At Terra Firma, roughly half our crops are planted using “starts” — plants grown in growing medium in trays. We transplant these starts when they are 3-5 inches tall and 2-3 months old. There are many different reasons to use transplants instead of sowing seeds directly into the ground. It saves money on seed and gives the crops a leg up over weeds and bugs. It also allows the grower to provide more ideal conditions for the small plants by using a greenhouse or shade to control the climate.
Growing transplants is an extremely specialized type of horticulture — distinctly different from farming. Here at Terra Firma, we grew our own transplants — or more honestly, tried to grow them — for 10 years before giving up and outsourcing the task to professionals who actually know what they are doing. As a result we have fewer gaps in our production owing to greenhouse failures.
Still, problems do occur. Plants have to be ordered in a timely fashion, and seed supplied to the nursery. Clerical errors in that process can cause us to miss a planting of a particular crop. Poor seed can also be a problem.
Most commercial nurseries provide “insurance” that covers most of the problems that can occur to the plants while they are growing — they simply sow more plants than a farmer orders. It’s fairly common for us to receive up to 30% more plants than we need. Sometimes we plant the “overage” and sometimes we just compost them. But we only occasionally end up short.
This year, the nursery came up short on Peppers.
In the grand scheme of our farm, peppers are not a big deal — we grew about an acre of them last year compared to 15 acres of tomatoes, for example. But they have historically played an important role in our late summer and early fall CSA boxes. They are one of small handful of crops that really enjoys early autumn here. Prior to 2020, we grew more than twice as many peppers, as the Gypsy peppers we grow were very popular with chefs. That market has, you might say, shriveled up. We saw that coming last spring when the pandemic shut most restaurants, and we cut our plantings in half.
The less we grow of a certain crop, though, the less room for error we have. Our pepper field this year was supposed to be identical to last year’s, but instead we ended up with fewer than half as many planted. Of the four deliveries we received from the nursery, only 1 was even close to the number of plants we had ordered.
As a result, peppers have been mostly absent from your boxes this year. We have just begun harvesting the final planting, which looks great and has a nice crop on it. We hope to have enough ripe peppers in the coming weeks to get some into the Small and Medium boxes.
It turns out that the absence of peppers can be at least partially blamed on the drought. It seems that birds and rodents have been particularly destructive this year as they are searching for food in the dessicated landscape. The nursery continues to have problems, and several of our recent deliveries of broccoli and kale have also come in short. And those problems aren’t limited to nurseries. We called a few of our neighboring farms to see if they had any extra peppers they might want to sell. They had planted plenty of peppers, but the deer had eaten all the plants.