Thursday, March 29, 2012

What's New at the Farm? Fields Need Some TLC

Sometimes I sit here and thoughts flow so easily that writing this column isn’t a challenge. Today isn’t one of those days. Last week was 81°F and signs of spring were everywhere; today it’s 34°F and snowing and all the little signs we saw are hiding out of sight now. Now 81°F in March isn’t the norm but it was nice for a few days; getting rid of the snow banks, and seeing all the signs of spring after a long winter. It was definitely an odd winter, for sure.

As we get closer to spring, we are in the final stages of planning where all the different crops are going to be planted. While we added some more acreage this year, there are a couple of projects that need to happen before we start using some of this land. One field I rented consists of 12 acres that was last turned under in the 60’s. It was planted to dry beans back when there was a strong market for them. The next 45 years the field was hayfield, managed for grass production by several local dairy farmers.

To say the soil is run down is an understatement. The grass, what there is of it, seldom reaches more than a foot tall. Part of that is due to poor fertility. The other part is the fact the field hasn’t been seeded down in many years and annual blue grass is the predominate grass in the field now. Annual blue grass seldom grows very tall and isn’t good for a whole lot. We used to call it June grass because if you didn’t harvest it in June it would go by and be of no food value. Annual blue grass is a good indicator plant of poor soil in pastures.

Good, productive hay fields managed for grass production need to be reseeded every few years. The nature of harvesting the hay whilst the grass plant is trying to set seed defeats the natural reproduction of the grasses. Therefore, the preferred grasses eventually disappear and are replaced by grasses that don’t need care and attention in order to thrive.

Anyway, I plan on applying a liberal amount of compost and plowing the whole field down. After plowing, lime will be spread to increase the pH of the soil. Then we’ll seed it with buckwheat to help break down the sod. After one crop of buckwheat, we’ll seed oats and clover and maintain that for the rest of the growing season. This tillage will give us an idea of how many rocks are out there. Next spring we’ll start all over again.

The other field has had drain tile installed in it to help us get on it earlier in the season. Our planting plans for this field includes tomato and pepper seed productions, the pumpkin and gourd trials, and some extra crops to see how they do. A liberal application of compost, turned under, will help bring up the organic matter content of the soil. A limited amount of drip irrigation will be used if it becomes dry enough to warrant it. Next year we’ll put a more diversified selection of crops there.

I continue to look for land suitable for growing vegetables in central Maine. Many dairy farmers are using all the available land locally so finding suitable land becomes more of a challenge. People often call Johnny’s with land they would like to see in crops; I look at each plot carefully and have rented many parcels over the years. Many of the fields have changed hands since I first rented them, so only I know the reasoning behind their names. Jack’s field is now owned by Dave, the Higgins field isn’t owned by the Higgins’ anymore and the Hall field is now owned by the Westin’s. The big, new field is still the big, new field. The Movie Palace (store and pizza place) is long gone but the name of that field endures.

The days of large farm acreages going up for rent or sale are pretty much limited now. Many, many farms have been broken up into smaller parcels as interest in farming waned over the years. Houses have been built in many spots where there were pastures and fields before. Lots of acreage has been planted in trees or trees have grown in from the fence rows creating small patches of woods here and there. Good land is a finite resource; do what you can to preserve it.
Until next week, Brian

Friday, March 23, 2012

What's New at the Farm? Spring Arrives in Force

Is spring really here?

The 22nd of March and it's 81 degrees in the shade; and it's been warm all week! I've been out in the yard and around the farm in shirt sleeves. The birds are coming back in droves, grass is showing green in the fields and the Coltsfoot is staring to bloom.

Early or just seems it? Early, I think. Last year the Coltsfoot was blossoming in earnest on the 20th of April. Ice out on the farm pond was yesterday the 22nd tying with 2008 and 2006.

With this warmer than usual weather, there's a few things I need to do sooner than later. It's possible that the swallows will be back shortly and will want their bird houses cleaned out in prep for new nests this year. Here's a bird house down by the pond that has stood the test of time for at least 10 or 12 years:


Yes, it's leaning quite badly but the birds don't seem to mind. It's nothing special just a pine bird house I turned out in my workshop during some cold winter evenings. The front is hinged to access for easy cleaning:


There’s the remnants of last year’s nest. Once that is removed I’ll close the front door, tighten up some nails and it’ll be ready for another season. I may even straighten  up the cedar post it's on.
Here’s a design I started using about 5 years ago:



This one has a bottom door that swings open for cleaning. I saw the first swallow just a few minutes ago when I was out taking these pics.

In the barnyard Ziggy is taking center stage, much like his wild counterparts:



And a handsome boy he is! Lots of guinea hens in the picture as well. You know what I always say about guineas – you can’t have too many.

And back to the farm, here’s a few shots of the first signs of spring. Here is new growth on overwintering onions:


Here’s spinach that overwintered in a caterpillar tunnel:






And finally here’s a shot of the farm activity this time of year. The tractors and equipment is being readied for use in the background and the grass is greening daily:



Even though it feels like planting season it’s not. It is a good time to clean out the flower beds and get things ready for the planting season, for before you know it it will be upon us and we’d better be ready.

Until next week, Brian

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Product spotlight: Grow Lettuce From Spring to Fall

 

Two Star
 

Vulcan
 

Green Forest

Lettuce is easy to grow year-round if you choose the right varieties for each season. In early spring and winter, when soil is cold and light levels are low, disease resistance is important. For summer and fall production, heat tolerance and resistance to tipburn are considerations. If you are growing head lettuce, the varieties you plant now should grow quickly enough to make full size heads before your weather gets hot. Here are our recommendations:
  • Two Star (#451G) is an Organic green leaf lettuce with good tolerance to bolting and tipburn. Great flavor makes this the standard variety for green, full size heads. Also available pelleted. 51 days to maturity.
  • Vulcan (#464) is a red leaf lettuce that offers earliness, color, size, and a crisp and mild flavor. Also available pelleted. 52 days to maturity.
  • Green Forest (#2196) is our most attractive green romaine, and this one is moderately heat tolerant as well as resistant to sclerotinia and corky root. Also available pelleted. Best for spring and fall. 56 days to maturity.
  • Nancy (#438G) is an Organic green butterhead/Boston type for spring and fall. The leaves are thick and crisp, so the head is sturdy and holds well. Good disease resistance. Also available pelleted. 52 days to maturity.
  • Skyphos (#23) has the best heat tolerance and is one of the surest heading of all the red butterheads. Also available pelleted. 47 days to maturity.

Tools

Harvest and Seedling Cart
Our new Harvest and Seedling Cart (#7021) is a marvel of design for the market garden. This extremely light and maneuverable cart can carry up to 300 lbs. It accommodates seven seedling trays or five bulb crates or thirteen 5-gal. buckets.

The wheel base adjusts from 28" to 42" so it can straddle beds with 24" of clearance, and the handle is offset so you can push it from the path without straining your back.

Use it to transport plants, supplies, and harvested produce. An optional shade canopy (#7022) is also available. Made in Maine.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Video: The Beauty of Pollination

We wouldn't be much of a seed business were it not for all of the beneficial insects, birds, and mammals (yes, mammals) out there to take on the bulk of the pollination workload. Here's a great video we found on YouTube that takes pollination to an art form. Enjoy!

The Beauty of Pollination


If you're interested in attracting some of these critters to your gardens, we offer some great flower mixes designed to do just that.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

What's New at the Farm? Spring Makes Early Appearance

This should be easy this week. It’s 64 degrees and sunny just outside my office window.

This is what the farm looked like on Monday this week.

Snow on the Retreat

The snowstorm we had 10 days ago is but a fleeting memory and perhaps now we can concentrate on spring. The pond is still covered with ice but if this weather continues it won’t be there for long.

Little signs of spring are around if you look for them. I saw a muskrat over the past weekend sitting on the edge of the ice. He was either eating some food or trimming his nails. I didn’t get close enough to tell. Little sprigs of green grass have sprung around the eastern end of the greenhouse and have already been picked by the geese. Eagles are everywhere now. I see them on my way to work in the morning. They are invading flooded streams and rivers, looking for winter-killed critters and ducks.
Some of the spring bulbs are pushing their way up now. I’ve seen some shoots pushing the mud and snow out of the way to reach the sunlight.

You have to admit, although it’s been a warm, strange winter, we’ll all be glad when it’s over. The fields look much like they did in November and I am anxious to see them plowed under. Plowing is one of my favorite jobs in the spring. Turning under all that surface residue from the past growing season and turning up fresh soil for the coming growing season – well, it’s just starting with a clean plate. And as I work down the field I watch as crop residue gets turned under to enrich the soil in the never ending nutrient cycling that happens year in year out.

While it’s tempting to get out on the ground now, with the warm temps, don’t rush it. I saw Monday this week, where a local farmer had attempted to spread manure and all he really accomplished was leaving some pretty nasty ruts in his hayfield. Too bad because it will be hard to erase these ruts without turning this into a bigger job than it needed to be.  Spring fever I guess.

Around the home place, the hens are laying furiously and the ducks, geese and turkeys are starting now as well. Here are a few additions to the home flock:
Baby Chicks, 10 days old
The guineas haven’t started laying yet, but I’ll be watching for them too, so I can get some incubating. And the peafowl too, I would expect them to start laying eggs once the weather warms up some more.  For now I’ll be happy setting another 41 chicken eggs in my incubator. 

While coming into work last weekend to check our greenhouse, I saw a young woman raking her lawn. Here’s one activity that can be done now without causing any damage to the ground. In fact it’s better early to get it done before the blackflies arrive. I guess I’m one of those odd people who like to rake. Raking up those dead leaves and sticks from the trees and getting the grass growing – that’s a sure sign of spring.  And working out in the sunshine on a 60 degree day in March – well, it doesn’t get much better than this.  And don’t forget the rake either: a steel leaf rake with a good wooden handle and a rubber grip; something I can out some pressure on to dig up the road sand and chunks of asphalt. 
At the farm, we’re wrapping up ordering supplies for the 2012 growing season. In the next few weeks we’ll start planting in the greenhouses and finalizing our plans for this season. Looks like a busy one again – fine by me. We’ve got lots of fields and crops to plant and take care of so it’ll be busy but an exciting kind of busy.

Until next week, I think I’ll go do some raking.
Brian

Friday, March 9, 2012

Product spotlight: Multi-Seeded Flower Pellets

New Fuseables™ Perfect for Mixed Containers

 

Blueberry Lime Jam
 

Key Lime Parfait
 

Under the Sun
Fuseables™ are a new product for growing uniform, compatible flowers for mixed containers. Two or three varieties are combined in a single pellet to ensure the proper color mix. Blueberry Lime Jam (#1755P) is a mix of purple and lime green petunias; Key Lime Parfait (#3848P) combines red, lime green, and white petunias; and Under the Sun (#1756P) includes Versa Crimson Gold and Versa Lime sun-tolerant coleus. The pellets are made only to hold the different varieties together and are not sturdy enough for mechanical seeding.
For summer sales, try these New Guinea Impatiens that grow well in partial sun. Divine Mix Improved (#1407) consists of eight long-blooming colors. The mix is perfect for window boxes, hanging baskets, and mixed containers. The orange is especially impressive, as it has bronze foliage that really stands out in the mix.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

JSS Advantage Newsletter -- March 2012: Lettuce for All Markets and All Seasons


Lettuce for all markets and all seasons

Here are some facts about lettuce that may surprise you: It is the most valuable vegetable crop in the United States, with sales of $2.2 billion in 2010. (Fresh tomatoes were a distant second at $1.4 billion.) Lettuce alone accounts for 19% of all fresh vegetable sales in the U.S. Iceberg lettuce is still the dominant type, accounting for 53% of total lettuce sales, but its popularity has been dropping. Meanwhile other types of head lettuces and salad mixes have been steadily increasing in popularity.
Those statistics from USDA's Economic Research Service are derived from wholesale production of lettuce, 98% of which occurs in California and Arizona. Although they aren't directly relevant to local market farms, they do show the importance of lettuce to the American consumer: People want lettuce and they want it year-round.
If you have been treating lettuce as a minor crop, perhaps it's time to take another look at the possibilities for increasing production and profits. You may be able to extend your season, expand into new distribution channels, and increase market demand with new types of presentation.
Johnny's has the resources to help you take your lettuce offerings to the next level. We've taken the guesswork out of growing lettuce by identifying the best varieties for each type of product head lettuce, salad mix, and microgreens. We also have the tools you need to make lettuce production efficient and profitable.

Full Size and Mini Head

Markets for head lettuce are numerous. Farmers markets, CSAs, restaurants, and supermarkets are all potential buyers for head lettuce. Johnny's research team has devised a head lettuce planting program to help you choose appropriate varieties for each season. We have decades of experience trialing lettuce varieties to identify characteristics such as heat and cold tolerance, disease resistance, and growth rate. Taking those factors into consideration, we recommend specific varieties for growing in spring, summer, and fall. The lettuce program encompasses all types and colors of head lettuce so you can cater to specific markets and trends. We suggest the best varieties of each major type of head lettuce.
An emerging trend in lettuce sales are combination packs of mini head lettuces. They are often sold in supermarkets in clamshells and to restaurants in mixed boxes. Direct market customers also will be interested in these single serving heads. Johnny's offers mini head varieties that produce fully formed but compact heads. Most are ready for harvest in about 45 days, 10-12 days faster than full head lettuce. Claremont (green) and Breen OG (red) are mini head romaines; Dancine (green) and Australe (red) are mini butterheads; Bambi and Winter Density are green mini bibs; Rhazes is an organic red mini bibb; and Baby Oakleaf is an organic green mini oakleaf.

Pelleted seed

Many full size and mini head varieties are available as pelleted seed. Johnny's offers more than 30 varieties with NOP-compliant pelleting.

Baby Leaf

Salad mix continues to be an important crop for many growers, despite being ubiquitous in supermarkets now. There's still no way a bagged salad mix can compare with the vitality and flavor of just-harvested baby leaf mix. Johnny's offers varieties specifically recommended for fast production in dense plantings.
Many experienced growers prefer to create their own signature mixes of colors and textures. They plant individual lettuce varieties, adjusting planting schedules based on experience, to allow for uniform harvest. Separate plantings allow for custom blending to meet customer preferences as well as reducing the likelihood of a total crop failure if one variety is more susceptible to disease. Johnny's offers 16 organic varieties and 7 nonorganic varieties of lettuces recommended for baby leaf production.
For growers who want a simple approach to salad mix, Johnny's has four pre-mixed lettuce mixes that we have designed to provide beautiful blends of colors, shapes, and textures. Our Encore Lettuce Mix is an all-organic option; Five Star Greenhouse Mix consists of varieties with downy mildew resistance for indoor production; Allstar Gourmet Lettuce Mix is our custom blend of varieties chosen for the best color even in low light conditions; Wildfire Lettuce Mix has a high percentage of red lettuces.

Micro Greens

Micro greens, the seedlings of herbs, and vegetables, are a super-quick crop with year-round income potential. Johnny's has selected both fast growing (ready in 10-15 days) and slow growing (ready in 16-25 days) varieties in a wide range of colors, textures, and flavors to meet your needs. Many are certified-organic seeds. Choose individual varieties to make your own custom mix, or purchase a conveniently pre-mixed blend of seeds in either a Mild Micro Mix or Spicy Micro Mix.
Also harvested at a very young age, sprouts and shoots make a great addition to your mix. High seed and labor costs for micro greens demand that you get a good price for the finished product. We recommend you seek out markets, usually high-end restaurants, before you commit to micro greens in a big way.

Be Quick, Be Efficient; Increase your lettuce revenue with the right tools

Lettuce has a relatively short shelf life, so the key to profitability is to grow just what you can sell, to start seeds at appropriate times for transplant, and to schedule multiple successions. Johnny's precision seeders are tools designed for both greenhouse and field application. They range from the single-row Glaser seeder, which is suitable for lettuce head production if seeding in the field, to the Four-Row and Six-Row Seeders for making dense plantings of baby leaf lettuce both in the greenhouse or field. We have a wide selection of growing and planting tools and supplies. And check out our new harvest and seedling cart to get your flats of plants out to the field and your harvested lettuce back to the packing shed.
Harvesting salad mix is fast with Johnny's exclusive Greens Harvester, the manual version of a band saw harvester. A scalloped knife blade cleanly slices the leaves, and a cloth basket catches them. A single worker can harvest up to 100 lb. per hour. To complete the salad mix workflow, Johnny's offers three salad spinners for washing baby leaf lettuce.