Years ago, I helped train volunteers to guide kids on outdoor educational nature walks. It was an intense 17 hour, three day training. Accompanying this hands-on information overload was a large three ringed binder. Volunteers were expected to understand and be able to replicate the information it contained. To lessen the pressure, interspersed throughout were funny or inspiring quotes and sayings. Things like “first you pee, then you see” to remind volunteers that if their charges hadn’t had their basic needs met, they were not going to pay much attention on the trail.
One of my favorite quotes from this book was, “good teachers plan, then let go”. It was a reminder that sometimes it was important to just go with the teachable moment of a tarantula walking across the trail, and temporarily abandon the discussion of the topic at hand.
I am admittedly an anal retentive person. One of my favorite cartoons says, “all is right with the world when the world is at right angles”. I love to plan, to make lists, design forms, plug in formulas. This is a good skill to have when you are trying to pencil out what aspects of your business are working financially. But it can also be a trap. Sometimes you have to know when to let go.
So here are some things I let go of this year, and some things that went according to plan, and some things that were “teachable moments”.
Not So Much
Keeping track of every oz of harvest. While this seems like a sensible idea, it is also time-consuming. And when you take home boxes of cucumbers to feed to the goats, because you planted too many and they didn’t sell, after a while you really don’t care how many pounds you harvested. Take home message? Your time and sanity are valuable. You don’t have to keep driving home the lesson if you’ve already learned it. You get a gut gestalt about half way through the season of what you overdid, and what you didn’t plant enough of.
Onions/Potatoes. I had the field turned in late March, and soon after, got my onions and potatoes in the ground, before I had a chance to till the ground with my tiller. The garden was formerly pasture. The onion/potato areas quickly reverted to pasture. If you’ve ever wondered why you should keep up on the weeding, behold my small puny potato/onion harvest to understand what competition does to a plant. Most of the onions were the size of golf balls or smaller. I DID manage to unbury them late in the season, through a herculean effort that removed an inch of soil as well, but it was too little too late, except for the scallions. Next year? Don’t worry about getting them into the ground so early and stay up on the weeding or mulch like crazy.
Brassicas. This is the group of vegetables that includes broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, mustards, arugula, kohlrabi, radish, and kale. A lot of market farmers grow many of these only in the fall, to avoid a lot of the insect issues. I should have taken note. A lot of this crop was planted early, and was quickly overtaken by grass (a la potatoes/onions) and slugs. OMG the slugs. They LOVE cabbage. And the grass gave them refuge. They were unstoppable on the Chinese cabbage and the kohlrabi. I harvested very little broccoli (which didn’t sell well when I did harvest it – ugh), no cauliflower, no Chinese cabbage, softball sized regular cabbage (for personal use only at that point), and a few split scared kohlrabi.
Next year? More tilling, more ducks (they are allowed in the garden now – hoping it will take down the slug population), a test of cabbage collars (rings impregnated with copper – which slugs don’t like) and perhaps a fall crop (if I can get moving in the heat of August to get things in the ground). I will plant all of the same crops, because I hate it when I can’t grow something successfully, and will try several times before I give up, but will back off on the volume since I’m unlikely to sell much of it anyway. Always good to have a few for personal use.
On the bright side, I had little problem with cabbage worms, the radishes sold well, the kale didn’t get infested with aphids until early September, and the arugula almost took over the garden (I ended up with way more than I anticipated – AND it reseeded. I sold it cheap by the pound to many excited customers. Could not give it away in Spokane. Always good to test the waters). I’ll plant extra radishes next year. I saved some seed, so will be interested to see what I get.
Pole Beans. Turns out, they don’t do well in the heat. I’ve never had this problem before, but then again, I’ve never really gardened where it was in the 90’s for weeks and weeks on end. I got almost NO harvest of the French Fillet pole bean I planted. Will plant them IN the corn next year, in the hopes that the corn will help shade them. And perhaps look for a variety that handles the heat better. Thank goodness I planted so many bush varieties.
Celery. I had really good luck with this last year in Spokane, during a long wet spring, and then on drip irrigation. Here, with less water and a lot more heat, the were stunted. Ultimately, the sheep got to eat most of it. I mostly grew it for myself and to see how it would do here. Celery in the store is cheap. Not much profit in it as a market venture. On the bright side, you know how there are plants that HATE to have their roots disturbed, and take forever to recover or die when you move them? Not so with celery. I started it from seed indoors, and moved a lot of them around or split them when two came up in the same pot. Didn’t even slow them down. (I’ve found basil is like that too).
Carrots. “Carrots like deeply tilled soil”. We’ve all read that on the seed pack. Turns out they aren’t kidding. I had LOTS of character carrots – the kind that split and then wind around each other or grow multiple arms like an octopus. This was the one crop I had some troubling insect issues with. I had a few wire worms burrow into the roots. I still have a fridge full of carrots that I couldn’t sell. And I had a heck of a time getting them to come up. Some I planted too early. All didn’t get enough water (using only overhead sprinklers – no hoses out in the garden) early on to germinate well. Next year? Shorter varieties, deeper tilling, more water, and fingers crossed on the wire worms.
Eggplant. I grew some beautiful small Japanese and Italian varieties. They didn’t sell. And they don’t hold well, so it was hard to carry over product from an unsold Sunday market to a Wednesday market. And I’ve finally determined that I am personally indifferent to eggplant. Made some into a roasted baba ghanoush (basically an eggplant humus) and it tasted more like tahini (sesame paste) than anything else. Meh. There were football sized eggplants at the market this year (not mine) that weren’t selling either. Just not worth growing. More peppers instead please.
Peppers. Sweet bell peppers sell. Hot peppers don’t. Or at least not in any volume. Next year? Grow more sweet bells, and look for varieties that grow a lot of foliage to prevent sunburn on the fruit, or grow under a shade cloth. I lost a LOT of peppers to sun damage (hello lots of unsellable roasted peppers in my freezer).
Tomatoes. At the height of summer, most shoppers don’t seem to care that the tomatoes at the grocery store sell for more than $2 a pound and taste like cardboard. When they are in season, everyone at the farmers market has them, and they sell for $1 a pound, and you are lucky if you don’t take some home. The heirlooms are very fragile and bruise/split easily. VERY frustrating, as this is THE crop that people supposedly come to the market for. But a lot of people grow their own as well. Next year? Grow them mostly for value added products like fresh salsa or tomato jam or for drying. Grow some for my own use. And grow starts to sell. I sold a few that way this year, and it was really fun to talk to people about them.
Parsnips. Soil wasn’t tilled deeply enough. They had a low germination (twice), and were slow to grow and almost impossible to get out of the ground. The ones that I harvested were huge at the top, small at the bottom, or were more “character” roots. All in all, a sheep crop (the ones that the gopher didn’t discover). All in all, a lost cause.
Pac Choy, Mustard Greens, mixed Asian greens. Could not give them away. Not worth bothering with, even though they are super easy to grow.
What Did Work
I think I sold most every green bean and pea I grew, despite the labor to pick them. Beets sold surprisingly well, as did radishes. I sold a ton of spinach, and because I let the plants get to a good size, then cut off at the root, the only processing they needed was a quick rinse, cutting way down on labor. I harvested arugula the same way, and sold a lot of it at $1 a pound (advertised as “not your grocery store baby arugula”). I grew a crop of cantaloupe as a test, and they sold well, and were almost no labor. Almost all of the summer squash (zucchini and the like) sold. Chard and kale were slow but consistent sellers. A lot of people juice kale or put it in smoothies. I had about the right amount of scallions, leeks, winter squash and herbs. Carrots always sell (though not as well here as in Spokane).
I’m in the process of making a chart of vegetable types, and have a numerical rating for how easy it is to grow (taking into consideration things like how time-consuming it is to plant and insect/disease issues), how easy it is to process (can I just pick it and throw it in the fridge or do I need to rinse it/cool it/trim it first), and how well it holds (will it last for 4 days in a fridge to sell at the next market, does it bruise easily or turn to mush quickly). Each category gets a one to five rating, with one being easiest. So a crop could have a super easy low score of three, or a super pain in the ass score of 15. (Look, another chart!) That, along with how much it sold for at market, and how easily it sold, is helping me decide what to grow more of next year.
Eggs always sold well when I had them, and soaps did well (a lot were based on the top 10 selling scents from my main supplier – oatmeal, milk and honey anyone?). Diversity is key. I’d have days when I sold lots of produce, and almost no toiletries, and vice versa. It was good to have both. Because lets face it, it’s hard to make a living $2 at a time.
So, what are you willing to pay a premium for at a farmers market?
Miles Away Farm Blog © 2012, where we’re miles away from giving up our lists, but forgive ourselves if we don’t get everything on them done.