Swale Update

 

100_8482We’ve had quite a bit of rain lately- giving us a chance to see our new swales in action.  Our previous post gave the skinny on our goals with the swales, if you are curious.  The seeds we spread are germinating, but don’t have substantial roots at all yet, so the swales are still vulnerable to breaching.  So far what we have learned is that the swales do indeed all fill up with enough consistent rain.  The flow has been spread and slowed quite a bit.  Unfortunately the water is also showing us where the true low points of each swale are, and they are not always where we intended for water to flow.  The main issue has been too much flow at the far end of the swales which culminates to the low point of the field where we happen to have our laying hens and piglets at the moment.  We moved the pig house to higher ground, so they can stay snuggly and dry.  We had hoped that the installation of the swales would eliminate that problem, but we still have some work to do.  When the rain finally stops we’ll evaluate where we need to beef up the berms and remove silt to make the system work better.  Perhaps we need more swales in the series to handle the amount of rain that collects in the valley during multiple rainy days.

Willow loves the swimming pools we created for her!

Willow loves the swimming pools we created for her!

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A surprising amount of silt build up in the second swale

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Earthworks for Water Harvesting

 

One end of our property has a stream bed that is dry almost all of the time, accept when we have heavy rains.  It is fed by uphill runoff and springs to some degree.  In 2010 heavy water flow, most likely increased by logging done uphill and off property started to cause erosion and extend the stream bed in a new path.  In 2011 a wet spring and the tropical storm Irene later that season tore a massive gully.  Since that time when we have had several inches of rain in a short duration more erosion has happened and the gully gets wider as the sides fall in.  The gully is headed out toward our lower field where we had hoped to continue rotating our animals for grazing and eventually have more garden space.  When flood water hits the field it carries a lot of sediment, floods certain sections of the field then rushes to the lowest point and off property where it does damage to a neighbor’s logging road.

Our soil is very sandy and well drained.  Generally when the rain stops, it is quickly absorbed and water logged soil is not an issue.  So, we hoped to find a solution to this flood/drought situation with a little earthwork.  Our intention was to decrease the erosive force of water entering the field by slowing it down, spreading it out, and giving it opportunity to soak in where we want to store it.  We had done some consultation with Mark Krawczyk of Keyline VT a couple of years ago.  He suggested trying to slow the water flow as high on the landscape as possible by creating step dams, which we have done to some degree over the years.  He also suggested digging swales on contour in the field.  We tried tackling this by hand and did dig two shorter swales by hand, but they did not connect to the water flow.  This spring we decided to step it up a notch and rent an excavator and hire Mark to lay out the swales and dig them.

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Swale is a term that can mean different things.  From the permaculture perspective it generally means a water harvesting ditch that is built on contour.   A swale is different than a ditch that is intended to carry water away as fast as possible off a property or away from something like a road.  Here is a good article that explains swales more in depth.  As water from the gully or from general rain runoff runs into each swale it will follow the low point along the contour and sink in under the berm.  If there is enough water to fill the swale, it will overflow at the spillway which is a lower place in one section of the berm.  It will then move onto the next swale.  We constructed a series of 4 swales with enough space in between to be able to graze animals and allow for mobile fencing and housing structures as needed.  Hopefully enough capacity is built into these swales to be able to diffuse the force of water in extreme weather events, and allow us to hold on to as much of that precious resource on site as possible.

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Mark brought his laser level, which makes finding contours very quick and easy. Here, Frey is starting to mark the next contour. A sensor on that post is reacting to the laser level and directs you by beeping if you are high, low or just right.

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We want to establish plants all over the swale and berm in order to hold the soil and make it more resilient. We immediately raked and seeded the swales with a mixture of perennial grasses, clovers, radishes, flowers, and some annual grasses and legumes.

100_8264100_8299Next spring we plan on planting trees all along the berms of these swales.  We still have some planning to do regarding what types of trees we choose, but they will most likely be a mix of fruit trees and bushes, nitrogen fixers, nuts, and some that can be chopped for mulch and forage.

We hope to have just the right amount of rain to germinate the seeds and get good plant cover growing before any testing of the swales happens.  We’ll keep you posted.

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Repurposing Bags for CSA Pick Up

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We’ve been saving our feed bags for some time now with the intention of transforming them into tote bags for our CSA members to pick up their shares in.  Last weekend with the help of my parents we actually made it happen.  I am not much of a sewer, so I needed the help and encouragement from my Mom to take on the project.  She also has a spacious room equipped with two sewing machines and good cutting mats that made the project go smoothly.  We are aiming to have enough bags to have two for each CSA member.  So each week members will need to bring back the previous week’s bag.  Hopefully that routine will be manageable for people.  We didn’t get all of the bags finished.  We tackled them in stages, assembly line style.  Mom generously offered to finish the rest.  Here are the instructions that we followed to make the bags.  We made a few adjustments, widening the base of the bag to 4″ and making the bags a little shorter.  I think they are pretty cute, and should be sturdy and washable for years to come.

It was really helpful to have all of us there to make the process work: the sewers, cutters, markers, and inside outers.  Thanks everyone!

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Mushroom Log Inoculation-Some Things We’ve Learned

100_8008We are excited to get started growing mushrooms this year.  We just finished inoculating a little over 100 logs with shiitake and oyster mushroom spawn.  Now the logs will sit in our woods and quietly do their thing.  We won’t know until 2016 if we have been successful or not.  We chose 100 logs as a number that seemed big enough to have more than our personal needs fulfilled, but not too risky or daunting for a first try.

There are many good sources of information out there with step by step instructions about doing outdoor log production of mushrooms.  We got a lot of inspiration and instruction from the new book Farming the Woods.  Rebecca also had the chance to do a full day workshop with Steve Gabriel (co author of the book) which was useful in picking up a few more tidbits of info that were not in the book.  Cornell Extension also has a you tube channel with many helpful videos about shiitake growing as well as other aspects of cultivating forest products here. We thought it might be more helpful for us to share some tid bits that we learned in this step of the process that might be useful to others just getting started in mushroom cultivation.

Logs

Though the most recommended type of logs for shiitake cultivation are oak or sugar maple, we chose to use primarily birch because that is what we have the most of on our property.  While the “Farming the Woods” book does not list white birch as a recommended species, that was one lucky piece of information garnered from the workshop.  Steve Gabriel said that should be updated in the book as he has since heard from several experienced shiitake growers that it works fine- so we went for it.

Logs need to be cut in the winter while the tree is dormant.  We didn’t start cutting the appropriate logs until there was at least 3 feet of snow on the ground.  100_7760We dragged the logs out of the woods by sled and it was a ton of work.  Next year we will cut logs earlier in the winter before we have lots of snow hopefully.

Shiitake Strains

There are different varieties of shiitake. Some will fruit in a wide range of temperatures, but need to be soaked in tub of water in order to stimulate the mushrooms to burst forth. Other varieties are not affected by soaking, but instead take their cues from temperature. We chose to start with two cold varieties and one wide range to have shiitakes throughout the season. Cold varieties can be grown on larger logs because they do not need to be soaked or moved around, which would be too heavy with logs over 6 inches in diameter. So, when choosing our logs we went with big ones for the cold varieties to save our backs, and they should also last longer. Also, when ordering all your materials, try to plan ahead a month in advance because it takes a few weeks to get your order delivered. We found out the hard way that you won’t get your order the next weekend!

Drilling the Logs 100_8013

Using an angle grinder is super duper way faster than a drill.  We got the appropriate sized drill bit and adapter as well as all of our spawn and materials from Field and Forest Products.  One thing we didn’t realize is that all angle grinders are not uniform in spindle size and therefore won’t work with the adapter.  We had borrowed one, then wasted a bunch of time trying to find an adapter piece.  We ended up just buying a new angle grinder in the end.  Probably a good thing to have anyway.  If you us the adapter that field and forest sells you will need a 5/8 ” spindle on your angle grinder.

Spawn Tools

We used sawdust spawn and the tools that are sold to shove it in all those little holes in the logs come in two styles.  100_8023One is smaller and can be depressed with your thumb, making it possible to work the tool with one hand so that the other hand can steady and rotate the log.  There is another style of the tool also sold by Field and Forest that is much harder to press and requires two hands (unless you have giant hands) which makes the process much harder, especially with wonky logs with little branch stubs that won’t lie flat.

Wax

Keeping wax at the right temperature proved more challenging than expected.  We had planned on using a crock pot to keep cans of wax melted but it didn’t get hot enough to do the job.  Next we tried melting cans of wax in the house and then running out with it to apply to the logs, but it really needs to stay on the heat or it starts gunking up fast and then you use way more than needed and your paint brush gets gummed up.  We found a two part solution.  100_8010We made a quick rocket stove out of fire bricks that we could have nearby to keep a large can of wax melted and hot. 100_8082 We then worked from little cans of wax that were kept warm over a candle (the invention of another friend trying out mushrooms for the first time).  We also found bristle brushes to work much better than foam brushes.  When a bristle brush gets gunky with cold wax you can dip it in the hot can of wax to melt (but not too long because you can burn the bristles right off, yes we did this).  If you dip the foam brush in the hot wax to degunk, it falls apart- not useful.

Also, in order for the wax to stick to logs they need to be dry, so bring them under cover a little in advance.

Tagging

To keep track of our varieties and inoculation years we stapled metal tags to the end of the logs.  You can buy aluminum tags from the supplier, but we chose to buy sheets of aluminum flashing, cut them into pieces, then scratch on the information with a pen.  Time will tell if the scratch remains legible.

Totems

Oyster mushrooms are supposed to grow well with the totem style of log inoculation where spawn in placed between chunks of log that are then stacked vertically.  We tried this with the Italian Oyster spawn we got.  One tip that we heard is not to cut your log chunks in advance and throw them all in a truck and move them to your location, because it is much harder than you think to line up the right chunks again.100_8017 We found that this method uses a lot more spawn than the plugging holes style.  Also, our logs did not want to stay vertical (perhaps if they were a little wider in diameter they would work better).  After a few of them fell over we added new spawn, then secured each layer with a couple of nails set in at an angle and then propped the totems up with other log chunks.  We plan on digging holes and setting the totems about 8 inches into the ground to secure them.  In retrospect it would probably be best to wait until the ground is thawed to do this process so the totems can be stabilized in the ground from the beginning.

Help

We invited the local Permaculture Group to help us inoculate logs, thinking that others would like to learn the process and that many hands would make the job easier.  We learned that achieving both goals of education and efficient production work are hard to do at once.  In the future we will probably choose to do either a workshop, or just focus on getting logs filled, so that there are clear expectations.  The process goes pretty smoothly with just the two of us- perhaps the addition of one other person if we were to do more logs at once would be the right number to keep all steps in a good rhythm.

We hope to have delicious mushrooms popping out of our logs in 2016.  I’m sure we will learn much more along the way and will share our lessons, successes, or failures in the future.100_8086

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Upcoming projects and new ventures

My blog posts have been sparse this winter.  Partially that’s due to the fact that it’s winter and there are less note able things happening to chronicle.  Also, this time of year we are spending a lot of time researching, planning and questioning all the ways that we want to improve, change and build upon the farm.  We have loads of new projects in mind, but none of them seem completely figured out at this point.  So, I felt like sharing a few of our goals, though they are not yet completely fleshed out.  We shared a similar post in 2014 with our plans for the year.  If you look back at it you’ll see some of last year’s goals that we are still working on, a few that we accomplished, and others that didn’t make the cut.

1. Our least tangible but most important goal is to continue to improve our soil and grow healthy abundant plants.  We’ve been through two cycles of soil sampling and application of a full spectrum of mineral amendments in an attempt to balance our soil.  Our emphasis is always on improving the structure of the soil, disturbing it the least possible, and providing lots of food for the soil biology.  We’d like to incorporate more live ground cover under crops and in pathways to help keep active relationships with all those microbes.  We have intention to do more monitoring of the brix levels of our growing crops and the soil conductivity throughout the growing season.

100_33492.  We’ve just finished cutting and hauling around 100 birch logs for inoculation with shiitake and oyster mushroom spawn.  Cultivating outdoor mushrooms is something we’ve always been interested in pursuing, and feels like it would be a nice addition to the diversity of crops we’ll have to offer.  We were also inspired by reading the new book and attending a workshop about Farming the Woods.

3.  Over the last few years we have hand dug quite a few swales.  Some of these were in our 100_4943lower field where there are sometimes problems with flooding and erosion if we have heavy rain events.  We’ve come to the conclusion that we need to bite the bullet and just establish a series of swales in that field with an excavator this spring.  The goal is to slow and sink any excess water from heavy rain events.  The plan is to follow contours and spread out the swales with enough distance between them to allow for grazing/moving animals between the swales which will eventually be planted with a variety of trees (hopefully by 2016).

4.  We’ll soon be launching a crowdfunding campaign to raise money to build a root cellar/passive cooler this summer.  If we are successful in raising enough money we plan on building an underground root cellar made from logs, in the style popularized by permaculturist Sepp Holzer in Austria.  We need more space for winter crop storage and would love to be able to offer winter CSA shares in the future.  As part of the design we want to include a way to freeze a large volume of ice in the winter that can be brought into or made in the root cellar that would slowly melt and keep the root cellar cool passively into the summer months.  Expect to hear much more about this in coming months!  These are some pictures that were posted at Permies.com of root cellars/animal shelters built by Sepp Holzer or his son Josef.

5.  With our first successful batch of meat birds under our belts in 2014, we are inspired to do two batches this year with a little modification of our housing system.  We plan on having a smaller flock of laying hens, mostly for our own use.  Instead of moving them weekly we may experiment with keeping them in one area but employing their skills in making compost.

We also want to try raising some ducks for meat.  After reading about others using ducks for slug control of mushroom log yards we are inspired to set up a duck yard near where we will be storing our mushrom logs.  The site will also be near other gardens and located above sites that could use the nutrient run off from the duck bedding and bath.  100_6039

We were thinking of starting to train a new pair of calves as a team of oxen this spring- but in looking at the length of our projects list we decided to put that goal off until 2016 when we can focus on it more.  After our first attempt at working with an ox, we want to make sure we have enough time to do a good job training and developing a respectful relationship with any draft animal from the start.

6.  Making an outdoor kitchen was on our list last year as well, but we would really like to make it happen.  We are thinking of making a barrel oven that can be used for both baking in and also making biochar in.  We’d love to have an outdoor oven for personal use, but also for CSA events, and possibly for having a weekly pizza night.  In this covered outdoor space we’d also like to have a rocket stove for cooking/canning on as well as workspace and gathering space- perhaps with strawbale cob benches.  We may host one or more workshops around this project.

7.  Last but not least, we will try out selling produce direct from the farm once or twice a week in the honor system farm stand style.  We are not sure there is enough traffic to make on farm sales worthwhile, but we’ll give it an experimental try.  It seems there are neighbors that don’t want to commit to a whole CSA share that might want to try some tomatoes, lettuce, sprouts, or a pint of raspberries.

What do you think?  Are we crazy, ambitious, misguided?  We always appreciate comments, feedback and suggestions.  Leave us a note here or stop by and chat.

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Sprout Power

Clover Sprouts in Jars

Clover Sprouts in Jars

As growers of sprouts and shoots we get a lot of requests for information about the nutritional qualities of our products.  As we are growers and not researchers, we can only pass along the information we have gathered from other websites and published studies.  Many of the easy to read charts such as this sprout-chart are compiled from web articles and information from others that sell sprouts.  I have basically looked for commonality in various articles to draw conclusions about the nutritional qualities of sprouts.  Though there may be variance in the exact vitamin and mineral levels in types of sprouts there seems to be agreement that sprouts are highly nutritious.  Somehow the potential of a seed gets unlocked and multiplied when it is in the early growth stage so that it has many times more vitamins, nutrients, and enzymes than either the seed or the mature plant it would become.  At the same time the carbohydrates are decreased and more protein made available.  Sprouts are also much more digestible than their raw or cooked seedy counterparts.  They are in essence little power houses that you can grow year round in a jar or tray of soil.

If you are interested in delving further into sprout nutrition here are a couple of links that are compilations of a lot more information:

Many articles and charts compiled by the Sprout People

Articles related to studies of specific constituents in sprouts

the USA also has a few nutrition tables for sprouts, but do not cover all the types we grow:  LentilRadishMungPeas

Regardless of their exact nutritional qualities, we know that having a bowl of sprouts and shoots that are fresh and alive in the heart of winter taste and feel like a good thing to be eating!

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The Many Gifts of a Pig

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Sprout and Ginger on a lovely fall day

 

There are many reasons why we raise pigs.  For one, they are fun to have around.  The pigs we raised this year were the sweetest and most patient we have experienced yet.  When walking out to feed them we were often greeted by pigs sitting on their rumps and making a low whining/grunting suggestion, a far cry from the usual screaming and carrying on we have heard from other pigs.

We rotate our pigs on pasture so that they have fresh grass weekly.  While they do turn over the soil and make holes and humps it seems like they are still improving the pasture.  We have a lot of stumps from softwoods that we cleared over the past 4 years that become older and more rotted and loosened with each year’s work from the pigs and chickens.  Pigs also eat the roots of a lot of perennial plants- it appears that the goldenrod population has decreased and desired grasses increased in land visited by the pigs.  Of course they also offer the gift of a lot of fertility, which is nicely dispersed in a pasture based setting.

As much as we enjoy the lives of the pigs we raise- we know that ultimately their purpose is to fill the freezer with tasty meat.  We choose to hire a professional to do on farm slaughtering because it seems the quickest and least stressful way for the pigs to go.  We also butcher at home because it is actually a fun time that we spend with family (though lots of greasy work).  Using the whole hog “nose to tail” is an old concept that is newly promoted by some current chefs and foodies.  To us, using the most that you can from an animal makes economic sense and feels more respectful of the life that was given.

We can not claim to literally use everything nose to tail.  We aren’t using the nose or tail, or skin, or most of the head (perhaps we’ll aspire toward those parts in the future).  We have gotten braver as the years pass and add a new experience to our repertoire annually.  We always make scrapple, sausage and lard.  Last year we tried Guanciale, which is a a dry cured meat made from the jowl or cheek of the pig.  The jowl is fatty and in many ways similar to pork belly.

our first successful Guanciale made in 2013

our first successful Guanciale made in 2013

The guanciale turned out great, it cured down to something that looked like concentrated bacon with loads of flavor.  With our first cured meat experience behind us, this year we are inspired to do more Guanciale, and also to experiment with dry cured bacon and Canadian Bacon.  Our fridge is full of marinating experiments.  We also saved the feet this year as we were inspired by a recipe for a slow cooked beef roast that called for a pig’s foot.  The feet are supposed to be delicious if cooked slowly and the collagen allowed to dissolve.  The final new discovery for the year is using cracklings in cooking.  Cracklings are the little meaty bits that are the left over by product of rendering lard.  We usually feed them to the chickens who greatly appreciate a little fat in the cold months.  This year I started nibbling on them and noticed that I was returning to the bowl for more.  They are tasty little niblets- we want to try adding them to cornbread, roasting them with root veggies, using them on top of a gratin, or throwing them into stews.  We’ll share some with the chickens and ducks too.  We’ll all be enjoying the many gifts of a pig through the cold months ahead.

Thank you Sprout and Ginger!

 

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