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Half Hill Farm featured in Murfreesboro Magazine

Half Hill Farm - Murfreesboro Magazine

Despite the pouring rain, we had a great time showing our USDA Certified Organic farm (Half Hill Farm) in Woodbury, TN to Allison Belt and photographer Rachel Tenpenny. They were here for a May 2014 feature in Murfreesboro Magazine on organic farms in Middle Tennessee.

We currently have Shiitake, Reishi and Turkey Tail mushroom logs available for online order, or call for pick up at either our farm or the Farmers’ Market in Woodbury.

 

Farm hour: Journey with apples that rock

February 9th, 2013 No comments

apple orchard
Freshly mulched apple trees in the orchard.

The apple compost pile was loaded with fat earthworms, so Vince had us use the rake instead of the shovel to bin it up and move it to the apple trees.

apple rockWe had just enough for the ten trees. The compost looks good, but I’m sure our next batch will be even better now that we’re able to process the carbon inputs with the chipper.

Speaking of inputs, I treated the orchard to Journey’s “Anytime” from their Infinity album through this wireless speaker Vince picked up.

Journey is not on the OMRI list of approved organic inputs for apples, but the official entry to the USDA reads: “This is how we make them rock.”

Farm hour: Purple Martins are nature’s bug zappers

February 3rd, 2013 No comments

purple martin housePart of our organic farm’s integrated pest management plan calls for the use of hosted beneficial birds as natural predators. Earlier this week I asked a couple of friends and folks at the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency (TWRA) for some advice and was reminded about the amazing Purple Martin.

Growing up in the South, I remember Purple Martin houses on several farms. I never really thought there was a functional reason for hosting them, and later was convinced all they ate were mosquitoes.

I was wrong. State Zoologist David Withers sent me this great one pager from the Purple Martin Conservation Association that basically tells me the Purple Martin is one of nature’s best bug zappers. Check out TWRA’s wonderful online resource on common birds and how to host them.

Even if you are not an organic farmer, hosting Purple Martins can dramatically help reduce any flying insect pest on your property while reducing the use of chemical sprays and inviting a little of nature’s perfect aesthetic back to your home life.

We got two 16 family houses, both made in America, at our local Tractor Supply Company (photo: Vince snaps a Purple Martin house together). We’re using cut cedar posts from the property and will open the houses March 31 or as close to the time we begin seeing younger Purple Martins.

Here are a few points we’ve learned through some voracious reading over the past couple of snow days:

  • Purple Martins overwinter in Brazil and return year after year to the same nesting location.
  • They live exclusively in human made housing (East of the Rocky Mountains)
  • Houses must be over 10 feet off the ground, a minimum of 30 feet from a human dwelling (120 feet maximum), about 45 feet from any tree or bush and have nothing touching the pole, including support wires. Nothing around the housing can be taller.
  • Entry holes must be a specific dimension or competing birds become a problem (3 inches wide and 1 3/16 tall).
  • Purple Martins prefer white colored housing.
  • To attract a colony you must open the house when last year’s young return – 3 weeks after the first adults arrive. In Tennessee, adults arrive March 1-15. Adults will also colonize, but you must be persistent to scare off competing birds.
  • Purple Martins diet includes “dragonflies, damselflies, flies, midges, mayflies, stinkbugs, leafhoppers, Japanese beetles, June bugs, butterflies, moths, grasshoppers, cicadas, bees, wasps, flying ants, and ballooning spiders.”
  • Once hatched, Purple martins develop in about 30 days.
  • You can handle the chicks to manage the nests – parents do not mind human handling or scent.

Farm hour: preventing herbicidal drift from utility right of ways

January 28th, 2013 2 comments

zona organicaI didn’t know what to expect working with local utilities to prevent drift from chemical management of right of ways onto our organic farm.

Each of our local utilities who need access to the front of the farm had never dealt with a request like this, but each one totally understood my goals and appreciated my willingness to help them manage right of ways without chemicals.

The key phrase there is “my willingness to help them.” That’s a commitment to some work on my part. Luckily the right of ways are down hill a good distance from the fields we are certifying as organic, but we’ll have to dedicate some weekend farm hours to clearing brush.

Some practical advice I got from Middle Tennessee Electric Membership Cooperative was to make sure bilingual signs were posted. I can send them 50 letters, but a sign is all the contracted crews managing vegetation will see.

We got this embossed aluminum 12×18 “Do Not Spray” sign online. If you are going through the process of becoming a USDA Certified Organic farm, your certifying agent can help you with draft letters to neighbors and local utilities.

Farm hour: soil organics

January 25th, 2013 No comments

the orchard
a view of the organic orchard on the farm in Woodbury, Tennessee (Cannon County)

Ken asked me a little suspiciously where I got the soil samples I had him test. He said he hasn’t seen soil that good anywhere around here, and the organic matter for the farm soil is off the charts. It was low in potassium and magnesium.

That was great to hear, but it makes me want to do another test to be sure. My best guess is that the sloped field may have gotten over a 100 years or more of heavy leaf matter from nearby oak, maple and hickory trees. The soil I submitted was blackish in color with dark gray clay. Ken said it looked like someone dumped river bottom soil from a Mid West cornfield.

Another thing he saw was over the top cation exchange capacity. Normally he sees a range of 6-15 for Cannon County farms. We had a 36. It’s a great place to start for some very happy organic apples and blueberries.

Farm hours:

  • completing application for USDA Organic Certification
  • setting up a temporary greenhouse
  • setting up a cistern on the barn
  • cleaning the barn
  • turning the strip crop sections in field 3 and sourcing organic clover and rye cover crops

Farm hour: becoming a USDA Certified Organic farm

January 9th, 2013 No comments

soil tests
soil samples from four sections of the farm

It’s Winter. There isn’t enough light in the day when we get home from work to do much on the farm, so we’re taking a 15 hour online course from the Rodale Institute to apply to become a USDA Certified Organic Farm. Every night’s a school night until the days get longer.

We’re learning a lot. Even if you don’t plan to become certified the program is a wealth of information to suppliment and reinforce your interest in sustainable farm practices. One of the most important things I’m learning about is building soil fertility and conservation. It’s also required by the federal government for certified producers to have plans in place to achieve that, such as amending the soil with composts and both animal and green manures as well as using cover and rotational crops.

Hour by hour – we’re hoping to have a decent Organic System Plan hammered out this month for our farm’s application. One of the first steps was to get a baseline measurement of our soil, so I took samples from four sections of field (each section with a few sample points) and sent it off for testing through the local Farmer’s CO-OP. I can’t say for sure, but the soil looks amazing. We’ll see what the test says.

Farm hour: planning the organic garden

December 14th, 2012 No comments

Spring planning

Here’s what the garden looks like on paper as it goes from an idea to the planning stages: how much to plant, when to plant, where to plant and what our yields should be.

We’re in a multi-year process of becoming a USDA Certified Organic farm. One of the requirements to be certified organic by the USDA is documenting your source for organic plant and seed stock. We ordered and received our seed stock from Heirloom Seeds. Here’s what we’re planting so far, and any advice on keeping them healthy is welcome:

  • Roma tomatoes
  • Giant Beefsteak tomatoes
  • Kellogg’s Breakfast tomatoes
  • Lemon Drop tomatoes
  • Anaheim peppers
  • Serrano peppers
  • California Wonder peppers
  • Orange Bell peppers
  • Sweet Pickle peppers
  • Beaver Dam peppers
  • Jalapeno peppers
  • Pepperoncini peppers
  • Little Finger carrots
  • Agate (Edamame) soybeans
  • Shirofumi (Edamame) soybeans
  • Giant Winter spinach

Our organic apple orchard and blueberries are now planted and protected from deer and the compost operation now chugging along. The next big project that will start consuming our farm hours leading up to Spring will be constructing a large cold frame system or a very small green house to get a needed early start on planting.

Protecting apple trees from deer

December 3rd, 2012 5 comments

deer nibble

Tim warned me it was just a matter of time before the cute deer became a nuisance. The tips of this winesap (W4) are all nibbled by deer.

I’ve been doing a lot online reading to get ready for this.

haloCage: I’m testing fencing one tree after reading about it and determining it’s probably the most fail safe solution. The problem with it is the cost, labor (work adds up per tree) and the way it looks. But it works. I placed 5 feet tall fence about 2 feet above the ground giving me 7 feet of protection.

Contraptions: The next thing I found was something that I still want to try. It’s a solar powered water sprayer that uses infrared motion senors to detect animals and then sprays a burst of water. It’s expensive, but the other problem I see with this and the version that uses a hose is that they can freeze in the Winter.

Scents: This seemed like the most ridiculous category consisting of people swearing by sprinkling human hair, urinating, hanging bags of soap or dirty clothes in the trees. People swear by them probably up until the have to collect this stuff.

Sprays: There are all kinds of sprays, but I’m limited to organic ones. There are plenty of them, but most only last a couple weeks. It’s easy to apply, and it’s also cheaper to make your own. So that’s what I did. I just mixed the following ingredients and used a hand-held sprayer to coat the trees and the blueberry bushes. I’ll probably do it regularly and see how it goes.

  • 3 gallons of water
  • 5 tablespoons of ground cayenne pepper
  • 4 eggs whites

Smokehouse: I’m not giving up on this option. We’d have plenty of turkey and venison.

UPDATE 12-6-12: It rained the day after the first application and I saw fresh damage by deer to two more trees. It looks like we’re going to cage them.

UPDATE 12-10-12: After finding significant evidence of damage the day or two after application of the cayenne pepper concoction, including one of several damaged blueberry bushes literally ripped from the ground, we caged all the apple trees and purchased a solar-powered electric fence for the blueberries.

My thinking on scents and taste deterents is that consumers are easily tempted to want to out smart deer with these products, but if you are serious about protecting your orchard you’ll fence your trees and bushes. So, do it right the first time.

Farm hour: making dirt

November 29th, 2012 No comments

orchard compost pile

It’s 152 degrees in the new orchard compost pile. This is the pile with pine needles and oak leaves added for more acidity. It’s layered with wood chips, horse manure and several gallons of rain water lightly sprinkled on each layer. This pile will become mulch for the blueberries in the Spring.

Farm hour: climbing the hill

November 21st, 2012 1 comment

4 wheeler
Grandpa’s old 4 wheeler

Farming is hard work, and it’s harder to imagine doing it without help. Hours make days like help makes it done, and it took a lot of both to plant the orchard last week.

I squeezed a month of farm hours into a week with some vacation time and figured out how farmers can go through so many chicken eggs every day. You get real hungry! After shoveling 3-4 tons of material (wood chip mulch, manure and dirt), tilling, moving rocks, water and planting 25 trees and bushes, breakfast looks good any time of the day.

4 wheelerNoah let me borrow his truck. We may have enough mulch to last 2 years now! Tim gave us the pine needles we needed to keep the blueberries happy. Len let me hop the fence for the cow manure our compost piles needed to come to life. Benny did the same, letting me drive all over his farm shoveling up horse manure. It all adds up to tons of help, literally.

But the one thing that came just in time to really bring the help together was a gift from my step dad: Grandpa’s old 4 wheeler. It’s got its problems, but it was the week’s work horse hauling everything up and down the hill: water, trees, machines.

New things can make you feel good, but old things can really make you feel loved. Grandpa used that 4 wheeler for about 10 years all over our farm in Smith County. They were his legs for a soul no where near done climbing that hill. Every time I open the barn and see it there I feel a little bit of him, and that has its own way of making every farm hour that much more special.