Category: Farm Practices

Biochar Update: Potato Harvest and Data Collection

One of my favorite crops to harvest is potatoes.  I love pushing my hands through the soil, searching by feel for the little spuds, and grabbing just enough for a batch of oven-baked fries or sausage, potato, and greens soup or red onion-potato-feta frittata. 

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Sounds kind of romantic, pastoral, right?  And it is.  Until you need to harvest pounds and pounds and pounds of potatoes.  That’s when reinforcements and machinery come in pretty handy.

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Last week we entered the final phase of this year’s biochar project: harvesting potatoes.  The goal was not only to harvest but also to collect data about what was harvested.  As I’ve talked about before, the biochar potato patch was divided into 12 plots in a randomized block design: 4 plots with no biochar; 4 with 10 tons/acre of biochar in Year 1 and Year 2; and 4 with 20 ton/acre in Year 1 only. From each of these twelve plots, we needed to harvest 10% of the potatoes, record the weight, and grade for quality.

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From this data, we’ll get an idea of how the applied rate of biochar affected the growth of the potatoes.  Dr. Kevin Gibson from Purdue also gathered the potato plant foliage so he could weigh the plants and have them analyzed for nutrient deficiencies.

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This first round of potatoes of was harvested by hand by Dr. Gibson and two of his students, my cousin Dirk, our 10-year-old neighbor Luke, and, of course, Dan and Sarah.

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The rest of the potatoes could be harvested by machine.  We used our BCS walk-behind tractor with the Root Digger (also known as Potato Digger), an attachment we purchased from Earth Tools with some of the recipe contest prize money.

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This was our first time using the potato digger, and we discovered pretty quickly that for it to work effectively, we needed to cut back the foliage of the potato plants before harvesting.

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Once all the potatoes are harvested, Dan will sow a cover crop (oats and peas) on the biochar plots.  The other five farms participating in the project will do the same to prepare the soil for next year’s crop: cabbages!

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves just yet.  We’ve still got potatoes to harvest and, just as important, potatoes to sell.  When garlic goes on sale in less than two weeks, so will lovely Red Norland potatoes, so get out those recipes: fries, soup, frittata—and whatever else you love to cook with these fresh, delicious orbs.

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Goodbye to Winter

Such is the name of the piano song my 6-year-old Harper just finished playing, and he couldn’t have done so at a better time.  Goodbye, Winter!  Hello, Spring!  And hello to all these gorgeous little babies growing in the hoop house.

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Yet, growing up in the Midwest, I do have a soft spot in my heart for the wintertime, especially when working on a vegetable farm.  When daylight drops below 10 hours, and the temperature plummets into the negatives, we take a break from growing and harvesting and instead reflect on the past season and plan for the future.

So as the snow fell and the gray skies took over, Dan and I thought about how we could make Perkins’ Good Earth Farm better.  We read books—Vegetable Literacy by Deborah Madison, Restoration Agriculture by Mark Shephard–listened to podcasts like those in Chris Blanchard’s Farmer to Farmer series, rethought what it means to host a Community Supported Agriculture, and discussed biochar and agricultural practices with other farmers.  We dreamed, drew up plans, crunched numbers, and dreamed some more.

And, thanks to many of your votes for my recipe in the Dannon Everyday Chefs Better With Yogurt contest, we’re going to be turning a few of these dreams into a reality!  Our first big project will be winterizing the milkhouse.  (This past fall, the temperatures dropped below freezing just as the Fall CSA ended, which was cutting it a little too close for comfort as refrigerators do a great job keeping greens cool but not so great at keeping them “warm”, aka unfrozen!)  We’ll also be purchasing several tools and tractor implements that will make planting and harvesting more efficient.  

But for now, the big news is that spring sales are about to begin! Starting next week on April 23, we’ll be selling produce through weekly online sales, with sales opening on Thursdays at 5 pm and closing on Fridays at 5 pm.  Pick-up will be Monday from 3-6 here at the farm, or in Rensselaer from 11-2, depending on your preference.  Click here to check out our spring produce.  We’re so looking forward to seeing you all again!

 

How to Plant Garlic

Spaghetti.  Roasted chicken.  Foccacia Bread.  Hummus.  Pizza.  Pesto.  Pretty-Much-Any-Roasted-Vegetable.  What do all these foods have in common?  None of them would be the same without garlic.

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Instead of sharing a recipe this week, I’d like to show you how we grow garlic, a key cooking ingredient.  We grow hardneck garlic, or garlic that produces a flowering scape in the spring, as opposed to softneck garlic, which rarely flowers and is the garlic most commonly found in grocery stores.  Hardneck varieties have anywhere from 4-12 cloves, depending on the cultivar.  Each of these cloves has the capability to produce a new garlic bulb—that is, if you choose to plant the clove instead of eat it.

Garlic Planting Instructions

1. Consider Quantity

For hardneck garlic, 1 bulb planted yields anywhere from 5-8 new bulbs, depending on the number of cloves in the garlic variety.  To determine how much to plant, divide the amount you’d like to produce by 6.  For instance, if you’d like to yield 48 bulbs of garlic, you’d buy 8 bulbs to plant, or about 1 pound of seed garlic.

2. Consider Quality

People often ask if they can plant garlic they buy at the grocery store.  It’s a good question, but the answer is, “No!”  Seed garlic is graded at 2” diameter, because larger bulbs generally contain larger cloves.  When you plant large cloves, you yield large bulbs.  Also, store-bought eating garlic hasn’t been screened for diseases and may be susceptible to pests once planted.  We recommend purchasing seed garlic from a commercial garlic seed grower using organic growing methods, such as Perkins’ Good Earth Farm or Filaree Farm. 

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3. Break the Bulbs Apart

A few days before planting, break the bulbs into individual cloves.  Twist the top off the bulb, peel away the outer skins (not the individual clove skins), and remove the cloves.  We call this “popping”, and because it’s quite time consuming, we think popping works best as a group activity. 

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This year a group of Taylor University students helped pop garlic during a field trip to our farm.  Thank you, Taylor!

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4. Soak the Cloves

12 hours before planting, we soak our garlic in a solution designed to give a nutrient boost and to prevent disease and insect carry over.

Seed Soak Recipe

1. At least 12 hours before planting, soak cloves in 

  • 1 Tbsp baking soda
  • 1 Tbsp fish seaweed fertilizer
  • 1 gallon water

2. Right before planting, dunk cloves in 70% isopropyl alcohol for 5 minutes.

3. Plant immediately.

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5. Plant

Because of the amount of garlic we grow, we plant in the field behind our house.  A home gardener planting a small amount, however, might consider planting in a raised bed.  Either way, prepare rows 8-12 inches apart, and plant each clove 5-6 inches apart.  Cloves should be planted 3-4 inches deep here in Northwest Indiana because of the winter temperatures (in the south you could plant 1.5-2” deep).  Be sure to plant basal side down, as the roots grow from the base of the clove.  Cover the cloves with soil.

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This year we had the opportunity to try planting in a new way, with a garlic cart.  This cart was funded by a SARE grant, and was developed by us and Purdue agricultural engineering students.  We’re still in the experimentation stage with the cart, but we’re hopeful it will make commercial hardneck garlic planting more efficient and easier on the body. Click here to see a video of Dan using the cart to cover the planted garlic. 

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6. Mulch

Mulch heavily (3-5 inches deep) with weed-free straw for weed and moisture control.  There’s no need to remove the straw in the spring, as the garlic is strong enough to push through the mulch. You can also use grass clippings, but you’ll need to put a new layer on in the spring. 

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For more information on growing garlic, you are welcome to come visit us at our farm!  We also recommend reading Growing Great Garlic by Ron L. Engeland.  For recipe ideas, search for cookbooks from Gilroy’s Garlic Festival, such as this one we found at a used book store a few years ago.

Have you ever planted garlic before?  If so, how was your planting experience?  For those who prefer cooking to planting, what’s your favorite way to eat garlic?  I’d love to hear your ideas in the comments section!

Photographs and Food Styling: Anne Kingma

How Distribution Works

As you may already know, we follow the Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) model, which is a partnership between a farm and a community of supporters.  You purchase a “share” of fall produce, and we provide you with fresh, naturally grown vegetables.  So what exactly does that look like?

Each week you’ll come to our farm and pick up your vegetables, an event we call “distribution.”  You’ll go to the milkhouse (the little white building behind our house), and you’ll see an array of produce laid out.  On the chalkboard, you’ll find a posting of produce that we have available, and how much of each vegetable each share type (full or half) will be receiving.  Find your name on the posted checklist to confirm your share type, then put a check next to your name to show that you’ve picked up your produce.  Dan or I will be there to answer any questions you may have.  If you’d like, we can give you a tour of the hoop house and the farm.  For our share members in the Rennselaer area, Dan will deliver your produce each week (of course, you are always welcome to come visit!).

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Distribution Location: The Milkhouse

On our website we list what vegetables we’re planning on providing over the course of the next seven weeks.  We can predict but not guarantee what will be available each week.  We do our part by making and keeping planting schedules, providing the plants with water and nutrients, and protecting them from insects and disease.  But, obviously, we cannot control the weather or other external factors.  We choose to view this reality as an adventure, and we invite you to do the same.  If you come to distribution with excited anticipation (ooh, what will I get to cook with this week?) rather than specific expectations (they had carrots last week—where are they this week?), we think you’ll find the whole experience much more enjoyable.

Last year, I emailed a weekly newsletter with recipes and other information.  This year, instead of newsletters, you can check out this farm blog!  My goal is to post an in-depth recipe each week, where I focus on a specific vegetable in your share.  Photographer Anne Kingma and I will be working together on these posts so that you can have visual as well as written instructions.  I’ll also refer you to other cookbooks, recipes, and websites that I find useful.  We want to make incorporating your produce into your daily eating as easy and fun as possible, and we welcome your recipes and ideas for doing so as well.

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