HAT FOLLOWS is an updated article about Mountain Dell Farm that was first published in 2004 in The Natural Farmer, the quarterly publication of the Northeast Organic Farming Association.
I believe the strength of New York agriculture is its diversity, and the ability of its farmers to problem solve. This article covers some of the solutions at Mountain Dell Farm.
by Mark Dunau
Mountain Dell Farm is owned, operated and occupied by myself, Lisa Wujnovich and our two children. We own fifty acres of land in Delaware County, New York, five of which are farmed. We are self-employed subsistence farmers; all our wealth is in our land and cobbled home/barn, and nearly all our income is derived from the vegetables we sell.
Mountain Dell Farm was NOFA-NY certified organic 1990–2001. It signed the NOFA-NY Farmer’s Pledge in 2003, and will continue the Farmer’s Pledge into the foreseeable future.
We sell vegetables from the first week in June through the Tuesday before Christmas. Our primary customers consist of restaurants in Manhattan, which we deliver to once a week. We also deliver to health food stores, sell locally to restaurants and individuals, and have a small CSA (Community Supported Agriculture, in which people pay up front for a share of vegetables for twenty weeks. At our farm the CSA runs from mid-June until mid-October, and the upfront money serves to keep us out of credit card debt in the spring).
The farm is at an elevation of 1,400 feet. All our cultivated land is on a gradual slope (the flats don’t drain well enough to profitably grow vegetables). The soil can be described as well drained clay and modestly rocky. Seventy percent of the vegetables we sell are salad or cooking greens. These thrive in the cool climate with the use of wide floating row covers from mid April through mid November, resulting in a six month selling season. The temperature at our farm rarely goes over 80 degrees.
Farming is gambling. When it comes to farming doubts, our most important piece of advice is that you’ve got to be in it to win it. What follows is a brief summary of how one farm family plays the season.
LAYOUT OF THE FARM
Mountain Dell Farm is generally laid out in fields that are from 15 to 25 feet wide and are from 100 to 200 yards long. The preferred width is 25 feet. Every other field has a path for the tractor to minimize compression.
We grow about 50 different types of vegetables. Most of the greens require multiple plantings to keep up with supply due to short harvest windows. Consequently, when we fill up our acreage, the farm has the look of a patchwork quilt.
WIDE FLOATING ROW COVERS
Mountain Dell Farm is in business because of wide floating row covers. We use them for the following purposes:
Row covers have two significant problems when you build a farm around them:
We use Agrobon 19 row covers (19 grams per square meter), purchasing them in rolls 30 feet wide and 1000 feet long for about $600. We buy one roll every two years. For our operation, we use the 30-foot wide row covers because they work well on our 25-foot wide beds. We standardize the length of row covers by cutting them in 90-foot lengths, an easy size to handle, even when wet. The rocks on our farm serve to hold the row covers in place. We have found that TRICKL-EEZ Company (formerly Zimmerman Irrigation) is the least expensive place to buy Agribon 19 wide floating row covers in the Northeast. TRICKL-EEZ’s telephone number is 800-672-4700.
Row covers are repaired by tying square knots wherever it is ripped.
The greenhouse that we open the last week of March looks like a Rube Goldberg cartoon. The only thing positive about it is that it works.
The greenhouse is six feet wide, 12 feet long, eight feet high and is built into the eastern wall of the bottom of our barn. It has five bench type levels and holds about 120 flats. It is lit by the eastern exposure and about 40 four-foot fluorescent fixtures using 80 regular fluorescent bulbs. It is vented by a small fan, and air is circulated inside with two small overhead fans. An electric heater easily regulates the temperature, so germination and growth is easy to control despite the weather. Vermont Compost Company potting soil is used. Most starts are seeded in flats that hold sixty plants. There has never been any disease and only one minor insect problem over the nineteen year use of this structure. The cost of electricity for this greenhouse in March, April and the beginning of May is less than $200.
In mid-April, we open two small greenhouses that receive southern exposures; these greenhouses are lean-to structures built against our barn, and are made of wood and plastic. One is heated with electricity (holding seventy flats), and the other is heated with an unvented propane heater (holding 110 flats). These greenhouses are well ventilated, and have never had any disease or insect problems.
Plants are hardened off on the northeast and eastern side of the barn. The greenhouses are closed by the middle of May, and all transplants are thereafter started on the eastern side of the barn.
Sod is killed by plowing, discing and dragging with a Belarus 250 tractor.
Once a field has been opened up, it has never been replowed. In a normal year, fields are initially tilled with a 9-foot spring tooth harrow on a three point hitch mount.
About half the fields are planted twice in the same year. We turn under the first planting with a five-foot harrow with duck foot shaped shanks on S tines; this implement goes deeper than the spring tooth harrow. The area to be replanted is then rotovated with a 5-foot rotovator.
Including mowing, the tractor work on the farm is about 60 hours.
Two people are able to cultivate most of the five acres of fields with a wheel hoe, collinear hoe, and a scuffle hoe. The nine-foot spring tooth harrow with a three point hitch mount is fabulous for killing weeds by dragging them to the surface, where the weeds are quickly killed in the sun, thereby keeping an area weed free before planting.
For direct seeded greens, some hands and knees work is usually required once per planting for weeding and/or thinning when the plants are small. Hand hoes are excellent for this work. Direct seeded leeks require at least two weedings on hands and knees.
Squash and tomatoes plantings are under sown with red clover after the final weeding. For areas not to be planted until the fall, we try to cover crop with buckwheat. For areas that have been harvested, but not to be replanted, we cover crop with oats through the third week in September. These oats hold the soil for the winter, but are killed by winter’s cold for easy cultivation in the spring. We do not use winter rye, because we hate fighting it the following spring when we quickly want to replant, particularly when the spring is very wet.
Weekly harvests range from 700 to 1500 pounds.
NYC accounts are called on Friday; vegetables are picked on Monday, delivered on Tuesday. Local accounts are called on Tuesday, picked and delivered on Thursday. CSA pick-ups are also on Thursday. Until October, nothing is picked that hasn’t already been sold, except for winter squash.
Almost all harvesting is done with a lettuce knife. We don’t pick baby anything. The youngest produce we strike down is teenage lettuce and young Hakurei turnips. Produce is carried to a 12'-by-16' wash room in milk crates or large plastic buckets. Water for the washroom comes from our home’s well water. Roots are washed in tubs with a nozzle sprayer from a hose and turned with a broom stick, and greens are dunked and cleaned in large sinks. Most vegetables are packed in heavy duty double bagged grocery bags (1/6 sacks) and stored in 96 quart coolers for delivery the next day. Bags each hold 10 pounds of greens, or 20 pounds of roots. Coolers hold about 30 pounds of greens. Every customer gets their own cooler or coolers depending on the size of the order. We charge by the pound for almost all items, not by the bunch or box.
We make 400 pounds of ice a week in two freezers at a cost of about $40 a month. Ice is in the form of 14 pound frozen trays, or two one gallon rectangular frozen water jugs.
September through Thanksgiving, we have our largest weekly harvests. What follows are the greens that three people typically pick and pack on the first Monday in November:
With the exception of winter squash, no vegetables are stored until the end of October, when the root cellar is sufficiently cool. Stored roots and greens are kept in the root cellar; built in the barn by insulating a section which has its western wall and foundation abutting the earth, and is very damp. We count on radicchio harvested at the end of November to store until Christmas (it often lasts through January). We spend late October and November harvesting roots for storage in the root cellar for easy packing on pick days, and harvest greens for root cellar storage only when a killing frost is coming, or pick day will not exceed 32 degrees. Roots will easily store through April in the root cellar (although late storage is for family use only). For sub-zero days there is a small electric heater. Winter squash is kept in a warmer part of the barn with a much lower humidity.
Coolers are packed in a 1982 Suburban. Using the roof, the Suburban holds up to twenty-five 96 quart coolers, and smaller coolers and boxes. Capacity is about 1400 pounds, 800 pounds of which can be greens. Knock on wood, there has never been a mechanical breakdown of this inexpensive, organized and cooled transport system that has worked for us for over 300,000 miles (the truck has received a full body transplant, but retains its original engine, which in 2009 will pass half a million miles).
We pump water out of our spring fed pond with a gasoline powered high pressure pump. The pump is attached directly to two ⅝-inch garden hoses, and has no problem delivering good water pressure to two sprinklers at the highest part of our farm, elevated about 70 feet over the pump and pond. Hundreds of feet of ⅝-inch garden hose takes us anywhere in the fields. We are easily able to start all planting on schedule with this water supply. Because of row covers holding in water moisture, we have been able to maintain all our crops by moving two oscillating sprinklers through the fields—we can cover about three acres in a week. We can pump 24 hours a day without worrying about running out of water (advantage of being at the bottom of a dell). This form of irrigation is drudgery during a drought, but requires little investment.
We are in deer country. Our losses to these creatures, however, are less than a $200 a year. We have around the perimeter of the farm a low impedance plastic wire fence with two strands at a height of about 18 inches and 36 inches, powered by a Parmak Charger. Three feet behind that fence we have a single strand of low impedance wire at a height of about two feet. All crops that are highly loved by the deer (lettuce, radicchio, frissee...) have a single strand of low impedance wire fence running around them that is powered by the exterior fence. Once weeded, another strand will be run down the middle of a highly valued crop. These interior fences go up in about twenty minutes with fiber glass poles and are the key to our fencing success. When feasting, the deer quickly run into them and get 10,000 volts to the nose. We use low impedance plastic wire fence for the perimeter and interior because deer are virtually blind to them at night; they don’t jump over what they can’t see. Mountain Dell Farm is a series of unpleasant encounters to deer and they usually move on. It’s been six years since we lost more than a $200 and shot an intruder.
ANNUAL FERTILIZER INPUTS
INSECT PEST MANAGEMENT
VEGETABLES GROWN WITH TRANSPLANTS
We put in approximately 40,000 transplants by hand a year. The heart of our transplant operation is lettuce, radicchio, and fennel. We usually start these together every three weeks, and transplant on a three week schedule. We transplant by hand with a hand pic along the width of a field in rows of four, plants a little less than one foot apart, then leave about a fifteen-inch foot path. If a field is 10 feet wide, this creates a series of beds about three feet wide, each with approximately forty plants. An advantage of this pattern is that we can transplant in all soil conditions, except for mud, and it is easy to keep cultivated by hand; much the same as if they were raised beds. We thin by following a zigzag pattern in a bed, and yields are high.
Lettuce — Favorite varieties are Red Salad Bowl, Green Salad Bowl, Galactic, Cocarde, Magenta, Winter Density. First seeded in flats March 25. New transplants started every three weeks until July 16, then three large plantings in successive weeks for the long fall harvest, when lettuce is slow to go to seed. Last seeded August 1 for teenage lettuce or a warm fall. First transplanted towards the end of April with a handful of compost per transplant. Last transplanting September 1. Area to be transplanted first fertilized with Fertrell Super-N (4-2-4). Row covers used to prevent frost damage. With the exception of Winter Density, the varieties mentioned here will take 18° without frost damage, if double covered with Agribon 19. Red Salad Bowl will take 14°, if double covered.
Radicchio — First seeded in flats March 25. New transplants started every three weeks until June 26, then triple planted for the long fall harvest. First planting towards the end of April with a handful of compost per transplant, last planting in mid-August. Row covers used to prevent frost damage. Will take 14°, if double covered. Area to be transplanted first fertilized with Fertrell Super-N (4-2-4).
Fennel — First seeded in flats March 25. New transplants started every three weeks until the first week in June, when triple planted for the long fall harvest. First planted in fields the first week in May with a handful of compost. Last planting around the first week in July. Row covers used to prevent frost damage. Will take 20°, if double covered. Area to be transplanted first fertilized with Fertrell Super N (4-2-4).
Chinese Cabbage — Seeded in flats in mid July. Planted in mid August with a handful of compost. Covered with row cover for vigorous growth and flea beetle protection for first month, then removed to prevent rot. Row covers used again when danger of frost damage. Will take 18°, if double covered. Area to be transplanted first fertilized with Fertrell Super-N (4-2-4).
Basil — Seeded in flats the end of March. Planted in the fields with a handful of compost the last week in May. Covered for entire season with a light floating row cover. Area to be transplanted first fertilized with Fertrell Super-N (4-2-4).
Celeriac — Started in flats in the home at the end of February. Transplanted to flats in the greenhouse in mid-April. Transplanted to fields at the end of May with a handful of compost per transplant. Area of to be transplanted first fertilized with Fertrell Feed-N-Gro (2-4-2).
Tomatoes — Seeded in flats first week in April. Transplanted 3½ feet apart the last week in May with compost and Fertrell Feed-N-Gro (2-4-2). Covered with row cover until flowers appear for fast and vigorous growth.
Summer Squash — Seeded in flats May 5. Transplanted last week in May fifteen inches apart into trenches five feet apart enriched with compost and Fertrell Feed-N-Gro (2-4-2). Covered with row cover until flowers appear for fast and vigorous growth, and to control cucumber beetles.
Winter Squash — Seeded in flats May 5. Transplanted in hills three feet apart enriched with compost and Fertrell Feed-N-Gro (2-4-2). Covered with row cover until flowers appear for fast and vigorous growth and to control cucumber beetles.
DIRECT SEEDED VEGETABLES
We direct seed brassicas every week from mid April until September 1. The heart of our brassica plantings are arugula, broccoli raab, tatsoi, bok choy, kyona mizuna, and Hakurei turnips. We plant these crops together every two weeks in beds about 25 feet wide and 90 feet long. We use an Earthway seeder and customize heavy seed brassica plates by closing three out of four holes for arugula, tatsoi, red mustard, bok choy, and mizuna. We close two out of three holes for broccoli raab, and one out of two holes for the Hakurei turnips (dense planting makes for the desired small turnips). Rows are seeded along the 25-foot width of the field a little more than a foot apart. A typical planting of these crops has 88 rows; 12 arugula, 12 broccoli raab, 16 tatsoi, 12 red mustard, 12 bok choy, 12 mizuna, 12 Hakurei turnips. Until September, tatsoi, bok choy, red mustard, and kyona mizuna have only about a two week harvest window before they go to seed. Arugula and broccoli raab only have about a one week harvest window before they go to seed, which is why they have a separate weekly planting. Except for the fall, row covers stay on these greens from seeding until a week before harvest.
Fall is the easiest time to grow these greens. Plants grow well but are slow to bolt. As temperatures cool through the fall, the fields act almost as a giant living refrigerator. Consequently, in mid-August we triple plant, and August 22 we triple plant again. On September 1, we triple plant arugula and broccoli raab yet again. These mid-August and late August plantings are crucial for a successful season, because these planting will last through November, if properly maintained. However, when these fall planting near maturity, it is critical to remove the row covers; otherwise the plants grow too quickly, and are more likely to rot. If there is danger of heavy frost, we put the row covers back on. By November, the row covers are permanently back in place. As reported earlier in this article, double covered arugula and tatsoi will take 14 degrees; the rest of these brassicas will take 18 degrees. The heavy dew that precedes frosts saturates the row covers so that they freeze like igloos. When the sun hits the frozen row covers, the plants are gently warmed through the diffusion of light, and the dampness of the row covers themselves also helps prevent burning. Plants must not be harvested, however, until they thaw.
Arugula, Broccoli Raab — Directed seeded as soon as soil can be worked in mid April. Planted weekly in soil enriched with Fertrell Super-N (4-2-4). Triple planted three times in successive weekly plantings beginning in mid August for a long fall harvest. Planted with row cover. Row cover stays on until a week before harvest (except in fall). Plants cultivated after two weeks, dusted then with 1% rotenone for flea beetles, if necessary.
Tatsoi, Red Mustard, Bok Choy, Kyona Mizuna, Hakurei Turnips — Direct seeded as soon as soil can be worked in mid April in soil enriched with Fertrell Super-N (4-2-4). Planted every two weeks. Triple planted in mid-August twice in two successive weekly plantings for a long fall harvest. Planted with row cover. Row cover stays on until week before harvest (except during part of fall). Plants cultivated after two weeks, dusted then with 1% rotenone for flea beetles, if necessary.
Frissee — Direct seeded as soon as soil can be worked in mid-April under row cover in soil enriched with Fertrell Super-N (4-2-4). Row cover removed soon after seeds germinate. Replanted every three weeks until the end of July, when triple planted for long fall harvest. Will take 14°, if double covered.
Leeks — Directed seeded as soon as soil can be worked in mid-April. Planted with row cover. Row covers removed soon after germination in soil enriched with Fertrell Super-N (4-2-4). Row covers placed back on when hard freezes return with the fall.
Daikons — Directed seeded for fall harvest last week in July under row cover in soil fertilized with Fertrell Feed-N-Gro (2-4-2). Row covers removed soon after Daikons are thinned. Row covers placed back on with the hard freezes of the fall. Daikons, unlike most roots, are very susceptible to frost damage because of their height over the ground. This is the only root we will double cover.
Beets — Direct seeded first week in May and last week in June under row cover in soil fertilized with Fertrell Feed-N-Gro (2-4-2). Row covers removed soon after germination. Row covers placed back on when severe cold is forecast; particularly days that do no exceed 32°.
Rutabagas — Direct seeded under row covers last week in June in soil fertilized with Fertrell Feed-N-Gro (2-4-2). Row covers removed soon after thinning. Row covers placed back on when severe cold is forecast; particularly days that do no exceed 32°.
MOUNTAIN DELL FARM’S SEVEN RULES FOR SUSTAINABLE AGRICULTURE