Saturday, April 30, 2011

Pictures with captions

Our garage-farm-office with self-serve-egg-refrigerator

The greenhouse and cold-frames in full swing!

The kitchen garden being built (we're going to use it to grow lettuce, arugula, beets and some other small crops until the big fields are ready to plant)  

Frame for the chicken "tractor" being built

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

I've figured out how to embed videos! Here's one from when we visited the piglets a couple weeks ago. 

Piglets from Black Brook Farm Growers on Vimeo.

We're still planning on bringing ours home sometime next week. They should be about the size of the piglets below.

Weaners from Black Brook Farm Growers on Vimeo.

Plowing the Field

Our freshly plowed field!!!

I guess I should start at the beginning...

We found a guy to plow our fields over a month ago, and we were hoping that he could come last Monday to do the initial sod-flip with his mold board plow. A mold board plow cuts the sod and then flips it over, exposing the loam and allowing the organic matter in the grass to rot beneath the surface and enrich the soil. 

This picture shows a double bottom mold board plow (double because it has two mold boards). 

Anyways, we thought we were all set to have the field plowed and then, at the beginning of last week, things started going wrong. The tractor broke - it had to be taken up to New Hampshire to be fixed - and meanwhile it kept raining and raining, soaking the fields and making them increasingly difficult to plow even if we had had a working tractor. Finally, after waiting on the edge of our seats all week, the tractor was brought over last Friday and we watched as it plowed a couple passes along the bottom of the field. We went to bed content and certain that we would have beautifully plowed fields by Saturday afternoon. 

I'm starting to learn that every time I go to bed content and certain it means that something's about to go wrong. 

We woke up Saturday morning bright and early. Dave headed down to the field and I lagged behind, taking my time, totally calm. By the time I got outside, 20 minutes behind Dave, disaster had already struck. The tractor had hit a rock, a really big one, and the force of the impact had stopped the tractor short and thrown the driver hard against the steering wheel. It had also bent his plow. The driver was pretty shaken by the whole thing but we slowly convinced him to try another pass with promises of whiskey when the whole thing was over (apparently if a tractor hits a rock like that hard enough it can flip the whole machine - so he had good reason to be freaked out). So he got back on his tractor and came around for another pass, he hit another rock almost immediately. It was over, with less than a quarter of our first field turned. Saturday morning 7:45 AM, already a week behind schedule, and we were back to the drawing board.

I'm not sure why we were so surprised by this particular problem. After all, New England is pretty famous for it's rocky fields, and Carlisle is especially famous for being difficult to plow. We've been told by multiple people that the reason Concord was settled first was because its soils are clean and clear, while Carlisle is all either swamp or rock ledge. But for some reason it hadn't really crossed our minds that we might hit huge rocks in the middle of our field. This was partially because the nearby stone wall had convinced us that the pioneers had already taken care of all the hard stuff and also partially just plain old wishful thinking.

So, we started calling everyone that we could think of that might have an opinion, or a tractor, and after reviewing a bunch of different options, it became clear that the major problem was that the tractor was only 2-wheel drive. It was too small, and therefore hadn't been able to go slowly enough to drag the plow safely. In addition, some mold board plows are spring-tripped. When the plow hits a large rock, instead of stopping the tractor short, the spring on the plow breaks and swings it up and back, preventing the plow (and the driver) from being damaged. A 4-wheel drive tractor with a spring-tripped plow could creep through the field, finding the rocks without causing harm to the plow or the driver.  But then what to do about the rocks? It might have seemed fine to leave them, as long as they were 6 inches down or more, but apparently once you start loosening up the soil the rocks start to rise more quickly. We needed to get them out or get stuck with a field full of boulders. 

Luckily, Dave's parents are building a new trailer parking lot next to our new field, and so there was a huge excavator stationed right next door. If we could find a 4-wheel drive tractor, than we could slowly plow the field, and every time the tractor hit a rock, Rick could come in with his excavator and dig it out.   By calling around we found a handful of different guys willing to do the job, but there was an easy winner. One of Dave's parent's friends happens to own all the equipment we needed (he uses it to turn and re-seed horse pastures) and he was willing to lend it to us for free and let Dave plow the fields himself. The offer was too good to turn down. 

So, Monday morning (exactly one week behind schedule) Dave and I went down to the fields and he plowed the whole thing (with no previous experience!). It took him a couple passes to get used to it, but we managed to turn over a pretty consistent 6" to 8" of sod and soil. Rick moved all the big rocks (there were A LOT) and we tried to take care of the little ones. It may not have been the prettiest or more efficient plow job, but it is our blood and sweat all over the field, and that's nice to know. 

The first field

Finishing up the first field
Double bottomed mold board plow at work
Starting the second field (soil looks great!)
Movin' rocks

It was pretty exhausting and not very easy. In the first field we hit a rock on almost every pass. And some of them were enormous. I followed behind the tractor and marked any problem areas so we could go back and suss out the situation. It makes you think about those pioneers dragging those things out with horses. The second field had a lot less rocks. The stone wall kind of peters out as it gets nearer to the house, so we think maybe the pioneers either ran out of steam or didn't need all that area for agriculture. 

The good news is that we got both fields done by 2 PM on Monday. The bad news is that we are now pretty seriously behind schedule. The sod is very very thick and dense, probably owing to the fact that this field has lain fallow for so long. It's been recommended that we allow 2 weeks for the sod to rot and then go back and disk the whole thing, breaking up the soil and making it plantable. After that we're supposed to wait another 10 days before we start putting seeds in (to allow the sod to rot some more). That schedule means we won't be planting until mid to late May, which is too bad since we were planning on starting May 1st. We do have a smaller kitchen garden in the works, however, so hopefully between that and the greenhouse we should be able to keep growing and be totally ready to plant whenever the field is. The other bad news is that we had to let the excavator drive onto our field in order to get the rocks out. We've been trying very hard to not compress the soil, as this can squeeze out oxygen and water and suffocate and crush a lot of the helpful microbes and life in our deep organic matter. We can only cross our fingers and hope that we haven't done too much damage, and that our soil can spring back to health by planting time.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

New Meat Bird Chicks!!!

Cornish X Rocks born April 16, 2011

This little guy has a bum leg so we've put him in his own apartment so he'll be safe from all the other chicks running over him and pecking at him, and so he doesn't have to compete for water or food. 
We decided to give him a wall of carpenter clothe, however, so he could still see everyone and wouldn't be too lonely. He seems to been eating and drinking water, and we're hoping that with time his leg will get stronger. 

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Our First Farmer's Market

We'll be selling our fresh eggs at the last Winter Carlisle farmer's market this Saturday, April 16th!

Welcome Back Wilbur!

Where to begin...?

Although we haven't quite eked past the last projected frost date (around May 1st in Eastern MA), it feels like it's officially Spring. There's green grass, buds coming out on the trees, Kimball's farm ice cream stand is open for the season, and Wilbur, the Vietnamese pot-belly pig (not for eating, although he does sound like he would be delicious in a spring roll) has emerged from his den in the back of the barn and I can see him grazing in the fields from my window - which is open by the way. I seem to have gotten in the habit of always starting my posts with a comment on the weather, but it's pretty much all we've been thinking about around here. When's it going to be dry enough to till the field? Is it warm enough to open up the greenhouse? Is it still too cold for us to buy meat bird chicks and put them out to pasture? Every decision we make requires input from Mother Nature. 

Biodynamic Sowing and Planting Calendar

There are some that argue that when taking cues from our environment we should be paying attention to more than just the local weather report. I've been reading a little bit about biodynamic agriculture, which is an organic method of farming that emphasizes how interdependent the plants, animals and soil on a farm are. Like many forms of organic agriculture, biodynamic farming is about creating farms that are closed loops. This balance is made possible through the integration of crops and livestock, the recycling of nutrients, and the maintenance of soil - no outside assistance or pesticides necessary. 

In addition, biodynamic farming also considers that there are astrological impacts on agriculture. Most of these impacts are exerted by the moon as it passes through the twelve constellations of the zodiac. Maria Thun (and now her son Matthias) are the authorities on biodynamic astrology, and have been releasing their Biodynamic Sowing and Planting Calendar every year for almost a half a century. In her most recent calendar she writes:

"In its 27-day orbit round the Earth the Moon passes through the constellations of the zodiac and transmits forces to the Earth which affect the four elements: earth, light (air) water and warmth (fire). They in turn affect the four parts of the plant: the roots, the flower, the leaves and the fruit or seeds. The health and growth of the plant can therefore be stimulated by sowing, cultivating and harvesting it in tune with the cycles of the Moon."
pg 10

The calendar lists the parts of the plant enhanced by the moon and the planets each day. So for example today, April 14th, the constellation of the moon is Leo and the corresponding element is heat, so today is a good day for seeding vegetables that produce fruits. Therefore, when I do my planting this afternoon I'm going to seed summer squash and tomatoes. I've been trying to stick as closely to the calendar as possible, allowing for the fact that sometimes due to timing and successions I'm going to have to plant a root vegetable on a leaf day. Many farmers that I've talked to, even though who claim that they are more conventional , have said that they've noticed huge improvements in the quality and yield of their produce when they've used the biodynamic calendar. I guess I'll just have to see for myself. 

Readying the field

We've spent the majority of our time these last few weeks getting the field ready to be planted. This has involved a lot of brush clearing and burning. We had about 10 brush piles on the field, all of which needed to be removed before the first tilling next week. 

 It was hot and smokey work, but thanks to lots of help from family we managed to get it all done in a couple of days. 

Our soil test indicated that we had great soil with a ton of organic matter, but there are some things that it determined we were lacking. My mom has been taking a nutrient density course with the Northeast Organic Farming Association. The NOFA website defines "Nutrient density [as] a quality goal that is actively sought after in the biological approach to farming. It refers the nutritional content per volume of food we eat." It seems obvious, but the idea is that the more rich and balanced the nutrients in our soil are, the healthier the soil will be, and the more nutritious and delicious the vegetables grown in our soil will be as well. Nutrient density is a little bit of a tricky subject, and I don't yet understand it wholy myself, but suffice to say we have been collecting the elements that our soil is lacking and we are planning on spreading them on the field this weekend before the first till. Hopefully, these additives will make our soil and our vegetables healthier - and, naturally, those of us eating them healthier as well. I'll write more on this later but, if you're interested in reading more now, NOFA has a lot of good information on their website:


Our chickens have been settling in nicely and been producing eggs like crazy. After the initial trauma of moving to Massachusetts (and the lingering trauma of their barn burning down), the new ladies from New Hampshire seem to have decided that they're happy enough to start laying again. In addition, we managed to snag another 7 chickens from a woman in Concord who was moving, and so now our flock is up to 33 birds! 

We had been feeding them plain organic feed, but one of the guys from Erickson's Grain Mill in Acton recommended that we try organic soy-free feed. The jury's still out on whether or not soy-free food is better (especially if it's already organic and not genetically modified - as most conventional soy in animal feed is), but there are many arguments in favor of soy-free, the best being that it makes our eggs safe for those allergic to soy. We were convinced as soon as we opened the bag, however, and saw how much better the feed looked! Finally, food that didn't just look like little homogenous turds, but instead clearly contained pieces of dried corn, grains and all kinds of different good looking stuff! In addition, the chickens seem to love it and they've been laying like mad since we changed them over. Unfortunately, they love it a little too much, we went through a 50 lb bag in less than a week. In order to reduce the amont of money we have to spend on feed, and therefore keep the price of our eggs reasonable, we've started supplementing left-over produce that we get from different restaurants and supermarkets in the area that otherwise would be throwing it away. Now our chickens are feasting on apples, greens and bananas every morning in addition to their delicious new feed, and they seem pretty happy about it. 

Chicken breakfast time!

One more piece of exciting news: we drove up to New Hampshire last weekend and visited our piglets! We're planning on bringing them home in the beginning of May. 

This is the litter that (most likely) contains the
piglets coming home with us in May

Looking out my window, I feel a little jealous of Wilbur who is leisurely enjoying the springtime. But it feels good to wake up in the morning knowing that, for most of the day at least, I'll be out there with him, the sun on my back, even if I am dragging brush instead of waddling and grazing.