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.