After last week when we didn’t have any produce ready to harvest, I wanted to explain a little about our farm and what makes us different from a typical CSA farm or a traditional large acreage farm. I enjoyed thinking about this and hope that it will offer some insight into why what we do is a little different.
Size of the farm
We’re growing food for six families in our *small* suburban backyard. Our whole yard is about a tenth of an acre, and most of that space is allocated to the house and driveway. We have about 250 square feet dedicated to vegetable and herb crops. We use the Square Foot Gardening method as well as making use of Grow Box technology to maximize the number of plants in each space. For instance, we have twelve broccoli plants in 3 square feet of space. In a traditional row-based plot, those same plants would take up 20 square feet. The row based plantings were developed to support automation in farming – namely tractors. Because we tend all our crops by hand, we can get more output from less land. The farm is more labor intensive that way, though. Because each plant has to be individually tended, it takes more time on a per-plant basis. We believe that we save in land and equipment costs by expending the extra effort. We also save in transportation costs because our food and our farm supplies don’t have to be trucked in and out of the city.
Container based farming
All our plants are grown in containers or raised beds. In an urban farm setting, this is important. First, it prevents any existing soil contaminants from getting into our nutritious produce. Secondly, it allows us to better manage our watering and conserve this precious resource. Water doesn’t drain into the surrounding soil, and we can provide the plants just what they need. Colorado soils are sandy, and water runoff is one of the biggest challenges traditional farmers face. Lastly, it allows us to control our soils to best suit the plants. Some plants prefer a more acidic environment, others a more alkaline. Some prefer moist conditions and others dry. By using containers, we can provide each plant with conditions it prefers to get maximum growth and nutrition.
Essential nature of each plant
Traditional farms plant a quantity of plants plus some amount of overage. 25% overage seems to be about the right number for an average farm. Some farms and crops have as much as 50% crop loss. At Snoozing Dogs Farm, we don’t have overage. Every plant is special, well loved, and essential. The loss of any crop has a significant impact on what we can deliver. Many CSA farms also offer crops at farmer’s markets, so when they have an off week, they lose out on their market veggies, but have an adequate supply for the CSA. Since we only grow enough for our CSA members, we don’t have that cushion. On the flip side, since we don’t sell at farmer’s markets, we are able to offer all of our harvest to our members and not worry about having enough to make a market worthwhile. This will be important when all those tomatoes and beans start coming in! This is the primary way that CSA members share in the risks and rewards of our farm. While we sometimes fall short, we also sometimes have an abundance. We try to have a consistent supply of fresh veggies and herbs. Most of the time, we achieve that goal.
In our first year, we’re experiencing some growing pains with our farm planning. We lost about half our spinach crop to leaf miners. We’ve had an unusually cold spring. We’re in drought conditions. We lost a tray of seedlings because they got too dry before we planted. Our radishes are supposed to be ready in 21 days, but they’re taking 30 days. For some reason, the green beans are not germinating well. We’re learning about some great natural techniques to manage pests and disease and having some success in mitigating our crop losses.
Sustainable planting methods
Our soil is our biggest investment, and is the biggest contributor to the nutrition of our produce. The plants absorb soil nutrients as they grow. The vegetables and herbs are only as healthy as the soil in which they grow. It’s important for us to offer you the most nutritious and delicious vegetables we can, and that is why we care so much about how we manage the soils. We only use natural fertilizers, including compost we make from the plant leaves and stems left behind after the harvest. Great soil is built – it isn’t made. Digging in fertilizers and compost doesn’t make good soil, it just makes average dirt out of something that used to be in your yard. Good soil is built from the top down – exactly the same way nature makes it. Plant material decomposes and builds up with time. We use that same philosophy in managing our soils. Each week, we mulch the plants with grass clippings. This helps maintain soil moisture and adds organic material to the soil – and it helps us use up the weekly grass clippings that don’t fit in the compost bin. We use vermicompost and compost tea as a fertilizer when the plants need some extra feeding.
Intensive crop planting
Since we have such a small space, we never have pots sit empty for long. Once a plant is harvested, we have another ready to go. We frequently up-pot as plants grow larger than their current container. We plan our crops so that we don’t deplete the soil, but instead bring nutrients back to the soil with each successive planting. Many of our plants are in their locations for the entire season, but our short season crops like lettuce, spinach, and radishes can be replanted over and over. Our tomato and pepper plants start out in smaller pots and grow into the larger pots that have carrots as a first planting. We don’t have enough room to grow corn for members, but we do grow it to support our beans. Right now, our corn pots have onions growing in them, too. We’ll be planting more radishes among our broccoli and cauliflower to discourage fleas.
We believe that farming is a magical trade. We are proud to be able to nurture tiny seeds into fresh vegetables. We are amazed at how these plants grow and are excited every day to see the changes. We celebrate the first tomato blossom. We cheer the first set of true leaves on every seedling. We cherish the first harvest as much as the last. We are so privileged to be a part of the magical interaction between the soil, water, sun, and seeds.
We believe in feeding our family the freshest, healthiest food. Our family eats from our farm as much as we can, and we want to make sure that everything we eat is safe and loaded with nutrition. If you’re used to eating from grocery produce or even natural foods and some farmer’s markets, you’ll be surprised at how tasty our vegetables are. They were harvested within hours of your pickup time. They were grown without chemical fertilizers and pesticides. They are grown to be the healthiest and freshest vegetables you can get outside of your own backyard garden. Grocery produce is grown for minimum cost and maximum profit. The size and shape of the produce is more important than the ripeness and the nutrition because shipping costs are a huge factor for the grower. Most big agribusiness crops are grown in soil that has no remaining nutrients, minerals, and vitamins. They are grown in sand and fed a steady diet of chemical fertilizers until the fruits and veggies are the right size. Then they are picked or pulled and gassed with ethylene gas to turn them the color of ripe produce. These crops really aren’t ripe – just an illusion. In many cases, organic produce is no better. The grower just used fertilizer that is certified organic.
We value the small family farm. These are the farms on which grows the food supply to meet our needs today and into the future. The average age of a farmer in America is 59 years old. These farmers will retire soon and there are not enough younger people taking up farming. We believe that the small farm is the farm of the future. A small urban plot can be farmed by a single family and serve five to ten additional families. They are appealing to younger farmers because the business can be successful without a significant financial investment. We see an opportunity to bring food production hyper-local, which benefits consumers and farmers, and most importantly, secures our food supply and builds a community.
We believe that everyone enjoys and benefits from local, fresh, healthy produce. We value our family’s nutrition and we are proud to share that value with you.