Bees, Garden

Lets talk about companions, acid and berries

If I had to make the choice of a single fruit to eat for the rest of my life, it would be blueberries. Raspberries are such a close second that I would read the fine print of the agreement to try and loophole them in.

Blueberries need acidic soil. I will have to retest my farm, but I anticipate the karst limestone-heavy area is going to need some amendment. In the raised beds I need a solution that doesn’t involve hauling in chemicals or soil amendments. My solution will be to mulch up many of the cedars that have encroached on the pasture. Every year, I will assist by adding a top mulch of chipped, discarded christmas trees (needles and all). I would like to note that I have not found any studies that convince me that pine mulch is any better the just plain old organic matter in acidifying the soil. In a pinch, I won’t hesitate to use the leave litter from the forest as a soil amendment.

As for companions, the literature prescribes clover to help fix nitrogen or acid-tolerant herbs for pest deterrence.

I’m going to take a different approach here. My perennial blueberry patch will be a sanctuary for the bees. Widely-spaced Rhododendron could provide shade for the plants during the dog days of summer, beautiful flowers in its long blooming season, and potentially psychedelic honey. I’ll probably avoid them in the end, but they are a viable companion. Lewisias flowers enjoy acidic soils and bloom in the late winter providing food for the bees when not much else is available. Strawberries are another delicious potential companion that would provide a living mulch but they have many pest and disease issues. Yarrow flowers have a rich history of natural medicinal use and seem to enrich soil where they grow. Clover is the last plant to consider as a legume that fixes nitrogen for the berries high demand.

Honestly at this point I have no idea what companions I want to plant with the blueberries. I think for now I will plant strawberries as a ground cover with no expectations regarding production while locating the flowering herbs on the boundaries of the rows.

If anyone has any suggestions for acid-tolerant plants that provide human food or nectar for bees, please let me know!

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Garden

Choosing Heirloom Sweet Potato Varieties

As previously stated, I love sweet potatoes and they make up majority of my carbohydrate intake.

 

I found a passionate propagator of many varieties, even those that are rare, in Sand Hill Preservation. I isolated the orange-fleshed, heirloom sweet potatoes for further analysis.

Taken right from their site, the growth characteristics and maturity ratings are as follows:

 

Maturity Criteria

Early:  At 90 days here in Iowa these have reached full size.

Mid-season:  At 90 days here in Iowa these still have roots that need a few more weeks to bulk up.

Late:  At 90 days here in Iowa these only have about 25% of the roots mature.

Very Late:  Really nothing much at 90 days. These need around 140 days.

 

Plant Growth Type Criteria

This is our criteria that we use to classify the varieties’ growth habits. This is from data gathered at our farm, taking measurements from the location where the plant is growing to the distance the vines cover on one side of the plant.

Very Vigorous:  Vines go to 12 feet or more.

Vigorous:  Vines usually go from 8 to 12 feet.

Vining:  Vines go from 6 to 8 feet.

Semi-Bush:  Vines go from 4 to 6 feet.

Bush:  Vines are less than 4 feet.

 

 

Climatic conditions of my location limit me to varieties that mature early or mid-season, preferable the former. Bush and semi-bush align with the goals of my garden production by occupying limited space. As such, I applied scores to each variety based on its characteristics and employed factors to those scales based on importance. Growth Type and maturity are factored at twice the value of yield as they are more important to my goals. To be considered, the variety had to have meet a basic criteria made apparent by the following tables of scoring value.

Growth Type Score
Vining 1
Semi-Bush 2
Bush 3

 

Maturity Score
Mid-season 2
Early 3

 

Yield Score
Average 1
Above Average 2
Excellent 3

 

With the scoring factors applied, the growth types are as follows:

Sweet Potato-Factored

Sorted by total score:

Sweet Potato-Sorted

I now have the four varieties I want to try out! Note that the Qualls Variety is included despite a poor score because it is a Virginia Heirloom variety. Even though it does not support the economical goals of my operation, it aligns with noneconomical virtues of the farm. It could be a great producer or a dud but there is only one way to know for sure!

 

Also: I apologize for using grainy screenshots. When I get off of wordpress onto my own host I’ll switch to HTML tables.

Here is a link to a google doc that contains the above spreadsheet!

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Uncategorized

Chose a Name and Made an LLC

I chose Timshel as it is the central concept of one of my favorite literary passages. The concept is also likely to which I owe much of the shaping of my moral fiber. Now that I’ve dwelt on it the passage could be the reason I am so independent and what taught me personal responsibility at the right time in my life. There is nothing to glorify about the choice of “Acres”, it just sounded cool so I picked it!

To keep in line with educational value of my posts for anyone who is on the fence about doing something similar, I will cover the process of filing the paperwork to create the LLC. My process is Virginia-specific, but with how easy it was I can’t imagine other states being much different.

The paperwork literally took about 25 seconds. More time was spent retrieving my wallet to pay for the filing fee than actually filling out paperwork. The form is at the Commonwealth of Virginia State Corporation Commission and the only information required is:

1. Proposed LLC Name

2. Registered Agent (Me in this case) and their address (where the mail gets sent, my accountant friend said thats all the IRS/State cares about initially)

3. e-Signature

Thats it! Here is a screenshot of the form in its entirety:

LLC Form

After submitting the filing fee, you receive this in a process that took 1 minute start to finish:

LLC

Thats it! I now own Timshel Acres LLC!

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Chicks

Objectively Choosing Heritage Chicken Breed for Pasturing

Continuing the style of scoring and factoring that I used in Sweet Potato Variety selection, a somewhat-objective scoring system for heritage chicken breeds was used. This time I used a chart published by The Livestock Conservancy. While many organizations have published similar chicken charts, I used this one because it lists forage ability and some predator-savviness information.

For a chicken breed to be considered, it had to be suited for both hot and cold climates as well as lack vision-impairing plumage on its head that would blind it from incoming aerial or land-based predators. For my purposes, forage ability and egg laying rate are the two most important considerations so those scores are factored at twice the weight as other characteristics.

I’ll spare the minute scoring details as you can ascertain them from the end product. The breed characteristics that were considered are:

Forage Ability

Climate Tolerance

Egg Size

Bred for Meat or Egg Production

Laying Rate

Comb Prone to Frostbite

In alphabetical order, the scoring and factoring is as follows:

ChickenScoringAlph

Sorted by highest score:

ChickenScoringScore

As you can see, my top 3 breeds are

Dominique:

Australorp:

Rhode Island Red:

There are also many more high-scoring breeds for consideration when seeing what is available at the hatcheries!

Here is a link to my spreadsheet on google docs if you want to view, download or adapt it to your needs.

And here is one that I will add to the sweet Potato Selection Post.

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Cattle, Chicks, Garden

Purchased Tanks for Water Collection: Warnings and Advice

I have been browsing craigslist regularly for anything from animals to equipment to discarded plastic drums for water tanks. After doing some extensive math that will be included in a future series of posts, I quickly realized that the rainwater collection system would be best served with a higher capacity than 55 gallon drums could accommodate reasonably.

Off to Craigslist in search of some of the 250+ gallon tanks that come in metal cages, pictured below.

Water Tank

First for the warning: Like 55 gallon plastic drums, be VERY particular to source a tank that stored food materials or safe chemicals. Watering animals, plants or yourself with water tainted by industrial-grade acid, chemicals, etc would be tragic and entirely avoidable.

Advice: Don’t write off tanks with chemical stickers like I almost did. Luckily the craigslist ad for 300 gallon tanks had a price that made me inquire despite almost dismissing the option due to visible chemical stickers on the tanks. Here is a picture from the ad:

TanksCL

Turned out the tanks contained medical grade Hydrogen Peroxide. The seller of the tanks explained that he does not clean them out as the solution keeps the inside of the tanks sterile. All that is needed to make them food-safe is to add 10 gallons of water, slosh it around and dump it out as the trace amounts of it have been diluted to ~1% and will break down into water + oxygen gas once exposed to light.

Self-sanitizing 300 gallon tanks at twice the local going rate for 55 gallon drums? I took as many as I could safely haul at once and may go back for more. They would make the perfect mobile watering tank for cattle, rain barrels or even a tank to combine smaller rain water containers together! Also I am sure they could be used to barter with other farmers/gardeners if I find myself with too many in the end.

To recap, when sourcing potential water tanks, be very careful to determine exactly what they held previously. If they were used for non-food uses, see if there is a way to make them food safe before writing them off. After all I much prefer my Hydrogen Peroxide container to the cleaning I’ve done in the past to an agave or honey container!

 

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Cattle, Side Projects

Brassica Cover Cropping as Biological Soil Tiler

The sustainable farming and land management industries are constantly coming up with innovations to find biological solutions to problems that have been solved through petroleum use since the 1940s. Brassica cover cropping is one example of this.

Brassicas typically have a large taproot and for ease of visualization, the most promising plant in this system seems to be the Radish. Sown in the late summer, the radishes drive their taproot into the soil as they take up nutrients. They are not harvested but left to last through a few freezes resulting in their death. As they decay, the nutrients are released back into soil and the taproot leaves a cavity in the previously compacted shallow layers of topsoil. Hence the tiling effect without mechanical soil turning that disrupts microbial activity and over-oxygenates the soil.

Erosion resistance and water absorption are boosted so well by this process that many riparian managers are studying the effect of planting them in drainage areas. Urban sprawl of impervious surfaces change the hydrology of the area by providing a flush of water during precipitation rather than an sponge-like absorption by local soils that gradually releases stored water into waterways. By aerating the remaining available soils with brassica cropping, that rush of creekbank-eroding rainwater can be somewhat alleviated.

I haven’t found much scientific data (at least not behind a paywall that double dips into taxpayers’ pockets). However there is a bit of literature from the Natural Resources Conservation Service (government source and PDF warning!) that makes me think this is an interesting development to follow!

I was introduced to this concept by my friend who is the farm manager at Frying Pan Farm Park in the bustling DC metro area. Being the last working farm in the county, they strive to strike a balance between typical farm operations and acting as a working farm museum for public education and enjoyment. Its great to see a farm with such a strong public presence exploring concepts of sustainable farming!

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Cattle, Garden

Rainwater Collection Series 1: Gutters for Barn

WARNING: This post gets dense!

Rainwater collection is another vital aspect of my farm operation. While a well is drilled, pumped and plumbed, I would prefer to save its operation for emergencies. I will be designing a system that uses as little energy as possible.

An aspect of large initial investment will be to instal gutters on the barn. Its 60 foot by 80 foot pitched roof serves as a perfect mechanism to harvest solar distilled water, aka precipitation. I want to do my own legwork in designing a system before I contact installers for quotes. GutterSupply.com has available a resource in this PDF Proper Gutter and Downspout Sizing.

An important piece of data to acquire is the rainfall intensity over a 5 minute period for 10 year and 100 year rainfall events. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) provides a tool that allows you to retrieve data for a specific location either visually by panning and zooming in a map or by inputting coordinates.

Following the sample calculations found on page 6 of the Gutter Supply publication using my barn and location, the process is as follows:

Total roof area in two dimensions is 80 ft *60 ft = 4800 square feet

Roof pitch is vertical rise/horizontal distance from start to end of rise is 15 feet vertical over 30 ft horizontal * 12 inches/foot = 6 inches per foot (on my barn)

According to Table 1-1 in the Gutter Supply publication, the constant for my roof pitch adjustment = 1.10

Therefore roof area adjusted for pitch is 4800 square foot * 1.1 = 5280 square feet

Number of downspouts desired = 4 (my preference)

Roof Area covered by each downspout is 5280 square feet / 4 downspouts = 1320 square feet per downspout

Because of the poor amount of cities represented in the PDF, I compared my rainfall to a few cities using the NOAA tool. Knoxville had a 5 min rainfall total of .440 inches while my location has .437. Close enough.

Per the terribly formatted Table 1-2 in the PDF, 1 sq inch of gutter can drain 180 square feet of roof area. So 1320 square feet / 180 = 7.333 square inches as a minimum per downspout.

Finally, comparing the figure of 7.33 square inches to the Table 1-3 in the PDF shows that 4 inches of any shape gutters would perform adequately in a 10 year rain event.

Following the final 3 steps shows that I would need a minimum downspout size of 10.15 square inches in a 100 year event at .690 rainfall intensity. 4″ gutters would still serve in every shape except rectangular corrugated.

 

Wow Bravo if you stuck through that. None of the other posts in this series will be this technical!

 

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Bees

Virginia Beekeeping Legalities: Good!

Learning that my state offers a grant program to encourage new hives and beekeepers, I assumed the state would share friendly beekeeping laws. However state code § 3.2-4403. Duties of beekeepers caught me off guard. Specifically:

Beekeepers shall:

1. Provide movable frames with combs or foundation in all hives used by them to contain bees, except for short periods, not to exceed the first spring honey flow, and to cause the bees in such hives to construct brood combs in such frames so that any of the frames may be removed from the hive without injuring other combs in such hive;

As raccoon, opossum, mice and skunks are part of the natural ecosystem of my farm, I had been planning to utilize Top Bar Hives as I feel they provide the best intruder-free bee habitat opposed to Langstroth Hives people most associate with beekeeping. However that State code I included above made me wonder if the top bars in my hive design are considered “moveable frames”.

A quick call to the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services put me in touch with a extremely knowledgeable individual in Mr. Keith Tignor. In the span of 4 minutes he explained in great but easy to digest detail the law, how to design a top bar to fit into the law, the reason the law exists (protect the hive from damage when inspecting for disease), and how to utilize the state grant program.

All I need to do is design my hive so that brood comb can be removed without damaging it. Furthermore, this lets me build my own hives from wood milled on farm which preserves the grant funds for other beekeepers!

It was a win-win-win for everyone involved.

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Cattle, Garden

Rainwater Collection Series 2: Rain Water Collection Barrels

With the exhaustive calculations for gutter and downspout planning complete, the next hurdle is for containers to collect rainwater. Craigslist to the rescue!

While I could pick up the typical blue 55 gallon plastic drums for around $40 each, I could spend double that for the roughly-cubic 300 gallon containers in the metal mesh. I plan to order at least 5: 1 for each of the 4 barn downspouts and one for the hayloft of the barn. Since the time of writing the draft initially, I have purchased 4 300 gallon tanks which you can read about here.

Why one in the hayloft? I plan to utilize a DC solar powered pump to push the water from the rain collection tanks up into the hayloft in order to gravity feed most paddocks as well as the fruit and vegetable garden. Ideally I would put a tank in the top of the unused silo to gravity feed the entire property, but that my be an engineering feat beyond my ability.

I also want a sixth barrel of equal or lesser size to mount on a trailer in order to more-easily water the furthest paddocks when animals are present.

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Cattle, Garden, Side Projects

Rainwater Collection Series 3: Purifying Rain Water for Human Use

The last main hurdle of settling on the property is purifying the rain water that has run off the metal barn roof that has been treated with who-knows-what then stored in petroleum based tanks that my leach additional undesirables. Here is the catch, I don’t want to have to use power whatsoever to purify the water (excepting my DC solar pump).

First of all, I plan to purify water for drinking, bathing, washing dishes, cooking and any other miscellaneous needs. Between all of those uses I will conservatively require about 10 gallons a day of purified water. How can I do this without additional energy use?

The first step is a basic filter to remove debris and extend the life of later components. A simple layer of gravel then sand should do the trick.

Here is the gem: Ceramic. During manufacturing, sawdust and silver is mixed into the ceramic clay. When fired in the kiln, the sawdust combusts leaving behind microscopic channels that allows water to travel through the ceramic while bacteria are too large to fit. Silver impregnation provides a hostile surface for microbial activity. A simple scrub with an abrasive sponge removes the top layer of ceramic and refreshes the filter. I haven’t decided on a specific filter yet, but this one is along the lines of what I am considering.

Lastly, a replaceable and homemade activated charcoal filter will remove any chemicals that have leeched into the water on its journey to my farm. With the filter medium available in various quantities, it will be simple to incorporate the homemade and changeable filter into my design.

The last piece of the puzzle is a storage tank. I would prefer a non-petroleum based tank to store the fresh water. Preferable stainless steel and something that could tolerate a bit of pressure when pumping the water out. Does this ring any bells with anyone? If I can legally find a 15.5 gallon half barrel beer keg to use, I will remove the spear and add my own fittings. FYI, most beer kegs including the ones for sale on craigslist are property of the beer distributor who issued the keg when it was full of beer. Any you come across second-hand are technically stolen unless the seller can prove otherwise. Even though I personally view the legal requirement to use a distributor is right up there with cartels and acts a barrier to entry for smaller guys, I’ll still find a keg through legal avenues. Do whatever aligns with your ethics!

Regular water testing will ensure my system is safe and continues to be s0 as it ages.

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