Spring has sprung here in the North Carolina mountains. Most of March was spent holed up in the greenhouse, listening to episodes of Radiolab while seeding trays. My brassicas--cabbage, collards, kale, broccoli--have finally left the greenhouse. I put them outside to harden off for a week before planting them the next weekend with a volunteer group. I also have tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, lettuce, chard and many herbs and flowers coming along in the greenhouse and yes, there are even sprouts in the field! It’s finally time to turn my attention (at least partially) out of the greenhouse and onto the field itself.
Preparing beds in the field has been a new experience for me; since I was formerly a farm worker, the farmers always did that themselves, and always had tractors for tilling and shaping the beds. After planting several different crops in the field, I have gotten down a system for flagging out the area of the beds, marking them, adding amendments to the soil, and running the tiller through and hilling up the loosened soil to make beds. The first beds I made for my spinach were done with the help of a friend, and I spent much time hemming and hawing and changing my mind. I have come a long way! My good friend who worked with me in Minnesota visited a few weeks ago and her help and advice was invaluable for improving the way I do things on the farm.
Our mentor at F.I.G., Matt Cooper, has done tractor work for us and hopefully when he gets time, he’ll show us how to use the tractor and I’ll be able to do some of my own tractor work. I have driven tractors before, and used them for several different tasks, but I lack confidence and could use more practice. The rototiller is often more helpful for me at my scale unless breaking new ground. My plans for my beds come from a style of farming called SPIN farming, which stands for Small Plot Intensive. Much about the idea is not new: relay cropping, focus on high value crop production and planting each bed intensively. The standard bed size is two feet across (the width of the tiller) and 25 feet long. In the rows between where the trees were cut, I can fit five rows across. I have five beds of spinach, and three 50 foot beds of lettuce, two of beets so far.
In another field, where the soil is more tilthy, I have planted arugula, radishes, salad turnips, scallions, and carrots under row cover. Everything but the carrots should be ready to go for my first market at the beginning of May! It’s been interesting balancing my plans and where I would like things to go with the realities of this piece of land. Where I have the most space, in the tree rows, there is also a bad flea beetle problem, and so I am avoiding putting any brassicas there, though I may not be able to avoid it ultimately.
For the early part of the season, I am hoping to sell both vegetables and bedding plants at the farmer’s market. Taking a page from the book of my farming mentors in Minnesota at Loon Organics, I have started four packs to sell of various herbs, flowers and tomatoes and probably a few other vegetables. Our greenhouse space has been so important to my ability to produce strong seedlings, but I have faced several challenges within that space as well. Early in the season many of my seeds were getting eaten out of the trays by mice. Mouse traps proved to be a pretty effective solution and as those trays have sprouted I have observed often that less seeds are eaten than I thought.
It also has been difficult trying to share the small space of our greenhouse with two other people. One person has crops growing in the raised beds and this is our largest space for placing trays. Because it is a passive solar design, half of the greenhouse is covered with an insulating material and the sunlight does not reach much of that side of the greenhouse. We have tossed around the idea of installing shelves to increase the efficiency of the space and the number of trays that will fit on the sunny side, but it will take leadership by someone in terms of procuring materials and organizing a day to build shelves when everyone can attend.
A highlight of the past month was my acceptance as a participant in the spring dinner put on by S.E.A.M., Supporting Economic Alternatives in the Mountains. Three proposals that require funding are selected to be presented at this dinner and the bulk of the money from ticket sales and other donations is pooled and given to these projects. The ideas are presented at the dinner and the guests vote on the presentations. The most money is awarded to the project with the most votes, and so on. I submitted a proposal to build a germination chamber, an idea that came from Loon Organics. Read more about the SEAM Dinner and my project, as well as the other two in the running.
I have been trying to balance working at a local restaurant for cash flow with time spent out at the farm. Many days I work at the restaurant in the afternoon/evening, so I begin my day working for a few hours at the farm, rushing home to eat and shower and then rushing to work. It’s certainly not ideal and I will be cutting back on my hours at the restaurant once the farmer's markets begin next month. Since I’m new to the area, I also try to find time to socialize, form community and explore the area. All of this requires a lot of organization and good time management, and my ability to do this has improved. I am appreciative this month for the return of warm days, birds chirping, pollinators buzzing around me and the chortling chorus of frogs. I’m looking forward in the coming month to the leaves returning to the trees. I always remember what my middle school choir teacher said: “Life is full, live it well.”
Check in with me next month to hear about how the Farmer’s Market is going! I will be selling at the Watauga County Farmer’s Market starting on May 3! See you there!
Caroline Hampton is a first year farmer, growing vegetables, herbs and flowers at the Octopus Garden in Valle Crucis, NC. A North Carolina native, Caroline grew up in Raleigh and graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with an Environmental Studies degree. Caroline enjoys writing, playing banjo, and hiking in the NC mountains. Her favorite vegetable is the carrot.