Thursday, May 27, 2010

The bees are back in town, the bees are back in town!

Okay. When Will expressed some interest in getting bees last summer, I was a little skeptical. After all, this was a man who expresses interest in many things, usually within a 24 hour period, and then moves on with regularity. I also knew that he is insanely busy managing our farm business and often overcommits.

But, he persisted, and when he agreed to enroll in a beginning beekeepers course offered through our local beekeeping community, I was convinced.

Fast forward 6 months, and we now have two active hives on our property.

Busy with the day-to-day running of the farm, days and then weeks passed without much attention being paid to the bees.

One day, Will and I returned to find the workmen hiding in their trucks in front of our farmhouse. (We spent most of last summer living through a renovation/addition - more to come at another time when I've gotten past my post-traumatic stress disorder).

Anyways, back to my story.

'The bees were swarming like a giant cloud above those white things they live in' is what we heard. Like scary, 'they're-going-to-come-and-sting-me-to-death', killer bee kind of swarming thing you hear about in the media.

Now these are European honeybees, and not the least bit aggressive, but they swarm when overcrowded in their hives and supers.

Sure enough, we had neglected them for too long and not given them enough space, and they were gone. They left behind a small contigent, a pathetic, non-viable hive.

A few months later, the other hive went and swarmed.

After our hard winter, we were left with two empty hives, two sad relics as a reminder of our failures at beekeeping. 'We should put them on craigslist' Will suggested the other night.

So...imagine my surprise when I came back from checking for new baby goats at the water-front, anticipating dinner, and found Will on the front porch.

As I approached, I could detect a familiar sound. What was it? It sounded so familiar....

And then it hit me as I rounded the corner - a loud buzzing sound and the crazy, frenetic movement of a large swarm of bees covering our two hives!

'You missed the best of it' Will exclaimed. 'They were really swarming thick a minute ago!'. We practically had to raise our voices to be heard above the buzzing sound.

I guess I'll have to start being a little careful when mowing again.

And then a strange feeling came over me, kind of like the jilted lover - 'I wonder if they'll stay this time?' I asked myself.

Monday, May 24, 2010

HOOP house heaven! (or why cold greenhouses are COOL!)

I wanted to update everyone on the status of our cold frame program to expand our produce production for year-round veggies.

We were approved for the USDA-approved program (previously outlined in one of my earlier posts), ordered our framing kit, and 3 days later, a huge pile of galvanized steel and plastic appeared on the farm.

The next 3 weeks of Loran's and Corey's lives were spent pounding posts, installing a baseboard, and finally, the 4 year plastic covering overlying our hoop house.

'Hoop house' is kind of a generic term referring to a rounded top structure that can be used for hay storage, animal housing, or as a greenhouse. Technically, we are building a cold greenhouse, or unheated greenhouse.

This type of year-round production was commonly practiced in Europe and the United States before the advent of transcontinental, and more recently, INTER-continental transport of vegetables.

By harvesting the solar radiation during the day, and covering beds at night to hold the heat into the soil ( a double-layer system), one can grow vegetables year-round, even in cold climates.

Elliot Coleman has forwarded this technique perhaps more than anyone else in the United States, and successfully grows vegetables year-round in his zone 5 (?) Maine cold greenhouse.

Granted, you aren't growing tomatoes in january, but rather, eating seasonally. Rather than dying off, some vegetables thrive and actually prefer the cool temperatures of winter gardening. Plants like carrots, beets, lettuce, chard, spinach, arugula, and radish all prefer cool to cold temperatures.

Naysayers comment that you can't feed the world using local production.

The fact of the matter is this is exactly how we did feed the world in a sustainable manner before the advent of 'modern' agriculture.

These type of production models (double insulated cold frames, unheated greenhouses, and garden cloches) were exactly how people produced healthy food throughout the season in colder climes and ate seasonally.

This allowed them to eat only what was at its best, not some sad resemblance of a cardboard tomato in January.

We are excited and happy to be providing our customers more and more options to factory-farming and their harmful ways to human health, the environment, animal welfare, and sustainability.



Thursday, May 20, 2010

Selling chicken in Maryland

I've previously touched on some of the barriers that prevent free access to fresh farm products and up until recently, selling poultry was a fine example of this.

USDA rules allowed an exemption for small producers (less than 20,000 birds per year) that allowed them to process and sell their chicken broilers without using a USDA-inspected facility.

However, back in the 70's Maryland set a higher standard than federal regulations, and required poultry to be processed at either a state or federally (USDA)-regulated facility if it was to be sold off-farm.

Fast-forward 30 years, and Maryland (as do many places in the United States) finds itself without a state-inspection program for meat-processing and NO USDA-inspected poultry processors that accept 'other farmers' birds.

Functionally, this means that a farmer could still sell chickens direct-to-consumer on the farm, but could not drive down the road to his regular farmer's market and sell to his local customers clamoring for this product.

After some hard work on the part of Maryland farmers and our state Senator and Delegate, a new state program was established that now allows farmers to sell direct to consumers at farmer's markets and grocery stores, and direct to restaurants.

This really opens up the marketplace to farmers wanting to supply farm-fresh, local products to their community. Chicken is the most popular meat consumed by Americans and previously, local producers were shut-out by these antiquated, out-dated laws.

It was hard to explain to our customers why we weren't able to provide them with the products they wanted to buy and it was unreasonable to expect a consumer to drive 20 or 30 miles just to buy a chicken.

In direct response to this program, we have restarted our small-scale poultry operation for broiler chickens raised on pasture, a program we had previously abandoned because of these unreasonable laws.

Here are some of our broilers being raised on pasture for harvest in a few more weeks.

You should start seeing Whitmore Farm chickens, turkeys and rabbit for sale at Maryland Farmers' Markets and in restaurants like VOLT and NOLA in Frederick Maryland.

Special thanks go to:

Senator David Brinkley and his Chief of Staff, Mike O'Halloran.
Delegate Chris Shank
Farmers Julie Bolton (Groff's Content Farm), Julie Stinar (Evensong Farm), & Mike Akey (Green Akeys Farm)
Liz Reitzig, MICFA
Ryan Cunningham, The Glover Park Group.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Zonal denial - hardy palms and cacti in Maryland.

Well, this was a very cold, snowy winter for our area of Maryland with a minimum low temp of -2 degrees F and about 2 feet of snow in December and 4 feet of snow in February. We are somewhere in the gray zone between zone 6B and 7A and it has been a hard adjustment for this gardener after our zone 8 garden in Washington, D.C.

As you may recall from earlier posts, I've been experimenting with various types of cold-hardy palms and cacti.

Last summer, I planted several palm species/cultivars of Trachycarpus (Chinese windmill palm) including T. fortuneii 'Bulgaria', T. wagneranius, and T. fortuneii 'Tennessee form'.

Most forms of hardy palms have improved cold hardiness with increasing size and age, but finding mature specimens in our area can be a challenge and shipping from the South can be very expensive.

Of the small, starter palms I planted last summer, none survived. Well, okay ONE did, but I mowed it by mistake because it was so scrawny and pathetic it deserved to die.

The only real survivors were a 3 foot specimen of generic windmill palm I bought at a local nursery and one 18 inch specimen of Trachycarpus fortuneii 'Bulgaria' that I transplanted from our garden in Washington, D.C. 3 years ago. That specimen, originally came from a strain of Trachycarpus growing in Bulgaria that had reportedly withstood temps well below zero degrees fahrenheit. The Bulgarian strain was imported as seed into the U.S. and is intermittently available through Plant Delights Nursery in North Carolina.

There are many nice examples of Trachycarpus growing without difficulty in protected spots in and around Washington, D.C., but we are an hour north of the city, have essentially wide open spaces without much wind protection, and lack the microclimates you see in many city gardens.

This year, I planted THREE 5-7 foot specimens of Trachycarpus fortuneii in the front garden of our farm house, south facing and out of the prevailing winter winds.

I also planted 2 need palms, which are probably the most cold hardy of all palms. There are some very large specimens of needle palm growing nicely in the National Arboretum in Washington, D.C.

Thirdly, I planted 3 small Morrocan blue fan palms, Chaemerops humilis cerifera. While European fan palms are not famous for their cold hardiness, the moroccan blue palm grows at high altitudes and probably has significantly more cold tolerance than its standard Mediterranean cousin. I prefer the blue hue of the Moroccan form, so from my perspective, its a win-win!

I know it doesn't look like much right now, but we saw some beautiful examples growing at high altitude on the road leading out of Marrekesh into the Atlas Mountains in heavy snow and bitter cold.

Moving on in our tour of plants likely to die this coming winter are the 'winter-hardy' cacti and succulents.

For the nay-sayers out there, here's an example of Echinocereus and Agave parryi I planted in some concrete planters on our porch last summer.

These small starter plants spent weeks under 2-3 feet of snow and endured temps into the minus single digits. As you probably already know, plants in pots and other containers above-ground typically endure temperatures the equivalent of a full zone colder than in-ground plants, making these babies tolerant to at least zone 6A or even zone 5B. And they are thriving with many side shoots and new growth!

The secret with the cacti and succulents seems to be absolutely perfect drainage. After several failed attempts, I started planting in straight gravel/stone (i.e. no soil) and have had good results ever since.

Here's an installation of Agave parryi going in with pea gravel - to be top-dressed with another gravel that fits into the bed a little more seamlessly.

I know this is hardly farm related but I thought you might be interested and I will keep you posted next spring as to how my experiment has worked out.