This week’s interview on FSFS features a season’s end reflection on a timeless topic; the challenges of farming. More specifically, the challenges unique to a small scale farm with Benny and Courtney Pino of Loblolly Farm. Specifically, we discuss caterpillar tunnels, weed pressure, and irrigation. We also address their plans for solutions to these issues coming into 2020.
Challenge #1 Growing in Caterpillar Tunnels
Loblolly farm has utilized 2 caterpillar tunnels, each 14’x100’ from Farmer’s Friend over the last three growing seasons. Here are some of the challenges they faced;
- Windy Days – On a windy, there is always the likelihood of the plastic blowing off if it is not fully secured. If the plastic is not pulled down all the way there is a good chance the wind will get under it and blow it off. It takes 20-30mins to place it back on the tunnel when it’s no longer windy.
- Heat Management – While the caterpillar tunnels work well for season extension in the Spring when the sides can be left down most days during the early months, as soon as it starts to get above 70F and sunny the tunnels can get well above 100F and stress/dry out cool weather crops. This requires bringing up the sides, which takes 5-10 minutes, and is often frustrating as the clips used to secure the plastic slip and fall. This now leaves the tunnel vulnerable to wind, so you must be mindful of whenever it picks up.
- Time – The main overall sacrifice of using caterpillar tunnels becomes time, as most issues of heat and managing the plastic can be addressed by being mindful of what your specific crops need in your growing environment, and then doing the required chores each day. In cooler weather places, especially if they are less wind prone, these chores would be minimal. But if you live in a climate where your Spring weather heats up quickly and the wind is often strong you will need to manage the sides more often.
- If Loblolly was planning on keeping these tunnels they would change their crop rotation to focus on crops that can handle the heat and keep the sides down at all times. For example; start cool flowers (sweet peas, stock, snapdragons) in early spring to harvest in May, only grow cover crops like Iron and Clay cowpeas that are heat-loving during June & July, and then plant heat-tolerant quick-growing flowers like celosia in August. Another option is to grow only Lisianthus which is heat and cool weather tolerant.
- Farmers Friend have new options for additions such as wind bracing, wiggle wire, and channel, lift kits, that can be used to increase the resilience of their caterpillar tunnels. It is possible to also install roll-up sides and shade cloth.
- Loblolly has decided, using the NRCS EQIP grant, to get funding for a high tunnel. Though they are significantly more expensive ($1,500+ vs. $8,000+), Loblolly feels they are worth the investment, especially once they get the grant. The biggest limitation is installation, which is far more technical and challenging than a cat tunnel.
- With a high tunnel, Loblolly will also have the option to heat the tunnel and capture early markets, most importantly Valentine’s and Mother’s Day.
Challenge #2 Succession Planting & Bed Turn Over
When the season shifts from cooler weather crops to warm there are a lot of beds that needed to be turned over all at once on the farm this year.
The transition on a bed of flowers involves;
- Removing the trellising – pull posts first, trim the flowers down to the horizontal Hortinova with a hedge trimmer, pull and roll up trellising.
- Mow with a flail mower & rake out the large remaining crop material if needed OR cover with plastic to break down for 2-4 weeks after wetting
- Perform your typical bed prep process, adding fertilizer and tilling as necessary.
Taking the time to have a detailed crop plan is critical. Be sure and have the nursery production high and ready with crops to go into the ground right away during these transition times. The crop plan should detail not only when to have crops producing but also when they should be removed and what should replace them.
Realizing that it takes 1-2 hours to turn over a bed means it’s important to not have too many crops coming offline at the same time. Since cool weather crops inevitably do stop producing roughly at the same time it’s important to turn over each of these beds just as soon as the flower production is fading, which will allow for more staggering.
Generally, this succession planting across the seasons on a flower farm goes like this;
- Overwinter cool-season flowers that can tolerate your winters
- Plant a spring succession of cool-season flowers
- Put out two or so successions of warm weather flowers
Challenge #3 Perennial Grasses and Weeds
Beds/Plots on the farm that have only been covered with tarps for 6 months still have significant perennial grass pressure that became a significant problem by June this year. Plots that had been covered with silage tarps for over a year had significantly less pressure.
Pathways have also been overgrown later in the season and need to be addressed differently next year.
Taking the time to cover blocks for a year as available to get started. This is the best technique for opening up new plots. Sometimes you don’t have the time to make this transition, you need to get into the land. In that scenario, Loblolly is considering utilizing a spray that kills monocots like Fusilade. This spray only mitigates the grass when it is young and only a few inches tall.
Between bed pathways will be covered with wood chip mulch sourced for free from local power companies or tree trimming services. Headway paths, at around 5’ wide will be covered with landscape fabric and eventually have crushed stone put on them.
Challenge #4 Harvesting
Flowers are highly productive, one 50’ by 30” bed producing 100-300+ stems during any given weekly harvest if you were to take every flower available. Loblolly started out the season harvesting this way but quickly began to burn out.
Harvest according to recipes – eventually Loblolly discovered it was less wasteful and much more efficient to write recipes for bouquets before harvesting to decide how many stems they needed per flower. While this solution was much more efficient it did leave a lot of flowers in the field unharvested. This causes flowers to go by more quickly. The solution to this is to grow only what you’re able to sell, that way you are fully cutting beds and still only harvesting what you need. This can be solved by planning to grow what you sell, but also by hustling to sell more when you anticipate overages.
Challenge #5 Heat Stress
During this summer there were continuous days of temperatures above 90F, which resulted in a phenomenon Loblolly Farm hasn’t experienced before – flowers becoming heat-stressed and getting “crunchy”. This is a term Benny & Courtney use to describe the damage that takes the form of wilting, stunted and misshapen petals they saw across many flowers that didn’t get continuous irrigation during these days of no precipitation.
Have a strong water source, irrigation system, and plan. Make sure your flowers are on a constant irrigation cycle to get at least an inch of water every 3-4 days and never allow them to dry out for long or they will be damaged, sometimes permanently.
Of this list the priorities for Loblolly next year include keeping the farm as weed-free as possible and to produce only what they need for the market. The journey, the learning curve is never-ending, but this is what it takes to be a farmer. Loblolly looks forward to always improving and taking the time to reflect at the end of the season, make plans to implement solutions and grow as farmers each year.