Although Laura Raney didn’t grow up on a farm, she worked at garden centers and other outdoor jobs, all of which led her to a love of being outdoors. Raney began working at the Silverwood Organic Farm CSA several days a week, and over the course of several years, she joined the field crew.
Abel Clark started working at Silverwood Organic Farm at about the same time. Clark said he’s always been interested in plants and helped his family’s garden. “I worked at a nursery, then got a job here on the field crew,” he said. “I learned from the previous managers, and I took their place when they moved on.”
Today, Raney and Clark are the farm managers at Silverwood Organic Farm in Sherborn, MA, and work together to ensure the produce they grow is the best possible for the farm’s CSA, several farmers markets and wholesale outlets.
Clark said the organizational skills and attention to detail required to plan and execute an organic growing season didn’t come naturally to him, but realized these aspects are important to farm management. “We need to have the documentation, the dates and other information for the certifiers to prove we’re doing the practices required to be certified,” he said. The farm is certified by Bay State Organic Certifiers. “It’s something I’ve learned to do. Getting used to it was a bit of a challenge, but once I had the systems in place and mechanisms for documenting what we’re doing in the field, it’s second nature.”
Clark said the detailed records also help him. “I plan the week by walking in the fields and looking at plants to see how they’re doing,” he said. “By noticing the little details, I can get a sense over the years how certain crops grow in certain areas, the emergence of pests and different cycles on the farm. I’m always fine-tuning how we do things so crops do their best.”
Planning for the upcoming season begins toward the end of the current season, and Clark has found there’s nothing routine about planning for Silverwood’s upcoming season. “CSAs, farmers markets and wholesale each want something a little different,” he said. “We try to cater to each of them. I love open-pollinated heirloom varieties, with the history and interesting characteristics, but for production, hybrids can be great. It’s a balancing act between what’s delicious and what keeps well.”
Over the years, Clark and Raney have tweaked their system. “We’ve had our fingers in different aspects whether we’ve done them consistently each year or not,” said Clark. “Some years we focus more on the CSA, other years we focus more on wholesale, depending on interest in the local community.”
Managing insect and disease are ongoing issues for growers, and successful farms use a variety of methods to stay ahead of problems. At Silverwood, crop rotation is a significant aspect of disease management.
“Right now we grow on eight acres, but we just acquired more land that I’m going to move into production,” said Clark. “The land may not all be in production at the same time, but it would allow more use of cover crops.” The additional land is certifiable because it’s in the farm’s organic plan.
Production begins in two propagation houses in February and March, with passive solar heat during the day for warmth and propane heat at night. All crops are eventually moved to the field.
“It’s about having good, strong seedlings with good roots to put in the field as early as possible,” said Clark. “For some crops, harvesting on time wouldn’t be possible without the greenhouses.”
Clark said familiarity with the farm and the soil helps when planning seeding. “We usually start direct seeding a bit later because it’s so wet and we can’t start bed prepping,” he said. “In years we’ve had a deficit of rain, our soil holds moisture.”
Long-season crops including tomatoes, peppers, eggplant and squash thrive on plastic. Although Clark tries to limit plastic on the farm, he’s found that plastic with drip tape helps with weed management and plant viability. “Plants are healthier and there’s less disease,” he said. “Irrigation with drip tape limits evaporation – water goes right to the roots.” Soil is amended with local, organically certified compost and organic fertilizers as needed. Clark strives for minimal tillage and covered soil whenever possible.
The first several spring plantings of greens such as lettuce, spinach and kale go into beds prepared the previous autumn. “We use a lot of winter rye in fall, so the soil is covered,” said Clark. “If there’s a cover crop, we can’t plant as early in spring. It’s also a matter of finding time in fall to plant.”
Last autumn, one field had a good stand of vetch and rye. Although Clark would like to do more with cover crops and no-till, he’s found it’s difficult to deal with the plant debris left from a cover crop. “We planted a lot of winter squash in that field,” he said. “But I had to disk it up a little to make the soil easier to work with for planting.” He said the cover crop helped with weed suppression and he predicted easier cultivating to limit weed seeds.
Raney manages marketing for their sales outlets. She said her passion and energy for vegetables and cooking are ideal for working the CSA, and she enjoys meeting customers and learning new techniques.
“We’ve given out a lot of kohlrabi,” said Raney. “People don’t know what to do with it. I roast it at a high temperature with olive oil and sea salt, and even people who don’t typically eat a lot of vegetables enjoy it.”
CSA members can go to the field to harvest their own vegetables, which provides more than they’d get in a share. “It’s something easy for families with young children,” said Raney. “It’s their favorite part of the CSA and helps interest young people in trying new vegetables, especially if they’ve had a chance to pick their own.” Silverwood offers this option when vegetables are abundant. To familiarize customers with new vegetables that might be in a CSA share, the farm produces a newsletter that includes recipes and forecasted ripening times.
“If we’re going to have a pick-your-own, we incorporate that in the newsletter,” said Raney. “We also have pre-harvested vegetables for customers who aren’t dressed for the field or can’t physically make it to the field to harvest their own. On pick-your-own days, people don’t necessarily have to pick their own if they can’t or don’t want to.”
Clark noted that the U-pick ties in well with the CSA and available labor. “Picking takes a lot of hours,” he said. “Having the CSA members pick those crops makes it easier for us to increase what we grow. I try to select family-friendly options, so instead of growing orange carrots, we’ll grow rainbow carrots. People are even more excited to try those and other crops like blue potatoes.”
An acre of flowers allows Silverwood to offer a flower CSA. Flowers are a major aspect of the farm’s wholesale business, and both Clark and Raney have found that proper harvest and post-harvest care of flowers makes a difference in how well they hold up.
“I love vegetables, but I also love flowers,” said Clark. “For the field crew, harvesting flowers is different from harvesting cucumbers. When the field crew harvests flowers, they’re beaming afterwards because it doesn’t feel like work.”
Visit Silverwood Organic Farm online at silverwoodorganicfarm.com.
by Sally Colby