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State of the Farm: September, 2023. The Problem of Scale.

Be careful what you wish for.

(Yes, yes. Another State of the Farm entry. I’m in Wisconsin. Sue me.)

Some years ago, I discussed the problem of abundance. At the time, I was concerned with production from tree products such as chestnuts and Cornelian Cherries. That particular year we had good crops from several of our fruit trees and thought pretty good of ourselves. But, then, these were tree products that have their own issues and fecundity.

While we could do some things such as spraying and fertilizing, there wasn’t all that much we could do to help the trees. Weeding? Not an issue. Pests? Sometimes but for many years we haven’t had much of a problem.

In the garden, however, we had much more control and, therefore, felt the failures much more keenly.

Over the last few years, we’ve started attempting to address the problems of producing calories at scale. By this, I mean that we are trying to make a dent in the sustenance of the household. Trying to take the garden to a fun project that is good in the summer to an effort that actually makes a dent in the grocery bill.

This year we put everything we learned to use and now it’s time to evaluate how we did.

We put our caloric faith in beans, squash, and potatoes. Other crops came and went and a couple—I’m looking at you, sugar beets—are still experimental. But those three are intended to feed us.

We learned a lot from beans but I can’t say we were a rousing success. We planted bush beans, pinto beans (which are a kind of bush bean), runner beans, and pole beans. We also had record-breaking heat waves and, as I said in a previous entry, found out that beans don’t set fruit in high temperatures. When the temperatures began to drop, we started to get beans and we’re letting them dry some on the vine before we determine the yield. I’m not hopeful.

In retrospect, I think I planted too densely. While the Great Bean Tunnel looks cool, it’s not really all that productive. It was, however, a nice place to sit in the heat.

We had similar problems with the squash. The zucchini never really set fruit—we’re still trying to find out why. Other people we know had tons of the stuff but we didn’t get much. We had a lot of squash germination problems that we’ll need to address. Germination problems all around. We do have some squash but, again, I don’t think we handled scale well there either.

Potatoes were a fair success story. We have about a 3/1 return on investment. Not as good as I would have preferred but significantly better than breaking even. We planted a white and a red potato. (I forget the varieties at the moment.) The reds did well but the whites didn’t. We got many tiny potatoes. I understand that this is in style at the moment but I would rather have had more literal poundage than pretty plate decorations.

Other crops did better. Amazingly, we were able to grow two cabbages—usually, they’re eaten to the bone. And we had some cold crops that did well. Basil did well and the sugar beets appear—without yet being harvested—to have done quite well. Melons are always questionable.

Interestingly, the melons and cucumbers both seemed to have something that looked like a squash borer problem. All of a sudden, a whole stalk of cucumber would die off. I never found the culprit. This was mostly because of the density of planting and the random nature of the melon/cucumber growth. Every stalk crossed every other one on the trellis. It looked nice but it made tracing back the problem difficult.

If I have learned any lesson this year, it was that I planted too densely. I wanted to grow everything. But, while it was cool to grow a couple of cabbages, each cabbage was a circle three feet in diameter and produced a single “fruit.” It was space I could have used for more staples. I think I need to limit my experiments and turn more space over to calorie crops.

I planted nine different kinds of melons very close together. When I got fruit,  I couldn’t tell where it was coming from. The runner beans and pole beans were also planted too densely. Both layered up to the point that some beans were shadowed by their neighbors and didn’t produce as well.

It was ambition, pure and simple. I blame society.

Many pickles were canned. Lots of tomatoes were sacrificed to the vegetable gods to form sauce. Much applesauce and dried apples were made. Ten gallons of Cornelian Cherry wine is percolating even as we speak. If you can hear me talking or are speaking to me right now, I’d suggest visiting a professional.

So: more planning next year. This year, raise a glass and pass the potatoes.

 

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