DIY Low Tunnel Bender

This season Margaret and I are going to try and increase our production a little. We’re interested in growing more on the small amount of space we cultivate. While many farms in our region are taking advantage of the NRCS cost-share high tunnel program, we’re taking a different approach. I want to extend our season a little, but I don’t want to tie up a portion of our land in permanent plastic. So I’m building low tunnels instead. A 6’x100′ tunnel will span two beds and can be put up and taken down in a couple hours. Moreover, to cover the same ground as a high tunnel, low tunnels would cost about a 15th of the price.



These low tunnels are built with standard 1/2″ or 3/4″ EMT electrical conduit, available at most hardware stores for as low as 1.90 per 10′ piece. This stuff is soft enough to work without heavy equipment, but strong enough for a small tunnel. The key is bending the conduit. Johnny’s Selected Seeds sells two different “Quick Hoops” pipe benders: one for a 6′ wide by 3′ tall tunnel, the other for a smaller arc, 4′ wide by 4′ tall tunnels. While they work well, they’re costly. $59 before shipping. So after calling around to some buddies to borrow one, I realized I could build one. Thanks to this awesome post by the folks at IttyBittyImpact, I built a perfectly functional bender in about 10 minutes from wood scraps on the farm.

The basics are simple. Cut out a portion of your circle then sandwich that piece between two boards. Lastly, screw in a brace on one end of the bender to hold your conduit in place while bending.

Detailed steps to building a Low Tunnel EMT conduit Bender:
1. Determine the radius of the tunnel you’re building. For the 6′ wide by 3′ high, the radius is 3′. For the taller and narrower tunnels, the radius is 2′.
2. Build a giant compass. Either cut a piece of scrap wood or piece of string to the length of your radius.
3. Attach one end of your compass to something stationary (or have someone stand on it). With the other end, trace a portion of your circle on piece of 3/4″ plywood.
4. Cut out your circle. This is what the conduit is going to be bent around.
5. Sandwich this bit of circle between two boards (at least 2′ long and 1′ wide), ensuring that the boards exceed the rounded edge of the plywood so that when you’re bending the conduit you have an easy track to follow. Screw it all in place.
6. Place a block of that 3/4″ plywood between those boards on one end of your new bender. Leave enough room to fit an end of conduit between the brace and the rounded edge of the plywood. Screw this securely in place. This brace holds the conduit in place while you’re bending it around the circle.

1 radius measure
Raduis measure – I just held one of end of the radius measure in place while I traced the circle onto a piece of plywood. Then cut it.

1.5 bottom board

2 putting together

5 hole for pipe endHere’s that hole between the block and the plywood arc that holds the EMT in place while it’s being bent. You can see that I used two pieces of 1/2″ plywood to make my arc instead of one 3/4″ piece.

You’re done! Clamp this baby in place and put one end of your pipe in your bender and bend away. Place one end of the 10′ conduit into the bender. For a 6′ hoop, you’ll need to bend the entire piece so start with the end of it even with your brace. Bend it around and then feed about a foot through the brace end of the bender and bend again. Repeat until you’re half way through and then pull the conduit out of the bender and switch sides. This helps keep the circle even on each side. (For 4′ hoops, you’ll feed about 4′ of the conduit through the bender before bending and you’ll only need to bend it once or twice).

6 bending 2

7 bending 1

8 bending 4

9 imperfect hoopsYou can see that the hoops aren’t perfect, but they’re close enough.

10 hoops

Next get yourself some plastic (Johnny’s has 10’x100′ pieces for about $80, or cut Nolt’s 24’x100′ for $90 in half) and set ‘er up. If you experience high winds, you’ll want to dig in one long edge of the tunnel.

I’ll till the soil, seed it, and set drip before putting up our tunnel. I’m experimenting with some micro sprinklers for early greens, but the rest will be watered via drip tape or tubing. The plan is to grow our early crops under tunnels and then take them down, till, and re-seed (salad, arugula, or other fast greens) for a second harvest. With the warm February and March we’re having, we should be able to get a jump on the season and make better use of our land in early spring.

Back in the Saddle, Again.

So here we are in another year. The sun didn’t explode, the snows came, and firewood still burns hot. Margaret and I took November and December off to relax, travel, and not think about the farm. The first two we did totally successfully, the last task we did only marginally well.

Thanks to our buddy Bob, we were able to take off for 2 weeks and drive down to Texas to see family, to ride our bicycles (!!!) around Santa Fe and Austin, see some fantastic live music, and eat incredible tacos. No joke, the best tacos we had were found at The Velvet Taco in Dallas. I think I was the only one giggling. Either everyone else shoving tacos in their mouth was already over the joke or didn’t get it. In December, we spent the holidays and New Years with my family in Idaho and toasted to 2012 on the ski slopes.

The goats have been bred, both to freshen in May. Lucy is fat and bossy as ever, the kids are growing nicely, and Ke$ha is still the farm sweetheart. I butchered our whether, Bruno, in early December along with a number of older laying hens from which I made gallons of stock.

Percy the cat had a little trouble with his usual acrobatics and ripped a hole in his belly that we had to get sewn up. He didn’t seem to mind either way, but now he has a gigantic scar to show off to the ladies in town. Since his stitches have been out, I’ve seen him jump from the car port roof to the greenhouse and back again multiple times. I’ve also seen him slide off the roof of the greenhouse on a slippery layer of new snow, landing on his feet. After boring weeks of recovery, he started leaving serious carnage around the house and barn: mice bodies, frozen to the ground, heads staring blankly from a few inches away. He has become an excellent barn kitty, and increasingly skilled at sneaking into the house to snooze by the stove.

Our indoor plants are thriving with all the attention we’re giving them now that they’re our only greenery. I broke the lemon tree pot and built a new, larger, container for it filled with aged compost and plenty of water. It looks healthier than ever and is growing lots of new foliage.

I’ve been reading books galore and catching up on some of the better tv shows out there (and my fair share of really bad shows). We’ve been making all kinds of delicious winter-y dishes with our stored, canned, and frozen produce and have been enjoying experimenting with making cheese from Pattie’s extra milk (thanks, Pattie!).

When she’s not filling in at the Good Food Store, Margaret has been whirring away on her new sewing machine, making me a couple incredible vests and fixing up all kinds of stuff in the house. She also carved a super cute holiday card linoleum print of Coda running with a zucchini.

Now that 2013 has hit in full force, we’ve been pouring over seed catalogs, editing the website, and recording all our 2012 info. We harvested almost 13,000lbs of produce this year, not including plums, apples, or pears! 850lbs of arugula, 1,300lbs of salad greens, and 2,500lbs of english cucumbers.

We’ve lined up a full time intern for 2013, in the hopes that we’ll get more time to enjoy the farm and more help to make harvest and production more efficient. You’ll meet her this summer, she’s super.

Next season will see a few new things from County Rail. We’ll be trying some specialty greens on for size (in addition to our arugula and mizuna, of course) and we’ve decided to cut our losses and quit doing things that don’t work for us. Melons, for example, are falling by the way-side to make room for other stuff we grow well. Support our neighbors at Dixon Melons, instead.

We’re keeping our CSA small at 25, and thanks to a hugely generous donation from a local philanthropist, our SNAP members will get an incredible deal on their shares this season. Check out the SNAP page for details.

Margaret and I are psyched to be heading into our third season. Pommes de Terre has brought us nothing if not the feeling of home, fulfillment, and community. Farmers always say that next year will be better, and dog gamit, so it will. We’re always learning new tricks, tackling new challenges, and tweaking our system to make it more productive and sustainable.

So here’s to 2012, and here’s to 2013 in all it’s day-dreaming winter glory, for “January is just the tail end of a dog called Spring.”

Spring Update

With the third market of the year behind us, we’re officially running through spring in Montana. Summer is just around the corner (though it feels like it’s already here with the recent hot and dry weather) and we’re really pleased with the season so far.

This week we’ll be planting almost everything in the greenhouse out into the field (tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, corn, melons, etc.) and if you’ve been looking for a time to come up and volunteer for a few hours, this is the week to do it. Any day, any length of time. If you’re here during lunch or dinner, we’ll feed you.

 We have a beautiful crop of garlic up and will be harvesting scapes in a couple weeks. There are three varieties out there. The one pictured is the german hardy, great for storage. The others, russian red and spanish red, are lighter in color.
 Finally, salad! Our first salad greens bed was harvested for market this weekend, and we’ll be selling the next harvest to the Western Montana Growers Coop tomorrow.
New chicks! After  an unfortunate Saturday evening, we found ourselves six hens and one rooster short of our original flock. So we bought a few new chicks to replace the ones we lost. Egg production will be dangerously low for a few months while these little ones grow into themselves, but we’re working on it. The little yellow one with stripes in the front is an Ameraucana (blue eggs) and the dark and yellow behind are Marans (dark brown eggs)
 This year in an attempt at an earlier and stronger corn crop, we started it in the greenhouse. These little guys, along with the cucumbers adjacent, will be transplanted out into the far garden this week for harvest in August.
The tomato corral expanded a bit this year to accommodate all our tomatoes. The corral allows the plants to harden off without damage by the strong winds that are common during these months. They’ll go out to the field this week as well, under hoops and row cover.
 Our asparagus came almost  3 weeks early this year, and we’ve stopped harvesting as of last Friday. It’s a good 4.5 ft tall now, enjoying the sunshine. These enormous stalks are already starting to fern out to regenerate nutrients for the roots. Thanks to everyone who helped us weed these beds this year – you made a HUGE difference!
 If you came out for planting day, your efforts were not in vain. The onions look great (if currently a little weedy) and the purple asparagus (above), sunchokes, and potatoes are popping out of the ground. Thanks for your help!
 Rhianna (above) and Bruno are doing mighty well. We’ve been milking Ke$ha each morning and the kids get access to her all day. It gives us some milk for all our efforts without taking much away from the growing goats. (Thanks Robin for this and the following picture!).
 Until this week, we had been taking the goats on short walks around the farm, getting them used to being out and about, acclimating the kids to Lucinda our other doe. This meant that we spent a couple hours every afternoon laying in the grass with baby goats nibbling on hats and using our legs as a jungle gym.
 Huge dork that I am, I now have over 100 pictures of the bees on our lilac bush outside the house. This is one of the best. They’re loving the weather and couldn’t be better. Margaret and I had a brief but scary incident last weekend when I screwed up and accidentally trapped a few thousand bees in one box, making them absolutely irate by the next day. When we opened them up again, they attacked without hesitation and both of us got stung 5-8 times. All my injuries were to my face, which meant that it was extremely puffy and little uncomfortable for a few days. Margaret hardly reacted, lucky. Moral of the story: always approach the hives prepared, preferably with a veil.

Updates and Planting Day! April 29.

Man it’s beautiful out here. The sun is shining, it’s at least 60 degrees every day, and the nights aren’t cold enough to do any damage. That’s pretty phenomenal for April in Montana. And thanks to the weather, we’re harvesting asparagus almost two weeks earlier than last year. As long as it holds out for a few weeks in May, our market customers will get their fill. Until then, if you want asparagus let us know! We have buckets of it.

Lucinda Williams, our most rambunctious goat. Here she is on top of the shelter shed we moved out to pasture for protection from sun and rain. She prefers to lay on top of it rather than inside.

It’s still early, but there’s a lot more than asparagus out on the farm. We have six beds seeded and planted in the field, two beds of very happy green garlic, and more on the way. Despite the agreeable weather, everything is covered with either plastic or row cover to help retain heat. All plants take extra long to mature in early spring, so we’re hoping that the joi choi, kale, salad, arugula, scallions, and root veggies will be ready come market (starts May 5 under the Higgins Bridge in Missoula! Saturday from 8-1pm).

Joi Choi looking lovely out in the far garden.

All those little guys need water, though, and until our irrigation ditch is turned on we’re left to water by hand. The far garden has six hoses stretching out from the well to the planted beds and every few days we spend two hours walking along and sprinkling everything. It’s exhausting. I’ll be happy when the irrigation board opens the ditch and we can pump through our hand-line. It’s not as efficient to do it that way (more water and not as concentrated where we need it), but it’s so much less time and work. Moreover, we’ll be able to seed our cover crop of peas, oats, and vetch in the newest of our four fields as soon as the water comes on. I’ve been itching to get it in the ground.

Purrseus the cat! Seen here cuddling wild mint, which has a catnip-like effect. This legendary feline hero whose defeat of various archaic mouse-sters provided the founding myths of the Twelve Olympians. (Perseus was the Greek hero who killed the Gorgon Medusa, and claimed Andromeda, having rescued her from a sea monster sent by Poseidon in retribution for Queen Cassiopeia declaring herself more beautiful than the Nereids).

The greenhouse is about as full as it can get, and we’ve moved many of our bigger seedlings into our two unheated hoophouses which get a little more sunlight than the greenhouse. If the temperature threatens to dip below 25 overnight, we move most of it into the greenhouse until morning to be on the safe side. A little extra work is worth ensuring the survival of hundreds of little veggies.

Baby asparagus in the hoophouse, ready for transplanting to our new patch. Those little ferns have little roots in their pots, and over the years they grow to a giant network under the soil and the full grown ferns reach 5 or 6 feet tall. These won’t go out until we’re sure the frost won’t get it, and we won’t even harvest asparagus from them until 2015.

Finaly, the most important announcement! We’ve scheduled our annual Planting Day! We invite you all to join us on April 29th starting at 1pm and continuing through the afternoon. We’ll have a potluck dinner around 5pm, as well as a short meeting for any Farm Share members who make it to the planting day (we’ll have another meeting in town for those who can’t make it up).

Remember to wear long pants, and clothes you don’t mind getting dirty. Bring gloves if you think you’ll want them and definitely sunscreen, water, and layers–the weather changes quickly this time of year. We’ll be planting all of our onions, shallots, leeks, asparagus, and potatoes. Remember to bring a dish for dinner, and a plate and fork for eating.

We look forward to seeing you! If you can’t make it for planting feel free to come for the potluck anyhow. We’d still love to have you.

Directions to County Rail Farm from Missoula, MT
Take Hwy90 West toward CDA then merge to Hwy93 towards Kalispell and Flathead Lake. Go North about 27 miles passing through the towns of Evaro and Arlee. Turn Left in Ravalli at the blinking light onto Hwy200 towards Thompson Falls and the National Bison Range. Go a little less than 2 miles and turn left on Pommes de Terre Ln, just after a stretch of sheep and cow pasture. It’s a small gravel raod which leads to wooden barn and tan house, that’s us. You will be able to see both from the road before you come to the turn-off. Please follow signs for parking.

Farm Update: Bees, Beds, Voles, and Veg

The giant puzzle is complete! Ok only a third of it, but that third is as big as our dining room table. Winter is officially over. The spring season has begun.

Steve and I started pruning the fruit trees last week, a good learning experience for me as I’ve never managed an orchard before. We have apples, pears, plums, apricots, cherries, and grapes to think about. The apples and pears get pruned first, the apricots last. I’m excited to be more involved with the fruit this year as we barely assisted at all last season.
Warm enough to know for sure now: the bees are alive and well! During a cold winter, bees will go into a hibernation of sorts. Shutting down their bodies and the hive until it’s warm enough to move around and fly. A warm winter, like this one, has meant that the bees are more active… and they eat more.

You can see the mouse guards I put on the fall are still in place. Even in the warmer weather, the critters are hungry.

The three hives at the farm have gone through almost all of the honey they stored up last summer.

I resorted to feeding them honey and sugar in January when the hives were hopelessly light. Now that spring appears to have arrived, the bees are working for their dinner.

All three hives are bringing in willow-yellow pollen and looking gorgeous.

Two hives are fabulously strong, and the third is sluggish but not in terrible shape for the season. If it rains for a week I’ll have to feed them again, but for the moment they’re holding their own.
This week we put into action our plan for early vegetables. Because we don’t have a nice big hoophouse/high tunnel to seed things in before it gets warm outside, we’ve had to come up with a different system.

So we’ve built a temporary hoophouse over two of our beds. You might call this a low tunnel. We bought a huge roll of “heavy duty” plastic and 3/16″ steel hoops from Nolt’s Produce Supply and put them up on Thursday.

The hoops are fantastic: it’s not easy to find strong, sturdy, pre-bent hoops. I tried to make my own this winter and failed miserably. Nolt’s offers 5′ and 6′ hoops relatively cheaply and pre-bent. A much better deal than buying wire and forming it myself. The plastic, however, I’m a little disappointed with. “Heavy duty” apparently means tissue paper thin. It did survive through a wind storm yesterday, but it’s just not strong enough to last until May. If it calms down today and tomorrow, I’ll go out there with row cover and reinforce the plastic. It’ll keep the ground warmer and the tunnels stronger in the spring winds.

We do have two small hoophouses that we have seeded with greens (mostly for ourselves). Unfortunately, there are a group of smart ass little critters who refuse to be tricked by my traps. If you have a mouser you’re looking to get rid of, we are in need of a good cat on the farm.

Everyday the greenhouse gets greener. Onion, cabbage, kale, collards, asparagus, and other seedlings have begun to take off in the sunshine.

Soon these boring brown trays will be infant vegetables. Some of them are already in the few days it’s taken me to pull this post together.

And some great news. Our 2012 Farm Share pick up will be at 1500 Burns Street, next to the Missoula Food Co-op! We’re really excited to be in this space and can’t wait for share season to begin. A huge thank you goes to the Missoula Co-op and the NMCDC for working with us and supporting the farm.

We still have lots of open shares for 2012, so send us a membership form and get ready for a great season!

Drip Lines and Humble Pie

Last week we planted out a row of Italian eggplant and two rows of tomatoes – an heirloom variety and a paste/canning tomato. Because it’s still a bit nippy out for these warm weather crops, we have our rows covered in black fabric (reusable, unlike most black plastic) and row cover (also called re-may). The fabric keeps the weeds suppressed and retains heat in the soil. However, putting fabric or plastic down means that overhead watering won’t penetrate to the plants very well. So instead of moving around pipes and sprinklers through these rows, we set up a drip-line. Drip-lines are simply hoses with holes punched in them so water can seep out into the soil. They are stapled to the ground in a (sort of) straight line underneath the fabric, which is also stapled to the soil. While the stapling was easy as pie, it was torn up with one gust of wind the first day, so we doubled our staples. Maybe it will hold this time. When farmers use plastic, they usually bury the edges into the ground so there’s no chance of blowing away. While that system is great if you have a plastic layer, it wastes a lot of plastic by the end of the year, and pulling it out of each row is a real pain come fall.

It being our first year running on our own, Margaret and I have a lot to learn. We’re only just starting to supplement our seedlings with a kelp concentrate about once a week. The greenhouse attached to the farmhouse is small and has no light from the roof and our plants don’t quite get the sunlight they need. We also have an aphid problem this year. All of those factors are individually significant, and when you heap them together, the difference between plants in our greenhouse and in the greenhouse run by our friends (the much more experienced and skilled Harlequin Farm duo) is dramatic.

This month has seen us go from nothing in the fields (except garlic, which is looking extraordinary!) to about 1/4 of them planted. Onions and potatoes, squashes, greens, and the beginnings of the tomatoes, eggplant, peppers, and tomatillos. Asparagus season has ended, and we’ve have finally taken down all of the hoops and row cover from the asparagus for use in the solanacious field and the melons. From here, the asparagus will grow into huge ferns that nourish the root stock and ensure a healthy stand next year.

Farming in Montana means taking advantage of every warm spell, every rain, and every locational edge. We’ve been told that this farm is in the banana belt of western Montana and because of it we can successfully grow melons, tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, and other long and hot season crops. Our melons, tomatoes, peppers, and cucumbers, however, are still two weeks behind the curve. Not knowing how to time our seeding, we started a little late and with too little light in March. While our farm friends planted their thousands of peppers this week, we’ll have to wait until ours can withstand the traumatic transplant and the great outdoors. When we tell people where we’re farming they say “oh yeah that’s such a great spot – you must be about two weeks ahead of the rest of the valley.” While our weather is, indeed, about two weeks ahead of the rest, we’re lucky to be keeping up with the pack.

The beginning of the drip line, running under the black fabric.

The holes on the drip hose are set certain distances apart. When planting, we try to get our transplants as close to those holes as possible, that way they get the water instead of the empty dirt next to them.

Some of the fabric has holes already established (on the right). Other pieces we cut holes according to the spacing we need and what lines up with the drip.

This traviata eggplant is an Italian variety and will produce large egg-shaped fruits.

Tomatoes! These are the ruby gold heirlooms. They’ll produce a medium sized yellow tomato with red streaks marbled through the flesh inside. A gorgeous variety, but prone to cracking, they taste as good as they look.

What a difference X Y and Z make! The tomato on the left came from Kaly and Brian’s greenhouse (with sufficient light, extra nutriants, and bug-free), while the tomato on the right was in our hoophouse. Same variety, seeded and transplanted the same day.