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Fighting the Foes and Folly of Farming

Growing in fall is so much easier than growing in the spring. There are usually less bugs, the days are shorter so the weeds have slowed their growth and the temperatures are usually cooler. Except for this week where temperatures will reach back into the 90’s. Yuck!

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Clearly missing some plants

We had a couple hiccups while trying to get our fall crops in the ground.

Hiccup #1: We had a terrible small animal/ bird pest problem this year. For those of you trying to grow small speciality crops in Central Illinois, I’m sure you can feel my pain. We have been in a terrible drought. Droughts are good and bad for us. The upside to a drought is it keeps pesky disease at bay, which is a great advantage considering the previous years when we have had to fight bacterial spot and septoria. The downside to a drought (and something we struggled with all year) is that the crops are not the only ones that are thirsty. Crows, rabbits, coyotes etc all need water as well. The crows were by far the worst! We have so many holes in our drip tape and lay flat it looks like a ride at Hurricane Harbor. This presents a real problem when you are replanting the same beds with irrigation that was laid underneath plastic mulch.

Hiccup #2: Those same small animals that were thirsty were also hungry. Every time we had an acre of fall crop planted the rabbits would swoop in (overnight it seemed) and eat our tiny transplants. I also think they were so thirsty and the crows were hogging so much of the irrigation water that the poor rabbits were trying to suck out water from the plants.

Hiccup #3: Don’t go on vacation in August if you run a farm. Unfortunately I have been trying to explain that to my family and they just keep planning these big events right smack dab in peak season. Each irrigation line has a valve and you can control whether the bed is watered or not with said valve. This is great for obvious reasons. However, if the lines aren’t constantly walked and each valve checked over the entire three acres of irrigation every time you run the irrigation, then a bed can get easily missed. This isn’t a big deal if the plants are mature but it is a very big deal if they are transplants and are small. Unfortunately, I returned from vacation to a very burned acre of fall crops.

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Where is all the cauliflower??

All in all we replanted about three times, filling in holes as plants went missing. Did I mention we plant on our hands and knees?? It was painful, emotionally and physically. There was definitely a point where we just gave up replanting due to lack of time in the season. The fall crop that did make it is beginning to show signs of life, two weeks behind schedule. I am still holding my breath on the broccoli and cauliflower but hopefully it will mature before we have our first blizzard :).

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There were many lessons learned this year but that is what makes us better. I am contemplating not using as much drip next year, instead switching to sprinklers. I am also definitely not taking a vacation at the beginning of August (forehead slap) :).

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A Change In Weather

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Chef Antonio preparing Carmen Peppers

The weather has shifted dipping down into the 40’s at night. This change means a slow down for peppers and a finality for tomatoes. We had a great harvest this year so I am not at all disappointed to see them end. We will start to harvest green tomatoes tomorrow before ripping out plants at the end of next week. I know the chefs are sad to see them go which means brainstorming to make the season longer with a later planting next year??

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Fall Radish going to Pi Beta Phi

I am ready for fall and it seems as though it is here. Fall growing is a pleasant shift from the hustle and bustle of spring and summer. It also means less pest and disease problems, which is always nice. We are still very much in a drought so that has kept most disease at bay. Even the crows have seemed to move on to other areas, which means less irrigation problems when we do irrigate.

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OMG this was so good!

The chefs continue to produce amazing food with the local vegetables they have been receiving. I had the most delicious sandwich last week from Hendrick House. Jon Curtis was serving a grilled pimento cheese with peppadews and Carmen peppers, tomatoes and onions from the farm. It really played to my southern roots! Soooo good!

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Chef’s Creations

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We have a lot of tomatoes but I feel like they are stealing the thunder from some other superb crops this year. We had a magnificent potato crop, harvesting nearly 900 lbs. We planted three varieties which were Yukon Golds (my favorite: buttery and delicious), Strawberry Paw Paw’s (beautiful pink color on the inside and out) and Kennebec potatoes. We were able to hold off the pesky potato beetle long enough so that the damage wasn’t killing the actual crop. We also used a tractor implement called a potato harvester which saved us immense back labor. I think everyone was surprised at the ease of this year’s harvest. Once the potato harvester dug out the potatoes from there it was like an easter egg hunt. Slight touch of the sides of the bed to dislodge any remaining potatoes and then just collecting them in a harvest container. Easy Peasy!

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I want to highlight one other phenomenal crop this year and that is the onion. I have no rhyme or reason why this is the first year we have grown them but hindsight is 20/20, eh? Beautiful harvest, no bugs, grown in plastic so very little weeds, 3 months later viola! We sold out of 200 lbs in a week! Very high demand with the chefs. We have another planting in the ground right meow so round 2 will be coming shortly.

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This picture does not do this creation justice! Apologies for the poor quality.

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The chefs are creating some AMAZING meals out of the produce they have been receiving. This is extra great for us as we like to be taste testers during deliveries. Lance the chef of AOPi created a blueberry/ tomato balsamic dressing to highlight his delicious pasta salad, also made with farm tomatoes. It was so delicious and the color was breath taking. I had never heard of blueberry balsamic until now and was very impressed. Those are some lucky ladies.

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It is no surprise to walk into an amazing lunch at Hendrick House. Jon, the chef of Hendrick House is as cool as they come. He is my biggest supporter, never saying no to produce and always finding new and creative ways to incorporate it into his huge operation. I honestly don’t know how he does it. Definitely a person worth knowing if you don’t already.

Thanks to all the chefs these last two weeks. Everyone is taking so much produce that we had to break out deliveries up into two runs. What a great problem to have! 🙂

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Total Eclipse of the Sun

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Happy 2017 total eclipse readers. If you were lucky enough to be near totality I heard it was pretty cool. No rest for the weary though! Me and the farm crew were back at it in full force yesterday, pulling thousands of pounds of tomatoes off the plants…. literally. They say a perfect harvest is supposedly 20 lbs per plant. I know this year we are getting more than that. I have never seen anything like this. It is creating some storage problems but I will take that over some of the other rotten years we have had, pun intended.

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The sororities are in full swing and the rest of the students are heading back this week. We have so many standing orders this year it has been a puzzle trying to piece it all together. We decided to try to get everyone on standing orders before they get too busy into the semester. So far so good. Organization is key! 🙂

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Justin, Rey and I are seeing a lot of our hard work being served during lunch. Chef Jon Curtis and his team have made some really delicious food this summer. I am excited to see what the other chefs do with the same product.

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Starting School

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The end of summer is here and the university students are days within moving in. This means crunch time for the chefs and the farm. We have been busy taking standing weekly orders to be delivered to sororities and fraternities as well as the dorms.

We are still having an abundance of tomatoes. In fact, we have so many tomatoes that we constantly run out of harvest containers and space to store all of them. We are playing a strategic game of jenga two times a week. I know Jon and Adam (two chefs that have been taking all of our produce this summer) are happy to have some relief soon.

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We are still dealing with bird and rabbits out at the farm. It has become a very frustrating problem because there isn’t a sure fire way to prevent the pest damage. The farmers at the U of I have put out a predatory bird caller but that only seems to help for a couple of days until the crows get used to the sound. I thought a dry year would be good for us and it has in some ways. Unfortunately, the crows have been looking for not only food but also water. It is a struggle trying to repair the drip irrigation overtime we need to water. It’s also really disappointing for me and my staff to see beautiful produce become unmarketable due to bites taken out of it. The rabbits are eating our small transplants faster than we can replant. Incredibly frustrating.

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On the bright side, we got our first onion crop of the history of HH farms. They are beautiful and currently curing in the greenhouse!

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AAAAAhh, the tomato

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The highly anticipated part of the year has arrived. . . Tomato Season. I have been working this profession for the last 5? years and FINALLY the stars have aligned and we are having a great tomato season! It is very important for HH farm to have a good year in tomatoes because that is what we dedicate most of our land to growing. We use an entire 1/2 acre for just tomato production and unlike other faster growing crops that we can replant throughout the season, that piece of land is dedicated to tomatoes for the entirety of the growing season. Tomatoes take a long time to mature so by the time they are ready to harvest it would be too late to plant another crop in that same spot without having a high tunnel to protect it from the elements.

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Aside from dedicating a lot of land to tomato production we also depend on them for our cash crop. The reason I chose tomatoes for our cash crop is because they are one of the most widely used and diverse crops throughout the company. Another step towards sustainability is not only using fresh produce grown within the company but also to process that produce down into items that can be distributed throughout the kitchens. Examples of this would be: salsas, spaghetti sauces, soup bases and much more.

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This is the first year, in my experience, that we have had more unblemished tomatoes than blemished. The unblemished tomatoes are really great for us because they get double the dollar value and are a nicer product to showcase for the farm. The tomatoes are so beautiful we even added another product to our sales list… heirlooms! Our heirloom tomatoes sell $1.00 more than our high value unblemished 1sts due to intensity of flavor and difficulty to grow. We harvested 1,100 lbs of tomatoes yesterday and 900 of those lbs were unblemished. If our bodies didn’t hurt so bad at the end of the day I’m sure that Justin, Rey and myself would have literally jumped for joy. I’m not going to lie though…. it was physically challenging.

I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again, I LOVE LITTLE VISITORS. It is so much fun to see the excitement on their faces when they are able to see, harvest and eat what we produce. There is a HUGE educational component to this project and changing the way generations eat and look at food starts at the beginning, when children are young and before they have formed bad habits and negative opinions regarding fresh vegetables. Justin brought his kids, Jamey and Zachia, out to look at the farm. They quality tested some vegetables and we got a good review. Children are as honest as they come so we were relieved and happy to get a good feedback. I’ve asked Justin if he would bring them back to quality test our fall crop in a couple months and make sure we are staying on our toes!

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What’s the Dish About Cherries??

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What’s the dish about cherries? Well we’re not talking about cherries the deep red tart fruit…. I am talking about cherry tomatoes. This crop is the highest demanded product that our farm supplies. They come in all shapes, sizes and flavors. Most of the varieties are comparable to little candies bursting with flavor.

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The chefs love this product because it is delicious and also easy to prepare. Most of the cherry tomatoes we produce are small enough that they can be washed and put directly on the salad bar without any further preparation.

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The most popular variety of cherry tomato that we grow are called Sun Golds. These tomatoes are the size of a whopper, bright orange and filled with sweet sweet deliciousness. They say that this is the tomato for people who don’t like tomatoes.

 

Going into 2017 I knew the demand was high for this particular item and the supply was relatively low. I have been hesitant in the past to over plant cherry tomatoes because we have had so many disease problems and also because they are incredibly tedious to harvest. I researched several different varieties and read reviews on flavor profiles. We ended up planting doubl e the amount of cherry tomatoes we have had in previous years but the varieties are slightly larger, therefore cutting down on time consuming labor without cutting out the great flavor. I am happy to report it worked like a charm. When I told the chefs we had cherry tomatoes available they said bring them as many as I had and there was no maximum weight. After telling the chefs I had 70 quarts they quickly gave me their max weight. It was a good day knowing we can finally get a little closer to meeting the demand in a way that doesn’t slow down progress for the farm.

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