Monday, April 30, 2012

What's New at the Farm: Much Needed Rain

We're still in April; if you don't think so just check the weather. Four inches of rain, followed by warm then almost cold temperatures, more rain and back to warm weather within a few days. Yep, sounds like April to me.

The fiddleheads are trying to come out; I've seen a few out but only time will tell with the weather. Usually around Mother's day is when I figure they're at their best but I think it'll be early this year. This early and they can be damaged by cold temps making them inedible.

The rain event of last week has put off field work at least until today. We really needed the rain, and we got somewhat ahead of schedule for now, so we'll be back at the field work this week for sure. The drain tile we installed last summer is draining the fields so we can work them earlier than mid to late May like we usually do. Here's a shot of the drain tile outlet working the day after the big rain:

Here's a shot of plowing last week:

Nothing quite like having the boss around taking pictures while you're trying to concentrate on keeping the furrows straight! Look at that concentration:

We owned this field for several years and I am anxious to get some crops growing on it. We've had cover crops on it for all of these several years, and having been applying compost and organic fertilizer every year so the soil is becoming nutrient rich. The irrigation pond we dug last year is filling up:

I hope we'll have enough water to irrigate with this summer.

If you've been following this blog you'll know I didn't have a garden last year; the first year I can remember of not having one. I had lots of excuses but I'm afraid the gardening bug has bitten me this spring. I'm anxious to work in my garden again so have planned a small plot of perhaps 30' by 100' or so for a few crops. I've bought my seeds and potatoes, ordered some onions and will start some plants for my garden. Now all I have to wait for is the weather to warm up.

Until next week, Brian

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Rethinking Agriculture from the Soil Up

Recently, Mark Fulford, of Lookfar Agricultural Service and Teltane Farm, stopped by Johnny's to lead a two-day agronomy seminar for our Sales and Marketing teams.

The seminar -- "Rethinking Agriculture: Farm As If Our Lives Depended On It" -- focused on many soil-related topics. Mark, who runs a small commercial farm and orchard in nearby Monroe, Maine, presented ideas on soil biology, soil chemistry, tillage reduction, compaction, microbes, inoculants, minerals, paramagnetics, composts, and cover crops to name a few.

Dry recipe samples made from naturally occurring minerals.
Mark spoke extensively about the science behind building, maintaining, and replenishing soil fertility. He discussed using combinations of dry and liquid "recipes" with ingredients like granite dust, gypsum, and basalt to boost levels of essential soil nutrients and elements (potassium, calcium, carbon, magnesium, boron, etc.).

But this wasn't just a science class. A lot of Mark's teachings are of the common sense variety, including reminders about being a good neighbor, being observant, working hard, not taking short cuts, and respecting nature.

Mark emphasized the need for as much information as possible about your soil. A routine soil test is not enough. Understanding how the land has been used in the past and being able to identify the plants currently thriving on it before you begin planning your crops is a crucial first step. A soil test is only a tiny snapshot of what's going on in your soil and can often be misleading says Mark.

With regard to soil fertility issues, Mark believes in treating the cause of the problem, not the symptom with long term solutions, not quick fixes.

To illustrate his overall message, Mark told us to think of a buffet table line: "the (microbes in the soil) eat first, then the plants, then us." It is good way to think about our ongoing role as growers in ensuring a healthy food supply.

Here are a couple of articles written by Mark Fulford:

Building Living Soil Systems With Biological Farming Methods
Soil Biology: The Most Important Livestock on the Farm

And a few of the many books he recommended to us:
  • Weeds and Why They Grow, by Jay McCamon
  • The Nature and Properties of Soil by Ray Weil
  • Paramagnetism and Tuning Into Nature by Dr. Phillip Callahan
  • The Compost Tea Manual by Dr. Elaine Ingham
  • Science in Agriculture by Dr. Arden Andersen

Friday, April 20, 2012

Winter Growing Survey Contest Winner Announced

Jon and Debbie Butts of Ecofarm in Plant City, FL have been randomly selected as the winner of Johnny's Winter Growing Survey contest. The Butts have won a $50 coupon to Johnny's.

Ecofarm is a small, sustainable family farm that grows a variety of winter and summer produce. According to Debbie, they have had "great results from Johnny's seeds--especially some of the lettuces ('Cherokee', 'Green Star', 'Coastal Star', etc.) and kales ('Redbor', 'Winterbor', 'Toscano', etc.) that have performed well through this exceptionally warm, dry spring."

Jon and Debbie are also members of the Southwest Florida Small Farm Network (SWFSFN) and host a Sustainable Living Show on local Community Radio, WMNF 88.5FM in Tampa, where they often share sustainable gardening information with the public.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

What's New at the Farm? Compost -- Lots of It

With the unusual weather we’re experiencing, we have been able to accomplish a lot of field work in the past week and are enjoying the relatively dry field conditions.
Here’s the main trial field and field No. 2 at the farm; ready for spring planting:
Field No. 2 ready to roll.
We’ve got about half the Albion farm plowed which means we have also spread compost on the fields like this:
Spreading compost in Benton.

This is one of our fields in neighboring Benton which we use for growing squash. Much of the surface residue is mulch hay left from the previous year. We use lots of mulch hay – approximately 350 large round bales each year. This mulch helps keep the weeds down and conserves moisture on fields we can’t irrigate easily. The biggest disadvantage is the large amount of materials that have to be plowed under the following spring - and the cost.

Once the compost is applied we plow it under. The nutrients aren’t available immediately but rather have a cumulative effect over the years. A soil high in organic matter will release nitrogen every year to provide for the growing plants. By adding compost each year we continue the recycling of nutrients.
As you can imagine, we use lots of compost. We used to make all our own compost. Of course that was a few years ago when we used under 500 yards per year, had easy access to materials – usually local,  free, or cheap - and only two field locations to haul to. Times have changed.

When we made our own compost there was cage layer manure available, and for a small fee delivered. Straw was three dollars a bale and cow manure was fifty cents a yard plus three dollars delivery. Sawdust was twenty five dollars a cord and horse manure (which is mostly shavings) was 3 dollars a yard, also delivered.  Unfortunately most of the materials are (A) no longer cheap, and (B) no longer easily accessible.

We have also been expanding our land base so we’re using over a thousand yards per year now. In order to make 1,000 yards of compost we’d need 2,000 yards of materials, and the space to handle all this material. We would also need the time – making this much compost would take one person all summer to turn and windrow the materials. And none of this takes into account the wear and tear, and fuel expense of the equipment.  So, all in all, in the 1990's we started looking at companies that made compost from farm wastes and sold locally. Many small companies came and went during that time. After that initial flurry of activity there were a few companies that were really interested in selling compost to farmers and gardeners; reasonable and delivered.

We found two of these companies; one is in Lisbon Falls and one is in Charleston; both in Maine. They both use farm wastes and have excellent reputations and products. Other than the high quality, I think the best thing about each of these companies is their delivery schedules, which are tailored to my needs. One delivers in 50-yard trucks, which can pile up in a hurry. The other in 22-yard trucks, which can get into the smaller fields easily.

Most of our compost is delivered the year before we’re going to use it. This way we can avoid the “posted roads” issues we’ve had in the past. Nothing like having an early spring and not be able to get our compost delivered!

Alternatively, some fields which would be nearly impossible to get into in the spring because of damp field conditions are easily accessible in the dry days of summer.

Compost is great stuff, and we use a lot of it. But it isn’t a fertilizer. It is a soil amendment. It is organic matter and full of biological activity. By applying it every year, it will break down and supply nutrients to the planted crops. I think that’s the key to using compost – applying it yearly, in good quality and generous quantity, and keeping up with applications. Bringing up the organic matter content of your soil will only benefit you and your plants in the garden and in the field.

Until next week, Brian

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Product spotlight: Ornamental Kale, Row Covers



Ornamental kales have really caught on in the floral industry. They are actually small, open cabbages and they look like big roses at first glance in a floral arrangement. But they have the advantage of an extremely long vase life. Sunrise (#1470) is a creamy white with a pale pink center. Sunset (#1471) is reddish-purple. They do best in cool weather and should be protected from insect pests with row cover. 90-110 days to maturity.

Agribon AG-19

Save your fall crops from early frosts with this multi-purpose weight row cover. Sturdier than AG-15 insect barrier, AG-19 provides frost protection while allowing 85% light transmission. Available in 11 sizes.

Shade cloth

Getting fall crops established can be challenging in hot summer weather. Knitted Shade Cloth can reduce temperatures by 10 or more. Available in two densities: 30% shade for cold-loving crops in northern zones and warm-loving crops in hot areas; 50% shade for establishing cold-loving crops in hot areas, or for growing shade-loving plants in sunny areas such as a hoophouse. Shade cloth should be held above the plants on hoops and ventilated at the ends to prevent heat buildup. Each shade percentage is available in two sizes.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Protect Your Investment, Increase Yields with Mulch and Row Covers

Black Plastic Mulch is layed down prior to planting heat-loving crops like peppers and tomatoes.

Agribon Row Cover being applied over Quick Hoops™ Low Tunnels.

There are many uses for mulch and row covers this time of year when you're getting ready to plant. Mulch and row covers are economical and easy to use. You can sometimes get more than one season out of them if you're careful when you put them away in the fall.

Start with laying down some mulch. It will help suppress weeds, retain moisture, warm or cool the soil (depending on material and color), and repel insects.

Combining mulch with row covers will really optimize your growing conditions. Row covers help capture warmth and protect young plants from damaging winds and light frosts. Row covers are also the most effective and least toxic form of insect control that we know of.

Here are a few tips on using row covers from Paul Gallione, Johnny's Technical Services Technician, which were recently published in the "Away To Garden" blog.

Visit our website to shop for Mulch and Row Covers.

Product spotlight: Winter Squash and Pumpkins

Winter squash and Pumpkins


 Tom Fox

Tom Fox


Jester (#3836) is a new winter squash bred by Johnny's. It's the same size as Carnival, and just as ornamental, but the eating quality is better. Ivory fruits with green stripes are oval, tapered at both ends, and have small to average ribs. Average weight is 1 lb. 95 days to maturity. Stores about 60 days.

Tom Fox (#599G) is named after the New Hampshire farmer who developed this pumpkin. Fruits are deep orange, thick-walled and, at 10-16 lb., heavy for their size. It has long, strong dark green handles, making it a good choice for U-Pick, roadside, or farmer's market sales. 110 days to maturity. Organic seed.

Bliss (#692) is an Asian hybrid with edible, dark yellow flesh. In a Johnny's farm crew pumpkin pie contest, this one won the blue ribbon for flavor. Fruits are 10-15 lb., flattened, ribbed, and a mottled dark green color. 125 days to maturity.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

What's New at the Farm? Photos of High Tunnel Cover Installation

It's such a nice spring day; let's do some work on the high tunnel. It needs a new poly covering so here goes.

This is how it looks first thing this morning:

The sun is out and the wind isn't blowing so it should be a perfect day to put poly on.  We start by first unrolling the first layer of plastic, tie ropes to the corners and start pulling the plastic over. The tunnel gets two layers of plastic and we inflate in-between them with air for insulating purposes.  Here's the first layer being pulled over:

And here's another shot:

Soon the first layer is over:

The second layer goes on directly after the first layer; about the same time as the wind decides to start blowing:

As soon as the plastic is fastened down we're ready for the final touches and then it looks like a poly tunnel should:

Here's a shot of our number one greenhouse, all set up for the start of planting season, complete with brand new rolling benches:

Planting season will be upon us shortly and we're ready.

In the meantime there's lots of farm activities to keep us busy. We're still ordering supplies, field planning and, with the spring like weather, hope to get out into the fields shortly. It would be great to get busy in the fields before the blackflies come out, but it will be even better  to get a couple of fields of plastic pulled now. We didn't get a chance to pull all the fields last year. If I had my druthers, I would wait until spring to pull many of the fields. It's a much better job in the spring when it's warm and sunny and you've been cooped up all winter than in the fall when it's cold and wet conditions and you've spent two months harvesting to go out and pull plastic out of the frozen mud.

Little signs of spring continue to show up; I saw the first dandelions in bloom yesterday. The spring migrations must be fairly complete now as I've seen many species back. The tree swallows are staking out their bird houses and performing their courtship dances. Lots of grass along the roads and on the lawn and patches of Coltsfoot in bloom here and there. Ducks and geese seem to be everywhere and I've heard woodcock in the evenings lately. The bass in the pond are cruising the shallows scoping out places to build nests, I imagine.

We could use some rain; it's a bit dry for this time of year. There doesn't seem to be anything forecast in the next few days. It's dry enough to work some of the fields but a little rain would definitely push things along.

Until next week, enjoy the spring.

Product spotlight: Ornamental Corn

Ornamental Corn

 Red Beauty

Red Beauty
 Red Strubbes

Strubbes Orange
 Jerry Petersen

Jerry Petersen Blue

Dry corn is grown just like sweet corn so you don't want to rush it into cold soil in spring. It will, however, take much longer to mature than sweet corn, so you don't want to wait too long. Dry corn can be used as a fall ornamental, for popping, or grinding into flour or cornmeal. Here are some interesting new varieties:

Red Beauty (#2533G) is an organic red popcorn that retains its hull color after popping. Ears are 6-7" long. 120 days to maturity.

Jerry Petersen Blue (#2535G) can be ground for blue flour. Ears are 7-8" long. 105 days to maturity. Organic seed.

Strubbes Orange (#2534G) is great for grinding to make an orange cornmeal. Ears are 7-8" long and may have some yellow and red kernels. Also good for flour. 100 days to maturity. Organic seed.

See all dry and ornamental corn varieties.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Product Reviews Contest Winner Announced

Diane Wilkinson of Fullerton, CA, was selected as the winner of Johnny's Product Review contest for a $50 coupon. Diane, a Johnny's customer for about 30 years, submitted her product review on #2989 Socrates cucumber.

JSS Advantage Newsletter -- April 2012: Pumpkins, Winter Squash, Ornamentals for Fall Harvests

Autumn can be a profitable season for local growers, but it requires a lot of planning far in advance to get a good crop mix in sufficient volume. Many of the best fall crops -- think pumpkins, gourds, and winter squash -- take more than 100 days to mature. That means spring is the time to analyze potential markets, schedule plantings, and order seeds. In this issue of the JSS Advantage, we'll suggest crops that will keep you selling at least until Thanksgiving.

Edible Ornamentals: A Big Trend for Fresh Market Growers

Bliss Pumpkin
It used to be that you couldn't sell a pumpkin after October 31 because virtually all consumer interest focused on Halloween. That certainly has been changing in recent years, thanks to pumpkin varieties that are great for cooking and decorating. Chefs and other foodies have embraced pumpkins as a delicious winter ingredient. Magazine editors feature recipes for pumpkin soups, stews, roasts, and seeds. Even some beer drinkers are pumpkin fans, thanks to the many microbreweries that make a special autumn ale with fresh or roasted pumpkin puree.
So if you do grow pumpkins, think outside the Halloween box. Grow several kinds of pumpkins and be prepared to promote them with recipes, nutrition information, and decorating ideas.

Pumpkins are basically divided into three categories: Jack-o'-Lanterns, pie, and specialty/ornamental. There's lots of crossover among the categories, though; many varieties in all three categories are great for eating, and all pumpkins are good looking enough to be used as ornamentals.
In choosing Jack-o'-Lantern varieties, consider your markets first. What size do your customers want? If you sell at a farmers market, they may not want big pumpkins because of the difficulty of transporting them to their cars. If you have a roadside stand, bigger may be better because they are more visible from the road. If you have a U-Pick and cater to school groups, you need small pumpkins (under 10 lb.) so children can carry them. If you offer painted pumpkins, you may prefer smooth-skinned, rather than ribbed, pumpkins. If you hope to wholesale pumpkins, consult with your prospective buyers early to learn their preferences.

Johnny's Jack-o'-Lantern Lineup

Jack-o'-Lantern Lineup
Johnny's comparative table of Jack-o'-Lantern varieties spells out these important differences and more to help you choose the best varieties for your markets.
Specialty pumpkins offer opportunities to sell beyond Halloween. Johnny's selection includes pumpkins of many hues, shapes, and characteristics. Offer several types to encourage multiple purchases. Show some hollowed out and used as containers for Thanksgiving table arrangements. Cut open the most preferred varieties for eating to show their bright flesh. Johnny's specialty pumpkin comparative table will help you sort through the many colorful options.
As for pie pumpkins, they will sell themselves if you provide exciting recipes. A stuffed pumpkin makes a spectacular side dish or vegetarian alternative to turkey at Thanksgiving. Black bean and pumpkin stew is great served with cornbread or in tortillas. Creamy pumpkin soup is an easy and elegant addition to an autumn meal. And don't forget the roasted pumpkin seed recipes! Johnny's has two varieties that have either hulless (Kakai) or semi-hulless (Baby Bear) seeds for the best pepitas. Download small/pie pumpkin comparison chart for more information on these varieties.
The comparative charts also are helpful in calculating how much to plant. Pumpkins vary widely in their yield and space requirements; Jack-o'-Lanterns need anywhere from 18 to 36 sq.ft. per plant and average yield can be 1-3 fruits per plant. Some specialty pumpkins may produce only 2-3 fruits per plant whereas others may average 10.
If you are serious about growing pumpkins for market, we recommend the Pumpkin Production Guide, a thorough book about all aspects of the crop, including varieties, economics, insects and diseases, cultural requirements, and marketing.

Winter Squash is Becoming a Culinary Favorite


Winter squash are closely related to pumpkins (many are the same species, in fact) and are grown for their eating qualities. Their star is also rising in the culinary world, and people are getting familiar enough with them to have preferences. So it makes sense to grow several different kinds. They can be broadly divided into the acorns, delicatas, butternuts and buttercups, kabochas, and hubbards. All have sweet flesh that improves in flavor with a few weeks to a few months of storage.
Storage life of winter squash varies. In general, butternut and buttercup types last the longest when properly stored, up to 6 months. Hubbard and kabocha types will hold for 4 to 6 months. Delicata and dumpling squash will hold 3 to 5 months. Acorns have the shortest storage life, at about 2 months, so should be sold first.

Pair Pumpkins with Ornamentals to Increase your Average Sale

Speckled Swan
Speckled Swan

If you are going to be selling pumpkins, you can increase your average sale by offering other fall ornamentals. Gourds are a natural companion to pumpkins, offering autumnal colors and interesting shapes. They range from small-fruited gourds for a tabletop display to giant gourds that can sit on a porch with the pumpkins. Bottle and birdhouse gourds are also popular in fall, especially among crafters.
Consider drying flowers to sell in bunches or bouquets. If you grow cut flowers in summer, harvest some extras every week and hang them to dry in a hot barn or shed. By autumn, you'll have a great inventory of dried flowers. These flowers are useful as fresh flowers in summer and are super easy to dry by hanging upside down: amaranths, Bells of Ireland, bupleurum, celosia, carthamus, craspedia, eucalyptus, gomphrena, larkspur, nigella, salvia, statice, and strawflower.
Some grasses and grains can also be dried and saved for fall sales: ornamental corn, broom corn, eragrostis, rye, and wheat.
Sunflowers are eye-catching additions to a fall market display, and they are easy to schedule. They are frost-tender, though, so you will have to either grow them before frost or grow them in a hoophouse. The best varieties for fall blooms are day-length neutral: ProCut series, which take 50-60 days to bloom; the Sunrich series, 60-70 days; and Sunbright Supreme, 60-70 days.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Learn How to Support Your Local Farms with CSA's- and Motor Oil!

Find out how Johnny's customer Peacemeal Farm joined forces with Maine's rapidly growing Community Supported Agriculture community. Today, more than 160 farms are a part of the CSA community in Maine and together they sell more than 6,500 shares to consumers.

Read this entire article on CSA's, "Supporting Local Farms Starts in Early Spring," in the Bangor Daily News.

Wishing Stone Farm in Little Compton, RI is recycling used oil to help grow its vegetables.

“We’ve spent a lot of money on a used-oil boiler that we’re heating a greenhouse with,” said Skip Paul, who owns the farm along with his wife, Liz Peckham. “If people bring us their used motor oil or used fryolator oil, we’re paying them back in tomatoes.”

Ms. Peckham said the special boiler accepts three different types of oil: drain oil, vegetable oil and No. 2 motor oil.