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Growing Organically Since 1982

An Interview with Zach Zeigler of Zeigler’s Market Garden in Norfolk

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This article comes from the NOFA/Massachusetts 2018 May Issue Newsletter

Julie Rawson – Education Director

Zach Zeigler in High Tunnel

NOFA/Mass is in year two of a three-year grant that we received from the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources (MDAR) to focus on high tunnel education in Massachusetts. There are 6 mentor/mentee pairs who work together and we have held a few workshops for the general public on greenhouse growing. Zach Zeigler is paired with Derek Christianson and shares his experience in the program.

Julie Rawson (JR): Tell me about your farm, Zach.

Zach Zeigler (ZZ): I have dubbed it Zeigler’s Market Garden. I recently graduated from college at the Stockbridge School at UMass in 2017. This is my third year of growing and selling at markets but my first year of being at my farm for the spring season. I grow on about 1 ½ acres of cultivated land. I am able to farm because of the support of my family. I live with my folks. My grandmother also lives next door and my aunt and uncle are nearby. On this home site there are two small gardens that I took over four years ago.

The farm really started when I was approached by a local land owner who was looking for someone to help him manage his land. I charged him hourly to work in the NRCS hoop house that he had put up. Then I leased 2 acres from him and have been managing the high tunnel on shares – a half tunnel each and that is my rent for use of the high tunnel. I recently completed a real lease, with help from Land For Good, that I pay for with a full season CSA share on the other two acres of land. This opportunity really just plopped on my footsteps and I have been going with it.

JR: Please tell me about where you farm.

ZZ: Norfolk is very suburban. I grew up here and I still live on Main Street. We used to be able to freely ride our bikes on the street but it is too busy now. It is a bedroom community. The commuter rail is going by right now. Since when I was little I think they just started building more houses. The school system has a very good early education system and the community is very safe. It used to be an agricultural community when my grandfather moved here.

JR: You must be well situated to Boston and Providence, yes?

ZZ: We are right in between. Providence is a 1/2 hour away and we are 40 minutes from Boston. We are really close to Foxboro, which is Patriots Megaland, We are near Millis and Medfield. It took a little while to get developed. We are right off 495. Franklin is one town over.

JR: We are lucky to be backed up on the Quabbin Reservoir here in Barre so we have not had much development.

ZZ: I actually had the opportunity to visit you guys last winter pruning apple trees. You guys got a cool spot out there. I was doing this project on no-till while at UMass which brought me to your place.

JR: Please talk to me about the High Tunnel Specialty Crops grant and your relationship to Derek Christianson, your mentor.

ZZ: I think I found out about it through EMass Craft. I had been working in this high tunnel and been doing it by reading, working on a couple of farms and mimicking what I saw and learned elsewhere. I wanted to broaden my horizons. I am a good distance from Derek – I only made it once to his place. He is a little over an hour away in Dartmouth. The biggest helpful thing has been our email relationship. It has been really awesome to throw ideas out and get advice. I had an opportunity to go to his farm. My land is Walpole loam and there is a lot of peat. I was noticing that I had a lot of salt build up in the hoop house. I had been using Kreher’s chicken manure and drip tape. Derek suggested that I use some overhead watering. Where the drip wasn’t, it was getting super dry. I guess the drip wasn’t keeping the soil moist enough. He suggested overhead watering to moisten the entire bed and also suggested using humic and fulvic acid products to tie up some of the salts. He additionally suggested gypsum for blossom end rot. I got so much out of seeing his place. I went down in late fall of 2017 and was doing winter greens for the first time because I didn’t have to go to school. I saw what he was doing for planting for winter greens and picked up some new crop choices. I learned about his seeding and transplanting schedule. I got some good feedback on my choices.

I am working in a non-heated house with a double layer of poly with air between the layers. This year I used two layers of remay and wire hoops and I had greens all winter – Asian greens like mizuna and tatsoi, and Swiss chard. Now I have full bunches of Swiss chard. I have lots of kale varieties and overwintered onions and scallions. The first round of those was seeded on October 9 and transplanted out on December 6. The fact that I had double remay over hoops saved them from getting pretty cold. It has a lot of air infiltration because it has roll up sides. I stacked unused remay in the corners and landscape fabric and the snow built up on the outside.

JR: Have you made it to any of the high tunnel events that NOFA/Mass has hosted?

ZZ: I didn’t make it to the events but have gone to the winter conferences and gotten so much out of them. I went to Andrew Mefferd’s workshop and bought his book, The Hoop House Grower’s Handbook.

JR: How big is your house?

GreenhouseZZ: It is 30’ x 96’. I have broken it up into six 4-foot beds. I like to do tomatoes in there and put in two rows per bed. Derek had 30-inch beds, but a lot more rows that he was able to work with. I have set the beds where I want them. This year I have not done any rototilling. I have a broadfork that I am using. With the soil type I went to no-till by necessity. I also don’t use any tractors in the field. It is too wet land to even think of driving tractors on it.

JR: Tell me about your college education and your farming education.

ZZ: In regards to that the biggest education I got was working on farms. I worked with Chris and Christy at White Barn Farm in Wrentham for five years when I was in high school. That is where I got the most farming education. I then went to Stockbridge. My family could help me and I am grateful for that. A lot of people told me not to go to college for agriculture. The biggest thing there is that I met so many young people that were looking to get into agriculture. And also the faculty members were very helpful. I made sure to have jobs outside of the school. I worked for the university for two weeks but the bureaucracy was too much. I did what I called paid internships but they were really just farm jobs around the valley. I graduated from the Sustainable Food and Farming curriculum and would definitely recommend it to any prospective UMass Students.  

JR: Has NOFA been helpful for your education, and also other organizations?

ZZ: I am excited about the winter conference. There is a lot of energy and a lot of information. This year I was able to go to the urban farming conference in Boston for free. Being suburban and being so close to the city I think more like an urban farmer. There was a woman there speaking about Cuba and their ideals. The other biggest helpful thing is EMass Craft. On their email list they have free trays, pot lucks and older and younger people who have so much knowledge.

JR: Tell me about your relationship to no-till.

ZZ: I haven’t even fired up my roto-tiller this year. Last year I blew up the engine and had to buy a new one. This spring I was able to seed my first stuff in the ground with the broadfork and compost mulching. I got these ideas from my UMass no-till project. I visited the farmer who sells all the butternut squashes to UMass. His model was all based on a tractor implement that does a lot of strip tillage. Last year I tried strip tilling and that was something that I had success with. The land where I farm is called Misty Meadows because there is a full blanket of mist every morning. It was grassland for awhile with sheep on it historically. I was fighting the grass since I tilled it up. Last year it all came back. I did some strips where the grass was the worst. That tended to work really well, but it moved back in. I got landscape fabric with holes for the crop plants but weed whacking around it was tricky.

This year I will do strip tillage without the tiller. I covered last year’s beds with black tarps at the end of the season. Some I covered with cardboard. I will prepare them with the broadfork this year. I haven’t pulled the tarps off yet, I will use the landscape fabric for the pathways. I might throw down an inch of compost. I made a good amount. The land owner has a tractor but I just use it to move and make compost. I used garden residue and grass clippings and made a pile. I am hesitant to use it because of weed seeds. I buy a lot of compost from a local landscape supplier.

JR: Have you thought at all about using grass pathways?

ZZ: The land owner has a garden. He has wide enough foot paths. He can mow them with his mower. I like the idea of a hand mechanical mower.

JR: What about cover crops?

ZZ: During my no-till project at UMass I asked everyone about what they used. The biggest ones I heard back about were oats, peas and tillage radish. I cover cropped most of my fields with the peas and oats, but the tillage radish was a little too much money. Rye was too hard to get rid of. They almost created a mulch. I got really into tarping. They are petroleum based tarps of course. Some of my fields where I had late crops and didn’t have cover crops were where I used the tarps and sand bags.

JR: You must know Brittany Overshiner. She quoted me some stats about cutting rye on May 1 and tarping it for a month and removing the tarps to find really friable soil. The good thing about rye, of course, is that it has deep thick roots that really build the soil.

ZZ: I am going to be working with Brittany and Kevin in the mornings on their harvest crew and look forward to learning about their practices. I heard that rye roots will go deep down to break up some of that hard soil.

In the plots that I tried no-till I have already seen a lot of change. There are more worms than ever in the greenhouse since I stopped tilling.

JR: Please tell me about your fertility.

ZZ: I focus on compost a lot. For some of the heavy feeders I will side dress with Kreher’s pelletized poultry manure. I do a lot of foliar with Neptune’s Harvest on every crop and sometimes mix with insecticidal soap or Surround. That is the biggest fertilizer that I use. I dunk my transplants in the Neptune’s Harvest. When I did my first soil test the minerals were pretty much in optimal range. The biggest thing I am lacking is knowledge of soil science. At UMass they did an awesome job with food justice and community-based farming, but not so much of the hard science. Mainly that was the courses that I chose.

JR: One resource that I would encourage you to avail yourself of is John Kempf’s webinars on the Advancing Eco Agriculture website.

ZZ: I have listened to the entire NOFA YouTube Playlist while I am working. It is fantastic.

JR: Do you do a foliar feeding?

ZZ: Derek suggested BioLink from Peaceful Valley. It is a broad spectrum foliar feed.

JR: What is your position on organic certification?

ZZ: I am not super leaning toward getting certified. I worked with Simple Gifts last winter and they are certified. It helps with labeling and marketing, but I know that with hydroponics being certified, it takes some of the glory away. The paperwork turned me off a bit. I feel that the size of my operation would have the same amount of paperwork as if I were running a big farm. I am able to invite my customers to see my fields. I am able to call my produce grown with organic practices or naturally grown. Maybe in the future if I am trying to sell to grocery stores. At the UMass student farm we were selling to Big Y. That would sway me to get certified.

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