Scale up vegetable production by growing better, not bigger
By Chris Blanchard, Flying Rutabaga Works
Scaling up to meet the demand for local food is all the rage these days, especially in the world of fresh produce. Local foods are showing up in places we never imagined 20 years ago, and farmers are getting pressure from all sides —publications like this one, conferences, Extension, and potential customers—to get bigger.
Most of the discussion around scaling up has to do with growing more vegetables by growing more acres of vegetables. But what if you just grew more vegetables by doing better with the acres you’ve got? Farming fewer acres leaves you room to grow your own soil fertility, and to improve weed control through the judicious use of cover crops and careful tillage—and doing better at growing at your current scale is a prerequisite for increasing the number of acres under production.
Increasing your vegetable yields has an amazing compounding effect. Harvesting produce requires intense labor inputs, so anything you can do to make that process more efficient will increase your productivity—and picking more vegetables in every foot of row makes everything more efficient! When I pick beans, I grab a handful of beans and pull them off the plant; in a low-yield crop, I might get four or six beans to a grab, but when things are really working right in my fields, I can get 10 or 15 per handful, and every trip between the plant and bucket represents just that much more produce in that much less time.
As an additional bonus, totes and buckets fill up more quickly, reducing the number of times they have to be moved down the row—and totes that fill up more quickly get in the shade fast, and trucks that fill up with totes of vegetables more quickly get back to the packing house and into the cooler more quickly. Suddenly, you’ve got not only more vegetables faster, but also a higher quality product as well.
Getting bigger won’t make you a better farmer, so you need to have some key vegetable skills down before you decide to scale up. In my visits to beginning farmers, I have seen again and again that many farms don’t capitalize on the opportunities to maximize their vegetable production because they are failing on two key elements of horticulture: weed control and irrigation.
Most organic farmers will tell you that weeds are the most difficult challenge in organic farming —especially with vegetable crops. Unlike field corn and soybeans that grow an inch the day they pop out of the ground, vegetables have small seeds and many germinate rather slowly. When they come up, they come up slowly, and many of them aren’t amenable to hilling up— weed control in vegetables is simply not easy!
In vegetables, weed control pays dividends in more than just absolute yield from reduced competition. By reducing competition for nutrients like nitrogen, top-notch weed control can reduce the time spent working the product to remove yellow cotyledons and dead leaves. And if you’ve ever spent time harvesting beans in a thistle patch, trying to separate mesclun from lambsquarters, or pick broccoli from a field of pigweed gone to seed, you know that not only do the weeds slow you down, they make the work downright unpleasant.
If you have any plans at all to mechanize your vegetable harvest—whether with a hand-held salad harvester from Johnny’s Selected Seeds or a beet combine pulled by your tractor— good weed control is an absolute must so your machine won’t plug up with weeds, or you spend all of your time separating out the weeds from your salad leaves.
The return on investment for weed control tools is very high if they are used correctly and in a timely fashion. Good weed control is a function of using the right tools at the right stage of growth. None of the beginning farms I’ve visited was making effective, timely use of weeding tools in all of their fields, and all of them lacked appropriate tools and systems for their scale of operation.
Efficient operation of precision weeding tools depends on precision spacing of plants and seedlings. Developing tools and techniques to ensure that rows are straight and precisely x inches apart can be a critical element of using tools efficiently.
Fresh vegetables are made of water—and lots of it. Potatoes come in at about 79% water, while a whopping 96% of a cucumber is made of H20. If you aren’t getting enough water on your vegetables, you aren’t maximizing your yields. The old rule of thumb of an inch of water a week—that’s 27,154 gallons of water per acre!— is just that: a rule of thumb. Watering needs vary according to heat, humidity, and stage of growth, and optimum yields may require much more than an inch of water per week. (Some growers I know apply three or more inches of water per week during critical growth phases.)
For irrigation to work right, you need to have the right application methods for your circumstances, and know how to use them in order to maximize your yields. It doesn’t do any good to apply water unevenly, or to have a system that you can’t operate efficiently because parts don’t match, or you don’t have a pressure gauge to know that the system is operating correctly. And, of course, you have to have an adequate supply of water that’s safe to apply to vegetables.
With the weather getting weirder, it’s not enough just to have access to irrigation. Droughts will always mean extra work, but it’s a matter of degrees. When I talked to farmers around the Midwest during the drought of 2012, some were at wit’s end, while others were simply tired. The one key difference? Adequate irrigation infrastructure and access to water. Two growers I interviewed that year actually said it was their best, most profitable year ever because the lack of rain made weed control and timely plantings easy, and they had the water they needed to produce great crops.
Irrigation doesn’t just provide water to keep crops growing. Having adequate water and the equipment you need to apply it can allow you to pre-germinate weed seeds to create a stale seed bed, quickly germinate crops so that they get a jump on the weeds, and even affect harvest timing so that you can manage succession crops better.
Whether it’s a wheel hoe or a fancy cultivating tractor, you need the right equipment to get the job done. You also need it to work. Equipment that isn’t stressed doesn’t wear out and break, so you need to have equipment that’s sized right for the work you need it to do.
Equipment maintenance is an important key to farm sanity, because when equipment works, you spend time doing the jobs that need to be done right when they need to be done. Vegetable farming is all about timing—if your flame weeder doesn’t work the day before your carrots come up, you’ll never get the chance to flame weed that crop again. Or, if your wheel hoe has a flat tire so you can’t weed on Friday afternoon after the crops for market are in, you’ll face even bigger weeds when you get home exhausted from market on Saturday afternoon.
Check the oil every day when you start the tractor, and grease the Zerks on your equipment often—they’re there for a reason. And keep your hoes sharp—“dull as a hoe” is an idiom that should cause a shiver to run down the spine of any market farmer.
For weed control especially, you need tools that work under a variety of conditions and at all stages of weed and plant growth. With the drought in 2012, we were able to weed whenever we wanted; but in the miserably wet early summer of 2013, we had to take advantage of whatever opportunities presented themselves. If you use hand tools, that means you need tools to slice the tiny weeds right next to 2-day-old carrots, and you need tools that can slice a tall woody pigweed. On the cultivating tractor, you need tools that can work baked and crusty soils as well as light and loamy soils; you need tools that keep the soil from burying seeds or getting into the leaves of the lettuce; and you need other tools that throw the dirt into the row to bury the weeds that are growing there.
Perhaps most importantly, having two ways to get every job done ensures that when breakdowns happen—and they will happen, even with brand-new equipment—they don’t turn into crises. The second way may not be as fast or as fun, but it can keep critical tasks on schedule.
Chris Blanchard (www.flyingrutabagaworks.com) is an educator and consultant for farms and nonprofits. As owner-operator of Rock Spring Farm, Chris raised 20 acres of vegetables and herbs, marketed through a 200-member CSA, food stores, and farmers’ markets.
From the September | October 2014 Issue