Monday, December 6, 2021

 Learning To Farm-The Ecological Agriculture Training (EAT) Cultural Center Way

So, as many of you know, in addition to operating Windy River Farm, I also run the Ecological Agriculture Training and Cultural Center. The EAT Center is a program of Five Keys Schools and Programs and serves as a gathering space where long-time, new and beginning and prospective farmers come together to learn, share and celebrate all things “Small Farm.” We offer a 10-month wisdom-based, science informed small farm apprenticeship where students combine classroom delivered theory with farm-based hands on practice. We provide in depth one day workshops and help local farmers and ranchers sell and distribute their products.

One thing I hear over and over is “you can’t teach someone to be a farmer,” and at first, I fought that notion. Mostly, because it damaged my pride and questioned the value of what I spent much of my time doing. Over time I have come to accept and even agree with the idea that you cannot teach a person to be a farmer.

Being a farmer or rancher takes a special kind of person. It requires determination, dedication and adaptation. Patience is a crucial element. It demands that every time you get knocked down, you get back up. It takes heart. Those things can’t really be taught, however, they can be learned. Some of us were lucky enough to have those traits instilled in us early in our life and others have the opportunity to acquire them as adults through experience and mentorship.

What can be taught, are practices that lead to good farming. We teach triple bottom line practices that sustain the natural, social and economic systems of the small farm and the farm community. We focus on soil health, biodiversity, conservation, direct marketing and community as the foundations of production models and systems. Cooperation instead of competition. We avoid taking political sides because neither the left nor the right seem to embrace the Whole Farm and Farm Community the way all of us would like.

We strive to teach more than a collection of tasks. Although, there are some critical and essential tasks that we know must be completed regularly. Livestock must be fed, crops irrigated, compost turned, product sold and bills paid for examples. We  teach and practice these tasks and more regularlyas part of our program. Yet, as I wake before the sun, sip coffee and write this. I know that, instinctively, there is so much more to those simple tasks then it seems on the surface. Through years of carrying out those tasks, and observing outcomes from what I put in, what my neighbors put in, and how the natural system responds, I change, redirect and adapt. It is this ability to react, that makes us good farmers.

As a student at Prescott College in the early 1990s, I studied Natural History. I learned the importance of observation. Today, I spend much of my time in the field observing. Observing what birds are where on my farm. Are they seed eating sparrows or bug eating blue birds[T1] ? What shade of green are the leaves on my bush beans?  How much has the corn grown over night? What animal tracks have crossed my recently formed beds? How well is the soil holding moisture? How much organic matter is in my soil? I record all of this in my field journal.

Through observation and recording I develop systems that work with the ecology of my farm. It allows each task to have the greatest impact with the most efficiency. It makes me a working member of the farm community, not merely the overseer or “manager” of a machine.

When we combine this system of ecological observation and cooperation of our piece of the planet with the basic tasks required to produce and provide a food, fiber or flower product, we learn to farm. I have been in and around the horticultural industry for 30 years and have run my own farm for more than a decade.  I continue to learn every day and this is what the Ecological Agriculture Training Cultural Center and Farm are all about.




Friday, July 23, 2021

 Highlighting the Family Business

Flowers, Farming and the  role of both in Community Events

The past 15 months have been crazy. Lock downs, social distancing, businesses closing and people filling hospitals and morgues. Faces covered with masks preventing real human interaction. We crowd into big box stores like Walmart and State Brothers to hoard toilet paper and mason jars, but we couldn't join with family to celebrate holidays, births and life's achievements or to mourn deaths. Our clans were dispersed and our tribes became fractured.

Nothing eased the pain of separation or healed the wounds of  a global pandemic like flowers! 

I am a farmer (and a naturalist, teacher and writer), but there is no question that our family business is FLOWERS. For more than 20 years, we have operated retail floral businesses. My wife has been in the industry for a bit longer than the rest of  us, as it was her first job at 16 and she has never looked back. She is a world class designer, creating the finest floral arrangements for rock stars, 5-star resorts and the rich and famous. Her specialty, however, is bringing smiles and sometime tears (of Joy) to our neighbors, friends and community. And that my readers is how we weathered the pandemic.

I mostly grow vegetables and herbs, but I have grown sunflowers, bachelor's buttons, baby's breath, zinnias and statice for use in our flower shop. I am now trying my hand at growing some greens and specialty items as a way to support our family business. Over the past year I have also set up a farm stand table outside the flower shop to sell my vegies as a way for the family business to support the farm.

For the past 18 months, our agriculture related businesses,  the flower shop and farm operations, have grown tremendously. The pandemic did a lot to drive us in one of two ways-- either to close our doors or to find new paths to success. We chose the latter!

We started doing no contact deliveries and added wire services to our line up. We began promoting flowers as way to connect with one another when we couldn't physically be together. And we reached out to our community which has always supported us and again stepped up. Business stayed strong, even grew. The entire family stepped in to help out and we even hired some help. 

Unfortunately, during the pandemic, funeral business excelled as so many people succumbed to the the coronavirus. It was, however, an honor to assist our  friends and neighbors, in bringing beauty and light to an otherwise dark and challenging time. 

As the flower shop business grew, I also added a CSA program as the primary sales avenue for my produce. This provided a direct source of locally grown food for our community and memberships sold out every season. I also increased production of  greens and fillers for the flower shop. I planted more statice, lavender and zinnias. I also started and orchard of pussy willow and curly willow trees to further support the floral ends of our family business. 

All of this happens on just a little over an acre of land in Norco, California and demonstrates our families efforts to create a strong, community based economy while supporting each other through Soil, Seeds, Sunshine and Soul!

Tuesday, May 25, 2021

Staking Tomatoes 

When it comes to growing a caring for tomatoes, I don't over do it. Many of my colleagues trim and tie and care for their tomatoes plants much more than I do. I transplant my starts, which I acquire from The Farm on 7th, a local grower, and from Headstart Nursery which ships to me from Gilroy, California. Once I am sure those plants have grabbed their new soil abode, usually about 10 days in, I begin to place stakes and tie up support string. 

Many growers put up a stake every plant or two, however, for cost savings, I only place a stake at every 3 or 4 plants. Then I attach hay string between each stake along the row. The string is wrapped around each stake to provide maximum support. I run two or three lines along the row. One at about 12 inches above the soil surface and another 24-30 inches and so on as needed. 

Once my string lines are up I attach tomato plants to the stake and string as needed to hold the plants up and off of the ground. I trim the lower 8-10 inches of branches off of each plant to encourage upward growth and to allow for easier weeding and to prevent transfer of pests and pathogens from soil to plant. 

Scientifically Laying Out My Corn Rows- LOL

To most people, the picture above looks like tools laying on the ground. But to the select few who understand the mind of a farmer, this is in fact a scientific method for laying out rows of corn on flat ground in an environment that otherwise would be 30" raised beds. 
The Flathead shovel represents the furrows and is about 11 inches wide. The green leaf rake is 30 inches wide and represents the bed top. The rock rake, which is on top of the green leaf rake is 16" wide and represent the separation between rows of soon to be planted corn. You can see the black and blue loc-tight valves attached to the 3/4 inch poly mainline. These will soon have drip tape attached that will run the length of the 100 foot rows. 
This ridiculous, but effective measurement system allowed me to plant 4 rows of corn on the exact same space that will eventually make up two 30 inch semi-permanent beds without having to redo irrigation lay outs or remeasure the space nlater. This way, once the corn is done, I can simply use the flat head shovel to cut my furrows, add some compost to replace lost nutrients taken up by the corn and use the 30 inch leaf rake to level the bed top. replace the drip tape and plant. 

Thursday, April 22, 2021

Establishing Irrigation and Transplanting 

                                                                    Installed manifold including filter and regulator
Laying out the irrigation is sometimes a tedious task, but when installed properly and when using quality products from reputable sources (Toro Aqua-traxx, it makes the rest of the growing season or seasons much easier. I installed the manifold seen above at my new growing area. The manifold includes a 120 mesh filter and a 12 psi pressure regulator.  The parts are designed to be attached to a hose bib for use with standard fittings around the home including municipal and clean well sources. 

                                                                5/8 inch drip tape attached to 3/4 inch poly mainline
From the standard hose bib and manifold, I attached a 3/4 inch poly line which serves as the mainline. Using a small punch, I attach a 1/4 inch barbX5/8 inch lock tight valve to the mainline. I then attach 5/8 inch 15 mil drip tape to the valve and run 100 foot rows on top of my previously constructed 30 inch beds. I run a single row of tape down the center of the beds for tomatoes, but must other beds will receive two rows of tape evenly spaced on top of the beds. 

Even with the filter on the manifold, I let the water run out the end of the drip tape for a minute to remove any dust or debris

As mentioned above, I use 15 mil Toro brand Aqua Traxx Drip tape with 8 inches emitter spacing. The 15 mil thickness of the tape allows for more abuse and when cared for can easily last 3-5 growing seasons. I also find that the 8 inch drip spacing is the most versatile and allows for intensive planting. 

                                                      Trying out  heat tolerant varieties of Broccoli and Cauliflower

First seven beds planted and being irrigated

A 100 foot row of Super Sweet 100 Cherry Tomatoes

I transplant these seedling by hand as the space is too small to require mechanical transplanting and because I have chosen to maximize use of the entire space, leaving no room to maneuver a tractor. The Super Sweet 100 and Anaheim Chili seedlings are courtesy of Greg at the Farm on 7th street right here in Norco, and the other tomatoes varieties and the broccoli and cauliflower come from Headstart Nursery in Gilroy, California (although they also have facilities in Mecca). Keep following the progress as I will be direct seeding over the next week. 

Monday, April 19, 2021

 Building Semi Permanent Beds 

                             First six beds formed at the new property

I like to form and farm on what I refer to as semi-permanent beds. These are beds, which I build and maintain over at least one year, but which can be used for as many as two or three years depending on the soil, will be utilized for at least 3 crops every year. The beds will likely grow a cover crop or remain fallow for a season before receiving an additional application of 2-3 inches of compost. 

Following the application of compost and the mixing of compost and native soils with a rototiller, I build 30 inch wide beds, four to six inches high. over the next several growing seasons the beds will continue to grow in height to 6-10 inches high. I utilize a 12 inch furrow between beds and concentrate all walking and other compacting activity on those furrows. 

Once the beds have been constructed, I apply overhead irrigation for a total of about 3/4 inches. This is done to germinate weeds seeds prior to direct seeding or transplanting, so they can be removed without damaging new crop plants. It also ensures adequate spoil moisture for the new seeds and plants.

Overhead sprinklers are used to germinate weeds seeds and provide moisture for new plantings

I use a simple tripod mounted impact head for applying overhead irrigation. This particular sprinkler will throw water in all directions for a distance of 456 feet but can be adjusted to particular measurements in distance and direction. The sprinkler was purchased at Tractor Supply for about $50.00

As I mentioned above, I build my beds 4-6 inches high and 30 inches wide. This width allows for multiple rows of many crops, but is also an adequate width for heavy feeding long growing crops like tomatoes, which will be planted one row to a bed. Other heavy feeders like corn, are planted two rows per bed and at least 3 beds at a time to ensure sufficient pollination. Beds are constructed at either 50 foot or 100 foot lengths. On this plot I am utilizing 100 foot beds. The length of the beds is important to consider when purchasing and planning irrigation supplies which I buy in 4000 foot rolls. I will share the irrigation design and layout in my next post. 


Thursday, April 15, 2021

Windy River Farm Experience

Third Step- Applying compost

                                                      Composted chicken manure applied at the rate of 3yards per acre. 

                                                                 Composted horse manure and green waste applied at 9 yards per acre.
Following the cleanup and leveling of the planting plot which included initial ripping of the hard clay soil (See previous posts) I moved on to improving soil quality and preparing the plot for planting. The third Step in my process is the application of compost. I applied a total of four yards of compost to my 15000 square foot planting area. The compost was made up of 1 yard of composted chicken manure and 3 yards of composted horse manure and green waste. This will increase Nitrogen Phosphorus and Potassium available for crops as well as increase organic matter in the soil. Composting also improves carbon sequestration by putting carbon directly back into the soil. 

I do not practice no-till farming, however, I believe in minimal tillage. I will follow this process ending with the creation of 30" beds that will be semi permanent only being tilled under once every couple of years. I will continue to add compost and work the top two or three inched of the beds to ensure that plants have an easy establishment period and to control weeds. 

First Pass with rototiller following compost application
                                            10,000 square feet have been rototilled

Following the application of 4 yards of compost I rototilled the site using my trusty 5 horsepower Yard Machines rear tine  walk behind rototiller recently tuned up by the Lawn Mower Shop in Corona who I highly recommend for their quality customer service. This process allows me to work the soil and introduce and mix compost into the top 6-8 inches of soil. It also creates a soft, workable seed bed and transplant space. This activity completes the third step in my process of creating a successful and vibrant small farm plot. 


Friday, April 9, 2021

The Windy River Farm Experience

Debris removal and leveling of site-Tuesday April 6th, 2021

I rented and used this John Deere 2032 to collect and remove debris including bricks, concrete chunks and old lumber. Soil tests were completed and the site is safe but only has adequate nitrogen and phosphorus but is deficient in potassium. 

Following debris removal the site was leveled and ripped to (uncover any additional rocks or debris). As much of the existing organic matter as possible was left on/in soil. Compost will be added and 30 inch beds will be created. 


 Learning To Farm-The Ecological Agriculture Training (EAT) Cultural Center Way So, as many of you know, in addition to operating Windy Rive...