The 2021 Season- and Our Farming Philosophy
I've had this post in mind for a while. Terms like "organic," "sustainable," and "regenerative" get thrown around a lot but it's hard to know what exactly they mean in a practical sense. I thought I'd show you all a snapshot of some successes from our 2021 growing season and how I do my best to grow nutritious produce while caring for the land. I don't really believe in adhering to any one philosophy- I think it's important to tailor your approach to your land, your growing season, and what is available to you in your local community.
First, let's talk about asparagus! We ended up using a lot of creative solutions in the asparagus patch this year. First of all, we've struggled a lot in the past with cutworm damage on the newly emerging spears. Cutworms hide under the soil during the day, then come out at night to chew their way around anything green and tasty. On asparagus the damage will often look like a crooked or bent spear, as the plant will fold over the chewed area. I learned from the University of Minnesota that cutworm moths are attracted to early green foliage and will lay their eggs there, so in early April before the spears started to emerge I went through the patch with a hoe and chopped up all those first green weeds. This also helped disrupt any eggs that might have already been there, plus vastly reduced the later weed competition to the asparagus itself. Although the process cost me 3 days of hoeing and very sore arms, I was very happy to see hardly any cutworm damage in the patch this season- all without spraying insecticide or herbicide.
Another insect challenge this season was asparagus beetles. This one may have been mostly my fault- I cut off the dry dead asparagus ferns from last season but wasn't able to burn them. This I think allowed the beetles to overwinter, then emerge in the spring and absolutely swarm the new baby spears. Guidelines tell you to spray asparagus when 2% of the spears have beetle eggs- at one point we were seeing eggs on 60% of the asparagus. There is an organic spray available for asparagus beetles, but it can affect other insects (spraying is often my last resort as well because of the time and repeated applications required.) Since asparagus has to be picked on your hands and knees anyway, we chose instead to manually check every spear and crush by hand every adult beetle and egg we found. I need to thank my incredible employees for being willing to painstakingly crush every bug! Very quickly, once we knocked down the majority of the population, I started finding lots of insect predators in the asparagus patch feeding on the beetle eggs, including lacewings and these really cool red mites:
In this picture you can see the black asparagus beetle eggs, the red mite feeding on them, and towards the top a little of the feeding damage beetles leave on asparagus spears.
Once we allowed the natural predator population to catch up to the asparagus beetle population, they were no longer a problem in the field.
My last asparagus field solution is an ongoing experiment. Asparagus does not tolerate competition well, and yet leaving the rows bare around the spears is not a sustainable solution- not only do I strongly believe that "bare soil is starving soil," but nature will always fill a vacuum and I don't have time to constantly be chopping out weeds. I needed something that would cover the soil, exclude other weeds, but wouldn't bother the asparagus. I decided to try purslane. You may be familiar with purslane as a "weed" from your own garden- it's low to the ground, lacy, and will take root again after if you pull it up as long as it's still in contact with soil. (It's also edible, delicious, and one of the only plants rich in omega-3 fatty acids.) I knew it would be shallow-rooted enough and allow enough space for asparagus spears to come up between its stems. I scattered purslane seed along a few asparagus rows once we were done with harvest and you can see it beginning to grow in this picture:
(the purslane is the bright green, round-leaved plants.)
I say this experiment is ongoing because purslane doesn't grow well from seed in the first place- and I had a really hard time getting it established this season between the drought and the limited irrigation available to me. But I'm happy enough with the initial results that I will try again next year, and hopefully I'll be able to tell you all I successfully grew weeds in the asparagus field!
I'm happy to say that each season I have developed a more well-rounded pest control strategy and this year I did the least amount of spraying yet. The greenhouses can be especially hard to manage- in the past I've struggled with infestations of aphids, thrips, and spider mites- but I found this year that by regularly applying lacewing eggs inside the greenhouses (the larvae are voracious predators) I could keep pests in check. Plus, the adults inevitably escaped out of the vents and I ended up with more lacewings in my fields than I've ever seen, which is always a good thing. My personal philosophy is to try to look at each growing area as a whole ecosystem and mimic a natural balance. This year I plan to add certain flowering plants into the edges of my greenhouse beds to feed adult lacewings (they only feed on nectar and pollen) to encourage them to stick around and lay more eggs, hopefully creating a more self-sustaining population. I'm encouraged to find that these simple steps of mimicking what the ecosystem already does on a larger scale leads to, in the long run, less work for me and healthier plants. On the note of already mimicking nature, that was why I added ginger this last season. I was looking for something well-suited to the very tropical climate we have in our summer greenhouses, that wouldn't be overly stressed by the heat. Ginger has similar nutritional requirements to tomatoes, and doesn't mind shade. In some places I planted it directly under the tomatoes, taking advantage of what would otherwise be wasted space.
Happy greenhouse ginger!
The biggest piece we harvested this season, can you tell I'm very proud?
Another crop that went very well this year was melons. Generally you aren't supposed to transplant anything in the melon family as they don't tolerate it well. I found a trick while researching to dip melon transplants into a kaolin clay solution (it's a fine, white harmless clay powder mixed with water) before you plant them. I was amazed at how well this worked to prevent transplant shock- the plants took off growing immediately and I didn't lose any to the sudden exposure to harsh sun. Normally when I transplant melons I expect to lose up to a quarter of each row. The other bonus was insect protection. If you've been out to the farm you've seen the large pumpkin field along our driveway leased on our land by another farmer. Because the pumpkins have been grown there for many many years, there is a large cucumber beetle population that he struggles with every season. Since kaolin clay dyes the plants white (at least until heavy rain, which we didn't have much of!), the melon plants are hidden from the cucumber beetles as they are flying around searching for food. Kaolin clay is also known to stick to the beetles' bodies, so if they do land they find the powder so unpleasant they spend all their time trying to groom it off instead of mating. Despite a massive and destructive beetle population so close to my own field, I had very little cucumber beetle damage in the melons and cucumbers this season until the very end, when it doesn't make much difference anyway. If you plan to grow cucumbers or melons and want to transplant plants rather than direct seeding, I highly recommend this method!
Freshly dipped melon transplants
Dunking baby plants in the bucket
A field of ghostly white plants! (we later spread leaf mulch between the rows to protect the soil and suppress weeds)
This was an average day during the melon harvest.
I get so excited when I find ants at the stem of the melons! This means there's lots of sugar and the fruit is going to be delicious. A lot of grocery store melons are picked unripe so they can be shipped. I wait until mine are fully ripe and ready to slip off the vine- you can see it separating in the picture- which means the vine has time to pump as much sugar and flavor into the fruit as possible.
We made more progress this year on our soil fertility and cover crops. In some fields, the organic material in the soil tests at less than 1%- ideally, that number should be between 5 and 10 percent. We got a tractor this year which meant the ability to build huge hot compost piles! While we still aren't quite producing everything we need, it has helped so much to be able to recycle every bit of organic matter from the farm back into super-fertile compost. We've also been able to use things like dead leaves and lake weeds from companies and customers looking for a place to drop them off. If you have some to get rid of, give me a call and help me feed my soil!
Turning a hot and active compost pile with the tractor.
I'm still getting the hang of cover crop rotations- they require good timing and good luck with rainfall- but already they have been helping me add more organic material into the soil while suppressing weeds. A combination I really like so far has been winter rye and hairy vetch. Planted in the fall, this cover crop mix will establish and then take off with quick growth in the spring. When the rye is nice and tall, I can chop it down and it creates the perfect straw mulch in which to plant tomato plants. Another bonus is that hairy vetch adds nitrogen to the soil as well as activating a gene in tomato plants that improves their phytonutrients- meaning healthier, tastier, more nutritious tomatoes!
A field of rye, vetch, and peas in the fall (the peas will be killed by the frost but still add nitrogen to the soil)
Transplanting tomato plants into rye straw. Covering the soil with rye prevents weeds and also prevents soil-borne diseases from splashing onto the tomato plants in the rain.
I'm experimenting with using hairy vetch to improve the flavor and nutrition of the greenhouse tomatoes as well.
I want to thank you all for supporting our farm this last year, and I'm looking forward to sharing what the 2022 season will bring! I know a lot of you believe as I do that how our food is grown matters. I will keep learning and trying new things to bring you the best possible produce I can.
Probably my favorite picture from 2021. I love, love, love colorful vegetables!