Turning the tide of the battle

En route to the farm, I drive (literally) through the of the Field of the Lost Shoes where a battle took place in 1864.

My garden is the Shenandoah Valley in the dramatized day dream resulting from the long drive.

The weeds are Sigel’s army moving in to disrupt agricultural production.

Intensive mowing efforts at the end of last year pushed Moor’s weed brigade back. Offensive efforts were subsequently launched and repulsed by both sides.

Now I am deploying my untested reserves in the form of vinegar herbicide to march through the mucky orchard and will be reinforcing them with a supply line of buckwheat and clover.


Getting back into it!

The bad news: neglect left the garden indistinguishable from the surrounding pasture. Varying shades from the asparagus and hops were the only discerning features in the mass of green.

Extensive mowing efforts over the winter have revealed the garden beds! Unfortunately it was too cold, too wet or I did not have the mindset to take any pictures during each of my winter work days.

Except for this one:

I picked up a new companion since my last regular updates!


Breaking the technological stagnation of Beekeeping

There has been no major technological innovation in beekeeping since October 5, 1853. As a result, beekeeping still remains a very labor intensive practice where rising labor costs leave little room for profit. Thus hobbyists are responsible for a relatively large proportion of beehives in existence. Like the surging craft beer industry, the passion associated with hobbyist is yielding the first major innovations in over 160 years.

Getting the most publicity, the Flow Hive is nearly a household name. While I am very excited to see attempts at technological innovation, there are many shortcomings that will prevent me from trying these hives out in my own apiary. I’ll save that discussion for another post.

HiveHaven from New Zealand is doing amazing work to innovate beekeeping. They are turning HPDE from recycled bottles into 3-D printer feedstock (“ink”) and creating cutting edge hive designs. A major benefit of this material is that it can be washed and sterilized in the instance of foulbrood appearing in the apiary.

Have you ever wondered why bees build comb in the manner that they do? Hexagons are the most efficient pattern to fill a two dimensional space. Honeybees were able to figure out over 34 million years of evolution. Humans integrated that wisdom into products that need to maximize surface area like the catalytic converters in cars and wood stoves.

More importantly, HiveHaven also focuses on producing hives for other types of bees. Remember that New Zealand was forced to make a economics-driven decision whether to continue importing clover seed for pastures every year, or importing a bumble bee to pollinate and produce their own seed. The large mouthparts of honeybees prevent effective pollination of the tiny clover flowers. Mason, orchard and bumbles bees play a vital but largely unappreciated ecological role here in the US as well.

Now HiveHaven has completed the circle by taking the innovations bred from the geometric wisdom of bees, and applying back to those bees. In addition to the standard hexagonal comb, they provide hexagonal hives that reflect the natural tendency of bees to build upward. Finally some technology for solitary bee husbandry!

Read more about their campaign here.




3-D Printing to save endangered species

I haven’t been writing much lately, but one post I have been putting together involves 3-D Printing in the apiary. However a small biotech company has plans to use 3-D printing in another way.

They plan to bioengineer synthetic rhino horns in order to flood the markets to hopefully remove economic incentive to harvest illicit animal products.

It is an interesting strategy that some argue could exacerbate the problem by creating demand for rhino horns. I’m no economist so I’ll defer that discussion to this solid piece of journalism from National Geographic.

As an avid hunter, conservationist and animal lover, I am happy to see technological innovation applied to the welfare of wildlife as well as eliminating the disgraceful practices of poachers that are all too often applied broadly to hunters.


I have accepted a full time job

After getting my hands dirty for a year on the farm while researching extensively, I uncovered some important information. From the anecdotal evidence found in blogs/feature articles like this one, most small farms fail because they don’t have the guidance provided by goals within an extensive plan. Both of these require immense research, calculations and planning; all things that can be completed while retaining personal financial security from unrelated employment. The reality is most farms fail because they start producing without a plan to turn that production into income. Realizing that there is either no market available or will require lots of extra work to reach a market (making the venture economically unsustainable) tends to shatter the romantic views of back-to-the-land farmers.

I’ve also been researching the sustainable farming industry as a whole and found some equally distressing issues: most of the successful farms rely on off-farm income or free labor from interns or students. These operators may reach personal success while in my opinion, fail as farmers. I want to delve deeper into how the successful ones obtain that success and conversely, why the ones relying on free labor must do so. I’ll publish my reports along the way while undergoing this big project.

Since my research contains some negative reflections on the state of an industry I am passionate about, I expect to get some equally negative reactions. I simply want to ask and follow through on the tough, soul-searching questions that only with complete intellectual honesty can significant conclusions be reached. Since I want to create a replicable sustainable farm model, profits must come directly from farm products thus I am unwilling to cheat with relying on free labor to do so. Also, what if the reason so many farms fail while successful ones are being consolidated under a few corporations is a government policy to which citizens can initiate change? Regardless, I seek to gather data first then draw conclusions later.

I accepted a job I am passionate about in the clean energy production industry. It is close to the farm allowing continuing establishment while planning out how to be a successful-stand alone business. Plus I will have no commute living downtown in a small city.


All in all, the job was too perfect to pass up!

What does this mean for the farm? Not much change! I had already decided to focus the organic garden on self-production while maybe offering some add-on offers for sales primary commercial products. Diving into both animal production and crop production is simply not feasible at the time of start-up. In the future, what I learn during my attempt to gain produce self-sufficiency will be invaluable to diversifying the farm efforts in the long run. My love of botany will certainly keep plant operations going strong thus generating fresh content for this blog.

Bottom line: the only change to the previous plan of more posts as the farm is implemented full-time farm is that there will be not much of a change relative to the current state of the blog!


Long break spent begrudgingly but responsibly planning farm venture

I have not posted since November. The truth is that I started crunching numbers in order to formulate a true business plan and the outputs of those calculations did not look pretty.

If all of my calculations are accurate (which is a big assumption), including pigs, cattle, laying hens, broiler chickens and apiary products, the first year would net $24258.85889 of income but this only considers direct costs of producing each animal while omitting general start up costs like fencing, water troughs, mineral feeders, plumbing, etc. Certainly not bad in of itself but it relies on a few assumptions, mainly that I will be able to sell each finished animal to 1-4 people as regulations require the processed meat to be sold as a full, half or quarter animal to a customer who must pick up the meat at the processing facility themselves. Being honest with myself: Marketing and sales are the most intimidating part of this farm venture so that assumption may be a dangerous one.

I will go into more detail about all of my calculations soon, but the spreadsheets are quite messy and require either re-organizing, lots of explanations, or both. They will also be subject to change as I find errors, new information or updated information (ie: major shift in market prices of animals or hay).

In the course of researching for then making all of these calculations, I discovered a two major things: Sustainable agriculture/permaculture is generally extremely exploitive of labor and that most small farm ventures operate at a loss or gross under $10,000 annually. To the latter point, that means the most farm ventures cannot be the sole income source of the operator.

To the first point, I attempted to find a single example of a sustainable agriculture/permaculture business with open books that is successful without exploiting labor or relying on other income sources for its very existence including off-farm jobs or a reliance on speaking/book deals for financial success. Spoiler alert: I couldn’t find a single one.

All these revelations lead me into a bit of soul searching as well as research that showed me that most sustainable farm enterprises MUST have a business plan to provide structure and goals. From gathered anecdotal evidence: most farms fail because they choose what they will produce and expect it to sell on its own thus the operators figure once they start farming, income will sort itself out. From USDA research: In 2012 small farms that gross less than $10K average -9% of the operator’s income (aka: a loss) while farms that gross from $10K to $250K only yield 10% of the operator’s household income. The “Family Farms” category averages $3,140 of farm income while averaging $80,978 from off farm sources. ( Source: 2012 USDA Agricultural Resource Management Survey.)

As to the exploitive labor practices of the industry, I did not have any objective data to back up my observations. So I decided to dig in a bit deeper and dust off my computer programming skills to collect data from sustainable agriculture internship postings. After analyzing the 135 most recent internship postings on the top sustainable agriculture job board, the results seem to back my observations. Now I just need to finish my report!

Lastly, now with a more practical approach that came with all the revelations of the industry, I realized I could be doing all of this objective planning while working to maintain a source of personal income. When the business plan is done and I have concrete figures and goals, I can move into the farm operation full time with minimal gaps in personal cash flow. So I took a seasonal job while applying for position in the field in which I hold a degree.


In conclusion, all my time since November has toward the seasonal job, applying and interviewing within the GIS field and working through the laborious but absolutely essential calculations involved in planning the farm business. There was simply no creative or analytical power left to maintain a good blog. From here on out, expect the normal blog content plus some boring, technical analysis of my calculations!



The Beauty of Blueberry Bushes

Edible landscaping is a growing field that I find fascinating as it marries agriculture and suburban life very well while also contributing to sustainable food by cutting out the energy used to ship food that is 90+% water.

I hope to convince people to ditch landscaping choices like burning bushes in favor of edible bushes like blueberries. Hopefully one day, my young bushes will provide all the aesthetic argument required to do so.

For now, only a hint of the fall vibrancy of mature bushes is evident in the blueberries I planted this spring:


A living mulch is to be provided by the runners of strawberry plants. What if even a small percentage of creeping or vining landscape ground covers were replaced with strawberries? Once mature, I wager most will find the combination pleasing even in a household landscape setting!



360 days of the year to demonstrate style inspired by my idol, only one weekend to actually BE him

I absolutely love Halloween and it is one of the many aspects of fall that makes it my favorite season.

It may come as a surprise that male fashion and style is a passion of mine. The deviation from sustainability is not as much as one might initially assume. In my thrift store hunts for 100% natural materials taught me to search for garments made in first world countries as the quality is the highest and it means the garments were made by someone who was paid a fair wage. These garments also happen to be among the most sustainably produced, although incidentally only. The best quality natural fibers are made by techniques that have been abandoned or are now cost-prohibitive to consumers like me who are not rich. So I turned to the used clothing market to fill holes in my wardrobe- mostly thrift stores.

Being 6’3, it was hard to find garments that fit me so I ran a very modest side business of selling high quality garments I found but could not be altered to fit.

Classic male fashion is where my interests lie and Steve Mcqueen is my idol in many regards, especially style.

For Halloween I was Police Detective Frank Bullitt.

Bullitt 06

I apologize for not taking any pictures myself, but if any pop up from others on social media, I will post it here.

Sadly, the costume required me to shave my beard entirely for the first time in two years! Luckily I participate in the NHL’s no shave november for charity so it will be back in due time.



Planting trees to play tricks on potential customers

I love hops as well as the creative beers in which they are used so I aspire to to be a small hops producer. I have good relations with various breweries in the area and hope to court those that are sustainably oriented.

But I also want to instill some good natured confusion upon those that visit the farm.

A cool tree that stuck with me from studying forestry in college is the Hophornbeam, Ostrya virginiana. Its flowers resemble green hops and turn brown as the flowers sheath the new fruit.

From wikipedia:

“Ostrya virginiana 2” by Eric Hunt – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ostrya_virginiana_2.jpg#/media/File:Ostrya_virginiana_2.jpg

I will plant a pair of these at the farm entrance. Think of the possibilities! I can jest that I’ve grafted hops to a birch tree and am the first ever producer of tree hops. These trees will serve as a good conversation starter!