Root Crop Washer update

There was a lot of response to the root crop washer post!  We have still not completed the DIY plans for a few reasons.  First of all, it turns out that producing plans clear and complete enough to build a machine from scratch is no small task.  We are not giving up on doing it, it just is going to take some extra time, which we don’t have now that the production season is upon us.  Another reason we have not rushed to finish the plans is that Isaac Villeneuve and another metal fabricator, William Fancy, want to build and sell these washers.  Isaac is offering the original design for $1200 plus HST and William is selling his for $2000 plus HST.

Both washers are priced very, very reasonably.  Unless someone was to build a washer out of scrap metal and used components, it would cost around six hundred dollars to build Isaac’s version and considerably more to build William’s.

The original machine, designed and built by Isaac Villeneuve, was used here on the farm, then at Waxwing Farm, and then at Pleasant Hill Farm.  While it was at Pleasant Hill Farm, Cindy and David asked their friend William Fancy to build one for them.  It is the deluxe version with added safety features and a tray underneath to funnel the water away.newrootwasherWilliam also made one for Waxwing farm.


Cindy posted the following notice to the Westnovasmallfarm list-serve on December 17 2012, encouraging others to order root crop washers from William:

Hi Everybody,
My friend William Fancy is a machinist extraordinaire and part time farmer. He looked at the barrel washer that David Greenberg so kindly lent us,suggested a bunch of smart modifications , and said he could build them for about $2000 + HST. They will not have a belt, will have an enclosed motor, be built to the height requested, and be built with NS Hemlock. They will also be painted to retard rust, and have a chain tightener for the chain that goes to the sprocket. They can also be built with a trough underneath to catch the dirty water, with a 4 inch nipple that you can put a sewer pipe on, to direct the water away to where it can be used, instead of turning your washing station into a mudhole.
Problem is, he would like to build them over Christmas and New Year’s.. and he would LOVE to build 6 at a time. Any takers? I will vouch for the skill of his work. He has built other things for us.
You can call William to discuss this at 902-685-3990 during the day, and at 902-685-2335 in the evenings. Tell him Cindy emailed you. He built us a brilliant compost spreader, and a wood furnace for our 30 by 96 Harnois. He is practically the world authority on concrete pumps- has had to go to the Bahamas to fix them sometimes, and he repairs all the pole saws for NS power. I am not on the take, but I am buying one too.He just wants to build a bunch at once.
Pleasant Hill Farm

d and I root washer

Isaac teaching David how to build the root crop washer, January 2012

If anyone reading this wants to build a washer themselves, please contact us.  We do have a rough draft of the building instructions that we would share with extra information given over the phone as needed.

William Fancy is in Lunenburg County Nova Scotia, and Isaac Villeneuve is in Carleton County New Brunswick.  Isaac’s phone number is 506-276-1015 or his cell is 207-533-5755.

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Salt Marsh Hay update

This post is an update on the original Salt Marsh Hay post.  We are excited for four main reasons.

1) Salt marsh hay is a way to harvest nutrients from the ocean and recycle them through livestock and manure back to the land.  No fertilizer is required to grow it.

2)  Salt marsh hay makes excellent, weed-free mulch.

3) Livestock fed salt marsh hay commands a special premium in the marketplace.  For example, see the post by Joseph Smith on Salty Livestock.

4) Results from the hay sample we sent to the lab are encouraging.

We sent a sample of the salt marsh hay to the Nova Scotia Agriculture lab in Truro.  The results show that the hay has low protein, but relatively high feed value.  Last week  Misty Croney came by to discuss our Nutrient Management Plan for the farm, and she also included an interpretation of the salt marsh hay results.

The crude protein was 7.49% on a dry matter basis, which is quite low.  Above 16% is considered to be excellent.  Personally, I prefer to be working with lower protein feeds, which makes the system less ‘hot’.  A high protein will lead to maximum production, maximum excretion, and potentially high leakage and waste of nitrogen.  I’m sure others would argue that unless you feed excellent quality feed, you are wasting your time and resources.  I would argue that seeking an optimum protein level for the animal in question leads to less waste and fewer health issues.  I don’t know if the salt marsh hay is at an optimum protein level or not, but it would be interesting to find out.  Misty thought that if we fed it along with a good, high protein legume hay, it would make a great feed.  She also said that if we want a higher protein result, it would be good to cut the salt marsh hay earlier.  We would like to find a balance between cutting the hay earlier (before 22 August) to get a little higher protein, but not too early (after mid-July), which might disturb nesting Nelson’s sparrows.

Misty also said the salt hay has excellent energy value; good levels of magnesium, copper, and manganese; but low levels of phosphorous, potassium, and zinc; and average levels of calcium.

When we fed dry salt hay to the cows and sheep, they ate it right up after a short period of getting used to it.  Today when we fed the hay, and the cows and sheep ate it right up with no hesitation.

We will continue to harvest and feed salt hay to livestock, as well as use it for mulch on the garlic.  I would love to hear from others who are using salt marsh hay!

Salt hay to cows

Salt hay to sheep


Curious hens


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Hoop House Video

At this point in the year, we are thinking a lot about getting the production season going.  In March, that means starting seedlings, and putting up modified hanley hoop houses.  Since ours were left up all winter, with the plastic wrapped tightly at the top to avoid rodent problems, we just had to pull the plastic down over the hoops and tighten the ropes.

Hoop houses over the winter

Hoop houses over the winter

Hoop houses in early spring

Hoop houses in early spring

We made a video showing how to move a modified hanley hoop house.  This includes taking one down, and putting it up again.  We hope you find it useful.

For anyone with a modified hanley hoop house, how is it working for you?

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The Ginger Adventure

Do you find that if you set out to learn something, it often doesn’t work, and you end up learning something else way more interesting?  I do!

David and I set out to visit some of his farming mentors in March of 2011. We drove to Massachusetts where David learned to farm.  One of our first stops was to visit Dan Kaplan, who runs Brookfield Farm.  Dan is a wonderful farm mentor to many new farmers.  He has a relaxed but intense energy and he really seems to have the training of new farmers worked out.  He has his farm and programs so well organized that he can take a 2-week vacation with his family in the middle of the summer.  Dan said that as far as he knows, he was the first CSA vegetetable farmer to come up with the idea of organizing his planting and fieldwork schedules on spreadsheets.  Besides making the summer vacation possible, Dan’s efficiency and organizational skills allow him to keep his work hours under control.  The Brookfield farm crew works five and a half days a week Monday through Friday from 6am to 5pm and Saturday mornings.  Dan is careful to start and end the workday on time except for the most dire emergencies.

From what we could gather, emergencies are very, very rare on this landmark farm.

Dan Kaplan, Brookfield Farm

Dan Kaplan, Brookfield Farm

After talking with Dan, we set out to explore the farm.  David was very interested in Dan’s selection of tractors, and of course, we paused to check out the root crop washer.

Dan Kaplan's root washer

Dan Kaplan’s root washer


Then we saw a display on the wall of the distribution barn where Dan’s apprentices, and the farms they run, are posted.  It is quite something to see all those names, including Don Zasada of Caretaker Farm, Casey Steinberg of Old Friends Farm, and Amy Smith of the Art of Living Farm in Quebec.  Amy is now running Heartbeet Organics with her partner Verena in PEI.  More on that later.

Dan Kaplan's students and their farms

Dan Kaplan’s students and their farms

The following day, we went to visit Casey Steinberg and Missy Bahret at Old Friends Farm in Amherst MA.  This is where we encountered GINGER!  Missy was growing and selling young ginger root.  She’d done growing trials and had it figured out.  Now she is growing close to half an acre of ginger in a Haygrove tunnel greenhouse.  She told us enough so that we could get started too, and a number of her farming friends in the Northeast US are now growing it.

Casey Steinberg and Missy Bahret at Old Friends Farm

Casey Steinberg and Missy Bahret at Old Friends Farm

Our next stop was further West to see Don Zasada and Bridget Spann of Caretaker Farm in Williamstown, MA.  David had worked with Don at The Food Project outside Boston in the 1990s.  He said Don is the master of organization, spreadsheets, and boundaries.  David and I were all excited to share the ginger growing idea from Missy and I could see Don’s wife Bridget was interested.  Immediately Don said “No, we can’t take that on.  We have enough to do, I don’t want any new projects cutting into my family time.”  See?  Good boundaries.  Like Dan Kaplan, Don Zasada takes a mid-summer vacation and so do his apprentices.  That is unheard of!  I think these farmers were showing us how important it is to take breaks and have defined work hours.  It is so easy as a farmer to just work ALL the time, and burn out.  We really admired Don’s streamlined, keep-it-simple style.

David Greenberg and Don Zasada, Caretaker Farm

David Greenberg visiting Don Zasada of Caretaker Farm

Zasada family at Caretaker Farm

Zasada family at Caretaker Farm

A great example of this is his vegetable washing and packing area.  Even though they have 265 families in their CSA, the wash station was nothing more than a mesh table, a small counter and a bath tub mounted on a stand leaning up against the side of their barn.  I have seen farms that produce half as much food with fifty thousand dollar packing houses!

Back at home in Nova Scotia we planted a few ginger rhizomes in our little seedling greenhouse and they grew to yield rhizomes of their own.  We ate them, loved them, and then thought we’d plant a commercial crop the following spring (2012). That spring we met Amy Smith and her partner Verena Varga of Heartbeet Organics.  We were all at a greenhouse conference organized by ACORN.  Amy is another one of Dan Kaplan’s apprentices.  We noticed her at the conference and thought she was particularly sharp (the smart kind of sharp not the grumpy kind of sharp).  When we learned she’d apprenticed at Brookfield Farm with Dan, it all made sense.  After talking with them, Amy and Verena decided to plant some ginger that spring too.

Amy and Verena at Heartbeet Organic

Amy and Verena at Heartbeet Organic

Ginger rhizomes started in pots.  Later they moved them on to heat mats, which helped sprout them.

Ginger rhizomes started in pots. Later they moved them on to heat mats, which helped sprout them.

They have a lovely farm in PEI so we had to visit them in April.  Their ginger turned out well and they are growing it again this year (2013).

Even though we made a few mistakes with our 2012 crop, we were thrilled with the harvest and are greatly expanding our plantings for this coming year (2013).  By next fall, we should know enough about ginger to share some solid growing information.

On the one hand, why import ginger if we can grow it here?  And it is so fragrant, hot, and yummy!  On the other hand, I wonder if we are being unwise to grow it because we have plenty to do.  Our boundaries and production systems are not well developed enough to have a vacation this summer like Dan and Don.  But now that we have been shown what is possible, we have a goal to work towards.


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Ted Hutten

tedhandsLast January, David and I went to visit Ted Hutten at his farm.  Ted is a farmer we really admire because he works hard, grows a lot of wonderful food, and he has such a unique sense of humour!!  He is well known at the Halifax Farmer’s Market where he has a busy stall all year.  He’s been selling there for years, building up a very loyal customer base, along with a loyal group of people working for him.  tedmicromix

We found him in his greenhouse working – of course.  He is always working.  He still works 100 hours a week for 8 months of the year.  He didn’t say how many hours he works during the other 4 months of the year, but knowing Ted, it is likely only slightly less than 100 hours.

Pea shoots.  A welcome green in January.

Pea shoots. A welcome green in January.

Ted showed us what was growing in his greenhouses and coldframes.  He runs a 100 member full-year CSA.  January to March is a challenging time to provide a good variety of items in the CSA box.  Pea shoots and micro greens were growing in trays.  He is making sure his customers get something green in their box even though it is freezing cold outside with snow on the ground.  The micro greens were growing in a greenhouse heated with wood generated from pruning his orchard.  Ted launched right into a discussion of a problem with the micro greens.teddavespinach

A quick aside.  A farmer needs to know how to effectively solve problems.  David and I are constantly in problem-solving mode or problem-avoidance mode on our farm.  So for us, watching other farmers ‘take us along’ as they discuss and tackle a problem is useful for our own problem-solving.  Even more than just learning about the solution.  And Ted is a delight because I think he really likes to engage with challenges.



Here is Ted explaining in his rapid-fire style what is going on.

“I had problems with the plants [micro greens] dying and I thought it was damping off … but I had Viliam Zvalo (a horticultural expert) and he said …that I had added a little bit of soluble fertilizer, trying to give me a little more growth and the salts were high and it was causing pythium* which is in peat moss soil which affects the plants. … Fertility is an issue, in the wintertime especially.  The uptake is a bit of an issue.  Last year, I would pick a flat, like this.  A 28- or 30-day-old flat that is ready to be picked.  That’s what I’m selling, typically, and when I cut it last year, all of the cotyledon leaves were yellowing, so I had a 7-day shelf-life on the micromix but about a 2-day shelf life on the cotyledon leaves with slime… It’s a combination of density, and I have to have a relatively high density or I can’t make money, so when the density was a bit too high I was getting insufficient fertility and cotyledon leaf yellowing and that was causing the quality issue after two or three days in the bags.  It’s a tough go, this is a very tough go to make money at this. I’m now convinced I’m not going to make any money at it but I think it’s good for my business to do it and I will continue to do it because it gives me a leafy product.  We’ve had spinach every week, we’ve had arugula, we’ve had mache steady through the winter but we’re running really low, we’re basically out of those crops now and they won’t kick on again until late February when the daylength is substantially longer so this gives me a green offering for my CSA boxes and for the market customers- which helps sell apples and carrots- that’s the only reason I do it, and because I like it, it’s challenging.”

Ted continues: “What I do is, every day, I put this fan in- I plug it in for an hour each day after I water- I won’t now, because it’s noisy, but that will hopefully dry out the foliage and that helps to prevent fungal disease.”

Ted then asked David if he grew micro greens.

David: “Yeah, I used the mushroom-based compost, though.”

Ted: “Yeah, I’ve used mushroom compost.”

David: “Did you have disease too?” 

Ted: “I use mushroom compost for all my seedlings only using mushroom compost as fertility, which eliminated all the fungal diseases.”

David: “Really?”

Ted: “All my pathogens were like these black moulds on the bottom of spring bok choys, like Shanghai choy, all of them, even Tatsoi. They get big and even the lettuces get that basal rot on the bottom, that soft rot and as soon as I used mushroom compost, it eliminated it 100% and Valley Mushroom said that it’s a combination of things and that the mushroom is so strong that it overpowers the other damaging fungi.  Really interesting.  I have not tried to grow this [micro greens] in mushroom compost, you’ve got me on to something now, though.  Maybe I should be incorporating mushroom compost into my soil.”

Cool!  Fight fungal disease with mushroom compost.

David: “Leonard North of Valley Mushroom told me about a University of Pennsylvania study where they trialed all these different seedling media, including peat moss and mushroom compost with some sort of lightening agent and the mushroom compost was far superior to everything else.”

Ted: “Yeah, but you can’t grow in mushroom compost alone.”

David: “I’m sorry- peat moss and mushroom compost with sand or vermiculite.”

Ted: “That would give you a balance.”

David: “That’s what I use for soil blocks- two parts mushroom compost, two parts peat moss, one part sand.”

Later in the conversation, Ted mentioned that Viliam Zvalo told him not to plant winter lettuce until late February, which is what he did the previous year, because of insufficient daylength.  When there isn’t enough light, lettuce stems become elongated, making them susceptible to disease problems. tedonions

With every little disease or pest problem, growers have to put together a number of different, interacting solutions.  If the problem is a mould disease, it could be about air circulation, day length, soil medium, fertility, density… Or all of them.  On top of that are the marketing issues, and whether money can be made on the crop or not.

Ted came by our farm today (March 4 2013) and gave us an update.  He said he can actually make money on the micro greens.  He is now using mushroom compost as the base for his soil medium.  No problem with disease now.  He suggested that might also be a function of longer day length at this time of year.  In March the day-length is so much better than in January.

Barn structure

Barn structure

Ted showed us his barn and how he stores and prepares vegetables for the CSA boxes every week.  The barn is a beautiful huge wooden structure located across the road from Ted’s house and greenhouses.  We talked about farmers markets and CSAs and labour strategies for the family farm.  We talked about how to make equipment decisions and when it makes sense to mechanize.  What really caught David’s attention was the way Ted handles kale.

Kale is a very popular crop these days, especially in January when there is very little local green product at the market.  In the fall, Ted continues to harvest Kale into the winter until the first big snowstorm.  He harvests the whole plant including the stock, since a heavy snow would rip the kale leaves off the stalk.  Ted packs the kale plants into apple bins, and keeps them in the barn in an above-grade room where they freeze.  One at a time he brings the bins into his barn basement, where it is above freezing, strips them and packs them into poly bags and sells them at market.

Purple and green kale in apple bins

Purple and green kale in apple bins

*From Wikipedia: Pythium is also known as water mould. Pythium-induced root rot is a common crop disease. When the organism kills newly emerged or emerging seedlings it is known as damping off, and is a very common problem in fields and greenhouses. This disease complex usually involves other pathogens such as Phytophthora and Rhizoctonia. Pythium wilt is caused by zoospore infection of older plants leading to biotrophic infections that become necrotrophic in response to colonization/reinfection pressures or environmental stress, leading to minor or severe wilting caused by impeded root functioning. []

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The Dynamic Nature of Seeds

seed conference1

Dan Brisebois is explaining how he selects seed from greens with particular characteristics

This fall, I tried wrinkled crinkled cress for the first time.  It blew my socks off!  I am a lover of all kinds of greens, but currently this little cold-hardy cress with the cheerful name is my all-time favourite.  At this year’s Eastern Canadian Organic Seed Growers’ Network (ECOSGN) Conference in Montreal Nov 9-11, I had the good fortune to meet Frank Morton, who developed this fantastic little plant.  Frank, a commercial greens and seed grower in Oregon, saw it in his garden, thought it had potential, and saved it for seed.

According to Frank, who gave the keynote speech, “the process of seed adaptation is based on the plasticity of plant genomes.  Innovation and crop improvement is an inter-species interaction between crops and observant people.”  Frank is a very observant person.  The key to being a good seedsman, he says, is to know the crop really well by interacting with it all the time.  Through seeding, weeding, harvesting and selling it.  Frank now selects and breeds lettuce varieties, but only after years of selling salad mixes commercially.  He emphasized the “need to be a samurai of the plant and the location” so that you can distinguish between the traits inherent to the plant and traits inherent to environmental factors.  He believes that farmers have the potential to be excellent plant breeders because they are the samurais of the plants.

Many of the speakers at the conference went beyond ‘seed saving’ to seed selection and breeding.  Selection is important if you want to choose certain traits in a plant population.  For example, Frank saw some purple splotches on a lettuce he was growing, and saved the seed from that plant.  Eventually he had purple lettuce!  Selection is really fun when there is enough diversity within a population (or enough mutations) that we can help to nurture a new variety with traits that are useful or pleasing to us.  We can select for many traits, such as disease resistance, colour, yield, or taste.

Breeding, according to Frank, is “accelerated adaptation of seed to your system.”  It is a more deliberate process than just ‘saving’, where plants with specific traits are crossed, and then selected.  In his in-depth workshop, he reviewed different methods of breeding.  He reminded me of progeny row selection, a method I learned in 2002 from John Navazio.  It is a very exciting ‘shortcut’ Navazio developed to speed up the breeding process and easy enough for amateur breeders to get good results fast (10 years or so).  I will definitely be using this method for my own breeding projects.

I can tell that Frank is the sort of person who likes to push on the edges of what is possible.  He thinks we should be selecting for plants that are adapted to certain soil microbiological conditions.  He also thinks we should be breeding plants with better roots by selecting for number and length of root hairs.  He has discovered how to do selection for leaf colour and root characteristics at the seedling stage.  This is another shortcut because the seedlings with the most potential can be selected after only a few days, rather than waiting until they are mature.  He is also excited about selecting for plants that provide their own protection against pests and diseases.  Finally, he very strongly advocated for farmer-based plant breeding.  If breeding is in the hands of farmers, rather than chemical companies, agriculture as a whole would be much better.

I also took part in a workshop given by Loic Dewavrin, of Ferme Longpré.  I originally met Loic years ago at an ACORN conference.  He grows organic grain with his brothers and son in Quebec.  The first thing he emphasized is how important it is to build the soil.  They grow and save their own seed, and the money they save helps to pay for seed cleaning and grading equipment.  They have organized a farmer co-op to grow and select open pollinated corn seed.  They have been doing this participatory farmer-based breeding work for over 10 years.  I asked Loic about wheat selection and disease.  His answer was really fascinating.  A typical fungal wheat disease in Eastern Canada is fusarium.  He said that they tend not to get this disease on their farm because (a) they have a balanced soil; and (b) they don’t use herbicides.  Round-up, a herbicide made by Monsanto, tends to weaken plants, making them more susceptible to fusarium, he explained.

The conference was definitely an eye-opener for me.  I am impressed with the dynamic nature of seeds – how they can change in unpredictable and often helpful ways.  According to Rowan White, an Iroquois woman who works for Sierra Seeds and who gave a closing address, “Seeds are dynamic, people are dynamic, and the earth is dynamic.  We can’t keep it static.”  That is a good thing.dan with fan

Above: Dan Brisebois, one of the conference organizers, showing his two-fan-with-square-bucket method of seed separation.  Very simple and effective, but not expensive.seed 5 frank morton root

Above: Frank Morton of Wild Garden Seeds showing how we could be selecting seeds for root characteristics.seed 4 RW better

Above: Rowan White of Sierra Seeds Co-operative showing how corn cobs can be selected for all one colour from multicoloured cobs using mass selection. seed conference2potatoes

Above: David Greenberg talking with Patrice Fortier of La Société des Plantes about getting some furry-leaved potatoes that Colorado Potato Beetles don’t like. web-ebulletin-img-2012-seed-connections

Above: Jen with two Québec  seed savers scooping out squash seeds on Dan Brisebois farm Tourne Sol.

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Flame Weeding!

A DIY flame-weeder 8 times more efficient than the original design

A DIY flame-weeder 8 times more efficient than the original design

I was introduced to flame weeding years ago by Norbert Kungl, a well-known organic farmer in Nova Scotia.  At first I thought it was outrageous!  Now after seeing the reduction in weeds on my own farm, I am a big fan.  Anything that can save time and effort in the market garden is worth considering.

To understand this technique, you’ve really got to see it in action.  Below I’ve embedded a video showing a flame weeder from Johnny’s Selected Seeds and how it works.  This flame weeder is the original design where the flame comes out of a metal tube the size of my wrist. Flame weeding is most commonly used on hard-to-weed, direct seeded crops like carrots.  You walk along the row, flaming the crop about a week after planting .  TIMING IS EVERYTHING.  You want to do the flaming just before the carrots emerge so all the pesky weeds are eliminated and the carrots can come up in peace.  Ahhhh….

To see a 2 minute video of this process, go to and go to the bottom of the page.

David learned about a smart home-made flamer design that Andrew Giberson of Chestnut Acres Farm invented.  Andrew shared the design with David during the break at a greenhouse conference.  Never underestimate the power of the break at a conference!

The flame weeder Andrew made uses a shop heater from Princes Auto called “Mr Heater”. They usually sell for $299 but Andrew (and then David) got one for $99 on clearance at the end of last winter.

It has a ceramic element that creates a flame area about 15 by 4 inches, so more weeding can get done in one pass.  It is mounted on a 20″ wheel and is held  about an inch above the soil. Best of all, the ceramic element is very efficient, allowing the operator to do 8 hours of flame weeding on one tank of propane.  The “Red Dragon” torch type uses up a tank in only one hour.  Around here, one tank of propane costs roughly $30.  At that price, each minute of flame weeding costs about 50 cents.  With the new model, each minute of flame weeding costs about o.06 cents.  Just think!  Flame weeding on market gardens would use 8 times less propane.

We hope to use our new flame weeder a lot this coming season.  We’ll keep you posted!

For more information, there is a very good article about flame weeding called Fire your Weeds in Growing for Market.

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