Eliot Coleman has gotten so good at raising organic produce through the Maine winters that his Four Season Farm now supplies winter and spring markets only.
“Anyone can raise produce in the summer,” he said, and supplies are high then.
Four Season Farm’s growing season just started in September and goes through June. Five farmers from the Bartholomew County area got to see how it’s done on a recent visit with Coleman and others on a study trip to farms in Maine and Vermont, offered by Purdue Extension’s Diversified Food and Farming program.
Other astonishing feats of farming at Four Season Farm include:
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Crops are sheltered in winter by high tunnels or hoop houses, and no supplemental heat is supplied.
Half of the crop acreage is in cover crops at any given time.
Plant and soil health is the main defense against pests and diseases; no chemical pesticides are used.
Laying hens, rotating on pasture, help to complete the farm’s nutrient cycle.
By focusing on what the farm does best, Coleman once – years ago – halved the staff and the farm’s gross earnings, doubling the farm’s net earnings.
Throughout the trip, our group of farmers, extension educators and specialists learned about smart business decisions that kept farms in business, the farmers’ workload manageable and local supply chains viable. Some of that wisdom is available through Coleman’s books, such as “Four-Season Harvest” and “The Winter Harvest Handbook.”
On another stop, Richard Wiswall let us in on the farming and business practices that make Cate Farm in Vermont a successful and joyful venture. His book, “The Organic Farmer’s Business Handbook,” deals in equal measure with data-driven decisions and personal happiness. Tour the farm and it’s clear that those folks are having fun.
Several themes began to form around the farms and practices that we observed:
There is more than one way to skin a carrot. From hen houses that rotate through pasture, to carrot cleaners and greens-washers, we saw all kinds of Yankee ingenuity.
The happiest and most successful farmers have an exit plan. The end of the sentence that starts with, “I’ll get out when …” is clear to them and their families. You can imagine that answers differ from farm to farm, but seem to work for each farmer. Positioning the business to sell is another measure.
Location is critical. The farmers we visited chose their locations based on nearby population.
Scale is critical. The farmers we visited were intentional about reaching and staying at a scale that was most profitable and comfortable given a variety of conditions.
Appearances of scale can be deceptive. One operation appeared small from the looks of its roadside stands, but was enormous behind the scenes.
Land trusts play an important role. Whether connecting available land with entry-level farmers, or administering agricultural easements, land trusts in Maine help to keep land in agriculture and farmers farming.
Bringing it home
We’ll likely enjoy a steady increase of local produce available through the winter, but not specifically because of the trip I’ve described here. Some Bartholomew County producers have been extending the season for a few years now, using a variety of methods. The practices learned by producers and educators on this trip are likely to raise the level of practice as well as financial success.Learning events based on this year’s diversified food and farming study trips are in the works for both farmers and gardeners. Contact me if you would like to know more.