Casey O’Neill cultivates cannabis, vegetables, and fruit in Mendocino County. We will be publishing his weekly newsletter regarding growing cannabis and produce sustainably.
Farming is as much about what you keep as it is what you get rid of. I’m a scavenger and a bit of a hoarder, which can come in handy but can also impede success in many ways. I’m always trying to re-use and multipurpose equipment and structures to make the most utility out of any situation. Stacking functions is the principle of getting more than one use out of a given practice or cycle; it is key for a successful small farm.
There is an old refrigerator that came out of use a couple of years ago. It sat around for a while, and then this last summer Amber painted it up nice and we used it for our farm stand, cycling in ice packs to keep the produce cold. The farmstand was such a success that we’re going to upgrade to a new refrigerator this year, which will save us the time of cycling ice blocks.
Since the old fridge will no longer be needed at the farmstand, we’ve begun using it as a germination chamber for seed trays. It is still brightly painted with crops and prices from the farmstand, which adds a bit of ironic gaity to the seed starting process.
The setup is simple, each of the two compartments has a single-tray seed starting mat in the bottom, with shelves for trays to sit on. Depending on time to germination, the trays spend a couple-few days in the chamber, and as soon as the first seeds start to pop we move them into the hoophouse. If we miss the timing the sprouts will go yellow from lack of light so we have to be on top of checking a couple times each day when the timing is right for germination.
The small heat mats draw just 17 watts each, which is crucial for our off-grid reality. If we were on the grid, I might make a germination chamber with heat and fluorescent light to keep things from yellowing right after germination. I also think about the possibility of heating our propagation house, which we have not done up to this point.
When planning crop rotations for planting and harvest, it is super important that everything be consistent in timing. If some crops experience more cold weather during their early stage then they will be slower to plant and to arrive at harvestable size. This can throw off planning for market and CSA, which happens to us a lot during the winter months.
Our hope is that by using the germination chamber and possibly by adding minimal heat to maintain a bottom threshold temperature in the propagation hoop, that we can increase the consistency of our production times during the cold months. We are excited by our expansion into more production vegetable tunnels, because the sheltered spaces allow for more consistent and higher quality winter production. Last year we had one 14’x50’ production tunnel and this year we have four, so we are expecting to see a significant increase in our early spring production.
Each year we get a little better at the planning process but we still have such a long way to go to have a clear enough strategy that I know what will be ready and when. After more than ten years of CSA and market, I’m still trying to learn to relax into acceptance of the uncertainty. The unknown timelines create a constant stress around scarcity as I work on planning out the harvest each week. I’m always trying to balance “how much of that can I harvest and still have enough for next week”, always worried about “is that going to be ready by next week?”
Market table production takes practice in any season. Having a consistent and varied amount of produce to offer is crucial for creating the sense of consistency and value that builds strong market relationships. Each season has unique challenges and rewards, and winter production is especially so.
Everything grows much slower in the winter, and the heavy storms are so variable in timing that you never know when one might roll in and damage a crop that was planned for harvest that week. The possibility of heavy snow creates uncertainty and extra effort in building and maintaining infrastructure. The punishing winds can leave a leaf of salad crop in tatters, and the occasional deep freeze can ruin heads of broccoli or cauliflower.
Winter is nice though because the weeds grow much slower and there is not as much need for irrigation, with the exception of the hoophouses. It takes practice to time our plantings right so that we have a continued stream of produce for harvest each week, and this is one of the areas that we still have a lot to learn.
This last year with the fires so close to us we weren’t able to focus on our fall plantings and we ended up with a big gap in our winter production. We needed some downtime to recharge, refine and plan for the year to come, so the gap in needing to make sales was good for us. Once we set the die in motion by sowing the seeds, we feel a sacred obligation to follow through on the process.
This obligation is part of the Farmer’s Contract, the thread that runs from land-care, through the effort of production and into the magic of sharing. This feeling drives us to work long hours to honor the commitment, and can push us into the point of burnout. We are working on more accurate planning that includes downtime, with the goal of not biting off so much that the compulsion to follow through leaves us sacrificing quality of life to the cycles of farming. May we all learn to be better at assessing and planning so that we don’t sacrifice quality of life. Much love and great success to you on your journey!