What in the world am I doing?

It’s the end of August, and another summer not living on a farm is almost gone. In April we “moved to town,” and I tried to figure out how that could be a step in the right direction. Although our chickens are living on someone else’s farm and my neighbors are less than 100 feet away all around us, I do feel closer to realizing my farm dream. Since March I have been working for Barefoot Gardens, a small market garden within the borough limits of Doylestown, PA. Eric and Linda grow vegetables for the Farmer’s Market, a local food distributor and at least one restaurant. They grow everything from roots, to greens, to herbs, and flowers. Linda operates a small herbal shop in town where she is able to offer her clients medical advice as well as homegrown herbs and remedies.

Starting in March gave me an opportunity to see the growing season from the very start. I spent my first few weeks freezing my rump in the unheated greenhouse, seeding most of what we would be growing throughout the season. Lettuce, onions, and kale, and eventually tomatoes, peppers and eggplant. My fingers were numb, but all that quiet, one-on-one time allowed me to ask 100s of questions. Why this variety and not another? Why seed into this size tray and not the bigger one? How do you know when to transplant? Why a market-based CSA this year? On an on it went, for days, weeks!

In April and May we spent more time seeding and some time transplanting those little seedlings to the field. My first few beds were terrible, due to my inexperience, of course, but also the age of the seedlings. Many farmers experienced the same long, cool, wet spring we had, so getting transplants into the ground was often a race against the rain. My little Cauliflowers, Broccolis and Kohlrabis were too small to transplant into the 6-inch holes our transplanter made. Fortunately, my teacher was very patient and encouraging, and even though the Cauliflower and Broccoli were overcome by weeds and never harvested (!!!), the Kohlrabi was a huge success at market. As we started transplanting lettuce {1-inch blocks of soil}, we realized the 6-inch holes {filled with water} were just not going to work. So we devised a quick-fix out in the field. We raised the transplanter wheels so they wouldn’t pierce the ground, but we kept the water turned on. As we drove down the beds, the water trickled along and I was able to plug the tiny lettuces into the soil very easily. This method also allowed us to plant at a little closer spacing – we used 4″ spacing on one variety! I wouldn’t recommend that going forward though: our weeding tools were too wide to fit between the heads of lettuce. Depending on your tools, I wouldn’t recommend anything closer than 6″. The soil does have to be pretty soft to make that work effectively too – we tried in rain packed soil and were nearly breaking our fingers!

In June it was time to start harvesting. And weeding. And harvesting. And weeding. Luckily our crew grew from 2 to 6 people so all that work was spread out just a little. Our ages range from a freshman in college to a university english professor, and we have a great time together. I learned more about managing farm employees, managing the workload, and what a hot, humid summer can do to your plants – or rather your WEEDS! I got to pound 6-foot tomato stakes into the ground in 90+ degree weather. And then I got to see what happens when you don’t have time to string up those tomatoes! Harvesting from plants that are not trellised is my number one mistake to watch out for in the Owl Moon Farms Garden.

When the Farmer’s Market started I was responsible for posting the week’s Harvest List on the farm’s Facebook page. Posting the list on Thursday or Friday let the CSA customers know what to expect at market, and allowed them to plan to arrive early if necessary. One downside of a Market-based CSA is that your members are competing with the other market goers for the best selection of produce. Our market opens at 7am, so unless you’re a really early bird, you might miss something like Asparagus or Strawberries or even Lettuce which often sold out by 9:30am. We talked about putting out half of the veggies at 7 and half later, but that never really happened. Our market stand was always one of the busiest and we just didn’t have time to make a run back to the farm.

My other responsibility during the market season was to find, format and provide recipes for one or two veggies that were new to the stand. Many CSAs do something like this throughout their harvest season, either through a weekly newsletter {emailed or included in the share box}. With such a small team, Barefoot Gardens doesn’t have a history of consistent communication with CSA members, so if recipes were going to happen, I had to print them and bring them myself. Luckily, customers seemed to really appreciate it – especially if they hadn’t seen a particular vegetable before. “Oh, these are Fava Beans?!?! How should I cook them??” “Why, here’s a recipe to try!” I did Kohlrabi, Asparagus, Kale, Zucchini, Squash Blossoms and more.

So, even though I don’t live on my own farm yet, I’ve finally become a farmer, and it feels great. I’ve been seeding, planting, growing, harvesting, weeding, and composting two days a week since March and I feel confident that I could handle a fairly large garden plot.

What’s in season in August? Okra!

Okra, native to Africa and a beautiful relative of hibiscus, was brought to North America in the 1600s. This tropical plant quickly became popular in the Deep South both as a side dish and as a thickening for gumbo and stews. It can, however, thrive in any climate where corn will grow. Depending on the cultivar, the large-flowered, fast-growing plants reach 2 to 6 feet tall. Varieties with colorful stems and leaves, such as ‘Burgundy’, make attractive garden borders.

Thinking about growing okra in your garden?

Planting
Okra needs full sun. It will grow in ordinary garden soil but does best in fertile loam, particularly where a nitrogen-fixing crop, such as early peas, grew previously.

In short-season areas, start plants indoors 6 weeks before setting them out (3 to 4 weeks after the last frost date). Sow two seeds per peat pot and clip off the weaker seedling.

When seeding okra directly in the ground, wait until after the soil has warmed and the air temperature is at least 60F. Use fresh seed, and soak it overnight or nick each seed coat with a file to encourage germination. Sow seed ½ inch deep in light soil and 1 inch deep in heavy soil; spacing is 3 inches apart in rows 3 feet apart. Thin seedlings to 18 to 24 inches apart, always leaving the strongest of the young plants.

Growing Guidelines
When okra in 4 inches tall, mulch to keep out weeds ad conserve moisture. Water during dry spells. Every 3 to 4 weeks, side-dress with compost or feed with compost tea. In areas with long, hot summers, cut the plants back almost to ground level in midsummer to fertilize to produce a second crop.

Problems
Okra seldom succumbs to pests or diseases. Hand-pick any stinkbugs that appear; these light green, shield-shaped bugs cause misshapen pods. Fusarium wilt, a soilborne disease, is sometimes a problem in hot regions. If the disease causes leaves to yellow and wilt, pull and destroy affected plants. Crop rotation is the best preventive measure.

Harvesting
About 50 to 60 days after planting, edible pods will start to appear. They are tough when mature, so harvest daily with a sharp knife when they are no more than finger sized and when stems are still tender and easy to cut. Pick frequently and the plants will keep producing until killed by frost. Be sure to remove and compost any mature pods you might have missed earlier.
Many people find their skin is sensitive to the pods’ prickly spines, so wear gloves and long sleeves when harvesting, or plant a spineless variety such as ‘Clemson Spineless.’

Source: www.organicgardening.com

Need a recipe?

I made this last summer with over-ripe, tough fruit and it was still yummy! I will be trying it again this summer with the fresh, tender fruit and expect an even better result.

Pickled Okra
a canning recipe from Food in Jars, Marisa McClellan

Ingredients
3 cups apple cider vinegar
3 tablespoons pickling salt
4 lemon slices
4 Tablespoons Pickling Spice, divided
2 pounds okra, washed and trimmed
4 garlic cloves, peeled

Directions

  1. Prepare a boiling water bath and 4 regular-mouth 1-pint jars.
  2. Combine the vinegar, 3 cups water, and pickling salt in a pot and bring the brine to a boil.
  3. Meanwhile, put a lemon slice and 1 tablespoon pickling spice in the bottom of each sterilized jar. Then pack the okra in, first laying them in so that the points are up. Then insert another layer with the points down, so that they interlock. Nestle 1 garlic clove among the okra in each jar.
  4. Slowly pour the hot brine over the okra in each jar, leaving ½-inch headspace. Gently tap the jars on a towel-lined countertop to help loosen any bubbles before using a wooden chopstick to dislodge any remaining bubbles. Check the headspace again and add more brine if necessary.
  5. Wipe the rims, apply the lids and rings, and process in a boiling water bath for 10 minutes.
  6. Let the pickles cure for at least 1 week before eating.

Sheep

Among the other crazy things I hope to do on our little farm, sheep are up there in the Top 5. Of course we’ll have a garden, and our laying hens, and Ladies Homestead Gatherings, but what our homestead really needs is livestock. And I think our first one will be sheep.

Sheep are beautiful. Sheep scream “FARM!” And sheep make WOOL and since I’m a knitter, it only seems logical that I would have sheep, right? No, I don’t have a spinning wheel, nor have I ever sheared a sheep or carded a fleece, but I am 100% confident that I could and so, I am determined.

Where to start?

One of the cornerstones of our farming philosophy is to choose animals that are considered “heritage” breeds; those bred by farmers before the drastic mono-culturization of our current food and fiber system. So the first thing I did was check the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy for their list of endangered breeds. The ALBC’s Mission is to :

{Ensure} the future of agriculture through the genetic conservation and promotion of endangered breeds of livestock and poultry.

Under sheep, they have the following breeds listed as Critical:
Florida Cracker
Gulf Coast or Gulf Coast Native 
Hog Island
Leicester Longwool
Romeldale/CVM
Santa Cruz

And the following listed as Threatened:
Black Welsh Mountain
Clun Forest
Cotswold
Dorset Horn
Jacob – American
Karakul – American
Navajo-Churro
St. Croix

Romeldale/CVM Sheep Mama and twins

Romeldale/CVM Mama & Twins

I read through the descriptions of the various breeds, focusing mainly on those on the Critical list. The folks at Colonial Williamsburg maintain a breeding flock of Leicester Longwool and the Hog Island is native to a small island off the coast of Virginia, so those two were considered finalists. But the winner, at this point in time, is the Romeldale/CVM. I am attracted to this breed because the animals come in a variety of colors, because the dams are said to be good mothers, and because “the breed’s fleece quality and performance characteristics…make them useful for many production systems and valuable to handspinners and other fiber artists.”

Ok, so I chose my starting breed. Now I have so many questions!

  • Will I have success selling the fleece?
  • Should I consider selling the lambs for meat?
  • How many animals should I start with?
  • What kind of fencing will I need?
  • Should I keep a ram?
  • What about Livestock Guardian Dogs {aka, LGDs}?

I have really enjoyed reading Storey’s Guide to Raising Sheep which is a wonderful resource for new and experienced shepherds. But, even better; I was fortunate to come across Alison Waddel of Phoenix Farm Fiber in South Carolina through www.LocalHarvest.org. Alison has a profile on that website which directs people to her farm, plus she is able to sell roving and other fiber right there as well. To supplement what she sells through Local Harvest, Alison maintains an internet store on Etsy where she sells fiber from her Romeldale/CVM sheep and mohair goats as well as upcycled / recycled products, soaps, and other neat things. So naturally, I emailed her! I introduced myself and mentioned that I was interested in keeping Romeldale/CVM sheep and did she have any advice or suggestions. She responded quickly and thoroughly and for the past week has been answering innumerable questions from me. The ones listed above barely scratch the surface, but here are the answers I’ve come up with, with Alison’s professional guidance:

  • Yes
  • Yes
  • 4-6
  • 2×4 No Climb Fencing around the perimeter to contain dogs and baby lambs + our poultry netting surrounding the chickens within the sheep’s paddock.
  • Yes
  • Alison recommends Great Pyrenees. My plan is to have one {trained female???} LGD as soon as we get our sheep.

I am so grateful for making a long-distance shepherd friend already, and look forward to my opportunity to Pay it Forward very soon. Thanks, Alison!

** Internship Update – Unfortunately, the Howell Living History Farm has decided not to take any new interns this fall, so I will not be learning to drive a horse team in Lambertville, New Jersey. BUT, recently I came across a gentleman just 30 minutes or so from me who works his horses in the fall for wagon rides and parades and he has offered to teach he what he can. I spoke with Greg today and hope to spend some time with him and his pair of Belgians very, very soon. I’ll keep you posted!