One woman, seven acres

briannaorg(6)January 26, 2014

Hi there. I've been reading this forum for nearly eight years, but am finally at the beginning of my first season of market growing. I bought seven acres adjacent to my home last summer, and I am trying to find equipment I can manage on my own for soil working. I think this year I am going to rent a tractor with a disc to break ground, or possibly hire someone local if I can get them in early enough to be useful. But I have a whole host of questions.

1) what temp does the soil need to be before I can disc it? I'm hoping to break ground in March...since I'm sowing flats now as if I already had a place to plant.

2) can you recommend mowers, walk behind tractors, tillers or any other soil working equipment that can be handled by an inexperienced woman of rather small stature? My partner has a Lesco mower and I can't even get my hand around the handles to run the darned thing. I've joked that with the long tradition of child labor in farming, you'd think equipment manufacturers would size things down a bit...

I want to take this chance to thank you all for your posts here which have been enormously helpful to me. You've fed my dream of market gardening and inspired me to take the first big plunge, buying my land. It's sloped, silty clay loam that has had hay taken off of it for the last twenty years and probably nothing put back, but I am so excited to become a steward of this little place.

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Welcome to market farming, it's not really gardening.

I'll try to address your question to the best of my ability.

1) it's not just the temperature, but the moisture of the ground. Since it sounds like your ground has been a hay field for a few years, ideally it would have been best to have fall plowed, but not disc. That would leave some time for the ground to settle. If you can go out and dig up some soil with a shovel, loose it up, then grab a hand full, make a ball with the soil, then bounce the ball up and down in your hand. If the ball falls apart, it's time to disc. Anything earlier you will have huge CLODs that are very hard to break up. This is the way that my dad and grandfather checked to see if it was ready. Around here could have been anytime from March to May (I'm in zone 5, Indiana).

2) I'm 5'6 and not small, but my DIL could and did run a full sized tractor. It's not your size, but your experience and who you have to teach you. I found that the smaller tractors are closer to the ground, thus easier to climb on/off. Definitely try to get on the tractor BEFORE you buy it. You might need someone to weld an extra step on for you.

2a) I've used a Kubota (too expensive for us to buy) and a John Deere smaller tractor. Both were hydro-static, and both were easy to operate. Both were rentals and I used a 5' tiller behind them. If you rent one, get one with a front bucket, because you will find uses for the bucket during the time. I would also rent for a week for the number of acres you say you want to use. After you get it plowed (mold-board, best), then disced, then use the tiller. Till it early in the week time, then on the last day or two before returning it. Make sure that the field, since it was a hay field, is mowed down as low as you can get, before trying any of this. Long grass will bunch up in the tiller and you will spend more time cleaning the grass out than you will tilling.

2b) I would not recommend a lawn tractor for your mowing, spend the extra and get a small tractor. I have been mowing about 4 acres, and the 'lawn tractors'(less than 20 hp) will wear out in about 2 years in my situation.

Since this field has been a hay field, there is a good chance that it is rocky. Have fun picking up rocks, they seem to grow year after year. Been picking rocks since I was little, and our ground wasn't 'rocky'.

I would also advise you NOT to take out the entire 7 acres, but start small, 1/2-1 acre to start with. I don't know if you're experienced in market gardening or not, but starting small and growing is less daunting.


    Bookmark   January 26, 2014 at 1:30PM
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You may want to plant berries on the most steeply sloped parts of the land, where it is too hilly to break ground. You won't know how bad soil erosion is going to be until the ground gets broken for the first time.

For the flat parts, I would rent or borrow a tractor to plow some rows, dump manure on them, run a rear tine cultivator over it until the soil is well worked, and then make raised beds with drip tape and black plastic mulch. Once all that is done, one person can manage a large plot. A fertilizer injector for your drip system is a worthwhile investment as well.

    Bookmark   January 26, 2014 at 2:32PM
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Seven acres is HUGE. Consider keeping part of it as hay and only plow about an acre.

When you have that under control from a growing, picking and selling standpoint, plow some more.

1 Like    Bookmark   January 26, 2014 at 2:34PM
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what is your market? 7 acres is enough for a large csa and impossible for one person to handle properly. lazygardens is right, start small and grow only what you can kept weeded, irrigated, free from bugs and disease, and timely harvested. i grow about 3300 sq ft inside and about 1/3 of an acre outside.
if you grow organically spend your resources building the soil.

    Bookmark   January 26, 2014 at 3:40PM
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My actual farmers market is tiny, but I've been networking with local families who are looking for local foods to fill the gap left by the closing of our last independent grocery store. So, kind of informal CSA this first year while I gauge the market.

I should have mentioned in my opening post that I'm starting with about a half an acre this year, I have around a quarter acre in blackberries (on the slope, but I lucked out, they're a runaway plot leftover from some ancient agriculture) and planted a small orchard last fall (with 50 more nut and fruit trees coming in April). I have a partner who can do the heavy lifting and machinery work, but he's stubborn and doesn't always stick to the plan, so I'm trying to make equipment decisions knowing that I will need to be able to use it myself in a pinch.

I'm going to our local USDA office this week to see if we are eligible for the high tunnel grant, but we will be building some kind of hoop house or season extender regardless of the grant option.

I've worked out a very small growing plan involving 12 rows around the new orchard in the flat part of our field nearest the road, and have sourced some local composted manure (while I try to work up the nerve to introduce myself to the neighbors and ask if they have any cow poo or horse bedding they are no longer using). The grow plan is small because I'm having a hard time wrapping my head around the volume increase from my small raised bed garden to an actual market farm. And succession planting...all the reading in the world doesn't lessen the fact that this can be a bit complicated.

We are planning for plasticulture and drip irrigation, we have a well but I'm also looking into getting our own rural water hookup, since the one for our house borders the property line of the field and is adjacent to the area we want the hoophouse.

I talked with one of the local farmers yesterday who mostly produces wine. He complained for awhile about his previous farm and the travails of running a CSA for 25 years, then expressed blissful relief that he's making a single value added product. :)

    Bookmark   January 27, 2014 at 12:18AM
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I can agree with the local wine farmer, I love the idea of doing the value added. I'm not competing with every hobby gardener that just wants to make back their seed cost.

When I was actually gardening/farming for a hopeful profit, I started with about 1/4-1/2 acre, then doubled every year until we were at 5 acres. There was 2 of us, plus whatever help we could get from family and friends. There wasn't enough help, so now my land is farmed by a corn/beans/wheat farmer just started out. He's using much more natural components than the other farmers, and that's what I want. He talks to us and tells us everything he is putting on, and allows us to input. He is working on building our ground up more. Last year was his first year, and he was pleasantly surprised how well our ground was, some after 2 years of corn.

Advise, go slow and grow. Be open to advise from local farmers, they've already have more experience in farming locally. Ask their advice and then choose which way you will work.

    Bookmark   January 27, 2014 at 9:58AM
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jrslick (North Central Kansas, Zone 5B)

Another idea would be to till in wide strips and space everything out over a large area. Then you could mow the strips and keep everything nice and tidy. I visited a large tomato farmer in missouri and his rows are 10-12 feet apart. That allows airflow, ability to drive machinery between rows, etc,etc. He succession plants 1800-2000 tomato plants at a time.

I wish I had 7 acres. I would go crazy with that much ground. If you are small, I would say go with a small tractor over a walk behind tractor, imo.


    Bookmark   January 27, 2014 at 12:29PM
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I agree with all the above. I would also suggest though that you get a soil test to find out exactly what you're working with. We do 5 acres and have a small orchard and thousands of assorted berries. For the slopes, I'd also recommend asparagus. I keep adding around 300 a year and can't keep up w/demand. With that much space, I'd be looking into squash, pumpkins, and melons as main crops. Again, start small.

    Bookmark   January 27, 2014 at 2:05PM
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Your situation sounds very similar to ours! We purchase 40 acres almost 4yrs ago and are getting ready to start our first year of market gardening. With a few small exceptions, all of our land is sloped (we're at 4000' in the Appalachian Mtns). It's a real challenge trying to plan out beds, irrigation, etc on steep inclines. We have utilized cover crops between our rows to help with erosion. I'm very jealous of the pictures I see in this forum of everyone's gardens in nice flat areas : )

An acre of Asparagus is going in this spring (we're partnering with two of my brothers to assist with the labor); Asparagus has done very well for us over the last couple of years. Berries are another area we're focusing on. We have planted these on the slopes without problems and are low maintenance. I'm actually looking for another supplier of bare root berry bushes/canes, if anyone can suggest? Currants, Raspberry, Gooseberry, Muscadine, etc.

Are you talking about the EQUIP hoop house grant that's available? I'm about 1/4 of the way thru the process with our local USDA agency. 30'x98' Gothic is what we're planning for. If you don't mind my asking, what state are you in? I believe the EQUIP grant is Federal so if you have any questions (if you move forward) feel free to message me!

All of the planning/reading/research and I'm still getting hung up on what crops to rotate with each other as the season change (spring broccoli bed into summer squash then back to fall broccoli).

    Bookmark   January 27, 2014 at 8:01PM
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dirtdigging101(7 - NC)

Lots of good thoughts here. the first three things to consider are
1. soil test so u know where you are at
2. do I need fencing ? a few deer or ground hogs can wipe you out this is a real thing to consider
3. irrigation, what you going to do if it is dry? another real thing

If I had that much land I would have a small ford 8n with disc, mower and rake and space 4 ft wide beds like 30 feet apart and mow and rake the hay for mulch .

deer wiped me out my first year, now thy walk past my 8 ft fence. my first market garden was 27' x 45' and I had 14 grow areas of 2.5' x 20' and grew paste tomatoes and pickle cukes.

    Bookmark   January 28, 2014 at 6:09PM
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On the USDA EQIP cost share program (this is not a grant) you probably won't qualify unless you have been farming 3 years at least and that is a good thing because if you get the high tunnel and decide after 2 or 3 years you no longer want to farm you will owe the USDA 110% of your part of the cost share.

I have a brand spanking new high tunnel because of the NRCS EQIP program. Got approved last May and got it done in November.

    Bookmark   January 29, 2014 at 4:12AM
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The 8n ford is a nice small,cheap tractor, but those tractors don't have enough power for a 5' tiller and their low gear runs too fast for proper tilling. I rented a 3010 Kubota the first three years "large scale" market gardening and loved the tractor. The tiller made powder of the soil which was easy to work for an extended time. Then we found a cheap older tractor with pull type equipment, this was great but I needed a cultipacker to break the disked ground up finer. Last year I finely found a Ford 641 and will start finding out inf this tractor runs slow enough for a five 5' tiller. A friend also told me the 8n type is too fast for a transplanter. The gearing makes them run so fast that you have to work very hard to keep up.

This post was edited by myfamilysfarm on Wed, Jan 29, 14 at 8:12

    Bookmark   January 29, 2014 at 7:31AM
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My grandpa has an old David Brown tractor that is his favorite outside the new Kubota. The David Brown is like a tank, with fluid-filled tires and a massive weight box on the front. They don't make small tractors nearly that heavy any more.

    Bookmark   January 29, 2014 at 12:44PM
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Cole Robbie, we have a 49 Massey Harris, I know what you mean. Can only use pull type, but it will pull almost anything.

    Bookmark   January 29, 2014 at 6:40PM
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i have a ford 1710 from the 80's, 25 hp or so. easy enough to fix. does all i ask of it.

    Bookmark   January 30, 2014 at 5:55AM
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Just an update: my partner built a 12' x 20' hoophouse near my 4x8 raised beds last week to test out a design, and officially broke ground tilling inside it with a 40yr old walk behind tiller. :) We plan on using it to harden off trays before planting in the field.

I found a local man with a 30hp Kubota and loads of attachments who's familiar with my neighborhood and really broke ground for us on Saturday, plowing a 30'x100' strip to start. After watching my partner wrestle with the tiller, it was awesome to see the earth fold back so quickly with the plow. I did some cheap soil testing to confirm that our soil is extremely alkaline (our well water has a very high pH so this wasn't an entire surprise) and will send the rest of my samples this week to the county extension. For now, my amendment plan is to add as much compost as I can afford to truck in and some nourishment in the form of bone and kelp meal while we establish our own compost heap (been cooking for six months but needs more materials to really get rolling).

The tractor man is going to return to plow another section of field for us and go over all our existing areas with his 5' tiller. The price is very much right, and works for now. He did mention that while he has plenty of horsepower, he could use a bigger tractor with a more flexible frame to keep the wheels on the ground when he's plowing and not lose any traction/4WD. This helps us figure out what we need for our own tractor purchase. Our ground has so much clay in it I don't know what to expect next year in terms of discing, tilling, etc.

My partner also took out two of the trees shading the old orchard (and took out one of my peach trees with it, darn it) and I tended baby chicks, red wrigglers, and discovered black soldier fly in our worm composting bins that I'm trying to move to their own setup to feed the chickens as they get bigger. We are not losing sight of the goal (successful market gardening) but we are making a lot of allowances for this being year 1, our learning year, and we're trying to establish several different "systems" at once that'll feed our family while we learn to produce for market.

I'm still trying to source plastic for the little hoophouses (thanks Jay!). What's the difference between overwintering film and general greenhouse uv plastic (besides thickness). Is it just that overwintering film lets more light through and is thinner, so the greenhouse heats up more/faster?

As always, thanks to all for the help.

    Bookmark   March 24, 2014 at 1:02AM
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dirtdigging101(7 - NC)

I know the ford 8n well and I know it can not run a big tiller that is why I said to mow and rake the hay off the acreage for concentrated soil improvement on a smaller area. this would also help with mulching and dry soil conditions also less are to fence in if need be.

    Bookmark   March 25, 2014 at 4:26PM
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i think one initial plowing to get you going is good. unless you are using herbicides plowing every year will present unneeded weed challenges.

    Bookmark   March 25, 2014 at 5:29PM
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You're in a very similar situation to mine. I broke ground on half an acre last fall and tilled in sulfur and iron sulfate into part of that area to bring down the pH from 8.3 to 7.0 (approx.). A friend with a 300 HP tractor broke the ground for me, after which I rototilled in the amendments by hand.

    Bookmark   March 25, 2014 at 11:09PM
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It's been a while since you last posted so I figure, like the rest of us, you are up to your eyeballs in your garden.

I'd like to revisit the machinery aspect, since I'm new at the farming part and don't have much to add there.

I'll preface by letting everyone know that I do work for a John Deere dealership so I may be a little bias, as much as I may try not to be.

I have about 4 acres and "farm" about 2 acres. I have a 15,000 sq. ft. garden and the rest is "pasture". There is no way I could manage all of this without a small tractor. I didn't get a tiller but borrowed one from a friend and that is next on my list.

I'd like to recommend to you a 30-40 HP tractor. It will give you the power you need and the compactness will let you maneuver easily. I would stay with a Kubota or Deere. Both have strong points and I have operated both in non-work environments. I'll plug the Deere compacts because I think they have three design features that I prefer over the Kubota.
1. The Deere loader is tucked in a little closer to the front of the tractor. This makes it a little more compact and easier to maneuver. This will limit the lift height a little but I haven't found that to be an issue with me.
2. The floor of the Deere is flatter and more open. Lot's less to tangle your feet and makes it a lot easier to get on and off.
3. I really like the Hydrastatic setup on the Deere. The two pedal design makes it really easy to operate. The rocker design of the Kubota works fine but it made my ankle and leg sore after a while. Toggling back and forth didn't work well for me.

Both machines are good and both will serve you well. Just pay attention to the ergonomics of the tractors. If you ride one for very long you will appreciate or hate the layout.

I'd also by new or barely used. I love older tractors and would love to have a few but I don't need to worry about repairs. A new tractor, with a warranty, will give you years of service with little repairs. Just keep up with the scheduled maintenance and you'll be good.

FWIW - I have a Deere 3038E and it is a workhorse. I have a disc, loader, shredder, and box blade. I'm saving up for a tiller. I'd like to get a spreader and a sprayer but those can wait.

    Bookmark   August 17, 2014 at 10:27AM
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I'm doing our seed orders and crop planning for this year and wanted to update my thread.

Last year's plowed and tilled area is about 35x90. We did plasticulture and had a few other raised beds right around the greenhouse. The market was pretty tiny and really only worth it for selling starts, but I've done a lot of networking and let people in the community know we're farming, so I'm going to try a twist on the CSA model:

Since we don't need money up front for start up costs, instead of a traditional CSA (which excludes most of the nearby residents who can't come up with $200-400 upfront) I'm going to set up online ordering so that folks on my Facebook page and mailing list can pre-order a box for pickup at the Saturday market on the square. The ecommerce software does inventory management, so I can allow folks to choose what they want in their order and if it's not available, it won't display. I have about 10-15 people interested (not enough for a CSA, really, which makes it perfect for this experiment) and have sent them a survey asking them what their highest priority veggies and herbs are (what they use the most).

For us, our favourite garden produce ended up being potatoes, corn, beans, broccoli, swiss chard, onions and watermelon. We grew all kinds of stuff, but including any of those items in our meals made it feel as convenient as fast food. The potatoes especially - I know they're cheap to buy, but pulling a handful out of the garden to make french fries to go with a BLT on homemade bread and with homemade mayo from our own eggs was AMAZING. Deeply satisfying. We grew too many tomatoes but we knew that going in (partner was having cabin-fever issues in February and sowed about 400 tomato seeds. Every single packet I'd bought for the past three years. Our germination rates were TOO GOOD, BAKER CREEK! :))

We raised 4 pigs last year and sold 2 of them, and plan to do 4-8 this year. It was extremely easy to find buyers for the pork! We sourced non-GMO feed and had no idea how to price it, so we basically charged just above cost and naturally we sold out right quick. I've since figured out more appropriate pricing based on nearby producers.

The pigs did really well on beets, other garden produce, and tons of apples from our old apple trees. Grass was their absolute favourite (and free!) so we are investing in electric fencing and additional hog panels to make movable pens for the pasture. Last year they were in two stationary pens of about 50'x100' (2 pigs per pen) and so we have nice fertilized and pig-tilled areas to expand this year's garden. There was only about 3-4 weeks that grain made up the bulk of their diet - for most of their lives, they ate grass and vegetables and apples. And occasionally eggs.

Our eggs are popular and I didn't even start enough hens to be selling eggs - we have about 10-15 people interested in weekly eggs and we are producing only about 3 dozen a week, so I'll be expanding the flock this year.

I only went to market for the first six weeks of the season; this year I will be able to attend more regularly. I was careful about writing down feedback from the customers - everyone was extremely pleased with the quality of our starts, three or four people were looking for Sungold tomatoes or yellow pear tomatoes, and a few folks were really excited that we offered tomatilloes (I'm from California and wanted to make salsa verde!).

Our patron, my father-in-law, wants okra and asparagus this year (we have six or seven mature asparagus plants, but I just set aside an area for a permanent 100' bed) and five or six peaches. So I'm drawing maps and calculating costs and occasionally visiting Planter's in KC for instant-gratification bulk seed orders and seed starting supplies.

Lastly, we purchased remnant plastic from A.M. Leonard for our hoop house and I could not be happier with the quality or the service! The price was awesome too - our 12'x20' experimental greenhouse ended up costing about $250 in salvaged

    Bookmark   January 19, 2015 at 4:15PM
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I'm going to set up online ordering so that folks on my Facebook page and mailing list can pre-order a box for pickup at the Saturday market on the square. The ecommerce software does inventory management, so I can allow folks to choose what they want in their order and if it's not available, it won't display.

That's a really GOOD way to do it. What software are you using?

we have nice fertilized and pig-tilled areas to expand this year's garden

That's the way to do it. Especially if you plant something with edible roots for them to dig out.

    Bookmark   January 20, 2015 at 3:29PM
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Embothrium(USDA 8 Sunset 5 WA)

Amendments are mineral sources, don't add any amendments until after you read the soil test report. For instance, if your soil is already alkaline I doubt adding bone meal (a calcium source) will be a good idea. And there are other issues with bone meal also.

Ideal humus content is really comparatively low, this can be overdone also - the popular "you can't add too much organic matter!" is actually wrong.

    Bookmark   January 20, 2015 at 3:40PM
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