Rural Studio Farm

The Return of Students to the RS Farm

Students are back on the farm! With masks in place, all 3rd-year, 5th-year, and graduate students have started their early morning rotations on farm duty.

We have been busy harvesting some of the remaining summer crops, like tomatoes, bell peppers, eggplants, watermelon, okra, and black-eyed peas. The peas were grown both as a cover crop and a food crop, which meant that they covered most space in the field.

Once their yields began to drop off, the crop residue needed to be cycled out to add organic matter to the field and to make room for future crops. Traditionally, this is done by tilling the crops under the soil, but because we are no-till, Eric mulched the crops with a flail mower and then covered the areas with a tarp to break down all the organic matter left behind. The root masses were left in the ground to break down naturally, opening the soil for water and aeration, as well as adding a large quantity of organic matter.

A student picks peas into her bucket

Meanwhile, the team has been starting seeds and transplanting seedlings into the field that are fall and winter crops: baby mixed brassica greens, lettuce, collards, kale, beets, turnips, broccoli, rutabagas, and mustard greens.

Finally, students have been direct-seeding out several other crops like hakurei (salad) turnips, radishes, and carrots.

A Long and Productive Summer

It’s been a long, sweaty summer, and even with continued help from some of the teaching faculty (Steve, Emily, Chelsea, Mary, and Xavier), our farm manager Eric has been very busy.

Eight harvest tubs are arranged, each with its own crop: red mini bells, mini eggplant, jalapenos, orange mini bells, Asian eggplant, tomatoes, yellow mini bells, and okra

We made several large harvests of commodities that went into long-term storage: garlic, onions, butternut squash, and potatoes. For every one pound of seed potatoes that Eric planted back in February, we harvested 14.5 pounds of fresh, organic potatoes back, which is a great return.

Many of the summertime crops, such as beans and squash, have also been very productive, with many still yielding, like tomatoes, mini bell peppers, mini eggplant, Asian eggplant, and okra.

With autumn just around the corner, our long-term crops of peanuts, parsnips, and leeks are continuing to develop and grow.

With the return of students, we have just begun to harvest our edible summer cover crop of pinkeye purple hull peas.

And finally, the perennials and flowers that Eric planted earlier in the spring, like asparagus, have been very productive.

Farm Support Structures

Some crops on the farm have a growth habit that is best supported with the helping hand of a built structure.

Growing pole beans climb the bamboo and twine trellis

One such crop is pole beans, which send out runners to wind their way up whatever they can find. So farm manager Eric Ball and Emily McGlohn built a bamboo and twine structure for the growing bean vines to wind themselves up, though the runners still need a little help to “train” them to find the right places to climb.

Eric built another structure last spring to support blackberry canes. In the first year of growth, the blackberries produce primocanes, which were pruned and managed so that they spread across suspended wires, making them nearly invisible. In the second year, the established primocanes become floricanes, where flowers grow and then bear the fruit Rural Studio Farm is now harvesting.

Because the primocanes were pruned and supported by the wires, the fruit is borne off the canes in easy-to-pick cascades at three-foot and five-foot heights. As the floricanes produce berries, the plants also sprout new primocanes that will be next year’s floricanes. Once fruiting ends, Eric will cut out the spent floricanes and begin pruning and training the primocanes for next year’s harvest.

Eric, Steve Long, Xavier Vendrell, and Mary English also built a support structure for determinate field tomatoes so that they will have something to hold them up once they get top-heavy and begin bearing tomatoes.

Meanwhile, in the greenhouse, plants supported on string-lines—cucumbers, tomatoes, and cherry tomatoes—continue to bear fruit. The greenhouse zucchini has also been extremely prolific

Soil Blocking, or Making Soil Brownies

Students always call them soil brownies, and they do look tasty!

Soil blocking, which was developed in Europe and largely popularized in the US by legendary organic farmer, Elliot Coleman, is a practice of starting seedlings in cubes of compressed soil. While Rural Studio Farm still makes use of plastic flats for starting seeds of certain crops, soil blocks eliminate the waste and expense of using plastic containers.

The blocks are made in metal molds from a mixture of soil made here on site at Rural Studio Farm, which makes them more labor-intensive to begin with—and thus might not be suitable for larger scale farms.

However, farm manager Eric has found that, overall, seeds tend to germinate and grow better in blocks, and transplanting soil blocks into the field is faster and easier than having to remove each individual seedling from its tray.

Throughout the past two weeks, tomatoes, eggplants, and peppers that were started in 2-inch soil blocks were upgraded to 4-inch blocks to allow the roots to continue to develop before being transplanted to the field once the soil has warmed up more. The 4-inch mold is made with a 2-inch cavity to accommodate such an upgrade.

There are other advantages to soil blocks. As the growing roots reach the edge of a block, they stop growing in what is called “air pruning,” as opposed to wrapping themselves about as they would in a conventional pot or cell. Indeed, as the blocks are transplanted directly into the ground, root disturbance is almost entirely eliminated, meaning that more delicate plants that cannot tolerate root disturbance can be started this way.

Don’t Rebuke the Cuke

Loads of mature cucumbers hang from the trellised plants in the greenhouse

Like tomatoes, cucumbers are well suited to being grown in a greenhouse where warmer temperatures and the support of vertical growth can produce huge harvests. Eric Ball (Rural Studio’s farm manager) and the students constructed a trellis and began cucumber seeds back at the beginning of March and now their efforts are bearing fruit.

As the cucumber plants grow, Eric pruned off the side shoots so that each plant had a single growing stem, and he helped train the tendrils to grab the trellis. This reduces crowding, promotes good cucumber health and production, and improves ventilation.

Each leaf node produces a side shoot, a flower, and a tendril for climbing.

Until advances in plant breeding, cucumbers were typically monoecious, which means that each individual plant produces both male and female flowers. This also means that they are in need of a pollinator to transfer pollen from the male flower’s stamen to the female flower’s stigma (this can occur on flowers from the same plant). Since these cucumbers are being grown in a greenhouse, where pollinators are infrequent visitors, this means that ordinary cucumbers won’t set fruit unless hand-pollinated—a laborious and time-consuming activity for these productive and delicate-flowered plants.

As such, Eric selected a hybrid cucumber variety that is both parthenocarpic, meaning that fruit can develop without being fertilized, and gynoecious, meaning it produces primarily female flowers, since the redundant male flowers would only divert the plant’s limited resources away from fruit production.