5 pillars of organic weed control

Given that this time of year is a critical period in terms of weed management, I would love to dive into the subject together.

As humans, are we blessed and cursed with a super-computer brain. Give it a problem and it will find a solution. Give it a question, it will find an answer. If you think that organic farming just means that you have a lot of weeds, that there’s no way to win against the weeds…. then this is the question for which you are finding an answer. As in ‘How do I make this farm work despite the crazy weeds?’

So, the first step is the rearrange the way we think of weed in order to shift the outcomes that we come to expect. It is possible to have weed free vegetable fields! It is possible to manage weeds systematically on your farm in such a way that they are not an issue. It is possible to manage the weeds using very little hand weeding.

Jonathan’s 5 pillars of systematic weed management:

  1. Reduce the biological necessity of weeds by systematically using green manures in your cropping systems and having a balanced fertility regiment.
    1. Weeds are nature’s way to protecting and healing the soil. Make sure you are using green manures! (Humm..sounds like a good subject for a future blog post!)
  2. Eliminate the introduction of weed seed into your soil.
    1. Never let weeds go to seed… in a well weeded field it’s quick to just go through and pull the couple of weeds that were missed.
    2. Always use weed free, properly composted compost that has heated sufficiently to kill the weed seeds.
    3. Always use weed free inputs (straw mulch, vegetable and cover crop seed, etc)
  3. Kill the weeds when they are most vulnerable using scale appropriate equipment.
    1. The time to cultivate is when the weeds are at the white thread or cotyledon stage. At this stage they are easy to destroy using shallow cultivation.
    2. Scale appropriate equipment = Hoes, wheel hoes, cultivating tractors, tine weeders (tractor mounted and handheld), flame weeders, hilling discs (tractor and wheel hoe mounted), Finger weeders, Basket weeders, plastic and straw mulch) … just to name the main ones.
    3. Remember that there are 3 ways to kill weeds: Pull it out, cut it off from it’s root, or bury it! Many crops can be hilled which is a great way of getting the weed growing on the row
  4. Plant your crops into weed free beds!
    1. Stale seedbed: Prepare the beds far in advance and reduce the number of viable seeds in the top inch of soil by using shallow tillage to destroy emerging weeds when they are no larger that’s the cotyledon stage (approx. every 10 days.)
    2. Always eradicate perennial weeds prior to planting your crops
  5. Weed next year’s crop this year.
    1. Set aside a certain % of your fields to reduce the weed pressure for the following year (ideally for all your crops, but especially for the crops that are the hardest to weed.)
    2. After doing your deep tillage, mark out the beds and stale seedbed them (see above) during the time of year that you anticipate next years crop to be in the establishment phase (may/june for early crops, june/july for late crops)
    3. From this point on, do not till the soil deeply before your next crop so as to not bring up more weed seeds from deeper down. Ideally you can establish a green manure after the fallow period but make sure you are equipped to handle the residue without tilling too deep.
    4. Alternately this can be accomplished very effectively using silage tarps to occultate the beds on a bio-intensive production scale.

‘Weed the Soil, Not the Crop!’ (Eric and Anne Nordell, Trout Run Farm).. what a great read!

Ok!  To sum up this somewhat long winded discussion of weeds, here are the take always for this time of year:

Ok!  To sum up this somewhat long winded discussion of weeds, here are the take always for this time of year

  1. What are your beliefs regarding weeds? Write them all down on a scrap of paper… the good, the bad and the ugly! Take a good square look at these beliefs. Are they useful to you? If so, great, keep them. If not.. get rid of them! How can you re-frame the weeds question in a way that you would LOVE you super-computer brain to be working on solving
  2. Are you preparing next year’s fields right now? Now is the time to make sure that your are reducing the weed pressure in the beds where the most sensitive crops will be planted next year. I know this is easy to overlook at this time of year, but part of being a successful farmer is to be able to juggle both urgent and important but not urgent tasks simultaneously.
  3. Keep up the weeding! Within a couple of weeks the weeds will be slowing down thankfully… but now is not the time to slow down. If necessary, consider hiring temporary labor or calling a weeding party in order to stay on top of the weeds.

Go make a ruckus!!

Pure Farmer Hospitality

We’re on a trip… as you may know. We’re currently in Oregon, working our way north through Washington to BC. Along the way, we are connecting with local farmers, trading information, and forging friendships.

I have been completely humbled by the hospitality and generosity of the farmers we have been meeting along this trip. It is heartwarming to see the enthusiasm with which farmers welcome us into their homes…. and totally randomly, I just go online and look up the local farms and reach out via email… so far i have had 100% positive responses.

What I love about visiting farms (apart from geeking out with fellow farmers) is meeting people who think outside of the box and experiencing the paradigm shift of seeing something in a different light.

Here are three farms we visited last week that each have their own particular paradigm smashing perspective.

Valley Flora Farm: Langlois, Oregon

https://www.valleyflorafarm.com/

Located up a peaceful valley along the Pacific coast in southern Oregon, Valley Flora farm is a gem of beauty and unorthodox family farming.

The fact is, Valley Flora Farm is in reality three farms in one… one for each member of the family… a mother and her two grown daughters. Betsy settled here about 30 years ago and currently farms greenhouse on hoop house crops (Solanaceae and Cucurbits in summer. Greens in winter); Abby came back and settled on the farm in the early 2000’s and intensively grows top quality salad mix for the local restaurant and wholesale market (I mean.. really nice greens! (Probably about 1 acre); Last but not least Zoë came back to the farm in the late 2000’s and grows about 5 acres of mixed vegetables for a 100 member CSA, a thriving farm stand, a couple wholesale accounts, and ½ acre of you pick Strawberries; Zoë does most of her farming using draft horses though she also has a tractor for certain tasks.

What marked me the most was the unconventional family farm model that allows these three women to collaborate while at the same time do their own thing. The products are all marketed under the Valley Flora Farm brand, and Quickbooks just takes care of distributing the money to each business each month. Collective expenses are distributed proportionally to gross sales of each business.

Together and seperate… at the same time. And laughing, and loving.

Thank you for welcoming us!

A cool little rolling seat for cutting salad greens (Abby doesn’t take more than one cut so it doesn’t matter if she rolls on the beds)
Salad Greens harvester from Sutton Ag. A pretty cool tool as it allows for harvesting from a standing position (it was bought in anticipation of harvesting while pregnant)

Cully Neighborhood Farm/Slow Hand Farm: Portland, Oregon

www.slowhandfarm.com

www.cullyneighborhoodfarm.com

 

Josh Volks is a veteran small farmer, author, teacher, consultant, innovator, and inventor…. and the owner of Slow Hand Farm.

We visited him at his latest farm right in the heart of a residential neighborhood in Portland…. ½ acre farm in partnership with Cully Neighborhood Farm.

Our visit coincided with on of their on farm CSA pick up days for their 65 member CSA. The thing is… everyday is a pickup day, since this farm is run 2 days per week… literally, I mean the farm only operates 2 days per week. In total the two owners and a handful of employees work the equivalent of 6 labor days per week. (Ie 48 person hours per week total labour input).

It is a nice example of how farms are here to serve us as tool to accomplish certain personal goals or life’s intentions. For some people this means full time, for some people this means part time so as to create space for other interests and goals.

Harvest cart with power assist from an electric wheal
Drip tape roller with very cute child (my son Milo!) 🙂
Easy to build row marker
Trellising of field cucumbers

Full Plate Farm: Ridgefield, Washington

www.fullplatefarm.com

Located just north of Portland Oregon, Full Plate Farm is another great example of taking a unconventional approach to using farming to build an incredible lifestyle… cause that’s ultimately what it’s about… putting in place the element to live the life of our dreams!

The farm is Danny’s business; Michelle is an artist and college professor. It is important to note that this is by choice and not be economic necessity. There is this ideal of working with our spouses, but this is only ideal if that is what both people want. (actually, this is something that all three of these farms have in common.

The next unconventional element of FPF is that they grow 3 acres of field vegetables and 2 high tunnels for a 90 member winter only CSA. The CSA starts in November and runs through the end of March. The delivery are every second week allowing Danny to have a week off in between for travel, family, and farm admin. Most of the crops are actually harvested directly from the field all winter long in this mild, rainy coastal climate… although he is moving more towards bulk harvesting carrots and storing them in the cold room to reduce field loss to rot. 

What I find interesting is the wisdom of choosing a winter CSA model rather than fighting with a fairly saturated summer CSA market and dealing with poorly draining fields in the spring.

Danny mostly does all the farm work with the help of a part time employee 1 or 2 days per week. Oh… and Danny only works 4 days per week so as to be able to spend time with his three children and take family trips… In fact when we were visiting, they were getting ready for a 1 week camping trip… in JULY!

The classic family chicken pose!
Automated watering of seedling trays in greenhouse using a timer

Filling you CSA membership using 1-on-1 follow up

Depending on where you farm, you may be one of many farms feeling the effects of CSA ‘market saturation’. There simply are more farms offering CSA shares than ever before (which is great!) The thing is, the population of consumers looking to buy CSA shares has not increased proportionally. So… we end up with situations where great farms, offering great products, are still 10-20% short of their registration targets.

There are plenty of strategies to mitigate this trend (that I would love to look into in future blogs posts), today I want to talk about the power of following up… and doing so personally (ie. not only through mass emails to our past membership lists.)

In today’s busy, modern world, your registering for a CSA share is not a priority for (the majority of) your clients… I’m sorry to break it to you, but it just isn’t. Don’t get me wrong, they love your CSA… it’s just that they are already inundated with email, facebook posts, etc and lead busy lives. They’re willing to eat your delicious veggies and support you farm, but they need support to getting there.

This is where following up in a personal manner comes in. Not to harass them with some lame offer like a telemarketer or a spammer… but to genuinely support them in the process to registering for a CSA share that they would love to recieve.

It turns out that 20-30% of non-renewed members will re register simply following a phone call (excluding the people who have moved away from the area).  Isn’t that wild!

The thing is… It is so much easier to ignore a mass message than a personal one. So, this follow up needs to be as personal as possible.

I suggest the following approach:

  1. In order to make the task more manageable, we need to try and eliminate people from list who have a legitimate reason for not renewing (they moved away, they got divorced, etc).
    1. I suggest starting with a reminder email to your list of non-renewals inviting them to register for the current season, and asking a quick survey question regarding why they have not yet renewed (multiple choice question, using a google form directly embedded in the email, with one of the answers being ‘I moved way’)
    2. Remove the people who have moved away from your list.
  2. Of the remaining people, start by identifying 20-30 people who are the most likely to renew and CALL THEM ON THE PHONE. If you are shy about this, email me and I would be happy to have a mini coaching session with you (bonus for you, my reader). Remember, you are not pestering them. You are being of service by supporting them to eat your top quality freshly harvested veggies!
  3. Send personal emails to the rest of the list… as in not a mass email… not something MailChimp just stuck their name on… really a 1 to 1 email. You can copy and past a template for the body of the email, but add a personalized opening.
  4. If you’re still short, start calling the rest of the list.

I know it can be intimidating to call people up, none of us like being rejected. But remember… It’s not personal, it’s just business!

One thing that becomes evident in all this, is the need for quality information of your clients. Whoever is interacting with your clients on a weekly basis at the CSA drop off needs to have a system for taking notes and rating people based on their perceived enthusiasm for your product. At the very least, during the last couple of weeks of the CSA season, notes need to help you the following year identify who is worth calling if they do not renew.  As with so much on the modern organic vegetable farm… it comes down to keeping great records!

So…

Who are the 20-50 people on your list who are the most likely to renew?

Is there someone on your team or in your entourage that is enthusiastic and your would entrust with this task?

May the force be with you!

Why we farm…farming as a creative endeavour.

So…. what’s your mission here on earth? You are here with a unique set of skills, which puts in an ideal position to make a unique contribution to the world. Sure, there are others that could (and will) make similar contributions, but your context is unique. No one else has ever lived in your shoes nor will they ever.

There are so many ways to manifest this gift to the world… and at so many scales. Some of us contribute through mindful parenting right here in our little house hold while others make contributions on a global scale which are of no less value.

The sole criteria of success is the willingness to step up to the plate. Did I give it my all? Was I willing to step out of the comfort of my own inner dialogue? Did I engage the world with integrity?

For many, organic farming is a means of making this contribution. When I started Ferme Mélilot in the winter of 2009-2010, I was ready to make a tangible positive impact. I had spent years pondering how to change the world. My ear was well familiarized with all manner of philosophical and political environmental discourse, and frankly I was sick of it! Enough blah blah… time for action! Even if it was just on 1 or 5 or 10 acres, at least I could see that I was creating positive change through my work.

The farm truly serves a wealth of purposes: a source of income, an excellent environment to raise a family, an tool to enact environmental reform, a platform for rural economic development, and an artistic and creative endeavour (Excel and a bare field were my favorite canvases upon which played out my artistic creation through the intricacies of diversified vegetable crop planning … part dance, part mosaic, part theatre, part painting.)

So.. what is is for you? What drives you?

What purposes does your farm serve for you?

 

Our three roles on the farm: Captain, Manager, Worker.

Imagine we are in a rainforest… our task is to cut a trail through the forest.

The workers are the ones swinging the machetes. Chopping through the forest.

The managers are right behind them: finding the best machete, the best way to swing it, rotating the workers so everyone gets a rest, measuring progress… etc.

The Captain is the one who climbs up a tree… looks around… and shouts ‘Wait, Wait… We’re in the wrong forest!!!’  

(to which the managers usually respond ‘shut up, we’re making great progress’)

You can hire people as workers and managers… but the role of captain is your unique ability.. No one can replace you as captain of your farm (or co-captain depending on how your business is structured).

And yet so many of us spend all our time in the roles of manager and worker.

It is so important to dedicate some time every week to the role of captain.

To take a few minute of calm to look out over the horizon and see what’s coming next.

Is the farm headed in the direction you envisioned? How will the farm adapt to evolving conditions around it? What is your vision, your goals for the farm?

What do you enjoy about the farm, what are you grateful for, what makes you happy?

What doesn’t work for you, what is causing you the most stress, how will this be rectified?

It doesn’t have to be long. Simply the act of taking this time each week creates the mental space for vision to emerge throughout the rest of the week as well.

Go make a ruckus!

 

PS: The rainforest metaphor is taken from ‘The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People‘ by Stephen Covey….. a book which has been very influential for me. I highly recommend it!

Delegating a task vs Delegating a role.

We can’t do it all….despite what we may sometimes think 😉

There are simply too many tasks on a farm to be able to do all of them.

Not only this… but by delegating certain types of tasks, we free ourselves up to focus on using our super power (for me it’s using my lazer beam third eye).

As business owners there are certain roles and tasks on the farm that are best suited to us. There are certain tasks that when we focus on them, we get the largest return in terms of our time and energy. These tend to be big picture, vision, and management level activities.

So how do we best delegate? This starts by being very clear with ourselves about what we are delegating… the distinction to make is between the delegating a task and delegating a role.

Delegating a task:

This is the basic level of delegation. We assign a specific task or set of tasks to someone or to a team. The clearer we are in our instructions, the better.

Specifically we need to be clear about:

  • What done looks like… what is the desired outcome;
  • How long the task is to take;
  • What tools and materials are needed;
  • Details of the techniques involved.

Verbal communication can be tricky, it is almost impossible to be sure that people have heard what you actually said. Taking the time for people to repeat back to you the key elements of the task is a good idea,

Yes…. delegation takes time. Time to clearly communicate, time to issue written directions, time to train them, and time to follow up. Which is why it is great if you can find a way to not only delegate a task, but an entire role.

Delegating a role:

Herein lies the real power of delegation.

When you delegate a role, you free up your mind to focus on those areas of your business that only you can do…. to focus on your role as captain of the ship rather than on operational management.

While details are important when getting someone started in their newly delegated role, the key is to be clear about the desired outcome and purpose of the role. What is that role to achieve, what outcome to you seek, what is the available time frame, what criteria will be used to determine success, and most importantly WHY is this role crucial to the success of the farm (putting the role in context vis a vis the big picture.

Perhaps you might notice how well this maps onto the OPA framework .

Let us consider the delegation of the role of greenhouse manager for a farm growing their own seedlings for field vegetable production:

    • Outcome: To produce healthy thriving seedlings that will be ready for transplanting on schedule (as determined by the field planting schedule). Criteria for success are leaf color, the presence of a rooting system allowing the seedling to be easily pulled from the tray while also not being root bound, healthy, white roots, absence of insect pests or diseases, readable tags in each tray detailing crop type, variety, and seeding date, seedling has been hardened off at least 3 days prior to planting, weekly update on what will be ready to plant this week, seedlings are ready on time for planting as planting in the transplanting calendar

 

  • Purpose (how does this role fit into the big picture): Healthy seedlings are the foundation for a productive transplanted crop, seedling vigour and health directly determines how well the seedling will adapt to field conditions and how fast it will grow, vigorous seedlings give us a head start on weeds and insect and contribute to growing healthy, profitable crops… healthy profitable crops allow this farm to thrive, to pay the employees and provide high quality nourishing food to the community we serve.
  • Action: Here is where you guide the person to get started in this role. What are the current best practices/standard operating procedures, intro to the greenhouse seeding calendar, how to document improvements in the system, tools and materials needed.

 

The idea here is that you are getting them off to a good start… you check back in to support them to fully appropriate the role… and then you let them do it!

Resist the urge to ‘micro manage’!

You must trust them and, yes, you must accept that there is a learning curve. Schedule regular meetings with your management staff to support them in achieving success. Everyone wants to succeed, your role is to set them up for a win and them let them run with the ball.

So…

What is your superpower? What is your unique ability in your farm business? Where does your time and energy produce the greatest return? How can you better focus your attention on the big picture… on being the captain of the ship?

What tasks can you delegate?

What roles can you delegate?

Let me give you a hint, it’s more than most farmers usually admit 😉

I suggest you make a list with three columns:

  1. My super powers/unique abilities
  2. Easily delegatable
  3. Harder to delegate.

Now… what role are you willing to delegate this week? Is there anywhere on the farm that you need to be more clear regarding something you have delegated?

Have fun! (seriously, the fun factor is so important!)

 

Putting the champagne moment at the top of your to-do list!

Ahhh… the to do list! We’ve all got one and sometimes it seems like most of the time it gets longer rather than shorter!

To do lists are such an important tool for managing our farms and there are some nuances that I would love to dive into over the next couple of weeks.

First off… how to get the list to get shorter and shorter over time…

There are actually 4 ways to get a task off of your to do list

  • accomplishment (do it);
  • deferral (decide to delay the due date);
  • delegation (someone else does it);
  • deletion (decide that it will not get done… and remove it entirely from your list).

It is important to note that actually doing the task is only one of 4 options at our disposal for shortening our to do list.

Once you have drawn up the list of things to do for the day ask your self: Which of these tasks is the champagne moment… which task would getting done cause you to bust out the champagne (real or metaphorical) and celebrate? Great now put that one at the top of your list… this is your Most Important Action (MIA). Next choose 2 other top priorities. Focus on these top 3 tasks early in the day…. the rest of the list is gravy.

And… don’t forget to take a moment and actually celebrate when you get these done… savouring the accomplishment, regardless of how much is still on your list.

What is one thing that would cause you to celebrate if you got it done today? … this week? …. this month?

Go make a ruckus!

How the farm pays

Alright folks… lets get clear about something.

There are only two activities that generate value on the farm.. planting vegetables, and harvesting. These are the only two activities that your clients are actually paying you to do.

All the rest… I mean ALL the rest… is simply setting the stage for planting, or setting the stage for harvesting.

 

Setting the Stage for

PLANTING

Setting the Stage for

HARVEST

Planning Tillage

Drainage

Fertilization

Green Manures

Stale seed-bed prep

Occultation

Post Harvest tillage

Record keeping

Weeding

Irrigation

Pest control

Trellising

Pruning

Mulching

Marketing

Record keeping

The things is, many of us are farming nerds… we love the intricacies of each of these stage setting activities. In the process we sometimes lose sight of the fact that all these activities are just here to support planting and harvesting.

What is one way you could streamline the stage-setting process?

Are all activities on the farm centered around supporting the planting and harvesting processes?

What would it look like on your farm in planting and harvesting were the primary activities?

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PS: The title to this blog post is actually a (not so) secret shout out to one of my favorite farming books ‘How the farm pays’ from 1884.

How to unblock yourself when feeling stuck or overwhelmed.

Do you ever feel frozen or overwhealmed by all there is to do? I do! The result is that I resort to turning in circles, procrastinate, and engage in compulsive behaviours (yeahy compulsive BBC news consumption!)

What’s more, in those moments, my monkey mind perks up and loves nothing more than to rehash those negative self-dialogues about how I am not up to the task.

But seriously… What is more interesting: my shortcomings or my dreams and goals?

It seems like an obvious answer… so why do i spend so much time focusing on my shortcomings.

Perhaps it is because I would love to be even better… that I am perfectionist? That’s bullshit… as if I had to choose between peace of mind and self improvement or achievement. The truth is that this is one more beautiful paradox to embrace. The paradox of accepting that all is well, exactly as it is… while simultaneously journeying towards some future vision of ourselves and of what we would love to achieve.

The key here is to see that these moments are normal… all that is going on here is that we temporality entertain a conversation with our monkey mind. Monkey mind is a Buddhist term referring to that chattering internal voice that goes from worry to fear and back to worry etc. It is actually a very useful part of our ‘caveman brain’ that is here to keep us alive. The problem is that our brain has not yet adapted to modern life. It’s like we’re running modern software on a 100 000 year old computer.

So in those moments, there is no point in arguing or reasoning with monkey mind… it always wins (and sometimes resorts to the good old monkey tactic of feces flinging).

Rather, the way forward is to simply tell monkey mind ‘thank you for sharing’ (give it a hug)…. and gently shift our attention to something more interesting… to thoughts actually worth thinking. Without judgment or worry, we simply shift our attention (similarly to how during meditation we simply bring our attention back to our breath whenever our mind wanders).

So….

 

What would you love to focus on this week?

 

What would you love to focus on as you move towards your dreams and goals?!

 

I suggest you write this down Monday morning on your plan for the week and refer back to it whenever you smell the bananas (key sign that monkey mind is present).

The sabbath (day of rest): one of the most important tools in the farmer’s toolbox!

It’s easy to work 7 days a week… we love farming and there is sooo much to do. In fact, the work can seem to be endless.

But…

What if the way to get more done was actually to take a day of rest (or two)?

There have been times in the early years of my farm where I worked 7 days per week and 80+ hours per week. What I noticed was that the 30 extra hours between 50 and 80 hours per week are way less productive. Not only that, but the fact that I was working so much dulled my mind and body and decreased my productivity during those first 50 hours of work per week.

I have also noticed that the top farms in our networks are usually the ones taking 1 or 2 days off per week. Is it that they are able to take time off because they are awesome farmers… or are they on top of their shit because they take time to recharge their batteries each week?

While working 7 days per week and 80+ hours may appear to be the only way to get it ‘all done’, this may actually not be the best way to optimize your performance.

And this is not just my experience. The scientific literature abounds with studies showing that working more is not the best strategy. (for example, this study suggesting a sharp drop in productivity past 50-60 hours per week.

OK… enough boring stuff 🙂

 

Would it be OK with you if life got easier?

 

Would it be OK with you if you were allowed to take a day off to rest, to recharge, to cultivate another of your interest? (or even a weekend)

Which day of the week will be your day of rest this summer?

What systems or support do you need to make this happen? What is the bare minimum that needs to happen on that day (watering the seedling, irrigation…. )

Try it out, make the decision, share it with your team and loved ones, and stick to it!

 

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PS: Harvest the zucchinis extra small and skip a day or 2.

PPS: Did you know that at certain periods of history, working 7 days per week was punishable by death (aka Moses in the Old Testament)… whoa.. I am not suggesting we go that far, but it does make you think.