Thursday, May 19, 2016

It's All About the Dirt - Part 3

Winter peas add nitrogen (see small nodules), and much needed organic matter to the soil. Also, decomposing mulch slowly breaking down to further add om to the soil. Note the color is getting better, and you can see the sand particles if you look closely.
So I promised you all an update on my soil’s recovery. I’ve not pulled soil for another test yet, in part because I’m pretty sure it’s about the same, despite the fact that I’ve applied all of the suggested amendments. That’s right. At least in the nitrogen department, I can see from looking at the non-native plants growing, that’s all of the veggies, that they still lack this basic nutrient in many of the beds.

A winter squash plant showing signs of N deficiency.
The problem with Nitrogen is that it is water soluble, meaning if it rains and there’s not enough organic matter in the soil for it to cling to, it will simply wash out. This is proving true with many of the artificially applied nutrients, I imagine, though I have not yet confirmed. It has to do with ionic charges - a subject I studied, but could never effectively explain it without looking it up. So here is a brief explanation. I do know that sand's CEC is very low and only one of the many reasons to build up organic matter.
Tomatoes growing in some of the most improved beds show good color and fruit.

Remember, I’m growing in the equivalent to a box of marbles – sand. According to the soil test done last Dec., on a scale of 1 to 8, 8 being most clay and 1 being most sand, my soil scored a -5. Just kidding. It scored a 1. That's as low as you can get.

But the good news is that according to the NRCS, before all of the horses over-grazed and prior land owners neglected this land, it was considered “prime farmland”. So I have every hope that it will be restored from its current desertification status back to prime farmland and a sandy loam texture that produces abundantly.

I am seeing improvements in many areas from the time I was able to start really spreading compost out on the beds with the loader. Some of the earth smells like fresh forest soil, the way it should smell.  And I can see small particles of organic matter in the color changed soil – no longer brown, sandy but a darker, “dirtier” color – you know, like soil! But in other beds, it seems the compost was just sucked into a black hole. It's as if I never added a thing.
With the spring’s heavy rains, I am sure a lot of what was applied in December has since long washed/leached away again in the areas that remain predominately sand. I hope to be able to take more individualized soil tests this spring instead of combining soil into one test – this can get costly if you run full spectrum tests and do so for several areas – (so please commit to joining our CSA for this fall, that’s the sort of thing your membership pays for!). 

Until then, I need to do continuous foliar applications of fish or a poultry manure based fertilizer to keep the N up for the plants to grow throughout the summer months. I add compost tea that I make from my finished compost piles which adds microbes and bacterial, other very necessary components to breaking down the nutrients in the soil, to make them available to the plants.

And while I’ve been advised to use everything from plain sugar, worm casting tea to sea salt, use more mulch, less mulch no mulch, etc.,; I honestly don’t think there is one silver bullet to fixing tired soils. I'm using a little bit of all of these methods but 
if we look back to farming of the old days, they used what they had most available on the farm – manure and plant debris. And achieving sustainability means utilizing the means of the farm, as much as possible; reducing and even eliminating the purchase of inputs from outside sources.

After the chickens have pilfered through these scraps, the pile will be turned under
 I have access to both manure and plant debris. Of course, it just takes time – compost happens – gradually. And thanks to the new loader, I’m making more and more piles of compost out of the piles of dumped wood shavings and horse, chicken and sheep manure from the farm. I also add vegetable scraps, like those I received and talked about last blog post from the Dave Matthews Band’s tour.

I used to collect leaves by the pick up truck bed-full, although with the theft of our nice shredder/chipper, this isn’t as efficient any more because they break down much better when cut/chopped up. Running them over with the brush-hog scatters them out a lot more than when you run them through the shredder into an enclosed area where they can be scooped up and added to the compost pile. (I'll still take your bags of leaves though! They are still good to add to the compost.)

I’ve also added a manure spreader to our farm’s wish list for this fall's Chefs for Farmers' event. The fine folks at CFF said that they’ll make note of this item for this fall’s big shindig in which they're compiling wish lists for the farmers attending. I hope they can raise enough for a spreader! That would be such a big help in spreading compost out on the beds. A lot less labor on my part.

For now, I use a small lawn tractor trailer attached to the back of the tractor and a shovel and a rake to dump from the trailer and then spread out sifted compost onto the soil. When I’m spreading out just on top of the soil layers, I use the loader with the chunkier compost and then lightly rake it in with the disk where it can be over-seeded with a cover crop and break down over a season.

I’m getting pretty good at using the disk with a light touch, instead of digging it into the soil as when one is breaking up grasses or new beds. Not adding raw mulch is key because it will compete with the plant materials for available N to break down. As seen here in the garlic where it's been planted directly into a deeply mulched row as part of an ongoing research bed, testing the technique of one of my colleagues.
Feed me Seymour! Nitrogen based foliar feedings are done weekly and still the plants lack color and size for this time of the year.

So, that’s a basic update! Slow but steady - that's how topsoil is made!

Until next time -

Eat Your Food - Naturally!


Monday, May 16, 2016

Farm to Stage with Local Farms & the Dave Matthews Band

If you’re a Dave Matthews Band fan, here’s another thing to add to your list of reasons. 

Local Farmers! 

DMB teams up with Reverb and Dega Catering to “green” their tour in several ways, including reaching out to local small farms in each of their tour stops around the country. This can be a great opportunity for small farmers who often have a limited market audience and surely a good thing for the crew on the road’s diet. No fast food meal plan for these folks!

However, as a farmer myself, a market manager and longtime member of TOFGA, (Texas Organic Farmers and Gardeners Assoc.), I am all too familiar with how difficult it can be for farmers who live on the far outskirts of the city to be able to participate, due to communication and time constraint issues. 

Often, according to Chef Rob White, the tour’s current chef, not all farmers are very well connected or accessible and are hard to reach. Many are without even email or reliable cell phone connections which can make coordination on such a tight schedule a formidable challenge. Add to that the window of time to deliver the produce to the venue, and many farmers just cannot make that extra trip due to time constraints. 

For the past several years, after Reverb’s initial heads up type contact with me, Chef Fiona Bohane has reached out as the band approached their Dallas stop, to see what would be available. With several farmers and ranchers participating in Market Day at Eden’s, I was able to offer her a nice selection of produce and grass fed meats. Fiona is home loving on her new baby girl this year, but Rob White, back from a 5 month break, has taken over the tour with many of the same support staff.

This year after I got that first call from Reverb’s Paige Roth, I knew with producers' production at Eden’s Market Day low this spring, (due to various factors), and my soil still in recovery mode from all of last year's flooding, as well, I would need to reach out beyond my initial contacts to be able to provide a rounded list and found 9 other farms growing a nice range of produce who agreed to participate. 

From East Texas to west of Weatherford, Chef Rob chose from a list of winter kale and root crops to early spring peaches and even bi-color corn! “This is by far the best stop, so far, on the tour!” Rob said, adding that having someone to help coordinate so many farmers ahead of time for him, was a big added bonus. (After checking their tour schedule, I see that Dallas is only the 3rd stop so far, but we’ll take the compliment! LOL)

Being located so close to downtown Dallas and center point between east and west DFW helps me to be able to do this without too much driving or interruption of my work schedule. I was able to meet farmers part way in some cases or early at the downtown DFM, a 5-minute drive from the final venue. 

I enjoy the interaction with my peers, I’m always learning – and amazed – at what they’re growing and how they are doing it. And I love to help shine the spotlight on fellow hardworking farmers who don’t always take the time to toot their own horns – well deservedly! 

Quite the array of produce - half of what Chef needed for dinner!
I mean, it’s only early May in North Texas and Farmer Bev of Cold Springs Farm CSA is harvesting sweet corn, Farmer Ken down at Larken Farm has hordes of flavorful, ripe peaches and Farmer Doug from Grow it Forward in Edom is pulling in summer squash!  Farmer Megan and her father Jack up in McKinney pulled the prettiest and most delicious order of multi-colored carrots; the order for which the chef was grateful for having been too late to cancel, he said. Beautiful and delicious!

Rosey Ridge Farm supplied butter, cream, homemade chow chow and early onions. And while even though some health issues have slowed things down at Farmer Jones’ place, beautiful garlic scapes and Farmer Rita’s ever abundant bucketful of beautiful assorted fresh herbs accompanied the rest of the produce, along with the cardoon, coriander and pea tendrils that came from Eden’s. The back of my truck always smells heavenly on the way to drop everything off.
Chef Rob sharpening a knife while kitchen funnyman, Sean Thomas, photo-bombs... This crew knows how to have fun!

Marissa & Sean - hands on deck as Chef zips by the wall of ovens - which will be broken down and loaded as soon as dinner is over
Dustin, Chef Rob & Marissa - talking chicken...

Quite the Menu - Note the use of Cardoons from Eden's on the Scallops - I missed trying that - but here's what they looked like...

Cardoon is pre-cooked, sliced & dipped in a special batter using soda water to create the bubbly effect when deep frying...yum!

Even the vegetarians eat great - tofu steaks w/Eat the Yard's yellow & red chard & mustard flowers, ramps from Cold Springs Farm topped with homemade chow chow from Rosey Ridge!

Chef Rob used product from nine area DFW producers!

Each dish described with the key ingredients
After turning out a gourmet quality meal, for the entire crew and band, buffet style and always a most beautiful spread that includes signage of contributing farm names and ingredients used, the kitchen crew breaks down the entire kitchen to be packed, loaded and transported to the next stop. All of the food scraps are gathered up, Reverb puts them into bio-degradable bags, hands over two tickets to the show and loads up the compost in my truck! Thanks Pati!

Free Breakfast!
The ride home doesn’t smell nearly as good as the ride in, but whatever the chickens won’t consume, gets turned into the compost piles and breaks down to help grow more great veggies - for next year’s tour! It’s a win-win for everyone, from the fans to the environment. 


Eat Your Food - Naturally!

Note; I was originally and incorrectly informed by someone on the tour, in passing, that Chef White had been a trainer of Chef Bohane. The correction has been made and I apologize for any confusion this may have caused. Obviously, not a reporter, or I'd have done better to check source details for accuracy. ;)  Thanks for your understanding to those affected.