Expert Advice

Knowledge is of two kinds. We know a subject ourselves, or we know where we can find information on it. ~ Samuel Johnson (1709-1784)

This week I had the pleasure of chatting with the owner of one of my favorite farm stands, Dax Funderburk from Beets Workin’ Farm. Dax left a high-stress job in telecommunications and started farming on his property several years ago, and is now providing enough produce for his extended family of nine, a daily farm stand, and Saturday sales at the Trexlertown Farmers Market.

market
Trexlertown Farmer’s Market- Photo courtesy of Beets Workin’ Facebook page

His darling daughters each have their own business as well, including herbs, flowers, ducks, and microgreens. He is teaching his kids to be self-sufficient and entrepreneurial too. These are valuable lessons for everyone, but especially young girls.

His operation started on a 40′ x 40′ raised bed garden. He has since expanded to just under 44,000 square feet of garden, spread out over several large plots. The 40′ x 40′ garden still gets use, as each of his daughters must first prove their ability to manage that space before they can expand into the yard. Here I am, just hoping to be able to handle 20′ x 20′ with the help of my four oldest children, and the Funderburk kids can do 4x that size all by themselves. Of course, it helps when Dad has a wealth of information, experience, and tools.

One thing I’ve noticed about farmers and gardeners is their enormous generosity when it comes to their expertise, and Dax is no exception. I picked his brain for the better part of an hour, got a full tour of his farm, and even asked follow-up questions for days. He has the patience of Job.

So what is the advice that he has for the novice vegetable gardener?

  • Evaluate your space and avoid crops that take up a lot of space or take a long time to mature
  • Avoid complicated crops the first year (bye bye celery and carrots)
  • Plan your garden rows to match the size of your tools, not the back of a seed packet (this is GENIUS)
  • Plant enough for the rabbits too, because they’re going to get some
  • Put a fan on your seedlings to reduce the chance of mold/mildew and encourage the development of resilient stems
  • Seedlings aren’t nearly as delicate as many sources would have you believe, so don’t be afraid to touch them a little or let them lean toward the light
  • Use a hydrogen peroxide solution spray to eliminate any mold that pops up
  • Use a silage tarp (a light-blocking tarp) to prep the garden by warming the soil, killing off the grass, and encouraging the earthworms to the surface to help break it down
  • DON’T TILL YOUR SOIL- this will just pull weed seeds up to the surface and blend the natural layers of the soil. Instead, use a broadfork (like a very wide pitchfork) to aerate the soil to encourage decomposition without destroying the balance
  • It’s all about having the right tools for the job: broadfork, collinear hoe, German push hoe, etc.
  • Don’t weed, cultivate- weeding is only hard if you let the weeds go until they need to be pulled.
  • Only walk in between your garden rows. You worked hard to get the soil aerated, and you don’t want to compress it back down

So much of that information seems like common sense when you hear it, but for a beginner it’s not something you necessarily think of. I was sticking very dutifully to the requirements on the back of my seed packets, not realizing that I was possibly creating a garden that would be nearly impossible to keep completely tidy. Make your space fit your tools and the work is easier. Brilliant in its simplicity.

The broadfork was really an amazing piece of advice. Watching Dax demonstrate its use really showcased the way you can use your body weight as leverage to get down deep in the soil to encourage aeration without stirring it like you would with a tiller. In our area we have a lot of clay in our soil, so this can help prevent it from becoming a hard, unworkable mass. I will definitely have to put this on my wish list.

Dax and his family are also experienced chicken keepers, so I “pecked” his brain about that too!

  • What chickens need is pasture space, and will be fine with little coop space if they have access to a large outdoor area during the day
  • Black chickens will be less prone to aerial attacks by hawks because they resemble crows, the natural enemy of hawks
  • Some chickens are just jerks and will not make very good large flock birds (I’m talking about you, Americaunas)
  • Don’t put perches too close to the nesting boxes because the hens will peck at the ones laying eggs, and then all hell breaks loose
  • If you choose to use supplemental lighting, increase the light in the morning, but let the chickens experience natural sunset so they can get to their roosts and not have the lights shut off on them suddenly
  • If you supplement light, give them a break between Christmas and Valentine’s Day so they can relax, molt, and experience the reduced daylight hours
  • By the time you can smell ammonia, it’s too strong for the chickens, they are stressed, and egg production will go down
  • To improve coop air circulation, put a ventilation spot down low on the side of your coop that gets the predominant wind, and up high on the opposite side. Open them to let the fresh air come in low and push the ammonia and other respiratory irritants up and out the opposite side
  • Chickens can handle a LOT of cold by filling their feather spaces with air for insulation, but they can’t do this in the wind, so keep the drafts away and the chickens will be fine

I was ecstatic to see that Dax also uses fluorescent bulbs for his grow lights, because I was a little bit skeptical when I read about that in the Mini Farming Bible. It’s good to see it in practice, and on such a high-yield farm. Check out his seedlings!

 

I was really fascinated by the anecdote about the black chickens being less prone to aerial attacks. Dax said his flock of Barred Rocks went from 90 to 30 in just a few months thanks to the hawks. Since he started raising Black Australorps several years ago he has only lost one! It makes a lot of sense, yet hasn’t made it into any chicken-keeping book or blog I’ve ever read. This is the wonderful part of getting a local expert to answer questions.

When I finished my Q&A with Dax, the Handyman said to me, “Ok so what have we screwed up already?” I was excited to tell him that we barely screwed up at all! Basically, we wasted some time on planting celery seeds that probably won’t go in the ground now, and we have to adjust the layout for the coop ventilation, but that’s about it! A lot of plans are going to be revisited now, including the layout of the garden, but nothing was done but planning, so I don’t really count that as a screw up. Not bad for a pair of beginners! Now the Handyman and I are going to sit down with our newfound wisdom and crank out the last of our garden plans. Stay tuned!

If you all enjoyed the information from Beets Workin’, like them on Facebook, visit them at the market, or go shop at their farmstand on Smith Street in Longswamp Township, right by the Longswamp Bed and Breakfast. If you go, let me know in the comments. I’m thinking about doing a giveaway!

 

 

5 thoughts on “Expert Advice

  1. That is some SERIOUS seed starting. Having done farmers’ markets for 14 years, I know the amount of work it takes to keep a booth filled with great looking stuff. Hats off to Dax and his family, and to you for doing your research! And thanks for sharing it with us!

    Like

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