Life and thoughts from a small-scale organic farm . . . and its farmers

This is a blog that explores ideas around the growing of food and community at Glen Valley Organic Farm.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Watching the Indicator Puddle

One of the handiest pieces of technology we have on the farm is the indicator puddle. It isn't fancy, but it's part of our ear-to-the-ground system for relating to moisture in the ground.

Here's how it works: When the indicator puddle dries out (when it's no longer a puddle), we know that we can get the tractor into the fields to cultivate the soil. Water in the puddle? It's too wet; working the soil can either get the tractor stuck or severely compact the soil.

At this time of year we watch the indicator puddle closely, hoping to be able to get into the fields. The puddle sits in the driveway between the farmhouse and the barn, so we pass it multiple times each day. It's a constant reminder of what we want to be doing.

The indicator puddle is, of course, a good conversation piece. While everyone on the farm has a different source for weather forecasts, the indicator puddle provides a baseline we can all agree upon.

It's also a good illustration of the value of observation. Being able to relate the changes in the natural environment to our daily tasks and anticipation of the season is an important part to being in tune with the land.

A goal of mine is to practice phenology on the farm. In short, phenology is the observation of life cycles and their relation to seasonal changes. Simply put, many things in nature happen sequentially; watching changes can indicate general trends in a season.

In practice, this means keeping records of when things happen. This year, for example, we might note that we ate our first day lilies on 2 February and our first nettles on 9 February. It might also note that the daffodils by the mailbox opened on 19 February and that the first Hooded Mergansers were sighted on our pond yesterday.

The indicator puddle was dry enough for disking the fields on 22 February.

Over time, trends emerge that can help with planning the season. For example, we might know that it's time to plant fava beans two weeks after crocuses bloom because the soil is warm enough for germination. Or that potatoes can be planted one month after the first harvest of nettles.

The challenge of home-made phenology is remembering to take notes. My goal last year was to keep a daily record of weather and farm activities. It was an ambitious project amidst the birth of a new baby in March. It didn't happen.

This year the project is a bit less ambitious. We have a day planner that documents appointments, expenses and other activities. It now has notes about the nettles, hooded mergansers and other notable observations.

It isn't important to record everything. Having something written down here and there provides something to work with, though, especially next year when we're trying to remember when it was that the eagles returned.

Even though we don't have much written down from last year, we do have a few benchmarks. We were trying to make a big nettle pasta to celebrate Roxie's birth after 25 March. We almost couldn't find enough. And the rhubarb -- wow -- it's already growing at a time of year when it's often still dormant.

So, that puts us about six weeks ahead of last year.

What does this mean for our customers? The May markets just might be a bit more abundant with produce than usual.

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