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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!

 

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General Pasture

A Nod to the improvements of Industrial Farm Practices

Over the last few years, I’ve noticed some shifts in the operations of the nearby farms that produce crops for animal feeds here in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. Farmers are now practicing crop rotations in greater numbers than ever before; usually just corn and soybeans with grains mixed in occasionally. Using a leguminous crop like soybeans in the rotation harnesses their power of fixing nitrogen into the soil from the atmosphere replacing soil fertility lost to grain crops as well as cutting down on the need for synthetic nitrogen fertilizers with the included salts that damage soil life.

Occasional inclusion of grains also plays into the second major improvement I’ve noticed: cover cropping. Most grains I see used here are planted immediately after the long crop harvest in the late summer or fall to provide a winter cover crop. Some are never even harvested and knowing before hand no harvest will take place allows a much broader choice in crop selection. Preventing exposure of bare soil to the forces of mother nature and weather keeps erosion at bay. If the grains grow to maturity, some fertility is taken from the soil but if the frost kills the crop, roots and plant residue returns that fertility. I’ve seen radishes, turnips and other non-grains planted instead of the conventional choice of winter grains. These brassicas amass nutrients only to be killed by frost releasing the mineralized (bioavailable) nutrients back into the soil as well as providing aeration by leaving voids where the roots or tubers compost.

Another key change I’ve seen is the inclusion of no-till seed drills. While row cropping still requires herbicide application, the lack of tilling helps preserve fertility by reducing vaporization of nutrients. The benefits of not disturbing the microbial soil food web are likely lost to the burning salts in herbicides however. Yet a benefit is still seen with the seed drills: fall cover crops can be planted right into existing corn stubble or soybean residue. The former provides habitat for wildlife such as ground nesting birds and helps hold the soil in place as the cover crop gets established while the latter releases the mineralized nitrogen stored in the leguminous plant tissues.

While not in my home area, on a trip to the beach in Delaware, I noticed some soybean farmers leaving uncultivated and wild strips of weeds and wildflowers through their fields. I can only assume this is to harbor wildlife like native pollinators to ensure a full seed set in the crop of beans.

The next key step in more sustainable industrial fodder production is replacing the organic matter lost from soils to crop harvests removed from the farm for sale. No-till seed drilling is a step in this direction, but an inclusion of carbon matter if not compost would be ideal. Maybe it will take one of the big local names or the regional extension office to sway the masses.

Confined animal rearing operations have also slowly began to show signs of improvement. I’m noticing more and more carbon stockpiles amassing near livestock barns and poultry houses. Massive and numerous piles of chipped wood are being dumped on these farms and judging by the continuous changing of the piles, farmers are using it for bedding and using it frequently. Also judging the varying quality and chiping size of these mulches, these farmers are sourcing the carbon for free or cheap as waste from local government agencies, power companies or tree service companies that have to clear brush or trees. Carbon in this bedding bonds to nutrients and ammonia from animals wastes reducing vaporization (air pollution) and leaching (groundwater pollution) then composts directly in the animal house (providing free winter heat!) or on fields adding both fertility and organic matter back to the local soils. This formation of a winter manure pack is an old practice that will the backbone of improving my soils. I could not be happier about this development!

There are still a lot of farm practices I don’t agree with…especially in the industrial food production field. However it is vital to give credit where it it is due. Pitting industrial vs. sustainable agriculture is polarizing and damaging to both fields, not to mention building of animosity and the subsequent ability of human emotions to hinder progress. Remember, agriculture is historically slow to adapt to new practices so patience is vital in improving our overall food production systems. Very few of these practices would have been used even as little as a decade ago. Notice how the oldest practices of crop rotation and winter cover are the most widespread now even though the forces driving the practices have shifted from economic in gaining extra income from a winter grain crop to soil preservation. We can only improve from here and from the looks of it, conventional farms are already doing do!

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Uncategorized

Xylem Filter: Simple low tech water filter using a pine branch

A study published from the University of Singapore has found a way to use a vinyl tube, hose clamp and peel pine branch to effectively filter out bacteria and viruses from drinking water. Also of note is that the study is published to be read freely by all. Most of my readers know by now my hatred of scientific journals that publish studies funded by taxpayer money, but require payment to view the results.

Trees transport water in the xylem (aka sapwood) from the roots to the rest of the tree. By tightening a vinyl tube using a hose clamp around a section of branch with the bark removed, a watertight seal is made while the porous sapwood filter the water. After all, plants have had millions of years to learn how to remove bubbles in order to transport the water using pressure differentials through the entirely of the organism. The reason softwoods are recommended is that the pores in the xylem are smaller. Surprisingly, this simple filter even captured 20 nm gold particles from the water indicating that viruses are expected to be trapped by the filter. So it should not be a surprise that the filter is effective to 200 nm, the size required to remove bacteria and protozoa.

This is amazing stuff, especially considering the impacts of treating water and distributing it through municipalities. Chlorine treatment is expensive and the piping to distribute chlorinated water corrodes making it both expensive to build as well as maintain. Boiling, distilling and subjecting water to reverse osmosis has a large fuel cost. Membrain systems are prone to clogging, are expensive and require a pump/fuel to force the water through the filter.

Xylem filtration might be a key development in small scale water filtration!

 

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Garden

How to plant Asparagus Organically

Planting asparagus is labor intensive. Or at least it is in my garden beds built on half-century old rocky fill dirt. Additionally, since the holes cannot be refilled for a few weeks, the excess dirt also needs to be stored somewhere. When siting your garden bed, remember that asparagus have a life spanning decades.

I don’t know if I really need this disclaimer, but my farm will not be seeking organic certification due to the immense financial burden that doing so has become. There are also some philosophical reasons from which you will be spared…for now at least. But I hope you agree that my methods fit the bill!

Asparagus needs to be buried deep. Eight inches to be exact but in my case, I dug deeper to remove and rocks that might inhibit root growth. They also need a wide hole in which the crowns can be adequately spread. 12 inches to be exact.

So the procedure is as follows.

Items required:

  • Shovel
    • also a digging iron in my case. Blasted rocks!
  • Asparagus Crowns
    • Nourse farms has by far the highest quality nursery stock that I have come across. However they sell them in 25 crown increments
  • Organic soil amendments
    • I minimize these typically. As the depth required at planting took these plants in to the heavy structured subsoil, I did use a handful of organic manure and humus (NPK- .5:.5:.5) per plant. It was $1.79 per 40 pound bag at walmart. 1 bag was enough for 25 plants.

Procedure:

  1. Eliminate existing weeds or turf to limit competition for nutrients.
    1. This step was taken care of when I built my garden beds using the lasagna method
  2. Dig the planting holes
    1. 8 inches deep, 12 inches in diameter, 12-18 inches apart. I efficiently used geometry (well, trigonometry) to my advantage!
  3. Amend the soil as needed
    1. I put half of a handful of organic manure and humus into the bottom of the hole in a cone shape to better accommodate the form of the crowns.
  4. Place the crown flat in the hole. Roots down, the crown where the roots come together and where the sprouts will originate up. The roots need to be spread out evenly covering the diameter of the hole
  5. Refill the hole ONLY until the crown is buried
    1. One half handful of the organic manure and hummus was placed on top of the crowns, then normal garden soil to finish burying the crown.
  6. Irrigate if needed
  7. When the sprouts are a few feet tall and have become ferns, refill half of the remaining hole.
    1. 100% of my plants had germinated within 10 days
    2. Refilling the hole will generally be 2 or 3 weeks after planting
  8. After another two weeks have passed, refill the holes completely

Here are some pictures of the process:

1. Building the garden bed in a manner that eliminates the turf. Done in the November before the spring planting season:

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2 and 3. Planting holes dug. Note my soil amendment bag to the left of the frame, bundle of crowns up top.

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4. Plant the crowns. I am so sorry and I realize this may be the step with the greatest potential for confusion. I failed to photograph it as it absolutely covered my hands in muck. So I am borrowing this image from this planting guide published by the University of Minnesota Extension. Place the crown into the hole so it is in this exact shape:

5. Bury the crown. This image shows the newly germinated shoots so it was taken 6 days after planting. However the depth to bury the crown is accurately depicted:

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6. Water the plants, no image needed.

7. Refill the hole when the plant has achieved a few feet in height.

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8. Have not completed this step yet, will update with a picture when I have!

 

 

Thats it! After two seasons of unharvested sprouts, you will enjoy 20-50 years of early spring, fresh, nutritious greens harvested before most other plants have come out of winter dormancy!

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Garden

My lasagna method for establishing garden bed without tilling

With incredibly well established crabgrass, killing it organically in order to create garden beds, tree planting sites, etc. seemed like quite a challenge. As time is on my side, I elected to lasagna garden!

The concept is simple.

  1. Existing plants (turf) are mowed down as low as possible.
  2. A biodegradable barrier is put down to smother out the existing turf. I used cardboard as businesses are happy to give it away but brown paper bags and even multiple layers of newspaper are adequate.
  3. Compostable layers are laid down on top of the biodegradable barrier: Anything compostable: mixed nitrogen/carbon (green/brown) material, manure, mulch, etc.

Working simultaneously with the composting materials from step 3, the layer in step two smothers out the established turf before composting both that now dead plant material and the barrier itself. Between the organic matter used in this procedure and what is provided in the roots of the existing, smothered plants, the worm and microbe activity will be exceptionally high yielding quality soil for planting in the following season.

Don’t forget to remove all tape, glue and staples from the cardboard. Also avoid glossy cardboard as it is coated in plastic.

Here are some pictures of my process.

Measuring 6 feet between beds (4 foot bed plus 2 foot aisle). These dimensions are simply my preference. Being 6’4″, there is nowhere I can’t easily reach in a 4 foot bed. Plan your garden beds to your preference!

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Fill with compostable layers (composting manure in my case) then mulch with whatever you have available to inhibit weed growth. I also planted a cover crop of red clover as an experiment. It seems to be germinating best where the compost is old or where some soil was mixed into the manure compost such as where I excavated to install root barriers in the middle of some garden beds.

 

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In retrospect, I can use old pictures to show the process from start to finish!

Lasagna bed being built in November of last year:

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Asparagus planted into that bed in May. All but the very top layer of manure had composted:

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3 weeks later in June:

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I also use this method for establishing flower beds or tree planting sites. Here is a little filbert (hazelnut) seemingly content in his lasagna bed:

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Garden

Garden Planning: Filling Out Rest of Shade Row

The western most row of my garden will receive the most afternoon shade. As a result, the rest of the space not occupied by hops crowns will be planted with more shade tolerant plants.

Mother Earth News and this chart gives options for shade tolerance and produce (all errors and typos preserved from source):

 

Crop Shade Notes Growing Tips
Arugula At least three to four hours of sun per day. Arugula welcomes shade, as this crop is prone to bolting as soon as the weather turns warm if in full sun.
Asian greens At least two hours of sun per day. Asian greens such as bok choi (also spelled “pac choi” and “pak choi”), komatsuna and tatsoi will grow wonderfully with a couple hours of sun plus some bright shade or ambient light.
Chard If you grow chard mainly for its crisp stalks, you will need at least five hours of sun per day; if you grow it mainly for the tender baby leaves, three to four hours of sun per day will be enough. Expect chard grown in partial sade to be quite a bit smaller than that grown in full sun. Baby chard leaves are excellent cooked or served raw in salads.
Culinary herbs At least three hours of sun per day. While many culinary herbs need full sun, chives, cilantro, garlic chives, golden marjoram, lemon balm, mint, oregano and parsley will usually perform well in shadier gardens.
Kale At least three to four hours of sun per day. You’ll notice only a small reduction in growth if comparing kale grown in partial shade with kale grown in full sun.
Lettuce At least three to four hours of sun per day. Lettuce is perfect for shadier gardens because the shade protects it from the sun’s heat, preventing it from bolting as quickly. Often, the shade can buy a few more weeks of harvesting time that you’d get from lettuce grown in full sun.
Mesclun One of the best crops for shady gardens. Grows in as little as two hours of sun per day and handles dappled shade well. The delicate leaves of this salad mix can be harvested in about four weeks, and as long as you leave the roots intact, you should be able to get at least three good harvests before you have to replant.
Mustard greens At least three hours of sun per day for baby mustard greens. Mustard grown for baby greens is best-suited for shady gardens.
Peas and beans At least four to five hours of sun. If growing these crops in partial shade, getting a good harvest wil take longer. Try bush and dwarf varieties rather than pole varieties.
Root vegetables At least four to five hours of sun per day for decent production. Beets, carrots, potatoes, radishes and turnips will do OK in partial shade, but you’ll have to wait longer for a full crop. The more light you have, the faster they’ll mature. Alternatively, you can harvest baby carrots or small new potatoes for a gourment treat that would cost an arm and a leg at a grocery store.
Scallions At least three hours of sun per day. This crop does well in partial shade throughout the growing season.
Spinach At least three to four hours of sun per day. Spinach welcomes shade, as it bolts easliy if in full sun. If you grow it specifically to harvest as baby spinach, you’ll be able to harvest for quite a while as long as you continue to harvest the outmost leaves of each plant.

 

Another consideration is shade-tolerant currants. However I will reserve these to grow on the garden boundary fence that get the most shade from the tall silo.

Peas are removed from consideration as they are already planned to be grown with corn and sunflowers in more sunny spots. Herbs deserve their own post so they will not be included here either.

The shadiest row has an abundance of space so both salad greens and highly marketable plants can be included. Considering brassicas reported affinity for rhubarb means that mustard (for greens and seeds), collard greens and kale will be experimented with in the spring while cabbage, broccoli, brussel sprouts, cauliflower can be added in the fall. Additionally, columbine flowers and numerous salad greens will be planted adjacent to rhubarb and compared to those grown away from the plant.

Therefore I will be filling out the shade row with Arugula, Chard, Kale, Lettuce, Mesclun (as a premixed salad that can be harvested directly as a mix), Mustard, and Spinach. Lettuce is really the only plant with varietal considerations so it will be planted in thirds: 1/3 will be iceberg (head) lettuce, 1/3 will be romaine, and 1/3 will be batavia. Considering aphids, companions will be planted along side the lettuce, but I have not yet determined which herbs or flowers to use.

Quickly weighting the plants by preference gave me the final amount of 1 square foot spaces to dedicate to each plant. Spacing requirements were determined entirely from this PDF from Virginia Tech.

Here is how the shade row looks all mapped out with spring plantings:

ShadeRowTeaser

 

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Cattle

Manually harvesting hay

Believe it or not, there are many places in the world where hay is still harvested by hand. Barring economic reasons, manual hay harvesting to provide winter fodder for animals is generally found in mountainous, rocky or uneven areas where machinery will break or simply cannot be run. As I will only be running 1-2 goats and 1-2 heads of cattle on the 10 acre pasture, there will be plenty of pasture that will grow into maturity and be wasted. Plus my hay requirements for 2-4 animals is very low. Remember from my early post on Grazing Sciences, that the most nutritious grasses are harvested before maturity and left with 3-4″ of photosynthetic material that creates the ebergy needed for grass to regenerate.

I learned the ropes from this article from a 1979 Mother Earth News article titled The Art of Cutting Hay By Hand written by a french author who at least at the time of publication, manually harvested all hay for her farm. Below is a simplified gist of the process

1. Swing the scythe that has been sharpened to a razor edge allowing the blade to do the work instead of force.

2. Re-sharpen scythe approximately every hour or every few rows of grass.

  • While my uncle is a master, I am absolutely terrible at sharpening blades with a whetstone. I found this tool very useful in the kitchen on low end knives and honestly will try it as a scythe-sharpening shortcut (Amazon kitchen knife sharpener). For my nicer kitchen knives and hunting knives, I use this kit which is fantastic, but more work (Amazon Spider Co sharpening kit).

3. The scythe naturally rakes the hay into rows so the fodder needs to be fluffed and spread to dry

4. Rake into rows

5. Once dry, bail the hay using a homemade piece of canvas (or similar material…maybe a tarp?) and tie it up. This is entirely optional! Alternatively just load the unbailed hay into its transportation method.

6. Transport hay to covered storage place

7. Unbail if bailed or spread and fluff to ensure complete drying of hay and prevent spoilage. Salt can be applied to any grass clumps that are still wet to discourage fermentation. Obviously I would use a salt meant for animal nutritional supplementation!

Thats it! The stored hay can be fed in the winter as needed.

There is an antique scythe already in my barn and I absolutely love manual labor as long as the tasks are varied. Harvesting hay manually limits the economic pit of buying single purpose equipment that dooms most failed farm operations. To put it bluntly, in the first year of starting my farm operation, I will have way more time than cashflow so the task would fit well as something productive with no extra equipment-requirements. It is also an homage to a pre-industrial way of life, provides a fun outdoor task and prevents me from buying or renting expensive equipment that would likely end up broken due to the uneven and rocky pasture. Most importantly, I will get to learn what is entailed by cutting, raking, bailing and storing hay without burning a single bit of petroleum. Assuming cattle or goat operation are expanded in the future that requires acquiring haymaking equipment, I will definitely have a deep appreciation of said equipment!

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