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

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.

Book Review The Winter Market Gardener, Jean-Martin Fortier and Catherine Sylvestre

 

Cover of The Winter Market Gardener

The Winter Market Gardener: A Successful Grower’s Handbook for Year-Round Harvests, Jean-Martin Fortier and Catherine Sylvestre, New Society Publishers, October 2023. 256 pages, 7.5 x 9 inches, with color photos and drawings throughout. $39.99.

 Jean-Martin Fortier’s first book, The Market Gardener, is a well-loved international best-seller. In this new book, he has worked with Catherine Sylvestre, to focus on cold-weather growing. Catherine is the director of vegetable production and leader of the market garden team at la Ferme des Quatres-Temps, in Hemmingford, Southern Quebec, Canada. The farm includes mixed livestock, an orchard and an 8-acre market garden designed and established by Jean-Martin Fortier. FQT was initiated by a local multi-millionaire who wanted to set up an experimental farm to demonstrate what was possible and to resolve some of the challenges in developing a diversified farm using efficient regenerative methods. The farm now has a second site, in Port-au-Persil, five hours away in the northern Charlevoix region.

At FQT, the authors train cohorts of employees and try out ideas that were not possible on the more limited budget of les Jardins de la Grelinette where Jean-Martin and his wife Maude-Hélène Desroches grew food for 200 families on two and a half acres. Since 2015, Maude-Hélène has been the solo operator of la Grelinette (an hour away from FQT).

With good techniques, equipment, and varieties, and enough personal energy, year-round production can provide premium local vegetables and make a profit. This book will inspire and help. It is packed with detailed vegetable profiles, tips for winter crop planning, and successful growing and storage of fall/winter crops. There is precise information on tool selection and best use, and on selecting shelters, from rowcover to high tunnels. The book was written in the authors’ native French and ably translated by Laurie Bennett. I love the word “shelters” to include all kinds of protected growing, and I hope it comes into common use in English!

The Winter Market Gardener builds on years of research, experimentation, and collaboration, as all who have read The Market Gardener will appreciate. It is a practical guide to winter vegetable production for small farmers in northern climates, and elsewhere. Initially I thought this would be a delight to read, but not of much practical use to me in central Virginia, a very different climate. I soon found I was wrong. Questions of the value and profitability of types of greenhouse and tunnel heating are thoroughly considered, in terms of heat sources, financial and planetary costs, and benefits. There is info on some crops I have never grown, not here nor in England. The crop planning calendars have solid info in a nice accessible intuitive format. There are charts, graphs, illustrations to help you get started or smooth your path in winter growing.

Don’t think for a minute that running a farm owned by a multi-millionaire means efficiency and results are unimportant! It does permit some enviable pricey equipment, but careful trials, record-keeping, and profitable products are essential to the purpose of the project.

The concept behind Ferme des Quatre-Temps is to find the sweet spot between intensive organic production, and a biodiverse landscape. Jean-Martin and a team of permaculturists came up with the design for the farm, including the livestock. The theories and practices are taught to a group of apprentices each year, and via the online Market Gardener Institute, and its Masterclass.

Whatever your level of experience or scale of production, The Winter Market Gardener will encourage and inspire you to value high-quality local vegetables all year, and give you tools to produce them in winter. There is an appendix for people wanting to use these methods on a backyard scale. 645 ft2 (60 m2) can grow enough vegetables for 3-5 people for the whole (Québécois!) winter. And, of course, you can grow summer vegetables there when winter is over.

Don’t think growing vegetables all-year means no time off – you just need to plan to include breaks, or rotate workdays around the crew. And remember that winter has shorter days and a slower pace than summer. For those growers pursuing an honest life of hard work on stuff that matters and makes a difference, here is a guidebook.

As the number of winter growers increases, the demand for fresh food increases, and we have job security! To be sustainable, winter harvesting must be profitable, so invest in this book. It may happen that small-scale winter food production becomes not just the tastiest option and least-damaging to the planet, but our only option. During the Covid pandemic, it became plain that in the Northeast of North America, 70% of vegetables come from California, Mexico, or even further afield. It took only three days to deplete the supply of fresh vegetables in the stores.

Some countries responded to this realization by providing grants for local food growing, including high tunnels and greenhouses. Catherine and Jean-Martin propose that giving the money to fifty or 200 small-scale farms would be a better investment than giving it to a twenty-hectare tomato greenhouse, (as happened in Quebec). Production of cold-hardy vegetables in winter uses much less energy than growing tomatoes! Additionally, growing summer vegetables in winter requires artificial lighting, causing light pollution, disrupting the circadian rhythms of humans and other animals. No one yet knows how artificial lighting affects the nutritional quality of food grown that way.

Catherine Sylvestre.
Photo New Society Publishers

Jean-Martin and Catherine identify five key principles of winter growing:

  1. Lack of sunlight in winter is more limiting than lack of heat.
  2. Many vegetables can withstand freezing temperatures.
  3. Cold-hardiness in crops can sometimes be bred for.
  4. Layered shelters (rowcover, tunnels) can allow more vegetable production in winter.
  5. Installing minimal heating can make winter growing more successful, and can be profitable.

A useful chart suggests how many layers of rowcover to use at various night temperatures and daylengths. This guideline that could work wherever you grow.

There are good descriptions of making low tunnels and caterpillar tunnels. High tunnels (hoophouses, polytunnels, passive solar greenhouses) are permanently located and usable year-round, although unheated. Greenhouses are permanent structures, heated, somewhat insulated, made of glass or two layers of plastic. There is a small chart showing the outdoor killing temperatures of four crops, unprotected outdoors, in a high tunnel and in a high tunnel with P19 rowcover. For example, lettuce will die at 21°F (-6°C) outdoors with no protection, at 7°F (-14°C) outdoors if protected by a high tunnel, and at 0°F (-18°C) outdoors, if under rowcover in a high tunnel. This is followed by a comparison of the various shelters in terms of cost, thermal gain and features and uses.

Don’t consider adding heating unless you have at least a double layer of plastic and in-ground perimeter insulation. At la Ferme des Quatre-Temps they have perforated polyethylene tubing that distributes hot air along the beds. The increased revenue from faster growing crops must be covered by the increased costs of heating or adding more layers of rowcover. They present a table and a bar chart comparing cost of heating, cost of labor to manage row covers, and revenue. For their situation, heating to 37°F-41°F (3-5°C) trounces no heating, and beats heating to 54°F (12°C). It also matters how much workers are willing to move rowcovers, or enjoy doing that as part of winter growing.

To reduce heating costs, check your insulation. Regularly monitor and repair broken parts of your structure. If you are buying new, remember that bigger structures hold more warmth from the daytime. Ensure your heater is an efficient one, and you have blowers to push the heated air around.

Here’s a counterintuitive bit that makes complete sense once you’ve thought it through: On short cloudy days, there’s little point in adding heat, because the plants won’t be able to photosynthesize more. On warm sunny days, if the temperature is still low, your plants could gain photosynthesis with a higher temperature to balance the good light.

Avoid letting the humidity remain over 90% for more than a few days at a time. Ventilate, and if necessary, heat for an hour while doing that! Be sure to ventilate if the sun is shining. One of my hoophouse mantras this winter is “More air, less water!” – good airflow is vital to keep plants healthy.

As for heating, what fuel to use? Ecology is important, environmental awareness is a guiding value. Profitability has to be in there. Fossil fuels are not sustainable. Electricity produced by coal or nuclear power has no appeal. In Quebec, growers are fortunate to have hydroelectricity, from a publicly owned utility. Even with such a benign fuel source, there is still a decision to be made about the delivery system: a furnace with an electric coil or a heat pump? A short physics primer on electric heating follows. This gem of info can save you from a permanent expensive mistake! For example, surface geothermal might cost $10,000, but regular geothermal could cost $125,000! There’s a thorough table comparing pros and cons of various types of heating, and a full-page color photo of hot air distribution tubes.

The next section is on winter crop planning. To grow healthy winter crops, first grow strong seedlings with good roots, then harden them off carefully to withstand winter. Use a larger cell size than you would in simmer. Seven days before transplanting into the ground, move the seedlings into colder conditions with more outside air. Gradually increase their cold tolerance over the week.

Lack of light is more limiting than low temperatures. Careful timing is needed to get plants to the right size before daylength reduces to ten hours and growing slows right down. The key is to get plants to 70% of their final size before this happens. Further south, the dark period is shorter, the soil holds temperature until later in the year, and you have more wiggle room. In northern climates, greenhouses and tunnels become outdoor storage rooms.

There is a chart of winter days to maturity of tatsoi, spinach and turnips, and days to reach 70% full maturity. Days to maturity increase as daylength decreases. Keep records of winter days to maturity of the crops you grow, calculate 70% of that time and work back from your last day of ten hours of daylight, and find the target date to sow that crop. Keep records of sowing dates and results.

For a continuous supply of cut-and-come-again leaf crops, calculations are more complicated. Keep good notes of when you sow, cut, and can come-again. You might get three cuts, or six, depending on your location. Figure a good sowing date, and don’t delay! You could do some trials with short rows sown on different dates.

The authors provide a table of winter sowing dates for twenty-five crops sown outdoors with P19 rowcover; in a caterpillar tunnel; high tunnel; and minimally-heated greenhouse. Plants can sometimes endure an hour or two at a temperature considerably colder than they can tolerate for several days.

Crop density may need to be decreased to ensure plants get enough light and airflow. Growing plants closer in the row, but with rows further apart (growing about 70% the number of summer plants), provides better light. There’s an appendix on crop spacing.

It is helpful to know when each crop is likely to bolt after the solstice. Some bolt earlier than others. Keep records and harvest accordingly.

The crop profile section follows. There are icons indicating semi-hardy crops (32°F to 25°F/0°C to –4°C), cold-hardy ones (23°F to 14°F/–5°C to –10°C); very cold-hardy crops (14°F to 22°F/ −10°C to –30°C); minimal heating, no heating, overwintering; transplanted, and direct-sown crops. The sidebar also includes recommended varieties, spacing and seeding and transplant dates in Quebec. Each profile has a beautiful full-page watercolor image. The text includes info on first harvest, succession sowing, intercropping strategies, pest and disease challenges, and good harvest practices.

Jean-Martin Fortier with his broadfork.

Next comes the section on recommended tools: broadfork, bed prep rake, (tilther perhaps), wheel hoe, two-wheel tractor (BCS), power harrow, rotary plow, (six-row seeder perhaps), Jang seeder, Earthway seeder, four-row pinpoint seeder (I could become a convert to this handy little tool!), stirrup hoe, collinear hoe, wire weeder, Terrateck wheel hoe with bio-discs, flex-tine weeder (looks good!), harvest knives, quick-cut greens harvester. 2023 prices are in an Appendix. I liked the home-made greens bubbler, a water tank with air bubbled into it, to agitate and clean the leaves.

Next is a section on tending your winter crops. How to have an unfrozen water supply (they don’t need any irrigation in unheated shelters in December or January). Why to avoid over-fertilizing (increased salt buildup, soil diseases, thrips and aphids). How to warm the soil, increase soil microbial activity, and rate of crop growth with landscape fabric, black plastic or rowcover. How to trap mice, and deal with pest insects when it is too cold for beneficial insects.

That section is followed by one about planning fall harvests of storage crops, which combines well with winter harvest of leafy greens, for more sales. Think not only of carrots, turnips and potatoes, but also of beets, cabbages, winter squash, parsnips, rutabagas, kohlrabi, onions, leeks, celeriac. There is. as always, encouragement to keep good records.

I really like their planting charts, where each crop is shown in its special color, occupying a physical amount of space (a column for each bed), and a time (rows for the weeks). With this plan in place, quick late summer crops can be squeezed into some beds, or cover crops. Each outgoing crop is flail-mowed, and covered with a silage tarp for two or three weeks.  The soil micro-organisms break down the plant matter under the tarp, leaving the bed ready to replant without tilling. Tarping takes longer than tilling, but the method treats the soil and micro-organisms more holistically.

The general material about fall growing is followed by crop profile pages for suitable storage crops. Their method of transplanting beets gets better germination rates and uniformly filled beds. It gives me the idea of transplanting beets from thickly-emerged areas to gaps in our direct-sown beds, as we do with fall kale. There are helpful tips about carrots following garlic (we do this) because the soil will be relatively weed-free after months of garlic mulch; growing celeriac on landscape fabric, because it is in the bed for so long; storing Napa Chinese cabbage for 3 months in closed bins at high humidity; making sure not to create cracks in kohlrabi for storage; transplanting rutabagas. I’m a big fan of transplanting, but I’m learning about more crops that transplant well.

The authors advocate the same system we use for harvesting crops in the fall: determine the winter-kill temperature for each crop, list them in descending order, and work down the list, monitoring the weather forecast.

There is encouragement to build a well-insulated room with a household air-conditioner reconfigured using the CoolBot device to run at lower temperatures. If possible, make two storage rooms, one at 50°F-59°F (10°C-15°C) and one at 32°F-39°F (0°C-4°C). This is the first time I’ve seen advice to also install a heater, for occasions when outdoor temperatures are just too cold. I think we don’t need that in Virginia, but I believe Northerners do!

There are instructions about humidity, about managing ethylene and CO2, and managing inventory. There is a two-page table of storage conditions, containers, and length of storage for thirteen crops.

The last section of the book is Growing and Selling Vegetables Year-Round. Plan not to stand in the freezing cold all day at market! Options include a CSA; an online store with once-a-week deliveries to a select few locations; restaurant sales with a weekly Fresh List. Being reliable and communicating clearly is key, as is coordinating the orders and making a harvest list for the crew.

The world needs more small-scale year-round growers, supplying local markets. In Quebec in 2020, there were more start-up farms than farms closing down – the first time in fifty years! We do not need vertical farms of hydroponic vegetables, using large amounts of energy, priding themselves, curiously enough, on not using soil to produce food. Or food-like products. The diversity and flavor of four-season vegetables grown in soil can’t be beat.

Farmers at la Ferme des Quatre-Temps

Vegetable Seed Varieties for 2024

 

Preparing to sow Rainbow Chard in 2018.
Photo Pam Dawling

Vegetable Seed Varieties for 2024

Have you ordered your seeds for next year yet? The earlier you order, the best chance you have of getting the varieties you want. Later, some will sell out. It’s true that when you order very early, some seeds won’t be available yet. The seed growers are still drying and cleaning them, weighing them and running them through germination testing. Your patience will be rewarded with high quality seeds.

I love looking through catalogs to find new exciting-sounding varieties! After so many years of gardening, I’ve tried lots of different kinds, and have definitely grown attached to some reliable favorites. I recommend planting a small amount of a variety new to you that sounds good, alongside your usual well-loved variety. And what do I mean by “sounds good”?

In 2014 I wrote Reading Between the Lines in the Seed Catalogs to share what I’d learned about decoding catalog-speak, and not getting distracted by wondrous claims, failing to notice the catalog never even claimed it had good flavor. Or high yields. Or good disease-resistance. That post lists 15 features to look for.

We look for flavor, productivity, disease-resistance, an appropriate fit with our climate or latitude, general adaptability, varieties that don’t require erecting elaborate trellises, ones that don’t sprawl too widely, ones that don’t take a really long time to reach maturity.

If we’ve had a few years of poor performance from a crop, we’ll try several new varieties. We have done trials of heat-tolerant eggplants, winter spinach for the hoophouse and outdoors, storage cabbage, and now we need to start over with broccoli.

Green Magic broccoli Credit Johnnys Seeds

For many years we grew three varieties of hybrid broccoli with different number of days to maturity. That enabled us to sow them all on the same day, transplant them all on the same day (or in the same week), and get an extended harvest period. Some of our favorites dropped out of the market, we floundered with various kinds, including some Open Pollinated varieties that sounded good. This year I am advocating for Green Magic (57d F1, 6-8″ main head and sideshoots too); Belstar (65d F1, also 6-8″ main head, plus sideshoots); and Marathon (68d F1) or Fiesta (70d F1, 6-7″ head, few sideshoots, short harvest window). Marathon has done well for us in the past. In my experience, broccoli is a crop where hybrids are much more productive than OP types.

Green Machine zucchini. Photo Johnny’s Selected Seeds

Our much-loved Tendergrey zucchini, one of the flecked pale green types, isn’t easily available this year. But Green Machine (45d F1) sounds very good! Open plant habit is a phrase I like. Moderate spines is one I don’t like, but we have some pull-on plastic sleeves to deal with irritating plants. Widely adapted, excellent disease package, and high yields all appeal to me.

We rely on Provider (50d OP) and Bush Blue Lake snap beans every year, with a short row of Strike in the hoophouse a month earlier than outdoors. We found we need an upright variety to get nice beans undercover, as the bean plants grow sprawlier than they do outside, and we don’t want to be treading on them.

Washing Cylindra beets for storage.
Photo Wren Vile

We rely on Cylindra or Formanova (54d OP) beets, long-shaped tender ones that grow up out of the ground, are tender and easy to peel after cooking. Seems like the yield must be high when half the root is above ground, and half below!

Premium Late Dutch cabbage (100d OP) has done well for us. Johnny’s has a lovely-sounding storage cabbage, Promise (96d F1). 6 ½ lbs at 18″ spacing, 9-10 lbs at 24″ spacing. And two attractive purplish Chinese cabbages Red Trumpet (60d F1), a tall Michihili type, and Merlot (60d F1), said to be an improved Red Dragon Napa type. I hadn’t got round to trying Red Dragon yet, so I can’t speak to its shortcomings. Merlot admits to being more prone to tipburn than green varieties and to be somewhat susceptible to bolting. Some trials on a small-scale are called for!

Merlot purple Chinese cabbage.
Photo Johnny’s Selected Seeds

Carrots – oh why so many yellow, purple, red and black ones? None in my experience match the succulence and growth rate of orange Danvers 126.

Collards – for years I have loved Morris Heading, but the recent explosion of options brought us by the Heirloom Collard Project is leading us to try others. Some have remarkable colors, combined with high yields.

The delicious early Bodacious sweet corn is harder to find. Thanks Southern Exposure for carrying it. Our reliable favorite Kandy Korn has become hard to find.

Our favorite slicing cucumber has been renamed by Fedco as Generally, a name we’ve been using for years. This year we also tried South Wind from Common Wealth Seed Growers and were quite taken with its sweetness.

South Wind slicing cucumber.
Photo Common Wealth Seed Growers

As always, there are new frilly mustards for baby greens and salad mixes. We like Mizuna, Golden Frills, Scarlet Frills and especially Ruby Streaks. I feel drawn towards purple stemmed Ember and dark red Miz America.

For leeks, we grow King Richard and Lincoln for fall and Tadorna for overwintering in our Zone 7a climate. No complaints there. all are very good for their purpose.

I’m always on the lookout for new lettuces. This summer we tried Albachiara from High Mowing, and it did very well. We’ll get more for this coming year. It’s a Batavian heat-tolerant type. Now our climate is changing, we need to grow Batavians for more weeks of heat. Finding a new one is great! Dark red Cherokee has been my favorite.

I shouldn’t even look at the spring lettuce selection, or I’ll order more than we can use in the short spring season we have. Most spring varieties can be grown in the fall here too, but we like to switch to cold-tolerant ones.

Ezrilla, a favourite cold-hardy lettuce.
Photo Wren Vile

This winter we are growing the beautiful Rhone in our hoophouse bed of cut-and-come again leaf varieties, along with Ezrilla, Hampton, Brentwood, Tango, Revolution, Oscarde and Panisse.

For scallions we like Evergreen Hardy White (65d OP) every time, and feel no need to try another.

We have been growing Sugar Ann early dwarf snap peas in our hoophouse (sown Feb 1), but next year we are trying Oregon Giant snow peas instead. We think snap peas are best raw, and used to cut them into our salad mixes. But over the past few years, by the time the snap peas are ready to harvest, our winter salad mix days are coming to a close, and our outdoor lettuce head harvest is starting. We don’t grow enough snap peas to serve them on their own in big bowlfuls. We think we’ll be able to pick enough snow peas for stirfry mixes instead! In March we sow Sugar Ann outdoors and get plenty.

For sweet peppers our keywords are prolific, thick-walled, tasty, and 90 days or less from transplant to ripe harvest (76d to green). We like fairly large peppers too, and avoid small pointy ones that could get confused with hot peppers in the fridge.

Tomatoes are a whole topic on their own. We love Sun Gold and Black Cherry, Mountain Magic and Garden Peach. Others come and go. Next year we are trying Damsel  (73d F1). Damsel is in the new tomato category called “Hylooms” – hybrids resembling heirlooms in color and flavor, with added disease resistance.

Damsel (71d F1) Hyloom tomato.
Photo High Mowing Seeds

Cover Crops for December: Planning for Next Year

Our asparagus patch mulched for the winter.
Photo Kathryn Simmons

 

Keeping the Soil Covered all Winter

Don’t plant cover crops in December, unless you live in a warmer place then Zone 7a. Weeds will be our cover crop for the next few months! You can mow the weeds anytime you see lots of flowers and seed heads. For us, it’s usually one mowing in November, then no more until early February.

If you are later than 3-4 weeks past your average first frost date, leave the weeds or crop remains growing. It’s too late to sow a cover crop, and you’ll do more harm than good tilling up the soil.

Having plants growing through the winter, or at least into the winter until they get killed by cold temperatures, will improve your soil both physically (the roots hold the soil in place, preventing erosion, and they open up channels that improve the drainage) and biologically (the soil micro-organisms thrive when they have active plants to cooperate with, exchanging nutrients).

If you are less than 3 weeks past your first frost, see my post Cover Crops for November. It is still worthwhile to sow a few cover crops up to three weeks past your average first frost. If the area is ready for cover crops up to 10 days past the frost date, sow winter wheat or winter rye and hairy vetch or Austrian winter peas. Two or three weeks past your first frost, you could sow winter rye. Winter rye is hardier than any other cover crop and can take later planting dates. If you don’t have winter rye, don’t till! Leave the weeds.

You could mow and tarp, to kill the weeds before spring. I’m not sure what the soil life thinks about that, though!

If you don’t have weeds, but only almost bare soil, and it’s too late to sow cover crops, find some kind of organic mulch. Cardboard weighted down with bricks or rocks is much better than nothing.

Be prepared to act early in spring, so you don’t get weed seeds. You could mow in early spring, or till and sow oats, if you won’t be planting a food crop in the following 8 weeks, giving the oats time to make respectable growth before turning them under.

This rye cover crop is still small in early March, but will soon make rapid growth.
Photo Pam Dawling

Plan Cover Crops for Next Year

Our other cover crop related task is planning for next year, and ordering seeds. See Planning Winter Cover Crops, a post that includes my Short Simple Guide to Winter Cover Crops.

Choosing the “perfect” cover crops can be confusing, but any is better than none, so I encourage you to experiment and keep records, so you can improve your choices each year. It helps to know your average first frost date, and your winter-hardiness zone (the lowest temperature your garden is likely to encounter).

Create a crop rotation for vegetables that includes good cover crops

If you haven’t yet made a plan for next year’s cover crops, a good time to do it is when planning the crop rotation for your vegetables. You can tweak your plan to maximize your cover crop opportunities.

Here’s 5 steps of cover crop planning:

  1. Identify your opportunities for cover crops (When, how long, how warm, crops before and after)
  2. Clarify your cover crop goals for each opportunity (check list of benefits above)
  3. Shortlist suitable cover crops for each situation (consult books and charts)
  4. Make a decision from among the options to match your main goals and some secondary goals
  5. Record your decisions and results, and review for possible changes next year.
Sunn hemp cover crop at Nourishing Acres, North Carolina.
Photo Pam Dawling
Step 1 – Cover crop opportunities
  • In fall after food crops, for the whole winter – the easiest place to start
  • In late winter or early spring, if the area will not be planted with a food crop for 6 weeks or more.
  • In spring, summer or fall, whenever you have 4 weeks or more between one vegetable crop and a later one
  • Undersowing at last cultivation (usually 4 weeks after planting the vegetable crop)
  • To replace a crop failure, smother weeds, make use of the compost you provided for the failed crop.
  • Year-round cover crops (green fallow) if you have a space you will not be using for vegetables in the coming year.
Step 2 – For each opportunity, clarify your cover crop goals

Which cover crop benefits are your main priorities and your secondary goals at that site?

  • Smother weeds, prevent them growing and seeding
  • Add organic matter and nutrients
  • Increase the biological activity in the soil
  • Reduce erosion by using actively growing roots to anchor the soil
  • Improve the tilth of the soil and the sub-soil structure
  • Improve soil drainage
  • Improve the soil’s ability to absorb, hold water
  • Salvage leftover nutrients
  • Fix nitrogen to feed the next crop
  • Attract beneficial insects
  • Bio-fumigation for pest or weed control
Step 3 – Choose cover crops matching your goals
  • Smother weeds: sorghum-sudangrass, pearl millet, winter rye, wheat, barley, oats, buckwheat, brassicas, lupins, red clover, subterranean clover, berseem clover, soybeans, southern peas
  • Add organic matter, improve the soil’s ability to absorb, hold water: bulky grasses and legumes, sorghum-sudangrass, millets, winter rye, velvetbean, southern peas, sweetclover, sunn hemp (Crotalaria)
  • Increase the biological activity in the soil – use varied mixes
  • Reduce erosion: (good roots) grasses especially rye, barley, oats; also sweetclover, southern peas, sub clover,
  • Improve the tilth of the soil, the sub-soil structure, soil drainage: sorghum-sudangrass, sunflower, daikon, sweetclover, crimson clover, alfalfa, lupins, southern peas, forage radish, sugar-beet or forage-beet
  • Scavenge leftover nutrients: (non-leguminous cover crops) grasses, brassicas (pest and rotation problems), annual ryegrass (danger of it becoming a weed)
  • Fix nitrogen: (legumes) clovers, vetches, peas, southern peas, soybeans, lentils, sunn hemp.
  • Attract beneficial insects: (flowers) buckwheat, peas, beans, clovers, brassicas, phacelia, sunn hemp
  • Pest control: rye, brassicas, sorghum-sudan, sunn hemp, white lupins, sesame.
  • Kill nematodes: Pacific Gold mustard, white lupins, Iron and Clay southern peas, OP French marigolds, sesame
Iron and Clay southern peas flowering in September. Photo Pam Dawling
Step 4 – Choose cover crops for the fall and for the summer

Work back from your farm’s first frost date, to see what options you have in the fall. In the summer work with the length of time that plot has before you need it for another food crop.

Here’s my 7 steps of crop planning:

  1. Figure out how much area is needed for each major crop (the ones needing the largest amount of space).
  2. Measure and map the land available
  3. Divide into equal plots big enough for any one of your major crops
  4. Group compatible crops together to fill out each plot not yet housing a major crop
  5. Set a good sequence, maximizing cover crop opportunities
  6. Include best possible cover crops at every opportunity
  7. Try it for one year, then make improvements

For more details, see my slideshow Crop Rotations for Vegetables and Cover Crops on SlideShare.net

Our Local Climate Has Changed

USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map, 2023. Agricultural Research Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture. Accessed from https://planthardiness.ars.usda.gov/.  Click the link for access to state and regional interactive maps.

I’m prompted to write this post to alert growers to the publication of the revised USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map (often incorrectly called the Cold-Hardiness Zone Map). Canada and Mexico are now included. Most areas are a quarter-zone warmer in winter than in 2012.

Click this link for more on the history of the USDA Plant Hardiness Map. Note that the original intention of this map, which shows the average annual minimum winter temperature, was to indicate which perennial plants (such as fruit trees or shrubs) would survive the winter in each location. It does also indicate which biennial and annual plants can successfully overwinter (on average). There are lots of things it was never designed for, such as indicating how long the winter lasts, or how many days will be below a certain temperature. It is very valuable for its purpose: showing which plants will survive in an average winter.

Zones 10 and 11 were added in 2012, and Zones 12 and 13 are added to the new 2023 map. Zones 12 and 13 are presently only found in Hawaii and Puerto Rico, where the average annual minimum temperatures are above 50°F (10°C) and 60°F (15°C) respectively. The new interactive map has closer definition between neighboring areas than previously, and can be examined at a finer scale. A city or town with heat-absorbing concrete, can be seen as warmer than surrounding countryside.

Comparison of plant hardiness zones mapped for the 11 largest Metropolitan Statistical Areas [MSAs (U.S. Census Bureau, 2003)] in the 1960, 1990, and recently revised Plant Hardiness Zone Maps.

This technical article by Widrlechner and others in HortTechnology in 2012 gives a short history of the Map, and explains how it can be used to predict winter-injury to plants, and avoid damage by changing shipment dates or adding plant protection. It explains how freeze injury can occur during three stages in the annual cycle of plants: firstly, extreme cold occurring during the fall, before plants have adapted to such temperature levels; secondly, during mid-winter when extreme cold can still overwhelm the plants’ adaptive survival mechanisms; thirdly, during late winter and early spring of plants “deharden” after satisfying their minimum physiological rest requirements, in unseasonably warm spells.

The article also discusses attempts in various regions to add in the effects of other weather features such as cloud cover, wind speed and snow cover. It also discusses the 1997 AHS heat zone map, and shows graphs correlating the Plant Hardiness Zone Map and the Heat Zone Map for three parts of the US. Note the date of publication: references to the “updated” map refer to the 2012 version, not 2023.

Pablo Batavian lettuce. The batavians are our most bolt-resistant heat-tolerant lettuces.
Photo Nina Gentle

For summer weather, the American Horticultural Society in 1997 created a Heat Zone Map to show how many summer days are likely to exceed a certain temperature. It is not the mirror image of the USDA Plant Hardiness Map – it does not show the yearly average hottest temperature. I think an update of a heat zone map is due!

AHS Heat Zone Map 1997

According to the AHS map, I am in Zone 7 for summer temperatures (61-90 days a year reaching 86°F (30°C) or more) — right in the middle of the range. According to Weatherspark.com, from June 11 to August 30, our average daily high temperature is 86°F (30°C) or more. Summer nighttime temperatures are also an important feature of the weather, for us and our crops.

Twin Oaks is in USDA Plant Hardiness Zone 7a. (our zone remains unchanged after the November 2023 update, but we did move 5 Fahrenheit degrees milder from our 1990’s 6b to 7a in the 2012 revision). The average annual minimum winter temperature in zone 7a is 0°F–5°F (–18°C to –15°C). I have noticed that our local climate has changed on average, over the past ten-twenty years, to become drier, with milder winters and hotter summer nights.

Savoy cabbage with frost.
Photo Lori Katz

Here are other features of our weather at Twin Oaks, Louisa, central Virginia:

  • Our average rainfall for a year is 37″ (100 cm), fairly evenly distributed throughout the year, at 2.2″–3.6″(5.6-9.1 cm) per month. February is the driest, May the wettest.
  • Our average daily maximum temperatures are 49°F (9.4°C) in December and January, 89°F (31.7°C) in July. The average night low temperatures are 29°F (–1.7°C) in January, 69°F (20.5°C) in July.
  • Our season from last frost to first frost is around 211 days. The average date of the last spring frost is April 24 (later than May 7 only happens one year in ten); the average date of the first fall frost is Oct 14 (earlier than Oct 1 only happens one year in ten).

    Such grey weather! But will it rain?
    Photo Wren Vile
  • Our climate is controlled by three weather systems, mainly by moisture from the Gulf of Mexico, but also by the Bermuda High Pressure area in summer and the recurrent waves of cold Canadian air in winter. Due to the erratic movement of thunderstorms, some parts of our area may experience long periods of drought. September–November is the dry season but also the hurricane season.
  • Our latitude is 38° N, which is very relevant to onion growing and to daylight length.
  • Our period when daylight length is less than ten hours and little plant growth occurs, lasts from Nov 21 to Jan 21.
Climate Summary from Weatherspark.com

To learn some of your other weather details, see Weatherspark.com.

Book Review Many Hands Make a Farm, by Jack Kittredge and Julie Rawson

Front cover of Many Hands Make a Farm, by Julie Rawson and Jack Kittredge, Chelsea Green Publishers

Book Review

Many Hands Make a Farm: 47 Years of Questioning Authority, Feeding a Community and Building an Organic Movement, Jack Kittredge and Julie Rawson, Chelsea Green Publishers, November 2023. 208 pages, 6 x 9 inches, with an 8-page color photo insert. $24.95.

This little book is not a how-to-farm book, but a very readable memoir-plus-life-philosophy of two activists who also raised a family and farmed organically, built their local community and served in founder and leadership roles in the Northeast Organic Farming Association. They favor minimized external energy use, natural healthcare and debt-free living. If you have some of the same goals, this book could be inspiration and encouragement. As well as the Many Hands Organic Farm CSA, their paid jobs on the board of NOFA and Jack’s job as a board game designer kept them afloat financially. Somehow they also found time to engage in music and theatrical arts and social justice work. They wrote their book in their separate voices, as interwoven sections. It’s usually easy to tell who is speaking.

The foreword is by Leah Penniman (co-founder of Soul Fire Farm and author of Farming While Black), who became a farm intern at Many Hands in her late teens, and was praised as “no question the best worker on the farm”.

Julie and Jack met in Boston in 1976. They shared values of trusting in nature, surrounding themselves with life, using their talents, respecting details, and staying skeptical but open. Each of the authors had many years of organizing and political activity under their belt before they met and moved in together in Boston, where they made a small garden, complete with compost bin and rabbit hutch. They ate well, sold 10,000 copies of one of Jack’s board games, saved money, had their first child, and after five years, planned to move to the country. They bought a 55-acre parcel of a 400-acre ex-dairy farm near Barre, Massachusetts.

They camped there, read, planned, and planted fruit trees, and had their next child. They needed to build a house, which would require saving for a year. They wanted to use the sun and earth for heating and cooling, wood for cooking and hot water, greenhouses and root cellars. They designed matching their dream, foregoing a furnace in favor of woodstoves; earth-berming the basement; running all their plumbing in a central column far from the external walls to avoid freezing; and building a basement root cellar with fan-assisted air circulation.

Their house has three floors plus an attic, providing maximum living space for minimal foundation structure. Despite such careful planning, they do see some flaws. If starting over, they would include barns and sheds attached to the house, under the same roof. When the electricity is out, the well-pump doesn’t work. They had not planned a secondary water source. Condensation of warm moist air on cold pipes and walls came as an unpleasant surprise.

Learning that half the total cost of a house was for labor, they decided to provide that themselves. Also learning that half the total cost (these can’t both be true, can they?) was for interior finishing (flooring, walls, insulation, cabinets, and trim) they decided to do that too. Wisely, they brought a mobile home to the site to live in until the house had electricity, hot water and a septic system. They organized construction weekends for their friends. They wrote a weekly newsletter to boost morale and keep the workforce up-to-date. Julie and Jack worked as hard as they could (Jack leading the construction, Julie leading the cooking and childcare, not so revolutionary, but efficient for the short term).

In December, after 5 months of amateur construction work with a bit of professional help, the shell was closed in and they moved into the house (having spent one-quarter of the total cost). By then they had four young children. Moving into a shell of a house turned out to be a good decision for them, partly because they could change plans as needs became apparent. For example, adding a window in the north wall so they could see from indoors just what was happening outside. It was to take them ten years to finish the interior work, and it was better to live with daily improvements than to wait a long time for the perfect home.

Jack learned computer programming, took contract roofing work and did odd jobs locally, to repay the emergency family loans for closing in the house. Julie, meanwhile, together with neighbors, started the Barre Farmers Market, where she sold her crops.

Julie had left college early to save the world, and married young. When she met Jack she knew she had to leave that marriage in order to start a family with Jack. This was morally difficult for her, even while emotionally imperative. Children came along quickly (four in five years), born at home. They were raised to do chores, go to bed when told, do their best at school, tell the truth, treat others with respect, and suffer the consequences of inappropriate behavior.

Julie Rawson, author of Many Hands Make a Farm. Credit Clare Caldwell

All the children went to public school, as much to learn socialization as to get an education. Conversations round the dinner table expanded the scope of their education, as did talking in Spanish, encyclopedia quizzes and maps as wall décor. The NOFA community provided models of farm family life, including expectations of children doing chores. This gave them a good work ethic, leading to chances of paid jobs on other farms as they grew older.

Other children and young teens were drawn to the household as frequent visitors or as temporary residents. Julie calls them “children of the heart” and was happy to offer them a sanctuary from which to navigate their first rough transitions in life.

On the farm, Julie and Jack built up their soil at every opportunity, gathering organic matter wherever they went. Initially they fed themselves from a quarter-acre. After a few years, they expanded to sell at the farmers’ market. Later, Julie started a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture system) with 25 members, growing on an acre and a half, with hired workers, and a work-share option of four hours per week for a full share. They bought a Troybilt rototiller and wore out a complete set of tines every year in their rocky soil. This method worked for 30 years, upgrading to a wider tiller that could be pulled behind the four-wheel tractor they had bought, and a bed shaper. Julie calls herself a tillaholic, enjoying the results while becoming aware of the longer term damage happening.

In 2014 she became convinced by an impassioned talk by Graeme Sait, to focus on maximizing carbon in the soil as part of addressing climate change. Avoiding the oxidation of soil that comes with fluffing it up with a rototiller helps sequester carbon and reduce erosion. Julie became a convert to no-till, despite opposition from some of the workforce, and sold the tiller. Using mulches and more perennial crops are key parts of this strategy. They bought lots of rock dusts and added them to their fields, following the teachings of agronomist William Albrecht. By-then-grown son Dan was a big part of making this change happen.

The operating principles at MHOF are:

  • Cooperate with nature, focusing on building good soil, not on eliminating pests.
  • Healthy soil microbes are the highest goal, and the foundation of a strong farm.
  • A healthy plant is resistant to insects and disease. [Yes, healthy plants are those that are not diseased. That’s a tautology. It is agreed that a plant requires all three features of the disease triangle: a susceptible host, the presence of a disease-causing organism (the pathogen) and a favorable environment for the disease. But, is it your fault if your plant does not resist the disease? This statement seems to blame the victim for problems that occur.]
  • Exceptional health leads to exceptional results, another example of a statement proving itself.
  • Biodiversity is key, providing resilience and strengthening the farm as a whole.
  • Help the land grow nutritious food, by attending to soil fertility: test soils and amend as needed.
  • Mulch matters, adding organic matter, feeding the soil micro-organisms, keeping the nutrients cycling round.
  • Healthy natural landscapes include both plants and animals, and farm landscapes also benefit from animals.
  • Cover crops have many soil benefits and many uses.
  • Green growth is essential for feeding the soil micro-organisms year-round, as well as adding to the carbon in the soil.
  • Silage tarps are valuable to suppress vegetative growth. Yes, the plastic is not a sustainable material. But many growers have concluded that on balance silage tarps can do more good than harm. The time on the soil is short (March to May at MHOF) and the impact is less than tilling, or leaving the soil bare. The worm casts seen on the soil surface when the tarps are removed seem to prove no long-term harm.

About eight years after the kids had grown and left home, in 2007 MHOF started working with Almost Home, a program for former prisoners of the county jail, who had addiction problems. They raised money to pay these people. Two or three at a time stayed for some years, and became friends. Julie was happy when the physical work, fresh air and hearty healthy food brought about positive change in the lives of some of these struggling people. After eleven years of this challenging work, they decided to retire from the stressful work with the ex-prison men, some of whom relapsed into addiction, including two who died of overdoses.

MHOF also hired Clare Caldwell as Julie’s farming partner, and some more full and part-time staff. Clare brought breakfast sandwiches to the ex-con workers, and is got along with all kinds of people. She has been at MHOF since 2008, including birthing and raising three children in that time. She and Julie work together very well while competing in the nicest possible way to do the hardest work.

Jack Kittredge, author of Many Hands Make a Farm. Credit Clare Caldwell

The farm has an implicit guide for farm managers:

  • If you can’t say anything nice about someone present, don’t say anything at all. It’s OK to rag on those absent, with the understanding that “what’s said on the farm stays on the farm.”
  • Never ask someone else to do something that you wouldn’t do yourself (within your physical limitations).
  • Do exercises and affirmations before the crew arrives. Put a smile on your face. You’ll feel more alert, calmer and more open to what happens.
  • Be sure each day is well organized in advance. Have a written task list posted for those who forget.
  • Good morale follows from being occupied in something you enjoy or are good at. Know each person’s skills. Be ready to switch people around if your first estimate doesn’t work out.
  • Change things up. An hour is long enough for most people on any one task. Have contingency plans for different kinds of weather.
  • Give people as much authority as they want and can manage. Silently “interview’ workers for their next potential role on the farm.
  • Organize yourself out of a job. Hand over and move on. Line up the next task. Jack and Julie are now shedding overall responsibility for major parts of the farm management.
  • Hold a high standard for all your workers. Be clear about job descriptions and remuneration.
  • Distinguish between long-term workers, working shareholders and volunteers, making expectations clear.
  • Make it fun. Some like to sing, play word games or discuss thorny topics. Others do not.
  • Celebrate birthdays and important events. A cake, some music, a mention in the newsletter.
  • Eat together. Offer breakfast, have someone make lunch for the crew. Expect all to help with cleanup.
  • Offer incessant honest praise and appreciation.
  • Don’t be afraid to apologize and own your mistakes. This builds trust.
  • Resolve conflict by immediately addressing it in a non-judgmental way. Make agreements about future interactions.
  • Take all comers, at least once. Give everybody a fair chance. Half a day, or a day.

My reviewing came unraveled when I read that Julie and Jack did not support Covid distancing, masking or vaccinations. They believed their immunity levels (and existing intake of supplements) were strong enough to protect them from this newly emerged virus, as it does for flu. I’m happy for them that when they got Covid they both got mild cases. And may have avoided spreading it to people more vulnerable than them. Not everyone has been so lucky. Some of us have lost family members, or got Long Covid. My sympathies go out to the bereaved and those with chronic illness. I don’t get why anyone would choose to ignore the scientific evidence (once it started to emerge). Clearly the authors do believe much medical science and do take treatment for other conditions, and add preventative supplements to their fantastic diet. As they say, the politicization of the disease didn’t help us. Nor does demonizing people with different opinions, who may be living in a different situation.

After selling to a hotel chef, then a small health food store, then the Barre Insight Meditation Center every time they held a retreat, they finally had a lucky break as CSAs became more widespread and well-known.

In 1990, the federal government appropriated the word “Organic”, setting up a national inspection, certification and labeling organization. The individual statewide organic organizations joined in the National Organic Program. Soon Organic standards were allowing fudges to organic food production, such as outdoor “porches” for laying hens in densely packed poultry sheds.

Both Jack and Julie were working for NOFA, Jack on the financial and campaigning sides, Julie on coordinating the bulk organic supplies order and gathering volunteers. The NOFA Summer Conference included people from seven northeastern states, and had been run by the Vermont chapter. Sadly, it owed lots of money to two Vermont colleges, and some other chapters refused to share the debt. Julie and Jack saved the conference by finding a good location in Massachusetts, and persuading the MA chapter to host the event from 1987. They were able to get the conference back as a money-earning event and repay the Vermont loans.

They also revived publication of a NOFA newsletter, gearing up from one issue per year to six. Controversial issues were fearlessly aired (mosquito-eradication pesticides, sewage sludge as fertilizer, the industrialization of farming, big farm subsidies from taxes, the national expectation of cheap food, GMOs, and animal ID chips (dropped by the government after huge resistance from farmers).

The newsletter editors also ran seminars from 2008-2018, in conjunction with the Bionutrient Food Association, where Dan Kittredge worked. Interest in nutrient density of food lead into thinking about carbon sequestration, and no-till farming as a way to reduce carbon burn-up (carbon dioxide build-up).

Around 2015, Jack (in his mid-seventies) started to retire from NOFA/Mass involvement, and in 2020 Julie retired from her role as director. Their graceful exits were marred by a major disagreement with the NOFA Interstate Council at the end of 2020. Jack focused an issue of the newsletter, The Natural Farmer, on whether or not hydroponics should be allowed within Organics. Jack’s openness to airing dissent brought forth a blistering criticism from those who thought this idea unworthy of the newsletter.

For the conference, Julie proposed a debate about Covid vaccination and the New York state law closing religious exemptions. This idea was seen by many farmers as pointless and divisive. Instead, the topic went to an issue of The Natural Farmer, edited by Jack as his final issue. Some readers wanted to pull the issue, but it was too late. Is it censorship to exclude controversial topics, or is it avoidance of unhelpful conflict in order to focus on moving forward on agreed topics?

After 36 years working for NOFA, Julie (now 70) was happy to return to full-time farming, and continue educational work through a weekly farm newsletter and the Many Hands Sustainability Center, with weekly hosting of boys from a school providing for those recovering from sexual abuse; and seven workshops per year for members of the public. Jack is preparing to pass on their legacy, the farm, to a land trust. This means that their 55 acres cannot be further built on, and remains available to future buyers at a lower, non-development price.

Here are two people who were clear in their goals, applied themselves with gusto, achieved all their important aspirations, wrote it up, and roundly deserve to rest on their laurels.