Hallelujah, it’s January, the most optimistic month of the year! Okay, maybe not everyone shares the sentiment (January is rather cold), but as part of the New Year package, the month has more to offer than just frozen toes.
January is when we transfer CSA money from the business savings account to the checking account. The CSA model of collecting money months ahead of harvest, when growers need it most, is the envy many a contractor who’s had to chase down payment long after the job is done. Nevertheless, it is possible to get paid too far in advance. To ensure we don’t overspend at the end of the year, we deposit all CSA renewals collected in the fall into a savings account and keep them there until the New Year. This practice was borne of general sense of fiscal responsibility, and also of a commitment to zero debt. In 2007, Dan and I launched the farm with a combined $50,000 in savings—$45,000 from Dan and $5,000 from myself. Since then, the farm’s operating budget has been funded almost
entirely through vegetable sales. We’re often asked why we don’t take advantage of the low-interest loans, grants, or fundraisers that subsidize many other farms. Our simple answer is that easy money always comes with a price. Like politicians beholden to corporate donors, farmers beholden to outside funding must balance the needs of the farm with the demands of the funders. Ideally, the two would be aligned, but we can recall plenty of instances when they are not. So we hold onto our independence, attending to vegetable sales like the bottom line that it is, tightening our belts when the checking account dips low, and relishing that moment in January when the money rolls over and we feel flush with cash.
This year we’re spending a lot of that cash on the babies—the seedlings, that is. A strong, vigorous seedling stands a fighting chance against pests and disease, but a plant that struggles in the greenhouse will rarely do well in the field. Investing in seedlings is basic common sense that promises a high rate of return. To that end, this year we’re replacing our supply of styrofoam flats with Winstrips, a new type of flat that is fast growing in popularity. In standard flats, as a seedling’s roots grow, they quickly run into the cell wall, at which point they change direction, eventually circling the cell. When the seedling is pulled from the cell for transplanting, the disturbance to these long roots can be traumatic. In fact, “transplant shock” is a well-known condition that can last a week or more. It’s a treacherous time for the plants, when there’s not much margin for error or bad luck. Winstrips, however, dramatically reduce transplant shock, thanks to a unique design that features large drainage holes and narrow slits along the sides of each cell. These openings promote air
pruning, the process whereby a seedling’s roots, when they encounter open air, prune themselves, which in turn stimulates the formation of new roots. Because the roots are relatively short, a Winstrip seedling experiences less trauma at transplanting; because the roots are so numerous, they can absorb soil nutrients at a much fastere rate. In other words, the plants hit the ground running. Several years ago, when our onion transplants were wiped out by root maggots, our friend Sean from the Hamlet Organic Garden donated several hundred leftover seedlings. Sean had just begun using Winstrips, which were lesser-known and very hard to source at the time, so while he was happy to part with the seedlings, he would not part with the flats themselves. When Dan and George arrived at Sean’s place in Brookhaven, they had to transfer the seedlings into plastic tubs for the ride back. I was mildly horrified when I saw the jumble inside the tubs, but the plants and their roots were remarkably intact, despite the rough ride. Those onions survived and thrived, saving us from complete onion failure that season. Even more remarkable, however, were the broccoli plants Sean threw in as a bonus. He didn’t need them, but I hadn’t counted on getting them, and in all the springtime hustle, I never found a place for them in the field. I ended up leaving the broccoli tub in the greenhouse and forgetting about it, until a week or two later, when I happened by, and was amazed to see the plants looking as good as the day they first arrived. In fact, it would be 3-4 weeks before they started showing signs of stress. That experience sold me on Winstrips, and it was frustrating that they were something of an agricultural unicorn at the time. Fortunately, that’s beginning to change, as more suppliers carry them, and we now have a towering supply waiting for the year’s first seeds.
Another big-ticket purchases for the year is a new ride-on mower. Our growing fleet of mowers may seem excessive for a five-acre farm—two tractor-mount mowers, a flail for the walk-behind tractor, several push mowers, and now a ride-on. Excessive or not, having the right mower for the right job is what enables us to keep as much of the soil covered as possible. The big mowers tackle the field perimeters and fallow areas, the small mowers squeeze down narrow aisles where cover crops alternate with of cash crops. I used to tease Dan about his habit of collecting and discarding mowers, likening it to the way some men go through women, but as the demands on our mowers heightened, I ultimately saw a method to the madness.
There are many more purchases ahead, most them standard supplies—seeds, potting mix, row cover, etc. Other administrative tasks include field maps, the seeding schedule, job postings, and marketing materials. As I hunker down next to the wood stove, computer in my lap, I savor the farmer’s January delight—the chance to relax indoors while simultaneously, excitedly, plotting out the season ahead.