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The Beginning of a food forest

What would you do if I told you that you could have a production system that is low maintenance high productivity and sustainable? Go on think about your garden and your inputs (fertilizer, seed, gas) then how much you get out and how much work you have to put in to make it happen. What is a food forest?

Seems pretty daunting! When I was young I was told “Everything worth having is worth working for”. Excluding the poor English it is a good idea. Think about it. You want your education you have to put in the effort. You want a good relationship once more work for it. You want a nice house and a nice job them with luck and hard work you can have it but I would argue that you can probably achieve it with hard work and making your own luck (by being sensitive to your limits including budget and time etc etc). That all being said you have to work for what you want.

Every project has a start but in order for you to know where you need to start you need to know where you want to finish. In this case we decided we wanted to do a wood chip food forest that would contain fruit trees, perennial veggies and berries. We do not anticipate that this will have any annuals in it. So the first thing is to source some wood chips. Luckily I saw a tree trimmer working on some power lines and asked him if they would be willing to dump their chipped branches on our property. They agreed.


Depending on your space you may be able to get multiple drops. We expect to have a need for all of the chips so we asked them to just dump when they were in the area on our land. They have agreed but only dropped one load so far. Total cost was $0. They were appreciative of a local and convenient drop space.

I was mentioning that if you want something you have to work for it in order for it to have value. The first step is getting the sourcing because that will dictate what you can do. Second step is to decide what you want to grow. The next step is decide if you have enough space (the answer is yes but you may need to scale your dream appropriately). Then look at local rules and laws. Thankfully we are in a rural agricultural area so there are no issues. Then finally you can get started on putting your wood chips down. We will be fencing the area off so the deer and the antelope (okay not really) and bunnies will not come through and cause issues for our young plants and trees.

We are planning on having multiple fruit trees. Pink Lady apples are a favorite for me. We found a supplier that says they will work in zone 5B. We also have to be concerned with chill hours. Which are the number hours that the tree will be exposed to temperatures between 45 and 32 degrees. chill_hours_map

We are in an area with between 1200 and 1400 hours. This could be difficult for some species. However the larger concern is the hardiness zone.

We will also have granny smith apples as a pollinator for the pink lady, Two or three cherry trees, a fig (Chicago fig should do okay here), Plum and peach. In the under-story will expect to grow straw berries, asparagus, Grapes, and other berries.

The work will not be so much in weeding since the wood chips act as a mulch. The work comes in maintenance, pruning, harvesting, fencing, adding wood chips as the previous ones break down.

There is a good amount of work that this will require but fresh perennial fruits for many years to come is just to much of a good deal to pass up.


We will keep you posted as this happens. We also will have bees to help our local indigenous pollinators.

KEEP checking back. Also comment if you have questions or suggestions.


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Think globally act locally

Many years ago I was in my first year in college.  There was an organization on campus that called it’s self “Web of Life”. They were our local eco group. I found it interesting to attend a meeting or two and see what they were all about. I had little or no experience with environmental activism or even environmental issues. This was the fall of 95 and while I was an environmental science student I really had no background in environmental issues. I was very interested in understanding how the environment worked. I am still learning but I can see how interconnected things really are.  I knew that we had some serious issues in this country but I did not know what they really were and what could be done to solve them. I loved nature and it really bothered me when people littered and dumped waste.

Fast forward to 2005 and I was sitting in a interview for a research lab at Washington University in St. Louis. That lab had posters on the wall about recycling tip boxes and cardboard.  I was brought back to the newness of my first semester in college and how I was so excited to learn and do great things. Turns out I got the job and for the next 8 years at Washington University we did great things. The more important lesson I learned was that a group of small dedicated individuals can in fact change the world. I learned how far environmental concerns had come and how industry and academics were coming together to find solutions.

Yesterday I went to a field day hosted by Iowa organic association. The topic was chicken meat processing on the farm. Murray McMurray hatchery then hosted a demonstration on processing meat birds. The presentation and discussion were excellent. The networking was amazing and the organization was well represented. What does this have to do with anything?

Well since we have begun this journey we have realized how difficult it is to do these things without support. Whether it be regulatory assistance, education, networking, or numerous other aspects of agriculture that I never even considered. I have found that every state does have resources available, and people that are extremely willing and wanting to help.  One of the first places that I have found to help in so many aspects of a country transition is your local county extension, since we are in Iowa, Iowa State Extension. They even have other aspects like small acreage, local foods, soil testing, water testing etc etc. If they do not know the regulations they can help put you in contact with those that help.

If you are interested in livestock in Iowa you should get in touch with Coalition to support farmers. If your interested in organics then Iowa organic association is a great resource and if your interested in a pretty amazing farmer community and resource Practical Farmers which have provided field days, networking, education, farminars, webinars, and many others. I will be writing more about the coalition and practical farmers in the future.



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Chicken Part 1

So you have a bit of space and you have decided that you want to be a bit more healthy. Protein is important. There are many sources of protein in the veggie world. You could eat only vegetables and get enough protein if you select properly. In our American diet though meat or meat products is how we get our over abundance of protein be it from Milk, Eggs, Beef, Chicken, etc etc.  Since we have some space and the costs are not insurmountable for chicken and you have options with chicken that is where we are heading first.

You need to decide if you want meat or eggs. There are some varieties of chicken that produce meat and eggs decently but once you slaughter no more eggs so keep that in mind. Older birds are also tougher and generally are cooked differently then younger. If you go to the store and buy chicken for meat most times those are young birds. Eggs are a longer term investment in both care and infrastructure. You need to recognize that those birds can produce for 1-3 years on average and do not start until around 16 to 20 weeks old. Meat birds can be slaughtered between 6-16 weeks old depending on variety.

Are you going to keep them in a chicken coop? Are you going to use a chicken tractor? Are you going to let them free range? In our area we have a large number or predators from coyote to barn cats to eagles and owls. So our birds need to be secure. We are using a variation of Joel Salatin style tractor. You can see what his look like here. We will have a blog post when ours is finished as well as a chick brooder. Since they will be ready to slaughter in less than 16 weeks we elected to make a cheaper tractor for our first go at it.

Now you need to select the kind of birds you want. I would suggest a local hatchery. We are in Iowa and there is one just a couple of hours away that has a pretty good reputation. We could also get birds at a variety farm stores, tractor supply, country living etc etc. We elected to order from Murray MacMurray Hatchery. They have a guide to help selecting a variety you will like. We went with Jumbo Cornish Cross Rock which is most common found in grocery stores from my understanding. Since Natalie is not a huge meat eater we wanted to keep it somewhat familiar. They do have a plethora of choices that you can choose from.



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How did we get here?

When I was in ST. Louis I worked in a research lab. Every week in the summer we had a farmers market downstairs. I LOVED doing my grocery shopping downstairs. I had a CSA I was a member of. There was a guy who sold the best Yogurt. FYI the best yogurt is windcrest dairy out of Trenton Illinois. Yea I am biased because it is soooooo good. Great people as well. Anyway. I would get enough yogurt for a week and my csa and had no need to really go to the grocery store. I would go to Soulard or my own small garden on occasion if I needed something more but most of my needs were covered.

Then we moved to Iowa. The land of farms with no food to eat. It was amazing how spoiled I had become. You never even think about it. Just go to the grocery store and pick up something which is trucked in from elsewhere. We did not have space to start with but the town we lived in had Community Garden space. You could really rent a plot for the season and it was cheap like $35 for a 20×50 plot. Now think about how much you could grow on something that size? You do not have that space or a community plot near? While we never used this service I did come close two seasons but one we were traveling a lot that summer and the second I was just to “busy”. In reality I did not want to bother with it cause I was still pouting about not having my CSA and Soulard and home garden.

Aerogardens are a good alternative. We bought one for our apt. We could produce about 2 salads a week using all the pods. That was not so bad and to have super fresh salads was awesome. I am not a huge iceburg lettuce fan so the aerogarden was a pretty good option. The down side was the lights were on for 17 hrs and while LED so little energy used it was bit of a light pollution issue in our kitchen at 3 am and bright as day in there.

So we bought our 5 acres. You can see the plot on a previous post. So we started a small 50×100 garden our first year. The sweet corn was pancaked by winds. We did get some but it was all laying down. Our squash did awesome. We had butternut, spaghetti, pie pumpkins, zucchini, summer squash. Our tomatoes did well enough to enjoy and even can some sauce.

The second season our squash did well again but trying a new technique we had significantly reduced yields. Our tomato produced okay but the green house gravel issue reduced those yields and pests got all of our corn. We did get black beans, garlic, potato, and wheat. We have expanded each year with the hopes to eventually provide our own food and sell at market the overage.  We have also begun looking at the legal aspect of farm production for sale. Including training on FSMA (Food Saftey Modernization Act).  Slowly we are meeting fellow producers and learning the market streams and how it all works. We have attended several conferences that I will post about in the future.

In a nut shell that is how we got here.

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Wheat is often demonized in our current culture because it contains gluten. This protein interacts in numerous ways and causes some people some serious illness. Some people think they are allergic but not really and some think that removing it helps you to loose weight. Current culture is built upon the need for grain. We use it such things has beer, bread, flour, cereal, chemicals, cosmetics, pharmaceuticals the list goes on and on and on.  We have it as a part of our national anthem. What did you think amber waves of grain referred to?  This post will be about none of that. Okay maybe a bit about the waving grain. This is about growing and processing wheat. We have grown winter wheat 2 seasons now. The first was a lot of work and a lot of fun. The second is ongoing and is looking fine. We will see when it starts to grow in the spring.

So what is winter wheat? Simply put it is wheat that is planted in the fall allowed to grow (establish roots) then is dies back in the winter. There is a window of planting and if your winter is too cold it will be winter killed. If it is too dry it will die and if there are too many birds you will not get any thing out. To combat this last one many farmers use what is called a seed drill to plant their wheat. We broadcast  seed it by hand. Cause it is fun and drills are expensive and well we are a bit frugal at Sifs Harvest. Did I mention it is fun?

Now the winter wheat is planted. You wait. you can irrigate of course but why worry about it. It is a grass and unless it is really dry ( we have averaged about .25 to.5 inches of rain per week and the ground is thawing now and is significantly water logged no need to worry about lack of moisture. If all goes well you get something like this below.

In the spring right before it turns brown and ripe you can imagine how that would appeal to someone writing about the greatness of our country right? I mean corn and beans are chumps when it comes to waving in the wind. Yea take that corn and beans.

ANYWAY….. Where was I? Right, WHEAT! It is kind of mesmerizing. The above is not even close to how gorgeous it will become. Sort of like that person you meet is kind of attractive but the more you get to know them they get more and more attractive. That is wheat.

So your wheat is turning straw colored and you have checked for dryness and have decided that it is time to harvest it.You have options oh yes you do. You can DIY a hedge trimmer and cut your stalks and bundle them. You can get a Scythe and cut your stalks and bundle them. You can pull them out by hand and bundle them. You can even use machines to do all the work but on small scale it might not be worth it. I use a Scythe. I will be putting another blog together on the scythe in the future so stay tuned.

So you have the wheat cut and shocks made (bundles of cut wheat are called shocks). What now? well you have options again. You could take the shocks and smack them on the inside of a clean bucket. You could also put them in a pillow case and smack them on the ground. You can cut off the berries and use a DIY thresher.

DIY Thresher Video

If you have small enough scale and if you have time you can do the DIY thresher and it will work pretty good. Just remember to winnow it well. (blow chaff away from seed). You can also use food processors and the like. However if you have more wheat then time and you can cut it and store it relatively easy. You can keep it whole and use a small scale threshing machine. Remember to save your wheat stalks for straw. We use ours for fire starting and for mulching the garlic. Which will be coming as well.

Back to land store Wheat thresher

Tube video of it in action

This makes threshing so much easier. You can order similar from over seas but with import tax and with shipping and timing you will spend about the same and this is foot powered. It can be modified if you have the know how to run with a motor but for what we paid I can honestly say this cut the work significantly.

So  now you have threshed wheat berries. You simply pass them through an air current a fan of wind outside. The chaff and debris is lighter then the seed and they blow away the seed drops down and you have purified your mix. You may need to do it a couple of time.

What now? well you can use that wheat to make your own wheat sprouts. You can grind them in flour. You can even use them whole in soups and what not. We grind ours into flour using the kitchen aide. If we were doing any larger amounts I would get a grain mill.

Now you have flour and you can rule the world! At the very least make tasty bread. Winter wheat has a higher gluten content you can grow spring wheat varieties and then mill it finely for a more pastry flour type.

Now something cute that happened in our wheat field last year. It really is amazing on the uses for wheat. I never suspected that it was a resource for birds to nest in. Just as a reminder food is food and if you can eat it so can they or make their home in your food.20170625_135534