Thursday, September 28, 2017

Sometimes, It's Not About You

It's only natural for there to be some variability in our crop production from year to year.  The whole point is to become skilled at figuring out how to manage for that variability in a way that overall farm production is consistent.

HOWEVER (you had to know that was coming, didn't you?)

It's only human to wonder what you did wrong when a specific crop does relatively poorly and to take credit when that crop does exceptionally well.  But, sometimes - it's not actually about you.  Sometimes, it just wasn't a particularly good year for a given crop in your area (or for your farm).  In some seasons, the weather just doesn't favor that crop.  It may not matter what you do, the results are not going to be there.

And, now we get to the fun stuff.  You can guess why I am writing about it.  If you need a hint, here is a crop report post from October of 2016 (last year).

A Decent Start
We can point to a number of factors that might indicate why we are seeing some success this year with our tomatoes after last year's 'woes.'  We felt like we did a nice job getting things done this year with our tomatoes and we felt that perhaps we didn't do nearly so well last year.  Except, we have evidence that we really weren't doing so badly.  Below is a picture of some of this year's field tomatoes in August for comparison.
Certainly, there was some difference in our performance between 2016 and 2017.  But, the big difference was that we didn't get to caging some of the tomatoes in 2016.  This year, we just planted fewer tomatoes because we realized we can't handle as many as we planted in the prior year.  Otherwise, we had just about the same number of tomatoes caged, trellised, mulched, etc at about the same time in both years.  In other words, our care for the plants wasn't so different that we should expect much change in the yield.

Different Years, Similar Treatments, Different Results
We still have plenty of tomato harvest to go for 2017.  So, keep in mind that our 2017 numbers are incomplete.  And yet, they are already good enough to make it clear that 2016 wasn't a good tomato year from a yield perspective.  For example, we consider one of our favorite early producing tomatoes by looking at the fruit count for the entire 2016 year versus 2017 thus far:
                                                 2016   2017
Italian Heirloom (high tunnel)       201     225
Italian Heirloom (field)                 117     352
Number of field plants are the same.  High tunnel plants are up by 4 plants from 2016.

A 2.8 pound tomato is bound to create slices that cover your sandwich well.

I selected this variety for comparison because it is one we have a long history growing.  We grow more of this tomato than any other because it has been reliable for us over the years and we like the quality of the fruit.  Last year's production for this variety was abysmal (from our point of view).  Even the SIZE of the Italian Heirlooms in the high tunnel were disappointing as compared to other years:

Average Weight per fruit of Italian Heirloom in high tunnel production:
2015    .71 lbs
2016    .57 lbs
2017    .71 lbs


Signs That All Things Are Not Equal
There were a number of indicators that there were some factors that were likely beyond our control last season.  For example, we had an issue with basil blight last August that pretty well finished our basil by mid-August.  This is a problem we have never seen before and was not really known in the Midwest - but it popped up in the Midwest last season.
But, our basil is still going in late September and it is attracting lots of pollinators this year.

And the high tunnel plants just seem much more vigorous and much more willing to reach for the sky (so to speak).  The picture below shows plants in Eden in early September.  They've put on a good deal more growth since that time.

Cluster of Red Zebra tomatoes
And, unlike last year, we're seeing the normal clustering fruit development that we expect in many of our snack tomatoes.  Last year, clusters were sparsely populated, which would explain some of these numbers:

Jaune Flamme per plant production in Eden
2015     142.8 fruit
2016      86.0 fruit
2017     124.4 fruit

And frankly, the Jaune Flamme plants in Eden don't look like they'll quit for a few more weeks (if then).  150 fruit per plant is definitely in reach this season.

I find it particularly telling that the downturn in production last year could also be found in the high tunnels.  We can control more variables in our high tunnel production environment and we tend to stay on top of our weeding, irrigation and other tasks in our high tunnels even more than we do in the open fields.  In fact, it was because of our high tunnel production that we had enough tomatoes to keep our farm share CSA members happy with heirloom tomatoes.  I'm not sure that could have happened if it were only field production last year.

Even Reliable Producing Cultivars Took A Season Off in 2016

Consider some of these numbers:
                               2016     2017
Wisconsin 55:              7         282
Nebraska Wedding:     57        164
Rutgers                     103       152

And, after you consider them, remember that we have more to pick for this season. 
Nebraska Wedding
 Perhaps it isn't all about us.  Maybe next year I'll just drop a bunch of seeds in the ground and let them do their thing?

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