Farm Visits - Spiral Path Farm and North Mountain Pastures

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!

Will Brownback in one of the seedling greenhouses, a welcome place on a cold day.

Will Brownback in one of the seedling greenhouses, a welcome place on a cold day.

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.

One of the 34'x600' greenhouses at Spiral Path, freshly tilled.

One of the 34'x600' greenhouses at Spiral Path, freshly tilled.

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).

Large beds of arugula fill the space in this greenhouse. Over a half mile of beds per my figuring.

Large beds of arugula fill the space in this greenhouse. Over a half mile of beds per my figuring.

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.

Will alongside the gigantic compost tumbler.

Will alongside the gigantic compost tumbler.

Magic happens here. Vermicompost bins finish off the compost and provide valuable worm castings (worm poop).

Magic happens here. Vermicompost bins finish off the compost and provide valuable worm castings (worm poop).

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 and his pig explaining his keyline swale. He did the explaining, the pig was just there to look pretty.

Brooks and his pig explaining his keyline swale. He did the explaining, the pig was just there to look pretty.

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.

A view of one of the pastures.

A view of one of the pastures.

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!

A look at the maple syrup harvesting setup. Sure beats buckets.

A look at the maple syrup harvesting setup. Sure beats buckets.

Lessons Learned

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:

Continually Learn

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.

Turkeys enjoying their time prior to Thanksgiving.

Turkeys enjoying their time prior to Thanksgiving.

The view from North Mountain is fantastic.

The view from North Mountain is fantastic.

Sheep on the hilltop.

Sheep on the hilltop.

Hello Flannel My Old Friend

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

I don't always wear flannel, but when I do...

I don't always wear flannel, but when I do...

Week in Pictures 11/9/2014

What a nice fall it's been here at Threefold Farm! We didn't have our first frost until November and we've had a string of warm, sunny days this week. That said, the long range forecast shows that winter is well on its way and so we're busy doing fall chores and relishing this last bit of warmth. The Japanese maples are one of the last trees to change color here and they've been changing all shades of fiery red, orange, and bright yellow. We hope to eventually make some of these trees part of our offerings here in subsequent years. Enjoy the photos below!

A gingko's beautiful yellow leaves against a bright blue sky

A gingko's beautiful yellow leaves against a bright blue sky

The kousa dogwood shows off its beautiful leaves and contrasting bark

The kousa dogwood shows off its beautiful leaves and contrasting bark

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Lettuce and other greens shrug off frosts and light freezes.

Lettuce and other greens shrug off frosts and light freezes.

Fresh spinach is exceptional in fall and winter, plus the insect pressure is lower too. Spinach has proven very hardy for us, surviving down to -5F under snow cover or cold frames.

Fresh spinach is exceptional in fall and winter, plus the insect pressure is lower too. Spinach has proven very hardy for us, surviving down to -5F under snow cover or cold frames.

Persimmons hang like little ornaments waiting to be picked. I'm told that these will hang even on into December like this.

Persimmons hang like little ornaments waiting to be picked. I'm told that these will hang even on into December like this.

Week in Pictures 10/26/2014

Autumn rolls on here at Threefold Farm. Many of the leaves are off the trees but we've yet to have a serious frost. Che fruits and Asian persimmons are still ripening along with, oddly enough, the primocane blackberries (Prime-Ark 45). Normally I think the blackberries would be finishing up right now, but they got a rather late start and are young plants. The fall colors of many of the fruit trees would make them a great addition to many a back yard. Add to that the delicious fruit and it's a great combination. Among the most beautiful are the persimmons (red/orange), blueberries (purple/red), pawpaws (yellow), and pomegranate (yellow). Check out ours below!

'Great Wall' Asian persimmon with shades of foliage. Once the leaves drop the orange fruit will continue to hang on the tree up through early winter.

'Great Wall' Asian persimmon with shades of foliage. Once the leaves drop the orange fruit will continue to hang on the tree up through early winter.

Purple leaves mature to a bright red on this blueberry bush

Purple leaves mature to a bright red on this blueberry bush

Brilliant reds on this Chippewa blueberry, a half-high variety.

Brilliant reds on this Chippewa blueberry, a half-high variety.

Pawpaws turn a brilliant yellow starting from the top down.

Pawpaws turn a brilliant yellow starting from the top down.

I was surprised this year at the bright yellow leaves of this Salavatski pomegranate

I was surprised this year at the bright yellow leaves of this Salavatski pomegranate

An unusual fruit: che. This low care plant matures pink-red fruits late for us, usually around the first frost (though it's a young plant). It's a fig and mulberry relative with a taste that reminds me of watermelon.

An unusual fruit: che. This low care plant matures pink-red fruits late for us, usually around the first frost (though it's a young plant). It's a fig and mulberry relative with a taste that reminds me of watermelon.

The last sunflower to bloom this season.

The last sunflower to bloom this season.

Among a row of figs in the fall. Check out the picture below, taken in the same position, to get an idea of how much things have grown this year. I may have to rethink my spacing next year!

Among a row of figs in the fall. Check out the picture below, taken in the same position, to get an idea of how much things have grown this year. I may have to rethink my spacing next year!

Standing in the same spot among those figs in early Spring.

Standing in the same spot among those figs in early Spring.

The Apprenticeship @ McLeaf's Orchard - Part 2

Honey Crisp apples almost ready to pick.

Honey Crisp apples almost ready to pick.

Since about mid-March I've been working at McLeaf's Orchard down in Adams County, PA, just north of Gettysburg. It's a beautiful part of the state with rolling green hills covered in fruit trees. I've enjoyed coming through the spring up into summer and on into fall seeing the crops come in and out of season. It's been a great summer for growing with regular rains and not-so-hot temperatures. I thought I'd share a little of what I've learned while realizing that there's quite a bit I need to learn.

Ginger Golds in a row

Ginger Golds in a row

Consider your market

McLeaf's Orchard sells a good portion of their fruits and vegetables through a number of markets in the Washington, DC area. Corey McLeaf has been doing markets for over 5 years and has a pretty good handle on what's worked and what hasn't. It's interesting to hear him talk about the habits of their customer and what goes into planning what will go to market each week. He keeps a log book of what is taken to market each week and what sold. Based on that, his knowledge of that particular market and what's coming into season allows him to plan for each subsequent week.

I have learned that diversity in what you sell is important at market: you need to offer a compelling alternative to the varieties of fruits and vegetables commonly seen at the grocery store. In addition to the grocery store staples, McCleaf’s grows a good number of heirloom tomatoes as well as a number of different leafy greens. In recent years they’ve branched out into small fruits to supplement the normal apples and stone fruits (peaches, plums, cherries, nectarines). Hardy kiwi (kiwiberries), raspberries, blackberries, and blueberries now find a place on their display tables and help draw customers. They’ve found that if, for instance, it's blueberry season and you don't have blueberries, people won't come to your booth and sales of your other produce (as good as it may be) will suffer. Even in the common crops, diversity is important. McCleaf’s grows some 30+ kinds of apples, including a pink-fleshed Pink Pearl and English-favorite Cox Orange Pippin. When it's Honey Crisp or Fuji apple season, folks might pick up an extra apple or three of an interesting but lesser-known variety.

Hardy kiwi (kiwiberries) almost ready to pick. If you haven't had them before, they're worth a try!

Hardy kiwi (kiwiberries) almost ready to pick. If you haven't had them before, they're worth a try!

Know your crop

I have learned that most fruit trees grow a little better if I know something about the conditions in which they thrive. Before I plant a fruit tree, I try to do a bit of research to determine if it grows well in our climate and whether I’m willing to do any maintenance required to get fruit off the tree. For instance, apples and stone fruit trees will grow in our south-central PA climate. However here in the northeast (and in many other parts of the country), it's difficult for these trees to produce marketable fruit without spraying them a good amount.

So I ask myself these questions: What kind of soil does this tree like? What kind of nutrition does the tree require? Will I need to supplement irrigation or is the natural yearly rainfall sufficient? Will spraying be required to produce marketable (or at least edible) fruit? Will it hold up to our winters? How about our summers? How much direct sunlight does the tree require and how much does my yard receive?

Another farm that McLeaf farms.

Another farm that McLeaf farms.

Manage your land

So much goes into planning the layout of a garden and orchard and I feel as though I'm just starting to get a grasp on the different concerns. Differing soil types, prevailing wind direction, windbreaks, slope and drainage (for both water and air), accessibility (from vehicles or people), aesthetics, proper plant spacing, pest considerations, beneficial and pollinator habitat, and irrigation design, to name a few, all play an important role in determining the layout of an orchard. At Threefold Farm we hope to create a space where all of these factors (and probably more) play a role in the design.

Honey bees at the farm.

Honey bees at the farm.

Bring in the beneficials and pollinators

Pests and diseases seem to be an ever-present threat in an orchard. My experience at a commercial orchard has me thinking a lot about the role of beneficial insects and pollinators in a garden, be it large or small. At Threefold Farm we'd like to avoid, if possible, the use of synthetic fungicides and pesticides wherever possible. We'd like to think that the best way to address these issues are through the design of a space which takes into consideration ways to naturally reduce pest pressure as well as take into consideration attracting beneficial insects and having a significant population of pollinating insects. Since pests and diseases are such a big concern, look for this to be a big part of the planning we do in the design of our future orchard.

Old apple trees at one of the farms. These will likely be pushed out soon to make way for high-density plantings.

Old apple trees at one of the farms. These will likely be pushed out soon to make way for high-density plantings.

Grow the soil

We've found that paying a little bit of attention to the soil pays off greatly. Great soil grows healthy, productive plants. As we plan our orchard, special attention will be given to growing the soil that will support healthy, productive plants. What might that look like? Perhaps a larger-scale compost production area, the introduction of nitrogen-fixing plants into the orchard plan, nitrogen fixers on the orchard floor, and the use of cover cropping to build up the soil prior to planting.

Some of the last peaches ripening on the tree.

Some of the last peaches ripening on the tree.

Keep learning

In my more sane moments I take a forest-level view of what we’re trying to accomplish and think, “Gosh, we’ve really gotten in over our heads, haven’t we?”. Getting into a field we weren’t educated in, planning and planting long-lived perennial crops, and developing a plan to care for it all: crazy. Then I think about the God we serve and the ways in which he constantly equips us to do what he’s called us to, and I breathe a bit.

I know it’ll entail a lot of work and continual learning, but that’s the fun part, right? In my prior field of software engineering the best developers constantly learn from others, tinker, and try new things in order to get better at building great software. Why should farming be any different? We’re excited to have the opportunity to constantly learn and grow and make a million mistakes along the way (okay, maybe not so excited about that last part).

A new high-density apple planting overlooking a valley in beautiful Adams County.

A new high-density apple planting overlooking a valley in beautiful Adams County.

To sum it up

It’s been quite a ride working for a commercial fruit orchard. I’ve learned probably way more than I now realize and it’s been a great experience. Look for one more update before my internship ends at the end of the growing season! In the meantime, enjoy these pictures from McCleaf's!

A forest of asparagus.

A forest of asparagus.

Fall-bearing (everbearing) raspberries ready for the picking

Fall-bearing (everbearing) raspberries ready for the picking

Ginger Gold apples with a beautiful rosy blush.

Ginger Gold apples with a beautiful rosy blush.

Featured on George Weigel's Gardening Q&A

If you're coming to us today through George Weigel's Gardening Q&A article on figs, welcome! We're a young family starting up a u-pick orchard and fruit tree nursery in Mechanicsburg, PA. Learn a little more about our family and the purpose of our farm. To keep up with us you can join our email distribution list by using the Subscribe section on this page or Contact Us with questions. Check us out on Facebook as well!

Are you interested in growing your own figs? We sell figs trees (along with other fruit trees) starting each May until we sell out. Check out our list of varieties, then Contact Us if you'd like to be notified as soon as trees are available next Spring! Check out our article (a how-to of sorts) on how to grow fig trees in our climate.

Do you have a fig tree in your yard that's been part of your family for as long as you can remember? Did you inherit a fig tree and don't know what variety it is? We collect and propagate varieties local to south central PA and would love to learn about your tree and get some cuttings! Please Contact Us and let us know about your tree.

Garden guru George Weigel in amongst our potted figs and pawpaws

Garden guru George Weigel in amongst our potted figs and pawpaws

Tim & George chatting figs in the orchard

Tim & George chatting figs in the orchard