Thursday, October 25, 2012

Mmm... Beer!

                Last Tuesday I hosted a farm tour for a class of college students. Occasionally, situations like that will pop up on the farm. At one point, the group was inside Greenhouse 2, where I described how the greenhouses are utilized during a given season. One of the teachers noticed a five gallon bucket full of full beer cans sitting near the entrance.
                “What is the beer for?” she asked.
                “To kill the pain,” was my immediate response. And in ways, that sarcastic reply is actually quite accurate. But allow me to explain.
                In 2002 I bought my first greenhouse kit. It is actually what is known as a “hoop house” or “high tunnel”. Essentially, it is a plastic covered structure that consists of bent steel bars that act as support. My structure is very simple. It is true that in years past I heated the structure with a propane heater, which was a monumental waste of money. Lately, for the most part, the only heat is ambient heat, but heat is not the point of this entry. I shall move on.
                For the most part, the first greenhouse was purchased in order to start seeds for the field crops I would eventually need. Since I was, and am, certified organic by the Maryland Department of Agriculture, it was/is required to use certified organic transplants only in the fields. Since no source for certified organic transplants existed, my only course was to start my own transplants from certified organic seeds, which luckily enough, was/is available to order through certain seed catalogs.
                Now, seed starting remains an important aspect of greenhouse operation on the farm. However, it is only a portion at this point. The floor of the greenhouse consists of dirt, certified organic dirt. The greenhouses currently are used also to extend the growing seasons. Where some crops such as lettuce, spinach and beets are seeded in the fields at the beginning of April, those same crops can be seeded in the greenhouses at the beginning of March. This gives a month head start to the season. The greenhouse protection also allows for crops to grow further into the fall as well.
                I remember back in 2002, with VERY WIDE eyes, watching a presentation on hoop house growing at a sustainable farming conference. The thoughts, the ideas that went through my head! Wow! What amazing potential these structures offered…
                Now, ten years later, I can safely say that, yes, there is great potential with the structures, BUT, there are also a myriad of obstacles. (No one ever seems to relay the obstacles for some reason…) And after struggling to create that perfect “Idyllia” within the greenhouses, I realize that I am as removed from that fictitious arena as when I started, albeit with a depot more of experience. Perhaps one day I shall scribe an entire book on the subject, but until then… and once again in an attempt at some brevity… I will focus on one aspect of greenhouse production… and this is where the beer enters the scene.
                Each of my greenhouses consist of 20 beds for growing approximately 4’ x 8’. For most of the years that I have used these beds, after seeding the lettuce, spinach, beets or carrots, there would be a noticeable lack of sprouts near the outside base board. Here is a picture of a bed of carrot sprouts…
Notice the lack of carrot sprouts (the green in the picture) toward the top of the picture, which is the outside base board. For years I noticed this, but never fully figured out what the culprit was, other than it was obvious damage due to some form of critters. For a long time, I thought it was mice/vole/mole/chipmunk damage. I lost count of how many traps I bought for those filthy creatures, (only about ten percent actually worked), and quite a few victims were found as a result. But,… the damage remained.
                Over the years, I had noticed some slug damage, and last year, I began to suspect that they were the cause and not the multitude of small furry creatures that invade the greenhouse. At dusk, with a flashlight, (slugs work mostly at night), I went into Greenhouse 1 and surveyed the carrot sprouts, lettuce sprouts, etc. Sure enough, from under the outside base board slid an army of slugs. I was dumbfounded as to how many there were. It literally looked like a full frontal assault. Straight out from under the base board, slugs slid down the rows to attack their meal. After so many years, I finally had my answer and it was quite clear. The damage now made complete sense. But then arose the next dilemma… how does one fix the situation? To hunt hundreds of slugs after dark with a flashlight would be ludicrous. And watching those critters’ assault felt downright painful! It was hopeless! If only there was something to kill the pain!...
                Beer! Oh how I LOVE beer! And I evened LOVED it before I found out it could be useful for organic farming!
                Slugs also love beer! That was something I learned early on while farming organically. The thing is, I did not realize how bad the slug situation was in the greenhouse… BUT… I sure knew how to fix it. The fix… slug traps. All one needs to do is put beer in a shallow vessel of some sort and place that vessel on the ground near where the slug damage was incurred. The slugs will slide into the beer… and drown. A beer nap! Here is a picture using a Tupperware lid to store the beer.
Notice the two dead slugs in the beer! It actually works!! And I don’t even miss the beer for the trap! (I use the cheapest I can find, by the way.) And just like that the slugs’ pain is gone. They have been killed!
                As long as the beer containers are kept with beer, these traps work great against the ever marauding slug population. And the pain from the lost crops is killed as well! So you see, the beer in Greenhouse 2 that day was actually there to “kill the pain”.
                With that, I think I will open myself a beer to actually drink at this point… to kill the pain, of course. On an organic farm, there is always pain to kill…