Filling a blank slate
by Sally Colby
Sometimes timing is everything. Andrew Rodgers had been successfully managing an organic farm, but that farm was slated for development. At about the same time, the owners of a Carlisle, MA, property asked for proposals to develop an organic vegetable farm. Out of 40 proposals, Rodgers’ plan for an organic CSA was accepted.
The farm had been in continuous hay for 30 years, treated only with only organic fertilizer, so Rodgers didn’t have to wait three years for certification. Drawing on his years of experience, he started to carry out his plan for Clark Farm. Today, he grows produce and berries on every bit of 12 acres on the main farm and 13 acres on a nearby property.
Rodgers strives to get as many pounds of produce out of his available growing space. “My goal is to flip beds,” he said. “I want to grow something as fast as I can, get it all out of the ground, then plant again.” Because Rodgers uses intensive growing techniques, he replenishes the soil with compost in autumn. “Sometimes I try to get four crops in one year,” he said. “When I can get four harvests of lettuce in one year, I’m really pushing it. It’s pretty cold here in winter, but we can still produce. Everything just grows slowly. There’s a lot of growth in fall, then the crops don’t grow much after that. But we can harvest. Then in mid-February they start growing again.”
A 30 x 20-foot greenhouse on the main farm is used for microgreen production as well as starting seedlings that will go to the field as transplants. Three 96 x 30-foot high tunnels on the second farm are worked full-time, filled for maximum production of high-quality vegetables while maintaining adequate space for air movement. One tunnel is currently filled with seedlings, including peppers, tomatoes and herbs. Later in the season, two tunnels will be dedicated to tomato and cucumber production. Although Rodgers can heat the tunnels with natural gas, he avoids using it to improve the bottom line.
When possible, Rodgers establishes cover crops in autumn. “At the end or beginning of the season, I mow the cover crop down, then spade and direct seed that day,” he said. “In spring, I use a spader to turn the soil about eight inches deep. I can harvest a crop and plant again the next day. It’s an efficient method that’s much better for the soil.” Rodgers added that tillers introduce a lot of oxygen and burn up organic matter, but the spader acts as a shovel, picking up soil and flopping it over. “They’re popular in Italy and Germany and becoming more popular in the U.S.” he said. “It’s the most important implement I have. It goes on a three-point hitch, and removes the need for plowing, harrowing and fine harrow just prior to planting.” A bed shaper used just prior to planting completes the preparation process.
Because Clark Farm offers U-pick, Rodgers has experimented with a variety of trellising systems for both crop health and ease of picking. He’s found that T-posts and cattle panels in an arch create a sturdy structure for tomatoes and vining crops. “I’ve done a cost analysis,” he said. “The materials are more expensive up front, but amortized over five years, it’s cheaper than using wood stakes. It’s important that the U-pick experience is pleasant for customers – members appreciate it.”
As a certified organic grower through Bay State Organics, Rodgers manages pests and disease through a combination of crop rotation, resistant varieties and beneficial insects. “There are some organic pesticides available,” he said, “but I avoid spraying as much as I can.” Flood irrigation keeps tomatoes well-watered, and overhead irrigation supplies water for other crops. Autumn-applied compost, produced on the farm, enhances organic matter and helps preserve moisture.
Rodgers said Clark Farm’s CSA offers mix and match options. The farm’s website provides information about what’s grown as well as numerous CSA options. Shareholders visit the farm and select produce from flip-top containers. With COVID restrictions, Rodgers’ goal is to offer a pleasant, market-style shopping experience without crowding or rushing.
An offering might feature a display of collards, kale and chard, and customers can select two bunches of what they want. If three or four varieties of lettuce are offered, the customer can select three heads. “Customers like to select what they want,” said Rodgers. “We encourage people to try new things, but they don’t have to take what they don’t want.” Since flowers help maintain a healthy bottom line, Rodgers grows about 20 popular annuals including zinnias, sunflowers, asters and snapdragons.
Clark Farm offers spring, summer and autumn shares, and Rodgers has partnered with other farms to create specialized shares. Customers can choose a growing season, mushroom, tree fruit, flower or U-pick share. Clark Farm also offers farm-raised meats and eggs produced by animals on the farm. U-pick crops are available according to season, and customers can find out what’s ready to harvest on Facebook, Instagram, the farm website and a weekly email newsletter.
Like many farms with CSAs and U-pick options, Clark Farm serves a variety of ethnicities. This provides Rodgers with an opportunity to grow a variety of specialty crops, some of which are new to him. Some of the vining crops that grow well in his system include bitter melon, Indian fennel, Mexican sour gherkins and several varieties of beans. In addition to keeping the crops neat and tidy for U-pick customers, the system promotes good air circulation to help reduce disease.
When it’s time to decide what to grow each year, Rodgers is happy to take customer suggestions. “I’ve had some wonderful CSA members who have brought me seeds,” he said, adding that it’s hard to determine which varieties to start because he isn’t familiar with all of them. He asks customers for input on how to grow certain crops, when to harvest them, how to store them and how to use them in various dishes.
“Every year I get new requests,” said Rodgers. “We’ve had a lot of growth in membership in recent immigrants here and they want good produce of the crops they’re used to having. As a grower, that’s a lot of fun.”
Visit Clark Farm online at ClarkFarmCarlisle.com.