Essential Factors of Farm Production

The following information factors of farm production comes from Five Acres and Independence by M. G. Kains. Five Acres and Independence is also available to purchase in print.

Whoever said that “trifles make perfection, but perfection is no trifle” may not have had farming in mind but in perhaps no one walk of life do easily applied principles and rules pay such big dividends as in the production of food and the raw materials of clothing. Strange as it may seem, however, the United States Census and the Department of Agriculture “averages” of production are in countless cases less than 50% those of “record” figures and perhaps not more than 75% of easily obtained “good yields.” Suppose we look at a few.

As to milk production, the Department of Agriculture Year Book shows an annual average of about 4,200 pounds of milk per cow, yet, many well-bred cows yield 20,000 pounds or more a year. It is evident, therefore, that Professor H. H. Wing is well within the truth when he declares that “the average production per animal in the United States is scarcely sufficient to pay the cost of food and labor, to say nothing of interest or profit on the investment.”

Why keep such animals when “good grade” cows, the progeny of “record sires,” can be raised or bought at reasonable cost with the almost certain assurance that they will produce abundantly and pay good profit?

Much the same argument applies to hogs. “Razorbacks” eat ravenously, grow slowly, fatten poorly if at all, and when slaughtered consist largely of hide, bones and offal. Good “grade pigs” whose sires are of almost any breed cost but little more to buy, much less to feed, grow rapidly, fatten well, and when dressed are “almost all meat!”

Similar principles apply to seed. Not only is one variety better than another but individual “strains” are worth more than general stock because more prolific, or disease-resistant or both and therefore more profitable even in the open market and wholly regardless of whether or not they are to be used for seed purposes.

Though many of these strains are developed by farmer-seedsmen (men who grow seed to be used for sowing) there is no reason why you should not develop your own, at least with some of your crops. Many another man has done so, increased his yields and profits, but still more important, has added to his interest and enjoyment of farming.

Doubtless the two crops that farmers have most often improved are corn and potatoes. The methods are so simple and the results so certain that I shall sketch them.

If you can start your corn breeding with ears pick out 50 or 100 of the best you can find in the crib. Be sure they are properly cured specimens of good form and size, well filled and well rounded at both ends and each one pleasing to your eye and your hand. Lay them side by side on a table, critically examine each under a good light in comparison with the others and ruthlessly discard the poorest, the next poorest and so on until only 10 are left. These are to be your nucleus for breeding.

Before you shell the grain from the cobs pick out 10 or 20 individual kernels from various positions on each ear (not including the butts or the tips which should be discarded anyway). Keep each lot by itself so as to make a critical germination test as detailed in Chapter 35, placing the kernels of each ear by themselves. At the end of two weeks you may not only know which ears have given the largest percentage of germination but, if your records are taken daily, you will also know which sprouted quickest and sturdiest. These are the ones to choose for growing in an “ear-to-the-row” test plot, which means that the seed from each ear is to be sown in a row by itself.

During the summer examine the plants to make sure which row or rows produce the sturdiest plants. Especially determine the row which has the most two-ear plants and the smallest proportion of stalks that bear nothing but leaves. Cut out these latter individually and feed them to the cow or make them into compost. At harvest time cut and cure the two-row stalks of this best row by themselves and, for the following year repeat the selection process already described. Also cut and cure the two-ear stalks from the other rows and use the ears for sowing the general field or for sale as seed corn. Each year it will be more valuable than the previous year.

By following this practice combined with critical selection of ears that produce the best shaped and heaviest kernels for a series of years many a farmer has developed a strain of corn noted for its two-ear plants, its small number of barren stalks, its heavy ears and yields—often 10% to 25% greater production than his original yields.

If the corn you must start with is already shelled, pick out 500 or 1,000 large, heavy kernels of good shape, lay them side by side on a table and discard inferior ones until only the 50% best ones are left. Use these for planting the first year; after which follow the method already described when working with the ears.

With potatoes the method is as simple. Starting with what stock you have, pick out the best shaped, good sized (not necessarily the largest), shallowest eyed tubers in much the same way as described for corn ears; cut each tuber in quarters from end to end but keep each four pieces separate from the others. Plant each piece in a hill by itself then skip each fifth hill so as to keep the four pieces of each tuber in consecutive hills. During the summer treat them all alike, watch for differences of foliage, resistance to disease and other points good and bad, and dig the weaklings for “new potatoes.”

At harvest time dig each hill carefully by hand and place the tubers from each four hills together for judgment. Discard the groups of four that produce unsatisfactorily either as to size, number, irregularity or other defect. When at last only the one or two best are left store each lot by itself in a cold but frost-proof cellar or pit and the following year repeat the method. The discarded tubers each year are to be used as general field seed or for sale as seed potatoes. Thus not only will the one or two best lots be improving but the general seed and the field yields will be greater. As with corn, countless farmers have increased their yields at a cost of only a little time and attention to the growing of improved seed.

Whether or not it will pay to carry out similar methods with other crops is largely a personal matter depending mainly upon the amount of each being grown. However, anybody may be the discoverer of a “rogue,” a “bud sport,” or a “seedling” that by proper handling may be developed into a new “variety” or “strain.”

The term “rogue” is applied to those plants which differ from the variety sown in some respect but are certainly not due to accidental mixing. For instance, a yellow podded bean grown from green podded stock, a purple tomato from scarlet tomato stock or vice versa. The term “bud sport” is applied to twigs or branches of trees and bushes whose foliage, flowers or fruits differ from those of other parts of the tree; for instance, a smooth skinned peach (called a nectarine) which appears on a peach tree or a fuzzy skinned nectarine (called a peach!) borne on a nectarine tree. The Golden Delicious, Red Spy, and Red Tompkins King apples are cases of this kind.

If you have a case among bush or cane fruits or strawberries you may benefit from it, first in the production of fruit and second from the sale of plants. Let me cite a case of this kind.

One of my clients who had been growing strawberries by the hill system for years happened to notice that one plant bore nothing but leaves—no berries. This so piqued his curiosity that he examined every hill in his patch and found about 50 plants that bore a liberal quart each. He allowed each of these to produce runners which he planted during early August in a new bed. When these fruited he allowed only the heavy producers to develop runners for the next new bed. At the end of 10 or 12 years he had developed a strawberry strain so locally noted for its prolificacy that he was besieged for plants which he sold at rather “stiff” prices. Thus he received the double profit already mentioned for the time spent in his selection of plants.

By keeping on the watch for such cases you may discover something of greater value than its parent and either yourself profit by the sale of stock or of “scion wood” for propagation or be of service to other growers.

The above cited methods and instances are only a few of the special ways by which you may increase production. Others include high quality seed, germination tests, rational tillage, control of parasites and weeds, thinning of plants in vegetable rows, thinning of fruit on trees, adequate range for livestock and poultry, ample plant food, humus and water in the soil. These and other practices are discussed in other chapters.

In cases where cultivation must be done by horse or tractor and the rows must, therefore, be spaced farther apart than when the wheelhoe is used it is essential, as a time-saving factor, to make the rows long and few rather than short and many so as to reduce the amount of time necessary for turning at the ends. Even so time may be saved by skipping several rows when making each turning because (Fig. 4) less time is needed to make a long turn than a short one, especially with a horse or a fast moving, heavy or long-radius tractor.

Should a complete row be likely to produce more of any one vegetable than would be needed it should be filled with two or more kinds that require the same general cultural treatment. Figure 7 suggests a way by which the Illinois Experiment Station (Circular 325) suggests that a well-balanced farm garden may be arranged to provide a large assortment and continuous supply of vegetables throughout the growing season, for use fresh, canned and for winter storage.

garden plan for family of six

Fig. 7. Well-balanced long row farm garden for family of six. (See Appendix for varieties.) (Click to Enlarge)

As will be noticed the plan indicates that sowings are to be made at four different times. This is because of the effects of frost and because seasons vary, some being early, others late in opening. For the latter season the time between the early sowings should be increased in an early spring and shortened in a late one. The first of these sowings should be made about the time that the earliest trees, such as silver and swamp (or red) maple open their buds. See Appendix for lists of vegetables.

By taking advantage of the cool fall weather a second crop of cool-season vegetables may be grown. In the fall garden the vegetables are grouped according to the length of their growing periods and each group planted as late as possible consistent with finishing growth before a killing frost. It must be remembered that fall garden vegetables do not thrive in warm weather and that too early planting will stunt some kinds and cause others to become coarse, woody or pithy and unfit for use.

Complaints of poor vegetable yields by growers who practice clean tillage, and reports of satisfactory ones by others who used other methods have led to experiments whereby such practices could be tested side by side for comparison. One of the most comprehensive of these series was conducted by H. O. Werner and reported in a 40-page bulletin (No. 278) of the Nebraska Experiment Station. Some of the conclusions are condensed as follows:

Most vegetable crops can be increased and improved by irrigation. Straw or paper mulches are also useful. Irrigation will be found desirable at some time in practically every season and often in many seasons. Except for hastening seed germination in a dry spring, irrigation is seldom needed before July and not after August. It has been found profitable with all vegetables but especially with those growing during these two months.

Needless or excessive irrigation early in the life of the plants might cause the development of shallow root systems. However, vegetables should be kept growing steadily. Knobby, growth-cracked, hollow, rough-shaped, double and otherwise undesirable vegetables are produced when growth is uneven, especially when a period of abundant moisture follows one of prolonged drouth. When vegetables are approaching edible maturity the quality, especially firmness, flavor, sugar content and keeping quality, will be improved by irrigation water used sparingly.

One inch of water, in one rain or from irrigation, should maintain vigorous growth of most vegetables for five to seven days during hot weather and 10 to 15 days in cooler weather. With smaller applications much more frequent irrigations and a greater total amount of water are necessary to maintain the same growth, and the final results are likely to be less satisfactory. Heavy applications of 2″ or more are also less desirable, because the soil will be poorly aerated for a time and the loss from rotting, blight, etc., will be increased.

When applied during the night by the overhead system with a pressure of about 35 pounds, 1″ of water can be applied for 25′ to 30′ on both sides of the irrigation line in about six hours. On a hot, windy day when evaporation is great, eight hours might be required.

Where water under pressure is available the sprinkling system is best because it distributes the water evenly, does not pack the soil, can be used on sloping land without washing, and requires the least labor. With one line of pipe the gardener can irrigate from six to ten times as much land as the line will irrigate in one position, the line being carried from place to place and supported on posts or temporary supports, wherever it is to be used.

The problem of moisture can be solved to a considerable degree by the use of two plats, one to be fallowed each summer. In addition to supplying a moist soil this plan provides many of the benefits ordinarily derived from a well planned crop rotation.

The soil may be fall plowed and left rough over winter to catch snow and avoid run-off. Snow fences may be set up to catch snow in the portion to be used for the late or long-season crops. They may be placed in another part of the garden the next year to provide for the rotation of the position of crops. Effective snow barriers may be made with a row of corn shocks or even by several rows of standing corn plants.

The function of cultivation with vegetables is to conserve moisture by eliminating weeds, to close up cracks and provide a loose, rough surface which will absorb rainfall and prevent “run-off.” Deep cultivation destroys many roots, reduces the yield of most vegetables and is unnecessary. Shallow surface cultivation is recommended for all vegetables, especially in unirrigated soils and in dry seasons.

Mulching gardens with straw or other litter such as hay or manure is a practical way to increase yields and produce vegetables of the best quality. The benefits are greatest with long-season crops and in dry years. Though straw mulches have increased the yields of nearly all vegetables their use is not recommended with the early short-season crops such as leaf lettuce, peas, spinach, seeded onions, cauliflower and early cabbage. With root crops such as carrots, beets and parsnips their use does not appear advantageous and with transplanted onions is of doubtful value. The difficulties of applying the straw more than offset the advantage which most of these crops might gain.

Straw mulching has been found desirable with all long-season crops except sweet corn. As a means of increasing yields and quality it is often almost as good as irrigation. Because of the lowering of the temperature and the increased frost hazard, straw should not be applied until the plants are well established.

A mulch of 2″ to 4″ is adequate; deeper is unnecessary and undesirable. Between 10 and 15 tons of straw are needed for mulching an acre, or about 500 pounds for 2,000 square feet. The labor of applying straw is largely balanced by the reduced labor of weed control. At the end of the season straw mulches should be removed or burned because of the unfavorable effect upon the soil when such a large amount of dry organic matter is plowed under. This is most serious with unirrigated or sandy soils. [Instead of burning, it is probably better to use this straw to make artificial manure. M.G.K.]

With potatoes the straw mulch should be applied before the plants come through the soil. With other crops, such as tomatoes, eggplants, and other transplanted vegetables, before transplanting or after the plants are well established, preferably at the latter time.

If the spring plantings have been properly grouped as indicated in the plan, the green onions, spinach, leaf lettuce, turnips, kohlrabi and peas will occupy adjacent rows and will all be harvested in ample time to allow the ground to be cleaned up and prepared for the planting of fall vegetables. It will also prevent the development of a weedy, unsightly patch.

The second and third plantings for the fall garden may occupy the area of the early potatoes and onions, the early cabbage or the early sweet corn.

In order to take advantage of crop rotation the arrangement of rows should be reversed each second year.

The first planting of fall vegetables should consist of kinds which require a growing period of 95 to 105 days: Cabbage, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, Italian broccoli, endive, kale, grown from seed sown six or seven weeks previously for transplanting. Also pe-tsai (Chinese cabbage), rutabaga, round beets and short carrots, sown where the plants are to remain.

The second sowing should include kinds that require 65 to 80 days to mature: Turnips, winter radishes, kohlrabi, head and cos lettuce, round-seeded peas (not wrinkled seeded). These last rarely do as well in the fall as in spring but are usually worth while.

The third sowings should consist of only those kinds that mature in 45 to 55 days: Spinach, mustard, peppergrass, forcing radishes, leaf lettuce, fetticus.

Where coldframes are available these last may be had until Christmas or even later with only slight protection on coldest nights. They will all stand slight frost if not allowed to thaw too rapidly or to be exposed to the direct rays of the sun while frozen. Watering with cold water while frozen will “draw the frost” without injuring them.

One of the joys of living on a farm is to have the best of Nature’s products for the family table. If a small farm does not raise asparagus, rhubarb, raspberries, strawberries, currants, gooseberries, grapes, and blackberries for commercial purposes, it is wise to select a good plot of soil (where water will be available) and establish these crops for family use. Asparagus and grapes will last for 20 or more years; raspberries, blackberries, rhubarb, currants, and gooseberries are good for 10 years. Therefore it pays to give especial attention to the permanent garden. A new row of strawberries should be set each spring.

Since the same spot will be used year after year, it is common sense to give extra attention to the preparation of the soil. All the sizable rocks and stones should be taken off. If the area is infected with witchgrass, use a long-handled spading fork and throw out all the long white roots that are found, usually in the top 10 inches of soil. (An excellent long-handled spading fork is the so-called “stone fork.” It has six or seven slightly curved tines.)

Make the plot rectangular in shape so the rows will be long and thus reduce the time required to turn while cultivating. The grape arbor can very well be at one side. If, for example, the plot is 100′ by 30′, it will allow for 8 grape vines 10′ apart with a 10′ space at either end. A family of four needs 100′ of asparagus; it needs 100′ of raspberries; 50′ of blackberries, half a dozen hills of the new rhubarb (Macdonald), a few currant bushes (if state regulations permit their planting) and gooseberries.

Since strawberries are such a universal favorite, most families can use two 100′ rows. In good soil, well fed, and with water available if needed, 200′ of strawberries will produce from 300 to 400 quarts. As deep freezers for home become more common, families will freeze many quarts of strawberries for home use.

Use plenty of organic type fertilizers (bone meal, dried animal manures, dehydrated and sterilized sewage and garbage). Early in the spring 300 pounds of fertilizer can be broadcast on the 100′ by 30′ area. Just before freeze up time in the late fall, broadcast another 200 pounds.

Tremendous yields from the family’s “permanent” garden can be secured if the soil is good, well fertilized, irrigated, and kept in good tilth.

The successful garden is well planned; includes a large variety of vegetables; by succession sowings supplies adequate quantities in the best eating and canning stage from early spring until winter and by storage and canning until spring; yields at least two vegetables, besides potatoes, daily throughout the year; pays better for the labor it requires than does any other equal area; is kept free from weeds by surface tillage while the seedlings are small; is fall plowed or dug, left rough over the winter and worked down in the spring to make a first class seed bed.

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Essential Factors of Farm Production

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