Keep up with the Vested Heirs (if you can!) as they plan, plant, weed, grow, harvest, and teach their "wee ones" where their food comes from and how to care for the land. They'll also keep you in-the-know about what's available for sale and what's happening each week on the farm.
2016 was a new year that came with many new challenges. At the beginning of the year, there was no planting or harvesting to be done, but the planning was well under way. The decisions as to what we would plant had been made in late December so the seed order could be placed as soon as possible.
Late January brought a heavy snow that collapsed several high tunnels in the area. We were fortunate that, even though we got hit by the storm, we had no damage. Unfortunately, one of the farmers in our growers group lost her high tunnel to the weight of the snow.
As one of the farms that helped create the Preston Growers Co-Op, we also used a good bit of the down time from actual field work to formally establish the group as a legitimate cooperative. We worked through by-laws, articles of incorporation, membership agreements and strategic planning in order to form a solid group capable of meeting the growing demand for local produce. In forming the CO-OP, our farm as well as others could join forces to provide a larger and more consistent product to sell to the Farm to School program as well as other bulk sale customers.
We started our first lettuce seeds in soil blocks on Feb 28th. 364 seeds were planted and carefully guarded, as they would be the first produce planted in the high tunnel for the year.
March 12th, we started the tomato seeds. This year’s varieties were Celebrity, Mountain Fresh, Geronimo and Big Beef.
We also worked down the rye grass in the high tunnel. It had been planted as a cover crop. It looked like a carpet in comparison to the bare, brown earth right outside the walls.
March 18th, we put in our first crop of lettuce.
The tender shoots had to be protected with hoops and row cover from the cold nights. Junior Farmer Richard help us check on them by helping remove and re-position the covers in late March. We enjoy sharing the process with him and he is always full of questions.
On April 1st, the Preston Growers Group signed a memorandum of understanding with Mountaineer Challenge Academy to bring cadets to the farm to learn about growing and harvesting produce. It has been a beneficial and memorable relationship, that we hope to continue for many years. In 2017, we hope to have help from the cadets to plant our next crop of strawberries and asparagus.
April 9th brought another heavy snowfall that covered Aurora in several inches of snow.
The tender starts were well protected inside the high tunnel under a few layers of row cover. We were also grateful that we hadn’t removed the mulch from the strawberries yet. This helped protect the crown and leaves of the growing berries. The day after, we planted more lettuce in the high tunnel. It was 28° outside, but a balmy 68° inside, allowing us to work in comfortable temperatures.
We were saddened to hear of the sudden passing of a fellow farmer from our area in April while we were at an agricultural education opportunity. Jeff Harsh raised sheep and other crops. He was also the Fire Chief of one of the local volunteer fire departments. He also drove one of the area school buses. He has been greatly missed in the community, but we were astounded to hear that his family had honored his wishes of organ and tissue donation. Jeff helped over 40 people with his gift and he will long be remembered for his sacrifices in life and in death.
We seeded peppers in soil blocks on April 15th
and finally removed the mulch from the much anticipated strawberry crop. The plants looked good and we had high expectations about their production. April 18th we planted another crop of lettuce so as to stagger the growth and be able to offer a consistent product. On the 24th, we harvested our first asparagus. The previous year we didn’t harvest any of what was available in trying to follow the advice of the seed manufacturer, who advised to wait a few years. According to what we had researched, leaving it unharvested for a few years would allow the crop to be fruitful for up to 10 years. This year we should be able to harvest several more days than last without doing any long- term damage. April 28th, we planted 2016’s tomato crop. April was a strange weather month that went out like a lion. A huge hail storm hit Grafton, WV and the surrounding area, but didn’t make it up the mountain to us. We were grateful to have avoided the damage, as stones the size of baseballs peppered the area. Had it hit us, we can’t imagine the damage it would have done.
The middle of May brought chilly temperatures and frost was predicted. This would have had a devastating effect on our strawberry crop as the plants were in full bloom, so we pulled out our protective fabric and covered them. The covers were 40 ft wide and 500 ft long. Each had to be held in place with a series of sandbags. After deploying the covers, we carried 400 bags into the field to ensure the cover stayed in place. The winds were wicked and when we would look out the windows, it looked like white caps rolling across the ocean. No one got much sleep the next few nights, as we prayed the row cover would stay on under the winds onslaught. Thankfully, it did and we were able to remove it soon after using the row cover roller BJ built to retrieve the covers for storage. It wouldn’t be long before the strawberries began to appear.
On May 21st temperatures still had not risen to what we needed for direct seeding of our pumpkins and squash. We put them in soil blocks and babied them in the greenhouse in preparation for transplant when the weather was better.
The following day, we were able to work in the high tunnel trellising tomatoes while it poured the rain down outside. As they say, make hay while the sun is shining, so we used a rainy day to do work under cover.
By May 26th, we started to see green strawberries on the vines. We were anticipating our first U-Pick strawberry season.
Just a few days later, we were able to get in the field with the tractor and the mulch layer to make the raised beds covered in plastic mulch and eventually get over 1000 pepper plans into the ground.
On June 11th, we opened the field to those who wanted to come and pick strawberries. The berries were beautiful and plentiful and we smiled as bucket after bucket came out of the field. We would smile each time as a child came out with strawberry juice running down their cheeks. We would tease them that we were going to weigh them first next time, but we couldn’t have asked for better customers who came back time after time to pick. They shared their adventure on social media and we constantly fielded calls about our hours. Eventually, we opened the fields 6 days a week from 8 am to dark and people were there every day waiting on us. We were grateful Mom was there to help run the check out table. It was a maddeningly busy time, but it was wonderful to see so many walk away as happy customers who assured us they would be back next year.
On July 1st, we closed down the U-Pick operation and made preparations for next season. We have one more season on the current berries, but will be putting new plants in the ground in August, starting the cycle all over again.
We participated in watermelon trials in partnership with WVU and found that you can grow watermelon in the mountains. We are not sure that the results will be reproducible as this was an exceptionally warm summer for us. Either way, we enjoyed the watermelon as did our customers.
We switched from dealing with the strawberries to tending the tomatoes that were on the vine. They looked beautiful. We were also able to pick our first blueberries of the season. They didn’t appear to be as plentiful as last year so we expected this would be a down year. Many of our fellow farmers were reporting the same thing, so we hope 2017 will be an up year for them. The end of July saw our colored and hot peppers growing rapidly.
By mid- August we were picking tomatoes out of the high tunnel and our pumpkins were growing nicely. We were delivering produce to our customers every Friday in our Tucker County loop and Junior Farmer Richard even accompanied us. He helped hand customers the beautiful vegetables we brought them.
The watermelon and cantaloupe were coming along nicely by the end of August and by Sept 16th many of them were ready. We harvested our butternut squash on September 21 in preparation for their sale and processing in cooperation with WVU Small Farm Center.
The other big project our farm was involved with was becoming GAP- Good Agricultural Practice, certified. To be able to sell to certain entities, there is a level of safety in our processes they want to see. Our growers group worked tirelessly to meet the standards set out in the guidelines on sanitation, harvesting, handling, storage, policies and procedures in preparation for an audit that would put our farm to the test, but ultimately earn us GAP certification, opening selling opportunities that weren’t available to us before.
One of our greatest pleasures is to sell to the schools. We had corn available this year and were very happy to have Tucker Valley Elementary School purchase some. Word came back to us from a parent at the school, that her daughter loved having fresh corn on the cob for lunch. It was very fulfilling to us to know that our produce was being placed on the trays of local students to enjoy.
We have high hopes for 2017 and there are many projects that we will work on as the season allows. We look forward to the second year of our U-Pick strawberries and hope that our customers who enjoyed them will find their way to our fields again.
To say this year has been interesting, or better yet trying, would be an understatement. We were very excited that we would be able to start early because of the new high tunnel. There were many days when it felt good to work in there while the wind was still icy and the temperatures were uncomfortable. When it rained, it acted as a great shelter to run to. We learned so much on this new operation. Variety choice is crucial. The cucumbers that worked really well outside last year were a bit too unruly for use inside the high tunnel. We spent a lot of time hunting for them amongst the tomatoes. On warm days, temperature control was very important. Getting the high tunnel opened up early in the morning so that everything didn’t cook and later in the season getting it closed down early enough to capture some for the late day heat.
And then there was the rain, and more rain, and even more rain, 31 days straight of it. Suddenly it stopped and for 22 days it didn’t rain. Unfortunately the rain came when it was critical for pollination of our squash, pumpkins and winter squash. Those crops were very short of expectation in comparison to last year. 150 pumpkins for a 500 foot row was very disappointing when last year we were over loaded.
The turnips and beets we planted didn’t produce well and we are chalking that up to the overload of early rain, too. Spinach was planted 4 times and each time it never reached its potential, but there were bright spots, too.
One Sunday we harvested 650 pounds of tomatoes. We were some of the few growers that had them for sale because many field grown tomatoes ended up with the blight due to the rainy, wet conditions. We were able to keep many of our commercial customers well supplied with beautiful tomatoes and those who can with an ample supply.
Our first year strawberries brought back taste memories. We had forgotten what a strawberry really tasted like. One bite and the flavor exploded in your mouth. Looking forward to our U-Pick strawberry crop in June 2016. The flavor is amazing!
We were grateful that Mom was willing to mind a small stand up by Rt. 50 in front of the farm and sell while we worked the fields. It was nice to have so many people stop and pick up fresh produce. If we ran out of something, we just walked into the field to pick it while they waited. We hope to continue that next year.
We got an early cold spell where temperatures dropped down as low as 25 the second weekend of October. We put row cover over our colored peppers and our lettuces in hopes they would make it. The lettuces survived, but the pepper plants didn’t. We picked 400 plus pounds of ripening red, yellow, orange, purple, and lime bell peppers in hopes to salvage what we could, but the remainder of the hot peppers froze out.
The one thing that did seem to grow in abundance were the weeds. We spent much of the summer battling them back to keep them from taking over.
Our junior farmers helped us harvest potatoes, pick strawberries and blueberries and even helped with a little weeding now and then. It is always a joy to have them on the farm with us. We are grateful that when we gather around the table and ask them where some of the items for the meal came from and they tell us, “the garden”. As generations get farther and farther from the farm, we hope that we can continue to remind these small ones the importance of knowing where their food comes from.
Lastly, we got together with several other farmers in Preston County to form a growers group. The group allowed us to pool our produce together to help fill the demand by the area schools and other businesses. If an institution needed 60 heads of lettuce and we only had 40, another grower would have the additional 20 to fill the order. This process allowed us to have a more consistent supply while still providing local, high quality, fresh produce. The group continues to expand and formalize guidelines and operating procedures.
Will Rogers once said, “The farmer has to be an optimist or he wouldn't still be a farmer.” We had an exceptional first year and are grateful we did as this year truly had its moments. In the end, we planted and harvested what grew, benefited from the knowledge gained and were thankful that we have the opportunity to do it again next year. We have enjoyed providing local produce to our neighbors, our schools, local restaurants and businesses. We cleaned up the fields, mulched the strawberries, and continued to harvest our root vegetables until they were gone. Now we discuss the plans for next season and look through seed catalogs to determine varieties. We will continue to work with our growers group to make sure we can continue to supply our local schools with fresh, local grown produce.
We got our first significant snow fall with Winter Storm Jonas this week. Our area saw 36 inches of snow. BJ and his side kick, our junior farmer Richard used the new snowblower to remove the deep snow that was drifting along the sides of the high tunnel and as it slid from the top. It's been reported to us that at least nine high tunnels in our area did not survive the heavy snow. We were indeed fortunate. Inside, rye is growing as a cover crop and will be tilled into the soil when we are ready, putting back needed nutrients into the soil.
We look forward to seeing those strawberries bounce back and seeing customers flock to the farm to pick them just the way they did when Debbie and Darla were young.
So February came and went, the snow fell and melted, fell and melted again. Our high tunnel survived some decent snow fall as we watched how the temperatures would fluctuate inside the tunnel as the temperatures outside plummeted. It’s going to take some time before we really have a good record of monthly data on it. On days when the temperatures outside have been below freezing, it has been tempting to get a lawn chair and go sit in the high tunnel to absorb some heat. The first night the high tunnel was up with the plastic on, we had some of our highest wind gusts. It was a relief to wake up the next morning and not go looking for it in Oakland, MD.
Spring fever hit early and we started a few lettuce seeds, some kale, and some spinach to see if we could start putting some hardy cold tolerant crops in the high tunnel.
We needed to get the soil prepped and get all four of us together on the farm once again. We have been enjoying our hiatus, but we have still been planning and laying out the field and the new crops.
We have committed to putting out 8,750 strawberry plants this year resulting in a one acre area for a You-Pick strawberry operation. We certainly can’t pick that many strawberries by ourselves, so we are relying on all the people who have been asking us to go back into growing strawberries. Debbie and Darla grew up growing them on this land, so it is a natural progression in our quest to deepen Vested Heirs roots. We are excited, but are anxious about how to care for them during times of late frost, pests, and weeds. The experience of the past will come into play, but we will be trying new techniques too. Years ago the farm utilized geese to weed the strawberry patch, which isn’t part of good agricultural practices today because of the waste products.
BJ was able to get the area inside the tunnel ready with the help of our new tiller, one less item we have to borrow or rent.
As our little seedlings started to sprout, we watched the high tunnel temperatures and decided it was time to say a little prayer and put them in the high tunnel.
It felt good to get our hands in the dirt again and we know that our season will be in full swing soon. We will once again be teaching our Wee Farmers who have now graduated to being Junior Farmers.
There will still be days of snow here on the farm, Debbie was born on May 11th, David and Delores traveling to the hospital in the biggest storms of that year-more on that in the May blog…stay tuned.
Until then we will watch our greens continue to grow and the tomatoes we have started turn into the promise of our first high tunnel crop.
Well, we were a bit busy and December slipped by us before a December update was created. So this will be a December/January blog, but there is much to tell. December is always a busy time of year for this family. There is the decorating for Christmas at our own houses and at St. Paul’s Church. We were able to attend the annual “Breakfast with Santa”, a Cheat Lake Sailors 4-H fund raiser that Kim is a big part of, and of course we spent time shopping for everyone.
We always get a chance to fellowship with our friends at Christmas gatherings and the annual church dinner. On Christmas Eve, we gather for candlelight services in our beautiful family church, St. Paul’s Lutheran where we celebrate the true reason for the season.
In the midst of all of this- WE BUILT A HIGH TUNNEL! We fought weather and wind, but the frame is up, the plastic is on, and we have run the water line to it. Still lots of work to do before it’s complete, but we are well on our way to season extension. This will allow us to do so many things that Aurora weather isn’t favorable for. It’s nothing unusual to see very late Spring frost, snow on Easter, or an early snow in October. We are very excited but a little nervous, too. We just got a routine down and now we have some learning to do all over again. We have some great people we can call on for advice and we plan to do exactly that when we need to.
We have very high hopes for the future of agriculture in the State of West Virginia. Commissioner Helmick has made great strides in the Farm to School program along with other agricultural opportunities. We hope this progress continues year after year. Providing fresh food in our schools and our communities is crucial to improving the health and the economic future of West Virginia. We are very proud to be a part of this amazing movement.
We are already busy planning our 2015 season. We will be adding a few crops that we didn’t have in 2014. Turnips and parsnips will be on our list and our asparagus will finally be available. Some things will not be back. We just weren’t able to move them. Some items will be reduced while others that we had high demand for and sold well will be increased, such as our spinach and lettuces.
The one thing that we have been told over and over again is that we need to grow STRAWBERRIES! Debbie and Darla both grew up growing them. The one thing that the four of us have agreed on is that we can’t pick all those strawberries by ourselves. So, how do we overcome that obstacle? The answer is to offer a “You Pick” operation. We will grow them and we’re counting on you to come pick them. That is exactly what David and Delores did back when they were growing them. People came from miles around. We will still have obstacles we will need to overcome like frost and disease control, but you have asked and we are going to try and deliver. Ask us how to get on the list to be notified when they are ready.
In 2014 we were learning as we were going, but we couldn’t help but laugh every time we thought back to how our forefathers did it and the equipment they had to use to do it. We get so many of our answers and ideas from the internet, but back then, it was much trial and error. Talking with their neighbors, and relying on the WVU extension office for advice. Extension celebrated 100 years of existence and we are grateful they are still around. We did have a bit of sadness connected with Extension as one of our great allies and go to gals, Jennifer Poling, left Tucker County extension to pursue other endeavors. We will miss you Jennifer and wish you much success (but don’t think we won’t call you- we know where you live.) Just kidding. She was instrumental in getting the Vested Heirs girls into Annie’s Project 1 and 2, where we made great contacts and learned much about keeping track of our expenses.
There were several times this year when we went digging through barns to find pieces of our past to help with our present. We used the Allis Chalmers G to cultivate our corn when it was small. This amazing little tractor was only made between the years 1949 and 1955, but is an extremely sought after machine for small farms. It had several implements including cultivators, plows, cutter bar, belly mower, rear tiller and a few others. Some we have and some we wish we had, but we are grateful it is still around. Darla and Debbie’s dad restored it before he passed and now it is back in operation at Vested Heirs.
We used the hydraulic post driver in the creation of our electric fence, without which we would have been doing nothing more than feeding deer. The no till drill helped us reseed one of our fields so that we could bring a former corn field back into hay production, much better than just broadcasting the seed and hoping it took. We used the disk, the corn planter, the plows, a stainless steel sink from the dairy days and so many other things from the farming days of past generations.
When it came time to dig and sort our new red potatoes we used the strawberry graders from the mid 1960s to weed out the tiny ones and help knock off some of the dirt for storage. The graders were in operation when David and Delores started growing strawberries and the girls were small. Luckily, we sold the potatoes and we didn’t have to store them long. We hope to increase the production on that crop this year.
We used the hay wagons to harvest and cure our winter squash and pumpkins. We added some pallets to give us a second layer, but they came in handy for our bountiful harvest.
At the end of the season, we needed a way to take up our drip line. We got to thinking that a piece of equipment that the girls’ grandfather, Fred, used during his days of the original Aurora Phone Company would work. The cable wheel they used to wind up phone line and later high tensile fencing came in really handy because you could wind up the drip tape, split the wheel and take off the drip tape. Old technology with a new purpose.
Our history is rich and we are grateful that their legacy lives on in this and the next generations.
So with great gratitude we look back over 2014 and all that we accomplished and with great anticipation we look forward to 2015 and all that it holds. Our wee farmers will be back to help us and their antics will keep us laughing as we tend the crops. With the good Lords help, we will enjoy another bountiful harvest. May you and your family have a healthy and happy New Year. We will be back providing you with fresh produce before you know it.
November, how did you sneak up on us so fast? It seems like just yesterday we were trying to figure out how tall of a fence we needed- woven wire or high tensile, 7 strands or 9? What vegetables were we going to grow and what variety, not to mention how many of each. The kitchen became the strategic planning zone, its table covered in seed catalogs, reference material, and cups of coffee…lots of coffee.
We sat through classes trying to absorb all this new information being thrown at us. Fertilizers, raised beds, drip tape, soil samples, weed control, pest control-so much to take in.
How would we take all this new information and use it ensuring our farm would be profitable and not put us deep in debt in our first year? The fence was built, a business plan written, individual crop rows were drawn in on the production plan, seed trials were started, and the soil was prepped for the raised beds yet to come.
Our first rows weren’t very straight and our planting holes were not always exactly where they were supposed to be but, the seeds went in the ground and we waited to see what would happen. Miraculously despite the cold temperatures and the season long drenching, little green sprouts began popping up and with that, Vested Heirs Farm had its first season.
We have amazing customers including individual farm sales, local restaurants, farmers market, and the local foods stores. We have great relationships built on delivering a quality product fresh from the field and making a personal connection with as many as we can. We loved going to the farmers market and seeing repeat customers and watching kids run up to buy our carrots, eating them right there as they browsed through the other booths. We deeply believe in getting fresh vegetables on the trays of school children and have been thrilled to be part of the WV Farm to School program. We sold to 3 different county school systems and hope that next year we can expand that. Healthy foods mean healthy kids! Vested Heirs is very proud to be part of this movement.
All through this process we have felt the presence of Darla and Debbie’s dad, David. It seemed like every time we would start a new project, we would find a reminder of him. It felt like he was watching over us and reminding us that we are just carrying on what he had been doing for all the years before us. When we made the difficult decision to tear down the main barn because of its deteriorated state, we found his baby footprint in the cement right outside the milking parlor. When we started working on the old potato cellar, we power washed the floor, only to find another one of his footprints in the cement. David would have turned 80 this month and we think he would have been pretty darn proud of what we have accomplished.
We are now in the process of the season winding to a close. The last of the kale has been picked, the winter squash put in storage, the strawberries and asparagus mulched, last of the beets canned for ourselves, and items put in the freezer to be brought back out at Thanksgiving. We truly have much to be grateful for this Thanksgiving. We cannot thank our ancestors enough for deciding that on this mountain in Aurora, they would build their home, start their family and till this soil. We can only hope that when we are old our wee people will love this land just as much and want to carry on what their great great grandparents started so many years ago. Happy Thanksgiving everyone, may your cup overflow with your blessings. Ours definitely have.