Big Leaf Farm

January 17, 2012

Winter season week #1 Farm News

Filed under: Farm news — Chris O'Brien @ 11:42 am

The winter greenhouse. Greens coming to your plate soon...

Welcome back!  Hopefully everyone is ready for a few more weeks of winter CSA shares.  I trust that you all are getting your CSA memberships at other farms in line for the coming year.  Please let me know if you still need some help finding a farm.

My heart goes out to school-age children everywhere in western Oregon that were hoping for a snow day today but instead ended up having to go to school.  Growing up not far from the farm, I can remember many excited mornings, peeking out the window in the dark in early morning, expecting snow, only to be greeted by falling rain as I was this morning.  Now, at midday, it’s been raining steadily all morning with heavy gusts of wind.

Have a great week and enjoy your winter veggies!

December 13, 2011

Week #31 Farm News

Filed under: Farm news — Chris O'Brien @ 12:56 pm

Vegetable ambassadors. Well, we made it!  It’s hard to believe our 2011 season has finally come to an end.  In all honesty, I have to say I’m looking forward to a little break.  However, I am gratified to hear that many of you are lamenting the end of weekly deliveries. And interest in our winter share was greater than ever this time around, prompting us to think harder about how to accommodate more members during the winter months in the future.  We’re already planning efforts along these lines to be completed in our ‘year off’ in 2012.

Can veggies save the world?  Probably not, but I wouldn’t be doing this if I didn’t think a community in which food is locally grown and consumed by folks that understand and enjoy the beauty, diversity and complexity of vegetables will ultimately be stronger and more resilient going into the future.  So I hereby certify all of you as Official Vegetable Ambassadors.  Carry forth and spread the good word to all!

If you choose to participate in CSA next year you are fortunate, because Portland has one of the most robust communities of small farmers in the country. Still looking for a farm?  An easy tool is this website: Enter your zipcode and you’ll get a list of farms that have pickups near where you live.

If you’ve decided that CSA isn’t for you next season, hopefully this year still opened your eyes to the world of vegetables, and you will be inspired to grow some of your own local food or seek out some at one of the many farmers market or grocery stores that carry locally grown produce.  After all, CSA is just way of many in which to eat with the seasons.

In any event, hopefully a few of you will stay in touch and let us know about your vegetable adventures in the year to come!  We’ll certainly hang on to everyone’s contact information and let you know what we are planning for in 2013.

So, while vegetables might not save the world, I firmly believe that growing and eating them makes the world a better place.  Have a great week and enjoy your veggies!


P.S. For those of you signed up for the winter share, please stay tuned.  I’ll send out an email in the next week, and then a reminder in January before we start our winter season on the 17th.


December 6, 2011

Week #30 Farm News

Filed under: Farm news — Chris O'Brien @ 12:21 pm

Here’s the answer to a question I’ve been getting a lot recently: only one more week left!  Freezing temperatures interrupted harvest a little in the last couple of days (see the note regarding Brussels below).  As a result your share will be slightly larger in our final week, probably with 9 or 10 items.

The groundwater beneath us. We don’t tend to think of the groundwater that’s under

A look at the groundwater beneath Big Leaf Farm

our feet most of the time.  This is unfortunate.  Western Oregon is blessed with ample surface water, and much of this water first passed through the ground after falling from the sky, especially during the dryer months of the year.  For those of us who are beyond the reach of municipal water mains have another reason to appreciate the ground water because all our water comes directly out of the ground, usually through one of the many wells that dot the rural landscape in Oregon.

Most domestic and agricultural wells in these parts consist of a steel or pvc casing that’s sunk down into the ground to the depth of a water bearing formation.  A special pump is lowered into this pipe, and this well pump pushes water up out of the ground through a pipe into a pressurized plumbing system which is connected to a faucet, toilet, or sink.  Then when the fixture is opened, water flows out under pressure where we want it.  Wells like this, and the drilling rigs used to create them, are technological marvels, especially when you think about what came before the modern well.

Big Leaf Farm employs one of these modern wells, both for domestic and agricultural use, but we also have one of those older types of wells on the property.  And this one, more than the electric one, tends to remind me more of our connection and reliance on the groundwater beneath the farm.

The first folks to live on our property built a hand dug a well, probably in the days before electricity was brought to our area.  I’m not sure whether this was done when the house was built in 1930, or whether the well pre-dates the current house, but this well abuts our house, surrounded by a concrete housing.  I can monitor the depth of the ground water just be lifting up the concrete cap and shining a light down the shaft, because this well reflects the depth to groundwater under the farm.

During the late winter, after rain has been falling for months, the well is full, and it’s only 5-10 feet to the surface of the water.  By early fall, before the rains start, the water level has dropped dramatically and there’s usually just a small puddle of water at the very bottom of the 30 foot deep well.

I don’t have to look down into the well, though to be reminded what’s going on down there.  This time of the year the ground water isn’t at equilibrium, that is, it’s slowly filling up from rainwater percolating down from the soil above.  Since this old well is right by the back door of our house, I’m reminded of the groundwater when I pause on the stoop to put on my boots.  I can hear the trickle of water as it passes out of the gravel and cobble layer the shaft passes through and runs down into the bottom of the well.  This is happening now, despite the recent dry weather, because it takes some time for the water to percolate down through the soil from the surface to this gravel layer.  Throughout the winter this percolation slowly fills the ground (and the well), and by late spring the well is full. This ground water is then available to deeply rooted plants (like Douglas Fir) and farmers like us, to tap during the dry summer months.

It’s possible to grow vegetables with little or no summer irrigation, although to do so, plants have to be spaced so far apart that it probably isn’t economically feasible to do so when growing in any significant quantity.  For this reason we’re very thankful for the groundwater underneath the farm, and hearing that trickle by our back door is a daily reminder of that this time of year.

Have a great week and enjoy your veggies!

November 29, 2011

Week #29 Farm News

Filed under: Farm news — Chris O'Brien @ 12:48 pm

winter crops ready for distribution


We’re slowly sliding into winter here, and now with just two weeks of CSA left I’m looking forward to a little break from delivering shares for a while.  Late fall is a nice time to reflect upon the past season and rest a little bit, but I still find myself humping it on harvest days.  Because there is so little daylight this close to the winter solstice I find it still takes me all of the daylight hours on Monday and half of Tuesday to get the share picked, washed and packed for delivery.

So part of me is reflecting upon the past year, and part of me is thinking about the year of changes to come, but there’s also a little piece of my mind that is really focusing on how nice it will be to not deliver CSA for a few weeks in late December and early January. Maybe a few of you are looking forward to a break too!

Have a great week and enjoy your veggies!

November 22, 2011

Week #28 Farm News

Filed under: Farm news — Chris O'Brien @ 1:23 pm

It was wild and wooly out there this morning as I picked kale in the rain and wind.  I was bundled head to toe in raingear, working down the rows, crouched over to keep the rain out of my face.  In contrast, I think our ducks were having the best day of their lives, splashing in the puddles, preening and searching madly for slugs.  They are having more and more fun as they learn what Oregon’s winter weather is really about!

Bigger, better, faster, stronger. Our food has truly come a long way since humans first settled down and started raising crops and livestock over 10,000 years ago.  I was reminded of the technological advances that have entered our agriculture recently at the dinner table.

Sara brought some grapes home from the grocery store a couple of weeks ago.  They were white seedless grapes, organically grown, probably from California, and standard in every way except for their size.  These grapes where easily as big around as my thumb, and oblong, a good inch and a half long.  Grapes have come this large for a while now, and I’m sure that I’ve seen them before, but this time they made a big impression on me because I had recently learned how farmers make these jumbo grapes.

Another culinary experience, this time in the form of a baby spinach salad, served as a second reminder.  The spinach in this salad had beautiful long stems, and because it came from an institutional setting, I was pretty sure it had been grown in a very large field and harvested by a mechanical greens harvester.  It made me wonder if this spinach had been treated with the same substance as those grapes.

Gibberillic acid is a hormone normally found in plants.  It regulates plant growth by stimulating cell growth and elongation.  Because it’s a substance found in nature and can be produced on a large scale naturally (using a fungus), it’s accepted as an organic substance.  When sprayed on grapes it makes individual fruits grow larger, leading to bunches that have more visual appeal in the produce section.  When applied to spinach it causes stems to grow longer, so the crop stands higher above the ground.  This makes mechanical harvest cleaner and reduces the number of cut leaves that end up in your bag of baby spinach.

Hormones are widely used in agriculture.  Many of you have probably heard of the bST hormone, a natural hormone that is produced with a genetically engineered bacteria.  It’s used, controversially, to increase the milk production in dairy cows.  Auxins are used to prevent citrus fruits and apples from falling from the tree prematurely, and ethylene gas, another hormone, is used to ripen fruits like tomatoes, bananas and citrus fruits.  Synthetic forms of natural plant hormones are even used as potent herbicides, such as the chemical 2,4,D

What struck me as I though about my giant grapes and perfect baby spinach was how incredibly good humans are at manipulating natural systems to increase efficiency and economy, at least in the short term.  But it is also nice sometimes that these manipulations are only worthwhile at larger scales.  Because of that, I won’t be treating any of our veggies with plant hormones, even the organically approved ones, because the benefits of such an application wouldn’t be cost effective at my scale.  If we grew 5 acres of spinach it might be a different matter, as opposed to the .006 acres that we grew this year for the CSA.  So, that’s one more thing I’ll be grateful for this thanksgiving: the fact that I can still keep things relatively simple, even in this modern world, and that there are others (you all) who are appreciative of this approach as well!

Have a great Thanksgiving and enjoy your veggies… and turkey, and pie, and everything else!

November 15, 2011

Week #27 Farm News

Filed under: Farm news — Chris O'Brien @ 12:57 pm

Annual member survey. Even though we’re taking a year off from CSA next season, I’ve been revisiting the year lately, getting caught up on recording how certain crops performed and noting what changes I’d like to make the next time around.  Keeping good notes is essential in an operation like ours in terms of improving our offerings, but another way we can gather information is by asking all of you what you thought about the season.

Some of you will recognize this annual exercise, but we’d like everyone to participate whether they are familiar with it or not.  There are two ways you can complete your assessment of our work: 1) Turn this sheet over, fill out the survey, and return it to pickup next week.  2) Fill out the electronic version of the survey.  Click here to take survey

We find your feedback incredibly valuable. Just remember: we enjoy the praise of a job well done, but criticism is far more useful to us in practical terms.  I thank you in advance!

Have a great week and enjoy your veggies!

November 8, 2011

Week #26 Farm News

Filed under: Farm news — Chris O'Brien @ 3:27 pm

Since this section of the newsletter hasn’t actually contained much real news from the farm lately, I thought it might be worth spending a few words on what’s going on here at this time of year.

These last weeks have seen the harvest of the last of our storage crops.  Sweet potatoes were fun to dig from the hoophouse. This is our first successful harvest of this crop, thanks to the barn cats that have kept down the vole populations in the general area.  We also rushed to get the last of our dry bean crop threshed.  I wasn’t sure that it would dry out enough to get this late-harvested crop threshed and winnowed, but the dry sunny days in late October allowed me to finish this, yielding about 50 lbs of dry beans, which we’re hoping to give out during our winter CSA season.

There’s always a rush to get field work done before the winter rains come and the ground gets too wet to work with the tractor.  Fall is the time for sowing cover crops that will protect the soil over the winter and into the spring, so recent weeks have seen a far bit of tractor work.  We’ve got a new field coming on line (started before we planned to take next year off) that needed amendments spread and after this was incorporated, we sowed a legume/grain cover crop.  That planting has been emerging in recent weeks to create an image that I love:  brown soil through which thousands of bright little blades of oats are emerging. It’s especially beautiful as all those green blades are backlit by the sun on one of those glorious early winter days we’ve been getting lately.

Our large field that has yielded all of your produce this year is getting ready to rest for a few years. I just recently sowed large parts of it that grew summer crops (sweet corn, potatoes, cucurbits and spring brassicas) to a perennial grass/clover mix.  Sod is the best planting for reducing disease and building soil organic matter over time, and other than mowing occasionally this field will be left alone for the next few years.  The remainder of this field will be planted to grass in the spring.  Right now it’s still growing winter crops for the CSA.

Later this week I’ll move our mobile hoophouse over new ground and start crops there for the winter CSA.  These will be mostly leafy greens and a few things like radishes and turnips that grow rapidly starting between now and early January to be harvested in late February through April.  I also plan on cleaning out our larger hoophouse that grew sweet potatoes, eggplant and peppers this summer.  This will also be sown to crops for the winter CSA, and then next spring I’ll think about dismantling this house and converting it into one or more moveable houses to match our existing one.

This is usually the time of year my mind turns to winter projects.  This year, instead of planning infrastructure improvements over the winter, my mind turns towards other more pressing issues: getting ready for our coming baby, working on the plans for our new house addition, and other things that need to be done to idle our farming operation in the year to come.  Before long the new seed catalogues will start arriving, and even though we’re not growing for CSA next year we are planning on a big garden. There are lots of new varieties I want to try out, so those of you that plan to join us for the 2013 season can expect lots of cool new stuff in your boxes.

Have a great week and enjoy your veggies!

November 1, 2011

Week #25 Farm news

Filed under: Farm news — Chris O'Brien @ 1:38 pm

Silviculture versus agriculture. Last week Sara and I had the opportunity to tour some private timber lands that are held by a family-owned timber management company in Southern Oregon.  This company owns about 120,000 acres and we visited some stands in various stages of regrowth from 10 years old to 50 or more years of age.  We also saw some just-logged clear-cuts where logs were being processed before being sent to the mill, as well as a stand that was being actively logged by machine.  This visit was an eye-opening experience for both of us, and one that offered considerable perspective on what I do. 

Logging is a contentious issue in some circles, especially here in the Pacific Northwest, given the timber wars involving logging and the spotted owl in recent decades.  Oregon is still reeling economically from the boom and bust of the timber industry, and, having grown up here I’m no stranger to clear cuts.  As a kid we used to travel to the National Forest to collect firewood from the slash piles on the edges of giant clear cuts, and in the decade and a half of living away from the Northwest I was constantly reminded of them any time I flew into the Portland Airport.  It’s hard to miss the massive clear cuts along the crest of the Cascades from 20,000 feet in the air, especially when there’s snow on the ground.

The clear cuts we visited last week were considerably smaller than those of decades past, and at 50 to 100 acres they’re certainly a size you can wrap your head around.  After all, it’s not uncommon to see agricultural fields this size as you drive through farming country in the Willamette valley.

However, seeing these clear cuts made me realize how I (and probably many others) tend to view agriculture and silviculture a little differently.   I tend to view a clear cut viscerally, with a little sadness.  It’s easy to imagine the wildlife and non-lumber vegetation that were lost when the plot was logged, and this is especially apparent at the margins, where logged ground stands in stark contrast to the adjacent mature forest.

Cultivated fields are often seen differently.  For me, a freshly prepared field ready to be planted is a joy to behold. It’s full of promise and optimism for the future crop that will grow to maturity there.     When I see a fresh field, I don’t tend to think of the soil invertebrates and fungal hyphae that were destroyed through the process of working the soil, when in reality the damage done in tilling is in some respects little different from a clear cut.  It’s just that the plants and animals destroyed in the ground are on a much smaller and less visible scale than a forest, so we don’t seem to notice as much.  I think we also don’t tend to think of the native vegetation that the agricultural field supplants, even though native forest often stands next to cultivated fields as they do on our farm.

This trip was eye-opening for me on another front: I was amazed at the machinery that makes the harvesting and on-site processing of logs more efficient and mechanized.  We got to ride along on a machine that picks up whole downed trees, removes the limbs, and then cuts them into logs that are the exact lengths that different mills require.   What would probably take several people an hour or more to do with chainsaws and winches can be done by this one large machine and an on-board computer in two or three minutes.

As you all know by now, our farming is done on a pretty modest scale, and only ground preparation is mechanized here.  Seeding, transplanting and harvesting is all done by hand, so to see things done on such a mechanized scale is both fascinating and a little humbling.  I’ve always been a little skeptical of mechanization, holding a bias that there might be an inverse relationship between the level of mechanization in the development of a product and its final quality, but seeing these giant log processors made me realize that this probably isn’t the case with logs, in fact less wood is wasted when they are handled with computer assisted precision.  It’s true that this kind of logging has more impact than, say, a horse logger selectively logging a mature stand of trees, but it makes me wonder whether our small-scale farming practices really do have a gentler impact on the land that a larger mechanized operation would, even if they use the same organic practices.  Lots of food for thought.

Have a great week, enjoy your veggies, and the dimensional lumber that holds up your house!

October 25, 2011

Week #24 Farm News

Filed under: Farm news — Chris O'Brien @ 2:49 pm

This morning was a seasonal milestone on the farm: our first hard frost.  We’ve had pockets of frost a couple of times in recent weeks, but these cold temperatures definitely mark a changing of the seasons, even though we haven’t been harvesting frost-sensitive crops from the fields for some time now.  We still have some tomatoes and sweet peppers and our sweet potato crop protected under plastic, but everything else we have growing right now laughs at these slightly-chilly temperatures (it was 26 F last night).  If anything, light frosts in October are great because they knock back the aphids a little bit and help harden off everything for colder temperatures to come.

Growing nutritious food. We all know that vegetables are better for our bodies than Cheetos, and it’s also widely recognized that a diet based on whole foods is healthier than a diet comprised primarily of processed foods.  For many folks, this is at least one motivating factor for incorporating as many fresh fruits and vegetables and whole grains into one’s diet as possible.

We’ve thought a lot about the nutrient content of the food we grow, both because our fields make up a large proportion of the food we eat as a family, and because there is plenty of evidence that the best way to obtain your vitamins and minerals (not to mention a whole range of plant-based protective substances) is through the diet as opposed to from supplemental pills. As a result, we are motivated to grow produce that is as nutritious as possible.  The fact that we have a child on the way motivates us further, as does our own increasing reliance on our own crops in our diet as we are able to grow more of our own staples, such as legumes (dried beans) and grain (dried corn).  Of course, we also care a lot about providing nutritious produce to our CSA members, and since all of you eat from the same fields that we do, our attempts to grow more nutritious crops serve a double purpose.  So does the farmer have any control over the nutrient quality of his or her crops? Fortunately, we’re not the first people to wonder about this.

In the middle part of the last century, William Albrecht, a professor at the University of Missouri, conducted pioneering research on this very topic.  By analyzing the foraging patterns of livestock, as well as investigating the draft records for military service in WWII in an era when most Americans still ate locally, Albrecht came to the conclusion that the soils plants were grown on did in fact play a role in the nutritional quality of those crops and that this crop quality was expressed in the health of the animals or people that consumed these crops.  He concluded that soil fertility patterns followed rainfall patterns:  the drier mid section of the country (the Great Plains) had balanced soils that produced nutritious forages while the wetter east, with its soils leached out by heavy rainfall were deficient in many plant nutrients and unbalanced for most crops.  Since Albrecht’s time, soil scientists and agronomists have further developed guidelines that farmers can use in areas with deficient soils.  These guidelines allow farmers to increase the fertility of their soils by bringing the major plant nutrients and micronutrients in balance like they are in the Midwest. This benefits both the crops themselves and the health of the humans or animals that consume them.

This approach to agronomy is not without controversy, however.  It turns out that balancing the soils for healthy crops does not necessarily maximize yield.  Because farmers are generally paid by quantity and appearance and not for nutritional value the agricultural establishment hasn’t given this topic the attention it deserves in the decades since Albrecht and others developed this idea.  As a result, balancing soils for healthy crops has become an alternative method, generally favored by those who lean towards more natural farming methods.

Western Oregon is a great place to grow most vegetables. However, this isn’t because our soils are well endowed, as we initially learned when we got our first soil reports back from our fields over four years ago. As Albrecht would have predicted based on our wet climate, our wet winters leach many important nutrients.  We’re quickly learning that to grow healthy crops that produce well and are resistant to many pests, we need to amend our soils at least to some degree.  So, since the inception of our farm, we’ve decided to go whole hog and to fully balance our soils according to the guidelines of Albrecht so we can grow the most nutritious food (and the most resilient plants) possible.

There are a couple of drawbacks to this approach. First, amending soils with minerals brought from far away increases the embodied energy in the food we grow.  For example, limestone that is the basis of agricultural lime isn’t available in the Willamette Valley, and must come from at least east of the Cascades.  Phosphate rock deposits are even rarer, and come from as far away as Montana or even Florida.  To boot, some of the companies that mine phosphorous are not the most environmentally sensitive ones out there.  This means that our soil balancing program does have an environmental impact.  Secondly, achieving balance in our soils through mineral amendments as opposed to simply adding sufficient amounts that conventional agronomy would call for, is more expensive.  Because this approach doesn’t necessarily increase yields, we won’t necessarily see a short-term profit from the investments we make in our soils, especially because it will take a number of years to bring the soils on all of our fields up to snuff.

But, because our family’s health and the well-being of our CSA members are our first priorities, we’ll continue to import mineral supplements.  We believe the environmental and financial costs of these supplements are at least partially offset by the many benefits nutritious crops provide –  not only are they healthier, but they taste better and may be more resistant to some pests.  While no food comes without its costs, we believe this system strikes the best balance for everyone involved.

Have a great week and enjoy the taste of your healthy veggies!

October 18, 2011

Week #23 Farm News

Filed under: Farm news — Chris O'Brien @ 1:34 pm

Wow, how about this weather!  The ladybugs have been enjoying it too.  As I write this, our south facing patio is abuzz with ladybugs flying through the air and crawling all over the windows and siding.  Perhaps they are looking for crevices where they can spend the winter.

An ode to the winter squash. Last weekend Sara and I harvested winter squash.  A lot of winter squash.  In fact, this was a record harvest for us.  Even though we didn’t plant any more than last year, for some reason squash were really productive this year.  All told, we brought in over 3,000 pounds of butternut, kabocha, and spaghetti squash, pie pumpkins, and a couple of types of hubbard squashes. We still have a couple of loads still out in the field too.

My relationship with winter squash has warmed over the years, and now that we grow a large proportion of the food on our own table, I’m able to especially appreciate those crops that can serve as a staple through the winter months.  Squash are a staple, and I think they should be treated as such.  They contain more energy (calories) than many other veggies, and are high in fiber, minerals and vitamins So, while I used to think of squash only in the context of pumpkin pie or the occasional batch of butternut squash soup or a baked acorn squash now and then, now all manner of dishes come to mind when I contemplate a winter squash sitting on our kitchen table.

The beauty of winter squash is that they can be prepared in so many ways that it’s hard to count them.   If you like risotto, squash makes a fine contribution to this dish (see a recipe below).  There are so many kinds of squash soup, it’s hard to know where to begin.  I like to roast or bake squash along with onions and then puree them with some curry powder.  Or you can peel and cube a squash and simmer it for an asian soup along with ginger and coconut milk.  Squash can be added to any number of breads or muffins (google ‘pumpkin bread’ if you want to use this week’s squash this way).  Squash can be fried in butter or oil (try making delicata squash rings when you get them in your share in a couple of weeks), or as a stuffing for ravioli if you like making your own pasta.  Squash can form the basis of a wonderfully sweet or savory gratin or custard and squash chunks roasted along with potatoes, carrots, celeriac and onions are to die for, as many of you know.  Last winter, my favorite preparation is the simplest: just bake a squash in the oven until it starts to fall apart and then mash it with a little butter, ground sage, and salt and pepper and serve it as a side dish.  Yumm…

Have a great week and enjoy your squash this fall!

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