We're a husband and wife team who live on and farm 20 acres in western Washington State, USA. We first met up in college at the University of Colorado-Boulder back in the 80's (I'm dating myself here). He majored in aerospace engineering and she majored in environmental biology with a minor in technical writing. After graduation we went our separate ways, then our paths crossed again in 1997, and we've been together ever since. He is still working with airplanes and engineering, and she's still deeply involved in environmental biology, which often boils down to mucking livestock stalls, building fencing to keep everyone where they belong, and trying yet again to keep up with a garden which has ambitions of world domination.
We bought our home place in 2000 as a very run down piece of tired ground, with an equally run down tired little house on it. The only other structure on the place was an even more tired out old shed. Since then we have steadily worked to improve on both the house and the property. The house turned out to be a 1915 Craftsman gem, which to this day is still emerging in little baby steps into the wonderful little bungalow it always hoped to be. And the land has turned out to be fantastically productive. Each year we get better at keeping up with it, and directing all that fertility in constructive directions.
In late 2006 we started renting additional pasture land from a wonderful family down in the river valley, approximately 10 miles from our home place. The home place and the rental pasture couldn't be more different. Our home place sits at 500' above sea level, and is nestled amongst rolling forested hills. The soils are very shallow and there's bedrock only 6" to 12" down. The rental pasture, on the other hand, is 30' above sea level, flat as a table, with soils that are roughly 36" to 60" deep. To make things even more interesting, the majority of the pasture is actually a floating turf, with soil and root mass resting on top of a deep peat bog which probably dates back to the days of the great North American Ice Age. Neighborhood legend has it that a previous owner of that pasture ground tried to break up the turf with a D9 Caterpillar backhoe on treads. When the backhoe broke through the turf, it sank into the peat bog and has been entombed there ever since. We have no reason to doubt that story.
Working the two pieces of ground has been a grand experiment in simultaneously running two very different farming operations, and trying to find ways to blend their strengths while minimizing their weaknesses. The home place is happily very high above any flood risk, but we are raked by the winter winds and windstorm damage is a huge concern. We are working with succession forest ecology and any planting ground we have is overshadowed (literally and figuratively) by the forest which dominates this part of the region. Our current forests consist of the pioneer red alder, big leaf maple, wild cherry and cottonwoods which colonized the property after the old-growth conifers were logged off in the early 1900's. We are only now starting to see the return of the mature forest plants such as the cedar, the fir and the hemlock.
The pasture, on the other hand, is a near monoculture of reed canary grass. That species of grass is almost ideally suited to the very high water table, slightly to moderately acidic groundwater, and flood/drought cycle that we have every year. That property is often underwater in places for days or weeks at a time during the heavy rains of winter. While the winds are not as big an issue down there, flooding is a yearly occurrence and must be figured into our plans. As I've already mentioned, we also have to be very careful with any heavy equipment, lest one of our tractors breaks through the turf and sinks like a big rock. On the other hand, driving fenceposts on the rental pasture is childs-play compared to driving fenceposts into bedrock at the home place.
Our two properties are both fabulously productive pieces of ground, but as you can understand neither of them are particularly well suited to the typical vegetable crops which provide the income for small scale, direct-to-consumer family farms like ours. Something had to give. We had to overcome issues with low light/high shadow conditions, intense weed pressures, shallow soils, flood/drought cycles and a short growing season. After several years of struggling with those issues, we finally realized hydroponics could solve those problems for us. And we've been working with hydroponics ever since.
One of the unexpected directions we've gone with hydroponics is to really "push the envelope" on what we can grow cost effectively in the form of livestock forage. When we started our operation, we were roughly equally balanced between livestock and farmers-market type crops. Then over the years, we gradually shifted towards more livestock operations because that better suited the land we had. Yet feed costs have been a constant drain. Even with the pasture land, we can only graze our livestock for roughly 6 months of the year thanks to the wet soils. Most years we can get in one good cutting of hay, but sometimes even that's a challenge. So growing alternate livestock feeds has emerged as a priority. Towards that end, we've started to investigate how much of our own feed we can reliably produce with hydroponics. We're still working on that part, with new developments each year. Rest assured we'll share what we learn right here.