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; more of his writing can be found here. 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].
The propagation house is filling up, hoophouse beds are all planted and the winter projects are winding down, which means that spring must be on the horizon. I’m getting better at understanding how the precision seeder works, although still trying to dial it in. Sowing hoophouse crops is tricky; sow too thin and there aren’t enough plants, sow too thick and growth is stunted.
We’ve struggled with swinging back and forth between sowings that were too thick, meaning that we had to thin the plants to get to the point where an effective yield could be had. As a result of early winter sowings that were too thick, we scaled back on the spacing, but found that there weren’t enough seedlings to fill out the row. Sparse plants make for lighter harvests that throw the planning all out of whack.
Seeding is a combination of several variables, beginning with size of seed, and how often the seeder drops them. The machine has different gears like a 10-speed bicycle, so you can adjust from as close as ½” to more than a foot in seed spacing. There are also different wheels with depressions in them for different sized seeds, which roll through the seed chamber, gathering the seed and then dropping it down the chute to the soil.
There are wheels that have a single course of seed depressions, and ones that have double rows, offset, to increase the number of seeds and decrease the spacings. Overall, there are a lot of different factors to consider, and it takes practice to get it right. The difficulty in crop planning is complicated because of the learning curve with the seeder, but it’s a helluva lot less laborious than starting everything in trays and transplanting by hand, which is what we used to do for almost all of the crops we grow.
Crop planning in the winter is further complicated by the slower growing times that occur because of shorter days. The weather plays a huge factor in this calculation, meaning that there is a lot of variation year-by-year depending on how warm/cold and dry/wet it is out. Growth this year has been much faster than expected, but the warm, sunny days are a double-edged sword that make things grow faster but also blow out and go to flower much faster than expected.
The goal of crop planning is to have a consistent supply of vegetables for our farmstand, CSA, farmers market and special orders. This is the time of year when it’s hard to keep up on the production, and I can see clear mistakes and also huge successes. As the farm has grown and expanded, the new bed space has allowed us to do more, but it makes the calculations more complicated and the potential workload heavier. Keeping all the balls in the air to maximize production can feel overwhelming, but it can also be a thing of deep joy and beauty.
We had almost double the amount of winter hoophouse space in operation this year from the year before, and we planted a huge volume of large, heading brassica to fill the space. In retrospect, I should have planted the cabbages outside under low tunnels with frost blanket, but I didn’t anticipate such a warm, dry winter. The big plants produce well, but also take up a lot of space and take a long time to arrive at maturity.
There are benefits and drawbacks to any crop in any season, and the goal is to maximize the wins and minimize the losses. With the longer-life brassica, it’s nice because once they are planted they require little care. The plants grow big enough to shade out weeds, and there are few pests that bother them in the winter (aphids and harlequin beetles are a huge issue in the summer and fall). Not having to worry about clearing and replanting the beds works well with our need for a lesser workload during the winter, but overall productivity is lower than from salad mixes and tender root crops.
This next year I’m hoping to work in more winter beets and carrots, though the sowing will be tricky to get them into a hoophouse bed in time for them to produce before the short days and low light slow growth too much. Because we’re at higher elevation, the inversion layer means that we stay warmer, later into the season, so the summer hoophouse crops linger late into the year. Finding space by clearing summer crops early to plant slow-growing beets and carrots may make sense, but it’s a tricky balance.
Overall, we’re bringing more produce to market earlier in the year than we ever have before. It’s nice to feel supported by the community, to be in a pull market, which means that we can sell all of our produce through the different channels we’ve developed over the years. I would far rather work to figure out how to have enough to meet demand than have to try to get rid of excess produce. In this time of economic downturn, the support means a lot to us. 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.