Sunday, November 1, 2015

Veg Variety Winners for 2015

Every year we attempt to identify the top 10 varieties that were grown on the farm during the year.  Criteria include production, quality of fruit, taste and plant health.  Additional factors that may increase the rating for a variety might be performance as compared other varieties of the same type or one that surprised us by doing far better than anticipated.  You might also note that we will give a tie break to a variety that has not been awarded a top 10 slot over one that has.

 For those who want to see what has gone before:
About 2015's Growing Season
This year's list was a difficult one to compile for reasons we hope to duplicate in the future.   Simply put, we had several varieties that made us happy this season and it was actually difficult to narrow the list down.  The other issue that is likely to cause us "grief" in future years is the fact that we have certain varieties that do extremely well under cover in the high tunnels, but not so well in the field if conditions are less optimal for the variety in question.  It's enough to make us consider a separate category.  In order to handle that (partially) this season, we've expanded the list to 15 varieties.  It is likely that next year we will compile a field and a high tunnel list.

15. Pride of Wisconsin melon (field)
We admit that we have a tendency to favor crops in our end of season lists that have shown improvement over prior seasons.  But, it makes sense that we should take note of harvests that are moving in the right direction.  Melons are one crop that we have been steadily improving on since 2012.  And, we can point to Pride of Wisconsin as one of the main reasons for that improvement.

Pride of Wisconsin
You might notice that we also have Minnesota Midget in this list, so it might seem that we are breaking an unwritten rule about representing a veggie type multiple times unless there are no other contenders.  And, certainly, it wasn't an easy decision because we actually had alot of deserving candidates this season.  We justify this one because Pride of Wisconsin was all 'field grown' and Minnesota Midget was all 'high tunnel grown.'  We pulled in 138 Pride of Wisconsin melons that averaged 3.8 pounds.  Some were easily five pounds, but most landed around four.

There were other melons that deserved consideration.  Eden's Gem (#8 last year) produced as many fruit at a slightly larger size than it did last year.  But, the fact that we lost at least half of the plants early on keeps me from naming it.  Oka also did pretty well, but we missed picking a sizable batch of these.  If we'd caught them before they split, we might have a different entry here.  Sure, it seems unfair that our mistakes might impact the selection.  But, the reality is that Oka splits much more quickly than Pride of Wisconsin, which gives us one more reason for the vote.

In the end, it would be fair to say that Tammy and I enjoyed a fair number of melons for breakfast, since we "had" to eat melons that had bad spots.  Darn.

14. Marketmore 76 cucumber (field)
Marketmore 76
This one might seem a bit strange after I spent time brain-storming on what to do to improve our cucumber crops in 2016.  But, if you take a look at one of our humorous and punny posts from earlier in the season, the crop looked great in the first half of the growing season.  But, here we are at the end of the season, and a cucumber makes the list despite the abbreviated production period.

Cucumbers are one of those crops on the farm where we have the best records and we've spent a fair amount of time discussing them on our blog, such as this post that gives a nice history of cucumbers and GFF.  One of the interesting things about this season is that we had two varieties do quite well, but over a fairly short period of time.  A and C Pickling and Marketmore 76 both performed, with consistent quality and taste.  A and C made the decision difficult since it set a record for production (858 fruit, .73 lb average).  But, we had more seedling death and a bit more inconsistency in quality.  Marketmore 76 (952 fruit, .78 lb average), on the other hand, just missed the mark set in 2012 by 50 cucumbers, there was minimal seedling death and excellent consistency in quality.

We've long been fans of Marketmore 76 and Marketmore 97.  We used to grow the latter and found that they tended to get too big for our purposes a bit too quickly.  Also, we located certified organic seed for Marketmore 76 in 2012 from a seed supplier we preferred and the rest is history.  Marketmore has a nice, standard cucumber taste with a consistent texture.  The seeds do not tend to develop too quickly.

13. Copenhagen Market cabbage (field)
We have to admit that neither of us is a huge cabbage fan, but we know we have members of the CSA that are.  So, we do our best to grow them for those that love their cabbage.  It might seem odd that I would open with this caveat, but you have to consider that it would only be natural for us to favor other crops for end of year lists.  Yet, here is Copenhagen Market, sitting at number 13.  

Early Jersey Wakefield has been our workhorse cabbage for the past few years and it did fine again this season.  But, we finally managed to give Copenhagen equal footing this year and it performed very well.  The quality of the heads were fairly consistent, being solid and very dense.  Average weight of combined main heads and side shoots was over one pound in weight.  We tend to favor smaller cabbage heads since that is what most of our CSA members would prefer, but we do believe that if we wanted an average head size in the 3 to 4 pound range, Copenhagen would do just fine.

Most growers do not do anything with cabbage side shoots, preferring to terminate the plants after main head harvest.  With our wide diversity of crops on the farm, we prefer to plant our cabbage once (maybe twice) and let the plants set the side shoots.  The result is that we get smaller heads on the sides and we also find that approximately one of five sides will produce a viable cabbage head.  But, when you consider our purpose (to get a few more cabbage later in the season for CSA members who love it without using more field space) and the minimal cost to us by just letting the old plants do their thing, then it makes perfect sense.  Copenhagen Market fits our model well.

12. Napoleon Sweet bell pepper (field)
Our farm has settled into harvesting between two and three thousand bell peppers each season and we really have not changed our variety selection much since 2010.  All but Ace are open pollinated varieties and we have had other varieties crack the top ten in prior years.  For example, Jupiter (#6) and Purple Beauty (#2) both made the list last year.  Wisconsin Lakes (#7) made the list in 2011 and Quadrato asti Giallo (#5) was on the list in 2009.

Napolean Sweet
This year, Napolean Sweet beat its competition by having one of its best years on the farm, only eclipsed by 2012.  But, since we were forced to destroy the entire pepper crop that year, we weren't about to put them on our variety lists that season.  Fruit were a bit above average in size this year (.36 lb versus a .35 four year average) and quality was quite good.  Harvest per plant landed somewhere in the 10 to 15 marketable fruit per plant, which we find to be quite acceptable for our operation. We were not forced to remove many bad fruit at all.

Fruits have four lobes and are usually somewhat elongated.  The walls are moderately thick, but not as thick as most varieties that are favored by grocery stores.  As you can see in the picture, fruit are not terribly uniform in shape, but we don't grow these so you can set them on a shelf and pretend that they are made of plastic.  In our opinion, Napoleon Sweet is a standout for taste, exceeding most green bells we have tried, so it is really quite nice to see them combine excellent production and quality with that taste.

11. Snow Crown cauliflower (field)
The rest of our list features open pollinated varieties (if you keep plants from cross-pollinating with other varieties, you could save seed and grow the same variety next year).  This is our lone F-1 hybrid (seed is created by deliberately crossing two other varieties).  We had some decent cauliflower this year and admit that it could have been better if we could have gotten a few more plants into the ground.  But, weather can change plans - as it does every year on our farm.

Nonetheless, we got some nice cauliflower from both successions we put in the ground this year.  Amazing and Goodman are both open pollinated varieties that represented themselves well this season.  But, they were both in trial mode, so did not get enough of a chance to make this list.  Motivation for next year!

Snow Crown has reliably produced in all sorts of conditions.  Plants tend to be smaller than many cauliflower and leaf coverage is minimal.  However, the heads maintain the white coloration with hints of purple whether you blanch them or not. Depending on stress levels (weather conditions and available nutrients) Snow Crown may not have the tight curd cluster that people prize.  However, they maintain eating qualities even if they open up a little bit.  They have a smooth, mild cauliflower taste that makes it accessible to more people.  Snow Crown averages between one and two pounds per head depending on conditions and will occasionally exceed two pounds.

10. Black Krim tomato (high tunnel)
This is the poster child for high tunnel production on our farm and it illustrates well why we might split the list into high tunnel and field production in 2016 rather than having a "top 15."  Black Krim struggled mightily in the field this season due to 'wet feet' early in the season.  They never recovered from that start and the fruit just didn't ripen before they split and had issues.  As a result, we only pulled in 31 marketable fruit of our favorite tomato in the field.  And, if this were the end of the story for 2015, we would have been VERY sad.

Black Krim
But, then we consider high tunnel production.  We put in an early batch of five plants in the old high tunnel (we have now named it Eden).  Harvest numbers for five plants were phenomenal, with 160 tomatoes weighing in at 97 pounds.  This is a ridiculous 33 marketable tomatoes per plant for a tomato that has a robust flavor and texture that we (and many of our farm share members) love.  We could not plant in our new high tunnel until much later, but the late planting had enough time to begin producing.  The ten plants in Valhalla (our 2nd high tunnel) have also produced 97 pounds of fruit in the form of 164 fruit.

The real selling point for us is the quality of the fruit we pulled out of the high tunnel.  The size, color and texture was outstanding and the number of blemishes was nothing compared to the cracking and issues our Black Krims in the field exhibit.  We had decent leaf cover this year, so we didn't have scalding problems.  There is some variability in shape and size, which is to be expected with an heirloom, but nothing that we couldn't easily deal with.  The very thin skin can split in transit, as is the case for many heirlooms when they are ripe.  But, let's be honest, we love these tomatoes so much that if our CSA members won't take a tomato with a little split, we'll happily take it home and eat it ourselves.  But, as a testament to this tomato variety, we rarely get that opportunity - our members know about these little beauties!

Harvesting Black Krim tomatoes in the high tunnel was a thoroughly positive experience for us this year.  For that alone, we should give them a spot on this list.

9. Touchstone Gold beets (high tunnel)
Touchstone Gold might have landed much higher on the list if the Fall planting hadn't been largely devastated by deer.  But, that's just the way it goes.  As it stands, the first planting was sufficient to land it a spot in the top 10 for 2015.  Touchstone Gold makes the list for two key reasons.  First, it is a crop we haven't had consistent success with, so it means something when beets do well on our farm.  And second, these taste so good, even beet haters will forget that they are beets.  Well, ok, many beet haters will at least tolerate these.  Those ambivalent towards beets find themselves liking them.
Touchstone Gold beets
Touchstone Gold
Tammy and I liked them so much that we took the time to freeze a nice batch of them for the Winter months when we need reminding of good things that happened during the growing season this year.  We pulled out over 100 pounds of beets from a single half-bed in our high tunnel (about 60 foot by 2 feet).  There were a few spots we might have done well to thin, but overall, it was a great crop.

8. Jade green beans (field/high tunnel)
Jade just keeps showing up on our list, and we have to admit that a large part of the reason for it is our decision to begin growing Jade green beans in our high tunnel.  Typically, if we don't miss a picking, we can expect one pound of green beans per row foot in the field from Jade.  Normally, we get 2 to 3 times the volume from plantings in the high tunnel.  This year was no exception for this pattern with 333 pounds coming from the high tunnel and 134 pounds from the field.  We have to admit that the field DID do better than that, but we missed a harvest and the beans over-matured in early September. Given the heavy load of mature beans on the plants, we would easily have passed the 200 pound mark from the field rows for the year.

This year, it wasn't the volume that put Jade on the list, though it had something to do with it.  Instead, it was the fantastic quality of the fruit we harvested, regardless of the age of the plants.  If you like green beans even a little, the beans from our Jade plantings would have made you very happy.  And, since the farmers love their green beans, they are quite pleased.  And, when you add getting a high tunnel harvest of green beans in mid-October, it gets even better.  The biggest wart for Jade this year was some poor germination that was a result of some seed supply issues.  We wonder how good things might have been if we could have had better germination and not missed a key harvest.  Jade most certainly would have pushed into the top five.

7. Musquee de Provence pie pumpkin (field)
Pumpkins are just a subset of winter squash and we had a decent pumpkin year this year.  And, to clarify further, we do not grow the standard "jack o lantern" pumpkins, we grow pie pumpkins.  Space on our farm is limited and we just can't see using any of it for a veggie type crop that is purely ornamental (flowers are another matter).  Instead, we like things that can be good looking AND you can eat them.

Musquee de Provence
Musquee de Provence is our favorite and we are pleased that it was the happiest of our pie pumpkins this year.  You can cook these things and serve them in any number of squash recipes.  And, of course, you can make the absolute BEST pumpkin pie or pumpkin bread with this heirloom pumpkin.  Why add nutmeg and other spices when the pumpkin provides all of the taste you could ever want?

If you look at the picture above, you'll notice the dark green/blue/gray coloration.  Over time, the color will change to a deep tan/orange.  But, what you see above is perfectly fine for eating.  If you aren't in a rush to eat it, set it on the table for a month and enjoy it.

We harvested 87 Musquee's that averaged 12 pounds from about 120 row feet of plants.  While the size is a bit smaller than 2012, when Musquee landed at #6, we really can't argue with the quality.  And, we doubled the harvest number this year from 2012's results.  Part of this is due to an increase in row feet dedicated to the variety, but the rest is simply because they set fruit better this year.

6. Improved Rainbow Mix swiss chard (field)
Some might argue that we had more kale than chard this year, so that should mean a kale variety should appear here.  But, the reality is that our kale production has been very consistent for the past four seasons while our chard has shown some weak points.  As a result, we give the chard varieties the nod simply because they exceeded expectations.

Improved Rainbow Mix Chard
For the first time, we actually grew and harvested more than one 'variety' of swiss chard.  We realize this is a bit of a misrepresentation since Improved Rainbow Mix IS a mix of varieties packed together to allow growers to have multiple color and leaf types without buying additional packets of seed.  This mix comes from High Mowing Seeds, a company we highly recommend to others for seed supplies.  We also grew Fordhook, the white stemmed standard for many commercial growers.  Fordhook did well this season, but the mix did slightly better and gets the slot in our final list.

For any mix of this sort, you can expect that some of the varieties in the mix will be weaker than the others.  This still holds true for the Improved Rainbow Mix, but the disparity was less than what we have seen in other mixes we have tried over the years.  We did have some issues with a few plants of one type bolting early and we were reminded that deer love their chard.  Otherwise, we can't complain about the chard harvest this year.  It looks like our next step is to figure out how many row feet are necessary to balance out the chard and kale production numbers for our CSA shareholders.

5. Chervena Chushka sweet pepper (field)
This is a sweet pepper that we've given less attention to than it apparently deserved.  Chervena Chushka languished in 'trial status' longer than normal for various reasons, most of which had nothing to do with the qualities of this pepper.  We gave it a full chance last year and it did reasonably well.  But, this year, it showed that it is a great pepper for a cooler season and later start, making it an excellent counterpoint to our other sweet peppers since many of them prefer warmers weather or a longer season and thus underperformed slightly this year.

Chervena Chushka
We were able to harvest 564 marketable red peppers off of these plants.  The fruit have crisp flesh and hold well in the field.  We rarely saw cracked shoulders on the fully red fruit (something that happens with Tolli Sweet if you let them ripen a bit long) and we didn't see much for soft ends (something that happens to most of our sweet peppers if fruit contacts the soil).  We did notice a couple of off-plants that produced smaller fruit than the variety seems to feature, but that wasn't the end of the world either as we ended up not harvesting from those plants and still had plenty.  Average size is .15 pound for each fruit, so they are a good bit smaller than Marconi Red or Golden Treasure.  Chervena just earned itself full status on the farm with the last two seasons and shows that it pairs with Tolli Sweet for our small, red sweet peppers to give us insurance for different growing conditions.

Only one plant made it into the high tunnels in 2015, so we really can't tell how it will behave in that environment.  If one plant is any indicator, we don't see much advantage for using tunnel space over field space for this variety.

4. Jaune Flamme tomato (high tunnel/field)
Jaune Flamme
We classify these smaller tomatoes as "snack tomatoes" because we offer them as part of our CSA farm shares for several weeks during the Summer and most of them tend NOT to make it all of the way home due to the extreme desire to snack on them.  Jaune Flamme is mentioned in Barbara Kingsolver's book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle as a favorite for roasting.  But, that only holds true if you can keep yourself from eating them right off the vine (we call that hand to mouth disease around here).

Ever since the introduction of a high tunnel to the farm in 2010, we have been growing some snack tomatoes under cover.  But, it really wasn't until 2013 that we dedicated a certain amount of space in the high tunnel to Red Zebra, Green Zebra, Wapsipinicon Peach and Jaune Flamme.  And, since that time, we have had excellent production of high quality fruit from each, with some difference from year to year as to which one is the star.  This year, Jaune Flamme has looked fabulous in the high tunnel and good in the field.  This year, we harvested over 1000 fruit that weighed in at .14 lbs on average.  These rarely crack, but the skin is not too tough. 

One of the nicest qualities, from the farmer's perspective, is the relative ease with which they can be harvested.  The beautiful orange color stands out on the plant and the stems can usually be easily flicked off as long as you don't let them get too ripe on the vine.  Each high tunnel plant provided us with over 120 quality fruit and produced nicely through August and September and well into October.

For the record, Tammy voted for Wapsipinicon Peach (#1 in 2013) for this slot, and she has lots of data to back her up.  These did extremely well in the high tunnels, actually exceeding Jaune Flamme's production in the building.  However, Jaune Flamme is the shorter season variety, producing faster and tending to have less variability in fruit size.  Jaune Flamme outperformed Wapsi Peach in the field and in Valhalla, where the season was shorter for these varieties.  If you go by pounds of production, Jaune Flamme and Red Zebra actually beat Wapsi Peach, which tends to be lighter and much more variable in size.  I will admit that I was tempted to give Red Zebra this spot as well, but it didn't quite have the push in the field that would have made the difference.

3. Ailsa Craig Exhibition sweet onion and Redwing onion (field)
I suspect those who read the blog will tire of our talking about our process of scaling up onions.   But, we cannot emphasize enough how finding the right tool can make all of the difference in a production system.  While we will not promise that we are immune to onion crop failures (that would be foolish), we can say that we have placed ourselves in position to have consistent success.

Last year, White Wing was a top variety at #4 and it doesn't crack the top 10 this year for two reasons: Ailsa Craig and Redwing.  Ok, maybe there are other reasons too.  First, we expected White Wing to produce, and it did - producing 1098 onions as compared to 1085 in 2014.  Then, there is the fact that many of our Ailsa Craig's and Redwing's were softball sized.  Yep, that might have something to do with it.

Ailsa Craig Exhibition and Redwing
We couldn't make a distinction between these varieties this season in part because the numbers were so similar (Ailsa 583 and Redwing 548) for the half rows we planted them in (White Wing gets a whole row).  This is encouraging because both of these varieties are producing at a similar level to the White Wing, which has become our 'standard bearer.'  Redwing is a better storing onion, but Ailsa Craig is a sweet onion with fantastic taste.  Redwing also has good taste and texture with the visual appeal of the red coloring.  The only reason Ailsa didn't win this contest outright was its tendency to have split bulbs - enough so that it's numbers would be closer to Redwing's harvest numbers if you removed them from the count.  Ailsa Craig is an open pollinated variety while Redwing is an F1 hybrid - and we tend to favor open pollinated.  In the end, we just couldn't decide and we aren't so particular about our lists that a tie in the number three slot doesn't make us sad at all.

After the last two seasons, we believe that our CSA shareholders wouldn't complain if one of our onion varieties hit the top ten every season.

2. Minnesota Midget muskmelon (high tunnel)
Minnesota Midget
An unwritten rule about varieties making the top ten is that they should evoke fond memories of harvest at the end of the season.  Perhaps the best memory for the Minnesota Midget this year was letting Anden and Elizabeth have a taste of one of the first ripe melons from the high tunnel this year.  Neither professed to like melons much at all.  It was our contention that they most likely had never had a truly good RIPE melon before.  Now they have and I'm pretty sure they didn't tell us they tasted good just to make us feel better about ourselves.

Minnesota Midget melons can get a little 'washed out' in taste if they get too much water at the wrong time.  But, high tunnel growing allows us to control the water levels, which encourages the melons to set more sugars.  Even better, we trellised these melons in a single 60 foot row this year and pulled in 224 melons at an average of 1.6 pounds each.  Yes, folks, that is almost four per row foot.  If there are any warts on this years production, it would have more to do with having to ration them out earlier in the production cycle because we didn't have enough to give everyone in our CSA farm share a melon.  The solution to that is obvious to us - we'll just have to increase the number of row feet that we grow.

1. Blizzard snow peas (field)
We had a feeling it would come to this.  The signs were there when we posted a mid-season veg variety winner post.  After blasting past our prior records, it really shouldn't be a surprise to find one pea variety here - if not all four we grow.  We gave our peas a chance and they did so well, we were inspired to produce a couple of pun inspired posts that featured them.  The second is linked in our tribute to the Marketmore (#14 in this list) cucumbers.

Our logic for giving the nod to Blizzard over Mammoth Melting, Oregon Sugar Pod II and Golden Sweet is the same as it was in August.  We preferred the taste of Blizzard, though we liked them all very much.  We found them a bit easier to harvest and the harvest was just a bit better per foot than the others.  It was tempting to have more than one pea variety in this list, but we had several crops (and varieties) of all sorts that deserved recognition, so we will allow the other snow peas to bask in reflected glory this season.

Vines were fairly compact at about four feet in height and they didn't require a great deal of training to say on the trellis.  Peas were held out from the vine and rarely were tucked into the mass of greenery, so it made them easy to pick.  And, to top it off, this was the variety most likely to have reduced harvest numbers due to hand to mouth disease...  they are that good.

We harvested 86 pounds of Blizzard snow peas from a 90 foot section of trellised vines.  Getting anywhere within shouting distance of a pound per foot is an accomplishment for snow peas, so we know better than to expect a repeat of this in 2016.  But, that won't keep us from trying!  We just have to hope that the seed is available again next season.

Thank you for reading our Veg Variety Winners posting for 2015.  If you have comments or questions, we will gladly take them!

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