This is our farm column from farmer Casey O’Neill. O’Neill is the owner operator of HappyDay Farms north of Laytonville, and a long time advocate for the cannabis community in Mendocino Co. The opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer. If you would like to submit a letter to the editor feel free to write to [email protected].
This is the season of long days with much to do. Animal chores begin before seven each morning, and evening chores go until well after 8 each night. The time in between is a whirlwind of weeding, hoeing, prepping, planting and sowing. The work is both varied and repetitive, a strange but settling combination.
Seasonal transitions are always tough on the farm as the work of one season continues while the effort for the season to come ramps up. Tending, weeding and fertilizing the spring crops must balance with the bed prep and planting of the summer crops, for what ye sow ye shall reap with work and care.
We are past peak spring production, but haven’t yet hit the summer abundance. The shoulders of seasons are always hard in terms of maintaining volume to fill markets, farmstand, CSA and special orders. This is the time of year when we often struggle to maintain our bed turnover rate, which slows down the arrival of future harvests.
In an ideal setting, beds are harvested for market, prepped and replanted by the next day. During spring we’re on top of this, especially in the hoophouses where space is premium and productivity is maximal. As the farm comes to life and the animal rotations also begin on pasture, the juggling choreography becomes more intense and difficult to manage.
I’m ruminating on our larger fall-winter-spring management strategies as applies to cover crop, winter shut down, spring prep work, mulching, silage tarps for light occultation and the other factors that govern our efforts. With the savagery of fire season last year we missed a major planting window for winter crops. Combine severe burnout with the lack of rain in fall, we had little choice but to shut down and recharge.
Though it is yet spring, I’m evaluating my planning through the end of the year, considering old variables in new light, along with new variables that have not been in play before. This will be the first winter that I’ve had the number of production caterpillar tunnels to plan for winter production. With six tunnels each containing four rows 30” wide and 50’ long, those 24 beds can produce a helluva lot of winter food.
Going into last winter I had only two tunnels, eight beds to plan and plant. We built two new tunnels in January and two more in May, which now has me considering management strategies for this coming winter. We’ve had excellent luck with a balance of greens/salad mixes and fast root crops, and I can see that with the increased space I’ll be able to maintain a strong, year-round showing at markets and with the CSA.
There are the physical production limits dictated by space, and then there are the psychological limits that come with year-round production. In the last 11 years we’ve run winter production in five of them, never managing to do more than 2 years in a row. I’m looking for strategies that will build a more sustainable work plan that spaces the efforts out more through the year and provides more regular downtime.
It’s not hard to clear crop residue and replant beds that have just been harvested. The longer the beds sit, the more time it takes to get them back in shape for planting as weeds become hardy and stout. Our fall shutdown practices have been to sow cover crop in all the beds that won’t be in winter production, but each of the last two years we’ve had to wait until the beginning of December after the rains have come so that there is enough water to germinate the seed.
The late cover crop sowings make for late spring prep (or less productive stands of cover crop) and tend to jam spring prep into a shorter period than is sustainable for us in terms of workload. Bodies are sore and the effort can feel overwhelming. This year, cover crop will be going in earlier, undersown while the later summer crops are still in production. When we’re still irrigating the summer crops, there is water available to get cover crop up and growing, and once the roots go down it will sustain better through the possible fall drought.
Early cover crops can be harvested during winter for forage for animals, and the beds will be ready to prep sooner as the cover crop begins to flower indicating it has achieved maximum potential. Spacing out the planting in fall means spacing out the clearing and prep in spring, making a more regular, less intensive schedule.
Each year I revise the practices based on new information, techniques, equipment and our shared goals. I thrive on looking at the planning process and making adjustments, seeking the most efficient and truthful to heart set of practices. As the long days of spring continue, so does the effort with as much grace as we can muster. As always, much love and great success to you on your journey!
Casey O’Neill owns and runs HappyDay Farms, a small vegetable and cannabis farm north of Laytonville. He is a long time cannabis policy advocate, and was born and raised in the Bell Springs area. The preceding has been an editorial column. The Mendocino Voice has not necessarily fact-checked or copyedited this work, and it should be interpreted as the words of the author, not necessarily reflecting the opinions of The Mendocino Voice.