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!

 

 

 

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.