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

    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: , , , , Farming   

    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 3:16 pm on December 17, 2016 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , Farming, Handcrafted, Herbs, Soap   

    Have a very soapy Holiday from Invironment! 

    Special thank you to Terri May and co., proprietors of Whimsical Moon Herb Farm of Indiana, from whom I was the lucky winner of this hand-crafted soap package. Whoo!

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

    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 7:37 pm on August 11, 2016 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: Farming, , , ,   

    Garlic harvest 

    I estimate that I planted around 2,200 cloves of garlic in the Autumn of 2015. Here is my harvest, drying on racks constructed from cinder blocks and shelving sections:

    Close-ups for context:

    I had maybe 40–50 “crappy ones” which had dried out and separated. Can sort of see them on a table in the back. They will get re-planted in semi-wild areas.

    Then maybe another 25 or so which broke when pulled up by the stalk (which they say you shouldn’t do — but I found it was faster as a harvest technique, despite losses). Not really “lost” at all though, as they will form the basis of a ‘volunteer’ garlic force next year which are welcome to re-grow at their leisure.

    If I were to re-plant all this garlic (often 4 cloves per head), I would probably be in for over 8,000 garlic next year. It’s already too much right now, so I can’t do that… Got to find other uses. It’s a good problem to have though.

  • VA2SFX 6:13 pm on July 15, 2016 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: Farming, , , , Scapes   

    This is what it looks like when you let garlic scapes go too long… 

    This is less than half of what I harvested

    Most of it is fibrous and borderline inedible without some fancy footwork to transform it. My fault for letting them go. I have a huge quantity. Last year I had maybe 1/10th this much garlic planted (I planted approx. 2,200 cloves in the Autumn) and was easily able to offload all the flowers to a local chef.

    I sold 5 kilos a little earlier this year at $30/kg when they were in top shape:

    I’m not in it for the money anymore though… just the fun. It’s better this way.

  • VA2SFX 9:49 pm on February 3, 2016 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , Enterprise Budgets, Farming   

    Holy Grail Zip File of Farm Enterprise Budgets 

    Delighted to discover just now a mother-lode of small farm enterprise budget examples compiled by Ethan Roland:


    He writes:

    In order to support the ongoing development of ecological agriculture, I’m making available to you all the all the enterprise budgets I have collected in the last 2 years — more than 1,090 of them. I ask only that you keep seeking and creating out new budgets to add to the collection — especially ones that use real data from small-scale organic and permaculture operations. Download ’em here — careful, this is a 130mb file.

    Here is an updated link I got from the compiler:


    And hat tip to Jeremy Puma for finding a functioning version elsewhere also as a backup.


    Farm financials blockchain?

    I’m still trying to wrap my head around the data that other people collect, how they organize it and what they do with it. It’s one thing to collect data in farming, but which data?

    It’s not always so simple to figure out, and its hard to know without experience if your plans are very good.

    My business plan before getting started last year is laughable looking back. I hope I’m starting to see the light after having to go through first-year frustrations…

    I don’t think I’ll make any money yet though. Maybe $2000 above costs (not paying myself yet for labor hours, and no other laborers) would be kind of a killer goal for Year Two. I have a strong feeling even that would be hard to do.

    Maybe something will happen with my 2,000 garlic though.

    We’ll see.

  • VA2SFX 10:44 pm on December 27, 2015 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: Farming, , Garden 2016   

    The kind of garden I want next year… 

    Garden 2016

    A shopping list:

    Thought I would try to piece together visual examples of other people’s garden realities that I would like to try and emulate and integrate into our garden here at home for the new year.

    A lot of my ideas and questions right now are about how to scale up in size without needing to do too much extra maintenance work. And, as always, what will actually be profitable — as well as what will be “worth it just to do it” type experience… they are not all created equal.

    (Image sources hyperlinked under images)

    Keywords: densely sown mixed grains and legumes as cover crops in small patches to build soil material. Will experiment with cutting and leaving patches to grow and different blends.

    Plantes: (partial list) barley, rye, wheat, oats, sorghum, amaranth, quinoa, teff, millet, lentil, chick pea, mustard, mangels, sweet clover, radish, kale

    I am far from this, but I find the images from this era of agriculture inspiring. I don’t see myself any day soon growing acreages of wheat, but you never know. It pays sometimes to look past what you currently think is possible..





    Make no mistake! While these plants all have good and interesting final uses, I am realistic enough to know I will never do half or even a quarter of what they are. But I would like to get to know these plants, and the best way is by growing them and living with them over a season (at least) before you really understand much about them.

    So this will be very much a “getting to know you” year for the garden. And it will be an invitational. Presumably some of my invited species will like it and get along in the conditions we live with here, and some will simply not thrive. It’s a selection process I want to encourage in the garden. I know enough to know that I don’t know, and then there’s what I don’t know but will come to pass in 5 years or 10 years. What will a climate change farm and garden look like in the North-Eastern states and provinces?

    I kind of feel like rolling the dice and stacking the soil seed-bank with known heavy hitters, medicinal, material-generating, ecologic, economic plants, and let nature sort the rest out.

    Within limits.


    See also:




    I have plans to build a positively chaotic number of fast & dirty bird-houses and stick them all over the field. So I’m really curious how their lives will link in with the lives of all these grains and whatnot growing in proximity.

    I think it’s going to be “freaky” in a good way…

    (I’m also curious if and how much birds will eat and then re-seed (ie, poop out) grains from my small parcel around the property, and the immediate vicinity (but don’t tell my neighbors!).

    Guiding question: How much biodiversity should we encourage? And how do we know when it’s “working?”

    If nothing else, I will probably get some interesting fodder for birds (turkey, chicken, duck) and pigs toward the end of the season, and will also have a chance to see what they prefer and then grow more of that over successive years.

    Wild-flower mixes

    Keywords: wildflower mixes, north-east, NE, perennials, annuals, self-seeding, edible & medicinal, butterly, bee, bird and wild-life promoting

    Interspersed with experimental plots of different grains, which I might plant in sort of spirals or something radiating around a central post with at least an ID number on them, but also a bird house or three on each post might be interesting.

    Like this, but closer together, and lots of them of different sizes and different seed source material


    All the “good” edible wild plants already growing as weeds: amaranth, lamb’s quarters, dandelion, sorrel… and on and on — and all the ones I haven’t met yet…

    Lamb’s quarters


    Cultivated Italian dandelions, because that sounds fancy!

    Cultivated Italian dandelions, y’all!

    Plus planting in a semi-wild population of other noteworthy edible “weed” stragglers I haven’t yet seen make an appearance in the garden on their own: like claytonia (Miner’s lettuce) and purslane, and whatever else I can nail down seed sources for.


    More and different varieties of hops.


    A few varieties of seedless table grapes.

    Maybe some hardy kiwi:

    Northern kiwi


    Going big on herbs next year. Culinary and medicinal. Fresh and dehydrated. Tea blends.

    Keywords: (culinary) savory, thyme, marjoram, fennel, dill, sorrel, oregano, borage, catnip, sage, parsley, chive… to name a few.





    In no particular order: lemon balm, mint, nettle, ginseng, baby ginger (if I can find a Canadian source), echinacea, comfrey, chamomile, calendula, arnica…

    Shallots, chives, scallions, garlic, red onion… lots of different kinds of potatoes (as many as I can get) — which I will neglect utterly and harvest early…

    Planter boxes, circuitous pathways, chairs & benches, habitat and cover for birds and small animals. Copious birdhouses. Natural fences. Willow fences. Heavy mulch.

    Mixed garden


    Mixed wildflowers and herbs

    Grains and grasses integrated among wildflower patches

    Chufa, Jerusalem artichoke, turmeric… sweet potatoes.

    Chufa / tigernuts

    Topinambour / Jerusalem artichoke


    Winecaps, shiitake & pleurotes… bhut jolokia, habanero, jalapeno, chili… raspberry, asparagus, horseradish, wasabi…

    That’s all I can think of right now, but that’s a pretty good start if you ask me! Ought to at least keep me busy a little while…

  • VA2SFX 5:26 pm on December 18, 2015 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , Big Hands, Farming   

    Big hands are proof. 

    I suppose you can be a farmer with small hands. I suppose, but I don’t know for sure.

    I imagine you can at least start out anyway being a farmer with small hands (no offense to small-handed farmers, either!), but it seems like farmers’ hands somehow grow bigger than other people’s.

    Like how Olympic swimmer bodies tend to be shaped a bit more like seals somehow. Adaptation in one generation? The body feedback loop reinforcing behaviors with muscular differentiation? Who knows.

    Fact is, all the for-real “farmers” I’ve seen (and I don’t quite count myself in that club just yet), their hands are huge. Not just big, but broad, wide, long. In every direction. Their hands are their tools.

    So much of farming is about gripping, grabbing, pulling, hauling and holding. Like the down-to-the-moment meat of the “Pure Work” aspect of it. No wonder your hands get huge after a life-time of manipulation.

    Big hands are proof. You can say or earn or lose or win whatever you want or are able to in one’s “effective lifetime” as a farmer, but big hands are proof that you did it. That’s all I really want, I think. The proof that I did it. Get back to me when I’m 80.

  • VA2SFX 3:56 pm on December 18, 2015 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: Budget, Farming, Software   

    Farm budget app recommends? 

    Who has a good simple app (online or desktop — Mac) for tracking farm budgets? It’s not immediately clear to me from web searches.

    Conceivably, any good small business budget software would work also (no need for bells and whistles), but I’m not sure where to start. I have everything right now in a spreadsheet, which is limiting for the kind of year-end analysis I’d like to do.

    Thanks for any recommendations.

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