The majority of our 2016 vegetable seeds arrived this week from Johnny’s Seeds of Maine, so we took the opportunity of a surprise snow storm to lovingly welcome and organize them! This arrival is the culmination of our winter dreaming and scheming about what worked last season, what didn’t, what’s new & exciting in the world of vegetables, and how to make more people fall in love with local produce. Jonathan spent approximately 2 weeks straight at the kitchen table with pen, paper, books and catalogs, calculating out the size and timing of every planting of each of the 100 varieties of vegetables we will grow this season.
Needless to say, we have our sights set on spring. It won’t be long now. As of today, the countdown to seeding onions in the greenhouse is 23 days!
Have you noticed that the days are getting longer? I caught myself whistling while I worked in the mid-day warmth yesterday, installing new nesting boxes for the chickens in our greenhouse, and pruning our old, overgrown blueberry bushes. The smell of the never-frozen soil was clearly giving me spring fever.
As much as this weather has allowed more work to get done on the farm, as gleeful as I am to have mostly avoided numb fingers, nose, and toes while doing daily animal chores, this weather has me pretty nervous about the coming season. Farmers in New England are lucky to have the cold winters we do. This may seem odd, and when we decided to farm people asked why we would think to do it in Connecticut instead of the southern or western states with year-round growing seasons. Well first, I think I’d lose my marbles without the break of the off-season! Second, we are CT natives – our families live here and it feels like where we belong. Having farmed for a few years now, we have learned the value of a hard winter. Previously I had not had a reason to consider annual pest and disease cycles, but that changed once I had a large stake in those cycles cycling properly.
The hard and long freezes of a typical New England winter act as a cleansing agent for the soil, killing the eggs of pest species, and the spores and bacterium that cause plant diseases. In a lot of cases these pests & diseases are literally killed off as far south as it gets cold enough, and then, with rising spring & summer temperatures, they slowly creep back northward into our fields. In this way we Northerners get a huge and healthy head start on growing. When the cleansing cold of winter doesn’t come, as it seems it won’t this year, the vegetables are at greater and longer-term risk from these plagues.
As ecological, no-spray growers, we are particularly susceptible to losses like we experienced last year with the Great Cut-Worm Infestation of 2015. Choosing not to spray pesticides means that we resort to some Basic Training-esque techniques like crawling around at night with headlamps to pull nocturnal caterpillars off of leaves. With the first week of February forecasted to be in the 50’s, we’re already anticipating that we’ll need our packs to be fully stocked with double-A batteries and kneepads in advance of spring planting. We also over-plant certain crops in anticipation of losses, acknowledging our risky behavior in letting nature take its course in our fields.
It is worth pointing out that more and more Farming Conferences are offering workshops with titles like “New Times, New Tools: Managing Climate Risk on Your Farm”. Yipes. I suppose it’s far better to acknowledge and plan for change and obstacles than to be surprised by them.
On a positive note, the warm winter weather will also mean getting started earlier. We’re debating pushing our seeding schedule up a few weeks to take advantage of the weather and get veggies into the hands of the folks that have been missing them even sooner. It may end up that we’ll have that year-round growing season after all! For now, I think I’ll have another cup of coffee on the couch with my cats and hope for snow.
One of the central reasons we farm is because we care deeply about the preservation of soil, open spaces, and a healthy environment. It is ironic, then, to realize how dramatically the act of farming alters a landscape.
One of my favorite things to do in our first season here in Lebanon, was to sit on the hilltop overlooking our lower field. I would go there intending to read or write during a precious free moment, but more often than not I’d just sit and watch. That lower field was blanketed in perennial grasses, scrubby Multiflora Rose bushes and Autumn Olive saplings. The insect life, the bird flight, the spectrum of every green known to man, was mesmerizing. After long enough, all the busy creatures would forget I was there, and go about their pollen collection, nest building, seed spreading without a care for me there watching.
Of course, that lower field also contains a flat ¾ acre field of Sudbury fine sandy loam soil, ideal for fall vegetable cropping. That lower field is where the pines fell as we worked to gain better access to our irrigation pond, leaving brush piles and lumber in their wake. That lower field is a perfect pasture for our 2 milking goats who adore munching down Multiflora Rose and Autumn Olive brush.
When I sit above my lower field now, I am engaged by the excitement of an expanding farm: the pine beams neatly stacked in anticipation of a timber-framed cabin project; the rye cover crop sprouting on the harrowed ground where next season’s garlic crop will be planted; The shiitake mushroom logs piled in the shade of the hedge row.
The space has been changed – the beautiful things there now are man (and woman) made, and the wild feel has been tamed. It is my luck that we live adjacent to 1,000+ acres of state woodland – plenty of space for the birds and bees to frolic as we reclaim our lower field.
But the fact remains that even we, who oppose the pillage model of agribusiness and monolithic conventional farms, must acknowledge the effect that our work has on the ecosystem of our precious 6 acres. And what a good reminder it is to be wise in our growth as a farm: to build in wild spaces around the neat rows of vegetables, to plant new trees as we take down those in our way, and to appreciate what is here while it is here.
The work doesn’t slow down on a farm when the summer ends, it just changes gear from crops to infrastructure. We’ve created a ‘Projects Page‘ to share with you what’s going on at Sweet Acre this Fall. These are a couple of the projects up there now that are underway on the farm. There are many more to follow!
A New, Movable Greenhouse
In advance of the 2016 growing season we will be constructing a Rolling Thunder greenhouse at the farm. The idea behind this rolling structure, is that a grower can extend the season of crops in 2 separate plots of ground over the course of the season. On our farm, this would mean getting tomatoes in the ground earlier than usual (the beginning of May), and keeping them healthy longer. Over the last 5 years of growing, we have found that our greenhouse tomatoes suffer far less from disease and weather then our un-covered field crop.
Meanwhile, as the tomatoes are thriving in their protected environment, we will be planting a crop of fall greens in an identical footprint in front of the tomato house. When the tomatoes finish up in the fall, we roll the whole greenhouse, on a set of tracks, over the maturing greens to keep them growing well into the winter.
Overall, these improvements to the health and longevity of our tomato crop (one of the most profitable and popular crops any vegetable farm produces), and the longer fresh greens season into winter, means a more financially viable farm business for us at Sweet Acre, and more food for the community. (images from Rimolgreenhouses.com)
For 4 of our 5 seasons farming, we have washed and packed your vegetables in the wide-open sun, rain, & wind. We have stainless steel sinks and counters for processing vegetables for market and CSA days. In the worst case scenario this can mean standing in the pouring rain, ankle deep in mud, with hands so cold and devoid of dexterity that they might as well be billy clubs trying to put a rubber band around a bunch of carrots. Admittedly, it’s not always that bad, but the idea of never suffering through outdoor Fall vegetable washing again is pretty exciting.
Our wash station building would be a simple structure: cedar posts cut from trees on our property, a metal roof overhead and gravel underfoot. Next year we might even add some walls!
And more…. There’s always more….