Crop Care Season Summary 2015
Second Year Element Focus – Summary
Crop care is at the core of everything we do at North Slope Farm. Once a crop is in the ground, it falls under the jurisdiction of the “crop care manager,” thus all perennials and annuals need attention, care, and time devoted to ensure we’ve created an environment that promotes plant health and vigor.
I took on Crop Care as my focus element because I wanted to be an “advocate” for our plants. This text is taken directly from my Second Year Focus Introduction:
After deliberating over a few different elements, I choose crop care as my focus for the 2015 season for multiple reasons: it’s importance to the farm operation, how it was overlooked at times during the 2014 season (only due to not having someone dedicated to this element), an opportunity to be an advocate for the crops, and ultimately to gain an intimate understanding of how best to efficiently manage the crops in conjunction with worker hours.
Crop Care is intuitively important to the day-to-day farm operation. Intuitively, when you put a living organism into the ground, it needs attention and care for it to thrive. When weed pressure exists, it’s obvious to pull those weeds that inhibit growth of the crop. When drought conditions arise, you must get water to your crops to allow them to grow. Less subtle reasons exist also: making sure crops are protected from pests, covering crops with fabrics to prevent frost damage during colder months, preparing beds in a manner to minimize the need for costly (time and money) hand labor, and accumulating the materials needed to make all of these endeavors a success.
2014 was my first introduction to farming on a market-level scale. At the end of the day, the season was a success and my time learning and growing at North Slope was beyond measurement. Though, being my first year, it was an introduction. With that perspective in mind, and when I critically reflected on the season, it occurred to me that our crops were, at times, overlooked. Simply put: without somebody’s direct focus on Crop Care, the element was laid on the shoulders of the Farm Manager – someone who has the entire farm and all of the core elements on the front and back of his mind at all times.
To measure success, I must first define success within the context of a North Slope apprenticeship. For myself and the farm operation, I would define a season’s success as a season that continues to fulfill our markets full of local organic produce and great learning and growth. With that definition in mind, I’d call this season a success. We maintained our status quo by fulfilling markets with our core crops, but we also tested (and brought back) some techniques that helped suppress weeds, retain precious soil fertility (I think), and also brought a valuable product to our community that promotes vitality, both ecologically and socially.
Monitoring rainfall and the moisture levels of our production fields was a constant activity throughout the season. Early in the season, we set moisture level gauges in the ground, and, at the beginning of each week, I would take a field walk to measure the ground water saturation. If the ground was saturated, we’d let it be and wait to irrigate. If the gauge read dry, we knew it was in need of irrigation. In the beginning of the season, this proved to be a helpful tool to wrap one’s mind around the specific soil conditions here at NSF and how to recognize moisture levels better. As the season progressed, I stopped using the gauges for two reasons: work piled upon work and we were constantly occupied with other tasks besides moving gauges to new production fields and rainfall became less frequent and an established irrigation rotation was set in place. That being said, the gauges are effective. If you needed a more concrete way of determining if a crop needs irrigation, these gauges give quick, accurate readings.
We went through two major drought periods this season. The first coming early from the end of April all the way up until the first week in June.
The second dry spell was more typical and ran from the end of July through the beginning of September. There were a couple < ½” rains during this stretch, but it was never enough to spell the drought and saturate the hot, dry ground. Mechanical cultivation meant driving in a plume of dust. When you’d scrape your boot across the furrowed fields, you’d kick up fine particles of dust into the air. It was dry. And, naturally, the drought occurred during peak season with multiple fields in production, Farmhouse Gothic loaded with tomatoes, HT1 packed with flowers, Ralph’s House full of delicate strawberries, the corner garden full of onions, and some pesky strawberries/prolific peppers/eggplants/peppers and flowers in plastic out at the 579.
Looking back through the irrigation and rainfall log over both of these long drought periods, there wasn’t a minute during the work week (and sometimes weekends and nights) where irrigation was not flowing. This meant devising a plan. At first, the plan was written on paper. As the season progressed and our harvests became more rhythmic, I simply handled the irrigation first thing in the morning and right after lunch. I’d try to get two blocks on each day for five hours each. In the past, we’d typically irrigate for four hours, but because the ground was so dry, we found it took five hours to get full irrigation coverage – especially the furrows. Staying organized and devising a plan, whether on paper or mentally, for the week was absolutely necessary in order to stay on top of the constant activity.
A few odds and ends to mention:
Using the weed whacker, aggressively scalping the ends of the BGB beds (point where the sub main and lines attach) is well worth the extra time and effort. If you are managing crop care and taking off lines, reattaching lines, moving lines, it makes your job much, much easier. Dealing with irrigation can be irritating at times, and it only intensifies when there is constant debris in the way.
Always load up your irrigation bucket with essentials: hex driver, end caps, extra valves, 1” male x male connects, hose clamps, and at least one extra 1” female quick connects. And if you pick up a piece that is broken, don’t leave it in the bucket. Toss it.
Carry a good belt tool. I used my belt tool more times than I could count. Broken valve? Belt tool. Need to make a cut in the line? Belt tool. Valve stuck in the sub main and can’t get the leverage to pull it out? Belt tool.
Fencing is an important topic to consider as deer are as abundant in this area of New Jersey as any other place in the country. We use a welded poly wire electrical fence that, in most places, stands approximately 6’ tall. Early in the season, we had to make some simple repairs to the market garden fence (Veg A, B, and C). Some lines had fallen in the winter. Some posts came loose from the heave ho of winter ground. TH and JT pulled the ATV with a trailer full of fine gravel around to all the posts. If the post was loose by hand, we’d pull it out, add in some gravel, reset the post, one of us would stand on the ATV for leverage and pound the post into the ground with a sledgehammer while the other would brace the post. Finally, we’d add more gravel around the base and tamp it firm into the ground.
About a month later, during my first market garden mow, I hit the NW corner post with the Ferris roll bar and knocked it out of the ground. After a few shoddy repairs, the fence line held in place, though odds are it will need to be touched up again after the ground freezes and thaws a few times. Corner posts are a topic to consider here. The corner posts are subject to some serious tension, therefore they must be braced and supported properly otherwise the post will fall over from the pull of the electrical wired fence line.
Speaking of corner posts, there were a couple involved repairs in CSE field. We replaced the NW & SW corner posts with new posts and restrung the electrical fence wire. We also completely repaired the CSE gate as it was in disarray at the start of the season. All signs point to repairing the north east gate on the market garden fence line for 2016.
Farming takes an initial influx of capital to purchase materials necessary to make the farm go. At North Slope, we need new supply of drip tape, drip tube, 1” sub-mains, fittings, valves, gauges, woven ground cloth.
Looking back on what we purchased and what we have left in stock, I feel confident that we bought just the right amount of everything we needed.
Salad Mix, when done efficiently, is a very fruitful enterprise. The limiting factor here is weed control. The amount of time our crew spends hand weeding is critical. For instance, I project that NSF can increase our profit up to $3,500 by utilizing a two week stale seed bed and flame weeding and/or covering our stale seed bedded BGBs with black woven fabric combination. For the last two months of the season, we’ve employed these techniques with success except for one succession. Because we missed our stale seed bed and flame weed window, we spent 16 hours of hand labor to save each bed. This shows how critical it is to be one step ahead of your planting dates. When you can knock back the initial flush of weeds and seed directly into a clean bed without stirring up other weed seeds, you are going to see an immense difference.
Without flame weeding or covering the beds with woven fabric, we are looking at a minimum of 8 hours and up to 16 hours of hand weeding. If we eliminate those hours, we can save anywhere from $80 to $160 per bed. Because we cut from 22 beds of lettuce, over the course of the season those numbers translate into a savings of $1,760 and upwards of $3,520.
Nothing here is ground breaking technology, though sometimes numbers speak louder than words. In order to shore up more time for other NSF projects, to limit the amount of time hand weeding, and to save a substantial amount of money, every BGB should be stale seed bedded and flame weeded before seeding.
Our BGBs are carrot growing machines. Early in the season, before we got our flame weeder operational, our first line of defense after germination was the scuffle hoe. Scuffle hoeing does a great job attacking the weeds in-between our rows, but the limiting factor is how close you can get to the crop without destroying it. No matter how close you get, you’ll still end up with a significant amount of hand weeding to knock back weeds and create a habitat fit for adolescent carrot growth.
Herein lies the beauty of the flame weeder. Carrots are slow germinating crops, days slower than the weed seed bank that lives within the friendly confines of our BGBs. Our method to weed control in the BGBs is to prep the beds, wait until the first of the weed seeds start to germinate, then flame weed them. If it’s in a dry time of year, we will irrigate the beds to promote weed growth, then once weed seeds germinate, we flame them. It’s quick and incredibly effective way of weed management without disturbing the soil which promotes more weed growth.
For a second year, NSF utilized a minimal-till method of growing our crops in a manner we’ve coined “Favorable Furrows” where instead of plowing the entire field then bed forming, we simply rip a total of 14-16 furrows with a single shank and plant directly into them. This method provides a series of unique challenges to crop care management. We took to lightly tilling (top 2-3” of soil) up to the edge of our crops. This knocked back germinated weeds and kept the pathways under control. It’s effective, but the general feel is we’re still trying to hone the most effect troupe of weed management strategies for the furrows.
We grew our field tomatoes in favorable furrows once again. Trellised with metal and wood stakes (in succession like this: M w w M w w M w w M, etc.), we string tomato twine along each side to keep the plants upright. Instead of pruning the majority of suckers, we clipped up the vines on the existing trellis. We laid a heavy application of mulch on the southern two or three beds, but to save us time, we choose not to do so for the remaining tomato beds. On the macro scale, it seemed this did not affect our crop production. As a crew, we went into the tomato field one time for a serious afternoon of hand weeding, but beyond that, time managing the tomato crop weed pressure was minimal.
By mid-summer, we had flea beetle, Japanese beetle, leaf miner, and cabbage worm problems on our young leafy greens. After stripping the infected leaves without the results we had hoped, we decided to spray OMRI approved Entrust SC. With a 3 gallon backpack, we added the appropriate ratio of Entrust and added fish emulsion into the mix as a foliar fertilizer. The spraying was always done early in the morning with NSF crew member wearing the appropriate safety gear. After spraying, the results were extreme, as the population of pests were knocked back and our crops were saved.
I could write on and on about the 2015 Crop Care season focus, as it played a significant part in almost every facet of the day-to-day operations at North Slope Farm. Focusing on Crop Care allows one to immerse oneself in the intimate rhythms of tending crops, soils hydration and fertility, insect hatchings, and on and on. For me personally, the experience was rich with autonomy and gave me the space to test my fledgling understanding of the state of small scale agriculture in New Jersey.