Genesee Valley Organic Community Supported Agriculture

Notes from the Farm - June 2001
By Elizabeth Henderson

Irrigate in upstate New York in April? Never heard of it in 20 years of farming. Mother Nature is throwing us some spit balls. After the snows of March and early April, no more than a dust settling sprinkle fell until May 12. We plant our early crops in the Xmas Tree Field, the one next to my house. We plant there because the soils are very well drained, what farmers call "early ground" that you can work when lower lying fields are still too wet from winter snows and spring rains. There is no practical way to irrigate the crops in this field. Even if we could hook up irrigation to the well at my house, the water is so hard and sulfurous, it would stunt most crops. Last year, we were very lucky to have this drier ground. This year, because it has been so dry, our first plantings of spinach, carrots and beets came up sparsely; they are barely worth keeping. The peas in the Tear Drop field almost met the same fate. We were able to irrigate them, which belatedly convinced some of the seeds to germinate instead of just waiting inertly in the ground. Lettuces and Chinese greens that we transplanted also sat for weeks without growing, not quite giving up, but not sure life was worth living too fully. We apologize for slim shares in early June. Your packets will get heavier soon since the rains have returned.

To get the bad news over with first, another spring disappointment was the asparagus. We started seed two years ago with the intention of setting out the plants last spring. As you know, last spring was too wet. The bed where the asparagus seedlings were growing turned out to be too wet as well. When we started to dig the asparagus roots to transplant them into permanent beds, we discovered that most of the plants had developed rust, a fungal disease that eventually wastes the roots. Since asparagus can last for 20 to 30 years if healthy and well cared for, there is no point in starting with sick plants. The variety we had planted was Jersey King, purchased from Johnny's Selected Seed. The catalogue advertised Jersey King as having "high tolerance to fusarium and rust diseases." But really bad conditions like the prolonged cold and wet of last season can overwhelm the highest tolerance. We will start over with more seed, and purchase some crowns next spring as well so we won't have to wait another 3 years before harvest. We will use the greenhouse this summer for our new asparagus babies.

In mid-May, after the June-like heat wave, the weather switched back into something like a normal spring pattern, zigzagging towards the too cold and wet pole. While last spring, it took us an entire month to plant and mulch the onion sets, this year we polished off that job in three days. The onion plants are doing well on the early ground of the Fairville Field where we can irrigate when necessary. We have planted them in two patterns to compare methods. There are three beds with three rows each covered with straw mulch to keep down weeds, and three beds with two rows each which we are cultivating to kill weeds. Very scientific. We will let you know which works best. Next to them are carrots and beets, which came up well, and healthy early broccoli, and green and red cabbage plants. There is little chance of the broccoli drowning this year, and the woodchucks, which live in the tree line along the road, despite our best efforts at smoke bombing their dens, would have to march right out into the open, exposing themselves to the neighbor's dog, to browse on the plants. Instead, we have lost a few plants to cut worms, a new problem, probably brought on by planting broccoli near where corn grew last year, but we overplanted by 25 percent to allow for such losses.

We hope you are following our planting schedule on the handsome CSA calendar produced by long-time member Nancy Rosin with photos by Marilyn Anderson. If you do not have a copy yet, please ask for one at distribution. Remarkably, we are pretty much on time with planting this year. We even planted sweet corn a week earlier than the planned date. On May 20, to celebrate Greg's birthday, we set out 350 cherry tomato plants which we had started in the greenhouse in early March. We staked and tied them and covered them with row cover. The next day, a heavy wind tore holes in the row cover, but the plants are still all right. For three nights at the end of May, we added a second layer of heavy plastic over the tomatoes to protect them from a light frost. If there are no more heavy frosts, we should have early tomatoes. We are keeping our fingers crossed.

A job that did not make it onto the calendar is compost spreading. We purchased two 40-ton truck loads of Bion soil, composted cow manure which the NOFA-NY Organic Certification Program approves for use in organic production. For two full days, Greg manned the loader, and I drove the manure spreader. We spread all of the Bion soil and a large pile of well composted horse manure from a neighboring farm. There was enough to cover half the beds in the Tear Drop Field, a quarter of the Barn Field, and 48 of the 86 beds in the Fairville Field. You have to incorporate compost in the soil within 24 hours or it loses much of its value, so I spaded it all in. We would like to spread compost on every bed every year. The main limiting factor is trucking. We know of manure piles that we could have for the asking if we could only truck them away. Does anyone have a dump truck they can lend us?

By the time you receive this newsletter, we should have all the summer's crops in the ground. As I write, the two weeks ahead of us present a steady diet of transplanting leeks, onions, tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, melons, and seeding winter squash, summer squash, cucumbers, potatoes, corn, beans, basil, and carrots. In addition to the onions described earlier, we planted five beds of onions with plants we started in the greenhouse in March. We have been transplanting 750 lettuces every week with the goal of producing two per share per week from mid-May through November. Beds of early Swiss chard and kale are coming along, as are five plantings of spinach.

We will be better prepared to cultivate our crops this season (farmer language for killing weeds) because of the technical assistance of new CSA member David Doktor. A skilled welder with years of experience with farm equipment, David added an extension to our Perfecta field cultivator and renovated an old tool bar so that we can use it on our Allis Chalmers G tractor.

Over the winter, we purchased a new (old) tractor, a 1974 John Deere. For these first four years at Crowfield, Doug Kraai has generously allowed us to rent the use of his tractors so that we did not have to make that huge investment right away. This sharing of equipment works well, until haying season, when Doug really needs all of his equipment at the ready. Having a tractor of our own relieves the pressure on tractor use during June and July. The John Deere belonged to a friend of Doug's and, after one major repair and a few modifications, appears to be ready to use. We will have to get to know this new machine.

Speaking of new machines, Greg has been hunting for the perfect mower to mow those miles of grass strips between our beds. The ideal would be a mower that would be pulled by the tractor but with the blades off-set to the side, like the equipment used to mow along roads. No one makes 30 inch wide off-set mowers. It is looking like Greg will have to design this machine and find a shop that can build it specially for us.

In April, with the help of Doug, we started to form more beds on 6 1/2 acres of the big field next to the barn (we are calling it the Barn Field). This field is fairly level, except for monster wood chuck mounds and holes. Some neighborhood "guys", straight out of Garrison Keilor tales, armed to the teeth, wearing camouflage outfits, stand behind the barn every spring trying to reduce the population of "chucks". To create vegetable beds, Doug drove his biggest Ford tractor pulling our chisel plow, while I perched on the tractor steps and raised and lowered the implement. As a result, the beds are very straight. After chisel plowing, our entire crew spent a few hours daily for two weeks forking the chunks of sod tossed by the chisel plow back onto the beds, a task resembling a sentence at hard labor. I then spaded the beds. Greg and I spread compost on a quarter of the beds, and I spaded them again to work it into the soil. We will spade them three or four times more at 2 week intervals to kill the sod. Soil tests show that this field is very low in organic matter, calcium, and sulfur, so we will plant them with a cover crop of soy beans and sorghum sudan grass. This combination will produce both nitrogen and lots of organic matter to spade into the soil. We will also spread gypsum to raise both calcium and sulfur. With this field, we will have a total of 15 acres in beds, which will give us ample room for crops and for resting a quarter of the beds each year. We will cover crop the unused beds with a clover sod to help build fertility.

Our May Day Party was very well attended. We dance around a May pole, an ancient ritual to ensure fertility, We invite you all to put next year's celebration on your calendars - Sunday, April 28, 2002, with a rain date of May 5. In addition to the pagan festivities to fiddle music by Kit Fallon, Nannett Cepero led us along the stream and into the woods identifying edible wild plants and sharing her wealth of information about their medicinal and nutritional values. Next Doug Kraai loaded all comers on a hay wagon for a close up visit to the bison. Then we fed one another a fine potluck meal. It was a lovely day.

In the middle of May, I took a day off to go to an unusual meeting. Mayor Johnson of Rochester and the American Farmland Trust invited me and 50 or so other farmers, Farm Bureau leaders, representatives of city and town governments in Western New York, and staff people from the Extension and planning departments to spend a day discussing farm-city relations. The basic premise was that people who want to preserve farmland from sprawl and development, and people who want to regenerate inner cities need to work together. Mayor Johnson spoke with great eloquence about the urgency for cooperation among city and county governments. The Mayor of Niagara Falls pleaded for rural support for improvements in state and federal brownfields regulations, so that blighted and polluted areas in cities can be cleaned up faster, reducing development pressures on suburbs and rural towns. The farmers at the meeting suggested ways that city people can be more supportive of local farms, and policy that encourages the economic viability of farming. Farm Bureau support for Mayor Johnson's smart growth initiatives might reduce Monroe County resistance to his ideas. Altogether, it was an encouraging beginning to a dialogue everyone who attended pledged to continue.

In the March issue of the newsletter, Melissa Carlson reported on our experiment last year in creating our own "certification" committee. Melissa, Marianne Simmons and Marcello Vitale read the NOFA-NY Organic Certification Standards, and then came to inspect our farm, together with Jack Porter, a farmer with over 40 years experience. Since 1985, my farming has been certified organic by either NOFA-MA or NOFA-NY. In recent years, I have become dissatisfied with the regulatory direction certification has taken, under the pressure of the establishment of a National Organic Program (NOP) by USDA. In her article, Melissa wrote, "From the farmers perspective, NOFA did not teach them anything, nor help them be better farmers." For the record, I want to state emphatically that Melissa overstated my views. I have not felt that I learned anything from the NOFA inspections in the past few years, but I owe much of what I know about organic farming to my involvement with NOFA. The farming improvement part of NOFA certification, however, has dwindled. Setting up our own process, involving members of the farm and other farmers is an attempt to compensate for that loss. Part of the 1990 Farm Bill, the Organic Foods Production Act, which set up the NOP, has been slow in reaching the point of implementation. The Final Rule finally came out at the end of the Clinton years, and implementation is supposed to be in place by 2002. To put it very mildly, Greg, Ammie and I are not happy with Federal intervention in organic certification. Creating a way for the members of our farm to inspect our work and review their concerns with us seems like an attractive alternative. I urge any members who would like to participate in building on last year's experiment to contact me soon!

Despite the unsettling early dry spell, then the unseasonable cold with attendent losses, this spring feels different from our first two seasons here on Welcher Road. We are finally getting beyond the development stage at this new farm and the extra long hours that meant for Greg and me. Those of you who were with us last year will notice the big changes in the main barn - the new roof and the set of metal doors. Greg put in many hours of overtime in the cold days of last fall working with Pete Hermann, the Kraai's skilled carpenter, making those improvements. That is not to say that everything is finished - we still have a ways to go. The irrigation pond came a mini-step closer to realization; the neighbor whom Doug Kraai engaged to dig it came to look over the site. Maybe he will come back with his equipment some day soon.

At the farm, we are shifting our priorities from construction and growth to consolidation and improvement. We are very fortunate this year to have two mature and committed interns, Rebecca Graff and David Mihalyi. Both have deep personal reasons for wanting to learn as much as they can from us about organic farming. At the same time, each of them has valuable skills to teach us. The help of two neighbors, Debbie Stoep and Susan Weiner, has also alleviated our May-June transplanting crunch. We hope that you, the members of this CSA, will continue to bring your creative ideas and energies for making this farm into a living and working organism that is truly sustainable!

Elizabeth

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