Monday, April 29, 2013

How to (Finally) Plant Onions

We finally got some good weather to be able to plant onions this weekend. Reed, Jenna and I planted about 6000 small onion plants over the last couple of days.

About 7 years ago we planted onions with a mechanical planter pulled behind a tractor with a hydro static transmission. This type of tractor can go creepy crawly slow. You can crawl faster than the tractor's ground speed. This is just what the doctor ordered when planting transplants. However this tractor is very heavy an d caused soil compaction on wet spring soils so I don't use it anymore.

We now plant onions by hand. It takes three people a little over and hour to plant several thousand plants. We plant about 15,000 onions and leek plants per season. The process takes several weeks.
This year we are getting a very late start.

The onions need to be very well established by May when the day length requirements are met and they start to enlarge. It is just amazing how quickly the onions explode in size when we reach June. They go from the size of your thumb to softball size in a matter of weeks. Very cool.

We till the soil, fertilize lightly with organic fertilizer and then I lay down a strip of compost 12 inches wide and 3-4 inches deep. It takes about 2000 lbs of compost to make a row 300-400 feet long. We will create about 10 rows like this for our onion crop this year. If this seems like a lot of work and copious amounts of compost, it is!

Why do we plant this way?
  1. Onions are very sensitive to weeds and don't compete very well. The compost  creates a weed barrier to keep weeds out of the rows. We weed lightly every 2-3 weeks during the season and the onions are nearly weed free.
  2. I'd rather scoop a little compost, well, OK, A Lot of Compost, than weed.
  3. The flavor of onions grown this way is out of this world. They are sweeter and the storage quality is amazing.
  4. The flavor is better because of the minerals and organic components in the compost. The compost feeds the life in the soil. When we pick onions, we find significant quantities of earth worms around the roots.
  5. Did you know that the plants "talk" to the organisms around their roots. They give off sugar exudates which attract the bacteria and fungi that will convert nutrients to the form the plants need. This is what attracts the earth worms. They are there cleaning up the root zone and eating the left overs.
  6. Onions are light feeders and you can almost get by with just compost and earthworms for fertility. But if you want jumbo onions they need a littl starter fertilizer and a booster shot of fish emulsion before the onions start to enlarge in June.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

A Standing Ovation

We were at the SE Minnesota Honors Choirs spring concert Sunday afternoon. The middle school choir received a standing ovation after their last number.

The song was sung well and the choir members did a great job. It was a song about unity and solidarity and each choir member held the hand of their neighbor. But I think the ovation was as much for the director as the singers. The students who sing for this director not only master complex music but they often discuss and digest the complexities of life and what is going on with them and around them.

Why is this important?

Friday, April 26, 2013

Spinach Then and Now

On Saturday, May 7, 1988 the Rochester Downtown Farmers Market opened for the first market of the season. This was our second season, having attended sporadically the year before.

 Andrea, always the early riser, literally leapt out bed when I went to get her up. She was "on a mission" to get there, plying me with questions all the way.

We got our one tiny table set up at about 7:30. In addition to some tomato plants, we also had about 20 large bunches of fresh spinach. We'd had a fresh spinach salad the night before that Andrea really liked. Everyone that stopped by got her sales pitch for spinach. She explained how yummy it was and that it had her personal endorsement, which often culminated in a twirling leap into the air (this girl was high energy). She then closed the deal by firmly offering to put a bunch in a bag for them. We were sold out by 9:00. By the time Andrea sold the last of the spinach all the vendors around us were asking if she would take a commission to sell their stuff. I told them that Andrea was in charge of our marketing strategy. This weeks technique was the spinach twirl!

The children loved this spinach and would perfer spinach and ranch dressing to any other treat before bed, even better than a cookie. Now that they are teenagers, they also love Candy Carrots, but spinach is still high on the list of coveted treats.

The reason we were able to have spinach at the very first market was we had some spinach from the previous fall that over wintered and it was one of the first things to come out of dormancy in the spring. I did not realize that the spinach would do that so this was a little bit of serendipity.

When we started at the market we grew Melody spinach and let it get big enough to bunch. So Friday night Andrea and I would wash the plants thoroughly, pick off all the yellow leaves, and group several plants together with a rubber band to form a bunch. We could get about 20 bunches in a large rubber maid tub and would typically take 1-2 tubs per market. We would get $2 per bunch.

Today we grow Tyee baby spinach and cut everything when it is just an inch tall. Andrea and Jenna are still the greens experts and do all the harvesting. I prefer to harvest with a knife, but they still like to use a scissors, which harkens back to when they were little. They can harvest about 20 lbs in 15-20 minutes. We typically get $5 for a a half pound bag. So we are able to pay our help a little better than when we started. That is important as both our children and our other workers are building their college funds.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

An Amazing Band Concert

We had an amazing band concert at school last night. Reed plays the baritone and Jenna plays the flute. Both are involved with the senior high school band and the jazz band. There is nothing more patriotic than "The Star and Stripes Forever" with a piccolo solo by Jenna.

The band director clearly enjoyed directing the students and the band has responded over the years with increasing skill. They start young and by senior high reach a high level of skill. The band concerts now really shine and are a testimony to the director's dedication and leadership

Farming is a lot like directing a band concert. You plant the seeds, weed and fertilize. Then months and sometimes years later (in the case of perennials) the harvest.

The first few years (concerts) may reflect sincere efforts and lessons learned. Then gradually over time and increased experience the quality is better, the plants are stronger and the harvest is larger. Everything is in harmony and finally the concert is amazing.

Join us for our farm's "band concert" weekly at the farmers market.

Come taste Jenna and Reed's best selections..

Monday, April 22, 2013

How to Kill Thistles

How to kill thistles. Occasionally I get asked how to deal with pernicious weeds. This post is about thistles. We mostly have Canadian Thistles in our fields but also run across an occasional Bull Thistle.

If I have a thistle patch I tend to plant one of our higher value crops there. It may seem like an odd thing to do, but if there is a valuable crop in the area I tend to weed that area well and this will reduce the weed pressure.

The season before I plant a valuable crop I let the thistles grow to bloom. Thistles exhaust their root reserves at the same time their blooms are the brightest. If you mow them at the height of blossom it is lethal to the the plant.

Canada thistles thrive in low calcium and very low manganese soils. Bringing the levels of these nutrients to nominal levels will help suppress thistle proclivity. This soil balancing can be increased by adding compost to the soil.

Though it takes several seasons this approach really works. I have some places where thistles were very thick and they are almost completely gone three years later.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Fish Like the Pilgrims

One of the fertilizers used by the pilgrims when the native americans taught them to grow corn was to put a fish in each hill of corn.

Fish is still one of the best organic fertilizers in an organic production system. But instead of putting a whole fish in the hole, today's fish is an emulsion from the parts of the fresh water fish that is left after the filet is removed.

The reason fish is such a good fertilizer is that it has a widely diverse set of nutrients and all are in an organic form. The calcium from the bones of the fish are especially good an countering blossum end rot in growing tomatoes. A dilute solution of fish works very well on both foliage and roots. It is mild enough that it will never burn. Just don't apply to the fruit.

Fish is somewhat expensive for the commercial grower but isn't to bad for the home grower. You can pick up a gallon at Sargents or Fleet Farm here in Rochester, MN.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

What is the Best Kind of Hoe - A Sitrrup Hoe

What is the best kind of hoe? One of the best ways to weed out, well, the weeds, is the to use a stirrup hoe. We have nearly completely disregarded the use of the traditional hoe for these wonderful new tools. They go on sale periodically at Menard's.

We typically get 4-5 hoes at a time when they are on sale. So that our whole work crew can each have one.

Keeping up with the weeds is one of less fun but extremely necessary deeds. If you take care of the weeds early and often you will have a wonderful season and be paid many fold for your time.

There is a distinct parallel to the weeds in our lives. If we deal with the weeds in our lives early and often we will live a richer life. 

Monday, April 15, 2013

How To Get the Absolute Earliest Salad Greens of the Season

Getting the earliest salad greens of the season starts the fall of the year before. You need to prepare the bed where you want to plant the greens the fall before. If it is a raised bed covered with two or three inches of compost it will drain well and warm up quickly once the snow melts.

We try to plant the day the frost goes out or the day the snow melts off. The seed won't germinate until the conditions are right so don't worry if it seems too cold or wet. When the soil conditions are favorable the seeds will germinate and take care of themselves. They are basically on auto pilot at that point and know what to do. If you were to plant these same seeds the fall before the seeds would likely rot or have very poor germination. But planting them in the spring works every time.

I have done this for years and it works great.

On the rare occasion that the season warms up and then turns very cold again you might loose some of the baby plants if  the temps fall below 20 degrees. Planting this early is a bit of a roll of the dice but about 80-90 percent of the time it, this approach is a real winner. If you do get frozen out, just replant quickly. The seed lost is typically only a few pennies worth.

The types of plants that this works for are all frost hardy. Spinach, lettuce, radishes, cilantro, beets, and peas.

Good luck and have fun.

Friday, April 12, 2013

EntreLeadership On and Off the Farm

Dave Ramsey defines EntreLeadership as "The process of leading to cause a venture to grow and prosper". Webster says a leader is "someone who rules, guides, and inspires others."; accordingly, the word entrepreneur means "one who takes a risk."

We have raised our children with a spirit of EntreLeadership. Since before they were school age they have contributed in an age appropriate way to the farm and selling at the farmers market. They each have had areas that they have enjoyed contributing to and they have developed expertise in. Reed has been our root expert: radishes, onions, garlic, leeks and potatoes. Jenna is the herb expert: basil, rosemary, mint and chives. Andrea is an expert in, well, practically everything. She especially likes transplants and flowers.

Now that they are teenagers how has that EntreLeadership spirit worked out:

  • Andrea, a music education major, in the summer of her freshman year in college, is planning to organize summer music theory classes for middle and high school students. She has put together a syllabus and will develop curriculum for all the age groups. She was on a path to do this independently and offer classes to schools in the area. Her first stop was the honors choirs of SE Minnesota. Turns out they had been wanting to offer classes just like this and they are interested in hiring her. So an entrepreneurial venture turned into a summer job and may go well beyond.
  • Reed has had a strong interest in electronics since he was little. When he was 8 I got him an Lego NXT robot that he could program. When he was 10 I got him a PIC microprocessor and bread board. He has done numerous electronics projects. In Junior High he got interested in buying and selling electronics like laptops, ipads, ipods and iPhone. He is now a freshman in high school. He averages one purchase/sale per week. He recently bought a iPhone with a broken screen and had to completely remove all the contents to replace the screen. Pretty cool operation and it worked perfect when he put it back together. He has a nice business started. It all started after winter market a few years ago when I paid the kids about $300 dollars as an end of the season bonus. Reed wanted to buy an ipod and a new one was a little over $200. I told him he could get one for half that price if we was willing to wait a buy a used one. He found one for less than half price on Craig's list and was hooked.
  • Jenna, a junior in high school, has been working at Great Harvest. She decided she wanted to work there and was able to get a job. They are flexible on hours so that works great with her school schedule. She really likes bread and cooking so this is an ideal position.
  • Jenna recently bought a camera with her earnings and she is a very talented photographer. She is working on ways she can use her camera to earn extra money for college.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

How To Plant Potatoes - Time to Plant

Potato planting time is fast approaching in the frozen Minnesota tundra. I bought my seed potatoes this week from the Pine Island Coop. I bought two bags of Dark Red Norland and two bags of Yukon Gold. I could get some snazzy varieties through the Internet and the mail, but I like to do business locally as much as I can.

These two old standbys are great for baby potatoes and are exceptionally early. Approximately 60 days.

We cut the potatoes into pieces with two eyes each. One becomes the dominant eye and the other is just a back-up in case the primary gets damaged. I usually let them cure a day or two at room temperature. I also dust them with microrizofungi to prevent rot and inoculate the risosphere with friendly bacteria and fungi. You don't have to do this for success, I just have some so I use it. A little compost in the trench would accomplish the same thing.

You typically plant potatoes a couple of feet apart but we crowd our plants to 6-8" so that the potatoes are a little smaller on average. We also pick them early or they will still grow to full sized. One 50 lb bag of potatoes will plant about 300 feet of row if you plant this way.

We plant the first planting when the ground is thawed and easily worked. Do not work the ground to wet or it will just get hard and cloddy. We wait until the first planting is about 2-3 inches tall and then plant a succession crop. The last succession planting is around June 1-15. The will provide a steady supply of baby potatoes most of the summer. Don't forget to plant peas at the same time.

We apply lots of compost around the potatoes, they like that and so do the earth worms.

Start looking for potatoes when the blossoms start to open up. Dig a few plants and wait a few days if they are not big enough. We always plant a few extra in the first planting and burn through allot of plants to get extra for the early market. We always sell extra at that time of the year. Peas and potatoes baby!

I'll blog later about what to do about the potato beatles.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Raspberry Royal

Reed is a berry freak. Before we planted raspberries Reed would go around the edge of the field and pick wild berries.

We planted one row of raspberries 300 feet long a few years ago and Reed ate them all. So we planted three more rows. The next year we had enough to take raspberries to the farmers market. They are starting to fill in pretty good now and we should have lots of berries in future years. Sometimes we grow things that are our favorites, too.

Reed said he'd like to grow straberries next.  Watch this space.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Time to plant Onions

Mid to end April is the time to plant onions in southeast Minnesota. You can plant either onion plants or seed. Make sure you plant varieties that are northern long day onions. (Beware, if you shop at Walmart or Home Depot. I have seen numerous years when their plants are southern short day onions. These are the exactly the wrong varieties for this area and they will not bulb up.)

If you plant transplants they will take root within a week and be off and growing. We like to plant our plants in a 6 inch wide strip of compost, over a light fertilization. This puts the plants in a no weed zone and will allow tillage between the rows for the first 4-6 weeks.  After this we will hand weed the onions every two weeks until the end of the season.

After 4 weeks the onions should be starting to bulb up triggered by the long days of June. This is a good time to fertilize over the top of the row with fish emulsion.

By the end of June we typically start harvesting some of the sweet summer onions.

Never fertilize with sulfur if you want to have sweet onions.  The sulfur compounds in onions give them the spicy hotter flavor.

For storage onions we harvest around the labor day. It is OK to wait longer, but if the weather turns wet the bulbs can get stained or even spoil.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Wonderful Asparagus

Asparagus well grown is some of the most tender and succulent of the vegetables. It provides a welcome retreat from the long winter and is one of the first vegetable to be ready for harvest. It is a perennial and starts growing when the soil reaches 60 degrees.

We snap the spears off when they reach the appropriate size. By snapping the spears you only get the most tender parts of the plant (Picture shown on the left). Asparagus that is too big is very woody and almost worthless (Picture shown on the right)

We use highly mineralized salt and kelp to fertilize the plants and the flavor is wonderful.

Asparagus is a very long lived perennial and can live 15 years before needing to be displaced.