By Whitney Will, Farm Manager at Roaring Gardens at TCI Lane Ranch
January is a time for dreaming about the next season of farming, planning the garden, and ordering seeds.
For me, looking forward to the next season always starts with looking back on previous ones. What worked well last season? Which vegetables did we need more of? What did our CSA members love? When reflecting on these questions, I write notes about certain varieties or quantities, and think about what to make room for next year.
Another task is taking a seed inventory. After the last cycle of greens is planted in the fall, I assess what the seed stock looks like, and determine which seeds I have enough of and do not need to order for the next year.
My process of seed ordering is probably different than many other farms’. While the size of the specialty vegetable farm I manage is only an acre, we grow around 250 different varieties of vegetables. I also have three different growing environments: the outdoor garden in a mountainous region of Colorado that ideally provides a 120-day growing season, a geothermal temperature-regulated greenhouse in which year round growing is possible, and a new rolling high tunnel allowing for seasonal extension on both ends. This means I have to plan for three separate micro-climates. Additionally, I have a 25-member, 36-week CSA that lasts from early April until the winter solstice, as well as two farmers’ markets and multiple wholesale customers including the local food coop, small catering companies, food trucks, and brick and mortar restaurants. With all these factors, there is a lot of planning to do. Luckily, the farm is both small and young enough that each year’s offerings are fairly flexible.
When it comes to the actual ordering of seeds, I aim for variety. I know farmers that only order seed from Johnny’s. I take a different approach. This year, I plant to order seed from more than ten different seed companies of all sizes from all over the country. I think it is important to support smaller companies, try out new varieties, and financially advocate for a greater variety of options, even if it makes my orders more complicated.
In fact, seed ordering led me to relinquish the farm’s USDA organic certification. When I took over management of Roaring Gardens, the farm was USDA certified, but for many reasons, it didn’t make sense. The clincher came when ordering seed potatoes. Certified organic seed potatoes are hard to find, and very pricey. The only option was to buy them from a farm in Maine and have them shipped to Colorado. However, there is a great supplier of seed potatoes in Colorado. Though they are not certified organic, they raise their stock without pesticides and chemical fertilizers, and they signed the Safe Seed Pledge. Ultimately, I gave up the farm’s organic certification because I wanted to support local Colorado suppliers. Also, I felt the benefits of buying organic seed did not outweigh the carbon emissions required to ship it across the country.
Over the years, I have established what works best for my farm. The bulk of my orders do come from Johnny’s, Fedco, and High Mowing, since their seeds are reliable. But I also buy from smaller suppliers – Uprising Seeds and and Adaptive Seeds in the the Pacific northwest, as well as a smattering of Colorado seed companies – Hobbs Family Farm, Potato Garden, Botanical Interests, and Wild Mountain seeds – because it is important to me that seed saving and plant breeding happens locally as well.
All in all, January is a cerebral time on the farm, with lots of spreadsheets, calendars, and calculations. But it is a creative time as well. In January, I have the opportunity to envision next year’s garden, and invest in the seed and the harvest.
Whitney Will is a member of the Roaring Fork Farmers, a local chapter of the Rocky Mountain Farmers Union. She is in her third season of managing Roaring Gardens at TCI Lane Ranch in Carbondale, Colorado, and is pursuing a masters degree in counseling psychology from Pacifica Graduate Institute.