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Tomatoes (and bloggers) Gone Wild

Tomatoes (and newsletter writers) Gone Wild
You may have noticed that here at Deep Harvest
we are unequivocally pro-tomato. Eleven years into farming, we’re still experimenting with an obscene number of new varieties, ever searching for the best and the brightest (ie the most flavorful and highest yielding) solanaceous fruits possible this side of the Cascades. Why?  Because the people demand it!! Ok, not really. Simply because with think they’re fun, beautiful, delicious and generally beloved.  Am I right?  Tell me I’m right!  For some practical, but mostly whimsical reasons, this season we’ve sought varieties with traits we haven’t previously offered in our CSA or seed catalog.  For example, we trialed various apricot-sized fuzzy tomatoes (all too slow, not tasty enough), Cherokee Purple look-alikes hoping one was as delicious but not so crack prone (again, no dice), Big hand-sized heirlooms, because we think people love those (here there were winners, namely the big creamsicle colored Oma’s Orange and our favorite tomato named after a Russian Space traveler—Cosmonaut Volkov). We won’t bore you with the trials and tribulations of our 1oz determinant red tomato trial. You get it, we have an infatuation that at some point may need to be addressed. But for now… on to tomato care!

Tomatoes are far and away the gold medal winners in categories of neediest and riskiest crops. We seed these divas in early February on expensive heat mats in our start houses. Come March, they’re potted up into 4-inch pots (500 4-inch pots) and get watered early each day to avoid going into cool nights with wet leaves (they hate that!).  In May they’re deeply, carefully planted into greenhouses, tunnels or outdoors in black plastic with drip irrigation and trellised with t-posts and twine using the Florida weave (google that one!) or twisted up twine hanging from a special tomato trellising device called a tomahook.  We spare no expense to keep them feeling well supported! Once a week, May through mid-August the tomatoes get pruned. Our indeterminant (indefinite growing) tomatoes are snipped to two leaders— that is, we select two main growing stems and cut off all other suckers that appear in order to maximize airflow and minimize chance of disease. Our determinants and cherries just get pruned to make sure harvest is quick and easy and that good airflow is possible. And, and, and— my oh my yipes—I can talk, write and think about tomatoes forever. Please forgive me. My love is clearly vast and overwhelming and maybe oppressive. Sorry tomatoes. And sorry to those of you who are still reading this. Errr… ok….. tomatoes. We love em. They’re difficult. Time consuming.  Expensive to grow. But if they don’t get the ever-terrifying late blight, early blights or one of countless other tomato grower terrors, they’re terrific— tomatorrific??? Oof. Ick. Cutting myself off. Thanks for going on that journey with me. The end!


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It’s a Bird’s World

And…we’re home. We had a wonderful, whirlwind of a road trip to North Dakota and back. One of the perks for me (Nathaniel) was witnessing dozens of species of migratory birds not usually seen on Whidbey. The Montana and North Dakota grasslands, lakes and wetlands hosted thousands of ducks, shorebirds, song birds and raptors: Golden Eagles, nighhawks, rails, avocets, meadowlarks, buntings, bobolinks, and so many more.

Birds take up much of the conversational space here on the farm, as Brian and I (and increasingly Annie) are avid birders. We consider these winged friends an integral part of the farm community and ecosystem. We all love scoping the harriers, eagles and hawks soaring across the fields and identifying the many sparrows, wrens and finches that perch and sing in our crops. Last year we added a few bird boxes to our fence lines, which were immediately adopted by migratory tree swallows. (The kestrel box was unfortunately hijacked by the invasive starlings.) This year the Cedar Waxwings have begun foraging for berries in our maturing hedgerows and warblers have newly discovered our fruit trees.

But despite their endless majesty the birds often pose significant management issues on the farm. The biggest headache is caused by the finches (house finches and goldfinches) and their voracious appetite for our seed crops. If not preemptively excluded with massive 150′ x 50′ bird nets, finches will completely wipe out a bed of bok choi, borage, spinach or kale seed within a few days. Our grass-nesting savannah sparrows also create a mowing conundrum. While we’d prefer to mow in April or May to prevent the dandelion from setting seed, the sparrows don’t reliably fledge their young until mid-late June. Mowing any earlier can destroy their nests and eggs or outright kill their chicks which haven’t yet learned to fly. And finally, the killdeers. These rowdy plovers build their camouflage nests in our fallow spring fields, at the beginning of the busy tractor season. We spend hours scouting for nesting sites (which are often revealed by the screaming nearby parents who fake broken wings to lure us away from the nest) and marking them with bright flags before discing, mowing, or plowing a field. But despite the few annoyances, we thoroughly enjoy the diversity of bird species that forage, nest, sing, shelter or just fly over our fields. (FYI – we are strong advocates of Bird-Be-Safe collars for those of you with outdoor kitties. They have significantly cut down on Patty’s bird kills, AND they are supremely fashionable!)

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CSA Crop Planning 101

Ever wonder what it takes to design a CSA crop plan? How do we ensure that there are at least 8 crops each week for the farmshare, with a revolving diversity of items and without too much excess left in the field. How are we able to deliver your favorite crops like lettuce and carrots on lots of weeks but fennel and kohlrabi not so much? The answers is a mix of fancy Excel algorithms, years of fine tuning and innate genius (okay, probably not that). We start by designing our theoretical ideal crop plan: We put crops on the y axis, dates on the x axis and then mark which crops we want to give each week. This requires knowing how early crops can conceivably be grown and harvested, how many weeks in a row a specific crop needs to be harvested, and a general idea of what makes a happy CSA customer. It’s also necessary to know how many weeks a crop can hold in the field before bolting or getting pithy, fibrous or bitter. Then we work backwards from each harvest date for each crop, subtracting the Days to Maturity in order to generate a planting date. This involves knowing approximately how many days it takes to mature a radish planted on Mar 17, or a zucchini transplanted on May 20, which is specific to every growing region. At this point we have a long list of hundreds of planting dates for over 40 different vegetable crops which we call our….Planting Calendar.  Some crops like peppers only have one planting date while others like carrots or beets have six or seven different dates. (Since carrots only hold in the field 3 weeks we have to plant them every 3 weeks to have a constant supply). Some days we plant LOTS of crops and some days we plant none.
Okay, now that we have our timing figured out, let’s talk amounts or “bed feet.”  To know how many bed feet (number of linear feet in a 5ft wide bed) of carrots we need to plant for, say, 2 weeks of CSA, it’s important to have a rough guess on what carrots yield. These figures can be looked up online, but it’s better to gather your own farm-specific data over several years of harvests based on your own soils, climate, pests, diseases, etc.  At this point in our careers we know that broccoli yields about 1.3 heads per bed foot, and so we can be pretty certain that 77 bed feet will be enough for 100 CSA members. So, we then write 77 ft next to the corresponding broccoli date in our planting calendar. (This also assumes you already know the correct planting spacing with the bed, but that’s getting a little in the weeds).  We then always overplant about 15%, assuming there will be some crop loss from disease, insect damage, bolting, bad germination, or a million other reasons.
Okay that’s an extremely simplified run-down of crop planning, but hopefully it gives you an idea of the planning required for every crop, every week of the season.

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Cover Cropping Foibles

Farming often feels like an impossibly complex, multivariate puzzle that resets itself every few minutes, often before you can even discern if you took any successful steps toward solving it. It’s like a rubik’s cube that only gives you 2 minutes a day to figure the damn thing out. It’s like that movie Groundhogs Day, except that….
Okay, terrible metaphors aside, we often feel like we’re just winging it. Nothing exemplifies this feeling more than cover cropping. Trying to find the best covercrop to fit the right season, the right soil moisture, current crop residue, given weed pressure, future cash crop planting date, nutrient needs of the soil, etc can feel a bit perplexing. Let’s say we’re trying to find the right cover to plant after tilling in our summer brassicas. Winter Rye is a wonderfully hardy winter cover, but is hard to kill in the spring and its stubble takes forever to break down, often suppressing the germination of small vegetable seeds. So rye is really only appropriate if we’re planning on sowing a late summer or fall cropthe following year. But most of our late season crops are brassicas, and we just planted those here this year, and we really should rotate out of brassicas at least two years between plantings. Sooo maybe it’s better to go with Cayuse Oats in this field, which die over winter after a few frosts and will allow us to get in an early non-brassica spring crop. Nope, this particular field is generally full of standing water until May, so we need something that will survive the winter and put on growth in early spring, helping transpire the soil moisture out of the field so we can get our tractor in there. So, maybe Barley? Sure, let’s try Barley. But now what legume should be coupled with it? Crimson clover is nice, but probably won’t compete well with winter weeds. Field peas are good, but don’t really fix that much nitrogen, and we pulled lots of nitrogen out of this field with all those long-season kales. How about Hairy Vetch? Yeah, lets try that, I mean, as long as the field dries out in time to mow it in April so the vetch doesn’t set seed and create vetch weeds for years to come. Okay, let’s be sure to document our seeding date and how many lbs per bed of seed we applied so we can compare to other experimental plots in other fields. 3 days later: Oh, crap, my discs weren’t set up perfectly so the seed didn’t get buried quite deep enough and germination was crappy and then then 300 blackbirds came in and ate 75% percent of the germinating seed and…screw it. Try again next year?
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When the Farm Catches the Cold: Winter Farming Preparations

We’ve had a few decent frosts already this fall, and while I can’t remember clearly when they came in previous years, it seems a bit early for temps this low. Here on Shore Meadows Rd, the actual nighttime temps always seem 5-10F lower than the forecasted lows. So, when the forecast predicts 40F lows, it’s a good time to begin going into frost-preparation mode (we’re in it!).

While most of our fall crops can handle varying degrees of freezing temps, there are still a few tender items in the field that need monitoring. Mid-large sized broccoli and cauliflower heads can begin to rot even with a slight frost exposure. Lettuces, bok choi, chards, frisee and escarole are also fairly tender. So, during weather like this we generally cover these crops with heavy-duty floating row cover (which can prevent freezing as low as ~22F.) Another strategy is to harvest before the frosts come and store the veg in the walk-in cooler (never more than a week) until CSA, farmer’s market, etc. The latter option isn’t our preference, as we like our veggies delivered/sold as fresh as possible.

Today (Monday), in anticipation of a potentially serious frost later tonight, we harvested our broccoli, salad mix and parley. Generally, we would harvest everything the day of CSA. Another reason for harvesting today vs tomorrow is the possible lack of frost-free, daylight harvesting hours tomorrow. Often, when it’s really cold, the crops down thaw out until afternoon (if at all!), giving us no time to harvest for CSA. Harvesting veggies when partially frozen will result in the premature wilting and rotting in storage.

Of course, another strategy for fending off frost is planting inside greenhouses or tunnels. Unfortunately, our tomatoes, eggplants, and pepper usually don’t wind down until early Oct, too late for a fall planting of greens in the greenhouse. We get more money out of milking these high-value summer crops into late summer and early fall than we could from a single planting of fall spinach or arugula.

Our main strategy in warding off death-by-frost is variety selection. Ten years of variety trials have equipped us with tons of knowledge about the relative cold hardiness of fall vegetables varieties. This is one of our main criteria in choosing which varieties are planting for our fall CSA.

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On-Farm Plant Breeding pt. 2

The seed company is a relatively new type of business, only gaining a foothold in the last 100 years or so with the advents of seed patents and hybrid seed technology. However, back before the seed companies controlled the breeding, production and supply of seeds, farmers were in charge of their own seed stocks. (Well, there was awhile when the federal government and land grant colleges played a crucial role too, but that’s beside the point). Back in the day, farmers had to make sure that they didn’t harvest and sell their entire crop for food, but that they also kept enough plants for saving seed, so that they would have seeds to plant the following season. This process inevitably begs the question: which plants did they sell/eat and which plants did they save for seed? Were the seed plants chosen at random? Did they just save the last few plants that happen to remain in the field toward the end of harvest? Hopefully not. Saving seed gives the farmer the chance to choose the most productive, flavorful, disease-resistant or well-adapted plants to pass on their genes, while culling out all the rest. Thus, most farmers were also de facto plant breeders, actively sculpting the gene pool of their crops toward more productive, resilient futures. Here at Deep Harvest, we are no exception. We’re constantly making choices as to which plants to harvest for CSA, and which to leave for seed saving.
This week planted three different over-wintered root crops for seed: Hilmar Carrot, Touchstone Gold Beet and Tokyo Market Turnip. Most root crops are biennial, meaning that they flower and produce seed their second season of growth after undergoing a winter vernalization period. The roots can either vernalize in the field, or you can harvest them and store them in a damp, cool environment.  We chose the latter.
Let’s take beets for example. The first step was to harvest an entire bed of beets and line them all up in a row, over a thousand in total. Then we walked the row and took out the obviously ugly, damaged, or insect-ridden roots. These got tilled into the field. We then evaluate the remaining roots for several preferred traits such as round shape, lack of hairiness, strong tops, dark color, large size and absence of insect damage or disease. We chose the best 200, cut off the stems, and put them into bins surrounded with wood shavings. The rest went to CSA and restaurants. We chose 200 roots because you need at least 80 as a minimum population size to prevent inbreeding depression, and we can assume that many will rot, freeze or get discovered by mice in storage, or perhaps meet other grim fates after replanting next spring. The hope is to have enough survivors to ensure a successful seed crop for harvest in summer 2019. We could have just left them into the ground all winter, but them we’d miss out on the wonderful opportunity for some casual plant breeding. This week the soil warmed enough to replant the roots in rows in the field. Soon they will begin sending out new leaves, followed later by a bolting shoot and flowers. Seed will follow!

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On-farm Breeding Projects

By Annie Jesperson

Sorry to get your hopes up, family. Here on the farm, we’re breeding new pepper varieties, not humans.  Still a little exciting, perhaps? For us, for sure, but for potential grandmas, likely not so much. While pepper-breeding, like child-rearing, is still subject to the mysterious whims of mother nature, over time us seed growers are direct the evolution of our plants toward the traits we crave.

So what are our goals with pepper breeding? Here in our cool Northwest summers yellow bell peppers can be hard to ripen.  The open-pollinated varieties currently on the market have failed to produce mature fruits in our cool, maritime fields. A solvable dilemma? Perhaps!  We’re now into year four of de-hybridizing our favorite hybrid yellow bell pepper “Catriona” in order to develop an open-pollinated variety that matures in our region. Additionally, we’re selecting for disease resistance, flavor and yields. We’re getting closer, folks.  Stay tuned!

Additionally, we’re working to breed a red bell pepper that is sweet and spicy.  Intriguing? For us plant nerds and cooking enthusiasts, indeed!  Two years ago, we saved seed on a sweet, red bell pepper called King of the North.  At the time, we didn’t realize it had crossed with our spicy Padrone peppers, as we had given them what we thought was ample isolation distance. But, every once in awhile some industrious pollinator carries pollen between varieties that are far apart, even with self-pollinating crops like peppers.  Luckily, we sampled our King of the North fruits before selling their seed, and we noted they had a crazy unexpected kick. Ow!  That spiciness caught us off guard, but once we bit in to another pepper, expecting this result, we found the experience quite appealing and worth sharing.  It’ll likely be a few years before we’ve stabilized this variety enough to warrant selling, but we’re excited for when that day comes and hope you are too!

For now, if you’d like to just grow yourself some nummy peppers, hook yourself up with our spicy Padrones for frying or our sweet Mini Red Bells for salads and stuffing.  If you’d like to save your own pepper seed, just grow one variety in a small garden, as peppers need 160 feet of isolation distance to keep a variety pure. For more basic info on how to save seed check out: Need a reminder of why it’s important to support local, organic and open-pollinated seed? No sweat….go HERE!

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Variety Trials 101

Variety Trials 101

Every year, we pick a handful of crops that we want to test in variety trials. What’s a variety trial? Thanks for asking! A variety trial is like a pageant for vegetable varieties, but instead of evaluating for congeniality or swimwear we test for color, vigor, flavor, and other things a gardener or farmer might care about. The variety trial winners are the crops we grow for seed the following season. Only the best for you! This year, we’re trialing six types of dill, six yellow bush beans, eight red leaf lettuces, six different cilantros, five kinds of popcorns, five serrated arugulas, and four varieties of purple sprouting broccolis. It might be an overly ambitious list, but our nerdy biology brains can’t get enough of this stuff! We plan on publishing the results on this blog so we all may learn how varieties stack up to one another and our customers will understand how we choose our seed crops.