The Really Busy Season
What does summer mean? School’s out? Grilling in the backyard? Cooling off at your favorite swimming hole? Travel? Harvesting your first home grown tomato?
Our summer at Pyramid Farms is defined by long days, hot heat, fast paced work flow, long harvest lists, and what seems like a never ending mad scramble to stay on top of it all. Managing the intricacies is daunting and a tremendous responsibility, but we are pretty good at it here on the farm. Summer may by definition start at Summer Solstice; to me summer arrives by mid May.
Cutting zucchini then is a harbinger of summer’s arrival. We cut it daily to keep it from being oversized, which, as you know, can happen overnight. Then they end up being dropped on the ground instead of sold. On Saturday after setting up for farmers’ market, I dash back to the farm, cut it, and dash back to help at the stand. In the early days it meant cutting it after coming back from selling at the Grass Valley farmers’ market, and that was a hot and sweaty task from an already tired farmer, whose day had started at 4 am. And yes, it even needs cutting on Sunday (these days by one of the crew, thankfully). Some Sundays the crew even has to pick cucumbers, as they like to go from perfect to blown out in a day or two. This is a lesson that farmers don’t run the farm, the farm runs the farmer. Lisa cuts flowers on Sunday too, to pick them at their prime.
Cutting zucchini is a harbinger of summer’s arrival. We cut it daily to keep it from being oversized, which, as you know, can happen overnight. On Saturday after setting up for farmers’ market, I dash back to the farm, cut it, and dash back to help at the stand.
Timing is critical in the summer, irrigation and planting and harvesting on tight schedules. Over the last twenty-plus years I’ve implemented a finely tuned succession schedule. If I miss a planting by a week, or even a few days in cilantro’s case, my wholesale buyers stress from the gap in production. Yet too tight of a planting schedule can lead to overproduction and no place to sell. With little room for error, my job is to keep it all happening on time. To seed or transplant, we may need to water the beds to have the right soil moisture for tilling. This year’s drought has meant many beds have needed water to help break down cover crops in time for planting. Otherwise, they’d tie up nitrogen and rob the planting of needed nutrients. This process can play havoc on my regularly scheduled irrigation.
Our well pump is only so big, which means a highly regulated schedule to irrigate so many beds at a time. In my pocket constantly is a piece of paper with the day’s watering schedule, and in any free moment I’m checking it to make sure I’m on top of it all. The other thing that’s always in my pocket is a mini-Sharpie to write down the time water is turned on and cross off when it’s turned off, and a knife and roll of electrical tape to fix leaks. My life is run by the irrigation schedule. There are fresh transplants and seedlings that need water during the peak heat of the day to cool them off; there are mature crops that need water in the morning to ensure enough moisture for the day’s demands. Thankfully the last time our well pump was replaced, I bought a bigger pump, increasing the bed capacity that can be run at one time. The first, undersized pump used to mean a grueling irrigation schedule. During peak summer when demands were highest, I had the pump running 24/7 and was up at all hours rotating irrigation. You might ask, why didn’t you put it all on timers? Well, it’s just not that simple. Many different crops bring many different schedules, and putting a plan in place would have been really difficult. A bigger pump now means I can sleep through the night without having to switch irrigation, and, yes, some crops can be on timers, increasing my quality of life.
We plant throughout the summer. June brings the start of broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, and romanesco seeding in the shade house, with weekly transplanting to follow, when they have sized up a month later. The third round of peppers and eggplant go into the ground in mid June. In September when the first and second plantings are tired and done, we harvest the third to fulfill our wholesale account commitments and ensure you can still make eggplant parm in September (me too; it’s Lisa’s favorite). Our winter squash is seeded in mid June, along with our third planting of cucumbers. Seeding and transplanting during the summer heat present challenges. I do have a few tricks up my sleeve learned over the years. Watering them during the heat of the day helps keep them from burning up, but I also use a very fine white clay that I make into a liquid and spray on the plants and soil. The soil temperature difference is quite amazing, ten degrees, quite a difference for getting good germination and transplant survival.
For you to eat our sweeeeeeeet carrots all fall/winter long, they must be planted in July and August so they have all that time to grow and size up. When November comes along they aren’t going to grow much more. First I prep the ground the garlic and other spring crops have come out of by tilling in the crop residue and soaking it down to ensure its decomposition. Then I prepare the seedbed with feather meal for nitrogen. I’ve built up a nice bank account of phosphorous in the soil, and I add potassium through the drip lines later. Carrots like a fine, deeply tilled fertile soil to make long straight roots. You’ll hear they need sandy soil, but we have a heavy clay, and with proper soil preparation that clay grows a great carrot. Mid July starts the three seeding successions. I carefully prepare the seeding lines, as getting the right seeding density is a skill I’m still perfecting. Different carrot seed sizes from year to year can really test my abilities. Seed too thin and we run out of carrots before winter’s end, seed too thick and the carrots are small, causing labor costs and crew frustration. It’s much easier and faster to harvest larger carrots than smaller ones. During germination they are watered during the heat of the day, as they germinate best when the soil temperature doesn’t go over 85F; spraying the white clay also helps. Then of course the weeding sessions follow, all done by the crew on their knees, picking out teeny tiny grasses and broadleaves with their well-worn fingers. After a couple of weedings, the tops grow enough to keep the weeding to a minimum—we hope.
Early on I brought in a load of compost that was loaded with lambs quarters and amaranth seed. Now after years of rigorous control, they have very small populations. There is however one weed here that will outlive me, the dreaded johnsongrass.
WEEDING NEVER ENDS
Weeding is much needed and never ending. In farmer speak, “I keep a clean field” means weeding early and as needed. It’s time consuming and frustrating to try and harvest crops through abundant weeds. Weeds rob crops of sun, nutrients, and water; they are costly to control but costlier if you don’t. Thirty years ago when I was just a hobby farmer, I learned “one year’s seeds bring seven years’ weeds,” so we work to prevent any nefarious ones making it into adulthood, and those that do are removed with seed intact. The result is pretty low weed pressure to deal with. I learned early on that some weeds can be brought under control in about four to five years of not allowing them to go to seed. There used to be a very high population of milk thistle, but after about five years, now we have only about twenty of those pop up each year. Running chickens through their last stronghold and planting pasture grass has eliminated them there too.
Early on I brought in a load of compost that was loaded with lambs quarters and amaranth seed. Now after years of rigorous control, they have very small populations. There is however one weed here that will outlive me, the dreaded johnsongrass. It has rhizomes that send up shoots as the soil warms, it grows rapidly and tall and has razor sharp leaves that will cut to the bone if you’re not careful. We don’t let it go to seed, and we’ve tried digging the rhizomes out, but there is just too much to eliminate it.
I sold my first tomatoes for a whole 25 cents a pound, and quickly became the first person to sell them at 50 cents when I realized that I was never going to pay my bills selling my produce that cheap.
Field find: a snake skin almost as long as farm intern Max Post-Swicker is tall.
A HARVEST FRENZY
Summertime harvesting schedule is busy. Thursday and Friday are a harvest frenzy, go go go till it’s done. There are some crops that are harvested at the start of the week and placed into cold storage for markets, and there are crops that need to be picked one or two days before market, since they don’t store well. It’s nice to have a mix, because it would be impossible to harvest it all so close to market. Carrots and beets are dug early in the week to build our stockpile in the walk-in cooler. We harvest watermelon mid-week as it keeps well for markets. Cilantro and basil are cut every day at the beginning of the day to keep them from going limp. Eggplant needs to be harvested the day before selling it, as too long in refrigeration makes it soft and bitter, along with peppers and tomatoes. The typical harvest day begins with crops that are tender and respire water early in the morning to keep them fresh and crisp, later in the day crops with thicker skins. While I’m cutting basil, the crew is cutting cilantro to be followed by rainbow chard and kale. Then it’s on to zucchini and cucumbers, while I harvest eggplant. Next come peppers and, to close out the day, tomatoes. Even with three employees it’s quite a rush to get it all done in two days. (Am I bursting your bubble thinking we harvest it all the morning of market?) These days my harvest duties are smaller, but I spend a lot of the day packing wholesale orders and organizing the walk-in cooler. It can get really crowded in there on a Friday afternoon, but it’s a sight to see it fill up and then empty out Saturday morning.
The last few years, after Lisa’s encouragement, I no longer get up at 4am Saturday morning to go to Grass Valley for wholesale delivery and farmers’ market. In the early days, we used to outsell Chico by a factor of three. It has switched over the years as our following here has grown, thanks to you! We still sell three times the amount of wholesale produce there, due to a well established account with the Briarpatch Co-Op. People often ask why do you go all that way? Well, in 1997, I wasn’t able to get in to the Saturday farmers’ market in Chico, so when I was let into the Grass Valley farmers’ market I jumped at the chance. At the time I was still a very small one person in the field operation. I sold my first tomatoes for a whole 25 cents a pound, and quickly became the first person to sell them at 50 cents when I realized that I was never going to pay my bills selling my produce that cheap. Over the next few years I built my following up there and was also admitted to the Chico Saturday market, so I hired Mike Wofchuck of Wofchuck Honey Co. to sell here in Chico, while I made the journey up the hill. And when Lisa came into my life she quickly joined me as my assistant, a position my business had grown to need.
Soon employees worked the Chico summer market, with me taking over in the winter and spring, assisted by them and my mom. These days we need two employees, Lisa and me, staffing the booth. As Lisa’s flower offerings grew, we soon needed a double wide double deep booth, which now fills up into quite an amazing and beautiful display.
For Lisa and her flowers summer means the disappearance of poppies, peonies, and lilies, and the arrival of gomphrena, amaranth, and ultimately dahlias and lisianthus, among others. At first she struggled to sell even twenty bunches of flowers; now she sells quantities of amazing, bright, and beautiful bouquets. Her week is a busy one cutting, cutting, cutting. Sold through the week at Chico Natural Foods and New Earth Market, the vast majority go to Saturday farmers’ market. She and her employee spend each morning cutting and the second half of Thursday and Friday making bouquets. Oh, did I burst your bubble again? Blooms need to be cut daily for the best quality. They can be stored in her walk-in cooler, then sent to market to be sold. Lisa prides herself on the bouquets looking gorgeous for a week, and some flowers last even longer or the greenery starts to root. Transplanting and planting flowers also continue in the summer. To have spring flowers, seeds are planted in the shade house in July for transplanting in the fall. Flower planting season almost never stops, and definitely lasts longer than vegetables.
Summer is what the farmers at Pyramid Farms live for. It’s long, hot, and can be brutal. As I’m writing this, the northstate is going through an early record-breaking heat wave, it’s testing every farmer who works with this land. We are being teased and conditioned for three or more months of hot long days, but it is what we’ve been waiting for since we started seeding in March. The busy spring season becomes the really busy summer season, but we also get to enjoy the first ripe tomato, or the first sweet watermelon, or grilling eggplant at the end of the day. Some days it’s almost too overwhelming to handle, and we dream our escape plans, but when we are enjoying a meal of summer veggies that were grown here or gazing at a beautiful bouquet or having a customer thank us for all our hard work and effort, it’s worth it.
We are being teased and conditioned for three or more months of hot long days, but it is what we’ve been waiting for since we started seeding in March.
This is the third in a four-part series, in which Matthew Martin tells readers what’s happening on Pyramid Farms, in Chico, throughout the year. There, he and Lisa Carle grow over thirty varieties of organic vegetables and beautiful flowers, milk a few goats, and eat the eggs from their chickens. They sell their produce and flowers at the Saturday farmers’ markets in Chico and Grass Valley and directly to stores locally and regionally.