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Friday, March 24, 2017

Starting a commercial scale market garden

It's been a while since I sat down to write a new post. First the good news: I purchased a new house. Here are a few pictures.

My last 5-6 weeks were spent in moving, opening boxes,  having a broken HVAC system fixed and acknowledging the highs and lows of home ownership. Ever noticed how, when one moves to a new place, it takes a while for mind to consume the new and leave the old behind. I have moved thrice in last seven years. Every time I am at a new rental apartment, I look at the blank walls of new place to feel that this is going to be my place of dwelling for a while. Leaving behind a place where you have built memories and moments together with a loved one, is slightly disturbing.

Start small will be my mantra for this year. I will only be utilizing half acre plot to grow my garden. I will also be growing fewer vegetables than what I grew last year.  Growing fewer vegetables will help me focus on production and management of a small set of crops. Each crop family has different nutrient requirement. Providing the right set of growing conditions for few crops is much better than growing a variety of crops on the land, at least for a beginning grower with limited resources.

This year I will be taking my produce to a nearby farmer's market. My reasons for being at a farmer's market are two fold. Firstly, I wanted to meet new people and share my produce with the community. It will also be a way to know how the system works, what is trending in specialty produce and the food choices of people in 2017. Whether or not I will be able to generate sales will be a test of time. I am totally new in direct marketing domain and there are a lot of unknowns in front of me. Unless I do it, I won't know it. Secondly, selling wholesale requires a larger volume of produce consistently that what is required at a farmer's market. I am farming on a new land this year and it will take some time to know what grows and what doesn't. I have yet to think of what to do with the unsold produce that comes back from the market. Any suggestions are welcome.

Experimenting new methods on new land

I will be making a few tweaks in my methods this year. The tweaks come from failures and mistakes of last year.

Seed germination and indoor growing: I started putting seeds indoors since the beginning of March. Spring onion seeds were put in 5 72 cell seed trays. I also switched my seed growing medium to PROMIX (biofungicide+mycorrhizae). So far, the results have been good. It is still early to give a final verdict on this product.
Soil growing medium
Unlike last year, when I put my seedlings in an unheated hoophouse, I am using indoor grow lights in my basement this year.  I made two purchases. One was an Agrobite Fluoroscent Grow light unit and the other was a set of T8 fluoroscent bulbs purchased from Lowe's. The former is a T5 bulbs unit, hence a bit expensive. The later one works fine too, although the output is slightly lower than T5s. I wanted to experiment with different growing lights to see how plants perform under each one. I also purchased an 18' long incandecent rope light to put under my seed trays. The lights provide extra warmth to the seeds growing indoors in my basement. This is most suited for my pepper seedlings (peppers are a heat loving crop). There are a few other changes that I did in watering techniques, seed sowing methods, temperature control and monitoring.

Spring Onions
Happy peppers
Spring Onions under lights

Tillage and land preparation: There are a host of different ways in which soil can be prepared for growing food. It all comes down to resources at hand, scale, time and type of soil. I am on a land that used to be an old horse pasture.  All that is currently growing on the land is grass, some weeds and lots of trees. In order to make turn this land into a productive vegetable garden, I am debating between using no-till seed bed methods versus the conventional tillage. Since I have limited tools and no heavy machines, I am inclined towards no-till raised garden bed for growing most the greens like lettuce, salad greens, spinach and herbs. Raised bed will give me greater control over the soil for tender greens. Weeding will be easy and protecting and covering them using row covers or shade clothes will be easier. As for all other vegetables, raised beds will be cost prohibitive. I am leaning towards asking someone else with machinery to do a  one-time initial tilling. There aren't many people who do this work in my area. I may end of buying a small used roto-tiller for myself along with a few hand tools like a stirrup hoe. No-till techniques are something which I am very interested in experimenting with this year. The less disturbance in soil, the better it builds itself.

Soil Amendments: The pH of soil on my land is around 5.6. Acidic soils are not very ideal for growing most vegetables. To start with, I am looking to source local mushroom compost to add to my soil to build some organic matter. I will have to get the compost tested to see what exactly is the N-P-K ratio is. In absence of knowing the compost source and the facility in which it is produced, it is hard to comment on its quality. I am also trying to find someone who can deliver aged horse manure to my place in bulk. No luck so far. Lime is another important amendment I will be using this year. And to add some more flavor to the soil, bags of used coffee grounds from Starbucks will be mixed in the garden soil.

Farm Infrastructure: The mention of a farm brings up two images in mind - Tractors running on large fields or farmers toiling in the hot sun. Both images are a depiction of economies of scale. On a urban farm which grows specialty produce for specific consumers, production techniques and manpower available determine the investment needed to benefit the bottom line. My major infrastructure investment this year will be a pick-up truck (without which I absolutely cannot move heavy stuff from point A to point B), fence, hand tools, low tunnel tools, irrigation supplies and cold-storage. These are not the only investment though. At some point in the journey, there will also be a few unforeseen (and unpleasant) expenses. When I read and watch other small scale farmers utilizing some amazingly innovative tools and techniques, I most definitely want to have those tools. I do, however, have to hold my horses before making an impulsive purchase.

Know Thy Market: I have worked in corporate America for a while and I realize what it takes to 'Know Thy Customers'. It takes a lot ! Being an introvert, relationship building isn't my natural skill. On top of that, unknowns and fear of failure scare me. Being a farmer's market and meeting new people everyday is a chance to confront those fears and get past it. I will write a separate post at the end of growing season about my experiences at the market.

Crop Planning: One of the most important things in planning a diversified farm is having a plan that guides a grower throughout the season. A plan, in its basic form, involves knowing succession planting of each crop to be grown. It also involves planning the active areas of the field for its relative suitability for each crop. A good plan comes with some experience in growing and managing a field or garden for a few seasons. I have a rough outline of what I will be growing in summer and fall.

The variables and unknowns I have this year are a welcome challenge. When I write some of my thoughts here, it helps me understand what I am dealing with and hopefully to educate and inform anyone reading it. Suggestions and comments are welcome.

Happy Planting.