Thursday, March 12, 2015

Secret to a healthy farm!

I would not like to be the person who thought it was a good idea to drive through that wet spot! 

Now this is an interesting problem!  Thankfully it wasn't my problem.  We don't have any tractors quite this big at Butternut Farm anyways, so we would never be in it this deep!  In my experience though there are a handful of reasons why something like this might possibly happen. They include:
  1. A teenage boy at the controls....
  2. Inexperience and in patience.  (Refer to reason 1)  
  3. falling asleep at the wheel (reason 1 was out to late last night)
OR it could happen because of:
  1. Inadequate soil drainage in this particular area of the farm
Soil drainage?  What is that you ask!  Well all soils depending on their composition's (percentages of sand, clay, and silt), soil profiles, and the local topography will have different water holding characteristics.  Some soils come naturally drained.  Which means early in the spring after the snow melt or within a day after three inches of summer rain the land quickly dries out so that you don't leave ruts when you drive over it with your equipment.  In a nutshell that is the simple definition.  I'm Sure there is a more technical and agriculturally proper way to describe a well drained soil but we are not going bog our minds down with that at this moment. 

Why is soil drainage important?  Besides the obvious already discussed.   All living things in a healthy soil (micro organisms, bacteria, fungi, worms, lichens, roots, etc) need to breath.   Since water is heavier than air it will displace it from the pore spaces in the soil, leaving the soil saturated and void of any air.  Temporarily this is fine.  However after 2 days of water logged soils plants and the living soil biota start to suffer.  

Problems arise when pockets of poorly drained soil are hidden within a field of well drained soils.  These squishy pockets are often found by the in unsuspecting farmer during early spring cultivation passes or during wet summer periods.

Thankfully there is a solution!  And it hinges on a couple of simple principles.  Gravity and that water will always follow the path of least resistance.  Surprisingly this is not always downhill,  which some of us unfortunately found out the hard way dealing with the ice dams on our roofs this past winter.  Poorly drained soils can be remedied by installing drainage pipe (tile) into the wet areas of the field. 
during dry times of the year this 4 inch perferated plastic pipe is installed 2-2.5 deep in the soil.  Excess soil water will flow into it and then drain downhill wherever the pipe leads! 

Once poorly drained areas have been identified this drainage pipe can be installed throughout the wet area.  I like to put the lines about 30 ft apart expecting that each line will draw excess soil water from 15 feet on either side of it.  Why does the water migrate to the pipe?  Simply because it is the path of least resistance for the water around it.  Inside the pipe is an open space representing zero water pressure.  Water in the saturated soil around the pipe is under pressure, so the water immediately around the pipe flows into it drying that soil.  This soil will then have a lower water pressure then the soil adjacent to it, which will attract water from it.  This water pressure gradient that forms will draw water to the pipe over a distance of roughly 15 feet in our soils.   The pipe is laid 2.5 feet deep on a pitch.  Minimum pitch necessary for water to flow is 1 inch over 10 ft.  These fingers will most often link into a header pipe at the base of the wet spot which will lead off the farm into a road side ditch or perhaps into the woods out behind the orchard, always maintaining the minimum pitch.
    This simple concept of how water behaves in the soil and that it will flow down hill once it is inside the tile is in my opinion the key to successful farming.  Wet soils are the root of all evils in agriculture, or if your building a home for that matter.  Any worthy builder will tell you the key to a sound long lasting structure is building it so that the water which comes in contact with it will be managed properly.  Failure to do so will lead to wet moldy basements, rotten window sills, rotten sheathing, etc.  In agriculture improperly managed water leads to sick, disease ridden, and eventually dead plants.  Simply because the roots of that plant suffocated. 
    Soil drainage is always on my mind while managing this great piece of property that we have here at Butternut Farm.  Our soils are well suited for agriculture, but that does not mean they are not subject to the occasional wet spot.  Slowly, as old orchards are removed it gives us a chance where necessary to drain the soils before a new crop is planted.   Hopefully leading to healthier plants, better crops, and a less muddy experience for our customers.  

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Why do you PYO at Butternut Farm?

Butternut Farm's strawberry queen Betty!  Apparently she found some good picking on this trip to the strawberry patch.  Maybe she needed another container? 
 Today's date is February 18th 2014, the snow is falling heavy this afternoon in New Hampshire which makes it a great day to post a blog!  Typically this time of year I'm busy pruning apple trees, blueberry bushes, and repainting signs (This farm has a lot of them).
Farmer Giff busy pruning apple trees.  Not a lot of conversation to be had this time of year on the farm so my mind wonders
While doing these winter time tasks my brain often wonders to things like what makes our small pick your own fruit farm successful.  From what I can see people come for the fruit, time spent with a friend or loved one, time spent by themselves, the adventure of roaming the orchard to find the perfect apple, and yes some come just to pick the farmer's brain for fruit growing tips.
Good day for picking sweet cherries

apparently Mohammed picks just the best peaches
If your reason is one of these or another I think people just enjoy being here...  they may not be quite sure why but It just feels right!  I think its because while you are here there is grass under your feet and your busy gathering food.  Both of which scratch a very primal itch that is hard to reach in our modern lives. 
Probably around July 4th.  A great day for picking at Butternut.  Both Strawberries (foreground) and Raspberries (background) are available for picking at the same time.    

A solid weekend day during the fall harvest!  I wonder how many found their perfect apple?
Whatever your reason be sure visit Butternut Farm for some pick your own fruit this coming season.  Make some memories and enjoy the outdoors.  Hopefully you will come away with some snapshots that will be fun for you to look at during next winter's snow days, like these photos are for me! 

Wednesday, January 8, 2014


She is pretty handy with that saw. 
The lady wielding the Husqvarna saw in the picture is Dianne.  I should do a whole blog post just on her because most of the time it seems as if she is the one doing all the real "Farm" work at Butternut Farm.  Some of the tasks you might find her doing include mowing, plowing, chopping brush, seeding fields, occasionally some R+R (rocks and roots), and in the case of today's topic - orchard removal.
      Renewal I believe is the root of sound Horticulture.  Pruning a fruit tree is all about removing the older branch to allow a younger more fruitful branch to take its place.   Orchard removal is kinda like pruning the farm.  As you can see here in this picture Dianne is busy removing and older portion of our orchard to make room for a new planting of strawberries or maybe a more efficient orchard with current varieties of favor.  Now from this tree's perspective it may not make a lot of sense because this was a healthy productive tree that Dianne is cutting down.  However, from the whole farm management perspective removing this older portion of the orchard to make way for other crops makes a lot of sense.

Neatly done Dianne!  A row of Plums just cut down.

    I always like this kind of work because we get to roll up our sleeves, get a bit sweaty,  and by the end of the day we can see where we have been.  Typically there is some equipment involved which always makes it more entertaining.  In this case the before mentioned chain saw is used to cut the trees up.  Then we like to rent a chipper.  A big chipper to deal with all that brush.  I hate it when a piece of equipment slows down the pace of work so we are sure to get the hungry type of chipper that two people can't seem to feed fast enough.  Traditionally farmers have always just burned the brush that is created from orchard removal.  However after getting on the wrong side of the local Fire Dept a about 5 years ago I decided that the better way to handle the mess was to use a chipper.  And in hindsight chipping is the more sustainable approach because chips are simply spread over the field after the stumps are removed.  These chips will slowly decompose and supply valuable organic matter to feed the micro-organisms in our healthy soils here at Butternut Farm.
We feed it limbs and branches up to 8 inches in diameter.  This chipper turns an ugly field of brush into an easy to manage pile of chips.

    For those of you whom are regulars for the various pick your own seasons here at Butternut Farm you have grown accustomed to seeing changes in the farm every year.  This coming season of 2014 will be no different.  The 60 peach, 20 plum, and 170 apple trees which were removed this past November of 2013 should be noticeable in the farms landscape.  Hopefully however if I have done my job properly you will not notice it in the farm's supply of fresh ready to pick fruit because other trees have already be planted to replace this production.    

Sunday, May 26, 2013

I went smart!!!!

A couple of weeks ago my old phone died.....  and I got lured by the dark side, or I finally caught up with the rest of you?  Yup I got a smart phone and the best thing about it is there is always a camera in my pocket.  Over the past couple of weeks I've been taking some pics of Butternut Farm during the beautiful month of May.  I thought it would be fun to share some with whomever was interested in checking them out. 

Strawberry patch.  About the second week in May.  No flowers yet but they are soon to come.  From first flower to ripe fruit it takes about 1 month and our first flower emerged this year on May 14th.  So be ready in mid June for Pick Your Own Strawberries.  Any of you avid farmer Giff blog readers will remember a previous blog when I talked about how we applied the 500 +/- bales of straw to the patch around thanksgiving time.  Well in mid April we raked all that straw off the plants and they took off growing! 

A couple of things going on here.  First is the close up of the Blueberry bush in bloom.  Notice the bell shaped flowers all clustered together.  Each flower will turn into an individual blueberry!  Also more importantly going on here is the Bumble Bee.  Yup they are responsible for doing the lions share of the pollinating duties in our Pick Your Own Blueberry patch.   I like to think of them as the gentle giants of the pollinating world.   There are days when there will be three or four bees in each bush.  A really fascinating thing to see!

Mid may in the Apple Orchard!  This year was a "Snow Ball Bloom" as the saying goes.  The abundance of flower buds in early spring leads to what looks like a snow storm in the apple orchard during May.  These Pick Your Own apple trees are actually Honey Crisp.   Of all the flowers which are on these trees now during bloom I want only about 1 of 15 to actually turn into an apple and make it to harvest.  Any more than that and the trees will be overburdened leading to fruit quality issues and a tendency for the trees to go bi-annual and not create fruit buds for next years crop.  Fruit thinning, or culling the extra fruit, begins in early June! 

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Chopping brush. There is more going on then you may think!

brush has been raked from under the trees and is ready for chopping
In one of my earlier blogs from a couple years ago I talked about apple pruning here at Butternut Farm.  Pruning involves removing unwanted limbs and shoots from a fruit tree.  My tools of choice are a hand saw and a good pair of Corona 26" bypass loppers.  While pruning is a very artistic expression of any fruit grower, what to do with the mess it produces is not.  Yup, all that brush needs to be dealt with.  Traditionally it has been burned.  However over the last 20 or so years most fruit growers have converted to chopping the brush.  The tool of choice for that job here at Butternut Farm is a 5' Kuhn Flail mower/brush chopper.  Run off the PTO of our 35hp JD 4600 utility tractor it is a bit undersized for the work we ask it to do so we take it real slow and don't try and chop any branches over 4" diameter.   3 passes down a row and we are able to turn all those branches into small splintered up fragments. 
    The brush residue which is left behind is a great way to add valuable organic matter to the soil.   Especially when it is done every year.  Slowly this residue will get broken down by the living biota in the soil.   Bacteria, microbes, earth worms, etc are constantly working on these chopped up branches in various stages of degradation.  This process releases all the nitrogen that our apple orchards need, puts carbon back into our soil, and helps fuel the "living soil" here at Butternut Farm which leads to a more sustainable farm system. 
    According to research done by Alan Lasko in New York apple orchards (Cornell coop ext.).  A typical acre of high density apple orchard, similiar to the ones we have here at Butternut Farm, removes almost 20 tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere every year. 12 tons by the trees and 8 tons by the grass sod.  Multiple that by the 6.5 acres of apple orchards that we have here and that is 130 tons of carbon dioxide that our apple orchards are removing from the atmosphere every year.  If for no other that alone is a good reason to by local apples! 
Just chopped apple brush.  This mechanical break down of the prunings is the first step in the digestion of this great food for our soil. 
Just after brush chopping.   By harvest all this residue will be pulled into the grass sod and be barely noticeable

Saturday, January 5, 2013

A Blanket for the Berries

Strawberries!  Such a curious name when you think about it.  Why is the word "Straw" in the name of this berry which grows on plants so close to the ground?  I imagine the reason is that these close to the ground growing berries really benefit from mulch being applied on and around the plants.  Since straw is the most commonly used mulch then the name became such.  I can't imagine them being referred to as "Pine needle berries" or "Saw dust berries", two other materials which have been used as a mulch for these plants.  Those names just don't have the same attractive ring to them.

Mulch serves many purposes for the plants:  Insulation during the cold winter months is probably the most important!  Especially on a low snow year.  Deep cold can damage the crowns and root systems of these plants and have a big impact on production.  This is why we put the straw directly on top of the plants just before winter sets in.  Hopefully we have timed it just before a rain or snow event to settle the straw, so that the next windy day does not blow the 400 bales into the adjacent apple orchard.   With the equipment that we have here at Butternut Farm this task can take less than a day for three people to cover our 2 acres of pick your own strawberries.  I can't imagine doing all that work by hand!
    In the spring the straw mulch is raked off the plants and into the row middles (where the tractor tires and pickers travel) as soon as the field is dry enough to get the equipment through.  Again having the right equipment is very important as this task takes one person less than a day. Unfortunately I do not have a picture of that piece of equipment right now.  This spring I will try and remember to add a picture of the de-mulcher in action.  Now the straw serves its other purposes of providing a comfortable surface for pickers to kneal on during harvest and to keep the plants and fruit clean of splashing soil and disease spores which get spread around with a rain.  The straw keeps all that stuff on the soil surface below the straw where it belongs. 

Having the proper equipment for the job is important irregardless of the industry you are in!  Operating a pick your own fruit farm is no exception to this rule.  That equipment can be as simple as a pair of snow shoes which enable me to keep pruning apples during the snowy months or it can be a straw mulcher which is used only one day a year, but is pivotal in enabling this farmer to continue to grow PYO strawberries here at Butternut Farm.

Thanks for reading.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Love those bumbles

I wish I had a way to describe how great the bumble bees are here at Butternut Farm.  I'm afraid I will not do it justice.   A video of them zooming around the farm to and from the blueberry patch would be great!  If only we could hook a camera onto one of them so to travel along with them.  That You Tube video would surely go viral. 
    They don't fly more than 15 or 20 ft off the ground so you can see and hear them coming!   Anyone familiar with the layout here at Butternut Farm knows that the barn is next to the Blueberry Patch.  The barn is about 25 feet tall so the bumbles don't fly over it when they are coming and going they fly around it.  By standing on either end of the barn for a couple of minutes I can count about 10 bees that fly by per minute.  It appears as if they fly to the blueberries load up with nectar from the flowers and then bring the nectar back to their nest.  Then they return for more.  They do this all day from sun up to sun down.  So I decided to walk thru the pick your own blueberry field and tried to get an idea of how many bees were there.  Today a nice sunny day with temps near 70 I kid you not there must be 2 or 3 in each bush.  Really it is a remarkable thing to see!   
   They say that the Bumble Bee population is making a comeback during recent years!  Maybe with the honey bees having so many problems recently mother nature is filling our fruit crops pollination needs by increasing the number Bumbles.   It is fascinating how "She" works. 
    Irregardless of the the reason for their numbers, the large number of Bumble Bees in Butternut Farm's pick your own blueberry patch are working there butts off to sustain themselves, and unknowingly pollinating our blueberry crop.  A crop which looks like it will be a doozy this year. 

Maybe some day in the future the technology will be available to hook a camera onto the back of a bumble bee.   Certainly that would be a neat video to see.