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Lessons from 2017

by Alice Warner |

January 26, 2018

They say you do things in your first year of owning a farm business that you will never do again in the rest of your farming career. Everything is new and exciting and you want to stick your finger in all the pies. Which is a good thing I think. You try everything out and keep the good bits and reject the bad. So here are the good, the bad and the ugly from my first year of farming for myself in 2017.

Firstly, the good. One of the biggest successes I have had would have to be the late planting of tomatoes, capsicums and eggplants that saw us having them in the boxes up until the end of May last year. Taking that chance was worth it and has shown me the value of making the most of the shoulder seasons and the abundance of Autumn. Similarly, putting in a very early crop of potatoes, pumpkins and zucchini in the Spring has been a great success as they were able to get established, and in the case of the potatoes even complete their cropping, before the humidity and high pest pressure of January arrived. We have also had great success with Spring beetroot – so much so that everyone is probably getting sick of it. We will plant a little less next Spring to avoid them turning into monster beets before we can harvest them all. For my first year growing melons I have also been quite happy with their success. There is still room for improvement, particularly in knowing when to pick them so they are ripe but not overripe. We will continue to learn more about this as we go along. The final crop success would have to be the Suyo Long cucumbers, which have proven that the right plant in the right place can provide an abundance that defies belief. Off only 12 or so plants we have been picking more than 60 cucumbers per week.

In terms of non-crop successes, spreading the word about my business through Facebook advertising and local fairs and festivals has seen it grow towards being sustainable for the long term in a way I couldn’t have predicted. You never know which marketing strategy is going to work when you start a small business, and so you have to try them all. We are still making our way through the list but it is good to see such a positive response so far from the local community to supporting their local organic CSA farm. It shows that we will be around for the long haul.

So, now to the bad. One slip up would have to be the onion seedling failure that happened in early Spring. After carefully calculating the number we would need, sowing them in trays and watering them studiously, we lost more than half of our transplants. It was an avoidable loss as the trays were placed on the weedmat floor in the polytunnel, rather than up on wire racks. This happened as we hadn’t gotten around to putting more besser blocks and racks in place. The weedmat on the floor also wasn’t secured well enough. A huge wind whipped it up and threw the trays upside down, spilling soil and onion babies all over the floor. It was devastating but it demonstrated the importance of looking after seedlings as a priority on the farm. In Autumn when the next lot of onions are seeded, we will be more careful. We will also seed extras to ensure we have this staple crop ready for the hungry gap next Spring, before the Summer crops come in. If you have been with us a while, you could also say that we planted too many cabbages last Autumn. We did. It won’t happen again. Enough said. Other crop failures include the first lot of Summer beans that got overtaken by weeds (the second lot are planted in weedmat to avoid this). There are also the tomatoes that have been overtaken by pests. This is harder to avoid, although better nutrition, earlier trellising and keeping weeds under control with weedmat will all decrease pest pressure in our second planting.

Now for the ugly. Learning to succession plant lettuce and protect it from pests and heat has been a huge challenge this past year. It has not been in the boxes nearly as often as I would have liked, and this is something I plan to focus on during 2018. Another huge challenge has been keeping weeds and grass mown and under control. We have a ride-on lawnmower that I bought in May. Since then it has broken in some way nearly every time I have used it. Despite a service at the beginning, I have replaced 3 cutting belts, 1 drive belt, one inner tube for a tyre and 2 air filters. It has visited the mower repair shop on 4 separate occasions. I have now discovered that it’s hydraulic steering system will fail in the next six months rendering it valueless, despite an excellent motor. It is a dud and as soon as I am able I will trade it in for a new one. While this has been the machine we use to cut grass in the paths and roadways, we have been using a domestic-sized push mower to mow old crops, weeds and fallow areas on the farm’s growing beds. This, as you can imagine, is an arduous task. There is an attachment for my walking-tractor called a flail mower which would make short work of this task. It is the next large infrastructure purchase on my list. It cuts everything in its path into tiny pieces and spreads them evenly over the ground’s surface, instead of dropping them into windrows like a traditional mower or slasher would. This is excellent for cutting green manure crops, allowing them to dry and then incorporating them into the soil as organic matter. It also means that instead of pushing the mower myself, the tractor propels it along – much better for practising good manual handling and ensuring my back can farm for years to come.

Looking back on the year however, the good does outweigh the bad (and the ugly). There are many other highlights I could write about. My excellent staff - Vi with her careful attention to detail, sunny can-do attitude and patience for hand-weeding, and Roshan, who can solve any problem, works tirelessly like an Eveready bunny and pushes me to get things done rather than dwelling in indecision. Derek, their enthusiastic, amusing and ever-dopey but lovable dog. The joy I have gotten from eating my own produce, week after week, and sharing it with like-minded members of my community. The new people I have met. The satisfaction of working for myself. The unwavering support of my parents. The patience of my partner as we sacrifice financially while eating like kings. My daughter’s excitement for my farm anecdotes and accomplishments. The beautiful ecosystem of plants, worms, birds, insects, frogs, snakes and lizards I get to spend time in every day. This holiday that I am so lucky to squeeze in.

It is worth reflecting - to learn, but also to appreciate what you have. Thank you 2017 for what you have given and taught me. 2018, here I come! 

Yours in veg,


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