Succession Planning: Pros and Cons

By John Wallace, SIFT Farm Manager

A crop of assorted greens seeded all at once on the SIFT farm.
A crop of assorted greens seeded all at once. Photo: NCAT

The acronym SIFT stands for Small-Scale Intensive Farm Training. For those unfamiliar with the concept of “intensive farming,” it comes down to an optimization problem: How can I get the most out of my land? Though I spent years studying calculus and economics, this idea of optimizing yield when limited by size of land is much more complex than one would ideally put into an equation. And to make an assumption on that claim would be, well… unwitting, to say the least. The truth is that the risk of small-scale farming must be absorbed through diversification. Adaptability is key, and when it comes to planning for the farm, one must adjust to both the season and the market.

Over the years, I have learned the boundaries of certain crops within the region. Though there were many losses, we never doubled down on a risky crop. Part of the reason was because I wanted to learn as much as possible about what I could grow, rather than how big I could grow it. If I was unsure a seed would take, I would seed the following week to see the difference. Some crops, like lettuces, were seeded in 10-foot successions every week. This allowed me to see the boundaries of what was possible without the risk of losing the whole crop. Sure, there was a higher cost to seed associated with the method, but I would hardly consider that a true loss with respect to it guaranteeing a crop. However, I have learned a few positive and negative aspects that come with an intensive succession plan.

One of the biggest pros of succession planning relates to markets. If you are a small producer and you want to guarantee a steady stream of income, then you need to work hard to meet your customers’ needs. Sometimes, this means selling mixed greens to a small group of customers each week. In that case, you need to sustain a product of the same quantity and quality throughout your set market season. By seeding small blocks of land often, you can also figure out the true boundaries of the season. I now know that I can grow full Hakerei turnips and most radish by May. I have also learned that you should wait on French breakfast varieties of radish, such as D ‘Avignon, until the threat of frost has passed. This is because when they protrude from the surface, they become susceptible to splitting when they freeze. Recordkeeping is key to understanding these boundaries. Always keep track of the dates and areas seeded, when they germinate, and when you harvest. The true goal of succession planning is to grow a variety of crops in small area over time. Though it seems this would be ideal for short growing seasons, there are some other factors to consider.

SIFT produce harvested for a farmers market.
SIFT produce harvested for a farmers
market. Photo: NCAT

When I plan my crop rotations, I want to be constantly moving certain species of plants to prevent soilborne diseases from developing and wiping out an entire crop. Many leafy greens can grow in short timeframes, making it easy to get multiple successions within one area. Unfortunately, Brassicas such as bok choy, mustard greens, turnips, and radish are all a buffet for flea beetles. It’s an easy fix though. Spinosad, an organic pesticide, can be sprayed to rid the plants of flea beetles, and then row cover can be laid to prevent their return. If you don’t catch it early, they can onset so heavily that everything starts to look like Swiss cheese. If you market to higher-end restaurants, they may not want to garnish a plate with it. I often prepare a block of beds all at once. If you don’t seed that area right after you finish preparation, the soil will begin to compact and weeds will come. This can add to your labor as you try to keep these beds in good shape until you are ready to seed the next succession. Another thing to note is soil temperature. When the soil is cool, it takes much longer for a plant to reach maturity. You will need to seed successions more rapidly when the soil and air temperatures are higher. You won’t necessarily be able to rely on the notes on the seed packet. Depending on the crop, you may be able to get more yield by focusing your planting dates for peak growing conditions. In fact, I have direct-seeded lettuce several weeks after I had transplanted lettuce in the early season, which resulted in the two reaching maturity at the same time. Sometimes you cannot push nature.

This past growing season was exceptionally short. I never got around to planting successions because the season was almost a month behind and then abruptly ended. There was a frost every month and by the end of September, below-zero temperatures finished everything off. Amazingly, we had record yields and minimal crop losses to those frosts. My "spring" peas did not begin yielding until July but lasted the entire season. The only crop that got hit before it began heavily yielding was our tomatoes. Now that we are donating the produce, it changes the way my "markets" work. I am able to harvest the entire crop at once without the worry of not being able to sell it all at a market. This has allowed me to harvest crops at true maturity. In the past, I felt pressured to fill a stand at the market and would often harvest young or baby crops. I think that pressure is felt among many small farmers who are trying to scale up for larger markets but still rely on direct sales. In hindsight, trying to push the boundaries of the season and optimizing the number of successions I could grow in one area was not the best approach to maximizing my yields. I would say that aiming to optimize peak growing conditions with heavily producing crops has been most successful. However, I would not have known what the boundaries were without testing those limits.

Posted on: November 21st, 2019