Spring brings awakening and transition from the short days and long nights of winter at Pyramid Farms. The seed order has been done and shipments arrive, bringing with them excitement of the growing possibilities of the year. I always trial some new varieties so that I am improving what we grow. Covid has brought huge pressure on seed companies, and demand has skyrocketed, with long processing times and sold-out inventory. I made sure to place my entire order for the year very early, because without specific varieties I’m screwed.
BEFORE THE FIELDS ARE READY—AND FLOWERS!
The greenhouse sees the first planting action in February here. Lisa starts flowers weeks before I start seeding the first kale and cabbage. Warmer season crops such as eggplant, peppers, and tomatoes come in the succeeding weeks. Plant too early and the starts get too big, plant too late and they miss the best window. It’s a progression worked out over the twenty-plus years I’ve been farming.
During all this time new employees are settling in, getting their first taste of what life on Pyramid Farms is like. Carrots are their life for the most part for now, but soon they will start transplanting, prepping beds, weeding, mowing, seeding, the list goes on and on. They get to discover new muscles they might not have been aware of, getting in shape for the onslaught of work coming through the seasons.
When conditions in the field are good, I start working beds with the tractor for early spring plantings of beets, radishes, turnips, spinach, and, yes, of course, carrots. Then there is cabbage, kale, kohlrabi, and lettuce transplanting following soon after. Rainfall dictates if I can till soil, as the soil moisture needs to be just right to have the best results. With warm season crops growing in the greenhouse, there is lots of field prep to be done. We need to have beds tilled and fertilized so when the transplants have grown to their proper size, their new home in the soil is ready for them. March can bring drenching rains, floods, or it can be cold and somewhat dry. A coming rainstorm can bring a flurry of activity getting beds ready, and, after a storm, a screaching halt can come to field prep. If my work in the field is halted, in I go into the office to get the taxes done. In April I should find myself in the field not filling out tax forms. The flowers start blooming like crazy in March, with anenomes, poppies, flowering quince, tulips, and ranunculus brightening up the bouquets. Lisa loves having her flowers back at market after the winter hiatus; it’s like a treasure hunt going round the farm for emerging leaves for greenery. Warm season flowers are started in the greenhouse, with more than I can list, as she is trialing over a hundred plants new to her. April brings time to transplant the warm season flowers such as gomphrena, zinnia, cosmos, and celosia.
Covid has brought huge pressure on seed companies, and demand has skyrocketed, with long processing times and sold-out inventory. I made sure to place my entire order for the year very early, because without specific varieties I’m screwed.
INTO THE FIELDS
The first warm season vegetable crop that gets planted is zucchini, which we direct seed in early April, a time that presents challenges, but direct seeded crops are more heat tolerant, stronger, healthier, and more productive. Zucchini is fussy to germinate. It likes warm soil and not too much moisture. It’s a delicate dance, sometimes trying, to time the weather with seeding. We use agribon row cover (it’s permeable) to help boost the soil temperature and protect emerged seedlings from frost. We’ve lost whole plantings due to the seed rotting (certified organic farmers are not allowed to use fungicide coated seeds) due to an ill timed rainstorm, and after years of this happening, transplants would be easier, but I’m stubborn. The covers stay on the zucchini until they outgrow them, and if we see frost coming, we have to cover them back up and hope for the best.
There have been springs where I and Lisa have been out at midnight night after night re-covering them to keep them safe from frost. I have plenty of stories about frosts! Pyramid Farms is in a hollow, a low part of the surrounding landscape. Cold air drains from areas around us and settles here, leaving us with freezing temperatures while other areas may be just a few degrees higher, out of the killing zone. I discovered this the hard way the first season farming here, when I went out to the field after a night that was forecast for 37°F, but I had lots of dead and damaged plants. Agribon and a frost alarm since then have helped me avoid many other disasters, but we’ve had many nervous nights watching the thermometer. Mid-April is typically Chico’s last frost date; we’ve had loads of late April frosts, but we’ve also seen a few frosts in May here. By mid-May covers have usually come off many of our frost sensitive crops, so theses frosts can be deadly to those exposed plants.
I remember distinctly one May 26 frost event. The covers were off of all the first planting of tomatoes, and we had the second planting of tomatoes and peppers transplanted but uncovered. For times like this I do have a couple of tricks up my sleeve. My first trick is to turn irrigation water on. We use drip irrigation, so this doesn’t cover the plants with ice, as you may have seen done with citrus, but the water comes out of the well at about 50°F, so this small amount of water makes a micro-climate that warms enough to protect small transplants. My second trick can be effective with plants too large for the micro-climate strategy. If it’s a mild frost, right before sunrise I use a leaf blower type sprayer to wash off ice that has formed. During the May 26 frost temperatures hit 32°F at about 4am. I had irrigation running for the small plants protecting them, but the tomatoes and zucchini were at risk, so I spent the next few hours spraying them down only to have them re-freeze by the time I was done. Over and over I sprayed, all the time getting drenched by leaking water. May 26 was also a Saturday morning, so I was due to load up and go to farmers’ market. When I went into the house I was wet, freezing, and worried we were going to loose all the tomatoes and zucchini. All the time at market I was certain I would return to a disaster, but by some miracle when I returned, there was only a little damage.
Pyramid Farms is in a hollow, a low part of the surrounding landscape. Cold air drains from areas around us and settles here, leaving us with freezing temperatures while other areas may be just a few degrees higher, out of the killing zone.
FIRST HARVEST—AND MORE PLANTING
During April we start harvesting radishes, turnips, lettuce, and kolrabi for market, all the while planting more successions of these weekly. Carrots are still coming out of cold storage for market, as it takes the first spring planting of carrots time to size up. We do our best to not run out of carrots, but it’s a rare year when we don’t. More plantings of carrots and beets are also done in early April, May, June, onward though September, all strategically scheduled to not have overabundance or gaps in production.
We also grow a lot of cilantro, and I mean a lot, close to 20,000 bunches a summer (mostly sold wholesale). I have a strict schedule that I need to keep preparing beds and seeding. Missing a planting by a day can mean a gap in production; seeding too frequently and we have too much and it’s wasted. This schedule keeps up until the last seedings are done in September. Tomatoes are transplanted in mid- April, closely followed by eggplant and peppers. Warm season crops are all covered with row covers to protect them from frost. The pace in the field quickens, the tractor and I see lots of action preparing beds, and the crew hustles preparing beds, fixing drip lines, transplanting, weeding, mowing, and, of course, harvesting, washing, and selling veggies at market. The greenhouse sees more action also with second runs of peppers and eggplant. As the days warm up, we find ourselves covering greenhouses with shade cloth during the warm part of the day. In a greenhouse it’s a delicate balance between warm and hot.
In May cucumbers and watermelons are direct seeded like zucchini here. Yes, they are given cover to help warm the soil, but if the temperature rises too much, we have to peel those covers back or risk cooking the seeds before they sprout. I do have an experimental planting that I start in the greenhouse and transplant in the field in May; my aim is to have the near impossible watermelons to harvest for fourth of July. We also start selling at the farmers’ market in Grass Valley and servicing our wholesale accounts up there.
Planting in the greenhouse continues along with the dance of keeping the plants in the temperature range where they are most happy. We have a shadehouse, which is a greenhouse frame with shadecloth covers instead of plastic covers, and we might find ourselves moving plants from the greenhouse into the shadehouse, and then if cooler weather comes back round we might find ourselves moving them right back into the greenhouse again. I also time watering in the greenhouse or shadehouse strategically. If I need to cool down the soil for the veggie starts, watering at mid-day can do the trick, or watering mid-morning allows for soil temperatures to warm up. Micromanaging air temperature and soil temperature takes diligence and attention. I’ve moved into the 21st century this year by investing in bluetooth/wifi temperature sensors and can monitor temperatures remotely with an app on my phone.
Fieldwork progresses rapidly in May, with sweet potato slips to be transplanted, more peppers and eggplant to be transplanted. Tomatoes are uncovered from frost protection, staked, and started to be tied up. Lots of bed prep is done in May to take advantage of soil moisture, our clay soil can turn hard as a rock if it’s too dry. Running a diversified farm is like dancing/running on a highwire as cold winds blow, rains pour down, then hot and dry arrives. It’s challenging but invigorating, tiring but energizing.
I’ve moved into the 21st century this year by investing in bluetooth/ wifi temperature sensors and can monitor temperatures remotely with an app on my phone.
The crew gets excited as spring progresses to summer. Crops they have planted, weeded, covered and uncovered mature for harvest. They’ve gotten used to harvesting first thing in the day with cilantro, kale, rainbow chard, spinach, and basil. (Actually, I’m the basil harvester here. The crew are too busy cutting the others, and I love the aroma of harvesting basil, intoxicating.) Spring planted veggies continue to be harvested, with beets and cabbage added to harvest days, June brings daily zucchini cutting or they get too big for our customers’ tastes. (In the early days I would cut zucchini after returning from market driving a truck with no A/C from Grass Valley during the heat of day, since I couldn’t afford to skip a harvest. I sure am glad those days are over.) And hopefully the first planting of carrots has done well and carrots have sized up, because you all are frequently asking, “When are carrots coming back to market?” By June the employees’ muscles are well honed, and being more advanced in age, Lisa’s and mine are honed and saying, “Really? Do you think I’m gonna get you through another summer?”
Hotter days of June signal the building heat of summer, and I actually look forward to the days after Summer Solstice getting shorter. It’s a small shortening at first but a trigger for my inner clock to proclaim satisfaction that I’m not trying to go to sleep while it’s still light out. It’s also the month that cash flow comes in faster than it goes out.
Lisa and I do love farming, and the demands it asks of us melt away when we get to see all of our customers at market.
When starting out I quickly found out I had to have enough savings to get the farm to June or I could find myself in a financial pinch. These days my savings are more substantial, but the bills are higher. I’ve gone from a market helper, to one employee to now three full time year round crew. I used to have one truck ready to break down at a moment’s notice; now I have three that are reliable (knock wood). Lisa this year has gone from a part time employee to a full time one.
We couldn’t grow and sell all these vegetables and flowers without our hardworking crew, and we are indebted to them for working with us. I’ll admit when I was starting out I had no idea of all the intricacies of managing employees, but I’ve gotten better and I’m always trying to improve. I also had no idea of how all encompassing running a farm would be. I knew it would be a lot of work, but I didn’t know it would virtually take over my entire life. Lisa and I do love farming, and the demands it asks of us melt away when we get to see all of our customers at market. 1
This is the second in a four part series, in which Matthew Martin tells readers what’s happening on Pyramid Farms, in Chico, throughout the year. He and Lisa Carle grow over thirty varieties of organic vegetables and beautiful flowers, and they milk a few goats. They sell their produce and flowers at the Saturday farmers’ markets in Chico and Grass Valley and directly to stores locally and regionally.