Attending Winter Conferences on Agriculture

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stonebarnsconferenceAs fall crops are harvested and stored, and fresh winter crops are carefully tended in high tunnels for an extended year-round harvest in the Northeast, many farmers and gardeners are eagerly anticipating the winter conference season. Numerous agricultural conferences are held during the winter months when most farmers have more time to gather, learn and assimilate the abundance of farming information available at these conferences. Conferences are typically offered through state or regional farming associations, and comprise of two to three days of presentations and workshops by many renowned and experienced farmers. Keynote speakers offer inspiration and delicious food is always guaranteed. A vendor and trade show area is also common and provides an excellent place to learn about the latest farming equipment, supplies and seeds available.

Since there are numerous conferences and many are worth attending for the diversity of information and networking opportunities, it may seem overwhelming to decide which ones to choose. Below is a list of recommendations of winter conferences located in the Northeast and Mid-West regions.

NOFA – the Northeast Organic Farming Association represents six states, namely MA, NH, VT, NY, CT and NJ, and it offers a separate conference for each state.
• One of my favorites is the NOFA-NY Winter Conference. In its 33rd year, it attracts over 1,100 participants and takes place in Saratoga Springs, NY on January 23-25, 2015. This year’s theme is ‘Soil: The Root of the Movement’ and Wes Jackson, President of the Land Institute, is the keynote speaker. Many interesting workshops are offered during the three days, including one I am giving on the latest innovations on four-season vegetable production.
• Another popular conference for vegetable growers is the NOFA-VT Winter Conference which is hosted each year at the University of Vermont in Burlington, VT and is scheduled for February 14th and 15th 2015.

PASA – The Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture’s 24th Annual Farming for the Future Conference is widely regarded as one of the best in the East and brings together over 2,000 farmers, processors, consumers, students, environmentalists, and business and community leaders in State College, PA on February 4th through the 7th 2015. With over 100 workshops, including one I am offering on four-season farming, it is definitely a conference not to be missed.

MOSES – The Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service offers a winter conference February 26th through 28th 2015 in La Crosse, Wisconsin. The event draws more than 3,000 farmers, advocates, educators, and students to the La Crosse Center and offers educational workshops, inspiring keynote speakers, and a two-floor Exhibitor Hall to check out the latest in farming supplies and equipment.

National Young Farmers Conference – For new and beginning farmers, Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture offers an excellent conference December 3-5th 2014 in Potantico Hills, NY. Many renowned farmers including Eliot Coleman, Jack Algiere, Jean-Martin Fortier and Richard Wiswall offer outstanding presentations on farm design, technique, and the economics of farming.

MOFGA – The Maine Organic Farmer and Gardener Association’s annual Farmer to Farmer Conference typically takes place in early November and is an impressive gathering of experienced New England farmers and gardeners. Learn from some of the best in Maine!

Whichever conferences you choose to attend, the experience is guaranteed to inform, educate, connect and inspire your farming aspirations for the season to come.

Transitioning the High Tunnel to Fall/Winter Crops

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hightunnelandquickhoopsSeptember is in full swing in the Northeast – the mornings feel fresh and crisp, the days are still sunny and warm, and those glorious heirloom tomatoes are still sweet and juicy, but the nights are undeniably cooler and the daylight hours are lessening by a few minutes each day. Sadly, the dog days of summer are over and winter is just around the corner. But the change of seasons does not mean we need to abandon our high tunnels for the outdoor fall harvesting and stockpiling of storage crops like winter squash, onions and potatoes in preparation for a long, cold winter. On the contrary, with dependable cold-hardy crop selection and smart planning, a high tunnel will produce an abundance of fresh vegetables throughout the winter months, and now is the time to begin transitioning the beds to these fall and winter crops.
Most outdoor plantings of fall crops such as broccoli and other brassicas, beets, and carrots have already been planted during the late summer, and many will begin to require the protection of a row cover over low tunnel hoops as the nights dip into the low 40’s. Radishes, salad turnips, and salad greens such as arugula, lettuce mix, Asian greens, and spinach can be successfully grown outdoors with sowings beginning in early September and continuing as late as September 19th for arugula and Asian greens.
High tunnels have the advantage of extending the season and protecting summer crops like tomatoes and peppers into the late fall, and they also provide an ideal growing environment and extra protection from cold temperatures for late fall/winter crops, but it is important to anticipate the transition of the beds from summer to fall planted crops to ensure adequate growth before too many daylight hours are lost. Here in the Northeast, we can lose over three hours of daylight from the time period of the summer solstice in June until the fall equinox in September. When anticipating crop planning in the high tunnel, this fall transition can prove to be challenging for many farmers since most are reluctant to pull out a productive marketable crop and replace it with a temporarily un-harvestable crop. Furthermore, the growing conditions in the high tunnel can be too hot and dry to successfully germinate and grow many of the longer maturing crops which prefer to grow during the cooler temperatures of autumn. A movable high tunnel, which can be moved over the outdoor planted crop in late autumn, can easily remedy these issues so it is an important option to consider when investing in a new high tunnel (See Blog post ‘To Move or Not to Move’ for more info).
Without having access to a movable tunnel, the best method to transition from summer to fall/winter crops is to perform it in stages. For instance, the center beds of the high tunnel may still have productive trellised tomatoes in September, whereas the edge beds may have grown an earlier crop of cucumbers or summer squash now at the end of the productive phase. For an unheated or ‘Cold’ tunnel, these former cucumber/squash beds would be selected to be re-planted with the longer maturing fall/winter crops such as fresh winter carrots, kale, chard, scallions, or even direct seeded with a fall crop of spinach. Then, once the tomatoes have finished producing at the beginning of October, the empty beds can be direct seeded with faster maturing salad greens like baby leaf lettuce or transplanted with two-week old spinach seedlings. With the additional protection of an inner row cover over low tunnel hoops, these crops would then be harvestable around the end of November and then weekly throughout the winter depending on the severity of the weather conditions and its effect on regrowth for ‘cut-and-come-again’ crops.
For a ‘Cool’ high tunnel, which is minimally heated to 35 degrees F at night, the benefits of adding a little supplemental heat include expanded diversity to more cold-sensitive crops, increased productivity with more consistent regrowth and succession plantings, and slightly more flexible planting dates for certain crops. Arugula and baby leaf lettuce, for example, can be sown as late as October 20th and succession sowings can be continued all winter long. Radishes and salad turnips can be successively sown starting in late September and through late October, and will provide fresh harvests through the end of December. Fresh herbs like parsley, if sown by mid-July and transplanted in the fall, can also be productive in the ‘Cool’ tunnel all winter long. Carrots can even be sown on November 30th and then will be ready to surprise customers with freshly harvested baby carrots on April 1st!
With additional forethought and proper planning, a high tunnel can be organized to be productive with a diverse array of crops during the entire year. By following these general guidelines, continuing to experiment with varying planting dates and cold-hardy varieties, a four-season high tunnel is guaranteed to delight and surpass your expectations all year long.

Irrigation Options for High Tunnels

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netafimoverheadsprinklerheadOne of the most important factors to consider when adding a high tunnel or managing an existing one is irrigation. It might not seem obvious, especially when you live in a moist and humid climate with plenty of annual rainfall, but the growing conditions created within an enclosed plastic or glass greenhouse structure are essentially the same as an irrigated desert – sunny, hot and dry with only a controlled source of water. The simplest and most economical solution is to use a watering can or hose with a hand-held sprinkler attachment to water manually, and while this option may work well within a small high tunnel or even during an emergency situation, this method is quite cumbersome, time-consuming and sometimes challenging to gauge if and when you have watered sufficiently. How do you know if you have watered enough? The general rule of thumb is one inch per week during the growing season, whether it is supplied by actual rainfall or irrigation. And there is a common old-timer’s expression in New England that asks, “Did the moisture meet?” In other words, did the moisture that was applied go deep enough into the soil to meet the lower layer where the soil still holds moisture? If the answer is no, then it is typically more effective and much more efficient to supply water through various irrigation options. Some of the most popular and common approaches include overhead sprinkler irrigation systems and surface drip irrigation systems, both for their ease of installation, dependability, automation, and efficient water use. Combining the two options together in one high tunnel can also be an effective solution for many growers, especially if following four-season methods and growing crops year round. The simplest and lowest cost solution is a portable hose and sprinkler head system but it does involve more monitoring and manual repositioning of the sprinkler head in order to provide even coverage and avoid overwatering. The various options are described in more detail below.

Portable Hose with Sprinkler Head Option:
A ten-foot by twelve-foot plot or 120 square feet is about as large an area most people would want to water by hand so since most high tunnels cover a much larger area square footage, the simplest and most economical option for watering is to have some type of portable sprinkler system available. The key component is a good quality commercial sprinkler head – the Wobbler head for instance is manufactured by Netafim and it delivers water in large drops rather than a fine spray to ensure better coverage. The Wobbler can be mounted on commercially available stands or you can make your own with whatever length of ½-inch threaded pipe. The other end is screwed into a stable base and it is fitted with a quick connect garden hose coupler to easily receive a hose attachment. Multiple bases with Wobbler heads can be attached together every 20-feet or so to provide even coverage over the length of a 100-foot long high tunnel.

Surface Drip Irrigation Option:
Surface drip irrigation is a popular and very efficient method for irrigating crops in the high tunnel by delivering a uniform, precise and timely application of water. The method involves constructing a network of drip irrigation tape which is placed on the surface of the soil and down a row along the base of the plants in order to deliver steady drops of water directly to the root zone. Most drip tape is made from flexible polyethylene plastic tubing and has small drip emitters spaced evenly every 8 to 12 inches. You can customize the system to be as small or as large as you need, and also to the specific needs of the crops you are growing. Single row crops with longer maturity times such as tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, eggplant, summer squash, etc. perform exceptionally well with drip irrigation. The flavor of tomatoes in particular, can be sweetened and intensified if the overall quantity of water is restricted and reduced. Two problems such as foliar disease and the splitting of fruit, which are commonly seen from overhead watering, are typically reduced from the practice of drip irrigation.
Installing a drip system can be very straight forward since a simple set up only requires a spigot, a filter and a hose to provide the water and the set up requires only minimal water pressure to operate. An automated timer can also be added so that you can set the system to turn on once or twice a day. Since drip tape allows better control over the amount of water being applied, the crops are healthier and less water is wasted. Drip irrigation is often used with plastic mulch for transplanted crops to conserve moisture and create a more consistent moisture level in the soil. Another advantage is the option to add natural fertilizers such as fish and seaweed emulsions to the water before being applied. This method is called fertigation and is an effective means of adding nutrients directly to the root zone of the crops throughout the growing season. More information on drip tape irrigation such as how to set up your specific system as well as all the necessary supplies and materials can be found at one popular supplier,

Overhead Sprinkler Irrigation Option:
An overhead irrigation system is a plastic water piping network suspended from the framework of the high tunnel, and it consists of very small, lightweight spray emitting nozzles that hang down every 3 to 6 feet from the plastic pipe (see above photo). With such a system you can hook a hose to one end of the pipe and water the whole high tunnel from above. It is popular when growing leafy greens and other tightly spaced crops where the drip tape positioned on the surface of the beds would inhibit dense plantings. Most supplies and parts can be sourced from your local hardware stores and irrigation specialists.
In the unheated four-season high tunnel, overhead systems are more reliable and easier to use than drip systems since the water in drip tape can freeze causing the tape to split and blocking the flow of water. To prevent the overhead pipes from freezing and splitting, it is important to set up the overhead sprinkler system with valves at both ends in order to empty out the water from the pipes after each irrigation session.
With many high tunnels being used year-round for four-season production, it can be very useful to have both a surface drip system available for summer use to irrigate tomatoes for example and an overhead system available for late fall/early spring use when it can still be necessary to irrigate newly germinating crops and cold-hardy greens such as spinach. In the Northeast, the need to irrigate during the winter months may happen infrequently since the winter sun is low in the sky, the water table is higher and there is very little evaporation from the soil. But you do not want to become too complacent and ignore irrigating all together since a series of sunny winter days with air temperatures above freezing can heat up and dry out a high tunnel much more than you might think.

Other Innovations:
A rainwater catchment system, which collects the rainwater off of the high tunnel into a storage tank, is an innovative solution to reuse naturally occurring rainfall. The expanse of a high tunnel yields a large volume of water with every measurable rainfall. Approximately 900 gallons of water will flow from the roof of a 30′ by 96′ high tunnel with a half-inch rain event. The water collected from the high tunnel from runoff should only be used for irrigation through a drip system since the water collected could contain high levels of bacteria. Many resources are available online for more information.

Whichever irrigation option you choose, a reliable and functional system is essential for managing proper moisture for crop health, and can be an enormous benefit to the continued success of your high tunnel.

Efficient Layout, Bed Preparation and Crop Selection for High Tunnels

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Efficient Layout, Bed Preparation and Crop Selection for High Tunnels
Adding a high tunnel or greenhouse to your commercial farm or home garden is a considerable investment and in order to quickly maximize your return, the growing space should be efficiently managed both in terms of high tunnel bed layout, bed preparation techniques, and crop selection. The total growing area square footage of a high tunnel is the measurement of the width multiplied by its length and most often, at least 30% of that will be allocated to paths or walkways, so it is especially important to create an efficient bed layout to maximize the use of the interior growing space. Over the years, I have visited many farms and witnessed various high tunnel layout designs but the most efficient layout follows a standard 30-inch wide bed with 12-inch wide pathways. Imagine you have a 20-foot by 50-foot high tunnel, which equals a maximum of 1000 square feet of interior growing space. For instance, if this high tunnel is laid out longitudinally using 30-inch wide beds with 12-inch paths in between and we leave 2 feet on either end as an entrance walkway area, this configuration leaves us 6 beds at 46 feet long for a total of 690 square feet of actual growing space. With only 690 square feet of actual growing space, it is critically important to select appropriate crops to take advantage of the specific growing season including the season extension benefits of a protected growing space as well as the increased vertical growing space of the high tunnel. Below are some simple steps for bed layout and bed preparation as well as some tips for selecting crops to maximize production.

Simple Steps for High Tunnel Bed Layout:

1. Collect all necessary tools and supplies for bed layout including a roll of 800’ Mason String on reel, wooden stakes, hammers, two 50-foot tape measures, shovels, and bed preparation rakes (which can be sourced from Johnny’s Selected Seeds)
2. After initial rototilling of soil, extend one 50-foot tape measure along the width of the high tunnel, and then extend the other along the opposite width of the tunnel.
3. Beginning at one end of the tape measure, hammer wooden stakes into the soil at consecutive intervals of 30-inch wide beds, followed by 12-inch wide paths (or your chosen measurements).
4. Follow the same steps for the tape measure at the opposite end of the tunnel.
5. Attach the mason string to a stake marking the path on the far right or left side of the tunnel and extend the string to the opposite stake at the other end of the tunnel, securely wrap the string around this stake, then around the adjacent path stake, finally bring the string back to the front of the tunnel effectively marking the pathway.
6. Keeping the string elevated above the soil surface, continue unspooling the string in this fashion to mark the next bed, and then the next path, and so forth until all of the beds and paths have been marked with the string.
7. Next, take a shovel and begin shoveling the top 2-inches of soil from the path and place on top of the adjacent beds as you make your way down each pathway. Continue until all pathways are clearly defined as ‘sunken paths.’ Remove the string by rolling up the reel.

Simple Steps for Bed Preparation Prior to Direct Seeding or Transplanting:

1. Collect all necessary tools and supplies for bed preparation including Bed Preparation Rake; Tilther with a battery powered drill; or a 3-Tooth Cultivator; soil amendments and compost if adding and bring to work area. Bed Preparation Rake, Tilther and 3-Tooth Cultivator, Seedbed Roller, and Row Markers can be sourced from Johnny’s Selected Seeds.
2. Using Bed Preparation Rake, rake all beds smooth and level by pushing rocks and larger soil clods into the pathways.
3. If adding soil amendments, measure out for each bed and mix into an empty bucket, then spread evenly over the surface of each bed.
4. Using the Tilther or a 3-Tooth Cultivator, tilth each bed, doing two or three passes, to evenly incorporate the amendments into the top 3-inches of soil.
5. If adding compost, spread evenly over surface of beds and follow with another couple of passes of tilthing.
6. If direct seeding, first use a Seedbed Roller to prepare a smooth, firm seed bed.
7. If transplanting, slide red plastic Row Markers on select teeth of the Bed Preparation Rake to mark rows or create a grid pattern.

Crop Selection and Tips to Maximize Production in High Tunnels:

1. Select crops appropriate for the season including heat-loving crops like tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers during the summer season, and cold-hardy greens like spinach and kale during the late fall/winter/early spring seasons.
2. Consider growing ‘cut-and-come-again’ or multiple harvest crops such as baby lettuce mixes and salad greens as opposed to lettuce heads; indeterminate tomatoes as opposed to determinate or bush varieties; spinach, which is first harvested at baby size leaf-by-leaf for multiple harvests as opposed to one complete harvest at maturity; kale, which is also harvested leaf-by-leaf multiple times for baby leaf or bunches as opposed to one single harvest of a broccoli head at maturity.
3. Choose varieties which have been bred and selected to perform best in the growing conditions of a high tunnel or greenhouse, including a greenhouse-specific lettuce mix and parthenocarpic or self-fertilizing varieties of crops.
4. Always consider the vertical growing space in a high tunnel and grow crops which can be pruned and trellised such as indeterminate tomatoes and cucumbers.
5. Densely seed or transplant multiple rows of salad mixes, greens, carrots, radishes and other quick growing crops.
6. Consider multiple succession plantings of various crops throughout a season.
7. After the final harvest of a crop, avoid leaving the beds bare for longer than necessary. After bed preparation, seed or transplant whenever an empty growing space becomes available.
8. Closer plant spacing and multiple succession plantings within a season require frequent applications of compost and soil amendments.
9. Perform annual soil tests to monitor soil health and fertility.
10. Keep good records and experiment!

Benefits of a Dedicated Seed Starting Greenhouse

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herbstartsSpindly, leggy tomato transplants and bushy, overgrown lettuce seedlings reaching for light and competing for space on a kitchen counter or near a bedroom window are all too common occurrences for new and small-scale farmers and gardeners this time of year. Rather than spending your early spring days clearing more counter space, moving furniture and shuffling plant starts around the house as they rapidly outgrow their soil blocks, pots or trays, consider the many advantages of investing and building a Seed Starting Greenhouse on your property.
1) INCREASED SPACE – One of the primary benefits of a dedicated Seed Starting Greenhouse is having increased space for managing and caring for your transplants, especially when doing multiple transplanting and succession cropping cycles common to four-season farm planning and production. After germination, transplants need sufficient space from one another, adequate sunlight, and good air circulation to grow properly before being transplanted outdoors. Any decent sized high tunnel or greenhouse can offer a big improvement on available space, but it should be ideally set up to accommodate a seed starting and transplant growing process, including a gravel or concrete floor, a heater, ventilation fans, a watering system, benches, heat mats, germination chambers, as well as seeding and potting areas with bins of potting soil and other seed starting supplies. Some common greenhouse sizes are 22 feet by 48 feet, 30 feet by 72 feet or even as larger as 34 feet by 96 feet, all of which are sold from greenhouse manufacturing companies such as Rimol Greenhouse Systems. You can easily maximize floor space with an efficient bench layout design and reduce heating costs by sectioning off areas of the greenhouse with hanging sheets of plastic in early spring when only a smaller heated space is needed. Some greenhouses are even set up with half of the space as a seed starting area using gravel or concrete floor and the other half with in-ground beds for production. But due to undesirable soil compaction issues, it is best to avoid using a high tunnel for seed starting activities early in the spring and then switching the space over to in-ground crop production later in the season.
2) IMPROVED HEALTH OF TRANSPLANTS – A good rule of thumb is the healthier the transplant is going into the ground, the healthier the plant will be growing and producing throughout the season. Due to the increased space, better light availability, watering frequency, and a climate controlled environment as a result of using heaters, horizontal air flow (HAF) fans, endwall exhaust fans, ridge vents, roll-up sides, radiant heat bench tops, heat mats, automated overhead watering systems, misters, grow lights, etc., the health of the transplants can be dramatically improved. The specific benefits of these options can be discussed with your greenhouse supplier.
3) RETURN ON INVESTMENT – Once the decision has been made to purchase and build a dedicated Seed Starting Greenhouse, the main consideration is the additional cost. Of course there are various ways to reduce the cost by shopping around, comparing and selecting options, finding a good deal on a used model, and even building your own, but there are also many creative solutions to quickly return on your investment of a new, well designed and constructed greenhouse. With the addition of all this new dedicated space for the primary purpose of plant propagation, one option is to grow plant starts, bedding plants, and hanging baskets to sell to customers in the spring. Another idea is to grow micro-greens during off-peak usage times including early spring and late fall and sell the product to restaurants and local markets. Any unused space in late fall can also provide additional areas to dry and cure storage crops such as onions. And my favorite idea is to use the space to host a farm dinner, a teaching seminar or other farm-related events. Whatever creative ways you find to maximize the benefit of having a dedicated Seed Starting Greenhouse, it is clear that the plants will always be the winners and the space will be used and appreciated to its full capacity for many types of activities.

Seeds, Glorious Seeds!

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soilblocksSeeds, Glorious Seeds!!
With icy cold temperatures and low light levels typical to the winters of the Northeast, one of my preferred activities to help dispel the potential gloom is to fervently peruse the endless collection of seed catalogs constantly filling my mailbox. This pastime always reminds me of the 1968 British musical film ‘Oliver!’ where the emaciated orphan boys march to the dining hall to receive their daily ration of unappetizing gruel while wistfully singing ‘But there’s nothing to stop us from getting a thrill when we all close our eyes and imagine Food, Glorious Food!’ While they sing about ‘Hot sausage and mustard, cold jelly and custard’, I envision the abundance of what can be grown from the seeds of sweet juicy heirloom tomatoes and purple Peruvian fingerling potatoes.
While I find this time enjoyable, the actual process of selecting crops, seed varieties and quantities can be quite challenging – the sheer number of seed catalogs alone can be overwhelming, and how much and when to place an order to ensure an adequate seed supply poses further challenges. In this posting, I will offer some tips to help make the seed ordering process just as pleasurable as the images of ‘Seeds, Glorious Seeds’ seen in your fruitful imaginations.
Seed Catalog Choices – There are over a hundred of various seed catalogs circulating through the snail mail system so it can be overwhelming to choose the best ones. I typically order from list of about a dozen favorites, but the majority of my orders may only come from 5 or 6 seed companies, those including: Johnny’s Selected Seeds is my #1 favorite for the quality and varied seed selection, the company’s commitment to sustainable growing practices or suppliers, and the wide selection of tested tools and other gardening necessities. For organic seeds, High Mowing Seeds sells 100% organic seeds with over 600 varieties available and their company is located in Wolcott, Vermont. High Mowing Seeds also created the Safe Seed Pledge in 1999, along with 9 other seed companies, to affirm their commitment to non-GMO (genetically modified organism) seeds. Fedco Seeds is located in Waterville, Maine and specializes in many cold-hardy varieties. For heirloom seeds, the Seed Savers Exchange is a non-profit dedicated to saving and sharing heirloom seeds. For a great selection of seed potatoes, Wood Prairie Farm is a Maine certified organic family farm started in 1976 by Jim and Lisa Gerritsen. One of my new favorites is Adaptive Seeds which specializes in rare, diverse and resilient open pollinated seed selections. Some of my most successful winter kale varieties are sourced from Adaptive Seeds. And if I am ever in need of a standard and/or reliable hybrid variety, I generally use Burpee Seeds.
Anticipating Quantity – A good rule of thumb is to always order at least 1/3 more than you anticipate growing in order to plan for irregular or poor germination issues, and potential crop failures at any point during the growing season. There are many computer spreadsheet programs you can use to help calculate your seed requirements based on production goals and some seed companies, such as Johnny Selected Seeds have a Seed Calculator feature available to use on their website.
When To Order – Place your order as soon as possible! New and popular seed varieties typically sell out, sometimes as early as mid-January, so the earlier you can get your order placed, the better. For convenience, try to take advantage of seed companies who use websites to place orders online, but if you feel more comfortable placing it over the phone with a live person, there are many knowledgeable and helpful sales representatives to answer questions and take your order.
Happy seed ordering!

Reflections during the Hunter Full Moon

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hightunnelslatenovemberReflections during the Hunter Full Moon
With October’s shorter autumn days, the passing of the Hunter Full Moon and the glorious abundance of harvested root crops and cool-weather loving vegetables still in the ground both out-of-doors and under the protection of low and high tunnels, it is also a time to take pause and appreciate the recent frenetic pace of human energy and plant growth of the past summer season. For many, numerous goals for the season were accomplished – new crop varieties tried and tested, crop rotations and succession plantings deemed successful despite needing a complicated visual map to stay on schedule, season-extension techniques used effectively to protect tender crops, discovering a streamlined record keeping system, and forging new markets and relationships for increased sales. But also unexpected failures and mishaps were experienced such as unanticipated cold temperatures after the frost sensitive crops were transplanted, too much rain, not enough irrigation in the high tunnels, too much humidity, the relentless bane of weeding, poor soil conditions which led to excessive disease and pest pressure, under-anticipated crop yields, disgruntled customers, and downright bone-tiring exhaustion at the end of each day. I never experienced a single year of farming when the balance of successes and failures was tipped too far in one direction or the other, and quite honestly, I believe that is why farming is so fascinating and fun as it challenges us to pay attention to nature’s inherent design while attempting to do our best to be the seamless conductors of the fields and greenhouses.
Of course, making good use of a little modern help such as low and high tunnel structures, well-made and innovative tools and equipment, good record keeping systems as well as the friendly collaboration and assistance of fellow neighboring farmers and the sharing of information at winter conferences and trade shows, ensures that the farming scale gets tipped a little further in a positive and successful direction year after year. Now is the time to reflect on the techniques and approaches used, evaluate their effectiveness for next season and discern what improvements could be made for increased success.
In particular, if growing in high tunnels, it is important to evaluate crop selection, planting dates, and growing methods to get the most efficient use of the tunnel. Heat-loving crops such as tomatoes, cucumbers, eggplant and peppers make obvious choices for high tunnel crops, especially when they can be transplanted earlier in the season and trellised to take advantage of the vertical space inside the tunnel. If growing year-round, look at a calendar and anticipate the delicate dance of succession planting and the transition from heat-loving to cold-hardy vegetables so that certain crops can take full advantage of the protected growing space. Many sample crop plans can be found in Eliot Coleman’s books including The Winter Harvest Handbook. For simply constructed low tunnels using a Remay fabric secured over multiple pre-bent ten-foot lengths of ½” electrical conduit or EMT positioned over a crop every four feet down a row, many crops such as onions and spinach can be protected and wintered-over for an earlier harvest in spring/summer. The trick is to either direct seed or transplant seedlings into beds during the early fall so that the majority of early growth happens before the arrival of the colder, lower light-level, and inclement weather conditions of early winter. If wintering-over, a second layer of plastic is necessary to add increased warmth and protection from heavy snow loads. It is essential that the plastic be secured and anchored over the Remay fabric to prevent collapsing of the low tunnel from snow accumulation. Once the plastic layer is applied, it is important to diligently monitor the internal temperatures and ventilate to prevent excessive over-heating of the crops. One of my favorite moments of early spring is removing the snow from the end of a low tunnel and peeking inside to view a sea of vibrant green spinach carpeting the length of the tunnel and ready to be harvested!
When it comes to tools and equipment, nothing is more frustrating than a poorly manufactured tool or not having the right tool for the job. One well-made and effective tool will make all the difference to worker ease and efficiency on the job. Hoes such as the Collinear Hoe, which allow you to maintain a more upright body position, almost like waltzing down the row as my father likes to say, make quick and easy work of cultivating a bed before the weeds get out of control and it becomes necessary to bend over to hand weed. Johnny’s Selected Seeds carries many tried and tested tools developed by Eliot Coleman and many are even manufactured locally. One of my favorite tools is the Tilther, a lightweight tiller designed to create perfect tilth within the top two to three inches of soil on a prepared bed, and it is ingeniously powered by a rechargeable drill. No more potential asphyxiation from the gasoline fumes of a standard rototiller while preparing beds in the high tunnel!
Effective record keeping systems are critical to advancing both your experience and the success of your business forward. Simple notepads and computer spreadsheets can be used as long as one is consistent at taking frequent notes and copying them into a computer program. Other internet based programs such as are very helpful at managing all your on-farm record keeping including calendar crop planning, field mapping, harvest data, inventory records, sales/customer tracking, and employee management. Reliable access to the internet is essential and a commitment to entering the necessary information on a weekly basis, if not daily, is the key to success with this method. The best advantage is having all the recorded information at your fingertips when the time comes to begin analyzing successes and failures and anticipating the most effective plan for next season.
With the slower pace of the winter months, many agricultural conferences and trade shows take place around the country to assemble farmers, gardening enthusiasts, and agricultural vendors together. Attending these conferences is a great opportunity to learn new information from the experts as well as share ideas and connect with other growers. The Northeast Organic Farming Association (NOFA) has chapters in most Northeast states and hosts a number weekend winter conferences specific to the state. Many other conferences happen all across the country and it can be very beneficial to broaden your perspective and connect with farmers from other states who experience varied growing conditions and differing challenges. And since the farming profession sometimes offers little in the way of social engagement, attending conferences can be a fun and light-hearted way to make new friends and reconnect with old friends from near and far. But most importantly, I appreciate the chance to be inspired and reinvigorated by like-minded people and ultimately reminded of our common humanity and that despite the inherent challenges of farming, we are all working toward the same goal of producing the healthiest, most nutritious food possible while striving to live a good life.

A ‘Joyful’ Four-Season Farming Event in Black Forest, Colorado

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followthefarmereventLast weekend I had the pleasure of presenting on four-season farming techniques as the ‘Featured Farmer’ at A Joyful Noise Farm in Black Forest, Colorado, which is owned and operated by the lovely and motivated husband and wife team, Craig and Kellie McHugh. This was their second year of organizing the successful ‘Follow the Farmer’ event as a celebration of sustainable farming techniques for friends and community members to attend and enjoy. Last year, they hosted Joel Salatin of Polyface Farms as the ‘Featured Farmer’ and he spoke about sustainable livestock farming and other topics where he has garnered considerable fame and recognition.

Following the theme of coming full circle, I had first met Craig and Kellie in 2010 at my former four-season farm Divide Creek Farm during my event ‘Farming and Feeding of the Minds’ where I hosted both Joel Salatin and my father, Eliot Coleman as the featured farming talent. After that event, Craig was inspired and determined to bring Joel Salatin to his farm for a seminar and two years later in August 2012, he realized his dream. So it only seemed fitting that I would receive an email from Craig the next year inquiring if I would be interested in presenting at their 2nd Annual Follow the Farmer event. Of course I said yes and I was excited for the opportunity to return to high desert climate of Colorado to present on the four-season farming techniques I honed during my time envisioning, building and operating Divide Creek Farm.

Craig and Kellie have created a beautiful small farm on 10 acres tucked in amongst the noble Ponderosa Pine trees and rolling hills of Black Forest, Colorado. While not exactly hills at 7,600 feet in elevation, the location has a peaceful and joyous feel, with three high tunnels and gardens along with laying hens, milk goats, pigs, and a milk cow grazing and foraging around the forested property. The summer did not begin so peacefully however – on June 11th the McHugh family had to evacuate their farm during a devastating forest fire which burned 16,000 acres and destroyed over 500 homes in the surrounding area. Luckily, their house, farm and the majority of their animals were spared and they were able to return home 10 days later.

The event began bright and early on a gorgeous clear and sunny Colorado morning. Attendees arrived for registration and enjoyed a delicious breakfast prepared by local nomadic chef Kevin Campbell of Full Circle Cuisine. I opened the seminar with a slideshow presentation on the inspiration and basics of four-season farming and then we broke into smaller workshop groups to showcase specialized techniques and tools which were generously supplied by Johhny’s Selected Seeds. Some of the tools that sparked the most interest included the Tilther and the Quick Cut Greens Harvester, both of which involved considerable design ideas and feedback from Eliot Coleman before being put on the market and made available to farmers.

During the two hour workshop, I discussed the benefits of soil blocks, seed starting and variety selection, appropriate crop planning using movable high tunnels such as the Rolling Thunder models manufactured by Rimol Greenhouses, various pruning and trellising techniques used in the high tunnel, successful soil bed preparation both indoors and out as well as effective sales and marketing methods benefiting small-scale farmers. For soil blocking, I spoke about selecting a good potting soil such as Vermont Compost containing peat moss, perlite and compost to form the best soil blocks and nourish and sustain the healthiest seed starts. Soil block makers come in various sizes including ½”, 1 ½”, 2”, 3”& 4”, which allow a grower to ‘pot on’ the seedlings to the next size block at the right stage of growth for the seedling. Soil blocks have the added benefit of not requiring plastic disposable plug trays and avoid the ‘legginess’ and root bound issues typical of container-grown seedlings. Ultimately, the earlier you can get healthy seedlings ready to transplant in the ground, the more effective you can be at using the protected high tunnel and/or low tunnel growing space to get a head start on the season and be the first to market with popular and high-demand produce such as tomatoes and cucumbers.

In addition to using protected growing spaces, appropriate crop and variety selection will ensure productive four-season growing. Certain cold hardy crops and varieties such as ‘Tyee’ or ‘Space’ spinach, ‘Astro’ or ‘Surrey’ arugula, ‘Winter Density’ lettuce, ‘Elegance Greens’ salad mix, ‘Vit’ mache, Claytonia, Tatsoi, Joi Choi, Mizuna, ‘Ruby Red’ chard, ‘Winterbor’ or ‘Red Russian’ kale, ‘Red Ace’ or ‘Touchstone Gold’ beets, ‘Bulls Blood’ beet greens, ‘Easter Egg’ radish, ‘Hakurei’ salad turnips, ‘Napoli’ or ‘Nelson’ carrots, etc. (which can be sourced from Johnny’s Selected Seeds) are all good selections for growing year-round in a high tunnel. Without a high tunnel though, there are still many crops that can be grown and protected early or late in the season in a quick hoop low tunnel or even overwintered in the low tunnel such as ‘Bridger’ onions and ‘Lancelot’ leeks. Using the Johnny’s Quick Hoop Low Tunnel Bender, I demonstrated how to bend 10 foot lengths of ½” EMT into 6 foot diameter hoops which I then set up over two 30” beds with a 12” path and assembled a winter low tunnel using Agribon row cover, plastic and sand bags. Various techniques can be used to secure the ends and additional staking and parachute cord can be used over the tunnel during winter to provide more stability in wind and prevent collapsing from heavy snow loads. The benefits of using quick hoop low tunnels either inside a high tunnel during the winter or independently outside of a high tunnel throughout the year are innumerous and I am always amazed by the construction and management improvements I hear being developed each season by small-scale farmers everywhere.

Overall, the day was filled with many questions and much excitement and attendees came away from the event very inspired to try some of the techniques at home or on their commercial farm operation. Most importantly, they learned that with a little innovation, ingenuity and some specialized tools, four-season farming is not only possible but a very successful and joyful venture in the high mountain terrain of Colorado. Happy four-season farming everyone!

High Tunnels – To Move or Not to Move?

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wintercarrotsinearlyseptember09Exploring the benefits of movable high tunnels- Movable high tunnels have become the new buzz word in four-season small-scale agriculture these days but are they really worth all the hype? The simplest answer depends on your needs as a farmer or a home gardener. In my personal experience, movable tunnels have the benefits of improved four-season growing as well as the potential to enhance customer relationship marketing. Let’s first get acquainted with movable high tunnel basics and explore the main advantages and possible disadvantages of a movable tunnel.

The primary reason to use any greenhouse structure, whether movable or not, is to provide crops a protected and controlled microclimate. Crops are either grown on benches, in raised beds, or more commonly, directly in level soil within the greenhouse space. This way all crops, whether salad greens or tomatoes, can be easily re-tilled and re-configured if necessary. A movable greenhouse is not actually a new idea but a ‘rediscovered new idea’ – the first commercial movable greenhouse was built in England at the end of the nineteenth century. It was a very large and expensive glass structure and moved along old railroad tracks so it was not realistic for the average farmer or gardener.

Modern movable high tunnels, such as Rimol’s Rolling Thunder, have the advantage of being moved along a track from one growing area to an adjacent area at a scheduled time to accommodate four-season growing. For example, if the tunnel is protecting a summer crop of tomatoes and winter carrots are in need of protection for the winter months but not during the fall growing season, the carrots can be seeded in the late summer in the adjacent plot while the tomatoes are still producing inside the tunnel, and then only once the tomato crop is finished in late fall, then the tunnel can be moved over the carrot crop to protect it for the winter season.

This system creates a ‘best of both seasons’ scenario and the cold-hardy crops that can be grown and harvested during the winter months are quite varied. Since the most economic and sustainable option is to avoid supplemental heating or use very minimal heating, the crops selected for the winter months are cold-hardy enough to withstand cold winter temperatures but since they are protected from the desiccating effects of the wind and outdoor elements, they remain in a perpetual harvest state during the majority of winter.

These crops include spinach, baby lettuces, Asian greens, European greens, salad mixes, carrots, leeks, radishes, onions, scallions, kale, chard, beets and salad turnips. Depending on your USDA plant hardiness zone and without using supplemental heat, some of these crops such as carrots and spinach perform well through the entire winter months while others such as beets and radishes are best to grow later into the fall or started earlier in the spring. Simply from the double protection of the high tunnel and an inner layer of Remay or Agribon, you will be amazed by how much can be grown and survive the cold of winter.

To provide a quick overview, movable high tunnels have many advantages over a stationary tunnel:

1) Movables maximize square footage growing area by two to three times depending on the number of moves per year.

2) With proper planning, the use of a movable prevents summer crops from being removed prematurely from the high tunnel due to fall/winter crop timing issues.

3) A grower can avoid planting or seeding crops that are adapted to cool weather growing conditions in a hot summer/fall high tunnel.

4) They mediate potential soil and pest issues by exposing the soil to the cleansing effects of the outdoor elements for a season.

5) They accommodate crop rotation issues more seamlessly.

6) They can be used as a ‘Hoop Coop’ to shelter pastured laying hens during the winter months.

7) Using movables enhances the success of four-season production which ensures fresh product available year-round and a more consistent income available for the farmer and farm employees.

Like anything in agriculture, there are always disadvantages to consider:

1) Movables can cost more per square foot due to additional components needed for movability and structural integrity.

2) The endwall designs need to accommodate the moving process to allow for an easy move, sliding over crops, sufficient ventilation and door access.

3) Further planning and foresight must be considered if installing electricity, heating elements or irrigation.

4) Unless movables are properly and securely anchored, they can potentially be blown away or damaged by extreme wind gusts.

5) The learning curve to successfully plan four-season crop plantings and seeding times is more challenging and it is essential to do your homework and be open to learning through trial and error when starting out.

In my personal experience, I am a big fan of movable tunnels from the success I had using them at my farm, Divide Creek Farm in Colorado. Not only did I appreciate the numerous advantages listed above, but they enhanced my customer outreach and relationship marketing by providing an interesting educational topic to engage in conversation at farmer’s markets, during CSA pick-ups, farm tours and at other farm events.

As small-scale farming becomes more competitive, it is important to have niche crops and strong customer relations to ensure the success and longevity of your business. One of my niche crops was the sweet winter carrots which were only available during the late fall and winter months. For the unique advantage of being able to more easily grow freshly-harvested sweet winter carrots, I would always choose to have at least one movable tunnel. The winter farmers market I attended every Saturday provided countless opportunities to discuss the reason why I had fresh sweet carrots to sell and not storage carrots due to the advantage of the movable tunnel to protect the winter crop.

Most people were amazed after sampling a carrot as they had rarely tasted one that sweet and delicious before and many parents would regale humorous tales of how their children quickly became popular at school with lines of kids clamoring to trade for their carrots. If vegetables taste good, it rarely takes any encouragement to get kids to eat them!

While choosing to add a high tunnel, whether movable or not, involves much consideration, I believe the advantages far outweigh the disadvantages and if smartly planned and executed, it will provide a substantial improvement to your farm or garden. Most importantly, the more farmers, gardeners and customers who are inspired and educated about the advantages of movables, the more expertise and innovation we can develop in high tunnel use and design, and the more effective we will be in moving small-scale farming into the twenty-first century for the benefit of all in agriculture.

Additional in-depth information and resources can be found in Eliot Coleman’s books, Four-Season Harvest and The Winter Harvest Handbook and also at his website Four Season Farm. And of course, Rimol Greenhouses can answer many of your questions when considering a Rolling Thunder movable tunnel or a stationary model.

Clara’s Keynote Talk at NOFA-VT 2013 Winter Conference

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On Saturday, February 16th 2013, I was the keynote speaker at the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont’s (NOFA-VT) 2013 Winter Conference. I delievered an inspiring speech titled “Back to My Roots, Forward to the Next Generation” to a crowd of over 900 people and hosted a workshop with my father, Eliot Coleman.

Was this your first time attending the NOFA-VT winter conference? If so, can you tell us your first impressions of the event?

As far as I can remember (I may have tagged along with my dad as a kid), this was my first time attending the NOFA-VT winter conference and both my dad and I feel it is one of the best organic winter conferences in the country. Since it is also one of the oldest organic conferences (since 1971), it is very well attended with over 1,500 attendees from the Vermont farming community and beyond. I met out-of-state farmers traveling from Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Maine. They all shared with me how much they appreciate the informative workshops, interesting keynotes, and networking opportunities easily sourced at this conference.

Can you tell us a little bit about your speech titled “Back to My Roots, Forward to the Next Generation”. What does this title mean to you? What were the key points you addressed in your speech?

Since the 2013 conference theme was ‘Generations of Innovations,’ my aim was to address both the early pioneers and the new generation of farmers in an attempt to encourage a larger conversation about the heart of farming as we move forward into the next generation of farming communities. I shared my story about starting my farm in Colorado and how the inevitable uncertainties of the farming lifestyle can sometimes lead to unpleasant and unanticipated results – namely burnout and divorce. What I discovered through my experience and through sharing stories with many other farmers is that not only do we need to innovate solutions to farming problems and hone our technical proficiency, we also need to unearth our authenticity and cultivate our emotional intelligence as farmers.

Emotional intelligence is defined as interpersonal relationships, those we have with other people, and intrapersonal relationships, the one we have with ourselves, and it is the single biggest predictor of performance in the workplace and the strongest driver of leadership and personal excellence. With this in mind, I sought to develop a clear and simple framework for helping farmers to strengthen their resilience and my innovation is the development of a Real Farmers’ Manifesto (MANIFESTO is an acronym for Make Connections; Ask For Support; Nurture Yourself; Innovate And Inspire Ideas; Farming Fun; Educate Your Community; Serve Your Community; Trust In Nature; Own Your Story) as a call to action to farmers to share stories with one another to discover authenticity and cultivate emotional intelligence. Each of the Manifesto topics was illustrated with personal farming stories collected from farmers, both young and old, located around the world. And I am still collecting stories as I work toward developing my idea into a book. Stay tuned!

Does every Northeast state or region have an Organic Farming Association? What is the purpose and function of the association?

NOFA-VT is part of the larger NOFA association, an acronym for the Northeast Organic Farming Association, and it is comprised of seven state chapters in the Northeast United States including Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, Vermont and each chapter is a self-sustaining entity within its state. The primary purpose is to advocate on behalf of organic farmers and their communities by providing educational conferences, workshops, beginning farmer resources, farm certification, technical farming assistance and printed materials to better educate farmers, gardeners, consumers and land care professionals.

Are you a member of the NOFA association? How can growers and farming enthusiasts get involved?

Since I recently moved from Colorado I am not a current member but after attending the conference, I plan to become one!! All of the details you need to join or learn more information is found at this link:

Can you tell us a little bit about your workshop at NOFA-VT with your father? What was the workshop’s title, how many people attended? What were some key points?

Roughly 75-100 people attended our workshop entitled ‘Keeping Four-Season Farming in the Family.’ My father and I presented on our farming observations as two generations of farmers sourcing from two generations of inspiration and situated in two drastically different farming locations (Maine and Colorado) and how these differing experiences allowed us to discover some universal inter-generational similarities. Specifically, we shared the following to be important to both of us: follow an intensive, ecological and high quality approach; focus on healthy soil, seeds and supplies; invest in high tunnels and greenhouses for four-season growing; discover your niche market and educate new customers; relationship marketing is key to building a loyal customer base; consistent attention to detail is imperative to success; always learn from mistakes and record observations; innovate and collaborate with farmers; share stories and knowledge, and remember to have fun! Our goal was to provide encouragement to farming families to keep farming in the family as a means to inspire and ensure future generations of farmers.

What is the overall importance of events like NOFA-VT to growers and farming enthusiasts alike? Why should people attend?

Since farmers are typically very busy during the summer months, annual winter conferences give them a wonderful opportunity to learn new information and skills, connect with other farmers, and celebrate the joy of farming. Joining NOFA-VT or another similar association and attending the conferences is another important way of adding your voice of support to a growing movement of farmers and enthusiasts who want to grow sustainable, nourishing food, care for their land, and educate and serve their local communities.

What was this experience like for you? Will you be attending again next year?

Wow! What an amazing weekend! The conference was great fun and I feel like my talk was well received but I was even more inspired and humbled by all of the heartfelt comments and feedback I received during the weekend. I even had someone come up and just give me a hug! Of course I would enjoy attending in the future.

What are some tips and tricks growers should keep in mind when attending conferences like NOFA-VT? Do you have any networking advice?

Expect to be delighted!! And take advantage of a tremendous opportunity to make connections – you just never know who you might meet.