You know what’s in the box, but what’s going down on the farm? A lot. And we at Buffalo Street Farm and City Commons want to fill you in on some happenings and thank all of our members for their season long support that helps us realize our passion for providing fresh, local, organically grown food while transforming vacant lots in our immediate neighborhood. [Note: Click on the photos if you want a closer look]
About the farm: Started in 2010, Buffalo Street Farm is now a 3/4 acre growing space in Northeast Detroit. We grow a wide variety of crops, including cherry tomatoes, Swiss chard, kale, and carrots. We also have 20 laying hens.
Meet the farmers: While 3/4 of an acre may not seem like a lot of space, it takes an incredible amount of work to keep it in production at hand scale. That means almost everything we do is with shovels, wheelbarrows and hands and not with machinery. Chris McGrane and Minehaha Forman operate the farm with hired help from the neighborhood and some volunteer help from fellow City Commons growers.
Chris McGrane Minehaha Forman Joseph Wiley –Farm hand and neighbor
This year we almost doubled the size of our growing space and got a 70’X30′ hoop house to extend our growing season. We planted lots of kale and cherry tomatoes, which soon came under attack by a number of pests. As organic growers, sometimes you can feel helpless when pitted against thousands of tiny insects. And some of them are not so tiny. For instance, just last month we were invaded by tomato hornworms. If you haven’t seen one, they are big fat green worms with a red “horn” on their back end.
One day I was harvesting cherry tomatoes for lunch and heard a distinct clicking sound, like something out of an alien movie. I followed the sound to a giant ugly horn worm that was using the sound to scare off predators, maybe? I shook more of the leaves and heard many more eerie clicks as if answering in chorus. Then I realized the severity of the problem. The worms eat so much so fast that if we didn’t do something in a matter of hours the entire crop of tomatoes–about 130 plants–would be destroyed.
They were everywhere. Almost every leaf or fruiting stem was bent with one hanging on and chewing away. They blend in so well it was hard to see them but their clicking betrayed them. I put on a pair of gloves (because they look gross and a little like aliens) and started hand picking them off into piles as fast as I could. As a chemical-free farm, it was my only defense against them and my last hope of saving the tomatoes.
I collected piles of the hornworms and threw them into the chicken coop thinking the hens would be overjoyed. They weren’t. They side-eyed the worms and made suspicious sounds in reaction to the clicking of the hornworms and ultimately didn’t touch the things. Thanks for the help, ladies. =/
Just when I thought I got them all, I would hear and spot more. I abandoned my afternoon plans (garlic harvesting) to take out as many hornworms as I could. After I realized the worst they could do to me is click, I had took off the gloves. By the time evening started to roll around, my hands were coated in a sticky green film of tomato resin.
Then something happened that I didn’t expect. I started spotting white things in between the leaves. Didn’t take clicking to spot them. A closer look showed me it was a hornworm covered in white pellet looking things. At first I was like WTF kind of new devilry is this? Are they really aliens morphing into something else? I frantically tweeted the following photo to a friend and veteran organic grower who is knowledgable in pest ID.
But good news! It turns out those white things are the eggs of a parasitic wasp that feed off of the juice of hornworms, which given the worms diet is basically tomato leaf juice… (disgusting, but true). I’ve never been so excited about a parasite. I didn’t remove the white-scaled worms because I wanted the wasps to grow up and multiply and eat all the hornworms they could. The next day all of the remaining hornworms were covered in the white eggs. They had stopped clicking and eating and if they were not already dead, they were paralyzed.
Since then, the wasps have kept the hornworms in check. Turns out we didn’t need synthetic poisons, nature helped take care of it! By the way, hornworms turn into fuzzy brown moths, not butterflies, not that it matters, I guess? May they find better luck out in the wild, but when they go after my tomatoes, they go after my livelihood and that is really the only problem I have with them.
With the hornworm problem solved, we felt like a weight was lifted. More and more cherry tomatoes were turning and we almost had enough to put in CSA boxes when we noticed a new attack on the plants. This time, it was aphids and white flies that basically drain the new tomato shoots of life and eventually kill their host plant. They are small, but if you look closely at the photo below you will see little pale bugs.
Chris tackled the problem. He got some Organicide, which is a mixture of fish oil and seasame oil that is harmless to animals and people (Chris’ dog Odin chewed open a quart of it and drank it all and he is doing quite well). We had never used it before and were skeptical. But it worked! After the spray the bugs fell off. Then it rained and the fishy smell was gone, too.
And hooraayyy! The tomatoes survived and now we have lots to share with our CSA members. With all the rain, the tomatoes have been splitting, literally bursting with juice. Here’s a tip: When you got home, gently pour the cherry toms out onto a tray or plate in a single layer so that they air out and don’t split more/ go bad faster. Refrigerating tomatoes may compromise the flavor a bit but if you don’t eat them in a day or two it might be worth the compromise to keep them fresh.
We kind of like wasps around here. The predatory kind (not parasitic) eat the cabbage moth caterpillars and help protect the kale from total destruction.
In memory of Bantam the Rooster:
About two months ago, a woman in a mini van stopped at the farm. She got out holding a cardboard box asking if we wanted a rooster, saying it was a pet she couldn’t take care of anymore. Without waiting for a reply, she left the box in the grass and drove off. She must have known we had chickens and thought it would be a good home for him.
In the box was a feathery little gift–a small red bantam rooster with blue-green iridescent tail feathers and large spurs on his legs. Often bred for fighting, bantams are little and have big spurs. He looked scared and confused and we put him in the coop with the 20 hens. They basically ignored him. But he was so happy to be there he started crowing and strutting around. If he found a bug he would call one of the hens over to share it. One would take the bug and the other hens would chase her around for it. If he thought he saw a hawk (most likely one of those common tiny brown birds that hang out on the power lines) he would warn the hens, who, being the independent ladies that they are, didn’t necessarily listen or respond, but he was just that kind of bird. He was so small compared to the big laying hens, but it didn’t phase him.
About a month after he was dropped off on Buffalo Street Farm in a box, Bantam (we didn’t name him) met a valiant end. A pack of stray dogs came onto the farm while the chickens were out–three scraggly dogs that we often see running in the street. One looked like a brown pit bull with a beige brindle in its coat. One was a big shaggy mutt with a crooked tail and lumps in his black coat. The third was a tiny mutt style dog with short hair, a dirty grey color, running behind the others, its short legs doing double time to keep up with the pack. The dogs closed in on the chickens, Chris told me what he saw from the window before he ran out to scare off the dogs.
Seeing the dogs, the hens scattered, clucking frantically. But Bantam held his ground. He drew the dogs’ attention to himself and away from the hens by flying up into the face of the pit bull wielding his spurs. All three dogs came down on Bantam while the hens ran to safety. For his size, the small bird put up a big fight. But by the time Chris ran across the field, the pit bull had Bantam limp in his jaws and was leading all three dogs away across the farm into a thicket on an abandoned lot at the end of the farm. Feathers in the grass painted a picture of Bantam’s struggle. All the hens were accounted for. A month later there are feathers still in the grass here and there, and we won’t soon forget Bantam the rooster. And if you ever buy Buffalo Street Farm eggs from Alice (Alice works with Chris to care for the Chickens on Buffalo Street), Bantam probably saved the hens that laid them!
R.I.P. Bantam the rooster.
The Neighbors and Mimi/Fifi
On the farm we are constantly trying to work with the raw, sometimes unpleasant, current of nature. But I love working on Buffalo Street not just because I get all the fresh cherry tomatoes I can eat in a day, but for many reasons including the neighbors. One “next door” neighbor ( there are numerous farmed lots between us) is a lady who grows an abundance of all types of flowers like lilies and petunias and they brighten up the place even on the dreariest of days.
Then there is our neighbor across the street who often volunteers to help harvest cherry tomatoes and turnips. She also loves the chickens and brings them treats every day. She has a tiny white bichon frise dog named Mimi (nickname Fifi). Mimi/Fifi loves nothing better than to run around the chicken yard and try to scare the hens. By now they are so used to her that they don’t even budge when she lunges but she still tries. Mimi/Fifi loves attention and affection and would sit in my lap for hours if I let her. When it’s hot out and I’m exhausted from farm work, Mimi/Fifi comes over and sits with me in the shade until I’m cooled off and ready jump back into work again. Chris and I always look forward for Mimi/Fifi visits. I’m famously not a dog person, but Mimi is very special to me.
Our milkweeds bring all the monarchs to the yard:
It was all over the news this year: 2014 marked the lowest monarch butterfly population ever recorded making some scientists warn that they may soon join a growing list of the planet’s endangered species. But if it wasn’t for the news reports we would never have guessed it. All summer we have seen many monarch butterflies floating about the farm. They seem to gather on the milkweed that we have growing all over the place. We didn’t whip down the milkweed for that reason. It grows naturally on the farm and we don’t thwart its spreading as long as it doesn’t pop up inside the production beds. This year a whole field of it grew up on a vacant lot that we had compost dumped on. We used up all the compost but we couldn’t get every morsel and a lot of it was left to feed the milkweed. So kind of by default, Buffalo Street farm became an unintentional sanctuary for monarchs on one of their toughest years in history.
If you have any room in your yard, plant some milkweed for the monarchs! It will keep coming back, and spread. The native milkweed variety that we have on the farm gives off a heady floral scent when in bloom that can be compared to that of lilacs.
Monarch caterpillars, unlike the hornworms, do not like to eat any common vegetable crops but they love milkweed. Milkweed attracts other beneficial insects and butterflies, too, so it’s a win-win. Take a look at those two fat monarch babies (below) who are loading up on milkweed sap as they grow on the farm! Also, a swallowtail sips on milkweed nectar (right).
The “F” word …
No one wants to hear it, but we have been planning for fall since early July when we harvested garlic and planted our fall crops. We have the garlic seed stored and ready to go in the ground in October or November, we have kohlrabi transplants bulbing out already as well as bulb fennel, radicchio, lettuce, and more.
As it goes with farming, and why we love having CSA members is because they understand that although we do our best to fight off the pests and animals, sometimes we don’t win, and we have to surrender a crop or two to nature’s will. As you have read, a lot can happen between now and 40 days from now when those little lettuce seedlings are to become full round heads. But we can promise you this: If it’s in our power and skill set to raise these crops to maturity using chemical free methods here in Detroit, we will, and you will find these goodies in your box come fall. We just ordered 25 yards of compost to boost the fall crops to help them grow faster and withstand pests and disease.
Seed garlic drying Chris’s sister planting kohlrabi Compost delivery
Baby lettuce transplants going in the ground
Despite warding off pests, 2014 has been a pretty abundant year. We hope you are enjoying your shares!
Basil for Pesto Pie Pumpkins fighting off mildew and squash bugs Giant Swiss Chard
Did I mention that I was obsessed with glads this year? Folks with flower shares may have noticed
Oh, also, tell Odin the dog to stop eating all the pears off the tree and leave some for the humans! Good thing he can’t climb. Barring a squirrel invasion or some other unfortunate event, we may be able to have pears in boxes soon! Click on photo to see pears.
Looking forward in the long term, over the past couple years we’ve planted lots of fruit–berries, grapes and tree fruit–so that one day, (it takes about 2-5 years for these to establish, and there are always risks) but one day we hope to have a fruit share as an add on. Sound good? Stick with us! =)