to wake up. We have our first fig leaves pushing through in January!
We have been clearing out our summer garden beds of all spent vegetables. This will save us a step in the spring when we go to plant again. We are also spreading composted chicken and goat manure in our beds to provide an even richer soil for our vegetables this year.
I have been paying more attention to our livestock this winter because there is less of a margin for error when temperatures are below freezing. Our goats and chickens share a barn, which is not ideal because chickens are very messy and we’d like to keep our goats clean and healthy. I have been spending some time putting up chicken barriers so the goats have a clean place to rest. We have also closed one of our exterior goat doors as a wind block. Goats do not mind the cold, but they cannot handle too many drafts. So while we have a good solution in closing off one of the doors, it means we must also be more vigilant in keeping bedding cleaned. In the warmer months, the animals spend less time indoors, causing less mess (read: poop), and we are also able to leave all the barn doors open, which provides better ventilation and therefore requires less frequent cleaning.
I have also been experimenting with goat milk now that I have a little more time on my hands. I have made several flavors of goat milk ice cream and they have been wonderful! I think peppermint brownie has been my favorite. My goat milk days are running out soon though. We have bred our nanny goat and she is due to kid at the end of April! These will be our first farm born kids and we are so excited to meet them!
In chicken news, I have been incubating a dozen of our chickens eggs this month and if all is well, we should be welcoming our first farm-born chicks at the end of the month! It is nice to have these slower months to dabble in other areas of interest and discover new directions we could go in the future. Shhh! Just don’t tell Tim ;-). If you can’t tell, I’m the animal lover of the house.
In the short months we have had off, we have already run water and electric out to our gardens and outbuildings (with help) and Tim has corrected all of the rust on the farm truck so that it will last us through many winters to come (Lord willing). There are also many neglected home maintenance tasks we have been tackling. When we are in the thick of the growing and harvesting seasons, the things that are not wilting, rotting, or crying tend to get neglected.
Continuing to Learn
This winter has been a valuable time for furthering our farm education. Tim and I have both been attending a beginning tree fruit growers class through Penn State out in Bloomsburg. It has been valuable in learning about different types of fruit, orchard layout, pest management, and many other things. We have also met some young farmers following their passions too - very encouraging! Tim has also been on a few farm tours, a soil management conference, a cider tour, and most recently, we both attended the farm show with the kids! Tim will also be attending a class for new farmers this month and we will both be attending the PASA conference next month. Because farming is a new venture for us, it is important that we learn from the experts in the field.
Planning for 2015
Many of you know that we recently purchased a 13 acre farm six miles from our home. We have many plans for the acreage and the buildings. There is a large farm house that is in good shape, but will need some repairs and updating. We have been tackling some of that this month. There are also two barns that will need a little maintenance and modification for our future uses.
The acreage itself is a good size for us as we grow. This winter is time for drawing up site plans as well as projecting our short and long terms goals for the space. We will not be planting all 13 at once, but it is very important to plant things in the right order and location so that we do not make costly mistakes. For example, any tree fruits should be planted right away because some will require three years in the ground before achieving even a small crop. In the same token, we need to plant some things that will produce in the first year so we we have something to offer right away. All of these factors require thorough analysis. This kind of thinking is best done in this down time. If we had had to juggle strategic planning in the same season as planting or harvesting, we would have done the farm a disservice.
Being a better spouse, parent, friend, ______.
While Tim and I try to not overextend ourselves during the growing season, we do make choices of how we spend our time. This is the first summer we have not travelled to visit family or go on a vacation, even for a weekend. It has been a time to catch up with family and friends and invest time into others, which in turn blesses us. It is time for me to be the soccer mom (minus soccer) and drive my kids to and from preschool and appointments. It has been a blessing having the sun set early because it gives us time in front of the fire with our kids, dancing and playing games. I miss these times during the summer when it is still light outside when they go to sleep. We do spend lots of time with our kids in the summer because they are outside with us while we work, but the time we spend now is specifically focused on them and cultivating a deeper family relationship.
So as you can see, there is plenty to keep a farmer (at least an aspiring one) busy year round! If you have any questions for us, ask away! We will try to respond through our Facebook page or in a future post. Happy winter!
It's official: we've just closed on a new piece of land on which to start our u-pick farm and fruit tree nursery! The new farm is located on a 13 acre piece of beautiful farmland along the rolling hills between Mechanicsburg and Carlisle. It has an old timber frame barn on the property as well as a horse barn. We'll be spending the winter and early spring preparing the land and getting things fixed up for the growing season to come. Stay tuned for details, but until then hopefully these pictures will hold you over.
All thanks and glory to God!
Winter seems to have arrived early to south central Pennsylvania. On Tuesday, with temperatures never leaving the 20s and a fierce wind blowing, I had the opportunity the opportunity to visit Spiral Path Farm and North Mountain Pastures, both in Perry County, PA, as part of our membership in the Young Growers Alliance. I packed on the layers and headed north. What a visit!
Spiral Path Farm
Spiral Path is a large organic vegetable farm situated in Loysville. They farm 200+ acres of land to support their 1,800 CSA members and a large partnership with the Wegmans grocery stores of the area. The Brownback family just finished their 20th year running the CSA and their experience really shows.
The scale of Spiral Path is what impressed me most. I cannot imagine the planning and work that goes into supporting that many members as well as a large grocery chain while maintaining practices of good stewardship of the land. Will Brownback, one of the sons of the current owners and a fellow graduate of West Perry, took us around to the various buildings and facilities while talking about the operation and his involvement. Will came from an engineering background and quickly found that the corporate life wasn’t for him (this seemed to be a theme for the day). So what was to be a one month visit back in 2008 turned into a new career. Will seems to be at home in his vocation though I imagine the first few years were filled with learning (and probably still are).
My favorite part of the tour came in taking a look at the composting operation and the massive 34’x600’ greenhouses. The Brownbacks produce the majority of their soil amendments on-farm, with composted vegetable scraps and other various inputs, so they have a massive compost tumbler and equally impressive worm bins. The greenhouses are gigantic and used to grow greens on a very very large scale as efficiently as possible. The house we were in housed arugula, a hardy and spicy salad green, that withstands quite a lot of cold. Spiral Path has about 4 acres under plastic and worked with the manufacturer to build them to allow equipment access.
North Mountain Pastures
Next up on the tour was North Mountain Pastures, a farm specializing in pastured, grass-fed and naturally-raised chickens (and eggs!), turkey, ducks, cows, sheep, and pigs. We arrived for a pot-luck lunch, and what a lunch! Brooks Miller, the co-owner of North Mountain, grilled up some excellent sausage (from the farm of course) and gave us a great overview of the history North Mountain Pastures.
Brooks comes from an aerospace engineering background (noticing a theme here?) but grew quickly tired of corporate life. He bounced around a bit before coming to own and operate North Mountain with his wife Anna in the late 2000s.
They’ve done quite a bit since then and have a butcher shop with soon-to-be meat curing room, several large paddocks for rotational grazing, a number of outbuildings, and a multifunctional hoop house that’s been used for anything from growing fodder to raising tilapia and starting their meat birds. Oh, and he’s also produced his own maple syrup from sugar maple trees on the property. That’s a lot of work in a short amount of time!
What did I learn from my visit to these two farms? I’m sure more will come across my mind later but here’s what comes to mind initially:
Neither Will nor Brooks have formal training for their positions (which gives me hope!). They constantly are in the process of refining their trades and learning from year to year. There’s always something new they want to try to get better at what they do and improve their product (or create a new product altogether!). They’re willing to make mistakes along the way which leads me to my next point…
Failure is a friend
Whenever something is new to you, you’re going to fail. A lot. Rather than dwell on the mistakes, take some time to think them through and figure out ways to improve. Sometimes the simple act of thinking something through, trying new ideas, and doing a bit of research can have a huge payoff. In the computer world I was taught that if something is difficult and painful to do, do it more often. You’ll find ways to make the difficult thing much easier and perhaps even learn to automate it.
Take for instance our way of propagating figs. It took me several years to come up with our current method. The first year I had maybe a 5% success rate, the second year the rate had jumped to about 50%, and last year I was around 90%. I learned what was best by trying various methods and thinking about what a plant needed and went through in the process of rooting.
Soil is the foundation
For good farming, at least. Both farms I visit care deeply about good stewardship of the land and soil and building it up to support their operations. Spiral Path uses detailed yearly soil testing to determine how their soil could be improved and has programs to improve upon it. Healthy, biologically active soil is the foundation for healthy, thriving plants that can resist disease, drought, and other stresses much more than a plant grown in soil that’s been neglected and abused. I’m currently reading two good books on the subject: Teaming with Microbes and Teaming with Nutrients (full disclosure, purchasing via the links will benefit our farm)
I’d highly recommend checking out Spiral Path Farm and North Mountain Pastures on Facebook. Both have yearly farm visit days, so keep an eye out! In the meantime, we hope you enjoyed the brief overview and pictures.
Hello flannel my old friend
Mighty good to see you again
November’s chill is closing in
and seeing you just makes me grin
Now, perhaps I was remiss
In being too quick to dismiss
The warmth you brought to each day
As April stretched on into May
So forgive me my pretenses
As I return to my senses
And button you up once more
As cold greets me at the door
Posted as a follow-up to A Farewell to Flannel