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In With the New: High Tunnel!

April 7th, 2014, by Lisa

High Tunnel -s
So, we’ve been talking about Spring Cleaning. You know, out with the old, in with the new kind of stuff. Each spring always brings a bunch of ‘new’, and around here sometimes it’s dramatic.

Our first dramatic new is the subject here: a high tunnel. Basically, ‘high tunnel’ is the term used for a greenhouse that doesn’t have any heating capabilities. So it really is a high tunnel – a structure of, in this case, metal and plastic, through which you can walk. And the fun doesn’t stop there because more than just for walking through, it is a structure in which you can grow plants!

We intend to grow our heirloom tomatoes and cucumbers, and other disease-loving garden plants in there. Keeping them covered helps keep diseases at bay and keeps the rain off the plants. For heirloom tomatoes, keeping the rain off helps to prevent some of the typical heirloom-type cracking. Keeps us from getting cranky, too. Cracky tomatoes will make any grower cranky…

Our brand-new (and returning) helpers set to work last week building this awesome structure, and boy did they do a terrific job. As you can see in the picture above, it appears now that we have a whale skeleton on the farm. Covering that whale with plastic will be a job for another quite windless day, lest we have to battle an escaping humongo parade balloon (a la Macy’s Thanksgiving type – read here for our adventures in just that!)

Onwards and upwards, but hopefully not up, up, and away. It will be all hands on deck when it’s time for the plastic. In the meantime, other nifty new things are going on. But I’ll save that for another day.

How about you? Any new things in your life this spring? If you’re looking for a whale skeleton of your own, I can point you in the right direction!

Cement Mixers and Castle Building

March 14th, 2014, by Lisa

Today, we’ll talk about using cement mixers in the process of castle building.

Wah??? How’s that relate to farming you might ask?

MixerWell, as with some other equipment around here, our cement mixer is not used for its original purpose. Nope – in our case it has been retrofitted a bit in order to mix our soil mix to the proper consistency with which to build castles.

Oh, no – that’s not quite right either. Although our castle-building is indeed reminiscent of those days many of us had at the beach building sand castles using buckets (or if you were lucky, awesome castle-shaped gizmos) in order to make what were, to us, magical and beautiful sand structures.

Depending upon who is doing the greenhouse work, they may reminisce about those happy-go-lucky days at the beach or they may (if they are more fantasy-minded) imagine they’re working on building the next Hogwarts Castle.

But in reality, our cement mixer has taken the not-too-fun task of mixing soil mix (we use Fort V from Vermont Compost) with water by hand in a wheelbarrow to a new height of techie-ness…shoveling measured amounts of the soil mix into the mixer, adding a measured amount of water, turning it on and watching it do its magic. Actually, it’s kind of like your home mixer too – which certainly makes life in the kitchen easier than mixing stuff by hand!

And then, with the properly mixed result (remember those days at the beach, here, when your castle-building sand could be neither too dry nor too wet for best results), our ersatz castle maker (ie. soil block makers from Johnny’s Selected Seeds) is employed – in EXACTLY the same manner as you used to make sand castle blocks – to make the perfectly shaped soil block in which to grow beautiful vegetable plants for the garden.

Ok…it does take a wee bit of training. We’re all YEARS removed from our sand castle building days (back when we were all experts, eh?), but the idea is the same.

So, if your kids are avid sand castle builders, keep in mind they may indeed have a fantastic future in sustainable agriculture!

(learn more about soil block making here)

Soil Block Primer

January 5th, 2014, by Lisa

Soil blocks are a unique transplant production system which seemingly few are familiar with, so here’s some of the basics for you.

Ike first learned about soil blocks from some of Eliot Coleman’s excellent gardening books. The ideas behind soil blocks seemed to make so much sense that we started using them the very first year we grew vegetables, and we haven’t looked back since!
2" block maker

4" block maker

Soil blocks are made by compressing wetted blocking mix, typically a mix of compost, peat, organic fertilizers and bulking materials such as perlite, into cubes using block makers. We use an organic mix called “Fort V” from Vermont Compost with great success. We typically use a 2″ block maker for most crops, but use a 4″ block maker for a number of the summer crops like tomatoes, eggplants, and peppers. (We purchased our blockers from Johnny’s Selected Seeds)
Block Making
I always liken making the soil blocks to building sand castles. The mix has to be just the right wetness to hold together, yet not so wet that it falls apart. Fortunately, in this case, the incoming tide is not likely to wash away your efforts at the end of the day. In fact, the blocks are quite durable after they have partially dried (1 or 2 days after making and seeding them), and are very durable after filled with plant roots. (To the right Shannon and Laura Beth are using both the 4″ and 2″ blockers)

Besides providing the opportunity to have fun playing with soil, what do soil blocks have going for them? Here are some advantages:

  • They contain complete plant starting nutrients and pathogen-suppressing compost in order to grow healthy plants without requiring additional fertility (like stinky fish emulsion).
  • The young plants do not become root bound since the root blocks are air-pruned on all sides while growing, which leaves the roots poised to grow as soon as they are transplanted to moist soil.
  • They reduce or eliminate transplant shock because of the large healthy root system which is poised to start growing within 24 hours of being planted in the garden (provided they are properly watered in).
  • The plants have a better head start on weeds and provide better-flavored produce due to the even growth the healthy root system encourages.
  • The blocks add compost and stable humus to garden soil, thus enriching the garden’s soil organic matter and nutrient content.
  • Starting plants in this manner greatly reduces or eliminate plant plastics in transplant production – which is way cool.

How do you, the gardener, handle your soil-blocked plant starts? (For those of you in our Plant Start program, all of your transplants will come to you in soil blocks)

  • Make sure they stay well-watered. Soil blocks can be very hard to re-wet if allowed to become extremely dry and may require several minutes of submersion in water to completely re-wet them (we use one of those storage tubs like you might buy at Home Depot or Walmart…something big enough to immerse the whole flat in).
  • Completely soak blocks before transplanting using the above method if possible. If you don’t have a big tub, then water the blocks quite well prior to planting.
  • Water-in your plants as soon as possible after planting them in the garden.
  • If you can’t plant your starts promptly in the garden, using a starter fertilizer at planting time may be desirable.

The question which remains is: WHY isn’t everyone using them??

Young Tomatoes in 4" Soil Blocks

Tomatoes in 4″ Soil Blocks

2" Soil Block Starts

Lettuces and Brassica babies in 2″ Soil Blocks

Changing Times & On-Farm Adventures

December 4th, 2013, by Lisa

2014 will see the start of some big changes at the farm, and we’re asking you to help us do the planning!
changes
The changes?
1. Our big barn will have a major facelift, making it into a great space for gatherings, workshops, and other special events.

2. We’ll be scheduling a bunch of events through the year for anyone to attend. Farm-based education, potlucks, movie nights, and more are being bantered about.

Our goal?
1. To provide opportunities for like-minded local food supporters to get together for fun and conversation.

2. To provide education in various topics you are interested in, (ranging from gardening and orcharding to tastings, cooking and building projects) on various levels from novice to expert.
survey
How can you help?
Simple! Fill in our short survey about the types of programs and events you’d be interested in attending. Even if you are too far away to participate much at all, you may certainly have ideas about what you’d like to participate in if you could.

We look forward to 2014 and all the changes it will bring, and are likewise looking forward to sharing some on-farm adventures with you!

Thanks to the Chester County Food Bank!

October 23rd, 2013, by Lisa

Last week, the Chester County Food Bank stopped by to pick up a whole lot of apples to distribute to the many people in our county who struggle with hunger.

The reality of farming and marketing as we do is that sometimes we have less of what we’d like to have, and sometimes we have more than we know what to do with. The best laid plans and all that….

Farming is not factory (although there is ‘factory farming’). We cannot ‘make’ the exact amount of what we want or need. Unlike commodity apple growers (who focus on just a few varieties like Honeycrisp, Gala, and Red Delicious), we cannot just ship off our oddball varieties via a wholesale channel. Stores have no interest in purchasing varieties they’ve never heard of (we tried many years ago and learned that the hard way). So when there are extras (in this case, a bumper crop of Florina and Royalty apples), we are happy the Chester County Food Bank will happily use these delicious apples. They are able to educate their clients about the varieties (well, really, just one bite will do that).

So, thanks to Larry, Steve, Nick, and everyone at the Chester County Food Bank. When we have extras of fine delicious fruit, it is thrilling to know they’ll be enjoyed by those who worry about their next meal….rather than have the fruit languishing at a produce auction because no one is willing to bid on them.

Hazard of the Job: Fruitosis

September 12th, 2013, by Lisa

How awesome would it be to work in a dark chocolate factory? How about a bakery? Winery?

Wherever your guilty indulgence(s) takes your dreams of being supplied with never-ending streams of the item(s) in question, I guarantee there’s likely a few people on the other end who perhaps feel not so enamored.

I worked at the Penn State Creamery one year as a Work-Study student, and while I loved ice cream then, and still do today, there were times, particularly at the end of a busy home-game weekend, where I couldn’t stand the sight or smell of the stuff.

Then there was another college year when I did a two-week stint at Burger King (hey, didn’t we all??). Unlike ice cream, however, that experience “cured” me for life. No more Burger King for this girl.

Now here I am, in a similar sort of position, when it comes to fruit. “How bad can that be?” you may well wonder.
Tasting
Well, let me tell you – when you (or more accurately, your farming partner) decides to plant an additional 300 varieties of apples when you already have about 100, it can get pretty bad. Top it off with dozens of plums, pears, and peaches, and you get well over 500 varieties of tree fruit alone which, well of course, must be sampled.

All was well along the first 20 years or so of this farming journey. There were particular days when we had lots to sample, but it was manageable. But this year, we have quite a number to sample each day, and it’ll only get worse in 2014 and 2015 as more new trees come into production. Let me see…500 varieties divided by about 80 days (because that’s the time frame most of the fruit ripens during) equals tasting at least 6 varieties a day.

Six may not sound too bad, but of course it doesn’t really work that way. There will be many days when there are 15 or 20 to try. And of course, we can’t try just one of any given variety. We have to taste it when:
1. It’s just a wee bit green, to help determine when will be the best time to pick it.
2. It’s spot-on ripe, so we can describe it properly to folks.
3. It’s over-ripe, to determine just how bad it may get, of course!

Therefore, we must multiply our original tasting number by at least 3 to account for those timeframes. But let’s multiply by 4 to be more realistic, as we’ll try the varieties at least twice during the pre-pick stage.

So we’ll be tasting, come 2014 & 2015, from 24 to 80 varieties PER DAY (here I am reminded of customers who only purchase 2 pieces of fruit to “keep” them for an entire week. Really?)

Some of our helpers (who don’t “suffer” through all of the tasting) likely wonder why we order pizza so frequently. Sure, we don’t have a lot of time to cook during fall harvest, but we also just need some bread and stuff to balance all the freakin’ fruit we have to eat!

You know all the wine people who taste and spit? They do that (presumably) so they don’t get rip-roaring drunk in short order. In our case, we taste and spit fruit to avoit fruitosis. I’m sure I made up the term, but it’s certainly a real ailment – I’ve felt it. Those are the times when I do not, under any circumstances, want to taste yet another piece of fruit.

But of course, after dinner (pizza??), when we’re enjoying a fun movie and relaxing, I’ll dig right in to a big bowl of assorted fruits of the season.

At least fruit is more like ice cream than Burger King in that regard – I’ll always love it.

Who Needs GMO Apples When there is Sansa?

August 11th, 2013, by Lisa

Pending FDA approval, we may soon be seeing genetically modified (GMO) apples hitting the grocery store shelves. Dubbed ‘botox apples’ by some, these altered Granny Smith and Golden Delicious apples are designed to prevent bruising and browning. (Read more about it in this NPR article and this New York Daily News article).

We at the farm believe that the development of GMO crops is like opening a Pandora’s Box (or can of worms, if you prefer). Things could take off and become big problems in no time. We’ve already seen that in pesticide-resistant monster weeds which have developed in response to GMO corn, soy, and other field crops.

And honestly, in the case of the GMO apples – what IS the point? Sure, some apples start to brown nearly immediately upon cutting them, but others do not. The non-browning characteristic already exists in some varieties, like the Sansa we recently picked.

Sansa is a delightfully fruity and sweet early apple. Not commercially ‘pretty’, perhaps, with its russeted skin and pinkish/orange/yellowish color scheme. But you know we at North Star do not care much about looks – it’s flavor that counts!

Sansa

Sansa, hours after slicing

Every year when the Sansa start producing I am reminded of how lovely they are. And then as I cut them up for eating, I remember that they also don’t brown.

Some varieties, like Royalty, will start browning within seconds, but others do not. When there are already naturally-occuring non-browning gems like Sansa around, why on Earth are food and Ag scientists fooling around with genes in a lab? So they can have nationally-recognized varieties like Granny Smith and Golden Delicious with that characteristic? Then people will have no idea if they’re eating a GMO apple or not (because, of course, there are no labelling laws in this country….YET).

Personally, I think it would be so much better if the apple industry would stop fooling around with unpopular varieties which “look good” (although many customers hate Golden Delicious now just as much as Red Delicious because the apple industry has ruined it – but that’s another story). Why not start growing some YUMMY varieties and NOT fool around artificially with the genetics? Consumers can be taught that delicious apples can come in “ugly” packages…we’ve seen that happen with our own farm. We routinely have customers pick out the “ugliest” varieties for sale at our market stand, as they know those apples will taste just awesome!

Cut Sansa

Sansa core 2 days after being cut


And so it is with Sansa….a very unassuming-looking apple with great flavor AND a nifty non-browning characteristic….and no GMOs are involved! Believe me, we’re planting more of these babies.

Just so you know, we don’t have many of these yet, so don’t be looking for them at the farmers’ market. But we’ve planted more, so by 2014 and 2015, you’ll have a chance to get a taste!

By the way – those GMO apples, when they come out (and I’m sure they will), will hopefully have the word “Arctic” attached to their variety name. So if you see “Arctic Granny Smith or Arctic Golden Delicious”, you know what they are. Of course, that is if that name is kept with them. I’m betting the “arctic” part of the name will mysteriously disappear.

Heritage Wheat Project

August 9th, 2013, by Lisa

As many of you may know, a large percentage of grains (corn, wheat, soy) grown in the US are now GMO crops (genetically modified). Between the fact that we at North Star do not believe in growing GMO crops AND that Farmer Ike likes to play with all kinds of heritage varieties of everything AND that organically-produced staple crops are hard to come by in this area at all, Ike set out to start growing some. So, last fall he planted a couple kinds of heritage wheats for trial. This spring, we also planted dry beans and heritage flint corn (for cornmeal).

The first of these projects came ‘to fruition’ with the wheat harvest in July. This required the purchase of a new-to-us but antique “All Crop” combine (Ike’s good excuse for a ‘new’ toy…), which looked quite the riot being hauled around by a brand-spanking-new yet wee little Kubota tractor!

Bag of WheatIn any case, the wheat is now ready for use! We’ve been considering getting a mill to process it into flour, but in the meantime, the wheat itself is great to use as a whole grain in cooking….pretty much any way you’d use farro, barley, spelt, even rice! A CSA member of ours says it cooks nicely in a rice cooker, but we’ve done it easily on the stovetop like other grains we love. Last week we used it as a base for a stir fry. It would also make a great base for a cold salad with a bunch of veggies.

The texture is more firm, which is a lovely departure from the almost-not-there texture of rice. And the lightly nutty, but not overpowering flavor is a great compliment to a lot of dishes. We hope you will love it as much as we do!

Stovetop directions: Bring 3 cups water to a boil. Add 1 cup wheat and return to a boil. Lower heat, cover, and simmer for 2 hours.

Crock pot directions (tested by customer Julie L.): Cook for 8 hours or so on low (3 parts water to 1 part wheat). There’s still a good amount of texture then, although cooking longer or presoaking might result in a softer grain. Julie’s family prefers it more chewy like this, as do we!

If you’ve tried cooking/preparing the wheat in other ways, let us know in the comments below!

(Available at all Farmers’ Market locations and for sale or by pre-order at all CSA locations)

Kitchen Gadgets

July 26th, 2013, by Lisa

It’s garlic season!

At this time of year, we find ourselves tossing garlic in just about everything we make, although we haven’t delved into garlic desserts just yet…

Garlic mincerMy favorite gadget to mince garlic we found a couple of years ago and it just about lives on our countertop right now. It dices, it slices, it washes up easily in the dishwasher! What more could one want? (oh yeah, it’s only about $5, which really makes it a no-brainer)

(Please note I am not being paid to promote this gizmo, but I do really love it!) Check it out here on Amazon.com, or check in your local kitchen gadget-type store.

Speaking of gadgets, here’s two new-to-me neato thingies:
Onion Goggles
1. Onion Goggles! Good friend Marcel got a pair of these and absolutely swears by them. No more crying while chopping! …and they come in funky colors, too. I’m not sure you’d want to answer the door while wearing them, but they do work wonders, according to him.
Spiral Slicer
2. The Spiral Vegetable Cutter! Actually, it does harder fruits (like apples) in addition to veggies. I don’t have it (yet!), but it is on my wish list after hearing customers rave about it. What a fun was to enjoy raw and cooked veggies.

So, there’s three nifty gadgets for you. What awesome gadget(s) are in your kitchen (or on your wish list)? Add them below so we can all get excited about the possibilities!

One Tough Boss

June 18th, 2013, by Lisa

Tough BossEveryone has had a really tough boss somewhere along the line. One who will change his mind at the spur of the moment or will take your prized project away just as it’s nearing completion. One who will have you working harder and for more hours, only to reward you with less pay. One who’s personality seemingly changes on a whim – being lively and sunny one moment and stormy and scary the next.

As farmers, we may feel initially like we’re our own boss. Then also we may feel that “the market” is boss. Ultimately, of course, Mother Nature is boss – and she can be one tough cookie to deal with.

Our reminder of this came Monday afternoon with a freak super-severe, but very localized storm, which packed high winds and hail. We ended up with some broken and destroyed trees, broken gates, and lots of hail damage. We were thankful we replaced the old barn roof this year; the old one would have landed in the road.

Ike and I were vacationing at the beach when this freak storm blew through. Cutting our trip short based on reports from home, we arrived fearing the worst, but were relieved to see a farm still standing as we rounded the bend. After seeing pictures of the mid-west’s tornadoes of the past couple of weeks, we were honestly relieved!

Our Boss is a mighty tough one. We’ve been doing everything right, but Her hot temper saw fit to bang things up, knock things over, and give us a major dock in pay. And oh, yes – we have to use what’s left of our pay to fix the damage She wrought. Oh, what slaves we are to Her whims of fury. When She is of a more cheery disposition, we still work hard for little praise from Her. Of course, we as a society cause Her no end of grief as well, but I won’t digress into those matters here.

For this year, we will remain thankful there was still a farm standing as we rounded the corner. We will fix the broken things which we can fix and will remove and subsequently replace those which we can’t. We will tend the tattered vegetables, bruised apples/Asian pears, and hail-sliced peaches as best we can, and hope our customers and CSA members will be forgiving. That they, too, will remain thankful there was still a farm standing, and will enjoy the flavors our Boss will still gift to us this year, however ugly they may be.

(Below are pictures from the aftermath: shredded Swiss chard, hail-nicked Asian pear, collapsed grape trellis, hail-sliced baby peach):

Hail-shredded Swiss Chard

Hail-damaged Asian pears

Wind-downed grapes

Hail-sliced peach

North Star Orchard • Ike & Lisa Kerschner
Email: Lisa@northstarorchard.com • Phone: (610)-593-0314
3226 Limestone Rd. • Cochranville, PA 19330
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