I love transplanting, seeing the neat rows of plants nestled into the soil brings me great joy. It feels good to begin to shake off the cobwebs, cleaning out the last of the crop residues from the hoophouse and beginning the journey towards spring.
Our propagation hoophouse is an amalgamation of low-budget methods for both sowing and growing. The north side is cheap tables built from 2×4’s and half inch aviary wire, overlaid with 16 foot hog panels to provide more stability. Sometimes I think about ordering professional tables but the cost has deterred us thus far. There is a narrow walkway next to the tables and then a row of 45 gallon hard pots scavenged from a guerilla grower who was no longer using them.
The pots are effective for winter crops (right now peas and tatsoi) and do well with summer plantings like okra or peppers. Their hard edges make it so that during the spring rush we can lay the hog panels over the top of them and have space for a double row of seedling trays. Another narrow aisle separates a second row of pots along the southern wall of the hoop.
The propagation hoop is built on an old roadbed, and the pots were a convenient way of being able to produce two-three crops each year while still having something to hold up the hog panels for the trays of starts in the spring. It is into this hodgepodge that I’m transplanting lettuce and Chinese cabbage starts, filling pots and the one, 20 foot bed in the middle of the eastern part of the hoophouse.
A January afternoon spent working with plants is good for the mental well-being, a precursor to that which is to come. The seeds that Amber sowed last week have begun to sprout, neat rows of salad mix and root crops like beets, turnips and radishes. The heavy snow and cold temperatures slowed things down a bit, but such is the nature of winter farming.
We are going into spring with 4x as much hoop space as we had at this time last year, having constructed three new 14×50 caterpillar tunnels. The additional 12 beds is a huge boost to our production capacity that we are excited to roll out. We’re still learning how to measure plantings vs. potential sales, and the additional production capacity throws new variables into the equation.
Right now our plan is to sow one tunnel more or less every two weeks, figuring that with four tunnels this will give us a 2 month turnover cycle in the spring. By next winter we hope to be able to run 3 or 4 cycles of quick crops with one cycle of longer summer crops like tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, cucumbers or okra. We’ll interplant scallions throughout the year, cilantro in the spring and fall and basil in the summer.
Hoophouse space is both high cost and high productivity. We want to use the space to produce crops that show an increase in production and/or quality because of the shelter from the elements. Salad mixes and peppers are great examples for us because they both do so well in tunnels during their respective seasons and are high value crops.
It doesn’t do any good to grow more than you can eat if you don’t have a way to move it. Diverse routes to market along with a healthy donation program are our strategies for making sure that produce doesn’t go to waste during peak seasons. We love the connectivity and commitment of CSA along with the interactions at the farmers market. This last year we launched a farmstand which was a lovely compliment to our other sales efforts.
We’ve explored wholesale sales through the MendoLake FoodHub and through limited forays into store accounts. Thus far we’ve had trouble producing consistent volume that would meet wholesale delivery cost requirements. For instance, it’s not worth 2 hours of drivetime and fuel costs to deliver 50 lbs of zucchini that wholesale for $1.50/lb. There is a gap between being a small, direct-retail producer and having the volume to work in wholesale markets. There is also a fulcrum that involves farmer-time-and-energy. Producers who have the space and are able to spend more time on-farm can grow more in part because they spend less time and energy going to market. Producers who make the effort to move products at retail or closer to retail price earn more revenue but have more costs.
There is no one-size-fits-all production matrix; each farm has to find its own niche that is based on proclivity, capability and available resources. With the opportunity costs of land and infrastructure higher than they’ve ever been, there is a systemic structuring of privilege around farming. We need government policies that provide more land-access and grant sources to create and sustain farming operations that sequester carbon and produce high quality food for local communities.
As the winter creeps towards spring, there is much work to be done on the farm and in the broader world. There are many conversations to be had, practices and policies to revisit and revise. Planning and practice go hand in hand into a future of gradual refinement. As always, much love and great success to you on your journey!
Make sure to check out: happydayfarmscsa.com
Casey O'Neill co-operates HappyDay Farms, a micro-diversified farm in northern Mendocino County, California. His family raises two acres of Sun+Earth and DEMPure Certified vegetables, poultry and medical cannabis in a small-farm setting while working towards sustainability. Casey is stoked about sharing food, medicine and cultivation techniques with others. He is passionate about representing small farmers and works to support Mendocino County policy-makers in crafting sensible regulations. Casey also serves on the board of Sun+Earth Certified. You can find his radio show podcast at HappyDay Farms - Farm and Reefer Report on iTunes or Soundcloud. You can also find out more about HappyDay Farms here: http://www.happydayfarmscsa.com, on Instagram @happydayfarms and on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/casey.oneill.395/ or https://www.facebook.com/happydayfarmscsa/