The Beginning Farmer – Part 1

By Jim Sincock

The Beginning Farmer is my account of how I went from being a home gardener, to a farmer, and why. Please check back for future installments and read Tracy Sweely's article Grow Your Own CSA for more info on the business end of things..

A little background...

I grew up in the city, Kenosha, Wisconsin to be exact. Our neighbors had a huge and beautiful vegetable garden and they inspired my folks to start a garden too. We had apple trees in our yard, but no garden. First we tried a community garden space. That is something that always stuck with me, community gardens can really symbolize the essence of true community. I seem to recall that lasting for one season, and then my dad tilled around 200 square feet of our backyard and we started our own garden. It made more sense to grow food in our own backyard, especially since we had the space.

Even though I was a city boy, something in me drew me to ideas of living off the land. I think my first magazine subscription was to Mother Earth News... probably when I was in junior high. Growing food in one's backyard seemed to make so much sense to me and that thought never left me.

My first gardening attempt as a young adult was in Milwaukee. I was probably 25 or 26, living on the sort of cool East Side in an old house split into four apartments. We had a small, but nice backyard with a little bit of growing space. I tried some container gardening, using the Square Foot method, but not with much success.

My first successful garden didn't happen until almost 15 years later when I moved to Eldora, Colorado. The cabin I moved into had several organic garden plots on the property and the original small garden had been organic for over 25 years. Excited to grow my own food, I started to prepare the weed encrusted garden plot. Wow! What amazing soil I found beneath the weeds! Hard to believe a garden at nearly 9000 feet altitude in the mountains could have such amazing soil. It is an excellent example of what you can do by properly building and maintaining the soil structure. My gardening success made me want to grow food for others.

My first year of high altitude gardening taught me a lot. While I was overly optimistic about what I could grow in this high altitude garden, I quickly learned what worked, and what did not work. Greens, beans, radishes, carrots, oregano, sage, rosemary, cilantro, Italian parsley, and garlic did great. Tomatoes, basil, corn, and summer squash... yeah, not so much. Perhaps if I had a greenhouse to start plants in, all of those would have done well and produced in a timely manner. I also found that some crops I planted never came up, or at least did poorly. Beets were small, Brussels sprout never germinated, and potatoes were small and affected by a scab of sorts.

While I continued my garden in Eldora, in 2007 I helped my girlfriend, Tracy, with her garden down in Lafayette, Colorado. For two years I gardened with her on the land that would eventually become our micro-farm and CSA. The garden was located in what was the community garden for the residents who lived on the 80 acre property. While there was a lot of expressed interest about gardening from the nearly 25 residents on the property, only one or two other couples ended up using the community garden each year.

In early 2007, Tracy & I founded Colorado Local Sustainability and the Rocky Mountain Growers Directory. I was walking the talk in trying to help support local farmers around Colorado, trying to support local food production, and now it was time to start walking the talk on helping to provide more local food sources. I also felt becoming a farmer would be the best way for me to understand what small farmers face with growing, marketing, and selling their product.

In early 2008, I took an 8-month permaculture design certification course. The course was a great inspiration, and was definitely the next step in my education. The course served as yet another catalyst to move me towards growing food, and serving others.

During the summer of 2008, the land owner expressed interest in possibly adding an agriculture component to the property. First we discussed returning the current horse barn, back into a passive solar greenhouse as it once had been in the 1970's. I researched the renovation project, trying to make it as self-sustaining as possible. The redesign would have made it a fully passive solar greenhouse with a subterranean heating and cooling system, and utilizing large water storage tanks to gather heat during the day and release heat at night. While an excellent design, the cost was prohibitive for the land owner. We scrapped the greenhouse idea, and focused solely on expanding the the existing community garden and creating a micro-farm and CSA.

CIMG3495The fenced-in area of the community garden totaled roughly 1/4 acre and only a quarter of that had been tilled over the past ten years or more. The rest was hard pan clay, as is a lot of land here in Colorado. We disced the entire 1/4 acre (minus the area where plum, apple and cherry trees were planted), and then spread age horse manure and rotted hay on it.

While our goal was to be as sustainable as possible and do everything by hand (thus removing the petroleum input of tractors and rototillers) we did opt for using a tractor to initially disc the field. We also used a rototiller in making our rows, but didn't use it in the normal way. We used the rototiller to loosen the dirt in the pathways, which we then spread on the rows to build raised beds. The actual raised beds where loosened by hand with a broadfork after a layer of llama manure was added to each row. Our initial design called for 36" wide rows and roughly 24" paths. At the last minute we increased the row width to around 42" inches. While this worked out for the most part, I highly recommend figuring out all your measurements first, and then not deviating from your design... especially if you've already begin ordering ground cloth or floating row cover. Measure twice, cut once!

Once the rows were built up, we laid down weed barrier in all the pathways to suppress the weeds. We then installed a drip irrigation system to cover each row. After the irrigation was added, we laid weed barrier down on all of the rows that would have plants with a wide enough spacing to cut holes in the fabric for each plant. Plants such as greens, beets, carrots, radishes, etc did not use the weed barrier since they would grown in dense enough to crowd out the weeds... for the most part.

This initial phase of starting the farm and prepping the field was definitely the most labor intensive. We had working share CSA members to help us, and that helped save a bit on labor costs. While this work could've been done quicker, and with less help with gas powered tools, the goal of our farm was and is to show that a micro-farm can be done with minimal petroleum inputs, and eventually with less labor. Well discuss this in future articles on this topic.

The next installment will discuss how we planned the garden, and determined how much food we could grow, and for how many people. Please check back!