Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Brain Storm (Part IV)

As each Summer goes by, I get a number of problems and possible solutions that run through my head as I work outside.  And, it can get pretty exhausting having all of that running going on in my head while I'm trying to harvest tomatoes.  The good news is that I often will take a rainy weekend day in August or September and try to get some of that stuff out of my head and onto paper.  Since a certain person from Blue Gate Farm has asked twice what came of the brainstorming effort, I thought I'd share some of them in a series of blog posts.

Right Sizing our Cucumber Crop

In our previous brain storm post, we mentioned the idea of 'right sizing' crops on our farm so that each crop works within the framework of our resources.  Towards the end of that post, we alluded to the fact that there are some crops we have had success with for some time that are actually no longer the source of farm pride they once were.  This doesn't mean we didn't do reasonably well with them.  But, it does mean the crop is not performing up to standards we feel should be met.

A&C Pickling Cucumbers
This might seem a bit odd to hear since we actually had *more* cucumbers than we needed at one point in time this Summer and we were able to send a batch to Blue Gate Farm (something we were very glad to do).  In fact, it seems silly to complain about this crop when we know others in the state had great difficulty this year.  But, that's the thing - I'm not really complaining, I'm just trying to continue to get better at all that we do.  And, our standards - which have always been high - are only going to go up as we get better at what we do.  So, given a reasonably close to normal weather year next year, we hope to improve on this crop.

So, why am I focusing on working with a crop where we literally harvested a TON of produce (2039 pounds)?

Lower Production Numbers

2015          2898 fruit
2014          2142 fruit
2013          5884 fruit
2012          5928 fruit

The field plan has been largely the same for the years shown here with some changes in varieties grown and little tweaks here and there.  But, we've planted two successions and the same number of row feet, give or take a few here or there.  Even if we take out cucumbers from the high tunnel in 2013, it doesn't change the trend.

Last year, the issue had to do with the entire first succession failing due to cold and wet soil.  So, the second succession pretty much carried the load.  This year, conditions were pretty good, if cool.  Sadly, vines died quickly and fruit went to seed quicker than usual, which also promotes vine death if you don't get the mature fruit off the vine.
Succession I in early July

Questions (and answers) to ask about this:
  • Do we really need higher production numbers? (no, but 3500-4000 would be about right)
  • Are we certain 2014 and 2015 were the aberration? (yes, we can point to causes or circumstances that led to different production numbers)
  • Were there human factors that played a part in the reduction (yes, we'll get to those later).
  • With the number of row feet dedicated to this crop, what is the estimated peak production? (over 7000 - see 2010 with 7318)
  • Does this include culls? Note: culls are fruit that are picked off the vine, but are not marketable. (no, these are marketable fruit, culls go to birds and aren't counted)
Shorter Harvest Peak Window
The production period this year was much shorter than usual.  Our last pick was August 25 - and that wasn't part of our peak production pick.  In a typical year, we will get smaller numbers of cucumbers for three or four weeks, followed by a six week peak harvest.  Then, a 'cool down period' of harvests for another two to four weeks follows.  It is common to harvest at least some cucumbers from the second week of July to mid-September.
Succession I in late July

This year, we had four peak weeks with four "small numbers" weeks prior to the peak.  A single week of small numbers followed the peak and we were done by the time August was in the books.

Is the Peak Window Long or Tall?
The whole point of growing successions of a crop is to spread production out over time.  If a single succession of a given crop will give peak harvest numbers for four weeks, then you would ideally plant two successions that do not overlap their respective peak harvest windows.  This results in a long peak window.  If two much of the windows overlap, then you have a tall peak window.

Since we do not sell cucumbers in bulk numbers to a processor or some other entity, it makes no sense to target a tall/short window.  Instead, we want to have cucumbers available over an extended period of time.

Why does this make sense?
  1. Our customers typically do not want too many cucumbers at one time, but they like long term availability.  Even if they 'grow tired' of them, they don't mind an absence of a week or two followed by a reappearance in the share.
  2. The amount of labor hours we can expend for harvest simply doesn't allow us to efficiently harvest the shorter peak window. We just can't keep up.  The longer window means fewer per harvest, which fits our labor allocations better.
  3. Storage limitations on our farm means we have less flexibility in dealing with the shorter peak with the higher harvest number per pick.
  4. If you can't keep up with the harvest, vines will die and the season will end sooner.
Small Cucumber Production Was Low in 2015
When you look at the way we grow cucumbers, you cannot miss the fact that we grow six varieties.  Three of these varieties (Boothby's Blonde, True Lemon and Parade) are smaller cucumbers that often produce very large numbers of fruit.  This season, 2000 of our fruit came from the larger varieties (AC Pickling, Marketmore 76 and Green Finger).  In fact, most of those came from a record season for AC Pickling and a close to record season from Marketmore 76.  So, it wasn't an awful season at all, it just had certain characteristics that we should look at if we want to learn.
Boothby's Blonde

First, it seemed as if Boothby's Blonde, typically reliable and a former number 1 Veg Variety of the Year at GFF, just didn't want to start bearing fruit.  Once they started, despite some vigorous vining, their fruit matured quickly, without necessarily putting on size.  This is exhibited by the white/yellow fruit turning to a deeper yellow and orange color.  The taste rapidly turns bitter as they mature the seeds and we just feed those to the birds.  The vines started die back earlier and frankly, the time required to pull off the over-ripe fruit and the relatively low harvest numbers discouraged us from spending additional time on them.  Could they have rebounded later?  Of course they could have.  But, were they worth additional effort on our part to try and get that rebound?  Apparently not.  Our last picking of any consequence for this variety was at the end of July, only a week and a half after the first decent sized harvest.  Even during 2014's weaker harvest, we had five weeks of decent numbers from this variety.

This brings me to a few conclusions:
  1. Smaller cucumbers react more to cooler than normal Summer months (July/August) and may also have been impacted by the high number of foggy nights and mornings during that period.
  2. If we do very little to change how we do things, we would likely get back to our previous numbers as long as we get out there and pick.
  3. We need to address the volume of production so we can keep up with the harvest and extend the harvest window.
So, What Are We Going to Do About it?

Fine Tune Succession Planting
I have the Winter months to think on it further, but at first glance it seems we need to re-address our succession planting for this crop.  Of course, when you have difficult Springs (such as 2014), you put things in when you are able.  The result of that might be that you compress your plantings, and thus your overall peak harvest window.  I will consider three successions of fewer plants/row feet each.  At the very least, we'll add another week between the two successions we usually plant.  We also expect to have a very early cucumber succession in one of the high tunnels.
Green Finger

Consider Reducing the Overall Number of Row Feet
With other crops seeing more and more success on the farm, perhaps it isn't so important that we grow as many cucumbers as we do.  It is also possible that fewer row feet will make harvest of this crop easier, which could actually result in similar harvests with a different work load.

Consider Going Vertical
Vine crops give you the option of trellising ,something we stopped doing with cucumbers when we realized we would grow more than three or four hills total.  At issue here is the difficulty we have with allocating labor to trellising.  It can be hard enough for us to get tomatoes caged, peas trellised and pole beans trellised.  Add the trellising we do in the high tunnels and suddenly it doesn't seem like this is the best solution - especially if we can't keep up with the trellising we already do.

Get the Darned Walk-In Cooler Running for 2016
This item shows up in a number of our brainstorms.  If we have a place to store crops for later use, then we will have encouragement to harvest on more days of the week other than those that surround a CSA distribution.  This is, of course, an over-simplification of the issue, but it suffices for here.

If We Aren't Going to Reduce Production - Get a Contract to Sell Excess
    Historically, we can show ourselves that we are pretty good at producing cucumbers and usually have more than our CSA customers want or need.  An alternative to reducing the number of plants/row feet is to see if we can't secure a contract to sell some of these cucumbers.  There's nothing like making a promise to have something to encourage you to go out there and harvest more regularly.  If we combined this with the walk-in cooler, that could be a winning combination.

    Consider Trying More Living Mulch
    We have been exploring living mulch options in the cucumbers to keep other weeds down and help us deal with harvest during wet days.  A living mulch, in this case, would be a cover crop (such as clover) that you would plant between cucumber rows.  As the cucumbers vine, they would crawl on the cover crop.  The trick is finding a cover crop that stays low and does not infringe on the cash crop (the cucumbers) by taking water and nutrients from them.

    Change Our Goals from Production Numbers to Production Weeks at a Minimum Number
    It is simple to set a goal such as this: 4000 fruit for 2016 from our cucumber patch.  But, after thinking about it in more detail, it is clear that the goal for a farm such as ours could be having a certain number of cucumbers every week for as long a period of time as we can effectively manage without expending too many resources to do so.

    It Won't Take All That Much
    These ideas are not entirely new things for us.  But, as we learn and the farm changes, it makes sense to re-evaluate and reconsider things that either were rejected once before, or simply were not given as much priority.  And, we have to admit that, once a season starts, some of these great ideas are going to fall apart because we can't give them the time or the circumstances of the weather (or other factors) prevent us from doing things the way we have planned them.  But, with this crop, we can say that we shouldn't need to do too much to improve - both because we have a decent framework in place and because some of the solutions are not a huge change from past production years.

    No comments:

    Post a Comment

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