Micro-Farm Success: Learning from the Market Gardener

When my husband Edge and I started our farm, a friend remarked, “now all you need is a tractor and you’ll be real farmers.”  What he didn’t realize is that we’ve never planned on buying a tractor to grow vegetables. We’ve always been more comfortable on the human-power scale, and though we did add a two wheel walk-behind tractor to the fields this year, we intend to keep our (bare) feet on the ground. As new farmers, this approach makes starting our own farm feel more doable, with fewer capital investment costs. We’ve been working on farms for the last eight years, but we’re just entering the second year of running our own, and in that sense still feel very much like new farmers. Questions that never arose when we received a paycheck from someone else are coming up now as we face the challenge of creating a financially-sustainable farm that can support us. So we turn to more experienced farmers for guidance.

Last February, at the NOFA-VT winter conference, Edge attended a workshop on Bio-Intensive Market Gardening lead by Jean-Martin Fortier. Edge emerged from the workshop with a copy of The Market Gardener, Jean-Martin’s book (recently translated into English) and a new wave of excitement and ideas for our own farm. Jean-Martin and his wife Maude-Hélène Desroches own Les Jardins de la Grelinette in St-Armand, Quebec, about 20 minutes north of the Vermont border. Jean-Martin describes the farm as “a micro-farm internationally recognized for its high productivity and profitability using low-tech, high-yield methods of production.”  On 1.5 acres, they produce enough food to feed over 200 families every week, and are able to pay themselves a living wage that supports their family. As Jean-Martin writes, “We don’t work for the farm, the farm works for us.” This lifestyle is exactly what we aspire to at Good Heart Farmstead.

The book confirms some key concepts that we’ve been building our into our farm: a small market garden can be a profitable business based on its low start-up costs, low infrastructure requirements, and, with bio-intensive growing methods, high crop yields. Jean-Martin lays out nearly everything from finding the right land to choosing appropriate machinery, from starting seeds to harvest and storage tips, and even discusses the philosophical reasons for bio-intensive market gardening. As Edge and I spent the end of the winter planning our garden, we kept The Market Gardener on our table, open to the crop plans section. As a result we have honed in on crop rotations that allow us to be better organized and more intentional as crops move from the greenhouse into the field.

In mid-May we had the opportunity to visit Jean-Martin and Maude-Hélène at their farm in St. Armand. We arrived the day before their annual plant sale, and transplants were flowing out of their greenhouse, which also held two rows of chest-high trellised tomatoes. Despite this multitude of plants, it is still incredible to think about how much food leaves this farm each week.

During our visit we toured the gardens, asked questions on growing techniques and efficiencies, learned again about soil-building and ways of prepping beds without tilling the soil, saw practical ways to keep prepped beds weed free until you’re ready to plant (by covering them with a heavy black tarp), and helped transplant leeks into deep holes so hilling wouldn’t be required to produce a long white shaft. Jean-Martin and Maude-Hélène have put subtle practices in place all over the farm that allow them to operate with much greater efficiency while increasing plant health and yield. But to write it all here wouldn’t capture it as well as Jean-Martin already has in his book. What I really took away from our visit is this:

Jean-Martin and Maude-Hélène continually learn—they remain open rather than set in old ways, constantly looking for ways to improve. Eliot Coleman writes that “Jean-Martin’s book is very well done and should be of great use to market growers everywhere. Exchange of ideas and information is so important because when we pass ideas on, the next person gets to start where we got to and take the ideas to another level.” As we were planting leeks, Jean-Martin told me that he chooses one crop each year to really focus on and learn how to grow better. Last year was leeks, this year is carrots. There are so many aspects of farming, but this commitment to continual learning and innovating seems to be at the heart of the micro-farm’s success. It’s easy to read a book and conclude that the author has the perfect spot with everything figured out. But during our visit to Les Jardins de la Grelinette, we saw that they must contend with high winds and flapping row cover as well; they too have cucumber beetles and challenging moments like the rest of us.

In a way, it’s encouraging to know this. There are days on our farm when I question how we’ll ever do it all, and there are other days when time works in our favor and I feel so alive with the work of growing food that everything seems possible. The practical guidance offered in The Market Gardener is an invaluable resource, but even more encouraging is the reminder that we aren’t completely naïve in thinking we can do this. The life we aspire to is possible: a profitable micro-farm that is financially and ecologically sustainable, and that even gives us the flexibility to take a vacation once in a while. As Jean-Martin says, it is possible to “grow better instead of bigger.”

To learn more about Jean-Martin and The Market Gardener, visit www.themarketgardener.com. You can also learn more about the history of Les Jardins de la Grelinette in this interview with Jean-Martin.

Posted in Commercial Growing, Farmer Authors, Philosophy | 4 Comments

Winter CSA Basics: Bringing the Seasons into Balance

This will be our tenth winter running a winter CSA at the Intervale Community Farm in Burlington, VT, and every year I have been amazed at the enthusiasm our farm members have for winter crops. There is a glaring, fundamental difference between summer and winter shares: in the summer, things start light and slow—salad greens give way to hardier greens, then come zucchini and cucumbers, then the first tomatoes, and the arc of summer begins to peak with melons and sweet corn and eggplant and peppers, and then the creamy fall vegetables fill the tables: squash and carrots and potatoes. By the final summer CSA pickup in early November, I feel like our members have watched us perform in all our own varying colors of the season, watched us smile on crisp summer days, groan with humidity and mosquitoes, bend and lift boxes over, and dash around with the mania of the season. There is an intimacy that develops as each week they come to experience whatever we’ve managed to harvest from the earth.

But the winter share is a different story. For the first several weeks, many of the crops are still harvested for the shares. We pick kale, leeks, Brussels sprouts and other greens for as long as the weather allows. But by January, the weather has usually halted any fresh harvests beyond what we are growing in our high tunnels. The bulk of the share is squash, cabbage, and a wide variety of roots. And the vegetables are remarkable in quality, flavor, color, and texture. However, regardless of how well we are able to store the crops, the truth of the matter is that each week the vegetables are a little less fresh and vibrant. We can’t re-create the arc and glory of the summer share. Instead, it feels like a slow decline, a grasping at something that we want to be so vital, but we can’t fight the fundamental truth of winter in Vermont. The season ends, things die, and the cycle of life needs to pause before we sow seeds again in March. But our markets and “eat local” bellies have us pushing hard against nature, and thus we have developed a winter share that is relatively successful at staving off the winter food doldrums. Here are a few key elements to our success and the path that led us there.

Storage Quality and Crop Diversity

The core of our winter share is based on a trio of “roots choice”, winter squash, and cabbage. Our members come every other week for nine weeks, which gives them an 18 week spread of produce. We try to provide them with enough food for that two week stretch, but not so much that they can’t store it comfortably at home. The formula that has seemed to work for us is the following:

  • We offer one winter share size. Many members split it between two families.
  • Each week, they get 10-12 pounds of a “roots choice” one, sometimes two, butternut squash, one head of cabbage (choice of red, Napa, or green), and a selection of whatever greens are available, usually between ¼ to ½ pound of fresh spinach.
  • We make sure that we grow enough roots to always have carrots, onions, and potatoes available. We generally have a full season supply of the following as well: beets, rutabaga, celeriac and then partial seasons of turnips, daikon radish, kohlrabi and various other oddball roots.

The success of our winter share depends on our storage quality. We have invested heavily in storage, increasing our capacity and infrastructure significantly in the past decade. We now have two walk-in coolers that we keep at different temperatures to accommodate the storage preferences of various root crops. We also invested in insulating a large room that we heat each year for squash storage. We’ve benefited from the expertise of UVM Extension Ag Engineer Chris Callahan’s information and the work he is doing to help farmers improve storage conditions and efficiency.

We also do our best to provide as diverse a mix of foods as possible throughout the winter. Our members come to the farm and are able to select their own produce from a range of options. They can take whatever mix of roots they want to make up their total amount—it’s fine with us if they want all potatoes or all turnips. We’ve been able to accurately predict the ratios of crops that members take and are able to wholesale any extra crops we have left at the end of the winter share. If we have a failure of a crucial crop, we try to buy or trade for it from other local, organic farms.

Late Season Surprises or Value-Added Bonuses

A minor strategy that has also helped our members cheerfully withstand the long winter of root crops is to save a surprise for them towards the end of the winter share. This has taken various forms over the years—when we experimented with salsify and scorzonera (root crops also know as Oyster Root), we added them to the share in March. When we grew popcorn, we waited until February to give it out, likewise with frozen broccoli and tomatoes. These additions to the winter share came at some extra expense to the farm, but the jolly reception they received made us consider how better to integrate value-added crops more routinely into the winter share. It seems like any change from the routine is welcome to CSA members in late winter.

Fresh Greens

In the winter of 2004, we experimented with a crop of salad greens in our greenhouse and high tunnels in anticipation of offering a winter share the following season. Although we knew that the volume of greens wouldn’t make them the core of our winter share, we also didn’t want to offer a winter share without knowing that we could provide fresh greens most weeks.

We’ve hit pretty close to the mark in terms of offering some amount of greens for the bulk of the winter, but don’t promote them as essential to our winter share. We cautiously advise our members about this, and we’ve also routinely asked this as a question on our end-of-season survey. Survey says: our membership loves the fresh greens and clearly would appreciate as much as we could grow, but they also haven’t loudly complained about our limited production thus far. We’re increasing our capacity this year with the construction of more high tunnels, and are sure that our members will love the improvement.

Crop Planning

Although the next winter share season seems a long way off when you are crop planning in December and January, it’s essential to integrate it into the summer cropping plan. Root crops need to be seeded on schedule with other fall crops; just because the crops are going to be eaten in the dark of winter, they still need to be harvested along with everything else. For our farm, this has made for busier autumn harvests as well as a general increase in work all year long. When we doubled our onion production for the first year of winter share, we were surprised to see how quickly our greenhouse filled up in March. It’s also meant a shift in our crop rotations since potatoes and winter squash now occupy a large portion of our production land. We also need to plan well in advance for seeding greens, especially since it’s hard to prioritize seeding spinach in the midst of our busy September harvest. However, missing that narrow seeding window is easy to do and has big consequences on the other end.

Continued Customer Contact

One of the major benefits for our farm from the winter share has been sustained contact with a core group of members all winter long. One of our successful and simple strategies is to have the farmers staff the pickups. Many members cite this as one of their favorite things about the farm—they get to chat with us, learn strategies for storing and preparing their vegetables, and get to understand a little more about where their food comes from. For me, it’s a wonderful opportunity to get to know a subset of our membership more intimately (our summer share numbers around 550; while winter shares number around 175). It’s also a chance to share the farm with people when there is skiing or a giant snow pile for kids to clamber on.

Famer Sanity and Winter Breaks

Finally, as much as I love the winter share and the continuity it provides in my farming life, I would never do it if I were running our farm alone. Our farm has a unique ownership and management structure—we are a member-owned cooperative with two full time farmers—and this allows me to take chunks of time off.  In fact, one of our goals in creating the winter share was to provide more work for our seasonal staff in the off-season, not to create more burdens for the already-busy full time farmers. If the income generated by the winter share didn’t justify more job opportunities for staff, I would be less enthusiastic about it. One of the beautiful things about farming is the seasonal nature of it, and one of the dangers of season extension is that we are narrowing the window in which to enjoy the luxury of winter adventure or hibernating. If the winter share tied me down for the entire winter, I’d definitely reconsider its merits!

There are a lot of farms running impressive, successful winter CSA programs throughout Vermont and the region. All it takes is extra planning, careful storage, and a thoughtful approach to your audience and personal time. And, of course, a strong enthusiasm for the wealth of winter beets, squash, potatoes, carrots, and cabbage—with a handful of fresh spinach tossed on top!

Posted in Commercial Growing, Winter Growing | 1 Comment

Bee the Change: Inviting Pollinators to the Table

Giveaway! We’re giving away a crate of pollinator-friendly goodies including A Bee’s Garden Organic Non-GMO seed collection from High Mowing, tinctures from Urban Moonshine, seed bombs and skin care products from Badger Balm. See the end of this article for contest info! Contest ends 6/15/14.


As awareness of the sudden decline in honeybee and native bee populations grows, farmers and gardeners alike are wondering what they can do to help these small but powerful allies. Some people have taken up beekeeping, while others are learning about attracting pollinators and providing habitat and food sources. This phenomenon touches all of us, since we all consume foods pollinated by bees, and it is driving a sense of personal responsibility to steward the bees. Whether you have a large farm, a small garden, or just a few containers in the city, you can make a conscious choice to plant species that will attract and nourish your local pollinators.

A Fancy for Flowers

…but what kind?  Bees need pollen and nectar from flowers in order to survive and reproduce. They enjoy a wide array of blooms throughout the season, which is important to note. To attract bees and keep them well-satiated for the entire season, it is essential to choose a variety of flowers that blossom in spring, summer, and fall, or ones with long blooming cycles. Even something as simple as allowing your late-season broccoli side shoots to flower, rather than pulling the plants when the harvest is over, can provide food in the fall when pollen and nectar are in short supply. And remember to deadhead spent flowers to encourage new blossoms to come on!

Flower Color, Shape and Pattern

In general, bees are more attracted to white, blue, purple, and yellow flowers than they are to red, pink, or orange. In addition, flowers with double petals often have less pollen and nectar and make it more difficult for bees to access the inner part of the flower and are therefore not as beneficial as single flowers. Another thing to consider is how bees forage—if you watch them in the garden, you will notice that they prefer to visit all the flowers of one type before moving onto the next variety. This is because it is more efficient to gather pollen and nectar from similar-shaped flowers than to constantly switch between varieties. For this reason, planting individual varieties in large clumps (ideally four or more feet in diameter) is preferable to scattering them across your landscape.

Recommended Varieties

At the end of this article you can find a list of many flowers, herbs, veggies, cover crops, and even some perennial trees and shrubs that make good pollinator plants. As an added bonus for helping the bees, keep in mind that interplanting flowers and herbs with vegetable crops can encourage pollination and result in higher yields. Learning the bloom cycles and choosing a variety of the most desired colors will not only make for a more stunning garden, but will satiate honeybee colonies and encourage wild pollinators to stick around. Just remember—the bees need flowers and don’t benefit at all from plants that are never allowed to flower. Basil, for example, produces wonderful flowers for pollinators, but most gardening experts will advise you to pinch off the flowers in favor of leaf production. Perhaps this is the year to consider growing a few basil plants just for their beautiful and bee-friendly flowers!

Wild bees were here long before our homes and farms, so at one time, native species were the only source of food for pollinators. So keep in mind that wildflower mixes and other native species are great food sources as well as cultivated varieties. For some folks, it may seem unsightly to have an overgrown lawn, but bees will benefit from having at least some areas of your yard left untouched to allow what we call weeds—like clover, dandelion, milkweed, and goldenrod—to grow and flower. Native milkweed in particular is an essential food source for monarch butterflies. This combination of just four wild species will bloom and provide food for pollinators the whole season long.

Avoid Toxic Chemicals

It is also important avoid the use of chemical pesticides, fertilizers, or herbicides, as many of these are detrimental to the health of bees. Chemicals like these, particularly a class of insecticides called neonicotinoids, have been implicated as a likely cause of Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). CCD is the term for the current mass decline in honeybee populations. CCD doesn’t result in the slow decline of hives—usually entire colonies of adult bees disappear from hives practically overnight. This is a strong indicator that the bees are leaving the hives relatively healthy, then coming in contact with something in the environment that confuses them enough that they can’t make it home again. Neonicotinoids, the main ingredients in many popular lawn and garden products and now the most common pesticides on earth, can kill bees outright and in smaller doses impair their ability to fly, navigate, and forage for food. To learn more about neonicotinoids and their impact on pollinators, check out this article by the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation.

Making Your House a Home

Providing food throughout the seasons will help to attract bees to your garden, but creating habitat opportunities will encourage them to stay and reproduce. Some wild bees are soil dwellers, digging tunnels for egg laying, while others burrow in wood. Keeping a small brush pile or some dead wood in your yard and allowing some tall grasses to grow can help to give the bees the materials they need to build their preferred home.

In addition, bees need access to fresh water to live. This can be something as simple as a bird bath with stones for bees to stand on or basically any shallow water source where they can drink, but not drown, will suffice. Providing water means the bees do not need to leave your property for a drink and will therefore be more likely to hang around.

What’s a Farmer to Do?

Farmers perhaps more than any other group tend to be aware of the plight of pollinators. Perhaps it is because they are partly dependent on pollinator success for their own success, or perhaps it’s because they spend their days outdoors in contact with nature. Either way, farmers across the US are showing great interest in protecting pollinators, and many workshops and resources are becoming available to help them do so. By planting pollinator mixes along hedgerows and in fallow ground, leaving scrap wood or brush piles in place, and providing bare ground for ground-nesting bees, farmers can help the bees while also increasing crop productivity and promoting ecological health.

At High Mowing we are engaged in a new effort to support our pollinator friends this year. Our farm crew took a trip to New Hampshire for a recent workshop offered by the Xerces Society and came back so excited to try out what they learned! So this year we’re using some great techniques to help native pollinators thrive on our 40-acre organic farm. These include:

  • Planting strips of pollinator-friendly flowers in the driverows within fields
  • Leaving an unmowed margin around each field to provide habitat
  • Maintaining our riparian zones, which were planted to native trees and flowers last year
  • Ensuring that existing hedgerows, brush piles and bare spaces remain intact
  • Supporting our native pollinators to reduce our purchases of imported bumblebees (which may carry diseases that can affect other species)

As seed growers dependent on the work of millions of bees for pollination of our seed crops, bees are essential to our survival. Check out this article Tom Stearns wrote last year to learn more about our amazing relationship with pollinators!

Bee the Change You Wish to See

Since you are reading this article, you probably do not consider bees to be a summertime nuisance. You probably already know that they are responsible for pollination of over 30% of our food supply, accounting for over $15 billion worth of apples, almonds, berries, cucumbers, squash, melons, and many more. You probably know that the bees need advocates…and safeguarding. And you are probably hoping to bee a part of the solution. By simply providing food, water, and habitat, you too can do your part.

Here are some pollinator-friendly plants we recommend, with their bloom times noted.

Want to keep it simple? Check out our Bee’s Garden Seed Collection!

Annual Flowers

Perennial Flowers

  • Aster (Late Fall)
  • Baptisia (Summer)
  • Bee Balm (Summer)
  • Black Eyed Susan (Late Summer-Fall)
  • Catmint (Summer-Fall)
  • Coreopsis (Summer)
  • Daisies (Summer)
  • Hyssop (Summer)
  • Joe Pye Weed (Late Summer)
  • Liatris (Summer)
  • Lobelia (Late Summer-Fall)
  • Lupine (Summer)
  • Purple Coneflower (Echinacea)
  • Russian Sage (Summer to Fall)
  • Salvia (Summer)
  • Scabiosa (Summer)

Herbs (Most bloom Summer-Fall)

Trees & Shrubs

  • Berries (Spring)
  • Fruit trees (Spring-Summer)
  • Lilac (Late Spring)
  • Witch Hazel (Varies)

Vegetables (Summer)

Cover Crops (Spring-Fall)

“Weeds”

  • Clover
  • Dandelion
  • Goldenrod
  • Milkweed
  • Vetch

ENTER TO WIN! We’re giving away a crate of pollinator-friendly goodies including a Bee’s Garden Organic Seed Collection from High Mowing Organic Seeds, seed bombs, tinctures from Urban Moonshine and skincare products from Badger Balm.

OFFICIAL CONTEST RULES:

  • Leave a comment on this blog post telling us what you’re doing to help the bees this season!

Winner will be chosen using random.org on 6/15/14. One entry per person please.

Posted in About High Mowing Organic Seeds, Growing Tips | 290 Comments

High Mowing Offers First Non-GMO Project Verified Vegetable Seeds

High Mowing has long been a leader in the organic and sustainable seed movement. As such, we are honored to announce that we are about to become the first Non-GMO Project Verified vegetable seed company! High Mowing has been 100% organic since our founding in 1996 and we have never sold genetically modified (GM) seeds. We are looking forward to further demonstrating our commitment to the organic food movement through Non-GMO Project Verification.

A Little Background

High Mowing has been certified organic since 1996, one year after the first GM crops were approved for commercial use in the United States. GM crops are created by adding genetic material from one species into the DNA sequence of another species. The result of genetic modification by laboratory methods is a combination of genetic materials that could not occur naturally. Traditional breeding is different, wherein pollen is moved between members of the same species. Plant breeders carry pollen from one plant to another by hand or with the help of insects to produce controlled crosses of two individual plants.

GMOs, or genetically modified organisms, are not allowed in certified organic production and we have never sold GM seeds. As new GM crops are released to the general public, however, there is an increased risk of GM crops cross-pollinating organic crops. High Mowing is committed to Non-GMO Project Verification to help reduce these risks. It has always been our goal to provide seeds that are safe and healthy for people and the planet. For us, that means helping to protect the many traits that have been isolated through selective breeding so that they can be utilized by future generations.

The Non-GMO Project

The Non-GMO Project is a third-party voluntary labeling system that is part of the “Right to Know” movement. This movement is driven by the principle that consumers have the right to be able to make informed choices about their food through full disclosure of GM ingredients (or the lack therof) on product packaging. Since mandatory labeling of GM ingredients has not yet been adopted in the United States, many companies are having their products verified through the Non-GMO Project, thereby allowing consumers to make an educated choice.

The Non-GMO Project helps companies develop procedures to avoid GMOs in their products and facilitates testing for the presence of genetically modified DNA. Non-GMO Project standards are aligned with those adopted by the European Union. High Mowing has been providing support and advice to the Non-GMO Project since 2008, helping to expand their understanding of the seed industry and the need for rigorous testing standards.

Why Verify?

We believe that consumers have a right to know what’s in their food and should be able to make informed decisions based on accurate labeling of food and the seeds used to produce food. GM contamination is a potential hazard whose long-term effects are largely unstudied, since safety assessments (which are not required by the FDA) have almost exclusively been conducted by the same companies who market GMOs. For this reason, more than 60 countries around the world now require labeling of GMOs. In the absence of a national labeling policy in the US, we are dedicated to ensuring consumer safety by verifying our seeds.

When is it happening?

Now! High Mowing is in the process of completing Non-GMO Project Verification and is currently 90% verified. We will be 100% Non-GMO Project Verified in late summer of 2014. High Mowing Organic sprouting seed packets already bear the Non-GMO Project Verified seal. Look for the Non-GMO Project Verified seal appearing on High Mowing vegetable, herb, and flower seed packets this summer! We are currently in transition with our packaging and will be adopting the Non-GMO Project Verified seal on all package sizes in the future.

How does it work?

As a farm-based seed company, High Mowing is in a unique position to determine how seeds on our farm and those of our contract growers are produced. This means that we can help put in place standards that make it very unlikely that contamination would occur. In addition, we provide safeguards to ensure that if it did happen, we would be able to catch the problem and prevent sale of the seed. As new GM crops become commercially available, we are committed to re-assessing our standards to encompass the new crops at risk.

The Non-GMO Project Verification process is made up of three key components. These are segregation, testing, and traceability.

  • Segregation is the concept that organic crops must be kept separate from GMO crops, starting in the farm fields where they’re grown and ending in the facilities where they’re packaged. All farm and processing equipment must be dedicated for non-GMO crops only. For us that means ensuring that the fields where our organic seed crops are grown are isolated adequately from any GMO fields that could cross-pollinate them.
  • Testing is essential to ensure that organic crops were adequately segregated from GM ones. “High Risk” varieties that can be cross-pollinated by GM varieties are tested before they leave our facility. Currently we test samples of our seed for qualitative assessment from the laboratory (detect/non-detect).  If a test detects GMOs then we will not sell the seed.
  • Traceability helps ensure that if contamination occurs, its source can be identified. Through the use of a comprehensive batch and lot system, we are able to identify not only the farm that a particular seed lot came from, but also the field where it was grown. In this way we can ensure that any problem that occurs can quickly be resolved.

A note about CMS seed

Lately people have been asking us about artificial CMS or cell fusion hybrid seed. The term CMS refers to Cytoplasmic Male Sterility, a trait now widely used in commercial hybridization to produce female parent lines for hybrid varieties. Traditionally male pollen has been eradicated through emasculation, or the physical removal of the plant’s pollen-producing organs. Artificial CMS eliminates the need to emasculate—by combining the cells of two members of the same plant family, such as radish and broccoli, one can cause male sterility in the broccoli parent. CMS can occur naturally as a result of mutations in a single species and has been observed in over 150 plant species; however CMS induced for the purpose of hybridization is artificial and the two varieties would not normally interbreed. Despite this, the USDA National Organic Standards Board has ruled that artificial CMS is allowable in organic production.

However, High Mowing feels that artificial CMS still constitutes genetic engineering and does not sell any varieties derived from the artificial CMS technique. The hybrids we sell and those we develop in our organic breeding program are produced either through naturally-occurring CMS or through a completely different method called self-incompatibility or SI, which is also a natural method and does not require any laboratory steps. We choose to work with companies that specialize in organic seed breeding and use methods of breeding that are more consistent with our own breeding efforts and the tenets of organic agriculture. Bejo Seeds, Vitalis Organic Seeds, and Rijk Zwaan stand out in this regard and we are proud to work with them in developing hybrid brassicas and more. Check out this recent article by High Mowing customer Donald Sutherland to learn more about CMS seed.

A Roadmap for the Future

As one of the founding companies and primary supporters of the organic seed industry, we feel it is our responsibility to raise the bar for all seed. At a time when GM crops are entering our food supply and wild ecosystems, it is more important than ever to preserve the purity of our seed resources. We are not willing to take any chances with our seeds—and we know you aren’t either. Providing our customers with an additional layer of safeguards against GMO-contaminated seeds will help ensure the future we want to see. A non-GMO food supply should, after all, begin with non-GMO seeds.

We are continuing to develop standards that will shape the future of segregation, testing, and traceability practices for seeds. As always, we welcome your thoughts as we move forward.

Posted in About High Mowing Organic Seeds, Farm Ethics | Tagged , | 2 Comments

The World’s Best Tomato Trellis

When it comes to tomato trellising, sometimes I feel like I’ve seen it all. The farms I’ve worked on usually use either the Florida Basket Weave (which sounds like a fancy hairdo to me) or tomato clips with the Greenhouse-String Method (which sounds like a bluegrass band). Home gardeners seem to use everything from simple wooden stakes to twirly metal ones, from classic round tomato cages to giant square ones that cost 50 bucks a pop and still lean like the tower of Pisa. People seem to get mighty creative in figuring out how to wrangle these unruly fruits, and for a long time it seemed like there was no taming them. But my life changed forever when my clever friend showed me her system, which had been built 20 years earlier and was still just as sturdy and useful as in its first year. Cheap, durable, versatile, long-lasting, and easy – those are 5 words not usually associated with tomatoes. But they certainly apply well to this trellis using concrete reinforcing wire.

Materials

To build this trellis, you really just need 4 things: a sheet of concrete reinforcing wire, zipties, two cedar posts, and a rubber mallet. Concrete reinforcing wire (also called “Remesh”) can be purchased at a home improvement store and costs about $8 per sheet. It’s basically heavy-duty wire mesh (intended to reinforce concrete foundations) with 4” or 6” square openings and comes in a sheet  about 4’ wide and 7’ long.

You’ll also need two 6’ cedar posts (the kind that are sharpened to a point on one end), usually about $2 each, a package of zipties (maybe $5, also from a home improvement store) and a rubber mallet from any hardware store. The only challenging thing about this trellis is figuring out how to transport the wire sheets. When you go to buy them, make sure to wear your dirtiest, most garden-ready clothes, and cover the interior of your vehicle with a tarp – the sheets are always rusty and in the process of ziptying them into a tube that can fit in a car you will get covered in rust. A pickup truck makes this a lot easier!

Building the Trellis

Making this trellis is so easy that you can put it up by yourself in no time. Just pound your cedar stakes into the ground 6-7’ apart (along your future tomato row) using the rubber mallet. Then attach the top of the sheet of reinforcing wire to the top of the stakes at either end using zipties. The rough texture of the cedar stakes helps the zipties grip the wood and stay nice and sturdy. You’ll notice that there’s a big gap between the ground and where the trellis begins, but will find that this is actually a good thing.

Just Weave and Harvest!

Once planted under the trellis, your tomato plants will have some time to grow. Then, just as they’re starting to get viney and flop over, they’re tall enough to get woven through the holes of the trellis. As your tomato plants grow, keep pruning off the suckers and weaving the leader back and forth through the wire. The key is to be very gentle when weaving – tomato plants are flexible, but will break if bent too much. But the ultimate reward for your efforts is a literal wall of tomatoes. The plants don’t have to put energy into holding themselves up, so they can focus on producing fruit, and the plants get great air circulation because there’s none of that jungly mess you usually have to deal with. Less jungle = less disease = more tomatoes! Plus, picking tomatoes off your new “wall” is as easy as taking them off the shelf in the grocery store (and way more gratifying).

Cost

Like any good gardener, you’re probably doing some quick math in your head. Except I’m going to beat you to it. So…

For two cedar posts:

  • two cedar posts at $2 each = $4
  • one sheet concrete reinforcing wire = $8
  • zipties = $5
  • TOTAL = $17
  • 4 plants at $4.25 each

For four cedar posts:

  • four cedar posts at $2 each = $8
  • two sheets concrete reinforcing wire = $16
  • zipties = $5
  • TOTAL = $29
  • 8 plants at $3.63 each

Since this trellis can easily support 4 tomato plants (and probably 6 if you’re an optimist), that comes out to $4.25 per plant. If you do more than one, the cost goes down even more because you just need one pack of zipties. That’s roughly the same as a standard round tomato cage. But keep in mind – a standard cage won’t do anything for your tomato plants once they’re over 3 or 4 feet tall. In my experience the round cages always fall apart in one or two seasons – the plants are too big and heavy for them, and then the stakes come off the rings, and then you’re trying to figure out how to stake a plant with a cage around it when it’s already gotten tangled up with all your other plants. I save myself the headache and squashed fruit, make a small one-time investment in this genus I love so well, and sit back to watch my lycopersicon vines climb. At the end of the season, you can leave your trellises in place or pull up the stakes, roll them up with the wire, and store until next season (they make a great support for peas in the spring, too!) Not sure what to do with all those half-functioning tomato cages? Those work great for eggplant.

If this trellising system doesn’t work for you, be sure to check out an earlier blog post “Trellising Your Organic Tomatoes” for alternate ideas!

Posted in Beginner Gardeners' Guide, Growing Tips | Tagged | 15 Comments

How to Graft Tomatoes

Ever thought of grafting your own tomatoes? Grafted tomatoes combine rootstock that is bred for disease resistance and vigor with the top of another tomato variety that has excellent flavor and productivity. Grafting tomatoes allows you to create a tomato plant that will work the best for your specific needs.

At High Mowing we work with grafted tomatoes often, and we’ve produced a video to help walk you through the process. Grafting tomatoes takes a bit more time and effort, but the (very tasty) benefits are worth it!

Looking for organic rootstock? We carry Estamino, the first tomato rootstock bred for organic growing conditions and available as organic seed.

 

Posted in Commercial Growing, Greenhouses, Growing Tips | Leave a comment

Inequity, Creativity, and Resiliency: Farming in a Changing Climate

Becky Maden is the Assistant Farm Manager at Intervale Community Farm (ICF), a thriving member-owned CSA farm in its 21st season of growing organic produce in Burlington, Vermont. Becky has worked on several diverse vegetable farms throughout the country and around the world. At ICF, Becky is either found in the greenhouse, on a tractor, or jogging between the two.  In her time spent away from the farm, Becky loves to travel, write, bike, run, ski, and cook bounteous meals with glorious produce.

For most of my socially conscious life, climate change has been the bar of doomsday fear against which I measure my life decisions. Is my career choice doing anything to solve this problem? Should I be more political in my actions, work, or day-to-day decisions? Should I become a vegan? Should I never fly again? Should I forgo an automobile? Should I push our farm business to stop burning propane and using black plastic? And perhaps most importantly, would I ever want to raise children in this messy, uncertain time?

These questions have been the wall I bang my head against when things aren’t going well. A frustrating day at work leads me to tell people that I want to quit farming and go lobby on Capitol Hill for stricter emissions controls. A day spent with a friend’s screaming toddler leads me to declare that I can’t bear the thought of raising my own children in these uncertain times. And when I leave my little Vermont bubble and witness where the priorities of most Americans are – on consuming, not conserving – the wall in front of me feels impossibly thick.

And then the rains came…2008

In the summer of 2008, it rained steadily for a week, so much so that we began to watch the National Weather Service hydrograph for flooding predictions. All of our farm fields are in the flood plain of the Winooski River, and it’s not unusual for us to have seasonal flooding. Typically, these floods happen in the springtime with snowmelt. Only rarely had there been floods on our fields when crops are in the ground.

During those rainy summer days, time crunched in around us as the hydrograph predictions rose and we made a hasty decision to harvest any semi-mature crops that would be impacted by the predictions. Over the course of a couple of hours, we frantically harvested thousands of pounds of carrots and beets. However, when the flood came later that afternoon, I was strangely disappointed to see that it didn’t even come close to our fields. We took a gamble, which left us with thousands of pounds of immature crops to wash, process, and store. I began to think that in the future, I wouldn’t quite believe the severity of flood predictions.

2010-2013

But just two years later, in October of 2010, we faced the same situation in the fall, and this time, the flood exceeded the predictions. We lost $30,000 of beautiful brassicas. The following year, two severe floods greeted our newly planted fields in April, and then Tropical Storm Irene gushed over everything, including our cooler and barn, in August. Each time, the hydrograph predictions were soberingly accurate. And each time, the losses felt devastating on both a financial and emotional level. Finally, last spring, we once again paddled a canoe over our crops during two floods. For the first time in my fifteen years of farming, I felt a deep hopelessness for our farm, for our neighboring farms, and for colleagues all around the state. Flooding and excessive summer rainfall are indicators of—or rather, they are–climate change in Vermont, and it doesn’t bode well for local agriculture.

Lost Land

One of the most profound realizations for me after these years of flooding is that seemingly small variances in land distribution had a major impact on the ability of individual farms to survive floods. This seemed to me like a microcosm of how climate change is inequitably affecting the world, ranging from Pacific Islands that are getting swallowed by the sea, to Native communities in Alaska, to neighborhoods of New Orleans.

Our community of several organic farms within Burlington’s Intervale was struck in a smaller way by this reality, as the farms with the most struggles were located on lower lying fields that flooded more frequently and stayed wet for longer stretches. In contrast, our farm has much of our production fields on well-drained sandy fields that are some of the last to flood. Only during Irene did one hundred percent of our fields go under water. It seemed like a lucky accident that our farm was one of the first farms to establish in the Intervale, and as a result, held lease rights to the driest, safest land.

The Creativity Buffer

The second insight that has settled into my consciousness after these dramatic years is that creative energy is the only way to recover from big losses. Furthermore, it seems like this creative energy needs to be immediate. Within days of each of our more recent floods, we’ve thrown ourselves into replanting, cleaning up, harnessing the goodwill of the community, and assessing our financial situation to know how to move ahead. All of this feels simultaneously draining and energizing. Some of our efforts have been fruitless; last year we tried to direct seed onions in July when we lost our ½ acre of onions in a flood; in 2010 we hand cut beds and beds of flooded cooking greens with hopes of re-growth from the plants for a future harvest; and right after Irene we tried to reseed anything we could, only to learn about new rules regarding replanting wait periods for flooded land. Each of these efforts cost us time, energy, and money, with no payoff. But other efforts had tremendous payoffs.

For instance, last spring we lost our storage cabbage plantings twice with the last flood on July 5. We quickly regrouped and decided to gamble on seeding some shorter season storage cabbage. We ended up with a glorious, warm, dry fall, and the cabbage matured into the most disease-free crop we’ve had in years. We ended up with a bumper crop, and sold every last head. The temptation to lament all of the time and money lost on those two earlier plantings might have overwhelmed our option to reseed cabbage in July. But we had creative energy working in our favor and as a result, we still (in April of the following year) have a few cabbages for ourselves to eat.

Shared Risk

The third insight from the saddening floods and rainy stretches of the past few years is how an alternative business structure and supportive community have saved our farm from disaster and despair. Our farm is a consumer cooperative business model and we sell most of our vegetables through a CSA. This model of shared risk has helped us move with emotional and financial strength through the past few years. Not only do we thrive on the good will and positive personal energy from interacting with our CSA members, we’ve also spread the financial risk associated with coping with our losses through a member loan program as well as by harnessing other loans offered through various organizations after Irene.

Planning for Change

Finally, the fourth shift our farm has experienced in response to increased flooding and climate risk has been a radical shift in our focus and crop planning.  First and foremost, immediately following Irene, we made plans to build ½ an acre of hoophouses on the only swath of land that didn’t flood during Irene. This is a huge investment on our part, but we were convinced by the flooding and rainfall trends that we need this resiliency as a buffer for our farm business. Furthermore, we have shifted our crop plans to accommodate the risks of our lower lying fields (we currently lease about 25 acres of the aforementioned high dry land, and another 30 or so of very marginal, wet, flood-prone land). Whereas previously we were using the lower fields for some of our longer season crops, we’ve decided the risk is too great. Our new plans include quick succession crops (like greens), crops that might require a long season but don’t require a lot of labor or other inputs (like grains or winter squash), or crops that aren’t cornerstones of our CSA or are even experimental (like popcorn). With this strategy, we can still make use of some of this quite fertile, productive land without too much loss involved.

Resilience

We know that our farm is fortunate in many unquantifiable ways. We farm on flat, fertile, stone-free land with easy access to irrigation water. We farm only a few miles from the biggest population center of Vermont. We are supported and loved by many hundreds of people in our community. We have an extended network of support through the farming and food community. We have assessed all of these positive factors in deciding to continue our business on land that is increasingly risky as the climate changes. More than anything, the events of the past few years have sobered me in a global sense.

Vermont is a resilient, creative, and energized state. I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else now that the doomsday future is suddenly the very stark present. But we are not insulated nor are we guiltless from the faults of the world. I still feel myself banging my head against the wall of fear that plagued my young adulthood, only now on the other side of the wall I can hear some good mixed with the bad, the voices of sweet CSA members, the knife swath and squeak of bounteous cabbage harvests, and the voices of farmers all over the world who are creatively figuring out how to keep growing food despite the intimidating changes now upon us.

 

Posted in Commercial Growing, Farmer Authors, Philosophy | 7 Comments

Software Review – AgSquared for Organic Farmers

Diversified organic farmers must contend with many unique challenges – rapidly changing markets, unpredictable weather events, and the complexity of working with rather than against ecology, to name just a few. But of all the difficulties organic farmers face, one of the most daunting might just be…paperwork. Record-keeping, while almost as essential to successful farming as seeds and tools are, is usually time consuming and, frankly, a pain. And when organic certification inspection time comes, many farmers end up wishing they had done a better job of it. Being able to account for all the inputs used on the farm is just one component of a remarkable new tool developed specifically for organic farmers – AgSquared.

AgSquared is a new software program to help organic farmers with everything from farm planning to everyday operations to record-keeping to the organic certification process. It features attractive, user-friendly interfaces for desktop computers and tablets, with smartphone features coming soon.  The software is cloud-based, so all your records go where you do, and if your office floods or your computer gets stolen, all of your carefully gathered data remains safe.

Testing AgSquared at Primrose Valley Farm

Longtime High Mowing customers David and Jamie Baker of Primrose Valley Farm in Wisconsin were among the first beta-testers of the software, and have been using it to keep their farm organized ever since. Primrose Valley Farm is an 83 acre certified organic farm located in the “Driftless region” of South Central Wisconsin. The Bakers grow about 75 varieties of fruits and vegetables each year and market their produce to restaurants, through their farm stand and to CSA customers in Madison and Chicago. David and Jamie talked to us about how they use AgSquared and how it has been working for them.


David and Jamie Baker of Primrose Valley Farm

Like most farmers, David and Jamie were initially using spreadsheets to manage their data. However, they soon realized they needed a database to keep track of details from year to year. Since they had both worked in the technology industry, they thought about building their own, but shortly afterward learned about AgSquared. David met Jeff Gordon (a plant breeder) and Giulia Stellari (a plant biologist), the founders of AgSquared, while working at the University of Wisconsin. Part of the reason they decided to try the software is because it’s built specifically for small and mid-sized farms like theirs. They told us, “[Jeff and Giulia] don’t assume what farmers need, they actively engage farmers to determine their needs and how they can best provide the desired functions and features, and it’s not just one farmer’s perspective. They look to many farms of various sizes and types of operations for their input. It’s because of this holistic approach in the product development stage that results in the rich functionality of the software and makes it so notable.”

Crop Database & Calendar

Since AgSquared builds a database from the information you put into it, you can start using it any time. According to David and Jamie, “We began experimenting with the software during the tail end of a season becoming familiar with its capabilities.  After becoming familiar with the product and how we wanted to implement it on our farm we then spent the off-season winter months populating it with our data and entering our plans for the upcoming season. You can begin using AgSquared at any time and enter your information as you go. You can start with one area and then build on over time.”

Essentially, the software operates much like a calendar. You can schedule tasks, such as seeding carrots, and assign those tasks to particular employees as well as particular fields on a map of your farm. You can print out a schedule of all the tasks that need to be done in a day, and enter the amount of time they took once they’re done. One of the biggest perks is that you can use dependencies to keep your schedule organized. So for your carrot bed, you can schedule a thinning task that takes place 3 weeks after sowing. Now let’s say there’s a flooding event, and carrot seeding has to be put off for two weeks – all the tasks that are dependent on the first task, sowing carrots, get moved down two weeks automatically when you change the sowing date. You can enter notes like “don’t seed early carrots in the floodplain!” anywhere in the software, and every task, input, and harvest quantity is saved as a searchable record that you can reference when making your crop plans next year.

AgSquared for Organic Certification

AgSquared has many features that can help with maintaining your organic certification. For example, your crops can be linked to a map of your farm so you know what, when, and how much was planted, but where it was planted as well. This makes planning your crop rotations (and showing them to an inspector) a piece of cake.  And when you have 75 different crops growing at different times throughout the season, as David and Jamie do, determining optimal crop rotations for minimizing pest and disease pressure can feel like solving a Rubik’s cube. Remembering how much of various inputs were used where and when can be a major challenge too – but with AgSquared, as long as you make a to-do list at the beginning of each day, that information is safely stored until inspection time comes.

According to David and Jamie, “Organic certification requires tracking and reporting of a great deal of information. Through the use of AgSquared we are able to provide full traceability and all the history related to crop production.  From the lot number of the seed stock used, seeding data, transplant data, cultivation, inputs used, harvest and pack house data, field location as well as related crewmember activity and ultimately distribution data inclusive of lot numbers.  At each of our certification inspections the certifier is always impressed with the completeness and the ease with which we are able to provide them with the requested information.”

Cost Tracking & Profitability

The app can also help you track long and short-term profitability and manage time by recording how many people it took to do each activity, and how long each project took. For example, with AgSquared’s new cost tracking features you can keep track of how many cases of eggplant were sold and for what price, and you can quickly and easily determine that with all the costs of laying black plastic, transplanting, weeding, irrigating, fertilizing, and harvesting – eggplant is actually not a profitable crop for you. According to David and Jamie, “AgSquared Plus contains extraordinary capabilities related to resource management and cost tracking tools. This new feature set will provide us the ability to track crop specific profitability and better manage the farms inventories.” AgSquared makes one of the historical challenges to farmers – knowing what is profitable to grow – a thing of the past.

And now down to the brass tacks: as every successful farmer knows, you don’t want to go out and buy every shiny new tool that hits the market, and the same goes for software. However, this is one tool that can make the others work more effectively. According to David and Jamie, “I would definitely recommend and have recommended the software to other farmers.  In my research I didn’t find any software that was comparable to AgSquared in accomplishing the goals that we had in managing our farm and the associated data.”


AgSquared Founders Jeff Gordon and Giulia Stellari

Win a Copy of AgSquared!

Since Jeff Gordon and Giulia Stellari care deeply about the success of America’s farms, they provide AgSquared to users at a fair price. The software is free to use for the first 30 days, or forever with less than 10 crop plantings, and no credit card is required at sign up.

They’re offering a 10% discount to you just for reading this – use offer code 2014HMSPROMO, good through 5/31/14, at checkout on their website.

Finally, they’ve partnered with High Mowing to give away a one year AgSquared Basic subscription to a lucky winner! Just go to this specific Facebook post and “like” it to be entered to win. Winner will be chosen at random on June 6th, 2014. (This contest is now over.)

Official Contest Rules:

**One entry per Facebook user. Winner will be selected randomly. Contest ends June 6th, 2014 at 1pm. This contest is not associated with Facebook in any way.*

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Seeding Beets and Carrots with Success

Beets and carrots are a weekly selection at most farm stands for good reason. There are varieties to meet the needs of almost any seasonal slot, and they taste amazing regardless of whether they’re fresh out of the ground or have spent months in storage. I really love the point in the season when they are around to stay, and I work a little harder to make sure we get there as soon as possible. We seed early and often to have a good supply across the entire season, and seed both of these crops as early as the ground can be worked. I have also transplanted beets with good success.

Consistent Moisture

Consistent moisture is one of the keys in getting good germination. I try to time my seedings so that the seeds are watered in soon after they go in the ground. If your soil is quick to dry out, using drip irrigation is a good way to give the bed the moisture it needs.

I cover the soil on those first plantings with row cover, putting it right on the ground without any hoops. It helps to warm the soil, hold in moisture, and it also buffers the impact of a heavy rain event. Depending on your soil type, drying out between rain or watering events can create a crust that makes it really hard for the seedlings to emerge once they have germinated. The row cover will also help slow the formation of this crust.

Soil Prep

Good soil prep will make a huge difference in the quality of carrots that you harvest. We use a chisel plow to loosen the soil before we make our beds. It rips through the soil, deepening the bed and making it easier for the carrots to grow long and straight. If you don’t have access to a chisel, depending on the size of your plot, using a broadfork or similar tool to work the soil will be worth the effort.

I have been using an Earthway seeder with a custom plate I had made for pelleted carrot seed. Pelleted seeds have a clay coating that builds up the size and shape of the seed to something more uniform and easily run through the seeder. Often times beet seeds are the same size to run through this plate as well.  I use tape to cover over a little of the hole on that same plate to reduce the amount of raw seed that the planter puts out. I find I get better results with this than the typical carrot plate that comes with the seeder. It puts out too much seed, which I then have to go back and thin out.

I seed heavier and shallower in the spring than I do in the summer and fall. The market for early carrots and baby beets is such that I can harvest them when they are smaller, so I don’t mind over seeding them. I plant my early seedings shallow so they will be warmed by the sun and germinate faster. As the season progresses, I increase the depth that I plant to keep the seeds out of the hotter zone near the surface of the soil. The wrinkle is making sure that they are getting the moisture that they need. Managing any crusting of the soil becomes really important as the summer goes on, as the hot sun can make this crust really hard to penetrate. Again, using a lightweight row cover can help.

Beet Varieties

Early Wonder Tall Top is really fast to come out of the ground and puts on a heavy top growth of delicious greens. They will make a nice eating beet if you let them go long enough, but I typically move on to another variety for bunching beets. I really like Red Ace Beet through the summer, and I switch to Boro or Rhonda for storage. These three varieties have a more refined shape, with a small area of leaf attachment that makes them easier to clean for sale or storage. Their eating quality doesn’t diminish if they get large in size, and all will store well. Rhonda is a slower grower than the Red Ace, but it was bred to store for longer periods of time, and will come out of the cooler in great shape.

Carrot Varieties

I like to start the carrot season with Jeanette and Napoli. The Jeanette has a good sweetness and small core with nice tops for bunching. The Napoli is a little firmer carrot, with good flavor and healthy tops. It also holds its eating quality when grown to a larger size. I like planting the Yaya for the heat of the summer season. The tops are smaller, but still make good bunches. I am excited about trying the Miami this year in a main season slot. I use the Negovia as a storage carrot, and am harvesting from the cooler in mid March with really good flavor and quality. I also use it as a late fall bunched carrot before I harvest for storage. The tops’ attachment is really nice and strong, so I don’t have to worry about them falling off when customers are grabbing a bunch from my display.

Best of luck with your season of seeding,

Paul

For more information on growing carrots, check out our “Carrot Growing Tips” video:

Posted in Articles by Farmer Paul Betz, Commercial Growing, Growing Tips, Variety Highlights | 1 Comment

City Farmer: Weighing the Benefits and Challenges of Urban Agriculture

Each morning, I ride my bike less than ten minutes from my home in the densely populated Old North End neighborhood in Burlington, Vermont to my farm, weaving my bike through a break in the stream of morning traffic and down a steep hill. To my right is a Shell gas station, straight ahead is Dunkin Donuts, and to my left is a gritty business that services tractor trailers (and, conveniently, has replacement parts for busted hydraulics on a tractor). I swerve around potholes going down the hill, bump over the train tracks, and as the road levels out, I wiggle my fingers to fight off the morning cold-induced numbness.  A gray-bearded man with an old external frame backpack walks towards me, heading up into town from his sleeping spot near our farm, yanking on the leash of a dog that lurches towards my bike. The man curses at the dog, ignores me, and continues to shuffle up the hill.

The term “agriculture” is strongly associated with Vermont, but “urban” is usually not. However, our neighborhood of farms is one of the few areas in the state to which both terms apply. Located in what is known as “The Intervale” (“between the hills”), we are within easy walking distance of Vermont’s densest population center, and are inside Burlington city limits. The prime agricultural soils of our farm were never built on–and can never be—because we are located in a floodplain. Native Americans farmed and hunted on this land as early as 3000 BC; evidence of early corn cultivation is present from 1450 AD.  Early white settlers also farmed the land with dairy cows, corn, and hogs. But in the midst of an urban boom in the 1980’s, the land became an informal dumping area full of unsavory characters. Even today, couches and electronics appear regularly in our fields (just last week, a TV and couch sprang up overnight near our hoophouses), and there is a constant effort to keep the land clear of unwanted junk. Today, the responsibility is in our hands; a community of enthusiastic, idealistic, energetic farmers strives to reap the rewards of farming in close proximity to a supportive customer base while we simultaneously fend off the bizarre frustrations of farming in an urban environment.

Our farm grows over 25 acres of vegetables, but we don’t own a delivery vehicle. In fact, I rarely leave the farm during the day, and when I do, it’s often just an excuse to go buy pastries for our staff. As we harvest our vegetables, they are washed and packed into reusable containers, which travel less than fifty feet between the cooler and our CSA distribution area. Each Monday and Thursday afternoon during the summer season, we stand in the shade and greet hundreds of customers as they arrive to gather their produce and harvest from the four acres of pick-your-own crops that we grow as part of their share. A broad spectrum of people arrive at the farm on any given day– some are in business suits, smelling of airy colognes, with tiny, pale creases under their eyes from staring at a screen all day. Young children arrive with their hair tousled and wet, their mothers in sundresses slung over bathing suits, their faces a mix of baffled amusement that they just spent another day in the strange harried world of parenthood. Then the young hipsters arrive, leaning their fixed-gear bikes against the barn, filling their panniers with vegetables like fennel and poblano peppers. A few older couples shuffle through the barn, leaning a cane against the tables to reach into bins for carrots or potatoes as they ask us when the string beans will be ready. In my favorite moments of a CSA pick-up, arms wrap around me as my dear friends arrive for their vegetables, and their children grin with delight when I hand them carrots. We don’t have time to catch up on our lives during these intersecting moments, but by coming to the farm, they know what I have been doing all day, and I know exactly what they will be eating for dinner.

Farming so close to the city allows our farm to provide food for a wide array of people, including those who might not otherwise be able to access it. We are one mile away from a busy emergency food shelf that is always thrilled to see a truck full of veggies roll up. Two elementary schools with primarily low-income populations are within walking distance of the farm and make regular visits to help harvest carrots in the fall. Many of our CSA members use their EBT cards to pay for veggies or apply for our internal supported share program. Although our farm still struggles with reaching the populations that are desperately in need of healthy food, we are fortunate to have a location that makes that gap a little less difficult to bridge.

Urban farming also shapes the personal life of a farmer in pronounced ways. I don’t own the land I farm, I don’t own any equipment I use, and I live a mile away. My home is on a busy street in a gritty neighborhood, and for a couple of years, I didn’t own a car. Sometimes, evenings involve a quick shedding of farm clothes, a hasty shower, and a walk to music in town in a very different outfit. Life has a funny duality, one that is sometimes confusing and sometimes a relief. There are times when I want nothing more than to own the place that I farm and to live in a small, quiet home there. Other times, I love biking up the hill at the end of the day and having closure to my farm day. I am energized and refreshed by the diversity of urban farming.

In the Intervale, rural life bumps hard into urban life; as I drive the tractor with a wide implement down the road, it’s not uncommon that I encounter runners, bikers, and dog walkers, who seem irritatingly leisurely on their summer strolls while I am hurrying along. Pickup trucks belonging to hunters park at the edge of our fields, their owners illegally hoping for deer. Inspection stickers rarely last more than a few months before they are stolen off of our trucks (although we’ve learned to slash them with a razor blade), catalytic converters disappear, and this season, the thieves hit a new low by stealing our old Farmall cultivators and hefty aluminum irrigation fittings.

The vandalism and theft inherent in urban farming is intensely demoralizing. It speaks of a larger problem that plagues Burlington and much of the country; it is desperation for money, often driven by addiction, that sparks this infuriating creativity. Even though what is stolen from us doesn’t hold much street value, the thieves still go to great effort to steal an odd array of things. In the middle of the summer, noticing suddenly that important irrigation fittings are missing is costly to our operation in ways that far exceed the simple replacement value of the part. Even more frustrating is my own lack of confidence when night falls and I am alone on this farm that has been my grounding place for ten seasons; I know the texture of the soil, the shapes of the fields, the wind of the river, and the way the light hits the land, but if I am alone past dark at the farm, I take little comfort in my solitude in this beautiful place.

I fell in love with farming because I love nature. Urban farming offers little in the way of the beauty that shakes me to my core, but it moves me in a different way. It provides an intersection of worlds that is hard to come by; people wandering through during lunchtime or bumping into me while I’m washing greens, who ask a few questions and soon enough join the farm themselves. Or kids who only know the urban life of Burlington, but can still come to the farm to wander through the strawberries and flowers. There is tremendous comfort and gratitude inspired by this piece of land, so close to a city, but emblematic of so much more. It embodies the full arc of agricultural history, from the Native Americans and early white settlers who farmed here, to us, the most recent wave of farmers, who plant vegetables and invite people to take part in this land that belongs to all of us.

Posted in Farmer Authors, Philosophy | 3 Comments