Grower to Grower - Vibrant Seedlings with Long Season Farm
Long Season Farm is a small-scale, certified organic, low-till farm in Kerhonkson, NY focused on growing and harvesting seasonal vegetables year-round. During the main growing season, owners Sam Zurofsky and Erin Enouen grow a variety of greens, bunched roots, lettuces, and fruiting crops for weekly market and wholesale harvests, plus a number of storage crops like onions, squash, garlic and roots that are harvested in the fall for winter sales. In the fall, they shift their focus to planting in their high tunnels for winter harvests before returning to the fields in the spring. Long Season Farm produce is sold year-round at the Kingston Farmers Market. They also operate a 5-month long Winter CSA program, and sell to local stores and restaurants during the main growing season. Long Season Farm has also produced flower, herb, and vegetable transplants for retail sale for the past 5 seasons.
We sat down with Sam to hear about how they manage year-round greenhouse production for reliable and healthy starts.
So, given your year-round production schedule, how often are you seeding in the greenhouse? All the time! Our peak greenhouse production time is in the spring, but we start seedlings 52 weeks out of the year. In the winter months, we heat our greenhouse minimally, to about 35 degrees, so we only start hearty greens like spinach, bok choy, kale, and chard for transplanting into our tunnels. We also grow micro greens and pea shoots for our winter markets. Once February hits, we have a very busy schedule for our outdoor planted crops. We start with onions and hearty greens, followed by tomatoes and peppers. The list goes on and on. We do a ton of successions through the main growing season, so we're always in there. In the summer we have a shade cloth over the top to keep the temperature under 90. We also use fans and vents to keep the temperature as even as we can.
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You're a small farm, but it sounds like you grow a lot of transplants. Tell us more about how seedlings fit into your operation. When we got started, we would only grow transplants for crops that absolutely had to be transplanted; things like tomatoes, peppers, and cabbage. Over time we added more transplants to our system because at our current location we have a lower fertility, sandy soil that dries out quickly. We found that here the more we can transplant, the better. We transplant many crops that other growers are able to direct sow successfully; bok choy, komatsuna, and spinach. Now, we only direct seed what we have to; radishes, baby salads, and other roots crops. But, this is mostly just because of our soil type.
Every growing location is different, and its important to adjust to the particular needs of the operation. For example, given all I said above, we go back and forth about whether to transplant winter squash or direct seed it. Mostly because squirrels are so pesky they basically make our lives miserable with winter squash and pumpkin seedlings in the greenhouse. They dig them up, out-smart our every move. Its such a waste of seed, time, and materials. The good news is winter squash direct seed nicely, even in our dry soil, and squirrels and other rodents don't seem to find them when they are direct sown.
What methods or improvements have helped your seedling production the most over the past 5 years?
That's a good question. On the one hand, we are always tinkering with things. On the other hand, our greenhouse is one of the more systematized, and repetitive parts of our operation. It always seems like looking to someone who does a good job, then imitating what they do is the way to go, but what we've learned is that we really need to adjust to our particular needs and situation. Growing seedlings for sale really raised the bar for us much higher than when we were just growing them for ourselves. We were having trouble growing perfect pepper transplants and it turned out they were getting too much fertility, so we switched from getting seeds started in regular potting mix, to a sterile seed starting mix. We've started doing this for all of our transplants that get "pricked up" and it has cut back on losses in a big way. We get things started in "speed trays" in a soil-less mix, then prick them into bigger cells filled with organic potting mix from McEnroe Organic Farm when they are big enough to handle the rich nutrients.
Our favorite innovation is our homemade, 100% humidity, heated germination chamber. It's an insulated box heated with steam heat that we can adjust the thermostat on depending on the variety we are starting. We often get 100% germination in the chamber, the seeds love it! Most things are only in there for 2-3 days, just until they pop. Then they come out to greenhouse benches in to the light so they don't get leggy. Once of these days we will upgrade to a chamber with clear doors so some light can come in and we won't have to watch the germinator so closely.
Lastly, with all this pampering, we can't ignore hardening off our transplants. We actually try to be a little rough with our seedlings for a lot of their lives, once they are big enough to handle it. These perfect, controlled environments are a great way to produce weaker plants, so we try to build up some toughness by using fans, letting cooler air in, and even just running our hands over the tops of the plants once a day. We always let our plants be outside for 2 days ahead of transplanting them outdoors, even if the weather is nice, even if its cloudy. Its important to transition plants from their indoor home into their outdoor one. We hear our transplants do really well for our customers who buy them also, and I think its this neglectful treatment that helps so much.
What are your favorite transplants to grow? I'm boring, I like tomatoes. They have a reputation for being hard, but they are easy in a way because they are so vigorous. I love how big the plants get, both as a transplant, and then after you plant them. It's like Jack and the Magic Bean Stalk.
If you could offer up three tips for any size operation, from small garden to small farm what would that be?
First off, listen to your specific situation. Farm and garden systems evolve as ways of overcoming challenges, and addressing particular needs. If you try to model your system on someone else's, you are essentially ignoring whatever problems you may face, and overlooking whatever needs you have that are different from another farm. Think of other farms (or gardens) as being examples of how to solve unique problems, not as examples of perfect systems.
Second, seedlings are pretty resilient, and as long as its alive, and you can get it out of the container, it will probably survive in your garden. We've transplanted some pretty gnarly little plants at times and they typically do pretty well.
And third, in order to be good, you have to be brutal. We toss a lot of seedlings, even on purpose. I only pot up and plant the healthiest looking plants, which means we are always starting 10-20% more than we need. It's better that a healthy seedling have all the space it needs, than 2 are crowded and weak in the same space.
Oh, and here's a forth bonus! We learned this one this past summer and it was great: If you want nice lettuce transplants in the height of summer, seed the tray or container you are using, then place it in a 50-60 degree environment for 2 days. Then pull it out and put in your greenhouse or wherever you grow your seedlings. Lettuce seed dormancy is triggered by temperature over 80 degrees and this cold treatment helps prevent that. We get 100% germination during heatwaves with this method. It works well with fennel and spinach too.
Visit the Longs Season Farm website or instagram page, for more on their vegetables. If you are looking for more nitty gritty seed starting advice, find all our seed starting articles under the category Seed Starting 101.