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!

 

 

 

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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Taking The Dream To Reality

 

 

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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.

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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.

 

Dream With Me For A Bit

We’re having new electricity run in the corn crib and the wood shop, and it won’t be finished until Wednesday. No power, no tools. So it’s forced me to do other things. And that’s good, because I’ve realized there is still a lot to do on the property before winter really sets in.

We’ve been thinking about what we want to do with the property. Dreaming and scheming, you might say. We’ve always thought we’d plant some berries and vegetables, but I hadn’t yet really committed to a plan. Now its November and if we don’t have a plan for next spring we’ll likely have to make some compromises that could set us back a year.

I walked the property the other day and took another look at everything, trying to see through different eyes. We’ve talked about goats, but where will they go? We’ve talked about planting fruit trees. Pumpkins? Where does the sweet corn go? Are we just talking about a glorified garden or do we really want to make a go at something commercial? Having all of this somewhat planned out now will help us prioritize our time and know what needs to be done before spring. I want to put together a monthly list of goals  and things to accomplish. And I suppose if we’re going to do something commercially there should be a business plan written as well.

But it all starts with a little vision.

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This is our northern field, a little over 5 acres. Standing at the edge you can see for miles now that the corn is harvested and the fields are plowed. It’s a good place to think, even as the wind whips in my ear. There’s a big sand hill at the western end of this field that I have no idea what I’ll be able to do with (other than sled down it this winter). But I think we might put a pumpkin patch in on this side. It has access to the road if we wanted to do a U Pick patch and its relatively flat. Maybe sweet corn on the other end. I bought a 2 row planter this week that will allow me to do both. Or I could bring out the 8 row Cylco if I wanted to get a little nuts. Neither pumpkins nor the corn will necessarily need to be irrigated, as long as we have decent rainfall next summer. Right now there isn’t water access on this part of the property, and although I want to change that in the future, if I can get by for a year that would allow me to get some other things taken care of first (plus I still need to figure out how our well works).

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From where I was standing in the field, if I turn around 180 degrees this is what I see. There is a large patch of overgrown trees that separate our house from the northern field. I’ve never really thought about doing anything with this part of the property other than trim everything back, but that seems wasteful. We’ve talked about planting fruit trees (this was big for us since we came from orchard country in Oregon) and I’ve kind of struggled to figure out where we would put them around the property. Then I see this area through different eyes and its like…duh!

To be honest, my wife had the idea first. And its a good idea. Why not take out these trees, level the ground and put in a small orchard? I’ve looked at this patch from several different angles now, even from the bathroom window, and I think it would be gorgeous with apples, pears and peaches. Not only would it give the property a face-lift, but it would be profitable once the trees mature. But it will take a lot of work to take these trees out and level the ground. That may have to be a Year 2 plan.

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The tree line follows the edge of the field then cuts in at 90 degrees. Here is where I’ll likely plant sweet corn. Directly to my left is the big sand hill I mentioned, but to the right its flat. Where I’m looking in this picture, the trees bend back toward the corn crib and barn, which you can see in the background. There is a three stall building just on the other side of the foremost tree, where I think I’m going to put goats. This area here can be fenced pretty easily, giving the goats plenty of place to wander, and the building (an old hog barn) will give them shelter during the winter and summer months. I can keep some of the trees for shade as well.  I’m planning on adding goats next spring, so this area will need to be cleaned up between now and then, and fencing will need to be put in.

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A walk through the woods and to the front of the property, where the southern field lies. We’ve discussed what we want to do with the white hog shed. I think a green house would work nicely there. And maybe the chicken coop? Not sold on any of those things yet. But the trees need to go.

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And so go they did today. With the trees gone, I discovered there was concrete underneath them.

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I also unburied the JD 4 bottom plow. Rescuing old implements from nature. That’s what we do.

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The trees run along the northern edge of the field, and they’ll all go. There’s concrete that runs all the way back to the other field and to the future goat barn, which is nifty. But I’ve thought about putting more fruit trees here too. We’re planning on putting in raspberries and blackberries in this southern field, both for U Pick, fresh sale and for our own consumption (we’ll also be experimenting with green and kidney beans, tomatoes and peppers in this field). Fruit trees will compliment those thing much better than these ugly Black Locust and Mulberry trees. Plus I want people to see the old brick barn! It’s not much to look at now, but if we can figure out how to restore it the barn will certainly be something we want to show off.

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Here is a closer shot of the concrete run I was talking about. Can’t see much concrete? Yeah, nature has had her way for a while. We’ll need to cut all of this out before winter. There is another shed just to the right, in the background of the pic, that I think we can utilize as a machine shed. I’d like to get the planter and other things back there before winter.

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This is the back view of the white hog shed. There is half a fence around it, and the space could be used for animals. The roof on the shed needs repair, or compete replacing. And the shed itself needs some repair. I’m not sure I’m excited about patching it all up when it might be easier just to pull it down and rebuild. I’ll muse on all that for a while. There are plenty of other things to do before I need to do something with this space.

So I’m glad the sun has still been shining. We have lots to do. We’ve always dreamed about having a small farm, working the farmer’s markets and having plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables to share with our friends. And its all certainly within our reach. I only wish we had more time in the day.

It’s exciting to dream and to plan though. Everything we’ve been working toward is starting to come into shape. When we first moved here it seemed like such a distant dream. Now it seems possible. We have to commit to making it happen, learning from our mistakes (there will be many I’m sure) and growing each year. I also want to make sure we don’t take on more than we can handle the first year. Goats and vegetable crops might be too much for one spring. I’ll sit down and put a plan together and share that in the weeks to come.

Thanks for following along and sharing our vision.

Going Old School With The Ford Jubilee

In 1953, Ford celebrated their 50th anniversary by launching a new tractor line called the Ford NAA. It was dubbed the Golden Jubilee. Slightly larger and heavier than its predecessor, the Ford 8N, the Jubilee featured a 134 cu inch 4 cylinder gasoline engine boasting 32hp.

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Production actually began on this little gem in late 1952, and the tractor was manufactured through 1954. But its the ’53 model that is often coveted by collectors because of the special nose badge Ford introduced specifically in honor of their anniversary year.

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In a world where much larger 4 wheel drive tractors dominate the ag market, its fascinating to me to think back to a simpler time where these little tractors pulled most of the duty on the farm. They were certainly work horses in their time, and still have their place today. Some put them in the showroom or drive them in the tractor parade during Fourth of July celebrations and county fairs, but we thought it would be cool to bring one home and put it to work on the mini farm.

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To be honest, we were looking for a larger tractor, something like a JD 4020. Something that could pull the 8 row Cyclo planter we have on the farm and a bigger cultivator when we bought one. But when we found this little guy at the right price, we realized there was a lot of things we could do with a smaller tractor. The Ford can pull the 4 row JD 494A planter we have, which is probably a better option for our small acreage than the Cyclo anyway. It can pull a wagon during harvest, a 4 ft Bush Hog, a disc, a small rake and baler, and so much more! Plus its fun for the kids. We’ll probably still keep our eye out for a higher horse power tractor, but the Jubilee will earn its place without a doubt.

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Sometimes going old school is better.

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