Farming’s Rubic’s Cube

One of our new volunteers at the farm, Michael Corcoran, is headed for the Peace Corps this winter. But meanwhile he’s helping out here. On Monday, while Michael and some of the apprentices were ripping out just-harvested corn stalks and trundling them to a compost pile, he asked an interesting question.

Why, he wondered, were we deconstructing one half of the cornfield while the other half was still being picked? What was the rush?

Anyone who has driven past a farm with a large cornfield in early autumn is familiar with the bucolic view of row-on-row of harvested cornstalks sitting in the sun, waiting to be cut down–one of these days. No hurry there.

But here we practice what is known as succession planting and that means farming on the run. Two days after Michael and the apprentices stripped out those corn stalks, our apprentice Mondrian was wrestling the roto-tiller through the cleared-off corn rows.

Mondrian and the rototiller

In the afternoon, Louisa and the rest of the crew moved in to seed the patch with a cover crop of field peas. When those peas mature later next month they’ll be tilled in and we’ll plant garlic there.

So it goes all over the farm–harvest, clear and replant, over-and-over. When you are growing the amount of food we need to grow to satisfy CSA subscribers, farmers market customers, restaurant clients and others, all from a bit over two acres of cultivated land, you can’t let the grass grow under your feet–or the corn stalks sit around in the field. We usually get three plantings of corn into the ground during the season. We’ll do four bean plantings this year.

Succession planting can take several forms. You can harvest one crop and then immediately plant another in the same ground. You can plant the same crop at timed intervals so one or another planting is always maturing. You can also put two or more complementary crops with different maturing dates into the same row.

We do all of these. We plant salad greens, for example, about eight times a season, staggering some varieties and growing others successively. We also sometimes grow lettuce and broccoli together since they have different plant architectures but similar growing requirements. And of course we intersperse these with cover-crop planting to help keep up soil fertility.

Generally, we prefer to let nature set the pace for the farm. But sometimes it helps to nudge nature along.

Consider what we’re talking about here. Not only are we planting a variety of crops that will be ready to harvest at various times through the season–dozens in our case–but sometimes we’ll do several plantings of the same crop so that it will be available for a longer period during the season. Take spinach. People love to eat spinach in the spring and we grow a lot of it then. But they also like it in the fall, so after we finished up our spring crop we cover-cropped the field for the early summer, then planted the spinach we’re harvesting now.

A lot of people picture farmers sitting on their tractors, spending the late summer days moving leisurely up and down rows of crops that have been in the ground since Memorial Day.  Here’s another picture:  It is 6 A.M. and still dark outside. Rebecca is at the dining room table poring over the weather forecasts and diagramming the farm layout, row-by-row for next week, next month, and next year–constantly tweaking each layout. Should we be planting broccoli or cauliflower soon? What about beets? Which rows should be set aside for next spring’s arugula harvest? What’s the prognostication on early frost this year?

Call it pre-dawn farming. It is part of her daily routine–before she joins the rest of the crew in the salad bed, cutting, washing and packing greens for the CSA, the market, or a nervous caterer who needs 35 pounds of fresh salad by noon.

As we’ve noted elsewhere, this ain’t Farmville or some other simplistic kind of video-game farming. It’s a highly integrated, very complex form of agriculture that takes a lot of focus–like constantly manipulating an agricultural Rubic’s Cube. If you want to run a  successful microfarm, you learn how to do that. And done right, you can produce an amazing amount of produce off a relatively small piece of land.

Just don’t plan to sleep in.