One (1) year ago I was watching Curtis Stone’s Urban Farming YouTube videos in Charlotte, NC wondering, can a middle aged suburban non-farmer get the hands-on experience to really make a go of an urban (back yard) farm. Curtis demonstrates how he has applied SPIN (Small Plot INtesive) Farming Practices in an urban setting to grow an assortment of “quick” “high value” crops to be sold at the Farmers Market, through a CSA buying club, or to his neighbors. Next, I remembered WWOOFUSA.org, which matches willing organic farming students with organic farmers for a working internship. Then I found Harbin Hills Farms, which is run by farmer/ owner/ teacher Richard Calkins.
Richard uses hand tools to pack a lot of vegetable production into a 1.5-acre plot. There are three (3) Hoop Houses (70 ft x 30 ft) for season extension; three (3) garden areas that use rows and rows of planter boxes (24 inch x 30 inch); and one big garden area that has been shaped into raised beds with a walk behind BCS tractor. Achieving my learning goals will give me the experience I need to apply Curtis Stone’s advice to become a successful urban farmer. Richard grows the kinds of valuable crops, that Curtis discusses– cut and come again vegetables like spinach, lettuce, swiss chard, kale, beans, and tomatoes. Working on the farm I have learned how to prep a bed for a new crop, place the transplants, water, weed, etc. for 15 – 20 crops. Richard has also shared the thought process behind his crop planning and crop selections, which generally follow the logic proposed by Curtis.
Along the way, we’ve seen some of the common challenges that arise, and strategies for avoiding crop damage. For example, during the winter we had crops like carrots, spinach, and swiss chard hibernating in the usually unheated hoop houses. These cool weather plants are fine down to about 20 degrees F for short periods, so when we had temperatures forecast to dip below that Richard decided, that we would setup portable propane heaters to keep those temps in the safe zone. This was the first year for using heaters in the hoop houses, so there were the trial and error lessons to be learned, that accompany new ventures. We lost a small percentage of the crops around the outer edges but saved most. It was extra work during a time, when we had extra time to invest, that lead to valuable learning, and the preservation of valuable crops for future sales. The heater deployment process evolved over the winter into a doable task.
Part of the weekly routine on the farm is harvesting, washing, packaging, storing, inventorying, pricing, transporting, and displaying the produce. Many of the processes are quite logical, and seem intuitive, but nothing teaches a skill like being plugged into a production system. While I don’t perform the same operations every week, I have done most things multiple times, so I have a good sense of how the work flows, and what factors are critical. And one of the mental games that a farmer is always playing is “Am I doing this the quickest and easiest way possible?”, because there is always more work than there are hours in the day. So figuring out a way to do any job better always produces a sense of satisfaction.
I work on the farm with another intern and the farmer, so while much of the work is solitary, once a job is mastered, there is always opportunities for teamwork and task switching.
One of the crop categories discussed by Curtis Stone with great learning and profit potential is MicroGreens. MicroGreens are edible vegetable seedlings that are typically between seven (7) and twenty (20) days old. They are packed with nutrition and flavor, and are especially popular with anyone in search of ways to sneak some super-foods into their daily diets. Research at the University of Maryland has shown, that MicroGreens can be from four (4) to forty (40) times more nutrient dense than the same full grown vegetable. A crop that matures in such a short time means a MicroGreens farmer can get many seasons of experience in a matter of months. And a crop that can be grown indoors in a small space, can be grown year-round. This is a crop that can feed the body and the bank account as well, and may very well be the key to launching my urban farm. I will be exploring more about MicroGreens, in the next months, and that will be the subject of my next blog post along with adventures in Hemp farming.
I have learned so much about myself, and farming since coming to Harbin Hills Farms. I am grateful to all the folks that are making farming available to the general public.
Joe Traylor, 2019 FARM Intern
Harbin Hill Farm – Mountain City, TN