For me, farm season begins in late January, when the seed catalogs start arriving in the mail. I’m always excited to look back at which crops were successful the season before, and which didn’t grow so well, to figure out a game plan for the upcoming year. A lot of the time crop failures can be as simple as the time of the year the seed was planted. For instance, in the early spring this year we planted rainbow chard and from the moment it started to grow, the bugs tore it apart. I kept picking off the outer leaves hoping that the bug population would dwindle but they wouldn’t…then it got too hot and the plants started to bolt. On the other hand, the rainbow chard we planted in mid-August is thriving and has already made its way into the Bi-Rite braising mix. So after three seasons trying to grow chard in the spring, I’ve learned that it just doesn’t work; I need to wait for fall, when the bug population has died out.
Successful farms do a great job figuring out which crops grow well on their land, then focus on these crops. Since we’ve only been growing on our larger Sonoma plot for two seasons, we’re still trying to get an understanding of which crops like our climate and soil. The soil on our farm has low acidity, which makes it challenging to grow certain crops. This year our heirloom tomato plants struggled and never really produced fruit nice enough to sell at the Market, but they did make it into Sergio’s famous gazpacho! Tomatoes love acid! Certain crops like onions, potatoes, carrots and chard seem to do alright with low PH and have done really well in Sonoma this year. We’ve been adding oyster shells to raise the PH; I find building the soil to be extremely rewarding, especially when you see the results from season to season.
Farming is a life-long venture, and even farmers who have been growing for over 25 years find joy in growing something new. The only way to figure out which crops grow best on a specific piece of land is to constantly try new varieties; this explains why the farms whose fruits and veggies we sell in our produce section always have something new on their availability list each summer.
Beets have become a staple crop in the Bay Area, and our kitchen cooks with them year-round. They’re not a hard crop to grow, but they’re also not the most financially rewarding for small farms. A lot of large organic farms grow acres of beets, clip off the beautiful greens and sell them in 25 lb. bags. This brings the wholesale cost down, making it very challenging for small farms to compete on price. So this year I decided to grow Cylindra beets, an heirloom variety. They’re not your everyday round beet: long and narrow, they cook up to be so sweet and tender. The added bonus is that the greens on these beets are out of this world; it’s like getting a huge bunch of tender greens with every serving of beets.
I started growing food in 1995, but not until this year have I ever grown a super successful crop of melons. It all began in Colorado at 7,200 ft. elevation with cold summer nights–tough conditions for melon ripening. When I started farming in Sonoma, I never felt I had enough space to dedicate to melons, since they need a lot of room to grow. But this June, I isolated some open space. Pilar at Sunnyside Organic Seedlings in Richmond had some extra Juan Canary melon starts, so I figured even though it might be a little late in the season to plant them, I’d give it a try! Here we are in the end of September and the Juan Canary plants are producing a lot of incredibly tasty melons. They’re a sweet melon, crisp and tangier than a Honeydew, with flesh that looks like a pear. There will be Juan Canarys at the market for at least the next week and I will for sure be planting more next year!