January 7, 2011

DENIS THOET: Lots of work goes into planning for small-farm produce yield


To borrow from the sage Yogi Berra (again), “Farming is 90 percent mental and 50 percent physical.”

Luckily, the mental part — crop planning — occurs mostly in cold weather, and the physical labor mostly in warm weather. So it all adds up to 100 percent. Trust me.

Still, planning this year’s harvest is like a three-dimensional chess game on wheels over nine months (February-October). Our goal is to feed 80 families for 20 weeks (our farm share, or CSA program), to supply the Gardiner Farmers’ Market year round, and to feed ourselves as well.

To make it more interesting, we have only 2.5 acres under cultivation, and we use only human labor (ourselves and two or three apprentices) and hand tools. There are approximately 200 raised beds, 3 feet wide, ranging from 25 feet to 100 feet.

Our key words are “succession” and “rotation.”

We can often get three crops out of one bed (succession), such as early greens (salad, spinach), followed by summer squash, followed by fall carrots or kale.

That means starting lots of plants in the greenhouse so we can have 4- to 6-week-old seedlings ready to pop into space just vacated by spinach.

Other successions are planted repeatedly: lettuce is planted every two weeks, scallions eight times a season, beans three times, for example. Some are sown directly into the ground, some are planted in flats for the succession transplanting.

Then we have rotations to think about. It’s hugely important to rotate the crop families in the garden to keep down bad bugs and diseases, reduce weed competition and build healthy soil. The rotations are a major part of improving our soil, too.

Some vegetables — sweet corn, Brussels sprouts, celery, onions — stay in the ground all season.

This small farm grows 40-plus kinds of vegetables with more than 200 varieties. We buy most of our seeds from Maine sources (Fedco and Johnny’s) and grow garlic from our own seed.

Because farming presents so many variables (early or late frost, deer damage, poor germination), we plant a lot extra. We start by figuring how many pounds we need per week to supply everybody. That means figuring out the yield per row or plant, adding 25 percent more for seedling problems. So if we want a total of 250 tomato plants, we plan for 400 plants to be safe.

Another consideration is how long a crop can hold in the ground. We pick carrots roughly three times in three weeks. First, the small-ish ones come out, thinning the beds so the rest can grow fully. The second time, everything goes except the smallish ones, which all grow until the third picking.

So if 100 feet of carrots yields 80 to 100 pounds, and we have 80 CSA members whom we want to give a pound a week for three weeks, we will plant at least 400 feet of carrots, plus maybe another 200 feet. If all goes well, everyone gets more carrots, and we have lots of extra for ourselves and the farmers’ market.

If we have a drought or a flood or the deer eat a lot, there should be enough for at least an average share. We like having lots of options!

Another thing to consider are crops such as spinach that bolt (put up a flower stalk and get bitter) when the weather goes from cool spring to hot summer. We look for “slow-bolting” varieties for spring planting.

It’s also important to find seed varieties that do well in Maine’s challenging climate, which is why seed companies in Maine and New England are the first place to go.

Then there’s the question of frost. It has taken a few years of experience with our garden site to figure out what our microclimate is. We joke that it’s more like the Western Mountains than Southern Maine.

We’ve had frosts as late as June 15 and as early as Aug. 28. So we don’t plant our tomato seedlings on Memorial Day, and we are ready to protect as much as we can with row cover if frost comes in late spring.

Adding to the complexity of this mobile chess game is how different crops have different requirements. For example, carrots and greens like drip irrigation and finer soil, but right now we are able to irrigate only the greenhouse and other limited portions of the garden. So it makes sense to consider those areas as prime for carrots and greens — as long as the successions and rotations work out.

Garden soils also vary greatly, even on a small farm like ours. The clay soil in the front field is slowly yielding to much more plant-friendly soil through years of tilling, mulching and composting. In the rougher soils where the ground has just been opened up, crops such as corn, tomatoes and kale do well.

Complexity aside, the joy of the “mental” part of farming is that we can almost feel the warmth of the sun and smell the fresh soil as we work our way through the dark and cold of winter.

You can visualize a lot by imagining. Thanks, Yogi!

I would like to thank my wife, Michele, for providing all the facts for this article.



Denis Thoet and his partner, Michele Roy, own and manage Long Meadow Farm in West Gardiner, longmeadowfarm@roadrunn er.com 

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