Priority # 1 in Year 1

Courtesy of Wally S., Wally’s Urban Market Garden, Saskatoon SK

If my email is any indication, 2017 might produce another bumper crop of new farmers. Those who are finding their way to me for advice come well-equipped with best practices and lengthy to-do lists. Very little of it has to do with making a go of it as a business. My advice is to keep an open mind about the farming industry’s sacred cows. Here are five that first-year farmers sometimes spend far too much energy on.

Composting
Composting is a multi-year process. Segment size production areas will need hundreds of pounds of finished compost. Larger areas, even more. You can start the process in year 1 if you have the space, but you certainly should not feel like a failure if you don’t. And you certainly shouldn’t aim to meet all your soil prep needs by closing any loops. Other soil natural amendments can be used before your composting gets up to speed, and fine tuning your operation’s inputs versus outputs equation can’t be figured out in your first year. You can ease into composting with a modest setup which might include four
or five 4 ‘ by 4 ‘ by 4 ‘ feet bins. Wooden packing crates you can get for free will get you off to a great start.

Seed saving
Seed saving is another worthy practice, but it takes years to develop substantial amounts of seed. Again, you can learn the process and pick up on other’s experience, but for your first few years don’t create extra pressure by trying to aim to become your own seed supplier.

Season extension
This is an obsession that has grown in recent years. But starting out you should beware of anything that will add complexity to your operation – and structures that require significant expense and specialized expertise make production more challenging. Instead, try extending your season with strategic crop selection – choosing crops that do well in cool weather conditions, timing of plantings, frost tolerance. You will be surprised with how far “simple” growing will take you.

Rain water harvesting
Rain water harvesting is another worthy practice, but consider this. Elaborate water harvesting systems can increase efficiency – until they break down or malfunction. And they require investment, specialized knowledge and time to set up. It’s better to start simply and perfect more sophisticated systems over several years. Very basic watering methods using only a hose and some hardware store valves is all you need to start.

Cover cropping
Cover cropping can be important for weed control and soil building. But on typical SPIN-scale plots, it really isn’t practical. On larger areas it can also be difficult to work the crops back into the soil if you don’t have the right equipment. So proceed slowly, getting familiar with various techniques. In the meantime, use alternate methods that are much
simpler, like scuffle hoeing an area when the weeds are still at an early stage for weed control, and use local “feed store“ fertilizers like alfalfa pellets, blood meal and oil seed meals for soil building.

What should be the priorities of a first year farmer? There’s only one. Production. You need to develop the ability to grow consistently, in significant volume, at commercial grade. Few master it in year 1. If you also try to make your farm a showplace for all the latest and greatest farming practices, you might never master it at all. And a farm that’s not
producing is just a heap of compost. So keep those emails coming. I can pretty much guarantee you’ll end up with a shorter 2017 to-do list than what you start with.

Maximizing production from small plots is what SPIN-Farming is all about. Relays is how you do that.

Maximizing production from small plots is what SPIN-Farming is all about. Relays is how you do that.

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Best Seed Sources is Based on Experience, Not the Catalog

Courtesy of John G, JNJ Farms, Macomb IL

We are working up our 2017 seed orders. First thing we do is to inventory leftover seeds from this season. We are not worried about loss of germination but we may slightly over plant just in case. For what will be transplants we always overseed by 15-20%.

We get many catalogs, and we go through most of them. Several are just recycled from past experiences with companies or price and customer service problems. 1 catalog we get is dirt cheap but packs contain very few seeds for the money. 15 seeds for a dollar or 50 seeds for $3.95 from a different company. Which is the bargain?

We have 2 main companies that are most reliable and have good luck with their seeds. I also place smaller orders from a couple companies that carry new or tried and true varieties that we like. My seed potato are from local suppliers at wholesale prices. We also will order from an onion supplier. We are not real big on heirlooms, not that they are bad we have better luck selling hybrids in most cases. We order early and get early season discounts and go for free or low cost shipping.

This is not a place to hurry through or skimp to save a little money. Do your research and keep in mind your time spent now will be rewarded when you harvest.

sf-photo-fb-seed-catalog

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Perennials Have Their Place

Courtesy of Wally S., Wally’s Urban Market Garden, Saskatoon SK

Because of its backyard-size scale, SPIN-Farming emphasizes crops with very short growing times that can be grown and harvested very quickly, because that is the way to multiply your production from a small space. But perennial crops, like these sunchokes, can also come into play.

SF photo blog sunchokes

Right now I am growing them in the perimeter area of my SPIN farm. But if you have the space, a segment size planting can be worth a lot of money. A local garden center is always asking if we have any, and they are willing to pay $10 lb. It’s also a pretty easy sell at market, and to chefs.

Once planted, sunchokes are there to stay. Other perennial crops, like horseradish, rhubarb, mint and raspberries can also earn their place in a SPIN crop repertoire. Even if you have limited space, don’t limit your planting to just annuals. Perennials are crops that keep on giving.

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Weeding Jujutsu

Courtesy of Wally S., Wally’s Urban Market Garden, Saskatoon SK  

Perennial weeds come in all shapes and sizes. Some are more controllable than others. In sub-segment size areas under 500 sq. ft. you can take try the Terminator approach to eradicate them completely to keep the plot in production.

Larger areas take more finesse because it is harder to know what you are dealing with. For instance, I’ve worked plots for years without any sign of weeds, and then one season they just start showing up. Many SPIN farmers are presented with offers for larger size  plots, in the 1/4 to half-acre range, that are too good to refuse. They clean them up so they look like a field of dreams and then bindweed starts sprouting everywhere. In these situations eradication will take time and effort you don’t have, and it might not even be possible.

Instead, fight one aggressive plant with another. If you put in widely spaced crops that grow relatively quickly, such as winter squash, they can duke it out with the weed once they start vining out. In essence they are acting as a weed suppressant in their own right.

SF photo fb weed jujutsu squash

Potatoes are also a good option, since once you hill them, you can easily aggressively weed around them. Green beans and broad beans are other options and are ones I will be using this year in a perennial grass problem area.

SF photo fb weed jujutsu

So when it comes to weeds know there is another approach besides hasta la vista. Instead use appropriate crop selection and technique to win your battle with weeds.

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Keep the Soil in Your High Tunnel Healthy

Unheated high tunnel, or hoophouse, production is being practiced more widely because it is a profitable way to grow and sell year round. That requires extra attention to, and management of, soil health, as this Backyard Riches member explains.

Courtesy of Adithya Ramachandran, Kaleidoscope Vegetable Gardens, Dundurn SK

One of the challenges of high tunnel production is that there is no natural rainfall to leach the soil. Although I collect rainwater, it supplies only 20% of my high tunnel irrigation requirements. The other 80% comes from municipal water. So there are three main concerns I deal with.

1. Saskatoon city water, which supplies my farm, contains 142 ppm calcium/magnesium carbonates. Every inch of irrigation adds about 0.75 lb of lime per segment. At the rate of 1? of irrigation per week for 6 months a year, this works out to 20 lbs of added lime per segment, which can raise the soil pH and cause production issues. To neutralize this, I till in 10 lbs of organic sulfur per segment per year.

2. Saskatoon city water contains 13 ppm of chloride and 2 ppm of chlorine. Chlorine reacts with soil organic matter to form chloride. Outdoors, this is leached by rainfall. In a high tunnel, this works out to 2 lbs of added chloride per segment over 6 months of irrigation. To counter this, I try to include beets or chard in the rotation at least once every two years. These crops can ‘mop up’ significant amounts of chloride.

3. Soil organic matter is consumed very rapidly in high tunnels. I add composted manure, compost and alfalfa meal at least twice per year to compensate.

SF photo guest blog Adi hoop house

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Favas: A Bean for the New Millennials

Courtesy of Wally S., Wally’s Urban Market Garden, Saskatoon SK

I planted a half segment (500 sq. ft.) of broad beans today. It took less than an hour.

SF photo blog fava 3 planting

Once these initial plantings are up, I will wait for development, and then put in more sub-segment plantings right through June. By staggering the timing of plantings this way, I can have continuous production and sales throughout the summer. Then I’ll relay the area to another crop.

Broad beans are easy to plant and grow. The Earthway seeder does not have a plate to accommodate them, so you need to do it by hand. All you have to do is set up the beds, and press the bean into soil.

SF photo blog fava 4 row

Then rake over the bed. Your work rate should be about 10 minutes per bed to seed. Germination is more or less certain.

I’ve grown broad beans for years, and they have always been a good niche crop. But now that there is a new generation that partly defines itself by how adventurous they can be with their eating, there is even more demand. Just don’t call them broad beans. Call them fava beans. They’re a good crop to try to attract a new market, or see if you can inject some new enthusiasm into your existing one.

 

Early Spring Marketing Using Unheated High Tunnels

Courtesy of Adithya Ramachandran, Kaleidoscope Vegetable Gardens, Dundurn SK

Most farmers underperform at early spring markets. SPIN-Farming is based on generating strong cash flow by targeting $1,000 weekly sales – in late April or early May – regardless of your growing zone. To do that you need to ignore conventional gardening practices, and get into production early, in volume. Adithya Ramachandran’s Kaleidoscope Vegetable Gardens, is in zone 3. Here is what he went to market with May 7.

SF photo fb early spring market Adi

Adi is using unheated high tunnels..and improving his production strategy all the time. Read below.

This spring has been an interesting learning experience. There are some things I would do different next year, including increasing my staggering time for radishes, and a greater focus on beets, green garlic and kohlrabi to target late spring sales.

Something else that I would like to try out next spring is an early planting of broad beans for bean production. I noticed that the ones I seeded in March were flowering now. However I tilled them all under because they were planted densely for shoot production (I didn’t get around to harvesting them all), and they wouldn’t have done well.

I also plan to diversify my spring sales next year with tulips.

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How to Determine Hoophouse Density for Tomatoes and Peppers

Courtesy of Adithya Ramachandran, Kaleidoscope Vegetable Gardens, Dundurn SK

When growing tomatoes in a hoophouse, think about how many plants you would grow on the same amount of space outdoors, divide that by 3, and plant only that number in the hoophouse. This is particularly important for tomatoes because they can get HUGE in a hoophouse. I learned that the hard way my first year with high tunnels. Not only does it make it difficult to work in there, but it also increases disease and pest issues, and they compete with one another for water and nutrients. You can improve your yield per square foot by planting fewer plants. This is particularly so if you don’t prune the plants (which I don’t do – too labor-intensive).

Peppers don’t get as crazy as tomatoes, but they also consume a lot of water and are very shallow-rooted, so again there can be competition if they are crowded.

SF photo fb wisdom Adi hoophouse densifty photo

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Become Your Own Weather Forecaster

Courtesy of Adithya Ramachandran, Kaleidoscope Vegetable Gardens, Dundurn SK

High tunnels require farmers to become their own weather forecasters. In the Saskatoon area, tonight’s forecast low is -13 C (8.6 F). That’s a little too cold for most cool-season crops, so we spent part of last week laying down row cover – 8000 sq ft of it. The cover also accelerates germination.

I’ve kept temperature records in past seasons to determine the effectiveness of row covers. Based on variables such as afternoon soil temperature at a standardized depth, number of layers of row covers, soil moisture status, and height of row covers above
plants, I came up with a few formulas for determining what the overnight low will be.

For example, today’s soil temp. at the 4′ depth is 10 C inside tunnels. I expect it to rise to 14 C by late afternoon. 14 – (-13) is 27. For a single layer, I use a factor of 0.35. 0.35*27 is 9.5. 9.5 + (-13) is -3.5 C (26 F). That is my forecast low underneath the row cover.

For double layered row cover, I use a factor of 0.45. That gives me a forecast low of -1 C (30 F). Sunflower greens are the only crop to get double cover – all other cool-season crops should be fine with one layer.

SF photo guest blog Adi weather forecast

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Raised Beds May Work Against You

Courtesy of Roxanne C., Philadelphia, PA

When you get serious about production, the first thing to go are those raised beds. Recently SPIN farmer Rex Landings cleared out the last of his.

SF photo Raised beds Rex

When you turn a garden into a business, you start using time and labor saving tools the average gardener does not, like a tiller and a seeder. So you’ll need to consider how well they work with raised beds. They are expensive to build, cumbersome to work, not water efficient, and can dry out quickly in arid climates. They don’t work in every context, for instance, when you are renting a plot without a long term agreement.

Perhaps the biggest disadvantage is they are permanent. That means you can’t change your layout to grow crops that aren’t suitable for beds or put in very large scale plantings.

Raised beds can have their place, mostly for smaller-sized plots. Some advantages are they warm up earlier, and drain better during periods of heavy rain. The wood frames also can serve as anchors for row covers or low tunnels. But unless the soil you have is contaminated or your site has poor drainage, there’s no good reason to use them. They only limit your design options, and your thinking. If you don’t have to use them to solve problems, raised beds may actually create ones.

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