The skies above our little farm in Mid-Missouri have quickly turned from scorching bright to gray, cold, and misty. Autumn seems to have arrived and we are making plans to cover our tender vegetables in preparation for October’s first frost. Most farmers are winding down their operations for the year, but around here we are continuing to fill our hoop houses with green goodness in the hopes that we can stretch our season into November, December and January.
For those of you that are unfamiliar, hoop houses (also called high tunnels) are, in general, tunnel-shaped structures covered in plastic that rely on the sun’s energy to heat up the soil and the air inside. Not only do they allow farmers to grow crops earlier in the spring and later in the fall, they also protect crops grown under them from frost, wind, and precipitation. Leslie and I first learned to grow in the semi-controlled environment of a hoop house while interning at our first farm in Kansas City, KS. Gibbs Road Farm, a two-acre demonstration farm connected to Cultivate Kansas City (formerly Kansas City for Urban Agriculture) uses their six hoop houses for season extension in the spring and fall, but also for some summer and winter growing. It was there that we learned about the trials and triumphs of four-season growing.
Here at the Salad Garden, we have three hoop houses. Two of them are permanent; they were constructed in 2005 and are approximately 22 feet wide by 70 feet long. The other, a moveable hoop house, was purchased in 2010 and partially funded by an EQUIP (Environmental Quality Incentives Program) grant from the Natural Resources Conservation Services (NRCS). The structure has two positions and moves on wheels along a track that is anchored into the ground. Armed with these three hoop houses, we have successfully grown produce for market during all four seasons.
The biggest and most obvious advantage to growing in hoop houses is that one can extend the growing season both earlier and later, meaning a farm can grow money-making vegetables like spinach, salad greens, and tomatoes during a time of the year when they are scarce and in high demand. In addition, the produce coming out of the tunnels is typically of higher quality than the same crops grown outside in the fields. Hoop house grown vegetables are better protected from the elements and from pesky insects and wildlife.
On the flip side, hoop houses are not perfect. The biggest disadvantage that we have found is the lack of soil exposure to natural rain and evaporation. Some growers take the plastic off of their tunnels at the end of each season, which does allow the soil beneath to get a nice soaking of rain and snow. Using a moveable tunnel also largely avoids this problem, as we are able to move the tunnel and expose one section of soil during a certain period of the season. In our permanent hoop houses, the soil tends to collect salt on the surface, so we try to give the soil a good dousing with the sprinkler each season. Keep in mind that watering the soils when the sun is warm usually means the weed seeds that are ever-present in the soil will begin to pop.
When we arrived at The Salad Garden at the beginning of the 2011 season, we immediately set to work filling up the hoop houses with cold-hardy greens and roots. By late March, we added early tomatoes and cucumbers. In mid-April, we pushed the moveable hoop house from it’s winter space to it’s summer space, exposing the late winter greens to the mild temperatures of spring and warming the soil for the next round of heat-loving crops like tomatoes, peppers, and cucumbers. By September, the winter space was ready to be planted again in greens and roots, and the young seedlings welcomed the protection of the tunnel when we moved it back over them in October. It was these vegetables that made up our winter produce, allowing us to continue selling spinach, radishes, beets, napa cabbage, lettuce, and carrots well into January and February.
This year’s hoop house production has followed a similar path as the season before, and now, as we begin to plan for next spring, we are realizing the downfalls of winter planting. With a hoop house full of winter grown greens, we weren’t able to plant early crops for spring harvest this season, a time of the year when other farmers in our area are short on produce and our customers are ravenous for anything fresh. Keeping this in mind, we have decided that this fall, we would only plant veggies that would be ready to harvest by November and December, leaving our winter free to focus on on-farm projects and catch up on a little rest and relaxation. Then in will be back to the hoop houses in late winter and we will start the process all over again.
For many new farmers, the first season can be the most challenging, what with the business start-up, the financial drain, and the uncertainty that comes with beginning any new venture. Now that we are in the midst of our second spring, I am confident in saying that this season is much more difficult.
Let me explain.
Our first year operating The Salad Garden was a roller coaster experience. We had to learn the fields, get acquainted with our soils, come up with coherent field and planting schedules, purchase seeds, and build up a reputation, and we had to do it very fast. We moved to Ashland in December of 2010, giving us just enough time to throw together plans and scrounge around for seed catalogs. We didn’t know what to expect; we were confident in our growing abilities, sure, but could we grow produce on a piece of land we knew nothing about to an as-yet-to-be-determined customer base?
I don’t think either ourselves nor or families had high expectations for our success that first year. Not that they didn’t think we were capable—more like they didn’t want us to get our hopes up. We didn’t either. We told ourselves we would be happy with earning a modest profit, something we were sure we could do since we hadn’t needed to take out any loans or incur any significant expenses due to the special nature of our partnership.
So there we were: a new partnership contract in hand, a bank account, and totefuls of seeds we wanted to plant somewhere. So many things went wrong that first year, some of which we could control, some we couldn’t. We planted things in the wrong places, our rototiller broke early in the spring, we fell drastically behind on weeding, diseases and pests hit our plants like the plague, and that summer, mid-Missouri went through six weeks of drought and registered the third hottest summer on record. Despite the challenges, we somehow managed to meet and exceed our goals, both personally and financially. We declared the season of 2011 to be an astonishing success.
Fast forward to the present. As the spring transitions into our second summer at The Salad Garden, things are progressing nicely. Still, after every field walk, every harvest day, and every market we find ourselves instinctively comparing notes from last year, disgruntled by any indication that this season may not be as successful. Logically, we should be growing more, selling more, and making fewer mistakes the second time around. Of course, farming does not lie within the realm of logic; there are too many incontinent variables to accurately predict the success of any one season. It is quickly becoming apparent, however, that we are no longer free from the burden of expectation. We’ve proven that we are capable farmers. Now the question is, can we keep it up?
We fully intend to make many more mistakes as we continue to learn about our land, our crops and our markets. Mistakes are inevitable and informative. The real challenge will be meeting the bar that we set for ourselves in 2011. Hopefully, we can manage to leap over it without sending it crashing to the ground. The pressure is on.
Hello there. I’m Leslie. I love pen and ink drawings, pickles, and hip-hop. Most notably, I am one-half of a phenomenal farming duo, along with my partner Liberty Hunter, and one-third of a stellar farming partnership at The Salad Garden in Ashland, Missouri.
I grew up in Columbia, a lovely little suburban college town right smack in the middle of the middle state of Missouri. I wasn’t born with farming in my blood. I went to college, earned a degree in Art History, and then, like many new graduates, I found myself at an impasse. I didn’t begin farming because I was disillusioned with the state of agriculture or disappointed by food systems or environmental depletion (although I quickly became so). I started farming because I loved food and I had grown weary of being indoors. Like many young people not raised in a farming family, I figured farming was something simple and beautiful, an idyllic occupation where you reap what you sow, work hard but not too hard and at the end of the day, you can sit back with a beer and watch the sunset.
Some of my initial naïve perceptions of farming are true: it is beautiful and I do get to watch the sunset sometimes, though it is often while leaning over a hoe or a tote full of just-picked veggies. I quickly learned to love the labor and love the gratification of seeing tiny seeds grow to fruition under my watch. Liberty and I meet while interning at the Kansas City Center for Urban Agriculture (now called Cultivate Kansas City) and our relationship grew parallel to our relationship with sustainable agriculture.
Liberty is from Kansas City and she grew up gardening with her mother in her expansive, sunny backyard. Farming was never a blip on her radar until she was in college and a nutrition class sparked an epiphany in her about the value of fresh food. Already armed with a fierce work ethic, she started a community garden in her hometown and spent a winter month WWOOF-ing on a goat farm in Colorado.
In 2011, we began a partnership with Dan Kuebler, owner of The Salad Garden in Ashland, Missouri. Dan was in the market for some young, experienced farmers to take on the operations of his farm. It just so happened that we were looking to get out of the intern circuit and break out on our own—we just needed the money and the land to do it. The three of us formed a unique partnership: Dan provides the land, the equipment and the infrastructure for our use; Liberty and I fully operate the farm, from marketing to planning to planting; the three of us co-own the business and divide the profits.
The Salad Garden is about 30 acres of woodland, structures and tillable ground. The two main growing areas are hilltops, separated by a woody ravine. The hilltop to the south is a little over an acre and it is our main growing area. Due to the contours of the hills and the various runoff locations, it is divided into several small plots, a tactic I would not recommend for growing a diversity of vegetables. Each of our plots is a different length and width, making winter planning and crop layout a veritable mathematical word problem. The north field, once an unkempt pasture, is now a lush stand of clover and rye and we hope to utilize the field in 2013.
Most of our tillage and bed shaping is done with a BCS 853 walk-behind tractor but we also have a small Kubota tractor for disking, mowing and plowing. Most everything else, from seeding to weeding, is done by hand or with the help of human-powered mechanisms like our beloved Jang Seeder.
We make our money in the organic vegetable trade, which is not a particularly stable prospect. Our primary focus is on raising, distributing and eating over 200 varieties of certified organic produce ranging from old standards to the more unusual. In our spare time, we grow shiitake mushrooms and tap sugar maples for syrup in the winter. We also keep small flocks of both heritage laying hens and ducks. This season, we are raising five Berkshire hogs that we will slaughter and butcher on the farm at the end of the season.
2011 was our inaugural year as full-time farm owners. Our first year managing The Salad Garden was full of new experiences: buying thousands of dollars in supplies and seeds, operating a BCS “tractor”, seeing our names on a restaurant menu, dealing with and paying taxes, etc. We’ve managed to build solid relationships with our lovely customers, chefs, university folks, other fellow farmers, and grow a few really perfect veggies along the way. Now in our second year of operating our very own farm, we hope to ramp up production, fix our mistakes from the season before, keep our new CSA members happy and fed, continue to learn about our land and soils, and make sure our own relationship with each other is still fun and sane. I can already smell the triumphs and the turmoils that will define this second season. Follow along with us as we attempt to make our second farming season just as successful as the first!