Search “market farming” videos you will find titles like “5 Best Crops I Grow” or “How I made $200,000 in my Backyard!”. Small scale farming models based on rapid bed turnover, quick growing specialty crops efficiently produced in intensive systems are sexy. A successful farm would only grow the most popular and most profitable crops, right? That farm would have few issues selling their products, and provide the farmer with the highest return.
Planning our field for 2023, I return to our CSA survey and not surprisingly there are crowd favorites. Should Folks Farm focus on these high dollar products that we can cost effectively grow?
Organic farming and gardening success relies on the coalescing of nature and garden. Weather patterns, fertility, irrigation, strong plants, weed control, and pest issues work in concert. Hopefully the checks and balances make a positive return. Not relying on chemical fertilizers or pesticides makes the grower a more active participant in this process. To reap a harvest the grower must make decisions and adapt to shifting seasons.
Diversity is the cornerstone of the resilient garden. Rather than 1 large annual crop, successions elongate the harvest and be back ups when a crop fails. Planting different varieties, ideally regionally adapted, can help buffer against pests, add flavor to a diet, and further elongate the harvest window.
In diverse ecosystems, there are organisms that inhabit every niche. Vines climbing up deep rooted trees, herbaceous perennials occupying the understory, all complete with intermingled animals. Any given catastrophe has a contingency plan. If a large tree falls in the forest other plants will grow towards the sunlight as fungi and other decomposers break down the new material to feed the upcoming life.
Our gardens can function similarly. An elementally balanced garden provides a diversity of species, across all seasons, to foster life. When I say elemental, I am referring to earth, water, fire, and air. In plant terms: roots, leaves, fruits, and flowers. Incorporating these crops, grown together, you invite the magic of nature into the garden ecosystem. This idea comes from biodynamic farming that takes the process a further step in harnessing cosmic energy to imbue your crops with the cosmos.
I use this lens in planning my beds, incorporating companion plants to round out our farm’s offerings. While growing a row of tomatoes I can plant basil alongside, adding levity to the heavy fruiting tomatoes. Basil is not an especially our most popular crop, but the herb will attract beneficial insects above ground, feed a diversity of microbes below ground, and bolster production of the tomatoes.
Last year we had tremendous success with pole beans and turnips. As the beans (fire) matured upwards the turnips (earth) filled our bed edge. Instead of waiting for the beans to ripen, we were harvesting turnips for weeks while the beans set. This bed was also surrounded by buckwheat (water/air) that brought vigorous pollinators to the garden and fed soil organisms.
The excitement of planning the upcoming season is bolstered by the opportunity to build on these elemental relationships and increase our farm’s productivity for all species involved. We start by incorporating the favorite and cost effective crops, then play with different combinations of plants that fill out our offerings. The goal being a consistent supply of the crowd pleasers balanced with other marketable crops to create an ecosystem. If we only grew the crowd favorites, we would be neglecting the larger ecosystem that supports our small farm. This balancing act has been the catalyst that has weaned our farm off organic pesticides, foster diverse insect populations, and increased our soil organic matter.
Our CSA offers a diverse diet because increasing diversity grows the resilience of our farm, leads to fewer disease issues, and increased yields per bed. A system, built on creativity, fosters a path of long term productive beauty. To me, this is worth more than anything.