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2015 Plans

January 11, 2015

Many things went well in 2014.  We grew and sold more produce than ever.  The weather was cool and rainy, but we missed out on the flooding and terrible storms that plagued other parts of the state.

One thing that didn’t go as wonderfully as planned was our greenhouse tomato program.  We grew and sold more tomatoes than ever, but I wasn’t happy with the flavor.  Even our outdoor field tomatoes were just “okay,” probably due to the cool temperatures and rain.  It was clear to me, however, that many people just want a round, red tomato and don’t care as much about the flavor as I do. As much as I would explain repeatedly to a customer that the best tasting tomatoes were cracked on top, or were brown, purple, green, or striped, they would fixate on and purchase the perfectly smooth, red, round, and not-very-tasty greenhouse varieties.  Geronimo tasted better than Florida 91, and was easier to trellis due to its indeterminate habit, but neither variety impressed me with flavor.

In an effort to provide something for everyone this year, we’re going to grow grafted Big Beef in the greenhouses.  The seeds are cheaper, the tomatoes will be bigger, and Big Beef is a popular variety for a reason – it hasn’t had all the flavor bred out of it.  I don’t think it is as firm or as heat tolerant as the Florida 91s, but surely it will taste better.  I’m going to plant my remaining Florida 91s in the field as a hedge against a hot summer.  We’ll also put some heirlooms back in the greenhouse- Eva Purple Ball, Cherokee Purple, and Mark Twain (he claimed not to like tomatoes, but they named one after him anyway).  And we’re going to have 4 types of cherry tomatoes in the greenhouse for rainbow quarts early in the season.

I chose Eva Purple Ball because it’s been one of the most productive outdoor tomatoes on our farm several years running.  Striped Cavern sets more fruit, but is only good eating when it’s baked and stuffed.  Opalka sets a ton of fruit too, but gets blossom end rot and always has green, cracked shoulders.  (I forgive Opalka, because it tastes good enough to be worth the bother.)  Eva Purple Ball has perfect pink spheres, no cracks, and sets fruit in big clusters.  I can’t wait to see what it does on top of a nice disease resistant, vigorous rootstock.  Cherokee Purple is so universally beloved by those who like heirloom tomatoes that it was the first, most obvious choice for a greenhouse heirloom, even though it is not a super productive variety.  Mark Twain was chosen because it’s round and red AND is supposed to taste good.

Our lineup of tomato plants will be similar to other years, with the addition of Weisnicht’s Ukranian and Indigo Cherry Drops. Many seed catalogs have descriptions that exaggerate badly, but I’ve found Fedco’s descriptions to be quite accurate, so I went ahead and got some seed.

In non-tomato news, I have green onions and leeks in our summer field crop plan for the first time in a few years.  Our ginger supplier has no seed this year, freeing up about 800 square feet of greenhouse space.  This means more greens when the Carmel Farmers Market starts up in May.  We added about 600 more feet of strawberries in the fall, and 100 raspberry plants will be joining them in April.  Neither are expected to bear a crop until 2016. Rhubarb is on the seed schedule too, with a small crop possible next year and more in 2017 and beyond.  Also, a great response at the Indy Winter Farmers Market means our fall crop offerings will continue to expand.  Look for savoy cabbage, black spanish radishes, four colors of carrots, dumpling squash, and cylindrical beets.  And more giant kohlrabi.

We’re strongly considering adding an additional summer market, but have not yet chosen the market or the person to work the booth.  If you have an opinion on the matter, let us know!

Celery and low tunnels

November 10, 2014

In advance of some really cold weather, I harvested, washed, and packed all the celery.

I’d always heard that celery was a “difficult” vegetable to grow, and I don’t personally love eating it.  These two factors kept me from trying to grow any when I started expanding my vegetable operation.  However, the need for a variety of veggies for the CSA got me to try it out.  I think it was 2011 when I first gave it a shot.

Like everything in the Apiaceous plant family (carrots, celery, dill, fennel, cilantro, parsley, and some others), celery does not tolerate weed competition.  It is very slow to get started.  It takes 8 – 12 weeks to get nice looking small transplants.  It prefers consistent watering, good fertility, and doesn’t like hot temperatures.

What I learned from my first celery crop was that if one or two of these things goes wrong, you get really, really bitter celery.  2011 was not as hot as 2012, but the celery still suffered.  Some of it was edible, some was so bitter that even after cooking it I had to throw it out!

Even when things are going right, Indiana celery, at least based on what I’ve seen on my farm and observed on others, is darker green and more intensely celery flavored than what you see in the grocery store.  To allow celery to mature in cooler weather, I decided to move it later in the planting calendar and do it as a fall crop in 2013 and 2014.  The results were favorable, especially this year.  We’ve had a cool summer with above average rainfall and the celery really liked this.  It tastes good and recent light frosts have given it a sweet undertone.

A nice feature of celery is that it’s easy to harvest.  One push with a wide blade knife (I use this one) and the plant is in hand.  A little extra trimming in the field is often needed, unless there is a market for miniscule outer celery stalks.  We trim off about 1/2 to 2/3 of the leaves, wash the whole thing, and pack it in a sealed container in our walk in cooler.  Sometimes we use a rubber band, sometimes we don’t.

The downside of field grown fall celery is that it needs to be harvested before really cold weather arrives.  Temperatures below 28 F will make the stalks get softer and sort of rubbery.  A very thin, papery “skin” will develop and will peel off the stalks, which is unattractive.  We had a low of 19 F about a week ago.  The difference between the celery that was covered and the celery that wasn’t is quite noticeable.  You can still eat the stuff that got frozen, but it is noticeably flexible.

Another project today was building a very low-tech low tunnel over the beets and carrots.  The used greenhouse we put up in the spring came with about 100 pieces of 8′ galvanized electrical conduit.  I think they were used for an irrigation system in their past life.  We don’t do any overhead irrigating in our greenhouses, so the conduit has been sitting in a pile.  Some time this summer it occurred to me that this conduit could be used to make low tunnels.

We don’t have a pipe bender, and I was reluctant to shell out any money for one, so I took a look at my farm SUV and decided that I could either thread the pipe through the tow hooks and bend it, or thread it through the hitch receiver and bend it there.  The tow hooks were really too far apart.  The hitch receiver worked better, especially after we took off the spare tire.  We put about 3 – 30 degree bends in each end of the pipe and pushed them into the ground by hand.  I won’t win any awards for the consistency of my pipe bending with this method, but the job is done and all we have to do is throw some spare scraps of greenhouse plastic over the hoops before any more hard freezes.

Photos forthcoming.  Maybe tomorrow.

Fall 2014

October 25, 2014

It’s been a good season so far.  Cooler than average summer with plenty of rain makes for amazing fall vegetables.  We have the nicest looking carrots, beets, daikon radish, and fall brassicas we’ve ever grown.  Frosts will continue to improve the flavor.

Our ginger harvest this year produced some really large “hands.”  Here’s a photo of the largest one.

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All of our ginger was used this year by Fermenti Artisan and Raw Gourmet Delights in their amazing culinary creations.

We’re excited to be joining the Indy Winter Farmers Market this year.  I’ve visited in the past as a customer and thought, “Will we ever have enough winter stuff to join this market?”  I’m glad we do.  We’ll be there November 8th and 22nd, December 6th and 20th, and all of January, weather permitting.

Summer 2014 Update

August 12, 2014

Sure has been an interesting, cool summer growing season.  We got off to a late start (ground still frozen in mid-March), and things stayed pretty cool and wet through most of April.  It was still very cool in early May- the earlier garden plantings either didn’t happen, or didn’t thrive.  

Our first transplanted summer squash and cucumber plants either died early, or are still producing, during August!  The second planting, from seed, barely germinated, and the third planting didn’t do much, either.  Not a great year for summer squash.  

Fortunately, I had some early cucurbits because a few were planted in our new greenhouse.  

The field tomatoes, planted the first weekend in June, are just now thinking about ripening.  Honey Grape plants look so good we’ll consider them for a greenhouse variety next year.  Aphid and whitefly pressure are surprisingly high in the planting area, and there have been very few of those 90 degree days where you can almost watch tomatoes grow.  Nutrient testing is needed, but lack of heat has been an issue for everyone in our region.  Okra has really languished as expected in a cool summer.

The greenhouse tomatoes, while not hitting the 30 lb per plant yields possible for the variety, are doing pretty well.  The Geronimo plants in our smaller greenhouse have lots of stem borers, but it hasn’t slowed them down much.  Both greenhouses are now seeing some spider mite damage which we’re attacking with insecticidal soap.  My wholesale buyer has been a disappointment- they have yet to buy a single batch.  Market sales have been really strong, though.  I think in the past I underestimated people’s desire for round, red, cosmetically perfect tomatoes.  Now that we have the greenhouse space, I will grow more of these (but not as many as this year, unless things change with the wholesale situation.)  I am not a fan of having to stake determinate tomatoes in the greenhouse (we are growing Florida 91 this year) and probably will not grow this variety indoors again.  I may try it outside during a hot summer.

Like most coolish, damp summers (2009 comes to mind,) we have done well with beans.  Dragon Tongue beans are more popular than ever, and even the usually-underperforming Royal Burgundy has yielded about 75% of what normal beans would pump out.  We have had somewhat inconsistent rainfall, but over an inch this week means the beans will probably give us another showing in a week or two. The long beans, in the greenhouse, are also facing spider mite pressure, but are now beginning to crank out marketable quantities of beans and should continue doing so until cold weather hits.

Beets have been good this year and I wish we’d planted more early ones.  The early spring lettuce didn’t bolt until around July 4th- some years it’s more like June 4th!  If we’d known it was going to be so cool, continuous lettuce planting would have been a good idea.  Kale and chard have been good all season so far and the chard has not been plagued with blister beetles much.  Maybe they’re staying in the alfalfa.

Winter squash plants took longer than usual to vine and set fruit, but they seem to be doing ok now.  Peppers and eggplant both struggled- late germination (it was cold even in the greenhouse) and small transplants.  We’re looking at a heated area for this next spring, if finances allow.  Transplanting them into the greenhouse is another possibility now that we have more space.

The fall crops look outstanding, possibly on track to be the best ever.  We have heavy cabbage moth pressure and are struggling to keep the Bt on the plants in the damp weather, but we got the plantings in on or ahead of schedule and they are doing great.  First carrots are just reaching edible size and a good sized second planting looks to have germinated well and should also be ready later in the fall.  Turnips, fall radishes, beets, and lettuce are also on track.  

We’ve started a nursery bed in the greenhouse for some winter greenhouse crops including celeriac, kale, bok choy, and lettuces.  

We’re still waiting to hear about what our winter market situation might be.  Both of our winter markets were challenging in the extreme cold and snow of winter 2013-2014.  If we don’t have a winter market, there’s going to be a lot of fresh produce in our house this winter!

June Fun

June 19, 2014

We’ve been busy as always this spring.  The strawberries, planted in 2012, are having their “money year.”  We’ve picked (and eaten) lots!  Over 90 quarts last week.

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The broilers are out on the pasture and on the move.  They’ll be processed on July 11th.

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The new greenhouse is up.  The two largest greenhouses are full of tomato plants, many of which are almost as tall as I am.  A few tomatoes are starting to change color.

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We started the staking process for the field tomatoes (which are still tiny) today.  I requested a GAP audit (required by our customer) yesterday, so that will also be happening soon to be sure we have the food safety system properly in place.

The not as great- the early squash plantings look terrible.   Some were planted too early, others were devoured by flea beetles and the striped cucumber beetle.  The fate of the winter squash still remains to be seen- it just germinated and is in a different field from the early stuff.  After the rain, due to start tonight, we’ll decide whether it’s time to break out one of our OMRI-listed, organically approved sprays for the problem.

Kale and chard, planted in the greenhouse along with the tomatoes, have been harvested a few times already.  Our second lettuce planting is just kicking into gear.  We’re very busy picking strawberries, keeping weeds at bay, and preparing for fall plantings (which start around July 4th!)

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Predators: Part 1, the Mystery of Headless Poultry

March 10, 2014

Where chickens roam outdoors, there are predators.

With the rising popularity of backyard poultry, how about a mini-series on predators?

Today’s predator was the first “mystery predator” on our farm.  We saw nothing.  We heard nothing.  He first visited our broiler flock, and would take out 3 – 4 birds a night while they were small.  At first, only piles of feathers, and maybe some feet, were left.

Then, as the birds got bigger, more body parts were left behind.  Keep in mind these birds were enclosed in a functional electric fence, and the body parts were always inside of the fence.

After three weeks, we only had 80 broilers left out of a flock of 125.  We worked overtime building large salatin-style pens in order to keep the broilers closed in at night.

The predator decided to hit up the laying flock instead, and it’s then the pattern became clear:  This predator came at night, took out one full sized hen, and usually only ate the head.  He would sometimes eat a bit more than the head, but the head was always eaten first.

We eventually camped out at night (and built more secure housing that the hens couldn’t escape at night) to find out who was eating the chickens!  The answer:  A great horned owl.

I’ve read some sources that claim great horned owls don’t really eat chicken.  I respectfully disagree.

We now own a couple of Nite-Gard predator lights, and get out quickly after sunset to shut the birds in.  If hens find a way out of their houses at night, or early in the morning before sunrise, great horned owls will frequently find them, and eat the head off of one chicken.

Backyard poultry owners take note:  Great horned owls are federally protected under the Migratory Bird Act.   You can’t remove them without a special nuisance permit from your regional wildlife office.  These permits cost about 90$ per year when I investigated the matter.

Every time I bury another headless chicken, I ask myself, “Why haven’t I gotten that permit yet??”

Tomatoes 2014

February 9, 2014

Instead of snow, let’s think about tomatoes!  We’ll be offering all of these except Florida 91 and Geronimo as plants.  This will be the last year I grow Goldie, Costoluto Genovese, and Moskvich.

Sauce Types

  • Amish Paste: 85 days, indeterminate.  Slow Food Ark of Taste variety, with good reason!  Oblong with a pointy tip, these have an acid, complex flavor, are dense without the overly dry and mealy texture of many paste types, and even in a bad tomato year make quite tasty tomatoes.  About 2 – 2.5 times larger than a typical Roma.
  • Opalka: 82 days, Indeterminate.  Another large (3 x 5 inches), dense, tasty red sauce tomato.  The long, horn-shaped fruits are longer than Amish Paste, very delicious, and the plants set a lot of fruit.  They do have old fashioned green shoulders but there’s still plenty to eat after those green shoulders are cut off.  We saw some blossom end rot with this variety, so be sure to keep the plants watered when they are setting fruit.  In midsummer 2013, these were my favorite tomato of the year!

Heirloom Slicers

  • Aunt Ruby’s German Green: 88 days.  Enormous green slicer, ripe when the color lightens a bit and the blossom end softens.  If you wait until the blossom end gets a tiny bit of yellow and pink striping, the fruit will probably have cracked, but what awaits you may be the best tomato ever.  Fruit tend to be catfaced and otherwise gnarly in appearance.  Your caprese salad will look better than ever with a few of these slices in it!  Limited quantity this year.
  • Black Krim: 80 days, Indeterminate.  The Fedco seeds catalog says: “Krims should be harvested when half green and still firm. They are dead ripe and perfectly delicious at that stage. If you wait till they are fully purple, you will not be able to get them from garden to table intact (to say nothing of market) and they will disintegrate like a hunk of road-kill. Krims are strikingly iridescent purple on the outside, usually with dark green-black shoulders and noticeable catfacing. Interiors are part black, too, with an unusual juicy yet meaty taste and texture, described as having “…a smoky flavor like a good single malt scotch.” Fruits average 12–18 oz. Heirloom Krim hails from Krymsk on the Black Sea in Russia.”
  • Cherokee Purple: 80 days, indeterminate.  This is what most people think of when they think of an heirloom tomato. Cherokee Purple is round, pinkish-purple, and often has green shoulders when ripe.  Fairly dense, when sliced it looks kind of like a steak inside.  Not the most productive tomato, but it sure tastes great.
  • Rutgers:  72 days, indeterminate. These might be my most popular plants at market.  In the old days, when I worked at a local retail garden center, a customer told me “There ain’t no tomato worth growing except for Rutgers.”  It’s round, red, uniform, tastes really good, and when frost arrives, the green fruits that ripen on your counter are fairly good eating.  (Other green-ripened tomatoes have such a weird texture that I only use them for sauce.)  Two “Rutgers” tomatoes exist in commerce; this is the older, more indeterminate variety.  The vines aren’t super sprawly compared to other heirlooms, but they are bigger (and the tomatoes have a better flavor) than “Rutgers Improved.”
  • Paul Robeson: 78 days, indeterminate.  6 – 12 oz rounded brownish-maroon tomatoes, the same color as Black Prince, but larger and tastier.  In the heat of 2013, many of our field tomatoes yielded very little and what they did yield was sunburned, cracked, or otherwise unmarketable.  While harvesting and culling, I offered one of these to a retired fellow who was helping me out on the farm.  At first he didn’t want to eat it because of the odd color, but after a taste he declared it one of the best tomatoes he’d ever eaten, and he enthusiastically consumed any subsequent culls in this variety.
  • Cosmonaut Volkov: 65 days, indeterminate.  Who needs Early Girl when you’ve got Cosmo?  Fruit size and flavor very similar to Rutgers, but in my hoophouse the plants were larger, much earlier, and more continuously productive.  Like all the Russian heirlooms, favors cooler weather rather than months of 90+ degree heat.  Made very good fall tomatoes in our 2013 garden when transplanted on July 4th.
  • German Johnson: 80 days, indeterminate.  Known as “The Brandywine of the South,” which is all the endorsement I needed to see before trying it.
  • Eva Purple Ball: 78 days, indeterminate.  Pink/purple perfect spheres, tasty and productive even in terribly hot summers like 2012.  German heirloom.
  • Moskvich: Early pink slicer with round fruits.  Good for setting and ripening fruit during cool springs.  Like all Russian heirlooms, not good for hot summers like 2012.
  • Costoluto Genovese: 85 days, Indeterminate. Red, lobed fruit that varies quite a bit in size depending on soil fertility and weather.  Intense flavor, amazing flower-shaped slices, can be an adjustment if you’re not used to a tomato that is not round!

Striped & Yellow Tomatoes

  • Copia: 85 days, indeterminate.  Large yellow tomatoes with red stripes, or green striped with a yellow blush.   A recent cross of Green Zebra and Marvel Stripe, the latest in my quest to find a yellow tomato I like eating.  They’re good tasting, but crack on the vine quite a lot.  Limited availability.
  • Striped Cavern: Red and yellow striped tomato with big lobes for stuffing, it looks almost like a striped bell pepper.  Really good when baked with filling; too firm in my opinion for good fresh eating.
  • Goldie: Indeterminate, 90 days.  A 1977 introduction, this is a huge yellow tomato which is supposed to be really delicious once it gets yellow-orange.  In our fields they rarely stay unblemished, but maybe those of you with tomato cages and time to pay closer attention to individual plants will have better luck.  Our last year with these.

Cherry Tomatoes

  • Black Cherry: 75 days, indeterminate.  Dark purplish-black colored cherry tomatoes with the complex heirloom flavor you’d expect from their color.  We grew this tomato in 2011 and not in 2012 due to a germination problem.  I got more requests for it than anything else, for good reason!
  • Peacevine: Peacevine is a round, red cherry tomato.  It’s an open-pollinated answer to the popular hybrid Sweet 100.  It is supposed to have high levels of a compound that helps you relax.  We grew Peacevine for our first few years of farming.  It’s a great tomato but cracks in rainy weather like most really sweet cherry tomatoes.   We stopped growing it when we switched to fancy greenhouse hybrid Montesino.  Since the greenhouse is going to be 100% full of round red slicers for wholesale, Peacevine is back.
  • Honey Bunch:  45 days??? So the catalog claims.  This red grape tomato is supposed to be crack resistant in the field and very sweet.  The seeds were somewhat expensive so plants will be limited, but if we love it, you’ll see more next year!

Other Tomatoes

In the greenhouse, we’ll be growing Geronimo and Florida 91.  Both are round, red, hybrid slicers, grafted onto Montesino rootstock for extra productivity, vigor, and disease resistance.  Florida 91 is supposed to be better than most tomatoes at setting fruit in hot weather.  Since we usually have a hot stretch in July and August, I thought it was a good idea to plan for it.  In the past, I’ve done my own grafting of greenhouse tomatoes, but for 2014 I found another grower who does this professionally.  I’m glad I did, too, since our long cold winter meant I would have had a hard time keeping my grafting area warm enough to get the grafts to take.  If I have extra plants, we’ll trial a few in the field.

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