April 29, 2014
Visitors to the CLF Aquaponics Project often ask, “As farm manager, what do you do all day? It looks like the system runs itself, right?” Although an aquaponics system, if managed efficiently, can require less labor than a soil-based farm, the lush rafts of swiss chard, kale, and sorrel need help to develop into quality produce. Every plant is seeded, transplanted, managed for pests and diseases, harvested, and sometimes even pruned or trellised as it grows. However, the trickiest part in managing any farm is in the planning that takes place behind the scenes.
A farm plan will determine the success or failure of a business; and since every piece of land, microclimate, and market is slightly different, it can take years of experience in one place to get right. At the CLF Aquaponics Project, we are continually learning and refining our methods.
A farm plan always starts with a list of crops. Each winter I peruse the seed catalogues to develop a list of varieties for each season that I think will work well in our climate, our system, and our market. Then, I work backwards from the ideal harvest and marketing date for each variety to determine seeding dates. As I plan, I need to account for the plant’s changing growth rates throughout the year, the number of harvests we can expect from each crop, expected losses from pests, and most importantly the availability of space at any given time in our plant beds.
As a demonstration farm, we grow a wide variety of crops, and new plants are constantly being transplanted into the plant beds as mature crops are removed. The length of time any single crop stays in the water depends on its natural growth rate as well as how many harvests we can expect from that plant. Some plants, such as bok choy or head lettuce, yield only a single harvest, while others, such as kale or salad mix, can yield 3 to 15 harvests. This makes estimating available space a formidable task. Experience is essential for mastering this part of the crop plan, and we are still learning the nuances of our system. Calendars, farm maps, and spreadsheets all help the farmer to visualize this process.
The CLF Aquaponics Project is a small-scale demonstration farm, so the survival of a business is not at stake with our harvests. While farm planning sometimes seems like an intimidating task for us, I can only imagine how other local farmers successfully manage dozens of acres of land. There are several software based farm-management tools on the market, but these cannot replace the experience and knowledge that every farmer must have to fully understand the idiosyncrasies of his or her land…or water. The next time you buy produce at the farmers market, think back to not only when that head of lettuce was a seedling in the soil, but also to when it was only a flickering concept in the mind of the farmer.