6, 2003: It’s November, and for us, the season’s
“DUNN!” as our 2-year-old niece crows, pushing back
her plate when she has eaten her fill. After this horribly wet
and, therefore, muddy and weedy season in the Northeast, we
feel more done-IN, so we look back with a smile (because it’s
over and we survived, again) -- and with a toast: To next year!
It’ll be a piece of cake!
What worked, through it all, and what didn’t for us,
and for some other beginning small farmers? Plenty on both
counts. That happens when the season is both late and wet.
Just so you know we’re not exaggerating, on March 5,
2002, our field records show, we were in T-shirts, planting
onions in the open ground. Sugar snap peas went in on St.
Patrick’s Day (March 17), right on schedule.
This year was a different story. When St. Patty’s Day
2003 rolled around, George had the 7-foot blade on the back
of the John Deere 1050. The tractor was in 4-wheel drive.
He was plowing a foot of frozen snow and ice off of our best
vegetable beds in a desperate attempt to get the soil to thaw,
dry out and warm up.
While George was plowing snow like a madman, son Don and
Melanie were calmly working in T-shirts. They were harvesting
salad mix, setting out transplants and direct seeding other
crops in warm, fluffy soil -- inside of our three high tunnels.
More about the tunnels in a minute. Gotta complain a little
more about the weather, first.
On June 21, the front page headline in the local newspaper
told the story: “Soggier than Seattle.” From May
1 to June 19, our part of Pennsylvania had 8.4 inches of rain
to Seattle’s 1.15 inches. There were only 12 rain-free
days here, compared to Seattle’s 27. And it didn’t
stop there by any means.
Sunshine! What’s that? In those six critical weeks
of spring, you could count the number of cloud-free days on
one hand and still have enough fingers free to handle a cell
It was all our fault, Melanie said, citing “Murphy’s
Law.” After all, we had tried to outfox Mother Nature
by digging a second well just for irrigation. Two previous
years of drought had us worried about our well, which serves
both house and irrigation for four-plus acres of intensive
crops. Not only did we not need irrigation this summer, we
lost first and second plantings to flooding in sections that
never flooded before.
Fields that weren’t flooded were ravaged by wildlife.
Groundhogs cleaned out two plantings of edamame. Deer grazed
our second planting of potatoes right down to the ground.
They’ve never done that before. They’ll never
do it again, providing we put up enough electric fence next
year. Ditto for the groundhogs. We now have three live traps.
For added insurance, George bought a .223 rifle with a scope
in midsummer. It was the only new piece of “farm equipment”
purchased this year.
We’re telling you this, by the way, to let you know
that, a) Small farming isn’t all idyllic fun and games,
and, b) If you’re having the same problems, yeah, we’re
all in the same boat (literally?). So hang in there! Overall,
we did have a nice return on the first potato planting (about
120 pounds of certified organic Yukon Gold, Rose Gold, All-Blue
and Russian Banana Fingerling seed potatoes) -- with customers
divided on their favorite. In other words, they all sold well,
and no one balked at the price, $2.50/quart box.
The high tunnels saved our neck this year,
though we almost choked on excess artichokes
What really saved our neck in this wet year were the high
tunnels! Other area growers also sang their praises. We had
enough salad green mixes from two 96-foot high tunnels to
feed our 100-family farm membership and sell at one farmers’
market for part of the summer. A third high tunnel produced
wonderful tomatoes, including heirlooms, basil, peppers and
cucumbers into mid-September. All were very good sellers.
Field tomatoes did just OK. They fared better in the past
two dry years. Melanie had a so-so year with her flowers,
like most growers. Some flowers did really well, some bombed
with the rain. July and August were good. September was not.
Hurricane Isabel flattened the flowers and other field crops
and blew the back wall out of our largest high tunnel.
Other good sellers for us this year were summer squash --
only quality baby and small sizes in mixed baskets; mixed
sweet peppers, more heirloom types; baby Jade green beans;
and eggplant -- Neon seemed to be a customer favorite.
Then there were the artichokes. Planted out early under row
cover with hoops, three long rows of artichokes did fantastically
well. Too well. While customers in Philadelphia a few years
ago lined up to get the baby artichokes, our customers at
the farm this year did not. Not enough of them, anyway. We
choked on chokes. Despite many recipes and much coaxing, customers
didn’t want a lot of “different” stuff.
Not for more than a week or two, anyway. We had way too much
that was “weird.”
Consider fava beans. “Oh, yeah! I’ve read about
those,” one farmers’ market customer said. “That’s
what Hannibal Lecter served with the census-taker’s
OK, so our customers are well-read, even if the reading is
psycho-thrillers like “The Silence of the Lambs.”
It was all George could do to keep silent. He bit his tongue,
dreaming up a few creative dishes and colorful expletives
for author Thomas Harris.
While a few customers were genuinely overjoyed to get the
favas, most wouldn’t give them a chance. Too much work.
Too strange. Then the weather changed. Beans blackened and
went over. We mowed them down for green manure. Of course,
that’s when more people started craving fresh favas.
Leeks sold well, but not well enough. We still have hundreds
sitting in the back of one patch. They’re destined for
the soup pot, along with the remaining kale, potatoes and
smoked pork butt.
Flip side is that, thanks largely to the weather, we never
had enough carrots, spinach, beans, garlic or flowers. So
Lessons learned by three other farmers
in our area
Kristin Illick agrees. “We had a good year, compared
to the pack. It was the greenhouse that was dependable,”
says Kristin, who runs Liberty Gardens in Coopersburg, PA,
with husband Jeffrey Frank, and sells greens to New York City
restaurants. Good farmers’ market crops for them included
greens, potatoes, tomatoes -- “even though it wasn’t
a good tomato year we did all right” -- green beans,
and edamame. “We covered the edamame with Reemay and
while it got somewhat flattened, at least the deer didn’t
get it,” she says.
What didn’t pay this year, Kristin says, “was
the winter stuff. It was weather-related. We might not do
winter stuff again.”
Mike Ahlert, with Oley Valley Produce in Oley, PA, is still
going strong with sales into November. In this, his first
year on his own after working for other farming operations
for five years, Mike says what works for him are good farmers’
markets. He has been pleased with two this year, the West
Chester market and the new Emmaus Farmers’ Market.
Greens sold extremely well at West Chester. Greens and green
beans, leeks, tomatoes sold well at Emmaus. “You’ve
got to know your market,” he says, because each is different
and customers tend to want certain things.
“A CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) worked well
for us, too,” he says. Mike served 23 customers, via
farm pickup at his farm and in-town drop off points. He’d
like to increase that number next year, “but I’d
still like to keep it small, keep a connection to customers.”
The weather was a problem for him, too. “It’s
hard to cultivate when it’s wet, so weeds are a problem,”
he explains. But what worked well for him was putting cover
crops between his beds of black plastic. He used a quick-growing
annual grass and clover, putting down the plastic in March
and getting the cover crop established at the same time. “I
had to mow a lot but I love the system,” he says.
Brian Moyer, who raises chickens and lamb and milks goats
at his Green Haven Farm in Fleetwood, PA, says this year,
his biggest mistake was not expanding. “I should have
expanded by a third, with laying chickens and meat chickens,
both. I had to short everybody. After the first year, people
started coming out of the woodwork from word-of-mouth from
customers. I had to say, ‘Sorry, I don’t have
enough,’ instead of, ‘Sure, come get it.’”
Brian says the biggest lesson he has learned involved machinery.
“I bought the wrong tractor. I bought a 40-hp field
tractor (International 340) when what I really needed was
a 30-hp utility tractor -- with a loader.” He also bought
a hay rake and a baler, both of which have now been sold.
“I just didn’t need them. Let the animals do the
work instead of us. I spent money on equipment to bale hay
at first, instead of having the animals eat the grass. It
is more economical for me to buy hay than to try to make it
Now the animals and the farmer are happier, and his customers
are getting more of what they have learned to ask for: grass-fed
So, it’s Indian Summer here now. We’re looking
forward to next season, while pulling the drip tape we used
twice all summer before the ground freezes. The new well waits
for a pump. We’re seriously considering a solar-powered
pump, since the well is one-fifth of a mile from the nearest
electric line and there will be plenty of sunshine -- next
Ah, next season. Piece of cake, right? Right!
So why do we keep eyeing portable generators?