Vegetable Growing Tips, Winter 2023-2024. Part 2 VABF-SFOP Summit

VABF/SFOP Summit conference January 2024

 At the VABF-SFOP Summit in January, I attended the half-day intensive by Jean-Martin Fortier, Market Gardening 2.0. He covered a brief description of what market gardening is, five different crops that are most profitable, and three management tools for profitable farming. He briefly covered his career from 2004 establishing the 1.5 acre vegetable farm La Grelinette with his wife Maud-Hélène Desroches; his 2015 move to run a training farm school, La Ferme des Quatre-Temps,  with 10 2-year trainees per year; his 2023 move to set up a farm-to-table restaurant, Espace Old Mill, very close to home.

Jean-Martin Fortier with his broadfork.

J-M’s five crops for optimal profitability are summer squash, greenhouse tomatoes, garlic, carrots, small eggplants.

For squash, J-M recommends Romanesco, Safari, Gold Mine and Zephyr, harvesting each of their two plantings (in Quebec) for 10-12 weeks. They plant on landscape fabric with melted holes. The squash are netted until flowering. His workshop included all the details. See J-M’s video about using insect netting: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QWI30jSQa40. He recommends three types of net: 25 gm net, 47 gm net, and the newer heavy-duty woven net, all from ProtekNet. DuboisAg.com.

Marbonne tomato.
Photo credit Johnny’s Selected Seeds

For greenhouse tomatoes, which are 10% of their sales, they grow Marbonne, Margold, Aurea, Big Dena, Marnero and Beorange, all grafted at 4 weeks of age onto Maxifort or Trust rootstock. This is a highly technical crop, grown with some heating, harvested from early June to October. The spacing is intensive, one row per 30” (75 cm) bed, plants every 13” (33 cm), with the centers pinched out to produce double-header plants. The tomato vines are trained to wires, and the lower-and-lean system is used.

The famous Music garlic.
Photo Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

For garlic, they grow Music hardneck and Siberian softneck, saving their own seed to avoid buying seed lots infested with disease or pests. They plant 2” (5 cm) deep using a dibbler, 3 rows per 30” (75 cm) bed, with plants 5” (14 cm) apart. They combat the leek moths with Tricho-Gard cards containing pupae of the parasitoid Trichogramma wasp. Their garlic sells at $3-$5 per bulb.

Napoli carrots. Credit Johnny’s Selected Seeds

For carrots, they grow Adelaide for earlies, Napoli for fall and winter. They found the tops of Mokum too weak. They rowcover the bed for a week before sowing, to pre-germinate weeds. After removing the rowcover and flaming, they sow the carrots with a Jang seeder. They sow some beets as an indicator, flaming the bed as soon as the beets emerge. For cultivating between the rows of carrots, they use Biodisks on a Terrateck wheelhoe. The bio-disc tool consists of two parabolic discs and two straight discs. It provides precision weeding and hilling on rows on light soils. To harvest, one person loosens the carrots with a broadfork, two people pull bunches.

Fairy Tale Eggplant. Photo johnny’s Selected Seeds

For baby eggplants, they grow small fast-maturing varieties such as Fairy Tale, Orient Express, Orient Charm, Hansel and Nadia, on landscape fabric in an unheated caterpillar tunnel, 1 row per 30” bed, 18” in-row spacing. They transplant at 7-8 weeks, large plants just starting to flower.

Terrateck Biodiscs.
Photo Taerrateck

As well as the Jang seeder and Terrateck bio-disks, they recommend tarping, mini-tunnels, the flextine weeder, and a bubbler (Jacuzzi pump) in the wash tank.

J-M’s management tips include a Monday Morning Game Plan, touring the farm and listing the tasks; making a map and task calendar for every week; sharing the week’s task list with the crew on Monday afternoons, and finishing the day with a preview of the next day’s action list, which helps the crew be ready for an efficient start the next morning. Cap the number of hours of work expected each day. Cap the number of each plant you set out – don’t plant more hoping for the best – this adds costs! Every week, at a consistent time, hold a compulsory Roses, Thorns and Buds session for up to one hour, where each person takes a few uninterrupted minutes to describe their Rose highlight that week (something that made them excited, proud and happy); then the Thorns (something that left them sad, frustrated, angry and why) and finishing with the Buds (something they are looking forward to in the coming week). If a big issue comes up, you could go back to it after the round is completed.

I also attended a workshop on perennial cover crops, that I’ll go into details of in a future cover crops post. It was led by Cerruti R2 Hooks, Veronica Yurchak, from the Department of Entomology, University of Maryland, and Hanna Kahl of UC Davis.

University of Maryland Eastern Shore IPM Center has more information on IPM.

I also attended a workshop on Securing Organic Vegetable Production in Virginia Through Increased Disease Management, by Steve Rideout of Virginia Tech. His recent work has been on Septoria on cilantro and parsley, bacterial spot, bacterial speck and early blight on tomato, anthracnose on peppers, powdery mildew and downy mildew on squash.

Steve described the Disease Management Pyramid, with a base layer of the cropping system chosen. Once this is optimized cultural practices and disease-resistant varieties can be used to further reduce the chance of a disease. Chemical control is a last resort, if all else fails. Heat seed treatments can be used to prevent bacterial spot and bacterial speck. Rutgers has step-by-step instructions for avoiding bacterial canker of tomato including sanitation measures.  To reduce tomato diseases that are soil-borne, support the plants up off the ground, use mulch to prevent splash-back, remove the lower leaves of the plants, and use drip irrigation if possible.

Pepper anthracnose. Photo Bayer.

Pepper anthracnose is hard to control by any means, and some resistant varieties are low-yielding. A 2 or 3-year rotation, using certified seed, reducing humidity in the plant canopy (increasing airflow), removing infected fruit, and using mulch and drip can help.

Cucurbit powdery mildew and downy mildew are very different from each other. Downy mildew strikes cucumbers worst of all the cucurbits. There are two strains. Time your planting to avoid DM, by planting in spring in full sun. There is a Cucurbit DM Forecast Site, which shows the annual spread by county. (Nothing to see in February!). The main symptoms are leaf spots that are yellow turning brown on the upper surface and fuzzy on the underside. Steve recommended DMR401, DMR264, SV4179S, Bricky Brickyard?), Bristol and Common Wealth Seeds South Wind as varieties with best resistance.

Cucumber leaves with downy mildew.
Photo Research Gate.

Cucurbit PM does not trouble cucumbers as much as other cucurbits. It forms a sparse white dusty-looking coating, and does best on dry days with dewy nights of 6 hours or more. Better results are found with a homozygous rather than heterozygous resistant variety. Spraying with water can help, but don’t spray cucurbits with anything if the sir temperature is more than 90F. Sulfur, copper, M-Pede, Serenade and Regalia can help. M-Pede may also reduce pests including deer!

Virginia’s biggest pumpkin disease is Plectosporium blight, which can also affect cucumbers and squash, starting as tiny leaf spots, then scarring the leaf veins on the underside, and the stems. Look for resistant cultivars.

Broccoli head with Alternaria fungus. Photo UCANR

Stepping away from cucurbits and considering brassicas, especially broccoli, next. Alternaria lesions of concentric rings can be hidden in the broccoli crown. Bacterial Rot lesions are seen on the leaf margins, moving in as blocks of affected tissue. It smells bad. Some most-resistant varieties include Emerald Jewel, Green Magic, Marathon, Avenger, Vallejo. Also good are Gypsy, Belstar, Eastern Magic, Burney in hot weather. Expo, Montflor were also recommended. Fungicides are not very effective, but OSO (polyoxin zinc) is the best if you have to.

The Plant Diseases Clinic charges $25 per sample sent to them (this may vary from state to state). See the 2019 Mid-Atlantic Commercial Vegetable Production Recommendations and the 2020 Southeastern Commercial Vegetable Crop Handbook and choose your Organic solutions from those resources.

This post is long enough! I also attended workshops on Meeting the Climate Challenge with Mark Schonbeck, and Eating and Marketing the Whole Plant with Chris Smith. I hop to tell you more about those soon!

Rick and Janice Felker of Mattawoman Creek Farms on the Eastern Shore, VA extended an offer to provide a limited amount pf free assistance to farmers interested in learning more about their crop production and organic certification experiences. Contact Rick and Janice to find out if they still have spare time!

Vegetable Growing Tips from Conferences, Winter 2023-2024. Part 1 CFSA

 

A Spacemaster cucumber plant in our hoophouse on April 23.
Photo Pam Dawling

I love learning new things and getting tips for improving our vegetable production. My events page tells you about recent and upcoming conferences. After I get home from conferences, I usually need to dive back into work, and am in danger of ignoring things I learned. Hence this blogpost. I’ll pass tips on, and extract the gems from my hand-written notes, making it more likely I’ll do something useful with them!

CFSA SAC 2023 banner

In November 2023 I took part in the Carolina Farm Stewardship Conference. I went to an engaging workshop called On-Farm Cover Crops Research in the Carolinas by Justin Duncan from NCAT/ATTRA, Jason Lindsay from the Southeastern African American Farmers’ Organic Network, and Steve McAllan, a last-minute substitute. I’ve got a blogpost brewing about native cover crops in vegetable production, so I’ll save the content for that post. Patrick Johnson also gave a presentation on native cover crops, which I’ll include more about in the promised post.

https://www.youtube.com/c/clem’sorganicgardens

I also participated in a workshop on Advanced Organic Weed Management for Vegetable Growers, given by Clem Swift of Clem’s Organic Gardens, from Pisgah Forest, NC, where they have 8 acres in field production of vegetables. I hadn’t realized the workshop was mostly machinery-focused, but I learned actionable tips anyway! I watched his video on potato planting, cultivation and harvest, which is similar to the way we grow potatoes. I learned a way of covering the edges of plastic mulch by walking backwards with one foot on the plastic to tension it, hoeing soil up onto the plastic. That sounds easier than our method using shovels, but sounds like it does require looser soil than we sometimes have where we use plastic. Clem has a well-organized system of first removing perennial weeds, then cultivating early and often to deal with annual weeds, including using a double-wheeled wheelhoe with a scuffle on either side of the row. Perhaps like one of these:

Double-wheeled double-scuffle wheelhoe. Hoss Tools
Double-wheel double-sweeps wheelhoe. Sweeps available as a conversion kit from Earth Tools.

Johnny’s Selected Seeds has a Wheelhoe Selection Guide in their Tool Library

Next I attended Precise Nutrient Management for Small-Scale Farms by Kyle Montgomery of Advancing Eco Agriculture. Kyle’s goal was to help us answer the question: How could marketable yields be significantly increased with minor changes to a fertility program? Plants have different nutrient requirements at different stages of growth. Sap analysis can show what the plant is taking out of the soil. In each 24 hour period, we want all soluble nitrogen to be converted to stable forms. This was something new for me to think about. I didn’t bring away anything specific to work on.

South Wind slicing cucumber.
Photo Common Wealth Seed Growers

High Tunnel Cucumber Production by Joe Rowland, CFSA’s Organic Initiatives Coordinator, covered preliminary findings from year one of CFSA’s SARE-funded organic high tunnel cucumber project. They trialed 6 varieties of cucumbers grown on 2 different trellis types (drop lines vs Hortanova netting) to compare disease occurrence and severity and marketable yield. Three participating farms replicated the trial to see what works best throughout the region.

Excelsior pickling cucumber. Photo Johnny’s Seeds

Their standout varieties were Itachi, an Asian white slicer (low yield but good disease resistance), and Excelsior pickler (highest yield).

Itachi white Asian slicing cucumber. Johnny’s Seeds

Poniente (a parthenocarpic European slicer) had the most disease of the 6 in the trial; Shintokiwa had the least disease, but was a slow producer, with low yields. The dropline system uses a single leader, more clips, more pruning and twirling than the Hortanova, where two “rows” could be made per bed, training two leaders from each plant in a V. This gave good airflow, slowed down the height-increase compared to single leader plants, and enabled herbs to be intercropped. We grow a succession of five or six plantings of cucumber, mostly outdoors, sprawled on the ground. Only for the early crop does it seem worthwhile to us to grow them in the hoophouse. But I’ve no idea how our yield compares with trained high    tunnel cukes, and perhaps measuring it would lead me to a different plan!

 Poniente cucumber. Territorial Seeds. Note trellis.
Shintokiwa cucumber High Mowing Seeds

Signs of winter, signs of spring

Tokyo bekana in our hoophouse in late December.
Photo Pam Dawling

 My  Winter-Kill Temperatures of Cold-Hardy Vegetables 2021 has not changed much in recent years. But I’ve just got some precise information on Tokyo bekana, the Asian green that grows well in summer as a lettuce substitute; grows very well outdoors in the fall; and grows wonderfully in the winter hoophouse even in low light conditions. In my 2023 list the outdoor killing temperature is listed as 25°F (–4°C).

Ugly, but not dead yet! Tokyo bekana outdoors on January 7, 2024 after several cold nights at 11°F (-11.5°C) at the end of November, and 12°F (-11°C) at the beginning of January.
Photo Pam Dawling

I harvested the last of the outdoor Tokyo bekana in November, except for one plant that was starting to bolt. I left that one to see when it would succumb to cold weather.  It was seriously damaged but not killed at 11°F (-11.5°C) at the end of November, and 12°F (-11°C) at the beginning of January. It was killed by 8°F (-13°C) and 10°F (-12°C) in mid-January.

Now it’s really dead! Tokyo bekana after two January nights at 8F and 10F.
Photo Pam Dawling

My tendency is to move only partway towards my new information each time I get some. This allows my info to gradually center in on the sweet spot, rather than have wild pendulum swings. So for the 2024 list, I’ll cautiously say it dies at 20°F (–7°C). I’ll release my new list for 2024 in March.

I’m updating my Phenology Record with Recommendations for Planting.

Our first crocus . February 1, 2024
Photo Pam Dawling

On February 1st we saw our first crocus bloom (it averages 2/7), our first speedwell, and Hellebore/Lenten roses with big buds (the flowers opened by 2/11). Hellebore often blooms with the daffodils, but our daffodils are only half-height leaves at this point. There are many hybrid hellebores and I’ve no idea which one ours is.

Lenten Rose (Hellebore) buds on February 1,2024.
Photo Pam Dawling

Robin Migration

Robins can be found year-round almost anywhere south of Canada, as residents or short-distance migrants. Birds that breed from Canada to the north slope of Alaska leave in fall for the U.S. Some robins winter as far south as the Southwest, Mexico, and the Gulf Coast.

Robin Range Map from All About Birds.

“Our” robins arrived on February 3rd, partying in an eastern redcedar (juniper) tree, enjoying the berries. According to this All About Birds Robin Range Map, robins are migratory thrushes that can be found here in Virginia year-round. Ours definitely migrate, arriving here anywhere from January 20 (2009) to March 3 (2013). The Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources notes that in mid-late February and early March they fly through headed north.

Eastern redcedar (Juniper) leaves and berries.

The DWR notes: “Robins’ seasonal movements are said to be tied to a 37-degree “isotherm.” An isotherm is a line on a map where the average temperature is the same at various points across the line.  As robins move from southern states into more northern ones, they stop and hunker down when they reach the limits of the isotherm.” They could reach the Arctic in May, if they travel that far!

Also see Journey North’s “Robin Migration Study” website. You can join and report your sightings and hearings of various signs of spring, not only robins.

Speedwell flowering on February 1, 2024.
Photo Pam Dawling

Cover Crops for February: Oats if you have a 6–10 week gap

Oats Cover Crop, Steve Groff farm, Holtwood PA. SARE Soil Health Resources

Cover Crops for February: Oats if you have a 610 week gap

In February, you’ll hopefully have made your crop plans and maps. Perhaps you’ve discovered some beds with no winter cover crop, that you are not using for early spring crops? Those winter annual weeds, chickweed, dead nettle and henbit, will shed lots of seeds if you let them.

If food crops were harvested too late to sow any winter cover crops, in early spring you will be looking at weeds, or “spontaneous vegetation” as I’ve heard them euphemistically called. The first year I gardened in Virginia I had lots of beds in April with purple flowers (henbit, purple dead nettle, some ground ivy) and I couldn’t think what to do – I didn’t need those beds for a few more weeks, so I wasn’t ready to till them. Oh, so wrong! I had squandered an opportunity to improve the soil as well as deal with weed seeds.

Now, when we have the crop plans made, we tag any beds that won’t be used for six weeks or more, till in the weeds and sow oats. In February or March here, with a last frost date of April 30, six weeks is just enough time here to make enough growth to out-compete the weeds and add to the organic matter in the soil.

Examples of crops in our gardens that occupy beds too late for us to sow winter cover crops include late cabbages, the last lettuce, leeks and fall Asian greens. Examples of late spring crops the next year include eggplants, peppers, tomatoes, edamame and chard. In some cases, we might even have no food crop planned until August or the beginning of September.

Six–ten weeks (depending on your climate) is long enough in early spring to get worthwhile growth from oats before prepping for the food crop.

Once we get to March 31 here, it is too late in the year for oats (they will quickly head up after making very little growth) and too soon to rely on frost-tender cover crops. See the section below on Stale Seedbed Technique.

Oats Cover Crops Steve Groff farm, Holtwood PA SARE Soil Health Resources

I wrote about oats as a winter-killed cover crop in August.

Will oats work as an early spring cover crop for you?

Large oat plants will be killed by three nights at 20°F ((–7°C) or by a single plummet to 6°F ((–14°C). Oats seedlings die at 17°F (–8°C). Consider your likely nighttime low temperatures during the period in question, and how likely your seedlings are to die. Oat cover crops of a medium size die around 10°F (–12°C). If they die after growing to adolescent size, no worries – just till them in before planting your next crop.

The minimum soil temperature for germination of oats is 38°F (3°C), and the time required to grow to a worthwhile height in cool weather is 6–10 weeks.

If you are in zone 8 or warmer, oats will not winter-kill, and can be grown in winter too – they may not reliably mow-kill, but are relatively easy to incorporate.

Oat plant and seeds. SARE

Pros and cons of oats as a cover crop

Like most cover crops, oats add biomass and nutrients, increase the biological activity of the soil, smother weeds, reduce soil erosion (their fibrous roots anchor the soil) and absorb and store rainfall. Oats are easy to establish, are fast-growing and particularly good at shading out germinating weed seeds and at salvaging any nutrients (especially nitrogen) left from the previous crop and making them available to the following crop.

In early spring you won’t get as much biomass as from a fall oat cover crop, when you can get. as much as 2000–4000lbs per acre (2240–4480 kg/ha. Certainly not enough to be a no-till cover crop for your next food crop. Oats provide some allelopathic effect (producing biochemicals which inhibit the growth of other plants) although less than winter rye. Like most plants, oats form arbuscular mycorrhizal associations (fungi penetrate the plant’s cell walls and help capture nutrients from the soil) – a mutually beneficial relationship, although probably not a big feature when conditions are cold.

Oats are not as good as some other cover crops at breaking up compacted subsoil, although they do loosen the upper layers of topsoil nicely. (Just where you are going to sow.) Oats do not add nitrogen, and unlike flowering cover crops, they do not attract beneficial insects (assuming they are turned under or mowed before heading up and shedding pollen).

Common Oats. Buy Organic and avoid GMO canola seed inclusions

Buying oats, sowing rates

We used to buy “horse oats” (feed oats) locally and not worry about organically certified seed. But I noticed canola sprouting along with the oats, and I don’t want GMO canola going feral in our gardens! We plan ahead and order extra Organic spring oats in summer when making our big cover crop seed order.

Oats will grow in soils with a pH range of 4.5–7.5, and even do OK in soils without great fertility. They have some tolerance to flooding, but not much to heat or drought (although more than rye).

The sowing rate for drilled oats alone is 80–100lbs/ac (90–123 kg/ha). The broadcast rate is 110–140lbs/ac (123–155kg/ha). On a small scale, this is 4–6 oz/100 sq ft (12–20gm/sq m). Aim to cover the seed to a depth of about 1″ (2.5 cm).

Oats grow to a height of 2–4 feet (0.6–1.2 m) if not killed before then.

Stale seedbed technique and tarping

If you have less than 8 weeks until you need to plant the food crop, you are better off mowing when you can, or weed whipping, to prevent weeds seeding.

Tarping beds to kill weeds.
Photo Cornell Small Farms Unit

You could mow and tarp. I don’t yet have much experience of tarping, but there are good directions in The Lean Micro-Farm and The Market Gardener. There are also online videos. The basic idea is to mow the bed, cover it with a black plastic silage tarp, weight down the edges to get good soil contact and stop the tarp blowing away, and wait till the plant matter has disintegrated, or until you need to use the bed. This will take several weeks in cold weather, (although only a few weeks in summer). If you have a late-finishing fall crop, you could mow and tarp as soon as the crop is finished, and leave the bed tarped until spring. Weeds germinate under the tarp, but then die without light.

For a stale seedbed technique without tarps, you could mow, till several weeks before planting, water (if it doesn’t rain) to germinate weeds, and hoe off those weeds once a week. This can really help reduce the weed seedbank in the soil. It is particularly useful before sowing small seeds of slow-growing crops, such as carrots.

What not to sow in short gaps in early spring

Other quick cover crops, like buckwheat and soybeans, are not at all frost-hardy, so wait until after your last frost date to sow those.

In early spring, the air and the soil are cold, and sowing a fast-growing vegetable crop will not be successful with a gap of less than eight weeks. Crops take too long to grow at this time of year.

 Spring gaps longer than eight weeks

If you have more than eight weeks you could try those fast-growing vegetables: kale, spinach, Tokyo bekana, radishes, chard, lots of salad crops, senposai, mizuna, tatsoi, land cress. Or try Eat-All Greens, an idea from Carol Deppe. Patches of carefully chosen cooking greens are sown in a small patch. When it reaches 12″ (30 cm) tall, Carol cuts the top 9″ (23 cm) off for cooking, leaving the tough-stemmed lower part, perhaps for a second cut, or to return to the soil.

Young spinach seedlings.
Photo Pam Dawling

Undersowing oats in spring

Another way we have used oats in spring is between rows of peas (grown on the flat, not in beds). We sowed the oats the same day as the peas, and lightly tilled the oats in. We mowed the oats as needed during the pea training and harvest period to make access easy. This reduced the number of weeds, and we quite liked the “lawn” underfoot!

Green fallow (Full year cover crops)

If you have a bed with no crop planned for the whole season, you could grow a Green Fallow. You can plant long-term cover crops to replenish the soil. Start with oats or one of the more cold-hardy grasses, and once we get to warm weather, after the frosts, till that in (or mow if it mow-kills) and sow warm weather cover crops.

Reasons not to do no-till food crops in spring

Untilled soil in spring is colder than tilled soil, and growth of anything you plant in it will be slower, and harvests delayed. You could consider broccoli or cabbage, perhaps, but not warmth-loving crops. You may get more slugs and/or more fungal diseases with no-till. The cover crop could try to regrow, or you could get some weeds anyway.

Also, if you are planting by hand, transplanting into untilled soil is harder work than planting into loose tilled soil. Hand-sowing into untilled soil is tricky – winter snow and ice can leave quite compacted soil. If the notion of organic no-till appeals to you, experiment on a small-scale the first year. Reduced tillage is another option. Till out narrow strips in the oats for your plantings of large food crops normally grown on a wide row-spacing.

Using a push seeder for cover crops

EarthWay push seeder.
Photo from EarthWay

You can drill cover crop seeds using a push seeder. See VABF Using Manually-Operated Seeders for Precision Cover Crop Plantings on the Small Farm. Don’t worry if the seed ends up deeper than ideal. It will still germinate.

 

Cover Crop Planning

My book Sustainable Market Farming has a chapter on cover crops and 9 pages of charts about particular options.

The book Managing Cover Crops Profitably (third edition) from the Sustainable Agriculture Research & Education Program (SARE), is the best book I know on the subject. You buy the book or download it as a free PDF from SARE.

Book Review: The Lean Micro Farm, Ben Hartman

 

The Lean Micro Farm cover

The Lean Micro Farm: How to Get Small, Embrace Local, Live Better, and Work Less. Ben Hartman, Chelsea Green Publishers, November 2023. 260 pages, 7 x 10 inches, with color photos, charts and diagrams throughout. $34.95.

 Jump in and learn how to make a good living growing vegetables on 1/3 of an acre. Support two adults and two children and provide good-paying jobs for a small farm crew. The ideas and methods here can also be used by home gardeners seeking efficient use of time and space. Or first read Ben Hartman’s previous books The Lean Farm and The Lean Farm Guide to Growing Vegetables, where Ben teaches how to cut out waste and maximize efficiency on a 1-acre farm, before this newest book. As in his farming, Ben’s books have minimal waste! Descriptions and explanations are concise, to the point, clear, thoughtful and inspiring.

Even after applying Lean principles (from manufacturing) to his previous two farms, Ben was working too much and not having enough time for family and friends. He and his partner Rachel embarked on a quest to make the same amount of income, and support their family on 1/3 of an acre instead of the one acre they had farmed for 11 years. They reduced their travel time by moving closer to schools and customers. All their produce is now sold within 1½ miles of their farm! All their crops grow within 60 paces of their barn-house.

This book is packed with ideas for maximizing efficiency on farms of all sizes, including finding hyper-local markets, using deep-mulch no-till beds with quick two-step bed flips, choosing ergonomic and efficient tools and focusing on five crops that maximize income. An appendix provides tips for seven more crops.

Rachel and Ben discovered, as other farmers have, that having children changes things. Even with a few years of careful planning, and streamlining all their farming systems before the children were born, they were overworked and stressed. More changes were called for.

Get-Small pairs well with Lean, especially with selling very locally. Applying the Lean system starts with decluttering and organizing, keeping only frequently-used items in the production areas. Next identify precisely what your customers value. Then cut out waste that doesn’t contribute to efficiently providing produce that meets those values. Overproduction, waiting, transportation, over-processing, holding excess inventory, wasted motion, defective products, overburdening, uneven production and sales, and unused talent are all forms of waste that Ben identifies. Lastly, practice kaizen, or continuous improvement.

Images from Clay Bottom Farm

Small farms can help combat climate change (less shipping), reduce food waste, reduce start-up costs (enabling new farmers of lesser means, including more cultural diversity), reduce food deserts, increase biodiversity, and stabilize food supply in times of disruption. Small farmers are providing 70% of the world’s food while using only 30% of the world’s resources. Macro-ag provides sugar, corn syrup, soybeans, corn, mostly used to make junk food for humans and livestock.

The Lean Micro Farm explains five principles of getting small, illustrated by six tiny-farm profiles from across the world, where farmers are choosing a resilient, ecological approach, with minimal waste, and less use of plastics, petroleum and fertilizer.

The five principles are:

  1. Leverage Constraint
  2. Build Just Enough
  3. Essentialize
  4. Simplify
  5. Localize

Leverage Constraint means to identify a few specific limits, based on your values, that you will use to steer your farm, and be more focused. By their seventh year, Clay Bottom Farm was very successful. They built their 4th greenhouse while working flat out 6 days a week, growing 60 crops and selling all they grew to 50 CSA customers, 10 restaurants and 2 grocery stores. The farm hosted interns, dinners, and parties. Then baby #1 arrived, and #2 followed 18 months later. Time to set limits on the farm work! Doing this pushed them to move location, starting with a land search in 2017.

Areas for limit setting can include income, work time, resource consumption, infrastructure, land, driving around. One boundary they agreed on is to complete their farm work in 35 hours a week, max. To achieve this, they hired people. Another is to grow on 1/3 acre or less, which they achieved by giving up low-value crops, reducing crop failures, and filling unplanted space within 2 weeks. Their third boundary is to sell only in Goshen, their home city. This greatly reduces driving time, gasoline use and their carbon footprint.

Unsurprisingly, introducing constraints also introduced some anxiety and emotional reluctance. The worries did not pan out. They discovered that clear limits help you do better, and having a written summary of goals and limits, and another person to check-in with, help prevent “limit creep”.

The principle of Building Just Enough saves resources. When designing farm buildings from scratch, study traditional farm buildings in different cultures. Let the design follow from the flow of activities in the building. Build to last and be environmentally friendly. Making maximum use of the infrastructure you have helps spread fixed costs over a bigger base. The Barn-house is divided by a cement-floored workroom; a propagation greenhouse is attached to the south house wall.

The principle of Essentializing (Do less, but better) makes use of the Pareto Principle: about 20% of the products generate 80% of the income, 20% of the customers provide 80% of the cash. To apply this principle, first determine which crops are vital. There are three essential factors: the crop has to be one you can produce in high volume, with low costs, that sells at a good fair-market price. As well as cash crops for their income, Clay Bottom grows a home garden. I think the time spent on the homesteading crops doesn’t count as work within the 35-hour limit.

Also consider your customers and which are essential. You can’t include everyone! Keep customers that provide consistent high-volume orders, pay fair prices and are closest to your farm. You may also choose to sell at a discount to a worthy cause. Be sure the essential customers get what they need, and you get enough income. Be sure you understand what the customers really value. Don’t waste effort fulfilling imagined values.

The book includes bubble charts where crops, or customers, are represented by circles with areas showing their relative sales revenue. This is a visual way to learn that equal efforts don’t produce equal outcomes. If you want to work less, ruthlessly focus on the overlap between the 20% of vital products and the 20% of vital customers. Rachel and Ben are now able to make more than $85,000 in sales annually.

At Clay Bottom Farm, their five vital crops include tomatoes, salad mix, cilantro, spinach and kale. The four secondary crops are cucumbers, carrots, basil and sugar snap peas. As far as their vital few customers, they stopped delivery to 3 of their 7 restaurants, the winter farmers market, and paused their CSA.

Ben was transplanting tomatoes in the greenhouse on the day the restaurants closed with the Covid pandemic. They brainstormed and made a plan to deliver vegetables they’d planted for the restaurants, along with some fast-growing ones they hastily sowed, to CSA customers. The vegetables were delivered (without packaging) into coolers set out on their porches. Their quick pivot saved the business.

The Simplify principle applies particularly to fieldwork. Which tasks are truly essential? How can tasks be simplified? They introduced a no-till deep mulch system, which halved their bed prep time. They keep every tool visible under an overhang, and return them by the end of the workday.

Review completed tasks, and if needed, determine what to change to prevent failure next time. Don’t overplant because you expect failure! Divide possible solutions to a given challenge into four quadrants: complex and productive, simple and productive, complex and inefficient, simple and inefficient. Look for the solutions that are simple and productive.

The Swadeshi principle of weaving into the village includes opening your farm to other local people. Host meals, workshops, events for children. Provide good jobs for local people, host volunteers and interns. Don’t overstep your limits, of course. Localize fertility, by replacing inputs from far away, making your own good compost, inviting delivery of local street leaves, food production byproducts.

Part Two goes into designing and implementing efficient systems for high flow production. It starts with instructions for their deep mulch no-till system. You will need to get the book, as here I am only offering a broad glimpse of what is involved.

To set up a deep mulch system, clear your garden area and lay 4″ of good compost on the surface. Rake it smooth and plant into it. Every two years or so, add another inch of compost on the surface. Methods of clearing your plot include mowing, then tilling or tarping. Tilling is best if you have perennial weeds, or lots of grasses. Don’t be tempted to spread compost on ground with bits of grass growing! 4″ of compost will smother new weeds, but not established grasses. Lumpy compost is OK for this job, but it must be weed-free.

Clay Bottom Farm does not use cover crops. They leave as much of their crop material in or on the bed as is practical, and make lots of compost. Steve Wisbaum’s low-input compost method is recommended, with turning three times at critical stages, but no fancy equipment or strange amendments. There is a home-gardener version, adding materials bit-by-bit. It only needs turning once a year and should be ready in 9-12 months. I believe our very high phosphorus levels at Twin Oaks are partly due to using lots of compost, and we have beefed up our cover crop practices. I suggest you test your soil every two or three years and see the results of whatever you have been doing.

Ben Hartman using a paperpot transplanter.
https://www.claybottomfarm.com/

Free Paperpot Webinar with Ben Hartman, March 7, 2024

Join Ben at 4pm EST on Thursday, March 7 to learn how to use the paperpot transplanting system, a Japanese method of planting with paper chains, to give your farm or garden a boost. 

If you plan to use a paperpot transplanter, or think you might, design your layout with 75′ beds, as this is length planted by a half-chain of paperpots. Otherwise, choose somewhere in the 50′ to 100′ range for ease of access. Keep paths clear (no mulch) for ease of working with a wheel hoe.

The Two-Step Bed Flip process follows, saving huge amounts of time. For bed prep only two things are necessary: clearing the old crop (or weeds) and smoothing the ground ready for the next crop. Tarping saves a lot of effort, and enables you to plant more than one crop in a season. Cover the old crops with a silage tarp and let the plants decay. In sunny weather this will take just a few weeks. Clay Bottom Farm uses a 14′ x 75′ tarp that covers two beds (and three paths) at a time. Sandbags are set along the tarp edges every two paces. Remove the tarp and rake the surface, pulling any remaining debris into the path. Then replant the bed.

This system leaves the decaying roots in the ground, providing air channels and food for microbes. The decaying matter on the surface feeds the soil. In summer, small greens decompose in a few days. Two weeks is long enough for most crop breakdown in May-September in Indiana. Full size finished fall greens may take until spring to break down. Tall plants need to be cut down before tarping, so the tarp can lie flat and taut. You can plant the new crop between the rows of old crop remains, without disturbing the soil.

The Two-Step Bed Flip keeps the soil biota alive. Use a soil testing lab for nutrient levels and organic matter to assess biological life in the soil, and the Haney soil test to measure CO2 and soil aggregation. Ben has found that on both types of test their soil is improving each year.

If you need the bed sooner than tarping can provide, use a wheel hoe to undercut the old crop, rake it up into a pile at the end of the bed, and replant. Ben recommends the battery-powered Tilmor E-Ox electric wheel hoe for tough jobs.

Learn lean farming online with the Lean Market Growing Masterclass

They drastically reduced their tools to just 7 vital cultivation tools, removing rarely used ones to storage. For bed prep, they use the 30″ rake sold by Johnny’s and Earth Tools. PEX plumbing piping can be fit on tines to mark planting rows. A good wheel hoe with Hoss fixed blade (no oscillation) open sweeps is used to clear paths and loosen compacted soil. An aluminum scoop shovel is used to spread compost and grade paths. Buy one the same width as your paths. An adjustable width wire tine rack is used to tidy paths and between rows. A 6½” De Wit half-moon hoe (swan-neck hoe) performs many tasks around crop plants and a narrow collinear hoe cultivates between close rows of crops. Lastly, a Clarington Forge digging fork is used for removing root crops and tap-rooted perennial weeds. For harvesting, they use curved grape shears and 6″ stainless steel restaurant produce knives.

Learn how to convert a broken upright freezer or fridge into a germination chamber heated with a water-filled slow cooker controlled by an Inkbird thermostat. A working freezer is used in summer to germinate lettuce seeds, using the same thermostat. When the seedlings pop, move the trays to a grow-light table, using power-saving LED lights.

Field tools include the Jang seeder and the paperpot transplanter. Lithium-ion battery tools such as a brush cutter/string trimmer/edger, a leaf blower and a Jacto PJB backpack sprayer all make life easier for the aging farmer, meaning all of us, as Ben has found with the E-Ox, and the Tilther (good for lighter soils). The Quick-cut greens harvester from Farmers Friend is used several times a week for baby greens. Ben has added handle extensions (made from wiggle-wire channel) for improved ergonomics. Both the tilther and the greens harvester get power from a cordless drill.

Three types of cart haul the bounty: a Vermont garden cart, an electric golf cart and a 24″ wide flatbed cart for moving harvested greenhouse tomatoes between the rows.

Following the tool discussion comes a chapter on designing and building the infrastructure, including dealing with city permits and officials. Rachel and Ben sought a studio lifestyle, like that of other artisans working from home. They got their engineer-drafted site plan approved by the planning department. After that were several building inspections, including farming, mechanical and environmental inspections. Don’t underestimate the costs of all the permits and inspections. From his hard-won experience, Ben offers useful tips, starting with holding an interdepartmental meeting including the fire marshal, engineer, building inspector, planning department and anyone else who might have a stake in the project. Before the meeting date, prepare a good description of your project, with drawings and photos. Hand this out and ask the meeting if the project fits in with the city’s vision, and whether they are willing to work with you in addressing concerns. If possible, include at the beginning any changes you might want in a few years.

For this review I will skip over the sections on electric and solar energy systems, building design, passive heating, wells and more. Those who need that info, especially anyone making a new wash-pack space, will find the book helpful. (I am intrigued by learning of constant pressure well pumps, that adjust the amount of pressure according to the water in use, giving better performance and saving electricity.) Instead of a walk-in cooler, they use a three-door refrigerator cooled with an air-conditioner and a CoolBot, saving a lot on electricity. Produce is delivered within four hours of harvest.

The two plastic greenhouses use rack-and-pinion peak vents and sensors that activate them. In summer they pull shadecloth over the peak of the roof. Peak vent systems are becoming affordable – theirs came from CVS supply, an Amish manufacturer in Ohio (1-877-790-8269) – and can be retrofitted. Installation takes time, but is no more difficult than constructing the greenhouse.

Clay Bottom Farm has several automated greenhouse systems that have proved very worthwhile. One system opens and closes the peak vent and the sidewalls and can act as a thermostat for the heating (VCU2-24 from Advancing Alternatives). A Wi-Fi-enabled system from Orisha Automation sends phone alerts if temperatures get out of range. All of the farm’s automated systems can be controlled remotely.

Greenhouse and beds at Clay Bottom Farm

They built their greenhouses with walls 2′ higher than normal, to maximize useful space; concrete sidewalks across each end wall inside and out, with a lumber and foam sheet thermal barrier directly under the wall; bifold doors that slide up, creating a small overhang when open; steel hat-profile baseboards; a “Swedish skirt” of 1″ foam insulation along the sides of the greenhouse, covered with landscape fabric fastened to the baseboards and edged with steel landscape edging to keep out the weeds;

The book includes a new invention, the ultra-low tunnel, a boxed bed covered with rowcover supported on crosswise cables and held down by bungees. This is used to get an early start on spring crops.

There is a Five-Step Quick-Start Guide for those just starting up in farming, using a 5,000 sq ft plot in your backyard to grow $20,000 worth of produce. The 50′ x 100′ plot is divided into 12 beds. Allow 6 months to set up the infrastructure, starting the fall before your first growing season. Expect to spend $7,700 on seeds, compost, tools and a starter hoophouse, and to spend two or three days a week tending your crops in the peak season. This plan would work for a half-time grower. Buy the book – you know it will be worth it!

Rachel and Ben “Leaned” their farm to have a more satisfying life, less rush and more peace, with more time for their family. I loved seeing the photos of their two young boys at work. They are clearly applying themselves to their tasks, and show a lot of confidence and skill, and enjoyment.

While I fully support farmers figuring out which are the best, most profitable crops to grow, and specializing in those, I’m left with a concern about the bigger picture: when all the growers focus on greens, who will supply the local, sustainably grown potatoes, sweet corn, and squash? We have a two-part food system, with some lovely local organic crops and some jet-lagged pesticide-laced crops. I hope we come up with a more cooperative unified scheme before too long.

Author Ben Hartman

Success with Growing Cabbage in Spring

Young Early Jersey Wakefield cabbage, a fast maturing pointed variety.
Photo Pam Dawling

Some of this material is from my book Sustainable Market Farming.

Cabbages can be reliable workhorses, providing large harvests over long periods. In colder regions, cabbages are planted only in the spring and grow all summer, into the fall and winter, until cold weather kills them. In the South, they are a spring/early summer and a fall/overwintered crop, as it’s too hot to grow them in the summer. In parts of California and the Pacific Northwest, they’ll grow year-round.

Cabbage crop requirements

Cabbages do best on fertile, well-drained soil with adequate moisture. They require a lot of potassium, so a sprinkling of wood ash, kelp meal or granite dust could be helpful. Calcium, boron, iron, manganese and molybdenum are also important for good brassica crops — healthy, biologically active soils can usually supply enough of all these. If not, amend as needed.

Young Farao cabbage, a good fast-growing round variety.
Photo Pam Dawling

Cabbage varieties

Be clear about what kind of cabbage you are looking for, especially whether it’s for fresh eating, slaw, sauerkraut or storage, and what size you want and how many days from seeding to harvest.

  • For quick-maturing cabbage, we choose Early Jersey Wakefield (63d OP), Golden Acre (62d OP) and Farao (64d F1) (All days to maturity in this list are from transplanting in spring. Add 14 days for direct sowing. Subtract 10-14 days for warm weather sowings.)
  • For large solid cabbage for making sauerkraut, we choose Gunma (110d F1), Tribute (103d F1) or Early Flat Dutch (85d OP)
  • For a green cabbage that holds well in hot weather, to extend the season as long as possible, the flat Tendersweet (71d F1) is tasty and works well for us. It is good for coleslaw and wraps, but not for storage
  • We like a red that’s fairly large and yet quick-maturing (many reds are too slow for us, taking us deep into hot weather). We used to favor Super Red 80 (73d), but gave it up after two poor years. Ruby Perfection (85d F1) stores fairly well, as does Integro (85d F1)
  • We like savoy cabbage, and find Melissa (85d F1) and Famosa (80d F1) quick and reliable
  • For storage we have liked Storage #4 (95d F1), Kaitlyn (94d F1), and Late Flat Dutch (100d OP)
  • Deadon (105d F1) is a particularly cold-hardy one to grow into the winter. It survives down to at least 10°F (-12°C)
  • High Mowing and Johnny’s Seeds have good selections of over twenty cabbage varieties, including the 77d 10-17 lb (4.5-7.7 k) Megaton, good for fresh eating and kraut.

Sowing cabbage seed

A seed flat of cabbage and several flats of spotted out seedlings in our greenhouse in February.
Photo Pam Dawling

In early spring, transplants have the advantage over direct-seeded crops — they grow faster under protected conditions and bring earlier harvests. At other times of year, you may prefer to direct seed.

Work back from your desired harvest date to calculate the sowing date. Naturally you’ll need to allow for your climate and choose a realistic transplanting date. We start our very first cabbages in our greenhouse in mid–late January, as soon as I’m mentally prepared to start a whole new year. Maincrop cabbage follows in mid-February.

Despite being a cool-weather crop, brassicas actually germinate very well at high temperatures: the ideal is 77°F–85°F (25°C–30°C), and 95°F (35°C) is still OK. Given enough water, the seedlings will emerge in four and a half days at the low end of this range, and at the top in only three days. The minimum temperature for good germination is 40°F (4.5°C), but you’ll need to wait more than two weeks for emergence if it’s that chilly.

We start our spring cabbages in home-made open wood flats, sowing 3–4 seeds per inch (5–10 mm apart). We press a plastic ruler 0.25″ (6 mm) deep into the seed compost to make a small furrow, spacing the rows 2″–3″ (5 cm) apart.

Once they have emerged, the seedlings need good light, nutrients, airflow and protection from bugs. 60°F–70°F (15°C–21°C) is a good temperature range for growing them. As soon as the seed leaves are fully open, we spot (prick) them out to 4″ (10 cm) deep flats, with 40 plants per 12″ x 24″ (30 x 60 cm) flat. The plants grow to transplanting size in these flats.

Spotting cabbage seedlings from a seed flat into a transplant flat.
Photo Wren Vile

For the last two weeks before transplanting, harden off the plants by moving them into cooler, breezier, brighter conditions.

Transplanting cabbage

We grow spring cabbage in 4′ (1.2 m) beds, at two rows per bed, with plants 18″ (50 cm) apart. Mini-cabbages can be spaced at 8″–12″ (20–30 cm) in the row, with rows 12″–18″ (30–45 cm) apart, and may give higher total yields as well as heads of a more useful size.

We aim to transplant at four true leaves (5–8 weeks after sowing in spring). This is early to mid-March for the earliest cabbage (seven weeks old), very early April for maincrop cabbage. Soil temperatures of 65°F–75°F (18°C–24°C) are ideal. Optimal air temperatures for most brassicas are 60°F–65°F (15°C–18°C).

Water the seedlings well before transplanting, and plant all the way up to the base of the first true leaves to give the stem good support. Press the soil very firmly around the plants so the roots have good soil contact and won’t die in an air pocket. I was taught to tug on a leaf after transplanting: if well planted the leaf will tear and the plant will remain in the ground. Water within half an hour of planting and again on the third and seventh days, and then once a week.

Young spring cabbage with a hay mulch. Wren VIle

For cabbage, the sixth and seventh leaf stage is the most vulnerable. If the weather deteriorates at this critical time, give your plants extra protection. High daytime temperatures can to some extent compensate for low nighttime temperatures — it’s cold days and cold nights together that do the damage. We use thick rowcover over our spring cabbages for a few weeks after transplanting, then may switch to insect netting.

Two weeks after transplanting, we check the plants and fill the gaps with transplants we have kept for this. If it is necessary to use big plants to fill gaps, we pinch off a few of the lower leaves to reduce their water needs.

Caring for  cabbage in spring and summer

About a month after transplanting maincrop cabbage (mid-May), we remove the rowcovers and the sticks we use to hold them down.

We use only overhead sprinkler irrigation (not drip tape) for spring cabbage, which helps cool the leaves and can wash off aphids. Organic mulches help keep the soil cool, as well as adding lots of organic matter to the soil. Brassica roots are relatively shallow, so long droughty spells without irrigation can cause problems. One inch (2.5 cm) of water per week is about right.

One of our impact sprinkler tripods, in a broccoli and cabbage patch.
Photo Pam Dawling

Cabbage pest control

Using rowcovers or insect netting keeps many pests off the plants while they are small. We have not had much trouble with aphids, perhaps partly because of our overhead sprinklers; insecticidal soap sprayed three times, once every five days, can usually deal with them. Our worst pest is the harlequin bug. When necessary, we handpick them. Ladybugs are reputed to eat harlequin bug eggs.

Sometimes we have had enough cabbage worms to make Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) necessary, but usually paper wasps eat the caterpillars. The action threshold is an average of 1 cabbage looper, 1.5 imported cabbageworms, 3.3 armyworms or 5 diamondback moth larvae per 10 plants. Below this level you can do watchful waiting rather than spraying with Bt or spinosad. Apparently paper or plastic fake cabbage moths on sticks will deter more from moving in. There are templates for homemade cabbage moth decoys online. The eyespots are important!

Yarrow flowering in our hoophouse in late November, 13 months after sowing.
Photo Pam Dawling

We are also lucky enough to have the naturally occurring wasp parasite of cabbage worms, the Braconid wasp Cotesia species, which are found as small cottony white or yellowish oval cocoons in groups on brassica leaves. The Cotesia wasps like umbelliferous flowers, and overwinter on yarrow as well as brassicas. If you find Cotesia cocoons and your brassicas aren’t diseased, you can leave plants in the field over winter. Or you could collect up leaves with cocoons in late fall and store them at 32°F–34°F (0°C–1°C) until spring. Hopefully no one will clean out your fridge without asking.

To float out worms and aphids after harvest, soak the produce in warm water with a little vinegar for up to fifteen minutes, then rinse.

Harvesting cabbage

Our cabbage heads up from May 25 and some hold till July 15. For storage cabbage (a valuable crop in summers in warm climates with scarce fresh leafy greens), we set the cut heads upside down on the stump, in the “basket” of outer leaves, and come back an hour later to gather them into net bags. This allows the cut stem to dry out and seal over, improving storability.

Mature Farao early cabbage. Note the curling-back leaf on the head, a sign of maturity.
Photo Pam Dawling

VABF and Pasa Conferences 2024

I’m busy getting ready for presenting three workshops in Roanoke at VABF, and two in Lancaster, PA at Pasa. I hope to meet some of you there.

January 2024 Event

Virginia Association for Biological Farming

and VSU Small Farm Outreach Program

January 19-21 2024

VABF/SFOP Summit conference January 2024
VABF-SFOP Summit

REGISTER HERE!  (at the bottom of their page)

The inaugural Virginia Association for Biological Farming-Small Farm Outreach Program Summit 2024 brings together farmers, gardeners, eaters, educators, industry professionals, and advocates of sustainable, biological, regenerative, and organic agriculture!

The three day Conference includes:  Full and Half Day Pre-Conference intensive workshops, 60+ sessions and workshops, presentations and panel discussions, 40+ tradeshow exhibitors, locally sourced farm meals and book signings. The Conference features a Youth & Teen Program, a Silent Auction and networking opportunities including regional networking meetings, and the Taste of Virginia Expo & Social! 

Learn more: VABF-SFOP Summit pre-conference sessions

Keynote Speakers

Jean-Martin Fortier

Jean-Martin (JM) Fortier is an organic farmer, author, educator and internationally recognized advocate for regenerative, human-scale and profitable agriculture. JM Fortier founded the Market Garden Institute. He is the author of The Market Gardener, and co-author with Catherine Sylvestre  of the Winter Market Gardener. His presentation is Friday 1-5 pm.

We regret to inform you that Niaz Dorry has had to cancel her keynote speech due to understandable personal reasons. Fortunately, she has kindly connected us to another exciting speaker, Ray Jeffers.

Ray Jeffers

Ray is a native of  Person County, NC, where he also operates the family’s century farm purchased by his great-grandfather in 1919. Previously Ray served for 12 years as an elected Person County Commissioner (2008-2020), and was most recently elected in 2022 to the North Carolina House of Representatives where he serves on the Agriculture committee.  Ray continues to serve on several local and state boards promoting agriculture and rural communities. Ray attended Piedmont Community College and North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University.

B. Ray Jeffers joined the RAFI-USA team in June 2021 and near the end of 2022 became Director of the Farmers of Color Network. Ray is no stranger to the job as he currently grows seasonal vegetables for wholesale and direct sale at his B.R. Jeffers Farms in Roxboro, NC, as well as raises heritage breed hogs for direct sale at markets and restaurants.

We’re excited and grateful to have Ray join us for Part 1 keynote address during Saturday evening and a Part 2 keynote address during Sunday lunch.

Pre-Conference Workshops

7 Full and Half-Day Pre-Conference workshops and a farm tour are available on Friday, January 19. In 2024, thanks to grant funding from USDA-NOP-TOPP and a sponsorship by Sand County Foundation, all workshops and the farm tour are being offered free of charge to VABF-SFOP Summit attendees. Workshops may be added on free of charge to your Summit Registration. Spaces are limited.

The Full Day Workshop, Holistic Farming Methods: How Organic, Biodynamic, Permaculture, & Beyond Integrate for a Sustainable Future, includes the Hotel Lunch Buffet free of charge. The Lick Run Farm Tour includes a bagged lunch on the farm. All other pre-conference workshops have the option of purchasing the Hotel Lunch Buffet for $35.

on Friday 1/19, 9 am to noon,I am presenting a half -day workshop: Year-Round hoophouse Vegetables

Hoophouse with winter crops

Fill your hoophouses (high tunnels, polytunnels) all year round with productive crops. In this course you’ll learn how to decide which crops to grow—with an emphasis on vegetables—how much to plant and how much to harvest by making maps, schedules and crop rotation plans. We’ll discuss which market crops are best at various times of year—cold-hardy, early warm-weather and high summer crops—and consider less common crops, such as seed crops and flowers, and cover crops for soil improvement. Learn how to maximize the use of space by clever seasonal transitions, succession planting and follow-on cropping. The course will also provide strategies for managing challenges such as extreme temperatures, nitrate accumulation in leafy greens, soil-borne diseases, pests and nematodes, salt buildup, and maintaining soil organic matter.

Session Schedule

Explore the conference schedule and see when different sessions will be held.

On Saturday 1/20, 4-5.30 pm, I am presenting Storage Vegetables for off-season sales, in the Buck Mountain Room.

Our winter squash storage cage. Photo Twin Oaks Community

Grow crops you can sell during the winter, while allowing yourself some down-time and reprieve from outdoor work. Choose suitable crops, schedules and storage conditions. Understand your weather and basic crop protection. This workshop will provide tables of cold-hardiness and details of four ranges of cold-hardy crops (warm and cool weather crops to harvest and store before very cold weather; crops to keep alive in the ground further into winter, then store; hardy crops to store in the ground and harvest during the winter, and overwinter crops for early spring harvests before the main season). It includes tables of storage conditions needed for different vegetables and suggestions of suitable storage methods, with and without electricity.

On Sunday 1/21, 8.30-10 am, I am presenting Lettuce Year-Round, in the Mill Mountain Room.

Buckley One-cut (Eazileaf) lettuce.
Photo High Mowing Seeds

This presentation includes techniques to extend the lettuce season using rowcover, coldframes and hoophouses to provide lettuce harvests in every month of the year. The workshop will include a look at varieties for spring, summer, fall and winter. We will consider the pros and cons of head lettuce, leaf lettuce, baby lettuce mix and the newer multileaf types. Information will also be provided on scheduling and growing conditions, including how to persuade lettuce to germinate when it’s too hot​​, and the Asian greens used as lettuce in tropical climates.

Taste of Virginia Expo and Market & Social

Included in the Conference Registration and free and open to the public is the Taste of Virginia Expo & Market on Saturday, January 20, 2 – 9 PM in the Crystal Ballroom at Hotel Roanoke. Featuring sampling and sales of Virginia-crafted foods, local libations, handicrafts, and herbals. Complete the evening with music, dancing, and socializing from 8-10 PM.

Youth Program

VABF is offering a Youth Program for children ages 5 – 12, and a special teen program for 12-18 year olds for only $60, including Saturday lunch and dinner and Sunday lunch . Youth Program Registration is offered as an add on to Conference registration or as a stand alone registration.

Lodging

Hotel Roanoke

Rooms in the VABF room block at Hotel Roanoke are $135 + tax  a night. Rooms may be booked online here or by calling (540) 985-5900 (or toll free at 866-594-4722) between the hours of 8am-5:30pm Monday – Friday and say you’re with the VABF Room block. Cut off date is Friday, December 29, 2023.

Book with the VABF-SFOP group rate at The Hotel Roanoke

Check out our Lodging page for more info! 

Silent Auction

Always a fun experience to bid on unique and useful farm and garden products! If you have homemade gifts, books, or items on your farm that you no longer need that may be valuable to someone else, bring them on to the Silent Auction at the Conference! Great way to donate to VABF!

Locally Sourced Meals

VABF is working to procure the majority of our Conference food from local member farms. We look forward to supporting our member farms and enjoying delicious, fresh, local food from the farms below! All Conference Registrations include lunch and dinner on Saturday, lunch on Sunday and morning coffee and tea.

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February 2024 Event

Pasa 2024

Pasa Sustainable Agriculture Conference

Thursday Feb 8 – Saturday February 10

Pasa’s 2024 Sustainable Agriculture Conference

Lancaster, Pennsylvania on February 8–10

On Thursday February 8, 4-5 pm, I am presenting Storage Vegetables for off-season sales

Sweet potatoes crated in the field.
Photo Nina Gentle

Grow crops you can sell during the winter, while allowing yourself some down-time and reprieve from outdoor work. Choose suitable crops, schedules and storage conditions. Understand your weather and basic crop protection. This workshop will provide tables of cold-hardiness and details of four ranges of cold-hardy crops (warm and cool weather crops to harvest and store before very cold weather; crops to keep alive in the ground further into winter, then store; hardy crops to store in the ground and harvest during the winter, and overwinter crops for early spring harvests before the main season). It includes tables of storage conditions needed for different vegetables and suggestions of suitable storage methods, with and without electricity.

On Saturday, February 10, 11.30 am -12.30 pm, I am presenting Crop Rotations for Vegetables and COver Crops

Crop Rotation Pinwheel

This workshop offers ideas to design a planting sequence that maximizes utilizing cover crops and reduces pest and disease likelihood. Pam discusses formal rotations and ad hoc systems for shoehorning minor crops into available spaces. She also discusses cover crops suitable at various times of the year, particularly winter cover crops between vegetable crops in successive years. Pam provides examples of undersowing cover crops in vegetable plantings and no-till options.

In addition to my sessions, you’ll find 70+ other workshops and discussions on a diverse array of farming and food system topics:

Keynote Speaker Reginaldo Haslett-Marroquin

Plenary keynote speaker Reginaldo Haslett-Marroquin is a farmer and the founder of the Regenerative Agriculture Alliance, a non-profit organization focused on scaling up a systems-level regenerative poultry solution that restores ecological balance, produces nourishing food, and puts money back into the hands of farmers and food chain workers. He is also the co-founder and CEO of Tree-Range® Farms, the for-profit market-facing arm of the system working with family farms to raise chickens in their natural habitat—the jungle!

Dr Heber M Brown

Rev. Dr. Heber M. Brown III, another plenary speaker at this year’s conference, is a pastor, public speaker, community organizer, and social entrepreneur. He is the founder of the Black Church Food Security Network, which advances food security and food sovereignty by co-creating Black food ecosystems anchored by Black congregations in partnership with Black farmers and others.

Ira Wallace

Other featured speakers include Ira Wallace of Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, Zach Loeks of Ecosystem Solution Institute, Catherine Sylvestre of Ferme des Quatre-Temps, Allyson Levy & Scott Serrano of Hortus Arboretum & Botanical Gardens, Russ Wilson of Wilson Land & Cattle Co. and the FairShare CSA Coalition.

Zach Loeks
Catherine Sylvestre

 Learn more & register

Favorite posts of 2023: soil, winter, garlic, melons, beans, aphids

I’m hunkered down on this rainy January day, in expectation of high winds and lots of rain. I’ve battened down the hoophouse and I’m working to get a blog post out before the electric coop’s warning of possible extended power outages comes true!

One of many wheelbarrows full of compost we spread on our raised beds every year.
Photo Wren Vile

In the past year, my top post has been Soil Tests and High Phosphorus Levels. Clearly a worrying topic for those who like me, once though compost should be applied as generously as possible. I wrote this post in 2017, and it’s still an issue many people want to learn about.

The second highest number of views goes to Which Vegetables are Genetically Modified (GMOs)? Another worrying topic.

Ugly, but not dead yet! Tokyo bekana outdoors on January 7, 2024 after several cold nights, at least two at 20F, two at 18F, one each at 15F and 12F. Photo Pam Dawling

In third place  is Winter-Kill Temperatures of Cold-Hardy Vegetables 2021, and in fourth place is Winter-Kill Temperatures of Winter-Hardy Vegetables 2016. The 2018 version is in 8th place. My highest number of views in a single day came when Texas had that awful very cold weather, in mid-February 2021, and farmers and gardeners needed to find out in a hurry which crops to try to protect, which to give up on, and which needed no attention.

Fifth place goes to one of my many garlic posts: Garlic Scapes! Three weeks to bulb harvest. Scapes, the flower stems of hard-neck garlic, are an underappreciated auxiliary crop. They are not just a freebie extra, but removing them helps the garlic bulbs grow bigger. Pulling scapes would be worthwhile even if you didn’t use them.

Pulling garlic scapes.
Photo Wren Vile

Cover Crops in Summer is number 6 in popularity. Sunn hemp is joining our list of favorites, along with buckwheat and soy.

Root Cellar Potato Storage comes in at number 7. That’s from 2018. Root cellars haven’t changed!

Crates of potatoes in our root cellar.
Photo Nina Gentle

Harvesting Melons is next. I remember when I didn’t know what “full slip” meant. I found out and decided to make a post, reckoning many other people didn’t know either. That’s a heritage post! From 2012, the year I started this site.

Young bush bean plants.
Photo Pam Dawling

Green Beans All Summer is close behind. The post includes an unusual method of planting bean seed through plastic mulch, as well as early season and late season beans, and scheduling sowings for continuous harvests all summer.

Growing Flowers to Attract Aphid Predators rounds out the list. The post includes info and photos of many annual flowers we tried for our hoophouse. Most of them did not flower early enough to deal with the January and February aphids that have no ladybugs to eat them. We have established several perennial yarrow plants, and have hopes for those this year. We’ve also come to appreciate the value of bolted brassicas, such as tatsoi, turnips, and senposai. Their flowers do attract beneficials.

Leave a comment if your favorite didn’t make the top ten, or if there is a topic you’d like me to cover, or update, or give more details on.

Cover Crops in January: The Big Picture

Winter rye and crimson clover cover crop
Photo by McCune Porter

Since May 2023 I have written a post at the beginning of each month about cover crops. In most parts of the US,  January is too late to plant any cover crops, and too early to terminate any  in preparation for sowing(except winter-killed ones!). This is a great time to ponder your cover crop strategies for the coming year, and perhaps plan some changes or tweaks.

I found a great treasure trove of cover crops resources from SARE (Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education). The Resources and Learning tab led me to the Cover Crops Topic and the four page publication Cover Crops for Sustainable Crop Rotations.  

My search for slideshows didn’t immediately turn up the collection I had saved previously, but there is plenty there to usefully inspire you on a rainy day, when you’re all caught up on the accounting and the tool repairs! Or even sooner.

Here’s a compilation of slides I made from SARE’s materials. There are slides on reasons to grow cover crops, some beautiful photos of some good “starter” cover crops, factors to consider when choosing cover crops, information of planting equipment options and opportunities, and several slides of further resources.

Sit back and enjoy the show!

SARE Cover Crops Materials Digest

 

I can also give you to the most recent version I have of my own cover crops slideshow

Cover Crops for Vegetable Growers 2023 60 mins

 

Cover of Managing Cover Crops Profitably book from SARE

Happy New Year , and all the best for a great 2024 growing season!

Success with Growing Cucumbers

A Spacemaster cucumber plant in our hoophouse on April 23.
Photo Pam Dawling

Cucumbers are often overlooked, and now we are at the slower time of year, we can think over some crops we’d like to improve on. Cucumbers provide juicy crunch and, if they get enough water while growing, good flavor that conveys the essence of summer meals.

Cucumbers can also help with hydration in hot weather. I well remember a hot day when I was rototilling. I was getting thirsty, had drained my water bottle, but didn’t want to stop until I had done as much tilling as was humanly possible that day. My luck was in! Next to where I was tilling was a row of cucumbers. I slowed the engine, grabbed a ripe cucumber on the drive past, and sank my teeth into it! Instant gratification! I quickly felt revived. Plus – no packaging, no food miles!

My book, Sustainable Market Farming, includes a chapter on cucumbers and muskmelons. Here is about a third of that information about cucumbers.

Cucumber varieties

Cucumbers are warm-weather crops, usually direct sown, and maturing 55–60 days later. They are very easy to grow, apart from dealing with pests and diseases! They include two types: slicers and picklers.

Among slicers are the standard American types (open-pollinated Marketmore types and hybrids such as Generally), European varieties such as Telegraph (60d OP) and long slender Asian ones such as Suhyo Long (60d OP). Asian varieties do not have the disease-resistance of varieties bred for US climates.

As I said in my post Vegetable Seed Varieties for 2024, our favorite slicing cucumber has been renamed Generally (66d F1, resistant to Cucumber Mosaic Virus (CMV); Downy Mildew (DM); Powdery Mildew (PM); and scab).

South Wind slicing cucumber.
Photo Common Wealth Seed Growers

In 2023 we tried South Wind from Common Wealth Seed Growers. South Wind (55d OP) is resistant to DM, PM and tolerant to BW. We were pleased with its sweet taste and lack of bitterness.

Pickling cucumbers are usually smaller than slicing cucumbers, and they remain crisp when pickled. Some kinds are harvested relatively large, and sliced to make pickles. Others are picked small and pickled whole. Pickling cucumbers can also be eaten raw. We like the small-leaved Little Leaf, also known as H-19 and Arkansas Little Leaf (56d OP, resistant to ALS, ANTH, Bacterial Wilt (BW), CMV, DM, PM and scab) not only because of its disease resistance but also for ease of recognition. We often have inexperienced helpers, and we say: “If the plant has small leaves, it’s a pickler, so pick small.” We have also liked Cross Country (57d F1, resistant to ANTH, ALS, DM, PM, scab, but susceptible to BW)

For an early hoophouse crop, we grow Spacemaster (60d OP, resistant to CMV and scab), a bush-type, full-sized variety.

“Burpless” is not genetically connected with bitterness. Some varieties have a recessive bitterfree gene, but they are just as likely to cause burps in susceptible individuals. Bitterfree varieties include Marketmore 80, Marketmore 97, Diva and European and Dutch greenhouse varieties (which stay mild even under drought conditions), Bitterfree varieties attract fewer cucumber beetles.

Both slicing and pickling cucumbers are available in gynoecious (all female) varieties. To make sure the fruits will be pollinated, these seeds come packaged with 10%–15% seeds of a pollinator variety (sometimes dyed so that growers can ensure some get in every planting). Olympian, Generally and Diva are gynoecious. The flowers with miniature fruit behind the petals are female.

Parthenocarpic varieties set fruit without pollination. These can be kept under rowcover for extending the season or to keep pests off for the entire life of the plant. Little Leaf, Telegraph and Diva are parthenocarpic.

Flowering cucumbers. Photo by Alexis Yamashita

Crop requirements, seed specs, yield of cucumbers

Cucumbers require a fertile, well-drained soil with pH 6–7 and plenty of sunshine. They have no frost tolerance. Adequate water is especially important in the seedling stage and during fruiting.

Cucumber seed specs: 1000 seeds/oz, 36 seeds/g. 0.5 oz /100′, 6 oz. /1000′ at 6 seeds/ft (100 seeds, or 11g/m at 2.5 cm spacing).

Cucumber yield can be around 260 lb/100′ (388 kg/100 m), and the amount to grow could be 10–15 lb (5–7 kg) per person for the season. Unless you are growing parthenocarpic varieties, you will need ten to twenty bee visits per flower during the one day the flower is open, for a good-shaped and -sized fruit to grow.

Sowing cucumbers

Soil temperatures should be at least 60°F (15.5°C), preferably 70°F (21°C), so you might do transplants early in the year. Cucumber seeds will not germinate at a soil temperature below 50°F (10°C). We transplant our first planting and direct sow the rest.

For direct sowing we make a furrow 0.5″–0.75″ (1.3–1.8cm) deep, water the furrow if the soil is dry, put one seed every 6″ (15 cm), pull the soil back over the seeds and tamp down. We cover with hoops and rowcover or netting until the plants start to flower (about a month) as we have many pests and diseases. Once flowering, we remove the cover, hoe and thin to 12″–18″ (30–45 cm). Cucumber rows need to be 3’–6′ (1–2 m) apart.

It is possible to sow through black plastic mulch by jabbing holes in the plastic and popping the seeds in. This method leads to earlier harvests, as the mulch warms the soil, and there will be no weeds.

New Spacemaster bush cucumber transplant in a bed with old winter spinach, young snap peas and baby lettuce mix.
Photo Pam Dawling

Transplanting cucumbers

Cucumbers are not very easy to transplant, so choose a method that minimizes root damage, such as soil blocks or 2″ (5-cm) deep cell flats that are easy to eject plants from. Sow 2–3 seeds per cell 0.5″ (1 cm) deep. Single (thin to one plant per cell) by cutting off weak seedlings at soil level. Keep temperature above 70°F (21°C) during the day and 60°F (16°C) at night.

Sow four weeks before you intend to plant out, and harden the plants by reducing water before transplanting. Warm overcast conditions late in the day are best for transplanting, and rowcover (on hoops to reduce abrasion) can be used to provide sheltered conditions. Cucumber transplants are often leggy and should be planted so that the entire fragile stem up to the base of the leaves is below soil level.

Caring for the cucumber crop

In bare soil, hoe soon after the seedlings emerge, and thin the plants as needed. Drip irrigation and plastic mulch can do a lot to improve the quality, yield and earliness of melons. Plastic mulches prevent weeds during the critical weed-free period as the vines grow. They can also reduce cucumber beetle numbers, as they deter egg laying and larval migration.

Avoid working the crop (including harvesting) when the foliage is wet, as fungal diseases spread this way.

Succession planting of cucumbers

Because old plants are more likely to yield bitter cucumbers, succession planting is very worthwhile even if you have no pests. We grow five plantings of outdoor cucumbers and one early one in the hoophouse. Our second and fourth outdoor sowings include picklers as well as slicers.

Our sowing dates now are Mar 1 (to plant in the hoophouse April 4 or so), March 25 (to plant outdoors April 20), May 23, June 22, July 16 and Aug 6. Aug 6 is about as late as it is worth sowing here, where the first frost can be Oct 14. We use rowcover on cold nights for this late crop. As a rule of thumb, in spring, make another sowing when the first true leaf appears in the previous sowing. In summer, make the next sowing when you have 80 percent emergence of the previous planting.

Insect pests of cucumbers

As always, encourage beneficial insects and predators to reduce pest numbers. Soldier beetles (Pennsylvania leatherwings) and wolf spiders are good predators.

Striped cucumber beetle in a squash flower.
Photo Pam Dawling

Spotted and striped cucumber beetles cause feeding damage and transmit bacterial wilt and squash mosaic virus. Rowcover or insect netting will keep beetles from vines, but will need to be removed when the female flowers open, except for parthenocarpic varieties. Some people report good control using the yellow plastic sticky traps along with the cucumber beetle lure sachets sold by Johnny’s Seeds.

Another approach is to grow a trap crop such as Cocozelle summer squash, Seneca or Dark Green zucchini, or Hubbard squash along the edge of the field. The trap crop is then flamed or tilled in when pest numbers build up. If all else fails, and action is imperative, Spinosad will kill them. Neem doesn’t kill them, but does deter them.

The brown marmorated stink bug (BMSB), Halyomorpha halys, has over three hundred host species, including almost any fruit or podded crop. It can cause tremendous damage and, so far, has no reliable methods of control, organic or otherwise. It has several generations per year in the South. Predatory stink bugs, assassin bugs, spined soldier bugs and two native egg parasitoids will reduce the BMSB numbers, but may not give adequate control. Also see eOrganic Stink Bug Management Using Trap Crops in Organic Farming.

Low-cost management tactics include growing parthenocarpic under cover throughout growth and harvest. The High Tunnel Pest Exclusion system using 40%-50% shade knitted shadecloth to cover tunnels is effective at excluding stink bugs.

Diseases of cucumbers

To minimize diseases, choose resistant varieties, provide favorable growing conditions, plow in or remove and compost plant refuse, and control insect pests. The downloadable Cornell University Resource Guide for Organic Insect and Disease Management has information on dealing organically with most common diseases, including Angular leaf spot (bacterial), Anthracnose (a fungus disease), Bacterial wilt (Erwinia), Black rot/gummy stem blight (Didymella bryoniae fungus), Downy mildew, Mosaic virus, Phytophthora blight, Powdery mildew, and Scab (Cladosponum cucumerinum fungus). There are good photos in Identifying Diseases of Vegetables from Penn State.

Harvesting cucumbers

I wrote on this site about Harvesting squash and cucumbers, in 2018. In hot weather some people get a rash while harvesting, from prickly leaves on sweaty skin; others just get a short-term itchiness that is cured by rinsing arms and hands in cool water.

A helpful hint is to wear long sleeves for this task. Keep a suitable cotton shirt handy to slip on before you start. But sometimes it just feels too hot. Cutting sleeves off an old shirt and hemming and threading elastic in the top end works.

Using a pole to locate cucumbers among the vines. Note the cucumber beetle feeding holes in the leaves.
Photo Pam Dawling

For seeking mature cucumbers, we use a pole to rummage in the vines. It does little damage, and you can easily feel when you hit a cucumber. To harvest cucumbers, put your hand around the fruit and use your thumb to push the stem away from the top of the fruit. Remove oversize cucumbers to stimulate continued production.

Storing cucumbers

Cucumbers can be held at 45°F–50°F (7°C–10°C) and 90% humidity for up to two weeks. They will be damaged by temperatures too cold, becoming soft and slimy. Storage near other ripening fruits or vegetables can cause cucumbers to become bitter.

Season extension for cucumbers

Late crops can be covered with rowcover to fend off a few light frosts. Pollinators won’t be able to get at the flowers, but that doesn’t matter if you already have enough pollinated fruits on the plants. It takes cucumbers about 45 days or more from pollination to harvest, so if you are having a few early frosts, using rowcover and pruning to get a last flush of fruit can be very worthwhile.