Last month, I wrote about growing and marketing baby ginger. This month, I’ll tell you about turmeric, a crop that is often grown as a companion to ginger. Although turmeric is generally grown the same way as ginger, that’s where the similarities end. Turmeric has different germination and harvest requirements, projected yields, and financial margins. Marketing a product that most people don’t recognize, having never seen it as anything but a yellow powder in a spice bottle, also takes much more effort.
Vegetable growing and all its attendant arts have been my passion for years. In its pursuit I have worked for other growers, run my own CSA, visited farms and talked with farmers throughout the country and world. Currently I am a graduate student of horticulture at Michigan State University. My work there focuses on physical weed control tools and techniques and entails investigating many weeding tools and building some as well.
My professional and personal interests in cultivation melded a few months back when my friend Paul Huber talked to me about building a cultivator for his BCS walk-behind tractor. Paul is a CSA and market grower in Wisconsin who relishes his intensive growing method, a pillar of which is his walk-behind tractor. I feel that Paul is typical of most growers using a walk-behind tractor in that he uses the machine for soil preparation but afterwards it sits idle as wheel hoes and hand tools attend to weed control. The benefits of a cultivator for Paul’s walk-behind tractor were obvious – weeding a three-row bed with a wheel hoe takes five passes whereas a tool pulled by his walk-behind would do it in one.
I absolutely adore dahlias! In my opinion, they are a nearly perfect crop to have on the farm. With an extremely long harvest window of up to 3 months, these brilliant gems have become the workhorse of our summer garden. There are thousands of varieties to choose from in nearly every shape, size and color and for a trialing fanatic like me the process of choosing is a blast! With just a few mother tubers one can easily and rapidly increase their stock, so a small investment will produce great rewards in no time. In addition to not shipping well, which gives local growers a major advantage, consumers also love and buy dahlias with great enthusiasm.
We asked growers how they were reducing plastic on their farms. You shot back with ideas and alternatives to petroleum-based products large and small. Obvious in your replies and interviews was an impassioned dedication to the Holy Grail of zero plastic. We sensed your guilt about the plastic remaining in your farming operations. Yet, today we focus on progress and move forward creatively and collectively.
I’m a sucker for carts, as some of you might guess, having designed a few versions myself. Reid Allaway of Tourne-Sol Cooperative Farm in Québec, Canada, tagged a number of excellent tools with #toolsforgrowingformarket and his Tall Straddle Cart caught my attention as a unique design I hadn’t seen before but that looked, and sounded useful. I picked it as the first tool from another farmer to highlight in this new column.
Sweet corn presents challenges for organic farmers. Some of these can be easily overcome; others warrant careful consideration. There’s no denying that sweet corn takes up a lot of space, so if you are really short of land, you may decide to forego corn. On the other hand, corn doesn’t take a lot of work, so if you have space, but are short of help, corn is a good choice. The rewards are probably obvious: devoted, satisfied customers! Organically grown hybrid varieties (such as Luscious, Sugar Pearl, Brocade) are available, which helps USDA Organic certified commercial growers.
On our farm we create a Tillage Schedule to help us determine when beds need to be prepped in our fields. Our crop planning method works backwards from sales projections, telling us when we need specific crops harvestable, and therefore when they need to go in the ground. With multiple worksheets including information like days to maturity and greenhouse weeks, we create a Field Planting Schedule that tells us when each crop is to be planted, and how many feet. Our beds are standardized to either 75- or 150-foot beds.
Rosie Sweetman, the Queen of Little Wings Farm near Eugene, Oregon, submitted this month’s selection and her caption was so good I’m just going to copy it here (minus the excellent use of emoticons that you’ll have to go to Instagram to see):
Meet Googly Eyed Gilham: winner of the tool of the year award! Over many years of farming for others I always felt like communication on farms could be better. So many mistakes, misunderstandings, wasted time wandering around looking for someone or something could have been fixed with the simple walkie talkie, worth its weight in gold. This past year we bought one for each of our crew and extra backups.
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.
During the growing season, if you want to earn more profits, the first thing that probably comes to mind is to grow and harvest more, so that you can sell more. It seems logical. But what if you discovered you only earned 10 cents a pound on tomatoes. With those margins, you couldn’t work hard enough to make any real profits. Working smarter means understanding your costs and pricing your products appropriately. You can maximize your profits without working harder.
Preserve what’s in your field for fall and winter sales
I wrote an article that ran in the August 2015 GFM about how dried flowers are making a comeback. Well, they are definitely on trend now, and they are also a great way to add value to the end of your season. With more neutral tones being popular due to the bleached flowers and foliage that are coming in from overseas, it actually makes more crops a viable option.
Typically, you would want flowers that retain their color when dried. But now florists are liking hydrangeas that have faded to tan as they dried on the plant, and feathertop grass that has turned white when dried.
Selling produce online has become commonplace as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. After all, it limits person-to-person interactions; exposes a host of potential new customers to fresh, healthy and safe food; and it gives farmers a much needed outlet when others — such as farmers' markets or restaurant accounts — dry up or shut down.Regardless of the pandemic, operating an online farm market is just a simple, prescient revenue stream to add to your overall marketing plan.
Log-grown shiitake mushrooms have been a small but valued part of our central Missouri diversified farm since 2010 for several reasons. They have consistently been among our CSA members’ favorite items, and we think we know why: shiitakes contribute flavor-enhancing umami compounds, resulting in dishes that are extraordinarily delicious. Most of the work falls in the less-busy winter season, when logs are cut and inoculated. Production happens during the normal market/CSA season, generating extra income with a minimum of extra work during that busy time of year. According to the 2014 book Farming the Forest (cited below), each shiitake log might cost $1.50 - $3.00 to get started, but can yield $50-$60 of mushrooms in its lifetime at a price range of $10-$20/lb. Organic certification for mushroom production is straightforward. These factors make shiitake mushrooms an excellent addition to many diversified farms’ offerings.
It’s okay to say NO to your CSA members. If you are new to running a CSA, expanding to increase membership, or just trying to improve with every season, this advice is for you. You have my permission to be inflexible when it comes to members’ special requests.
As a CSA manager, I spent years bending over backward to accommodate my 200-plus members. In hindsight, I can see that I was the cause of my own demise. In a 26-week season, if each member asked for just one special favor, that left me accommodating on average eight requests per week. The catch is, once a member realized that I could bend the rules for them, they would keep coming back for more.
I first met Maya Kosok of Hillen Homestead in Baltimore, Maryland, when I visited her house back in February of last year before COVID. I’d been hired to facilitate four farmer study circles in the Maryland/Virginia/Washington D.C. region. Maya and a group of women farmers who already knew each other jumped at the chance to have an official study circle. I met them that fine winter day.