How to make a vegetable farm, steps one through eleven.
1. Start with a good field.
I just signed the lease on 60 acres of beautiful sandy ground that is permanently protected from development with a conservation easement through the Genesee Land Trust! It's overwhelming but invigorating. It's the land I've always dreamed of, and have been looking for. Now I am the proud steward of it, and it comes with lots of responsibility. This is truly a "field of opportunity"... besides growing vegetables, the possibilities include: organic hay, berries, fruit trees, pastures for animals, grain crops, who knows! This year I will put most of it into grass/clover, and grow a few acres of vegetables in a field that was thick with clover last year.
2. Have good water.
map of New York State to find out what's downstream of you.
So all this means that the farm is located on a ridge or hill that doesn't have a lot of big surface water, but has lots of springs that start small and go in all directions. On this particular field, the sandy topsoil would never hold a pond, but there are underground streams, 30-40 feet down, nestled into layers of clay and rock, which run clear and strong.
I had a well drilled in the fall on a small lot that I own adjacent to the leased 60 acre field. At 37 feet we tapped into that underground stream, and we can pump a large volume of it at a time to irrigate crops with. Water is life.
3. Test the soil.
Yesterday was 73 degrees (crazy for March 9th!) so I walked all around the fields with my new soil probe and took samples. I will send them off to the lab today to be analyzed for nutrient levels, organic matter, and pH. This will tell me what kind of soil amendments (all organic) I need to add in order to best create the perfect conditions for vegetables to thrive in. The ground was completely un-frozen, and the probe sank right down into the sand. I only hit 3 rocks, out of probably 45 samples! I am very much looking forward to cultivating this velvety soil.
4. Make your crop plan, and order seeds.
I am basing my crop plan on the last farm that I started, Mud Creek Farm. For years we polled CSA members to find out exactly what they wanted me to grow, and how much of what. Of course some things are easier to grow than others. Running a CSA means that I have to balance efficiency with variety, and strategically choose cultivars that are resilient to all sorts of crazy weather. I order hundreds of different types of seeds to give me a kind of insurance ("hedge my bets"), as well as plenty of the varieties that I know work well. My seed order this year cost around $2,000, not counting cover crop seeds, potato seed, and garlic seed, which are all good investments but double that figure. These are the risks taken by the farmer, that in a CSA model, the farm members help to share. It is an exciting, but scary time.
5. Build and heat a greenhouse to start your baby plants.
I bought a 10' x 24' greenhouse from a friend who is scaling up to a bigger greenhouse. We disassembled it, and reassembled it. We bought new plastic for it, built tables for inside, and today the propane tank gets delivered which will keep our baby plants from freezing at night (we might have frost for another 2 months!)
6. Start with really good potting soil.
I have really enjoyed using Lighthouse Garden's organic potting soil. It is compost based, and has all the nutrients that the plants need to be healthy, for the month or so that they are raised in the greenhouse, until we plant them out in the field. And the potting soil is made by my friend Todd just a few miles away from the farm!
7. Buy supplies.
8. Have a farm office.
This corner usually fills up quickly with paperwork, files, bills, checks, soil sample buckets, tools, books, hardware, catalogs, seeds, posters, and coffee mugs. Keeping it organized usually happens after dark or on my "day off"!
9. Sell CSA Shares.
I am trying to sell 75 CSA Shares this year! I know it's a little ambitious for a first year, but I'm confident I can grow that much, since I've done it before. This is only a quarter of the size of the farm I was running a few years ago. So, I'm putting some time and money and energy into getting the word out -- these flashy color postcards are a first for me, but I'm happy at how they turned out. I am trying to reach people who've never heard of CSA. I'm also tabling at 2 CSA fairs, and giving 2 free info meetings in March.
10. Take a deep breath and sow the first seeds.
I am using a heat mat in a sunny window to start the first very early seeds, parsley and a special kind of pepper. Next week we'll fire up the greenhouse, and start many more trays! Seeds on a heat mat need watering at least 3 times a day, since the heat dries the soil out quickly. Some seeds need over 80 degrees to germinate, but after they "pop up" they can be brought back to regular temperatures (60-70). I am relying on my "greenhouse schedule" master spreadsheet which tells me when to plant everything, and what temperature they need, and what size trays and how many trays.
11. Don't freak out.
When I look at the parked tractor (my big new Kubota) I get a combination of "gulp" and a feeling of rushing energy... it's the spring plowing urge. I imagine myself like a tree when the sap starts to run again in the spring, after being frozen all winter. I want to turn the soil over again, to cultivate something good, something powerful, food growing from the ground. I want to take this field that has lain fallow, quiet, and frozen all winter, and make it flower with abundant green life.
I can't wait. The honeybees and birds and the tiny crocuses that pop up in the spring all know this urge. It's risky. There could be more snowstorms. There could be a summer drought. There will be exhaustion. But there will be sweetness too, and bright colors. And so maybe it's worth it. Here we go!