|Hutchins Farm bid (a bit of a relieved) farewell to the 2020 growing season on Sunday, November 1st at the farmstand – thank you all for coming out for one final time, despite the snow and cold temperatures! Predicted congenial weather means we will continue to keep our self-serve honor system front porch stocked with whatever produce we have available—so for those of us stress eating waiting for election vote results to come in, please check our website for details and updates – we’ll keep it up as long as the weather holds and we have produce.
A more confounding season we haven’t seen, but, as always, the continued visits of loyal customers kept us all motivated and sane even through some trying times. The 2020 growing season began just as the potential scale and impact of the pandemic was beginning to appear. Thankfully, all of our seed orders had been placed, all of our planting plans had been outlined—and thankfully also, the vast majority of our marketing is done directly to retail customers, so, unlike some other farms, we didn’t have to reinvent ourselves completely. But the confusion and bewilderment of those early days was palpable and disorienting, as we tried to figure out what changes we should make, what changes we actually could make, how we could make the business we know and love safe for customers and workers, and how we could inspire confidence in our faithful customers that we were taking all appropriate measures. Although our marketing would ultimately undergo some difficult changes, with customer limits, mask requirements, hand sanitizer stations, online ordering, and a whole raft of regulations associated with farmer’s markets, we were at least in the enviable position of being able to stay open and in business—‘essential’ was the dubious label we were given, but we were glad to have it. And as far as our production plans, with all the uncertainty in the air, we decided to just proceed as if it were any other season, thankful we mainly work outside – with the addition of masks, social distancing, sanitizer, and all the other new policies that seemed appropriate.
As in any other year, we began the season with self-serve plant sales, and apart from some signage encouraging everyone to keep their distance, we basically allowed folks to shop for plants, compost and soil mix as they always had: day or night. The alarming rapidity with which everything seemed to disappear was our first reassuring clue that customers would indeed return. Ultimately, plant and soil sales would amount to double or triple a ‘normal’ season, as homebound people discovered or rediscovered the joys (and some sorrows, I assume) of gardening and producing their own food.
Our real operational difficulties would begin with the first markets, and with the official opening of the farmstand. Farmer’s market rules remained in flux almost up until their opening (or after in some cases), and were in all cases stricter than those required by the state for grocery stores, for instance, despite being open air venues. The opening of the farmstand also presented a new set of organizational difficulties as we worked through the logistics of how to change customer patterns, and how to best keep both our staff and customers as safe as we could. Ultimately, we made our decisions and did our best to execute our new policies. Apparently, they were sufficient to allay most people’s fears, and we were gratified when masked customers gamely lined up six feet apart on the red dots we set around the perimeter of the parking lot. To say we are grateful for all your flexibility and patience is certainly the understatement of the year – hats off to our wonderful customers!
From the beginning, demand for produce was strong—not like the feeding frenzy that surrounded plants, compost and soil mix, but strong. Our day to day patterns remained very similar to other seasons, with a few deviations. For one, our crew was mostly composed of folks who had worked one or more seasons with us in the past, a rare luxury for a seasonal enterprise like ours. It was basically like an all-star team. In most years the crew becomes very tight, eating lunch together and hanging out with one another—this year, lunch was primarily a tailgating affair, with folks spread out in the employee parking area, interacting at a distance. We owe an enormous debt of gratitude to this flexible, cheerful, and hardworking bunch!
Sometime in May, it stopped raining. In hindsight, that would have been the time to really get on the ball with the irrigation set up, but complacency and inertia are powerful disincentives to potentially fruitless exertions, so we, at first, just got by. A few crops suffered for our procrastination, but ultimately we cobbled together our ‘system’, an ad hoc affair that, by necessity, changes from year to year as we rotate crops with different requirements from field to field. All told, we use three different pumps, a permanent buried network of 4” and 6” pipe, a temporary network of many thousands of feet of 3” and 4” aluminum pipe and fire hose, dozens of sprinklers of various types, half a dozen filter/pressure regulator assemblies to enable us to ‘drip’ irrigate, and a contraption called a ‘traveler’ that sports a large sprinkler head on a cart that slowly reels itself in as it waters, irrigating a strip about 180’ wide, and up to 800’ long if we pull it out to its full length. With such an arsenal at our disposal, the crops had every reason to be reassured, but chaos creeps in to even the most sophisticated and well-conceived system, and ours is most certainly neither.
So pumps, or components of pumps fail to operate correctly or at all, aluminum pipes get run over, gaskets fail or go missing, hoses burst, sprinkler nozzles get clogged, plastic drip irrigation fittings get crushed or chewed by rodents or coyotes, and (god forbid), ponds and rivers go dry. That last one never happened this year, but water levels did drop alarmingly, to the point where we had to relocate pumps closer to the retreating water sources. The rest happened, sometimes over and over.
But despite, and sometimes because, the lack of rain, a good season ensued. There were a few failures, some our ‘fault’ (i.e. we theoretically could have prevented them), some completely out of our control. But lots of success as well. Tomatoes started strong, only dwindling as the heat wave persisted, but flavor was fantastic throughout. Lack of water motivated the deer to seek out even our fenced crops, but despite that we had a pretty consistent supply of lettuce (with some hiccups caused by ravaging gangs of turkeys), and greens and herbs, untouched by disease in the arid weather, have been consistently abundant (again, some exceptions). Most of our serious problems were with field germination of small-seeded, slow emerging crops like carrots, cilantro and dill, and with crops that are favored by the increasingly desperate and thirsty populations of deer, coyotes and turkeys—especially watermelons (unsurprisingly), but also pumpkins and lettuce.
Dry weather, however many problems it may cause, can also be a blessing. Fields that are underutilized because they tend to lay wet, open themselves up to cultivation. Crops prone to moisture-dependent fungal and bacterial infections often thrive in drier weather. And I mentioned the flavor of the tomatoes—really, all produce is more highly flavored (and nutritious) when it is somewhat stressed during growth. Copious water leads, as one might expect, to bland flavor. So the diversity of our operation, with its patchwork of crops and fields, mitigates what might be an unalloyed disaster under other circumstances. Of special note this fall were the various members of the brassica clan—broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, brussels sprouts—that performed far better than usual, not subject to the usual disease pressure that rain inevitably brings.
Our season nears an end but isn’t quite finished—we will still attend Central Square Market in Cambridge (Mondays, 12-6) and Union Square Market in Somerville (Saturdays, 9-1) until right before Thanksgiving, and will continue to stock our self-serve porch offerings until we run out or the weather becomes prohibitively cold. Please remember the porch offerings are check or exact change only.
Our profoundest and heartfelt thanks to all of our customers, new and old, who made a point of shopping with us through these difficult times. We consider ourselves truly fortunate to be able to produce food for such a supportive, loyal and in all respects exceptional group of people. Thank you all, have a safe and restful fall and winter, and we hope to see you again in the spring!
-Brian Cramer, Liza Bemis, and the rest of the Hutchins Team
Season Wrap Up: November 2020 Newsletter