Friday, July 3, 2015

Email question: Thinking about a property, how do I evaluate it as farmland?

I got a question on email from someone who's looking to purchase some farmland; they're not looking to develop it or build a house, but would like to grow things.  

Here's what I would do when I'm looking at farmland I'm interested in purchasing or leasing:  

First, To get an idea of what the area will support, look at the land surrounding the parcel; it's likely that the soil and conditions for your parcel will be similar.  So if they're growing hay, it's a fairly safe bet that you can grow hay; or berries, or whatever it is they're using it for.  Recognize that the people who own that land have probably spent some time (years... decades...) finding out what works, and whatever it is that's what they're doing.  If you're going to be doing exactly the same thing with the land that they are it's a safer bet that you'll have decent results.  

Second; put your boots on and walk the ground.  Are there conditions that look different on the parcel -- more or less wet, different types of soils, rocks or vegetation?  Whenever there's a change in vegetation that usually is a clue that the conditions there are different in some way.  A different band of soil, seasonal flooding... something causes that difference.  Ask around and see what that might be.   In the area that I'm in the only farmland left at decent prices is in the flood plains, and anytime you're there there's risk of floods.  Check with the neighbors to see how often it floods, and how deep, and for how long.  Most of the time floods don't matter to annual farming -- a flooded corn field after the corn is harvested is no big deal -- but it will affect perennial crops or things like orchards.  blueberries can tolerate a bit of a flood.  
Bring a shovel on that trip, and a 5 gallon bucket.  Collect 1-2 cups of dirt from 3 or 4 locations that represent the entire parcel.  Strip the vegetation out, and mix it all up in a bucket, and have a soil test done.   It'll cost you about $60 and take a week or 10 days.  They will ask you what you want to grow, and they'll give you a report that says "to grow pumpkins on this ground you need..." and give you fertilizer or amendments and amounts that they reccomend.    In this area Skagit Farmers supply in conway does tests; contact your local agricultural extension or conservation district for someone near you.  

For the parcel that I was asked about I'm going to guess (because of my experience with the ground in that area) that it's acidic soil with a fair bit of peat in it, and a relatively high water table.  Those conditions are pretty darned good for things like cranberries or blueberries, but to grow crops like pumpkins my guess is that you'll need to add a lot of lime to bring the soil PH in line.  
Your local conditions will vary, and a soil test will tell you what you need to know.  

Finally, a 1-acre garden, intensively cultivated, will be quite a bit of work - more than a full-time job for one person; if you're contemplating buying more than that, you're going to need some sort of equipment to help you farm that ground.  I can't say what that might be -- depends on the crops you plant -- but you may be able to horse trade a little work with the neighbors; they bale  your hay in return for half, or for a per-bale fee, something like that.  

These are just my thoughts on this; I'm sure that they would love to hear more thoughts from others.  

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Bees - video - this is what a swarm warning looks like

This has been a very good summer for bees.  In general they enjoy heat, and the heat is bringing out the blooms earlier and in greater numbers than in previous years.  This combination means the bees are doing gangbusters.

I look at the bees a couple of times each day - just a visual inspection of the hives as I drive by or am out doing chores, and today I noticed a "beard" of bees on the outside of one of the hives.  the video below shows what I saw

This sort of behavior isn't normal from the bees, even when it's hot.  When they feel like its too hot they will have a few bees, or maybe a hundred sometimes, fanning air out the entrance to provide a breeze.  they'll also go and get water, and sprinkle the water in the hive, and the evaporation of the water cools the hive.  Bees are pretty good about maintaining a pretty precise temperature in the hive, mostly for the benefit of brood, but also to dry and cure the honey before they cap it.  Below is a video of what normal hot-weather bee behavior is.  It's way different from the beard of bees.  These two videos were taken about 1 minute apart on the same day.
003 from bruce king on Vimeo.
004 from bruce king on Vimeo.

When you see the beard of bees its a pretty clear warning that a swarm will be coming very soon; the hive is not swarming right then, but it'll be in the next three days -- as soon as tommorow.  My bees usually swarm between 10am and noon, and so I'll keep a careful watch on them from mid-morning to mid-afternoon.  A swarm is pretty easy to see; 15 to 20 thousand beese flying in a dense cloud around the hive, eventually picking a direction and all flying in that direction.  It's a little like a bee tornado, and you can see it from a couple of hundred feet away.  The basic plan is to notice the swarm forming, and then hope that they land somewhere nearby -- following them with a new hive, you "capture" the swarm by moving the queen into the hive -- the rest of the bees will follow, and by dark they'll all be tucked into the new hive.  I then close the hive entrance, and then move the hive back to the bee yard.

What a swarm does is half the bees and the experienced queen leave the hive.  Inside the hive, a new queen hatches, and her first act is to kill all the other queen cells to solidify her hive.  She'll then mate with a dozen or so drones from this hive and other hives, and then return to her hive and start laying.  her eggs will eventually produce more workers, and since she's in an established hive with stores of food and workers, the new queen usually does well.    I won't open or disturb the hive for a few weeks after the swarm -- but I will check to make sure that the queen is laying eggs and raising brood, because sometimes the new queen doesn't work out.  In that case I'll buy a new queen from a bee supplier and re-queen the hive with her.  I don't want to lose the hive and workers.

The experienced queen and the workers she takes with her have only the food in their bellies to set up in a new hive; so when I capture a swarm I'll usually either feed them with sugar water, or I'll put a comb of honey into the capture hive.  Bees that have just swarmed are ready to make new honeycomb, so I'll usually use this opportunity to have them draw out new combs for their use; I'll put in flat sheets of stamped wax in the frames, and in the normal course of their business the bees will complete these frames.    As with the donor hive, I own't disturb this hive for a few weeks, and then I'll look to make sure that the experienced queen is also happy and laying and functioning, re-queening if I need to.

Since I was out in the bee yard I did pull 120lbs of honey off the hives; looking through the honey supers and taking the capped frames out, replacing them with new flat wax frames.  One reason that bees swarm is that they feel crowded, so giving them more "space" in the form of areas that need work delays more swarms.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

too much sunshine and warmth; worry about the corn.

Been two or three weeks since we got any rain at all; temps in the 80s to 90s in the day, 70 at night.  for here that's an intense heatwave -- With little or no snowpack this winter, rivers are running at the lowest levels that have been seen in nearely a century, wtih several local rivers running at the lowest flows ever recorded.

Cliff Mass, a meteorology professor at ther University of Washington says that this is what the weather in this area of the country will be like regularly in 2070; I don't know about 2070, but it sure does remind me of the weather that I grew up with in southern and northern california.
corn in "new bottom" field.  Doing great.  No weeds, no herbicides.  so far so good
 So the lack of rain has surpressed the weeds in the corn field, but two weeks into this, I'm starting to worry about the corn.  There's still moisture in the ground, but I'm guessing that it's not growing as fast as it would with more water.  for these fields I don't have any way to irrigate them, so I'm "dryland" farming them -- which for western washington is roughly equivalent to irrigated acres most years, but for the last few weeks it's been truely dry.

Corn in lower field.  Looks good.  
I planted this cron in 30" rows, 9" in the row, and that's usually fine for this climate; but with a long dry spell most of the internet seems to think that spacing a little further apart works better, and is more drought-resistant.  I'm noting it, and watching the corn for now.
All this sun does make wonderful hay, though.  Perfect hay.   Put another 900 bales into the barn; so the running total for this year is 2100 bales.  If I get another 1600 bales I'll be done with a surplus for this coming winter.  Two more cuttings and with the weather the way it is, and able to irrigate out of the manure lagoon, should be able to get it done.