Well, here we are at the end of 2013. It’s hard to believe that just nine months ago – with the exception of garlic – we had not even broken ground. We have come a long way in our first year, and have learned many invaluable lessons along the way. Here are the top ten lessons from our first year of farming:
1. Do not plant 600+ tomato plants. Yes, everyone loves tomatoes and they are delicious, and it’s nice to have a variety, but oh my, this is way too many. Next year we will plant a small fraction of this, take better care of them (pruning, clipping up, and weeding) and still have plenty. We also have a better idea of which varieties sell best. Turns out most people enjoy either the large and juicy heirlooms or the small cherry tomato snacks. We had a number of medium-sized tomatoes that did not sell well at markets. We’ll probably still plant a small number of paste tomatoes, which are great for canning (especially tomato sauce) because they are less watery, but we’ll cut out most of the medium-sized varieties.
2. Row cover is amazing. We conducted a series of trials over the growing season, with some crops under cover and our control group uncovered. The row cover helps regulate temperature and retain moisture, and our covered plants consistently matured faster and looked healthier. It does make weeding and picking a little harder as you have to pick up and move one side of the cover to get in there, but the benefits clearly outweigh any added challenges. We plan to use a lot more of this in 2014.
3. Stay ahead of weeding. Having to play catch up is no fun. It is so much easier to periodically run through the rows with the wheel hoe than to pull out large weeds by hand.
4. Don’t mix up squash seeds. I was devastated when I realized I had accidentally planted spaghetti squash when what I really meant to plant was pie pumpkins. Sure, the spaghetti squash turned out well, but it’s just not the same in a pie.
5. California Early White garlic (aka what you find in most grocery stores) does not like Wisconsin weather. Neither does Spanish Roja. Having lived in all three places, I suppose this does not surprise me. We’re sticking to our heartier (mostly hardneck) varieties for next year, and are trying out a limited amount of new softneck varieties so I can work on my braiding skills.
6. Sweat bees are the worst. Even if it’s 100 degrees out, I vow to wear pants during the few weeks when sweat bees are out. They land on you, mostly on your legs, and generally in annoying places like the back of your knee and they then sting you as soon as you move. A dozen stings before lunch is pretty unpleasant. Though I suppose if this is the worst thing that happens while working outside, and wearing pants can pretty much avoid it, it’s not too terrible.
7. Don’t plant on the hillside. There was a point this spring when we were desperate to get seeds in ground that seemed perpetually soaked, so we sought out higher ground. This worked briefly, until the ground finally dried out and the seeds we planted too high up really dried out.
8. Plant fewer varieties of corn. Since this was our first year, our tendency was to plant lots of varieties to see which we liked best. However, we have to plant it in four-row clusters to help with pollination, so it’s really best to stick to just a few types. We also lost a fair number of stalks to mischievous raccoons, so we’ll need to work on a strategy to prevent this next year. Corn is a tough crop to grow in a diversified farm, since so many farms do it large-scale for cheap. A CSA we were members of in Seattle didn’t even bother with corn, saying it was too hard to grow and not worth it. We like being able to offer a great variety of veggies to our customers, so I think we’ll stick with it, but hope everyone understands if our ears are not as massive as the ones you can buy from farms specializing in sweet corn. For the record, though small in size, we thought our corn was big in taste.
9. Take one day a week off. This was the plan when we started out, but it didn’t really happen. We just had so many things to get set up that we justified the constant work as something unique to our first year and that we just had to do. Needless to say, we were pretty exhausted by the time fall rolled around. Next year we plan to give ourselves a regular break, to relax, regroup, and be more efficient when we come back to work. This reminds me of an Edward Abbey quote I’ve always liked:
One final paragraph of advice: do not burn yourselves out. Be as I am - a reluctant enthusiast....a part-time crusader, a half-hearted fanatic. Save the other half of yourselves and your lives for pleasure and adventure. It is not enough to fight for the land; it is even more important to enjoy it. While you can. While it’s still here. So get out there and hunt and fish and mess around with your friends, ramble out yonder and explore the forests, climb the mountains, bag the peaks, run the rivers, breathe deep of that yet sweet and lucid air, sit quietly for a while and contemplate the precious stillness, the lovely, mysterious, and awesome space. Enjoy yourselves, keep your brain in your head and your head firmly attached to the body, the body active and alive, and I promise you this much; I promise you this one sweet victory over our enemies, over those desk-bound men and women with their hearts in a safe deposit box, and their eyes hypnotized by desk calculators. I promise you this; You will outlive the bastards.
Of course, incorporating nature and exercise into our work is part of our plan to integrate what we enjoy into our jobs and make a lifestyle that is sustainable, healthy, and fun. That said, sometimes it’s still necessary to get away from the routine and recreate.
10. Write more blog posts. As I post this, I see our last post was in July. Yikes. We did a little better with our Facebook posts, and we did send out weekly newsletters to our CSA members, but we’d like to do better with our more in-depth communication next year.
2013 has been a pretty tumultuous year for many reasons. To name a few, we left stable jobs, embarked on a five-week antipodean adventure to visit dear friends and beautiful places, moved to a new state, started a business, lost a grandparent, supported two parents through cancer diagnoses (both are now happily looking healthy), started new part-time jobs, started remodeling an old farm house, and have been fortunate to take a number of trips to celebrate weddings and visit family. When I find myself getting frustrated with the number of projects on my list and feeling like there is so much to do, Scott is good at reminding me of all that we have accomplished this year. 2013 will certainly go down in the books as an exceptional one. I’m looking forward to a more efficient, less stressful, healthy, happy, and celebratory 2014. Happy New Year from your farmers at Plowshares & Prairie.