Reflecting on this Year’s Successes and Challenges at The Intervale Community Farm

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. She also writes the farm newsletter, Bottom Land News. In her time spent away from the farm, Becky loves to travel, write, bike, run, ski, and cook bounteous meals with glorious produce.

This is the time of year when the holiday letters arrive, folded papers tucked into Christmas cards, neatly typed with all the family’s news of the year. One of my friends recently balked at all the letters she was receiving, noting how self-congratulatory they seemed, and said she wasn’t sure people were living lives that were quite as robust as they announced in their letters. While it is probably true that we all tend to high-grade the information we want to share about our lives, writing the annual holiday letter is a chance to digest the year with optimism and hope for the next turn of the calendar page.

Farming is even more seasonal than our personal lives, with distinct rhythms at each time of year. A summer day might include waking at five, jumping from one task to another with sweat dripping off of your brow until darkness falls nearly fifteen hours later, while a winter day might mean waking at seven, doing a little gentle yoga, drinking three cups of tea before turning on the computer, browsing seed catalogs, and musing about how to make the next year better than the last.

As we look back on our 2013 season at the Intervale Community Farm, one of our biggest accomplishments was the construction of four 36X132 foot Harnois greenhouses which will allow us to boost the quality of our summer production and the diversity and quantity of our winter production. Thus far we only have one house covered (which might be a blessing, considering the ice storm we’ve just had!), and it is already planted to lettuce seedlings. The completion of these greenhouses will mark 2013 as a big growth year for our farm. We are looking forward to offering year-round CSA shares starting in 2014 (we’ve previously offered a 22-week summer share and a nine week winter share, with pickups every other week).

Our other major success this season was an incredible rebound from a dismal spring. Like most growers in Vermont, we suffered from pounding rains with record quantities of precipitation falling from the sky. Our lovely bottomland partially flooded three times. We watched with breaking hearts as several of our neighboring farms on lower land lost crop after crop and eventually decided to quit farming altogether. We heard of other growers around the state in similar peril, and we felt the darkness of a changing climate adding to the weight of an already difficult occupation. Our furrowed faces grew longer when July floods hit and wiped out our onions, sweet potatoes, and most of our fall brassicas.

But although our spirits were low, our ambition and stubbornness rose high. On July 6, we reseeded as many crops as we could, and even researched the possibility of starting mini or short day onions several months late. We ordered more cabbage seed, and seeded extra salad greens. We organized a member workday to try to rescue our flooded but still sort-of-alive tomatoes, eggplants and peppers. For better or for worse, we cut our losses and just tried to keep on moving.

The rest of the summer was a relatively sweet sunny time. At the top of our winning trials this year were teenage lettuce heads, which we added to our salad mix. We also relished our reliably delicious Ya-Ya carrots and one of our best potato crops ever. Our root crops, with the exception of our missing onions and sweet potatoes, ran strong all season. We generally have very early cucurbits due to our low-lying Champlain Valley location, but despite an early flush of cucumbers, our successive plantings collapsed completely due to Fusarium wilt. Our later plantings of melons also fell prey to Fusarium, and we vowed to improve our soil for cucurbits and space out our crop rotations more next year.

What really scared us this year (besides the weather) was the arrival of Phytopthera on our farm. This is a disease that destroys both peppers and winter squash/pumpkins, and is associated with prolonged periods of wet weather. Our neighbors had it on their peppers last season, so it isn’t surprising that we saw it this year. But what is surprising is the impact it has on winter squash. Most of our delicata had turned to mush before it even left the field; fortunately, our butternut fared much better and is still storing well. We also met leek moths for the first time, watching our lovely blue-green crop contort and curl due to the little maggots feeding down in the meristems. Problems always present new opportunities, however, and we are excited to work with a Cornell researcher to learn about potential organic controls for this new pest on Allium crops.

Thanks to our desperate seeding on July 6, after which we replanted our low-lying (but very fertile) fields, and thanks to an unbelievably warm and sunny fall, we harvested the most glorious, disease-free brassicas we’ve had in years. Our multi-year streak of losing much of our fall broccoli to Swede Midge was broken. Instead, we harvested head after head after head of catalog-worthy broccoli. The only downside was that because we replanted multiple successions all at once, we ended up with more broccoli than we knew what to do with – we were harvesting nearly 1500 pounds at each harvest, and our 540-member CSA couldn’t absorb all of that. We were grateful to connect with the Food Venture Center to have several hundred pounds of the broccoli processed for us to distribute frozen for our winter CSA.

We also succeeded with our replanting of Capture as our storage cabbage. When we grew it in 2012, it was riddled with brown rot and small in size due to the field conditions; this year it is robust and completely clean of disease. We have a lot of cabbage to push towards our winter share members—we hope they like kraut and colcannon!

I suppose that my holiday letter for the farm would also be self-congratulatory, if only for the mere fact that we ended the season with a walk-in cooler full of food, a business that is in the black, an amazingly hardworking staff, and customers that still smile every time they come to the farm. It’s true that my letter would leave out the infestations of Spotted Wing Drosophila on our raspberries, the stench of rotting onions after the flood, or my own sour face after a day of trudging through wet fields. If I reflected too hard on all of that, I wouldn’t be grinning as I flip through seed catalogs or scheme the next plantings of our hoophouses. My letter would gloat about our towers of broccoli, the piles of scab-free potatoes, and the endless game of tossing cabbage as we harvested it this fall. Perhaps for a farmer, self-congratulation is our own way of healing our minds and bodies in optimistic preparation for the next season.

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