Monday, October 27, 2014

A Case for Diversity within a Crop Type

One of the things we say often when we give presentations is that we believe very strongly in diversity on the farm.  We grow many types of crops, from asparagus to zucchini.  But ,this is only one level of the diversity we embrace as a part of our operation.  We also take our diversity to the point that we grow different cultivars of each type of crop.  For example, we grow four types of snack tomatoes (Jaune Flamme, Red Zebra, Green Zebra and Wapsipinicon Peach) in the high tunnel.

Green Zebra ripening on the plant
Of course, one reason to grow multiple types of tomatoes is that it is fun to do.  We can't think of anything more dull than growing only one type of tomato.  Well, ok, we can think of things that are more dull than growing one type of tomato.  But, that's not the point here. 

Another reason to grow multiple types is the variety in taste.  People have a wide range of taste and texture preferences.  And, many of those people actually like to experience different tastes as well.  So, it makes sense from a customer satisfaction perspective that we identify good tasting tomatoes with a range of acceptable and interesting tastes. 

Fuzzy, juicy and delicious - Wapsipinicon Peach
Both of these reasons are important enough that it isn't really necessary to find more.  After all, if the farm doesn't have an element of enjoyment to it, why should we continue to work so hard to do this?  Again, you can argue that this is our job and it is not required that we enjoy it.  But, if you have the option to find ways to enjoy your work and still be productive, why would you fail to explore them?  And, if you can improve your customer's satisfaction and experience by adding some diversity in a reasonable way, why wouldn't you?

Then, there is this:

This chart represents the total production of ALL four varieties in our high tunnel over the past two seasons.  I suppose this chart is a bittersweet thing because its existence means we are officially done with these plants for the season.  But, the good news is that there is a very similar curve of production for both years.  The biggest difference is the spike at the end of the season for 2013.  Since that brings out another matter for discussion some other time, I'd rather focus on the harvest prior to that point.

A good year for Jaune Flamme in 2014

Here's where our argument for variety and diversity comes into play.  It looks like, for all practical purposes, our high tunnel production for snack tomatoes is very consistent.  This is a good thing for us.  It helps us to plan and it helps us to provide a consistent quality product.

Clearly, Jaune Flamme had a pretty miserable year last year in the high tunnel.  We know exactly why that is.  But, again, that is a topic for other posts.  The point here is that we had a down year last year and a decent year this year.  But, still, we had a very similar production level from the high tunnel for the snack tomatoes, with a similar curve of production.  The difference was that Wapsipinicon Peach, in particular, did not have the absolutely stellar year it had in 2013.  Did it do fine?  Yes, it performed within an acceptable range.  But, it really busted out last season.

Red Zebra
The basic idea is that there are a huge number of variables in vegetable production.  Even in the high tunnel, there are weather considerations.  If there are cooler days with more clouds, the warmth in the high tunnel will not be significantly different from fields outside.  On the other hand, excessive rains came at different times this year and actually impacted our high tunnel production each year!

Then, there are the variables we introduce.  You might argue that, in the high tunnel, we should be able to control planting, irrigation and weeding schedules.  In short, we should be able to replicate a successful season in terms of OUR actions on the farm.  But, now you make the assumption that conditions on the farm and in our lives allow us to follow an algorithm with no variability.  Thus far, this has not occurred for us on this farm.

The very nature of our farm often precludes exact replications from season to season.  Each year, we make adjustments in our plans.  Every season, there are new aspects to our operations.  And, there is the potential for new mistakes or accidents that require a response on our part.  Add to this the possibilities of potential seed issues, leaks in the irrigation hose, mice eating seedlings, etc etc and you find you can't guarantee sameness anyway.   So, why not embrace the diversity?

With diversity within the crop type, we 'hedge our bets' and increase the likelihood that we have success for the crop.  If one of the varieties likes hot and dry (Wapsi Peach) much more than the others, then you can deal with a year where that happens (regardless of how it happens).  If the season starts late, then varieties with shorter maturity times or cultivars that respond better to warmer weather as starts will perform.  Others that need a longer, more consistent season may not.

And, it always looks more inviting with a diverse offering anyway!

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