By Judith Redmond of Full Belly Farm
With a little warm weather, the fields are drying out and plants have all started growing remarkably suddenly as if a switch just turned over to ”˜ON’. Now they’re in a race to catch up with the spring. In one week we saw more growth in the asparagus and flowers than we had seen in the last six weeks of rain! To keep up with it all, the farm crew kicked into high gear as well.
There was a short dry spell in February during which we planted all kinds of spring crops: greens, lettuce, beets, turnips, carrots, radishes, broccoli and sugar snap peas. Those little plants have been sitting in the mud for the last few months, waiting. But meanwhile the weeds were growing happily! The rain didn’t seem to bother them, and the farmers could only growl in frustration — you can’t weed when the fields are muddy.
As soon as things dried out just a little, hoeing and hand weeding started. Young carrots are an example of a crop that needs protection from weeds. Carrot plants don’t shade out the weeds at all and can’t compete with them. On some farms, it’s easy to spray with herbicides. We prefer not to do that because of the impacts that herbicides have on our very active soil biology. So it’s a weeding frenzy at the moment.
We also weed with tractors. When the soil dries out we use tractors to weed some of our beds containing rows of crop plants, and as Andrew says, “The entire farm needs to be mowed!” The mowing focusses on our orchards and 50 acres of cover crops that need to get turned over. Some of the mowing is done by our herd of hard-working sheep. They go from famine to feast. There has been very little green pasture for them to graze, up until now — and we’re only giving them three weeks to get it all done. In this case, “work faster” really means “eat, eat, eat!” Many of the fields that are being grazed and mowed right now will end up being summer crops like corn, melons and tomatoes.
Our greenhouses are full of transplants. There are many crops that we plant this way rather than as seeds because we like to have them ready to go as little plants, giving them a good head start on the weeds and weather. We’ll be putting a bunch of spring crops into the ground as transplants, but these are quite late. We’ve been waiting three weeks to transplant the broccoli, chard, parsley and spring greens. Finally, we can do that and we’ll be watching to see what comes from a late start.
Getting the tomato transplants out into their summer home in the fields is a two-step process. We have some beds that are formed up, but weedy. So the first step is to mow down the weeds and incorporate them into the soil. As you read this newsletter, we may be starting to plant the tomatoes. They are already two-weeks late so we have more plants to go in than we had planned for the first planting — perhaps 6 or 7 acres all at once. Along with the tomatoes there will be some basil and peppers. This first planting of tomatoes is always an annual milestone, and an exciting time on the farm, even though it means a period of extra-special vigilance protecting the tender tomatoes from frost.
In addition to those spring and early summer crops that we are transplanting, we also have about 72,000 onion plants that we are planning to put out in the field. Each one of these little plants makes one onion! If all goes well, these onions will be harvested in late August, the red, yellow and torpedo onions that you have seen in your boxes in years past.
With weeding, mowing and transplanting taking place simultaneously, there are a lot of balls in the air — but even more plans are being hatched to get the spring off to its late but enthusiastic start. For example, we are also ready to plant some crops that get their start out in the fields as seeds. Turnips, radishes and spinach will get planted soon, as will summer crops like cucumbers, summer squash, beans and corn.
All of these crops are hungry, so we’re also going through and giving many of them a little help with a side dressing of some liquid fish-based fertilizer. The fertilizer will go into the ground in bands, close to the plants. We want to make sure that our crops have what they need to sustain healthy growth. As the soil warms up, microbial action will take over — with nitrogen and carbon cycles one part of the multitude of activities underway on this farm.
Sometimes people think that in an organic system there are no pesticides or fertilizers. The truth is that most organic farmers do use pesticides and fertilizers, but the pesticides contain products that occur naturally. For example, we are spraying for blight in our walnuts and powdery mildew in our grapes. That is very important at this time of year because the majority of the debilitating diseases of these fruits crops get their start during the moist, cool weather of early spring. In many cases, we use traditional fungicides like lime sulfur. For the aphids that we sometimes get in early spring in the apples and plums, we spray a garlic-clove-oil-based product.
We’re using an interesting product to combat fire blight in our apples. It contains an extract of a plant called giant knotweed (Reynoutria sachalinensis). The plant comes from northern Japan and was introduced to North America in the late 1880s for ornamental use. It turned out that in some areas it is an invasive weed. It’s now used against several fungal and bacterial plant diseases, a relatively recent development. This works because the knotweed extract stimulates the plant’s immune and defense systems. The fact that plants even have immune systems that can be stimulated was discovered by entomologists back when I was doing plant disease research at U.C. Davis. They found that if you expose young plants to insects, they are better able to withstand those insects later in life. Perhaps this knotweed product comes from a continuum of research started all those years ago.
Some CSA members have been concerned about fruit set in our apricots and peaches. With all the rain and wind, it’s hard to imagine how the flowers managed to hold on and get pollinated. An early survey of our orchards indicates that there are a surprising number of young fruitlets on the trees. We’ll be watching for diseases like brown rot that can infect the very young fruit, but at this juncture it seems as if your future holds Full Belly summer peaches!
See what’s in the Capay Valley FarmShares mix this week.