Coming full circle

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Ken Michael fights back against the short growing season in Idaho by utilizing four high tunnels. Photos courtesy of Teton Full Circle Farm

by Sally Colby

Although they took a roundabout way to end up where they are, Ken Michael and Erika Eschholz brought their Teton Full Circle Farm home to Victor, Idaho, in 2016.

Ken and Erika started the farm on another property, and when they purchased their current property, it was in alfalfa hay. They had to wait three years for organic certification through California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF). Ken and Erika went a step further and started operating the farm under biodynamic principles for certification by Demeter Certified Biodynamic.

The growing season in the Victor area is short, so four high tunnels help manage temperatures. One tunnel is used as a nursery and for early season starts, and then for later season warm weather crops. The other three tunnels are planted early for early tomatoes, dahlias and other crops that do better under cover. The tunnels also provide an opportunity for growing early greens and flowers outside of the usual season.

Although Ken and Erika push as much as they can to lengthen the growing season, another limiting factor is water availability. “We don’t have irrigation water until May 15,” said Ken. “We can use our well until then, but that’s limiting too.” The irrigation water is surface water from the Teton Pass and the Trail Creek system.

“Upstream, there’s a diversion of Trail Creek with a pressurized underground pipe that serves several square miles of the valley,” said Ken. “We can move handline or hook it up to drip to water our acreage.” It’s a junior water right, so they have to allow water to continue downstream to the town of Rexburg if water is needed there.

Irrigation shares are managed through a co-op, which determines nozzle sizes and the numbers of nozzles running at one time to spread pressure throughout the system. This provides adequate pressure for all users on the Trail Creek system. Most of the farm is set up for overhead irrigation, with drip for certain crops. “We use drip in the greenhouses,” said Ken, “and also on squash, flowers and other crops that shouldn’t have water on the leaves.”

Ken said they don’t have a lot of disease on the farm because the location is high and dry with cold winters. “But we still have damping off,” he said. “And a drop of water on the petals will cause a blemish.”

Erika Eschholz with some of the crops they start indoors for their CSA.

About half the crops for their CSA and fresh market are started indoors in a 20 x 96-foot nursery greenhouse; other crops are started outside. So far, Ken and Erika have started onions, leeks, shallots, scallions, perennial herbs and tomatoes. “We do a start sale every May for local gardeners,” said Ken. “Anything we start, like perennial herbs, cabbage, cauliflower and other plants, are available around Memorial Day.”

Ken said that while many home gardeners are fairly knowledgeable about raising vegetables, he has noticed a significant number of new gardeners interested in growing fresh produce at home. “Last spring we put out a series of gardening emails to help customers,” said Ken. “We covered bed preparation and watering through harvest.”

One popular crop is winter squash, and Ken plans to grow more squash because it stores well through winter. “Squash aren’t a sure thing here but we’ve found several varieties that do well every year,” he said, adding that the short growing season dictates varieties. “We’ve tried some short maturity winter squash, but they need overnight low temperatures above 50º, and we can see overnight lows in the 30s in July. We need resilient varieties, and my favorite is Kindred Orange Buttercup. It’s highly productive and produces personal size fruits in a wide harvest window. We can pick them early and ripen them off the vine, but a good portion ripen in the field.”

Summer squash and cucumbers thrive in the field through summer if Ken waits until mid to late June to plant. Zephyr is Ken’s favorite summer squash – a straight neck cross between Delicata and yellow acorn squash that’s highly productive and easy to pick with excellent flavor.

Tomatoes, half of which are cherry varieties, are grown exclusively inside due to the short season. They’re trained on strings and pruned frequently. “We have cold nights, high winds and it’s dry,” said Ken. “We’ve increased production through grafting and it really works.” His favorites are BHN 589, a determinate that does well in their short season, and Damsel, with a sweet, rich, tangy flavor.

Last year Ken and Erika grew tomatoes from the French Heritage Collection including Marbonne, Margold and Marnero. Ken described them as hybrid heirlooms that are highly productive and consistent with a lot less cracking and heavier yield.

About five years ago, Erika started growing flowers in earnest, trying new varieties and expanding their flower program. “Flowers have become a much bigger part of the farm,” said Ken, adding that the local flower movement is strong. “They’re about one-fifth of farm income. We have a flower CSA and also sell sunflowers or other flowers that are ready. We sell about 50 mixed bouquets each week at market.” Erika also works with local florists to supply fresh flowers. “We put out a harvest list of what’s ready that week and florists can select what they want,” said Ken. “They’re paying less for better quality.”

Cover crops help build soil organic matter and prevent runoff, so Ken establishes them whenever possible. His favorite is crimson clover. “We seed it under the cauliflower and broccoli or other long-standing crops, then when the crop starts to form a canopy, we seed it under the crop,” he explained. “As the crop is coming in, we harvest, and a beautiful bed of clover is left. That’s the best way to get a mature cover crop here because the season is short. We also use buckwheat and phacelia, which are also good for attracting beneficials and pollinators.”

Managing weed pressure is a challenge for organic growers. The first year on a new farm is what Ken refers to as the grace period – the soil is just turned, there’s no high weed pressure and certain perennial weeds will be knocked back, but there’s no way to know what the problems will be. “The problems start in the second year,” he said. “We were fortunate to keep up with weeds from the beginning. We saw what can happen if weeds start spiraling out of control. We started using landscape fabric and silage tarps for various crops. We used to till every year, but now we don’t till, and that has been a big improvement.”

Ken said the main benefit of not tilling is that new weed seeds aren’t brought up to the surface to germinate. “Tilling kills a lot of soil life,” he said. “Any fungi developing in the soil will be chopped up and it introduces a lot of oxygen into the soil, which causes a spike in bacterial populations. With no-till, everything is maintained in a more stable community and will consistently keep the plants rather than big spikes.”

The first processing room at Teton Full Circle Farm was an A-frame with a tarp over it. “It worked fine for several years,” said Ken. “Then we used a greenhouse with landscape fabric on the floor to keep dust down.” Plans for a new building are in the works, and although the initial plan was to build last year, Ken is glad they waited because the extra time has provided them with an opportunity to learn more about creating an efficient processing area.

This season, Ken and Erika will sell produce and flowers at one farmers market as they expand their wholesale accounts. The new building will include a processing area, flower studio and commercial kitchen. “We want to start offering more value-added products to use some of the seconds,” said Ken. “We’re shooting for April/May to start building, depending on when the snow melts.”

Visit Teton Full Circle Farm at TetonFullCircleFarm.org.

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