Spring 2015 – Welcoming the new growing season!

Spring crops in our propagation barn.

Spring crops in our propagation barn.

The spring growing season is upon us once again here at Wildfire Fellowship Farm, the winter hoop house spinach crops have gone by and we are ready to start the new season!

Soil block seed starts in the barn.

Soil block seed starts in the barn.

Soon the propagation area of the barn will be full of trays containing hundreds of soil blocks, each is the starting medium for a seed. Some of the seeds are no larger than a fleck of pepper, they will soon be growing into vigorous plants ready for transplant.

Permanent raised beds in the hoop house growing area.

Permanent raised beds in the hoop house growing area.

Outside on the land our permanent raised beds stand ready for transplants. Our first outside plantings have started this week with the aid of fabric row covers to help control for the cool spring temperatures. We have introduced the permanent raised beds as a way to intensify soil health and reduce mechanical tillage.

The garlic crop for this season has awoken!

The garlic crop for this season has awoken!

As the days get longer and the soil warms our nearly 1000 cloves of garlic that were planted last fall begin to crest the surface. Their green whips remind us that some plants need the harshness of winter to grow into their full character.

Thyme, Leeks, and Onions transitioning to the outside weather in one of our hoop houses.

Thyme, Leeks, Onions and other seedlings transitioning to the outside weather in one of our hoop houses.

Now that the winter spinach crop has gone by we cover the beds with black landscape fabric to weaken the plants before they are cleared for the another crop. We also use the hoop houses to transition seedlings to outdoor weather before they are transplanted.

The spring fed watering point for our new cattle.

The spring fed watering point for our new cattle.

In addition to preparing for the new growing season we are getting ready for our new Scottish Highland cows Polly and Bronwen. We have established a spring fed water source and are in the process of setting up paddock fencing. We will be practicing intensive rotational grazing with our herd. Simply put we will be moving our cows around the property frequently, even daily! A combination of fixed and portable fencing will guide our small herd to their grazing location every day. This practice closely mimics the natural grazing pasterns of animals such as wild buffalo. This natural grazing method will help enrich and build our soil for years to come.

Polly, our four year old Scottish Highland cow who will be giving birth to a calve on our farm this spring.

Polly, our four year old Scottish Highland cow who will be giving birth to a calve on our farm this spring.

Bronwen our two year old Scottish Highland cow.

Bronwen our two year old Scottish Highland cow.

We expect the cows to be on the farm in early May, they will be coming to us from Stan Maynard’s Orchard Hill Farm located just outside Caribou Maine.

Spring on the farm wouldn’t be complete without picking a few rocks out of the growing beds. They say we grow great rocks here in Maine!

Always plenty of rock picking to do every spring!

Always plenty of rock picking to do every spring!

Our spring growing season is off to a great start here on the farm, we look forward to seeing new customers this year in our CSA and at market.

 

 

Raising Vegetable Seedlings at Wildfire Fellowship Farm

In the 1975 Farmstead Magazine “Commonsense Planting Calendar,” the first “Planting Tip” on dealing with Maine’s short growing season was to “sprout early.” By that is meant starting vegetable seedlings weeks or months before it is time to set them out in the garden. Here at Wildfire Fellowship Farm we have constructed a “Propagation House” for that purpose and it is the center of farm activity at this time of year.

Barn

Our propagation house is the front third of a well insulated barn. Triple wall polycarbonate glazing allows ample light and solar heat gain while retaining warmth at night. We use a pellet stove for nighttime heat and automatic ventilation fans for daytime cooling. During the very cold, but sunny days of late, temperatures in the propagation house reach 90o by mid-day unless the house is vented. On cold nights we burn 40-80# of wood pellets to keep temperatures above the 65o threshold for tender plants like peppers and eggplants.

Pellet Stove

High quality seedlings begin with quality seeds. We buy from three suppliers: Johnny’s Selected Seeds (www.johnnyseeds.com), Fedco Seeds (www.fedcoseeds.com), and Highmowing Organic Seeds (www.highmowingseeds.com). The second key to success is the potting soil. We have been very impressed with Lite Mix produced by Living Acres in New Sharon, Maine (www.livingacres.com). Lite Mix is available at retail from Johnny’s as their “512 Mix.” We began using this potting mix because it was recommended for making “soil blocks” and experience has shown that it grows strong, healthy seedlings that hold well if transplanting must be delayed.

Soil Blocks

The twelve and four block makers rest on Lite Mix

Most of our seeds are sown into soil blocks, made by forming a very moist potting mix using “block makers” that compress the mix into two inch cubes. Fifty of these fit just right into a standard greenhouse tray facilitating production count. The benches in our propagation house were sized to accommodate the trays with no waste of space. We have enough bench space to hold 6,000 soil blocks. We also seed directly into loose Lite Mix in deep flats (onions and leeks) and use three inch square pots for direct seeding of cucurbits (squash, cucumbers, melons) and “potting up” of peppers, eggplant, and tomatoes. Electric heat mats under the flats and trays are used to speed germination for the heat loving plants like peppers and squash.

 

Eggplant (right) and Red Sweet Peppers (left) just sprouted on the heat pad

Eggplant (right) and Red Sweet Peppers (left) just sprouted on the heat pad

 

Our first year of using the propagation house in 2013 taught us that conditions are so ideal that the seedlings grow very fast, so this year we have delayed the planting schedule. It is very important that seedlings not be so mature at transplanting that they will be set back. The trick is steady, active growth from seed to garden soil. We use an Excel spreadsheet to schedule and track greenhouse and garden activity and keep things flowing smoothly. For me, working with seeds and potting mix in a toasty greenhouse while the wind howls and the snow is still deep on the hillside is one of my favorite seasonal activities.

Thyme, Scallions, and Onions (Left) and Lettuce (right)

Thyme, Scallions, and Onions (Left) and Lettuce (right)

 

 

 

 

 

 

Keeping The Soil Healthy – Our Compost

Looking over the to of a fresh windrow of compost hay.

Looking over the top of a fresh windrow of compost hay.

Here at Wildfire Fellowship Farm one way we keep our soil fed and healthy is by adding our own compost. This soil amendment is important because every time we harvest and sell our produce nutrients are leaving our farm. Compost provides a concentrated way to add back those lost nutrients as well as organic material.

One way we make this product is by composting hay from our fields. After we cut a section of field the green hay is placed into long piles called windrows. By placing the hay in a pile the material does not dry but instead starts to break down. During this process heat is created. As the hay starts to break down we cover the piles with heavy-duty landscaping fabric to keep the hay from giving off too much of its moisture.

A fresh windrow of hay starting to heat up.

A fresh windrow of hay starting to heat up, a little vapor can be seen drifting off the pile.

As the weeks pass the pile shrinks dramatically, care is taken to keep the windrow moist. The initial breaking down of the material is fast but the final product takes up to two years to be ready for the planting beds.

After several weeks the pile has shrunk and is well on it's way to becoming compost.

After several weeks the pile has shrunk and is well on its way to becoming compost.

When finished the compost is kept covered and protected. We spread the hay compost on to our seed beds prior to planting. Unlike chemical fertilizers used in conventional farming, compost both nourishes our plants and provides the complex living material for them to flourish. The best part is that this compost comes entirely from our land and keeps the soil in balance naturally.

The final product - this finished hay compost is being used to amend seed beds before planting.

The final product – this finished hay compost will be used to amend seed beds before planting.

 

Going With the Flow – Making Water Work

Wildfire Fellowship Farm is committed to using sustainable farming practices in our operations. This commitment requires creative solutions to everyday problems on the farm.

One problem to overcome was how to get irrigation water to our crops. Our farm is located on a hillside with a spring fed water source near the bottom and growing beds up on the hill. Without running power lines, underground cable, or a generator how could we move the water?

 

A look at our spring fed well and solar panel array

A look at our spring fed well and solar panel array

Our solution was to move water up the hill to a holding tank with a solar-powered pump. When we irrigate our crops, water from the tank flows down hill by gravity to spigots located near our planting beds.

One of several yard hydrants that deliver our irrigation water.

One of several yard hydrants that deliver our irrigation water.

To conserve water we utilize drip irrigation. This method of irrigation delivers water to the roots instead of on the foliage.

 

Drip irrigation lines in a low tunnel.

Drip irrigation lines in a low tunnel.

This simple and elegant system delivers water to where we need it using only a little solar power and a lot of gravity.

 

 

 

 

 

Adapted to the growing season in Maine

Wildfire Fellowship Farm operates year round using methods developed by Eliot Coleman ( no relation ) among others. On the farm we utilize tools such as unheated hoop houses and fabric row covers to extend our growing and harvest season.

Winter of 2012-2013 inside hoop house #2.

Winter of 2012-2013 inside hoop house #2.

The hoop house environment combined with row covers provides just enough protection for the hearty crops to thrive in the fall and be harvested over the winter. This approach is both sustainable and efficient, keeping us busy all year around.

Walking out to check on Hoop House # 2

Walking out to check on Hoop House # 2

During the spring the hoop house environment is used as a transition space for seedlings as they are moved out of the seed starting barn before they are planted in the fields. Soon after as spring becomes summer the hot weather crops take over inside the hoop house such a tomatoes, cucumbers, and eggplants.

Inside hoop house #1 during the summer of 2012.

Inside hoop house #1 during the summer of 2012.