The Real Challenges Begin
I started working at Indiana University’s campus farm on April 4th. The position title is field manager, the Field manager position is 29 hours a week only with no option to go full time. Originally the directors intended for there to be two field managers working with the four interns under the direction of a farm manager. The second candidate for field manager chose to pursue self employment and the farm manger was accepted into a double masters program and began preparing to leave the farm.
The IU Campus Farm is situated on land leased from the Bloomington Historic Society that was once a large family farm. There is a cluster of historic buildings, a home, two barns and a carriage house. All the historic buildings are a several minute walk from the farm infrastructure. The farm is allowed to use half of the carriage house to store some power equipment. The historic society program person allows us to keep two ice packs in one of his freezers as well. Two is the limit, we put four ice packs in the freezer and two were removed and left out. The IU farm portion of the property began in 2018 and was set to open officially in 2019. We all know how 2019 turned out so the beginning has been extra challenging for the former manager and two directors. The farm consists of five small fields, two large stationary high tunnels and two movable tunnels. One portion of the field has decent soil and the rest of the farm was scraped and sold as top soil, so we are growing on what was ten foot deep subsoil. There is a small pond that was created as an attempt to allow the fields to drain as water stands on the soil surface and creates waterlogged conditions. One of the high tunnels has the plastic removed to allow salt, potassium and magnesium build up to dissipate. There are multiple field hydrants, a tool shed and a carport but no indoor bathroom, air conditioned area or electricity on the farm. There is a 6ish foot tall solar electric fence with three electrified wires and chicken wire at the bottom. The power equipment consisted of three push mowers, one of which works. A BCS 853 walk behind tractor with a tiller, a flail mower and a harrow attachment. A Kubota tractor with a mower, a tiller and a subsoiler attachment. The newest addition is a zero turn mower.
There was a Stihl line trimmer but someone tore the lock off our shed and stole it along with the market cash box.
For the first couple months the farm manger and I worked to set the farm up for spring. Some areas were already planted, some were in cover crops others were in weeds. The previous growing season had never been cleaned and all the drip irrigation zones had been pulled up and dragged into tangled messes here and there around the farm. As well as any other field items like soil staples, plant stakes, row cover, sand bags, fence panels, bricks, wire hoops, broken sprinkler risers and dead battery operated hose end timers, t-posts, cardboard piles, landscape fabric and hoses. Basically nothing was in order, hand tools were rusted shut and had to be fixed to make other repairs. There was no planting plan or record of previous planting rotations. There was no fertility plan nor pest management plan. On top of that, the relationship between the food purchasing department of IU and the farm was deteriorating. In 2019,’20 and ‘21 RPS, Residential Programs and Services, had purchased 80% of the produce the farm grew. By May all purchasing by IU was canceled and the only refrigeration/storage that the farm had was gone along with that relationship.
One of the first new things I learned was how to make soil blocks. I had been interested in soil blocks for some time and even own tiny blocker that I have never used. The main reason being that I never insisted on a misting system as intended. At the campus farm the management system for watering soil block flats was to bottom water by dipping each flat in a metal tray on the floor of the greenhouse or to place each soil block tray in a leak proof tray full of water with some fish emulsion fertilizer. The water use is efficient and the root development is very good as the roots follow the water out the bottom of the soil. The trouble is that the blocks are very delicate and being submerged too deeply or too long makes them disintegrate back into loose wet soil. By the time we had interns doing most of the watering the manager was mostly gone using up accumulated PTO (paid time off) and his watering system broke down. Submerged flats all dissolved out of shape and there were more flats than could be watered reasonably in a day. Some flats of seedlings were on a different property and had to be visited daily. So the interns started using the hose out of necessity. On top of that the fish emulsion fertilizer had become very rancid even before my hire on date and eventually no one including myself could stand to use it. The seedling size and vigor reduced visibly. I just ache for the time to be able to create an automated misting or flood system for the seedlings.
Another tool I had been eager to use and still kick myself for not purchasing as soon as I started my own farm is a broadfork. The Meadow Creature broadfork was the one I wanted and the farm manager owned the 14’’ tine version. He used the broadfork to manage high tunnel beds in a no till manner. No till systems are of a great interest to me. I have tried many experiments with mixed results and it was nice to finally be doing it right.