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Fall Brassicas

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This article comes from the NOFA/Massachusetts 2012 September Issue Newsletter

By Mindy Harris, Public Relations Coordinator, NOFA/Mass

Fall Brassicas

Brassicas are one of the veggie groups which seem to herald the onset of the Fall season, as the cool temperatures concentrate plant sugars and sweet leaves and fruit. The larger brassicas can usually tolerate frost very well, and some seed varieties are designed for fruits to do well maturing in lower temperatures. This genus of vegetable covers a wide range of crops, which, to the average consumer, might seem otherwise completely unrelated. The genus resides in the mustard family and includes standards such as broccoli and cauliflower, together with kale, collards, arugula, mustard greens, cabbages and Brussels sprouts. As with all crops, brassicas have a host of growing challenges, including pests such as cabbage looper and maggots, and flea beatles along with diseases such as anthracnose, black rot, and clubroot, among others. Part of what makes some of these veggies susceptible to disease is that they take a very long time to mature, which means they are in the field longer than most crops, and therefore subject to various obstacles. Since most varieties also don’t tolerate heat well, particularly as newly transplanted seedlings, getting brassicas in the ground and maturing at the right time can be a juggle for farmers.

I caught up with Amanda Cather, one of the Farm Managers at Waltham Fields Community Farm and former NOFA/Mass board member. As a Waltham resident, I was amazed to see how much Waltham Fields has grown in just the past few years. This summer, the farm was delighted to unveil its beautiful new Farm Stand, designed for CSA member pickup. Waltham is now maintaining 500 summer share members, and 200 winter share members, and is cultivating crops on 13 acres of land. Their fields are housed on their main property on Beaver Street, on the Lyman Estate a few blocks away, and on rented land-owner property in Weston. Since they are a non-profit, food donation is part of their mission, and so any food grown at Waltham Fields either goes towards the CSA program, or is used for a Food Access market in downtown Waltham, for lower income residents, and/or it goes to food pantries. The Beaver Street location also hosts a Community Garden, educational programming, and children’s activities, along with seedling sales and on-site pop-up one-day markets for various edibles or plants at times throughout the year. Waltham Fields is not certified organic, though their growing mechanisms all follow organic protocol. Due to consumer demand, Waltham Fields has decided to partner with organic-certified Picadilly Farm in Winchester, New Hampshire, which provides a delivery of 100 CSA-shares worth of produce each summer week.

I stopped by on a beautiful warm fall day, to take a tour of the fields and get an overview of Cather’s experience with Brassicas. The first beds we visited were her fall broccoli beds. Cather manages 3 beds, 200-feet long, with 2 rows in each bed, with each plant 18 inches apart vertically, and 20 inches from the next row, horizontally. Broccoli has been an annual challenge for Waltham – yielding only 100 pounds per bed, which amounts to about $12,000 an acre. Even though they have not been able to maximize production on these plants, but nevertheless continue to grow broccoli because CSA consumers expect it. Growing challenges, however, did force them to jettison their spring Brussels sprout crop, in favor of a later July planting. In all, Waltham Fields has 2.7 acres planted with Brassicas. In general, the farm plants an overall 30% crop buffer, with the expectation of some losses during the season.

The farm plants a succession crop of all their brassicas – one set of seedlings goes in July 1st and one goes in July 15th. Brassicas spend a very short time in the greenhouse, however - seeded only 3 weeks before they go into the ground. This is true for two reasons: the seedlings are seeded in a 128-cell tray, which contains cells that are relatively small for the emerging brassicas (particularly the larger ones), and so the plants need to move out of the cells quicker. The farm is also tight on greenhouse space. So the brassicas go in and out quickly. Cather does seedlings, rather than using the direct-seeded method because she finds that her seedlings can manage the weed pressure in their beds better than if the plants were direct-seeds. So she gives them a head start in the greenhouse. She also doesn’t do a spring crop of broccoli because they have found that their cabbage root maggots are more active in the spring, so they have a harder time getting the plants to mature properly. The fall season seems to work better for broccoli, in their soil.

To help with soil fertilization, before the Brassicas are planted in July, the fields get prepped with a cover crop of barley, bell beans, and field peas which then get plowed into the soil when the Brassicas are ready to go into the ground. This cover crop preparation helps tremendously with weed suppression and disease management, and the plants are healthier in general. So rather than maximize the space and get started with early spring crops in the Brassica-beds, Amanda puts in spring cover crops, and prepares the beds for the July planting. In addition to the cover cropping, pest and disease management strategies at Waltham Fields include spacing and air-flow management (particularly since many of the brassica diseases are fungal), together with an application of composted dairy manure (20 tons per acre) and some doses of kelp meal. Of all the Brassicas in the ground, the waxy larger varieties seemed to be super healthy, and doing very well. Kale and collards seemed to have put out leaves that were over 2-feet long. One of the challenges the farm faces is space. There are not enough beds available to do the kind of rotation ideal organic field management dictates. So the weed pressure and disease pressure may be more significant than it otherwise would be, if the farm had more beds to juggle around.

Cather sources her seeds from Fedco and Johnny’s, and with regard to Broccoli, she has chosen Gypsy and Major varieties for her July 1st planting, and Bellstar and Arcadia for the July 15th planting. The latter varieties are more well-suited to stay in the ground longer after fruiting, and after cold weather sets in. Keeping the soil moist has been an important part of managing these veggies. The young plants will keel over at the soil line, if they are transplanted in soil that is too hot. So at both July transplant dates, significant watering is provided to the beds before and as the transplants are going into the ground, so as to moderate the soil temperature. Ongoing irrigation is important too; something that they accomplish through over-head watering. Drip irrigation is not an option for the Brassica beds because they require mechanical cultivation and management throughout the growing process. But the overhead spraying also means that the Brassicas are more susceptible to disease than they would be with drip irrigation, and Waltham Fields will never utilize fungicide spraying.

As a new backyard grower, despite the fact that I was able to coax some small leaf cucumbers, Chioggia beets, mustard greens, and still-developing carrots out of my little 6x10 bed this summer (with a lot of love and daily attention, not to mention 150 pounds of manure, and leaf mulch) – Brassicas indeed seem to be the next frontier. I failed on a very spicy/bitter crop of watermelon radishes that matured during very high heat and sadly had to be pulled out and donated to my lawn rabbits. Although I would very much like to venture in that direction, Amanda Cather at Waltham Fields did little to convince me that Brassicas are easy. Furthermore, the more I understand the complex variables that go into a successful crop plan, and the challenges each veggie type poses, I am more in awe of organic farmers who somehow are able to make it all work; and ensure that food actually ends up on our tables.

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