Monday, April 30, 2012

Farm Metrics: Organic Choreography

[Farm field view, image via Double Portion]

One of the most appealing elements of the agricultural landscape for me is it's overtly dynamic character. While every landscape changes over time, few man-made landscape change as dramatically, or as often, as a multi-crop farm. Cycles of planting, harvest and fallow periods mean changing scales, color and composition across the land through the seasons and the year. The type and age of vegetation are in constant rotation, and so too the birds, insects and animals that might find shelter or food within the agrarian landscape. These marked changes are the result of careful planning by the farmer to meet the needs of the market, the land and the season. Below Pablito of Terra Firm Farm CSA shares how his farm changes throughout the season, and some statistics about yields. It's a brilliant look behind the scenes at a complex orchestration of the land...

What crops do you think we grows the most acreage of?  The largest amount of? Which crop has the longest season? We harvest crops from our fields 50 weeks out of every year, and we plant seeds or plants in the ground 48 of those weeks.  Like all good farmers and most organic farmers, we practice a four year crop rotation -- meaning that we don't plant the same crop in the same spot more than once every four years.  This is a way to avoid the buildup of pests, weeds, and diseases adapted to certain plants.  

While we grow about 50 different crops, for crop rotation purposes there are 10 different options to choose from:  

alliums (onions/garlic/leeks);
(broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, kale, etc.);
(melons/summer & winter squash/cucumbers/watermelons);
legumes (beans/peas); 
(carrots, fennel/parsnips). 
Sweet potatoes, lettuce, and basil are minor crops for us. 

Some entire families, like solanum and cucurbits, are killed by cold so we only grow them during the warm season.  Others we don't grow in the summer at all, such as brassicas.  Beans and peas are cousins but grow in different seasons, as do the members of the Allium family.  So at any time of year, there is likely to be at least one member of each of those two families growing here.

The crops we grow also have dramatically different lifespans.  Arugula and baby Spinach can take as little as 21 days between planting and harvest.  At the other end of the spectrum, Parsnips and Garlic spend 9 months in the ground, Leeks 7 months, and Tomatoes  6 months.  The length of day when a crop is growing can add two or three months to this time:  Beans planted in early spring take 100 days to reach maturity but seeded in July are ready to harvest just 50 days later.  Broccoli transplanted in August makes heads in 60 days; planted in November it can take five months.

In addition to all these factors, we also need to take into account the different types of soil and slightly different microclimates at four different locations in Winters.  We farm about 150 acres of vegetable fields (and another 50 of orchards), but if the weather cooperates, all our machinery is running well, and all the details are worked out, we can grow a crop and a half a year on many of those acres.

So what do we grow the most of?  If you came to the farm in mid-May, you probably wouldn't guess "ALLIUMS" even though you would only see 5 acres of garlic and 10 acres of onions (five in the winter planting and five in the spring planting).  We also grow 5 acres of Leeks, which at a total of 20 acres makes alliums, but they don't get planted until July -- when the garlic and half the onions have already been harvested. 

What you would probably say -- and what most people think -- is  "Tomatoes!", when you saw twenty acres of that crop growing.  And when you add in the five acres of potatoes we also grow (half in the spring and half in the fall), it makes a total of 25 acres of "Solanum".

No matter which day of the year if you showed up at our farm, though, you probably wouldn't say "Your #1 crop is CHENOPODS! (Spinach and Beets)".   Because at any given time, we are never harvesting more than a couple of acres of these crops.  But because we plant them 9 months of the year -- every two weeks from Labor Day until Mother's Day for Spinach and slightly less often for Beets -- we actually grow 30 acres a year of these two crops combined.  Our total Cucurbit acreage is also around 30, but with so many more family members it seems like the title really belongs to the Chenopods.

From a farming perspective, it would be much more efficient and less complicated to plant all 150 acres of our farm with a single crop each year on the same day (or the same week, anyway) and harvest it all in a few weeks.  Then, the following year, plant something else.  That is the way most farms function.  But we are not just farming.  We are farming for our subscribers.  And in our own crazy, complicated way, we're pretty darn good at it.  At least we thing we are, and we hope you think so too.



(excerpted from TerraFirma Farm newsletter, April 11 2012)