February on the Farm
It is February on the farm and while it is chilly and rainy here on the east coast of Vancouver Island, it is an important time of year for our farm. February is about projects and planning. I am sharing a little insight into how we plan our crops and why I encourage you to use this same strategy.
To start, I love winter. I love this time of year when everything is resting and still. I love the snow and the cold, crisp days. We have even had a few days of sun here which has been a nice treat. But winter serves many purposes in farming. First of all, the soil needs to rest. And underneath the frosted surface of the ground, there is work being done. The soil and the massive microbiome is preparing to grow food. This is one of the reasons we use no dig/no till methods. We don’t want to disturb the complex world that is beneath the surface that is essential to producing food.
But as farmers, we also need winter. We need to rest, restore, and prepare for the growing season. We need time to do other things. Time for our hobbies. Time for farm projects and planning. Without winter, we wouldn’t have the food that we grow.
This February on the farm we are focused on preparing some systems, improving the greenhouse, and preparing the fields. We are improving our greenhouse irrigation and strategically planning for rain water storage. My daughters are flower farming again this year and we are building in some irrigation for that too. The greenhouse is getting more organized- we are putting down new fabric for our paths, cleaning up the weedy edges, and I am organizing my potting bench to be ready for planting. Having all of my supplies set up and organized in the greenhouse makes for a much more efficient process when we are potting up and transplanting. Our greenhouse is situated in the middle of our fields so it is a good location for small tools and supplies. We are also preparing the goats’ summer forest so we can move them out when the temperatures come up a little bit. They have a little shed that needs a new roof and the fencing needs some repairs. By the time we move them out to their forest there will be lots of new green food growing for them. We have had them closer to the house all winter where they have a forested run and the barn. They have been warm and cozy in their barn at night and have loved playing in their little forest. There are tree stumps to climb and jump from. And they are enjoying the pumpkins, squash, broccoli, and evergreen branches that we bring them every day.
The fields are quite a mess right now. Some still completely under water- we call it zucchini lake. But we have started moving the plastic mulch to the new locations- we use the plastic for a few crops- squash, pumpkins, and some brassicas. We are also extending our fields as much as we can. So we are busy putting down plastic mulch to kill back grass and weeds. There are other spots where we are doing no dig and will cover with cardboard and compost. Our goal is to reduce how much grass we have and reduce the weed growth. We are in the middle of a forest. It is basically one giant blackberry patch. So there’s work to be done. I am excited about the fields though. They are all a patchwork of odd shapes and sizes. We are making it a bit more uniform- which is easier for planning crops, planting, and maintaining the grass.
We have already started seeds. We have a heat table and tables with lights in what we call our seed room- a little unfinished space attached to the back of the house. The heat table was upgraded last year and we reorganized and cleaned the space to make it more efficient and easy to work in. we have storage where we have our bins of seeds, all of our seed starting supplies including stacks of trays, and we have plastic bins under the table with our seed starting mix and other equipment.
This is also the room where my two lemon trees are living at the moment. This is their first year and I have one lemon growing right now. I am pretty excited. I can’ t wait to have more.
But before starting the seeds is the planning. We started our planning in November and I went back to my notes from last year to help us plan for this year. One thing that is so important is taking good notes. I am a pen and paper kind of person so I have notebooks for farm notes. I have a section that simply lists start dates for everything. Plus transplant dates. I have another section in my notebook that has more detail- what did well, trouble areas on the farm, how we dealt with pests etc. I also keep track of when pests show up and when certain weeds show up. I even pay attention to where the weeds show up because this is actually useful information. I could do a whole episode on weeds. And why I have changed my mind about them and how to manage them.
It is a Boxing Day tradition for us to all sit as a family and read our seed catalogues. Everyone makes suggestions for new things or what we want more of. And then I sit down and catalogue all the seeds we have that are still viable. From there I will start to work on what our plans look like. We often order seeds before Christmas, the things we know we want and need, as long as they’re available. But often the next year’s inventory isn’t quite ready yet. So we will place many orders over a few months.
Our approach to crop planning has evolved into a rather holistic approach. When it comes to how we decide what to grow, how much, and when we first ask ourselves “what do we love to eat?”
This might sound basic or obvious. But I mean, really think about the kinds of food you love, what do you love to cook, what kind of food do you love in each season? What are your family favourites? It is important to know how many tomatoes you need to feed your family. Or how much garlic you will go through. Does everyone hate eggplant? Then don’t grow it. That’s us. We don’t grow eggplant. None of us like it so we won’t grow it. I can’t sell something I don’t like.
I start with a huge master list of the food I want for us first. That is where I start because as farmers, we feed ourselves first. We need to plan for enough food for us. We love to preserve so we plan for all of our preserving methods. We plan for our food for winter, as much as we can. My goal this year was to grow all of our green vegetables fresh in the greenhouse and fields plus our storage vegetables and preserved foods. We have been eating peas, broccoli, cabbage, kale, collards, chard, fresh herbs, rutabaga, radishes, greens, brussels sprouts, and leeks through the winter. We could have grown more too. We also grow herbs for my cooking, baking, body care and teas. After I have made the master list of everything we want I estimate how much we need. That is my starting point.
Then, looking at our crop rotation and greenhouse layout, I start to plan how much more we can grow for our customers. This year we are building more growing space so we are planning on increasing most of our crops. We are adding a few new things for fun too. We prioritize what we need to have in the greenhouse, such as our tomatoes, cucumbers, basil and melons, but we also are planning for peas and beans, more herbs, and lettuce. We are extending some fields to accommodate more onions, squash, beans, potatoes, carrots, and tomatillos.
Once I map out the fields with the first crops I start to plan in successive crops. After our broad beans, we will plant rutabaga. We use about the same amount of space for both crops so it is perfect. Once the spring greens are done we will rotate in some summer tolerant greens. And starting in July will start planting our fall crops, sometimes interplanting with others. By planning this way I can maximize our space and prioritize crops that are productive, heat tolerant, and good sellers.
Part of our planning process is we decide how many CSA subscriptions we can do. This year we are running 3 CSA seasons- Spring, Summer, and Harvest. Last year we did summer, harvest, and fall. Our CSA, which we call our Farm Box, has been selling well and as of today we have sold out of our spring box. That is exciting. We are thrilled that more people are buying local food and purchasing directly from farms. We are excited to be growing the food. Once we decide on the number of subscriptions then we can estimate how much we will need weekly for the boxes. The remaining produce will go to our farm store, farmers’ markets, and our farm food products.
But I want to come back to that question- what do you love to eat. The reason for this is that you will be able to naturally sell something you love. You will be able to genuinely talk about it with enthusiasm and have a passion for sharing it with people. It will be easy for you to recommend it or talk about how you love to cook with it. Only sell food you love. Only sell food you love to eat.
Of course, when we love it and we lose some of the crop, it is truly emotional. But that is okay.
It won’t all work out perfectly. And that is okay. But I would rather be growing something I love, that my family enjoys eating, that we celebrate when we taste the first one picked.
I want our work to be something we really care about. Something that we feel strongly about. THAT is purposeful work.