Multicropping The Urban Farm

This year we’re multicropping the 1/4 acre garden plot at our home in downtown Longmont, Colorado. That’s to say we are growing multiple crops on the land within a single growing season. Our goal is to plant all the beds two or three times this year. And now, with spring arugula and spinach done, were laying in our second plantings.  Multicropping complicates rotations and puts a lot of pressure on the land. But we have no choice. It’s something we have to do at Longmont this year.

Regular readers may know we are working two pieces of land this season. The first is the urban 1/4 acre. The second is a two acre parcel in Gunbarrel, Colorado; about twenty minutes from our home. It sounds fantastic and we are very grateful but it’s not perfect. The problem is that we have a very serious weed issues at Gunbarrel that prevent us from direct seeding there. We’re okay transplanting that land because the transplants, being relatively large when they go in, have a leg up on the weeds. But when we seed directly the weeds rise ahead of the crops and shade them out. We can’t even hand weed the seeded bed because the disruptions caused by weeding are enough to foil germination. Continue reading Multicropping The Urban Farm

On New Land and Canada Thistle

First for our biggest news ever: Last month we agreed to at least a four year lease on four acres of Boulder County Open Space land. It’s about 20 minutes from our urban, home garden (which we’ll continue to work) and comes complete with a retention pond and good ditch rights. We’re shooting to use a total of two acres this season, up from a 1/4 acre last year. Next year, if everything goes according to plan, we’ll use it all, bringing us up to 4 1/4 acres. We’ll still be a tiny farm by any sane definition, but hopefully we’ll then be big enough to be sustainable.

We’re over the moon with our news. We’ve been debating how to expand for over a year and farmland isn’t easy to find around here. It’s next to impossible to buy. In Boulder County ag land sells for at least $100k/acre, often without water. That’s way too much to ever make the nut farming. Fortunately for us, the county manages 95,000 acres of open space, much of which it leases back to local growers. This is how we got our land; through a county lease. It’s extremely affordable, has water rights and the county is there to support us through its extension office. It’s a great way to start growing on a larger scale.

All that being said, standing on the land this morning, in the freezing cold, ankle deep in snow and mud carrying a full load of t-bars was more than a bit intimidating. Four acres is a lot of dirt.  The methods and tools we used on our urban 1/4 acre aren’t up to this challenge. We need to update our system.

Continue reading On New Land and Canada Thistle

Seed Season Pt. 1

Red Leaf Lettuce

We’re deep in December and I’m dreaming of seeds. Not a feet-up, coffee, waste the morning sort of dream. Because I’m still really busy, and because I also work in a natural foods grocery, and because the holiday business there is exhausting and consuming, I’m dreaming in fits. Yesterday, with the sun beaming in on yet another unseasonably warm morning, I contemplated lettuce over a hurried oatmeal breakfast. Today I considered carrots and fed peanut butter to the boy. Lately, shower time has been for tomatoes, broccoli and herbs.

The seed order is easily one of the most enjoyable tasks on a tiny farm. Seen from the middle of winter, next year is fresh and plump with potential. Last year’s mistakes are faded and all but forgotten. Next year’s disasters are no more than a twinkle in my bumbling eye. Looking forward everything is rosy and the seed order captures that. The seed order is our chance for an unblemished start, to get organized, to finally realize our potential.

Mache - My favorite winter green

Continue reading Seed Season Pt. 1

The Tomato System, V1.0

Tomatos_green

Things are nervous on our tiny farm. The first hard frost is lurking like a vandal. The season is ending. I can smell it. It’ll be Armageddon for cucumbers and catastrophe for peppers. The zucchini blossoms will all turn black and crunchy. No more basil. No more melons. No more pansies for our salad mix. Fortunately, our tomatoes are protected. They’ll survive awhile longer. But even their end is near. The time has come to take account.

It’s been a long year for us on the farm. And to be totally honest, the amount of energy (and the number of hours) I’ve been able to put in has been waning for a while. I’ve been getting by on good intentions and the grace of my friends. Fortunately, all the hard work we’d done earlier in the year laid a solid foundation and allowed us to coast a bit. Otherwise we’d have augured a long time ago.

With that in mind, looking back on the year, I focus on the positive. I focus on our  plant / soil block sales. I focus on our greens. And I focus on tomatoes.

This was our year to finally learn to grow tomatoes. And while we still have a lot to learn, we’ve come a long way. Our system allowed us to be among the very first growers to have ripe tomatoes at market. We’ll likely also be among the last. Our yields were great and our quality was very good. Of everything we’ve done around here, I might be most proud of the tomatoes. We’ve struggled mightily in the past. It’s good to have turned at least one corner, at least temporarily.

Tomatos_Gheda1 Continue reading The Tomato System, V1.0

The Big Corn Paradox

Corn_field

Taken at just another huge, local corn field

This might be the best summer recipe ever:

Grilled Summer Corn

ingredients

  • Fresh picked corn, still in the husks
  • Sea Salt

method

Pick them. Grill them, ASAP, still in the husks. Eat them, maybe with a pinch of salt.

There’s nothing better than fresh corn. I absolutely love it, and I’m not alone. Everyone I know loves it. This time of year it’s one of the best selling item in the produce world. Peaches, cherries and corn; in the summer everything else is an also-ran.

I love corn but I don’t grow any. I need to grow corn but I can’t grow corn. Thinking about it hurts my brain.

Imagine a small town with a single male barber. Let’s say all the men are close shaven. Let’s also say this barber shaves all and only the men who don’t shave themselves. The question then becomes: Does this barber shave himself?

Alternatively, can an omnipotent being create a stone too heavy for her to lift?

On a tiny farm growing corn is a lot like that. It’s a paradox. People love corn. They crave it. And few things drive more foot traffic. We don’t have it and, as a result, half the people walk right past our stand. On the other hand, it takes a lot of land to grow and it has almost no economic value. In my day job I work at a large natural foods grocery. Right now we are selling corn 4 for $1. At the farmers’ market, the guys across the isle from us have gone as low as 50 ears for $5. We could conceivably plant our entire 1/8th acre farm to corn (we’d yield about 2,000 ears), wait an entire season, harvest it all at once, sell out in a day and generate less than $500. Corn is brutal! We gotta have it to drive traffic but if we do it’ll break us. Pure Paradox. This paradox is even harsher for organic corn. That’s why it’s so hard to find. What’s the best way to become a million dollar organic corn grower? Start with $10-million and a dream.

Continue reading The Big Corn Paradox

Our New Tomato System and Linguine with Roast Heirloom Tomatoes

Tomato_Pasta

What a difference a year makes. Twelve months ago we were struggling through the most horrible tomato season imaginable. (It’s here: My first ever post!) This year it’s a whole new story. Now we’re swimming in tomatoes, like Scrooge McDuck backstroking through his big vault of money. I can’t believe how well they’re coming and how good they taste. What’s more, we’re selling out every week at market. It’s great.

I’d like to take all the credit for our turnaround. And I’d like to blame all of last year’s crappiness  on environmental conditions. It’s been a long season. I deserve the props and could use the validation. So I’m tempted. But that wouldn’t be true. We made plenty of mistakes last year. We deserve as much blame as does the weather. And this year the conditions have been much better, granting us a natural advantage. That being said, this year we’ve done a lot to influence the outcome and improve our results.

Tomato_Heirloom

Continue reading Our New Tomato System and Linguine with Roast Heirloom Tomatoes

Got Dirt?

dirt_tomato

Not to belabor the point, but we are a very, very small farm. And while I think we are doing pretty well and will likely turn a profit this year, we’re a long way from pulling anything like a real salary from our tiny farm. I figure at most, if we execute perfectly and add a second weekly market, we can generate 9k-12k per year from our scant 1/8th acre (with as much as 60% going to expenses). So, unfortunately, if one of us ever wants to work this as an only job we’re going to have to expand.

CSA_hoops

Around here, most people expand by leasing county land. We’re in Boulder County where there’s a progressive program for converting public land into leased agricultural plots. The leases are affordable and the county does a lot to support small growers. It’d be relatively easy for us to go that way. We could join with a few other small farmers, form a Growers Association, and together lease land from the county. Frog Star could end up with 1-3 acres, more than enough for us. And, after a couple years spent working it, we could produce between 40k-70k worth of produce per acre per year. That means that from a two-acre tiny farm, with 60%-70% going to pre-labor expense, we could earn at least one full time salary.

Problem is, we’d have to move our farm into the country. We’d have to leave the neighborhood and our community and I don’t want to do that. I like working in a residential setting. I like talking to my neighbors and the people walking by while I’m planting or cultivating. I don’t want to move our farm from the neighborhood.

Continue reading Got Dirt?

I'm a Stranger Here Myself

Stranger-Butter

We’re six weeks into the market season and despite my normally tenacious melancholy, I’d like to report that things are going great. It’s nothing less than a miracle. Our farm is tiny (really tiny, between 1/8 and 1/4 acre) and for many months, I’ve had a nightmare, flop-sweat kind of concern about our ability to produce enough food to support the market. But every week so far we’ve filled our stand and had plenty to spare. Hell, we’ve even been able to donate food and plants to some community organizations. Beyond that, people appear sincerely positive about what we’re doing and how we’re doing it. And money wise, so far we’re on the happy side of break even, so that’s good. But best of all, the people at market are great. They’re kind, involved, interesting and for the most part I can’t say enough good things about them.  They’ve made market Saturday the best part of my week.

Stranger-Adam

Continue reading I’m a Stranger Here Myself

And What A Week It Was

market-greens

Last week. Wow.
It was like racing through a dry, rocky river bed in the back of an old pickup, driven by a half-blind, half-drunk whiskey bootlegger. In a word – Bumpy. In three words – Real, Real Bumpy. A unsettling, impossible to get your balance, impossible to catch you breath kind of bumpy. Bumpy enough to bang a kidney loose and challenge your faith in comfortable things. It was one crazy week. Sure, there were good bits, and it was productive. But, it was rough and I’m very glad it’s done.

Milo Farmer's market

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First Farmer's Market and a New Plan

pepper-pot-2

Last weekend we attended our very first farmer’s market and I’ve got to say it started off scary. Our first four perspective customers all asked for eggs and left disappointed (and empty handed) when we told them we didn’t have any. Fortunately, the next several dozen people didn’t give a toss about eggs and bought up almost everything we had. We’d come with spinach, kale, soil blocked starts and plants in compostable pots. We left with a few soil blocks and a couple tomato plants. It was a great day and a fantastic introduction to the farmer’s market. Best of all, it left us with a clearer vision of our business and new ideas for our future.

Continue reading First Farmer’s Market and a New Plan