2012 Farmer’s Report16
I can hardly believe it is fall. The garden has some pretty tell-tale signs that cooler weather is upon us. As we bring the first season of Arcadia Farms’ CSA to a close, I want to take some time to review the ups and downs of our inaugural season, share what I learned from them and most importantly how those lessons are going to make the 2013 season even better.
Just like any new endeavor, starting a micro-farm and CSA has had a steep learning curve. When I left my full time job to begin Arcadia Farms, I told friends and family that I knew there would be both successes and setbacks ahead of me and that I was looking forward to the opportunity to grow from both of them. I confess that the concept of ‘failing-forward’ was a lot easier espouse than to experience, but I still believe in the concept! I also believe that bigger risks hold the potential for greater rewards and jumping into this with both feet has been worth it.
No One Can Stop You
Before we get too far into what went well, what went wrong and what I learned, I want to share something that I found while spending mindless hours looking at projects I’ll probably never do on Pinterest. I love it and have decided to make it the Arcadia Farms mantra.
I’ve been fortunate to have a lot of supportive, adventurous people in my life that didn’t have to pick their jaws up off the floor when I first started talking about quitting my well-paid HR job to start a farm in my suburban backyard. But just like any entrepreneur, I’ve encountered my fair share of naysayers who could come up with all sorts of reasons why I should be afraid. “Are you sure you know what you’re doing?” No, I’m not. “You should probably know more about gardening before you do something like this.” I probably should. “Won’t that be a lot of work?” Yes, it will. “What if it fails?”
What if It Fails?
I decided a long time ago that I can choose not to stretch beyond my comfort zone because I’m afraid of failing (and then spend my life wondering what would have happened) or I can take the risk of actually putting myself out there and knowing what would have happened. Innovators don’t change the world by being safe and normal. The guy who can do back flips had a first try at some point – and has probably fallen on his neck a time or two. The artist who creates beautiful paintings probably has an entire stock of early art that didn’t turn out so well. Everyone with a special skill started somewhere – no one is born an expert. People we revere as world-changers are people who realize that if you are determined to learn, no one can stop you.
But I don’t necessarily want to change the world. I just want to sell you carrots.
Lessons Learned in 2012
With all that said, here is a list of lessons I learned in 2012. Following the list will be a more in-depth discussion of what I experienced and the conclusions I’ve drawn from those experiences.
- I need to plant more crops – at least double.
- Some crops are better suited for a micro-farm CSA than others.
- I can maximize relationships with other local farmers to add other products to our CSA.
- I need to improve crop timing and rotation.
- I have new, organic methods for addressing pests and disease.
- Recipes should be provided on a consistent basis.
- Consistently labeling all vegetables is helpful to customers.
- I need to improve application of customer preferences.
- To reduce our consumption of plastic bags, I’d like to incorporate re-usable containers.
Because this is my first year operating a CSA, I did a poor job of forecasting how much each plant would yield and ultimately how many plants I would need. Now that I’ve got the first season under my belt, I have a much better feel for the yield of various crops and how many plants are necessary not to just provide something for everyone, but to provide the abundant harvest I want Arcadia Farms to be known for.
Ironically, I was spreading the harvest so thin that on many occasions that our family was unable to eat from the garden at all. Buying vegetables from Meijer after delivering home grown produce to 19 other families was definitely not my vision for sustainable living. Another reason to plant more is that the cobbler’s children need shoes.
How much more do we need? I’d like to double our space and thus double the number of plants in our garden. In the spring last year, we added just under 400 square feet of raised bed space to the existing 384 square feet of the main garden. In spring 2013, I plan to expand the main garden to add an additional 624 square feet. That would give us an overall garden space of 1,498 square feet. You can grow a whole lot of beans and carrots in that much space!
I like broccoli. And I really like cabbage. But what I’ve discovered this year is that when you have a backyard market garden, efficient use of space is of extreme importance. Some plants provide a relatively large harvest for the amount of space they take. For example:
- Radishes: 16 plants per square foot; abundant and ongoing harvest (leaves, roots and seed pods!)
- Beans: 9 plants per square foot; abundant and ongoing harvest
- Tomatoes: 1 plant per two square feet; abundant and ongoing harvest
- Zucchini: 1 plant per two square feet; abundant and ongoing harvest
Others, such as broccoli and cabbage, take up a large amount of space (1 square foot per plant) produce only one time, and are very heavy feeders (use up lots of soil nutrients). Also – this may be due to my novice gardening ways – but the broccoli heads produced in our garden were teeny and hardly worth the loooooong wait (75 to 100 days to maturity). As much as I – and my customers – like broccoli and cabbage, planting a lot of these just doesn’t make much sense when the goal is to provide food for many on an ongoing, weekly basis. That one square foot could produce several pounds of beans and a pound of radishes within the same amount of space and time it takes to produce one two-inch broccoli head.
Because the 2013 garden will be significantly larger than this year’s garden, I’ll likely grow some of these types of veggies, but only on a limited basis.
By supplementing I mean purchasing produce from other growers to include in CSA deliveries. Right from the beginning I was very open with our customers about the fact that I would need to supplement from other growers during weeks where we just didn’t have enough. I tried my best to always find local growers, and worked even harder at making sure the food we provided was pesticide-free, no matter where it came from. (Anytime supplemental produce was not pesticide-free, I clearly indicated so on delivery inserts. I believe this happened twice.)
While I was very direct with customers about what I was doing, I have to admit that I sure felt sheepish showing up to the farmers market every week to buy produce for my own CSA. But oh what a blessing in disguise! If it weren’t for the drought and my novice ‘how-much-should-I-plant’ ways, I would have missed out on the opportunity to get to know several other local growers. I was encouraged to discover that many of the challenges I was facing were just as challenging to more experienced gardeners and farmers. I was especially relieved to discover that it is a common practice for growers to supplement their shares with produce from other farmers. I’d like to think of it as spreading the “Community” part of CSA even farther along. These relationships could evolve into partnerships that provide members with the opportunity to add other CSA products to their deliveries (i.e., milk, meat, fruit, eggs, etc.). Whether those additional products become available or not, being connected with other farmers ultimately means more stability and variety for Arcadia Farms members.
This concept is not new to me. In fact, crop rotation is a critical part of organic farming and has always been part of my plan. However, the layout I planned for the garden this year was so complicated that it would have made long-term crop rotation problematic. It was also complicated in the short term when crops failed sooner or lasted longer than expected. My 2012 approach involved calculating how many plants I needed (based on expected yield) and then squeezing them into as small a space as possible. I was careful to observe companion planting suggestions and never follow a crop with something from the same plant family, but that was really difficult. When the beets, arugula, lettuce and spinach that have all been planted in a 48 square foot space need to be replaced, it’s difficult to ensure that each square foot is rotated correctly.
In 2013 my approach is much simpler. Each bed gets two crops which are good companions. (Companion planting is the method of putting multiple plants together to mutually benefit each other in some way.) A clockwise rotation is planned so that every new season each bed will host plants from a different plant family than the previous year. For example, if Bed A now contains Potatoes and Kale, next year it will host Leeks and Carrots which are both from different plant families than Potatoes and Kale. For those of you who are comprehend things better when you see them, check out this diagram for the Main Garden and this one for the Fenceline Garden. You’ll need to zoom in quite a bit (400%?) and then scroll to see everything. (You’ll also get a sneak-peek into our preliminary crop choices for 2013!)
One of the other mistakes I made this year was spreading out my plantings by two weeks. The concept is that you plant a third of your crop today, a third in two weeks and the final third two weeks after that. Brilliant idea – for the home gardener! However as a market gardener who is trying to feed lots of people all at once, I want a big gob of [fill in the blank] to mature all at once. Wow that’s simple. Why didn’t I think about that? Regardless, I won’t make that mistake next year.
WARNING: If you’re not trying to grow things at home, this section will probably be especially boring to you. This season I encountered some new pests and diseases but also discovered ways to address them.
- Vine Borer: I had already developed a good method for dealing with these pests. What I didn’t realize is that those orange looking wasps I saw constantly flying around my zucchini bed were really the evil Vine Borer Moths that spawn these harmful borers! They’re in the Axis of Evil now, so they better watch out next year!
- Squash Bugs: These members of the Axis of Evil aren’t new either, but some of our methods for dealing with them are. Click here for more info.
- Cucumber Beetle: Hop over here to find out how these critters helped bring about the demise of our cucumber patches, and click here for info on how we’ll address them next year.
- White Powdery Mildew: I knew that overhead watering was a big no-no. But in the midst of drought, with so much watering to do, and my soaker hoses damaged, I gave in and used traditional oscillating sprinklers. BIG! MISTAKE! I had major white powdery mildew issues with our zucchini and some other cucurbits. However, I found a natural, baking-soda based solution that worked really well to address it! According to the research I did, this spray is best as a preventative (spray weekly) rather than a treatment to cure mildew. However, I had great success with killing off (or at least dramatically, visibly halting) mildew with several applications. Using this inexpensive, completely natural spray will be part of my weekly routine from now on.
- Anthracnose: This fungus destroyed our cucumbers and melons this year in both gardens. Keeping it out of the compost pile has been tricky. I need to do more research on how to prevent it, but for now it sounds like applying neem oil will do the trick.
- No Overhead Watering: See White Powdery Mildew above. I have soaker hoses which were damaged in the extreme heat this year. (They were rolled into coils with the end wrapped around to keep them secured. The heat made them brittle and all of them snapped right at the coupling.) This winter I’ll spend time planning a soaker hose watering system.
- Bugs In General: I had lots of birds this year, which I believe helped with bug control. I also had toads and frogs… until the snakes ate them. Next year, we’ll introduce two more pest-addressing weapons: Borage (the silver bullet of companion plants) and trellises (keeping more vining plants off the ground helps to reduce the opportunity for disease and pest issues.)
- Drought: I’m praying that this will be a non-issue next year. If it is an issue, using a heavy application of mulch in all beds should help to retain moisture. Using soaker hoses will conserve more water and as we found this year, watering mid-day will provide the plants with more relief from the heat than if we watered in the morning as usual.
being a first-time market gardener AND dealing with the drought. The lack of consistent weekly recipes was simply a lack of time management on my part. Please forgive me – I promise to do better next year!
This is another straight-forward change to be made. Over time I began to take for granted that I could tell the difference between beet greens, radish greens and cucuzzi greens. But you’re not packaging 19 bags each week and don’t get a chance to see it all. The plan is to standardize our labeling system so that you know exactly what that funny-shaped green thing is before you try to turn it into dinner.
Ugh. This one hurts. Part of my vision for Arcadia Farms is to provide a service where we know your family’s preferences and implement a system whereby you get the things you love and don’t get the things that make your kids gag. This did happen a limited basis this year – when customers shared their likes and dislikes with me, I adjusted their shares accordingly. And occasionally I would remember that “so-and-so really likes eggplant” and include the early first-fruit in their share. But when you consider the year overall… I failed at this miserably. Why? Drought and not enough crops. Many weeks my efforts to just provide something trumped my intention of ensuring that members only received things they really like.
Significantly expanding the garden will be key to making customization work next year. This will be a major focus area in 2013.
When I was growing up, the extent of ‘green living’ was talking about and implementing The Three R’s: Reduce. Reuse. Recycle.
One of the primary goals of Arcadia Farms is to produce food using sustainable methods. I also want to provide you with fresh, high-quality food. In many cases, the best way to keep veggies fresh (especially greens) was to store them in plastic bags. Lots of plastic bags. Gobs of plastic bags. Obscene amounts of plastic passing through my hands each week. Call me crazy, but I’m not sure that’s ‘sustainable.’
So to save plastic and money, we’re considering transitioning to re-usable containers for packaging. We’ll still be using plastic, but it will look more like this and this. In some cases, we can also use recycled paper (like old newspapers) to create origami boxes for holding things that don’t need to be kept air tight such as tomatoes. I’m actually looking forward to brushing up on my origami skills… and teaching some to Owen who will be my involuntary laborer helper in making boxes this winter.
Well, that’s it folks. Those are the major lessons I learned during our first season of farming. Thanks for patiently reading through all of it. If you have any questions or ideas about our plans for 2013, please get in touch with me!
To those of you who are members, thank you so much for the enthusiasm you have shown for the work we are doing and the vision of eating local, pesticide-free food! I appreciate each of you and have enjoyed serving your families. To those of you who are not members but regularly visit our blog, follow us on social media (Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest) and share in our enthusiasm – THANK YOU! You are also an important part of helping us achieve our goals.
Thanks everyone for a great first year!