Weekly Update

It’s been a quiet week, in terms of the farm.  I went by the incubator plot yesterday, just to see if the peas were up.  No luck yet.  The weather has been cool and fairly dry, so it could easily take them two weeks or more to germinate.  The row cover is warming up the soil a little bit, and also drying it out a bit on the surface, which is probably fine.  No sign of voles.  In a few places, the wind had blown the cover off, but I found some bigger rocks to hold it down.


week 2 on the field

Here's what the field looked like on week 2.


I also went by Griffin Greenhouse Supplies in Tewkesbury, hoping to buy some 72-cell flats for starting some kale, but they only sell cases of 100.  I needed 5.  Johnnies will do the trick.  I did buy some field markers, for labeling rows and plants in the field, and that was a bargain, at 250 12″ markers for $45 or so.  (Much cheaper than Johnnies.)  In our garden, we usually just use plastic knives and spoons, but even Sharpie ink tends to wash off after a few months in the weather.  We need  a method that will last through the whole season.

The tough news this week is that we did not get in to the Acton-Boxborough Farmer’s Market.  We’d hoped to be there Sunday mornings, every other week.  But their slots filled up.  I’m trying to look at this as a mixed blessing.  Even though it’s a big hit to our projected revenue (I’d estimated we could early as much as $1,700 there, though those are numbers are half based on optimistic vapor), it simplifies our somewhat complicated lives to not have to try to get to a Sunday morning market, fairly far from home.  This gives us a lot more flexibility in our schedule, which is going to be a good thing.  (And will save a couple hundred bucks on gas).  We’ll have to try to make up some of the gap through sales to neighbors, and local markets.  (Maybe even a restaurant or two.)  Beginning farming is a lot about making adjustments.

A lot of my farm time right now is still being spent on spreadsheets, trying to put together a comprehensive task and planting schedule for the year.  Here’s a link to one of them.

Next week:  I’ll get to learn how to use the rototiller.  Can’t wait!

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Peas are in

Thursday was all about the farm for me.  In the morning, I drove up to Brookdale Farm in New Hampshire, to buy tomato stakes, row cover, and tomato twine.  They’re the best and most economical local source for many growing supplies.  Luckily it all fit in the car, along with all the tools and supplies I brought up.  The tricky part of having to commute 50 minutes each way to the farm is that I have to be sure to pack very carefully, because returning home for a forgotten tool is not an option.  On Thursday, that meant bringing every shovel, hoe, rake, tape measure I could find, along with spare clothing, water, dinner, scissors, fertilizer, seeds, distilled water to make innoculant slurry for the peas, and more.  Luckily, our car holds a lot of stuff.

car load

Subaru all loaded up with supplies

Then it was off to the farm in Dracut.  I was a little worried that the ground might be too wet, since it had rained a little the night before.  But it’s been dry and warm, so I thought I’d risk it.  Again, a challenge of being far from the farm is that it’s hard to know exactly what the field conditions are going to be.  It was damp, but workable.  My goal for the day was to take a soil sample, to send for UMass Amherst for testing, and then get in a row of peas.

Without a key to the shed yet and the field too wet for the tractor, putting in the peas meant turning over a 180-foot long, 2-foot wide strip of land, by hand, with a garden fork, and then putting on some row cover to keep off the voles and deer and warm up the soil a tiny bit more.

field on arrival

This is what the field looked like when I got there.

This is what the field looked like when I arrived.  Once I figured exactly where the row of peas was going to be, I picked out the rocks in a two-foot wide strip, cleared the weeds with the hula hoe, and put down some pro-gro organic fertilizer.  I LOVE the hula hoe.  Very fast for clearing weeds (though it can’t handle thick grass) and for breaking up sod chunks, and very easy on my back.

row laid out

The row is laid out with string and some rocks and weeds gone.

raked and de-rocked

Now the strip has been weeded and de-rocked and raked

That left the hard part.  Turning over the soil with the fork.  This took about and hour and a half for the whole row.   I’m trying to keep close track of how much time it takes for each task, so that I can have a clearer understanding of how much time I need to budget as the season progresses.

There’s something inherently satisfying in turning over the soil by hand and preparing to plant.  It’s a primal feeling, this sense of taking steps to grow food, by hand.  And it’s a reminder of how much work it is.  I’ll be grateful for the use of the tractor and BCS rototiller for the rest of the plot.  Still, I’m now reminded that I could work a quarter acre plot entirely with hand tools.  I spent about 4.5 hours putting this row together.  I’d need about two weeks of hard labor to do the whole plot by hand, but I could do it.

furrow for the peas

snow peas in a furrow, ready to be covered

row cover on

all done with the peas, row cover on

Once the soil was prepped, it was just a matter of making a furrow for the peas (which I coated with innoculant, which contains beneficial bacteria that help the peas fix nitrogen into the soil, on little nodules on their roots), covering them with soil, and laying out row cover.  All those rocks in the field came in pretty handy, especially in the cool breeze that was blowing.

I finished just in time to head to a two-hour class on indoor seed-starting, greenhouses, and making soil blocks.

making soil blocks

classmates making soil blocks

By the end of the day, I was exhausted.  About as physically tired as I’m capable of being and still being conscious.  (I’m still kinda tired.)  But it was that good kind of fatigue, one that comes with the satisfaction of a job well done, completed at the right time.  It’s a reminder that the season is starting, and my body isn’t completely in shape for it yet, but I’ve at least started.

Now we’ll just have to see when the peas come up, if  they come up.  There are still lots of potential snags–bad weather, too much moisture, hungry voles and deer.  But we’ve taken the first real step–the farm has begun.

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We Have Land

Yesterday, Tracy, Noah, and I all drove up to Dracut to see our plot for the first time.  (Though we actually saw the fields last summer on a tour, but back then it wasn’t ours.)

This is it:

Tracy on first Day

Tracy ready to go on Day 1

There’s a slight slope to it, and the soil looks pretty good.  There are some tall trees on the east side that will shade part of the plot, but only for a few hours a day–we should be able to plant carefully to avoid problems.  There are some rocks, but we’ll make quick work of them.  The cover crop seems mostly killed off, so it won’t be hard to break ground.  The fields won’t be dry enough for use by the tractor until late April, but I’ll turn a row over by hand to start snow peas in the next week or so.

We brought our tape measure, and the plot is 54′ x 182′, so just shy of a quarter acre.  We should be able to grow a lot of veggies on this land.

Noah on Day 1

Noah was ready to give a hand picking up rocks. You can see a hoop house in the background.

There were quite a few deer tracks, so we’ll have to see if they’re going to give us much trouble.  Row covers will help while shoots are small.  (I hope.)

deer tracks

a few deer tracks

I’m excited to get going.  I’ll be up there on Thursday for a greenhouse workshop, so maybe I’ll bring a shovel and get that row ready for peas.  Can’t wait!

Pat on first day

Pat on the first day

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Business Plan Graduation

On Thursday of this week, Tracy and I drove up to Lowell for the Spring Launch/Graduation Ceremony at the New Entry Sustainable Farming Project.  This gave us a chance to meet up the folks with whom I took the farm business plan writing class with in the fall, and also meet some of the students who took it this winter.  26 people took the class altogether in Lowell, and an additional 12 people took the class online in the new distance learning class.  Of those people, just two of us will be farming on the incubator plots this season–so our rookie group is tiny.

Pat getting an award

me getting an award from Ethan Grunberg

New Entry gave awards to a handful of people for their business plans, including me.  (I got a $50 gift certificate to Johnny’s which will be spent right away!)  I especially loved hearing from Hussein, who came all the way down to talk about his farm in Portland, Maine, where he’s working with his family and the Somali community there.  Quite an inspiration.

farming class

some of the folks who did the farm business plan class

We also got our plot assignments.  I can’t wait to see where we’ll be growing the farm!

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Clean Start

back porch with seed starting

clean up on the back porch

Right now, we’re still completely in prep mode.  This week, I took inventory of all our seed starting supplies, and then did a thorough washing of all our trays, old six packs, buckets, clear covers, dome covers, in the tub, along with a 10% bleach rinse to make sure we don’t carry over any plant diseases from last year.  I might not always be quite this thorough when trying to get ready for the our own little garden plot, but now that we’re farming, it’s more important to make sure each step gets done properly.

The warm weather this week has everyone thinking about spring and folks are itching to start seeds indoors.  But for us, it’s still too early.  We won’t be able to get anything in the ground in our incubator farm site until mid-April, and probably not until May.  So if we start too much now, it’ll just get leggy and stressed from too much time in starter cells under grow lights.  It’s hard to resist the urge to plant when the temperature hits 60, but I’ve learned from experience that sometimes it pays to wait just a little bit.

Next up for us is making a big shopping list for supplies.  Many don’t need to be purchased until May or early June, but we’re going to be so busy planting then that it’s probably better to make sure some of the shopping gets done now.  (I’ve got to figure out who is going to certify our scale for the farmer’s market next).

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Small Packages

Our seed orders arrived last week.  I’m still stunned at the immense expansion that occurs in the transition from seed to plant.  Here are all the seeds we’ve ordered to plant our 1/4 acre.

our seeds for 2012The seeds to grow the Pen and Pepper Farm

That’s right.  They all fit in one small box.  Now admittedly, we ordered a bunch of seedlings of chard, kale, tomatoes, and peppers.  And we’ve got onion sets and potatoes coming, too.  But it still makes a pretty small pile compared to filling 10,000 feet of land full of plants, and hundred and hundreds of pounds of vegetables.  (I think we’ll grow at least half a ton of veggies, if the weather cooperates.  Hopefully more.)

I’m in love with the potential of it all.


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Seeds and Seedlings

Alpha Calendula

Alpha Calendula will give a little color to our farm and gardens.

Every day, we take more steps forward on the farm, and it feels more and more like it’s really happening.  Though I’m not sure it will feel completely real until we’re assigned our plot, in late March, and get to see and set foot on the actual land.  Until then, it still feels pretty abstract.  (It works the same way for me when I’m involved in the production of one of my plays–it never feels real until we’re actually in the theatre space.)

The steps we took this weekend did feel a lot more concrete than dealing with masses of spreadsheets.  We placed our seed orders with Johnny’s, High Mowing, and Fedco (which sounds like a big impersonal corporate outfit, but is really a funky company in Maine).  We spent about $200 on seeds for basil, green beans, beets, chard, cilantro, collards, cucumbers, kale, mustard, lettuce, snow peas, and zucchini for the farm, plus seeds for our two gardens (winter squash, mint, lima bean, calendula, fennel, husk cherries, carrots cabbage, amaranth, dill, sunflowers, marigolds, and nasturtium).  Lots of fun varieties of each.

And that’s not all.  We can start some plants under grow lights in our basement, but only about 300 at a time.  That’s not nearly enough, so we also ordered seedlings this week.  New Entry set up a deal with the Community Gardens Greenhouse in Lowell for incubator farmers for some plants, and we also found a great seedling source in the Natick Community Organic Farm.  Through these two sources, we’ve ordered many hundreds of kale and chard seedlings (we need an early start, to fill our first World PEAS Co-op order), peppers (7 kinds), tomatoes (7 kinds), and tomatillos.

Now that we’re on the hook or more than $500 of seeds and seedlings, it definitely is starting to feel a lot more real.  And a lot more exciting, to think of boxes of seeds and flats of seedlings coming our way and needing to get in the ground.

Before this year, I always figured that seeds were a pretty big chunk of a farmer’s budget, but that’s definitely not the case for us, or for most farmers.  In our case, seeds and seedlings probably won’t even consume 10% of our budget.  But they’re certainly the some of the most fun and promising purchases we’re likely to make for the farm.

Now it’s time to spend some time daydreaming about summer and all the plants that will be growing in our tiny little farm in just a few months.

brandywine tomatoes

We're planning to plant a couple dozen brandywine tomato plants



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Getting Started

Right now, everything about Pen and Pepper Farm has to do with getting started. This is our first year farming, so everything is new. The good news is that winter is slow, in terms of growing things, and we don’t have to worry about being at the market or having our veggies ready for the World PEAS CSA. Right now, all we need to do is get ready.

That means lots of to-do lists (with items like: start blog and web site). We’ve just put in our bulk order to NOFA (Northeast Organic Farming Association) for fertilizer, onion sets, and potatoes. We’ve got a big stack of seed catalogs. And there are lots and lots of spreadsheets–when to plant, how much to plant, seedlings, or seeds. There are materials to source–stakes, a tent, tables for the market, seeds, more seeds, twine, the list goes on.

Under it all is a great sense of anticipation. We’re really going to do this farming thing. In a year from now, our lives will be different. We will be different people. At this moment, I can’t say exactly how, but we’ll be transformed by this experience, one way or another.

This blog is a way for us to share and examine that transformation as it occurs. I’ll try to include as many details as I can, without getting too bogged down. I know that as a beginning farmer, I like reading blogs that give me some data.

Thanks for reading. I hope to see you at one of the markets.

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