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Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Crop Plan

Before I get into a long, dense and probably very boring description of our Crop plan, Susan Ferreira in the office has asked me to include an update on our renewal efforts.  We sent out an email as a final reminder this week to renew your share before we begin offering memberships to our waitlist.  Going forward we cannot guarantee a spot for renewing members as it will be first come first served.  If you are still interested in renewing but you are feeling that post Christmas emptiness in your wallet, please give us a call (978.356.1655) and we can work out an arrangement.  If you aren’t interested in renewing then please respond to our email with “Not Renewing” in the subject line so that we don’t bother you with further communications.  Thanks for your participation.    

If you have read more than a handful of these blog posts or spoken to a farmer in the shareroom or during one or our farm events, you might have heard references to the “Crop Plan”.  We farmers cite our crop plan eagerly and often (I can’t shut my mouth about it most of the time) but I don’t believe we have ever taken the time to describe in depth what the crop plan is, how we build it and how it guides our work over the course of the season.  Since this is the time of year when we spend the most time examining and developing the crop plan, it seemed like an ideal moment for a blog post on the subject.
The crop plan is the blue print used to guide a large portion of our growing season. It is a document used to schedule all seeding, planting, and fertilizing tasks.  It also contains notes on cultural practices, and growing techniques. Although the plan does not explicitly schedule field preparation tasks it does guide the timing of theses tasks.    

We build our crop plan as a table within an Excel document.  This makes it very easy to isolate information by specific fields which is important since the table contains nearly 500 rows and 25 columns.  We can, for example, sort by Tray size (Transplant trays come in many different dimensions and different sizes work better for different crops) then by Greenhouse Date (the date on which we plan to seeding each vegetable variety).  Then, using this sorted selection, we can compare the Number of Trays Needed to the Transplant Date to determine exactly how many trays of a certain dimension we will need over a specific period of time.  Since we reuse seeding trays several times over the course of the season, information like this helps to determine how quickly we can recirculate our tray inventory and therefore how many trays of each size we need to keep in stock!  This is just one of many ways that we can use the crop plan to guide our decision making.  

Excel is also a great tool for crop planning because it allow us to build formulas that determine everything from The Estimated First Harvest date for each specific planting to the exact Number of Seeds Needed for each crop variety.  Even before we begin plugging in specific crops and varieties it is immensely satisfying to build a complex crop plan and slowly worry out the bugs until we have a completed working mechanism!  I do realize how nerdy this sounds but seriously it is a lot of fun.
Once we have a functioning Excel doc. it is time to start planning the what, when, where and how much for each crop that we plant.  For the most part this involves identifying what worked and what didn’t work from the previous season, discussing why it worked or didn’t work and then making changes to the past seasons crop plan based on this.  To identify problems from the previous season we use everything from our memory of the previous season (notoriously unreliable), to the weekly harvest records and even the weekly postings on this blog.  We are attempting to create a plan that will result in a steady supply and broad variety of produce over the course of the entire CSA growing season.

Usually the problems we identify in the crop plan fall into three main categories; crop failures, overabundance, and mistimed harvest windows.  Crop failures either require us to determine if we should invest more resources into producing this crop in the future or if we should consider alternative ways to fill that crop’s niche.  Overabundance, a problem that results from an overwhelming volume of product that takes time to harvest and space to store, is easily managed by growing less.  Mistimed harvest windows are the trickiest issue to manage.  It can be very difficult to pinpoint why a crop matured earlier or later than expected.  To resolve a mistimed harvest window issue we need to consider variables of the weather, cultural practices, plant variety selection and obviously planting dates.

Once we have identified changes that we would like to make for the next season, the next step is to crack open our seed catalogues and begin working on variety selections.  Most of you have been around the block a few times at this point and know that there are many different varieties of even the most humble of vegetables.  Each variety boasts of different disease and pest resistances, different days to maturity, different yields, different flavors, different storability, etc.  It is tough to say exactly how much impact variety choice makes.  The difference between a Sungold cherry tomato and a Yellow Pear cherry tomato is huge but the largest difference that we have noticed between Mei Qing Choi and Shanghai Green Pac Choy is just the cost of the seed.  Still, making well considered variety selections gives us just a bit more of an edge on the challenges of the growing season.

The final step is to fill in the rest of the details of the crop plan and to tweak these details to cover our logistical needs.  We reference our crop rotation documentation and field data to determine which Crop Family will be planted in which Field.  We adjust Greenhouse Seeding Date, Tray Size, and Seeds Per Cell manage seeding resources and greenhouse space (running out of greenhouse space is a major bottleneck in our flow of production).  We adjust Number of Beds, Rows Per Bed, and Transplant Spacing, to save field space, impact yield, allow for more effect cultivation and to grow larger or smaller produce (Baby Bock v. full size for example). 

If we don’t end up with logistical inconsistencies then we have created a perfect crop plan.  To date this has never happened.  Even our very best plans are rife with little wrinkles: details that will be impossible to implement.  We just don’t have the resources to make every part of the plan work exactly as it is suppose to work and that’s ok!  We build a plan that we believe in, we work like heck to make that plan a reality and then we reflect on our efforts and make another attempt next season.  As long as we are building on our efforts each year the crop plan is a success.     


Bolded Texts are fields we use to organize the crop plan. 

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Don´t forget to Renew before the New Year!

Greetings from Spain!  I am visiting with my wife´s family for the holidays and taking my first vacation in the last couple of years.  When people talk about their European vacations you generally hear about the historic landmarks, the culture and customs or the food.  While there is plenty to say about all of these topics, I am, as always, fixated on the agriculture here.  I visited Peñafiel castle yesterday: a thousand year old fortress perched atop the narrow ridge of a tall and rocky hill.  From the very top tower of this medieval keep I was able to look out on a landscape completely dominated by agriculture not only in the geographic sense but also dominating the  culture and economy.  I beheld a patchwork of fields in various stages of grain production.  Vineyards and wineries were spread throughout the landscape.  In each villages almost every house had its own garden for growing fruit and vegetables; a habit that is too wide spread and too practical to be called a hobby.  Although I´m sure that a thousand years ago the view from the top of Peñafiel castle didn´t include the wine museum, tractor trailers zipping down modern highways or electric street lights, still the agrarian vista filled me with a sense of timelessness.  Agriculture is still relevant in every household here and even the most hardened urbanites are aware of its significance in their daily lives.  In addition to absorbing chorizo at an alarming rate, I also intend to absorb a little bit of the local farming knowledge while I´m here.

Many of you have all ready renewed your CSA membership for the 2016 season.  For those of you who have not yet renewed but are planning on it, please be aware of the approaching renewal deadline!  We will be wrapping up Appleton CSA renewals by the New Year.  We will make an effort to contact our lapsing members after Jan. 1st as a final reminder but we will begin offering CSA membership to our wait list by Jan. 15th!  If you have not received renewal information via email at this point please contact Susan Ferreira in the office at 978.356.1655 or email her at Appletonfarms@thetrustees.org.  Please also contact us if you have any questions, concerns or special needs regarding your renewal.  Thank you for your support and we hope to see you in the New Year.
Ryan 

Monday, November 23, 2015

Thanksgiving Share Information

We had our Thanksgiving share distribution on Friday.  If you bought a Thanksgiving share but didn't make it to the pickup on Friday, please stop into the Dairy Store anytime this week during regular store hours to collect your share.  Be sure to let the shopkeeper know if you purchased cranberries or pies along with your vegetable share.  Below you will find some very relevant information for making your winter veggies last.

  Making your Winter Vegetables Last
A look at optimal vegetable storage conditions
Storing 40 pounds of produce might seem a little daunting at first.  The temptation to just leave everything on the kitchen counter or to stuff it all into the fridge might appeal to you but your vegetables just won’t last as long if you don’t take the time to organize them and store them according to their ideal conditions.  Below you will find a chart to assist you in making your winter vegetables stay as fresh as possible for as long as possible.
Vegetable
Optimum Temperature (degrees F)
Optimum Humidity
Approximate Storage Lie




Brussels Sprouts
32-40
95
3-5 weeks
Cabbage
32-40
95
3-4 months
Carrots
32-40
95
4-5 months
Kale
32-40
95
10-14 days
Leeks
32-40
95
1-3 months
Onions
32-60
65-70
6-7 months
Parsnips
32-40
95
2-6 months
Potatoes
39-60
90
4-9 months
Rutabagas
32-40
95
2-4 weeks
Shallots
32-60
65-70
6-7 months
Sweet Potatoes
55-60
80-85
4-6 months
Winter Squash
50-60
50-70
1-6 months

This table is based off of information provided to vegetable producers so don’t worry if you can’t provide the exactly conditions listed above.  Keeping your produce out of direct sunlight and free of standing water or condensation will help to inhibit decay.  Keeping your potatoes, sweet potatoes, shallots, garlic and onions in brown paper bags in the pantry should be enough to keep them for quite a while.  Winter Squash can often be kept for weeks or months with no special conditions at all.  For leafy greens and thin skinned root vegetables, refrigeration is the way to go.  Put these into plastic bags with a paper towel to absorb excess moisture and place the bag into your vegetable crisper draw for best results.  Happy eating!

Friday, November 13, 2015

Farewell Appleton Farms 2015 CSA Season

Looking back

Another season has come and gone here at Appleton farms.  I feel, as I do at the end of each season, that we have made so much forward progress this year as a farm and as farmers although not without some growing pains along the way.  This was another tremendous learning year for us.  We welcomed almost 100 new members who joined us from the Moraine Farm CSA. What a fantastic group of people!  We also expanded our acreage by growing vegetables on the Moraine fields.  Working out the logistics of farming in two places at once and the last minute re-budgeting that accompanied this process sometimes drove the sleep from our eyes and left our heads pounding but, at the end of the season, I’m proud and pleased with what we have been able to accomplish this year. 

Above and beyond the added production demands we achieved this season, the Appleton CSA can boast that we have an experienced crew of dedicated and passionate farmers working to keep the share room full of seasonal goodness.  I am overwhelmed by the hard work and commitment to our mission that I see from our young farmers.  In all kinds of weather, through pestilence and drought, through good days and bad
these men and women have never waivered and working with them has raised my spirits right along with them on more occasions than I can number.  Leah, Ryan, Sean, Hannah, Emily, Charles and even Peter “Peaches” Cohan, thank you all so much for everything you do to make Appleton Farms such a great community to be a part of.  On my own behalf and on behalf of the CSA, we hope to see you all back again next season.

As part of our continuing efforts to improve our soil structure and fertility, we were able to fallow one of our fields for the entire year.  This is the first time in many years that we have been able to manage a year long fallow.  Even more exciting, we were able to coordinate with the dairy team and graze the cows on the cover crop growing in this field!  By mimic the ecology of a natural plain or meadow we hope to see compounding benefits to our soil structure, biology and fertility.  While managing animals within a crop rotation poses new and interesting restrictions on how and when we can use a field to grow vegetables (think food safety) the chance to improve our cultural practices has been well worth the challenge.


“Farming in a changing climate” was the theme of a conference I attended this past winter and it seems to have been a defining theme in our season as well.  We have borne witness to a season of extremes.  A late winter, an erratic spring and a long, hot and very dry summer challenged our carefully laid plans.  Some crops flourished under these conditions and some languished.  For me the failures have been equal measures humbling and educational.  By taking the lessons of this season into the next we hope to construct plans of greater resilience to manage Appleton Farm in this changing climate.  We hope also that our CSA members can bare the cost of our lessons with rueful good humor.

But instead of dwelling on our disappointment I would like to innumerate and reflect on a few of our triumphs from this season.  We were able to consistently provide a variety of share room staples.  Beets, cabbage, carrots, chard, kale and onions are a few prime examples of “staple” vegetables that had an increased presence in the share this season as compared to last.  We also introduced over a dozen new vegetable varieties to the share room and pick your own fields this season: that’s added, not replaced!  Many of our crops performed as well or better than we had hoped but a few stood out as exceptional.  Slicing cucumbers for example were far more abundant than in years past and the quality was much improved from last season.  The greater care and attention we paid to our eggplant was rewarded with a true bumper crop.  Although we only planted 2 experimental beds of Sun Jewel melons (just enough for our CSA members to try as it turned out), we were blown away by the sweetness, texture and “Wow” factor of this new comer.  I was unreasonably proud of our spring spinach and broccoli, both of which we were able to offer without the usual limits.  Both our direct seeding schedule and our cultivation schedule were executed with great precision this season which resulted in higher quality greens and PYO crops, a smoother transition between successions and fewer weeds reaching maturity!

The successful growth at Appleton has a created a positive ripple effect beyond the impact in the CSA program.  This was a season of building and strengthening our relationships within the community.  Working with local food access organizations we were able to donate nearly twice as much food towards hunger relief this season compared to last season; over 10 thousand pounds!  Working with other local farmers to help supply our CSA we were able to address weaknesses in our own farming methods while simultaneously quickening the local farm economy.  The Appleton CSA also gave back to the farming community through sharing our equipment, resources and labor with over half a dozen other small farms this season.  We have been very active in the pursuit of our goals to become leaders in food access and local agriculture. 

Looking forward
We still have so much work to do in order to build on the successes of this season and address our short
comings.  Even as this season winds down I have been a part of so many exciting conversations about where we want to go next season and well beyond.  The winter is the time to engineer our grand designs and for the farmer these are days of boundless optimism.  I’d like to share some of this optimism with those of you reading. 

Hopefully all of our CSA members have received a link to the CSA renewal web page at this point.  Online renewals are live and running smoothly.  If you have taken the chance to check out the renewal page you have probably noticed that the cost of CSA membership is staying the same while we are moving from 22 weeks to 20 weeks of CSA distribution next season.  Appleton CSA share prices have stayed steady for the past 4 years and we decided to reduce the number of distribution weeks in lieu of hiking the upfront cost of a share.  This change makes the Appleton CSA share consistent with the other Trustees CSA programs throughout the state.  Beginning next season, we will NOT be reducing the amount of fall crops we plan to grow or harvest for the CSA!  Instead these crops (squash, onions, cauliflower, carrots and all the rest) will be offered in the same quantities over a shorter span of time.  Effectively this should allow us to reduce or eliminate limits on the more popular fall crops and distribute them all over fewer weeks.
Appleton Farms CSA will end the last week in October.  It is important to know that

We are very excited by the opportunities opened up by ending our Summer CSA season a little sooner. 
Most notably we are in the early planning stages for a new offering next year: an eight week stand alone fall share.  Revenues from this fall share will go towards paying for a new full time farmer positioned at Moraine farm.  I am so thrilled that we will be able to offer another up and coming farmer the opportunity to pursue his/her dream with the security of a year round position while also returning the fields at Moraine to full production capacity.  My hope is that everyone else will be thrilled by the chance to continue buying local, healthy produce into the early winter.    

Although this was a fantastic season at Appleton it wasn’t by any means a perfect year.  From production, to communication and shareholder experience, we are looking for ways to elevate our level of excellence next year.  Getting a little better at everything we can is ever our goal but we need your help to make it happen.  We have a few great ideas for how to improve the CSA from a farming and business perspective next season but we need the voice of our members to guide and shape our decisions.  CSA members should have received our season wrap up email at the beginning of this week.  Within the body of that message is a link to an end of the year survey.  Please tell us what you thought about this past
season and what you would like to see happen at the CSA next season.  Thank you so much for your past and continuing support of Appleton Farms.  It is through your participation and commitment that we are able to continue growing and giving back to our community.  Happy winter and we look forward to seeing you again in the spring!


Ryan

Monday, November 9, 2015

Week 22

The Share:
Kale
Collards
Greens
Carrots
Potatoes
Onions
Leeks
Garlic
Winter Squash
Sweet Potatoes
PYO Parsley

Expect a season wrap up post for later today.  For now take a gander at what our last week of CSA holds in store!  Also please excuse the obligatory plug for Thanksgiving shares (we still have a dozen or so available) and don't forget to renew your CSA share online!  You can use the Ipad at the CSA check in desk to renew or follow the link provided in the"Renewals for the 2016 Appleton Farms CSA are now open for current CSA members" email  to renew online at home.  If you have any questions or issues with your renewal please give us a call at 978.356.1655 ex 4110 and Susan will be able to walk you it.

Monday, November 2, 2015

week 21

Hello all-
      This is Leah Jurman the assistant manager subbing in on blog duties today. I’m a little rusty at the writing desk but my hope is I can maintain Ryan’s elegant yet informative writing style, so, fingers crossed!

The Share:
Kale
Greens
Bok Choi
Cabbage
Leeks
Onions
Shallots
Garlic
Potatoes
Winter squash
Turnips
Beets
Carrots     
Brussel sprouts
PYO Parsley

Field Updates:
Before I get going, just a quick reminder that there are still Thanksgiving shares available. Pick up is on November 20th and its 50 ponds of the good stuff to get you through turkey day and beyond. Sadly, pies and cranberries are no longer available to preorder but they will be available in the Dairy Store to purchase.

As we enter the last two weeks of the share it has really dawned on me the level of transformation I witnessed here this season, my first at Appleton Farms. I arrived in February and dug my way through snow to my new front door, dug my way through snow to the green house, dug my way through snow to open the field gate… and so on, to all the new places I would encounter. You can imagine that through all this digging I was being filled with hope and descriptions of this beautiful property that for all intensive purposes, I couldn’t really see! And then it was all I could see! And day by day I got to learn more from Ryan, from my crew, shareholders, and from the land. I have enjoyed very much learning and getting my footing here on the north shore and I cant wait to keep doing so.
          In news outside of a personal late introduction- Brussel Sprouts! Yipee! From a childhood aversion to an adult favorite I have been awaiting patiently ( sort of ) for my tiny tender sweet, essentially miniature cabbages. To those newer to these fall treats they too are members of the Brassica family, joining cabbage, kale, broccoli, cauliflower, and many other vegetables we have had all share long. The sprouts themselves are modified stems that grow in the node of each leaf. They will be delivered to you on the stalk so this will be easy to visualize on arrival to the share. Patience is key to getting these; planted july 3rd and seeded in the greenhouse at least a month prior, these little guys like to take their time. But time well worth it I hope.

Thanks and see you in the share!
      

                                      Guest blogger Leah Jurman, assistant CSA manager

Monday, October 26, 2015

Week 20

The Share:
Kale
Greens
Bok Choi
Cabbage
Leeks
Onions
Shallots
Garlic
Potatoes
Winter squash
Turnips
Beets
Carrots
PYO Parsley

Field Updates:
With just a few weeks before the end of the CSA, Thanksgiving shares are selling like hot cakes.  Usually we don’t sell out of Thanksgiving shares until the last week of the CSA but this year we are running out a little faster than normal.  To make up for the increased interest this season we have decided to slightly increase the number of Thanksgiving shares available for sale.  Even with the extra shares available it is a good idea to get your order forms in as soon as you can.  Pies and cranberries are no longer available to preorder but they will be available in the Dairy Store to purchase.

We put in our very last planting of the 2015 season this past week: garlic for the 2016 season.  Garlic is the only crop we save “seeds” from each season although what we are actually saving each year is cloves rather than seeds produced through sexual reproduction.  This means that each clove we plant produces a head of garlic which is a clone of it’s forbearer.  When selecting garlic for replanting rather than consumption we look for large heads with large undamaged cloves.  First we grade our garlic into small, medium, large and extra large seed stock.  Medium heads are put into the share immediately for consumption by our shareholders.  Large and small heads are held in reserves.  If we have not saved enough extra large seed this allows us to tap into the supply of large heads for additional seed.  Very small heads of garlic are planted whole without being split into individual cloves.  In the spring, instead of letting these undersized and tightly planted garlics develop into individual heads, we will harvest the garlic shoots when they are green and tender.  Green garlic is an extra early crop that can be used like scallions.  Any garlic that isn’t used for next years seed or green garlic is distributed in the share room or sold in the Dairy store after the CSA season has ended

The process of preparing garlic cloves for planting involves separating each clove from the head.  We call this “popping” the garlic.  Popping the garlic can be a fairly time consuming process.  You may have noticed the farmers sitting in a circle and popping garlic in the back of the barn sometime during the last three weeks.  You may have also noticed a large amount of garlic related debris blowing through the share room like the after math of a tickertape parade. 

We grow two varieties of garlic:  German Extra Hardy and Music.  German Extra Hardy is a variety of white skinned garlic with extra large cloves.  Heads tend to have 2-4 cloves each.  Music is a red skinned, slightly more compact variety with 6-8 smaller cloves.  The flavor of Music tends to be a little more pungent than the German variety while the large cloves of the German tend to be a little easier to work with while cooking.  We plant an equal number of beds of each variety but since German Extra Hardy produces fewer cloves per head this means we end up saving nearly twice as many of these heads.  This is why our shareholders will likely see more Music in the share room. 

Total we plant 8 beds of garlic.  Beds are roughly 350ft long and we plant 4 rows or garlic per bed.  Each clove is planted exactly 1/2ft apart.  In a perfect world where every clove planted produces a sizable and healthy head of garlic, we will have grown 22,400 heads with exactly half of those heads containing 6-8 cloves (Music) and half containing 2-4 cloves (German).  This means to replant 11,200 cloves of Music we will need to save 1600 heads on average and 3,750 heads of German Extra Hardy.  Subtract the combined total number of garlic heads to be saved for seed from the total number grown for next season and you get 17050 heads left for distribution to the shareholders.  At 2 heads per shareholder per week we should have just enough garlic to include in our share for 13 weeks.  Of course all of the garlic we plant doesn’t grow into perfect heads.  This year we began distributing garlic during week 12 of the CSA and I’m hopeful we will have garlic straight through the end of the share.