Utilizing Every Last Inch – Farming on a Small Plot

At my farm, we are growing on 2.5 acres of land. Given that we are land locked, and have little opportunity to expand our acreage, we have very little room for planting too much of any given crop. Over the years, we have developed our farm to reflect the markets that we serve. That approach might sound pretty obvious, but it takes a while to dial it in and have the right amount week to week.

At the risk of getting too in depth, when we are planning our farm, the value of our scarce real estate figures in pretty strongly. Our goal is to maximize that value by having market specific, targeted plantings that will cycle through quickly and hopefully allow us to get more than one crop out of any given bed. The way we attempt to meet that goal is by always having the plants, or seed, on hand that we need to fill empty space as soon as it appears.

The first piece of meeting demand is determining what that demand actually is. We worked on that by recording everything that went to and came back from market for a few years. This helped us zero in on what we should bring to our markets. These numbers serve as the baseline for our crop plan.

I seed for transplants early and often in the greenhouse to meet the needs of the farm. I have always felt that the cost of producing plants is much less expensive than the income lost from not having them ready to go when I need them. As a result, I typically generate more transplants than I need at any given time, but they usually find a home off the farm.

For us, our biggest transplanted crop is lettuce. It’s quick to grow out in the field, and a fairly profitable crop that we can sell all summer. We know what our weekly demands are across the season, and I am planting about 120% of that demand every week or so. The 20% buffer doesn’t take much room, and allows me to not worry about being short. I have tried delaying the frequency of my successions to accommodate the inevitable glut of lettuce that comes when lots of spring plantings catch up to each other, but have decided that it’s easier to think of some lettuce as a transplanted cover crop and just till the excess in.

Our big brassica push happens in the fall. They seem to do better for us at that time of the year, and I like the added flash of bringing nice broccoli or cauliflower into the CSA and market for a strong finish. I time my plantings to replace the area where peas started the year, and they are usually put out in two plantings spaced a few weeks apart.

Carrots are another big workhorse crop for us, and we plant them every few weeks. We begin as soon as the ground can be worked, and cover them with row cover for an extra push. We are bringing bunches to the market, and want to have strong, beautiful tops as well as nice carrots. I try to have each planting meet the farm’s needs for three weeks. This way, I not only have a new, clean patch to move to, but I also minimize that amount of time that I have any given bed tied up.

Our other big repeat crop is beans, and again I am in favor of having a nice planting to choose from. We seed them every 12 days or so, giving each planting no more than two weeks worth of picking. I find that the labor of going through an older planting increases the cost of production to the point where I would much rather walk away and plant something else in their place… like lettuce.

Once our onions come out, we get a big open piece of ground that’s timed really well for late season greens and mustards. We typically direct seed these crops, which leaves planning for them a little easier since the seeds are happy to wait in the packet for us. We have a suite of Asian greens that we chose from, and protect them from frost if we need to.

When people see how much we are bringing to market each week, and then learn how much acreage we are producing on, a common comment is that they are surprised; they thought we were a “much bigger farm.”  I take that as a compliment. It doesn’t take a big rock to make a big splash. You just have to know how to throw it.

Paul

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14 Responses to Utilizing Every Last Inch – Farming on a Small Plot

  1. Melissa says:

    Thanks for the informative article, Paul. Even though we are in a different growing zone (I used to be in VT – zone 4b – but now I’m in VA – zone 7b – I always find it useful to learn other growers’ planting schedule and other tidbits. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Linda Lane says:

    Thank you very interesting and helpful. My husband and I have what we call “duelling” gardens–two different spaces with things we like to grow. I have been wondering what to follow peas with as I have a significant amount of my space planned for them this year.

  3. Kevin Grove says:

    Thanks for sharing, Paul. I, too, have a 2.5 acre farm. Can we talk sometime?

  4. Martha Dopkowski, R Farm Organics says:

    I’m also farming on limited acreage and REALLY appreciated the detailed information, especially the how often and what can follow what (rotation.) In fact, figuring out rotation is my number one problem.

    My only complaint with this article is “more! more!” and I’d like to hear what other small acreage farmers are doing, as well.

    Thanks!

  5. Painted Pasture Farm says:

    Thanks Paul! As a new farmer going to market this year on small acreage, it really helped get my thoughts in order as to my record keeping at the market and my succession planting schedule.

    Thank you again….Nicole

  6. Wes Lombard says:

    Nice article Paul! Lots of good info & tips….even though we not market gardening, your emphasis on repeat seedings, etc is nice…like the pics! Blessings on your gardens this year.!!

    Wes
    Reading, VT

  7. As all the other commentors have stated, thanks for the small-scale perspective. We farm for CSA and market with vegetables on less than a half-acre and 1.5 acres of cropland total, so it’s great to hear the small-scale experience and perspective that I hope to see more in the future!

    I appreciated the comment on accepting the “extra” lettuce as cover crop ;)

    Brooke
    MN

  8. Thanks for this article, very informative. I, too, am interested in hearing from other small farmers. Anyone who would like to get in touch and dialogue/collaborate to share experiences in crop planning, please get in touch. I’m also willing to compile info like this to place on my organization’s blog for all to utilize! Thanks again for writing this!

  9. Two and a half acres! By PolyFace standards I guess that is small. By Toy Box measurement it is huge. One mans ceiling is another mans floor (I guess). Still, I like that you put so much effort into both planning and teaching others the skill of fitting it all in.
    Deb

  10. Bryan P says:

    This is the second article today that mentioned succession planting. In particular, I’m questioning carrots. I planted carrots early spring last year, and I harvested them throughout the year and well into the winter (To prove my point, I just picked 3 beautiful carrots from under 5 inches of ice and snow here in CT 3/10/14). So my question is- why not plant them all at once? They don’t seem any less tender or flavorful. Perhaps just a little larger which I hardly see as a detriment. Though some were normal sized.

    • High Mowing Organic Seeds says:

      There are a few reasons that I do successions for carrots, and they are largely related to how and when I am selling them. I plant different types of carrots over the course of the season, starting in early spring and ending with a solid storage type for the fall and winter. I want to have my carrots at their peak, and that includes the quality of the tops. Because I am bringing them bunched to market all summer and into the fall, the tops need to be clean and strong. Top health will decline as the carrot stays in the ground over the course of the entire season, which makes harvesting and cleaning more and more work. There is also a sweet spot where the eating quality and size are at their peak, and by having carrots at various stages throughout the farm, I can stay on top of that peak. Putting that many carrots in the ground at once also presents a real estate problem for me. I can often get another quick crop of something before some of the carrots go in. Having them in timed blocks also means that as a block is harvested, I get back another block, which makes putting something else in that location easier. Putting in multiple plantings also spreads the risk of something going wrong around the farm. If a particular seeding goes down, I am only a few weeks away from the next planting. I hope this is good info.
      Thanks for the questions,
      Paul

  11. Margit Van Schaick says:

    Thank you, Paul, for your very informative essay. Even more detail about timing of succession seeding would not be too much info, especially for beginning farmers/ gardeners. As for extra lettuce, an alternative use might be donating to a food pantry. Also, I would love to learn more about how you replenish your soil, as another commenter mentioned. Maybe a follow-up article?

    • High Mowing Organic Seeds says:

      Hi Margit -

      It’s true, growing vegetables is hard on soil.

      The cultivation techniques that we use as producers do a good job of killing weeds, but it also leaves lots of open ground available for increased respiration of organic matter.

      I use cover crops when I can, but my markets are such that I am really limited to using them only in the fall. I am currently looking for some more land, not to necessarily increase my annual production, but to get a better rotation with whole field, full season cover cropping and resting.

      So… the best way that I have now to maintain the health of my soil is from adding compost. I like to spread in the Fall, but usually run out of days, and end up doing it in the Spring. It adds lots of organic matter as well as a host of pro biotics to keep soil activity up.

      There are also times when I add a bagged, organic approved fertilizer as well when a crop is looking a little slow or underfed. With the heavy rains that we have been seeing, it is possible to loose some richness in the soil. A side dressing mid season can make a big difference in the health of the crop.

      -Paul

  12. Paul, I was so pleased to find your fine essay posted on FB and for me to share it on my FB page. I market farm a bit less than 2 acres of vegetables, herbs and other crops and manage another 2 acres of mixed-fruit orchard and have been farming this ground since 1993. We too rely on composting and side dressing with appropriate organic fertilizers as needed. Our beds are permanent, every crop is mapped and tight succession planning and planting has been a must for successful cultivation. Because this operation is in part a demonstration (semi) urban minifarm, we do grow crops that have little demand but represent examples of our great gustatory traditions! Well, I have lots more to say but need to get back to work. Good luck.

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