So what do you guys do all winter?

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:

Kale is still alive and kicking even after several single digit nights.

Kale is still alive and kicking even after several single digit nights.

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.  

Fig cuttings under lights. Lots of them.

Fig cuttings under lights. Lots of them.

First signs of life from a fig cutting (Maltese Falcon I believe)

First signs of life from a fig cutting (Maltese Falcon I believe)

Livestock Maintenance

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!

A pregnant Finny. Baby goats this spring!

A pregnant Finny. Baby goats this spring!

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.

Eggs in our incubator. Should be fun to see what we get!

Eggs in our incubator. Should be fun to see what we get!

Homestead Maintenance

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.

Dormant blueberry with buds waiting to burst. All blueberries got a fresh dressing of pine straw or shredded leaves this fall.

Dormant blueberry with buds waiting to burst. All blueberries got a fresh dressing of pine straw or shredded leaves this fall.

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.

A visit to the PA farm show is a must, even if you just go for the food. Can you guess who loved visiting this section?

A visit to the PA farm show is a must, even if you just go for the food. Can you guess who loved visiting this section?

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.

The future location of our u-pick orchard and nursery with the corn down. We found a local farmer to help with prepping and seeding the ground come spring.

The future location of our u-pick orchard and nursery with the corn down. We found a local farmer to help with prepping and seeding the ground come spring.

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!

Our New Farm

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!

A view from the horse barn out into the future orchard.

A view from the horse barn out into the future orchard.

The big red barn. Timber frame barn built in 1910.

The big red barn. Timber frame barn built in 1910.

A view of the barns.

A view of the barns.

Imagine blueberries, raspberries, blackberries, kiwi berries, persimmons, pawpaws, jujube, figs and pomegranates all here. Hard to see with all the corn, I know!

Imagine blueberries, raspberries, blackberries, kiwi berries, persimmons, pawpaws, jujube, figs and pomegranates all here. Hard to see with all the corn, I know!

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.