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Interview with Derek Christianson: Growing Vegetables For Health, Quality, and Profit - A Season Long Series

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This article comes from the NOFA/Massachusetts 2015 February Issue Newsletter

Glenn Oliveira, NOFA/Mass Education Director and Education Events Organizer

Starting on March 22nd at Brix Bounty Farm in Dartmouth, MA, Derek Christianson will host a season long, three workshop series focused on growing vegetables for health, quality and profit.

There is tremendous amount of value in seeing a process in its entirety, from start to finish. A growing season is no different.  I’m thrilled that we are able to bring this type of value to 2015’s education programming, through the lens of Derek’s work at Brix Bounty Farm.  Participants can see Brix Bounty in various stages throughout the growing season and will learn a tremendous amount from the series as they see the direct benefit of the early season preparations later in the summer and fall.  I hope you enjoy my conversation with Derek. 

Glenn Oliveira (GO): What are the benefits of having a season long series at one farm, opposed to a one off event or multiple events at multiple farms throughout the season?

Derek Christianson (DC): Over the years I've tried to make an effort to visit farms throughout the growing season.  Obviously that can be a difficult thing for a lot of commercial growers to schedule time into their busy schedules to get out and see other operations.  Clearly, if you visit a farm once, it’s a snapshot in time.  I think there a couple of things going on.  One, if you’re on a diversified operation it can take a bit of orientation time to take in all of the sensory information, so from an education standpoint anytime that you do a one off workshop, there is a bit of that, before you get into the heart of the matter.  What we’ve found out over the years we’ve offered a workshop series, both for home gardeners and commercial growers, there are a couple distinct benefits.  It creates a learning community where people get to know each other, that creates a more dynamic environment, less of a lecture series and more of two-way street if you think of all the value there is in participants sharing their knowledge with each other.  But the other thing going back to that first element, seeing the same space at different points in the season you can get a much better idea than what that one snapshot provides.  So if we’re talking about systems for planting and for fertility for example.  You get to see how we do that and then you get to see the benefits or the what worked and what didn’t from those actions, so it’s a much more dynamic learning environment, much more so than a static one time event.  We are excited to bring that type of series type of learning environment to NOFA/Mass

GO: You mentioned the heart of the matter, what is the heart of this series and the goal of it?

DC: Well folks who’ve heard me speak before know that soil fertility is something that I put at the core of our farm planning and the emphasis of the how and why of what we do on the farm.  So inevitably any thing that we are talking about at Brix Bounty is going to have a lot to do with soil fertility.  But what this series will do is ground that in real practical information.  So we're going to spend some time with a couple different crops as a lens into that fertility conversation.  Be very practical instead of just in the ethereal, not just this is what you need to do, but this is actually what you’re going to do.  We’re going to talk about some of those production practices, demonstrate some of those production practices so participants will get a good idea about what that looks like in real experiences.  We will be looking at the idea of profitability and what it means to run a sustainable, profitable farm business.  So in everything we are doing, we will talk about the economics, the cost not just in dollars but in labor and all the other costs we are putting into the operation.

GO: Is that something that participants usually would have access to through education events - that lens on profitability?  What roles will enterprise budgets and budgets in general play a role into this.

DC: We do have some folks to thank here in Massachusetts.  Chris Yoder has done a budget workshop for craft farmers for well over a decade and has done a great job of helping some people who are just starting out get a handle on what it looks like to do a farm budget.  More recently, Richard Wiswall’s book, that was published a few years back, has helped increase the level of conversation about looking at numbers.  But I think there is still hesitation about farms being open and candid about what those numbers are and what exactly makes them profitable, what opportunities lie within each operation.  I think that what we can do by sharing what our numbers look like, and where we spend time and energy when we look at our budgets, we hopefully will give participants an opportunity to reflect the lens back on their own operations and see if there are some opportunities.  I’ve always said that is one of the reasons I like to do farm visits, if you visit a neighboring farm and pull off one really good idea that you can use on your scale of operation you can easily pay back the time that you invest traveling to and from and taking that time out of your production work to go do that education experience.  This will have that same idea, but it will force people to keep in mind that if we want farms to be sustainable over time they need to be financially sustainable as well.

GO: The first workshop is at the end of March, and I know you’ll be focusing on crop enterprise budgets, overall planning for the season and “bio-builder” field sprays.  Can you elaborate a bit on that first in the series workshop and the “bio-builder” field sprays aspect of it?

DC: Sure, we will spend a little bit of time looking at our greenhouse production schedule and talk about how we’ve, over the years, come up with what we think is an effective and efficient season.  We do a little over 1,000 flats a year, we’re cropping anywhere between 4-7 acres, depending on how ambitious we get during the growing season, some of that double cropped.  We do rely a lot on transplants; we’ll talk about what's worked for us in the past and what sorts of things we’re looking to try in the future.  We’ll talk about enterprise budgets, get people familiar with that if they aren’t already.  And hopefully make sure that people can spend time with that in between workshops and revisit those as the season progresses.  And one of the big focuses of the workshop will be to talk about these “bio-builder” field sprays that we’ve been utilizing in the late winter/early spring the last five or six seasons.  “Bio-builder” field sprays have an application whether you're doing production crops and vegetables, field crops, pasture lands; what they’re really intended to do is stimulate biological activity that can be sluggish in the spring time and hopefully ramp that biological activity up more so we can do a better job of capturing the solar energy in the early parts of the season. We’ll talk about what ingredients we put into our field sprays, the timing in those, the why we choose those ingredients, and what might be a better solution for folks in different locations.  We use a lot of fish in our field sprays because we’re right outside New Bedford and it’s an easy ingredient to access.  We use other types of ingredients like molasses. We’ll talk about the various biological inoculants, compost teas, things like that we’ve selected for that.

GO: What should participants expect as they go through this series throughout the season - what are some of the main drivers that they will come away with?

DC: I would say there will be 3 major things.  One, some observational experience on efficient systems on the small-scale farm.  We are relatively non-mechanized, we tend to do a lot of work on the farm and hopefully we can show participants some shortcuts we’ve found so we are utilizing our labor in the best possible means.  The second is some of those crop enterprise budget tools that we have for farmers can be a little spooky when you first get exposed to them.  Hopefully, through the course of the season we can really get participants more comfortable with looking at numbers and figuring out what data is the most important.  We are almost a guiding hand to encourage them to do some of that work on their own operation throughout the growing season.  The third is some of the fertility knowledge that we work with on the farm.  Like some of the trace minerals and sub-trace minerals that people have started to hear about in the last few years like molybdenum, which can help play a role in nitrogen utilization, or cobalt, which can play a role in building essential oil content.  Get people to understand and actually see what those materials look like and what application rates in real time look like.  I find that sometimes if people haven’t been exposed or haven’t had a past history with certain types of fertility practices, then it can seem a bit confusing or it’s just a foreign thing that the comfort level isn’t there.  So, bringing people closer to that comfort zone can help people apply those practices on their farm if appropriate.

GO: Great.  I have to imagine that at the end of the series there will be a great network of people established than can help each other quite a bit.

DC: Yes. We certainly have seen that.  Last time we did a series with Dan (Kittredge) down at our place was 2009 and we still run into people who were a part of that, it’s sort of like this old family coming back together.

 

To find out more, or to register for the season-long series, visit www.nofamass.org/events/growing-vegetables-health-quality-and-profit-season-long-series

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