Starting out strong

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Andrew Phelps pulls up some of the weed mat to prepare for the next growing season. Photo courtesy of Phelps Farm

by Sally Colby

In 2019, Andrew and Amy Phelps purchased a 73-acre farm from Amy’s family. Part of the Guttenberg, Iowa, property is wooded, some is serving as cattle pasture and the Phelps sectioned off about five acres for growing produce.

“My background is in IT and Amy’s family all have farming backgrounds,” said Andrew. “We’ve always had a large garden and thought we could do it larger and sell produce at farmers markets. We started growing produce in early 2021 and have been growing all summer.”

Like all new growers, the Phelpses faced some challenges during their first year of having crops in the ground. Drought conditions during the summer meant excess water use, and their well ran dry. “We had to be careful about our watering schedule and how we irrigated to conserve water,” said Andrew. “But because of COVID, we spent a lot more time at home and took advantage of some online courses. We took market gardening classes and learned how to plant, prune and trellis.” Andrew said Iowa State Extension and the Produce Safety Alliance have proven to be useful resources as he and Amy learn more about growing.

In early spring, the Phelpses put up two high tunnels and added a third after the busiest part of the season. They recently cleared the last of the summer crops and planted autumn and winter crops including lettuce, carrots, potatoes and onions. In addition to selling produce at farmers markets, they established a CSA.

“We’re signing up CSA shares now for next spring and summer,” said Andrew. “Our CSA is for 20 weeks, and every week I deliver a fresh box of produce to customers. This was the first year and we were successful.”

Among the standard CSA items, Andrew includes new selections each week – produce some customers may not have tried yet. “People don’t know what they’re going to get each week,” he said. “We don’t tell them what will be in the box so it’s always a surprise. We also include recipes for unique items people might not be familiar with.”

Amy’s online browsing for seeds yielded some interesting choices for the first growing season. “Our favorite tomato is Black Krim,” said Andrew. “This year we grew Big Beef, Striped German, Brandywine Pink, Romas and cherry tomatoes.” In the tunnels, Andrew used row covers over early spring crops until the weather was stable. “It paid off,” he said. “We had tomatoes early in the season.”

The Phelpses start seeds in a grow rack, then repot several times before transplanting in the tunnels. “We grow just about everything from seed,” said Andrew. “Everything we sell we grow ourselves.” Tomatoes and peppers were started from seed in late February, and other vegetables were planted through March. Andrew said things were tight with young plants ready to plant and the tunnels not quite finished. “We planted the first tomatoes in the tunnels within a couple days of finishing them,” he said. “The Super Sweet 100 cherry tomatoes in the tunnel reached about 12 feet tall and yielded well through summer. They’re sweet, and people like them a lot.”

A major benefit of growing under cover is maintaining warm enough temperatures that will push crops to produce earlier. Andrew said the temperatures in the tunnels remains about 10º warmer than outside. “On cloudy days they don’t warm up as much,” he said, “but even on cloudy days there’s radiant heat from sunlight and it’s enough to warm them up.” Andrew added that the ground temperatures should be consistently 60º or warmer prior to planting. “We were checking soil temperature and watching weather forecasts,” he said. “In May we had a late frost, and a lot of people around us lost tomatoes. We were lucky the plants outside had row covers.”

The dripline irrigation for crops is on a timer to help save water. However, there was no irrigation for the onions and they didn’t do well in drought conditions over summer. “Next year we’re going to plan a little better and irrigate them,” said Andrew. “They don’t require a lot of water, but we want to have it there in case we need it.”

One of the biggest challenges getting the farm started this year was managing weeds. Since the land had been used as a cattle pasture, there was a lot of grass to deal with. A combination of landscape fabric and flame weeding helped minimize weeds.

This past season, the Phelpses’ outside crops included carrots, head lettuce, tomatoes, radishes, kale, onions, turnips, beans, cowpeas, eggplant, cucumbers, fennel, bok choy, Brussels sprouts, potatoes, sweet corn and ornamental corn. To introduce customers to more variety, they grow flavorful lettuces including radicchio, escarole and endive, and new varieties such as colorful watermelon radishes.

Andrew plans to grow pumpkins and squash next year. He also wants to try more varieties of zucchini, garlic and tomatoes, including some slicing varieties. Recently planted fruit trees, including apple, cherry, pear and plum, along with some raspberries, will yield additional options for CSA boxes and fresh markets. Andrew is considering growing some items exclusively for CSA customers who appreciate unique items that can’t be found in grocery stores.

“We harvest the night before and pack the following morning,” said Andrew. “Everything is packed into the cooler with ice packs to keep produce cool.” When market customers ask Andrew and Amy if their produce is certified organic, they explain the organic practices they use and find that most people are satisfied with that information. More importantly, Andrew has found that taking the time to arrange items and create a bountiful, colorful display at farmers markets helps sell more product.

The Phelpses currently sell produce at two weekly farmers markets and one monthly market. Once the markets are finished for the season, Andrew plans to offer produce online. “We don’t have a farm stand and the farm is outside of town,” he said, “but we’ll be able to continue selling through winter.” Andrew plans to offer front-door service through winter so customers don’t have to travel to pick up orders.

To keep customers informed about what they’re doing throughout the year, the Phelpses post colorful photos along with narratives on social media. A recent post included photos of bed preparation for upcoming winter crops – a reminder that as one season ends, another begins.

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