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Graduation Day for a Beginner Farmer

By Tracy Sweely

I have been farming for four years. So I guess it makes sense that it’s time for my graduation from “Beginner Farmer” status, kind of like graduating from high school or a four-year Bachelors degree program. It’s not really apples to apples though; I’m inclined to believe the USDA categorization of the beginner farmer as someone farming for less than 10 years. I’ve learned a lot in my four years, but my biggest lesson was learning I have A LOT more to learn.

I guess what I really mean is that I’ve graduated from the “Black-Hole” phase of beginner farming. You know, that phase where every minute shift in the season from March through December is fraught with that gut-wrenching, brain-wracking concern about what could go wrong next.  What could go wrong and how badly could it go wrong…? What of an infinite number of possibilities could happen to any and all the crops that we’ve already promised to our paid-up CSA members? Will we have to tell them we’ve failed and they’ve lost their investment in us? Will we be able to even come close to what we’ve promised them? Spoiler alert: We did fine! And we did it without losing our minds! Hallelujah!

I’ve always been the kind of person who would like to create things fully formed and perfect from the start, like Athena’s emergence from the brow of Zeus. If I just have enough foresight, if I just take the time to study the situation and lay down a well thought-out plan, my creation will be stunning! Or at least functional…it will at least serve its purpose. Well, if I hadn’t learned in all my previous endeavors the underlying illusion of this perspective (you simply can’t prepare for everything…), Ceres the goddess of farming surely has cured me, albeit with a gentle yet firm hand. Yes, you can study the prospect at length, yes you can make a thorough and well thought out plan. But farming will have some big surprises for you, and not just a few. It’s got to be like new parenthood in a way. But again not apples to apples, since whether it was year one or year four, I always refer to the farm plot as “The Newborn.” The world revolves around its needs.

We have a ¼-acre micro-farm in Lafayette CO called HeartEye Village CSA. It’s a pilot study farm for Fantastic Farm Enterprises and while it is small we still have all the same challenges as larger market farms because we are growing multiple vegetable crops and we market them in the usual channels: CSA, farm stand, and sometimes wholesale. Our actual cultivation space is about 4000 sq ft, and on that we provide for 25-30 CSA members during the main season. In the winter we grow in a high tunnel with 606 sq ft of cultivatable space and provide for about 9 CSA members.

I intuited early on at the end of year one that we didn’t have sufficient space to make our operation financially sustainable. Essentially this meant that it didn’t appear that we’d be able to pay for a full-time farm manager. We opted for providing an advanced internship program instead. Even though our full-time intern has guidance, they are responsible for carrying out all aspects of our operation.

It was in year three, during a small farm financial sustainability study that we had obtained funding for, that we began to understand all the factors that caused us to fall short of the smallest unit of acreage needed to achieve financial sustainability. But we continue to avidly work on that question. Our goal is to assist beginner farmers in setting up sustainable farming operations from the outset, especially on small acreages. We continue to view HeartEye Village CSA as an appropriate testing ground even though we don’t quite fit the bill. Sure, we don’t have enough space to be financially sustainable in terms of being able to meet all our expenses AND pay for a full-time farm manager. But we effectively deal with everything that larger direct market farmers contend with and we do it with the fresh eyes of a beginner farmer each year.

The fact that I rely so heavily on my intern every year brings us closer to an apple to apple comparison with most beginner farmers. Our intern is responsible for all aspects of the farm, yes I’m the farm manager but mostly in absentia (did I mention that I have a full-time job…). My intern is my arms and legs. They have my guidance, but being newbies themselves, they also have a wide capacity for errors of the sort that are generally not made by farmers beyond their first year. But in all four years we have always been able to provide an abundant harvest to our super-satisfied CSA members. The planning tool suite that we use and that we’ve made available to beginner farmers everywhere, has steered us right and kept us on track every year. Good planning is critical because there is always “what really happens.”

In April of this year, after we started implementing our plan for the year, I began to have my first suspicions that I might have a handle on things. Confirmation replaced angst as each minute shift in the season progressed. Yes, it’s Fall and not Spring when “Graduations” usually take place. But this is a newbie farmer’s graduation and I have to take it when I can get it. The main season production is over and our winter production promises to go well. I can finally, after four years, breath a sigh of relief and throw my farm hat high into the air. We’re doing it!


New USDA Plant Hardiness Zones

The USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map is the standard by which gardeners and growers can determine which plants are most likely to thrive at a location. The map is based on the average annual minimum winter temperature, divided into 10-degree F zones.

While most gardeners and farmers have been aware of their specific growing zone, they may not be aware that the USDA have updated the  plant hardiness zone map to reflect changes in zones due to climate change.

For instance, our zone here in the Denver area was 5a, and is now considered a 6a–one full zone change. Be sure to check your zone before planning your garden or farm this season!


Adding a forest garden to your yard or farm is a great way to increase biodiversity while growing edible crops—where nature does most of the work. In this video, Martin Crawford takes on a tour of his forest garden, discussing the benefits of creating forest gardens. If the concept of forest gardens are of interest to you, I'd also recommend his book, "Creating a Forest Garden."


Is Your Soil Ready For Planting?

Photo by rkeohane on Flickr

The key to raising healthy vegetables and herbs is by first starting with great soil. How do you know how good your soil is? A soil test is a good start. You can get your soil tested at a lab, which will give you a detailed analysis of the nutrients, and deficiencies in your soil.

While there are great soil testing labs around the country, I highly recommend finding a source local to you. Contact your local county extension office to find the nearest lab (usually at a University with an agriculture department). The reason for this is that a local lab will have the best understanding of the soil in your area, and will provide you with more accurate information for improving your soil. This type of test provides valuable information, but there are also ways that you assess your soil quality yourself.

A system called the Willamette Valley Soil Quality Guide was developed by a team of farmers and soil scientists in Oregon, and uses simple methods that any farmer or gardener can use. This system uses 10 easy steps to test soil on your farm or in your garden. As you do the tests, it is best to look at the results as a whole, instead of focusing too closely on results from a single test. [click to continue…]


Seed Terminology

It is that time of the year to start buying vegetable and flower seeds for the garden or farm.  As you page through seed catalogs, or browse seed racks at your local store, some of the terms might be a little confusing. To help, here are the meaning for some of the terms you'll see.

Organic -  Like organic produce, organic seed is grown without the use of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, and is not genetically modified seed. In the U.S., organically grown seeds must meet the standards of the Dept. of Agriculture's National Organic Program (NOP).

Heirloom  (aka Heritage) - The definition seems to vary, but in general an heirloom plant is one that has been grown reliably, carefully preserved and handed along from generation to generation. Some descriptions say an heirloom plant has to have been grown reliably for at least 50 years. Heritage varieties are often open-pollinated, but there are some early hyrbids. [click to continue…]


CSA Farm Planning Software

Whether you are new at starting a CSA farm, or already have experience, this downloadable tool can help simplify your planning. The Fantastic Farm & Garden Calculator handles all the heavy thinking for you, and you only need to enter the basic info about your farm and your growing needs.

Click these links to learn more about the Fantastic Farm and Garden Calculator and our Grow Your Own CSA planning tools suite.

The farm and garden calculator will help you to determine:

  • Potential yields for a wide range of vegetables and herbs
  • The number of plants required
  • Row space required for each plant type
  • Planting and harvest dates for your area (by noting your last frost date)
  • Successive plantings
  • How many people or CSA members you can provide for
  • Retail sales calculator for market gardeners & farmers

The calculator comes in three skill levels: Beginner, Intermediate, and Advanced.  And there is a version for both farmers and gardeners.  The farm version includes the retail sales calculator which allows you to enter the amount of each crop you want to sell each week and the price per pound, then it does the math for you, letting you see your potential income from retail or wholesale sales.

In my next article, I will be writing about how I am using the Fantastic Farm & Garden Calculator to help me determine how much land I'll need to produce a given income from the farm in order to be financially sustainable.  In less than an hour I was able to determine how much land I needed to be under cultivation, how many CSA members I could have, how much I could sell to restaurants, and how much revenue that could bring in.  Stay tuned for that article, and see just how much you benefit using the Fantastic Farm & Garden Calculator and our CSA tool suite!


Natural resource benefits from using tunnel structures may include: improved plant quality, improved soil quality, and improved water quality through methods such as reduced nutrient and pesticide transport. During the pilot period, eligible agricultural producers may apply for EQIP financial assistance for high tunnels, but only for manufactured tunnels covering up to 2,178 square feet (approximately 30 ft x 72 ft) per farming operation. The high tunnel will have an expected practice life of 4 years. Applications for FY 2011 funding will be accepted until February 15, 2011.

The easiest way to apply is to go directly to the Colorado Field Service Center nearest you and an agent will assist you in applying the same day.  Depending on the type of farm business you have you may need to provide your business start-up documents like Articles of Organization or Employer Identification Number approval letter. You can find your nearest service center by going to this link:


The 24th Annual Permaculture Design Course at CRMPI (Central Rocky Mountain Permaculture Institute) in Basalt, Colorado

Sunday, September 12th – Sunday, September 25th,  2010

With Peter Bane, Adam Brock, Sarah Montgomery, Kelly Simmons and Jerome Osentowski.

Space is still available. Visit www.crmpi.org to learn more or to sign up!

Advanced Permaculture Design Course by High Altitude Permaculture with Sandy Cruz, Marco Lam, and Alison Peck in Boulder, Colorado.

September 16th – November 18th, 2010.  Ten Thursday evenings 6:30 p.m. – 9:00 p.m. plus two Saturdays 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.

For more info, visit www.hialtpc.org

I’d like to thank Sandy Cruz of High Altitude Permaculture, and Jerome Osentowski of Central Rocky Mountain Permaculture Institute for their support!