Planning and Planting Success

February 29, 2008

lettuce startsCUESA volunteer Shannon Donahue wrote this week’s feature.

Spring at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market is a time of change. While we may rue the dwindling supplies of winter standbys, we anticipate and delight in the new season’s bounty, including tender asparagus, green garlic, and succulent strawberries. For local farmers, this is a time for strategic planning and decision-making that will shape the success of their coming growing season.

Growers’ planting decisions are based on personal preferences and consumer trends as well as their farm’s microclimate, topography, and soil. On an ecological farm, the soil is replenished without heavy inputs of synthetic chemicals, often using techniques such as fallowing and crop rotation. Bill Crepps of Everything Under the Sun farm notes that small farms must find a balance of land uses that allows them to maintain soil health and ensure an adequate supply of produce to take to market. This means that farmers must choose their crops wisely and time them meticulously to maximize profit while ensuring the continued health of the farm ecosystem.

Grant Brians of Heirloom Organics only grows crops that he deems tasty. “Fortunately,” he adds, “I happen to like a lot of things.” Heirloom Organics, as its name suggests, is a farm well known for the unusual and antique varieties that it grows. Grant works with Seed Savers Exchange and other seed companies and organizations to find heirlooms that work on a commercial scale. In an effort to reintroduce heirloom varieties, Grant also conducts seed trials for a company to assess different plants’ potential for success in his soils and markets. Currently, he is testing 14 different carrot cultivars!

Farm management can be logistically complex for farms with diverse topographies, crops, and microclimates. Bill considers seed ordering a year-round job that includes both seasonal seed orders and last-minute purchases due to unexpected growing conditions. For example, recent dry weather prompted Bill to spontaneously plant extra crops of spinach and lettuce to bring to market. Grant starts most of his seeds in the ground, but, like many larger farms, he works with local greenhouses to germinate some of the hundred-plus varieties he grows. At Everything Under the Sun, Bill uses his own greenhouse to start crops like broccoli and melons.

Often, the first year is a trial run for a new offering: Grant assesses the commercial viability of the yield and determines whether consumers like the taste. Last year, local chefs responded enthusiastically to his first harvest of Dragon Tongue beans, so this year he will plant 30 times the number of seeds. Since Heirloom Organics offers many reintroduced varieties that are unfamiliar to the average eater, Grant considers education a key component of his farm’s success.

The coming season promises a bounty of both known and novel crops and varieties for our enjoyment. Bill is always on the lookout for new organic hybrids, but often these seeds are not priced for commercial production. Although his offerings may vary a bit from year to year, Bill says his focus is always on the quality of his produce. “When you sell at a [farmers’] market,” he says, “…the best way to maximize your sales is by having the best quality.” Like Bill, Grant works extensively to ensure that his produce is of the highest quality, regardless of the season or variety. This sneak peek from Grant will likely whet your appetite: Heirloom Organics will be offering new, vivid red spinach. Take advantage of this time to talk to our local farmers–they too may be willing to offer you a tasty sneak peek of the coming bounty!