Karlin Family Farms is operated by Brady and Troy Karlin with the help of several dedicated apprentices and innumerable volunteers. At the farm we hope to provide the Lawrence community with a demonstration site where various sustainable agriculture methods can be seen in action. Below is a story about some, but not all, of the projects undertaken during our first year. If you have any questions or comments about the farm, please feel free to email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Karlin Family Farms
The purpose of this paper is to detail the establishment of Karlin Family Farms. In February 2010 I was contacted by a friend, Brady Karlin, who had recently moved back to Lawrence, KS after spending two years working on sustainable agriculture operations. During this time, he learned about not only organic food production, but also permaculture and biodynamic methods. He had returned to Lawrence to live at the family farmstead located outside of Lawrence, with the dream of creating a sustainable agriculture demonstration site that would feature organic, permaculture and biodynamic food production methods. Brady often explains that his dream is to create a thirty-year farm in ten years. His ambition has set a blistering pace for this project that at times it seems unreasonable. However, his endless energy and enthusiasm has drawn many people from the Lawrence community and around the country to lend a hand in making this dream a reality.
History of the Karlin Property
In 1985, Felix and Henrietta Karlin purchased eleven acres with a farm house on the boundary of the Lawrence city limits. The farm house sits on one acre zoned residential within Lawrence. The other ten acres are zoned agricultural in Douglas County. During Felix and Henrietta’s ownership of the property, Felix regularly raised a few head of cattle on the county property that is fenced for livestock. The only known pesticide use on the property was Round-up, which was used along fence lines to ensure that weeds did not interrupt the electrical fencing.
Around 2005-2006, Felix was in negotiations with a local developer to have the property developed into a suburban housing development (28 new lots). Part of the area of the proposed development was within the floodplain and was thus unsuitable for housing. In response, the developer brought in “fill dirt” to raise the said portion of the property out of the flood plain. Unfortunately, the fill dirt contained a large amount of construction waste and was not suitable for agricultural use. In the end, due to development requirements set forth by the city of Lawrence, the developer withdrew from the project. After Felix Karlin passed in 2008, his son, Rod, purchased the property and maintains ownership to date.
In the Beginning
When I arrived in February of 2010, the days were short and the fields were covered in snow. Originally, my intention was to help in the planning phase of the project for a few weeks before returning to California. It only took a week before I began to consider sticking around for the entirety of the growing season. I realized that to get from the drawing table to a fully operational farm, Brady was going to need as much help as he could get. It was during those first few weeks that I started to see the potential of the project, and was excited to dedicate myself to helping Brady get started.
For my undergraduate studies, I pursued a degree in Environmental Studies at the University of Kansas in Lawrence. The Environmental Studies curriculum offered a diverse exposure to environmental topics, ranging from policy and law to restoration ecology. As I progressed through the program, I found myself particularly interested in how humans interact with and utilize the land. It is my opinion that our land use practices during the industrial era have led us to commonly degrade the land with little thought about the consequences. In this paper I will not pursue the topic further. However, I want to acknowledge that responsible land use and management is a core ethic of the Karlin Family Farms project.
The first month of the project entailed endless hours of research, discussion, and preparation. We had ten acres of land to work with and hundreds of ideas. The initial major projects included a market garden, perennial garden, and food forest. This paper introduces the creation of these food systems in brief.
The Market Garden
The Lawrence area has a strong tradition of small-scale agriculture, in large part due to the continued support of the community. There are many avenues by which producers can distribute their produce and processed goods. The Lawrence Farmers Market hosts a market every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday during the growing season from April to October. Our local food co-op, The Community Mercantile, features many local farms in its continued effort to support the local food system. There are several CSAs, (community supported agriculture), in the Lawrence community that provide weekly shares of produce directly to families. It was therefore obvious to us that the support was there. We only had to figure out how to grow the food. At times I wish it was as easy as putting a seed in the ground and adding water; Instead, it takes weeks of planning and preparation, unending days of back-breaking labor, and months of continuous preparation.
Selecting a site for the market garden was the first task in starting the project. We wanted it to be close to the farm house, but it still had to be on the land zoned for agriculture. In addition, we also had to consider soil suitability, drainage, and proximity to our water source. Steve Moring, of Vajra Land Mangagement, Inc., helped us take soil samples from a couple of sites that we were considering. The samples were sent to Midwest Laboratories in Nebraska for analysis (see Soil Analysis Report). The results that came back were encouraging, and general soil amendments would not be needed during the first year. This is not to say that the soil conditions were ideal for every crop, but rather that we could proceed with establishing the gardens with the intent of adding amendments as needed.
Next came the process of designing the layout of the beds and determining how to prepare them. The original dimensions of the garden were 50’ wide and 100’ long, though those dimensions would expand later in the spring. The first section of the market garden was established during our first work party at the beginning of March. The first ten beds were created with the help of fourteen enthusiastic volunteers using a no-till gardening method called “sheet mulching.” After mowing the area, we placed cardboard where the pathways would be and newspaper where the beds would be. The beds and pathways were orientated north/south and were 40” and 20” wide, respectively (creating 5’ centers). After the newspaper and cardboard had been laid, we covered the pathways with wood mulch and the beds with a 50/50 mixture of topsoil and compost. The wood mulch, top soil, and compost were all delivered by Missouri Organic out of Kansas City, MO. The no-till beds would later be where all of our spring crops were grown.
A significant part of establishing the market garden was deciding what to grow and where to get our seed from. After talking with several local growers and spending hours researching online, we decided to purchase the majority of our seed from Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds in Mansfield, MO. In the end, over 160 varieties of heirloom vegetables, herbs, and flowers were purchased. It was an exciting and daunting task determining where we would grow everything. For the market garden, we chose to use the French-Intensive method of planting which encourages dense inter-planting of companion plants. Most of our spring crops were propagated from seed as transplants, though a few were direct-seeded.
When we first started our transplants in mid-February, we were growing them in the garage of the farm house on (3) 4’x8’ tables. In the beginning, most of the starts grew under artificial fluorescent lights. Once the weather warmed, we began rolling the tables outside during the day and kept them under the lights at night. It did not take long before we realized we were limited by the capacity of the tables. The next step was to construct a greenhouse.
The greenhouse was designed with four stationary 4’x8’ shelves, more than doubling our original capacity. The 150 sq. ft. greenhouse was constructed primarily with reclaimed materials purchased at the Habitat for Humanity ReStore in Lawrence. This helped keep the cost of construction down, while reusing materials that could have been sent to the landfill.
Propagating our vegetable starts from seed was an evolving process that required experimentation. Our potting mix was comprised of two parts peat moss, one part vermiculite, and one part compost. For every twenty gallons of potting mix, we added one cup of green sand, one cup of rock phosphate, one and a half cups of blood meal, and one half cup of non-hydrated agricultural lime. This recipe was recommend by another local organic vegetable producer.
In addition to growing transplants during the early spring, we were also experimenting with growing sprouts and wheat-grass. Sprouts included red-clover, buckwheat, and sunflower. These sprouts were primarily for personal consumption, though later in the season we would be supplying a local restaurant with sunflower sprouts. Sprout production can be expanded later if there are adequate labor hours available.
With the transplants started and the beds prepared, we quickly realized that we would need to determine how to best prevent predation by rabbits and other small mammals. It was decided that a fence would be the most effective method of preventing predation, but would also require the most labor and money. An 18” trench was dug around the 300’ perimeter of the garden. 36” chicken wire was buried in the trench to ensure that no mammals would be able to burrow below the fence. The 18” of chicken wire above the ground was then attached to 5’ tall livestock fencing that had been tensioned around the perimeter. This ensured that deer would not be able to casually enter into the garden. By April we were finished constructing the fence and ready to begin transplanting.
To help ensure proper spacing, a 10’, two-sided dibble was constructed with 6” spacing on one side and 8” spacing on the other. Throughout April and early May, we spent many hours transplanting starts. The process would have been faster had we not been battling such a wet spring. In addition, we were also creating the food forest and perennial garden, which required many labor hours and a great deal of time spent researching and planning.
Due to a late start on the market garden, it was not possible to secure a booth space at the Lawrence Farmers Market. We explored the idea of supplementing an existing CSA, but decided to focus on fine-tuning our production before making that commitment. There were potential prospects of selling to local restaurants, but not enough to ensure that all of our produce would be sold. We therefore decided to host a farm stand on-site and opened for business at the beginning of June.
Around this time we moved on to creating the beds for the southern half of the market garden that would host many of our summer crops. For this area, we wanted to experiment with a minimal-till method. In the first season the ground is tilled and raised beds are created by digging out the pathways and mounding the soil in the bed space. In the following season, the beds will simply be “forked” instead of tilled.
To meet the demand required by the number of transplants we had, it was necessary to create even more bed space. In this space we decided to use the minimal-till method as well. We tilled a 40” wide bed around the perimeter of the garden outside of the fence line. In this area we planted the three-sisters guild of corn, beans, and squash. On the inside perimeter, cucumbers were inter-planted with tomatoes. When the beds were finished and the fence constructed, our market garden was approximately 60’ wide and 110’ long, providing us with a substantial area to begin our first year of vegetable production.
Throughout the spring and into the summer, the success of our garden was astounding. Often times there was more produce available than we were capable of distributing and/or preserving. Due to the overwhelming success and time demands of maintaining such a bountiful garden, we chose to not plant any fall crops. Instead, with the garden established, our focus shifted toward developing the educational aspect of Karlin Family Farms.
The Food Forest
Once the market garden was well into production, we began dedicating time and energy to a perennial garden that would be the first phase in creating a “food forest.” The market garden serves as an example of traditional agriculture with annual row crops. Our food forest, however, would serve as an example of permaculture. Permaculture is a method of agriculture that is gaining popularity in the U.S. after originating in Australia over thirty years ago. Bill Mollison and David Holmgren developed the non-traditional method of agriculture with the purpose of creating systems that are holistically sustainable. I am still very much a student of this school of thought and relied heavily on the experience and knowledge of Brady. He has not only worked on permaculture farms, but has also completed coursework to prepare him for incorporating permaculture design on his farm.
A major component of our permaculture design for the farm was planting native fruit and nut-producing trees. The trees were purchased as bare-root specimens from the Kansas Forest Service through their Conservation Tree Planting Program. Of the 25 varieties planted, there were three categories by which we chose to distribute their planting: shrubs, understory, and canopy species. Ideally, when mature, the chosen spacing will create a full hedge wall of productive trees that will not only provide food us humans, but for wildlife as well. The canopy layer trees will also later provide shade for livestock, which is essential during the hot summer months in Kansas.
To begin this project, we first had to determine the most appropriate site while considering long-term implications for livestock and accessibility for harvest. In the northern pasture, there are approximately two acres that were previously used for grazing cattle. The existing infrastructure for livestock helped us choose this location for the tree rows, with the intention of raising livestock in mind. Once the site was selected we used a commercial laser level to mark the contour lines where swales would be created and, later, trees planted. The swales were constructed by excavating a depression approximately 3’ wide and 18” deep, with the excavated soil mounded on the lower elevation side. This depression allows for overland water flow to collect and provide passive irrigation. In all, we created three swales on contour, with lengths of 400’, 440’, and 160’.
After the soil had been excavated, it was then tilled to provide a suitable planting medium for the trees. During planting, approximately two cups of compost were added with each seedling, and about 1/4 cup of compost tea during the initial watering. When the planting was completed, we had over 200 seedlings in the ground, covered with protective tubing to prevent predation. Given that it would take years for these seedlings to mature, we then turned our attention to the perennial garden that would provide dividends much sooner.
North of the existing farmhouse, Felix and Henrietta Karlin had actively gardened for nearly twenty years on a 20’x60’ plot. With the close proximity to the house, we decided that this would be a prime location to create the perennial garden. In Bill Mollison’s Permaculture Designer’s Manual, he provides a few diagrams of example perennial gardens constructed in the “mandala” form. With these diagrams as inspiration, I designed a mandala garden that would be 41’ in diameter and feature six concentric key-hole raised beds 4’ in width. The key-hole beds would surround a central walkway that would encompass the center of the garden. Within the center of the garden, an outdoor shower was constructed that uses passive solar to heat the water and drains into raised beds surrounding the base of the shower house.
To begin the construction of the garden, we first had the area tilled by tractor to allow us to shape the beds more easily. Before the area was tilled, we covered it with yard waste that had begun to decompose, in order to increase the carbon content of the soil. Creating the beds for this garden would take a significant amount of labor. For our May work party we enlisted the help of several enthusiastic volunteers. Within an afternoon, we were able to turn tilled soil into an aesthetically pleasing, and functional, 41’ diameter mandala garden.
In addition to tilling the area for the mandala garden, we decided to expand the food forest area by tilling the surrounding area. In all, the area allotted for the food forest totalled around 6,500 sq. ft. Following the work party, five new beds were created on the west side of the mandala garden. These beds were curved in a manner that would encourage rain water to collect and water the beds, while allowing for overflow to feed into the first tree swale. Our next task was to design the planting for all the new bed space we had just created.
From the beginning, we had decided that the perennial garden would feature culinary and medicinal herbs, beneficial insectary plants, and perennial fruits and vegetables. Our spring seed order provided us with a plethora of choices for each of these categories, and the possible planting designs seemed endless. By this time we were well into the growing season, and realized that we needed to start direct seeding and transplanting immediately. With this in mind, the planting design was more focused on content than layout. All of our perennials were started from seed, and most were started through direct-seeding in the garden. Around this time we realized that there was not going to be enough bed space in the market garden to find room for all of our transplants. So, for the first year, our perennial garden was more of an annual-perennial garden. Over the fall and winter, we will revisit the planting design to evaluate this year’s design and determine what changes will be made next spring. In the years to come, close observation will hopefully direct us to create a food system that is healthy and self-sustaining.
In order to establish a nutrient-rich growing medium for our gardens, a substantial amount of compost had to be purchased from an outside source. Expenses often seem endless when operating a farm, and it is best to reduce or eliminate costs when possible. With a seemingly endless supply of garden waste, it only made sense to begin a compost operation; and for Karlin Family Farms it was actually three.
The first composting began during the winter and early spring months, when our only food waste was coming from the kitchen. We created a worm composting system that was large enough to process all of our kitchen waste, while creating very nutrient-rich fertilizer. The worm compost system included three stages, each relative to the extent of decomposition. The final stage, when decomposition was nearly complete, took place in a retired bath tub where rain water was allowed to percolate through the compost and drain into collection buckets. The collected fluid would then be place in a container where it could be aerated for several weeks before being used as “worm tea.” Throughout the growing season the worm tea was used on the gardens, with heavy applications on plants that required more nutrients. Worm tea can be purchased at our local farmer’s market, but with a going rate of $9/litre. Considering we produced over 50 gallons of worm tea this season, we were pleased with our efforts.
For our second composting system, we chose to experiment with creating a biodynamic compost pile. Biodynamic composting allows farmers to recycle animal manure in a manner that will ideally help build healthy soil. We were able to track down a local farmer who was more than willing to let us take some of his manure. Brady successfully managed to haul around ten tons of cow manure out to Karlin Family Farms, providing us with the primary ingredient for our biodynamic compost pile. Another local farmer had several 6’ round bales of spoiled hay he was eager to be rid of, and we gladly hauled them off to the farm. Earlier in the spring, Brady had ordered the recommended biodynamic preparations that are commonly used as part of the process to help enrich and stabilize the compost. Once again, our eager work party volunteers stepped up and helped make a labor intensive project happen. With a solid crew, we layered the hay and manure for a few hours and quickly had a pile 6’ wide, 5’ tall, and 20’ long. When the pile was complete, the biodynamic preparations we placed accordingly within the pile and the job was done. Hopefully next spring we will have some rich compost for the gardens.
The last composting operation was created to utilize the green waste coming from the gardens. It is a traditional three-stage composting system made from recycled wood pallets and chicken wire. The capacity of this system is small relative to the amount of garden waste, but very useful for demonstrating another composting method for the public.
Community Outreach and Education
The purpose of Karlin Family Farms is not only to sustainably produce organic or beyond-organic fruits and vegetables, but to also provide the Lawrence community with opportunity to see and learn about the importance of healthy local food production. Brady and I have gained a great deal of knowledge through this project and feel compelled to share as much as possible with those who are interested.
Throughout the spring, over 100 volunteers participated in our monthly work parties. During these events we were able to introduce the public to the farm as a welcoming place to learn about sustainable agriculture. The events were structured to educate the volunteers about the methods we were incorporating, while actively contributing to the creation of an organic farm. In return, the labor of the volunteers expedited the progress on many of our projects.
From the beginning, Brady wanted to provide dedicated individuals with an opportunity to play an ongoing role in the operations of the farm. This season, Karlin Family Farms hosted eight apprentices for varying lengths of time. The apprenticeship program originated with a few individuals interested in an opportunity to grow vegetables. As the season progressed and the farm grew, opportunities arose to bring on new apprentices with different ambitions. We worked diligently to understand what each individual was interested in, in order to help shape their experience at the farm. This approach allowed us to develop a better understanding of the roles that exist on the farm and how to adequately educate and manage apprentices.
The Future of Karlin Family Farms
The fall season of 2010 will be primarily dedicated to evaluating the progress and direction of the farm. Preliminary conversations have been largely focused on developing a permaculture design master plan for the property. The master plan will allow us to begin planning projects for the 2011 season and beyond. In addition to the master plan, we would like to dedicate time to creating a structured education program for visiting K-12 school groups and apprentices. Once the educational program and permaculture design master plan have been created, we will have the opportunity to begin pursuing grants to help fund the operations of Karlin Family Farms.
In hindsight, I believe that we underestimated the value and importance of planning. Our ambition pushed us to pursue more projects, grow more vegetables, and host more events than was truly reasonable. Often during the season, the demands of the farm seemed more than we were capable of handling without becoming overwhelmed. It was not unusual for Brady or I to log 60-70 hour work weeks during the spring, and despite our determination, such a pace is not sustainable or healthy. All of our ideas and dreams will be back on the table this winter, but with an added willingness to turn down projects that will stretch our time and resources too thin. By spring we should have a firm understanding of the projects to be accomplished in 2011 and the means necessary to accomplish our goals.