Trial by Farmer: On-Farm Variety Trialing 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.
One of my favorite parts of the entire growing season will happen in the next two weeks. No, it’s not reclining on a beach while sipping a cocktail, nor is it blissfully skiing over our fields, wondering how this frozen land could possibly evoke the stress of summer. Although beaches and skiing are dreamy cornerstones of a farmer’s winter, what I’m realistically looking forward to is the variety debrief meeting that our farm staff has every December. With a pile of seed catalogs, the season’s field notes, our computers, and steaming mugs of black tea, we spend many quickly passing hours lost in conversation about the successful - and less than successful - crops of the past year.
This isn’t a meeting to reminisce about how things “went” this season, nor is it to evaluate our business, customer satisfaction, crew, or even our over-all yields. This meeting is focused on a crop-by-crop evaluation, starting with Arugula and ending with Zucchini. Embedded in this marathon conversation about the farm’s crop selection is a more careful evaluation of varieties that we tried for the first time. These trial varieties are sometimes new additions to the organic seed market, but we also trial varieties that have been available for a while but that we have never grown, or we may even try a variety that we grew years ago and would like to revisit.
And of course, as we thumb through the seed catalogs on that gray December day, we can’t help but circle far too many new varieties to trial the next season, and we are especially excited if we receive a hand-labeled packet of a brand new variety at a trade show or in the mail directly from a seed company. In the midst of the our colorful enthusiasm, we have to exercise deliberate restraint to not have our entire farm become one vast experiment, the fields dotted with florescent flags marking the start of one wacky variety and the end of another. But trialing does help us maintain vibrant interest in our farm and it also allows us to continually improve crop selection for yield, disease resistance, flavor, and marketability.
I would like to outline a few simple ways that you, too, can trial new varieties on your farm or in your garden, and in doing so, tailor the crop selection to your particular growing conditions, markets, and personal preferences.
Why trial new crops?
Yield Comparisons. It feels conventional to start by talking about yield, but our farm’s CSA business is dependent on a certain level of consistent production. Like most vegetable farmers, our inputs are high and our margins are slim. Therefore, we want to get as much marketable crop as possible from each bed. Which variety we choose to grow—and which variety is best suited to our farm’s soil, climate, cropping systems, and post-harvest handling—is a huge factor in our yields.
Disease and Pest Resistance. We rely heavily on resistant varieties for our organic farm, and we are always searching for highly resistant crops to help us combat troublesome pests and diseases such as Black Rot, Thrips, Potato Leaf Hopper, and Alternaria.
Flavor. Great tasting trial varieties carry a lot of weight with us, as we market nearly all of our produce directly through our CSA. We also love to eat our produce. If we didn’t constantly search for the best tasting vegetables, we’d be doing our customers—and ourselves—a huge disservice.
Growing more crops from organic seed. We believe in purchasing organic seeds for several important reasons: because our Certified Organic status requires us to, because we love supporting and collaborating with our favorite local seed company, High Mowing Seeds, and because we want to boost the demand for high quality organic seed varieties.
How to Trial New Varieties (while also farming):
Like many vegetable farmers, we spend much of the winter vowing to be better organized, more attentive, and deeply thoughtful in our execution of our crop plan for that season. And like many vegetable growers, our follow-through often lacks in the detail and attention that we’d like to achieve. Planning for trial varieties is no exception to this pattern; in fact, it usually falls to the very bottom of the priority list when the weeds are growing, the irrigation pump is broken, the crew is exhausted, and the carrots just won’t germinate. However, year by year, we’ve worked to slowly refine our on-farm trials so that we can end each year with enough knowledge to make informed decisions about what we will and won’t incorporate into our field plans for the following year. Here’s a quick overview the process we use at the Intervale Community Farm to choose, trial, and evaluate new seed varieties:
Planning: Following the marathon crop debrief meeting in December, I begin the crop plan for the following year. During our meeting, I make notes on the excel spreadsheet that is the previous year’s crop plan and is also the template for next year’s plan. I also add the varieties that we want to try the next year. It is in the process of entering the new varieties into the next year’s plan that I take note of pricing and may decide not to even try something if it’s way out of our farm’s budget. Occasionally, if we find that we are really excited about a crop, we’ll trial a small amount regardless of price, with the hopes that the seed cost will eventually become affordable enough for us to grow on a larger scale.
Greenhouse Seeding: As the crop plan takes shape, each variety that we trial gets special notes beside it on the greenhouse schedule. Sometime there is an extra note specifying treatment of the crop, or something to pay close attention to. We’ve learned that the greenhouse is a very easy place to lose track of trial varieties so we are careful to use colored popsicle sticks to clearly note these varieties and we try to separate the trials from their closely related look-alikes.
Transplanting, field location, and record keeping: We have a field plan similar to our greenhouse plan that also clearly notes on it which varieties are trials and what special treatment they may require (eg. different in-row spacing). When our field crew plants a trial variety, they know to plant it at the beginning of a bed so that it will always be easily seen and they make careful note of this in our field log. Furthermore, they mark the span of the trial with bright orange flags to give us a visual reminder throughout the season where the trial is. Sometimes these flags get overgrown or bumped over with cultivation, but usually they make it through most of the season as a reminder for us to pay attention.
Taking notes and evaluating in the field: On our farm, we have great follow through right up until this step. This task usually falls in June or July when we can barely keep up with the weeds, irrigation, and harvest. The trial varieties fall prey to the same ups and downs that all the other crops do, and inevitably there are always other things that are higher priority than taking careful notes on our trial varieties. In reality, what happens is that we pay the best attention to these crops when we are cultivating, irrigating, or scouting for pests and diseases. However, these visual observations alone usually provide us with a strong overall sense of the performance of a trial crop throughout the season.
Harvest records and taste tests: When we harvest the trial varieties, we try to separate them in order to record differences in yield and quality. At this point we are also likely to record characteristics of the crop – like disease resistance, overall uniformity, or other things of note (like beet tops that are hard to rip off or pumpkin handles that rot). This is also when we gather our crew and evaluate flavor. Usually this happens at the lunch table, but if it is a crop that is best cooked, several of us will take it home to cook. Our flavor evaluations are not very scientific, but we trust the taste buds of our crew and ourselves enough to know when we’ve found a delicious variety.
Trial Success and Failure:
Over the years, we’ve confidently adopted many of our favorite crop varieties after trialing a small amount for a season. Oftentimes, we are persuaded by the seed company (usually High Mowing) to give a new variety a try. It’s wonderful to have a seed representative or seed company know your business well enough to recommend appropriate varieties to you.
Several years ago, High Mowing began selling Yaya F1 carrots, an organic variety similar to Nelson, which had been our main summer carrot for years. The first year it was available, we planted a bed to give them a try, and fell in love with the flavor, texture, yield, and quality – AND it’s organic seed. The following year, we grew exclusively Yaya F1 for summer carrots—and even had some success storing them—and we’ve never looked back.
This year, we trialed several High Mowing varieties, including Capture F1 storage cabbage and Nautic F1 Brussels sprouts. The cabbage trial was a prime example of how poor field conditions can adversely impact the results of the trial: we planted the cabbage in a shady section of a new field that has poor soil quality. The resulting crop was slimy with black rot and our yields were terrible (but the flavor was great on the few good heads!). Although the variety isn’t entirely to blame, it’s clear that Capture F1 isn’t the best match for our farm right now. We had the opposite experience with the Nautic F1 Brussels sprouts, however: they were outstanding, showing a strong resistance to Alternaria, with great size and flavor, so we will happily embrace Nautic F1 as our primary Brussels sprouts cultivar next year. We do to keep in mind, however, that our field conditions once again likely affected the success of the crop since we also planted them a little later and spaced them further apart in the field than the rest of our Brussels sprouts. This is the reality of on-farm trials though: we work with the results that we’ve seen, and although they are not always very scientific they give us a lot of information about works here on our farm.
Trying new varieties is one of the most exciting and alluring parts of a diverse vegetable farm. It’s what makes me hungrily page through the new catalogs each winter, and it’s what makes a routine task like seed ordering feel like a sweet and luxurious job that marks the end of one season and the beginning of the next. It’s also a wonderful way to develop a relationship with a company like High Mowing to understand precisely what seed varieties suit your farm best.
In a different lifetime, I would love to breed crops, but short of that, I’m ever grateful for the relationship and the knowledge that trialing new varieties helps foster. And a huge thanks to the diligent, thoughtful work of the folks at High Mowing who keep increasing the selection of organic seeds that help us improve the food we grow – and love to eat.