Some wonder what we do on cold and wet mornings like today. Well, weekends and weekdays run together this time of year and we always try to chip away at our lengthy to do list. Many of the things left on our winter to do list are less maintenance tasks (things that include weeding, watering, or harvesting) and focus on the bigger picture tasks that will set forth a new successful year.
Today I’ll share with you one of our favorite (and therefore completed earlier than the rest of the other) tasks.
Seed orders and crop plans for 2013.
Eight long years ago my winter was similar. Measure fields, take soil samples, set forth all kinds of spreadsheets to calculate how much lime to add, how many beet seeds we’d need, how much money it all would take. Now that we have our field sizes, crop rotation, soil maintenance, and budget somewhat dialed in, I mostly just have to figure: what do we need to grow more of, what do we need to grow less of, and what varieties will we produce.
The more and less question is a factor of two things: customer (CSA, restaurant, and market) demand and profitability — what items take less space, less work, and still fetch a high price in the market. Many farmers use intricate formulas to figure yields per bed vs. time spent vs. material costs, but we just reflect on our memories to quantify.
A good example would be head lettuce vs. beans. Bean seed is upwards of $10 per lb which will seed only about 100 feet. Beans take 50 days from emergence to picking, with 2-3 weeding sessions, tedious thinning, row covering for bean beetle control, they require about 1 hour to collect 10-15 lbs and from that hour, directly to market, we may make $30. Head lettuce seeds are only about $2 per 400 heads and while lettuce does take time in the greenhouse, once it’s planted out it only requires one pass of weeding and will be ready to harvest relatively pest free after about 40-50 days. Lettuce will get $1.5-3 per head and we have 6 heads per bed foot. Harvesting takes a fraction of a second. And with this example we see that lettuce is a much more profitable crop than beans — financially and relative to time.
So, with this information, we can then realize that we would make more money planting only lettuce, but then realize our customer demand for beans. What would summer be without the crisp and green-ness of a green bean? How would Chef Hilary make the summer fish stand out on the dinner menu without a bed of yellow French filet beans? So beans will be planted, but not enough that we have a surplus. And figuring the relative quantity of each vegetable to plant takes planning and lots of thought.
So once we figure out how much space we’ll plant (and harvest) relative to the previous year, we then move to the seed catalogs and select varieties. Since we are certified organic, we must use organic seed when available. Each year we try new varieties and make notes on varieties that we don’t feel work for us. Even still, each year we grow more varieties than the year before. We like the diversity on the farm, the different benefits of disease resistance, earliness, but also better texture or flavor from the heirloom heritage varieties. This year, we’re growing over 450 varieties of plants. That includes herbs, flowers, vegetables. We price varieties out and order from the following companies (in order of $ spent): Johnny’s, High Mowing Seeds, Fedco Seeds, Harris Seeds, Totally Tomatoes, Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, Seed Savers Exchange, Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, and a handful of fun varieties we’ve found from other seed companies.
Once our varieties are chosen and carefully entered into our spreadsheet (that we keep columns for days to maturity, best time to be planted, special characteristics, etc), we place our orders and end up spending about 1.5-2% of our total revenue on vegetable, herb, and flower seeds.
The result is an influx of boxes filled with the hope and promise of a successful season — all in separate packets. One of my favorite tasks is sorting these seeds, mixing all the companies’ products together to fill up our boxes — one box for beets, one for turnips and rutabagas, one for head lettuce, one for brassicas…. And now all of our future work and harvest will sprout from one shelf in my office.