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 AgSquared.com 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.