Saturday, January 10, 2009

...or was it Continuously Delayed Perfection?

I'm sure this saying has been around for a while, but it is nonetheless a proverb that reminds us of lessons in the planning and production on our farm.

Strive for continuous improvement rather than delayed perfection.
Corollary - Continuous improvement versus extreme makeover.

January is our big planning month for the growing season. We have to avoid two diametrically opposed dangers. The danger of over-analyzing and failing to take any action and the danger of wanting to do it all - now. For our part, we try to walk the fine line that is an incremental approach. That doesn't mean we aren't aggressively trying to improve the workings of the farm - far from it. But, it does mean we realize a few key things about veg farming:
  1. What works in one growing season may not work the next
  2. What works for some farmers may not work for others
  3. You must be ready to make the change and be prepared to maintain it - otherwise it will fail
The first two make sense with no further discussion - but the third can be a difficult lesson to learn.

Case in point - Season extension.
We are certainly capable of expanding our season. In fact, on a small scale, we've picked fresh produce as late as mid-December and as early as April. Yes, others do better than this. Yes, we could do better than this. But, the question may not be "can we?"

We could invest in a high tunnel (unheated greenhouse) and work hard to expand our season on both ends. It would cost money to do this - but I suspect we could find a way to get funding. We've never put up a greenhouse - but we can get help and we're not helpless - we can figure it out. We've never grown things this way before - but again - there are plenty of resources and we have plenty of knowledge to start us out. So what stops us?

A shortage of resources? Yes, time and money are part of the equation. But, the real resource that isn't currently available for this project is personal energy to make it happen. People tend to forget what season extension implies for the grower in terms of workload. For an additional X weeks of the year, we will have to be planting/tending/harvesting/distributing. We're not ready for that responsibility. Perhaps if we didn't have an old house to maintain and a farm with older buildings to resurrect we'd consider it sooner. But, right now, we need the time away from the growing season to accomplish other necessary things in our lives!

So, what do we do? We concentrate on a reasonable season extension project - a new spring planting plan that refines what we already do so that we have a stronger first four weeks of the harvesting season. Some of our strategies for this year (for those who might care):
  • fall planted spinach and lettuce for early harvest
  • plan tray-seeded plantings of crops such as lettuce
  • over wintered leeks
  • better row cover preparations for spring (we've got some serious wind to deal with)
  • a week by week season plan
Fall planting

We've done this before with reasonable success. The hardest part was finding the time and energy to put these things in with proper timing. We were still harvesting tomatoes this year in mid-October and still delivering to our CSA through the month of October. That left little time for field cleanup, fall planting, etc. Things are not always so simple as 'just do it'....the list of things to 'just do' is often too long for that logic.

Tray planted seedlings

We favored direct planting until last year - when we had germination problems in the fields. Transplants may cost a bit more in terms of resources, but the success rate is far higher. So, the returns, in the end, are likely to be more consistent. It is far easier to keep a row clean with plants that are already established to the transplant stage. This year, we'll run our earliest lettuce planting as transplants and our summer plantings as transplants (when temps are too high for best germination rates). Eventually, we hope to convert to soil blocks so that we don't use the plastic trays as much.

Week by week season plan

This may sound a little excessive. After all, I've never been accused of failing to plan - at least where gardening is concerned. Up until now, our plans have been good, but not good enough to make the necessary improvisation that occurs each year any easier. Too much of the season plan resides in one person's head (and I'm a legend in my own mind...). Thus, making it difficult to allow for any modification other than those I make. There's far too much talent involved in this farm to limit it in this fashion. So, we're going to have a written week-by-week plan of intended tasks/goals.

I've heard from other experienced growers including Richard DeWilde and Elliot Coleman that this sort of planning is important -and I believe them. But, since I haven't tried to do this explicit planning before, it will be difficult.

Stay tuned and find out how we do with these changes!

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