Use the Mantis for Tilling Raised Beds

Courtesy of James K., Virtually Green, San Francisco, CA

It’s still possible to rototill in raised beds if you use an electric tiller like the Mantis. Rototillers are major labor savers. I have one that I’ve used in beds for some years. Incredible torque. Good depth: up to 10″, though with a limiter I usually use it at
just a few inches depth for prepping beds for replanting. A set of simple L-shaped brackets bolted to the tiller tine shield front, back and sides can help prevent the tiller tines from gouging the raised bed frame sides or ends. The tiller is light too: I carry it one-handed over my shoulder.

Tips for Incorporating Chickens into a SPIN Farm

I’ve had chickens a number of times over the years. Chickens are hardy animals in general. Below are a few key things that you might keep in mind that over the years I’ve found especially useful to pay attention to.

Use of chicken manure in SPIN-Farming has to be carefully managed. Generally soils exposed to animal manure are supposed to go six months before you can plant and harvest edible plants in them. This is a food safety issue that can bite you badly if you aren’t on top of it.

Using chickens as part of your composting operation, in other words feeding them your garden and food food wastes, is an excellent way of reducing the need for feed for them as well as producing excellent compost for your SPIN garden. Restaurants and grocerys can be a good source of food waste for your chickens. But you need to run the resultant chicken manured compost through a further compost process to ensure that the manure is well rotted before adding it to your soil or using it as top dressing for beds: food safety issues again.

One generally reliable rule of thumb I suggest you keep in mind when raising young (and mature) chickens is to watch carefully to see if any of them begin to appear “hen pecked”. This is exactly as it sounds. One of the chickens will begin to look bad due to missing feathers. Stressed chickens tend to establish a pecking order, and the one at the bottom of the pecking order will get the cranky attention of all the other stressed chickens, and if the stress isn’t promptly relieved, will kill it. If the stress continues the next lowest in the pecking order gets pecked to death. So if you see a badly pecked young (or mature) chicken you know immediately that something is wrong with your chicken operation. If none of the chickens look pecked this is usually a pretty good sign that all is probably well in chicken land.

You should also pay attention to what’s going on around and on your property. Do you have feral cats? Raccoons? Coyotes? Other such varmints? Neighbor dogs running loose? It only takes a few minutes for a varmint that breaks into your coop to decimate a flock. So pay close attention to how they’re cooped when you first begin keeping them outside. It’s heartbreaking to deal with the aftermath of a varmint attack.

Even full grown chickens are vulnerable to varmints, even when running loose in a penned yard. You may think that a high fence keeps them safe from varmints, and it generally does, unless you have raptors. You may have to run chicken wire over the top of your chicken run to protect them from raptors.

DIY Coolbot Walk-in Cooler Tips

Courtesy of Jame K., Virtually Green, San Francisco, CA

Here’s a few quick thoughts about walkin cooler design, largely based on what my appropriate technology group used to recommend for village small-scale DIY walkin cooler systems.  We didn’t have the Coolbot at the time though:  it’s a great alternative to commercial refrigeration units.

Here’s a link to a Canada Plan Service document that lays out some of the basics for designing and building a walkin cooler.

The Coolbot retrofit of window air conditioners is a reliable solution, but do follow the Coolbot suggestions for the best air conditioner unit.  I know someone who went cheap and regretted it immediately.  I also recommend that you get two air conditioners rather than one, so you have redundancy in this critical component of the walkin cooler.  You really don’t want to find yourself with a failed air conditioner and a cooler full of spoiled produce.  If one of the units goes down the other can pick up the extra load until you can replace the failed unit.

Another thing.  Use a strip door to keep cool air in when you’re entering and exiting the cooler.  These are thick wide plastic strips that hang vertically from the top of the door to the floor and that overlap each other horizontally.  You push through them to enter and exit.  These can radically reduce the loss of cool air when moving quantities of produce in and out.

The size of a walkin cooler is based upon peak use, in other words the moments in the harvest cycle when you have the most produce needing cool storage.  Use the dimensions of your standard sizes of storage containers:  bins, boxes, tubs, etc.  If you’re doing the routine crop planning for SPIN beds then you should be able to estimate the maximum volume of your various harvested crops needing container storage in your walkin cooler during your harvest weeks.  Leaving 50% of the interior volume for aisles and air circulation is a good rule of thumb, which can also in emergencies temporarily handle extra produce volume if needed.

You’ll likely be using pallets or shelves for your containers, so remember to leave room for maneuvering dollies and lift-trucks in and out of the walkin cooler.  Shelves that can be adapted to different dimension containers allow you to flexibly respond to changes in the quantities of your harvests.  Also with shelves remember the work safety, ergonomics and back strain issues of lifting containers on and off high shelves.

You need to have the air inside the cooler circulating freely to avoid hot or cold spots or major differences in humidity in the horizontal and vertical volume of the cooler. Set the Coolbot air conditioners to optimize their effects on air circulation.

One thing you don’t want inside a walkin cooler is condensation problems, which can lead to mold and mildew that can affect produce quality.  You want high humidity to avoid dessication and wilting of produce, but not so high that water condenses on surfaces.  Mount a couple digital dual humidity/temperature meters inside your walkin cooler to monitor humidity and temperature at different horizontal and vertical locations.  You can use these to monitor and better calibrate the performance of your air conditioners as well.  I recommend buying ones with NIST certification to ensure that they will perform as advertised and also to satisfy any food safety regs or or insurance concerning produce storage.  Here’s an example of what I have in mind:


Water Meters to Track Usage

Courtesy of James K., Virtually Green, San Francisco, CA

If part of the deal for using someone’s property in your farming operation is paying for water, here is a source for water meters that you can select from to track your usage.

Dealing with CSA Shortfall

Courtesy of James K., Virtually Green, San Francisco, CA

Is there one or more people in your area who might back up your offerings of your CSA box? In other words, who are farmer friends who’d be willing to sell at or near cost to you the veggies you need to make up any weekly shortfall in your CSA box distribution? In lieu of cash for these shortfall veggies you might be able to balance the favor with veggies you had in excess, or do some other favors in return. If it was mostly or entirely cash veggies shortfall transactions would should plan to keep an adequate cash reserve during your harvest season to buy what you needed to make up any box shortfall. At the end of the season hopefully all or most of the cash reserve would still remain and could then be released and treated as true income.

Also, is there one or more local people (perhaps same people as above) who can mentor you in operating a successful CSA?

Having a backup for delivering shortfall veggies, and mentors, can go a long way towards helping you not feel crazy or stressed, and to deliver a reliable high-quality weekly CSA box your first harvest season.

Compost Tea and E.coli

Courtesy of James K., Virtually Green, San Francisco, CA

I’d be cautious about using a compost tea on your crops, and doubly so spraying it on any edible foliage, unless you were sure it was produced using an ingredients formulation and preparation process that prevented unsafe levels of E. coli.

Compost tea, as you can well imagine, can have very high levels of bacteria and other microorganisms.

Depending on the ingredients formulation and the preparation process used by you or by a commercial producer of compost teas, the likelihood of E. coli may range from nil to substantial. And, as you know, an outbreak of E. coli (Salmonella, etc.) amongst your farm produce customers can ruin your whole day not to mention your whole farm business.

Compost tea formulations and preparation can safely handle the E. coli risks but you must be do it properly.

Depending on the compost tea formulation and preparation process, a particular compost tea may help one type of plant resist pathogens and grow better but have a negligible or even negative impact on other types of plants.

Here’s a link to a Wikipedia article that goes into detail about formulation, preparation processes, benefits, and the E. coli issue, with good list of references.

Here’s a good discussion of compost tea by CalRecycle, a program of the State of California. It’s worth noting that they cite the Soil Foodweb folks as a good resource for information on compost tea.

Soil Foodweb:

And lastly, here’s a link to Lynn Chalker-Scott’s research site, where she writes regularly (with tons of references) about various horticultural “myths”, debunking some and endorsing others. Scroll down the page a bit and you’ll see an article she did about Compost Tea (and other useful topics as well).

Capitalizing a Farm Start-up

Courtesy of James K., Virtually Green, San Francisco, CA
If your SPIN business is short of capital for start-up you might consider finding a partner who does have money. A partner can help you keep going when you encounter difficulties, can help with the farm work when you’re sick or are out of town for some necessary reason, and can make the whole experience more social than solitary.

One of the main reasons why many businesses fail is they’re undercapitalized at the start and have no margin for error financially. Another reason for failure is that the challenges and stress of starting up and operating the business startup can be too much for some people to do alone.

One capitalization option is to seek out the help of a small farms assistance organization. Here in California we have California FarmLink. It helps small farmers get started, including matching grants of $3 for each dollar a wannabe farmer raises to cover startup costs. It also helps with farm business planning and farm operations. Many other states also have FarmLink chapters.

As for funding a SPIN start-up by selling CSA shares, I’d recommend against that. It commits you to delivering a set quantity and quality of product on a set schedule, which a new farmer could find difficult to fulfill. Once you’ve taken the CSA deposit you’re on the spot and have to deliver with not much room for mistakes.

Even for a well capitalized SPIN farm start-up I recommend against doing a CSA the first year, especially if you’re new to operating a small farm business or SPIN. I’ve seen a number of first-year farmers crash and burn because they couldn’t handle a CSA their first year and ended up disappointing both their CSA members and themselves.

Selling at a farmer’s market the first year is safer for a first-year farmer since the types and quality of produce you are harvesting, as well as quantity of it, is likely to vary widely. You sell what you have without having to meet any inflexible quotas for produce type and quantity that CSAs commonly impose.

Seed Potatoes Sourced from Local Co-op

Courtesy of Ed G., Fresh SPIN Farms, Davis CA

We have a local source for fingerling seed … our local food co- op.  You can cut potatoes into “seed” by making sure you have at least one eye and enough potato to “feed” the runner until it surfaces to get sunlight. If you have anyone selling the kind of potatoes nearby that you want to grow, you can buy “edible” ones and use them as seed potatoes… what I paid for seed was about the same as what I pay for fingerlings at our farmers market or co-op.

Warming Up Soil

Courtesy of Ed G., Davis CA:
Clear plastic directly on the soil is the fastest way to warm soil to get a jump on the season.  Drier soil will be warmer so the plastic will help keep added rain from preventing warm up. The natural heat lower in the earth will combine with any solar radiation you get (even on moderately cloudy days) and be trapped by the plastic. There is no a benefit from using black plastic unless you know you will have direct sunlight … and if you do, you probably don’t have a cold soil issue