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Winter is Coming

“Winter is Coming” – motto of House Stark.

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Winter is coming, at least I thought so. The farm had heavy frost while I was pulling up plastic and now temperatures are back up into the 60’s. The farm is finished for the year and I have had time to reflect on 2017 growing season. We had a lot of successes and failures, similar to previous years. One of the biggest lessons we learned this year was that having a successful growing season doesn’t mean success all around. We had such a great year for tomatoes that we ran out of harvest containers, packaging supplies and storage areas. We did not have the time, space or equipment to process the 8,000 pound of tomatoes we hauled in over a span of four weeks :). This was a good problem but a problem none the less. The situation with the tomatoes caused me to reflect on the original plan for the farm. Are we even able to process excess food coming off the farm to store and redistribute during the winter months? I would say the answer right now would be no. I didn’t realize this until we had a year that was so successful we couldn’t handle what was coming off the farm. Should I plant less tomatoes and focus on storage crops? Are we going to have another weather friendly year next year where if I planted less tomatoes we would still be able to meet demand and maintain that high dollar value?

Tomatoes aren’t the only things in question as I am pretty sure none of the chefs want to see another Japanese eggplant ever again. 🙂

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All in all it was another great season. We grew a lot of vegetables, completed the first year of our SARE grant, met some new friends through The DREEAM House and participated in great events with our friends at The Land Connection, The Stewardship Alliance and SARE. I look forward to conference season, learning valuable techniques and chatting with old friends about their 2017 successes and failures.

I can’t thank the University of Illinois Department of Crop Sciences enough for this amazing opportunity by letting us lease land. Thank you to Jeremy Shafer for all that you do for us year after year. Thank you Matt Turino for allowing us to share your space and use your wash/ pack facility. Mary Hosier, you are such a great friend. You provide endless support and guidance, thank you. Thank you to The Land Connection for supporting us by sharing our story. I admire what you do for local farmers and the community. Thank you to SARE for providing us a grant to educate and spread the word about the importance of local food and seasonal cooking. Thank you to the chefs for supporting the farm with a special shout out to Jon Curtis, Kitty Kat Szymanski and Paige Pokorny for always saying yes even when you don’t want 20lbs of kale twice a week. Finally, thank you to the Hendrick family for supporting sustainability and making this opportunity possible!

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The Pros and Cons of Plasticulture

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The term plasticulture refers to the practice of using plastic materials in agricultural applications. – en.m.wikipedia.org

We use plastic to cover our bed tops for the majority of the farm. The plastic is laid in the spring and is buried about 4-6 inches on either side of the bed. It is a phenomenal way to control weeds around the plants, cutting down labor and increasing the overall health of the plant itself. It is important to control weeds specifically around the base of the plant to prevent disease and so the weeds do not out compete the plant for space and nutrients.

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While there are many advantages to using plastic there are also many disadvantages.  When lifting and removing plastic at the end of the year it is nearly impossible to remove it in its entirety. The plastic can easily rip causing pollution/ trash in the field, which is bad for the environment. That ripped plastic can also get into mowers and tractors causing mechanical problems. It is a lot of work taking the plastic out of the field at the end of the year, especially when the ground has already frozen.

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There is research being done on biodegradable materials to replace plastic but unfortunately they are still out of most small farmer’s price range.

I am going to rethink the amount of plastic we use in the field next year so that we can be better stewards to the environment while also using different organic methods for weed control.

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Microgreens: Is there a demand in an institutionalized setting?

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Microgreens, young vegetable greens, are all the rage! I first started hearing about them locally from the farmer circuit at conferences earlier this year. I have worked with microgreens for over a decade when I was in fine dining kitchens. I understood the application in that setting where they enhance flavor and stimulate visual appearance to those paying top dollar for their food. I never thought to apply/ grow them at our farm, primarily due to their high cost while working with meager budgets. Microgreens can be as expensive as $30/ 8oz, depending on the variety and where they are sourced.

After hearing farmer’s talk about trying to meet the demands of this new product I started to hear a few chefs within Hendrick House requesting them. I didn’t think there was enough interest to apply it to the 2017 crop so I invest a lot of energy into it.

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Towards the end of this growing season, we had some empty herb beds on the roof and I wanted to fill them with arugula. We were a little late in the season for them to mature to full size so what we got were microgreens. I harvested a small amount for my good friend and fellow chef, Kat, at Pi Beta Phi sorority. Kat, more affectionally known by the farm crew as Kitty meow, has been a huge supporter of the farm and is very knowledgeable about working with fresh produce. She was more than happy to test the arugula microgreens in a composed salad with red onion, feta, watermelon and balsamic reduction. I asked her to provide a very honest review from herself and the girls and she said they loved it!! I hope to sell the rest this week and maybe, after discussion at the 2018 chef workshops, this crop should be considered a contender after all.

 

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The Importance of Conferences

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It is incredibly important to attend local, regional and national conferences. These events are a phenomenal way to network within the industry. It is an opportunity to hear what worked and didn’t work from the previous growing season. It is also a really great way to learn from people who have been in the business for generations. I love being surrounded by people who share their love of local food.

I have spent the last two days at the Illinois Farm Bureau Conference in Bloomington, Illinois. My main reason for attending was to receive my Food Safety Modernization Certificate, which will soon be required by law (Food Safety Modernization Act). I attended a full day Produce Safety Alliance Grower Training yesterday and am now certified. It was such a rewarding experience, giving me the knowledge and tools to write a farm safety plan for Hendrick House Farm. This is important to protect not only consumers, but workers as well. It also gave me great direction in how to assemble a training guide for new employees. This is an area that has been somewhat overlooked in the past because we have had such a revolving door of people at the farm, usually starting during our busiest part of the season. This winter will be a perfect time to assemble our new farm safety program and new hire packet!

 

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And the BEET goes on…

***Click on the red circle for some snazzy tunes***

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We didn’t get the hard freeze we expected last week so “the beet (yellow beets) goes on..” and turnips and greens and onions and even peppers!! I keep expecting and preparing for the end of pepper season but am continually impressed at their resiliency to the cold temperatures. I truly think this is the last week for them but it wouldn’t be the first time I’ve been wrong nor the last. Keep em’ coming, I say :).

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Turnips, not beets

Turnips continue to come in hot, smelling sensational, but that’s nothing new.

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Hendrick House owns the building the rooftop garden is on so it seems logical to use that space to expand our growing season, since we have control of that space year round. My idea was to put small row covers over the beds to keep them warm through the winter months. This seemed like the perfect solution….. in my head. Applying that was a whole different story. My first thought was to cover the roof with row cover to extend the life of the herbs. I do not want to rip out the beds that were just established with the new plan for the roof that was implemented this year. The row cover ended up being too thin so I took some extra hoop house plastic and planned to cover the beds with that, using the row cover hoops. The growing depth on the roof is shallow and underneath is a very tender membrane, so any structure that is put on the roof cannot be installed deep enough to be secure. I thought the thin row cover hoops seemed stable enough when pushing them through the growing medium…. that was until I tried to attach heavy hoop house plastic to them in 30mph winds with sleeting rain. It was like I was creating my own parachute to fly away. I wish I had pictures but alas I was too busy trying to stay grounded. Back to the drawing board on that project!

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Preparing for the first frost

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Leaves are changing, the air is crisp and our first frost is forecasted for tonight. Justin and I started preparing for this last week when we dismantled our irrigation from the farm and stored it for winter. We broke down the hydroponic system preparing for the farmers to turn off the water. I blew out the lines to the roof irrigation system with an air compressor this morning and now we just sit back and wait. I still have peppers in the ground that are producing but the quality has really diminished and I think these freezing temperatures will finally be the nail in the coffin.

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All the boys are now back in the kitchens, Justin having gone back on Monday. It’s always a sad farewell, especially since I was really hoping to use our season extension tools this year.

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We are on the downhill slide of harvesting our fall crop. Fall crop of the year is definitely our turnips. We grow a variety called Purple Globe. They are round with white bottoms and purple tops and they smell fantastically spicy!

 

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