Introduction- Plan, Plant, Propagate, Produce:
Many farmers, especially in the Northeast, feel that one of the most magical and alluring aspects of farming is the inherent connection to the seasons and the cyclicity of farm work. There are positive and negative moments, but, arguably, the cold, short, gray days of winter make us appreciate the vernal summer.
For most farmers in Massachusetts spring is a time of hard work, shaping the land and our bodies back into productivity. The summer is filled with long hot days that blur into one great effort. The slower pace of fall creates opportunity for reflection on how hard farming really is. Every fall I questioned my choice to farm. I wondered if it was worth it, if I could give it my all for another season. Winter always allowed more sleep and dreams of next season swirled in my head. Seed catalogs, filled with beautiful photographs of perfect and blight-less heirloom tomatoes and descriptions that made growing that variety of cauliflower sound as easy as could be, staved off burn-out another season.
The time is upon us to plan for next season and order seeds and supplies. Below are some thoughts on planning and ordering for the next season. These ideas are applicable to any farmer, but my background is as a beginning farmer in Massachusetts with a 50 family vegetable CSA, about 15 pastured hogs, and a few hundred broiler chickens.
In this article you will find information on:
Winter ‘tis the season for planning. If it is your first season, start small. If it is not your first season, reflect on the past season(s) and brainstorm how you could make things easier, more efficient, more lucrative etc… Make notes of your observations and reflections. A great site with CSA farm planning information is the Penn State Extension.
One thing to keep in mind is that it is easy to dream big and bite off more than is chewable. When planning for the next season, I think it is better to be conservative with new growth and commitments. It is better to truly learn and succeed at a few projects, or a smaller area, than to feel frustrated and over-committed. In 1956 Dwight Eisenhower said, “You know, farming looks mighty easy when your plow is a pencil, and you’re a thousand miles from the corn field.” Farming also seems mighty easy with tempting variety descriptions and a blank spreadsheet in front of you.
Every winter I created a spreadsheet (a googledoc so that I could easily share it with my interns ). This spreadsheet represented the layout of my 2.5 acres of vegetable fields, about 100 50’ x 3’ slightly raised beds. Each bed was assigned a crop (or often 2, 3 or 4 in succession over the season, which I was able to do because of copious composted manure applications between each crop), the number of rows per bed, the post-thinning or transplant spacing, the weight of seeds needed per bed, the number of plants in the bed, the direct seeding (DS) or indoor start (IS) and transplanting (TP) dates, and if it should be covered with a row cover in the spring for early germination, summer for insect control, or winter for season extension. Some example rows might look like this:
- In high tunnel bed 1: 1st: baby radishes (4, 3", 1 oz), DS 3/28, out 5/10. 2nd: Cherry tomatoes (2, 24", 0.5 g, 50) IS 3/14, TP 5/23, out 10/10. 3rd: Winter spinach (4, 2”, ½ oz) DS 10/11.
- In bed 78: Beets (4, 3", 1 oz), DS 3/28, out 6/1, early floating row cover. 2nd: Late planting of crookneck summer squash (2, 24", .5 oz), in 6/5, out 9/1. 3rd: Head lettuce, (3, 10", 6g, 150) IS 8/1, TP 9/2, late floating row cover.
Writing down these numbers and calculating the amount of seed needed is a very useful thought exercise. I have to say that I rarely followed it exactly. A guide like this is a good place to start and a great way to think about the next season logically over the winter.
When determining where to put things, my crop rotation plan, the biggest factors that I considered were:
- Avoid planting families in the same bed- both year to year and in the same season. Ideally several years elapse between plantings of crops in the same family. In reality, on farms with intensive production systems, this is not possible. I try to ensure that there is at least one year between plantings of related crops in the same soil.
- Try to vary rooting depths to access different nutrient layers (for example, summer cucumbers- shallow rooted- followed by fall carrots- deep rooted).
- Pay attention to your land, even on a small plot there can be a lot of variation in soil type, moisture etc… I have a wet part of the field where I plant water-loving crops like the celery family.
- Ease of and care harvesting. For example, I try to plant my arugula and cutting lettuce near each other because they are harvested at a similar time and by the same mechanism. I do not plant my tomatoes in the back fields because I need to monitor them more closely for ripeness, disease, pruning etc…
With a more accurate sense of what seed quantities you will need, the fun of browsing through catalogs can really begin. In crop planning, one primary goal is to reduce risk. It is fun to try new varieties and experimenting can lead to discovering great new cultivars. However, planting predominantly the tried and true varieties will minimize risks. I have my old standby varieties for each vegetable (usually 2-4 varieties) that I plant, and count on, for production. Each year I try 1-2 new varieties in trial amounts. For example, last season I grew five beds of sungold cherry tomatoes and one bed with two new cherry tomato varieties to see how well they did in my soil and how well I liked them. When these two new varieties succumbed to late blight two weeks earlier than the sungolds, I did not loose a significant amount of my production.
When reading through variety descriptions it can be difficult to sort through all the descriptions that sound so wonderful. In general the qualities that I look for are:
- Productivity. When running a business this is one of the most important qualities a variety must have.
- Flavor. It is important to choose superior tasting varieties that will you’re your customers coming back to you.
- Disease resistance. Diseases are becoming more prevalent in the northeast as our winters become milder and weather events are more severe.
- Days to maturity. The days to maturity should not be taken literally. Rather, these days provide a good metric by which to compare varieties. For example, a tomato that matures in 75 days does not mean that you will be eating tomatoes 75 days after planting, but it does suggest you will be eating those tomatoes before a variety that matures in 100 days.
- Appearance. No matter your marketing model, appearance matters. People like interesting looking produce that sets your tomatoes apart; they also want fruits that are blemish and crack free. Pay attention when variety descriptions mention these traits.
- Fedco- Based in Maine, Fedco is hands-down my personal favorite seed and crop supply company. The catalog is full of great seed, organized by open pollinated and hybrid, none of it sourced from companies that deal with GM seed. The catalog itself is full of useful charts and lots of information for crop planning and planting. I find the descriptions are more accurate and honest than most companies. The drawbacks of Fedco are that they can take a while to ship out the seeds and they sell out of some of the popular varieties. So order early! Fedco also sells supplies, fruit trees, and tubers like potatoes and garlic.
- Johnny’s- Based in Maine, Johnny’s has a great selection of seed and lots of helpful resources for using it. They actively develop new varieties, particularly cultivars adapted to the Northeast and high tunnel production. Johnny’s is more expensive than Fedco, but ships seed very quickly. Johnny’s is where I order salad mix when I run out and need it within a few days.
- Bakers Creek in Missouri and Comstock in Connecticut. Part of the same company, both these catalogs feature exclusively heirloom, open-pollinated varieties. The Bakers Creek catalog is full of stunningly beautiful photographs of interesting produce. It is definitely worth requesting a catalog, even just to hang on your wall. If you want to find something unusual, or if there is an old variety that you love but are having a hard time finding, look in Bakers Creek. Drawbacks are that the seed is expensive and the company is not based in the Northeast, only a few items have days to maturity listed.
- Seed Savers Exchange is based in Iowa. SSE is often out of the price range for commercial growers, but is a great place to order smaller amounts of heirloom seed. They also encourage seed-saving and have some helpful resources for saving your own seed.
- Pinetree Seeds is also based in Maine. Pinetree is a great source of home-garden seeds, but they do not sell in bulk quantities. Pinetree is the most affordable (besides Fedco) for small amounts of seed. They do have a lot of interesting varieties.
- George’s Plant Farm based in Tennessee is the place to get high quality and affordable sweet potato starts. Sweet potatoes can be tricky to grow in the northeast, but I have been very impressed with the quality and productivity of sweet potatoes from George’s Plant Farm.
Sungold cherry tomatoes
Golden King of Siberia (large yellow) tomato
Ananas Noir (large green with pink stripes) tomato
Pingtung long eggplant
Oasis or Hakurai turnip
Fordook giant swiss chard
Lettuce leaf basil
Early summer crookneck summer squash
Zephyr summer squash/zucchini
Bodacious sweet corn
Early wonder tall top beet
Mokum or Nelson carrot
Blushed Butter lettuce (several varieties)
Sunshine winter squash
Easter egg radish
Misato Rose Radish/watermelon radish
In addition to planning the field season and ordering seeds, winter is a great time to order tools and supplies.
- Compost can be a huge expense, especially for organic farmers who need to have certified compost. High quality compost can be easily made if you have time and sources of free, or cheap, substrates such as manures, yard waste, seaweed etc… I am a strong believer in making and using nutrient dense animal wastes such as manures and bodies.
- For bulk field supplies such as soil amendments and seed starting mix, NOFA Mass does a bulk order early in the winter. If you miss this, don’t worry. You can try to split a load of these heavy supplies with another farmers, or, even a small farm often needs enough to fill a truck.
- Fedco offers lots of soil amendments, compost, seed starting mix, and pest control, and offers very reasonable shipping costs to Massachusetts. What amendments you need, of course, depends on your soil. UMass Extension offers very affordable soil testing ($10 for the basic analysis). In addition to soil amendments, I always get bone char to dip my transplants into before transplant to increase immediately available phosphorous and decrease transplant shock. I also use fish emulsion as a foliar spray, Fort V as a seed starter, and Safer BT for severe cabbage moth outbreak control.
- Johnny’s is a great place to order tools. I find the tools I actually use all the time include: stirrup hoes, the four-row seeder, and the broadfok.
- Farmtek is a big company with lots of farming supplies, unlike Johnny’s and Fedco, Farmtek is geared towards industrial and livestock production. Farmtek is one of the cheaper sources for greenhouse and high tunnel supplies.
- Robert Marvel is also an industrial-scale supplier, but has by far the best prices for plastics and floating row cover. They also custom cut the row covers, which is nice as you can get dimensions that fit your bed widths.
- BCS Shop in Harvard Mass is where I got my walking tractor, tiller, and hiller attachments. A nice tiller/walking tractor is expensive, but, in hindsight, worth every penny. I would definitely recommend getting new, or close to new, mechanical equipment unless you are an engine wiz. There is nothing more frustrating and financially draining then buying used mechanical equipment that breaks down all the time.
Finding animals themselves can be tricky. The best way to find quality livestock is to talk to other farmers near you who raise that breed and ask them where they get their stock. Be careful of disease and avoid auctions. I only raised hogs and chickens so do not know where to look for other livestock.
- For chickens- Burr Farm in Connecticut is a great family company with the most competitive prices on broiler chicks I have found.
- For pigs- I raised heritage breeds and found piglets hard to come by. Vermont Heritage Grazers, based near Middlebury, VT, breeds purebred Tamworth and Berkshire hogs. They are a drive away, but have great stock. I would say the best bet with pigs, like all livestock, is to talk to other growers near you and see where they get their stock locally.
- For Livestock Guardian Dogs- In Mass predators, especially coyotes can be a real issue to successful livestock production. Having a livestock guardian dog to protect your investment is very worthwhile. Great Pyrenees dogs are a good choice as they are people-friendly and trustworthy with children. It is important to get your dog from working stock where the puppies have been exposed to livestock. Rosasharn Farm breeds wonderful Great Pyrenees and raises them with goats and other livestock.
Livestock require a lot of equipment, chiefly fencing, and feeding and watering systems. A mobile fencing system is almost always best as it is cheaper and allows pasture rotation. Feed is by far the greatest expense associated with livestock. Try to find a local feed dealer. If you raise animals like pigs or chickens, you can often find free, or very cheap, scrap food. We have had success working with bakeries, cafes, food banks, and restaurants. It can take some leg work and lots of phone calls, but is worth lining up free or cheap food for omnivorous animals (pigs and chickens).
- Randall Burkey offers livestock equipment at fair prices.
- Premier 1 specializes in electro-net fencing systems and has options for almost all livestock
- Jeffers Livestock sells lots of supplies, from fencing, to feeders, to medications. Jeffers also has a repair shop, which is a great place to fix fence chargers etc…
- Tractor Supply is a chain that has fairly priced animal feed and bedding as well as lots of fencing supplies. They are several in Massachusetts.
- Don’t forget about non-livestock suppliers such as Home Depot, which stock many tools and supplies needed for operating a farm.
As these cold days of winter lengthen and the chill begins to ebb, take the opportunity to talk to other farmers before busyness of spring sets in. Make new friends and ask lots of questions. Your neighbors, in location and type of farming venture, are your greatest resources. Ask where they buy supplies or find piglets. Ask what vegetable varieties consistently do well on their farms. Ask and listen because ‘tis the season for planning. The seasons of planting will come soon enough, leading to busy days of propagating and producing the amazing food that you grow.
Margiana grew up on a dairy goat farm in Rehoboth, M.A., where she was homeschooled until going to Brown University. In college she studied geology and biology with a focus on nutrient cycling. While still a full time student she began leasing and farming five acres- Rosasharn Farm CSA. The farm grew to include a 50 family vegetable CSA, pastured hogs, chickens, and lots of educational programming, including internships. Now Margiana is working with BFN, continuing to direct the Young Farmer Night Series in MA/CT/RI, and developing a certified mobile kitchen, Pasture To Plate, to allow farmers to host on farm dinners and add value to raw farm products and services.