After going through the arduous process of working through the complex issues that often occur with multi-generational family farms, Matt and Mary Harsh are adamant about planning for the future.
“Everything was sorted out by late 2010,” said Matt, explaining the farm that had been in the family since 1939 was essentially abandoned. “We immediately did an estate plan for my mom and dad, and in January 2011, these 78 acres became the property of my wife and I.”
The area in which the Harsh’s Chesley Vegetable Farm is located has always been a major fruit-growing district, especially for peaches in the late 1890s and early 1900s. Growers took advantage of the rolling hills and productive soil to grow fruit they could easily ship to Baltimore and Philadelphia. Today, fruit and vegetables grown on the same ground are still going to urban markets, but with many changes to meet the needs of consumers purchasing fresh produce at farmers’ markets.
“Being heavily diversified in crops and markets has helped us to ride out a lot of ups and downs over the last few years,” said Matt. “We’re slowly trying to get as much as we can back into production. We had to push out a lot of young trees, but after six years of being abandoned, they weren’t much good — mice and rabbits had gotten into them. We tried to rehabilitate some of the older trees, including a Fuji block, but most of the other older trees will be phased out.”
The farm currently includes five acres of producing apples, five acres of peaches, one acre of pears and one-half acre of raspberries. The game-changer for the Harshes is 40 acres of produce, most of which goes to grocery stores and home delivery services. Vegetables include peppers, tomatoes, onions, eggplant, lettuce, swiss chard, kale, squash and pumpkins.
This year, the Harshes planted 165,000 sets onions on plastic, with irrigation laid out at planting. “People wonder why we grow so many onions, but they’ve been very good to us,” said Matt. “We grow Candy for a sweet variety and Expression, which is a little bigger. I really like Red Sky for a red onion but seed wasn’t available, so we planted Red Wing instead. We grow a lot of Copra — we can pull them, dry them and store them to stretch our season. We also grow Cipollini, a flat Italian type, but it’s challenging to grow because of an indentation at the top which invites rot.”
Chesley Farms’ crew is busy hand-weeding onions throughout the season. “Bacterial rot is the biggest problem we have with onions,” said Matt. “We put a lot of copper on all the vegetables, especially the onions, and I think that helps. We started using Purshade® last year to cool them down because there’s a correlation between rot and heat.”
Heirloom tomatoes thrive in the Harsh’s adaptation of the Florida trellising system. “Heirlooms and cherry tomatoes are indeterminate, and they’ll just keep growing,” said Matt. “We tried 6 foot stakes, but it’s hard to string a 6 foot stake. Then we tried heavy fence posts every 15 feet, pounded in by hand, but that took two weeks.” The solution? Using a post pounder, Matt places posts then strings heavy gauge electric wire along the posts. Fence staples hold the wires in place. “It’s a big investment in posts and wires, but it’s worthwhile because we get a very good wholesale price for heirlooms,” said Matt. “A windstorm can’t take out tomatoes in this system. When plants reach the top of the posts, we come through with hedge trimmers and cut them off. It doesn’t stunt or kill the plant. In fall, we pull the posts out of the ground, and use a plastic wrapper to wind the wire onto spools for next year.”
After trying many heirloom varieties, the Harshes have selected about 12 hybrids. “We go for a range of sizes, colors and textures,” said Matt. “Grocery stores are trying to build a display, so it has to grab customers’ eyes. They want something that’s going to wow people. If a tomato has a blemish or crack, we don’t even bring them in for packing.”
Strawberries grown on plastic have been a profitable crop for Chesley Farms, although this year’s yield was below average. “We have about 50 percent of a crop because we were late planting them last year,” said Matt. “Then despite having row covers, deer dug through the snow and ripped up the row covers then ate the plants. In March we pulled the row covers off and replaced them. The late spring didn’t help.”
Following another popular market trend, the Harshes have established a vineyard of table grapes. Matt is trying some of the new Arkansas varieties including Hope, Joy, Gratitude and Faith. “Of all the things we’re growing, I’m really excited about the grapes,” said Matt. “People at market say that these grapes have flavor. There are a couple of wineries springing up in the area, and they can’t keep up with the demand, so we’re looking into adding some wine grapes.”
One of the Harshes’ initial goals was to establish fruit trees so they’d have a saleable crop as quickly as possible. Apples planted in a tall spindle system in 2012 include Ultima Gala™ on M9 and Pink Lady® on M9. “We planted 5 feet by 16 feet, which was closer than I could imagine,” said Matt. “We also have some in 3 feet x 13 feet. But there’s no reason to have rows 16 feet apart, and no reason to have trees 5 feet apart in a production system.”
Matt says 2013 was the first year there was a crop of apples for market. “We got 3.5 bins,” he said, adding that the yield amounted to about 50 saleable bushels. “I spent $1,000 per row to plant trees and get the spindle system started. For what we get for apples at market, that was between $4,000 and $4,500 worth of apples, so we’re well on our way to paying for the system.”
Matt pruned the trees himself this past winter, and said that working with the tall spindle concept is definitely a mind-shift from traditional pruning. “Tying limbs down is absolutely critical,” he said. “We’ve already pulled some limbs down to get the leaders going. The first year we completely defruited the leader, and we’ve taken all of the flowers off the trees we planted this year.”
Matt and Mary are considering adding a commercial kitchen to create more products for markets and to serve employees. “We provide a meal for all of our employees once a week,” said Matt. “We like to sit down and talk through what’s going on on the farm.”