2015 Review & Gratitude

The farm is coated in a fluffy layer of snow today and the cold weather is welcome after a very long fall growing season. We didn’t get our first hard frost until the third week of November, which is a month if not later than previous years.

We did a lot this season – of everything. We met our goals for greens in terms of consistency and quantity, and that alone feels like a big deal. This was also the first year that I got to implement my all fields are the same size dream. And wowowow. It’s just as amazing as I always wanted it to be – drip tape from one field to another, remay rolled out and put on without a second thought to length, and easy planning for seeding and transplants. I highly recommend it for small farmers everywhere forever.

Stats for 2015:
24 weeks of salad/arugula seeding and harvest
2,716 lbs of salad
2,772 lbs of arugula
1,971 lbs of cherry tomatoes
21,000 lbs of produce total
31,200 sq ft (less than 3/4 of an acre) planted/seeded for harvest
7.3% increase in sales

In other words, we cultivated slightly less area (by 2,000 sq ft) and managed to increase our sales and cash crop harvests compared to last year. Cool, huh?

We have some big thank yous to hand out this year:

First. To Robin Kok, our intern, who suffered through some long days of weeding and greens bagging, Ke$ha and Hank III. You’re da bomb and this season would have suuuuucked without you. I will never un-see the fanny pack dance and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Thanks girl.

Burns St Bistro, again, rocked it at our annual Farm Dinner and the first ever Asparagus Dinner. We love working with such talented dudes. Thanks guys for your continual support of local food and community.

A huge shout out to the Clark Fork Farmers Market (along with the Missoula Farmers Market, CFAC, NMCDC, MSLA Food Coop, and others) who made the Double Snap Dollars program a reality in Missoula this year. We’re so so proud to be part of a greater movement toward food security. Thank you for all the work you’ve done to make it happen.

This year Margaret participated in a program through WMGC to make the farm compliant with Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) standards. We were audited a handful of times and checked all the boxes to be officially GAP certified! We couldn’t have done it without enormous guidance from Western Montana Growers CoopLCCDC, and the grant we received from the super rad Red Ants Pants Foundation. THANK YOU.

If you’re a young/beginning farmer in Western Montana, and you don’t know about the workshops and field days that the Community Food & Agriculture Coalition has been developing, check it out. They’re on the forefront of sharing knowledge and building community in the farming world of this area. We’ve had the pleasure of hosting both workshops and field days here at County Rail and think they’re the best. Thanks Annie and Bonnie for letting us be part of your successes.

Thanks to Audra Mulkern for involving us in her worldwide Female Farmer Project. We’re honored to be on your list! Look for Margaret and Coda on the cover of this seasons’ In Good Tilth (Oregon Tilth’s magazine)… for real.

As always, thanks to Steve Dagger for giving us the opportunity to farm this land and for all the work he does that makes this place a four-star farmer dream (orchard pruning, chicken caring, porch building, etc. etc. etc.). We are so grateful to be here.

Finally, the biggest thank you of all to our market regulars and wholesale customers who request, seek out, and continually support County Rail. Your dedication to small farms, local economy, and good food makes the biggest difference. You are literally our bread and butter (cuz we don’t grow those). Thank you.

Follow our instagram (@coutyrailfarm) for more photos throughout the year, and we’ll see you in 2016 – Happy New Year!



Farm Dinner, August 2015

Thanks to Burns St Bistro, we had another absolutely incredible dinner at the farm. We were, as always, blown away by the fare and enchanted with the company. This year’s meal was Italian Farmhouse style, five courses of bliss! If you didn’t make it, there’s always next year. Watch for tickets to go on sale next summer.

Apertivo: Beet & Kale tortellino freddo, basil, olive oil

Antipasto: Salmon crudo, pickled summer squash, chilies, arugula w. a cucumber shot
Primo: Nuovo i Vecchio.  Turnips, carrot, onion, hot pepper, colatura.
(This is a salad duo, wherein one half is done fresh and the other as a three week fermentation, to celebrate the simple process of breaking down your vegetables)
Secondo: Carrot stuffed local pork porchetta w. focaccio panzanella, tomatoes, basil and carrot top pesto
Formaggi i Frutta: Dixon watermelon, County Rail Farms feta illegale, saba, fennel sprouts
Dolce: Flathead cherry cannoli
Cafe: Cold press BCRC shots

(Thanks to all the photographers who contributed to this gallery)

Post Season Wrap & Thank You

I like the numbers game. A quick glimpse at 2014:
21 weeks of arugula seeding
20 weeks of pak choy transplants
42 harvests of cherry tomatoes (one planting, outside)
22,715 lbs of produce harvested
– 2,115 lbs of salad
– 1,961 lbs of arugula
– 1,912 lbs of heirloom tomatoes
– 1,631 lbs of cherry tomatoes
33,067 sq ft of planted/seeded area (aprox. 3/4 of an acre not including asparagus and fruits)

2014 proved to be a great season. A good year. We spent more time eating dinner with friends, playing cards, and dancing than we did posting here. I say that’s a win. I can attribute much of that success to our decision to quit our traditional CSA model and move to a Farm Share (market share) system. It meant that we had more time and head space to focus on the land, animals, and our own well being. It also meant that we could focus on growing food that we’re good at growing and that we profit from instead of growing crops to fill out the CSA boxes.

Our members, on the whole, approved. They weren’t all psyched about coming to market to see us (market around here can be overwhelming and very crowded), but they seemed to put up with it for the benefits: any produce, any time, in any quantity as long as we have it on the stand. No missed pick ups and guilty calls asking for a drop off, no extra kale in the fridge that you just can’t seem to eat another bite of, no more wishing there were another eggplant in the box for that one recipe. On our end, we received cash early when we needed it and increased our productivity and sales by 30% largely because of our move from CSA boxes to Farm Market Share. So, thank you to all of our share members who stuck with us through this transition!

This season also marks our first with smart phones. Which means exponentially more photos of our land, our veggies, our friends, and our lives. The farm has its own instagram (@countyrailfarm), which I encourage you to follow for news, happenings, cute goats, and updates, but I’ll also continue to post the best ones here.

More firsts! Our first Farm Dinner! What a success. The men of the Burns St. Bistro hit this one out of the park. We hosted 50 guests for a 4 course plated dinner with our produce (and some other local fare) and then danced under the stars with the music of Caroline Keys and Chelle Terwilliger. This event allowed folks who don’t usually come to our harvest or planting parties to tour the farm, see where their food comes from, and eat a meal with their farmers. It really was priceless, for us and (I think) for them. Read and see more about that night here. Look for notices about the second annual – we can’t wait.

We couldn’t have done any of the above without our awesome summer farm hand, Kitty Galloway. It’s not easy to work an entire season with only two other people, especially if those two are married. Kitty sailed through this year with grace and hard work. She lead the charge this, our first, year at the Tuesday Missoula Famers Market and nailed it, every week. Thank you, Kitty. We couldn’t have asked for more. There’s a truly special place in our hearts for all the volunteers, friends and family, who have come up and lended a hand this season – thank you. We believe in physically connecting with the land we eat from and it is our honor to share it with you. Specifically, Morgan Clark-Gaynor, thanks for the laughs and the music and the endless sass. We love you and wish you the best. As always, we’d like to thank our most generous landlord, Steve Dagger. For the fruit and the chickens and the endless support. You make this awesome life possible. We are in your debt.

Finally, we’d like to extend a giant thank you to all of you for your support this season. We love feeding you, your families, your friends. To the Clark Fork Farmers Market, Missoula Farmers MarketWestern Montana Growers Coop, to The Good Food Store, Orange Street Food Farm, Burns St. Bistro, Biga Pizza, Bridge Pizza, and many many more who stock and/or buy our produce, thank you, thank you, thank you! We’re looking forward to another year of growing and enjoying the winter’s calm and warmth while we can.
Keep an eye out for Farm Share info in January!

Tracy & Margaret

Farm Dinner 2014

If you missed the Farm Dinner last night, you really missed out. We had about 50 people up to the farm for fancy dinner, tour, music, and dancing. At the beginning of the summer, we asked Walker Hunter, chef and owner of Burns St. Bistro in Missoula, to cater our first ever Farm Dinner. And oh my god he and Ryan are masters of culinary creation and presentation. Everything looked gorgeous and tasted unbelievable. They took local goods, mostly ours, and served an incredible four course meal out of our kitchen and into our orchard. The photos say it all. Look for another Farm Dinner next season, folks. We are definitely doing this again. Not pictured: Shelle Terwillger and Caroline Keys graced us with original tunes and covers that spun us around the dance floor after dessert… those two are the most wonderful.

A Letter From Margaret

Dear Friends,

The kale is in the ground!  Somehow I feel as if transplanting outside should be in national headlines.  Newsflash:  Food, Now Safe to Grow Outside! Well maybe there are more important things happening in the world, but I just wanted to let you know about a few happening in ours.

On Sunday, April 27th we’ll have our annual Onion and Potato Planting Party, starting at 3pm, and followed by a potluck and campfire. The following Saturday is kick-off day for the Clark Fork Market!  For weeks I’ve been whispering the date May 3rd into the ear of my asparagus patch, and now it’s your turn.  Hopefully you’ll both be there.

A few things will be changing this year at the Market.  For example, in order to increase our spot size we are moving a short way down from our usual space.  We will be three tents to the east this year.  Tracy also built some amazing market shelves, which we’ll be debuting.  Finally, in October the Market will open at 9am instead of 8am, so that we can all get a little more sleep!

We hope you’ll join us in a few weeks to plant some leeks!

Margaret (and Tracy)

Suddenly, Spring

Two weeks ago, after months of snow on the ground, it seemed completely absurd to start seeds. Now that the ground is bare and the days are filled with sunshine, however, I feel like everything is happening at once. The spinach is popping, garlic is coming up, weeds are already taking over parts of the barn garden, and the goats are anxious to graze on the barely green pasture. GREEN PASTURE… ok almost green.

We are very excited to start the season – it’s been a long winter and we’re absolutely psyched that March is here in force. We have a few new projects for the year. In particular our new Farm Share. It veers away from the traditional CSA box-system and caters to the farmers market. This change means we that instead of planting for specific harvest weeks and amounts, we have a little more flexibility, and so do our members. We are full for the season (woo hoo!), and we both look forward to seeing you all at market.

This year also marks the beginning of my master plan to standardize our fields and make our lives that much easier. By 2016 we’ll have six fields that are all 120′ by 60′ making our crop rotations super easy: two beds planted last year = two beds this year. It also allows us to cut all the drip tape, weed mat, and row cover to the same length every year. This may sound lame. Trust me, it’s VERY exciting. Micah and Katie of Ginger Roots Farm in St Ignatius are letting us borrow a few hogs to tear up a new area of the pasture in a month or two. The hogs, doing what they do best, will clear the grass and open up the soil for cover crop seeding. That saves me from using the disc and tiller on a large section of sod, which is not fun for anyone (especially for Margaret who almost had a heart attack watching the tractor bump around on uneven ground last time I tried this method).

Oh, and SAVE THIS DATE! This summer on August 30th we’re teaming up with the fellas at the Burns St. Bistro for an official farm dinner. They’ll prepare courses with our veggies (and other local fare), we’ll give a tour, and then summer’s bounty will be served in the orchard. Set price per head. Keep an eye out for more information!

This week there’s spinach a week or two from harvest in the field, seeds in the soil, and seedlings in the greenhouse that are itching to get into the ground. We have a batch of broiler hens in the warm room, a couple mama goats gestating their kiddos, and layer hens out in the orchard. One of our three hives survived the winter, and I’ve harvested honey from the other two.

Margaret and I renewed our lease with Steve recently, and knowing that we’ll be here for at least another 5 years feels wonderful. It’s a kind of security and stability that I’m welcoming; it doesn’t have to be forever, but it’s long term enough that we can plan for the future and settle in with the plants and animals that we love.

Happy Spring and Merry Planting to all ye farmers.

Quick Cut Greens Harvester: Maintenance

Our greens harvester (by Jonathan Dysinger of Farmers Friend, LLC and sold through Johnny’s Selected Seeds) cut almost 4,000 lbs of greens this season. By October it desperately needed some love. When I took it apart to thoroughly clean, I noted all the bits that looked worn and needed replacing, and contacted Johnny’s and Jonathan for help. The following photos and suggestions are considered yearly maintenance on the harvester, especially when used frequently.

Jonathan is working on a new design – 2.0 is lighter (by a 1.5 lbs!) and simpler. I look forward to seeing it in action and trying it out. Keep an eye on Farmer’s Friend and like Jonathan’s FaceBook page for updates.

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The first thing that started to slip this fall was the macramé roller. It would pop out of its holes and sit spinning on the shaft during harvesting. It was easily fixable (just pop it back in), but annoying when it happened three or four times each harvest day. The cause, it turns out, is not the roller itself, rather the harvester handle. Over time, the upright supports creep inward on the handle, making the space between them smaller, and allowing the roller to move in and out of its designated hole fairly easily. To keep the roller in place, all I needed to do was push those uprights back out to their proper position with good knock on the support while the protruding end of the handle rested on the work bench. Once the handle bar is flush with the outside of the support again, it’s recommended (by Jonathan) that you drill a hole through the support and insert a screw to hold the handle in place.

There are two discs that are supposed to be attached to the macramé brush, keeping it contained. They detached early on and have been loosely spinning around on the brush bar almost all season. They’re not detrimental to the harvester that way, but it’s an easy fix – super glue them back in place (Jonathan recommends JB Weld for a stronger hold).

Early this fall, our cutter started running rough. It sounded choppy (har har) instead of nice and smooth. The culprit was probably the cam bearing. Ours had lost the rubber ring in the middle of the bearing and was knocking back and forth on the cam. This is another easy (and cheap) fix. The cam bearing is on Johnny’s website for $10.

To replace, remove the 7 large screws on the bottom of the cutter, then gently pull the bottom down to expose the cam and cam bearing. The pin that the black cam roller sits on is loose and rests between the bottom of the cutter and the top piece, so be careful not to lose that. Undo the screw holding the bearing to its pin, and pull it off. The inner ring can get stuck on the pin – it’ll slip off with pliers and force. Replace the cam bearing by sliding the new on onto the pin and put everything back together.

While you’re at it, replace the black plastic cam guide ($5 from Johnny’s). Ours had worn down to almost half its original size, another reason the machine was running roughly. Just pull the old one off, and put the new one on while you have the bottom of the cutter removed.

If your cam looks worn and stretched, replace it. I chose not to replace ours. The cams are expensive ($30) and while the entire thing will run smoother with a brand new one, I figure we can go another season without it. This is another replacement to be done while the bottom of the cutter is off and you’re replacing the cam guide and bearing.

cam and blade

Replacing the blades on the greens harvester is obviously advisable as needed. New blades are expensive ($65) and this is another replacement that we’ll live with for the next season or as long as we need to. Replacement instructions are in the booklet that comes with the cutter.

I’ve been sharpening our blades with an 8193 dremel grinding stone fitted into a cordless drill. Sharpening is simple but requires a light touch – these instructions are also in the booklet. Rotate the Lovejoy coupling until the blades are lined up perfectly. Fire up the drill on its highest speed setting and run the stone on each scallop of the serrated blade, at the approximate angle of the scallop. Use light pressure and grind until each scallop has a clean, sharp edge. Do the same for the bottom blade. It doesn’t take more than a couple seconds per edge. When you can feel small barbs on the flat side of the edge, you’re blade is sharp.

Finally, the blade pin. It holds both blades in place on the left side of the harvester (if you’re looking at it from the front). This little guy got worn out by July and I replaced it with a pin and clip from the ag supply store. Not ideal, but functional.

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Click here for a review of the Quick Cut Greens Harvester from June 2013.

Irrigation & Record Keeping

This time of year I like to organize all my records and analyze our numbers from the previous season. Bed feet planted, harvest totals, actual days to harvest, etc. Almost 4,000 lbs of baby greens! 1,700 lbs of arugula alone! 32% spike in cherry tomato production! It’s a very exciting month for spreadsheet nerds like myself.

NG greens

Harvest totals are old hat, but this is the first year that I kept track of our irrigation water. All of our overhead water comes from the irrigation ditch that runs behind the orchard, fed by the Jocko river which is fed by snow run-off and a spring. It’s managed by the Flathead Irrigation Project who turns on the ditch every May and off on or before September 15 each year. We have a system of hand line on the farm, and can run only one set of 10 or 12 three-inch pipes at a time with the old pump. Veggies and cover crop areas are irrigated as needed, generally for 3-4 hours twice a week. Each line in the pasture runs overnight once a week. Because we lease our land, and we don’t deal with the water taxes or bills, I haven’t had to think about water use much at all. When we needed it, I just turned on the pump. No problem. This year, with the proposed water compact (read more about that here, it’s complications here and here), Steve, our landlord, asked that we record what we used. It always seems like a lot of water, but how much is it really?

For those of you uninterested in the math, skip down the page to find some reflections, below. For all you ag nerds, carry on.

There’s no question that there are gaping holes in the accuracy of these calculations, worn nozzles and varying pressure being two of many, but a general idea of water use is better than nothing. Here’s what I did: Each time I irrigated, I wrote down the section watered, how many sprinkler heads were used, and how long the pump stayed on. So by the end of the season, I could multiply the sprinkler nozzles by the hours irrigated on each line…

8.24.13    Barn Garden    10 nozzles    4 hrs     =   40 hours combined running time

… and add up every line of my irrigation log. The total for our 5.3 acres came to 8,941 total hours. In other words, if all the ditch water we used this season came from just one sprinkler, that sprinkler would have run for 8,941 hours. Then I could multiply those total hours by the estimated gallons per hour each sprinkler head emits to get the total number of gallons we irrigated with this season.

(total combined sprinkler hours) x (sprinkler nozzle gph) = total gallons of water used

To find the gph of each sprinkler head, I used the following chart and and multiplied the gallons per minute (gpm) by 60. Most of our nozzles are 5/32″ and at 40psi, they emit approximately 4.5gpm. This chart is from the Montana Irrigators Pocket Guide, published by the National Center for Appropriate Technology (which is helpful and generally recommended).


From there, I was able to calculate the the acre feet we used per acre of irrigated land. There are 325,851.43 gallons in an acre foot of water. Therefore:

(total gallons / 325851.43) / acres irrigated = acre feet per acre
in our case:
2,414,070 / 325,851.43 / 5.3 = 1.39 acre ft per acre

It just so happens that 1.39 acre feet is just under the 1.4 acre feet limit of the proposed water compact. That number was painstakingly calculated over 18 years of research monitoring rivers and agricultural land on the reservation. It takes into consideration (among many other things) in stream flows that keep fish and other wildlife at optimum levels and water needed for pasture, crops and livestock.

This area of Western Montana gets an average of 15 inches of rain per year, including snow fall. Compare that to Las Vegas at 4.5 in per year, or the Hudson Valley (where we moved from in 2011) at 48 in per year. It’s dry. In three years, we’ve harvested crops maybe three times in the rain. The pieces of land that we don’t irrigate turn gold and brown by mid July, as do the surrounding hills.

Water management is clearly an important part of responsible growing. I like to think that we keep this land as healthy and as naturally sustainable as possible, monitoring the soil saturation etc., but the natural state of this farm is not green rows of vegetables and crops. We rely completely on ditch irrigation and our drip system which we run off of the well. Without those infrastructures, all that remains is marginal pasture, brush, seasonal wildflowers, and sparse evergreens. With aluminum pipe, electric pumps, and man-made canals, we’re able to grow ten thousand pounds of vegetables annually, and roll in green grass in August. What we get from this soil is what we (and those who came before us) put into it: organic matter, manure, water, time, and care. We create this world that we sustain, balancing it as best as we can, encouraging the fungi, bacteria, insects, and moisture that keep our land producing.

Our ditch feeds a wide corridor of riparian forest, home to birds, bugs, microbes, and animals that all contribute to the diversity of our farm. This winter the cottonwoods are home to two great horned owls, conversing in long low tones all night long. It takes a considerable amount of work to keep this artificial system going, but it’s also incredibly rewarding.