If you’ve visited a farm or garden in the summer months, you probably spent your time oohing and ahhing over fields of colorful vegetables, waved to dirt-speckled farmers harvesting baskets of ripe tomatoes and squash, and made a stop at the produce stand to stock your kitchen with your own lush veggies.
What you probably didn’t recognize is the months of planning and preparation that go into creating this bountiful harvest each year.
Right now, the farmers at Crabtree Farms are hard at work making the fields ready for spring planting, and this process begins long before the seeds are placed in the ground.
I spent a morning with Farm Manager Chrissie Plew and got the dirt on what the farmers are up to as they prepare for the approaching spring planting season.
Equipment maintenance is one of the farmers’ most important tasks in the winter months leading up to planting time. Chrissie explains that there’s no time for broken tools or tractors during planting and harvesting, so it’s critical to make sure that all equipment is in good working order before taking to the fields.
The farmers also use the winter months to take soil samples of each field and send them to a lab for analysis. The lab reports back on the percentages of four main elements in each sample: phosphorus, potassium, nitrogen and sulfur. Based on what the farmers intend to grow in each field, the lab makes a recommendation about what amendments should be applied to the soil there.
For example, if a certain field has a nitrogen deficit that could be a disadvantage to the crop that will grow there, the lab will recommend how many pounds of nitrogen per acre should be amended to the field to make the crop as healthy as possible.
“People come to the farm and say ‘Oh! The plants,’” Chrissie says. “But what they don’t realize is that what happens beneath the surface, in the soil, is just as important, if not more important, than the plants themselves.”
After all this, the farmers can really get down to business. Chrissie trundles out to Field 6 on the (properly maintained) tractor, and I traipse behind her under the late-January sun. Currently, Field 6 is laden with a cover crop of alfalfa and other grasses, which helps the soil retain nutrients in the winter and creates additional biomass to churn into the field.
First we measure out the field’s perimeter, which is done every year to account for “human error,” Chrissie says, as she points out crooked boundary lines from last year’s measurement.
After we measure, Chrissie hops back on the tractor to begin discing the field, using a tractor attachment made of two rows of jagged metal discs that chop through roots and give the field it’s initial stir. By discing the cover crop, the next step, spading, becomes faster and less taxing on the equipment.
The spade is another tractor attachment that digs deep into the soil and gives it a hefty churn, which will help the cover crop to begin breaking down into biomass.
Finally, the top few inches of soil will be tilled just before planting to detach any small unwanted weeds or grasses. Chrissie explains that this ensures that your plants don’t have to compete for nutrients and other resources.
While all of this turning and churning is going on out in the fields, important things are happening in the greenhouses as well. Crabtree Farms’ plants are grown from seeds. For many of the seeds, this process begins in the warmth of the greenhouse tunnels.
Chrissie takes me to see the tomatoes as an example of how the fields and greenhouses work together. Although tomatoes are a summer crop, they’re already sprouting in individual containers inside the greenhouse. Chrissie refers to this phase of the tomatoes’ development as Elementary School, and says that soon before planting they will move to Middle School.
In Middle School, the tiny tomato plants spend a week outside of the greenhouse, still in their small containers, being exposed to wind and other elements that will strengthen their stems.
Bulb plants, like onions, get to skip Middle School because they are not fruit-bearing and therefore don’t require a strong stem. Once the tomatoes’ root systems and stems are sufficiently developed, they will graduate to the readied fields to fend for themselves.
At first glance, a farm in winter may appear dormant and unproductive. If you dig just a little deeper, though, you’ll find that the work done in these cold months creates the foundation for a year of healthy soil, handy tools and plentiful produce.