Monday, June 14, 2010

June Update

Hello faithful readers!

Ben here. It's hard to believe we're already half way through June- the month is passing by like an afternoon shower! The past month has been full of activity here at the Local Food Project. So full, in fact, that we haven't kept up with this blog as much as we would like. Since so much has happened, let's lean on this writer's favorite crutch: bullet points. Here's a smattering of what we've been up to at the LFP:

-We attended another great CRAFT program event at The Farm at Sunnyside. A great turnout and a lot of great food! (See the post from 4/19 for more about the CRAFT program.)

-Pablo contributed an article to Flavor Magazine describing the CRAFT program its value to aspiring farmers.

-We planted 30 beds (2700 sq ft) of squash, cucumbers, zucchini, lettuce mix, and beets... in one day!

-Filled the hoop house with tomatoes, peppers, and egg plant.

-Completed various infrastructure projects such as reinforcing our deer fence and cutting new row cover.

-Humanely trapped a family of groundhogs whose home was not even ten feet from our squash beds. We dropped them off far away from the garden. I believe a groundhog is born with the right to look for his shadow, as long as that shadow is not cast on our crops.

-Hosted several tours and a team building dinner with guests at the Airlie Center.

Last, but certainly not least, we acquired two interns to (do all of the) work for us during the next 6-8 weeks. Welcome Shaina and Yuka!

Now you're up to speed. We have another CRAFT event this week and plants growing quickly, so we'll have more to report soon.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Away We Go

Hello Readers!

Spring is in full swing at the LFP (with a little summer weather mixed in), which means it's time to get to work. For Pablo, that means it's time to hire a new drone to do the work for him. Ladies and gentlemen, I am that drone.

My name is Ben Hanna and I'll be the Local Food Project Coordinator for the 2010 season. Of course, I'm treated better than a drone and I'm excited for working with Pablo and other Airlie Center staff in the coming months.

During the past week I've been familiarizing myself with the LFP's 3 acres and trying to soak up as much of Pablo's wisdom as possible. We've been working in the hoophouse for the most part while the ground outside warms up a bit. We sowed cress, cilantro, and phak choi last week, with potatoes and lettuce going in this week. I'll check back in soon!

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Catalog & Supply Time

If you ordered any seeds or other garden supplies in the past few years, then you know what to expect when you open the mailbox in late December. Catalogs- lots of them, full of the latest and greatest varieties, tools, gizmos, gloves, books, etc.

There are several catalogs that head straight to the recycling bin. There are a few that I know I will need handy eventually, so I put them into the SAVE pile, but they don't really call my name at this time of year. Then there are a few that I scan like a detective hunting for clues. Topping the list of the catalog most scanned, read, and eagerly anticipated is the catalog of Johnny's Selected Seeds.

First question: what's new? I find myself gravitating towards the tools section. Has Eliot Coleman created a drill-powered mini-copter that allows you to hover over beds of greens in the hoophouse? Perhaps in 2011. But the big push on quick hoops seems right for the times. Cheap, effective, and serious profit potential.

Second question: what's changed? Now I'm looking at prices. I go straight to lettuce mix for that one. Almost no change. Smart move! Now to Zinnias- prices have risen sharply for the Benary's mix, probably in part due to the events in the flower seed world that Growing for Market has covered in 2009. Either way, I wish that Johnny's would just stick with weights of seed (1/4 oz., 1 lb, etc.) or quantites of seed (50 seeds, 1000 seeds etc.), but not tinker around with these units for different varieties, or from year to year. Everything else about the catalog is excellent, but I'd rather that Johnny's just be more open about price changes than trying to muffle them with changes to units and sizes of packets that prevent an easy comparison.

Third question: in what direction is the company headed? I'm interested in what new areas the particular seed/tool company seems to be expanding. Johnny's appears to be renewing focus on the commercial grower, and expanding in the tools/equipment aspect of the company. That says two things to me- one, that small-scale farming is booming in a time of economic stagnation, and two, that Johnny's is concentrating on strengthening its position as the 'go-to' seed & supply company on the East Coast for the small veggie farm. That may seem like the obvious move, but my observations of several companies in the past few years lead me to conclude that many small companies make the mistake of trying to be all things to all people. Johnny's has avoided this pitfall, by concentrating on becoming all things to a particular group of people (market gardeners and small veggie farmers), a group which is clearly surging into 2010.

The Seeds of Change catalog really surprised me by removing the tool section entirely! This says to me that after dabbling with all kinds of different stuff, they may be concentrating again on the backyard gardener. I get the sense that the company is a little bit scattered in terms of focus, and perhaps might be returning home to a focus on heirloom seeds.

Southern Exposure Seed Exchange has the most compelling catalog of the year, in large part due to the catalog cover, which is creative and enticing. Little gnomes with caps that mirror hot peppers. Very well done. Everything about this company says that it is heading in a positive direction. Like Johnny's, Southern Exposure is clearly concentrating on strengthening its home base, but in this case the home base is heirloom seeds and the backyard gardener. Quantities of many seeds are certainly sufficient for the market farm, but Southern Exposure has smartly continued focus on the victory gardener and establishing itself as the go-to seed company for organic gardeners of the mid-Atlantic. I am impressed by how Southern Exposure has crafted and communicated such a clear and consistent identity over the years, and how each year seems to feature solid and measurable improvements...all this I gain from the catalog!

But a picture is worth a thousand words. In summary, the catalogs of 2010 communicate to me that this is a year of 'energizing-the-base'. Smart companies are identifying the things they do well and improving them. The small farmers and backyard gardeners these companies serve are doing the same thing. 2010 motto (expanded from an old funk song)- "Whatever you do, do it good, and what's good, make it better."

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Airlie in the Snow

A couple weeks ago we were excited to harvest Arugula from beneath a light canopy of snow...well now we have two feet of snow in the garden! so not much harvesting happening. We're relieved that the hoophouse shed the snow, and look forward to uncovering the arugula in the garden if this snow ever melts! Looks like it will be around for a long time, so we'll just hang out in the hoophouse until then...

Monday, December 7, 2009

Arugula, Class, Snow & Winter

Four inches of snow sits atop beds of arugula in the Local Food Project garden- meanwhile, winter sowing of arugula and greens carries on in the LFP Passive Solar Hoophouse. As we wrap up a year full of workshops and seminars at Airlie Center, we look forward to our January 2010 Conference- Nordell & Martens: Culture in Cultivation, featuring a small vegetable farm powered by draft horses, and a 1,300 acre organic grain operation with custom milling of animal feeds.

Winter, where the harvest is soooo sweet, literally! That's because the cool temps concentrate sugars in cool weather crops, from carrots to kale to yes, arugula. If you have ever wondered why your garden carrots are not that sweet, is may be partially due to the temps of the soil during harvest. So many crops that are bland or even bitter during the summer and early fall take on an entirely new flavor in the fall and early winter.
The key becomes how you keep these crops alive in the garden for that sweet harvest.

At the LFP garden, we believe in simplicity. Metal hoops (you can cut your own using any decently thick steel wire) straddle our three ft. wide garden beds. Over these hoops, we drape floating row cover, a poly-fabric that provides a mild amount of frost protection (a few degrees), but creates a temperate, wind-free environment in which cold-tolerant greens and roots (like radishes, carrots & beets) can hang around and sweeten up until harvest. The row cover comes in varying thicknesses and price, but we like to use the stuff that is in the middle- not too light, not too heavy.

So when it snows, the cover will at least provide a little buffer between the plants and the snow, provided the snow is not too heavy. It is truly amazing to dust off the snow, and uncover a dazzling green bed of crispy greens amidst a winter wonderland!

For heading deep into winter, a hoophouse is the way to go. It's the same concept of providing a little protection for the crops with hoops and a covering, but the hoops are much larger and the covering is a high-grade plastic. In the LFP garden, we have a 30x72 ft. gothic frame hoophouse. The frame came from Ledgewood Farms. The plastic, vents, and end-wall paneling came from Griffins Greenhouse Supply. We harvested and milled all the white oak baseboards and door framing ourselves, with the guidance of experienced timber framer Eric Westergart.

And that brings us back to winter. I encourage all gardeners to go for a winter harvest, which is essentially an extension of your fall crops via a little protection from the elements.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Exploring the Small Farm Dream

This past Wednesday, December 2, 2009, eighteen emerging new farmers gathered for the fourth and final session of this year's Exploring the Small Farm Dream Course, held right here at Airlie Center. The course, developed by the New England Small Farm institute, is designed to be a concise and effective catalyst for small farmers to better evaluate new enterprise ideas, identify resources, and determine next steps. The course is so valuable because of the holistic design of the sessions, helping small farmers look more closely at the dollars and cents of a particular production model, as well as quality of life and family dynamics.

Each session, we invite a local farmer or two to share their story, experience and advice for the group. The goal of the course is not to teach how to farm, but to facilitate the connection of aspiring farmers with one another, with experienced mentors, and with the right questions. At the end of four sessions, course participants create an action plan with next steps, from additional research to mentorship opportunities to launching an enterprise!
This year we took a field trip to Moutoux Orchard and helped Rob Moutoux plant garlic while learning about his developing CSA and local grain & flour projects.

It is our hope that Exploring the Small Farm Dream and other programs create the beginnings of a more effective infrastructure to advance new farmers and new farm projects throughout the region.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Hallows' Eve: Scythe Time

This past Sunday's Hallows' Eve workshop was a blast from the past, and into the future! Guest presenter Harvey Ussery demonstrated proper use of the scythe, a mowing tool of old (commonly associated with the grim reaper & Halloween) which has come back to life recently as backyard food producers and small farmers alike focus on minimizing their use of fossil fuels. The high-quality & properly used scythe is not only efficient, as Harvey demonstrated, but meaningful and enjoyable!

The rest of the workshop examined the use of the broadfork and other hand tools in the Local Food Project garden system, and the consideration of season extension strategies and protection of crops in the late fall garden.

Cider and good times all around, we can see the Hallows’ Eve workshop becoming a pre-Halloween tradition here at Airlie Center.