A yeoman’s guide to opening a farmstand: Part 1

I’ve had a few people ask me about the nitty gritty of running a small-scale farmstand. Is it worth the effort? Can you earn a living?

The answer is, well, mixed. Personally I enjoy doing it. It doesn’t earn a lot of money. But there is some money to be made, and if nothing else it scratches your itch to grow things.

I’m going to write up a three-part blog on the nitty gritty of what I’ve experienced in my 3 seasons of running a farmstand. Here’s the first part — we’ll take a look at your land and your zoning.

Your very first consideration is the amount of farmable land. Under ideal circumstances you have plenty of open ground — fertile soil, no trees, no shading, no obstacles, relatively flat and close to a water supply. But I don’t know anyone who has all that.

So instead, you have to work with what you’ve got. Do you have enough arable land to grow enough food to sustain a farmstand? If you have at least 5,000 square feet of farmable land, I’d say yes.

Another key consideration is zoning. Does your community allow you to operate a farmstand? You might be surprised to find out what the answer is. Around here there are several towns that have adopted the state’s Right to Farm bylaws, which give generous property rights to people who want to grow food and/or raise animals on their land. My town isn’t one of them — in fact it’s quite restrictive. Even though we live on a 2-acre property that has been farmed since the mid 1600s, we are very limited in what we can do.

Here’s a Google Maps view of my land. You can see the cultivated area along the right-hand border (the nearly square parcel), plus 3 rows of berries to the immediate left of the cultivated area. Overall there’s about 2 acres of land. I have about a quarter acre under cultivation. I place the farmstand out on the street, in front of the barn (big building in the 
lower middle of this photo.
)

Assessing your land

If you’ve decided that you have enough land for a farmstand and you have zoning on your side, take a walk around your property with a critical eye. What’s good and what’s going to cause you headaches? On my land I have a few positives and a few negatives. First, here are the negatives:

  • The entire property is on a north-facing slope, which tends to keep the soil cooler in the spring than I’d ideally like to see, and also allows for some erosion in the spring. Also, the northern quarter of the property is a swamp (in the photo, that’s the top section).
  • The open land where I have created my farm space (about 10,000 square feet) is boxed in by trees, which limits the size of the arable land. I can potentially double my growing area and max out at about 20,000 square feet without removing a single tree. If I were to take the trees down, I’d probably be able to get another 10,000 to 15,000 square feet, but that would be a major hassle. So I’m sticking with what I have now — about 10,000 square feet. It’s about all I can manage.
  • From a farmstand perspective, I’m not in the ideal place for marketing and exposure purposes. I live on an extraordinarily narrow dead-end street, and due to zoning restrictions I can’t put up a sign at the busy end of the street to get customers to find me. Zoning also restricts the location and structure of the farmstand itself. I have to have a temporary structure, so I built a small farmstand on wheels that I bring out in the morning and store in the barn at night (and off season).

Now the positives;

  • The soil is excellent. Very fertile, no rocks — that’s a minor miracle for New England — plus it drains well, and there are minor springs throughout the property that keep the moisture levels consistent. The north-facing slope also allows for excellent air drainage.
  • There are plenty of farm-friendly resources onsite, such as a dug well for water, a big barn, a field for harvesting grass clippings, and plenty of room for expansion if I chose to make significant investment in opening up and fencing in new land. I also have a huge bonus — 70-year-old blueberry bushes that produce an enormous yield.
  • There’s a built-in demand here for fresh and local organics, especially if the produce is priced right. People are willing to drive a long distance for the right produce at the right price. We have a half dozen large scale farmstands within 10 miles of us, and even with that intensity of competition there is still a demand for small scale farmstands.

So that’s my assessment of my own farmstand potential. There are 3 important positives to pick out of it — I have enough arable land (5,000+ square feet), I am permitted to have a farmstand under the zoning laws, and I have a strong local demand. If you are thinking about operating a farmstand and you can check off those 3 boxes, you’ve got the start of the “right stuff.”

That’s it for part one. In part two, I’ll talk about product and marketing strategies.

John Macone operates an organic farmstand in Amesbury, Mass. You can reach him at jmacone@gmail.com.


May update: the spring that barely sprang

May has finally come to an end, and here’s an update on what’s going on at Farmer John’s Organic Foods.

I heard somewhere that there’s this thing in the sky called “the sun.” It made a brief appearance a couple of weeks ago. Looked impressive.

The plants seem to think the same thing. They’ve been huddled down close to the ground, with all but the peas and broccoli deciding they are better off staying put. This is one of the poorest springs for seed germination that I can recall — too much rain, not enough warmth. That means the soil isn’t heating up enough to allow for germination of most of the seeds that gardeners plant at this time of year, like cucumbers and beans.

On the other hand, plants that love a moist spring, like tomato seedlings, are doing well. Certain kinds of cold weather crops are also thriving, like spinach.

The biggest project that’s underway is a 30% expansion of the vegetable area. We’re adding about 1,100 square feet, primarily for sweet corn and fall crops. Our super sweet and hyper fresh corn was a huge hit with customers last year, and we sold out every time we put it on the stand. In fact, one guy was so excited about it he chased me all over the farm, hoping to get every last ear. So this year we’re hoping to keep our customers happy with full shares of corn.

The field-clearing exercise is hard work, as the sod here is extremely robust and requires a frontend loader to strip it off. Otherwise, a rototiller just bounces off it. That will take several days to complete.

This year, for the first time, we offered seedlings at the farmstand. Thanks to the many customers who stopped by and bought from us. We specialize in rare/heirloom tomato seedlings, and I’m happy to report that nearly all of them sold out. Next year we’ll be expanding our selection.

The best news of the spring has been the near collapse of the winter moth population. Those nasty little creatures wiped out the blueberry crop 2 years in a row, and did tree-mendous damage to the trees. It appeared in the late fall that we’d be pummeled again, given the number of adult moths that were flittering around. But something happened over the winter that savaged them. I have 2 theories — we had an extraordinarily windy winter, with at least 2 storms with wind gusts exceeding 60 mph. Those storms blew down hundreds of branches, and no doubt also dislodged many winter moth eggs. The other factor is the poultry plundering. I set the chickens out all year to feast on the moth’s larva. I know it sounds gross, but the chickens loved it and the moths didn’t. The chickens took a big chunk out of their population.

The net effect is a happy one for our customers. This year we’ll have a good crop of highbush blueberries, in addition to the raspberry crop that looks to be very robust. The blueberries will be on the stand around the end of June, and the first crop of raspberries should be available a couple weeks later.

 

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Spring chicks racing around the yard.

 

Lastly, we have increased the size of our poultry flock, with 6 pullets. They’ve been integrated with the older hens, and I expect that by September we’ll be seeing a substantial increase in egg production. These are true “free-range” chickens, wandering all over the place to get the proteins they need to create the best tasting and healthiest eggs you can find. Can’t wait to get “the girls” up to full production.

The farmstand will be sort of dormant for awhile, as we wait for the much-delayed produce to ripen. I expect that by mid to late June we’ll have a great selection of organic produce to sell at our wicked cheap prices. Stop by!

John Macone operates Farm John’s Organic Foods, an organic fruit/vegetable/egg farm in Amesbury. To keep up with what’s on the farmstand and in the fields, like his Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/Farmerjohnsfoods/

How to deal with 2 bummer tomato maladies

It’s the time of year when I think every Italian farmer (and every tomato lover) does a little happy dance. It’s time to put the tomatoes in the ground.

It’s a beautiful thing, getting those spindly young plants in the soil and watching them grow — that is, unless 2 common maladies decide to rain on your tomato parade. One is an ugly and not-so-clever grub, and the other is a nasty little fungus that lurks under the surface. We’ll talk about how to deal with both of them, easily and organically.

Cutworms

Cutworms aren’t really worms. They are caterpillars — usually greyish in color, about an inch or so long, and fat. They curl up into a “C” and remain motionless in the soil, then emerge at night and start doing their damage to your precious tomato plants. Someday they will grow into beautiful moths — if you think the dull grey, mean and warty look is attractive.

Can you tell I really don’t like them?

It’s not their appearance, it’s their gameplan that I really don’t like. Instead of chewing a few leaves, they go for the gold on the very first bite. They chew all night, chopping down your tomato (or broccoli. cabbage, or whatever) and leaving its decapitated top lying prostrate on the ground. A really demoralizing sight for you in the morning.

Luckily, they are not well equipped to deal with an enraged gardener. If you dig all around the plant, somewhere within a 6-inch radius you’ll find the culprit. There’s 2 scientifically proven actions to take at this point — either you fling them as far as you can, or you squash them. Both have the desired effect. And if you have chickens, this grub is like prime rib for them.

How do you protect your plants? I always advocate the cheap but effective route, and in this case that means cutting up cardboard boxes — like cereal boxes, or pasta boxes or something like that — into 3-inch wide strips that are about 6-8 inches long. Wrap those strips around the plant, with the printed side facing out. The printed side is slightly slick and that helps defeat the clumsy cutworm. Bury the collar into the ground about an inch or 2. If you don’t have enough cardboard, feel free to go to the grocery store and buy something you can empty fast — like your favorite cookies or crackers. Then eat the contents rapidly and cut up the box. Remember, this is all in the name of organic farming, so it’s OK.

There’s the slightest chance that a cutworm is within the collar that you just created, but it’s a longshot.

Another method is buying diatomaceous earth, and sprinkling it around your plants. It acts like broken glass on the cutworm’s body. Nasty stuff if you are a worm. But it can be fairly expensive, and it prevents you from the legitimate need to go cookie shopping.

Early blight

This is a big bummer for tomato lovers. Pretty much everywhere east of the Rocky Mountains — and we’re pretty far east of them — has early blight in the soil. It’s nearly impossible to get rid of, but you can manage it.

Early blight, and its lethal sibling late blight (the cause of Ireland’s Great Famine of the 1840s that sparked the massive wave of immigration to this nation), will utterly wipe out your tomato crop. It starts as black or brownish spots on tomato leaves, with yellow usually surrounding the lesion. It spreads fast.

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A row of brandywine tomatoes that has anti-cutworm collars and grass clipping mulch.

 

 

Here’s the key to preventing it. It’s in the ground and usually gets transmitted to your plants by water splashing on the ground and spraying the undersides of leaves with infected soil. If you mulch the ground around your plants, it largely prevents the whole transmission from happening. If the infection gets ahold of your plants, go out and buy copper fungicide, a very effective spray that will stop the blight in its tracks.

Mulching is an excellent strategy for tomatoes in general, because it helps hold moisture around the roots and prevents problems like blossom end rot. I like to use grass clippings as a mulch, or horse manure. I’m a big fan of horse manure, as I’ve pointed out enthusiastically in a prior blog.

Oh and guess what? Cutworms have a hard time navigating over and through mulch, so there you go.

Where to get plants

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that I sell an excellent variety of heirloom tomatoes (and other vegetables and herbs) at my farmstand. You’ll find some truly unusual and tasty varieties, at low prices. Stop on by and we’ll load you up with plants that will make you the tomato hero of the neighborhood.

John Macone operates Farmer John’s Organic Foods farmstand on Kendricks Court, Amesbury Mass. The farmstand is open Wednesday through Sunday, 9 a.m. to 6:30 p.m.

It’s worth the effort to grow your own raspberries

If you are a berry lover, there’s nothing that compares to growing your own raspberries. You can buy them at the supermarket, but if you do, you can be guaranteed of 2 things — they’ll be expensive and their taste will be meh. Why? They’ve probably traveled a long way, and they don’t travel very well. Every mile they travel makes them mushier and more tasteless.

But grow them in your backyard, and it’s a whole ‘nother world. They’ll be fresh, with fantastic taste and texture. And — as a cheap guy, this is what I like — they are an incredible bargain.

I’ve been growing raspberries for 25 years, and I have a very large patch of them on my farm. They are super popular on my farmstand. Of all the berries and fruits I’ve grown over the years, raspberries take the prize as the easiest to grow, and the most popular with customers.

Here are some tips if you want to grow them:

Where to grow raspberriesIMG_1125

Like a lot of plants, raspberries want full sun and a rich soil. They don’t like competition, like weeds and such. But they love to take over every other plant’s space. They send out “suckers” that will pop up everywhere within a foot or so of the patch that you carefully created. So for your own sanity, they should be in a confined space that you can mow around. Mowing will keep those suckers in check. Ideally you should lay out a row that’s about 2 feet wide — and no wider than 3 feet. A 10-foot long row will give you plenty of berries.

What kind to get

There are dozens of varieties available. I have 3 types growing on my farm, but I prefer my everbearing berries. They came from my parents’ old farm in Maine. I think they may be a Latham variety, or an old New England variety that is no longer available commercially. Every spring, your everbearing raspberry plant pushes out 2-3 tall canes that produce a very large crop in the fall. Then the canes give you a second (albeit much smaller) crop the following summer, then they will die. That dead cane isn’t something to worry about — the most important part of the plant is the root, and those roots will keep pushing up raspberry canes forever if you treat them right.

How to plant them

I plant raspberry root stocks about 18 inches apart, mindful that they’ll fill in the intervening space quickly. As I mentioned above, they don’t like competition, so you’ll need to keep the bed well weeded. I usually put down a 2-inch-deep bed of composted horse manure as a mulch/fertilizer. The plants seem to love it.

If you are planting a 2-foot-wide bed that’s 10 feet long, you are going to need about 18 plants. They sell for about $5 each, so that’s $90. That’s a big upfront cost, but over the years it will reward you many times over. And unlike just about every other berry or fruit, raspberries will start paying you back in the first year.

Longterm care

 

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Raspberry canes that have been trimmed and thinned (and a cat photobomb).

Raspberries aren’t terribly finicky, as long as you prepared your soil well and you keep them well watered and weeded. In the winter I trim out the dead canes (these are the 2-year-old canes). In the early spring I thin out the spindly canes, and cut off the tops of the 1-year-old canes. That’s basically it. There are a few types of pests that like raspberries, primarily Japanese beetles and cane borers. They are both easy to manage. Birds also like the berries, so unless you invest in netting (and it’s a pain to manage), you’ll probably lose about 1/5 of your crop to birds. Oh well. Birds gotta eat too.

 

Growing your own raspberries is a great way to get your fix of an excellent (and local) fresh fruit. They freeze well, so you’ll be enjoying the “fruits of your labor” throughout the winter. And if all of this sounds like too much hassle, stop by Farmer John’s farmstand when the raspberry crop is in season (mid July, and late August-late September).

John Macone operates an organic neighborhood farmstand in Amesbury, Mass. Like his Facebook page to receive updates on the crops that are in season. The address is https://www.facebook.com/Farmerjohnsfoods/

 

 

 

 

Don’t let your leaves leave your yard

It’s late fall here and the leaves are mostly off the trees, scattered across lawns and piled up against fences and walls.

Most people are raking them up, putting them in those big brown paper bags, and leaving them at the curb for the Department of Public Works to pick up and cart off.  That’s the routine that we’ve all be trained to follow — make the yard neat and cart all the leaves off to somewhere else.

It’s a bad idea. You and carting off one of the best fertilizers you can get for your garden and your lawn. And whoever invented those badly-designed bags is making a fortune off you. You can find better things to spend that money on.

Nature has its own clever way of dealing with leaves, but you can do a few things to make it work even better.  All you need is a little help from your lawnmower, and maybe your rototiller if you have one.

Why leave the leaves in your yard? Think about the last time you were in the woods. Every fall it’s blanketed with fallen leaves, pine needles and plant debris. They provide two essential assets to the forest — a protective ground cover and a fertilizer base. That blanket of leaves protects plant roots from the dehydrating effect of cold. They also gradually break down into an excellent source of compost for trees and plants. Pound for pound, leaves are actually more nutritional to your plants than manure. They contain not only the three essential compounds — nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium — but also a host of other minerals that should get back into your soil.

Chop them up

The natural process of leaf decomposition is very slow. It takes months, and in some cases, years. You can speed it up and make it far more efficient with your lawnmower. You may want to start by raking your leaves onto your lawn, then start mowing from the outer edges, constantly directing the leaves inward. Go over them slowly, you’ll want the mower to  really chop them up good. Go over them a few times.img_1217

You’ll be astonished by what’s left. That huge pile of leaves is now reduced down to a mere shadow of its former self. What remains will be about 1/10th to 1/16th the size of the initial pile that you started with, and most of the tiny shreds are now implanted into your lawn. You can use a rake to evenly spread around the tiny pile that remains. This may look a little unsightly compared to the guy next door with the cleanly-raked lawn, but those leaf fragments will be gone by the time the grass starts thriving in the spring. Earthworms and other natural processes will chew them up and convert them into fertilizer.

And next spring, when the guy next door is paying $50 to $150 for chemical fertilizers and sweating profusely while he’s spreading them on his lawn, you’ll be swinging in your hammock with a great-looking lawn underneath you.

Garden application

The other thing you may want to do with your leaves is transfer them into your garden, chop them up and then rototill them in.  This is an ideal fertilizer that will get your soil in top shape for the spring. You’ll want to apply some lime as well, as the leaves are acidic. One 50lb bag per 1,000 square feet of garden space is ample. A bag of lime should cost you about $5.

My usual thing is to rake the leaves onto the lawn, then mow them with my riding tractor. This also cuts the lawn and introduces grass clippings into the mix, which are very high in nitrogen — they’re like gasoline for your composting fire. Then I put the lawn sweeper to work. These sweepers are definitely worth the money if you have a lawn large enough to merit using a lawn tractor. They cost about $150 to $350 depending on size and quality, and the better ones have a great dumptruck-like feature that allows you to dump the load without having to dismount from the tractor and jigger around with the sweeper.  They are a fantastic labor saver, well worth the money. Be sure to get a good one, don’t cheap out, because they take a beating.

I attach the sweeper to the tractor and run over the lawn, picking up the chopped up leaves and grass clippings. Then I dump them on the garden, spread the piles out, and rototill them in. Sounds like a lot of work? It kind of is. But it’s worth it to use those leaves as your fall fertilizer.

John Macone operates a small organic farmstand in Amesbury, Massachusetts. Like his Facebook page at Farmer John’s Homegrown Foods.