There aren't a lot of Organic vegetables farmers in Botetourt County. Actually there are no other certified organic growers in this county. There are a few if I look farther south and east and certainly if I go all the way north toward northern Virginia there is a strong network of organic growers. But, sharing with peers even 50 miles away feels prohibitive most of the year. For the most part I cling to my friends at Patchwork farm and rely on phone calls to ME and my former colleagues at Six River Farm—this strategy leaves something to be desired in terms of a "peer group".
So, imagine my delight this winter when I was introduced to the land of Facebook groups (I know, I am woefully behind the times). Before personal introductions from farmer friends I didn't actually know that there was a use for Facebook beyond marketing and social exchange. But now, guess what—I've been invited to not one but TWO groups specifically designed to cultivate peer learning and sharing in the organic market farming community. Sweet!
Women in Sustainable Agriculture is a general group of ladies all over the country sharing information about a wide range of farming topics—from bee hive heath to effective marketing strategies etc. Four Season Farming is designed for experienced growers operating year round (I am very intimidated by this group—they are really amazing farmers). It is led by the impressive Michael Kilpatrick. In just the short time that I've been a member, I have already learned so much from these two new communities.
Here are a few of the more interesting topics I've been working on with help from these groups.
- The new hoop house leaks! How annoying. I spent all of this money and energy trying to get a safe (DRY!) space for more early spring and winter crops only to find out that the house leaks.. It leaks in from the ground (the site isn't very level) and it leaks from the hip boards that run along the sides of the building. I shared this information with my new peer groups and learned a few things. 1) I need to build more effective drainage pathways to lead water away from the building (done!) and 2) it seems likely the side leaking is coming from damage in the plastic from the wiggle wire. I can patch this both with repair tape and silicon. Annoying, but fixable.
- How to manage irrigation in the hoop house? Each of our houses has 6 beds, or space for three successions of salad greens. I use a mini wobbler irrigation system that has been very effective, it can water the whole house at once and does it very evenly. However, it is hard to manage the breadth of their spread when I haven't planted all six beds. For instance, in this first planting I'd like to limit the irrigation to just two beds so that the other 4 are dry enough for cultivating and preparation. So, I asked my new online friends how they manage this issue. Responses were interesting, mostly people opt for an overhead irrigation system in hoop houses. I was also reminded that I can lower water pressure if I increase the frequency of the wobblers (but them closer together) or if I lower the risers so that the wobblers are closer to the ground. I'm not inclined to go with an overhead system. I like the mobility and flexibility of the risers I have, but it's worth noting for future consideration (most people prefer the Netfim system from Rainflo). I did increase the frequency of the risers and that helped some, but I'm not sure I've gotten to a final solution yet. I still have some work to do on this one.
- What is the best software for an alternative CSA model like mine? I have been using Small Farm Central and I like it, but I don't love it. I thought I had found a new, better solution in Farmigo, but I wasn't sure. I wanted more options. So I put the question to the ladies of the "Women in Sustainable Agriculture" group and was amazed at the number of insights I received. Many people confirmed my suspicions about Farmigo and in the end, because of their advice I did not move to this system. They also offered 4 or 5 other solutions that I had never heard about. In the end, I decided there wasn't a clear better option then what I am using, some I'm sticking with Small Farm Central for now. But, I learned a ton in the process and I have a much better sense of what's out there and what I really need from a good software system.
I'm sure that as the season heats up I'll have less time to read and participate in these group forums. But, it is so comforting to know that they are out there and that I really do have a community I can access for support even if it is virtual.