What I learned in our first year running a CSA
10 lesson from the garden
We had a super awesome first year in the garden. We had our struggles, but the efforts we put into learning our environment here in the U.P. seem to have paid off.
We spent the winter prior to our first production season diving into gardening material for the region, taking classes, reading books, and bing-watching YouTube videos about market gardening. From J.M. Fortier to Michigan State University Extention, we filled our noggins with all the info we needed to feel confident in our abilities. Maybe a little too confident.
Our water well decided early on it was not up to the task and we neglected to prioritize drip lines at the beginning of the season figuring I’d just hand water until it got to be too time-consuming. But by then, the budget was eaten up with something else that took priority and “too time-consuming” happened really fast! We had over 150 tomato plants in the ground by July and the amount of water and time it took pruning and keeping them wet was overwhelming. I barely had enough time to keep beds weeded.
But it all got done… sort of. Here are 10 things we learned in our first year running a CSA and one farmer’s market in town.
10 Lessons from the Garden
1. Keep the beds weeded. There is such a fine line between when you should and when you can’t easily weed a garden bed with a hoe. That line must be respected at all costs. I am no saint in the garden. I grow weeds really well!! But I have to remember I did a lot better this year than I’ve ever done before and that means a lot.
2. Prep (and budget) for both sprinklers and drip lines! Tomatoes, peppers, basil all need to be on drip and anything started by seed should be on sprinklers, you need both plain and simple. Ya, you can hand water, but your time is too valuable to be wasted dragging a hose around (it also breaks a lot of plants…)
3. Plant more than you think you’ll need. I thought I’d be clever and actually count out the plants that I would need and then double it to be sure. So… 10 CSA members = 10 broccoli plants = 10 heads of broccoli + 10 more for market. HAHA. I ended up with maybe 3 servings of broccoli to share amongst CSA members. I might try again adding in micronutrients, especially boron at the right times, but this is something that again has a fine timeline and if I’m overwhelmed, it won’t get done. So I need to weigh the cost vs benefit. Broccoli takes a lot of space and a lot of time to mature. I even had an entire variety grow huge and not head the whole season. Maybe it’s just the boron… maybe not. But one more chance to see before I give up that ghost.
4. “Seed” garlic is really expensive!!! This is a huge
investment. Everyone loves garlic, but don’t neglect your garlic bed! Get it planted in the fall or your garlic will be super small. Also, it needs lots of fertilizer to grow big bulbs. It fetches a decent price and CSA members swoon over it. Fresh garlic right out of the ground is so worth it!!!
5. Keep better records. I vowed I would… I didn’t. At least not in the garden. I need to prepare to mark rows right away, have a way to keep track of dates and yields. I can get away with it this year cause I’m just starting out, but this needs to not happen again.
6. MORE CARROTS!! Ha, there’s never enough carrots. It’s my favorite vegetable. It’s most people’s favorite
vegetable. Our soil doesn’t produce much without enormous efforts on our parts, but it does give us beautiful, sweet, long carrots. It’s tough to grow carrots even with this small blessing. We’re still so small that I’m hand seeding carrots and when your nose is a foot from the soil and you have a handful of carrot seed you’re trying not to let blow away; a 4-foot bed can feel like you’re going to produce more carrots than anyone could ever want. But then the harvest comes and you sort out the imperfect carrots (that go onto our own table or if they’re really gnarly, they go to the pigs, we waste nothing!) and there’s only a small bunch for each of your 10 CSA members. bummer. Carrots take such a long time to grow, it’s a huge learning curve that is not easily corrected.
7. Check-in with your fellow farmers. I’m a big supporter of the other farmers in our area and being the new guy it makes no sense for me to mass-produce something that is already oversaturated in our area. That thing is lettuce! Everyone has it super early and keeps it around all season. So why should I bother to sow row after row of lettuce if my neighbors aren’t selling out of it? I shouldn’t. I grow enough to give it to my CSA members, but I don’t take lettuce to market.
8. Having a market to take your bulk to is really convenient. I grew a LOT of shishito
peppers. And I should add, I’m in love with them. They are so good and so versatile. But wow! I was not expecting the plants to produce so much! I had peppers coming out of my ears. So much so I think my CSA folks were sick of them. So I took them to the market. I also sold like 6 pounds to a local grocer. Definitely check in with your grocer if you have an abundance of something in the garden.
9. Maybe don’t start those tomatoes quite so early? I started tomatoes at the beginning of February. I potted up to a 4-inch container and then to a gallon container. I had probably 250 tomato plants at one point. I had to keep them on the covered porch cause they got too tall for the indoor grow
light shelving and I needed that space for other starts anyways. So I had a JUNGLE on my porch for a really long time! I broke so many tomato plants when I was sorting them out to plant and didn’t have room for most of them anyway. That is a lesson of experience and I now know how many tomatoes I need for next year and I also could wait a couple weeks to start them and they’ll be plenty big enough!
10. Relax and have fun. If I’m not enjoying myself in the garden, what the heck am I even doing, right?! So much work, so much investment for so little return (at least in the beginning). I struggle with this sometimes, but I do stop and enjoy the sound of the birds or I really try to feel the soil or rejoice in the harvest. My favorite is the raspberry harvest! I put on some John Denver and beebop my way around the berry bushes. I love it! Especially when something goes right, like using my hands to harvest Ruth Stout-style potatoes! I’m never burying potatoes again!! Watch the potato harvest videos on Facebook here first and then here.
This farming adventure has come a long way from just wanting to increase our sustainability. Sustainability takes a ton of work.
I think if we were stashing all the food we would need, the work I did and the veggies we produced this year would be almost enough to get us through. So if I want to do that plus grow the CSA and markets, I’m going to need to at least triple if not quadruple my efforts. That’s a lot!!
I need to get efficient for that to happen and learning these 10 lessons from the garden will help me dial in the processes and weed out the unnecessary work. So it becomes like a machine. I hope my pain is your gain in your garden!
Leave a comment and tell me a lesson you learned this year.
I can’t wait to get going this summer!
Are you in the Houghton, MI area and want to sign up for the 2020 CSA season? Check out our info sheet and contract form by clicking here. Contact Gina for more infomation at email@example.com or find her on Facebook!!
Check back here soon for more info. I’m planning a blog and video about starting onion seed indoors and my next post will be a fun list of seeds I’m purchasing for this growing season.
See you soon!! -Gina