Happy Harvesting

Harvested zucchiniThe first harvests of the year were some of the most exciting times on the farm. Harvesting is the culmination of all the planning and preparation that has taken place and is typically rewarding and delicious.

It also marks the beginning of a new phase on the farm where harvesting becomes a big part of the daily workload as the seeding, planting and bed preparation finish up although weeding still remains; a constant chore of farm life year round.
When to harvest
Among other things this can depend on:

  • Weather – Heavy rain is not ideal harvesting weather as it affects how well the vegetables will store.
  • Time of day – the earlier the better for greens such as lettuce and mizuna, while fruits such as beans and tomatoes are reputedly sweeter if they are picked in the afternoon.
  • Readiness of produce – Is the produce at its optimum for tastiness? Parsnips are sweeter after the first frost while cilantro that’s left too long in the ground can start to taste bitter.

How much to harvest
Sometimes it was a matter of harvesting everything we could such as when the garlic was ready. At other times we only ever harvested what was needed to fill the weeks CSA boxes, restaurant orders and predicted market sales such as when picking chard leaves. A few things to consider:

  • How much is needed
  • Length of time the harvest can be stored
  • Consequences of delaying the harvest (there’s no point in delaying picking arugula if it will become bitter before the next harvest or not picking peppers if there will be a hard frost tomorrow)

How to harvest
Each vegetable has a slightly different way of being picked. Typically fruits such as tomato, eggplant, capsicum, chilli, zucchini, squash, watermelon and rock melon were cut from the plant with a clean slice of a sharp knife. The root vegetables such as carrots, beets, rutabaga and parsnip were all grasped firmly and pulled although there’s always the odd casualty whose top twists off leaving the root in the earth to be dug out and added to the farmer food pile. Leaves such as chard or kale can be cut or neatly torn from the plant while our beans just needed a sharp tug and the ground cherries and tomatillos were ready when they easily came away from the bush.

Of course, it’s not just a matter of picking fruit from a vine or bush or pulling roots from the ground. Post harvest processing (washing, packing, drying and bunching) is just as important but that’s for another post.

 

Installing Irrigation

The summer of 2012 in much of Quebec and Ontario was hot and dry so setting up the irrigation system early in the season was a major priority. A new well was sunk at Hendrick Farm with just enough capacity to cover our watering needs. A typical rainfall year in Chelsea sees 772.2mm of precipitation but drought hit and by August we’d only had 320mm so the system needed careful management to ensure the well didn’t run dry.

  • Planning – an irrigation plan was essential; different crops need different sorts of watering. Most crops are happy with overhead sprinklers but those that are susceptible leaf mould and similar diseases such as solanacae (tomatoes, potatoes and  eggplant) or cucurbits (melons, squash and cucumbers) do better then water is applied with drip tape.
  • Components – selecting according to price, availability and re-usability. The total cost of the system was about $3000 however most of the components can be re-used next year.
  • Installation – connection to the well, digging ditches to run lines underground and reduce the risk of them being run over and damaged.
  • Management – Moving irrigation lines, checking timer programming and electrical connections took about an hour each day. The installation of electric timers meant sprinklers could be set to turn on and off when we weren’t physically in the fields.
  • Pack down – Freezing conditions in winter mean any irrigation piping needs to be packed up and stored until the spring. While the overhead sprinklers were simple, pulling up the drip tape meant navigating through overgrown pumpkin and melon beds but it all came up. Labelling the length of piping to be stored was essential for re-using and planning the following year.

What did we learn? Irrigation, for the most part, isn’t that fun but it’s here to stay as part of any modern farmers skill set and without it the harvest

Tractor licence

Tractors have long been a mainstay piece of equipment for farms regardless of acreage or farm type and at Chelsea Gardens we were lucky enough to have access to a small 27 horsepower Kubota. It can be somewhat daunting to step into a tractor for the first time – like learning how to drive again only with dials and levers all over the place and a host of crazy symbols meant to help you understand their purpose; besides the hare and tortoise on the hand throttle it seemed more like hieroglyphics. After a few hours mowing and getting to understand the function and usage of various levers and buttons it felt pretty comfortable and running the tractor can be a nice break from hand weeding although the noise and diesel fumes mean it’s not an enjoyable all day task.
Equipped with a front loader, PTO (power take-off) and three-point hitch the tractor was as versatile as the number of implements available; our arsenal included:

  • Discer : A row of steel discs that roll across the soil surface to break up clumps of earth before planting or break up remaining plant matter in beds that were finished production for the year.
  • Hay wagon: Long flat bed trailer mainly used to move hay and compost around site.
  • Roto-tiller: Mechanically digs and turns over the soil; used in bed preparation before planting.
  • Seeder: Used to distribute cover crop seed.
  • Mower: Used to mow paths, field borders, cover crops and vegetable beds that were finished production for the year.
  •  The Poutine* Machine: Our trusty potato planter, hiller and digger.

While tractors definitely help reduce the work load they must be used wisely; every time they are driven through the fields they compact soil and using the roto-tiller damages soil structure; additionally they rely on polluting fossil fuels to run so minimal usage is best.

Not all tractor’s are made equal so while we were fortunate that the little orange tractor was suitable for most of the work we asked of it, the appearance of an Allis-Chalmers cultivating tractor later in they year was a welcome addition. Cultivating tractors are designed for small scale vegetable production; they are lighter than most other tractors reducing soil impaction and don’t have a lot of power as the main job they do is weeding between vegetable rows and beds. Throughout North America there are many examples of these types of tractors being converted to run on electricity, from tractor mounted solar panels instead of diesel, and that is a project on the cards for the coming year.

* For Aussie readers out there poutine is a Quebec creation comprised of hot chips smothered in gravy and cheese curds. Cheese curds being fresh cheese chunks that have separated from the whey but haven’t been pressed into block cheese; they are mild with a springy texture and the best ones squeak. For a true poutine they must be fresh which means produced, packaged and utilised that day without having been refrigerated.

Farm style espionage

An important aspect of the internship at Chelsea Gardens over the summer was spying on visiting other organic and biodynamic farms in the region. No matter what your domain, any opportunity to see how other people approach their work is a hugely important aspect of the learning experience, and organic farming is no different. The monthly farm tours gave us not only an opportunity to take a break, and socialise a little during the mandatory pot luck at the conclusion of each farm tour, but a chance to discuss major issues of the season (this year drought and insect populations) as well as more specific problems such as the incidence of cercospora leaf spot in chenopods (fungus on beets and chard). Farmers and interns alike were able to geek out about agriculture checking out  tractors and implements on site, looking at the irrigation system set up, visiting livestock, investigating the cold cellar, making notes on washing station organization, and pest management strategies. Conversations concerning markets, profitability in relation to overall farm finances and specific crops, the worth of value added products, the future of organic farming and progress of the season in general were common topics discussed at length around the dinner table.

Each and every farm is physically different with unique soil profiles, topography, water sources, vegetable and variety selection, livestock, equipment, acreage. As an intern I found it invaluable to physically experience this and learn about some of the problems faced by other farmers and the creative and practical ways they utilise the available resources to overcome them. A great example was at Rainbow Heritage Farm, which is off the grid, where keeping produce cool without draining the solar system batteries is achieved by making ice in the winter and letting it slowly melt over the summer in the cold storage cellar; a purpose built room that is half sunk into a hill so it has plenty of thermal mass.

I was lucky enough to participate in all the farm tours over the summer, meeting a diverse and interesting group of people along the way. Although each farmer’s background and years of experience as well as farm size, mechanization, livestock, fruit and vegetable varieties varied significantly from farm to farm everyone was bound by a willingness to share and support one another despite often being in competition for market share. The common belief, that growing organic food is an essential component of today’s society, that must continue as part of our responsibility to ourselves and the earth we live on, and a commitment to the hard work necessitated to achieve that goal serve to form a sense of camaraderie amongst the group. Despite each farm tackling issues such as pests and disease, crop rotation, soil health, staff management and marketing with their own approach there was a strong sense of mutual respect between farmers and it was a pleasure to feel like a part of the community, if only for one short season.

To go on a mini farm tour of your own, visit any of the farm web sites by clicking on the logos below.

Row-cover-rama

Since organic farming eschews the use of pesticides, plants need to be protected from insect pests in other ways so as part of a multi-faceted approach to achieve that, the final step of transplanting, once seedlings are in the ground, is covering them up.
Covering the rows of plants to protect them from predatory bugs is a common technique used in Canada. Depending on the material, row cover can also provide insulation that protects against frost and increases soil temperatures; particularly beneficial for heat loving plants such as tomatoes, eggplant and chillies.

Setting up the row cover involves a few basic steps:

  1. Cutting wire or tubing that is rigid enough to drape the row cover over into regular pieces that will be long enough to span the plant beds.
  2. Pushing the wire or tubing into the ground on either side of the planted rows at regular intervals (5-7 feet or 2-3m) so they look like hoops sticking out of the ground.
  3. Cutting the row cover so it’s a little bit longer than the bed that needs to be covered.
  4. Pulling the row cover over the wire hoops ensuring it’s fairly taut.
  5. Securing the row cover at either end of the bed and on each side of the hoops. This can be achieved using rocks, soil or bags of either and is the most tedious part of it all.

This was our method for any transplants from the greenhouse but for plants that were directly seeded it was much quicker; there’s no need for hoops since the plants lift the cover as they grow.

What is row cover exactly?

Any material used as a protective cover for plants; there are different weights and grades available in a variety of widths and lengths. At Chelsea Gardens we used two types, both lightweight synthetics; the majority of it was referred to as row cover with the second type known as protectnet which is more robust, more expensive, doesn’t insulate as much and looks sexier since you can actually see the plants through it. In the pic to the right the row of transplanted pak choy on the left is under hoops with protectnet over the top while the direct seeded turnips, radishes, mustard greens and arugula or rocket are under row cover simply laid on top of the earth.

Unfortunately row cover is typically made from petroleum products and although the materials can be reused they are fairly flimsy and easily damaged but still seem to be the best solution given insect problems and the short growing season. The only other idea I had for something equivalent would be silk which would be stronger but could be equally light weight and prohibitively expensive.