In case you’re interested in starting your own tiny farm, try clicking Microfarming year-in-pictures, it should give you a quick idea of what’s involved through the year around here. Of course, all of Tiny Farm Blog is about just that, so you can also browse the Topics, Tags, Sitemap and Archives (there on the menu!). As I get a chance and some ideas, I’ll add more getting started info here, the bits and pieces I’ve picked up over the last few years.
How small is “tiny”? What’s a microfarm?
Well, two acres I consider real tiny when the average “full-size” working farm around here starts at 200-500 acres, depending on which farmer you talk to. And the term “microfarm” is pretty cool, has a kinda rural-digital edge to it and sounds like the same sort of tiny. So the way I figure it, My Two Acres=tiny=microfarm. In general, though, from reading around and common sense, “tiny farming/microfarming” is probably fair to call any independent farming operation under 100 acres, right down to an allotment-sized plot. Or you could get stricter and say under 10-15 acres (or, under five acres, which is what I favor right now!), and serving the local community, is truly tiny/micro. Either way, it’s not the commercial aspect that matters, whether you’re farming for market or simply for yourself, it’s the determination to grow food, share it and eat it, on a scale you can manage personally, that describes tiny farming for me. Adjust this to your taste!
It’s a gamble!
Tiny farming is in the end about a very natural, basic and satisfying form of gambling.
For the biggest gamble, there’s frost. “Frost” in veggie gardening means a transient temperature drop, down to a few degrees either side of freezing and gone overnight, that will do damage. Different crops have different abilities to withstand cold. Some will be damaged or killed a few degrees above zero. Many will die at zero or a few degrees below, which is a hard, killing frost. Around here, average last frost date is officially May 18 and first frost is September 20. It’s a short season, to be sure, but with the crazy warming weather, it’s getting longer (in 2006, I was harvesting peppers into late October). In any case, the frost dates are the central statistics upon which the whole season’s gambling is built.
The days you pick to plant and transplant are critical. In general, first to market with each new crop means significantly more sales and happy people, so you want to get ’em in the ground as soon as you can. But if you get really beaten on transplants—a vicious frost kills most of them, even with row cover—these plants have taken 6-10 weeks to grow indoors, so you’re in trouble. On the other hand, if you’re overly conservative and wait too long for safety, you’re late to market and have a shorter harvest season, and this can only be made worse by an early frost in fall. So transplant days are a big gamble.
Less critical, but still potentially nasty at the other end, first frost in fall determines when you do your last harvest of tender crops. Thing is, the frost as often as not hits only for a night and it may not be too hard, in which case row cover can make the life-or-death difference, and the rest of the weather may continue warm for several weeks. So, gambling to leave something past the first frost forecast, relying on row cover, may result in real harvest gains (although with shorter days and weaker sunlight the growing is much slower than in full summer, many crops will hold well in the fall field, whereas once harvested, you have only a few days to use them).
Besides frost, there are endless other little decisions that may or may not work out due to conditions beyond your control. Most are also based on weather. Do you spend time now irrigating (I’m not set up for permanent irrigation, so large-scale watering is a fairly big, involved task), or gamble on rain in the next few days (as we all know, the weather people are seldom accurate)? Do you start mid-season plantings indoors, or gamble on favorable field conditions for the critical first week to germination if you seed direct? Do you harvest hours or a day earlier than ideal, or gamble that the predicted heavy rain, windstorm or whatever will hold off?
Handling pests like bugs and harmful bacteria also requires gambling. The perfect organic field is, so I’ve heard, perfectly in balance and practically takes care of itself. This isn’t the case around here just yet. Till then, you make decisions. Do you gamble on investing hours and hours picking off Colorado potato beetle eggs, and then, the adults you missed, or trust that they won’t get out of control and give them their small share (three of the last four years, hands off has proven just fine)? The same for hornworms on tomatoes. Is it necessary to row cover cucumber transplants to protect them from cucumber beetles, or will they grow fast enough to get past them? You can improve the odds through experience and research, for example, into the life cycles of each pest, but there again, weather affects those cycles as well, so you’re never sure.
And so it goes. So many decisions, so many different things to do, and only so much time. When should you step in, when do you trust that Nature will lend a BIG helping hand instead of throwing you a curve?
I wouldn’t call it luck, but I’ve found much of farming is a more-or-less educated guess against ol’ Mother Nature. IOW, it’s gambling! But “gambling” has been given a negative rep. Here in the field, it is eventually calming and fun. You find it’s central to your own human nature to take risks based on experience and apply intelligence and make things grow, and growing veggies is a great way to direct that natural drive.