What’s on tap for 2020’s farmstand

I’d like to thank the people who came to the farmstand this year. I met so many nice people, and I greatly appreciated the feedback I received. I am grateful that the food I have been growing has become something that people look forward to eating.

This time of year has always been the time when I start looking forward to next year’s season. We still have so much winter left to muscle through, but the colorful seed catalogs are an inspiration. So here are a few things I have planned for the 2020 growing season.

Berry expansion

This fall, after the farmstand closed, I increased the size of the garden area by about 25%, which brings the total area under cultivation to roughly 7,500 square feet. About one third of that is devoted to what seems to be the most popular item that I sell, fresh berries.

This year was my first year selling strawberries. I’ve got about 700 plants and sold a few hundred pints, and I couldn’t keep up with the demand. So I’ve decided to double my strawberry crop going forward. This spring I’ll be planting 2 new varieties of strawberries in the newly opened garden area. It takes a year for strawberries to produce a crop, so these berries will be on the stand in 2021.

This year I also increased by blueberry crop, planting 6 new bushes. I’m hopeful that they will start producing for 2020’s crop. I have blackberries and raspberries as well, but for now I think I’ll not expand on their footprint. Both of them have extremely short shelflife, and so I find that if they don’t sell within a few hours they go bad. That’s a lot of effort to put into a very perishable crop. Blueberries are the opposite — they have a fairly long shelflife, and are generally easier to grow.

More greens, more variety

Every year is a learning process for me. It’s interesting to see what customers want, and whether I can provide it.

One of the surprise hits was spinach. I’ve never had great luck with spinach, but I found a variety from Baker Seed Company that grows very well in the soil I have here (it’s very fertile, but is heavy with a lot of clay). I was able to have spinach on the stand on most days, and it almost always sold out. So next year I’ll be expanding the spinach crop.

The same goes for greens in general. I’ve watched upteen videos from small growers who all say that greens are must-have on a farmstand. In fact, some of them think that greens are the most important crop to have on a farmstand. So I’ve been trying to take their advice, looking for greens that will grow well here. Last year I grew a really tasty romaine — it was light green with red highlights. It grew well here and sold out completely. So I’ll be growing more of that. I’ll also be growing some mesclun-type mixes, as well as a really cool collection of radishes, plus I’m expanding on my beet and carrot crops.

Most of my seeds come from Fedco, a Maine-based cooperative seed company. They have an excellent variety of heirloom and standard seeds, and I really love their analysis of the seeds they offer — they seem genuine. I buy a few seeds from Baker Seeds too. They have many interesting varieties that you can’t find elsewhere, and they have the best catalog I’ve ever received.

Search for the perfect tomato

One of the reasons I started the farmstand is I love tomatoes. I’ve been growing them for 30+ years, and I am still searching for the best tomato. I have a few varieties that I really love and I will continue to sell — pink and yellow Brandywines, sungold cherries, Golden Jubilee yellow tomatoes, and Tappy’s Heritage salad tomatoes.

I had been growing 2 types of cherries — sungold and a red variety called Chadwick — but this year I found that the Chadwick’s flavor wasn’t quite cutting it. So I’m planning to try 2 Italian red cherries to see if they will be added to the list of favorites. They are Aosta Valley cherry and Principe Borghese.

For the handful of customers who love Brad’s Atomic tomatoes, I want to assure you I will be growing them again next year. They are the oddest tomato that I sell, and I think I may be the only person in the region who sells them. I’m personally not a huge fan of their flavor, but some of my customers feel strongly they are the best tomato they’ve ever eaten — and indeed Baker Seed Company considers them to be the best tomato that they sell. That’s a very high compliment!

I’m also in search of a reliable plum tomato. Last year I struck out with San Marzano Luongo, so this year I’ll be growing the more reliable Amish Paste.

A few things I’m dropping

Some things have been hard to grow here, or they just don’t have much of any following. So I’ve decided to drop a handful of items — chard, broccoli (I’m switching to a rabe broccoli instead), delicate squash, and peppers. I just can’t grow pepper plants here, it’s a mystery to me. Every year they wither.

Is there something that you’d like me to grow? I’d love to hear your ideas. Please email me at maconer@comcast.net.

Thanks and I look forward to seeing you in 2020!

John Macone owns and operates Farmer John’s Organic Farmstand, a small scale neighborhood farm in Amesbury, Mass.

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/

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.

 

The why of winter rye

It’s starting to get cold here and we’ve finally had our first frost. Most plants in the garden are dead or slowing down, with the exception of one — winter rye.

This grass-like plant actually likes the cold, thus the name I suppose. I usually plant it around the end of September, and now it’s about 8 inches tall. By next string it will definitely be over a foot.

Why plant winter rye? Here’s a few excellent reasons:

  • It holds your soil together through the winter. Winter rains and melting snows will probably cause some erosion in your garden, but the tough and dense roots of winter rye will hold things in place.
  • It’s a nitrogen scavenger. Winter rye is a “green manure” that pulls nitrogen out of all sorts of nooks and crannies in your garden, and holds it within its roots, stems and blades. So that means the nitrogen doesn’t wash away during the winter, and when you rototill your soil in the spring all that mass of winter rye rots back into the soil and releases nitrogen for your plants.
  • It digs deep. Winter rye has an extensive root system, so it aerates your soil.  And when you rototill it into the soil in the spring, it breaks down fairly quickly and gives your soil a nice boost of organic material for the worms and whatnots to feast on.
  • It’s allelopathic. I know, I had to look it up too. Winter rye has a compound in it that acts as a natural suppressor of weeds. One thing to be aware of — it can also have a suppressive effect on the vegetable seeds you put down, so be sure not to plant winter rye in areas where you’ll be putting down a lot of seed in the spring.

I plant winter rye in areas of the garden where the main crop has died off or is on its downward slide, like under the corn crop and the tomatoes, or in spots where the pumpkins and squashes are growing.

For organic farmers, winter rye is one of those miracle products. It does a lot of good for your garden, and it is fairly cheap to buy, about a dollar a pound. You’ll need about 1 pound for every 200 square feet of garden. The seeds are pretty big for a grass plant — they look like orzo pasta. And they’re not terribly fussy about how they are planted. Just throw them around in your garden as evenly as you can, ideally just before a rainstorm. If you want to help them out a bit, lightly draw your garden rake over them to give them a light covering of soil. There are some types of critters that like to eat the seeds, so the light raking is a good way to keep them out of your winter rye.

In the spring, you’ll find a lush green covering all over your garden. You’ll rototill that into the soil, and you’ll probably be amazed at what it does for your bed of crops.

John Macone is an organic farmer and founder of Farmer John’s Homegrown Foods.

 

 

 

Welcome to Farmer John’s blog

Thanks foimg_1151r checking out this blog. Here’s the basics of what it’s all about:

1 — I like growing stuff. My Italian great-grandfather had an enormous farm in Concord, Mass., and I think most of his descendants got a piece of his green thumb. When I was a kid we always had a garden, along with stuff that every kid should get to do (like drive front-end loaders, have farm animals, shoot varmints, etc.) When I was in my mid 20s I rented a garden plot at a community garden a few towns away, and when we bought our first house I plowed up the backyard and put in my own “back 40.” It was more like a “back 2,” so my wife and I started a community garden program here in Amesbury. Lots of people signed up — way more than we expected. We  “retired” from our involvement in the Amesbury community garden a few years ago, and I’m happy to report it’s still going strong, 20 years after we started it.  But I never really shook the farming bug.  I spent years, off and on, looking for a farm property in the local area. A couple years ago I finally “bought the farm” — an old farm property here in Amesbury. It had operated as a farm from the mid 1700s through about 1975, and even though the neighborhood has grown into a suburban area, it still has all of its historic farm infrastructure. It’s amazing that so much survived — like a hand dug well, a barn, chicken coop, and even an outhouse and “nap shack.” I am gradually returning it to its original farming roots.

2 — I like studying and practicing organic growing. I believe in organic farming and I try to practice what I preach. It’s not always easy to stay organic, but I think I’ve learned enough over the years to impart some semi-wisdom on people who are interested in doing it. Years ago I read Eliot Cole’s book on his organic farming methods in Maine, and that inspired me to follow his lead.

3 — I like to write.  Been a professional writer for 20-odd years.

4 — I’m trying to pitch my farmstand business.  This year I opened a small farmstand on my property, selling fresh, organic vegetables, fruits and eggs grown right here on my land.  It was a successful year. I had a lot of great customers, and I’m grateful for their support. I’d like to think that I’m providing them with something they can’t find in local grocery stores, and frankly my prices are pretty cheap (we did a little market surveying of the local farmstands and underpriced them). I’d like to expand the size of my cultivated area and offer more stuff for sale. Also, I’d like to become a neighborhood alternative for people who are looking for local organic food.

I’ll be blogging on a regular basis.  Thanks for reading!