We have had a merciful November allowing us to get our machinery serviced and stored away and fields and buildings cleaned up for winter. This past week saw the crew shrink down to five of us full time 3o-50 hours) and one part timer. Roy and Willie are warming up and planting gardens back home in Jamaica while Mike puts the plow truck in order and mounts the snowblower on the tillage tractor in preparation for the first winter storm. We hope the ground gets a good freeze before that first snow in hopes that it will control some of the disease and insects that plagued us this summer. Wouldn’t hurt knocking back the wood and deer tick populations in the woodlands, either.
Our next few weeks will be devoted to the piles of deskwork that stand before us, the business part of the farm that we all dread doing. Mike has been doing a great deal of greenhouse repair as well as mulching the strawberry plants. The deer fence is up and running in the blueberries and the last of the fall tillage has been completed. Ray has been busy organiizing the wash and packing area for the vegetables and putting the various washing machines and tables in storage to make way for the greenhouse operations that will start in earnest in February. He has done a great job of organizing the colossal chaos of the machine and storage barns and sheds that we turn a blind eye to during the growing season. I am trying to refocus my efforts in the two greenhouses of overwintered stock plants and am even starting some plant propagation for next spring by taken some vegetative cuttings. Soon Mike, Ray and I will work on the vegetable seed and plant orders, although Sarah and Anne are well along the process of ordering them for the greenhouse end of the operation as well as ordering the hardgoods . Anne this morning is working on the farm books in preparation for meetings with the tax accountant….our taxes are due March 1 as opposed to April 15 for the rest of you.
There are meetings to attend. I sit on a couple of committees and boards and there is the usual battery of off -season meetings that the University Extension folks organize for we farmers so that we can exchange information and get exposure to the latest and greatest ideas. This years testy topic will once again be food safety regulation for those of us that grow it. The federal govenmen tnow wants to regulate how we wash and prepare food ( and to a great degree how we grow it) to make it safer to the consumer. All which is well and good, I think we can all agree that safe food is a good thing. But you cant legislate a one size fits all program that works for all of us. There have been repeated abuses and food recalls that have been traced to the industrial agricultural complexes: Mr Barnels peanuts, baby food out of China, a recent recall of hamburger at our local grocery chain.. and the list goes on.None of which,to date , has originated from the multiple small farmily farms of the Upper Valley. For some reason the federal government thinks that we ( small family farms) are all complicit in the problem. The federal government would, under some proposals, want small farms to essentially capitalize and build “processing facilities” like the ultra big boys to come into compliance with food safety regulations…..which most of us cannot afford to do. And by proposed definitions, just cutting a head of lettuce out in the field might well be viewed as “processing” by the government. It has gotten a little crazier for vegetable growers in New England, and so we spend our time trying to get somebody to listen or lobby for us. We aren’t much of a lobbying constituency when you figure that one corporate farm in the Salinas Valley crops more acreage that all the small CSAs, berry growers and vegetable farmers in New England. So there will be time in the winter devoted to that…too much time as far as I am concerned.
We are winding down the harvest season,the farmstand will close this weekend. Although sales have been strong this fall, weather continues to make it difficult and the damp cool nights, foggy mornings and considerable rain events continue to ruin things, most recently playing havoc and spreading fruit rots in the fall raspberries. This year we have have seen more new diseases on the farm than we ever figured possible. And generally in the fall, the vegetable crops start to decline anyway before the frost finally takes them out. We will remain extremely busy with the full crew for at least a month and a half with fall clean up. I am already focusing on machinery when I get a minute, and the stock plant greenhouses need to be readied for the returning plants, which will have to be brought in, “de-loused” and cleaned up for the winter. Brush to be be cut, plant stakes retrieved, greenhouses to be repaired…..and hopefully a few last hikes up Cardigan Mountain. We will have some meetings with our CSA groups, lots of plant material and seeds to be ordered for the greenhouses and there will be plenty of informational meetings to attend…I am sure that this years diseases will be the hot topics. One of my personal goals is to get in decent physical shape so each summers work load doesnt keep landing me in physical therapy…. but that goal maybe a “bridge too far”…
Here it is two weeks from labor day. As one ages, the time literally seems to fly by, and you end up standing in the middle of the week wondering how you got there without without the ability to remember what transpired on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. This summer has been a blur, and despite the fact we lament the passage of time that goes by unnoticed, I and many of my farmer friends look forward to the passage of this particular growing season. My usual chant starting about now is ‘Bring on the frost”, but I have heard it from others this year, long before I dared open my mouth. By far, this has been the most challenging season for most of us. From the pressure from wildlife, the problematic weather( lack of heat and sun for most of the summer) and onslaught of various plant diseases that we are seeing for the very first time (bacterial canker, late blight).
The upside is that demand is good this year for what we grow, mainly at the expense of home gardeners who were ill equipped to recognize and deal with the problems facing all of us growing vegetables and small fruit. Their early failures have created market demand for our tomatoes, corn ,melons and I suspect fall sales of potatoes will be brisk. Later this week (if the weather cools down) we will start harvesting onions and red potatoes…some of the early fall storage crops. So although the first part of this week will be unusually hot, the clock on the wall is ticking and we know that the number of sweltering days are clearly numbered. I was making up a list this morning of projects to get done before winter settles in.
Where did the time go? Weren’t we shoveling snow away from the greenhouse doors two weeks ago….?
A most unwelcome visitor has come to settle down among us since my early July blog: the nasty disease that cause the Irish Potato Famine called Late Blight of Potatoe and Tomatoes (phytopthora infestans) showed up in our potatoes and tomato greenhouses. The early arrival of this disease is not only complicating life in our little world but wreaking untold damage to farmers in New England as well as New York State. Late blight will not survive freezing conditions so it works its way north on weather systems coming up from the south and makes its ususal appearance here in Late September or October. This year, it was introduced on tomato plants for retail sales that the big box stores brought up from down south. This disease is highly contagious and spreads in the wind once it sporolates. The box stores sold the plants region wide, gardeners took them home and innoculated the region. Add to the “perfect storm” that the weather has been perfect for the growing and spreading the disease (lots of cool damp evenings in the last month and Voila: instant epidemic.)
For us it is not the end of the world, we have a few more tricks in the bag (as well as different food sources) than did the Irish back in 1847, but it is causing some economic hardship and stress nonetheless. We quickly had it positively identified by our state plant pathologist at the University of New Hampshire and we immediately embarked upon a program of pruning and disposing of the badly infested plant material, and embarked upon the University Extension service recommended program for spraying fungicides. The prognosis is not great because the only real way to make the disease abate is to freeze it out, but we definitely have slowed the march of the disease down in hopes of salvaging a high percentage of what looked to be a great crop of both potatoes and tomatoes. We are living day to day, hoping for dry hot sunny weather to help us curb its spread. I hope I can tell you by the time I write the next blog that our efforts were not in vain.
Instead of talking about the ramifications of the global economy as I did in the blog 20 days ago, we are now having the dubious honor of being victmized by it.
If you are to believe the weather models for global warming, then this weather is certain confimation that global warming is here. The weather pattern this year has been similar to the past two and fits the models perfectly for the northeast: cooler and damper. All which has been great for he lettuce and greens, but not so hot fot the strawberries, corn and vine crops. We started picking our first strawberries back June 7, and I bet we havent had two full days of sunshine since we started. We havent gotten all the rain that many of my farmer friends in New England have experienced. As a matter of fact, despite the cloud cover, we were dry enough so that we drip irrigated our peppers,tomatoes and vine crops last week. But in the last two days our moisture issues have been addressed with 2.5″ of rain and more in the forecast. Hmmmm….not so good with the fourth of July coming and the last half of the strawberry season in full swing. The good news is that the outside crew are champs in getting the stuff harvested for the stand and bulling through a full afternoon of catch up farming. They are working 12 hours a ady at least 4 days a week. The guys at the stand and at the greenhouses (where we have a plant sale going on) are short handed as well, yet things still look pretty fresh and kept up. A good crew, indeed…
Speaking again of global issues,we got notification and call from our extension crop specialists informing us that the disease Late Blight of Tomatoes and Potatoes (the same one that caused the Irish Potatoe Famine in the mid 1800’s) has shown up in New England 2 months early this year. The damp, sunless, weather is perfect for spreading it and it usually works its way northward on weather systems from the south in a normal year. By the time it gets here in late September the growing season is well over, and harvest is already underway. But this year it seems many of the box stores in New England that carry garden starters have been buying their tomatoes from southern growers, and the NH University Extension pathologist has, as of yesterday, identified garden tomatoe plants in 4 different box retailers who had plants covered with late blight that they were selling to home gardeners. Despite her request that they pull pull them from the shelves, they would not. (She has no legal powers to make them) By not doing so they are going to sell diseased plants out into the communities and help spread the disease around. As if the weather was not enough of a problem. So the commercial growers, organic and conventional, can look towards a summer of spraying their tomatoes and potatoes more than ever, all while hoping the weather improves and the disease doesnt show up in their fields. Farmers trying to figure out reprocussions of global warming and a global econo
The last few weeks have been a whirlwind as the rush of planting season has been coupled with some abnormally late frost events and cool nights. Nonetheless, Mother Nature marches on as we start harvesting the first early fruit from our strawberry beds on black plastic. This system of raising berries is an adaptation of a method that comes to us from California and the deep south originally and like all good ideas, it has its drawbacks. The drawbacks are the plants bloom very early in the spring and are subject to frost damage, meaning more nights of pumping water to protect them. There is additional expense in the plastic mulch and drip tape that is used in the system of developing the bed, and an upfront cost of additional plants because the way the system functions depends on a much higher plant population per acre as compared to a traditional matted row system, (which constitutes the majority of what we still do here on the farm.) The plus side of the equation is twofold for us; earliness is the main factor, but there is another subtle benefit for us. With plasticulture we can bring a given acreage of land into meaningful production in half the time, essentially allowing us to double crop our land in the summer.This is because traditional matted row strawberry beds take a full year to establish, whereas a matted row system allows you to fall plant, thus allowing you to produce a short season vegetable crop on the same land as well. So it fills a void for those of us with limited acreage, allowing us to utilize our already short season here in the northeast. We still do both traditional mattted row as well as some plasticulture…. they both have their places.
People often ask about how the crop looks, and I usually respond given the amount of winter injury that I can see in the plants as they come out of the winter. The truth is, not only is this a guessing game, but it has little bearing on the profitablility of the crop for us. The plants can be in the best of shape and loaded with fruit going into the harvest season only to loose a high percentage to fruit rot if the weather turns dark and damp. This is particularly a problem with a dependence upon Pick Your Own for harvesting….the PYO crowd only works on nice sunny days. So, you can have a great crop only to loose it at the very last minute due to uncooperative weather. On the other hand, you can have a rough winter and light fruit set and if the weather is relatively cool,sunny and dry during the harvest season you might harvest a higher percentage of good berries harvested between the farm and PYO crews and actually make out better financially.It is really a crap shoot.
So this tempers our enthusiasm as we enter our 33rd strawberry season. It’s early in the season and the plants endured a fair amount of winter injury. But the weather of late has been good for the plants with no extreme heat and a fair amount of sun despite the unseasonally cool nights. The birds and ground varmints havent really arrived yet to extract their pound of flesh from the crop, so their is an air of anticpation about here. We shift our focus as greenhouse sales wind down a bit and we ready ourselves to open the farmstand in a couple of days and the strawberries will be on the shelves when we do. If you see me and and ask me if it looks like a good year for the strawberries, don’t be surprised if I shrug my shoulders. I am a believer in the words of that great Yankees baseball catcher Yogi Berra who said “It aint over till it’s over…”
Ray brought the first ripe strawberries to me today. They came from the rows we planted upon the black plastic, but it surprised me none the less because the spring has been pretty cool thus far with the exception of a couple of scorchers back in April. We may have a few to pick by next weekend, but I don’t see us wading in them for a couple of weeks. We got lots of things planted out this week, thanks in part to the arrival of our two Jamaican workers, and the arrival of the college help. This is their eighth year they have come and they pretty well know the ropes at this point, such that they can work with the green college kids. Despite getting a frost three nights ago we were able to put out the peppers, tomatoes, cukes, and summer squash. We cultivated and hand-hoed the onions (about an acre’s worth) this week, but up until two days ago irrigation was a major activity. Thanks to the 2″ of rain that we got, we can focus on weeding, which will really pop up once we get some heat after this rain. Field preparation is still an ongoing activity, but the initial heat of getting land prepared is behind us and George Cilley, our tractor operator who does the lion’s share of it, can take a well deserved break to mow his lawn and do a few things on the list that has been growing while he has been up here the last month or so playing in the dirt and manure.
Memorial Day is behind us, and the weather has been kind to us, such that greenhouse starter sales have been pretty good despite the dimmed economy. It hardly looks like we sold much at all when you walk through the greenhouses, but Sarah assures me that the plants that remain are just spaced a bit more apart because they are larger. The stuff looks really good, so if you are in need of ornamentals please come down and give us a look as the selection is still very good. We haven’t set a date to open the Route 12A farm stand yet…but I am sure Mike will tell us when we get close to harvesting greens and lettuce and berries.
It never ceases to amaze me at how entitled customers think they are or perhaps it is the depth of their lack of knowledge concerning things remotely horticultural. This years best story to date is about a customer who came in and bought some rhubarb roots that were still dormant. The pot contained the dormant root, it was the 23rd of April and there was no foliage yet showing. I heard his somewhat indignant voice on the message machine about a week later (May 4) saying that there was no harvestable rhubarb yet and what were we going to do to make it right. I think my wife politely informed him that we would make it right if something turned out to be wrong with the product, but that he should be a bit more patience. This was probably the correct way to handle this…not the way I would have approached it had I called the indignant fellow back when I first heard his message.
I understand that we are a society that has come to expect to get everything we want, and that we want it now. Fast food, wide screen televison, hi speed internet–whatever. Gardening demands a bit more patience and a bit of knowledge. As far as the knowledge goes, a recent interview was done of us in a local paper, and one of the angles the reporter was charged with was to get simple steps to guarantee success with heirloom tomatoes. I had to inform the reporter that in my neighborhood their were no gurantees to having a successful gardening experience year in and year out. If was all that easy to be successful in farming wouldn’t I have a 2nd home in some exotic locale to which I could fly my plane after thirty five years in business? I tried to give her a list of things that were important to do to be susccessful with growing heirloom tomatoes, but that phrase –guarantee success”— seemed to smack of more of entitlement. The reporter got a story, I guess….probably just not the story the editor wanted.
Me, I currently feel that I am entitled to no more frost until fall and I would like about an inch of good soaking rain in the next 48 hours. It would surely simplify my life as it it is very dry and difficult to get things transplanted out in these conditions. Mike was harrowing up some ground yesterday and it was surprising how dusty it was. Last spring was verymuch like this until the middle of June when the rains came and took a month to go away. Hopefully we will not experience that again, but that would be a better choice than to continue on thiis dry spell that we are on. Not too far south of hear they are getting more than adaquate rainfall (Bellows Falls/ Brattleboro) and I have a friend in Rhode Island whose back teeth are floating because of all the rain he is getting. But despite the dryness, the potatoes are bounding up out of the ground, looks like a good stand of 1st planted carrots and so far the deer have stayed out of the lettuce. Nobody’s sick or hurt and the machinery currently is running like a Swiss watch. And these are the signs of good things that we can take heart in.
Interesting weather we had last week. We hit 90 or very close to it for four days running, and a couple of those high-temp days were accompanied by a 30 MPH wind. It was pretty tough on trying to transplant anything–in the greenhouse or field—and we spent a lot of time watering. As a result, the dogwood blooms are gone by (they bloomed for about 20 minutes in that heat) and the daffodils are on the downside of their display. Even the maple leaves (which usually don’t make their appearance until the 15th-20th of May) are unfurling. Welcome to New England.
Now that we are back to more seasonal temps the work continues at a more measured pace. The onion transplants are in, some lettuce and beet transplants out, and carrots, beet greens, and greens like arugula have been seeded in the field. We are trying to nurse the strawberries along with supplemental fertilizer and extra water (we are pretty dry here and haven’t gotten the showers that our other farming friends have gotten) by irrigation. The winter was pretty tough on them and it puzzled us until my brother-in-law, Pat McNamara, revealed to me that they lost every stitch of alfalfa in their fields, that the same went for other dairy farmers up and down the valley. We went out to field dig some field-grown perennial delphiniums for sale at the greenhouse and found that very few survived the winter. Best we can figure is that although we had good snow cover early in the winter (open winters can raise hell with perennial crops) we experienced an ice and heavy rain storm back around Christmas and must have caused some problems at that time.
The greenhouses are filling up and we are struggling to find places for things. It’s too dicey to start leaving displays up at night outside the greenhouses, as there is still a high incidence of frost for us for the next 3-4 weeks. So a lot of moving of plants (we have a fairly inefficient layout of greenhouses and space) in and out. When somebody transplants something and the call goes out on the radio as to where the transplants might be located, there are often voices coming back that say “Don’t bring it over here, I have NO Room in my greenhouse…” Hopefully, after Mothers Day some space will open up.
The greenhouses have consumed vast amounts of time over the last four weeks. As we open the greenhouses for trade this coming Thursday, we have additionally had to straighten up the pottery barn and organize the driveway and parking areas in preparation for opening. A few folks have already meandered through, picking up some lettuce and onions and pansies, but by next weekend we will be retailing in earnest. The temperate and sunny spring thus far has dried things up in the fields so that we are actually hoping to pick an inch or so out of the next forecast rain event in a couple of days.
We got underway with field work about ten days ago with our tractor guy, George Cilley, getting much of the winter stockpile of dairy manure spread and incorporated. Some chisel plowing, fertilizing and harrowing has been started and by tomorrow we should get a spring cover crop of field peas and oats planted on a field that will ultimately be planted to late fall sweet corn in July, when we incorporate those peas and oats. Although we don’t have any peas, greens, onions or potatoes planted, we should have some small veggies in the ground by mid to late week. Blueberry pruning is finished, the strawberries are de-mulched and Ray, Mike and Jenny have been laying out irrigation pumps and pipe in the strawberries, just in case we don’t pick up any moisture this week. People are working longer hours and the heat is on….
Well, here we go again. Yesterday it was 60 degrees for the first time since November. It felt great. A little too good, in fact, as the freshly transplanted tomatoes in the greenhouses wilted a bit, because of the intense light and heat inside the greenhouses. No complaints, it sure beats the ice and cold of the winter and the rumble of greenhouse furnaces burning propane. We had nine unannounced people drive by looking for jobs yesterday, indicated they were stirred both by the springlike conditions and a need to get some employment. What most folks don’t understand about farming is that farmers who do this for a living just don’t come out of dormancy like bears the first warm day in April, stretch their arms, yawn and say ” I guess it’s time to start growing something for this year..” We are in full swing this time of year, and do most of our hiring in February. It is truly a year-round activity for the five core family members here. In between dealing with snow around the greenhouses, there are furnaces to clean, thermostats to fix, greenhouses to maintain, hard goods and seeds to inventory, stock plants to maintain, field machinery to service and a mountain of paperwork that has to be dealt with that seems to get larger every year. The 2009 greenhouse season actually started in December 2008 when I took my first begonia leaf cuttings and geranium slips.
So now we are in the thick of planting season in the greenhouses. Perennials potted up, annual seedlings being transplanted, moving about flats of leeks and onions for the field and the first of the grafted greenhouse tomatoes planted. Mike, Ray and Jenny have pruned the finicky peaches and we have been pecking away at pruning the blueberries when we can sneak away from the greenhouse responsibilities. Saturday is supposed to be nice, so I am in hopes of sneaking off with the little tractor to beginning removing straw from the strawberries and rhubarb. Sarah, Donald, Anne and the rest of the crew continue to plug away at the mountains of trays of rooted cuttings and seed flats that keep appearing at the doors of the greenhouses. The welcome hum of activity is back after the dark winter.
Flavors of the Valley will be held this year on April 21st from 2-7 PM at the Hartford High School Gymnasium. For those of you who don’t know about this event, it is an opportunity to meet farmers, producers and folks related to the local food scene here in the Upper Valley. We will have a booth there to discuss with anyone interested what it is that we do down here and the products we offer. Drop by and say hi.