Gardening, especially growing your own food, is one of the number one pastimes across the country. But ask anyone who has actually tended a garden and they will also admit it is a humbling experience! You don’t just drop a seed in the ground and ‘Voila!’ a basket of tomatoes appears. There are bugs, diseases, fertility, too much or too little water, and then there are weeds, weeds, and more weeds to contend with.
Supermarket shelves brim with perfect produce, and farmers markets and roadside stands have beautiful piles of all sorts of vegetables; they make it look so easy. Home gardeners might be content with having enough for a few meals but our North Country commercial growers are in this is as a business. If they don’t make a profit, they aren’t going to keep farming. Today, I hope to increase your appreciation of the work and innovations our growers use to produce all that beautiful food.
Irrigation: Some growers still rely on rain to provide enough moisture to keep their vegetables alive, but most have learned that investing in some type of irrigation system will increase their yields and profitability. Some have good wells, some pump out of nearby streams or build irrigation ponds. They need to invest in pumps, pressure regulators, filters, drip lines, and so on.
Rowcovers: You may have noticed large sections of fields covered with a white sheet this spring. This is a lightweight, breathable material generically called rowcover that growers lay right over certain crops to keep out early pests like flea beetles and cucumber beetles, and to provide protection from the wind to get their crops off to a good start. Home gardeners can use rowcover too and the difference between covered and uncovered crops is impressive. Sometimes it is held up above the crop by low wire hoops and other times it is laid right on top of the plants. It needs to be removed for pollination but it is a huge advantage in May and June.
Low Tunnels, High Tunnels: These are plastic covered structures that can add a month or two to either end of the growing season. The sides are kept down during chilly weather, and raised when it’s warm. In summer, the plastic roof keeps rain, hail and some wind away. Tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants flourish under these protected conditions in summer, and then cool season crops like lettuce, spinach, chard and carrots can be grown well into the fall. By keeping the leaves dry in summer these structures reduce the incidence of diseases such as late blight, early blight, and septoria. The farmer-driven Northern New York Agricultural Development Program has invested funds in high tunnel/season-extension research to help growers in the state’s six northernmost counties. That research has been conducted at the Willsboro Agricultural Research Farm and on farms across the NNY region.
Pests: Bugs and diseases are a constant challenge for our growers. Whether they follow organic or conventional practices, all growers have to deal with these problems. IPM, integrated pest management, is a sensible approach where each problem is studied, options are considered, and then the grower decides which course of action to take depending on the pest, severity, days away from harvest, etc. These options include using disease resistant varieties, increasing air circulation, protecting with rowcover, and/or carefully timed and calibrated pesticide applications, from either organic or conventional sources.
Weeds: The number one pest for growers and gardeners of any size is weeds. There are whole books written on just this topic so for the space allowed here, I just ask you as consumers to appreciate what a challenge this is. Compare managing a home garden of about 500 square feet to even just a three acre vegetable farm. That is 130,680 square feet of soil to keep the weeds out of! Of course our growers are going to use tools to help them. Tractors, rototillers and flame weeders all need fuel, workers need pay, even horses need feed. Herbicides are another tool, and there is a whole range of options there. There are just no easy solutions to keeping ahead of weeds, yet it must be done. Each of these approaches has costs and benefits, and the grower needs to decide which work best for him or her.
This is only a taste of the many decisions and jobs our growers have to do every day of the season, and throughout the year. It is amazing that our food costs as little as it does. Next time you see a grower with produce for sale, thank him or her and open your wallet wide!