Well, I’ll admit it. We turned on the heat for the first time this week. Mornings have been cold, and we savor our coffee a bit longer as we wait for the sky to brighten over the field. With a very light frost a few nights ago the salad greens just keep getting sweeter, relieved as the heat of summer wanes. Although a few beds of summer tomatoes continue to hang on in the greenhouse, we finally have that fall spinach coming in that everyone’s been asking for since July!
Markets last through the end of the month, but customers are already lamenting the long winter ahead without vibrant and flavorful local food. As always, like a broken record, I’ll remind you of the wonders of storage crops, named for the very fact that they last a long, long time, (even in somewhat imperfect conditions); one of your “crisper” drawers in the fridge, a dark closet, an entryway that’s slightly cooler than your house, a shelf in the basement. If you look for it, you really do have room to stow some goodness for the winter. Your body will thank you. Call me if you have concerns, and we’ll figure it out together – I may just start a vegetable storage consulting business on the side…
Before the market and CSA season really comes to an end, Jonathan and I want to express our thanks for what has been one of our best seasons yet. A good season depends upon many factors – the weather, the employees, the market masters, and the willingness of customers like you to make an extra effort, a conscious decision, to shop with us. We do our best to make it convenient, but in the age of Amazon Prime, Walmart Organics, and drone deliveries, we can hardly ignore the fact that you could shop more easily elsewhere. So thank you for the patronage that is often touching, as we learn about your families and lives, and always essential, as we grow our farm into a sustainable business.
As busy as things get during the season for us, we are trying to place customer connection higher on the priority list these days, adding a few open farm days this season, including one coming up on October 22nd from 1-4pm – we hope to see you here! We are also always listening for suggestions as to how you would like to further connect with us and/or your food. “Pick your own” days on the farm? Cooking classes? Different locations for CSA pick-up? We can guess all we want, but hearing your thoughts is always the best way to know what you’re thinking 😉
We spend the winter planning tweaks and changes to our business model (there’s always a few!), so if you have suggestions don’t be shy! And just to throw it out there, we adore a barter. If you have a skill-set or product you produce (Dentist? Carpenter? Artist? Whiskey distiller?) that you’d like to trade for great food, let’s talk!
Since our last post, the excitement of the fall harvest has begun! We’ve been bringing in the storage potatoes to cure, along with hundreds of pounds of Butternut squash. Carrots & beets have made a return to the market stand now that our bulk fall planting has come in, and the onions have been packed out of the greenhouse into their storage bags.
But, as always, we’re looking ahead to the next farming season which is not winter, but spring! For the first time we are focusing a lot of effort this fall on preparing our field for Spring planting. It’s a tip we picked up while reading “The Lean Farm” earlier in the Spring (the last time we had time to read). The book focuses on streamlining everything from work-flow to marketing to infrastructure set-up on a farm with a constant drive toward increasing efficiency and limiting waste. This is an approach that has long been implemented in other industries since it was developed by Toyota in the 1970’s, but has only recently been applied in agriculture.
There are many inspiring ideas to be found in the book, and this ‘spring soil preparation plan’ is up there in our top three. The task, as applied on our small farm, will be to prepare our soil this fall by clearing old crop debris, shaping beds, & adding soil ammendments and compost. Then we’ll cover the areas we need earliest in the Spring with a thick layer of straw mulch to keep the soil in place over the precipitous winter, avoiding erosion, and keeping weeds from germinating in Spring.
The issue addressed through this extra-early bed prep is the waiting game that typically takes place between farmers and their wet spring fields. Often times in spring, the weather gets warm enough for crops to be planted long before the soil is dry enough to drive machinery over it without causing compaction and damage to soil structure. So the field sits there, germinating weeds instead of crops while we watch at the window, hoping the sun will dry things up before our kale transplants get too unhappy in the greenhouse. If all we have to do next spring is rake aside the straw in order to transplant our kale and seed our greens (via people power, not machinery), we’ll be off to the races much sooner and with less cursing at the rain clouds (since they’re really our friends). Personally, I can’t wait. The spring is a time of such multi-faceted effort for our small business: brushing off the cobwebs of winter, firing up the greenhouse, tax preparation, seeds ordering, reconnecting with wholesale accounts to finalize our planting plan for the season, and, of course, getting field planting underway. To simplify such a large and important task at such a busy time will help to relieve some pressure.
A farming friend in our town has gone to great lengths to find high-quality, certified organic barley straw, shipped down from Aroostook County in Maine. It arrives in 1-ton bales (see picture below which must be moved by tractor. Straw is preferable to hay in that is it weed-seed-free and is heavier-duty material – the plants (like barley) that are dried into straw have stems that are hollow (like a straw), and contain more lignin, a material also found in wood that makes them slower to break-down over time. Compared to hay, which is mostly dried grasses, straw gives our soil better coverage for longer without adding to our weed-seed bank.
There is also much that goes into the compost-making process, but I’ll leave that for another post before this one gets too long.
This spring we made a few leaps toward establishing a “no-till” system for the farm. Broadly speaking, no-till means we disrupt the soil as little as possible in order to allow the biology from earthworms to allow micro-organisms to proliferate and do the important work of making nutrients available to our crops. This is easier said than done! Anyone who gardens knows about the obstacles to even the best laid plans. Weeds and unwanted insects and critters can get out of control and cause problems that take years to sort out.
Our systems starts with well prepared beds (above). First they are “sub-soiled”- a process with the tractor that breaks up compaction to allow the ground to literally breathe, exchanging moisture and oxygen with the plants above. Second we form the beds- raising them slightly by throwing soil from the paths onto the bed. We apply compost and mulch the paths and then are ready to plant. Some crops that will spend the whole season in the ground will get mulched with straw. Many of our crops are harvested out and get replanted to something else. This is where “no-till” comes in.
Instead of running a rototiller or other equipment through the bed which would devastate the soil biology, we have a different method. We weed whack the crop residue and then “solarize” the bed by laying plastic sheets across the beds. A well-timed solarization kills the annual growth & roots of the previous crop and any weeds in the very top of the soil. Underneath that top layer, the micro-organisms that have established themselves and their own mycorrhizal (i.e fungal) network remain unharmed and ready for action. The plastic is removed and we have a clean bed to either drop new seeds or seedling transplants into.
So far in our trials we’ve had many successful successions of crops this season, and a fair share of failures. We are still troubleshooting the grass weeds that are more difficult to eliminate than something like lettuce residue. Some rolls of plastic are produced very poorly and shred after minimal use and exposure to the weather. Quality is important! Part of the point is not to waste so much plastic to grow organic crops!
Another big piece of the puzzle is the production of high quality compost to keep up the layering process that will bury our weed seeds deeper and deeper over time. (I’ll write more on that subject in the next month as we establish the piles we will be using for next spring.)
In short, we have had a good taste of how things need to work and a better idea of how to improve our methods. September is a big month on the farm as we attempt to keep up with the harvest and last of the planting while laying the foundation for a successful season in 2018.
I write this at the tail end of a three-hour flower harvest – one of 3 such harvests per week that these ceaseless blooms require. I knew when I started transplanting my seedlings in May that I was in for a doozy of a flower season. It must have been a very dreamy winter and those seed catalogues must have been extra glossy. Now to be honest, a 3-hour harvest wouldn’t be much on a flower farm, but I’m a vegetable farmer with a bit of a side habit that I may or may not be ready to admit to. But there is something about swimming in blooms all morning that is just intoxicating. It makes me feel like I’m getting away with something while everyone else on the farm is picking lettuce and kale.
This year is the first that my annuals have spilled over into the vegetable field. Generally I’ve kept my garden in the front yard. But last year, upon noticing the incredible array of butterflies, bees, (bumble and otherwise), and hummingbirds in the front, we decided to bring the show to the back fields as well to benefit the vegetables.
The amount of insects I rudely awake each morning out cutting makes me worry about my karma. Have you ever woken a bee? It’s like dragging a teenager out of bed before noon. I actually have to pick it up from the center of the zinnia and move it, still mostly asleep, to another bud. It makes me grin ear to ear every time, and think of my dad calling up the stairs for the 14th time on school mornings.
This is also the first year that I’ve had a significant amount of perennial flowers growing and, like the perennial fruit and vegetables I’ve written about, they are a joy to watch sprout in the Spring with very little help from us. It’s such a delightful labor-saver, and makes me consider how intelligent plants are when left to their own devices. As often as not, we farmers make the annual seedlings raised in the greenhouse adhere to our schedule instead of their own. They might be ready to go in the ground, but we’re behind on bed preparation so they get root bound in their trays. Or the conditions are too dry or too wet, but our planting schedule says it’s time, so into the ground they go. Watching perennials decide when the temperature, moisture, & daylight is right, and how vigorous and healthy they are as a result, is quite humbling.
Suffice it to say, I have a real abundance of blooms these days and the market bouquets are bigger and brighter than ever. Cheer yourself up all week with one on the kitchen table! And should you have any need for arrangements for an event this summer or fall, be in touch. I’d be happy to do the design for you, or simply provide buckets of beauty for you to play with.
We’re cruising into the real heart of summer, with July just a few days away. This is the breathless time when we are doing all of the things at once: final field preparation for Fall crops, seeding of said Fall crops, transitioning spent Spring beds to next plantings of leafy greens and roots, and weeding, watering, fertilizing those precious full-season crops (like tomatoes! eggplant and peppers), checking each day for any sign of a blush.
I mentioned weeks ago what a sizeable crew we have this season, and by now they are really starting to fly on they’re own, with a solid knowledge of the farm layout, tool inventory, harvest & wash station techniques, and how to do a million+1 things at market with a smile. It’s an absolute breath of fresh air to have dedicated, motivated “kids” getting the gears turning smoothly. (See above picture of them goonin’ around at a recent equipment demo day in Suffield, CT… That’s not our huge farm or huge tractor!).
One arduous task that we’ve previously never had a hope of accomplishing, is the weed whacking of our goat pasture, which is too steep to mow with the tractor. Historically this sloping land is rather shy on nutrition, which runs off the hillside with the rain, and so grows a slim variety of grasses, mostly “bedstraw”. The goats put up with it (with some whining), but would much prefer a more diverse pasture mix. In order to give more tender grasses & legumes a chance to germinate ahead of the bitter bedstraw, we should be keeping it mowed and be “over-seeding” other grasses on top of the ground that would then germinate and improve the balance. This week one of our crew members spent the better part of 3 days weed whacking that hillside (see photo above), and we’ll seed in advance of the next predicted rain event. Hopefully by doing this a few times, we’ll have a lush rotational-grazing system to keep the milking ladies happy and as well fed as possible.