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March 2009

The Cobbler's Children...

I take the train to work most days, traveling from Gilroy to San Francisco. And for most of that time I'm communicating. E-mail, texts, conference calls. All part of (a large part) of the job. So I use my cell phone (iPhone) a lot.

Can you guess the two places where I always lose my connection? Rolling into the Mountain View and Palo Alto train stations.

It's not about lack of demand. Or customers willing to pay. I'm guessing it's about NIMBY. Cell towers clash with the color schemes. So no connection for you!

All A-Twitter

So now I'm on Twitter. How I got there... More later. When Twitter was about "now I'm picking my nose" I wasn't so interested. But now it's being seen as part of the marketing mix. So I'm "following" a couple of randomly chosen people and organizations.

And to think only this morning I was explaining the difference between Twitter and text messaging!

Much, much more to come.

Confessions of an Obsessive-Compulsive Farmer

IMG_1083 So Sunday (the 15th of March) was a big day.  I really wanted to go skiing, given that the Sierra's had received seven feet of snow in the past week.  But I was OK staying at home given that the near-constant rains of the past month had let up and we were looking at a perfect weekend.  I spent Saturday making raised garden bed frames for our anticipated shipments of potatoes and asparagus.  Both are perennials and need lots of sun, so making new beds in the center of the garden was easier than trying to move the two beds we have to a new location.  At least it seemed that way when I got started.  I got the plans for the raised beds from Sunset; here's a link to their plans: Sunset Raised Bed Plan

So after constructing the beds on Saturday, I was ready to place them Sunday and begin filling them with dirt.  Thanks to our recent Livestock and Land project, I have a huge pile of dirt and rocks to work with, but there's a lot of effort involved to sift out the rocks and get dirt that's workable for garden soil.  And since our soil tends to get compacted when it gets a lot of water, it needs to be amended with a fair bit of compost.

As is my custom, I started the job of filling the beds with dirt and compost by doing something else... namely, turning the piles of horse manure I've been composting since last fall.  As I stripped off the plastic covering the piles (to warm them and keep them from getting soaked by all the rain) I was excited to see that the first pile was ready to be used as compost.  How did I know?  I didn't really, except that as I worked the pile it smelled, looked, and acted a lot more like dirt than horse manure.  As my old Nortel colleague Fred Manus would have said, it passed the "duck test".

You're correct:  it's the sign of farmer geek-ness when you get excited about a pile of horse shit.  I'm OK with that.  I see it as another step toward a biodynamic farm--one where the farm and ranch wastes are recycled into nutrients for the next round of crops.  Sounds pretty cool to me!  It responds to my inner desire not to fill up landfills and my inner cheapskate--I don't have to pay to haul away the manure, and I don't have to pay to buy more compost.  It's a win-win!

So I was able to start the new beds with a layer of compost from the erstwhile horse manure.  Then I added compost from the pile of leaves and branches that is what our overgrown wysteria plant became.  After that came calcium.  Our garden muse, Cynthia Waters (aka "the tomato lady" and grower for Manresa Restaurant) recommends crushed crab shells, but given our family affinity for oysters, we opted for crushed oyster shells.  After that will come more dirt, sifted out of the giant dirt and rock pile that, Doc has discovered, has become home to our resident ground squirrels.

Last year we started with three beds, about four by twelve feet each.  These dimensions matched what we had set up in our Ben Lomond property.  But while they seemed huge in that location, seting them in the middle of a 100 x 100 foot field made them look puny.  Still, they were a start.  And, since I had dug them by hand using a pick-axe and shovel in 95' weather, they were plenty of work.

But, as we set our sights on a greater amount and variety of vegetables (recall the OCD reference above) we wanted to expand.   I started our original beds right in the ground because we couldn't afford materials for enclosed beds.  Since then, I've developed a liking for working directly in the ground--it feels more like farming than gardening.  So while I was happy to accommodate the OCD chicken rancher in our household with more raised beds, I was hankering to expand the in-ground beds as well.  Happily, all the rains have softened up the ground considerably, so I discovered (after one go with the pick-axe) that I could turn the soil over using just a shovel.  You may say "what's the big deal", but I invite you to come over and try turning over a shovel full of dirt once it warms up and the ground starts to dry out.

So I was able to extend each of the beds about another eight feet, and then amended them with compost and oyster shells like I did with the raised beds.  Of course the chickens thought this was great--I'm now their worm-producing god, as they would run from one spot of freshly turned soil to another, looking for earthworms to eat.  Hey, keep it biodynamic!

Now the beds are nearly ready for planting.  Our asparagus and potato starters are being resent from the seed company we use in Maine, Johnny's Seeds, since the original shipment got held up in that bad winter weather in the East.  We got tomato starters this past weekend, and have started some from seeds (my brother has outsourced his tomato growing to me, since he doesn't get enough hot weather to make it work).  We'll be getting various greens (arugula being my favorite) in the ground soon, with peppers, tomatoes, beans, and other goodies to follow.

Check out the photo album if you want to see the beds in their various stages of progress.  And if you're in the neightborhood, stop by for some free compost!

Greening our Ranch

One of my biggest concerns when looking into moving to Gilroy and taking up the rancher lifestyle was what we were going to do with all that manure.  I imagined manure piling up faster than snow in Buffalo.

Well, it turns out that Sean discovered a program through the USDA(the Livestock and Land Program)  that teaches and encourages "best practices" for livestock and land management.  We were fortunate to be selected for a demonstration project, and used it to take care of manure and runoff from the barn roof.  

We're very interested in "biodynamic" farming, where you try to create a "closed loop" system using plant and animal waste (after appropriate composting) as inputs to soil preparation.  So the idea of building a facility where we could store and compost horse manure for our garden and horse turnout areas was very appealing.  And, since the soil on our ranch turns to mud pretty quickly, we wanted to do what we could to divert rainwater from the barn by channeling it to a drainage ditch and drain field.

Here are some before and after photos...

The beginnings of a drainage diversion on one side of the barn.


Rainwater will now drain into a covered drain field, instead of running out into the horses' turnout area.


Here's the manure/compost bunker.  It's lined up with the fence line and front of the barn.  It's quite deep (25 feet) to allow for setting up and managing compost piles, vs. just storing manure for removal.


Redemption, Reconciliation, and Rocks (Lots of Rocks)

My last post highlighted the untimely demise of two of our chickens.  That was a sad moment.  But now, our neighbor has apologized for his dog's misbehavior and generously replaced one of our chickens with one of his own!  He also gave us some pointers on how to create a defensible space against dogs and other predators.

So I spent part of Saturday reinforcing the wire enclosing the chickens' area, and filling several concrete blocks with rocks, so that it will take a dog or other creature more time to tunnel into the chicken area than it's worth.

It's nice to see things work out!

Psycho Killer

Yesterday was a sad day for us.  A neighbor's dog broke into our chicken coop and killed two of our chickens.  To some people chickens are just farm animals.  But to us obsessive-compulsive types, they were a part of the family (though we haven't let them sleep on the couch... not yet, anyway.)

We had let the chickens out in the garden on Sunday while I was prepping raised beds for the coming vegetable growing season.  It was fun to watch them do their "chicken dance" and look for worms and bugs in the soil.  Now...

Life will go on, but we'll miss "Brownie" and "Psycho-Spice".  And we're doing our best to protect "Blackie" from those higher on the food chain.