Thursday, May 5, 2011

Farmer's Perspective: Planning Yields

[photo by Art Spiegel, via]

One of the first questions I am asked when proposing an edible garden or market farm program is, how much can you really grow in a small space? This question is not easy to answer, and how much the land can yield depends on many factors including climate, rainfall, soil fertility, management and crops planted. There are general rules of thumb for different crop types, such as mixed vegetables or orchard fruit that can guide planning. A more detailed approach is revealed in this post from Pablito at Terra Firma Farms. It’s a fascinating insight into the way one farm plans for one crop, and how that affects what its CSA customers receive each week. Detailed and technical, this post also points to the skill that a seasoned farmer can bring to planning an agricultural project. Hope you enjoy!
You may have noticed that some weeks the Large (or the Medium, or the Small) boxes get an item that the Medium (or the Large/and or  the Small) and/or Small (and/or the Large) boxes don't get.  Confused yet?  Welcome to our world.
Sometimes these decisions are deliberate, active choices on our part -- an effort to alternate items, for example. Just as often, though, the vegetables make the decisions for us.  Cauliflower and Broccoli are good examples.  Despite our efforts to plant them at regular intervals, the amount of crop they produce in a given week is determined by the weather.  A half acre of broccoli (a standard size planting for us) produces roughly 9000 heads over a three week period.  Ideally, this would translate into 3000 heads a week for three weeks.  The reality is usually something more like this:
        Week 1:  500 heads
        Week 2:  7000 heads
        Week 3:  2500 heads

With crops like these, we really don't know until the day of harvest exactly how much we are going to get.

Terra Firma currently delivers about 1400 CSA boxes each week, spread over 3 days.  Roughly 50% are Medium boxes, 30% are Small, and 20% Large.  Continuing with the broccoli example, we need at least 250 heads to do just the Large boxes.  If we have 500 heads, we can put it in just the Small boxes.  Once we have 1400 heads we can put a head in all the boxes.  If we get more than that in a single week, we can start to increase the amount in one or the other boxes:  2 heads in the Small and Medium, and 3 in the Large, for example (for a grand total of 3000 heads).  Sometimes we have enough extra that we have to sell it through another channel.

We always plan on growing enough of each crop to be able to put it in all the boxes.  It just doesn't always work out that we have enough for all the boxes the same week.  Which is why sometimes you might notice that you -- a Medium box subscriber -- didn't get an item that you want, but the Small (or Large) boxes did.  Or Vice versa. (And while) it is always our goal to match demand with supply and keep everyone as happy as possible. …in the end, we are growing fresh produce, not producing Iphones.

(excerpted from TerraFirma Farm newsletter, April 20, 2011)

Monday, May 2, 2011

Design Projects for the APC Urban Farm

The Alameda Point Collaborative (APC) Urban Farm sits on one-acre of a former Naval Air Station in Alameda, CA. Closed in 1993, portions of the military base have been converted to other uses, including the Alameda Point Collaborative, a supportive housing community that provides homes, job training and other services to formerly homeless families.The farm initiative grew out of a food community assessment that found widespread difficulty in obtaining fresh, nutritious food due to availability and cost.

In 2008, following these findings, the farm was created on the site of a former park, and now offers a CSA style weekly produce delivery service, and sells at a farm stand and to local restaurants. In addition the farm produces and sells eggs & honey, and is developing two aquaculture ponds for raising fish. The farm is a highly successful example of a community food security project, leveraging local engagement and dedicated leadership. I love the before and after aerial views of the farm, which I have borrowed here:
[Before & After, via]

Two new/upcoming pro-bono projects at the farm aim to find architectural and landscape solutions to increase productivity, integrate ecology and aid production.
[Rendering of barn, courtesy of Studios Architecture]

Studios Archicture's San Franciso office has designed a multi-purpose barn that will provide an area for vegetable washing, storage, office space and bike parking. Anna de Anguera, the lead designer explains the design goals:

"Design goals were to make something simple & easy to construct that utilizes as much donated and salvaged materials as possible, and is strategically sited for views from inside the barn and solar access to the greenhouse.  The butterfly roof was chosen to make future rainwater collection simple and to emphasize the rainwater collection goals.  The structure will utilize containers donated by shipping companies and perforated metal panels salvaged from our design for the AIA booth at (the 2009) AIA convention."
The barn project is awaiting funding for completion.
[Diagram of hedgerow plant-insect relationships]
In collaboration with Studios' efforts and with the farm managers, (as a pro-bono project), I designed a series of 'farmscapes', landscape projects that address aesthetic and ecological conditions on the farm, including a windbreak along the north fence and cover cropping in the olive orchard. Along the street frontage, a narrow planting strip between the fence and curb was overgrown with weeds, and targeted for improvements. The physical constraints of the space suggested a 'hedgerow' - mixed planting of various heights that provides year round habitat and food sources for pollinators and beneficial insects. Based on research by the Yolo County Land Trust, the hedgerow design overlaps flowering periods, ensuring that something is always in bloom and thus supports native insects who will in turn support the farm's productivity. On a weekend in early April, a volunteer group gathered to install the first phase of the hedgerow. It will be exciting to see it grow and to monitor the developing ecology at the farm's edge. 

These projects at the APC Farm are one example of the ways that design professionals can engage and support the efforts of local,urban food production. I'd love to hear of more projects like this, and will be posting photos of the APC projects as they develop.