Market Day #2

We didn’t have a market on the 4th of July, so yesterday was our second farmer’s market day of the season.  We’re starting to hit the mid-season slump, where the spring crops are petering out but the summer stuff (tomatoes, peppers, potatoes) aren’t quite ready yet.  But we still had kale, chard, a few last scapes, a few last snow peas, bull’s blood beet greens, parsley (a surprise hit), basil, Thai basil, and some zucchini.  It was supposed to be rainy day, but for once that didn’t happen.

Water has been our biggest challenges this season. Far too much of it.

We’re still struggling with wet fields.  We’ve probably had more than a foot of rain in the past five weeks, and we’ve got some standing water around and spots where the crops are just dying from the inability of the plants to breathe.  You can smell the anaerobic soil when you turn it over–it’s a sour, unhealthy odor.  Though it’s hard to do much in that part of the field, because it’s just so muddy.  If it dries out a little, I’m going to try making some raised beds in there for some fall crops.

The weeds don’t seem to mind the water. There are tomatoes growing in these beds. (Which I now have a little better weeded, but it’s still a battle.)

Though the weeds have been pretty out of control, I think we’re gaining on them a little bit.  The wheel hoe makes that even slightly possible.

The potatoes don’t mind the water either, though they don’t like having to be under cover in the heat.

Our potatoes are growing pretty well, though they’re under attack from Colorado potato beetles.  These are voracious creatures, whose larvae are almost like orange slugs that pop when you squish them.  Pretty disgusting.  But luckily, we don’t have so many potatoes or bugs that we can’t hand pick them.  For now, we have to keep the potatoes under cover to protect them from potato leaf hoppers, which will do serious damage both from eating and spreading disease.  Being covered stresses the plants in the hot spells we’ve been having, but for now we think it’s better than having them suffer from “hopper burn” which can bring them down pretty fast.

Hungry Colorado potato beetle grubs can do a lot of damage fast. The best remedy is to squish them.

We were having a very strong crop of zucchini, but something (possibly bacterial wilt, vectored by striped cucumber beetles) has killed about a third of our plants and more are following.  The good news is that there’s still time in the season for additional plantings, if we move fast.  With all the weather weather and soil, diseases spread much more quickly than in a normal year.

The cucumbers I’ve planted are starting to sprout, and I’m excited to see them grow and take over where the snow peas used to be.  A fresh cucumber tastes just like summer to me.  The challenges of this season have been a lot more severe than last season, but I’m trying to stay positive and focus on the new crops coming and just hoping that we’ll catch a break in the weather for a couple weeks and get us back on track.

Here’s one more time lapse video, of uncovering row cover early in the season.  It’s a fun part of the rhythm of farming.

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First Market Day of the Season

It’s been more than a month since my last post (sounds very confessional, I know), but things are still rolling along.  We had our first farmer’s market of the season this past Thursday at the JP Farmer’s Market at the Loring-Greenough House (12 South Street, Thursdays, 2-8pm) and had a good time, despite the cool, rainy weather.  This early in the season, our offerings tend to be a bit sparse, but we did have:  kale, chard, snow peas, garlic scapes, baby lettuce, lavender (which smelled amazing!) and a few tiny zucchini.  Last year, we had only one market day with a sprinkle, so we’re making up for it this year.

Rain has actually been our biggest challenge at the farm this month.  We’ve had well over 8 inches of rain at our farm in June, probably closer to 10 inches.  And, sadly, our fields, especially our new field, drain very badly.  For the past few weeks, it’s been hard to even get in the fields, and weeding and planting have basically been impossible most of the time. It looks like we’ll lose our onions and the first planting of green beans, and our head lettuce, rosemary, basil, parsley,and collards all look pretty bad.  (The weeds don’t seem to mind the wet.)

The past few days have been warm and drier, which is helping a bit.  We were there with the whole family today, tying up and pruning tomatoes, weeding, and planting new beans, sunflowers, and cucumber seeds.

I feel like a real farmer now, because I spend half my time complaining about the weather.  On the plus side, the kale really seems to like the rain, and it’s been pretty huge.

(For this season, I bought both an iPhone, so that I can take credit cards at the market and keep in touch with customers better, but also so that I could take fun time lapse of photos of behind the scenes at the farm.)

Now that Noah is finally out of school (we had a lot of snow days this year), he’ll be coming up with me to the farm all week, as we try to wrestle the weeds under control and also make our World Peas deliveries.  There’s no JP Market this week, because of the 4th of July Holiday, but that’s probably okay, in that it allows us to keep trying to get caught up.

I actually need to schedule some time to think about what’s next–with the weird weather, all my plans need to be adjusted, in terms of what crops go where, and when.  That’s the constant lesson of farming–you have to learn to adjust your plans.  You must respect the reality in front of you, the realities of the season, of the weather, of the soil, of biology.  Farming is what happens when your dreams collide with the earth.

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Season Ramping Up

The farm at dusk after a long day of planting (and covering)

I haven’t posted lately, but that doesn’t mean that we haven’t been farming.  It just means that my writing life (as a playwright and novelist) has gotten kind of nuts lately.  So I’ve either been at writing conferences, in rehearsal, at a reading, or working at the farm.

This year we have twice as much land (half an acre total), to so the planning is a little more complicated, and there is theoretically twice as much work to do in the exact same amount of daylight in any given day.

Until two days ago, we’ve been having a bit of a drought, with less than an inch of rain through all of April and most of May.  Despite that, however, it took a while for us to get into the fields because they drain slowly.

But as Eero and Guy (our farm manager and his assistant) have opened up ground with the tractors, turning in the winter rye cover crop, we’ve been able to get the soil fertilized and amended and have planted rows of greens.

You can see all the rows of floating row cover we have up now–they’re helping keep the plants safe from cold weather at night (we’re supposed to have low 40s for the next three nights) and also help keeps pests like deer and flea beetles at bay.  Right now we’ve got three rows of kale, one of snow peas, and two of chard, one of broccoli, and another of collards, all under cover.  We’ve also planted 220 feet of potatoes and a row of onions, plus seeds for cilantro, carrots, and lettuce.

This was our back porch a couple weeks ago, loaded with kale seedlings. Now it’s full of tomatoes and peppers.

We have a ton of seedlings on the back porch right now, hardening off and getting ready to go in the ground.  But it’ll be too cold to put them in until Wednesday.  The peppers and tomatoes out there right now are from Natick Community Farm and Bobbin Farm in Lowell.  Next week, we’re getting a big delivery of pepper and tomato seedlings from Red Fire Farm.

Husk cherries growing under lights in our basement.

We’re also still growing a lot in our basement.  We’ve got husk cherries, squash, collards, and lots of basil growing under lights right now.  I’ll start hardening some of them off on Sunday, with hope of getting them in the ground on Wednesday.

 

Our first World PEAS delivery is on June 10th!  (Kale.)  And then we start our farmer’s market in Jamaica Plain on Thursday, June 27.  So we’ve got a lot of work to do in the next month!

Russian Kale getting started under cover.

Pat and Tracy at the start of the season. (Notice no green behind us. It’s a lot greener up there now!)

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The Indoor Farm

In addition to buying seeds, we’ve already ordered a bunch of seedlings from Red Fire Farm, Natick Community Farm, and Bobbin Farm–tomatoes, tomatillos, peppers, and herbs.  But we also need to get a head start on our early season crops, especially kale (we have World PEAS orders due in early June) and chard.

Last year, we had one small shelf unit for growing seedlings under lights, and could have six trays growing at once.  This year, we’ve added two more sets of shelves, with a lot more shelves and lights, and we have a maximum capacity of 38 flats. We grow greens in 72-cell flats, which means, we can theoretically have 2,736 seedlings growing at once in our basement!

Last Friday, I planted 13 flats of kale, and then another 7 on Sunday.  That should be enough for to plant about 700 feet of kale beds (kale beds have 2 rows per bed), in late April or early May.  (Our fields are slow to dry out in the spring, so it’s hard to get on them early.)  I just got a bunch more trays and flats today, so I can plant chard seedlings tomorrow–another 20 trays or so.

This is what they looked like on Friday.  (not very exciting)

And this is what they look like today.  Very exciting!  Feels like spring is really here now.

Now begins the process of babysitting these little plants for the next four weeks until they’re ready to be hardened off and planted.  First I need to think them out to one plant per cell.  I’ll take off the covers which were keeping them moist while germinating and get the lights super close to the leaves, so that they don’t stretch out too much and get leggy.  Keeping them properly moist ends up being one of the most important tasks.  I’ll probably feed them about once a week, using a dilute solution of fish emulsion (very smelly.  The cat loves it).

With a little luck and hard work, these trays will translate into many hundreds of bunches of kale and chard over the upcoming season.

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The Farm Season has Begun!

I know I’ve been quiet on the blog so far this year, but that’s just because I’ve been wrapped up in a bunch of theatre productions, publishing another novel, and writing a couple plays and musicals.  And planning for the 2013 farm season at Pen and Pepper.

In our basement, we’ve got a big box of seeds all ready to plant at our plot at the New Entry Smith Farm.  We’ll be in the same site as last year, plus we’ll have an additional quarter acre, doubling our land to half an acre.

A few weeks ago, Noah and I went to the NOFA bulk order pickup at Waltham Fields, to load 32 50-pound bags of fertilizer and soil amendments into our Subaru (we took it in two trips, because we like our car and intend to use it for a while).

 

Right now the fields are pretty saturated with water, from all the heavy snow we had a the end of the winter.  I’m not sure our garlic will make it (and we have about 1,000 cloves planted) very well, if we don’t get a little dry weather.

New Entry has done a lot of work on the property over the winter, clearing out a lot of trees to make room for a cooler (very excited about this!) and a future barn for the tractors and equipment.  We’ll end up with much better sun on our original plot, which will help growth of a lot of our crops.

Last weekend, I was the other New Entry site, helping dismantle an old hoophouse that had a lot of problems.  The plan is to rebuild it, in a slightly better site, and without some of the problems that it has right now.  It was a great chance to learn how a hoophouse should be built, and to get to know the new farmers who will be joining us at the New Entry sites this summer.

We will be selling our produce to the World PEAS CSA again (now is the time to sign up for a share!), at the JP Farmer’s Market on Thursday afternoons (starting at the end of June), and we’re also doing a sort of mini-informal CSA of our own with 7 neighbors (more on this later).  We very much looking forward to warmer weather and getting things growing.

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Lessons of a First Year Farmer: Tomatoes

tomatoes at the marketMy plan for this series is to go through each crop we grew, and figure out what we did right, what we did wrong, and what we can do better next year.  Tomatoes seem like the logical place to start, since we grew and sold a lot of them, and we loved eating them.

Overall, we planted about 110 row feet of tomatoes, set every 18 inches, so about 68 plants.  We purchased the seedlings from Natick Community Farm and from JoAnn Robidaux, one of our fellow New Entry Farmers who grew them at a community greenhouse in Lowell.  We grew the plants on biodegradable black plastic (biotelo) with drip irrigation under the plastic.  We staked our tomatoes with 54″ cedar stakes, set every two plants, and supported them with nylon tomato twine, basket woven.  We probably could have used slightly longer stakes, and we could have done one more pass of twine mid-season, to give extra support.  Our plants, especially, the Brandywines, grew like crazy, and eventually the top sections started to topple over, causing yield reduction.  The other solution to this would have been more aggressive pruning.

a tunnel of tomatoes

The space between our tomatoes and tomatillos made for a tunnel of green (we should have planted them farther apart).

We had very little pest pressure on the tomatoes –I think we found and killed just one tomato hornworm caterpillar.  We did have to worry about late blight, so we chose to spray copper sulfate as an anti-fungal agent (an organic/OMRI approved formulation).  I hate spraying copper–it’s irritating to the skin and nose and smells bad and tends to clog up the backpack sprayer.  But we did manage to avoid significant problems with late blight (despite a scare where I rushed off a sample to the state testing lab).  At the height of the season, we were spraying every 7-10 days.

The section of our field where we grew tomatoes got some slight shade, both in the morning and evening.  In the mid-season, this wasn’t a problem, though it did cause our first tomatoes to come in a little late, and shortened our season, by perhaps 1-2 weeks.  Next season, I’ll move them to a sunnier spot in the field.

This season, we grew three different kinds of tomatoes (all from organic suppliers):  hybrid slicers, heirloom slicers, and paste tomatoes (both heirloom and hybrid).

farm stand slicers

Hybrid Slicers

Hybrid Slicers

For the hybrid slicers, we just had one variety, Celebrity.  We only had 6 plants and they produced 79 pounds of tomatoes (yield of 13.2 lbs/plant).  Not bad. They were a classic, red round tomato with a straightforward tomato flavor.  Our customers liked them.  I think they’re a little less intimidating than some of the heirloom tomatoes–they look like a tomato, they’re a manageable size, and you know what to do with it.  We almost always sold out of what we picked.  Next year, I plan to grow a lot more hybrid slicers.

Our first sale of slicers (more than just one tomato) was August 9 and the last was on October 30.  (I’m going to put all of this in a table below.)

plum tomatoes

a big bin of plum tomatoes

Paste/Plum Tomatoes

For paste/sauce tomatoes, we grew Grandma Mary, Amish Paste, and San Marzano.  Our 16 plants yielded sales of 172 pounds at the farmer’s market and to our neighbors, giving us a yield of 10 pounds per plant.

(I have some confusion on this number, because we used some ourselves and also grew some in our garden, but we can go with this for now.  I am realizing that I need a better idea of how to calculate yields–is it the total amount of saleable produce harvested, or the amount actually sold?  Amount harvested seems the like the ideal, but my most accurate numbers are sales figures.  I didn’t have a great scale at the farm or data recording system to track real harvest numbers.  These will have to do for now.)

All the plants grew well.  The San Marzanos are prized on the TV cooking shows, and they do have great flavor, but they also seemed a bit more prone to disease and the tomatoes are on the small side.  The other two varieties were a lot more convenient for cooking and canning and still had strong flavor.  And I don’t think my customers had a preference for variety.  On the chart below, you can see that we normally sold them for $2/lb but also sold larger batches at 10 pounds for $15.

I love growing and cooking with paste tomatoes, but we seemed to just about max out on what the our farmer’s market could bear.  I think we could sell a few more to neighbors.  However, we only canned about 20 quarts for ourselves, and I think we’d like to get closer to 50-100 jars put away next year.  So maybe we will grow a few more paste tomatoes.  We’ll probably experiment with some different varieties, to see if we can find ones with higher yields (and need to do better at tracking the yield of each variety).

Abby and the Huge Tomato

Customer Abby was brave enough to buy this monster 2 lb brandywine

Heirlooms

We grew a variety of heirlooms–Brandywine, Black Seaman, Cherokee Purple, and Moskovich.  The Brandywines were pretty amazing–huge, vigorous plants, and very large fruits (some as large as 2 pounds). To me, they have the absolute best flavor and texture of any tomato.  At the start of the season, I would eat an entire Brandywine for lunch, raw.  They do crack a bit, and late in the season they ripened unevenly.  I’ll definitely grow them again, even more of them, next year.  Their main drawback is that they can grow too large–a 2-pound tomato can be a little intimidating, and not everyone is willing to plunk down $8 for a single tomato.  (Luckily a few brave souls were.)

We only had a few Black Seaman plants.  They were lower yielding, though I loved the color on them.  The flavor was a bit citrusy, but still very fine.  The low yield was definitely a problem and I won’t grow them again.

A lot of people like Cherokee Purple–they’re a good looking tomato, when they’re not cracked.  And they’re a nice size, a little on the small side.  But they cracked way too much and the plants seemed to get a lot of fungal problems.  I found them not worth the effort.

Our Moskovich were okay, a little low yielding, but our looked too much like the hybrid slicers.  At the market, it was hard to sell them for $4/lb when the hybrids look the same and sold for $2.50.  I won’t grow them again.

lots o tomatoes

We grew more than 600 pounds of tomatoes this season!

Overall, we grew more than 600 pounds of tomatoes and sold $1637 of them.  Not bad for $42 worth of seedlings.  You can see why small farmers like to grow them–high yields and high prices.  I think we’ll try growing about twice as many next year.  I’m pretty sure the World PEAS CSA that we supply will double their order for next year, and I think we can do better with our farm stand and neighbor sales.  Of course, we have to grow other stuff, too, and tomatoes can run into disease problems (like late blight) that will kill of the whole crop in a hurry, so they come with a bit of risk.  Not only will we grow a lot more plants, but I think we can also improve our yields significantly with better practices–more aggressive pruning and staking, better feeding schedule, and a spot with more sun.

Just thinking about all these tomatoes makes me long for summer.  I might have to go the kitchen and open up one of the jars we canned.

canning day

We canned tomatoes in lots of different configurations

Here’s a table of our tomato growing and harvest and sales, by the numbers:

[table id=3 /]

 

 

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Lessons of a First Year Farmer: gear (farm fashion)

farmers in the rain

Good rain gear is essential for farming

One of the things I like best about farming is that I get to wear completely practical clothes, and it doesn’t matter what they look like.  In fact, the rattier the better.  They just need to be tough and comfortable.  For me, jeans with patches on the knees are perfect, because they protect my knees from rocks, just a little, while I’m on the ground, and I spent a LOT of time on the ground this season.

On a vegetable farm, you don’t end up doing nearly as much work in the rain and mud as you would on a farm with animals.  You can’t work the soil if the ground is too wet.  However, there are plenty of crops that can be harvested in the rain, and when a delivery is due, you have to be there to pick the kale or tomatoes or tomatillos, no matter what.  And plants can be pruned and staked in the rain.  I quickly discovered that spending four or five hours working in the rain is a lot more pleasant if I wore rain paints.  I ended up buying a $15 rain suit from Home Depot, out of desperation one day.  The bad news was that it pretty much smelled like gasoline, it was so raw–Tracy and the kids could barely stand having it in the car with them. And the suspenders ripped on the first day, but it still did the trick and kept me dry on plenty of days.  And it was cheap.

Next year, I plan to spend a little more and buy a stronger rain suit, maybe one that can breathe a bit.  Hiking gear is probably the way to go.  The trick is that any clothing for the farm needs to be really tough.  I really didn’t understand going into this how rough the ground is on every object on the farm–tools, equipment, and clothing.  In rocky soil like ours, it’s pretty much like working in sandpaper all day long.  The earth just wears stuff out, and fast.

farm shoes

Old hiking boots did the trick this year.

I’d worried about shoes/boots.  A lot of farmers wear very farmer-like rubber boots, and I didn’t have any and didn’t want to buy them (the budget felt like it was getting out of control).  I ended up using some old waterproof Keen hiking boots.  They turned out to be perfect.  If we had animals or a muddier field, I would have needed rubber boots, but in our case, we just have veggies and the field drained pretty well.  The most important quality in farm boots for me this year was toughness and comfort.  They’re shot now, but they lasted the whole season.  And they needed to be comfortable enough for me to be on my feet, kneeling, weeding, hauling, standing, for eight or nine hours at a time.  I think I’m going to buy a new pair of exactly the same model for next year.

Other key gear was my hat–a wide-brimmed Tilly hat, to keep the sun off my face and neck. Cancer runs in my family, so I have to be careful in the sun.  I always wore sunscreen and rarely got sunburned–this was also important because I couldn’t afford to miss a day of field work just because I’d been stupid and blistered myself in the sun.  That’s the thing with farming–there are no sick days.  On a tiny operation like ours, there’s no one else to take over if I do something stupid.  (I need to save the drama for my playwriting.)

For spraying organic pesticides and fungicides, I just went to Goodwill and bought an old oxford-cloth shirt that I could put on to protect my skin and easily wash separately from the rest of my clothing.  (We did more laundry this summer than ever before.  I’d come home covered in dirt from head to toe.)

Gloves were important, but they wore out quickly, especially when tying up tomatoes–nylon tomato twine cuts through gloves, and skin, almost as fast as a knife.  I should have bought three pairs of gloves going into this season, but made do with one that basically fell apart by the end of the season.  I like gloves that are fairly tight fitting, so that I can feel what I’m doing.

 

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Lessons of a First Year Farmer: Tools

 Noah with hula hoe

Noah uses our favorite hand tool, the hula hoe, to weed a raised bed before planting.

If I was a large-scale farmer, I’d probably say my favorite tool was a tractor, and then talk about all the cool implements I had for it (or lusted after).  We did get some custom tractor work done on our field by Matt, the farm site manager for New Entry, but mostly it was just to prep the field at the beginning of the season, first harrowing it, going over it with a chisel plow, and then with a perfecta.  We also had him lay down five raised beds with biotelo biodegradable black plastic, with drip tape underneath.

pat and the tiller

The BCS walk behind tractor with a tiller attachment was helpful and saved time, but was still a lot of work.

We also used a BCS walk-behind tractor for rototilling a few rows, but we put most of our raised beds together by hand with hoes, rakes, and a bed rake.

making raised bed

We made raised beds by hand, which took a lot of time and tough on our backs. Next year, we’ll try to use a tractor or BCS walk behind.

Making raised beds by hand is satisfying but exhausting work.  Next year our energy would be better spent elsewhere.  I’ll definitely try to get them set up by tractor or using the BCS.  Still, it was a useful skill to acquire.

All our weeding and planting was done either by hand or with hand tools.  Probably my favorite tool this year was our hula hoe, from Johnnie’s.  We used it enough to break the handle twice (we have a lot of rocks in the soil).  I used it for weeding and for churning up the beds after a crop had come out, and especially for weeding the paths.  I think we used the hula hoe more than any other hand tool this season (we have two now).

tools of the day

Our hula hoe and colinear hoe, essential tools for keeping our paths and beds weeded.

For finer cultivation (aka weeding), I loved the colinear hoe, basically a straight sharp blade that you pull towards you.  This is the perfect tool for very small weeds, and going over a bed before they’ve even sprouted can help keep the weeds from ever growing so large that you need to pull them by hand.  It took a while to build up my skill level with the colinear hoe, but I did get so that I could do a 180 foot row in 20 minutes (or so), if the weeds were tiny.

We also acquired a scuffle hoe, which is sort of a triangle shaped piece of sharp steel, but I didn’t find it easy to work with.  Maybe next year, I’ll find the right use for it.

flame weeder

The flame weeder was helpful for making sterile beds (killing weeds right as they’re sprouting).

The flame weeder was a specialized tool that came in handy for creating sterile beds, trying to kill off any weed seedlings about to sprout right before planting seeds, so that our seeds could get a little head start on the weeds.  We also could use it on beet beds a few days after planting, but before germination, again, to help reduce weed pressure on the tender seedlings.

For transplanting, I have a tiny mini-trowel that was just perfect for taking plugs out of a 72-cell flat, which we used for all our transplants (kale, chard, lettuce, etc.).  When I first got it, I never expected it’d be just the perfect tool for the task.  I need to get another one for next year, so Tracy and I can more easily both plant seedlings at once.

wheel hoe

Can’t wait to put our wheel hoe to full use next season.

My new favorite hand tool is our wheel hoe, which should make weeding the paths much faster, and will also help in bed prep and cultivation.  I need to get a few more attachments (budget permitting-they’re not cheap).  I’m not a huge fan of wrestling the BCS, which is loud and heavy and just a pain in the ass.  I’m a big fan of the right hand tool for the job, at least at our scale.  If we were farming an acre or more, I’d probably need to get a lot more interested in small tractors.  But for now, I expect the wheel hoe to see a lot of use next year.

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Lessons of a First Year Farmer: Planning

chard seedlings

These chard seedlings that we bought all survived, but the kale was destroyed by a storm and rabbits.

I’m a planner by nature.  I love to make lists. I make pages of goals at the start of every year, for just about every task.  All of this makes me a natural match for farming, because if there’s one field where you can spend hours and hours, creating spreadsheet after spreadsheet planning, it’s farming.

As part of the New Entry Sustainable Farming Project, we were required to take a farm business plan writing class before we were even allowed to apply for land on the incubator plots.  It’s a smart requirement.  This way, when before I ordered my first seed packet, I already had a detailed step by step outline of what I planned to raise, how I’d market it, and where I’d sell it.

The big picture.

According to my plan, we would be in two different farmer’s markets–one in Jamaica Plain and another (every other week) in Acton-Boxborough, and to the World PEAS cooperative CSA.  I thought I’d sell a tiny bit to neighbors, too.

So I planned for gross sales to work out like this:

  • World PEAS cooperative CSA: $3,156
  • JP farm stand: $3,582
  • AB farm stand: $1,718
  • Neighbors: $125
  • TOTAL Planned income: $8,644

This would be against planned expenses of $6,280 (which included gas).  So theoretically, we could make about $2,300.

Not bad.  Except that all my sales projections were based on the tiniest bits of data and lots of wishful thinking.  It was very hard to know how much we were likely to make at the farmer’s markets–I’d heard wildly different stories, but found little actual real numbers.  And the truth is that prices and traffic volume varies wildly from market to market.  I could find some number for crop yields, but I knew I was a beginner with lots of gardening experience, but very little farming experience.  (And I learned fast that they are NOT the same.)

In terms of special ideas for the farmer’s markets, we planned to put out recipes, have a lending library, and offer special pre-packaged “salsa packs” for our customers.  It was hard to see if any of these would work.  But they sounded good.

Farm Plans Change Early and Often

The entire season was filled with making adjustments to the plan.  The big ones came early.  I found out that my World PEAS bid was capped, because I was a first year farmer (smart move on their part).  So now I could only plan on selling them $2,635.  And then we found out that we did not get into the Acton-Boxborough Farmer’s Market.  That cut more than $1,600 from our projected income.

Early drought followed by a rough spring storm and rabbit problems wreaked havoc with the snow peas and early kale.  We had planned to deliver 80 pints of snow peas to World PEAS–amount actually delivered: 0.  Our beets ran into problems all season long, with only one succession really thriving.  The initial planting of kale was too small to keep up with our expected deliveries.  Onions were attacked by root maggots and never sized up.

But there were unexpected surprises, too.  We grew and sold more basil and zucchini than expected.  We had tons of late kale and kept selling the extra to World PEAS, gradually making up for the missing beets and snow peas.

At the market, the recipes were a big success, the library was of small interest, and it turned out that “salsa packs” didn’t really make much sense.  And we were lucky to be shut out of the Acton-Boxborough market, because we really didn’t have the time nor the produce to sell.

More and more, we learned how much farming is about adjusting plans based on existing conditions and new data.  In the long term, in farming like any business, good planning is an iterative process.  The initial plan is necessarily flimsy.  Next year, we’ll do better, but still miss a lot.  In ten years, we’ll have a much better grip on what we’re doing.

So how’d we do?

At the end of the year, we didn’t miss our income targets by as much as I would have expected in early June when we were having crop failures right and left.  Here are the actual numbers:

  • World PEAS sales:  $2,913
  • JP Farmer’s Market: $4,206  (over 19 weeks)
  • Neighbors: $510
  • TOTAL actual gross income:  $7,630.

So we came up about $1,000 (11%) short of our best-case, somewhat uninformed projections.  Which, to me, feels pretty good considering the unexpected loss of one market and cap on another.

Our expenses so far this year are $5,613, not counting gas.  I think we spent about $1,300 on gas, bringing us up to $6,913.  Which would mean we almost broke even.  If you count mileage expense (8000 miles @ 55.5 cents/mile), rather than gas, our expenses were $10,071, for a loss of $2,441.  Which isn’t great, but not as bad as it could have been.  (And clearly proves that it pays to live on your farm.)

My goal this year was to learn a lot, have fun, and not lose too much money.  I think we made it.

Crop-by-Crop

I’m especially interested to see which crops met or exceeded our plans, and which ones failed miserably.  So I’ve put together the table below to figure out which were our winners and losers:

[table id=1 /]

Man, do I love spreadsheets.  (seriously)  This shows so clearly how our plans were forced to change over the season.  There are a whole bunch of tiny sales that were items plucked from our garden (rosemary and dill) or seeds/seedlings planted to fill late season empty spaces in the field (cabbage).  You can see we were all over the place in terms of whether we met projections or not.  Of 21 projected crops, 13 (60%) sold less than we expected.  Of those, we missed our projected sales by 50% or more!  But on the plus side, we surpassed sales by more than 50% in 4 crops (basil, beans, kale, zucchini).  With all the ups and downs, we still only missed our sales targets by 6%.

When you look at quantities, this chart also shows other areas where our plans didn’t turn out as expected.  Not only were quantities different, but by looking at the difference between sales and yield differences, you can see that we were surprised by some prices, too.  For example, we sold about 17% more pints of beans than we expected, but earned 149% more than expected.  Prices were  higher than expected for beans, garlic, and potatoes.  Prices were lower than expected for cucumbers, lettuce, hot peppers, and tomatoes.

(Just in case you’re wondering whether our sales fall into a classic 80/20 scenario, where 80% of sales comes from just the top 20% of products–the top 6 crops accounted for 62% of sales in our case.)

Anyway, you get the point.  Beginners have a hard time planning, because they have poor data.  We’ll do MUCH better next year (my head is still spinning from this spreadsheet), but we’ll still never nail it, because of weather and pests and changing markets.  We’ll have to ready to keep adjusting all season long, every season.

That’s part of what makes it fun.

kale at the market

Kale was one of our biggest crops this year. We sold more than 600 bunches.

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Lessons of a First Year Farmer

bumper crop of peppers

The final pepper harvest, right before frost.

Now that the season is over, it’s time to make sense of all the lessons we’ve learned over the past eight months.  When I was out in the fields or at the market, there was very little time to reflect on what was happening.  Every day was filled with learning and skill building.  Now is the time to write it all down, so that next year’s learning curve won’t  be quite so steep.

When I was starting up, I looked at a lot of other farm blogs, and a lot of them were inspirational, and many were written by experienced pros, which was very helpful.  But I could have used a few more posts from people who were busy making mistakes and trying to recover, with the fresh astonishment of newness.  Plus I wanted data.  All season long, I’ve been gathering as much data as I can (though not as much as I’d like). I might as well post those attempts at understanding here, so other newbie farmers might find it.  (And more experienced folks might give me more insight and clues.)

Some caveats to all of these lessons–these are for a quarter acre microfarm of vegetables, in the Northeast, using organic methods, with most of the labor done by hand. And I was in the New Entry Sustainable Farming Project, which meant that I had a lot of techinical support and infrastructre in place.  Much of what I learned would be useless for a small new farmer in the Midwest, where a small farm might be 400 acres, or a new dairy farmer, or someone cultivating five acres using small tractors.  And a lot of what I think I learned might be wrong.  There will be better techniques that I don’t even know about.  What I can say is that these are my experiences and my data.  I’d love it if there were another twenty blogs series just like these from other new farmers, and we could compare them.

(If you know of any, please let me know in the comment section.)

Some farmers are shy about sharing data on yields or income.  Either they don’t want to look bad or they don’t want to seem like they’re bragging.  I accept that I’m new at all of this, and in some ways we did all right for ourselves, and in many ways we have a long way to go.  But I think all new and prospective farmers would benefit if there was more accessible data out there from small-scale farms.

So, this is the start.  For the record, we grew 19 different vegetables (48 total varieties) on less than 1/4 acre.  From June 14 to November 25, we harvested approximately 3,000 pounds of vegetables, resulting in gross sales of $7,630.  We live far from our farm (almost 40 miles), so we drove more than 8,000 miles.  If you count mileage expenses (at the IRS rate of 55 cents per mile), then we lost money.  If you just count money spent on gas, then we pretty much broke even.  (More exact budget details to follow in future posts.

We learned a lot.  And we sold some great vegetables to a lot of people and ate a lot of them ourselves. We had a blast.

We’ll do it again next year.  Hopefully better.  Here’s an attempt to learn from our successes and failures.

Final Kale of the season

All that was left in November was kale. And lots of lessons learned.

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