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Crunching the numbers from 2011

I've been in front of a computer lately, figuring out how the season looks by the numbers.  I thought it went pretty well--we had a nice variety of vegetables throughout the season.  But we definitely had some major pitfalls, and our total pounds hasn't been so low since 2006.

 If the details interest you, I'm linking a few charts.  They are PDF files:

  • Download Total pounds per crop per share This chart shows you an approximation of how many pounds you got of each crop (though it obiously depends on the choices you made at the pick-up).  Tomatoes were the winner!
  • Download Number of weeks crops were offered This is a similar chart but looks at how many weeks each crop was offered.  Note, for example, that kale was available 14 weeks, which is a lot, but everyone got an average of just 1.8 pounds, which is basically enough for 2 weeks.  So you can see that we obviously made it one choice among many items.  If you love kale, that's good that you were able to choose it so often.  If you hate it, it's good that you had other choices.   
  • Download Crops offered each week 2011 This is a big chart that's especially good for people who are considering becoming members of our farm.  It shows what was offered each week, and how many total pounds were in each week's share. 
  • Download Yield per variety 2011 This chart will only appeal to you if you are curious about how each of the different varieties performed.  For example, Hakurei turnips yielded one sixth as many  pounds for each linear foot planted as Purple-Top turnips did.  Bummer! 

But looking at a series of dry numbers doesn't really tell a story.  Here's a general sense of how the season went, from the grower's perspective.  It's pretty long (I can't help myself), so you might want to skim to the items that interest you.

SPRING:  March and April were very wet.  In the cold weather of spring and fall, moisture does not evaporate quickly from the soil, so a single rain event can make our soils wet for weeks.  Some years we have dragged the tractor through the wet ground anyway, just to get the plants started, but this has backfired by compacting the soil, which makes it harder to weed later, and further decreases the soil's ability to drain.  This spring we decided to try planting the crops on-time by hand, without tilling the soil with a tractor.  We're hoping that decision will help our soil and crop health in the long term, but the short-term result was that most of our spring crops grew much more slowly. 

  • Salad and cooking greens, radishes: fared pretty well without tillage.  We harvested them a little later than normal, but yields were about average, and they had very few weeds. 
  • Carrots:  Our first planting (un-tilled) matured a month later than we they normally would have, but they were remarkably weed-free, tasted good, and gave us a huge number of pounds for the small area planted.  We planted the second round with some lettuce in April and they never germinated.  The prior cover crop of sorghum-sudan grass was still breaking down, and its "allelopathic" chemicals were prevent seeds from germinating.  Oops!  We planted a third round 10 days later and they grew reasonably well considering how much carrots hate the heat.
  • Cabbage, Kohlrabi:  No-till was OK for quick-growing Chinese cabbage, but kohlrabi and slower-growing cabbages didn't make sufficient heads before the heat ruined their flavor and stopped their growth completely.  Weed competition was also a bigger problem by June in no-till fields. 
  • Broccoli:  We go back and forth about whether it's worth planting broccoli in the spring.  This year we didn't bother.  Spring broccoli plants suffer from the heat and give small, bitter heads that are more attractive to caterpillars than customers.  It's hard to justify all the space they require for such mediocre output.    
  • Garlic:  This is a crop we can grow very well, so we've doubled our planting for 2012.  Hopefully we can sell our surplus and reduce some of the financial strain on our CSA.
  • Mushrooms:  We have a collection of about a hundred logs in a shaded greenhouse that are inoculated with shiitake mushroom spawn.  Each year we have steadily increased the number of logs and they are finally producing enough mushrooms to have them available for all CSA members at least once.  This year Rob has begun inoculating fallen trees in the woods.  It will take several more years for them to fruit, and they will be more vulnerable to pests and weather, but in the years when those circumstances are favorable, we should see a huge increase in the number of mushrooms we can harvest. 
  • Onions:  This is our second year of success growing bulb onions.  Hooray!  We are not at the ideal latitude for growing storage onions (north is better), so we have been reluctant to grow more than we can give out fresh, but we'll do some experimenting. 
  • Peas: Our particular climate limits us to 3-4 weeks of peas.  No more, no less.  We've considered ways that we can warm up the soil so we can plant some a bit earlier, which could extend our harvest.
  • Rhubarb:  We weed, fertilize and mulch this once a year, and then forget all about it.  It seems to work pretty well!  100 plants seems sufficient to us, but if you want a lot more, let us know. 
  • Strawberries:  We had an average yield of strawberries this year.  We'll have a little more acreage to pick from this coming spring than last, so I'm hopeful for next year.  It's hard to keep such a big space weeded for three years, so that's the main limiting factor that keeps us from planting half the farm in strawberries.
  • Herbs:  We had big plans for the teams of volunteers that would keep the herb beds weeded, but that never really worked out.  The biggest problem is the wire grass that spreads its rhizomes under the pathways and then pops up in the beds every time we look away.  Our big plan for 2012 is to bury aluminum flashing as a border between the beds and the paths to keep out the grass, to build up the beds with a little more compost, to use wood chips or grass clippings as mulch between plants in the beds, to move the mint and oregano into a big planter, and to come up with a system to capture the wash water from the washing station so we can water the herbs more regularly.   Will the big plans materialize?  We'll see!

SUMMER was remarkable for how dry it was.  It was a year of extreme weather!  We had over a month without any rain at all.  We also suffered from some problems in the greenhouse.  We had very low germination, and it took a long series of failures before we figured out there was herbicide residue in our neighbor's compost, which we bought for our soil mix.  Needless to say we won't be purchasing compost any longer.  As a result we had fewer tomato, eggplant and pepper seedlings than normal, and lost all of our seedlings for fall broccoli, cabbage, kale, collards and cauliflower.  Why didn't we just run to the store and buy more?  Organic seedlings are typically only available in the quantities we need if we order them 7 weeks in advance, and they are expensive.  By the time we knew we needed them, it was too late.

  • Basil: We tried planting this extra-early in some small beds and protecting them against spring frost with floating row cover.  It worked well!  We finally were able to offer basil at the same time as our garlic scapes, and it survived reasonably well through the summer in spite of the close spacing.   
  • Beans:  What a crazy bean year.  The drought caused them to quit producing, and then when it rained at the end of summer, they spit out a whole summer's-worth of beans all at once.  They get an A+ for effort, as do my unbelievably loyal crew of pickers (most of them unpaid!).  Did you notice the pole beans?  This was our first attempt, and we liked it enough to make plans for next year (with a better trellis).   
  • Beets: We have tried many ways to grow beets with no success.  This year we included some donated seed in our summer cover crop planting, but none of it germinated.  I suspect it has something to do with our soil's deficiency in Boron, but our efforts to fertilize have not helped.
  • Corn: Our sweet corn suffered an avalanche of problems this year--drought, deer, raccoons, weeds, you name it.  Some years we get lucky, but this year we really didn't!  The popcorn hit the jackpot though--rain at just the right time, and very few bugs and weeds.  So you'll get lots of pretty ears of popcorn in your first share next year. 
  • Cucumbers:  For some reason, the short, squat pickling cucumbers grow well for us.  Regular slicers don't do as well, and the fancy Asian cucumbers never make anything at all.  In our 2009 member survey, several members mentioned they would like more variety in our cucumber offerings, so we keep trying new varieties anyway.  Picklers, by the way, can be sliced into a salad just as you would a slicer.  And if you prefer more tender skins, always choose the smaller cucumbers.  They often look a little ragged because the skin gets nicked more easily, but they still taste great. 
  • Eggplant:  This was a great year for eggplant--especially the long, thin, lavendar ones (called Orient Charm).  We tried a green variety this year (Raveena) that didn't produce much and didn't get noticed much by CSA members.  The white one (Snowy) produced well but was prone to some unattractive black spotting.  As usual, we planted lots of the large, Italian-type (Black Beauty) because even though it produces fewer pounds per plant, our members seem to like it more.
  • Melons:  were a dismal failure ths year, which was a hard hit considering how great they were last year.  I can think of a number of contributing factors, but I'm not sure which was the main culprit. (1)Last year there was moisture in the planting and flowering phases and dry weather while the fruits were developing.  This year was drier earlier, which might have prevented pollination.  (2)We used a field that hadn't benefited from a robust cover crop before planting.  (3)We lost a lot of plants in the greenhouse so we had to direct-seed a greater proportion, which tends to be less successful.  And (4), we never covered the plants with floating row cover to protect from disease during the first 3 weeks after planting.   Fortunately we did have a few cantaloupes in a different field that were successful enough to give everyone the option of a melon at least once.  
  • Okra:  yielded well for us this year.  We've moved away from using a hybrid (Cajun Delight, which is no longer available) to this much cheaper open-pollinated seed.  We saved lots of our own seed this year, which we've never done before.  We're eager to see how well it grows next year.  A note to you-pickers: be sure to come the day before harvest if you want to get a lot.  We've tried leaving some on the plant for you to harvest, but too often they become overgrown and were wasted. 
  • Chile peppers:  were hot this year!  And they grew well.  We try for a broad mix of varieties, although we shy away from chiles with similar shapes and colors to any our sweet peppers. 
  • Sweet/bell peppers:  We had fewer seedlings to plant than we had intended, but they grew very well, so we still harvested plenty of peppers.  Like most years, the fruits often develop a soft spot before they ripen completely, so it's very tempting to pick the bells when they are green instead of waiting until they have turned yellow or red and sweetened up.  And for some reason, the plants make smaller peppers as they age, so we have lots of smaller bells at the end of the season.  We had used two types of weed barrier--one straw mulch and the other landscape fabric.  The peppers in the straw mulch definitely grew better.
  • Potatoes:  It's not often I have such complete failures for which I have only myself to blame.  Yikes!  The last two years I had planted potatoes deeper and deeper with better and better results.  Until this year!  That cold wet spring was extra cold and extra wet one foot underground, and all the seed rotted.  Obviously I should have tested my new technique on a smaller section of he field instead of the whole lot of it.  So the best depth for potato seed?  6 inches.  Tattood on my brain.  
  • Summer squash:  Hooray for early, self-pollinating zucchini!  The seed is expensive, but I could never get early squash before I started planting it into landscape fabric and covering it with floating row cover.  The other 3 plantings later in the season did not grow as well, but by then you were growing weary of squash anyway, so it wasn't such a big deal. 
  • Tomatoes:  were very successful this year.  We didn't grow as many seedlings as we wanted, but the ones that we planted produced abundantly.  Given our short supply of plants, we weren't able to set aside a section for you-pick only, nor a separate field for late-season production--both of which we intend to do in 2012.  One test we conducted this year was on a few products that are marketed to improve soil microbial life and therefore plant health on a few rows of the New Girl tomatoes.  None of them appeared to improve the yield or longevity of those plants.  An investment we will make for 2012 is in metal "T-posts", to replace some of the wooden stakes.  This should keep all those large, healthy plants from falling over! 

FALL  Rain flooded our 2 fields of greens, radishes, carrots and turnips, carrying away some of the seed, rotting many of the newly germinating plants (farewell, sweet spinach!) and slowing down growth for a month.

  • Broccoli, Cabbage, Cauliflower:  Our seeds did not germinate because of our soil mix problems.  We ordered plants to replace them, but didn't get them in time to produce heads by November.
  • Sunchokes (Jerusalem Artichokes):  These are a type of sunflower, that make roots a lot like potatoes, but without all that fattening starch.  It stores its energy as inulin, instead, which encourages healthy microbes in your colon, but in large doses, also has some distracting side effects (thus the nickname, "fartichoke").  They produced a knock-out yield with very little effort, so now I'm a big fan.  I'm excited to grow and eat more next year (in moderate amounts, of course). 
  • Sweet Potatoes:  They produced very well--6900 pounds--even better than last year.  We had some loss to groundhogs (at least five were eating from one corner of A6), but the deer fence continues to save us from the wild destruction we suffered before 2010.  Sweet potatoes thrive in poor soils and little rain.  God bless them.   We used to grow a lot of varieties and had trouble keeping them separate.  Since then we've found a much cheaper source of organic "slips" (seedlings), but they only offer one variety.
  • Swiss Chard:  Usually our spring-planted chard goes dormant over the summer and revives in the fall.  This fall the chard was lucky to be in a field with good drainage, but it still suffered from a mold called, "leaf spot", due to the wet weather.  So we didn't get much fall chard. 
  • Winter Squash:  is in the cucurbit family, along with melons, cucumbers and summer squash.  Every cucurbit standing the day before Hurricane Irene was dead the morning after.  We were able to salvage some of the earliest-maturing squash for shares.

Later this winter I'll analyze the survey results and answer members' questions.  If you are a CSA member and haven't responded to the survey, here's the link: http://www.surveymonkey.com/s/LTZRQ3N.  If you've already submitted a response, and you'd like to change it, you can access your old one by going back to our original e-mail invitation.  That should allow you to edit the one you turned in. 




Pat and Laura Jacobs

Wonderful synopsis! Thanks so much!

Sara and John Chapman

Thanks so much for such a detailed discussion of the season. It was fascinating to hear the reasons behind the crop successes - and otherwise!
John and Sara

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