Every year, we try to look back on our farming to assess what we did and figure out how to do it better next year. This year, we made some big changes to our farming operation, and along with that came some key learnings. Last year, we decided that we were going to die trying if we kept on doing so many things by hand. This was a great decision that led us to purchase a tractor mounted seeder, a cultivator to keep the weeds out, a mechanical transplanter, and an entire irrigation system. Now that it is the end of the season, I can honestly say that those were good choices and we have not yet died trying. Now I think we can improve on things even more! Here are some of our key learnings from 2016.
1. Start with transplants. It provides an earlier more reliable crop. This is key because seeding can sometimes go wrong. I remember last winter we reseeded 4 times! Almost anything can cause seed germination problems, no rain, too much rain, too hot, too cold and the list goes on. Transplants avoid all of that and allowed us to start with beautiful baby plants. Yes, it was a little more expensive than seeds, but the savings and reliability made it worth it. We haven’t abandoned direct seeding all together, but will be shifting at least half of our crops to transplants. We already ordered them for spring, with delivery in February, just in time to have lovely kale, lettuce and greens in April.
2. Plant for our Winter CSA earlier, to ensure we beat the hard freezes and hopefully our cauliflower and Brussels sprouts will be ready earlier. This year we planted fall crops on September 1st. Sadly, this timing caused our cauliflower and Brussels sprouts to all be perfect at the same time our Winter CSA was ending, and the weather was dipping into freezing temperatures. Next year we will do it better and aim to plant those transplants before August 15th. I know it is really hot and our cool season crops won’t love it, but I think with adequate irrigation we can do it!
3. Plant lettuce with transplants. Lettuce seems to be the most persnickety of all crops. It won’t germinate if it is too hot, too cold, or if the soil is not perfectly prepared. Ugh. We don’t have time for this high maintenance behavior. With adequate irrigation, transplants should get these errant children in line.
4. Plant closer! Our new mechanical transplanter spaces plants 18 inches apart. We didn’t know that it was adjustable, so everything we planted had that spacing. What a waste! Kale and cabbage can be planted as close as 6 inches! That means that it took 3 times as much land to grow the same amount of crop as it would have if we had adjusted the transplanter. Wow, we were silly. Not only that, any land that is not shaded by a crop becomes host for weeds. With our kale and cabbage so far apart we created a weedy mess. Next year we will plant closer together to suppress weeds by shading them out, and get more plants in one row. A simple, but key, learning.
5. Make the rows straight. So, last year we bought a new cultivator to get rid of the weeds between rows, and so that we were not hoeing so much. It was a great idea, but we planted our rows kind of crooked, with some closer together than others. This meant that our beautiful new cultivator didn’t work very well because we kept having to adjust the spacing. Not only that, but if the row was crooked, sometimes we tore out a whole chunk of the row when we tried to cultivate. The cultivator was a great idea, but we have to do a better job. Make all the rows straight and exactly the same distance apart, so we can mechanically cultivate between the rows to keep weeds down.
6. Thank God every week for irrigation! It saved us this fall when we had no rain from September until November! Now, we just need to do it better. This year we had some rows with two lines of drip tape, and some with only one. The double lines worked much better. We also had a strange problem with some lines getting lots of water down at the end of the row, and not enough water at the beginning of the row. I think it was a pressure problem. Irrigation is essential. We need to get it right.
We love farming and continually try to do it better, so that we can keep farming. Everyone who is a member of our CSA or a farmers market customer is a key part of our ability to farm. That is one of our clearest learnings of 2016. Thanks to everyone who is a member of our CSA or meets us at the market. You support our farm. We couldn’t do it without you.
Eat your veggies in 2017 and Happy New Year,