Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Lessons in Farming IV - Synchronized Swimming

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

Part 3 - If at First You DO Succeed

If one synchronized swimmer drowns, do the rest have to drown too?
This saying is both amusing and incredibly applicable to so many things we do in life.  But, I'd like to confine it here to horticulture/agriculture.

On a smaller scale we can consider this from the perspective of the management of crops on our farm.  Many of our crops have a short enough season to allow for a second (or maybe third) crop to follow in the same area.  As a result, we have to manage a 'critical time line' ruthlessly.  If an earlier crop falls behind or doesn't show the appropriate promise for returns, we have to terminate the crop.  If we don't, we run the risk of losing following crops in an effort to get something out of a planting that is not doing as well as it should.
Well, one bed of radish worked out.

The photo above shows our Southwest field just after we put in most of our peppers and eggplant and seeded in most of our dry beans and green beans for this field.  Just prior to this, we had a planting of radish, spinach, arugula and mustard greens.  These crops germinated poorly and grew slowly (remember the cold weather we had early this year?).  We had not harvested much at all from these plantings at this point, but it was definitely time to get the peppers and eggplant into the ground.  So, what do you do?

You let the rest of the synchronized swimmers do their own thing - that's what you do.

In this case, we had only one bed that looked to give us a reasonable return if we left it for one more week.  That's the radish bed you see in the middle.  Otherwise, we terminated the crops and cut our losses on them.  The long term result was that we hit the planting time for the peppers and eggplant in this field perfectly.  Our CSA members will tell you that they got some pretty darn nice fruit out of this field in 2014.

Taking this to a broader scale I find myself worrying that horticultural operations such as ours are in danger of some of the same traps that I feel the row crop operations and livestock operations have fallen prey to over the years.

Synchronized Drowning in Agriculture
In my opinion, row crop operations (corn, soybeans, etc) have worked entirely too hard to remove two critical things: thinking and actual work.  And, these are replaced by the all encompassing drive for the bottom line (make money).  There is no room for individuality.  No room for innovation (unless it squeaks another bushel per acre - who cares at what cost).  Everyone has to have the largest planter they can get.  Never mind that the hilly fields in some areas make these tools a problem.  Buy the tool anyway (because everyone has one) and then knock the tops off of your hills so everything is flat.

The development of "super-weeds" as a result of overuse of glysophates (Roundup) and the likely transition by many farmers to 2-4D resistant GMO seeds feels like one of those cases where all of the synchronized swimmers are setting themselves up to drown together.  The difficulty here is that they may bring others with them in the process.  But, my point here is that everyone is looking for and jumping on what seems to be the easiest general solution that will work for everyone.  And, that's exactly how you drown a whole line of synchronized swimmers.

Synchronized Drowning in Horticulture?

Just because a farm grows vegetables does not mean it is immune to the same pressures and temptations that commodity crop farmers have fallen prey to.  This happens when farms allow the bottom line to dictate all actions without consideration for a broader picture.  Now, don't get me wrong, I know many small farms that need to do a better job of considering finances.  In fact, many small farms are weak in this area.   Either way, synchronized drowning is still not a good idea.

Example #1 - What sweet corn seed did you use?
When we started growing for more than ourselves, we were introduced to the 'truck farm/farmers market' grower culture.  We learned how success is copied by other growers from season to season.  We watched over a period of two years while one grower's success with a sweet corn variety was noted by others.  The following year, everyone grew that variety.  Most converted sizable portions (if not all) of their growing to that variety.  There was an excess of that particular type of corn available that season (all at the same time).  Needless to say, none of the people who followed this particular approach did all that well with their returns because they ALL had corn and the demand had not risen to meet what they had.  On the other hand, another grower who grew multiple varieties had corn earlier and later than the other growers.  I wonder who still had a decent year that season?

Example #2 - Everyone needs a high tunnel (or two... or ten)
There was a big push to increase season extension options for growers in the United States.  And, we were among the farms that decided to install a high tunnel building.  Now, there is a conventional "wisdom" being spouted by others that a small farm, such as ours, cannot be profitable UNLESS it has a high tunnel.  The first mistake made here is that the only reason being given for having a high tunnel is to be profitable.  A high tunnel is not, by its very nature, a profitable venture.  And for a small farm getting started, it is one of MANY sizable purchases that might need to be considered.  The second mistake is the assumption that a small farm without a high tunnel cannot be profitable.  And the final mistake is that there is very little consideration for the bigger picture of the individual farm at this point in its evolution.  It is entirely possible that the farmers are not ready for a high tunnel.  Getting a high tunnel should NOT be a directive - that's just drowning with the other synchronized swimmers - or haven't you noticed the number of high tunnel frames that have been put up that never got the plastic covering?  Considering whether a high tunnel is the right thing for a farming operation and how it can be made to work best IS a good idea.  Whether actually following through is a good idea or not is a different thing entirely.

Synchronized Swimming with Options
In my opinion, a farmer needs to think, research and assess in order to determine what is right for their farm rather than blindly following what others are doing. And, they need to be willing to make an assumption that maybe some things don't work because they haven't figured out how to do them yet.  It drives me nuts when I hear someone say they tried a certain tool, technique, seed, etc once and proclaimed it a failure.  Doesn't it occur to anyone else that operator error is the most likely cause of failure in these cases the first time around (if not the 2nd, 3rd and 4th times)?  Just because farmer A uses plastic mulch and is successful does not mean every other veg farmer who wants to be successful must do the same thing.

On the other hand, it is foolish to say that farmers should not learn from each other and share ideas.  This is also very important.  How many times have you (or someone you know) done something on your own - letting your pride get in the way of finding some help when it might be best if you did so?  But getting help is not the same as eliminating all other options.  Collecting ideas does not mean they must all be implemented.  It's about learning.  It's about thinking.  It's about experimenting.  And, it's about keeping the bottom line a part of the big picture, rather than the only picture.

1 comment:

Thank you for your input! We appreciate hearing what you have to say.