Just a Little Update

Well, spring arrived here in Iowa…and then it quickly slipped back into winter. The last couple days temps have plummeted back down to the high thirties. It was seventy-five last weekend, just to give you perspective. And while the rain is keeping us out of the fields, it is a necessary blessing. The radish, carrot and spinach seeds we planted last week have all sprouted, and our broccoli, kale and lettuce are enjoying the cooler weather (although not really the steady wind).

The rain has also given us the opportunity to get caught up on a few things. We’ve been seeding inside the house and repotting transplants like crazy the last couple days. We’ve fallen a bit behind on those things and its good to get that going again. I’ve also gone virtually silent on the blog for the past month, so I wanted to take this chance to catch you up on what we’ve been up to.

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In March we started planting seedlings inside under lights. To see how we do that click here We’ve started around 300 tomato plants, 100 pepper plants, broccoli, melons and a few flower varieties. We have more tomatoes to seed and a few other things that will transplant better rather than direct seeding in the ground. This has been a new adventure for us, as we’ve never really started seeds indoors before. Our basement has been converted into a makeshift grow room! But its been fun, and we’ve learned so much that we will take into next season when hopefully we will be able to add a greenhouse to expand our seeding efforts.

What will we do with all of our transplants? We’ll plant many of them in the market garden, but we also plan to sell some of these at the first couple farmer’s markets of the year.

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In March we also began raising a flock of 15 chickens. These girls (and a few unexpected roos) brooded in our front room until they were big enough to go outside. And just a couple of weeks ago they all moved into their new coop. FYI, it smells a wee bit better in the house now, thank you very much.

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They’ve made the transition without any problems, and they love the new space to roam around. Although it took some coaching from “mom and dad” to teach them how to go in and out of the hen house. I used to think that I would never have chickens. I’ve taken care of other people’s chickens before, and it kind of turned me off on the idea. But there is something to raising our own that has changed my mind. And I can’t wait for those fresh farm eggs every morning!

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We’ve broken ground on the 3 acre market garden. This plot of land had been used for soybeans in the year past, but last year was so badly overtaken with weeds that it was hard to imagine how this could ever become a garden. But we mowed, we plowed, and we ran a disc and a harrow over the ground more than a dozen times to get it in shape for making beds.

Our plan is to put in 10 distinct garden plots made of 12 beds each. Each bed is 100 ft long and 20 in wide, with 18 in space between. This will allow for a 10 year rotation between crop types, which will help alleviate disease and aggressive pest issues.

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We’re adopting a permanent bed model to eliminate compaction of the soil. We’ve tilled each bed this year, partially to help line each one out and to help with weeds, but we hope to move toward a no-till process in the next couple years. Our goal is to build up healthy soil, and limiting how often we disrupt it, or turn it over, will help preserve those beneficial microbes we are trying to nurture that live in top six inches. Iowa has incredible soil to begin with, so we are already starting in a good place.

After each bed is tilled, it gets a healthy application of compost around 3 in thick. Starting next year, we’ll rotate our compost application, giving preference to the heavy feeders like potatoes and tomatoes, while applying every two years to the lighter feeders like leaf crops and legumes. Compost is expensive, and we’ve been bringing it home by the truck load. We have a place locally we can get it, but it would be in our best interest from a cost perspective if we can figure out how to provide the amount we need from our own operation.

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Part of the 3 acre garden has been reserved for permanent crop. We’re putting in almost 60 raspberry plants this year, and will likely double that next year. We’ve also got around 300 strawberry plants coming and about the same amount of asparagus over the next two weeks. We hope to expand on these depending on the market in our community.

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In addition to laying compost, we’re laying shredded oak chips in the pathways around each garden plot. Hopefully this will aid in weed suppression, while also giving the garden definition. Another expensive resource that I need to work on sourcing cheaper. Any arborists out there who want to donate their wood chips?

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Part of our overall plan for the farm is to incorporate fruit trees throughout the property. When we bought the house, everything was so overgrown that it will likely take the next couple years to clean it up the way we want. But once we do that there will be plenty of space for small orchard plots around our 12 acres.

So far we’ve added 10 trees. 4 apples, 3 pears and 3 peaches. We’d like to double this yet this spring, with the plan on adding at least another 20 more next year.

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The reason we named our farm 16 Hands was because we have 6 children. Add me and my wife and that’s plenty of helping hands, right? This is a lifestyle that we are hoping will offer our children beneficial skills and experience that will help shape their character as they grow older. Our greatest responsibility in life is to raise healthy, compassionate children who are willing and able to contribute to their community. I can’t think of a better way to do that than by growing up on a farm and sharing in the daily responsibilities.

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This rain has not only been good for our germinating seed, but look at all the weeds popping up in the field! We’ve got our work cut out for us, and I’ll show you how we plan to handle these weeds a little later. But I’m very excited with how this project it turning out. It’s not easy, but I’ve learned that nothing worth having is ever achieved without working for it. And we’re happy to do so.

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Apart from the 3 acre market garden, we’ve also started to put in so raised beds across the property for extra growing and research opportunities. Right now these boxes have cold weather crops growing in them, most of them direct seeded and started under the hoop frame I built in the picture above. These are great for protecting young starts and for extending your growing season. To learn how to build your own click here

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When I pause to reflect on what we are trying to accomplish I sometimes get overwhelmed by the amount of time and energy that will be necessary to pull it off. But when I look at all we have already done, I’m encouraged. It doesn’t feel like work when its something you are very passionate about. Are there unknown risks? Of course there are. But the reward is greater than any of those risks. And I’m blessed to have the people I love most at my side working toward the same goal.

It’s been a crazy ride, let me tell you. How did we get here? I’m not even sure anymore. But we’re loving it, and that’s all that matters.

To see how things progress, you can follow us on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram. And if you’re in the Ames, Iowa area, we’ll see you at the market!

 

 

 

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DIY Hoop Frame For the Raised Beds

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I’ve been thinking about ways we can extend our growing season. Why wait to plant in May when we can plant lettuce and other cold weather crops in March? And what about harvesting kale and Brussel sprouts in December or January? So I started building these cold frames that fit over the raised beds. They can be removed in the summer and are sturdy enough to weather the spring winds or the winter snows we get here in Iowa. And they’re easy to build.

Here’s what you’ll need to build one frame:

  • 3 – Pressure Treated 2x4x8
  • 4 – 1/2in PVC in 10ft lengths
  • 1 – Roll of 6mil 10x25ft painter’s plastic
  • 1/2in brackets, outdoor treated screws and a staple gun
  • 2 hours of time

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First of all, its important to have good help when building these frames. I have a little boy who loves to work outside, and he was my shadow the whole time during this project.

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I built our frames to match the raised beds I built earlier last month. These measure 40in wide by 8ft long. Cut your 2x4s to match dimensions of whatever sized bed you’re using. The frame is built with simple butt joints and it should be independent from your raised bed box so that you can remove the cold frame when needed. After securing the joints with outdoor screws, I reinforced the corners with 90 degree steel angle bars to take out the flexibility in the frame and relieve the stress on the joints when moving it.

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After the wooden frame is secure, line out your PVC pipe. I wanted my frames to be tall enough to house anything we wanted to plant in the box, so I used 10ft pieces. This should give us enough room for kale or even late season tomatoes.

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Measure out where you want your PVC. For a basic hoop frame, 4 should be enough to support the plastic, but if you’re building a longer frame you might use more. Here I used 1/2 inch brackets to support the bottom of the PVC.

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I then used a second 1/2 bracket to keep the PVC from slipping. You can also screw the PVC directly in to the wood, but I found the two brackets worked nice when it was time to bend the PVC.

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Here’s where that extra hand comes in handy. Bend the PVC into a hoop and attach with a 1/2 bracket on the other side of the frame. After all four pipes are secured you’re hoop frame should look like the skeleton of a covered wagon.

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You have some flexibility on which kind of plastic you use to cover your frame. No need to spend a lot of money here. I used 6mil painter’s plastic because I wanted it to hold up against the elements. But you could easily use cheaper 3-4mil plastic as well. The thicker stuff isn’t going to create much more heat inside the frame compared to the lower grade. I just didn’t want to have to change the plastic every year.

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A good heavy-duty staple gun will shine here. You want to get the plastic centered and then staple to the frame. An added bonus of a hoop frame is that is doubles as a shelter that can potentially keep some of those bugs out. I staple along the outer frame, and then tucked the plastic underneath and staple again on the inside. After attaching both sides, tuck the flaps on the ends tightly over, like you would when wrapping Christmas presents, and then attach. Cut off any extra plastic so it doesn’t interfere with crops inside the frame.

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There are tremendous benefits to having a few raised hoop houses like this. They create a safe haven for those transplants you’ve started from seed indoors. They give you the ability to sow seeds directly outdoors earlier in the season, even when the ground temps are still well below 60 degrees. And they can allow you to extend your growing season into late fall or even through the winter months. And I like the flexibility of being able to take these hoop frame off and move them around based on our growing or rotation needs.

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So what did we plant?

We let the soil rest for a week underneath the hoop frame before planting this weekend. We’re experimenting with seeds strips, which are seeds placed in strips of biodegradable cloth (a very cool option for so many reasons!), and I thought the hoop frame was the perfect place to do that. The picture above shows lettuce and spinach placed in alternate strips. These will be harvested as a “baby” crop for a tender salad mix, so I’ve intentionally placed them close to each other to maximize space. I’ve also sown Siberian kale seeds in short rows at each end of the bed. These will all be harvested in about 25-30 days, and then followed by a successive crop of peas.

Wanna build a hoop frame? Let us know what you think. We’ll be posting more pics on how these hoop frames can be used on our Facebook page and on Instagram. Follow us if you aren’t already and share your own pics if you decide to build one.

Happy planting!

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Indoor Seeding: Get your grow on!

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I don’t know if you’ve priced out the indoor grow light options online, but they’re crazy expensive. You can choose from single grow lamps to whole rack and light systems, from hobby options to professionally advanced, and I have to admit they look very appetizing to the dreaming gardener.  But is it necessary to spend an arm and a leg to get started planting your favorite veggies indoors?

Nope. Not at all. And to those of us on a budget that’s good news!

First lets talk about what it is we’re really trying to accomplish here. Its March and the ground is still frozen (like it is here in Iowa) and unless you live in Texas the temps are still plunging well below that optimal 60 degrees most of our favorite veggies prefer (think tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers). Getting into the field or garden patch still isn’t an option for many of us. But the time is getting close, right? So close you can feel the itch, the desire, the loooonging to just plant something, to make something grow. Or maybe you want to experiment with some of those veggies that don’t grow well from direct seeding in the garden, like celery or Brussel sprouts, and you’re tired of paying four bucks or more per plant at Home Depot.

Sound like you?

Great! To germinate your seeds you’ll need a consistent source of sunlight and warm temps. If we can’t get those outside we’ll need to simulate them inside. That’s all we’re talking about here. Simulating sunlight and warm temps. In a nutshell that’s it.

So there’s no reason to go broke doing it, right?

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To set up our indoor space, I was originally thinking about buying a metal rack similar to this one But then it dawned on me that we’ve got some old shelves down in the basement that I used to have in the wood shop but haven’t used in a long time. I decided to modify those and to save money instead. Upcylcling is a great thing, afterall. You can see in the picture above they’re just basic metal shelves. Nothing fancy. But you can use anything you have in the garage or shop.

If you can’t find any empty shelves to repurpose, make some! A couple of boards and mason blocks or bricks would work. Use what you have. Just make sure its sturdy and you’re not creating a fire hazard.

I did opt to buy a few LED shop lights. You can find cheap ones in many places, even at Goodwill or on Craigslist if you’re patient enough. I found these at Sam’s Club and they were the perfect length for my shelves. They were on sale for $24.81 each and I bought three of them. So I was into this project for a little under $75, but comparable to what I was initially looking to spend I feel that’s a fair bargain.

Do you need shoplights? It depends on how many seeds you want to plant inside, and how much space you need to cover. If you just have a few trays you could use a single heat lamp bulb like this one mounted in an inexpensive fixture. I’ve seen people use a regular desk lamp before for a single tray of seeds.

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The Honeywell lights I purchased came with S hooks and chains for easy mounting. This made everything extremely simple. The shelves I used already had accessible holes to hang the chains from, and it was just a matter of adjusting the height of the light from the seed trays.

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Again, safety is the key here, no matter how you’re setting up your lights. Keep your cords clear of moisture, and make sure your heat source isn’t too close to your plastic trays. You know the drill.

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The LED lights don’t put out a lot of heat. For us this isn’t an issue, because my basement stays around 60 degrees. Fluorescent bulbs put out a little heat, but if you’re setting up your growing space out in the garage or in an unheated room, you might consider a lamp that puts off heat, like what you can find at the pet store for reptiles.

Eventually we want to expand our transplanting for the market garden to a solar heated greenhouse, but for right now this is working well enough on a smaller scale

And it’s really that simple, friends. Don’t let the price tag on some of the more elaborate growing systems keep you from trying your hand at starting your own transplants. You don’t have to spend a lot of money to be an efficient and effective gardener.

Since we’re talking about starting transplants indoors, let’s chat a little about how to plant those seeds. Starting your plants from seed, rather than buying box store transplants, will yield stronger, healthier and more vigorous plants. That means better quality produce. There are many ways to do this, but I’ve really come to love the Jiffy Peat Pellets They’re simple and the kids love them because they can get involved right at the kitchen table. You can get a kit like this that has everything you need, including pellets, tray and cover.

The peat pellets will come in hard little discs covered in biodegrabdable netting. You simply cover them with warm water until they rise (about 2 inches or so), peel back the netting on top, poke a hole and drop a couple of your favorite seeds. Place these in a southern facing window until the seeds sprout and then move the tray to your indoor growing space.

Fun for the whole family, and no matter how big or small your garden, starting your own seeds will go a long way in saving you money.

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“Garden as though you will live forever…” William Kent

Remember a hero

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On August 21, 2004, this man walked his daughter down the aisle. I was waiting there, in the half-light of a partially raining afternoon, scared to death. Doug put his daughter’s hand in mine, and he gave her to me to cherish, to love and to protect for the rest of my life.

I remember the talk Doug had with me before the wedding. We talked about God and the responsibility of being a good husband, and he gave me his blessing and his love. He cried. Well, to be fair, he bawled like a baby, but that was classic Doug. All raw nerves and awkward emotion. He cried when he toasted our marriage as well, but he was beaming with joy when he set his gaze upon us and lifted his glass. He came to the wedding alone, was there for every ceremony, and he was the last person to stay behind after everyone else went home.

It was a great day.

Fast forward ten years later. We’re all sitting around Doug’s hospital bed. We’ve been saying our goodbyes every time we see him because we don’t know how much longer he has, and there are so many things left unsaid. There still are.

He’s gone now. The man who gave me his daughter is gone. He’s gone, he’s gone, he’s gone.

And we remain.

I could tell you about the way Doug cherished his grand kids. That he was a great grandfather. I could tell you that he accepted my two older boys that day in August, accepted them as his own and never once treated them like they were outsiders. I could tell you these things, but I’m not going to. I could also tell you about the many times Doug dropped everything to come help me. Fixing the sump pump in the middle of the night while it was pouring down rain because the basement flooded. Twice. Or the many times he helped me wire electrical outlets in the shop and the house. I could talk about the fishing trips and the shooting trips and the sledding trips. The birthdays, holidays and everything in between. The times he used to come over just to wrestle with the little boys, or the way he held his granddaughter for the first time. But I’m not going to talk about those things either. Those things are mine to keep, to take out and look at like old pictures anytime I feel I need to.

What I want to talk about is the day he handed his daughter to me, and asked me to take care of his little girl. Because, in Doug’s death, I’ve been trying to find a way that would best honor him. And the only real way I know how to honor him the most is to live up to the promise I made that afternoon 13 years ago. Because I plan to see him again, and I’ll have to look him in the eye, and he’ll want to know if I did it. If I fulfilled my promise. And I’m not going to disappoint him.

There are so many things that have gone through my mind in the last several days. Regrets. Words I wish I would have said. Words I wish I hadn’t said. I wish I had more fishing trips. I wish I had more time. But one thing I can say with certainty. Doug touched my life in more ways than he ever knew while he walked this earth. His convictions and faith were unshakable, right up to the end. That will stay with me forever. I want to be a better person because of Doug. A better husband, son, father. A better man. To live with more conviction and less bitterness. To be more open and less closed off.

That, if you ask my opinion, is the true essence of a hero. To live in such a way that you inspire others, that even in your death you are creating change in the people around you.

Doug is a hero. He served his country. He served his God. He served his family.

There will come a time when I will leave this earth. Maybe I’ll find myself walking down another aisle, to another kind of wedding. No tuxedos and photographs this time. I know who will be there waiting for me. He’ll be the first one to meet me at the door, to welcome me home. He’ll ask me about his little girl, and how well the kids have grown. He’ll put his arms around me and we’ll cry, we’ll laugh, and then this distance between us will be no more.

In a little while.

Note: this was first written and published 2 years ago from Hood River, Oregon

Experimenting with gardening: The Core Method

Happy Saturday! The weather here in northern Iowa has been off the charts. Yesterday was in the low seventies and its supposed to be in the high sixties most of this week. It’s hard to believe we’re still in the middle of February! But we know its only short-lived, so we’re making the most of the sunshine.

We’ve started putting in raised garden boxes, where a lot of our cold weather crops will be grown, with a transition into beans, and I wanted to quickly share the gardening technique we’re experimenting with this year. It’s called the Core Method, and its been around for some time. But this is the first year we’ve used it in our own garden.

The method is simple. The idea is to incorporate organic material down the core, or center, of your raised bed before planting. As this material breaks down it will release vital nutrients to your plants while enriching the soil. Most of the time this is done with rotted straw, but we’re using rotted grass clippings and mulched leaves.

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We have this great space in front of the old brick barn, nestled on the southern side of the hog shed, where the ground is relatively flat. This picture was taken yesterday late afternoon, but we get at least 8 hours of direct sunlight here, and the hog shed provides decent wind break. Our plan is to put in nine raised beds this year, and to incorporate some flowers throughout the space to attract those necessary pollinators.

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Once the box is built and placed, I’m laying cardboard on the bottom, right over the grass. This allows me to not have to dig the grass up (its warm but the ground is still frozen 4 inches below the topsoil) or lay down plastic. I want my plants to have access to the rich soil below and for their roots to not be restricted to the depth of the box (16 inches). The cardboard will kill the grass and act as a weed barrier as it breaks down over time.

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After the cardboard is placed and soaked really good, I’m putting down a thin layer of mulched leaves from our fall pile. Then I’m placing the rotted grass clippings right down the middle of the bed in clumps about six inches deep. The grass is rotting but still green, so it should be a nice source of nitrogen for my spring crop.

Many people use straw instead of grass clippings. I don’t have access to straw without going out and buying it, so I’m using what I have readily available. The important thing to remember is that whether you use straw or grass, it should be partially rotted already. Don’t use it if its wet and slimy, as this will work against the balance you’re trying to create in the soil (think composting; same principle), and could contribute to plant disease or hinder growth. You don’t want to use fresh straw either, as you might not see the benefit of it breaking down until the following year. Using material that is already in the process of breaking down will give your plants a continued source of nutrients throughout the season. Just make sure you don’t use material that has been sprayed with a herbicide, or grass that has gone to seed! (I wouldn’t use hay either, as most hay has seed in it and will create unnecessary weeding.)

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After the grass clippings are placed, I’m adding native soil from the property. Our soil here is a rich blend of sandy clay and I want to use it as much as possible. We had a new septic tank put in last summer, and after the leech field was excavated we ended up with a large pile of black earth. This is what I’m using to fill our boxes.

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I’m starting at the sides and spreading the native soil throughout the box. I’ll cover the grass and mulched leaves and then follow with a layer of compost, which we’re having trucked in from a local business within the week. Once I add compost, I’ll mix in more native soil. Then I’ll be ready to plant.

We hope to sow cold weather crops like kale and radish over the next couple weeks. I’ll put up plastic hoops over the boxes to keep the soil warm and to protect the plants from late winter flucuations in weather. Any snow we get will hopefully serve to insulate the boxes as well. At least that’s the idea!

By the way, you don’t need to have raised beds to incorporate the Core Gardening Method. If you already have or are establishing raised beds on the ground, whether permanent or annual, you can use this method to enrich your soil. This is a neat and organic way to let nature do the work for you, and works well on a no-till garden plot!

Happy gardening!

Dare to dream big

local-grownI sat down with a local agronomist to go over soil samples he pulled from both of our fields. I was encouraged, but not necessarily surprised by the results. For the most part, our soil is pretty healthy. Nitrogen levels are good, which is to be expected after years of conventional soybean and corn rotation. Potash and Phosphorus are a little low, but nothing to worry about. Organic matter is good and our ph is pretty neutral.

So why did I walk away from our meeting feeling a little discouraged?

The average ph of our soil is 7.1, which on a scale of 0 (extremely acidic) to 14 (extremely alkaline) is right in the middle. Many of the vegetables we intend to grow in the market garden thrive in more neutral soils. Think peppers and squash and green beans. But raspberries, blueberries and strawberries? They prefer a much more acidic soil type, down in the 5-5.5 range. And these are really the crops we are most excited about bringing to our community.

So I asked the agronomist what he would recommend we do to lower the ph of our soil where we intend to grow berries, and this is where the meeting kind of took a strange turn. He looked at me with a crooked smile and kind of shook his head. That simple gesture told me everything that was going through his mind without the need for words. It’s not the first time someone has looked at me as if I was nuts.

“We just kind of grow what the soil lets us grow here,” he said. “And that’s corn and  soybeans.”

I know that’s at least partially true. There are other variables that go into that, and a lot of it has to do with the commodity market. But with corn dropping well below $4.00 a bushel, there are many farmers looking to diversify their crops. And what about the regional market? The desire for fresh, organic produce on a local level is growing rapidly.

Our agronomist went on to tell me that it wasn’t worth the effort to lower our ph, that it would cost too much and probably wouldn’t work anyway. And I could tell he was uncomfortable with the discussion, that this was well out of his wheelhouse. And that’s okay. I get it.

We came here with the intention to go against the status quo. We don’t have enough acres to justify field corn or soybeans, and that’s not where our heart is anyway. Our heart is in being a resource within our local community for quality and diversified fresh vegetables and fruits, and in contributing to the education and preservation of small acre farming. And what we are trying to accomplish isn’t necessarily traditional in the Midwest. We’re in the heart of big agriculture.

I walked away from the meeting and began to do my own research on soil amendment on a smaller scale. Composting and mulching with wood chips shows promise, as does some sulfur application, but the key seems to be in creating a rich environment for the right bacteria to thrive. I’ll be studying this pretty hard over the next couple months.

But as I left that office, a little deflated, a little unsure, I had two choices. I could stop pursuing what we wanted to accomplish, or I could dig in and go deeper.

My point is this: More often than not, if you are working towards accomplishing anything worthwhile you’ll find yourself at odds with those around you. There are always people who are stuck in the rut of “we’ve always done it this way.” Don’t let that discourage you! There is always a different perspective, and if you’re willing to be open-minded and realistic, you’ll often find success. But it won’t be without skeptics!

The inclination of many is to walk away, to abandon the dream, or to conform to normal standards. Each comes with their own kind of death, in my opinion. How many of us live with regret of the risks we didn’t take, especially as we grow older?

If we are to follow our heart, we have to dare to dream big. And we have to prepare ourselves to be challenged; by the people around us, by reality, and by our own expectations.

Luckily we are not necessarily alone on this path. There are others who have gone before us, who have dared to dream. And from the experiences of others we can glean our own success. Here are a few thoughts on making your dreams reality:

Be grounded by reality, but not limited by it

I may never be able to successfully grow berries on our property. That may be a reality. But it’s not going to keep me from trying to do it. I refuse to stop just because it hasn’t been done before (there are a few farms that grow berries here in Iowa; its not like this is a completely foreign idea). The agronomist might think it isn’t worth trying, but why should that limit my desires?

We have to be willing to work within the realm of possibility, and not be limited to what is only commonly accepted. Some things might be beyond reality. I will never be a famous singer. No matter how much effort I put into it, I still can’t carry a tune in a bucket. Amending my soil enough to have healthy berry production might be scientifically and financially out of question, but I’m not convinced of either yet.

Don’t let the skeptics define your success

You will always have someone tell you it isn’t possible. Challenge them. Ask why? Maybe something isn’t possible, but don’t determine your own limitations by the opinions of others.

I’m not saying that we ignore the advice of others. Actually, I believe in seeking the advice of many. But what I have found in my life is that there are too many out there who have refused to follow their own dreams, and have become jaded from it, and so are willing to cripple the dreams of others. Or, more often, you’ll find yourself surrounded by people who have become comfortable with a certain kind of conforming. They’ve accepted the status quo, and anyone who comes along challenging the accepted norms will make them uncomfortable.

Don’t be afraid to make people uncomfortable. Challenge the common status quo. When people ask you why, ask them why not.

You’ll have to work for it

I read a quote from Colin Powell that I love: “A dream doesn’t become reality through magic; it takes sweat, determination and hard work.”

You can seek help, but if you’re going against the grain you’ll often have to pave your own way. You can be inspired by those pioneers of innovation who came before us. You can learn from their stories of grit and resistance and challenge. But often times, as a dreamer, you’ll find yourself alone and doubting your resolve. You’ll have to figure things out on your own. Do your own research. Learn from your mistakes. It takes work to make a dream reality, but the payoff is well worth it.

Many dreamers have crashed and burned because they weren’t willing to do what it takes to realize their dreams. Think of all the failed writers and musicians out there among us. These are the skeptics.

Be willing to work hard, to be humble, to learn and grow with determination, and success will eventually come.

Don’t be afraid to fail

Many of our great leaders and innovators learned through their own failure. Think about Abraham Lincoln. His life was wrought with failure, but in the end he was able to achieve more than he could ever dream. Think about Albert Einstein, Steve Jobs, Mother Theresa. All of them risked failure time and time again. All of them felt disappointment and rejection. All of them challenged the status quo.

I did not grow up on a farm. I don’t have an agronomy degree. Many of the things I want to accomplish on our farmstead seem out of reach. Statistics are against me. But I am inspired by the opportunity to learn, to grow and through my own experiences help show others that growing food on a small-scale is possible, profitable and healthy for the community.

Be willing to adjust and be flexible

We may need to alter our expectations of what we grow and how we will grow it. That’s okay. It may prove too difficult to amend our soil enough to grow healthy berries. This isn’t a deal killer for us, because our aspirations are much larger. We’re willing to be flexible in our own expectations for success. That’s part of the enthusiasm we have for the market garden. Experimenting with different techniques, growing methods and varieties. Seeing what we can accomplish, and not being held back by our own fears and inexperience. We’re not afraid to change our thoughts or direction.

And neither should you be. Stay the course, yes. Keep your eyes on the end goal. But be willing to adapt to the challenges and to the revelations you experience on the journey. This is how we grow. This is how we make dreams a reality.

Don’t forget to have fun

Striving for the sake of striving doesn’t make sense. Is your dream really what you want in your heart? If so, then you will enjoy the process. Don’t forget to laugh at yourself, and your mistakes. I know I will. Are others laughing at you? Laugh with them! Don’t take yourself, or your dreams, too seriously. In the end, its in the process, or the journey, where character and skill are defined. That’s so important to remember.

Share what you learn with others

This is important. Share your experiences, your struggles, your lessons learned. Enrich your community and help others accomplish great things. Knowledge is power, but its wealth is only found in giving it away.

Our dream may seem simple to others. Everybody gardens right? It’s not like we’re trying to break the DNA code, split an atom or determine the Theory of Gravity. But to us its a revolution. It’s not just about gardening. We’re rethinking how we eat, how we view the food industry and how we engage and can serve the community. We’re redefining what it means to farm, and we’re not alone in this. This is a growing movement that we are happy to be a part of.

Whatever you are trying to accomplish, whatever path your are on, don’t be afraid to dream big. Enjoy the journey. Life is an adventure, or at least it should be.

 

 

 

 

The crazy things I learned from my dad

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Like many young boys, I didn’t always see the wisdom in the things my dad told me while I was growing up. My dad was always full of little strange anecdotes and pearls of insight, and I was often the hardheaded kid who had to learn things my own way. Over the years the principles my dad tried to teach me were kind of lost. Left behind as muted relics of a childhood I thought for a long time I needed to escape.

Now that I’m older, and unfortunately now that my dad is gone, I’ve come to realize the truth in many of the things I used to take for granted. I used to roll my eyes when my dad would say some of these things, over and over, because I was smarter, you know. I was already well versed in the ways of the world, just like all ten-year old boys seem to think they are. Why do we come to understand these kinds of things so late in life? How young we were, when we thought we were giants! Or is it just me? I can’t be the only one who thought they knew more than their parents. I see this in my own kids from time to time, and its frightening how brazen they can be in their innocense. I must have looked the same way to my parents.

As I think back on some of these things, I realize how much of an impact my dad really had made on me over the years. Our relationship was always kind of strained and especially later in life our communication was often forced and uncomfortable. We lost something in those middle years of life, as I raced from boyhood to man. We were like two pieces of iron grinding against each other. But I understand now that he tried to teach me what he knew, and in so many ways I wouldn’t be the man I am today if it wasn’t for him. Iron sharpens iron, as the saying goes, when both pieces strike against each other enough times.

My dad was pretty simple. He was often frustrated with life and  by his own expectations of the people around him. He was challenged and flawed, like many of us are. But he wasn’t complex. Like Popeye used to say: “I am what I am and that’s all that I am.” That was my father. But he had known hardship, and he had known hunger, and he had known addiction and pain and what it feels like to strive for things mostly out of reach. To want and to not have. I hope he knew what it felt like to be happy too, to have a sense of joy, a sense of wonder and fulfillment.Those were things he didn’t express very well. He understood the world in a blue-collar way that I think gave him a caliber of wisdom that I wish I could have tapped into a little more. There is a way things work. So it is from his life experiences that these lessons have come, and it’s just now that I am learning to appreciate them for what they are. Even though I have lived with them, like one lives with ghosts, all my life.

It’s a long ways from your heart

This was probably one of my dad’s favorite sayings. Whenever I’d get hurt – fall down on the pavement, skin a knee, get scratched up by the blackberry thorns, whatever – my dad would kind of scowl and say: “Well, at least its a long ways from your heart.” As if that was the last word, the final diagnosis. It didn’t help alleviate the pain of some of those wounds, but to be fair most of the wounds were superficial.

This was my dad’s way of trying to toughen me up. It’s no different from telling someone to “rub some dirt on it” or “shake it off”. At the time, I just wanted a little empathy, and maybe a little attention. My dad was looking at the bigger picture.

Now, I don’t want to make my dad sound like he was cruel. Obviously this didn’t apply when I broke my collar-bone or got the tree branch stuck through my knee. Those were maybe a little “closer to the heart” than a little road rash on my elbow. He was mostly silent during those times, but in silence my dad said many things that he could not articulate with words. I know that now.

You’ll become whoever you’re hanging out with

When I got into my early teens, I hung out with some scrupulous people. I didn’t see it at the time, of course. Kids are often blinded by their own naiveté, and when you’re at that age where friends are EVERYTHING its hard to pull back enough to see what’s really going on. But my parents, they knew. And they weren’t afraid to let me know when they didn’t like someone I was hanging with. Especially my dad.

I always kind of resented him for this.Its that whole “parents just don’t understand” thing, sure, but for me it went a little bit further than that. My friends were my only escape from a house full of tension, and so I fought tooth and nail to preserve what I thought was something holy, something sacred. These were my blood brothers! The only people on the planet who truly got me, right? Oh the teenage drama. And it only made me dig in deeper when my dad showed any animosity toward my friends. This was the hill I would die on.

The guys I palled around with smoked. They drank. They stole things and skipped school. And you know what? It wasn’t long before I did those things too. You either hang or you get pushed out of the pack. Those are the rules. It was when I was arrested for shoplifting at JC Pennys when I started getting the hint that maybe my dad was right. And then it really hit home when I had my own kids and heard myself say those same words again and again to them, and watched the same glazed eyes roll back into their stubborn little heads.

We are often doomed to repeat our mistakes through the choices our children make. There is a way things work.

You’ll always use math, no matter what you do

I was pretty good at math in school, but I hated the subject. It was torture everyday I had to go to class. With the exception of Geometry (I loved geometry for some, strange reason), I would rather have my eyes pecked out of my skull by a flock of mad seagulls than sit in another math class. And so, it shouldn’t have been any surprise to anyone that the one class I elected to “miss” as much as I could (see notes about skipping class above) was math. This never made any sense to my parents, because they knew that it came easy to me. I simply refused to engage and apply myself.

My dad would always tell me that no matter what I did in life, I would use math. I can’t remember what I thought I was going to do with my life in high school, but whatever it was I knew my dad was wrong. Math? I mean, really? Who needs this junk? Algorithms and formulas and the Pythagorean Theorem? Sorry Dad, but you’re wrong about this one!

So I got out of high school and started finishing concrete. I became a bakery manager at a grocery store. Evolved into a grocery store manager while working through college, where I studied psychology (statistics and probability!). Became an equipment salesman. Then a Sales Manager. For a GPS technology company. And through it all fell in love with woodworking.

Ah, you see a pattern here? Everything I have ever done with my life involved math on some level. EVERYTHING.

So maybe Dad was a little right. Kind of. Marginally. Statistically speaking, of course.

Put some aloe on it

Did you ever watch the movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding? The father of the bride used to tell everyone to put Windex on their wounds. Got a pimple? Put some Windex on it! A cut on your finger? Put some Windex on it!

My dad was the same way with aloe. It was the end-all cure to everything. As far back as I can remember, we always had an aloe plant. Maybe it was the same aloe plant that kept regenerating itself every time a piece of it was cut off. I don’t know. But whenever one of us had a cut or skin abrasion or whatever, my dad would tell us to go to the aloe plant. Like it was some kind of healing shrine. This  of course after he assessed the situation and offered his “well its a long ways from your heart” dissertation.

The funny thing about this is that usually this worked. Rubbing aloe on a cut or burn soothed the pain. And now I see many of the health gurus talking about the wide benefits of using aloe. You can take it as a supplement. You can find it in hand lotion. It’s everywhere.

But my dad, and likly his whole generation, were doing this well before the fad caught on! For us, it was just part of growing up. Maybe my dad was smarter than we gave him credit for.

Wash your face and comb your hair before you even sit at the table

My dad was never one to wear a suit or tie, so I never learned from him the basics of dressing for success (shoes should match your belt, never wear white socks with black pants, make sure the tip of your tie falls in the middle of your belt buckle). I would learn those later on in life. What I did learn from my dad was more basic than that. The foundation of hygiene, you might say.

And I hated it.

But I find myself doing now out of habit. And its a good habit. Because this basic discipline sets the tone for the rest of the day. It also sets the foundation for hygienic awareness. My dad worked hard, came home filthy and after retirement spent more time in his lounge pants than jeans. But he was always clean. He always smelled like Old Spice. He was always trimmed up and proper in an old school, nineteen fifties kind of way.

Now that I’m older I admire the old school manners. And I wonder if I should have worked harder at instilling this basic tenement into my children’s lives. I think about that as I have to explain to them why they can’t wear pajamas to school, or why they need to get out of bed before 9am or why they need to cut their fingernails.

There is a way things work.

I find it uncanny, and unfortunate, that I am able to appreciate my dad’s wisdom now that I’m almost 40 years old. I wonder if I had only listened a little more as a kid how easier I could have made it on myself. How many hard knocks could I have avoided? But then again, my dad learned all of these through practice. Maybe its the circle we are all naturally inclined to follow. I don’t know about that. But I do find myself very lucky to have some of these lessons to fall back onto. My dad tried to pave a pathway for me that would, if I had only listened, made my journey through childhood a little less treacherous. I strayed, but if that pathway hadn’t been set before me I’d have nothing to return to once I started to figure it all out. For that I am extremely thankful.

I could probably write a book about the things my dad used to say. They weren’t all practical or even helpful, many of them woudln’t be PC today, but they were all very much my dad. Everyone of them. And they do haunt me, as I said before. Like echoes that never quite fade away. I’ll leave you with a few more to enjoy. But consider this: its often the memories of a person that we hold onto long after they are gone, because its all we have. And memories are often words, and words have the power to heal or destory. Sometimes, if you’re lucky, they can amuse.

Cheers!

You make a better door than a window – whenever I was standing in the way of the TV

Get the Merthiolate – if you’re a child of the early 70s and 80s you’ll understand why I used to cringe anytime my dad used to say this. First came Merthiolate, and then came aloe.

Once a liar, always a liar – my dad was a good judge of character

If you’re willing to lie, you’re willing to steal – my dad had a thing with liars; I think it’s why I don’t like lying either.

Ask your mom – my dad always had an opinion, except when one of us wanted to do something. Then it was all up to my mom.

Is it soup yet? – apply this to everything; beans, gravy, chicken fried steak. I think it means ‘is it done yet?’ But I’m really not sure.

Why are we so distracted?

distraction

I was reminded of something this morning.

While driving down Interstate 35, I was almost sideswiped by some dude cruising along, caught up in his own world. He didn’t even notice he had swerved into my lane. Not really. He corrected himself just before his orange hybrid plowed into my truck, by some keen sense of automatic direction, without ever taking his eyes of his phone.

Now that’s skill!

Or is it something else? This guy flew down the ramp, entered the freeway at full speed (70 in Iowa) all while reading his texts or scanning Twitter or looking at his maps or whatever. He was there, but not really there at all. Didn’t even look up as I drove by him. If he had he would have seen a killer stink eye, let me tell you what!

Why are we so distracted?

I’ve thought about this for a long time, because I wrestle with it too.

Ever sit in a waiting room at the doctor’s office? Or in the terminal at the airport? What do you see? Phones in faces, tablets in hand, laptops out. We are the zombie generation. Rarely is there a book to be seen anymore. And even more uncommon is there a conversation being had with a stranger. We’ve lost interest in the world around us. Words With Friends. Angry Birds. Pokemon Go! We have a lot of things to entertain us, and it almost seems that if we are not stimulated every second of every hour, well then we’re kind of lost.

I’ve seen it with my kids and television. I’ve seen it with my older boys with their phones. I’ve seen it with grown adults.

I’ve seen it with myself.

Why is it easier to stare at a phone than to engage with the people around us? It hasn’t always been this way. Social media is great for connecting with people all over the globe, but in that I think we’re losing the sense of community. Are we really connecting with anyone when we don’t even connect with the people in our own household?

Perhaps its a condition of the society we live in. Everything is fast. Everything is available. Everything is automatic. Fast food, email, snapchat. We’re connected to so much information at the touch of a button. Everything around us screams for our attention. Buy this! Go here! Do this! Eat this! Drink this! There’s an app for that.

What is this doing to us? To our inner self, our soul? It’s no wonder most of us struggle finding peace and true contentment. Joy doesn’t come from insulating ourselves with things and busyness. It comes from experiencing the richness of a simple, uncluttered and passionate life. We’ve plugged into the Matrix, though, and our passion is relegated to merely being entertained.

So I am reminded again of how important it is for me to unplug. To withdraw at the end of every day from the rat race. To set the example for my family. My home should be a sanctuary, where I can pull back from the hustle of work and the buzzing noise of the world. Where my children are the focus. Where we build each other up instead of tune each other out. I’ve written about watching the sunset more and enjoying the solitude of a walk in the snow. Those are ideal moments I’ve tried to hold onto, but unless I’m intentional about making this a lifestyle, that’s all those things will ever be. Moments washed out by the careless distractions that consume me every day, every hour, every second.

I’m not talking about going off the grid. That’s attractive to some people, but not realistic for me. What I’m talking about is a deeper engagement with the world around me; the people in my life, in my community and in the natural world I so often take for granted. There’s something that has been lost, something important to the development of our inner heart, and I want to recapture it. The adventure of living. Of being present in the moment.

It doesn’t happen without being intentional about it though. It’s easier to be distracted. That, at least for me, is the first step.

5 tools to invest in this spring

To do a job properly (and efficiently) you need to have the right tools. I’ve been accumulating several and making a list of others I want or need (or think I need), and thought I’d share some of them here on the blog. Many of these tools will be put to work in our market garden, but they certainly have a place on any scale of growing operation.

Here are 5 tools you might consider investing in this spring:

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Broadfork – This is one of the coolest tools I’ve discovered this year. Invented centuries ago in Europe and redesigned with the modern gardener in mind, the broadfork is the perfect way to aerate and provide deep tillage to your garden beds without breaking your back. You can get them with 4, 5 or 7 steel tines that usually are around 12″, and some are reinforced for harder soil types like clay.

The idea behind this tool is simple. When using a tiller, the blades will only loosen up the soil 4-6 inches deep. Below that a hardpan will start to develop, especially after several years of tillage, restricting how deep your roots can grow. Using a broadfork, you’ll be able to break up the hardpan and allow your roots to grow deep and straight, instead of hitting the compacted soil underneath and spreading out. This will allow you to plant more densely, as root systems aren’t competing for space. This is essential when establishing permanent beds like we are this year, or if you’re growing vegetables on a micro scale.

We’re ordering ours from Johnny’s Seed (johnnyseeds.com) but you can find broadforks other places like Valley Oak Tools or Meadow Creek. They’ll run anywhere from $80 to $220, depending on quality.

stirup-hoe

Stirrup Hoe – It may seem like a crude tool, but the stirrup hoe makes the chore of weeding long beds so much simpler. The sharp steel band cuts through shallow roots and plucks those annoying weeds right out of the topsoil. Can a traditional hoe do the same thing? Sure. But the stirrup hoe has an open design that allows you to move through weeds without disrupting the soil as much as a standard hoe will. You’re not taking divots out of your precious bed or pathway. Its got an oscillating head that allows you to push or pull, and you can change out the tempered blades when they are worn.

Stirrup hoes can be found almost anywhere tools are sold. They usually come with a 5″ or 7″ head, and will run anywhere from $25 to $60. Totally worth the investment.

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Aluminum Rake – I’ve used various rakes in the garden for years. They usually have a narrow, metal head that isn’t attached to the wooden handle very well. I should also say I’ve had several rakes that have pulled apart over the years due to poor design.

What I like about switching to an aluminum rake like the one in the picture is threefold. Aluminum is much lighter, which will make a huge difference when establishing and maintaining beds on our 3 acre plot year after year. It’s also better designed, meaning the head isn’t going to pull away from the wooden handle under stress as easily as some of the other models I’ve used. Whether dragging rock or filtering tilled soil, this rake will handle any job.  I also like the ability to put the orange row markets on the tines. You’ll see in the picture that these are just plastic tips that slide over the tines, and when dragged across the top of the bed establish a shallow furrow for seed placement.

Quality matters. Expect to pay anywhere from $50 to $95 on a good aluminum rake.

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Earthway Vegetable Seeder – Even if your beds aren’t 100′ long, having a seeder like the Earthway will make planting this spring easier on the body and more efficient. This seeder is lightweight and easy to use. It opens the furrow, measures seed placement, covers and packs the seed while marking the next row, all in one fluid motion. It’s designed especially with the larger seeds in mind, but should do well with any size. It includes 6 seed plates: corn, peas, beans, carrots, beets and radishes. As an option, you can also include a fertilizer attachment for side dressing.

You can purchase this at Johnnys Seeds for $119.  We’re looking at ordering 2 this year.

seeder2

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Jang JP Seeder – This model is supposed to be one of the best vegetable seeders on the market today. Boasting precise seed singulation, even when the hopper is low, the Jang JP seems to stand out as a quality option for those with larger gardens who are looking for better seed placement across all vegetable types, from carrot to corn. It has a 1 quart clear plastic hopper that allows the user to monitor seed level, and allows for seed depth adjustment by raising or lower the plow height. Seed rollers are purchased separately but there are a wide option of sizes to choose from. This seeder also comes in a 3-row or 6-row option, and can mount on a 3 point hitch tool bar.

This tool packs a punch! You can buy the single row seeder itself for around $405. Seed rollers range around $20-$30 each. If you’ve got a larger garden and care about precise seed placement quality, this might be an option for you.

Purchasing quality tools is an investment that should have a meaningful return. I think any one of these tools I’ve mention will add value and efficiency to any gardening operation, whether private or market. Do your research and as always, buy from a reputable reseller.

Remember, a good tool makes for a happy gardener!

 

Taking The Dream To Reality

 

 

dream-big

So we’re starting to figure some things out. When we first started this adventure last year, we only had a vague idea of what we wanted to do with our acreage. We had a vision, a dream, but the details of how that dream would evolve into reality were pretty soft and vague. Over the past couple of months we’ve done a lot of research, talked to a variety of people, and really tried to narrow down what it was we wanted to accomplish this year, while working through the bigger picture of what kind of farmstead we want to build over the next several years. In other words, who are we going to be when we grow up?

We dream big, and that’s good. Dreams are meant to be inflated and conceptual. But when it comes to bringing those concepts to market, I think we have to be intentional about focusing on what matters most to us, which is producing quality food that our family can share with our community.

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We have all kinds of crazy ideas and there are many things that we want to try. We’ve often dreamed of having a UPick location for fresh berries. These operations are very popular and successful back in Oregon, and we frequented them often every summer. Also popular in the northwest are orchards. We come from the Hood River Valley, where a lion’s share of the pears grown for North America are produced. So we’ve always known whatever kind of operation we grow, tree fruit would have a part of it.

We’ve talked about raising goats and chickens and feeding out pigs for meat. We’ve even talked about beekeeping. All of these things excite me. But as we look forward to spring, I have to be realistic about how much time we have to commit, and the scope of each of these projects. Each will bring its own learning curve, which will add to the complexity of its success. If we want to succeed, I believe we have to narrow our scope and hone in on doing one project right, instead of spreading ourselves too thin and perhaps never achieving success in anything at all. That sounds like a good way to burn out to me, and I think it’s where several before us have grown frustrated and quit.

So our primary effort this year will be establishing a sustainable and profitable market garden that will be the centerpiece of our farmstead. We’ll do this on the 3 acres south of us, while planting a cover crop or perhaps alfalfa on the northern 6 acres and reserving it for future rotation.

Proper rotation is a part of the solution to our biggest challenge, which is soil fertility. Building a plan that will increase the quality of our soil over the next several years will be imperative. We have great soil here in Iowa, but the ground we are working with has been used for conventional corn and soybeans for many years, and it will take a little while for us to build the kind of organic matter and tilth necessary to provide a healthy, long-term environment for the alternative vegetables and fruits we want to specialize in.

Most of what we plant this spring will go in permanent beds. The idea behind this is to adapt a no-till strategy that will allow us to introduce organic matter and nutrients to the soil on a smaller, hyper-focused scale and only where necessary, while minimizing weed growth. When you till or deep plow, you risk bringing invasive seeds to the top surface (in addition to losing vital plant resources such as nitrogen). Only disturbing the topsoil at a few inches to incorporate organic matter and compost, you’ll still get weeds, but they’ll be easier to manage . At least that’s the idea. We’re choosing to minimize the amount of mechanized machinery we use (partially to limit compaction as well as cost) and with a labor force of three, we need to keep weeds under control as much as possible. Mulching will also help. We’re still contemplating the best kind of mulch, and where to find it locally in the quantity that we’ll need.

We hope having a good rotation plan will also keep weeds, pests and disease to a minimum. There will be permanent crops, such as raspberries, strawberries and blueberries. We’re also going to grow lavender. But the tomatoes, corn, beans and squash will all need to be on a three-year rotation. This will mean we have to be intentional about where we plant this spring, while at the same time thinking forward to where things will go in 2018.

Head spinning yet?

The breadth of this can seem enormous at times. Once we started to really narrow down on what we wanted to accomplish, it was easy to see there were several parts of the “dream” we had to let go. That’s okay. There will be time to incorporate those things back in, slowly and methodically. The market garden has to flow from year to year, and establishing it right in the beginning is essential. This is the part of the “dream” that can potentially be the most profitable for us, which will lead to growing other parts of the farmstead. So we have to give it every bit of time and energy we have to make it work.

gardening1

It’s all good. This whole journey has been exciting to me. Thank you so much for sharing it with us. We strive to be good stewards of what we have been given, to make the most out of these opportunities, and to learn and grow everyday.

I can almost smell the dirt. Can almost feel the spring sun on my face. I can’t imagine another way of living.