Interplanting Flowers in Cucurbits
Part of the reason for the optimism I have this year in our ability to accomplish these research projects is that most of them are built upon prior work, rather than being a complete fresh start on a topic. We have been sold on the value of putting flowers in many of our crops from the beginning. We even held a field day for PFI at our farm in 2016 that focused on pollinators on the farm. While we may be convinced of the value of growing flowers as companions, we'd like to help grow the database of knowledge in this area to encourage others to do the same thing.
The Genuine Faux Farm applied for a two-year Farmer/Researcher grant with SARE (Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education) to help fund a project where we will attempt to measure the value and/or cost of our preferred growing system versus one devoid of all of the intercropped flowers.
Essentially, we will grow one of our 60'x200' fields the way we want to grow melons and winter squash. We'll add our full rows of borage and zinnia and other flowers to the field. We'll interplant nasturtium and other flowers in the row with the cucurbit vines (melons and winter squash are cucurbits - in case that flew past you). Then, we'll do something that neither of us really wants to do. We'll plant a different 60'x200' field with the other half of our melons and winter squash. And we will make sure to plant NO intercropped flowers. This field will be all cucurbits ALL the time. We'll even keep the border path clover mowed to reduce flower availability.
Why do this? After all, the way I see it - we're putting half of our crops at risk of failure. (hint - it's not the field with all of the flowers in it) But, the reality is this - even growers that I consider to be highly interested in sustainable methods fail to dedicate themselves to diverse planting techniques. They need more data to encourage change. Hopefully, we can provide some of that data.
Broccoli Variety Trials
Two years ago, our farm participated in broccoli variety trials sponsored by Practical Farmers of Iowa that compared Belstar, Gypsy and Imperial. What happened? Well, we had the worst broccoli crop we had seen in years. It was just a bad year for broccoli state-wide. We wanted to run the trial again in 2017, but Imperial was not available. We still took records of Belstar and Gypsy, which we had done for several years prior to 2016 as well. But, we really want to run the trial with what we hope will be a "normal" broccoli growing year. The odds are good, given 2016 was an aberration as compared to all other years of production since 2012.
In fact, last year was a record broccoli production year at the farm. We'd be happy for average production that can give us a good gauge as to how each of these varieties might fare during most seasons on the farm.
Lettuce Variety Trials
Lettuce can be difficult to grow once we get into the warmer months. Even so, CSA farms, such as our own, often hope to have lettuce for large percentage of the deliveries we make. In particular, we hope to have beautiful lettuce during some of the more difficult share weeks in July. This motivated several PFI cooperator farmers to trial the varieties, Magenta, Muir and Coastal Star last season (we were among those farmers). The results were favorable for both Magenta and Muir. On our farm, we were most pleased with Magenta and found Muir to just be acceptable.
This year, we will be trialing Concept, Nevada and Winter Density. Magenta will return as the "check crop." For those who might not know, a "check crop" is usually a crop that has an established record (if you can call one year an established record). If the check crop performs in a fashion that is abnormal, you can guess that the results you are getting from the other crops might not be their normal performance as well.
Fertility Delivery Trials
Once the farm acquired Rosie, the tractor, and her loader/bucket, we became much better at turning compost piles. The net result is that we have had access to more 'black gold' than we've ever had on the farm. We will run a randomized/replicated trial in our romanesco planting this year that will test the viability of our own compost versus a purchased product and compare the results with a no-product control.
As is true with most every research project we attempt, we have a pretty good idea as to what we want for a result. But, the whole point of research is to see what actually DOES happen.
Cherry Tomato Enterprise Budget
We don't tend to grow too many cherry tomatoes on our farm because they are labor intensive during harvest. However, we have had inquiries as to whether we might be willing to grow more cherry tomatoes for sale. Add in a PFI project that will help participants to take measurements regarding the costs and returns of the crop and you see an opportunity to learn that shouldn't be passed up.
Heirloom Tomato in the High Tunnel Trial
In prior years, we have watched while other Practical Farmers of Iowa Cooperators have measured results for hybrid high tunnel tomatoes. Each year, when we hear about the results, we could swear our heirlooms compare reasonably well with the hybrids. Since we already collect nearly all of the data that is used in this sort of trial, it seemed only natural to offer to run a trial with heirlooms.
The only reason why we hesitate with this one? Well, there have been 'research trial curses' in the past on our farm. Crops that have done well for years end up having a down year when we do a research trial. We really need our high tunnel tomatoes to do well. So, we wonder - is it worth the risk? Then, we remind ourselves that we are not superstitious and that a bad (or good) year will happen whether we're running a trial or not. It's just that you examine the bad year so thoroughly if you're running a trial!
What Makes Us Think We Can Manage All of This?
Please believe me when I say we've asked this question several times of ourselves. And, the answer is still 'yes.'
Part of the advantage of many of these research projects is that we collect 80% of the data required for these projects in a normal year. The broccoli, lettuce and heirloom tomato trials require no additional data collection beyond what we already do. The only difference is that we need to plant them in replicated sections to control for soil and other variables. The even better news here is that we've done the broccoli and lettuce trials before, so there isn't a learning curve to climb.
The Fertility Delivery Trial adds an early season sample testing of soil and compost (being sent to a lab), which is something we want to do anyway. Otherwise, we have done these processes before. Again, no big learning curve to climb. The Interplanting in Cucurbits is also not changing up our farming practices significantly. The big deal is taking the time to observe the differences (and similarities) between the two fields. Since we are highly invested in this one, I see no problem with expending a little extra time on that one.
That leaves us with the Enterprise Budget project. In this case, I see the extra data being collected as something that will pay us back in the following year. In short, it's an investment in analyzing a crop for profitability on our farm. If the numbers are poor, we may decide it's a crop to continue to limit in our production unless we're willing to make big changes. If the numbers are good, we may decide it would be worthwhile to scale up production.