“Timeless is the wheel that brings it round”

The new season starts in earnest this week. This is a moment to savor — that last deep breath before the plunge into the reliable cycle of the farming year. This week I start leeks, next week onions, kale the week after that, and on down the line. The bulk of my greenhouse work is finished by June, but as early as late April my benches are full of new green plants eager to be transplanted into the field.

greenhouse

But before that can happen, I need to make the fields ready. The last couple of years, I relied on a neighbor to run his disk harrow through the field. This year, I get to use my new tractor for that job.

tiller

Once the primary tillage is completed, I begin preparing beds. Last year I spent a lot of time breaking though compacted soil with my broadfork, then further refining the soil with my walk-behind tiller and shaping beds by hand with a rake. This process worked, but it took a great deal of time. This year, again, I will use the tractor, which should move things along considerably.

broadfork

Bigger operations that specialize in one or two crops usually use mechanical transplanters, but since this farm is small and diverse, I do all the transplanting by hand. Do it enough, and you become pretty efficient at it. Once the plants are in the ground, I like to water them in with a little diluted fish and kelp emulsion, an organic fertilizer that helps alleviate transplant shock and stimulates the soil’s biological life.

transplanting

Since I don’t spray any herbicides, I control weeds primarily through cultivation and manual weeding. In an ideal world, if you stay on top of your cultivation, you can avoid the time-intensive chore of weeding. Of course, we don’t live in an ideal world, so sometimes everyone needs to pitch in and pull some weeds.

cultivating

In the parts of the field I don’t use for vegetables, I sow cover crops. Cover crops do so many things — suppress weeds, build soil organic matter and fertility, feed and protect pollinators and other beneficial insects — I’d be a fool not to make use of them. Plus there are few things as lovely as a patch of vetch and clover full of buzzing bees on a summer’s day.

vetch

Harvesting is all done by hand, too, and once we get into July, this job takes most of my time. By mid-August, it’s all I do, rain or shine. I’m not complaining, because this is the whole reason I’m here — to provide fresh, nutrient-dense food to the many households who are this farm’s members.

harvesting

Soon enough, though, comes the year’s first frost, which I start watching for toward the end of September. While this means the end of the heat-loving summer crops, the cold-tolerant fall crops come into their own. At this point, I start anticipating winter and begin the long process of putting the farm to bed.

frost

Eventually, by the end of October, even the hardiest vegetables are winding down. All that remains to be done is sowing the now-bare fields in a cover crop to protect the soil over the winter, planting and mulching the next year’s garlic, and cleaning and storing all the tools, supplies, and equipment for the winter so that I am not greeted by total chaos the following spring.

sunset

With the season behind me, there is a moment for rest and, most importantly, for thanksgiving, and then I again turn my mind toward spring.

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Seeds and Spreadsheets

One of this month’s biggest projects is generating the farm’s planting schedule — basically a long spreadsheet that tells me how much of what to plant when. The spreadsheet calculates most of the data on its own once I enter my required yields, and it keeps things running well and on track, so long as I use accurate data.

Last season, I made a good educated guess where I needed my yields to be, but it was still only a guess. It turned out I estimated a little on the low side, so I had to miss market a few times to make sure that the CSA was well served. (Last year’s weather challenges didn’t help any either.) Skipping market was a tough business decision, but it was the right thing to do for the CSA. This year, though, I have the great benefit of all last year’s experience, so I can enter better data into the schedule.

What’s more, since I am adding twenty shares to the CSA, my seed order becomes large enough to start taking advantage of some economies of scale. For example, I can buy an eighth of an ounce of Blue de Solaize leek seeds for $2.20, but a whole ounce costs me only $9.00. What’s more, one of my main sources, Fedco Seeds, offers some pretty generous volume discounts. The upshot is that even though this year I ordered more than two and a half times as much seed as last year, I paid less than twice as much.

Another advantage to a larger seed order is that instead of doubling the amount of one variety, I can add a second. That may not optimize the volume discounts, but it does increase the diversity of what I put in the shares. It also helps me hedge my bets in the fields, since different varieties like different growing conditions and possess different disease and pest resistances. Put another way, the more the merrier.

Beginnings

We now sit midway between solstice and equinox, so, astronomically speaking, we’re already halfway to spring. Back in the day, when auguries were assigned to animals, somebody in ancient Europe decided the badger’s behavior on this day determined when winter would break. In the move to the New World, someone for some reason transferred this office to the groundhog; hence our Groundhog Day celebrations.

As a rule, I take a dim vim view of prognosticating rodents, but I will affirm there is something to noting this hinge between winter and spring. Like clockwork, come the first days of February, I start itching to launch again into the old cycle of sowing and reaping. In fact, the new season has been underway for a few weeks now. I placed my seed order in early January to avoid having key varieties backordered, and I calculated my potting soil needs by early February so that it is delivered in time for seeding the first week of March.

Making these arrangements so far in advance does take a measure of faith, because I won’t know how if I reach my goal number of CSA shares until May. So I order assuming that I make that mark, and I hope for the best.