Plowing the Field


Our freshly plowed field!!!

I guess I should start at the beginning…

We found a guy to plow our fields over a month ago, and we were hop­ing that he could come last Mon­day to do the ini­tial sod-flip with his mold board plow. A mold board plow cuts the sod and then flips it over, expos­ing the loam and allow­ing the organic mat­ter in the grass to rot beneath the sur­face and enrich the soil.
This pic­ture shows a dou­ble bot­tom mold board plow (dou­ble because it has two mold boards).
Any­ways, we thought we were all set to have the field plowed and then, at the begin­ning of last week, things started going wrong. The trac­tor broke — it had to be taken up to New Hamp­shire to be fixed — and mean­while it kept rain­ing and rain­ing, soak­ing the fields and mak­ing them increas­ingly dif­fi­cult to plow even if we had had a work­ing trac­tor. Finally, after wait­ing on the edge of our seats all week, the trac­tor was brought over last Fri­day and we watched as it plowed a cou­ple passes along the bot­tom of the field. We went to bed con­tent and cer­tain that we would have beau­ti­fully plowed fields by Sat­ur­day afternoon.
I’m start­ing to learn that every time I go to bed con­tent and cer­tain it means that something’s about to go wrong.
We woke up Sat­ur­day morn­ing bright and early. Dave headed down to the field and I lagged behind, tak­ing my time, totally calm. By the time I got out­side, 20 min­utes behind Dave, dis­as­ter had already struck. The trac­tor had hit a rock, a really big one, and the force of the impact had stopped the trac­tor short and thrown the dri­ver hard against the steer­ing wheel. It had also bent his plow. The dri­ver was pretty shaken by the whole thing but we slowly con­vinced him to try another pass with promises of whiskey when the whole thing was over (appar­ently if a trac­tor hits a rock like that hard enough it can flip the whole machine — so he had good rea­son to be freaked out). So he got back on his trac­tor and came around for another pass, he hit another rock almost imme­di­ately. It was over, with less than a quar­ter of our first field turned. Sat­ur­day morn­ing 7:45 AM, already a week behind sched­ule, and we were back to the draw­ing board.
I’m not sure why we were so sur­prised by this par­tic­u­lar prob­lem. After all, New Eng­land is pretty famous for it’s rocky fields, and Carlisle is espe­cially famous for being dif­fi­cult to plow. We’ve been told by mul­ti­ple peo­ple that the rea­son Con­cord was set­tled first was because its soils are clean and clear, while Carlisle is all either swamp or rock ledge. But for some rea­son it hadn’t really crossed our minds that we might hit huge rocks in the mid­dle of our field. This was par­tially because the nearby stone wall had con­vinced us that the pio­neers had already taken care of all the hard stuff and also par­tially just plain old wish­ful thinking.
So, we started call­ing every­one that we could think of that might have an opin­ion, or a trac­tor, and after review­ing a bunch of dif­fer­ent options, it became clear that the major prob­lem was that the trac­tor was only 2-wheel drive. It was too small, and there­fore hadn’t been able to go slowly enough to drag the plow safely. In addi­tion, some mold board plows are spring-tripped. When the plow hits a large rock, instead of stop­ping the trac­tor short, the spring on the plow breaks and swings it up and back, pre­vent­ing the plow (and the dri­ver) from being dam­aged. A 4-wheel drive trac­tor with a spring-tripped plow could creep through the field, find­ing the rocks with­out caus­ing harm to the plow or the dri­ver.  But then what to do about the rocks? It might have seemed fine to leave them, as long as they were 6 inches down or more, but appar­ently once you start loos­en­ing up the soil the rocks start to rise more quickly. We needed to get them out or get stuck with a field full of boulders.
Luck­ily, Dave’s par­ents are build­ing a new trailer park­ing lot next to our new field, and so there was a huge exca­va­tor sta­tioned right next door. If we could find a 4-wheel drive trac­tor, than we could slowly plow the field, and every time the trac­tor hit a rock, Rick could come in with his exca­va­tor and dig it out.   By call­ing around we found a hand­ful of dif­fer­ent guys will­ing to do the job, but there was an easy win­ner. One of Dave’s parent’s friends hap­pens to own all the equip­ment we needed (he uses it to turn and re-seed horse pas­tures) and he was will­ing to lend it to us for free and let Dave plow the fields him­self. The offer was too good to turn down.
So, Mon­day morn­ing (exactly one week behind sched­ule) Dave and I went down to the fields and he plowed the whole thing (with no pre­vi­ous expe­ri­ence!). It took him a cou­ple passes to get used to it, but we man­aged to turn over a pretty con­sis­tent 6″ to 8″ of sod and soil. Rick moved all the big rocks (there were A LOT) and we tried to take care of the lit­tle ones. It may not have been the pret­ti­est or more effi­cient plow job, but it is our blood and sweat all over the field, and that’s nice to know.
The first field
Fin­ish­ing up the first field
Dou­ble bot­tomed mold board plow at work
Start­ing the sec­ond field (soil looks great!)
Movin’ rocks
It was pretty exhaust­ing and not very easy. In the first field we hit a rock on almost every pass. And some of them were enor­mous. I fol­lowed behind the trac­tor and marked any prob­lem areas so we could go back and suss out the sit­u­a­tion. It makes you think about those pio­neers drag­ging those things out with horses. The sec­ond field had a lot less rocks. The stone wall kind of peters out as it gets nearer to the house, so we think maybe the pio­neers either ran out of steam or didn’t need all that area for agriculture.
The good news is that we got both fields done by 2 PM on Mon­day. The bad news is that we are now pretty seri­ously behind sched­ule. The sod is very very thick and dense, prob­a­bly owing to the fact that this field has lain fal­low for so long. It’s been rec­om­mended that we allow 2 weeks for the sod to rot and then go back and disk the whole thing, break­ing up the soil and mak­ing it plantable. After that we’re sup­posed to wait another 10 days before we start putting seeds in (to allow the sod to rot some more). That sched­ule means we won’t be plant­ing until mid to late May, which is too bad since we were plan­ning on start­ing May 1st. We do have a smaller kitchen gar­den in the works, how­ever, so hope­fully between that and the green­house we should be able to keep grow­ing and be totally ready to plant when­ever the field is. The other bad news is that we had to let the exca­va­tor drive onto our field in order to get the rocks out. We’ve been try­ing very hard to not com­press the soil, as this can squeeze out oxy­gen and water and suf­fo­cate and crush a lot of the help­ful microbes and life in our deep organic mat­ter. We can only cross our fin­gers and hope that we haven’t done too much dam­age, and that our soil can spring back to health by plant­ing time.

New Meat Bird Chicks!!!

Cor­nish X Rocks born April 16, 2011

This lit­tle guy has a bum leg so we’ve put him in his own apart­ment so he’ll be safe from all the other chicks run­ning over him and peck­ing at him, and so he doesn’t have to com­pete for water or food.
We decided to give him a wall of car­pen­ter clothe, how­ever, so he could still see every­one and wouldn’t be too lonely. He seems to been eat­ing and drink­ing water, and we’re hop­ing that with time his leg will get stronger.

Welcome Back Wilbur!

Where to begin…?

Although we haven’t quite eked past the last pro­jected frost date (around May 1st in East­ern MA), it feels like it’s offi­cially Spring. There’s green grass, buds com­ing out on the trees, Kimball’s farm ice cream stand is open for the sea­son, and Wilbur, the Viet­namese pot-belly pig (not for eat­ing, although he does sound like he would be deli­cious in a spring roll) has emerged from his den in the back of the barn and I can see him graz­ing in the fields from my win­dow — which is open by the way. I seem to have got­ten in the habit of always start­ing my posts with a com­ment on the weather, but it’s pretty much all we’ve been think­ing about around here. When’s it going to be dry enough to till the field? Is it warm enough to open up the green­house? Is it still too cold for us to buy meat bird chicks and put them out to pas­ture? Every deci­sion we make requires input from Mother Nature. 

Bio­dy­namic Sow­ing and Plant­ing Calendar

There are some that argue that when tak­ing cues from our envi­ron­ment we should be pay­ing atten­tion to more than just the local weather report. I’ve been read­ing a lit­tle bit about bio­dy­namic agri­cul­ture, which is an organic method of farm­ing that empha­sizes how inter­de­pen­dent the plants, ani­mals and soil on a farm are. Like many forms of organic agri­cul­ture, bio­dy­namic farm­ing is about cre­at­ing farms that are closed loops. This bal­ance is made pos­si­ble through the inte­gra­tion of crops and live­stock, the recy­cling of nutri­ents, and the main­te­nance of soil — no out­side assis­tance or pes­ti­cides nec­es­sary. 

In addi­tion, bio­dy­namic farm­ing also con­sid­ers that there are astro­log­i­cal impacts on agri­cul­ture. Most of these impacts are exerted by the moon as it passes through the twelve con­stel­la­tions of the zodiac. Maria Thun (and now her son Matthias) are the author­i­ties on bio­dy­namic astrol­ogy, and have been releas­ing their Bio­dy­namic Sow­ing and Plant­ing Cal­en­dar every year for almost a half a cen­tury. In her most recent cal­en­dar she writes:

“In its 27-day orbit round the Earth the Moon passes through the con­stel­la­tions of the zodiac and trans­mits forces to the Earth which affect the four ele­ments: earth, light (air) water and warmth (fire). They in turn affect the four parts of the plant: the roots, the flower, the leaves and the fruit or seeds. The health and growth of the plant can there­fore be stim­u­lated by sow­ing, cul­ti­vat­ing and har­vest­ing it in tune with the cycles of the Moon.”
pg 10

The cal­en­dar lists the parts of the plant enhanced by the moon and the plan­ets each day. So for exam­ple today, April 14th, the con­stel­la­tion of the moon is Leo and the cor­re­spond­ing ele­ment is heat, so today is a good day for seed­ing veg­eta­bles that pro­duce fruits. There­fore, when I do my plant­ing this after­noon I’m going to seed sum­mer squash and toma­toes. I’ve been try­ing to stick as closely to the cal­en­dar as pos­si­ble, allow­ing for the fact that some­times due to tim­ing and suc­ces­sions I’m going to have to plant a root veg­etable on a leaf day. Many farm­ers that I’ve talked to, even though who claim that they are more con­ven­tional , have said that they’ve noticed huge improve­ments in the qual­ity and yield of their pro­duce when they’ve used the bio­dy­namic cal­en­dar. I guess I’ll just have to see for myself. 

Ready­ing the field

We’ve spent the major­ity of our time these last few weeks get­ting the field ready to be planted. This has involved a lot of brush clear­ing and burn­ing. We had about 10 brush piles on the field, all of which needed to be removed before the first till­ing next week. 

 It was hot and smokey work, but thanks to lots of help from fam­ily we man­aged to get it all done in a cou­ple of days. 

Our soil test indi­cated that we had great soil with a ton of organic mat­ter, but there are some things that it deter­mined we were lack­ing. My mom has been tak­ing a nutri­ent den­sity course with the North­east Organic Farm­ing Asso­ci­a­tion. The NOFA web­site defines “Nutri­ent den­sity [as] a qual­ity goal that is actively sought after in the bio­log­i­cal approach to farm­ing. It refers the nutri­tional con­tent per vol­ume of food we eat.” It seems obvi­ous, but the idea is that the more rich and bal­anced the nutri­ents in our soil are, the health­ier the soil will be, and the more nutri­tious and deli­cious the veg­eta­bles grown in our soil will be as well. Nutri­ent den­sity is a lit­tle bit of a tricky sub­ject, and I don’t yet under­stand it wholy myself, but suf­fice to say we have been col­lect­ing the ele­ments that our soil is lack­ing and we are plan­ning on spread­ing them on the field this week­end before the first till. Hope­fully, these addi­tives will make our soil and our veg­eta­bles health­ier — and, nat­u­rally, those of us eat­ing them health­ier as well. I’ll write more on this later but, if you’re inter­ested in read­ing more now, NOFA has a lot of good infor­ma­tion on their web­site:


Our chick­ens have been set­tling in nicely and been pro­duc­ing eggs like crazy. After the ini­tial trauma of mov­ing to Mass­a­chu­setts (and the lin­ger­ing trauma of their barn burn­ing down), the new ladies from New Hamp­shire seem to have decided that they’re happy enough to start lay­ing again. In addi­tion, we man­aged to snag another 7 chick­ens from a woman in Con­cord who was mov­ing, and so now our flock is up to 33 birds! 

We had been feed­ing them plain organic feed, but one of the guys from Erickson’s Grain Mill in Acton rec­om­mended that we try organic soy-free feed. The jury’s still out on whether or not soy-free food is bet­ter (espe­cially if it’s already organic and not genet­i­cally mod­i­fied — as most con­ven­tional soy in ani­mal feed is), but there are many argu­ments in favor of soy-free, the best being that it makes our eggs safe for those aller­gic to soy. We were con­vinced as soon as we opened the bag, how­ever, and saw how much bet­ter the feed looked! Finally, food that didn’t just look like lit­tle homoge­nous turds, but instead clearly con­tained pieces of dried corn, grains and all kinds of dif­fer­ent good look­ing stuff! In addi­tion, the chick­ens seem to love it and they’ve been lay­ing like mad since we changed them over. Unfor­tu­nately, they love it a lit­tle too much, we went through a 50 lb bag in less than a week. In order to reduce the amont of money we have to spend on feed, and there­fore keep the price of our eggs rea­son­able, we’ve started sup­ple­ment­ing left-over pro­duce that we get from dif­fer­ent restau­rants and super­mar­kets in the area that oth­er­wise would be throw­ing it away. Now our chick­ens are feast­ing on apples, greens and bananas every morn­ing in addi­tion to their deli­cious new feed, and they seem pretty happy about it. 

Chicken break­fast time!

One more piece of excit­ing news: we drove up to New Hamp­shire last week­end and vis­ited our piglets! We’re plan­ning on bring­ing them home in the begin­ning of May. 
This is the lit­ter that (most likely) con­tains the
piglets com­ing home with us in May

Look­ing out my win­dow, I feel a lit­tle jeal­ous of Wilbur who is leisurely enjoy­ing the spring­time. But it feels good to wake up in the morn­ing know­ing that, for most of the day at least, I’ll be out there with him, the sun on my back, even if I am drag­ging brush instead of wad­dling and grazing.