Monday, March 21, 2011

How quick disaster strikes! March 21, 2011

Today's story was actually written last week but wasn't posted, too busy farming, its title was  How quick disaster strikes. and then a real disaster came around, the on going catastrophe that is the Japanese earthquake/tsunami/nuclear meltdown/radiation poisoning and I suddenly felt like my problems are absolutely nothing in comparison, however...)

However lets first give the farm news and then the story.

First, the shares. We have now passed the 250 mark, approaching 300 shares spoken for which leaves about 200 one and two person shares to go.

Which means, at the current rate, we will fill up around the second half of May.

When do we usually fill our shares? About a month earlier than that. Mid to late April.

Why are we later this year? I'll give you a short answer this week and a longer one next. Actually we are way up on the number of shareholder renewals. We have more people returning than ever before however we aren't attracting as many as usual new people at our Dupont and Falls Church spots.

Why? In the last year or two those areas have seen an increas of new CSA's offering vegeables.

Answer. We are keeping more and more of our old customers but when it comes to selling our CSA to new customers there are more CSA's out there for them to choose from. (how does someone buying a share for the first time pick their CSA?)
We need to do better at telling people to choose us.

But that's enough of that now. If you know anyone who wants to sign up.... we have shares.

Free Eggs.

Last time I announced free eggs people came out and took away about fifty dozen. Well, I have 50 dozen again and..... and last weekend has passed and not only did people take away the fifty dozen eggs we had already collected, they took the 20 dozen that were laid over the weekend.

We'll be doing this, giving away eggs to shareholders at the farm, for two more months.

Last weekend I also gave away o0ur extra horseradish (horseradish gets harvested after the first hard frost, if you take it out of the ground before that it doesn't have much of a horseradish taste) and garlic.

Other farm news.

Big thing for me is I saw a bobcat this week. It was young not much bigger than a house cat, and I was just finishing up my farm chores a little after midnight. I was up in the greenhouse starting a fire in the boiler. Checking the chickens to make sure the electric fences were on and guarding them.

When I decided to drive out to get the mail.

I got in the pickup truck and zoomed down the driveway and there she was, right where that big old Maple sits and he was going up the bank towards the baby c hicks.

The headlights scared him and he ran down the hill and along the driveway, right in front of the truck.

I chased him for a hundred yards until he took off the drive and up the bank into a thicket of greenbriar.

Bobcats, even if they are around you seldom see one. They travel at night and are very quiet and clean. Its funny though, not to far down the drive from where the youngster took off into the brush I saw some scat that looked a lot like a bobcat only a month ago.

What I saw was from a larger cat, so I imagine a mother raised a family last summer, probably on our chickens and eggs. What I saw was one of her children out on its own.

How about next I answer some of the most asked question I get from visiting kids and their parents.

The all around most asked question is....

What determines the color of the eggs?

The simple answer is -- if you mean the shell that is determined by the breed of the chicken. It's a genetic thing. Barred Rocks lay brown eggs. Leghorns lay white eggs.

(or if you go to a grocery store chain to get your eggs the white eggs come from a chicken created by Monsanto, The Delta. Brown eggs are probably coming from a chicken like a Production Red. Chickens that were specially bred to lay the most eggs for the least cost while living in a confined space.

I'll write more about chickens, and our chickens later in the season.

Second most asked question.

What is growing right now?

Simple answer. Right now none of our vegetables are growing outside.


The thing that controls most things on earth. Water.

Vegetables, like most plants are mostly water. And unlike humans (which are also mostly water) vegetables do not carry around thier own heating system. Whatever the outside temperature is, that's the temperature of the vegetables.

When it drops to 32 or below water freezes , turns to a solid and expands. When water expands the vegetable breaks from the inside out and dies.

When do you start growing vegetables?

After water stops freezing at night for the year.

Around this area the average last freezing is April 15th.

That's when we start planting. But since sometimes there might be a light frost after that date we start off with our frost tolerant vegetables

Plants like broccoli, cabbage and cauliflower and work up to our 'we like only warm weather' vegetables like tomatoes.

Ånd the third most asked question..

When am I going to get any tomatoes?

Tomato plants can live at a temperature above freezing but they don't like it and grow real slow until it warms up. Tomato plants like the soil temperature to be at least 70 degrees.

(an easy way to figure out soil temperature is to take the night's low temperature and the day's high temperature and average them. When it gets to be 70 or above for several days in a row the ground temperature is about 70.

Around here that's usually early May.

Then you have to add the number of days the type of tomato you are planting takes to grow from a seedling to a mature vegetable producing plant (this is usually printed on the side of the package.

Early tomatoes like Early girl take about 60 days. Those huge ugly but tasty large tomatoes like beefsteak take around 90 days.

So around here the first rather small tomato, if everything goes right, is ready to eat around July 1, the larger varieties ripen later in the month and in early August.

But I saw a tomato at the farmers market why don't you have one?

there are ways of beating the natural vegetable clock but they cost money. the first one is you can grow the tomato indoors. inside a heated greenhouse, or an unheated high tunnel. If I'm going to spend the money on fuel and lighting there is no limit to when you can have a tomato. heat up the potting soil to over 70's and turn on the lights so the plant gets the same amount of light as it would be getting during the long days of summer. One other factor, either find an insect that will live inside that likes to pollinate tomatoes or breed a tomato that will self pollinate without wind.

That brings up our hoophouses. These are unheated greenhouses. over the past half dozen years we've been putting a lot of our spare money into buying hoophouses. We now have six 96 X1 7 ft hightunnels

one 96 X28 ft and one 96 X34 ft hightunnel.

This year we plan on putting tomatoes in the 28 ft wide one, and in two of the 17 ft wide ones.

We'll put peppers in the 34 ft wide one, eggplants in one or two of the 17 ft wide, which leaves us two 17 ft wide ones to plant vegetables that take less time to grow. Vegetables like lettuce, squash and cucumbers.

I just spend $3500 on roll up sides for the 17 ft hoops, This will allow me to use them in the heat of the summer, otherwise it gets well over 100 degrees inside for most of the summer, hot enough to kill anything growing inside. If I can roll up the side it doesn't get hot.

Besides the hoophouse we have one heated greenhouse. And that's what the newsletter story is about.

How quickly disaster strikes.

Sunday evening, several weeks ago, I was bored so I went to the movies. (no movie reviews here).

I left the farm at a little after 7 with the rain still falling and the temperature just below 50 degrees and came out of the theatre around 9:30 and it was still raining, Not as hard. and the temperature, well, I don't have a thermometer in the van, but it didn't seem that cold.

Or at least it didn't seem that cold until I started approaching the mountains, and our farm.

I could build up the suspense telling about how dangerous the interstate seemed with a nasty cross wind that made the van want to jump lanes and the pools of water on the road and the 18 wheel tractor trailers hauling down the highway at much to fast a speed.

But the real problem was when I pulled off in Haymarket.

Sitting at the light at the top of the ramp it seemed like we were going to have another deluge again like the inch of rain that dropped in less than an hour around noon.

It was coming down that hard.

Earlier in the day the creek rose up enough to go over the top of our driveway. One to two feet were up over the top down at the culvert. and for a while I was afraid the road was going to wash away, however it survived. When I built it all the rock and clay, boulders, gravel and even a layer of logs all of that capped with asphalt seemed to make in stable enough to hold back the several hundred thousand gallons of water that backed up at our driveway during a major rain storm.

And now it was pouring again.

As I turned on to Antioch, that's the road that turns in front of the Bull Run Mountains, the rain was turning to sleet.

And then snow.

And by the time I got to the boy scout camp it was all snow and sticking to the road. 

That's when I started to worry.

Not about rain, or snow, but about the temperature.

Snow sticking on the road means freezing temperatures. and If it was cold enough down here for snow to stick to the ground what about up at the farm?

How cold was it up there? and more importantly, what was the temperature inside the greenhouse with a month's worth of seedlings growing inside?

I could just picture 25,000 baby plants dead from a frost.

I felt like speeding up but with the icy, narrow, curvy road...

I did up the speed just a little.

When I left home it was warm out. It had been a warm day and I hadn't been paying particular attention to the forecast and the thought of freezing temperatures was not on my mind.

I hadn't started up the greenhouse boiler.

But what about now?

I gave the van a little more gas but there was only so much time I could save by driving faster and with the curvy road I could only go so fast. Especially with the pavement already covered with snow.

Down around the vineyard someone had put up a set of those temporary Caution! High Water signs.

I slowed down and sure enough, right around the first bend the road was under water.

It was just over a foot deep and I waded the van through it and up the other side.

Now I was going up over Hopewell Pass.

This is where people slide off the road. Where vehicles like vans with the rear wheel drive get stuck with the wheels just spinning.

I was thinking what could I do if we lost the seedlings?

There was time to replace the tomatoes, the peppers and eggplant. but the early season crops.

I didn't want to think about it.

And now I was going up the steep side of the pass and trying to figure out how much time it would take if I had to park the van and walk in.

Forty minutes? 45? maybe more.

The tires started spinning and I let off the accelerator and got traction again.

And then I was up over the top and at the turn off to our gravel driveway. One mile to go.

The first part is down to where their once was a beaver pond until someone came by and shot them and left the bodies laying by the pond. That was ten years ago and now its been a meadow with a stream running through it and the remains of the old beaver dam.

I then the road goes up. First one short steep hill then the long part. The place where people get stuck and go off into the ditch.

While there was almost an inch of snow, I was the first one down the driveway and it hadn't been compacted into ice.

I make it up over top without any difficulties.

Now it was downhill until I turned to cross the creek. This is where it was flooded earlier in the day. My thoughts now were worrying about whether somehow the road had washed away. Its only half a mile to the house from there. Shorter to the greenhouse.

Water was still coming over the road but only a few inches. I drove right across and went up the driveway on the other side. In the distance I could see the lights from the greenhouse. I had left the florescent light on.

And then I was stopping the van right in the driveway below the greenhouse and running up the hill, along the path.

I opened the greenhouse door and...

It was still warmer inside than out, but not by much. I could shiver. I stuck my fingers into the soil of the nearest flat.

It didn't feel like ice.

Into the next, and the next and the next.

I didn't feel any ice but it was cold inside.

So I opened the door to the boiler and started putting in kindling, then some wadded up paper and then I lit it, closed the door and turned on the boiler fan.

It was only then that I took the time to look at the greenhouse thermometer. It wasn't real accurate but the gauge was hanging there right around 32. Maybe a little above.

I could still lose seedlings unless that boiler put heat on the seedlings soon. I didn't dare go down to the house and leave the seedlings alone.

I stood there in front of the boiler watching the gauge.

The water temperature was below 50.

I opened the door to take a look inside and smoke gushed out into my face and I closed it again.

It was another twenty minutes until the water temperature started to rise. 60, 70. 80 I turned on the water circulatory pump to send the heat out to the seedlings..

When the hot water in the 300 foot loops (there are six of them), came back from making its trip across the tables still warm I felt I was safe.

We weren't going to lose anything.

I still stayed up in the greenhouse for another half an hour, moving flats around and cleaning up but a disaster had been averted. No lost seedlings this time and next time I would think twice before leaving the seedlings home unattended.



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