Clueless farmer seeks advice

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Howdy!
My wife and I are embarking on a "semi-retirement homesteading" adventure on 13 acres on the central Texas Gulf Coast.
The land has not been in agricultural production in at least 15 years, this being the time period we've owned it.
When last it was, it was in watermelons. In fact, it is textbook watermelon land, since it is fine deep sand.
Our reasons are both economic and philosophical. Although we have no for-profit aspirations we aspire to eventually cultivate at least 10 acres. The reason for this is so that in 5 years we hope to be elegible for an agricultural use property tax exemption.
My wife loves to garden. Without doubt she'll be the one taking the lead, but I am also enthusiastic. We have a dinky Farmall Cub tractor, a 3 row garden plow, and a disk.
We are about to place an order for some seed stock from "Native Seed Search". We expect to concentrate on "the three sisters" corn, beans, and squash. But we're eager to companion plant some other things as well.
As the project evolves I'm sure I'll have lots of additional questions.
But for now, the burning question is: How big of a plot to plant?
An acre, which, if I'm not mistaken, is 220' x 220', contains 44,000 square feet. Therefore, one acre in corn is 44,000 plants! Is this about right?
If even approximately correct, it would appear that hand harvesting a single acre of corn would be a daunting challenge for two people who are not mechanized beyond the aforesaid dinky Cub tractor.
I will genuinely appreciate some of the experienced souls in here providing me a reality check on what our realistic goals should be. Since our entire 13 acres is already cleared and is all sand, we thought a reasonable long term goal would be to plant 3 acres each season, then move over. Thus, every fourth year we'd come back to the original plot.
Without asking you to ..er.. "take us to raise" would you please orient us? If it's to point us to a book or a web site that's more than fine. In fact, I just ordered "5 acres and independence" but it hasn't arrived in the mail yet. It may very well have the answers I'm seeking.
Finally, and on the assumption we plant a manageable size, can corn be intercropped with peanuts? I do not think our soil is ideal for corn since it is somewhat shy of humus. But I'll wager peanuts would grow like the dickens.
Any other suggestions you care to toss out, especially as to companion planting, will be greatly appreciated.
Thanks! Vernon
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On Mon, 15 May 2006 17:12:03 -0700, vtuck wrote:

You know your land can grow watermelons so why don't you just plant those? If I were you I'd start with a very small crop this year so you can get an idea about how much work it's going to be. It seems silly to commit yourself to a life of back breaking labor just to get a tax break.
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Well, that's the reason for the question. Stated another way,
At what point (stated in acreage or square feet) does gardening cease to be fun and therapeutic?
And while we do intend to grow some melons, we want to intersperse them, and everything else we plant, with suitable companion plants.
While information on companion planting is widely available on the internet and elsewhere, my reasons for posting here are to hear the experiences of real people.
As to the agriculture exemption: My first objective is to find experienced people's view on the largest size garden that two or four people with modest mechanized resources can reasonably hope to plant, tend, and harvest.
Let's say the collective answer is: "two acres". In such case, I will plant EIGHT acres in grass and lease it for hay cutting. Thus, I'll still have the 10 acres elegible.
Thanks! Vernon
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Vernon, I think you're confusing farming...with gardening. Gardening on small (measured in feet X feet) is what most of the fine folks in this group are involved with. When you start getting into 1/2 acre your talking truck farming and marketing your produce. When you talk about 3 or more acres your talking full blown farming with a dramatic increase in equipment and labor! There is no way on God's green earth two people can manage a 3 acre garden! I have always felt "diversity" is the key to any business venture. My advice to you would be to sub-divide your "initial" 3 acres in 3 seperate crops. Corn...watermelon...and Tomatoes. Establish a "You pick-it" type of harvest from Re-sellers and the general public. Watermelons..."U-Pick" 1.00 each. Corn....10 cents an ear...tomato's...well...get as MUCH as you can ! It's hard enough putting the crop in and raising it. It's absolute hell harvesting, storing, marketing, transporting and collecting income on a crop. Hope this helps, Dave

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snipped-for-privacy@tucklings.com wrote:

Vernon,
Coming from a man, who has the same aspirations (but being only 27) with 10+ years of study of all sorts of self sufficiency and the like, i would reccomend starting small. Burn out from overdoing something you have never done before (or have only done small scale) is so common, it's sickening. I started with a 20x20 plot on an acre for my first garden 6 years ago. I burned out quick. I ended up building 4 4'x 4' raised beds and worked from those and achieved great results. Over the years i have added 3 beds (4'x 8') and a 10x15 plot for larger crops (corn, etc) this has enabled me to learn all kinds of methods on getting the best quality produce. Things you have to consider with gardens are: pests above the ground (aphids, beetles, worms/caterpillars, etc) pest below ground (grubs, etc) food for the plants and how to get it to them (fertilizers) how to control the 3 previous things (organic, semi-organic, all out chemical warfare) another thing is water ( we are in a HUGE drought here in central florida, we MAY have had a total of 1 inch of rain in my area for the whole year so far) then you have the larger pests (such as deer, groundhogs, moles/voles, racoons, etc) finally, what are you going to do with what you do grow (how will you store 80,000+ ears of corn?!)
Starting small enables you to spend the most amount of time and effort on the learning process rather than trying to keep your head above water. Figurativly speaking, you would be spending so much time treading water that you wouldn't see the waterfall up ahead.
You asked the question: at what point does gardening not be fun anymore? answer: When inexperience and desire meet too much land, it can be from the first week or 2 of starting the dream.
Now, if you are going for a garden to support yourself reasonably then by all means, increase the size from what i started with, but don't plant an acre of corn. As for what to plant, i wouldn't even start with corn, it is a a resource HOG, incredibly thirsty, hungry and whiny. I would stick with the beans (all types: bush, pole (vining)) DEFINATLY tomatoes. With the sandy soil (VERY much like what i work with here in Florida) you could also try planting sweet potatoes (the love the warmth and sandy soil) peanuts would thrive but again, what would you do with them? Your squashes and melons are a great idea also. When winter rolls around, go for carrots, onions, garlic, lettuce, broccolli and maybe some other brassicae (greens of some kind) this would take care of your first year of learning. It would give you a broad range of plants to test the land out on and test yourself on.
What, if any, gardening experience do you have? Do you have any books specific to gardening that you are reading to help get started? I have some great reccomendations. "The Vegetable Gardeners Bible" by Edward Smith is a book i started on and helped a great deal with me understanding plants and needs. One of the greatest resources you can have is your local county extension agent. Contact them, they can get you soil tests, reccomended plants for the area, and many many more things to help you out in this endeavor.
Your dream coming true makes me smile, I too would like to one day be doing the same thing you are...but for now, i am still learning and growing.
God Bless You in your endeavor,
Joe
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Joe and D. Reid,
Both your answers are awesomely helpful. I began to see the reality when I divided an acre into 44,000 square ears of corn!
Hmmm... So SIXTEEN square feet is the magic answer...
We do want to try subsistence farming. However, your answers have caused some major lightbulbs to illuminate inside my head. It sounds like we should be buying cornmeal, and perhaps beans, and raising chiles, squashes, root crops, etc.
D.R. Thanks for defining the differences between "gardening" and "farming"
"Farmer Vern"
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snipped-for-privacy@tucklings.com wrote:

43560 square feet.

Why not *watermelons* and peanuts?
Or plant something perennial, like blackberries?
Bob
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Actually...after further thought, I'd bet Strawberries would be a good "Cash Crop"...cultivated under black plastic...Hmmmm...big $$$ in Strawberries. They ...could...if worked right...be perrinial. Dave
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D.R.
I'm not sure if this was clear in my original post, but our central focus is diversity. Also, since I'm a Latin Americanist (i.e. "injun lover") then cultivation of the "three sisters" corn, beans, squash is something I cannot resist trying.
Therefore, mono-crops do not interest me at all. However, I would love to be able to harvest enough corn (for corn meal) to hold us over for a year.
Y'all have been incredibly helpful. I think I now see that a total of one acre will be more than we can tend. I'm fascinated by the Hopi "dry farming" methods. But of course, they're tough and resourceful. And I'm a clueless farmer.
Thank you most sincerely.
Vernon
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What are the Hopi dry farming methods? I'm in Phx, Zone 10, so anything that saves water is great. I use about 2000 gallons a week tending my pond and garden, and I am very eager to learn how to cut down on water use.
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Hi Tenaz,
I could take the rest of the minute off and tell you all I know about Hopi dry farming methods.
I imagine you already know about the nice people at "native seed search.org". Only today I placed an order with them for about $240 worth of various seeds. If you haven't heard of 'em find their web page. They are a non profit conservation society. Their stated mission is to collect, grow out, and proliferate seed lines that were of historic and/or cultural significance to native Americans. Whenever they mentioned "Hopi dry farmed" for a seed listing such as corn I decided to try it.
Last night I searched on "hopi agriculture" and found some information. Basically, they use drought resistant seed stocks and have developed knowledge that enables them to maximize ever molecule of moisture. But alas, an expert I am not.
Nevertheless, I look forward to learning as I muddle along.
V
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wrote:

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FDR wrote:

Seconded. In the UK, fresh asparagus sells for a hell of a lot of cash, the main problem being that it takes up a lot of space all year round. As you have tons of space that isn't a problem. If it's growable where you are, it sounds good.
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wrote:

Strawberries are not that carefree. Around here the commercial strawberry farmers replace their fields every year since the berries are susceptible to various diseases, especially if the beds are not kept clean. And they do not use the runners for the next year. They purchase plants.
--
Susan N.

"Moral indignation is in most cases two percent moral,
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Start small and try a variety of things in the first year. Learn what grows well in the district, what cultivars are best and how to grow it etc on a small scale before you commit yourself. Do successve plantings so you can determine the right time(s) of year for each and so you can dispose of your first crop locally, or eat it or give it to neighbours without having a glut and no commercial market lined up.
During this first season check out your possible markets. There is no point in growing (say) corn if there is no demand or the transport costs are too high or the local mega-agribusiness has it all tied up. If possble find a niche crop so that you don't compete with agribusiness. Also check out the availability and cost of manures and fertilisers and how you are going to water your crop if it doesn't rain enough.
I would think a test planting area for all the above of no more than 1/4 acre total would keep you very busy. Plant the rest in a luguminous cover crop, suitable for the area, to be turned in at the end of the season. This will 1) reduce weeds 2) increase organic matter 3) increase Nitrogen which you will surely need for corn (and a few other things too).
David
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On 15 May 2006 17:12:03 -0700, snipped-for-privacy@tucklings.com wrote:

If you are planning to try to be self sufficient, you need to figure out how much food of each kind you will use in a year. Next question is how will you prepare and preserve it and where you will store it. Dried corn kernel keeps pretty well, but once it is milled it will go rancid.
Then you need to know how much space you need to grow that amount.
If you are thinking about selling, you better check out the demand for the products and how much you will get (per acre) for the products. If you are going for vegetables and fruits, check out the local farmers markets. What do they sell and how much do they get for it. If you do not see anyone growing it, it probably does not do well there. Talk to your county extension agent.
Are you used to hard physical labor in hot and humid weather for sustained periods? I lived in San Antonio for 4 years. You don't get to do these things on your schedule. The plants have their own schedule that you must follow to get the best results. Harvesting and preserving take time and energy.
Don't plant to take a vacation from the time you plant the first seed, whether it be inside or outside, until the last crop is in and the ground cleaned and prepped. There is always something to do. Insects, weeds and drought are always possible and if you leave for a week you may not have anything left when you return.
As far as tax advantage, how much will you save? Will it pay for the additional equipment, work and paper work that will be involved. And if you are a farm, you will probably have to declare as income any profits you make.
We are a retired couple, in pretty good health, who stared working on a "large" garden a couple of years ago when we moved to out present location. We have about 1/4 acre under cultivation. My husband says there is no way that he could manhandle a rototiller on that space. So we now have a good sized tractor. And we are outside every day checking the plants.
When you have a garden just to supplement your groceries and have fresh foods during the season it is one thing. Commercial or self sustaining is another. Bad weather, insects or plant diseases can wipe out a crop in a heartbeat.
--
Susan N.

"Moral indignation is in most cases two percent moral,
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Oh wow!! Congrats! If I wasn't busy beyond belief, I would come out there farm with you - since land and time are a recipe for some good work and a great time. But, life being what it is, I'll have to be vicariously delighted. What fun!
It sounds like you need information more than advice.
I am doing gardening on 2/5 of an acre, so my advice is limited to my experience.
1. I have some squash seeds you might want - we call them "The Hideously Prolific" - but they are actually Tohono 'O' Odham edible squash. Inch-thick vines and eighteen inch furry silver leaves on 15 foot vines produce huge edible squash bigger than pumpkins. The sheer scale of this plant is astonishing. We try to train them - up our trees, on our roof, and out over our driveway! It's a massive plant that would be great for your land - big, desert adapted, prolific, and damn fun. You could use a lot of your land with ten plants - but seriously, man, give each plant some serious room!
Everyone else - and lots of books - will give you more info about land mgmt on your scale than I can provide. But for me, having a huge range of different veggies was a blast. I divided one section for each plant family, and am rotating my crops.
There are lots of vegetable families - look those up and it will give you a lot of information on what to grow, when, and how.
The organic-sustainable commune hippie types will have lots of good info, since they live in small areas and usually use family labor to live sustainably. Also, someone on this group reccomended my local agriculture co-ops. You probably have those as well.
Desert NA tribes used a different farming model than European farmers, so if your'e into that, check out Native Seeds/Search - a group that works in the Southwest to find and cultivate native seeds to preserve and encourage foods and farming methods appropriate to tribal life, resources, weather, and health. They have many varietie of native corns, beans, herbs, greens, and TONS of info. Their farm is in Tucson, AZ, but they are looking for people to test their plants - grow a crop, harvest, and report to them how the crop worked, how they fared in terms of water consumtion, etc. So if you got in touch with them, they have a great newsletter, a cool farm, really well-placed seeds, and crops appropriate to your area.
Let me know if you want some squash seeds - (you do!) - and when I retire in about 40 years, if I don't have my own farm, I'll come work yours. :)
I am SO jealous. I hope you have a great time! Please update and let us know how it goes.
Oh, yeah - keep a journal and photos! That's the best decision I've made. It's been really great to look back through the pages and see the changes over time. It's really fun to look at photos from the spring - of empty plots - and see pictures over the months as the crops grow. It's also neat to see what questions and theories I had early on, and read how my perspectives and approaches to the project have changed.
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Whoops - I'm a dork. somehow, on my first read, I missed that you already were in touch with NS/S. Good move! :) Square Foot Gardeining is a text written by someone operating on a much smaller scale, but his approach to plant spacing is great. 'Extreme Gardening- Organic Vegetable Gardening in The Hostile Desert' was written by the "Garden Guy" who has a show out here in Phx. His book is all about companion planting for insect repellants, and his timetables and suggestions are actually sensible for the desert. Sorry I don't have the author names - Google is your friend.
What zone are you in?
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snipped-for-privacy@tucklings.com wrote:

do you want to farm for profit, or garden for subsistence? Subsistence can be done easily on a well tended half acre. Subsistence is done by hand, farming by tractor. Some issues as they come to mind:
- make a list of the relatively few plants that will grow well in sheer sand. If you are thinking subsistence, I think chickpeas and millet grow well in semiarid regions.
- mixed plantings go well beyond corn and beans. Besides, corn and beans don't really go together. As you harvest one, you are always damaging the other, and beans really don't like getting bruises. My favorite corn companion is corn salad (mache), which will reseed itself and come back year after year. Another is favas and fruit trees, or favas and anything that needs a N boost the next season. Your region is good for winter favas.
- how many fruit trees, and which types?
- if you want to be organic, how do you plan to build the soil? Looks like a tough, multiyear project requiring innumerable truckloads of anything organic.
- Further, do you want chicken, lambs, or other protein-rich edibles? Free range or corn-fed? If you are not too far from a large city, you can make a living with free range, grass-fed animals sold directly to the consumer. How about heirloom pigs and turkeys? Lots of people jumping in that business. If you have oaks, they will take care of themselves.
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I'm really amazed at the enthusiasm effusing from this group!
Thanks!
Vernon
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