Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Veg Variety Winners for 2018

Every year we attempt to identify the top 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 slot over one that has.
For those who want to see what has gone before:
About 2018's Growing Season
As part of my pre-writing work for this yearly post, I review the prior year's post to balance my response to the current year.  The summary for 2017 was that it was a pretty well-balanced year with some record crops.  That actually helps me to feel better about a 2018 season that was among our most difficult that we've experienced at the Genuine Faux Farm.  If my summary for 2017 had also highlighted the negative, I would need to review more years to see if this is a multi-year trend.

To be blunt, this list was difficult to put together because so few of our crops made us happy this season.  We will grant you that we keep trying to raise the bar for measuring success, so it is harder for any crop to blow us away at this point in our careers.  So, we'll balance the realities of the season and our historical results and provide you with a good list - even this year!

15. A and C Pickling Cucumber
It is likely that the A and C Picklers deserve a spot further up this list because any difficulty they had this year had nothing to do with their production.  But, we have another cucumber variety on the list and we normally try not to overload our lists with one type of crop.

Our goal for cucumbers is to try to get eight to ten marketable cucumbers per row foot that we plant.  This year's A and C's were not far off at between six and seven.  Before you get to critical, you need to realize that we had to throw a significant number of good looking cucumbers because of a chemical drift issue this season.  If you add those in, we would pass the target number.  We were pleased to have a good cucumber season after the debacle that was 2017's cucumber crop.  But, we should not be surprised.  Wet conditions in June favor cucumbers and wet conditions in August helped them to continue.  When you also consider that most of the production came from the later successions that came after the spray incident, you can't help but be a little bit impressed by this variety.

The fruit for A and C Pickling works equally well if they are harvested small (pickler size) or large (slicer size).  We tend to just try to keep them picked by harvesting two to three times per week.  We were very impressed by the bee activity during the month of August in our cucumbers and the flower density if usually quite high for this cultivar.

14. Quadrato asti Giallo
Quadrato asti Giallo is one of those variety names that sound great mostly because it is an Italian name.  An English equivalent name would be Four-Lobed Yellow Bell Pepper.  Ya, I agree, let's go with the Italian this time.  There are clearly a couple of strains of this pepper floating around because we have gotten some very different results over the years.  One season saw us getting huge, rounded yellow bell peppers and another saw an increased number of fruit that were on the smaller side.  This year tended to see smaller sized fruit, but they were more likely to turn fully yellow than some strains have shown.

Nearly every choice on this list is going to have a caveat this year, which is just the way it is when you have a challenging year.  All of our field peppers were impacted by Dicamba drift and we harvested less than ten marketable peppers from several hundred plants out there.  That means all of our pepper production came from the high tunnels.  Luckily for us (and all of you) we had some Quadrato's in Eden this year and they even managed to survive wet weather that soaked the soil in that building multiple times.  In fact, it seems to us that Quadrato is probably not as happy in a high tunnel as they usually are in the field.  Perhaps we need to increase the amount of water we give them when they are in there?

Fruit taste pretty good even when green, but they taste best when there is at least some streaking of yellow.  Pepper wall thickness is average to marginally thick and the texture is excellent.

13. Westlander Kale
After a slow start, the kale was doing fairly well for us until we hit September this year.  We over-planted kale a bit last year, so we dialed it down, only to find a place that would buy kale from us (doesn't that figure?).  Of course, as the demand seemed to settle in, the rain did as well.  The net result is that all of our kale struggled in very wet soil, so production pretty much stopped once we got into the Fall months.  This is not typical since we usually expect kale late into the season.

We prefer open-pollinated varieties when we can get them, which is why we grow the likes of Dwarf Blue Scotch, Vates and Westlander for our green curly kales.  The Dwarf Blue has been with us since we started growing kale and we still like it.  However, Westlander seems more likely to give us a more consistent, tight curly leaf that restaurants seem to prefer.

12. Dr. Wyche's Yellow Tomato
Believe it or not, we have tomatoes on this list this season!  Dr. Wyche has been on this list in the past as an "Honorable Mention."  These plants produce a beefsteak style fruit that averages around a pound in weight and have a slightly sweeter taste that is common for yellow tomatoes.  The plants themselves tend to be larger and have been known to lift their supporting cages out of the ground before finally succumbing to gravity and taking the cage with them.

Clearly, Dr. Wyche's Yellow prefers high fertility since they landed in a spot that had free-range chickens the previous season.  We'll keep that in mind for future seasons and give them a bit more to work with than some of our other varieties.  Our regret this season is that the wet weather that began in August resulted in the lost of a significant number of beautiful fruit.  We did our best to pull fruit before problems got to them and managed to get a reasonable number of them before the entire crop of outdoor tomatoes were terminated.  Dr. Wyche was the last to give up.

11. Bunte Forellenschus Lettuce

This season was a fairly balanced one as far as lettuce varieties were concerned.  This was, in part, because we were consciously trying to measure results of a wide range of cultivars this year.  Overall, lettuce production ran near our average for number of heads produced, but the average weight was lower than usual.  We really can't say that any particular variety stood out completely from the rest this year.  The numbers bear that out, but we still felt that lettuce did well enough that it needed a representative on this list.  So, we went with the lettuce that we were most proud to hand to our customers this season, Bunte Forellenschus.

Bunte Forellenschus is a butterhead type of lettuce that has a slightly softer texture than some lettuces.  The darker green leaves have chartreuse speckling that make these lettuce heads very attractive in our opinion.  We have had some people worry that these speckles are indications that the lettuce is 'going bad,' which couldn't be further from the truth.  When Bunte is going well, they are a joy to grow and harvest.  They cut easily at the base, clean easier than many lettuces and give a good looking-proportional head at all stages of growth.

10. Imperial Broccoli
We participated once again in a Summer broccoli trial with the Practical Farmers of Iowa Cooperator's Program this season.  As was the case a few seasons ago, we ran a randomized replicated trial with Gypsy, Belstar and Imperial.  The two former varieties have been with us for several years and have a good track record with us.  Imperial was not available last year, but it got its second chance with us this season and we were pleased with the plant health, head size, shape and taste.

Imperial is a F1-hybrid, which is a strike against it in our veg variety posts.  But, we have yet to find a single open-pollinated broccoli that will do what we need it to do (note, we have found cauliflower that works).  Very few seed companies seems interested in developing an open-pollinated broccoli, so we are left with hybrids.  Head size during this season averaged around one pound and the plants did not seem terribly interested in producing side-shoots.  Like so many of our crops, the late broccoli was severely reduced by wet weather.  Our Fall succession is still sitting in the fields trying to decide if it will head out and the Summer succession lost side-shoot production in the standing water.

9. Tolli Sweet Pepper
Tolli Sweet is one of the varieties on our farm that just keeps plugging on from year to year.  It never seems to get the respect it might deserve and it rarely gets much by way of recognition.  Well, this is the year, Tolli Sweet!  You made it to number nine!  Well, ok, Tolli Sweet got some love last year as well at number 13.

Tolli Sweet Peppers are a carrot shaped pepper that is best when it is allowed to turn red.  The fruit size is quite variable and the pepper wall is fairly thin.  Persons who have some trouble with digesting peppers may find that Tolli Sweet is much more tolerable to them and they are good for fresh eating, sandwiches, salads and nachos.  The plants are small in stature and prefer not to have wet feet, which makes them perfect for high tunnel production.  Fruit do not hold on the plant particularly well either, so you want to keep them picked at early to mid stages of ripeness.  Waiting too long tends to result in splits or issues with the fruit.  Despite that, we get a decent harvest every season from Tolli Sweet and the taste is excellent.

8. Thelma Sanders Acorn Squash
We have been telling people about Thelma for many years (both growers and consumers).  In our opinion, we think the quality of this tan acorn squash is better than most green acorns and Tammy and I prefer the less stringy texture.  Even better, the production numbers are quite favorable.  Once again, we had trouble with wet weather, which did reduce our yield on the Thelma's somewhat, but the fruit did not suffer from rot the same way many other squash seemed to.  As a result, we had a reasonable yield of these for the season.

Thelma Sanders is showing up in more seed catalogs!
Thelma Sanders seems to be handle some weed pressure, dry seasons, wet seasons and it doesn't seem to struggle too much with pests.  In short, it's a tough cultivar that is prepared to compete and succeed.  Perhaps you could find acorn squash varieties that will produce more fruit per plant, but we doubt they'll have the same quality.  If you need further argument, we no longer grow any other acorn squash at the Genuine Faux Farm.

7. Dragon Carrot
Oh my goodness!  A carrot made the top variety list for the Genuine Faux Farm.  This is not the first time it has happened, but it is certainly not a common situation for us to be in.  As a matter of fact, it is so abnormal that we don't usually take pictures of our carrots.  We actually still have some more in the ground in one of the high tunnels, so we may add a picture later.

Dragon has a purple exterior and bright orange interior.  The taste has a slightly spicy overtone that many people seem to enjoy.  The carrots themselves seem to germinate better than many varieties and handle a wider range of adverse growing conditions.  The biggest danger seems to be in letting them get too big, at which point they have a tendency to split, though they don't necessarily get pithy at that point.  Dragon makes the list by virtue of a decent stand in the field and a correspondingly good stand in a high tunnel this season.  Essentially, it did what it was supposed to do, which is better than many crops this year!

6. Redwing Onion
We have been very fortunate to have some level of success every season since 2014 when White Wing made it to our top 10 list.  Redwing shared the limelight a couple of seasons ago with Ailsa Craig, but it gets to have its own spot on our Veg Variety list in 2018.

Redwing at the right
Amazingly enough, the success or failure of our onion crop this season was balanced on a razor's edge.  Our seedlings just didn't want to put on any growth and we were placed in the position of wondering what to do if they didn't get up to a transplanting size.  Happily, our friends at Grinnell Heritage Farm had numerous extra onion starts that they were going to compost unless we wanted them!  We certainly wanted them.

The net result is that, while we didn't get to grow some of the varieties we wanted to grow, we still got to grow Redwing.  The size this year tended to be between a half pound and three-quarters pound and the taste was good, as expected.  The only issue was a fair amount of stem and root rot that was noticeable at harvest and later in storage.  We did have to work hard to check and re-check our stored onions to be sure we didn't lose them.  Once again, we believe much of this has to do with the wet season.  So, while we lost some good sized onions to those issues, we still have some beauties in storage at the end of October.

5. Dunja Zucchini
Dunja is being sneaky as it was number 8 last year and it has moved up three slots to number five this year.  Once again, this is a F1-hybrid rather than an open-pollinated variety.  But, once again, we just haven't found an open-pollinated zucchini that will do what we need it to.

Dunja plants tend to stay smaller and have an open growth habit that helps us to see fruit before they get too large.  As a result, we can typically keep from growing an absurd number of "Louisville Sluggers."  They are also consistent with fruit set and tend to produce nice, straight fruit without bulbed ends.  It doesn't hurt that the seed cavity is often smaller and the texture is consistent throughout.

We will admit that we had a harder time this year getting the harvest in before fruit size got a bit larger.  As a result, many of the zucchini crossed the one pound mark.  The good news?  Dunja doesn't get seedy at that size and are perfectly good to use in a wide-range of recipes.  

4. Berries and Cherries
This is one thing we never thought we would put on our veggie variety list on the farm.  First, berries and cherries are not a crop we've ever really intended to turn into a marketable crop.  Second, we really haven't intentionally done much with varieties of these things - we just make sure to give them space to do their thing each year and if we have a crop combined with the time to pick some -well, there you are.  And finally, these aren't veggies, so all of our veggie crops are probably offended that we put this in here.

Here's the thing.  We had a great year for mulberries, raspberries and Nanking cherries.  We had a poor start to the season for our veggies and we needed to harvest something for our CSA members.  There it is in a nutshell.  We maintain a diverse environment on our farm and in a poor year that diversity stepped up to help us out.  While I didn't think of it that way until recently, that is exactly what happened.  We got some payback for our efforts in the form of these tasty treats.  Given that, I think we would be remiss if we did not recognize this in our winner list for the year.

And, before everyone gets excited that we're going to expand or otherwise increase our berry/cherry production for our customer base, you need to remember that these crops are very season-dependent.  You also need to remember that we have never set ourselves up to be berry/cherry farmers.  This is just the happy by-product of trying to maintain a healthy farm.

3. Silver Slicer Cucumber
Our cucumber grow list has been fairly stable for a number of years now, so we can't exactly explain what made us decide to trial Silver Slicer last year and then continue with it this season. We already grow Boothby's Blonde, which has made it onto our lists more than once.  We did decide to stop trying to grow True Lemon because we couldn't quite find the harvest niche on our farm for them.

It turns out that Silver Slicer has a great fresh-eating taste that makes our local cucumber taste expert (Tammy) very happy.  When the rest of the crew confirmed her initial opinion, it seemed reasonable to grow them again this season.  Silver Slicer seems to be fine with a late season start and doesn't seem to have a tendency to grow the cucumbers too large, having what seems to be a top size at about 8 inches.  We like to harvest them around six inches, but the size doesn't seem to impact the taste or texture too terribly much.  Like many open-pollinated varieties, it has more to do with age on the vine than actual size of the fruit. 
2. Macintosh Apples
Here is another entry that breaks with tradition.  As is true with the berries and cherries, apples are not something we have advertised as a Genuine Faux Farm product.  While it is true that we have planted apple trees (and other fruit trees) on the farm, we never expected to become an orchard of any repute.  We have friends who do that professionally and we respect what they do too much to even pretend that this is anything more than a diverse farm wanting a few apple trees for themselves.  The thing is, this year was perfect for our apple trees (unless you count the poor tree that was taken down by winds this year).

We selected the Macintosh as our 'variety' this time around because these trees were most productive and seemed to give us the best quality apples of the group.  We do like our Fireside Trees (and the others too), but the Macs had the best quality overall (and they didn't fall down in the wind).  We believe this year's late Spring actually was favorable for our apple crop, encouraging our apples to wait until later to bloom when more pollinators were available.  On top of that, that period of the Spring was less windy than usual.  The net result is that the blooms stayed on longer and the pollinators had more perfect days to visit flowers.  We are certainly grateful, but we also do not expect a repeat of this performance in 2019.

1. Minnesota Midget

Minnesota Midget
Minnesota Midget is no stranger to our lists, showing up at number 2 in 2015.  This year, they take the prize, setting a record for high tunnel production this year on our farm.  During a season that saw so many things go wrong, it sure is pleasant to look at a crop where most everything seemed to go right.  As a matter of fact, things didn't go perfectly with Minnesota Midget since the planting in Valhalla did not go in on time, so they performed poorly.  But, the earlier succession in Eden did so well, it set a production record for the farm ALL BY ITSELF.

Fruit size can be variable, though a consistent watering program can reduce that variability.  The hard part is trying to reduce water prior to ripening so the fruits set more sugars for a better taste.  The net result is that later sets may be smaller in size due to the reduced watering regimen.  Regardless, our CSA membership were able to have some quality melons in their shares this year and the farmers were also able to enjoy melons for breakfast on a semi-regular basis.  We'll call that a win!

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