One of the hardest things for me to get used to on the farm is how far you need to plan ahead to be successful. In college, while studying for my Master's degree, I got to be a horrible procrastinator; I can remember getting up at 5 AM to write a paper due at 9 AM, one that I'd had weeks to work on. Not just once, but often. As long as it got me an A, it didn't really matter. Now, what I do (or don't do) today can have consequences not just tomorrow, but 6 months or an entire year down the road! Although I do try to stay on top of things, one of my resolutions this year is to make sure I keep better records, it's the only way to know what works and what doesn't.
One of my major tasks so far this year has been to plan our seed orders, which will set the stage for what we grow and sell all year. Not just what we sell in May, but right up through November, and it will decide what I'll be eating this time next year, as we're big on using storage vegetables or things I've canned or frozen to feed ourselves through the winter. Truthfully, I probably would have gotten started on this even before Christmas, but my favorite catalog, from Seed Saver's Exchange, didn't get here until late last week. The conventional thinking is that farmers just do what they do, guided by old time wisdom or maybe this year's farmer's almanac. More than once, I've been asked why I'm farming when I have so much schooling, the insinuation being that I'm wasting my intelligence by doing something any hick could do. In reality, it takes a lot of planning, record keeping, and the like to be successful. Be it plants or animals, you have to know what does well on your particular farm to be able to make a living out of it. Growing is more than throwing some seeds in the ground and waiting to harvest. I do have very good records of the seeds we've ordered, variety, amount and all, from our past growing seasons, but the truth is, I make it a huge project not only because it's important, but because it's fun. I ogle seed catalogs the way some girls pour over jewelry ads.
While I do stick to many varieties that we've had success with, and start out our plan with those, each year I add new ones. Some will not work out, but others will make it into our garden for years to come, and the only way to find out is to take a chance on something new. I love the idea of helping to resurrect heirloom varieties instead of planting the newest hybrids, and that's one of the reasons I love Seed Saver's Exchange. Not only can I help to make the farm more self sufficient and sustainable by saving seeds from a plant we want to grow again the following year, but these heirlooms have a history. One I took a chance on a few seasons ago was a lettuce called Grandpa Admire's. It surpassed anything either I or Dan had grown here before. Not only is it lovely to look at, being green tinged with red, but it also has great flavor and goes a long time without getting bitter, a real plus for summer gardening. Also, it's a variety that has been planted and saved and replanted since the Civil War. Not only delicious, but a real piece of American history right on your plate!
Then there are others that are less than successful. For two years, I've longed to taste a melon called Delice de la Table, a very rare French heirloom. The rarity, the beautiful picture of the fruit, and the description made me give it a try after it failed to produce a single melon the first year. It was a tough growing season, though, so I gave it another try. Last season was very favorable, but again I got nothing. Not a single melon from multiple planted seeds. Part of me hates to give up, but it's wasted money and, perhaps even more valuable, wasted garden real estate. But I do think a nice French cantaloupe would be wonderful to offer for sale...luckily for me there are more options! My master list currently has two options- one that says it is the easiest to grow and prolific, but prone to cracking open when ripe; the other is said to be the “most divine and flavorful melon in the world.” I've yet to decide which one (or both?!?) will grace our garden this season. These are the kind of difficult decisions I love to have.
Not every new plant is an heirloom experiment, though. Will anyone in our area buy okra? Hmm, probably not, we're too far north. What about baby corn, like you use in Chinese stir-fries? It's on the list for me to consider, along with a couple exotic sweet corns- one bright red, the other steely blue. I'll also consider things my customers asked for last year that we didn't offer. Orange Hubbard squash? Yellow beets? So many choices. Also, our all-time favorite sweet corn, Seneca Dancer, has been discontinued, so I'll ponder its replacement carefully, since that is such an important crop for a farm stand. In addition to names, descriptions and histories, there are also other considerations- to order seed or wait to buy started plants, days to harvest, tolerance to heat, cold, plant diseases. And that's before I even get into comparing prices. While some places offer things very cheaply, if you're not familiar with that company, you're also taking a chance on the quality of the seed they ship. It's not a bargain if only half the seeds germinate as compared to the slightly more expensive version from a company with quality seed that you usually deal with. So it's a job worth spending a good bit of time over, and in the dead of winter, there is something uplifting about staring at the pictures of ripe red tomatoes, golden ears of corn, and colorful peppers that make spring seem that much closer.