Friday, April 12, 2013

Colony Collapse, bad news.

Well, we just became part of a national statistic. Last fall, we had a colony of bees that was doing great. I had checked, and they seemed to have a ton of honey stored, so I was fairly confident in their ability to make it through. I planned to put some fondant bee candy to feed them over the winter just to be safe, but I wasn't really all that worried about it. When everything started to happen in the fall, feeding the bees kept getting put off. I fed them in early December, which I though would be plenty early enough, but saw no indication of activity in the hive when I put the fondant in, and I was sure I had put it off to late and lost the hive. I was not a happy camper most of the winter thinking I had killed my colony.

Today, I set out to clean the hive and get it set up for a new colony this year. When I went to pick it up it weighted a ton, which a relatively empty box shouldn't. I popped it apart and discovered a) very few bees at all in the hive and b) almost 8 full frames of honey. There was one small cluster of less than 200 bees in the center, and some of them were head first into empty comb cells like they do when they starve, but less than an inch away the comb was full of honey. Based on plenty of food, and practically no dead bees, I think this is colony collapse disorder. There is no reason for them to have absconded late in the season and abandoned lots of stores, and I am pretty sure the queen was in the little cluster of dead bees that I found. Weird, and frustrating, but at least I feel better that I didn't starve my bees to death...It will be curious to see what happens this year.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Spring Equinox

Oestara, a time for new beginnings. This is a big theme for us at the farm this year. For the last few years, I have been telling myself, and others who would listen, that I had a plan to have the farm as our primary source of income in 5 to 7 years. Looking at vegetable production, numbers of fruit trees we were planting, when things would start to come into bearing and balancing that potential against the things we need, new equipment, new facilities, bills that need paying etc. Each spring, we have goals for what we thought we could accomplish and how far along it would move us toward becoming full time farmers.

Each spring it all seems in reach, it seems like the plan in front of us will move us at least a certain distance. Then my paycheck job inevitably reared it head with a new crisis, a new demand. The time I needed to be out weeding vegetables got swallowed by a database upgrade gone awry. Getting spray on to apple trees lost out to inventing some new program on an unrealistically short deadline. Well, this year will be different. For those who don't know, the paycheck job needed to reduce some positions to support budgets, and the two paths that were available were to take on additional responsibilities, additional personnel and additional hours or to become a reduction. My position had become increasingly adamant that 70+ hours a week was more than I could, or would do. People were listening and I was offered option 2.

While this has been a shock to the system, and was relatively unexpected, we are looking on the bright side. I am taking a few weeks of recuperation and focusing on being a temporary full-time farmer. Planting apple trees and raspberries, getting in a good batch of veggies. Catching by breath. While it would be nice to take the whole summer off, that isn't practical at this point. I have taken a vow that I hope to be able to keep to find a job that will be more compatible with the farm. Something that I can telecommute. Something with flexible hours, something that will be happy with 40 or so hours a week.

In the mean time, I am planting, planning, evaluating. Making new commitments to myself, to my family, to our farm. I have taken the time in the evenings to listen to woodcock in the field. I have walked the farm and seen where the crocus are coming up, seen the early tiny little wildflowers, breathed in the air. I am letting myself soak up the belief that the farm is the right path for me, and I am growing the determination to make it a reality. I am becoming reborn.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Spring Recycling

Spring planting season is definitely upon us. We have apple and plum trees coming on monday, raspberries after that and 500 pounds of potatoes on the way soon as well. That doesn't even account for peas, chard and beats in our cut back veggie plans for this year. Prep for all of this involves cleaning up stuff that didn't get done in the fall, getting fields turned, fertilized and ready to be planted, orchard rows laid out and holes dug. It also means getting some new projects done as well.

One of our must complete new projects for this spring is installing a culvert over a drainage ditch at the leased land so we can easily get the tractor to and from the berry field. Some of you may remember seeing the tractor stuck last summer, well that would be exactly what it was stuck in. We had taken it back and forth a few times, but it was always difficult, and you had to pick the exact right spot. This particular time we were taking it back with a different piece of equipment on it, and the equipment hung and in trying to get it unstuck we only managed to get the entire tractor lodged. Needless to say, if we were having trouble with the tractor, there was no way the truck would make it back and forth, so we decided it was time for a culvert.

One of the main ingredients of a culvert, of course, is gravel to hold it in place and act as a bridge. The amount it will take for this is relatively small in terms of yards or dump truck loads, so we thought we would just run out the the garden center and  get some bagged gravel. I don't know how many of you have priced that sort of thing, but let us just say they have a much higher opinion of their gravel than I did. At the same time we were looking at gravel, I was also moving some piles of rock and a 50 foot stone wall back on our farm. I may be slow, but eventually it dawned on me that I was moving a whole bunch of rock into stone walls to get it out of the way at one place, and looking to buy a whole lot more for someplace else.

Once I had worked out that crucial connection the moving project became a sorting for recycling project. Much greener to use rocks from one field to support another field 3 miles down the road than to buy poor displaced rocks from who knows where. If we were further along over there, we would have a sufficient supply on hand to handle it all on site. I am sure we will be by next  year for any expansions. Spring cleaning and prep, never a dull moment.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Apple Grafting

We just finished the apple tree grafting for this year. 50 trees in total, all on semi-dwarf rootstock. The varieties are:

A benchgraft Medaille D'Or
Blue Pearmain
Cornish Gilliflower
Duchess of Oldenburg
Medaille D'Or
Pomme Gris
Westfield Seek-No-Further
Yarlington Mill

About half of these, like Medaille D'Or, are for cider only and the others are for eating or cooking. Some like Pomme Gris are good multipurpose apples that will make a good cider apple, are pleasant to eat and are good for cooking as well. I know, we have been very excited about grafting this year and I would guess that some of you are wondering what the big deal is, so I am going to try to get it all out of my system in one big post.

Why graft?

As many of you already know, most fruit trees, like apples, plums, apricots and peaches, need to be grafted to get exactly what you want. There are very few cultivated fruit varieties that will come back true from seed. This make sense with all of the genetics that go into living things. Even if you pollenate an apple blossom with a blossom from the same tree, the seeds will pick up different traits, different recessive characteristics and come out different with great regularity. The way new varieties of apples come about is from chance, or even on purpose seedlings sprouting up. Now it is much more controlled, but some of the greatest old heirloom varieties were chance seedlings that came up, grew enough to fruit, and someone tried them and decied they liked them. If you like a new variety like that, you cut some wood from the tree and graft it onto the roots of a young tree and viola, you are propagating a variety. Almost all apples that you eat are from trees that were grafted.

When you go to a nursery and get a fruit tree that is of a specific variety, Gala, McIntosh, Jonathan, those are grafted trees that were raised by the nursery to a commercial size and potted up for sale. If you go to a local Big Box orange or blue, home store, they will have 5 or 6 varieties of apple trees that you can purchase. The trees are, in general, not of a good structure, meaning you will have to spend a lot of effort in pruning to get a good, healthy tree, and they are OMG ridiculously expensive. With an actual nursery, you may do a little better with selection, and possibly some better form to the trees, but in general, the trees come from the same suppliers. You can do much better going to a commercial nursery that is specifically dedicated to fruit trees. There are a couple up in Pa that will offer 30 or more varieties, you will pay half as much and get a much better tree to boot. Add in the expert advise you can get from a dedicated nursery, and it is well worth the drive if you are interested in starting a few trees around the house or a homestead orchard. If you are getting involved in commercial orcharding, finding a nursery like this is essential. At the volume of trees we get each year - 260+ that we will be picking up in 2 weeks - the prices drop by half again, and with some nurseries you can have custom runs of trees to get even more varieties. We had two custom runs two years ago and will have three more next year. Even the most accommodating commercial nursery though, will require runs of 50 trees to do custom grafting and it can take 2 to 3 years to get an order put together.

There is another option that is available if one knows where to look. There are a number of orchards that have a wide variety of trees, mostly heirlooms, that run a nursery business on the side. With some of these you have your choice of literally 200 - 300 varieties. The trees tend to be a little more expensive, and will have to be shipped in most cases which adds more to the cost. We have considered this as a source for heirloom varieties a number of times, but even if we chose an orchard that was close enough to drive to, the cost per tree would nearly triple over what we are currently doing and most of these operations don't look to supply someone with the number of trees we would need to fill out an orchard.Of course, these orchards are doing their own custom grafting from the trees they have available in their own orchard. 

A selection of scionwood
So this is where we end up. If we want a wide variety of options for types of fruit trees, and we don't want to spend a prohibitive amount of money for young trees, we do our own grafting. We tried this a few years ago, and things got away from us. We tried to start at to many trees, and very little planning, and the attempt was pretty much a bust. We did however learn how to do a specific type of grafting and got some insight into where we could get everything we needed. Since then, we have researched and found multiple sources of scionwood - the technical name for the wood cut from the parent tree - and researched additional grafting techniques. At this point, we know where to get scionwood for easily over 600 varieties of apple trees alone. For our second attempt at grafting, we decided to do a small run of 30 - 40 trees, and pick 10 varieties to work with. We ordered the scionwood with no problems, and were very pleased with the quality of what we received. When we went to pick up the rootstock, we found out that if we purchased it in bundles of 50, we actually paid less than we would for the 40 we originally ordered. Luckily, we were picking up from an orchard where we took our grafting class and were able to pick up additional scionwood so we would have enough to graft from.

The other big bonus is the price. With the 50 trees we did this year, our cost was just over $2 a tree. granted, we will need to nurse these trees along, and probably not all of the grafts will take, but as we get more practice, our success rate will increase. The great thing is that now we can have 4 or 5 trees of an heirloom eating variety, like Westfield Seek-No-Further, which is probably about as many as we will need, at an affordable price. With approximately 8 more acres available to us currently for orchard expansion, we anticipate another 3000 or so apple trees. We are hoping that many of these will be trees we grated ourselves :-)

Thursday, February 28, 2013

New Blog Location

So, I have tried to update our old Blue Faerie Farm blog, but it has given me nothing but trouble for the past year. So, after spending a few hours over the last two evenings fighting with software version updates, and database repairs and backups and all manner of foul and loathsome techy stuff, I have decided to at least try setting up a new blog elsewhere, in a more modern environment. If this is an easier format, then we shall continue here, and hopefully get more blogging done this year to better share our thoughts and what is going on with the farm. If this works, we will publish the details shortly along with all manner of hopefully interesting and insightful stuff about our farm :-) Wish us luck.