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Month: February 2017

Progress report: February 2017

Progress report: February 2017

This report was a little late (it is March 4th). This is partially because the end of February snuck up on me – whose idea was a 28 day month, anyway? It is partially because I’ve been busy working on stuff. This report will be much shorter than last months for both reasons. You can read last month’s report here, and next month’s report as it is shaping up here.

I mention a lot of things in here that I could go into much greater detail on. If you are curious about the reasons behind any of this, or want references or resources, let me know in the comments. I don’t have time to go into detail on everything right now, but I certainly have time to go into some of the topics if it would be helpful to anyone.

[The picture is some seeds from Baker Creek, and from a local seed swap. This is a small portion of what we are planting this year!]


Overall, this is incredibly exciting. Spring is coming, and things are very quickly falling into place and becoming real. It is also very intimidating – there are so many unknowns, so many things to learn, and so much work to be done. Sometimes I feel like we are on top of the world, and sometimes I feel like I am in waaaay over my head and that the entire project is going to collapse in complete failure. I’ve done the entrepreneurial roller coaster before, so I’m pretty good at acknowledging the feelings for what they are and keeping my head down and just getting the work done.

But it would be dishonest if I didn’t admit that this is a roller coaster, and that it is hard. I’m looking forward to next year when we will be spending a higher percentage of our time refining things rather than beginning everything from scratch. 🙂

Expenses: $216.18

The only expenses this month were for seeds and other plant material. Overall, the seed budget is significantly higher this year than it will likely be in the future because (1) we are trying a bunch of varieties to see what grows best and sells best here, and (2) in the future we will primarily be growing seeds we saved ourselves, or swapped for. This month brings our total expenses to $579.18.

$32.95 Seeds from Mariseeds bred by Chris Homanics

$51.24 Seeds from Baker Creek Rare Seeds

$55 Seeds from Carol Deppe/Fertile Valley Seeds

$32 Seeds, Sunroots, and cactus pads from Joseph Lofthouse

$18.50 Purple Tree Collard cuttings from happycatseedandc0mpany on ebay

$16.49 Daubenton kale plant from park5500 on ebay

$6.88 Green Giant tree collard cuttings from 888forsale888 on ebay

Work Done

  • Stumbled on some interesting ideas that combine community development and marketing: packaging food as meal kits, and organizing supper swaps. I’ll write more on this later, but the basic idea is to get our community eating more food made from scratch by organizing a cooking co-op, and providing food in bulk packages with recipes designed to be convenient as meals for those co-ops. It is more affordable to cook food from scratch, and as farmers if we can sell food in fewer transactions of larger sizes we can provide a better price, and if we make it convenient for people to eat our food then people can spend less money on expensive processed foods, and afford our produce more easily. It all adds up to making the food more affordable and accessible from a number of angles, and is a key part of our strategy to compete with Walmart.
  • Planned out permanent cover crops for the vegetable beds.
  • Mostly finished choosing varieties and ordering seeds: I poured over catalogs from all the local seed companies I could find, looking for crops that would likely grow well in our cool maritime climate, and that would hopefully sell well. I’ve also gotten some seeds from independent plant breeders that I’ve met online.
  • Worked out a ton of details with Mary Anne about the land use and how operations at the farm will go. It is a bit more complicated than just using someone’s yard, because we will be using a pasture at their equestrian facility, and are hoping to have the farm be as open as possible as a demonstration site, and those two factors combined mean that there are a lot of logistical details to make it all safe and smoothly operating. We are just about ready to sign the paperwork and get moving.
  • Researched legalities and logistics. We will not need a permit for the farmstand, but it does need to have legally adequate parking and offset from the road. I need to research the laws about signs a bit more to see what exactly we are allowed in terms of roadside signage.
  • Made progress planning the installation of infrastructure. We found a source of inexpensive crushed concrete to make the driveway and parking area for the farm stand, and an inexpensive source of compost to jump start the garden beds.
  • Made progress planning and researching dry farming and microbe inoculations, which we will be experimenting with heavily as a way to potentially bring areas into garden beds with extremely minimal inputs from outside. Many more details on this later!
  • Planted some onion seeds in milk jugs… and decided that we don’t want to plant anything more in milk jugs because it is kind of a bother, and not going to scale anywhere close to what we will need.
  • Brought on our first partner – Neil will be helping out on the farm. We’ve known Neil for almost a decade, and he is a very good worker and very smart, so are tickled pink to have him on the team. His primary goal is to learn, and was willing to work for no money, but for us, operating sustainably means that we should pay people who are working on the farm. Also, we don’t want to get nailed by the government for violating labor laws. The sticking point was that we don’t have money coming in yet, and therefore don’t have money to pay him with. After digging into the laws, we found a simple solution to keep everything in line with our values and the laws of the land: add him as a member to the LLC, with a percentage stake based on the estimated percentage of the work he’ll be putting in this year.
  • Found some excellent resources for bed planning. Unfortunately haven’t been able to make as much use of them as I wanted to because there are so many unknowns right now. Hopefully we will be able to do more of this next year:

Coming up

  • Build the basic infrastructure at the farm: clear the access way, put in a driveway, build the farmstand, prepare planting areas.
  • Start outreach and marketing to build community around the farm. Put together a Facebook page and website, and start posting content.
  • Design the farm branding: logo, brand name, mission statement, business cards, etc
  • Make posters and flyers
  • Plant early spring greens and herbs, probably with low tunnels for quick and easy season extension.
  • Research Good Agricultural Practices and make sure our operations are following them and are safe.
As a small market farmer, Walmart is my most important competition

As a small market farmer, Walmart is my most important competition

I’m going to throw out some scattered points – the connections may not seem obvious, but I’ll bring it all together at the end. The big picture that emerges is incredibly exciting to me. My most important, critical competition is Walmart, and anyone who is growing good food on a small scale is an invaluable help for me. Especially if they are close to me, and even more so if they are in my own neighborhood.

Here we go…

If I set up shop in a farmers market, and there are a dozen other farms with their booths, and I go home at the end of the day with unsold produce, then yes, I was in competition with the other farmers. But would label tomatoes as a weed if you planted five of them per square foot?

Some fruits and vegetables are incredibly more nutritionally dense than others. A good comparison would be comparing young, sweet kale leaves to romain lettuce. One serving is not like another. And more than just different kinds of foods, nutrition can vary immensely based on the specific variety of a vegetable, and the way it is grown can have a huge impact on its value for improving your health (also important is the soil it is grown in). There is a gulf between lettuce and kale, and another gulf (although not as big) between well grown kale and industrially grown cruddy kale.


Almost anyone can walk into a Walmart and afford to buy some fruits and vegetables. The quality and freshness is not the best, but it is just about as affordable and accessible as food can get in this country (the United States). It is very important for everyone to have access to food they can afford. Walmart and friends serve a role right now that nobody else does.

People are creatures of habit, and stick to what is known and comfortable. And yet people can change when given time, and when given examples. But people only change when something else changes first. Because most of the time, people do things for reasons that are connected to reality somehow – and if reality remains unchanged, why would we possibly think that people’s choices would change?

People have limited time, and most food is not cooked from scratch, but poured out of bags and boxes, or zapped in a microwave. The skill of efficiently cooking simple but tasty foods from scratch takes time to learn, along with trial and error. A lot of people don’t have the time to go out and learn this all on their own.

I want to repeat the above point – that people can change, and our society can change, but only if reality itself changes first. This is a critical point.

The USDA recommends eating at least 5 servings of fruit and vegetables everyday, and modern science suggests that we ought to be eating at least 10 servings a day. Eating more plant food is incredibly useful for avoiding degenerative diseases and premature death – and eating more plants helps you feel younger and healthier. And that is industrially raised cardboard-like plants, not even the truly good food that we can raise.

How many vegetables are available in the states, per person? Fewer than three servings a day. We are producing LESS THAN A THIRD of the most important food we can eat. No wonder we decay so badly as we age.

The economy is teetering right now, and there are more troubles in the wings. And more than just our current crises, for the last 40 or 50 years the people in the United States have been pulling in the same effective wages, while facing rising costs for education, healthcare, and etc. Money is tight for ordinary people, and that is not going to change. Unless it changes by money getting even tighter.

Putting it together

The people in my community are malnourished. This is because of a culinary culture that is centered on a mockery of real food, it is because they do not have enough money to buy the fruits and vegetables except for industrial cardboard junk, and because there isn’t even enough of that cardboard junk to go around.

Most people here are used to getting food that with no bug holes, in a brightly lit and air conditioned warehouse with shiny floors. They are used to eating lettuce, tomatoes, and potatoes. And it makes sense – they weren’t raised to know how to enjoy other kinds of vegetables, the packaging really is beautiful and convenient, the prices are cheap, and since they are already there shopping for other things it makes sense to also pick up some produce.

Who is my competition? It is the brilliantly lit, rock bottom priced warehouse that sells boxed macaroni and cheese. The warehouse that indoctrinates people to the idea that convenience is prized above all else, and that peddles the myth that preparing real food from scratch is a luxury for the rich. My competition is the habits and voices inside people’s heads that tell them it is okay to live with all that. My competition is the fact that the modern world, perfectly symbolized by Walmart, has sapped my people of their time, money, energy, and focus.

Who are my allies? Who are the people who are doing the most to change our culture so I can make a living by selling irregularly shaped, handgrown vegetables from a roadside stand? The farmers who are in my region, who are fighting the same fight.

What small fraction of people get enough vegetables to eat? What vanishing fraction shops at farmers markets or joins a CSA? There is so much that needs to be done. We need billions of pounds of well grown fruit and vegetables in the country. We need millions more small farmers. Just in my neighborhood we could use dozens of small farms. How many do we have? At the moment? Zero.

This year our farm will be the first in our neighborhood. Next year, or the year after? I hope we can get more farms started, because the need in my little community vastly outstrips what I could ever provide. And the more farms there are in my community, the more mindshare we will have, and the more we can help each other pull a groundswell of commerce away from the warehouses and back into our neighborhoods.

We small farmers have to work together to develop and share ways to educate people. Ways to get people to eat kale, ways to teach people to learn how to prepare kholrabi, and ways to help people embrace seasonal eating, and so much more.

Competing with Walmart on price

This may be the hardest challenge, because there is no shirking it – we need to fight as hard as we can to learn how to make a living while attacking Walmart on price. If our stuff costs more, the truth is that it will never see broad adoption. No matter how good it is, if people can’t afford it they won’t buy it.

I’ll have much more to say on this in future posts, but I don’t have the answers yet, just ideas and fantasies. It might be impossible. But I find potential impossibilities exhilarating.

What if we grew more perennial vegetables that produced more heavily with less work? What if we worked with soil biology, and permanent groundcovers, and rarely or never had to weed?

What if we found ways to do without expensive coolers, walk behind tractors, soil amendments, weed cloth, and all the other expenses? What if we made an app that tracked people’s purchases at the farm stand, and emailed them recipes and reminders to help them eat more vegetables (and buy in greater quantity)?

What if we found ways to connect so tightly with our local communities that we didn’t have to spend a quarter of our time marketing? What if teaching cooking classes was part of the services we offered, fundamentally integrated with the farm? Or coordinate a community “meal bank”, like a time bank but with a currency of homecooked food instead of hours?

I don’t know how many of those ideas are at all practical. But I know for a fact that what we need to do cannot be accomplished without reality changing. People will not change unless something else changes first. They won’t eat more vegetables and support small farms unless we change ourselves first.

The biggest force keeping people where they are? Walmart, and everything it represents. The biggest force working for change? Small farmers.

Walmart and friends, you are officially on notice – I’ve got my sights on your produce section, and I’m not alone, and we are not going to go away.

Permanent ground covers for vegetable beds

Permanent ground covers for vegetable beds

We will be experimenting with permanent ground covers in our vegetable beds – specifically planting and allowing perennial plants interspersed with our vegetable crops. The purpose of this is to keep essentially a living mulch to help conserve water, suppress weeds, and to keep the ground covered with leaves engaging in photosynthesis. This will ensure that the life in the soil is being continually fed by root exudates.

I’ll be writing a post later about the biology of the soil that will give much more context to this. 🙂

One important note is that I’m not leaning on these crops to fix nitrogen, a role commonly given to cover crops, although they will certainly help to make nutrients available to the plant by maintaining a vibrant soil food web.

I want to see what it is like to disturb the soil as little as physically possible: sowing or transplanting into fully intact ground covers. No strip tilling, no mowing even. For this reason, they need to be short. I’d love to include dutch clover as a nitrogen fixer, but in most of the annual beds it simply grows too tall. Doing this with crops grown as annuals (like spinach, broccoli, or carrots) is pretty far out. I don’t know how well it will work – this is most definitely experimental.

I made a list of plants starting from Elaine Ingham’s list of perennial cover plants, then finding ones that seemed like they were a good fit for my climate and market farm context. I was looking for plants that:

  • Are tolerant of foot traffic. Although we intend to have permanent paths and beds, so plants that can’t take foot traffic will probably just not grow in the paths.
  • Are easy and inexpensive to establish but not too aggressive
  • Are pretty short, because I’ll be growing these among annuals
  • Are not woody, so that if I need to, I can cut or rake them away from the soil easily, and seeding / transplanting tools don’t get gummed up.
  • Tolerate wet / moist areas. We get a lot of winter rain, and I will likely be irrigating at least some in the summer – this needs to not kill the plants.
  • Tolerate dryness / drought. This is a little at odds with the previous point, but I’m looking for a mix of plants. We have dry summers, and I want to be able to get away with as little irrigation as I can to grow the crops.
  • Dense growth habit. I’m looking for plants that will grow densely and cover the soil to protect it from rain compaction, evaporation, and excessive weed seed germination.

My process was to scan through Elaine Ingham’s list, and then perform an internet search for any plants that were at most 2-3 inches in height or shorter. I confirmed their short height, then made a pretty quick snap judgement based on the criteria listed above. An images search that showed the plant growing around pavers or in a walkway was an almost sure sign that it fit the criteria I’m looking for. This was a quick-and-dirty process so I could get on with the rest of the planning for this growing season. Please leave a comment if you have any suggestions or critique!

Green carpet, aka Smooth rupturewort (Herniaria glabra)

This grows 2-3 inches tall, and sends down a deep taproot. Excellent! This means that it will not be competing for light with our crops, and hopefully largely keeping its roots deeper than the crop roots, while deeply feeding and loosening the soil. We will get seeds at $8.99 for 10,000 seeds here.

Pros: no spreading rhizomes, deep taproot, fairly soft and easy to manage

Cons: this may be too tall for the annual beds. We’ll see.

Lemon Frost Thyme (Thymus x citriodorus)

This grows 1/2 inch to 1 inch tall! And supposedly has a wonderful fragrance to it. I imagine this would be a bit trickier to get established – the tiny seeds would probably require growing as transplants to successfully establish a stand. Nevertheless, the very short height and attractiveness of the plant makes it worth trying.

Pros: extremely short, pleasant aroma

Cons: if it is anything like normal thyme, it might get a bit woody.

Dandelions (Taraxacum officinale)

This will definitely be experimental. Depending on circumstances, dandelions can grow quite tall (a foot or so in my area), or they can have a rosette that tightly hugs the ground. Joseph Lofthouse says that in his region in Utah, dandelions will grow short if it is dry and sunny, and tall if it is moist and shady. He intercrops it in beds with garlic.

Pros: a valuable rootcrop, leafcrop, and flowercrop, inexpensive and easy to obtain, deep taproot can deeply feed soil

Cons: might get to tall if conditions trigger height, might compete for water too much

Alpine strawberries (Fragaria vesca)

These are drought tolerant, nicely spreading… strawberries! The berries are tiny and inconvenient to harvest, but might make an occasional treat when working in the fields, especially for the kids. Suggested by John in the comments, and a few posters over at I’m a little concerned that they may be too tall, but I’ll see.

Pros: easy to establish, drought tolerant, berries!

Cons: the runners might get annoying, it is taller and bushier than some of the other options here

Sedum requieni

This was added after Scott Dilatush mentioned it in the comments. I’ll quote what he said: “This drought tolerant evergreen plant grows only 1/4 inch tall and makes a dense mat that takes heavy foot traffic. Extremely easy to hoe. Soil prep is a must for longevity.”

Miscellaneous ground covers

These ground cover plants seem fairly similar so I’m lumping them together. They grow 1-2 inches tall or so, and readily spread to cover an area. Some of these like to stay moist, and others like to dry out between waterings. So we’ll see how they do!

  • Miniature Brass Buttons (Leptinella gruveri)
  • Alpine Brass Buttons (Leptinella minor)
  • Blue Star Creeper (Pratia pendunculata)
  • Scotch Moss (Sagina subulata ‘Aurea’)
  • Fine Tide Turf (Selleria microphylla)
  • Wooly Thyme (Thymus pseudolanuginosus)
  • Reiter Creeping Thyme (Thymus Reiter)
  • Wallowa Mountains Mossy Sandwort (Desert Moss)

The final mix

There were a few almost-duplicates in there – multiple Thyme species and a couple Brass Buttons. I’m trying to keep things simple for now, and don’t want a mix dominated by any one genus, so I removed “duplicates” and came up with this list:

  • Green carpet (Herniaria glabra)
  • Lemon Frost Thyme (Thymus x citriodorus)
  • Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale)
  • Alpine strawberry (Fragaria vesca)
  • Miniature Brass Buttons (Leptinella gruveri)
  • Blue Star Creeper (Pratia pendunculata)
  • Scotch Moss (Sagina subulata ‘Aurea’)
  • Fine Tide Turf (Selleria microphylla)
  • Reiter Creeping Thyme (Thymus Reiter)
  • Wallowa Mountains Mossy Sandwort (Desert Moss)

I’ll probably sow a bunch of seeds in pots, then pluck out individual seedlings to transplant into the beds on a 3 inch spacing. Some beds will get a mono-cover, and others will get mixes of the plants. I’ll only do this in some portions of some beds, so we’ll be able to compare the impact of the different plants, the mix, and bare soil or mulch.