We found a break in the rain Wednesday long enough to work on the backlog of planting. I was putting in some Ronde de Nice zucchini and some yellow crookneck and working as fast as I could with the storm clouds coming over the mountains. In the back of my mind I was grumbling slightly as squash is one of the very few things our trusty Earthway seeder is confounded by so I was having to put the seeds in the furrow by hand. It is amazing how fast something can become indispensable. It was only two years ago that we did ALL of our planting by hand.
One of the reasons that I like working on the farm so much is the opportunity to clear your mind. Usually what happens with me after a little while is things just start free associating and I have peace of mind to examine how they seem to want to fit together. So as I am out there hand planting zucchini and watching the storm approach over South Mountain I keep looking at the neighbor’s cornfield that is dead in my line of site. He is a really good guy from all accounts, but we definitely are traveling different roads with regard to farming. While we are growing organically for market he puts in one or two conventional commodity crops and does the rest of his land in hay.
It occurred to me how deep those differences are to the way we go about things. As a market grower, we put in 10 or 12 vegetable crops on our modest few acres. With each of those types of vegetables we have at least two, and in most cases nearer to half a dozen varieties. Further for many of these we are doing successive plantings throughout the season. As a result planting in 300 row feet at a time of something with the Earthway seems like the cutting edge of modernization and luxury. We are finding ourselves either trying to focus on the planting and getting behind in the weeding or weeding with no time to harvest or trying to spend our time going to market but not putting anything in the ground. Then there is the whole pest and nutrient management aspect of trying to keep all of the different needs identified, sorted out and met. Our plans are to find somewhere between 2 and 6 main vegetable crops to have to supplement the orchard production and just focusing on those. I think of some of the other growers that we go to market with who try the “grocery store on wheels” approach of having a full gamut of vegetables, and I shudder at the thought of trying to manage 20 or 30 uniquely different crops at the same time.
Then I watch my neighbor with his commodity corn field. He went out on the tractor and ran the disc through one afternoon. Went back out a while later and ran a planter through that put down the seed, fertilizer and weed control all in one pass. He likely will have someone come through and put down a spray in a few weeks and then they will be out with a combine at the end of the season. All in all, less than 10 hours in the field to get from empty field to harvest.
Some of the differences are inherent in the whole organic vs. conventional issue. Most of the rest come from market vs commodity. On the one hand, I very much appreciate the diversity of what we are doing. I believe in the organic path we have chosen. I am a strong advocate of growing for the local market. At the same time, there is an economy in my neighbor’s methods that put him in a completely different league.
I never claimed that the thoughts I had out in the field ended up with nice neat conclusions. Nor do they necessarily always even make an argument all by themselves. What I do realize is that a lot of what folks are paying for at their local market is the labor that goes into the current style of market growing here in central Maryland. What I wonder is how I can find economies of time and motion that will translate into better prices for my customers so that we don’t place ourselves strictly into a luxury category instead of providing a competitive price for a broader group of consumers. It will be fun to see if these field ruminations can lead us to a path to grow better and smarter and provide good honest healthy food to a well balanced audience.