Ginko leaves in fall

Ginko. We love it because its the last remnant of an ancient plant line that has all but died out, but also because of the color and shape of the leaves in the fall.

Well, we’ve had a frost, though not a hard hard one (I still have a few late season paprika peppers hanging on that I blanketed with some agribon). The popcorn was finally harvested. The few winter squash I grew for us (we have a terrible squash bug issue here, so I don’t grow them for market anymore) are tucked away in the garage pantry. The sheep have been let into part of the garden to finish up the green tomatoes.

Beatuyberry. Callicarpa.

Beautyberry. We tried hard to kill this bush a couple of years ago, but its come back and rallied with lots of berries this year. Supposedly a good bug repellent. Callicarpa species. Interestingly, its in the mint family.

When I started out farming and selling at farmers markets in 2011, I thought growing produce would be my primary focus. I would grow beautiful organic kale and spinach, people would buy it, I’d make enough to make it worth it, my community would eat well, and all would be right with the world.

Echinacea flower.

Grown from seed this spring, this purple cone flower (Echinacea) decided to bloom this year, much to my surprise. It’s hanging in there, despite the frost.

But what I figured out, slowly at first, is that all farming produces some waste. Produce that isn’t fit to sell (hello Chinese cabbage shot gunned by slugs), or that doesn’t sell super well (hello kale and chard, I’m looking at you kids) or that is more labor than its worth (hello green beans that have to be picked every two days during the hottest days of July and August). And as a good farmer, you plan for this loss. You know going in that some of what you have grown will never pay off the way you want it to. And so you either stop growing it (hello eggplant that doesn’t hold well because it wants to be stored around 55 degrees and that almost no one buys), or continue to grow it knowing that its a bit of a loss leader that helps you have a well rounded display, and that you’ll be taking some of it home or donating it to the food bank.

American blackbelly sheep eating tomatoes

Garden clean up crew. They LOVE the left over tomatoes.

But when you are small. REALLY small. As in one women doing 95% of the work and not producing large amounts of anything, that loss is extra painful. When you know that you’ll never see a return on the effort that it took to get that  bunch of kale or head of lettuce to market, it slowly breaks your heart.

Colorful blueberry leaves, fallen on the ground

Blueberry plants in fall

Abundance sells. You can have 30 bunches of kale and sell the heck out of them, but if you have only 3 bunches they will slowly wilt as the market day drags on, because everyone is overlooking them, heading instead to the booth with 30 bunches. And I TOTALLY get that psychology. I do that too. A busy booth must mean that what’s being sold is good. Abundant produce must mean they know what they are doing.

Blueberry leaves turn color in fall.

Blueberry plants in fall

So every year, I’ve expanded my other offerings (plant starts, soaps, jams…) and narrowed down and narrowed down and narrowed down what produce I bring to market. Sometimes its very hard to remember my disappointment at not selling that head of lettuce when I’m in the throws of early spring planting, but this year, as I was transplanting lettuce flats into the ground, by hand, grubbing in the dirt with my 52 year old body, I literally had a moment of “what the hell am I growing this for”.

Blueberry leaves turn color in fall.

Blueberry plants in fall

The amount of land I commit to “row crops” is small. And honestly, I don’t want to get any bigger. I don’t want to till up the entire front pasture, and grow thousands of pounds of, well, anything. I LIKE being diverse. I like selling jam, and soap, and plant starts. I like not having to train and house interns or buy a greens washer. And I’m excited to celebrate and support other farms where that IS their main focus.

Garlic planting time.

October means its time to plant the garlic. I save the largest heads for planting. It overwinters, comes up first thing in the spring, and then gets harvested in July.

As we hit the end of October, and the garlic goes into the ground – the last significant garden task of the year – I’m once again reevaluating what I grow and how much time it takes me to grow it. What fits best with my other business pursuits, and what makes my heart happy. Because growing food MAKES ME HAPPY. I love it. I’m not gonna stop completely. But I also don’t have the time or energy to be weeding, picking and washing greens, and then trying to keep them from turning to wilted mush on warm market days, only to bring them home for the bunnies and sheep.

Empty boxes from a busy market day.

What’s my number one seller? Soap! (This is from the end of a busy market day). I never expected this when I added it to my offerings at my first markets in 2011. Jam is a distant second but catching up. Produce and plant starts are a solid but respectable third.

So, next year, after an 8 year trial, I won’t be growing much in the way of spring crops. No lettuce, no kale, no spinach, no radishes (which I quit growing a few years ago), no beets. Ie. nothing that has to be washed and trimmed and bunched and fussed over before it goes to market. No carrots. Too hard to keep weeded and too much work to wash and bunch, though I’ll continue to grow a few for our own use. No peas (which I also dropped a few years ago). Too much work to keep picked, I have weirdly inconsistent germination on them here, even when planted in flats first, and they always pitter out way too soon, contracting some sort of mildew that makes the late crop unsellable. No cabbage, just because it doesn’t sell well enough to warrant the room it takes or the price it fetches. I will continue to do broccoli and maybe kohlrabi, as its an easy crop to harvest and I’ve finally landed on a couple of varieties that I really like.

Joe Parker chilies roasting on the grill.

The last of the Hatch style (Joe Parker variety) chili peppers roasting on the grill. These were left over after not selling at a market a few weeks ago. We’ll eat them all winter.

Summer will mean tomatoes and peppers. Heirloom tomatoes fetch a good price, and they take no processing. Pick and (carefully) put them into a box. Store box until market. Done. Don’t sell them all? Turn extras into tomato jam for market. Or one of the seemingly thousand other things we use them for year round.

Peppers make me happy. Especially chili peppers. I will continue to grow them, and slowly build a reputation as one of the chili growers at the market. I may buy a small chili roaster this winter. I’d like to be able to offer roasted chilies on the spot at market some day! Plus, we roast and freeze extra for our own use. Or dry them. Or smoke and dry them. Paprika. Cayenne. Aleppo. Chipotle. Ancho. Yeah, not giving up on the peppers. EVER! I can pick peppers on the hottest days of August and be happy as can be at their beauty, diversity and flavor.

Cherokee Popcorn.

Popcorn! This must be one of the most genetically diverse corns I’ve ever grown. Every ear was different. It’s Cherokee Popcorn from Peaceful Valley Organics. This variety was bred by Carl Barnes, a world-renowned Cherokee corn collector from Oklahoma, from various strains carried west by the Cherokee over the Trail of Tears.

I’ll grow storage corn, and rotate year to year between a flour corn, a flint/polenta corn, and a popcorn. I’d like to eventually partner with someone with land and equipment to grow these on a more commercial basis. Because heirloom polenta is life changing. Not kidding. So stupidly good.

Same for dried beans. TONS of great heirloom varieties, from black turtle to Hidatsa Shield. Every year I try a few new ones. Every one is different. Would love to get to the point where I have enough to sell them at market.

Charlie the dog lounges in the sunshine.

Finding time for quality of life is critical. Moments like this, with Charlie hanging out with me while I wash the last of the leeks of the year, remind me to stop and enjoy the warmth of the sun on my back.

I have one variety of cantaloupe I grow, that I just love. They are a bit of a flash in the pan, because I’m not very good at staggering the planting times, and the second crop they put on is never even close to as good as the first, but they smell so amazing they sell themselves at market, and the taste is swoon worthy. And again, no processing. Pick. Store in the cooler. Take to market. Done.

Butterfly bush (Buddleia davidii)

Last flower on the Butterfly Bush. This died completely back to the ground 2 years ago, but the roots were fine. And this year it was taller than I was.

Potatoes…I may be giving up on them, even though they store well. We have an ongoing gopher problem, I never get them hilled up adequately to prevent some of them from greening in the ground, and I never get them stored properly to keep them from greening in the crates either. (Potato skin turns green when exposed to light – producing solanine, which is toxic and needs to be peeled away. Thinner skinned varieties like Yukon Gold are more susceptible to it). And honestly, they don’t fetch the premium at market that they should, even though, if there is one produce item you should ALWAYS buy organic, its potatoes. I’ll continue to grow a few for our own use, and dedicate the rest of the area to other crops.

Holly berries. Ilex species.

Holly (Ilex species)! A sacred plant of the druids. The leaves on ours are never intact this time of year, because the leaf cutter bees seem to love it. Interestingly, the leaves and berries are both toxic. Wonder if the bees are using it to keep out unwanted mites and other visitors?

Onions, leeks, shallots, garlic…oh my yes (even though leeks are a pain in the butt to trim and wash). I love growing them, I love that they store well, so if I don’t sell them this week, I can sell them next week, I love all the diversity out there (ie I don’t need to grow Walla Walla Sweet onions – I can grow other Italian heirloom varieties). I wish I had twice as much garlic and shallots this year as I had. I sold out within a month of harvest. So more of those, please!

If I could impart ONE message to new business owners and farmers after 8 years of markets, it would be to BE FLEXIBLE. If something isn’t working, figure out why and change it up/repackage/remarket it or drop it all together. The list of toiletry products I’ve dropped in the last 8 years is a long one. Sometimes something just isn’t worth it, no matter how much you might personally love it.  Scents come into and out of vogue.

Don’t just assume, “If I offer it, they will buy it”. Reevaluate your product line every year and adjust, to keep yourself viable, and to keep your passion high. Because the number one question I am asked at farmers market is, “Are you here every week?” And I want to be able to continue to answer yes for the NEXT 8 years.

It was a great market year. Dropping all farmers markets besides the Downtown Walla Walla one was the right decision, even though it was a difficult one. I had more time to keep up with inventory, and most importantly, to maintain my sanity. My growth at the Downtown market was excellent this year. Having a few more hours in the day also allowed me to stay involved with other community projects like the Walla Walla Valley Food Systems Coalition, who recently became part of a USDA Local Food Promotion Program grant! More on that story in a later post!

© Miles Away Farm 2018, where we’re catching our breath before the Holiday shows and markets. Check the “where to find me” tab above to see my November/December schedule and come find me!