Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Monday, April 30, 2012


We launched a kickstarter project last week. We need a little help to be fully prepared for summer and Hardywood's new expansion. Please post on Facebook, Twitter, Friendster, where ever, to help us get the word out. Thank you!


What week is it?

If you have a pack of seeds nearby, take a look on the back. Near the lovely descriptions you'll see some numbers. One set should say something about germination and another should give a number of days to maturity. For years as a home gardener, these were just happy little numbers to me. In the best cases they kept me from obsessing too much about how soon I would have those first tomatoes.

Now that I'm a career farmer, these number dictate much of my life. Production farming takes them as gospel truth. There are 52 weeks in the year. Each one is accounted for, and differs by what you're growing, making for a lot to keep track of.

For example, let's say you want to eat a salad with radishes in it. A radish takes a little more than 20 days from seed to ready-to-eat. A standard Salad mix takes about 30 days to grow. So, if you start your salad about a week before your radishes, you should be able to harvest both fresh from the garden at about the same time. A different way of looking at it is if you want that salad May 1st (week 18) you will need to start it the first week of April 2nd  (week 14). Seems simple enough. Let's say you want fresh salad every week through early June, when it is traditionally too hot for a quality salad in the mid-Atlantic.  You can usually expect to be able to cut salad greens three-to-six times depending on irrigation, sun, and evening temperatures. Yeah! As a result, you won't have to re-plant as much, but you should probably start an extra batch two weeks after the first (week 16), to be safe. On the other hand, radishes are one-and-done. You remove the whole plant when you harvest the radish and you only have about 10 days of peak flavor in the harvest. Better plant radishes every week (weeks 15-18) if you are looking to enjoy them with each of your salad harvests. This is all based on ideal conditions—kind of like scheduling anything before you become a parent. Mother nature can be the ultimate tantrum-throwing toddler.

Back to our salad, let's say average precipitation should be 2" between weeks 14 and 18, but similar to this year, the best you get is an occasional heavy dew. This means more irrigation is necessary. Not a problem if you don't have anything else you are supposed to be planting, transplanting, weeding, or otherwise working on. Lets add more to our salad. Who only wants to eat lettuce and radishes? Everybody loves carrots. Carrots take about 60 days to grow. So, do you still want that salad May 1st (week 18)? You need to make sure those carrots are planted and germinating by late February (week 9). Seem simple?

While you are working on the math for your perfect salad and thinking of other ingredients, don't forget about all your future meals. You'll have to keep track of your planting for those, too. Tomatoes are most often referred to by generation on the farm. Given their root structure, and desire to be planted deep, they are often started in very small containers and transplanted into larger containers before being transplanted into the field. In a large operation you could have one day a week devoted to seeding generation two, while another is devoted to transplanting generation one. By the time the first generation goes into the field, there could be 5 or more generations waiting in line behind the first to take up valuable real estate. Of course this always goes smoothly, since it's taking place at the same time that perfect salad is coming together. ;) If you see a farmer from February through April and he or she sounds like Lewis Carroll's White Rabbit you might now have a better understanding of why.

After years of growing, most of the planting schedule becomes second nature. I've spent every New Years Day starting chili peppers for half a dozen years now. There are some great tools out there to help as well. Johnny's Seeds, a long time farm favorite, has a great little calendar tool (http://www.johnnyseeds.com/e-PDGSeedStart.aspx?source=GFM%201/2011). Enter your frost-free date, traditionally April 15th in RVA, and it gives you a nice guideline. There are much more complex versions available, but this is a good start. As a farm gardener, I used a farmers almanac Calendar for years. I was hoping to have this post up about a month ago, but my planting got off schedule and I had to catch up—such is the life of a farmer.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Why Do I Farm?

I recently worked with Lauren @EllebyDesign  http://www.hellolovelyworld.com/ on the new Ringer Farms logo. I found her finished product to be rather splendid. If you have design work that needs to be done you should contact her. To kick off the design process she sent me a well written questionnaire. I had utilized something similar in a past career, and it was nice to see one again. The first question was a true gem, "Why do you do what you do?"... I have to admit that the answer to this question is constantly being redefined.

I decided I wanted to be a farmer sometime in late 1997. I recognized I had made enough self destructive choices by then, and I knew I could benefit from putting half as much energy into something positive. I started reading and studying anything I could find on farming and organic agriculture. The first drawings of how I envisioned the farm were put to paper in late spring of 1999. I knew I wanted to be self sufficient and to know what I was eating. I was a fairly militant vegetarian at the time, in fact it was years before I even considered having animals on the farm. I bought the land I now farm in the spring of '05, when my daughter was just 5 months old. The first crops went in ground in the spring of '08. 

At one point I wanted to farm because I wanted the "Good Life" (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Helen_and_Scott_Nearing). I spent most of my childhood visiting my grandfather's farmette on the Mobjack Bay. I wished for my children to have that experience year round.
At another point I thought that a farm would make for a happy marriage / relationship ... ha ha ha.
And then at another point I'm sure that I thought of it as a "think global, act local / be the change you want to see in the world" act.
I'm sure there was other fantastical thinking that led me on my way, but in the end it was a conscious cocktail I decided to consume.

Farming is a lifestyle, not a career. There is no "lunch pail" portion of the job. You never really put it away. The clay, and the sun, and the non-stop cycle of life & death get into your blood and it just becomes what you do. There is no turning it off. There is no being anything else but a Farmer. Everything you see, smell, taste, and breathe is experienced through that perspective. I listen to 30-70 hours of news, audiobooks, and podcasts every week. History, science, commerce, politics, you name it, they all apply to farming. These things are embedded in every row of greens and every movement of livestock. It's all there, all the time.

This past winter I attempted to leave farming for a career that was more profitable. Three months later I was selling my soul to get my hands back in the dirt! So here I am again, wrists deep in it, and loving it. I may walk a lil' funny, far too frequently. There have been nights this year where I couldn't sleep because of excruciating sunburns. Just yesterday I weathered the rain and cold all day planting strawberries. I couldn't tell you the last time my hands were free from scratches, scabs, cuts and the enduring, but beloved, stain of caked clay. I'm a farmer; it's par for the course.

My favorite editor likes to give me grief every time I describe farming as I have above. But you can't sugar coat the realities of a dirty life. I don't make any claims that it is for everyone. In fact, I've had two interns come and go already this year. If you're sitting in front of a screen right now reading this in a perfectly designed ergonomic chair, possibly just getting back to this post after spending a few moments staring at the acoustic tile ceiling above you, in a cube of some sort or a cube with glass (office) I can dig it. I've been there. My last cube had a faux antique desk, Karistan rugs, and a tin ceiling, but I still had to sink a battleship to get an outside line. If you think my description of farming sounds harsh let me tell you I don't know how you do it. Having a barista on call and gourmet cafeteria nearby couldn't even momentarily lure me away from the land I love and the food I grow. So, go out and reward yourself tonight. If you are fortunate enough to be in RVA it's restaurant week and our fine local chefs are making bits of amazing nightly. If you are exceptionally fortunate you may even get to taste some of the local produce I delivered in the last few days. If you want to know where ... feel free to follow me on twitter @FarmerRussell

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Where It All Begins

At Ringer Farms, the land is where it all begins. The soil is the base for everything grown here. Before you can tend a sprout, feed the herd, or till seeds, there has to be a starting point. Soil is always changing, making it an ongoing challenge to maintain. When people ask what I grow, it’s easy to say “veggies for restaurants,” but in truth it’s soil.

Four years after first planting a few thousand tomatoes on the land I farm, the soil is the crop I’m most proud of. Some growers measure exactly what they put into each field and what they take out, down to the ounce. At Ringer Farms, things are a bit more fluid. When a field is fallow, or in between plantings, the goats roam onto it. There are chickens who refuse to do anything but free-range. Though they don’t always live to enjoy their freedom, while they’re here they are welcome to eat pests and poop as they please. It’s all part of the cycle.

The science of soil is based on a principle called the cation exchange rate. This is the rate that soil can give, receive and hold nutrients. Think about a plant as though it’s a wool coat, and think about soil as if it was a pet that coat comes into contact with. There are three types of soil—sandy (like a long-hair pet), loom (short-hair) and clay (no hair). Sandy soil, much like a long-hair pet, sheds everything. Whatever comes into it is quickly shed into the plant, just like your coat is covered in pet hair after a quick interaction. This sounds great for the plants, but there’s a downside. Plant roots can only absorb so much at a time. Plants grown strictly in sandy soil have to be watered and fed often due to the soil’s inability to retain the water and nutrients the plants need. Loom (the short-hair wool in the example) is a solid, organic soil that gives a steady flow of nutrients, but it sometimes holds so much water that it can cause fungus to grow on the plant’s roots. Clay contains plenty of nutrients, but is unable to shed any onto the plants roots, just like your coat remains fur-free when you hold a hairless pet. In addition, once clay absorbs water, it is reluctant to release it, which can cause plants to become water-logged and drown.

Soil isn’t usually pure sand, loom or clay, and the ideal mix for most farmers is sandy loom. In Richmond, sandy loom is found mostly east of I-95. It’s the soil that produces the famous Hanover tomato. Clay, which also exists around Richmond, also has its positives, but the key is in breaking it up enough so the plants can access and absorb the nutrients hidden in the soil. Plant roots move easily through sandy loom, and even more easily through straight sand. But clay is tougher, and if it dries out, it can strangle young roots, making it impossible for them to feed the rest of the plant. Compost and other organic matter helps the clay to breathe and allows water to flow through it. The better the water flows, the more the roots can spread, and the better the plant grows.

Because Ringer Farms has plenty of red Virginia clay in the soil, we work to break it up. Some farmers get bent out of shape when you call their fields clay, but we accept it for what it is. In the fall of 2011, we began incorporating beer grains from Hardywood Craft Brewery into the soil. The high nitrogen levels in the beer grains combined with composted leaves are producing the healthiest soil yet. On average, we add two tons of beer grains and 15 tons of composted leaf matter per acre.

Our goal is to work with local restaurants and businesses to create a full cycle for local food. This past fall during Richmond Restaurant Week at Secco, a few fortunate foodies had a chance to enjoy a bowl of soup made from spinach grown in soil that was nourished with the spent grains from the same beer they could have been drinking. It was an amazing example of the culinary experiences we hope to contribute to at Ringer Farms. This was only possible by collaborating with others and having the ability to put the fruits of their labor into the farm to grow a healthier soil. It creates a healthy source—this is what we bring to the table.