The September issue of Growing for Market magazine is out, and with it, my article Building resilience into farm systems. I’ve embarked on a four-part fall and winter series of articles aimed at helping growers thrive under varying situations, some of which we have no control over.
This first article is about being prepared for whatever Nature throws at you, expecting to adapt, and building in options. I’ve sent in the second article, about understanding and predicting conditions,for the October issue. It covers weather forecasting, frost prediction, Growing Degree Days and phenology. The next one after that will include using soil temperatures, scouting and monitoring for problems and something about on-the-spot decision-making. The last one will deal more with decision-making, reviewing results and learning from mistakes.
To read the articles, get a subscription to the magazine.
For those who like inspiring background reading, I recommend Stewart Brand in How Buildings Learn: What Happens After They’re Built(Penguin 1995). He advocates for
constructing buildings that are easy to modify later, in gradual or drastic ways to meet the changing needs of the people inside. Farms can be looked at similarly. Keep as many options as possible (for crops, cover crops, crop layout) open for as long as possible. Brand’s current main activity is through The Long Now Foundation
It can be helpful to do some scenario planning, which I learned about when I read The Art of the Long View, by Peter Schwartz (Doubleday, 1991). Scenario Planning is a method of making flexible long-term plans, using stories (scenarios) to help us visualize different possible futures that include not only factors we don’t control, like the weather or the market’s enthusiasm for bulb fennel, but also intangibles such as our hopes and fears, beliefs and dreams.
No time to read books? Very sad! Maybe see you at the Heritage Harvest Festival at Monticello, near Charlottesville, this Friday and Saturday.
It can be hard to find out just how cold a temperature various vegetable plants can survive. Reading books written in different parts of the country can be confusing: “survives all winter” is one thing in the Pacific Northwest and another in Montana. So for some years I have been collecting data and exchanging information with my friend and neighbor Ken Bezilla at Southern Exposure Seed Exchange. Each winter I try to record what dies at what temperature. Below is my current list, which should be treated as a work in progress.
Your own experience with your soils, microclimates and rain levels may lead you to use different temperatures. If you have data from your garden, please leave a comment. Likewise if you have found particular varieties to be especially cold-tolerant, I’d love to learn more. Central Virginia isn’t the coldest spot in the US, but if I can grow something without rowcover, I’m happy to hear it!
Here’s our temperature list at which various crops die:
35°F (2°C): Basil.
32°F (0°C): Bush beans, cauliflower curds, corn, cowpeas, cucumbers, eggplant, limas, melons, okra, some Pak Choy, peanuts, peppers, potato vines, squash vines, sweet potato vines, tomatoes.
27°F (-3°C): Most cabbage, Sugarloaf chicory (takes only light frosts), radicchio.
25°F (-4°C): Broccoli heads, chervil, chicory roots for chicons, and hearts, probably Chinese Napa cabbage (Blues), dill, endive (hardier than lettuce, Escarole more frost-hardy than Frisée), annual fennel, large leaves of lettuce (protected hearts and small plants will survive even colder temperatures), some mustards and oriental greens (Maruba Santoh, mizuna, most pak choy, Tokyo Bekana), onion scallions, radicchio. Also white mustard cover crop.
22°F (-6°C): Arugula, Tatsoi. (both may survive colder than this.) Possibly Chinese Napa cabbage (Blues), Maruba Santoh, Mizuna, Pak Choy, Tokyo Bekana with rowcover.
20°F (-7°C): Some beets, cabbage heads (the insides may still be good even if the outer leaves are damaged), celeriac, celtuce (stem lettuce), some corn salad, perhaps fennel, some unprotected lettuce – some OK to 16°F (-16 °C), some mustards/oriental greens (Tendergreen, Tyfon Holland greens), radishes, turnips with mulch to protect them, (Noir d’Hiver is the most cold-tolerant variety).
17°F (-8°C): Barley (cover crop)
15°F (-9.5°C): Some beets (Albina Verduna, Lutz Winterkeeper), beet leaves, broccoli leaves, young cabbage, celery (Ventura) with rowcover (some inner leaves may survive at lower than this), cilantro, endive, fava beans (Aquadulce Claudia), garlic tops may be damaged but not killed, Russian kales, kohlrabi, perhaps Komatsuna, some covered lettuce, especially small and medium-sized plants (Marvel of FourSeasons, Rouge d’Hiver, Winter Density), curly leaf parsley, flat leaf parsley, oriental winter radish with mulch for protection (including daikon), large leaves of broad leaf sorrel, turnip leaves, winter cress.
12°F (-11°C): Some cabbage (January King, Savoy types), carrots (Danvers, Oxheart), multi-colored chard, most collards, some fava beans (not the best flavored ones), garlic tops if fairly large, most fall or summer varieties of leeks (Lincoln, King Richard), most covered lettuce (Freckles, Hyper Red Rumpled Wave, Parris Island, Tango) , large tops of potato onions, Senposai, some turnips (Purple Top).
10°F (-12°C): Beets with rowcover, Purple Sprouting broccoli for spring harvest, Brussels sprouts, chard (green chard is hardier than multi-colored types), mature cabbage, some collards (Morris Heading), Belle Isle upland cress, some endive (Perfect, President), young stalks of Bronze fennel, perhaps Komatsuna, some leeks (American Flag), Oriental winter radish, (including daikon), rutabagas, (if mulched), tops of shallots, large leaves of savoyed spinach (more hardy than flat leafed varieties), tatsoi, Yukina Savoy. Also oats cover crop.
5°F (-15°C): Garlic tops if still small, some kale (Winterbor, Westland Winter), some leeks (Bulgarian Giant, Laura, Tadorna), some bulb onions (Walla Walla), potato onions and other multiplier onions, smaller leaves of savoyed spinach and broad leaf sorrel.
0°F (-18°C): Chives, some collards (Blue Max, Winner), corn salad, garlic, horseradish, Jerusalem artichokes, Vates kale (although some leaves may be too damaged to use), Even’ Star Ice-Bred Smooth Leaf kale, a few leeks (Alaska, Durabel); some onion scallions (Evergreen Winter Hardy White, White Lisbon), parsnips, salad burnet, salsify, some spinach (Bloomsdale Savoy, Olympia, Tyee). Also small-seeded cover crop fava beans.
Even Colder: Overwintering varieties of cauliflower are hardy down to -5°F (-19°C).
The August issue of Growing for Market magazine is out! In it on page 9, you’ll find my article on how to harvest efficiently, mostly without machinery. Trade secrets are revealed – like when is a cabbage fully mature, and just what is “full slip” for a melon. And which crops should you harvest later in the shift, when the dew has dried from the leaves.
I cover organization, planning and management, finding good crop sequences (don’t leave the corn languishing in the heat while you get the beans!), tools, and various harvesting methods such as cutting whole heads, picking individual leaves, and “buzz-cutting” so the plant can regrow. And that’s just the leafy greens. There’s also the roots, including onions, and fruits (botanically speaking) such as tomatoes, peppers, squash, cucumbers and podded crops like beans and peas. Food safety, field washing and short-term storage until the happy diners get their hands on the food – all this is covered too.
When you grow 60 different crops, how do you make time to harvest them all? Well, of course, not everything is ready to harvest at once, even in August. Some crops we pick every day, some every other day, some twice a week. Here’s a trick we use: For the every-other-day crops we have developed an ingenious phonetic system. On Monday, Wednesday and Friday we harvest crops beginning with a k/c/g sound; on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday we harvest b and p crops. This works almost perfectly, with just a few crops we force into place: eggPlant not eGGplant! sPinach, senPosai! This system works well for us, and adds some amusement. It also ensures we harvest some cooking greens each day: kale, collards, cabbage some days, broccoli, pak choy, spinach on the other days. Beans take over from peas as the spring heats up. Corn gets picked on the days we don’t pick labor-intensive beans.
Our main tools are Garden Way type carts, 5 gallon buckets and knives. Although special harvest knives can be bought, and we have some of those, we get most of our knives at yard sales and thrift stores. Great value for the money! Serrated bread knives can be excellent tools for cutting cabbage and kohlrabi, anything with a thick stem.
My next few articles will be about dealing with nature’s surprises, being ready for anything, predicting what’s about to happen next, and deciding when to change plans and grow something different. Climate change is here, and we growers will need to adapt.
This morning we picked 99 watermelons. I hope this is the peak day of harvest! We’ve been harvesting on Monday and Thursday each week since 7/30 or maybe 7/26, I’ve already forgotten! Numbers have leapt up: 10, 34, 37, 99. We need 22 melons a day during hot weather, to keep 100 people happy. So for all of August, September and a few days of October, we need 700-800.
But today’s 99 is not our all-time record. In 2010 we picked 120 on 7/31. And in 2008 we picked 320 on 8/20. That was too many and too late in the year. I’ve only got records back to 2000.
2000 was a bad watermelon year. We used to transplant into hay mulch, for weed control. Of course, we knew hay would cool the soil, and watermelons love heat. But we just couldn’t deal with the weeds any other way. We hadn’t started using drip tape irrigation back then, so our overhead sprinklers watered all the weed seeds in the aisles between the rows too. We used a vast space, with 10′ between the rows. We didn’t get ripe melons till well into August. 2001 wasn’t much better.
In 2002 I did some research into plant spacing and found we didn’t need to give the plants (and weeds) so much space. So we cut the row spacing down to 5.5′ and planted twice as many melons. 5.5′ is just the right width for unrolling big round hay bales between the rows. We started harvesting 8/3. Much better! We got 60/week in the middle of August and 100/week by the end of August. Still peaking much later than sensible. Watermelon in October is like yesterday’s newspapers – there’s not much demand.
2003 had a wet spring, we planted into mud. The harvest peaked 9/16. In 2004 transplanting dragged out. Our new rowcover had a manufacturing defect and disintegrated like wet toilet paper all over the field. We got our money back but the plants were set back by the lack of cover when they needed it. We started saving our own seed that summer, selecting for early ripening and good flavor. Also presumably for spring cold-hardiness as they were from plants that didn’t die.
In 2005 I did more research into spacing, and we planted 2.5′ apart in our 5.5′ rows. It seemed wiser to plant closer and go for more plants and so more first melons (one on each plant), as it is early ones that we want. Keeping geriatric vines alive to produce a third melon or so seemed to be missing the whole point of eating watermelon in hot weather.
At this point in our history, we were still harvesting up until frost (average mid-October here). We were planting about 1260′. We started to track how many melons we had on hand and what rate we were consuming them, so we could decide when we had enough and stop picking.
In 2008 we had no hay mulch available. From this disaster came a wonderful thing: we discovered biodegradable plastic mulch. We have used two brands: Eco-One Oxo-Biodegradable mulch (made in Canada) and Bio-telo (made in Italy). This product is made from non-GMO corn and it starts to disintegrate after a couple of months in the field. It’s very thin and easily torn if the soil underneath is not smooth. It’s perfect for vining crops, because it stops the weeds growing and doesn’t disintegrate much until after the vines cover the whole area. And the big plus is that the bio-mulch warms the soil, rather than cooling it. Biodegradable mulches are now available in smaller pieces for backyard growers, from Johnnys Selected Seeds and Purple Mountain Organics.
We planted 1800′, more than usual because the area the rotation brought them to was a bowl shaped garden where crops sometimes drown in wet years. We started harvesting 7/31, and numbers rose rapidly.We didn’t get any floods. By 8/20 we had harvested 1000. That was the year we decided not to wait for frost, but to disk the patch in early and get a good cover crops established for the winter.
2009 had a peak harvest of 174 on 8/15. I think we stopped at 835 total on 9/2. 2010 records show an early start with 2 harvested on 7/18. We stopped at 665 on 9/8. We tried to experiment with various row spacings and plant spacings, but once the vines all meshed together and the weather got hot, our enthusiasm for science waned! We were planting 1060′. August had an inhuman workload, and we decided to see what we could do to reduce August tasks for future years.
In 2011 we decided to plant less, as were short of workers. We planned on 1080′ but then cut back further, and only planted 900′. This year we only planted 800′, with plants 36″ apart, so a lot fewer plants than in the old days of 1800′ and 30″ spacing. The melons are huge this year – I bet we don’t eat 22 of these a day!
So, having looked at the numbers here in the relatively cool office, I deduce that we haven’t picked anything like enough yet, and need 5 more 99-harvest days before we think about quitting. Time to start using the truck rather than the garden carts, for hauling them away. We’ve found the hard way that even though we can get 20 or so melons in a garden cart, it damages the carts and wrecks the tires. So now we keep to a 16-watermelon limit and save the carts.
Here’s the list of what we plan to do in our garden this month. We’re in central Virginia. Our average first frost is October 14
During the month:
Lettuce Factory: Sow lettuce every 5 to 3 days. Switch to cold-tolerant varieties after 20th. Transplant sowings #22, 23, 24, 25, 26.Set out 120 plants every 6-5 days (1/3 bed). Store seed in fridge.
Sortpotatoes 2 weeks after storing. Ventilate root cellar every few nights when coolest. Gradually get temperature down to 65°F by the end of the month. Try not to have temperature reversals.
String weave tomatoes once a week until plants reach top of posts.
Onions: move from basement to walk-in cooler as soon as space allows.
Monitor for grasshoppers on brassicas, carrots, beets.
Prevent nutsedge tuber formation by weekly cultivation in Aug and Sept.
Seed saving: Roma tomatoes –select plants, based on yield and septoria resistance. Mark & harvest seeds (usually 1 bucket each time) on days before bulk harvests. Don’t use diseased fruit or fruit from plants in decline. Keep 4-5 days till dead ripe, scoop seeds on Food Processing shift days. Ferment at 70°F for 3 days. Stir 3x/day. Wash, dry. Eg: Harvest Mon, scoop Friday, wash and dry Monday. Save 4 buckets tomatoes for 130gm seed.
Crimson Sweet Watermelon Seed: Overmature 10 days, harvest, scoop seeds, ferment 4 days at 70°F. Stir 3x/day. Wash, dry. Eg: Harvest and scoop Tuesday, wash Saturday. 1 melon = 22 g seed. 22 melons = 1 lb seed.
Perennials: Make new strawberry beds: Compost, till, raise, drip tape, newspaper and hay mulch. Chip or sawdust paths. One new patch follows corn #3, other follows part of the Green Fallow area. Plantnew strawberries using plugs, rooted potted runners or plants carefully thinned from last year’s beds. Water strawberry plants for next year’s crop, weed, and give compost. Mow aisles for fall raspberries, grapes. Remove blueberry roof netting if not done in July. Mow, weed, water in general. Grapes:visit, log progress, tie in, once in early August, once in late August.
Cover crops:Sow spring oats and soy for winter-killed cover in empty beds. (Not rye – may head up before winter.) Can sow buckwheat, soy, sorghum sudan, clovers; possibly winter barley, Miami peas; or Lana woolypod vetch at 2-3 oz /100 sq. ft. with oats
Sowbeans #6 (8/3, 15 days after #5), cukes#5 (slicing, by 8/5, latest) & zucchini and summer squash #5 (by 8/9), winter & fall radishes, turnips (by 8/15 if possible, by 9/15 latest), Swiss chard, 6 beds kale (2 each on 8/4, 8/10, 8/16, 8/24 until enough is established. Use rowcover against fleabeetles), beets (can sow dry or presoak 12 hours; sow 1/2″-1″ deep, tamp soil, keep damp, use shadecloth?). Sow all the fall carrots if not sown in late July & flame weed. Sow fall brassicas. Consider sowing sunflowers in kale beds to encourage grasshopper-predator birds.
Put spinach seeds in freezer now, two weeks before sowing, to improve germination .
Till between rows of corn #5, undersow with soy.
Transplant lettuce #22, 23. Finish transplanting all brassicas. Hoe and wheel-hoe the brassica patch, one section each morning. Re-cover or take covers from earlier plantings.
Watersweet potatoes when vines fully extended, (critical period for water).
Potato Onions, third sorting 8/5-10: check through, snip tops, separate clusters, sort by size, and weigh or estimate yield. Save 6 racks (150#) large (2-2½”), 5 racks (100#) medium (1½-2”), 4 racks (80#) small (<1½”) per 360 row foot bed wanted. Sell spare.
Plan and map next year’s main garden so best cover crops can be planted. Order winter cover crop seed.
Mid Aug: DON’T sow carrots or kale w/o cover (grasshoppers).
Till or wheel-hoe between broccoli rows (uncover), and undersow with mammoth red clover, white clover and crimson clover mix. Till between rows of corn #6 and undersow with oats & soy
Transplant lettuce #24
Sowkale #2, 3 (2 beds each time), fall radishes #2. Thin rutabagas to 10”, by 4 weeks-old.
Order seeds if needed: winter lettuce, early cabbage, other salads, kale, spinach, beets, onions, peppers, hoophouse tomatoes, winter hoophouse greens.
Late Aug: Sow kale as needed, scallions #5.
Finish fall carrot sowing if unable to get it done by early August – Flame weed.
Really finish transplanting brassicas, including kale from #1 beds. Transplant lettuce #25, 26
1st Fall disking: Disk corn #1 (future garlic), maybe form beds, sow buckwheat, soy (and Sorghum Sudan?) Disk corn #2 patch, sow oats & soy (future spring broccoli & cabbage). Or sow corn #1&2 in oats & soy and make garlic beds in October.
Disk old spring broccoli (may be already in summer cover crops), in time to sow rye and vetch 9/7.
August Harvests: Asian melons, asparagus beans, beans, cantaloupes, carrots, celery, chard, corn, cow peas, crabapples, cukes, edamame, eggplant, grapes (early or late Aug), komatsuna, lettuce, limas, maruba santoh, okra, pak choy, peppers, hot peppers, fall raspberries, Romas, senposai, summer squash, Tokyo bekana, tomatoes, turnip thinnings, watermelons, winter squash (acorn & cha cha ), yukina savoy, zucchini.
This week we’ve been busy tilling and raking beds in preparation for some Last Chance sowings.
In our climate zone, with an average first frost date of October 14, the first half of August is the last chance to sow several vegetables and get crops from them before winter. It’s important to know the last date for planting each crop so that you have a reasonable chance of success. For this part we got help from the Virginia Tech Extension Service: Fall Vegetable Gardening.
The first group of Last Chance sowings are the warm weather crops, such as green beans, cucumbers, zucchini and summer squash.
Here’s the formula (for frost tender crops), for figuring the number of days to count back from the expected first frost date; add the number of days from seeding to harvest, the average length of the harvest period, 14 days to allow for the slowing rate of growth in the fall, and 14 days to allow for an early frost. For example, yellow squash takes maybe 50 days from sowing to harvest, and the plants are good here for 21 days, so the last date for sowing would be 50+21+14+14= 99 days before the first frost. For us that means 99 days before 10/14, so 7/7. But with rowcover to throw over the last planting when it gets cold, the growing doesn’t slow down, and the season is effectively 2 weeks longer, and we can ignore the 14 days for an early frost. So our last planting of squash is 8/5, a whole month later than if we didn’t use rowcover..
But August is way to soon to be thinking about frosty weather, except to ensure we have enough rowcover on hand when the time comes. Here, and in many parts of the country, a frost or two will often be followed by a few more weeks of warm weather, so getting past the first few frosts is the effort. It’s easy to get extra harvests for a month or two from mature plants you already have.
We sow our #6 planting of beans 8/3, 15 days after #5; cukes #5 (slicing), by 8/5 at the latest; and zucchini and summer squash #5 by 8/9.
The second group of Last Chance sowings are cool weather crops that grow here in spring and fall, but don’t thrive in the summer. Beets, carrots, chard, turnips and radishes all fall in this group. It can be hard to get some of these to germinate when the soil is still hot.
On 8/1 we sow beets dry or presoaked for 2-12 hours in a little water – not too much water or for too long, as they need to breather air, or could drown. We sow them 1/2″-1″ deep, tamp the soil, and keep the surface damp with daily watering for the 5 or 6 days they take to emerge. We have tried using shadecloth to help keep the soil moist, but it does cut down the airflow and our climate is humid and fungus-inducing. I like the Formanova/Cylindra/Forono beet. The shape is long (good for slicing), and the flavor is very sweet and the texture tender.
Very early in August, or sometimes in late July, we sow a large planting of fall carrots, enough to store and feed us all winter. Danvers 126 is our workhorse carrot. We use an EarthWay seeder, which is light, easy to use and to empty, and comes at a reasonable price. There are more expensive precision seeders that put the seed out more evenly, and so don’t require the amount of thinning that using the EarthWay does, but we’re happy with our choice. We use pre-emergent flame weeding to remove the first flush of weeds, making it easy to then hoe between the rows.
Carrots and beets are ideal crops for this technique. The goal is to flame the bed the day before the expected emergence of the crop. use a soil thermometer and a table of how many days the crop needs to germinate at various soil temperatures, to figure out which day to flame. For carrots it’s possible to sow a few “indicator beets” at one end of the bed, and as soon as you see the red loops of the beet seedlings breaking the surface, flame the carrots. (But look for carrots too, just in case!) Beets are always a bit quicker than carrots to germinate. Tables of Days to Germination can be found in Knott’s Vegetable Growers’ Handbook (Wiley, 2006), by Donald Maynard and George Hochmuth, and Nancy Bubel’s New Seed Starter’s Handbook. (Rodale, 1988)
We use a handheld flamer attached to a propane cylinder that is in a wheelbarrow pushed by a second person behind the first. this person also acts as a “fire warden”. Some growers mount the propane on a backpack frame. Walking along the aisle between the beds, and wafting the wand diagonally back and forth across the bed takes about 10 minutes for a 100′ (30 m) bed. Flame weeding alone can reduce the hand weeding to one hour/100′. Hand weeding can be reduced to 6 minutes/100′ by flaming after using stale beds which have been hoed 3 or 4 times.
Swiss Chard can also be sowed here in August, for a nice fall harvest. We sow ours in April and just keep it going all summer, fall and (if covered) winter too.
At the beginning of August we sow winter storing radishes, China Rose, Red Meat, Shindin Risoh Daikon and Shunkyo Semi-Long. We also sow Easter Egg small radishes. We can have trouble with flea beetles as well as harlequin bugs on our fall brassica sowings, as the pest numbers have built up over the summer. To avoid these troubles, we put rowcover over the beds until the plants are big enough to stand up for themselves against “pest bullying”.
We sow 6 beds of kale, two each every 6 days, (8/4, 8/10, 8/16, 8/24) until we succeed in getting enough established. Often we’ll get patchy emergence and end up transplanting plants from one bed or one end of a bed to fill out the blank areas.
We sow our turnips 8/15 or up until 9/15 (our absolute latest). Rutabagas need longer than turnips, and we’ve given up growing them because late July weather is just too hot and dry. Brassicas will germinate just fine in hot temperatures – the challenge is keeping the soil moist.
This new book (published by the University of Minnesota Press) offers a real-life organic vegetable farmer’s memoir. Normally, I look for inspiring reading during the winter, to refresh myself for the next farming season. This book, however, is a perfect mid-summer revival aid for farmers and gardeners flagging in the heat. It gives us perspective on our troubles as we read of Atina’s and husband Martin’s struggles with wild weather (hailstones the size of B potatoes!), continuous hard work, and land lost to developers and threatened by a pipeline. The immediacy of their powerful and tender story and Atina’s decision to stand up and become a leader for what she believes in gives us inspiration. We can feel validation of our work as organic vegetable growers as we read that 1¼ acres of kale can produce 182,000 servings, and if our marketing is as good as the Diffleys’, we can sell them all within 42 miles of the farm! Organic farming sequesters 15-28% more carbon than industrial farming, with a 33% reduction in fossil fuel use.
Atina and Martin owned and operated Gardens of Eagan (one of the first certified organic produce farms in the Midwest) from 1973-2007, so you can be sure Atina knows farming! Starting as a confused teenager (as many of us do), Atina grew into a strong, committed passionate leader of the organic farming movement. Her descriptions of the beauty, deep satisfaction, multiple stresses and sheer exhaustion of farming ring so true. She talks about the meaning in the daily life of organic farmers, of investing in the soil life, creating balance, seeing the potential of each field, and bringing that out. “Dirt is just soil that’s out of place. Soil has structure. Dirt does not.”
Early in the book, you might wonder if she’ll ever make it as a farmer, but her determination and perseverance, and the quality of attention she brings to what happens on the farm ensure her success, and our gripping reading. The Diffley family farm is lost to developers, who carve and churn up the soil even while Atina, Martin, their two children and their crew rush to harvest their crops. They decide to piece together a farm from patches of land they buy and rent, until they find the perfect farm to buy. Being itinerant farmers is no easy choice, and requires exceptional organizational skills.
One of their organizational strengths comes from using Holistic Management tools learned at a workshop. She and Martin each write “quality of life” statements, answering the question “If we lived perfect lives, what would it look like?” Each winter they quit farming for a week, party and relax in clean clothes, with clean fingernails. Even talking about the weather is an “illicit act” during the Quitting Week. Then they state their goals for the year and recommit. When they farm again it is a conscious choice. Decisions have to fit their quality of life statements.
Atina says: “I have the same nightmare every winter. If I think about everything it takes to pull off a successful season, it seems impossible . . . [but] if we have a plan in place and I stay in the present, then the work is manageable. . . I just have to remember not to look too far ahead.” Exactly the same is true for me, maybe for you too.
One year they decide to simplify their crops and cut a deal where each picks a crop to drop. Goodbye to potatoes, onions, winter squash, leeks. Sort of. Atina admits that she and Martin then each sneak some winter squash in, unable to completely let go of the experience they have gained in growing this crop.
This amazing book also has gems of practical information embedded in the story, and they’re worth noting. Techniques include the use of farm micro-climates (the first place the purslane germinates is the best spot for early tomatoes and melons); moving flats of aphid-infested seedlings out into the center of a field of vetch for the day, to have the insects in the vetch feast on the aphids; accepting up to 50% defoliation of broccoli plants between the six-leaf stage and heading, because it will not decrease the yield; reducing the chance of aphid-vectored diseases in a squash planting by sowing a “toothbrush strip” of wheat around the perimeter (when the aphids chew on the wheat it cleans the viruses from their mouthparts, so the squash stay virus-free).
The farm grows in size and complexity each year, with a bigger work crew and more refrigerated trucks. They also develop a massive supportive community of consumers and produce retailers, which is to prove its worth as the story develops. When the Diffleys find their new farm, they can finally set the washing-line poles in concrete. But a big cloud comes over the perfect horizon – Koch Industries claim eminent domain to route their pipeline through their farm. Atina fights this, not just for their farm, but for other organic farmers too, establishing a protocol for safeguards to be taken if organic farm soil and wildlife habitat is disrupted.
The normal legal process for a farm trying to prevent a pipeline across their land involves proposing other people’s farms as possible alternative routes. This process divides us and causes each of us to need to compete with each other and fight individually. Atina Diffley created an Organic Appendix to the Agricultural Impact Mitigation Plan (AIMP) that is legally required when farmland is dsirupted. Atina and her legal team got the pipeline company to accept that (in the words of Dr Deborah Allen) “The losses to an organic vegetable farm from diminished soil quality are of a different character and order of magnitude than on a conventional crop farm.” Healthy soil is necessary for a successful organic farm. By creating this Organic Appendix and getting the pipeline company to accept it, Atina made something other organic farms could also use to prevent eminent domain devastation on their farms. It could also encourage other farms to transition to certified organic and benefit from the Appendix. Far from falling for the individual solution and fighting only for her farm, while further jeopardizing other farms, Atina found a way to unite with other organic farmers in fighting the assault.
This mixture of heart-breaking and encouraging is what makes the book so engaging. Atina tells us: “Every winter I do recover from the season’s exhaustion, but if I push too far, I won’t. As we age, personal balance will require more consistent time for renewal.” In keeping with her wisdom, after 35 years of farming, Atina and Martin retired from active farming to become educators and consultants about organic farming. See their Organic Farming Works website for more info.
Here’s this month’s task list, which you can adapt for your own vegetable plot. We’re in central Virginia. It’s 100F just so you know! October 14 is our average first frost date.
During the month:
Mow clovers, and sorghum sudan cover crop areas.
Lettuce Factory: Sow heat-resistant lettuces, every 5 days, (sowing #20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25), using shade-cloth & burlap to cool the soil after and before sowing. Soil temp must be below 80°F – use Jericho if very hot, with ice on seed rows, or sow in plastic flat in fridge. Transplant #16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21 this month under shadecloth – 120 heads (1/3 bed) /planting. Store seed in fridge.
String weave tomatoes once a week with binder twine.
Seed selection: Romas: Select for high early yield and healthy foliage. Mark with ribbons on T-posts (bows on good side). Select 100 from 260 plants. Remove off-types, don’t select from plants within 150’ of other tomatoes.
Perennials: Water blueberries, take up & store roof netting. Mow, weed & water all perennials.
Cover crops: can sow buckwheat, soy and sorghum sudan during July. Also white clover if damp enough.
Mow spring potato tops if they have not died by 7/1. Spread compost for fall brassicas following potatoes. Disk in compost ASAP, or if disking impossible, till.
Sowbrassicas for fall, resow earlier brassicas if needed. Use rowcovers, water and your best powers of memory.
Sowcarrots #8 (if needed), corn #5. Last date for limas is 7/6.
Asparagus: First week of July (or sooner) is a good time for weeding, composting and tucking mulch.
Transplant lettuce #16, 17.
Hill up peanuts at 12” tall, and mulch them.
Clear any remaining spring carrots, for best flavor. Stop harvesting broccoli when it gets bitter.
Potato Onions – July 10-15 Second sorting: check through curing bulbs, starting with the largest. Eat any > 2”, or refrigerate and plan to plant them in September. Use Worksheet and Log Book.
Strawberries –July 6-8: If propagating from our plants, pot up 600-900 for each planting, pencil-sized crowns, 2 or 3 leaves, 4” petioles. Use current favorite method. Remember irrigation. 580 for 1 bed in East Garden, 900 for 2 beds in Central Garden, 800 for 2 beds in West Garden. Finish renovating strawberries by mid-July, restore 20″ paths.
Plan, inventory and order winter cover crops. Make cover crop maps.
Summer Disking: Get spring broccoli & cabbage area bush-hogged, disked, sown in summer covers – same time as second disking for corn #6. Disk some of the Green Fallow area for new strawberries, sow buckwheat & soy.
Harvest spring potatoes 2 weeks after tops have died; air the root cellar and warm to 70°F. Store potatoes in the early morning. Ventilate the cellar every night or two, especially if it’s wet in there.
Richard Wiswall’s Organic Farmer’s Business Handbook is the perfect book for organic farmers like me who focus on the production side while intending (hoping?) to use time wisely and effectively. If you want to make a living directly from sustainable food production, as opposed to making a living from something else in order to fund your passion, this is the place to look for help. Mostly this is a book about vegetable growing – I think it would also be directly useful to organic growers raising fruit, flowers, seed crops, hay or feedstocks. Livestock farmers would also get value from applying the principles.
Don’t worry that this book will be dry and inaccessible – not so! Richard Wiswall’s wholistic approach to getting us to investigate how successful our farm ventures are includes starting with a questionnaire on personal values, and consideration of goals, quality of life and the meaning of true sustainability.
Next he leads us into a closer look at how some apparently humdrum crops (kale) can be great money-earners while other apparent basics (beans) can be a loss leader at best. In this way he encourages us to track production and sales via a Crop Journal with a page for each crop and a note made each time any task is performed on a crop (at the end of each day).
Peppered throughout the book, at just the spots where you might start to think you can’t do it, are encouraging messages: “It’s so easy!” “Think like the bank statement. Be the bank statement!” “Checkbook balancing is just a different crossword puzzle” “That’s it! No rocket science in there.” Richard Wiswall has the gift of making spreadsheets nice and easy, clear and useful. He leads us through making crop budgets for each crop in a simplified way so we can then list all our crops or enterprises in order of net return. Then we have the information we can use to make decisions for the future.
One chapter steers us through labor costs and overheads so that we can clearly see whether it’s better financially to raise transplants or buy them in (assuming they are available). We can compare the income from restaurant sales with farmers’ markets, with CSA sales for a good balance. Tractor and implement use is not free, even if you’ve already got the machines in the barn. Hand transplanting is more efficient for areas of ¼ acre or less. There is a whole chapter on production efficiencies with photos of useful implements and a box warning on avoiding hearing loss.
And just in case you think the rest of the book is going to be all profit calculations, Richard takes a deep look at how to be an effective manager, write a good crew job description and be the kind of farmer people want to work with. He spends time on coaching in simple ways to prevent money leaking away, and how to plan for comfortable retirement.
Next, Richard leads us step by step through writing a business plan, making a balance sheet and cash flow projections. This is all explained beautifully clearly and the chapter ends with congratulations on creating a road map for the future of your farm.
An appendix includes examples of all the worksheets he advocates, including crop budgets for 24 crops, including greenhouse tomatoes. And the best bit is – the book includes a CD you can copy and use to create your own budgets, timesheets, payroll calculator, and a farm crew job description template as well as the Vermont Farm Viability Enhancement Program Farm Financials Workbook, compatible with Windows, Mac and Linux. Buy it, it will soon repay you the $34.95; or order it from the library.
Richard Wiswall,Sally Colman and family at Cate Farm in Central Vermont cultivate 22 acres and seven 100-foot long greenhouses of organic vegetables, medicinal herbs, and flowers. You can buy the book directly from Cate Farm.