Thursday, February 20, 2014

Vegetable Planning and Feedback for 2014 Part I

In past years, we've used our blog and Facebook to try to collect feedback on some of the things we grow.  The danger of this, of course, is that we either lead people to what we want to hear (and thus learn nothing) OR we get requests or comments that point to a place where we will not or can not go (and so we learn something, but can do nothing about it).  But, the most likely result is that we'll get some idea of what a subset of our CSA members might like to see, and then we'll do what is reasonable to respond to that.  All the time, we know that we're getting feedback from less than 10% of our customers.

But, if you don't ask and give people the opportunity to respond, you aren't being a responsive farmer.  So there!

Question 1: Watermelons - how many would you ideally like to receive as a member of our CSA Farm Share program over the course of the regular 20 week season?

2007 harvest of watermelons and a few pumpkins
We've already gotten responses on Facebook from several people.  And, there was strong lobbying for the watermelon.  It wasn't exactly what we expected, but it is helpful to know this.

A historical perspective:
We have not had the best record for producing melons or watermelons on the farm.  The biggest problem has been wet weather preventing us from getting these crops in on time.  Or, in the case of 2010, we got the crops in, then they drowned in the absurd amounts of rain we got through June and early July.  We had reasonable production for the CSA in 2012 and eked out a few melons and watermelons in 2013 despite only being able to put them in the ground in late June.  We're confident that they will grow for us if we are given a season that is even remotely close to normal.

Ha'Ogen Melon
Factors to Consider:
Some of the things we have to consider is growing space and growing requirements.  We're prepared to dedicate 1800 row feet to these crops (9 tractor width beds).  Given a decent growing year, that should be enough to go around and have surplus beyond CSA needs.  But, part of the question is how much of this do we dedicate to watermelons and how much to melons.  That brings us to member preference (what do you like better) as one of the factors.  But, we can't ignore a few other things.

1. Melons typically take less space and provide a smaller number of servings.
As far as space goes - we do have to get it to everyone somehow, along with all of the other produce for the week.  Watermelons don't pack all that well, so it isn't all that easy to deliver 60+ watermelons on a given CSA day.  Melons aren't much easier to pack, but they take less space in the truck.  And, we are fully aware that we have members who have trouble getting through even the smaller watermelons.
2. Watermelons have a tougher rind, so they ride better than melons.  You might think this is a plus for watermelons in the CSA, but it is actually a plus because we could more easily sell watermelons via other outlets with less transportation loss.
3. Watermelon vines typically sprawl ALOT more than melons.  Ah, that space thing again.  They're more likely to invade neighboring beds and make it harder to weed them once they start to sprawl.
4. The window for fresh melons is larger than the one for watermelons.  In other words, we can have melons produce over a longer period because there is typically more variability in days to maturity across types.  In the end, that means that a late start, early Fall or a cool season will typically reduce watermelon crops in Iowa more dramatically than many of the melons we grow.

Boule d'Or melon
So, what are we going to do in 2014?

Glad you asked!

Watermelon varieties: Orangeglow, Mountain Yellow Sweet, Sweet Siberian and Ali Baba
Melon varieties: Pride of Wisconsin, Eden's Gem, Hearts of Gold, Ha'Ogen, Boule d'Or, Crane, Minnesota Midget, Oka

1. Paper Mulch SARE research
We will be doing a research grant using paper mulch on our melon varieties.  This mulch will help keep weeds down and it may also prevent losses to insects early in the plant's life (that's the research).  Half of our crop will be in the treatment group (with paper mulch) and half will not.
2. Williams Tool Bar for weeding.
We added this implement last year and we look forward to using it on the rows that don't have the mulch.  This should help with production immensely.
3. Flower companions to attract pollinators and predators.
Once again, we'll plant flowers.  If you come to the farm and see a riot of color from zinnias, marigolds and nasturtiums in the melon field, you can make an accurate guess that the melons are doing well.  (but that's for another blog post)
4. A row of melons in the high tunnel
Minnesota Midget did extremely well in a trial last season.  Instead of 10 feet of a trellised row, we'll run a 60-65 foot row of these in 2014.  If production levels scale up properly, everyone in the CSA could get one of these melons.
5. Other practices
The only reason there were any watermelons/melons last year was because we have made numerous advances in the tools we have in our arsenal (both in techniques and actual, physical tools).  We will continue to start our plants in flats and transplant them in.  This helps us get around wet or cool soil problems and helps us to deal with a shorter growing season.  Improved weeding tools help us reduce weed pressure enough so these plants have a chance most seasons.  And, finally, drip irrigation increases the survival rates of vines so they have a chance to produce fruit.

There it is folks, the plan to grow them!  The goals for what we hope to grow will be shared in part II.

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