Why the Fly

Flies: the swarming associates of death, decay, and stinking piles of poo.

The Lord in His wisdom made the fly,
And then forgot to tell us why.
~ Ogden Nash

And yet we’ve decided to purchase 5,000 Bluebottle flies for the farm.

The isolation cage

The isolation cage

We just recently set up an isolation cage: a large metal frame covered by very fine mesh. The cage covers carrots and some other crops to prevent undesirable cross-pollination from pollinating insects. Why? Because carrots can easily cross with Queen Anne’s Lace – a wild carrot – and produce seeds that will grow into who-knows-what when planted in the future. Not cool. And the same is true for the other crops: they could cross in ways that would make their seed unreliable.

But carrots – and the other crops – still need to cross-pollinate with each other to produce seed. And they rely on insects to accomplish this. If we want to get any seed at all, we have to fill the cage with insects that will get the work done.

Hence the 5,000 Bluebottle flies.

Flies are incidental pollinators: they just like to sit on stuff and, as they buzz about sitting on different plants, they transfer pollen. Bees, on the other hand, are intentional pollinators: they’re actually moving from flower to flower looking for pollen. Why flies and not bees in the cage? Flies are way easier to manage.

I don’t know if this is what God had in mind when he made the fly. But it works for us.

Biennials

Matt Kelly, boonieadjacent.com

Biennials are crops that take two years to reproduce.

Which means you need to exercise a bit of fore-thought and planning when it comes to growing your own seeds for things like cabbage, carrots, and onions.

Biennial crops grow vegetatively during their first season. They store lots of carbohydrates in their leaves, roots, or bulbs respectively. Which is why these parts of the plants taste so good. Of course, if our plates don’t get in the way, these stores of carbohydrates will be used as food for seed in the second season. The plants want to produce as much seed as possible, as quickly as possible.

The key to seed production in the second year is vernalization: a period of cold temperatures that will prompt flower development. In the natural cycle of things, this period of cold is technically called Winter. In the more contrived process of a seed farm, the period is called a walk-in cooler.

Calibos cabbage

Calibos cabbage

At the end of last season, we harvested Calibos cabbage, Dragon carrots, and Rossa di Milano onions with our friends and collaborators at Blue Heron Farm. We packed the vegetables securely in clean sawdust and over-wintered them in the cooler at Blue Heron. Harvesting and storing the crops – instead of just leaving them in the ground – serves two important purposes.

First, we can be certain that the crops will be safe and secure for the second season. Leave them in the ground as Nature would do it and you run the risk of loosing your crops to rot, rodents, or other uncontrollable factors.

In the ground and ready for their second season.

In the ground and ready for their second season.

Second, pulling these vegetables out of the ground let us make an initial round of selections for color, shape, and size. There’s absolutely no reason to put time or energy into saving vegetables we don’t want to reproduce the following season.

When we pulled the crops out of the cooler early this spring, there was a second round of selection. The only crops going into the ground are those in excellent condition. How the cabbage, carrots, and onions looked on the outside was important: good color and no rot. But looking inside was important too, so we cut open the onions and carrots. We were looking for onions with only a single growing point and carrots with the most robust color of orange. Cutting open the carrot also let us do the all-important taste test.

Admittedly, it feels weird to cut open plants that you plan to put in the soil. But there are some counter intuitive benefits. Cutting away the leaves of the cabbage make it easier for the apical bud to emerge and grow. The same is true for cutting an onion in half and planting the round bottom portion. Cutting the tip off a carrot at a diagonal allows for better contact with the soil. And one more taste test before planting.

Biennials are crops that take two years to reproduce. Which means we’re only half way to our intended goal. But so far, so good.

We’ll see what these particular vegetables still have to teach us this season.

Matt Kelly, boonieadjacent.com

Back at it

Lacinato kale

Lacinato kale

First day back at the farm. First day back in the soil.

It was a full day in the hoop house. Spinach and kale have been growing all winter, becoming bigger, bolder and more lush than we anticipated. But so had the weeds.

So we spent the day working the scuffle hoe along the hilled sides of beds, up and down along the paths between them. We spent the day on hands and knees, scuffling the triangular blade of a hand hoe around the plants. Driving fingers into the soil to grasp and pull the roots of stubborn weeds.

Then we moved on to thinning and rogueing. The greens haven’t suffered much attrition from the cold and remain packed almost as tight as they were sown. But there are signs of rot. The greens need space for air to move, for moisture to evaporate, for the strong to expand. We pull plants with damage; we remove plants that aren’t showing the traits we want. We pull perfectly good plants just to create breathing space where necessary.

Everything is tossed into a yellow bin. To be tossed into salads and scrambled eggs and other savory dishes at some later time. These plants still have purpose.

In the middle of summer, this kind of work will be met with groans. It will feel like punishment. But right now, as we all strain to make it through these last waning days of winter, any reason to be down close to the bare, warm earth with hands deep is absolutely welcome.

It is the perfect task.

Matt Kelly, boonieadjacent.com

Way too much to learn

Scoops for the seeds.

Scoops for the seeds.

“Have you seen those giant white lima beans?” asks Jeremiah.

“Yes!” replies Petra with her always-abundant enthusiasm. “Phaseolus lunatus.”

“Right,” says Jeremiah. He’s sticking labels on empty seed packets. “Just like watermelon.”

There’s a semi-awkward silence in the warehouse as we all collectively wonder: “Just like watermelon?” What?

“The species name,” Jeremiah says. “Lima bean is phaseolus lunatus. Watermelon is citrillus lunatus.”

Lanatus,” says Petra in gentle correction. “Citrullus lanatus. Lana not luna.”

“Really?” Jeremiah looks up from the packets. “I thought it was lunatus because a watermelon is shaped like the moon.”

Technically, lunatus is Latin for “crescent-shaped”; lanatus means “wooly”. Not sure what being wooly has to do with watermelons. But I’m not about to interrupt these two farmers with what Google Translate has to say.

Way too much to learn from just listening to them talk.

Our days on the farm are now spent indoors; in the windowless, low-ceiling, concrete-walled warehouse. Marathon shifts of packing seeds with the utmost precision. On these days, the passage of time is marked by the movement of seeds and playlists of music.

And conversation.

Piles of packets, labeled and waiting.

Piles of packets, labeled and waiting.

The spirit of the grange – the old meeting place of farmers in earlier times – is alive and well on these winter days. We talk about farming, about seed and growing seed. We talk about favorite varieties and personal preferences. There is discussion about cows and sheep and chickens. And the best way to dispose of manures. The solution is to spread it back on your fields, of course. But chicken manure can still burn your tomato plants if applied straight to the base, even when dry. We talk of compost and how leaf compost could tie up nitrogen in the soil if applied before it’s properly decomposed. Worm castings make great compost. But, man, is it expensive.

“When I set up my worm composting in college, I called it the Comminution Café,” says Petra.

Comminution (noun): the action of reducing a material to minute particles or fragments.

Who knew?

“How did the Black Cocos turn out?” asks Jeremiah.

“Beautifully,” replies Petra with her always-abundant enthusiasm. “But they did run a little bit.”

“Really?”

Black Cocos are a bush bean. Not a runner , not a climber.

“They bushed out very nicely,” she continues, creating images in the air with her hands. “But then a plant would send out a little runner, like a little hand waving, ‘Hello, here I am.’”

“Well, black beans are like that,” replies Jeremiah, sticking labels on packets. “They can be a little runny.”

Who knew?

Way too much to learn.

Mustard seed.

Mustard seed.

Change of Pace

Matt Kelly, boonieadjacent.com

Seed cleaning is work that must be done by hand. No getting around it.

Winter is finally here. Snow covers the fields. Hollow winds blow through naked trees and across gray hillsides. A change of pace at the farm.

“We’ll get some down time,” says Matthew. “Like never.”

Now is when the true push begins to clean and package seed for the coming spring. Hours spent in the warehouse with screens and air columns, with scoops and dishes. With bag upon bag, bin upon bin full of seed.

There’s no quick and easy system to doing this. No matter how fancy the tools, seed cleaning is work that must be done by hand. You have to pay attention; you have to look at and listen to the seeds as they move through the process.

The change of pace in our work is from physical to mental; from days in the sun and breeze to artificial light and four walls. But the care and attention and hours of effort remain the same.

Air column: chaff and immature seed.

Air column: chaff and immature seed.

The air column makes it much easier to clean large volumes of small, light seed like lettuce. Load your seed into the column and send a continuous but carefully modulated blast of air through it. Just like using the box fans, the air column lets the heavier, mature seed to settle into one chamber while the lighter chaff and immature seed blow off into another.

But how strong to make the blast? There’s always some figuring out to be done. You don’t want good seed blowing off.

And before you can put the lettuce seed in the air column, you have to screen it all by hand. Do we use a 1/22 screen?

“I think 1/20 is better,” says Kim.

“Make sure you screen the Gentilina twice,” says Matthew. He’s looking closely at the seed we’ve done already, letting it fall from his fingers back into the tray.

You can only shake the screen so much before chaff starts to fall through with the seed. But there’s seed still left in the screen. So do it twice. All four varieties of lettuce seed, each a slightly different size and shape.

We’ve got a Dodder Mill for the beans. A wooden box with two adjacent rollers inside, set at a gentle slope from one end to the other. Crank the rollers and pour beans in the narrow crease between them; whole beans will roll smoothly along the crease and out a hole at the far end; broken beans and bits of chaff get bounced along the rollers and eventually into the bottom of the mill.

At least, that’s the idea.

We’re still getting broken beans falling out the end. We change the speed of the spin. We change the speed of the pour. We change the height of the pour.

“There’s less cracked beans falling out,” says Petra. She’s got her hands cupped under the hole, above the bin catching the beans. She’s slowing the fall of the beans and looking at every one.

“We’re getting whole beans in the bottom of the box,” says Kim, showing us the tray.

We’re thoughtful about this for a moment. Is it worth the time and effort to get every single good bean in the bin?

“If we get ninety percent of the whole beans, that’s good,” says Matthew.

It’s an eyeball measurement. An educated judgment call.

But even with the perfect spin and pour, the mill is still letting cracked beans fall into the bin. It’s not a perfectly clean batch.

“Maybe we should skip the mill and just clean all the beans by hand,” says Matthew. He means sorting through a ten-gallon bin of beans by hand, picking out the broken pieces and chaff. It’s an option but not a favorite one.

Maybe we should decide by bean.

Cleaning Gold Rush beans by hand.

Cleaning Gold Rush beans by hand.

Uncle Willie’s gets mostly clean with the mill, making the hand-picking much easier. But Supermarconi is such a big bean, it’s more effective to clean it all by hand without the mill.

And in the process of picking through the Gold Rush beans, we find the mutants. Variations from the rest. Same size but completely different coloration. Maybe from cross pollination?

“I think a cross is unlikely,” says Petra. “Self-pollinated varieties like beans are more likely to have variation from inbreeding. Not crossing.”

“Let’s save them,” says Matthew. “We can grow them out and see what they give us.”

Work that must be done by hand. No machine would have noticed these variations. No machine would have appreciated them.

Churning out seeds

Processing Goose Egg eggplants. Not a lemon.

Processing Goose Egg eggplants. Not a lemon.

Today we removed seed from eggplants, Goose Egg and Violetta Lunga varieties.

This is not an easy thing to do by hand, not like peppers or tomatoes. The eggplant seeds are tiny and imbedded in the thick flesh. Could you do it manually? Sure. Is a mechanical process better for efficiency and sanity? Oh yes.

As long as it doesn’t damage the seed in the process.

This is the key consideration when harvesting any type of seed. And you just have to pay attention when getting creative.

Seeds can be incredibly durable when mature. This is actually one way we tell the difference between mature and immature seeds with eggplants. Mature eggplant seed is rock hard when pinched between two fingernails; immature seed is soft, dents easily, and often pops like a little zit.

But mature dry beans are incredibly durable, too. And it required a bit of trial and error to keep them from getting cracked and damaged when threshing with the wood chipper. One batch of Orcas went through beautifully. But the next batch of the very same bean got beat up really bad; we had to adjust the chipper in terms of speed and time-in-the-flails to minimize the damage.

To get the seed out of the eggplants we used a little hand-cranked food mill. Absolutely nothing fancy. And it took a fair bit of jiggering to figure out the best way to use the thing. But once we had a system down, it made short work of the eggplant. No damage at all to the seeds.

The resulting heap of eggplant pulp was dumped in a bucket of water, letting the mature seed sink, and pouring off the rest. Just like with peppers and tomatoes.

The hand-cranked food mill is one of many creative solutions we’ve used to efficiently extract seed. And just another example of the cool shit we get to do on a small seed farm. Some more cool shit for your consideration:

Red Russian Kale and the truck

 

Squash and the wood splitter

 

Sunflowers and the wood chipper

 

Gypsy Seeds

Black Garbanzo, Orca, and Scarlet Runner beans.

Black Garbanzo, Orca, and Scarlet Runner beans.

The end of another day on the farm. I arrive home and empty my pockets: keys, knife, wallet, phone.

And seeds.

Cupped in my hand is a little collection of beans that had found their way into my pocket throughout the day.

A diverse little group. Individual beans that had gotten mixed in with others of a completely different sort. Threshing with the wood chipper makes easy work of beans. But things get stuck in nooks and crevices, get spit out with a completely different batch. You suddenly find a bright purple Scarlet Runner mixed in with the sea of Black Cocos lying on the tarp.

I picked up these gypsy beans as I found them. Put them in my pocket in the haste of the work we were doing. Keeping the current batch clean and wholly intending to return each gypsy to it’s own.

But being gypsies they continued to wander, disappearing into the very bottom my pocket. Not to be found until I got home.

Which is what seeds do.

Seeds are meant to travel. They’re meant to spread and put down roots in a completely different location from where they originally grew. Caught up in fur and hair and between toes. Eaten and later returned to the ground in a pile of poop. Blown free of their pod and carried away on the breeze. Seeds must spread to thrive. They can’t all drop from their parent plant and grow in the exact same spot. Nature got this figured out for plants a long time.

And at some point, we animals got involved. We became an effective mode of transportation for seeds. Often willingly and to our own benefit.

That’s really all the farm is: just another mode of animal-based transportation. We grow seeds in one location and share them with home gardeners to plant in another. Not exactly how we’d describe the business; not exactly what gardeners are thinking when they buy.

But animal participation was never about thoughtful consideration for the seeds’ need to travel. It just happened. It was all about the animal: like the fruit, eat the fruit, and poop out the seeds later.

Like the flower, grow the flower, and sell the seeds. Like the flower, buy the seeds, and plant them later.

Exactly what the seeds need. Sneaky.

Just like the beans in my pocket. They made it from the farm to my home. I’ll save them and plant them next season. Or if I decide not to put them in the ground, they’ll be tossed into the compost pile or out into the woods, both places where they could take root. Even if they go into the garbage, the beans will end up in a landfill. Eventually taking root?

Very sneaky.

To keep seeds from doing what they do, you’d have to want to stop them. You’d have to make a focused, purposeful effort to prevent seeds from spreading. Which would be just another exercise in human folly and hubris. But try if you want.

Nature’s got it all figured out. And Nature always wins.