Field Walks: Staying Connected to Your Crops

Paul examining summer squash in the fieldsIn my mind, I am a now junior grower.  I figure you get one freshman year, and then a bunch of sophomore years.  After 12 seasons, I am unwilling to consider myself a senior grower, but I get a little closer every day.  I remember when I first started farming I felt the need to see everything on the farm everyday.  There was so much going on it was hard to know what to pay attention to and what to look for.  It took a little while before I had a handle on how fast plants change from day to day and how quickly field conditions can change.  Now that I have a few seasons behind me, and am familiar with the varieties I grow, I can see a little further into the future and get a feel for how the farm will look.  I am still amazed at how quickly weeds can pop and become an issue, but that’s a different topic for another day.

At least once a week, I take the time to see the whole farm.  It’s important to set aside a time to walk your fields.  There are occasions where the only chance I get to do that is when we head up to the fields to harvest but I try—and prefer to do it when I don’t have a crew with me.  I take the time to look at all my fields and make mental notes about where things are and when certain jobs need to happen.  This is also a good time to catalog all the little jobs that take only a few minutes.  They’re good for the end of the day when we have those few extra minutes to spend.  My farm is small enough that I don’t put much down on paper, but it’s not a bad idea.  There’s a lot to keep straight and remembering can be half the work.

Examining lettuce in the fieldsOne of the most important tools that I carry on my walks is some emotional armor.  These walks are often where the problems get discovered.  My motto is “Detach and Persist” and I know that I need let go of the disappointment and focus on the work.  There are times when what I learn from my walks is the beginning of the end for a particular planting.  Keeping the emotion around the crop out of the decision making process is a good skill.  It’s ok to be upset, but it’s better to move on quickly to the next step when things aren’t going the way they should.  The longer a problem goes unattended, the worse it inevitably gets, and sometimes the best solution is to till it under.

I also make sure to take the time to really look hard at the plants; the base of the lettuce, the underside of the leaves, to dig around a little for root crops, anything that can give me an insight into what the crop needs or when it will be ready.  Vegetables are a high value venture, and they are worth the time.  In a lot of ways, the time I spend poking around is some of my favorite on the farm, and it can also be the most valuable.  There’s always something interesting to see; I get caught in the beauty of the farm, the energy of the plants, all that goodness.

Someone once told me that farmer’s footsteps are the best fertilizer.  It’s often true.  I think of my farm as a mirror, reflecting the energy that I put in.  Spending focused time has benefitted me in learning to see through the noise, and hone in on what’s important, making me a better grower every season.

I hope the upcoming season brings you everything you need.

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5 Responses to Field Walks: Staying Connected to Your Crops

  1. I find such field walks to be incredibly important, as well, and I’ve found that a camera is an excellent tool to bring along. I try to take photos of each block of beds from a standard location, & I’ll also take close-ups of the good & the bad, as well. These are often useful photos to have later for tracking crop progress (& comparing progress in later years), for illustrating CSA newsletters, and more. I’ve also had a case in which the photos provided a definitive answer of what was where & when; it seems that my brain managed to misfire in writing down the location on the planting records.

    My biggest challenge is maintaining something of a regular schedule with such walks, but they are indeed well worth the time.

  2. Judi says:

    yes, persist!
    it’s so disappointing to see a whole row of something eaten by who knows what…
    but then you turn around and see a beautiful bed of greens and kale looking up at you happily and it makes it all feel a little better.

  3. Sharon Arrizubieta says:

    Yes – taking field walks with coffee in hand in the early morning not only gives you a good handle on the chores ahead – it is also a good meditative time – gardening has a way of making you more aware of how wonderful Nature is – my motto: The more you know – the better you grow. Cheers!

  4. I hire several interns every summer, which initially take a lot of training and talk. This year, I started something new, which has made all the difference: Every morning, cup of coffee in hand, I walk the farm with a pad of paper and pen, and jot down tasks that need doing. Then I transfer the tasks to a large whiteboard that hangs in the packing area of the barn right next to the walk in cooler. The board is set up in columns to assign a task to a specific crew member or members, and to save them steps, what tools and supplies they will need to gather before going out, and also, approximately how much time the task will take them. I ask them to jot down on the board how much time it actually took, and to check off the task when completed. There is a notes field where they or I can record any miscellaneous information. The top half of the board is also used for harvesting information: what crop, who it is for, packaging and storage requirements, quantity harvested and weighed, etc. This board has the date and weather conditions, ie: rain, how much, and day and night temperature range. I even record a daily tally of what we made at the farm stand, and farmer’s markets. This gets photographed at the end of the day, or the next morning before anything is wiped off. Now that we are so busy, I don’t have much time to sit at a desk entering into a spreadsheet, but with these photos saved on my computer, I will have more time to enter all the data this winter to get really good information about everything on the farm.

  5. Tari Lohrey says:

    Really good ideas, especially the white board. Even if you don’t have a CSA the practice of walking your whole farm is an excellent farm management practice. The white board will work well for children, spouses etc. to help with jobs.

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