Book Review: The Lean Farm Guide to Growing Vegetables: More In-Depth Lean Techniques for Efficient Organic Production, Ben Hartman

Book Review: The Lean Farm Guide to Growing Vegetables: More In-Depth Lean Techniques for Efficient Organic Production, Ben Hartman, Chelsea Green, $29.95, publication November 2017

When I read Ben Hartman’s first book, The Lean Farm, and wrote my review in October 2015, I was on the path from curious and enthusiastic skeptic to enthusiastic-fan-with-reservations. I rejoiced in the ideas of reducing wasted effort, being more efficient, more successful at producing food, happier, less stressed. Ben Hartman, Jean-Martin Fortier and Curtis Stone are three successful commercial vegetable growers who clarified for me that a small-scale farm could be more efficient, more sustainable and certainly more pleasant if worked mostly with manual tools and a walk-behind tractor (rototiller) than with a ride-on cultivating tractor, which was the direction I had been looking in. We really didn’t want to be spending our time on a tractor, or under it, maintaining it. We didn’t want a class of tractor-driving gardeners divided from a class of hands-in-the-soil gardeners. Nor did we want to re-format our gardens and give up all the space to allow a tractor to turn around.

When I heard about Ben’s new book, which he describes as “a how-to manual, with a lean twist,” I sought it out. Here are the many helpful details to improve how we do our vegetable growing. His introduction reviews the five core Lean Principles, so if you haven’t read his first book first, you can still understand the thinking behind his systems. With Ben’s first book, I expected push-back from crew members who would judge his ideas and techniques as inflexible, too detailed, nit-picky. Was this just my projection? I found it very thought-provoking, and I was constantly assessing our farm as I read it. I had a rough triage of inner comments: “ah, we already do that (well)” “oh we really need to do that” “ooo I’m not happy with that idea.”

By and large I valued the actual techniques and strategies. I bristled against his classifying planning, organizing and other managerial tasks, as well as bed prep, hoeing, weeding, thinning seedlings as type 1waste (muda, in Japanese). That just didn’t sit right with me. Perhaps it’s a word that doesn’t translate well. A commenter on my blog clarified this for me. She likened type 1 waste to Stephen Covey’s Quadrant 2 (Important but Not Urgent) in the Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. Quadrant 2 includes maintenance, advance planning, being prepared. Preventing problems, or dealing with them to minimize their impact is important. I could never call it wasteful. In fact, I see attention to Quadrant 2 as a sign of good leadership, good farming. We need to make time for the important tasks that are not yet urgent. Scout for pests, don’t ignore them till they overwhelm your crops.

In this second book there is acknowledgement that while muda is usually translated as waste, not all muda should be completely eliminated. Simply minimize the time and energy given to non-value-adding activities. OK, I can go with that. In fact, the list of 10 forms of muda doesn’t say a word about managerial activities. Or about reading books, or writing reviews!

Ben takes a Lean look at crop planning, bed prep, compost-making, seed starting, transplanting, the Japanese paper pot transplanter, direct seeding, weed and pest control, sales, seven crop case studies, greenhouses, and finding good land and building a farm. There are valuable appendices with recommendations on tools, crop varieties, dollar-value-per-bed, a photo gallery of seven more crops, a Japanese glossary, and a book list.

I’m a fan of careful crop planning, and I acknowledge that doing it efficiently is important. There is definitely such a thing as “over-planning.” I think experience teaches us what we need planned and what we don’t. When the same people grow the same crops on the same farm year after year, lots can be taken as decided. When we have built fertile soil and there are no new plagues, we can get away with minimal crop rotation. At Clay Bottom Farm (in Indiana), Ben, Rachel and their crew are earning their living from less than one acre, growing and selling specialty produce to restaurants, farmers markets, and through their CSA. They grow a lot of salad greens and tomatoes, along with some root crops, peppers and eggplants, zucchini and cucumbers. Sweet corn, beans, peas, winter storage crops don’t feature much or at all. They have found the crop mix that works for their customers (that is one of the 5 Lean Principles). The situation in our gardens seems more complicated, but the point remains: streamline the planning, don’t over-work it.

The concept of load-levelling (heijunka) is valuable – look at the plan for the year and keep it manageable every month. And plan in a vacation for everyone. We try to stagger our vacations so that there are always a few people who can run things, taking turns. We tried reducing the August workload, moving one big task to September, and taking a few weeks off from lettuce production. Ending our watermelon harvests at the end of August and our winter squash at the end of September were helpful in keeping fall work manageable. We’ve got better at “doing-in” plantings of beans, cucumbers and summer squash if they are getting to be oppressive.

I was particularly excited to see instructions to build a seed germination cabinet à la Hartman. Like Ben, we use discarded refrigerators. Ours rely on incandescent light bulbs, which are a dwindling “resource”. Some would say “good riddance” but we are actually using the heat the bulbs generate, as well as the light. Ben’s clever design uses a pan of water heated by an electric element, on a thermostat. This could be our next germinator!

I’ve read about the Japanese paper pot transplanter before, and concluded it’s best for plants set out at 6″ spacing or less, and fairly large plantings of one thing. I’m intrigued – would love to try it, even though we do more direct sowing of close-planted crops than Ben does. I love the idea of a carefully-designed manual machine for transplanting, especially as my knees get older, and like squatting less. This chapter is worth the price of the book to anyone about to buy the transplanter. So many tips, including Ben’s Paper Pot Cheat Sheet. The direct-seeding chapter explains the Jang JP-1 seeder, and the same message applies about buying the book if you’re buying the seeder.

Weeds and pest control without muda – Yes, of course, focus on prevention, rather than managing. Ben gives 5 Steps to No Weeds. Yes, time saved there would pay for the price of the book too! Pests, Leaned Up is about Biological IPM: rowcovers, beneficial insects and biological sprays if needed.

The sales chapter looks at transportation logistics, sensible delivery vehicles. As Ben says, “Big vehicles, we learned, don’t by themselves lead to large sales”. Avoid over-production. Set up your market booth for smooth flow.

The case studies explore how Clay Bottom farmers decide which varieties to grow, where and when, and of course, how much. The case study crops are tomatoes, baby greens, kale, head lettuce and romaine, carrots, other bunched roots, and peppers. Here’s good information from someone who has paid exquisitely good attention to what works and what doesn’t.

The chapters on finding good land and setting up your farm in a well-organized, Lean, way will save new farmers some costly (livelihood-threatening) mistakes, and help the rest of us think twice about why we store our tools where we do, and so on. The greenhouse chapter is brief, and yet full of gems about design.

Holiday Season approaches, I’m just sayin’. Or invest in your farm, with this worthwhile business expense. In other words, buy this book!

Book Review – The Urban Farmer

Screen-Shot-2015-12-18-at-1.01.04-PMBook Review – The Urban Farmer: Growing Food for Profit on Leased and Borrowed Land. Curtis Stone, New Society Publishers, $29.95. January 2016

Curtis Stone wrote this valuable book after only about 6 years as owner/operator of Green City Acres, a small commercial vegetable farm in Kelowna, British Columbia, Canada. He supplies fairly high-end restaurants with leafy greens and a few other carefully chosen crops which bring a fast return. He also sells at a farmers market once a week. Curtis has figured out how to make the best farming use of small plots of urban land, and in the same way, he has figured out how to make best use of his time, so that he can earn a good 5-figure income from his one-third acre farm. He pays exquisite attention to what works and what doesn’t. Oh, and most of his transportation is by (electrically assisted) bicycle.

This book is part of the recent movement to make a good living as a farmer on a small area of land, without big machinery, as exemplified by Eliot Coleman, Jean-Martin Fortier and Ben Hartman (and as Colin McCrate and Brad Halm do for home gardeners). Curtis writes as an independently-minded entrepreneur engaged in sustainable agriculture, in being part of a better future, supplying very fresh produce to city-dwellers. He shows how would-be farmers with no capital, no land and no truck can get a start. This book will quickly earn its keep. If Curtis Stone is speaking at an event near you, be sure to go to it!

This is a very well-organized and well-written book. The language is clear and straight-forward. The short sentences are made for high-lighting! No skirting of sub-clauses is required. The 41 chapters divide into ten sections. Some chapters are very short. Curtis is not going to waste time filling blank space when he can explain the important stuff in a paragraph. He covers the why and where, and the business aspects, then finding and developing various plots of land into a cohesive small farm. He advises on infrastructure, equipment, production, harvest and post-harvest systems. He also covers basic crop planning.

This isn’t a book about growing a complete diet, or supplying a full range of vegetables for a CSA. Nor is it about how to grow carrots. There are 25 pages devoted to cameos of twenty recommended crops, but if you are a new grower, you’ll need more production info than you find here. Production is one of the main focuses (along with planning and organization) of my book Sustainable Market Farming.  Instead, this book can inspire and educate on how to make decisions likely to lead to successful sales, while focusing your hard work on the tasks that will get you there.

If you want to do multi-site urban farming to grow selected crops for restaurants in the Pacific North West or British Columbia in zone 7a, this book has most of what you need. But its usefulness isn’t at all confined to people in those regions, or to urban farmers, or to super-fit cyclists. So if your town already has a restaurant supplier of bio-intensively-grown salad crops and greens, do not despair. All vegetable growers can find something of value in this book, whether it is in his analysis of different crop types, growing microgreens, becoming more efficient, choosing good tools or keeping good records.

Curtis is a believer in farming smarter, not harder (but hard enough to make it all work). He puts the work in, in a timely way, is very observant, keeps good records, analyses his results and makes changes based on what his records show. He’s not one to grow red peppers “because everyone wants them.” If we follow our hearts only and ignore our sales figures and production costs, we won’t last long earning a living as farmers. Likewise, it’s good to have ethics and ideology, but if you go broke, you’ll be out of a job. If ten crops bring in 80% of the income, why not focus on those? After his first four years, Curtis reduced his farm from 2½ acres to 1/3 acre (5 plots close to each other). He cut his crop portfolio down to the most lucrative fifteen vegetable crops; he parted ways with his fellow worker, his CSA and most of his employees. His hours went down from 100 per week to 40 (and fewer of those were spent managing other people, more in planting and harvesting). His clients were mostly restaurant chefs and his weekly farmers market. He had his best season that far, making a much higher dollar per hour.

Curtis is willing to change plans for a better idea, or to transform a crop failure or over-abundance into a baby beet greens opportunity. He sees the coming end of suburbia as a great opportunity to reclaim all those lawns for food growing: modern-day self-reliant farming communities. Being an urban farmer means interacting with lots of people every day, which leads to opportunities to educate about food, to be part of the local community, and to benefit from what local people will offer in terms of land, help and free advertising.

One aspect of the book I found particularly useful is the way Curtis divides crops and land into categories:

  1. Quick Crops (maturing in 60 days or less) mostly grown in Hi-Rotation plots: mostly salad greens and radishes. The Hi-Rotation beds might grow 4 crops in a single year, with no pre-planned crop rotation. Sometimes a Steady Crop like carrots is grown in a Hi-Rotation plot.
  2. Steady Crops (slower maturing, perhaps harvested continuously over a period of time): kale. tomatoes, carrots. These beds will be in a Bi-Rotation plot, which often will grow one Steady Crop as the Primary Crop, followed or preceded by a Quick Crop, especially one that can be cropped out at a single site visit, rather than requiring daily harvests.

It works best to have the Hi-Rotation plots nearest to the home base as they need the most frequent attention. Bi-Rotation plots can usually be further afield, except for indeterminate tomatoes which Curtis grows on a close spacing and prunes hard to improve airflow and encourage early ripening. Slow long season crops aren’t included, nor are ones that take a lot of space, like sweet corn.

The Crop Value Rating (CVR) is a useful way of comparing the advantages of various vegetable crops when choosing which to grow. Clearly this is important if space is limited. Less clear is the value of assessing crops this way when some other factor is limited. We do this when labor is limited. It clarifies stressful indecisive confusions. Here are the 5 factors Curtis assesses:

  1. Shorter days to maturity (fast crops = more chances to plant more)
  2. High yield per foot of row (best value from the space)
  3. High price per pound (other factors being equal, higher price = more income)
  4. Long harvest period (= more sales)
  5. Popularity (matched with low market saturation).

To use this assessment, give each potential crop a point for each factor where it deserves one. Then look for the crops with the highest number of points. Spinach gets all 5 points; cherry tomatoes only 3. The smaller your farm, the higher the crops need to score to get chosen.

Winter crops can be grown in hoophouses (polytunnels). Summer crops can help level the weekly sales out over the market season.

Various start-up models are spelled out, along with the caution to start small, say with ¼ acre, and low overhead expenses. Various market options are compared. The section on software and organization lists the ten spreadsheets Curtis prepares: Plantings, Yields, Crop Profiles, Weekly Orders, Weekly Sales Totals, Land Allocation Data, Budget and Expenses, Seed Order and Inventory, Plot Progress, and Spoilage.

There is a section on scouting for land and how to choose the best of your offers, and which to decline (heavy metal soil contamination, neighbors spraying herbicides, Field Bindweed, too much shade, too many rocks, owners needing too much care-taking. On the other hand, don’t be over nervous about invasive grasses, they can be conquered. There is information you won’t find in many other farming or gardening books, such as how to remove sod.

There is a thorough section on irrigation, set up for low management with timers and many sprinklers covering an area, or many lines of drip tape. I learned for the first time about flow through drip systems, where both ends of each drip tape are connected into the mains tubing, so that water can flow in both direction, and blockages will not be a problem. The costs are all spelled out (so get the book and buy the gear before prices go up!). Every section contains a gem that will save you time, money, mental strain or wasted crops. It hadn’t occurred to me that box fans could be laid flat above vegetable drying racks to dry washed greens and preserve the quality.

All of the equipment Curtis puts together is inexpensive and relatively easy to move to a new site. Two medium size coolers instead of one big one! Standard lengths of rowcover! Little decisions can have big benefits. Microgreens production indoors (in shallow flats) and outdoors (much less usual, but oh, the returns!) Curtis explains his special board technique for getting fast even germination.

The crops section focuses on providing the basic information through the perspective of factors already mentioned: Quick Crop or Steady Crop, months of harvest, Crop value rating, Days to maturity of recommended varieties, Yield per bed, Gross profit per bed, and also Planting Specs.

Here is a great book for those who want to make their farming time count and be as productive as possible, with best value for time and the land available. Also go to the  book website to buy digital tools, and sign up for Instagram, Twitter and link to YouTube videos. At the Green City Acres website you can sign up for their newsletter.

Book Review: The Lean Farm by Ben Hartman

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The Lean Farm: How to Minimize Waste, Increase Efficiency, and Maximize Value and Profits with Less Work,

Ben Hartman, Chelsea Green, August 2015. ISBN 978-1-60358-592-7. $29.95

When I heard of this book, I immediately wanted to read it, sensed that I needed to read it, that our farm would benefit from exploring the ideas in it. At the same time, I felt some awkwardness: I might be tempted to hide this book from some of my crew, because gardening is something they’ve chosen because it’s in some ways opposite to factory work. If I introduced some of these ideas would I be seen as trying to make our farm more like a factory? It is unfortunate for simplistic thinking that the lean system ideas came from car manufacturing. As Ben Hartman says, “In some circles, to pair the terms ‘factory’ and ‘farm’ is sacrilege.” Factory farming causes many problems. And yet we should not dismiss the ideas because of this connection. That would be a knee-jerk prejudice. The ideas have value that is useful for other occupations, including farming. Farmers work hard, and we can use good ideas on how to reduce wasted effort so that we can be less stressed, more successful at producing food and happier, with more satisfying lives.

And yet, both factories and farms are places of production. Factory work uses inert consistent raw materials. In farming the raw materials are unpredictable, variable, liable to change. Farmers need to adapt their plans to the situation on the ground.

It’s not even really accurate to say that farmers grow food or raise animals. Farmers adjust environmental conditions as far as they are able, to maximize a plant’s or an animal’s chance of making its own growth.

The Lean System is not geared to taking the fun out of farming. It is geared to make farms more pleasant places to work, places where we can do better work, and leaving us time for other pursuits. Lean is just a tool – you keep you core values. In fact you focus on them more centrally, in addition to respecting your workers. Ben Hartman describes their early days as farmers, working endless days, and gives his reasons for trying the lean system. “Our production . . . was erratic: every week we seemed to seesaw between over-producing and under-producing. We had a sense that if our farm was to survive for the long haul, the chaos would need to settle down.”

Taiichi Ohno, the author of inspiring short books in English on the Lean system describes the method as “looking at the timeline from the moment the customer gives us an order to the point when we collect the cash. And we are reducing that timeline by removing the non-value-added wastes.”

The book explains the five principles of Lean:

  1. Precisely specify what the customers value (not just the products, but also the presentation, timing, and packaging or not).
  2. Identify the value stream for each product (the steps in the process that create value).
  3. Make value flow without interruption (remove waste).
  4. Let the customer pull value from the producer (don’t over-produce and dump/push).
  5. Pursue perfection (continuous improvement).
  6. Yes, he said 5. Respect the workers (harness the collective wisdom).

One place to start reducing waste is to physically clean up the farm. There are five tools with Japanese names beginning with S (the 5S tools). Translated and keeping the S theme, they are Sort, Set in order, Shine, Standardize, Sustain. The idea is to cast off the physical junk and waste that weighs down the farm. This reminded me of the domestic “Japanese tidying” craze that has got several of my friends. You get rid of anything that doesn’t bring you joy. The premise is that there is a cost to keeping and storing things. If you get rid of the things you don’t use, and store the useful stuff well, it will be quick and easy to find what you need. You can start with a Red Tag room where you put things no one uses. Once a year you send the unused things on their way. “Shine” means clean well-lit uncluttered spaces. “Standardize” means not just less confusion, but also having a designated result of daily cleaning and restoring order, with a posted photo showing what the area should look like when clean-up is finished. I can really see where one picture can be much more effective than a check-list of a thousand words. The Sustain part is about improving the work environment so that everyone feels good working there, happily absorbed in their task without distraction.

It is important to identify what your customers value. Sometimes Steve Jobs is right and people don’t know what they want till you show them, but often it’s not true. The important bit is not what you think they ought to value, but what they actually value. Observe, ask. Find out which of your activities add value and which add waste. There are four kinds of distraction:

  1. Technology fascination, gadgets. Beware of unhelpful complexity.
  2. Product fascination: weird and wonderful shapes and colors of vegetables.
  3. Process fascination: unusual methods of growing crops.
  4. Letting supply determine value. More kale is not always better!

Customers usually value a mix of goods and services such as presentation or reliable deliveries. You can add a small percentage of surprises, but not too many.

Learn to see value and distinguish the tasks that create actual value from the tasks that don’t (wasted movements, waiting time). It may help to write out all the steps of a task in a list and consider the value or wastefulness of each.

There are two main types of waste. Type 1 is tasks that are necessary but do not add actual value. Type 2 waste is pure waste that achieves nothing. This part of the book was very challenging for me. I feel a bit insulted, disregarded when necessary work is called wasteful. I don’t think this classification is helpful, especially as it includes a lot of managerial tasks like planning. I do understand that the value of the final product is not directly related to the time spent planning, and that it’s good to keep a check on overhead hours and not let them expand beyond usefulness. Is reading this book type 1 waste? But the author says eliminating the type 2 pure waste is not enough.

Type 1 is more pernicious. It’s only the last turn of the nut on a bolt that tightens it – the other turns are “just movement”. Only planting the seeds, harvesting the crop, washing, packaging and display add value. Thinning, weeding and bed prep do not. “Tending the plants might be the fun part of farming but it does not create value.” Hmmm. I don’t find this bit helpful. I disagree with this outlook. I get it that it’s best to farm so that tasks such as soil preparation, plant support, pruning, weed management are minimized. Hand weeding, especially, is a sign of earlier failures, a task to strive to not need to do. But if it’s needed, it must be done! The truth I can see in this approach is that planting and harvesting are the top priority tasks. We’ve long used the mantra “Prioritize planting in the planting season” and here most of the year is the planting season for something. I still don’t like calling weed management wasted time! It’s less wasteful than not dealing with the weeds.

This is a very thought-provoking book. I took a lot of notes (most of which are not in this review). I found I was constantly assessing our farm as I read this book: “ah, we already do that (well)” “oh we really need to do that” “ooo I’m not happy with that idea”

Ben Hartman is prepared to be heretical. They piled 10” compost on their beds to improve the soil and make it easy to work (against the advice of people who say compost should only be used in small quantities. They do not plan a rotation! They simply replant as beds become available, using whatever is the highest value crop that needs planting next. No cover crops either! Clearly it works for them. Their success is due to low defect rates, efficient processes, minimal overproduction, low inventory-carrying costs, high use of their fixed assets, even year-round production and sales, and commitment to change what could be better.

The Limits of Lean Agriculture. I was happy to see this chapter. Let’s not be too ruthless in efforts to cut costs. The moral element of agriculture must not be forgotten. Sustainability is vital. Lean farming is not just about profit. Holistic causes such as nurturing land and people, working well, eliminating food waste, strengthening local foodsheds, providing good food to those who can’t afford it, reducing farm waste, creating inviting farms and fostering an appreciation of farming – all are very valuable and Lean principles can be used to better achieve these goals too.

A really useful book for any farmer wanting to enjoy work more and not get trapped chasing impossible goals and unwittingly causing problems in untended areas. A holiday gift to bring hope, ideas, mental relief and inspiration. Thanks Ben!

Green potatoes, The Lean Farm, GMO issues

Mulched June-planted potatoes. Credit Kathryn Simmons

Mulched June-planted potatoes.
Credit Kathryn Simmons

I’ve just done a blog post for Mother Earth News Organic Gardening blog, called Green Potato Myths and 10 Steps to Safe Potato Eating. You can read it here. it’s an updated version of a post on this site back in December.


 

GFM_September2015_cover_300pxMeanwhile an issue of Growing for Market passed without me writing an article. There’s a thought-provoking article by Ben Hartman on how their farm implemented the Lean system to remove inefficiencies, slim down what they do, focus on the important stuff and make much more money. This has also been fun. One aspect is using pictures rather than lots of words to show what to do (eg how the workspace should look after clean-up). Also visual cues such as colored magnets, rather than printed checklists. Ben has written a book, The Lean Farm: How to Minimize Waste, Increase Efficiency, and

The Lean Farm by Ben Hartman, Chelsea Green Publishers

The Lean Farm by Ben Hartman, Chelsea Green Publishers

Maximize Value and Profits with Less Work. It is reviewed by Lynn Byczynski in the September issue. Here’s what the publishers (Chelsea Green) have to say: “Using examples from his own family’s one-acre community-supported farm in Indiana, Hartman clearly instructs other small farmers in how to incorporate lean practices in each step of their production chain, from starting a farm and harvesting crops to training employees and selling goods”. – See more here. It’s about how to work smarter not harder, and avoid burnout. This is a good time of year to look forward to reading a book like this, no? We’ve all been pretty exhausted here, slogging through the heat of August with not enough workers. We did take notes on how to have the fall brassica transplanting go more smoothly and efficiently in future. We finally tilled between the rows for the second time yesterday and broadcast a clover mix. Hopefully with overhead irrigation, the clover will grow fast enough to be big enough to take the foot traffic when we  start harvesting, which will be very soon!

Other articles in Growing for Market include Fences for all types of wildlife by Joanna and Eric Reuter of Chert Hollow Farm. They discuss physical barriers, electric fences, long-term and short-term fences and all possible combinations of these, including hybrids. Oh, OK not the combination of short-term and long-term, but everything else.

There are also articles on farmer networking groups, the expanding USDA loan program, and encouragement to start now for good spring cut flower sales.


 

Anthony Flaccavento

Anthony Flaccavento

Farmer and sustainable development consultant Anthony Flaccavento has published a series of four 5-minute You-tube videos to clarify GMO issues, debunk the false arguments of labeling opponents, and support efforts to persuade Senators and the President to reject the House bill to block states rights to mandate GMO food labeling.  The DARK Act outlawed all State GMO labeling laws, including those already on the books in Vermont, Maine and Connecticut. This bill is a disaster for farmers, consumers, the environment and food sovereignty.

GMOs vs. World Hunger – Take 5 with Tony

This is the first segment, focused on the fallacy of increased yields from GMOs

Genetic Engineering – Take 5 with Tony

This is the segment taking on the myth of ‘equivalence’ in GMO breeding vs conventional

GMO Studies – Take 5 with Tony

3rd segment:  Debunks myth of GMO safety, that there is “no evidence” of health problems

Take Action – Take 5 with Tony

Final segment:  Recaps first three, uses this to undermine arguments against labeling laws;  call to action

 

What’s still standing after two nights below 0F?

Recently I reported on which crops were still alive after two nights at 14F (-10C) and What’s still alive after two nights at 4F?  We’ve now had the Polar Vortex, which brought us two nights at 4F, on 1/6 and 1/7. Then it got even colder.We got the Big Round 0F 1/22-1/23, then a few nights at 5F or 6F, and then the big insult: -4F on the night of 1/29-30.

What’s still standing?

The Tyee spinach under thick rowcover has sustained big damage, showing as patches of beige dead cells. It will recover. Meanwhile we can eat from the more-protected spinach in the coldframes and the hoophouse.

The Vates  kale without rowcover is still alive, but badly damaged. The big leaves are crunchy and brown round the edges, and some of the inner leaves are dead. I hope it will grow back, but we won’t be able to pick that for a while. The Beedy’s Camden kale looks worse – the big leaves have died and flopped over. Not sure if it will recover.

Many of our strawberry plants look dead – very disappointing!

Our hardneck garlic and Polish White softneck tops are killed back to about one inch up from the mulch. Equally hardy, it seems. 

We had the remains of a lettuce nursery bed, still holding surplus transplants from September sowings that we didn’t need for our greenhouse or hoophouse. After the 4F assault we still had life in the centers of the Winter Marvel, North Pole, Tango, Green Forest. Now only the Winter Marvel shows any signs of life. So that variety gets the prize for cold-tolerance here!

Red Round Turnip. Photo Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds

Red Round Turnip.
Photo Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds

In the hoophouse, we covered all the beds with thick rowcover every night it looked like dropping below 10F inside. Almost everything survived – we only got some minor stem freezing on some turnips and Asian greens. We have been eating Pak Choy, Tokyo Bekana, Yukina Savoy, various turnips and their greens (Hakurei, White Egg, Oasis, Red Round), also plenty of lettuce leaves, radishes, scallions, and some spinach. We lost our second sowing of spinach in there to over watering and flooding, and we are really noticing the lack right now. We’re short on spinach. We have small amounts of mizuna, Ruby Streaks, Bright Lights chard, Bulls Blood beets to add to salad mixes, and Red Russian and White Russian kale growing slowly.

In January we have taken to sowing spinach, kale and collards in a hoophouse bed to transplant outdoors in early spring. We back this up with sowing some in flats if we don’t get good emergence for some reason. This year emergence is late. Is it just late, or is there a problem? We’re holding our breath for a few more days. . .

GFM_February2014_cover_300pxWe are not the only people tracking the effects of the unusually cold weather. The February Growing for Market magazine opens with an article by Ben Hartman “Testing the Limits of Cold Tolerance”. He farms in Goshen, Indiana, using two double-layer plastic greenhouses heated to 30F (yes. I said heated!) and two unheated. They planted kale, carrots, spinach, salad greens and arugula in their greenhouses for winter harvest. Their outdoor temperatures fell to -16F on 1/6 and 1/7. I imagine they’ve had worse since. They used mid-weight rowcover over their beds. Ben reports that baby greens and young spinach survived, as did their rosemary and their 3 fig trees (all farmers deserve some thrills!). They lost baby salad greens that had already been cut previously (all those cut edges didn’t do well). Crops in the outer beds were lost. The tips of full-grown kale leaves froze, but the plants survived.

In their unheated, single-skin plastic hoophouses, the soil froze down to 4″. They used two layers of mid-weight rowcover suspended over the crops. Despite this cold,  tiny salad greens less than 1″ tall survived. Spinach survived under just one layer of rowcover. The carrot tops froze and the roots may or may not be marketable. The (uncovered) fully mature kale looks dead. The mature salad with two layers of rowcover didn’t survive.

From this experience, Ben points out that salad greens and spinach less than 1″ tall are very cold-tolerant. Spinach and kale once larger, benefit from more protection than they got this time. Beware the outer beds!

My own article in this issue is about matching crop spacing with desired goals, such as maximum yield, optimum size, or convenience for cultivation.

Andrew Mefford has written some greenhouse tips for hoophouse growers, including tomato grafting, trellising. Chris Blanchard has written the second part of his piece on growing herbs – this is about harvest and maintenance. Erin Benzakain has undertaken a 59-variety trial of celosia.

 

Planting kale, catching up on weeding and reading

Vates kale Photo credit Kathryn Simmons

Vates kale
Photo credit Kathryn Simmons

Our weather has been dry and sunny (no hurricanes in September this year!) and we’ve had a chance to catch up somewhat on weeding. It’s also meant lots of irrigation, more than usual at this time of year. And consequently, running repairs. This morning I switched out three sprinkler heads – one was stuck and wouldn’t rotate; one leaked too much at the stem and one old one had ground away its brass nut over years of use and finally fell through the hole in its stand, meaning it couldn’t rotate any more either. I fixed two, still not sure how to deal with the old one. Its homemade stand is also breaking up. I’ve also been replacing hose ends and connectors – we were the lucky recipients of a donated pile of about nine hoses, some in better condition than others.

Transplanting kale has kept us busy this week. We direct sow our kale, two beds every six days in August, to make it easier to keep them well watered – we only have to hand water two on any one day to get the seeds germinated. This year we’ve had disappearing seedlings, and we’ve been moving plants around in the beds to get full rows at the right final spacing. This means even more watering, but we all love kale so much, so it’s very worthwhile. Some of the disappearing seedlings were due to cutworms, some may have been grasshoppers, and some maybe rabbits.

I’ve also been pulling up drip tape from our watermelon patch and second cucumbers, rolling it on our home-made shuttles which I described last year. I found myself salvaging 23 late watermelons, I just couldn’t resist! Watermelons in October usually get as much demand as last week’s newspaper, but while the weather is so warm (85F yesterday), people are still grateful for juicy fruit. I’m looking forward to getting more of the gardens into their winter cover crops, so that this year’s weeds can become just a memory. I also like how the garden gets smaller and smaller in the process of putting the plots into cover crops. Less to deal with. (Although I am needing to water the cover crops areas overnight with the sprinklers).

I’m in the process of writing about no-till cover crops for Growing for Market magazine. We really like using no-till winter rye/hairy vetch/Austrian winter peas before our Roma paste tomatoes. We mow the cover crop in early May, when the vetch is starting to flower, then transplant into the dying cover crop, which becomes our mulch, and also supplies all the nitrogen the tomatoes need. Anyway, that’s for the winter double issue.

Hoophouse greens in November. Credit Ethan Hirsh

Hoophouse greens in November.
Credit Ethan Hirsh

Meanwhile, the October issue has just come out, including my article about how to minimize unhealthy nitrate levels in winter greens. During winter, when there is short daylight length and low light intensity, there is a potential health risk associated with nitrate accumulation in leafy greens. Nitrates can be converted in the body into toxic nitrites, which reduce the blood’s capacity to carry oxygen. Additionally, nitrites can form carcinogenic nitrosamines. Green plants absorb nitrates from the soil during the night and in the process of photosynthesis during the day, combine them with carbon-based compounds into protein (plant material). It takes about six hours of sunlight to use up a night’s worth of nitrates. In winter when the day-length is short, the nitrate accumulated can exceed the amount that can be used during the day, and the excess nitrate builds up in the plant, mostly in the leaves, stems and roots. Leafy vegetables can then exceed an acceptable adult daily intake level of nitrate in just one small serving of greens, unless special efforts have been made to reduce the levels. My article lists which vegetables are more likely to be higher in nitrates, and which circumstances are most likely to make the levels high. I give a list of 16 steps you can take to reduce the levels of nitrate in your crops. 

There are also articles about farms getting financing from crowdfunding websites (Lynn Byczynski), customizing CSA shares using LimeSurvey to let each sharer indicate what they want by email (Eric and Joanna Reuter whose blog I have mentioned before), building a seed germination chamber (Ben Hartman), and  making cash flow projections to avert disaster (Nate Roderick). A fine batch of useful articles, and I’m especially happy to see Eric and Joanna Reuter have “joined the crew” at GFM. They impress me with their attention to details and creativity.

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Summer reading

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The August issue of Growing for Market magazine is out (the June-July issue was the most recent previous one). This one includes my article on Last Chance Sowings.

In line with my advice, at home we are busy preparing beds and sowing beans, bulb fennel, cucumbers and squash. As well as being our last chance with these warm weather crops, it’s now our first chance to start again with the spring and fall crops such as carrots, beets, kale, scallions, turnips (no rutabagas for us these days – it needs extra time to grow to a good size, and we’re never ready soon enough). It’s too soon for us to sow spinach (although the weather is surprisingly cool for August!) – we wait till the fall chickweed, dead nettle and henbit germinate before sowing spinach. we’re also out in the garden every evening transplanting broccoli and cabbage. We’re over half way, and the mild weather is really helping.

Cutting Zephyr yellow summer squash. Credit Brittany Lewis

Cutting Zephyr yellow summer squash.
Credit Brittany Lewis

Also in this Growing for Market issue are valuable articles by other growers, such as Ben Hartman on arranging their farm’s CSA into two separate seasons, spring and fall, with a two week gap in the middle. What a great idea. I got a two week gap myself, thanks to our stalwart crew keeping the crops happy while I was gone.

There’s encouragement from Lynn Byczynski, the editor,  to comment to the FDA on the proposed food safety rules for produce. cover4Jonathan Magee (author of the book Small Farm Equipment) writes about irrigation pumps, which will likely be a big stress-saver for anyone who has stood in exasperation over a non-working pump. Andrew Mefford writes about useful tools for the hoophouse, including some nifty little Harvest Scissors, worn like a ring, freeing up the hands to alternate with other tasks while working.Erin Benzakein, the regular writer on cut flowers, covers ideas for early spring blooms, and, as always, has some beautiful photos.

For the next issue I am writing on strawberry production systems, including our latest method – using landscape fabric with holes burned in it.

2013-berry-veggie1-80x300My presentation on Planning Fall Crops at the Virginia State University Commercial Berry and Vegetable Field Day  on June 27 is now a full blown video. you can view it at their website, along with those of the other presenters; Reza Rafie on specialty crops such as baby ginger, Steven Pao on food safety and Debra Deis from Seedway Seeds on their variety trials.

I’ve recently found a website I think will be very useful for help in predicting pest outbreaks, as well as counting accumulated Growing Degree Days and recording the weather. It’s called My Pest Page. It’s for the technically minded. To modify our page for your area, start with the map and zoom out then in again on your area, using your nearest weather station. Then you can choose which pieces of information to have displayed, by clicking on the plus button by each topic to expand the list of options. Then click on the big Refresh button and bookmark the site. I see we’re now at the point when Late Blight infection is possible. . . , so I’ll keep my eyes open.A few years ago when we thought we had Late Blight on our tomatoes we spent a lot of time removing infected leaves into trash bags. When we sent a sample to the plant diagnostic clinic they said we didn’t have Late Blight. I think it was a heat stress condition caused by us using the wrong kind of drip tape. (We had too much on at once, so not all the plants were actually getting the irrigation we thought they were.)

Talking of irrigation, It’s time I left my desk and went to switch over to today’s fourth sub-system.