Monday, November 24, 2014

Lessons in Farming III - If at first you DO succeed...

Part 3 of a series.
Part 1 - Every Morning is the Dawn of a New Error
Part 2 -  I Don't Have a Solution, but I Admire the Problem

If at first you DO succeed, try not to look astonished.

If you haven't noticed by now, it might be a good thing to tell you.  One of the things that I do is make fun of myself.  And, another thing I do is willingly share mistakes or problems in the hopes that the sharing will help others.  Once a teacher, always a teacher?

Before I get going, I'd like to remind everyone of the three points that I am hammering home to myself (and to anyone who reads this):

1. There is no silver bullet
2. Farming is not and should not be easy
3. Every farm has key differences that force the need for solutions that are unique to that farm.

After you re read those three, you can see why I find the title of this post to be both amusing and appropriate.  If it is true that farming is not inherently easy, there is no identifiable optimal solution for it and the solution for our farm may not be exact copy of another farm's solution - it may seem like it should be surprising when there is success!

Don't looked shocked, but those onions are WEEDED!
This year's case in point would be the onion crop.  We had a pretty nice onion crop this year and we attribute it largely to the use of the Williams Tool Bar we purchased in 2013.  But, to point to that as the only reason for success is just too easy and it would be completely inaccurate.  It would be safer to say that the proper use of this new tool was the final piece to a puzzle that we've been putting together over a period of years.

And, this is where the astonishment comes into play.  If you've been trying to develop a system over a period of time with varying degrees of success and you suddenly hit upon a pretty good solution, there will be a moment where you just might stop in wonderment that you might finally be "getting somewhere."

Now, here is the danger of posting things like this in a blog.  At this point, you may determine that we've had complete lack of success in growing onions up to this point.  Or, you might say that we clearly haven't done our homework if it's taken this long to figure out how to grow them.  But, again, this is oversimplification.  By the same token, a claim here that we actually know how to succeed with onions every year on our farm from here on out would also be premature.  By its very nature, farming presents moving targets and as soon as you claim to know that you make things go well every year, Mother Nature will present you with a new puzzle.

Here are some of the factors on our farm that play into the scenario that led to the process we used in this year's onion crop.

1. Our farm has been scaling up production for much of its lifetime.
This was our tenth growing season at the Genuine Faux Farm.  During the first several years, our field sizes changed dramatically.  We more than doubled field sizes in year two.  Added more in year three and by year five had doubled it again to the current 5 acres of vegetable plots.  Year six we added a high tunnel midseason and year seven was the first year we were scaled up to approximately the size we are now.

What this means is that each of our crops have undergone changes in terms of how much of them we grow.  We will be the first to tell you that there is a huge difference between growing one 30 foot row of onions to maintaining three to five 200 foot rows.

So, before you let yourself settle on your relative successes or failures for a given crop, you should be honest with yourself.  How much has that target you are trying to hit been moving?  In our case, the onion crop has only given us a stable target in terms of desired production for three to four years.  And, being honest yet again - we HAVE had success with onions, just on different scales.

But, targets can move for other reasons too.

2. Our farm's fields and soil tends to be difficult to work in wet Springs.
We have heavier soil and a high water table in the area.  If we get excessive early rains, it can make it very difficult to prepare fields and get plants in early.  Onions do best if you give them a longer growing season.  In particular, you want to give them plenty of time before the Summer Solstice.

So, a difficult Spring, like the one we experienced in 2013, can result in poor onion crops because the plants don't go into the ground soon enough.  In short, the weather can move the target for you.  And, as we noted in one of last year's posts (go to part 3 of that post) - we just need to be aware that there are time limits as to when you can successfully plant onions.

3. We determined that plants starting from seed were more desirable and moved to starting our own plants
In fact, we've moved from buying the bulbs to starting our own plants and we've included a foray into buying plants from someone else.  I mention this simply to make the point that each time you change a process, you are potentially changing the target.  In fact, if you change your processes too quickly, you may remove the potential for success.  Remember, each process has a learning curve.  Failure at your one and only attempt should not indict the viability of the process.  It is entirely possible that the failure is not the fault of the tool or the process and it is actually the fault of your inexperience with that process or tool.

4.  Onions were not our only crop
This is both a saving grace and a major limitation.  It's a saving grace because a poor onion crop does not necessarily signify a bad production season.  On the other hand, it makes it difficult to focus on a crop that is giving difficulties.  Changes and adjustments might be a bit delayed because there are so many other crops that also require attention.  And, if you add to it the factor that we had someone working with us in 2013 that liked concentrating on onions, and you might understand why success in our own onion growing processes were delayed.

5. Equipment and infrastructure has changed dramatically every year this farm has been in operation.
We were talking about moving targets.  How about rapid changes in the tool box we have for hitting our growing targets.  Our business plan called for incremental growth with no debt early on.  We have only now taken on loans for a truck and tractor.  Even though we have been aware of how other larger farms raise onions, we could not replicate those processes because we did not have the resources on hand that they did.

One example that may or may not make sense to readers is the relative lack in storage space on our farm.  Many larger farms will harvest entire rows of onions at one time.  They will then cure the onions on pallets sometimes in a hoop building.  Then, they can store them until they are ready for delivery either via a CSA or other sales method.  In our case, the best storage location for our onions is in the field.  We dig what we need for a given week's CSA or other sales and leave the rest in their row.  So, it actually fits our current model to have onions that don't mature uniformly.  Or, if they do, it is best if they hold well in the field.  So, if we change our model yet again, we may also have to change the varieties we choose to grow.

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