Last 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!