When Emily and I get away in the winter, we usually fit a few farm visits into our travel plans. Recently, when we went to visit some friends in Virginia we also visited two nearby farms. The first farm we visited was Even’star Organic Farm in Lexington, Maryland run by Brett Grohsgal and Dr. Christine Bergman.
On today’s menu:
- Introducing Even’star Organic Farm
- Growing winter crops in open fields
- Growing winter crops in tunnels
- Breeding plants for cold hardiness
- Thinking about climatic differences between Maryland and Quebec
INTRODUCING EVEN’STAR ORGANIC FARM
Even’star produces certified organic vegetables that are distributed year-round through a CSA and to wholesale clients. Even’star also goes to a farmers market during the summer and fall.
A significant amount of the seed that Even’star uses is bred and produced in their own fields.
I’ve been reading Brett’s articles in Growing for Market for years. His articles Saving seed makes sense (The Best of 2002, Growing For Market) and Time to get ready for winter! (Growing for Market Vol. 13 #8-9) were critical in refining my ideas of on-farm seed breeding and season extension. I was excited to see his operation.
GROWING WINTER CROPS IN OPEN FIELDS
Even’star grows about 25 acres of winter crops. This is more than double their summer vegetable acreage. They mainly grow this amount of winter crops to offset slower growing conditions and leaf damage from inclement weather.
A field of Ice-Bred Arugula.
Though the outer leaves of the arugula plants are yellowing and nipped by frost, the central leaves are in prime condition.
Similarly for these kales.
Chinese Thick-Stem Mustard is one of Brett’s hardiest and most vigorous varieties.
In addition to a lot of leafy brassicas, there were also quite a lot of turnips in the fields such as this Colletto Viola turnip.
GROWING CROPS IN TUNNELS
Even’star also had a couple of tunnels seeded to brassica greens and lettuces.
Pampered in a sheltered area, these greens had a higher percentage of marketable leaves. These structures also ensured harvest possibilities during snowy periods outdoors.
Despite some of the advantages to growing in tunnels, they require a financial investment to build and maintain. Brett also mentioned that it wasn’t unusual to lose the greenhouse plastic during hurricane season.
BREEDING PLANTS FOR COLD HARDINESS
Brett Grohsgal focuses on breeding plants for cold hardiness, taste, and disease resistance.
Most of Brett’s winter production wouldn’t be possible without the cold-hardy gene lines he has developed.
Brett’s plant breeding usually starts by crossing different varieties of a species, or different strains of the same variety. This generates greater genetic diversity from which to select better adapted plants. This also adds some variability in growing habit and leaf shape to the gene lines. Brett generally doesn’t mind this variability.
However, when Brett wants to maintain a plants traits and simply introduce cold hardiness (such as with this Mizuna), he will grow tens of thousands of plants of a variety, save seeds from the hardiest plants, and repeat this cycle until he attains the cold hardiness levels he wants.
THINKING ABOUT CLIMATIC DIFFERENCES
From the pictures above you can see that Even’star in USDA zone 7 is noticeably warmer than our farm in Canada hardiness zone 5A. Though the temperatures never reach the -35C we can experience, Even’star still has to contend with periods of heavy snows, hard frosts, and ice.
Visiting farms such as Even’star and seeing the results that breeders like Brett Grohsgal can achieve inspires me to see what we can do in the early spring and late fall when our weather conditions are similar to winter Maryland.
Emily and I had a lot to dream and talk about as we left the farm, grabbed some sandwiches at a local deli, and went for a picnic on nearby Chesapeake bay
In other news, in the winter 2011 issue of the Small Farmer’s Journal Eric Nordell mentioned Fred and my book Crop Planning for Organic Vegetable Growers in the introduction to a Horsedrawn Circle Letter. He called it the “The best book we have come across written specifically for new growers with a couple of years of apprenticeship experience and ready to start market gardening on their own”. Needless to say, I was ecstatic to get such a great endorsement.
Theruminant.ca also recently reviewed the book and will be updating their review as their crop plan unfolds through the growing season. I’m hoping their plans work well!
Now that I’m back from vacation, I’ll try to write more about seed packing and another farm visit summary.
See you later.