Cheep, But Not So Cheap

Our 100 (very expensive) heritage turkeys arrived at the post office at 6am this morning. Packed into a box, they miraculously survived the 2-day journey from New Mexico. Only 2 days old, they're pretty talkative and lively, flapping their teeny-tiny wings and hopping all over the place. After dipping each one's beak in water to introduce them to the waterer and to get them drinking, now we sit back and talk to them, monitor their behavior, check on the heat. They're cute little buggers now. Hard to imagine them as 10-15 pound turkeys.

We have two breeds: Narragansett and Standard Bronze. By definition, a turkey breed must meet certain conditions to be considered heritage. First, they must be naturally mating. Secondly, they must have long productive outdoor lifespans and be genetically able to withstand the environmental challenges of outdoor production systems. Lastly, a heritage turkey must have a slow growth rate, reaching a marketable weight in about 28 weeks. This gives them the time to develop a strong skeletal structure and healthy organs. Unfortunately, much of modern agriculture is driven by speed and efficiency at the expense of health, humanity, and nutrition. The modern, overly-bred Broad-Breasted White is unable breed on its own, live in any conditions other than a controlled and confined environment, and since they're bred to grow big and fast, their organs and bones don't have much time to develop, leaving them unable to stand even on their own two feet.

If this year's turkeys are anything like last year's, once they're out on pasture, these guys won't have a problem moving around, flying over the fence, roosting on farm buildings, generally stressing me out as I worry about coyotes, raccoons, and hawks.

Snow What?

It's been snowing for 3 days and still continues. I think I may have prayed too hard for moisture. Here is my pickup wearing a snow hat:

I had to head out to the farm today to check on my poor snowed-in seedlings. First, though, I had to get out the front door of the house.

I managed to get to my pickup and head down the road to the farm (in 4wd low). Lucky for me, my neighbor Jerry ended up in the ditch on his way out to check on his cows. Adam and the tractor pulled him out and blazed a path for the both of us.

After he got Jerry to his cows, Adam came back and drove down the farm's driveway so I at least had a chance to get to the farm.

I moved as fast as I could to take care of my seedlings in the greenhouse and gather what I needed. With the wind blowing from the north and the snow continuing to pile up, I figured I didn't have much time before my tracks filled back in.

Little White Lentils

Big day yesterday - I planted 8 acres of white lentils. This was following a day of frustrations, from weak water pressure in the faucet that is to supply my garden field with water, to exploding hydraulic hoses on the rod weeder (and all the while, the minutes ticking away, drawing the days closer and closer to the cold front and snow). I'd just as soon forget about that day.

Yesterday, Earth Day, I finished up on the 15 acre field, plowing and rod weeding (which turns the plowed weeds upside down and prepares a nice seed bed). I used the Ford tractor and a special disk to create dikes every 60 feet or so, which will help guide the flood water from the ditches down the field.

Dave helped me set up the seed drill to plant the white lentils, cleaning it out, getting the rusted parts moving again. He showed me how to set it based on how many lentils per linear foot desired (15 on a 9" spacing) and once in the field, we set the depth so the seed contacted the firm, moist soil. Then it was just a matter of driving up and down the field until I'd covered the 8 acres. Actually I ran out of seed a hair shy of that.

I was itching to get the emmer in the ground yesterday, too, but Dave suggested I wait until the seed from the barley that was planted last year had a chance to germinate. When we were checking the depth of the drill for the lentils and digging around in the soil, we found quite a few barley seeds. This particular barley variety is a hulled type and the seed is very similar in size, color, and shape as the emmer seed, which would make the emmer very difficult to clean. So, if the fields dry out enough next week, I will plant my 5 acres of emmer after plowing one more time.

This is what today looked like:

Making Do

There is a fine balance between making do with what's available on the farm (scrap lumber, scrap metal, miscellaneous parts, tires, hoses, bolts, etc.) and going to town to get the right thing for the job. Earlier in the season (ha! it's only April and I'm already talking about "earlier in the season") I had this vision to use what was on the farm. So when something broke down or needed replacing, I would fix it or replace it with the available material laying around the place. I just needed to find it. That works in some cases - nuts and bolts and general purpose things - but not all.

For example, just yesterday, I needed to replace a tire on the International seed drill. It was a 6.70-15 with a 4-hole rim. There's just about 2 of everything on the farm - 2 Case 1030s (one for parts), 2 (actually 3) Noble blades, 2 swathers (again, one for parts) - so it was just a matter of searching around for the right tire and rim. I found a handful of 6.70-15 tires on 5-hole rims, but no 4-hole rims. I could take the tire into town to swap it out with the bad tire or keep searching around. I decided to take the found tire and the right rim into town. Conrad Tire ended up putting a new tire on anyway, since the tire I found was shot as well. I guess what I'm learning here is, though it's seems like a good idea to make do with what's available, time, especially in early spring, is far more precious to me than the $45 I had to part with to get the new tire mounted on the 4-hole rim. Maybe in that perfect world where everything was organized on the farm according to size and purpose, I could make do the majority of the time, but the reality is far different. It's hard enough during a typical busy day to put tools away (what other things are easier to organize than tools?), let alone put used tires in their proper place or store pieces of scrap metal in some relevant pile. Toss it on the pile, throw it in the farm yard, and go to town where order reigns.

Digging It

It's been a busy few days here. Now that it's snowing, I have a few moments to post an update on the activities on Prairie Heritage Farm. I continued to break up the garden field, which had been in pasture for quite a few years. After spiking it the first time, I disked it to break up the big clumps (after repairing a broken bearing on one of the gangs of disks, an achievement I'm quite proud of and perhaps the subject of a future post).

Next I spiked it again, but deeper this time to loosen the soil. The harrow behind the plow helps break up the clumps and expose the roots.

I replaced the spikes on the plow with shovels and with the soil loosened, plowed deeply to get at the deeper grass roots.

Since I'd reintroduced large clumps to the field, I finished with one more pass with the disk. It was still clumpy since the soil is clay loam, but I'd reached a point where I had to get my garden beds started or I'd be further behind than I already was.

Before I talk about building my first garden bed, I need to back up a couple of weeks. On a slow, cold day a few weeks ago, I went to the Conrad library to see what it was like. Naturally I gravitated to the gardening/horticulture section and found a couple books. What I was looking for were books on greenhouse management, which I'd been struggling with. I found a book called, "The Complete Greenhouse Book" and one titled "Getting the Most from Your Garden." It was the latter book that made me scrap all my carefully laid-out plans for the garden. What I thought would be a book on general gardening information turned out to be about gardening intensively with raised beds, but more importantly, double-dug raised beds. My previous plans were to rototill 100' rows with 1' to 1 1/2' paths and plant one crop per row.

Intensive gardening is all about companion planting and planting crops closer together on permanent beds that once dug, never get stepped on or compacted in any way. They are supposed to warm up earlier in the spring, conserve moisture, and provide a loose soil structure for the plants' roots to thrive, increasing yields on less ground. I decided that if I wanted to build this garden right, I should do it right from the beginning. Rototilling is really rough on a soil's structure, as is soil compaction, even from walking on the ground. I revised my garden plan and decided to use only half the space I had previously planned on using, building 5' by 50' raised beds. I figured I could at least build one and get an idea for the amount of effort involved. So that is what I spent the past two days doing. The first day was rough. Since the soil is so clayey, digging isn't easy, despite passing over the ground multiple times with the tractor and a variety of implements. Double-digging is essentially digging a trench about a shovel-blade deep, putting the soil in a wheelbarrow to start, loosening the layer beneath, then filling in the first trench with the next section, working your way down the bed until you've cut out the final trench and loosened the soil. Then you fill it in with the wheelbarrow of soil you dug up at the beginning.

Needless to say, it's a lot of hunching over, grunting, and sweating. After the first day I was questioning the wisdom of tackling such an arduous task, digging 25' of the 50' bed, but on the second day, when I finished the bed, I felt much better. It took me about 4 hours per 25' to dig, add compost, and shape the bed. Here are the tools that accomplished the digging and shaping (I would have to be included in that).

Here is Courtney planting peas into the new bed.

This is the completed bed with newly seeded peas, carrots, radishes, and spinach. On the right side will be transplanted lettuce.

Half of the garden field will fit 30 5' by 50' double-dug beds. I'm not sure I'll be able to dig that many, but since I'm gardening intensively, maybe I won't need that many. Or maybe I'll just dig a few each year. Or maybe a whole lot of our friends will come over with their spades and forks and have a grand time double-digging at the Prairie Heritage Farm Double-Dig Party of 2009. What's that saying? "Many hands make light work." And I would add, a whole lot of fun! Drop me an email if in early May, you want to be a part of this historical moment.

Mouse Update

Farmer: 7
Mouse: 5

There hasn't been much activity lately. I think the mice lost their appetite for peanut butter. Some people suggested I let a cat loose in the greenhouse, but my 3 cats aren't really mousers and the farm's cats are a bit skittish and getting one into the greenhouse would be like, well, herding cats. Besides, I can't shake the image of cats running all over my seedlings and pooping in my onion flats.

Taking Samples and Bustin' Sod

I'm officially a sodbuster. I don't think I could have done it if it were virgin prairie, but it was 10-year-old pasture. First, though, I took soil samples.

I borrowed a soil probe from the Conrad MSU Extension office and took 10 samples from the 3/4-acre garden field and 15 samples from the 15-acre field. I mixed the samples (each field separate) and sent them in to a lab in Washington. They'll tell me what levels of macro- and micro-nutrients I have in my soil and tell me what I need more of.

Here are the soil turds:

Back to the sod. Breaking ground is a violent activity, but it was satisfying. I think that had more to do with wanting a sense of order and creating a clean palette, than it did fulfilling some masculine desire to tear stuff up.

A couple days ago, Clyde mowed all the grass down.

Then last night (finishing up under a near-full moon) I went over the field with an implement called a Noble blade, which is a 4-foot wide single blade that cuts a few inches underneath the soil, severing the roots of the grass. After making a pass, it hardly looks as though anything happened, but while dragging the implement across the field you can see the grass rising as the blade passes underneath, then falling back down again, like a cartoon mole traveling underground.

Today, I hooked up the plow and made multiple passes in different directions with spikes (rather than shovels).

This basically chopped up the big chunks made by the Noble blade. After the roots have dried a couple of days, I'll go over the ground with a disk, which will further chop up the pieces of sod.

Bucket Brigade

Our good friends Rick, Jason, and Amber came over from Missoula to haul cow crap on their spring break. I'd say that rivals anything Cancun can offer. We loaded up the tractor with composted manure and filled buckets from the back door of the greenhouse and dumped them onto the beds.

Stay tuned for the next opportunity to haul, hoe, or heave on Prairie Heritage Farm. We're considering a May Day Festival and Double-Dig Party. Drop us a line if you want to come up and dig a few beds, bbq on the potting shed porch, and listen to some live music while the prairie sun sets over the Rocky Mountain Front.

Here's a sneak preview of the music:

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