Farm to Market to Farm
At the center of our farmstead efforts is building both self-sufficiency, and a connection to our new community. On the surface they might seem like competing goals, but we don't see "self-sufficiency" as isolationist or bunker mentality. We just want to build capacity to be a little less dependent on public infrastructure and processed food, and a little more capable of producing what we need for ourselves. There are lots of folks out here with similar or overlapping goals, and we've connected with various people and groups around common interests. We'd eventually love to raise enough food to share at the farmers' market or local co-ops, and to volunteer at our local school around food sovereignty, school gardens, and farm-to-school efforts. We've started building those relationships since our first stay out here three years ago. Of course that was all easier before the pandemic surfaced, but life goes on!
Our garden startup was slow going since we didn't have the temperatures controlled in the greenhouse until late April, and didn't have a house or any controlled space for starting seeds. We are also just starting to learn how to work with the. soil and weather conditions that are very different from our prior gardening experiences in Wisconsin, New Jersey, and Washington State. Never mind that we are pretty much 1 for 4 at this point: we've had lots of false starts due to wide temperature swings, intense sun, hard-packed soil, under-watering, over-watering, insects, birds, mice, and just our own ignorance. This is a learning year for us -- we'll happily eat whatever harvest we get, and look forward to growing from there!
Anyway, I thought it was high time for a garden update... here, at least, is a portrait of a few of our favorites.
Microgreens & Farmers' Market
One quick turnaround "crop" we started with is microgreens. We enjoy them on salads, in a sandwich, in stir fries or sautés, as a snack, as a side garnish, in smoothies, and in cold drinks. Some are mild and mainly add a bit of crunch, others are bright and spicy, others add a splash of color. They are all much more densely nutritious than their full-grown counterparts. They're also harvested within two weeks, so it's been a way to get up and running to put at least a micro amount of our own food on our plates!
We did put together (barely) enough microgreens to take to market on the second market week of the season. The market folks (including other farmers, our extension Master Gardener Roy, and the market manager Siobhán) have been so welcoming and encouraging through the past year.
The pics below show the process from cleaning and seeding trays, growing the greens in and on our "pie cabinet" which we close up at night (it's fully screened in), harvesting greens for our own table, and using spicy greens in salad, beet micros and citrus blossom in a cold drink, and kale micros to boost a fruit smoothie.
We grow our microgreens on 10" x 10" trays, using hemp grow mats cut into 5" x 5" squares. From everything we could find online (including grocery sites, not just the "Make money selling microgreens!" sites), it seemed like the going grocery rate for the 5" x 5" section of greens should be about $2. Our wonderful little market has a few vendors who bring lush vegetables and sell them at very reasonable prices -- we didn't think we'd sell well at $2 for an ounce of greens while the vendors around us were selling big bunches of hearty carrots or beets for $2! We decided that at least for this first foray we would charge $1. We knew that wasn't a viable amount, but we were there more for community connection and our own learning than to make money.
In the pics below you see Siobhán crewing the main market table, Steve and David who we first met at market last summer, and Christine whose farm we "worked" on for a day at rooster harvest time (see our WWOOF post). Photos courtesy of the Grants Farmers' Market facebook page. Oh, and there's us with our wares. (Yes, we did wear our masks every moment that we weren't being photographed).
We sold half of the microgreens live, and half preharvested. The live greens came on their hemp mat (cost; 25 cents), which we put into a compostable sugar cane bowl (10 cents), which we put into a biodegradable vegetable-based produce bag (10 cents). So 45% of the price went just to packaging. We cut the harvested greens off of the hemp mat (25 cents) and packaged them in zip-loc bags (10 cents). The cut option would be more financially viable (especially if we grew them in dirt, which we didn't), but we hate the idea of selling in single-use non-recyclable plastic, and they don't display well in the opaque produce bags. We found that buyers went for the cut greens over the live greens, but we did sell out both. Our packaging costs for the 18 servings we brought was $7.20. The daily market fee was $5. We took in $18, so we netted $5.80. That doesn't count the other consumable costs like seeds and water (never mind the electricity for the blowers, since they need to run anyway), and then there are the one-time costs of microgreen trays (never mind the greenhouse, shelving, etc). And obviously, never mind labor.
We are unlikely to have enough bounty from our gardens to justify taking it to market again this season, but if we do, we think microgreens would make a nice side offering. We could pack twice as much in a one-bag serving and sell it for $3. Maybe we could use a compostable zip bag equivalent (10-20 cents) or waxed paper bag (10 cents). Since we wouldn't be selling them live, we could grow them in dirt (which we can re-use after composting). It's not really worth it to go to market with only microgreens, because of the packaging expense. We do still go, of course, as customers -- our favorite way to supplement our harvest!
The star of our greenhouse show this spring and summer has been the kuri squash. "Kuri" means chestnut in Japanese, and this type of squash has very sweet and flaky flesh, reminiscent of roasted chestnuts (hopefully our eventual harvest will live up to that description). As our kuri grew (while other plants gave up and required multiple replantings), we trained it up the steel-frame brace that we had erected to support the retaining wall posts, and a trellis made from cut cattle panel. The kuri is now a lush archway at the entrance to our growing floor, and we duck to get under the lower leaves.
First we had lots of male flowers. Then we had some female flowers with immature fruit that browned and died before blooming. A quick internet search let us know that this is normal development, but that later mature fruit can also die from incomplete pollination. Since pollinators are scarce (and will take time to build up, like the soil), we hand-pollinated the kuri. It's dead easy, because the flowers are so huge. We pollinated about 8 kuri blossoms, and have four squashes that seem to be thriving (the others started and then failed). We planted a couple more kuri plants in our long-fallow greenhouse sections at the far end, and hope they'll keep growing past our first frost date.
Horned Melon / Jelly Melon / Kiwano
One of our subtropical exotics, the jelly melon, was an easy choice for me after we got one last December as a festive winter fruit. The ripe fruit is bright yellow-orange, and when you cut it open, the interior is a vibrant lime-green mass of soft seeds in jelly. It is not too sweet (it is as much cucumber as melon), but is beautiful and refreshing. I can imagine a dollop on yogurt or ice cream, but it's also nice to just eat it out of the shell with a spoon.
Our two sturdy little plants took off growing and quickly took over the trelis. They grew, and grew, and grew but didn't flower. I worried that maybe I had given them too much fertilizer, favoring leafy growth over reproduction. Looking online, I learned that they are day-length sensitive. They won't flower nor fruit until the day length is less than 14 hours. Finally, one day I saw a yellow flower with a base like a pineapple -- a baby horned melon! I hadn't seen any male flowers. This was two weeks after our days shortened to less than 14 hours. I examined the vine and found many very tiny melons forming. We searched diligently and found a few male flowers, and we've tried to pollinate several blooms. We definitely won't get to all of them (they are much smaller and harder to pollinate than the squash blossoms, and much more prolific), but the insects are doing ok on some of our other plants, so we'll hope for their help.
The first one we pollinated has grown large and plump, and is starting to get the characteristic speckly skin. From what I've read online, I think this melon will ripen in October or so.
You may be familiar with the long white mild daikon radish root. It's used a lot in Japanese cooking -- braised, pickled, or grated. I love daikon and the last time I grew it I made a fairly decent takuan (the yellowish half-moon pickle, which is daikon that's been sundried and then pickled whole for several months).
Well, as a newbie farmer I've learned that American farmers call daikon "tillage radish". The long taproot breaks up hard packed soil and brings nutrients up into the shallow soil, the prolific vegetation smothers out weeds, and if you cut it and leave the root to rot in the soil (. . .wha. . . ?!) it adds nutrients and good organic matter to aerate the garden bed. Our original plan was to plant the whole greenhouse in daikon in January, harvest some roots and leave some to help give our hard-packed garden beds a good start.
Unfortunately, the greenhouse wasn't ready until April. Still, we started some beds in daikon. They didn't take (too hot? Daikon is a cool-weather crop and doesn't like heat for germination), so we gave up and planted sweet potatoes and peppers in that bed instead.
Then daikon seedlings started popping up. We let one get massive and go to seed (all the pics above are of this one plant). Now I've got Chip hooked on daikon as a plant. Its young leaves are peppery and fresh, good in salads. Its older greens and chopped stems cook up nicely as a sauté in olive oil with onions. The clusters of flower buds are kind of like broccoli or rapini in texture, but with that peppery radish bite. The young seed pods are fun sharp snacks that pop when you bite them. They say you "can't" eat the root after the plant starts flowering, since they get woody and bitter.. Our plant not only flowered, but it spent a month setting seeds and growing new flower stems. The root was a little dry and tough on the outside, but the inside was crisp, fresh, and mild. We cut it up in a stir fry.
The other day Chip noticed this cloud formation which reminded him of the human evolution poster. To me it looked like Mount Taylor creating its own weather again.
A metaphor for our growing plants? For our evolution as farmers? For creating our own reality?