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.