Winter Farming: “Farming isn’t rocket science…It’s more complicated than that.”

I did not grow up in a farming family. But I have spent many years– from the age of 16–on and around a farm working as a farm hand, feeding and tending to cows, calves, and so on. Fieldwork on a farm tends to have lots of volunteers, and pretty much all of the volunteers had more experience in the tractor seat than myself. So I often stayed back on the farm, doing the necessary jobs of feeding the animals, scraping the barn, and other grunt work.

Fast forward to over 20 years later, my wife and I, now farmers, have decided to take another step with our own farm and add a produce operation. With this new endeavor I must learn a completely new set of skills and level of understanding. I am certainly capable of driving a tractor, but learning how everything else works is a bit overwhelming.

At the end of January, I spent several days up in Hershey, PA, at the Mid Atlantic Fruit and Vegetable Convention. This convention pulls together many local area farmers, college students, and agriculture professors, as well as industry folks (machinery, packaging, supplies, etc.). I found a wide variety of very in-depth conversations and workshops on many surprising topics.

dripDrip Irrigation – I am a preschooler and the workshops I took on this topic were on the college level. I was hoping to get a basic “plug Part A into Line B” type of instruction, but instead I heard conversations on soil sensors, Irrigation theory, pond management…so much to consider for the sustainability of any irrigation system I set up.

Soil HealthDirt is the stuff we sweep under the rug; it is not the stuff we grow your food in. Soil is the medium in which plants grow. The soil is probably the most complex ecosystem in the universe. It also one of the least understood. A teaspoon of native grassland soil contains 600-800 million bacteria of up to 10,000 different species, several miles of fungi of 5,000 species, 10,000 protozoa of 5000 species, and 20-30 beneficial nematodes that are members of up to a 100 different species. This list does not include the big critters like earthworms. The $64 question is what do all these little guys do and what happens to them when we start farming a soil?soil

  • I also spent some time learning about another farm’s “Agritourism” operation.  We are planning to construct a multipurpose building on our farm to host our customers, hold farm events, and locate our delivery operations closer to home, so this topic was very helpful for us to start the planning.
  • Finally, I learned about how and efficient produce farm grows particular crops like celery, lettuce, and other popular field greens.

tunnelsHigh Tunnels – A high tunnel is basically a green house with a soil floor, and no heat. Sustainable produce operations use high tunnels to extend the growing season, and we have a grant pending to build tunnels on the Hometown Harvest Farm this summer.

To be honest, my head is still spinning a bit with all of the information I learned at the convention. I have begun to apply this new information immediately, as I work to finalize my crop plan for 2015. I had originally planned to grow a very diverse group of crops in our first field, but now with a better understanding of soil health, weeds, insects, and other pests, it might be better for me to simplify that plan by focusing on fewer crops. Once we’ve become proficient in growing those this year, then we continue to convert additional ground next year and add additional plant varieties. Stay tuned, and thanks for your continued support!

Best of Health!
Tony

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