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  • VA2SFX 8:03 pm on May 29, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: Agriculture, , , ,   

    Wild cultivation at scale 

    Growth-hacking your seed round

    There’s a principle in permaculture that says we should strive to “work with Nature, rather than against it.” It’s a nice idea and I guess that works sometimes, but with establishing a new garden of approximately 16,500 sq. ft., I’ve been hard-pressed to make it work. And the season has barely kicked off.

    From satellite view, it looks like this:

    Of this, I’m trying to cultivate about 230 feet across, which is my largest gardening experiment to date. There’s simply no way I’m going to be able to maintain this space with conventional kneel-in-the-dirt style weeding. And I’m no longer attempting to run a business or earn any kind of living from this.

    So what does you do when you have a field and a feeling?

    You roll with it.

    The field in question has not been cultivated in I’m not sure how long, but it’s not in anyone’s recent memory. So this means that weeds and moreover grasses have been running riot for years.

    I’v set out trying to apply a kind of compromise between “working with nature” and “doing what I want” — which is basically set it and forget it.

    Sow and let grow.

    In other words: take a bunch of different seeds —

    And go to town.

    It’s wildflowers, perennials and annuals. It’s grains and cereals and legumes. It’s “ordinary” garden variety veggies. Thrown out in a big field at random (-ish).

    A family member came by and harrowed the plot before I got started — just to open up the soil a little bit without totally tilling. Which sounded like a good start until the grass started growing back in — completely undiminished.

    Pretty much just looked like it was going to be a big field of grass that choked out all my pretty experiments.

    Though, if you knelt down and looked closely, you could see some of the desired germination happening:

    The grass, we finally decided, had too much of a head-start against these little emerging seedlings. So we had another family member come in with a rototiller and apply a rough clumpy finish. This knocked back the grass hard, cutting everything up.

    It’s unclear yet what the fate of those tiny emerging seedlings will be: if they will push through from their new positions, or will fade away.

    The field now looks something like:

    And close up for you dirt lovers:

    It’s rough, it’s choppy. If you’re planting directly, you would want something much finer. But I’m on an experimental kick, and was hoping to potentially be able to preserve the viability of some of those little sprouts.

    We’ll see how it goes; it’s only been a couple of days.

    So the above was germination from my first phase of mixed sowing. I immediately followed up with the remainder of my stock to set another layer into the soil seed bank.

    And above that I sowed two big sacks of oats, and one of sunflower in a band near the back. This over-sowing (which I actually did already in the previous seed-round too) has a two-fold purpose: oats because they grow fast, easily and don’t have tough rhizomatic root systems like most perennial grasses do. I’m hoping to eventually out-compete the grasses already there. And also to give the birds something to eat that’s more visible/obvious target than my mixed “fancy” seeds.

    Anyway, success or failure remains to be seen, as our temps are not quite high enough for widespread germination across the board. I have another smaller test field of a sort of similar method from last year now entering it’s second season. The goal is basically to create a forager’s garden, combining human desire and folly with whatever Nature’s rhyme or reason decides to call forth out of the assembled possibilities.

    Worst case scenario is all the grass grows back and I have to start over next year. I think the likelihood of that happening across the whole field uniformly is low, but we’ll see what my simulated “weed pressure” can do to fight the grass down and force some spontaneous plant communities to agglomerate.

    I’m also planning to, throughout the season, supplement with whatever organic materials I can, added to the top of the soil. Given the square footage, I’ll never be able to cover all of it equally, so I’ll just do it in clumps and patches and try to work alongside Nature to figure it out. I guess I’m not exactly fighing Nature, but it remains to be seen at this point what ultimate effect “working with it” will have in this scheme of mine.

    Will keep you posted.

  • VA2SFX 10:08 pm on May 1, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: Agriculture, , , ,   

    New DIY chicken coop 

    I’m building out a new chicken coop in the shed on the property we bought a couple of months ago.

    It’s the second chance I’ve had to install laying hens in a small out-building. So I have a pretty firm grasp of the physical challenges and requirements of the job. In addition to seeing how that plays out in my own daily routine with the birds (as they cycle through the seasons), I’ve also worked at a bunch of other farms where I’ve seen a lot of other setups. Now I’m in the processing of distilling down the best of what I’ve seen with the given space and materials I have on hand.

    Initial framing

    Everything, as you can see, fits in the footprint of a 4’x8′ plywood cap for winter insulation.

    I’ve gotten to really enjoy this kind of light improvisational interior framing. I’m not the best at it, but neither am I the worst.

    Moisture appears to be entering the shed at the base of the walls. I discovered there’s not actually any outer sheating or wrapping, just this particle board on a 2×4 frame with vinyl exterior outside. Not ideal, but not ready to re-cover the shed just yet either.

    Re-using doors

    Complex pieces like doors I tend to re-use and just frame around to fit.

    I had both of those doors built already — the one on the left for my old coop, and one on the right (with the choroplast sheeting) from a winter shelter I built around our door at the old house.

    I like the option of having two different doors for convenience. It also means I can throw a divider in if I need to and have two smaller pens in a pinch.

    Nesting box

    I know that one guy’s “how to farm” post said just to buy nesting boxes, but that seems unnecessary to me. Plus I’ve never seen any for sale — and this cost me zero dollars. My experience has been that nesting boxes don’t need to fit more than really two birds at a time, and this size for 6 hens seems to work fine. (And more than six hens is just not useful for me — I have huge egg surplus as is.)

    It’s my preference to be able to pull the eggs without entering the coop, but in winter, I will probably wrap the outer wall up so that won’t be possible. But to improve on my old system, the nest is now right next to the door, so I don’t really need to step inside anyway — which has the advantage of letting me wear street shoes when I collect the eggs (e.g. not tracking bird shit and wood chips into the house).

    Wood Feeder

    I’ve been using in the past a metal round hanging feeder for hens, which actually works great and has enough capacity to keep them going on at least a week of food without having to refill. But it takes up a significant amount of floor space.

    So instead I did an experiment of building a gravity-fed wooden feeder (something I’ve seen succeed at another farm), such that I can fill it from the outside, and it can fit under the nesting box (without them being able — hopefully — to crap in it from above). In other words, stacked functions.

    Ceiling-hung waterer

    Another “innovation” that I cribbed from another farm I worked at is having elements hang from the ceiling by a chain. I had been using arms sticking out of the wall in the past, but there’s always a risk the birds will roost on the support, and crap into the food or water. Hanging directly from the ceiling like this serves a double purpose: you avoid the “crap-in-water” problem, and you can always hitch the hanging element up higher temporarily if you need to work in the space. Plus I got to buy a fun hook and a chain, which I liked. Yes, I am a hardware weirdo.

    Split roosts

    I used to have this egalitarian ideal about chickens. That if I gave them enough space, they would all roost together on the same perch. I’ve literally never seen this happen. In a group of six, at least one will always go roost somewhere else (like in the nesting box, which can be ‘crappy’ because they poop while they sleep and sully it). So, I’m accommodating instead from jump for the hierarchies/differences in bird groups and let them have a couple places to pick from at different heights. I’ve learned that stacking roost above roost doesn’t work great, because nobody really wants to sleep directly underneath a group of chickens who are going to poop on them all night long. Yes, you can offset them, but I don’t really have space to play with that here, and this works for me.

    Putting it all together

    Here’s a shot with all of the components together — er, mostly together. Still missing chicken-wire in upper panels. And after taking this, I ended up moving the waterer to be more centered between the two perches.

    As I mentioned at top, I built with the intention of being able to split this space into two pens. I’ve been raising broilers and turkeys the past couple years (not sure if I will get to it in time this year), but I wanted to have a built in temporary place where I could stick the young birds without needing all the ramshackle crap temporary pens I’ve dealt with prior to this.

    My theory is that during summer months, when the hens can go outside, they won’t suffer by having half the floor space normally available to them, and a group of about 20 chicks could go on the left half until they’re big enough to need other accommodations. That will likely take some proving, but I’m confident it can all function smoothly, with maybe one other larger temporary pen for the broilers when they are of age (I tend to slaughter small, between 8–10 weeks as ‘cornish hens’). But anyway, that’s another reason why I split the roost in two and crammed all the hen equipment into one side with it’s own door access.

    Pop hole

    In cutting a pop hole for the hens to go outside, that’s when I discovered how poorly constructed the shed was, and why moisture is coming in.

    I like how from outside now, it kind of looks like the shed is a little face, the two windows eyes and the pop hole a little funny mouth. “Whimsical.”

    I framed out around the opening I cut in order to strengthen it, trimmed and framed the off-cut and stuck a hinge on there, with some flaps to cover the gaps to prevent wind and rain from entering:

    Again, I made the hole something which can be manipulated without having to enter the coop at all from the doorway. I am so smart.

    Next steps

    I haven’t had time to do the outdoor run, but I’m hoping to do something which will be kind of “three season” so they can be outside as much as possible. I may cover it to some extent from the snow — we’ll see.

    Will post my results as a response here when I have the chance to finish.

    All in all, I’m really pleased. I feel like it’s not often enough in life that I can really directly draw from past experience and build something almost perfectly the way I know it needs to be.

    The other beauty part, is that for this specific project, literally ALL the materials and components come from other projects I’ve done in the past. I only spent about $20 for a couple hinges and the plywood to make the feeder with. Yay me.

  • VA2SFX 2:20 pm on December 13, 2016 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: Agriculture, , , ,   

    Projected Median Farm Income 2016 (US) 

    Fun with farming losses

    When I ran my own small farm startup in the 2015 season, I thought my outcome financially was something of an aberration — a personal failing if you will. However, if the numbers here are to be believed, I was actually completely on track — average even!

    Local-obssessed foodies love farming in theory moreso than practice

    This year, farm-sector profitability is forecast to decline for the third year in a row. Net farm income is projected to go down, as are farm asset values. The projected median farm income for 2016 is negative $1,473. Just about the only statistic projected to rise in 2016 is farm debt.

    Note: USDA ERS says -$1,412 here.

    Though exact numbers are no longer at my fingertips, that’s a pretty direct correlation to my experience. I ended up about $1K (CAD) in the hole of expenses relative to income — though the difference was more or less made up by the meat in the freezer at the end of the season.

    Ah, found some of my old documentation here:

    Let’s see…

    Total expenses: $8,958.91

    Local-obssessed foodies love farming in theory moreso than practice

    Total income: $7,544.15

    Local-obssessed foodies love farming in theory moreso than practice

    Difference: -$1,414.76

    Spooky, because the stated USDA ERS data from the link above puts my loss within just under $3 of the projected US average (though I’m in Canada and our currency valuation is different, obvs).

    One last reference link on the subject from my experiences:

    Local-obssessed foodies love farming in theory moreso than practice

    A Grand Unified Theory of Farming

    Version 1: Don’t do it.

    Version 2: Don’t do it for money.

    Version 3: Don’t rely on it as only income source.

    Version 4: Do something else for money and farm for food, fun and family.

    Version 5: Only do the easy stuff. Only sell what’s profitable.

    Version 6: Do it anyway. But don’t say you weren’t warned.

    Somewhere between all of those — hopefully — you’ll find your farming truth.

  • VA2SFX 4:44 pm on December 10, 2016 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: Agriculture, , Barn, Pennsylvania,   

    Pennsylvania Barn 

    I’m not interested in turning back the clock. But I am interested in building some kind of “old-style” barn in the coming year.

    Where we live is has both agricultural and historic zoning, so certain requirements will have to be met to get permitting approval from the Minister of Culture — what I understand to be usually a long and painful process.

    Perhaps if I can keep things within certain historically-valid parameters, I can both speed the process along and learn something at the same time. So here is me starting to document a case to support my eventual construction.

    The Canadian Encyclopedia has a page on barns, where they actually talk about Pennsylvania-style barns (among others):


    In form and function Canadian barns are classified as Pennsylvania, Dutch and English. […]

    Of the types mentioned, the Pennsylvania is most common except for the little English barn. […]

    A typical site is one with a southerly exposure on rising ground. The barn is built with its great doors opening at the upper level onto what is called the threshing floor, which is actually a broad aisle flanked by stout, squared timbers in bays stretching from floor to ceiling. […]

    For the housing of animals, the Pennsylvania barn is outstanding. Usually the upper structure, or mow, is cantilevered as much as 2.4 m, an admirable invention because of the shelter it gives the cattle in the byre behind the barn.

    The basic form seems to be approximately this:

    Image Credit, Eric Sloan [source]

    Image credit: Pennsylvania Agricultural History Project

    The Pennsylvania Barn’s main diagnostic feature is the projecting 7–8 foot forebay, or overshoot. The barn is banked, and organized such that the upper level consists of central threshing floor(s), flanked by mows, and a granary (sometimes in the forebay, sometimes next to a mow on the bank side). The Pennsylvania Barn almost always has a gable roof. On the lower level, stable and stalls (organized crosswise to the roof ridge, separated by alleyways for humans) housed horses, milk cows, beef cattle, and sometimes sheep or hogs.

    Text above via:


    Interesting for context, but I’ve never seen any barns in this region of Quebec > Capitale Nationale > Ile-d’Orleans which have this “characteristic overshoot” feature — though the general arrangement of the barn built into the hillside is familiar.

  • VA2SFX 7:47 pm on October 14, 2016 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: Agriculture, , , , North Carolina   

    Mother Jones: Hurricane Matthew Killed Millions of Farm Animals in North Carolina 


    As many as 5 million chickens and turkeys had already died as of Wednesday, Reuters reports. […]

    And it’s not just animal corpses that are likely to stream out of inundated farms. Together with the state’s chicken houses, North Carolina’s hog barns generate 10 billion gallons of fecal waste annually […]

    [Photos at above link] show scenes from Duplin County, where a staggering 2.3 million hogs are raised each year, more than any other US county. The state has not released information on the extent of hog deaths in flooded facilities, but these images paint a grim picture.

  • VA2SFX 10:01 pm on October 3, 2016 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: Agriculture, , , ,   

    Terre de Chez Nous: Five farms in Quebec allowed to have 500 hens outside quota 

    Quebec, Canada


    Quebec agriculture is governed in some sectors by “gestion de l’offre,” which translates literally to offer management, or more properly a quota system. (ie, overall production in certain ag sectors is officially capped)

    Outside quota (which costs $$$ and which is limited in overall supply), you’re allowed to have up to 99 laying hens. Five selected, lucky, magical farms in Quebec are being allowed to have up to 500 laying hens, as of Sept. 30, 2016:


    En effet, vendredi dernier, le 30 septembre, la Fédération des producteurs d’œufs du Québec a accordé à cinq entreprises un prêt de quota à vie permettant la mise en marché de la production maximale de 500 poules pondeuses.

    Cinq fermes pourront donc aménager un poulailler de 500 poules ou moins sans devoir acheter un quota de production. Tous les œufs devront cependant être vendus en circuit court, c’est-à-dire dans les marchés publics, dans les paniers bio, etc. Par contre, ces petits producteurs n’auront pas accès au système de gestion des surplus de la Fédération.

  • VA2SFX 4:00 pm on October 1, 2016 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: Agriculture, , , ,   

    Global Futurist: Japanese company to open all-robotic indoor growing facility in 2017 


    “The Japanese lettuce production company Spread believes the farmers of the future will be robots — so much so that Spread is creating the world’s first farm manned entirely by robots. Instead of relying on human farmers, the indoor Vegetable Factory will employ robots that can harvest 30,000 heads of lettuce every day.”

    Website of Spread:




    “Because quite soon — before we’ve reached the end of this century, even — I think that what people call robots will have taken over.” Robots will rule the world? “Well, yes. They’ll be in charge.” In charge of us? “Yes, if we’re still here. Whether they’ll have taken over peacefully or otherwise, I have no idea.”

  • VA2SFX 3:20 pm on September 27, 2016 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: Agriculture, , , Overtime, Robots   

    AgFunder News: You don’t have to pay robot farm-workers overtime 

    (Photo by Clark Young, Unsplash)

    I’m not sure all the people cheering on the overtime for farm workers victory in California really realize: there may not actually be enough money in this strained industry to actually in practice support paying this money out.

    Enter unintended consequences. Enter robots.


    On September 12, 2016, Governor Jerry Brown signed a historic bill into law that requires agriculture businesses and farm operators to pay overtime to farmworkers for any time worked after eight hours in a day or 40 hours in a week. Sponsored by United Farm Workers of America, the bill was seen as a major win for the roughly 1.2 million full-time farmworkers in the United States. […]

    “If farmers were struggling to stay profitable before, increasing their costs will only encourage them to find alternative solutions to their labor needs. New technologies are one way that farmers can cope with labor shortages and increasing labor costs,” she adds. “In our experience, farmers are not looking for new technologies that will replace employees, but technologies that will help them be more efficient with the employees they already have.”

  • VA2SFX 1:05 pm on September 21, 2016 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: Agriculture, , Insects, ,   

    Guardian: 59% decline in Britain’s insect populations since 1970 

    (Photo by Michael Podger, Unsplash)


    “The State of Nature report, published last week, brings together the findings of more than 50 organisations. It highlighted the particular plight of insects, suggesting a 59% decline since 1970. The general point was brought home to me recently in a conversation with a friend. He is 80 and remembered that in the 1960s, driving five miles down the road to the local town (Halstead) in high summer would leave the front windscreen of his car thick with bugs. Thinking about it, I remember when I started driving barely more than a decade ago, I would have to buy those bug wipes from petrol stations when on long journeys. This year there has been barely a smudge on my windscreen.”

    See also:


  • VA2SFX 12:02 pm on September 12, 2016 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: Agriculture, , ,   

    The Guardian: Rebuilding agricultural soil may stabilize climate change 

    “Scientists and farmers around the world are pointing out that we can regenerate degraded soils by switching from intensive industrial farming to more ecological methods — not just organic fertiliser, but also no-tillage, composting, and crop rotation. Here’s the brilliant part: as the soils recover, they not only regain their capacity to hold CO2, they begin to actively pull additional CO2 out of the atmosphere. […]

    The same report argues that if we apply regenerative techniques to the world’s pastureland as well, we could capture more than 100% of global emissions. In other words, regenerative farming may be our best shot at actually cooling the planet.”


    Rodale Institute report mentioned above, from 2014:


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