NEW FARMER JOURNAL: Fresh Harvest Farm, Mokena IL

Tool time
Rain has been scarce and some crops have less than thrived, but the right tools have helped these new farmers keep their heads above water (so to speak).

By Patty McPhillips
Posted July 14, 2005

Farm-At-A-Glance

Fresh Harvest Farm
Mokena, Illinois

Farmers: Patty McPhillips and Jeanne Phelan

First season: 2004

What they raise: Mixed vegetables, herbs

Location: South Chicago suburb

Marketing strategies: farmers’ market, farm stand, considering a CSA

July, 2005. As of this writing, we are in the midst of a rotten drought. In May we received a whopping 1” of rain; June brought .4”. So far, July has seen .6”. Last year by this time we had received 18”. I have seed in the ground that has not yet germinated and I am afraid it has been cooked, since along with the drought we had temperatures in the high 90s for the better part of June. The irrigation on our half-acre growing site is up and running after its fitful start. On the advice of the pump manufacturer’s technical support team, we replaced all of the PVC on the supply side of the pump; they thought there might be a pinhole somewhere in the line causing a loss of suction, and it seems to have done the trick. Our 2-acre Frankfort site is still without irrigation.

I am in a constant state of worry about what we will have to put in the CSA share boxes, since I am learning about planting-to-harvest ratios while under the gun. Our lettuce transplants performed well and have been our saving grace. We have harvested them for the last four weeks and will cut the last of them this week. Our peas were delicious but we did not have enough. I wanted shares to receive both shell and snap peas for at least two weeks, but we ended up with only enough for shares to receive one or the other…and for only one week. Our early broccoli and cabbage was modest at best. We planted 180 to 200 broccoli transplants at a time; I thought that we would be adequate to supply our 45 CSA members with a week’s share. Well it wasn't. From those 180 plants, I only got 20 good sized heads ready at one time. We limped though by harvesting smaller heads and giving shares 2 or 3 smaller units, but that wasn't fun. The same scenario played out with the cabbage. Our spinach burnt up and bolted and was never harvested; our radishes were tiny and like fireballs. On the brighter side of things, we had some nice mustard greens for a couple of weeks and Pac Choi last week.

I am gaining a new appreciation for machines. The lawn mower has become one of my best friends. Our 2-acre field is set up with 24-inch paths, and the mower makes short order of weeds in the paths and helps keep things neat. I love it. Another machine also chugged its way into my heart this month. As we worked to plant our 2-acre field, we were falling further and further behind. The further behind we got the more time each bed took to prepare, since the weeds were getting a stronger and stronger hold. Finally, by the 18th of June, I was at my wits end. I had taken to mowing unprepared beds to keep things from flowering, but they were still building root systems. When I wanted to plant, I would go in with the wheel hoe to take out the weeds, but by the 18th the wheel hoe could no longer accomplish the task and neither could our 5 horsepower rototiller (which is now in the shop for a checkup). What to do? Where to turn? I started calling equipment rental shops and explaining my situation.

Ultimately, I rented a 13 horsepower hydraulic rototiller. To many of you with machine experience that probably doesn’t seem like a big deal, but to me that was one big machine! The equipment rental guy gave us the rundown on operation and loaded it onto Jeanne’s truck bed. He gave us ramps to get it off the truck in the field, and away we went. Walking that thing backwards down those tiny ramps was a white-knuckle experience but worth every drop of sweat. It did a great job, cleaning up whole sections of the field or working in a single bed hemmed in by previously planted beds. What a difference adequate tools and machines can make in getting a job done. Anybody have a walk-behind tractor they would like to part with?