Before jumping into 2021 with a new company name, updated vision, and all that comes with that territory, I thought folks might be interested in how the growing season went.
Espoo City came through this year in support of the farm and allowed me to convert an insulated shipping container into a walk-in cooler. I wanted to use a CoolBot that Kimmo brought back from Sweden for me, but had issues finding a company that would install the air conditioner for me so I eventually went above my budget and into a standard system (that unfortunately doesn’t work in winter, but I don’t grow anything that needs refrigeration when it is freezing). My good friend and beekeeper, Stan, was able to help out with the purchase and we now co-own an amazingly efficient, well lit, and quality made fridge that can handle my production. I was finally able to hang on to vegetables without any hassle whatsoever and the quality increased beyond its already high level.
This past winter, before the COVID-19 pandemic struck, I decided to reduce the amount of work I was going to be doing dramatically. Learning from past mistakes, I knew I needed to put my own health and wellbeing ahead of everything else and make more time for my family. I also knew how easy it is for misunderstandings to take place as well as being taken advantage of outright in this field so I wanted to protect myself from that too.
I told every restaurant that if they wanted to continue buying from me, then they’d need to commit to a contract in order to share some of the risk. If they weren’t going to share the responsibility for asking me to grow things for them and then not purchase, well, they’d have to make due with whatever was left over from customers who were willing to truly support local production. A few who believed in me from the beginning of the farm- like Kuurna and Atelje Finne- were determined to make that work, others weren’t. At the end of the day it turned out that with the rapidly evolving pandemic restrictions, restaurants were in a fight for their life and many turned back- understandably- to standard sales channels. I have a lot of respect for all of my prior restaurant clients who have by and large managed to survive the challenge of operating a restaurant during these incredibly tough times. Running a restaurant is tough enough as it is without COVID. My sales may have gone down, but I wasn’t- at any point- truly at risk of going out of business and losing everything.
I also lucked out by having Helsieni as a neighbor. They’re really awesome people and had many of the same customers, so I was able to have them deliver my products to restaurants all summer long. I saved so many hours in the car that handing the delivery fees over to them was an extremely small price to pay for their service. Not driving twice a week into the city was perhaps, alongside not doing REKO, the best change I made in 2020.
This past winter I also decided to stop selling at my local REKO rings, despite strong customer support there. I wanted to spend more time with my family and less time behind the computer cross referencing orders and competing with other local (and some not so local) producers. Even as the coronavirus situation increased REKO sales while other channels dried up, I stood by my decision and profited by means of weekends truly at home and not stuck on Facebook and Google Sheets. A few regulars became CSA members and others rode their bikes from around the Helsinki region to visit the farm and even pick some of their own produce from time to time. Truth be told, I did miss seeing those friendly faces throughout the summer so having loyal customers make the effort to come buy directly meant a lot. I may return to REKO next year, but I still need to finish planning exactly what I want to do. I can understand the reluctance to allow reselling at REKO, but I would have really liked to let someone else sell for me on commission.
I did manage to add a new customer this year: K-Market Mankkaa. For those of you who aren’t Finnish, K-Markets are supermarkets. That’s right, a “permaculture” farm began selling through a supermarket. It was a completely new experience for me and some of my products failed, but others became local favorites and we had a decent time of it despite COVID restrictions making it so they couldn’t visit my farm. One thing I appreciated, apart from the larger quantities and good prices (that’s right, good prices from a supermarket), was how little time it took to deliver my products. It took only fifteen minutes to load my car at the farm, drop off the vegetables in their cold storage, and get out of my car and back to work (or lunch) at the farm. Fifteen minutes! You can still find honey from Lillklobb there right now if you want to try some out!
At the same time, I also changed my approach to the ever evolving CSA (community supported agriculture) program I offer. I’ve kept it to a transactional, annual system in order to allow me to change it according to events on the ground (and, perhaps more importantly, in my head). In 2019, we had ±50 members and 18 weeks straight of vegetable sets. Eighteen weeks is a long time for a tiny little farm in Finland with no serious greenhouse space and a refusal to blanket the farm with polytunnels/caterpillar tunnels. I already hate seeing the plastic frost blankets on everything from mid-April until June as it is. As an aside, I find it rather intriguing how many people in the broad “local food movement” chastise the Spanish for covering everything in plastic yet celebrate it when their local farmer does the same.
Anywho, I chose to put my own needs first this year with the CSA as well. Instead of continuing to have vegetables in July when everyone is on vacation (of course the pandemic changed that!) and allowing members to choose whether they would pick up or not while I continued working, I cut out those weeks entirely and used them to harvest garlic, maintain the gardens, do some occasional sales on the farm, and even- get this- take a week off. I took a long week off while allowing the interns (who come from horticulture schools by the way, so they are getting serious qualifications when they finish their studies, not just a paper from my farm) to take control. Everything survived and we could go into August feeling much better about things.
This year’s CSA was a real bright spot. We had many returning members and zero negative issues from what I can recall. That’s saying a lot! I was better able to handle communications and improve the pick up process tremendously with the fridge allowing for better inventory control and long term, on farm storage of crops. I was even able to hold on to a little trial crop of potatoes through the summer and include them in every week’s veggie set for the entire late summer and fall, something I haven’t bothered to do before. I could have handled double the members, but discovered that too late and chose not to act on it. Yeah, “bad” business practice but good for my mental health.
When it comes to the production on the farm, detailed record keeping from the year prior (and building on some spottier records from 2018, 2017 not really counting) allowed me to really dial in production. I decided that I would be able to greatly reduce the amount of plantings and still provide quite a lot of food throughout the course of the year. I ditched baby greens entirely due to the logistical nightmare they create when you do next-to-zero packaging (besides rubber bands, I introduced paper bags at the end of the year to ensure fair distribution of some products). That saved a lot of bed space, seed cost, and time spent managing those pesky rows. The quick cut greens harvester is a really neat tool, but there’s a lot more to taking care of those cut and come again greens than zipping along with that tool and calling it a day. Also, people just don’t seem to want those crops around here and I’m not about to buy- recycled or not- plastic clamshells to pack them into. Packing vegetables, by the way- standing behind a scale and weighing out “products”- is one of the most boring parts of farming and there’s no way I’m going to use more plastic to do that.
All in all, we harvested from 121 different plantings, down from a planned 165 (some intercrops failed spectacularly for one reason or another, including low sales). That’s significantly less than the 211 plantings in 2019. In turn, that means we harvested from 57% as many rows as last year. In all, we still recorded over 3200 kg of production from ± 675 m2 despite planting less. Surprisingly, that’s slightly higher than last year’s 3100 kg! The total amount of vegetables grown was probably at least another 300 kg higher than that given how many plants I decided to stop harvesting from at the end of the year. And I also didn’t include my sun choke (Jerusalem artichoke) harvests in to that figure.
Of course crop selection means a lot, but perhaps not as much as you’d think. For example, we harvested just over 100 kg of potatoes from about 8kg of seed this summer while last year we harvested 85 kg of baby lettuce (and probably grew 100+ kg given that we stopped harvesting multiple rows when sales didn’t come through). Last season we grew over 80 kg of arugula as well, so don’t get to thinking that you don’t harvest a lot of food with the baby greens.
My top ten products, by total potential monetary value, were a bit different than last years. I’m not going to share the actual euro value here, but suffice to say these are based only on what we recorded as being harvested and then that total number multiplied by an average sales price. So these figures don’t include products unharvested, that didn’t meet quality control, or weren’t included for one reason or another. They only include (more or less) what we could actually sell and bothered to bring to the scale. The amount of data you could collect is ridiculous even on a small farm and you have to draw the line somewhere.
I should note that I dropped my prices from last year (already low for the quality) considerably such that, on average across 33 different crops, my prices were 80% of 2019’s and the total potential value was only 72% of 2019’s. My prices on many products are cheaper than “conventional” products at your local supermarket, not to mention certified organic choices.
1) Garlic. By far and away, garlic was the winner here. Last year we only harvested 100 kg of fresh garlic (planted at half the recommended density). For this year, I doubled the density to bring it up to the recommended value (200 plants per row) and we didn’t just 2x our yield, but managed to 4.5X it! Yes, that’s right, despite a high number of plants dying due to the really terrible winter (no snow, lakes not freezing, constant rain), we harvested 450 kg of fresh garlic this summer on the same amount of land while still intercropping for the CSA’s veggie sets. I’ve changed the planting pattern, but not the density, and used my own “seed garlic” for 2021’s season and have my fingers crossed that a better winter will allow me to harvest 500 or even 600 kg of fresh garlic next year.
2) Beets. Yeah, beets. I totally failed growing beets in 2018 and my little trials last year yielded so well that I was sad not to have planted more. So I doubled my number of plantings and doubled the yield from 2019. We were able to have fresh beets with greens for a long time this summer and rounded out the year with roots only beets that stored superbly in the fridge. And that’s even with a couple of failed rows of beets too, combined with the damping off issues I struggled with in the nursery (we transplant beets at Lillklobb). Despite coming in at number two, beets were less than half the potential value of garlic.
3) Swiss chard. No surprise here that chard is one of my top selling plants. Super easy to grow and rabbbits/deer don’t seem to like it except early in the spring (when you want to protect against frost anyway) and late in the season once people get a bit tired of eating it. I planted the same number of rows (5), but increased the number of plants per row and increased my yield slightly to 170 kg. Thats 34 kg of chard from each 7.5 m2 row that I intercropped (those failed by and large) with leeks and spring onions. We actually stopped harvesting chard for a while because we were tired of it, so I’m dead certain that we produced in excess of 200 kg this year.
4) Spring onions. This was a “new” crop for me this year. I failed on many levels with this one- too many seeds per cell in the nursery, not enough space around each crop in some cases, planting too early in others- yet even with the failures this one was up at the top of the list.
5) Kale. In 2019, I stopped growing larger leafed kale and tried to switch to a niche market of baby kale greens. Those totally failed (two of the three varieties that were supposed to be good for that bombed. every. single. planting.) and people missed having the larger size. So this year I put in five rows by the chard and did it the old way- picking a couple of leaves from each plant every week. Kale was back in business and people loved it. The Toscana and Scarlet kales, which performed so poorly as baby crops really showed their stuff this summer and we were able to offer three varieties for months. Even after allowing people to come pick their own and take as much as they wanted, the kale plants are still there in the dark feeding rabbits and deer to this day. The yield was about the same as 2018’s larger kale plants, which is nice to see because it means my record keeping is on track as well as telling me the soil is maintaining its fertility despite decreased applications of compost and organic fertilizer.
6) Cabbage. So far this list is not following the “rules” for a highly profitable, small scale market garden. That’s because I do things differently and want a diversity of crops. Cabbage doesn’t get grown on farms my size, but I grow it anyway even if I don’t particularly like it much. We had early cabbage and late cabbage- my mid season one failing again so badly that I won’t grow it again except in a cover crop (that’s you, Red “Express” cabbage). Anyway, including the failed cabbage, I planted about 2x as much but got 3x as much. Woohoo!
7) Lettuce. Combining both gem type and Romaine together here, lettuces together come in at lucky number 7. I planted half as many rows of lettuce versus 2019 and improved the yield slightly. We didn’t have so many wire worm losses in the spring, but the growth wasn’t as desirable as earlier years. Still, the yields were about the same. I think I need to allow the gem lettuce to grow longer (or not screw up the nursery as I did this year later in the season when I ran out of my precious vermicompost).
8) Carrots. Again, something a farm my size probably wouldn’t grow except for early spring baby carrot production. I planted 2x as many rows at 2019 and the yields went up 30% on average, that is probably due to less time pressure overall and knowing a bit more about carrots. We even had good yields from garlic/carrot intercropping in the spring which is pretty cool. Carrots are a really nice crop once you get the hang of them. Now to only figure out how to do on farm seed pelletization.
9) Zucchini. I planned a few less zucchini this summer than last and even managed to get the polycultures I wanted to do going. They didn’t get planted where I wanted them, but in the end that was ok. This summer was cooler, especially in July, and we harvested 100kg less than 2019. However, I also planted later and stopped harvesting earlier than 2019. Given that the intercrop succeeded and we overproduced, I would reduce the number of plants per row and improve management were I to do that again. The main workhorse variety, ‘Pantheon,’ is absolutely awesome and yields more than most bio intensive guides say to rely up by at least 50% if not 2x.
10) Leeks. Like with the spring onions, I messed up these by putting too many seeds in each cell in the nursery, yet we still overproduced. I thinned some too late and we got some disease pressure in the shade late in the year, but nothing too bad. The intercrops failed for one reason or another, but I think if I were to do it again I could make it work by getting the number of leeks/cell right and reducing the number of plants in a bed. Anyway, I planted a little less than 2x as many as 2019 and we harvested again 170kg. Interesting that so many of the crops yielded about that much at the end of the season. We didn’t harvest all of the leeks though, so that number would have been higher as well.
Overall, one thing that is interesting is the number of crops that had potential value greater than 1000 euros. With the number of baby greens from last season, I had 15 crops that fulfilled that criteria and this year that number fell to 8. However, if you normalize the prices to 2019’s values, then there were 10 from this summer. Despite having 50% more high value crops in 2019, the total value of this year’s top 10 was greater than last year’s top 15!
Again, pretty cool when you consider that I planted 57% less times than 2019. So less plantings, less work, more weekends and free time, less stress, and not only did my total yield in weight go up, but the potential value of the crops increased too. Not bad.
So, on a final note, I’d like to remind everyone that I’m not market farming next year. Despite the success of this year, nothing has changed regarding how I want to spend my time. That said, I still have 500+kg of fresh garlic coming next July and I’m narrowing down to a few ideas that I think might work for me. So stay tuned for announcements in January regarding how you can continue to support my work if you’d like to!