I recommend starting small. We started our first CSA on our new farm in the spring/summer of 2005, feeding 26 families on 1/3 of an acre with a troybilt tiller and a hoe. This was the beginning of what turned into a 100 member CSA after two years.
Imagine a ½ acre prepared into 4 foot wide raised beds. All of these beds are roughly 100 ft long and irrigated using T-Tape supplied with water by a 1 inch black poly header pipe (all above ground). Here is a list of what we planted the first season, with planting times for the season. This can all be adapted to your situation, but by keeping the beds all roughly the same, you can easily plan for more or less as you grow each year.
Irish Potatoes (Jan-Feb): 50 lbs. Red La Soda and 50 lbs. White Kennebec. Plant both varieties to see which one will do better for you. Fertilize with 10 lbs. Colloidal Rock Phosphate be 100 ft. row. We try to build the beds back up as they grow and mulch with old hay. We generally do not irrigate our potatoes, but rely solely on the rain.
Head Lettuce, Swiss Chard and Kale (Jan-Feb): direct seed 3 or 4 rows down a whole bed for baby greens or transplant for bunching. Fertilize with 10 lbs. Colloidal Rock Phosphate and 10 lbs. organic fertilizer of your choice.
Beets, Lettuce Mix, Arugula (Feb.): direct seed 3 or 4 rows down a whole bed for baby greens and repeat in 2 weeks. Fertilize with 10 lbs. Colloidal Rock Phosphate and 10 lbs. organic fertilizer of your choice. It basically takes a ¼ lb of seed to plant a whole bed of each (same with the Swiss Chard). You should get 2 cuts off of each bed, and then your second planting should be getting ready to cut.
Radishes (Feb): Choose at least two varieties, and plant a half a bed of each. In the spring we have found French Breakfast, Easter Egg and any of the early round varieties do best. Daikon and others are best planted as winter radishes in the fall. Fertilize and plant the same as the previous greens mentioned.
Tomatoes (Jan-Feb): Start your transplants indoors or in a small greenhouse. Early Girl, Celebrity and Romas are your staple tomatoes; you need 100 plants of each for the CSA.Heirlooms can add some interest, 100 plants would be a good start. This will give you 4 beds of tomatoes, which will all need to be staked and trained, planted in mid-March and early April.Fertilize each bed with 10 lbs Colloidal Rock Phosphate, 10 lbs organic fertilizer, 2 lbs. Epsom Salt. Mulching with straw would be a good idea.
Sweet Peppers (Jan-Feb): Start your transplants and plan for at least 200 plants or 2 beds.Members really like Bell Peppers like Big Bertha but we also like heirloom varieties like Marconi, Sweet Italia, Banana Peppers and Spanish Spice. Fertilize with 10 lbs. Colloidal Rock Phosphate and 10 lbs. organic fertilizer of your choice. Plant out in the beds after frost in early April.Mulching is preferred.
Eggplant (Jan-Feb): Start your transplants for at least 200 plants or 2 beds. Pingtung Long, Florida High Bush and Rosa Bianca are nice. Fertilize with 10 lbs. Colloidal Rock Phosphate and 10 lbs. organic fertilizer of your choice. Mulching is preferred. Plant out in the beds after frost in early April.
Summer Squash and Zucchini (Mar-June): Direct seed one bed of each, and repeat every two weeks. You should have at least 6 beds planted at different dates. This helps manage your harvest, and keeps you ahead of the cucumber beetles, squash bugs and other pests. Fertilize with 10 lbs. Colloidal Rock Phosphate and 10 lbs. organic fertilizer of your choice.
Cucumbers (Mar-June): Direct seed once a month to have at least 3 beds for the season.Fertilize with 10 lbs. Colloidal Rock Phosphate and 10 lbs. organic fertilizer of your choice. Market More is a good selection. Members also like Asian varieties.
Melons (April-May): Direct seed one row in a bed and thin to one foot apart after germination.Fertilize the same as the previous crops. We recommend 7 to 10 beds total. Try Isreali, Honeydew, and other interesting heirloom varieties. Plan at least a ¼ pound for seed and try to get a late planting in again in July for an early fall harvest. Mulching is recommended if possible.
Herbs and Flowers: Plan at least one bed of cilantro (Feb-Mar), and basil (April-May, transplants could be started in Feb), direct seeding a bed of sunflowers also makes a nice addition to CSA shares.
If you do not have access to a greenhouse the first year, another market grower in the area may have space to start your plants for you. You could supply them with the seed and have it arranged to be ready when you are.
While all this work is happening, you still may need time to recruit your new CSA members. Plan a Farm Day to show prospective new members the garden you are preparing and share the vision. I will discuss Membership fees and agreements in the next issue.
Also, keep in mind; this is your spring/summer field. It would be good to have another 3 ½ acres in a summer cover crop to get ready for the future, try lablab or iron and clay cow peas in sandy soil (20 lbs and acre), then you want to have another ½ acre ready to plant for your fall garden starting in late September.
Grab a seed catalog and start dreaming!
- Farmer Brad
Originally published July 2008 by Brad Stufflbeam, Home sweet Farm LLC
In our changing local food economy, it’s important to stay on the cutting edge especially if you are a small family farmer dependent upon reaching your customers directly in the marketplace.
The Local Food scene has grown abundantly over the last ten years in Houston, but let’s face it, the market has become saturated with Farmers Markets, out of town distributors and an apparent increase of local food accessibility in grocery stores. This leaves local farmers with a need to explore new options.In our changing local food economy, it’s important to stay on the cutting edge especially if you are a small family farmer dependent upon reaching your customers directly in the marketplace.
Small farmers need to move toward a more creative approach, offering unique items that you do not find as easily available such as microgreens, ginger, turmeric and mushrooms. Of course, these too will become more popular with local growers as the market is discovered, but for now, they are an opportunity to grow.
Microgreens are tiny edible plants that are larger than sprouts but smaller than baby vegetables and are harvested as the first true leaves are germinated. They pack a big punch when it comes to flavor and nutrition. Sprouts are generally grown in water, but microgreens are grown in soil and then cut by hand without the roots attached. Most any variety of vegetable can be grown, but successful mixes focus on color and sometimes spicy flavors to garnish salads and plates, and the chefs love them.
Our extended growing season in the South gives growers an opportunity for more tropical offerings like ginger and turmeric. Both are valued for their culinary and medicinal qualities, but once you have experienced fresh baby ginger or turmeric, there is no going back. Planted in mid spring when the temperatures warm up, these crops take up to nine months to harvest and are big feeders requiring regular organic inputs, but the crop is worth it. Both chefs and Market shoppers buy up the fresh crop quickly in early winter as the demand far exceeds the supply, giving farmers a premium price.
Mushrooms are also a niche market for farmers to develop. With the right environment, mushrooms can be easily grown on sawdust, wood chips, straw or fresh logs. With our native trees in the area, oyster varieties and shitakes are ideal. These can be offered fresh or dried to extend the market, giving farmers a unique offering that are quickly sought after at Markets and among chefs.
These and other unique culinary crops will make local farmers a success in the ever changing market place and will also add much needed variety to the local food scene.
Originally published Feb. 7, 2015 by Brad Stufflebeam, Home Sweet Farm LLC
The local food economy has changed a lot over the last 5 years and unless you are paying attention as a Market Grower, you may miss the boat or sink all together.
When we first began farming, Community Supported Agriculture programs were enormously successful and growing. We doubled our membership base every season and couldn't keep up with the demand. Of course we were early in the movement starting one of the first CSA Farms in Texas and definitely the first to serve the greater Houston area. Before we new it, we were serving over 380 families every week and had created a successful distribution program that benefited many local farmers in the area. Working collectively, we offered fresh produce, eggs, artisan cheese, grass-fed beef, pastured pork, chicken and holiday turkeys. We had created a model network for direct from the farmer food distribution and it seemed like the sky was the limit... for a time.
Gradually, and about 15 years later, we experienced the slowing pace of the CSA movement as more home delivery programs became popular. Although its not AS "local" but its STILL fresher than the box stores... we witnessed multiple companies move into our market place, but why worry? Houston has over 2.2 million people, right? We found ourselves still fighting for the less than 1% of the population who shopped for local food (and that market was not growing). As a farmer, we could not offer the convenience of home delivery, but throughout the years we have seen these home delivery companies come and go.
"Local" food also became more convenient as farmers markets exploded and grocery chains got on the bandwagon as well. Small farmers and experienced local food buyers knew better, but it did not change the fact that farmers were having to work a lot harder. While some farmers sold at just two markets a week a few years ago, now some farmers are selling at 6 or more markets to see the sales they had previously. Not to mention, the need to commit financially to a CSA program was becoming less attractive when local food appeared to be so more readily available and convenient.
We have also seen many farmers come and go during our 25+ years growing professionally. Of course an aging farm community has a lot to contribute, but so has the market place, not to mention the brutal weather we have experienced in the South over the last decade. I can count on one hand the small farms that are still around that we used to work with 5 years ago. Many went under while trying to expand while the market was changing fundamentally beneath their feet, leaving many too deeply invested to adjust or recover while others just threw in the towel, tired of being martyrs in the local food revolution.
With all things considered and with Amazon/Whole Foods anticipated to play their hand even bigger in the local market place, its time to be dynamic and to reevaluate the future as a market grower. Its time to look at what you can do to be different and to set yourself a part. Do you continue to grow crops that you loose money on? Do you go more boutique and specialty with your crop selection? Do you explore the community and educational opportunities that a farm can uniquely offer? What can small farmers do that no other food distributor can emulate? Is it time to scale up or is it time to scale down?
Over the next few seasons, we will be sharing how our farm successfully scaled down while working more efficiently and increasing profits. Driving our food extremely local. Minimizing risk. Record Keeping. Building a more righteous food system: small scale, community centered and sustainable. Stay tuned... this and many more details will be covered in our up coming Farm Training Series.
We are busy this time of year (July), preparing new fields and planning for our fall planting. One of the challenges is the dry soil during this time of the year which makes any bed preparation a major challenge. When you receive any amount of rain, you need to be prepared to work the soil.One advantage that you have is that it is easier to eliminate Bermuda grass if you can lightly till or disk the area regularly, every other week, which finally exhausts the noxious weed in preparation for fall planting.
After testing the soil, we generally fertilize a new one acre field with 100lbs. dried molasses, 50 lbs. Humate and 600lbs, cotton seed meal (or whatever is economically/locally available) as early as possible when we prepare the field. To simplify things, each bed is 4 feet wide and 100 feet long. Two to four weeks before we are ready to plant, we like to have the beds prepared with 10lbs. colloidal rock phosphate and 10lbs. organic fertilizer (there are many name brands out there, or you can use feather meal, poultry manure, etc…)
Fall Tomatoes and Peppers (June-July): By July we start our final crop of tomatoes and peppers in the greenhouse. Be prepared to protect them in the field from the first fall frost in mid-Nov, and you might have a harvest past the New Year. We choose early producing varieties like Early Girl, Valley Girl and sweet peppers that can add to our fall shares. Be prepared to transplant into the field after 6 weeks from starting. You will not have the major crop as you did in the spring/summer but still plan for 200 tomatoes and 200 sweet peppers, about 3 beds total. If you think a hard frost might take the crop, go out and harvest all you can. We have had tomatoes ripen almost a month later, or offer green tomatoes or tomato relish. Come up with something.You need to turn lemon into lemonade.
Squash, Zucchini, Cucumbers (Aug-Sept): Direct seed at least one bed of each. You can plan on harvesting beginning 6 to 7 weeks from sowing and should choose early varieties. It helps to cover the new beds with a light frost cloth until the plants flower; this keeps off the insects and provides a little shade during the extreme heat.
Broccoli, Brussels Sprouts and Head Cabbage (Aug): Start these in your greenhouse before mid-Aug. Plan at least 100 plants of each, and 200 of the broccoli. They will be available to your members by late January. Be prepared to protect these plants with a light frost cloth to prevent any cosmetic damage during a freeze. Before they set heads, you can harvest their greens which are wonderful. Foliar sprays work well throughout the growing season. We use fish emulsion, molasses and Bt to prevent worm damage before they set heads.
Swiss Chard, Kale, Collards, Mustard, Cauliflower and Chinese Cabbage (Sept.): Start Napa Cabbage, Bok Choi and others in the greenhouse by mid-Sept. and transplant out into the field as early as possible. Swiss Chard can also be direct seeded for baby greens.
Lettuce (Sept-Oct): Choose at least 3 varieties (100 plants each) and start in the greenhouse in Sept. for head lettuce. Lettuce mixes can be directly seeded in four rows down your bed. Repeat a second bed of Lettuce Mix every two weeks throughout Oct. and be prepared to protect with a light frost cloth to keep it looking pretty. Foliar spray with Bt for the worms, but keep the fish emulsion out of the mix on any of these greens to prevent an off flavor.
Beets and Turnips (Sept.-mid Oct): Direct seed a lot of beets and turnips in Sept. to mid-Oct.You can harvest their greens throughout the fall, and thin them out to form beet and turnip roots for the spring. These will be important crops in early spring to add bulk to your shares.
Carrots (Sept.): Direct seed at least 2 beds of carrots in 4 rows in the first part of Sept. Carrots take a few weeks to germinate and need to be kept moist until they emerge. Deep sandy soil produces the best carrots and will be available next spring for your CSA shares.
Onions (Aug – Nov): Start your own onion seed in the greenhouse in late August, or buy onion sets to be put into the fields from Oct – Nov. You can’t plant too many onions for your spring shares. Choose short day varieties like TX 1015, Candy, TX Early White, Grano, Blanco, Yellow Granex and others. Keep moisture consistent until the first evidence of top falling, which is your sign to harvest large onion bulbs. Mulching is a big benefit and fertilizing regularly before bulbing.
Spinach (mid Sept – mid Nov): Spinach has not done well for us, but we still give it a try every year. Direct seed in 3 to 4 rows and thin out to give room to grow. High fertility needs, and good drainage is essential.
Peas (mid Dec): Direct seed English and Sugar Snap peas during the last week of December.We generally do not plant peas any more because of the low yields and high labor to harvest, but members love them when you have them available in early spring. You will need to have at least a whole bed planted to make it worth your time.
Leeks and Bulb Fennel (Aug-Sept.): Start your transplants in the greenhouse in late Aug. and put into the field as early as possible in Oct. Mulching is a big benefit as these plants grow all winter for your spring shares. One bed of each should be plenty, spaced 4 to 6 inches a part.
Fava Beans (mid Sept.-mid Oct.): Fava beans make an excellent cover crop with edible leaves and large pods relished by chefs. Available in late winter, they hold up well unless it gets below 20 degrees. They also make a great habitat for beneficial insects in the early spring.
Herbs (Sept-Oct): Direct seed cilantro, dill, lovage, salad burnet and chamomile by late Sept. when it begins to cool down. Parsley can be started in the greenhouse in early Sept. and transplanted as early as possible. Any perennial herb like rosemary, oregano, sage, lemon grass and others transplant well in the fall as well, when mulched.
Strawberry Plants (Nov.): Start out with no more than 1000 plants. This is where black plastic and straw mulch is a real benefit. Space 8 inches apart in 3 staggered rows down your bed. Be prepared to protect from frosts once the fruit is set with either overhead watering or a heavy frost cloth. Choose “June Bearing” varieties for large marketable fruit like Camarosa, Chandler and Sequoia. Watch for diseases which can be suppressed with foliar sprays including seaweed and neem oil or hydrogen peroxide.
Winter Cover Crops (Oct): Any bare soil or fields that you plan to put into production next spring/summer needs to be planted into a winter cover crop. This will add organic matter, prevent erosion, add nitrogen for the following season, suppress weeds and provide a habitat for beneficial insects. Some plants also provide interest for your CSA shares including pea tendrils and crimson clover bouquets for tea. Our basic one acre cover crop mix for the winter includes crimson clover (10lbs.), Austrian field peas (25lbs.), Vetch (25 lbs.), and oats (50 lbs.). This needs to be worked into the soil when at 80% bloom or before it sets seed, ideally 6 to 8 weeks before you are ready to plant the field for the spring/summer season.
Originally published July 2008 by Brad Stufflebeam, Home sweet Farm LLC
This is one of the best things about the Texas summer.When it is hot, dry, and miserable, we get to work in the shade of the greenhouse dreaming about cooler weather and preparing for fall.
The fun starts in the greenhouse mixing our soil for propagation. Rather than a native soil or compost based mix, for better consistency we use a peat based soil mix with high porosity. We have found that over-watering is a common issue when we have different people trading off on the chore. Herbs are also very sensitive to over watering. We mix our own soil in small batches using different organic amendments and rock powders to give the seedlings a good start. After years of observation and trials, we have come up with what we call “Farmer Brad’s Super Soil”:
40 lbs. Soil Mix (inoculated with mycrozial fungi)
10 lbs. Worm Castings (for added micronutrients and biology)
10 lbs. Lava Sand (for aeration and Paramagnetism)
5 lbs. Colloidal Rock Phosphate (for root development)
2 cups Bat Guano, Feather Meal or Poultry Manure (for nitrogen, but do not over do it!)
2 cups Kelp Meal (micronutrients and aids in germination)
2 cups Humate (added organic mater)
2 cups Green Sand (iron and magnesium)
5 gal. Water (it is important to pre-wet your mix)
This is all mixed together by hand or with a small concrete mixer. We then use 72ct trays and prepare ready stacks for the work of seeding ahead.
This is when you want the whole family or friends to help to get the work done faster. Before seeding you can use a pencil to dib holes about a ¼” deep into each filled cell of the plant tray, a board can be made with nails to dib the whole tray at one time as well. We drop 2 to 3 seeds into each dibbed cell and then tamp the soil down carefully to cover the seeds and to insure that they are making good contact to the soil. Smaller seeds like delphinium may need to be lightly sprinkled on the surface of the filled cells rather than buried.
Be sure to label and date your trays, then place them into the shade and water them in (very important), repeating daily (if not more) before the heat of the day. You want to keep the soil moist for germination, but you also want the soil to not be continuously wet and growing algae.
Ants can be a problem in the greenhouse as they will literally harvest the seed from your trays.You can place your trays on tables that have their legs standing in water and use one of the organic ant baits regularly to deter the problem.
By the end of July we start broccoli, cauliflower, winter cabbage, kale, collards, brussels sprouts, pak choi, Chinese cabbage and kohlrabi. These will be transplanted out into the field as soon as the weather cools off, hopefully by lat Sept. In mid August we will begin seeding the more tender leafy greens like head lettuce, swiss chard, dill, and other herbs.
Before planting into the field you need to place the plant trays into the full sun and wind to harden off for at least a week. This is called “tough love” preparing the babies for real life outdoors. Pray for rain after planting, cover with a light cloth if possible for earlier transplanting and be sure to water them in deeply either by hand or irrigation and repeat as necessary until the plants are well established.
Originally published July 2008 by Brad Stufflebeam, Home Sweet Farm LLC
Farmer Brad Stufflebeam, "A local food pioneer in the Lone Star State", has served as President of the Texas Organic Farmers and Gardeners Assoc., Advisory Board Member for USDA Southern SARE, President of the Farm and Ranch Freedom Alliance, Chairman/Founder of the Texas Arts and Music Festival. In 2012 Brad received the Houston Mayor's Award: Champion of Food Justice and 2015 edibleHOUSTON's Local Hero Award.