Winter time provides a nice break from the pace of the Summer and Fall. We have cleaned up our fields, harvested tons of roots for storage, and straightened up our barn. Summarizing the records from this past year gives us the information we need to plan for next year. Information and planning are crucial this time of year. We can basically plan the entire season before it starts, which allows us to slightly adjust the plan on the fly but mostly execute during the growing season. I like to look back through previous blog posts on our website to see what I was doing 3 years ago on the same month. Facebook is also a wonderful visual record keeper that allows me to see what I have done and when. The goal is to be more efficient and productive while striking a balance between work and lifestyle. Just doing more work does not always provide better results. Winter leaves space for reflection and allows the farmer to improve on the years past and start fresh. I really enjoy this profession because it goes with the seasons. When you want to hibernate and stay inside you can! When the sun is out until 8pm in the summer you are outside buzzing around. I can not think of a better job. Happy Solstice and Happy New Year, may you all bring in the light.
What a great season it has been at Great Road Farm. We were able to preserve over 5,000 pounds of tomatoes, make over 300 gallons of kimchi, and enough smoked and fermented hot sauce to last the year. This year we cut our operation down and focused on vegetables. Our four year run of taking care of chickens came to an end. We did not take on any more experiments such as raising lambs or hogs. Instead we focused on vegetables and what we could maximize in each season. This led to our most efficient and profitable year yet. Believe it or not taking care of chickens and livestock everyday really can burn one out. Having to feed, water, collect eggs every single day, no matter what day it is, takes a lot of energy. This year I was able to focus my energy on vegetables and it has shown me it is very important to have a specific focus. My crop plan was different this year too. I tried to match the ebbs and flows of our restaurants demands instead of just thinking about what the farm can grow. During the summer, when the restaurants tend to slow down, I focused on growing lots of tomatoes and peppers so we could preserve them. I increased production in the fall because the restaurant gets busier at this time. Growing for a restaurant is a bit like shooting at a moving target. Most chefs do not come up with a menu until weeks before they change it, however vegetables take much more planning then that. Sometimes I can predict what they will use and other times they want a new item I have not grown before or a vegetable that I do not grow at all. It is constant learning experience every year to refine our growing and production techniques. Each year I learn something new and continue to improve while enjoying my work and making sure not to burn out.
September is my favorite month. We worked hard through the heat in August. Most people are going on vacation during this time however we are out in the field, maximizing the daylight, to pick all the ripe tomatoes. There is also salad mix to harvest along with twenty other crops. This is the time that we direct seed our fall crops such as winter radishes, turnips, rutabaga, beets, and carrots. Adding value to our crops has been fun this year. We have processed over 3000 pounds of tomatoes and by the end of the season it will be well over 4000 pounds. Hot peppers have been smoked and turned into hot sauce. In the spring we made over 100 gallons of kimchi so I have planned a second planting of napa cabbage to get us through the winter. If everything goes smoothly we will have a lot of chicories for fall and winter salad that will compliment our storage crops. September brings a lot of joy. The weather gets cooler (however we do have ninety degree weather in the forecast) and each planting moves us closer to our last planting. We will clean up the fields, plant our cover crops, and prepare for winter. It feels great to see a seasons work play out and to have some time to slow down. For now we have a lot of work to do, but the end goal is in sight.
Going out into the field and harvesting vine ripened tomatoes is the essence of Summer. Taking a huge bite out of a juicy tomato just after being picked makes all of the preparation, trellising, mulching, and weeding worth it. So far this year it has been hot and dry as the tomatoes ripen, which adds to their full flavor. The tomatoes that are split or damaged get set aside to make sauce which can be used in the fall and winter at Agricola or the new Dinky Bar and Kitchen. Last year we preserved over 3,000 pounds of tomatoes!
This year we are doing a tomato trial with FEDCO seeds. They are a cooperative seed company in Maine and they deeply care about our food security. We were sent 15 different types of tomatoes to try without much description. When they ripen we will take notes and report back whether the tomato met our standards or not. We will judge them by size, color, shape, growing habit, and of course flavor. The farmer is the link between seed breeders and chefs. Nurturing plants and the soil provides a deep connection to where and how food is grown.
The transition between Spring and Summer is fast. There is so much involved during the Winter to plan for the chaotic Spring that lays ahead. First I start with my crop rotation plan. This tells me generally where everything will go in the field. From there I develop my crop plan that drills down to how much of each variety of plants we will grow and specifically where it will be planted in the field. There is a lot of material ordering too that must be lined up such as irrigation parts, potting mix, minerals, tools, harvest totes, row cover, tomato stakes, tractor maintenance parts, and there is always something breaking so the list goes on. So now that you plan everything you can possibly think of in the winter the season starts. The Spring is filled with excitement as the daylight increases. Shaking off the Winter cold always feels rejuvenating and the pace in the beginning of the season is measured and controlled and filled with possibilities. By the time June hits it feels like the wheels might just fall off the tractor and everything will come to a crashing halt! That is why it is so important to have your plan guide you even if it is not followed exactly. There is always something more pressing then what the plan says to do on that specific day. As I experience the same emotions each year during this time they become less of a surprise and reflection from years past makes helps guide me. The Summer Solstice is only a couple days away and soon enough the days begin to get shorter, but very gradually. There is still plenty of work to be done and we are half way through the season.
April has come and gone. It was very dry last month which helped us prepare fields for future plantings. We use cover crop as a source of fertility and to build organic matter. One method is to mow it down and then incorporate it into the soil with primary tillage. Then you want the soil microbes to digest the matter for ideally a month. With the dry weather we were able to get a lot of work done, while also spending a good amount of time irrigating our crops. Some of our spring greens got eaten up by flea beetles during the heat wave. Then came the rain. In fact it is still raining. We are going on two weeks of consistent overcast days with intermittent rain. This will prove challenging next week when our tomatoes are scheduled to be planted, yet the field will be saturated. The rain was much needed, however we could use a couple days of sun to dry off the plants. The flea beetles do not like rainy cold weather so they have subsided. We focus our attention in our high tunnels when the weather does not agree with our plans. This year I have been stacking my plantings to get the most out of our bed feet. In the picture above we harvested turnips to clear a space for our trellised tomatoes.
We planted our Asparagus three years ago. Watching it grow and establish over the years, without being able to harvest, was a test of patience. Asparagus is a perennial that will last over 15 years if taken care of. This year we can start harvesting these lovely spears. I am always looking for signs that the soil is waking up and it is time to plant. When I walk through the forrest to get to the farm I notice when the onion grass starts popping up. Has the dead nettle come back? I listen to birds chirping and look for tree buds swelling. One of my favorite items on the farm is overwintered kale or collards. As they go to flower they produce delicious leaves and edible flowers which I call “raab”. Watching the Asparagus poke through the ground has been very fulfilling and this year we can harvest it. A quick check about the normal harvest date in New Jersey says that an early harvest date would be April 23. Normal harvest dates are through the month of May. Looks like Spring is three weeks early.
There is so much excitement in the air when the first seeds go into flats in the greenhouse. It is inevitable that something needs to be fixed as we start up the greenhouse. The first challenge was triumphant. The fan in the heater was shaking the whole unit. I took a part some pieces and tried tightening up some bolts to no avail. I called the manufacturer and he told me to first loosen the spacers, realign the spindle of the fan, and then tighten with the correct tolerance. After two attempts I fixed the heater. It felt great. Rolling with a bit of confidence I started up the closed loop heating tubes that warm the root zone of plants on our greenhouse tables. I have done this before, however for some reason this time I over looked a valve to shut off to properly bleed the system of air. Since there was air in the system it was not functioning properly and it appeared that hot water was coming from where cold water should be, and vice versa. I called the plumber that installed it and told him that it might be piped backwards. Kind of strange thinking considering it has worked for the past 4 years. The plumber came over and showed me the step I was missing. We shut the correct valve, bled the lines of air, and all of the sudden it worked. It was fortunate that the plumber and I have always respected each other so the bill was for a couple dozen eggs. It is really important to have people that will help you when you run into problems. It is even more important to always treat people with respect, especially those that deserve it, because it will come back to help you when you need it. On opening day, after the problems were fixed, we had two chefs, one writer, a nurse, and two farmers beginning the cycle of planting seeds into flats so we can have vegetables to feed our community. It truly takes a great community to gather around food to keep us all in balance.
This past December has been unusually warm. This makes all of the tasks on the farm much easier. No frozen water lines for our hens and our kale has flourished through December. I had the opportunity to attend the “Slow Tools Summit” at the Stone Barns Center again this year. It was fascinating hearing Eliot Coleman, JM Fortier, and other well respected farmers sharing ideas about farm tools and infrastructure. An open space to share ideas really provides a platform for innovation. I was also invited to attend the “Organic Vegetable Breeding Meeting” put on by Cornell University. In the room were vegetable breeders throughout the region. Listening and being a part of the discussion was eye opening. The traits and values that vegetable breeders care about overlap with what farmers need. The seed breeders are dealing with farmers, and the farmers are dealing with consumers. I left the meeting feeling like I had a role to play in connecting all of the dots from breeder to consumer. I enjoy the dynamics of systems and the challenges of making connections so that we all work together symbiotically. There are still a lot of moving parts of our food system that need attention. In between these visits I kept up with the winter’s pace of the farm: collecting and washing eggs, delivering stored root vegetables to Agricola, and of course harvesting Kale. Hope everyone has a Happy New Year!