Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Big Max Pumpkins

The Big Max variety has produced some big pumpkins, as billed, and has also lasted longest into the summer heat. The Jack-o-lantern variety produced more pumpkins, but they are smaller, and the plants have withered up for the most part by now. The Big Max pumpkins are still going strong.

Sunflowers and Rainbows

Nice little double rainbow popped out yesterday at sunset, against the backdrop of a dark sky. The Creator's glorious handiwork nicely displayed!

The mammoth sunflower packet said 7-12 feet, and by gum, it delivered! Check these babies out, with my own sweet Mother Earth, a six foot lady, in the foreground for perspective.

Mother Earth with Sunflowers

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Watermelons: a Great Arizona Crop

Watermelons are handling the heat best, and they are much less space-intensive than the squash or pumpkins. I also notice they are setting just as much fruit as the pumpkins and squash. Here they are, growing well:

Heat Tolerant Vine Crops

Planting heat tolerant crops is vital when Victory Gardening in Arizona during the summer. The following is a list in descending order of heat tolerance, among the traditional "summer" vine-type crops.

Most Heat Tolerant
Least Heat Tolerant

We have not had the hottest spring on record, its been pretty nice lately, in fact. We hovered around 100 degrees a couple weeks ago, but since then, it has been in the mid/upper 90's. Still, while not yet reaching the scorching 110's of true AZ summer, the crops can show daytime wilt.

The most prone to heat wilt, I have found, are cantelope, cucumbers, and squash, which get stressed out in the upper 90's.

So far, the okra and watermelons have had absolutely zero problem with the heat. The pumpkins are more mixed, but the jumbo variety is standing up the best.

The tomato leaves show some stress when the get a bit dry, but they handle the heat just fine for the most part.

Here is a nice trick I have found to keep the cucumber's happy: interplanting with the okra. The cucumbers seem to like the shade that the okra provides, but the okra is not as dominating as the pumkins or squash, for example. Nice companions, as you can see below, the cucumber is thriving under the okra, but getting burned up on its own.

Cucumber burning up on its own below

Giant Zucchini

The zucchini is doing well! Not as prolific as I had hoped, but certain plants are producing well, and I will collect seed from them.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Flagstaff Victory Gardens

Here is an article about the community (i.e. government sponsored) victory gardens in Flagstaff:

Like affordable downtown Flagstaff apartments, plots at community gardens are hot commodities. There are more people now longing to churn their own patches of dirt than garden plots available, says the city. Apartment and condo dwellers are signing up on waiting lists. "In fact, I've been out there gardening and people have stopped by, saying 'Hey, do you know whether there are any plots coming open?'" said Todd Barnell, a gardener who has a space in one community garden.

Reacting to that demand, plus complaints from some that their beloved gardens on donated land come and go at the whim of the landowners, the city has started its first community garden along the Rio de Flag, at Bonito Street and Elm Avenue. It comes in addition to about five community gardens, and could be the first of a few. "You know, the economy has not been all that great, and they're very limited on the existing community gardens," said Joe Haughey, a Flagstaff city councilman who came up with the idea after reading about Victory Gardens grown during World War II. "This is sort of a pilot project to basically create a template so that we could have a bunch of them around town next year," Haughey said.

Barnell and his partner use their plot to grow food, as does another garden member who grinds her own wheat to make bread. "An awful lot of people who use community gardens in this town are using them to supplement their actual supply of food," Barnell said. "... It's not just for fun. It's a way to actually save money on your food." He grows and dries beans, which he eats all winter.

Gardeners at Elm and Bonito pay $35 a year for an 80-square-foot plot. The fee is mainly for the expense of water in a garden that takes up a small fraction of a city block. For groups, it's $65 for 160 square feet. "I think they're going to provide an excellent opportunity for education of school children and get people back to the idea of knowing where their food comes from," said Bob Hoffa, city conservation manager. The first one will likely serve 15 or 20 gardeners and opened May 23.

It is hoped that any excess food could be donated to food banks, and some sort of food contribution could become part of the rent in the city gardens in the future, Hoffa said.

The city spent about $2,000 building the garden, along with water infrastructure. Previously, gardeners using community gardens have become discouraged when their donated land has been redirected for other use, or when land owners have told them they didn't like the sight of certain plants, said Barnell, who also sits on the city's sustainability commission. Haughey is calling the garden a victory or community garden, and a way to cut some of the greenhouse gas emissions generated in transporting food to Flagstaff.

In a time of rationing food domestically to feed troops, Flagstaff was probably home to many Victory Gardens during World War II, said local author and historian John Westerlund. "Because so much food was required for the U.S. serviceman fighting overseas, people in the U.S. were encouraged to grow some for themselves," he said.

To learn more about the city of Flagstaff community gardens, call Bob Hoffa at 213-3600.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Concerns Mount Over Sharp Rise in Food Costs

The food shortages and price spike of last summer feels like a distant memory at this point, especially after the collapse in commodity prices over the winter. But.... They're baaaaa'aaack! Investor speculation, falling dollar, supply shortages, all conspiring to drive an up-spike again, and here we are at just the beginning of summer. From an article originally in the Financial Times:

After a year worrying about the piggy bank, the world economy is turning its attention to the cupboard. Almost unnoticed, agricultural commodities prices have returned to levels last seen at the start of the 2007-2008 food crisis, prompting concerns about a fresh rise in food costs. The increase in soybean, corn, and wheat prices – to their highest level in eight to nine months and up more than 50 per cent from their December lows – comes on the back of strong Chinese demand, a forecast of lower supply due to reduced planting, and the impact of a drought in Latin America. Traders say hedge funds and other big institutional investors, including sovereign wealth funds from the Middle East, have poured money into the agricultural market, helping to drive commodities prices higher as the US dollar weakens.

The surge in prices is a reminder of how the world’s food security has deteriorated, after years of comfortable surpluses, analysts and executives say. “Agricultural markets are fairly nervous,” says an agricultural commodities analyst at Barclays Capital in London. “We are not in the comfortable food surplus environment of the 1980s and 1990s.” Mike Mack, chief executive of Syngenta, one of the largest manufacturers of chemicals for agriculture, echoes a widely held view when he says that although the “headlines from the past year on the food crisis have been replaced by those on the economic crisis”, the “long-term challenge to produce enough food” has not disappeared.'

The price of soymeal – critical for fattening livestock such as chickens and hogs – has moved above $405 a ton, a level only seen for a brief period in 1973 and during four weeks at the peak of last year’s crisis. The rise has pushed the price of ready-to-cook chicken in the US to the highest in a decade.

In rare public comments, Christopher Mahoney, a director at Glencore Grain, the secretive trading house based in Rotterdam, warned last week that supplies of some agricultural commodities such as corn and soy were “pretty tight”. Lewis Hagedorn, an agricultural commodities analysts at JPMorgan in New York, describes the situation as one of anxiety but not yet alarm. “We are approaching a level of concern with respect to inventories in some areas, although we are not presently in a crisis mode. We are not well prepared from a supply and demand balance sheet perspective to absorb any weather-related surprise.”

The immediate concern is soy, both because of its use as food but even more as livestock feed. Strong Chinese consumption, as the country’s diet moves from vegetables to meat, and the crop failure in Argentina, the world’s third largest exporter, have created extraordinary pressure on US supplies, sending inventories down to the lowest level in 40 years. Soybean prices on Tuesday hit $12.45½ a bushel, a fresh nine-month high. Soy is trading at the level of April 2008, after rising almost 60 per cent from its December’s low. Soya is, nonetheless, still below last year’s record of $16.5 a bushel.

Looking at the 2009-10 season, analysts fear a drop in cereals production, in corn and, to a lesser extent, in wheat, as farmers cut their planted acreage in response to low prices last autumn, higher cost for inputs such as fertilizer and pesticides, and difficulties securing finance in some countries. Production in countries such as Ukraine and Brazil is down because farmers did not have access to credit.

Monday, June 8, 2009

The Future of Food: Factory Buildings

Great article about "the future of food", practiced in Japan today: completely enclosed in a "food factory" laboratory, with all elements (light, water, oxygen, C02, even dust) controlled like a microchip clean room.

Obviously, such food is capital-intensive, and only makes sense in certain economic environments. Such as high land prices, cheap electricity, expensive labor, high technology, and protectionist walls against imported food (i.e. all the conditions that prevail in Japan and Japan only). Given America's cheap land and cheap labor, such food is not going to be cost effective.

But it is fascinating, isn't it? Food that has never touched soil, dirt, or bugs, never seen the sun or felt the wind. Kinda spooky, really. Space ship colonies, here we come!

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Small Farm Tractor Advice

Couple of useful letters follow, published over at Surivival Blog:

James,I just wanted to respond to the recent article on small tractors. In 1981 my wife and I bought 12 acres and started market gardening, selling produce locally. I grew about 3 acres of produce each year and put up hay for animals. Our first big investment at the time was a BCS 725 machine with the tiller and sickle-bar mower attachments. We used that machine, and used it hard.
Today it's 2009 and I just finished cutting hay and putting in my green bean patch, using that 725. It's still on the original engine, which has never been rebuilt, only annual oil changes for the last 27 years. It no longer starts on the first pull, these days it starts on the second pull each time, but guess I can't complain too loud about that.

In my life I must admit I've made very few incredibly good investments, but that Model 725 is definitely one of them. It's saved me untold labor and has just simply worked for 27 years without a bit of trouble. It's like an old Ford 8N, it just keeps running and doing what it's supposed to do. Old farm equipment was made to last forever, the BCS machines are farm equipment, not cheap consumer toys. The price reflects it, but from my opinion they're a bargain in the long run. Highly recommended. - Bobalu

Hello Mr. Rawles,Regarding the recent letters on micro-farm tractors, I have another viewpoint for your consideration.

In addition to the Troy-Bilt Horse rear tine tiller and other tools scaled for 1-2 acres, I have also purchased a larger farm tractor to better suit the conditions in and around my retreat. The recent letter mentioned Ford 9Ns and Farmalls. While these are still very common and many 9Ns are still in service, they are of 1940s-1950s vintage. My personal choice was a Massey Ferguson 100 series diesel tractor (135 or 165, for example). These were built between the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s, and have decades of excellent service history with much information available online (for you to save on paper now).

There were several factors leading me to this decision:
I obtained the tractor from a seller on Craigslist for a bargain price. This allowed me to retain a budget for maintenance rather than blowing it all up front on a new machine. While the peripheral systems needed attention, the engine and transmission were rock solid. The Perkins Diesel engines are renowned for reliability and durability. My updates and repairs serve two purposes: Restoring the mechanical soundness of the machine and its systems, and forcing me to become familiar with the repair and upkeep now. This is a mechanical restoration only – it needs to work, not look good. Surprisingly, every part that my 40 year old tractor has needed was both in stock and relatively inexpensive. While it’s comforting to “gear up”, eventually you will have to repair what you buy. Two years after TSHTF is not the ideal time to start the learning curve on your life-sustaining equipment. An old tractor you have mechanically zero-timed before the world comes to grief will give years of reliable service, and you will have the experience of your earlier work to guide future repairs.

While a larger tractor is overkill for a few acres, it is compatible with most all the equipment on surrounding farms. 1960s and 1970s tractors will have modern 3-point hitches with the ability to add additional hydraulics. The Massey-Ferguson 165, at 53 horsepower, can run a myriad of equipment that might overtax a smaller tractor. In addition to your own needs, you will have the option of volunteering to help your neighbor prepare his field or bring in his crop, using your extra muscle and standard 3-point hookups. That would be a Grade-A trade for food, fuel, or assistance when you need it, as opposed to showing up with a shovel and asking “what can I do to help?”
A larger tractor will also turn and disk your two acres in a hurry! I have collected smaller 3 point hitch equipment, like a two-bottom moldboard turning plow and a disk harrow, very inexpensively. The equipment is old, but made of such heavy steel that it still has decades of life left in it. Another barter option is to quickly prepare ground for other small-scale neighbors that may have purchased less durable equipment. Attempting to till up hard, fallow ground, even with a rear-tine tiller, is tough on the equipment and the person. Your tractor with plow and harrow would make short work of that fallow ground, allowing the rear-tine tiller to finish much more quickly and without the mechanical abuse.

The other posts mentioned diesel-engined ATVs. I respectfully submit that this may be a case of can rather than should. While you can pull a disk or maybe even a small all-purpose plow, the machine simply does not have the tractor-like durability to stake your family’s future on using the ATV as a tractor long-term. By the time you have bought a rare diesel ATV with ATV-specific implements, you might as well have bought an older, real tractor with standard 3-point implements for the money. Remember, from a duty cycle perspective (if I may anthropomorphize), I’d want my tractor to think: “wow, that was only two acres” as opposed to the ATV thinking: “Wow, that was two acres!”
On the issue of noise, I agree that a stock machine can be heard a ways off. However, the noise can be significantly reduced by using non-standard exhausts. If your goal is to prevent advertisement of your activity, it is time well spent to install a series of mufflers which will deaden the roar of a working engine. That slight drop in horsepower might be worth the relative quiet. This is true of your rear tine tiller as well as any other equipment. As an example, I have an old Onan generator with a high volume double muffler that some guys at a muffler shop helped me rig up. I can stand right next to the thing while it’s running, and carry on a conversation with only slightly raised voices.
Thank you for your efforts, Mr. Rawles! - J.I.C.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Chicken Coops and a Guide to Processing

Learned an nice tip this past weekend when building your coop: don't use chicken wire, use stucco netting. It is chicken wire, but it is 3 feet high instead of 4 feet, and one gauge smaller wire size. On a square footage basis, it is about 1/3 the cost.

I got mine at Home Depot. The stucco netting is not in same aisle as the fencing and chicken wire. You have to look for the rolls of it in the construction stuff, in the drywall aisle.

My hens have not even started laying yet, but I'm always thinking ahead.

Here is a guide to killing and bleeding the birds:

Here is a quick guide to ease the process of scalding your own birds, which makes plucking easy:

Here is a blog devoted to explaining the whole process of processing your own chickens: