Winter is often a time of dreaming and planning for farmers. Our outdoor tasks diminish, and on cold days, we hunker down in our office with our space heater, maps, seed catalogs, spreadsheets, budgets, hot tea and ideas. This year we feel like we have a lot to reflect on and be proud of.
In terms of numbers, the 2018 season was our biggest season yet: we grew crops on more land than ever (13 acres), we had more members than ever (225 CSA and 73 Barrett’s Bucks), and we had a bigger staff than ever (12 fantastic field and store workers). We are really grateful to Katherine, Janel, Zach, Rebecca, Dave, Molly, Jacob, Ari, Alexis, Emma, Alice and Sophie for working with us this year and making this growth possible!
It was also a big season for us due to some notable successes. We had more veggies available for longer in the year – we added more variety to our early spring offerings, doubled the size of our late fall CSA to 100 members, and hosted a very well-attended pop-up farm stand in December. With the help of a grant from NRCS (Natural Resources Conservation Service) we had a 30’ x 96’ high tunnel constructed in the field for in-ground growing. This high tunnel (also known as a hoophouse) will allow us to improve tomato-growing efficiency, extend our greens growing a little into the shoulder seasons, and try out some completely new crops like ginger. In addition, this fall we broke new ground at the South Corey Meadow just down the road from us. Our plan is to continue to cover crop one acre for the 2019 season and then start growing potatoes there in 2020.
In terms of crop yields, we improved our popcorn variety selection, had another great tomato harvest, discovered a new favorite winter squash (Black Futsu), honed our greens-growing strategy to produce more greens with fewer holes, had an excellent onion harvest (so excellent that we ran out of protected space to cure them, and ended up losing a large chunk of them to rabbits!), and grew some of the largest sweet potatoes we’ve ever seen. Also, after years of battling Colorado potato beetles, we were finally able to rotate our potatoes across the street, which was far enough away that we reduced the pest pressure and had our biggest potato harvest ever. In many ways, this last one feels like our biggest victory of all!
Of course there were some growing challenges as well. Although we ended up with a really nice fall carrot harvest, we struggled with seed germination in the heat waves of June and July, leading to a longer gap between spring and summer plantings than usual. The extreme heat also caused a lot of blossom drop on our eggplant, which led to delayed fruiting and overall smaller yields. We also struggled with diseases in our melons again, which we think may have been due to some contaminated older seed coupled with some really wet field conditions. With the unusually rainy fall, we saw a lot of diseases in our broccoli and beets, leading to an almost total crop failure for broccoli, as well as some unattractive beet greens! And while the winter squash harvest was excellent, we do think that the wet field conditions at the end of squash growing season combined with sub-optimal storage conditions contributed to a lot of premature rotting of butternut and Honeynut squash.
While there is not much we can do to alter the increasingly wild and unpredictable weather we are seeing, we are always thinking about what things are within our control. Foremost on our minds is increasing the amount of protected growing space we use (high tunnels, for instance) and improving crop storage and curing areas. High tunnels are expensive, but fortunately there are grant opportunities to help with this. Crop storage space is a different sort of challenge because our overall indoor storage space is quite limited. Nonetheless, we are determined to get creative and are busy brainstorming elevated rodent-proof onion and sweet potato curing systems, as well as semi-protected structures to move some equipment out of our barn and make way for more indoor squash storage and refrigerated space.
Our practices of crop diversity coupled with a variety of membership programs are the two other main strategies that we’ve been using since the beginning to deal with climate uncertainty. It would of course be more efficient to focus in on a few types of crops and sell them in bulk. However, with fewer crops, you are oftentimes at the mercy of factors you can’t control (like the weather and disease), and a single crop failure or even moderate yield reduction can have a devastating impact on income for a farmer. For this reason, we grow a large number of crops, including over 50 types of vegetables, fruit and flowers, and across those crop categories we grow hundreds of varieties. Our community of CSA and Bucks members also helps to ensure that we don’t lose a dramatic amount of business for the whole year if we have one weather-related crop failure. This is because members have made a commitment to the farm, and while it may be a bad year for one or two crops, it’s always a good year for many other crops!
Farms are built on optimism, so while we’ve identified some challenges, we also are always excited to tackle those challenges and plan for an even better season the next year! We are currently in the process of applying for more NRCS funding to build 2 more high tunnels. These would be used to rotate our tomatoes each year, try out protected growing of peppers, cucumbers and flowers, and create more space for season-extending greens. We’ve also been thinking about ways to have more variety and a steadier revenue stream during asparagus season, so we’ve planned to grow more micro greens and we already planted a bed of tulips for cut flowers in May. For some later season variety, we’ve ordered ginger seed to plant in a smaller high tunnel that we plan to complete this spring. As mentioned before, we’re coming up with some designs for curing and storing increased quantities of fall storage crops. We’re also thinking about small fixes in our farm store set-up and signage that will make our shopkeepers’ lives easier, and hopefully improve customer experience too!
One of the most exciting things for us about this coming season is the number of people who are returning from previous seasons. In terms of farm crew, Rebecca and Dave are returning for their fourth seasons this year as part-time farmers (complementing their Irish Dance and English teaching lives respectively), Molly will be graduating college and joining us for her third season in the farm store and field, and Katherine is coming back for her second season as an Assistant Grower! In addition, Wyatt from the 2016 crew is making a welcome return from New Zealand for the summer and will be working with us part-time! We also already have a strong contingent of CSA and Barrett’s Bucks members returning for the 2019 season, some of whom have been with us since our very first season in 2014! These returning crew and customers bring dedication, energy and efficiency to the farm- it wouldn’t be the same without them!