11TH IN AN ONGOING SERIES
NUTS & BOLTS & DREAMS: A beginner's guide to farming

The season’s over, or nearly so:
Here’s what paid, what didn’t

The wisdom four Pennsylvania farm families salvaged from another tough season.

By Melanie & George DeVault

Editor's NOTE:

Want to learn more about the DeVault's greenhouse experiences? Visit Hoophouse How-to Part 1 and Part 2 OR The A to Z Greenhouse Growing Guide Part I and Part 2.

View a complete listing of all articles in the NUTS, BOLTS & DREAMS series.

"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 ... 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."

"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."

"'It’s hard to cultivate when it’s wet, so weeds are a problem,' [Mike Ahlert] 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."

 

November 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 phone.

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 liver.”

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 it goes.

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 myself.”

Now the animals and the farmer are happier, and his customers are getting more of what they have learned to ask for: grass-fed chickens.

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 season.

Ah, next season. Piece of cake, right? Right!

So why do we keep eyeing portable generators?