Friday, September 13, 2013

Lessons Learned

Something you might not know about your farmers.

They actually can be taught.

Here are a few conclusions we have come to now that we are approaching Fall and we can look at the trials of the early part of the year in the rearview mirror.

1. Build raised beds on the farm before you use ground 25 minutes away.

We just took a look at the three small plots we worked at the Waverly Community Gardens.  The results are pretty disappointing to us.  With all of the rain early in the year, we couldn't plant in our own fields.  So, we did whatever we could to adjust.  This was one such adjustment.  We planted romanesco, cabbage, leeks and onions.  Our last count shows one cabbage harvested from there.  There may be a dozen more that will mature.  None of the romanesco are starting heads.  All of the onions are dead.  About the only thing looking reasonably good are the leeks - and they are a bit small.

Why is that?  Well, first of all, the soil is not nearly as good there as it is on the farm.  But, the primary reason is simply a time factor.  When do you find time to go work in those plots when you have to drive 25 minutes to get there?  That doesn't sound bad, except we weed, water, plant, harvest, etc on the farm all of the time.  So, it's not like it is a diversion from something else.

Swiss Chard in the raised beds

On the other hand, we have harvested 2 batches of lettuce (320 heads), have been able to grow a cherry tomato for workers to snack on and have so far picked 31 pounds of swiss chard.  All of this in fewer square feet of ground, located where we can see it every day.  And, we don't have to leave the farm to work with it.

2. Splitting crops into multiple zones on the farm is good if you can manage it.
The spray incident last year only emphasized for us that it is useful to not put all of one long season crop into one plot if you can help it.  In 2012, all of our peppers were either in the Southwest or in the high tunnel (also in the SW quadrant).  So, when the spray plane hit, it took all of the peppers.

Jimmy Nardello's Frying Peppers (sweet pepper)

This year, we had the field peppers well away from the high tunnel.  As the field peppers were quickly destroyed by weather, rabbits, deer and then weeds - it was a good thing we'd made a last minute adjustment to increase the high tunnel pepper crop.  In 2009 (for example), we picked just over 400 Tolli Sweet peppers.  So far, in 2013, we're at 121 of these delicious peppers.  We'll have to stretch to hit 200, but it's still a reasonable insurance policy to make sure there are some sweet peppers in shares.  We've picked 300 Jimmy Nardello's Frying peppers as well.  In a normal season, we will land around the 1000 mark for these.  But, we'll take that over the big, fat zero we'd be talking about if we'd put all of the plants in the field plot.

Perhaps it is unfair to show a split between a field and  a high tunnel, but we have examples that show effective splits for other crops.  For example, you have seen a decent amount of lettuce in the 2013 shares (about 1600 heads worth) because we've split production between some fields.  If we had not worked to make these adjustments and splits, there would have been very little lettuce to speak of in June and July.  Then, there would be the normal dip in August due to the hot weather.  In short, this has been a successful strategy and we hope to figure out ways to use it more in the future.

3. Set a deadline for planting onions and abide by it.
We had wonderful looking onion starts this Spring.  We wanted them to succeed and we planned on them succeeding.  But, when our early weather prevented us from putting them in when we planned to put them in, we should have just tossed them all.

Onion plants in trays, ready to put in the ground.


Here's where we remind ourselves of some facts.  Bulbing onions in Iowa are typically "long-day" onions.  When day length gets to 14-16 hours of sun, that is what triggers these onions to bulb out.  Prior to that point, they focus on establishing roots and building their solar collectors (green leaves).  But, our first 14 hour days in Tripoli occur at the beginning of May.  In effect, May is the transition month for onions to move to bulbing.  So, you *can* effectively plant onions in May.  But, it is best to aim for earlier rather than later.  We have successfully harvested some decent onions planted as late as May 25.

The second set of facts has to do with the labor involved in growing onions.  They are time consuming to plant.  They are time consuming to weed (though we have a new tool to help with that). 

The final set of facts has to do with field readiness this past May.  Simply put, they weren't ready.  They were too wet and could not be prepped for the onions.  Not until mid-June.

But, we'd put so much effort into creating nice starts, we just couldn't let them go.  So, we tried to plant some of them.  And, they were a waste of time and effort and drip tape.  At least we only planted a couple of rows rather than the entire batch we had originally planned.  And - we did have a chance to test out the new cultivator and try to figure out how it works on onions.

Why did we plant any at all?  We certainly knew how long season onions work and we were pretty certain we'd have a crop failure.  But, a couple reasons are good enough to plant a few.  First, we figured if they didn't bulb, but grew/survived, we could pick them as green onions (too few survived).  Second, we wanted to figure out the cultivator on a crop that had minimal value to us (rather than tearing up a good crop).  Third, we just couldn't stand throwing all of those wonderful seedlings away (bad reason).

But, in the end, we might have gotten a batch of delicious onions if we'd thrown them into a compost pile and let them do their thing. 

What to do next year?  Well, if we can manage to get a second high tunnel up and running, we'll set up a row of onions for the high tunnel.  And, maybe we'll put a batch in raised beds.  We'll work with Tyler and have him raise onions on his sandy soil.  And, when our deadline arrives, we throw the rest of our onion seedlings into the compost.

1 comment:

  1. You can help with the learning, too. The raised beds were such a success, we are going to try to get a 4th one built (this would bring the approx sq ft of raised beds to 240, compared to a single "bed" in the East which is about 500 sq ft. An entire plot in the East is 1200 sq ft). Come help us make this and other projects happen next Saturday Sept. 21st. I'm making dinner to say thanks!



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