Farm update: June 22

‘Tis the season of both growth and destruction. We spend most of our time weeding and watering and looking for new growth on our crops and in our pasture; in response, all of our crafty farm pests have come out with hunger in their tummies and destruction on their minds. Time spent not watering or weeding is instead spent defending our territory. It’s a hard-fought war of attrition out here, and both sides are digging their heels in.

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A raspberry cane with reassuring new growth.

We’re so pleased to see new growth on most of our raspberry canes. You might remember that we planted forty canes last year and every single one failed; this year we regrouped with drip irrigation and we believe that made all the difference. Bramble fruits like raspberries and blackberries typically do well in our climate; we’d love to grow our own fruit as well as our own vegetables. We’re always, always learning out here, and we’re trying hard not to make the same mistakes twice. We like to make lots of different mistakes instead.

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A recent harvest of fava beans and sugar snap peas.

We have been pleasantly surprised by both our fava bean and snap pea yields this season. Our original fava bean seeds were a gift a decade or so ago from beloved gardener friends back on the Front Range (thanks, Nancy and Bob!) and I’ve grown them out almost every single year and saved a few each time for future plantings. We planted favas in one of our new raised beds as a way to fix nitrogen and improve the soil, and the beans did incredibly well.

Peas are often tricky in Colorado, because they like cool, damp weather (there’s a reason they’re an English culinary staple) and our breakneck seasonal shifts means it gets too hot too quickly, before they really mature. But this year the sugar snaps have been spectacular, and they’re not even overly bitter in our extreme heat. I never expect peas to make it into the kitchen – I plant them as a garden snack – but this year there have been enough for salads and stir-fries, and they just keep producing. No matter how much I think I know, growing food never fails to surprise and delight me.

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A badly damaged broccoli plant.

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These greens have been chewed nearly to the ground.

One of the toughest things about growing organically is that you often don’t know your enemy, so it can be hard to know how to respond – and you can’t just douse everything in a potent chemical cocktail and hope it works. We’re seeing a disheartening amount of damage in our raised beds, particularly on the tender leafy greens. Baby squirrels have been spotted in here – they can make it through the fencing, whereas the adults can’t – but grasshoppers are a big problem for us, too. We’ve taken to spreading the day’s coffee grounds on the beds (apparently squirrels dislike the smell) and I’ve also made some catmint and lemon balm tinctures and poured those over, too. We’re doing our best to grow strong, healthy plants that can fight off attacks, but there is some territory we may just have to cede. Thankfully we’re not taking these crops to market, or we’d be in real trouble.

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Gorgeous ‘Forellenschluss’ lettuce.

The ‘Forellenschluss’ lettuce above is one of the most beautiful lettuces we’ve ever grown. It’s an Austrian variety whose name translates as “speckled trout,” and it’s lovely in the field and on the plate. I’m letting the few heads I have go to seed (if our enemies don’t get them first) because this a variety I want to plant again and share with other growers.

Most of our lettuces are nearly done for the season; those that remain are left deliberately to go to seed for a fall replanting. When lettuces and other greens get too hot they turn sharp and bitter and tough and are best for chicken treats instead of cool, fresh salads. The kale will keep going through the summer, and I’ll seed lettuces again once the tomatoes have put on some substantial growth so their foliage can shade the delicate greens.

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The eastward view along our ridgeline in late summer two years ago.

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The westward view along the same ridgeline, taken a few days ago.

One of our biggest goals for this year has been to improve our pasture management, with the ultimate intention of grazing livestock on our land. N has done an incredible job of both mowing the pasture as well as learning our complicated and infuriating gated pipe system to use our limited irrigation water efficiently. We think the results of his hard work speak for themselves: it’s pretty clear from the photos above that our pasture is in far better shape now than it was when we purchased this farm nearly two years ago. Well-managed intensive mob grazing is our next step.

With that, we’re off to continue our ongoing battle against whistle pigs, squirrels, deer, grasshoppers and all the rest. Stay calm and stay safe out there.

 

 

Where the water goes

There has long existed a tired stereotype of a farmer as some sort of rural idiot, a barely-literate country bumpkin who can only just string two sentences together. If there is anything we’ve learned during our nearly two-year (!) farming adventure, it’s that a successful small farmer is anything but stupid. You have to be a veterinarian and a seedsman and an ATV mechanic and a soil scientist and an entomologist. You have to dig holes, repair fences, build structures, patch hoses and outwit pests. You have to be strong, creative, resourceful, thrifty and tireless. And you have to know how to manage the water on your property, no matter how it gets there.

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The components of one of our drip irrigation kits.

One of our goals for this, our second full season of farming, is to get our irrigation dialed in. We don’t farm in a traditional American sense, i.e. hundreds of acres of the same crop (usually corn or soybeans) laid out in precise rows and neat blocks. Irrigating that sort of monocrop is relatively easy, because every plant is identical and therefore its water needs are identical, too. Once that irrigation system is established, it’s basically set-it-and-forget-it. Instead, we farm in a sort-of patchwork style all across our property: perennial herbs in this corner, a bed or two or nine here, trees over there. As a result, our irrigation is similarly patchwork, because there is no one-size-fits-all solution.

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Farm update: May 11

It’s hot, dry and windy out here, and feels more like late July than early May. We seem to have skipped straight from a parched winter into an equally arid summer, missing the soft green lushness of spring entirely; the peas and radishes survived frost damage only to turn bitter and pithy from sun scald. Last year we had rain almost every single day in May, and this year it’s unlikely we’ll see any. Early reports indicate that the mountain snowpack is melting far too quickly, thanks to this premature summer, and our primary focus these days is on keeping all of our plants irrigated. Here are a few more things we’ve been up to recently.

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Our gated irrigation pipe at work. 

All of our irrigation water comes from snow on the Grand Mesa. When the snow thaws each spring, the snowmelt makes its way down the mountain through an intricate series of ditches, headgates, creeks and pipes. We’re focused this year on regenerating our pasture, so have started flood-irrigating our land to see what grows. Later this season we’ll remark our pasture (cut channels that direct the water) and hopefully seed it with perennial grasses, too. Eventually we’ll use the land for rotational grazing, likely a grass-fed steer or two. Flood irrigation requires a lot of work – the water has to be “moved” by opening and closing valves and gates along the pipes – but it’s the system we have, so we’re learning how to use it to the land’s advantage.

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One potato, two potato

Last year we planted potatoes for the first time and achieved a reasonable level of success for a freshman effort, though our part of Colorado isn’t at all suited for potato growing. To our south and east, however, you’ll find the San Luis Valley: the second-largest fresh potato-growing region in the country and justifiably famous for the crop. Their loose, sandy soils are much better for potatoes than our heavy, rocky clay.

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Last season’s potato towers.

But like any stubborn farmer, we love being told what we can’t grow, so that we can try it anyway. We quickly realized that we wouldn’t be planting potatoes in the ground and so opted for potato towers: layers of soil, compost, newspaper and straw in a wire cage, with seed potatoes nestled gently in between. We planted about one and a half pounds of seed potatoes in each of three potato towers, and yielded about twenty pounds of potatoes in total – not bad, considering the minimal growing space and effort required, but not the thirty-plus pounds we were hoping for. And some of the potatoes were really tiny, like the size of marbles. Not very practical.

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Starting seeds

Welcome to March! Our spring is shaping up to be a bit too premature and a bit too warm and a bit too dry for our liking; we’d like to see quite a lot more moisture. This time last year, we still had at least four inches of snowpack on the ground; this year, zilch. Also last year, we were adorable, eager, optimistic, first-year farmers, and we started our seeds way too early. This year, we’re hardened, grizzled veterans, so we know better. And next year? Watch out.

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If you’re going to grow anything outside, the single most important piece of information you need is your average first and last frost date. This statistic is pretty much exactly what it sounds like; weather stations all over the country send data to the USDA, which in turn calculates average first and last frost dates. These dates are essential because most (but not all) annual food crops will not tolerate freezing temperatures.

Here at Quiet Farm, our average last frost is May 13, and our average first frost is October 4 for a 143-day growing season; this means we’re almost assured not to have frost between these dates. Keep in mind, however, that this is an average, not a guarantee – you’re safer assuming that frost is possible one to two weeks on either side of these dates. (The location of weather stations varies widely and can sometimes be inaccurate, so check where your closest weather station is located to ensure you’re getting the best information. Plus, the climate emergency is totally destroying the consistency and reliability of these dates. It’s all pretty much guesswork from here on out.)

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Save our seeds

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Our first hard frost is forecast this week, so there is much to be done. In addition to lots of canning and preserving, autumn on a small homestead means saving seeds. We’ve talked about the importance of seed saving previously, and each season we’re working on expanding our seed bank. Never before has it been so important to save our own seeds and thereby take responsibility for our own food supply; as seed companies are again and again snapped up by massive agrochemical conglomerates, our control of our own seeds – our fundamental birthright, and the source of our food supply – becomes ever more tenuous.

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Most lettuces and other salad greens encase their seeds in little windblown puffballs.

As I wrote in our previous seed post, “Today, nearly three-quarters of all seeds planted in the U.S. – both unmodified and genetically engineered varieties – are privately owned and controlled by three large agrichemical corporations. Growing food is a basic human right, and we are quickly moving towards a future in which we will no longer own the source of our food. Lack of food leads to hunger, which leads to unrest, which leads to revolution, which leads to profitable wars benefitting those same corporations. Building our own seed banks, even if technically illegal, means we still have some say in our food supply. Seed saving is a small but powerful act of resistance.”

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How to save the world

Last Friday, millions of people around the world marched as part of a “global climate strike.” The march was intended to draw world leaders’ attention to the climate crisis in advance of the U.N. General Assembly taking place this week in New York City. While the sight of millions of mostly young people taking to the streets to make their voices heard is heartening in theory, teenagers in expensive sneakers carrying smartphones and pithy signs aren’t going to change the perilous trajectory we’re on.

Despite the fact that we are by far the world’s largest consumer and by extension the world’s largest polluter per capita, the U.S. is the only country in the world still debating the very existence of climate change. While other countries have their heads down working to find solutions, we’re still arguing over whether this is actually happening, and if so whose fault it is. (Spoiler alert: ours.) This disparity will be on full public view this week at the U.N.; once again, we’ll look like idiots on the world stage, a role in which we’re becoming increasingly comfortable.

Here’s the painful truth: we can’t protest the idea of large corporations destroying the planet, because we are the reason those corporations exist. If we didn’t buy their products – if we didn’t upgrade our iPhones every year, if we didn’t rob each other at gunpoint for thousand-dollar puffer jackets, if we didn’t accept and then dispose of two million plastic bags per minute – these corporations wouldn’t be able to plunder the planet. We are the problem, and by that logic we also have to be the solution.

Mental health professionals have reported a sharp uptick in the number of people seeking treatment for depression related to the environmental catastrophe we’re facing. It’s a massive, complex problem, and it’s easy to feel hopeless when confronted with its scale. On a personal level, I’ve long since graduated from severe eco-anxiety and now find myself teetering on the cliff of abject climate despair. I don’t think we’re going to be able to fix this, but we can’t choose to do nothing and watch the world implode around us. With that in mind, here are five things we can implement immediately that might just make a difference.

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Small victories

In ten years of growing food, this is by far the most challenging season we’ve ever experienced. Between punishing hail, voracious deer, late snows, devastating winds, crafty rodents and ten million grasshoppers (I’m certain the locusts are on their way), we feel we’ve taken everything the world can throw at new farmers. We might be down, we might be bruised, but we’re not out yet. And in that spirit, how about we count up some wins?

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Thanks, sunflowers, for cheering us on with your bright faces.

Our farm is awash in sunflowers right now, not one of which we planted. They weren’t here last year when we moved in (historic drought?), but we’re so glad to see them this year. Hopefully they’ll continue to self-seed and their cheerful countenances will be part of every summer here.

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Farm update: May 6

It’s been mostly cool and rainy this week. We’re of course grateful for the moisture and lower temperatures, which might keep our snowpack in place longer, but the weather has literally put a damper on our excavator plans. Never mind, though; there are always plenty of other things to do!

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A male black-chinned hummingbird getting its sugar fix.

One of our most successful ventures recently has been installing hummingbird feeders around our house. We’ve been utterly astounded at the sheer number of hummingbirds that have appeared, including both the black-chinned and broad-tailed varieties. They’ve apparently informed all their friends that the bar is open!

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Farm update: April 29

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Spring is truly here and the Quiet Farm project list expands daily! The weather has been unusually warm, so much so that everyone is concerned about our wonderful mesa snowpack melting too quickly and flooding the creeks. This sunny (and windy) week alone, we received deliveries of soil, lumber, fencing and concrete. We hauled railroad ties, hefted 80-pound bags of Quikrete, wheelbarrowed soil, hammered in T-posts and more. Our farm muscles are coming along nicely, and we’re trying hard to remember to apply sunscreen and drink enough water. When people say farming is hard work, they aren’t kidding – especially when you don’t yet own a tractor.

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