Tomatoes are a high-value crop for many farms and having tomato varieties that match the farm site and the local markets is of critical importance to many of us who farm. Fortunately, there are many varieties we can choose from today, and trialing new varieties that become available is an important way to find varieties with good production and high value. Additionally, we can also fine-tune what we grow on our farms using simple breeding practices. Here I provide some simple advice on how to select and create varieties suited to your farm.
Have you ever lost precious seedlings in your greenhouse to frost? How about tossing a flat or two out due to heat stress or a missed watering? Or better still, stared at a tray of seeds that won’t germinate, with smoke coming out of your ears, because you’re sure someone (not you!) mis-watered them at a critical moment? Have you ever shrugged to yourself reading the growing instructions on a seed packet that says “Germinates best at 70 Fahrenheit” while standing in your 85-90 degree greenhouse? You’ve started to look into a germination chamber to solve some of these issues, but they look pricey and have limitations like not being able to handle as many flats as you’d like to start at once.
Knowing a few tricks can make a big difference in seed starting, and it saved our larkspur crop. We’ll give you a rundown on some of the basic seed starting concepts, and then tell you a few tricks we’ve learned.
Talking to Eric about his experience over the past four years with the automated curtains it seems that he’s come to the same conclusion as I have with my automated water in my propagation house – it’s more than just convenient to not have to remember to do the task multiple times a day, the task also gets done more consistently by well-implemented automation whose only job is keeping track of when and how much to vent (or in the case of the irrigation, making sure everything gets timely water). Having the automation doesn’t mean you don’t have to check up on how well it’s working – like when the power accidentally gets disconnected and it’s not working at all – but it does free up a lot of time and mental space during the season.
For a small farm nerd, the best thing about touring farms around the country is experiencing growing systems in action. Over the past five years, I’ve done just that. My partner and I have had the amazing opportunity to work on more than 14 production-driven small farms and to visit dozens more. Whether a whole growing season or just a few days, getting our hands into a farm’s systems is amazingly informative. Plus, we get to analyze and compare a huge diversity of systems, ultimately picking what we think will work best for our clients or on our future farm.
Florists and consumers are seeking out local, seasonal flowers, and weekend shoppers at farmers markets find stalls stocked with flowers as well as produce. Meanwhile, many hometown brick and mortar flower shops are being forced to evolve and innovate as they face increasing competition from online companies and grocery floral departments, which have become one of the fastest growing sectors in the industry. While most chain stores still rely heavily on imported blooms, many are now actively seeking to source locally-grown flowers, providing new sales outlets for growers. One of the most widely requested items from floral departments is mixed bouquets. The key to making mixed or market bouquets profitable is planning and extreme efficiency.
Flexibility and convenience for farmer and customer
A couple of years ago my brother moved to Providence, Rhode Island, and I went with him to his local winter farmers market. One farm, Freedom Food Farm from Raynham, Massachusetts, caught my eye with their beautiful market stand and high-quality produce, so I looked at their CSA information. It fit neatly on one page and was incredibly simple. Members signed up and then came to the farm or its markets and picked out 10 items each week. End of story. I was inspired.
We decided to try it, with a few variations. In 2018 we offered the “CSA flex” as a part time option, in addition to our “classic CSA”. It was a hit, so in 2019 we added a full-time option. We currently have 25 flex members and have cut our classic CSA down to 40 members. I am mightily tempted to drop it altogether! Perhaps “CSA flex” would be a good fit for your farm.
For the past two years, I have roamed northern California and southern Oregon, and have closely followed the activities of small farms in the region. It has been a great adventure for this South Dakota native, transplanted from New England. California is an absolute Eden about 97 percent of the time; the other three percent is utter catastrophe. In my time here, there have been a hearty handful of farms I have known to have been swept up in the actual flames and left in a pile of char and ash. Although, there need not be flames on site for the fires to figuratively burn a business to the ground.
Late winter is my favorite phase of the farm business-planning season; my wife and I put the process of reviewing last year’s financial statements behind us, and look forward to the coming year. Memories of the past growing season as it actually went down have faded; we create a vision for the next year that resembles the seed catalogs littering our desks, where weedless rows of perfect crops march toward the horizon in bounteous perfection. I have always felt that this slightly delusional (well, perhaps more than slightly) period of time is actually necessary for renewing our energies and optimism.
I’ve been teaching business skills and financial management to farmers for over ten years. When I started out, I was fresh out of business school and teaching college accounting. I was very academic in my approach.
Over the years, I’ve adapted my approach to what resonates with my clients and “students.”
The one topic that has resonated more than any other – and I now include in every presentation – is the breakeven formula. When I share it, I can see eyes light up … it helps to clarify goals for the farm business. It turns “increase sales” to “increase sales to a specific goal.” And as we all know, the more clearly you can define a goal, the better the chance you can achieve it.
Wholesaling is a topic that’s garnered a lot of buzz in farm business planning circles over the last half decade or so. A whole range of my farm clients have expressed an interest in exploring wholesaling as a marketing strategy.
These include farms who have built successful businesses direct marketing, but are burning out on the three-farmers-markets-and-two-CSA-dropsites-at-a-time routine; new farmers who are trying to make their way in a marketplace where the direct marketing options are somewhat saturated; and farm families with a history of growing one or two commodities who are trying to figure out how to do something new in the face of a declining market for their traditional products.
“Thousands follow his trail without knowing who carved it,” was the final line of a eulogy written by my friend and EcoFarm President, Steve Sprinkle, for our comrade, Amigo Bob Cantisano, who passed on in late December. In that sentence, I recognize myself as one of those thousands. Amigo, along with his cohort, shaped the world in which I live.
Consider a perennial crop that is more shelf-stable than most fruits, quicker to produce than most nuts, and in such demand that U.S imports far exceed domestic production while consumption continues to rise. In June I attended the annual meeting of the Chestnut Growers of America (CGA), co-hosted by the University of Missouri Center for Agroforestry (UMCA), where an experienced grower told me, “This is one of the few industries where you want more competition. We need that critical mass. We’ll give [new growers] all the support they need.”
Sweet potatoes are grown from “slips,” pieces of stem with a few leaves from a mother root, not from seeds or replanted roots. We used to buy bare-root slips for transplanting because we didn’t know how to grow our own and had heard it wasn’t easy. We have been growing our own for many years now. We prefer the flexibility and reliability it gives us.
We did make several mistakes initially, so I can warn you about what not to do. We have a system that we really like, and I have learned a few other methods that I will share, including one I helped out with this past year: growing them in a hoop house.
Over the last 10 years, there has been a lot of information coming out pertaining to growing veggies in soil in greenhouses. We wanted to share some of what we’ve learned over the past 13 years growing flowers under plastic and touch on some new approaches we’ve implemented since we last wrote about greenhouse growing (see our GFM articles in November 2014, November 2015, and April 2018).