(A few – ok 7 – days late, but here’s January’s post).
We have been expanding our winter growing over the past 20 years, trying to keep up with the demand for fresh vegetables in the six months of the year that are not famous for producing much. At all. We have found that people enjoy eating all year, and our customers, accustomed to eating really fresh produce all summer, do not want to give up great taste in the winter. As a small farm, we scramble to grow as much as we possibly can during the standard growing months.
First we added row covers. Then low tunnels. Then high tunnels. Then a heated high tunnel. Then two heated high tunnels. And all of these helped, and we grew more winter produce than ever before. I have spent a lot of time studying daylight hours and nighttime and daytime temperatures needed for different crops to keep them growing and what crops grow best in protected winter conditions. And still the demand was ahead of us. Learning to grow in the winter has been a big learning curve. Very, very different from summer.
This year we are trying something completely different. Yet another learning curve! Who says old farmers can’t learn new tricks?!? Hydroponic growing—maximum growing in a small concentrated area, with greater production per week than we have seen previously, with consistent, high-quality, pesticide-free produce. More efficient, more productive, organically grown. Sounds just right, doesn’t it? However, just like regular farming, it is more complicated than you might think.
We ordered all the channels, trays, pipers, water tank, etc., cleaned out one of the heated high tunnels, installed the water tank, and then set up the germination station and tables and growing channels. First, the water tank leaked. Dig it back out (500 gallon tank, half-buried), replace a cap ($2 part…). Germination station is working great, fire up the heater because it is about to get cold and….the heater does not work. The tiny seedlings are doing well on the heated mats, and it is not too awful at night yet, but cold nights are coming! Our great heater guys (Ferro & Co.) were working nearly every day to get the heater back up and running properly. Finally—done! Works great. Then transplant the seedlings into the growing channels, get the water flowing throughout, make sure the mix of nutrition is correct, monitor the high-low temperatures in the house, hold our breath that everything works right for the 4-degree nights, and plant more seedlings.
Now we are observing what is growing well, what grows quickly, what is struggling. We will have months of experimenting. We are already close to harvest for arugula and spinach.
In the meantime, the other heated high tunnel has its traditional rows of kale, chard, onions, herbs, peas, lettuces, and more. All of these were planted in early fall and are ready for harvest.
January has turned out to be a combination of using our traditionally stored root crops and apples, traditionally grown vegetables in heated and unheated tunnels, and starting thousands of seeds in a new (for us) growing style. Our hydroponic house is forcing us to be more organized, and it is opening up more growing options. I love having options! And to walk into the hydroponic greenhouse on a dreary January day and see thousands of plants growing is immensely satisfying.